Genre

General Fiction / Short Stories

Audience

Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christian especially but many Protestants will find it edifying as well. Adult readers will appreciate the prose style best but content is safe for ages

Author’s Worldview

Eastern Orthodox Christian

Year Published

2022

Themes

Albanian Orthodox Christianity, Icons, The Eucharist, Liturgy, Drug use, sex trafficking, Mary Mother of God, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Immigration, Immigrant Experiences, Eastern European Culture, Christmas, Easter, Lent, Forgiveness, Marriage, Divorce, Church communities, local neighborhood church culture, funerals, grief, death, birth

 

Reviewed by

A.R.K. Watson

Enter the world of Fishtown, a rundown and ever striving neighborhood in some forgotten corner of Philadelphia. The book’s map calls this “Naum’s Neighborhood” because the Albanian Orthodox priest, Fr. Naum, is perhaps the most frequently reoccurring character of these short stories. Other genres are more famous for their worldbuilding, but I think that is only because the flexibility of short story collections has fallen out of public consciousness. By the end of this collection, you’ll have heard the stories of every building and street corner on the map of this Philadelphian neighborhood; the saints and sinners that work the Putty Factory, the guards at the parking lots and the runaways that hide under the bridges along this stretch of the Delaware River.

If you’re looking for a cozy read that goes down easy and then gives you more vitality each time your mind returns to it, Fr. Stephen Siniari is the writer for your soul. There is a unique structure to each of the stories that reminds me of Christopher Nolan’s films. Oftentimes the stories will begin and end in the same place, scene or even the exact same paragraph and sentence, but the meanings between the beginning and ending will be totally different and unexpected. Sometimes it’s a bit like listening to a talkative neighbor who somehow manages to keep telling fascinating stories even when you’re not sure where they are going or what the point is going to be.

Though I’ve never been to Naum’s corner of America, this collection of stories has made it feel as familiar as home. Characters who are in the background in one story become main characters in another. The plot of one story might brush up unexpectedly against the plot of another so that by the end of the book I felt as though I was in on all the local gossip. I love too how Fr. Siniari tells a story of a small neighborhood, but it in no way feels homogeneous. Russian, Ukrainian, Greek and Albanian languages, cultures and tensions mix with Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish influences, though the Albanian Orthodox culture gets the most attention.

The running theme of the stories is, as the title implies, the Eucharist, and our hunger for heaven. Although any reader of any faith or worldview would find this an enjoyable non-preachy read, Catholics and Orthodox readers will naturally cue into this hunger on a deeper level. There are a number of Orthodox terms, saints and prayers peppered throughout the book, and unless you’re a reader from the Albanian Orthodox culture, you’ll probably find yourself heading to Google more than once, but the text never becomes unintelligible.

There is a twelve year old Catholic boy in the last story who joins the Orthodox church and wants to become an Orthodox priest, but the exact reasons why are not explored deeply. I doubt his mere presence will offend any Catholic readers, but it is worth mentioning. Other minor criticisms of Catholicism include an offhand remark from one character about how they wouldn’t take marriage advice from an unmarried priest, and a rather silly moment in which a Catholic church uses a zipline to make the baby Jesus fly down to his place in the Catholic church’s nativity scene during a Mass. These are the only moments that the strictest of readers might be put off by. However, the whole of the book leaves me feeling more deeply the kinship and commonalities between Catholics and Orthodox than our differences. There is far more that unites us than divides us, and this book makes it readily apparent.

The collection makes for slow but easy reading. I would finish a story only to go back and reread it with a new perspective from the revelation of the ending. It wasn’t until I was closer to the end of the collection that I began to appreciate how the characters flit through each other’s stories. I anticipate rereading this book many times, each time with a new insight. If you are a fan of Ray Bradbury or Arthur Powers, or just looking for a cozy literary read, Fr. Siniari is the next author  to add to your library .

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