Jordan Rich, WBZ, Boston
“Bathsheba captures the small town life, those endearing characters, and the yearning to break from it all to the outside world with style, humor and emotion. Look for her work to shine for many years to come."
“Bathsheba Monk is a writer I'll be talking about when I talk about brilliant new writers. Now You See It . . . is the work of an imaginative, funny, and electrically gifted storyteller.”
“Bathsheba Monk must have been thinking about these stories for a long time—stories this good are earned. She seems to have stories busting out of her. It is as if Winesburg, Ohio were moved to Cokesville and filtered through the eye of a tough, seen-it-all narrator whose singular personality misses nothing and reports back with a lack of fanfare that socks you in the gut.”
D. Keith Mano
“Monk’s fiction is so subtly structured, so downright plausible and fine, that you can read it either as a short story collection or as a fully realized novel. No matter how you read this book, Now You See It…announces the presence among us of a new and magical voice.”
It's pretty much a straight shot from the upstate New York towns of Richard Russo's books to Bathsheba Monk's Cokesville, PA. This is coal and steel country. The sort of place where an inch of soot on the windowsill means a regular paycheck--and two inches means a fat one. And what's the best make-out spot in town? Next to the burning slag heap.
In seventeen beguiling, linked stories, spanning fourty-five years, Monk brings a corner of America alive as never before. Her world bursts with indelible characters: Mrs. Szilborski, who bakes great cake, but sprays her neighbors' dogs with mace; and Mrs. Wojic, who believes her husband was reincarnated--as one of those dogs. Then there is the younger generation: Annie Kusiak , who wants to write, and Theresa Gojuk, who dreams of stardom. Cokesville is their Yoknapatawpha; they ache to escape it and the ghosts of their ancestors and the regret of their parents. What ghosts--and what regrets! When Theresa's father Bruno falls into a vat of molten steel, the mill gives the family an ingot roughly his weight to bury.
As deliciously wry as Allegra Goodman in The Family Markowitz, and with the matter-of-fact humanity of Grace Paley, Bathsheba Monk leads us into a world that is at once totally surprising and recognizable. These stories glow like molten steel.
A CHICAGO TRIBUNE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
STRONG DEBUT SETS FICTIONAL TOWN, ITS PEOPLE IN OUR IMAGINATION
By Carlo Rotella
May 28, 2006
Annie Kusiak has had her share of disappointments, including failures in marriage, journalism, screenwriting, life in Boston and California, conversion to Judaism and suicide. Even her successes are mixed. Having remarried, this time to an oilman from Texas, and turned herself into a faux Lone Star cowgirl with big hair, pointy boots and a side career as a writer of bodice-rippers, she suffers a pretender's secret anxiety that her new husband's ex-wife will turn up at her door and rightfully dispossess her. But, for consolation, there's always this:
"When I look into the mirror, I know who I am: somebody who doesn't live in Cokesville, Pennsylvania."
Annie's best friend from high school, an ambitious beauty named Theresa Gojuk, escapes their dead-end hometown too. Theresa heads west to Hollywood, where she turns into the glamorous Tess Randall and makes it in soap operas and lousy movies. When the logic of B-list celebrity and Hollywood's bizarre ideas about female aging catch up with her, she stays in the game by remaking herself off screen as a producer and onscreen as a sexy "grandma." Cokesvillers, especially women, know something about riding the curling forward edge of forces they can't resist.
In Bathsheba Monk's first book, "Now You See It ... : Stories From Cokesville, Pa.," a series of linked short stories about Cokesvillers that spans the period from 1949 to 1994, the mills and mines stand for everything bigger and stronger than the characters. Those who leave Cokesville as well as those who stay are yanked this way and that by economics, class dynamics, fate, luck and the ironic consequences of their own desires. The decline and fall of American heavy industry forms the narrative backdrop against which the individual stories unfold, a great transformation that alternately pounds down her characters and sets them bewilderingly adrift.
Cokesville, in the Catawissa River valley, is an imaginary place found in the same literary atlas that contains Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and Richard Russo's Mohawk,N.Y. Monk assembles Cokesville out of elements of the industrial cities and towns of eastern Pennsylvania. The principal source is Bethlehem, in the Lehigh Valley (where Monk grew up, and to which she has returned to live and write after wandering far afield), a place dominated once upon a time by Big Steel and now by the ghosts of Big Steel, but there are also echoes of Hazelton, the mining town where Monk's parents were born, and Centralia, the mining town turned into a science-fiction wasteland by a long-burning underground fire.
