The Book of Life

By – October 31, 2011

In this mar­velous debut col­lec­tion, Nadler gives us sev­en sto­ries replete with mem­o­rable char­ac­ters and expert­ly craft­ed plots. The tales — most of which take place in New Eng­land and are told by invit­ing first-per­son nar­ra­tors — offer poignant por­traits of men and women deal­ing with loss, lone­li­ness, fam­i­ly rival­ries, and the joys and pangs of lovesick­ness. The title sto­ry, for instance, a piece that evokes the dra­mat­ic ten­sion of Malamud’s short fic­tion, presents an aging fam­i­ly man try­ing des­per­ate­ly to hide his affair with his long­time busi­ness partner’s twen­ty-some­thing daugh­ter. In Our Por­tion, Our Rock,” we find a lawyer on his thir­ti­eth birth­day, forced to bal­ance the stress of car­ing for his dying father with the rest of his life; the sto­ry is told with ten­der­ness and pitch-per­fect dia­logue, and resolves in a stun­ning final few pages. Beyond Any Bless­ing” fol­lows Daniel — orphaned at a young age and raised by his rab­bi grand­fa­ther — in his attempt to inter­vene after learn­ing that his grand­fa­ther is being forced out of the syn­a­gogue. Typ­i­cal of Nadler’s oth­er sto­ries, Daniel recalls his child­hood and ado­les­cence with raw can­dor; and the scenes involv­ing Daniel’s ado­les­cent love inter­est, Shari, who is still a part of his life, sim­ply shine. Through­out, Nadler writes of Jew­ish char­ac­ters, who, often bur­dened by guilt, doubt, regret or some com­bi­na­tion there­of, nav­i­gate their lives with an acute and com­plex sense of per­son­al his­to­ry. With this col­lec­tion, Nadler firm­ly estab­lish­es him­self with­in the tra­di­tion of short sto­ry writ­ers such as John Cheev­er and Richard Ford, and announces him­self as a promis­ing voice in con­tem­po­rary fiction.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Stuart Nadler 

Dig­ging Deep into the Soul in the Heart of Iowa


The sev­en sto­ries that com­prise Stu­art Nadler’s mas­ter­ful debut col­lec­tion, The Book of Life, are told with vivid char­ac­ter­i­za­tions and pitch-per­fect dia­logue. Nadler’s nar­ra­tive con­trol is on dis­play in every sto­ry. With­in only a few sen­tences, we feel like we know many of these char­ac­ters, and many of us are sure to rec­og­nize our­selves at times as well. Nadler holds an MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop and was recent­ly the Car­ol Houck Smith Fic­tion Fel­low at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son. You can vis­it him on the web at stu​ar​t​nadler​.com.

Phil Sandick: To me, The Book of Life is a mas­ter­ful col­lec­tion, full of real­is­ti­cal­ly drawn char­ac­ters and plots that reveal the great pos­si­bil­i­ties for flaws and hero­ism with­in each of us. But more impor­tant­ly, how would you describe it?
Stu­art Nadler: To my mind, a short sto­ry col­lec­tion always seems to reflect a cer­tain set of pre­oc­cu­pa­tions for the writer, and this book, and these sto­ries, were no dif­fer­ent for me. By the time I’d fin­ished work­ing on these sto­ries, I found myself hung-up on the ideas of reli­gious and cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, moral­i­ty, sin and error, the rel­a­tive immutabil­i­ty of fam­i­ly tra­di­tion. But what binds the book togeth­er, and what I sup­pose I’d say con­sti­tutes the core of these sto­ries, is the idea of fam­i­ly: what keeps a fam­i­ly togeth­er, what frac­tures a fam­i­ly, what temp­ta­tions and transgressions
are irrec­on­cil­able with heal­ing and for­give­ness. I’m com­ing into my char­ac­ters lives at their most des­per­ate moments, and because of this, the read­er is wit­ness to some of their most ter­ri­ble mis­takes. But through all of this, I’d like to think that the book offers a glimpse of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of redemp­tion that exists for these men and women.

