BOOK REVIEWS

Chain of Gold by Cassandra Clare — book review

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“We don’t always love people who deserve it.”

To be honest, I thought I was over Cassandra Clare….and it turns out I was very wrong. There is something about the Shadowhunter world that I find interesting. And over the past ten years or so I have grown fond of it and the characters that inhabit it.
Chain of Gold sees Clare at the top of her game. The Infernal Devices series is my favourite by Clare…and Chain of Gold has the same atmosphere. Clare is great at rendering historical settings and I just loved the way she depicts the beginning of the 20th century.
There is angst, quite a few battles, drama, secrets, a few complicated love hexagons, and a lot of longing.

“Would you like to be a muse?”
“No,” said Cordelia. “I would like to be a hero.”

Cordelia Carstairs is perhaps one of my favourite heroines by Clare. Kind, just, not afraid of calling out her loved ones for their rude behaviour. There are so many other characters and relationships that I really loved. I was particularly fond of the bond between Cordelia and Lucie. The somewhat fraught relationship between Cordelia and Alastair was surprisingly poignant. The romantic relationships, often restrained, were engrossing.
The merry thieves (James and his friends) brought to mind Maggie Stiefvater’s the raven boys. James and Grace’s story had quite a few parallels with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
This book made me laugh out loud, squee in delight, and stay up all night.
If I had to pick a favourite character it would probably be Alastair who is far from perfect but has a wonderful character arc.

I loved the setting (London), Clare’s writing, the atmosphere, the characters, the action, and the various mysteries that pop up in the narrative. I can’t wait to read the next instalment.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel — book review

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To simply define Wolf Hall as being a historical narrative seems unfair. The word ‘historical’ conjures a sense of events that happened a long time ago. Wolf Hall, unlike most historical fiction, struck me for the immediacy and urgency of its narrative. While the events Hilary Mantel writes have occurred nearly half a millennium ago, the world she writes of feels far from stale or antiquated. Readers are made to feel as if Mantel had just plucked us from the 21st century and transported us into the political and religious unrest of the Tudor era.

Mantel breathes new life into the drama that unfounded so many centuries ago.
The novel’s present-tense narrative undoubtedly contributed in making me feel as if the events Mantel was writing of were happening right now. The narrative is not an omniscient one, there is no foreshadowing of what is to come. Throughout the course of this novel we are made to feel alongside Thomas Cromwell and his contemporaries that their future is not yet fixed.

The title of this novel conveys the dangerous atmosphere of Henry’s court. Suspicions run high, everyone seems intent on outwitting and outmanoeuvring his or her opponents, there is a great deal of plotting, quite a few betrayals, and a perpetual sense of unease hangs in the air. We read of a divided nation, a divided court, and of the self-division that occurs within every single character. As the characters wage overt and indirect wars for power and position, readers are presented with a panorama of human vices and follies.

Yet, while the world Mantel writes of is certainly a treacherous one, Wolf Hall contains so much beauty. I was moved by the glimpses of genuine love and vulnerability between certain characters. Thomas Cromwell in particular seems to possess plenty of admirable qualities. It is through his eyes that we often see his surroundings and he always seems to pay attention to all the beautiful textures that enrich his world. From the fabrics of people’s clothings to their appearances and expression. His perceptive eye seems often to pick up on other’s true intents and desires. In spite of the tension between the different ‘players’, there are also surprising moments of empathy and understanding.

It is incredibly just how engaging Mantel’s dialogues were. While I sometimes struggled to keep up with what was being said, or left unsaid, I still found myself captivated by the nuances of the characters’ language. While some are observe rules of civility, others let their passion or greed shape what the say. Each sparring of words is fraught with tension. There are so many clever uses of the English language, so many elegantly veiled threats and well-crafted sentiments. Regardless of their role or position, not one character seems to utter a word in vein.

What perhaps took me time to adjust to was the ‘he’ pronoun. The third point of view narrative does not refer to Thomas Cromwell by his name but by ‘he’. When this happened when Cromwell was speaking to other male characters I found it difficult to follow. My non-British education also proved to be a hindrance (it took me quite some time to figure out who was who).

This is a dense novel that demands its readers full attention. There is much to be admired in Wolf Hall. Mantel’s research, her grasp of the English language, her nuanced, and frequently immoral, characters…yet, reading her novel proved to be a laborious experience. There was so much that went over my head, and while I can see that this is due to my lack of knowledge, I also think that some of her stylistic choices (such as the constant use of ‘he’) lessened my enjoyment of her narrative.

