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!

Friday, February 3, 2017

In Naples, even the pigeons love pizza!

Naples deserves its reputation for the world’s best pizza!

I had intended to write a blog post with Naples and Rome restaurant recommendations soon after our trip to Italy, but the shock of the election pushed thoughts of Neapolitan restaurants to the back of my mind. Time has passed, my memory is fading, and my notes are missing, so this is not the detailed list I had promised my friends, but as I always appreciate my traveling friends inclusion of restaurant recommendations in their blog posts, I want to do the same.

We used to do extensive restaurant research and would travel all over town to a highly recommended restaurant. Now that seems like just too much work; instead we ask the hotel for recommendations of nearby restaurants. If we like their first recommendation, we stick with their list.

We made a restaurant reservation based on the hotel’s recommendation for Ristorante Mattozzi, but the taxi took us by mistake to the Pizzeria Mattozzi. I am so glad he made that mistake—both for the wondrous pizza and the sociological experience. My husband is not a fan of pizza and if it hadn’t been for the taxi driver’s mistake, I would not had had the best gorgonzola pizza I’ve ever had in my life. As for the sociological experience, it was fascinating to watch Neapolitans from all walks of life pouring into this pizzeria. The customers ranged from teenagers to senior citizens, working class families to affluent expensively dressed professionals.

As one would expect considering its location, Naples has excellent seafood restaurants. The best we went to was the simplest—a small seafood restaurant , da Doro. I’d also recommend the more upscale (and more expensive) La Cantinella and Ristorantino dell’Avvocato, Naples is less expensive than most major European cities and thus going up a notch or two in restaurants is not that painful. Our hotel restaurant at San Francesco al Monte was acceptable and had a spectacular view of the Bay of Naples. In Naples, it’s always worth trying to get a hotel room or a restaurant table with a view.

In Rome we followed the hotel’s restaurant recommendations, most within easy walking distance of the Piazza di Spagna. We went to Dilla twice we liked it so much. However—and this has happened a lot in our travels when we have returned to a restaurant—it was not as good as we remembered it. In this case on our return visit the restaurant had the wonderful food at low prices which we remembered, but despite our reservation we were told there was no table available except tables outside on a chilly November night. When we mentioned that our hotel had made a reservation for us, we got the reply that it was Saturday night. They didn’t seem to think any other explanation was needed. We didn’t have the energy to search for another restaurant, so took the outdoor table which turned out not to be too bad as there was a large space heater next to the table.

Other restaurants within walking distance of the Piazza di Spagna in Rome:

Il Falchetto —friendly, good trattoria food, relatively inexpensive.

Ad hoc, for us more expensive than we’d like, but very good value with a spectacular wine list most of which was totally put of our price range, but there were some very good lower priced bottles.

Osteria Dell’Antiquario, by far the best, a beautiful little restaurant on a quiet street near the Piazza Navona. We were there on a warm November night and had an outdoor table.

Marco G., not in walking distance but in Trastevere, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Rome It’s a lively trattoria with reasonably good, affordable food and very friendly service.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The January 21 Women’s March: For the first time since the election, I am feeling hopeful.

Yesterday’s Women’s March in Philadelphia was a real antidote to post election depression. Thanks to an injury I wasn’t sure I could manage the March, but I decided I could handle the rally. I am so glad I managed to get there. Unfortunately I couldn’t find my NOW sisters in the large crowd, but I did find my good friend Belinda Davis:

What was truly wonderful about the Women’s March was that it bubbled up from the grassroots. Teresa Shook, a retired attorney in Hawaii was deeply dismayed by the election of Donald Trump; she turned to Facebook and asked: What if women marched on Washington around Inauguration Day en masse? The response was overwhelming. It appears that more than 2.5 million people participated in marches across the U.S. on January 21.

Established feminist organizations eventually signed on, but the initial impulse came from the grassroots. In response to numerous complaints that the organizers ignored women of color, the leadership team became more diverse and wrote an inclusive platform which placed the March in the context of a broad struggle for social justice. The platform acknowledges the specific ways women of color, low-income women, transgendered women experience gender discrimination. Some highlights from the platform:

We believe that Women’s Rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are Women’s Rights.

We believe Gender Justice is Racial Justice is Economic Justice.

We believe in accountability and justice for police brutality and ending racial profiling and targeting of communities of color. Women of color are killed in police custody at greater rates than white women, and are more likely to be sexually assaulted by police.

