Hester among the Ruins

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Overview

A darkly comic novel with the moral power of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader about love in the shadows of history.
Born in New York in 1963, historian Hester Rosenfeld—very American and marginally Jewish—goes to Munich to research the life of Heinrich Falk and becomes his mistress. Born in Berlin in 1943, raised in the ruins of defeat by a generation of "murderers and cowards," Professor Falk is neither infamous nor famous—he is simply the German Everyman. Hester believes his life...

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Overview

A darkly comic novel with the moral power of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader about love in the shadows of history.
Born in New York in 1963, historian Hester Rosenfeld—very American and marginally Jewish—goes to Munich to research the life of Heinrich Falk and becomes his mistress. Born in Berlin in 1943, raised in the ruins of defeat by a generation of "murderers and cowards," Professor Falk is neither infamous nor famous—he is simply the German Everyman. Hester believes his life story could make for an important contemporary historical document—kitchen table history. Heinrich is married (four times, twice to his current wife) and has four daughters. But madly in love with Hester, adultery is nothing new to him. As he assists her in her note-taking—about him and his family, about German history—she often suspects Heinrich is covering up something. Was his brother really a Werewolf, a Nazi militiaman who vowed to continue fighting after the war's end? What kind of gas company did his mother work for? And what exactly did his father do during those years?
Yet Hester has her secrets, too, and the longer she remains in Germany the harder it is to keep them concealed. As she uncovers more of the Falk family's possible connection to Nazism, she finds herself reexamining her feelings about her own parents and her complicated attraction to Heinrich. As the lovers' intimacy deepens beyond the erotic, each suspects the other of hiding something about the past.
Called a "rare and remarkable writer" by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham, Kirshenbaum has written a searing novel about history's unforgettable legacy and its continuing impact.

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Editorial Reviews

Norman Mailer
“Not many 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.”
Carlin Romano - Philadelphia Inquirer
“The younger sister of Philip Roth, the lost doppelganger of Erica Jong.”
Richard Howard - Los Angeles Times Book Review
“I mustn't oppress Kirshenbaum with too many great names (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.”
Katharine Weber
A sly and very black comedy....The truth has been present on every page of this complex and painfully funny novel.
Dan Santow
Engrossing....as in any good novel, we may find ourselves along the way.
Sarah Gianelli
[D]arkly amusing.
Larry Swindell
Kirshenbaum's barrage of wit...has the reader in a titter while contemplating issues of recrimination and forgiveness.
From The Critics
[A] strange, and strangely compelling, admixture of the light-hearted and haunted.
Maureen Howard
[A] splendid accomplishment, a compelling story of a grown woman's coming of age.
Nicholas Christopher
[A] succinct, foreboding commentary on modern history itself....a wonderful book.
Tova Mirvis
Kirshenbaum is a magician.
Nicholas Delbanco
[A] strange, and strangely compelling, admixture of the light-hearted and haunted.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This tale of a Jewish biographer's literal love affair with her German subject describes with worldly and generally persuasive candor the history that complicates their relationship. Hester Rosenfeld, an American Jewish historian born in 1963, travels to Munich to interview Heinrich Falk, a German historian 20 years her senior, for a scholarly work about his life. As Hester unravels biographical threads rolled out by Heinrich's relatives and numerous ex-wives, she finds that his present rejection of his heritage (most specifically, his mother's sympathies with the Nazis) is not as simple or absolute as it seems. She also falls head over heels in love with him, eventually causing the temporary dissolution of his current marriage. As Heinrich and Hester deepen their knowledge of each other's lives and feelings, their characters manifest themselves more fully as well. Hester, seemingly wary and jaded at the novel's outset, reveals her insecurity, obsession with historical legacy and scorn for her own parents in bits and pieces. Heinrich, at first an offbeat charmer whose idiosyncrasies fascinate Hester, eventually reveals that he is unable to free himself from his suspicious ideological inheritance. Kirshenbaum brings believable complexity to her portrayal of Jewish life in contemporary Munich; at one moment, a group of Croatian soccer enthusiasts resemble militant youth to Hester, while at another, she notices that she gets better service in restaurants when she wears a star of David around her neck. The novel's structure, a mixture of postcards, e-mails and straightforward narrative, is subtly erected and does not obstruct understanding. While Kirshenbaum occasionally portrays characters' passions melodramatically or even tritely, the arc of the lovers' mutual education is complete and convincing. Agent, Jennifer Lyons. Author appearances in New York and Washington, D.C. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This love story, set in contemporary Munich, could have had a happy ending. However, the poison spread by the Nazis is still lethal after more than half a century, so instead it is a tale of suspicion and guilt. Heinrich Falk, a married medievalist born in 1943, and Hester Rosenfeld, a younger Jewish American researcher, are deeply in love. Yet Hester, who as a child felt both ashamed of her refugee parents for their very victimhood and guilty for her feelings, obsessively probes Heinrich's past and his family for links to the Nazis. Since one can never prove a negative, she cannot end her quest. Kirshenbaum, author of the short story collection History on a Personal Note and three other books, makes Hester and Heinrich fully three-dimensional. Excerpts from a diary kept by Heinrich's mother and quotes from a variety of nonfiction sources are mingled with the lovers' story, which detracts somewhat from the novel's immediacy. Still, this bleak romance is suitable for most libraries. Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The story of two lovers whose lives are profoundly shaken by echoes of the Holocaust: a German medievalist and the woman who, while writing his biography, falls in love with him.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393041521
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/1/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Binnie Kirshenbaum is the author of three novels, On Mermaid Avenue, A Disturbance in One Place, and Pure Poetry, and a story collection, History on a Personal Note. She teaches at Columbia University's Graduate School of the Arts, and she lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


