Sunday, September 27, 2015

Elena Ferrante - Judy Blume's Opposite

Last week I complained about the lack of substance in Judy Blume's adult novel about the lifelong friendship of two girls who were affected by a series of air traffic accidents in their small town in New Jersey.

A week later I can only marvel at the depth and sophistication of "My Brilliant Friend," the first in a series of four novels, also about the  lifelong friendship of two girls, Lila and Elena, raised in the violent, patriarchal world of Naples, Italy. What a different reading experience!

Much has been written about the enigmatic author Elena Ferrante. Apparently no one actually knows who she is. She eschews speaking engagements and only acquiesces to interviews by mail. Some even thought that she might be a man but, based upon my reading, that just doesn't seem probable. Her female characters, their thoughts, aspirations, jealousies, and insensitivities are simply too visceral. This is the work of a writer at the top of her game.

The story begins in the 1950's in a small, insular neighborhood outside Naples, a town that serves as a microcosm of Italy at the time. Lila and Elena might be two sides of the same coin, Lila the daredevil, the bad girl, the leader, and Elena, the fearful follower and admirer.

They meet in primary school at a time when few were expected to further their education beyond the eighth grade. Girls like Lila and Elena have no money. Their highest expectations would have been to work in the family's meager business or to marry and have babies. But these girls have brains, imaginations, and aspirations. What will become of them?

And that's what the reader will discover, lost in these volumes of exquisite prose. One asks how can a writer - think of Alice McDermott - take a subject of such little consequence, the daily lives of small-town girls, their parents, siblings, boyfriends, and turn it into a work of literature?

Ferrante captures the importance of the hierarchy in a small town. The butcher trumps the shoemaker who trumps the clerical worker. The first one to own a car has a means of escape, a way to open up to a wider world. But the one with the education? What good is Latin and Greek when your family needs you to forge a propitious alliance with another family? What's love got to do with it, Tina would ask.

I won't tell you what happens. I only know the beginnings of the story myself. After all, it's life and all that living entails, betrayal, hurt, sexual awakening, accolades and disappointments. I'm waiting for book 2 in the series right now. I don't doubt that I'll be living with these women into their old age and enjoying every minute.

Monday, September 21, 2015

In the Unlikely Event....

.....that you think beloved author Judy Blume should be writing novels for adults, let me disabuse you of that belief right now. Yes, she changed our lives and the lives of our kids with her wonderfully open, conversation-starting books for teens. How else would I have been able to explain masturbation to my pre-teen stepdaughters?

Maybe I won't be popular for saying this but the much heralded adult novel, "In the Unlikely Event," is written in a style I found more appropriate for teens. I really wanted to like this book. The premise offers a great opportunity for a writer to explore the interior lives of children suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after three unthinkable tragedies rained down on the residents of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Ms. Blume, I'm afraid, missed that chance.

Now let me qualify my remarks. There are positives I can play up. First of all, the historical nature of the material, the plane crashes in 1951 and '52, actually happened. Beginning each section of the book with imagined clips from "The Elizabeth Daily Post," adds immediacy to the narrative and allows Blume to introduce the journalist, Henry Ammerman, to the readers.

Second, Blume has a remarkable memory or a great researcher. The small details, saddle shoes, fuzzy earmuffs, Toni home perms, that she includes in the novel, will resonate with readers of a certain age. And those who grew up in New Jersey and its environs (I'm talking to you Maryellen Woodside) will thoroughly enjoy the nostalgic trip down memory lane.

But I found little character development. Each person in this book feels like a cardboard cut out, or in deference to the fifties theme, a paper doll. Miri, her best friend Natalie, their parents and siblings, are sadly one-dimensional. Each of them, we are told, is profoundly changed by the death and destruction they witnessed when first the C-46 crashed into the Elizabeth river and, not long after, the American Airlines Convair barely missed the high school full of students before taking out an apartment building.

One of the basics of writing class says "show, don't tell." Natalie becomes ill, her parents' perfect marriage disintegrates, a devastated widower finds new life through Miri's wonderful grandmother, Irene. Miri channels her anger into journalism, encouraged by her uncle Henry. But I never felt an emotional connection to these characters as I might have in a more subtle writer's hand.

Have you read it? Do you disagree with me? Tell me what you thought. I'd love to get a conversation going. I'm packing for a little mini-vacation to Williamsburg and taking along Elena Ferrante and the hot new "City on Fire." Will report upon my return. Happy reading.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, A Justifiably Angry Man

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written two books and is the recipient of numerous prizes for opinion writing and journalism. But the article that probably brought him the most renown was the in-depth "Atlantic" cover story, "The Case for Reparations," an amazing, convincing piece of writing that details how we, the people of these United States, profited from the physical and economic enslavement of the African people.

His new book, "Between the World and Me," has been called required reading by Toni Morrison. What she doesn't say is that it should be required reading for white folks. After all, black people already understand the sickening, underlying angst that colors every day in a world that disrespects them with impunity. This tiny book, a 152 page letter to Coates' fifteen-year-old son, filled me with despair because I believe that the writer was being realistic in his advice.


