Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir

Unbelievable fakery, believable psychological consequences (Manhattan and towns across America, 2002-2006; Appalachian West Virginia/Virginia childhood years): This “concert crimes” memoir is unlike any I’ve ever read because it’s almost impossible to believe it’s true. The truth telling so difficult to swallow, a preface anticipates your disbelief:   

“While this is a memoir about being a fake, this is not a fake memoir. This is a memoir of earnest, written by a person striving to get to the truth of things that happened in the past . . . This book argues that while determining the difference between the real and the fake can be maddening and ultimately imperfect, it remains a worthy endeavor.” 

Maddening even for this mind-boggling fake news era. How could Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman spend four fraudulent years as a “fake violinist” playing in an ensemble for a “famous composer” duping audiences all across America and no one caught on the music was faked? How can that be?

The Composer – never referred to by his real name – and his complicit ensemble performed and conducted at world-class concert venues such as Lincoln Center! On PBS! More intimately at countless shopping malls, and arts and craft fairs. During a “74 days, 60 cities, and 54 performances” tour after 9/11 when vigilance reigned! Incredible not a single person in the audience realized the sounds were not coming from the musicians on stage. An astonishing scam. Though musicians were really playing their instruments, the microphone was turned off, so the “most beautiful music in the world” actually came from backstage, from a $14.95 Sony CD player! Yes, all the exclamation points are warranted. Wait, it gets worse.

The artistic cover-up wasn’t even synced from original compositions. The music was copied from other works, leaving out just enough notes to avoid violating copyright laws. The so-called composer couldn’t even recognize the iconic notes from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony!

On nearly every page, you’ll be asking, like Hindman does: “Who is The Composer?” She never outs him. That’s not her purpose. Hers is a tell-all meant to come to terms with how she got so profoundly in over her head until she reached the breaking point when she could no longer discern reality. Engrossing as we try to absorb the implausibility of not being discovered versus the plausibility of the emotional and physical toll that “almost killed” the author.

Hindman describes herself as “desperate.” One explanation is desperate financial times called for desperate actions, that by the time she’d gotten a sudden opportunity to work for the rock-star composer she’d hit fiscal rock bottom so how could she resist? Too simple.

Far more insidious were complicated, deep-seated emotional struggles, psychological vulnerabilities, rooted in her formative years growing up in Appalachia. Perceiving herself as one of Dr. Mary Pipher’s Ophelia teenage girls who succumbed to female expectations, low body image, and perfectionism, she suffered a mental and physical breakdown. Running commentaries explaining herself within larger contexts – in this case societal and cultural – are thoughtful and insightful.

This years-to-write memoir is dedicated “to those with average talents and above-average desires,” hinting from the get-go that’s how she’d defined herself. Note: her work effort is more like off the charts.

As a young, serious girl growing up in Appalachia who needed to be taken seriously, playing a serious instrument meant everything. No one will “laugh at you when you’re playing the violin.” A work ethic born out of what’s “most revered by the adults around her . . . Work is in the Appalachian air you breathe.” All the practice and hardships that went into earning early recognition as a “reeyl star” put so much extra pressure on wanting to be “valued in the world.” Years later, when her impossible dream seems to have come true – playing big-time for real yet never being heard – her sense of self, her value comes into serious jeopardy, precipitating crisis.

Which is another reason Sounds Like Titanic is unlike anything I’ve read as the only way Hindman found she could tell large portions of her story was to distance herself from painful truths, using the least common narrative point-of-view: the 2nd person. Not the easiest literary approach to pull off successfully, which she does.

One thing the memoir shares with others reviewed here is gorgeous prose, reaching stirring heights with energetic descriptions of violin playing:

“Fingers fly up the neck of your violin. You dangle on the highest note like a mountain climber clinging to the summit by a fingertip. It is never about conquering the mountain. It’s always about conquering the fear of the fall.”

Mountain metaphors are everywhere. Growing up in Appalachia meant her parents had to literally climb mountains driving hours to find (and pay) someone to teach their striving daughter the violin. Better off than most, this was still a financial sacrifice.

Drawn to “sinister music” at a young age, the author sensed “the connection between the music and the mountain fog.” Music she equated to “childhood sadness,” to Holocaust music evoking Anne Frank’s tragic story. Complex, ominous sounds.

