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A Jewish-Russian Writer as New Englander: Part 2 of a 3-Part Conversation

Wednesday, July 09, 2014 | Permalink

This week father and son, neighbors in Brookline, Massachusetts and longtime collaborators, David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer discuss Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories  in a three-part conversation conducted for the Visiting Scribes series. Read the first installment, "A Fictional Model of the Former USSR," here. They will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week. 

Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, let’s continue with our topic. What happens after a Jewish writer emigrates from the USSR to the USA? Of the fourteen stories in Dinner with Stalin, you wrote 13 in America, as an immigrant. What has changed in your creative laboratory?

David Shrayer-Petrov: First of all both the immediate environment and the greater environment have changed. Most of these stories fashion Russian—Jewish-Russian—characters living in America. In this sense, I’ve become an American writer. Take the story “The Valley of Hinnom.” Even though much of the action is set in Moscow and in Israel, I could never have written this story without knowing that the main characters are former refuseniks living in the US.

MDS: One more “American” question, then. A number of your stories are set in New England cities and towns, in Rhode Island and Massachusetts—Providence, Little Compton, Worcester, towns on Cape Cod. And there are also European stories set in Paris, Moscow and Leningrad, and scenes of Rome and Jerusalem, composed, as it were, from memory. How have many years of living in New England influenced your stories?

DSP: I’ve lived here for almost twenty-eight years. I think that I’ve rooted myself in New England. It has become my second—now my main—habitat. If asked about it, I now respond without hesitation that I’m a New Englander, even though I lived for fifty years in Russia, in Leningrad and Moscow. I actually wonder how I was able to write, so many years later, the short story “The Bicycle Race” and set it in the Leningrad of my youth. I guess I really wanted to fish out of the depth of memory and to reconstruct the image of a very complex individual. He’s called “Shvarts” in my story, but his prototype was Eduard Chernoshvarts (nicknamed “Chyorny” which literally means “black” in Russian), a famous Soviet cyclist. He was a Jew who had risen above the masses in the 1940s, when there was a strong popular anti-Jewish sentiment. In my story he’s a great Jewish athlete, but hardly a Jew of high moral standing…

MDS: …yes and no, but to return to the question of a Jewish writer in New England… if we look analytically at your stories, it appears that you write without estrangement about today’s life in New England (as in such stories as “A Storefront Window of Miracle”) and about your youth in Russia (as in “Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother’s Grave”). Yet you write with a much greater degree of estrangement about your last three Soviet decades, especially the refusenik years.

DSP: Yes, I think it’s true. In this regard “Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother’s Grave,” the only story in Dinner with Stalin that I wrote while still living in Russia, is a case in point.

MDS: Our English translation of this story had first appeared in Commentary, and I think it tapped our shared memory of a Jewish past in Eastern Europe. A Jewish family forever broken by turbulent events, a halutz, love and longing—these are things to which Jewish-American readers might be particularly attuned.

DSP: I think that throughout his or her entire life, every Jew is haunted by some poignant detail of the past… Say, one had a great-grandmother who was a traditional Jew in the full sense of this term. And then, across countries and languages, this image of a Jewish great-grandmother was being passed on from immigrant grandmother to mother to American child. And it has thus survived.

MDS: I agree, “Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother’s Grave” is the most universally Jewish story in Dinner with Stalin. So let’s continue with questions of Jewish family and marriage. In each of your stories you observe and comment on aspects of love and marriage between Jews and non-Jews. Critics have pointed out that for you as a Jewish storyteller this is a key question. Why?

DSP: I have observed very many mixed marriages growing up. My uncle, my mother’s brother, was married to a Russian woman who was an observant Orthodox Christian. And there’s a family legend that when I was an infant, a five- or six-month old, she brought me to church. But who can now tell…. The very marriage between Russia and Jewry is, I think, a symbol that was supposed to divert the striking hand of antisemites—and at times it did do that, but at other times it did not, only nurturing false hopes.

MDS: This is a very relevant topic in today’s America, and for that reason I think the stories in Dinner with Stalin will be of interest to Jewish-American readers.

