Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Life After the Elena Ferrante Books

I have avoided reviewing the Neapolitan books by Elena Ferrante because how does one write about three of the most perfect books in the world? There has already been so much written about this series and their reclusive author. The internet is awash with praise and glowing reviews. And yes dear reader, believe the hype, all the accolades are deserved.

In case you're one of the few people who hasn't heard of Elena Ferrante, she has three published novels so far in her Neapolitan series: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The fourth and last in the series, The Story of the Lost Child, will be released on September 1st. The books cover the complicated friendship between two Italian women from childhood onwards for a number of decades. I know this isn't exactly the kind of blurb that will make you run out and buy the book. But believe me, the story of these two friends, their friendship's twist and turns, their love lives, the colorful cast of characters that make up their families, friends and neighborhood....ah, all of  it...was just ...Glorious!

This blog post isn't going to review the Ferrante books in detail because others have done a much better job than I can ever do. This is a post about life after Elena Ferrante and how she has opened reading pathways for me.

The Neapolitan series swept me off my feet last November and December that to be honest my reading life plummeted afterwards. There was simply no book that I could pick up that matched the feeling I had while reading Ferrante's books. I raced through summer thrillers that gave me some brief satisfaction but ultimately still left me wanting. What seemed to work for me was actually getting out of my comfort zone: going back to the classics, reading non-fiction and short stories and most importantly delving into translated fiction. Yes, its been a strange and slow reading year so far but also very rewarding. I know for a fact my reading wouldn't have taken these directions without Ferrante.

I got immense reading pleasure in discovering new writers particularly a married Argentinian couple I'd never heard of before, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo. They are my current literary crushes. Both were friends and contemporaries of Jose Luis Borges and are published by NYRB. The Invention of Morel by Casares was brilliant and I'm still reading the haunting short stories Thus Were Their Faces by Ocampo. These books have nothing in common at all with Ferrante's novels other than being translated fiction. But this is what I mean when I say that Elena Ferrante led me to them somehow and they in turn will lead me to others. Ferrante, through her publisher, Europa Editions, also led me to Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng which I reviewed in my previous post. I had never heard of the author but I simply had to read it. Its risqué plot didn't turn me off because Elena Ferrante has taught me that yes, we might not always agree with the protagonists in the books we read but we also can't judge their choices. Everyone is fighting their own battles after all. 

Ferrante has not only opened up my mind but she's opened up my reading life to include books I never bothered to check out before or never even knew about. Just when I thought I'd read everything I want to read in my life, in comes Ferrante and a bunch of other writers who've existed all along but where out of my radar. Now isn't all this just wonderful?

If you have read Ferrante, then I would love to hear about the books that impressed you afterwards.

Update: I've just finished the fourth and final book of the Neapolitan saga, The Story of the Lost Child. It's as brilliant as the previous ones but sadder and more harrowing. The girls are now middle-aged and elderly women and through the course of this final book will be dealt a few but still very harsh blows in life. Like real life Ferrante leaves some questions unanswered. There are some things we will never know unless she writes another sequel. It's not my favorite among the four books but in spite of that it's still an important part of this incredibly wonderful and moving series that I will surely reread again. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng

"Doesn't intimacy foster reverence more completely than anything that can be taught?"

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness was such a lovely book although when I first read the blurb my reaction was 'yikes!' A 41-year-old married librarian and mother of one, falls for a 17-year-old boy. I almost gave it a pass but it's a Europa Edition so I had to have a closer look. This is Elena Ferrante's publisher after all! I decided to sample it on my Kindle and then I just couldn't stop. 

"It began at the library."

Jennifer Tseng writes exquisitely. I was immediately sucked into Mayumi's island world: her work at the library, the quirky colleagues and patrons, her 4-year-old daughter Maria and even her aloof husband, Var. Into her small world steps a never named young man and she becomes completely obsessed with him. Don't be turned off by this taboo love affair because Tseng handles it with elegance and grace. The result is a beautiful novel about two lost souls (bookworms in fact) who unexpectedly become lovers, meeting once a week on Fridays at a cabin in the woods. 

