Book Review: Memories of Russia and life in the U.S.

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Russian American fiction continues to be a vital sub-genre of Jewish American fiction. Some of the works produced are based on the sense of dislocation their authors felt when moving to a new nation. Others offer a sense of nostalgia for the old country. Two recent works – “Stealing Cherries” by Marina Rubin (Manic D Press) and “The Scent of Pine” by Lara Vapnyar (Simon and Schuster) – focus on both aspects.

Rubin is a new voice on the scene and her collection of flash fiction (each story is less than a page) was a revelation. Her writing has such a sharp focus that she successfully captures an event and mood in very few words. Perhaps this comes from her training as a poet, although since I haven’t read her poetry, it’s impossible to compare them. However, the writing in “Stealing Cherries” is definitely prose. Her playfulness with form – there are almost no capital letters and each story is told in a single paragraph – does reflect a background in poetry.

While these funny, strange, off-beat works are called fiction, the ones written in the first person read like autobiography. For example, in “Welcome to America: Day 2,” she tells of her family’s arrival in the U.S., noting how the Salvation Army gave them food and clothing as if they’d been in a natural disaster: “we tried to tell the nice philanthropic people we came here not because we were poor but because we were jewish, that we were persecuted.” However, even though her family felt guilty about accepting the gifts, they didn’t turn them down, noting that “here you just never know how things will turn out.” There are funny stories about how the narrator learned that she is Jewish, received her first marriage proposal at age 12 (when her family was about to leave Russia) and her hidden hopes when a male friend, who recently became religious, returns to New York.

Rubin also does an excellent job capturing small, sometimes shocking, moments, as what happens to the narrator and her boyfriend after she loses her cleaning woman. Not all the tales are in the first person and these, in particular, tend to offer interesting twists. For example, a miscommunication creates the tension at the end of “Gypsy Cab,” while rumors are unable to capture the fullness of a person’s nature in “The Man Who Lived Here Before.”

“Stealing Cherries” is less than a 100 pages, but still manages to offer a wide variety of satisfying tales. If one story doesn’t appeal, that’s not a problem: there’s a new one on the next page.

While Rubin has previously been known for her poetry, Vapnyar’s most praised work has been her short stories. Her first novel was a bit of a disappointment, but this second one shows great improvement, partly because its focus is on storytelling and memory, particularly that of its main character. Thirty-eight-year-old Lena not only feels dissatisfied with her marriage and career, but with life in the U.S. After meeting Ben, a fellow academic at a conference, the two spend a weekend together with Lena sharing a-not-quite nostalgic look at the most formative time of her life: her summer as a camp counselor in the Soviet Union. Lena talks about the strange things that occurred during that momentous time, which have affected the course of her life until the present day.

The storytelling Lena does is echoed in the books she and her fellow counselor read at camp: “Canterbury Tales” and “One Thousand and One Nights.” In the former work, stories are told to make time pass more quickly, while, in the latter, the tales are used as an attempt to slow time. Lena’s narrative of her camp days does a bit of both. Even more interesting is the difficulty she experiences when putting her memories into words: “Over the years she had spent so much time telling it in her head that now every word she used felt awkward and wrong. The main problem was not even the content: what to tell, what scenes to choose, which characters and events to bring forward, which to omit altogether, but how to transform images into words. Because in her head, the story ran like a movie.” When Lena discovers what really happened that summer, she learns just how unclear is her view of the world.

While Lena originally comes across as unlikeable, readers will soon be seduced by her storytelling. Vapnyar also succeeds in making Lena’s reactions and actions understandable and sympathetic. By the end of the novel, that historic summer in Russia will feel almost as vital to readers as it does to Lena and Ben.