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August 24, 2016

Book Notes - Louisa Ermelino "Malafemmena"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Louisa Ermelino's impressive short story collection Malafemmena is filled with fascinating stories of women facing dilemmas.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"A collection of arresting short stories that call to mind the work of Lucia Berlin in their sparse realism and humor, as well as their fine attention to the often-harsh details of women’s lives.... Birth and death, love and friendship, drugs and violence, home and abroad: the stories' themes are elemental and affecting, lingering in the mind like parables or myths sketching something vital, sad, and true."

In her own words, here is Louisa Ermelino's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Malafemmena:

Growing up in Greenwich Village in New York City, on the streets where the Italians had created their own piece of the old country, there was always music. For me, the memories start with the songs from Naples, move on to the crooners and the pop songs of awkward church dances in St. Anthony's memorial hall gym on Thompson street. I moved, the music moved: Dylan in the sixties, the Beatles' Abbey Road on the overland trek to India, pooling coins for batteries for the tape deck someone had lugged in their backpack. I'm pretty much musically stuck in time but then I get turned on to something current and the excitement starts all over again. My story collection, Malafemmena, moves through time and place. Here's some of the songs that reflect the spirit of the stories… each and every one of them breaks my heart every time.

"Malafemmena" - Toto - 1951

This song is the touchstone of my childhood, the title of the story that names the collection. My earliest memory is my mother singing it; it's in dialect, her "Nnapulitano" dialect, the Italian I heard most often growing up. When I was 17, we went to Naples and sitting in a restaurant by the water, my father asked the strolling musicians to sing this song and my mother cried her eyes out. What's is about? A bad woman, sultry, tough, trashy, which translates into a desirable woman who a man can't help loving despite how she treats him. In my story, she's wildly beautiful and unsentimental. She murders a man without a moment's hesitation. She knows how to take care of herself. My novels were written in another time when I thought of women as powerful, but in the shadows, behind the throne, but not any more… the women in this collection are out in front. They're in charge. They will cut out your heart, you can beg all you want.

"The Summer Wind" - Frank Sinatra - 1966

Every neighborhood Italian-American family that had a son who could sing thought they had a Frank Sinatra. We were boxers (Marciano, Jake La Motta, Graziano), baseball players, (Joe DiMaggio), but in our southern souls, we were crooners, and Frankie was the top of the heap. This song makes me think of my big brother leaving after Sunday dinner to take a walk with his girlfriend who wore tight straight skirts and cashmere sweaters and smoked Benson & Hedges cigarettes that came in a slide out cardboard box. It's the song playing in the opening scene of the movie The Pope of Greenwich Village. Mickey Rouke is getting dressed to go out and the last thing he does is put on his jewelry… gold of course. This song makes me think of Santino, the character in the story "Six and Five". He doesn't want much, for him a good life means a woman who loves him, a sharkskin suit, some money in his pocket, but of course, it's elusive and easily lost.

"That's Life" – Frank Sinatra - 1966

Frankie again, and the sentiment of Italian American life: an acceptance of what comes, not expecting much but going after it anyway, like the mother in the opening story, "Where it Belongs" or "Louise Ciarelli" who make the best of things but never stop dreaming. There's no sense of entitlement and no guarantee of anything, just the will to keep going. As Frankie puts it: "I just pick myself up and get back in the race."

"Subterranean Homesick Blues" - Bob Dylan -1965

My first week in college, the girls in the back room played the Bringing It All Back Home album non-stop for six months. This song in particular embodies those times for me: the confusion, the revolution, the draft, the disillusionment with the status quo. "Walk on your tip toes," "Don't follow leaders," "Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift." The girls in the story "The Baby" are not going to follow the rules. They are going to figure it out. When you got pregnant in the 50s and early 60s, you got married if you were lucky, you were sent away to have your baby in secret if you weren't. Not this girl.

"Those Were the Days" – Mary Hopkin - 1968

This is a silly pop song but I remember dancing to it in a Tel Aviv disco, my Italian boyfriend wearing a dishdasha that a Kuwati boy had given me on the ship from Beruit to Cairo. "We're older but no wiser." That's for sure.

"Come Together" - the Beatles - 1969

This is the music I hear when I think of the road east. We waited for each new Beatles album like the Second Coming and Abbey Road had come out right when I was leaving Europe. Who knows what this song is about or what it means except that we were coming together, in an exodus, looking for who knows what.

"I Want You" – the Beatles - 1969

The repetition of the lyrics of this song, the weight of the sentiment, evoke the desperation of wanting someone… it's not about love but about desire…that singular unbearable feeling that makes you lose your senses, that's almost a physical pain. The women in my stories are self possessed but they still suffer. There's no rhyme or reason to desire. The heart wants what the heart wants.

"Bad Girls" – M.I.A. –2012

From heartbreakers to women on top. Hip hop has never been my thing but I love this one. M.I.A. is the ultimate badass malafemmena. "Live Fast Die Young Bad Girls Do It Well." She's not passive, but challenging: "Pull me Closer if You Think you Can Hang." Yes. And there's the fast cars…

Louisa Ermelino and Malafemmena links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Shelf Awareness review

Publishers Weekly interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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