The Profound Impacts of Decency: On ‘Hello, Bookstore’


Hello, Bookstore premieres at Film Forum in NYC on Friday, April 29th.

I’m old enough to remember when “decent” was middle-school slang for “excellent.” Over the years, the word has been downgraded to faint praise, and lately it feels like the concept has gone missing from the greater discourse altogether. There are a lot of conversations around its absence, I’ve noticed, but few solid examples to take heart in when—arguably—we need it most. These days make you want to resurrect decency as a high badge of excellence.

Fortunately for us all, then, filmmaker A.B. Zax’s debut documentary feature, Hello, Bookstore, is steeped in decency from start to finish. The film is as upbeat as its title, taken from The Bookstore owner Matthew Tannenbaum’s greeting when he answers his perpetually ringing phone. Yet the film is not sentimental, or trite, or even particularly old-fashioned. Hello, Bookstore is a small-scale tale of heartening sincerity, community, and the love of books.

Part of the goodness comes straight from The Bookstore itself, with its tall wooden shelves packed with backlist and new-release books, agreeable clutter, and a wine bar in the back called Get Lit. There is an old-fashioned cash register sporting a tiny rubber chicken, New Yorker cartoons on the walls, and an ancient model train set. But the heart and soul of The Bookstore is Tannenbaum—a soft-spoken, lanky raconteur who exudes an instant, generous camaraderie.

Tannenbaum bought the store, in the Berkshires town of Lenox, Mass., in 1976, days shy of his 30th birthday. He had done a stint as a bookseller in Manhattan’s late, beloved Gotham Book Mart, but had no experience running a business—and, as he’s quick to note, no real business sense either. He learned on his feet: how to juggle credit, how to hand-sell a book to almost anyone, and, most important, what kind of merchant—and citizen—he wanted to be: not just a seller of books, but a connector of people. “One day,” he told me, “somebody gave me tickets for Tanglewood. I gave them to a customer. And the next day, the customer came in and said, ‘I sat next to somebody who I went to high school with and hadn’t seen in 45 years. You did that.’”

In 2019, Zax, a lifelong lover of bookstores, was grappling with his own feelings as he watched local concerns being squeezed out—“these little businesses that are such a life force for our community. Coming to The Bookstore and seeing Matt, and seeing the way he has created this literary oasis in this really magical place, I felt like I wanted to celebrate it.”

Tannenbaum agreed to being celebrated, and Zax began shooting that fall, when all was relatively right in the world. “It started off as a very different project,” Zax explains. “It was going to be a seasonal portrait of the bookstore, just capturing the soul and essence and atmosphere.”

So we get Tannenbaum in high form, bantering with everyone who passes through, waxing so sincerely enthusiastic—“It took me three days to read this book,” he tells one woman. “My bookmark never had a chance. I would close it and open it right back up again”—that the merchandise practically floats into customers’ hands. He is in turns gregarious and sympathetic, as good with a literary anecdote or quoted passage from a book he’s loved as he is with a dad joke, holding court from the wooden desk at the front of the store as the afternoon New England light slants through the tall windows. His rapport with shoppers and browsers and passersby, babies and seniors and slightly embarrassed teenagers, is genuine, and they respond in kind.

Those countless small connections and intimacies give us all the context we need to see how seriously Covid-19, when it arrives, will change all of that.

When it hits, Tannenbaum shuts The Bookstore’s front door, and with his usual kindness turns customer after customer away—surely a heartbreaker for this affable man. His commerce model is decidedly low-tech, instructing patrons to browse the store’s website and then place their orders over the phone or shout them—along with their credit card numbers—through the front window. Tannenbaum still searches out requests in the time it takes someone to drive around the block; he wraps each book in brown paper with exquisite care. But piling purchases on a stool in front of the store—“Back up!” he thoughtfully cautions eager buyers as he edges outside—can’t replace the simpatico face-to-face and book-to-hand exchange Tannenbaum built a business on. By July 2020, usually his busiest time, The Bookstore takes a week to bring in what it would have made in a day.

So, Tannenbaum sets up a Save The Bookstore GoFundMe campaign. His appeal to friends and customers to support “the large presence in your life that is this small shop” is worded as warmly as any of his front desk transactions: “Until we can safely open our doors again, and I just don’t know when that will be, I most humbly ask you to help me to get through. It’s yours as much as it is mine.”

And it works; the community steps up. The Bookstore hits its goal within 23 hours, then exceeds it. Not only does the store survive the worst of the pandemic, but, “I’m out of debt,” Tannenbaum marvels. “I’ve never been out of debt in 45 years.”

This is not a spoiler. While it might have been tempting to build the arc of the film around the store’s peril and salvation, Zax treats it as part of the portrait, another season. The fiscal drama is not the point; Hello, Bookstore is neither a Covid movie nor a cliffhanger about The Bookstore’s fate. Tannenbaum may jokingly refer to himself as George Bailey, but this is not It’s a Wonderful Life, and although the store’s financial straits are mentioned at the beginning, that’s not the big story. The film is about doing what you love and loving the people you do it for. In other words, the profound impacts of decency.

What the Save The Bookstore campaign did, Zax says, “was bring all of these other ideas to the surface that were hovering in the subtext”—community bonds built over months and years, the way Tannenbaum takes time to listen to every person who walks in the door, and the generational links of parents buying books for their children, who in turn show up with their own children (“with fancier and fancier strollers,” Tannenbaum notes drily), who will eventually come in with kids of their own.

Zax makes sure that we, the audience, get it too. “When the store got rescued, you already knew—or you had some sense of—what the actual thing that was being rescued was,” adds Tannenbaum.

And unlike George Bailey, Tannenbaum doesn’t need to be convinced that he’s already living a good life.

As pleasurable as the storyline is—getting to watch a good man with a much-loved business triumph—there is also a great joy in simply watching time pass in The Bookstore. The light shifts with the seasons; shoppers walk the aisles in winter coats and then t-shirts and shorts. Tannenbaum’s hair grows long during the height of the pandemic. Early on, his daughter Shawnee, newly pregnant, notes that her clothes don’t fit anymore; as the film winds down, it’s impossible not to beam with delight watching Tannenbaum on the floor with the new baby.

Tannenbaum was introduced to literature as a young man fresh out of the navy, and it opened up his eyes and his life to a new, wonder-filled way of being. “Fiction is the filter through which I see the world,” he says in the film—a way of engaging rather than escaping—and his pleasure is deeply contagious. Throughout Hello, Bookstore, he reads, or quotes from memory, beloved passages, everything from Maurice Sendak’s Higgledy Piggledy Pop! to Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers. Part of the fun is surreptitiously browsing the store’s shelves as Zax follows Tannenbaum through the aisles, or writing down the titles Tannenbaum recommends in passing, being drawn in as thoroughly as the reporter who comes to write up the GoFundMe campaign and in the process learns about Patrick Leigh Fermor and John Crowley, hears the story of Get Lit’s origins, checks out an original Patti Smith broadside, and—one senses—falls a little in love with The Bookstore.

Hello, Bookstore is also, more quietly, a tale with a satisfying moral for the pandemic era—Tannenbaum kept his doors closed and his customers safe, and they offered their gratitude in return. Granted, the town of Lenox—solidly blue territory in the Berkshires—would not have been a hard sell, but The Bookstore was one of the last businesses in town to reopen, he notes, which suggests a commendable level of concern and sticking to his guns.

Toward the end of the film, Tannenbaum describes an encounter with a customer. The man steps up to the front desk and says—slightly accusingly, in Tannenbaum’s telling—“I see what you do. You sit in that chair all day long, surrounded by the things you love most in the world, and all you do all day long is talk to people about the things you love most in the world. And the only time you get interrupted is when someone wants to give you money.”

Tannenbaum hesitates a beat and then agrees: “That’s my life.”

It hasn’t been a perfect one, to be sure. Tannenbaum lost both his father and his wife too early, and raised two young daughters alone. But he has parlayed what he has been given—a deep love of books and people—into a small, generous world. Hello, Bookstore doesn’t suffer from its lack of hard edges.

“Everything is informed by kindness, patience, generosity,” Tannenbaum’s daughter Sophie says of her father. “He’s got time for it all. He’s got time for everyone. Truly.” Part of the satisfaction in Zax’s story is seeing that those are not only meaningful as abstract values, but return something tangible when Tannenbaum needs it most. Mostly, though, the many joys of Hello, Bookstore lie in the small moments.

Zax describes making the film as “a gift” during the hardest times of the pandemic—“to be able to come here and have this fun, beautiful thing to do.” At one point Tannenbaum stops, mid-conversation, and looks across the room. “Look at the smile on that guy’s face,” he says. “He found a book.” We never get to see the smile on the man’s face, but we see the one on Tannenbaum’s, and that’s a gift for the rest of us.

Reading My Mother’s Mind: On Packing Up a Personal Library


This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Is there anything more intimate than cleaning out another person’s home—deciding which of her possessions, collected with love or without thought, is important enough to keep; and what, then, to do with the rest?

Aside from the fact that it usually comes with some degree of sadness, the process requires a set of emotional gymnastics, a series of shifts from empathy to self-interest and back again: This thing is archival or an important memory marker; this meant something to her so it now means something to me; this did its duty but now can be set free; this has no conceivable use for anyone, ever. Family photographs are easy (keep). Recipe clippings from the 1980s are easy (dump). Books—or rather a library, as opposed to a half shelf of bestsellers in the corner of the family room—are almost never simple. A library embodies the trajectory of a life and intellect, and to sort, Solomon-like, through someone else’s story in books is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

The process, the responsibility, intensifies when this person is your mother.

It took my sister and me under a minute to split up the labor of cleaning out our mother’s apartment when we finally moved her to a nursing home. Her dementia had reached the point where even a full-time home health aide couldn’t give her the care she needed, and when mom landed in the hospital after refusing to take a round of antibiotics for an infection, it was time.

Fortunately, we found a great facility that accepted Medicaid. Unfortunately, that gave us a hard deadline for selling her co-op: once her Medicare-allotted time ran out, Medicaid would then siphon off all her money, including what we needed to pay the mortgage. We had a couple of months; sentiment would have to take a back seat to expediency.

So my sister and I agreed: she would go through mom’s clothes, jewelry, and furniture; we’d split the kitchen; and I’d sort the office and art supplies, general paper ephemera—magazines, recipes, photo albums—and her hundreds of books. This last not only because I’m a “book person,” but because I had a long-term and complex relationship with those books of hers. Which is, I guess, exactly what being a book person means.

Books had always been a language my mother and I shared when she was well: we gave them to each other as gifts, borrowed, traded, talked about what we’d read. Then, as her 10-year descent into dementia accelerated, her books took on a separate identity for me, their simple presence becoming a sort of animal comfort. Whenever I found myself at a loss with her—when she snapped at me and told me to leave, or, some years later, would doze off mid-sentence, or, even later, when her aide would be cleaning her in the bathroom as mom screeched and swore and swung—I would stand by the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and read the titles over and over, cataloging them in my mind the way you rub a worry stone in your pocket.

Her library was unself-conscious in the extreme—potboiler mysteries filed alphabetically with classics, paperbound galleys next to handsome hardcovers and golden-age, mass-market paperbacks from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Her frayed clothbound sets of philosophy and history ruled the top shelves, with oversized art books stacked horizontally on the bottom. Many were gifts from me.

Across the room, lined up on end tables, were more recent acquisitions—offerings to tempt her back to reading after the concussion that started her decline, though I’m not sure she ever got to them. I gave her Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. From my nephew, Peter Carey’s Theft, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. From I-don’t-know-who, The Help—which, bless her, mom would have adored. She was a sucker for stories of love and kindness redeeming all, and equally unconcerned with subtexts of class, race, or politics of any kind.

In fact, for someone who so loved the intellectual intricacies of philosophy, mom flinched at anything morally difficult. Deeply non-confrontational in real life, she let her various blind spots carry over into her intellectual life. She didn’t like to follow politics, she told me when I was a child, because “everyone is so nasty.” And while she approved of broad-brush liberal issues—civil rights, the women’s movement—she did not like anything that made her uncomfortable: cruelty, suffering, ugliness, the moral conundrum of otherwise good people behaving badly. The notes I retrieved from her philosophy books, scrawled on bits and pieces of paper, stuck firmly with the epistemological: what is reality, what is the nature of consciousness, how do I fit in with the world?—phrases and questions written out in her neat, even script, connected by endless ellipses.

For all our lively highbrow discussions, there were places we just did not go. Politics was one; religion another. My father, raised an Orthodox Jew, was a vehement atheist, and religion was something of a dirty word in our house. My mother seemed to have no strong ties to religion, or faith of any kind, even after my parents divorced and she was free to practice what she liked.

But I wonder, now, if the enforced nonbelief of her marriage to my father was a loss for her. She grew up in a loosely observant Jewish tradition, but I never got a sense of whether those habits—which carried through to her first marriage but not her union with my father—were a source of comfort or a burden. Even more, I wonder what, beyond her enjoyment of solipsistic thought puzzles, comprised her inner life. For all our shared talk of art, literature, anthropology, science, and the general nature of the cosmos that sparked in me a deep hunger for knowledge as a child and young adult, I don’t recall our conversations going deep. Nor did Mom and I go to the mats, ever, when we disagreed. I regretted this the moment that possibility disappeared with her cogency—what had I been thinking, not to push her to explain her beliefs, not to help me figure out some of my own intellectual lineage?

