Hailed as the voice of young Israel and one of its most radical and extraordinary writers, Etgar Keret is internationally acclaimed for his short stories. Born in Tel Aviv in 1967 to an extremely diverse family, his brother heads an Israeli group that lobbies for the legalization of marijuana, and his sister is an orthodox Jew and the mother of ten children. Keret regards his family as a microcosm of Israel. His book, The Nimrod Flip-Out, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006), is a collection of 32 short stories that captures the craziness of life in Israel today. Rarely extending beyond three or four pages, these stories fuse the banal with the surreal. Shot through with a dark, tragicomic sensibility and casual, comic-strip violence, he offers a window on a surreal world that is at once funny and sad.
His books are bestsellers in Israel and have been published in over thirty languages. Books include Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God (2004, St. Martin’s Press); Missing Kissinger (2007, Chatto & Windus); and Gaza Blues (2004). In France, Kneller`s Happy Campers is listed as one of the Fnac`s two-hundred books of the decade, and The Nimrod Flip-Out was published in Francis Ford Coppola`s magazine, Zoetrope (2004). His most recent book Suddenly a Knock on the Door (2010) became an instant #1 bestseller in Israel and is forthcoming in the states. Keret has received the Book Publishers Association`s Platinum Prize several times, the Chevalier medallion of France’s Order of Arts and Letters, and has been awarded the Prime Minister`s Prize and the Ministry of Culture`s Cinema Prize. More than forty short movies have been based on his stories, one of which won the American MTV Prize (1998). Keret’s stories have even inspired Polish architect Jakub Szczesny to build in Warsaw the narrowest house in the world (38 inches wide). The house was named after Keret, who will be using the house for several years.

Family stories are not arrows shot straight. They arc backwards, from grandparents to parents, and then on to children, who stand at the centre of a bullseye: at least to them. When one of those children grows up to be a writer, then the laws of physics bend a little. It is no longer an arrow which is the point, but the wind itself.
In his magnificent second novel, Love and Shame and Love, Peter Orner proves he is one of the finest American poets of family weather. This is as it should be.
Orner comes from Chicago, where blustery airstreams have blasted off the lake for years, sanding down the grand buildings and provided the updraft for a city cacophonous with bravado.
Through the novels of Saul Bellow we have come to know Chicago as a city of men on the make, women who break hearts, and are vicious with ambition. But this mythology needs updating. This world, after all, is Bellow’s alone, and it is brave thing for Orner — so young, and so lacking Bellow’s gangster swagger — to step boldly into the breach.
Love and Shame and Love unfolds like an epic in miniature. Since his 2000 debut, Esther Stories, Orner has refined working in short chapters to a prose poet’s art. Some of his chapters are a mere paragraph long. Others stretch to a few pages. They are efficient and lyrical at the same time. Entire worlds are created within them.
In this fashion Love and Shame and Love starts at the end and goes to the beginning and then back. As the book opens Alexander Popper has fallen for a young woman at writing school. He is drowning in love, and drowning in memories. From here, Orner plunges us in to Popper’s past.
The shift from Popper present to his long ago family is abrupt, and slightly confusing, but the book soon gains its footing. We meet Seymour, Popper’s insurance-selling grandfather, the old man’s wife, Miriam, a transplant from textile-mill Massachusetts. They became rich, move north, fall in and out of love, and try to straddle the collapse of Miriam’s dreams of a more colourful life.
Disappointment, and shame, is the uglier side to the coin that is love, and Orner beautifully maps the ways this truth shades a family life. Seymour’s son Philip is embarrassed by his father’s shortcuts, his big Cadillacs, his weakness for small-timers. Philip makes himself into a bastion, and when he has children, they wind up craving something softer.
In the book’s long middle the action slows to a seethe, and Orner recreates the erratic pulse of childhood seen in reverse, from Popper’s point of view: summer happiness, afternoons at diners and the lake, the awful knowledge children have that their parents truly are not happy. The strange totemic weight of family furniture.
Orner is a very gifted writer. Passages of this book sing beautifully about the atmospheric pressure (or lack thereof) around breakfast — “On the counter curdled bacon soaks through a yellowing paper towel,” (70) — on politicians — “Mondale nodded at him as if to say, It is me, my son, but if you truly knew me, you would not be so impressed” (266) – and on the silence that hovers around people who know each other well. “Lincoln Park Zoo, October leaden-eyed sky, nobody around, father and daughter sit huddled, shoes touching, watching the otter.” (432)
Love and Shame and Love so ably starts scenes that it winds up beginning too many. Though its chapters are short, some not even a paragraph, the book feels full to the bursting with memories, anecdotes, and — one of its only false notes — rhetorical questions. It is baffling Orner seems to think the reader needs to be grabbed by the collar in this way.
Still, the most important question of all, however, is not posed directly. What does one do with all this? Where does a family mythology go when there is just one person to tell it? Love and Shame and Love forms the only answer possible to such a question. You remember, and even when there is hardly a happy arc, you tell its story anyway. With a ferocity that can only be called love.

