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For the Relief of Unbearable Urges: Stories Hardcover – March 16, 1999

4 out of 5 stars 112 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is an astonishment. Whether Nathan Englander is creating the last days of 27 condemned Soviet writers or the first in which a Park Avenue lawyer finds religion (in a taxi, no less), his gift is everywhere in evidence. Englander's specialty is the collision of Jewish law and tradition with secular realities, whether in Brooklyn, Tel Aviv, or Stalinist Russia. In one tale, a wigmaker from an ultra-orthodox Brooklyn enclave journeys into Manhattan for supplies and, more importantly, inspiration--frequenting a newsstand where she pays for the right to flip through forbidden fashion magazines. If all Ruchama wants to do is be beautiful again and momentarily free of communal constraints, others ask only to survive. In "The Tumblers," set in World War II Poland (with a metafictional twist), followers of the Mahmir Rebbe get into a train filled with circus performers rather than into a cattle car. Their only chance is to camouflage themselves as part of the troupe:
Their acceptance as acrobats was a stretch, a first-glance guess, a benefit of the doubt granted by circumstance and only as valuable as their debut would prove. It was an absurd undertaking. But then again, Mendel thought, no more unbelievable than the reality from which they'd escaped, no more unfathomable than the magic of disappearing Jews.
Another story, "Reb Kringle," is almost breezy by comparison. Each year, one Brooklynite dreads his holiday job from hell, playing Santa Claus in a Manhattan department store: "There were elves posted on each side of Itzik; one--a humorless, muscular midget--wore a pair of combat boots that gave him the look of elf-at-arms. His companion might have been a twin. He wore black high-tops but had the same vigilant paramilitary demeanor." Itzik can put up with the children's accidents and greed, with his sciatica, and even with a mischief maker's attempt to cut off his beard. But when one boy admits that what he really wants to do is celebrate Hanukkah, "the infamous Reb Santa" loses it. Though this is undoubtedly the collection's lightest piece--proof positive that you have to be a saint to be a Jewish Santa--it is no less piercing an examination of identity and obligation than Englander's more heavyweight entries. --Kerry Fried

From Publishers Weekly

"I suffer greatly under the urges with which I have been blessed," says Dov Binyamin, an orthodox Jew agonizing over his wife Chava's self-imposed celibacy, and one of several protagonists in Englander's stellar first collection who seek often ill-fitting rabbinical answers to thorny modern problems. When Dov's rebbe grants him authorization to see a prostitute, the consequences (not least of which is a case of VD) offer a moral fable of pathos and hilarity that is the signature key of these nine graceful and remarkably self-assured stories. Ranging expertly from contemporary Israel to New York and to isolated Yiddish communities in Russia and Europe, they spin a vision of 20th-century orthodox Judaism under siege from both political tyranny and the rapid pace of modern life. Englander's prose is spare and crystalline, capturing the singsong rhythms and sometimes contorted English of a primarily Yiddish cast, often striking a deliberately archaic tone, as in "The 27th Man," the Chekhovian tale of Pinchas Pelovits, a dreamy, unpublished writer in midcentury Russia. Not unlike Englander, Pinchas has "constructed his own world with a compassionate God and a diverse group of worshipers. In it, he tested these people with moral dilemmas and tragedies." Abducted by Stalin's henchmen, Pinchas composes a miniature masterpiece, a parable of faith in spite of an absent God, which he recites to his cell mates only minutes before being gunned down by a firing squad. Despite their surface mixture of humor and horror, these are stories of ideas, offering complex meditations on Judaism through the eyes of an astonishing range of characters: a disconsolate middle-age orthodox woman imprisoned in limbo by a husband who won't grant a divorce; a Cheeveresque Park Avenue financial analyst with a taxi-cab epiphany that he's Jewish; an American navigating the streets of contemporary Jerusalem during a terrorist campaign. Englander's reported $350,000 advance for this collection has made it one of the most bruited literary debuts of the year. Such brouhaha shouldn't cloud the achievement of these unpretentious and powerful stories.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (March 16, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375404929
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375404924
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (112 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #593,493 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nathan Englander is the author of the story collections What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and the internationally bestselling story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, as well as the novel The Ministry of Special Cases (all published by Knopf/Vintage).

His short fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Washington Post, as well as The O. Henry Prize Stories and numerous editions of The Best American Short Stories.

Translated into more than a dozen languages, Englander was selected as one of "20 Writers for the 21st Century" by The New Yorker, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a PEN/Malamud Award, the Bard Fiction Prize, and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. He's been a fellow at the Dorothy & Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and at The American Academy of Berlin. He teaches in the Graduate Writing Program at Hunter College along with Peter Carey and Colum McCann, and, in the summer, he teaches a course for NYU's Writers in Paris program.

This year, along with the publication of his new collection, Englander's play The Twenty-Seventh Man will premiere at The Public Theater, and his translation New American Haggadah (edited by Jonathan Safran Foer) will be published by Little Brown. He also co-translated Etgar Keret's Suddenly A Knock at the Door forthcoming in March from FSG. He lives in Brooklyn, New York and Madison, Wisconsin.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on October 29, 1999
Format: Hardcover
englander has delivered a fresh perspective on ancient political and personal problems. other reviewers who criticize this young genius for not writing about his own experience or lambasting orthodox jews miss the point of fiction and writing entirely. surely englander's characters, though struggling with religious constraints and overbearing spouses, have joy as well and the writer has not failed to illustrate their full experience. one only has to look to their manner and listen to their expression a little more carefully. characterization is perhaps the most difficult hurdle for fiction writer's and englander, at 27, is a master. I am especially amazed at his ability to capture the voice of middle aged women, something he surely has never been and never will. should he never write about women? don't be absurd! and thank heavens he has avoided the surely drab memoir of a 27 year old man. the world could do with less biographies and more imagination like that of englander.
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Format: Hardcover
These are wonderful stories, I found myself reading them slowly and carefully, they were too clever and emotionally involving to do otherwise. I have to take issue with the reader who criticizes Englander for writing about people he has not been (a department store Santa, a Park Avenue gentile) etc. Crazy - the day writers only write about what they have been is the day fiction stops being exactly that, fiction, and becomes memoir, or worse, plain reportage. Whatever interesting experiences Englander has had in his private life I'm glad he has taken the time to let his imagination run free and become a storyteller. Stories - that is why we read fiction isn't it? I don't believe Michael Ondaatje was a pilot in the Second World War either, but fortunately he wrote The English Patient regardless. I thought Englander's stories were quite wonderful, and the women in them lovingly and touchingly rendered. Englander hasn't been a woman in his life either, but thank god he didn't hesitate to write The Wig or The Last One Way, or we would have been deprived of reading about Ruchama's stiffling marriage and Gita's desperate bid for freedom from her brutal husband.
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Format: Hardcover
Nine short stories, surprising for the beauty of the language and for the very particular style, always suspended between the magic atmsophere of Yiddish fables and the realistic concreteness which characterizes most of North American novelists.
A really beautiful book, whose deep suggestion reminds some paintings by Marc Chagall (see especially the second tale).
It is a pity that the Italian translation is not adequate.
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A book. You are first drawn by the intriguing title, then you notice that some of the letters are smudged, as though tear-stained. Did you somehow spill water on the cover? No, the dust jacket is designed that way, to remind us that sometimes relief comes in the form of tears, sometimes in sexual release, sometimes in death.
The inside of the dust jacket is misleading - the title story, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges", is called "hilarious". Despite this, the praise is flowing (and you don't know differently, anyhow) and you are drawn into the stories between the covers. What do you find?
Writing that is masterful, but misdirected. A voice that is shockingly mature, incongruous with the photograph of the handsome boy on the cover. Stories that are obsessed with persecution, whether by the government or by loved ones or by one's peers or one's church. Few of the characters within these pages are unencumbered by expectation, by disappointment, by disillusionment.
You search the book for the "hilarious" story foretold and find the sad, pathetic tale of a man sexually rebuffed by his wife and given a special dispensation by his Rabbi to visit a prostitute "for the relief of unbearable urges". The result turns the tables on the poor fellow, but is not amusing. You continue reading; the last story, "In This Way We are Wise", contains the poetic, oddly beautiful, ruminations of a bomb-blast survivor and his sorrow at having lived. You are illuminated by the beauty of the prose, you are destroyed by its message.
You may enjoy reading about the Jewish experience, writers such as Roth, Singer, Bellow.
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Of all the reviews and comments re: this book, I was very impressed at something which no one has yet mentioned: Englander was very senstitive to Orthodox women, in the sense that he portrayed extremely well those women who felt constrained by orthodoxy. In particular, I am referring to the short story re: the woman 'agunah', the grass widow, who wants a Jewish divorce so very badly, that she conspires to kill the matchmaker. Also I was very impressed by the story re: the wigmaker, the woman who loves beauty, but is unable to express herself as fully as she would like within the confines of the Orthodox culture. For those who have commented that Englander is cynical about religion, that he refuses to find the "good" in Orthodox Judaism, in any strict system there are those who like it and those who don't. He is sympathetic to those who feel constrained by it, and shows their plight. I have known such people, and am happy that a few writers are dealing with them. Keep up the good work, Nathan. We look forward to more stories re: the world you were raised in.
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