Saturday 12 November 2022


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Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin   {Reviewed by STELLA}

Tamara Shopsin has written a personal and lively memoir about growing up in New York in the 1970s, specifically, about growing up in Greenwich Village in the shadow, or more precisely in the arms, of The Store. The Store was famous in spite of itself, and still is an iconic New York institution. What started solely as a grocer became a restaurant of repute in the 1970s, a place with its very own style and culture and a centre of the conversation, happenings and relationships of a neighbourhood. Tamara’s father Kenny Shopsin was a New York personality running The Store with his partner Eve. The five children grew up on the street and in the restaurant - on the sawdust floor, beside the freezer that gave electric shocks, in the arms of regulars, and under the feet of customers. Each had their shop chores and all chipped in as needed. Tamara Shopsin’s memoir is a homage to New York City, a New York that she sees as under threat from developers, increased housing prices and homogenised culture. It’s a homage to her eccentric father who had his own style, constantly changing the vast menu (especially if a dish became too popular) and making crazy customer rules - rules that made his place even more attractive to some and completely repellent to others: no phones, parties of no more than four people (don’t even try to sneak in with a three and a two and then pretend it is a coincidence), and no copying what someone else has just ordered. You could be a friend for life or blacklisted by putting a foot wrong with Kenny. The book is a homage to friends, family, and the importance of neighbourhood. Shopsin recalls the famous and the ordinary, drawing out the stories of those closest to her, particularly her father’s friend Willy, who in his unusual way sees them all through some sticky situations. There is a fascinating account of the development of the crossword puzzle and Margaret Petherbridge’s role in this at the New York Times. Kenny sometimes submitted puzzles and kept up a correspondence with Margaret over numerous years. There are numerous asides and insights making reading this memoir a delight. Arbitrary Stupid Goal is arranged as small pieces loosely connected, pieces that scoot from present day to a Tamara of age five and back, into times before her birth and retold stories. Over the course of the book she shapes a conversation that gives you an insight to her and her siblings’ childhood, the bohemian nature of The Village, the quirks of her father's cooking practices and temperament, the significance of the seemingly ordinary, and the importance of place. The Store was a meeting place that attracted celebrities, eccentrics and local, a place that accepted people for who they were but brokered no quarter for fakes or demanding clientele. In fact, Kenny feared success (and having to work too hard) and shrugged off reviewers and interviews, even going as far as to tell guidebook publishers that the restaurant had closed or that The Store was now a shoe shop. Tamara Shopsin’s writing style is quirky and idiosyncratic. She writes from the point of view a middle child, a keen observer with an agile mind, the point of view of a woman still very much connected to the place that made such an impact on her. Tamara Shopsin cooks weekends at The Store and is passionate about its legacy and the New York City she believes in. Touchingly personal and endlessly fascinating, this is a memoir which moves from hilarious to tragic and back again in a half a breath.  

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