Tuesday, September 5, 2017

2018 may be the year when we see real change in the Philadelphia Democratic Party.


Incurable optimist that I am, I think 2018 may be the year when we see real change in the Philadelphia Democratic Party. In 2014, I was among the members of Philadelphia NOW and Philadelphia CLUW who ran workshops encouraging our members and all interested citizens to run for Committeeperson. Young Involved Philadelphia (YIP) conducted perhaps the most successful workshop, both in turnout at their event and in actually getting people to run and to win. All our efforts brought some new people into the ward system, but not enough to form a critical mass.

But we planted a seed. I described these efforts in my book Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party. I was cautiously optimistic that the green shoots that emerged in 2014 would take root and flourish. That clearly is happening with a range of groups planning to hold workshops/events to encourage participation in the 2018 committeeperson elections.


On Saturday, September 9th,
from 11-3, Philly Set Go, Philadelphia 3.0 , and Seamaac, Inc. , will sponsor a non-partisan, family friendly, voter registration and civics event at Mifflin Square Park (6th & Ritner). The event will include information about the committeeperson races. Nina Ahmad, the Deputy Mayor for Public Engagement and past president of Philadelphia NOW is among the speakers.

On September 14, John Kromer will introduce his very useful PowerPoint presentation on the ward system at an event sponsored by Weaver’s Way. He is making his presentation available to groups holding workshops on running for committeeperson.

On September 21 at Ladder 15, the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Committee will sponsor “Back to Business: Get Involved Happy Hour” to discuss ways of getting involved in politics, including running for a committeeperson in 2018.

On September 24, Neighborhood Networks will sponsor “Beyond the Resistance: Building a Justice Agenda in Philly,” which will include information on how to run for a committeeperson in 2018.

There will no doubt be many more such events. Americans for Democratic Action is planning a project to coordinate the efforts of progressives in the 2018 committeeperson races. Specifics are not yet available.

From conversations I have had recently, it's clear that there will be a lot of activity surrounding the committeeperson races and no one organization can coordinate it all. There apparently will be efforts by neighborhood groups independent of anything city-wide groups sponsor. The more activity, the better to achieve the long-term goal of opening up/democratizing the Democratic Party.

In 2014 there was nothing like this level of activity so early in the election cycle. Something‘s happening out there!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Some Thoughts on Women’s Equality Day


Last Saturday was Women’s Equality Day. It passed without much notice. In Philly there were only two events that I knew of, both sponsored by Vision 2020: The Toast to Tenacity to honor the suffragists who fought for the right to vote and the Women’s History Scavenger Hunt “uncovering little-known stories that give voice to women who made a difference.” There were commemorations on feminist websites, but Women's Equality Day has never really taken off as has International Women’s Day.

Women's Equality Day dates back to 1971 when Congress passed a resolution designating August 26 as Women’s Equality Day. The law, states that the president is "authorized and requested to issue a proclamation in commemoration of that day in 1920 on which the women in American were first guaranteed the right to vote."

Every president since then has issued a proclamation, and even Donald Trump did so although according to to Jezebel columnist Stassa Edwards, it seemed like an afterthought: “In what really seems like a last minute decision, Donald Trump has declared Saturday Women’s Equality Day.” Edwards noted that the announcement was sent just before the end of the workday.

The proclamation is hard to take seriously given Trump’s choice of a Supreme Court nominee who would strike down Roe v. Wade and his support for a Republican health care law which would defund Planned Parenthood.

In general I tend to be an optimist and ( for the most part) believe the arc of history bends towards justice. Since the early 1970s, I have been confident the trajectory of the feminist movement has been upwards and onwards. Yes, there were some major setbacks in the 1980s, but feminists have successfully fought back and Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land.

This is the first Women's Equality Day when I am no longer so confident. Even if a progressive Democrat is elected in 2020, so much damage will have been done, so much damage control we will have to do. I am clinging to the belief that although the Trump victory does represent a step backward on so many fronts, we will be back on track in 2020.

