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Madame Bovary shocked and disgraced her contemporaries

bovaryWhen Gustave Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary in the mid-nineteenth century, the book was considered obscene and the author was tried in a French court of justice for offences against morality and religion (an earlier version of the Everley Brothers’ Wake Up Little Susie, which was banned in Boston a hundred years later on similar grounds). Otherwise, has romance really changed all that much? Young women leave the homestead when greener pastures beckon. They’re mislead by romantic dreams of princes and luxurious lifestyles portrayed in popular novels and before long find themselves on the last train to slutsville.

Madame Bovary’s father is a farmer whose broken leg is attended to by a country medical practitioner (loosely called a doctor) named Charles Bovary who is married to a thin, cold and jealous wife. When Bovary’s wife dies, the farmer’s daughter Emma catches his eye. Emma sees stars in her eyes and prosperity in her future as a doctor’s wife. But real life has a way of disappointing. Charles is not the handsome and well-off prince she thought he was and her bliss soon turns to disillusionment.

Emma Bovary is prone to what we would today recognize as bi-polar disorder and her swings between manic energy and bed-ridden depression cause her adoring husband to resort to a variety of unsuccessful remedies. Emma self-medicates with her version of romantic love by engaging in extra-marital affairs and the inevitable peril ensues.

If you enjoyed Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina then you’ll love Madame Bovary. I’m amazed I’ve managed to come this far without reading the story of Emma Bovary, the young French woman whose life didn’t turn out quite the way she hoped or expected. Sound familiar? There are millions of Madame Bovarys throughout history and their story is almost cliché thanks to the literary ground broken by Gustave Flaubert. His book was scandalous when it was written nearly two centuries ago. But it opened the gates for other authors to pen similar dramas and like today’s media, what seemed obscene by earlier standards soon became commonplace.

What I loved most about reading Madame Bovary is the sensitive descriptions of small details like roadside flowers, room layouts and decor, items of clothing and the smells, sounds and cadence of life in the mid-nineteenth century. It allowed me to be a kind of voyeur in a time long gone, which for me was one of the main appeals of reading Anna Karenina as well. I read the Lowell Blair translation from the original French, which is considered the best. I now know what all the fuss was about. It’s a really good book.

 

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No thank you, Amy Poehler

poehlerAutobiographies and biographies are among my favourite reading genres. And as you’ve observed in my earlier book review postings, I really enjoyed Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me and Sylvia Jukes Morris’s two-volume biography on Clare Boothe Luce, How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran and numerous other books about strong, successful women. Such was not the case with Amy Poehler’s recent best-seller Yes, Please. As the star of various TV comedies including Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation, BFF of comedienne Tiny Fey and co-host of The Golden Globe Award Show, Poehler has acquired a sizeable fan following.

The book gives a strong sense of having been written under duress. She constantly refers to the writing process as being hard work and cops out by getting both Seth Meyers and her mother to each write a chapter, and uses various lists, handwritten notes and other material to fill space. There was little of the insight displayed by Mindy Kaling or Tina Fey in Poehler’s writing and at times I found it hard to soldier on. She’s boringly over-the-moon in love with her two boys which is understandable but reading about it is a yawn for anyone but her family. She dispenses divorce advice, drug-use advice and motherhood advice, but none of it was particularly interesting or ground-breaking. But maybe that’s just me. I could be dead wrong about this book when I say I was totally underwhelmed and I’m really glad I borrowed it on-line from the library rather than laying out hard cash. Read it and judge for yourself.

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Best friends grow up in Naples, Italy

Naples exists in the shadow of volatile Mount Vesuvius.
Naples exists in the shadow of volatile Mount Vesuvius.

Whew! After about a month’s reading, I’ve finally finished the fourth and final book in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series. I’m now feeling slightly bereft, as if I’ve emerged from a self-imposed exile and have to relearn how to relate to the real world again. First of all, something about the author. Elena Ferrante is notoriously secretive about her personal life; she’s reclusive, allows no photographs of herself and there has even been speculation about whether the author is a man or woman. The consensus is she’s a woman and a mother.

