Monday, April 15, 2024

Jeanne reads poems by Edith Bruck in translation

These are poems from Versi Vissuti, which combines three of Edith's poetry collections. I read them for the translation reading series, Translators Aloud, which is a YouTube channel that bills itself The Voice of Translated Literature.


Thursday, March 07, 2024

An Oscar-winning film, seen on a whim, changed my life

I don’t pay much attention to the Oscars ceremony, which will air on Sunday. Most years, I don’t see a single movie that’s been nominated. “Barbie?” Haven’t seen it. “Oppenheimer”? Nope. I’m a middle-aged mother with an 11-year-old son so I see few movies expressly for adults.

But once upon a time, an Oscar nod was reason enough for me to go to the movies. Ten days before leaving for college at Wesleyan University, I saw what is now considered a modern Italian classic: “Cinema Paradiso.” It won the 1989 Oscar for best foreign film. And it changed my life.

The main character is a famous movie director named Totò who, in the years after World War II, returns to the tiny Sicilian town where he grew up. The film begins in the present day, in an apartment in Rome, but an unexpected phone call sends the director back to Sicily – and the movie back in time.

In the director’s boyhood village, life revolves around the parish church and the lone movie theater. That’s where the whole town convenes in the years before television. Alfredo, the projectionist, is seen repeatedly shooing away Totò – back when he’s an adorable but incorrigible boy who is infatuated with movies and always grabbing strips of film that fall on the floor. Alfredo eventually relents and agrees to teach him his profession. In the course of the film, Totò transforms from a tiny tot who uses a stepstool to reach the projector into a teen using his first movie camera to capture frames of a pretty girl he likes.

Before I saw the film, I knew no Italian, and had no plans to study it. But when I arrived at college a short while later, I enrolled in Italian 101 and signed up for a hybrid literature-study abroad program – all because I fell in love with the sounds I’d heard in the film. Eighteen months later, I left to study in Italy, and after college, I went back to live in Tuscany as an ex-pat. Since returning to the States, I’ve written this blog as an ode to small Italian pleasures. The film is one of many reasons a part of me will forever remain in Italy.

The movie does what all good fiction does: it makes you wish you lived in the world evoked by the story, in this case, Italian small-town life. I felt as though I had gone on vacation, to another country and another time. 

It also reminds me of the necessity of pursuing something that’s not inherently useful or handy. Knowing Italian won’t really get you out of a jam. Even traveling the world, you’ll find Italian will help you in only a handful of place outside of one solitary country (Italy). But studying Italian has been the great passion of my life; it’s allowed me to step inside the mind of another culture and revel in small moments, such as eavesdropping on a conversation between a barista and a regular at café in Rome or dining in a remote countryside restaurant where not a single other person speaks your native language. Fluency, after all, is a form of immersion not unlike diving into a pool or hiking the Appalachian Trail.

I saw the film at a now-defunct arthouse cinema in Manhattan. Last year, I watched it with my students at a small college in Hartford where I was teaching Italian. I sat in the back of our darkened classroom, and took notes, my eyes brimming with tears of nostalgia. In one scene, Totò is at home in his kitchen pretending to be a cowboy, mimicking shoot-outs from westerns he’s watched at the theater. A lighthearted moment balanced with the knowledge that his father has gone off to war and never returns. In the space created by that absence, Totò’s friendship with Alfredo, who is childless, looms far larger than the token love story in the movie. 

The film is about more than a boy who grows up to be a director; it’s about how longing and loss shape our lives, as well as the power of community. Totò leaves his provincial hometown on Alfredo’s advice, without ever looking back, and becomes successful in the big city. But the cost to both men is considerable. On his return, he sees what’s happened to the village – and his one-time mentor, Alfredo – since then. As the director revisits landmarks of his youth, he realizes he’s abandoned the people who loved him the most.

Watching the film at 18, I absorbed a culture completely foreign to my suburban New York upbringing. It drove me to master Italian so I could understand bits of dialogue that escaped me on the first viewing and it introduced me to what would become my adopted country. Since then, its language and customs have infiltrated every corner of my life. That 11-year-old son I mentioned? His name is Leonardo, and one afternoon in Italy not too long ago, a Florentine friend of mine insisted on teaching him to curse in Italian. I am raising him in a house where Italian words cover every surface, from book covers to the posters on the living room wall, and boxes of pasta in the pantry. 

So go to the movies. See a film you know nothing about. It might change your life. And one day, when he’s a little older, I’ll watch “Cinema Paradiso” with Leonardo – in the hopes that he, too, falls in love. With the movie or movie-making or Italian. As long as he knows the beauty of falling in love with something powerful enough to change your life.



