There is No Other
 by Jonathan Papernick

Exile Editions
First Collection? No.

"'As you know, normal gestation time for humans is nine months,' the psychiatrist said... 'but metaphysical time operates on an entirely different schedule. In Genesis it is written that the world was created in seven days. how long did each day last? 24 hours? Surely not. Perhaps each day lasted thousands or millions of years. Vered looks about four or five months pregnant. She's nine years' old. You do the math. "

Reviewed by Tania Hershman

I must confess that on first read many of the stories in this collection didn't speak to me, but that is because my ears were shut to them. I learned a valuable lesson from this book about all the personal baggage we carry around as readers and how that affects us. My personal baggage? I am Jewish and the minute there is a whiff of Jewishness in a short story, my hackles rise. I feel defensive of the characters and also,
at the same time, slightly repelled; a whole mix of emotions. I start to wonder why the character "needs" to be Jewish and immediately feel terrible for even questioning an author's choices. It's not up to me, this is the story. A short story collection has a very difficult task when there is emotional turmoil roiling inside the reader before they've even given it a chance.

Then I discovered, on second read, a whole new story collection. This time, I'd worked through my issues, and so could open myself up to these stories now that I knew, plot-wise, what would and woudn't happen. And this time I saw layers, depths, and even found myself very moved. Thank goodness I read it more than once, as I always do with collections I review. But what about collections I am not reviewing? How might my baggage impede me then, what am I missing?

I won't explore this further here; this is a review not a personal essay. Let me start again. This is Papernick's second collection and it is an ambitious one, with stories covering so many issues  - from religion and God to identity, loneliness, marriage, war and adultery - it might make you dizzy.  But when Papernick hits the spot, he really hits it.

The first story, Skin on Skin, in many ways sets the tone. A Jewish teen has invited "the new boy from her English class" over while her parents are at "her baby cousin's bris". Papernick beautifully conveys that dangerous and difficult mix of fear and longing, wanting to enter the next stage but also wanting to remain a child:
She had naturally turned away from being part of an unlucky, persecuted tribe. The way she saw it, there was no gain in membership, only grief. 'I'm not Jewish,' she had told her parents hundreds of times. 'I'm a secular humanist and I believe in self-determination.' She thought ritual circumcision was barbaric. But now, as he slid his hand around her waist, she wished that she was with her parents and her aunts and uncles celebrating her eight-day-old cousin's covenant with God and the Jewish people.
The second story is the one that, on second read, I found so moving. A schoolteacher at a Jewish school runs into serious existential trouble during Purim - the holiday where kids dress up in costume - when a half-Jewish, half-black student comes in as the prophet Muhammed. The situation gets worse:
Beneath the robe, Junius wore a camouflage vest. His pockets were stuffed with white bricks of something that looked like clay. But what concerned Needle and the rest of the suddenly terrified class were the wires that ran into a small black detonator that the smiling Junius held in his hand.
The ensuing conversation, as the teacher, Needle, attempts to diffuse the literally explosive situation and the metaphorical one, deals with all the Big Questions, from Chosen People to what happens after death and ends suprisingly, neither sickly sweet nor hopeless.

My Darling Sweetheart Baby is one of my favourite stories, dealing not with any overtly Jewish issues but those of poverty, loneliness and connection. Schultz is unemployed and daily waits for a large disability cheque with which he hopes to persuade Jeannie to get serious with him.
He had kissed Jeannie once, in a rainstorm. She had taken off her heels and was splashing in puddles, kicking water around, singing some show tune Schultz remembered his mother playing on her stereo when he was a child. It was a quick snap of a kiss, but long enough for Schultz to feel her breath enter him and knock around inside. He felt full of her all day. And when he slept, she was still with him.
Of course, his plans go awry, and the ending is poignant, shocking, and right.

The other story in the collection that is still knocking around inside me is What Is It Then Between Us, a very quiet and powerful piece that takes places only over a few hours. It's a story about sex, about love, about trust, usual suspects handled in an unusual and raw way. But it is also about class, poverty, education, loneliness.

Hightower's wife is trying to get pregnant and this has put an enormous strain on their relationship:
Everything was about her uterus and her tubes and her ovaries and other things he'd never heard of before. He'd thought an embryo sounded like some sort of burrito and that the birth canal was where Moses had been born in the reeds. Hightower wasn't used to fucking on schedule. He felt like he was failing science class again because he couldn't understand why you couldn't make a baby any day of the month. When she gave him the cold shoulder, he felt his prick would fall off like rotten fruit from a branch.
Hightower's confusion and feeling that he has already failed lead him astray, but ultimately this story leaves you with a spark, a small glimmer of hope.

This is a very varied collection, and for my money it's those that don't try to hard to tackle Global Questions, that focus on the tiny moments, that are the most revealing and the truest. Those are the images you can't shake off, the voices that remain with you.

Read a story from this collection in Night Train

Tania Hershman is editor of The Short Review. Her first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Tania is currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University, working on a collection of biology-inspired fictions.

Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Chris Beckett "The Turing Test"

Petina Gappah "An Elegy for Easterly"

Sean Lovelace "How Some People Like Their Eggs"

Amnesty International "Freedom: An Anthology of Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"

A L Kennedy "What Becomes"

Davy Byrnes Stories

Janice Galloway "Collected Stories"

Peter Orner "Esther Stories"

SeŠn ” FaolŠin "Selected Stories"

"The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis"

Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud "A Life on Paper"
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Jonathan Papernick was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. He lived in Israel during the mid 1990s, working as a journalist. His first collection of short stories The Ascent of Eli Israel was published  in 2002. His first novel entitled, Who by Fire, Who by Blood was published in 2007. In 2010 Papernick came up with his alter-ego persona Papernick the Book Peddler based on the great Yiddish writer, Mendele the Book Peddler, and sold his book in farmers' markets with an updated fluorescent pushcart. Papernick is currently Writer-in Residence at Emerson College. He lives outside Boston with his wife and sons.

Read an interview with Jonathan Papernick