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A History on a Personal Note

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From New York City to the former East Germany, from rural Virginia to affluent suburbia, the stories in this collection visit the territory of recent history. The Vietnam War, the Kennedy era, the destruction of the Berlin Wall and renovation of Ellis Island serve as a backdrop against which Kirshenbaum’s characters find themselves on the human quest for who they are and where they belong, grappling with love, loss, and other awful truths.

Lydia Langorelli, the town greaser who wears conical-cupped bras and thick black eyeliner, learns just how cruel the peace-and-love crowd can be in “For Widgit Stands.” The title story leaves Lorraine, a Southerner, wondering if her German paramour will find the inspiration to leave his wife amidst the destruction of the Berlin Wall. “The Zen of Driving” takes an urban wife on imaginary road trips throughout America, suggesting that her desire to belong to herself is ultimately a desire to escape her stifling marriage.

Whether realistic or allegorical, witty or contemplative, the reader invariably enters into a fictional world laced with black humor. Touching the social and political pulse points of America and at the same time transcending their historical background, these are wise and timeless stories about the human condition, told in a unique narrative voice that is at once profoundly intelligent and admirably unassuming, belonging to a born storyteller who makes us laugh—until it hurts.

 

Praise for History on a Personal Note

“Kirshenbaum has a strong moral aptitude and a ballistic sense of humor, launching anti-assumption rockets with cool precision… Her candor about the female psyche is not unlike Margaret Atwood’s, but her feisty voice, gutsy humor, mischievous dispassion, and gift for setting scenes and conjuring moments of realization are all her own.” — Booklist

“Deceptively light in tone, these stories nevertheless carry weight, as do the characters… A wide variety of styles and voices…demonstrate Kirshenbaum’s versatility and wit.” — Publishers Weekly

“Kirshenbaum uses her crisp prose and wry humor to illustrate home truths.” — Library Journal

“Kirshenbaum practices the art of gossip as literature… A fresh voice with a clear view of the causes and effects of what might be called boomer angst.” — Sun-Sentinel

 

Chapter Excerpt for History on a Personal Note

A LEGENDARY YEAR: 1984

Whatever Happens, We Ought to See It Coming

Despite the theoretical knowledge that history repeats itself, Lorraine was devastated by a second Ronald Reagan landslide victory. In response, she declared herself a Communist, as if that would fix something or someone. This was Lorraine's take on Communism: Donald Trump would have to buy every woman in New York a gold and diamond tennis bracelet.

Me, I saw Reagan's second term as an inevitability. Not that the foresight made it any more palatable. It's just that I was prepared to be miserable.

Another thing Lorraine didn't see coming down the pike was her falling in love with Peter. Lorraine was a corporate travel agent, a career she chose for the benefits. Lorraine liked to fly in planes and stay in complimentary hotel rooms. Peter was one of her clients, a middleman who arranged jaunts for German tourists to places like Niagara Falls and Busch Gardens. Peter was also a German, and Lorraine referred to him as "that pain-in-the-butt Kraut who always wants discount rates and special favors." Often Lorraine responded to his requests by saying, "Hey, remember who won the war." Yet, one day she called me up and said, "Would you believe I've fallen in love with that painin- the-butt Kraut?"

Lorraine and Peter went mad for each other, but as Goethe once said, "The Germans are trouble to themselves and everybody else." This romance came with predicaments. Peter's stint in New York was temporary. He could, at any time, be transferred to some other country. He prayed it would not be Romania, where he was last, or anywhere in Africa because he had a fear of snakes. Another stone to trip them up along the path to bliss was the cross-eyed girl in the fox fur coat. Although he was not legally married to her, she and Peter had been living together for the past seventeen years. Their families were old friends residing in the same German gingerbread village, and that cheap-o tour company Peter worked for shipped them off to foreign lands, as if they were married, together.

Lorraine, hailing from south of the Mason-Dixon Line, would think about such things tomorrow. For now, she was in love, and she told me -- although she never used such a word -- that she and Peter were soul mates. "Southerners and Germans are one and the same," she said. "Both set out to enslave other peoples. We lost the wars we started. As a group, we're stupid as shit. And no matter where we go to, we have a strong attachment to our own soil, our land."

I, a Jewess, didn't know from such things. My people jumped like fleas from one place to another, never allowed to stay put long enough to form an attachment to the neighborhood. Even later, when history was kinder to my families, offering us haven in America, we moved a lot, upwardly mobile, until we wound up in a brand-new house, built just for us, in a suburb freshly developed. Raised up in one clip, it wasn't the sort of house that harbored ghosts. It had no past, no roots. Rather, one day we were there, and the next day we could be gone without a trace. My house could've been in the town that Hitler built for the Jews.

Lorraine tried to bake a Flammkuchen but didn't have the knack, and Peter couldn't develop a taste for peanut butter pie. But still, love flourished because, Lorraine explained, "The cross-eyed girl flatly refuses to give him a start-to-finish blow job. She won't swallow. Why do you think that is?" Lorraine asked me.

How could I possibly understand a people who consider swallowing a gob of jizz to be filthy, but found it conscionably clean to wash up with soap made from Jews, Gypsies, and priests? I shrugged, and Lorraine guessed, "It's one of those German peculiarities, isn't it?"

