Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Girl Like You - a Depression era mystery that reads like an escape fantasy

Greetings, commies!
There is no right or wrong way to interpret a great novel.  A well-written multilayered mystery is open to interpretation. Michelle Cox's debut A Girl Like You is one of such novels. When people feel disempowered and cornered, they often start fantasizing about other people's lives to get distracted from their own misery. They start concocting fanciful plots. It's one of the coping mechanisms with the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. This is why I wanted to share my personal interpretation of this novel as an escape fantasy that takes place in the head of a young woman who ends up with too much on her shoulders.

Henrietta Von Harmon works as a 26 girl at a corner bar on Chicago’s northwest side. It’s 1935, but things still aren’t looking up since the big crash and her father’s subsequent suicide, leaving Henrietta to care for her antagonistic mother and younger siblings. Henrietta is eventually persuaded to take a job as a taxi dancer at a local dance hall—and just when she’s beginning to enjoy herself, the floor matron turns up dead.

When aloof Inspector Clive Howard appears on the scene, Henrietta agrees to go undercover for him—and is plunged into Chicago’s grittier underworld. Meanwhile, she’s still busy playing mother hen to her younger siblings, as well as to pesky neighborhood boy Stanley, who believes himself in love with her and keeps popping up in the most unlikely places, determined to keep Henrietta safe—even from the Inspector, if need be. Despite his efforts, however, and his penchant for messing up the Inspector’s investigation, the lovely Henrietta and the impenetrable Inspector find themselves drawn to each other in most unsuitable ways.

My thoughts:
Michelle Cox's debut novel "A Girl Like You" reads like an escape fantasy. I am not sure if I am the first reader who got this impression, but I can almost see this entire story happening inside Henrietta's head. At nineteen, Henrietta finds herself with so many burdens upon her shoulders. The systemic economic depression that affects the whole country, the personal stigma of having a father who had committed suicide, the pressure from her guilt-tripping mother, the physical needs of her younger siblings who are much too young to be sympathetic. But the greatest burden of all, perhaps, is her beauty. She really hasn't figured out what to do with it, how to use to her advantage. So far, being beautiful has brought more trouble than gain. Committed as she is to helping her family survive, poor Henrietta cannot seem to keep a job. She is stuck in the vicious cycle of being assaulted by male coworkers and rowdy clients, and getting fired for sticking up for herself. She clings to her instinctive chastity and her principles, but is being chaste a luxury "a girl like her" cannot afford under the circumstances? So when Henrietta's life starts taking unexpected turns, veering off into the world of danger and mystery, as a reader, I could not help but wonder how much of it was real, and how much was imaginary. Perhaps, she never leaves the drudgery of her physical existence, and the thrilling murder mystery and her romance with Inspector Howard are mere figments of her frustrated imagination? Regardless of how you interpret Henrietta's adventures, "A Girl Like You" is an exciting read that combines gritty realism with mystery and romance.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Accidental Adulthood - proof that men have feelings too

Greetings, commies!

Relationship fiction has been dominated by female authors. Here is a refreshing change of pace. A humorous novel by a male author. It proves that yes, men have feelings, and they are just as prone to overnalyzing and overthinking as women. Today's guest is Jeff Gephart, author of Accidental Adulthood: One Man's Adventure with Dating and Other Friggin' Nonsense.

Mick's adult life is not turning out the way he'd hoped. His twenties are over, and instead of being the acclaimed novelist and family man he thought he'd be, Mick is stuck running a second-rate California motel and fumbling through an endless succession of hilarious dating misadventures. Most of his friends are married with children, and he feels they look down upon single people like him as being merely a fraction of a whole being. During his version of the modern single man's search for what completes him, Mick must contend with a cast of quirky and memorable characters that both frustrate and sustain him as he navigates his way toward having to make a momentous career decision that will affect all of their lives. Accidental Adulthood is a coming-of-age story for the Tinder generation. As Mick begins to face up to his own flaws and struggles to ascertain his place in the adult world, some universal truths are illuminated about family, ambition, responsibility, loyalty, and relationships.

