My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1)My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really struggled with this book, and couldn’t wait to be done with it. My two stars is not necessarily an indication of the book’s merit, but reflects that it is not for me. I listened to the audiobook, and while it would have been better to read it and be able to take notes so I could keep track of all the confusing characters, on the other hand I would have abandoned a print book. I finished this only because I’m a captive audience in the car, and it was for my book club, so I give those books extra effort. So the main characters are Lena and Lila, but that wasn’t confusing enough, so Lila is also called Lina. Then there is her brother Rino, and another boy Nino, and you get the idea. Lina, I mean Lila, is not very likeable – she’s rough, aggressive, unconventional – but unquestionably brilliant. Their friendship is very passive aggressive. Lena admires Lila, and is plagued by massive insecurity and believing anything she can do, Lila can do better. But Lila is doomed by her family’s poverty to cut short her education and work in the family shoe business. Nevertheless, she continues to push Lena in her studies, and confides toward the end of the book, that Lena is the brilliant one. But is it friendship or rivalry that drives this relationship? Together, the two girls navigate adolescence, male relationships, family rivalries that sometimes escalate into violence, and try and figure out how to make their dreams come true. Lena continues to pursue education as her path to becoming a successful writer, while Lila settles on marriage to a relatively well-off grocer to provide her the freedom to put her creative energies into the shoe business. There is no closure at the end of the book. The author considers the 4 volumes of this quartet to be one book, but I just don’t have the interest in pursuing 3 more installments.
[Translated from the Italian Ann Goldstein.]
[Audiobook narrated by Hillary Huber.]

Book description: A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila, who represent the story of a nation and the nature of friendship. The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.

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Publish & Perish

Publish & Perish (Ben Reese, #1)Publish & Perish by Sally Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was one of my random reads from drawing slips at the beginning of the year. I drew three slips from my “new series” pile. This was on my TBR because later titles in the series were take-offs on Jane Austen titles, an old “theme” that still gets my attention. And the main character has a Welsh last name – Ben Reese – so that got my attention too, and the next book in the series takes place in Scotland, and he is an archivist interested in rare books, coins, paintings, and ancient documents so that all appealed to me.

It’s an old series, published in 1997, but set in 1960. Reviews have compared the author to Dorothy Sayers. I think that’s a stretch but it does have something of that flavor revolving around academia. It started a bit slow, but it grew on me. I’ve already started the second book Pride & Predator. Although marketed as “Christian” fiction, I didn’t find anything off-putting here. He talks about God, and ponders some theological/existential questions but there is nothing pushing his views (or the author’s views) on anyone else. Nothing incompatible with my own decidedly liberal views.

The set up for a series is okay – we get to know the main character, but there is not much in the way of character development for anyone else. The plot moves quite slowly and is mostly introspective until the very end. More thoughtful than action, with some subtle humor. Still, I liked Ben Reese enough to want to read more and find out more about him and what makes him tick.

Book description: Publish And Perish, the first Ben Reese novel, begins in 1960 at an academic research institute near Oxford, England, though the story grows out of tangled relationships at the small Ohio university where Ben Reese is an archivist – an expert in antiquities, in coins and paintings and the dating of ancient texts. He’s also a thirty-seven year old veteran of WWII; a behind-the-lines reconnaissance expert who captured German command posts across France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany until he was stopped by a Tiger Tank.

His war experiences aren’t something he talks about easily. He’s a quiet man, who lives close to the country, and rides his horse, and enjoys the accomplishments of long dead craftsmen, while he tries to get over the death of his wife. It isn’t until his closest friend dies, minutes after phoning Ben in England, that Ben has to rely again on the characteristics that kept him alive from Omaha Beach to the Saarbrucken Forest. Ben looks under a lot of academic rocks at the politics, prejudice and ambition that had to be navigated even then by those with unpopular opinions. That leads the killer to come after Ben with a calculated brutality that takes Ben back to the war, and makes the question of his own survival more than a matter of academic interest.

Caroline: Little House, Revisited

Caroline: Little House, RevisitedCaroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lovely writing, though occasionally overdone and repetitive. It brings back memories of reading the original Little House books and watching the TV show which aired when I was in college. My quibbles are minor – it was difficult for me to see this Caroline as anyone other than Karen Grassle, meek and mild and never ever getting angry. She seemed far too good to be true. It was stated that Laura and Mary were 3 and 5, but I’ve been around enough 3 year olds to know that they are not this verbal and articulate. They seemed more like 5 and 7. The first half of the book reminded me strongly of the Little House books with many of the same events I remembered, and I wondered if there wasn’t going to be more of the “real” Caroline. The second half was better in that regard, and the author’s note at the end was helpful. This book could stand alone without any knowledge of the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It might even be better without having that reference point.

Audiobook narrated by Elizabeth Marvel.

