Book Review: Life’s twists and turns

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Bewildered by life’s twists and turns: that describes many of the characters in Karen E. Bender’s short stories in “The New Order” (Counterpoint) and Binnie Kirshenbaum’s novel “Rabbits for Food” (Soho). How the characters cope, or don’t cope, with the problems they face is what creates tension and interest in both works.
This theme is clear in most of Bender’s stories, although, at times, she adds an additional element: seeing events from two people’s point of view. For example, “Three Interviews” partly focuses on an unemployed woman, Ms. Gold, who is anxiously searching for a job in order to feel complete again. Although, at first, the readers see the world through Ms. Gold’s eyes, during the interviews, Bender instead offers the thoughts of each interviewer, all of whom are less interested in Ms. Gold than they are with glitches in their own lives. The differences between the interviewers’ thoughts and those of Ms. Gold made for fascinating reading.
Several of the stories have specific Jewish themes. The powerful “Where to Hide” brings together two old friends, the narrator and Eve Silverman, to look at safety issues in case of an attack on their synagogue. Their suggestions take increasingly absurd turns as the narrator comes to realize it will be impossible to keep everyone safe from a gunman. The reader soon comes to understand that the two women are also speaking about their own lives and losses, and shows the very different ways they now approach life, something that has caused a rift in their once close friendship.
In 1974, neither Hebrew school nor the public high school feel like a safe place for the narrator of “This Is Who You Are.” Learning about children her age who were killed in a terrorist attack in Israel and dodging the gym teacher’s inappropriate behavior makes it difficult for her to cope. Additional stress is caused by her sister’s undiagnosed illness. When one of her friends experiences a trauma, the narrator dreams of escape.
Two stories explore their characters’ relationship to Judaism. “On a Scale of One to Ten” focuses on the woman facing a difficult choice. There are only two English speaking schools in the city in Asia where her family lives. After the international school turns out to be a disaster, the family visits a missionary, evangelical school where Jesus plays a major part in the lives of the teachers and the students. The narrator must decide how much of their religious identity she would be willing to sacrifice in order for her daughter to attend the school. The action in “The Cell Phone” takes place during Rosh Hashanah evening services. When cell phones begin to ring – even after they are completely turned off – those on the other end of the line force the congregants to determine whether their dedication to Judaism is real or a hollow sham.
All of the stories in “The New Order” are well done and focus on a world where violence and disorder of all sorts leave people feeling shaken and uncomfortable. Bender uses clear, broad strokes to portray the underside of American culture.
While Bender’s work has a stark tone, Kirshenbaum depends on black humor when writing about Bunny, a novelist who suffers a nervous breakdown on New Year’s Eve. The prologue shows Bunny in a psychiatric ward in New York City in 2009. Then the action moves to the fall of 2008 as Kirshenbaum describes what occurred before Bunny’s breakdown; the second section of the novel focuses on Bunny’s life once she is in the hospital. Bunny is definitely clinically depressed, which might make her seem an unpleasant character to read about. So it came as a surprise that Kirshenbaum’s novel is often laugh-out-loud funny and that Bunny, who describes herself as unlikeable, becomes someone readers will truly care about.
There is little plot development in “Rabbits for Food,” but readers may not mind because the descriptions of actions and people are so well done. Included in the novel are Bunny’s funny, short essays, which are written as though she was taking part in the ward’s creative writing activity (something she refused to do). The original cause of Bunny’s depression is slowly revealed, although it’s also clear how her depression has affected her physically in a way that cannot be ignored.
What is not clear is whether or not Bunny is Jewish, although her husband Albie is labeled as such. However, the character’s sensibility – urban, caustic and intelligent – certainly is that of a stereotypical Jewish New Yorker. Kirshenbaum has created a great character in Bunny – one who will get under readers’ skin, even if they might not want her as a friend. This excellent novel made for great reading.