Ira Simmonds received a B.A. in French from St. Francis College, Brooklyn, New York and M.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University, NY, NY. After a ten-year stint as House Manager at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in NYC, he spent the next twenty-five years in New York City Public Schools as a teacher, Assistant Principal and Acting Principal. He currently works as an educational consultant.
“An unconventional but affecting biography.”
– Kirkus Reviews
In this short-fiction collection, Simmonds (From Siberia to St. Kitts, 2018) explores the lives of people and animals on islands in the Caribbean and New England.
In “Jeremy,” a dog recounts the time that his master and his family got their boat stuck beneath Brooklyn’s Marine Parkway Bridge. A middle school administrator in “Backyard Overture,” vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, witnesses an array of creatures visiting his yard. In “Caribbean Vacation,” a man invites his wife on a trip from New York City to St. Kitts only to have her insist on bringing her very elderly and mostly immobile parents along. An assistant principal attempts to dissuade a foulmouthed teen from cursing in class in “Peter’s Performance.” In these short stories, Simmonds examines small moments that frequently involve family dynamics or wildlife. Some are realistic while others have a more fabulist quality—as if the author is attempting to pause the world, remove its casing, and see the machinations whirling beneath its surface. In the title story, for example, a man named Paul builds his dream house in an area of St. Kitts called Valley Views, complete with an Edenlike orchard of tropical fruit, only to find himself engaged in a war of wits with the local vervet monkey population. The volume is fewer than 100 pages long, but its stories’ settings manage to cover many different times and places. The author’s warm prose is speckled with moments of humor, as when he describes one of the vervet monkeys: “Ticky could be seen peeking into the house through the rear windows overlooking the orchard, casing the joint perhaps, an advance reconnaissance special forces raider gathering intel for a grand monkey plot.” The stories are simple and straightforward; indeed, most lack a clear plot turn or epiphany, which one may expect from works of short fiction. Some read more like memoiristic vignettes or amusing, spoken anecdotes, and Simmonds’ pleasant voice and interest in nature and travel make for a calming reading experience.
A brief compilation of light, good-natured tales.
Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2019
Review Posted Online: March 18, 2019
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2019
A recounting of a teacher’s globe-trotting life written by a grateful student.
In 1966, debut author Simmonds was in the 10th grade in St. Kitts and eager to begin the study of the French language. He was immediately taken with his teacher, Zenaida “Zina” Katzen, who impressed him with her self-assured poise and bold teaching strategies. The author was so profoundly influenced by her example that he continued to study French and became a teacher as well, his professional emulation a kind of loving homage to her. Simmonds enjoyed a reunion with her in 1998 but resolved to learn more about her. He returned to St. Kitts in 2010, eight years after her death, to begin researching her life. The author unearthed a remarkably eventful soul—Katzen (originally Katzenellenbogen) was born in Siberia in 1911, the daughter of a respected medical doctor and virtuosic musician. The Russian Revolution forced her family to relocate in 1919, first to Japan and then to China. She spent six years (1926-32) as a student in Paris and graduated from the Sorbonne. After teaching in Shanghai, she moved to Chile—she may have worked for the Allies during World War II—and started her own school. Katzen moved to St. Kitts in 1961, shortly before she turned 50, and spent her last 42 years there. Katzen’s trajectory is cinematically adventurous, and the twine that holds together its diverse parts—tenderly captured by Simmonds—is her calling to be a teacher. The author is infectiously enthusiastic about the subject, and his research is meticulous. Also, he waxes philosophic about the consequences of laying bare the story of his “pedagogic idol,” a moving reflection on the advantage distance from our heroes provides. His methods can be idiosyncratic: He announces in a prefatory comment that he feels free to imaginatively fill in the lacunae of her life, without giving the reader any sense of when that occurs. Also, he allows Katzen’s correspondence to tell the tale of the last 40 years of her life, which can be meanderingly unfocused. Includes photos.
An unconventional but affecting biography.
Pub Date: March 19, 2018
Page count: 181pp
Publisher: ISS Publishing
Review Posted Online: July 11, 2018
FROM SIBERIA TO ST. KITTS: A Teacher's Journey
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