The New Vanguard – The New York Post

Our critics chose 15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.

By Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai

March 5, 2018

In 2016, the feminist press Emily Books held a panel in Brooklyn titled, a bit cheekily, “What Is Women’s Writing?” There was no consensus, much laughter and a warm, rowdy vibe. Eileen Myles read from a memoir in progress and Ariana Reines read a poem, wearing a dress with a pattern of a city on fire. All of this felt exactly right.

But even if it puts your teeth on edge to see “women’s writing” cordoned off in quotes, you can’t deny the particular power of today’s women writers — their intensity of style and innovation. The books steering literature in new directions — to new forms, new concerns — almost invariably have a woman at the helm, an Elena Ferrante, a Rachel Cusk, a Zadie Smith.

For Women’s History Month, The Times’s staff book critics — Dwight Garner, Jennifer Szalai and myself, Parul Sehgal — sat down together to think about these writers who are opening new realms to us, whose books suggest and embody unexplored possibilities in form, feeling and knowledge.

As we put together a reading list, we introduced a few parameters, for sanity’s sake. We consigned ourselves to books written by women and published in the 21st century. And we limited our focus to fiction, but not without some grief. Memoir has emerged as a potent political and literary force in recent years (see the terrain-shifting work of Maggie Nelson, for example). And poets like Claudia Rankine, Solmaz Sharif and Tracy K. Smith are some of the most distinctive voices working today.

The books we selected are a diverse bunch. They are graphic novels, literary fiction and works inflected with horror and fantasy. They hail from Italy, Canada, Nigeria and South Korea. They are wildly experimental and staunchly realist.

Any list, especially one as idiosyncratic as ours, is bound to leave off some worthy contenders, like “Wolf Hall,” say, or “Gilead” or “A Visit From the Goon Squad” (to name just a few). This is not a comprehensive list, far from it. We hope it will be seen as a start — a way to single out these extraordinary books and the ability of fiction to challenge and reimagine the world. Some of the books we selected, like “Americanah,” bring a fresh slant to the novel’s natural concerns about character and fate and belonging. Others, like “How Should a Person Be?,” pluck new questions out of the air, in this instance about authorship and authenticity. They ransack classic stories (“American Innovations”) and invent genres out of whole cloth (“Her Body and Other Parties”).

Every one of these books features a woman at the center. She is brainy (Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy), grimy (“Homesick for Another World”), terrorized (“The Vegetarian”) and all of the above (the new mother in “Dept. of Speculation”). Each book’s utterly distinct style emerges as its women try to invent a language for their lives.

You could say these books are on the vanguard, but to suggest just one vanguard feels so insufficient. What makes these books so rich is their plenitude, the variety they contain and embody. “My story flows in more than one direction,” Adrienne Rich once wrote. “A delta springing from the riverbed/with its five fingers spread.” — Parul Sehgal

The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante’s blockbuster novels, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, follow the entwined lives of two childhood friends with an intensity and psychological acuity that put contemporary fiction on notice. The books are also social novels of remarkable and subtle power, offering a history of postwar Italy and the terrorism of the Camorra. But everything comes filtered through the personal lives of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, ordinary women who would never make it into the history books. Lila and Elena grew up in the slums of Naples, in a clinch so ardent and dangerous that to call it friendship feels hideously inadequate. The series carries us through 50 years, as the women rescue and betray each other, struggle to escape the slums and their mothers, and become mothers themselves. Ferrante captures the barely contained violence of domestic life and is taboo-shattering in her unsparing and relentless exploration of the secret lives of women — their ambivalence and shame. Like Lena, these books give off “an odor of wildness.” Their intelligence cuts into the skin. — Parul Sehgal

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Love Letters to Authors – Elena Ferrante – Tattered Cover

Dear Elena,

Many love you because you’re unavailable. Despite international acclaim, you have firmly chosen to remain out of the public eye, concealing your true identity and writing under a pseudonym. You choose this in part because, as you’ve said, “Books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” How can we not be intrigued and seduced by you?

Your Neapolitan novels focus on the lives of two girls, Lenu, our narrator, and her brilliant friend, Lila. Both grow up poor in Naples, Italy during the aftermath of WWII. The books follow the pair’s divergent paths to adulthood; one becomes upwardly mobile through education and the other struggles for autonomy and a better life in their poor neighborhood. The book is just as much about the shifting political, economic, and cultural forces at play in Italy during this period. These potentially intimidating themes are brought back to earth by delivering them through the lives and experiences of the two extraordinary characters and their evolving relationship.