Book description: In this novel authorized by Little House Heritage Trust, Sarah Miller vividly recreates the beauty, hardship, and joys of the frontier in a dazzling work of historical fiction, a captivating story that illuminates one courageous, resilient, and loving pioneer woman as never before–Caroline Ingalls, “Ma” in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House books. In the frigid days of February, 1870, Caroline Ingalls and her family leave the familiar comforts of the Big Woods of Wisconsin and the warm bosom of her family, for a new life in Kansas Indian Territory. Packing what they can carry in their wagon, Caroline, her husband Charles, and their little girls, Mary and Laura, head west to settle in a beautiful, unpredictable land full of promise and peril.

The Outcasts of Time

The Outcasts of TimeThe Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A little slow to start, and the time travel IS the plot. The joy of this book is in the observations, social commentary, philosophical and existential musings of our main character John of Wrayment (“Everyman”). The author knows history well, and each vignette through history is well done. Although material progress is made through the centuries, one might despair that the human condition does not seem to have kept pace. It would seem that humanity as a whole has not evolved at all. At the risk of a slight spoiler, I’m going to say that it was evident quite early on that John was meeting his descendants as he traveled. We could see his legacy in their words and in their kindness even if John could not. I did wonder that language was not more of a problem after two or three hundred years, but that would have interfered with the story.

Book description: With the country in the grip of the Black Death, brothers John and William fear that they will shortly die and suffer in the afterlife. But as the end draws near, they are given an unexpected choice: either to go home and spend their last six days in their familiar world, or to search for salvation across the forthcoming centuries – living each one of their remaining days ninety-nine years after the last. As they find themselves in stranger and stranger times, the reader travels with them, seeing the world through their eyes as it shifts through disease, progress, enlightenment, and war. But their time is running out―can they do something to redeem themselves before the six days are up?

Virgins

Virgins (Outlander, #0.5)Virgins by Diana Gabaldon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Diana’s usual repartee and humor here, but at 79 pages (Kindle version) I didn’t feel it gave me any added insight into the world of Outlander. Jamie and Ian are both quite young here and I had trouble connecting these characters to their older selves. I could picture Ian as Young Ian (John Bell) from the TV show, but I couldn’t picture Jamie at all. It’s a fun, somewhat erotic romp and nothing more. No particular lessons learned, or events that might shape later character. It does show how well educated Jamie was. But able to speak and understand Hebrew? Really?

Technically, this is a prequel, but it isn’t necessary to be read first. Start with Outlander and get to know the characters first.

Book description: Mourning the death of his father and gravely injured at the hands of the English, Jamie Fraser finds himself running with a band of mercenaries in the French countryside, where he reconnects with his old friend Ian Murray. Both are nursing wounds; both have good reason to stay out of Scotland; and both are still virgins, despite several opportunities to remedy that deplorable situation with ladies of easy virtue. But Jamie’s love life becomes infinitely more complicated—and dangerous—when fate brings the young men into the service of Dr. Hasdi, a Jewish gentleman who hires them to escort two priceless treasures to Paris. One is an old Torah; the other is the doctor’s beautiful granddaughter, Rebekah, destined for an arranged marriage. Both Jamie and Ian are instantly drawn to the bride-to-be—but they might be more cautious if they had any idea who they’re truly dealing with.

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is an autobiography by a young man from a very dysfunctional working-class family in Ohio. He survived a family culture of violence, broken relationships, and addiction due to the steady influence of his “hillbilly” grandparents who instilled the importance of education, and to a stint in the Marines which taught him self-respect and self-discipline. It is a book which is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. I gave it 4-stars for being entertaining and inspiring, reflective and insightful, but I would want to read more before assigning his experience to a whole cultural region. He is a generation removed from Appalachia, and surely not everyone there comes from dysfunctional families. So if you are looking to understand the results of the 2016 election, his political and economic analysis is superficial at best. The issues that he faced and overcame are not unique to Appalachia.

Book description: Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for more than forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually one of their grandchildren would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that J.D.’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. With piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history.

The Nick Adams Stories

The Nick Adams StoriesThe Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked these more than I thought I would. Especially the stories where Nick is a child. Some of the violence and macho-ness I can do without, but I loved his descriptions of nature. Obviously Hemingway was a keen observer of life in general, and his love of the outdoors, hunting, and fishing comes through in his descriptions of trout and animals and nature. Hemingway must have had a love/hate relationship with his father. He leaves much to the imagination, which I think is a feature of his style, and it was revolutionary at the time. I think it must have been in nature that Hemingway most allowed himself to drop his guard and let his inner poet shine through. Those glimpses are illuminating, but ultimately I think Hemingway is not for me.

Book description:
From one of the 20th century’s greatest voices comes the complete volume of his short stories featuring Nick Adams, Ernest Hemingway’s memorable character, as he grows from child to adolescent to soldier, veteran, writer, and parent—a sequence closely paralleling the events of Hemingway’s life. The complete collection of Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams two dozen stories are gathered here in one volume, grouped together according to the major time periods in the protagonist’s life. Based on Hemingway’s own experieces as a boy and as a member of the Red Cross ambulance corps in World War I. The collection follows Nick’s life as a child to parent, along with soldier, veteran, and writer and feature some of Hemingway’s earliest work such as “Indian Camp” and some of his best known short stories, including “Big Two-Hearted River.” Perfect for longtime Hemingway fans and as an introduction to one of America’s most famous writers.