My thoughts:
Despite the length, Gephart's Accidental Adulthood is a smooth, entertaining and effortless read. Effortless - but far from brainless.  Every chapter is bursting with grit, texture, flavor, references to pop culture, world history and dark humor. The author beats himself up with one hand and then strokes with another. It's a self-deprecating stream of consciousness, a celebration of Peter Pan inside every middle-aged man. It reads like a stand-up comedy skit worthy of Eric Bogosian.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Before and After Zachariah - Fern Kupfer's confessional memoir on raising a brain-damaged child

Greetings, commies!
As we celebrate March 8th, Women's Day, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the whole concept of women's solidarity and their treatment of each other. It's no secret that women can be each other's greatest allies, but they can also be each other's cruelest judges. Mommy Wars seem to have gotten more intense over the years. It's not just about working versus stay-at-home moms. It's about mothers of neurotypical children and special needs children. As a first (and only) time mother, I struggled with the new responsibility. My child was fairly healthy, and I continued working, but I had to make some adjustments to my schedule because of some transient medical needs that he had. Still, on those days when I was at home with a sick child, I felt incredibly isolated. I cannot even imagine what it feels like being stuck at home with a child who has serious medical or developmental issues. I'll be the first one to admit that I am NOT a super mom who thinks that "a special child is a special blessing". When I hear ultra religious people say those things, I cannot help but question their sincerity. Do they really fill this way? Have they convinced themselves that they were chosen by God to parent this un-parentable child? Or are they just ashamed to admit how they really feel? Do they regret having this child? Do they secretly wish the child would "go away"?

A woman from a parenting group I belong to recommended this book by Fern Kupfer, Before & After Zachariah. Even though Kupfer cites many confessional passages from other mothers who had severely handicapped children, she does not speak on behalf of all women. She gives every woman a voice, but she does not become a mouth piece. It's something I respect and appreciate. She does not put herself on the pedestal of martyrdom. Every experience is unique, and every mother's emotional bandwidth varies. Until it happens to you, you don't know your strong spots, and you don't know your fragile spots. Sometimes you break in places you did not expect to break.

Warning: this book uses the word "retarded", which has seems to fallen out of favor with the politically correct crowd. This book is also not for those from the "what doesn't break you makes you stronger" camp or from the "God won't give you more than you can handle."

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Magdalen Girls - predictable vanilla Blarney

Greetings, Deplorables!

I am back to reviewing fine historical fiction. I rarely post about a book that I give anything less than 4 stars, but I wanted to share my review of The Magdalen Girls, in light of recent debates about "women's rights" and how "American women don't know how good they have it". This book tells you more about the sad state of medium-size publishing and what kind of books publishers like Kensington are willing to produce. The trend for headless women on the covers persists, as does the usage of word "girl/s" in the title.

Dublin, 1962. Within the gated grounds of the convent of The Sisters of the Holy Redemption lies one of the city’s Magdalen Laundries. Once places of refuge, the laundries have evolved into grim workhouses. Some inmates are “fallen” women—unwed mothers, prostitutes, or petty criminals. Most are ordinary girls whose only sin lies in being too pretty, too independent, or tempting the wrong man. Among them is sixteen-year-old Teagan Tiernan, sent by her family when her beauty provokes a lustful revelation from a young priest.

Teagan soon befriends Nora Craven, a new arrival who thought nothing could be worse than living in a squalid tenement flat. Stripped of their freedom and dignity, the girls are given new names and denied contact with the outside world. The Mother Superior, Sister Anne, who has secrets of her own, inflicts cruel, dehumanizing punishments—but always in the name of love. Finally, Nora and Teagan find an ally in the reclusive Lea, who helps them endure—and plot an escape. But as they will discover, the outside world has dangers too, especially for young women with soiled reputations.

Told with candor, compassion, and vivid historical detail, The Magdalen Girls is a masterfully written novel of life within the era’s notorious institutions—and an inspiring story of friendship, hope, and unyielding courage.

