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Russia to Rhode Island

Posted by David Mehegan  February 8, 2008 10:36 AM

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Now and then we come across writers who half-slip underneath the public radar because they don't have a large commercial publisher behind them. In the last year I've encountered several, and among the most interesting are David Shrayer-Petrov and his son, Maxim Shrayer. I have not read all their books, but what I have read, I have enjoyed.

David Shrayer-Petrov is a medical researcher at the Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence, R.I., and Maxim is the chairman of the department of Slavic and Eastern Languages at Boston College. David is the author of 20 works of fiction and poetry, including Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories from Russia and America, and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories. Maxim's newest book is a memoir of the family's immigration to the United States in 1987, Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration. The books are well-published by Syracuse University Press.

David's stories are translated, from the Russian, by Maxim. The autobiographical novella in Autumn in Yalta, titled "Strange Danya Rayev," tells of a Jewish boy evacuated during World War II with his family from St. Petersburg (Leningrad) east, out of the German-occupied areas. Some of the stories are set in the United States, including the funny and touching "Carp for the Gefilte Fish," which involves a Belorussian/Jewish immigrant man and his wife, a sexual tangle with their respective employers, and poaching in a Rhode Island reservoir.

Waiting for America is one of those memoirs, like Nabokov's Speak, Memory, that is more about feeling than narrative. It begins with the family's departure from Russia, sojourns in Austria and Italy, and ends with their arrival in New York, where the customs officer says, "Going to Rhode Island. Nice place. Great beaches." Shrayer's acknowledgements include these words: "My father taught me to write (I haven't been a good student, Papa), and my mother taught me English (still working on it, Mama)." His preface has this gentle alert to the reader:

"Fictionalization and poeticization, I believe, are not -- and should not be regarded as -- the opposites of narrative truth-telling; rather, documentary homebrew is aged, purified, and given an artistic vintage by the writer's conscious use of language, style, and narrative structure. Trying to discern where precisely the writer has strayed from the double phantom of verity and authenticity strikes me as a losing proposition for the reader, as it threatens to rob the reader of the pleasure of artistic revelation. As far as I am concerned, as the author of Waiting for America, everything in the story 'really' happened."

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