They don't wear hats like that here


* * *

His hair grows like grass in a cross breeze. This way and that. Blond and soft and no more than an inch long. I like his hair. A lot.

    "Kindchenschema," he tells me. Kindchenschema is the word for it, but instead of translating he draws me a picture. On a blank page of my open notebook, he draws the head of an animal I don't recognize. A cross between a dog and a cat. A tuft of hair on its head stands up straight, with some hair leaning to the left and some leaning to the right. It looks like a hieroglyphic or a cave painting, a rendering of an animal extinct or of the imagination. "Young animals," he explains, "have short snouts and soft round heads which make other animals like and protect them."

    Smitten with that idea, that his hair might have such an effect, he smiles, and his smile is a good one. Capable of charming the pants off, well, me, to name one.

    When he is not smiling, he is still very handsome, but it's a different look altogether.

    With one hand, he lifts his beer stein and polishes off the remains of his Helles. Then he asks me, "Do you want another?"

    I've barely made a dent in mine, a Radler, which is a concoction of half beer and half lime juice in a stein as tall as my arm. To lift it, I hold it the way a small child holds a cup, with two hands to keep it steady. It's the same sort of stein with which Thomas Wolfe got whomped on the head, eventually, rumor had it,dying of complications from the injury sustained. "How about something to eat?" I say. "A snack."

    He goes off to one of the four or five concession stands, and alone, without him to gaze upon, I look around at where I am.

    I am in Munich. Munich, Germany. When I told people—friends, colleagues, my landlord—that I was going to Munich, I was asked, "Why?" as if I'd said I was going to someplace like Cleveland, Ohio, or Scranton, Pennsylvania. Moreover, Jews, even entirely irreligious ones like me, rarely put Munich on their holiday wish lists. And so I was asked, "Why Munich, of all places?"

    "Professional reasons," I explained. "A new book." Which is the truth. Just not all of the truth. It's a talent of mine to tell truth in part and to omit the rest. And indeed part of the truth is that I am writing a history which demands I be here to study documents, to look at photographs, to conduct interviews, to understand the landscape, to ferret out secrets.

    Munich is his city.

For the past twenty-two years now, Munich has been his home. Although he was raised largely in Frankfurt, he was born in Berlin in 1943 in an air-raid shelter during a blackout.

    I am in Munich, smack in the middle of the Englischer Garten, a grand park designed in the tradition, untamed, of the Romantic English gardens. Hence the name. The hub of this beer garden is a Chinese Tower. It's a copy of the original copy, which was burned to the ground in 1944. The original copy, erected in 1789, was modeled on the pagoda in London's Kew Gardens, which leads me to wonder if the birds in these trees are copies of English birds from English trees. Fanning out around the tower are long wooden tables, row upon row of picnic tables arranged like barracks. Families and groups of friends and coworkers are gathered here at the day's end for dinner and beer. Some have brought food from home in baskets and some buy food—sausages or pretzels the size of Christmas wreaths—at concession stands fashioned like Alpine chalets. It is the first week of June, and they're going to make a night of it. A night that will end around ten because the city of Munich keeps tight hours. I can't say why, exactly, but this place, this beer garden, this horde of Germans drinking beer and eating sausages at the day's end, strikes me as folk motif. As though if I were to blink, I'd find them wearing, not suits and jeans and floral-print dresses, but animal skins and burlap, and many of them would be sitting there naked, as medieval peasants were wont to do in the summer months. Not an entirely pleasant image, but nowhere near as unpleasant as the other image involving hordes of beer-sotted Germans that can come to mind.

    An hour or so ago, when he and I met up in front of my hotel, I was wearing a hat. A wide-brimmed black straw hat, capping off an ensemble of a black linen dress, patent-leather sandals and bag. Very chic, and I've been told that I look good in a hat, the way my hair—a profusion of black curls—is tucked underneath, unruly tendrils springing loose. Also, even though my skin is not the sort that burns, I don't like the sun on my face.

    One look at me, and it was apparent that something about my person was causing him distress, which prompted me to look down at myself. Was my dress stained with gunk? Did I have a streamer of toilet paper trailing from my shoe? Then he made clear the problem. "Are you going to wear that hat?" he asked.

    "Obviously," I said, "I was planning on it. Why? Is there something wrong with it?"

    He hesitated, shuffled his feet, his eyes shifted away from mine. "They don't wear hats like that here," he said.

    With any other man, I might've gotten snippy. I might've said, "I'll wear what I damn well please." But he isn't any other man, and his discomfort struck me as kind of cute, so I told him to wait while I ran the hat upstairs.

    The reason I told him to wait outside, in front of the hotel, was the same reason why we met there in the first place. Over these last four days I have learned that if he first comes to my room, it proves impossible for us to leave. As if the door snaps shut, and we are, by some centrifugal force, pinned to the bed. For four days running, our plans to go to this beer garden went unrealized.

    Just an aside, but yet another thing I've learned since I've been here: At the supermarket, they don't give you bags. I learned this yesterday, the hard way, having purchased a can of coffee, a box of chocolate, a wedge of Emmentaler cheese, a loaf of bread, a bunch of red grapes, a bottle of wine, and a six-pack of pilsner, all of which I had to carry back to the hotel in my arms and dangling from my teeth. But what is travel if not a learning experience? Later he told me that I could've purchased a cotton sack, reusable and environmentally friendly, at the cash register for a mere fifty pfennigs, but you have to request it, you have to ask.

    When we got to this beer garden and found seats, he looked around in all directions and beckoned me to do the same. "See," he said. "No one is wearing anything like that hat of yours."

    Now he returns to the table, a stein of beer in one hand and a plate in the other. He slides the plate before me. On it sits maybe a turnip or a rutabaga, a root I assume is edible because he passes me a salt shaker.

    "What is this?" I ask.

    "A radish." He seems genuinely surprised that I do not recognize it as such.

    The radishes I know are small and red. This one is big and white. Moreover, when I asked for a snack, I was expecting to get chips or salted peanuts. I was not expecting a giant radish. I was not expecting a snack pulled from the ground, dirt brushed off, and dropped on a plate.

    "It's good." He urges me to try it, and he is right. It is cool and sharp. There is a bite to it, but still my mind boggles. One giant radish on a plate is snack food.

    His name is Heinrich Falk, but he goes by Herr Professor Heinrich Falk.

Falk is German for falcon. Falcon as in a bird of prey. Falcons have powerful wings, keen vision, and attack swiftly. In the Middle Ages, knights were falconers, skilled in the art of training their birds to hunt. (Genealogical inquiry? Is he descended from the order of chivalry?)

     Officially, I am Dr. Hester Rosenfeld. Hester Rosenfeld is practically an oxymoron. An incongruity, unless you know that I was named after Hester Street, on the Lower East Side of New York. While Ashkenazic Jews, which is what my parents were, traditionally name a child after a deceased relative, there were too many of those to choose from. My parents broke with tradition, in that way and in most other ways too, and opted to name me for a happy memory instead.

    As is often the way with immigrants, my parents embraced America, Americana, with the fervor of converts. We celebrated no religious holidays, but we pulled out all the stops for the Fourth of July. On Washington's Birthday, I got gifts, and every Arbor Day, my father planted an apple tree. Trees that never did grow strong and sturdy, but rather were stunted, bearing fruit that was wizened and wormy. But still, he kept at it. My parents didn't want me tethered in any way to the old ways of the old world. I was their Hester, all-American girl, a Yankee Doodle, swaddle-her-in-the-flag bundle of joy.

    Dr. Hester Rosenfeld (not M.D., but Ph.D. in Colonial American History—what else was there for me?—Columbia University, 1989), only I rarely use the title. I am not with any university. A choice made back when my dissertation, Gender, Wealth, and Justice in Buzzards Bay Country, was published to some commercial success. Centering on the plight of one Abigail Muxon, a Puritan woman, who—because there was no statute of limitations on sin—was tried thirty years after the fact for having had a little hanky-panky with a man who was not her husband. Significant double standards proliferated in the Puritan courts. Leniency for the rich, the lash for the poor, the woman was always to blame, and hapless hot-to-trot Abby made for kind of a juicy story too.

    Every once in a while that happens—hell freezes and a scholarly work crosses over into the bosom of popular appeal, although they did change the title to No Sin Goes Unpunished: The Abigail Muxon Story, which the publisher's marketing division thought to be catchy.

    The upshot of this was that job offers were lobbed at me from all directions. Instead of being yet one more newly anointed Ph.D. scrambling for a coveted university slot, I was a darling of the academy. I had my pick of suitors. And so what did I do? As if department chairs were swarms of bees, I ducked and ran for cover. Fear of making the wrong choice led me to choose none at all. I have more than my share of fears. Some rational, some not: heights, escalators, water deeper than knee level, electrical wiring, spontaneous combustion, squirrels, intimacy, commitment, and fear of anyone learning just how afraid I am. Consequently, I do not now have the solidity of position, the security of tenure, or so much as a regular paycheck.

    However, when not a neurosis, fear is a survival instinct, which is how it turned out in this case. Instead of suffering interminable departmental meetings and faculty backbiting fests, I get to make my living as a guest lecturer. I do consultations for restoration projects and work with museum curators preparing exhibits on colonial life. I write articles and book reviews, and I have since written two other books. One centered around Francis Bale, whose income the town fathers of the Massachusetts Bay community deemed too meager to support a wife and seven children. Thus they ordered him to dispose of two of his children, that is, to send them into servitude, lest they become a burden on the public purse. My most recent book chronicled the redemption of Samuel Sewall, who sat as an ad hoc judge for the Salem witch trials. Not long after that fiasco, his beloved baby daughter died and Judge Sewall connected the dots. God had punished him for issuing mistaken verdicts, and I quite agreed.

