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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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.

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.

Plague Land

Plague Land (Somershill Manor Mystery, #1)Plague Land by S.D. Sykes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Setting: England, Kent, Somershill (fictional manor and rural village)
Time: 1350, two years after the plague has ravaged the country killing half the population.

Chapter One: “It was a hot summer’s morning in June of this year when I first saw them – advancing towards Somershill like a band of ragged players. I would tell you they were a mob, except their numbers were so depleted that a gaggle would be a better description. And I would tell you I knew their purpose in coming here, but I had taken to hiding in the manor house and keeping my nose in a book. At their head was John of Cornwall, a humourless clenched-fist of a man, whose recent appointment to parish priest rested purely upon his still being alive.”

Criticized for being too modern in tone, it was a style that worked for me. It gave a breezy, humorous counterbalance to the dark and macabre time period. Oswald is an anomaly in his time – an atheist and rational thinker with a tendency towards what today would be Zen Buddhism. As the author pointed out in a historical note “there is evidence of unbelief from those times – though it is difficult to gauge the true extent of this, as you were likely to have kept any scepticism to yourself. But even if doubts were rare, impiety certainly was not.” It worked for me, and I think actually makes the Middle Ages perhaps a little more accessible to modern readers. The historical details were otherwise spot on, with all the filth, superstition, and brutality. The black humor and over-the-top characters made me think of a television sit-com. I think it would translate very well to film or television. The mystery was satisfying, even if Oswald seems a bit slow at times, with a nice twist at the end. I definitely look forward to more in the series.

Reread, 2018, audiobook narrated by Shaun Grindell.

Book description: Oswald de Lacy was never meant to be the Lord of Somershill Manor. Despatched to a monastery at the age of seven, sent back at seventeen when his father and two older brothers are killed by the Plague, Oswald has no experience of running an estate. He finds the years of pestilence and neglect have changed the old place dramatically, not to mention the attitude of the surviving peasants. Yet some things never change. Oswald’s mother remains the powerful matriarch of the family, and his sister Clemence simmers in the background, dangerous and unmarried. Before he can do anything, Oswald is confronted by the shocking death of a young woman, Alison Starvecrow. The ambitious village priest claims that Alison was killed by a band of demonic dog-headed men. Oswald is certain this is nonsense, but proving it—by finding the real murderer—is quite a different matter. Every step he takes seems to lead Oswald deeper into a dark maze of political intrigue, family secrets and violent strife.

Espresso Tales

Espresso Tales (44 Scotland Street, #2)Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another reread for me, audiobook narrated by Robert Ian Mackenzie. Just as delightful as the first time!

Book Description (from Amazon.com)
Back are all our favorite denizens of a Georgian townhouse in Edinburgh. Bertie the immensely talented six year old is now enrolled in kindergarten, and much to his dismay, has been clad in pink overalls for his first day of class. Bruce has lost his job as a surveyor, and between admiring glances in the mirror, is contemplating becoming a wine merchant. Pat is embarking on a new life at Edinburgh University and perhaps on a new relationship, courtesy of Domenica, her witty and worldly-wise neighbor. McCall Smith has much in store for them as the brief spell of glorious summer sunshine gives way to fall a season cursed with more traditionally Scottish weather.