Mysterious Elena

“I concluded that first of all I had to understand better what I was. Investigate my nature as a woman. I had been excessive. I had striven to give myself male capacities. I had thought I had to know everything, be concerned with everything. What did I care about politics, about struggles. I wanted to make a good impression on men, be at their level. At the level of what, of their reason, most unreasonable. Such persistence in memorizing fashionable jargon, wasted effort. I had been conditioned by my education, which had shaped my mind, my voice. To what secret pacts with myself had I consented, just to excel. And now, after the hard work of learning, what must I unlearn. Also, I had been forced by the powerful presence of Lila to imagine myself as I was not. I was added to her, and I felt mutilated as soon as I removed myself. Not an idea, without Lila. Not a thought I trusted, without the support of her thoughts. Not an image. I had to accept myself outside of her. The gist was that. Accept that I was an average person. What should I do. Try again to write. Maybe I didn’t have the passion. I merely limited myself to carrying out a task. So don’t write anymore. Find some job. Or act the lady, as my mother said. Shut myself up in the family. Or turn everything upside down. Home. Children. Husband.”      Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend book cover

 

I don’t often read books in translation, but when I visited Sicily this summer I decided to bring along a contemporary Italian writer. I chose Elena Ferrante and her trilogy of Neapolitan novels – a fourth novel will be published next year – not realizing what an incredible reading experience it would turn out to be.

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. The author of My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay does not grant in-person interviews. She does not do book signings or promotional tours. Even her translator, Ann Goldstein, has never met this international literary sensation.

There is a rumor that Elena Ferrante is a man, which many female readers find absurd. A myth, they say, spread by condescending males who think a woman wouldn’t write about male-female relations in the way that Ferrante does. I would be surprised and disappointed if Ferrante is ever revealed to be male. Certainly, such a thought never occurred to me as I read her novels. To me, she seems authentically female, though one who is remarkably uninhibited and self-revealing: a kind of brutal honesty born of the harsh, corrupt city where her novels are set.  It could be that professional anonymity gives Ferrante the freedom to write in this unfettered way. But I have the feeling that Ferrante’s strong, unusual voice would prevail regardless of her circumstances.

The Story of a New Name book coverThe Neapolitan novels span the 1950s to the present, depicting the fraught friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, who live on a violent, poverty-stricken Naples stradone, and the fates of their neighborhood friends. Elena manages to become educated and lift herself out of poverty. She writes a bestselling novel, marries an esteemed professor of literature and “escapes” the old neighborhood. Lila, who Elena views as the more brilliant and talented of the two, is not permitted to attend school beyond the fifth grade. She fashions a very different kind of life that remains enmeshed in the corruption and conflict of Napoli.

The friendship between these two women is arresting, electrifying. Lila and Elena love each other but visit treachery and betrayal upon one another, too.  Lila takes the lead with bold, unconventional action; Elena reacts, making important life decisions almost in the wake of Lila. Elena senses Lila is the true, more talented writer, the one more deserving of success; she consciously crafts her own writer’s voice from a story Lila wrote as a child. No one knows Elena better than Lila, and vice versa. If one woman were to die, the other would lose her identity, and her life would be stripped of much of its meaning.

These novels remind me of the movie The Best of Youth in its depiction of an Italian family caught up in the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. Feminism is a strong theme, but as the decades pass, in these Neapolitan novels, men and women do not seem to make any progress understanding each other. Do you remember the vitriolic scene in The Godfather when Connie (Talia Shire) hurls the wedding china at her husband, Carlo (Gianni Russo) and they scream at each other? I thought of them when I read Ferrante’s riveting depiction of Lila’s wedding night. Returning from her honeymoon with a black eye, Lila visits her mother, who looks the other way, saying nothing. Such a thing was not out of the ordinary.

