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Guest Post: Mark Shechner on Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories, by David Shrayer-Petrov

Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories. By David Shrayer-Petrov, edited by Maxim Shrayer. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. 262pp. $29.95.

Review by Mark Shechner

The present situation for Jewish writers and their readers bears little resemblance to the scene of just two decades ago. It has been so transformed as to be scarcely recognizable. If there is a prior state of affairs, however, in which our time can see itself in an historical mirror it would be the ferment of the early 20th century, the springtime of Jewish writing in America, when writers ambitious to speak for their culture and their moment commonly had at least two languages to choose from, Yiddish and English. We know that some even wrote in Hebrew, and who now remembers the names of those whose also wrote in Russian and Polish? Who recalls Dusk in the Catskills by Reuben Wallenrod, published in 1957? Wallenrod doesn’t appear in any of the standard histories. Nor will he any time soon. He wrote fiction in Hebrew.

The contemporary moment recycles history in this sense: much of it is fueled by émigrés from abroad who work in multiple languages: a handful still in their native tongues, but most in English, sometimes a decentered English under the tonal canopy of another language. The FSU (former Soviet Union) writers are the most remarkable cases in point. 2014 alone has seen the publication of books by Lara Vapnyar (The Scent of Pine), Anya Ulinich (Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel: A Graphic Novel), Gary Shteyngart (Little Failure: A Memoir), Boris Fishman (A Replacement Life), David Bezmozgis (The Betrayers), and David Shrayer-Petrov (Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories). And that is just a single year’s production. These writers are either themselves members of the refusenik generation that forced open the prison gates of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s or their children. Wherever they settled, they brought with them their passion for the written word, their febrile imaginations, and their stories.

David Shrayer-Petrov, born in 1936, continues to write in Russian, though he has lived in the United States since 1987 where, besides writing, he has worked as a doctor. Though he has a reputation in Russian émigré circles, his name is little known in American discussions, even though Syracuse University Press has previously published two volumes of his fiction: Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America (2003) and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories (2006). Both books were edited by his son Maxim Shrayer, a professor at Boston College and himself a fiction writer: Yom Kippur in Amsterdam (Syracuse, 2012). Continue reading ›

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Pre-Shabbat Jewish Literary Links

Photo Credit: Reut Miryam Cohen

Every Friday morning My Machberet presents an assortment of Jewish-interest links, primarily of the literary variety.

  • Tahneer Oksman interviews Roz Chast about Chast’s new graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?--one of my favorite books of this year so far.
  • The New York Times reviews a production of Martin Blank’s “The Law of Return,” a play about the Jonathan Pollard case.
  • Another news item about a play that has caught my attention: “Olympics Uber Alles,” by Samuel Bernstein and Marguerite Krupp. As the title suggests, the play deals with the 1936 Berlin Olympics–in which two American Jews were not permitted to compete.
  • Robin Williams’s passing prompted the Los Angeles Review of Books to remind us of the film version of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day–and in which Williams co-starred.
  • ICYMI: I have a new job! With Fig Tree Books (FTB), a new publishing company that focuses on fiction of the American Jewish experience. Read about my first week on the job on my other blog. And please, follow FTB on Twitter and/or Facebook.
  • Shabbat shalom.

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    From My Bookshelf: THE HOPE: American Jewish Voices in Support of Israel

    I need not tell you how absorbed I’ve been in certain current events of late–a look at the recent “Words of the Week” posts attests to that. But I have not yet shared one of the actions I’ve taken in response to those events: contributing a poem to a new anthology, the sales proceeds of which are being donated to The Lone Soldier Center (in memory of Michael Levin).

    Edited by the indefatigable Rabbi Menachem Creditor, the book features an array of American Jewish voices that, as Rabbi Creditor notes, are united when it comes to “one sacred truth: Am Yisrael Chai!”. You can read more about the book via Jweekly.com, and you can take a “look inside” on The Hope‘s Amazon page.

    If you are so inclined, I ask you to please spread the word about this meaningful volume. Thank you.

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    Pre-Shabbat Jewish Literary Links

    Photo Credit: Reut Miryam Cohen


    Every Friday morning My Machberet presents an assortment of Jewish-interest links, primarily of the literary variety.

  • Nina Badzin explains why she doesn’t write about politics/Israel–and a few other things.
  • An interesting post by Michael Weingrad on Dan Simmons, “the major science fiction writer whose work most frequently focuses on Jews.” (h/t Mosaic magazine)
  • From the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: “Though submissions are CLOSED for the 2014 play festival, we are currently taking submissions for the 2015 New Play Festival. Scripts should be submitted in hard copy only, along with a $10 processing fee payable to JET and a stamped self-addressed envelope if return is desired.” (h/t Theatre Funding Newsletter)
  • Eminent author Marilynne Robinson recently visited Israel. Beth Kissileff spoke with Robinson about her trip–and her views about the BDS movement.
  • I’ll admit it: I’m more than a little jealous of the 36 high school students mentioned here.
  • Shabbat shalom.

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    From My Bookshelf: Rachel Mennies’s Jewish Poems

    290_glad handMy online path recently crossed that of poet Rachel Mennies, and how glad I am that it did. Soon enough, I was immersed in Mennies’s debut full-length poetry collection, The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards. The book was published this year as the winning manuscript in the Walt McDonald First-Book Series in Poetry, housed at Texas Tech University Press.

    Here, in part, is how ImageUpdate has described the collection:

    Rachel Mennies’s first collection is a powerful lyric account of a woman’s search for self through her relationship to God, Judaism, and history. These carefully-shaped poems arrest the reader with startling imagery and sound. With a compelling voice that is at once anguished and utterly composed, these poems ask: how does one reconcile one’s personal faith and struggles with those of one’s ancestors? And how, within the context of this history, does one come to terms with a God of witness and mercy?

    But, wait–there’s more. I’m so grateful to Mennies for the permission to publish this sample from the book: Continue reading ›

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    Pre-Shabbat Jewish Literary Links

    Photo Credit: Reut Miryam Cohen


    Every Friday morning My Machberet presents an assortment of Jewish-interest links, primarily of the literary variety.

  • One of many sad consequences of current events: Israeli Arab writer Sayed Kashua is emigrating. I wish him all the best, and I will renew my efforts to read his books.
  • More TBR ideas in the “Summer Bookfest” issue of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s 614.
  • ICYMI here on My Machberet: two posts featuring “Words of the Week” and fiction suggestions for the current moment from D.G. Myers (and others).
  • So much content worth your time in the new issue of Lilith, including “Lot’s Wife,” a retelling of the biblical story, by Michal Lemberger; a stunning account of terror in Jerusalem, by Natasha Basin Levina (translated by Sonia Melnikova-Raich); and superb reviews of two books that I, too, have found remarkable: Marina Blitshteyn on Orly Castel-Bloom’s Textile (trans. Dalya Bilu) and Liana Finck on Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?.
  • An extraordinary essay by Claire Hajaj, daughter of a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father. (h/t @alexnazaryan)
  • Shabbat shalom.

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