Law and Conversation

January 24, 2013

Elena Ferrante is my #FridayReads AGAIN

I’ve written before of how powerful I’ve found the novels of the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante. When I noticed her latest book, “My Brilliant Friend,” on my local library’s new books shelf, I had to check it out, even though I had several others in progress at home (nothing new there).

Like Lucy Maud Montgomery’s much-loved classic, “Anne of Green Gables,” Ferrante’s novel is the story of two young girls who develop a lifelong connection. But unlike Green Gables and the lovely, bucolic landscape of Prince Edward Island, Elena and Lila live in a gritty, unattractive part of Naples, and unlike the friendship of kindred spirits Anne Shirley and Diana, the undercurrents of Elena and Lila’s relationship are dark and powerful, so that Ferrante could aptly have named her novel “My Brilliant Frenemy.”

I’m about 1/3 of the way through this book and can hardly stand to put it aside. Much as I loved L.M. Montgomery’s books as a teen, Ferrante’s characters’ depth seems far more real and intriguing to me. It will be my first Europa Editions book this year, counting toward my proposed Cappuccino Challenge levelof 6 Europas.

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January 15, 2013

Crazy clients? Read Elena Ferrante’s Days Of Abandonment

James Wood reviews Elena Ferrante’s novels in The New Yorker, so now seems like a good time to paste the review I wrote of one of that Italian writer’s novels for The Europa Challenge Blog.
I once heard a lawyer with years of experience in family law assert that everyone who gets divorced is “crazy” for at least a year afterwards. By inviting us inside the head of her divorcing narrator in “The Days of Abandonment,” the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante lends support to that view.
Ferrante’s books are tough reads. Having “pre-read” this one and discovered that some graphic and extreme unpleasantness was in the offing, I was tempted to bag it and return it to the library.
But graphic and extreme unpleasantness can’t be a dealbreaker if you’re going to read 21st century literary fiction. I’m glad I didn’t succumb to my momentary impulse, because Ferrante’s tale of the thoughts and actions of 38-year-old Olga, the narrator, in the wake of her husband’s leaving her for a mistress half his age and only just out of her teens, blew me away, as Alice Sebold’s cover blurb promised.
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me,” Olga tells readers at the novel’s outset. In the wake of that “it’s not you, it’s me” declaration, Olga describes how behind her outward calm, “a wave of anguish and rage was growing that frightened me,” particularly once she learns that there’s another much younger woman behind her husband’s departure.
Her circumstances bring back the desperation and deterioration of a similarly bereft neighbor from her childhood, “La Poverella.” Olga remembers her mother and associates remarking “when you don’t know how to keep a man you lose everything.” Like La Poverella, Olga tries to hold it together and to get her husband back. Neither is within her power.
Olga’s unflinching description of even her most unflattering thoughts and actions are part of what make Ferrante’s story so compelling. Early on, in a flashback to her college days, Olga remembers “As a girl I had liked obscene language, it gave me a sense of masculine freedom. Now I knew that obscenity could raise sparks of madness if it came from a mouth as controlled as mine.” And indeed it does: she gets into a riproaring fight with her husband, and, with the children in the next room, lets him have it with both barrels, as Marie notes in her review. “Speak like what? I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife?…What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me?…Let’s talk about it!…[I]n order not to disturb the gentleman, not to disturb his children,, I’m supposed to use clean language, I’m supposed to be refined, I’m supposed to be elegant!….”
Describing her descent into deep, self-destructive depression, Olga muses “What was I? A woman worn out by four months of tension and grief.” When a series of unrelated and grim crises hit at once, she realizes she must pull herself together, but she has such difficulty in doing so that she gives her preteen daughter a sharp paper cutter and instructs her to prick her with it if she perceives that her mother is becoming “distracted.” Confused and repulsed, the child asks how she will know whether Olga needs a prick. Olga responds, “A distracted person is a person who no longer smells odors, doesn’t hear words, doesn’t feel anything.”
Her daughter does have to prick her, the crises get resolved—though not all happily—and Olga begins her climb out of depression and back to normal life. Throughout Ferrante’s taut storytelling, we feel Olga’s emotional and even physical pain. Even in translation, Ferrante makes every word in every sentence count. I’m looking forward to reading “My Brilliant Friend,” her newly published Europa novel, which I have at the top of my TBR list.