In his recent family memoir, The House of Twenty Thousand Books (New York Review Books, 2015), journalist and professor Sasha Abramsky draws on a similar process of reading bookshelves—as well as books—as a way in to the heart and mind of his beloved grandfather, Chimen Abramsky.

The son and grandson of learned rabbis, Chimen was a renowned collector of modern Judaica and socialist literature—“modern” referring to anything published in the past 500 years—consisting of books, prints, and manuscripts. He eventually amassed an enormous private library that included Karl Marx’s handwritten letters, an early edition of The Communist Manifesto annotated by Marx and Friedrich Engels, an early 16th-century Bomberg Bible (one of the first printed Hebrew bibles), and first editions of Baruch Spinoza and René Descartes.

The London row house where Chimen lived with his wife, Mimi, was double-shelved, floor to ceiling, with books collected over a lifetime, and after Chimen’s death in 2010, Sasha revisited that collection, room by room and shelf by shelf—to paint a portrait of his grandfather as both scholar and family man, to tell the story of his own lineage, and—with evident discomfort—to try and puzzle out the dissonance of Chimen’s decades-long embrace of communism.

Even as he and his family fled the Russian pogroms, and despite the eventual accounting of Joseph Stalin’s atrocities, Chimen remained unapologetically loyal to the Party until the late ’50s. Though he regretted this in later life, eventually replacing those affiliations with a liberal humanist circle who satisfied his need for voluble dinnertime debate, that willful blindness on Chimen’s part was a sticking point for Sasha. On reading his grandfather’s 1953 obituary of Stalin in The Jewish Clarion (on microfilm at the University of Sheffield, as Chimen had—in a rare moment of contrition—burned his own originals), he recalls:
What I don’t realize going in is just how phenomenally awful it really is, just how much he had bought into the cult of the personality. It leaves me gasping for breath, makes me want to run into a shower and scrub myself clean. This isn’t the sweet old man I loved so much; this isn’t the insightful humanist, so suspicious of even a whiff of totalitarianism and who so prided himself on his friendship with the great liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin.
A thoughtful cataloging of his grandfather’s personal history seems to have brought him some small closure. It’s important, too, that he achieved this understanding by way of Chimen’s bookshelves. At the beginning of The House of Twenty Thousand Books, Sasha, writing in his early 40s, recalled:
From my early childhood days, Chimen taught me how to interpret the world around me, how to use ideas carefully to create patterns out of chaos.
And this, perhaps, is why my somewhat obsessive inventory of my mother’s bookshelves gave me comfort in her final years at home. Even if she was now largely the source of the chaos in my life, once upon a time she taught me well.

I siphoned books out of my mother’s library for years. Though mostly with her approval: she had boxed up a wonderful collection of art, design, and photography books during one downsize or another, and she gave them to me once I moved into a house large enough to hold them. Periodically, I’d ask and borrow random items.

And in later years I just took stuff. Sometimes after an extra challenging day with her, spiriting a book home would be my reward. Sometimes my ritual gaze would turn covetous, and though there was no reason not to “borrow” whatever I wanted, the thought that I was taking from someone else’s shelves without permission felt vaguely transgressive. Still, the need to console myself was stronger than the taboo; my copy of Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth will be forever linked in my mind with one early morning I had to race up to her apartment when, on one of her aide’s rare days off, mom had locked the replacement caregiver out and called the cops.

And yet—once I was alone in her apartment with a stack of boxes, tasked with this move, and her books were all mine to do with as I liked, I knew one thing right away: I didn’t want them.

In a different world—maybe a better one—I would have incorporated my mother’s library into my own. Not the crap, of course; not the ARCs, the mass-market potboilers, the bad sci-fi. (I did keep a galley of The Da Vinci Code for novelty’s sake, though I doubt it will ever be worth anything since mom, as she did with all her books, wrote her name in it.) But the lovely old clothbound sets, her collection of Modern Library philosophy, the mid-century novels that epitomized her generation of readers—Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike—could have come home with me. I could have bought more bookshelves and absorbed her eclectic collection into mine in a traditional, intergenerational meeting of minds.

But I don’t have much sentiment for tradition, and, more practically, I’m not an aspirational reader. (My shelves and iPad give lie to that statement, of course—I own far more books than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime.) What coheres my own collection, though, is that every one of them is a book I might read. Though abstractly the possibility of reading Spinoza or Descartes or The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire lights a little fire in my heart, as I imagine the smarter, wiser, better-informed person I could become, I’m also a realist. I’m not going to read them.

So I packed her books up, going through each with an eye out for personal inscriptions, dollar bills, or the photos she liked to use as bookmarks. I filled about 20 boxes from U-Haul, and dropped them off at her local library, five boxes at a time, as per Friends of the Library instructions. It took my back nearly a month to recover.

I did keep a few items: a boxed set of books written by my father, none of which I owned; a lovely oversized book of Käthe Kollwitz drawings, given to mom on her birthday the year I was born and inscribed with extravagant love (“For my liebchen”) by my father; a two-volume set of 1967 Gourmet cookbooks, fat and impractical with cracked leather bindings, full of recipes I can’t imagine wanting to cook, but with a marvelously cringe-inducing ’60s inscription, again from my father: “To Rhoda, Feed me! Happy birthday, with all my love;” a trade paperback copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography. The rest I let go. I was surprised at how easy it was.

My mother’s Tarrytown co-op was no house of 20,000 books, and her 600-odd-volume library had nothing on Chimen Abramsky’s.

But they shared the same bloodline. They don’t call us Jews the People of the Book for nothing, and although the label is originally about Judaism’s relationship to the Torah, how for millennia it has been treated as a live text that invites engagement and discourse, there’s also a cultural reverence for books and education that—while not unique to Jews—has been a given for generations of Jewish families. My parents were certainly the product of that loyalty, products of New York public schools who passed through the City College system and eventually met at Columbia. In our family, learning—which is to say reading—meant mobility and access.

My mother and Chimen Abramsky both loved those little Everyman’s and Modern Library books, with their egalitarian promises of knowledge for all: as Sasha Abramsky says, “They were books produced for every man, at a moment when it was quietly assumed that people in England of all classes and all walks of life were interested in bettering themselves intellectually.” Substitute Brooklyn or the Bronx for England, and you have my family’s intellectual history encapsulated. Like Abramsky’s, my mother’s library was aleatory and curated solely around her interests. While his enthusiasms lay along more scholarly lines, and although he collected around themes—Judaica, Socialism, Marx—there was still, in both their libraries, a deep faith that had nothing to do with organized religion and everything to do with the power of the printed word to elevate, expand, and explain.

And, as I am doing now, Sasha Abramsky revisited his grandfather’s library through memory only. Other than a few items that he and family members kept, the rest of his grandfather’s collection was boxed and sent off; not to the local Friends of the Library, of course, but to be appraised and sold. Utility took precedence over sentiment for Chimen’s library, as with my mother’s, and the books went on to a new life with new readers.

Someday my son will have to pack up all my books and decide what he wants to keep and what goes to the library sale, if there still is such a thing. I don’t need to make his future job harder just because I like the look of an erudite collection on my shelves, or because I want to try my hand at reading what my mother read to see if that makes me any more able to imagine what she thought. It won’t, because I can’t. It’s enough that she instilled that love of far-ranging, inquisitive reading in me. And maybe someone will pick up that battered set of The Great Philosophers for $5 at the Friends of the Warner Library book sale and it will be their gateway to great thought. Or maybe it will go unread and be packed up, someday, by their children, and the cycle will begin again.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Shirtwaist Story: Why We Are Still Angry

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Confession: I have not marched. Not in any one of the massive protests the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration; not at Kennedy Airport the weekend the executive order banning entry to travelers and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries was announced; nor in the “I Am a Muslim Too” rally, three weeks later. Not in one of the Not My President’s Day rallies. I don’t own a pink pussy hat.

Which is not to say I’m aligned, in any way, with the actions of the current administration. I’ve called my representatives, given to ACLU and Planned Parenthood, and as a member of the media — writing about and advocating for libraries, a progressive and free-thinking American institution — I’m well situated in the enemy-of-the-state camp. I would rather work for the cause than march for it.

Why? For starters, I don’t much like crowds — never mind that I’m a New Yorker who rides the subways. But mainly I think I’m a good 10 years too young to have truly internalized the power of protests. As liberal as they were, my parents believed that children and politics shouldn’t mix, so very little of the ’60s and ’70s spirit of resistance seeped into my consciousness. And the demonstrations I do remember — No Nukes in 1979, 1995’s Million Man March, the endless demonstrations against the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003 — never translated into real change, and thus tamped down in me some basic belief in the ability of collective anger to move the needle. Yes, I know, there’s reverberative power in action that isn’t always immediate or obvious. But I’m sorry, 2017 makes Occupy Wall Street look like a practical joke on idealists everywhere.

I don’t think of myself as jaded. But my outrage has not moved my feet this year. Instead, I think about the protest movements that preceded me: for women’s suffrage, women’s reproductive rights, labor laws, civil rights. What was it about them that had the power to change policy, to change the world?

March 25 will mark the 106th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, where 146 garment workers — most of them recent Jewish and Italian immigrants aged 16 to 23, some as young as 14 — were killed in a fire that swept through the eighth, ninth, and 10th floors of a Greenwich Village factory. Most of the labor and safety laws we think of as humane and sensible didn’t exist: the exit and stairwell doors were locked to keep workers from stealing or taking unauthorized bathroom breaks, there were no sprinklers, and the single fire escape collapsed mid-fire, killing 20 workers. New York fire truck ladders only reached the sixth floor. Sixty-two of the dead jumped or fell from the windows.

Although union rallies and labor law protests had been in full swing since the 19th century, the horror of the Triangle fire fueled a new level of outrage in the fight for unions and better working conditions, as well as building-safety laws and women’s suffrage. (The company’s owners, who both survived the fire by escaping to the roof, were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter but eventually acquitted; they were, however, found liable of wrongful death during a 1913 civil suit.)

Little was written on the fire until Leon Stein’s 1962 account The Triangle Fire; then came a handful of young adult and children’s books in the 1970s. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century — in the aftermath of yet another New York tragedy that galvanized the nation — that the Triangle fire took its place in the literary consciousness. Alice Hoffman, Stephen King, and Robert Pinsky have used the fire as an element in novels, short stories, and poems, and Katharine Weber’s novel Triangle weaves the story of the fire’s last living survivor with the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

Now Delia Bell Robinson, a Vermont-based artist, has written and illustrated A Shirtwaist Story (Fomite Press), the story of a slightly more unexpected reverberation. She tells of her friendship with “Peter,” the grandson of one of the factory’s owners, and the family legacy of silence and guilt sprung from the disaster. Robinson also addresses the fire itself, but obliquely, with somber-toned, haunting paintings of immigrants and workers interspersed with colorful illustrations of Peter’s life that would not be out of place in a storybook.

In fact, Robinson says, the initial paintings about Peter were done directly on the pages of a children’s book she found in a library discard pile. She began writing his story when the two first met in the 1990s, in Montpelier, Vt., and she was drawn to his tales of growing up a “poor little rich boy” on New York’s Upper East Side — undergoing surgery as a baby while his parents vacationed in Cape Cod, riding his bike in Central Park, touring Europe with his family. “It was like living in a clever play,” writes Robinson, “lots of smart repartee and some mild clawing for social ascendancy.”

In 2001 Robinson walked into her local café and found Peter there, looking bereft. As she tells it:
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked.
“The last survivor of the shirtwaist fire just died.”
“Yes, I heard that on the radio,” I said, “It is sad, but why does that make you so much sadder than everyone else?”
“Because my grandfather owned the factory.”
Suddenly all my little cartoons were reduced to trivia.
The story of the final survivor’s death had been in the news and was already on Robinson’s mind. His admission left her with no doubt that she wanted to tell not only Peter’s story, but that of the fire as well. She began reading up on the event; what emerged was a book’s worth of sumptuous, haunting paintings.

“Hours of historical research had resulted in pages and pages of information, yet I didn’t want this to be a book filled with warmed-over facts,” Robinson says. “If I stripped the information down, it read like bad haiku. So how to present it all? I needed a new way to retell an already much-discussed history. Ultimately, I discarded my collected information, replacing facts with paintings.”

Robinson’s paintings of the people, cityscapes, and factory scenes, many of them black-and-white, are dark and affecting. The artist’s hand is present throughout, in her use of layering and collage — paint and graphite over type, postcards, photo emulsion transfers, and newsprint, with her own paper-clipped notes making appearances. While illustrators usually work larger than the eventual reproduction size in order to tighten the artwork and hide flaws, Robinson purposely reversed the equation, working on three-by-four-inch to eight-by-11-inch paper

“I wanted pen scratches, hesitation lines, brush marks, dirt, and paper fibers to intensify the atmosphere in each drawing. I therefore made small paintings on much rubbed and scrubbed paper,” she explains. “When done, they were enlarged and cropped to my satisfaction so every twist and turn of the pen or brush became heightened, bringing the character of each work forward.”

The result is a series of complex images appropriate to a complex story; in the closing sequence of portraits, the victims gaze out from the pages steadily, neither accusing nor letting us off the hook.

“Who was responsible?” writes Robinson. “The New York City Buildings Department passed the blame to the State Labor Commission, the fire inspectors, the fire department, the fire marshals, the owners, and finally to no one.”

“Our mother believed that children should grow like weeds,” says Robinson of her wildly creative — and only sporadically supervised — childhood. “She disapproved of interference or anything shaping creative impulses. In addition she was an Adele Davis food faddist, so delicious food was off the menu. Our beds were as hard as rocks and we were not allowed pillows. This regime would result in true individuality; young Titans with straight backs, healthy bodies, and unique opinions.”

Although she has painted, drawn, and sculpted all her life (in addition to a nursing career “to live and pay for paint”), Robinson kept her writing, other than essays for Ceramics Monthly, to herself. Her fiction, as she describes it, was not “polished or literary,” but the characters “were present as invisible friends for me during long Vermont winters and years of child rearing.” A Shirtwaist Story, published when Robinson was 71, is her debut book.

She had not originally intended to make Peter’s story public — “Relaying a true story with painful elements and balancing it against a desire to cause no harm is tricky.” — and although he had no problem with her drawing his childhood story for her own purposes, she understood his need for privacy. When a publisher expressed interest in the manuscript she approached Peter, who “turned away and changed the subject.”

But when his mother died a few years later, he guardedly told Robinson that he had changed his mind, and that the whole story should be told.

Robinson worked with Fomite Press’s husband-and-wife team of Marc Estrin and Donna Bister to refine A Shirtwaist Story, which she described as originally “a Siamese twin of a book, one topic but two bodies of dissimilar work.” They encouraged her to blend the two time frames, keeping the original tone and texture of each, and approved of her wishes to include the painted-over text of the original library book. Keeping “all the blots, scribbles, and fragments of letters I’d heaped on [the pages]” made for extra work, she added, but Bister and Estrin never complained.

Indeed, the fire has affected many more lives than the 146 lost, or the factory owners, or any of their survivors. Anyone who has escaped an apartment building via the fire stairs, or who stood up and took a union-mandated break during their workday, owes at least a part of that legislation to the Triangle fire.

But what is it about that fire, or the women who turned out for suffrage two years later, or the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the Selma to Montgomery marches two years after that, that mustered the strength of enough individuals to ultimately change the world? And what is it about an event like the Triangle fire — so small in the context of today’s numbers — that still keeps its memory so close to the surface of our national anger? Was the world simply a smaller place then?

In a way, yes. “Before the fire, it was generally accepted that ‘the business of America is business.’ Politicians, government — they were all about helping business prosper,” posits Triangle author Weber (a Bloomer herself, having published her first novel at 39). “The horror of the fire…was maybe the first time there was a feeling that government should ‘do something’ to protect the worker. Laws had not been broken, you know — the building codes, the safety codes — nothing at all was a violation — because nothing was necessary to protect the worker, only profits.”

The fire also dovetailed with the beginnings of the women’s movement — 123 of the victims were women or girls — and the immigrant narrative was taking on an important life of its own in the national story. “I think everyone was galvanized by the sense of the tragic broken promise that had been made to those immigrants who had accepted the Emma Lazarus welcome and were living their American dream,” said Weber. The fire “woke” people — including Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 and the first woman ever appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. She witnessed the fire and saw the workers jumping, Weber noted, and became a lifelong advocate for labor and women’s rights. Perkins was a wealthy woman who was galvanized to make the concerns of the poor her own, loudly and vociferously — a role filled these days primarily on the back end, by foundations and celebrities, who can let their money do the marching. But where is the one percent who will roll up their sleeves and do the work at hand?

Perhaps it is only fitting that the fire should be on our minds, then, as the new administration’s infringements on the rights of immigrants, workers, women, and the poor manifest themselves daily. Marching is good, but so is work — the process of dredging up what is strong and raw in our collective outrage: writing editorials, lobbying elected officials, calling out untruths where we find them, making a sound where we can be heard. Solidarity is good and valuable, but it is only one step in the process. And that process is something I have not lost faith in — nor, fortunately, have the many artists working everywhere to make sure that we don’t forget why we are, and should be, angry.

For more on Delia Bell Robinson, check out this Q&A over at Bloom.

All illustrations © Delia Bell Robinson

If I Could Talk to Animals: American Bill Broun’s Thoroughly British Novel


This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

“The massive black hole in our understanding of the creatures with whom we share the planet, as vast and compelling a mystery as the universe, is intolerable, not just because we can’t talk to the animals, but because it reminds us of how we can’t really know any other consciousness, not even those of our species…It reminds us that each of us is inescapably alone inside our heads.” — Jenny Diski, What I Don’t Know About Animals (Yale University Press, 2010)

My dog and I understand each other well. We’ve been together 11 years, longer than a lot of couples I know. But although I am not under any illusions that when I speak to her she’s going to answer, there was a time in my life when you could easily have convinced me otherwise.

As an American child living in Israel during my formative years, I hated the guttural sounds of Hebrew and refused to learn it. It was the late-’60s; no one insisted that language immersion was good for children. Instead, my parents enrolled me in the best English-speaking preschool in Tel Aviv — an Anglican school — and supplied me with a steady stream of books and comics from England, which I consumed one after the other.

Much in the same way that Konrad Lorenz imprinted himself on his gaggles of baby geese, my first reading experiences stamped on me, for most of my childhood, a fervent love of animals and the accompanying wish to communicate with them; and, in my earliest years, I suspect I thought I could. In those days, British children’s literature overflowed with wonderful talking beasts: Beatrix Potter, Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, Paddington Bear, Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books, Tove Jansson’s The Moomins series, and The Chronicles of Narnia, to name a few. Thrown into parochial school with no prior religious instruction, I sorted out my own theistic system in a way that made perfect sense: God, in my four-year-old mind, was a benevolent, gray-muzzled German shepherd.

We returned to the States as I started first grade, and I went on to discover American animal books. But something was missing. Books like Albert Payson Terhune’s dog books, Call of the Wild, and Black Beauty told of good mute beasts, loyal and ready to serve their human companions, but I wanted communion. I wanted my animals to talk back.

Although I had no way of knowing it at the time, the tradition of articulate fictional animals is rooted in a deep national nostalgia for the Greenwood, the archetypal forest of British lore. The kings of old hunted enchanted stags in the Greenwood; Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest was a version, and the Arden Forest where As You Like It takes place. And the Greenwood is home to the mythical Green Man — a mysterious and leafy being who stood for fertility, nature, and magic.

For all the American mythos of celebrating nature and the song of the Plains, animals have always been more a source of food or cheap labor than conversation here. The English got their animals right, as far as I was concerned, and I kept that ideal close to my heart.

As the son of a British father and American mother, Bill Broun, author of Night of the Animals, did not encounter a particularly high level of Anglo-American cultural conflict growing up in Ohio. His mother liked popular American novels and knew her classics, he recalls, and his father read the Akron Beacon Journal and listened to the BBC World Service on his shortwave. “I’m very much [an American] child of the late-’70s and early-’80s,” he explains. “My literature was Weird War Tales and Sgt. Rock comics and a set of World Book encyclopedias.”

But a family trip back to England, he says, changed his life. “I met all my English relatives,” Broun recalls. “I saw my granddaddy’s pauper’s grave, at a little country church in Worcestershire. It disturbed the fuck out of me. It was a mound. No headstone…I saw my first Aston Villa soccer match, saw London, saw Scotland, and came back to Ohio obsessed with my ties to England.”

Broun attended University College London and Miami University in Ohio, eventually earning an MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston. In 2002, the year he began writing Night of the Animals, Broun was a resident fellow at Yale University; he has worked as an editor, reviewer, and journalist, and is currently associate professor of English at East Stroudsburg University, Penn.

But while the novel — a tale of one man’s odyssey to free the animals in the London Zoo — was written on these shores, “The plain fact is,” Broun says, “I barely thought of Americans.” Night of the Animals, which was published by the U.S. imprint Ecco in July, is set very firmly in a future England and informed by British folk tales, religion, politics, identity, and even vernacular — as well as a dark dystopian vision, black humor, and some beautiful, pyrotechnic writing. “I consider it a British novel through and through,” he says. “Although ambitious in a way that’s not quite like a lot of British lit today.”

It reflects Broun’s identification with his family’s working class background too; his father, a machinist, left school at 14 to support his family. “I wanted to tell a huge, authentic English story,” Broun adds, “and accurately portray a vanished and vanishing world and a class of people today who often don’t make it into the British literary scene.”

The night in question takes place in 2052. England is no longer part of the European Union (which, keep in mind, wasn’t even a gleam in Parliament’s eye in 2002 when Broun began writing the book). The country, ruled by the oligarch Henry IX — Harry9, familiarly — has reverted to a pre-Victorian divide between the new aristocrats and the massive underclass known as Indigents after a series of social reforms in the 2020s. The remains of the working class have given up their right to vote in return for dormitory housing, basic meals, jobs on government soybean farms.

Broun’s protagonist, Cuthbert Handley, is one of Britain’s many have-nots. At 90 — 2052’s new 70 or so, thanks to synthetic body part replacement — he is homeless, ill, overweight, addicted to the legal drug Flôt, and deeply disturbed by the disappearance of his older brother Drystan when they were children. He is also gripped by the belief that the animals in the zoo are talking to him, begging him to set them free.

He has a point. Earth’s animal population is dwindling, and as the last repository of “whole” animals, rather than genomic clones, the London Zoo has become the target for the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult, which is readying itself to die as a massive comet nears the Earth’s orbit. The cultists are killing off the world’s animals so that the accompanying aliens will make no mistake as to whose souls to occupy. The zoo is simultaneously “an ark, and a death row prison.” Cuthbert intends to liberate its inmates — and, perhaps, find his long-lost brother.

It’s immediately clear that Cuthbert, blundering through the Zoo’s underbrush late at night with a pair of bolt-cutters and a maintenance dose of Flôt, is not in his right mind. Yet at the same time, he may or may not have inherited what his old-country gran called the Wonderments — special old-time powers, passed down through every other generation, which include the ability to understand animals.

The animal language has been dying out for some time, she tells young Cuthbert and Drystan during a family visit to the countryside:

“My grandfather used to say that when the animals go quate [quiet], it means Jack in the Green’s right ‘round the corner…The Green Man. The Lush One. Robin Goodfellow. Puck. The Christ of Otters.”

“Otters? I don’t like otters. I like tigers. Can’t we have tigers?” asked Drystan.

But when the boys venture deep into the woods that afternoon and tumble into a deep brook, it’s an otter six-year-old Cuthbert sees — or thinks he sees — as Drystan disappears beneath the water and Cuthbert himself nearly drowns: “a fluid face, a being of brown and white and green wearing a momentary smile, then anger, a pale hand — or a paw? — reaching toward him, desperately.”

And it’s otters that haunt Cuthbert through the rest of his life, as he becomes less and less functional in the grip of his loss and grief and further in the thrall of his animal visions and his conviction that Drystan is not dead — that someday they will be reunited, and, of all the world’s creatures, it’s otters that hold the key.

Trying to work up the nerve to kill himself became compulsive; he would also try, when he remembered, to ‘beg forgiveness’ from a Christ of Otters. He forced himself to picture this robed messiah of all murdered animals, a gimlet-eyed and long-whiskered Jesus with a long pearly claw on each soft finger.

From his beginnings as a bright and promising young lad, Cuthbert evolves, eventually, into a crazy old man who talks to animals. “Words did not pass through snout, proboscis, or mandible. But nonetheless, the animals asserted themselves toward him. They sent messages, some limpid, some inscrutable, but all appreciable.”

Broun doesn’t see himself as an “animal person” in the traditional sense. “My feelings about animals fluctuate always,” he says, “and my relationship with them has always been kind of convoluted. There’s part of me, a brutal, on-the-farm side, I suppose, that can’t stand when people fetishize animals over people.”

What resonates for him where animals are concerned, Broun explains, is their place in the universe: “I do adore their beauty and spirits. To me, animals are part of God’s creation, and they’re magical — but so are trees and clouds and shooting stars.”

Yet Broun’s language reveals a deep respect for, and attention to, the fishes of the sea and the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. Cuthbert communes with penguins, lions, psychotic chimpanzees, all wonderfully rendered in Broun’s bestiary: a buck’s “great rack spread like a huge bone map of anger.” The zoo’s jackals are “all tangible dog-pieces darting about a sparse pen like small rages on legs.” A mournful gorilla ends up “knucklewalking down the middle of Baker Street, throwing forward his furry black arms, as big and strong as mastiffs.”

Along with its celebration of our fellow inhabitants of the earth, Night of the Animals unashamedly holds up faith as a necessary condition for survival — a character’s belief in being able to converse with animals, and an author’s faith in a weird and wonderful vision. Broun twice rewrote the book almost completely during its 14-year gestation: “I felt like I was being tested or punished or doing penance or something…I felt like God was on my back, with one foot on my neck, making me work.”

Cuthbert admits that driving his mission is a fierce desire for redemption. He has not always placed the well-being of animals above his own, he admits to Muezza, the wonderfully Machiavellian little sand cat who befriends (and converses at great length with) him, but was cruel and callous to beasts, small children, and old men in his youth.

It has destroyed my soul, and damned me to alcoholism, then to Flôtism. I thought that by letting the jackals out and whatnot, and then you too, it might help.

