Author, Bono, Book review, Books in translation, David Whish-Wilson, Elena Ferrante, Fiction, Fremantle Press, historical fiction, Hutchinson, literary fiction, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Text

Three Quick Reviews: Bono, Elena Ferrante & David Whish-Wilson

Three weeks into the new year already, and I’m conscious of the fact I still have a few reviews from 2022 to write up. In the interests of expediency — and to alleviate my increasing sense of guilt — here are my quick thoughts on a trio of books I read last year.

They include an Irish memoir, an Italian novella and an Australian historical crime novel. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ by Bono

Non-fiction – hardcover; Hutchinson Heinemann; 560 pages; 2022.

As a long-time U2 fan, I have a love/hate relationship with Bono. In fact, I did not expect to like this book at all, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable and entertaining. The man can certainly write. The text is ripe with metaphors and allegories, and while it is occasionally a little heavy on the spiritual side of things, for the most part, it is laugh-out-loud funny. Who knew the egotistical, sometimes tub-thumping Bono had such a delicious sense of self-deprecating humour!

As the subtitle suggests, the memoir is structured around 40 U2 songs, which allows the author to arrange his story thematically and to write about episodes in his life without the constraint of a chronological narrative (although it is, loosely, chronological).

The bits I liked best? His honesty about his upbringing (his mother died when he was 14) and the complex relationship he had with his father; the way he writes about his wife, Ali, whom he clearly loves and admires (in many ways, the book is a love letter to her); and his funny tales about famous people which often show him in a poor light when he could so easily have told this stories in a boastful manner.

I especially loved his deep dives into his philanthropy and activism, going behind the news headlines to explain what this work fighting against AIDS and extreme poverty means to him, why he does it and what he has learned along the way — not only about himself but about the (long, slow) process of campaigning for political and social change.

If reading more than 500 pages is more than you can bear, I’m told the audiobook, which includes the U2 songs mentioned in the chapter titles, is excellent (Bono narrates it himself). Alternatively, there’s a playlist on Spotify or head to YouTube to watch (multiple) recordings of his promotional book tour, such as this one, at Washington National Cathedral (fast-forward to 10-minute mark to skip the religious stuff). That said, his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is probably the best and his performance of ‘With or Without You’ is stunning.

‘The Lost Daughter’ by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 144 pages; 2015. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Here’s another book I wasn’t expecting to like but found myself completely enamoured by.

I read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the author’s wildly popular Neapolitan tetralogy, many years ago but I didn’t like it enough to follow up with the rest in the series. But this standalone novella, purchased secondhand for the princely sum of $3, was in a class of its own. Indeed, The Lost Daughter was one of my favourite books of 2022.

The story provides a dark glimpse of motherhood and the ties that forever bind women to their children. It is narrated by Leda, a 40-something divorced mother of two adult daughters, who goes on holiday to the Italian coast for the summer. While there she gets drawn into the world of a family whose menacing machinations she doesn’t quite understand. When she steals the doll of a young girl, she sparks off a chain of events that have unforetold repercussions.

The narrative backflips between the escalating tensions of the present day and Leda’s past as a young promising academic struggling to reconcile motherhood with her marriage and career. It’s written in sparse, hypnotic prose yet somehow manages to convey a sense of urgency and danger. I ate it up in a few hours and still think about it. The film adaptation, starring Olivia Colman, is excellent.

‘The Sawdust House’ by David Whish-Wilson

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 304 pages; 2022.

David Whish-Wilson’s The Sawdust House is a vividly entertaining, multi-layered story about convicts, boxing, journalism, identity and reinvention. It is set in 19th-century San Franciso where a specially convened committee is doing its utmost to rid the city of Australian criminals.

Based on a real story, it is framed around Irish-born ex-convict James “Yankee” Sullivan (Wikipedia entry here), a renowned bare-knuckled pugilist, who is being held in prison by the Committee of Vigilance.

The book’s structure is highly original: it tells Yankee’s story using the device of an interview with Thomas Crane, an American newspaperman, in which the journalist’s thoughts and queries alternate with the prisoner’s responses. From this we learn of Yankee’s daring escape from an Australian jail, his trek to America, the great loves of his life — women, boxing, booze — and his dream of opening his own public house, The Sawdust House of the title.

It’s a rollicking great story, written in the vernacular of the time, and one that has a ring of authenticity about it.

David is a local writer, so ‘The Sawdust House’ qualifies for my ongoing Focus on Western Australian Writers reading project, which you can read more about here

21 thoughts on “Three Quick Reviews: Bono, Elena Ferrante & David Whish-Wilson”

  1. I have an Oasis bio with me, I don’t think it’s going to be as good.

    Your Ferrante has me thinking, is this just another view of the author’s life from a slightly different angle? (I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing)

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    1. I bloody love Oasis but not sure I’d want to read a bio about them 😆

      As for the Ferrante, I don’t know. The book certainly raises some interesting issues about motherhood and how once you have a child there is no time left for yourself. The message seemed to be that children suck the life out of you!

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  2. Agree about The Lost Daughter. I didn’t care much for the series (although really enjoyed the TV series!) but really enjoyed Lost Daughter – seemed more focused and tightly written.
    I noticed recently that another of her standalone novels, The Lying Life of Adults, has been made into a series (or movie??). At first I thought it was a book I hadn’t read but, on looking back, yes I had read it, it just wasn’t that good! (will probably still give a watch though).

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  3. I shall definitely read Bono now – I’ve dithered over getting it, but I love the sound of his humour. I loved and hated the film of The Lost Daughter, and feel no need to read the book, but I have read Troubling Love by Ferrante which I was conflicted by too! I lost interest in the Neapolitan Quartet halfway through the second book.

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    1. Oh, Bono does tell some funny stories. There’s a whole section about his mullet that had me roaring with laughter.

      Interesting you didn’t like the Lost Daughter. I think it especially appealed to me because it confirmed my decision not to have children 🤷🏻‍♀️

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  4. Excellent brief reviews, kimbofo. I’d be interested in all of these from what you say but maybe I’ll just watch the Colbert with Bono! We do watch Colbert but don’t catch them all and I don’t think we saw this one. The Ferrante sounds worth reading, but probably my first choice would be Whish Wilson, set in San Fran! I wasn’t expecting that.

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    1. Thanks, Sue. The Whish-Wilson is great! I went to the book launch in Freo back in April last year. He is very much a well-loved local author judging by the turnout. Even Kim Scott was there!

      Yes, do watch that episode of Colbert. Bono has written the soundtrack of my life and I’ve seen U2 multiple times on multiple continents and adore them, but sometimes Bono gets on my wick and I’d rather he just sing the songs not talk in between them. But he has a AMAZING life story to tell and in this book he tells it so well. I’d actually love to see him write a novel! He’s a master at imagery.

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    1. Bono’s memoir is a must for U2 fans, Stu. I think you’d find a lot to like in it, although he respects his band mates’ privacy and doesn’t give us any juicy gossip about them!

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