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Until I bought a used copy of “Ellis Island and Other Stories” from our local bookstore, I hadn’t known of Mark Helprin. But I was rewarded for my $4 purchase with a collection of 11 short stories that boasts a wide range of geography, time, and mood. The stories range from Israel to the U.S. to Europe, from the turn of the 20th century into the 1970s. Helprin is an American journalist and writer, born in 1947. Helprin served in the Israeli infantry, and two of his stories use this experience to depict the realities of combat and a soldiers return to civilian life. In “North Light,” the first-person narrator is an Israeli soldier, who is waiting to enter battle, presumably the Syrian front during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. He says this of his fellow soldiers: “It is not the cautious who die, but the overcautious. The married men are trying to strike an exact balance between their responsibilities as soldiers, their fervent desire to stay alive, and their only hope – which is to go into battle with the smooth, courageous, trancelike movements that will keep them out of trouble. Soldiers who do not know how (like dancers or mountain climbers) to let their bodies think for them are very liable to be killed.” The story ends as the half-tracks on a ridge carry the soldiers into the battle. “Ellis Island” is a funny comic opera about a Jewish writer from Eastern Europe immigrating to the United States. It first appeared in The New Yorker. On a ship in the North Atlantic, the unnamed first-person narrator survives a great storm. (“In January, when the sea is cold and dark, crossing the Atlantic is for the brave. Seen from land during the day, the ocean is forbidding, but it is nearly unimaginable at night in a storm, far north, where the ice tumbles down gray wave troughs like tons of shattered glass.”) He makes it through a Kafkaesque labyrinth of customs interviews, medical examinations, and various misadventures at foggy, snow-laden Ellis Island. Finally he can leave to start a life in New York City with only pennies in his pocket. His description of taking a ferry from Ellis Island to Manhattan is memorable: “We broke through the fog at a tremendous speed and came upon open water, where we saw a golden city rising before us. The reflecting windows of a thousand buildings were a leafy bronze color that crawled slowly upward across the gleaming facades. At the center of this was a searing disc of yellow-white fire captured from aloft. In the New World, I discovered, faithful images of the sun were held up to it in an elaborate and extraordinary mirror – and we, having been told of such things as the Pyramids, the Hanging Gardens, and the Colossus of Rhodes, had never been informed of this wonder.” This title story is truly a funny tall tale that, for me, went on just a little too long (it’s almost 70 pages) and veered from what I would call believable absurdity to the realm of the unbelievable. The story that most intrigued me most was “The Schreuderspitze,” originally published in The New Yorker in 1977. It is a story that perhaps Thomas Mann might have written, rich in symbolism, blurring the boundary between reality and dreams. A depressed Munich photographer Wallich who, losing his wife and son in an auto accident, disappears from his friends and fellow photographers. He surreptitiously takes a train to a small town in the Alps in southern Germany in late autumn and inexplicably decides to train to be a mountain climber. There are many eye-catching sentences, including the opening paragraph. “In Munich are many men who look like weasels. Whether by genetic accidents, meticulous crossbreeding, an early and puzzling migration, coincidence, or a reason that we do not know, they exist in great numbers. Remarkably, they accentuate this unfortunate tendency by wearing mustaches, Alpine hats, and tweed. A man who resembles a rodent should never wear tweed.” Alone for several months in a mountain cabin, Wallich breaks down and buys a large and heavy Telefunken radio console. He listens to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on a Berlin radio station. “The music traveled effortlessly on anarchic beams, passed high over the plains, passed high the forests, seeding them plentifully, and came upon the Alps, waves which finally strike the shore after thousands of miles in open sea. It charged upward, mating with the electric storm, separating, and delivering.” Wallich buys rope and other equipment and gets himself into shape to climb the famous Schreuderspitze, but how he makes the ascent to the summit is not what you might think. Helprin, who was only in his early 30s when he wrote these stories, brings readers on a fascinating journey around the world. Those who like travelogues and fictional journeys through history with imaginative descriptive writing should find this collection enjoyable.

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