Sunday, September 19, 2021

What I read the summer I was 16

I keep old journals. Lots of them. In fact, I heap them all in a vintage wicker basket my parents used to take on picnics. And lately, I've been trying to organize them -- mainly by affixing labels to the covers so I can figure out what years or events the journals cover.

And that's what led me to discover a journal that contained a list of the books I had read when I was 16 years old. It was probably the first time I'd logged the books I'd read -- something I continue to do to this day in a small notebook (for reasons I can't quite pinpoint).

Back then, I was meeting certain authors for the first time -- Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, Albert Camus and James Baldwin -- and amassing as many of their titles as possible.

In some cases, the titles were books my father recommended -- including Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Sterile Cuckoo and Breakfast at Tiffany's (he's always had wide-ranging interests; he also put me onto the book by Feynman, the renowned physicist).

Another impulse motivating some selections: reading books that were repellent to good society in one way or another. Exhibit A: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I would have trouble reading it now. But back then, I resolved to face how ugly society could be to women. Henry Miller could also fall under the heading of authors who challenged the status quo, but my father encouraged me to read his works so in some ways it doesn't count since it didn't involve rebellion.

Here are some of the books I read that summer AND the following summer (the lists appeared together in the notebook):

The Stranger – Albert Camus

The Sterile Cuckoo – John Nicholls

Them – Joyce Carol Oates

The Fall -- Albert Camus

Six Degrees of Separation – John Guare

Hiroshima – John Hersey

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

The Joy Luck Club -- Amy Tan

What Do You Care Anyway? -- By Richard Feynman

Lolita -- Vladimir Nabokov

Native Son -- Richard Wright

Go Tell it on the Mountain -- James Baldwin (did not finish)

Play It as It Lays – Joan Didion

Illusions, Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah – Richard Bach

On the Road – Jack Kerouac

Dandelion Wine – Ray Bradbury

Pentimento – Lilliam Hellman

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

The Last Tycoon – F Scott Fitzgerald

Cybele – Joyce Carol Oates

Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut

Last Exit to Brooklyn – Hubert Selby

Opus Pistorum – Henry Miller

Conclusions can be drawn. For example, as much as I was already a Feminist in high school, I hadn't yet committed to seeking out books by women authors so there is not a concentration of books by women. Not many books in translation either (Did Nabokov write Lolita in English?). And not many books by diverse authors. It would take me a while to read the essay "Notes of a Native Son" by James Baldwin and realize his style of writing suited me to a tee, and hence I needed to read all of this works. I also hadn't yet read any Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

What did you read? Do you remember? Is it possible you have a log somewhere? Look for it. In many cases, the ideas in these books continue to reverberate in my mind. Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, for example, was so explosive I see it my mind as written in all-caps.

Monday, September 13, 2021

"The worst of us are a long drawn-out confession"

Nov 19, 2020 – the day Leo’s teacher called him “an intellect.” But before she does, and before her remark can cause me to burst into tears, my soundtrack pivots on a handful of songs that soothe and at the same time perpetuate a sudden, mysterious sense of malaise: "Cedars of Lebanon," and the song just before it, on the U2 album "No Line on the Horizon."

My pal Bono says:

"The worst of us are a long drawn-out confession
The best of us are geniuses of compression."

Bono doesn't need me to lionize him in any way but those are powerful lyrics that reveal an acumen in human psychology. I can imagine the people under the heading 'long drawn-out confession' as much as I can imagine those who keep it tight (maybe too tight).

He's writing about someone in the latter category who's lost a spouse to endless warfare and aggression. The character, if you will, has to keep living even though one of his main reasons for living has been snuffed out by a conflict with no resolution in sight. But in our day-to-day lives, how do we sum up tragedies like this? The details in the song about their domestic life are heartbreaking -- 'tidying the children's clothes and toys' -- and in the aftermath of her demise, he hasn't 'been with a woman, feels like for years.'

Then Bono ends the song here, with a world weariness so deep and menacing it sounds like a sneer:

"Choose your enemies carefully, 'cause they will define you
Make them interesting 'cause in some ways they will mind you
They're not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friends."

Friday, September 10, 2021

Mark Rothko, or sunrise photos c/o the dog

Well, the dog wasn't the photographer but I would not have been outside in an impromptu Mark Rothko museum if it weren't for Caramel.

(You can read more about my morning "travels" with Caramel at the Brevity Nonfiction Blog.)

When I saw these colors in the sky, I flashed to Mark Rothko paintings stored in my brain. Stored but until that moment never deciphered or beloved.

In fact, I never felt any kinship with the so-called color field paintings. What was he trying to express?