Saturday, January 27, 2024

Women Holocaust survivors: A Reading List

To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27), below you'll find all the books I have read or want to read by or about women who survived the Holocaust. Note, this list is NOT exhaustive!  Mainly Italian authors, for starters. But a good primer on works involving a group of survivors that has often been marginalized, as I wrote in an article for the American Scholar last year. 

Available in translation

Who Loves You Like This, Edith Bruck (Paul Dry Books; Thomas Kelso, translator)

Lost Bread, Edith Bruck (Ibid., Gabriella Romani and David Yanoff, translators)

Letter to My Mother, Edith Bruck (Brenda Webster and Gabriella Romani, translators)

There's a Place on Earth, Giuliana Tedeschi, (Tim Parks, translator)

Sentenced to Live, A Survivor's Memoir, Cecilie Klein

Ravensbrück, The Women's Camp of DeathDenise Dufournier

Smoke Over Birkenau, by Liana Millu, translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz 

Auschwitz and After by Charlotte Delbo (French resistance fighter)

A Scrap of Time, Ida Fink (a collection of stories that includes "The Key Game" -- devastating)

Distant Fathers, Marina Jarre (click to read my reviews of both Jarre titles)

Return to Latvia, Marina Jarre (both Jarre books were translated by Ann Goldstein)

*Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman (I cited this book in the article I published in the American Scholar about women Holocaust survivors)

Not available in English translation

L'esile filo della memoria, Lidia Beccaria Rolfi (This book begins a few days before the writer was liberated from the concentration camp called Ravensbruck, which is fascinating because it deals with the saga of afterward. As if the saga of before -- the camps -- weren't enough.)

Come una rana d'inverno: Conversazioni con tre donne sopravvissute ad Auschwitz, Daniela Padoan (interviews with three women who survived the Holocaust) 

Il silenzio dei vivi, Elisa Springer

Andremo in città, Edith Bruck (Note, I'm translating this, thanks to an NEA grant)

Due Stanze Vuote, Edith Bruck (" ")

Transit, Edith Bruck

Signora Auschwitz, Edith Bruck

Scolpitelo nel vostro cuore, Liliana Segre


Wednesday, January 24, 2024

My Tiny Love Story in The New York Times

I've written a tiny love story for The New York Times and I think I'd like to compose one for everyone I've ever loved!

But I started with my first best friend, and it's a pretty good place to start.

World, this is my sister, Denise!

Coming to my rescue -- not for the first time.

The words came to me one day while I was taking a walk. That's so often how writing works, and in this case, since it's only 100 words, the few lines that might surface while out and about suffice!

We've had a two-year period of losses, but as monumental as those events were, little moments and gestures can often be decisive. Little moments that act like life boats.

To read the entry properly, click here.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Ryan Holiday: These 38 Reading Rules Changed My Life

I don't agree with all of them, but I do find this list (link below) of 'reading rules' intriguing, and I agree with the author (Ryan Holiday) that any aim at reading well, widely and frequently can benefit from a strategy.

The rules I agree with:

–"Do it all the time. Bring a book with you everywhere. I’ve read at the Grammy’s and in the moments before going under for a surgery. I’ve read on planes and beaches, in cars and in cars while I waited for a tow truck. You take the pockets of time you can get."

–"In every book you read, try to find your next one in its footnotes or bibliography. This is how you build a knowledge base in a subject—it’s how you trace a subject back to its core."

–"Don’t just read books, re-read books. There’s a great line the Stoics loved—that we never step in the same river twice. The books don’t change, but you do."

Read more here:

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

First line of "The Great Gatsby" -- in Italian

One day, for no particular reason, I decided I absolutely had to know the opening lines of the Italian version of my favorite novel – and I needed to record it somewhere … here, of course. So without further ado, I give you F. Scott Fitzgerald in Italian:

Negli anni più vulnerabili della giovinezza, mio padre mi diede un consiglio che non mi è mai più uscito di mente. "Quando ti viene voglia di criticare qualcuno," mi disse, "ricordati che non tutti a questo mondo hanno avuto i vantaggi che hai avuto tu."

Which in English is:

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."


Wednesday, January 03, 2024

Happy heavenly birthday, Mariateresa Di Lascia!

Today is the birthday of Italian author and parliamentarian Mariateresa Di Lascia -- she would have been 69. She died in 1994 after writing a few short stories and completing a lone novel.

I encountered her work when I was commissioned to write an article for the Literary Hub site about Italian novels that hadn't been translated into English yet -- but should be. 

The novel, Passaggio in Ombra (my English title: "Into the Shadows") is a coming-of-age work that is one of many books to light the way for Elena Ferrante (both authors featuring women narrators bucking convention). As I've written before, Di Lascia’s novel analyzes and exalts the interior lives of a group of women buffeted by their limited choices, their unruly desire for freedom and the price they pay for these desires (something anyone suffering from #Ferrantefever would understand).

I won a $5,000 grant from PEN America to jumpstart my translation work on the manuscript. Unfortunately it has yet to find a publisher. You can read an excerpt of my translation here.

One of the lines I love best isn't in this excerpt and is about the narrator's father:

"When he thought about how his life would turn out, what form it would take if indeed it would ever bend itself to a specific shape, he felt something inside of him rebel. As if it would be an unbearable imposition. In those days, he had one lone desire: to preserve for as long as he could -- maybe even forever -- the freedom to have no direction of any kind."

I've had to put her work aside because I have an NEA translation grant to work on selected short stories by Edith Bruck. But one day, I will return to the Di Lascia manuscript one day and I hope to publish it. 


Friday, December 29, 2023

Montreal Journal & the joys of travel in 2023

I go to Montreal to speak Italian and shop at an Italian grocery store.

And this year, I got to do both when I visited the Francophile Canadian city, while also writing about it! 

Call me an Italophile in French-speaking Montreal, and a grateful traveler whenever I can get there, which is now more often since I live in New England (the gateway to Montreal, in my opinion).

The post-war period saw a surge of Italian immigration to Canada such that the Italian community is slightly less assimilated there -- or slightly better at keeping traditions -- than in the States, and the culture a little more intact than in say New York's Little Italy. Plus, Montreal has had to fight for its Francophone existence in the wider sea of Canada’s English speakers, and now sees the value in safeguarding other cultures, including their languages. So a stroll through Little Italy ("Petite Italie") is often an occasion for Italian language practice.

At a bakery across the street from the Jean Talon market, a young cashier immediately switched to Italian when he saw my shirt, which had an image of the iconic Italian coffee pot called the Moka. His grandfather was from Puglia, in Southern Italy, he told me, and he learned to speak fluent Italian as a child.

As one person in Montreal told me, "We all speak three languages."

Little did I know when I visited as a child that Montreal would eventually become one of my kindred spots (assuming that places can be kindred spirits in the way people can -- sure feels like it).

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

What I read in 2023 & what I plan to read in 2024

I had a special mission this year to immerse myself in Holocaust narrative so I could find a publisher for the short stories I am translating, thanks to an NEA literature grant. Of course, I've been reading Holocaust narrative from the moment I began translating Bruck's work. Well, actually, before that, really, because as soon as I read Primo Levi's first book (If This Is A Man), I understood that this was seminal information -- and I read it in college.

But I think in 2023, this particular strand of my reading life came into focus: I will never know enough about the Holocaust or World War II, and so I am going to keep studying it until the end of time.

What's stunning: the horror never receded. What Holocaust victims and survivors endured is unthinkable. No passage of time can diminish the pure horror of what they experienced. And it's remarkable -- though that word fails -- how varied survivors' experiences are -- in other words, how many horrific ways Nazis and others found to torment these poor people. So I keep reading.

I wasn't especially productive, if my aim was to read a lot of books in full. Instead, I read parts of many books. But as I said, the reading I did about World War II and the Holocaust was seminal.

And so I will begin with books in that category:

Holocaust narrative or fiction based on the Holocaust

*L'esile filo della memoria, Lidia Beccaria Rolfi (This book begins a few days before the writer was liberated from the concentration camp called Ravensbruck, which is fascinating because it deals with the saga of afterward. As if the saga of before -- the camps -- weren't enough.)

*Cinque Storie Ferraresi by Giorgio Bassani

*Here in Our Auschwitz, Tadeusz Borowski 

*A Scrap of Time, Ida Fink (a collection of stories that includes "The Key Game" -- devastating)

*Return to Latvia, Marina Jarre (for a review)

*I'd Like to Say Sorry, but There's No One to Say Sorry To, Mikolaj Grynberg

*Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman (I read this book as part of research for an article I published in the American Scholar about women Holocaust survivors)

Auschwitz and After by Charlotte Delbo (French resistance fighter)

The Parnas by Silvano Arieti

Art from the Ashes (anthology)

Against Forgetting (anthology)

I read other books, of course, though I don't think I broke any records for number of titles consumed. Here's a sampling of what I read: 

Children's books

I have fallen into a habit of auditioning a new genre each year. Last year, it was graphic novels (I also read one this year: Moi aussi je voulais l'emporter). This year: children's books. Specifically by Kate DiCamillo:

*Because of Winn-Dixie

*The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

I guess you could say I've been reading children's books since 2012 when Leo was born, but these two books I read on my own -- Leo didn't have any interest. And they were beautiful. If you are trying to keep some awful tragedy at bay, and not succumb to tears, don't read them. Otherwise, proceed.

