Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Thursday, June 26, 2014

We'll Go to Coney Island: My Mother Made Me Read This Book....And I Loved It

We'll Go to Coney Island
Barbara Scheiber
Sowilo Press
paperback, 234 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9844727-9-6
source: my Mom

Have you ever had a reading experience where you were so intensely involved in what you were reading that you could feel your pulse racing, and maybe you were just a little bit on fire?

That's how I felt while I was reading We'll Go to Coney Island, and I never would have read this book if it weren't for my Mom. Or: She Who Must Be Obeyed. We can just call her SWMBO.

So I saw Mom at the beginning of June, and she gave me this book: We'll Go to Coney Island. And she was like: "I can't wait to hear what you think of it."

She meant that all too literally. Every phone conversation started with: "Have you read that book yet?" Remember, this is SWMBO. I knew I'd better read that book.

A couple of things Mom kept mentioning: the author is old. Like, really old (Barbara Scheiber was ninety-two when We'll Go to Coney Island, her first novel, was published). And Mom kept talking about how fascinating that was, and wondering why she didn't publish until so late in life. I read the back cover, and told Mom over the phone: "Well, it says here she had four children. Maybe she took time to raise her children. Maybe she worked."

"You know," Mom said, "maybe you could write a book."

Hmmm, maybe I could. (Note: I am nowhere near 92 years of age)

Before I tell you all about We'll Go to Coney Island, I want you to know that Mom doesn't have the internet. She doesn't believe in computers. She does have a cell phone, but she keeps it turned off and zipped up in a little case. If she wants to call someone, she pulls out the case, unzips it, and turns on the phone. If someone wants to call her, well, too bad. She has a life, you know.

So I did a little research, and when I call her tomorrow, I'm going to read her these articles over the phone:

Seeing the Whole Picture in We'll Go to 'Coney Island'

In a Walker Evens photograph, author Barbara Scheiber saw her family history

We'll Go to Coney Island is a novel in stories, a genre I happen to love. But honestly, this book holds together as well as any traditional novel I've ever read. It's true that each chapter is fairly short, and the chapters have the shape and closure of stories. But We'll Go to Coney  Island tells a single unified narrative, a story of inter-generational love and conflict, filled with the kind of pain, bitterness, and betrayal that you can only find at home. But at the same time, in the very same place, is the kind of redemptive love you can't find anyplace else.

At the center of the novel are Minna and Aaron, Jewish immigrants struggling to achieve the American Dream. Aaron is a brilliant and gifted speaker, forced to peddle goods from door to door. He eventually puts himself through law school, despite never having attended high school. Aaron is a complex character: darkly handsome and charismatic, honey-tongued, and yet filled with intermittent moments of self-loathing and despair. Minna is working in a sweatshop when she first meets Aaron, living on the Lower East Side in New York, and trying to avoid both poverty and the matchmaker. She has aspirations as well, and is secretly saving for college.

Some of the characters and stories in We'll Go to Coney Island are based on the author's family, but much of the novel is pure invention. But the bitter secret at the core of the story is true: Aaron's affair with his secretary (and many others) is taken from life. And the cover image for the book, a Walker Evans photograph of a couple at Coney Island in 1928, is actually the author's father with his secretary (his mistress at the time, and later his wife). Scheiber saw the photograph at an exhibition and was jolted, "thunderstruck" with recognition. The painful knowledge of her father's secret affair is something that Scheiber shares with the character of Rachel in the novel.

The interwoven stories demonstrate, without hitting the reader over the head, how patterns are repeated in families, how old hurts and injuries and griefs cause people to lash out or harm others. And the characters, especially the character of Rachel, struggle against repeating the fates of their parents and grandparents.

The format of many short chapters (or stories), often told from different narrative points of view, really quickened the urgency and sense of suspense I felt while reading this book. I was intensely emotionally involved with all of the characters, and sympathetic to each of them. And the writing is incredible: precise, understated yet intense, shimmering.

I loved, loved, loved this book. If you enjoy beautifully crafted literary fiction about the struggles of ordinary, flawed humans, you need to read this book. Read this book: my mother said so. Seriously, read this book.

And now I'm going to go call Mom and tell her just how much I loved We'll Go to Coney Island.


Andi said...

You know the #coverho in me would've never picked this up if you didn't write such a great review, right?

bibliophiliac said...

@Andi--Haha! This cover really does need a makeover!

Bybee said...

I'm just the opposite. I would have picked it up for the Walker Evans cover. Great review. Good on SWMBO.