Category Archives: book

Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie – Book


Salman Rushdie, in his newest novel, weighs in on modern global events and even the American election. But he entertains us in his usual insightful way by couching his commentary in a Jinn-Jinnia War of the Worlds, which is quite a helpful conceit when you are trying to talk about people who want to send the world reeling into the 12th century or obliterate it altogether. It’s apocalyptic fun with a Persian/Arabian flavor.

The Jinni and the Jinnia live in a parallel world usually sealed against all interaction. But the Jinni and especially the four powerful male Grand Ifrits did not count on a jinnia with daddy issues. On one of the rare occasions when the seals between the worlds opened up a Jinnia fell in love with a human, Îbn Rushd (perhaps the author). She became Dunia and produced thousands of offspring, humans with a bit of jinn hidden inside. They became the Duniazat.

The title of Rushdie’s book is Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (or 1001 Nights). Although it is a sort of allegory, it is not an allegory with animals; it is one with the inhabitants of Peristan/Fairyland. And it is not a one-to-one allegory, or perhaps I was just not able to find a one-to-one equivalency in every case, but there were enough times when direct connections could be made and these are where the most potent commentary could be found. Perhaps a few quotes will help convince you:

“The Grand Ifrits’ contempt for their subjects was only increased by the ease with which they recruited human beings to assist them in the maintenance of their new empire. ‘Greed and fear’, Zummurrud told his three fellow leaders, who met, as was their custom, on a dark cloud circling earth at the Equator, from which they watched and judged the mere mortals below them, ‘fear and greed’ are the tools by which these insects can be controlled with almost comical ease,” (pg. 229)

“The enemy is stupid, he replied. That is the ground for hope. There is no originality in tyrants, and they learn nothing from the demise of their precursors. They will be brutal and stifling and engender hatred and destroy what men love and that will defeat them. All important battles are, in the end, conflicts between hatred and love, and we must hold to the idea that love is stronger than hate.” (Pg. 234)

A conversation between two human philosophers:

“Faith is our gift from God and reason is our adolescent rebellion against it. When we are adult we will turn wholly to faith as we are born to do.”

“You will see, as time goes by,” said Ibn Rushd, “that in the end it will be religions that will make men turn away from God. The godly are God’s worst advocates. It may take a thousand and one years but in the end religion will shrivel away and only then will we begin to live in God’s truth.”

I guess I see Salman Rushdie as sort of a Buddha or Dalai Lama, albeit with a reputation for womanizing, who takes a long view of human history. I always admire the long view. I cannot tell you who wins the war between Peristan and Earth, the jinni and jinnira, or the humans and the Lightening Princess, because it will ruin the tale Rushdie tells. Does the Lightning Princess, that prolific mother, represent any human we know? I will have to leave that for you to decide.

Although Salman Rushdie is immersed in a culture miles away from ours, he has also spent lots of time in England and Europe and so if you are new to Salman Rushdie you should have no fears about diving right into this novel or you can go back and begin at the beginning if you like chronology. Some of his books seem somewhat interconnected. This novel is more of a stand-alone and, although it may meet the tests of time it is also of this particular moment, right now, at the beginning of the 21st century.

By Nancy Brisson




City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg – Book

City on Fire

City on Fire is a writer’s gift to readers. It sets out to give us a grungy, punky picture of NYC in the 70’s and it succeeds – wonderfully. We can’t leave out unbridled-greed-without-moral-filters which is the true fireworks in this epic tale. It’s a good thing Garth Risk Hallberg is such a good writer because you will invest some time in this novel, especially if you are busy and have to read in snatches, which is actually a good way to read City on Fire, because it does not have a linear story structure.

This is New York City, home to millions, but more intimate than you might imagine. The line between a fireworks expert (Carmine) and a multimillion dollar family (the Hamilton-Sweeney’s, the Demon Brother), for example – or the line between the firework’s makers daughter (Sam) and a high school boy (Charlie) with red hair – the line between an old policeman with crutches (Pulaski)and a disenchanted newspaperman (Richard Groskoph) who stumbles onto an interesting story about fireworks but writes a different kind of story altogether – the connection between all these people and a defunct punk band whose leader Billy Three-Sticks (William Hamilton-Sweeney) let his band be taken over by a control freak named Nicky Chaos.

