Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

What Elena Ferrante Owes Me

Thursday, October 6, 2016

What does a writer owe a reader? Isn’t that what’s at question in an investigative journalist’s hunting down and gleefully exposing the person he says—ta-da!--is Elena Ferrante? I will not write the name he has uncovered. I will accept what has been given to me—thoughtful, well-written fiction that, as the best fiction does, illuminates reality.

A confession: I am not among the legions of Ferrante fanatics. I like her books, but I don’t love them. “Pride and Prejudice” will not need to share its permanent place on my nightstand. That said, I enjoyed reading the books and I appreciate that many readers, especially many women readers, heard their own voices in her words.

When I heard the disclaimer that “Elena Ferrante” was a pseudonym and that her true identity was unknown, my reaction was a shrug. Wasn't her “true identity’ being the author of those works? I was totally fine with a writer who chose not to open his or her life up to close scrutiny, who—just imagine!-- was uninterested in celebrity, a writer who merely sought to offer us his or her soul and tears and imagination and efforts, and, in exchange, be granted the personal privacy she requested. 

Do readers have the right to barge into a writer’s life and rummage around for clues? Do we have the right to demand context, background, further explanation? Can we not respect something that grows entirely out of imagination? Of course who the writer is has bearing on the work. Maybe it would have made a difference to me to know that these women’s lives had been created by a man. Though Emma Bovary…though Anna Karenina …though…But we can do the work of understanding on our own. What advantage is there in knowing that Elena Ferrante did not personally experience these exact adversities, challenges, and triumphs, but different ones? 

Go in peace, Elena Ferrante. I thank you for characters worth knowing, ideas worth thinking about. You gave me the offering of your gifts; I gave you my attention. We gave each other our time. What more do we possibly owe each other?


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“The Muralist”: reading and thinking about art and and the world and other things

Monday, September 19, 2016

I went to see a beautiful exhibit at the Portland (Maine) Art Museum. It highlights the work of four 20th century women artists, three of them far less known than they should be. In addition to paintings by the deservedly celebrated Georgia O’Keeffe was the work of Florine Stettheimer, Marguerite Zorach, and Helen Torr. For each the determination to make art was counter-balanced—sometimes upended--by life’s making other plans in ways that male artists are rarely called upon to negotiate.

Later, in discussing the exhibit with my cousin Judith Lerner, a painter whose work I hugely admire, she mentioned a book she had recently read, “The Muralist,” a novel by B. A. Shapiro about a woman painter in the male-centric art world of mid-20th century New York. Shapiro places her heroine, a young Jewish woman artist, in the circle of Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Willem DeKooning and gives her relatives in harm’s way in Nazi-occupied France.  She is at work on a mural that she hopes will galvanize public opinion in support of rescuing those who are beginning to disappear into concentration camps before that becomes an actual descriptive term. The villain is not the distant and nearly unimaginable Hitler so much as the banally evil Breckinridge Long, who, in fact, as a bureaucrat in FDR’s State Department, made it his mission to deny as many visas as possible to desperately fleeing refugees, particularly Jews. Read Muslims, read wall; so many others, so many ways to keep them out.

What made “The Muralist” especially compelling to me was its ability to let the reader in on the passion with which art is made. Mystical, exhilarating, that concentration of energies. (A digression: last week I saw one of my favorite examples of this, Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” that, though it was a lackluster production, still got me teary over Seurat’s and Sondheim’s evocation of “an ordinary” Sunday. Here’s a little gift to you—this terrific video of the original cast doing the Act I finale at the 1984 Tony awards.)


A lot to think about at this moment in the world, in our country. And always interesting how fiction helps us see what’s most true.

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The Occasional (Repeated) Recipe: Panzanella

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

I think the time is right to re-run a past blog post in which I gave a recipe for the Italian bread-and-tomato salad panzanella. After all, it’s the end of August. Farm markets are still open and vegetable gardens are filled with seasonal bounty: there are tomatoes out there, folks.  Made it last night but instead of French bread, I used white bread I had baked.

In case you’re impressed, you should know that the bread recipe I use is as easy as all my other recipes. Takes no longer to mix together than it takes to describe. It’s my dumbed down version of this.  Mix together in a bowl:

            1 ½ c. warm water—pretty warm but not hot
            ½ Tbsp. kosher salt
            ½ Tbsp. yeast
            3 cups flour

Cover it with plastic wrap and let it rise 2-5 hours. Put it in a greased loaf pan and let it rise again, about 20 minutes or so, then bake 30 minutes in 450 degree oven. You can also after the first rising, refrigerate it a few days, then bring it to room temperature, let it rise in loaf pan, and bake. I also make this with half or a third whole wheat and often with the addition of toasted walnuts and sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds. Or other goodies.

And here’s the panzanella recipe I originally posted:

In mid-summer it’s hard to avoid coming home from the farm markets without too much of something that looked delicious. My downfall is tomatoes. Off-season I don’t buy fresh tomatoes: the world is too filled with heartbreak as it is. So during the summer I tend to go a little overboard. Ok, a lot overboard.

On this particular day I had beautiful ripe tomatoes and was thinking of panzanella, that summery Italian bread salad. It seemed easy enough...some tomatoes...some bread...olive oil.....let’s see.  I looked through my three shelves of cookbooks: nothing. (Really, “Nigellissima”?? Really, “VB6”??) I looked online: too much. Too many ingredients, serving too many people. Maybe in the summer you’re always suppose to be cooking for a crowd. Tonight I’m cooking for two. So, as often happens--admittedly, not always with marvelous results--I made up a recipe. And I’m sharing it with you as I made it. No specific amounts, no specific proportions--you’re in charge. I’m just telling you there are ripe tomatoes out there--go make panzanella.

What you need:
tomatoes
red onion
basil
cucumbers
dried cubes of French bread
olive oil
salt/pepper

I cut the tomatoes, bread, and cucumber in nice-size chunks; you can do the same depending on your idea of nice size. I cut some red onion in smaller pieces, because that’s what I prefer. I added a little olive oil and salt and pepper. I tore a bunch of basil leaves. Not “a bunch” as in what Whole Foods puts in a rubber band, but a “bunch” as in what my plants were offering and what I thought looked like a good amount.  I tossed it all and took a moment to enjoy how it reminded me of the Italian flag. And then I set it aside in a (non-metallic) bowl for a few hours. Do not refrigerate it. Refrigeration does terrible things to tomatoes.

At this very moment it is still in progress, the tomatoes’ juices and the olive oil doing their magic on the bread cubes. I plan to taste a little throughout the afternoon because the one amount I was unsure of was the olive oil. But I’m thinking this is going to be very good. And I’m hoping that if you find something that could make it better, you’ll let me know.


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