Your work is enormous in its scope and deeply layered, while still managing to be relatable. The Neapolitan Novels are about the nuances of friendship and intimacy between women as much as they’re about the epic struggle for autonomy and agency in a deeply unequal and shifting society. You have written a book that is unsentimental yet has a great, bursting heart, a series that explores the light and dark of friendship and the machinations of power. You capture the intense interior experiences of living in a society that works to confine you, and you also beautifully articulate the divine rage and rebellion which seethes within those subject to these oppressive experiences. You have written a ‘serious’ piece of literature with cover art that is unapologetically feminine.

Elena Ferrante, I love you because your work is transcendent. You defy definition and you irreverently rebel against attempts to categorize your writing. You gave me a new understanding of what art can be.

— Colleen



Top 10 books about cheating – The Guardian

From illicit James Salter to category-defying Jeanette Winterson, here are the best contemporary works about romantic infidelity

Why do we keep coming back to the adultery novel? What is it about infidelity that bears retelling across the centuries, especially now, when the ancient prohibitions against sex outside marriage have all but disappeared? These are questions I asked myself as I was writing Fire Sermon, the story of a married woman’s physical, intellectual and spiritual affair with a married poet.

I’m not sure I have all the answers. However, given the current cultural moment, I believe it’s a crucial time for female artists to write frankly and openly about female sexuality in all its forms: longing, shame, guilt, transgression, ecstasy. The assumption that male writers can have sexually transgressive imaginations while female novelists should be more demure is passé. If we’re going to secure gender equality, we must be allowed the same imaginative expression, on the page, as our male counterparts.

Further, women are bravely speaking out against male abuses of power and sexual coercion in the workplace – but what about sexual coercion and abuse within a marriage? Or within the context of religion, where traditional gender roles and prohibitions against extramarital sex might make it difficult to speak up? Perhaps my protagonist Maggie’s predicament – to stay or not to stay in the marriage – will serve as a platform for discussion.

When I initially drafted this list, I began with the obvious suspects: Anna Karenina, Lady With the Pet Dog, Madame Bovary and The End of the Affair. But these works are always included on lists like this. With these classics taken as read, I’ve listed only contemporary works, all published in my lifetime. I’ve also included a poetry collection and a short story, because I think the compression of these forms is suited to the intensity of the subject matter.

4. The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (2002)
I read this on vacation one summer, in a single sitting, paralysed with the exquisite literary sickness that comes from the combination of aesthetic appreciation on the one hand, and recognition of oneself on the other. An account of a woman’s mental unravelling after her husband leaves her for a much younger woman, the book’s power is in its fearless, closeup details (I can’t think of a more painful animal death scene) and in the ways the narrative subtly implicates the reader: given a certain set of horrific circumstances, I, too, might be capable of this psychic fury.


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School Library Journal

Guest Post: A New Consideration of Elena Ferrante’s The Beach at Night by Dr. Ellen Handler Spitz

You guys know my penchant for children’s books that fall outside the usual norms. And nothing strikes fear in the good American heart faster than picture books from other countries. I’ve seen even the most sophisticated of readers wrinkle their noses at translations they deemed “weird”. And nothing caused such wrinkling better than the 2016 publication of the American edition of Elena Ferrante’s picture book The Beach at Night. Kirkus argued that the book was not, “a true picture book: with many text-only double-page spreads and illustrations that do little to extend the text, this book will try the patience of most young listeners. The Italian edition of this book is marketed to children 10 and up; the advertised audience in the United States of 6 to 10 feels just plain wrong.” The New York Times was hardly any more kind. And yet, it has its defenders.

Today, guest poster Dr. Ellen Handler Spitz, author of such books as The Brightening Glance: Imagination and Childhood and many others, comments on the book and its reception. Take it away, Ellen!


BeachAtNight1Mysterious, hugely popular Italian novelist Elena Ferrante wrote a children’s book, The Beach at Night, that has curried scant favor in the American press since its 2016 translation by Ann Goldstein. I would like to advocate, albeit gently, for this book. A doll named Celina, left behind on a beach at the end of one day by five-year-old Mati, tells us how that feels: the story is told in her voice, that of an anthropomorphic toy.