Give Nathan Englander credit for chutzpah. The title of his new book of short fiction, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” draws on two iconic antecedents: the young diarist killed at Bergen-Belsen and the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Each, in its way, informs the collection; each, in its way, helps to set the terms. And what are those terms? The tension between the religious and the secular, between the American setting of much of this work and the more elusive textures of Jewish life.

For Englander — a self-proclaimed “apostate,” raised in an Orthodox community in Long Island, now living in Brooklyn by way of Jerusalem — this is a defining issue. “But what do you do,” he (or a character very much like him) asks in a story called “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side,” “if you’re American and have no family history and all your most vivid childhood memories are only the plots of sitcoms, if even your dreams, when pieced together, are the snippets of movies that played in your ear while you slept?”

The triumph of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is Englander’s ability to balance one against the other, to find, even as he’s calling it unfindable, the deeper story, the more nuanced narrative. “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” is a perfect case in point: Broken into 63 numbered sections, it is a story about the search for a viable story, in which the disconnected pieces come together to make a kind of sense. “What you do is tell the stories you have, as best you can,” the protagonist’s girlfriend tells him although, almost immediately, she backtracks: “I don’t mean that. … You find better stories than that.”

At times, this means a fluid interplay between memory and invention; the main character here shares Englander’s first name. And yet, that only engages us even more. “Do you want to know what I felt?” he writes. “Do you want to know if I cried? We don’t share such things in my family — we don’t tell this much even. Already I’ve gone too far.”

There it is, what stories have to offer: a way to shape experience, even when experience is not quite clear. Englander makes this explicit by constantly changing the details, the more his narrator learns. Did his grandfather’s brother die of a brain tumor or was it an infection after being struck by a car? Did his cousin-in-law Theo really shoot a dog with a .22 handgun when he was 3 years old?

The answer, as with all stories, is that it doesn’t really matter, that the myth bears more meaning than any fact alone. “I guess I handled it,” Theo declares, “because I still remember the feel of the shot,” and that phrase, “the feel of the shot,” brings the anecdote into focus, making it resonate with the weight of truth.

For Englander, this weight of truth is significant, since he can tilt toward the magical realist or, more precisely, toward the tradition of Jewish fable writing as embodied by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem. Several stories in his first collection, 1999’s “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” are marked by such an aesthetic, and here, he returns to it with “The Reader,” about a once-famous novelist who reads every night to the same diminished audience of one, or “Peep Show,” in which a lawyer goes to a Times Square sex club, only to find, one after the other, his childhood rabbis, his wife and his mother posing before his confused and guilty gaze.

More to the point, the best stories here function as fables of their own. “Sister Hills” describes a West Bank settlement, founded before the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which even as it develops into a city cannot get out from under the shadow of a deal made between its two original families, which gives the story the relentless irony of a parable. In “How We Avenged the Blums,” Englander turns his attention to the American suburbs, although this story, too, has an almost biblical subtext, as a group of yeshiva boys learns to defend itself against a bully known only as the anti-Semite.

“It’s curious,” the narrator tells us, “that the story most often used to inspire Jewish battle readiness is that of Masada, an episode involving the last holdouts of an ascetic Israelite Sect, who committed suicide in a mountain fortress. The battle was fought valiantly, though without the enemy present. Jews bravely doing harm to themselves.” Here, Englander highlights the pull between new and old world, reminding us that history is always present, no matter where we are. “Do you know which countries have no anti-Semite?” the boys’ self-defense instructor, a Soviet refusenik named Boris, asks them. “The country with no Jew.”
Nowhere is this evoked more vividly than in the title effort, which channels Carver as deftly as it does Anne Frank. Built around two couples, one secular and the other Hasidic, it takes place, like the Carver story before it, around a kitchen table, as they drink and smoke dope and talk. There’s a sense of genius about the juxtaposition, taking a situation from that most American of storytellers and subtly transposing it, until it begins to tell us something we didn’t expect.

The couples here are very different, linked because the wives were high school friends, but over the course of a long afternoon, the distance between them waxes and wanes, as they discuss family and friendship, and argue over identity. “Judaism is a religion,” declares Mark, now Yerucham, who has moved from the United States to Israel. “And with religion comes ritual. Culture is nothing. Culture is some construction of the modern world.” And yet, as the story progresses, it is he who must confront his limitations as the couples play “the Anne Frank game,” wondering who will hide them — and who might betray them — were a second Holocaust to come.What Englander is saying is that we know ourselves, or don’t, on different levels, that we exist individually and as part of a heritage. As in “How We Avenged the Blums,” there’s no escaping history, although there’s no certainty either about what any of it means. Who will hide us? Who are we, really? How do ritual and culture intersect? Such questions exist at the heart of this accomplished collection, in which stories are what make us who we are.

Below is a conversation with Etgar Keret and Nathan Englander