- Hardcover: 216 pages
- Publisher: University of Georgia Press (October 1, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0820330000
- ISBN-13: 978-0820330006
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,915,319 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Pale of Settlement: Stories (Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction) (Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction) Hardcover – October 1, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Setting nine linked stories against a turbulent political background, Singer follows New York City journalist Susan Stern over two decades, as she flounders through a string of failed love affairs and maintains close relationships with Israeli relatives. Visiting her paternal grandparents in Haifa, Susan finds Israel relatively normal despite the 1982 Lebanon War. She loses some of her naïveté when her soldier-cousin, Gavi, joins a cult in the aftermath; after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Gavi's behavior becomes even more difficult to navigate. By that point, Susan realizes she still has feelings for an ex-boyfriend who calls in a panic to confess that a casual girlfriend is pregnant with his child. Susan's affair with a married man is told in tandem with a tale about her grandmother's difficult first years in British-occupied Haifa, while a maternal uncle who is a Jerusalem archeologist digs up a more recent, and more uncomfortable, truth. The latter revelation is touched off by 2002 reports of violence in Israel: Susan feels guilt and responsibility for the ongoing political crisis, but also a deep yearning for the country. Many story lines go unresolved, but the end result is a pungent composite portrait of a strong, complicated woman. (Oct.)
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"Awe inspiring . . . Readers yearning for the elemental forces to return to contemporary American fiction will applaud Singer's thundering debut." --Kevin McIlvoy, author of The Complete History of New Mexico: Stories<br /><br />"A deft braiding together of private life and the political and religious context in which desire unfolds . . . A first-rate debut." --Nicholas Delbanco, author of Spring and Fall<br /><br />"Margot Singer gives brave and eloquent voice to a new generation of Jewish wanderers in a global diaspora. In her stories, Israel is the first, enduring love, the place of origin and ending--but for many of her Israeli characters, a difficult and increasingly destructive love." --Judith Grossman, author of Her Own Terms
"The yearning for independence and the effort to sustain an identity pulsate throughout these masterful stories. A talented artist of the Jewish scene in Israel and the Diaspora, Singer is a new writer to savor." --Molly Abramowitz, Lilith
"Margot Singer gives brave and eloquent voice to a new generation of Jewish wanderers in a global diaspora. In her stories, Israel is the first, enduring love, the place of origin and ending--but for many of her Israeli characters, a difficult and increasingly destructive love." --Judith Grossman, author of Her Own Terms
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But first, A NOTE OF CAUTION: Readers who prefer linear plots and action probably will not care for this book, which is predominately a collection of musings that shift back and forth between present and past and various countries, even within a single story.
PASSAGES FROM SINGER'S STORIES
In "LILA'S STORY," Susan studies photographs taken shortly after her grandparents had immigrated to Palestine: "Here is my grandmother...arms linked with her two sons, posing on the beach. She is beautiful, or almost, cat-eyed and slim, with an aquiline nose and prematurely white hair. Here she is leaning against a railing by the sea...The camera has caught that fleeting moment that precedes the self-consciousness of a smile, and that, with that slight squint and wind-blown hair, makes her look contemplative and a little reckless, both vulnerable and brave."
"DEIR YASSIM" begins with Susan ruminating about the ashes of her uncle: "All the way from New York to Tel Aviv, she keeps the box beneath the seat in front of her....Thirty-six thousand feet up, she's thinking about the many possibilities of return. In a Tibetan air burial, bodies are left naked on a rock for vultures to pick to bones. In India, pyres smolder along the Ganges, ashes and marigolds drifting with the stream. Maybe she'll just leave the box at Ben Gurion, revolving like a planet on a bagage carousel. Maybe she'll drop it inside Damascus Gate, ticking like a bomb. Or maybe she'll take it to a cafe deep inside the souk and stir the ashes, a teaspoonful at a time, into a cup of Arabic coffee, boiled sweet. She'll turn the cup over, twist it three times, read the prophecy etched into the grinds.
"As dawn splits over the Mediterranean, three men in black suits and rumpled shirts shuffle past her and place themselves in the space between the galley and the lavatories, behind her seat. They wind phylacteries around their arms and foreheads, drape prayer shawls over their heads, and daven toward the streaks of light. She feels the chanted words bending, bobbing, against her neck. The words keep the hurtling plane miraculously aloft. Susan touches the box with her toes and listens to the praying men. She's thinking that bodies, like words, dissolve, dry up, fly into the air. They fly away and are gone."
Midway through "EXPATRIATE," Susan imagines the mindset of her parents when she was very young: "They went to Israel nearly every year. They rented a flat for three weeks in the summer across the street from Ezi's parents, took their meals with them. They sat around with army friends on Shabbat, drinking Nescafe, picking at a bowl of grapes, the babies playing at their feet. They argued over Eshkol and Nasser, the discoveries at Masada and the Dead Sea, the successes of the kibbutzim, whether the lira could ever be shored up.
"Their friends in Israel always said, Nu, so when are you coming back? It was not really a question. It was an accusation, a matter of loyalty.
"Next year, they always said, and they meant it, at the time. Next year Ezi's fellowship would be up. Next year they would have saved enough to buy a car.
"So they went to the beach, took day trips to the Kinneret and Caesaria and Tel Aviv, but after a week or two they began to feel claustrophobic and bored. They shopped for gifts for the secretary in Ezi's department, souvenirs for their American friends...They exclaimed over the quality of the Jaffa oranges, the Tnuva cheese. But at night they lay in their borrowed bed and whispered how expensive everything was here, how Yoav was not satisfied with the equipment in his lab, how Nir was earning barely half of what an opthalmologist could make back home. Home. They turned off the light and lay sleepless in the dark.
"Back in New York again, everything felt oversized. Even their own apartment, with its twelve-foot ceilings and bay windows, felt out of scale. They sat around the table on Indian summer afternoons with Yitzhak and Carol, or Shmuel and Ruthi and their kids, the fans blowing grimy air through the windows. They complained about LBJ and Lindsay, the potholed condition of the roads, the declining standards of the schools. They didn't like the idea of their children growing up in such a materialistic society, they said, not to mention all the drugs and crime, hardly noticing that they'd switched to English, unable to find the word they were looking for in the language they spoke less and less frequently but never stopped thinking of as their own. The plank-and-packing-crate shelves had come down long ago, the card table replaced by a Danish Modern dining set in teak with matching chairs. They fanned themselves with sections of the Sunday Times and said, It's a khamsin! forgetting that the gritty yellow khamsin wind was nothing like this humid heat at all."
But what the hell, I've gotta say something, right? So here goes. For those of you who shy away from short stories, as so many of today's readers regretfully do, fear not. These stories all fit together, because they concern multiple generations of a single Jewish family, with the focus on Susan Stern, a writer-journalist, who has managed to break free of the restrictions of that "pale of settlement" that gives the book its name. And I had to look that up, I'll admit. It refers to a geographic area of Czarist Russia where Jews were permitted to live. An enormous "ghetto" created by Catherine the Great which included much of Poland and Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire.
During the mid-twentieth century countless Jews managed to emigrate from the then-USSR and ended up in Israel. And that is the point of origin for Susan Stern's family, the port city of Haifa. There is much in these stories of continuing Arab-Israeli tensions, the brief wars, the bombings, the checkpoints, the compulsory military service for both men and women, which is routinely taken for granted, a 'rite of passage' to adulthood. Susan's mother, Leah, meets someone during her own service, and there are hints of an illicit affair, perhaps with one of 'enemy,' and she is hustled off to New York City by her concerned and controlling widowed father. So, despite the fact that this is a book about being Jewish, about "roots," and where "home" is, Susan's own patrimony remains shrouded in mystery.
The settings for the stories shift from Israel to New York to Berlin to Nepal and other places, but Haifa and New York City are constants, central to Susan's own story. For throughout her life she makes many trips back to Haifa, first as a child with her parents, and later as an adult and a writer. Other relatives' stories (spanning much of the twentieth century and into the next) crop up throughtout the linked narratives - grandparents, uncles, cousins, her parents' strained courtship and long tension-filled marriage. Susan's own story is told in scattered pieces, from her earliest childhood memories (her mother telling her bedtime stories of her own childhood and youth) all the way into her late forties, still fiercely independent and single, unable - or unwilling - to commit to a lasting relationship, often on the move - "feeling the way she always did when she traveled alone: invisible and weightless and free."
An uncle, Avraham, is an archaeologist who ponders the mysteries of antiquity at various 'digs.' His niece, Susan - and Margot Singer too - is doing the same thing with family: disinterring the tragedies and secrets of previous generations, holding potsherds of lives up to the light, examining, cataloguing and describing.
Singer's descriptions of these lives are meticulous and mesmerizing. It's been more than a week since I finished reading her stories and they still haunt me. How to describe a book like this? Back where I started. Speechless. Gobsmacked.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER