Book recommendations

There are times when the world is too much with us, and a gut response is not sufficient, what’s needed is time and reflection and perspective. I’m not ignoring what’s happening in the larger world. I’m interested, I’m engaged, I’m paying attention, but I don’t have anything useful to say about it, here.

As of today, I’ve got two teenagers under this roof, and I think their growing independence and autonomy is stoking my growing impulse to step back into the shade of obscurity. I don’t know what the purpose of this blog is anymore, which is why I post here more and more rarely.

I still want to keep this space open, for when I do have something to say. But I don’t want to say something just because this space exists.

Today, I want to tell you about the wonderful books I’ve been reading.

I finished My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, and immediately dove into the second book in the four-book series, translated from the Italian. I’ve heard this series compared to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, but to my mind, they are unrelated. Ferrante has a wider world view than Knausgaard, even if she is examining in detail a very particular time and place: she is depicting the assertion of power itself through the generations. It is the story of a friendship, and of two girls (now young women, in the second book), and it is told from the perspective of one of the women, but it is not about the rigidity of an individual point of view (which Knausgaard’s series seems to be explore), but about the flow of power and knowledge and ritual that shape an individual in ways that are beyond her control, even if she is aware of them. Ferrante observes patterns, large and small. The patterns of place. The patterns of family, of neighbourhood, of wealth and poverty, of knowledge, of culture. This is extremely rich and immersive writing, but it is also propulsive in its pacing. I won’t be reading another book until I’m finished the whole series, but at the same time, I don’t want it to end. It will be like saying goodbye to a friend.

I am thinking of My Struggle in relation to this book because I recently finished reading the third book in that series, Boyhood Island. I can’t read this series quickly. It’s like being trapped inside someone’s mind, someone who has a limited understanding of how he is being received in the world around him, and the effect is claustrophobic, and sometimes even alarming. But I remain interested. I will continue reading through this series, but at a much slower pace. I have no sense of urgency in my quest. It’s more of a commitment to see a thing through.

Another recommendation: Outline by Rachel Cusk. She is the British writer who was born in Canada and whose book was a finalist for two major Canadian prizes this season; there were complaints about how Cusk scarcely qualifies as a Canadian, and that may be true, but I’m glad she made the lists or I wouldn’t have discovered her. I devoured this book. I loved it unreservedly. It is highly stylized, enormously intelligent, and although told in the first person almost erases that person entirely, so that everyone around her leaps into the world fully fleshed, but she never becomes more than an outline on the page. It is the strangest feat, an accomplishment of great discipline. It made me question the purpose of the first person narrator, and the purpose of the writer, too.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading out loud to the kids in the evenings: especially the two youngest (ages 7 and 10). So far we’ve read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, and we’re nearly through From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg, both set in New York City, both stories about siblings.

All for now.

xo, Carrie

"You who let yourselves feel"
Refugees welcome

4 Comments

  1. Just to say that I always enjoy it when you are here. And congratulations on two teenagers! Yes, yes, to the Elena Ferrante books, which I loved so much I ended up practically inhaling. By the time I got to the last one I was devastated that they were ever going to end, even as I couldn’t stop reading. I’m halfway through Outline too & enjoying it. Cusk’s memoir ‘A Life’s Work’ is one of my all-time favourites — a searing tale of new motherhood that I read long, long before I had children & then re-read with an electric shock of recognition as I bounced a tiny baby to sleep on my shoulder. But, perhaps more appropriately, have you read her amazing piece ‘Raising Teenagers’ in the NY Times Magazine? So good & so much to think about in it about the narrative of family & identity.

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  2. I am sorry you are having trouble with this blog, but I hope you keep on writing, when you can. I love your thoughts, perspectives, and I learn through your experience in the writing and literary world, for whatever that may be worth.

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  3. I enjoyed My Brilliant Friend and Outline, too. The other titles that have really stood out for me in the last few weeks are Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd and Andre Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs (which I started before he won the Giller, ahem!) – both highly recommended!

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  4. What Sarah said about Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work. It’s one of the most important books I have ever, ever read.

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