But now I want to know, was Rothko trying to approximate the sunrise or the sunset with his color paintings?

And should I bother to find out? Maybe. Or maybe I should simply enjoy the moment where art and nature mix in an unexpected way (courtesy of the dog).

Either way, I won't dismiss them when I see them again in a museum or book of paintings. I might just have experienced something similar.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

So you don't forget (Bourdain, but also many others)

Today is my friend's birthday and when I log onto Facebook to leave a message, I see she has changed her profile picture. It’s the photo I had remarked upon, the one she had posted when her brother committed suicide. 

It’s of the two of them, and my friend is maybe 18 years old or 20 years old in the photo. Her older brother has his arm wrapped around his little sister, affectionately, protectively. 

To cut to the chase, the photo haunts me.

In fact, I opened up a separate Facebook tab this morning so I could keep my eyes on that photo, so I could return to it periodically throughout the day, as a reminder of some specific things, of some nonspecific things -- basically of everything about life that is fraught but also good.

As I told her once, the look on her face is the glittering, breathtaking promise that life offers us when we are young (Actually, the line I think of comes from a James Bond movie: she looks like “promise itself.”) She is innocence defined, but also, the photo taken as a whole – with his arm draped around her – telegraphs how much she loved him and looked up to him. 

It’s the photo from the Good Days, capital G, capital D. The photo from back before -- back before life happened. They are both tan, and young, and looking as though they’ve just competed in a fun family three-legged race contest or some other such joyful, innocent, salt-of-the-earth, life-is-great kind of activity.

And now the photo inserted into the small digital corner where we can identify ourselves visually on FB telegraphs all that can be lost. All that makes us tear our hair out.

The haunting nature of life on earth defined. You like this? It will be gone. 

You like living? You love your family? They may disappear in ways you will never, ever forget.

For a long time, I kept his online obit bookmarked on my phone so I would have to thumb over it to get to Facebook or whatever site I was seeking to access. Like that 'finger in the wounds that are still infected,' which Elena Ferrante talks about. Almost as if to say, Jeanne, do whatever you need to do, smile and laugh and cross 1,000 tasks off your to-do list, but your friend’s brother committed suicide and nothing can reverse that fact. 

It’s like a slow-moving virus, silent and stealthy, and you won’t know who it’s stalking until it’s too late.

Why does this photo haunt me so much? How I feel doesn’t quite square with the facts. He was not my brother and while she is a good friend, she was never my best friend or anything like that. I don’t even know if my visceral reaction can be explained by saying I like her very much. The reaction in fact is a mystery – somehow this photo of someone else’s life triggers a reaction in me similar to all the other deaths on my account – Tom, Uncle Joe, my father-in-law. 

In fact, it’s like that photo I have of Uncle Joe with his parents (my grandparents), in the kitchen in Bayonne, back before. Back before my grandmother died young or at least, too early for me to know her, back before my uncle also died young (or at least before his time, as we like to say).

The photo of my friend with her brother long before suicide caught him is sorted in my brain in a box near the one that houses the photo of my uncle, my fun-loving uncle whom I never knew as much as I wished.

I'm thinking about this now all the more so, perhaps, because of the Bourdain movie, which I tried desperately to see at one of the local arthouse movie theaters in Hartford. (I will try to see it on CNN, I guess, because I think it will be screened at some point). 

While we were watching Anthony Bourdain on TV, vicariously enjoying his culinary and global adventures, suicide was out there, stalking him, from country to country, maybe.

Perhaps given the nature of his fame -- that he was known by millions of people all over the world -- we are seeing suicide in a new light. Paying attention to it in the way we should. Maybe.

In any event, to my friend's brother I say: Rest in peace. You are mourned by people whom you never even met.


Monday, August 23, 2021

Swooning at the New York Public Library

Back before the pandemic made us shelve all kinds of plans, I won a short-term fellowship at the New York Public Library that had to be postponed. And last week, I was finally able to do a part of the fellowship.

In my diary at one point, I wrote, "I can't believe I am in New York!"

It wasn't the only thing I couldn't believe; I couldn't really believe how beautiful the New York Public Library's main branch is.

It hardly seems possible that there's a place as opulent as this that anyone from anywhere can enter and tour for free.

I'd visited the library before on multiple occasions but was never doing research so I didn't access some of the internal rooms that are nothing short of breathtaking.

People flock to the Rose Main Reading Room because the ceiling is gold-encrusted (like you might see in a French chateau) and the walls wood-paneled. Even the hallway outside of the reading room is grand.

