Wednesday, December 12, 2018

My take on the 8th episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

This episode is a powerful portrayal of Lila’s story. Her courage and self-possession can make the viewer easily forget she is only sixteen years old. We see her growing anxiety about her engagement to Stefano, her increasing awareness that she is about to foreclose options in life through an early marriage, and on the day of her wedding, her realization that she had made a terrible mistake.

The episode is less successful with Elena’s story, revealing the limitations of film which cannot easily simultaneously portray the drama of the wedding and Elena’s ruminations about what the wedding means to her. Elena experiences the wedding as a turning point in her relationship with Lila and also as a measure of her estrangement from the world of the neighborhood. Elena had become acutely aware of her alienation from the boys of the neighborhood. She had grown up with them, was accustomed to their violent behavior and rough language, but as she advanced from middle school to high school, she had been following every day a path completely unknown to them.

Elena’s mother had assimilated Maestra Oliviero’s message that Elena should keep her distance from these young men. At Lila’s wedding reception, Elena’s mother insisted that she stay away from Antonio, a neighborhood boy who had fallen in love with her, telling her daughter that her parents were not paying for her education in order to have her fall in love with a mere auto mechanic.

In the novel Elena took the initiative and asked Antonio to accompany her to Lila’s wedding—“not to leave me alone, and maybe always to dance with me.” Antonio interpreted the invitation as evidence of Elena’s serious interest in him; he went into debt to buy a new suit for the wedding—an expenditure he could ill afford.

In the film it is Antonio who takes the initiative and asks Elena if he can accompany her. Perhaps the screenwriters wanted to downplay the extent to which Elena was responsible for using Antonio. At the wedding she appeared oblivious to his feelings, humiliating him by ignoring him at the wedding reception, instead spending time with the young man she really loved—Nino Sarratore. Although Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is generally thought to be about men’s mistreatment of women, the roles are sometimes reversed, with Elena callously using Antonio.

The wedding reception filled Elena with horror. She recalled when Maestra Oliviero asked her if she knew what “the plebs” were and she now understood what she hadn’t fully grasped years ago: “The plebs were us.” In the novel she elaborates: “The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer.” Elena had internalized much of Maestra Oliviero’s class prejudice and now saw her family and friends through Maestra Oliviero’s eyes.

The film leaves the viewer with unforgettable visual images of the wedding, but the novel presents both the drama of the wedding and Elena’s troubled, complicated reactions. I’m happy to have the experience of both film and novel versions of My Brilliant Friend.

Monday, December 10, 2018

My take on the 7th episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

Both Elena and Lila get in involved with a man for the wrong reasons. In Lila’s case she becomes engaged to Stefano Caracci, a prosperous grocer, thinking this is her only a way out of an engagement to Marcello Solara.

When Lila asked Stefano if he was really different, Stefano replied, that was his intention. However, well aware of the difficulty of breaking with the mores of the neighborhood, he admitted that he didn’t know if he could keep his promise.

When Marcello Solara, furious that Lila had chosen Stefano over him, spread obscene rumors about Lila, Stefano and Lila decided to reject revenge and rise above the values of the neighborhood; they would act as if the Solaras did not exist. Stefano did not defend the honor of his fiancée, Lila ignored the slander, and the Solaras continued to spread lies. Elena did not understand what was happening. She found the Solaras’ behavior more comprehensible, more consistent with the world in which they had grown up than Stefano and Lila’s refusal to seek revenge.

Desperate to keep pace with Lila who is now engaged to Stefano, Elena becomes involved with a mechanic Antonio Capuccio. The film, like the novel, conveys the frustrations of adolescent sexuality in a sexually repressed culture. Elena felt strong sexual stirrings with her first boyfriend, Antonio, although her reasons for getting involved with him had more to do with her desire to keep up with Lila than for any deep emotional connection she had for Antonio.

Elena has affection for Antonio and enjoys their sexual intimacies, but is in love with Nino. Antonio is falling ever more deeply in love with Elena who apparently has no moral qualms about stringing him along. The film—up to this point--tends to portray Elena as “the good girl” and downplays her self-absorption and capacity for cruelty.

Friday, December 7, 2018

My take on the 6th episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

Elena takes her first trip outside of Naples, with the drab streets of the neighborhood replaced by the brilliant colors of Ischia. My guess is this episode will increase tourism to Ischia.

The episode highlights what will become a major theme of the Neapolitan Quartet—the damage done by deceptively charming sexual predators, like Donato Sarratore—totally selfish and unconcerned about the impact of their behavior on the women they seduce.

Donato’s son Nino delivers a damning indictment of his father, telling Elena that he was Melina’s lover although he knew she was an emotionally fragile woman: “Out of vanity he would hurt anyone and never feel responsible. Since he is convinced that he makes everyone happy, he thinks that everything is forgiven him. He goes to mass every Sunday…he is always considerate of my mother. But he betrays her continually. He’s a hypocrite, he makes me sick.”

Ironically Nino will surpass his father as an incorrigible womanizer. Since Ferrante gives us no sense of Nino’s interior life we have no insight into his transformation from a young man appalled by his father’s behavior to a far worse womanizer than his father.

When Donato learns that Elena is a student at a classical high school, his interest in her picks up. Donato’s wife Lidia notes his interest in Elena and is clearly disturbed by it. Lidia’s reaction is not in the novel where we see only what Elena sees. This is an instance where film has the advantage by conveying through facial expressions, what Elena doesn’t see.

Elena is taken by surprise by Donato’s sexual assault, which I found more disturbing in the film than in the novel. Generally, visual images of violence and sexual assault when portrayed in film are more powerful than when described in a novel. Fifteen-year-old Elena did not resist Donato and appears immobilized. The film’s soundtrack, more appropriate to a romantic scene than to a sexual assault—is jarring. For Elena, the experience was a mixture of repulsion and the stirring of sexual desire. Confused and ashamed, Elena flees the island early in the morning the next day; she told no one about the experience.

