My Brilliant Friend & Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso DOC

my brillant friendMy Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante. New York: Europa, 2012.

Childhood memories are often dominated by someone like Lila – the one who excels in every subject, the one who throws rocks at bullies, the one who cares nothing about what others think of her including her teachers, the one who takes her best friend’s hand and leads her on big adventures. On the outskirts of Naples, Italy following the Second World War, a brazen friend like Lila can help a timid girl navigate the domestic complexities of her working-class neighborhood and dream about a life beyond the piazza.

Elena Ferrante (the name is a pseudonym of the unknown author) draws perhaps from her (or his) own experiences growing up in post-war Italy to pen the four novels that follow the coming-of-age lives of the narrator, mild-mannered Elena Greco, and her courageous best friend, Lila Cerullo. My Brilliant Friend is the first in the “Neapolitan Quartet” and vividly captures the personality of a community through the antics of children; much like Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird. From the neighborhood ogre Don Achille, whose presence looms over the novel, to the mad widow, Melina Cappuccio, to the handsome yet cruel sons of the neighborhood bar and pastry shop, Marcello and Michele Solara, Ferrante draws the reader into the tapestry of a story where family poverty and plenty live side by side.

“Our world was full of words that killed,” Elena ruminates. “Croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.”

The central struggles in the novel center around two factors that determine the girls’ futures – education and money. While Elena and Lila begin as equals as they play with their dolls and enter first grade, it is soon evident that as the daughter of a city hall porter, Elena has more advantages than Lila, whose father is a lowly shoemaker. Elena’s parents agree to pay for a tutor so that she can excel on the entrance exam for middle school, while Lila’s parents refuse the expenditure, feeling that it is time for her to work in the family store. In the years to follow, Elena struggles with her studies and worries about puberty, while Lila embraces shoe design and the growing advances of young men, especially handsome Marcello Solara and the upwardly-mobile Stefano Carraci. Struggle seems bred into the girls since they see so much of it around them. “We grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they make it difficult for us,” Elena explains.

Adding to their struggles is their gender. As was often the case for females in the 1950’s, both girls gradually realize how dependent their lives are on the fortunes and misfortunes of men, especially if they wish to escape the confines of their neighborhood. Escape is, indeed, a key theme to the story. Chapter One begins with the adult Elena learning that her old friend Lila has disappeared from her home in Naples – a feat that the young Lila often expressed: “She wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear.” The final chapter of the story shows the beginning steps Lila is willing to take on her transformation journey.

Elena’s telling the story of their friendship from its inception is her way of recreating what has long since disappeared through the years – two girls who once were inseparable.

My Wine Recommendation

lacryma christiLegend says that when Lucifer was expelled from heaven, he managed to steal a strip of it and bring it with him to earth, so forming the Gulf of Naples. Pained by the loss, Christ began to cry, shedding tears upon Mount Vesuvius. When these sweet tears blossomed the grape vines on the mountainside, they created a heavenly taste: Lacryma Christi. In actuality, the wine that carries the name for Christ’s tears, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso DOC, comes from the Sannino winery, founded in the early 1900s on the fertile ground of the Vesuvius near the city of Herculaneum. Their 2016 vintage has an intense ruby-red color with aromas of cherries , raspberries, and black pepper. Naturally, it pairs well with spaghetti and meatballs, Bolognese sause, and pizza Margherita. $17.

Book Pairing: When the Moon is Low & Biblia Chara Areti Red

when moon is lowWhen the Moon is Low – Nadia Hashimi. New York: Harper Collins, 2015

Since the Russian invasion of 1978, close to six million people have left their homes in Afghanistan to seek asylum. Currently, the country is the second largest refugee-producing nation in the world behind Syria. Many of these people flee to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, but others follow a trail through Turkey, Greece and Italy in hopes of joining family or gaining asylum in European countries like Germany or England. Some make it to safety and a better life; others die dreadful deaths or simply vanish along the way. All endure hardships.

When the Moon is Low is a story of one family’s journey to escape the ravages of the Taliban. It is not a book about politics and violence; it is rather a book about families and love. It begins with Fereiba, a baby whose birth caused the death of her mother. When her father remarries in order to have someone to care for his children, he chooses KokoGul – a woman who soon has four young daughters of her own and whose love is like “powdered sugar on burnt toast.” Like the wicked step-mother of fairy tales, KokoGul treats Fereiba as a servant – not allowing her to attend school or have any activities outside the home.

