Book Review: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

abandon

Book cover for the Europa edition of The Days of Abandonment

A very good friend of mine—an Italian woman—has lately been going through a very rough patch in her marriage. These last few years have been filled with much drama and melodrama, with betrayals and reconciliations, with threats and recriminations, and with lots and lots of pain.

I know much of this because she is also a very good and honest writer, and, at times, I have been a sounding board/early reader for her essays as she finalizes them prior to sending them out. With these, I am a bad critic because I cannot separate the raw, emotional writing from the woman I know and care about. The quality of the writing seems secondary to the pain being displayed.  So I can’t focus on the writing as I should.

This was also the case when I first began Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Immediately, it too draws you in with the story of an intelligent woman–a writer–blindsided and abandoned by a careless husband. It too draws you in with the raw pain, the self-doubt, the self-incrimination of one who has been abandoned.

And Ferrante’s writing is such that we forget easily that this is all a fiction–we believe we are reading the true story of a real woman who is in pain and confusion and despair.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave,” reads the very first sentence.

And thus Olga, the narrator, is demolished. Her sense of self-worth is destroyed, her understanding of her past is shakened, her hope for the future vaporized. And through Ferrante’s words we feel that abandonment greatly.

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Book cover for the audio-book edition of The Days of Abandonment

Like one grieving at a death, the narrator experiences all the varying emotions of loss: she is in turn defeated and determined, angry and frustrated, confused and clear-minded.  Besides the trauma of her husband’s leaving, she must also deal with the business of raising two children and running a household.

At times, Olga can also be quite funny in her frustration and anger. Once when she goes to the telephone offices to complain that her service has been cut off, she is told that all complaints must be phoned in. Where do I  go, she asks “if I want to spit in somebody’s face”? And her attacking her ex the first day she sees him in the street with his mistress is very funny–and satisfying.

There is a sex scene–one that ends prematurely and unsatisfyingly for Olga– in which Olga attempts to grasp some sense of self-worth, and while sad and pathetic, it also highlights Ferrante’s skill as a writer for it is well-written and unique and believable–never an easy thing to do when describing sex.

There are sick children and dying dogs and grumpy natives and the usual manipulations that accompany a formal separation between couples. And through it all we see Olga hit bottom, recover and then survive.

At one point, Olga says, “In order to write well, I need to go to the heart of every question, of a smaller, safer place. Eliminate the superfluous. Narrow the field. To write truly is to speak from the depths of the maternal womb.

And this is what Ferrante herself has done with her novel–she has stripped away the “superfluous,” she has asked the essential questions, and she has written from the very depths.

One reviewer wrote that The Days of Abandonment could have been written only by someone who has experienced the pain and despair of sudden separation, and implied that this is Ferrante’s own story.  I don’t know if that is true or not.

I do know that such an assumption is a critical fallacy, and it demeans the artistry that Ferrante possesses. The Days of Abandonment is a novel; it is a piece of fiction. Whether Ferrante has drawn on her own experiences or not does not matter. She has created a work of art that stands on its own.

Olga’s story is ours to read, to think about and to empathize with.  And in the process, she becomes someone we care about and worry about and celebrate with.

It is like having a good friend tell you her story.

The Days of Abandoment by Elena Ferrante
translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa editions, 2005

 

Book Review: Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano

Honeymoon

Book Cover for Honeymoon by Patrick Mondiano

It is perhaps a sad testimony to how parochial my reading has become.  There was once a time where I knew almost every Nobel Prize for Literature winner–would have yearly bets with colleagues and follow the London odds makers’ short lists.  And while my knowledge was primarily eurocentric/american, I was an early reader of the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz before he won and I understood that his time was eminent and important. (My sister, after a trip to Egypt, had turned me on to him. I don’t know how, but she brought me back two uncorrected proofs of his novels.)

But again, I am increasingly ignorant of the world’s literature.

Which is why discovering Patrick Modiano is such a wonderful treat. The French Modiano is the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature winner. And until a New Yorker review of his most recent novel, I had not heard of him nor his winning. Lately, I must have my head very deeply buried in the sand.

patrick-modiano-illustration

Patrick Modiano illustration by Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Media

Honeymoon (published in 1990 in France/1995 in the U.S.) is the novel I decided to start out on. The language is direct, bare and sparse–reminding me much of the first half of Camus’ The Stranger. But the story is intricate and convoluted, told in such an honest style that makes the intricacies and coincidences of life seem matter-of-fact.

There are two stories that braid themselves around two middle and connected ones. On the first page the narrator discovers that a woman in the hotel in Milan where he is staying has committed suicide.  He then learns that he had known her once decades when she and her husband had picked him up hitchhiking and had taken him in and cared for him for several days.

This coincidence sets the man on a quest–of sorts. After his wife and his business partner (her lover) drop him off at the airport where he is to fly to Rio de Janeiro for business, he disappears. He takes a plane back to Milan and then returns to Paris, where he goes to ground and hides in the outer arrondissements.

His purpose is to make sense of the woman’s suicide, of her life.

We find that he has been obsessed with this couple for a long time, ever since his youth, long before the knowledge of her death. He has taken numerous notes, cut out clippings, and prepared to write a memoir of the couple, and so he tells us of their hardships and trials during the Nazi occupation of France.

While we at the same time are following his exploits in the Parisian neighborhoods, aware of his wife’s comings and goings, and preparing for a new life in his rougher world.

All the plot threads, in a way, revolve around a single newspaper clipping from the 1940s searching for the woman who suddenly went missing when she was sixteen years old. (From what I have learned, the actual clipping is what sent Modiano himself to fashion his story.) She had simply stepped out of the Metro and  moved from one world–a constricting and dangerous world in Nazi occupied Paris–to another. Her abrupt relocation parallels the narrator’s who moves from his bourgeoise life as a documentary filmmaker married to a high-fashion model to an uncertain world in the boondocks of Paris, seeking for understanding of the couple who once showed him much kindness.

I said that I had started out on Patrick Modiano by selecting Honeymoon It is only a starting point. I look forward to picking up another.

 

Penny Shorts–an online journal with an interesting spin.

Cynthia  A portrait by Moses Soyer (1954)

Cynthia
A portrait by Moses Soyer (1954)

On Wednesday morning I received a tweet advertising that my short-story “Don’t Crows Eat Corn?” was now available on the on-line journal Penny Shorts. And the tweet was accompanied by this stunning portrait by the Russian/American artist, Moses Soyer.

(Later, the editor Catherine Horlick said that “This portrait by Moses Soyer reminds me of Sandy [the protagonist in my story], although in fact the story is like a painting by Edward Hopper, who so brilliantly depicted subjects trapped by life.”)

The turn-around had been extraordinary. On Tuesday evening, I had received one e-mail accepting the story, another that attached a PDF of the proofed galleys, and a third asking for a photo and a short bio.

Even taking into account that the UK-based Penny Shorts was five hours ahead of me so that while I slept they were working preparing copy, it was a very quick and pleasant surprise.

The fledgling journal has an interesting “business model.” Readers can purchase individual stories for 50p (about 78 cents in U.S. dollars) or they can buy a variety of subscriptions that give them access to multiple stories during the course of the subscription. Agents and editors are given free access.

This was the text of the tweet that was set out:

J.P. Bohannon’s story ‘Don’t Crows Eat Corn?’ is new on pennyshorts. The day after her mother’s funeral, Sandy has to hide a bruise on the side of her head. http://bit.ly/1TCpHBr

And so, the link to the Penny Shorts web site in general and to my story in particular was tweeted out to the world. It was efficient–and quick–marketing.

As an editor, Ms. Horlick has been a pleasure to work with, attentive, professional and warm. Moreso than anyone else I have met in the business.  For those interested in reading or writing or both, you should visit her Facebook page or the Penny Shorts website itself.

Book Review: Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

A new acquaintance of mine asked if I had ever read the book Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee.  I hadn’t, though I had read several others by the South African writer.  We talked about many things that morning, and, to be truthful, I had forgotten all about the book until about a week later, when a package arrived in the mail with a gift-wrapped book. Inside was a copy of Disgrace with the note: “I hope you enjoy this half as much as I did.”

And so I began.

Disgrace is the story of David Lurie, a 52 year-old, twice-divorced, white South African professor of Communications and Romantic poetry.  Quite early in the novel he is forced to resign from his university under the disgrace of having sex with one of his students.  As Lurie  rationalizes to himself, the sex itself was not rape, but it certainly wasn’t completely consensual.  He admits guilt but not contrition–which infuriates even those trying to help him.

In disgrace, hounded by reporters, and bereft of his job, Lurie leaves town and drives out into the eastern countryside of the Cape. There his daughter has some land where she raises flowers and kennels dogs.  He is there presumably to write an opera on Byron, Byron’s mistress Teresa, and her husband.  But it is not the most conducive area for such refined creation: it is a hard land and an area still simmering in the afterbirth of the post-apartheid era.

