Wednesday, December 30, 2015

End-of-year Catch-up

I began writing this post over two weeks ago, and then Christmas preparations and festivities took over. Let me try again to sneak one last post into 2015...
Short shrift though this post might be, it seems better than neglecting the blog entirely, although I do begin to wonder whether I shouldn't simply integrate my reading lists and occasional brief reviews into Materfamilias Writes. . . we'll see. . . perhaps 2016 will surprise me, see me shift my energies more in this direction. . .

For now, though, just popping in to say that I've finished Elana Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child, and while I will save my response to this last volume, and the series overall, for another, more considered, longer post, I have found every one of the four books compelling and absorbing. I've been mesmerised by the microscopic examination of a female friendship that is suffused with rivalry, and by the way that friendship holds our attention while we consider the many social, political, economic, and cultural changes that have shaped women's lives -- in Italy, yes, but beyond that, across European borders and with obvious resonance for North America as well (at the very least).  This balancing of the very particular and the sweeping global, this fascinates me, and the way it's held in the conversational, if confessional, tone of one of the two central characters, the over-abundance of some detail while there is so much we cannot or will not be told....

But, as I said, I have to save my response... more later.

Meanwhile, I'm finishing Jake Morrissey's The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry that Transformed Rome -- it has to be returned to the library tomorrow (when I'll exchange it for Francine Prose's book on Caravaggio, which I'd put on hold). Very interesting on  16th-century Rome, the intrigue and politics behind the city's architecture and art, the obvious influence of the church but especially on how that was connected to the city's powerful families. Also on the role of personality in the respective success of the two rival architects.

And to complete this post, such as it is, I'll tell you that I did finish Morrissey's book and have just finished Prose on Caravaggio. Even more emphasis in the latter on the role of personality in an artist's success, particularly at a time when patronage was so crucial. Both books also highlighted the violence and sexuality that seethed behind much of the art that we've so privileged as High Art, much of it created supposedly in service of religion. Rape, pederasty, murderous rampages, viciously jealous disfigurement of mistresses who betrayed. I think with even more amazement of Artemisia Gentilleschi's accomplishments in the Rome of Baroque art, her commitment to her painting even throughout her rape and her subsequent humiliation in the court prosecution of same. But that's another book..

Finally, as is my habit after the busy Christmas season, I spent some lovely lazy hours over the past couple of days in my armchair with a mystery novel. Val McDermid's latest, Splinter the Silence, returns us to the relationship between police detective Carol Jordan and Tony Hill, profiling psychologist. Without too much spoiling, I hope, I can tell you that this volume sees Jordan and Hill regaining some of their earlier closeness as they contend with another serial murderer. I was pleased to revisit some likeable characters, and although McDermid's feminist messaging occasionally becomes a bit ponderous, the book's politics align comfortably with my own and perhaps draw some necessary awareness while not detracting unduly. A satisfying escape, overall.

Having caught up, however briskly, with my reading list, I will now return to my contemplation of the huge stack of new books and decide what would make the best pivot from 2015 to 2016. Currently, the top contenders are André Alexis' Fifteen Dogs and Marlon James' A History of Seven Killings. . . and, despite the lack of a number in its title,  or an apostrophe-confounding terminal "s" in its author's surname, Cynthia Barnett's non-fiction Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. Care to wager on my choice? Or to push me in one direction or another?

My plan for my next post is to publish my 2015 Reading List in the next week or two. It will either include, or be shortly followed by, my Top 5 or Top 10 recommendations. . . or Top 3 in this or that category, depending what I recognize retrospectively as I look over the list of titles. 
But you know what Mr. Burns said about "the best-laid plans of mice and men" . . . Crossing my fingers mine don't "gang . . . agley" 

Before that post, though, we will turn over the calendar page into 2016. Who knows what we will read or discuss together in this New Year?! But let me wish you all a Happy New Year! May you read some of the books you've always meant to, in this coming year, and may you discover wonderful new authors you'd never heard of! 


  1. Interestingly, I spoke to a relative about My Brilliant Friend. I felt that the rivalries (academic and social) were such an integral part of girl friendships. She denied any of those feelings. Because girls in the 60's lacked power, it seems that they often felt threatened by other girls. As we grow in confidence and authority, I think, those rivalries dissolve. I have not read the second book yet but I wonder what path that the friendship will take. I'm still reading Louise Penny's latest mystery so I'm not ready for the second book of the trilogy. I'm looking forward to your reading list for 2016. If you get a chance, listen to the radio play of Emile Zola's major work on BBC. It's in English but Glenda Jackson is the narrator and it is very well done. I had read Cousine Bette and Germinal but did not have an understanding of how they fit into the opus.