Mayumi and her lover's lives are enriched because of their liaison even though they don't talk much about themselves. They discuss and share their love of books. While this is going on, Mayumi slowly starts to develop a friendly relationship with the boy's mother, Violet, who seems to know nothing about the affair. She's also a reader and they meet and discuss Elena Ferrante's books among others. Through all this, Mayumi struggles with her moral compass and her desires. 

As you can guess this is a book for book lovers but it's also a book about life and personal growth. I don't want to give away what happens next but let me just say that it was heartbreaking but beautiful. One of the best books I've read this year. Mayumi will certainly stay with me. 

"He smiled the family smile of happiness and pain. I smiled too, a smile that has taken some time to leave me, a smile that I can still retrieve in full."

Monday, February 2, 2015

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Before reading the memoir Just Kids my knowledge of Patti Smith was limited to the song Gloria and I'd vaguely heard of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe but couldn't for the life of me recall any of his photos. These people didn't particularly interest me but I was in the mood for a memoir and this one beckoned. In spite of not knowing the protagonists I ended up loving this book about these two struggling and hungry artists in sixties and seventies New York City. I was captivated by their friendship, their love of art and their journey to find their mediums and themselves. It's a coming-of-age tale and a true one at that. 

At this point in her life Smith wasn't a singer or a musician and Mapplethorpe wasn't even interested in photography. Smith never thought she'd be a rock star. She just loved poetry and art and like Mapplethorpe she loved creating collages, necklaces and knick knacks. She became a rock star purely by accident and Mapplethorpe picked up photography when a friend gifted him with a Polaroid camera. It's actually incredible how these two found their niches when all the time they hungered for success they didn't even know what it was they were meant to do. 

Smith's passion for writing shows in Just Kids. The writing is wonderful, evocative and flows beautifully just like poetry. 


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My Favorite Books of 2014

My 2014 reading year didn't start out very well so by June I thought I wouldn't have enough books to make a top ten list. Everything changed after I read Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. For a while almost every book I read after that was just wonderful.

I read many 2014 releases and some of them were good but then again not quite good enough to make the cut. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was a sometimes compelling read but it inevitably pales when I compare it to Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. And though they've received glowing reviews, I honestly didn't enjoy Us by David Nicholls and We Were Liars by E. Lockhart was just ok. Meanwhile, Colorless Tsukuro by Haruki Murakami, Malice by Keigo Higashino and Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi were all interesting reads and if I could list more than ten they would surely have made this list. One classic that almost made it was The Collector by John Fowles, a creepy and well-written psychological crime novel.

However, I want to limit myself to only ten books. Three of them are by the same author, Elena Ferrante who I cannot rave about enough. Six of the books on this list were released in 2014. There's one non-fiction book, one YA, one Victorian vampire novel, two thrillers and one horror/fantasy graphic novel. Surprisingly nine of the books were written by women.  It's certainly a mixed bag of books so here's my list in order (drum roll please)...my favorite books of 2014.

1. to 3. The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) - Words can't describe how I was completely swept away by these novels of two friends growing up in Naples, Italy. I'm still suffering from Ferrante Fever and quite happily at that. I loved all three books and I can't wait to reread all three again just before book four will be released in late 2015. These three novels not only made it to the top of this list but they now have a permanent place in my My Reader's Table, my favorite books of all time.

4. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters - Sarah Waters does it again this time with a crime story set in London in the 1920s. The pacing was excellent, the characters were well drawn and the writing was brilliant as always. This was a fabulous read from start to finish.

5. The Quick by Lauren Owen - I loved reading this stylish debut novel about vampires and vampire hunters in Victorian England. Pure escapism. I'm hoping there'll be a sequel.

6. Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer - This is the last book I read this year and it's also the only YA novel on the list. Read this if you love Sylvia Plath, The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Looking for Alaska by John Green. A wonderful book about fragile teenagers at a boarding school and their very special teacher who helps them deal with grief and loss by reading The Bell Jar and writing in their own journals.

7. The Secret Place by Tana French - I will read anything that Tana French produces and though this wasn't her best, I still enjoyed it very much. The Dublin murder squad is back and this time they are trying to solve a murder at a girls' boarding school.