In an interview with Vulture, Director Saverio Costanzo explained his choice of a romantic soundtrack as a backdrop for a scene of sexual violence:
Saying he “felt such a sense of horror” about Donato’s actions, Costanzo added that he “didn’t want the scene to be realistic and therefore intolerable to the viewer. We decided to use a soft piano tune in contrast with the violence to allow Elena’s surprise to emerge in addition to her horror.”

I think Costanzo’s concern for the viewer is misplaced here. The soundtrack has the impact of minimizing the reality of sexual assault. This is the first directorial choice that I found seriously problematic.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

My take on the 5th episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

Elena and Lila’s lives continue to diverge. Elena is venturing out into the wider world while Lila becomes increasingly enmeshed in the world of the neighborhood. Lila’s brother Rino was humiliated by his lack of money and desperate to become economically successful. Consumed by envy of the Solaras, lords of the neighborhood who disrespected him, Rino became obsessed with the idea of becoming rich by opening a factory to make the shoes Lila had designed. When his father rejected the idea, Rino went on a rampage, frightening his mother, other family members and the neighbors. He overturned furniture, broke plates, and swore he would kill himself rather than work in his father’s shoe shop for a pittance.

Rino’s response to dashed dreams of upward mobility and to class-based insult was to resort to physical violence. For women, poverty may have severely limited their options but did not diminish their sense of themselves as women; for men, poverty threatened their very identity as men. Rino’s anger and insecurity leads him to attack a young man from one of the wealthy Neapolitan neighborhoods, leading to a vicious beating by the young man’s friends armed with sticks, and then rescued by the Solaras armed with iron bars.

Both Lila and Rino were trapped by violence and poverty, but Lila was also facing the threat of marriage to Marcello Solara, scion of the neighborhood’s organized crime family. Her parents saw this marriage as way of improving the economic prospects of the Cerullo family and her father threatened dire consequeences if she refused Marcello.

I found the film version of an increasingly desperate Lila resisting Marcello’s advances more powerful than the corresponding section in the book, where everything we see of Lila is refracted through Elena’s memory--her struggle to understand her friendship with Lila and the conflicting emotions she experiences, deep attachment laced with rivalry and jealousy. Although the voiceover from time to time reminds us we are witnessing the recollections of a mature woman, for the most part in the film we see Lila as a character in her own right, with a greater force and immediacy than in the novel.

In response to a Guardian interviewer who asked Ferrante if she would ever be tempted to let Lila tell her own story, Ferrante insisted that the Quartet “can only be Elena’s tale: outside that tale [Lila] would probably be unable to define herself.” In the film Lila does exist outside Elena’s tale and in Gaia Girace’s haunting performance dominates the film.

Dora Romano’s Maestra Oliviera also exists outside Elena’s tale and emerges as a far more interesting character than Elena perceives. So the bottom-line: the book is not better than the film—nor vice-versa. Each version provides different pleasures and insights.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

My take on the 4th episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

Episode 4 is certainly the dramatic high point of the series to date with two of the most compelling scenes—the dance party and the New Year’s Eve party. When I first read My Brilliant Friend, I remember thinking that if the novel were ever adapted for film, these two (along with the wedding scene) would be key scenes; they seemed written for adaptation as a screenplay.

The dance party at Gigliola’s house showcases Lila’s transformation into a beautiful, sexually alluring teenager with all the young men from the neighborhood vying for her attention. Lila has developed a passion for dancing which, like everything else she undertakes, she does extremely well. Elena watches glumly on the sidelines, realizing that Lila has far surpassed her in beauty and sexual attractiveness as she has surpassed her in intelligence and academic performance.

The party ends on a sour note as the Solaras demand that Gigliola’s mother ask Pasquale to leave ostensibly because his father was accused of murdering the father of other guests, the Carracci family, but more likely because Marcello Solara perceived Pasquale as a rival for Lila’s attention.

The Solaras are trying to stoke the tensions/ old hostilities in the neighborhood, just as Stefano Carracci surprises everyone by rejecting the revenge ethic so deeply ingrained in the culture of the neighborhood and inviting the Pelusos to his New Year’s Eve party. Stefano grew up in a world where insults must be avenged; in the first episode we see a teenage Stefano assaulting Lila for besting his brother Alfonso in a scholastic competition. Given his background, Stefano’s transformation is remarkable.

Reluctantly Pasquale agrees to accept Stefano’s invitation and on New Year’s Eve the old enemies gathered at the house of the Caracci family to celebrate the New Year together, with Stefano being especially kind to Signora Peluso, first filling his mother’s glass with spumante and then the glass of Signora Peluso.

One ancient quarrel was resolved but another was burning brightly. The young men of the neighborhood engaged in their New Year’s Eve battle, armed with firecrackers and explosives. The Caraccis and their former enemies, the Pelusos, were on one side and the Solaras and their allies on the other. The scene is beautifully choreographed ending when the brutal Solaras, angry at being out done by the Caraccis and their new allies, started firing real bullets.

Lila’s response to the episode reveals the emotional fragility that coexists with the steely resolve she so often displays. She appears to have a kind of mental breakdown—what she refers to as “dissolving margins.” The extreme anxiety appears to be connected to her worry about her brother who has become obsessed with the goal of becoming rich.

Lila’s intellectual ability has up to now been focused on languages and literature; she now turns her considerable intelligence to understanding the social conditions responsible for her family’s poverty. She turns first to Pasquale for an understanding of the rule of the fascists, then World War II, the near destruction of Naples in the Allied bombing, the post-war black market in their neighborhood and the growing influence of the Camorra crime syndicate. In Ferrante’s memorable prose, Lila saw the whole neighborhood complicit in these atrocities—-“Fernando the shoemaker, and my father, all—all—in her eyes stained to the marrow by shadowy crimes, all hardened criminals or acquiescent accomplices, all bought for practically nothing.”

