Book review: Short stories pack powerful punch

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I usually prefer novels to short stories. It’s extremely difficult to create interesting characters and an absorbing plot in just a few pages. I often find myself feeling dissatisfied – wanting to know more or wishing the stories had a real beginning and ending. Fortunately, some writers not only manage to meet my expectations, but exceed them. That happened with two recent collections I’ve read: “We Love Anderson Cooper” by R.L. Maizes (Celadon) and “Fly Already” by Etgar Keret (Riverhead). Both contain stories that pack such a powerful punch that my review notes simply said, “Wow!” 
“We Love Anderson Cooper” is a wonderful debut with stories that belie the fact that this is the author’s first published book. A few themes run through several of these stories: many characters become attached to animals in order to cope with daily life or deal with grief. Others include a touch of magical realism, while remaining clearly in this world. 
My favorite story is the title one, “We Love Anderson Cooper.” Markus is preparing for his bar mitzvah, but hates his Torah portion, which condemns homosexuality. What his parents don’t realize is that Markus is gay, even though he offers them several opportunities to discuss his problems with the portion. They just don’t hear the real query behind his questions. Markus plans to come out during his bar mitzvah ceremony, but the results are not quite what he expects. 
What makes someone truly beautiful? That’s the question under discussion in “Tattoo” when an unattractive artist learns to draw and ink tattoos. With his paintings no longer selling, Trey feels he’s not pulling his weight helping with expenses. He discovers that his tattoos make people feel more beautiful in a magical way and cancer survivors seek his skill in order to appear less disfigured. Yet, when he takes his new belief in beauty too far, the results are shattering.
The Hanukkah/Christmas dilemma rises to new heights in “The Infidelity of Judah Maccabee,” when Jewish Barry Waxman discovers that not only does Anette, the woman he lives with, want them to start celebrating Christmas, his cat Judah Maccabee (or Mac for short) begins to prefer Anette’s company to that of his owner. The two-page story “L’Chaim” captures what occurs when a bride decides to cancel a wedding. “Yiddish Lessons,” which tells the story of a boy and his beloved aunt, shows what happens when a love object is replaced by someone new. 
The stories and characters in “We Love Anderson Cooper” got under my skin, whether the result of their lives was happy or sad. Maizes is a talent to watch and I look forward to more of her stories.
While Maizes is at the beginning of her career, Keret, an Israeli author, is well-known for his offbeat, unusual works, and his latest book is no exception. My favorite story, “Tabula Rasa,” focuses on A., an orphan who will not receive a real name until he leaves the orphanage. Each orphan is supported by a donor to whom he will be released once he’s passed a written exam. The decision over A.’s future is made by Goodman, who runs the orphanage, and whom A. hates for his constant reminders of how the orphans were deserted by their parents. When A. finally challenges Goodman, he learns the true story of his life. 
“Car Concentrate” focuses on a compressed metal block that sits in the center of the narrator’s living room. He’s in a relationship with Janet, a single mom of two boys, and thinks the world of her children. Unfortunately, a mishap occurs, which then allows the narrator to revisit his relationship to his own father. Unexpected reactions occur in “Fly Already,” when a man tries to protect his son from seeing a horrible sight, and “Yad Vashem,” when a visit to the museum reveals personal pain. A delightful, untitled story is told through e-mails, which are located on pages between several stories. After the third exchange, I was so intrigued that I searched for and read the remaining e-mails. Their ending was unexpected and wonderful.
Fans of Keret will have already purchased a copy of this book. Those unfamiliar with Keret will find “Fly Already” an excellent introduction to the author’s works.