Wednesday, February 06, 2008

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander's collection of short stories For the Relief of Unbearable Urges was published in 1999, but it was released as an audiobook in 2007. I do not know why it took so long, but it was worth the wait. As read by Susan Denaker, Paul Michael, and Arthur Morey, the nine stories about Jewish experience are riveting.

Among my favorite stories are the first two, both of which are historical. "The Twenty-Seventh Man" takes readers back to the Soviet Union of the 1930s, when Stalin was purging the country of dissidents, including Jewish radicals. Twenty-six famous Jewish writers are brought to a camp for execution. With them is one unknown writer. They all know they are going to die, but they continue to compose stories to tell up to the end.

In the second story, "The Tumblers," Nazi soldiers bring hundreds of Jews to a train station to ship them to death camps. A circus train pulls into the confusion and a group of Jews from a ghetto accidentally get on board. They soon discover their good fortune will end if they can not come up with an acrobatic act.

The rest of the stories are contemporary, set in either New York City or Jerusalem. My favorite New York story is "Reb Kringle," which tells about a Jewish Santa who has serious problems with his seasonal department store job. The book ends with "In This Way We Are Wise," which intimately recreates the experience of witnessing a suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

What sets these stories apart from lesser stories is Englander's elegant descriptions of desperate situations. At times, the stories are somewhat humorous but there is always a soul or many souls at stake. In most of the stories the need to follow Jewish law is also a complicating factor in the plot. This New York Times Notable Book is a good item to recommend to readers who like literary fiction.

Englander, Nathan. For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. ISBN 0375404929.

6 CD. Books on Tape, 2007. ISBN 9781415938096.

1 comment:

Laura said...

I bought the book on the strength of hearing Nathan Englander read "The Twenty-Seventh Man" at Prairie Lights some years ago, but I somehow never managed to get around to reading the rest of the stories. It sounds like I should.