My Brilliant Friend a Poignant Portrait of Postwar Naples

Elena Ferrante
Europe Edition, 331 pages
* * * *

Even today Naples is a place where dreams die swift and hard. Is it a municipality of 3.1 million, or 3.1 million anarchists haphazardly thrown into the same 45 square miles? As Western European cities go, Naples–like Marseille, Palermo, or Liverpool–invites adjectives such as "tough" and "gritty." It simultaneously fascinates and horrifies; nothing quite works, yet everyone is cheerfully resigned to muddling through as best they can.

Let's just say that muddling through was considerably harder in the 1950s, a time in which Italy was struggling with its recent fascist past and cleaning up wartime devastation. The Camorra thrived in the vacuum left by effective government and was about the only thing that did thrive. Naples is the setting for Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, a novel that's like a Vittorio De Sica film set to type. The novel was originally published in 2012, but is now in a new edition as Ferrante has just published The Story of the Lost Child, the final book in a tetralogy known as "The Neapolitan Novels." Its glowing reviews have set Ferrante novices such as myself back to book one, My Brilliant Friend.

The book centers on the friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, who grow up in a poor yet lively Naples neighborhood. The expectation for most girls is an elementary school education, then work, early marriage, and motherhood. To get beyond the sixth grade, as Elena manages, involves passing rigorous exams, scrapping together tuition money, borrowing grubby books, and working with tutors to master subjects such as Latin, Greek grammar, English, and philosophy. What are the chances that the daughter of a shoemaker can do this?

My Brilliant Friend is often hailed as a story of female friendship and so it is, but it's far more than this. In the hands of a lesser writer the story might be little more than a hardship versus perseverance tale; in Ferrante's hands the struggle to acquire knowledge is a mere foil for peeling back the layers of a Neapolitan onion for its textures, cadences, smells, and daily struggles for survival. It's also about the randomness of life's chances. As Lila prepares for marriage at age 16, she calls Elena "my brilliant friend," which we recognize as doubly ironic as it is she, not Elena, who should be the scholar. Elena is bright enough, but it's Lila who is her greatest tutor–the one who borrows Latin grammar books from the library to tutor Elena. Lila is stoic on the surface, but is she also vicariously living her first best destiny through Elena? Place our two characters in the insalde miste context of a neighborhood of ex-fascists, pastry chefs, low-level criminals, casual workers, poets, widows, housewives, tinkers, beggars, and ironclad patriarchy and you have a book that feels 'bigger' and more sprawling than its 331 pages. 

It's also as enigmatic as Ferrante, a beloved author whose identity is unknown and might not even be female, though the author claims (on the web) to be a mother.  Ferrante is a heck of a writer, whoever he or she might be. My Brilliant Friend skirts the edges of magical realism without actually going there, a deft bit of writing that bathes characters and circumstances in a glow that's also quite Neapolitan. Imagine growing up in Naples but never visiting the sea until you are well into your teens. Imagine living under skies that dazzle, but knowing more darkness than light. Imagine and dream, but don't trust the latter.

Don't believe any remarks that pigeonhole My Brilliant Friend in that sexist sinkhole labeled "chick lit." It's about humanity and I look forward to wending my way through the three remaining books. From where I now sit, Elena Ferrante feels like an Italian Marcel Pagnol. 

Rob Weir  


Ayes and Nays: Recent Releases


Folk rock generally occupies the "warm" end of the sunny to gloomy spectrum. Think artists such as Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jackson Browne, Arlo Guthrie, The Youngbloods, The Byrds, The Decemberists, or Great Big Sea. Perhaps, most of all, think James Taylor. And think Pat McGee. He's been around since 1995 and has followed the usual folk rock path: get signed by a major label, get dumped by it, leave the fast lane, and find peace as an indie artist.
            I invoked Taylor because McGee's repertoire and voice are strongly reminiscent of Taylor's. His is a soothing voice especially strong in the high register and with the same reedy assonance as Taylor. He even builds a song the same way—a nice smooth groove building to up-the-scale drama, cut to some harmonies, and let the music wash over like a soothing bath. Heck, on "Take the Long WayHome" (not the Supertramp song!), he even invokes Massachusetts. His song "Kite String" is a soft rock/PG-13 blues number akin to Taylor's "Steamroller Blues." I don't mean to suggest that McGee is derivative—his band is cooler, to note one difference—but the resemblance to Taylor is uncanny. McGee is on the road again these days and has a new 5-song EP, Pat McGee (Noble Steed Music), to go with the tour. He's well worth catching. Check out "Overboard," which features old friend Pat Monahan from Train on vocals and guitar. Aye.

Tow'rs is also (sort of) in the folk rock vein. Its new album The Great Minimum (Tow'rs Music) is a polished affair finds an introspective seam between arty and traditional. This five-piece group from Flagstaff, Arizona, is anchored by the husband/wife duo of Kyle and Gretta Miller. They, along with three friends, are often reviewed as a "Christian" band, though they are not preachy, and their repertoire is more of a secular-meets-mystical blend. I suppose the Christian music crowd likes them because the songs are rated PG and many of them drop the message that home may not be on this mortal coil. Their best songs, such "The Swan and the East" and "The Boy and His Shadow" have the country/folk-rock feel of early Neil Young, though Kyle Miller's voice would be the silk to Young's gravel. Mostly the songs deal with love or the transitory nature of life,and are populated by lines such as "Is there an answer in the silence/Are we asking the wrong questions?" and "…man is but a breath hanging by his skin." The album's major downside is that, like many inward-looking projects, it's heavier on musing than music. It's all skillfully done but since much of it is cut from the same cloth, you might not recall a single melody a half hour after listening. In the end, some listeners may find it better contemplated than consumed.  Aye/nay (It depends on whether you enjoy the entire introspective folk rock genre.)

