“Laura Esther Wolfson’s first collection is one of the most accomplished and inviting debuts of a personal essayist in years. She has translated, in effect, her psyche and those she encounters with rueful honesty for our reading pleasure. I found it a real page-turner.”—Phillip Lopate, author, Against Joie de Vivre
“A woman sits musing on all she has lived through—her two marriages, her lifelong desire to write, her relation to the Russian language, the lung disease that is slowly overpowering her. Searching for the right distance from which to make large sense of it all, she adopts a tone of voice that is richly reflective of all that has gone before. This voice lives on in the reader’s mind long after the last page of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors—an unusually stirring memoir—has been turned.”—Vivian Gornick, author, Fierce Attachments
“Laura Esther Wolfson is that rare thing among writers these days – a grown-up. She’s cultivated and sophisticated, an unabashed intellectual, a prodigious, multilingual reader. She’s a master of the personal essay form, a limber, playfully serious writer who can keep a number of thematic balls spinning simultaneously. This is a marvelous collection. What lifts it so far above the usual offerings is something I can only call soulfulness. Wolfson’s prose is like strong Russian tea; it has a depth of flavor that only a long, devoted steeping in life and literature can produce.” —Emily Fox Gordon, author, Mockingbird Years
“Set variously in America, France, and the former Soviet Union, these interlinked stories have a certain magic about them. They speak of loss and disappointment, of foiled ambitions and failed marriages. And yet there is something uplifting about them—owing no doubt to the author’s reserves of talent and wisdom.”—Daphne Merkin, author, The Fame Lunches
“For Single Mothers Working As Train Conductors by Laura Esther Wolfson is an exciting example of the hybrid capacity of nonfiction in general, and of the essay in particular. Wolfson, a translator of Russian, French, and Spanish into English, has written a book-length essay about love of language — and the ways that language barriers can in turn create barriers to love. Wolfson navigates a marriage, a divorce, chronic lung disease, and work as a literary translator with the grace and nimble-mindedness of one accustomed to traversing rocky artistic and intellectual borders.” Dylan Cooley, Essay Daily
About the Book
Laura Esther Wolfson’s literary debut draws on years of immersion in the Russian and French languages; struggles to gain a basic understanding of Judaism, its history, and her place in it; and her search for a form to hold the stories that emerge from what she has lived, observed, overheard, and misremembered.
In “Proust at Rush Hour,” when her lungs begin to collapse and fail, forcing her to give up an exciting and precarious existence as a globetrotting simultaneous interpreter, she seeks consolation by reading Proust in the original while commuting by subway to a desk job that requires no more than a minimal knowledge of French. In “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors” she gives away her diaphragm and tubes of spermicidal jelly to a woman in the Soviet Union who, with two unwanted pregnancies behind her, needs them more than she does. “The Husband Method” has her translating a book on Russian obscenities and gulag slang during the dissolution of her marriage to the Russian-speaker who taught her much of what she knows about that language.
In prose spangled with pathos and dusted with humor, Wolfson transports us to Paris, the Republic of Georgia, upstate New York, the Upper West Side, and the corridors of the United Nations, telling stories that skewer, transform, and inspire.