We all like a reading list around here, don’t we? Yesterday, when I was doomscrolling through my Twitter feed as I do (but shouldn’t) every Saturday morning, I could not help but gasp of joy when this headline blinked at me: “Elena Ferrante names her 40 favourite books by female authors“. As I read through the article, though, I felt the headline was a bit slippery – and perhaps purposely so.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a great list, we can find some gems there, but… nothing that we could not have found many times before being talked about in the English-speaking papers over and over for the last five years. I mean, when we see the name Elena Ferrante stamped on a reading list, we don’t exactly expect to find just an overview of the NYT/ TLS / LRB review columns over the past 5 years, right? Or should we? If we read the list without knowing it is from Ferrante, it just sounds a bit… generic. As if a fine-tuned algorithm had made the choices, not a person – let alone a great, much beloved writer.
As we read through the article, we notice that the list is not really about Ferrante’s 40 all-time favourites, but about some good books by women she would recommend you to buy on bookshop.org. The choices are also framed around the 20th-century, and are limited to books translated to English: “Ferrante described her choices as being united by the theme of “stories of women with two feet, and sometimes one, in the 20th century” (from The Guardian). In the corresponding Bookshop.org page, the list was titled with less noise as “Elena Ferrante’s Recommended Reading”: “Stories of women told by women: Elena Ferrante, the New York Times bestselling author of My Brilliant Friend and The Lying Life of Adults, recommends 40 twentieth-century female writers” (from The Boolshop.org).
On Twitter, on the other hand, both the American and the British Bookshop.org accounts retweeted the misleading The Guardian’s article, as well as tweeted their own link saying stuff like: “Elena Ferrante recommend forty fantastic female writers of the 20th and 21st centuries“; “Who has Elena Ferrante been reading?“; “We’re excited to share a special curated list of women authors who have inspired her“. Making clear what this list was really about seems not to have been on their plans….
Europa Editions, who supposedly commissioned the list for the bookshop (three of their books are interestingly among Ferrante’s favourites…), tweeted: “Elena Ferrante has shared 40 of her favourite books by women. From Ingeborg Bachmann to Arundhati Roy, this is a rare insight into the reading habits of the great writer“. They also retweeted with great fanfare the deceptive The Guardian’s article – which, in turn, merely repeated what Bookshop.org and Europa Editions had tweeted on their own accounts the day before.
I think that Bookshop.org is a great initiative. If stamping the Ferrante Fever all over their site will help with sales, they are more than justified in helping us with a list. Especially, if it is a list of female authors, many of them in translation. As Zadie Smith said to The Guardian, after being questioned about her inclusion on the “Ferrante list”: “I am thrilled to be included in this wonderful initiative on behalf of independent bookshops.” The list is, above all, a marketing initiative on behalf of indie bookshops. And we need indie bookshops (a list with more than three indie publishers would also have been nice…).
However, it can be a bit disheartening that the nature of the list and the terms on which the choice of books was made were not made clear to the reader: a list of favourites, a shopping list, or a shopping list with some favourites sprinkled here and there? And why the 20th century? Are we to take the list as Ferrante’s favourite 20th century books by women? Or her favourite 20th century books by women available in English? Or perhaps her favourite 20th century books by women available in recent English translations? Or just her favourite books among the ones people are buzzing about? Maybe her list of 40 hyped books & authors that deserve the hype and can be found on bookshop.org? It’s all about the branding, these days, isn’t it?
The terms are not clear – and perhaps purposely so, if we think that the list was made not to give us greater insight into Ferrante’s work, nor to present us to some unknown or forgotten or yet-to-be-translated gems, but rather to nudge the reader to buy books on bookshop.org. If this is the aim, the list must stay more or less on the safe side anyway.
Enough rambling, or I’ll choke on my own poison. I am turning this list into a reading project, but one with a harmless, less noisy title: not Elena Ferrante’s 40 favourite books by female authors, not even Elena Ferrante’s Recommended Reading Available in Recent English Translations, nor Elena Ferrante’s Favourites Among The Most Buzzed-About Authors and Books in The English-Speaking World in The Past Decade, but rather… Elena Ferrante’s Well-Intentioned Shopping Advice.
On to the list. But first, the
- Read books are marked as (✓)
- Favourites are in bold.
- My reviews, when available, will be linked below.
Crossed off booksdenote the ones I did not finish (DNFs).
- Books I’ve read: 28/ 40
- Source of the list: The Guardian
- ✓ Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)
- The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (2020, tr. Adrien Kijek. Original: اشراق درخت گوجه سبز , 2017)
- ✓ Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann (2019, tr. Philip Boehm. Original: Malina, 1971)
- ✓ A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (2015)
- ✓ Outline by Rachel Cusk (2014)
- ✓ The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
- A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio (2019, tr. Ann Goldstein. Original: L’Arminuta, 2017)
- ✓ Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (2018, tr. Tina Kover. Original: Désorientale, 2016)
- ✓ The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1998, tr. Barbara Bray. Original: L’Amant, 1984)
- ✓ The Years, by Annie Ernaux (2017, tr. Alison L. Strayer. Original: Les Années, 2008)
- ✓ Family Lexicon, by Natalia Ginzburg (2017, tr. Jenny McPhee. Original: Lessico famigliare, 1963)
- The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer (1974)
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015)
- ✓ Motherhood by Sheila Heti (2018)
- ✓ The Piano Teacher, by Elfriede Jelinek (1988, tr. Joachim Neugroschel. Original: Die Klavierspielerin, 1983)
- Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (2020, tr. Sam Bett and David Boyd. Original: 夏物語, 2019)
- ✓ Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (1999)
- The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing (1988)
- ✓ The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector (2012, tr. Idra Novey. Original: A Paixão Segundo G.H., 1964)
- ✓ Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (2019)
- ✓ Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (2019, tr. Ann Goldstein. Original: L’isola di Arturo, 1957)
- ✓ Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
- ✓ Dear Life by Alice Munro (2012)
- ✓ The Bell, by Iris Murdoch (1958)
- Accabadora by Michela Murgia (2012, tr. Silvester Mazzarella. Original: Accabadora, 2009)
- ✓ Le Bal by Irene Nemirovsky (2010, tr. Sandra Smith. Original: Le bal, 1931)
- Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (2000)
- The Love Object: Selected Stories by Edna O’Brien (2015)
- ✓ A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (1955)
- ✓ Evening Descends Upon the Hills: Stories from Naples by Anna Maria Ortese (2018, tr. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee. Original: Il mare non bagna Napoli, 1953)
- ✓ Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
Normal People by Sally Rooney(2018) – Watching Rooney’s interviews before reading her books ruined the reading for me – it made me want to say: Chill out, Kid. Don’t explain yourself so much. You don’t have to fit the bill. I may go back to her books when she is in her forties – or when I get wiser, which I doubt will happen anytime soon, or ever.
- ✓ The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)
- ✓ White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
- ✓ Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008)
- ✓ The Door, by Magda Szabo (2005, tr. Len Rix. Original: Az ajtó, 1987)
- ✓ Cassandra by Christa Wolf (2013, tr. Jan van Heurck. Original: Kassandra, 1983)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara(2015) – Few books need to be written in more than 600 pages, and this is not one of them. Life is short and I am carpe-ing my diem
- ✓ Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (2005, tr. Grace Frick. Original: Mémoires d’Hadrien,1951)
This is it for now, folks! If you fancy doing a readalong with me of any of the books, let me know! 🙂