Tag Archives: book review

Review – The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

17 Dec

It’s been far too long since I’ve written on this blog – the main reason being, I started a new job and it’s taken up so much of my time, both literally and mentally. I think I’m getting more into the swing of things now though and I’ve been missing some creative outlet, which has sadly been usurped by pivot tables and datasets.

A book I recently picked up is ‘The Days of Abandonment’ by Elena Ferrante. I was going to Budapest for a short holiday and I wanted something that didn’t look too overwhelming, and its relatively svelte size and the premise immediately drew me in. I bought it without knowing it was a translated novel which I’m not the biggest fan of – I think a lot of things can get lost in translation – but that said, I’ve read some real gems that have been translated and the reviews included were (obviously) glowing, so I thought I’d give it a chance.81Fl81A4zLL

The novel is about a thirty-eight year old woman, Olga, whose husband, Mario, has just left her for another woman. We are introduced to Olga at the time that Mario announces he is leaving and the few following months, where we witness her emotional distress and breakdown. Her grip on reality becomes weaker and this is evident in her unflinchingly negative feelings towards her children, which I found refreshingly honest.

Ferrante writes in first person narrative so you are able to enter the thoughts of Olga’s increasingly clouded mind – her language becomes malicious, full of hard cussing and sexually explicit passages. While the story drew me in – I am always especially interested in reading about characters enduring some kind of emotional turmoil; perhaps this is some sort of morbid curiosity of mine, or an opportunity for self-assurance – much of the writing was far too exaggerated and overblown. I am interested to see whether this writing style is typical of many Italian authors as I have noticed, for instance, that the novels by Japanese authors that I have read tend to share the same fondness for poetical restraint and subtlety. This is the opposite and at times, I found it to be inordinate – as a reader, I never like to feel that the author is making damn well sure that I will feel something. On many occasions, I felt as though Ferrante was labouring a point or a metaphor which meant that it actually lost its effect.

In conclusion, I found the premise of the story interesting which incentivised me to finish the book, which I did in three or four days. However, the writing was far too predictable and lacking in nuance for my liking – it was almost as though the pages were shouting, ‘OLGA IS A DESPERATE WOMAN HAVING A BREAKDOWN, SHE’S LOSING IT’ which sort of detracted from any real emotional connection and empathy with the protagonist.

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Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

29 Jan

I just finished Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, ‘Big Brother’ and it was one of the most moving books I’ve read in years.  I suppose I didn’t expect to like it too much – having read Shriver’s well-renowned ‘We need to talk about Kevin’, which I thought was clever and provocative but not as moving as I had anticipated, I prepared myself for what I thought would be another ‘issue’ book and I’ve always been a little sceptical about books that are dominated by a contemporary issue in society, in this case: obesity.

I don’t know if it is because the characters in the novel seem so real and true to life, especially Pandora, the protagonist who has to deal with the shock of seeing her older brother lose himself and his motivation in life; or whether it’s the knowledge that Shriver is clearly writing from the heart (her older beloved brother, Greg died of obesity a couple of years ago) that makes the story so readable and so moving.

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Perhaps it’s even closer to me as I have experienced what it’s like to see someone close to you eat themselves to death (my late father) and how it’s easy for the average person to take the moral highground, wagging their finger and condemning those who are fat.  We often ignore the multitude of factors such as depression, disillusionment and inadequacy that can lead one to pile on the pounds and focus instead on the aesthetics of it.  But the truth is, a significant number of obese people who undergo gastric band surgery regain the weight within a few years which suggests there’s something deeper here, and the main goal isn’t to get slim, or what many would deem a ‘normal’, ‘functioning’ member of society again.  Shriver’s writing made me loo really look at our complex relationship with food and how we often associate eating very little with purity or cleanliness, a way almost to feel superior, better, holier than fat people.

I’ve read many reviews of this book that complain about the twist towards the end, saying that they, the reader, ended up feeling manipulated and that ultimately it fell flat.  I don’t want to ruin it for those that haven’t read the book (and I would urge you to do so) but I completely disagree with these reviews.  Instead, I found the twist actually enhanced  the story, making it even more believable and bittersweet, and our understanding of Pandora as well as making us question how much influence we really have over our loved ones.  Pandora is an amazing protagonist – likeable, flawed, conflicted and fallible and her relationship with her brother who has spiralled into a cycle of self-destruction feels all too real.  Haunting stuff.

Solitude in a noisy world – a book by Anthony Storr

5 Oct

I was attempting to restore some order to my bookshelf when I came across a book I had almost forgotten about but one that deserves a post.

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A couple of years ago, I found myself contemplating my relationship with myself and others .  While I did desire a fruitful social life, my desires didn’t seem the same as other people in their early twenties.  Basically, I was becoming increasingly aware that I frequently craved time alone and often enjoyed spending time alone rather than in the company of many people my own age.  So I did a bit of research and bought ‘Solitude’ by Anthony Storr.  This time I didn’t want something self-helpy; I wanted something more scientific and evidence-based to give me an insight into my own desires and preferences so ‘Solitude’ seemed to tick the right boxes, what with Storr being an eminent psychiatrist.

Quite simply, it’s a very good book.  It explores the various dimensions of ‘solitude’, and brings to light the importance today’s society places on ‘intimate interpersonal relationships as the touchstone of health and happiness’, which Storr points out is a ‘comparatively recent phenomenon.’  Previous generations focused on survival and earning a living, but nowadays, in developed countries, it seems that the arena of personal relations causes the greatest concern.  Storr argues that this ignores the importance of less intimate relations,  the need to feel part of a bigger community, the need for a function and a place.  Too many psychological studies emphasise that life revolves around personal relations but what I like about Storr’s approach is that he sees that this is not always the case.  People that lack intimate relations can still enjoy meaningful lives – although it might be more difficult, it can certainly be managed and such a pervasive belief that personal relations determine meaningfulness is damaging and entirely ignores the fact that people are complex creatures, that come in different shapes and forms.

I found this idea really refreshing and reassuring; reading it felt like a comforting pat on the back against a society that often classes solitude as something to be looked down upon.

Storr also examines the differences between enforced solitude and how something that one can crave becomes torturous when enforced.   However, what I found especially interesting was the relationship between solitude and creativity.  He questions whether individuals that enjoy solitude are more likely to be creative and the causal relationship there isn’t entirely clear.  He discusses the personalities of Kafka (a pathologically introverted, schizoid even), Wittgenstein (depressive and often suicidal) and Newton (transiently psychotic).  I found this exploration fascinating; they all experienced ‘more than the usual share of what is generally deemed ‘psychopathology”.  But they survived and contributed so much to the world; their creativity and genius perhaps flourishing due to their personal battles, their desire to ‘search for coherence.’

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book.   Those that find themselves craving solitude will be reassured, comforted and informed by  Storr’s words and those that are perhaps more extroverted will gain a sharp insight into other personality types.

The last paragraph of the book, taken from Wordsworth’s The Prelude sums up the message of ‘Solitude quite perfectly:

When from our better selves we have too long

Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,

Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,

How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.