In several of the 11 short stories that make up Miriam Karmel’s new collection titled “Subtle Variations,” characters worry themselves to death: Crime is increasing in the city, a family friend is ill, there’s been a bombing in Tel Aviv. The need to worry comes from the family matriarch, who fled Eastern Europe, eventually settling in a “suburban Chicago tract home, known as a ranch-style, though it was missing the cattle.”
The narrator of the first story, “The Queen of Love,” recalls that Nonna’s life changed in America when she lost her matchmaking powers. This coincided with Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s breakup on TV, from which Grandmother never recovered. Then her husband died. Then the rabbi, “a renowned free thinker,” began wearing Italian suits in the pulpit and pouring “French wines at his seders.” Everything was off in life.
In “Pocket Full of Posies,” a family member wonders whether there’s “an over-expressed gene for grief,” which Nonna “would have passed … on.” The brave thing is to keep hope alive despite tragedies such as “the numbers tattooed onto the soft underside of … great Aunt Channa’s arm.”
In “Holy Water,” the rabbi borrows Vivian Sugarman’s kidney-shaped pool for a mikvah, the ritual bathing of converts. The pool “became a revolving door through which young women — Carolyns, Jennifers, Heathers, names as interchangeable as their faces — emerged as Jews. Add water and voila! Instant Jewess.” Such acerbic humor numbs the grief of remembering, although the rabbi’s notorious rule-bending increases Vivian Sugarman’s anxiety.
In Karmel’s household tales, where flowers decorate tables and cooking, baking, sewing and humor play their part, the author seeks the universal in the particulars of daily life. In “Place Cards,” Nonna’s family fetes the woman who sat for the painter Diego Rivera. In the beautiful “Summer Is for People,” immigrants struggle to find peace in a country and a city, Minneapolis, that will forever be strange to them. Serving as a prelude to the final three stories, “The Caves of Lascaux” dramatizes a doctor’s desire to accompany his patient to the historic caves of the title.
As engaging as these stories are, family connections are sometimes difficult to sort out as the book proceeds. One piece, “Buona Sera,” seems manufactured, its emotions false. The other 10 stories of life in Skokie, Highland Park, Ill., and Minneapolis are lovelier and more poignant for having the weight of history behind them.
Karmel’s “The Queen of Love” won Minnesota Monthly’s Tamarack Award for the short story. Milkweed Editions in 2013 published her novel “Being Esther,” which a Star Tribune review called “an assured first novel.”
Now “Subtle Variations,” this Minneapolis writer’s debut short-story collection, has captured the inaugural First Fiction prize from Holy Cow! Press.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.
By: Miriam Karmel.
Publisher: Holy Cow! Press, 178 pages, $15.95.
Event: 7 p.m. Oct. 17, Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.