Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Elsie is Florence’s (Flo) best friend. The book is all about Flo and begins with her lying on the floor having had a fall, she’s waiting for someone to arrive, she lives in a self-contained apartment within a retirement village. She imagines who might come first, what they might say, the ambulance ride to the hospital.

Every few chapters are interspersed with a chapter that is labelled with the time, the first chapter is 4.48pm and the last chapter is 11.12pm. The chapters in between narrate the story of both the present and the past, about her time at Cherry Tree with Jack and Elsie, about staff members Miss Ambrose and Handy Simon, a few outings they take together, both the trio of Jack, Elsie and Flo and a group outing for a couple of days to Whitby.

I looked across the lounge, and into the past. It was more useful than the present. There were times when the present felt so unimportant, so unnecessary. Just somewhere I had to dip into from time to time, out of politeness.

Flo has plenty of complaints about what she is expected to participate in at Cherry Tree, but she’s also worried about being sent to Greenbank, she feels as though she’s under probation. Her observations about the names of these places and the names of many things, is insightful and adds a lightness to the narrative.

Another problem with Cherry Tree is there are no cherry trees. I’ve had this out with Miss Bissell on more than one occasion, but she won’t be told. ‘One of them must be,’ is all she can come up with, but none of them is. It’s the kind of name you give to these places though. Woodlands, Oak Court, Pine Lodge. They’re often named after trees for some reason. It’s the same with mental health units. Forests full of forgotten people, waiting to be found again…
It’s like the day room. It’s isn’t a day room, it’s an All The Bloody Time Room. Everybody will be in there now and it isn’t daytime.

And then there is the new resident who looks uncannily familiar to Flo, and makes her fearful and paranoid about events that occurred back in the 1950’s, only no one seems to be taking her seriously about her concerns, so she Jack and Elsie decide to take matters into their own hands.

Memory is like a character in the book, it’s is something that is sometimes there in abundance, stretching far back into the past and at other times, beyond reach.

‘You need to think about things for longer before you give up, Florence.
I didn’t answer, and we were stuck in a wordless argument for a while.
‘Do you remember taking sandwiches on holiday, when we were children? she said eventually. ‘Do you remember going to Whitby?’
I said I remembered but I wasn’t sure. She could tell straight away, because nothing much gets past Elsie.
‘Think, Florence,’ she said. ‘Think.’
I tried. Sometimes, you feel a memory before you see it. Even though your eyes can’t quite find it, you can smell it and taste it, and hear it shouting to you from the back of your mind.
‘Ham and tomato’ I said. ‘With boiled eggs!’

Three Things About Elsie is a delightful read, a book written with tremendous empathy and compassion by a writer who has been close to the elderly and listened, and seen them for who they are and have always been, that the bodily exterior and instances of confusion aren’t what defines them.

She portrays these characters with integrity and humour, I had the feeling often as I read that I was watching these scenes happen, so vividly are they drawn, so clear the voices and intentions of the characters. She creates a mystery that intrigues the reader, making me not want to put the book down, desperate to know what was going to happen next and always with that air of doubt, about what is real and what might be the confusion of an elderly woman. But never mind that, for as we read, we are right there with Flo, Jack and Elsie, moving on from one clue to the next, following them in their devilish escapades and hoping that all will be well in the end.

I’m not surprised this book is being adored and appreciated by so many readers, Joanna Cannon captures the soul of Flo and we recognise the vulnerability of ageing and only been seen for the deteriorating body and mind that isn’t who we are at all.

Three Things About Elsie has been long listed for the Women’s Prize For Fiction 2018. Click on the link to read about the 16 novels nominated.

Click Here to Buy Three Things About Elsie via BookDepository

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Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein #FerranteFever

Those Who StayThis is the third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy about two friends Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples.

It follows on from Book One, My Brilliant Friend and Book Two, The Story of a New Name (click on the titles to read earlier reviews).

Lila has married, had a child, reformed her husband’s business, strayed and finally separated from her husband and moved to another area outside the neighbourhood to live with Enzo, a childhood friend. She gets a job in a sausage factory, working under oppressive conditions that attract the interest of social activists and harsh threats from the ‘fascists’.

“Can you imagine what it means to go in and out of refrigerated rooms at twenty degrees below zero, and get ten lire more an hour – ten lire – for cold compensation? If you imagine this, what do you think you can learn from people who are forced to live like that?”

