Veronique Darwin

Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

Book Review: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

In Literature on September 25, 2016 at 3:38 pm

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels read like memoir, so why are they not shelved that way? Shouldn’t four books, emotionally and factually detailing the life of a woman in a first-person voice, with an author whose given name is the narrator’s, be considered memoir? The form of the books directly compare with Karl Ove Knaussgard’s six-tome memoir My Struggle or Simone de Beauvoir’s four chronological autobiographies. But Ferrante says she is writing under a pseudonym and has not revealed her true identity. Should we believe her?

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Ferrante’s novels follow the lives of Elena (Lenù), her best friend Lila and the people with whom they grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples. There is (of course) speculation that Ferrante is a man, but I’ve never known a man or writer so passionate about female friendship, the bones and meat and soul of the story. Lila and Lenù are competitive, jealous, resentful, spiteful and obsessed with each other, or in other words, best friends. Lila is a brilliant but troubled woman who Lenù cannot help but love for their formative memories and their intertwined emotional lives. In a way, Ferrante’s novels follow the narrative style whose most common reference is The Great Gatsby, wherein the narrator is more of a neutral observer of the much more interesting, evasive and irresistible main character. Maybe Ferrante doesn’t care to share herself with her readers because then we would want to find Lila too. Or maybe she is Lila. In any case, I find it hard to believe that whoever Ferrante really is, this all did not happen.

Maybe that is the mark of a good novel: the reader continues to suspend their disbelief even once the reading is done. I generally shy from books that preface with family trees. If the narrative is so complex that I need a reference document, I highly doubt I will lose myself to this world. That is not the case for this series; the world is there, all the characters heaped in and held together by this poor neighbourhood in Naples no one can truly escape. The Story of a New Name, the second book in Ferrante’s series, chronicles the teenage and early adult years of Lenù and Lila and all their friends. People follow or veer away from well-planned paths, and though the writer doesn’t develop characters like Ada and Gigliola enough that I could draw them for you or pick their voices out of a crowd, I can tell you the role they play in Elena’s and Lila’s friendship, which is all that matters.

What is maybe most remarkable to me about these books—what differentiates them the most from other books I’ve read—is the careful balance between divulging and holding back. Elena is not afraid to tell us that she is in love with Lila, or close enough to it, or to take each emotion and analyze it right down to its component pieces. But even then, the language never loses its consistent, delicate distance. This is something I’ve found before when reading a translated work. Maybe it is in the translator’s attention and care to each word, or in the flow that is lost or maintained from the original language. Or perhaps it’s in the translation from a culture whose emotional life I cannot so quickly access. We don’t just learn about Italy through this book, we learn the story of Italian women, of poverty in Italy in the 40s and 50s, and we learn maybe even more: the life of one Italian woman, whether living or not, still very real to me. It’s also only now, reading these works, that I realize how lacking my bookshelf is of Italian literature, and, in particular, Italian female writers. If this book has anything to say to this point, it’s that it isn’t because of a lack of brilliance or determination in Italian women.

Sitting, Spinning

In My Writing, Teaching on October 13, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Teaching is my jumping off point for everything these days. It’s where my consciousness sits, the place from which I have crazy dreams. But two days into a three day weekend I can’t help thinking  I’m also a human being. I also have a life. I also have this blog.

I have a theme for this year, whether the kids or anyone knows it or not, and that theme is connections. I suppose it’s something I should have shared with them, the theme of the year, but there’s only so much I can do in a day. I use the theme of connections to teach reading, writing, geography, science, and to create a positive social climate in the classroom. It seems rational, that you can learn something better by tying it to what you know already, that you can understand something better by seeing what surrounds it.

I’m somewhere in the middle of my life right now, the spider at the middle of the web, and though all my things – teaching, and writing, and reading, – come from me and through me, I feel like I’ve lost my connection to them. I’m being pulled too far one way, remembering – after a month and a half of forgetting – that I really, really like to read. I’m  looking at my things through new eyes, recognizing faults in the plot structure of my second chapter and phoniness in the language used in yoga classes. I’m placing more intention in reading and writing because I’m doing them less but with more of a focused mind. I see their place in my life more clearly, as I’ve spun another part of my web, and I’m taking care not to cut their line, recognizing now their fragile nature.

I’m scared of losing my writing voice, my reading passion and the blind confidence I had for why I write. I’m scared I sound fake when talking about it, that it has become obvious it was never my first path. I define myself as a writer, a reader, but what can I tell you if you ask? I’m teaching, I’m teaching every day. I’m thinking about teaching all the time. Am I writing enough to be a writer? Reading enough to be a reader?

