15 December 2011

Book Review: Two Short Story Collections by Nathan Englander and Rahul Mehta

It wasn't my express intention to travel with two collections of short stories last weekend when I traveled to Jackson, but that's how the ball bounces sometimes.  The first, Quarantine, by Rahul Mehta is a backlist book from Harper Perennial that I originally purchased for vacation in October but never got the chance to read.  I bought it after reading a review on somebody's blog that I follow, but I cannot for the life of me remember what it was.  The stories in Quarantine are definitely discrete stories (in other words, this is not a novel-in-stories), but they are all explorations in character for young, gay men of Indian extraction.  I found the collection good; always thought-provoking and occasionally disturbing.  Family and cultural expectations weigh heavily on these young men, often resulting in unintentionally cruel or destructive behavior to both their partners and elders.  This appears to be Mehta's first published book, and his short stories are in the popular modern US style (think of the kind of short stories published in The New Yorker these days), which is not my preferred short story style (my two favorites are Jhumpa Lahiri and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt).  But just because it's not my cup of tea doesn't meant I'm not looking forward to his future work, and I think his is a voice to be reckoned with. (NB: This book qualifies for my South Asian Challenge)

The second collection I read on my trip, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander, gets the award for unwieldiest title of the year, all homage to Raymond Carver aside.   I very much admired Englander's debut collection of stories many years ago called For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and thus was happy when Ann Kingman, my Knopf sales rep, gave me an ARC of this new one to read. Like Mehta's, these stories are about the lives and times of a particular contemporary cultural group--in this case, American and Israeli Jews.  And like Mehta's, these stories are always thought-provoking and occasionally disturbing, and of a New Yorker-y style (I know for a fact that the titular story was published there earlier).

I didn't realize that I would be essentially writing the same review for two story collections that on the surface are quite dissimilar, but when you boil 'em down turn out to be surprisingly identical.  There's a certain narrative remove from each collection, and while Englander has an unconventionally structured first-person story that is presumably somewhat autobiographical, each book has a sameness running throughout it.  I used to think that Englander's voice was one to be reckoned with, too, but now I have to question my judgment.  This collection may be strong in terms of the writing, but it doesn't show much range.  Then again, I have a co-worker who levels that same criticism against Lahiri, whose work I love and emotionally engage in, so maybe you shouldn't pay attention to what I say.


  1. Always love your reviews, especially when you suddenly become self-reflective about your own reading experience.

  2. I'm curious - what is the US modern style for short stories? (I'm from the UK). I think the content of Mehta's collection does sound very interesting.

  3. Interesting question, Sam. I'll try to quantify what I mean...It seems to me that New Yorker-ish stories in the last decade are predominantly written by a certain class of hip/mod male writers with a certain emotional indifference to the story or the characters--and with more emphasis on style than substance. I'd say Chabon, Safran Foer, Eggers all fit the bill. That they're all young(ish), white male is mildly annoying to me. Most of the time these stories are well written but leave me asking, So what?

    Does that help?

  4. Interesting — I won a free copy of Quarantine via Twitter, but haven't picked it up yet. The topic sounds interesting, but the New Yorker-ish-style stories are exactly the opposite of what I like — to me, character is king. I'll have to move this one up the list just to see what I think compared to your reaction.


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