If you appreciate complex psychological portraits of women and female friendships, you will like these novels. I enjoyed them, too, for their depiction of Elena’s emotional and creative challenges as a writer, and because they helped me better understand the problematic history of women’s roles in Italian family and culture. The novels will resonate for anyone who has reinvented themselves through geographical distance or education or immersion in a different stratum of society.  We see Elena renouncing the rough dialect of Naples for cultured Italian, yet reverting to the aggressive language of her childhood when she’s angry or upset. Elena hovers between two identities: alienated from her people and place of origin, yet never really at home in her new life.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay book coverThis article in Slate is one of the better reviews I’ve read of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. There is an excellent discussion of Elena Ferrante by her translator Ann Goldstein and others in this New Yorker: Out Loud interview.

I plan on reading the fourth novel next year when it is published. Have you read any novels by Elena Ferrante? If so, what do you think?

 

 

The Stone Boudoir

The Stone Boudoir book cover

The Stone Boudoir, by Theresa Maggio.

 

My pictures. Her words.

 

Shrine

“I was on a mission: to find the smallest mountain towns in Sicily. Tiny jewels, remote and isolated, these are places tourists seldom see. But they are the island’s hidden treasure and the secret spring of Sicilian endurance.”

 

 

Two men walking

“Maybe I am so drawn to Sicily because I am half Sicilian and the island is hard-wired into my genes.”

 

 

Window with curtains

“‘I’m looking for a room,’ I said. ‘You have the face of a paesana, a countrywoman,’ she said. My grandparents’ gift to me, I thought. She was sure she recognized me from somewhere.”

 

 

Deep fried artichoke on a plate

“…there used to be a dark bottega that smelled of salami and strawberries….the owner once invented a panino, a little sandwich, just for me: pecorino cheese, pickled peppers, capers, and fresh tomatoes on fragrant yellow bread, chewy as steak and smeared with olive oil. He wouldn’t let me pay.”

 

 

Procession in church

“Men who pulled her all night touched their hankies to the saint. I stared at her back as she floated above our heads down the cathedral’s nave, slowly, like a Norman queen under the pointed Arab arches….She was glorious. An amazing silence fell in the half-filled church.”

 

 

Water in stone fountain

“These mountains make water,” he said.

 

 

Sea, beach, sky

“This island was deadly beautiful, very old, most powerful and strange.”

 

Windowsill Art

“For me, windowsill arranging is almost a spiritual practice. When I am looking for materials to display and placing them on the windowsill, I feel more like a poet placing words in a haiku than a floral designer placing stems in a vase. I love the limited space, the double connection to the outdoors (through the window and my materials), and the structure that repeating the same activity over and over provides.”   Nancy Ross Hugo, Windowsill Art

Vase of borage blossoms on windowsill

I was inspired by Nancy Ross Hugo’s delightful new book, Windowsill Art, to create this for “In a Vase on Monday,” the blog series by Rambling in the Garden. I used borage and pachysandra. The borage blossoms had flopped over from heavy rain the night before, so I decided to snip them off and enjoy them indoors.

 

I wrote about flowers and flower-themed books this past summer to commemorate the Ohio floral shop I grew up in (we just sold the building where my parents had the business for some fifty years) and to chronicle a renewed desire to have more flowers in my life. When St. Lynn’s Press asked me to review their new book, Windowsill Art, by Nancy Ross Hugo, I was thrilled. There is much, much more to this small, hand-sized book than meets the eye.

Windowsill Art book coverWindowsill Art is, first of all, about discovery: using seasonal blossoms and other easily accessible gifts of nature all around us – seedpods, cones, leaves, twigs, foliage, fruits, and vegetables – to make simple, striking designs we can display in the modest spaces of our windowsills.

Secondly, it is windowsill art as artist’s practice. Hugo writes, “Windowsill arranging can be to floral design what pen and ink drawing is to oil painting: a way to strip the art form to its basics and distill the essence of it.”

Nancy compares her windowsill practice to the work of a vegan cookbook author she once heard speak. The cookbook author focused exclusively on vegan cooking even though she was not a vegan.  “She limited her universe in order to investigate a small part of it more deeply.” The simple art of windowsill arranging, Hugo writes, can be “a path back to….innocence and [the] beginner’s eye….And it can help focus a lifetime of practice and observation.”