Wolf Hall is a well written and exquisitely intelligent novel in which Mantel presents us with a beautifully intricate tapestry of shifting allegiances.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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The Lying Life of Adults (La vita bugiarda degli adulti) by Elena Ferrante — book review

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“L’amore è opaco come i vetri delle finestre dei cessi.”

(I’m no Ann Goldstein but the above quote can be roughly translated to: “Love is as opaque as the windows of a shit-house”).

In this latest novel by Elena Ferrante, La Vita Bugiarda degli Adulti (or The Lying Life of Adults in its English translation) we are confronted with a narrative that challenges the myth of happy family (in altre parole il mito della ‘famiglia del mulino bianco’).
The novel opens in what could be regarded as the story’s ‘inciting incident’, one that sets off our protagonist on a fraught journey from childhood to adulthood. Set in Naples during the nineties, the very first line of La Vita Bugiarda degli Adulti informs that: “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly” (“Due anni prima di andarsene mio padre disse a mia madre che ero molto brutta”). Our narrator, Giovanna, remembers with painful clarity the effect that these overheard words had on her at the age of twelve. Once heard, they could not be unheard. It is perhaps because this word, ‘ugly’, is uttered by her loving father—a father who used to tell her of how gorgeous (‘bella’) she was—that it has such devastating consequences.
Giovanna, the daughter of two well-educated teachers, who mainly move in intellectual circles and appear to be well-adjusted in life, begins to see her parents through a new lens. Her parents are not part of an invincible and united entity whose main purpose in life is her happiness and wellbeing. Once Giovanna begins to see these ‘cracks’ in their marriage and in their parenting, she begins to resent them for their lies. The word ‘ugly’, her newfound awareness of her parents’ and other peoples’ lies, weigh heavily upon her, so much so that her life seems to take a downward spiral.

A key player in Giovanna’s fracture from her parents is her father’s estranged sister, Aunt Vittoria. When Giovanna starts questioning why she has never met her father’s side of family she unearths a decades old feud between her father and Vittoria. In many ways it is discovering that her father ‘cut off’ Vittoria from his existence deeply perturbs Giovanna. However, as she begins to spend more and more time with Vittoria, she seems to experience some odd sense of satisfaction from the possibility of angering her parents or of damaging their image of her. The more her parents stress Vittoria’s ‘ugly’ personality, the more Giovanna feels compelled to imitate her, modulating her behaviour in a way that makes her rather misanthropic.
Vittoria’s way of existence seems to Giovanna to be diametrically different to the other adults in her life. Unlike her parents and their acquaintances, Vittoria lives in what many consider to be a disreputable area, she gets by working ‘menial’ jobs, she speaks in a strong dialect, and she’s frequently blunt to the point of vulgarity. Vittoria’s mercurial personality, her propensity to hold a grudge, and her endless tirades, reminded me a lot of another anti-intellectual, Emerence from Magda Szabó‘s The Door (their only difference seems to be that Vittoria is religious). Vittoria seems to plant a seed of doubt in her niece’s mind. Is Giovanna’s father the mean spirited man Vittoria makes him out to be? Is he lying to Giovanna? Is everything he told her a lie ?

Giovanna’s identity crisis is dominated by an almost pathological self-hatred. She obsessively checks her face and body, looking for traces of Vittoria’s ‘uglyness’ in herself. Later on she seems almost elated in discovering the ability to say things to hurt others and finds some sort of power in discovering that a lot of older boys find her biting words and those physical attributes she herself hates to be enticing.
This novel focuses on the way in which Giovanna’s teenage years are clouded by bitterness and a general ill-feeling. Her parents, like many other parents, seem to believe that as long as she does well in school, she is fine. Giovanna however has no wish to keep adults’ pretences of happiness, politeness, and decency. She wants to denigrate others as well as herself, she wants to hurt and lie to other people.
Giovanna would not be out of place in a novel by Ottessa Moshfegh. She is egocentric, morbid, and deeply alienated. She is bored by her peers and sick of her parents’ falsities. And while it is clear that she wishes to be an adult, her self-hatred and deep-seated insecurity do not really allow her to mature. More than once readers might find her rage and unhealthy behaviours as signs of adolescent angst. Giovanna however takes herself very seriously: small gestures and or words uttered in distraction can, and often will, have a debilitating effect on her.

