Author, Books in translation, Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Von Arnim, England, essays, Europa Editions, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, Helen Macdonald, Italy, Japan, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Verso, Vintage, Yukio Mishima

Five Fast Reviews: Franco Berardi, Elena Ferrante, Helen Macdonald, Yukio Mishima and Elizabeth Von Arnim


‘Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide’ by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Non-fiction – paperback; Verso; 232 pages; 2015.

Mass-murder-and-suicideAs you may gather by the title, I like my non-fiction as dark as my fiction — and Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, written by an Italian Marxist whose work mainly focuses on communication theories within post-industrial capitalism, plumbs some pretty black depths. But what Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has to say about society and, in particular, capitalism rang a lot of bells with me.

There’s a lot of hard-hitting political, economic and psychological commentary and analysis running throughout this book — produced as part of Verso Futures, which is a new series of essays by leading thinkers and writers — and not all of it is easy to understand. Some of the arguments occasionally feel a little uneven and there are sections written in a clunky academic style, but the ideas outweigh the writing style. Berardi’s main argument is that many young men — and yes, he says they are always men — commit mass shootings before turning the gun on themselves, because this new age of hyper-connectivity and relentless competition in which we live, where neo-liberal politics has stamped out egalitarianism, has divided the world into winners and losers. If you’re a disaffected young man who hasn’t achieved much it’s very easy to become a winner in a short space of time: you take a gun to school (or another public place) and kill everyone in a violent rampage. You’re in charge for 30 minutes or however long it takes and before long the whole world knows your name, even though it’s unlikely you’ll live to see the fame you’ve achieved.

Admittedly not for everyone, this book posits some interesting ideas and is recommended for those who like to explore complex moral and social issues.

‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante

Fiction – Kindle edition; 336 pages; Europa Editions; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

My-brilliant-friendIt seems the whole world has fallen in love with My Brilliant Friend, the first in a four-part series by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, but I have to admit that I didn’t really warm to it, perhaps because it was too slow and gentle for me.

The story is a simple one: two girls growing up in 1950s Naples — at a time when women stayed at home and looked after their husbands and children, and girls received only a minimal education — become firm friends. But like many close relationships between teenagers, their relationship is fraught with jealousies and rivalries and they begin to grow apart as they enter the complex world of young womanhood. Elena, the narrator, is bright and does so well at school she’s encouraged to continue her education, while Lina, perhaps more intelligent than her friend, leaves school to pursue work in her family’s shoe-making business.

As well as an authentic look at female friendship, the story is an intriguing portrait of a machismo culture — there’s a lot of violence, domestic and otherwise in this tale — and an impoverished neighbourhood on the brink of political and social change. But while I admired the author’s restraint in telling the story in such simple, stripped back prose, My Brilliant Friend didn’t grip me and I probably won’t bother reading the rest in the series.

‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

Non-fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 284 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

H-is-for-hawkIn a previous life I was the editor of a bird magazine and often commissioned articles about falconry, so I was keen to read H is for Hawk, which explores Helen Macdonald’s attempt to train a goshawk following the death of her photojournalist father. The book is actually three books in one: it’s an entertaining account of the ups and downs of training a bird of prey; it’s a moving portrait of a woman’s grief; and it’s a detailed biography of T. H. White, a troubled man who wrote a controversial book about training a goshawk in the early 1950s. These three threads are interwoven into a seamless narrative that is both compelling and illuminating.

The story is infused with a bare and sometimes confronting honesty as Macdonald comes to grips with her own failings and frustrations brought about via the clash of wills between her and Mabel, the £800 goshawk she bought especially for this project. At times it is quite an emotional book, but it’s lightened by moments of humour and it’s hard to feel anything but admiration for the dedication that Macdonald devotes to the task of taming a wild creature. H is for Hawk is probably one of the most unusual non-fiction books I’ve read, but it’s also, happily, one of the most heartfelt and intriguing ones.

‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 389 pages; 2000. Translated from the Japanese by Michael Gallagher

Spring-snowFirst published in 1968 but set in 1912, Spring Snow is the first in Yukio Mishima’s acclaimed The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. It’s a rather beautiful and austere tale about a teenage boy, Kiyoaki, who falls in love with an attractive and spirited girl, Satoko, two years his senior, but he plays hard to get and views their “romance” as a bit of a game. It is only when Satoko becomes engaged to a royal prince that Kiyoaki begins to understand his depths of feeling for her — and the enormous loss he looks likely to face unless he takes drastic action to change the course of events.

As well as being a deeply moving love story — think a Japanese version of Romeo and Juliet — the book is a brilliant portrait of Japanese society at a time when the aristocracy was waning and rich provincial families were becoming a powerful elite. Through the complex and troubled character of Kiyoaki, it vividly portrays the clash between a rigid militaristic tradition and a less restrained, Westernised way of life.

Written in lush, languid prose, filled with beautiful sentences and turns of phrase, this is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. It’s a dense and complex work, but is imbued with such pitch-perfect sentiment it’s difficult not to get caught up in this rather angst-ridden romance. And the ending is a stunner. I definitely want to explore the rest of the books in this series.

‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The-enchanted-aprilThe Enchanted April is appropriately named for it is, indeed, one of the most enchanting books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. First published in 1922, it tells the story of four very different English women who go on holiday to Italy together without their male partners — quite a daring proposition in itself at that time in history; even more daring when you realise that none of them know each other before the month-long trip.

The holiday is first mooted by an unhappy Mrs Wilkins who sees an advertisement in The Times which captures her eye — and her imagination— looking for “Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” to rent a “small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” for the month of April. She advertises for companions, which is how she is joined by Mrs Arbuthnot, who is fleeing an unappreciative husband; the elderly, fusty, set-in-her-ways Mrs Fisher; and the beautiful Lady Caroline, who is not yet ready to settle down but is sick of being chased by marriage-hungry young men.