(Note, I read these books thanks to an essay by Ann Patchett on the joys of reading DiCamillo's books, regardless of your age)

Department of re-reading

La strada che va in città, Natalia Ginzburg (I could re-read Ginzburg until the end of my days)

Voci della sera, Natalia Ginzburg

Come una rana d'inverno, Daniela Padoan (interviews with three women who survived the Holocaust)

Books I perused (do they count?!)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets -- IN ITALIAN! (From Rizzoli and technically belonging to Leo)

The Pentagon Papers (because Daniel Ellsberg died this year)

L’Art Presque perdu de ne rien faire, Dany Laferrière (as Montreal trip prep)

*The bible in Italian (I've never read it in Italian, now have I? So I bought a copy last year)

Books that fell into my lap -- serendipity

Still Life (Fiction) (thanks to my cousin-in-law Stephanie)

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything By David Bellos


The Years, Annie Ernaux (The final line is a stunner: "Save something from the time where we will never be again." It captivated me so much I memorized the French version as well: "Sauver quelque chose du temps  l'on ne sera plus jamais.")

Strangers To Ourselves, Rachel Aviv

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (in connection with West Hartford Reads, a library initiative)

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (in connection with West Hartford Reads, a library initiative)

The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates

Other notables

The Ones Who Don't Say They Love YouMaurice Carlos Ruffin (Fiction/Short Stories)

Paris Stories, Mavis Gallant (Fiction/Short Stories)

Reporting Live, Lesley Stahl (memoir)

Scene of the Crime, Patrick Modiano (“…another memory from that time emerged into the light, like strange flowers floating to the surface of stagnant waters.” I wrote a review of it for a small literary magazine, which you can read by clicking on the title.)

What I plan to read in 2024

Another book by Annie Ernaux (Using this guide from the Nobel Prize folks to help me out:

Whatever Patrick Modiano writes (in translation)

Something/anything by Montreal-born graphic novelist Julie Delporte

Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey (but I said this last year as well so we'll see)

L'Agnese va a morire

At the Mind's Limits

A Farm Life: Observations from Fields and Forests by my friend Daryln Brewer Hoffstot

Leftover from last year:

*The Letters of Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante (Quando verrai saro’ quasi felice)
*Clint Smith's How the Word Is Passed
*The Friends of Eddie Coyle

What will you read? What do you think I should read? What did you read this year? Leave comments here or in the post on Facebook. You can see the genres I read -- Italian fiction and nonfiction, memoir, Holocaust narrative, et al -- so please make some suggestions! Or something from a completely different genre. 

Happy reading! And Happy New Year! And happy reading in the new year.


Thursday, December 07, 2023

The Year in Writing & Crying (2023)

I considered 2022 a terrible year in writing for me so I suppose 2023 couldn't help but be better.

As it turns out, 2023 was quite a year for publishing my writing but almost certainly one of the worst years for me personally. That means I am going to report what I accomplished but skip some of the editorializing and grandstanding that normally comes along with this task. Accomplishing a lot in the writing world doesn't bring anyone back from the dead.

It didn't keep me from writing about the dead -- but that was back before I knew those ranks would swell.

In any event, in brief, here's what I published:

For The Millions, I wrote an essay about reading my father's books in the wake of his death. It's called, "The Books that Made My Father":

As I've mentioned, I always aim to land work in new journals (see below). I also sometimes want to deepen my relationship with a publication by publishing work in a different section. I was thrilled this year, for multiple reasons, to publish a book review in the Boston Globe of a book by the Italian author I am translating. The book, Lost Bread, which was translated by Gabriella Romani, revisits her childhood and, of course, the worst moment of her childhood: deportation by the Nazis.

I also managed to publish a scholarly essay (maybe scholar-ish, no footnotes and I didn't include any digs about other scholars) on what women writers can tell us about surviving the Holocaust. It's called "The Forgotten Writers of the Shoah," and it was published by the American Scholar in September. I began work on it when I had a short fellowship at the New York Public Library in 2021.