DSP: Yes, but here there’s a religious agenda to this problem as one must decide about the religion of one’s children. In the Soviet Union such decision-making was less manifest in mixed marriages. But in 1953, Stalin’s last year and the pivotal year for Soviet Jews, with genocidal scenarios in the air, there were non-Jewish spouses who, out of fear, sought to dissolve their marriages to Jews. This shameful conduct of some of the non-Jews married to Jews resembles what happened in Germany after the Nazis came to power.

MDS: Before we pause and have some tea with lemon, let me ask you what is now a fashionable question: What’s your list of 5 Jewish books which everyone must read—that is, besides Dinner with Stalin?

DSP: This is a very partial list. I would recommend: The Ugly Duchess by Feuchtwanger, Heavy Sand by Rybakov, Shosha by Bashevis Singer, Ravelstein by Bellow (and given Thomas Mann’s Jewish connections, Death in Venice), and Ilf and Petrov’s dilogy The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf.

MDS: May I also add a personal favorite—and may this wish soon come true— your refusenik saga Herbert and Nelly, which is being translated into English.

Check back tomorrow for Part 3: "Crypto-Jews and Autobiographical Animals"

Born in Leningrad in 1936, David Shrayer-Petrov emigrated to the United States in 1987. He is the author of twenty-three books in his native Russian and of several books in English translation, including Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories. His latest book is the collection Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories. Dinner with Stalin was edited by the author’s son, Maxim D. Shrayer, a writer and a professor at Boston College. Two stories in the collection were translated by Emilia Shrayer, Shrayer-Petrov’s wife of over fifty years and a former refusenik activist. The other translators include Arna Bronstein and Aleksandra Fleszar, Molly Godwin-Jones, Leon Kogan, Margarit Ordukhanyan, and Maxim D. Shrayer.

Copyright © 2014 by David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer

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Book Cover of the Week: On Bittersweet Place

Tuesday, July 08, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Chava Lansky

The floating house on the cover of Ronna Wineberg's new novel, On Bitterwsweet Place shows the struggle and the lack of belonging that protagonist Lena Czernitski feels as a Russian Jewish immigrant in Chicago during the Jazz Age. The cover's backdrop is a photo of Bittersweet Place, a street on the Northwest side of Chicago, once home to the iconic Burdick Enamel Sign Company.

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My Name is Yusha

Tuesday, July 08, 2014 | Permalink

Josh Weil, author of the recently published The Great Glass Sea, is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Any run-in with a Russian bathhouse is bound to shock: men chugging bottles of beer-like kvass, felt hats helping them sweat, sweat flying from birch branches as they beat their naked flesh. But what sticks with me most is this: stepping into the sudden heat, seeing them perched all around me, their privates dangling at my eye height. Feeling their stares. Realizing they are all uncircumcised.

I’ve never been much of a Jew: can’t speak Hebrew, wasn’t bar-mitzvahed, don’t believe in God. In Williamsburg I feel aligned with hipsters more than Chasids. I like mayonnaise on my pastrami. My grandmother shakes her head. Though she’s accepted my goyish ways, calls my wife “sweetheart” when, surely, her grandmother would have said “shiksa” instead.

Still, my father’s parents fled Germany just before the Holocaust, his grandfather was sent to a concentration camp, and, though, miraculously, he made it out, I know I have great aunts and uncles who did not. My mother’s grandfather was forced from his shtetl into the Russian army—for a Jew, near-certain death. In my family, the story of his flight is legend. I believe it, the way I’ve never questioned my father’s stint on a kibbutz. Though for a long time I couldn’t comprehend how his sister could move to Israel, trade Montana’s mountains for Tel-Aviv.

I’ve never wanted to visit there, not even when, for nearly a year, I lived a mere three hundred miles away. In Egypt, walking the fields around the village where I lived, I’d have this conversation, almost every day, nearly verbatim:

Egyptian Farmer (waving me over): “What’s your name?”

Me: “Josh.” (The Arabic, Yusha, would mark me as a Jew, so I used English.)

Farmer: “George? Like Bush?”

Me: “Yes, but I hate him.”

(Grins all around.)

Farmer: “Are you a Muslim?”

Me: “No.”

Farmer: “Christian?”

Me: “Yes.”

The suggestion that I read the Quran always followed this. I’d answer that I had. Which would stun him silent. To have read it and yet still not believe was nearly as incomprehensible as the concept of an atheist would have been. Though still better than a Jew.

Farmer: “Do you support Israel?”

Me (always): “I don’t know anything about it.”