PS: I love longer short sto­ries, ones that approach the 30 – 40 page range, like many of the sto­ries in this col­lec­tion. Tell us a lit­tle bit about your com­po­si­tion process and why this form works well for you.
SNI’d love to write short­er sto­ries! I real­ly would. And I’ve tried. But no mat­ter what I did when I was work­ing on these sto­ries, no mat­ter how deter­mined I was to keep every­thing to a tidy page-count, I couldn’t do it. Part of the trou­ble, I think, is that I’d nev­er real­ly worked on short sto­ries before I went to the Writ­ers’ Work­shop. I’d start­ed real­ly con­cen­trat­ing on the form a few months before I left for Iowa, and that’s basi­cal­ly what I wrote, almost exclu­sive­ly, for the next two years. Before that, I’d always tried to write nov­els, and so part of my trou­ble is prob­a­bly a mat­ter of habit: I was used to hav­ing the breath­ing room a longer piece of fic­tion pro­vides. The form is such a beau­ti­ful one, but such a dif­fi­cult one to get right. A suc­cess­ful short sto­ry — a true, ten or twelve page sto­ry — when it works, is one of my favorite things to read. I’m hop­ing at some point in the future to try again and get it right.

PS: I’ve noticed that a num­ber of reviews (includ­ing mine) have drawn com­par­isons between your work and Bernard Malamud’s. As in Malamud,
The Book of Life is so well voiced and we feel wis­er for hav­ing expe­ri­enced these tales. Who are some of your short sto­ry writ­ing heroes and inspirations?

SNFor this book I was most moved by two books. The first is the Sto­ries of John Cheev­er, the one in the orange cov­er. Word for word, I’m not sure there’s ever been any­one bet­ter at the short sto­ry. The prose in those sto­ries, the rhythm to his sen­tences, the breadth of expres­sion he man­ages in such a tight space is some­thing I con­stant­ly find myself going back to over and over. I love those first few ear­ly sto­ries, espe­cial­ly Good­bye, My Broth­er.” And the sec­ond book is Ethan Canin’s col­lec­tion Emper­or of the Air. I read those sto­ries six or sev­en years before I ever thought of going to Iowa, long before Ethan became my teacher, and my men­tor for these sto­ries. It’s dif­fi­cult now to divorce those sto­ries from my impres­sions of Ethan as a teacher and as a friend, but no one ever showed me more about what it meant to be a writer than he did.

PS: One Twit­ter fol­low­er of yours, @carrieliberry, respond­ed to your book: awe­some­ly bril­liant, made-me-cry-on-the-sub­way-mul­ti­ple times.” First, how great is that kind of instant feed­back? And sec­ond, tell us about some of your expe­ri­ences as a writer on Twitter.
SNWell, it’s ter­rif­ic to see that. And it’s hum­bling to hear. This is one of the great ben­e­fits of some­thing like Twit­ter — that rel­a­tive­ly instant feed­back. I had to be pulled kick­ing and scream­ing onto Twit­ter. My edi­tor at Lit­tle, Brown sug­gest­ed it, and then kept sug­gest­ing it, and when I kept refus­ing, armed with every array of defen­sive pos­tur­ing I could muster, she went on sug­gest­ing it until I caved. The ben­e­fits, like hear­ing from Car­rie, are innu­mer­able. It’s become so easy to reach out to your read­ers, and for read­ers to reach out to writ­ers they admire. It allows writ­ers a rel­a­tive­ly easy way to con­nect with one anoth­er dur­ing the ardu­ous­ly long time it takes to write a book. And it’s obvi­ous­ly valu­able to edi­tors and pub­lish­ers, because it’s cre­at­ed an avenue for writ­ers to take part, rel­a­tive­ly guilt-free, in acts of self-pro­mo­tion that a few years ago were wide­ly con­sid­ered to be grace­less. The down­sides are, of course, that Twit­ter is sim­ply anoth­er thing to dis­tract you, to occu­py your time, and to which it’s dan­ger­ous­ly easy to become addict­ed. I’m rel­a­tive­ly new to Twit­ter, hav­ing only been on it a few months. But already I’ve come very close to clos­ing down shop. I still may do it. We’ll see.

PS: How has your Jew­ish back­ground influ­enced your writing?
SNI’m not sure there’s a direct cor­re­la­tion. I grew up in a very relaxed, Reform home, but one that was a con­stant source of art and creativity.
My sis­ter is a suc­cess­ful singer and song­writer. And my moth­er is a painter. Grow­ing up, we were always mak­ing things at home, or play­ing music, or my sis­ter was mak­ing clothes while I wrote sto­ries on my dad’s type­writer. I was a teenag­er before I real­ized that this was, at all, unique. We were lucky to have gone to great pub­lic schools, and to have had a great pub­lic library in our town. But we were also lucky to have gone to ter­rif­ic Jew­ish sum­mer camps, and to have had a ter­rif­i­cal­ly rich Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter near­by. We were nev­er dis­cour­aged. And we were lucky to have par­ents that didn’t try to per­suade us not to become artists. These things were the biggest influ­ences on my becom­ing a writer.

PS: Do you see your­self return­ing to any of the char­ac­ters we meet in this book in the near future? Or, what can we expect to read from you next?
SNWell, I’m fair­ly pos­i­tive that none of the char­ac­ters in these sto­ries will be reap­pear­ing any time soon. For me, once the story’s done, it’s done. I have a nov­el com­ing out from Lit­tle, Brown at the begin­ning of 2013. It’s called Wise Men. It’s set across six­ty years, and it fol­lows the rise from pover­ty to wealth of one fam­i­ly. I fin­ished it ear­li­er this year, and I’m more excit­ed about this than any­thing I’ve ever writ­ten. I can’t wait for peo­ple to read it.

Read Stu­art Nadler’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Cast­ing Off

The Sto­ries that Don’t Make It

Pray­ing Outdoors 

Phil Sandick is a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son. He has taught cours­es in lit­er­a­ture, com­po­si­tion, and cre­ative writ­ing since 2006. Phil is cur­rent­ly study­ing rhetoric and com­po­si­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na-Chapel Hill.

Discussion Questions

1. In the col­lec­tion’s first sto­ry, In the Book of Life,” why does Abe begin an affair with Jane, in spite of know­ing he was not the sort of man to do such a thing”?
2. At the end of In the Book of Life,” we see a moment from Lar­ry and Abe’s past. What does this moment say about their future?

3. Why does the nar­ra­tor of Win­ter on the Saw­tooth” allow his wife to take a lover? How are he and his wife’s sep­a­rate rela­tion­ships with Josh changed over the course of the story?

4. Describe the dif­fer­ences between Charles’s and David’s per­son­al­i­ties in The Moon Land­ing.” Why is David less upset about their par­ents’ death?

5. Cather­ine and Hen­ry” is the only sto­ry that is nar­rat­ed, in part, from a wom­an’s per­spec­tive. How is Cather­ine dif­fer­ent from the men in this col­lec­tion? In what ways is she like them?

6. In Our Por­tion, Our Rock,” Eric wants des­per­ate­ly to be a father. In what way does this desire change after Jen­ny’s sud­den abortion?

7. Why, in this sto­ry Vis­it­ing,” is it Marc who insists on talk­ing to his grand­fa­ther, despite the fact that it was Jonathan who forced him to go on the trip?

8. Describe what Dan­ny and Shari both want from each oth­er in Beyond Any Bless­ing.” What does it mean to cheat the forbidden”?

9. How would you describe the way the char­ac­ters in the­ses sto­ries think about their faith?

10. Many of the char­ac­ters are estranged from their fam­i­lies. How does that estrange­ment affect the choic­es they make?

Twit­ter Book Club

Read a from the Twit­ter Book Club for

tran­scriptThe Book of Life