Ferrante has done a brilliant job interweaving the political history with the characters’ personal lives and Costanzo has managed to do this as well in the film-- a medium that lends itself less easily to this integration of personal stories with the historical drama.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

My take on the third episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

When I tuned into episode 3, it was with regret that I would not see the two young actors playing Elena and Lila as young girls. I am happy to report that the actors playing the teenage Elena and Lila are every bit as good.

Titled “Metamorphoses” the episode depicts Elena’s discomfort with her changing body: the trauma of discovering that she is bleeding and having no idea what is happening, her emerging breasts which are drawing attention from boys in the neighborhood and the adolescent acne which torments her. Lila’s physical transition to young womanhood is much easier—no acne, no traumatic onset of menstruation.

For Lila the trauma is being deprived of the opportunity to go to middle school. In 1962, the Italian government instituted compulsory education up to the age of fourteen, about seven years too late for Lila. Lila’s despair at not being able to continue her education is heartbreaking; she took Latin books out of the library and continued to study on her own, enabling her to tutor Elena who was struggling with Latin grammar and syntax. For Elena, education was mostly a means to an end; she rarely appeared to take joy in learning. Lila, on the other hand, had a passion for learning in itself. The screen writers add a line of dialogue, which brilliantly conveys Lila’s passion for learning. When Elena asks her why she studies Latin, she replies, “Because it’s beautiful.”

Elena thought that Lila was still ahead of her in everything, “as if she were going to a secret school.” Elena’s complicated feeling about her friend and rival do not fully emerge in the film—in part due to the difficulties of finding visual equivalents for complicated, conflicting emotions and also perhaps because the director did not want to delve too deeply into the dark side of Elena.

In the book Ferrante writes that Elena admitted that in some hidden part of herself she looked forward to attending a school where Lila would never enter, where without competition from Lila she would be the best student, and that she might sometimes tell Lila about her experiences, boasting about her success. What makes Elena such a fascinating character is that she can present one face to the world, the impression of a “good girl,” while often seething with resentment and jealousy that she cannot fully acknowledge.

Maestra Oliviero, deeply disappointed that her star pupil Lila cannot continue her schooling, turns to Elena who now becomes her protégé. Elena is grateful to her but along with the encouragement, Oliviera also transmits her class prejudices, telling Elena to forget Lila and think only of herself and avoid any contact with boys like Pasquale Peluso--a construction worker, unlikely to ever go farther than that, and whose father was a communist.

The young men who posed a real threat to the girls in the neighborhood were not boys like Pasquale but the sons of the neighborhood organized crime boss, Marcello and Michele Solara who drove around the neighborhood trying to force young girls into their new car. Lila responds with anger and a growing feminist consciousness to the Solaras, a fury culminating in threatening Marcello with a knife if he ever again tries to drag Elena into his car.

The conclusion of this scene takes advantage of the resources of film. Elena notes that, when Marcello recovered her bracelet that had broken when she pulled away from him, he looked not at her but at Lila, suggesting his interest in Lila: ”It was to her that he said, ‘I’m sorry.’” In the film we see the play of complicated emotions as Marcello stares at Lila holding a knife to his throat: fear, fascination, sexual attraction. The soundtrack reinforces the sense that we are looking at a man who is beginning to fall in love. I’ve become accustomed to the soundtrack, which I found too melodramatic in the first episode; now it seems for the most part to hit all the right notes.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

My take on the second episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

Rather than the episodic structure and large cast of characters of the first installment, the second has a strong dramatic arc focusing on Elena and Lila and their families’ different responses to the girls' determination to continue their education. Lilia’s family adamantly refuses to consider it; Elena’s, albeit reluctantly, agrees.

Elena’s family has more resources. Her father could consider the possibility of his daughter continuing her education in part because his family was not as economically burdened as Lila’s, whose large extended family was supported by her father’s work as a shoe repairman. Ferrante signals this difference in the economic status of the two families in the description of the girls’ dolls in the opening pages of My Brilliant Friend, recreated in episode one of the HBO film. Elena recalled that her doll was beautiful and newer than Lila’s doll; hers had a plastic face and plastic hair and eyes and wore a blue dress that her mother “had made for her in a rare moment of happiness.” She recalled that Lila’s doll was dirty and ugly and had an old-fashioned cloth body filled with sawdust. The difference in resources between the two families was not great, but apparently just enough to foreclose the option of further schooling for Lila. I wonder how much of this I would have picked up from the film if I had not read the book.

The second episode portrays what my friend Sue found missing in the first installment-- two spirited young girls, who find pleasure in each other’s company despite their bleak surroundings. The big surprise of the film was Maestro Oliviero who in the book sometimes verges close to caricature. The woman who plays her creates a complex, sometimes sympathetic character passionately devoted to those few students she believes have exceptional promise and no doubt doing incalculable damage to those she dismisses as dunces. She recognizes Lila’s genius and is devastated that Lila cannot continue her education.

In the novel, Ferrante reminds us that what we are reading is filtered through the memory of a mature woman. Director Saverio Costanzo does something similar with voiceovers. However film doesn’t lend itself to these explicit reminders as easily as the novel and some reviewers have criticized Costanzo for excessive use of the voiceover. I actually think voiceovers should have been used more often, especially the scene where Elena tries to figure out Lila’s motivations in encouraging the trip to the sea and then insisting they turn back. In retrospect, Elena wondered if Lila, envious of Elena because her parents were allowing her to continue her education, had encouraged the trip, hoping that Elena’s parents would punish her by refusing to allow her to continue her schooling. Or perhaps, Lila had insisted they go back to avoid that very punishment. Years later, looking back at the incident, trying to disentangle Lila’s motives, Elena speculated that perhaps Lila had at different times wanted both outcomes.