Is it okay to connect yourself to something you are not at the moment, but for which you feel a deep connection? Do people who live with God live always with him, whether they’re living piously at the moment? Do you live constantly with yourself, even if you fall asleep at night, even if you’ve lost control of your body or your mind?

I think the answers are resoundingly yes, are shouting at me from the screen: yes! Yes you are a writer and a reader because you are that, that is you. Because you believe so fundamentally in the importance of those things (don’t forget it), but you’re just negotiating the importance of something else, too. Something else new. And it doesn’t make other things lose their spot. Yes, time exists, but so do spider webs, and those can get considerably bigger, longer, more spacious. And though they get more fragile as they grow, they stay the same shape, always meeting at the middle where you sit, spinning your web.

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Virginia Woolf’s Exclamation Marks

In Book Club, Literature on August 17, 2013 at 1:41 pm

“In love!” she said

He was in love!

And there’s no flesh on his neck; his hands are red; and he’s six months older than I am!

“She is beneath this roof … She is beneath this roof!”

“Good morning to you, Clarissa!” said Hugh, rather extravagantly, for they had known each other as children.”

The way she said “Here is my Elizabeth!” – that annoyed him. Why not “Here’s Elizabeth” simply? It was insincere.

He had escaped!

I haven’t felt so young in years!

“Well, and what’s happened to you?” “Millions of things!” he exclaimed.

But it was delicious to hear her say that – my dear Peter!

“How heavenly it is to see you again!” she exclaimed. He had his knife out. That’s so like him, she thought.

Mrs._Dalloway_cover(from en.wikipedia.org)

The Reading Fad

In Book Club, Literary Events, Literature on August 15, 2013 at 10:57 pm

I admit I walk around carrying a book in my  hand more than I used to, though I used to read more than I do now. I admit I don’t read as many classics as I should, but I always name classics as my favourite books. I admit I bought glasses that make me look like I’m reading and I get shivers in trendy used bookstores. But I will not admit that I am a part of this new trend called reading.

I’ve had a few different people lately tell me they are reading a book out loud as a couple. That’s great! I wish I was in a couple in which we read books out loud! But it also seems to signify something: is reading a becoming a novelty?

When someone walks by me wearing a Great Gatsby tee-shirt, I’m usually pretty sure it’s not an English Lit major. Why would someone who studied English feel the need to wear a tee-shirt announcing they like books? They decided that already, probably early in life, and it has since been their identity.

Second question: why am I so defensive of books? I didn’t write any of them! Maybe I’ve read more than some people, but I’ve also not read most of them, and I read them pretty poorly.

But books are my thing. They are a thing for people who don’t have many other things. But someone who rides a funny-looking bike and sketches and, like, has a horse, already has so many things! You can’t take books too!

So I propose this: we just all keep reading. Don’t stop when the other member of your couple has moved on to partner yoga (even though that’s so last year). Just keep reading until it stops becoming a trend. Until you missed the next trend because you were so busy reading.

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(from crazetees.com)

Until you become a real smoker, not just one who smokes at parties, you don’t know all the downsides of the trade. You don’t know that you slowly lose your eyesight. You don’t know that there are some books that will plague you, consistently looming over you to get you to finish them. And even if you’ve seen the Dracula movie and you read all of Atlas Shrugged except for the 100-page-long speech by John Galt, you know that one day you will just sit there, miserable, reading those two books instead of whatever book is on everyone’s tee shirt.

And it will become a part of you (not every book you read, but the fact that you do weird little things, like accidentally buy two copies of the same book or bring ten with you on a trip) and you will never stop reading, because it’s the best trend ever invented. It offers a way of seeing the world and of seeing yourself: through words, beautifully arranged, on these little sheets of paper you carry around in your hand for everyone to see.

HP Sauce

In Book Club, Literary Events on August 4, 2013 at 9:57 pm

A couple friends and I are rereading Harry Potter. My friend did this a few years ago and I was so jealous – how did he have the time? He had the time, I realized, by letting Harry Potter and his childhood overtake his life. I grew up on Harry Potter. I left a best friend’s birthday party to go to the midnight release of the seventh book. I like being in on something so childish and esoteric. I like books!

Remember how big Hermione’s hair was in the first book?

And how you never see Scabbers coming?

Remember when you realize that instead of a murderer, Sirius Black is just a sex bomb?

Sirius-Black-sirius-black-7017004-1000-725 (sexy photo from images2.fanpop.com)

I don’t always remember that Professor McGonagall is an animagi!!

Wouldn’t there be some practices where you just don’t find the Snitch?

They don’t even know about the tournament yet!! People are going to DIE!!

Yesterday somebody had a portrait in their room that looked like You-Know-Who but it might have just been a deceased grandfather!

