The Neapolitan Novels

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The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

Book Review 

Referred to as The ‘Neapolitan Novels’. Simply fascinating! A  4-part series written by Elena Ferrante – a pseudonymous Italian novelist, and translated from Italian to English by Anne Goldstein. Each book is a modern fiction masterpiece about the friendship of two seemingly ordinary yet extraordinary girls from Naples.

Without delving deeper into the theme of the novels just yet, let me share with you what had initially sparked my curiosity and eventually led me to buy the books. It was a combination of factors but it mainly had to do with my long-standing love for Italy and that the Neapolitan Novels could potentially bring me closer to it.  It was my intrigue with a city that grew on me over the years then one day gripped me –  the city of Napoli – historic, violent, crazy and misunderstood Napoli.  It was the fact that these books were recommended to me by an old and dear friend, who is an avid reader with trustworthy literary views. It was he, and because of the way he knows me deeply from a ‘soul’ perspective that ignited my interest in reading the novels. Then it was my mother who read them and fell in love and confidently knew I would also fall in love. Then came other recommendations by one or two other friends who are acquainted with my affinity with Italy, and who I believe value friendships as much as I do.

I completed reading all four novels under two weeks. They were real page turners. Set between this century and the last, the novels tell a beautiful story of intelligent Elena from Napoli, and her complex and often frustrating friendship with her best friend Lila. Ferrante paints a realistic picture of the protagonist’s love/hate relationship with her city Napoli – what her moody city has at times deprived her of, what it has generously given to her, and what it has brutally taken away from her.

With careful subtlety, Ferrante creatively shows the reader what it means to live through the ‘full circle’ and all stages of life.  She portrays the realities and hypocrisy of friendships; the bitterness of poverty, but also the downside of dressed-up wealth.  As a reader, I was cleverly guided through the waves and irony of life – the disguised grandiosity of being considered ‘important’ in your own circles but a disappointing ‘nothing’ outside it; how we are all little dots living inside a big tinted and dusty bubble; and how everything is relative.  The author shows us the strong and paralyzing hold that traditions – rigid and by now passé – have on some of us, and how self-reliance and determination can take us out of our dire circumstances and our once helpless selves, and eventually bring us right back inside ourselves (improved and hopeful versions of ourselves) and into self-acceptance.

Ferrante’s descriptions of human emotions and circumstantial behaviours are so powerful I felt I was Elena, living within her, and living with her in her harsh Neapolitan quarters; being part of her successes and failures; traveling with her and experiencing the unmatched yet fleeting ecstasy of recognition and success; and feeling the jabs she feels in her heart as she falls in and out of love and as she sometimes falls into the abyss of disappointment once lovers stand naked in their humanness.  Through Elena, the reader can discover the secret power that acquiring knowledge has on the soul and the beauty of self-learning which can only be revealed to those who experience it.

Ferrante’s writing flows beautifully and is easy to follow.  I love the way she speaks the truth and tells the untellable.  She reveals the messiness of our deepest thoughts and our irrational superstitions. She shows us self-destructive sentiments we do not dare to admit out loud, not even to ourselves like jealousy, envy, or like sometimes hating those we should be loving.  She has the ability to make a reader feel like she or he is normal (in fact, one hundred percent human) especially if you are a woman who has experienced the inevitable confusions of growing up. We are all still conflicted one way or another and yes, we may find an equilibrium as we get older and experience more, but that child in us lingers on and at times is fully awakened. I especially love how Ferrante is able to portray the excitement, the strong undying passion and naiveté of youth and how she then takes us with her on a journey which allows us to witness the marring effects of time and the decapitation of newness and eternal hope which were once the flagships of youth.

In those two weeks of reading bliss, I would go about completing my daily errands and ticking off to-do-lists – but I just couldn’t wait to be alone, to be seated on my couch, to feel the heaviness of Ferrante’s book on my palms, and turn its rough pages and live Elena’s volatile life through her intelligent eyes and incredible self-awareness. It has been ages since I felt that kind of excitement and anticipation for a book. So much so that when I finished reading the fourth and final book of the series – a melancholic cloud hovered for some time. I found myself wanting to read the books again so that I can relive Elena’s story, so I can be moved by her hopes and her dreams once again.  I missed her and I still miss her. We long for infinity but all stories are bound to end.

Effort in finding out more about the author has proved futile. Who Elena Ferrante is or what she represents is a mystery, making her Neapolitan Novels even more intriguing. “Books, once they are written, have no need of their authors” – claims the mysterious author. Doubtful. What I am sure of is this and in one word: BRILLIANT. Read the Neapolitan Novels ASAP.