It is the Bicentennial year of 1776 when the key events in this story begin, and NYC, while definitely almost a character in this story, is not at its best. The city is on the edge of bankruptcy and the city actually is on fire. There are fires burning in the more derelict parts of town. The sound effects most prominent in Hallberg’s book are gun shots, backfires, explosions both planned and unplanned, both legal and illegal, controlled and not controlled. The author gives a foreshadowing of the events of 9/11, still far in the future, by focusing our attention on a pair of long views of the World Trade Center which will one day be destroyed in an unimaginable fire. The characters react to the corruption of a city where inequality is on display in the very architecture of the neighborhoods

The book is a mystery wrapped in an enigma – I know, terribly overused phrase, but quite appropriate here. There are a number of mysteries to be solved and a number of people with pieces of the story. Two of the people with a role in untangling events are newcomers to New York City (Mercer, Jenny) and that offers a message too. Sometimes we, the reader, know who the perpetrators are, sometimes we don’t (although we may eventually untangle events. If you don’t manage to figure things out yourself, you won’t get any help from the author. There is no Agatha Christie summing up at the end, and this is not at all a formula piece, no matter how much fun those may be.

I was sorry when I finished City on Fire because I have punctuated recent days with a chapter here and a chapter there, but the things the author tangentially shares with us about his faith in human nature and how hard that fabled NYC can be on people’s dreams will stay with me and lend a bit of grunge to my days for a while.

By Nancy Brisson

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood – Book

The Heart goes Last

Margaret Atwood has written a number of novels that I would categorize as science fiction. She likes to place modern trends in a futuristic setting and then predict where these cultural threads could take us. Her first novel that caught my attention was The Handmaid’s Tale, which, in light of recent movements towards a theocratic Evangelical takeover of politics in America, gives the novel even greater significance than it had when it was published. It certainly registered with women then and it remains frighteningly relevant. In this novel women who were once free and who proved able to bear children are enslaved by families to function only as maids and child bearers. If they prove unable to bear children, which might be because their male partner is sterile, the consequences are dire.

I also read Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam (a trilogy). In addition I have read Margaret Atwood novels that are not science fiction. I try to keep up with whatever she writes. The Heart Goes Last, like her other novels that I have termed science fiction is actually more accurately a dystopian novel, and in odd ways, somewhat utopian or at least hopeful, as the people on the bottom often end up on top (sort of).

This novel describes a future that might result from our “now”. Details sound like our situation here at the beginning of the 21st century. It is interesting that although Margaret Atwood is Canadian she sets her dystopian novels in America. Is she just trying to market to a larger audience or is she sort of peeking over the border in a judgmental fashion at our nation which often appears to the world to be a “hot mess”. At any rate, in this novel it is the economy (and then some) of America that is dysfunctional.

Stan and Charmaine could be any working class couple in America. The economy is failing lots of average Americans. Stan and Charmaine, newly married, both had jobs and they had a home until the economy went into a massive recession and they ended up living in their car. With things so uncertain the car was not a safe place to live. There were thieves and thugs, druggies and carjackers. Stan and Charmaine never felt secure. They had to move constantly and sleep was light and full of anxiety. Sex, even though they were almost newlyweds, was distasteful enough under the circumstances to make both Stan and Charmaine avoid arousal.

When they learned of a town called Consilience, beckoning the dispossessed to a stable, although bizarre, life they decided to go for it, despite the warnings from Stan’s street smart brother Conor. Consilience is a secretive place and I cannot really tell what goes on there but after a certain amount of the promised secure and stable life it all goes kerflooey in some very interesting ways, ways that make the title chillingly fitting. The issue of our sexuality continues to play a key and, this time, somewhat entertaining role in this Atwood tale.

This novel is far more accessible than her environmental trilogy but she, perhaps, does not hide her writer’s craft quite as well as usual. In a few places I think we sense an author’s plot manipulations behind the events, especially in the Las Vegas sections. I am a real fan of dystopian fiction and a real fan of Margaret Atwood and this gives us a whole new take on the future, although perhaps the future it paints is not as uplifting as we would wish.

