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Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis.

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Title: Natasha and Other Stories.
Author: David Bezmozgis.
Genre: Literature, fiction, short stories, bildungsroman.
Country: Canada.
Language: English.
Publication Date: 2004.
Summary: This volume includes 7 short stories about The Bermans—Bella, Roman, and their son, Mark—Russian Jews who fled the Riga of Brezhnev for Toronto, the city of their dreams. Told through Mark's eyes, these stories chronicle their search for a better life, as they struggle to fit into a foreign urban landscape. In Tapka, 6-year-old Mark's cocky game with a neighbor's beloved dog turns into a tragi-comedy of life lessons learned. In Roman Berman, Massage Therapist, as Roman struggles to get his new massage business off the ground, the Bermans are invited to dinner by a local wealthy Jewish family who make it their hobby to help immigrant Russian Jews, though their reasons may not be as they first appear. In The Second Strongest Man, Sergei Federenko, a weightlifting champion coached by Roman Berman in Latvia and beloved by the whole family, is participating in an international contest in Toronto for which Roman is one of the judges, and the family reconnects with an old friend and gets a fresh reminder of the Soviet KGB culture. In An Animal to the Memory, Mark rebels going to Hebrew School by escalating acts of violence, which culminate on Holocaust Memorial Day. In Natasha, a 16-year-old Mark, spending his summer smoking weed in the basement, faces a stark, comical, and ultimately searing introduction to first love at the experienced hands of his new "cousin", Natasha, an immigrant from the new Russia. In Choynski, Mark travels to San Fransisco to find out more about his hero, a boxing champion from the turn of the 19th century, and meets and becomes involved in the life of the expert on the subject, Charley, while his grandmother back home struggles with a fatal cancer diagnosis. In Minyan, Mark and his grandfather watch as the death of an Odessan cab driver sets off a religious controversy among the residents of a Jewish old-people's home, when others start vying for his apartment, trying to ensure it doesn't go to the man he had shared it with up to his death.

My rating: 7.5/10.
My review: This books was beautiful and painful, and I really wish I had read it when it first came out because it was adamantly recommended to me when it first came out, and I can now see why. Though separated by about 20 years, David Bezmozgis


♥ That evening Misha toasted the dog:

—This last month, for the first time in years, I have enjoyed my wife's undivided attention. But I believe no man, not even one as perfect as me, can survive so much attention from his wife. So I say, with all my heart, thank God our Tapka is back home with us. Another day and I fear I may have requested a divorce.

♥ Inspired by everyone's confidence, we grew confident. Whereas at first we made sure to walk thirty paces into the ravine before releasing Tapka, we gradually reduced that requirement to ten paces, then five paces, until finally we released her at the grassy border between the parking lot and ravine. We did this not out of laziness or recklessness but because we wanted proof of Tapka's love. That she came when we called was evidence of her love, that she didn't piss in the elevator was evidence of her love, that she offered up her belly for scratching was evidence of her love, all of this was evidence, but it wasn't proof. Proof could come only in one form. We had intuited an elemental truth: love needs no leash.

~~Tapka.

♥ The money was lousy, but he was making contacts. He was certain he could take some of the Italians with him if he started his own practice. And if he got his office in just the right location, the old Polish Jews would surely follow. This was 1983, and as Russian Jews, recent immigrants, and political refugees, we were still a cause. We had good PR. We could trade on our history.

♥ None of this information, none of these discussions, were concealed from me. It seemed as though my parents had no secrets. I was nine, and there were many things I did not tell them, but there was nothing they would not openly discuss in front of me, often even soliciting my opinion. They were strangers in the country, and they recognized that the place was less strange to me, even though I was only a boy.

♥ As we walked back to the Pontiac it was unclear whether nothing or everything had changed. We returned much as we came, the only tangible evidence of the passage of time was the cold apple cake. Before us was the Pontiac, as green and ugly as ever. Behind us was Kornblum's fully detached house. We walked slowly, in no hurry to reach our destination. Somewhere between Jornblum's and the Pontiac was our fate. It floated above us like an ether, ambiguous and perceptible.

My father stopped walking. He contemplated my mother and the apple cake.

—Why are you still carrying it?

—What am I supposed to do?

—Throw it away.

—Throw it away? It's a shame to waste it.

—Throw it away. It's bad luck.

Something in the way my mother balked confirmed my own suspicion. There were countless superstitions, numberless ways of inviting calamity, but I had never heard anything about disposing of an unwanted cake. The ingredients had cost money, and she abhorred the idea of wasting food. Still, she didn't argue. Nothing was certain. We needed luck and were susceptible to the wildest irrationality. Rightly or wrongly, the cake was now tainted. My mother handed it to me and pointed down the street toward a Dumpster.

She did not need to say run.

~~Roman Berman, Massage Therapist.

♥ I felt the tour guide's responsibility to show Sergei something interesting. At the northern edge of the city, home to Russian immigrants, brown apartment buildings, and aging strip malls, there wasn't much to show. I stressed our personal connection to each mundane thing, hoping in that way to justify its inclusion. There was the Canadian Tire store where I got my bicycle, the Russian Riviera banquet hall where my father celebrated his birthday, one delicatessen called Volga and another called Odessa, a convenience store where I played video games, my school, my hockey arena, my soccer fields. Sergei looked and nodded. I kept talking and talking even though I could tell that what I was showing and what he was seeing were not the same things.