December 17, 2012

Europa Challenge Holiday Swap Time!

Challenge ButtonYay for the Europa Challenge Holiday Swap!

The Europa Challenge Blog is a fan blog for anyone who loves to read books published by Europa Editions. The idea is to read the books and then write and post reviews on the blog, with cross-posting to your own blog, if you have one, not only approved but encouraged. There’s no pay, and the publisher by and large doesn’t even publicize our posts or provide review copies, with just a few exceptions (none of which have applied to me, more’s the pity 😉 ). The reward is in the satisfaction of reading really good international literature and then writing as good a post as possible, which, for those of us whose idea of a good time away from work is writing essays, is both considerable and sufficient.

So Marie, who co-founded and administers the challenge blog, had the great idea that we should do a holiday book swap so we could each send and receive a nice EE book that we wanted and didn’t have. She posted the rules and matched us up, and here it is time to post what we’ve received.

I had quite forgotten about the swap after I sent my recipient’s book, so it was actually a surprise when I opened the parcel addressed to me and found an attractively wrapped package with my name on it from Megan. In fact, it was so pretty that I let it sit until the day for posting so I could admire it and wonder which of the several preferences I’d sent Marie it might be.

It turned out to be Angelika Schrobsdorff’s “You Are Not Like Other Mothers,” translated from the German by Steven Rendall. It’s set in Berlin between the World Wars and sounds like a fascinating, panoramic story. I haven’t read a great deal of German literature apart from novels by Thomas Mann and Theodore Fontane, a bit of Grass and Boll, and, of course, folk and fairy tales, though, coincidentally, I did recently read and post about Goethe’s “The Sorrows Of Young Werther.” So I am really looking forward to burying myself in this one in the next couple of months.

Thanks so much, Megan! And a HUGE thank you, as always, to Marie for all of her work in making the blog and the swap happen.

October 16, 2012

Marie’s trip to Europa Editions!

Filed under: Europa Challenge — Helen Gunnarsson @ 8:00 am
Tags: ,

Challenge ButtonBooklovers, go check out my blogger pal Marie’s post about her recent visit to the home office of Europa Editions, a publisher of mostly European titles in English translation, over at The Europa Challenge Blog. I love her photos of the offices and description of her visit!

While you’re there, I hope you’ll take a look at my reviews there as well. I’ve read quite a few more titles than I’ve posted reviews – in fact, I’ve actually made it to the Caffe Luongo level of 12 Europas this year, yay! – and hope to catch up by December 31. In fact, I have one draft that I’m almost ready to let go of, so do check back soon. And if you love Europa’s wonderful titles also, why not consider joining me and the other bloggers over there and posting some reviews?

UPDATE: I posted my review of Elena Ferrante’s “The Days Of Abandonment.”

October 11, 2012

Speaking trip to University of Illinois College of Law!

I had a great time today speaking on lawyer ethics and social media to students at my legal alma mater, the University of Illinois College of Law, and the East Central Women Attorneys’ Association. I focused on three areas where lawyers occasionally get into ethical trouble on social media: client confidentiality, false or misleading statements or conduct, and using other people. The turnout was good and the students and fellow lawyers were a great audience. I got to recommend two good books to them: “I Know Who You Are And I Saw What You Did,” by Lori Andrews, and “The No Asshole Rule,” by Bob Sutton, which I wrote about here.  As a bonus, I got to catch up with my moot court partner from law school, who invited and introduced me! After my talk, she provided me with encouragement to reread the first volume of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which I read with another bookloving friend in the legal profession a few years ago and, sad to say, found a bit of a slog.

Time to think about #fridayreads on Twitter, which I like to, but don’t always, participate in. I currently have two books going as rereads: the beautifully and honestly written “Minor Characters,” by Joyce Johnson, a memoir focusing on her relationship with Jack Kerouac, which I’ve reread several times but not for quite some time, and a title published by Europa Editions, “Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator in Piazza Vittorio,” by the Algerian-Italian writer Amara Lakhous. The latter left me lukewarm the first time around, but after reading others’ more enthusiastic reviews on The Europa Challenge Blog as well as Lakhous’s more recently published “Divorce, Islamic Style,” which I loved, I’m eager to give his first one another chance.

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