Saturday, March 28, 2020

Coronavirus Journal

I've asked my students at Wesleyan to keep a coronavirus journal -- a diary of their days as they navigate what are truly unprecedented times. (I asked the "student" in the photo here, too, but so far, no go).

I see it as a tiny, silver lining to the crisis and the quarantine because while it will be a new assignment, it's likely to be one that taps into writing (or at least thinking) they are already doing. I say "tiny" because I hesitate to wax poetic about the "good" that will come out of the pandemic since it almost seems anathema, but there's no question these extraordinary times will inspire us to do things we normally don't do.

Indeed, at the start of the term, I asked them to keep journals but had the sense few were writing in them outside of class (it's a course on memoir). Now I suspect they are galvanized. This hot-house atmosphere of illness and fear has them living in new ways, with inspiration a-plenty, and a desperate need to vent their frustrations somewhere. And their entries are LONG!

All of this to say, an unusual moment in our world has created an opening for me as a teacher to reinforce the very principles I've been trying to convey (write whenever you can, track details, take your mental temperature). But ... how to replicate next time?

In any event, my students so far are capturing exactly what I imagined -- the small changes, the absence of one activity or obligation creating space for something else, the repercussions of our new routines (one student fears the increased screen time from working virtually is interfering with her sleep and I would agree!).

I don't plan on sharing their entries but here are two of mine:

*March 26, 2020*
File under, Thank God/silver lining/finally: I am in love with James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.”

In an introduction to the older edition I am reading, borrowed from Olin, Baldwin writes, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

*March 25, 2020*
Leo yesterday had a Zoom meeting with his teacher. The same Zoom software I am using to teach my class at Wesleyan, except it’s not AT Wesleyan anymore.

He’s above average in reading and likes Math a lot, so perhaps we are lucky in some ways because I don’t think he will miss out as much as one might fear.

Nonetheless, a part of me grieves that he’s been robbed of the fundamental social nature of school, particularly as an only child.

Yet I am always of two minds – literally always, before coronavirus and probably always, and I think of it as an occupational hazard as a journalist.

He should be in school but in MY HOME SCHOOL he can rock in his chair or even slump (for a while at least), he can stand up to do math problems, he can walk around the computer room on the third floor while he explains fables to me. Oh and we have gym every day, multiple times a day.

And yet – the other mind weighing in again – he has not played with a friend in a week.


Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Review: A GIRL RETURNED by Donatella Di Pietrantonio

Finally, my review of one of the best Italian novels of 2019 has run! You can find my whole review of A GIRL RETURNED here on the Kenyon Review's site, and a short excerpt of the piece here below:

"In the gripping new Italian novel in translation A Girl Returned, a young girl’s adoptive parents suddenly bring her back to her birth mother, thirteen years later, as if she were an expired item. Adoptions are typically permanent, no? Not in this novel by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, who deftly grapples here with the holy trifecta of human emotions (and thus, fiction): love, longing and loss.
"The stunning turn of events propels the girl into a new world. The first person she meets in the other home is Adriana, a sister whose existence she has heretofore known nothing about. The move to the new house forces her to exchange life as an only child for a home where she shares a bedroom with four siblings, including three teenage boys. Her sense of alarm (and the reader’s) is underscored when she tries to escape by pretending she has left something in her adoptive father’s car. Once inside the car, she activates the locks, begging him to take her back. As he forcibly removes her, the narrator comments, “In his grip I no longer recognized the hand of the taciturn father I’d lived with until that morning.” It seems an act of unmitigated cruelty by the father—and in one way, it surely is—but maverick plot twists revealed later in this startlingly suspenseful book will somewhat attenuate that verdict."

Monday, March 16, 2020

From the Leo Journal: ROAR!

Feb. 22, 2017
2:17 p.m.
While he plays by himself, I overhear him as he says again and again one word: “Roar!” He loves to pretend he’s a baby puma. Whence the obsession? Also, who cares?

Hearing a child yell "roar" must be one of life’s tender mercies. Oh wait, there's more. It’s my child, the one I think hangs the moon.

Dept. of Lost Diary Entries

Sunday, March 08, 2020

This one's for Brenda and Eddie (or post-Italy blues)

Driving home in a trance from JFK, some 20 hours after leaving our hotel in Rome, Mike prowled the radio dial for anything that would keep him awake while behind the wheel. Before long, the unmistakable bars of Billy Joel’s "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" came across, serenading us through our disorientation and regret as only the Piano Man can. Oh it felt right to this former Long Islander. Just as Brenda and Eddie went back to the green (even though “you can never go back there again”), we, too, had returned. To our green. Italy. 