Whereas The Composer’s instrumental music is easier and uplifting. Its most distinctive feature is the high-pitched “pennywhistle” sounds of the flute, likened to Celtic and Native American music. Music echoing the soundtrack of the movie Titanic – hence the memoir’s title.

So when Hindman arrived in Manhattan to attend Columbia University she’s already carrying heavy emotional baggage. Add to that endless economic angst to supplement her music scholarship, depleting the money her family managed to save up and the limits of egg-donorship. That’s when the author gets entangled with The Composer. After graduation, she relentlessly sought other jobs, hitting dead-ends and rejections, so she stayed on and on with him. Now really on her own, she went through hoops to find a dirt cheap apartment in a ridiculously expensive rental market. Survival, unless she quit. Jessica Hindman is definitely not a quitter.

Many recollections come from a journal Hindman kept while touring America in a dilapidated RV, along with The Composer and three other musicians. RV comrades in crime include another female violinist possessed with the kind of natural talent Hindman reminds us she doesn’t have; a flutist; and a Russian musician who resembles a “Hollywood parody of a KGB agent.” The driver of this wretched home-on-wheels navigates for months for free in exchange for being bathed in The Composer’s music, one of his “hardcore fans.”

More musicians perform on stage and work behind the scenes to produce the pirated CDs that garner big bucks. The Composer donates to charities and PBS, of course, but his con-artistry is impossible to condone no matter what his real motive(s).

Pursuing an Ivy League education was also eye-opening. Discovering an elite moneyed class full of privileges and stereotypes toward people from the South, prejudices strongly influenced the author’s academic path. The Iraq War was raging, so she fixated on a second major – Middle Eastern studies – aspiring to become a war correspondent. Writing evidently also an interest, except now the workaholic is juggling two uphill, demanding careers. Both seem vastly different but Hindman identifies a disturbing commonality – “ignorance” – ignorant musical audiences and ignorance about the Middle East.

Today Jessica Hindman is a bona fide professor of creative writing at Northern Kentucky University. We’re heartened she climbed her personal mountains to get there.


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The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding

What Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding gown meant to post-WWII England (London 1947; Toronto, Canada 2016): Historian and bestselling historical fiction author Jennifer Robson makes fashion design so interesting when she takes us inside who/what was involved in creating Queen Elizabeth II’s dazzling wedding gown during Britain’s austerity program in the aftermath of WWII, when even the royal family rationed their clothing. Desperate for a show of optimism for their bankrupt nation, British citizenry went so far as to send their ration coupons to Buckingham Palace, only to be returned to them.

In an elucidating author’s note, Robson explains how she was put to the test researching The Gown, her fifth historical novel. All she had were the “barest details” about the famous British fashion designer, Norman Hartnell, whose design was chosen for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten on November 20, 1947. Similarly, very little was known about his senior staff and embroiderers, and the process for making the exquisite gown at Hartnell’s embroidery workroom in London’s tony Mayfair district.

Wedding dress of Princess Elizabeth
via Wikipedia

“Swirls of tiny gold beads, translucent crystals, and matte copper sequins” were embroidered onto silk satin, along with appliquéing hundreds of flower motifs using a tambour hook and a frame. Delicate, meticulous work completed in just six weeks, with the added pressure of not breathing a word about what they were doing. Keeping the gown under wraps reached a feverish pitch, with consequences for anyone who breached their word of honor.

Robson is a persistent researcher because some of the Hartnell characters ended up being real ones. She’s also a detailed researcher and writer who doesn’t rush through scenes, rather, takes her time describing them. The effect is to put the reader into the bleak world of 1947 London when the British were grieving significant losses and still enduring major hardships.

We view this world through the lens of three fictional women, told in alternating chapters and time periods. Two are Hartnell embroiderers: Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin. Miriam, who went on to become an embroidery artist in her own right, felt so authentic I googled her, to no avail. I wasn’t satisfied until Robson confirmed in her explanatory note that they were imagined, though a bona fide embroiderer did inspire them.

The third female character, Heather Mackenzie, brings us into contemporary times. In her opening chapter, Heather’s grandmother Nan passes away. Nan was ninety-four, yet it was hard to believe she was gone. “All those people who lived through the war. You’d think they were made of cast iron.”