Bridge 19 hails form Louisville, Kentucky, and is a band on the rise that has shared the stage with the likes of Richard Thompson, Brandi Carlile, and Sarah McLachlan. Their new CD, Riding on a Wire (Bridge 19), is full of verve that comes at you with country/folk/pop chops. Amanda Lucas and Audrey Cecil, who write most of the material, and handle lead and harmony vocals, anchor Bridge 19. Both have voices best suited to quick tempo selections such as "Chain" and "Nothing Else." The interplay of vocals, guitar, and percussion is especially crisp on the latter. Call this music without a lot of empty spaces, pull up your socks, and get down. Aye 

I'm a Juliana Hatfield fan—of her mature work. Once upon a time (1986-91), though, she was a member of the Blake Babies, which attracted brief notice. My attention span was briefer; I thought the Blake Babies (Hatfield, Freda Love, John Strohan, and sometimes Evan Dando) one of the worst bands I'd ever heard. Noisetrade offers a free download of the Blake Babies Live, 1989, so I thought I'd reconsider. Now I think they might actually be the worst band I've ever heard! Hatfield became a good artist, but back then her voice was thin and her ear was tin. The Blake Babies emerged at the dying tail end of the grunge heyday, back when audiences were growing impatient with sloppy DIY music and a lot of bands were cleaning up their acts in (the mostly vain) hope of commercial success. Call it a lost period and never dial that number again. Nay. Cick here for a track

Old Man Canyon is mostly Vancouver's Jeff Pace, a changing ensemble, and lots of technology. OMC is trying to whip up enthusiasm for a new project called Delirium and has been sending out its 2013 EP Phantoms and Friends in support of it. My take is that OMC, which integrates sonic loops, synthesizers, visuals, and projections on stage, would be more interesting to watch live than to listen to on its own. At his best, Jett's work evokes a band such as Darlingside, but without the latter's ability not to take itself too seriously. The music sets mood and ambiance and there are pleasant vocals, though they are immersed in such a thick sonic soup it's often hard to know what they're about. The music seeks to be alt.folk, but it often comes off as a hipster with too many toys. Nay.


Make Me: A Middlebrow Page Turner

MAKE ME (2015)
Lee Child
Delacorte Press, 416 pages, 978-08041478778
* * *

Make Me is book number twenty in Lee Child's Jack Reacher mystery series. For Jack Reacher novices–or those who know the character only from Tom Cruise's limp movie portrayal– Reacher is what you might get if you crossed Robert Parker's Spenser with Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan sans the rah-rah flag-waving propensities. He doesn't play games and he doesn't care for convention, external judgment, or social niceties; when he unjustly fell under a cloud of suspicion, he resigned his Army commission and never looked back. Since 1997 Reacher has been drifting with no permanent address and only the clothes on his back. (When they become dirty, he buys new.) Like Spenser, his handle is his last name–no one has ever called him Jack. If you like tough-guy mysteries, Reacher fits the bill and the build–he's a large man with lethal-quick reflexes and always on the alert—as anyone would be who drinks as much coffee as he.  

You don't really need to know any of this to enjoy Make Me, a stand-alone novel that fills in the past where it's needed. Its basic premise is that sometimes adventure and danger find you even if you're not looking for them. Reacher is drifting between odd jobs and finds himself on a train rattling across an empty quadrant of Oklahoma so monotonous that the lights from a late-night piece of machinery provide brief entertainment. Reacher decides to get off the train at the next station solely because of its name: Mother's Rest. The grand plan is to learn why it bears such an odd name and then catch the next train out.  

That would make an awfully short book, wouldn't it? Instead he meets Michelle Chang, who initially mistakes Reacher for Keever, a man she's supposed to assist but hasn't showed up. Treat yourself to a cup of coffee if you're guessing the name of Mother's Rest isn't the oddest thing about the town. Buy yourself another cup if you think the story Chang tells Reacher makes him miss the train. Take the entire pot if you imagine the two of them will become partners (and more).

Chang is a lot like Reacher: solidly built, a stranger to fashion, a loner, and a PI forced out of the FBI by shady superiors. Our anti-glam pair set off to solve a case that begins with the question of Keever's whereabouts and veers into anhedonia, cryptic references to 200 deaths, the Deep Web, a Ukrainian mobster, a Los Angeles Times science writer, a suicide support network, and side trips to Chicago, LA, Oklahoma City, and San Francisco. At every step of the way, all signs point back to Mother's Rest and something even more sinister. But what?   

Child—the nom de plume for British writer Jim Grant–is very good at building suspense. He won't dazzle you with sterling prose or sparkling dialogue–Reacher is more laconic than the wisecracking Spenser and more jaded than Ryan­–but Child's books are plotted in ways that make you keep turning the pages, even though you suspect that what you're reading is on the lowbrow border of the middlebrow stop on the literature spectrum. Like many mystery novels, Make Me is best enjoyed with your improbability and skepticism meters set on low. Tolerance for the grisly is also in order. And don't go ballistic over the MacGuffins–one of which is the title, which seems to have been chosen for no reason other than it sounds like what one might name a hard-boiled detective novel.  

This book is exactly what it appears to be: a frisson-inducing diversion you can read in two or three sittings. It's pulp fiction, not college lit material; a guilty pleasure, not an intellectual workout. Go for it–at this time of the year it won't be the least nutritious thing you consume.  Rob Weir