Let’s Talk Bookish – The Writing Styles of Classics & Contemporaries

Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly meme, created and hosted by Rukky @ Eternity Books and Dani @ Literary Lion, where we discuss certain topics, share our opinions, and spread the love by visiting each other’s posts.

You can find more details about it here.

I haven’t read lots of classics this year, but this is actually what I tend to prefer reading. I think it’s mostly due to the fact that I love history, and so there’s no better way to immerse yourself in a historical period than to read a book written then. There is also something about the language that is completely different. Yes, it is a little trickier to read but I find the writing style so much more beautiful, in general. It’s often that I read a chapter from a Victorian novel and don’t really pay attention to the plot because I’m too engrossed in the lyrical quality of the text. Of course, this is not always true and I can feel the same way for book that were recently published. Also, I love descriptions, context, backstories, and lots and lots of insignificant details – which is something that I can really only find in classics, in general.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

That being said, I love reading contemporaries as well but for different reasons. I get different things from different books, which sounds obvious I know, but it’s so true! Contemporary novels allow me to find characters I can relate to a little bit more, and they allow me to get in touch with the world that surrounds me. I like to read them to make sense of my own experience as well, and understand why I feel the way I do. They also enable me to see our society through someone else’s eyes, someone from a different background or country. 

Even though classics are my absolute favourites, I don’t think they should necessarily be prioritised at school. Literature should be made enjoyable to students, and I know that it’s difficult to get enthused about books after studying the same five old dead white men all your life. Of course, authors like Shakespeare and Dickens are at the basis of the English-speaking world’s pop culture, but would it not make sense to also study more contemporary writers who represent another part of the population? We need to introduce more varied texts in the curriculum, written by women, working class and BAME authors. I think we also need to make sure that each of this text is compelling and thought-provoking. Reading is so, so important and needs to be promoted a lot more at school because it teaches us to think critically – something more important than ever.

Well, I got a bit carried away there, but this is  a topic I’m really passionate about! I was really thinking about this when I read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, earlier this year. I think it would be such a great book to study at school since it tackles so many important topics. I think this is a book that could potentially become a classic in a few decades, but maybe I’m biased because I loved it so much.

Do you prefer classics, contemporaries or both? I would love to know everyone’s thoughts on this topic and if you do too, you should definitely check Rukky’s and Dani’s posts to find out more.

Book Review: The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

The Lying Life of Adults is the much awaited latest book written by Elena Ferrante – the first one after the last volume of Neapolitan quartet. It tackles similar issues to her previous works, for instance class, beauty, adolescence, studying, etc. This is not a plot-driven novel and Ferrante focuses more on the evolution of the heroine, Giovanna, as she goes through turbulent changes in her teenage years.

When the novel starts, Giovanna is an adult who is looking back at her 12-year-old self hearing her dad referring to her as ugly, and comparing her to his estranged sister who he thinks is as nasty as her looks might suggest. This comment leads Giovanna to become interested in this aunt, Vittoria, whom she is supposed to look like. Raised in a middle-class neighbourhood of Naples, she goes to meet her aunt down in the working-class area of the city and meets people who are completely different from her wealthy, quiet, and educated friends. It’s tricky to sum up this novel because it’s not so much about what the characters do but rather how they interact and evolve.

It took me a while to write this review because if I’m honest, I have been clueless about this book. It’s haunted me for a while after reading it, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I think I felt very frustrated only having access to Giovanna’s growth on such a short period of time. I really hope that there will be a sequel to this book, because I feel like Ferrante is the best at creating character development over the course of a few books – she needs space to say all the things that she has to say.

Even though Giovanna is recalling what happened during her teenage years, she still conveys the feelings of adolescence vividly. Everything is changing around her – her body, the way people look at her, her family… and all her emotions are heightened, especially anger. That makes her sometimes really annoying, but that’s what you get when following a teenage heroine. It is such a strange time of life and I think Ferrante is excellent at portraying this. She’s especially good at depicting the changing body of a girl and how it impacts everything, and also the fear of looking like an older relative because she feels so ugly and awkward. There is also this new way that men have to look at you, and it creates more discomfort but also an ambivalence between hating this new body and using it to gain a certain power over men. Being a teenage girl is to feel a constant angst towards your body and to wish you were anyone but yourself. It might not be the same for everyone, but it certainly was for me and I think this ambivalence of the changing body is beautifully portrayed in The Lying Life of Adults.

And of course, adolescence is the time of first love interests. I won’t go into too much detail, just because I wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s pleasure in discovering this story, but love in this book is very reminiscent of the Neapolitan series. There is a clear distinction between the interest Giovanna receives from most boys and men, who are all like animals in the sense that they only expect sex from her. On the other hand, there is the educated young man who transcended his class through studies; he is more spiritual, and pushes Giovanna to better herself on an intellectual level. This figure resembles Nino in Ferrante’s previous series, but we also know later that Nino was in fact not much better than other men in that regard. In this novel, Giovanna falls in love with the idea of this man, his goodness and his kindness – almost like a religious idol. I thought that this was very relevant with the theme of adolescence because we all have this one person that we are obsessed with when we grow up to the point of adoration (whether an actual person or a celebrity).

I would love to be able to read Italian and read Elena Ferrante’s words as she thought them. Ann Goldstein does an amazing job at translating these beautiful novels, but I also know that you always lose something in translation. I remember when I first read Jane Eyre in French and then read it in English – it was like a completely different work and the writing flowed much more beautifully in English. It would be interesting to know what someone who read both the Italian and English versions thinks of The Lying Life of Adults (but that’s also because I’m a bit of language nerd).

If you’re already a Ferrante fan, you can just go ahead and read The Lying Life of Adults; you will find everything you love about about this author’s books. If you’ve never read Ferrante before, it might be a good place to start because it’s rather short and involves a little bit less commitment than My Brilliant Friend and its three following instalments. It’s a fantastic book that will get you hooked on Giovanna’s thoughts, but please be aware that you too will cry for a sequel at the end of your reading. PLEASE, give us another book – I beg!

Have you read this book already? What did you think of it? And as usual, happy reading!

Books by Black Authors that Changed my Outlook on Race

I have been silent for a little while on here… I wanted to talk about Black Lives Matter but didn’t know how, and then I figured I would use books to convey what I want to say. A lot of non-fiction books have been shared all over social media and I have kept these useful lists for my own education, but I thought I’d share here a few fiction novels (apart from the first one) that I found very useful in making me more aware of racism.

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)

Olaudah Equiano was a pioneer in the fight against slavery during the late eighteenth century. According to his memoir, he was born in Africa and was stolen as a child to be sold as a slave. He later bought himself free and joined the Sons of Africa, a group of Africans living in London who led a campaign to abolish slavery. He is a very important figure for me because in history class, we tend to study the white intellectuals who campaigned for the abolition of slavery (who were definitely instrumental and I think we should still appreciate what they did today) and picture black people as ‘only’ suffering.  Here, you have a black man who is taking full possession of his narrative by writing up his life story and leading the fight.

I have to say that I don’t know of a lot of writing by black people prior to the nineteenth century, but I think it is important to amplify historical voices from minorities and give this part of history back to those who own it.

I guess I need to add that not everything is true in Equiano’s memoir; we now know that he was born in the US rather than in Africa, but we shouldn’t forget that this memoir has a political agenda. When he evokes a childhood in Africa, Equiano is depicting a romanticised version of tribal life which makes his abduction only the more violent and cruel – in order to make his European audience understand the inhumanity of the slave trade.

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

I’m not sure this novel needs any introduction by now, as it is a classic in its own right, inspired by the true story of an enslaved woman who escaped, and killed her baby after being captured. In Beloved, the child, Beloved, comes to haunt her mother, Sethe, and sister, Denver, as a ghost – representing the impossibility for Sethe to ever forget where she comes from. This novel gave me a true sense of the impact of slavery on black people, even long after it was abolished. The story of Beloved is the heavy burden that African Americans have to carry on their shoulders, as their country was built on their blood and that of Native Americans.

This is not an easy book to read, no matter who you are. But of course, I am talking as a white person and I think that in history books, we study slavery as a distant concept without taking into actual considerations the individuals who were affected by it. We know, of course, that it was cruel and inhumane, but we need a book like Beloved to hit us in the face and show us why.

I have recently read Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered (2019) which is really reminiscent of Beloved – it too is a novel of magical realism and deals with the notion of collective memory for African Americans, especially women and its impact on motherhood. A collective memory is the memory of a group of people passed on to the next generations, and slavery is at the basis of many black communities’ collective memory… and how could it not be? I think that it’s important that we read about slavery and its impact on individuals, and I think fiction is a great way to immerse yourself in this dark but essential part of history.

Paul Beatty, The Sellout (2015)

The Sellout is about a man who tries to reintroduce slavery in 21st-century California. The premise of this novel is bold, absurd, and absolutely awful; I think we can agree on that. It reminds me of the TV series, The Wire, when a desperate police captain legalises drugs in a specific neighbourhood of Baltimore. The Sellout is a little more satirical and really highlights racial issues in the US.

Yet another book I had a hard time reading, as it made me deeply uncomfortable! I guess I didn’t find it as funny as everyone else because I only found the idea of reintroducing slavery half-absurd. I find that American politics have always been absurd and sometimes ridiculous in its lack of subtlety – like when Native American affairs were directly dealt with by the Land Bureau, clearly showing their interest in Native lands but their disregard for the people that inhabit them. I think I can believe anything can happen in the US, especially given the current president’s never-ending succession of idiotic comments.

Candice Carty-Williams, Queenie (2019)

When we first meet her, Queenie is in complete denial that her boyfriend has broken up with her, she has to move back to her grandparents’, and she feels like she’s going nowhere in her career. Queenie is presented as a dark comedy and of course, there are funny bits and the characters are, for the most part, really loveable but I found it to be a very uncomfortable and heavy read. I related a lot to Queenie because she is a bigger girl with mental health issues, but I never realised how easy I had it compared to a black woman… I’m ashamed to say that I never knew, before reading this book, that racism permeated every single area of daily life. My self-esteem was never deteriorated by nasty comments from doctors who can’t examine me correctly because ‘they can’t see properly’, or by men who objectified and sexualised my body with racial clichés. I’ve never had to think that my appearance could potentially be the reason why some people can’t stand me to start with or are prejudiced against me.

Queenie is a very important book to read, because even if it might make you uncomfortable at points (which is okay, by the way, I think we need to face the disagreeable facts first to then be better allies), it is very nice to read – it was more of a page-turner for me – and most importantly, it shows how much we need feminism to be more intersectional and refuse the too widespread branch of feminism that is exclusively white.

There are a lot of free resources online, especially on Instagram and Twitter, which are really great to educate yourself on racial issues and allyship. When you’re not in a position to donate or protest, I find that reading and sharing are the best alternatives.