Did Joanne see the Ginny thing coming? Because Harry sure didn’t!

Is it just me, or does travelling by Floo Powder make no sense at all?

Who IS Dean Thomas??

I’m not Sleepy!

In Dreams, Thoughts on Writing on July 29, 2013 at 11:48 am

I don’t sleep around full moons or after late afternoon coffees. I continue to drink coffee on certain late afternoons and I continue to live through full moons. I know I’ll stay up at night but I think: how productive tonight could be! Maybe I could read a whole book.

But when night comes around, my heart beats in my chest and my mind runs everywhere. I lay there yawning, restlessly wishing for sleep. But this weekend (waning half moon and no coffee in the house) I just wasn’t sleepy. I never got sleepy!

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What I could have done this weekend, had I thought of it. Instead I lay there, peaceful in my thoughts. What happened? Have I changed people?

I remember studying Shakespeare at high school and university and getting quizzed on whether I knew that insomnia meant that the character was troubled. Well, I thought. Is there more to it than that?

But maybe there is. My thoughts at night weren’t troubled. I thought a lot about The Bachelorette, about Harry Potter, about where I would walk the dog tomorrow and would I go swimming before or after dinner? I was interested in a lot of different things but I didn’t feel like reading.

What I didn’t think of doing was writing. I’ve been writing one hour a day (which is great!) but when that hour is up, proud as I am, I move on. I read or I watch television or maybe I do my school work. Or, like, I leave the house! But I think I’m scared that if I go back to writing then maybe I’ll max myself out and I won’t do my hour tomorrow. And if I don’t do my hour tomorrow then will I do it the next day? I am so easily persuaded, so influenced by my worst self.

Maybe I’m up at night because I’m supposed to be writing. Maybe one hour a day has put me on some roll! Maybe the time I have invested in my writing is spawning more creativity – nervous energy that keeps me up at night because it wants to be used for something. And because I’m lazy and it’s dark in the room I am not reaching for a pen and am thinking instead. And yes, my dreams are really creative, but could I be using this for writing?

So I plan to never sleep again and write a lot! And with that decision is born a writer: insomniac, paranoid, probably alcoholic.

A New Philosophy on Owning Books

In Book Club on July 27, 2013 at 9:53 am

Become more liberal about buying and exchanging books.

Always buy used ones and give away those I have read and can part with to used book stores.

Search for good copies of my favourite books. Buy hard cover, smelly copies.

Lend out books on a whim. Don’t ask for them back.

Let books flow, always living and being read by new people.

This would allow for ever-changing book shelves and not hoarding.

It would give me more excuses to go into used bookstores and support them.

I would be better connected to books, more excited by them.

And think about how often I could alphabetize.

153 (photo from gelaskins.com)

Take Me Out

In Literature, Thoughts on Writing on June 4, 2013 at 10:52 pm

I let books do partying for me. They teach me the ways of the young and the damned so I don’t have to get too close to real life. I love books for how they make me feel: wild, traumatised, lovely, like I just woke up and someone made me coffee. Words let me feel things that life doesn’t. I get something more from them, something sweeter and more personal. I let my books do my living for me.

When I think of all the books I haven’t read and want to read I begin to feel panicked but excited at the possibilities. I can imagine all the life I have yet to live in them. I focus on the books I have yet to read instead of the places I have yet to go or the people I have yet to meet. Books replace all the houses I won’t be able to afford and all the men I should have married but turned my back to. Books are easy – they can be put aside, bookmarked or given as a gift. Life doesn’t have a front and back cover.

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(photo from adoptanegotiator.org)

Now I get this one specific feeling from books that rarely comes in real life. The times I have felt it have been first dates, summer nights driving with windows open, and after a first beer at a bar with friends. It’s a distinct feeling of possibility. It smells like something; it makes me smile a certain way.

If you’ve never tried writing, then you don’t know that you get this same feeling when the words are coming together. You get it even when they’re not. And I realized lately what this feeling is. It’s the feeling of making something.

Making something is what is so valuable about reading instead of viewing stories on TV or in movies. When you read, you need to invent. You need to fill things in so you can see. Writing is then just a more advanced invention. There you start with nothing and you make everything. With reading you start with some things and you make more things (you can never make everything). Reading and writing and driving with windows open on summer nights are all about putting things in motion. You feel it in the tips of fingers that things are happening.

I ask books to do my living for me so I can learn to better live. I can live better if I remember that everything I am doing is a product of me doing it. I make things happen by rolling down the windows and picking up the pen. There is nothing happening unless I fill things in so I can see. I am reading and I am writing everywhere everyday. If I’m standing alone at a party it’s not because I’d rather be reading, it’s because I’m taking it all in, trying to make something of it.