Though I was beginning to. On Rosh Hashanah, I joined Cairo’s last handful of Jews at the city’s last working synagogue. It was surrounded by cops with AKs, special forces behind riot shields; inside, beyond the dogs and metal detectors, the main hall was patrolled by Mossad agents, staff from the Israeli embassy in the pews. To anyone who might try to sneak a weapon in, or plant a bomb, or simply throw a stone, I was the same as them. And, after the service, sharing fresh figs and honeyed sweets, I felt it was true.

Kugel, matzo-brei, my grandmother’s pickled herring: this has always been my comfort food. The sound of Yiddish makes me smile. Klezmer makes me want to dance. Study, self-betterment, responsibility to the wider world, the stress and guilt and workaholic unhappiness that come with it: sometimes, meeting strangers, we smell it on each other, a kind of a kinship; if we had tails, they’d wag.

But in Oradea—another synagogue, another year—all was still. Outside the walls I could hear the Romanian dogs who’d rushed me, the shushing of the caretaker who’d beat them with a blackjack. He slept in the entrance, paid by one of the many Jews long gone. Ceausescu, the Iron Guard, the pogroms: whoever had survived had left. Inside, it was beautiful—huge domed roof, hints of gold—but silent. A rustling: the ripped remains of a curtain. A creak: plaster hanging from a cracked wall. And then the shock of my own crying.

Back in the banya—shoulders beaten, skin scrubbed—my Russian friend gestured awkwardly at my crotch. Oleg is a sweet man, but I remembered my first trip to his country, how I’d heard someone outside railing against the Jews, a clanging against a wall, the cat I’d found that morning, its chest ruptured by an iron pole.

“Because,” I told him, “I am a Jew.”

As I write this my wife is pregnant with a boy. When he is born we’ll have him circumcised. To do otherwise would mark him just as surely, except as someone he is not. Not because of his blood—I don’t believe in that any more than I do God—but for the same reason that I will one day take him to Dachau, to Russia, to the town where his great-great grandfather was from, and, if they have a banya, I will want him to know why people stare. Almost as much as I hope that he won’t have to.

Josh Weil was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his debut collection, The New Valley. A National Book Award "Five Under Thirty-Five" author, he has received fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, Columbia University, the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf, and Sewanee. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Esquire, One Story, and Agni. Read more about him and his work here.

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A Fictional Model of the Former USSR: Part 1 of a 3-Part Conversation

Tuesday, July 08, 2014 | Permalink

This week father and son, neighbors in Brookline, Massachusetts and longtime collaborators, David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer discuss Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories in a three-part conversation conducted for the Visiting Scribe series. They will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week. 

Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, let’s start with a basic question. What are the stories gathered in Dinner with Stalin about?

David Shrayer-Petrov: Above all else, Dinner with Stalin is about Russian Jews who found themselves abroad, first emigrating and later grafting themselves onto American soil. My characters perceive themselves, especially when overseas, as Americans—even though at home in the US they may think of themselves as Russians. But if you pressed them on the subject, “You’re Russian?” they would answer, “Yes, we’re Russian. Russian Jews.” As a writer I weave the fabric of my stories from different balls of yarn: my characters appear as Americans at work, as Russians at home, while in fact they have Jewish souls.

MDS: If we take the title story, “Dinner with Stalin,” as a symbol of the whole collection, how does it express the essence of your book?

DSP: The title story doesn’t only encapsulate the Jewish question. This group of émigré friends is visited by Stalin who has come from the other world. It’s actually an actor who masterfully plays Stalin, bringing the whole thing to the point of absurdity; the audience begins to believe him—the way they temporarily believe the actor playing Hitler in Ray Bradbury’s “Darling Adolf.” Present among this motley group are representatives of a number of nationalities of the former USSR, including Armenians, Azeris, Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews. Here Jews enjoy parity, and the émigré protagonist and his wife, Mira, end up asking Stalin the most blunt questions about Soviet and Jewish history.

MDS: So in fact “Dinner with Stalin” is a fictional model of the former Soviet Union?

DSP: …yes, that’s right. And also a model of a United Nations session…

MDS: …convening in post-Soviet times…

DSP: …exactly. At this session representatives of different post-Soviet nations testify about Stalinism and other harrowing aspects of the past.

