In transit, on a nightstand or kept close for stolen moments of leisure, collections of short fiction provide a perennial source of pleasure. These three anthologies, which mark their authors’ debuts, remind us that short can offer incredible breadth.
“The Worlds We Think We Know” contains 20 short works by Dalia Rosenfeld, who was raised in the United States, but she now lives in Tel Aviv and teaches creative writing at Bar-Ilan University.
Rosenfeld’s stories, narrated in the first person voice, chronicle encounters with the people and environment of everyday life, often illuminating the difficulties of interpersonal connection and the hushed thrill of entering foreign spaces or developing new attachments. Although there can be an undercurrent of sadness and isolation in these tales, they also reveal a surfeit of disarming wry humor whose strength is increased by the deadpan delivery.
Taking place in both Israel and the United States, the stories also explore the role that Jewishness plays in identity and relationships. Connections between characters may be sustained, even if momentarily, through shared identification with Jewish history, literature and language. Rosenfeld’s beautifully crafted sentences, attentive descriptions and understated humor make this book a great pleasure to read.
Adam Ehrlich Sachs’ “Inherited Disorders: Stories, Parables & Problems” came to my attention as a finalist for the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. It features 117 short pieces (most occupy just a page or two), all of which address the relationships of fathers and sons.
Many of the pieces are quite funny — in fact, I found myself laughing out loud, which rarely occurs in the course of my reading — and many of them lean toward absurdism. For example, one of the most striking vignettes features a Czech pianist who is attempting to stop his father, a composer, from writing pieces for him to play; he does so by managing to lose his fingers in a series of “accidents,” but to limited avail.
The book may best be read in several sittings to avoid fatigue and the feeling of repetition. However, I did feel that the incessant barrage of stories hammering at similar themes helped underscore that our relationships with our parents, and the patterns that are enacted in our lives as a consequence of those relationships, can indeed be overwhelming. Sachs presents dozens of fathers loading their sons with the weight of expectations, authority and judgment, often leaving the sons desperate to assert independence and take control of their own lives. In another memorable story, a Bavarian physicist has painstakingly created scientific equipment to prove his father’s controversial theory of matter correct. When the equipment turns out to prove his father wrong, the son faces a choice: “demolish the apparatus, thereby obliterating all evidence of his own scientific genius, or humiliate his father.”
I’m sure that every person experiences different degrees of recognition in the course of reading this unusual book, but most of us will agree that, in spite of our best efforts (and Sachs records some very impressive attempts), it’s difficult to escape what we inherit from our parents.
Rachel Hall’s accomplished collection “Heirlooms” is composed of 15 interconnected short stories that depict the circumstances of an extended family through World War II and its reverberations over the following four decades. Though a work of fiction, the book is drawn from Hall’s own experience and research as the daughter of a French Holocaust refugee.
Related in the present tense in spare, unsentimental prose, the book begins in 1939 in Saint-Malo, a walled city in northern France, as Lise, a young Jewish woman, assumes responsibility for the daughter of her dying sister-in-law. Facing the imminence of German takeover, they flee southward, where they strategize for survival under harrowing conditions that evince the best and the worst in people.
However, the stories set during World War II comprise less than half of the book. The bulk is devoted to exploring the war’s messy aftermath, as family members in Israel and the United States struggle while living in the shadow of those earlier traumas and coping with a deep sense of loss.
In one of the book’s poignant scenes, a trans-Atlantic pilgrimage to a family gravesite yields the revelation that the grave has been emptied for lack of space in the walled cemetery, with both its eternal resident and the grave marker replaced by a more recent decedent. With everything impermanent, we are mindful of the importance and fragility of stories — the true heirlooms in this book.
“The Worlds We Think We Know: Stories” by Dalia Rosenfeld (264 pages, Milkweed Editions)
“Inherited Disorders: Stories, Parables & Problems” by Adam Ehrlich Sachs (272 pages, Regan Arts)
“Heirlooms: Stories” by Rachel Hall (190 pages, BkMk Press) Hall will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 8 in the Why There Are Words program at Studio 333, 333 Caledonia St., Sausalito, studio333.info, and at 6 p.m. June 9 at Orinda Books, 276 Village Square, Orinda, orindabooks.com