Tag Archives: female authors

“She Made Me Laugh – My Friend Nora Ephron” by Richard Cohen

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Nora Ephron is almost my contemporary, but the eight year age difference between us is, in fact, a big deal. Born in 1941, she faced a level of sexist chauvinism which was being challenged by the time I graduated from high school and headed out into the world. Ephron’s life is an interesting study in American feminism as it emerged after World War II.

I admit to being only sketchily familiar with her books and movies. I saw “Sleepless in Seattle”.

Richard Cohen, nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, wrote about Ephron because they were best friends. Inadvertently, he provides insight into the New York City world of the rich and famous (and those aspiring to be…) There’s a little too much name dropping, but the affection that underlies the writing is unmistakable.

I think Ephron’s book Heartburn falls into the category of “guilty pleasure” fiction. It’s based on the breakup of her first marriage, which happened at a time when women were often advised to turn a blind eye to spousal infidelity. I can’t help but be disturbed by her fictionalizing her family (especially her children) so extensively. She was, according to Cohen, absolutely confident that she did no harm.

I believe Ephron has been compared to Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) whom Wikipedia describes as “poet, satirist and critic”. I read a biography of Parker and would describe her as brilliant but mean spirited. I think Ephron was equally bright and talented, but far more kind and generous.

If you enjoy biography and/or contemporary gossip, this book is a good read.

“Arsenic with Austen” by Katherine Bolger Hyde

I finally found fiction to relax with! Wait, I shouldn’t say it that way… The heroine is a Professor of English (at Reed College in Oregon, no less) and she would disapprove of a preposition at the end of a sentence.

Emily Cavanaugh is an appealing protagonist, and the frequent literary references (ranging from the Old Testament to JK Rowling) in this mystery amused me. When stressed, Emily retreats into the worlds of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. When confronted with murder, she relies on Dorothy Sayers. Emily is a bibliophile who suffers from a level of technophobia even worse than my own. She would never condescend to blog. Horrors! Such an ugly neologism!

Two of the themes of this book are old grudges and land development. It works. There’s romance, too.

This is Ms. Bolger’s first novel and I look forward to more. She is calling her series “Crime with the Classics”. I don’t think she can go wrong.

The Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante – Books 2, 3 and 4

See my blog entry of July 13 for comments on the first of these books, My Brilliant Friend.

Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels comprise a tetralogy, or quartet. My only other experience with a literary quartet is the magnificent Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. The Raj Quartet has been described as “sprawling”. I would say panoramic. The Neapolitan novels are intensely focused on one woman’s life, and within it, one intense friendship.

I read the three books that followed My Brilliant Friend (1300+ pages total!) in a fast and furious binge that took less than a month. Just couldn’t stop!

The Story of a New Name is about gender and relationships. Normally I’m not charitable towards authors who provide an index of characters. Clear and thoughtful writing should render that crutch unnecessary. But I forgive Ferrante because the complexity of her books, with their multitude of characters, reflects “real” life.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay continues the lives of Elena (the narrator) and her best friend Lila, as does Book 4, The Story of the Lost Child. Farrante doesn’t back off from shocking plot twists. The story continues until Elena is past age 60 and Lila has, apparently intentionally, disappeared, dropped out of sight.

What is stranger than a disappearance? In my long life, this has happened twice – two people, not “closest friends” but more than acquaintances, have disappeared – one almost 40 years ago, the other about 15 years ago. I have no intention of writing about them, or of seeking further information. But I cannot help being fascinated by Ferrante’s literary take on this.

One reviewer describes the Neapolitan novels as an “education in being female”. I recommend them to men on that basis. Very likely you will learn a great deal. Ferrante (whoever she is) is an author for the ages.

“My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One” by Elena Ferrante

I couldn’t figure out how this book came to be on my Kindle. Sometimes I forget I’m not the only person using my account! Thanks, J, for spotting this wonderful novel, which was originally published in Italian.

What did I like about this book? I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I like authors who take childhood and children seriously. Ferrante never deviates from the point of view and story line of her heroine, who, in this book, is followed from about age 6 to 17.

What else? I decided to look up “literary fiction” to see if this book qualifies. Wikipedia tells me “literary fiction” has something more going on that just plot. It engages some important idea or concept. My Brilliant Friend deals with poverty, war, education (very interesting!), gender roles, social violence and other important issues, all within the framework of one life.

If I’m going to read “literary fiction”, I want to do it right… I consulted Thomas C Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor on the subject of symbolism. According to Foster, almost everything is a symbol, and most symbols carry both positive and negative connotations. (Foster was not so helpful as to list the symbolism of common objects.) One prominent symbol in in My Brilliant Friend is shoes. Speculating wildly, I would say that the shoes in My Brilliant Friend symbolize creativity, wealth and power. But fixing shoes (as one character does) symbolizes poverty and subservience.

So much for literary criticism…

“Elena Ferrante” does not exist. This is the pen name of a person who (despite international acclaim and major prizes) prefers to remain anonymous, and who has been quoted as saying “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. Her publisher has respected her wishes. Speculation as to her identity is rampant and sometimes detailed. I, for one, am content to enjoy the books and let the author use whatever name she chooses.

I plan to read more by Elena Ferrante.

“Where is the Mango Princess? A Journey Back from Brain Injury” by Cathy Crimmens (2001) and “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (A Memoir of Going Home)” (2010) by Rhoda Janzen

These two books were written by women who suffered personal calamities and wrote about them before they were really “digested”. In each case, I wonder if they hurried the work into print due to financial pressure.

Where is the Mango Princess? Is about the saddest book I ever read. Alan Crimmens was terribly injured in a freak motorboat accident. The man who emerged from that devastating brain injury was very different from his former self, and no longer capable of carrying adult responsibilities. His wife Cathy Crimmens tells their story with insight and considerable humor, but to me it seemed that she was desperate to write something that would sell.

My perspective on this may be slanted. A member of my family suffered a severe brain injury in an auto accident. I’ve walked the same path as Cathy Crimmens – emergency response, intensive care, rehabilitation, and the awful fear that perhaps medical science has saved the body but not the soul or personality. Our outcome was better than that of the Crimmens family. I’m sorry for what they suffered, and there’s just no way I can laugh at any part of it.

I didn’t share the misfortunes of Rhoda Janzen, author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Leaving her Mennonite community to follow her literary and academic aspirations, she married a charming, brilliant man who suffered from severe bipolar disorder. After the marriage ended and she was injured in a serious auto accident, she went home, to stay with her aging Mennonite parents and heal.

My perspective on this book may be slanted by my age – I am closer to her parents’ age! I find this book often slides over the line from affectionate humor into rudeness, even malice. Snarky – I think that’s the word. Unkind.

The best aspect of this book is its account of life with a partner who refuses to consistently medicate for a treatable (and complicated) mental illness. As a culture and as individuals, we are now working hard to understand mental health, remove stigma and optimize treatment. A tall order, and honest, intelligent accounts like this one are worth a great deal.

Each of these books offers an authentic, highly intelligent female voice. I wish the authors well, and hope to learn, in the future, that each has found the good fortune she deserves.