Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis

Natasha and Other Stories is a collection of short stories about Mark Berman, a Russian Jewish child who immigrates with his family to Toronto at the age of six, around 1980. The stories provide an episodic looks at Mark’s life from childhood, very soon after arriving in Canada, through his twenties.

Bezmozgis’ style has a cinematic feel, putting together the portrait of a family spanning decades through a series of vignettes. The early stories in the collection depict a struggling but proud immigrant family, poor but thrilled to be gone from the anti-Semitic and bleak Soviet Union. Mrs. Berman will give up anything now that she can send her only son to Hebrew school, but Mark rebels when he’s made fun of by the kids on the block. A rabbi at the school gets him closer to Judaism, and in the later stories an adult Mark accompanies his grandfather to orthodox services to ensure a minyan. The title story, one of the better ones, shows Mark during his teenage years, spending his time getting high in suburban basements until a new arrival from Moscow shakes things up.

The stories are moving but very emotionally even. There are no saccharine stories of the young Mark, and neither is the death of his grandmother tear-jerking. The smoothness of continual disappointment and bittersweet moments feel more like real life, leaving me to wonder more than usual how much of the material is fictional (Bezmozgis, like Mark, left Russia for Toronto as a child). And while the immigrant destination in the stories is Toronto rather than the more-typical New York, and Mark’s experiences do have a certain Canadian flavor, they are not distinctively Canlit; the Russian Jewish element is much more prominent than the Canadian, despite the fact that Mark is thoroughly North American by his teenage years.

Sunday Salon

After a pretty crazy workweek, yesterday I got to have a nice reading-day-in, finishing up The Witches of Eastwick (review here) and reading a few stories from David Bezmozgis’ Natasha.

I originally spotted Natasha years ago, on a table at Indigo in Montreal, came this close to buying it and ended up with Enduring Love instead (yes, my memory really is this good, even of my wild college days), and never heard of it again until last summer when I happened upon it at a library book sale. After spending about a year on my shelf I finally opened it on Friday when I was in the mood for short stories (I need to read more of those), and it’s another good-but-not-great one—but it really is quite good. The stories are snapshots of the life of a small boy whose Russian Jewish family immigrates to Toronto around 1980, when he is about six or seven. They are affecting without being emotional or insipid; they deal in a more quietly bleak look at immigrant life, still better than bleaker Soviet life.

The workweek ahead promises to be even crazier than the one behind, so it’s hard to say how much reading will get done. I find that it’s not that I don’t have the time to read when I’m extra busy at my job, but that I don’t have the mental energy for it. I spent a lot more of my evenings last week watching the US Open than reading because it was all my brain could handle. This seems like a sign I might continue with more short fiction, though Wieland has been at the top of my pile for so long now.