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.

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.

The Paris Wife

The Paris WifeThe Paris Wife by Paula McLain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A three-star average book for me. Interesting enough, and well-researched and written, but not a style of writing (leaning toward romancy chick-lit) that I seek out nor a time and place that I am interested in. I read this because it fit my “wife” titles theme, and the bookclub is reading Hemingway next – an author I have never read. If you enjoy Paris, the 1920s, and biographical fiction this would be a lovely book for you. My overall impression of this doomed marriage is that Hadley was woefully out of her element. She would have made the perfect 1950s housewife with kids, but Hemingway was a man who enjoyed women, drinking, action (bull-fighting), and the bohemian lifestyle of the rich and famous expats of 1920s Paris.

Book description:
Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking, fast-living, and free-loving life of Jazz Age Paris. As Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history and pours himself into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises, Hadley strives to hold on to her sense of self as her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Eventually they find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaA Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Beautiful prose writing, but ultimately a very depressing book. It is the story of war and what it does to ordinary people, and the things they need to do to stay alive, from sex-trafficking to selling out your neighbors to the enemy. The only bright spot is Havaa, but otherwise the plot jumps around in time, I didn’t particularly come to care about any of the characters, and a few days after finishing it, I’m not sure I remember what happened to any of them. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either.

Description: In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded. For Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate.

Read by Colette Whitaker.

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 Man Called Ove

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was an absolute delight. Laugh-out-loud funny, with interesting characters, but it will also tug at your heart. Ove has lost his wife, the love of his life, and all sense of purpose. In his grief and despair, he plans to kill himself, (but only if conditions meets his sense of what is proper). Needless to say, he gets interrupted repeatedly by neighbors needing him for one thing or another. He even becomes something of a local hero when he plans to jump in front of a passing train and ends up rescuing a man who has fallen on the tracks. We alternate between the present day and episodes from Ove’s past that explain how he became the man he is, and he learns to find the man that he WAS.

Description: Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon – the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

Audiobook narrated by George Newbern.

Homegoing

HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 rounded up because I think it is an “important” book. Important to realize that slavery and colonization didn’t just affect the United States, nor is slavery just a white man’s crime, and that there are no easy answers for the lingering effects of war, slavery, poverty, drug use, and discrimination. Also, that the whole notion of race is very artificial. White and black become mixed into both lines of descent. This book is told in alternating short stories following the descendants of two sisters – two sisters who never knew each other – and yet, the sense of family is strong on both sides. I especially liked the character called “Crazy Woman” – crazy because of her dreams where her ancestors spoke to her. She provided the needed link between all the stories, reminding us that whether we know them or not, we are the product of those who have gone before us.

The TV show “Finding Your Roots” has much the same message. We will never know everything about the people in our past, but we can learn bits and pieces, and tell the story of who we are. No matter what tragedies and hardships they went through, they survived. The evidence is that we are here. It may be uncomfortable to read about, it may make us cry, but there’s also a powerful message that there is always the hope of redemption and reconciliation and healing.

The writing itself is beautiful. Hard to believe that this is a debut novel. I predict a great career for Ms. Gyasi. I think it could be read by teens as well as adults, and ought to be required reading in high schools across the country. This will be a classic some day.

Book description: Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

Heart of Darkness

Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found this to be brilliantly descriptive and at the same time completely inscrutable. I listened to it on audio and thought perhaps I had missed too much, but on reading some Cliffs Notes, no, I had gotten all the main plot points. Perhaps audio isn’t the best medium for all the subtle imagery. This is the kind of book that rewards slow reading and reflection. It remains to be seen what the ladies in my book club will make of it. Probably I should have given at least 3 stars. Like Pride and Prejudice, it could become 5 stars, given more exposure to it. That is the nature of a lot of classics, I have found, so don’t be put off by my initial reaction. I think I would have much preferred reading this in high school instead of Lord of the Flies.

Book description: River steamboat captain Charles Marlow has set forth on the Congo in Africa to find the enigmatic European trader Mr. Kurtz. Preceded by his reputation as a brilliant emissary of progress, Kurtz has now established himself as a god among the natives in “one of the darkest places on earth.” Marlow suspects something else of Kurtz: he has gone mad. A reflection on corruptive European colonialism and a journey into the nightmare psyche of one of the corrupted, Heart of Darkness is considered one of the most influential works ever written.

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating and true story told in alternating voices. Well researched and the author made only minor historical adjustments to tell her story. Sarah’s stammer got a little tedious in the audio version. That was an addition by the author, and I’m not really sure what the purpose of it was, except to reinforce the idea that Sarah was also “enslaved,” in a way, by a culture that profited from slavery and did not support the advancement of women. The first half of the book rambled and went on a bit too long. The second half was riveting, but the ending left things up in the air. Perhaps there is more to be told that could become a sequel. Certainly we are still a nation shaped by slavery, and we have still not achieved a world without racism and sexism. If nothing else, our current “President” has shown us just how far we still have to go.

Book description: Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women. On Sarah’s eleventh birthday, she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.