Billy got it wrong – you can go back, but you probably can’t stay. That’s the catch. And fate will have you driving across the Whitestone Bridge, commiserating with Brenda and Eddie  who started to fight when the money got tight and just didn’t count on the tears – but it will be another grievance that you’re nursing. 

A grievance that torments inasmuch as it pulls you in two different directions at once. 

Forget time travel. I want to be here – and there. Qui ma anche . At the same time. And 20 years is a long time to be pulverized by this particular type of Italian torque. 

So what will it be, a bottle of red or a bottle of white?

Lost diary entry

Monday, February 10, 2020

Octopus arms

Dec. 31, 2017 -- From the Leo journal:

“It would be great if people could live on Earth forever --”


“-- and have octopus arms.”

Lost diary entry

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Jhumpa Lahiri and the Rapture of Italian

I am not a full-time literary critic, which has one particular advantage: I get to choose which books I review. And I jumped at the chance to review a new anthology of Italian short stories in translation, curated by none other than Jhumpa Lahiri, someone who's so far had two distinct literary lives -- one fabulously successful one in English, and one, unexpectedly and joyously, in Italian. I reviewed the anthology for the Three Percent Blog, run by the University of Rochester's one-of-a-kind literary translation program. And in reviewing it, I gleefully found I have a kindred spirit in Lahiri as she, too, is drawn to overlooked Italian women writers whose work should reach wider audiences. In particular, the anthology includes the five authors writer Dacia Maraini calls her "literary mothers": Lalla Romano, Anna Maria Ortese, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg and Fausta Cialente.

Here is a short excerpt -- read the whole review at Three Percent's site, and prepare to become intrigued by authors you may have never heard of before!

Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories ed. Jhumpa Lahiri
Translated from the Italian by Various
528 pgs. | hc | 9780241299838 | $30.00
Penguin Random House
Review by Jeanne Bonner

Novels and memoirs often become labors of love for the authors who birth them. But what about an anthology? How often do we imagine the editor of a large, door-stopper compilation of, say, short stories, calling the arduous task of sorting and selecting the entries a labor of love? And what if the short stories are in a foreign language and the editing also involved commissioning new translations and tracking down old ones?
Author Jhumpa Lahiri, who edited the new Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, doesn’t use those exact words in the anthology’s introduction, but she comes pretty close as she describes what inspired her to want to curate such a collection. It’s of a piece with what inspired her in 2012 (a dozen years after winning the Pulitzer Prize) to move her family to Rome so she could surround herself with the Italian language: “I surrendered to an inexplicable urge to distance myself, to immerse myself and to acquire a second literary formation.” That second literary formation she mentions (it makes me think of “formazione,” which in Italian means training or education) has been fruitful. In addition to publishing two books in Italian, including In Other Words, based on the Italian diary she kept in Rome, Lahiri has translated Domenico Starnone’s novels Ties and Trick, and now the short stories of underappreciated or overlooked authors such as Corrado Alvaro, Aldo Palazzeschi, and Fabrizia Raimondo—all of which appear in the anthology.
It’s not unprecedented for an author to go abroad and lose her head over a language and a country (James Joyce also decamped to Italy, and would converse with his children in Italian; James Baldwin lived for decades in France, as did Mavis Gallant). But how often does such an author—especially one gifted enough to receive this country’s highest literary honor—master the new language enough to write in it or translate important works, as she has done? Indeed, Lahiri’s role as not only a booster of Italian lit, but also a practitioner arguably transformed the process of editing and curating the Penguin anthology (just as, in her diary, she wrote how Rome had transformed her). The result is a primer on short fiction from Italy that, given its thorough and nuanced selections, will likely be used as a college text. Indeed, Lahiri’s inclusion of a side-by-side chronology of Italian literary and historical events—a copy of which may go up on my wall—is peerless in a general interest book of this kind.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Year in Reading (What I actually read)

I set myself a goal of reading 50 books this year (almost to dare myself to read that many), with the idea of starting off with a set of particular books I planned to read. But I have had quite the year of exploring new books and of deliberately seeking out books in the genres I'm most interested in cultivating (books from the Fascist period in Italy, for example). That means that I often will put aside a book I am reading to make room for a new arrival. Hence, the best laid plans of mice and men....But here's what I actually wound up reading:

