Saturday, October 18, 2014

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels


At the request of a friend, I've consolidated my reviews of Ferrante's 3 Neapolitan novels into one more easily shared post:
Elena Ferrante’s novels get better and better. To date three novels have been published in the series often referred to as the Neapolitan novels. The novels work on many levels: an exploration of the social and economic divisions in Italy; the extent to which class and gender constrain women’s lives, the difficulty of ever erasing the imprint of one’s background, the complexities of women’s’ friendships over time. This is the best book about female friendship I have read since Toni Morrison’s Sula. Ferrante has placed her story of the friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo within the context of a fully realized social world, with language that is nuanced, powerful, that makes you want to linger over her sentences.

Ferrante writes under a pseudonym and speculation about her identity is rampant. In Italy she is widely thought to be the male writer Domenico Starnone. It is difficult to believe that someone who writes so powerfully about the female experience is male–-a reaction shared by all the women I know who have read her books.

The first book in the Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, traces the complex, emotionally charged friendship between two young women growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in Naples in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Lina Cerullo (whom Elena calls Lila) was the rebel—-intellectually gifted, mercurial, unpredictable. Elena Greco was the “good girl,” intelligent, hard-working, eager to please. As Lila tells Elena, “you are good at making yourself liked…people are afraid of me.” Their friendship is marked by intense emotional attachment, as well as growing jealousy and competition as their paths begin to diverge. Lila’s father refuses to pay her school fees, thus ending her education at elementary school. Elena’s parents, torn between pride in their daughter's achievement and fear that she will become estranged from then, reluctantly agree to let her continue her education.

No one does the transition from childhood to young womanhood as powerfully as Ferrante. Elena and Lila experience this transition in an impoverished, deeply sexist southern Italian world in which violence against women and girls is just part of the air they breathe. What we now call sexual harassment was something women simply accepted as their lot in life— except for Lila:
On the street the men looked at all of us, pretty, less pretty, ugly, and not so much the youths as the grown men…and [we] had learned instinctively to lower our eyes, pretend not to hear the obscenities directed at us, and keep going. Lila no. To go out with her …became a point of permanent tension. If someone looked at her, she returned the look. If someone said something to her she stopped, bewildered as if she couldn’t believe was he talking to her…
My Brilliant Friend ends with Elena determined to continue her education and Lila married at age sixteen to a prosperous grocer, someone she hoped would rescue her family from poverty and protect her from the scion of the organized crime family her family had pressured her to marry. The wedding scene is brilliantly done both in terms of the complex interplay of emotions as both Lila and Elena realize how much their friendship and their world is changing and also because of the wealth of vividly drawn social detail. Ferrante excels at the cliffhanger ending. The novel concludes with Lila’s realization on her wedding day that she has made a horrible mistake. Ferrante’s devoted readers had to wait to wait a year before volume two appeared to find out how Lila managed to extricate herself from a disastrous marriage.


The second novel, The Story of a New Name, begins with Lila Cerullo trapped in a loveless marriage and Elena Greco grimly determined to use education as her route out of the neighborhood. Elena is haunted by the fear of becoming her mother: “Would my mother truly emerge from me, with her limping gait, as my destiny?” The women of the neighborhood bore the scars of multiple pregnancies, back-breaking labor and domestic violence:
They were silent with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them. Extremely thin with hollow eyes and cheeks or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up. And good god, they were ten at most twenty years older than me.
The women accepted abuse as normal. When Lila’s husband, Stefano, tries to beat her into submission, “there was no one in the neighborhood, especially of the female sex, who did not think she need a good thrashing for a long time. So the beatings did not cause outrage, and in fact sympathy for Stefano increased—there was someone who knew how to be a man.”

Ferrante’s sympathies extend to the young men who are trapped in the sexist script written for them from time immemorial; Elena recounts her conversation with Stefano, both driven by and disturbed by the role he has been conditioned to play:
With tears in his eyes, he admitted that on their wedding night he had had to beat her, that he had been forced to do it, that every morning, every evening she drew slaps from his hands on purpose to humiliate him, forcing him to act in a way that he never, ever ever would have wanted. Here he assumed an almost frightened tone…
The culture of violence is a trap for both men and women, a trap Elena is determined to escape.

Elena and Lila’s lives continued to diverge; their relationship deteriorated further when Lila began an affair with the love of Elena’s life, her old school friend Nino Serratore. Lila leaves her husband, a dangerous act in a culture in which men see themselves as justified in murdering an adulterous wife. She is soon abandoned by Nino and once again living in poverty while Elena continues her improbable climb from extreme poverty to the educated upper-middle class. However, despite her success in school, Elena is haunted by the fear that Lila is the truly brilliant one and that she is an unworthy impostor. She sees her success as something achieved through “sheer persistence” rather than through talent.

Elena then accomplished what to her family and to herself was the unthinkable—she published a successful, critically acclaimed novel. As a consequence, she finally achieves a measure of self-confidence. Once she had passively accepted the non-stop sexual harassment that was part of life in the neighborhood. Now she has the strength to fight back:
I felt a power that no longer knew how to adjust to the pretend not to notice with which in general, it was possible to survive in the neighborhood and outside it. Whenever in the throng of passengers I felt male hands on my body, I gave myself the sacrosanct right to fury and reacted with cries of contempt…
Although Elena’s self-confidence increased dramatically, the hidden injuries of class were never far from the surface. She realizes that she can never achieve the self-assurance of those who were born into privilege.
Suddenly I was aware of the almost:. Had I made it? Almost. Had I torn myself away from Naples, the neighborhood? Almost…Behind the almost I seemed to see how things stood. …I was scared of anyone who had that culture without the almost, with casual confidence.
And the old fear of being overshadowed by Lila never disappeared. Lila had entrusted Elena with a box filled with her notebooks, which she feared her husband would destroy. Elena immediately starts reading the notebooks even though she had sworn to Lila that she would not.
Every word of Lila’s diminished me. Every sentence, even sentence written when she was still a child seemed to empty out mine…every past effort of mine seemed without meaning.
Consumed with jealously of Lila’s talent and tormented by self-doubt, Elena throws the box with Lila’s notebooks into the Arno River. Elena, the “good girl” is capable of real malevolence. The novel ends with Elena, a successful author at a book signing in Milan. As she did in My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante concludes the novel with a dramatic plot twist: the man Elena has loved since childhood turns up to praise her book.



The third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay begins begins with Elena, a university graduate and successful writer, and Lila, denied those opportunities, a worker in a sausage factory. Elena is engaged to Pietro Airota, the scion of a prestigious family. She sees him as means of escape from her working class background, yet her own class insecurities are never far from the surface. She wonders if she is fully accepted by her fiance’s family: “What am I to the Airotas—a jewel in the crown of their broad mindedness”?

Ferrante has written the best account I’ve ever read of the struggle to climb the class ladder--in Elena Greco’s case, making several leaps from deep poverty to the intellectual elite of Italian society. Elena cannot shake the fear that she is an impostor. At a book signing for her first well-received, autobiographical novel, she is easily intimidated by a critical comment from a man in the audience: “I had become again the poor little girl from the poor neighborhood of Naples, the daughter of the porter with the dialect cadence of the South, amazed at having ended up in that place, playing the part of the cultured young writer.”

As hard as she tries, Elena cannot get rid of the imprint of her background. When she and her husband visit her relatives in the old neighborhood, Elena finds herself reverting to Neapolitan dialect: “I realized that my voice was taking on the tones of the dialect, out of nervousness, that words were coming to me in the Neapolitan of the neighborhood, that the neighborhood …was imposing its language on me, its mode of acting and reacting.”

Marriage to Pietro Airota provides Elena with upper middle class advantages, and helps her to increase her distance from the world of her childhood, but emotionally and sexually her marriage is a deep disappointment. Elena soon realizes she is not in love with her husband, but with the life he could give her. She describes her marriage to Pietro Airota as entering a “protective family, a sort of well-fortified castle.” After having children, she soon perceived her marriage not as a protected space but as a prison: “I found the isolation I ended up in unbearable…I hadn’t slaved since childhood just to be imprisoned in the roles of wife and mother.”

Ferrante has written a deeply moving account of the dissolution of marriage. Reconnecting with her old love, Nino Serratore, made the marriage to Airota more unbearable and Elena experiences a maelstrom of conflicting emotions–-intense love for Nino, guilt about hurting a man who had been in his own way a good husband, deep anxiety about the impact of divorce on her young children---all this along with her doubts as go whether the relationship with Nino would be a lasting one.

Although Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay focuses primarily on Elena, her complicated relationship with Lila forms the emotional heart of the novel. This is a relationship which will endure, as the men in their lives come and go. The trajectory of their lives often moves in opposite directions. When Elena’s life is on a downswing—increasingly unhappy with her marriage, unable to advance her career--Lila’s life is on an upswing, achieving success in the nascent computer technology industry. Elena has ambivalent feelings about Lila, deeply emotionally attached but envious of Lila’s talent—even at one point wishing that Lila would die. But when Lila is ill, Elena does everything she can to get Lila good medical care and devotes herself to "reorganizing Lila's life."

The personal struggles of these two women take place against the backdrop of the social and political upheaval of the late 1960’s and 70’s. Elena was not all that interested in politics but attracted by the drama of political activism; yet she was also threatened and saw the 1960’s left as posing a challenge to the upper middle class life she was trying to build. Elena was the observer of social movements; Lila, with a deeper understanding of economic injustice was drawn into the political struggle and became a union activist. Lila was deeply critical of the student left’s attempts to build a student/worker alliance—the arrogance of the students, their ignorance of the factory workers they hoped to organize, their unawareness of the futility of “distributing a densely written leaflet to people who could barely read.” Ferrante, whoever she is, clearly had some experience of the student left of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Her description is pitch perfect.

Like many women who had some involvement in the 1960’s left, both Elena and Lila experienced a feminist awakening. Elena observes that there were few women involved and they “were mostly silent, flirting with male activists.” Both Elena and Lila had a developing feminist consciousness before the emergence of an organized feminist movement, and Elena had explored feminist themes in her first novel. What many of her female readers found most compelling was the exploration of male sexual selfishness. Elena described “male annoyance, the boredom of one who has already had his orgasm and now would like to go to sleep,” a sexual honesty which resonated with her female readers.

Violence against women, the powerful feminist theme which dominated the first two novels of the series, runs throughout Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The novel opens with a disturbing image of a dead woman, a childhood friend of Lila’s and Elena’s. Elena wonders “how many of those who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled.” Even Elena’s marriage to a mild-mannered, educated man is at one point marred by violence.

The feminist movement of 1970’s had a powerful impact on Elena. She was not interested in consciousness raising: “...it seemed to me I knew well enough what it meant to be born female. I wasn’t interested in the work of consciousness-raising. And I had no intention of speaking in public about my relationship with Pietro.” But her imagination was stirred by her research into representations of women in literature and she again found her voice as a writer:
And so I pushed on in my speculations form the first and second biblical creations to Defoe-Flanders, Flaubert-Bovary, Tolstoy-Karenina…I discovered everywhere female automatons created by men. There was nothing of ourselves…
She repudiates her former attempts “to make [her] own head masculine so that it would be accepted in the culture of men,”and seeks to “investigate [her] nature as a woman.” Could this be Ferrante’s answer to those readers who think that her pseudonym conceals the identity of a male author? There are times in the novel when we can see distance between Elena Ferrante, the author, and her character Elena Greco. The explicitly feminist passages are not among them.

Both Elena and Lila (and perhaps their creator Elena Ferrante), are what we might call difference feminists. Having grown up in society where gender boundaries were clearly marked and where transgressing those boundaries was fraught with danger, both Elena and Lila see women’s experiences as radically different from men’s. Lila responds to her old childhood friend Alfonso who confesses to her his desire to be a woman:
…get out of your mind that you can be a woman like me. All you’ll succeed in being is what a woman is according to you men. You can copy me, make a portrait as precise as an artist, but my shit will always remain mine, and yours will always be yours.
The novel is infused with this sense of female experience as fundamentally different from male experience.

Again we have a cliffhanger ending. Elena leaves her husband and daughters for Nino Serratore, the man she has loved since childhood, leaving the reader to wonder if Elena is making a disastrous mistake. Ferrante has certainly left hints that this will not end well. We’ll have to wait until September 2015 when volume four of the Neapolitan novels is released to find out.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In love with Elena Ferrante: Part three,Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Elena Ferrante’s novels get better and better. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third volume in what will apparently be a four volume series, continues the story of the complicated friendship between two young women, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo who grew up in an impoverished Neapolitan neighborhood in the 1950’s. Thanks to her families (albeit reluctant) agreement to pay school fees, Elena is now a college graduate and Lina, denied those opportunities, is working in a sausage factory.

For Elena Greco, “the essential thing was to get out of Naples; she advises Lila who remains trapped in Naples to “Settle in well-organized lands, where everything is possible.” Elena is engaged to Pietro Airota, the scion of a prestigious family and sees him as means of escape from her working class background. Yet her own class insecurities are never far from the surface, and she wonders if she is fully accepted by her fiance’s family: “What am I to Airotas—a jewel in the crown of their broad mindedness”?

Ferrante has written the best account I’ve ever read of the struggle to climb the class ladder--in Elena Greco’s case, making several leaps from deep poverty to the intellectual elite of Italian society. Elena is haunted by the fear that she is an impostor. At a book signing for her first well-received, autobiographical novel, she is easily intimidated by a critical comment from a man in the audience: “I had become again the poor little girl from the poor neighborhood of Naples, the daughter of the porter with the dialect cadence of the South, amazed at having ended up in that place, playing the part of the cultured young writer.”

As hard as she tries, Elena cannot get rid of the imprint of her background. When she and her husband visit her relatives in the old neighborhood, Elena finds herself reverting to Neapolitan dialect: “I realized that my voice was taking on the tones of the dialect, out of nervousness, that words were coming to me in the Neapolitan of he neighborhood, that the neighborhood …was imposing its language on me, its mode of acting and reacting.”

Marriage to Pietro Airota provides Elena with upper middle class advantages, and helps her to increase her distance from the world of her childhood, but emotionally and sexually her marriage is a deep disappointment. Elena soon realizes she is not in love with her husband, but with the life he could give her. She describes her marriage to Pietro Airota as entering a “protective family, a sort of well-fortified castle.” After having children, she perceived her marriage not as a protected space but as a prison:"I found the isolation I ended up in unbearable...I hadn't slaved since childhood just to be imprisoned in the roles of wife and mother."

Ferrante has written a deeply moving account of the dissolution of a marriage. Reconnecting with her old love, Nino Serratore, made the marriage to Airota more unbearable and Elena experiences a maelstrom of conflicting emotions–-intense love for Nino, guilt about hurting a man who had been in his own way a good husband, deep anxiety about the impact of divorce on her young children---all this along with her doubts as go whether the relationship with Nino would be a lasting one.

Although the novel focuses primarily on Elena, her complicated relationship with Lila forms the emotional heart of the novel. This is a relationship which will endure, as the men in their lives come and go. The trajectory of their lives often moves in opposite directions. When Elena’s life is on a downswing—increasingly unhappy with her marriage, unable to advance her career--Liaa’s life is on an upswing, achieving success in the nascent computer technology industry. Elena has ambivalent feelings about Lila, deeply emotionally attached but envious of Lila’s talent—even at one point wishing that Lila would die. But when Lila is ill, Elena does everything she can to get Lila good medical care and devotes herself to "reorganizing Lila's life."

The personal struggles of these two women take place against the backdrop of the social and political upheaval of the late 1960’s and 70’s. Elena was not all that interested in politics but attracted by the drama of political activism; yet she was also threatened and saw the 1960’s left as posing a challenge to the upper middle class life she was trying to build. Elena was the observer of social movements; Lila, with a deeper understanding of economic injustice was drawn into the political struggle and became a union activist. Lila was deeply critical of the student left’s attempts to build a student/worker alliance—-the arrogance of the students, their ignorance of the factory workers they hoped to organize, their unawareness of the futility of “distributing a densely written leaflet to people who could barely read.” Ferrante, whoever she is, clearly had some experience of the student left of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Her description is pitch perfect.

Like many women who had some involvement in the 1960’s left, both Elena and Lila experienced a feminist awakening. Elena observes that there were few women involved and they “were mostly silent, flirting with male activists.” Both Elena and Lina had a developing feminist consciousness before the emergence of an organized feminist movement, and Elena had explored feminist themes in her first novel. What many of her female readers found most compelling was the exploration of male sexual selfishness. Elena described “male annoyance, the boredom of one who has already had his orgasm and now would like to go to sleep,” a sexual honesty which resonated with her female readers.

Violence against women, the powerful feminist theme which dominated the first two novels of the series, runs throughout Those Who Leave and Those who Stay. The novel opens with a powerful image of a dead woman, a childhood friend of Lila’s and Elena’s. Elena wonders “how many of those who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled.” Even Elena’s marriage to a mild-mannered, educated man is at one point marred by violence.

The novel ends with Elena leaving her husband and daughters for Nino Serratore, the man she has loved since childhood, leaving the reader to wonder if Elena is making a disastrous mistake. Ferrante has certainly left hints that this will not end well. We’ll have to wait until September 2015 when volume four of the Neapolitan novels is released to find out.

Ferrante’s novels work on so many levels: an exploration of the social and economic divisions in Italy; the extent to which class and gender constrain women’s lives; the difficulty of ever erasing the imprint of one’s background, the complexities of women’s’ friendships over time. This the best book about female friendship I have read since Toni Morrison’s Sula. Ferrante has placed her story of the friendship of Elena and Lila within the context of fully realized social world with language that is nuanced, powerful, language that makes you want to linger over her sentences. How much of the magical language is Ferrante’s or her translator’s? I hope to develop enough of a reading knowledge of Italian to find out.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

In love with Elena Ferrante: Part two,The Story of a New Name


The Story of a New Name,the second of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels begins with Lila Cerullo trapped in a loveless marriage and Elena Greco grimly determined to use education as her route out of her impoverished Neapolitan neighborhood. Elena is haunted by the fear of becoming her mother:
“Would my mother truly emerge from me, with her limping gait, as my destiny?” The women of the neighborhood bore the scars of multiple pregnancies, back-breaking labor and domestic violence. They were silent with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them. Extremely thin with hollow eyes and cheeks or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up. And good god, they were ten at most twenty years older than me.
What I found most depressing in Ferrante’s account of these women’s lives was the extent to which the women themselves accepted abuse. When Lila’s husband, Stefano, tries to beat her into submission, “there was no one in the neighborhood, especially of the female sex, who did not think she need a good thrashing for along time. So the beatings did not cause outrage, and in fact sympathy for Stefano increased—there was someone who knew how to be a man.”

Ferrante’s sympathies extend to the young men who are trapped in the sexist script written for them from time immemorial; Elena recounts her conversation with Stefano, both driven by and disturbed by the role he has been conditioned to play:

With tears in his eyes, he admitted that on their wedding night he had had to beat her, that he had been forced to do it, that every morning, every evening she drew slaps from his hands on propose to humiliate him, forcing him to act in a way that he never, ever ever would have wanted. Here he assumed an almost frightened tone…
The culture of violence is a trap for both men and women, and for Elena leaving the neighborhood is the only hope for escape.

Elena and Lila’s lives continued to diverge; their relationship deteriorates further when Lila began an affair with the love of Elena’s life, her old school friend Nino Serratore. The relationship led to Lila’s finally leaving her husband, a dangerous act in culture in which men consider themselves justified in murdering an adulterous wife. Lila was soon abandoned by Nino and once again living in poverty while Elena continues her upward climb.

Howver, despite her success in school, Elena is haunted by the fear that Lila is the truly brilliant one and that she is an unworthy impostor. She sees her success as something achieved through “sheer persistence” rather than through talent. Elena wins a scholarship to the University of Pisa and continues her improbable climb from extreme poverty to the educated upper-middle class.

Her success leads to further tension with her family. Her mother is both proud of her and resentful of her success: "I had outdistanced her and she felt it, she resented me for it.” Elena’s engagement to Florentine academic Pietro Airota only deepened the sense of estrangement.

Elena then accomplished what to her family and to herself was the unthinkable—-she published a successful, critically acclaimed novel. As a consequence, she finally achieves a measure of self-confidence. Once she had passively accepted the non-stop sexual harassment that was part of life in the neighborhood. Now she has the strength to fight back
I felt a power that no longer knew how to adjust to the pretend not to notice with which in general, it was possible to survive in the neighborhood and outside it. Whenever in the throng of passengers I felt male hands on my body, I gave myself the sacrosanct right to fury and reacted with cries of contempt…

Although Elena’s self-confidence increased dramatically, the hidden injuries of class were never far from the surface. She realizes that she can never achieve the self-assurance of those who were born into privilege.
Suddenly I was aware of the almost: Had I made it? Almost. Had I torn myself away from Naples, the neighborhood. Almost…Behind the almost I seemed to see how things stood. …I was scared of anyone who had that culture without the almost, with casual confidence.

And the old fear of being overshadowed by Lila never disappeared. Lila had entrusted Elena with a box filled with her notebooks, which she feared her husband would destroy. Elena immediately starts reading the notebooks even though she had sworn to Lila that she would not.

Every word of Lila’s diminished me. Every sentence, even sentence written when she was still a child seemed to empty out mine…every past effort of mine seemed without meaning.

Consumed with jealousy of Lila’s talent and tormented by self-doubt, Elena throws the box with Lila’s notebooks into the Arno river. Elena, the “good girl” is capable of real malevolence.

The novel ends with Elena, a successful author, at a book signing in Milan. As she did in My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante concludes the novel with a dramatic plot twist: the man Elena has loved since childhood turns up to praise her book. The novel ends with the implicit question: Will Nino destabilize Elena’s life and threaten her marriage as he did with Lila?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In love with Elena Ferrante: Part one, My Brilliant Friend



I stumbled on Elena Ferrante a few years ago and have since devoured everything she has written. She writes under a pseudonym and speculation about her identity is rampant. In Italy she is widely thought to be the male writer Domenico Starnone. I cannot believe that someone who writes so powerfully about the female experience is male–-a reaction shared by all the women I know who have read Ferrante. I don’t expect to be proven wrong, but we’ll see.

My starting point was My Brilliant Friend, the first book of what is known as the Neapolitan novels, which trace the complex, emotionally charged friendship between two young women growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in Naples in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

Lina Cerrullo (whom Elena calls Lila) was the rebel—intellectually gifted, mercurial, unpredictable. Elena Greco was the “good girl,” intelligent, hard-working, eager to please. As Lila tells Elena, “you are good at making yourself liked…people are afraid of me.”

