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What Made Grandma Grandma? ‘Kantika’ Deploys Clever, Analytic Tool: Fiction

Book Review

There is historical fiction. There are the literary cousins of memoir and family history. Then there is the canny, lyric hybrid Elizabeth Graver deploys in Kantika, the 2023 novel that tracks her own family’s 20th-century journey from Constantinople to America, by way of Barcelona and Havana. Don’t worry: Ellis Island and its many overworked tropes do not figure here. Those are generally reserved for Eastern Europeans and Ashkenazi Jews. Graver’s people are the decidedly Mediterranean, metropolitan and mercantile Sephardic Jews, first invited to the Ottoman capital by Sultan Bayezid II, in 1492, following the Christian Reconquista of Spain.

Four centuries on, the author introduces her great grandfather, the cultured, haute bourgeoisie owner of a textile concern, until he isn’t. After retooling his factory during The Great War, to produce military uniforms, the new Turkish government absconds with it. Or so Alberto Cohen tells his wife and children. Did Ataturk really take their livelihoods and social standing by eminent domain? Or did this charming-but-passive sensualist fritter or perhaps gamble it away instead? Such questions are rarely meted out for certain, not in real life, not within families, certainly not looking back across generations. Graver is unflinching in her fleshing and framing of such consequential gossip, yet the novelist can also absolve or blame or leave ambiguous all the saucy or ambivalent bits, pretty much at her whim. To the narrative’s great benefit.

And so Rebecca — our protagonist, the author’s maternal grandmother — decamps with her penniless relations for Barcelona, just as she comes of age. There she marries a largely absent dullard because four centuries on, in what would shortly become Franco’s Spain, Sephardic men are hard to find. She builds a business and bears two children, only to be widowed at 30. Her older sister, already emigrated to the U.S., makes her a speculative, trans-Atlantic match with another widower, Sam Levy, whom Rebecca meets in Havana. As a test. Twenty-four lusty hours later, they are married and aboard a boat bound for New York City.

Stories of American immigration tend to concentrate less on the old country, the conditions that obliged one to light out for the territory in the first place. I am grateful that more than half of Kantika is set abroad. Not everyone in a family might choose to emigrate, or is allowed to. Rebecca waits two years for her boys to join her in America, for example; her aged parents expire before their papers & passages are secured. What’s more, the ones who do manage to leave tend to self-select according to their strength of self, adventure and determination. To some extent, these metrics account for the can-do immigrant spirit that has, in large part, made the U.S. what it is. After the same fashion, it enabled and informed the distinct culture of the American West. In short, the sad sacks tend to stay home. The same goes for those immigrants who get dragged to a new world and never leave the old neighborhood. (In Greater Boston, where I grew up, they have a name for those folks: The Lace-Curtain Irish.)

There are plenty of sad sacks in the Cohen family, in any family, and this story does not ignore or pigeon-hole them. But Rebecca is determinedly bound not necessarily for bigger things but the next thing, all the while singing and cajoling, striving and faltering, dusting herself off and risking it all again. America and its celebrated dreams do not magically lift her blended family out of working-class hardship. In several not-insignificant respects, she was sold a bill of goods (by her sister!). Yet Graver still depicts Depression-era Queens and this new, extended family with a clear-eyed, richly detailed generosity, which feels deserved.

The Cohens and Levys will never be confused with the high society Sephardim of Steven Birmingham’s esteemed 1971 history, The Grandees. But neither did he create characters as earthy and captivating as Rebecca. Working in non-fiction, he didn’t create them at all. The humans who populate Kantika, while technically the fabrications of a novelist, nevertheless feel markedly genuine — because, in these pages, the reader recognizes them as actual historical figures, relatives and literary characters all at once. This genre Graver cleverly contrives here: It can’t be her own invention, can it? Either way, her sketches of fin de siècle life by the Bosphorus, the portraits of her great grandparents in particular, and the language of those newly arrived in Barcelona, then the boroughs of Gotham, all ring very true. As do the black & white photographs that headline the chapters. I took the time to study each one, delighting in my recognition of these blood relations we’ve come to know via the unfolding drama. These components and others all deliver such splendid narrative impact because, it seems to me, they strike the reader as more authentic and intimate than mere details in a work of fiction, while never succumbing to the gloss of memoir or family history. Because the author is clearly moved by the epic sweep of this tale, so are we.