Those who don't flee Cokesville go down with the ship. Consider Bruno Gojuk, Theresa's father, who dies an emblematic workplace death when he falls "into a vat of hot metal, becoming one with the molten steel he was cooking." The company delivers a 175-pound ingot of steel to the family for burial, since Bruno listed 175 pounds as his weight on his job application 30-odd years before. He was bigger than that when he died, so the Gojuks feel cheated: they should get a 200-pound ingot. No such luck, but nobody is surprised by Bruno's fate:
"Not only had the people of Cokesville waked steel ingots, but over the years they had stood reverently in front of hunks of coal when mines collapsed on miners and the mines were sealed before they could retrieve the bodies. And sometimes all they had to look at was the American flag when their boys vanished in battles overseas. The people of Cokesville were used to their men leaving home in one form and coming back in another, like a cosmic sleight of hand."
Now you see them, then--poof.
The same kind oflethal hocus-pocus happens to Cokesville itself, a vast forge that suddenly loses its function in a changing world. Driving into the Catawissa River valley on a visit home from Boston in 1972, Annie passes through a gantlet of "monstrous smokestacks and brick buildings whose windows flash with sudden blasts of burning light" and she has to turn up her car radio to "drown out the moaning of cooling steel." By 1975, when Theresa surveys Cokesville from a descending airplane, it looks "as if some giant, with a swipe of his hand, had knocked it over. The Japanese were buying it up piecemeal and sending the usable equipment to a mill in the Philippines. Theresa could see the small section that was still open. She pictured her father--the immolated Bruno--"running from one rusting building to another, a step ahead of the bulldozers, until he was finally cornered above his cauldron." By 1980, Cokesville's furnaces have become part of a historical theme park where Japanese tourists buy licorice I-beams and contemplate the passing of American industrial life.
By 1994, Cokesville itself is gone, blown to hell when a coal seam fire that had burned for yearsunder the town reaches the gas main. Now you see it, then--poof. In the end, everyone from Cokesville can look in the mirror and see somebody who doesn't live there anymore, but they have all been marked by it in ways they cannot escape.
Stylistically, "Now You See It ..." is not so much a linguistic pleasure cruise as a sharp assessment; the word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence art of Monk's prose tends toward quiet clarity rather than Incandescent beauty. Nor is the book a thickly textured sociological immersion into Pennsy manners and mores; it's well-observed but relatively sparing in its use of lived detail.
Rather, the main pleasure of reading the book resides in its steadily accruing portrait of a sensibility--how it feels to be from Cokesville, how being from Cokesville shapes thought and perception. Local mentality can be a greased pig of a literary objective, typically slathered as it is with layers of sentiment and convention, but Monk's relatively minimalist approach gets a grip on her subject with a certain businesslike lack of fuss that is itself exemplary of the regional style.
Monk chooses her details well, and she turns a good line when she needs to. For instance, Theresa Gojuk's escape into show business in the 1970s begins with pitch-perfect rightness: Having been knocked up by " `some boy' " back home, she embarks on an itinerant gig as a sports-show "chick," a progressively more obviously pregnant prop in a blue spandex gown whose job it is to hold a cigarette between her lips so that a crew of "short fat geezers in fishing gear" can flick it out with lead-weight-tipped angling lines. " `They told me I looked like a stream full of trout' " in the gown, Theresa recalls, and it's a lovely image. Just as lovely, in its understated concision, is Annie's non-description of the geezers after a show, "changing into clothes suitable for a big night in St. Paul." Leaving it to the reader's imagination works just as well as, or better, than cataloging the component plaids and polyesters of the Full Cleveland.