Nan leaves Heather pieces of embroideries. Heather (and her mother) haven’t any clue what they are or where they came from. Like the author, Heather travels to London to piece together Nan’s embroidery story. Stunned that as close as they were Nan kept part of her life secret. Why? Neither Heather nor her mother hadn’t even known Ann once lived in London. They’re all from Toronto, like the author.

Ann and Miriam are talented embroiderers. Ann had been working at Hartnell for over a decade when they met; Miriam was an embroiderer before she emigrated from France. While the novel focuses on England in the immediate years after WWII, Miriam’s French-Jewish refugee backstory brings the horrors of the Holocaust into the plot.

The two women become fast and best friends when Miriam lands a job at Hartnell’s and moves in with Ann, into the same council house she’d been living in since childhood, located in a working class suburb of East London. Council housing was part of Britain’s public housing program that began after WWI, blending more British history into fiction.    

Early on we learn that Miriam fled her homeland after she was freed by Americans from the all-women’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück. Ann and Miriam both lost family in the war. Both are surviving quietly. Both are anxious and reserved, for different reasons: Miriam is hiding from her past; Ann is keenly aware of the “gulf between classes” to the point of painfully accepting her destiny.

Ann and Miriam find comfort in each other as they go about their daily lives, rationing food and other needs, calling forth strength, humility, and a stiff upper lip. The pride, gratitude, and camaraderie they found at Hartnell’s cannot be overstated.

Theirs was a friendship bonded over commonalities and vulnerabilities. Differences in their European cultures and religions they bridged easily. There was, though, one huge difference between the two: Ann’s past was ordinary, whereas Miriam’s was historically extraordinary and haunting. At Harnell’s, they worked together on something luxurious, optimistic.

Which is why the glamor and excitement of a royal wedding – including the gorgeous gown – meant so much to a battered nation.

Heather is the one who brings Ann, Miriam, and Britain’s past alive. At first her dilemma was whether to ignore looking into the bequeathed embroideries out of respect for Nan’s privacy. It doesn’t take her long to realize Nan left them for her because she wanted Heather to know there was more to her grandmother than she could ever dream of. Heather discovers that because she’s a fine researcher who gets lucky.

The Gown is also a modern day example of how the beauty and pageantry of a fairy-tale royal wedding can boost an entire nation, if only briefly. Recall how the world was captivated last year by the courtship and marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. As of this writing, it seems British media has turned against the Duchess of Sussex, whereas Queen Elizabeth II is still beloved seventy years later. We may not be royal watchers, like Heather, her mother, and apparently the author, but we certainly felt the magic, love, and a sliver of optimism the new royal couple heralded.

Amidst the chaos in our country and around the world, the goodness and decency of Robson’s characters – kind in both deeds and prose – is a perfect novel for ushering in 2019.

Of course, there’s got to be a character whose trouble. In this novel he’s 1947 Jeremy with movie-star looks, “silver-blue eyes,” and a “top secret job.” He goes out of his way to court Ann, who can’t fathom why. She’s one of the “plain girls” and he’s so clearly upper-class. Let’s just say he’s not what he seems.

On the other hand, Ann, Miriam, and Heather will warm your heart. So will Ann’s widowed sister-in-law Milly, Miriam’s outside-of-work friends, plus a charming fellow connected to Miriam Heather fortuitously meets in 2016.

Starting off in 2019 with these kind, decent characters uplifts us. We welcome their warmth, goodness, and perseverance.


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The Songbird

Kinder, Gentler Prose (West Country, England; present-day): The Better Angels of our Nature is a phrase first heard in 1861 from our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, at his inaugural address. The soulful message rang out again on December 5th, 2018, a day after The Songbird was released, when historian Jon Meacham eulogized our 41st President, George H. W. Bush, at the Washington National Cathedral. It seems a particularly appropriate phrase to use – as well as Bush 41’s aim of a “kinder, gentler nation” – when thinking about The Songbird, British bestselling author Marcia Willett’s eighteenth novel.

Willett’s trademark is kind, gentle prose set in the peaceful English countryside.

Before you even open the author’s newest book, the cover (like many of her more recent novels) paints a watercolor image that feels good already. During the 2018 holiday season, we’re yearning for kinder, gentler. Though it’s been years since I read A Week in Winter, published in 2003, Willett’s lovely prose left an impression. If this is your first introduction to the warmth of Marcia Willett’s novels, you may want to return to her earlier ones, like I now want to do. Kinder, gentler is a gift.