In Pisa, Elena has remoulded herself, no longer referring or comparing herself to Lila. She observes how people from her type of neighbourhood and class are perceived outside it, among the bourgeois, those raised within the milieu of intellectuals and achievers, those with access to money, social connections, many of whom are gifted with a presence she can only dream of. Elena finishes her university studies and becomes engaged to Pietro, who was raised within that other world; coming from a well-known academic family, he too will become a university professor, teaching and writing academic works like his father.

As she is concluding her studies, Elena writes a fictional story drawn from aspects of her past, though never admitting it is anything but fiction. She gifts the story to Pietro on an impulse, hoping he will read it. He passes the manuscript to his well-connected mother Adele, thus Elena treads the path laid in front of her, towards becoming an author. Adele introduces her to contacts that will result in her first book being published, establishing her career as a writer.

“I spoke of the necessity of recounting frankly every human experience, including – I said emphatically – what seems unsayable and what we do not speak of even to ourselves.”

Though Elena does her best to avoid it, Pietro finally meets her family and though he insists on a civil ceremony for their marriage, a decision that stuns and terribly disappoints her mother, he wishes to do the traditional thing by asking her father for her hand. Her father is calm and accepting, however her mother’s thoughts insist on an airing and she lectures the young professor unabashedly.

  “When at last she was silent, he said that he knew very well how precious I was and that he was grateful to her for having brought me up as I was.”

Through marriage, Elena succeeds in elevating herself above her roots, though finds herself stranded in not quite belonging to either her future role or her past. They are like roles she assumes outside herself, taking care not to stand out when she returns to the neighbourhood and paying attention to how she should behave in her new role as the wife of a professor.

“As soon as I got off the train, I moved cautiously in the places where I had grown up, always careful to speak in dialect, as if to indicate I am one of yours, don’t hurt me.”

However, marrying the young professor, writing the story that turns into a successful novel, moving to Florence and becoming a mother leave her little time to play any other role than that of housewife.

Lila leaves the neighbourhood, escaping her marriage and taking on a job in a sausage factory owned by a friend of Nino Sarratore, whom the girls met one summer. Her job leaves her little time to spend with her son. Unwillingly, she becomes connected with worker’s rights activists and discovers the dirty arm of the neighbourhood loan sharks who are leaning on her employer, while continuing to try to lure her back into their realm.

Lila and Elena’s worlds drift further apart and although they are aware of the need to share with the other, they each possess the instinct to soldier on without admitting their struggle or need for support or encouragement. Elena will receive both her mother-in-law and her mother at different times so that she can write and Lila will return to the neighbourhood to ease her difficulties. Both have opportunities within their reach, yet both are susceptible to self-destruction.

“Too many bad things, and some terrible, had happened over the years, and to regain our old intimacy we would have had to speak our secret thoughts, but I didn’t have the strength to find the words and she, who perhaps had the strength didn’t have the desire, didn’t see the use.”

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is a compelling story of the lives of two women and those around them, and a penetrative observation on the creation and consequence of decisions women make, how they live with those decisions and the often destructive way they bring about change. It narrates a journey of moving away from one’s origins and the sacrifice the attainment of that desire requires.

Elena leaves her past and a life she didn’t want, behind her, however in attaining a new life, she loses sight of who she really is and what drives her. She is just coming to the point of realising that when her world spins out of control. And thankfully for us all the fourth book is being translated. I expect the wheel may come full circle.

Italian Screenwriter Francesco Piccolo

Italian Screenwriter Francesco Piccolo

Note:  It has been announced that My Brilliant Friend will be made into a television series in Italy. The author/screenwriter Francesco Piccolo, winner of the esteemed Italian literary Strega Prize 2014 (with his bittersweet memoir of life on the Italian Left, ‘Il desiderio di essere come tutti’ (The Desire To Be Like Everyone) will work on the screenplay.

Next Book in the Series: The Story of the Lost Child (publication in English due Sept 2015)

Literary Blog Hop … Book #Giveaway

From now until Wednesday November 5th Word by Word is participating along with other international bloggers in a Literary Blog Hop Giveaway hosted by Judith at Leeswamme’s Blog, an avid reader and reviewer from the Netherlands.

literarybloghopnovember

The blog hop offers you the opportunity to win a book here and you can visit other blogs listed below, each one offering a book of literary merit as a giveaway.

Just leave a comment below to enter the draw and on Thursday 6 November I will notify the winner.  And seriously,  even if you don’t win, you must read this book!