As Lurie settles into the rhythms of country-life, of physical labor and simple pleasures, even volunteering in an animal shelter, his life is once again shattered when he and his daughter are attacked by three men.  All the dogs are slaughtered, Lurie is doused in alcohol and set on fire, and his daughter is gang-raped (and impregnated) by the three men.  The very crime for which Lurie was censured has been visited trebly on his daughter.  The very world he has known–the power he has always arrogantly assumed for himself–has been violently wrenched away.

As both father and daughter try to come to terms with the horrors that have visited them, as they learn more and more about the identity of their attackers and their relations to people they know, and as they struggle with the essential character of each other’s personalities, Lurie comes to better realize the nature of the world around him.  His views on racism, on feminism, even on animal rights, must be examined and re-calibrated.  The world he has known is, simply, no longer.

I knew nothing of the book when I opened it. I thought it was contemporary, not published in 1999–a mere five years after the historic elections in which the African National Congress overwhelmingly won and from which apartheid’s demise can best be dated. The difficulties that Lurie has in understanding the new order, the distrust, fear and violence among the various peoples, even the “modernization” of the University all make better sense. (Lurie’s teaching of Communication is in itself ironic–Communication skills are what this country and its people are badly in need of.  An expert in the British romantic poets–those type of courses are considered fluff in the new university structure–Lurie teaches both Communications 101 and Communications 201. The one Romantic Poets course he teaches is a salve that the administration gives its older professors.) In many ways the novel is a reflection of the birth pangs of the new country: it is violent, bloody, and at times deadly.

Does everything get resolved?  Of course, not.  Is Lurie a better person at the end?  I’m not sure.  I think he is. Early in the novel when a tribunal is questioning Lurie on his womanizing, he states that he believes that every woman he has bedded has “enriched” him in some way.  The question at the end of the novel then must be  “has the violence and catastrophe that he has suffered also enriched him?”  Again, I don’t know. But he is a different man than he was at the beginning of the novel.

J.M. Coetzee

And while the summary of the plot seems rather dark, the novel itself is quick moving and understated.  It is a very subtle but easy read, and it sucks you into its disparate worlds–the urbane world of the university and the stark world of the South African countryside–quite easily.

And so much dovetails together within the novel: the womanizing man of letters writing about that grand literary womanizer Byron; the mirrored rapes; his evolving attitudes towards women underpinning his new understanding of animals; his role as both teacher and father. It all comes together seamlessly and wonderfully, not like a patchwork quilt, but a beautifully woven cloth–like the Ashanti patterned bedspread that Lurie’s daughter presents to the woman living on her land.

J.M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize for Disgrace in 1999, four years before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. His writing is succinct and accessible. In many ways he is a quiet writer, not at all flashy. (Not surprising, considering that his dissertation was on Beckett.)  Intelligent, subtle, and layered, the writing is satisfying and rewarding from the very first, and ages richly with subsequent reading.

Tuesday Book Review: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

I read Wonder Boys last week.  I had read it previously, at least twenty years ago, and, boy, had I misremembered it.  As a younger man, I found inspiration in the “wunderkind” writing student and was fascinated by the famous writing teacher who is famously blocked with his novel (also called Wonderboys) that is going on past 2600 pages long.  This time around I did not have the same reactions.

Part of the problem is also that I could not get the film adaptation out of my head– a film I had seen in the long interim between readings.  In the film, the famous writing teacher is played by Michael Douglas, his cynical, jaded literary agent by Robert Downey, Jr., and the fabulous writing student by Tobey Maguire.  And while I remember enjoying the movie greatly–and understand why marquee actors are used–I think  it was terribly miscast.

Grady Tripp is the dissolute writing teacher.  He smokes way too much dope, he is cavalier in his relationships, and he is always looking out to score. In the novel, he is over-large, a big hulking bear of a man.  In one scene, when he is spiraling into what might be a catastrophic relationship with a young student who rents a room in his basement, he notices his reflection in the mirror. He sees a middle-aged, bearish man slumped down over this young college girl as they slow dance together. It is a moment of self-awareness–aided by a large quantity of pills, dope, and alcohol enhanced by pounding adrenelain after a slapstick night of antics. The man he sees in the mirror no way is the stylish professor played by Michael Douglas.

The young writing student is a-social and painfully awkward which Tobey Maguire captures but he is not nearly dark enough. In the novel, James Leer is very dark, in a long overcoat of indeterminate material and age.  And Robert Downey Jr. did not match my vision either. I know that most people quibble with the casting of books they’ve read when they are made into movies.  And this is my quibble: the cast is too handsome.

