In one of her books, Elena Ferrante references Olivia, a novel published anonymously by Dorothy Strachey in 1949, and so I read it next. It is a slow short novel that burns brightly at the very end. I wondered why it’s not a more well-known book, but I think the subject matter and age difference between “Olivia” and her teacher are key reasons. At times it felt like somewhat of a reverse Lolita. Interestingly, this novel was written several years prior.
In the end, while I don’t necessarily recommend it as your typical light read, I do think the book has literary merit on the grounds that it seems to capture a Freudian influence and understanding of the world. Many books and authors were doing something similar at the time, and it, no doubt, had an impact on art today.
After watching some of the recent interviews with Harry and Meghan, my curiosity was piqued to read Spare by Prince Harry. For those who have been following along, this is a great book. Fans of Princess Diana will appreciate it too. The book effectively captures his tone. It offers the kind of inside look that audiences never get access to. Prince Harry bravely takes up vulnerable and taboo topics in the book. He openly admits to his bad behavior. He openly admits to his anxiety and depression.
Where this book is a triumph is in its ability to show the royals as real, fallible, human people. Of course logically we know this, but due to tabloids, celebrities often get distilled down to products for consumption rather than treated as real people. I appreciated that about the book.
Strangely, I sort of identified with some aspects of Prince Harry’s experience. He writes about visiting the site of his mother’s death years later and mentions that its the first time he’d been to Paris, but I assumed he would have traveled to all of the world’s major cities frequently. His visit was in close proximity to my own first visit to Paris. But for me, it was more understandable. I was raised in a rural location without a lot of firsthand experience with the outside world. I could read about it, but I’d never actually, for example, walked the streets of Paris. It’s great, but it’s also a somewhat isolated experience. Prince Harry’s experience seems somewhat similar. While school and studies take up a big part of his life, another big part of his life seems to have been safely sitting alone in castles.
It’s clear that Prince Harry is traumatized by the loss of his mother at the hands of paparazzi. It’s clear that the trauma informs his own reaction to the paparazzi today, and that’s made even more evident in his drive to protect his new family. While others may say that he should ignore it, or that by recounting these baseless stories in his book, he’s just giving them more air time. There’s no accounting for a broken heart and how it will make you feel and what it will make you do.
I am sympathetic to Prince Harry, but I don’t see eye to eye with him on everything. I don’t need to. In fact, challenging the audience in these areas is probably part of what makes him so compelling. I am more sympathetic to the circumstances of the other members of the royal family. I think they’re in both a really privileged situation and a really limiting one as well. As is made clear in Spare, the royals are, again, real people with all of their own strengths and challenges, living within a limited, but also very privileged world.
My Body by Emily Ratajkowski is a unique book–part expose on the seedy world of modeling, fashion, Hollywood, and fame, and part memoir, with deep personal introspection. In the book, Ratajkowski, whom I was vaguely aware of as a model, but now a fan and follower on Instagram, shares the story of her rise to fame, known for her perfect body. But, she’s also critic of the abuse she suffers at the hands of both the industry and the larger culture. She’s a critic of herself too, acknowledging stories when she was too naive, too confused, too scared, or too complacent to do better. It’s a complicated book that sends readers on a trajectory of introspection about women’s bodies, while also offering a look into an elite (and also surprisingly not glamorous in so many ways) world that few get to experience. I hope she’ll write more, especially about motherhood. This book is worth the read!
First, here are my unsolicited blurbs for this book: “Please option this for a film asap.” “Woolf is a modern day Nora Ephron.” (Possibly influenced by the fact that I just finished Heartburn, but still!) “This book is the true LA Story.”
After following her work online for years (as one of the thousands of people whose fingers hold her up in this cosmic game of light as a feather, stiff as a board), I have been eagerly awaiting my chance to read All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire by Rebecca Woolf.
The first half+ of this book is a gripping narrative. Later, the book becomes less plot driven and slows, and I think that’s because the “after” is not/could not be a linear trajectory.
Woolf wrestles with what it means to be a feminist, or to become a feminist, and puts a magnifying glass to some of the common dynamics of life, relationships, particularly heterosexual relationships that are, to say the least, problematic. I was with her for these points because I also wrestle with many of the same questions. I differ though. Unlike Woolf, I was less tied down in my early adult life, and more so now, even though still not very “tied down” by comparison, and that is by design. I had my children later, but a decade ago, I was also reading about her life online. To be reading this book now, as I have little ones of my own feels very full circle, which she would enjoy.
Here are some lines I loved or identified with and/or that gave me pause:
First, as a fan of her writing, I loved seeing her include her numbered lists with numbers that get longer and insaner each time.
“I will not shrink myself nor prioritize people’s pleasure over my own.” Simple, true. It can be hard to recognize when it’s happening.
“Then the 2016 election happened.” This changed me forever too, and I am still not over it.
“WHAT IF IT DID NOT TURN OUT TO BE CHILL?” Just, lol, yes, this is what it is like to be a parent, mother, woman in life.
“I soon realize that it’s a lot faster for me to pack four lunches on my own.” This is just simply true and a lot of people don’t know it.
“My daughters. They are only mine now.”
“The bravest women I know are not widows. They are divorced.”
“And there is nothing I can do but let it go and drive him home. This is the moment I became a single mother.”
I had to set aside Heartburn by Nora Ephron shortly after I started because, after reading some of the other seemingly deeper, more “artful” books, I found the content to be a little too silly or irreverent. When I returned to it though, I was ready, and it is an excellent book.
Published in 1983, it really captures an interesting period of time (aren’t they all?) for women. The book is simultaneously feminist and sexist. There is truly some insightful feminist though. There’s also some internalized, unselfconscious sexism too though. There are definitely some dated jokes that would not fly today. The book perfectly captures the culture of the 1980s, especially When Harry Met Sally, which I should watch again (have I ever seen it in it’s entirety?), which is a film that was also written by Ephron. For example, I could easily image Diane Keaton playing the read role.
I loved the portrayal of motherhood in this novel. Probably due in no small part to the amount of wealth and therefore help that these characters have, motherhood in the early ’80s seems lovely, enriching, rewarding, sometimes hard. These women have time to also be themselves and explore their interests (frivolous though they may seem). I think this is next to impossible in motherhood today, where women are expected to/have few other options than to do so much, everything, constantly, every second, for their children.
Still, though it may at times seem frivolous, Ephron packs a surprising amount of insights about the human condition into every single sentence. It’s a good book. There is some really good humor in it too, and I don’t say that lightly.
I read Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter immediately after finishing My Brilliant Friend. This is another excellent, although perhaps more literary, piece than the first book of the Neopalitan Quartet series.
The Lost Daughter, also referenced in the Mother’s book, is about the darker side of motherhood, in a way that I found entirely relatable. Too often, critical books on motherhood are too critical, too negative–children are too exhausting, it’s not worth it, end of story. However, I truly appreciate Ferrante’s more nuanced approach. In The Lost Daughter, she turns a magnifying glass on the difficulties, violences, and burden of motherhood, the complete selfless turning over of the self that is required of the job, an ask that is far too demanding and made worse by societal constructs around motherhood and a general lack of support.
However, instead of dismissing the mothering journey altogether, as too exhausting, too violent, Ferrante acknowledges the duality of the role, the positive life changing aspects of it–the more complicated relationship it can foster in the self in regards to love, compassion, nurturance, service, and ambition. The little girl in The Lost Daughter is depicted as both angelic and beautiful from a distance, but up close is whiny, snot-nosed, crusty-eyed, and clawing, swatting, and pinching at adults around her. This is the reality of living with and loving a child. They are, each and every one of them all at once both transcendently perfect and also demanding, selfish, and incidentally cruel. To be a mother is to live within this duality constantly throughout the day. It’s complicated and beautiful and ugly too.
I discovered Elena Ferrante from Mothers by Jacqueline Rose, which I read recently. I started with Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first in a long series, and I loved it! The writing is excellent. The content is thought-provoking, and it also has the long sense of story found in easier, longer reads–not a common combination. Although it is long, I flew through it.
While I highly recommend the book, I will warn that I found the conclusion to be somewhat disappointing. I wanted a strong wrap up for this particular book, but instead found myself needing to read more of the series in order to get that. It will probably require reading all four books.
I ended the book somewhat exhausted and unwilling to continue with the series. Maybe I’ll return to them someday. They’re certainly worth it, but, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, I really don’t have the energy to give them at this point in my life.
I’m glad these books are out there. Sometimes I just need a good book, a good story, and I now know I can turn to Ferrante to get that.