The episode foreshadows the trajectory of their relationship in which deep attachment coexists with envy and hostility. Anger, jealousy, these are emotions film can convey. Complex, contradictory thoughts, deeply felt but sometimes barely understood—this is the province of the novel. So far I consider the HBO series a successful adaptation, but it has not shaken my belief that great novelists, and I include Ferrante in this category, provide access to the interior life of fictional characters in a way film cannot. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet reminds us of what only literature can do.

Monday, November 19, 2018

My take on the first episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

November 18 was the date Elena Ferrante fans have been waiting for--the premier episode of the HBO series dramatizing My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. I’m not much of a television viewer and hated paying for HBO just to watch the Ferrante series, but I could not resist. Like many Ferrante fans, I approached this with some trepidation. Could this series possibly meet the expectations of Ferrante’s devoted fans? My answer is no, but…

Since I first encountered Ferrante in January 2013 I have been immersed in her world, reading all of her novels at least three times and writing a book, In Search of Elena Ferrante, to help me unlock the secrets of Ferrante’s power, to better understand why these books have had such a hold on my imagination and that of millions of readers worldwide.

The first episode has not shaken my belief that great novelists, and I include Ferrante in this category, provide access to the interior life of fictional characters in a way film cannot. Film may have replaced the novel as the principal story-telling medium of our age, but great novels like Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet remind us of what only literature can do.

However, it’s arguable that film can do a better job conveying a sense of a social world—in this case 1950s working class Naples where the protagonists of the Neapolitan novels grew up. And violent images have (at least for me) a greater impact in a film. Seeing someone savagely beaten has a greater immediacy and power than a verbal description of violence.

But literature provides a deeper context than film can provide. Ferrante interweaves the rise of organized crime in Naples in the aftermath of the devastation of World War II with the lives of her working class characters, describing the grip that Camorrist loan shark Don Achille has on the neighborhood in which Lila and Elena grew up. Without that background knowledge, the viewer cannot fully understand the reasons why Lila despite her superior talents takes care not to totally vanquish Don Achille’s son Alfonso in a scholastic competition, but instead “calibrated answers—in such a way as not to be beaten.” Going this far was itself a brave act and resulted in a brutal beating by Don Achille’s oldest son Stefano—an irony only fully appreciated by those who have read the book which ends with Lila’s disastrous marriage to Stefano.

So much happens in these books—it’s impossible to absorb it all in a first reading. And that may also be true of the film. My friend Sue Clee and I while watching the film both had moments when we weren’t quite sure what was happening and thinking we must have missed something. I can’t help but wonder what the film is like for someone who has not read the books.

The episodes are quite faithful to the book although the order is re-arranged somewhat and there is at least one episode that is not in the book. The elementary school teacher Maestra Oliviera delivers a feminist rallying cry urging the girls in her class to seize opportunity to do better than the boys. Granted this is implicit in Ferrante’s account: “Maestra Oliviero especially enjoyed taking us to classes where the girl students and women teachers could not be humiliated so much as the males.” I like the director Saverio Costanza’s choice’s to turn this into a feminist pep talk.

So on the whole the first episode is a faithful adaptation but it may miss something of the spirit of the book. Sue thought the book was not as dark as the film and that the book conveyed some sense of two mischievous girls just having fun. I think she’s right here; also, in the book some of the relief from the bleak vision comes from Ferrante’s evocative language.

I’m looking forward to episode 2 tonight.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Vote on Fair Work Week Bill is scheduled for Nov. 29

Although eliminating poverty would mean a considerable investment of resources on the federal level, Helen Gym’s Fair Work Week bill demonstrates that there is action we can take on the local level which can make a difference in the lives of low-income workers and move the needle on poverty. From my article which appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local

On Tuesday, Oct. 30, a standing-room crowd came out to support the Fair Work Week bill sponsored by Councilperson Helen Gym. The proposed legislation would impact the working conditions of the 130,000 employees in Philadelphia’s retail, food service and hospitality industries.

Currently, according to the California Institute for Research and Employment, 62 percent receive their schedules with less than two weeks’ notice and 53 percent have worked “clopenings,” consecutive closing and opening shifts with little time in between to commute, eat and sleep.

After three hours of testimony, much of it from service sector employees and their advocates about the devastating impact of unpredictable schedules on families, the Committee on Law and Government voted 6 to 2 in favor of moving the bill out of the committee to the full Council, with Councilmembers David Oh and Brian O’Neill voting no.

The bill as amended mandates that companies with more than 250 employees and more than 30 locations give workers their schedules with 10 days’ notice and requires compensation when work hours are changed without the mandatory 10 days notice. (The number of days of notice will rise to 14 starting in January 2020.) The legislation also requires employers to give work to currently employed part-time workers before hiring new employees.

The large turnout for the Oct. 30 hearing on the Fair Work Week bill suggests widespread support by community organizations, including Northwest Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Networks, and especially by women’s organizations who see the Fair Work Week bill as very much a woman’s issue.

The Philaddelphia Commission for Women has made support for the Fair Work week legislation one of its priorities for the upcoming year. The Philadelphia chapters of the National Organization for Women and the Coalition of Labor Union Women spoke in favor of the bill.

Nina Ahmad, former President of Philadelphia NOW and a current member of the National Board of NOW , noted that women increasingly make up the majority of low-wage workers. Women are still the primary caregivers for young children, responsible for making arrangements for childcare and medical care. Ahmad described the difficulties in arranging childcare faced by workers with unpredictable schedules:

With unpredictable weekly schedules, childcare becomes an ad hoc situation, cobbled together at the last minute. Since many centers require caregivers to pay a weekly or monthly fee, regardless of how often the child attends, holding a spot in a childcare center is often infeasible for workers who do not know when, or even if, they will work that week.