I keep reminding my self that Hillary won the popular vote by a margin of three million. In the words of Michael Ignatieff: “A different outcome was only narrowly defeated…our present situation could have turned out very differently. We need to remember this if we are to recover the faith in ourselves that we need in order to shape the future in the direction of progressive ideals.” I’m trying to take his advice.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Democratic Party must honor its pro-choice platform



My initial reaction was disbelief when I read that Bernie Sanders and new leadership of the Democratic National Committee Tom Pérez and Keith Ellison took their “Unity Tour” to Omaha to rally for Heath Mello, a mayoral candidate with a record opposing abortion rights. As a Nebraska state senator, Mello co-sponsored some of the worst restrictions on abortion rights in the country. According to Jodi Jacops' post in Rewire: “Those laws remain in place, and Mello has neither denounced them nor made clear whether he now understands why they are so damaging." For an in depth analysis of the anti-abortion rights legislation Mello sponsored, see Jacobs' article in Rewire.

The pro-choice community denounced the Democrats' support for Mello, with Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, calling it a betrayal, especially of the women who have fueled the resistance against Trump.

Faced with an onslaught of criticism from pro-choice activists, Pérez apparently backed down from his previous position that “that the Democratic Party should not “demand fealty” on every issue, including abortion.” Perez issued a statement affirming the Democratic Party’s unequivocal support for the party’s pro-choice platform:
“Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health,” the chair said. “That is not negotiable.” He added: “We must speak up for this principle as loudly as ever and with one voice."
I thought the Democratic Party had come to its senses but then the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Ben Ray Lujan announced that the Party would not withhold financial support for candidates who oppose abortion rights. In an interview with The Hill, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) said “there will be no litmus tests for candidates as Democrats seek to find a winning roster to regain the House majority in 2018.”

The Hill also reported that Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer have both argued against party litmus tests, saying there's room for people with different opinions on abortion.” Nancy Pelosi?

Pro-choice advocates continued to push back, insisting that abortion rights are a fundamental human rights issue and an economic issue. Leila McDowell, a spokeswoman with EMILY's List, told The Hill:
"At the core of the Democratic Party is our commitment to a better economic future for the working people of our country. Reproductive choice is fundamental to our platform. One of the most important financial decisions a woman makes is when and how to start a family…Democrats don't need to choose between coal miners in Ohio, nurses in Georgia, or home healthcare workers in Arizona. This isn't a choice Democrats need to make. It's a coalition we need to win."
Katha Pollitt in The Nation says it best:
Imagine if Democrats, sick and tired of losing white votes in Mississippi, decided to nominate a segregationist for governor. Imagine if they found that LGBTQ rights turn off voters in Tennessee, so they ran one of those anti-same-sex-marriage Christian bakers. Imagine if they found that plenty of Oklahoma voters didn’t believe in climate change, so they ran a denialist. After all, why get hung up on one item in the long list of good things we all support when the important thing is getting back into power? Everyone has to take one for the team sometimes, right?
Don’t worry, Nation readers. These scenarios aren’t about to happen. Only women are expected to let history roll backwards over them. Only women’s rights to contraception and abortion are perpetually debatable, postponable, side-trackable, while those who insist on upholding the party platform—and the Constitution—are dismissed as rigid ideologues with a “litmus test.”
Incoming National Organization for Women President Toni Van Pelt in her press release “Urgent Message to Democratic Leaders: You Can’t Have Economic Justice Without Reproductive Justice” has called on “grassroots activists across the country to march into their Congressional Democratic offices and make their voices heard, and to work at the local Democratic party level–as individuals, or with their NOW chapters. … The Democratic Party cannot and should not take us for granted. Party leaders must think again, and get it right this time.” As a longtime feminist and committed NOW activist, I intend to heed Toni Van Pelt’s call to action.

Monday, August 14, 2017

I can’t believe this was my first visit to Chanticleer!


Chanticleer in August

I can’t believe this was my first visit to Chanticleer. For years I have been planning to go, but somehow never got it together.

When my husband and I travel, I always make sure we make time for the great gardens of the places we visit. I can’t imagine a visit to London without going to Kew Gardens or to Berlin without the Botanical Gardens. But somehow I didn’t get it together to visit this incredibly beautiful garden right here in my own backyard.

This is not a garden where I get ideas to introduce into my own garden. Chanticleer takes advantage of abundant sun and space, which I do not have. My wild garden is so crammed with plants that it would be a challenge to find room for something new and I sure don’t have the energy or inclination to rip up what I have.

What I love about Chanticleer is the tranquility. The number of visitors is limited by the size of the parking lot and the website states:” Our parking lot holds 120 cars and can fill on weekends and Friday evenings. Please car pool and understand once we reach capacity, we will ask you to return another time.” There are no hordes of visitors disrupting the serenity at Chanticleer. I plan to become a member and visit as often as I can!

Friday, July 28, 2017

Why was Bob Brady so concerned about getting Judge Jimmie Moore out of the 2012 congressional race?



Why was Bob Brady so concerned about getting Judge Jimmie Moore out of the 2012 congressional race? Given his campaign war chest and long standing ties with ward leaders and elected officials in the district, Brady should not have been too worried. However, if Moore had stayed in the race and done reasonably well, he would have exposed Brady’s vulnerability as a white congressperson representing a largely African-American district and encouraged future challengers.

It’s likely Brady was as threatened by the issues Moore was raising as by the electoral threat he posed. Moore was the lone voice publicly and repeatedly attacking Brady for his role in the 2012 redistricting battle and wrote an open letter reprimanding Brady for his collusion with Republicans.

Moore’s challenge to Brady received little attention from the local press, but did garner some state and national coverage. PoliticsPA’s Keegan Gibson, reported that in “An Open Letter to Robert Brady, Honorary Chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party,” Moore accused Brady of supporting the Republican Party’s agenda. From Moore’s letter:

Despite the new map’s overwhelming favorability to the GOP, it seemed that Republicans in the General Assembly would not have enough votes to pass the redistricting plan—that was, until you stepped up and started rounding up votes in support of the GOP plan.
It has been widely reported that Republican leaders in the General Assembly turned to you to secure the necessary votes for passage. Some speculate that you agreed to do this in exchange for a favorable re-drawing of your own congressional district. While the Democratic Party as a whole was the big loser in the redistricting process, you were among the biggest winners.

The national blog POLITICO noted that Moore made Brady’s support for the Republican redistricting plan a central theme of his campaign to unseat Brady in the 2012 primary. From POLITICO:
In a letter to Brady posted on Moore’s website, the former judge wrote: “Watching you sell out your party for your own benefit, I felt as I imagine [Philadelphia] Eagles fans would feel if Michael Vick, in his Eagles uniform, was caught in the back of a bar sharing game plans with [New York Giants quarterback] Eli Manning…He’s not just a Democrat. He is the head of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia. When the head of the party teams up with the opposing party, what does that say?” Moore told POLITICO. “I think it’s major.”

Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s political leaders looked the other way. Very few were willing to criticize a powerful and well-funded incumbent congressman.

After Moore dropped out of the race, Brady released a joint statement with Moore in which he pledged “to support Moore in the future,” Despite making this commitment, Brady refused to accept the results of the 2014 ward leader election which Moore narrowly won. In 2015 I interviewed Moore for my book on ward politics, Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party. According to Moore, immediately after the election Williams conceded, shook his hand and congratulated him in front of the assembled committeepersons. On June 11, 2014, two days after the ward leader election, the Inquirer reported that the only successful challenge against an incumbent ward leader was in North Philadelphia, where retired Municipal Judge Jimmie Moore defeated 32nd Ward leader Gary Williams.

A few days later, Moore received a letter from Party Chair Bob Brady stating that Williams had contested the ward leader election. There was no explanation as to why Williams was challenging the results of an election he had already conceded, arousing suspicion that the impetus for the challenge came from Brady rather than from Williams. Moore responded to the Philadelphia Democratic Party’s decision to declare Gary Williams the winner of the ward leader election by filing suit in United States District Court on June 20, 2014.

Brady certainly derailed Moore’s political hopes to revitalize the 32nd ward, but he did far worse damage to the Democratic Party. As a result of the Republican redistricting plan which Brady supported, we now have a congressional delegation with thirteen Republicans to five Democrats—despite the fact that in the 2010 general election 2,701,820 Pennsylvanians voted for a Democrat for Congress, compared to 2,626,995 who voted for a Republican.

According to 
Azavea, the firm that developed the Redistricting the Nation project, before redistricting Brady’s district was 31.8% White and 48.0% black. His new district will be 46.9% white and 35.5% black. (The Asian and Latino percentages have changed very little).

Brady must have hoped that his role in redistricting would be forgotten and given the response of most Philadelphia elected officials and political reporters, he had every reason to believe that it would. Then Judge Jimmie Moore made Brady’s shameful role in redistricting the center piece of his campaign. No wonder Brady wanted to get him out of the race.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Ellis Island Museum



Last week my husband, my son and I went to Ellis Island Museum. I can’t believe that in all these years, I never managed to get it together to visit the Museum. With Trump waging a war against immigrants, it seemed like a good time to learn a little more about the history of immigration. It’s worth being reminded that hostility to immigrants is nothing new in American history. We are both a nation of immigrants and a nation with an unfortunate history of animosity towards immigrants.

I’ve never had the fascination with my own immigrant ancestors that many people have. My son Cris is one of those intensely interested in the experience of his immigrant forbears. On my side he has 4 great grandparents who emigrated from Ireland in the late 19th century and on his father’s side two grandparents who emigrated from Ecuador in the 1950s.
Cris at Ellis Island

The passenger records are now available online for the ships that landed over 51 million immigrants, crew members and other travelers at the Port of New York and Ellis Island from 1892 to 1957. Cris managed to locate the ships that my four Irish grandparents arrived on and has also done research on my husband’s grandparents who emigrated from Eastern Europe and located some of their records. I would never have had the patience to sift through all that archival material.


One of the most interesting exhibits was the section on immigration post 1945. And many of the people visiting the museum looked like they were part of the post-1945 wave of immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean.

Many first hand testimonies were available and I found myself especially drawn to the experiences of women immigrants. Just a few examples:

“My mother was a twister, in the twisting room in the Lawrence mills…It was unusual…In Italy there were no jobs for women…In fact the people who heard about it back in the village, didn’t like the idea of women working. But my mother felt like she was doing no different from the other women[in Lawrence, MA] so she decided she was going to work. Make some money.’ Josephine Costanza, an Italian immigrant in 1923, interviewed in 1986.

“They asked us questions. How much is two and two?’ But the next young girl also from our city, went and they asked her, ‘How do you wash stairs, from the top or from the bottom?' She says, ‘I don't go to America to wash stairs.’ "
Pauline Notkoff, a Polish Jewish immigrant in 1917, interviewed in 1985.
I'd give a lot to know what happened to that young girl!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

My optimistic 2009 4th of July post makes for painful reading in the age of Trump


I’ve never been the patriotic type. I came of age in the 1960s and thought of my country as racist and imperialist. Of course there was the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, the counter tradition I identified with. But when I went to Europe for the first time in 1969, I was embarrassed to be an American and readily agreed with the critiques of the US made by the Europeans I met.

With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, to echo Michelle Obama, for the first time in my life I felt proud of my county. The euphoria was short-lived as the extent of the Republican obstructionism and the depth of Tea Party racism became apparent. But despite everything the Republicans threw at him, Obama maintained his grace, composure, and determination to stay focused on his agenda.

My optimistic 2009 4th of July post makes for painful reading in the age of Trump. But there is the resistance; it hasn’t fizzled out( as some predicted) and will (I hope) only get stronger as we approach the 2018 primary election.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Block Island is beautiful even when it's cold and rainy!

wild sweet pea on Block Island

We’ve been going to Block Island for many years and have generally had good weather. It looked like this year our luck was running out. The first three days were cold and rainy, but the island is so beautiful and we love it so much that we convinced ourselves it didn’t matter, and we would have a good time despite the rain. Then the fourth day a ray of sunshine appeared; the next three days were sunny and gradually warmer, getting up to 72 on our last day.

But even if the sun had not returned, I think we would have enjoyed ourselves. The house we rented had amazing ocean views, better than any of the houses we had rented in previous years. I really, really need to spend some time by the ocean each year. The view from our back deck

We’ve settled on Block Island in June. It’s less expensive, less crowded and the rugosa roses and wild sweet peas are in bloom. My husband sometimes talks about going back to Block Island in September when the water is warm enough to swim in the ocean, but I don’t want to give up those rugosa roses!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Change is coming to Democratic Party

A consensus appears to be emerging that our one party town can no longer afford an undemocratic Democratic Party. Some of the new committeepersons who were elected in 2014 were horrified when they discovered what goes on in their wards:
Dictatorial ward leaders who think that democracy begins and ends with the ward leader election.

No vote on endorsements and in some cases not even finding out who will be on their ward ballot until Election Day.

No activity in the ward prior to Election Day—certainly part of the explanation for the depressingly low level of turnout in so many wards.

Spots on sample ballots sold to the highest bidder.
Many young activists saw a corrupt, moribund organization with no respect for its own rules, and too many ward leaders who viewed elections as a business opportunity.

Increasingly, the local media has been addressing the shortcomings of the Philadelphia Democratic Party. In her Philadelphia Magazine article "Why Is Bob Brady Still in Charge?” Holly Otterbein noted, if voters want change “now is the perfect time: Voters can infiltrate the Democratic machine during the 2018 primaries for committee people. These foot soldiers elect the city’s ward leaders, who in turn elect the party’s chairman."

Even former Governor Rendell has weighed in on the state of the Philadelphia Democratic Party. In a recent interview with City and State PA, “Rendell to Brady: Curb power of ward leaders to fix Philly” Rendell proposed that committeepeople vote on candidate endorsements rather than letting the ward leader make the decision. (Currently committeepeople vote on all endorsements in only 5 out of 69 wards.) Rendell also suggested a return to election of committeepeople every two years instead of every four years, to provide more opportunities for new people to become involved in the ward system.

Rendell’s suggestion of returning to two year terms for committeepersons is gaining traction. It could accelerate the process of making the Democratic Party more democratic, more transparent, and more responsive to a younger generation. I was a committeeperson back in the day when we ran every 2 years and it worked quite well. Bob Brady changed the system in the early 1990s to ensure that his power base was stable for 4 year periods. This change increased the power of the party apparatus: when committee people have to resign mid-term, the ward leader—not the voters--choses the person to fill out the remainder of the term.

The two-year cycle would make it much easier to get new people involved. I have met young people interested in running for committeeperson but when they learn they will have to wait 3-4 years for the next opportunity, they frequently lose interest. It’s ridiculous that state and congressional representatives have to face the voters every 2 years and committeepeople every 4 years.

Whenever an elected committeeperson moves out of her division, she must resign. This is particularly problematic with younger committeepeople who are more likely to be renters. If a committeeperson elected in 2014 moves in 2015, she is locked out of the ward structure until the next committeeperson election in 2018. If elections were every 2 years she would have the opportunity to run in her new division in 2016 rather than wait until 2018. Although many changes are needed in the way the Democratic Party operates, a return to two year terms might make the greatest difference in reinvigorating the party.

The 2017 primary election underscores the weakness of the current machine (or more accurately constellation of mini-machines). The party did not make an official endorsement in the District Attorney’s race, but individual ward leaders were on record as backing particular candidates. However Larry Krasner’s victory sweeping 47 of 69 wards , indicates that either the ward leaders changed their minds, or did not work very hard for their endorsed candidate or their voters simply ignored their recommendation.

The biggest surprise was in the race for for City Controller. Incumbent Alan Butkovitz was the endorsed candidate in what was supposed to be a ward leader’s election—that is, a low profile contest where the voters generally vote for the candidate endorsed by the party. However, challenger Rebecca Rynhart handily defeated the three term incumbent and won 51 of 69 wards.

Prior to the 2017 primary election, journalist Malcolm Burnley speculated that this might the might be the election in which millennial voters finally flex their collective muscle. We don’t as yet have the exact information about the percentage of young voters, but given the high turnout in wards with large concentrations of millennials, it appears this might be the case. The results of the 2017 primary may be a combination of young voters coming out in greater numbers and many ward leaders defecting from the party endorsement for controller.

Interestingly in an interview with Dave Davies, Party Chair Bob Brady blamed Alan Butkovitz’ defeat on higher turnout in the “liberal wards” and not on his ward leaders defections from the official party ballot. However, the magnitude of Butkovitz’ loss suggests Brady is in denial about the breakdown of party discipline. This breakdown has been going on for some time. In the 2015 municipal elections a pattern of ward leader defections occurred in the race for council at large and such defections have been going on for sometime in judicial races in which ward leaders make their own (often lucrative) deals with individual candidates.

The current fragmentation of the party into neighborhood machines as well as the tendency of many ward leaders to make their own private deals with candidates suggests the time is ripe for change. Also, many incumbent committeepeople and ward leaders are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Both the fragmentation and the inevitable generational change provide a real opportunity for political change. Change is coming to the Philadelphia Democratic Party.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Gardening for Fragrance



What I love most about spring and early summer flowers is the fragrance. My favorites are carlesi viburnum and the common lilac, syringa vulgaris. The flowers last for a short time but it’s worth putting up with these not particularly attractive shrubs for those few days of glorious fragrance.

Then my garden is suffused with the musky fragrance of cherry laurel and tree peonies —again for only a few precious days.


The tree peonies have the shortest bloom period of all sometimes only 2-3 days.



Then the incredibly sweet fragrance of lily of the valley.


Right now I’m overwhelmed by the powerful scent of Korean lilac. It’s very different from the common lilac—musky rather than sweet, but it’s much more powerful.. While it’s still possible to buy fragrant flowering shrubs, if you love fragrant flowers, you just have to grow your own. Breeders are aiming for showy flowers and fragrance has been sacrificed. I went to a garden center last week intending to buy stock. The flowers were gorgeous, but the scent was barely perceptible. Looks like I’m going to have to grow my own stock from seed!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The great spring awakening!




I thought maybe it was my imagination, but the great spring awakening was coming thicker and faster than usual. Then I read the Inquirer article What’s behind the leaf explosion? Why the region suddenly has turned green? I wasn’t imagining this. From the Inquirer
In just the last few days, leaves have been popping and a green haze has washed over the woodlands across the region.
“It seemed like everything jumped forward,” said Peter Zale, curator at Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square.
“It really does seem to be concentrated,” he said, adding that some longtime local gardeners have told him “they’ve never seen anything like this.”
The explosive behavior of the region’s arboreal life is directly related to one of the stranger four months in the region’s weather history.

And it’s not just the leaves; my spring bulbs and flowering trees and shrubs seem to have emerged all at once:




I love the way my hyacinths pop up right through the pachysandra!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

A garden full of blasted buds—the price paid for our summery February

One of the few survivors, Pieris Japonica

My garden is filled with blasted buds and it looks like I will not have the wonderful Spring display of quince and forsythia. The only early flowering shrub that survived the recent wintry blast is my Pieris Japonica—not too surprising since it is hardy to zone 4. close-up of Pieris

Just maybe a few late forming forsythia and quince buds have survived and will eventually bloom.

Hellebores are as reliable as Pieris--they always survive a frost:
hellebores as cut flowers

hellebores in the garden

The flowers of early spring bulbs usually survive but the stems are flattened:

daffodils battered by the snow

scilla siberica flattened by the snow.

It's practically April and it never snows in April, right???

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Ties--a powerful novel by Domenico Starnone (AKA Elena Ferrante) now in English translation


As someone in the grip of Ferrante fever, I was eager to read Ties by Domenico Starnone, widely thought to be a co-author of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Until Claudio Gatti’s recent revelations about Ferrante’s identity, I assumed that Ferrante was a woman who shared the impoverished Neapolitan background of her primary characters Elena and Lila—a claim Ferrante had made in many interviews and letters collected in her recent volume, Frantumaglia:A Writer’s Journey Like many of Ferrante’s women readers, I dismissed the rumors about Starnone’s possible authorship or co-authorship with his wife Anita Raja. I thought it was impossible that the books could have been written by a man. There were just too many intimate details of life in a female body.

Then came Gatti’s well-documented claimthat Ferrante was Anita Raja, who, unlike Ferrante, did not grow up in an impoverished Neapolitan neighborhood but rather left Naples at the age of three and lived in middle class comfort in Rome. Presumably, Raja had ready access to the educational opportunities that Ferrante’s characters struggled to obtain.

Most of Ferrante’s readers appeared not to be disturbed by this deception and tended to view the falsely claimed Neapolitan background of Ferrante/Raja as a literary device. Just about everyone who has weighed in on the exposure of Ferrante’s identity has supported her decision to remain anonymous and attacked Gatti’s “unmasking,” frequently describing it in terms of sexual violation. However, I was troubled by Raja’s dishonesty and not convinced by her defenders who saw nothing problematic in Raja’s attempt to create the impression that her background was similar to that of her characters.

Many Ferrante fans expressed relief that at least Gatti identified a woman as the author; however, Gatti also left open the possibility of Raja’s collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone. Interestingly, most of Ferrante’s readers have ignored this suggestion. However, Gatti provides support for the oft-made claim that Starnone was involved in writing the Neapolitan novels. The powerfully rendered portrait of growing up in deep poverty in 1950’s Naples feels like it was written from first hand experience. Raja did not have this direct experience but Starnone, like the fictional Ferrante, was the son of a seamstress and did grow up in Naples. Also, Gatti reported that after analyzing Ferrante’s books with text analysis software, a group of physicists and mathematicians at La Sapienza University in Rome concluded that there was a “high probability” that Starnone was the principal author. I could no longer so easily dismiss the possibility that Starnone had a hand in the Neapolitan Quartet.

For some time, I have tried to suppress the impulse to extract a biographical core from Ferrante’s novels, but the desire persists. Ferrante’s insistence on a shield of anonymity probably had the perverse effect of making at least some of her readers all the more curious about the author behind the books they love. Now, after Gatti’s revelations suggesting that Domenico Starnone has had a hand in Ferrante’s work, I find my self re-reading the novels with an eye to what parts may have been written by Raja, what parts by Starnone. I’m reluctant to confess to reading the novels this way, but must admit that it actually adds to the enjoyment.

Although there are certainly many Ferrante fans who would be deeply disappointed to learn that the books were not solely the work of a woman, there are others (and I include myself here) intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore issues of gender. The whole experience has challenged some of my assumptions about literature—principally that there is such a thing as an authentic female voice which can be recognized as such. Ferrante herself has said in her collection of interviews and letters, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey: “A good writer, male or female can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness.”

When I read The Execution, Starnone’s first novel to be translated into English, I saw many stylistic similarities to Ferrante—sentences with clauses piled upon clauses, building to a dramatic climax; long stretches of dialogue without any of the usual markers to indicate the speaker, a dramatic opening and a conclusion which leaves much unresolved. Unlike the Neapolitan Quartet, The Execution is often called an experimental novel or metafiction. Starnone breaks the illusion of a fictional world and enters the narrative to discuss his authorial choices when developing his principal character and structuring the plot. The novel ends with a presentation of five possible endings. Ties is closer to conventional narrative structure than The Execution; there is no attempt to call attention to the text as fiction.

There are striking similarities between Ties and Ferrante’s novella The Days of Abandonment, which begins with a man abandoning his wife and children for a much younger woman, leaving his wife distraught, angry and unwilling to accept what has happened. However, The Days of Abandonment, set in the 1990’s, takes a different turn from Ties, set primarily in the 1970s. In The Days of Abandonment, the abandoned wife, Olga, develops a life and identity of her own. In Ties, Vanda focuses on getting her husband to return.

The first part of Ties consists of Vanda’s letters to her husband Aldo, demanding an explanation, letters very reminiscent of Olga’s insisting that her husband explain himself. The second part gives the reader Aldo’s, perspective—an outlook very similar to that of Olga’s husband, Mario, who believes he is entitled to pursue happiness with a younger woman. Unlike Mario, Aldo, ridden with guilt about his children, eventually returns to his wife. He must endure Vanda’s anger at his betrayal--an open wound after many years. The third part of the novella is narrated by their daughter Anna who describes the impact of her parents’ conflict ridden relationship on their children, a legacy of pain which leads Anna and her brother to take shocking revenge on their parents. Ties is a cautionary tale for those who believe the parents in an unhappy marriage should stay together for the sake of the children.

Ties has the intense, almost claustrophobic quality of Ferrante’s novellas. Neither Ferrante’s novellas nor the two Starnone books in English translation prepare the reader for the broad canvas, wide range of characters, the tapestry of interrelated themes of the Neapolitan Quartet. However, the political preoccupations of The Execution and its exploration of the ethical implications of political violence are among the many thematic stands in the Neapolitan Quartet. The central character of The Execution is a former teacher, a man of the left, who agonizes over whether his teaching has led one of his former students to engage in political violence.

Starnone is a powerful writer, and I hope that more of his novels will be translated, and not just because I enjoying looking for traces of Ferrante in his work. I also hope that Raja and Starnone will admit to what I believe is likely their joint authorship of the Neapolitan Quartet. The story of their collaboration would surely be fascinating.

But in the last analysis does authorship of the Neapolitan Quartet matter? The books have not changed. But will we read them differently knowing that the author is not a woman whose perspective has been shaped by her own experience of extreme poverty, of class and gender discrimination? Will we read the books differently if we learn that Starnone is Raja’s collaborator or if he turns out to be the principal author? In my recent re-reading of the Neapolitan Quartet, I forgot all about Raja, Starnone and Gatti and became once gain totally immersed in the world of Lila and Elena.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Crocus, Daffodils, and Hellebores are popping up all over!


Usually by this time of year I am sick of ice and snow and desperate for Spring. This year not so much. Yes, I am eagerly awaiting the start of the gardening season, but given the mild winter I am not as desperately eager as usual. The first crocus appeared in mid February, and the first daffodil on Feb.28.


Hellebores are popping up all over:




My forced hyacinth are blooming:
!


And my early blooming rhododendron, Cornell Pink is starting!

Good times are ahead!

Friday, February 17, 2017

The show has begin!





This is the time of the year when we gardeners get really impatient for Spring. Whenever the temperature is over 40 degrees I wander around my garden searching for signs of life. I am so grateful for snowdrops! They usually emerge in January and I have had snowdrops for about a month now.

The witch hazel emerged a few weeks ago.


And the winter jasmine has been out for few weeks, now blasted by a recent cold spell.



Crocus foliage and even a few early daffodil shoots are beginning to emerge and my begonia tubers stored in my unheated attic are beginning to sprout!