Monday, July 13, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of the book Russian Optimism: Dark Nursery Rhymes To Cheer You Right Up by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Ben Rosenfeld's Russian Optimism: Dark Nursery Rhymes To Cheer You Right Up was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Russian Optimism: Dark Nursery Rhymes To Cheer You Right Up 
Edited & Translated by Ben Rosenfeld
Illustrated by Dov Smiley
ISBN: 978-0-9908552-0-0
Reviewed 7/13/15 

Ben Rosenfeld was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States when he was four years old. He spoke Russian at home and soon realized the biggest cultural difference between his native and adopted country was the level of optimism. As Ben wrote in the introduction to his book, "Generally speaking, Americans expect each generation to accomplish more than the previous one...Americans view suffering as a temporary setback whereas Russians see it as inevitable." Of course, Russians don't view themselves as pessimists but as realists. The oxymoronically titled 
Russian Optimism: Dark Nursery Rhymes To Cheer You Right Up contains thirty (30) dark "nursery rhymes" divided into seven (7) ironically titled chapters. Each micro-story contains a colorful illustration by Dov Smiley, the rhyming Russian-language text, a non-rhyming English translation and a phonetic spelling of the original Russian in case non-Russian language readers want to try to impress their Russian friends.

I see many of these stories, not so much as nursery rhymes, but as jokes that try to find humor in the bad circumstances Russian people found themselves in. So, for example, when a weak economy brought about a shortage of meat, Russians turned to dark humor to make light of their inability to have meat on the dinner table. In "Dinner," Volodya is found to be too tall to fit into the oven. The English translation is,"Mom looked at Volodya with sorrow: No, he won't fit into the stove! His dad went to the closet looking for the saw, They really need to serve roasted meat at dinner." In "Gamey Meat," a similar scenario is played out. It reads, "Dad chewed meat in the kitchen. 'This is really gamey,' he said. Little Peter lowered his eyes in embarrassment. 'I boiled Aunt Fannie for a really long time!" Other stories involve murder, suicide, mutilation, attempted rape, terrorist attacks, as well as being blown up by land mines, grenades, and run over by trains, cement trucks, bulldozers, and lawnmowers. Just in case those themes are too tame for your taste, you will also encounter a story about a dad who gave his daughter a razor blade telling her it was a "lip harmonica" and a father whose testicles are chewed off by a rat hiding in a toilet bowl. There are a few less gruesome stories in the book, such as one where a grandmother rushes to the window after her grandson fell from the second floor relieved that he didn't knock over her flowerpot, or the one where Grandma Vera punishes children who steal cherries from her yard by coating those trees with poison. As this last story reflects, some of the stories are intended to portray a moral message. Others not so much.

The stories contained in 
Russian Optimism: Dark Nursery Rhymes To Cheer You Right Up are best read in Russian. However, whether you speak English or Russian, these morbid tales should be shared and discussed in a group setting. Everyone will have something unique to add as they consider whether a particular story is a morality tale, reflects a social or cultural phenomenon, is an expression of youthful rebellion, or an attempt by parents and grandparents to squash their off-spring's deviant and disobedient behavior. In any case, you will find the book entertaining and insightful. To purchase the book, go to    

Ben Rosenfeld is a comedian and writer who has appeared on FOX's Laughs, CBS This Morning and Rooftop Comedy. He has been featured as TimeOut New York's Joke Of The Week, twice headlined at Caroline's on Broadway, hosted at Lincoln Center and performs nightly in New York City. Each week, he co-hosts the Passive Aggressive Podcast and recently released his first comedy album, Neuro Comedy, both of which are available on iTunes. Ben Rosenfeld was mostly recently invited to perform at the Summer Soiree of the Beaux Arts Society, Inc., founded in 1857. For more information, visit his website at 

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