The UnAmericans: A Review

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I think I feel like I’m supposed to like books of short stories because I have a literary background more than I generally do. Or, maybe short stories are actually way harder to write successfully than most writers think and so the majority or meh at best? Probably a little bit of both. Thankfully Molly Antopol is one of the really really talented short story writers because The UnAmericans made me late getting back for lunch, it made me look up after a story and want to find someone else who had read it just to say, “Can you BELIEVE it?!” The stories did not feel too short or too long, I didn’t wish for more (like they should have been a novel and weren’t or they were just an excerpt of some greater work) when it was over.

I was really excited about reading this book because there was a lot of hubub about Molly Antopol and the timing of this book with everything that is always happening in the middle east/Russia/here, but what’s happening over there now especially. She is also a lot of what I wish I was and have been, which is spooky and also reassuring and also terrifying all at the same time.

But while I’m over here having a literary/lady crush, let’s meet the other readers who were kind enough to review The UnAmericans.

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This is Sarah! She is a general surgeon and lives in Alaska, the great wilderness! I read all about her thoughts on doctor-ing on a now private blog I am very lucky to be included on. She is one of those people I never tire of hearing from/reading about/hearing her opinions on a variety of topics. She does a lot of canning, has a dog, and has some pretty fantastic adventures on her bike.

Jenny

This is Jenny! She is an athletic wonderkid and this  last year ran…. a million color runs. Like Woah. I watched it all via her instagram. She, very honestly, inspires me every day to kick butt and is now training for a half marathon. Jenny lives in Vegas! And writes at A Natural Blonde.

Overall I really loved this collection of short stories, but it may also be because I am a huge reading/writing nerdo, and I am quick to support and cheer on modern, young, women writers – especially those getting a bit of fanfare. Women writers truly do not get enough, so three cheers for Antopol! But now I am excited to hear what others thought!

Sarah: Honestly my first reaction when I realized this was a book of short stories I was a little bummed. I like loonnng books, I like excessive details. I read insanely fast (a holdover from 8 years of school after high school) tend to be disappointed by short stories, always wanting more. I just hoped not to be too let down by the length in general. That being said, I was intrigued by the theme of “UnAmericans” and learning more about a culture that I don’t have that much personal familiarity with.

Jenny: I honestly didn’t know what to expect from The UnAmericans. I hadn’t heard of the book but the reviews on the back cover made it sound interesting and with so many other incredible authors praising the book I knew it would be good. I was excited to read something so different than what I normally reach for. I’ve been stuck in a bit of a rut with trilogies and was happy to see that it was a stand-alone novel. 

Sarah: The book is a collection of stories of Jewish people spanning the years from the 1950s [Lauren edit: I think it is more like the 1930s as there are some references to WWII] to the present. They all have very different life circumstances and the stories do not intersect temporally or story-wise.

Jenny: A collection of short stories that revolve mostly around Jews in World War II Europe, communists and the red scare during the McCarthy era, and Israel.

Sarah: I thought the recurring themes were of loneliness and isolation from others. The characters in each story deal with loneliness (of different types) in different ways, often dictated by their cultural situation. I also felt like there was a nagging sense of sadness pervasive throughout the whole book. Each character has their own struggles, but these aren’t typical here is the struggle and here is the solution stories.

Jenny: Though each story is different and unique each character seems to find their sense of self through loneliness. While I loved all stories besides one, all of them sucked me in and surprised me with the raw emotion the author could capture in such few pages. It is incredible that Molly Antopol accomplishes so much storytelling in 8-12 pages when other authors take an entire novel. The one thing that I was surprised with was that each story involved sex. While it wasn’t distracting to the story I was simply surprised that she used one of the few things that connects us all as humans to get her point across.

Lauren: The loneliness was really interesting, because in certain places it didn’t make me sad, it was just kind of there. Sometimes it was heart breaking, sometimes it was motivational, sometimes just a fact. There seemed to be a lot of searching happening in this book. Maybe as a writer we are all kind of searching searching searching for who we are, what our story is, etc. Maybe part of the Jewish experience is searching searching to reclaim a multitude of cultures and history. It really was a beautiful undercurrent that was not at all overbearing. 

Sarah: I think Molly Antopol is a great story-teller. Despite my preconceived notions of short stories, these stories were able to hold my interest and didn’t leave me with the feeling I sometimes have of ‘wanting more’. Each story was complete, with excellent character development and completeness of story. I also think there was perhaps a bigger goal of exposing readers to a variety of stories outside of the usual romance, drama and mystery. I wouldn’t have picked up a book of Jewish short stories on my own, but the stories were intriguing enough, that despite the narrow focus, the stories conveyed wider messages.

Jenny: I think Molly Antopol succeeded in telling her stories with flying colors. The only thing I really have to complain about is that I wished several of the stories weren’t so short, I ached to know more what happened next with several of the characters. 

Lauren: I really felt like this succeeded on so many levels. First, the stories individually were so good. I only felt once that I wished the story was longer. Second, as a collection I thought they really spoke to each other in a beautiful way. Even though they can stand alone, they were also really wrapped up in each other. I’ll never be able to think of one without thinking of another. I also genuinely liked or at least thoroughly enjoyed watching the characters, which happens so rarely for me. 

Sarah: [In regards to surpises] The last story has some twists I didn’t see coming, but I won’t spoil it for anyone.

Jenny: Nothing about this book really surprised me. Nothing was predictable but each story did have a bit of a twist, which was welcomed. 

Lauren: The Communism!! Maybe we are just extra sheltered from Communism in the US, or maybe modern Communism is just not the pervasive “threat” it was 50 years ago, but I was shocked at how big a part Communism played in the lives of so many of the characters. 

Sarah: I overall enjoyed the book. I’m still not totally sold on the idea of short stories, so I would recommend it to someone who likes that type of writing, but it wasn’t enough to win over someone like me who really prefers a long, involved novel. Anyone with a particular interest in Jewish history, or the cultural narratives of immigrants would definitely enjoy these stories.

Jenny: This book was absolutely wonderful. I cannot recommend it enough. Each story left me a little haunted. Even after I finished reading it I had to stop and think through each of the elements. You feel such sympathy for each and every character. A Difficult Phase and Retrospective were my two favorites. I don’t want to say too much lest I spoil any of the stories. Whether you’re in a bit of a trilogy rut or are interested in historical fiction, this book is so worth buying. It is one I will re-read over and over. 

Lauren: I definitely can see myself coming back to these stories as well. Some of them are the kind of stories I’d want to break out at a cocktail party – as weird as that sounds. Or maybe read out loud to a friend. This is one of those books where sometimes I can’t remember if it was a show or a book because the stories are so vivid in my mind. It was also a really fast read for me, which is a nice break between big novels. 

Has anyone else read this? Thoughts?

4 thoughts on “The UnAmericans: A Review”

  1. You are so, so right about short stories. Here is the list of short story collections I like: No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July, Dear Life by Alice Munro, and My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. The list I do not like: every other collection I’ve read. I’ll have to put the UnAmericans on my Xmas list.

  2. Yes. I loved this book. Her stories are remarkable. This collection also made me feel bigger, like I was able to understand more about people or the world without feeling like there was a message. I like what you said about the loneliness. She wasn’t trying to make a point about what loneliness does or what it means. It was more like she was just observing or telling what it was like. I love that.

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