Almonds to Zhoof: Col­lect­ed Stories

Richard Stern
  • Review
By – July 26, 2012

Stern’s col­lec­tion of 49 tales, pub­lished between 1949 and 2002, rang­ing from short sto­ries to novel­las with titled episod­ic mini-chap­ters, should appeal to a dis­crim­i­nat­ing audi­ence attuned to high lux­u­ri­ous cul­ture, and to a gen­er­al audi­ence inter­est­ed in the raw nit­ty-grit­ty of ordi­nary life. A life­long aca­d­e­m­ic (attached to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go), Stern cov­ers a broad ter­ri­to­ry in his nar­ra­tives. Any­thing goes, giv­en his fond­ness for the eso­teric and the exot­ic. The novel­la Veni, Vidi…Wendt” con­tains a musi­cal frag­ment of an oper­at­ic score. The cul­tur­al details inform­ing his treat­ment of art his­to­ry, clas­si­cal music, archi­tec­tur­al relics, and dis­tant locales (Euro­pean par­tic­u­lar­ly) some­times seem thrown in pri­mar­i­ly for their effect. Asmall num­ber of sto­ries are quite inco­her­ent, lack­ing ade­quate expla­na­tion. But Stern’s play­ing off of the famil­iar and the strange or out­landish makes for a fas­ci­nat­ing read­ing experience. 

The sto­ries with sig­nif­i­cant Jew­ish con­tent involve insults, slights and exclu­sions. Wan­der­ers” fea­tures an aged hotel clerk who con­sid­ered the Jew­ish ten­ants wan­der­ers, how­ev­er far they trav­eled, unlike the (supe­ri­or) gen­tiles, with their long expe­ri­ence in Amer­i­ca. In Zhoof,” the Jew­ish vic­tim of dis­cour­ag­ing words real­izes that the sound, uttered dis­parag­ing­ly, is a man­gled ver­sion of juif, the French word for Jew. Con­trast­ing with sto­ries of the bad­mouthing or threat­en­ing of Jews is Dr. Cahn’s Vis­it,” where­in two aged domes­tic part­ners, one hos­pi­tal­ized, face the end of days togeth­er— but just for a moment. Stern’s sto­ries, over­all, are dif­fi­cult but quite compelling.

Samuel I. Bell­man is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Cal­i­for­nia State Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty of Pomona. He has been writ­ing on Jew­ish Amer­i­can writ­ers since 1959.

Discussion Questions