8. Locke & Key by Joe Hill - This graphic novel written by Stephen King's son is completely addictive and immersive. Kids, a strange house, magic keys, an unsolved mystery and an evil being - all the elements for a thrilling read.

9. Tiny Beautiful Things, Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed - I don't think I'll ever forget some of the letters I read in this anthology. I highlighted so many lines so I know I'll be dipping into this again and again in the future. She's certainly a wise one, Ms. Strayed.

10. Euphoria by Lily King - This novel is loosely based on anthropologist Margaret Mead. It covers just a short span of time in her life and in fact my only complaint is that at 256 pages it was too short! Just when I was beginning to get into the characters, the love triangle and the setting, the story ended. This was a fascinating read not just for the story but for the close look at the work of anthropologists in the 1930s.

So that's it. My 2014 list. I'm looking forward to more reading in 2015 and hopefully (cross my fingers) more blogging. I've been using Twitter and Instagram more than my blog but would love to know if there are still any of you out there who read The Literary Stew. Happy New Year to all of you and happy reading in 2015!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Books Read in 2014

Every year I aim to read 50 books and every year I always fall short. 2014 was no different. I only read 46 books but there were a lot of good ones especially in the latter part of the year. Stay tuned for my best of 2014! Coming soon.

1. Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
2. The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay
3. Locke & Key, Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft (Locke & Key #1) by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
4. Locke & Key, Volume 2: Head Games  (Locke & Key #2) by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
5. Locke & Key, Volume 3: Crown of Shadows  (Locke & Key #3) by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
4.  Locke & Key, Volume 4: Keys to the Kingdom  (Locke & Key #4) by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
5.  Locke & Key, Volume 5: Clockworks  (Locke & Key #5) by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
6. The Signature of All Things by
7.  Locke & Key, Volume 6: Alpha & Omega  (Locke & Key #6) by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
8. The Giver by Lois Lowry
9. Six Years by Harlan Coben
10. He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond
11. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
12. Donners of the Dead by Karina Halle
13. The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh
14. The Collector by John Fowles
15. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
16. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
17. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
18. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
19. Serena by Ron Rash
20. The Humans by Matt Haig
21. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
22. Guilt by Association by Susan R. Sloan
23. Love Life by Rob Lowe
24. Joyland by Stephen King
25. Everything I never Told You by Celeste Ng
26. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
27. The Quick by Lauren Owen
28. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
29. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
30. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling (reread)
31. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
32. Dwellers by Eliza Victoria
33. Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
34. The Secret Place by Tana French
35. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
36. The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
37. Us by David Nicholls
38. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
39. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
40. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
41. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
42. Malice by Keigo Higashino
43. The Julian Chapter by RJ Palacio
44. The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
45. Eyes that Watch You by Cornell Woolrich
46. Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Monday, November 3, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

A new Murakami is always a reason to celebrate. Its been over fifteen years since I read my first one, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. My gosh, fifteen years. I wonder if your first Murakami always remains your favorite. It would be interesting to hear what other fans have to say about this. There are scenes from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that I'll just never forget.

I enjoyed the journey of reading his new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. It was truly a journey in every sense of the word. Thirty-six year old Tsukuro, who has always felt a bit lost in the world, seeks to find out why his close knit group of high school friends suddenly abandoned him with no explanations sixteen years ago. This leads him back to his old home town, Nagoya, and even as far away as Finland. I loved reading this book but the ending did disappoint me at first. There were too many open-ended questions left unanswered. However, once I had time to digest it more and read what other readers thought, I realized that it was a perfect ending. Tsukuro who had always been safe and lived in the fringes of life, found the courage to love. He takes that leap into the unknown not knowing whether he'd end up getting the girl or not. We never find out what happens but the point is Tsukuro finally had the spirit to live and let live.

Loved this quote from the book. It's so true.
"It's strange, isn't it? No matter how quiet and conformist a person's life seems, there's always a time in the past when they reached an impasse. A time when they went a little crazy. I guess people need that sort of stage in their lives."

Monday, September 1, 2014

Vivian Maier

I've been fascinated with Vivian Maier ever since I first read about her in the internet and saw her breathtaking photographs. It's an incredible story about an artist who hid her work and is now, shortly after her death, getting the kudos she most definitely deserves. It's also a mystery. Who was this woman who worked as a nanny instead of pursuing her passion full-time? Why did she keep her talent a secret? There are so many things we will just never know. The clues may be in the 100,000 plus negatives she left behind, the bulk of which hasn't even been developed yet.

I could summarize her story here but it's all over the internet and many writers have done a thorough job. One of the best articles I've read, was the New Yorker one, link here. If you're still interested after that then do check out the two documentaries about her, Finding Vivian Maier and the BBC's "Imagine" Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny's Picture? Both are very different yet absorbing and ultimately sad. She died alone in Chicago never knowing that she would soon be hailed as the greatest street photographer of the 20th century.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

I loved reading this one. As I mentioned in my Instagram account - "This book is like a box of chocolates, I just can't stop reading another Dear Sugar letter." In hindsight, maybe I should have spaced them more. One or two a day would have allowed me to assimilate Sugar's responses and give me time to think about the wise things she wrote. And readers, wise she is considering she's not really old. Strayed is in her mid-forties, married with two young kids. In fact she's just a bit older than me but she is so much wiser and maybe it's because she went through so much as a young woman. She lost her mother at the tender age of 22. She was married and divorced by the time she was 25 and she had tons of different odd and not so fun jobs. One of the best ones was an unpaid gig as Sugar for The Rumpus website. It's curious how she debated whether to take the job or not considering she was down and out and it was unpaid.Thankfully for us she took the leap.

I don't think I'll ever forget some of the letters I read in this anthology. There's the one from Dead Dad, who lost his 22 year-old-son to a drunk driver; the one from the disfigured but wonderful young man looking for love; the one from the healthy young woman who is terrified she's going to get cancer one day; the one about the man who overheard his best friends talking negatively about him and his girlfriend; and so many other letters from ordinary people. Sugar's responses and reflections on her own life are also memorable. This is definitely a keeper. I highlighted so many lines and I know I'll be dipping into this again and again in the future. I do hope she writes a Volume 2.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Euphoria by Lily King

I know, I know, I haven't been blogging at all lately but when I look back on my reading year, I've only read maybe three books that I'll include in my best of 2014 list. However, there are tons of fantastic books coming out soon - books by Sarah Waters, Ian McEwan, Michel Faber, Tana French and Haruki Murakami just to name a few. Things are looking up.

One book I read that stands out this year is Euphoria by Lily King. It's a novel loosely based on anthropologist Margaret Mead. It covers just a short span of time and in fact my only complaint is that at 256 pages it was too short! Just when I was beginning to get into the characters and the setting, the story ended. Mead was a controversial character in real life, writing books about sex in primitive societies. In Euphoria she is Nell Stone, an anthropologist who together with her husband studies native tribes in Papua, New Guinea. Enter another anthropologist, broodingly handsome Andrew Bankson and sparks fly. A love triangle ensues but not for long. The last scene was completely heartbreaking. This was a fascinating read not just for the story but for the close look at the work of anthropologists in the 1930s.

“It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion – you’ve only been there eight weeks – and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at the moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.”

Margaret Mead at work

Friday, June 27, 2014

#bookaday Days 21 to 25

#21 Summer Read
My fave read this summer was Euphoria by Lily King. Three anthropologists caught in a love triangle in 1930s New Guinea.

#22 Out of print.
I loved Nancy Drew but I was also fond of the Dana Girls especially the older editions. This series is now sadly out of print.
#23 Made to read at school.
I didn't care for The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway the first time I read it but I loved it the second time around.
#24 Hooked me into reading.
I've been a bookworm ever since I started reading the Nancy Drew books at the age of eight.
#25 Never finished it.
Although I count The Secret History by Donna Tartt as one of my top three favorite novels, I just couldn't finish The Goldfinch. I made it to 40% before I decided I just didn't care about the characters or the plot.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

#bookaday Days 16-20

#16 Can't believe more people haven't read.
It may have been written in 1861 but East Lynne by Ellen Wood is a page-turner!

