Natasha: And Oth­er Stories

By – October 26, 2011

The live­ly lit­er­ary inva­sion from East­ern Europe con­tin­ues with the arrival of Natasha, the debut short-sto­ry col­lec­tion of Lat­vian-born David Bezmozgis.

In these sad, fun­ny, ten­der tales we meet three gen­er­a­tions of the Berman fam­i­ly: Mark, the com­mon nar­ra­tor of the sto­ries, his par­ents, Bel­la and Roman, and his grand­par­ents, who have fled Riga for a bet­ter life in the Russ­ian-Jew­ish enclaves of Toronto. 

The col­lec­tion opens with Tap­ka,” which details the family’s ear­ly, awk­ward strug­gles with their new lan­guage, in par­tic­u­lar the hor­ren­dous con­se­quences to them and their neigh­bors, of six-year-old Mark’s mis­ap­plied lan­guage skills. 

Bez­mozgis, who now lives in Toron­to, moves us along through the vagaries of assim­i­la­tion and com­ing-of-age, often hilar­i­ous, occa­sion­al­ly humil­i­at­ing, to Minyan,” the last of the sev­en stories. 

Mark’s beloved, check­ers-play­ing grand­fa­ther has moved into an old-age home and as he and Mark nav­i­gate the new community’s jeal­ous and nar­row-mind­ed cul­ture, Mark is sur­prised to find him­self drawn back into the solace of the reli­gion he has tak­en for granted. 

Through­out, the scenes are fine­ly observed, rich in sen­so­ry detail. In the open­ing lines of Top­ka,” Bez­mozgis con­sid­ers three sep­a­rate ten­e­ment build­ings: Goldfinch was flap­ping clothes­lines, a ten­e­ment deliri­ous with striv­ing. 6030 Bathurst: insom­ni­ac schem­ing Odessa. Cedar­croft: reek­ing borscht in the hall­ways.” From Roman Berman, Mas­sage Ther­a­pist”: My father was dressed in his blue Hun­gar­i­an suit — vet­er­an of inter­na­tion­al weightlift­ing com­pe­ti­tions from Tallinn to Sochi. I had been put into a pair of gray trousers and a pressed white cot­ton shirt, with a sil­ver Star of David on a sil­ver chain not under but over the shirt. My moth­er wore a green wool dress that went nice­ly with her amber neck­lace.… With feigned con­fi­dence we strode up Kornblum’s nice­ly trimmed walk: three refugees and a warm apple cake.” 

Shad­ows of Philip Roth, Isaac Babel and Leonard Michaels may hov­er benef­i­cent­ly in the wings but it is Bezmozgis’s pure, quirky human­i­ty that shines in this deeply orig­i­nal debut collection.

Judith Felsen­feld book of short fic­tion, Blaustein’s Kiss, was pub­lished in April, 2014. Her sto­ries have appeared in numer­ous mag­a­zines and lit­er­ary reviews, includ­ing The Chica­go Review, The South­west Review, Blue Mesa, and broad­cast nation­wide on NPR’s Select­ed Shorts.

Discussion Questions

1. In Tap­ka” what does the dog sym­bol­ize to Rita? To Mark’s moth­er? What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the dog to Mark, ini­tial­ly as a young boy and then as a mature nar­ra­tor? On page 9, Mark observes, we had intu­it­ed an ele­men­tal truth: love needs no leash.” Do you agree? How does his obser­va­tion relate to the events in Tap­ka”? Does the sto­ry end hap­pi­ly or trag­i­cal­ly? Explain. 

2. Despite being set in Cana­da, do you think the strug­gles faced by the Bermans in Roman Berman, Mas­sage Ther­a­pist” might apply to oth­er immi­grants else­where in the world, par­tic­u­lar­ly Amer­i­ca? Explain. Why is Doc­tor Korn­blum inter­est­ed in the Bermans? When the fam­i­ly leaves the Korn­blums, Mark won­ders, As we walked back to the Pon­ti­ac it was unclear whether noth­ing or every­thing had changed” (p 36). Do you think any­thing changed? Explain. 

3. In what ways is The Sec­ond Strongest Man” a con­tin­u­a­tion of the themes intro­duced in Roman Berman, Mas­sage Ther­a­pist”? Does the sec­ond sto­ry resolve some of the ques­tions posed in the ear­li­er sto­ry? Explain. Why is Roman’s con­fes­sion to Gre­go­ry on page 60, stat­ing that he often thinks of return­ing to Rus­sia, a sig­nif­i­cant moment in the sto­ry? By the end, how do you think Mark views his father’s sit­u­a­tion ver­sus that of Gregory? 

4. How is the sto­ry An Ani­mal To The Mem­o­ry” about both the rejec­tion and accep­tance of one’s cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty? What con­flict­ing mes­sages does Mark receive about his her­itage? On page 69, Mark’s moth­er says that he is not leav­ing Hebrew school until he learns what it is to be a Jew. Does Gur­vich final­ly teach Mark what it means to be a Jew? How? 

5. In the title sto­ry, how does Bez­mozgis grad­u­al­ly reveal that Natasha is not like oth­er girls that Mark has met? How do Mark, Natasha and Zina each view sex dif­fer­ent­ly? On page 94, do you think that Mark and Natasha’s dis­cus­sion about sex­u­al­i­ty objec­ti­fi­ca­tion reveals any­thing about men’s and women’s atti­tude toward sex in gen­er­al? Why? On page 104, Natasha accus­es Mark of being like his uncle, of want­i­ng peo­ple to make his deci­sions for him. Do you agree? Explain. By the story’s end, what has Natasha taught Mark about himself? 

6. In Choyn­s­ki,” how do the events lead­ing to the deaths of Mark’s grand­moth­er and Charley Davis mir­ror each oth­er? How does the story’s nar­ra­tive struc­ture con­tribute to this mir­ror­ing effect? What do Joe Choyn­s­ki and the theme of fight­ing sym­bol­ize in the sto­ry as a whole? Why do you think it’s so impor­tant that Mark return his grandmother’s false teeth to her? What does the sto­ry seem to be say­ing about the impor­tance of the things that peo­ple leave behind after they die? 

7. In Minyan,” why does Bez­mozgis nev­er define the exact nature of Itzik and Herschel’s rela­tion­ship? Do you think that defin­ing it would change the story’s mean­ing? Explain. Accord­ing to Zal­man, what will hap­pen to Her­schel? Do you think that Minyan” is a fit­ting end to Natasha? Why? 

8. Do you think that read­ing Natashas sto­ries togeth­er, in the order they are arranged, offers a dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence than if you were to read the sto­ries inde­pen­dent­ly in a mag­a­zine? Why? In what ways is Natasha more like a nov­el than oth­er sto­ry col­lec­tions you may have read? 

9. Do you think that being Jew­ish or a Russ­ian immi­grant alters how you read the sto­ries in Natasha? In what ways do the sto­ries tran­scend the speci­fici­ty of their char­ac­ters’ expe­ri­ence and become uni­ver­sal? Which sto­ries and char­ac­ters in Natasha did you most relate to? Explain