The word “kantika” means “song” in the old Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino, the accent of which Rebecca never shakes. One imagines that Graver herself — a Boston College professor whose 2013 novel, The End of the Point, was long-listed for the National Book Award — was enthralled by her grandmother growing up. And perhaps a bit intimidated by such a robust, borderline domineering, still-rather-foreign figure. Graver and I attended Wesleyan University together in the mid-1980s; we didn’t really know each other, but we did share several English classes. Perhaps the cynical, white-bread nature of the New England small college initially led her to dismiss as mere mythos her grandmother’s literary potential. Credit the free-thinking Jesuits in Chestnut Hill and maybe a tenure track for leading her back to subject matter, a legit heroine’s journey, that was there all along.

Professor Nat Greene: Come on Down!

The inimitable Bob Barker, flanked by “Price is Right” eye candy Janice Pennington (left) and Anitra Ford.

As yours probably does, my alma mater hits me all too frequently with some manner of e-newsletter cum fund-raising communiqué. One can hardly escape the memories stirred/jarred by all this WesContact, which is surely the way they want it. In any case, a recent MailChimp morsel revealed, among other things, that three Wesleyan faculty had received The Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. While this particular tidbit proved interesting enough to peruse, I’m only now addressing the nostalgia it prompted — immersed as I am, third party, in the college experience of both my kids.

The first thing to say is that my cohort and I attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., alongside an actual Binswanger — Benjamin Pennypacker Binswanger to be exact. Never knew him but my housemates and I made note of his titanically pretentious name the first week of school freshman year and never forgot it. Never tired of mocking it, either. Always wondered if he was related to Princeton’s Jay Binswanger, winner of the first Heisman Trophy…

Wesleyan Professor Nat Greene

More to the point, Nat Greene was one of these recent Binswanger honorees. I took a couple classes with him but the first was a survey of European history 1815-1945, and I remember it best because it was the only class I ever took with my housemate Dennis Carboni, an art history major whose course load never again overlapped with mine (classical history/modern American lit).

Greene didn’t necessarily tilt the material toward “social” history, an approach then sweeping uber-liberal bastions like Wesleyan. His hewed more to the traditional “Great Men, Great Events” approach. I remember the syllabus included a book of his own scholarship, “From Versailles to Vichy: The Third French Republic, 1919–1940”, which a) struck me at the time as being pretty awesome, that this guy was teaching from his own work; and b) still resides in a bookcase somewhere here in my house, for reasons completely bewildering to my wife. An entertaining lecturer and no-nonsense grader of essays (all testing was conducted via manic, long-hand scribbling in those little blue booklets), Greene was a fine professor, the sort I hope Silas and Clara will experience at some point in their academic careers.

But here’s what I remember most from my class with Nat Greene: It ran from 10 to 10:50 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in the old PAC building — a few steps from the manhole where we often plunged down into Wesleyan’s famous tunnel system, the subject of another remembrance perhaps. If Dennis and I didn’t dawdle after class, we could race home to my off-campus apartment and catch The Price Is Right at 11 a.m.

Yes, The Price Is Right. It became a sort of ironic obsession for me but something more than that for Dennis, as many things did. It gave me great pleasure to watch him obsessively game this once-seminal game show.