Finally when Fereiba is sixteen she persuades her father to allow her to attend school. She is smart; she becomes a teacher; she marries a suitable young man who is kind to her; they have three children. But then the Taliban arrive soon after the departure of the Russians. Her husband is taken, and Fereiba is left with nothing except a young daughter, a younger son and an infant with a heart condition.  She finally does what millions of others are doing – she sells everything and begins her journey to England where a younger sister lives. Guiding her like a star is her memory of a man who spoke to her one day as a young girl: “In the darkness, when you cannot see the ground under your feet and when your fingers touch nothing but night, you are not alone. I will stay with you as moonlight stays on water.” She believes this man is her guardian angel.

Village by village, step by step, Hashimi traces the family’s journey. They endure hardships, but they also encounter caring people like Hakan and Hayal Yilmaz who welcome them into their small home in a Turkish farming community. “I nearly sang out with joy when we laid our heads on soft pillows, our full bellies and the kindness of strangers keeping us warm,” says Fereiba. Her son finds work on a farm; his sister helps with housework; they procure medicine for the baby.

They could stay in this Turkish village, but their goal is England and family. They continue their journey. Soon they arrive in the port city of Izmir where they board a freighter to Athens. Here they experience the horror of migrant life. There is no asylum in Greece for refugees; there is no shelter or food or clothing or medicine. Hashimi vividly characterizes the plight of this family through the anguish of Fereiba: “I hold back my tears. I’ve had enough. I’m tired of being trapped. Each morning when I wake and find that nothing has changed, I think I am finished. Were it not for my children, I would be. For them I cannot be finished yet.”

The son, Saleem, a skinny teenager, takes on the mantel of family protector and finds them a room in a dilapidated hotel. “If we hide in a room every time we are nervous, we will never make it to England,” he bravely tells her as he hits the streets to steal food. But soon, their money is gone. They live in squalor, even sleeping at night in a playhouse in a park. Saleem is educated to the life of migrants from others who live on the streets. They warn him to avoid Pagani, the local detention center. “It is a cage,” they say. “Men, women and children go for days without stepping outside. There is no real asylum. You must have work to get asylum. So you need a work permit. And for a work permit, you must apply for asylum. You see the problem?”

Another guardian angel enters their lives in the form of Roksana, a young girl close in age to Saleem who is a volunteer with an aid organization. “The train is the best way to go,” she advises them. “In Europe they do not check for passports.” Fereiba gives her gold bracelets to Saleem to pawn so they can afford four tickets. These bracelets were placed on her mother’s wrists when her parents wed. Her father hid them until it was Fereiba’s time to marry. Without looking back on the life she has lost, she removes her bracelets and sends Saleem to the pawnshop. He never returns.

The last section of the book follows Saleem as he struggles to stay alive and reunite with his family. He lives like an animal relying on instinct.  He watches, he waits, he pounces when the opportunity is right. He also learns much about his homeland. “Afghanistan is a land of widows and widowers,” he realizes. “Orphans and the missing. Missing a right leg, a left hand, a child, or a mother. Everyone was missing something, as if a black hole had opened in the center of the country, sucking in bits and pieces of everyone into its hard belly.” He also learns much about Western countries that treat refugees as invisible. “Somewhere in the world, there must be a place where we will be welcomed as a long-lost sister,” prays Fereiba, “Not stoned away like an unwanted snake in the garden.”

Hashimi takes the title of her book from an Afghan poem “Dropping Keys” by Hafiz. “The small man/ Builds cages for everyone/ He/ Knows. / While the sage,/ Who has to duck his head/ When the moon is low,/ Keeps dropping keys all night long/ For the/ Beautiful/ Rowdy/ Prisoners.”

When the Moon is Low not only puts a face to the thousands of migrants who huddle today in camps in Turkey and Greece and Italy and France, it also shows their hearts.

My Wine Recommendation

biblia-chora-areti-redIf the family were to reunite in a Athens trattoria, they should order a bottle of 2012 Biblia Chora Areti Red.With its deep ruby-red color, it delivers a berry flavor with a hint of cocoa and black pepper. It’s a serious table wine that pairs well with the earthy spices of Greek food.($22)