But enough about the movie…

The novel starts out on a rollicking tear. On the night that the novel begins Grady Tripp finds a note from his wife saying she has left him, he picks up his agent and the transvestite he met on the plane, his mistress–Chancellor of the school and wife of his Department Chairman–tells him she is pregnant, he gets bit in the leg by a dog, and he is traveling around with a tuba, a dead dog, the coat Marilyn Monroe wore at her wedding to Joe DiMaggio and a student who may or may not be suicidal…or truthful.  It reminded me of John Irving at his best.

An academic farce, there are set scenes of college gatherings and festival lectures. There are Tripp’s musings on the requirements of good writing, his praise for James Leer’s young but promising work, and insights into a truly blocked artist–one who comes to no longer believe in the work he is doing.

The female characters, his wife, his mistress, the student living in his house, however, are very shallow–cardboard figures created for Tripp to act or react against.

Michael Chabon

That the novel famously echoes Chabon’s early writing life makes reading it this much later in his career offer its own rewards.  Like James Lear, the young student, Chabon received a book contract for The Mysteries of Pittsburgh when his writing professor–unknown to Chabon–passed the manuscript on to his own literary agent.  And like Grady Tripp, Chabon worked years on a follow-up novel–a novel that grew enormously large before he himself destroyed it.

Since The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonderboys, Chabon has continued to win great praise and loyal readership.  His novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitizer Prize for fiction in 2000 and his 2007 novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won the Hugo, Nebula, Sidewise and Ignotus awards. (An aside–I was in Quebec city one week and needed something to read. There was primarily only French book stores. In one that I stepped into there was a small rack with about a dozen books written in English. It was there that I bought the Yiddish Policemen’s Union.)

And while his first novel–The Mysteries of Pittsburgh–and the novels following Wonderboys deal directly with Jewishness and Judaism, it is a very minor theme in Wonderboys.  There are touches of it when Tripp and James go visit his Korean ex-wife for Passover Seder and bumps against it when James’ own history is revealed, but it is not forefront in the novel.

Instead this is very much a novel about writing–or not writing as is Tripp’s case.  It is academic because it takes place on a university campus and deals with chancellors and professors and students and chairmen, but there is no scenes within a classroom. It tries to be a novel about love and contentment–but Tripp’s long road there, it is his third wife that leaves him and his tentative gestures towards his pregnant mistress are filled with doubt and fear.

All in all, though, Wonderboys is a wonderful read.  The beginning is peerless–quick moving, deft character sketches, and hilarious plotting. If the second-half seems to suffer from a bit of a hangover, it is because nothing could keep up with the original momentum. The novel must switch rhythms to mirror Grady Tripp’s more thoughtful musings, fears, and discoveries.

Do read Wonderboys or, if you want, rent the film.  Both are very enjoyable.  Just don’t do both too close together. And when you finish with those give Chabon’s other titles a try. Any of them are well worth the time spent.

Clockwork Orange and City of Bohane

The Guardian had an article today noting the 50th Anniversary of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Mind you, it is the anniversary of the book not Stanley Kubrick’s iconic movie, which has taken on a life of its own.

I first read the novel when I was seventeen. I read it a month later when I learned there was an edition with a glossary in the back. The glossary didn’t enhance the read that much; everything could be inferred from context  without too much trouble. (I had heard the glossary was only in the American edition, but I am not positive of that.) Anyway, what I remember most was the language: it was playful, edgy, smart, and alive. It was a mixture of joycean word play, street jive, cockney, rhyming, Slavic slang. And it was what set me off reading a lot of Burgess, from the Enderby novels to the majestic Napoleon’s Symphony to the various autobiographies.

The movie was another thing.  I was hitch-hiking across Canada from Vancouver to Toronto and winter was coming on a lot earlier than it came where I was from. It was only the last week of August, but we woke up under a thin sheet of snow in Regina.  Earlier, to stay out of the cold, and since nothing seemed to be coming along Canada’s Highway 1, we went into the town of Regina and bought tickets to see Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. It was very stylish and engrossing, with a narrative that I already knew.  I don’t remember now being struck by the ultra-violence. I do remember the music and the Skinner-like experiments and the tragic ending.  

