PERSONAL: Female. Education: Columbia University, B.A., Brooklyn College, M.F.A.
CAREER: Author, educator. Columbia University, School of the Arts, New York City, adjunct assistant professor.
MEMBER: PEN, Poets and Writers.
AWARDS, HONORS: New York Fine Arts fellow; Goodman writing award; Critic's Choice Award, 1996; regional winner, Granta's Best Young American Novelists award.
Short Subject, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1989.
Married Life, and Other True Adventures (short stories), Crossing Press (Freedom, CA), 1990.
On Mermaid Avenue, Fromm International (New York, NY), 1992.
A Disturbance in One Place, Fromm International (New York, NY), 1994.
History on a Personal Note, Fromm International (New York, NY), 1995.
Pure Poetry, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
Hester among the Ruins, Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
An Almost Perfect Moment, Ecco/HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including Indiana Review, Outerbridge, New England Review, and Bread Loaf Quarterly.
SIDELIGHTS: Binnie Kirshenbaum's debut book was a novel for younger readers titled Short Subject. The narrator is Audrey, a lonely girl who is not doing well in school and who retreats into the classic black and white films of the 1930s and 1940s. "The dialogue from these films serves as a leitmotif throughout the novel," wrote Nancy Vasilakis in Horn Book magazine. When Audrey's dog dies, her comment is that "the mutt couldn't take the heat." The only person who understands her is Mr. Eisenstein, a neighbor who shares her passion for the old films. Patterning her life after the gangsters in the movies, Audrey begins shoplifting, but according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, she "is reformable. The quiet ending winds the plot up perfectly, or as Audrey says, 'Now that's a first-rate end to a movie.'" School Library Journal contributor Judie Porter felt Audrey's problems "are treated frivolously" but added that Short Subject "is well written and contains some unique qualities."
Some of the ten stories in Kirshenbaum's Married Life, and Other True Adventures had been previously published in literary magazines. In the story "Things to Do," a wife who keeps lists realizes she married for a health plan rather than for love. In "Pravda," two friends sit on a bench and discuss men and Marxism. An American couple travel to Romania on a quest to save their marriage in "Travail." Publishers Weekly contributor Penny Kaganoff called the stories "astute, mildly zany, and often wickedly funny."
Eccentric Edie and sensible Mona, nicknamed Monarose by Edie, are the protagonists of Kirshenbaum's first adult novel, On Mermaid Avenue. A Kirkus Reviews contributor commented that the pair "cruise through their final days of college with the sole intent of stomping on and crushing the heavy mantle of Edie's unpleasantly fragmented and Monarose's stultifyingly proper origins." Edie and Mona graduate to share a succession of Manhattan apartments and support each other through love and loss. Mona is there to rescue Edie when Edie gets in jams, as when she flies to Vienna on her parents' credit card and bugs the apartment of a former lover. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Charles Solomon felt that Edie "emerges as less a free spirit than an irresponsible clod." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that Coney Island's Cyclone roller coaster is located on Mermaid Avenue and judged that "this comic novel likewise presents the highs and lows of life's gritty truths for two dizzy dames."
A Kirkus Reviews contributor explained that Kirshenbaum's second novel, A Disturbance in One Place, "takes a semiserious look at adultery." The unnamed protagonist is a young Jewish woman who is married but also has two lovers. One, called the Hit Man, is a Sicilian professor of history who will do anything to keep her, including cooking for her in his Little Italy apartment; while a second partner is a multimedia artist. An older man she considers the love of her life has yet to succumb to her charms. "Three friends, sisters full of witchery and wisdom, complete the picture," commented Evelin Sullivan in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. Sullivan felt that "at the heart of the novel lies the yearning to belong and the narrator's now sardonic, now terrified awareness of being the eternal outsider…. Its look at the wounds of a solitary pilgrim is close and unflinching, sad, disturbing, and often very funny. The result is a compelling, highly intelligent and profoundly moving work." A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that Kirshenbaum "seems at times to be on a comic spree, but in the end this is a dark and powerful look at a troubled spirit." People writer Louisa Ermelino felt the book would be enjoyed by "readers anxious for an entertaining female character to emulate, if only in their fantasies."