Recovery often calls on belief in a power greater than oneself. Cuthbert’s higher power, of course, is a zoo full of animals. In particular, the Jesus of the Otters has become inextricably bound up in his disordered mind with Drystan’s disappearance and, he is convinced, eventual resurrection.

Given Cuthbert’s own imprinting, his odd theology makes sense (certainly to a reader whose personal deity was once a German shepherd). And if ever there was a man in need of a higher power, Cuthbert is it. His drug of choice, the legal and intensely addictive Flôt, is another royally sanctioned form of crowd control in 2052:

When Flôt was good, it was hands down the best legal hallucinogenic and sedative on earth. It offered more than intoxication, more than a release. It took you rippling across whole new planets of purple-white euphoria.

One of Flôt’s most devious properties is that anyone who successfully manages to kick the drug will experience a second withdrawal some 10 years later that is nearly impossible to withstand. Notes Broun, who has 25 years of recovery under his own belt, “I wanted partly to portray the recovery process itself as something that remains precarious and miraculous over the long haul…Whenever I hear about a great recovery story, my instant thought is, great, but come see me in 10 years.”

Night of the Animals is a tale of recovery and redemption, though not the kind we’re used to. In the end, Cuthbert’s mission creates more havoc than liberty. Few of the animals are better off than before. But he does, in fact, free the otters:

[T]he entire romp of the London Zoo’s small species of otter appeared and leaped down through the gap, pouring out in one quivering, shiny river-bottom-colored whoosh. It was as though they were, together, the last and most precious thing in England to be emptied from it, a half-water and half-earth being made of golden-brown jewels and smelling of stolen foreign flowers.

A young police officer named Astrid Sullivan — a recovering Flôt addict who is working a Flôter’s Anonymous program and actively battling her demons — answers the call to investigate a disturbance at the zoo and falls in with Cuthbert despite her misgivings. The two become an unexpected team. And for a moment, as the long night ends, the spirit of the Greenwood makes an appearance, transforming Astrid, briefly:

It resembled Astrid, but it was larger, untamed, like a wild, long-limbed yew tree spotted with tiny red berries. Astrid’s long black hair seemed to have turned a golden green, and floated in the air…sparking little fires from which baby kestrels and whipping adders and speeding tiny stoats burst forth.

(“I did wonder occasionally if Americans would get the Green Man stuff,” notes Broun, “but I wasn’t writing for Americans, and when I started to see how widespread Green Man was — what with the figure of Al-Khidr in Islam, for instance — I started to see that it was truly, in a Jungian sense, archetypal.”)

Is Cuthbert’s night of the animals an archetypal fable? A hallucination? A miracle? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, and this may be Broun’s point. What is important is that Cuthbert has made connections — with his beloved animals, and with Astrid, as a true friend — something Cuthbert has lacked all this time.

For it doesn’t matter so much where you place your faith, but that you place it at all: in God, in the person standing next to you, or the dog at your feet. What I loved best about the British books I read as a child was how close to the surface of everyday life the mysticism lurked. In the absence of any other belief system, that was more than enough. In the absence of anything Cuthbert might have to hope for in his world, he can talk to the animals. And — because Broun has given us a thoroughly British novel — they can talk to him.

It’s Complicated: On Amy Gustine’s ‘You Should Pity Us Instead’

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

In an age of ubiquitous self-revelation, I consider myself discreet: I don’t gossip, don’t share intimate information — mine or others’ — in public places. The idea of discussing my physical or mental health, or personal, professional, or financial struggles, with anyone other than close friends or family feels wrong. I know many do so gladly in the name of openness, destigmatization, and shining a light on our underlying commonalities. That’s fine.

Me, I don’t even want to fill in my relationship status on Facebook.

But this doesn’t mean I’m not interested in other people’s.

A quick and unscientific survey of my Friends, for instance, reveals that most married people identify as married. Beyond that it falls off steeply: a few show up as single or in a relationship, one or two as divorced (many more actually are), one friend as widowed. And, for whatever reasons, no one in my Friend universe has checked off “It’s complicated.”

And what does that mean, anyway? I imagine various possibilities involving too many words for a pull-down menu — a nonexclusive relationship, or maybe an unrequited one, or a breakup that has lasted way past its expiration date.

But really, if we’re talking about relationships, doesn’t “It’s Complicated” apply to everyone? Of course it’s complicated — relationships with lovers, spouses, friends, enemies, parents, children, siblings, coworkers, neighbors. The complexity of human bonds is endlessly fascinating; this is why we tell stories, and why we read them.

Telling them well, though — doing justice to the endless entanglements we navigate every day — calls for emotional intelligence and a steady hand. Debuting with her first book of stories You Should Pity Us Instead (Sarabande) at age 45, Amy Gustine answers that call and demonstrates a deep respect for those complications.

Each story in You Should Pity Us Instead approaches then strips away the cliché at the center of a relationship — the insufficiently parented child, the unfaithful husband, the obsessively fearful new mother, the black son of a white adoptive family — replacing it with something finely tuned and delicate. And yet there is nothing ephemeral about Gustine’s characters. Each exists in careful balance to their partners, antagonists, and kin, but at the same time their integrity shines, unshakeable.

“In order to even begin writing I’ve got to have some sense of there being an irresolvable complexity, even contradiction, in the story,” says Gustine. “It’s unpacking the contradiction and nuance through the events and the dialogue that makes writing intriguing. Consistency and singularity are boring.”

Thus you have Sarah in “Half-Life,” a 22-year-old nanny only recently aged out of the foster care system who is trying to work out what she needs to know as an adult through the children she cares for. Or Spencer, from the story “Goldene Medene,” an Ellis Island intake doctor whose recent heartbreak clouds his judgment about the immigrants whose lives he holds in his hands.

Or Shayla and Mike in “Prisoners Do,” two doctors engaged in an extramarital affair for whom nothing is simple: Mike is the caretaker for his disabled wife and three young daughters; Shayla’s mother has metastatic brain cancer. Locked in their respective orbits, the titular prisoners circle ever closer but their paths never align. Gustine takes their measure as they cycle through the messiness of desire, envy, disaffection.
His daughter had sounded very sweet, and that simple exchange they had—’Is your Dad home?’ ‘Sure, may I tell him who’s calling?’ — had brought her heart into her throat and Shayla didn’t know why. She really, truly had been fine with no kids. Was still, when she thought about it, fine. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was something else.
These are grownup stories. The author’s powers of perception and empathy have been honed over a lifetime. Gustine’s parents divorced when she was young, and both sets of grandparents stepped in to help raise her — growing up she felt, she said, that she had six parents and four households, each with its own rules and mores.
Without being aware of it, my sister and I learned how to fit in with each one. Jokes you might make to my dad wouldn’t be okay with my grandparents. Shows that Grandma might watch with us, like a soap opera, wouldn’t be approved of by Dad. Sometimes I think juggling four different microcultures, as well as the culture of our private Catholic school, which was yet again very different from our home cultures, is what created a certain fascination with families, with relationships, and a certain empathetic imagination.
Always a reader, Gustine found books to be a perfect portable comfort. “When you move from house to house all week every week, and you don’t have your own bedroom,” she explains, “a book is a marvelous little thing that you can carry easily. You can just about live in it.” She read everything from Little Women to the Trixie Belden series to James Michener and V.C. Andrews (the latter two were lying around her grandparents’ houses) and, in high school, the Russians — Leo Tolstoy, and even more so Fyodor Dostoevsky — and Milan Kundera.

Gustine always considered herself a writer, she says, typing at an old metal desk in her grandmother’s basement. She wrote on weekends while working full-time after attending the University of Michigan, then earned an MFA at Bowling Green State University when her daughter was a toddler. When her son was born four years later, she stayed home with him for the first year and then started him in daycare and began writing full-time.

“Even though I knew I shouldn’t, sometimes I felt self-indulgent sending them off while I wrote,” she admits. “If I’d been getting a regular paycheck for the work, I doubt I would have felt that way. I did my best to ignore those feelings and push ahead.”

There were dry spells and productive periods,” Gustine adds. You Should Pity Us Instead gathers stories written over 15 years, most published one at a time in literary journals beginning with “An Uncontaminated Soul” when she was 35.

Two stories, “The River Warta” and “Goldene Medene” (a title that needs to be spoken out loud with the proper Yiddish inflection, GOLdeneh MEDeneh), were pulled from a collection of linked fiction based on her family’s immigrant experience at the turn of the century, which she began at Bowling Green; the rest emerged gradually. “I chose those to include based on two criteria: how much I liked them and whether or not they seemed to fit a family or parent-child relationship theme.” And as every one of us knows, family relationships are invariably complicated.

Take even a straightforward setup like a mother and an absent, beloved son. “All the Sons of Cain” opens the collection with palpable tension, a crowd of anonymous protestors milling outside a grieving woman’s bedroom:
After they find out where she lives, they start coming every week, sometimes every day. Wednesday morning they come especially early, waking her. R’s mother stays in bed, yearning for coffee and the bathroom, but fearful of nearing the window.
Her son, a young Israeli soldier captured by Hamas, has been turned into the conflict’s literal poster child, his photograph hoisted on their placards: “Sometimes they use him to protest another prisoner trade, sometimes to support it; sometimes to urge settlements, other times to condemn those already built.” His mother believes him dead. But when he turns up on the television news in a video, claiming to have converted to Islam and holding a recently dated newspaper, she grabs a change of clothes and a handful of old photographs and departs for Gaza to find him. Here, as throughout the book, Gustine shows her flair for painting a simultaneously interior and exterior portrait — micro and macro — with the same strokes:
As her plane descends into Cairo’s International Airport, R’s mother looks down on the glittering high-rises lining the Nile’s shore, then inland, to the raw-concrete worker’s homes, squatting in twilight. To the east is the City of the Dead, crumbling, necropolitan mustards, and to the west the dark, ancient deserts of Giza’s tombs, so singular and grand they strike her not as burial plots, but as alien settlements. Everywhere there are minarets, looking from above like missiles.

R’s mother doesn’t succeed on her mission. Instead, she finds other sons, and other mothers; a 13-year-old boy from the street who alternately taunts her and aids her, a young girl whose difficult birth she helps with in the back of a dark house. Still, this is not a heartwarming story of shared humanity. There is no great equalizing blanket of motherhood, or longing, or need. This is in fact a recurring pattern in the complications of Gustine’s characters’ lives: what could serve as a common thread and, in a simpler version of the world, bring them together, more often drives them apart.

Gustine’s characters’ relationship to faith — as a common language, a redemptive power — is, like all other relationships in Gustine’s stories, complicated. In the book’s title story, Molly, the wife of an academic who has written a Christopher Hitchens–like polemic against religion, moves with her family from Berkeley to her Ohio hometown, where her husband, Simon, has taken a position as chair of a philosophy department. Soon she realizes that their publicly atheist beliefs are in a stark minority. Once Simon’s book has been featured in a newspaper article, they also find that “invites to card nights and progressive dinners have dried up and the girls have been skipped over for several birthday parties and sleepovers.”

Molly’s relationship to her own faith, or lack of it, is complicated both by her desire for community — for herself, for her daughters — and the fact that her beloved grandfather, whom she visits daily, is growing frail. “Everybody’s going to die,” her husband tells the girls, but this isn’t enough of an answer for any of them. The question of where faith fits into this puzzle hangs over them all; even its absence is couched in the language of belief:
One day she looks up from her book and sees that the elm’s ten thousand pods, which blanketed the gardens in late May, have sprouted. Somehow this mindless, unwanted propagation makes being lonely okay. Even in the form of a plant, the world has violence and invasion at its core. Being lonely is the least you can expect. It’s so light a disappointment, it almost counts as a blessing.
Perhaps because of her Catholic upbringing, the spiritual questions Gustine’s characters ask wear a well-worn luster. “When We’re Innocent,” for instance, while not explicitly religious, is a story of the complications that come with (or without) belief: culpability, guilt, and the ways we grant each other mercy. Obi, who has come to Phoenix to clean out his daughter Jolly’s apartment, doesn’t know if her death by overdose was accidental or a suicide. Brian, who lives next door and is awaiting a trial on rape charges, is unsure of whether — or perhaps unwilling to admit that — the sex with a woman he met online was non-consensual. The two sit in Brian’s apartment, crushed by their unanswered questions, able to offer each other sympathy but not salvation.
‘What am I going to tell her mother?’ [Obi] bleated, bowing his head and pinching the bridge of his nose until his knuckles went white. ‘She had to have a reason.’

‘Tell her it was my fault,’ Brian said. ‘Tell her Jolly lived next door to a depraved soul unworthy of her, and if he’d only been a better man, Jolly would still be here.’
The state of loneliness — when relationships have gone awry or missing — is layered with complications as well. Lavinia, in “An Uncontaminated Soul,” is, bluntly, a cat lady. Widowed, living in her late mother’s house next door to her nemesis, the hostile and meddlesome old man Pultwock, she shares her cat food-slippery, piss-smelling home with 56 cats; her granddaughter is no longer allowed to visit.

But love is love, and Lavinia — actually Mary, a lover of literature who renamed herself after “Emily Dickinson’s sister who liked cats” — is alternately convivial and achingly tender with her feline charges. After rescuing two newborn kittens from a hot car,
she pinches their flesh and rubs her finger along their gums. Each is a bit sticky, so she sets up the humidifier in her bedroom, shooing out all the other cats, and installs the kittens in a box lined with sheepskin car-seat covers from the towed Olds.

