Good Books, a Good Study and Good Luck

"My Brilliant Friend," 1st of the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
“My Brilliant Friend,” 1st of the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

I.  GOOD BOOKS

My husband likes to surprise me with books for holidays and my birthday. This has proven more and more difficult over the years, because I read a lot and quickly, so what he buys I may have already read. Also, I can be a bit of a book snob and I think he’s not always sure he’ll guess what I’d like, or maybe “what’s good.” But last Christmas he got me a book I’d never heard of, My Brilliant Friend, by a woman I’d never heard of, Elena Ferrante. He’d read a review of her recently published third “Neapolitan novel” and bought me the first title in the series.

I loved Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel, My Brilliant Friend. I loved it so much I didn’t care that nobody I knew was talking about it. And here’s the true confession: I didn’t really talk it up much myself because other people weren’t talking it up.

This was a mistake.

I knew it was well written, and I loved all of its exposition. But of course, exposition isn’t lauded much these days. I loved its huge cast of characters and the story’s kind of soap-opera quality. But maybe we’re not supposed to like soap operas? Mostly I loved the two main characters, complicated girls who, through the series, grow into complicated, faulted women. I loved the details of their friendship. I loved and hated their relationships with men, and the rampant sexism of time and place.

I loved My Brilliant Friend so much I got on a waiting list at the library for the next two Neapolitan Novels (The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) and another title by Ferrante that was immediately available at the library, The Days of Abandonment. (One reviewer said of this book, “Think of an angry Jane Austen.”)

I’ve read them all. I love them all. And I’m writing it here for the ages: from now on, when I love something I read, I’m just going to say so. I really have to stop caring what other people think.

You can see for yourself in this new and apparently very rare interview with Ferrante in Paris Review that her books are well received by a lot of (important?) people. But that’s not the point, is it? The point is, I have to stop being cowed by what I should and shouldn’t like. It’s not fair to all the good writing out there. It’s not fair to me, to defer my writing likes and dislikes to…well, anybody.

I’ve got several more Ferrante novels on my list. And of course I can’t wait for The Story of the Lost Child, the last Neapolitan novel, due in mid-September. And last but not least: my husband is absolutely beside himself that he found a great book–several great books, in fact, before I did.

II. A GOOD STUDY

My daughter was home last week. She’s smart and hard-working and has a PhD in Economics and is interested in education and income inequality, among many other things. She shared this May, 2015 New York Times article with me, on a federal housing subsidy program–an anti-poverty initiative previously considered a resounding failure–called “Moving to Opportunity.”

She’d probably have about a zillion corrections of the following summary of the study, but basically what happened is families living in poverty were randomly assigned to subsidized housing in their urban neighborhood or in a suburb. When the first results came out about how people and their kids were doing in each of these locations, apparently everyone was disappointed to see that location didn’t make much of a difference. People were still poor, and their kids weren’t doing much better in school.

But then, years later, still collecting data, they looked at the results again. And lo and behold, some people and some kids were doing A LOT better, making more money and staying in school:

Based on the earnings records of millions of families that moved with children, [the study] finds that poor children who grow up in some cities and towns have sharply better odds of escaping poverty than similar poor children elsewhere.

Why the difference? This is what’s really important: Enough time hadn’t passed in the first study. And it only became clear over time that some locations helped people more than others.

Part of the reason it took time to see improvement in the children’s performance in school is the data at first just followed the kids already in school, and maybe the older kids in the family. Over time, the data included children who were maybe just 3 our 4 when the study started. and it’s these kids–the youngest kids–who have the most to gain from such a “movie to opportunity.”

So the next time you hear a family has waited 8 years for Section 8 housing, you should be up in arms, or at least on the phone to your congress-people. Something works, folks, and it is getting kids out of bad neighborhoods and cities (Baltimore is 2nd from the bottom of the list–Duh!) FAST–while they’re still young. If a  3-year-old waits 8 years for a house in a decent neighborhood–guess what? Now he’s 11. Opportunity wasted.

We can do this. Support subsidized housing in your neighborhood. Help people and their children escape poverty.

III. GOOD LUCK

Sometimes when you break your arm off you have to use your wings to hold it in place while the super-glue dries...or something like that.
Sometimes when you break your arm off you have to use your wings to hold it in place while the super-glue dries…or something like that.

Did I mention my daughter visited us for a whole week? (Pleasurable sigh.) One day we were walking and she told me she believed a certain item in her possession was a kind of good luck charm. I told her my forays into illogic are more often of the super- or mediocre-powers variety, like believing in prescience, for example, or a notion I’m pretty much stuck on which is that all things are explainable through aberrant neurology. (A character sees only red? Aberrant neurology. Smells things other people hear? Always takes stairs two at a time? Taps index and middle fingers just like his long-dead great grandma? I often take neurology to illogical extremes.)

Then when my daughter and I returned home and were working together at the dining room table I dropped a book on the little unnamed statue my mentor Sand Benitez gave to me a few years ago. My angel’s arm broke off. She’s had some issues before: look carefully at the photo above and you’ll see she’s also had an unfortunate accident with her head. I can’t say I panicked but my heart did sink a little. Why did I have to break her arm off on the very day I was submitting my 5-years-plus-old novel manuscript, complete with FINAL EDITS, to my agent? I mean, doesn’t her necklace say “Soar”? How am I supposed to soar with one arm missing?

Luckily, this time my statue kept her head. And I kept mine, too. The manuscript is in my agent’s capable hands.

Good luck to all of us.

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