The UnAmericans [NOOK Book]


* Longlisted for the National Book Award * A stunning exploration of characters shaped by the forces of history, the debut work of fiction by a 2013 National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" Honoree.

An absentee father, a former dissident from communist-era Prague, needles his adult daughter for details about her newly commissioned play when he fears it will cast him in an unflattering light. An actor, imprisoned during the Red Scare for playing up his communist leanings to get a ...
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The UnAmericans

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* Longlisted for the National Book Award * A stunning exploration of characters shaped by the forces of history, the debut work of fiction by a 2013 National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" Honoree.

An absentee father, a former dissident from communist-era Prague, needles his adult daughter for details about her newly commissioned play when he fears it will cast him in an unflattering light. An actor, imprisoned during the Red Scare for playing up his communist leanings to get a part with a leftist film director, is shamed by his act when he reunites with his precocious young son. An Israeli soldier, forced to defend a settlement filled with American religious families, still pines for a chance to discover the United States for himself. A young Israeli journalist, left unemployed after America’s most recent economic crash, questions her life path when she begins dating a middle-aged widower still in mourning for his wife. And in the book’s final story, a tour de force spanning three continents and three generations of women, a young American and her Israeli husband are forced to reconsider their marriage after the death of her dissident art-collecting grandmother.

Again and again, Molly Antopol’s deeply sympathetic characters struggle for footing in an uncertain world, hounded by forces beyond their control. Their voices are intimate and powerful and they resonate with searing beauty. Antopol is a superb young talent, and The UnAmericans will long be remembered for its wit, humanity, and heart.

2015 Finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature
Longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
★ 11/15/2013
In her debut story collection, Antopol looks deeply into the lives of people whose geographies are not easy to define, such as the Israeli journalist who only feels alive when on assignment in Kiev and the California actor who claims more Russian heritage than he actually has, having lived in the United States since he was two years old. Within these compelling narratives, Antopol conveys not only the inner lives of her characters but also the political and social history they carry with them from the sewers of Eastern Europe (an escape route from imminent capture by Nazis) to the Israeli kibbutz to the streets of New York, among other places in the diaspora. VERDICT These rich stories, in many ways reminiscent of the work of Grace Paley (The Little Disturbances of Man), are often sharply funny and always intelligent, and readers will find them immediately appealing. [See Prepub Alert, 8/5/13.]—Sue Russell, Bryn Mawr, PA
The New York Times - Dwight Garner
Molly Antopol's first book…has poise and gravity. It sometimes put me in mind of Allegra Goodman's work; both writers are adept at auditing the emotional lives of frazzled Jewish intellectuals. At other times, the Old World lefty politics in Ms. Antopol's stories summoned the memory of Grace Paley, for whom every joke came wrapped around a bony fist of meaning…The details in these stories are consistently fresh and offbeat without being showy…Ms. Antopol's soulfulness and wit make even holding actions memorable and promising.
Dwight Garner - New York Times
“Fresh and offbeat… memorable and promising.”
Hannah K. Gold - The Nation
“Unflinchingly honest… Thrilling.”
Nadia Kalman - Jewish Review of Books
“[Full of] witty descriptions and engaging characters.”
Sandee Brawarsky - Jewish Weekly
“Outstanding… the stories begin as though the reader is walking into an intimate conversation already underway… [and] the endings are never predictable.”
Ann Hulbert - The Atlantic
“A memorable collection of melancholic vignettes about identity, place, and coupling.”
Dara Horn
“Antopol accomplishes in each of these stories what would take most writers an entire novel to achieve: a fully imagined world.”
Esquire Magazine
“The Unamericans is poised to be this year's sensation… the layered riches and historical sweep of its stories make them feel grand, like novels writ small.”
“[A] poised debut.”
Lauren Waterman - Dujour
“Evoked with uncommon skill and confidence.”
New York Journal of Books
“In a word: Wow!”
Laura Moser - Jewish Daily Forward
“[Antopol] is a wry, occasionally funny writer, with an unerring grasp on human nature…”
Carmela Ciuraru - San Francisco Chronicle
“Antopol writes convincingly and with great empathy.”
Meg Wolitzer - NPR
“[Will] make you nostalgic, not just for earlier times, but for another era in short fiction. A time when writers such as Bernard Malamud, and Issac Bashevis Singer and Grace Paley roamed the earth.”
Kim Winternheimer - Oregonian
“Witty and heartbreaking prose.”
Adam Johnson
“A writer of seismic talent…Not since Robert Stone has a writer so examined the nature of disillusionment and the ways in which newfound hope can crack the cement of failed dreams.”
Jesmyn Ward
“Beautiful, funny, fearless, exquisitely crafted, and truly novelistic in scope…It's clearwe're in the hands of a master storyteller—a writer with the emotional heft of Nicole Krauss, the intellectual depth of Saul Bellow, and the penetrating wit of Philip Roth. This book isn’t simply powerful and important—it's necessary.”
Abraham Verghese
“Molly Antopol's stories display that wonderful combination of an original voice with settings that are masterfully rendered. A rich collection, a great read.”
Lauren Groff
“A brave, generous, and effortlessly smart story collection by a young writer with talent to burn.”
Ken Kalfus
“This is deeply humane fiction, coursing with the heat of a passionate, sympathetic heart.”
Joan Silber
“Allegiances are not always what they seem, in these wonderfully engrossing stories of Old- and New-World Jews cast on the sometimes rough waters of history. Molly Antopol is a vivid chronicler of the good intentions and big misapprehensions of her characters, as we intently watch them try to get it right.”
Peter Orner
“An exceptional collection of wide-ranging, powerful, and nuanced stories…You come away with an ache in your soul for all her people and what they were up against, how they triumphed, how they failed, and how they managed, somehow, to endure.”
Christine Schutt
“Deeply satisfying stories…morally complex and emotionally instructive.”
Kirkus Reviews
The impressive debut collection by Antopol (National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Awardee; Wallace Stegner Fellow) features a variety of settings--Israel, Belarus, California, Poland, Maine--and characters, but it also has an unusual cohesiveness for a first collection. Most of the characters here are Jews of Eastern European extraction; most are grappling, in one way or another, with issues of estrangement: from home, from family members, from the big ideological/idealistic causes they once espoused, from themselves. In "The Unknown Soldier," set in California at the time of Joe McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunts, a young Russian-American actor emerges from a year in prison for contempt of Congress--a rap he takes despite being a communist of convenience, so as to aid his movie career, rather than of conviction--and tries to reconnect with his 10-year-old son. "The Quietest Man" centers on a Czech dissenter and émigré-turned–American professor who, a quarter-century after his departure from Prague and nearly as long after a divorce brought on by his selfishness, is terrified that his semi-estranged daughter, a playwright, has written a scarcely veiled indictment of his failures and inattentions. The harrowing and poignant "My Grandmother Tells Me This Story" depicts a ragtag band of World War II teen guerrillas who call themselves the Yiddish Underground. Antopol offers complex, psychologically subtle portraits of her often regretful characters, and the details--child revolutionaries carrying sharpened branches through Eastern European forests during WWII since, at a distance, they can pass for rifles or Czech dissidents who must compose their plaints against the government longhand since "the government had a record of everyone who owned typewriters"--are chilling and persuasive. A smart, empathetic, well-crafted first collection--Antopol is a writer to watch.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393241976
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/27/2014
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 78,017
  • File size: 740 KB

Meet the Author

Molly Antopol teaches writing at Stanford University, where she was a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow. A recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award, she holds an MFA from Columbia University and lives in San Francisco.
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Molly Antopol, Author of The UnAmericans: Stories

Your stories move from McCarthy-era America to modern-day Israel to communist Europe and back again. What's your connection to these times and places?

Many of the stories in this book were inspired by my family history, notably their involvement in the Communist Party. I come from a big family of storytellers, and I grew up surrounded by tales of surveillance, tapped lines and dinnertime visits from the FBI. Those things—combined with my very nerdy love of research—informed my McCarthy-era stories.

In terms of the Israel stories, I've spent my entire adult life going back and forth between there and the U.S. I lived there for years—I used to work for a Palestinian-Israeli human rights group, and at a youth village aiding new immigrants from Chechnya, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union. And for the past seven years, since getting to Stanford and being on their academic schedule, I've spent my summers there.

Eastern Europe is a part of the world that's always fascinated me. My family's originally from there, many of my favorite books were written in (and about) communist-era Europe, and in recent years I've been lucky enough to have received research grants to a number of countries in the region. It's interesting—though my family loves to tell stories, the one place I never got to hear about was Antopol, the Belarusian village where my relatives came from, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. A little more that a decade ago I was living in Israel and wound up at a holiday party in Haifa, where I met an elderly woman from Antopol who had known my family. It was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. She led me to an oral history book about the village, written in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, which her son had put together. The moment I finished reading it (I remember just where I was, at the kitchen table in my apartment in Tel Aviv), I began writing The UnAmericans.

How did you come up with the title of your book?

As a kid, I'd always associated the word "Un-American" solely with the Red Scare, and the 50s-era stories in my book grew largely out of my attempt to understand what it might have been like for my family to grow up under the shadow of McCarthyism.

As I wrote more stories, I became fascinated by the complicated meaning the word might have to this current generation of Israelis, forced to contend every day with their country's messy and symbiotic relationship to America. In one of my stories, an Israeli soldier resents having to defend a settlement filled with Brooklyn-born religious families but still pines for a chance to discover the United States for himself; in another, a young Israeli journalist's life path is thrown into question during America's most recent economic meltdown. I also found myself exploring this idea of "Un-American-ness" in terms of privilege—for example, in the book's final story, "Retrospective," my working-class Israeli narrator never feels at home in America even after a decade of living there, whereas his wealthy American wife globetrots across the Middle East with utter confidence and ease.

Some of my other stories are about East Europeans immigrating to America. I was really interested in thinking about this notion of "Un-American-ness" for these characters—dissidents and academics, banned artists and writers—who risked their lives for their politics in their mother countries and are then forced to reinvent their identities in the United States, a country where they're treated as anything but American. I kept thinking about the complicated emotional impact the fall of communism might have had on my characters during that time. I thought about what it might have felt like to dedicate oneself to a cause that, in the course of world events, comes to an end—and wondered whether some people might have had a niggling feeling of nostalgia for that bleak time, simply because they held a significant place in it. For so many of my characters, their entire sense of self is shaped by their political work, and I wanted to explore how having lived under surveillance in Eastern Europe influences their lives once they immigrate to America, where they quickly realize that not only are they no longer being watched—they're no longer being noticed.

You write from the perspectives of men and women, young and old, American, Israeli and East European. Would you still say that your stories are autobiographical?

Grace Paley has this quote I've always loved, not to write what you know, but to write what you don't know about what you know. That's what it feels like for me. One of the main reasons I write fiction is to try to understand what life might be like for other people. I've always seen writing as a form of method acting—for the eight or twelve or fifteen months that I'm working on a story, I'm constantly thinking about how my narrator would react to whatever tangled social or familial situation I'm in, and it's the moment I begin to see the world through their eyes that I know my story's headed in an interesting direction. (That doesn't always happen, unfortunately!) I read a lot of nonfiction, and I love the feeling of trying to explore what it might have been like to live in another place or during a different time, or even to live here in the present day, but as a man, or a person much older than I am—I often find that I'm able to access certain emotional truths about my own life by exploring things from different vantages. I haven't written any stories about female writers living in San Francisco, but I do feel that my stories are autobiographical in the sense that they capture what I questioned and obsessed over during the decade I was writing them. And the theme I found myself circling back to, again and again, was the complicated—and sometimes devastating—impact one person's quest to improve the world can have on the people closest to them.

In your stories, older generations look forward and not back, while younger generations look back in order to understand the present. Do you think these two outlooks can be reconciled?

That's something I think about a lot. The older members of my family are very confused (albeit lovingly) by my fascination with the past. I love to travel and do it every opportunity I get, and they can't understand why I always end up in these freezing, post-communist towns or crowded Middle Eastern cities rather than, say, Hawaii.

I'm still trying to reconcile this question in my own life. The closest I got was in writing the third story in my book, "My Grandmother Tells Me This Story." I'd been struggling with that one for months, and it was only when I made the narrator a reticent older woman frustrated by her granddaughter's incessant questions about dark periods of history she'd never lived through, that the story really cracked open for me.

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