But anyway, today, in their piece on the 50th anniversary of the book, the Guardian said this:

Fifty years ago today, Anthony Burgess published his ninth novel, A Clockwork Orange. Reviewing it in the Observer, Kingsley Amis called the book “the curiosity of the day.” Five decades later there is still nothing like it.

I beg to differ.

Kevin Barry’s first novel, The City of Bohane is channeling Burgess big time.  Set in a dystopian future, in what could be an unrecognizable Dublin of 2053, it is full of violence, sex, drugs, and turf wars. And again, the language  is at the forefront. Here is Barry describing DeValera Street:
[DeValera Street] leases are kept cheap and easy– bucksee enterprises appear overnight and fold as quick. There are soothsayers,. There are purveyors of goat’s blood cures for marital difficulties. There are dark caverns of record stores specialising in ancient  calypso 78s –oh we have an old wiggle to the hip in Bohane, if you get us going at all. There are palmists. There are knackers selling combination socket wrench sets. Discount threads are flogged from suitcases mounted on bakers’ pallets, there are cages of live poultry, and trinket stores devoted gaudily to the worship of the Sweet Baba Jay. There are herbalists, and veg stalls, and poolhalls. Such is the life of DeValera Street… .

Here again is Barry introducing Girly Hartnett, the 90-year old matriarch of the major family:

Here was Girly, after the picture show, drugged on schmaltz, in equatorial heat beneath the piled eiderdowns, a little whiskey-glazed and pill-zapped, in her ninetieth–Sweet Baba help us–Bohane winter, and she found herself with the oddest inclination.

I always found the world of A Clockwork Orange to be too sterile, too sharp-edged, even the thugs were dressed in sparkling white.  Bohane City is many things, but sterile it is not.  There is a richness of detail, texture, smell. Even in memory, Alex and his droogies seem too slick compared to the denizens of Bohane. For in this dystopic future, the world has not been re-shaped by technology–in fact, technology is surprisingly absent.  There is an elevated train, but no cars. Communication is done face-to-face…and at times angry-face-to-angry-face. Newspaper writers get their stories in pubs or brothels; the hunchback photographer pegs his developing photos in a morbid array across a room.  Although this is the future, it is not one overrun with gadgets!

The violence is real–but somehow not graphic. The economy runs on sex, alcohol, and drugs. There is an outer world, beyond the pale, but it doesn’t intervene, seemingly content to let Bohane run its own violent course.

And it is so, so visual.

Here’s a description of the major characters as they prepare for the momentous battle at the center of the novel:

“Logan Hartnett [the albino leader of the Bohane Trace] suavely walked the ranks and he offered his smiles and his whispers of encouragement. There was confidence to be read in the sly pursing of his lips, and atop a most elegant cut of an Eyetie suit he wore, ceremonially, an oyster-grey top hat.”

“Fucker Burke was bare-armed beneath a denim waistcoat and wore his finest brass-toed bovvers.”

“Jenni Ching carried a spiked ball on a chain and swung it over her head. She wore an all-in-one black nylon jumpsuit, so tightly fitted it might have been applied with a spray-can, and she smoked a black cheroot to match it, and her mouth was a hard slash of crimson lippy.”

“Wolfie Stanners, however, was widely acknowledged to have taken the prize. Wolfie was dressed to kill in an electric-blue ska suit and white vinyl brothel-creepers with steel toecaps inlaid. Four shkelps were readied on a custom-made cross-belt.”

[Macu–Logan’s wife–wore] “a pair of suede capri pants dyed to a shade approaching the dull radiance of turmeric, a ribbed black top of sheer silk that hugged her lithe frame, a wrap of golden fur cut from an Iberian lynx…and…an expression unreadable.”

My god, look at the attention to clothing–not futuristic, Buck Rogers’ one-pieces, but clothing that has been taken from a vibrant past.  It is as if the costume designers from Game of Thrones, Gangs of New York, and My Fair Lady got together to outfit the cast for this rumble.

And what City of Bohane also has that A Clockwork Orange doesn’t  is a love story.  Granted it is a story of disappointed love and jealous love and abandoned love, but the emotions of these characters are real and painful and poignant. For  while Logan Hartnett and his antagonist, the Broderick Gant, may have run the machinery of their town with brutality and violence, they are both bowed when set against the forces of love.

Now there’s something to pass on to Alex and his droogies!

