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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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.

The Language of Flowers

The Language of FlowersThe Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was not at all what I was expecting. With no time period mentioned in the description, I was expecting a historical novel – Victorian or early 20th century. I would put this in the ’60s/70s or perhaps 70s/80s since there is mention of a microwave oven, but no cell phones or computers. Hard to say for sure. I was also expecting a love story, and it really was more about coming of age and dealing with a painful past. It alternates between Victoria at age 9-10, and age 18-20 something. It is also about an older woman, and her quest for reconciliation with her estranged sister, and what it means to be a family. Themes of foster care, abuse and recovery, motherhood, post-partum depression, worthiness, and family. A solid three stars, but not outstanding. Parts of it dragged for me but all things considered it was a good read, and would be a good choice for book clubs.

Description: The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life. And when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

A Fall of Marigolds

A Fall of MarigoldsA Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars rounded up to 4. I liked the overall plot – two women, two tragedies a century apart, lots of parallels between the two, enough psychological drama to make it interesting, and the scarf to tie the two together. My problem with books like this, similar to At the Water’s Edge which I happened to finish the same day, is that it isn’t quite historical fiction – there just isn’t enough meat to it. The dual time frame is a plot device, nothing more. And it isn’t quite a love story. Basically it is about love, and loss, and moving on. The Welsh character could have been any nationality – it is inconsequential to the story. But since I am the “Welsh” Bookworm, I will add a little more about that. Andrew Gwynn and his brother Nigel: being American myself I can’t speak with any certainty, but those are not common Welsh forenames and especially for the turn of the century. The way the characters are written they are very English – despite some doubt about whether or not Andrew speaks English when we first meet him. There is also an inscription to his sons written by the father (Alistair Henry Gwynn) in the pattern book given to Andrew written in English. I certainly would have expected it to be in Welsh. But then Clara wouldn’t have been able to read it. Minor points certainly, and didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the story.

So bottom line, a light, fluffy read, (despite the nature of the tragedies that frame the story.) A bit too “romancy” and not enough historical details to be a 5-star read. A good summer beach read.

Book decription: September 1911. On Ellis Island in New York Harbor, nurse Clara Wood cannot face returning to Manhattan, where the man she loved fell to his death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Then, while caring for a fevered immigrant whose own loss mirrors hers, she becomes intrigued by a name embroidered onto the scarf he carries…and finds herself caught in a dilemma that compels her to confront the truth about the assumptions she’s made. Will what she learns devastate her or free her?

September 2011. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, widow Taryn Michaels has convinced herself that she is living fully, working in a charming specialty fabric store and raising her daughter alone. Then a long-lost photograph appears in a national magazine, and she is forced to relive the terrible day her husband died in the collapse of the World Trade Towers…the same day a stranger reached out and saved her. Will a chance reconnection and a century-old scarf open Taryn’s eyes to the larger forces at work in her life?

Circling the Sun

Circling the SunCircling the Sun by Paula McLain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This took me a long time to finish, because it kept getting interrupted by other things with time limits that I had to read. I learned a lot about Beryl Markham’s life prior to her flight across the Atlantic Ocean, but then I knew very little to begin with. Anything to do with aviation was mostly an afterthought. The epilogue felt tacked on and wasn’t necessary at all. The last chapter had such a great ending line – it really should have ended there. It’s a good story – as fiction – but the over-romanticization (is that a word?) of her writing makes me doubt that her Beryl is true to life. It does make me want to learn more, and perhaps read Beryl’s own book.

Otherwise, I found myself frustrated by shallow characters. At times Beryl seemed impossibly naïve and other times she was given a wisdom and grace that was beyond her years and experience. All of the men seemed to be out to take advantage of her, and perhaps that was true. Certainly she made some poor life choices. On the other hand, here was a woman who refused to give up, who refused to be defined by the conventions of her society. In that regard, she seemed more like the native Africans that she grew up with, and it surely had a huge impact on her personality. I am not a fan of colonialism, and while many of the English here seem dissolute and selfish, she also over-romanticizes the native culture. So enjoy this book for its poetic writing and if you like romances you’ll probably like this a lot, although the actual romance here doesn’t have a happy ending. But the romance does serve as the catalyst for Beryl’s future life as an aviator. A good story. I’m just not sure it is a “true” one.

Book description: Circling the Sun brings to life a fearless and captivating woman—Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa. Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding of nature’s delicate balance. But even the wild child must grow up, and when everything Beryl knows and trusts dissolves, she is catapulted into a string of disastrous relationships. Ultimately, it’s the ruggedly charismatic Denys Finch Hatton who helps Beryl navigate the uncharted territory of her own heart. The intensity of their love reveals Beryl’s truest self and her fate: to fly.

 

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review may contain spoilers……..

I liked this book a lot, but I didn’t LOVE it. Definitely literary fiction – characterized by the writing rather than plot or characters. Lots of rich, beautiful, detailed descriptions about anything and everything. Plotwise, it constantly moves back and forth in time and point of view which may be distracting/discouraging for some readers. I didn’t have a problem with that, although occasionally I would find myself wondering “who is this character again?” It builds up to being (or could have been) a great love story, but when the two main characters finally meet, it is late in the tale and all too brief. So that was something of a let-down for me. Also, the plot device of the valuable diamond – the story of the curse never really went anywhere. The diamond was just another “character” to be followed through the story. You could almost think of this book as a collection of short stories. Some of the characters were revisited at the end so you knew what happened to them. Others were dropped and never reappeared, or their appearance in the first place was just part of the description, but not really relevant to the plot. So bottom line – beautiful writing, lots of gaps in the plot, and an ending that made you wonder what the point was of all that the characters went through.

Book description: Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel. In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

The Boston Girl

The Boston GirlThe Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review contains spoilers!

I enjoyed listening to this story of a woman growing up and finding a career and love in the 1920s, but I’m struggling to say anything much about it. It is written as an 85-year-old being interviewed by her 22-year-old grand-daughter. You would think she is much younger. Addie keeps it upbeat and optimistic. She never calls her sister’s death a suicide, for example, attributing it to being clumsy in the kitchen, (unless I’m reading more into it than there was). Topics like working in sweatshops, World War I, the Spanish flu, the Depression, and discrimination of Jews and immigrants are minimized. She skips almost completely over World War II and the Holocaust, which must have impacted the Jewish community even in the U.S. She fell into a wonderful career and married a wonderful man, and it’s all a little too good to be true. So consider this an uplifting, even inspirational tale, told by someone who could be your own grandmother, or great-grandmother. My own grandmother wrote short stories about herself and her ancestors for her grandchildren that sound very much like this, just on a much smaller scale.

Book description: Addie Baum is The Boston Girl, the spirited daughter of an immigrant Jewish family, born in 1900 to parents who were unprepared for America and its effect on their three daughters. Growing up in the North End of Boston, then a teeming multicultural neighborhood, Addie’s intelligence and curiosity take her to a world her parents can’t imagine—a world of short skirts, movies, celebrity culture, and new opportunities for women. Addie wants to finish high school and dreams of going to college. She wants a career and to find true love. From the one-room tenement apartment she shared with her parents and two sisters, to the library group for girls she joins at a neighborhood settlement house, to her first, disastrous love affair, to finding the love of her life, eighty-five-year-old Addie recounts her adventures with humor and compassion for the naïve girl she once was.