MDS: Let’s digress for a moment and talk about your path as both a writer of fiction and a Jewish author. You started out as a poet, and you hadn’t become a writer of stories until the 1980s, having already written three novels and two books of non-fiction. The short story became one of your chosen forms. Why do you think you embraced the short story later in your career?

DSP: I believe this had to do with what I demanded of myself. I had been regarding the short story as a gem that not every writer gets to cut and polish. For me the stories of Zweig, Thomas Mann, Bunin, Nabokov— Chekhov above all—and of the early Soviet writers such as Olesha and Babel—represented the highest mastery of the craft. As a younger writer I had stories to tell, but I hadn’t fathomed how to compose short stories until I became a Jewish refusenik and was living in isolation from the official Soviet culture. And already as a refusenik I understood that there is a magic device of fiction-making, which one needs to realize in order to compose a story—to conjure it up rather than copy it from so-called real life. This magic fictional quality—an inimitable vibration of feeling—is something Chekhov’s stories exhibit in the fullest sense.

MDS: You had a very early piece of short prose titled “The Sun Fell into the Mine Shaft” from the early 1960s, which was about a young Jew’s realization that he could never be fully integrated into the Russian mainstream. I find it very intriguing that you hadn’t begun to write short stories until you became a refusenik.

DSP: The Jewish question had been a source of much trepidation. As you can imagine, by the early 1960s, I had already lived through a lot. The Doctors’ Plot [of 1952-1953], when Jews had again experienced a nearing abyss, occurred during my senior year in high school. The Jewish theme had stung me. But before we applied for exit visas, I had been distancing myself from writing fiction about Jews. I had been tying my own Jewish hands. But I couldn’t suppress these urges.

MDS: Your stories, almost all of them, feature Jewish characters. Is writing almost exclusively about Jewish characters what makes a writer-Jew a Jewish writer?

DSP: I think that’s important. At least there’s a Jewish calculus at work. If you’re a writer of Jewish origin but you never write about Jews… hmm…I don’t know.

MDS: And if this is not only a matter of Jewish themes or characters but something else, can one then speak of a Jewish poetics—or specifically of the Jewish short story? What is that Jewish something else in writing?

DSP: It’s a secret, and I don’t think you can isolate it the way scientists isolate a gene. Otherwise one could take this Jewish something and transfer it onto any material. Luckily, it doesn't work this way. Each writer has his or her own Jewish secret. Babel has his own, and we immediately feel it. Or take Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov and their classic novels The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf. Even though most of the characters aren’t Jewish, the authorial grin is very Jewish. Or consider Grossman’s Life and Fate… the way the author mourns the Jewish fate as he sets it against the backdrop of the entire country’s devastating fate.

MDS: Yes, but I think that in Grossman there’s also a distinctly Jewish intellectual commentary. I was actually wondering: To what extent is a Jewish writer a child of Judaic civilization and to what extent is he a product of his own epoch and language?

DSP: I’m not a great fan of the notion of genetic Jewish memory. There are universal human genes, and there are genes highly prevalent in the Jewish genotype, but I don’t think this has much to do with Jewish writing. What does matter is that writers grew up in a Jewish family—even in post-revolutionary Russia—where they were exposed to Jewish conversations.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2: "A Jewish-Russian Writer as New Englander"

Born in Leningrad in 1936, David Shrayer-Petrov emigrated to the United States in 1987. He is the author of twenty-three books in his native Russian and of several books in English translation, including Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories. His latest book is the collection Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories. Dinner with Stalin was edited by the author's son, Maxim D. Shrayer, a writer and a professor at Boston College. Two stories in the collection were translated by Emilia Shrayer, Shrayer-Petrov's wife of over fifty years and a former refusenik activist. The other translators include Arna Bronstein and Aleksandra Fleszar, Molly Godwin-Jones, Leon Kogan, Margarit Ordukhanyan, and Maxim D. Shrayer.

Copyright © 2014 by David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, July 04, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

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Book Cover of the Week: Tomorrow There Will be Apricots

Tuesday, July 01, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Chava Lansky

In Tomorrow There Will be Apricots Jessica Soffer tells the story of two women adrift in New York City: one an almost orphan and the second a widowed Iraqi Jewish immigrant, who together find solace and direction through the cooking of cardamom pistachio cookies, baklava, kubba, and more. The title is based on the Arabic adage which goes, "tomorrow, apricots may bloom," and Melissa Lofty's simple cover design juxtaposed with a colorfully patterned spine evokes the same sense of hope and serenity.

