Catching #FerranteFever

As long as I’ve been a reader, I’ve never had a favourite author. Sure, I’ve loved a variety of books and book series and even went on to study literature in university, but any time someone asked me who my favourite author was, I’d draw a blank. There were too many stories to read, and I never found an author’s biography I wanted to read from start to finish.

Until now.

You may have heard of this author. Her name is Elena Ferrante, and she is the pseudonymous Italian novelist most notable for a four-volume series beginning with My Brilliant Friend. It is a rich and intense story of two friends, Elena and Lila, who grow up in a working-class neighbourhood in Naples after the second world war. The subsequent volumes The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child continue their story from childhood to maturity while witnessing a city and country that is transforming in ways that transform their friendship.

Ever since I caught #FerranteFever, I’ve wondered what makes Ferrante different from all of the other authors I’ve read.  I’ve discovered that falling in love with a book requires a special kinship with its author. The author knows nothing about you, and yet you feel like your most intimate self is understood. That is precisely how I feel when reading Ferrante’s books. The intimate self that I understood in My Brilliant Friend is shown through the interdependence of Elena and Lila’s friendship. Not only does Elena, the narrator, tell us how interdependent she is to Lila, but we simultaneously see how this interdependence is rendered. There lies the truth about the complex and contradictory emotional nature of female friendships.

Make no mistake, these books are addicting. Once I turned the first page, I was lost, and was practically unreachable in our world. I didn’t want to stop. By the third volume, I smartened up and cleared my schedule for a few days to ensure I had no distractions that would take me away from the book. There’s something about Ferrante’s writing that involves you with the action of the story, and I felt affected by Elena and Lila’s experiences.

My Brilliant Friend has been translated and published in 48 countries making it a literary phenomenon. It has become so popular that HBO is partnering with an Italian film company to adapt the 4-volume story into a 32-episode series. It is set to premier at the Venice Film Festival this month, and the first season will premiere on HBO in October. I’ve never been so excited for an adaptation, subtitles and all!

I highly implore everyone to lose and find themselves in Ferrante’s novels. It’s a turbulent and affecting experience that leaves you with a satisfying ache of finishing a story you don’t want to leave, yet you can’t stop thinking about. But if you’re like me, you may just find your new favourite author.

— Eleni Z.

A young Italian hero

“Life is change, constant change, and unless we are lucky enough to find comedy in it, change is nearly always a drama, if not a tragedy.  But after everything, and even when the skies turn scarlet and threatening, I still believe that if we are lucky enough to be alive, we must give thanks for the miracle of every moment of every day, no matter how flawed” spoken by Pino Lella in Beneath a Scarlet Sky.

Writing Beneath a Scarlet Sky literally saved the author’s life. In the preface, Mark Sullivan writes openly about a time in his life when he was so low he considered crashing his car. He decided instead to go to a dinner party, where he heard an old story about a young hero that completely changed his life.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is based on the true story of Pino Lella, who, at 17, wants nothing more than to meet a girl and fall in love. However, it is 1943 and not only is Nazi Germany in Milan where Pino lives, but the Allies start dropping bombs on the city every night.  I am a huge fan of WWII fiction but, until this book, I had never read anything from the Italian point of view. I feel Beneath a Scarlet Sky does a good job describing the struggles within Italy between the Nazis, Fascists, Partisans, and later, the Allies.

The reader will be drawn to Pino’s idealism and passion for his homeland and all those who are suffering. This young man clearly sees the cruelty and injustice around him and acts upon it, while many of the adults seem too full of hatred or too afraid.  Each task that Pino takes on is more dangerous than the last, and he witnesses and endures more heartbreak than anyone at any age should.  It is sad to wonder if he keeps going on because of the resiliency of his youth, or because he lived in a time when there was no other choice.

There was only one part of the book I found slow, but I think the detail was necessary to truly appreciate the peril that follows. Similar to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See I found myself thinking about the characters and the story days after I finished reading it, giving thanks for the miracle of a young man named Pino Lella.

-Sandy W.

 

Only in Naples

What is it about Italy?  I am not Italian nor do I have any Italian blood in my ancestry but like millions of others, I enjoy preparing Italian dishes to savour, dream of visiting Italy (especially when shovelling the driveway again after the snow plow rumbles through), contemplate trying to learn the language online (free through Mango Languages with your library membership, by the way) and love to read about those travelling or relocating to Italia.

So, when I spied “Only in Naples” by Katherine Wilson on the new books display at the Main Library, it was a no brainer. Charming cover, combination foodie memoir and travelogue, set in ITALY.  Yes, this was a book for me.

American Katherine Wilson, a Princeton graduate from a privileged family, travelled to Italy on an unpaid internship. Through reaching out to a local contact, she meets Salvatore Avallone and his family. She quickly falls in love with one while being completely and warmly embraced by the other.

This memoir is light and humourous with Wilson sharing embarrassing moments and charming ones. And she also shares very important facts with her readers. For example, “Never eat the crust of a pizza first.” This is a major faux pas in Naples, the home of pizza.  Apparently pizza originally was a dish only enjoyed by the poor but soon became widely accepted, especially after the visit of Queen Margherita of Savoy. Yes, that Margherita pizza you enjoy at Famoso in UpTown Waterloo was first made in Naples.

Through the close relationship she forms with her future mother-in-law, Raffaella, Wilson learns about the culture and traditions of the Neapolitan people.  She is guided through the “do’s and don’ts” of her adopted homeland. She is also painstakingly taken through the careful preparation of dishes which Raffaella swears her Salvatore will not be able to live without!  Not that he’d have to since the newlyweds end up setting up house in the same apartment complex as the parents.  And, you guessed it, Raffaella sends some of her “famous” dishes (which Katherine struggles to duplicate exactly) to them daily via the elevator. Now that’s takeaway with a personal touch!

“Only in Naples” is a heartwarming book and I did enjoy it although I have to admit the smattering of Italian words and phrases started to feel a bit affected by halfway through the book.  Recipes are included but I wasn’t enticed enough to try them.  The descriptions of the food, the sauces, the cooking methods, will send you scurrying to Vincenzo’s for provisions as soon as you can!

I have been lucky enough to visit Italy and yes, it was a wonderful as I imagined, and yes, you should go if you ever have the opportunity. We visited northern Italy for an all-too-brief time, lingering in Milan and at Lake Como and having the most incredible and memorable meal of our lives.  (my husband still says the best pizza he ever had was in Innsbruck, Austria but that’s another story) Oh, and YES, we definitely plan to return to Italy and explore many other regions.

I don’t have a traditional, Neapolitan recipe to share from my own collection at this time so another favourite Italian recipe will simply have to do!

— Sandi H.

Chicken Marsala

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut crosswise into 3 pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tblsp olive oil
2 tblsp butter
1 onion, chopped
15 cremini mushrooms, sliced
2 tblsp minced garlic
1 c Marsala wine
3/4 c mascarpone cheese
2 tblsp Dijon mustard
2 tblsp chopped fresh Italian parsley
Fettucine or mashed potatoes

Instructions

Heat olive oil in heavy, large skillet.

Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper. Cook until just brown, then remove to a plate and cool slightly

While the chicken cools, melt 2 tblsp of the butter in the skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute 2 minutes or until tender.  Add mushrooms and garlic. Saute 12 minute or until mushroom juices evaporate. Add wine and simmer 4 minutes or until the sauce reduces by half. Stir in mascarpone and mustard.

Cut the chicken into 1/3″ thick slices. Return to the skillet and coat with sauce. Cook for 2 minutes over medium-low heat until chicken is completely cooked through. Stir in parsley. Season with more salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with buttered fettucine noodles or mashed potatoes. Smells divine and tastes even better! If serving with potato, I recommend roasted carrots as a side dish.

The Food of Love Cookery School

The cover says “A novel to make your mouth water and your heart miss a beat.” I agree with the former but not exactly the latter.

This book, about four strangers who travel to Sicily on a cookery tour, definitely will make you want to visit Italy (if you didn’t already), perhaps try your hand at making pasta from scratch (if you haven’t already) and dream of “amore”.

By coincidence, the host and teacher at the school was called Luca Amore. But don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a romance novel (not that there’s anything wrong with those if that’s your “thing”). Far from it. But these women aren’t travelling to Italy looking for love or to be swept off their feet.

Moll, Tricia, Valerie and Poppy (two Brits, and American and an Aussie) each are there with their own reasons and agendas. One is searching out her Italian roots while another is fulfilling a lifelong, foodie dream; ticking one thing off the bucket list. Someone escaping sadness; another one there as a result of a slightly misguided gift.

Is there love and romance in this book? Yes, but it most definitely takes a backseat to the food and the stories of friendships made and life appreciated.

The characters from Luca to his friends in the mountain village of Favio to his guests, are flawed, likeable, real. The author’s love and appreciation of cooking and food is obvious and she has shared a few recipes at the end of the book.

To learn more, visit Nicky Pellegrino’s website or follower her on Twitter @nickypellegrino

Also Reads: Delicious and Recipe for Life by Nicky Pellegrino.

As for me, I’m sharing a favourite recipe of mine. Buon appetito!

— Sandi H.

Stracoto with Porcini Mushrooms

1.9kg pot roast
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
2 onions, sliced
6 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 c dry red wine
1 ¾ c beef broth
½ oz dried porcini mushrooms
1 tsp dried rosemary

Preheat oven to 350F.

Sprinkle beef with salt and pepper. Heat oil in roasting pan. Brown beef on all sides; will take approx 15 min.

Remove beef from pan. Add more oil. Cook onions until tender, about 5 min. Add garlic. Cook for a minute. Be careful not to burn the garlic. Add wine, broth and mushrooms. Return beef to pan. Cover.

Roast for 1 ½ hours. Turn beef over in pan. Roast for another 1 ½ hr or until fork tender.

Transfer beef to cutting board. Cover with foil to rest. Transfer juices and vegetables to blender. Blend til smooth. Add salt, pepper, rosemary to season. Keep this gravy warm in saucepan until ready to serve.

Stracoto means “overcooked”. This roast always turns out perfect, tender, juicy. Guinness can also be used instead of the red wine and is equally delicious.