And I flocked there, too, except when I got there, I found it was also home to the largest Italian dictionaries I'd ever seen. Six or seven-volume sets, several of which not only flooded the reader with possible meanings but also gave the history of use for a particular word. Like, this particular word appeared in a line from Boccaccio in the 1300s! A golden ceiling above me and the heaviest Italian dictionaries around!

I spent my days not only poring over Italian dictionaries but also immersing myself in works of literature I've begun to translate or plan to translate. Indeed, the fellowship gave me access to works by Italian women writers who survived the Holocaust that I wouldn't otherwise have been able to assemble in one place easily (in some cases, the books are out of print). I feel like I chipped away a bit at my project, which I've called, "Translating the Untranslatable: Holocaust Imagery in the Works of Italian Women Writers."

I will be writing a post about my project at some point for an NYPL blog for short-term fellows but I'll just mention here that I, for one, will never be able to learn everything I need to know about the Holocaust. In fact, I need to be reminded of it regularly, I need new details, I need fresh ways to understand how this atrocity happened not long ago but rather so recently that my parents were already alive (albeit toddlers). 

In Dopo il fumo: Sono il n. A 5384 di Auschwitz Birkenau, Italian author Liana Millu quotes a verse of poetry that sums up the feeling I am left with when I consider what people of my same species did to other people of our same species: 

"Andate, o umani. Più niente

voglio a che fare

con voi.”

(A rough translation: "Go now humans, I want nothing more to do with you.") 

All of this, and Manhattan awaiting me outside the walls of the library!

For information on the short-term fellowship program, visit this link.


Monday, August 09, 2021

Dimmi tutto

Il bello quando tu abiti all'estero è che tante cose -- usanze, luoghi, abitudini -- sono leggermente diverse, invece di totalmente diverse (quando le cose sono totalmente diverse, la situazione può essere anche un po' sconvolgente). 

Ho scoperto appena sono arrivata a Siena come studentessa universitaria che quando entravo in un negozio di abbigliamento o un alimentari, il proprietario o la commessa mi diceva subito, "Dimmi," o "Dimmi tutto."

In USA quando entro in un negozio, vengo accolta come cliente in un modo o un altro, certo, ma nessuno mi dice, "Dimmi tutto," o "Mi dica." Mai una cosa del genere. 

Invece, la commessa americana ti chiede, tipo, 'Ti posso aiutare?' O, 'Ti posso essere utile?'

C'era un alimentari a Siena vicino all'appartamento di una mia amica inglese che pure lei studiava all'estero. Si trovava nella Contrada della Chiocciola, a due passi dalla Porta di San Marco.

(Ricorderò forse per sempre il suo indirizzo: Via San Marco, 46.) 

E all'alimentari lavorava un tizio un po' più vecchio di noi ma abbastanza giovane da essere incantato dall'arrivo di due ragazze straniere.

A noi sembrava che lui ci accogliesse in modo particolare e quindi quando diceva, "Dimmi tutto," noi due -- essendo ragazze un po' sciocche -- immaginavamo tutt'altro che un etto di prosciutto crudo o un po' di gorgonzola!

Pensavamo che chiedesse tutti i nostri segreti! Pensavamo che aspettasse le nostre confessioni più intime.

Più tardi, ho capito che l'insieme delle parole "dimmi tutto" faceva come una frase fatta, con un senso stretto particolarmente nel contesto di cui parlo -- quando vai a sbrigare una faccenda qualsiasi, chi ti aiuta ti risponde cosi.

Ma difficile cambiare idea quando pensi di averlo capito tutto e fra l'altro quello che hai capito ti fa ridere da schiantare!

Quindi quando sento la frase 'Dimmi tutto,' torno subito a quei mesi che studiavo a Siena e andavo a trovare le mie amiche a Via San Marco, 46. 

Non so se gliene abbiamo mai detto tutto ma per me, il commesso all'alimentari fa parte di una marea di esperienze in Italia che mi hanno cambiato e mi hanno convinto di dedicare gran parte della mia vita allo studio della lingua e letteratura italiana.


Monday, August 02, 2021

Hartford by bike

I'm drawn to smaller, former industrial cities, that some people would call perhaps somewhat down at their heels (I would call lovely). Chalk it up, perhaps, to being the daughter of a man from Bayonne, N.J. Indeed, when I arrived in Allentown, Pa., to begin a newspaper reporting job, I looked around and said to myself, "This reminds me of Bayonne so I'm good."

My current small, former industrial, "down-at-the-heels" city is Hartford, and it might be the most stunning of them all (I say down at the heels, but what I mean is: no longer in its heyday -- a fate so many cities in America face, given the way the proliferation of cars and the particular construction of interstates through urban neighborhoods changed how Americans lived and worked, decades ago).