Further, workers with unstable schedules may not qualify for childcare subsidies due to fluctuations in income and work hours. To qualify in Pennsylvania, parents must work 20 or more hours a week, or work 10 hours and go to school or train for 10 hours a week. Relying on family, friends and neighbors to provide childcare – as most workers in low-wage jobs must do – is complicated by the fact that their childcare providers may also be balancing an unpredictable part-time work schedule at their own jobs.

Vanessa Fields, co-chair of the Policy and Advocacy for the Philadelphia Commission for Women and a member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, emphasized the Fair Work Week bill’s support for women struggling to escape poverty. With greater control over their working hours, they might obtain a GED, a college degree or other training that would enable them to obtain a better paying job.

Objections to the bill came from Councilman Allan Domb, who expressed concerns about whether the legislation would make Philadelphia businesses less competitive with the surrounding suburbs. Representatives from the hospitality industry argued that the hotel industry was especially vulnerable, given the unpredictable nature of hotel reservations.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass raised concerns about whether the city had the resources to enforce the bill. Deputy Mayor for Labor Richard Lazer replied that Mayor Kenney supported the goals of the bill and believed resources could be made available to ensure successful implementation. He also stated that the Mayor would like to see some unspecified amendments to the bill.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown expressed concern about the bill’s impact on existing collective bargaining agreements. However, Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, and other representatives of organized labor who spoke in favor of the bill, did not share Reynolds-Brown’s concerns. Since many low wage workers are not represented by unions, until these workers become organized, legislation will be the route to improving working conditions for most low wage service sector employees.

There are apparently now 10 councilpersons who have expressed support for the bill, one more than the nine necessary for passage. In addition to Helen Gym, there are seven co-sponsors: Jannie Blackwell, William Greenlee, Bobby Henon, Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones, Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Mark Squilla.

In an interview on Oct. 31, Councilman Derek Green indicated his support.

“As vice-chair of the Law and Government Committee, I applaud Councilwoman Helen Gym for initiating this legislation to address poverty by giving employees a fair schedule and the opportunity to increase working hours,” he said. “I had some concerns about the unintended consequences of the bill and now think the amendments passed on Oct. 30 address those concerns and provide a balance between flexibility for employers and fairness for employees.”

He noted that he and Councilwoman Cindy Bass both voted to move the legislation out of committee with a favorable recommendation.

A vote on the bill is scheduled for Nov. 29 to decide whether Philadelphia will join the other states and municipalities, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York City and Oregon in passing a Fair Work Week bill.

Karen Bojar is a resident of Mt. Airy and a long-time Democratic Committee person. She is currently Vice-Chair of the Philadelphia Commission for Women.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Every feminist who travels to Milan should visit the Milan Women's Library!

We just returned from a trip to Italy and one of the highlights was a visit to the legendary Libreria delle donne di Milano, the Milan Women's Library,which has existed since 1975. Now located on via Pietro Calvi 29, the non-profit Women's Library is both a bookstore with an impressive stock of feminist books, and a meeting place which hosts meetings, political discussions, and film screenings.

Feminist bookstores have all but disappeared in the United States, but somehow Milanese feminists have managed to keep the Women's Library going on volunteer labor alone. In addition to the well-stocked bookstore/library, there are spacious, inviting meeting rooms.

I was impressed both with the Milan Women's Library and with the women I met there. They graciously gave me a tour of the library and meeting rooms as well as a copy of the September 2018 issue of their periodical, SottoSopra. I now have an incentive to work on improving my woefully inadequate reading knowledge of Italian.

The website describes the Women's Library as a “feminist enterprise that does not claim parity, but, on the contrary, says that the difference of women is there and we cherish it, we cultivate it…” The feminists who run the Milan Women's Library remain true to what is usually referred to as ”difference feminism", which emphasizes women's difference from men and which has characterized much of Italian feminist thought.

I bought a copy of Milan Women's Bookstore Collective publication, Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice (Theories of Representation and Difference) for 15 euros. When doing background reading for In Search of Elena Ferrrante, I read everything I could get my hands on about Italian feminist thought that had been translated into English. I came across this title but the price was crazy, not unusual for out of print academic books.

I’m very happy to finally have an affordable English language copy and will soon post a review.

Every feminist who travels to Milan should visit the Milan Women's Library!

Sunday, September 30, 2018

What I learned talking with Ferrante fans at Big Blue Marble Bookstore

Recently, at my favorite bookstore, Big Blue Marble, I spoke to a lively group of readers about my book, In Search of Elena Ferrante.

Any novel is in some sense a Rorschach test—we read fiction through the lens of our own experiences and values. This is especially the case with Ferrante whose readers respond to her work on a deeply personal level. As Joanna Biggs put it in her review in the London Review of Books:

Are Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels even books? I began to doubt it when I talked about them with other people—mostly women. We returned to life too quickly as we spoke: who was your Lila, the childhood friend who effortlessly dazzled everyone? Or—a question not happily answered—were you Lila?... The usual distance between fiction and life collapses when you read Ferrante.

The group at the bookstore was all female (which is often the case in gatherings devoted to Ferrante) and mostly older women. One reasons these books resonate with older readers like me is our identification with the narrator’s struggle to make sense of her life, the challenge of integrating her present-day self with the overall trajectory of her life. Certainly part of the reason the Neapolitan novels resonated with me was that the historical period they cover follows the trajectory of my life. Like Elena and Lila, I was born in 1944, and although there were of course differences between my life and theirs, there were also some striking similarities, among them the dramatic changes in the status of women and the heady excitement of the 1960s and 1970s, when all established institutions were challenged.

