Thursday, December 31, 2015

Elena Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child--the best book of 2015

With the Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante brings the final volume of the Neapolitan novels to a powerful, deeply moving conclusion. Reading the book was an exhilarating experience—finishing the book was a depressing one. There are no more Ferrante books to read.

I’ve read everything Ferrante has written and it’s not clear whether anything else will be published. So there’s nothing left but to re-read, and Ferrante’s books are meant to be re-read.

I’m now re-reading the first book and picking up nuances I missed the first time around. The first time I was so absorbed in the story and reading quickly to find out how it would all turn out that I missed a lot of the subtleties.

In an interview in the Sydney Herald, Ferrante has said that the four books are to be read as one long story, which in fact existed in the initial draft:

I don't feel a great difference between my first three books or this last one. Certainly the set up counts: in the past I've written about women in an intolerable moment of crisis, here [in the Neapolitan Novels] the joys and wounds of an entire life are told and it's important how characters react to the alternating currents of good luck or misfortune over a long arc of time.

Most of the major themes of the Neapolitan novels are present in the three earlier books, although without the rich social context. The theme of women’s friendship is not in the earlier books but emerges as the narrative framework of the Neapolitan novels. The life-long friendship between Elena Greco and Lina (Lila) Cerullo is usually considered the main theme of the Neapolitan novels.

To my knowledge, only one reviewer questioned its centrality. But is it more about envy/competition rather than about friendship? Or how the two can become inextricably linked? I no longer see friendship as the central theme of the Neapolitan novels but rather the framework for exploring the choices available to women whose options are constrained by gender/class.

As in the earlier books, there is no one theme—but rather an elaborate tapestry of interrelated themes. Claire Messud has called Ferrante “Italy’s answer to Doris Lessing, Elena Greco is her Anna Wulf, and her tetralogy The Golden Notebook of our era.” Ferrante is a far more powerful writer than Lessing and (I think) a more powerful feminist.

The complex interplay of feminist themes is present in all four books; in the final book the theme of motherhood—-the tension between wanting a life of one’s own and love for one’s children; the fear of failing to protect one’s children, the fear of losing them—-explored in The Lost Daughter, one of Ferrante’s earlier works——emerges as the dominant theme of the Story of the Lost Child. Ferrante explores the horrible consequences that can result from a moment’s inattention.

For me, Ferrante’s books often trigger vivid memories of experiences only dimly recalled.Story of the Lost Child triggered memories of two such incidents. When my child was young, I was always afraid of losing him, of something horrible happening to him. In 1972, we were in Santiago de Chile in the Moneda Palace . I don’t recall exactly how it happened but I was holding my son and put him down on the ground and then looked away for a second and he was gone. He was just starting to walk on his own. I was in a state of total panic and then I looked across the room and there he was looking at me with amusement. I’ll never forget the fear and the overwhelming sensation of relief.

The second time was during the same 1972 trip to South America, this time in a remote village on the Ecuadorian/ Columbian border. We had stopped in a little tavern and a woman grabbed my son and ran off with him. I was in a state of panic. His father who had the advantage of speaking Spanish said I shouldn’t worry as she was just showing him to the other people in the village who had never seen a baby who looked like him. They thought he looked like the Christ child. He was a very beautiful baby with blond curls, enormous brown eyes and a serene, almost Buddha-like smile. But I was not as sanguine as his father was that he would be returned and I spent a very uncomfortable half hour or so. He was returned in a very good mood; he looked like he had enjoyed the tour of the village, but in both cases what I remember was the sheer terror.

SPOILER ALERT: Reading the Story of the Lost Child brought it all back. On a crowded Neapolitan street, Lila looks away for a few minutes and her daughter disappears without a trace, never to be found—-an unforgettable conclusion to an unforgettable series of novels.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Blooms of my December Garden

Winter jasmine

I've been keeping garden records for over 20 years and this has been the warmest November-December in decades. The cheery yellow flowers of winter jasmine which usually blooms in early March are popping up all over my garden.

Probably not the last rose

An early December rose isn't all that unusual but I have quite a few rose buds which just might be blooming in late December

The first snowdrop appeared in early December. I've had December snowdrops before but always in late Decembder.

The intoxicating perfume of Lonicera Fragantisisma--that sounds so much better than fragarant honeysuckle--which usually blooms in early March started this year in mid December.


Quince and forsythia have never bloomed before March but those gorgeous quince blossoms are on the verge of opening and I even have a few forsythia blooms.

And the biggest surprise of all--my giant viburnum which we refer to as "the monster" and which usually blooms in early May is blooming in mid-December.

Not quite sure how I feel about all this...

Saturday, December 5, 2015

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

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 bill. 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 PA 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.

So yes, maybe mandatory retirement is unfair to some deserving individuals, but if the issue is viewed in terms of what is good for society, mandatory retirement has clear benefits. The baby boom generation is the first generation to really push back on mandatory retirement and it's having an impact on job opportunities for the young--certainly so with professional jobs. There is some evidence that when mandatory retirement for well-paying professional jobs is eliminated, retirements fall sharply.

The reluctance to retire on the part of many university professors has had unfortunate consequences for a generation of younger scholars. From a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education , “The Forever Professors:”
American academe has created a continuing disaster by resting faculty retirement solely on the cornerstones of senior professors’ self-interest and self-assessment. Unless higher education comes up with a mechanism—or social consensus—that makes retiring by 70 the honorable and decent thing to do, everyone’s individual "right to work" past 70 will crush the young.
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.