The books chronicle the lives of two women born in 1940 in Naples, Italy. They live in a world of corruption, physical violence, crime and extreme poverty within their small neighbourhood. Both girls are exceptionally intelligent and spend their early years in elementary school competing and supporting each other. The books are written in the first person by the main character Elena Greco, and describe the complicated life she shares with her best friend Lila (also called Lina). Their looks and personalities are different and ultimately the course of their lives diverge and converge in a complex series of circumstances that keep the reader engaged for nearly two thousand pages. Early Boomer women will relate to growing up in the fifties and sixties, then working and raising families in the seventies, eighties and nineties.

elena1Book 1: My Brilliant Friend introduces us to the cast of characters, and it is extensive. In fact, at the front of each book, there’s an Index of Characters which I had to frequently reference to keep everyone straight. This volume takes us through their years of early education and young adulthood to about the age of sixteen. The reader is regularly presented with descriptions of everyday violence inherent in the Naples neighbourhood where they live and sets the stage for later developments. This volume of schoolgirl experiences seemed tedious at times but is essential reading to better understand later plot lines and character development.

elena2Book 2: The Story of A New Name takes us through a problematic early marriage by Lila while Elena pursues higher education. Neither one of the friends enjoys the happy life she envisioned as a young girl as they lay the groundwork for their adult years. Fractures in their friendship begin to appear as a result of their divergent choices in life but they rally as needed and support each other in difficulties.

elena3Book 3: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay sees the young women as wives and mothers in increasingly complicated domestic, political and social events. The seventies and eighties were challenging times for everyone and with the struggles between the Christian Democrats, the Communists and the Fascists in Italy, their lives were particularly difficult. The social standards everyone lived with in the fifties and early sixties are abandoned along with husbands, lovers, dreams and friendships.

Book 4:  The Lost Child is a wrapping up of loose ends and mea culpa outcomes. Elena and Lila have reached old age with the inevitable list of regrets and remembrances resulting from lives filled with love, lust, caring, injustices and the hands of fate. As old women they have remained a constant in each other’s lives, for better or worse. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending but that’s subjective.elena4

Overall, the books are gripping and well worth reading. Life in the last half of the twentieth century in Naples, Italy was shockingly violent and unlawful by North American standards. But then I didn’t grow up in the slums of New York or Los Angeles so who knows. As someone who has enjoyed strong female friendships lasting as long as Elena and Lila (more than sixty years), I found it difficult at times to understand the bitterness and fractious nature of their relationship. I could only attribute it to their passionate Italian temperaments and the challenges of their difficult lives. Narrated by Elena we are not party to the balanced point of view from Lila. They experience jealousy and deceit while at times providing overwhelming support for each other. The author unreservedly discloses mean thoughts about her friend and Lila’s actions seem to justify the disloyalty, but we’re only getting one side of the story.

The author devotes pages to the complicated pop psychology we women all engage in but it’s intelligently and thoughtfully laid out. The translation from Italian is easy and fluid. I did find the dialogue confusing at times when not set out in quotation marks. Once I got past the groundwork of the first book though, I couldn’t stop reading. Having visited Naples myself in the past, I could relate to the background.  We were warned ahead of time not to stay there because of the crime and our cab driver confirmed this. He was uninhibited in describing the various mafia-type cartels that run the city and freely gave us the name of the one he belongs to. Paying protection is a way-of-life for the average Neopolitan. To experience it from the perspective of someone who lived there, these books are a must-read.

 

 

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The Big Green Tent covers a lot of ground

tentBooks about Russian history aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but after reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated with stories of everyday life in Russia at various times in history. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is still on my bookshelf and one of these days I’m going to get beyond the first few dozen pages. In the meantime, The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya has been on The New York Times’ bestseller list for several weeks and covers the period in history from the death of Stalin in 1954 up until the 1990s so I decided to give it a shot.

