2018-001: My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

So my first book of 2018, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, was also, technically—for about the first 40 pages or so—one of my last books of 2017, helping me make good on a vague resolution to let myself re-read something in 2017.*

I first read this late in 2015; Elena Ferrante was white-hot at the time, around the time the fourth and final Neapolitan novel was coming out in English, and this was one of those rare occasions I felt myself consciously aligned with the literary zeitgeist. (I mean, she’s probably still white hot, but I’m pretty sure my finger and the pulse of the literary community haven’t exactly snuggled much in a while.) Despite the omnipresent love for the series, I didn’t fall in love myself. I liked it well enough, I think, but for whatever (unrecorded, I suspect) reason or reasons, it didn’t click for me.

I spent a fair portion of this past year considering various options before, in the final couple days of December, landing on Friend as my re-read for the year. It felt like unfinished business—not that there isn’t plenty of that in my reading history, but some lingering feeling of curiosity about the rest of the series must have stuck with me over the last couple years. I’m happy to say that, while I still can’t say I love this book, it did click more for me this time, and I’m happily, vaguely non-planning on reading the rest of the series this year.

I suspect some books, you come to them with certain expectations, and those books need an extra reading so they can break through those expectations, to help you see it for what it actually is. My first time through, I knew the series dealt with a complex friendship (or was it a complicated relationship?) between two women, starting with their childhoods and running through the courses of their lives. And the first book certainly sets that up. But that’s not the full story, I think, and what stuck with me from the first reading and I had a better headspace for this time is the context in which that friendship plays out, the violence and confusion and ugliness of the world in which these two find themselves and each other. I enjoyed the depiction of Naples and the wealth of characters who populated it; the scene and setting kept me hooked throughout.

It was generally pleasing to see that the book didn’t feel like a complete stranger this time through, that whatever I picked up the first time through really did help me like it more this time, knowing what I was getting myself into. Plenty of story beats came back into focus as I read through them; the fireworks sequence once again stood out for me, the two girls leaving town for the first time thinking they could walk to the ocean; there was also the general theme of men being total creepshows. (Topical.)

And yet, again, as I think happened my first time through, I found myself feeling a little drifty toward the end. What about the focus on Lila’s wedding is it that trips me up? Or Elena’s schooling, and my inability to internalize what a big deal that is for her or her community? The distance between these two characters representing itself as a haziness between me and the book? Something. Or it has to do with all those characters I’m (lazily) not tracking as well as I should clouding up the works.

In any case, I dug it, on the whole. Not in an I’m-addicted way, but I’m still glad I’m fairly well committed to reading the rest of the series. Having better connected with the first book, it’s easier to see how much the context of the remaining books might be necessary to help me better appreciate any of the books individually.

* – Giving myself permission to re-read more things really ought to have been included in my list of non-plans for 2018. It goes hand-in-hand with how I’m trying to reignite my interest in writing about books, in that I’ve come to realize that my recall of books that I’ve read more than ten minutes ago is terrible, and I’d like to do something about that. I guess I read very much in-the-moment these days, without any real force driving me to “retain information” or “notice things” or “actually process the words in an intelligible way”—I mean, no joke, it’s been a god-long time since my English major days, and I’ve long since career-suicided myself off the ship that was sailing toward Professionalish Critic/Reviewer Island, and that pretty much leaves you with yet another drippy middle-aged white male with feelings and a confused-at-best relationship with writing words about the written word—and yet I sometimes realize that it is a total, complete bummer to look at my Goodreads ratings and see five-star books of which I couldn’t pull up a single memory. It’s a little weird. I mean, when I was told, a year or two ago, that Dhalgren was, like, 98 percent really weird sex, I think my reaction was like, what, wait, huh? I thought it was about fog or something? And so while no I’m not likely to actually re-read Dhalgren or War and Peace or do round two of the Summer of Dostoevsky Project 2006, whatever I say all the time, there are some shorter works in there I could blaze through just to see if I could see what I saw my first times through. Aaaand well I also do really want to re-read A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, which I liked quite a bit but wasn’t certain I loved it at the time, but I’ve actually thought about it quite a bit since, though of course that’s another long one for a year that’s supposed to be about shorter ones. So who knows.

Year in review: 2016

Well! 2016! Right? Right?

Right.

Books and I had an odd year.