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Interview with Judith Frank

Tuesday, July 01, 2014 | Permalink

By Elise Cooper

Elise Cooper recently sat down with Judith Frank to discuss her recently published novel All I Love and Know.

Elise Cooper: Were there autobiographical parts to this book?

Judith Frank: Elements are there. I have a twin sister who is alive and married to an Israeli man. My family moved to Israel when I was seventeen. I was in a country where I did not speak the language so my humor and intelligence could not be conveyed. Also, my twin children were born while I was in the middle of writing this novel. I understood what it was like to change your life to accommodate the children. There was also the experience of marrying out of my religion since my partner is not Jewish.

EC: Is one of the powerful themes of the book how to handle grief?

JF: I am writing about characters that are deeply traumatized. Grief is a horrible thing and people grieve in different ways. Daniel feels he is catapulted back into adolescence. He shut down while he was grieving because he had survivor guilt and ambivalence. He survived and gets to flourish instead of his brother. I wanted to show how all the family members are not at their best and feel threatened by their loss. I had Matt’s best friend die of AIDS because I wanted to intertwine the question about someone who dies from AIDS: Is it as meaningful as someone dying from a terrorist attack? Which death counts?

EC: Did you ever have to personally deal with grief?

JF: My father committed suicide when I was twelve. My mother died while this book was in proof. My sister had breast cancer in 2000. I remember the threat of my sister dying and that was very potent for me. Twin losses are among the greatest losses anyone can experience.

EC: You have the grieving families feel that they lost a part of themselves, including the quote about Daniel feeling he was leaving his dead brother behind. Please explain.

JF: The quote about being buried on different continents came out of my feeling that my identical twin sister and I will be buried separately. That thought just kills me.

EC: Did you compare the relationship between the twins, Daniel and Joel?

JF: To differentiate from each other twins tend to show different personalities. My sister was verbally aggressive while I receded. I would refer to Joel as the outgoing brother and Daniel as the submissive one. But that has to do with their dynamics. He has guilt because he is now able to step forward due to his brother’s death.

EC: There is a scene in the book about social workers who are part of the Israeli government. Their job is to handle grieving families of terrorist attacks. Is that true?

JF: Yes. My sister who is a social worker introduced me to several women who handle grieving families. They have support systems for themselves and rotate in and out of this job. My sister thanked me for the portrayal of social workers. I thought about their job and was drawn to them. Those scenes affected me deeply.

EC: You included among the grieving families Holocaust survivors. Why?

JF: I thought how these people have gone through so much and now had to deal with the loss of their daughter. I am friends with children whose parents are Holocaust survivors. I also included it because I thought it was compelling that the children might stay in Israel to live with their grandparents who had suffered so much.

EC: You also explore the relationship of having a Jew and a non-Jew as partners. Can you explain?

JF: My children call themselves half-Jewish. What is important to us as a family is to have a sense of community, which I tried to convey through Matt and Daniel. When my mother died we had two Jewish communities helping us, setting up Shiva. That was very moving for us. Even though we are pretty secular it was really nice to be surrounded by Jewish people who were willing to take care of us. One of the jokes about Matt is that he really loves Jews and has always been attracted to Jewish men.

EC: You included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of the theme of the book. Do you think you were even-handed?

JF: I think a lot of Jewish people might not think I was even handed, although I did. I put the Israelis traumatized by terror and the social worker scenes into the book. Because of Daniel’s political position it made it a lot harder for him to grieve. If he could feel rage or if he could feel the war on terror was a righteous one it would have been easier. His political views are wrapped up in his sense of justice and empathy. What happens if you lose someone to a terrorist attack and do not buy into the cultural script?

EC: You had quotes from your characters that leaned heavily toward the Palestinian point of view. For example, the tradition in a Jewish wedding of breaking the glass, “to symbolize the shattering of their lives when Joel and Ilana died, and the continued shattering of Palestinian lives.”

JF: American Jews must question their relationship with Israel and what kind of criticism can we level towards Israel. We are at a moment with a lot of Jewish Americans at a turbulent transitional phase about Israel. I am sure some people will be thrilled and some will be angry.