The Songbird characters are good people (except for a mean-spirited outlier). That doesn’t mean this character-driven story of family relationships, love, and friendship is Pollyannish because these people have real troubles. We, then, can relate to their emotions and situations. Many seem like someone we know, used to know, or wish to know, rendered with grace and old-fashioned values and manners. You will not find any vulgarity or cruelty in the prose.

Cruelty does come, though, from circumstances out of the protagonist’s control. Tim, in his thirties, has decided to take a sabbatical from his marketing job at a London publisher, where he works with Mattie, a publicist. He doesn’t tell her why he needs to leave, but does ask if she knows any place he could “chill for a while. A cottage in the country but not too remote.”

Tim and Mattie are friends with early hints their relationship could go further if he let it, but he won’t, against his own needs, caring more about protecting Mattie, sparing her pain. Mattie, in turn, wishes he’d tell her why he’s leaving, but doesn’t pry. Right away you like them, the way they respect each other, tread gently.

Early on you’ll also learn one of Tim’s secrets: he’s been diagnosed with a cruel illness. It’s scary, made scarier because Tim has no family, no one to be there for him. Just this enormous burden, a time bomb waiting to explode.

Mattie does have an ideal solution for a healing retreat: a cottage in the West Country, where her sister and cousins live. When the novel opens Tim is living in one of the “terraced cottages” owned by Mattie’s cousin Frances Courtney, a retired member of the British Parliament. In his eighties, he’s writing his memoirs alone in the main house, once a farmhouse that goes back to the Napoleonic era. Also on the grounds are three cottages: two he rents out to extended family, the third now to Tim.

Tim finds the serene landscape helps to soften the blow of the heavy burden he’s carrying. He also discovers Mattie’s family is “the family he’s always longed for.” How they’re all related is a bit messy, and each is dealing with their own stages-of-life issues, but we like them a lot too (except for that one.) 

A favorite is Aunt Kat “in her early sixties, a former international ballet dancer and choreographer, tall, graceful, unconventional.” She embraces this quiet landscape surrounded by this little family, nursing the death of her lover two years ago. But she’s not bitter or angry about her significant loss, for she’s someone who exudes a love for life and the arts that’s quite wonderful. Yes, she’s unorthodox, charmingly so, a live-your-life-to-its-fullest person. An antidote for Tim who needs all things life-affirming. Kat also delights us because the author was once a ballerina (noted inside the book jacket), so she conveys Kat’s gracefulness and appeal naturally. 

Kat is living with cousin William, an arrangement that made sense when William’s wife abandoned their twenty-year marriage and the country life for a career in London, where she also cheated on good-natured William, who enjoys simpler pleasures such as singing in a choir. No one likes a manipulator, a betrayer like Fiona, including the reader. As the plot develops, you’ll see her selfishness and deceit come back to haunt her. 

Tim is renting William and Fiona’s empty cottage. The other cottage is being rented by Fiona and William’s son Andy and Charlotte, Mattie’s older sister, whose essentially single-parenting their baby boy Ollie as Andy is in the Navy, away at sea. This little makeshift family makes all the difference in the world for Charlotte (and the others), easing her loneliness and helping out with Ollie. Wooster, her lovable, wagging tail dog, also provides great comfort, epitomizing our need for companionship and why so many of us can’t live without dogs. A “big, solid presence,” dogs love us no matter what. 

What this surrogate family also prizes is Britain’s West Country. Francis’ estate may be fictional, but this area is not. Located in the southwest of England, somewhere near Devon and the moors of Dartmoor, nearby the sea. The author lives in Devon, clearly appreciates its “tranquillity” and unusual beauty.

Widecombe in the Moor, England
By dennisredfield [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Tim is not the only character who feels he’s living on borrowed time. Francis is not a well man; everyone’s future is uncertain as no one knows what will happen to the property should he die. Francis, more profoundly than the others, recognizes Tim is a “man with a secret – because “Francis knows all about secrets.” So he takes a special interest in Tim. Tim is also especially bolstered by Aunt Kat, whose “warmth and vitality give him courage. She accepts him without questioning or curiosity about his past. He is Mattie’s friend.”

Which brings us back to Mattie, who finds ways not to just keep waiting in the wings for reticent Tim. Since Mattie is the type of person who “could always make people love her,” says her older, a bit jealous sister, Tim is challenged to stay self-disciplined since there’s chemistry in the air.

Everyone cherishes something about the West Country, but seen through Tim’s lonely, anxious soul, it’s salvation. He marvels at “the peace of the woodlands – the banks of flowering azaleas, the scent of bluebells, the flittering of the birds in the canopy.” He savors the changing spring and summer seasons the novel spans, when sometimes the landscape has a “half-finished watercolor” look; at other times there’s a “radiance in the damp air: a brightness that touches the trembling raindrops with light and gleams on wet green leaves.”

Tim also can’t get over the slower pace that seems to enable so much friendliness and kindness to neighbors and strangers, though this family never treated him like one. An only child, we understand the importance of that for Tim, whose gratitude is profound. 

The West Country and Tim’s newfound family make him feel that maybe, just maybe,“miracles can happen” here. Whether they do or don’t, he and we experience the better angels in us.

Wishing all a kind and gentle holiday season. See you in 2019.


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The Rain Watcher 1

What happens when a family crisis collides with an environmental crisis? (A week in January in Paris, present-day): Despite the rain in the title and the raindrops on the cover, we don’t expect The Rain Watcher to be an urgent call on climate change. What we expect is some sort of a family calamity, not an environmental one happening simultaneously. The combined effect is to humanize the emotional havoc an environmental disaster places on a family already in crisis. Two fictional genres – dysfunctional family fiction and climate fiction inspired by historical facts – double punch this family.

France’s bestselling author Tatiana de Rosnay (Sarah’s Key , A Secret Kept, The House I Loved, more) uses a literary style that seems designed to make the reader feel the growing anxiety of the family’s worsening situation as the waters of the river Seine rise and overflow. The prose has a very distinctive quality: long sentences that turn into unusually long paragraphs – one, two, three pages long. The author wants us to feel the panic.

We’re so used to short paragraphs and clipped chapters this literary approach places demands on us; soon it sweeps us along as both disasters unfold, intersect, and devolve. There is, though, brevity in prologues that preface each of the novel’s six lengthy parts. However, it’ll take you most of the novel to nail down the narrator of these prefaces, a young boy, and how he figures into the multi-layered plot.

The last time the Malegarde family of four were all together was thirty years ago. They’re meeting in Paris to celebrate the 70th birthday of Paul, the patriarch, and the anniversary of Paul and Lauren, who planned this reunion for two years to make it happen. They have two children, Linden, in his 30s, and his sister Tilia, 40; her daughter, Mistral, 18, also arrives.

The first thing to know about the family is the names Linden, Tilia, and Mistral are all inspired by Nature. Lime trees are also called Linden, also Tilia in Latin; Mistral stands for a “powerful northwesterly wind.” Their names are connected to a piece of inherited property, “a little paradise on earth.”

Located in the Drone Valley some four hours south of Paris among fields of lavender and farmlands, a beautiful landscape where Paul and Lauren live; Linden and Tilia grew up here. Surrounded by lime trees, one at least three-hundred years old, and an arboretum, both mean everything to Paul. Famously known as Mr. Treeman, he’s an arborist who saves ancient and magnificent trees around the world. “A mystery to his only son,” a mystery to everyone actually, because he prefers trees over people, fanatically. A “silent” man, Linden “has been missing his father’s voice all his life.” He wants to communicate with him, doesn’t know how. (A running theme in the family’s dynamics.)

Trees also enter the picture with the unknown boy narrator whose voice is heard from a treehouse. Each time he appears we learn a little more of his traumatic story, but we don’t understand its relevance to the plot, germane in the ending.

The novel is as much about unlocking the importance of Nature as it is about unlocking the nature of people.

Each relationship in the family is examined, not separately but woven into the flowing paragraphs. Linden is the star. It’s his voice and his relationship with Paul that’s center stage. Linden lives in San Francisco, a photographer as famous as his father. In fact, it was his shot of his father, Treeman Crying in Versailles, that brought Linden overnight fame.

Linden has charisma. “Even people who had barely met him were bowled over by his personality, his kindheartedness, his talent, his sense of humor.” Love and kindness take over when Linden finds he’s the only family member who can, and will, assume the role of managing his distressed family. This does not come easy for him, expressed through his long, searching prose.

Linden left his family when he was a teenager; moved in with his aunt Candice, his mother’s sister, in Paris. He told her he was gay, she loved him “just the same.” Yet he didn’t tell his “nonchalant, exquisite mother” until seven years later expecting she’d react poorly, which she did. He’s never told Paul but suspects he knows about his lover, Sacha. “Never would he have imagined it would be so tough coming back” to Paris as Linden’s regrets and secrets about Candice and a young man resurface and deepen as the flooding paralyzes the city.

All the family members have secrets and regrets. Mother and father, individually and as a couple, are not revealed until the last fifty or so pages.

Tilia too. Tormented by a tragedy in her past, she’s a “failed artist.” She lives in London with her second husband, Colin, a mean alcoholic. Her “life is a disaster,” saved by “magnificent and fearless Mistral,” who “mothers her own mother brilliantly, and has been doing so, it seems her whole life.” Mistral and Linden are close, drawn to each other’s sensitive souls. Mistral is “bubbling” with excitement around uncle Linden so her prose bubbles along. She’s a big support to Linden in the emergency role he struggles with, yet done with great strength under great duress.

“The river has turned into a gluttonous muddy monster … “The river seethes like a hostile reptile beneath leaden skies and the uninterrupted downpour.” A statue, Zouave, marks how high the river Seine rises. The more intense the family’s situation becomes the higher the waters rise.

Statue of the Zouave, Paris
By Yann Caradec [CC BY-SA 2.0]
via Wikimedia Commons


Another tragedy is Paris had warnings: the 1910 Great Flood of Paris, revisited over and over again as people keep wondering if 2017 will be worse than 1910 when the waters rose 28 feet. (2016 flooding in Paris also noted.)

As the city becomes deluged, few can escape. Certainly not this family. Fear, exhaustion, and time feel like an eternity wearing down these characters until they weaken and finally share their innermost secrets, enlightening each other, enlightening us.

How sad that it takes a catastrophe to get the family to open up. Sad because they love each other, in their own imperfect ways, but there’s so much underlying baggage and tension among them they’ve been unable to. The Rain Watcher is a tale of many kinds of love, especially unconditional love and “love unexpressed.”

Human lessons are also viewed through an environmental lens. An historian discusses 1910 vs. 1917 flooding as the world watches the devastation in Paris on TV. The human connection is also told in a message about trees from Linden’s father he hears on a video.

The historian discusses the technological facts that made it easier for people to cope in 1910, but what sticks out is how “people were kinder to one another” compared to today as looters ransack an already ravaged city. And, Paul (who is quite talkative when it comes to trees) says: “trees care for one another … “everything about a tree is slow, how it thrives, how it develops … a tree is the exact opposite of the crazy, fast times we are living in.”

Given the dire warnings on the human toll of global climate change recently reported on, The Rain Watcher cries out on both the personal and scientific front. Tatiana de Rosnay hopes we’re listening.


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Nirvana on Ninth Street 2

A unique historic neighborhood, a unique historical time (Manhattan’s Lower East Side, 1960s to early 70s): This little poetic gem – fifteen short stories – pulses with the beat of an historically important neighborhood: the Lower East Side to many of us, renamed the East Village in the late sixties/early seventies when it was transforming, to glamorize it. Glamour is not what author Susan Sherman has in mind. Her fictionalized characters are meant to bring life to what was lost due to gentrification.

Also a poet and an activist, Sherman lived in this area during this spirited time. Perhaps she even rented an apartment in a tenement building like Rachel, the main character all others revolve around. Rachel’s building, 630 East Ninth Street, looms large, as nearly all the characters are residents in her building. She seems to have known them all. Many were friends, or lovers of her friends; many were artists forced out of Greenwich Village as rents became unaffordable.

The collection opens with a black-and-white photograph of three street signs, pinpointing the corner where East 9th Avenue B, and Charlie Parker Place converge. Streets that run along Tompkins Square Park, with its own legacy of displacement in the eighties and nineties. Five more images, all taken by Colleen McKay, are sprinkled throughout. Her background – along with Rona L. Holub’s who wrote an informative, condensed historical Afterword, and the authors’s –  can be found at the end.