In the delightful confines of the castle and its heavenly garden, the four women seek rest, recreation and respite with mixed, and often humorous, results as clashes between personalities and numerous misunderstandings ensue. A  brilliantly evocative comedy of manners and an insightful exploration of the give and take required between friends and married couples, I totally loved this warm and delightful book. It’s uplifting, fun and the perfect summer read.

34 thoughts on “Five Fast Reviews: Franco Berardi, Elena Ferrante, Helen Macdonald, Yukio Mishima and Elizabeth Von Arnim”

    1. Thanks, Sharkell. Thought I’d try out this format because I know I will never find the time/energy to write full 800-word reviews for all these books, so this felt like a reasonable compromise.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Currently about two thirds through My Brilliant Friend and also wondering what the frenzy is about. I too am thinking I won’t read the rest of the series.


    1. I really loved it… Mind you, it takes a little while to “get into it” but once I got into the denseness of the prose I really enjoyed being swept along by the story.


  2. Great format & great diversity in reading matter…
    Must be nearly 10yrs since I read Enchanted April & reviews like this remind me how much I liked it but make me want to reread it to see if post lit studies I find it even more ‘enchanting’ … talking of which Spring Snow sounds just that too – will definitely source that one.


    1. Well, you can never accuse me of not having diverse reading tastes! It helps that I’m in a great book group that chooses stuff I wouldn’t normally choose, which is how I came to read both the Ferrante and the Mishima.

      Enchanted April is one of those books I’ve wanted to read for years. Then Vintage just re-released it under their Classics imprint, so I no longer had an excuse not to. I was utterly charmed by it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The von Arnim is SO charming. She does darkly funny and charming so well, in different books, that is hard to believe they are by the same author. The film was also rather lovely.

    I know that I’ll read H is for Hawk one day, but want to read White’s book first. Oddly, I recently read a book by White and a book about a hawk, but they were not one and the same…


    1. Oooh, I didn’t know about the film. *Goes to look it up on the inter web*

      Interesting that you read a book by White. He comes across as rather a dark, unpleasant character in Macdonald’s book.


  4. It is just as hard I think to write short reviews as long ones – though probably doesn’t take quite as long I suppose – so good for you. Some good books here. I haven’t read Ferrante. Suddenly her name started appearing everywhere without my being fully aware of her. I like Mishima but haven’t read that book, and I have H is for Hawk but haven’t managed to read it yet.

    BUT Enchanted April. Have you read any of her books before – fiction or non-fiction? If you haven’t you are in for a real treat. I have read at least 6 of her books and have another couple in my TBR. I am such a fan of both her fiction and non-fiction.


    1. Oh yes, this short-review thing seemed like a good idea at the time… about five hours later I was wondering whether it might have been quicker to do full reviews for each book. LOL.

      I’ve not read any other books by Elizabeth Von Arnim, though she sounds like a very intriguing character in her own right. Can you recommend any particular book I should read by her?


      1. Her sort of non-fiction Elizabeth and her German Garden is a must. And I lovedMr Skeffington. And her non-autobiography, All the dogs of my life, is great too. Hard to go wrong with her. You know she was Australian born?


        1. Thanks for the suggestions: I will look them up.

          Yes, I discovered she was Australian born by reading the introduction to this new reprint by Vintage Classics. I have to say I was surprised by this news!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. So glad you are succumbing to Mishima – he is one of my favourite Japanese writers. Not always consistent, but the tetralogy (of which Spring Snow is the first volume) is amongst his best work.
    I really liked Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, but I haven’t had the will or patience or curiosity to start the tetralogy – somehow, family saga type things are just not my thing… I’ll probably read another standalone of hers.


    1. I’m definitely keen to read the whole Mishima tetralogy now, because I so liked this first one.

      I’m told that Days of Abandonment would probably be more up my street than My Brilliant Friend because it’s a lot darker. I don’t mind family sagas, but this one just didn’t do it for me — I’m told you need to read the four books to appreciate the total story arc, but that’s a BIG commitment to ask of a reader and I’m just not willing to do it.


  6. Earlier on in the year I was going to read a lot of British books from the early 20th C. I was really eager to read books by E.M. Forster, E.F. Benson, Saki etc. along with The Enchanted April and a bit more Woolf….but in the end I didn’t…I don’t know what happened…

    I think the short review style sometimes works and is probably better than what I often do, which is to write it in my head and then forget to type it up.


  7. I loved H is for Hawk, a book that seems to have resonated with so many different readers. It made my end-of-year highlights last year (along with My Brilliant Friend!).

    Mishima’s Spring Snow has been on my wishlist for ages. Your description of the prose and the novel’s themes makes it sound very appealing, so I’ll have to move it up in the pecking order. Thanks for the nudge, Kim.


    1. H is for Hawk definitely appeals to a wide range of people; I’m not quite sure why — perhaps it’s because so many have lost touch with nature and this is one way to “reconnect”?

      Let’s agree to disagree about My Brilliant Friend 😉

      And I think you would love Spring Snow, it’s such a beautifully crafted story and so evocative of an interesting time and place in Japan’s history. It was a great experience for me to read some “proper” Japanese literature that wasn’t crime fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I started the Ferrante and gave up after 50 pages: you’re not alone with the lack of enthusiasm, or maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for it. I will add to the raves for Days of Abandonment as well: it is incredibly dark and incredibly compelling.


  9. I’ve just begun The Enchanted April and am liking it very much. I loved it when Mrs Wilkins goes up to Mrs Arbuthnot At their club and starts up a conversation, then asks her if she’s interested in going to Italy. Already she’s overcome one hurdle, her shyness. Can’t put the book down!


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