Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sad Parting of the Ways

My Brilliant FriendMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was a sad day when I finished My Brilliant Friend, which unstintingly documents the narrator Elena's intense relationship, starting when they were both six years old, with her neighbor Lila.  Although the two girls are distinctively drawn, they resemble one person divided into soul and body. Elena is the part of the self who used education to escape a lower class neighborhood in post World War II Naples, and Lila, the physical and naturally intelligent self, a ravishing Sofia Loren-type beauty who did the best she could to master her surroundings.

Death and abuse are everywhere.  In these desperate conditions Elena is always convinced that Lila is better than she is in everything.  The boys in the neighborhood share Elena's enthusiasm for Lila.  Once she develops, all the boys are mad for Lila, while Elena is hidden behind ugly glasses and acne.  Lila not only gets Elena to learn the Greek alphabet before school starts (Lila is no longer a  student), she edits an essay that Elena submits to a little journal.  When the novel ends with Lila's wedding (I had expected her literal death, not her figurative death) there is a rare glimpse that perhaps Lila is not so special -- or perhaps she was special but trapped.

Ferrante writes in a spare, ironic style reminiscent of the best Italian writers, Verga for tragic realism and Pavese and Levi for existential questions about the self and other.


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Lonely Negative Vote

The Retrospective: Translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman. by A.B. YehoshuaThe Retrospective: Translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman. by A.B. Yehoshua by Abraham B. Yehoshua
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Spoiler alert: thumbs way down

Yair Moses, a successful and unctuously polite septuagenarian Israeli film director, is invited to Santiago de Campostela along with Ruth, the star of many of his films with whom he has an ambiguous sexual relationship, for a retrospective of the very early films he had worked on with a former student named Trigano with whom Yair has had a painful break.  In the Spanish hotel room he shares chastely with Ruth Yair is immediately drawn to a painting of Roman Charity, a young woman nursing her captive father through prison bars.  Yair had excised the final scene based on this painting from one of his films because it was too disturbing to Ruth, and he spends the rest of the story studying the painting, acting out a confession of his aesthetic crimes with a willing priest, trying to re-live the actual settings of his films, and finally, in order to regain the friendship of the angry Trigano, having himself photographed as the old man in the painting.

There are many problems with the novel.  First, its lack of originality: as A. B. must know, the old man being nursed by his daughter is the final scene in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.  Second, the pseudo-Biblical style of the narrative is creaky: A.B. uses epithets rather than describing characters.  When he does describe Spanish dining rooms, their walls are usually hung with copper pots.  At one point, as if to indicate that Yair is slipping into senility, unable to separate the present from the past or "art" from "reality," the narrative falls into the second person. Third, there is too much discussion of Yair's fear of death and of how old most of the other characters are.  There is a lot of ink spent on Yair's hearing aids and his proclivity to urinate out of doors, like a dog.  I felt as if I were in an old-folks home surrounded by grizzly navel-gazers.

But how does an old novelist come to terms with the fact that he does not have enough time to tell all his stories?  I imagine A.B. working in a room whose walls are covered with story ideas, mostly well worn Israeli urban legends; using the structure of a film retrospective allows A. B. to play films of these corny stories with Yair and Ruth making a lot of noise as they watch the films, and with Trigano later screaming out his anger at how Yair messed with his screenplays. The novel in the end is long and self-indulgent.  As a seventy-year-old, I am qualified to judge!


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Nearly Loathsome

The Mystery of Mercy Close (Walsh Family, #5)The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Mystery of Mercy Close is a hybrid, part stand-up schtick, part mock-u-mentary of a boy band reunion, shamelessly padded with sexual and madzer details, seamlessly unsatisfying eye candy for the fans.  I did not quite loathe it.


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Gothic Take on Mont Saint Michel's History and Present

The Angel's PromiseThe Angel's Promise by Frédéric Lenoir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Over the top Gothic tale with two strands, the medieval romance of a monk and his forbidden love for a Celtic healer whose story appeared in a childhood dream to a modern-day archeologist whose life's work becomes uncovering the pagan past of the abbey of Mont Saint Michel. Lots of historical detail embellishes a somewhat creaky but absorbing mystery. With its large cast of tormented and weird characters, torture scenes, revenants, piles of corpses,  and creepy subterranean settings, the novel would make a satisfying opera.


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Irritating Intro to City Plan of Paris

Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern CityParis Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City by Stephane Kirkland
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Interesting, poorly written, and frustratingly without photos and drawings, strange for a book about city planning.  Despite observations like this editorial beep describing Empress Eugenie, "She had many qualities," Paris Reborn, which originated from Napoleon III's color plan, not the super bureaucrat Haussmann's, prepared me to appreciate Paris for what it still is today, the first modern city.


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Itchiest Turtleneck Imaginable

Mystery GuestMystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This short tormented account of a not yet famous young author invited by a former lover to a birthday party for a contemporary artist he does not know somehow manages to grapple with huge questions like how life imitates art (Mrs Dalloway, the Odyssey, Ulysses) and small (how it feels to be a jerk wearing a turtleneck who buys a bottle of vintage Margaux to impress said contemporary artist).  Reading like an auto written rant by  Tom Wolfe edited down to a mere reed, The Mystery Guest  is screamingly funny and absurdly French.


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Murders Most Noir

FataleFatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Blacker than noir, Fatale features a mysterious young woman who arrives in the Inappropriately named port of Bleville and infiltrates its upper crust. Mayhem ensues as it turns out that Aimee has mastered not only bridge but other games as well.


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