We are also committed to disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline that prioritizes incarceration over education by systematically funneling our children—particularly children of color, queer and trans youth, foster care children, and girls—into the justice system.

We believe in Reproductive Freedom. … This means open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people, regardless of income, location or education.

We must end the pay and hiring discrimination that women, particularly mothers, women of color, lesbian, queer and trans women still face each day in our nation.

We recognize that women of color carry the heaviest burden in the global and domestic economic landscape, particularly in the care economy.

We reject mass deportation, family detention, violations of due process and violence against queer and trans migrants.

The platform articulates an inclusive conception of feminism which will appeal to a younger generation of feminist men and women. According to a report in the New York Times, the organizers made “a deliberate decision to highlight the plight of minority and undocumented immigrant women and provoke uncomfortable discussions about race. 'This was an opportunity to take the conversation to the deep places,' said Linda Sarsour, a Muslim who heads the Arab American Association of New York and is one of four co-chairwomen of the national march. 'Sometimes you are going to upset people.'"

And some feminists who wanted to focus on women’s issues narrowly construed were indeed upset. This is a familiar divide in the feminist movement going back to 19th and early 20th century feminist movement when most white feminists wanted to exclude black women from “their” movement. This division surfaced again in the late 1960s and 70s when some feminists saw incorporating a commitment to racial justice as somehow diluting the feminist message. In my study of second wave feminism in Philadelphia, I quoted a committed NOW activist’s response to an African-American member’s plan to start a new chapter in Philadelphia, Germantown NOW, a chapter which would focus on racial justice as well as gender justice:
I remember people saying things, it’s not the NAACP, we represent all women and there was a certain group who wanted it all to be about race. ... We had to concentrate like a laser beam on women’s rights because it helps all women and we can’t be sidetracked with other issues. I remember there being disagreements on how we should go about that. They didn’t think [Germantown NOW] would last because it was founded for the wrong reasons. …People thought it was going to take us off track. ...the particular people involved seemed to be more interested in fighting racism rather than sexism. At the time, we had to focus on getting the ERA passed..

We have made progress. Young, 21st century feminists see the struggle for racial justice as integral to the struggle for gender justice. It's not an either/or. Most of the speakers at the Philadelphia March emphasized an inclusive feminism. Unfortunately, the audience was not as racially/ethnically diverse as I had hoped. The good news was that there were many young people, including young men. Both men and women responded enthusiastically to the call for an inclusive movement for gender justice.

There is much work to be done as African American feminist Jamilah Lemieux reminds us in her powerful essay, Why I'm Skipping The Women's March on Washington":
I’m not saying that I will never stand in solidarity with masses of White women under the umbrella of our gender, but it won’t be this weekend...It won’t serve my own mental health needs to put my body on the line (a body that I believe will invite more violence from Trump supporters than paler attendees) to feign solidarity with women who by and large didn’t have my back prior to November. Not yet. Eventually? Perhaps. But not now.

We are beginning to have honest conversations and the energy to resist the Trump agenda is clearly out there. For the first time since the election, I am feeling hopeful.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Return to Naples: The 2016 Italy diaries, Part III.

Hillside overlooking Herculaneum

Not only does Naples hold treasures like Museo di Capodimante, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, and the baroque churches of the centro historico, Naples is also a wonderful base for such world heritage sites as Pompeii and Herculaneum. Rick and I had been to Pompeii twice before and I could visit Pompeii many times again, but for Rick twice was enough. The first time, my left foot was covered with incredibly painful blisters and corns (the legacy of a major accident in 1984). However I was so enthralled by Pompeii that I was determined not to let my burning foot hold me back and I somehow managed to see most of it. The second time I had no trouble walking and was able to take in the entire site.

I was under the impression that Herculaneum was just a miniature Pompeii and was reluctant to subject Rick to another trek through the ruins. Fortunately a friend told me that Herculaneum was really very different. Whereas Pompeii was incinerated by an erupting volcano, Herculaneum was destroyed by flood and buried under mud. The result is that when Herculaneum was excavated an entire town was uncovered. Yes, Herculaneum was smaller than Pompeii but so much more of it has been preserved.
Excavations at Herculaneum

Street scene at Herculaneum

perfectly presrved fresco at Herculaneum

Then there is Ischia. The last time we were in the Bay of Naples area we went to Capri which was very beautiful but crowded with shops and tourists—even in March when we visited. Ischia is incredibly beautiful and relatively unspoiled. We were there on a gorgeous day in November; it might not have been so idyllic in high summer with the roads clogged with vacationers. We had a wonderful tour guide who drove us around the island. He described what Ischia was like in the early 1960’s when Elena Greco (the narrator of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels) first came to Ischia. He said there were no hotels, just a few people renting rooms in their vacation houses—like Nella in The Story of a New Name. Rock formation off the coast of Ischia

Central piazza, small town in Ischia

hillside in Ischia

I will always remember our day in Ischia as one of the highlights of our trip. This photo says it all—we both look so happy!

