Bookshots: 'The UnAmericans' by Molly Antopol
Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review
Who wrote it?
Molly Antopol, Stanford lecturer and a National Book Foundation awardee. The UnAmericans is her first collection of stories.
Plot in a Box:
A collection of eight stories loosely connected by Communism, Jewishness and the unbridgeable gap between Old and New World.
Invent a new title for this book:
The UnAmericans looks catchy on the page but gave me a David-Bowie-Young-Americans earworm which only went away when I got drunk.
I’m going with I Married a Communist.
Read this if you liked:
The short stories of Cynthia Ozick or anything by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Meet the book’s lead(s):
Age and gender vary, but Antopol’s leads are disillusioned, depressed and usually in love with the wrong person (often themselves).
Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:
No one does Jewish, disillusioned and depressed better than Judd Hirsh.
Setting: would you want to live here?
As a louche European myself, I could be tempted by the American settings, like college-town Maine or 1950s Los Angeles.
What was your favorite sentence?
But she was so near our elbows were almost touching, and as I continued to talk, I wondered if any of what I was saying would begin to feel like the truth.
The third story in this collection bears the title "My Grandmother Tells Me This Story" and that captures the overall flavor of Antopol’s work: wordy, comforting, unreliable in the details. These are stories told over coffee at the local deli, elbows on the table and bagel crumbs on the plate, or at night after dinner, while the coffee brews. There’s a sense of oral history here which is quite beguiling, but also, because Antopol is skilled, of the way the stories we tell reveal more about who we are than about actual events.
The success of this approach varies from story to story and Antopol is strongest when political strife forms the backdrop. Novak of "The Quietest Man" embroiders his political past in Communist Czechoslovakia for his daughter’s play based on his life. "Duck and Cover" tells a story of McCarthy-era sexual awakening which would earn an approving nod from the likes of Margaret Atwood. In others — "Minor Heroics" and "A Difficult Phase", both set in modern Israel — she is less surefooted. The strife exists, we all know that, but it’s almost invisible here, and without the sense of wider oppression and discord to focus the action, her stories tend to ramble.
That said this is an assured debut from a writer with talent and energy. I will be interested to see what Antopol produces next.
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