Category Archives: Steve Stern

Ten 2012 Books I Wish Received More Attention in 2012

I hesitate to say something simpler, like “Ten Overlooked 2012 Books”—these days even the books that dominate chatter about literary fiction generate such little attention in the wider world that even the award winners qualify as overlooked. Why the books books were less noticed or lauded escapes me—roughly a decade of steady book reviewing hasn’t made me any wiser about what catches heat and what doesn’t. But however those levers move, I wish they’d moved in these books’ favor a bit more.

Shalom Auslander, Hope: A Tragedy: OK, I can guess what happened here: Published in January and with a distasteful setup—Anne Frank is alive and decrepit in an the attic of a middle-aged Jew—it was probably easier for everyone to pretend this one didn’t happen by year’s end. But it’s funny all the same, finding its comedy in the way the Holocaust reshapes its characters lives generations on—Auslander is mocking the form of the reshaping, not the proximate cause of it.

Joshua Cohen, Four New Messages: Four short stories about anxiety, the internet, commodification, and sex, to various degrees. The best is “Emission,” about the impossibility connecting your online identity with your real one; the trickiest one is “Sent,” which is about pornography and finds a way to feel nightmarish without being sanctimonious.

Lucy Ferriss, The Lost Daughter: A domestic novel with a brutal opening: A teenage girl recruits her boyfriend to deliver a planned stillbirth, and it’s as painful to witness as you’d expect. But the child, they learn to their surprise 15 years on, has survived, and they have to make sense of that living. There’s a lot of melodrama here, but Ferriss earns most of her twists, and the Polish-immigrant family is treated with a degree of nuance and sensitivity that’s remarkable among a host of novels that treat immigrants as curiosities and sideshows.

Jeff Gomez, Beside Myself: This iPad-app novel is an Paul Auster-ish metafiction told three times over. Its three plot threads follow Gomez as a divorcee, a happily married family man, and husband whose life is going off the rails—each aware of their doppelgangers. The app allows you to jumble the narrative, which deliberately complicates the idea of which character we as readers tend to privilege. (Usually the first one, but there’s no “first one” here.) Smart and, unlike many such apps, disinclined to use every bell and whistle on offer.

Tania James, Aerogrammes: James’ second book is a collection of stories mainly focused on the lives if Indian-Americans, and her imagination is broad: “What to Do With Henry” tracks the strange bond between a chimpanzee and the humans he interacts with, and “Girl Marries Ghosts” is set in a world where dating ghosts is a real possibility. Throughout James gets a lot of mileage showing how much of ourselves we project onto others, human and nonhuman alike.

Lia Purpura, Rough Likeness: I admire Purpura’s range: A color, a word for a color, scavengers, Tuscaloosa. She’s stubbornly dedicated to the lyric essay as a place to experiment with form and topic; few books I read in 2012 had so many well-made sentences.

David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, eds., Fakes: Shields’ ongoing project to smash the support beams of conventional fiction (or maybe just expose them; hard to tell sometimes) clearly led him to help assemble this collection, which is largely made up of parodies of everyday forms of writing. (Jack Pendarvis’ “Our Spring Catalog” brilliantly sends up publishing-speak.) But fiction can’t survive on satire alone—one hopes—and the best stories here thrive on taking their artificial formats and making something sincere from them: Charles Yu’s “Problems for Self-Study,” Charles McLeod’s “National Treasures,” Caron A. Levis’ “Permission Slip.”

Patrick Somerville, This Bright River: The publication of D.T. Max’s biography and the posthumous collection Both Flesh and Not this year gave readers new opportunities to mourn David Foster Wallace anew and anew. Left relatively undiscussed was who might be Wallace’s inheritors. I’m not sure Somerville wants the gig—his first novel, The Cradle, was a trim fable, not an outsize, culture-hoovering epic. But this novel evokes what Wallace’s fans admired: Deep intelligence, a capacity to write in a a variety of modes, a fixation on the nature of compassion, and a recognition of how hard it can be to acquire.

Steve Stern, The Book of Mischief Like Steven Millhauser, Steve Stern enjoys exploring the fuzzy line between reality and fantasy, though Stern’s stories are more informed and inspired by traditional Jewish mysticism. It’s hard to call these often funny stories pious, though: Mostly set in enclaves in New York and Memphis, The Book of Mischief is a kind of extended study of the urge to transcend family and community, and how it’s harder than it looks.

Graham Swift, Wish You Were Here: We’re still a way’s away from a literature that faces the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan head-on—a 2012 novel I admired, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, is interesting mainly because it’s about how hard it is to articulate what happens in a war zone. So if we’re stuck with books about how dumbstruck we all are (or all our novelists are), let it be a novel like this one, about how the ceremonies we’ve devised for mourning soldiers aren’t nearly enough to help the survivors heal.

Review of Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi

My review of Steve Stern‘s new novel, The Frozen Rabbi, is up at Thought Catalog, an arts and culture site that launched last summer earlier this year. The review opens this way:

Early in Steve Stern’s 1996 short story “The Tale of a Kite,” the narrator hears some astonishing news: According to his son, a local rabbi has the power to levitate. The narrator is Jewish but not devout, so he’s outraged that his 12-year-old boy is seduced by such mystical nonsense. Even after seeing the rabbi float before his eyes, he still isn’t convinced. We, the readers, though? We believe. Stern’s charming satire succeeds by giving the rabbi a quiet nobility and by making the narrator into a comic, foolish figure —— not just for denying what he plainly sees, but for his religious hypocrisy. Here is the kind of man who’s angered at his son’s faith but convenes with his fellow Jewish businessmen to fume about it.

“The Tale of a Kite” is a very Stern-ian Stern story, typical of the kind of fiction he’s been writing for the past three decades. It’s funny, tinged with magical realism, concerned with the particulars of Judaism, and fixated on the collision between millennia-old spiritual traditions and contemporary American life. (It also takes place in Memphis, where most of his fiction is set.) This is no recipe for commercial success. In 2005 the New York Times ran a feature about Stern and his career, which has been long on critical acclaim but short on sales. The novel he was promoting at the time, The Angel of Forgetfulness, seemed poised to change his fortunes, thanks to especially glowing reviews and the support of a major publishing house. No dice: Apparently the audience for smirking literary fiction about Jewish-American life is limited to Elkin, Singer, and the “funny” Roth of the 1970s.

The bittersweet thing about being a relatively neglected fiction writer is that while many of your books may be out of print, substantive chunks of them are available on Google Books. (I haven’t followed the legal tussling around Google Books closely enough to understand who’s getting screwed as a result of that. Stern, probably.) An online version of “The Tale of a Kite” is available online too, and worth reading in itself.

Update: Not sure how I missed this, but The Frozen Rabbi is being serialized at Tablet.