Books I read:
1. L'Isola di Arturo -- Elsa Morante
2. La Lunga Vita di Marianna Ucria -- Dacia Maraini
3. Sagittario -- Natalia Ginzburg
4. Le voci della sera -- Natalia Ginzburg (re-read)
5. Happiness as Such -- Natalia Ginzburg
6. Suspended Sentences (Part I) -- Patrick Modiano
7. Paris Nocturne -- Patrick Modiano
8. Villa Triste -- Patrick Modiano
9. Suspended Sentences (Trilogy -- Part II) -- Patrick Modiano
10. L'uomo che non ho sposato -- Rossana Campo
11. Country Girl (memoir) -- Edna O'Brien
12. Harry Potter, Book 3
13. Wide Sargasso Sea -- Jean Rhys
14. Best American Essays, 2018
15. Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewell -- Pico Iyer
16. Starting Out in the Evening -- Brian Morton
17. A Girl Returned -- Donatella Di Pietrantonio
18. County Girls trilogy (fiction) -- Edna O'Brien
19. Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories (edited by Jhumpa Lahiri)
20. Je vois des antennes partout -- by Julie Delporte (in French, yes, but it is a graphic novel and I missed lots of words)
21. In Patagonia -- Bruce Chatwin
22. Harry Potter, Book 4
23. Harry Potter, Book 5 (new fave in the series?!)
24. The Little Book of Sleep: The Art of Natural Sleep, Nerina Ramlakhan
25. Walden

Annual re-reading
26. A Christmas Carol -- Charles Dickens (I have read it now for several years running)

(More after the jump)

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Year in Writing (and Translation) -- 2019

The year -- in writing, in living, in anything -- never quite turns out how you planned it, right?

Sad to say, I rarely get all the writing done that I'd like. But one reason -- one culprit! -- is literary translation. And in fact, to be fair, this letter to myself is a roundup of what I accomplished in writing AND translation this year. Next year I might add 'thinking' -- because maybe that counts (?). Or maybe I am doing a whole of thinking but not a whole lot of doing?

I'll start with the writing first, given the origins of this annual column, which began after I read a similar piece by the novelist, essayist and sometime travel writer Alexander Chee (proud to say he is also a Wes alum!). I always hesitate to mention this because swinging around a name like that can create expectations and then I have to hasten to add that I didn't accomplish anything near what Chee accomplished, that year or any subsequent year. But it remains my inspiration, and it's also useful as a reality check. By the time he wrote his roundup, he was way more successful than I am -- yet still charting out the year.

With that said, I am happy to report I landed my first byline with Longreads. (Hopefully my first of several since it is truly a wonderful space for writing). And not just any byline, but a piece where I could retell the rebirth of my writing life.

I also published an essay on Ploughshares magazine's website about the novel I am translating, Passaggio in ombra by Mariateresa Di Lascia. It was my first byline with Ploughshares but more importantly, it was my way of keeping this project on the collective radar of the wider literary community. I was thrilled to win a $5,000 grant from PEN America last year for this translation project-in-progress, but I really want to see it come into English. And I need a publisher to do that (preferably one who sees value in publishing a novel that exposed the pains of #MeToo long before the #MeToo era). You can read the piece by clicking here.

But I suppose the big news for me was really once again translation-related: I won a short-term fellowship at the New York Public Library to study the works of Holocaust-era writers, one of whom I've begun to translate. I'll be at the library for two weeks in April and I presume I will float in bibliophilic ecstasy around the stacks, and in the great reading room, and maybe out front with the lions. The New York Public Library! Pinch me.

So much was not finished (a long essay on Italy, for starters). And oy, the rejections! So many. They particularly sting when they involve translations because I feel as though I have let down the Italian author whose words I have the privilege of ferrying over to the Anglophone world.

Of course, I also lived this year, and lived in a way that both frustrated writing and fostered it. I say frustrated because I've actually set a goal for myself to live more, write less (yes, you read right). At the same time, we visited Montreal again, my new home-away-from-home, and I was so swept up in Francophilia that I wrote loads, if only in my journal. I shouldn't say 'if only,' though, since my journal is not merely the record of my thoughts but the incubator for many writing projects.

One more "distraction": teaching. Two milestone moments in my nascent teaching career: I taught a course on Italian Women Writers (my passion) in Italian (yes), and I taught a course on the Literature of Travel at my alma mater, Wesleyan University. This kind of "distraction" (from writing/translating) is seriously welcomed! Revisiting the place where I came of age intellectually (or tried to), I found I walked the campus, not alone this time or with friends, but with the Ghosts of Jeanne Past.

I'll end on a note that I typically post to Facebook when I publish this column: What did you accomplish this year? In writing or translation or running or anything. Where's your Year in Writing or Year in Running (or insert field of endeavor here)?

I always ask this question ... but who will answer? Give me a Christmas gift and answer the question. I know you did something you're proud of. Please tell us! (here or on Facebook)

**Peace and love**

Monday, December 02, 2019

Time for the panettone -- from the archives

I've always thought about panettone at this time of the year, even back before you could find the little Italian Christmas loaves everywhere in America. And I'm reposting this essay -- about the ritual of going to buy a panettone in Florence -- from a few years back:

I opened the panettone.

I wasn't going to. I bought it last week at the Whole Foods store on Ponce in Atlanta with the idea of bringing it somewhere as a special treat.

But then I thought, well, I would like a special treat. Right here, right now.

So I opened it, and still mulling over a long-awaited email I had received from a British friend this morning, I had a flashback to the days when I lived in Florence and I would buy a panettone to bring for Christmas dinner.

Read the rest of the post here.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Dear Marie Kondo -- from the archives!

Dear Marie Kondo,

I know that your book has helped many people pare down, and since a relocation has consumed me for much of 2017 – moving away from my Atlanta home of 9 years to begin a new life in Connecticut – I thought it might make sense to seek you out.

If I got it right, you tell people to ask -- as they inventory their things -- does it “spark joy”?

Except, Marie -- can I call you Marie? -- you don't understand how many things spark joy for me.

Or merely incite some kind of emotion inside.

Or, in the case of Elmo Peter Elson, represent a line in the sand. He’s my childhood teddy bear – and he’s dressed in my childhood clothes (a blue windbreaker with a faulty zipper and riotous 1970s toddler pants). I can’t throw him out now. (No, I don’t know why his name is Elmo Peter Elson.)

Elmo’s making the journey along with a cassette tape of U2’s “Boy” album that’s unspooled, and half-used notepads engraved with the name of my deceased uncle and a button for a failed political campaign where I volunteered 20 years ago, plus a vintage pin from Bayonne, N.J., my father’s hometown (because sometimes other people’s mementos, especially one’s parents, are even more potent than your own) and the pregnancy tester stick – positive! – that forget ‘changed my life’ – it gave me the life I didn’t know I was even craving. Also: bus, train and plane tickets, mainly to and from Italy, and a lot of Lira – Italy’s old currency -- that can no longer be used. But they’re like my bank statements from Cassa Di Risparmio di Firenze, which remind me that I was lucky enough to live long enough in the city of Dante to open up an account at the Florence Savings Bank. (I’ve also kept the Enrico Coveri scarf Melanie gave me and the plastic shopping bag she used to give it to me because while it is a relatively ordinary yellow and green plastic bag it is also instantly recognizable as a bag not produced in the US or used by a US retail establishment. Reason to keep it.)

Plus writing journals.

Lots and lots of journals, including ones from grammar school that I find unreadable (some thoughts should be kept inside, I’ve concluded.)

Lots of letters, too, including the one from a very dear friend that remains unopened and will likely stay in that virgin state until we die. You see, Marie, it’s a condolence card. Everything there was to know -- and everything we didn’t want to know -- is discernible on the outside of the card. Her careful handwriting, our names, the date stamp the week Mike’s father died -- without any need to open it. She is sorry and we are sorry and nothing can be done to erase the death that occasioned the card. To paraphrase the poet Donald Hall, the dead stay dead. So it’s still sealed but my God, Marie, how can I throw it out? Her kindness can’t be discarded.

I also still have Doug K.’s business card. In fact, I have two of them. I know what you're thinking -- who uses business cards anymore? Especially one for a man I last spoke to back in 2000. No, I don't need it. But you see, I do.

We named Doug Security Director of the Year in 2000, back when I was an editor on a trade pub that covered security systems and metal detectors and locks with audit trails.

He'd done such a bang-up job in his position as security director of -- wait for it -- the World Trade Center, that he won the annual contest that year. Security Director of the Year. In Doug’s case, it might as well have said ‘of the decade.’ His picture was on the cover and everything, with the two towers looming behind him. And then on Sept. 11 – you know the year -- I tried calling the number on the business card but I couldn't get through. You see what I mean, Marie? I've got to keep his business card. I need something to remember him by. Just like the page I ripped from an old calendar of New York. The last image I have of those Twin Towers. Where we went after we saw "Annie" on Broadway with Uncle Pat and Aunt Maureen, before they had children -- a thousand years ago, give or take.