Sunday, February 9, 2014

Book Review: "The UnAmericans: Stories" by Molly Antopol

There was a time when I didn't read short stories, because I said I didn't like getting emotionally invested in characters and plot only to have to move on a short while later. It was a foolish sentiment, in retrospect, one which I abandoned about 15 years ago when I realized how rich the short story landscape truly was, filled with talented authors creating stories with the power of full-length novels, stories whose characters intrigued me and made me long to know more about what happened to them when the stories ended.

Molly Antopol's new collection, The UnAmericans, is one of the reasons I'm glad I read short stories. Every one of the eight stories in this collection packed a quiet power, richly drawn characters, and tremendously compelling explorations of human emotion in typical and unusual situations.

The characters in Antopol's stories are Jewish people spanning the 1950s through the present. Whether it's the former Czech dissident-turned-New England professor in "The Quietest Man," who tries to find out from his estranged daughter what her new play will say about their strained relationship; the restless Israeli journalist desperate to once again leave her country in search of work, but can't seem to get herself disentangled from a relationship with a widower and his teenage daughter, in "A Difficult Phase"; the actor recently released from prison after refusing to name names during the McCarthy era in "The Unknown Soldier," who has reinvented himself to get roles but can't seem to even act the part of good father to his young son; the young Israeli soldier in "Minor Heroics," who finds his loyalty to his family tested after an accident; or the woman recounting her exploits in the Yiddish Underground during World War II in "My Grandmother Tells Me This Story," these are seemingly ordinary people facing challenges that test their strength and their heart.

After I finished every one of these stories, I simply thought to myself, "That was so good!" Antopol's use of language and imagery, as well as the emotional richness with which she imbues her characters, really makes this a tremendously strong collection. It doesn't matter that I couldn't identify with the situations most of these people found themselves in; I just wanted to keep reading about them. And usually when I read, I'm struck by a sentence or two, something I like to use in my reviews, but there were so many amazing sentences in these stories it became an exercise of excess.

I've always felt that a good short story keeps you thinking about the characters after it has ended, and in many cases, you'd be willing to read more about them. I felt that way about nearly every story in The UnAmericans. I'm so glad I found this collection, and look forward to seeing what's next in Molly Antopol's career. I know we'll be hearing from her again soon.

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