Book Review: The short form

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Even with authors I love, it’s rare for me to read more than two or three of their books in a row before feeling the need for a change. Literary quirks that at first seem endearing begin to chafe or irritate when read over a short period of time. The same is true for plots, which, if too similar, appear formulaic. Because of this, I’m not normally fond of short story collections, particularly literary ones. Some authors seem to write the same basic story over and over again, with only the names and locations changed. Fortunately, three recent collections – “Quiet Americans” by Erika Dreifus (Last Light Studio Books), “Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories” by Edith Pearlman (Lookout Books) and “The Mother Who Stayed” by Laura Furman (Free Press) – usually managed to dodge these particular problems.
Many of the deceptively subdued stories in Dreifus’ first book pack an amazing wallop. The majority focus on the aftereffects of the Holocaust, of refugees who escaped before the worst or members of the second generation who must grapple with their parents’ legacy. Several have overlapping characters, which adds to their depth. In “The Quiet American, or How to Be a Good Guest,” a tour of Stuttgart, Germany, takes a surprising and moving turn. Two other visitors to Germany must grapple with the past and present when history seems to repeat itself in “Homecoming.” In “Mishpocha,” modern genetics and the Internet reveal family secrets that cause David Kaufmann to completely revise his life story. “For Services Rendered” puts a human face on the idea of justice and raises interesting questions: Can great evil be atoned for by a prior good deed? What are our obligations to help someone from our past, even if their punishment is deserved?
The prose in “Quiet Americans” is not highly polished, but that doesn’t detract from Dreifus’ greatest skill: knowing just how much to reveal and how much to leave to the reader’s imagination. The moments of quiet domestication – of sharing between husband and wife, or parent and child – resonate beyond the moment. Dreifus is definitely a writer to watch.
While all the main characters in “Quiet Americans” are Jewish, the same is not true for Pearlman’s “Binocular Vision,” which features 21 stories from three previous collections, in addition to 13 new ones. The author does not restrict herself to a single time period or culture, with tales taking place during different decades of the 20th and 21st century, and ranging in geography from North and South America to Europe and Israel. “Allog” portrays the changes that occur in a small Tel Aviv apartment building after a woman hires an Asian aid to help her disabled husband. In “Chance,” a teenager learns about life and love at a weekly poker game, which features her parents, their friends and the rabbi and cantor from her synagogue. Two different teenagers must wrestle with the family history that may determine their destiny in “Granski.” “The Little Wife” is a marvelous story about how a friendship forged during college days creates ties that bind even decades later.
Three stories feature the same main character: Sonya Sofrankovich. In “If Love Were All,” Sonya travels to England just before the start of World War II to escape a settled life and finds herself making unexpected connections. The surprising direction her life takes in that tale later propels her to Europe after the war to help displaced persons in “Purim Night.” Her return to the United States is documented in “The Coat” and reveals just much how life can uproot our expectations.
Pearlman writes beautiful prose, although her tone remains the same throughout the different stories. After reading five or six, I paused, wondering if their cumulative effect was going to be depressing. Fortunately, the stories’ pleasures outweighed their sorrows, even if most have bittersweet endings. My suggestions is to read “Binocular Vision” a little at a time, rather than straight through, to savor each work.
Although Pearlman has restricted herself to short fiction, Furman has published two novels, in addition to three previous story collections. The nine works in her latest book are divided into three trios, the first of which is the only to feature Jewish characters. This trio has a sharper focus because they concentrate on the same character: the young Rachel Cantor. In “The Eye,” Rachel learns that the smooth surface of family life can hide people’s true emotions. Her mother’s illness is the core of “The Hospital Room,” which revels how easily people deceive themselves about their motives. “The Thief” is a terrific portrait of the way parents are often unable to comprehend their teenagers’ true natures.
The second trio revolves around Marian, a self-absorbed novelist, although the stories focus less on her than people’s reactions to her irresponsible behavior. This leaves readers to not only resolve the characters’ different feelings about her, but to separate truth from fantasy. The stories in the third trio show how emotions can bind families together or force them apart. The best of these three,”The Mother Who Stayed,” focuses on Diana’s fascination with a pioneer who lived a century before and her attempt to help a young woman she feels is in danger.
Although Furman writes polished prose, her stories struck me as resolutely downbeat. While each work can be read on its own, the connections within the trios creates greater depth and meaning. Some stories – for example, “The Eye” with its many characters – struck me as worthy of being of a novel, since the plot begged for further development. Others also left me wanting to know more, particularly which of the contradictory information presented was true. This sense of dissatisfaction marred what are otherwise well-written works.