I’m not sure that college kids go in for this sort of thing today, awash as they are in video content and on-demand entertainment delivery choices. However, during the early 1980s, TV was a sort of novel diversion for college kids. We had grown up with it, of course, but had virtually no access to it at school. And so, great delight was taken in the ironic devotion to retrograde programming like soap operas in dorm lounges and late-night reruns of shows like the Rockford Files and Star Trek — things we would never bother watching when home with our families. My sophomore year, my housemate and I came by a tiny black-and-white TV that I’m pretty sure we carried with us the next three years, to three different houses, deploying along the way a staggering array of make-shift aerials including one that involved a pumpkin wrapped in aluminum foil.

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Bowie’s Impact, Departure Still Sinking In

Bowie’s Impact, Departure Still Sinking In


As was the case with many artists of the 1970s, David Bowie was introduced to me via my older sister. Janet brought home Hunky Dory at some point late in the Nixon Administration and when she wasn’t playing it to death, I played it to death. In truth I hardly ever bothered with Side 2 because that’s how my primitive musical mind operated at the time. Side 1 had everything I thought I needed: the radio song, “Changes”; a screamer that Janet and I used to goof on together during car trips (“Oh, You Pretty Things”); and my favorite track, the always haunting and beautiful “Life on Mars”. Once I got to college and lived in close quarters with a more fully developed Bowie enthusiast/savant, Dennis Carboni, I would learn that Side 2 wasn’t just superb (“Song for Bob Dylan”, “Andy Warhol”) but indicative of Bowie’s new genre-busting album and persona to come (“Queen Bitch”).

[I wouldn’t dream of posting anything regarding Bowie without Dennis’ input. His annotative comments appear below, bolded and bracketed.]

It’s been more than a year since Dennis and I spoke of this and many other things the Tuesday following Bowie’s death, in January 2016. He confirmed what I remember us discussing all those years ago, in the wee hours, confined only by the sterile cinderblock walls of our codependent dorm lives — namely, that Bowie wasn’t just consistently 2-3 years ahead of every other rock ‘n’ roll artist in terms of musical direction and fashion sense; he normally hinted at his next departure on the back end (Side 2) of his previous album.

[I like how you wrote, “Dennis and I spoke of this and many other things,” which recalls the lyric, We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when — from “The Man Who Sold The World.”]

On the generally ethereal Hunky Dory, that clue was, of course, the propulsive and utterly sublime “Queen Bitch”, which heralded the coming of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, one of the great, pure rock (and proto-punk) albums of the decade. To say that Ziggy himself was one of the great “roles” played by any rocker of the period is not necessary, for no one else even attempted this sort of serial shape-shifting back then. Bowie turned this trick 4-5 times throughout the decade (hippie folkster to Ziggy to glam rocker to blue-eyed soul man to Thin White Duke) and competed in this regard only with himself.


Bowie’s career didn’t begin with Space Oddity in 1969. He’d been around since 1965, when this shot was taken. Pretty mainstream, for the time, and a reminder that these icons we associate with a particular decade didn’t arrive fully formed from the brow of Zeus.

[I’ve been reading the blog, “Pushing Ahead of the Dame.” You may know it, but check it out if you don’t. It’s fascinating. Yes, “Queen Bitch” is perfect because it starts with the acoustic guitar C-G-F progression à la Hunky Dory, then switches right to an electric C-G-F à la Ziggy.]

My sister didn’t own the Ziggy album; indeed, while I knew several cuts well (from FM radio play) I wouldn’t fully absorb it until the early 1980s. She did, however, possess one more Bowie LP: David Live, Bowie’s first official concert release where, once again, he shows us a transition in the making: from the hard-edged glam of Diamond Dogs to the Philly soul of Young Americans. I am not ashamed to admit that I love this particular Bowie period, this dalliance in what he later, somewhat ambivalently referred to as “plastic soul”. It does shame me to admit, however, that until I was 12-13 years old, I thought this dude’s name was David Live. Indeed, he looked and sounded so different from the Hunky Dory-era Bowie, I thought they were two different artists.

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