Many of the essays, interviews, and reports collected here were first published in the New Yorker, but not one of them is less interesting reading a second time. The stories range from a page to more than thirty and cover such disparate topics as the most dangerous bus route in New York City, seal-spotting, the guys that invented compostable packaging made from fungi, teaching the homeless to be better writers, the origins of one of Bob Dylan’s earliest and most important songs, and how Asian Carp are spreading throughout America’s heartland. Who knew there were so many interesting things to learn about? What makes each essay so interesting, of course, is not the topic, but Frazier’s innate ability to spin simile and metaphor. Park benches have snow pulled up to their knees and a meteorite that crashed through a roof in Monmouth, New Jersey, “was dull brownish-silver and shaped sort of like a small croissant.” Reading every story back-to-back can be wearing. Better, perhaps, to treat this collection like a box of fine chocolates.
What we Talk about when we Talk about Anne Frank *** (of 4) by Nathan Englander
Eight short stories. All of them sad. Englander pitches his stories to test the limits of love in binding marriages, ageless friendships, families, and neighbors. Two matriarchs of Israel’s settler movement are asked if they can continue to stand by one another as personal tragedies and then national tragedies overtake them. Childhood friends from yeshiva are reunited after one has become an ultra-orthodox Israeli and the other the mother of a secular son in Florida. Now both married they sit with their husbands and prod one another: for whom would they would sacrifice themselves to save another’s life? Holocaust survivors pass a lifetime in an Israeli shuk acting upon, but not speaking of the unspeakable. Englander’s stories make us think about our own boundaries and sometimes about what in the world he is up to when, for example, he places a protagonist in a peep show staring first at his Rabbi and then at his mother. The author’s directive is that relationships are untrustworthy.
Redeployment by Phil Klay *** (of 4)
Phil Klay’s short stories about Marine Corps life in Iraq and after Iraq begin so realistically that I had to check to confirm I was reading fiction. The accumulated mosaic combines the experiences of grunts, commanders, American snipers, wounded veterans, supply men, post-war rebuilders, chaplains, and kids who found themselves fighting Hajis before they were even old enough to legally drink beer. Notably absent are women and people of color who combined probably make up the majority, or nearly so, of our army. While some stories are naturally better than others, the net effect is not so much the hackneyed maxim that war is hell, but rather this war created by George Bush and incompetently prosecuted by his post-war advisors was an ineptitude of epic proportions. No character in this book seems fully confident of who the enemy is or for what logic they are fighting. Winner of the National Book Award.
Good Scent from Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler
Short stories on Vietnam and Vietnamese living in Texas. I read about half the stories. They were good, but they were all short stories. It wasn’t like reading a novel. Jumpa Lahiri’s short stories on the other hand were like reading novels. One after the other. This book did win a Pulitzer, however and again LEP and my sister-in-law thought the book was terrific.
n Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin ** (of 4)
Eight short stories of contemporary life in Pakistan. Most of the short stories cover decades or lifetimes: way too much material to summarize in just a couple dozen pages. In each, men and women fall in love and inevitably hearts are broken. All the women in the stories suffer economic, psychological, and sometimes physical pain. Ewww. The most overrated book of the year. October 2009.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri **** (of 4)
Remarkable short stories. Each one feels like a complete novel of Indian immigrants making their way in the new world.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri *** (of 4)
Compelling in the way of an auto crash. I could not look away, but I definitely felt worse for having partaken. Like her Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri delivers a compendium of short stories about the first and second generation lives of college-educated New England Bengalis. Only thing is by her accounting their lives consist nearly entirely of remorse, despair, despondence, regret, cancer, alcohol , duplicity, and disloyalty. March 2009.
Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis **** (of 4)
This short collection of short stories is a wonderful piece of honey cake with a glass of tea. A Jewish Russian immigrant to Toronto describes the transition he makes with his parents and uncle and aunt as they climb from helpless newcomers to weary acceptance of life in the new world, without ever losing the cultural imprinting that Russia plants within its citizenry. The book is full of smiles of recognition, truthful while remaining fictional–but who knows where autobiography is replaced by a little relish — and I think quite accessible even to people who neither know Russians or Jews. In fact, it’s probably a wonderful introduction to both. The book is short, the stories chronological, the characters continue to grow from one to the next, yet it’s not quite a novel with contiguous chapters. July 2005.
Old Men at Midnight by Chaim Potok *** (of 4)
Enigmatic. I went back and forth between thinking the three short stories were too simple, too typical, not completely unique recountings of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and Pogroms and Russian Revolution and being totally captivated.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage ** (of 4) by Ann Patchett
This is a collection of Patchett’s non-fiction essays, all previously published. Well-written, autobiographical, unresearched, and self-aggrandizing. Patchett is not only a strong writer, but she knows it and insists that you never forget it. The second essay of the book, the longest, too, is advice to wanna-be writers. Patchett’s bottom line is that to succeed as an author you must be really good, and by strong implication, as good as she is. Not much encouragement there. She has an essay about leaving her first husband and another about agreeing to take back her second husband. It takes courage, I’m sure, to expose your marital difficulties in print, but given how reliably Patchett insists she is faultless, it is somehow understandable why her marriages have been problematic and less than comprehensible how she chose the title of her book.