Top positive review
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Fabulous short stories
on September 18, 2012
Steve Stern's new book of short stories, "The Book of Mischief", is filled with Jews who are caught in all sorts of situations. Divided into four sections - Memphis' "Pinch" area, New York's lower East Side, Europe, and The Catskills - Stern's stories bring the reader an immediate connection with the "place" and "time" of those situations.
Steve Stern's writing has been referred to as "magical realism". In general, most of the stories in "Mischief" do have a surrealistic element. Some don't and those are probably the ones I enjoyed most. (I am an extremely literal reader and don't normally like anything surrealistic. But I loved Stern's stories, so maybe there's hope for me yet.) For anyone having read Stern before, please note that at least two of the stories - the first and the last - have been printed before in "The Wedding Jester". Some of the others may also have been in print before; "Jester" is the only other Stern book I've read.
All the stories are wonderfully and powerfully written. Curiously, the most effective one to me was actually the shortest. Set in the "New York" section, it is a short piece about a seamstress caught in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911. Stern is pitch-perfect as he looks at the last minutes of a doomed young immigrant as her workplace goes up in flames. There's no "magic realism" in the piece; only a mournful look at a trapped life. Stern's stories are usually placed in the past, though there are a few that are in the current day. His look at a Kafka-esque professor in Prague is a snapshot of today's city through the eyes of a teacher, himself caught up in the magic of that beautiful and mysterious city.
Stern writes about Memphis - and the Jewish section, "The Pinch" - with true affection. Most of the stories are set in the 'teen, 1920's and 1930's when the area was the home of Jewish European immigrants who kept to themselves and their problems to their home turf.
All of Stern's stories are good; there's not a clunker in the group. If you like short-stories, you'll love this book. You don't have to be Jewish to read the book; Stern thoughtfully provides a glossary of Yiddish terms in the back of the book. Also, the book's cover is way cool and very evocative of the stories inside.