Twenty years ago I never would have said this, naively believing that we'd come so far in race relations in the U.S. Now we have a man like Donald Trump leading in the polls in a presidential election. Have we stooped that low?

Coates is not a man of God. He rails at the thought that black people believe that they must wait until they get to a so-called promised land to achieve the freedom that should be guaranteed them here on earth. Coates is not a fan of the non-violent stance of a Martin Luther King, Jr. He is a follower of Malcolm X and he tells his son why.

Using the Michael Brown incident as a catalyst, Coates speaks eloquently of the body. How with one false move, in one moment of wrong place/wrong time, a black man can lose his body - his life. He doesn't want this for his son. But he doesn't want him to stand down either. Coates was raised by two loving middle-class parents but his father did not spare the rod. Coates was punished for being too weak, for allowing a bully to steal his bike, for avoiding certain streets and people while growing up in Baltimore. At one point he describes how he learned to smell a fight on the summer air, when heat and tempers flared.

It's so difficult for many of us to imagine this feeling of being terrified to walk to school, to have to plot your course, to avoid eye contact with the gang members, the kid with a pistol flailing around. The physical anxiety had to be overwhelming and, internalized, no doubt led to the growth of a man who is bottling up a justifiable rage. It informs his words on every page.

But tempering that anger is the deep, abiding love Coates has for his son, his wife, his family, and for Howard University, which he refers to as Mecca. Here he discovered a haven for students like himself, looking for answers to previously indecipherable questions. His wife helps him adopt a gentler way, she introduces him to the joys of travel, searching for other cultures that might be a better fit.

I think it's such a beautiful labor of love to put down on paper a lesson of this magnitude. The book becomes almost a genealogy of black families from their time in Africa, to their kidnapping, and their displacement here in this country, their accomplishments all the more remarkable under the circumstances.

Coates tells his child, Samori, that he is a young man growing in consciousness. He says that he hopes Samori never feels the need to constrict himself to make other people comfortable. Coates, on the other hand, may make some readers uncomfortable and that's a good thing. If we are to grow in consciousness ourselves then we must be snapped out of our complacency and walk in another's shoes. This is a good place to begin that journey.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

From Despair to Hope at the National Book Festival

Phil Klay.jpg

Phil Klay has garnered several important awards for his collection of short stories culled from his year serving in the Marine Corps as a Public Affairs Officer in Anbar Province. "Redeployment," which I reviewed last February ( is a stunning book, a perfect marriage of an MFA from Hunter College and a year in Iraq.

I was so pleased that Klay was on the agenda at the National Book Festival but, being a great writer doesn't always translate into being a powerful presenter. I'm here to tell you, Phil Klay was electric. I'd guess that he has some acting chops in his background because when he read his stories he was as animated as the sign language interpreters who are phenomenal. It made me sorry that he isn't the narrator on the audio versions of the book.

Klay's stories ring of despair. We sit at the shoulder of a young man hoisting his rifle to shoot at a stray dog because he's angry and the dog is the only moving thing upon which he can vent that rage. Why is he this way? Because he doesn't know where he is or why he's there. He can't distinguish who is the "enemy" or even why they're the enemy. He knows that someone killed his friend and so the young man kills in return.

The chaos of war, the wasted money, the decimated bodies, the scrambled brains, are vividly portrayed, and when the author uses humor it is very dark indeed. The message seems incongruous coming from such a sunny personality. I wish that I could have stayed in my seat for the Q and A but I was racing to meet my sister in the front row of Bryan Stevenson's talk about his foundation, The Equal Justice Initiative.

Now here is a man whose life's work involves despair, yet he exudes hope from every pore. A Harvard educated lawyer, Stevenson took an internship in Georgia that changed him forever. The criminal justice system in the United States, the death penalty, mass incarceration, and incarceration of juveniles, are all in his sights and if anyone can make a change, I believe, after listening to him speak and watching the audience, that he could be the one. He received the only standing ovation of the day.

His book, "Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption," addresses this country's shameful history of accusing, trying, and sentencing to prison the most vulnerable among us, young, poor, and black. In particular, Stevenson concentrates on the story of Walter McMillian, the victim of corrupt police, judges, and lawyers, who was sentenced to death row for a murder he didn't commit.

 You might think that this kind of travesty is a thing of the past, but you'd be wrong. We Americans jail more people, proportionally, than any other country in the developed world, children, the mentally challenged, and the innocent among them. Stevenson spoke eloquently about some of his most emotional cases and few of us were dry-eyed. He was generous with his time when answering questions and signing books. Here's my sister to prove it.

Cynthia Pease's photo.

Monday, September 7, 2015

First Impressions of the National Book Festival

If anything good came out of the eight-year Bush administration it was librarian Laura's decision to create the National Book Festival! What a glorious celebration of reading and literacy. Watching so many families, of every make and model, thrilling at the chance to meet writers and buy books lifts the heart of this librarian every time. Of course, I'm most proud of the festival that I actually had a hand in - patting my own back now - my own library system's Southwest Florida Reading Festival.