Set in Moscow, the story begins slowly, describing the lives of three young boys, Sanya, Ilya and Mikha who are united together in elementary school by virtue of being perceived as weak in some way. As the perfect target for bullies, the boys each possess a different set of personal skills and attributes but form a united front against the world in which they live. They are positively influenced in life-altering ways by a special teacher when they are teenagers. After high school, their lives branch out and intersect with various other characters representative of evolving Soviet society through the decades of the cold war, the thaw and so-called enlightenment.

The author’s way of stringing the characters together reminded me of the principle of Six Degrees of Separation (we are all just six people removed from personally connecting with anyone on the planet). The book covers each man’s story in a parallel narrative, which can be confusing at times. The common threads are not only the main characters’ three-way friendship but the people who move in their individual and intersecting circles. Sanya is the musical one; Ilya is an avant garde photographer; Mikha is a sensitive and caring teacher. Reading the complex descriptions of musical interpretation and poetry was a challenge for me to read so I tended to skip over those parts.

zhivago2Life in the Soviet Union during the last half of the twentieth century was difficult for its citizens who were still under constant threat of arrest or deportation for the most minor infraction of Communist dogma, although not to the degree of the horrors carried out by Stalin. Imagine living in a twelve-foot by fifteen-foot room with three or four family members and sharing a kitchen and bathroom with twenty-five or thirty other people. Such was life in the glorious socialist state. The characters in The Big Green Tent were poor intelligentsia who had to go to the park and sit on a bench in the cold to discuss books, social conditions, politics or just to gossip about friends, for fear of being overheard and misunderstood by KGB agents. The apartments of common people were bugged and regularly monitored which frequently resulted in the police storming apartments and arresting people for the slighted perceived misstep or slip of the tongue. Reading or even possessing a contraband copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago could land you in prison for several years.

gulagOnce I got through the mundane but essential descriptions of their early school years, the book picked up speed and I absolutely could not put it down. It’s a shocking indictment of Soviet life, particularly when we consider that the country is now being run by a dictatorial Vladimir Putin, former Chief of the KGB. It explains a lot. The translation is fluid and easy to read, unlike the version of Anna Karenina that I read several years ago. If historical fiction is your thing, then you’ll love The Big Green Tent. And I really must get back into The Gulag Archipelago.

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Sixty is not the loneliest number

sixtyThis morning when I looked into my hated 10x magnification mirror I was horrified to see at least six new wrinkles on the side of my face that I swear to God weren’t there yesterday. Such is life when you’re in your sixties, a phrase and age which still sounds strange and unrelated to me, as my brain is happily operating in the sixties, the good old days of trim waistlines, mini-skirts (the first-time ’round) listening non-stop to the best music ever, and discovering sex. This mindset uniquely qualifies me to appreciate the truths Ian Brown writes about in his new book, Sixty, The Beginning of the End, or The End of the Beginning. Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail and a somewhat disillusioned and curmudgeonly baby boomer. As he approached his sixtieth birthday he decided to chronicle the year-long event of living his sixty-first year, diary-style with the hope of extracting and sharing some wit and wisdom from the experience.

I absolutely loved Ian Brown’s book. If I have one criticism—and it’s minor—it’s that he’s too hard on himself. I worry that he might be suffering a low-grade depression. He seems to have arrived at the threshold of retirement with a sackful of regrets—that he didn’t write the great novel he always planned to write; that he isn’t better off financially; that he no longer has the physical and mental prowess of his misspent youth. Brown is heavily influenced and inspired by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, an articulate, reflective and minutely detailed six-volume account of his daily life. And Knausgaard is only forty-five years old. Brown compares this influence to the background characters on the album cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that The Beatles “carried around in their heads, the friends upon whom they leaned for rhythm, for infusions of courage when they needed it.”

acidBrown details the inevitable physiological disappointments that accompany aging—prostate concerns, glaucoma, knee pain, plantar fasciitis, hearing aids, rosacea, skin tags and even his recently discovered hemorrhoid that he fondly named George, who has become an important part of his persona, sadly replacing his former preoccupation with sex. As a result of once listening to his mother-in-law and her friends endlessly talking about their operations, strokes and hernias, he promised that he would never do the same. “I would talk about literature and ideas” he says, adding “Now I talk about operations, strokes and hernias. hemorrhoids even. I used to talk about sex but no one wants to anymore. Despite its cynicism, the entire book is written with humour and honesty.

