One-Minute Book Reviews

November 22, 2006

Elisa Albert’s Stories About Young Jews Searching for Meaning They Can’t Find in Phish Bootlegs

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:19 am
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An entertaining and often bawdy collection about a new diaspora in clubs, bars, and hostels

How This Night Is Different: Stories. By Elisa Albert. Free Press, 198 pp., $18.

How This Night Is Different has a bottle of Passover wine on the cover and is getting attention at Jewish book fairs and related events. But this book should no more be ghetto-ized as “Jewish fiction” than John Cheever’s work should be pigeonholed as “Protestant fiction.” It transcends literary typecasting.

Each of its ten stories deals with young Jews who are struggling to make sense of a different ritual or activity – a circumcision, a bat mitzvah, a wedding, a Passover seder, a packaged tour of Auschwitz. Their characters are looking for more meaning than they find in sex, Phish bootlegs, and Cool-Breeze-fueled benders. But the form of Judaism they have inherited doesn’t provide the answers they need, and without the sense of community that kept their ancestors together, they have become a new diaspora, a generation scattered among bars, youth hostels, and Hillel groups.

Elisa Albert’s characters often try to find comfort in humor that ranges from droll to bawdy. In “The Mother Is Always Upset,” a young mother resists the circumcision of her infant son even as relatives gather at her home for the ceremony. A guest considers the mohel who will perform the act: “He was eighty if he was a day, but he came highly recommended by the temple sisterhood as the foreskin obliterator in town. A fourth-generation mohel, according to Shirley. This, apparently, was like the Eastern European equivalent of being a Kennedy.” In another story the narrator tries to understand how her best friend could have become a religious extremist: “This from the girl who, in the ninth grade, using a peeled cucumber, taught me how to give a proper blow job.”

One of the pleasures of this collection is that its stories are suspenseful, a quality often lacking in contemporary fiction. You turn keep turning the pages not out of obligation because you want to know how things end. And if her characters are spiritually adrift, Albert knows exactly where she’s going.

Best line: “Michael worked for a media conglomerate referred to by Beth as ‘Satan Incorporated.’”

Worst line: “The driver giggles to himself, perhaps reliving a funny Jim Carrey moment.” Can you giggle to yourself? Especially when this line appears in a story told from the point of view of a passenger in a taxi cab, not the driver?

Recommended if … you’re looking for a fresh and funny new voice in literary fiction.

Editor: Maris Kreizman

Published: September 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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