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July 18, 2013

Book Notes - Merrill Joan Gerber "The Hysterectomy Waltz"

The Hysterectomy Waltz

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Merrill Joan Gerber's novel The Hysterectomy Waltz is a powerful black comedy of motherhood and marriage.

Vol. 1 Brooklyn wrote of the book:

"Moreover, that so much of the novel can still feel relevant today should be a sign of the lack of progress on certain issues, and should engender sadness. That much of how she describes the process of a hysterectomy in the 60s echoes loudly with much of the discussion today makes this novel urgent."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Merrill Joan Gerber's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Hysterectomy Waltz:

In 1965, when my father was fifty-five years old, he was stricken with leukemia…they had no useful treatments then. At the City of Hope, they gave him infusions of mustard gas, a drug used in warfare. My father's disease raced through him, his fevers rose to 106, he knew he was dying. In the hospital, he asked me to bring him a record he had heard at my house: Theodore Bikel Sings Jewish Folk Songs.

After my father's death, I wrote a novel called An Antique Man (Houghton Mifflin, 1967). I quote from my novel:

I raced to the hospital with the record as if I had a precious salve, a miracle drug. My mother stopped me at the door to my father's room.

"Are those sad songs?"


"If they're not happy songs, I don't think you should play them."

"They're Jewish songs, Ma. Did you ever hear a happy Jewish song?"

"I don't want him to get sad."

"What's the difference? He wants this."

My father watched with approval while the social worker wheeled in the record player, and a nurse plugged it in….The music was full of violins and Jewish heartache. My father leaned his head back on the pillow and listened. The words were all in Yiddish, the language my father's mother had spoken, the language of his childhood. He was smiling faintly. My mother frowned…

My father reached blindly for a tissue on the table and crushed it in his shaking hand.

"What's that song about?" my mother asked sharply in a whisper. I looked at the little booklet. "It's called ‘Achtsik Er Un Zibetsik Zi.' He's eighty, she's seventy."

"A birthday party?"

"An anniversary. The first verse is:

Today it is exactly fifty years
That they lived together, the old couple.
They aged quite well, just look at them.
He's eighty, she's seventy.

"Then what happens?" my mother asked.

"Today they went to the synagogue
And prayed a good deal,
For God has helped them, Blessed be He,
He's eighty, she's seventy.

"God isn't so good equally to everyone," my mother said. For once she didn't say it: Daddy is only fifty-five.

"What else is in the song?" my mother said.

"They go home and all the grandchildren are there at the table, and they have honey cake, and the Rabbi makes a speech about how good a man the old man is, and how charming the old lady still is, and when the feast is over, the old man and the old woman go to sleep, and he says to her, ‘Sleep well and cover yourself,' and the old man falls asleep very quickly, but the old woman remembers how she was promised him for a bridegroom and what a good scholar and a beautiful man he was in their youth. Then she falls asleep, too."

My mother frowned, as if to say, It's never that way, it's all a lie.

We watched my father, who was in a kind of quiet rapture. For once he was not tossing this way and that, but he was resting. When the song ended, he opened his eyes and found my face. "Beautiful," he whispered. "That Bikel can tear you to pieces like my life is being torn to pieces."

In my new novel, The Hysterectomy Waltz (Dzanc Books, 2013), published forty-six years after An Antique Man, the voice of Theodore Bikel came to me again as a source of wisdom and comfort. Jewish music, one more time, held the secret to finding meaning in life. My heroine in The Hysterectomy Waltz has undergone an unnecessary hysterectomy at the age of forty, and has counted many other losses in her life. Upon her return from the hospital, her husband offers to take her on a trip to Las Vegas where they can celebrate her recovery and learn if there if they are lucky. On the way to Vegas, they veer off instead toward Laughlin, Nevada, where her husband has heard food is cheaper and slots are looser.

Let me quote here from the last two pages of the novel:

"I knew I was face to face with Luck. It was here that I would finally learn if I were a lucky woman…I chose a slot machine that blinked its invitation to me with a flashing sign that said "Are You A Lucky Duck?" and I inserted my first three quarters. The wheels spun and I stopped worrying about life's larger questions. All that mattered were three sevens, which would or would not appear on the payoff line…

Time disappeared, worry vanished, old age was only a fairy tale, and death had no meaning. The wheels spun for me and for the dozens of us in the aisles of the casino. While I waited for luck to embrace me, I noticed that just beyond my row of slot machines was an enormous glass window facing the deep black waters of the Colorado River. Reflected in the glass was sea of heads, a panorama of supplicants laboring as if their lives depended upon a few cards or a few coins…As I grasped the black ball on the arm of my slot machine, I had a shattering vision that we were all gathered together in a common fate, each soul bent over his hand of cards or peering intently at his display of spinning wheels, each one sinking slowly and unconsciously into the swirling waters of the river. It was a trick of light, of reflection, but I, and every gambler in the room, was waist deep in river water, unaware, impervious to the cold and the current, sinking into his fate, moving toward the end of his life, lucky, or unlucky…

I saw, quite calmly, that I too, was one of the many going down in the waters of the river. It was almost pleasant, however helpless we were as we played our coins, took our knocks and chatted occasional encouragement to those on either side of us who also played and sank.

When my husband appeared at my back…I held up my hand for silence, the wheels of my machine had just begun to spin again and I listened for the trumpet call, the cascade of silver, the stirring clash of cymbals. But, as usual, the bars and cherries and sevens and ducks refused to line up…I was about to call myself unlucky when I felt a kiss fall upon my neck.

I leaned back against my husband. I refrained from inserting the next three quarters. Jackpot or not, here I was with my deal: my luck, my man, my life, my body, my gamble, my spin of the wheels. It was what it was. Was it good enough? Our little adventure lay before us. One more spin of whatever kind it would be. Why not consider it sufficient to be here in the mystery for whatever reason?

I offered my husband my bucket of coins. "Let's share."

Together we wiggled our fingers down into the chilly silver.

"L'chaim," I said, having no idea why. But it sounded just right, so I said it again. "L'chaim…"and then began to sing, "To Life, To Life, L'chaim…"

My husband took up the refrain from Fiddler on the Roof. "L'chaim, L'chaim. To Life! And if our good fortune never comes, here's to whatever comes…Drink, L'chaim, to Life!"

"To Life, To Life, L'chaim…" Our voices were strong and tuneful. I had the sense that all the gamblers in the casino were singing along with us, but no, when I studied their reflections in the churning surface of the fast-flowing river, they were intent upon their spinning wheels. We then felt silent and soon were back at our stations, attuned to any and all blessings that might befall us."

Merrill Joan Gerber and The Hysterectomy Waltz links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Chamber Four review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review

CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
Creating in Flow interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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