#17 Future classic.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.

#18 Bought on a recommendation.
A friend recommended these  two at a bookshop in Kowloon circa 2000. I've been a Paul Auster fan ever since.

#19 Still can't stop talking about it.
It's tough to choose one for this category but I'll have to go with this Pulitzer Prize winner just because of the story behind how the book got published and because there's never been a character in literature like Ignatius Reilly.

#20 Favorite cover.
The Go-Between by LP Hartley. The cover looks like a stack of love letters wrapped with a ribbon. It's a  perfect cover because it's about a young boy who delivers messages between two secret lovers leading to a terrible conculsion. Gorgeous and heartbreaking book!

Friday, June 20, 2014

#bookaday Days 11-15

#11  Second hand bookshop gem.
I found this at a second hand book shop in Holland. Link to my review .

#12  I pretend to have read it.
The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. I loved the mini-series set in the British Raj but could never get into the book for some reason.

#13 Makes me laugh.
Wodehouse is fantastic! This hilarious madcap shipboard comedy of misunderstandings is really a gem.

#14 An old favorite
It's been about 20 years since I first read The Secret History by Donna Tartt but I still consider it one of my favorite books. Strangely enough, I didn't really care for her other two novels, The Little Friend and The Goldfinch.

#15 Favorite fictional father.
Mr.Bennett of course from Pride and Prejudice!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

#bookaday Days 6 to 10

#6 The one I always give as a gift. 
I can't imagine anyone not loving Wonder by RJ Palacio no matter what their tastes are in books or even if they're a non-reader.

#7 Forgot I owned it. 
A look through my shelves and I spot a book I totally forgot about, Armed with Madness by Mary Butts. It's a super weird book with a bizarre cover to boot.  I bought it in the late 90s just because I liked the blurb....

"In a remote house on the English Channel coast, a group of people, handsome and young are gathered: Scylla Taverner, sometimes a witch and sometimes a bitch, her potential lover Picus, her brother Felix and two other friends. Into their close circle comes Carston, an American curious to see something of England off the regulation road. But the discovery of an ancient jade cup ignites conflicting emotions and they embark on a mystical quest, full of heady promise and violent consequence."

Sounds interesting right? I don't remember finishing this one but maybe I should give it another go. Has anyone read it?

#8 Have more than one copy.
Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple. I have a first edition that's just falling apart in this tropical climate so I had a copy made. Here's a picture of both including the original's beautiful endpapers.

#9 Film or TV tie-in.
I don't usually buy books with film or TV tie-in covers. I didn't think I had any but I found one....The End of the Affair by Graham Greene.

#10 Reminds me of someone I love.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. When I was eight years old, my grandmother gave me this copy of her favorite book, Jane Eyre. I tried it several times but I just couldn't get through the first few pages. I found the red room part so claustrophobic and scary. The language was also difficult for me. I think because of that experience I avoided it for so long. I finally read it at the late age of 29 or 30 when my grandmother was long gone. Of course, I ended up loving the book. I regret that she's not around so I can tell her it's now one of my favorite novels too.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

#bookaday Days 1 to 5

I'm late to the game but I really want to join the #bookaday meme from The Borough Press so to avoid clogging your feeds, I'll post five days in each post.

#1 Favorite book from childhood
It was tough to choose just one from the many I loved but I'm going to choose a Judy Blume novel and this one is my favorite. Here's the edition I read over and over again.

#2 Best Bargain
A recent bargain I found at the bookshop called BookSale is a childhood book I lost or misplaced long ago, Gnomes by Wil Huygen and illustrated by Rien Poortvliet. I got this pristine hardbound edition for just 400 pesos or roughly 10 dollars!

#3 One with a blue cover
Scanned my shelves and this is what I found which also happens to be a book I love, Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier.
#4 Least Favorite book by a favorite author
Love most of Margaret Atwood's novels but this one was just ok.
#5 Doesn't belong to me
I borrowed this years ago from my brother but I haven't read it yet.

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