A Book of Great Worth, by Dave Margoshes

Review copy courtesy Coteau Books

Full Disclosure: Back in the 1970s, Dave Margoshes and I were colleagues for a few years in the newsroom of the Calgary Herald. He moved on, continuing what he now describes as a career as an itinerant journalist; I stayed and eventually was named publisher of the newspaper. Since that crossing of paths, he has published 12 books (stories, novels, poetry). I left the newspaper business 16 years ago and now blog about books; we re-established contact a few months ago when he left a comment here. I am chagrined to admit that I have not read any of his previous books; I am delighted to be able to comment on this one.

A Book of Great Worth is a collection of thirteen short literary pieces that, in the interest of descriptive categorization, would be called short stories. I don’t quarrel with that, but I’d like to have a more precise option that doesn’t fit conventional literary file folders: a celebration of fatherhood, written by a son, mainly about his own father, but, since he takes some liberties, this is fiction, not memoir. If that makes even confusing sense, you can understand why there isn’t really a concise description that fits.

In an afterword to this volume, Margoshes offers an italicized version of advice given by his mother: Listen to your father. Whatever label you choose to apply to these efforts, written over the last 30 years and originally published in a wide variety of sources, they are a response to that advice. The following quote from Margoshes’ afterword betrays conventional practice about proper reviews, but I’ll break those rules because it aptly summarizes the collection in a way that I found apparent from the start:

All of the stories begin, first of all, with the character of Morgenstern, “my father”, who is very much imbued with the persona and personality of my own father, and with a seed of truth. There really was a strike at The Day, the Yiddish newspaper where my father wrote for years, and he went to work in a silversmith shop, the situation that informs “The Barking Dog”. And he really did work briefly as a tutor/farmhand, the hook that gets “The Farmhand” going. As for “The Family Circle”, there really was a Margoshes family circle, spearheaded by my mother, but beyond that, all three stories are fiction, as are all in the series, though some are more “fictional” than others.

Okay, I’ve just cheated and let the author describe his approach to three of the stories (and an overview of all the rest). I’ll concentrate on describing two more and let you make your own decision on whether this intriguing collection fits your tastes.

Dave Margoshes was (is?) a journalist; as was his father; as was his grandfather; as was KfC. So for starters, let’s consider Harry Morgenstern as he appears in “The Wisdom of Solomon”. Margoshes arranges his stories in a rough chronological order, so we already know that his father comes from “journalist” stock, has farming experience in the Catskills and further west and has arrived in Cleveland where his family journalistic experience is not known and he has a chance to establish a name for himself.

It was 1920, and my father was twenty-seven; as he liked to say, he was always a few years older than the century.

The Cleveland Jewish World — Der Velt – had a grand title but the paper itself was somewhat less than grand. Its circulation was barely fifty thousand, just a fraction of that of the big Yiddish dailies of New York City, but it saw itself playing a role just as important in the lives of the Jews of Cleveland and other cities in Ohio, bringing them not just news, but education, entertainment and literature. It was that part that most interested my father, who had been writing a novel and poems, but he was assigned more mundane tasks at first, not the least of which were obituaries.

For those of us who used to be journalists, that paragraph and its reminders — New York at that time was supporting a host of Yiddish newspapers; now it struggles to profitably support an English one — brings back fond memories. One of the beauties of this story (and many of the rest) is the way that Margoshes introduces a dream and then explodes it with a healthy dose of reality. Father Harry, eager to escape obit writing (the graveyard of all young journalists :-)), is asked to write the agony-aunt lovelorn column:

The newspapers of New York were filled with such columns, which were wildly popular. Abe Cahan, the great editor at The Forward, the Socialist paper, had invented the form, which he called the Bintel Brief, Yiddish for a bunch of letters, but all the other Yiddish papers had followed, even the religious papers, which at first considered themselves too serious for such a seemingly trivial feature. But readers demanded it. Regardless of what paper they read, they had questions, often much the same ones. Even the English papers, like the Sun and the Telegram in New York, seeing all the fuss were quick to follow.

Sigh. For those of us who are disturbed that agony aunts, uncles and drivel columnists are taking over the modern web sites of conventional newspapers, it is useful to be reminded that the threat is more than a half-century old. Needless to say, Harrry is good at his agony column (he sets a very high standard with the phoney letter he uses to launch the column) and eventually moves to New York and a more serious post as labor reporter, during the Depression and war years, at The Day.

Margoshes himself is a fine reporter with an eye and ear for history; in many of these stories he uses that talent not just to portray his father but to capture the atmosphere of the times and New York City. I commend the value of those but will move on to the title story, “A Book of Great Worth”, for my concluding thoughts.

