It seems like Dr. Seuss wasn’t the only one who liked the sound of WEE-Haw-Ken. Irene Dische, author of the new book “The Empress of Weehawken,” has called upon her deceased grandmother to narrate the half-true, half-fictional tale of her family’s immigration to Weehawken from Nazi Germany.
According to a review in Newsday, the book is “Brilliant…discomfitingly funny.” It was published by Picador USA, part of the renowned Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishing chain.
A reader’s review on Amazon.com said the book is “A rare contemporary novel that survives and even surpasses its accompanying hype.” The reviewer also noted: “The narrator, Frau Doktor Rother, is fat but beautiful, smart but under-achieving, anti-Semitic but married to a Jew, and aristocratic though brought low during the war.”
Weehawken is the setting
The novel describes the tale of Dische’s Catholic grandmother, who marries a Jewish surgeon and comes to America from Germany. The Jewish surgeon is actually a Catholic convert from Judaism. The two manage to arrive in Weehawken, where the tale of their family’s years in America takes place. The New York skyline, a remarkable view seen from Weehawken, is depicted on the book’s cover.
Many reviews have admired Frau Doktor Rother’s witty but no-nonsense narrative tone. On the first page of the book, Dische wrote a note that tells readers that although characters, dialogue, and actual events represented in the book are fictional, they were inspired by real people and real events.
Dische goes on to write: “My grandmother owes no one any explanations for her interpretation of events,” before thanking a list of people.
In real life, Dische’s family did live in Weehawken, where her real-life grandfather, Dr. Carl Rother, worked at a nearby hospital.
“One of my favorite memories of her is her joining Weight Watchers when she was 75.” – Irene Dische
But the family eventually moved to Fort Lee. “The Empress of Fort Lee just didn’t sound romantic enough,” admitted Dische.
This isn’t Dische’s first publication. She has written for the New Yorker and published books in 25 countries.
Dictation from heaven
Dische’s idea for writing “Empress” came to her when she decided that her autobiography, including the wild years of her life, needed to be told to her children.
“I’m not going to tell you, because I don’t want to give you any ideas,” she recalled telling them. “Instead I’ll write it down for you.”
“I found that I was always inventing everything and making it prettier than it was, and then I realized I had to let someone else tell the story of my life,” said Dische.
That is when she thought of asking her grandmother, whom Dische says knew her very well, while at the same time was very critical of her. The fact that Dische’s grandmother had been deceased for 20 years was not an obstacle at all.
“She dictated from heaven her life’s story and a lot of my autobiography, but she was quite self-centered, so of course a lot of it is about herself,” Dische said jokingly. “We were very close,” she added.
Messages and memories
Of the many messages in the book, Dische says that one of them is that life begins in your later years. She quoted a portion of her book: “Young people! Don’t gloat about your youth, because you have a long and treacherous path to negotiate before you reach the truly lovely part of life.” It is the first line in a paragraph in which Dische’s grandmother addresses the reader (on page 275 of the paperback).
“One of my favorite memories of her is her joining Weight Watchers when she was 75 and losing 40 pounds, then buying herself a whole new wardrobe. She was terribly vain and there was no stopping her,” said Dische, who then noted that her overweight grandmother lost 80 pounds in total.
“She used to say ‘1961 is going to be my death year, I can tell.’ She used to say that every single year. It just didn’t happen,” said Dische. “Read the book. It’s a funny book.”
Melissa Rappaport may be reached at email@example.com