'The Dry Heart' by Natalia Ginzburg + 'A Northern Line Minute' by William Leith

Review #117

Books on GIF is switching to weekly publication this month for ‘Novella November.’ We kick things off today with reviews of two intense short stories. The first is ‘The Dry Heart’ by Natalia Ginzburg, which examines a failed marriage. The second is ‘A Northern Line Minute’ by William Leith, which tackles the everyday anxieties of riding the subway in a post-9/11 world. Here’s ‘The Dry Heart’:

Natalia Ginzburg is an author I’ve wanted to read for a while, but to be honest I picked up this book solely on the strength of the cover design of this recently released edition. I absolutely love it. It’s perfect when you consider how the book opens, as you’ll see below, with a woman shooting her husband in the face. I was like:

After the shooting, the unnamed wife tells the story of how she met her husband, Alberto, of their loveless marriage and of the death of their child. She and Alberto initially hit it off and spend hours together walking along the river and talking in cafés. Eventually she thinks she’s in love with him and then she convinces herself that she is indeed in love with him — her emotions and thought processes throughout the book are complex. She confesses her feelings to Alberto, but he recoils saying he thought they were just friends, that he doesn’t love her and is instead in love with a married woman. But after Alberto’s mother dies, they end up getting married anyway and having a child. All the while he’s still carrying on the affair with the married woman. He disappears for days and weeks on end to spend time with her, culminating in the moment when:

I like this book for several reasons. First, I like how we got to live inside this character’s head and see her work through her thoughts and emotions about wanting to be loved and getting no love or emotional support from her husband. I also like when the woman meets with her husband’s paramour. We see that the women are not really competitors for a man’s love, but rather two unhappy victims of his indecision and indifference. I also liked Ginzburg’s spartan and direct writing style. It’s punchy and vivid without being wordy. And lastly, I like how this book foreshadows the feminine rage seen in the work of contemporary authors I love such as Elena Ferrante and Ottessa Moshfegh. Though this book was written in the 1940s, it felt very much like it was reaching out from the past to connect with our time, like:

‘The Dry Heart’ is a depressing and beautiful book, and you should all read it.

How it begins:

“Tell me the truth,” I said.

“What truth?” he echoed. He was making a rapid sketch in his notebook and now he showed me what it was: a long, long train with a big cloud of black smoke swirling over it and himself leaning out of a window to wave a handkerchief.

I shot him between the eyes.

He had asked me to give him something hot in a thermos bottle to take with him on his trip. I went into the kitchen, made some tea, put milk and sugar in it, screwed the top on tight, and went back into his study. It was then that he showed me the sketch, and I took the revolver out of his desk drawer and shot him between the eyes. But for a long time already I had known that sooner or later I should do something of the sort.

My rating:

‘The Dry Heart’ (È stato cosi) by Natalia Ginzburg was originally published in 1947 by Giulio Einaudi Editore SpA, Torino. The English translation from the original Italian by Frances Frenaye was originally published by Hogarth Press Ltd. in 1952. The New Directions edition was published in 2019. 88 pages. $12.95 at Books Are Magic.

Next up is ‘A Northern Line Minute’:

This book was given to me years ago by my friend Maggie who lives in England. The book, which is part of a 2013 series published to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, is so skinny that I didn’t notice when it fell into the narrow space between my nightstand and the bedroom wall. It dwelled there in darkness for years until I rediscovered it recently while cleaning. Unlike Ginzburg’s book, the cover design is not good at all. It looks so lazily done that it undermines the good story inside. ‘I like writing about anxiety,’ is what Leith writes in a fact sheet displayed on the back cover. The subway excels at causing tension and anxiety with all of its:

But the protagonist in ‘A Northern Line Minute’ has a phobia about riding in the Underground, and the minute he gets on a Northern Line train he thinks he smells something burning. He nearly has a panic attack thinking he will be trapped in a dark tunnel beneath the city and die, and spends the rest of the story trying to keep his worry in check like:

Every straphanger fears disaster and death in the bowels of the city, whether its from terrorism, derailment, fire, everyday violence, drowning from the river caving in a tunnel, or being pushed in front of the train by a maniac. Leith captures this anxiety exceptionally well, so well in fact that I couldn’t believe this book was published to celebrate a subway system. His sentences run super long when the protagonist has breathless thoughts about death, which he intermingles with memories of terror attacks and sports highlights. When he’s more under control, the sentences shorten. I thought this style was very effective and inducing the reader to feel and share the character’s internal strife. I also liked Leith’s use of punctuation, especially the semicolon. If you’ve ever been curious as to how the semicolon should be properly used, read this book. So. Many. Semicolons. It seems like they’re in almost every sentence, winking at you like:

Punctuation aside, this is a good book, and I recommend it. But maybe don’t read it on your morning commute.

How it begins:

I’m on the train, and the doors are shutting behind me, when I smell the smoke; or rather I’m stepping into the train, towards the seating area, when I sense something bad, and I don’t know what it is, and I sit down, and I see that the doors are shutting, and I don’t know yet where the bad feeling is coming from, because when you smell something it goes straight to your memory, smell bypasses all analysis, as Proust described when he bit into the dunked cake and was transported to his childhood, and only later realized that this was because of the smell of the cake, the madeleine; I step into the train, and feel the bad feeling, the ominous feeling, that something is very wrong, it’s the memory of fires, but not good fires, and I sit down in the seat, and the doors close, and then I realize that I’m smelling something, and it’s burning rubber, or plastic, or oil, or a mixture of all three, and I shift upwards in my seat already knowing it’s too late, because the doors are closing; have closed.

My rating:

‘A Northern Line Minute’ by William Leith was published by Penguin Books in 2013. 73 pages. It was a gift.

More things worth your time:

  • Remember this: Elena Ferrante’s new novel ‘The Lying Life of Adults’ is coming out in June, according to Europa Editions.

  • Read this: I know Halloween is over, but here is a very interesting Twitter thread about the origin of the term ‘Zombies’ and how they became known as flesh eaters.

  • Do this: On Friday, Nov. 8, at 7 p.m., Astoria Bookshop hosts ‘From Manuscript to Marketplace: Angie Cruz in conversation with Amelia Possanza and Caroline Bleeke for “Dominicana.”’ Cruz’s new novel, “Dominicana,” was recently published by Flatiron Books, where Possanza is the assistant director of publicity and Bleeke is an editor. The trio will discuss the steps it takes to go from writing a manuscript and getting it published to how to promote it on social media and other venues. More information can be found here (scroll down). Additional details about ‘Dominicana,’ a novel about a young woman in 1965 who is lured to immigrate from the Dominican Republic to Washington Heights in New York City by the promise of a new life, can be found here.

Next week you’ll get reviews of ‘McGlue’ by Ottessa Moshfegh and ‘Magritte’s Missing Murals’ by Joseph D. Reich. Also in the queue are ‘Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom’ by Sylvia Plath, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Juan Pablo Villalobos and ‘Nothing But The Night’ by John Williams, among others.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #116 featured ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier.

Shoot me an email if there’s a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want reviewed.

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Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this review!

Until next time,


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