Not everyone at the bookstore was a Ferrante fan. One member of the audience, a good friend of mine whose personal and literary judgment I respect, thought Ferrante had not really probed the inner life of her characters. She’s not alone here. As I read reviews of the Neapolitan novels, I sometimes thought the reviewer had read a different series of novels from the ones I had. For me, Elena and Lila are as complicated and as fully alive as any fictional characters I have ever encountered.

Interestingly the people in the group who expressed opinions about the authorship of the novels all said it really didn’t matter if the books were written by a man or by a woman. The were in agreement with Ferrante’s comment in one of her many interviews, that “a good writer—male or female—can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness.”

Rather than being disappointed by the fact that Ferrante’s novels were not solely the work of a female writer, they seemed intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore gender roles. Ferrante’s publishers may fear that if a male author is acknowledged as the co-author of Ferrante’s books, many of Ferrante’s readers will be disappointed, may even feel deceived, and book sales will plummet. From my conversations with Ferrante fans, I doubt that is the case.

Queer theory and intersectional feminism have emphasized the fluidity of gender and undermined the notion of a stable female identity. My guess is that many readers will (in some cases reluctantly) have moved beyond the idea that there is an authentic female voice that can be recognized as such.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The trailer of HBO's adaptation of My Brilliant Friend is available

The trailer of HBO's My Brilliant Friend is available
as are reviews of first two episodes which premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. Also Ferrante addicts can read numerous interviews with director Saverio Costanzo who confirmed Ferrante’s involvement in the film adaptation:

We have been mailing to each other,” Costanzo told journalists during HBO’s Television Critics Association press session in Beverly Hills on Wednesday. “I don’t know who she is and I don’t want to know … she is, in my opinion, a very good scriptwriter … I’ve been mailing to the publisher. The publisher would send it to her and then back to me.

The description of Ferrante as “a very good scriptwriter” is further evidence of the involvement of Domenico Starnone, an accomplished screenwriter, in the creation of the works attributed to Ferrante. In my recent book In Search of Elena Ferrante I argue that Anita Raja and her husband Domenico Starnone are the authors of the works attributed to Ferrante, with Starnone the principal author of the novels and Raja the principal author of the letters and interviews collected in Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey.

In addition to confirming Ferrante’s involvement in the screenplay, Costanzo also notes Ferrante’s insistence that the film be in Italian, including much in Neapolitan dialect:

Because Ferrante wrote her novels in Italian, Costanzo said it would have been “impossible” to do the series in English. He added that HBO was firmly committed to maintaining the books’ Neapolitan dialect with English subtitles because “the dialect is part of the dramaturgy.

The dialogue in Neapolitan dialect will also be subtitled in Italy as the dialect is not generally understood outside Naples.

Critics have generally praised the authenticity of the sets. Vogue’s Jason Horowitz notes that that Italian producers “spared no expense in painstakingly constructing this enormous, 20,000-square-meter set in Caserta” a town near Naples:

Walking around, I am transported by weathered political posters and death notices. The convincingly aged walls of apartment buildings have working windows and internal staircases to reach the balconies where extras in expertly researched costumes pass the day.”I visit the costume department, just off set, where ten tailors and designers provide 1,500 Italian period pieces to the stars and extras. Racks of vintage drivers’ jackets, bras and stockings, Borsalino hats and suspenders, loose-fitting blazers and floor-sweeping skirts crowd the rooms. Fabric is soaked, burned, and otherwise distressed to make the clothes appear lived-in and humble.

The generally positive reviews of the first two hours of HBO's My Brilliant Friend also praise the performances of the two non-professional actors who play Elena and Lila as young girls.. From Daniel Fineberg in The Hollywood Reporter:
This limited sampling points to a handsome, largely dedicated Ferrante adaptation that, at least in this early going, is marked by spectacular casting of its inexperienced leads…My Brilliant Friend is blissfully neither based in a gauzy nostalgia nor mired in an affected documentary-style misery porn. It simply and cleanly embraces the details of everyday life, occasionally dirty or impoverished or ominous, spiked with moments of memory-infused whimsy. ..The series' first two hours mark an extraordinarily promising beginning.

From Daniel D'addario’s review in Variety:

And while achieving the internality of the book is too high an order for this series, its ability to conjure up the world of children confused at the happenings around them is its own achievement. “My Brilliant Friend” is an impressive effort, a translation of novel to screen that preserves certain of its literary qualities while transmuting others into moving and effective TV.

Adaptations of beloved books usually result in mixed reviews and My Brilliant Friend is no exception. From Emily Yoshida’s review in Vulture:
To say the advance press screening was a muted affair would be generous: I witnessed more walkouts throughout the two hours than I did during Luca Guadagnino’s bloody, polarizing Suspiria.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how director Saverio Costanzo’s adaptation fails …But I could sense the strain of putting the weight of the drama on two first-time child actors, Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti, who certainly look their parts but don’t quite have the unguardedness suggested by Ferrante’s deeply relatable account of their childhood.

Yoshida also complains that Costanzo’s direction is “ponderous and slow,” with a “mechanical quality” to these early episodes. She speculates that HBO may have “a huge, expensive, foreign-language dud on their hands.”

In an article lamenting the lack of women filmmakers at the Venice festival, Yoshida returns to her reservations about My Brilliant Friend:
Saverio Costanzo’s overly mannered, tastefully sepia-toned adaptation has all the events of the first section of Ferrante’s first book, but the cloud of something else–ness is missing…everything is in place, but it feels hollow.

The “something else–ness’ may refer to Ferrante’s emotionally charged language exploring the characters’ innermost thoughts. We share the most intimate thoughts of the great fictional characters, knowing them in a way we can never know our family, friends and colleagues whose innermost thoughts we are doubtless fortunate not to know. Film may have replaced the novel as the principal story-telling medium of our age, but great novels like Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet remind us of what only literature can do.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

I’m both looking forward to the upcoming HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s, My Brilliant Friend and feeling some trepidation.