EC: Why did you put this quote in since you never explained its context? “If a Palestinian living in Jerusalem marries someone from the West Bank, they can’t live legally together in either place.”

JF: This is a novel, not history. A lot of gay people wrestle with the institution of marriage. Daniel starts to think about marriage for everybody. He is thinking about himself and sees this as a tragedy of Jewish history. The Jews have suffered such persecution; yet, they have succeeded in building their homeland through the oppression of others. I really wanted to intertwine the lives of the Palestinian and gay people.

EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book?

JF: I wanted to write about a person struggling with his sense of identity and justice. This entire novel is about the consciousness of Jews and Israelis. You can love Israel and deplore its policies. I also hope the readers were moved by a family suffering from incredible grief and sorrow.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

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Gertrude Stein Reissues Focusing on the Artistic Process

Monday, June 30, 2014 | Permalink

by Dina Weinstein

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) was a rule-breaking poet and writer, supporter of the arts, and salon hostess.

The Poetry Foundation describes Stein as a bold experimenter and self-proclaimed genius who rejected the linear, time-oriented writing characteristic of the nineteenth century for a spatial, process-oriented, specifically twentieth-century literature. Stein created dense poems and fiction which was criticized for being devoid of plot or dialogue. She is known for memorable phrases ("Rose is a rose is a rose") but not commercial success. Her only bestseller, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, is a memoir of Stein's life written in the person of her partner, Toklas.

Two of Stein’s early books are now reissued. With the centennial of Stein's infamous and influential if bewildering little book Tender Buttons, the avant garde publisher City Lights Books in San Francisco is publishing Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition, which includes Stein's handwritten edits.

Tender Buttons is a showcase of Stein’s joyful draw to words. She plays with language focused on the mundane and the theoretical. The book is divided into three sections: objects; food and rooms, and a collection of playful gibberish or provocative posits: “Rhubarb is susan not susan not seat in bunch toys not wild and laughable not in little places not in neglect and vegetable not in fold coal age not please.”

The afterword by the scholar Juliana Spahr explains that the work was revolutionary in its time, giving much heft to descriptions of domestic spaces. Spahr does not shy away from the fact that Stein was a Jewish lesbian interested in the work of Otto Weininger, the author of the anti-Semitic, homophobic, and misogynistic Sex and Character. Stein was, of course, Jewish, and never denied it; fascinatingly, she sympathised with Petain's Vichy regime and admired Hitler. She insisted on remaining in wartime France with Toklas—also a Jewish lesbian.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Stein's children's book, The World Is Round, Harper Design has published a volume replicating the original 1939 edition, including Clement Hurd's blue and white art on the rose-pink paper that Stein insisted upon.

The 34-chapter story chronicles the adventures of a young girl named Rose in a tale that explores the ideas of personal identity and individuality. Her inquiry is an affirmative quest to find her place in the world. Rose’s character as an inquisitive girl was a new direction for storybook characters.

With our modern sensibilities, this reissue will appeal to adults interested in Stein as a writer or in early children’s books.

Insight into the world of early children’s literature and this particular work is a key feature of the forward by Thacher Hurd, the illustrator’s son, and the afterword by Edith Thacher Hurd, the illustrator’s wife.

Previously unpublished photographs and correspondence between Stein and Hurd, who is best known for illustrating Goodnight Moon, are a window into the creative process and the then-burgeoning world of children’s literature. Stein crams The World Is Round densely with words and plot twists. The book was written when the children’s book industry was in its infancy and trailblazers were experimenting in many directions.

Today the structure seems dated. The World Is Round has a dense plot that frustrates as it lists event after event. But lines also delve into the dreamy unconsciousness of childhood: Why am I a little girl/ Where am I a little girl/ When am I a little girl/Which little girl am I.”

A reviewer in 1939 felt that children were Stein’s proper audience but her work seems more a precedent to the Beat Poets.

A blunt child told the reviewer: “It’s cuckoo crazy.”

Dina Weinstein is a Miami, Florida-based journalist currently researching Jews in St. Augustine, Florida during the 1960s era civil rights struggle there with a grant from the Southern Jewish Historical Society. She mentors young journalists as an adviser at the Miami Dade College student newspaper The Reporter. Weinstein has taught journalism and mass communications at a number of colleges including Miami Dade College. She is a Boston native and a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Boston University School for the Arts.