In the kitchen Lavinia warms milk, corn oil, salt, and egg yolks on the stove, then feeds each kitten with a doll’s bottle. Afterward, she massages their genitals with a warm, moist cotton ball and they relieve themselves in her palm. She prefers to do it that way at first, so she can be sure who did what and how much.
Her story doesn’t end well. But in the process of pulling at our hearts, Gustine also asks something of us: that we not only rethink the dismissive trope of “cat lady,” but also that of the angry old man who eventually calls the Humane Society on her. In his catless loneliness, Pultwock — whose mien is as abrasive as his name, but whose own heartache the reader catches just a glimpse of — may be even more desperate for love than she.

“You should pity us who have no faith. We’re lonely and anxious,” says Molly to her fellow Midwestern mothers in an attempt at lightheartedness. The truth being, of course, that we are, all of us, lonely and anxious in our unending search for connection amidst messy, imperfect lives.

“It might go back to the issue of contradiction,” Gustine admits. “I don’t believe in purity. There’s good in bad and bad in good. There are no easy, straightforward situations or solutions.”

Its title to the contrary, You Should Pity Us Instead is a book distinctly devoid of pity. Gustine treats her characters — and thus her readers — with dignity and compassion. Our complications, she demonstrates with each story, may drive us and often damage us, but they’re important.

“All meaning seems to derive from connection to others and all connection requires caretaking, inevitably leading to a conflict between duty and pleasure,” she says. “So to live a meaningful life we must at some point sacrifice pleasure. That’s a paradox: to feel pleased we must not be pleased all the time.”

True, it’s complicated. But, Gustine wants us to see, it couldn’t — and shouldn’t — be any other way.

What’s So Civil About War, Anyway? On Occupation and Rebirth

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

It’s been said that all great literature comes from one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Take them both together, throw in some worldwide conflict, and chances are you have a war novel on your hands. As evidenced by well-known war stories from Homer onward, the journey part of the narrative is reliably satisfying and dramatic. But a stranger coming to town — especially when that stranger is alluringly familiar — has menace and intrigue all its own.

“The Great War is a ghost that continues to haunt us,” wrote Andrea Molesini in a recent essay for Literary Hub. Molesini — writer of children’s books, poet, translator (of Ezra Pound, Charles Simic, and Derek Walcott among others) and essayist — teaches comparative literature at the University of Padua and lives in Venice. At 55 he published his first novel, Non tutti i bastardi sono di Vienna (released from Grove Atlantic in February as Not All Bastards Are from Vienna), and the impact of that ghost on his countrymen is clear: inspired by the diary his great aunt kept during the final days of World War I, Not All Bastards Are from Vienna went on to win the Campiello Literary Prize for fiction in 2010, the 2011 Comisso Award, the Latisana Award, and the City of Cuneo First Novel Prize. Molesini’s novel offers up the other side of the well-worn battle story — the tension of a quiet occupation, in which the veneer of civility remains in place, like a shattered mirror whose shards of glass need only a tap to come cascading down.

The arriving stranger in Not All Bastards materializes out of the night: first as a monocle glinting in the light of a raised lantern, then resolving into a man — a German general — on horseback. The bearer of the lantern runs to fetch her mistress, and from that moment the Spada family’s fortunes begin to shift and crumble, as their villa in a small town north of Venice is occupied first by the billeting German Army and then by the Austrians. It is autumn 1917, just after the Battle of Caporetto. Austro-Hungarian forces have broken through the Italian front line. The Germans are moving toward the front and, they believe, their inevitable victory, taking what they need from civilians in their path — in this case, the Spadas’ ancestral estate in the rural town of Refrontolo.

The Villa Spada offers up an ensemble cast in the best Commedia dell’Arte tradition: masters, servants, and lovers. The novel’s narrator, 17-year-old Paolo Spada, lives with his eccentric grandparents and aunt. Grandpa Guglielmo is the family patriarch, but it’s Paolo’s Grandma Nancy who is the muscle of the Spada household — a formidable woman whose power may or may not stem from a regular enema regimen:

Her bathroom was a poem: bedecked with beige, ochre, black and flesh-coloured enema bags. There were two or three of them on every arm of the enamelled clothes hanger…The bags were rounded, pear or pumpkin or melon-shaped, and made of oilcloth. Reflected in the white tiles, the opaque rubber tubes looked like the tentacles of sea creatures with hooked beasts.

(The bags are also, as it turns out, the perfect place to hide the family valuables.)

Paolo’s Aunt, Donna Maria, was orphaned in the same accident that had taken his parents a few years earlier. A dignified beauty, she loves horses and the church — most likely in that order. There are three servants at the Villa: Teresa, who cooks (and administers Grandma’s enemas); her daughter, the pretty and sullen Loretta; and the steward, Renato, Paolo’s one role model of masculinity in their eccentric compound. “He was my favorite, and knew how to do everything, how to fish in the river with harpoon and knife, and also how to pluck a chicken ready for Teresa’s stewpot.”

Last, there is the lovely and mysterious Giulia, neither a servant nor relative, who lives on her own, nearby — a redhead six years older than Paolo, and the object of all his longing. Not All Bastards is as much a coming of age story as a war ballad; the boy grapples simultaneously with wartime privations and hormones, bravery and bluster. Paolo loves Giulia, and he loves his family, and though he tries his best to be a warrior, it’s his innate sweetness that consistently wins out.

The Germans throw Villa Spada into chaos immediately, filling the courtyard with horses, trucks, and motorcycles, pitching tents and building bonfires, and brutally looting what they can from the villa’s peasant tenants — only slightly more politely appropriating the Spada family’s goods. (Grandma manages to double-cross them, hiding the costume jewelry where it will be easily found and stowing the true valuables in her enema bags.) They put their feet up on the furniture and dig latrine trenches beside the family cemetery’s headstones.

The Spadas make do. Paolo moves into the attic loft, sharing a straw mattress with his grandfather. They eat in their grand dining room only when invited, which turns out to be often: The German officers break out good bottles of wine taken from the Spada cellars, and Teresa cooks — swearing in the local dialect under her breath — while Loretta serves. There is something of a camping-trip spirit in their accommodations, a sporty manifestation of noblesse oblige, and they assure each other that the Germans will be gone soon.

The illusion of civility is destroyed soon enough, though. Soldiers kidnap and rape several village girls, and although the girls are rescued, the lighthearted nature of the game has changed. Grandma calls a family meeting to explain the new rules of conduct:

Between these people and us I want there to be a barrier of tight lips and sour looks. After what has happened we cannot behave ourselves otherwise. We will put at their disposal whatever they would take in any case, which means to say everything — except our dignity. And this we will defend by maintaining a scornful silence.

Any remaining villagers, she adds, “cannot and must not attempt foolish actions like today’s. To get oneself hanged is downright foolish.”

What hasn’t changed, though, is the elder Spadas’ entrenched faith in social class. Rural Italy in 1917 was still a semi-feudal society, and lines were drawn accordingly. The soldiers may be unwashed, ragged, pillaging louts, but the officers — first the elegant German Captain Korpium and then, when the Germans are replaced by Austrians, the smooth-talking Baron von Feilitzsch — are gentry. They, too, believe in decorum. They keep their men in line; they treat their horses well.

By now, the reader is beginning to see what the characters, for all their discussion of the situation, can’t: Despite the education, the drawing-room manners, and a hundred years of history that define the occupying officers’ place in their unshakable social structure, in reality the Spadas and their servants are the true wartime allies — an overturned order that discomfits everyone. When Teresa intercedes between Grandpa and a threatening Austrian sergeant, the old man is as distressed as he is relieved: “’Defended by a cook…a servant…’ He sighed, as if to get a load off his chest. ‘That woman Teresa is worth more than me, she’s got more guts than me, she’s of more use to the world than I am.’”

Because even as the world around them is rocked by turbulence, everyone — occupiers and occupied, servants and masters — is less afraid of the disorder they know than the uncertainty of what might take its place. “Do you know what is good about war?” Captain Korpium asks Donna Maria one evening while they dine together:

That it makes things simple. It puts the good men on this side, the bad men on that. You know you have to kill that man: your uniform tells you so. You know you have to give orders to this man and you owe obedience to that one. You only have to glance at his insignia.

Only the cook’s daughter Loretta seems to find some solace in the leveling of the playing field. “We were eating leftovers, as she had often had to do, and our sheets were a little less white than usual — for even lye was hard to get — and now we too were not our own masters.”

Donna Maria is drawn to both officers — first the imposing German, Captain Korpium, and then Baron von Feilitzsch. As an educated and aristocratic single woman of a certain age, with no other eligible men in sight, her attraction is only natural — or is it? Her time spent strolling with the officers, we discover, may not merely be self-indulgent.

For the Spadas are subverting the order a bit more aggressively than simply throwing sour looks at the enemy behind their backs. While the officers sit at their dining table and drink wine from their cellars, the family — and Renato, who turns out to be a resistance agent — are gathering intelligence and transmitting it to the British planes that fly overhead every day. Grandma has developed a complex code involving the order of window shutters left open and closed, and of clothing hanging on the line — for after all, what is a more aristocratic wartime effort than spying? It allows one to be patriotic and still appear polite to the guests.

Paolo is elated when Renato includes him in the intrigue; first posting him in a cupboard to eavesdrop, and eventually having him accompany the steward and Giulia — another agent, we discover — on missions to reconnoiter with a downed English pilot. Between Renato’s manly approval and Giulia beginning to return his advances, Paolo is swept up in the twin thrills of love and war, only slightly dampened when Renato confesses that he first brought the boy along on the nighttime expeditions only as insurance in case of capture: “No one likes to shoot the children of the gentry,” Renato admits, adding, “If these Germans win the war, as they think they are going to, they will have to govern this territory with the complicity of some…And who do you think they will try but the people who govern it already?”

As resentments build, the boundaries between occupiers and occupied blur further — and more dangerously. Even as his involvement in Renato’s nighttime missions becomes more radical, at home Paolo finds himself drawn to the baron’s civility. “He told me about life in Hungary, where he and his wife had been for several years, and about Vienna, where his heart lay…He spoke to me of that world of courteous smiles, of unspoken feelings, of neat flower beds and blue drawing rooms, the leisurely world in which he had grown up.”

As the Italian Army rallies at the front, what social order is left at the Villa begins to fray. When Brian, their English pilot ally, is shot down and wounded, Renato kills two soldiers in the raid to rescue him. The Austrians discover Brian in Paolo and Grandpa’s attic loft, and suddenly what was all about derring-do and intrigue has become a war crime — a hanging offense for Renato, Paolo, and Grandpa. Von Feilitzsch sits down to an elaborate roast chicken dinner with the family, and makes an announcement as coffee is served: “’Ladies and gentlemen,’ said the baron, patting his lips with his napkin and setting down his demitasse, ‘I’ve invited you together to inform you that you’re all under arrest.’”

It is up to the reader to discover what fate befalls Paolo and his family. The outcome, though, is secondary to the chill of watching the Spada family confuse the parities of class and comportment with good will, to their great peril. Even Paolo’s cynical grandpa has mistaken etiquette for amity: “I know it doesn’t take much for them to hang Italians, and in war there’s no sending for a lawyer. But our baron is a devotee of good manners, and good manners can be counted on.”

In the end, Donna Maria’s growing closeness with the baron has no currency. “You see, Madame,” he explains when she comes to beg him for clemency for her father and nephew, “I believe that subjects are like children…They want a firm hand on the reins, a hand that never falters.” He goes on:

What is it you say in Italian…the doctor’s pity lets the wound become infected…right? If the prince gives the impression that he doesn’t know what’s best for his soldiers, for his realm, then the magic of the royal throne flickers out and everything collapses.

This is wartime, though, and everything collapses no matter what. In late 1918, the Italian Army would surge and defeat the Austrians; a truce would be signed after enormous losses on both sides. In Refrontolo, the Spada family would suffer its own losses — of property, of loved ones, and — along with the rest of Europe — a way of life that would never return to what it had been. As he faces the Austrian firing squad, watched by his family’s tenants, Paolo realizes that:

The baron spoke my language and those peasants didn’t, he gripped his fork and lifted his glass the way I did, and those peasants didn’t…And just then, if those miserable poverty-stricken men could have laid their hands on their pitchforks, they’d have cut the baron’s throat, not ours, even if the resentment they nurtured for us was far more justified.

The author pulls no punches here. Paolo is the new generation, the future of Italy, unfettered by the assumptions of an archaic — and largely useless — social order. It’s not only those who stride out into battle who get the chance to prove themselves. Those who stay, who outlast the destabilizing strangers, are the ones who get the chance to recreate what’s left. Sometimes, Molesini wishes us to see, the hazards of occupation are redeemed by the opportunity for rebirth.

Punk Rock Indeed: The Two Sides of Viv Albertine

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Sometimes being a Bloomer isn’t so much about the dazzling late first act, as it is about the fact that there is a second act at all. Viv Albertine joined the all-girl punk group The Slits in 1977, when she was 22, and played with them until the band’s demise in 1982. Hers was an early and well-documented success, a confident measure of stardom and swagger in the early days of the British punk scene — certainly enough to disqualify her as a Bloomer.

