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Another terrific author event this week at the Free Library of Philadelphia with Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander. As a literary pair, they make a perfect yin/yang combination. She speaks in calm, thoughtful, and complete sentences, every thought perfectly articulated, while he is a sputtering burst of energy, beginning with one point, ricocheting around his capacious internal intellectual space, and eventually earning the listener a sign of relief and comprehension as he returns to point A. The man, he says, likes circles, and he demonstrates this readily.

Photo credit Frank Burd

Englander’s new book is a novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, and, after hearing him speak, I’m eager to read it. I am most familiar with his powerful collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Englander came on the scene in 1999 with his first short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. At that time, he was notable both for his writing and for his presence. He described himself last night as he was before the book’s publication: “a semi-stoned, long-haired, formerly orthodox unpublished short story writer.” One audience member commended him on his transition to his present more conventional appearance. “I followed Nathan Englander around [from event to event],” she said. “I’ve seen some settling down.” Both Englander and the audience had a good chuckle over this comment. Englander too referred to his maturation when he mentioned: “This is my first [book] tour with reading glasses.”

Krauss is a longtime favorite author of mine. Her novel The History of Love is on my must-read list. At the reading, when an audience member asked the authors whether they needed their characters to be likeable, Krauss said that she is more drawn these days to creating unlikeable characters, so that causing the reader to feel empathy for them takes more time. In contrast, she mentioned Leo Gursky, the protagonist of The History of Love. “You love Leo Gursky the moment you meet him,” says Krauss, and she’s right.

Photo credit Frank Burd

Krauss spoke about interest in exploring the unknown in her writing. She acknowledges the appeal of staying with what’s known: “We live in a world where we value stability, coherence. We want the comfort of having all the known world accessible through Google.” She urges as to step out of our comfort zone. “If we allow the unknown to flow into us, we are altered. But that fills us with fear. As a writer you create the unknown, but fill it with what you know. We need ourselves to expand but we don’t know how to break it open.” She urges us to be more courageous: “Why don’t we go into our own lives with the ability to break it open and go into the unknown?”

These two-writers, long-time friends and admirers of each other’s work, conveyed great passion for the work of creating literature. Englander said: “I try to be cynical about everything but writing is so damn important to me.” And Krauss made it clear this is an ongoing journey for her, saying: “Novels to me are searching vehicles. They don’t have answers, only questions.”

PLEASE NOTE: Every book mentioned is available for sale at the Open Book Bookstore. Can’t get here? Call us (267-627-4888) and we’ll mail it to you or drop it off if you live near the store.

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