Needless to say, having all the resources of Washington, DC, and the Library of Congress goes a long way to insuring attendance by the finest writers in the land. This year was no exception. The move from the national mall to the Walter Washington Convention center, which saddened me for just a moment or two, has proved to be inspired. Huge ballrooms accommodate the crowds and video will soon be posted on

Louise Erdrich

I had planned my day carefully, fully expecting the women whose writing inspires me, Lousie Erdrich and Marilynne Robinson, to be the pinnacle of the event. Instead, it was the men who shined. Perhaps it was the format, which we've used at our own festival at some authors' request, but it seemed stilted. Many authors do not want the pressure of giving a half hour address and prefer the Q and A, interview approach.

Marilynne Robinson

The interviewers in this case were experienced, thoughtful, and prepared, yet the writers seemed to hold back emotionally. Marie Arana, former editor of the "Washington Post Book World," interviewed Erdrich who received this year's award for the body of her work. Erdrich's genealogical background includes Ojibwe Indian and that native culture informs much of her work. Her latest novel (2012), "The Round House," was a stunning piece of literature which I reviewed here:

Though Arana had to drag it out of her, Erdrich did speak a little bit about some of the wonderful secondary characters who emerged from this novel, also getting her to admit that there is another book about these interesting, complex people forthcoming. Whew! I couldn't help but think that Erdrich hadn't had enough coffee yet.

Robinson on the other hand, was just plain stingy. Ron Charles, who I often mention as one of the finest reviewers working today, also at the "Washington Post," tried valiantly to elicit some kind of emotion from the Pulitzer Prize winner, to the consternation of the audience. He asked several open-ended questions that she shut down with single word answers and at one point, when Charles posited a particularly probing query, Robinson actually said,

"That's a good question."

To which he replied, "Good, because I'm dying up here."

The audience roared in sympathy.

Now I understand that writing is a solitary endeavor. I'm sure that many writers find the required book tours daunting. As introverts, they likely feel uncomfortable touting their books like carnival barkers. I get that. If you read any of Ms. Robinson's incredible works you'll gather that she's hardly an extrovert. Even her writing is quiet. I reviewed her most recent book "Lila," here:

But, if one accepts a speaking engagement, then I believe that person has an obligation to the hundreds of fans who get up early, drive 45 minutes to the metro, spend another half hour on the train, to be inspiring, to be engaging, to be present. And that, unfortunately, was just not the case Saturday.

Tomorrow, though, I'll tell you about the men who knocked my socks off: Phil Klay, Marlon James, Bryan Stephenson, and Viet Than Nguyen, kudos to you!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Girl on the Train

Dear friends, neighbors, and Aunt Jackie. Do I have to apologize for acknowledging that I ended up enjoying this book? I know, we all laughed about it. Who wants to spend time with these people? So many issues, right? Why, oh why, I wondered, has "The Girl on the Train" been on the NY Times bestseller list for six months?

I love psychological suspense even if I did find "Gone Girl" truly distasteful. So once I had rolled along on the train with sad, deluded, alcoholic Rachel for about 100 pages I knew I was in it for the long haul. The reason? Paula Hawkins had me stymied. I didn't figure out where she was taking us until nearly the very end!  I pride myself on my sleuthing skills. My friend Don calls me his DCI - though he's no slouch - because I always peg the murderer when we're watching our BBC mysteries. Not so here.
The Girl on the Train By Paula Hawkins - US Hardcover

(This is the UK version of the cover which I find more exciting.)

Granted, there was some confusion in the  beginning of this novel. Rachel, whose life is a shambles of broken dreams, has lost her husband Tom to the "other woman." Unfortunately Rachel's commute takes her through the neighborhood that once was hers when she and Tom were still together.

Now, as many unhappy people do, Rachel tries to inhabit her former life vicariously through others, in this case, the couple that she sees every morning on her way to London. They look so happy, so in love. They have everything that she's lost. In a proprietary gesture, she names them Jason and Jess. And then Jess disappears.

From here on in Ms. Hawkins, a journalist by trade, does a great job of throwing out red herrings, a psychiatrist who breaks the cardinal patient/doctor rule, a man who seems to know Rachel though she doesn't recognize him. Readers may decide to hold on to these obstacles or to discard them, but they shouldn't act too quickly.

 Hawkins cleverly juggles time and point of view, revealing the story through the voices of three women whose relationships are skewed by their interconnectedness, Rachel, Jess, whose actual name is Megan, and Anna, Tom's new wife and mother of their baby girl. None is fully who she seems. The fun is in deciphering and analyzing.

Critics are comparing Hawkins to Hitchcock and I've read that the novel, her first, has already been optioned by DreamWorks for film. The women's roles have been cast, but not by Brits I'm sorry to say. So, if you couldn't get your head around this book at first, you may want to give it another go. I didn't choose to see "Gone Girl" but I know that curiosity will take me to the theatre to see how Hollywood handles the complexities of this one.