Monk's confident, knowing voice makes a strong debut in "Now You SeeIt ... ," establishing Cokesville and its people in our imaginary geography. ----------
Carlo Rotella's latest book is "Cut Time: An Education at the Fights." Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune
The Unbearable Lightness of Cokesville Wednesday, June 21st, 2006 A Review by Anna Godbersen Now You See It..., thecollection of linked stories by Bathseba Monk, a coal-and-steel country prodigal daughter, reads like a loosely bound collection of postcards, missives created from some less earth-bound material than paper and ink. These tales are so tidy and subtle it seems they might float away, which is curious because the world they orbit is one in which a man who falls into a vat of molten metal on the job will be replaced, in his funeral casket, by an ingot that weighs what his body did in life. Gratis, from the steel company. Or, in the case of Bruno Gojuk, an ingot that, at a hundred and seventy five pounds, weighs slightly less than he did at the end of his life-closer to what he weighed thirty years ago or more, when he first filled out an application to work at the steel plant. This is Cokesville, whose inhabitants have not only "waked steel ingots," but, over the years, "stood reverently in front of hunks of coal when mines collapsed on miners and the mines were sealed before they could retrieve the bodies." It is a town filled with guilt trips from the union, teenage necking, and the Ks and Zs of Polish surnames. This is a heavy world from which the bright and young yearn to escape, chief among them Annie Kusiak, Monk's protagonist of sorts, whose twin desires to find her own identity and success as a writer lead her on a serendipitous sad-funny path that includes flirtations with suicide, Judaism and cowgirl-hood. Like the other characters who try to walk out, disappear entirely or put themselves up in the stars (i.e. Tess Randall, nee Theresa Gojuk, about to be photographed in Vanity Fair), Annie keeps circling Cokesville warily. Now You See It... is a sublime and deadpan debut that cocks an eyebrow and reminds us that it is never a light thing, this leaving home, though we all must try.
THE BUFFALO NEWS
You'll want to stay in Cokesville, Pa.
By KAREN BRADY
News Book Reviewer
A strange and wonderful force is at work in Bathsheba Monk's "Now You See It . . .Stories From Cokesville, Pa." In this, her first book, she creates a chaotic but droll world wherein all roads lead to the fictional Cokesville, an "Our Town" peopled principally by Polish families whose livelihoods depend on the state of the coal mines and steel mills. In Cokesville, "there's no such thing as a free spirit in public housing," and the only happy residents seem to be old, blind, clueless Theodore Cheslock and his much younger mistress, Maria, a Puerto Rican orphan "raised in the local insane asylum."
Annie Kusiak, a writer, and Theresa Gojuk, an actress, emerge as the protagonists of this sassy, hard-boiled book of stories, some of which will break your heart.
"Since high school, Theresa and Annie had been in a conspiracy to leave Cokesville and never come back," Monk writes in her title story, "Now You See It."
The girls do get out of Cokesville - Annie to Boston and points beyond and Theresa to Hollywood, where she becomes soap star Tess Randall. But neither Annie nor Theresa can shed Cokesville, which is forever drawing them back - for weddings, funerals, christenings, illnesses - and is forever in their heads.
"It was what Theresa and I had in common: we both wanted a different skin," Annie says in "Now You Don't," a sequel to "Now You See It." Now, quips Annie, "when I look into the mirror, I know who I am: somebody who doesn't live in Cokesville, Pa."
Monk's Cokesville stories convincingly span more than 40 years of coal dust and hard living. Two- "Mrs. Szewczak and the Rescue Dog" and "Congratulations, Goldie Katowicz" - are worthy of becoming classics.
In the first, a poignant piece about an aging widow stranded at a bus stop in a snow storm, Mrs. Szewczak reluctantly accepts a ride from two marijuana-smoking black men who treat her carefully and compassionately, only to be betrayed by her unintended and misplaced fear.
In the second, Annie's maternal "zedo," Theodore Cheslock - who had disappeared before she was born - returns to the family fold an old, desperately ill man who has just won the lottery.
Here, Monk pulls out all her zany stops to tell a heartrending tale featuring, among others, a Runyonesque Uncle Mike, whose largess to Annie includes a gold bracelet of dubious origin.
In other Monk stories, we meet characters such as Annie's niece Monica, who gets a cemetery plot for her 16th birthday; Mrs. Wojic, a neighbor, who thinks a stray dog is the reincarnation of her late husband; Father Novakowski of St. Cunegunde's Church, who has a brief dalliance with Theresa's sister Margaret; and Theresa's mother Helen who, in her last days, is sent plane tickets to Lourdes by her actress daughter.
Yet, just beneath this folktale's levity is life on life's terms - Vietnam, steel mill and mine closings, teen marriage, miscarriage, birth and, of course, death, lots of death and lots of kinds of death.
"You know, once you get out of Cokesville, you can actually see the sunset," Theresa tells her sister Margaret. "It's not a tired orange ball falling into a bowl of pea soup."
Monk knows these people, knows this place because she grew up in similar Bethlehem, Pa.
We know these people and this place as well - as the fictional Cokesville, in the waning of its industrial era, is often like parts of Buffalo and Lackawanna not so long ago.
Bathsheba Monk - a nom de plume - is a writer capable of the perfect bizarre touch, as in the story of Mrs. Herbinko, who goes to the afterlife only to find she has prayed for the wrong Ignatz Herbinko since her husband Ignatz's death in a mine disaster 40 years before.
Monk can also capture the telling moment, as when the restless, troubled Theresa tells Annie: "Fix it. Fix my life. You're a writer. . . . Make it come out right. Life never comes out right, but you can fix it. Give me a neat life. Something with pink in it."
The stories here go together, like clothes strung on a line. In them, time passes, people endure and old women still scrub sidewalks. All of the stories are touching, some profoundly so.
But one of them misses. "Epilogue: Excellent Sperm," the last story in the book, is out of step with the others and breaks the continuum. It has little of the strong, spare effect of the earlier stories and seems, beside them, overreaching and overwritten. But then, "Epilogue" takes place in intellectual Boston, and once Monk has taken her readers to down-to-earth Cokesville, she's going to have a hard time getting them out of it. Just like Annie and Theresa - no matter where they go.
Karen Brady is a Former News columnist.
by William Bush
The fictional town of Cokesville, Pennsylvania is the real main character of Bathsheba Monk’s first book, and such a portrayal seems overdue. Most people who haven’t had the pleasure of the state’s long, winding, constantly-under-construction turnpike tend to think of the stretch between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as something vaguely rural, but it’s not. Each in their time, the lumber, coal, steel, and railroad industries had all disassembled and reassembled the place by 1949, the chronological setting for the earliest of Monk’s stories, and in their wake they’ve left a dense scattering of places like Cokesville—small, tightly-knit towns that themselves cluster around only slightly larger cities, a rusted-out belt of humanity that spans a distance significant enough that the two cities on either end have two different regional accents. Cokesville has everything that’s been needed for a long time to evoke that certain, elusive, small-town Pennsylvanian-ness required by fiction: a coal mine, a steel mill, an eclectic cast of old Polish and Ukranian ladies with their stern, borderline-abusive husbands—and, most importantly of all, a generation of youngsters who can’t wait to get out. No surprise why: Cokesville seems to its children to be transforming itself into a grisly, literal ghost town. As we learn in “Last Call (1982),” “It was becoming almost routine for the fifty-five-year-old men of Cokesville Forge to look at their newly idle fingers, start fiddling with this or that, until they finally found their way to the hunting rifle in the garage.”
The wonderful—if cumbersomely titled—Now You See It… Stories from Cokesville, PA, is a 240-page temporal odyssey of sorts—seventeen stories spanning almost fifty years and chronicling the lives of what feels like about twenty of the town’s residents. Each one comes with a timestamp, which creates an eerie, fade-in, fade-out sort of feeling as you read, as though by the time the empty space at the end of a story yields once again to Monk’s quietly confident prose, you may have very well have missed something—a marriage or a divorce, the death of someone’s uncle or someone else’s dream. At the heart of things are the Gojuk and Kusiak families and their two prodigal daughters—Theresa Gojuk, who goes to Hollywood as the mediocre-movie-star turned magnate-producer “Tess Randall,” and Annie Kusiak, who cycles through a series of bad marriages and struggles to find her voice as a writer. The two girls maintain a kind of psychic friendship, occasionally meeting in California or some other distant place that is, significantly, neither Annie’s current home nor Cokesville.
The eight stories mostly about Annie are the only ones told in the first person. That she’s trying to make it as a writer seems like a too-practical conceit, at first. Putting a writer in charge of a piece of first-person fiction causes a unique brand of trouble, and forces us to wonder how self-consciously constructed the narrative really is: with every story Annie tells, we have to wonder whether we’re reading one of her stories or a story about her struggle to write stories. Plus, the Annie stories don’t have the cultural texture of the third-person pieces—though they possess a compelling energy enhanced by our growing familiarity with their narrator, the contemporary feel makes it seem as though Annie is groping, herself, for something less rich than what we’re able to take ourselves from what (it ultimately turns out) are likely her own stories about Cokesville’s past. Eventually, the context of Annie’s revelation to turn away from her previous writing pursuits—to turn towards the home she has been fleeing for thirty years—redeems not only her character but also those stories of her struggle to run, giving them the air of a confession the young, Cokesville-bound Annie was never able to make in Father Novakowski’s church.
