“Ether” Seven Stories and a Novella by Evgenia Citkowitz

“Ether”  Seven Stories and a Novella  by Evgenia Citkowitz (2010) – 243 pages

When I see the word ‘strange” in a book review, that usually makes me want to read the book.  Not vampires or zombies, those are corny strange.  What interests me is the strangeness and wonder of our real lives.  Some of the people in our lives are relatives close or otherwise, some are friends met along the way, some we would

Author photograph by Suzanne Tenner

rather not have to contend with.  Others may have to contend with us.  We may or may not have had clear career and family goals when we were younger, so how did we wind up doing what we’re doing now?   If there are children, do we remember the time when they were born or adopted?  Looked at one way, each day of our lives is the result of all the random and not-so random events that have happened to us since we were born and even before. 

I hope I can convey to you how special and strange this book “Ether” is.  Each of these stories and the novella is a slice of exotic erratic life.    The stories usually take place in New York, California, and/or London.  Several of the stories are about people writing or acting for a living or the conjunction of the two, screenwriting.   Many of the people are rich enough to live in big houses or mansions and can afford to hire nannies for their kids or personal trainers or yoga instructors.  They can buy the best antique furniture, the pricey-est art work for their houses.  Beyond the outer accoutrements, these people’s lives are a mess with overuse of alcohol and prescription drugs, loveless marriages frequently ending in divorces, and unfulfilling affairs.  But no matter how screwed up their own lives are, these people have profound insight into the other mixed-up people around them.

Evgenia Citkowitz has a way of telescoping the events that occur in these stories down to their interesting bizarre essentials.  You can tell that she cares deeply for all of her characters, wishes them the best no matter how much things go awry.   The stories are not at all straightforward, but are told with a severe slant so they can not be summarized.  The writer is aiming for and achieving something deeper than just a point.  The following quote from the book about one of her characters is a good description of the Citkowitz method.

    “His experience in fiction writing, limited to a handful of stories in short form, told him that writing was a discovery, a path that could be revealed only as he progressed.”

Citkowitz captures the locales of her stories perfectly.  She makes some interesting comparisons between New York and California.   She says that there are rich people in both places, but in New York you see the hard work they had to do to earn their money while in California the money and the big houses appear unearned.  Here is a description from the book of New York City after 9/11.

    “There was only so much he could take, month after month. Although he would never say it, he was sick of September 11. If the reactionary political climate didn’t sicken, the air that smelled of combustion, chemical, electrical, and human certainly did. He wanted to forget the loss and the suffering that made that smell.”

And here is California.

    “Our best recyclers are in California. That sadly includes its writers.”

Citkowitz is also very good about the Internet.  When a quite famous actress moves, Citkowitz mentions “her new abode could be seen on Google Earth and viewed from the comfort of any home computer.”  My favorite Internet quote of Citkowitz is in her story ‘Baby Charmer’.

    Managed to get in six episodes out of the Trekkie marathon with William Shatner, not the bald one who looks like part of the male anatomy. That wasn’t my line – it’s from the chat room where everyone was fighting over the captains. Shatner versus The Bald One (one of the nicer comments). I have to agree with kirklover@bigfoot.com that the captain of the Starship Enterprise cannot be someone you want to sleep with. He has to be someone you trust.

Evgenia Citkowitz comes from a famous family.  Her mother was Lady Caroline Blackwood, a novelist herself, and  her father was a famous pianist, Israel Citkowitz.  For a short time her stepfather was Robert Lowell.  I haven’t read any of Blackwood yet.  Evgenia Citkowitz herself has been married to actor Julian Sand for twenty years.  It says in the author notes of ‘Ether’ that she is currently writing the screenplay for a movie version of  “The House in Paris” by Elizabeth Bowen.  

“Ether” is the strongest debut of a writer I’ve read in a long time.  I can well imagine her next writing a  California, New York, or London novel which is actually a group of inter-related stories.   Whatever she writes next, I will read it.    Evgenia Citkowitz is a writer to read and watch as her career develops.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Obviously a writer to watch. I’ve never heard of her before, so thanks for the review.

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  2. Hi Tom,
    Yes, Evgenia Citkowitz is a writer to watch. I was surprised and amazed by her background being the daughter of Lady Caroline Blackwood and one-time stepfather Robert Lowell. She grew up in a literary family and now has a Hollywood family of her own

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  3. This is going on my to read list. Thanks for a comprehensive review.

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  4. Posted by Kelly S on April 15, 2011 at 12:40 AM

    I finally got to read “Ether.” I must say, I wasn’t as enchanted with it as you and other reviewers. I really enjoyed the title novella, which takes up the book’s last half. I like how Citkowitz switches perspectives between the characters to show how different people can view the same situations very differently.
    Some of the shorter stories, such as “Happy Love”, didn’t enthrall me as much. Some of the characters I simply didn’t care about and the stories almost felt too short. Also, I like when stories in short story books feel intertwined by some overarching theme. I know that was the goal for this book, but I didn’t feel it.

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    • Hi Kelly,
      Each of us cam react differently to the same book, and there are a lot of things that go into whether or not we like a book at any particular time. It’s the old truism, “You can’t argue taste.”

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