My thoughts
In 1960s, as the rest of the Western world was in the throes of sexual revolution, Ireland was in a weird place. A recently liberated country, still working to define its statehood, it was slipping into theocracy. "The Magdalen Girls" doesn't get any points for originality. This is the kind of vanilla Blarney that a skittish, play-it-safe publisher like Kensington would churn out. Totally predictable and unimaginative, capitalizing on the proven cliches, "The Magdalen Girls" is a deja-vue from start to finish. Maeve Binchy died and left a void in that needed to be filled with more white bread. The stereotypical portrayal of the Irish father as a heartless, misogynistic drunk will make pseudo-feminists very happy. And of course, making the Catholic church look like a bunch of hypocritical predators will make secular humanists have that nice and fuzzy feeling. There are some parts that are just butt-clenchingly bad, like a 17-year old girl saying out loud: "I want to do more than just cook and clean." Really, sweetie? Never heard that before. That being said, I'm not going to knock the book too much. It is what it is. If you don't want to take chances and read serious books with the right balance of drama and grim humor, this is a book for you.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Welcome to America (go sit with your own kind)

Greetings, commies!
My original resolution was to keep personal posts to a minimum, but another installment of refugee memoirs just bubbled up inside me, and I felt compelled to share. I want to reach out to my fellow commies all over the world who are new to the US or contemplating coming here permanently. I want to teach them how to speak Americanese, the code language of misleading messages. Nobody is going to deny that all of us say pleasant things that are not to be taken literally, but in America this trend is taken to the extreme. One can argue that there is no such thing as "typical white bread American", and yet many people do describe themselves as such. So here is my little translator. When talking about your heritage to people who were born in the US, you can expect to hear some of these comments. 

"America is a country of immigrants ..."

Yeah, but some ethnic groups hold more influence than others. Not pointing fingers at any particular group and certainly not demonizing the infamous 'white Protestant heterosexual male'. Just accept that not all ethnic groups are equal in this country. I don't see how having a Slovene first lady is going to change much for the immigrants of Eastern European stock.

"My great-grandfather came from ...."

This is why he changed Berkowitz to Berkley and Milosewicz to Miles and Petrauskas to Peterson. Your Jewish/Serbian/Lithuanian ancestor wanted to look WASP.

"Welcome to our country!"

As long as you stay in your immigrant-dominated community and work jobs in the service industry. Commies, listen to me. They don't want you to compete for their jobs and their sexual partners. As a high-school student, I was always told to "sit with my own kind" during lunch. We had a separate table for students of Hispanic heritage, and a small table for Polish and Russian students. "Go sit with your own kind ..." Talking about being shown your proper place in life! 

"This is a land of opportunity, you know."

Yes, I know. My mother, who is a music professor in her home country, had to work as a teacher's assistant at a local daycare for $6 an hour back in the 1990s before she opened her own music school. I know that people who make minimal wage in the US still have more material comforts than professors and engineers in some countries. 

"Are you seeing anyone? Because there is a nice Ukrainian/Greek/Vietnamese boy in my algebra class."

Wow, very sweet of you to worry about my sex life.  Even sweeter of you to assume that I pick my sexual partners based on ethnic similarities. That nice boy could be a total jerk, yet you think that I should still give him a chance because he speaks my language. 

"Wow, you are such an asset to our community! You bring so much diversity."

They want you to be that exotic pet that they can use for their own entertainment. They don't want you at their country club, polluting the air with your accent and your peculiar jokes and tales of genocide and ethnic cleansings. No negativity allowed. We're all about "can do" attitude.

"Don't forget your roots, be proud of who you are!"

Translation: we want you to retain those cute quirks that make you an easy laughing stock. 

Conclusion. America is a great place to make money, but not a great place to make friends. I sort of knew it coming into the country. It's no secret that money is more important to me than friends, so I feel that I got a good deal out of my immigration experience.

Deplorably yours,

Connecticut Commie

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Dragontail Buttonhole - a novel of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia by Peter Curtis

Greetings, comrades!
I told you I was on a WWII binge. Today's book is The Dragontail Buttonhole by Peter Curtis.

Prague, 1939. Willy and Sophie Kohut own a prosperous business specializing in selling British fabrics for tailoring suits. When the Nazis occupy Czechoslovakia, Willy is arrested and accused of spying for Britain. After Sophie engineers his release, they decide to flee the country for the sake of their toddler, Pavel. Paying a small-time smuggler and using counterfeit Hungarian passports, they journey through Hungary and Germany itself, on an exodus full of unexpected twists that test their courage, and their love.

