ASK FOR A CONVERTIBLE: STORIES, by Danit Brown, Pantheon, 305 pages, $22.95.

This is an unusual and striking book of 12 stories about the same character, Osnat Greenberg, an immigrant to America from Israel who is struggling to find her place in the world. It treats the issue of what it means to be Israeli or American — or a little bit of each.

In short, it is personal identity vs. national identity.

Through the stories, the reader learns of Osnat's moves with her American father and Israeli mother from Tel Aviv to Michigan. Unfortunately, her father hated life in Israel and her mother hates life in America. So the author irreverently portrays their daughter as one obsessed with the desire to fit in — somewhere.

Predictably, Danit Brown, the author, moved from Israel to Michigan as a teenager, and she currently lives with her family in Michigan. Brown eloquently utilizes her personal knowledge of such an experience and mixes rich humor with rare insight about the stories we tell ourselves about where we come from.

Besides Osnat, there is an interesting character named Harriet, who practices holding her breath to prepare for another holocaust; there is Jeannie, who considers Israeli men to be better lovers than Americans and wants to travel to Israel to prove it; and there is a second Marvin Greenberg the family fears is trying to steal Osnat's father's life in Ann Arbor.

When Osnat got paranoid about the possibility of a nuclear winter, she started writing weekly letters to the president — Ronald Reagan, trying to persuade him to practice moderation. What she got back from the president were form letters that indicated he had not even read hers. So Marvin decided to pull a fast one by intercepting the form letters and writing his own version of Reagan's letters.

In one letter, he wrote, "Dear Osnat, With fall semester starting soon, Nancy and I hope you will do your part to make trickle-down economics work by going back-to-school shopping with your mother."

Efrat, Osnat's mother, was angry that Marvin wrote phony letters to their daughter. "It's misleading," she said. "Dishonest, even. We don't live in a world where Ronald Reagan has time to write little girls, and there's no reason to pretend we do. Sometimes it's better to just know the truth."

Several times, Marvin Greenberg was so curious he almost went to look up the other Marvin Greenberg. He was pretty sure the other Marvin Greenberg had "perfect teeth without even a hint of yellow and a middle name that started with A, who spent his evenings learning to cook dinners for one while his library fines kept right on accumulating."

The author succeeds in capturing the Israeli-type personality of the Greenberg family. The writing is brisk and frank, although the Greenbergs frequently misunderstand what native Americans tell them. Although many serious things happen to the family, there is never a dearth of humor in this lively collection of fascinating stories — all of them based, at least loosely, on the truth.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com