Ferrante’s theme— abandonment —touches children’s deepest fears. It plays out within the intimate, oft blurry bonds between a little girl, her doll, and her mother. With short, direct sentences, Ferrante unfurls a catalogue of woe. Being neglected comes first, as Celina watches Mati go to play with Minù, the new kitten her visiting father has just brought her. Humiliation arrives next. Rejected and cast off on the beach, Celina suffers maltreatment by Mati’s grumpy brother, who dumps burning sand on her. Physical discomfort follows fast, and then terror, as the family leaves the beach without her, and the sky changes color. A “Mean Beach Attendant” with a huge Rake frightens her and flings her onto a pile of trash. Fear morphs into sadness and anger. Anxious about being hurt and broken, Celina remembers Mati’s former love. Envy comes barreling in, as she pictures the kitten Minù who has supplanted her and wants spitefully to spoil him. Vindictively, she conjures him having bouts of diarrhea and imagines vomiting on him so that Mati will be compelled to forsake him: an apt projection on Ferrante’s part, since little girls, when expected by their mothers to be clean, may feel unlovable when not.

Loneliness and boredom ensue. Followed by confusion. The Mean Attendant ignites a fire to burn residual beach trash, including Celina. She uncomprehendingly welcomes its warmth because the sunless beach has grown cold. Gradually, however, she understands that the fire which pleases her can destroy her. When it scalds her dress, she chides (as to a naughty pet): “Bad fire.”

Ferrante is partaking, of course, in a time-honored tradition in which dolls come to life in children’s books. Two long-lived examples might be cited: Rachel Field’s Newbery Award-winning Hitty of 1929, in which a doll carved from magical wood recounts her hundred year journey, and the ever-beloved Raggedy Ann stories of c. 1900, in which a stuffed rag doll with a candy heart from grandma’s attic has nocturnal escapades that author Johnny Gruelle based on observations of his daughter Marcella. Turning to animation, there’s Pixar’s Toy Story of 1995, by John Lasseter. Ferrante mines this vein in several novels, including The Lost Daughter and My Beautiful Friend, where dolls play quasi-human roles. Her pages, however, often portray toy characters in nightmarish settings fraught with anxiety.

The Beach at Night, moreover, employs language unpurged of slang (for which, however, as New York Times reviewer Maria Russo points out, the translator may be held responsible), and, as I have emphasized in Inside Picture Books, a reading adult is always free to substitute one word for another. The term “caca,” translated here with an expletive, might easily be rendered by the childish expression “doo-doo.” Nevertheless, Ferrante’s book has been judged by some to be inappropriate for children. Respectfully, I demur.

BeachAtNight2Many books for young children tend to be protective; only rare ones plumb the intensity of feeling to which small children are prey. Maurice Sendak’s oeuvre, of course, stands as an exception. As does Ferrante’s The Beach at Night. Like Jezibaba or Medea, Ferrante dips into the cauldron without gloves, seizes fears, yanks them out, and thrusts them under the glaring strobe lights of her prose. In so doing, she performs a service not unlike that of Sendak, who, in his masterpiece Where the Wild Things Are, unfastens a door and shoves us in, or, better yet, pushes us in and closes the door fast behind us.

Perhaps you are wondering: But, why explore pain in a children’s book? My best reply would entail a wondrously wise 1959 text called The Magic Years by Selma Fraiberg, distinguished University of Michigan psychologist. This classic exploration of young children’s inner lives unsurpassed for more than a half-century tells a cautionary tale about Frankie, a little boy whose devoted parents are eager to do him right. They consult experts, identify typical childhood fears, then systematically keep those fears at bay. Nursery rhymes are edited; fairy tales purged of witches and ogres. When a pet parakeet dies during Frankie’s nap, it is replaced before he can notice. His baby sister’s birth is planned to minimize feelings of jealousy, rivalry, and displacement. Yet, Frankie suffers all the ordinary fears of early childhood and bad dreams as well. Endemic to human growth, Fraiberg explains, fears emanate largely from within. Since they cannot be expunged, growing children need to learn to invent solutions, as Fraiberg puts it, “to the ogre problem.” Ferrante’s Mean Beach Attendant, for example, replete with lizard-like moustaches and nasty ditties seems merely an update of the ogre or bogeyman, familiar from European folk tales.