“Now you see it. Poof. Now you don’t”— the titular phrase and its inevitable answer turn up from time to time in Monk’s stories, in the voices of several of Cokesville’s characters, creating an additional level of sorrowful, ironic, and ultimately resigning connection between the people of a town who dislike each other as often as the opposite. By the time Annie extends her magical metaphor (“We’re like rabbits that were pulled out of a magician’s hat, coming out of nowhere for the show.Disappearing before anyone thinks to miss us”), she could be talking about herself and Theresa, or the people of Cokesville in general. Annie isn’t in the final story, about another Cokesville expatriate and her bohemian Russian lover, a man who makes art of sperm donation and can’t find poetry in the rush of Boston. By this time, Annie Kusiak is at rest with Theresa, as well as the other Gojuks and Szewzcaks, the Szilborskis and Herbinkos—all are phantoms, dancing on the dirty breeze of the past.
July 2, 2006
You can't go home again, said Thomas Wolfe in elegiac mood. Amen to that, says Bathsheba Monk, daughter of a more ironic generation, in these ``stories from Cokesville," a fictitious doppelganger to her Rust Belt hometown.
The stories in this collection -- black-humored, cynical, and deeply autobiographical -- put an original spin on a familiar 20th-century saga, the rise and fall of the American working class. The forebears of the multigenerational cast of characters -- the Kusiaks, the Slepchuks, the Gojuks -- step off the boat from the old country and go straight to work in America's mines and mills. By the time their children reach middle age, those mines and mills have folded, leaving laid-off union men scrambling for minimum-wage work at the mall while their wives grimly soldier on. The grandchildren can't wait to clear out. ``I know who I am," says Monk's alter ego, Annie Kusiak, who has lit out for California: ``somebody who doesn't live in Cokesville."
Inventive, unsentimental, Monk is a grass - roots artist who honed her craft at the school of hard knocks. Her sense of place resonates in tune with her feisty sense of self.
Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.
THE PLAIN DEALER
Sooty memories give birth to vivid mining-town tales
Sunday, July 30, 2006
"It seems natural, American really, to move on," Bathsheba Monk wrote this year. "Aren't most of us descended from people who did just that?"
Bathsheba Monk, born into a large mining family in Hazelton, Pa., lucked into an unusual ticket out of her dying hometown. When she was 18, a childless uncle asked her to lunch and pushed an envelope across the table.
It contained $25,000 in cash. Run away, he advised Monk; don't look back. Even though Uncle Mike had criminal ties, Monk took all the money and half the advice. The instruction she ignored - not to look back - has graced us almost 20 years later with "Now You See It . . . Stories from Cokesville, Pa." These 17 interlocking stories build a bygone world that is incandescent and bitter, pared down and beautiful.
Fictional Cokesville is the central character in the way Winesburg, Ohio, worked for Sherwood Anderson and Grover's Corners suited Thornton Wilder. It's a spot where Mrs. Szilborski daily bakes a cake from scratch that no one wants; where the men wander their back yards with bottles of beer, and the gardeners place cinders between their rows to keep the weeds down:
"Seventeen church spires probe into the brown atmosphere of the downtown - looking for God, but finding soot, which rains like manna on the southside row houses. An inch of soot on the windowsill means a regular paycheck. Two inches means a fat one."
Monk shows a canny ability to fix just the right detail in the right era: the red plaid thermos, the Butterick pattern, the high school slam book. Each story is carefully dated, the earliest in 1949, the last one in 1994.
This attention to the particular, Thomas McGuane recently told the Los Angeles Times, is "one of the great challenges of short fiction. Finding things that have a resonant feel, that look innocent on the surface but have a lingering aura."
Monk's work starts out thin, but by her third story, "Flying Lessons," she is in McGuane's zone, developing her themes of escape and loss and thwarted ambition like a film developing in its chemical bath. Her characters intersect through different decades; those who were babies in one story, or young siblings in another, pop up as complex adults as the generations turn over.
At the center is Annie Kusiak, who narrates most of these tales with a wit and insight that do her little good. Toward the end, she drifts into a second marriage to a Texas oilman that sees her "metamorphose into a Lone Star cowgirl. My hair got big. My boots got pointy. My chili rings five bells."