I read my first full audiobook (Bush by Jean Edward Smith, which was a weird but ultimately interesting choice) and then tried one or two others but didn’t stick with them. Nothing against them, just, podcasts became more my thing for the long daily commute.

I’m still a paper-book addict. But I did find a niche for myself where dipping into ebooks makes sense—poking away at various books about coding and such on my phone during the baby’s nap time. Not too many books I actually finished, for various reasons, but these dark, quiet, snuggly hours do account for a fair number of pages.

I started off the year on a bad note, I think, picking things up and putting things down—according to my Goodreads profile I didn’t actually finish a book until mid-February. And then there were a couple graphic novels. There were some slow stretches where I’d plod through a single book over the course of multiple weeks. And then later I fell into a 2.5 month stretch dedicated to two books (I mean, they were fat books, A Naked Singularity by Sergio de la Pava and The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, but still) (I enjoyed them both, by the by).

And then things picked up weird, crazy steam in the home stretch. I finished 35 books in 2016; 12 of those came in November and December.

And I’m pretty sure 2016 was the first year I didn’t post to this blog once since I started it. I did other blogging, elsewhere, about other things. But I sort of feel like I’ve forgotten how to write about books, how to write about what I’m reading.

How to write, really.

Strange year.

I ended on a high point with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer, a fast-moving tale of global paranoia that did just enough weird left turns to jazz up what could have been an otherwise fairly rote story. Oddly, I actually started this one earlier in the year, before falling into one of my reading funks; I’m glad I finally finished putting off finishing it off. It would have paired well with Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction, one of my semi-conscious attempts to dip into more strong non-fiction this year; I’m not necessarily sure it told me too much I hadn’t already been aware of, or at least suspected, or at least would have pretended to have known about if you’d asked me about it at a party, but it pulled a lot of that stuff (the way mathematical models and/or data science-y stuff is used to manipulate and/or profit off individuals in frankly awful and often terrifying ways) together into a flowing, coherent, eye-opening narrative. The net effect is it makes you want to log off the Internet and move into a log cabin, immediately.

As has been a summer tradition for the last three years, I read a Gormenghast novel. This year’s was the final novel, Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake, and I’m already sad there aren’t more novels to come. It’s a fascinating series, a strange play on what “fantasy” is—I mean, not that I’m much an expert on fantasy, really, as I’ve only started dipping into it the last few years, but. The series feels like the closest I’ve come to finding that slow-burn, long-bath experience with a piece of literature in a while, which I’ve heard described but have rarely exactly felt myself—I really enjoyed how unhurried the prose and story felt in equal measure. I could sincerely imagine re-reading it, even though re-reading things seems like a terrible idea, what with all the still-to-be-read-once things waiting in all the wings.

I can also easily imagine re-reading the Expanse series, which I caught all the way up on this year, reading book five earlier in the year and then book six shortly after it came out, and now I have to wait for new books to come out, and it hurts. It hurts. But in the good way. Getting back in touch, at least a little, with sci-fi like this, has been good; brings back some of that childhood enthusiasm for writing that never exactly got lost along the way but which gets sort of sidetracked, or something. I hope to work another series or two into the mix in the coming years.

A handful of other books I liked, in various ways, this year, and which, if I had actually been blogging this year, I might have actually blogged about, but which now I’ll just dump here in bullet form:

  • Fiction
    • To Walk the Night, by William Sloane
    • The Story of a Brief Marriage, by Anuk Arudpragasam
    • Beatrice, by Stephen Dixon
    • S., J.J. Abrams
    • The Great Fortune, by Olivia Manning
    • The Man in the Picture, by Susan Hill
    • The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra
  • Non-fiction
    • The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, by
      Brendan I. Koerner
    • Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, by David Kushner
    • The Right Kind of Crazy: A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation, by Adam Steltzner
    • The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman

And, well, there’s 2016, really. Good times.

Next up: going big, or going home.

Belated thoughts on A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan; also, an awkward slap at a possibly awkward bit of kerning

I’m looking at the small stack of books I’ve read this year, and I’m realizing, I’ve really done a piss poor job of it, this year, of talking about these things–and I apologize for that; not sure where the time went, not sure what I’ve been doing with it. Well, okay, work and school and life, yes, all that, and, a general antipathy toward writing? Something. Not an antipathy. A sense of distraction, a mood of displacement. I’m shaking myself out of it. A little bit here, a little bit there. (What’s it like, to simply like a thing, and then do it a lot?)

What bugs me most is that even as I spend a significant amount of time working with a few specific books (such as Drowning Tucson, just to toss an example out there), other books, like A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, really get the short shrift. Here’s an author I really like who has written a book that I really like and by the time I get around to talking about it, what’s there for me to remember to say? I don’t know. I don’t remember. Articulating the source of my enjoyment now is sort of a challenge. I remember as much that I liked this book a good deal, more than I liked The Keep, which I liked, less than I liked Look at Me, which, of course, I enjoyed whole-heartedly, though, what? My girlfriend finally read Look at Me this year; she liked it but was not clear on why I loved it. I really must add that book to the stack of books I need to re-read sooner rather than later, so I can better say today why I liked it yesterday, or however many years ago yesterday was. Which is of course what I said when I read The Keep, so…fuck.

What I can say is that I feel like this is sort of Egan’s freak-out novel, a novel that really isn’t a novel, a formal exploration that itches at the constraints of what it is to be a novel today. It’s the frames of The Keep, cracked over the knee, and scattered at the feet. It’s a book that questions the point where novels and stories intersect, without looking to make any bold claims, or really even any claims at all. It just is what it is and it doesn’t look to excuse itself. My ARC, I don’t see it classifying itself anywhere in print as either a novel or as a story collection which is about as it should be, this unclassifiedness–though, to be fair, I’d call it more of a novel than Drowning Tucson, which, well, really simply was not a novel at all. But this book, Goon Squad, isn’t a novel, either, per se, itself. It’s something else. It’s a bit ragged, cast on fine strands that think of themselves as ropes. It’s really more fun for it.

Kerning. Serious Business.
Kerning. Serious Business.

(Also, speaking of the differences between ARCs and official copies–this whole getting-books-before-they-are-books thing being still kind of new and fascinating to me and being something that really doesn’t even happen that much, not a billionth as much as it happens for others, I mean–I’d like to ask if maybe someone with an official copy of Goon Squad and an eye for kerning can tell me if the word “From” on the cover is, uhm, doing it wrong? Anyone? I mean, I know I haven’t been put through quite enough design bootcamp yet to get to be a real dillhole about it, or maybe it’s just some inherent latter-day humility or something, the feeling like I’ve crumbed up enough of the stuff I’m supposed to be good at that to speak with any sense of emphasis about things I’m not supposed to be good at would be really like begging for a slap to the face, but, whatever, either way, yow; where’s that O going? Up, up, and oway, you big fat black hole I can’t help but stare at now, now that I’ve noticed how awkwardly you want not to join the party, R over there making out with F, M pretty much trying to go as far from you as it can. Ahem. Or maybe I’m way wrong. Anyway.)

PowerPoint. Serious Business.
PowerPoint. Serious Business.

Anyway. The reactions I’ve tracked on the book have been mixed, from all out “boo” to “ehhh” to “cautious yeh,” which I pretty much understand. If I rave about the book and talk about it being the novel in which Egan sort of freaks out for a while, and if you hear that yes there is in fact an entire chapter set as a PowerPoint presentation (which really is pretty well done and sort of awesome in its way), I can totally understand if you expect the book to be absolutely transformative, a work of art for all eras. Expectations boosted, and all. And truth is it’s not that good. I can get that someone might find it fluffy, disposable–there’s portions I recall dragging for me a bit, here and there, though not enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth, not enough for me to say I less than really liked the book. Again, of course, if this was a couple months ago, I might be able to offer a better defense or deconstruction of my defense, but I’ll leave it for now as, yeah, not for everybody.

That said, what I’ll say is this: I think Egan’s got a White Noise in her, or go ahead and pick a big novel of your choice that isn’t actually big. Maybe Goon Squad is actually it, and I’m just secretly hoping it isn’t so I can still have yet the best to wait for. Maybe not. Either way, I’m having fun coming along for the ride and I’m looking forward to seeing where she goes next.

But, in the meantime, if you’ve read Goon Squad, and you think I’m a jerk for liking it, let me know in the comments. If enough people call me a jerk, I’ll have to do something about something else I’m going to talk about in a bit (or in more than a bit) so I can get myself on firmer ground from which to call you jerks right back. Or you could tell me I’m right for liking it. I’m not going to judge.