Elena Ferrante gets this. Her fierce grasp of its truth informs her slender book. No emotion in The Beach at Night is foreign to young children because, as we have come to recognize, at least since the late 19th century, even the youngest have active inner lives despite their lack of words with which to report on it. Fear, envy, confusion, longing, disappointment, anger, and sadness are all poignantly felt. That said, where better to practice coping than in the pages of a story book? Children who encounter danger in books, especially with adults present to help interpret, can do so safely. If intense emotional exploration serves a boon in art and literature for grown-ups, why should it not be made available for children? The Beach at Night offers vicarious adventures that, for some children, may provide a proving ground for mastery, while for others, undeniably, its scenes will be too scary. Parent-and-child or teacher- or librarian-and-child may collaborate to make that call, and this in itself can constitute valuable learning.

Abandonment tops the list of childhood terrors. A college student of mine surprised me in class when she nailed the most abject horror of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. Not darkness, she whispered. Not freezing cold. Not starvation. But the fact that the little girl cannot go home. Cast out, she dies on an empty city street.

BeachAtNight3Ferrante plots Celina’s abandonment with exquisite care. Good turns suddenly to evil and then occasionally reverses. Mati’s love for her doll Celina morphs into rejection. The hot beach becomes chilly at night. The comforting fire harms what it warms. A sea wave saves Celina from fire but then engulfs and nearly drowns her. The aptly colored black and white kitten starts as a rival for Mati’s affection but ends up being the creature who improbably saves her, brings her home, and becomes, at the book’s end, her friend. Mati’s father, kindly giver of the kitten, serves as a foil for the other adult male character, the Mean Beach Attendant, who calls Celina “ugly” and nearly annihilates her.

All these turnabouts match young children’s mental lives, where perceptions reverse in a flash. The hand that caresses stiffens into a spank. The angry grimace softens to a twinkle. Lacking analytical ability as yet and information with which to explain these turnabouts, children find their unpredictability both magical and terrifying.

Darkness matters. Night is when mysterious events take place. And Ferrante uses the beach elsewhere in her work, especially in The Lost Daughter, where her protagonist “rescues” a doll forgotten on a beach and then holds on to it, unable to bring herself to return it to the child who longs for it. As in The Beach at Night, which it eerily overlaps, The Lost Daughter blurs boundaries between girl and doll, mother and daughter, boundaries breeched again by Ferrante in the opening pages of another novel My Brilliant Friend, were two girls play in tandem with their dolls, conversing with them and imitating each other like miniature characters in a Pirandello play until the one with the ugly doll throws another’s beautiful toy into a dark cellar.

A paradigmatic moment in The Lost Daughter occurs when the narrator, mother of two faraway grown daughters, anxiously watches a young mother on the beach with her little girl and a doll. Eavesdropping, she hears the names of mother, daughter, and doll all seem to mingle and merge: Nina, Ninù, Niné, Nani, Nena, Nennella, Elena, Leni. Switching back and forth from childish to grown-up voices as they play, this mother and daughter make the mute doll “speak” as if it were both mother and child without separation. Envious of their fluidity and yearning for lost moments in her own life, the narrator finds the scene intolerable. Unhinged, she rises to intervene, willing them to stop.

That Lost Daughter scene illuminates a key moment of recognition in The Beach at Night. The beach has turned dark; no stars or moon appear, and the abandoned doll Celina recalls her little mistress Mati saying to her in her mother’s voice, “If you catch cold, you’ll get a fever.” Suddenly, the doll understands: Mati is repeating her own mother’s words “because Mati and I are also,” as Ferrante writes, “mother and daughter.” The next thought is surely what Aristotle would have called a peripeteia. Celina comprehends that, because of this identification, Mati cannot possibly have forgotten her. She is not abandoned! And children encountering the story understand. On the last page but one, Mati, having Celina back, hugs her with a face wet with tears.

What then is Celina, the doll? The renowned British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott coined the term “transitional object.” He meant by this a blanket, stuffed animal, or dolly that is neither exclusively the child’s “me” (self) or “not-me” (other) but a quirky amalgam that gets created in the context of the closest human relationship and used to play it out. Ferrante shows us this small miracle and never lets up. Right there on the sand, each of us is led through the dread of abandonment. But, as we close the book with our children, we may feel more aware of and grateful for the loved ones who abide with us, both child and adult.