August 2008

Beth Harrington

nonfiction

Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Tales by Rachel Shukert

As I read Have You No Shame?, I found myself frequently flipping to the back of the book to the section with information about the author. I was wondering who the author was and what her credentials were as a storyteller -- had she achieved the “greatness” she dreamed of? If so, how? It seems Rachel Shukert has written some plays and had some work published in magazines. Based on this information, I was forced to conclude that if the '90s brought forth a wave of memoirs about child abuse, substance abuse, and all sorts of other dark personal secrets -- which the authors claimed were meant to reach out to those who were likewise afflicted -- the new millennium is one in which people with above-average writing skills can publish memoirs about their fairly ordinary lives. Whether or not this is a good thing depends, I think, on the quality of the book. In Shukert’s case, it’s a mixed blessing.

Rachel Shukert grew up Jewish in Christian-dominated Omaha, Nebraska. The stories in this autobiographical collection focus on the author’s quirky upbringing as an outsider in a fairly homogeneous environment and then, once she gets older, her fumbling attempts to find and define success in "the real world" of New York City. Armed with formidable anxieties matched only by a powerful sense of humor, she navigates herself and the reader through the world of children’s Holocaust literature and its role in perpetuating the Jewish youth’s sense of guilt (in her own case to the point of possible clinical neurosis), family vacations with excessively intellectual parents who are sick of the Heartland and drag their less than willing offspring to museums, and the post-9/11 job market. The book is replete with footnotes that define certain customs or vocabulary specifically Jewish for non-Jews (annotated by a Christian cross) and to highlight certain important moments in Nebraska’s history for non-Midwesterners (signified by an ‘N’).

Have You No Shame? is adequately written and Shukert has a comedienne’s eye for the ludicrous. However, the book does not reach the heights or push the limits it seems to be aiming for. In fact, the content often fails to transcend that of a Sarah Silverman routine or even some popular blogs. Her family is offbeat, but not extraordinarily so. For all her insistence that she grew up thoroughly a minority in the middle of a white Christian no-man’s-land, she still managed to go to a Jewish elementary school, make her Bat Mitzvah, and go to plenty of Hebrew-oriented camps and youth trips. The tales do not extend themselves far enough to truly grip a reader, or perhaps more accurately, Shukert does not dig deep enough to give them the meaning they should have.

Possibly more promising stories such as "The Anorexic’s Cookbook" which comically deals with the author’s brush with and attempts to recover from the illness -- “when I did attempt normal food, the alcohol’s inhibition-lowering properties helped. A couple of shots of vodka and I could choke down a container of yogurt and a slice or two of dry toast” -- are ultimately glossed over, with this particular one veering into an anecdote about an unfortunate encounter with a feminine hygiene item. In essence, the need to be hip, funny, and over-the-top trumps what could have been an insightful story refreshingly free from the typical solemnity or self-help platitudes that are rife in such tales.

Likewise, Shukert skips over equally intriguing content such as a stay in another country (The Netherlands) and the tale of how she met her husband -- in this day and age, what inspires a single, liberated woman in New York City to settle down. Instead, Shukert focuses her attention on less remarkable subjects such as Typical Bat Mitzvah Speech, United States c. 1992-1995 which is hypothetically footnoted by Chinese historians misinterpreting 1990s America, and perhaps more strangely out-of-sync, the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal, in an era when even Hillary is no longer a presidential contender. Nevertheless, it is a testament to Shukert’s ability as a writer and her personality that for all her foibles and obsessions, she still remained genuine throughout the duration of this collection of tales.

Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Tales by Rachel Shukert
Villard Books
ISBN: 978-0-345-49861-8
258 pages