Binnie Kirshenbaum

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Binnie Kirshenbaum is an American novelist and short story writer. She is professor and chair of the Writing Program at Columbia University School of the Arts.


Born in 1964, Kirshenbaum received a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from Brooklyn College. She has been a professor of Fiction Writing at Columbia University School of the Arts since 2003.[1]


Kirshenbaum published her first book of ten short stories, Married Life and Other True Adventures, in 1990. According to Publishers Weekly, "Things to Do" is about a wife who discovers she married not for love, "but for a good health plan;" "Wheels" shows "true love is a sleek, cobalt-blue Alfa Romeo on the open road;" "Pravda" describes "two women, friends of many years, who spend a fall afternoon outdoors on a bench discussing Marxism, men and amorality;" in "Travail," an American couple who travel to Romania in search of romance to save their marriage find the highlight of their vacation is the sight of three stuffed goats in pink tutus; "Red Fever" has a heroine who claims that love is like another troublesome substance: "You scrape and scrape at the bottom of your shoe but you never quite get it off. "[2]

In 1992, Kirshenbaum published her first novel, On Mermaid Avenue, named for the address of Coney Island's Cyclone rollercoaster. The novel follows best friends Edie and Monarose in college and their life afterwards as they "search for men and happiness." The San Francisco Chronicle called it "Quirky and delightful...original and witty...The fact that things are never exactly what they seem adds depth and insight to this whimsical, enchanting first novel." The Boston Globe said it was "A nifty variation on the loss-of-innocence theme....sure-handed, a bright, comic trinket."[3]

Her third book, A Disturbance in One Place was published in 1994. It follows the life of a "distant, aloof, tough-talking, married woman who blithely breaks seven of the Ten Commandments in her search for innocence and a safe place to land," according to the Reading Group Guide to the book. Norman Mailer said about it that, "not many young female novelists can deal with sex, the appetite for it, and the loss of such appetite with as much candor, lack of self-protection, and humor as Binnie Kirshenbaum;" and the work was selected as a Barnes and Noble Discover New Authors book and for a Critics Choice Award.[4]

In 1995, Kirshenbaum published her fourth book, a collection of short stories called History on a Personal Note. HarperCollins said the [sometimes interconnected] short stories stretch "from New York City to the former East Germany, from rural Virginia to affluent suburbia, the characters in these short stories grapple with love, loss, greed, perversion, and other awful truths as they try to transcend their limitations with occasional humor and dignity." Publishers Weekly said of it: "Deceptively light in tone, these stories nevertheless carry weight, as do the characters… A wide variety of styles and voices…demonstrate Kirshenbaum's versatility and wit." [5]

History on a Personal Note was followed in 2000 by a novel called Pure Poetry. The novel follows poet Lila Moskowitz, "a smart-mouthed, Jewish-American beauty with a voracious appetite for sex, a remarkable talent for telling lies, and an unerring knack for making a mess of her life." Richard Howard, writing in the Los Angeles Times said of Kirshenbaum and her book: "I mustn't oppress Kirshenbaum with too many great names, yet I invoke these (Wagner, Mailer, Shaw) because I fear that the neat candor and structural cunning of Pure Poetry may distract a reader who is being (supremely) entertained by Lila Moskowitz and her agons with race, class, and sexual autonomy from the tragic instances of her fate.[6] Lynne Sharon Schwartz applauded the "swaggering foul-mouthed, wacky female" heroine and wrote that "Pure Poetry's outrageous humor and assaults on political correctness runs a current of intractable pain, gallantly faced."

Hester Among the Ruins (2002) was Kirshenbaum's fourth novel. It was recognized as a Chicago Tribune Favorite Book of the Year and was a nominee for the American Jewish Book Award.[citation needed] The novel "is a darkly comic novel about a love affair lived out in the shadows of World War II."[citation needed] Maureen Howard described how Kirshenbaum's "quick wit and irreverence gives way to serious documentation of her German lover's past and her own emotional ambiguities as a child of immigrant Jews. [Her] poignant and unflinching portrait of her brash American heroine reveals the painful confrontation of personal and public history." Junot Diaz described the work as "a rending meditation on history and culpability, piercing in its tenderness, piercing in its love, a heartstopper."[citation needed][7]

An Almost Perfect Moment was Kirshenbaum's fifth novel. It describes "Valentine Kessler, a Jewish teenager living in Brooklyn, [who] is dead-ringer for the Virgin Mary as she appeared to Bernadette at Lourdes." According to Frances Taliaferro in The Washington Post the novel does not mock her condition, "the real wonder of An Almost Perfect Moment is that, halfway into it, you've begun to care about Kirshenbaum's characters. They're deeply, even ludicrously flawed, but they're not figures of fun because they all carry the existential burden of loneliness and the fear that "in time it would mutate into something worse than loneliness: the surrender to it."[citation needed][8]

Kirshenbaum's The Scenic Route was published in 2009. The novel is the story of a divorced and recently unemployed woman who travels to Europe and has an affair with a married man. It has been described as "a refreshingly gimlet-eyed examination of memory"[9] and "a cross-cutting investigation into the horrors of the 20th century."[10]

Richard Howard wrote of her, "This author is indeed a humorist, even a comedian, a sort of stand-up tragic."[11] In its review of A Disturbance In One Place, the San Francisco Chronicle said, "Kirshenbaum refuses to corral what is funny or sad into separate camps, but allows one to flip over into the other, creating unexpectedly poignant effects.

Critical Reception[edit]

Kirshenbaum's novels have been chosen as Notable Books of the Year by the Chicago Tribune, NPR, Time, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Washington Post.[citation needed] She twice won Critics Choice Awards, and she was selected by Granta as one of the Best Young American novelists.[citation needed] She has published short fiction and essays in many magazines and anthologies and her work has been widely translated.[12]

According to Richard Eder of The New York Times, "Ms. Kirshenbaum's comedy has fizz and bite. She handles interrogation, passionate love, her two characters and what they seem to represent with disconcerting sleight of hand." [13]



  • On Mermaid Avenue (1992) ISBN 978-0880641562*
  • A Disturbance in One Place (1994) ISBN 978-0-06-052088-5
  • Pure Poetry (2000) ISBN 978-0-684-86471-6
  • Hester Among the Ruins (2002) ISBN 978-0-393-04152-1
  • An Almost Perfect Moment (2004) ISBN 978-0-393-04152-1
  • The Scenic Route (2009) ISBN 978-0-06-078474-4
  • Rabbits for Food (2019) ISBN 9781641290531

Story collections[edit]


External links[edit]

Interviews of Kirshenbaum
Online essays
Online fiction