Elena Ferrante at The Center for Fiction

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On Tuesday, September 16 the Italian novelist, Elena Ferrante, will be discussed at the The Center for Fiction in mid-town Manhattan. The panel will consist of the novelists Roxana Robinson and Stacey D’Erasmo and Ferrante’s exceptional translator, Ann Goldstein who is also an editor at The New Yorker. Ferrante is one of my favorite novelists. A friend introduced me to her work in late spring of this year and I have been devouring her ever since. I started with My Brilliant Friend, the first in the Neapolitan Novels. The second is The Story of a New Name; the third is Those Who Leave  and Those Who Stay which has just been published by Europa Editions. The forth will be published next year. While awaiting the latest in the quartet I read Ferrante’s earlier books and they stunned me as well. I am late to the party. Over the past several years Ferrante has exploded all across the world with reviews and articles about her appearing everywhere:  The New YorkerTLS; The New York Times (Roxana Robinson‘s review of Ferrante’s latest); Slate and countless other places.  What is it about Ferrante? For me it is simple: she manages to make me feel. She moves me tremendously.  She is brutally honest about motherhood, about the conflict between motherhood and creativity, about mothers and daughters, about friendship, about what it means to be an Italian woman, more specifically from Naples. She brings a world to life – that of an impoverished Naples neighborhood in the second half of the 20th Century, bellowing out from a small insular community to a larger intellectual world that offers relief and escape. She is patient and generous in understanding her characters, realizing them with passion and ferocity, fearlessly getting inside the undercurrent of violence that accompanies their lives — especially the women.  It had been a long time since I devoted myself to one writer, thrilling because so many of her books awaited me.   When I received her latest in the mail from a friend it was as if Christmas had arrived early. A notorious recluse who writes under a pseudonym to further protect her privacy, Ferrante is shrouded in mystery — especially in these times when knowing all seems to have become an entitlement.  But no one, or not many, really knows who Ferrante is beyond the power of what she leaves behind on the page.  (In Italy, quite a few Italians are convinced that she is a man!)  I was delighted to see that The Center for Fiction is hosting an event with such brilliant writers to discuss Ferrante’s work.  Tuesday, September 16 7PM.

Anaconda — A Selected Short

Originally written as a short story, “Anaconda” became a chapter in Bright Angel Time, my first novel.  I wrote it a long time ago and hadn’t looked back until I had the lovely chance to hear “Anaconda” read by Lindsay Crouse.  She read it to an audience at The Getty Center in Los Angeles and then a few Sundays ago it was aired on Selected Shorts.  I am over the moon.  Thank you Selected Shorts and Sarah Montague and Katherine Minton and Symphony Space!  Listen here, if you like

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BRIGHT ANGEL TIME

What My Mother Gave Me

Cover of "What My Mother Gave Me"

Elizabeth Benedict has edited this wonderful collection.  Here is a list of some lovely news concerning it:

1.  Amazon has made the book one of its TOP 10 Book Gifts for Mother’s Day, along with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Lean In, and The Interestings.

2.  SLATE RADIO has just posted the audiotape of the debut event with Susan Stamberg and Eleanor Clift at Politics & Prose in Wash.
3.  Good Housekeeping picked up Mary Morris‘s essay (MAY 2013), and did a great spread with many photos.
4.  The Raleigh News & Observer will run Judith Hillman Paterson’s piece on Mother’s Day
5.  American Scholar has Martha McPhee’s piece in its Spring issue
6.  Liz Benedict will be doing events with authors in the coming weeks.
Here are some of the events:
* Wed. May 1st, 7pm, Porter Square Books, Cambridge, MA. Join Mameve Medwed, Charlotte Silver and Liz Benedict.
* Tues. May 7th 6.30, New York Society Library, 53 E. 79th St., NY NY, RESERVATIONS REQUIRED. Join Margo Jefferson, Martha McPhee, Roxana Robinson, and Liz Benedict.
* Thurs. May 9, 7:30pm, Greenlight Books, Fulton St. Brooklyn, Join Mary Morris, Maud Newton, Elissa Schappell, Emma Straub, and Liz Benedict.

Keep Speaking To Me

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Recently my daughter read Our Town with her 7th grade English class.  From the pages of the book fell an email from my cousin, Charles McPhee, dated 10/08/2009 — one year and seven months, to the day, before he would die of ALS, the illness that had already ravaged him by this point.  The email was written with a device attached to his forehead.  With the help of that device, painstakingly, he had typed his own quite humorous farewell (“As all of you here today know, I never like to leave a party early ….”) to be read by my father at his funeral. And it was. He was 49 years old. In his 10/8/09 email, speaking of other things, he asked:

do you know the last section of ‘our town,’ where Emily has died and waits with the other dead in the cemetery above Grovers Corners. she decides to re-live a day … and when you get a moment re-read it.  it is My favorite description of consciousness. 

I read the play then and again today.  My daughter has just read it.  I had put the email in the book so it would fall out and come to me again, so that he would speak to me again and remind me again and the email goes back into the book now so that I can forget and be surprised and remember all over again — not Charles.  I will never forget Charles.  Rather the consciousness he speaks of and that he understood as a young man and as a healthy man and as a dying man, and that he still speaks of — one year and nine months, to the day, since he died.

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Plowing Up Gold: Montana 1910

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An ad in Polish showcasing the bounty of Montana’s land.  It was created by the Milwaukee Road which the year before had completed its transcontinental line and needed to populate the route.  The word of Montana’s riches was spread across the US and throughout Europe.  It worked, helped by the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 in which the government gave away some 4,000,000 acres of land for dryland farming — if it seems like an oxymoron, it (sort of) was.  Because of a few good years of rain and because of the effective ad campaign, Montana became known as the Treasure State when only a few years before it was characterized as desert in children’s text books.  I just read a wonderful piece by Jonathan Raban, The Unlamented West, published in the New Yorker — May 20, 1996.  It later became part of a book:

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Read, Read, Read: A Faulkner Character Reads Tennyson

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“Yes,” he thinks. “I should never have let myself get out of the habit of prayer.” He turns from the window. One wall of the study is lined with books. He pauses before them, seeking, until he finds the one which he wants. It is Tennyson. It is dogeared. He has had it ever since the seminary. He sits beneath the lamp and opens it.  It does not take long. Soon the fine galloping language, the gutless swooning full of sapless trees and dehydrated lusts begins to swim smooth and swift and peaceful. It is better than praying without having to bother to think aloud. It is like listening in a cathedral to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to understand.

William Faulkner, Light In August

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At The Dam With Joan Didion

(One Pleasure A Day : Co-posted with Année Kim)

For pleasure and thought, Année sent me Joan Didion‘s At The Dam, a brief essay written in 1970.  Année emailed it to me in the middle of the night, both of us sleepless and ready to enjoy perfect sentences and notions of our impermanence and vulnerability.  Année wrote: If the Himalayas are doomed then Hoover Dam certainly doesn’t stand a chance, but I guess men can’t resist playing God.   

In the essay, Didion speaks of the image of the Hoover Dam staying with her.  This made us think of images by Andreas Gursky and how they seem to capture her words, especially his photo of the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory un Mount Kamioka in Japan.

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At The Dam comes from Joan Didion’s The White Album: images

BIG WEATHER

Air is water’s ghost, flowing, like water, through its seasons. In the spring, as every child in grade school knows, the northern hemisphere of the earth is tipped toward the sun, and the jet stream, that narrowest and swiftest channel of the river moving at speed aloft, drops southward, in a grand lasso, through Canada into the United States. A cold and dry air mass that has been hovering over the polar cap all winter thus barrels across the country. It would drop as far south as Texas and Louisiana, as it sometimes does, but for an epic collision with the only thing on earth that can stop it: the Maritime tropical air mass thrusting north from the Gulf of Mexico. To the ensuing windswirl, and to the water metaphor that helps describe it, a different–and decidedly mixed–metaphor adheres: as air masses advance and clash and retreat like armies, and then advance and clash again across shifting fronts and flanking lines through the months of April, May, and June.
 
The land that lies beneath these colliding air masses is home to more violent weather than any place else on the planet: on average, 10,000 severe thunderstorms sweep over the continental United States annually, bringing with them 5,000 floods and 1,000 tornadoes. While tornadoes occur everywhere in the world, fully three-quarters of them strike the United States over a region that encompasses all of the mid-west, most of the east coast, and nearly all of the south. Some maps delimit a region of greatest tornado frequency along an area beginning in South Dakota and extending southward to include most of Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, and much of Texas—the legendary region of Tornado Alley. But there are several Tornado Alleys, perhaps the most significant being the big, right-hand turn at Oklahomathat reaches eastward through Arkansas, Mississippi, and much of Alabama. If these two alleyways were combined, from the Dakotas to Alabama, they would form a giant, listing L, a soaked sock. Distinctions can and will be made among states about their indigenous features, even about tornadoes, a sort of ill wind boosterism that ranks Texas first in the sheer number of tornadoes, Kansas first in the number of that rarest sort of tornado, the F5, from the Fujita scale of magnitude, with 16 such monstrous tornadoes hitting Kansas over the last fifty years. Then there is the matter of the Palm Sunday Super Outbreak of April 3-4, 1974, the biggest outbreak of its kind in recorded history, that unleashed 147 tornadoes across 12 states. So prolific were the storms that at one point there were as many as fifteen different tornadoes on the ground simultaneously. Although most did relatively little damage, the super outbreak produced six F5 category tornadoes, two of which had damage paths in excess of a hundred miles. The F4 tornado that swept through Monticello, Indiana, had the longest damage path at 121 miles. This calamitous event, an historical and statistical anomaly in the extreme, is liable, in the manner of the proverbial five hundred pound movie executive, to draw attention away from a seasonal battle that rages no where else with greater apocalyptic fury than in the prairie state of Oklahoma. “Threat maps,” estimating tornado probability invariably place Oklahoma in the center of an oblate zone of concentric rings with Oklahoma City and its surrounding counties forming a bull’s eye. And indeed, more violent tornadoes of magnitude F4 or higher strike Oklahoma than anywhere else on earth—nearly a hundred in the last fifty years. Oklahoma City has been hit more than any city anywhere–112 times by tornadoes in the last hundred years, 17 of those involving two or more tornadoes striking on the same day.
Yet these statistics, of course, are misleading. Most Oklahoman’s live their lives, growing up, marrying, raising children, growing old, passing through life’s stages, its weeks, months, years, and decades–time lived on the human scale–without ever seeing a tornado first hand. Fewer still are the number of people who are directly affected by the destruction of a tornado. The cycles of tornado occurrence and recurrence are played out on a time scale quite beyond the human frame of reference. For each spot on the Oklahoma prairie, a thousand years might pass between one tornado strike and the next, and yet, statistically—relative to other geographical areas—climatologists who study the matter would consider the rate of one-tornado-per-thousand years a veritable tornadic rush hour. Against the backdrop of statistical recurrence, entire generations come and go between tornado strikes, the memory of their destruction ebbing, receding into the historical vanishing point.

(If you want to understand more about the violent weather the rips across the south, read Big Weather. Written by Mark Svenvold, poet, nonfiction writer, my husband.)

Women Behaving Badly: Five Novels I Love

The Center For Fiction launches its online magazine, The Literarian.

Gone With the Wind

As young girl watching the Million Dollar Movie with my sisters, I met Scarlett O’Hara and fell in love. Her dark curls and green eyes, her swishing hoop dress–determined and strong and brave, Scarlett did as she pleased, both good and bad. My sisters and I rooted for her as she stole boyfriends, married men she didn’t love, helped Melanie birth her baby, escaped a burning Atlanta, tore curtains from windows to make a gown so she could look like a queen for Rhett, kneeled in Tara’s garden and vowed, “If I have to lie, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”  She did kill, she did cheat, she did lie, and she was never hungry again.  My sisters and I were good girls who already understood that girls were expected to behave well and be quiet.  Scarlett struck us with awe.  In tough times, my sisters and I would say to each other, “Pretend you’re Scarlett and push through.”  I watched the movie many times until I was old enough to read the book.  I learned through Scarlett that characters could be as real as living people.  She infused me with courage and taught me what a freedom it would be to live life as she did, by her own rules, unburdened by the opinions of others.

Wonder what the other four novels are?  READ MORE

Summer Reading

Country Driving by Peter Hessler

A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl

Sentimental Education by Gustav Flaubert

Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert

My Hollywood by Mona Simpson

Our Town by Thornton Wilder

This summer I have read so many books.  That’s what I get to do when I don’t have my students and their work to take care of.  I read a few terrible novels, but was saved by the books mentioned above.  Country Driving was given to me by my father because Peter Hessler was his student and he loved the book.  It was an indelible portrait of China in the first decade of the 21st Century.  Using driving and the sudden explosion of the automobile and highways as the organizing principle, it is an astonishing portrait of everything from laws of the road to country life to the factory towns.  I couldn’t put it down.  A Romantic Education is simply a gorgeous memoir.  Hampl came to Hofstra to speak in the fall and ever since I’ve wanted to read her work.  Her insights and the beauty of her language are spellbinding.  For my book group we are reading Madame Bovary and Sentimental Eduction. I haven’t gotten to the first.  Sentimental Education I have now read three times.  Every time I read it, it is new all over again.  This time I appreciated especially the use of descriptive writing to capture the mood and meaning of the characters.  I was led there by reading James Wood’s How Fiction WorksMy Hollywood: I love Mona Simpson and became a writer because of her, in part.  Here, she captures the relationship with the babysitter that all mother’s, in one way or another, must negotiate.  I felt as though she wrote the experience I lived, so able is she to tap into the universal.  And lastly, my cousin Charles recommended I read Our Town for the best description of consciousness in literature.  He suffers from ALS and can no longer speak.  The third Act, reading it, was  as though Charles were speaking to me, generously inviting me in to understand what all of us seem to so often miss.  I have been thinking about the play since I read it in June, at 2AM, unable to sleep.  I think about it when my children disrupt me from something that seems utterly important, that isn’t of course, to see something that they find utterly important.  Sometimes, I confess, I find all their demands a sort of tyranny, but then I’ll think about Our Town and will think of having a long conversation with Charles, of how brief this all is — their childhoods and the demands and the beauty of my complete presence , for them, as hard as it is to achieve.  My first impulse after reading the play was to send it to everyone I love.

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