Elisa Del Genio, left, and Ludovica Nasti, photographed on set outside Naples, as Lenù and Lila, the young pair at the center of My Brilliant Friend, appearing on HBO in November. Photographed by Paolo Pellegrin for Magnum Photos, Vogue, September 2018

I’m both looking forward to the upcoming HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s, My Brilliant Friend and feeling some trepidation. Previous adaptations of the Neapolitan novels —a radio play and a stage play—have received mixed reviews. In 2016 BBC Radio 4 aired an adaptation of the Neapolitan novels by prize-winning playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. I managed to hear some of it when it was available on demand from BBC radio. As someone who has never listened to audio books, I was not the right candidate for a radio dramatization; I want to consume books the old-fashioned way. Also, I found the English accents disconcerting and agreed with Kate Chisholm’s review in The Spectator: “To me the background music was wrong in flavour, the child actors too English and stilted, the voices of Lena and Lila as grown-ups not distinctive enough. I wanted to be taken to the baking hot streets of Naples, but found myself rooted in London.”

However, Alex O’Connell, writing for The Times, had a different assessment: “Yet once you tune in to the accents ... the story possesses you. The precise dialogue, artful reduction and accomplished performances made me, a Ferrante addict, want to listen on and read the novels all over again.” O’Connell asked Wertenbaker why she had the characters speak in Manchester accents: “I definitely didn’t want them to be from London or the southeast—that would be like setting it in Florence or Milan. Liverpool was right, but too distinctive an accent and place. We wouldn’t have dreamt of them speaking with Italian accents.” So they settled on “around Manchester.” (The HBO series will not have the problem of inappropriate English accents. The characters will speak Neapolitan dialect and both English and Italian versions will be subtitled.)

The London stage production of the Neapolitan novels appears to have generated as much controversy as the BBC radio program. The commission for the first stage adaptation of the Neapolitan novels was not awarded to a major theatre, as might have been expected, but to the Rose Theatre. According to April De Angelis, the playwright who adapted the novels for the stage, the Rose Theatre in Kingston came to the project early, approaching Ferrante’s publishers before “Ferrante Fever” became an international phenomenon: “When pitching, I just said things that I thought were true, like it had to be an ensemble, that it had so many wonderful opportunities for community scenes.... I thought that the neighbourhood is just so exciting on stage—you can bring the courtyard to life. And then there was this relationship between two women so the history of post-war Italy and the history of feminism and of class is all put through this complicated, truthful relationship between two women. That’s really unusual ... it’s still not the norm to have one woman at the centre of a play, but to have two.”

In response to an interviewer’s question as to how the nearly 1,600 pages of the Neapolitan Quartet into could be compressed into just four acts over two evenings, the director of the Rose Theatre production, Melly Still, acknowledged the impossibility of doing so: “There’s this strange, wonderful experience, which I think is particular to reading. It becomes personal and consummate.” She thinks a television series could manage to convey the scope of the novel, but “theatre has a different role, somehow distilling the experience of reading. Of course you end up losing some of the characters who you’ve grown to know and love ... you exist in a distilled Ferrante world.” Even with the greater opportunities afforded by a television series, there will be scenes omitted and minor characters eliminated.

Audiences and reviewers are so often disappointed with adaptations of literary works. They bring their expectations based on their conception of the book, and mixed reviews are inevitable. The Daily Mail’s Patrick Marmion described the Rose Theatre production as a “wild goose chase in which the adapter, April De Angelis, demonstrates a tin ear for dialogue” and deplored the “cartoon characters and leaden dialogue.”35 Gary Naylor’s lukewarm review in Broadway World questions whether a theatrical adaptation of the Neapolitan novels is possible: “By covering the 66 years time span of the four novels in one theatrical gulp, too many complexities are lost in the need to compress the narrative.” The Guardian’s Susannah Clapp had a very different response: “Against the odds, adapter April De Angelis and director Melly Still have pulled off their dramatization in My Brilliant Friend. There are absences and some awkwardness, but the essence of the books—intensity—wins through.” The responses to the television series may be even more divided than those to the radio program and to the stage production, as the audience will no doubt be much larger and will probably include many who have not read the novels. The television series will in all likelihood increase sales of the novels; “Ferrante Fever” shows no signs of abating.

Friday, August 31, 2018

In the Age of Trump, there are still some decent Republicans.

Ninth Ward Republican committeeperson Jane Toczek

In the Age of Trump and the complicit, cowardly Republican establishment, it’s important to remember that there are still some decent Republicans. From my article on Northwest Philly Republicans in the Chestnut Hill Local:

The Republican Party in Philadelphia has been on a downward trajectory. In the past, we had successful moderate or liberal Republicans—e.g., Arlen Specter, Thatcher Longstreth, Sam Katz, and former State Senator Phil Price. Many longtime Democrats voted for these candidates. In recent years, however, the number of moderate Republicans has dwindled, as has the number of Democrats willing to split their ticket and vote for a Republican in a general election.

Ninth Ward Republican Party ward leader Christopher Lins and Ninth Ward Republican committeeperson Jane Toczek acknowledge the challenges. Chestnut Hill resident Christopher Lins, the Director for Attorney Recruitment at JURISolutions, has been active in the Republican Party since 2008. He was appointed ward leader in 2014 and elected ward leader in 2018.

Mt. Airy resident Jane Toczek, a long-time employee of Chestnut Hill’s Philadelphia Print Shop and long-time board member of Stagecrafters, has served as committeeperson since 1996. She has a long family history with the Republican Party. Her parents met at meetings of the Young Republicans, and her father, Charles Mebus, served as a Republican state representative in Montgomery County from 1965 to 1979. Despite her living in the Ninth Ward’s overwhelmingly Democratic 1st division, Toczek’s Republican affiliation has not been a problem. “My neighbors know I’m a Republican, but not a Trump supporter,” she said.