By Nancy Brisson

Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving – Book

Avenue of Mysteries

Avenue of Mysteries is a Chagall. John Irving has painted a Chagall with words, a Catholic Chagall (not sure how Marc Chagall who was Jewish would feel about that). Of course the Chagall made most famous in the movies is the one with the goat and the wedding couple defying gravity. Irving has geckos, Virgin Marys, “dump” children, a gay couple, lots of Jesuits and some skywalkers in this very Chagall-esque novel. It’s a complicated story line with plenty of whimsy and deep philosophical contemplation.

Juan Diego and Luce live with the “dump” master on the outskirts of Oaxaca, Mexico. Some children survive by pulling things that are worth money from the dump to sell. Juan Diego and his sister have it better than other “dump” kids because they live with Rivera and they have a mom, who although beautiful is a prostitute and, oddly, also a cleaning lady for the Jesuits. Juan Diego shines above the other “dump” children because he is a “dump” reader. He taught himself to read using old Jesuit texts that were sent to the dump to be burned. In addition he knows how to speak English and he can interpret his sister Luce’s mysterious language. Luce is a mind reader, not a fortune teller. She is not as good at knowing the future.

Father Pere takes a special interest in Juan Diego and so Juan Diego and Luce get very mixed up with the Catholic Church, although they are not believers. These two children are obsessed with the Marys – the one the Spanish conquerors brought over and the one discovered at Guadalupe whose likenesses both reside in the nearby church and more.

The Catholic Church is, in fact, at the center of this Irving novel but the relationships people have with the church are anything but simple. Choosing between the rules and what seems like common sense creates a dilemma for many good Catholics.

“Your rules! What do the rules have to do with the way people actually live?” Vargas asked him.”

“Of course the Church was ‘genuine’ in its love of poor people, as Clark always argued – Juan Diego didn’t dispute this. Why wouldn’t the Church love poor people? Juan Diego was in the habit of asking Clark. But what about birth control? What about abortion? It was the ‘social agenda’ of the Catholic Church that made Juan Diego mad. The church’s policies – in opposition to contraception! – not only subjected women to the ‘enslavement of childbirth’ as Juan Diego put it to Clark, ‘the Church’s policies kept the poor poor and made them poorer. Poor people kept reproducing, didn’t they?”

Sounds a bit preachy but it isn’t. You know where the author (and the main character) stand but you are not obligated to stand in the same place as long as you don’t care about the author’s respect. This novel is not as cheerful as Chagall’s painting but it has plenty of symbolism to unravel (everything that happens in the Philippines, for example and those two strange women, Miriam and Dorothy) and it has its lighter moments as well as its profound moments. My unrequited love affair with John Irving continues.

By Nancy Brisson

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The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende – Book

The Japanese Lover

The Japanese Lover is a lovely story but not as complex as Isabel Allende’s usual creations. She likes to mix history with her fiction. She stresses our immigrant roots as Americans and in this book all of the main characters are showing their immigrant roots. (I know that using the word lovely is supposed to be the kiss of death for a novel, but this is Isabel Allende. She is strong. She can take the “L” word.)

Alma, and this is mostly Alma’s story, was sent to her aunt and uncle in the city Allende’s books often center on, San Francisco. She was sent by her Polish parents to her relatives before World War II clamped down on Europe. Her parents were Jewish and were eventually killed in a concentration camp.

Alma is old now. We learn about her life in flashbacks. Her uncle’s family was wealthy – the Belasco’s. Alma was lonely and her girl cousins were not welcoming, but Nathaniel, also a misfit, was good to Alma. The Belasco’s has a Japanese gardener, Takao Fukuda, who had a son, Ichimei, who also befriended Alma. In fact those two had a special bond. They were separated when Ichimei and his family were sent to a Japanese internment camp in the American hinterlands. By the time Ichimei is freed from the camps everything has changed. For one thing, he no longer works for the Belasco’s.

Alma and Ichimei are in love but Alma is not enough of a rebel to give up her wealth, comfort, and social acceptance. There is something quite real about this that I appreciate.

Irina, born in Moldova, works in the senior home where Alma now lives. Irina suffered a terrible but undefined (until later) form of abuse which she keeps a secret. Alma keeps her love for Ichimei a secret. She actually married her cousin Nathaniel, a man who also had secrets to keep. An old friend, Lenny, comes to live at Lark House and renews his friendship with Alma and there are things to learn about him as well.

