Binnie Kirshenbaum is the author of two short story collections, six novels, and numerous essays and reviews. Her work is noted for its humorous and ribald prose, which often disguises themes of human loneliness and the yearning for connection. Her heroines are usually urban, very smart, and chastened by lifetimes of unwelcome surprises. Kirshenbaum has been published in German, French, Hebrew, Turkish, and several other languages.
Kirshenbaum grew up in New York and attended Columbia University and Brooklyn College. She is the chair of the Writing Division of the Columbia University Graduate School of the Arts, where she has served as a professor of fiction for more than a decade.
Called, “a humorist, even a comedian, a sort of stand-up tragic,” by Richard Howard, Kirshenbaum has twice won Critics’ Choice Awards and was selected as one of the Best Young American Novelists by Granta Magazine. Kirshenbaum was also a nominee for The National Jewish Book Award for her novel Hester Among the Ruins. Her new novel, The Scenic Route, was published in May, 2009. Of the novel, Gary Steyngart says, “The Scenic Route is warm, wise, and very difficult to put down."
Binnie Kirshenbaum lives and works in New York City.
Kirshenbaum's unusual name is often mentioned in review and interviews. She told New York Magazine's "Vulture" blog, "Someone told me I’m not taken seriously as a writer because of my name...several reviews have mentioned it, actually. One guy told me he expected “Binnie Kirshenbaum” to be someone his mother plays mah-jongg with."
Binnie Kirshenbaum was born in Yonkers and grew up in Westchester County. After attending Columbia University as an undergraduate, Kirshenbaum earned her MFA at Brooklyn College. She taught at Wagner College before joining the faculty at the Writing Division of Columbia University's School of the Arts.
Kirshenbaum published her first story collection, Married Life and Other True Adventures, in 1990, followed by On Mermaid Avenue in 1994.
A Disturbance in One Place, a 1994 "Barnes and Noble Discover New Authors" book, explores the alienation of a woman who seeks to find meaning through affairs that she, herself, finds meaningless. Not particularly religious, the narrator also considers her Jewish heritage and its correlation to her daily life. In its review of the novel, the San Francisco Chronicle said, "Kirshenbaum refuses to corral what is funny or sad into separate camps, but allows one to flip over into the other, creating unexpectedly poignant effects....What at first seemed like a sexual travelogue deepens into a litany of longing, at once unsettling and deeply moving." Kirshenbaum followed these books with another short story collection, History on a Personal Note in 1995.
In Pure Poetry (2000), a Jewish-American poet in New York City attempts to recover from the dissolution of her marriage to a German cartographer. Kirshenbaum explored similar themes in 2002’s Hester Among the Ruins, a Chicago Tribune Favorite Book of the Year, in which an American Jewish woman sets off to Germany to write a biography about an ordinary German man. In the process, the two fall in love, but their love is haunted by their separate cultural histories and the German ground beneath their feet. In History on a Personal Note, Pure Poetry, and Hester Among the Ruins, tough and funny women are doomed by both global and personal history. An Almost Perfect Moment (2004), set in New York in the 70s, tells the story of Valentine, a peculiar Jewish teen who looks exactly like the Virgin Mary as she appeared to Bernadette at Lourdes.
Kirshenbaum's most recent novel, The Scenic Route, released in May 2009 by Harper Perennial, tells the story of a middle-aged woman having an affair in Europe. It has been variously described as "a refreshingly gimlet-eyed examination of memory, one that cuts through the gauzy layers imposed by time," and "a cross-cutting investigation into the horrors of the 20th century; a testament to the inevitable annihilation of the past (and our memories of the past); and a weird storehouse of esoteric knowledge (the history of Shalimar perfume, Galvani's corporeal-electric experiments, Newton, Leibniz, Alger Hiss' pumpkin patch)." Much of the discussion surrounding the book centered on the question of whether Kirshenbaum is unfairly trapped in "women's literature ghetto." Jessa Crispin of Bookslut said on NPR's website, "For years, Binnie Kirshenbaum has quietly been one of the funniest and smartest writers we have in the U.S. Hidden behind chick-lit marketing campaigns and soft-focus womanly cover art, her books (An Almost Perfect Moment and Hester Among the Ruins, among them) have razor sharp teeth and surprising depths." On her own blog, Crispin was less politic: "Some of [Kirshenbaum's] cover art looks like it could be the backdrop to a douche commercial."
Kirshenbaum herself said, "I think women writers have a much tougher time being taken seriously. It has to do with the market. Women read more; they buy more books. So it makes sense from a marketing standpoint that you want to pitch the women. However, in doing this, it’s my belief that the pitch is always to the lowest common denominator. The idea is to get the book out there to as many people as possible, as many women as possible. The bigger the group, the lower the bar." Elsewhere, she stated: "There remains this determination to market me as 'a women's author,' or as it is often phrased, 'to appeal to the broadest audience possible.' The problem is that the broadest audience possible HATES me, and those who might appreciate what I do don't handily find their way to me. I have, on occasion, said that I wouldn't pick up my own book in a bookstore."