Summary: All thirteen short stories in this collection draw readers into the quietly compelling lives of disparate and very ordinary characters who function and suffer in unsettling ways. We are like them and not like them, but their circumstances, while sometimes disturbing, are familiar--and strangely magnetic. The opening lines of "The Lapse" illustrate this power of attraction:

I married Joanne during a lapse. A religious lapse. I don't display my beliefs like a gold medallion, though, as many whom I know do. I prefer to observe in private. After all, any intimate relationship belongs only to the entities or people involved. (p. 35)

Who can bypass an invitation to enter into announced intimacies, however private, that must be revealed in a matter of pages. What lapse and who is Joanne?!

"Bad News," centers around Sheila Powers, a psychologist, whose disruptive marital break-up is compounded by her mother's recent diagnosis of cancer and a subsequent flow of memories about her mother, her father, and herself. She is "between worlds...between life zones." (p. 113) Aspects of the future, at least her mother's, may be somewhat predictable, but the complex depths of the past mix with the present to generate sticky threads that belong to the story and to the readers as well who will recognize bits and pieces of their own family lives.

In a fourteen page story with a decidedly off-putting title, "The Encyclopedia," Wineberg zeroes in on Doris who, after a dissolved relationship, decides to sell the thirty volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica-"the macro-edition, the micro-edition and the year books" purchased by the former couple. Not about remote bits of history or dinosaurs, we discover, but a story about separation, a series of lovers, benign conversation with a fellow worker who claims to be similarly tired of men, a possible buyer for the unwanted encyclopedia, a relationship with the married buyer, an end to the relationship, and a decision to keep the books after all. Her life, we might decide, is encyclopedic, a litany of minutiae that does, indeed, provide information about conditions of existence.


Just recently I used Wineberg's story, "A Crossing" in a class of 165 medical students during a school-wide unit on breast cancer. All students had read the story and were prepared to discuss it with a panel comprised of clinicians and class members. Because the story involves a doctor who has discovered a lump and her husband, also a physician, and the kind of rational and irrational thoughts that such a discovery might evoke, the class was extremely engaged and responsive. This story was a cancer story, but it was, moreover, their story, their future patient's story, and, of course, the anecdotal story relating to their neighbor or their mother.

Ronna Wineberg worked in Denver for the Colorado Rural Legal Services where she intervened for people who were poor: no money for utility bills, immigration difficulties, divorce problems. We get a sense that she was a first-hand witness to the marginalia of life, the grind of struggle and disappointment.

The following comments by Cynthia Ozick about writers and their work captures precisely the powerful stories in Wineberg's provocative book:

the writer is an imaginer by trade, will suggest a course of connection, of entering the tremulous spirit of the helpless, the fearful, the apart. The writer will demonstrate the contagion of passion and compassion that is known in medicine as empathy and in art as insight (Metaphor and Memory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989, p. 266).

It is exactly what Ronna Wineberg does as a writer.


Second Language won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition.


New Rivers Press

Place Published

Moorhead, Minnesota



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