Irina, who becomes Alma’s assistant, and Alma’s grandson, Seth, are fascinated by Alma and they snoop politely to learn Alma’s secrets before she takes them with her. This story sounds like a schmaltzy tear-jerker but it is not. Allende doesn’t play with our emotions in that way. It is more an artistic, intellectual, and historical rendering of the postwar era in San Francisco as it affected the lives of real people. However Allende’s portrayal of aging – the still vibrant mind and the continuing emotional content of that mind – which Alma presents to us makes her seems so young, a youthfulness that is gradually curtailed by the growing frailty of her body. Allende’s portrayal of aging reads as true as the other choices her characters make in their lives. It also makes us wish we could all live and die wealthy and successful.

You will either love the ending or find it, as I did a bit trite. Allende has always had that certain magical quality that suggested, and almost convinced us, that ghosts are real. Although this is not my favorite Allende novel it is perfect for this stage of my life. Someone else will have to tell you whether you must be old to appreciate this novel, but I don’t think so. Alma is a character worth getting to know. In fact, you probably already know someone very much like her.

By Nancy Brisson

Young Eliot by Robert Crawford – Book


Young Eliot

T. S. Eliot was a poet that I fell in love with the very first time I read his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, a poem with images and rhythms which did not exist in the sonnets and odes from our text, Norton’s Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1 (which had many poems I also enjoyed). Recently I saw that a new book had been published by Robert Crawford with the title Young Eliot: from St. Louis to The Waste Land. This book did not turn out to be an easy read. It is an academic book. It seems that Robert Crawford is a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Academy. He is a Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St. Andrews, a scholar and a poet. Although this does not have the permissions necessary to be an official biography it is quite scholarly with plenty of attributions. In fact the chapters offer so many numbered footnote references that you must learn to filter them out so that you can follow the details of Eliot’s life.

Since T. S. Eliot destroyed almost all correspondence from his first marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood most biographies devote very few pages to Eliot’s life before he reached his twenties. Crawford, however, following exhaustive research at the many repositories which hold Eliot memorabilia and with the permission of Eliot’s second wife who was still alive, begins at the beginning in St. Louis, Missouri which he credits with the jazz-like rhythms of Eliot’s poetry (not his exact language). “Eliot’s formative years were exactly that. Their importance is greater than most readers have realized. Young Eliot presents this crucial period in much more detail. ‘Home is where we start from’”, says Crawford. “…St. Louis – that French-named city of ragtime, racial tensions, ancient civilisations, riverboats and (in Eliot’s words) the real start of the Wild West.”

Another important early influence on T. S. Eliot is added in his early teens when his “time [is] divided between education in Missouri and summering in Gloucester, Massachusetts” where he learns to sail. T. S. Eliot, once he leaves to go to Harvard, never goes home to St. Louis, although he still summers in New England.

Crawford spends much time on Eliot’s life with Vivien and the dysfunctional nature of their marriage. Vivien is quoted as saying, “I love Tom in a way that destroys us both.” They seem to have sexual difficulties but apparently there is not enough remaining information to tell us the true nature of these difficulties. Crawford blames both of them for the tensions in the marriage. The Eliots live in England (Vivien is English) and they both spend a lot of time being ill, but they also socialize with the important literary figures of their age, both in England and in Paris, e.g. Virginia Woolf, Mary Hutchinson, Conrad Aiken, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Bertrand Russell. Tom reads voraciously in Eastern philosophy and religion, anthropology, Western philosophy and religion, psychology, literary criticism, and literature including drama, novels, and poetry from the classics to his contemporaries. He says about himself that he is “…in different places and circumstances a professor, a journalist, a banker, a philosopher, a Parisian flâneur and also something much wilder.”

Despite the plethora of attributions Crawford still is left to conjecture about how much of Tom’s possible sexual difficulties and his buttoned-down formal persona (which he could discard when he was with male companions) informs the poem that this book ends with, The Waste Land. I am not sure that all of Crawford’s research gave him anything definitive to add to our understanding of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, but we do get to know Thomas Stearns Eliot as a person with all his brilliance, his humor, his gloom, and his flaws. There are still enough things we probably don’t know about Young Eliot to leave some mysteries that might be solved in the future. Crawford plans to follow up with a second volume but it will pick up after the publication of The Waste Land.

