True stories even if fictional


“Carry Her Home” by Caroline Bock. Washington, D.C.: Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2018. 216 pages. $17.95.

After reading only a few stories in “Carry Her Home,” I began to wonder if the author wasn’t writing about her own life.

Any doubt that this collection of short stories is autobiographical was dispelled by the author’s dedication of the book — “In memory of my parents: Morris (Murray) and Louise Blech (nee Garofalo).”

Murray, a Jew from the Bronx, and Louise, a Roman Catholic Italian from Queens, are two of the main characters in the stories, and their oldest daughter is Caroline, who shares that name and persona with the book’s author.

However, knowing that these are autobiographical short stories begs the real question: Is this an autobiography simply told in an unconventional (short story) form or does author Caroline Bock use her life story as a jumping off place to write fiction?

In at least two stories — “Willie and Pop,” in which a dog tells much of what is happening, and in “Last Chance,” in which the musings of Murray from the grave (or heaven) and a conversation with his dead wife are reported — fiction clearly trumps reality.

“Carry Her Home’s” stories are uniformly well written and interesting, but those two are my favorites. In both, Bock, who lives in Potomac and teaches in the English Department at Marymount University in Arlington, gives free literary rein to her vivid imagination, and tells two tales, each of which in its own way is beautifully moving.

And then there’s “Are You Still There?” — the last story in the collection — in which she imagines having a telephone conversation with her younger self. As I said, a rich imagination.

In “A Kholem: A Dream,” an example of flash fiction — extremely short stories — prevalent in this collection, Bock shows how much emotional clout a talented writer can pack into a half-page-long narrative.

Her grandmother and sisters had trained as dressmakers in Paris. While Grandmother Rose went to America, her sisters returned to Warsaw to look after their parents.

“The Nazis murdered them all,” Bock writes. “My grandmother and her sisters float over my head, a Chagall in motion. They call me Chaya: Caroline. They stroke my hair and face, kiss my cheeks — Kinderlach, dear child. Shayna maidel: pretty girl.”

Bock speaks only English but “[t]he words are feathers on the air — mameloshen, the mother language, migrates to me.” Exquisitely sad.

Much of the book revolves around her father, a man who raised his kids after his wife had a stroke and was institutionalized. He seems to have loved his children, although his daughter Caroline complains that despite his proficiency in languages (French, Russian, English, Yiddish, even some Korean he learned from the women in Korea during the war), he never told her he loved her (“On His Lips”).

And he would often leave his young children alone for a few days at a time, perhaps to visit lady friends.

Years later, Murray is dying. He is with his son, Matthew, in Comer, Ga. Caroline and her children have come for a visit.

“Morning in Comer” is Murray’s monologue. He longs for New York and the food that he loves.

“Nobody is getting a decent bagel. If you want lox, the only option is seal-wrapped in plastic and labeled ‘smoked salmon.’ You can’t get lox carved so thin that it lays on your tongue, tasting of salt and sea. … [D]on’t bother with trying to order a pastrami sandwich around here; they’ll sell you barbecue. It will be trayf, not kosher by any means, but pretty good if you want barbecue and not a pastrami sandwich on rye with a sour pickle wedged next to it on a plate.”

Despite his food fantasies, he’s not hungry anymore because of his diseases, Parkinson’s and lymphoma.

“I never thought I’d wish for hunger. Still I yearn for my appetite to return, for a bisele of hunger and to find solace once more in the symbol of the completeness of life: a decent New York bagel.”
In case I haven’t been explicit enough, I love this book.

But I’m apparently not alone. “Carry Her Home” won the 2018 Fiction Award from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House. It was an honor  well deserved.

Caroline Bock will discuss her book “Carry Her Home” at Politics & Prose in the District on Oct. 21 at 1 p.m.

Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, is available at amazon. com and in Kindle format.

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