The book is Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and the giveaway is open worldwide.

Win a copy of

My Brilliant Friend!

My Brilliant Friend

This entire series is definitely one of my Top Reads of 2014.

Elena Ferrante is an Italian author from Naples, where the books are set. We know little about her as she doesn’t accept interviews and uses a pen name, however that hasn’t prevented her books from becoming a word of mouth sensation. You can read my review of My Brilliant Friend here.

My Brilliant Friend is the story of two friends Elena and Lila growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples and their efforts to escape the inevitability of their fate, as members of a lower class community.

I found it a compelling read and loved the second book The Story of  New Name (reviewed here), as much as the first.

There are three books available in English (I’m reading Book 3 ) and a fourth book due out in 2015. (It was published in Italian on Oct 29 2014).

To Enter:

1. Leave a comment and tell me whether you have ever read a book in a language other than English, or a translated book. If you have, do you have a favourite? (1 entry)

2. Follow this blog. Mention in the comments if you already do. (2 entries)

3. Follow @clairewords on twitter (3 entries)

Then click on the links below to visit other blogs participating in the giveaway.

Make sure to visit the author Juliet Greenwood, whose two books Eden’s Garden and We That Are Left are excellent reads and also reviewed here at Word by WordClick on the titles to read the reviews.

Linky List:

  1. Leeswammes
  2. Read Her Like an Open Book (US/CA)
  3. My Book Self (N. Am.)
  4. The Book Stop
  5. My Book Retreat (US)
  6. Books in the Burbs (US)
  7. Guiltless Reading
  8. Word by Word
  9. Juliet Greenwood
  10. BooksandLiliane
  11. Words for Worms (US)
  12. The Relentless Reader
  13. The Misfortune of Knowing
  14. The Friday Morning Bookclub (US)
  15. Readerbuzz
  16. Lavender Likes, Loves, Finds and Dreams
  17. The Emerald City Book Review
  18. Wensend
  1. Laurie Here
  2. A Cup Of Tea, A Friend, And A Book (US)
  3. Moon Shine Art Spot (US)
  4. I’d Rather Be Reading At The Beach (US)
  5. Lost Generation Reader
  6. Books Speak Volumes
  7. Mom’s Small Victories (US)
  8. Books on the Table (US)
  9. Orange Pekoe Reviews
  10. Lavender Likes, Loves, Finds and Dreams
  11. Words And Peace (US)
  12. Booklover Book Reviews
  13. Inside the Secret World of Allison Bruning (US)

Note: Thank you to Daniela at Europa Editions for organising a copy of the book.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante tr. By Ann Goldstein … Neapolitan Tetralogy Book 2

The Story of a New NameThe second in the tetralogy of books about two friends Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples. The first book My Brilliant Friend I reviewed here.

Both girls were bright students in primary school, and perhaps because the story is narrated from Elena’s perspective she often sees herself in the shadow of her friend Lila, as if she must strive to attain her success, while Lila’s comes more naturally.

Lila fights to elevate herself, suggesting Elena studies with her to help her friend, thereby attaining the knowledge herself and through imposing her will on her husband, her family and business associates, who need her input and influence which she uses to both help them and to ensure her often rebellious stance is understood by them all.

It is Elena who despite her family circumstances progresses through high school and at the suggestion of a teacher applies to a university in Pisa where she can continue her studies.

Lila whose beauty and bravado bring her more to the attention of local boys wanting to move themselves up in the world financially, becomes entangled in their schemes and part of their negotiations and is married at sixteen to Stefano the grocer, partly in order to avoid the attention of the Solara brothers.

“How difficult it was to find one’s way, how difficult it was not to violate any of the incredibly detailed male regulations.”

Through her personal notebooks that she entrusts to Elena for safekeeping and Elena’s inability to withhold from the temptation of what they offer, we too as readers understand more from within the bounds of Lila’s marriage and life than we might otherwise from the limited perspective of her friend, particularly during the frequent periods where the friendship was being tested and therefore withheld.

Though unwilling to be trapped inside marriage, Elena does envy her friend the space and luxury her new status as Signora Raffaella Carracci has given her and when Lila’s husband suggests a summer holiday on doctor’s orders to increase her chances of conceiving a child, Lila’s insistence that her friend accompany becomes Elena’s excuse to find a way to be in close proximity to Nino Sarratore, the brilliant student she has had a crush on for years. His arrival becomes a turning point in their lives, though not the outcome either of them were wishing for.

Pisa NormaleElena distances herself from Lila and from her family and moves to Pisa, where initially she struggles to brush off the ways of her neighbourhood, her origin, her accent, things that make it obvious to others she is not one of them. She throws herself into her studies and into becoming more like her contemporaries; a new boyfriend aids her transition.

“That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighbourhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them….

They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labours or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings? Would Lila be misshapen like Nunzia?…

And would my body too, one day be ruined by the emergence of not only my mother’s body, but my father’s? And would all that I was learning at school dissolve, would the neighbourhood prevail again, the cadences, the manners, everything be confounded in a black mire,…”

Leaving Naples allows Elena to begin to reform herself, to blend in, the novel highlights the tension between the Neapolitan dialect spoken in her neighbourhood and the correct Italian spoken by the professional, educated classes. Dialect is associated with aggression, insults and anger, with all the negative emotions and difficult challenges of a repressed community, while the Italian symbolises upward mobility and refinement.

Napoletana“Be careful where all this studying leads, Lenu. Remember who you are and which side you’re on.”

I found Book 2 just as engaging as Book 1, more than just narrating the events that mould the two girls’ lives is the underlying philosophical question of whether one can rise above one’s origins via the attainment of significant wealth or education. Elena and Lila represent these twin avenues, in their attempt to escape their origins.

The novel continues to focus on the friendship of the two girls and their connections with others, both those from within their sphere and those they encounter outside, a measure of how far they have progressed in their aim to rise up and out of the confines of the neighbourhood.

The narrative is less dramatic than it might be by some of the omissions. Elena doesn’t recount much of her own dialogue with her boyfriends and much of the story is narrated or told, rather than putting the reader in the midst of the events as if to experience them. It is the psychological and philosophical elements of the placement of the two women in these situations that lend themselves a kind of accepted inevitability, we won’t be shocked by anything that happens, knowing their backgrounds, it is the lure of that question of whether either of them can or will escape their fate that entices us to read on.

Next Book in the Series: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (click title to read review)

Sula, Toni Morrison

SulaA farmer promises freedom and a piece of land referred to as Bottom, to his slave if he performs some difficult chores. The town of Medallion grows up around the farmland, looking down on the valley where the more fertile land and the white folks live.

The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, ‘Oh no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile.

‘But it’s high up in the hills,’ said the slave.

‘High up from us,’ said the master, but when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven, the best land there is.’

It’s the town where Sula and Nel grow up in the 1920’s. Both are only children, Nel raised in her mother’s quiet, orderly neat home that oppresses her and keeps her protected and Sula in the home of her infamous grandmother Eva Pearce, a woman who hasn’t come downstairs in years and may or may not have done despicable things before she became one-legged and runs a kind of boarding house for vagrants.

“a household of throbbing disorder constantly awry with thins, people, voices and the slamming of doors”

In childhood, the two girls differences are insignificant, they revel in each other’s company, they test the boundaries of their community and environment, they experience joy and witness horror. They bury the past until it returns to haunt them in adulthood, when they can no longer avoid who they were always destined to be, thanks to the judgments and perceptions of others and the behaviours of those who went before them. And themselves.

“Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.”

The book is separated into two parts, the early 1920’s during the girls childhood and the late 30’s, early 40’s when Sula returns and creates a disturbing ripple throughout the small community, no longer used to her carefree ways, having forgotten the inclinations of the female characters she was spawned from. She becomes estranged from them all. Except one.

It is about the innocence and bonds of childhood, secrets between friends, the inclination to follow the well-trodden path of those who have gone before, despite the desire for freedom and individuality and the reluctance of others to see them any differently.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Her books are almost always the perfect size of a novella and every one of Toni Morrison’s stories I have read brings so much more than the sum of its pages to the reader in terms of things to consider, long after the last page is turned.

Her language is poetic, her characters resplendent with their flaws, they speak for the one and the many and show us ourselves, the parts we hide from view, that which is judged from outside and the inclination to judge without knowing.

 

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

A book that has been read by so many and is such a tour de force that I wasn’t sure if I had anything to add to the millions of words already said and written and of much more critical depth than I plan to cover, so I waited until I was sitting in the airport yesterday and just decided to write whatever came to mind.

CIMG5356Steinbeck narrates a simple story that reads like a play, which it did indeed become. It was a time when Steinbeck believed the novel to be dead and his work seemed to sit on the cusp of genre, able to swing both ways.