By Nancy Brisson

Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham – Book

John Grisham has been a favorite of mine over the years. He tells a good story and he always exposes something about the legal system. He has touched on injustices and outright crimes perpetrated by law firms, lawyers, public defenders, public prosecutors, judges and juries; bad behavior that is rampant throughout our legal system. When he fights a particular flaw in our legal system, as he does in almost every one of the novels he has written, we are not at all surprised by the revelations he offers. We know that the system can be fair and that it can be corrupt, and we suspect that it is corrupt more often than it is fair. John Grisham also likes lawyers who are loners, who work on the fringes of the system in small offices and shopping malls. His main character is often a principled lawyer who fights the system when corruption has taken over and made it difficult for folks to get justice.

In his newest book, Rogue Lawyer, we meet Sebastian Rudd, a street lawyer. He does not have a stationary office. His office is in the back of a tricked out van. He defends people who no one else wants to defend because of their obvious guilt or because s/he has been declared guilty by a system that is often only too glad to jump to conclusions. The first client we meet in the book is Gardy, probably an innocent man who the system has already decided, with almost no evidence, is guilty. Sebastian (Grisham) wants Gardy to have a fair trial but in the very small town where the crime was committed a fair trial will be almost impossible. Sebastian, because feelings are running high, stays in different motel rooms at some distance from the town changing motels as often as necessary.

Mr. Rudd says, “The truth is, if I had the money, the time, and the personnel, I would bribe and/or intimidate every juror. When the State, with its limitless resources, commences a fraudulent case and cheats at every turn, then cheating is legitimized. There is no level playing field. There is no fairness. The only honorable alternative for a lawyer fighting to save an innocent client is to cheat defense.

However, if a defense lawyer is caught cheating, he or she gets nailed with sanctions by the court, reprimanded by the state bar association, maybe even indicted. If a prosecutor gets caught cheating, he either gets reelected or elevated to the bench. Our system never holds a bad prosecutor accountable.”

And this is not the only claim Sebastian Rudd, our rogue lawyer, levels against the system. We follow him and his partner/bodyguard/driver cleverly named Partner as he tackles several interesting cases each an example of ways that people in positions of power have found to use and abuse their position to the detriment of our entire legal system. In one of his cases we have the Renfro’s, victims of a commando style police raid on the wrong house, who face jail time because the police will never admit that they were wrong in their intelligence and that their arrest procedures were drastically over-the-top. In another case he was the lawyer for a ganged up guy named Link who is on death row when he manages to escape using his guys on the outside and who now wants his lawyer, Sebastian Rudd, to pay him back all the fees he paid to the lawyer because he was not successful in his defense of Link.

We have an ex-wife who is always trying to terminate Rudd’s brief visitations with his son (his job is quite dangerous). We have the MMA fighter who goes from being under Rudd’s patronage to being his client in a self-destructive moment. And although this book is short and has a lot of white space it still manages to get us involved in Sebastian Rudd’s life and to remind us of how easy it is for our legal system to go off the rails. Except for these lone fighters that John Grisham presents us with, we are given few clues about how to reform the system. Still I leave each of Grisham’s novels full of righteous anger about how the law is being twisted into something far less that the ideals the system was set up to offer.

By Nancy Brisson

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff – Book

In Fates and Furies, a novel by Lauren Groff, we have a continuation of a couple of recent trends in fiction. First we have a plot that unfolds its secrets a few at a time, doles them out like those pennies my parents used to give me to spend at the candy store. Slowly the sweets in our bag add up, into a person and a life. In the first part of this bipartite book we have the Fates.

“In Greek mythology, the Moirai—often known in English as the Fates—were the white-robed incarnations of destiny. Their number became fixed at three: Clotho (spinner), Lachesis (allotter) and Atropos (unturnable). They controlled the metaphorical thread of life of every mortal from birth to death. “

The Fates brought success and failure although they often seemed to resort to favoritism in their choice of recipients who met with success. Part I centers on Lotto, larger than life and fated for some fine accomplishment from the time he was born. Lancelot Satterwhite’s mom is Antoinette, an ex-mermaid at Weeki Wachee in Florida and his dad was Gawain who made a fortune by bottling spring water. The names of Ms. Groff’s characters certainly play into the whole fate scenario.