The Lower East Side is famously connected to the immigrants who fled here to escape persecution, violence, and other prejudices – especially Jews from Poland and Russia, as well as Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans who were marginalized. Their “desires, frustrations, and rage” immortalized here.

Sherman had a front row seat to witness historic changes. She’s invested in this place, at this extraordinary time, so she writes from the heart with authenticity. Demolishing old buildings, stripping storefronts isn’t, in Sherman’s telling, about new money and upgraded real estate gained from gentrification. What she offers is the other side: a heartfelt tribute to all that was erased that had given the Lower East Side such a strong sense of character and belonging. Today nearly all its historic immigrant/Jewish ethnicity is gone, except for a few remnants like the Tenement Museum and Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Eldridge Street Synagogue
Photo by Jason3091 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

The avant-garde artists, photographers, and musicians in these stories helped define this remarkable era: the Sexual Revolution, Civil Rights and Gay Rights Movements, the Vietnam War protests. The author participated in them all. She weaves these significant cultural and societal changes skillfully, lyrically into the fabric of the stories.

While the characters aren’t real, they represent those heady times. They are passionate, unorthodox, artsy, angry, forlorn. Their stories are quite moving. None will leave you wanting; some will sadden you. Together, they add up to a mere 104 pages. A noteworthy literary feat. Even the partially recycled paper the book is printed on, smooth and satiny, adds a special quality to the legacy of those days.

Every character connects to Rachel, so the collection reads like a novella. Rachel imparts her memories of neighbors, friends, and lovers fondly and vividly, fully aware their futures were uncertain. As for Rachel, she’s presently 70, living alone with her cat. Once married, she has no children; loved two women, one she believed was her soul-mate.

Getting back to that opening photograph that pinpoints the section of the Lower East Side the stories are set in: opposite it are two lines of poetry by the Nobel-Prize winning Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral. The poem is about the sea. Just a few words yet they convey Ninth Street themes this poet was apparently known for – nostalgia, suffering, the loss of innocence, death.

Understanding the meaning of the sea in the poem is key to understanding Rachel, who keeps imagining the sea as she gazes out one of the eight-windows in her apartment. Rachel’s sea seems to be signaling she’s an “optimist at heart,” prepared to accept whatever her future holds.

A Prologue that’s poetry in prose introduces Rachel, the first of the “dreamer” characters. Her visions are not practical ones; hers are “far-off, spaced out.” Rachel “lived in her dreams,” so we perceive her as a poet of sorts:

“She wondered if birds enjoy flying, or if they do so unconscious of soaring through the wind … she wandered around the great expanse of the heavens as if it were her own backyard, as if she had a backyard. But what did that matter when the sky was the limit.”

And yet, you won’t find Rachel’s memories mystical; they’re as clear as if it were yesterday. These were her friends, her neighbors, and the lovers they, and she, lost. One of the lonesome voices, she manages to keep herself in check by staying busy with a routine. She’s luckier, then, than some of the other outcast characters unable to control dispirited emotions.

Probably the most tragic is Solomon, from the Deep South. An isolated sculptor using scraps of discarded metal to create odd things, expressive of the hatred he endured as a black man in South Carolina. In this welcoming neighborhood, he finds a best friend, CJ, who moved from Harlem when crime was rampant. He’s a woodworker who also creates from discards, but he makes useful things. The two openly share the same girlfriend, a painter. Solomon’s pain and angst is so profound, love and friendship isn’t enough.

A Little Night Music is about a singer who sings loudly to drown out her fears, disturbing her neighbors terribly. Caroline is Rachel’s best friend. She was a tailor like her father, who immigrated here from the Ukraine. It was the only way he could make a living since “Jewish scholars at the turn of the century were not valued for their intellectual skills.” Passion and Peace are two look-alike sisters wanting two different kinds of love.

Published four years ago, Nirvana on Ninth Street is as timely as ever. Poignant messages about immigrants who were poor but worked hard and so they contributed a richness to the Lower East Side gentrification has wiped out. They lived, toiled, and created under such overcrowded conditions they came to know and care for one another. Something many of today’s communities have lost.

The Lower East Side was a unique, we’re-in-this-together, challenged community that gave uprooted people strength and encouragement in spite of their differences. Maybe because of them.


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