Short Takes

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Barbara Fisher
April 13, 2008

Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood
By Robyn Scott
Penguin, 464 pp., $24.95

"Living on the fringe" is how Robyn Scott's mother describes the family's unconventional approach to marriage, child-rearing, education, and housekeeping in Botswana. Mrs. Scott, an advocate of home-schooling, believed that work and play should be indistinguishable, that routine ruined creativity and television stunted the imagination.

Education included being read to from story books, as well everything else - painting a room, building a radio, making puppets. Dr. Scott, a doctor who piloted his plane to rural clinics in the area, exhausted from the poverty, sickness and superstition of his patients, left the education of the three children to his wife.

Pathologically optimistic, she allowed the three children unbounded opportunities to explore, discover, and imagine.

With Damien and Lulu, her younger brother and sister, oldest child Robyn grows up never knowing boredom, capable of endless invention and amusement, enthusiastic for adventure, and eager to be thrilled. It is no surprise that all three children grow up to be interesting adults, but it is a surprise that they bear no ill will toward their parents - no shame, embarrassment, or longing for the ease of conformity.

Robyn concludes her beautiful and loving portrait of her parents thus: "What they'd really loved was . . . changing countries, building houses, living in cowsheds, laughing at convention, and believing passionately in doing what everyone said couldn't and shouldn't be done."

All the Sad Young Literary Men
By Keith Gessen
Viking, 242 pp., $24.95

The three sad young men of this novel's title, Mark, Sam, and Keith, sound disturbingly alike. All three seem amazed at their good fortune - that they attended Harvard and that "attractive women who'd studied at Brown" are willing to sleep with them. They are also baffled and bewildered by their inability to make much use of this good fortune.

Mark is stuck in Syracuse where he is working on a dissertation about Roman Sidorovich, "the funny Menshevik."

Sam claims to be writing the first great Zionist epic despite his lack of the basic qualifications for the job: He does not speak Hebrew and had never been to Israel, until well into the project.

Keith, having traveled to Russia, now writes for intellectual magazines on American politics.

All three date women who alternately delight and confuse them. Mark is recovering from the breakup of his marriage and pursuing a student, Sam is reeling from rejection, and Keith is attempting to hold onto a girlfriend.

Clever, competitive, and complaining, the three young men hardly deserve their sadness or our interest.

The Girl on the Fridge: Stories by Etgar Keret
Translated from the Hebrew
by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,176 pp., $12

These stories are short, often surreal pieces of experience. Keret, an Israeli writing in Hebrew, in several pages at most, casually introduces his uncanny situations and affectless characters.

In the title story, the girl is not, as expected, a snapshot attached to an appliance but a little girl purposefully stranded atop a refrigerator while her parents are too tired to look after her.

In "Sidewalks," two boys returning drunk from a grave invent a game on the sidewalk, which ends in triumphant delight.

In "Asthma Attack," just a half-page long, the breath needed for a single word is calculated with care. In "Gulliver in Icelandic," a young man traveling alone buys this, one of his favorite books, to fight his loneliness. But it only serves to remind him of death.

The magician in "Hat Trick" confidently delights children with his soft, furry rabbit, until one day he pulls out blood and horror.

These bits of narrative sparkle briefly, but fade fast.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.