Their friendship is marked by intense emotional attachment, as well as growing jealousy and competition as their paths begin to diverge. Lila’s father refuses to pay her school fees, thus ending her education at elementary school. Elena’s parents, torn between pride in their daughter's achievement and fear that she will become estranged from then, reluctantly agree to let her continue her education.

No one does the transition from childhood to young womanhood as powerfully as Ferrante. There are certainly cross-cultural dimensions to this transition as well as culturally specific aspects. A young girl’s bewilderment at her changing body and the responses it elicits from males is a cross-cultural experience and Ferrante brought back memories I had long forgotten.

Bur Elena and Lila experience this transition in an impoverished, deeply sexist southern Italian world in which violence against women and girls is just part of the air they breathe. What we now call sexual harassment was something women simply accepted as their lot in life— except for Lila:

On the street the men looked at all of us, pretty, less pretty, ugly, and not so much the youths as the grown men…and [we] had learned instinctively to lower our eyes, pretend not to hear the obscenities directed at us, and keep going. Lila no. To go out with her …became a point of permanent tension. If someone looked at her, she returned the look. If someone said something to her she stopped, bewildered as if she couldn’t believe was he talking to her…

Lila also searched for a deeper understanding of their world: why the poverty? Why the all-pervasive violence? Elena’s energies were focused on acquiring the education she needed to escape—“to detach herself from the sum of misdeeds and compliances and cowardly acts of the people we knew, whom we loved, whom we carried in our blood.”

My Brilliant Friend ends with Elena determined to continue her education and Lila married at age sixteen to a prosperous grocer, someone she hoped would rescue her family from poverty and protect her from the scion of the organized crime family her family pressured her to marry.

The wedding scene is brilliantly done both in terms of the complex interplay of emotions as both Lila and Elena realize how much their friendship and their world is changing and also because of the wealth of vividly drawn social detail.

The novel ends with Lila’s realization on her wedding day that she has made a horrible mistake. Ferrante excels at the cliffhanger ending. It wasn’t easy to wait a year before volume two appeared to find out how Lila manages to extricate herself from a disastrous marriage.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Growth of the Pennsylvania Democratic Progressive Caucus


For the last four years I served as delegate to the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee. Thanks to a bad ballot position and lack of Party endorsement, I did not win re-election. No surprise that I did not get the Party endorsement, and in these very low profile races it is very difficult to win without it. I did very well in my ward, which strongly supported me, and nowhere else.

I decided to stay involved in the PA Democratic Progressive Caucus as an associate member. The caucus is open to all progressive Democrats, but only delegates to state committee have voting rights.

The Progressive Caucus has grown dramatically under the inspired leadership of former Chair Bruce Slater and former Vice Chair, currently Chair, Lani Frank. Unfortunately the Progressive Caucus has been viewed as a threat by some of the more backward elements in the Democratic Party. There was a concerted effort to defeat both Bruce and Lani. In Bruce’s case, the county Chair was so threatened she actually spent a lot of money to wage a campaign against him. Unfortunately, Bruce lost his election and is no longer Chair although he intends to stay involved. Fortunately, Lani did win and currently serves as chair.

The September Progressive Caucus meeting was the largest Progressive Caucus meeting I’ve attended. There was tremendous energy in the room with people eagerly signing up for a range of new committees. It seems as if the progressive caucus is becoming a much larger force within state committee.

The attendance at the state committee meeting was disappointingly low, apparently as result of the dispute between gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf and Party Chair Jim Burn. Historically, the Party tradition has been to allow the gubernatorial nominee to choose the Party Chair. This time there was resistance from grassroots delegates to what they saw as a top-down approach to decision making. I can certainly understand their feeling this way.

However, I was disappointed that Wolf‘s choice, Katie McGinty, did not become chair. Given that PA is a state with very few women elected officials, I had hoped that she would inspire women, particularly young women, to run for political office. For me, this was real conflict between my commitment to grassroots democracy and my commitment to electing more women political leaders.

But whoever is Party Chair, the Progressive Caucus is well-positioned to play a major role. The great strength of the caucus is its focus both on progressive issues and on transparent, democratic processes. Lani Frank signaled her commitment to continue this dual focus. She mentioned the caucus efforts to get consistent bylaws in all 67 PA counties to ensure that there is due process for committeepersons through out the state.

The caucus came very close to getting a bylaws amendment passed which would ensure fair, uniform procedures throughout the state, but failed to get the 2/3 majority necessary for passage. The caucus is planning to reintroduce this amendment and although we lost some progressives in the last election, we gained many new progressive members on state committee and thus may be closer to the numbers needed for passage of the bylaws amendment.

There is also a need for a fair process for choosing members to the Democratic National Committee, which in the past has been done through back-room deals rather than through an open, democratic process. The PA Democratic State Committee is somewhat election-averse. My first experience at State Committee was the meeting at which Jim Burn was elected as Party chair.

What we thought would be a contest for party chair and vice-chair was in Congressman Bob Brady’s memorable words “taken care of.” Before the members could vote, several candidates dropped out and a consensus team emerged.

I would like to have heard their competing visions for future of the Democratic Party and their strategies for November, but it looks like that kind of debate doesn’t take place in open meetings.
The Democratic National Committee delegate was chosen through the same kind of back room maneuvering. Although Burn had committed to developing an open process, he hadn’t yet established it, and when an unexpected vacancy occurred, he reverted to type. There was another candidate interested in running for the open slot, according to Lani Frank, but she/he was convinced to drop out of the race so that Nancy Mills could be elected by acclamation. Although Mills characterized herself as “very progressive”, her vote against the moratorium on fracking raised questions in my mind. If I were still a delegate and had a vote, I would have liked to have the opportunity to consider another candidate.

There is now a Progressive Caucus subcommittee on internal party processes, which I joined. The PA Democratic Party sure needs some help in ensuring fair, transparent, democratic processes!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Rally for Reproductive Justice for all Women

On September 9, the Philadelphia feminist community held a truly inspirational event—a rally for the All Above All bus tour, organized by the Women’s Medical Fund. According to the statement on its website, All Above All was formed to “unite organizations and individuals to build support for lifting bans that deny abortion coverage… so that every woman, however much she makes, can get affordable, safe abortion care when she needs it.”

There were powerful speeches by Women’s Medical Fund Director Susan Schewel, Philadelphia NOW President Nina Ahmad, City Councilwomen Cindy Bass and Blondell Reynolds Brown, among others. Nina Ahmad’s well-reasoned, inspirational speech is posted here.

For more information about the event and the issues see posts by Tara Murphy and by Jasmine Burnett

In recent years the feminist movement has backed away from the struggle to insure that all women regardless of their economic resources have access to the full range of reproductive health services. In Pennsylvania, the coalition supporting the PA Women’s Health Agenda --which if enacted would be major step forward for women--has not included Medicaid funding for abortion, ostensibly fearing it might jeopardize passage of other measures that would greatly benefit women.

The only reference to abortion in the PA Women's Health Agenda is the proposed legislation: “Ensuring access to health care facilities: H.B. 1891, sponsored by Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery; and S.B. 1208, sponsored by Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Phila. This legislation would create 15-foot buffer zones around health care facilities where picketing, patrolling or demonstrating that blocks patients’ access to the facilities would be banned.”

Protecting women’s right to access health care facilities is critically important but if a woman lacks the resources to pay for an abortion, protection from harassment doesn’t do much for her.

If the Women’s Health Agenda were an omnibus bill and we were asking legislators to vote the entire agenda up or down, I could understand the argument that including Medicaid funding for abortion would jeopardize the other provisions. But the approach is not all or nothing, but rather to focus on particular issues in stages.

Yes, Medicaid funding for abortion in PA is not politically possible right now. However, we have seen rapid changes in public attitudes regarding issues also thought politically impossible—e.g., marriage equality, decriminalization of marijuana.

When feminists draw up a women’s health agenda, “women” must include all women, and "health care" must include the full range of women’s health care including access to abortion.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Retired for 5 years: Taking stock




Over Labor Day weekend Rick and I had dinner with a few of our our retired CCP colleagues. We are all happily retired. I have yet to meet a retired teacher who wishes she was back in the classroom. It’s not easy to stay engaged for decades and although I enjoyed teaching very much when I was young, I was dangerously close to burn-out territory in my final years. As my friend Alison McFall said, “Teaching is a young person’s game.”

It seems as if I have been retired forever, while at the same time I feel as if these 5 years have passed very quickly. When I retired, I had specific goals I wanted very much to accomplish. Now I’m so much less goal driven.

The early retirement years can be very good years if you have health and energy to enjoy life, to read, to write, participate in civic life. I've managed to accomplish some of what I had hope to do but what I have enjoyed the most these past 5 years is just hanging out with my family and friends, what the the Italians call dolce far niente—roughly translated as "how sweet it is to do nothing."

I also discovered how much I enjoy writing. A retirement tip: if you want to write in retirement, don’t wait too long. I have all these ideas for books that I will probably never bring to fruition because I’m just too old.

I did manage to finish Feminism in Philadelphia: The Glory Years, 1968-1982. Although it has limited appeal—-mainly to women who participated in the second wave feminist movement in Philadelphia—-it is a contribution to the historical record and I’m proud to have written it. I‘ve had a lot of invitations to speak about the book-—books stores, libraries, schools, retirement homes, community arts centers—-and have found that there are more people who want to hear my talk about second wave feminism in the Philly than there are folks who want to read the book.

I’m now working on a book about local grassroots politics and am gratified by the number of activists who have been willing to be interviewed. I sure hope this book doesn’t take me as long as it did to finish Feminism in Philadelphia: The Glory Years, 1968-1982. I have several other book ideas, if it turns out I have the eyesight and brain cells left. We’ll see.

One of the most gratifying aspects of retirement is that I have had time for political activism. During my working years I was always falling asleep at meetings or missing meetings because I was just too tired. I no longer had the energy to work full-time and also have a second career as a political activist. I’m so happy that we finally have dynamic new leadership for an organization dear to my heart, Philadelphia NOW and also that the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus also has a committed, energized new leadership team. I was one of the founding members of the Caucus, but after some significant victories the founding members--in their 60’s and 70’s--were running out of steam. The new leadership is connected to a network of young Democratic Party activists and is well-positioned to make the Caucus a real force in Philadelphia political life.

One goal I did not accomplish was learning conversational Spanish. Thanks to a slight hearing loss, learning a foreign language has become increasingly difficult. My goal now is to acquire a reading knowledge of Italian, so they I can read Elena Ferrante in the original Italian. That just may be achievable but conversational competence in Italian, Spanish or any language other than English is just not going to happen. The window of opportunity has passed.

And although I spend a lot of time working in my garden and I enjoy it immensely, I’m not sure the garden looks any better than it did during my working years.

I’ve accepted the fact that my garden will never be weed-free, that there are some things, I will never do, some places I will never see, and that’s okay. Although I still enjoy travel and we are planning another trip to Italy, I ‘m finding that I don’t want to travel as much as I had expected in retirement. I’ve become a real homebody and whenever we return from a trip, I always feel like I never want to leave Mt. Airy for a long, long time.

I think I’m finally beginning to internalize the advice of my Buddhist friends and learning (at least a little bit) “to live in the now.“

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Today is Women’s Equality Day!




Today is Women’s Equality Day and feminists are marking it with
op-eds and tweets reminding us all that we have unfinished business.

The changes in the status of women in my lifetime have been enormous and some have become so much a part of the air we breathe that we no longer perceive the extent of the changes. But the extraordinary successes of the feminist movement have not been shared equally. Women with economic/educational advantages have made enormous progress. Of course, there is still a glass ceiling, but as Hillary Clinton famously said, “there are now 18,000,000 cracks in the glass ceiling.”

The cultural change has been so pervasive that many affluent white men have been willing to make room for their daughters—often the same men who have fought against economic policies which would provide opportunities and a robust safety net for the majority of women.
The challenge now is to extend the gains to working class and low–income women trapped on the sticky floor. A revitalized feminist-led labor movement is essential to addressing the needs of women trapped in low-wage jobs, the women who have not been the major beneficiaries of the feminist movement.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Newly Revitalized Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus



The Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus (PDPC) was formed in Fall, 2010. For me, the inspiration was the PA Democratic Progressive Caucus which was born at the PA Democratic State Committee meeting in June, 2010. I eagerly signed up as one of the founding members and started thinking about how to go about this in Philadelphia.

Later that summer something happened which brought home to me (and quite a few others) that there was an urgent need for a Democratic Progressive Caucus in Philadelphia. Thanks to Holly Otterbein’s July 8, 2010 City Paper article “When Elections Don't Matter: The city Democratic Party doesn't always care what voters think” we learned that the Philadelphia Democratic Party had refused to seat Tracey Gordon, a duly elected committee person, thus allowing a ward committee to overturn the results of an election. If those of us who were committee people and thus representatives of the Democratic Party in our neighborhoods didn’t speak out, we would be complicit.

The Gordon case was the catalyst for the formation of the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to resolve this issue with Philadelphia Democratic City Committee, it was clear we had to take legal action. Attorney Irv Ackelsberg was willing to take Tracey Gordon’s case pro bono; we raised money for court costs and achieved a partial victory. The Party seated Gordon although she had to immediately resign as she had been appointed Deputy City Commissioner and was prohibited from involvement in partisan politics. Without the threat of legal action, it is unlikely Gordon would have been seated.

We also raised the issue at PA State Committee and came close to getting the 2/3 majority necessary to pass an amendment to the State Committee bylaws which would make such a miscarriage of justice much less likely.

After taking the Gordon case as far as we could go, PDPC ran out of steam. It’s much easier to organize support for an individual who has been treated unjustly than it is to organize around abstract principles of democracy and transparency. However, by supporting Tracey Gordon and bringing her case to the attention of State Committee, by developing a model of what a democratic, transparent ward should look like, PDPC made some progress.

Perhaps most important, by bringing together committeepeople from wards around the city, PDPC challenged the Party culture which sees each ward as its own little fiefdom with committeepeople having a voice only through the all-powerful ward leader. In response to being told, “It’s none of your business what happens in other wards,” our answer was that undemocratic practices and low-turnout in the 40th ward hurt us all. (Tracey Gordon ran for committeeperson to try to increase the dismal turnout in her ward)

By 2014, the caucus had dwindled to a small group of mostly elderly folks. It was clear that we would never succeed in making the Philadelphia Democratic Party more democratic, more transparent unless we attracted young people to assume leadership of the caucus and take it to the next level.

PDPC has recently elected a dynamic new leadership team, many of whom are currently Democratic committeepeople and thus well positioned to speak in their capacity as elected members of the Democratic Party. The first general meeting of PDPC under its new leadership team occurred on August 19 and was attended by over 30 people, most in their 20’s and early thirties and involved in local politics as Democratic commiteepersons and campaign workers. The meeting was devoted to plans for an ambitious voter registration campaign and a GOTV campaign to elect Tom Wolf as our next governor. The leadership hopes to build membership through these campaigns and be a real force in the 2015 municipal elections. PDPC also intends to be presence at the upcoming Pennsylvania State committee meeting in Philadelphia on September 12 and 13.

It is gratifying to see this revitalized PDPC with a group of young enthusiastic activists and an ambitious agenda for 2014, 2015 and beyond!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The year without hydrangeas


Hydrangea Macrophylla
in bloom in my garden in 2013

Well, it hasn’t exactly been a year without hydrangeas. Some of my lace caps and my oakleaf made it. But this year, the hydrangeas I love the most (hydrangea macrophylla AKA mopheads) were nowhere to be seen in the gardens of the Delaware valley.

It was not only the hydrangeas in my own garden which I sorely missed. I loved seeing all the gorgeous blooms in gardens all over my neighborhood. Northwest Philadelphia is a beautiful place overflowing with mature trees and flowering shrubs and I hadn’t realized how much I enjoyed seeing all the hydrangeas in the neighborhood gardens--both those well-tended and those seriously neglected. Once established hydrangeas will bloom forever—unless they’re subjected to a brutal bud-blasting winter such as the winter of 2014.

But in gardening for every disappointment there is always a consolation. Usually the oakleafs start out bright white, fade to pale pink and then turn brown—usually sometime in early to mid-July. This year, probably due to all the rainfall, the oakleaf panicles are still pink.
Oakleaf hydrangea, 2014

And the late blooming hydrangeas which tend to be very hardy are starting to bloom

Tardive hydrangea,2014

But we gardeners are always looking towards the next season and next year I hope to see Nikko Blue again. Two years without my beloved mopheads would be too cruel.
Nikko blue blooming in 2013


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Marking the centennial for World War I: Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion



The centennial for World War I (August 4 1914) inspired Rick and me to watch Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion which explores the experiences of French prisoners of war in German prison camps during WW I. Generally viewed as one of the great anti-war films ever made, it was on my long list of great books never read, great films/ plays never seen.