But the act of blooming doesn’t always follow a single trajectory. And her dogged drive to recreate herself as a musician — and to redefine herself as an artist — didn’t truly take form until she was in her 50s. Some have bloom thrust upon them; Albertine has earned hers, every step of the way. And her account of that process in her recent memoir, the wonderfully-titled Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. (St. Martin’s Press, 2014), is both honest and deeply satisfying. And, yes — punk rock.

Those of us who came of age musically at a certain time in the world will be put at ease immediately by the book’s divisions: Side One and Side Two, like an album, or maybe a cassette tape. And like any good album, Side One is front-loaded with the hit singles, the stuff the DJ is going to play to win her listeners over. It’s punk rock dish of the highest order: Albertine is in a band with a pre-Sex Pistols Sid Vicious when he was just shy, gawky John Beverly; dates Mick Jones from The Clash (who wrote “Train in Vain” about her after they broke up); shops at Malcolm McLaren’s iconic King’s Road shop SEX, and says of The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, who had her eye on Albertine’s future spot in The Slits, “But they wouldn’t ask Chrissie. No one wanted to be in a band with her, she’s too good.”

She picks up a guitar because that’s what a music-loving art school girl does, with no illusions about becoming a musician. “Mick and I go to Denmark Street to choose a guitar. I’ve got no idea what to look for. I might as well be going to buy a semi-automatic weapon.” What Albertine has is gumption and the particular musical zeitgeist of mid-’70s London, where one doesn’t need musical talent so much as attitude:

I’m trying to be a musician in front of all these new people, a very bold move as I can’t play guitar and haven’t written any songs. Sometimes I think I might as well say, “I want to be an astronaut.”

The other thing any self-respecting punk rocker needs, of course, is an aesthetic — the visual kind, and a lifestyle aesthetic as well, a certain ethos that, if lived whole-heartedly, results in an actual level of credibility. Albertine has both in spades, and The Slits — along with singer Ari Up, drummer Palmolive, and bassist Tessa Pollitt — end up making a little slice of musical history. They are unapologetic, balls-to-the-wall, wild women, in the right place at the right time, and their influence reverberates across the next 30 years: the Riot Grrrl bands, Björk, Sonic Youth, and even The Go-Go’s cited them as influences.

If this were Behind the Music, or even the story of poor misunderstood John Beverly, we know what form this story would take. But Albertine is never much of a druggie, not even a drinker — for all her youthful rebellion, she still cares about upsetting her mum. She’s smart, with a strong streak of self-respect (and a small one of prudery), all of which serve to keep her from getting carried away in the undertow of those dangerous days.

But still, there are forces at work that can undo even — perhaps especially — a smart girl who cares about her mum. Which brings us to Side Two.

After The Slits break up, Albertine moves back home. She teaches aerobics for a while, goes to film school, directs some videos. Along the way she falls for a handsome motorcyclist she meets at a party and marries him. Gets pregnant, loses the baby, and embarks on a long, excruciating course of fertility treatments and in vitro fertilization; this chapter of the book, appropriately, is titled “Hell.”

Eventually she carries a daughter to term. Three months after giving birth, she is diagnosed with cervical cancer. She survives that too. It’s a harrowing bit of reading, all the more so because Albertine stays away from hyperbole; the big moment in her recovery comes when she finds herself sweeping her kitchen floor:

I don’t remember deciding to sweep the floor, getting up and going into the kitchen, I just notice that I’m doing it. I used to enjoy sweeping up, it was the only household chore I liked. I remember thinking to myself when I was well, Poor old Madonna, never gets to sweep her own floor, someone does it for her, she doesn’t know what she’s missing. I think there’s something very healthy about keeping your own cave clean…As I sweep, I realise that this is the first time for a year I’ve felt motivated to do anything that’s not absolutely necessary, and I know that a little shift has occurred. It gives me hope that maybe, if more little shifts start to happen, I might get better.

She, her husband, and the baby move to a beautiful white house by the ocean. And there she languishes as her marriage stagnates, and Albertine finds herself living out a story more Henrik Ibsen than VH-1.

But Albertine is still the same woman who allowed her life to be changed once by the impulse to pick up a guitar; this time, by sweeping a room. Like a dowser, she is good at following her own instinctive movements one way or another. A long-distance flirtation jars her out of her somnolence; ultimately unconsummated, it nevertheless has the power to remind her of her own dormant life force. “You know how it is when you meet someone new, someone you admire or fancy: you imagine them watching you and you glide about, a superhero in your own little universe…I’ve found someone who gets me.”

Albertine picks up her guitar again. This time, she decides, she will learn how to play it. And she does — slowly, often agonizingly. She recruits a girlfriend to accompany her to the local open mic nights where, she admits, she is terrible at first. But she keeps on with it, and improves, week by arduous week.

Here, too, is the reader’s reward for having stuck with her through the chapters on infertility, cancer, unhappiness. Following Albertine as she accomplishes what she has set out to do, gets better at it, divorces her husband, and eventually records an album and goes out on tour — it’s good to know this kind of thing can happen, and that it happened to a person like Viv Albertine. By the time Side Two winds down, the reader — this reader, anyway — is a little smitten with her honesty and sweet, genuine voice.

Carrie Brownstein, the guitarist of Sleater-Kinney — another seminal all-female rock’n’roll band, formed a dozen years after The Slits broke up — wrote in Monitor Mix of Albertine’s 2009 solo gig opening for the re-formed Raincoats in New York:

at the Knitting Factory on Friday, watching not The Raincoats (who were fantastic, by the way) but Viv Albertine, I realized I hadn’t really witnessed fearlessness in a long time, at least not at a rock show. As one of my friends put it, more succinctly: “This was one of the punkest things I have ever seen.”

If there is a voice in music that’s seldom heard, it’s that of a middle-aged woman…A woman who isn’t trying to please or nurture anyone, but who instead illuminates a lifestyle that’s so ubiquitous as to be rendered nearly invisible…It raises questions that no one wants to ask a wife or a mother, particularly one’s own. Are you happy? Was I enough? What are you sacrificing, and are those sacrifices worth it?

In her new album, The Vermilion Border, Albertine sings about very different concerns than she covered in her years with The Slits: motherhood, marriage, middle-aged sex, and cooking. She shreds like a teenager playing air guitar in front of her bedroom mirror and she swears like a sailor, but through it all you never forget she’s a 50-something-year-old woman with a very real history behind her. And that…that is punk rock indeed.

Everything Changes: An Interview With Ronna Wineberg


This interview was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

The Jewish immigrant tale has become a popular American creation myth, especially for readers who came of age in the second half of the last century. It comes fully imbued with hope, bravery, and a retrospective level of assimilative success, not to mention its own handsome national monument — Ellis Island.

The story is well established from a New York perspective. Thanks to a rich written history, from Henry Roth to Chaim Potok to Isaac Bashevis Singer to Betty Smith, most people know at least a portion of the Ellis Island/Lower East Side narrative. But Jews settled in other parts of the country as well: Massachusetts, California, and the Midwest, with a particularly vibrant community forming in Chicago.

Yet this piece of the story is still underrepresented in American arts and letters. The names of so many New York born-and-bred Jewish writers are canonical by now: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, E.L. Doctorow, Cynthia Ozick come to mind without much thought at all; given another minute I could name two dozen more. Coming up with the names of literary Jews who identify their stories of origin with the rest of the United States — particularly the Midwest — isn’t so easy. Even Chicago’s favorite maggid, Saul Bellow, was born in Canada.

Ronna Wineberg’s recent debut novel, On Bittersweet Place (Relegation Books, 2014), which was excerpted at Bloom this past Monday, takes a familiar narrative — a large Jewish family flees post-October Revolution Russia to make a better life in America — and roots it firmly in 1920s Chicago. The story of the Czernitski family, as seen through the eyes of teenage narrator Lena, is both recognizable and slightly strange. There is no Lower East Side, no Garment District. Rather Lena, her brother, Simon, her parents, and her numerous aunts and uncles play out their stories against the backdrop of Michigan Avenue, Independence Boulevard, Bittersweet Place (a real street in the heart of Chicago), the Art Institute of Chicago, the shores of Lake Michigan. Their world is subtly — but importantly — different from the one many of us have encountered before in literature. It gives us fresh eyes on a story we think we may have seen before. On Bittersweet Place is as much the coming-of-age story of the Midwest as a diverse and thriving urban center as it is Lena’s. I caught up with Ronna Wineberg to talk about the novel, the history behind it, and, of course, Chicago.

Lisa Peet: Aside from having lived there as a child yourself, why did you set Lena’s story in Chicago? Are you familiar with the actual street, Bittersweet Place, or did you pick it for the name?

Ronna Wineberg: Most fiction about Jewish immigrants takes place in New York. I wanted to explore a different setting. The Midwest has a specific sensibility, softer than that of New York. I imagined Chicago would be a less harsh place for Lena and her family. And Chicago is a beautiful city. Lake Michigan and the beach are easy to access; I thought they could become part of the story. Also, my mother’s family came to Chicago from Russia. She was the first child born in America. Her parents, older siblings, aunts, and uncles arrived at Ellis Island and made their way to the Midwest. Because of this, it seemed natural to set an immigrant novel in Chicago.

An aunt and uncle of mine lived on Bittersweet Place before I was born. I’d heard the name of the street many times and I’d been there; the image stayed with me. When I began writing the novel, I immediately thought of Bittersweet Place as the street where Lena and her family could live.

LP: Is there actually a Belilovka, the Russian town Lena’s family escapes from?

RW: Belilovka is a real place. My grandfather was born there. However, the events in my family’s history didn’t happen there. I chose Belilovka because of the rhythmic sound of the name.

LP: What do you know about your own family’s history? How did it influence or inform On Bittersweet Place?

RW: The house where I grew up was filled with visitors, relatives who spoke with thick accents. Although I’m a second-generation American, I felt as if I had a foot in each world. I wasn’t quite comfortable with my family’s immigrant past, and I didn’t quite belong in the world of my American friends either. I knew I wanted to write about this, and once I found Lena’s voice, she led the way.

For years, I didn’t know much about my family’s background. When I was in college, some of my cousins and I talked with my mother’s family about Russia. We sat in the living room of my parents’ house and asked questions of our grandparents, aunts, and uncles. We were riveted by their stories and decided to record the conversations on cassette tapes. We interviewed relatives on other occasions, too. The discussions were lively; people disagreed about what had happened in the past. My great-grandfather had been murdered in Russia. My great uncle, a man in his late 60s, described the murder to us and as he did, he cried. That moment stayed with me.

The family did flee from Russia, and my grandparents were separated for years because of World War I. I never learned the details of their relationship, but I was struck by the circumstances. The Russian portions of On Bittersweet Place are loosely based on family history.

LP: How is the Jewish immigrant story different in the Midwest, and Chicago in particular? How did regional differences shape the trajectory of assimilation?

RW: In 1927, over a million and a half Jews lived in New York City. In contrast, the Jewish population of Chicago was 300,000 in 1933, nine percent of the total population. And by 1930, Russian immigrants made up 80 percent of Chicago’s Jewish residents. I imagine that Chicago was an easier place to live than New York, a less aggressive and less overwhelming city. People traveled there, like the characters in On Bittersweet Place, because friends or relatives lived in the city and because economic opportunities were considered good. There were neighborhoods in Chicago with a high concentration of Jewish immigrants, but nothing as densely populated as the Lower East Side.

In New York, immigrants lived in many areas, including the Bronx and Brooklyn. There were fewer choices in Chicago. But I imagine impoverished immigrants faced similar challenges in both places — learning the language, finding work, dealing with prejudice. Established, economically comfortable Jews in Chicago (like those in New York) created institutions to help: Michael Reese Hospital, an old age home, The Society for the Burial of the Dead. Chicago had a thriving community, regional newspapers, theaters, synagogues, and an institute with classrooms, gyms, a library, a synagogue, and a clubroom, where immigrants could learn English.

LP: I didn’t know that about Michael Reese Hospital, and I was born there! Writing the Jewish immigrant story has such a strong New York tradition as well. Who are some of the writers who inspired or instructed you? Anyone particular to Chicago or the Midwest?

RW: Many of the writers who inspired me set their fiction in New York. I was inspired by Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers. Also by Bernard Malamud’s wonderful short stories. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work inspired me, especially Shadows on the Hudson, a novel about immigrants who come to New York after the Holocaust, and also his short stories. I admire Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen, their focus on women and ordinary experiences. David Milofsky’s Eternal People influenced me, too. His novel about Jewish immigrants who settle in Wisconsin gave me a sense of the scope of relocation and ways people tried to assimilate or not

LP: Lena’s art is a strong vehicle carrying her through her adolescence — were there any particular artists you had in mind while writing the novel? Or artists’ narratives? (My Name Is Asher Lev comes to mind for me, a huge favorite of mine as a teenager.)

RW: My Name is Asher Lev was a favorite of mine, too. I didn’t have a particular artist or narrative in mind while writing On Bittersweet Place. I admire visual artists and have a kind of wonder at what they create. I loved to draw as a child. I wanted to be an artist then, to take art classes on weekends or after school, but this wasn’t possible. I took drawing classes in college and oil painting classes later as an adult. I draw cartoons now and would like to paint again. My interest in art rose to the surface as I wrote the book. Lena’s connection to art deepened with each draft, became an important part of her character, and a vehicle to save her from the difficulties she faced.

LP: You started writing when you were working as a legal defender, and now you’re an editor at Bellevue Literary Review. Aside from the knowledge that comes with time and experience, how has that career shift changed the way you feel about your own writing?

