Katherine Arthaud, Contributor
It’s a cold, rainy Monday, and I am thinking about reading. I have always been a reader. I remember so many of the books and authors I read when I was young. Pat the Bunny, Dr. Seuss, Uncle Wiggly, Pippi Longstocking, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Kinman Rawlings, Black Beauty, Black Hearts in Battersea—I could go on. And on. And on.
So many worlds that I have passed over into, just by turning pages one by one, allowing my eyes to pass over page upon page of black typeface on white paper, traversing left to right, mind, cognition, imagination absorbing ideas, events and images, painting pictures, having pictures painted upon me, feeling feelings, resonating, relating, envisioning visions, entering into and exiting relationships with characters, layered in time, some short-lived and fleeting, some lifelong and eternal as human memory and imagination can allow.
It seems to me that reading is art more than anything. Yes, it is passive—that is one thing to love about it—but it is also creative. My father, a writer, was also a voracious reader who would frequently recount that one of the happiest years of his life was the one in which some non-serious illness kept him in bed for the better part of a year, and he read and read and read. The entire Wizard of Oz series, Lang’s Fairy Books, the work of E. Nesbit.
It’s interesting, though, that my children are not big readers, at least not now, not yet, even though they have been exposed all their lives to a mother who reads a ton. I don’t think my sons would ever have learned to read at all if it hadn’t been for Pokemon; they just had to find out what was written on the backs of those crazily addictive little trading cards. In her early years, my daughter was obsessed with books and was often found reading them aloud to her button-eyed stuffed animals and/or our long-suffering boxer, Bambi. But not anymore.
This month I read a book for which I have been waiting with much anticipation: Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. Likely, a number of you are Ferrante fans. She wrote the Neapolitan Quartet, beginning with the unforgettable, darkly sumptuous, coming-of-age My Brilliant Friend. Her books are so unusual, so well written, so compelling. And I love the fact that no one is entirely sure who Elena Ferrante is. Italian journalist Claudio Gatti thinks he has it figured out and claims that she is the translator Anita Raja, who lives in Rome with her husband, the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone.
Gatti has gone so far as to suggest that Ferrante may not have written her novels on her own, but rather, in collaboration with her husband. Gatti’s theory is rather annoying and by no means watertight. And really, I don’t give a fig who Elena Ferrante is in real life. I only care that she keeps writing. It is hard to describe the style of her prose. Here is the opening of her most recent novel: “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly. The sentence was uttered under his breath, in the apartment that my parents, newly married, had bought at the top of Via San Giacomo dei Capri, in Rione Alto. Everything—the spaces of Naples, the blue light of a frigid February, those words—remained fixed. But I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story, while in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled know, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.”
Breathtaking, right? The narrator, Gianni, is determined to lose her virginity, to find and bond with the aunt whom Gianni has been said to be as ugly as, and to get her hands on an heirloom bracelet that seems to have a life of its own and that gets passed from woman to woman in strange, irrational, inexplicable, and suspicious ways. Brillante! Superba! If you haven’t yet read Ferrante, you are in for a trattare.
Two other books I highly recommend are Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and All the Devils are Here by Louise Penny. The latter is the most recent of the bestselling series and takes place in Paris. I am a huge fan of Penny, who is Canadian, and I am one of the many who long always to return to the cozy village of Three Pines, where the books usually take place, and reconnect with my old friends there, but I have to say, this recent novel is one of my favorites.
Penny is a master of character development, to the point that one feels that her regulars are old, dear friends. Armand, Reine-Marie, their children Annie and Daniel, Annie’s husband, Jean-Guy Beauvoir—my heart warms to meet them once again and join with them on another adventure. Always, there is darkness and intrigue in Penny’s books (I mean, how can you have a mystery without darkness and intrigue?), but she has an unusual and impactful way of describing, evoking, and emphasizing love, connection, loyalty and the deep comfort that can be found in family and true friendship. Where are the devils? Read and find out. But along the way of finding the devils, you will also feel the angelic touch of love, warmth and kinship, along with the deep appreciation Penny has for her characters. I highly recommend all of Penny’s books. This one is particularly good.
Transcendent Kingdom is Gyasi’s second novel. Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Alabama, which gives her a really interesting lens and sensibility as a writer. This book is un-put-downable. It focuses on Gifty, a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience struggling to come to terms with the death by heroin overdose of her beloved brother, Nana, while wrestling with the un-wrestleable-with, incapacitating depression of her mother, and the absence of her father, referred to as the Chin Chin man, who went to Ghana one day and never returned.
The Chin Chin man becomes a lost cause, and nothing can bring the once stellar Nana back, and her mother won’t get out of bed. Meanwhile, there are the Herculean challenges of caring for a bunch of white lab rats and figuring out what makes their neural circuits of depression and addiction tick. Gifty looks to science and also to her childhood faith to help her navigate her world. I really loved this book. I liked the first half better than the second. See what you think.
Arrivederci amici miei! Stai al caldo! Buona lettura! And apologies for any butchering I might have inadvertently done (and si, have most likely done) to the beautiful Italian language.