While I was reading this novel Ferrante’s writing reminded me more than once of Gustave Flaubert. Their proses give the impression of having being laboured over: each word seems to have been especially chosen and placed in the right position. Also, this novel’s opening lines (where Giovanna overhears her father saying that she’s ugly) seem Madame Bovary
: “How strange,” thought Emma. “The child is so ugly!” (for those who are wondering, the child in question is Emma’s own daughter). I wasn’t surprised to discover that Ferrante’s La frantumaglia mentions this passage: “Now I read Flaubert’s letters, his other books. Every sentence was well shaped, some more than others, but not one—not one ever had for me the devastating force of that mother’s thought: C’est une chose étrange comme cette enfant est laide!
Time and again the narrator returns to these words. Her fear of being ugly, that is of having a disagreeable if not bad personality, plagues her during her teenager years. While at times Ferrante could be a bit tedious (especially when we hear time and again of how horrible Giovanna feels or believes herself to be) I was somewhat fascinated by her narrator’s self-loathing diatribes. Ferrante manages to depict the way in which Giovanna is affected by each one of her negative emotions or thoughts, paying incredible attention to the nuances that accompany these complex feelings. Giovanna often feels many things all at once. Her self-hatred is often accompanied by a sense of self-satisfaction; when she speaks cruel words to her mother she feels both empowered and vaguely disgusted.
Ferrante is almost meticulous in the way she identifies and describes Giovanna’s various states of mind. Her Italian is simply captivating and I often found myself in awe of her word choices, her use of repetition, alliteration, and specific tenses.
The fluidity of her writing distracted me from Giovanna’s overwhelmingly negative worldview. Still, I can’t say that Ferrante’s writing completely makes up for her rather uneventful story. Giovanna seems to go into frenzies over the smallest things. While most readers are aware that teenagers often tend to ‘magnify’ certain events, they might find Giovanna’s tendency to think and feel in extremes and her perpetual state of self-torment to be rather testing. And while Ferrante’s writing is strikingly ambivalent, eloquently crisp, simultaneously expressive and subtle , there were certain passages that seemed rather self-indulgent. While for the most part Giovanna’s exploration of her sexuality struck me for its realism, the way in which she describes male bodies seemed unnecessarily apathetic. Ferrante has the tendency to describes male genitalia as if it was an abstract sculpture. Giovanna never uses the more common Italian word for penis (or vagina for that matter) resorting instead to old-fashioned terms (the story is set in the nineties, not the fifties).

This is a rather heavy going novel. Our main character spends most of the narrative hating herself or others. The bitterness, loathing, repugnance, and envy experienced by Giovanna, as well as her solipsism, her growing aversion towards her parents, her general ill-disposition, and her frequent lapses into bouts of truculence, make her rather hard-going, if not downright unsympathetic, character.
While Ferrante is precise when she articulates these painful and disruptive teenage years, her characters could have been more fleshed out (they all seem to play the one role in Giovanna’s life: the parents are liars, Vittoria is chaotic).
Still, if you are interested in reading of a realistic passage into adulthood and/or you are a Ferrante devotee you might find La Vita Bugiarda degli Adulti to be a deeply compelling read. Giovanna’s narrative is simmering with barely concealed rage: towards our parents’ lies, their expectations, their hypocrisy, their falsehoods, and their very vulnerability.
Ferrante is unflinching in her portrayal of Giovanna’s early adolescence and provides a context to her existential malaise and fury. Through her incisive prose she chronicles Giovanna’s despair, her paranoia, her crippling self-loathing, her despair (over her changing body and her family’s circumstances), and her obscure, wilful, and frankly perplexing states of minds. As Giovanna becomes aware of her own limitations and of her own misperceptions, she seeks to protect herself by embracing a more ephemeral existence. The ending of this novel is almost jarring and does not feel as cathartic as Ferrante seems to imply it is.
Nevertheless I probably would pick up another novel by Ferrante.