Making Movies into Novels

In Inspiration, Literary Events, Thoughts on Writing on April 6, 2013 at 12:17 am

I just figured out why I can’t sit through movies, or if I am able to, why I later cannot remember them. It’s because my brain works on novels. And so does yours!!

I am convinced of this because of how people are watching TV these days, i.e. not on a TV. We watch shows on PVRs, Netflix, online streams, illegal downloads and TV box sets. We don’t watch television on television. We’re too efficient. We have too much to do to watch commercials! We’re beginning to realize we like stories in a convenient format. We like to carry them around in our purses. Sort of like books.

I am happiest when I am in a novel, or a long New Yorker article, and I’m just waiting to find out more but I have to do something else with my time like work or sleep or maybe write. I keep the story at the back of my mind. It’s why I like reading more than one book (or New Yorker article) at once: they get to spend time together in my head, making my dreams more creative.

If I watch a movie by myself, I watch it in at least two parts. With Netflix now on my iPad, I watch movies in ten-minute  chunks, filling in the silent transitions of clothes-changes and teeth-brushes. I just figured out why I do it. My brain works on novels. I’m trying to make  movies into novels.

Charles Dickens’ novels came out in serialized format – one chapter a week in the newspaper. Why doesn’t that happen anymore? Wouldn’t newspapers be infinitely more interesting? Wouldn’t writers be infinitely more interesting? Our culture likes to see the ins and outs of the creative process: what if at each week, with the serialized portion of the novel, there was a quick post from the author on what it took to write this chapter this week? What if the audience became privileged to the inner workings of the novel, the way we can on DVD special features and episode commentary?

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(photo from digitaltrends.com)

We’re already used to following characters and stories on Twitter and Facebook. We are used to the novel – we’re constantly using the novel format – but we don’t realize it. In fact, we keep talking about how the novel is going out of fashion. People are scared for books now that they’re digital. But what a good thing for the art form that it made it through this digital revolution. What a good thing that it maybe even impacted it.

I would say the nature of the novel, as it first appeared in serialized format, is the inspiration for social media. To engage us as an audience, social media has latched on to our passion for being in the middle of something ongoing, where the characters are developing and interacting and where we learn information through a combination of inferences and exposition. We are consuming novels all over the place without even realizing it. It’s why I’m so excited right now. I fit in! I’m going to work!

Book a week

In Book Club, Literature on January 24, 2013 at 7:28 pm

I’m trying to read a book a week, but a book a week really puts a book into perspective. I’m spending a whole week on this? I’m only spending a week on this?

Last week I read Dubliners by James Joyce. The problem was it was short stories. I read two. That’s not a book a week. That’s one short story every 3.5 days.

This week I’m reading The Town That Forgot How to Breathe by Kenneth J. Harvey. Since I had never heard of it before I started to read it, it felt like a waste of a week. I will finish this book and still no one will have heard of it? Then I read something – a blog post I got linked to through the New Yorker‘s book blog “Page-Turner.” It was a blog post someone made about things their professor (the writer Max Sebald) had said in class. One thing that stuck out:

Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there. For example, Kant’s Critique is a yawn but his incidental writings are fascinating.”

This very creepy book I’m reading about a small town in Newfoundland where people literally forget how to breathe is not Kant’s other book, but I get it. I’m reading this book because it’s going to tell me something that not everyone knows. I am also reading it because I’m reading Maritime books, preparing for the moment where I go back and know everything there is to know about the book I’m writing about Cape Breton.

My book club meets tonight. We are always just sitting there itching to go home and read. Why is that books are such an enjoyable thing, but something we just want to get done? Why do we have bookshelves to show off the quantity of what we’ve read, when we could just endlessly borrow books from a library? Why do we have websites where we collect books like Pokemon cards? Why do we spout names of authors and their books like we are all so aware of the classics that we keep lists ready in our head?

Miss Auras by John Lavery, depicts a woman reading a book.from en.Wikipedia.org

Miss Auras by John Lavery, depicts a woman reading a book.
from en.Wikipedia.org

I hope that I haven’t misunderstood reading. I really like doing it, I swear I do. But still I make resolutions like I don’t do enough of it, and I join clubs about it like I need support. Books are a big part of my life, but when did I decide that having a lot of books means having a lot of life?

I think it was when I decided that to be a writer I needed to have read everything. I ignored that being a writer had come from being a reader. I ignored that I read before I went to school, that there’s pictures of me as a baby staring fascinated at books. (See my “About” page). I forgot that there are too many books to read. I forgot that it’s more important to read than to think about reading.

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