The author is a naturalist and floral designer who, for three years, created floral windowsill art every day and posted photographs of it on her blog, Windowsill Arranging: Creating Nature on the Windowsill.  She learned that her work greatly increased her readers’ sense of artistic freedom: techniques and ideas they hadn’t thought of before opened up new creative paths and possibilities.

Hugo offers instruction in how to find plant material and choose containers; ways to explore the process, including combining and shuffling materials and letting arrangements evolve; and experimenting with styles and techniques. She is suggestive and encouraging; there are no hard and fast rules. Nancy wants to you feel artistically uninhibited, free to try new things. Windowsill Art is generously photographed, featuring a gallery of Nancy’s arrangements through all four seasons.

You’ll want to keep Windowsill Art close to your work area for inspiration.

windowsillart1

April’s Lenten rose blossoms on the left, set against Japanese kerria blooming outdoors; daffodils and violas on the right. Windowsill Art features nature on the window ledge for every month and season. By Nancy Ross Hugo.

 

Windowsill Art has inspired me to try some arrangements myself. I’ve noticed bits and pieces from nature in our yard I would have overlooked for use in an arrangement. We have a great deal of moss because of shade from our huge hemlock and beech trees, so I hope to use moss in my next arrangement.

I’m expanding my collection of vases and containers, too. At a local dairy, I bought large and small glass bottles of milk and cream; the empty bottles are terrific vases. I recently put aside a small jug that was filled with maple syrup, as well as an empty balsamic vinegar decanter.

 

Leaves and foliage in vases on windowsill

By Nancy Ross Hugo

 

If you happen to participate in Rambling in the Garden’s “In a Vase on Monday” meme, consider trying windowsill art for your next creation.

 

Blue bottles, white flowers

Winter: paperwhite narcissus bulbs, mustard and moneyplant leaves, by Nancy Ross Hugo

In Sicily

“I had found my island, and I wanted to stay forever.”  Theresa Maggio, Mattanza

Villa window

 

Mattanza book coverWhen I visit Sicily, I enjoy following in the footsteps of Theresa Maggio, author of Mattanza: The Ancient Sicilian Ritual of Bluefin Tuna Fishing and The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily.  

My family and I first travelled to Sicily 14 years ago, in part to re-connect with my father’s relatives. That was when I discovered Theresa’s splendid books.

Reading them again on our recent trip was like meeting up with an old friend. When I see Sicily through Theresa’s eyes, I see the island so vividly, with a more nuanced understanding of the complex people, culture, and history of this stunningly beautiful place.

We usually stay on the outskirts of Scopello, a small fishing village that is now a quiet, secluded haven for tourists. On this trip, we rented a villa halfway up a mountain on the edge of Zingaro Nature Reserve. Once the home of a tonnara (tuna factory), in years past Scopello celebrated the mattanza, the ritualized killing of bluefin tuna, every May and June. The mattanza was first practiced by the Arabs, or perhaps the Carthaginians before them.  The custom died out in the 1980s when industrial over-fishing made it obsolete.

 

Former tuna factory in Scopello

Scopello’s former tonnara, converted to tourist apartments

 

Theresa’s book is a love letter and an elegy to the mattanza and the people whose lives were intimately bound to it. During one of the last years of the mattanza, Theresa befriended the fishermen (tonnatori) on the island of Favignana and accompanied them on their boats as they watched and waited for the tuna to become trapped in their underwater chambers of ropes and nets. When several hundred tuna had been captured, the tonnaroti lured them from one chamber to the next, while chanting thanks and prayers to God, the Virgin Mary, the saints.

The bluefins’ final destination: the chamber of death.

“After a while huge black shapes rose up into the backlit square. Their slow rising was mystical, like a birth. They rose higher. Dorsal fins swirled, wild animals drawn up from a silent abyss.

They were giants, eight feet long, some bigger, and there were hundreds of them. The net was drawn taut and they skittered in front of us, half out of the water. I looked into their glassy black eyes. The fish were as big as men, some bigger than four men. When their tails slapped the water it rose in columns above our heads. I remember the din, the thunder of falling water, and their frantic thrashing. They darted to the corners of the net, but there was no way out.

