Off the Shelf: Stories by Oren and Schwartz by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I read more novels than I do short story collections. There is something about sinking into a book and following its characters through time that appeals to me. Yet, a great short story is a masterwork of art in that a few pages can leave me as satisfied as a 400-page novel. If an author can distill the essence of those hundreds of pages into three, five, 10 or 15 pages, it feels like magic. And magic describes the two short story collections featured in this article: Michael Oren’s “The Night Archer and Other Stories” (Wicked Son/Post Hill Press) and “Truthtelling: Stories, Fables, Glimpses” by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Delphinium Books). 

If Oren’s name seems familiar, that’s because he served as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., and is the author of several works of nonfiction. In the introduction to his collection, Oren notes he’s written short stories throughout his years in the army and the Israeli government, but was unable publish them due to the terms of his public service. “The Night Archer and Other Stories” features more than 50 of these stories in its almost 320 pages. I have to admit I was not expecting his works to be more than competent, but to my surprise they were wonderful. (An e-mail I sent after reading the first 100 pages noted, “Yoo-hoo, this guy can write.”) Even more amazing is that his stories range from intensely personal looks at people’s lives to science fiction/fantasy. A large number of them contained a surprise twist, which was then often followed by yet another unexpected turn of events. Sometimes a story made me laugh and then chilled me with its insights a few pages later. Most of the stories are very short, although a few are slightly longer, ranging between 10-15 pages.

It is incredibly hard to pick stories to talk about because this was the rare collection in which I liked every story. However, a few stood out enough for me to take notes about them:

  • “Liberation” is a powerful tale of a Holocaust survivor who becomes trapped in his own life after he writes a successful work about his experiences during the war.
  • A parent’s thoughts about his autistic child are found in the moving “D.”
  • Several stories include God as a character. In “Day 8,” Satan cleverly manipulates God when talking about the human-like creatures that were just created. God shows a wonderful sense of humor when conversing with a prophet in “The Book of Jakiriah.” 
  • Oren’s army experiences inform “Beautiful Bivouac,” which centers on one soldier’s thoughts during battle, and “Surprise Inspection,” which focuses on training soldiers.
  • “Made to Order” looks at the loss of a loved one and a surprising recovery from that loss.
  • In the most complex story, “Aniksht,” the author manages to tie together three disparate plot lines into one fascinating tale.

“The Night Archer and Other Stories” is an amazing collection. Some of the stories contain adult content so parents should be aware that they are not for young readers. My hope is that Oren continues writing because I’m looking forward to future collections.

While Oren’s stories are hard to categorize because his works cover many genres, Schwartz focuses on the psychological aspects of her characters. For example, “The Golden Rule” looks closely at a woman’s feelings as she’s called to help a neighbor she dislikes. The story not only explores why the character acts as she does, but her complex feelings about aging. Mother-daughter relationships are discussed in “A Lapse of Memory,” whose ending caught me by surprise. Several stories focus on those who contemplate their limitations, as in “Return of the Frenchman,” where a woman ponders not having acted on an attraction and whether she is being given a second chance. The same is true for the man in “Grief,” but in his case, what he fears is losing his memories of his late wife.

Schwartz also writes about marriages – those that survive the decades and those that do not. “Truthtelling” shows how minor lies can keep spouses connected, while “I Want My Car” confronts the ways people punish each other after a breakup. In “A Taste of Dust,” a woman views her ex-husband’s new life and must decide how it will affect her. The narrator of “Tree of Porphyry” shows the imagination a writer uses in order to turn a glimpse of a stranger’s life into a story.

“Truthtelling” offers 25 stories in its almost 220 pages. The author’s insight into her characters’ thoughts and feelings are what makes these tales work. What they may lack in breadth – they are limited to those living in New York City – they more than make up in depth.