Elena Ferrante: The Days of Abandonment

I have had this book on my shelf for quite a while. Elena Ferrante is an interesting and mysterious author. She hides in a shadow of anonymity, apparently not wanting pictures or details of who she is to get in the way of the story she is telling. Of course, people keep trying to get her to show up and let the world know who she is. A while ago there was a bit of a flap over the fact that she might indeed be a man. So as I was taking in all that I was a bit put off about actually reading her books.

But then a friend told me that she was reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and could not get enough of her writing. So that encouraged me to pull The Days of Abandonment off the shelf. It’s a short book, less than 200 pages, but it is really intense. The story of a woman sinking into despair after her husband leaves her is accentuated with long, furious sentences. The description of her thinking and her actions gives the reader a real sense of life turned over into a never-ending eddy of swirling emotions. It’s a very hard book to pick up and a very hard book to put down. As the narrative continued I had this growing dread, increasingly thinking that this was not going to end well. Fortunately, it does end and it does not end badly. Phew!

The writing is amazing, so I assume it is so in Italian as well. Applause here must go to the translator who gives us Ferrante’s brilliance in equally brilliant English. I will look forward (I think) to reading more of her writing especially the Neapolitan novels: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.

The Days of Abandonment

 

Books and Paper

I really enjoy the work of the amazing paper company, Cambridge Imprint. You can look at all their beautiful projects on their website: www.cambridgeimprint.co.uk.They also do a wonderful blog which you can access there. A recent post talked about the writers and artists retreat in Sussex called Charleston Farmhouse. It was the retreat of the early twentieth century Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists. Cambridge Imprint has a whole set of products designed from Charleston Farmhouse, and they wanted to call attention to this place and its financial need in the pandemic. You can find out more at www.charleston.org.uk.

Immediately after reading the blog post, the next book I picked up to read (well, opened my Kindle to read) was Nicola Upson’s latest Josephine Tey novel, Sorry for the Dead. And it is set at Charleston Farmhouse! One character that appears briefly is the ballerina Lydia Lopokova. (Upson does a wonderful job of incorporating real people and places in her novels.) Lopokova was the wife of the King’s College, Cambridge, economist John Maynard Keynes. When I was at the King’s College Archive Center in March 2019, another woman in the room was researching – wait for it – Lydia Lopokova’s letters!

Upson’s latest novel is as good as the others. I appreciate her skill at not only bringing in the real places, facts, and people of the early 20th century but also inviting us into the thoughts and feelings of people finding their way in new relationships. The plot in this book is quite intriguing, and the conclusion was rather surprising to me, although you can trace it all back.

I totally recommend Nicola Upson’s novels featuring a fictionalized Josephine Tey. Tey, writing in the early part of the 20th century, was most famous for her mystery The Daughter of Time. Upson has done a great job of bringing us Josephine Tey as a very sympathetic character as she makes her way through all the changes and the wars of the time. You’ll also meet familiar people like Alfred Hitchcock!

Here are Upson’s books in order (should be read that way) with a picture of the latest.

An Expert in Murder (2008)
Angel with Two Faces (2009)
Two for Sorrows (2011)
Fear in the Sunlight (2012)
The Death of Lucy Kyte (2014)
London Rain (2016)
Nine Lessons (2017)
Sorry for the Dead (2019)

 

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Sigrid Undset

Today, May 17, is Norwegian Constitution Day, the Syttende Mai. It’s a big festival day with parades and flags and everyone decked in their bunads, the national costume.  No parades this year due to the pandemic, so I thought it a good day to write about a Norwegian author, Sigrid Undset.

Writing at the beginning of the 20th century, Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 for her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter. Set in 14th century Norway, it tells the life story of this woman. Undset was fascinated with things medieval, and this trilogy is such a wonderful evocation of the life of that period. It’s set just at the edge of Christianity arriving in Norway and it is fascinating for that liminal time. I have not read this for years, but have read it twice and loved it both times.

Following Kristin Lavransdatter she wrote a four-book series called The Master of Hestviken. This one is a little later, in the early days of Catholic Norway. This is actually my favorite, and one I’ll re-read again soon. My copy has disappeared, so I’ll need to find another.

These books are very available in many formats, and I invite you to enter into these amazing stories. The picture below is of my old copy. It’s the 1929 “Nobel Prize Edition” purchased by either my Norwegian grandmother or my parents. I know it was on our bookshelves in our home when I was growing up, and now it’s on mine.

Undset

Billy Boyle

At one of our Christmas time family gatherings, people bring a gift for anonymous exchanges – draw a number, pick a gift, etc. Over the last few years, the theme has been about a country or city. It’s been kind of fun to see the different things people find to package together.

Last year I opened an England package, which included a book by James R. Benn, The White Ghost, A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery. It turns out that The White Ghost is #10 out of what is now fifteen books! The series seemed intriguing, so I went in search of #1: Billy Boyle. I found a copy at my local bookstore, Third Place Books,  Ravenna. I just got around to reading it.

It’s an interesting setup, with Billy Boyle being a young Boston policeman of Irish ancestry who ends up enlisting in the army and getting posted to General Eisenhower’s staff in London. He is related to Ike through his mother’s family, and indeed calls him “Uncle Ike.” Initially,  I wasn’t sure about the whole thing because there was a little too much “Gee, I’m Irish from Boston and here I am in London” stuff. But after that was dispensed with it turned out to be a really good story about the invasion of Norway. I’m always interested to learn more about that because of my Norwegian family. It appears that Mr. Benn has done his homework very well, so there is a great plot, fine characters, and historical accuracy.

So with lots of other things to read, it will take me a while to catch to book #10 on my bookshelf, but I’ll enjoy working on it. It’s always fun to look forward to another installment in a good series.

Billy Boyle

 

 

World War II

Today, May 8, 2020, is the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the end of World War II in Europe. I’m just finishing the latest novel in the Lane Winslow series by Iona Wishaw. These are really good books that take place around and after World War II. (I wrote about them on June 2, 2019: https://wordpress.com/post/theincompletereader.com/971.)

Today I was reminded of the heroism of my Norwegian family. One great-uncle was lost flying for the RAF, another was captured by the Germans and died in a concentration camp. The family comes from the most westerly islands off the coast of Norway. It’s a straight shot to the Shetland Islands, so they were among those many fisherpeople who transported refugees to Great Britain.

There are lots and lots of great novels about World War II, but a favorite of mine is a children’s book I read over and over again as a child and a few times since! It is Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan. It’s about a group of Norwegian children who carry their town’s gold bullion to a waiting boat by hiding it in their sleds as they ostensibly play in the snow. It’s still in print, and well worth a read. It would be a good memorial on this VE Day anniversary or any day.

Snow Treasure

 

 

Books and Newspapers

We’re fortunate in our very bookish city here in Seattle as there are lots of opportunities for good reviews and new discoveries. The Seattle Times book critic, Moira MacDonald is particularly good. Today she writes a great article about discovering books to read in other books. I love her comments about always remembering who recommended a book to you or who gave it to you.

Enjoy her article! https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/books/summer-books-2020-moiras-essay/

 

Sequential Stories

I’ve always enjoyed authors who continue to write about the same characters in new novels. Sometimes this is a significant work, like Hilary Mantel’s current trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, and sometimes it’s just the fun of a good writer developing character with new adventures. We all loved the whole Harry Potter series, didn’t we?

I have enjoyed, for the most part, Sheila Connolly’s County Cork mysteries. Her protagonist, Maura Donovan, has been thrown into the life of Irish pub owner after an inheritance comes her way, leaving Boston for the small Cork village of Leap. It’s a nice plot premise, and I have mostly enjoyed these books. The characters are interesting and the village life is full of twists and turns.

I just finished the newly published eighth installment, Fatal Roots, and I think I may be done with this. I have continued to be annoyed at her attempt at dialect, which is to only have the Irish refer to people in conversation as  “yeh.” I get what that sounds like, but I wish she had used some descriptor to note that people speak English differently there and let the reader put the sound to it. As I noted, the premise is good with Maura making her way from big-city American Boston to small village Irish life. But Connolly’s style tends to be what I call the Dan Brown way of doing plot: “‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s the Mona Lisa.’ ‘What is that?'” You get the drift. It really got out of hand in this latest book. I really grew weary of hearing that Maura was from Boston (we got that the first time!) and about her ongoing attempts to figure out Irish life. (We also got that the first time.)

I did stick it out to the end (these are quick reads) as the plot does draw you in and I wanted to know how it all came out. But I’m not sure I can do another one of these unless Ms. Connolly learns to trust her readers more.

Here are the books in order:

  • Buried in a Bog (2013)
  • Scandal in Skibbereen (2014)
  • An Early Wake (2015)
  • A Turn for the Bad (2016)
  • Cruel Winter (2016)
  • Many a Twist (2018)
  • The Lost Traveller (2019)
  • Fatal Roots (2020)