♥ When my mother saw Sergei, her face lip up with true happiness. Involuntarily, I looked away. After so many miserable months I was surprised by my reaction. I had been praying for her to get better, but there was something about the pitch of her happiness that made me feel strangely indecent. I had felt this way once before when I accidentally glimpsed her undressing through a doctor's office door. Here as there, instinct proscribed against looking at my mother's nakedness.

~~The Second Strongest Man.'

♥ She dropped down into one of the two velour beanbag chairs I had in front of the television. Chairs that I had been earnestly and consistently humping since the age of twelve.

♥ —She's an intense little chick.

—She's Russian. We're born intense.

♥ He wanted to know what Russia was like now. What it was really like.

With a shrug Natasha answered.

—Russia is shit but people enjoy themselves.

♥ —Sometimes I'm out here and I need to take a leak. But I don't want to go inside. The weather's nice. I want to stay out but I need to pee. Just for that the pool would be worth the investment.

—You could pee on the bushes.

—I'm a suburban homeowner, there's a social contract. Pissing in the pool is fine but whipping out your dick and irrigating the shrubbery is bad news. It's all about property value.

♥ —Where's the girl?

—With her mother.

—I thought she hated her mother.

—She does.

—So what are you doing here? Go liberate her.

—It's forbidden.

—You're sixteen, everything is forbidden. The world expects you to disobey.

—I've been accused of unnatural acts.

—Society was founded on unnatural acts. Read the Bible. You start with Adam and Eve, after that if somebody doesn't boink a sibling it's end of story.

♥ With one or two exceptions all the doorposts had mezuzahs, just like the hallways above and below. Everyone conveniently assembled for UJA solicitors and neo-Nazis.

~~Natasha.

♥ The palliative-care doctor, a young Jewish guy in glasses, prodded around my grandmother's stomach and explained that the swelling wasn't only a result of fluid. Some of it was disease. Disease had now infiltrated her kidneys and pancreas. He said that it was very horrible disease, this disease, but everybody in the room—except my grandmother—already knew approximately how horrible it was. My grandmother said thank you to the doctor and also said the word hoff several times. Her English was virtually nonexistent and I didn't think the doctor's Yiddish was good enough to understand that the word she kept repeating meant hope.

♥ It occurred to me how, with technology, it was possible to never miss a funeral.

From out of distress I called to God; with abounding relief, God answered me. The Lord is with me, I do not fear—what can man do to me? The Lord is with me among my helpers, I will see the downfall of my enemies. It it better to rely on the Lord than to trust in nobles. All the nations surrounded me, but in the Name of the Lord I will cut them down. They surrounded me, they encompassed me, but in the Name of the Lord I will cut them down. They surrounded me like bees, yet they shall be extinguished like fiery thorns; in the Name of the Lord I will cut them down. My foes repeatedly pushed me to fall, but the Lord helped me. God is my strength and song, and He has been a help to me. The sound of rejoicing and deliverance reverberates in the tents of the righteous, "The right hand of the Lord performs deeds of valor. The right hand pf the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord performs deeds of valor!"

It was a fighter's prayer.

♥ It was only later, that night, when I was on my hands and knees in the cemetery searching for her dentures in two feet of snow, that I wailed in Russian: Babushka, babushka, g'dye tih, maya babushka? Babushka, babushka, where are you, my babushka? I cried shamelessly, up to my elbows in the snow, looking for the new teeth which they had forgotten to bury with her. Bearing the dentures I had driven out into the worst blizzard since 1944 with either a flashlight nor a shovel. I had gone to the cemetery even though my mother had forbidden it and even though Jewish law dictated that nobody was permitted at the grave for a month. But I felt that I was following other laws. And so I dug—first with purpose, then with panic. My hands burned and then went numb. Snow soaked through my shoes and pants. By the end, I didn't even want to bury the teeth anymore, I just wanted not to lose them.

~~Choynski.

♥ The system was inscrutable. At least in Russia you knew who to bribe.

♥ The Saturday morning services started at nine and lasted for three hours. Most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences, I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history.

♥ But after the Holocaust there were two types of people. There were those who felt a responsibility to ensure the future of the Jewish people, and then there were those, like Herschel's wife, who had been convinced that the world was irrefutably evil. Those were the two kinds, Herschel said, and as always he was neither one nor the other. For him, the world held neither mission nor meaning, only the possibility of joy.

♥ I finally asked him what he intended to do. He said he didn't know. What could he do? He'd lived a long life. So many things had happened. God had always watched over him. Why would He desert him now? He was on the waiting list like everyone else. Maybe his name would come up? What was the point of talking about it? You lived as you lived while you lived. Today he was drinking tea and watching checkers, why ruin a nice afternoon worrying about tomorrow?

♥ His eyes shone with intensity. Let me tell you, I am not a stupid man. I have my own opinions, but I am in charge of the synagogue. Do you think I liked the business with Itzik and Herschel? You shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but Itzik was a difficult man. And there are people who say they know very well why Herschel has no children. But for two years they came. I never said a word. Because my job is to have ten Jewish men. Good, bad, it doesn't matter. Ten Jewish men. Only God can judge good from bad. Here the only question is Jew or not. And now I am asked by people here who never stepped into a synagogue to do them a favor. They all have friends, relatives who need an apartment. Each and every one a good Jew. Promises left and right about how they will come to synagogue. I've heard these promises before. And they say, With so many good Jews who need apartments, why should Herschel be allowed to stay? This is not my concern. My concern is ten Jewish men. If you want ten Jewish saints, good luck. You want to know what will happen to Herschel? This. They should know I don't put a Jew who comes to synagogue in the street. Homosexuals, murderers, liars, and thieves—I take them all. Without them we would never have a minyan.

~~Minyan.
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