Be warned: Monk's poignant figures fight for air, for relevancy, and find themselves gasping. Monk is a terrific writer but stingy in what she parcels out. When two women, each for her own misguided reason, consider ditching Catholicism for Judaism, one tells the skeptical rabbi: "God told me to convert. Do you think He would tell me to do something that would kill me?" "It's His specialty," the rabbi replies.
Like the soot in Cokesville, there is blackness to Monk's writing, but she is so funny that her fierceness sneaks up and smacks us from behind. Her stories bite into class and race with an almost European lightness.
When Monk writes about Mrs. Szilborski - who Maces the dogs that pee in her yard - and Mrs. Wojic - who believes her husband killed in the mill has been reincarnated as one of those yellow stray dogs - we fret about each eccentric character, seeing her from a different vantage as the stories unfold.
"Now You See It" is beautifully structured but would have been better without the final piece, which trots out a new character from Russia and an analogy of America as a carcass crawling with parasites. Monk doesn't need either.
Still, this collection heralds an important new voice in American fiction. My hope, as Monk writes her second book in Allentown, Pa., is that she'll make room for more of the basic decency that is also part of the story.
Long is book editor of The Plain Dealer.
THE NEW YORKER
Now You See It . . ., by Bathsheba Monk (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $22).
Monk, who grew up in Pennsylvania coal-and-steel country, sets her stories in the fictional town of Cokesville, where gardens grow through slag heaps, women scrub their sidewalks free of soot, and men scrounge for jobs that are likely to kill or maim. Set mostly among Polish immigrants and their descendants over a forty-year period, the stories use deadpan humor to combat a sense of hopelessness and economic futility. The most compelling are narrated by an adolescent would-be writer determined to avoid the “lava show” make-out spot, where carts dump molten coke and girls her age get pregnant. Even those who escape, however, can’t seem to free themselves from the slow burn of their heritage, much like a decades-old underground coal fire, ignited “when someone dumped a load of garbage down a mine shaft.”
Cokesville, Pa., is a gritty fictional American shtetl. It is populated by Polish-Catholic émigrés and anchored by the steel mills in which they are employed. It is a place both defined and defeated by the customs of the Old World.
Bathsheba Monk was born and raised in a small Pennsylvania town similar to Cokesville; her grandfather, a coal miner. It is this experience that she draws on in her debut collection, "Now You See It... Stories from Cokesville, PA," 17 linked short stories told mostly in the wry voice of young Annie Kusiak. But in addition to the inspiration offered by her native town, Monk has plumbed the time she spent exploring Judaism while living in Israel. Through her studies at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem and her relationships with Israelis, her connection to Judaism translates into engaging and profound moments in which people attempt to transform their identities — or cling to them — at the expense of their happiness.
Cokesville is a place where the American dream is dulled by pollution and bankrupted by the harsh economics of living from paycheck to paycheck. When one character learns that the steel mill will close a few months shy of his retirement, he jumps into a vat of molten steel; the company sends an ingot to replace the body at the funeral. "No one was surprised to see an ingot in the casket instead of Bruno. Accidents happened all the time at the plant, and people found it as normal to view a 'Made in the USA' stamp on a slab of steel as it was to view a face made up with lipstick to meet its maker."
Although all her characters grapple with multilayered identities, the work turns especially complex when Annie leaves Cokesville to attend college in Boston. After a half-hearted suicide attempt, the reader learns that Annie is grieving over her breakup with her Jewish boyfriend, who declared that he "needed to marry a Jewish girl." Annie eventually realizes that it's not Ben whom she misses, but "being with a nice Jewish man who gave me entrée into a special and defined club. Jews were a definite thing. They ate gefilte fish, the most horrible food on the face of the earth, and they all knew it, but they stuck by it, because it was their fish. I liked that kind of loyalty. They questioned everything: right and wrong, the nature of God who could treat His chosen to such an astounding variety of cruelty, which they accepted as proof of His special attention to them. God was with them. I wanted to be part of a people who had access to that kind of attention."
Annie soon learns thatconverting to Judaism involves more than declaring loyalty to a particular man and the fish he eats. Monk's razor-sharp wit melds humor that stops short of clichés with a blunt portrayal of identity politics. The rabbi instructs Annie and an older woman — a devout Polish Catholic who is obeying a dream she had in which she was ordered to convert to Judaism — in Jewish law and the role of their fellow Poles in the Holocaust. His lessons exasperate Annie, who "only wanted an identity. Why was he making it so grisly?"
In a crisp, clear voice, Bathsheba Monk continuously explores the ongoing effect that "living the unexamined life" has on her characters and on the world around them. By the final story in the collection, most of Annie's generation has moved to places where "you can actually see the sunset. It's not a tired orange ball falling into a bowl of soup." Still there's no place like home, even if it is an America "that hates ignorance, hates excess, and hates misery, yet unwittingly nourishes all three."
Judy Bolton-Fasman, a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is at work on a memoir about the year she said Kaddish.
SPOTLIGHT: ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS.COM
By Patti Thorn, Rocky Mountain News
December 8, 2006
This year, while big-name authors were busy stealing the spotlight, scores of titles by unknowns were hatched. Many were superb reads. How do we know? Our critics spent 2006 screening nearly 60 debut novels that weren’t reviewed on the regular books pages. They read books of all stripes: futuristic tales, family sagas, suspensestories and more. And when it was all said and done, they had uncovered a wealth of fresh talent — in every genre.
Today, we offer 10 of the best, books of all types of plot and style. If you missed these titles when they were first released, here’s a hint: Don’t make the same mistake twice.
Now You See It ... Stories from Cokesville, PA
By Bathsheba Monk (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pages, $23.95).
Author’s background: Monk began her writing career on her high school newspaper, in the economically depressed Pennsylvania-part of the Appalachian coal seam. She joined the Army, and after being discharged, lived in Europe, where she supported herself as a painter. She now lives in Allentown, Pa., where she is writing her second book.
Plot in a nutshell: This is a collection of interrelated short stories about residents of Cokesville, Pa., a fictional coal and steel town. Plots revolve around characters both in their native element, and in other locations, where the transition between worlds isn’t very smooth. Theresa Gojuk, for example, thought she needed just one break to become Tess Randall the soap opera queen, but no such luck. Monica Kusiak is dating a WASP, but really doesn’t fit in with his family. And these are the lucky ones, with a ticket out.
As for those who stayed in the dying town, they tend to live dull lives. Monk punctuates their days with black comedy, and unexpected kindness. For instance, Mrs. Szewczak, a lonely widow who has "spun a cocoon around her misery" rides out ablizzard with a (gasp) black man of questionable character who saves her feet from frostbite in his snowbound car. The police assume the worst when they rescue the stranded pair, and Mrs. Szewczak tries her best to keep her savior out of their hands.
Sample of prose: Mrs. Wojic is consulting Mrs. Szilborski about a troubling question. It seems her husband told her that, after his death, he would return to her as a yellow dog. Sure enough, a stray dog has appeared: "It was just the sort of dog she thought Mr. Wojic would look like, and when it was still there at suppertime, Mrs. Wojic let it inside. Everything was just fine, she said, until this other yellow dog showed up. Now she didn’t know which one was Mr. Wojic."
Author reminds me of: Mona Simpson, in her gift for depicting tension between mothers and daughters.
Best reason to read: Monk’s dark sense of humor dovetails with her characters’ genuine grief and loneliness. These are stories to revisit.
Jul 9, 2006
by Teresa Budasi
An impressive debut collection of stories, each of which stands on its own but can also be seen as chapters in one woman's repeated attempts at escaping her small-town roots in search of herself.
Annie Kusiak is at the center of the book. She gives first- person accounts of her own experiences and her voice resonates throughout the other stories of the fictional Cokesville, Pa., where coal and steel fuel the livelihoods of the town's Polish-American population.
Lives intertwine, cross over and collide head-on. There's Annie's best friend Theresa Gojuk, who makes her own escape by going to Hollywood and becoming the actress "Tess Randall." Theresa's best friend marries Annie's big brother, David, who must give up a football scholarship to provide for his new wife and unborn child. A neighbor, Mrs. Wojic, thinks a stray dog is the reincarnation of her dead husband. Theresa's father dies by falling into a vat of molten steel. Annie's grandfather, whom she never knew because he left before she was born, returns one day, seemingly to die.
Those and the other tales, 17 in all, hammer home the drudgery that has permeated America's ethnic working class for hundreds of years. (Cokesville was "the sort of place where an inch of soot on the windowsill means a regular paycheck -- and two inches means a fat one.") They also illustrate that life is a series of episodes -- many of them heartbreaking in one way or another -- that, like it or not, defines us in ways we may never fully understand.