A Cute Tombstone by Zarina Zabrisky

A Cute Tombstone by Zarina Zabrisky

published by Epic Rites Press, 2013 (48 pages)

A Cute Tombstone includes two pieces, a short poem called “The Hat” and the main story. Before the poem is a beautiful black-and-white picture of a woman in a giant, fluffy black hat with bows on it. The woman herself is quite attractive and put together. In the poem, the hat first represents love, but the hat might disintegrate or be the woman herself (without a head) or be put on a man’s head or the woman’s head (it fits at first but then it doesn’t) until we’re uncertain what the hat means, as if there cannot be love because we don’t know what it means.a cute tombstone 2

Following the poem is the long story “A Cute Tombstone,” preceded by another black-and-white picture of a woman in simple clothes. Her portrait is beautiful, but comes from the era when smiles in pictures were not welcome, so she looks unhappy or mournful instead. In this title story, a Russian woman who moved to the U.S. 11 years prior gets The Hatthe call that her mother has died in Russia. The narrator reflects on the ease of death in the U.S. and that shoppers at Costco can sample nuts, buy Cheerios, or purchase a coffin. Before the mother died, Russia represented crazy, decadent summers of parties and friends for the narrator, but when she returns to make the funeral arrangements, she can’t help but note that everyone winks, the traditions try to overpower the individual’s wants, and there are always smells in the air that are unfamiliar to Americans: fish pies, vodka, raspberry marmalade. In this way, Zabrisky produces the experiences of a Russian through the lens of an American.

American readers see what’s unusual, and the details are enough to make the story’s setting and characters vividly “other.” When the narrator heads to a funeral portrait business to get her mother’s photo enlarged to put next to the closed casket, she notices the displays of others’ funeral portraits: “I imagine their lives: At six, they probably played with German trains and tanks—war souvenirs. At eighteen they were getting married in dresses made from curtains, airy veils and ill-fitted military uniforms—the women pregnant already.”

Zabrisky’s story is smooth and melodious. It’s important to read the punctuation carefully, the words slowly, to get the full poetic effect. A sentence may begin positively and end in a new place. You won’t be lost; she’ll lead you there, but if you read too fast, you’ll find you’re trying to gulp down your specially-made meal.

*Review originally published with some slight changes at TNBBC. Thank you to Zarina Zabrisky and Epic Rites Press for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.


  1. Looks like a good book. I like the photograph. It’s totally true about Russia that it smells unfamiliar to Americans. My first winter in Moscow I finally brought a Russian friend to smell the inside of my kitchen cabinets because the smell was so mysterious to me. She shrugged and said it smelled like “dust?”.

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  2. I love how you read such diverse books 🙂 The photo is amazing, I love seeing retro pictures! I plan on visiting St Petersburg this next year *___* Hopefully!

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    • I’m so torn between the image of Russia as a hot mess and also being beautiful. Perhaps if we stopped making movies about sexy young co-eds getting murdered in places that are vaguely Soviet-esque…

      Thanks for your comment! When I started Grab the Lapels, I pretty much too on books for review from authors and publishers, but I didn’t have many limits as to what I would not read. I tend to not accept YA, Christian fiction, or self-help/how-to books. That’s about it for limits.

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      • Haha Good limits, then 🙂 Besides those covers we shared the other day, I wouldn’t review self-help or Christian fiction either. I don’t think I even know what Christian fiction is XD

        While readingThe Secret Wife, I knew Russia was a mess but yes, it still seems so beautiful!

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  3. Poetry is just an experience, isn’t it? I don’t read too much, but whenever I do I feel like I’m getting a glimpse into another world where different rules apply. I find it really interesting that smiling was not something people did when they took pictures. I’d love to explore the history behind that. My mother has many photos of her parents (including their wedding picture) where they are so stoic. Great review!

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  4. The black and white image of the woman is quite striking.

    I’ve been reading many fast-paced books the last several weeks. I’ve been on a page-turner mood. So reading this review reminds me that I need to add some variety and find more methodical, contemplative books. At least for variety’s sake.

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  5. Wow, the structure of this book sounds so unique. I like the idea of a long story that portrays a returning immigrants experience. Although I am second generation, I often wonder what it must feel like for my parents to be nostalgic for a place that does not necessarily exist the same way it existed when they were younger. Maybe a different feeling than the one conveyed in the long story, but related nonetheless.

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