But yes, I said stunning because one thing I've discovered in every small, former industrial, down-at-the-heels city I've haunted is premium housing stock. No longer pristine, perhaps, but you can't hide leaded-glass windows or turrets or widow's walks or grand wraparound porches. If they're there, you can peer through the neglect to see the original glory.

But I may be off on the wrong foot because the homes in the neighborhood of Hartford I've been prowling are more or less pristine. I bike, mouth agape, at the real estate treasures I encounter just north of Farmington Avenue, not far from Elizabeth Park (seen in photo). Grand homes, huge homes, homes that say, 'Now wouldn't you want to come inside?' Oh yes I would.

I am touring the neighborhood by bike, which is perhaps the perfect mode of transport. I can cover more ground than I would on foot, and I can breathe the neighborhood in, in a way traveling by cars obviates.

I am not really much of a biker, more of an explorer, but I have often used my bike as a means of acclimating myself to a new place, after decades of moving around for my work. I get the lay of the land -- on two wheels.

During the pandemic it was a particular good way to fool yourself into thinking you had done something or been somewhere. That's because I like to have little small destinations that I bike toward. For example, I often bike to the UCONN Law School campus on the western edge of the city of Hartford (see in this photo that was published on the school's Twitter account).

In some ways, it's an interesting "third place," or really probably a "fourth place," because I go there when I don't want to buy anything, I don't want to browse, I don't want to participate in commerce -- I just want to be dazzled visually while allowing the mental state exercise induces to wash over me.

And UCONN's Law school dazzles me visually and simply fills me with joy that something so beautiful is a mere bike ride away from house -- free for me to take in anytime I want.

I actually attended grad school for Italian literature at UCONN's Storrs campus (the main campus) but what I wouldn't have done to commute to this gorgeous little campus! Maybe I need to get a law degree, too?!

It actually reminds me of Yale's campus in New Haven -- I kid you not. Probably because of its Gothic architecture, and also specifically an arcade that I joyfully bike through (I believe there are similar such mini-tunnels at Trinity College in Hartford, which also has a Gothic feel).

Our single-family homes are what make American cities and towns particular -- each home is potentially a shrine for a certain aesthetic. Each home has a personality -- that's ours for the taking simply by biking by.


Monday, July 26, 2021

Rebecca Solnit on walking in a city

I'm reading Rebecca Solnit's nonfiction book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and it's a perfect book for someone like me who loves to walk.

On walking in a city, and the promise of the urban environment, she writes: 

"One does not have to go into the bakery or the fortune-teller's, only to know that one might."


She's articulated something I've always sensed but couldn't put my finger on.

Also: I love the subtitle: A History of Walking. Why not? We've been walking since the beginning of time, and therefore it's an activity with history worthy to be explored.


Friday, July 23, 2021

Amy Winehouse died 10 years ago (essay for Entropy)

Hard to believe, but Amy Winehouse has been gone for a decade. For me, it was almost equally unbelievable that I would become a big fan of her work.

As I explained in an essay I wrote a few years ago for the literary magazine, Entropy, I was an older mother of a toddler. Not a typical Winehouse fan!

But then at some point during the years following her death, I became obsessed with a version of her song, “Tears Dry on Their Own,” which appears on the CD, “Amy Winehouse at The BBC.” Especially while driving – driving alone, where I can listen to the CD over and over. I can turn it up. I can sit close to the steering wheel as I do when I want to pay close attention to something, staring out at the street in search of an explanation. 

And I’ve found a form of genius inside of the song. She sings about a failed love affair that ends when the man “walks away,” and “the sun goes down,” while the narrator, the jilted one, stands and watches, forced to accept this turn of events. The inflection of her voice, and the rise and fall of the notes have the same effect on me as the love affair in the song had on Winehouse, or the song’s narrator (possibly, one in the same). 

You can read the essay here:


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

My Home is My Muse (for Brevity)

If you have books strewn about your house and articles you've printed out and copies of the newspaper you're saving from months ago and favorite novels you've positioned just so as if they were pieces of sculpture or paintings, take a look at my essay, "My Home is My Muse," for the Brevity Nonfiction Blog.

There I wrote about how I like to decorate my house with books -- forget window treatments or accent rugs. Who gives an F?! I just do it by placing books all around me, in every room, on every surface, in different ways. And by taping up anything that inspires me -- a notecard, a magazine article, a picture Leo has drawn.

On a serious note, I am so glad they published it because it gave me a chance to talk about the part of my literary life that is flourishing. And it's the way the walls of my house and the surface of my desk beam back to me all the projects percolating in my head and the plans I have and the passions that I keep.

The link, again, is here: