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Barren Island

3.80  ·  Rating details ·  187 ratings  ·  27 reviews
How does one remember a world that literally no longer exists? How do the moral imperatives to do so correspond to the personal needs that make it possible? Told from the point-of-view of Marta Eisenstein Lane on the occasion of her 80th birthday, Barren Island is the story of a factory island in New York’s Jamaica Bay, where the city’s dead horses and other large animals ...more
Published 2016
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3.80  · 
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 ·  187 ratings  ·  27 reviews

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Dec 27, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Barren Island by Carol Zoref won the AWP Prize for the Novel and was longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction.

“Ask about the smell.”

This well-researched and engaging book tells the story of a group of immigrant families from Eastern Europe, Italy, and Greece, living on a virtual sand bar island in Jamaica Bay off the coast of Brooklyn, New York, in the year leading up to World War II. We see Barren Shoal, the island right next to Barren Island, through the eyes of a young girl, Ma
Oct 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm reading the National Book Award Longlist so that you don't have to! Book 4/10

This was the dark horse of the Fiction Longlist. It didn't have a goodreads page and my library (which has everything) didn't own a copy. I'm glad they bought some after the nominations, because I got my hands on one and it was fantastic.

This novel is the remembered childhood of a woman (Marta) who came of age in the depression era on a tiny island off of Brooklyn called Barren Shoal. Barren Shoal had one thing: a f
Oct 23, 2017 rated it did not like it
Ms. Zoref declares her novel is An Important Work Of Fiction on Page 1, with the heading "Chapter Zero." In other words, the concepts explored in "Barren island" are far too important to allow for narrative conventions like prologues (or plots or coherence or character development or . . . okay, I'm getting ahead of myself). If you decide yourself worthy enough to keep reading, you'll discover that Ms. Zoref has achieved a miracle in "Barren Island:" she's written a work of Magic Realism with no ...more
Mij Woodward
I loved learning about the history of Barren Island, off the coast of New York near Brooklyn, where garbage and animal carcasses were rendered into glue and other products. The stench was overwhelming, yet families lived there, illustrated by the coming-of-age experiences of the main character, Marta, in the form of an autobiography or memoir.

This fascinated me.

But a criticism is that often Marta would editorialize, offer explanations, or ask questions to herself about why something was said or
May 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: jewish-fiction
A somewhat sprawling, if tightly focused novel about an unusual American immigrant subset from the 20th century. I say "sprawling" because it's over 400 pages (sprawling for contemporary fiction anyway! :P) and tightly focused because it's a bildungsroman. Even if it's technically narrated by the protagonist on her 80th birthday.

Marta Eisenstein's Ashkenazi parents immigrate to America from a town that keeps changing locations between Russia and Poland. That sort of political upheaval doesn't le
Dec 31, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was very good! It's a character driven slice of life as told by Marta who is now 80 years old, and she tells of her teenage years on Barren Shoal. It focuses on immigrant life, factory work, poverty, gentrification. I liked the ending the best, when Nazism was coming to the US and immigrant families had to try to save those back in Europe.
Apr 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Here's a feat of storytelling that's also a primer in how to be truthful and compassionate. Unflinching, driven, full of compelling characters who live far beyond the last page of the book--BARREN ISLAND. Zoref's novel took my breath away.
Shelley Sherman
Jan 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
I chose this book as it was centered on a piece of NYC and immigrant history that i had never heard of. I enjoyed this book very much although it was shocking in the life it described and depressing in the misery of the lives on Barren Shoal. The story is full of thought provoking asides from the mature Marta and observations of the characters, intellects and morality of the people with whom she grew up.
The narrator Marta Eisenstein at 80 tells the story of her younger self living on what was es
Ray Russolillo
Jan 01, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As depressing, yet compelling, as it gets.

Historically I am not that far from the Great Depression. After all, my parents were children during that awful time so reading about/imagining an era in which they lived does not seem as far away as, say, imagining life in Colonial America. Yet my own childhood in the 60s and 70s was so different from theirs (as my kids’ in the 90s and 00s was from mine) that reading about the era does conjure up what amounts to a feeling of “ancient history”. Yet, our
This book caught my attention at the library since it was on the "new arrivals" shelf and it was Longlisted for the National Book Award. This is basically a coming of age story for Marta Eisenstein, but told from the perspective of her 80-year old self. She also gives us much detail about the coming of age stories of her brother Noah, and neightbors on Barren Shoal - a small island that turns dead horses and animals into glue, etc.

I didn't love every part of this book, it was a bit long winded
Glen U
Nov 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
"Barren Island" is a much under publicized book that was recently nominated to the Long list for the 2017 National Book Awards competition. It is a story of the immigrant families of an island in Brooklyn that was once a rendering plant for the dead animals of New York City. It takes place in the time between the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the start of the Second World War in the early 1940's. The narrator is an eighty year old Jewish woman who grew up on the fictional Barren Shoal, an ...more
May 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
With Carol Zoref's Barren Island, be glad that books don't come in Smell-O-Vision. If they did, you wouldn't want to even attempt to crack open this book that mainly takes place on Barren Shoal, where the carcasses of dead horses were rendered for glue and grease. (This was a real place.) The awful smell is often evoked in how truly awful it was. But then you wouldn't get to discover this lovely read that tells of an oft-told time in a largely forgotten place. At 80, Marta Eisenstein Lane recall ...more
Nov 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating, well-research micro-history that focuses on the lives of immigrants that lived on a forsaken island off the shores of New York during the Great Depression. The residents of Barren Shoal (largely ignored and forgotten by historians) were a diverse group of Italians, Greeks, African Americans, and Jewish people. The island was home to a plant that received dead horses and burned them in the furnaces day and night to produce glue. The islands daily activities were set against the bac ...more
Apr 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Did you know that there used to be a sand bar right off the coast of Brooklyn, where New Yorkers would send animal carcasses and other waste to be turned into glue? This is the mostly-forgotten tale of Barren Island (or in this case, the fictional tale of Barren Shoal which was next to Barren Island), where a group of immigrant families lived and worked. The novel is written in the form of a memoir of Marta Eisenstein, born to Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The author constructed a vivid wo ...more
This is a story about poor immigrant families who lived in a place called Barren Shoals... an island off Brooklyn, similar to the real-life Barren Island. Barren Island was home to a foul smelling factory that made glue from the discarded carcasses of horses, etc. A community centered around the factory as seen through the eyes of Marta. The description of the horrible working conditions and the stench made for tough reading. The depression, the rise of unions, strikes and WWII all serve s the b ...more
Valeri Drach
Jan 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Barren Shoal is place that has disappeared according to the narrator , Marta of the coming of age novel Barren Island. It exists only in the memory of those who lived and grew up there in the 1930s. A place that smelled so bad, it was an island off of Jamaica Bay where horses and other animals were rendered; what we called a glue factory. This was a novel of the people who lived there between two world wars, during the depression. Told through the eyes of an impressionable, but world weary pre a ...more
Gayla Bassham
Apr 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018-reads, fiction
I was really skeptical about this book and it took me a while to get into it, but once I did I couldn't put it down. The writing itself is merely serviceable, but I was really drawn in by the main character. It's not a very plotty novel, but Marta is so engaging that you won't mind spending a few hours reading about her life, especially if you are interested in 1930s Jewish history.
Oct 26, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Carol Zoref has written this epistolary novel with tremendous voice. To whom the novel is speaking, I will leave for the reader to discover. As good a novel about the depression and its challenges as I have read in more than a decade.

I have recommended this novel for the local ladies book club.

Mark Powell
Dec 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'd recommend to those who want a very well written look into an immigrant community in the early 1900s living lives of extreme poverty in dire conditions. And yet, there is hope and joy and laughter and all those things that make life wonderful.

Although it is significantly different, parts remind me of the stories I've heard from my North Carolina cotton mill family history.
Feb 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This was published by Western Michigan Univ and nominated to the National Book Award longlist. I encourage everyone to read it. I thought this book was incredible. It lost a bit of steam towards the end but I often get that impression from books. I would have kept reading
Maria Magdalena
Sep 22, 2018 rated it liked it
Reading all nominated for awards books atm - Barren Island I found very interesting. Well written, I could almost smell the stench of the decaying horses and other carcasses sent to the place where the immigrant families eke out a living. Fascinating stuff.
Sep 09, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I’m rounding up a bit. 3.5

There was a lot to enjoy in this novel, including how completely the author created this world. That being said, the writing was a bit lacking. The directness worked for the narrator, however I wish it had been a bit more creatively descriptive.
Jan 30, 2018 rated it liked it
Three and a half stars. A very interesting story about immigrants in New York surviving as best they can in ways unimaginable to me before I read this.
Lissa Franz
Mar 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Compassionate and compelling; a straightforward, moving narrative about an immigrant community in a very difficult and impoverished time.
Ian Mond
Oct 07, 2017 rated it liked it
My review of Barren Island can be found on Storify:
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