  2. I am still under spell of recently finished Elena Ferrante's Days of Abandonment (Georgia's recommendation). She writes so intense,so brusquely,there is no embelishment,only reality,naked truth (if it is truth...?). She is cruel to anyone,to herself in first place. Her confrontation,her despair,depression on verge to borderline psychosis......similar to some lines in her Naples books. I will wait for your complete response with my opinion
    It seems we are staying in Italy for a while Frances,I am reading Umberto Eco's Numero zero :-)
    Just finished Being Mortal. Can't thank enough to all of you who have strongly recommended this book,unique,deeply moving,every literate soul should read it.
    Have read Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children from Ransom Riggs,too, and actually liked it very much
    Have a beautiful,happy New Year

  3. Madame, I think there's so much denial around the subject of rivalry and friendship, particularly among women. Our feminist impulse, first of all, leads us to push back against the perception of women as catty, unfriendly to each other. But what Ferrante is exploring is something different than characterising women as inherently bitchy, catty (to switch animals!). She's detailing those social limitations and pressures that have young girls and women looking for validation and approval, looking at sources that seem to demand that validation comes at another's expense. Perhaps your relative managed to skirt such conditions, but my own sense is very similar to yours, and I'm shocked and thrilled at how revealing Ferrante/Ferrante's protagonist is about her own mixed feelings.
    Enjoy your Inspector Gamache mystery -- perfect for this time of year. I'll see if I can get to that BBC radio play -- have been wondering what Jackson is up to!

  4. Ah, Dottoressa, now I have to add Days of Abandonment (I'd forgotten about Georgia's recommendation). "Brusque" is a great word for Ferrante's tone, which yet leaves room for a confessional mood.
    Isn't Gawande's book splendid on its topic? So straightforward, wise, pragmatic -- I found it inspiring, which is an odd thing to say about a book on Death and Dying, but it's true.
    I've wondered about Miss Peregrine's Home. Not yet picked it up, but have seen good reviews, altho' it's not a genre I usually make time for. Still, so much more time in retirement...
    And Eco, a very worthy candidate for any reading list. So many books...Happy New Year to you and to Madame as well!

  5. I vote for Andre Alexis. I got it for Christmas and am about to start it.


  6. Happy New Year to all!! I have volumes two and three of the Neapolitan novels waiting for me and debated holding back further thoughts on Ferrante until they were done, but, because I might forget...Dottoressa, I am glad I am not alone in being under the spell! You might be interested in The Lost Child if you can find it. They are stories of women who cross the line I think. And the aspect that is so fascinating, and so frightening, and leaves me with that shaky, awful-but-can't stop-thinking-about it feeling, is how close to that line we can be.

    In the context of My Brilliant Friend, I thought about identity (the pretty one! the smart one!) as shaped by rivalry among friends/siblings. Do we adapt to avoid overt competition? How much do the labels other assign to us contribute to what we become?

    I have come out of the holidays with a wonderful pile of books, but first (because the library does urge us along doesn't it?) I must try to finish The War That Ended Peace-The Road to 1914. I wanted another of Margaret MacMillan's books, Paris 1919, to refresh my memory on the Treaty of Versailles but it was not available. From the art world, I have Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940 - 1976. I'm interested in learning more about Lee Krasner, an artist who was married to Jackson Pollock. Possible rivalry/identity again? Hmm...

  7. Sorry...I meant The Lost Daughter (not The Lost Child). Drat these translations!

  8. Happy New Year Georgia! Happy New Year Madame!
    Thank you for your hint again. I am now so curious and afraid at the same time,but nevertheless would try to find it. First I need a couple of optimistic ( but still interesting ),light books,a little dose of literate happiness,it may be mistery but not serial-sadistic-killer kind,more -murder with some reason- type! Or Winnie the Pooh :-)!
    I am reading A Little Paris Bookshop now.

  9. The Little........sorry!


  10. Brenda: I did read Fifteen Dogs first-- loved it! What about you? We need another book convo. Lunch when I get back maybe, early Feb?
    Georgia -- Don't hold back! Who knows when I'll get to writing more about Ferrante's work. As long as we're all careful not to spoil by revealing endings or surprises. . . In fact, I wonder if you and Dottoressa would care to contribute to a post on Ferrante. email to let me know if that appeals and we could work something out. It wouldn't need to be long or comprehensive, and I'd happily credit you. . . fsproutATgmailDOTcom

    Your comment is sending me to my bookshelves for Paris 1919 which I'm pretty sure I put back there unfinished when too much reading for work swamped me years ago. Now I have time to finish it and then I could follow up with the one you're reading now. Your art world reading sounds quite capable of pulling you through winter. I've just got a sumptuous secondhand copy of Bernini: The Genius in the Design in the mail from ABE books, and can't wait to spend time with it. This retirement gig is a pretty good deal!

    And Dottoressa, I just finished Canadian writer André Alexis' latest novel Fifteen Dogs and would happily recommend it as filling the bill for you right now. It's light enough but very literate with some very playful thinking about humanity and art and the borders between beings. . . I'm not sure how widely it will be available in print, but you may be able to find an e-version.