    All of this together, historian-at-large coupled with a small inheritance, and I don't want for much. I live in a cozy one-bedroom apartment on Ninth Avenue in what was once Hell's Kitchen but now is gentrified and called Clinton. I've got a clawfoot tub in the bathroom, and the sea-green linoleum kitchen floor, installed in the 1940s, is no worse for the wear. I can afford to shop in the food boutiques—Bruno's for fresh pasta, Wakim's for olives and figs, the Cheeze Wizard for feta and fontina. Most mornings, I would have a croissant and lattè at the Cupcake Café before heading off to the library or back home to work. Several nights a week, I'd eat dinner out. There has been more than an occasional lover, and I've got a closet full of nice clothes (albeit from the sale racks, but who cares). I buy all the books I want, and at dusk, the light on Ninth Avenue turns pale pink. It's an undoubtedly comfortable life and, until recently, I was quite content.

    For more than ten years I had stuck by the colonies until the notion that one landmass and the scantiness of four centuries, give or take, was closing in on me. In the big scheme of civilization, America is a babe, and its short history began to feel like a short future.

    The history I am writing now is his. The Life and Times of Heinrich Falk. True, his life and times are nowhere near my areas of expertise, but I can learn. Also true, he is neither famous nor infamous—although ask yourself how famous would Dr. Johnson have been without Boswell.

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. (Ecclesiasticus 44:1)

    HF does not make for an obvious subject, yet he is the subject I've chosen, the leap I have taken.

    Conceived and born in the shadows of history, he was a war baby raised in the quagmire of defeat by a generation of murderers at worst or cowards at best. A German after the fact, he is the prototype of the everyman of a nation occupied, divided, and then put together again in a way that gives a kind of credence to the Humpty Dumpty story. These years of his could well make for a provocative document, and he is willing to open his life to me. No, amend that. It's something more than willing. This, being the subject of a book, tickles him pink, and he is participatory, translating documents, journals, and letters from German to English, bringing me photographs, drawing me maps, telling me stories, filling in the blanks.

    Without a doubt, he is the most vain man I've ever met. Not vain in the arrogant sense. He is not the least bit conceited. He does not think he's all that and then some. Rather, it's that anything that has to do with himself delights him no end. He gets positively giddy when he is the center of attention. And I am not the first to note this. A letter dated November 26, 1944, reads:

Dear Frau Doktor Falk,

Your small one has grown. You will not recognize him. He is dancing a lot because we watch him. Whenever he has an audience, he is very much for it. He is a sweet monkey. (Signature illegible)

    Professional reasons not withstanding, I have come to Munich to be his mistress, which is the reason above all others for having chosen him as my subject. I find him endlessly fascinating.

For love's more important and powerful than Even a priest or a politician. (From "Calypso" by W. H. Auden)

    Although HF and I haven't yet spent all that much time together, I notice I have already appropriated some of his language. Not German, but the way he speaks English. He speaks British, and I find I'm saying holiday instead of vacation and pub rather than bar and asking where is the loo, and I, too, am referring to my panties as knickers.

    I lean in across the wooden table, and tell him that today I am wearing white lace knickers. "With a matching bra," I add. I know he favors white lace knickers, and black, but he is not keen on red ones. Pink, however, is good.

    "Those you wore yesterday," he says. "Those pink ones. Your bum looked so round in those. You should've seen the knickers Bettina wore." HF laughs, and I write:

Bettina wore terrible knickers. Cheap nylon. Three for five Marks.

    Bettina was his third wife and the one who worries me most. Even though he and Bettina are long since divorced, I'm wary where she's concerned. The other wives, them I sense that I can trust.

    He has been married, all totaled, four times, thrice divorced, and he's now married again to his second wife, with whom he has two daughters.

(Continues...)


Excerpted from HESTER AMONG THE RUINS by Binnie Kirshenbaum. Copyright © 2002 by Binnie Kirshenbaum. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Reading Group Guide

1. Hester and HF are opposites of one another in so many ways, not only in his status as the half-brother of a Hitler Youth participant and hers as a daughter of Jewish immigrants but also in personality, age, and attitudes toward romance. What attracts them to each other, in spite of these gulfs? Is their ancestry necessarily a gulf?

2. In Jewish theology, the term "Hester Panim" is sometimes applied to events in which the divine seems to have turned his face away from mankind. Heinrich Falk's surname means "falcon," a bird of prey, in English. How might these two facts add irony to Hester and HF's names?