Book Review: Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret

There is a weird zeitgeist about my reading these days.  I will pick up a book that I am unfamiliar with, because of a friend’s recommendation or a short review in the Sunday papers, and then all of a sudden I am seeing it everywhere.  I began reading Etgar Keret’s collection of short stories, Suddenly a Knock on the Door, after seeing it reviewed in the Sunday NYTimes two weeks ago (15 April). While I was half way through it, I was tidying up the house when a magazine from back in February fell open to a review of the book announcing its upcoming publication. I had read the review back then, but had forgotten completely about it. And then again on Wednesday in the Metro–the free paper given to commuters each day and hardly a go-to read for  literary suggestions–the book was advertised on the front page and reviewed inside. On Friday, a co-worker told me the library had called to tell him the book he had on hold had arrived: Suddenly a Knock on the Door.

What is with all the buzz?  Keret’s publicists must be very good.

And to a large degree it is worth it.  Keret’s thirty-seven stories (translated by three people) are short, zippy, and fun.  They straddle the world between stark realism (suicide bombers and bratty children) and magic (talking fish, pissed-off angels). The subject matter often seems to be fiction itself–the fictions of the literary mind and the fictions of liars.

The collection is bookended by two stories in which they author is forced to write a story in front of us.  In the final story, he is being filmed by German Television and they want to film him writing, want to record the actual creative process. In the first, he is being forced by three men–a terrorist, a poll taker, and pizza delivery man–who have invaded his home and demand a story. Violence is threatened if he doesn’t come through with a story they approve of.  When the narrator begins telling a story about what is actually happening at the time–the most current form of realism–the pizza delivery man demands something more magical: “Things are tough,” he says. “Unemployment, suicide bombings, Iranians. People are hungry for something else.”

And something else is what Keret gives us.

In one story, “Lieland,” a man is pulled into a world where all his past lies have come alive. The fabrications he has made up throughout his life in order to deceive his mother, his employers, his girlfriends all confront him in a world that is harrowing and freeing.  In “Unzipping,” a woman, tired of her current lover, finds a zipper in the man’s mouth, and unzips it to reveal a new person inside, who is indeed a different sort of lover. In still another, a woman has only slept with men named Ari–twenty-eight of them previously and now her current boyfriend and the landlord.

Yet all is not silliness.

The number of suicides and suicide bombings in the stories are many. One beautiful story, “Not Completely Alone” begins “Three of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide. …One of them even succeeded.”  The last paragraph begins “Four of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide. Two of them succeeded.”  It’s only after going back to read the first sentence that we realize the narrator is the fourth guy–and the second success. In another, a man’s life is completely changed after emerging from a extended coma that was caused by a  jumper landing on his head after falling eleven stories to his death.  In another story “Joseph,” a smarmy producer in a cafe boasts about his talent for reading people but is not clever enough to spot the sweating man with the bomb strapped to him.  After a discussion of final words by those who die a violent death, we learn of one bombing victim whose last words are the bathetic “Without cheese” as he orders a kosher “cheeseburger” in the story “Cheesus Christ.”

In “Pick a Color,” a black man is beaten badly when he moves into a white neighborhood. In the hospital, he falls in love with the white nurse who tends to him, and, whom, confined to a wheelchair, he marries  in a ceremony presided by a Yellow priest whose family also had been beaten because of their color. When the white nurse is murdered by brown men, the man turns to the Yellow priest for explanation, explanation of “the God who loves you and wishes you all the best.” When that God shows up, in a wheel chair like the black man, the explanation that God gives is not what any of us probably expected.

In relating these stories here , they seem much darker than they are upon first reading. The stories do zip by, some of them only a page and a half long.  There is much “smoke-and-mirror” playing with reality, turns with truth and illusion.  There is banality, as there is always in life, and there is beauty. A young son gives animal names to the prostitutes who visit the old man on the floor above…a dying man gets his dying wish for peace on earth…a mourning widow comes to some closure through cooking in her diner.

Nathan Englander, in the title story of his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, has a character say that the difference between Israel and Miami is “the space” –that there is none in Israel.  In Etgar Keret’s collection (in which Englander translated seven of the stories), space is also the focus. Ketger looks closely at the spaces between lies and truth, between life and illusion, between hope and reality.  The stories are clever, witty, and fun. There are enough “wow” moments, enough times when you breathe out in relief or exasperation, and plenty of times when you simply smile knowingly to yourself.

In the blurbs on the paperback edition, there are statements by Salmon Rushdie, Amos Oz, Yann Martel.  But my favorite is by Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story. Talking about Keret’s novel The Nimrod Flipout, Shteyngart calls it “the best work of literature to come out of Israel in the last five thousand years… .” That’s quite a claim.  Maybe I’ll see if it’s in our library.