Although Lotto’s mother, once widowed, wanted to smother him and keep him for herself, she sent him away after he fell in with a wild crowd and Lotto never saw her again, although she secretly pulled strings in his life as if she were one of the Fates. Lotto is banished from sunny, hot Florida to the strictness and chill of a New England prep school. He attends Vassar, by then a coed school and, fortunately, he does not meet Mathilde until he is ready to graduate. It is love at first sight, there is a quickie marriage for love and lust, and next thing the happy couple knows they are disinherited by the very wealthy widow, Lotto’s mom Antoinette.

What is Lotto’s fate? His marriage to Mathilde seems to be a good one although there is a sort of constant foreboding that all will not be well. I cannot hand out all the secrets. I cannot fill up that candy bag. There is also a dog, a silly fluffy dog, which Lotto names God by accident and who was reminiscent for me of the dog Sorrow in Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving.

However, especially as the novel began, I was struck by the contrast between my expectations for this book and the reality of it. I expected some urbane European pedigrees and an angry couple each recounting his/her side of a marital story. But Lotto’s history, despite his somewhat classical schooling is oh so American giving him a pedigree that is actually a rather crass mix of Disney and Warren Buffet. Lotto is hopelessly unaware of his white male privilege but he is loyal and charismatic and talented. Mathilde seems his complement in every way.

In Part II we get to the Furies. Furies were also from Greek mythology and were thought to be the embodiment of curses and of the ghosts of the murdered. Vengeance comes to mind when the Furies are invoked. This part of Groff’s novel focuses on Mathilde, self-proclaimed orphan, who turns out to have a much darker history than we might have guessed. She goes along with a second trend in recent novels for writing female characters who are nuanced, intelligent, and not necessarily “good” girls as in Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) and The Girl on a Train (Paula Hawkins), and Hausfrau (Jill Alexander Essbaum), the wife in At the Water’s Edge (Sara Gruen), the daughter in The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters), and the enigmatic secretary in The Other Typist (Suzanne Rindell). These women all have secret qualities that shock us or challenge traditional portrayals of females as beings in need of protection, as perhaps victims. What Mathilde reveals will have you arguing with your own self and then wondering if anything in Fates and Furies really happened at all. I will be thinking about this one and its dichotomies for a while and I really like that in a book, especially one as well-written as this one. Thank you, Lauren Groff.

By Nancy Brisson

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante – Book

In Book 4 of the Neapolitan Novels, The Story of the Lost Child we find Elena back in the old neighborhood in Naples living upstairs from Lila and her partner Enzo who run a business teaching Basic computer language. Elena finds living near Lila stimulating enough that she begins writing again. Sometimes it almost seems that without Lila Elena might not have been so successful. Lila is passionate about the Naples neighborhood and the people they have known since childhood.

For a while the cultural changes, the revolution of ideas around the role of the worker and the role of women in Italy and, indeed, the world had excited Elena and kept her busy writing, but as the movements calmed down and the excitement died down Elena had been flailing for new subject matter and her finances were dwindling. Back in Naples, she was inspired to write about the things Lila talked to her about. She betrayed a promise she had made to her friend that she would not write about her. Did this lead to the things that happened to the two friends? You will have to judge for yourself. Lila has a certain mental illness that attacks her from time to time that I have not previously mentioned. She still manages to command some power in the neighborhood, but one wonders how much her failures and her successes are affected by her periodic mental imbalances?

Here is Lila talking about the Solaras brothers who consider the neighborhood their person crime fiefdom and who have their fingers in every business, legal and illegal. Now that Elena has exposed them she is nervous about retribution.

“She [Lila] cited the experience of the earthquake, for more than two years she had done nothing except complain of how the city had deteriorated. She said that since then she had been careful never to forget that we are very crowded beings, full of physics, astrophysics, biology, religion, soul, bourgeoisie, proletariat, capital work, profit, politics, many nervous phrases, many unharmonious, the chaos inside and the chaos outside. So calm down she said laughing, what do you expect the Solaras to be. Your novel is done. You wrote it, you rewrote it, being there was evidently useful to you, to make it true, but now it’s out and you can’t take it back. The Solaras are angry? So what. Michele threatens you? Who gives a damn. There could be another earthquake at any moment, even stronger. Or the whole universe could collapse. And then what is Michele? Nothing. And Marcello is nothing. The two of them are merely flesh that spouts out threats and demands for money.”

