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Short, But Not Sweet: Three Story Collections

Love and Modern Medicine by Perri Klass, Mariner Books, $13
Lunar Eclipse by Alona Kimchi, Toby Press, $15.95
House Fires by Nancy Reisman, Iowa, $18.95

THREE NEW SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS by Jewish women offer very different ways to make sense of sitting here on the border of two centuries, with all that past behind us, and with such an uncertain future ahead.

The cleanly written, finely crafted stories by Perri Klass in Love and Modern Medicine are informed by Klass’s experience as a physician, and many of the characters are wending their way through the maze of what medical intervention can and cannot do. These are intimate stories, taking place in the close world of domesticity.

Occasionally Klass moves into poetic language: “Sudden means abrupt and out of the blue. Sudden means was and then wasn’t,” but for the most part she stays within the confines of language as a vehicle for telling her stories directly. They are graceful and perfectly formed as a newborn baby, whether they describe a woman whose young child is diagnosed with leukemia or a single woman giving birth with her best friend by her side.

Alona Kimchi’s Lunar Eclipse is a sharply divergent view of life on the millennial border. A galloping ride through the underbelly of life at the end of the 20th century, these stories are filled with hard-hitting prose and characters who are fascinating in their various degrees of angst. Unlike Klass’s more timeless evocations, these stories feel as if they could have been written in no other era than the present. The characters get high on Ecstasy, speak freely of their sexual needs and escapades, and wander through the post-modern world in a desperate search for what it could mean to be a Jewish woman after the establishment of Israel, after the fall of the Berlin wall, after the invention of electroshock therapy. “Why Berlin of all places?” the narrator of “Berlin Diaries” asks upon finding herself in a Berlin hotel in the midst of a mental breakdown. “Bloodthirsty Palestinian students disguised as room-service waiters carry compact explosive charges in their rectums which were stretched by Israeli Mossad interrogators. Mum, mum, we don’t want to hear about what the Nazis did to us in the Holocaust,” These are rough-edged stories for rough times; there is little here that will soothe.

In contrast, Nancy Reisman’s collection, House Fires. moves more slowly, from 1948 Buffalo to present-day San Francisco; perhaps the author’s sweeping understanding of history allows her characters some relief from the pain of their era. This is the place to look if you’re after prose that soars off the page: Reisman is clearly a writer in love with language, and she dives in and out of sentences with an acrobat’s or a poet’s grace. Still, this does not prevent Reisman from staring down sharp disappointments and grief. In one story, the narrator’s sister has died in a fire: “Her last minutes seemed a vast unlit space I could neither penetrate nor ignore.” In the collection’s final story, the narrator chronicles her mother’s descent into illness, but still ends the story, and the collection as a whole, with a sense of redemption, not in the absence of loss but in the face of it, which catches you “on the brink of your deepest despair, and carries you back, safe, into the good life.”