Everyman

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A Book Review

I recommend Everyman to every man and every woman going through a mid-life crisis.  Or to those who are helplessly confused because their immoral actions these days do not reflect who they thought they were: people with unshifting morals.

This short yet thought-provoking book cleverly demonstrates how certain choices driven either by: sheer boredom; the craving for newness; the thrill of the moment; a desperate act to relive youth; an aversion from monotony; an untamed impulse or an indescribable need for instant gratification – will eventually lead men and women astray, dropping them casually into a bottomless hole. And only as these men and women experience the alienating effects of aging (though it could happen much earlier), will they fully comprehend the monstrosity of their past actions, and how much pain they have inflicted on their loved ones along the way. Even more so on themselves.

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as an irreversible mistake and it is usually born out of recklessness.   

If you’re someone who often thinks about all of the above, you will enjoy reading Everyman by the American author Philip Roth. If you are someone who is on the other side of the spectrum (living in la-la land and thinking you are immune to life’s adversaries) then this book may not be the right one for you.

Everyman is a novel – raw and uncomfortably real. It is about one man’s intimate story through the different stages of his life.  It is a fictional memoir dealing with one man’s realisations, limitations, losses and regrets. It is about a man journeying through life and standing on the edge of the abyss. It reflects on the anticipation and inevitability of death, and if you dig deeper – it is a study of complex human relationships.  Its style is simple yet profound. It is bound to leave a deep imprint.

The protagonist says and I quote: ‘Old age isn’t a battle. Old age is a massacre’. The older you get the more tolerant you will be of Everyman and the more you surround yourself and spend time with old people, the more it will make sense to you. Read it – it will gift you more awareness.

As a Man Thinketh

James Allen

A Book Review

Not so long ago, I stumbled upon this gem of a book over 100 hundred years old. Brilliantly written and still remarkably in tune with our time, as strange and complicated as it is (our time that is). The coincidental stumble was a lucky one and I found myself effortlessly immersed in its powerful message and intrigued by its simplicity and relevance. It was one of those enlightening books far from the mainstream types. The types that convince you that ‘you are not your thoughts’ in fifty different ways and have somehow managed to sit under the throne of bestsellers. I am skeptical of these books and I’ve read many (despite some of the authentic research invested in them and sweat spilt over them). Why? Because I have a problem with the common and repetitive statement claiming to be a universal truth: ‘our thoughts are not us’. How can that be if our thoughts were created by our very own minds? Maybe a simplistic view to some but I trust what my own experiences have taught me, what my reflections have shown me and I even trust what my logic has proven to me – and that’s what I will go with. Do not misunderstand me. I am not claiming we do not have the power or the tools to reinvent our thoughts or change our perspectives. Nor do I believe that our thoughts do not affect the way we live. I am simply against the notion that we are not our thoughts. We are our thoughts AND we have the power to change them. That’s what I believe. And that’s what James Allen affirms.

 James Allen is the Englishman who wrote the 100+ year-old book: As A Man Thinketh (published in 1903). In his book, Allen manages to cleverly dismantle and explain where my belief stems from so that it makes sense to the deep and the not-so-deep – using a few convincing arguments based on his own experiences and reflections. This little book is delightful and delightfully easy to follow.

 I consider it a handbook and a practical guide to the power of thinking. It does not boast itself as the ‘truth’. What it does though is make you (the reader) understand that our mind is the ‘master power’ that ‘shapes our lives for good or ill’. And it does this by inspiring you to open up your mind rather than overwhelming you with burdensome studies and steps to follow. If we believe that our mind is the master power and we are the masters of this power – then we are ultimately the ‘authors of our own characters and thus the makers of our own destinies’. In his view, our characters are actually ‘the sum total of our thoughts over time’. He makes a lot of sense.

I love how he touches on some important themes that orchestrate the way we live or lead our lives. He covers themes such as how thoughts shape our circumstances; how circumstances do not shape us, they reveal us; the power of the mind and its tools; how health and appearance are shaped by our thoughts; the power of having a purpose; how good thinking equals success; how to cherish our visions and ideals; and the importance of achieving serenity.

I am not going to elaborate further because I am hoping you would just pick up the book and read it. All you need is two hours, even less but I am playing it safe! I promise you that once you’re done reading As a Man Thinketh you will feel as good as new! In the meantime, enjoy this quote I love by James Allen: ‘Cherish the music that moves your heart.  For out of your love will flow your purpose’.