“The work I am doing now, is neither a novel nor a play but it is a kind of playable novel.”

Lennie likes to keep a mouse in his pocket, he gains pleasure from the soft caress of fingers on a smooth pelt, the feel of silky hair, new-born puppies. He is a simple man and a hard worker, however his strength is fallible and his appreciation of the sense of touch incompatible with it.

The story is a short but life-changing episode in the lives of two friends George and Lennie, itinerant labourers on the Californian seasonal workers trail, trying to avoid trouble and dreaming like others of one day having their own plot of land, a few animals, vegetables, a working life yes, but one that would not be lived at the beck and call of those who claim superiority.

They meet others like them, they meet sceptics, they meet a man who would never have dared dream of what they pine for and they encounter those who have it already. Without needing to tell or describe, Steinbeck presents through sparse narrative and dialogue: friendship, cruelty (with and without intention), jealousy, indifference and fear. He uses the colloquial language of men of the time giving it a raw, frank boldness that requires no embellishment (the book was written in 1937, though perhaps inspired by his own experiences in the early 1920’s).

Crooks interrupted brutally.

“You guys is just kiddin’ yourself. You’ll talk about it a hell of a lot, but you won’t get no land. You’ll be a swamper here till they take you out in a box. Hell, I seen too many guys. Lennie here’ll quit an’ be on the road in two, three weeks. Seems like ever’ guy got land in his head.”

Candy rubbed his cheek angrily.

“You God damn right we’re gonna do it. George says we are. We got the money right now.”

Steinbeck himself spent time working as an itinerant agricultural worker in the Salinas Valley for nearly two years in the 1920’s after dropping out of university, so had first-hand observations of the kinds of men whose lives were entrenched in these routines and their familiar aspirations.

“Lennie was a real person” he told a New York Times reporter in 1937.

MenHis own experiences, observations, his compassion, perhaps born of a certain humbleness having left the hi-brow corridors of Stanford University where he would have brushed shoulders with another kind of person, lend the narrative authenticity and empathy.

An exceptional novella, told mostly through dialogue where every word is made to count without losing its beauty or power. We sense the inevitability of the outcome which unnerves the reader while we encounter a brilliant, sensitive portrayal of two friends with a similar dream, who if the world was a kinder place, should have been able to achieve it with the genuine camaraderie and work ethic they possessed .

Previous Steinbeck Reviews – A Pearl

Travelling Life’s Long Road – The Bridge Club by Patricia Sands

Reading Patricia Sand’s The Bridge Club feels a little like taking a long road trip with a friend, she drives as we listen to her narrate this story of eight female characters, a condensed version of their lives, her voice like the gentle thrum of the engine, lulling us at times into a companionable silence, we listen and observe the passing landscape of years, immersing into these lives as if they were our own.

After forty years of friendship a group of friends are to spend a weekend at a mountain cottage, a location they have been to many times before, only this weekend will see them face a challenge unlike any other they have had to live through to date. Acknowledging the importance that this group of friends has been in each of their lives, affectionately referred to as BC, the Bridge Club, they each share their SOS, ‘support of sisters’ moment before facing the ultimate test of friendship that awaits them.

They could each identify at least one time or experience, some lasting longer than others, when family or other support was not the answer and the BC had come to the rescue.

In this way each of the characters are introduced and we learn of a significant event in their lives that required this band of sisters to come together and thrash out a problem in a way that left no other option than to resolve the dilemma shared. It gets inside the minds of how a group of women think and they aren’t always necessary in agreement, but by the end they will have agreed on a course of action that has the support of them all and often some kind of intervention as well.

We live through marriage, divorce, adoption, coming out, the premature death of a spouse and it will culminate in that weekend away, where it becomes apparent what the past forty years of friendship has been preparing them for, for nothing less than a rock solid lifelong friendship could endure what they must go through.

A moment of intense quiet followed this exchange, a moment when their connection was almost palpable, with no doubt or hesitation. Their strength flowed from one to the other and bound them together as never before.

By the end of this read, we have had a glimpse into the lives of eight ordinary women, who like every one of us have lived through some extraordinary moments and we can only marvel at how fortunate they were not just to have found each other, but to have kept this bond of friendship together over the years and to have each benefited from the powerful gift that it offered, that magic synergy where the combined intention and actions of a dedicated group surpasses the sum of each its parts.