Penelope’s Daughter by Laurel Corona, Berkeley Publishing Group, 2010, 358 pages including glossary, afterword and reader’s guide, $15.
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO—Readers may be charmed by this story and yet find it controversial. Prize-winning author Laurel Corona, who often writes book reviews for San Diego Jewish World, has written another novel, Penelope’s Daughter, in which she makes a major amendment to Homer’s Odyssey.
Corona conjures up a daughter, born to Penelope and Odysseus after the latter has sailed off to war to bring Helen home from Troy. The daughter, Xanthe, growing up without knowing her father, is very much in danger as suitors press their attentions on Penelope (true to Homer’s version). Would one of these avaricious men seeking Odysseus’ throne rape Xanthe to force her into a marriage?
Fearing that one of these louts indeed might use rape as a political weapon, Penelope decides to fake Xanthe’s death and to send her away secretly to Sparta, where her old friend Helen (of Trojan war fame) rules as Menelaus’ queen.In such a way, Corona weaves for us a tale of a young girl growing to womanhood, and eventually falling in love, in two different cities of ancient Greece, while at the same time providing voices for the women who are otherwise silent in Homer’s enduring classic. Read more…
SAN DIEGO (Press Release)–San Diego Community College Chancellor Dr. Constance Carroll joins a cast of City College faculty and students on Friday, September 24, 2010 at the Saville Theatre on the City College campus for the launch of faculty member Laurel Corona’s novel, Penelope’s Daughter.
Published by Berkley Books, a division of Penguin USA, Penelope’s Daughter retells the story of Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of the women, as narrated by a daughter born to Odysseus after he left for Troy.
“An Evening with the Women of the Odyssey,” begins with a talk on “Homer’s Women” by Chancellor Carroll, a classics scholar (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh), followed by dance and dramatic performances by City College students, based on readings from the novel by Laurel Corona, who also writes for San Diego Jewish World.
The free event begins at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 24, at the Saville Theatre, located on the City campus at 15th and C Streets downtown. It kicks off the International Book Fair, which runs September 24 to October 2, and is co-sponsored by the City College World Cultures Program and Penguin USA.
Publishers Weekly calls Penelope’s Daughter a “variant and dreamy confection of Greek mythology and romance [that] achieves, thanks to Xanthe’s first-person account, a great deal of intimacy. Booklist says that “women who once wept for their lost men are given the voice and power they deserve. In Corona’s tale, women turn a tragedy into opportunity, finding a way to thrive in a world full of men. Penelope’s Daughter provides new insight into the lives of Homer’s women while giving voice to the inventiveness, creativity, and ingenuity of all those left behind.”
Preceding provided by Laurel Corona
Samuel’s Daughter by Ann Brener, BookSurge Publishing, 2010, 230 pages, ISBN: 1439249911, paperback, $14.95
By Laurel Corona
SAN DIEGO–In the spirit of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, Ann Bremer takes three individuals mentioned briefly in the Babylonian Talmud and fleshes them out into a rewarding story about life in the Jewish Diaspora in the third-century CE.
The prologue of Bremer’s novel, Samuel’s Daughter, is set in Nehardea, a Jewish town situated along the banks of the Euphrates River. Under the Persian general Odenathus, Nehardea is sacked and a little girl, orphaned as a result of the soldier’s murder of her mother, is carried off by a Parthian soldier who is fighting in the Persian army.
A few years pass, and the little girl, Rachel, is now growing up as part of a Zoroastrian family in the Gurgan Valley region of the Parthian Empire. Her memory of her past is hazy, except for a verse, whose meaning she does not know, that is part of her favorite game, Shabbat. “Barukhatahadonai eloheinumelechhaolam,” she teaches Shirin, whom she thinks of as her older sister, as they recreate the Shabbat meal in a manner akin to playing house.
Rachel looks different from the other children in her family, but she is deeply loved, especially by Issur, her older “brother.” Still, something isn’t right in her heart, and she wonders whether this might be connected to her upheaval from her original home. When she is eventually “found,” however, by traders from her homeland, she returns to Nehardea, only to end up feeling equally out of place there.
As the long-lost daughter of Samuel, a revered rabbi of blessed memory, her place in the community would seem to be assured, although her reappearance also causes great disruption. The story grows more complicated as she reaches marriageable age and her heart is torn between Issur and the son of a local rabbi, whom she discovers she was betrothed to before she was even born.
Bremer gives her novel the secondary title of “A Love Story from Third-Century Parthia,” so the reader never fears that all will work out well in the end. Since the book opens with passages from the Talmud that tell the story, it will not be a plot spoiler to reveal that the book ends with Rachel in a tender and affectionate marriage, pregnant with Mari, whom the Talmud indicates was a distinguished rabbi just like his grandfather Samuel.
Between the horrifying opening of the novel and its happy ending lies a story of much charm and sweetness. The reader will sympathize with Rachel’s confusion and longing to fit in, cheer her plucky, independent spirit, and wish her much happiness.
As a historical novelist myself, I know how hard it is to write about cultures that are remote in time and culture from our own, and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the settings and details in the Gurgan Valley chapters seem a bit generic. Brener, the Hebraic Area Specialist at the Library of Congress and author of two non-fiction books about medieval Hebrew poets, is on presumably less familiar territory when she is writing about Zoroastrian culture in a part of the world that is largely unfamiliar to most of us in the west, than when she moves the story back to Nehardea.
The book really takes off after Rachel’s return there. The Jewish matrons of Nehardea are a delight. Their schemes and power ploys are narrated with a wry and loving sense of humor, and the details of Jewish life are vivid. Although the emotional dimensions of the story tend to be underplayed (Brener rather inexplicably treats Rachel’s departure from the only family she had ever known as hardly wrenching at all), the book remains lively and interesting.
Samuel’s Daughter appears to have been written for adult readers, but its length, readability, and discreet treatment of romance and violence would make it a highly suitable book for younger readers.
Corona is a professor of humanities at San Diego City College, an author and freelance writer
Mama never seemed to miss the finer things of life
If she did she never did say so to daddy
She never wanted to be more than a mother and a wife
If she did she never did say so to daddy
The only thing that seemed to be important to her life
Was to make our house a home and make us happy
Mama never wanted any more than what she had
If she did she never did say so to daddy.
By Laurel Corona
SAN DIEGO — Watching La Camara Oscura (2008), I found the lyrics of one of Emmylou Harris’ best-known songs running continually through my mind. Though it’s quite easy to see where this film is going (in fact it begins at the end, with a family’s dinner table left still a mess the morning after), Argentine director Maria Victoria Menis offers an excruciatingly poignant tale of a woman who comes to view her own existence as important even though no one else does.
Gertrudis (Mirta Bogdasarian) is so unwanted as a baby that her parents can’t bother to think of a name for her. She is born around the turn of the twentieth century on the gangplank of the ship bringing her Jewish mother and father and their young family to Buenos Aires from Russia’s pogrom-ridden Pale, and when the immigration officer suggests they use the name of his girlfriend, the couple goes along. In a series of quick vignettes, we see that Gertrudis never had a chance to develop a healthy sense of herself. Her mother treats her as ugly and irrelevant, and she is so severely mocked at school that she wants to disappear altogether. Even at her wedding, she is ignored so utterly that she cleans up alone while the party goes on without her.
The rest of the film is set twenty years from that point, detailing Gertrudis’ life as a wife and mother on the family farm owned by her husband Leon Kohen (Fernando Armani). No one notices the home-sewn clothes she keeps ironed and mended; the food she preserves; the freshly laundered sheets on the beds, the flowers she brings in from her garden. In fact, most of the time she does not even sit at the dinner table. Instead, she waits in the kitchen listening to the conversation while the family eats the beautiful meals she has prepared.
When her husband engages a photographer (Patrick dell’Isola) to take pictures of his family, the family dynamic continues unchanged at first, but the presence of a stranger who brings stories of the outside world into the house and, more importantly, takes an interest in her, causes subtle changes in how Gertrudis sees herself and her life.
Subtle is the operative word here, for the real strength of this film is Bogdasarian’s portrayal of Gertrudis. She almost never speaks. We know her through the expressions on her face, through her watchful eyes, through the way she looks away or touches her hand to her throat. This is a woman with a rich imagination and untapped sensuality, a woman far more beautiful than she realizes.
La Camara Oscura makes imaginative use of vintage photographic techniques and animation to give more insight into the character of Gertrudis and the photographer. The net result is a film that offers no real surprises but leaves an ache in the throat from beginning to end, and a strong message about the powerful hidden yearnings of people we barely notice.
The film’s dialogue is in Spanish and Yiddish, with English subtitles. Take your Valentine to this one and have a good talk afterwards.
UltraStar Mission Valley. Sunday, Feb 14. 7:30 PM
Corona is a San Diego-based freelance writer and an award-winning author
By Laurel Corona
LA JOLLA, California — Each of us has a narrative about our family’s past, whether it’s shared around the table at family celebrations, or kept quietly to ourselves. When Serge Boccara (Clement Sibony) sets out from France to Tunisia with his pregnant wife Jeanne (Judith Davis) in director Ferid Boughedir’s 2008 film Villa Jasmin, he discovers the power of his own childhood memories and the fragility of the story he has constructed around them.
The film (based on a novel by Serge Moati) moves between the present and the past as the story evolves, blending the two to interesting effect when Serge occasionally intrudes on scenes that happened before he was born. Sometimes he is a mere observer and sometimes he is a participant in those scenes as it becomes clear that the driving force behind his desire to come to Tunisia is to come to grips with what he considers to be abandonment by both his parents when he was young. “Your parents didn’t abandon you,” his wife tells him. “They died.” Of course that’s different, but even after all these years, it doesn’t feel that way to Serge. “My mother preferred death to her son,” he thinks at one point, believing–however irrationally–that she let herself give in to cancer after his father’s death.
Serge Junior discovers quite quickly that the past will be difficult to revive when he sees that the villa is now a run-down electric cable company. The courtyard and grounds are in ruins, and he is too overcome by disappointment to want to step inside. He persists, though, visiting people and places all over the city, and little by little his parents’ story opens up with such vividness that he begins to inhabit their world.
The locus of the film is the eponymous Villa Jasmin, the seaside mansion of a Serge Senior (Arnaud Giovaninetti) and Odette Boccara (Elsa Mollien). He is from an “old” established Tunisian Jewish family, and she from a “new,” immigrant one, and though they are very much in love, much is made of the social tensions between the two groups.
The sociology of this place and time is one interesting element of the film, but it is also well worth seeing for the sensual evocations of the sounds, colors, and even smells (jasmine) of a vanished era. The cast is extraordinarily attractive, though from time to time the performances are too low-key to seem realistic under the circumstances and the villains of the story seem little more than stereotypes. But those interested in knowing more about twentieth century North African Jewish culture and Tunisian history from the first stirring of its independence movement through the end of the Nazi occupation will learn a great deal through this captivating story of ethical tenacity, personal sacrifice, and enduring love.
Villa Jasmin will be presented at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival at 6:20 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 13, at the AMC La Jolla.
Corona is a San Diego-based freelance writer and award winning author