RW: I’ve become more serious about writing. Law is an unforgiving profession in terms of time. When I was a public defender, I didn’t have time to write in a consistent way. The work was demanding (and very interesting). I couldn’t steal time from a case to write; I couldn’t shortchange a client. My work at the Bellevue Literary Review has helped me become more committed to writing, too. The work has broadened my awareness of the subjects people write and care about and broadened the type of fiction I’ve read. I’ve learned from editing at the journal that writing is truly re-writing and revision shapes a story. And working with the other editors, who are also writers, has encouraged me to think more deeply about the importance of the written word.

LP: Bellevue Literary Review is interested in the intersection of medicine and literary language. There is a lot of pathology in On Bittersweet Place—mental and physical illness, cancer, the grandmother’s gradual wasting away, an uncle’s mysterious (but definitely not unearned) death, but the family is very much outside the orbit of modern medicine. Can you comment a bit on that, and do you feel that your work with has BLR influenced the way you look at illness/medicine as a writer?

RW: [Lena’s mother] Reesa views doctors with distrust. She doesn’t want her niece to consult a doctor. The family is superstitious: if you don’t go to a doctor, you won’t need one. So much of the characters’ energy goes into surviving and learning about the new culture; medicine and doctors are peripheral unless there’s a crisis. There is pathology in the book, but I view that as the stuff of life, events a child may encounter and try to understand.

The BLR has influenced how I look at illness and medicine as a writer. I’ve read lots of stories about the medical world. I’m more aware now of medicine’s triumphs, limitations, and disappointments, of the randomness of life. And I’ve learned that a medical experience or illness in itself isn’t enough to drive a piece of fiction.

LP: Do any of the characters from your short fiction collection, Second Language, make an appearance in On Bittersweet Place (disguised or otherwise)?

RW: That’s an interesting question. There is a connection between characters in Second Language and On Bittersweet Place. Saul Chernoff, from “The Coin Collector,” was born in Russia. He would have been a friend of Simon’s and played basketball with him. He might even, disguised, be Simon (they both have auburn/reddish hair), but Simon wouldn’t have Saul’s harshness. In the story, “Second Language,” Fay Minskacoff and her husband, Max — not the same as [Lena’s boyfriend] Max from the novel — were friends with Lena and Simon when they were young. The story, “The Doctor” has overlap as well. When Mel Hempill was a boy, he and his family struggled and lived in a boarding house. I imagine he grew up in Chicago, possibly near Lena’s family.

LP: The novel left me with so many questions about the characters’ futures — I found I was really invested in them. Where do Lena and Max go from here? What will her family do with their slightly-tainted-but-very-much-needed insurance money? How will her father wrestle with his conscience? What will become of her uncle and aunt, Abie and Ida, who move to Poland at the novel’s end? (This last one breaks my heart a little.) When you finished, were you glad to say goodbye to this family, or do you still think about what will happen to them outside the covers of the book?

RW: I’m happy you were invested in the characters. When I finished the novel, I was very sorry to say goodbye to them. Originally, I wrote an epilogue for the book, but decided not to include it. Unfortunately, you are right about Abie and Ida and the two children they will have in Poland. I still think of what will happen to all the characters outside the covers of the book. I imagine dialogue and scenes. For example, Max would have given Lena more of a musical education and told her with exuberance: “Chicago is the jazz capital of America.” I imagine what happens to the characters as the years pass — where people end up, who dies when — and also what happens to the city of Chicago. Everything changes.

Click here to read an excerpt from Ronna Wineberg’s On Bittersweet Place.

This Could Be Your Story: On Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves


This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

We are a storytelling species, we humans, circled around our archetypal fire, backs to the impenetrable dark and lurking beasts. Before there was fiction as we know it, there were metaphors and myths to help explain where we come from and where we go. Storytelling has always been an antidote to the fear of what we don’t know or understand.

Our litany of fears hasn’t changed much over the last 50,000 years or so. We fear death, illness, pain, infirmity. Now that we live into our 80s and 90s, we can add to that list the fear of losing our faculties.

On the upside, without this innate horror of death and decline there would be very little art, and surely not much literature. It’s human nature to want to defang the beast, but also to poke it — to see what our fears are made of. And people want stories — need them — more than ever, it seems. Popular storytelling programs like The Moth and This American Life, for example, reassure us that we’re in this together. We’re all going to die; let’s go from there.

There is a shadowy twin to that bit of reality: most of us will also find ourselves bearing witness to someone else’s final days — days that in fact often turn out to be weeks, months, years. Parents, partners, relatives, friends: someday you will watch a person you care about suffer. It’s not so much that last shovelful of dirt on the grave that should terrify us, but emptying all those bedpans.

Eileen Tumulty, the central character in Matthew Thomas’s debut novel We Are Not Ourselves (Simon and Schuster), has no time for worrying about what she does or doesn’t fear. Born in 1941, to Irish immigrant parents in Queens, Eileen is a clear-eyed striver. Wary of the ways drink and habitual sorrow encumbered her own parents, and confident that she alone is responsible for the life she wants to lead, she concentrates on moving out and up. She works and saves, goes to nursing school, and refuses to succumb to the charms of the local boys, until a friend fixes her up with Ed Leary, a serious young man with a promising career in neuroscience. Within the year they’re engaged. They move from drab Woodside to Forest Hills — in 1967, a diverse and thriving neighborhood — and have a son, whom Eileen impulsively names Connell after a visiting friend leaves a copy of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge on the hospital nightstand: “[I]t sounded more like a last name than a first name, like one of those patrician monikers the doctors she worked with often bore, and she wanted to give the boy a head start on the concerns of life.”

Eileen understands how the American Dream works: You leave as little as possible to chance. You save your money, educate your children, and take every opportunity that presents itself. Ed, on the other hand, turns down a tenure-track job at NYU because he’d rather teach low- and middle-income students at Bronx Community College, and prefers to keep teaching rather than move up as assistant dean. He’s content in their Queens neighborhood, even as it becomes rougher around the edges, while she wants a home in Bronxville, an upscale Westchester suburb.

Ed keeps doing the work he loves, but Eileen eventually gets her house, overspending on a rundown fixer-upper. Around the time of their move, however, Ed begins to act erratically, lashing out at Connell for imagined infractions, mixing up his students’ grades, abandoning home repairs in frustration. Eileen does her best to help him, but eventually decorum and denial can’t compensate for Ed’s inability to function. She takes him for a neurological workup — even at the doctor’s office swinging between protecting the man she loves and desperate disbelief:
“Tell me something. Do you know who the current president is?”

If he wanted to insult him, this was a perfect way to do it. She almost wanted Ed to answer sarcastically or deliberately incorrectly, but she didn’t want the doctor to have the satisfaction of writing it down on that little pad of his.

Ed sat with it; maybe he was coming up with a witty riposte.

“I know it’s a Republican,” he said, “I know that.”

The diagnosis is early-onset Alzheimer’s; Ed is 51. And so the game changes for the Learys. The American Dream will only take you so far, Thomas proposes, underscoring the novel’s unmistakable subtext: this could be your story. It could be mine.

A few days before Christmas 2006, my mother slipped on an icy step and hit her head. She had just finished giving an English lesson to a young Japanese couple; they saw her fall, called 911, and waited outside with her for the ambulance. She blacked out only briefly, and the damage was minimal: a small skull fracture with no cranial bleeding, some spinal trauma but nothing broken. She received immediate and excellent care, and her prognosis was good.

Mom was already what I thought of as ditzy — a little absentminded, sometimes silly, but nothing you wouldn’t expect from someone just short of her 79th birthday. Until a few of years before, she had been commuting into Manhattan daily, working as a bank president’s assistant, and, once she retired, she began teaching English at the local chapter of Berlitz. She read widely and critically, painted and drew, cooked adventurously, and loved going to galleries. But some bad convergence of side effects began to take its toll almost immediately after the accident. The head injury, the inactivity, and who knows what else, slowly shut her down.

Her deterioration was typical of all types of dementia: Periods of no change punctuated by small disasters that would reshuffle the deck, forcing us to scramble for solutions. There was no predictable pattern, except for my own near-miraculous capacity to be shocked and dismayed every single time. It wasn’t that I expected her to get better. I just didn’t imagine she’d get so much worse so quickly. It took me years before I could stop thinking, If she would just pay more attention…

Though there are countless books, websites, and support groups available, I’ve turned to friends and family — or rather, we’ve turned to each other. According to the 2014 Alzheimer’s Association Facts and Figures report, one in nine people age 65 or older has some form of dementia; for those over 85 it’s closer to one third. Those numbers translate into a lot of us trying to make sense out of something so senseless. And what we do, for the most part, is tell each other stories. We allow flares of black humor, we invent our own metaphors. This is, I say, like trying to fix a leaky boat in the middle of the ocean. This is, my friend says, like making pencil lines lower and lower on the doorframe. This is, another friend writes, a process of mourning by degrees. Canceling the Netflix account because my detailed DVD-player instructions are no longer enough; taking away the car keys; removing the knobs from the stove. A housekeeper, part-time help, a live-in aide. Each new development is like entries in the world’s worst baby book.

Thomas’s portrait of how the disease cuts through lives is on the mark and sensitive; he gets it all right, and anyone who has lived those cycles of denials and acceptance will recognize herself, or someone else. In the period before Ed’s diagnosis, when both he and Eileen are convinced that they just need to try a little harder (If she would just pay more attention), Eileen tells herself,

He would listen to her. He had always been good at listening to her. As he got older and more fixed in his fears and habits, she had to shout a little louder to be heard, but once he heard her, if he could stomach what she was asking for, he did what she asked…He needed to regroup, to see new possibilities, to think bigger than ever. If there was anything she could help him with, it was thinking big.

Ed’s own resolution, whether for her benefit or his own — Thomas never approaches the story from his viewpoint — is that “I’ve been meaning to spend more time attending to my needs…I’ve had a cloudy head for a while. I’m trying to get back to basics.”

Eileen keeps him at home as long as she can, though a life of careful planning can’t help her here:

She spent all morning [at work] worrying about him screwing it up. He needed perfect accuracy to pull it off. If he hit any button other than start, he ended up gnawing on frozen manicotti or choking down cold beef stew. She came home to the time unchanged on the microwave, half the meal on the floor, a broken plate under the table, the Times intact in its sleeve.

Even when he is eventually moved to a care facility, she keeps tight control of her own vision — all that’s left to her:

She wasn’t visiting. What she was doing was seeing her husband after work. It was simply a part of her day. She was showing them that Ed might be there with them instead of home where he belonged, but nothing else had changed…They had no clue what kind of man had fallen into their lap, but she wasn’t going to explain it to them, because they didn’t deserve to hear it.

It’s a shape-shifter of a disease; as soon as you understand what you’re dealing with, everything changes again. Who can begrudge Eileen her excuses and her bargaining? It’s hard to hit a moving target.

People tell me what a good daughter I am, how attentive and patient. I am not, I want to say. I lean too much on my older sister, whine about losing my weekends, dread changing my mother’s Depends in restaurant bathrooms. But I love her enormously, and I show up. Still, I’m not a natural caregiver. I was a good mother, but that was all animal instinct. Otherwise it’s not part of my makeup.

I was, frankly, spoiled rotten as a child, never really encouraged to look outward. This was partly because it was the ’70s — awful as the nickname is, the “Me Generation” isn’t too far off the mark — but also because of the way our family worked. My mother compensated for her own hardships — she grew up during the Depression with an ill and often absent mother, her first marriage failed, and her second, to my father, was difficult as well — by throwing herself into mothering me, the much-adored late-in-life baby. I wasn’t literally an only child, but I was raised like one. “Make sure you take care of yourself first,” she always advised me. And I did.

My father’s health began to fail when I was barely into my 20s, probably the result of a series of mini-strokes that, coupled with diabetes, progressively disabled him and killed him at age 69. I say probably because I don’t know and didn’t push for more information; I was just out of college, with a new husband, a new baby, and, soon, a new divorce; I had troubles of my own. My dad and I had butted heads when I was an adolescent, especially after my parents divorced, and a whiff of that still clung — which is to say I was mostly self-involved and selfish.

Fortunately my presence wasn’t needed. My father’s partner quit her job and cared for him cheerfully, tirelessly. She was — and is — unfailingly kind to me, effectively letting me off the hook for all my deficiencies. But years later, the work of caring for my mother would bring everything rushing in: how emotionally absent I was in my dad’s last years, how thoroughly I failed him. I carry that with me always.

And this is what I found deeply admirable about We Are Not Ourselves. Even more than the novel’s scrupulous depiction of Alzheimer’s, I appreciated the fact that neither Eileen nor Connell is a natural caretaker. They stumble through Ed’s first symptoms, his diagnosis, and the long-term management of his illness in very human, recognizable ways. They’re never saints; never martyrs. They have no choice but to play out the hand they’ve been dealt, and they’re not always graceful about it.

For all Eileen’s experience in caring for others, she has never quite mastered the art of compassion — the luxury, she would say. Having been scornful, as a teenager, of her mother’s late-in-life immersion in AA — “the down-and-outers…who’d wrecked their lives and slipped into a spiral of regret” — Eileen believes the issue “wasn’t negative thinking, it was too little positive thinking on the part of everyone around her.” Ed’s illness forces her into something resembling a Twelve-Step program of her own, with its requisite admissions of powerlessness. But she never quite loses her hard edges; they’re what’s kept her going all these years.

