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!