I am also inexplicably obsessed with the cover art:
I found a copy of James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl in a Little Free Library and read it to the boys this summer. While there’s no doubt that Dahl is an excellent writer with great control on the sentence level and wonderful descriptions, I was struck by the antiquated fatphobic language and some other negativity in the book that you don’t see in new children’s publications and that, honestly, I do not miss. The plot is fine, but I found myself hoping for some deeper meaning and purpose in the adventure, some deeper symbolism in it all. I found very little. Instead, Dahl takes readers on a simple, uncomplicated adventure, but one with plenty of antics, wordplay, and vivid description. It’s worth the read for those alone. I also see that there’s a 2010 movie, so maybe we’ll check that out this summer too.
Reader, as you know by now, James and the Giant Peach is “not my genre,” but it is a classic, and I’m glad we read it. I might try it again in a few years when the boys are older and have a better understanding, but likely there will be many other favorites old and new to read. The littlest one lost interest several times this time around. However, it is the longest book we’ve read so far, and, overall, the boys tolerated it well. I am hopeful for our journey into longer (still illustrated) chapter books. Reading books to the boys is one of my greatest daily joys in parenting. It’s something we all truly enjoy and can share, and I look forward to reading many more classics together!
What a beautiful book! What Remains by Carole Radziwill is a completely unique book, taking the reader locations you’ve never been—could never go—but also to fully human and universally recognizable places.
It’s no secret that the Real Housewives series are a guilty pleasure, and I always found Carole to be a fun, tell-it-like-it-is, type of “character,” so I thought this book might be decent, but it’s better than that!
The book takes the reader to the poor gravel roads and streams of New York state, to the haphazard suburbs, to a chaotic, but close family life, to the rush of a bold new career in a city, to war zones, to falling in love (without cliché), and forging deep friendships with “America’s royalty.” Readers see that we all ache, love, suffer, and feel the joy of the sun on our skin and the wind in our hair universally. The life she lives once she’s seriously dating and married to her husband Anthony is (emotionally) much like other everyday relationships, except with better food, clothing, apartments, travel, and lovely places to stay. The reader might be surprised to find that this group of “elites” are thoughtful, frugal, playful, stressed, sometimes uncertain. Aren’t we all?
Radziwill has lived an extraordinary life, and so while this is a memoir, and a genre with which readers might be familiar, it’s is so completely unique in the extraordinary events and circumstances she’s survived. She loses her three closest people in the span of three weeks. Maybe she has survivor’s guilt, but I hope she doesn’t. I hope she is exploring what to do with this big, bold, beautiful life she gets to live. While there is a tight and lovely metaphor about fortune threaded throughout, which works on several levels, the reader leaves the book thinking, “Anything is possible. Anything can happen. Now, what am I going to do with this big bold, beautiful life?”
I read every word and, almost to prove a point, she thanks her bff and sister-in-law, Teresa, who–get this–is from my very own La Grande, Oregon! I am reminded that it truly is a very teeny tiny microscopic world, and anything is possible.
I am blown away by the slow burn called A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo. The first and majority of the book is a quiet, steady dialogue between the main character and her “lover.” As you know, I am not a theory hound, but this book was one of few that has made me want to turn steadily back to some of the theories presented in this book, and in grad programs across the world, including my own, and see if I can now find a different way in to them, more my own, perhaps feminine, a more first gen, working-class, creative, put two ideas next to each other to see the new, true, and also beautifully enigmatic knowing that emerges.
I love some of her snarky responses to the rote theories her partner espouses. I found the book to be an incredibly bold and feminist and completely empowering that she takes on subjects that are often, almost always (always?), interpreted through a male lens. She even uses Barthes’ exact same title. So bold! How might I do more of this myself? The book ends with both the theory and physicality of reproduction.
Often I find modern literature to be too cold and unemotional. This book had some of those qualities, but I still felt deeply and identified with many of the main character’s experiences. New motherhood is depicted in almost entirely negative terms, but much of the book is.
In new motherhood, I, too, started to think of mothers in response to every act of killing I heard on the news. These mothers have worked so hard to raise of their children, up until the very moment that their lives are taken. Guo has this exact same insight. We are all one, I suppose.
Finally, the relationship–I’ve felt nearly every one of the feelings or loneliness, isolation, desire, and confusion. I have yelled for him to “Bring wipes” as the baby’s mess grows, only to have him emerge too late, confused and groggy. “When have you had time to listen to music?” The changing home, the changing dynamic, described so uniquely and so true, perhaps especially for the creative woman.
Through it we are two people, changed, and in discourse with each other—lovers.