Another highlight was the Certosa di San Martino. In addition to the artistic treasures, there were amazing views from every room in the monastery. The cloister at the Certosa di San Martino.

There is so much to see and to revisit in Naples. And then there’s the pizza—-more on Naples restaurants to come!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Return to Naples: The 2016 Italy diaries, Part II.

This was our second trip to Naples. My husband and I were in Naples in March of 1999 as part of a sabbatical year trip to Italy. We foolishly believed all the guidebook warnings about avoiding Naples and stayed for a week in Sorrento, a beautiful but not particularly interesting city. We decided to go on a daytrip to Naples and loved the city. Each morning we took a boat to Naples, regretting that we could not spend the nights in Naples and had to return to our prepaid hotel in Sorrento. We hoped to some day get back to Naples and do the city justice, but never managed to get it together . My love for Elena Ferrante’s books was the impetus for a return trip to Naples.

I had originally intended to go on a Ferrante tour and visit the places mentioned in the Neapolitan Novels. Then came Claudio Gatti’s revelations. Since Ferrante turned out to be a fictional character, camouflage for the identity of the real author (who grew up in Rome), I lost my enthusiasm for trying to track down the impoverished neighborhood where the main characters grew up. And my husband wasn’t particularly interested in trekking around the slums of Naples.

However, getting to know Naples intensified my love for Ferrante's Neapolitan novels which I am currently re-reading. Yes, there are many run-down parts of Naples but some of them, particularly in the old quarter, are incredibly picturesque:

And there are some very attractive neighborhoods. Naples is a very vertical city, with the desirable residential neighborhoods in the hills—-the Vomero (Professor Galiani lived for you Ferrante fans) and Possilipo (where Michele Solara lived).

Naples is much more prosperous than it appeared in 1999. I don’t remember expensive shops like those around the Piazza Martiri and the Via Mille, but perhaps we weren’t in that part of Naples. (For Ferrante fans, the Piazza Martiri was the place for high-end shopping in the 1960’s when the Solara brothers opened their shoe store there.)

We found a very affordable hotel, San Francesco al Monte. It was perched on a hill, just high enough to be above the bustle of central Naples and had a spectacular view—my main requirement for a hotel in Naples. View from the restaurant at San Francesco al Monte

The hotel was a converted monastery and I’ve always had an attraction to these former monasteries turned into hotels. Spain and Portugal are full of them. I never pass up a chance to spend a night in a former monastery!

We had enough time (six days) to visit various neighborhoods, to get a feel for the city, to take in its impressive site on the Bay of Naples, to visit the major tourist attractions and to take some side trips outside of Naples. The must see attractions in Naples include the Museo di Capidomante. When we were younger, we would have been more likely to spend a morning here and then rush off to something else. This time we spent the entire day at Capidomante. The fact that it was a dreary, rainy day was another incentive to stay there. It has an extraordinary collection of old masters--among my favorites, a chilling painting by Breughel the elder, The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind:

The Museo di Capidomante also has an amazing collection of Titian portraits:

Another must-see museum is the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, considered one of the most important archaeological museums in the world. The museum has undergone a major renovation since our last visit in 1999 and the treasures of Pompeii are beautifully displayed, especially the Gabbinete or Secret Room which holds an extensive collection of erotic items from excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. We missed the erotica our first trip to Naples as these items were only made available to the public in 2000. What was seen as scandalous is no longer particularly shocking:images from Pompeii

The classical world and the Baroque world are both very much present in contemporary Naples. We also managed to see many of Naples’ Baroque churches which we missed in 1999. I was reluctant to take day trips outside Naples because there is so much to see in the city, but Herculaneum and Ischia are not to missed. To be continued!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Return to Rome: The 2016 Italy diaries, Part I.

We postponed an October vacation because of the election; I was afraid of being glued to CNN, NYT and not focusing on Rome and Naples. So we made reservations to fly to Rome on November 9th. We thought we would be celebrating Hillary’s victory. I was in a state of shock on November 9th, thankful that we would have Italy to take our minds off the disastrous election results.

This was our 6th trip to Rome and probably our last. Rome was more beautiful than ever. We always stay in small hotels—there is usually better service and we’re more likely to get a sense of the city. Now that we are seventy-something travellers we need to stay in more comfortable hotels than when we started traveling together almost 40 years ago.

Also, since we didn’t want to spend a lot of time just getting around, we wanted a central location. We settled on The Inn at the Spanish Steps -—charming, but more expensive than we’d like. However, our traveling years are winding down, so it seems like this is the time to splurge. The staff was terrific, the breakfasts were wonderful and served on a lovely roof-top terrace. The hotel was on a side street off the Piazza di Spagna and therefore in a busy part of Rome--but it’s not so easy getting an affordable, comfortable, centrally located hotel in a quiet part of Rome.

We found ourselves doing what we had done in Paris when we returned after a long absence—we revisited the places we really loved. Our hotel was in walking distance from the Piazza del Popolo so that was the first place we headed to see the twin churches I love so much. As always happens in Italy, something you really want to see—this time one of the twin churches-- was closed for restoration.

What I love so much about Rome is the sense of history everywhere: ancient Egyptian obelisks, Trajan’s column, the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracolla--all right there in central Rome. We did a lot of wandering around taking in the open-air architectural museum.

I wanted to see the Vatican museums one more time. Rick didn’t think he could take the crowds, but I thought that maybe in November the crowds would not be so bad. I was wrong. There’s no such thing as off-season where the Vatican is concerned. But it was worth braving the crowds to see the Sistine Chapel one more time. The last time was right after the restoration of the Michelangelo ceiling frescoes and the subdued grays and browns were in bright, jewel like colors. They struck me as garish and I preferred the old unrestored frescoes. Now the colors have dimmed somewhat and no longer look so garish, but maybe I’ve just gotten used to Michelangelo in technicolor.

We also went to the Barberini Palace which is not a “must see” on the tour bus circuit, so was delightfully uncrowded. It has two paintings which alone are worth a visit. Raphael’s La Fornarina, a portrait of the love of his life, who worked in a bakery in Trastevere and Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holophernes.

La Fornarina

Judith Beheading Holophernes

If I were a young person, I would figure out some way to spend a year in Rome!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

This Ferrante fan is not in love with Frantumaglia

As a passionate lover of Elena Ferrante’s novels, I am sorry to report that I am not in love with Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey, a collection of Ferrante’s letters, essays, interviews, and material deleted from her early novels. A shapeless repetitive compilation, Frantumaglia is more like a scrapbook than a book. The intriguing title which Ferrante defines as her mother's word for “a disquiet not otherwise definable... a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain” does not bear much relationship to the book which is mostly a series of explanations, rationales for Ferrante’s work.

I find it surprising that Ferrante, the author of such intricately structured books as the Neapolitan Quartet, would want to put her name to something as shapeless as Frantumaglia. Ferrante’s publisher apparently suggested the idea for Frantumaglia, intended as a response to the “healthy desire on the party of your readers…to know you better.”

I might have had a somewhat more positive reaction if I had read Frantumaglia before Claudio Gatti’s well-documented claim that 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.

Throughout Frantumaglia there are numerous references to Ferrante growing up in Naples—including references to childhood fears of growing up in a violent neighborhood and her relationship with her mother, who spoke the Neapolitan dialect and worked as a dressmaker. Ferrante described Naples as “a space containing all my primary childhood, adolescent, and early adult experiences.” Ferrante’s publishers apparently encouraged this. One of the first letters includes a reference to Sandra Ferri’s request that Ferrante contribute to a book she was editing about growing up in Naples.

From what I have read in many reviews and blog posts, most of Ferrante’s devoted readers are not bothered by this deception and tend to view the falsely claimed Neapolitan background of Ferrante/Raja as a literary device. However at the same time, they tend to see the wide-ranging reflections in Frantumaglia as the genuine beliefs of the author, presumably Anita Raja. But if some sections of Frantumaglia are fiction, how can we be sure the rest is not?

Also, Ferrante claims over and over again that her books should stand for themselves, that there is no need of any explanation/information beyond the text. However the very existence of Frantumaglia undermines that claim. As Michiko Kakutani observed in her New York Times review:

It’s a padded, often self-indulgent volume that undermines her stated belief that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” In fact, this book is a 384-page repudiation of her assertion that the text is “a self-sufficient body, which has in itself, in its makeup, all the questions and all the answers.”
…the sheer volume of interviews here, the author’s often self-dramatizing discussions of her life (or that of the character of the so-called Elena Ferrante), and the very decision to assemble this book seem to fly in the face of her declaration that writing should have “an autonomous space, far from the demands of the media and the marketplace.”

However despite its repetitiveness, there are some fascinating sections in Frantumaglia--in particular a long passage that Ferrante decided to delete from Days of Abandonment, a harrowing tale of a woman abandoned by her husband. The novel focuses on Olga’s suffering. The deleted section describes Olga’s flirtations with other men: “Over the years my occasions for little flirtations multiplied. When they began I suffered less from my duties as a wife and mother who no longer worked.” The most serious relationship was with one of her husband’s associates. Olga aggressively pursues him: “If he had wanted to make love I would have done it. If he had asked me to leave Mario and the children, I wouldn’t have hesitated.”

Many of Ferrante’s readers have viewed Days of Abandonment as a feminist cri de coeur from a woman wronged. The deleted section complicates the narrative and at least to some extent undermines sympathy for Olga. When an interviewer suggested that Ferrante’s male characters are part of a pattern in Italian literature in which men are cowards and scoundrels, Ferrante replies: “In my intentions, Mario, Olga’s husband, is neither cowardly nor a scoundrel. He’s just a man who has stopped loving the woman he lives with and comes up against the impossibility of breaking that bond without humiliating her, without hurting her.”

I have been struck by Ferrante’s understanding of the way both her male and female characters are prisoners of gender, their lives constrained by the expectations of a deeply sexist society. However, I dismissed the rumors that her books could have been written by a man or in collaboration with a man. There were just too many intimate details of life in a female body.

When Claudio Gatti wrote his article claiming to have proven that Ferrante was Anita Raja, he also left open the possibility of collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone. Interestingly, most of Ferrante’s devoted readers have ignored this claim and focused on what they saw as Gatti’s unmasking of her, frequently describing it in terms of sexual violation. Almost without exception they directed their outrage at the unmasking and seemed ready to accept the misrepresentation of Ferrante/Raja’s class background as a fictional device.

However, given all the protestations that only a woman could have written such an authentic account of female experience, I don’t think most of Ferrante’s readers would be as willing to accept the possibility that the books were written in collaboration with Starnone, or that Starnone might have been the principal author. I was one of those once passionately claimed that Ferrante’s books had to be written by a woman. Now I am not so sure.

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. Also, 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 spend his childhood in Naples, thus lending further support to the contention that Starnone was Raja’s collaborator.

The controversies about the authorship of Ferrante’s novels has left me questioning many of my assumptions about literature—including the idea that great literature must be the work of one mind, one visionary genius. Recent Shakespeare scholarship suggests that a work of genius can be a collaborative effort. Using computerized tools to analyze texts, the New Oxford Shakespeare ’s team of international scholars have concluded that Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three are among as many as 17 plays that they now believe contain writing by other people.

In some sense all works of art are collaborative and Ferrante in Frantumaglia makes this point: “And yet there is no work that is not the result of tradition, of many skills of a sort of collective intelligence.” References to joint authorship exist within the books themselves. In the Neapolitan Quartet Lila and Elena dream of writing a novel together and Elena credits Lila as the inspiration for much of her writing. What Elena refers to as the “joys of shared creation” is a major theme throughout the Neapolitan quartet.

I was struck in reading Frantumaglia that much of the writing was very different from that that of the novels—much more abstract, more academic. Michiko Kakutani has noted that Ferrante’s “self-conscious and stilted statements [in Frantumaglia] stand in stark contrast to the visceral immediacy of Ms. Ferrante’s novels.” Of course, changes in style do not necessarily mean two authors. I don’t expect we will ever know the extent to which Starnone had a hand in this; the publishers certainly have a stake in the image of Ferrante as a powerful woman writer.

Although there would certainly be many Ferrante fans who would be deeply disappointed to learn that the books were not solely the work of a woman, there would probably be others intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore issues of gender. But in the last analysis what does it matter? The books are truly wonderful whoever wrote them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I'm having a really hard time accepting the reality of Trump's victory

My husband and I postponed an October vacation until after the election because I didn’t think I could focus on the trip with the election unresolved. So we planned to leave on Nov. 9 and thought that we would be celebrating a Clinton victory.

The trip to Italy (more on that later) really helped us get through the first few days of total shock and horror. We had the beauty of Rome and Naples to distract us. It was relatively easy to forget the Trump victory during the past 2 weeks—especially in Naples where it was almost impossible to find English language newspapers.

Now we are back and there are no more wonderful distractions. This reminds me of of 1980. I never believed a Reagan victory was possible and certainly did not expect the Republicans to regain the Senate with racists like Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and John Tower heading powerful committees.

The difference was that in 1980 I was 36 years old and had the energy to fight back. Now my energy is waning. I had decided I was going to step back a bit from political activity. After all those years of activism, I thought I had earned a rest. But now I think progressives need all hands on deck—-even aging, wrinkled hands.

I expect it’s going to be a grim Thanksgiving at my sisters’ house tomorrow. At least there won't be any Trump voters around the Thanksgiving table.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Why I’m voting against raising the retirement age for Pennsylvania judges

There are many good reason to oppose raising the judicial retirement age. From the Inquirer editorial urging citizens to "Vote 'no' on misleading ballot question raising judges' retirement age."
The affront to democracy that comes to voters in the form of a ballot question that would extend the retirement age for elderly Pennsylvania judges should be voted down to send a clear message to its partisan authors.

The integrity of the democratic process is threatened when voters are given misleading information. That this matter has been decided by judges who have a stake in it further taints their decision.

Also, see a very clear explanation of the judicial retirement age ballot question from my fellow ADA board member, Jim Moss posted here

The deceitful wording is not the only reason I oppose the ballot measure. From my article Why I’m voting against raising the retirement age for Pennsylvania judges"published in the Chestnut Hill Local in December 2015 in the wake of the porngate/hategate email scandals:

I never thought so many judges and prosecutors, including state Supreme Court justices, would routinely exchange vicious racist, misogynistic and homophobic emails. Yes, I know that many white men resent the gains that women and people of color have made in recent decades, but I never expected anything this ugly from those entrusted to administer justice. It’s even more of a shock that they felt safe doing this.

This scandal will no doubt lead some voters to reject the proposal on the 2016 primary ballot to raise the retirement age for judges from 70 to 75. I can certainly understand the desire to clean house.

But there’s another more urgent reason to reject this proposal. The cohort of judges now reaching 70 are much more likely to be white, male and heterosexual than the pool of potential judges, now in their 30’s and 40’s. (It’s only relatively recently that open LGBTQ candidates have run for and won judicial seats.)

If the retirement age is raised, there is real danger that we will delay the transformation of the judiciary into something more closely resembling what America now looks like. Maintaining the current retirement age is not a solution to the current lack of diversity on the Bench, but at least it doesn’t contribute to the problem.

A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) documents the lack of judicial diversity: “In many states, the judges do not look like the defendants and plaintiffs who stand in front of them… that glaring lack of diversity calls into question the overall fairness of our justice system.”

The CAP report argues that if we are to have a diverse judiciary reflecting our increasingly diverse citizenry, we must reduce the influence of money in the judicial selection process. The report recommends reforms, such as public financing in states that continue to elect judges.

The report further argues that “merit selection (a system of appointing judges in which a commission chooses a list of potential nominees based on their qualifications) can be an effective tool for achieving diversity, when the process is structured to take diversity into account.” Although a 2009 American Judicature Society study found that states with merit selection had more diverse supreme courts, the CAP report cautions that some merit selection systems have not resulted in a diverse judiciary: “Even when diversity is mandated at certain points in the process, lawmakers in some states have ignored the mandate.”

It is unlikely that in Pennsylvania we will have public financing of judicial elections or merit selection anytime soon, so while we fight for substantive reform, let’s not exacerbate the problem by freezing in place the current judiciary by raising the retirement age.

I’ll grant that there are some fine 70-year old judges who could make a contribution for another five years and that mandatory retirement can be viewed as unfair to these individuals. Yes, maybe some of them, as Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Program director Suzanne Almeida has argued, get better with age. According to Almeida, “Judging is one of those jobs that the longer you do it the better you get.” Well, maybe with some, but I doubt that judges like Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin are getting better with each passing year.

We must base our decisions about mandatory retirement on what is good for society as a whole rather that what may be in the interest of a particular individual. Moreover, with the judiciary, mandatory retirement is not just about creating job opportunities for the young but about a justice system which reflects the diversity of citizenry. This matters.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Discussion on Democracy and the Democratic Party Sponsored by Young Involved Philadelphia

Young Involved Philadelphia sponsored a panel discussion on Democracy and the Democratic Party featuring my book Green Shoots of Democracy within the Philadelphia Democratic Party. The panel included prospective state representative Chris Rabb and reform-minded Democratic committeepersons Michael Bell and Moira Kulik.

Chris Rabb’s analysis of his remarkable victory in the 200th PA House race was both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. He won against all the odds, but a whole lot of hard work and resources are necessary to take on the political establishment.

Moira Kulik and Michael Bell are two of the committeepersons featured in my book and I greatly appreciated their willingness to speak candidly about their experiences in the ward system. Chris Rabb and I have had the good fortune to serve in 9th ward—where committeepersons vote on endorsements and procedures and where there is transparency about ward finances.

Kulik and Bell are in the 36th ward, a closed ward where committeepeople have no say in endorsements and there is no transparency in finances. The sad news is that only 5 out of 69 wards consistently operate like the 9th. If I had landed in one of the undemocratic, closed wards, I wouldn’t have lasted 30 days, let alone 30 years.

Unfortunately since my 2015 interviews with Bell and Kulik the situation in their ward appears to have deteriorated. There are no ward meetings, no GOTV plan, no political activity sponsored by the ward. The group they formed, the 36th ward progressives is no longer active although Bell and Kulik have some hope that it can be revived.

The moderator Nick Marzano asked some interesting questions, one of which was: "What do you think keeps things from changing as quickly as some of us might like?" The best answer I could come up with is that institutional change is usually a slow process and people get worn down.

Some of the people I interviewed in 2014 and 2015 who were all fired up and ready to go are no longer active in ward politics or considerably less active. However, others that I Interviewed are still working hard and committed to change; I have tremendous admiration for those who keep fighting the good fight.

However, I do understand why people get frustrated. Some of the new committeepersons 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.
However, some of the people no longer active as committeepersons are not among the worn out and discouraged. Several of these committeepersons elected in 2014 have moved out of their divisions. These former committeepersons have to wait until 2018 if they would like to run for committeeperson in their new divisions.

In the early 1990’s, the Democratic Party changed the term of committeepersons from two years to four years. This is especially problematic for young people who are often renters and more likely to move frequently than older committeepersons who are settled in a neighborhood.

I checked with the City Commissioners’ Office and was told the length of term for committeepersons was completely up to the political parties—-no state action is required. Also the political parties do not have to do this in concert. The Republican Party could switch to a two year term even if the Democratic party decided to stay with 4 year terms. Maybe the Republican Party could lead the way here?

Monday, October 10, 2016

Elena Ferrante, Anita Raja, and Cultural Appropriation

I count myself among those in the grip of Ferrante fever. I was introduced to Elena Ferrante by James Woods’ January 2013 article in the New Yorker. Rarely does a review send me straight to an online bookstore to purchase a book and pay extra for expedited shipping, but Woods made a compelling case for Ferrante. I was not disappointed. Since then I’ve read all her books at least twice.

At first I had difficulty accepting that I would know nothing certain about the author of the books I loved so much. I followed obsessively the speculation about her identity and like many of her women readers 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.

After reading Ferrante’s reasons for choosing to write under a pseudonym, I accepted her explanation and haven’t engaged in speculation about her identity for some time. It was a closed matter.

Then came Claudio Gatti’s revelation-- supported by financial records --that Ferrante was Anita Raja, wife of novelist Domenic Starnone, long suspected as the real author of the novels. Just about everyone who has weighed in on the “unmasking” of Ferrante has supported her decision to remain anonymous and denounced Gatti.

Frances Wilson’s response in the Times Literary Supplement.sums up the reactions of so many of Ferrante’s devoted readers: “[Gatti] thinks he has put us out of our misery, but no one really wanted to know the identity of Elena Ferrante. It was a puzzle we enjoyed, and now Gatti has waded in and spoilt the game.”

Many readers have viewed Gatti’s revelations through a gender lens. In “The malice and sexism behind the ‘unmasking’ of Elena Ferrante,” Jeanette Winterson characterizes Gatti’s outing of Ferrante as "revenge" against a feminist author who often portrays men as violent , misogynist oppressors: “Because at the bottom of this so-called investigation into Ferrante’s identity is an obsessional outrage at the success of a writer – female – who decided to write, publish and promote her books on her own terms.

These revelations come at a time of heated debate over what we now call cultural appropriation. Raja (assuming she is Ferrante) is writing in the voice of a woman from an impoverished background, without acknowledging she does not have direct experience of deep poverty. In Frantumaglia (to be published in English on November 1), Ferrante tells us that that she was raised in Naples and her mother was a seamstress. Raja’s mother was not a seamstress and, although born in Naples, Raja did not grow up there in deep poverty like Elena and Lila of the Neapolitan novels. Instead when she was three years old, Raja moved to Rome with her mother, who was a teacher and daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and her father who was a magistrate. She apparently lived in middle class comfort and presumably had ready access to the educational opportunities Lila was denied and Elena struggled to obtain.

With the exception of Adam Kirsch and Alyssa Rosenberg none of the responses to Gatti’s charges that I have read address the issue of what we now call cultural appropriation. Adam Kirsch sees Ferrante’s work as a response to those who would question an author’s right to adopt the voice of the oppressed:

In recent weeks, the literary world has been at war over the idea of cultural appropriation — whether a writer has the right to tell stories about people unlike herself. … But now it appears that one of the world’s best-loved writers is actually a sterling example of the power of appropriation. For it turns out that in telling the story of poor Neapolitan girls like Lina and Elena, Ms. Raja was claiming the right to imagine the lives of people quite unlike herself. In doing so, she was able to write books in which millions of people found themselves reflected — books about feminism and patriarchy, poverty and violence, education and ambition.

Kirsch apparently sees nothing problematic in Raja’s allowing readers to believe that Elena Ferrante shares the background of her character Elena Greco.

Allyssa Rosenberg notes that Raja’s background is not what Ferrante has led us to believe but she doesn’t take a position on Raja’s unacknowledged cultural appropriation: “this literary kerfuffle comes at a moment of intense debate about cultural appropriation, and more specifically, whether authors have the right to create characters from communities not their own, and what their obligations are should they choose to do so.”

Noreen Malone sees the mismatch between Raja’s background and what Ferrante has led her readers to believe as fueling the outrage directed at Gatti: “I suspect part of what’s going on, below the surface, is disappointment in who Ferrante has turned out to be. She’s not a self-taught peasant who has lived closer to the bone than the rest of us. For all the intimate femaleness of her work, she may or may not have asked her Naples-born husband to (at the very least) fill her in on some of the details of life there.” Malone doesn’t appear to see anything problematic in Raja’s deliberately creating the impression that her background was similar to that of her characters.

It appears I am in a tiny minority here. I am bothered by the deception and understand why Gatti thinks the dishonesty justifies the “unmasking.” Of course Raja has the right to write about women who do not share her class advantages, but I find it disturbing that in her interviews she creates the impression that her work is based on personal experience of deep poverty. If Raja had not tried to create this false impression and simply maintained her anonymity, I wouldn’t have these ethical qualms about her choices.

But, truth be told, it’s not just that I’m disappointed in Raja because of the deception. I am one of those readers Malone describes--disappointed that the person behind the novels did not come from ranks of the Southern Italian poor. As Elena Greco describes her struggle to rise from poverty in the second volume of the Neapolitan novels: “I had obtained a degree in literature with the highest grade. My father hadn’t stopped beyond fifth grade in elementary school, my mother had stopped at second, none of my forebears, as far as I knew, had learned to read and write fluently. It had been an astonishing effort.”

Also, as one of the Ferrante readers who argued passionately against the idea that her books could have been written by a man, I am not happy to think her novels may not be solely the work of a woman writer. Many readers expressed relief that at least Gatti identified a woman as the author. However, Gatti’s revelations actually provide further support for the oft-made claim that Raja’s husband Domenico 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 her husband Domenico Starnone was the son of a seamstress and did spend his childhood in Naples. Furthermore Starnone (born in 1943) like Elena and Lila in the Neapolitan novels (both born in 1944) is much more likely to have lived through the political turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s than Anita Raja (born in 1963). I had direct experience of those years (albeit in the US rather than in Italy) and when I read the sections in the Neapolitan novels describing the divisions and arguments then current among the radical left, I was convinced the author was a participant /observer. It was pitch perfect--however, pitch perfect from the point of view of a woman. Does this suggest collaboration with Starnone?

Text-analysis software matching Starnone’s writing with Ferrante's has identified him as the likely author of Ferrante’s novels. When I first read about the identification of Starnone as the probable author, I dismissed it out of hand. I had made up my mind that it was impossible that a man could have written any part of this deeply felt account of female experience. Now, I’m not so sure.

So does all this 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 there always be a before and after learning about Raja for (at least some of) Ferrante’s devoted readers?