“You can’t be infinitely open minded and effect change.”

whatwetalkaboutBooks on Tap read What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank  (other editions available) by Nathan Englander at Champion Brewery on March 1st. This is the first title in JMRL’s Same Page program, which invites Central Virginians to read the book and discuss its themes at events throughout March 2018. A collections of short stories, it plumbs themes of Jewish life, trust, questioning and anxiety while providing a healthy dose of humor. Our readers didn’t think the title was indicative of the stories inside, but each story was complete in itself, the sign of a great collection.

In the title story, two American women who had attended yeshiva together are reunited as adults. The narrator’s wife is living a largely secular life, while her friend is living in Israel as Orthodox. While partying, they debate who would hide them in a second Holocaust, pointing out that not only can they not trust all of their neighbors, but each other. While specifically about the Shoah, it points to a universal question of trust, relevant today in LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter and the resurgence of Nazis in America. We discussed how we hope that we would act heroically but very few do. As we age and have more responsibilities, these decisions become more fraught.

“Sister Hills”, set in an Israeli settlement, is a story of  spite & revenge played out over two generations. Englander uses the tree imagery to highlight the fragility of life. The misfortunes to befall the two focal families can be read as noble sacrifice and the price to pay for taking Palestinian (Arab) land. The characters draw multiple lines in the sand against neighbors and their own family members. The bitter ending, seen on high by strangers, looks like familial devotion while in fact stressing the limits of a legalistic reading of religion.

In comparison, “Free Fruit for Young Widows” has a more humane, nuanced look at revenge. As we learn more about  Egert (a man with that name is thanked in acknowledgements), we forgive his gruff attitude. His friend even makes a skillful argument for pre-emptive revenge, including killing a baby, giving context to the decisions of a child. From the very beginning of the story, when Egert kills soldiers eating with his friend because both sides are wearing the same French-supplied  uniforms, Englander stresses that you can’t tell who is bad on the surface.

“Peep Show” and “The Reader” were only briefly discussed. “The Reader” was a hopeful meditation on the reciprocal relationship between artist and viewer.  “Peep Show” succeeded as dream-like reverie, due to its specific details, ending with the re-named narrator proving to himself he is no longer Orthodox. It was the least well-received by our group.  

“Camp Sundown”, on the other hand, generated much discussion.  The distinct voices made each character real as opposed to the over-the-top murder plot. The elderly campers are obsessed with past wrongs while ignoring the dangerous current harm they are causing. One reader paired this strand of the story with the young director’s similarity to a politician to Israel/Palestine relations. Doley Falk, the camper accused of working in a concentration camp, is pleasingly ambiguous. If the rumor is true, why would he come to this Jewish camp? Was he made to work by the guards? Is the revenge justified?

“Everything I Know about My Family on my Mother’s Side” is both about immigration and the power of storytelling for forgiveness and redemption. The family knew they came from a town called Gubernia, but didn’t know that word just means “state” generically. The narrator doesn’t think he as a history, but his girlfriend persuades him that he may not know the details but he does retain a specific culture and set of expectations, which inform not just his actions but also those of his parents’ grandparents’ generations.

Finally, we discussed the stories in relationship to Charlottesville after 2017. Some took it as a call to arms in reaction to specific events, others as a reminder to be their brothers’ keepers. One reader left us with a quotation attributed to Helen Keller,“although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”

Join us in April to discuss Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt and chose titles for the summer.

More Information:
Meet the author at Northside Library and the Festival of the Book (a Same Page partner)
Interview with the author
About the book
Other works  

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Short but Sweet: Short Story Collections

wevealreadygonethisfarDon’t let a shortage of time get in the way of reading a good story. Look for the following collections of short stories the next time you’re in need of concise fiction that still packs a punch:

We’ve Already Gone This Far by Patrick Dacey – Presents a collection of short stories about characters in a small Massachusetts town struggling with loss and disappointment in their respective quests for the American Dream.

Always Happy Hour: Stories by Mary Miller – Combining hard-edged prose and savage Southern charm, the author showcases a collection of lusty, lazy, hard-drinking characters in a series of stories.

The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad & Jared Shurin – A fascinating collection of new and classic tales of the fearsome Djinn, from bestselling, award-winning and breakthrough international writers.

Fen: Stories by Daisy Johnson – Offers short stories set in The Fens of England, including a story featuring a house that falls in love with a girl and becomes jealous of her friend.

Dis Mem Ber: And Other Stories of Mystery & Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates – A latest collection of stories focuses on the inner lives of vulnerable female protagonists struggling through victimization, provocation or deep emotional unrest to commit violent retaliatory acts.

MatchUp edited by Lee Child – A follow-up to “FaceOff” collects stories written by best-selling thriller authors, 11 women and 11 men partnered in male-female literary pairings, in an anthology that includes contributions by such favorites as Sandra Brown, John Sandford and Eric Van Lustbader. Continue reading

“I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

xmasBooks on Tap read  “A Christmas Memory”  by Truman Capote at  Champion Brewery on December 1. The highly autobiographical short story was first published in Mademoiselle when Capote was 32. In it, the narrator recalls the excitement of preparing and distributing Christmas fruitcakes with an elderly relative when he was about six in Monroeville, Alabama (the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird, where Capote grew up with Harper Lee). Young Buddy and cognitively-impaired Sook form a bond in opposition to the other, “responsible” members of the family and only make the fruitcakes for their friends, strangers all. From the couple with the broken-down car to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, these friends form a chosen family, all of whom have shown more kindness to the pair than the family with whom they live. These friends see Buddy and Sook as capable. The two screw up their courage to ask intimidating bar owner Haha Jones to sell them a bottle of liquor. Touched by their vulnerability (or reluctant to count out the many pennies the pair earned by squashing files), Jones gives them the liquor in exchange for the promise of a fruitcake. While we never learn how the other recipients feel about their fruitcakes, we do know that Buddy and Sook are fiercely disappointed in all family gifts, except the kites they make for each other. They didn’t want prosaic underwear, they wanted the glamor of the Baptist windows and the rarity of satsumas (oranges, but translated as plums in a Japanese edition). Earlier, we read The Strange Library by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, who likes “A Christmas Memory” so much he translated it himself. At the end, the narrator describes the lasting effect his relationship with Sook had on him and the rootlessness her death caused him to feel. Many readers found the ending sad, but others thought it was the natural course of a full life and not tragic. All agreed that the ending saved the story from full-on sentimentality.

Everyone who came to the meeting (which was held shortly after the anniversary of Capote’s Black and White Ball) enjoyed the story. Most people had not read Capote’s other works, aside from In Cold Blood, but some looked forward to his appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Late Show and one actually saw Capote on Fire Island. Our readers responded to the evocative first-person storytelling that celebrated real life, despite the economic  hardships of the Great Depression and the ire of other members of the household. Buddy and Sook work hard for months to accumulate the funds they need to bake and mail the fruitcakes, each dime and piece of tin foil taking on outsized importance. We debated the sentimentality of the story, whether it romanticized a difficult time, but others were able to overlook that because of the beauty of the relationship between Buddy and Sook. We all agreed that short stories require a different talent to celebrate “a lifetime in 20 pages.”

More Information:
A Christmas Memory movie starring Geraldine Page, narrated by Truman Capote (partial)
A Christmas Memory starring Patty Duke
“A Christmas Memory” read by Truman Capote
Two short stories also featuring Buddy and Miss Sook
Truman Capote and Nanny Rumbley “Sook” photo
Author biography
Capote on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (minute 45.52)
Other works

Recommendations:
American movie adaptation of The Dinner by Herman Koch

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