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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

People of the Book: A Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction Anthology

I consider this the year of the anthology because I've reviewed more anthologies than usual.  People of the Book edited by Rachel Swirsky and Sean Wallace is almost certainly the last review of an anthology that I am likely to post to this blog in 2017.

I recall reading at least one other Jewish science fiction anthology, but it probably was during the 20th century long before I had a blog.  People of the Book is a collection of 21st century stories.  I hadn't read a single one of them previously though they are all reprints.


This was another superior anthology because there were two stories that I considered excellent, and neither were by one of the well known contributors.  Many readers, when they read anthologies at all, gravitate to stories by writers with familiar names.   I give every story a chance to hook me.  If I have no commitment to review the anthology, I will be on to the next story very quickly when the writer hasn't caught my interest. I am capable of skipping stories by authors who have written novels that are favorites of mine.   I am convinced that novels and short fiction require different skills.  I also firmly believe that few authors, if any, can write at the same level of excellence throughout their careers.  All writers are human beings. Fiction can't be produced by robots on an assembly line.  So while an author may create a masterpiece,  you can't use a cookie cutter to produce masterpieces one after another.   Any attempt to do so would result in a writer falling into a rut, and becoming formulaic. I am never surprised that I don't love everything by an author. 

I read seven stories out of the twenty listed in the table of contents of  People of the Book.  That's about a third of the collection.  There have been many anthologies where I read no more than two or three stories.  When that happens, I usually don't review them.

The story that I loved the most was "Niels Bohr and the Sleeping Dane" by Jonathon Sullivan. This was a World War II story that dealt with the escape of Jews from Nazi occupied Denmark. I was transfixed by the characters and their situation.  Yet that would earn the story a B+.  What pushed Sullivan's tale up to an A was the excellent use of a figure from Danish folklore.  This made the story richer and more resonant for me. Although this story is definitely fiction, I also learned things I didn't know about the life of the renowned physicist Niels Bohr.

The Danish folkloric figure in Jonathon Sullivan's story is  Holger Danske who was first mentioned in the Chanson de Roland as Ogier the Dane who fought for Charlemagne.  As Holger Danske,  he seems like a sort of King Arthur in that he is the sleeping hero who will awake to defend Denmark when it's invaded.  This is why there was a Danish Resistance Group during World War II called Holger Danske.  Since Sullivan is writing fantasy, his "Sleeping Dane" plays a magical role in resistance to the Nazis. It was a wonderfully moving resolution.

The other extraordinary story in this anthology is dark and disturbing.  In  the alternate history tale "Dark Coffee, Bright Light and the Paradoxes of Omnipotence" by Ben Burgis, we enter a nightmarish Palestine where Jews are treated the same way as Palestinians are in our universe's Israel, and some Jews become terrorists just as some Jews did during the British Mandate before 1948.  The divergence point that created this Palestine is in 1967 when Israel lost what is called the Twelve Days War in that universe.  I found the story very powerful.  The Jewish protagonist reminded me of the Israeli Arab central character in The Attack by Yasmina Khadra which is a very dark and disturbing novel.

The story by a well-known contributor to this anthology that I thought most noteworthy was "Uncle Chaim, Aunt Rifke and the Angel" by Peter S. Beagle.  It takes place in the U.S. and is a culturally Ashkenazi  (Eastern European Jewish) story about a Jewish artist who paints portraits of an angel.   At first, I thought it was a light entertaining story but the resolution gave it a surprising psychological depth.   I gave it a grade of B+.

A number of stories in People of the Book didn't hold my interest, but the three stories I discussed above made this anthology a memorable one.




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