The German aristocrat who runs the camp bonds with an imprisoned French aristocrat. For the German officer, class loyalty counts almost as much as nationality and he laments a world in which the old aristocracy is declining. The French officer is more open to the new social order he expects to come in the aftermath of WWI; he increasingly comes to respect soldiers from backgrounds different from his own—a working class Parisian and a wealthy Jewish soldier.

This description of soldiers overcoming class barriers / ethnic prejudices in the cauldron of WW I may sound a little too formulaic, almost trite, but that’s not how we experienced it when viewing the film. It’s totally absorbing, moving--a film I’ll remember and intend to watch again. I’m sure there are subtleties/ nuances I missed the first time around.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Gardening for Fragrance: Nothing Tops Casa Blanca!

Casa Blanca

For me, the high point of the garden season is mid to late July when the oriental lilies bloom. The most spectacular of all is Casa Blanca with its intoxicating fragrance.

Sometimes I think I garden for fragrance. This is something you cannot buy at the florist shops which sell mostly fragrance-free flowers. Granted the oriental lilies sold by florists are often fragrant but they can’t begin to compare to the over-powering scent of Casa Blanca in the garden

Sadly, the evil groundhog which has destroyed my phlox has also chomped away at some of my oriental lilies, but fortunately he left some for me. If he destroyed all my Casa Blanca lilies I’d be out there with a shotgun!

Anybody have any ideas for getting rid of groundhogs??

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Foliage matters or how I learned to love Astilbe.

Bridal Veil Astilbe

When I first started gardening I was infatuated with brightly colored, showy flowers. The garden I inherited was filled with phlox which were spectacular for the first few weeks of their long season of bloom. Then came the spider mite and the powdery mildew and my phlox-filled garden became a garden filled with diseased foliage.

But despite the phlox problem, I kept falling for the showy flowers— e.g., the cherry red flowers of monarda which really brighten up a gloomy corner but soon become a mass of ratty foliage covered with powdery mildew or the spectacular flowers of hollyhocks which inevitably succumb to hideous rust.

It took me a long time to accept the fact that the flowers of my perennials last for a short time, but the foliage hangs around the entire season. Now I have banished monarda and hollyhocks and greatly reduced the phlox. An evil groundhog is also destroying my phlox and I am slowly replacing them with plants with graceful foliage like Astilbe.

Among the many advantages of Astilbe: they bloom in deep shade, require little care, are easily divided so that you can increase your stock very quickly. They also have a long season of bloom with varieties which bloom in early June, mid-June early July and mid-July. The very first is Bridal Veil pictured above. Its bright white plumes brighten up dark corners of the garden, and instead of turning horribly ugly on it is way out like so many perennial flowers, Bridal Veil fades gracefully to a cream color before turning brown late in the season.

Ostrich Plume blooms in mid-June with bright pink plumes fading to pale pink before turning brown. But even when it has turned brown, the delicate plumes still have ornamental value and even persist through the winter.
Ostrich Plume Astilbe

The later blooming varieties generally have fuzzy foliage unlike the lacy foliage of bridal veil and ostrich plume and they tend to be deeper colors. For the edge of border where low plants are needed, there’s Astilbe Chinensis Pumila which stats blooming in early July:
Astilbe Chinensis Pumila

For spots where larger flowers are needed there’s the spectacular Astilbe Chinensis Purple Candles which grows to about 3 feet tall and blooms in early to mid-July:
Astilbe Chinensis Purple Candles

The last astilbe to bloom in my garden is just beginning now. It's a plant I bought last fall so I don’t quite know what to expect. It looks like the plumes will be pale pink and the foliage is the most beautiful of all with finely cut leaves and not a speck of powdery mildew.



Astilbe is now at the top of my list for most useful plants. I’ll never fall in love with it the way I have with my oriental lilies, but I sure do appreciate its virtues.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Yucca can bloom in deepest, darkest shade!




We have been gardening on his plot of land for 22 years. Many years ago a yucca plan tucked away in a dark corner of our garden bloomed. It was a one-time event and we never expected to see the yucca again—after all they’re supposed to be sun-lovers.

It was too big to move, so we just accepted it as a foliage plant--and the foliage is impressive. But for some unaccountable reason, this year the yucca decided to bloom.

The conditions haven’t changed; it’s still in deep shade. So how account for this? Anyone out there with an explanation?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Survivors: Oakleaf Hydrangea and Blue Billow Lacecap Hydrangea

Oakleaf Hydrangea

My summer garden relies heavily on hydrangeas. About 10 years ago, Rick and I decided to prepare for old age gardening by moving away from labor intensive perennials and putting in more shrubs and ornamental trees. We planted lots of hollies for the winter; quince, early blooming rhododendron and redbud for early spring: lilacs, azaleas for mid-spring; rhododendron and Mt. Laurel for late Spring; and for summer crape myrtle and hydrangea—lots and lots of hydrangea.

This has been a sad year for hydrangea lovers; many of our beloved hydrangeas are just little green clumps with no blooms. Although most died back, they are sprouting new leaves from the base. Mophead hydrangeas bloom on old wood (now lifeless sticks), so no flowers this year. They will live to bloom another day—that is if we haven’t moved into a new climate pattern of severe winters like last year’s.

However, there are some hydrangea that can withstand severe winters—oakleaf hydrangea ( pictured above) which has gigantic fragrant white blooms, spectacular deep purple fall foliage and very showy bark for winter interest.

Many of the lace caps are also very hardy and Blue Billow Lacecap is putting on its usual show and making the bees very happy.
Blue Lacecap Hydrangea

Then there’s Endless Summer which is supposed to bloom on new wood (that is woody stems generated this year) and thus can bloom when the old wood is damaged by severe winters. So far no sign of bloom on Endless Summer, but I haven’t given up hope.