The story opens with the crash of the Hindenberg — Harry Morgenstern was there as a reporter and injured in the resulting melee. By that time the author’s parents (his own arrival was still four years off) had a third-floor apartment on Coney Island. In the aftermath of the Hindenberg crash, Harry runs into a young woman from Montreal (“a damsel in distress. Just the ticket, you are,” the local bartender observes) and takes her home to provide shelter, both physical and emotional. Anna, who does not talk but writes notes, is searching for her “brother” although Harry’s mother is quite certain that “lover” would be a more accurate description.

The author’s father has only one material interest: books, books that he purchases at Fushgo’s second-hand store. And Fushgo has just presented him with a handwritten volume (“in the manner of monks”):

The handwriting was skillful and consistent throughout the several hundred pages, the unintelligible words clearly scripted in a faded blue ink, the enlarged capitals at the beginning of each new paragraph shadowed in a red the shade of dried blood. There was no date, no publisher’s name or city, no illustrations that might serve as clues to the book’s origin, and the title and author were just as indecipherable as the text itself. The leather of the binding was so thick — more like a slab of oxblood hide used for making shoes than the soft black grainy cloth publishers used — and the spine so warped the book could not be fully closed, and when it lay on the table it seemed like a head whose jaws had sprung open, eager to share the untapped wisdom within it. “For you, Morgenstern,” Fushgo had said when he produced the book for my father. “Read this and you’ll learn much the same wisdom you acquire conversing with your Anna.”

I offer that quote as an example that there is more to this intriguing collection than first meets the eye. Yes, more than anything else, this is an homage to the author’s father, one that it took him many decades to compile. But it is also a collection of some very perceptive observations about the world where his father lived — the Yiddish newspapers, East-side New York, the pull of both the West and the East, life in the streets and a life devoted to books.

Margoshes wrote these pieces over a span of decades and, if you try to read them all at once, you might find some repetitive parts distracting, because they do exist. Spread out over time, however, (I took six weeks to complete the book) the repetitions serve as handy reminders.

Dave Margoshes and I are contemporaries, although my father was a couple decades younger than his. And my father’s “fame” hardly rivals his — my dad went through three World War II boot camps and eventually ended up as a credit manager for a Western Canadian small town lumber yard chain. Yet, I remember well all that he introduced me to and to this day appreciate his concern in what I had the potential to become. A Book of Great Worth may be Margoshes’ homage to his father, but it is worth noting that almost all of these stories involve events that take place before the author himself was born, recounted to the son as personal oral history. In the final analysis, the collection is about what produced the man who did influence him — we all have fathers and they all share that characteristic. Few of us take the time to chronicle those family memories — that in itself is enough to say that this book is a valuable and unusual work, one that sparks its own reminders for the reader.

A final note: Come back tomorrow for a guest post from the author which will offer some further insights into this collection.

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7 Responses to “A Book of Great Worth, by Dave Margoshes”

  1. leroyhunter Says:

    So we have: bygone New York; journalism; the arc of the century; father-son dynamic; memoir & fiction; interlinked (or overlapping) pieces; the reading life.

    Could this collection have any more going for it??

    Lovely stuff Kevin.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Exactly — a number of very interesting streams, all presented in a highly refreshing manner. An excellent collection.

    Actually, there is another stream that I neglected to mention — figuring out how to get along with women (Henry’s marriage doesn’t come until late in the book and he has a number of mis-steps on that front).

  3. leroyhunter Says:

    I look forward to Dave’s guest post….

  4. Elizabeth Thomas Says:

    Lovely and timely review, KfC.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thank you, Elizabeth. Short story collections have a way of disappearing from public sight even when they are very good — you may have to stop back every month or so with another comment to bring this excellent collection back to people’s attention. :-)

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It does sound excellent. You’re right about short story collections. When I was a kid growing up on SF it was common practice for SF short story collections to be packaged as if they were a novel – the back blurb would describe one story only, the title wouldn’t give any clues, it was only if you browsed a while in the shop or after you took it home you discovered you’d bought a short story collection.

    As a rule I think tricking readers isn’t a great long term strategy, which is perhaps why that particular practice doesn’t exist any more. It is a comment though on how reluctant readers must have been then to buy short story collections (and while obviously the vast majority of short stories won’t be SF, SF is a very natural home for the short story and traditionally was one of its strengths as a genre).

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Canada is somewhat different vis-à-vis short stories. Everybody knows Alice Munro and Alistair MacLeod, but it is also true that many major authors also write short stories. And there is no doubt that many young authors start out with a short story collection.

      There is no doubt that the short story is Dave’s strength. The ones in this book do link — I think you will be quite impressed.

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