And poor Connell is a mess, his protracted middle-class adolescence in constant opposition to his father’s needs. He stays out late or doesn’t come home at all, leaves a barely functioning Ed home alone so he can go out with friends. He’s not callous, just conflicted and a bit spoiled. Eventually he rises to the task, but we wince — in my case, in sympathy — at how long it takes.

I didn’t know enough, when my dad became ill, to fear my own selfishness. These days, though, the worry follows me around. I’m a good daughter now, while my mother still recognizes me, while she’s still at home and we can sit on her couch and look at pictures of the great-grandbabies on my phone. But what about the next phase, and the ones after that? Will I do the right things? Will I still be able to resurrect my love for the person she’ll become, and will I honestly feel it?

It would be reductive to call We Are Not Ourselves an “Alzheimer’s novel.” Among other things, it’s an elegy for the middle class in urban America, and for the social mobility we insist on believing in. And it offers a lively portrait of a changing New York. Still, Matthew Thomas does his readers a great kindness in giving us Eileen and Connell’s complicated love for Ed, their good intentions and their mistakes: he offers up benevolence in the form of a story. Sometimes you just go through the motions. Sometimes you just show up.

We Are Not Ourselves isn’t literary group therapy. But it spotlights a dark place that most of us can count on visiting at some point — and shining that light on our collective fear is what a novelist, often, does better than anyone.

Click here to read Bloom’s Q&A with Matthew Thomas.

Deadlines, Word Counts, and Magnificent Lies: On Hesh Kestin


This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Just as an artist needs to identify his light source before beginning a painting, a writer looks for a narrative power source — what sets the story in motion, or what obstructs it.  Perhaps no writer is as concerned with the minutiae of power and motivation, its shifts and upheavals, as a journalist — someone who has covered politics, wars, and uprisings here and abroad. Not to mention a journalist who was successful in his field for years, who always met his deadlines and word counts, and who ultimately decided to leave the profession entirely in order write his own truths.

Thus it’s tempting, but not entirely correct, to ascribe Hesh Kestin’s literary sensibilities to habits he picked up during his 20 years as a correspondent for Newsday, The International Herald Tribune, and Forbes. In fact, even as a youngster he was the kind of kid who paid close attention: to his neighborhood dynamics, people on the street, the books he read. It no doubt behooved a boy growing up across the street from the headquarters of Murder, Inc. — the Brooklyn Mafia’s Jewish enforcement arm — to keep his eyes open.

Kestin’s father, a devoted reader in half a dozen languages (though not English) would take Hesh along on weekly sojourns to the Brooklyn Public Library and its large collection of Yiddish books. This wasn’t purely paternal on his father’s part; adults were allowed six books a week, but with the boy’s card he could check out four more. Nevertheless, Hesh became a book lover himself before long. He reclaimed his library card and immersed himself in worlds far from his own mean streets: the Midwest of Homer Price, wisecracking Freddy the Pig in his barnyard, the romance of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion novels, and Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo books, set in Italy. His father would quiz him on what he was reading — characters, plots, what the authors were trying to say — and as he told Three Guys One Book:
By the time I was nine we were deep into literary criticism, a cross-generational, cross-cultural approach that can best be understood by my father’s throwaway remark that “In literature a horse is never merely a horse.” By then I had managed to convince the librarians that I “needed” more than four books a week, and so back and forth we marched, every Saturday, in sun, rain and snow, each of us carrying our six-book limit, both of us arguing structure, character and nuance as though the noisy urban streets around us were not only silent but hardly seemed to exist.
Kestin gave college a try, but it didn’t take. Instead he bounced around from coast to coast, taking work in newspapers when he could get it — he was writing obituaries for The New York Herald Tribune at 20 — and hanging loose in Mexico in between. In 1967, at the age of 23, he was the youngest reporter on staff at Newsday. He was tapped to cover the civil rights movement as it morphed into Black Power, thanks at least in part to his growing up in East New York — “all the other reporters were actually physically afraid of ‘Negroes’; me, I was afraid of the suburbs”:
This was the period of the Harlem riots, on the second day of which my editors presented me with a white motorcycle helmet, just the thing to wear to a civil insurrection. I told them they should have painted a bull’s-eye on it…On another occasion when I had set up a meeting with the leadership of the local Black Panthers my bosses insisted I take along a bodyguard, a young Irishman who weighed in at 280.  When we got to the address, a rundown house on a dark street in a dark neighborhood, he wouldn’t get out of the car.
Kestin was itching to escape Newsday, and that May, realizing that the Middle East was on the brink of war, he decided he ought to be reporting from Israel when it broke out. He applied for a passport immediately, but when the Six-Day War ignited on June 5, he was still waiting. Adding insult to injury, Newsday sent him into local neighborhoods to report on the Jewish reaction: “A color story…All I could think as these people voiced their pride was: What the fuck are you so proud of? You’re ready to fight to the last Israeli. People are dying.”

He visited Israel the following year. “People ate in the streets, had bad table manners, and as a matter of course spoke loudly and repeatedly — and [I] felt: these are my people.” By 1970 he was married, and he and his wife moved to Israel, to a small village a few miles inland from the Mediterranean. Kestin joined the Israel Defense Forces, tended the orange grove on his property, raised five children, and wrote novels.

He had finished his first, Small Change, when he was 23, and it was bought and slated for publication until he balked at changing the title to Season of Lust. The book was never published, nor were the next three. Eventually, as he puts it, “the noise of the hungry bellies of my kids used to keep me up at night.” So he got a real job, this time as a war correspondent — for, as it turned out, Newsday.

He went on to hone his journalist’s craft at Forbes. While his three published books — two novels and a collection of novellas — are vastly different in style, plot, and setting, reviewers consistently praise Kestin’s economy of language, and it’s easy to see where the habit came from:
Forbes never heard about long-form journalism: A typical story might be 500 words, a single magazine page with room for headline and illustration. A writer might approach the incomparable Sheldon Zalaznick, then managing editor, with an absolutely factual exclusive proving the world would end next Thursday, and after selling him the story (over a couple of martinis), Shelley might say, “OK, give me 750.” Shelley’s mantra was as brief and pure as its meaning: “Just gimme the cream.”
Kestin trotted the globe as a foreign correspondent for another 20 years. When the opportunity presented itself, he started his own daily paper, The Nation (no relation to the American journal), which was eventually sold out from under him and merged with its competitor, The Jerusalem Post. Rather than return to work as a foreign correspondent — he suspected that his foray into publishing had rendered him persona non grata in Jerusalem — he went to Paris, as a consultant for The International Herald Tribune. But consulting work moved too slowly for his tastes, and he ended up back in New York, publishing a weekly English language paper, The American, for expats abroad. When that folded, he was offered a plum job at the helm of a new daily.

And then, 10 years ago, he walked away from the business entirely. As he puts it, “Hell, I was approaching 60. Wasn’t it time to do some real work?”

Kestin’s first work of fiction, Based on a True Story, is a collection of three novellas that take place in vastly different locations — Mombasa, Polynesia, and Hollywood — through the eyes of very different characters: a young female codebreaker from London’s Bletchley Park, an itinerant Russian Marxist, and a gay black screenwriter. Their tales couldn’t be more divergent either. What they have in common, however, is that they all take place in the early months of World War II. Kestin follows his own advice here: “Write from what you know, but not about what you know…when I write I am acutely aware of the tactile memory of places I have been: permeated by the recollection of sounds and scents peculiar to one spot or another, and knowledge of its light and weather, it all comes back.” So when he offers up the observations of Sgt. Joan Ferrin of the Royal Canadian Airforce on her accommodations in Mombasa, set in a year when he hadn’t yet been born, I believe them wholeheartedly:
Our duty room was full of flying creatures, from gnats and mosquitoes to a dependency of bats that lived in the rafters and preyed on a madrassa of praying mantises, each as long as a hand. For variety, the occasional snake slithered in to escape the heat, and a troupe of spider monkeys infested the grounds outside. Boredom was endemic.
And likewise, when the very British Lord Braithwaite asks Ferrin, “What do your people do?” her confusion as to whether he means her father’s profession or her dietary habits as a Jew needs no exposition: “Was he talking of my people or my people? Never mind. I was to answer.”

Kestin’s dialogue is consistently spot-on, and he doesn’t pad the action. In the title piece, Based on a True Story, when the B-movie Hollywood mogul EZ Shelupsky tells his scriptwriter, “Either tell me what’s on the boat or get the fuck personally out of my office,” the man’s speech tells us pretty much all we need to know about him. And the transgressions of Grisha Zabrodny, who has been hurriedly exiled to Tahiti in The Man Who Kissed Stalin’s Wife, need not be called out explicitly; the title takes care of that.

What the three stories do share is their concern with power and how it’s instituted and wielded, all against the backdrop of the darkening global situation. History does a lot of the heavy lifting here, but Kestin does the rest, and together they tell a larger story: that while we can now look back on the Second World War and the events leading up to it, in 1939 the big picture was still made up of fragments. Everyone was a blind man with only his or her portion of the elephant to navigate by.

Based on a True Story was published by Dzanc Books in 2008, and the following year, Dzanc brought out Kestin’s novel The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats — a terrifically genre-bending noir coming-of-age tale of Jewish gangsters in 1963 New York, all set against John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Its narrator, 20-year-old Russell Newhouse, has clearly borrowed a few pages from the life of young Hesh Kestin — the photo on the cover is in fact Kestin at 20 — but it diverges into a wonderfully complicated series of plots and subplots involving the eponymous Shoeshine, whose given name is actually Shushan, and a host of supporting characters.

Cats is one of the great protagonists of contemporary fiction: A thug off the Brooklyn streets who is also an autodidact, quoting de la Rochefoucauld to a couple of hapless policemen and attributing lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s to his late mother. In one exchange, Shushan explains to Russell,
“[P]ulling a trigger, that’s a whole different dimension. That’s why I vote for Wystan Hugh Auden as head of the joint chiefs. Ginsberg, he’d make a great leader of the Corps. These are guys they don’t back down in the face of bad news. Although, let me tell you, Wystan is not the kind of guy who’ll let on what he thinks. Should be in the Mafia.”
“You can tell that from reading him? How do you know what he thinks other than what’s in his–” I stopped. “Wystan?”
“You want to meet him? Miserable son of a bitch, but like I say, he’d make a fine general…A general and a poet are exactly the same in one thing. What they do they have to do with critical efficiency. Not a word or action wasted. And the action has to be more important than the man who creates it. You know Yeats?”
“You knew Yeats too?”
“Of course not. Yeats died fucking I don’t know forty years ago. I know Auden because he plays poker.”
The dialogue ranges from hard-boiled to whimsical, but through it all run Kestin’s musings on strength and influence: who has it, who gains it, who gets to keep it. As enjoyable as the novel is, it’s also dead serious. Kestin grew up around Jewish gangsters who, in the wake of long-term, institutionalized discrimination and the machinations in Europe, took back their power where they could.

Kestin’s most recent novel, The Lie (2014), veers in an entirely new direction. It’s a fast-moving, tense thriller, set in contemporary Israel. Kestin kept busy—and presumably employed—as a freelancer writing screenplay treatments between novels, and he uses that to his advantage here. But calling the book cinematic takes nothing away from its literary muscle. For a man who says he prefers to let his characters surprise him, he’s written a tightly plotted story, a political game of nerve with some seriously charismatic special ops for good measure.

The Lie is really a series of lies, ranging in scope from national to small and deeply personal. His protagonist, Dahlia Barr, is an Israeli Jewish human rights attorney who has made it her business to represent Palestinians. When she is persuaded to work for the Israeli Police force arbitrating the use of “extraordinary means,” she finds herself caught between extreme political factions and family tensions. Kestin brings the action alive through details both mundane and exotic; we learn, for example, that Israelis refer to the Arabs disparagingly as “cousins,” in reference to their common ancestors, and that cockroaches aren’t kosher. He also paints a vivid picture of life in an everyday war zone:
In the commercial street below, the chaotic stream of Beirut traffic plunges ahead like a river flowing down from the Litani mountains, now a rapids, now obstructed, now a broad pool…Shop owners stand still as monuments outside open-fronted stores that will soon be sealed with roll-down steel grates from two to four p.m. and then for the night after seven — none of the shops is fronted with glass. Glass has not worked all that well in central Beirut.
As in all thrillers, there is a payoff; to say more would be unfair to future readers. But Kestin is clearly having fun here.

In fact, he’s enjoying himself with all his books. His decision to walk away from a stable career in order to write fiction may not have been a simple one, but it’s obviously been rewarding for Kestin and his audience alike. And all those years of writing copy — when he needed to size up a situation at a glance, to communicate a complex hierarchy without spelling it out, and to let the reader in on his source of light in 500 words — were surely well spent.
Yeah, sometimes I miss being able to pick up a phone and get some prime minister or other miscreant on the other end of the line, sometimes I miss walking out of chaos with a compelling story, and sometimes I hate sitting in a little room compelled to make stuff up, even with the hope other people might one day read what I write with joy, sadness or just plain excitement.
But nothing beats writing magnificent lies, one after the next, about people who up to that moment do not exist.  At its best, journalism is craft.  But fiction is art.
Or should be.
In Kestin’s case, it is.