According to Toczek, “there were a lot of moderate Republicans” when she was growing up. She is clearly not happy about the transformation of her party. Lins noted that there are still some moderate Republicans around, such as City Commissioner Al Schmidt and Beth Grossman, a candidate for District Attorney in 2017 whom Lins considered significantly better qualified than winner Larry Krasner.

Both Lins and Toczek think it’s important to have a Republican Party in Philadelphia as a check against corruption. Although no Republican with the exception of Schmidt has won city-wide office in recent years, the City Charter provides the Republican and other minority parties the opportunity to fill that watchdog function.

Seven City Councilpersons-at-large are elected. The Charter requires that two of these seven must be the two most successful candidates representing non-majority parties. The five Democratic candidates who win the primary election for at-large seats are all but guaranteed victory in the general election. Lins encourages Democrats to cast two of their five votes for council-at-large seats for the two best-qualified Republicans.

Both Lins and Toczek acknowledge that the national Republican Party has failed to reach out to the racial minorities who, collectively, will at some point become the new majority. Toczek noted, however, that here have been African-American members of the Republican Ninth Ward Executive Committee, and that her first partner as committeeperson was an African-American, the late John Myles. According to Lins, the majority of the ward leaders in Northwest Philadelphia are African-American. He thinks that “inaccurate perceptions have prevented people of color from realizing how welcoming the local Republican Party is.”

Lins further notes that both parties have failed to engage voters and that in the last presidential election, Republican turnout was 57%, with Democratic turnout only slightly better. Given the highly educated, informed voters in the Ninth Ward, he thinks that Ninth Ward turnout should be significantly higher.

Lins and Toczek see the major divide between the Republican and Democratic parties as over the role of government. They would like to see a greater role for private non-profit agencies in addressing social welfare issues. Of course, the resources the non-profit sector can marshal are insignificant compared to the resources of the United States government. Lins contends: “No responsible Republican is calling for the dismantling of government.” He would like to see a civil conversation about how best to utilize government resources, but is pessimistic about that occurring in today’s toxic political culture.

On the local level, however, cooperation does occur. Lins described how he and Ninth Ward Democratic leader Chris Rabb have co-operated in running elections in the 9th ward:

“It’s not partisan. It’s just helping your neighbor,” he said.

Chris Rabb has a similar philosophy about bi-partisan cooperation on the local level.

“My philosophy leading a ward in a very blue area of the city has more to do with civic engagement than partisan persuasion. That lends itself to a high level of cooperation, collaboration and civility.”

The increasing tendency of voters to register as independents suggests there is trouble ahead for the major parties. Responding to a question about whether the Republican Party will survive the Trump administration, or even whether the two-party system will survive, Lins was of the opinion that the two-party system will endure, as all our laws and institutions have been set up to support it. However, he speculated that the current configuration of Democratic and Republican parties may not last—they might be replaced by two very different parties. The dissatisfaction of a younger generation of progressives with the Democratic Party, as well as the dissatisfaction of socially liberal but economically conservative voters with the Republican Party, may be harbingers of future political realignment.

Both Lins and Toczek see a dysfunctional political system in which, as Toczek put it, “compromise is a dirty word,” and incivility reigns. According to Lins, “no healthy political system could have elected Trump”; however, he sees the political dysfunction as preceding Trump and resulting from a weakening trust in institutions.

However, despite their dissatisfaction with the national picture, they both see the Ninth Ward Republican Party as on the right track and believe it operates according to principles of democracy and transparency.

But the reputation of the national party is a heavy burden for local Republican activists. Will the party Jane Toczek grew up with ever return? Perhaps not before there’s a change at the top.

To quote former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner: “There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump Party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for one more week!

Pertaining to Yachts and Yachting by Charles Sheeler

Before we retired, my husband Rick and I could never get it together to attend an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until the very last day. We were contending with huge crowds of procrastinators and we vowed that when we retired, we would make sure this didn’t happen. Unfortunately, we didn’t kick the bad habit in retirement, but we are improving and managed to get to Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 a week before closing—something of a record for us.

Rick and I tend to approach paintings differently; he’s a formalist and likes to analyze a painting’s composition; he always points out formal features I haven’t noticed or fully appreciated. I tend to approach art as a form of story telling and Modern Times tells a compelling story. The museum catalogue describes the Modern Times exhibit as a portrait oif a changing society:

Bright lights, big country
From jazz and the jitterbug to assembly lines and skylines: the early twentieth century was a time of great social, artistic, and technological change. Artists responded with a revolutionary language of shapes and colors. See how Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Jacob Lawrence, and others challenged convention and forged bold new styles to fit the times

Work, technology, the economy, architecture, world affairs, leisure activities—all were transformed in the first half of the twentieth century. Artists of the Modern movement looked at the changing world around them and tried to capture the newness of these experiences through both the style and the subjects of their work.

Yet despite my tendency to view art as a kind of story telling, the paintings I loved the most in this exhibit were comnpelling visual images such as Pertaining to Yachts and Yachting by Charles Sheeler and Birch and Pine Tree No. 1 by Georgia O'Keeffe:

Another favorite, a compelling image that told a powerful story, is The Libraries Are Appreciated by Jacob Lawrence, part of his Harlem series, No. 28 now exhibited at The Harlem Branch Library of the New York Public Library.

The libraries were especially appreciated by African-Americans who had migrated from the South where libraries either did not exist or were segregated. As someone whose life would have been very different if not for the Philadelphia Free Library where I spent my childhood, this photo really resonated with me. In retirement I have once again become a heavy user of the Free Library.

African-American artists are well-represented in the exhibit. In addition to Jacob Lawrence, there are paintings by Horace Pippin, Claude Clark and Beaufort Delaney, including Delaney's iconic portrait of James Baldwin.

This exhibit is not to be missed!