The crowd went wild. People were soaked, screaming and cheering….The fish were churning the sea into a white froth, and then the froth turned pink.”

Rusted anchors

Tonnara anchors

 

At one time, these hand-made tuna traps were in Spain, France, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Dalmatia and Corsica, as well as Italy; some sixty tonnaras dotted the Sicilian coast.

“Gone, all gone,” writes Theresa.

The old tonnara in Scopello is beautiful, but I didn’t like seeing it in the hands of tourists. In their heyday, the tonnaras employed, directly or indirectly, thousands of men and women; some even had child care centers on site. Theresa writes with great sadness of the tonnaroti who netted fewer and fewer tuna each year until they had to stop.

I don’t like a world where men and women who love working on or near the sea, who make their living by physical labor, can no longer do so because it is not profitable. I’ve never seen a mighty bluefin tuna, but I’d prefer to have our seas teeming with them.

Theresa Maggio is a compassionate and keenly intelligent traveler. Her passion for discerning the heart and soul of a people and a place will enrich your own explorations.

Scopello sunset

Scopello sunset

Sunset photo by A. Hallinan.

 

 

Love on a Plate

“When I’m on the road in Sicily I eat street food. It’s cheap, it’s good, and it’s a way to watch Sicilians. Street food feeds a need in them much deeper than hunger – their need to be close. Sicilians telephone each other from the back of the bus to the front, and seek out the crowded beaches, the piazzas packed with people, and markets where they’re likely to get mauled. They must have company, or at least an audience, for whatever they do. In Sicily, where food is love and the street is a stage, street food is more than a cheap meal, it’s Communion.”   “Love on a Plate” from The Stone Boudoir by Theresa Maggio

Fritters made from chickpea flour

Filomena’s panelle di ceci

 

We’ve been in Sicily visiting family and I couldn’t wait to post something about our trip.

I decided to begin with Filomena’s wonderful panelle, made from chickpea flour, which she prepared for us and we enjoyed one night after our cousin and friends took us sightseeing in Terrasini. We drizzled the fritters with lemon juice and ate them in sandwiches made from thick, soft rolls.

Theresa writes that in Sicily you can buy bags of small, crisp panelle squares, which are great with beer.

During our stay I read once again Theresa Maggio’s lovely The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily, an old favorite. No one captures the poetry and romance of the island quite like Theresa, whose grandmother is from Sicily. More about her writing, and about Sicily, in my next post.

I agree with Theresa. Food is love.

 

 

The Summer Book

“It was a particularly good evening to begin a book.”   The Summer Book, Tove Jansson

 

Reading a book in the hammock

Reading in the hammock

 

I’m discovering Tove Jansson this summer, thanks to Claire McAlpine and her blog, Word by Word. I don’t know how I went this long without delving into this amazing Finnish, Swedish-speaking writer and world-renowned creator of the Moomintroll comic strip.

Next week I’ll show you her Moomins, but today I’m reading The Summer Book, a novel about a girl spending the summer with her grandmother, who lives on an island at the end of the Finland archipelago.  The island in the book is like the one Tove lived on with her partner for many years, a wild and beautiful place superbly evoked in this story.

I’m lazy on these idyllic summer weekends, so I’m going to borrow the copy that’s written on the back of the book, which captures the novel much better than I could:

The Summer Book cover, Swedish

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

“….Jansson distills the essence of the summer – it’s sunlight and storms – into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship, build boats from bark, create a miniature Venice, write a fanciful study of local bugs. They discuss things that matter to young and old alike: life, death, the nature of God and of love.”

This slim paperback, a New York Review Books Classic, was originally published in 1972. I love the cover illustration by Tove Jansson, which was on the original jacket cover. Jansson’s simple, black and white sketches are scattered throughout the book.

Her novel has inspired me to begin planning a summer vacation in Sweden, where my grandparents are from. It would be fun to stay in a fisherman’s cottage like the one Sophia’s grandmother lived in, perhaps near to the farm where my grandmother grew up.

To come: Jansson’s memoir, Sculptor’s Daughter; her collection of stories about the artist’s life – Fair Play; and the Moomins.