I can only hope he read and was inspired by my blog postings (click here for Build it and Boomers Will Come or Where Will You Be in Twenty Years) because we totally agree on our vision of retirement accommodation for Baby Boomers, “The current dream among my crowd is to buy a larger residence amongst a group of friends, a small building or multi-unit dwelling and turn it into apartments with a common diningroom and medical help included.” Our generation seems to be unanimous in this vision but no developers are taking the bait/hint.

Don't worry, Ian. You're not alone.
Don’t worry, Ian. You’re not alone.

Perhaps there are boomers who share Ian Brown’s feelings of regret and frustration but I think most of us celebrate the fact that we have safely arrived at our sixties with great memories of our youthful transgressions, accomplishments and overall contentment with a life well-lived. I’m with Winston Churchill on this one. This is just the end of the beginning. We’re now the youngest and probably the healthiest we’ll ever be. Hopefully, we still have some decades left and thanks to retirement, the time to do whatever we want. Perhaps I should have bought the book at Chapters or Amazon.ca  instead of downloading it from the library.  Sounds like Ian Brown could use the money and I feel guilty that I could be responsible for him subsisting on cat food in retirement. But it’s still not too late for you to pick it up for yourself or a fellow Boomer for Christmas or any other special occasion. Whoever reads it will be glad they did. It’s a fun and informative read.

 

 

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Mindy Kaling has earned her wings as best-selling author

mindy1I would sacrifice twenty years of my life for the ability to write like the talented Mindy Kaling.  As one of the writers and star of two successful television shows (The Office and The Mindy Kaling Project) as well as two best-selling books (Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me and Why not Me?), Kaling has earned her place at the front of the class. Until I read her most recent book, Why Not Me? I was only familiar with her name as I by-passed it in the TV guide or in a People magazine cover headline at the grocery store . . . Who is Mindy Kaling?. After finishing her book, I decided to check out her television show only to find it’s on Pay-Per-View and I’m too cheap to pay more money on top of my already horrendously expensive monthly telecom bills, so my assessment is based on reading only this book. But the bottom line is she must have something worth sharing because she is commercially successful, rich, famous and talented, and I am . . . me.

Like David Sedaris, Mindy Kaling has a special way of turning the most common experiences into bon mots of hilarious self-deprecation. Her parents were born in India and Kaling’s success is the result of a combination of hard work and talent rather than the usual Hollywood prerequisites of stick-thin body, synthetic boobs, expensive veneers and blonde hair extensions. Early in the book she acknowledges dreaming of conforming to “normal” standards of beauty and not being remotely successful at it. Good on her for accepting who she is. She confesses that if she devoted less time and mental energy to imagining Bradley Cooper as her mate, perhaps there might be some freed-up brain space for weight-related issues.

mindy2Kaling sums up entitlement as the belief that you deserve something, and in support of deserving what she has achieved, she quotes comedian Kevin Hart, “My name is Kevin Hart and I WORK HARD!!! That pretty much sums me up!!! Everybody Wants To Be Famous But Nobody Wants To Do The Work!” This simple statement is simply brilliant and questions the negative connotation associated with the word “workaholic”. Confidence comes from hard work and like respect it is earned. She advises young people to “Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled. Listen to no one except the two smartest and kindest adults you know, and that doesn’t always mean your parents.” She’s speaking from a position of experience. I still haven’t seen Mindy Kaling on television; that will happen one of these days. But in the meantime, I admire her writing skills, sense of humour and general philosophy of life, and that’s good enough for me.

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