History on a Personal Note is Kirshenbaum's second collection of stories. Several, including the title story, revolve around Lorraine, a southerner who has come out of a failed relationship with a man in East Germany, and her friend, a New York Jew who narrates a number of the stories. Jacqueline Carey noted in the New York Times Book Review that, as in On Mermaid Avenue, which Carey called "delightful," the anchor stories feature two female friends, but added that in this collection "they are defined almost entirely by their ethnicity." When Lorraine returns to Virginia, she marries Doc, a stereotypical redneck. A Kirkus Reviews contributor averred that in "Halfway to Farmville" and "Rural Delivery," his crudeness "serves to illustrate the finer sensibilities of the urban narrator and the horrors of poor Lorraine's sojourn in the benighted South." The relationship of Harold and Nadia is the focus of "Get Married, Get Divorced, Find Jesus," and "The Zen of Driving" is about an unfaithful wife who fantasizes about cars. A Publishers Weekly reviewer described as "exquisite" several selections set in the 1960s, and said of the collection that "deceptively light in tone, these stories nevertheless carry weight, as do the characters." In a Booklist review, Donna Seaman compared aspects of Kirshenbaum's style to the writing of Margaret Atwood, but added that Kirshenbaum's "feisty voice, gutsy humor, mischievous dispassion, and gift for setting scenes and conjuring moments of realization are all her own."
A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Pure Poetry a "relentlessly sassy tale of a beautiful thirty-four-year-old woman on a quest for love and happiness." Poet Lila Moscowitz lives in an apartment haunted by ghosts. Her boyfriend, Henry, has his parents's ashes in shoe boxes, and her therapist is a cross-dresser. Lila has become a minor celebrity in New York, but success does not diminish her longing for her former husband, Max Schirmer, and the fact that her guilt for marrying a German and her growing dependence on him were the reasons she sabotaged her marriage. Lila's inability to trust comes from her unsatisfactory family relationships, particularly with her mother, Bella. In reviewing the novel, an Entertainment Weekly contributor wrote that Kirshenbaum's voice "continues to grow even stronger and more original."
In her novel Hester among the Ruins, Kirshenbaum tells the story of Hester Rosenfeld, a Jewish historian from America who falls in love with German historian Heinrich Falk. Two decades older than Hester, the often-married German is dealing with issues concerning his mother's past association with the Nazis. "Kirshenbaum brings believable complexity to her portrayal of Jewish life in contemporary Munich," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. The reviewer went on to note that "the novel's structure, a mixture of postcards, e-mails and straightforward narrative, is subtly erected and does not obstruct understanding." Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, commented that the author's work "is shaped by humor that is sly in its deadpan delivery and pinpoint accuracy."
An Almost Perfect Moment focuses on young Valentine Kessler in late 1970s Brooklyn. Valentine's father left the household long ago, resulting in Valentine's obese, mahjongg-playing mother spoiling her. The book follows Valentine as she withdraws while the various characters and subplots are discussed in detail by the mahjongg group called the Girls, who Library Journal contributor Molly Abramowitz wrote "are like a Greek chorus, commenting on life around them." Abramowitz added that the book is "a hilarious and uncanny snapshot of a bygone era." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote: "Complications and heartache abound, but they're mitigated by Kirshenbaum's humane humor and sly wit."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 15, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of History on a Personal Note, p. 1308; January 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Hester among the Ruins, p. 809.
Entertainment Weekly, April 7, 2000, "The Week," p. 98.
Horn Book Magazine, March, 1990, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Short Subject, pp. 207-208.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1993, review of On Mermaid Avenue, p. 85; March 1, 1994, review of A Disturbance in One Place, pp. 235-236; February 15, 1995, review of History on a Personal Note, p. 173.
Library Journal, March 1, 1993, review of On Mermaid Avenue, p. 107; May 15, 1993, review of On Mermaid Avenue, p. 128; March 15, 1994, review of A Disturbance in One Place, p. 101; November 1, 1994, review of A Disturbance in One Place, p. 136; April 15, 1995, review of History on a Personal Note, p. 118; September 15, 1995, review of History on a Personal Note, p. 120; February 15, 2004, Molly Abramowitz, review of An Almost Perfect Moment, p. 161.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 10, 1994, Charles Solomon, review of On Mermaid Avenue, p. 8.
New York Times Book Review, July 2, 1995, Jacqueline Carey, "Politics and Friendship," p. 12.
People, September 12, 1994, Louisa Ermelino, review of A Disturbance in One Place, p. 33.
Publishers Weekly, July 14, 1989, review of Short Subject, p. 80; April 6, 1990, Penny Kaganoff, review of Married Life, p. 111; February 1, 1993, review of On Mermaid Avenue, p. 76; February 21, 1994, review of A Disturbance in One Place, p. 234; February 27, 1995, review of History on a Personal Note, p. 101; February 28, 2000, review of Pure Poetry, p. 63; December 3, 2001, review of Hester among The Ruins, p. 39; January 26, 2004, review of An Almost Perfect Moment, p. 229.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1994, Evelin Sullivan, review of A Disturbance in One Place, pp. 218-219; fall, 1995, review of History on a Personal Note, p. 229.
School Library Journal, September, 1989, Judie Porter, review of Short Subject, p. 250.