Mushrooms next to tree

I don’t know if you’d find these mushrooms on Tove’s Finnish island, but that’s what I thought of when I saw these in our neighborhood.

 

Slow flowers

 “There were Lupines, Sweet Peas, Phlox, Bluebells, Day and Tiger Lilies, Monkshood, Peonies, Columbine, Daffodils, single and double, a Bleeding-heart bush in the front yard, and vines at each corner, which at times nearly covered the house. And always there was Golden-glow by the kitchen door.”   An Old-Time Gardener

Lilies

Grace’s Garden lilies

 

In The Language of Flowers, the main character, Victoria Jones, is a floral designer with a knack for choosing just the right foliage and blossoms for her customers, based on Victorian-inspired flower dictionaries that she’s studied. Having grown up in an Ohio floral shop, I was intrigued by the contemporary, upscale San Francisco flower scene depicted in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s story.

In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, our shop carried the standard blooms – roses, carnations, gladiolas and the like – which were shipped from California and South America – and laden with pesticides, though at the time we didn’t give that much thought. Nowadays, floral designers are artisans who use seasonal, locally grown, pesticide-free cultivated and wild flowers, in artful, natural-looking bouquets and arrangements.

Slow Flowers book coverWriter and horticulture expert Debra Prinzing coined the term slow flowers, which has caught on in the floral industry. I’ve been enjoying two of her books, The 50 Mile Bouquet, and Slow Flowers: Four Seasons of Locally Grown Bouquets from the Garden, Meadow and Farm.  They were a timely discovery for me, as this summer we sold the building where my parents had their floral shop for nearly fifty years.

In both books, Debra highlights American flower farmers who are passionate about sustainable methods and land stewardship. Slow Flowers is a colorful, lush, small-sized, book with flower arrangements for every week of the year. As in a cookbook, Debra lists the “ingredients” (4 stems hydrangea, 9 stems pink snowberry, 5 stems Dahlia ‘Nijinsky,’ 15 stems amaranth), provides instructions, and suggests vintage and unusual vases and containers.

In The Language of Flowers, Victoria Jones falls in love with Grant, a flower farmer. She first meets him at a flower market, where he is selling varieties of lilies: tiger, stargazer, imperial, and pure white Casablancas. Here is what Victoria has to say about Grant:

“His face had the dusty, lined look of a manual laborer. I imagined he planted, tended, and harvested his flowers himself. His body was lean and muscular as a result, and he neither flinched nor smiled as I examined him…

He withdrew a single orange tiger lily from a bucket.

‘Take one,’ he said, handing it to me.”

Lily

The language of flowers

“I wanted to spend my life choosing flowers for perfect strangers.”     The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Daylily garden

Grace Gardens, Penn Yan, NY

 

Flowers were part of my earliest days and inseparable from family life. My parents opened a flower shop in July, 1952. This month, fifty-eight years later, we sold the building that housed our shop, though the floral business closed some years ago.

To commemorate the flowers of my past and mark how flowers remain part of my life, I’m highlighting a handful of books and authors, and a Finger Lakes “secret” garden. First, a book. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m single but I don’t want to be, the woman said.

She watched me work, arranging the white lilac around the roses until the red was no longer visible. I wound sprigs of rosemary–which I had learned at the library could mean commitment as well as remembrance–around the stem like a ribbon. The rosemary was young and supple, and did not break when I tied it in a knot. I added a white ribbon for support and wrapped the whole thing in brown paper.

First emotions of love, true love, and commitment, I said, handing her the flowers.

The Language of Flowers book coverIn a review of the novel The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Paula McLain (author of The Paris Wife and herself a foster child) writes: “I feel it’s only fair to warn you, dear reader, that Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s central character, Victoria Jones, is going to break your heart three ways from Sunday.”

The character of Victoria Jones and her fate drew me to The Language of Flowers, as did the lush California landscape of flowers against which this story is set. 

Victoria has lived in more than 30 foster homes, and when she is emancipated at 18, she isn’t ready. It’s difficult to imagine any child emerging intact from our foster care system. I don’t know which was more heartbreaking, to see foster care let down Victoria time after time, or to see the ramifications of this in Victoria’s adult life.

Victoria’s talent with flowers, which may ultimately be her salvation, is another dimension of the novel that intrigued me. Her one kind and loving foster parent, Elizabeth, passed on to Victoria her floral “genius.” Victoria can not only artfully arrange flowers, she has a knack for giving people the particular flowers they need.

I loved this book and plan to read it again.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh cofounded the Camellia Network to support youth transitioning from foster care to independence. The flower camellia means my destiny is in your hands.

A Victorian Flower Dictionary coverThere is a companion volume to this novel, A Victorian Flower Dictionary, compiled by Mandy Kirkby. Neither of these books is to be confused with the classic Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers, first published in 1884.

 

A secret garden

Hidden away in the woods on a hillside overlooking Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes is a stunning collection of over 40,000 day lilies. Grace Rood planted her first lilies in 1957, and now her son oversees Grace’s Garden. We visited the garden in mid July, when the day lilies were at their peak.

In the language of flowers, lily (Lilium) stands for majesty.  A white lily stands for purity and sweetness. In Kate Greenaway’s dictionary, a day lily stands for coquetry.

A passionate bouquet could consist of bird of paradise for magnificence, bougainvillea for passion, and lily for majesty.

Doesn’t the secret language of flowers inspire you to make your own bouquet for someone you love?

 

Bright orange lilies

Some lily names: Serene Madonna; Miss Jessie; Golden Chimes; Angels Unawares; Little Dancing Dress; Little Fat Cat; Buttered Popcorn; Coyote Moon

A cottage window

Grace’s cottage

 

If you enjoy flowers, check out Rambling in the Garden, and join the “In a Vase on Monday” crowd.

 

Tablecloth with lilies

I found this lily-laden tablecloth in a Finger Lakes antique shop. Perfect for a summer picnic.

 

Standing in front of floral shop

Our flower shop opening day, July 24, 1956

More flowers to come in my next post.

 

The Empathy Exams

“It’s news if a woman feels terrible about herself in the world – anywhere, anytime, ever.”    Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

 

At work when I need a break, I go for coffee in the atrium of the medical school. On the way, I pass by the learning labs, where occasionally I see people–young, middle-aged, and older, male and female–sitting in the hallway, waiting for their turn to go in.

They have a twinkle in their eye as though they know something you don’t. They’re psyched, as if prepared to give a performance. That’s because they’re medical actors, hired so medical students can practice their empathic patient interviewing and diagnostic skills.

The Empathy Exams book coverIn The Empathy Exams, author Leslie Jamison explains what a medical actor does. She knows because she’s been one herself:

“My job title is medical actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies….

Medical acting works like this: You get a script and a paper gown. You get $13.50 an hour. Our scripts are ten to twelve pages long. They outline what’s wrong with us–not just what hurts but how to express it. They tell us how much to give away, and when. We are supposed to unfurl the answers according to specific protocol. The scripts dig deep into our fictive lives: the ages of our children and the diseases of our parents, the names of our husbands’ real estate and graphic design firms…

My specialty case is Stephanie Phillips, a twenty-three-year-old who suffers from something called conversion disorder. She is grieving the death of her brother, and her grief has sublimated into seizures. Her disorder is news to me. I didn’t know you could convulse from sadness. She’s not supposed to know either. She’s not supposed to think the seizures have anything to do with what she’s lost.”

These are the first paragraphs of the first essay in The Empathy Exams, and they intrigued me for a number of reasons: Leslie’s compelling voice; her take on the ironies and subtleties of medical acting; and because I, too, had been nonplussed when, as a medical librarian, I learned about conversion disorder.

A couple of years ago an “outbreak” of conversion disorder (known as mass psychogenic illness) among a dozen or more high school girls in a nearby upstate New York town captured the attention of media around the world.  One after another, the girls succumbed to uncontrollable tics and verbal outbursts. They were besieged with requests for interviews. Their physicians advised them to avoid social media so the frenzy wouldn’t cause their symptoms to get worse. Some people thought the girls were faking their illness. Erin Brockovich (with lawsuits in mind) suspected environmental poisoning. At the medical center where I work, I was asked to track the news coverage. Neurologists wanted to see if there was a correlation between spikes in media attention and exacerbation of the girls’ symptoms.

