Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Joyful Mischief

Memphis writer Steve Stern earns praise for The Book of Mischief

October 19, 2012 Memphis native Steve Stern’s collection of new and selected short stories, The Book of Mischief, has received a warm review in The New York Times. Nathaniel Rich praises Stern for his stories’ rich evocation of Memphis’s Pinch District, the now-gone Jewish neighborhood in which many of the stories are set: “Stern’s stories are suffused with nostalgia for this lost world, evident in the loving and at times exhausting detail in which he renders it. Nothing goes unobserved, down to the dented tin kiddush cup, the dolphin’s-head spigot on the marble fountain in the candy shop and the ‘beard so strewn with scraps you could boil it for soup.’”

Rich goes on to praise Stern’s use of myth and folklore as vehicles for contemporary storytelling: “The Pinch is an ideal setting for this act of transference, since its denizens, a disoriented people, are especially susceptible to spiritual visitations. Torn between sentimental, Old World allegiances and the temptations of Westernization, they struggle to distinguish myth from reality.” It is in part Stern’s exuberant use of creatures like succubi and angels to bring modern characters into crucial, “affirmative” junctures between life and death which leads Rich to name Stern “one of our most joyful writers.”

Here’s a glimpse into what other news sources have written about Steve Stern and The Book of Mischief:

“Stern has a gift for finding wisdom in the collision between this vulgar world of woe and what his Yiddish-speaking characters call the yenne velt—the other world.” ~Steven G. Kellman, writing for The Dallas Morning News

“A comic writer can find endless material in romance, and the collection closes with a grand flourish on the subject … Stern not only brings the house down but delivers a riff on how poisonous nostalgia can be.” ~Mark Athitakis, writing for The Plain Dealer

“The nods to Kafka and the author-avatars who half-dismiss their own books as ‘each more saturated in Jewish arcana than the one before’ demonstrate the intelligence behind these tales. The balance between levity and the weight of history is a clever choice, too; it lends the collection an appealing air of resilience. Though Stern is by no means the only writer to mine this terrain (Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon spring to mind), Mischief is thoughtfully constructed and incisive, a worthwhile addition to the genre. There is more than mischief here—there’s wisdom.” ~S.J. Culver, writing for The Star Tribune
“Stern, whose work is a treasury of Jewish folklore, also will speak at Friday night services at Temple Israel, though, he says, ‘I’ve never in my life said or thought anything appropriate for a temple homily.’ He plans to read a piece he wrote about Memphis for a State Department brochure, ‘then quickly remove my heretical presence from the altar.’” ~Peggy Burch, interviewing Stern for The Commercial Appeal

Mischief “is a treat to read, to be transported via his magical realism across the Yiddish folklore, to rest one’s weary soul within The Pinch of bygone Memphis amidst the ribald goings on, to observe from afar the Lower East Side of New York in its heyday. Where other writers can take you, Stern can spirit you, and you don’t even have to wake up to return from where you are, because you didn’t get there in a dream. You got there at Stern’s hand.” ~Deal Safrit, writing for the Salisbury Post

Click here for Chapter 16’s Q & A with Stern, here to read a review of Stern’s previous novel The Frozen Rabbi, and here for coverage of Stern’s writing about his travels in Lithuania.