Monday, May 7, 2018

Domenico Starnone's Trick


Domenico Starnone has joined the list of writers whose books I pre-order and read as soon as they are available. His latest, Trick, translated by and with an introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri did not speak to me as powerfully as its predecessor, Ties, also translated and with an introduction by Lahiri. But I expect more of its power will emerge upon re-reading—that was certainly the case with Ties and with First Execution, the first of Starnone’s books translated into English.

Only three of Starnone’s 14 novels have been translated into English. If his role in the books attributed to Elena Ferrante is ever acknowledged, we might have the opportunity to read more of his work in translation. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, a fictional character created to camouflage the identity of its probable co-authors, Starnone and his wife, Anita Raja. (To date, four teams of experts using text analysis software have identified Starnone as the principal author of the Neapolitan novels.)

Although the plot of Trick is very different from that of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, there are thematic similarities. The central relationship in the Neapolitan novels is the complicated friendship between two young girls growing up in a Neapolitan working class neighborhood in the 1950s. One escapes Naples; the other doesn’t. In Trick, like the Neapolitan novels, Naples itself becomes a character, although unlike the Neapolitan novels which depict both the beauty and the misery of Naples, Trick focuses on the misery. The central relationship in Trick is between Daniele Mallarico, an elderly artist struggling with the frailties of old age and disappointments of a declining career, and his precocious four year old grandson.Like Lila and Elena of the Neapolitan novels, Mallarico, generally referred to as Grandpa, grew up in 1950s working class Naples.

Like Elena, Mallarico longed to escape Naples and his difficult family; like Elena, through education and talent he managed to do so. Several of the details of working class life recalled by Mallarico in Trick are reminiscent of descriptions of Elena’s family dealing with the difficulties of a large family living in a relatively small space: Elena describes the daily ritual of dismantling the dining room furniture, making up the beds at night and unmaking them in the morning, so the dining room could double as a bedroom. Similarly, Mallarico describes himself and his brother making their “beds in the evenings, in the living room, putting an end to my mother’s elegant aspirations."

Elena at times speculates on what she might have become if she hadn’t had the strength to leave Naples, and what the far more talented Lila might have become if her family, like Elena’s, had allowed her to continue her education. Similarly, the elderly artist in Trick becomes obsessed with the roads not taken.

Starnone’s novels are characterized by narrative complexity and intertextual drama; in Trick there are running allusions to the Henry James novella The Jolly Corner, which Mallarico has been called upon to illustrate. In the James story, the protagonist Brydon Spencer, who has been living for years in Europe, returns to the New York City house in which he has grown up. Like Starnone’s aging artist who has also returned to his childhood home, Brydon is obsessed with the road not taken and searches for the ghosts of possible alternative selves.

Lahiri thinks that a knowledge of James’ story enriches the experience of reading Trick and on her recommendation I re-read The Jolly Corner. James is every bit as wordy and repetitious as I recalled and I have no desire to read James again, but The Jolly Corner does add a dimension to Trick, suggesting the universality of the experience of mulling over never to be realized possibilities as one moves into one’s later years.

Faced with physical frailty and declining career prospects, Mallarico is unnerved by the talent and physical vitality of his grandson Mario. Their relationship becomes a dangerous contest of wills, culminating in Mario’s telling his grandfather he intends to play a “trick” on him. He locks the door to the balcony and exposes his grandfather to the wind and the rain—echoes of King Lear, intentional or not.

Starnone’s novels, with their literary allusions and avoidance of straightforward narration, are often described as metafiction. I’ve wondered if Starnone decided to write or co-write the Neapolitan novels in order to try his hand at the old-fashioned straightforward narration he has generally avoided. However, on rereading, the Neapolitan novels reveal themselves as far more complicated than the old-fashioned Bildungsroman they are generally thought to be.

Trick concludes with an appendix complete with sketches. I haven’t quite figured out the purpose of the appendix beyond shifting the perspective from “grandpa” (Daniele chafes at the name grandpa) to the artist Daniele Mallarico. However, upon re-reading, the relationship between the main text and the ”appendix” might become clearer. Starnone (like Ferrante) is one of those novelists you have to re-read.



Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Is this the beginning of the end?



James Comey's most devastating comment came at the end of his interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulis. Comey dismissed claims made by some that Trump is medically unfit to hold office.
"But not in the way ... I often hear people talk about it. I don't buy this stuff about him being mentally incompetent or early stages of dementia. He strikes me as a person of above average intelligence who's tracking conversations and knows what's going on," Comey said. "I don't think he's medically unfit to be president. I think he's morally unfit to be president."

"A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they're pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it, that person's not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds.

"Our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country. The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that. He is morally unfit to be president," he said.

Will Comey’s indictment of the moral failings of the Trump presidency, along with Michael Wolf's scathing portrait of the incompetence of the Trump administration in Fire and Fury:Inside the Trump White House,mobilize those trying to bury their heads in the sand, hoping this nightmare will just go away. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright asked “Will We Stop Trump Before It’s Too Late?” A question on the minds of so many of us.

Comey told Stephanopoulos that he didn’t think impeachment was the answer—-that the American people had to vote Trump out of office. But that can’t happen until November 2020; there’s too much at stake to wait two and a half years. We need to vote in a Democratic House of Representatives, which can initiate articles of impeachment. Granted, at this point it’s unlikely that 2/3 of the Senate would vote to convict, but we do not know what the Mueller investigation and the investigation of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s files will uncover. Impeachment and conviction are not impossible.

The stakes are high. Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their new book How Democracies Die propose a four-part test for identifying authoritarian leaders: "rejecting democratic institutions, denying the legitimacy of political opponents, tolerating or encouraging violence and curtailing civil liberties." They note: “With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century...Donald Trump met all of them.”

This is becoming seriously scary.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Bob Brady's recent Inquirer article,“What is a committee person?” ignores the lack of democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party




Bob Brady in his recent article “What is a committee person?” describes committeepeople as “grassroots boots on the ground of the political parties” and “the backbone of our democratic process.”

Unfortunately, many of the people he describes as the backbone of our democracy do not have right to participate in the democratic process by voting on Democratic Party endorsements. In only a handful of wards do committeepeople consistently vote on endorsements; in most wards the decisions are made by the ward leader.

In theory all the ward leaders then come together to vote on candidate endorsements and the majority vote of ward leaders determines the Philadelphia Democratic Party (known as City Committee) endorsements. In practice a small group of party leaders makes the decisions and ward leaders are expected to fall in line.

One of the ward leaders I interviewed for my book Green Shoots
 of Democracy within the Philadelphia Democratic Partynoted that the 69 ward leaders are not all equally empowered to make endorsement decisions and that in fact “there are only a few ward leaders who are involved in making decisions for the Democratic Party. We were all invited to come to that meeting to fill [a seat for a 2014 special election for council at-large] but that decision had already been made.”

Individual ward leaders, however, do not necessarily back the candidate endorsed by City Committee and elections have become something of a free for all with ward leaders sometimes making their own financially advantageous deals with candidates in return for a slot on the ward’s sample ballot.

Not only does Brady fail to acknowledge the undemocratic nature of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, he mischaracterizes the job of committeeperson as a “365-day-a-year, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week responsibility.” This is absurd.

As one of the progressive ward leaders I interviewed noted: “There are a lot different ways wards do things and how much activity there is, from knocking on doors to no activity at all until Election Day and that’s the way most of the city operates—-no action whatsoever until Election Day.”

No on expects a committeeperson to be on duty 365 days a year. But the job does involve intensive activity in the period immediately before the primary and general election, contacting voters, informing them of what’s at stake in each election, and making recommendations regarding candidates and ballot questions. And in the progressive wards where committeepeople vote on endorsements, the duties also involve attendance at ward meetings to interview candidates and vote on endorsements.

If all committeepeople performed these basic political duties, we no doubt would have higher turnout and a better informed electorate. And if all committeepeople voted on endorsements, we would in all probability have better candidates on the Democratic Party ballot. If endorsement decisions are made by a democratic vote rather than by the ward leader, there is a check on ward leaders’ cutting people from the ballot and selling slots on the ward ballot to the highest bidder.

I am hopeful that many of the new committeepeople we will elect in 2018 will demand that the Democratic Party operate according to democratic principles. Some wards generally considered closed wards are already beginning to adopt some of the features of open, democratic wards. Change is coming.



Monday, March 26, 2018

Pennsylvania NOW has a dynamic new team of officers!




At the March 24 Pennsylvania NOW conference: Our new President of Pennsylvania NOW, Samantha Pearson; past President of Philadelphia NOW and Candidate for Lt. Governor, Nina Ahmad;our new Treasurer of Pennsylvania NOW, Karen Shore Barnosky; our new Secretary of Pennsylvania NOW,Jenne Ayers.

See Pennsylvania NOW for photos and bios of all new officers. From the the candidate bios posted on the Pennsylvania NOW website


Samantha Pearson for President
Samantha Pearson is an innovative outreach and engagement professional with a range of experience in government affairs, policy research and development, constituent outreach, event and program planning, and public relations. In her current position as Project Manager for At-Large City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, Samantha plans and executes Council Office events and programming for citywide outreach initiatives and legislation in addition to creating and managing design collateral to educate and provide resources to citizens across the City. A strong women’s rights activist, Samantha is serving her second term as Board Secretary for the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She also dedicates her time to Vision2020 as Strategic Partnerships Chair for the 100th nationwide anniversary celebration of women’s suffrage. Incredibly proud of the women behind #MeToo, Samantha is a founding member of the US Clear Lines Festival on Sexual Assault and Consent. A firm believer in mentoring the next generation of women leaders, Samantha is also a Girl Scout Troop Leader to a group of ambitious and inspiring Brownies in the Frankford area. In years past, Samantha has also served on the board of Young Involved Philadelphia with a focus on GOTV and voter education efforts as well as tutored young teens through Mighty Writers. She also received the Moxie Women Next Generation of Leadership award in 2016.


Krishna Rami for Vice-President
Krishna Rami works as the Special Aide to the Chief of Staff in the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office where she supports the management of the Mayor’s overall priorities and agenda for the Administration. She previously worked as an Analyst in the Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement where she helped build relationships to create an infrastructure of trust between community and government and create equitable spaces for people of all backgrounds. Krishna serves as the Executive Vice President of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women which tackles racial, economic, and social justice issues. She also empowers and mentors girls as a Girl Scout Co-Leader in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. Krishna is originally from Chicago, but made Philadelphia her new home after graduating from Drexel University with a Bachelor’s degree in International Justice and Human Rights. During that time, she spent eight months in Senegal where she conducted research focusing on girls’ access to education and completed internships for local organizations working with survivors of domestic violence.


Jenne Ayers for Secretary
Jenne Ayers is an associate at Philadelphia’s Ballard Spahr law firm. In 2014 at 26 she ran unsuccessfully for Philadelphia City Council. Ayers is the daughter of former Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers. She previously worked on Joe Khans campaign for Philadelphia district attorney and as a Michigan voter protection director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. She graduated from Masterman High School in Philadelphia and Harvard University and has a law degree from Yale Law School. She is the current President of Philadelphia NOW, and a nominee to the Philadelphia School Board.



Karen Barnosky for Treasurer
Karen Shore Barnosky is Institutional Giving Coordinator at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she works to gather support for the school from corporations, foundations, and government agencies. Previously, Karen worked as Development Associate for the Peggy Browning Fund and as a graduate intern with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra. Karen received her BA Fine Arts, cum laude, from Mount St. Mary’s University and her MS Arts Administration from Drexel University. In addition to serving as VP for Membership in the Philadelphia Chapter of NOW, she worked as a volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and actively volunteers for the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).

It’s a new day for Pennsylvania NOW!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Why is Elena Ferrante writing a column for The Guardian?



Why is Elena Ferrante writing a column for The Guardian? “Elena Ferrante” is, of course, a pseudonym or as she is sometimes called, “a fictional character,” camouflage for the author (or authors) of the novels attributed to Ferrante.

If these personal columns by “a fictional character” were powerfully written, I could see a justification for their existence, but this is generally not case. Some of the reflections are similar to those of Ferrante’s characters, but these jottings are not embedded in a compelling story; instead they stand by themselves. They are often written in a pedestrian style, very different from the emotionally charged prose of Ferrante’s novels.

From the Guardian column on motherhood with its generally monotonous sentence structure:
The first time I got pregnant, it was difficult to accept. Pregnancy was an anxious mental struggle. I felt it as the breakdown of an equilibrium already precarious in itself, as a revelation of the animal nature behind the fragile mask of the human. For nine months I was on a seesaw of joy and horror. The birth was terrible, it was wonderful. Taking care of a newborn, by myself, without help, without money, exhausted me; I hardly slept. I wanted to write and there was never time. Or if there was some, I would concentrate for a few minutes and then fall asleep fretfully. Until slowly everything began to seem to me marvellous. Today I think that nothing is comparable to the joy, the pleasure, of bringing another living creature into the world.

Compare this excerpt from Ferrante’s Guardian column with the descriptions of pregnancy in her novels, such as Elena Greco’s powerful description of giving birth in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay:

For Elena, problems began after her relatively easy first pregnancy. “ I had atrocious labor pains, but they didn’t last long. When the baby emerged and I saw her black-haired, a violet organism that, full of energy writhed and wailed, I felt a physical pleasure so piercing that I still know no other pleasure that compares to it. [But soon after] the state of well-being ended suddenly…the baby became troublesome (TWL, 237-38).


Or Leda's description of the birth of her first daughter in The Lost Daughter:
"the most intense pleasure of my life…But then came [her second daughter] Marta. She attacked my body, forcing it to turn on itself, out of control. She immediately manifested herself, not as Marta but as a piece of living iron in my stomach. My body became a bloody liquid; suspended in it was a mushy sediment in which grew a violent polyp so far from anything human that it reduced me, even though it fed and grew, to a rotting matter without life” (LD, 110).

Or Lila's description of her pregnancy with her second child in The Story of the Lost Child:
"Your own body [is] angry with you and in fact rebels against you until it achieves the most terrible pain imaginable. For hours [Lila] had felt in her belly sharp cold flames, an unbearable flow of pain that hit her brutally in the pit of her stomach and then returned, penetrating her kidneys” (SLC, 216).

Not only are ideas about motherhood in Ferrante’s novels more complicated than those in the Guardian column, but the emotionally charged prose of the novels is very different from that of the columns. I cannot help but wonder if the person who wrote the columns is the same person (or persons) who wrote the novels.

The only justification I can think of for publicizing the reflections of the fictional character Ferrante is that her publishers want to make sure they keep Ferrante Fever burning in anticipation of the upcoming HBO series based on Ferrante’s novels. There are signs that Ferrante Fever may be waning and the columns may be an attempt to counter that, but I question whether many readers of these columns will be motivated to read Ferrante's extraordinary novels.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

I had not expected this: Only 5 more Democrats filed for committeeperson in 2018 than filed in 2014!

Center: Steve Paul, Chair Democratize Philly

I had not expected this. In my book Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party, I predicted that the green shoots of democracy which emerged in the 2014 committeeperson elections would take root in Philadelphia neighborhoods and result in a revitalized ward system in 2018.

On January 15, 2018 a group of progressive organizations announced the formation of Democratize Philly, a coalition initiated by ADA to recruit and support progressive candidates to run for Committeeperson. In January and February organizations such as Caucus of Working Educators, Neighborhood Networks, Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Moving Philly Forward, Philadelphia Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), Philly for Change, Reclaim Philadelphia and 3.0 ran workshops on how to run for committeeperson.

The level of activity and degree of enthusiasm appeared to be much greater in 2018 than was the case in 2014, suggesting that discontent with the undemocratic Democratic Party may be finally reaching a tipping point.

However, the numbers suggest otherwise. Dave Davies reported that 3,267 Democrats filed to run for committeeperson, only five more than in 2014. And only 513 Republicans filed for committeeperson, down from 788 four years ago.

Davies turned to Jen Devor, who ran committeeperson trainings for an explanation of these disappointing numbers. Devor suggested that perhaps fewer incumbents were running and so the mix contained a larger proportion of newcomers. She suggested that longtime committeepeople might not be running because "it’s a more competitive race this time around.“ Maybe. But there are other reasons long time committeepeople might be retiring. I am stepping down after 32 years as a committeeperson in the 9th ward because I think old folks should not be hanging onto these positions for 30, 40 years but should make room for a younger generation to fill these slots. I know others in in my age cohort who are retiring for this reason. I am happy to report that an energetic young woman will be running for the slot I’ve held for decades.

We won’t know until we learn the number of incumbents who chose not to run(for whatever reason), just how disappointing the 2018 numbers are. We also need to know where the newcomers are concentrated. According to Davies' report, City Commissioner Al Schmidt said that the neighborhoods with the highest number of candidates appeared to be in the Northeast and South Philadelphia where there are contests for ward leader.

Are they candidates who are running simply to support a particular candidate for ward leader, which is likely to be the case in the Northeast? Or are they candidates with a vision of how the ward system should operate or a political philosophy they would like to advance—-as is more likely to be the case in South Philly? The numbers are not what I had hoped to see; however, there may be a significantly higher number of people with a deeper commitment to political change than we had in 2014.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Soon there will be daffodils!



Winter gets harder and harder. Each year I am more and more impatient for spring. The snowdrops were late this year but now they are in abundance

Species crocus are everywhere:

And witch hazel is in bloom. It's on its way out but still wonderfully fragrant.


It never really feels like spring has arrived until the daffodils bloom; unfortunately it looks like I’m going to have to wait a week or so for the first daffodils to emerge.

Soon I will be out there working in my garden. Cicero said it all: "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

So impressed by the number of organizations running workshops encouraging their members to run for committeeperson!

A Philadelphia/NOW/ Philadelphia CLUWworkshop on running for committeeperson at Big Blue Marble bookstore on February 10


I have been so impressed by the number of organizations out there running workshops encouraging their members to run for committeeperson-- Philadelphia Chapters of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Philadelphia Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), Neighborhood Networks, Philly for Change, Reclaim Philadelphia, the Caucus of Working Educators, Moving Philly Forward, 3.0 among others.

The level of activity and degree of enthusiasm is much greater than was the case in 2014, documented in my book Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party. And the activity in 2014 was much greater than in previous election cycles.

Discontent with the undemocratic party Democratic Party may be finally reaching a tipping point. Growing numbers of political activists and concerned citizens realize that our one-party town can no longer afford an undemocratic Democratic Party. The closed, top-down party structure, currently disintegrating into competing factions, is not working. 2018 provides an opportunity for real political change, with engaged committeepersons a powerful force, educating voters about candidates and about the democratic process. Something is happening out there!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The really good news from the Women’s March--the emphasis on voting!



I managed to attend part of Saturday's Women’s March and was encouraged by the large turn out. The March was diverse in age with many young women, including many who looked like they were high school age.

In terms of race/ethnicity, the March was once again a disappointment. Given the demographics of Philly, the crowd should have been much more diverse. I know the organizers worked hard to attract a multi-racial crowd but the fact that 53% of white women voted for Trump no doubt had some thing to do with the low numbers of women of color. We have work to do.
The president of Planned Parenthood called on white women to do more to "save this country from itself," acknowledging that women of color were responsible for with many of the recent political victories.

The really good news from the March was the emphasis on voting and on the critical need for more feminist women to run for office. Many of the signs conveyed the message that women must use the power of the ballot to get rid of Donald Trump. Marches can energize and galvanize but the only way to rid our county of this monster is to elect a Democratic House and Senate who will impeach him or, failing that, defeat him in the 2020 presidential election.

It will be a different electorate in 2020. Many of those young women at the March were too young to vote in 2016, but they will be out in force in 2018 and in 2020. I was especially heartened by the Las Vegas rally, which launched an effort to register 1 million voters and target swing states like Nevada in the 2018 midterm elections. Change is coming.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A potentially powerful new coalition: Democratizephilly.org

Center: Steve Paul, Chair Democratize Philly

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Martin Luther King Day than to encourage citizens committed to racial, gender and economic justice to become involved in the political process. Today the members of Americans for Democratic Action Southeastern PA (ADA), the Caucus of Working Educators, Neighborhood Networks, Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Moving Philly Forward, Philadelphia Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), Philly for Change, Reclaim Philadelphia, and United Voices for Philadelphia announced the formation of Democratize Philly, a coalition initiated by ADA and chaired by Steve Paul. From the press release posted on the coalition’s website:
We are announcing the formation of Democratize Philly, a coalition of progressive organizations seeking to recruit and support progressive candidates to run for Committeeperson who are committed to the values of social, economic, racial, and gender justice. Our mission is to increase democratic participation, voter turnout, and transparency in Philadelphia’s political process.

We come together around this mission because we believe that a healthy democracy is built on the political participation of all its citizens. Unfortunately, voter turnout has continued to be dismally low in Philadelphia. Last November was a stark reminder of that reality with barely 20% of Philadelphia voters turning out to vote.

A consensus has emerged that our one-party town can no longer afford an undemocratic Democratic Party. The current closed, top-down party structure disintegrating into competing factions is not working. 2018 provides an opportunity for political change -- engaged committeepersons can be a powerful force, educating voters about candidates and about the democratic process.

Some highlights from the press conference:
Numa St Louis from United Voices for Philadelphia emphasized the contributions of immigrants to our society and urged recent immigrants to become engaged in the political process.

Amy Roat and Luigi Borda from the Caucus of Working Educators: We “encourage educators, parents, and public school advocates to do more by becoming an elected committee person this spring. With active members in every section of Philadelphia we are uniquely positioned to help make real change. Our goal is to do the work necessary to hold politicians accountable to provide the children of Philadelphia with the schools they deserve.”

Margaret Lenzi from Neighborhood Networks: “Unfortunately, the Philadelphia Democratic Party as it’s now constituted, is a failure at its core function of getting out the vote for candidates who have our back. That’s why it’s so important for progressive Democrats to become committee people in 2018, an opportunity that won’t arise again for four years. NN’s Committee Person Project provides training, resources and assistance to progressives who want to run for Committee Person in 2018.”

Grace Palladino from Philadelphia NOW: "2018 will be the Year of the Woman, and the National Organization for Women is thrilled to be a place where female candidates can come to get support, a platform, resources, and encouragement. I believe Donald Trump has awoken a sleeping giant, and the awe-inspiring potential of women working together is being revealed across this nation. If you are a female or feminist candidate looking for support, please reach out to NOW’s Philadelphia chapter today. We are here for you.
Grace Palladino from Philadelphia NOW

Many thanks to Emma Restrepo for a video of the press conference highlighting the speeches of Amy Roat, Luigi Borda, and Margaret Lenzi.

For decades progressives have worked to make the Philadelphia Democratic Party more democratic, more transparent. See my account of this activity in Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party. I think we have finally reached the critical mass of progressive activists we need for real change. Interest in the committeeperson races is far greater than I have ever seen with more organizations than ever working to educate their members about running for these seats. No doubt Donald Trump has something to do with this increased activity.

Sign up for updates at democratizephilly.org!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Feminist Activism across the Generations



I took a break from writing projects for the holidays and with my Elena Ferrante book now in the hands of McFarland publishers, I’m ready to tackle a new expanded version of Feminism in Philadelphia, tentatively titled Building the Feminist Movement, Building Feminist Institutions: Feminist Activism across the Generations.

Feminism in Philadelphia charted the growth of the second wave feminist movement with an emphasis on NOW, the major engine of institutional change. This is certainly not the complete story of the history of second wave feminism in Philadelphia. Many low-income women, disproportionately women of color, struggled in obscurity for racial and gender justice; their actions were not recorded by the local press, and they were much less likely to leave detailed records. No doubt, much of what occurred was not documented, or if documented, not deposited in libraries or archives accessible to me.

Although NOW may have been the focal point, it was certainly not the only locus of feminist activity in Philadelphia in the late 1960s and 1970s. NOW activists were focused primarily on changing the rules by which society was governed and opening up government, business and what had been traditionally male occupations to women. Some, like Philadelphia NOW founding member and psychologist Jean Ferson, were also involved in the consciousness raising movement, the feminist therapy movement and the emerging women’s health moment. There were other feminists focused primarily on creating feminist free spaces—book stores, clubs, music festivals—rather than building feminist organizations. There were feminists who did not belong to explicitly feminist organizations like NOW but worked tirelessly for gender justice in their unions, their professional associations, in educational institutions and religious organizations. There were those who wanted nothing less than total revolution and were impatient of and often contemptuous towards those trying to change existing social institutions. The energy and creativity was enormous.

When conditions are ripe, a handful of dedicated activists really can transform the world. The changes in the status of women in my lifetime have been enormous and some have become so much a part of the air we breathe that we no longer perceive the extent of the changes.

Feminism in Philadelphia focused on activism and advocacy, but a major strand of the story was left untold—the enormous energy put into building feminist institutions. The service organizations founded on a shoe string by committed feminists--the battered women’s shelters, the rape crisis centers--were beginning to receive significant funding from government and from private foundations. Yes, the funding came with strings attached and the radical edge of some of these organizations was blunted, but more women were receiving services and the women who had been providing them for free could now get jobs as service providers.

By analyzing the struggle to build these institutions, I intend to try to complete the story of second wave feminism in Philadelphia, to the extent that such a story can ever be fully told. The history of feminism in Philadelphia is a case study, a microcosm of the trajectory of second wave feminism, a story unfolding in similar ways in cities across the country. The dividing line between political activism and institution building is not always easy to draw, with many individuals and organizations involved in both. The resources available for building feminist institutions were for the most part available only in urban areas and hence their concentration in large cities like Philadelphia.

I intend my analysis of this history to be a springboard for an exploration of the very different approaches of a younger generation of feminist activists who reject the organizational model of the older progressive organizations with their hierarchical structures and elected leadership. As our society becomes increasingly mobile and use of internet technology more widespread, NOW’s geographically based chapter model with face-to-face meetings as its major organizing tool, strikes some younger members as an anachronism. Many younger feminists are creating more fluid, internet driven forms of feminist organizing rather than the hierarchical structures NOW’s founding generation developed. But can social change be achieved without the kinds structured organizations that fueled the second wave feminist movement?

Yes, the January 2017 Women’s March bubbled up from the grassroots. Established feminist organizations eventually signed on, but the initial impulse came from the grassroots. It’s too soon to tell if all that amazing energy will lead to real change. We’ll have a better idea after November 2018.

Friday, December 15, 2017

I have finally finished my book on the novels of Elena Ferrante!


I have been neglecting this little blog—and everything else in my life for that matter--to fulfill my commitment to deliver my manuscript, In Search of Elena Ferrante to the publisher by December 15. It’s now in the hands of UPS. I don’t know yet what the final title will be as the publisher has the rights over the title and unfortunately the price.

I am in state of exhaustion, and feel like some kind of cold /flu is coming on. This reminds me of what tended to happen when I was working—especially at the end of the fall semester. Right after I submitted my grades, I got sick, usually something minor; it was almost as if by sheer will power I was holding off the flu until my grades were in.

I wrote this book to try to understand why the Neapolitan Quartet has had such a hold over me. The answer is no surprise; Ferrante has created truly memorable characters. Great novelists owe their place in the literary pantheon to the creation of characters such as David Copperfield, Anna Karenina, Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Heathcliff, Raskolnikov etc.; for many readers, these are real people. I was struck by novelist Jonathan Franzen’s response when asked by an interviewer what question he would ask Elena Ferrante if he had the opportunity. Franzen replied: “I might ask her what she imagines happened to the eponymous lost child of the fourth Neapolitan novel.” For Franzen, like many other readers, Tina is on some level a real person and we want very much to know her fate. I had a similar experience when I read that as the result of a 1986 prison reform law, life in prison was effectively abolished in Italy. My initial reaction was to think that just maybe Pasquale would not spend his entire life in prison, as if Pasquale were a real person rotting away in Poggioreale prison, rather than a fictional character.

As Ferrante herself has said, every book is a collective effort. I owe a great deal to the members of my feminist book club: Kathy Black, Gloria Gilman, Caryn Hunt and Beth Lewis. They went along with my suggestion to read Ferrante’s novels, although Ferrante was just beginning to be known in the United States, and at the time none had heard of her. The opportunity to discuss Ferrante’s novels with them certainly helped me to clarify my thinking and deepen my appreciation for Ferrante’s work. I owe a special debt to my good friend Kathy Black who read and critiqued an early draft of this book.

Most of all I owe a debt to my husband Rick, for his invaluable assistance in critiquing and proofreading the manuscript. I am especially indebted to him for his insights into the special challenges of analyzing a work in translation as well as insights into the process of translation itself. In a sense, this book was a collaboration between Rick and me, perhaps especially appropriate as Ferrante’s novels are I believe a collaboration between Anita Raja and her husband Domenico Starnone.

I have been living with Ferrante’s novels for some time now--reading, writing and rereading about Elena, Lila, Nino, Pasquale and the whole cast of characters. I can’t quite let go and am tempted to pick up My Brilliant Friend and immerse myself in yet another re-reading. But I have a stack of books I have put off reading until the Ferrante book was done and it’s time to shift gears for a while.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Stockholm: The Scandinavia Diaries, Part III



Stockholm was a surprise; I had not expected such a beautiful city. Built on islands, there is water everywhere. It is no doubt best appreciated in high summer with the play of sunlight on all that the water. We decided to go in September when prices are lower and crowds thinner, but it was colder and grayer than I would have liked. We did have some sunshine, fortunately, but if we go again we’ll put up with the high prices and summer crowds for the long days of the midnight sun.

There’s a reason Stockholm is sometimes called the Venice of the North, with all those bridges and buildings right at the water’s edge:


I had also not expected such a rich architectural heritage. I realized when we visited Stockholm’s excellent history museum that I knew next to nothing about the history of Sweden. I had forgotten (if I ever knew) that Sweden was a major imperial power in the 17th and 18th centuries and that wealth means imposing architecture and museums with impressive collections.


We stayed in the picturesque, beautifully preserved old town, Gamlastan, with its narrow cobblestone streets and gorgeous squares. Gamlastan has the reputation of swarming with tourists , and we worried that it might be a mistake to stay there. But we loved our apartment on a little street right off beautiful Stortorget Square and all the very good restaurants within easy walking distance. (However, it might not be a good idea to stay in Gamlastan in high summer.)

The Stortorget Square right near our apartment in Gamlastan

The cafe near our apartment where we had many an Irish coffee

Street scene in Gamlastan

Street scene in Gamlastan

Swedish food a can be very good; among the best restaurants are Fem Sna Hus and Gyldene Fredens. The bad news is that restaurants in Stockholm are very expensive. The bills have been coming in and they are a lot higher than we had planned to spend, but we don't regret visiting Scandinavia. Just hope we don't have major home repairs this year!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Bergen: The Scandinavia Diaries, Part II



Bergen street scene

Norway is one of the most beautiful countries we have ever been to, Bergen one of the most interesting cities and the train ride from Oslo to Bergen as spectacular as the train to Macchu Pichu. (Many thanks to Emily Harting and her friend for recommending that spectacular train ride.}
View from the train to Bergen as we climbed above the tree line.

The highlight of our stay in Bergen was our trip to fiords. Much of our time in Bergen the skies were gray, but we had sunlight when it really mattered -–the cruise to the fiords. If I were a young person with many trips ahead of me, one of these would be a fiord cruise up to the Arctic circle and I would go during the time of the midnight sun. Our trip to Finland and two trips to St. Petersburg were in June and the long days were magical. I recall in Petersburg at 11:00pm it looked like late afternoon. It never really became dark and at about 3:00 AM the sun rose. All that sun light was exhilarating! As retirees, we’ve been traveling when the crowds are thinner and prices lower,but some times high season prices are worth it, and Scandinavia may be one of these places.
Sailing towards the fiords

View of the Norwegian countryside from our boat

One of the many waterfalls we passed on our trip to the fiords

In addition to the incredible scenic beauty, there is much of historic interest in Bergen and the surrounding countryside. Bergen is an architectural open-air museum with wonderfully preserved 16thc.houses and the Hanseatic Museumwhich gives the visitor a sense of what it must have been like to have been a merchant (or worse an apprentice) in the 16th c. Baltic world.



Another museum I recommend is the Grieg museumat Edvard Grieg's beautiful summer house outside Bergen. The vist to the museum also includes a piano concert. There was much that we didn't see and regret we had only four days in Bergen.

Our small hotel the Park Hotel was delightful: great breakfasts, excellent service in a quiet part of Bergen; however, the downside—and there’s always a downside-- there is no public transportation in the city center. When we asked about this, we were told by the hotel staff, that it wasn’t needed: “We’re Norwegians; we walk.’ This was not exactly what two elderly, out-of-shape Americans wanted to hear. So we took a lot of very expensive cabs.

Restaurants in Bergen were as incredibly expensive as those in Oslo. We found a traditional Norwegian restaurant, To Kokker, with fresh ingredients cooked perfectly. We liked it so much we went there twice. We also tried a restaurant specializing in the “new Nordic cuisine”—too austere for my taste. And as in Oslo, if you want a bottle of wine with dinner, you will pay a very steep price.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Oslo: The Scandinavia Diaries, Part I

Oslo on a rare sunny day

Rick and I put off going to Scandinavia for many years because it was crazily expensive. We decided that, since at our stage of life we don’t have too many trips left, it was probably now or never for Scandinavia. And we are so glad we did.

We flew first to Oslo—a sparklingly clean city with no graffiti in sight. It’s by all accounts a very livable city with lots of green space—but not the kind of city you fall in love with. At least I did not. I like more diversity, more of an urban buzz. However, I certainly enjoyed spending a few days there. My only complaint was I would have liked a little more sunshine.

Our hotel the Saga Hotel had its pro’s and con’s. It was located a bit off the beaten track in a quiet section just outside central Oslo. We enjoyed the relative tranquility but the downside was we had to take cabs everywhere. The hotel was not very helpful in providing information about the transit system, but we eventually learned how to get around. Moral of the story: we need to do research about public transport before we arrive in a city.

Our Hotel in Oslo

The main problem in Scandinavia is not so much hotel prices, which were comparable to other European cities, but restaurant prices, especially wine prices. I had been learning to like beer in preparation for the trip; when we were in Helsinki many years ago we discovered that in Scandinavia beer was affordable; wine was not. However, we found we just could not give up our nightly bottle of wine, so we resigned ourselves to the insane prices.

The best restaurant we found in Oslo was unfortunately the most expensive— La Brasserie. It could easily have been in Paris. Although it might seem a little silly to go to Norway and seek out a French restaurant, we did need a break from Norwegian food.

There is more to do in Oslo than we could manage in our four days. We have become real “slow travellers.” In our early years of traveling together we managed to pack a whole lot into a day. Now it’s at most two attractions per day and a lot of hanging out at cafes soaking in the atmosphere. We spent a lot of time at the Grand Cafe--as did Ibsen!

Among the major attractions of Oslo, my favorite was Norsk Folkemuseum, Norway’s largest museum of cultural history. The160 buildings in the Open-Air Museum represent different regions in Norway, different time periods.I could have spent days just wandering around the open-air museum
Gol Stave Church from around 1200

an 18th c. settlement in Southern Norway

Oslo then known as Christiana in the mid-17th century

The national gallery of Norway is also a must see-especially for lovers of Edvard Munch. I used to count myself among them, but tastes change. "The Scream" no longer speaks to me.


Oslo has a great deal to offer. It's not a city we're likely to return to, but I'm very glad to have visited Oslo.