No environmental cause was ever found. Eventually, most of the girls recovered. One journalist wrote a well researched investigative piece that pointed out the girls came from troubled families in a town devastated by unemployment. Many of the girls had recently experienced significant domestic trauma. Perhaps this trauma triggered their conversion disorder.

In her essays, Leslie is concerned about physical and emotional pain, what it means to empathize with those who suffer, how difficult this can be, and why it is important to have our pain acknowledged by others, given the fact that we’re so often quick to accuse people of succumbing to victimhood. I often think about this when I read reviews dismissive of memoirs as self-indulgent. I wonder if I’m playing the victim when I write about some of my own experiences. Ours is not an empathic culture.

Leslie writes about her own pain and that of others in various walks of life: those suffering from “phantom” illnesses; a man in federal prison for a minor crime; ultra-marathoners who push their bodies beyond reason; three teen-age boys accused of murder on the thinnest of evidence.

As I read, I began to think of the girls with conversion disorder in a more nuanced way and, yes, with greater emapthy. The media stories had reduced the girls to caricatures. Leslie’s essays got me thinking the girls hadn’t had their fair share of empathy (or good fortune) in their personal lives and certainly not during the sensationalistic coverage of their illness.

I’d just about finished reading The Empathy Exams when I read a New York Times article about the alleged rape of a college freshman, Anna, by two football players. After what seems to have been a staggeringly incompetent college “investigation,” the football players were cleared. Anna left school after she was harassed for making accusations against members of the football team, but she plans to return this fall. She doesn’t want to be defeated, and she wants to help other women on campus.

I couldn’t get this story out of my mind.  I mulled it over when I went to work out at our community center. The story has unleashed a firestorm, with accusations back and forth: between Anna and the football players, as well as among college officials, the district attorney’s office, and Anna’s legal counsel. Many of the kids–the football players, the fraternity members, the girls who went to the party – were drunk to the point of oblivion. (Anna, herself, was so drunk she doesn’t remember being raped – hence, some of the controversy – though others witnessed it and did nothing. One of Anna’s friends did help her, and other friends decided to call the police.) How can this self-destructive partying be fun for anyone, and why are students driven to do it?

If you believe the unbelievable numbers cited in this story–that 20 percent of college women are sexually assaulted–it does seem as though we are not paying attention to something important. That perhaps we need to start listening to a certain segment of the population, and listening with empathy.

After I finished exercising, I sat in the lounge overlooking the pool, watching moms and dads swimming with their children. I pulled out Leslie’s essays and read the final one, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Leslie seemed to be speaking about Anna.

“It’s news if a woman feels terrible about herself in the world–anywhere, anytime, ever….

Sure, some news is bigger news than other news….But I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy; I happen to think paying attention yields as much as it taxes. You learn to start seeing.

I think dismissing female pain as overly familiar or somehow out of date…masks deeper accusations: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self-indulgence over bravery. I think dismissing wounds offers a convenient excuse: no need to struggle with the listening or telling anymore.”

Leslie has much more to say, and her essays are far richer than I’ve captured here. I won’t share her most important insights, as much would be lost in the translation.

She’s a remarkable new writer.

Books at my door

Books at my doorDelancey book cover

 

If you like food writing combined with memoir, you will like Molly Wizenberg and her latest, Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage. The restaurant is in Seattle. Her first book, A Homemade Life, is a bestseller.

Sicily book coverI bought Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers by Andrew and Suzanne Edwards for an upcoming trip – haven’t been there in seven years. Many of the greatest writers were drawn to this island.

Groundbreaking Food Gardens by Nikki Jabbour promises 73 plans that will change the way you grow your garden, such as: Slow Food Garden; Vintage Victory Garden; Edibles on a Patio; Heirloom Sampler; Formal Herb Garden; Eggs & Everything; and Living Walls.

Piazza, Carini

The piazza in Carini, Sicily, where my father was born

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