March 17, 2020

Nobody Will Tell You This but Me

By Bess Kalb
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In 2011, Bess Kalb received a rambling voicemail from her beloved grandmother, Bobby Bell, reminiscing about how she would fly between Florida and New York every week to babysit Kalb as a baby while Kalb’s mother worked. “I was an old lady! But I loved you. And I’d sit there in their terrible apartment by the hospital and I’d watch you. We’d watch TV, we talked, it was fine. Every week for the first year of your life. Can you imagine? You started talking at nine months. You said ‘hi.’”

From that first word on, the dialogue between these two has never stopped, even though Bobby Bell died at age 90 in 2017. At her funeral, Kalb read a transcript of that voicemail as part of her eulogy, and afterward she decided to write a book about her grandmother’s life. However, Kalb, a comedy writer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” put a unique spin on the project, using her grandmother’s voice to write the book in first-person. And kudos to Kalb, who pulls off this daring approach brilliantly, allowing readers to hear her grandmother’s inimitable voice in Nobody Will Tell You This but Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story.

In the prologue, Bobby offers a running commentary on her own funeral, noting, “The worst part was the dirt.” Not surprisingly, given Kalb's chosen career, there are laughs galore throughout the book, as when Bobby gives fashion advice, career advice, boyfriend advice or says, “God knows I never wanted you to be a writer. But I knew you would. I told you, Bessie—you should be a teacher. Make a salary. Have the summers off to travel.”

Yet this account runs much deeper than a typical comedy routine. Kalb frequently shares the immense challenge of imagining her grandmother’s voice, writing, “It’s turned me into a riddle, a series of boxes to unlock, pages to riffle through in your mental filing cabinet. Bess, I’m not a riddle—I’m a corpse.”

Calling her book “a matrilineal love story,” Kalb describes the lives of several generations of women, starting with Bobby’s own mother, who immigrated to America alone at age 12 from Russia in the face of religious persecution. These many enthralling tales (along with family photographs) unfold in a carefully structured yet nonlinear fashion (think “This Is Us”). The result is lively and fascinating, funny yet poignant.

Kalb processes her own grief as she writes, sharing how she reacted in the days following her grandmother’s death. With heartbreaking honesty, she notes in her grandmother’s voice, “Ha. You can write all you want, but you’re still at a desk in a world where I don’t exist.”

In a bold stroke of literary bravura, Kalb has turned the formula for writing memoirs inside out, bringing her grandmother’s distinctive voice back to life and sharing it with a legion of lucky readers.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our interview with Bess Kalb, author of Nobody Will Tell You This but Me.

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