Due righe in italiano:
Premettendo che il mio italiano ormai è stato anglicizzato (insomma, si è arrugginito) volevo esprimere un attimo il mio parere riguardo La Vita Bugiarda degli Adulti. Ferrante è una scrittrice eccezionale, su questo non ci sono dubbi. Ammiro davvero il suo modo di scrivere, i termini che usa (come e dove li usa). Purtroppo i suoi personaggi erano eccessivamente sgradevoli. I ragazzi, con l’eccezione di Roberto, erano tutti uguali (capisco che ci sono gli ormoni in balla ma potevano avere delle personalità un poco più complesse). I genitori di Giovanna e zia Vittoria finiscono ai margini della storia. Roberto e la sua ragazza erano blandi. Giovanna mi ha dato abbastanza sui nervi (nella sua testa si sussegue una smania dopo l’altra).
Comunque Ferrante scrive in un maniera davvero magnetica.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop — book review

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“Russian literature deserves more love letters written by total idiots. For too long it has belonged to very clever people who want to keep it to themselves.”

Although The Anna Karenina Fix is certainly written in an engaging style, Viv Groskop’s humour, which mostly consists in her resorting to a forced comedic ‘light’ tone when discussing serious subjects, lessened my overall reading experience.
In her introduction Groskop writes that:

“But first, an important disclaimer. This is not an intellectual book. It is not a work of primary research. It is not an academic thesis on Russian literature. It’s not supposed to be the last word in interpreting Russian literature. […] Instead it’s a guide to surviving life using some of the clues left in these great classics. It’s an exploration of the answers these writers found to life’s questions, big and small. And it’s a love letter to some favourite books which at one point helped me to find my identity and buoyed me up when I lost it again.”

…which is fair enough. However I don’t entirely agree with her claim that when reading a book “However you get it, you’ve got it right”. Of course different people will have different opinions or impressions of a book’s subjects and themes but the way she phrases struck me as both vaguely patronising and equivocal.
Groskop interweaves her own personal experiences when discussing her chosen authors and their work. The parallels she draws between herself and these writers seemed for the most part fitting. She doesn’t paint herself as the hero or heroine of the anecdotes she writes of, and uses a self-deprecating sort of humour to make light of her struggles to reconcile herself with a culture that is not her own. By drawing on her time as a student in Russia and by examining her relationship to the Russian language, Russian traditions, and Russian people, Groskop does present us with an intimate and compelling depiction of this country.
Complementing her ‘outsider’ perspective of Russia are the biographies of various Russian authors. While she sprinkles quite a few fun anecdotes from their lives, she seems to focus on their individual relationships to Russian and the values that emerge from their works (which as she remarks can go at odds to their own way of life).
Readers who have only read a few of these Russian authors (for example I’ve only read Tolstoy, Bulgakov, and Dostoevsky) might find The Anna Karenina Fix more entertaining than those who are already well acquainted with these classics of the Russian literature. Had I been better versed in the works and lives of these writers I’m not sure I would have found The Anna Karenina Fix very informative or insightful. As it is, Groskop did spark my interest in the works of Gogol, Akhmatova, and Turgenev.
Part of me wishes that Groskop had not revolved her analysis/discussions of these books on these novel’s alleged ‘life lessons’. The ‘self-help’ aspect of The Anna Karenina Fix seemed a bit unnecessary. In a certain way Groskop seems to be moralising these books in a way that almost goes against her initial claims (that these books can be appreciated without attributing to them clever messages and such things).
The ‘life lessons’ themselves were rather obvious:
Anna Karenina = “life is, essentially, unknowable”
Eugene Onegin = “Avoid hubris. Stay humble. Keep an eye out for self-defeating behaviours. Don’t duel.”
From chapter six she also begins to talk in terms of hedgehogs and foxes (from Isaiah Berlin’s essay titled The Hedgehog and the Fox) which didn’t strike me as being an incredibly profound analogy and she returns to this hedgehog/fox problem time and again…
Groskop’s humour was very hit or miss. At times her digressions, which usually appeared in brackets, were spot on funny. For the most part however these asides seemed out of place and forced (“I am not saying that Tolstoy is Oprah Winfrey with a beard […] Well, I am saying that a bit. And in any case, it’s just fun to think of the two of them together.”). Also this happens to be the second self-proclaimed work of ‘light’ unpretentious criticism that mentions popular culture one too many times (I am so sick and tired of the Kardashians).
At times she seems to play into this role of ‘amateur’ critic when in actuality she happens to have two university degrees in Russian and can speak fluent Russian. Lastly her constant digs against Nabokov were childish. We get it, the man was punctilious and big headed…can we move on?
All in all I would recommend this only to those who are thinking of reading more Russian literature but have yet to read the classics as The Anna Karenina Fix makes for a readable and quick introduction to prominent Russian authors.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars