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.

How Many Birthday Cakes?

How many birthday cakes does a 9 year old boy need?


One for the football party, 22 boys in the park in the snow playing the game.


One for Jasper’s class party at school to celebrate his birthday.


One for the family birthday at home with his aunts and nonna and because Almond Cake is his favorite.


And lastly, one because he is a Valentine, born February 14, 2004.

So the answer: four cakes for three parties.  His sister, Ana Livia Svenvold McPhee, loves to bake and design cakes and she made them all.  The last cake was actually donated to her class at school because, really, three cakes were enough.

I Just Received Jerusalem


My sisters have been discussing this.  One of the dishes Laura made for Thanksgiving was Roasted Cauliflower and Hazelnut Salad.  (It’s pictured in this rave NYTimes blog post.)  Sarah has called me four times since a dinner party she had on December 29 to tell me how divine the Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Arak is.  I’m looking forward to all the meatballs (there are six recipes for them) and to stuffing eggplant with lamb and pine nuts and to traveling to Jerusalem through Ottolenghi’s food and stories.  I feel a dinner party of my own coming on …

Keep Civil War Recipes — Keep

In my grandmother’s emphatic scrawl she instructs that these recipes, part of some sort of public relations campaign for the Potomac Edison Company of Hagerstown, Maryland, be kept, saved.  My grandmother added this to her collection over fifty years ago and, forward thinking, left a message — like one in a bottle — to those of us downstream.  The pamphlet of recipes is on my desk now, downstream.  She’s been dead seventeen years and her box of jumbled recipes, never ordered by her (or yet by me) also sits on my desk.  And from time to time I reach into it and pluck randomly to see what I will find and where I will be taken.  Her box is an archive of time, an archeological dig on a miniature scale, perched right here, holding the dreams and education and reality, not to mention culinary habits, of a 20th century woman’s life.  This little pamphlet was folded into her collection 100 years after the Civil War and she wants those whose hands it will fall into later to keep it.  “Keep” she instructs twice, almost desperately.  Keep.  She doesn’t want history to be swallowed whole and forgotten.  Who knows if Rivel Soup and Sally Lunn and Molasses Ginger Cake (which, the pamphlet tells us, was a favorite because it kept well and could be mailed to the troops in the field and still remain fresh) were actually favorites.  But does it matter?  The message in this pamphlet is that “good food, good living and good workers go hand in hand” and it promises the “industrial advantages of the ‘Valleys of History.'”  My grandmother rises from this box of hers on my desk with her offering: recipes, wars, my life, your life, our lives, history — don’t forget.  Keep.

Bernini’s Beloved

My brilliant sister Sarah has a new and astonishing book.


“Enthralling. . . . McPhee’s book is rich in historical detail, and truly an original contribution that will be welcomed by scholars, students, and general readers.”—Elizabeth Cropper, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art

“A highly original work by an accomplished and enterprising scholar, Bernini’s Beloved offers a compelling, untold human story. It shows us the lively 17th-century Roman art world from a novel perspective, that of a woman. . . . It will be welcomed by anyone interested in art, artists, gender, and the social history of Rome during the flourishing of the baroque..”—Elizabeth S. Cohen, York University

Bernini’s Beloved will definitively change the way people look at Bernini’s portrait of a woman who turns out to be the descendant of a Pope. . . Sarah McPhee argues that Bernini used his utmost artistry to convey Costanza’s divine dignity as a new Venus, reconciling the background of this remarkable statue with its evident value in artistry and materials. The whole picture, for the first time, makes eminent sense.”—Ingrid Rowland, University of Notre Dame