3. Discuss your own family's immigration story. Are there any "old country" objects, such as Mr. Rosenfeld's herrings, which took on a new meaning in America?

4. What are the metaphoric and literal ruins among which Hester travels?

5. HF speaks Hester's language but not vice versa. How does this seemingly minor detail impact their relationship?

6. At what point is Hester's opinion of her parents and their life in New Rochelle transformed? When does her shame melt into compassion?

7. Compare HF's perception of his mother to Hester's. Might these two German mothers have found much common ground had they ever met?

8. In what way does Hester Among the Ruins offer a new approach to Holocaust issues? How does it differ from other literature (novels or nonfiction) on the same subject?

9. At first, Hester describes Munich architecture as resembling a confection. But fifty pages later, she is listing the reason why she hates the city. What do her travel notes indicate about her Americanism?

10. Hester's voice rangesfrom that of a careful academician to the uncensored tone of a giddy undergraduate. How would you define the identity of this narrator? How do you suppose she would define herself? Does she emerge from her German sojourn with an altered sense of self?

11. Hester is determined to find evidence of war crimes in HF's family, but tolerates the hypocritical infidelities to which he openly admits. Debate the rationality of her inconsistent trust in him.

12. Wearing the hideous pink trainers HF insisted on buying for her, Hester experiences a crippling acrophobic panic attack. Do you attribute her anxiety to more than just a fear of heights?

13. Why is the revelation of HF's grandchildren particularly unnerving for Hester?

14. Why is Hester repulsed by the role of "exalted victim" offered to her by the philo-Semites?

15. How does Hester process the knowledge that HF suffered the war's day-to-day privations but she and her parents did not?

16. HF tells Hester that her surname must have been purchased by her ancestors because appealing monikers such as "field of roses" were only bestowed on Jews for a fee. What do you know about the origins of your own surname?

17. Do you agree with Hester's disapproval of monuments?

18. Hester Among the Ruins could also be read as a kind of tongue-in-cheek travelogue. What did you learn about German history and landscape with Hester as your guide? What is the effect of viewing her postcards?

19. Hester and HF are very protective of their respective perceptions of the past. In light of this, do you agree with the book's closing quotation, which asserts "history remains fixed in time and space"?

Copyright © 2003 by Harcourt, Inc.

Reading Group Guide prepared by Amy Root

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2004

    Inside and Out of the Ruins

    Kirshenbaum's writing is filled with insight and depth, and she approaches love, and what defines it, be it lust, intimacy, truth, betrayal, forgiveness, imagination, denial and historical legacy. All of the above attributes are explored in this beautiful and heartfelt novel. Kirshenbaum brings us two lovers, Peter Falk, a German Professor (who has some clouded-over concepts and ideals, and can not even bring himself to say the word 'Jew') and Hester Rosenfeld, an author (Jewish, but not practicing, also with clouded-over concepts and ideals, and in a state of constant denial, who can not bring herself to forgive her parents for the ideals she feels they forced on her). Each one brings their history, their past and their truth, into their present, and their relationship. What is truth for one person isn't necessarily so for another. For me, the book was a well written book, with wonderful word images, and with insight into human behavior, human acceptance, and also lack of acceptance in an intimate relationship. It makes the reader wonder about historical legacy, and what is acceptable in relationships when two people come from opposite ends of the history chain. I highly recommend this book to those who question history, acceptance and what defines truth and boundaries, in relationships.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2003

    love and historical impact

    Hester Among the Ruins is both very funny and very complex. One of my favorite features of this book is love presented as a sort of Jose Ortega y Gasset concept. 'I and my circumstances + he and his circumstances' and all the history before it. In other words, can we really love a person and have a relationship with the person without accepting his/her individual culture and history? And can we love them without blaming them for the recent past, history, and their circumstances in general? With a German lover, clearly, this becomes tricky, especially if you're Jewish. Moreover, it ultimately begs the question of what exactly constitutes a betrayal between lovers,and does the nature of love require the acceptance of betrayal.

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