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Novels and the Art of the Mauritshuis

Friday, June 27, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Nina Siegal wrote about Asher Lev as a model for Rembrandt and being Jewish in Amsterdam. Her newest novel, The Anatomy Lesson, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Last night, I had the great honor of reading from my new novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) inside the museum that holds the 1632 Rembrandt masterpiece that inspired it: “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.”

The occasion was the opening of the renovated Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague, a jewel-box museum with a small (with just 800 artworks) but extraordinary collection of Dutch and Flemish Golden Age paintings. Its holdings also include Vermeer’s “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” and Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” two paintings that have been the inspiration for two highly successful novels.

Lately, a lot of people have been asking me why one museum contains so many works of art that have been explored through recent works of literature. It’s a good question, and one I’ve been mulling for a while.

First, a disclaimer: Until I first visited the Mauritshuis in 2006 to start doing research for my own novel, I didn’t know that “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” was housed in the same museum, even though I was aware of Tracy Chevalier’s novel of the same name. And I didn’t hear about Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, until my agent was shopping my book and her publisher rejected mine on the grounds that “two such deserving novels shouldn’t be competing on the same list.” I took that as a great compliment – and it’s one of my favorite rejection letters ever.

No, back in 2006, I used to visit the Mauritshuis about once a month, traveling down to the Hague from Amsterdam, sitting with the painting for about an hour a time, looking, thinking, listening to art patrons and docents talk about the painting, scribbling notes in a small Rembrandt notebook I’d bought in the gift shop downstairs – basically just soaking in the work. It was a work I loved before I came here, of course, and I had been looking at it in reproduction for a long time. My father purchased a 9x11 inch poster in the same gift shop downstairs in 1965, just after he finished medical school, and he hung it in his study. That’s where, as I child, I looked at it quite often.

Seeing the real work in person was something else entirely. First, I was awed by the size of it – nine figures on a canvas, all life-size. In that intimate gallery setting, you really feel as if you’re in the dissection chamber, in and among the surgeons. Looking at a dead body that’s right there before you. The faces of the live men are vivid, colorful, ruddy-cheeked. The dead man is pale, but fleshy, a human being too.

Second, I was amazed by how much I could discover by just sitting with it in that gallery, observing. It’s the kind of painting that’s almost like a great jazz recording, which you can listen to again and again and always discover something new. I found inspiration sitting there, sometimes when I was carrying around emotions and thoughts from my own life, a few times in moments when I was too tired to even look anymore.

One morning, I was particularly sad because a man I’d fallen in love with in Amsterdam was going off to travel, and was leaving me. I looked at the dead man in the painting, stripped almost bare, his body pallid and naked, and I thought: someone loved that man, too, and he left her. First, he left her through wandering – he was a thief and a vagabond – and then he left her for good. It was the start of one of the key narratives of my book.

For the last two years, the Mauritshuis has been closed for expansion and renovation, and in the meantime “my” painting has been exhibited at various museums, including the Gemeentemuseum, another gorgeous museum also in The Hague. I went to visit it there two months ago, and felt like it was a bit far away from me, although I could still walk up to it and see it up close. The gallery spaces were just much larger, and in the broader context with many more works surrounding it, it just felt less intimate.

Last night, before I read from my novel, I snuck back upstairs to the gallery to see “my” painting in the room where I’d visited with it so many times before. It felt like visiting a dear friend. It occurred to me then that perhaps the reason the Mauritshuis’ collection has inspired works of literature is that when you’re in the museum you feel a kind of personal intimacy with the paintings that’s rare in larger museums – perhaps Chevalier and Tartt felt that too.

For me, that moment of being alone in the room with “The Anatomy Lesson,” eight years later, now with the novel finished, was a kind of homecoming, the circle finally complete.

Nina Siegal grew up in New York City and Great Neck, Long Island, but these days she lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where she works as an author and a frequent contributor to the International New York Times. She got her B.A. at Cornell University and her M.F.A. in Fiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Although she has written extensively about women in US prisons, housing and homelessness, and all sorts of urban cultural issues, Siegal lately focuses on the intersection of art and society, which is also the theme of both her novels. Read more about her and her work here.

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Friday, June 27, 2014 | Permalink

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