WILLKOMMEN: 1985–86

Reagan Honored SS Dead at Bitburg/
Peter Transferred Back to Frankfurt

Lorraine and Peter wrote long letters to each other. Lorraine lamented that his English was slipping fast. "Sniks, he writes," she told me. "He wrote that at least there are not sniks in Frankfurt. He meant snakes."

At work, Lorraine spent most of her days trying to finagle free airfare to Frankfurt. In December of 1986 she scored a pair of tickets from Lufthansa, and so I went with her to Germany.

While Peter and Lorraine made up for lost time in our freebie room at the Intercontinental Hotel, I went sightseeing. I did not go to museums and cathedrals. Rather, I went sight-seeing for Nazis. I sat around cafés clocking anyone old enough to have been one and tried to guess in which bit of nastiness they partook. Later, after Peter returned home to the cross-eyed girl, Lorraine and I went out for dinner. "Like that one there," I said, pointing to a table across from ours, indicating an old woman wearing one of those queer Tyrolean hats. "She either worked at a camp sorting clothes, pocketing whatever she could, or else she indoctrinated children, gathering them around her to read them that version of 'Hansel and Gretel' where the Jew tries to bake the little German children into matzo."

Lorraine nodded and remarked, "And where is the justice in this world that she sits here now eating that sausage like nothing ever happened?"

THE FOLLOWING DAY : 1986

Giving You a Number and Taking Away Your Name

Even after getting trapped on the Geisenerring, driving around and around it as if it were a maypole, as if there were no exit, and then having to stop for gas at the last-chance-for- gas station where the attendant stank from stale beer and looked like a serial killer, we managed to reach the border before nightfall ...

The foregoing is excerpted from History on a Personal Note by Binnie Kirshenbaum. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

 

Reading Group Guide for History on a Personal Note

INTRODUCTION

The characters in these short stories -- some interconnected -- grapple with love, loss, greed, perversion, and other awful truths as they try to transcend their backgrounds and limitations with occasional humor and dignity. In the title story, Lorraine, a Southerner, wonders if her German paramour will find the inspiration to leave his wife amidst the destruction of the Berlin Wall. In "Viewing Stacy from Above," a pregnant woman descends into a pit of despair as she contemplates the constraints of motherhood. In "Money Honey," a young woman who ditches her husband is reprimanded by an extended family of elders whose morals are even more dubious than her own.

Alternately realistic, allegorical, witty, and contemplative, History on a Personal Note takes us into a world laced with black humor and makes us laugh-until it hurts.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. How do historical and political events inform and shape the stories in History on a Personal Note (i.e. reunification of Berlin in the title story, Vietnam War in "For Widgit Stands," Kennedy/Nixon election in "White Houses," "Bill Clinton says he's a new Democrat" in "Rural Delivery?")?

2. The stories "History on a Personal Note," "Halfway to Farmville," and "Rural Delivery" follow the lives of the narrator and Lorraine. How does Lorraine change over the course of the stories? Does the narrator change in the same ways as Lorraine? What do you think keeps their friendship going all these years?

3. Longing to be a part of the protest movement in the 60s, the narrator in "For Widgit Stands" refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance, making her the target of the school bully. Discuss how power shifts throughout the story, especially the final shift from the bully, Lydia, to the narrator.

4. "Money Honey": A woman escaping her marriage lands in the middle of her family's plans to defraud their uncle of his inheritance. How do the narrator's values differ from that of her family? How does she express her rebellion? How does her perception of herself differ from what we know about her?

5. How does the structure of "In the Beginning" mirror the Old Testament? Is the generational transformation described typical of all immigrant populations? How do ethnicities assimilate differently? How is this experience particularly Jewish?

6. "White Houses": How do the childhood attitudes and actions described remind you of social and personal anxiety experienced in adulthood? When the author alludes to the iconic images of the Kennedy years, is she implying that we, as a country, were innocent then, or that our perception of the era is now mostly idealized?

7. "Courtship": Discuss which aspects of her parents' courtship and relationship the narrator admires. Are her recollections delivered with a touch of nostalgia or irony or both? How does our current understanding of love and courtship differ from her parents' era?
"Jewish But Not Really": The narrator's experience at the Easter egg hunt is a powerful example of the insidious discrimination that lurks beneath the surface. Discuss two scenes that you found particularly subtle and revealing. How is the discrimination observed become internalized in its victims?

8. "The Zen of Driving": Why does the narrator want to learn to drive, despite an apparent lack of aptitude? Why does an affair she thinks will make her feel more alive, doesn't?
"Viewing Stacy from Above": Ross, the husband, is thrilled his wife is having a baby. She does not seem excited or engaged in the event. Instead, she becomes a fervent voyeur in her neighbors' family life. What purpose does the bitter observation of the family routines serve her? Think about what the narrator's life may be after the birth of the baby. Will the marriage survive? Will her actual experiences differ from her expectations?

9. "A Full Life of a Different Nature": How do the sexual attitudes of the narrator and other characters in the story compare? Why is the narrator sex-obsessed? Why does she lie to Violet about masturbating? What does Irving mean when he tells her, "Eat, darling, eat," at the end?