My thoughts:
The title of the novel The Dragontail Buttonhole is a bit of a mouthful. You basically have two composite words side by side. But strangely, the linguist in me is delighted. The title works well visually and phonetically, because it mimics the composition of German words and contributes to that pseudo-Germanic ambiance that the Nazis established on their occupied territories. There are so many WWII themed novels set in Poland that the occupation of Czechoslovakia seems to fall by the wayside, but I see the tide turning. Last year a magnificent movie "Anthropoid" came out, dealing with the mission to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the main architect behind the Final Solution. Czechs and Slovaks were also Slavs, like Poles and Russians, which meant that the Nazis had no qualms about slaughtering them as "untermeschen".

The protagonist of The Dragontail Buttonhole is accessible and archetypal - without being stereotypical. Willy is a refined and prosperous young businessman of Jewish stock who works in textiles. His ethnicity is not an issue at the time of peace - he downplays his Jewish heritage and does not flaunt his religious beliefs, and his facial features are ethnically neutral, enabling him to pass for a Slav or a Hungarian. His house is open to prospective clients and business partners of Christian faith. He makes frequent trips to England where his parents live. All that changes when Germans march through Czechoslovakia and Willy is accused of being a British spy. His youthful wife Sophie has to muster all the courage and guile in the world to secure his release. However, Willy's release is only the first step towards salvation.

The author does a great job creating the ambiance of apprehension and dread that you would expect from a novel dealing with Nazi occupation. It's a perfectly balanced blend of adventure, hardcore history and noir. If you fond of "escape from the Nazis" fiction and memoirs, definitely add this novel to your list. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A Refugee's Perspective - 25 years in the US and counting ;-)

Connecticut Commie is here. It's time for another editorial from Deplorably Yours. In less than a week I am going to celebrate 25 years of living in the US. Take a moment to pause. 25 fucking years! Can you believe that? Now, I know I like to joke about being a mail order bride and all, but the truth is, I came to this country as a refugee. As in ... "Knock, knock, let me in! There's a big bad wolf chasing me!" Gasp. That's right. That makes my support of our current President all the more reprehensible. It's like ... "How DARE you deny other people entry into this country when you're a pathetic, wet, shivering puppy yourself?"

Calm down, snowflakes. As a reminder, I personally do not deny or grant anyone entry into this country. We are all at the mercy of the consulate. Just like my family was 26 years ago, when we applied for political asylum. If the embassy officer deems your claim of discrimination and grave endangerment due to race, ethnicity, religion, etc. convincing - congratulations and welcome to America. No, this system is not perfect, and it's not always fair, but then, nothing in life is. And yes, there will be delays and setbacks. Even when you think you have all your ducks in a row, all your paperwork submitted, a minor change in the policy can upset your plans and throw you back to square one. So you're basically sitting on your bags, having sold or given away all your life's possessions, and then they tell you that your departure date has to be moved indefinitely due to some glitch in the Department of State database. And you be like ... "Whaaaat? Those bastards!"

I just wanted to take a moment to remind y'all that political asylum is not an entitlement. It's a huge undeserved favor that a country can grant an individual. American Dream is not a universal human right. America cannot possibly accommodate every struggling individual who "deserves a better life". And no, not all refugees are equally benevolent. Not all are going to assimilate well. So let's drop all that hippie fluff about us "all being human beings and wanting the same thing." We are not all the same. We do not all want the same things. There are some irreconcilable ideological differences. We do not live in a world without borders, as we do not live in homes without locks or alarm systems. Not yet. 

So, that being said ... If anyone calls you a racist, a Nazi, a fascist, a bigot, etc. don't take it to heart. Those words don't mean shit anymore. They are being thrown around like tropical Skittles. Just brush them off. Don't swallow them. Don't pollute your system with extra sugar and artificial flavors that this country is known for. Fake flavors. Fake news. God bless America!

Deplorably yours,
Connecticut Commie