simple line art of a fish carrying a ladder and smoking a cigarette
From the cover of "Fly Already" by Etgar Keret

No time for summer reading? Short stories are your friend.

The books section is supported by a generous donation from Anne Germanacos.

With autumn approaching, some of us find the idea of “summer reading” more aspirational than real. Indeed, it can be difficult to set aside the time for the novels we wish to tackle.

Enter the glory of short stories, which can provide us with powerful reading experiences that don’t require us to carve as much time from the rest of our lives.

Etgar Keret’s new collection of stories, “Fly Already,” has been anticipated with excitement, for it has been more than six years since the publication of his last collection of fiction. That’s a long time for those who regard the idiosyncratic Israeli author as a source of guidance for absurd times.

Cover of "Fly Already" by Etgar KeretFans of Keret know to expect brevity, cleverness and an especially Israeli gallows humor from his writing. But “Fly Already” also carries a striking tenderness. I don’t know whether it reflects Keret’s aging or my aging, but I felt more emotionally affected by a number of the stories here than I had by his earlier works.

The opening story establishes the stakes. The narrator is walking with his young son when they see a man standing on the ledge of a building. Convinced that he is witnessing someone blessed with superpowers, the son encourages the man to take flight. But the narrator, who is himself still healing from tragedy, grabs the boy and darts up the building’s staircase to attempt to save the man from himself. Anyone versed in Keret’s work knows that it’s unlikely to turn out rosy, but it’s a tale that carries measures of both tragedy and hope.

There are other poignant tales, including one about young siblings who are convinced that their otherwise absent father has transformed into a rabbit; one about a man who adorns his living room with a block of compressed metal taken from the sports car in which his father was killed; and an unusually long and surprisingly effective piece about an unambitious young man who is paid by a stressed attorney to show up daily at sunset to smoke marijuana with her.

Keret’s stories have developed a strong international following (they have been translated into more than 40 languages) partly because of their universality, but they are sometimes quite insightful about Israel. A case in point is an email exchange, interspersed serially among other stories, between the manager of an escape room in an Israeli mall and a man who is looking for an activity for his mother, a Holocaust survivor, on Yom HaShoah. As the two correspondents compete for higher ground in the scale of familial suffering, Keret exposes a particularly Israeli pathology.

Peter Orner has been an especially important figure in the Bay Area literary world, both as an author and as a professor at San Francisco State University. Many people felt a sense of loss when he left last year to take a post at Dartmouth College.

Cover of "Maggie Brown & Others" by Peter OrnerWith his new collection, “Maggie Brown & Others,” Orner continues to specialize in the very short story that goes deep. A tremendous observer, he creates memorable characters in concentrated strokes, zeroing in on their loneliness, their fraught relationships to the past or other consequences of being human.

The stories here are presented in suites, tied loosely to each other by geography or theme. But there is also a welcome haphazardness to their being bundled together: By the end of the book, we have come to know and care about characters whose lives have little in common with one another’s beyond the meaning Orner has found in them.

If the book lacks the pronounced Jewish dimension of Orner’s debut, “Esther Stories,” that changes with its concluding novella, “Walt Kaplan Is Broke.”

Set in the declining Jewish community of the declining city of Fall River, Massachusetts, it is, like the rest of the book, a series of smaller stories (some less than a page in length). Set across time, they offer different lenses on Kaplan, a failed furniture dealer who has appeared as a character in a few of Orner’s earlier stories, and the people in his life. It’s a wonderfully compassionate piece of writing.

Much like Orner’s novella composed of parts, Julie Zuckerman’s debut, “The Book of Jeremiah,” is billed as “a novel in stories.”

Cover of “The Book of Jeremiah" by Julie ZuckermanThe stories revolve around the life of college professor Jeremiah Gerstler. What is most striking is that they are presented not as a narrative in chronological order, but simply as short stories. For example, the opening tale takes place at Passover during Jeremiah’s childhood in an immigrant family in Connecticut, and it is immediately followed by an account of an event celebrating the somewhat cantankerous Jeremiah, now a widower seven decades later.

Like Orner, Zuckerman, a U.S.-born writer now living in Israel, seeks to elevate the lives of everyday people. Jeremiah is not the sort that one would expect to be at the center of a literary work, and that’s part of the book’s charm. In fact, it got me thinking about how I’d envision the book of my own life. Some of us may have lives like plot-driven novels, but I suspect that most of us are a collection of stories.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.