Monday, June 11, 2012

Natasha, and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis: Book Review

Natasha, and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis has traveled with me for a long a time. Published in 2004, I'm pretty sure I grabbed the small hardcover off the shelf the first time I saw it. I read it and forgot I'd read it, even listing it as one of the books I own but haven't read.

How could I forget?

Natasha has nearly everything I love: it is a novel in short story form, each story connected to the other but independent; it has a family newly arrived to a place where the possibilities are as limitless as they are unattainable; it has (for the first few stories) an articulate but believable child narrator.

Short stories are, perhaps, the most challenging form of fiction. The author has only a few hundred words (if that) to establish his characters and setting. Bezmozgis solves this challenge skillfully, weaving life's hard lessons into his stories.

My favorite story from the collection is probably "The Second Strongest Man." The narrator, Mark Berman, grew up around body-builders in the USSR because his father was one of the top trainers. His father's top recruit had been Sergei, a former soldier possessing preternatural gifts as a weightlifter. Faced with an impossible bet to life a car, a fellow soldier introduces: "Sergei, show Chaim what's impossible."
For many years after that, with help from Mark's father, Sergei is the strongest man in the world. Until years pass and he's not anymore, no matter how hard he has trained nor how badly he wants to be. What do we live for, once we outlive our dreams?

The stories of Natasha are uniformly stark, even bleak. Happiness is fleeting. Most decisions happen outside the text: Mark's parents decide to bring the family to Toronto; Mark has decided to become a journalist; grandmother has cancer. The progress, too, is a footnote. The moves from apartment to house, any success in school, these are all ancillary details.

What matters, what Bezmozgis focuses us on again and again, is the grind of life punctuated by genuine and reverberating mistakes.

Book 23 of 52

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