Later we hear Elena’s disillusionment (although she claims it is Lila’s) with human societies, social change and human nature:

“To be born in that city. I went so far as to write once, thinking not of myself but of Lila’s pessimism, is to be useful for only one thing: to have always known, almost instinctively, what today, with endless fine distinctions everyone is beginning to claim: that the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.”

The things Elena has observed from Naples and from Italy have led her to basically discard socialism, communism, and capitalism at least exclusively and individually as models for an economy that will not bring out the worst in people.

By Nancy Brisson

But while Elena is convinced of the brutality and filth of human interactions, Lila, who with her insider knowledge of that human filth and chaos that surrounds her in Naples, with the bitterness of a woman who lost a chance to study and perhaps rise above, as a mom who has lost her child, Lila is reading and writing on her own to remove the human tarnish from the beautiful landmarks of Naples and is showing us the beauty that people also create.

I cannot tell you about the lost child, but I have spent quite a while in and near Naples and, while I can’t say that I always enjoyed it, it has been “real”, a true gift to the reader of a generation of life in a poor corner of Naples. Don’t even pretend if you read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Books that these things only happen in Naples.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante – Book

Book 2 of The Neapolitan Novels has us still following the lives of Elena (Lenù) and Lila (Lina), two childhood friends, but these two are adults now and their lives diverge more and more. This segment of their story is concerned with love, and finding love, and losing love, but it is even more concerned with class, social class and upbringing. Elena graduated from high school, a true accomplishment in her neighborhood where almost no one stayed in school after the elementary level. Studying separates her more and more from most of the neighborhood children she grew up with. Elena sees that by continuing her schooling she will lose a connection with everything she has known in life and everyone, even her family. She will never fit in here again and it is hard to give up this sense of belonging to something.

Lila, now called Lina, has glued herself to the neighborhood by becoming a wife and a mother, but she is unhappy with her husband. He is too coarse for her; he beats her. Lina has been praised for her intelligence. She knows she is quick and creative. She thinks she can use her natural abilities to succeed even without an education. But poverty is a terrible weight and a trap. Without her husband she has no income and must give up any thought of moving up in the world, even give up the times when she tries to return to her studies on her own. She has a child that must be supported so she tries to pin her hopes to him and give him a start in life that will lift him out of the poorest class in the city.

Elena learns that it is not so easy to enter a new social sphere. The people who grew up in that milieu have the confidence that comes of the traditions of a lifetime spent in that social group. Language gives you away as not belonging, accent gives you away. In her neighborhood people speak a dialect of Italian that is almost incomprehensible to people who do not live there. It operates like a thumbtack holding the inhabitants of the neighborhood in place. Educated people speak several different levels of Italian just as we have language that varies from functional to intellectual. Your contemporaries can place you by the way you speak and the words you use. They can place you by your manners and by the way you dress. Moving up in the world means changing some very essential things about yourself and these changes separate you more and more from childhood family and friends.

Elena experiences moments of great doubt about whether she can succeed in rarer circles, or indeed, about whether she wants to be so lonely and cut off from the comforts of her old neighborhood life in order to be successful. Lots of people experience this sort of culture shock when they leave home and go away to college. When college is finished we almost all go home for a while to get our bearings and find our new path. Perhaps we all feel that estrangement from our childhood and our families when we go home. Perhaps not everyone does. However, when the change is as exponential as Elena’s the pressures and doubts are great and the transformation must be apparent to all of her old chums and to her best friend Lila especially. Although Elena sees little of Lina during these years her friend has kept notebooks which she entrusts to Elena. These writings and the news she hears of Lina from friends and her infrequent visits allow her to follow the thread of Lina’s life.

The second book, entitled The Story of a New Name made me want to see what Elena Ferrante will have to tell us in the last two volumes. So far I see much more of what is universal in these books than what is specific to Italy, as should be true in good fiction. If we lived in a time when books were not routinely translated that would limit us in ways that would make us more fearful of other cultures than we are (and we still harbor some powerful xenophobia). These novels, so far, do not just translate from one language to another, but from one culture to another.

By Nancy Brisson