Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Tyburn by Jessica Cale - for those who are sick of A Christmas Carol!

Greetings, commies!
As we swing into December, there will be no shortage of references to A Christmas Carol, the kind of sugary, "uplifting" holiday staple I'm sick of. If you hate that cheesy, preachy holiday vibe as much as I do, here is a novel worth checking out. It's set in England, albeit during the Stuart era, not Victorian. Yes, it deals with social inequality, but without Dickens' ... life-affirming message. Raw, unapologetic and politically incorrect, Tyburn is a treat for every Grinch out there.
Caught between a new love and an old need for revenge, notorious harlot Sally Green fights for survival in Restoration London. A sinister nobleman, a tutor with a secret, danger around every corner, and unbridled passion … Jessica Cale is pleased to present Tyburn, Book 1 of her new historical romance series, The Southwark Saga.
My thoughts:
Jessica Cale had a very challenging task ahead of her: reinventing and reassembling common archetypes. The whore with a heart of gold has been done to death. So has the teacher/highwayman. She manages to take those stock images, shake them up and flesh them out in brilliant new light. Even though marketed as a traditional romance, "Tyburn" is a gritty, realistic, multi-level novel with distinct noir twist. Set in England during the reign of the Stuart dynasty, the novel tells the story of a French born waif who manages to maintain her sense of humor, compassion and determination to survive. She is stripped of squeamishness and prudishness but not of dignity in the higher sense. She sells her body, but she doesn't agonize over it. Influential patrons bid for exclusivity. Not all of them repulsive. Some are actually tolerable. I am thankful to the author for not painting all men who paid for prostitutes' time with the same brush, for not making them equally filthy pigs. I am also thankful that she did not throw a token orphan. It seems like no sympathetic prostitute is complete without a love child (I am looking at you, Fantine from "Les Mis"). Blessedly, there are no cute prepubescent street children lurking in the background (die, Gavroche, die!) Sally refers to herself nonchalantly as "a barren whore". Kudos to the author for portraying a sexually promiscuous heroine without judgment or melodrama. You don't find edgy content like that in most romance novels, where the heroine is expected to be chaste, or at least reluctant and contrite, if she is sexually active. Even after all her traumatic experiences, Sally manages to separate business from pleasure. Even after being raped, beaten, forced to cater to the most exotic sexual whims of her clients, she retains her ability to fall in love, proving that humanity and purity can be found in the filthiest of places. Her tender camaraderie with her fellow prostitute, a cross-dressing male who styles himself Bettie, is probably the most moving relationships in the novel. There are so many things to respect about this marvelous debut.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Avelynn: the Edge of Faith - a historical romance by Marissa Campbell

It's been two weeks since the election, and I am back to reviewing literature. Political alliances, plots, shifting of allegiance are timeless topics. Today's book is Avelynn: the Edge of Faith, Marissa Campbell's standalone historical/military romance set in the Dark Ages. 

It's the year 871. Charges of treason, murder, and witchcraft follow Avelynn into exile as she flees England with Alrik. Arriving in Wales, they find refuge among Alrik's friends in the Welsh nobility. Cast out by his half-brothers, Alrik seeks to regain his honor and earn favor with the gods. When war threatens, Alrik embraces gold and the opportunity for his crew to become mercenaries, aiding the Southern Welsh kings in their fight against Rhodri the Great.

Desperate to return home, Avelynn seeks to find a way to prove her innocence, but she is pitted against Alrik as their desires for the future clash. With battle looming, Avelynn's faith in their relationship is further tested through a bitter struggle with Marared, a jealous lover from Alrik's past. Marared's threats turn deadly, and Avelynn runs afoul of magic and sorcery, causing her to question her beliefs and role as priestess.

When Avelynn and Alrik are betrayed, Avelynn is captured and Alrik is charged with regicide. The two become separated, a chasm of greed, deceit, and ambition driving them apart. In an act of harrowing faith, Avelynn will stop at nothing to find her way back to Alrik and break them both free from Wales's bloodthirsty grasp.

My thoughts:
I am very finicky about larger-than-life female characters being used as vehicles for advancing feminist agenda. There are so many historical/speculative novels out there featuring pagan warrior princesses, who are nothing more than talking heads spouting cliche anachronisms. Luckily for me, AVELYNN: THE EDGE OF FAITH is not one of those novels. It's a skillfully balanced, multifaceted, genre-defying work of fiction that combines the graphic historical grit with magical realism.

Campbell's religiously ambivalent Avelynn treads a fine line between an iconic Dark Ages high-born damsel (think Guinevere in the more orthodox interpretations of the King Arthur legend) and Xena the Warrior Princess, who dismembers her foes with one flick of her wrist. Blessedly, the author does not lapse into any of those extremes or rely on staple cliches. Avelynn is someone who can handle weapon and deflect unwelcome sexual advances. At the same time, she does not engage in lengthy tirades about gender equality. Her integration into the world dominated by warriors of various heritages - Celtic, Saxon, Viking - is effortless. Her relationship with her Viking lover Alrik is charged with raw, nonchalant sensuality, free from inhibitions and prejudices. At the same time, they discuss matters of life and death as equals. After torrid love scenes, they discuss politics and alliances. 

The novel explores the timeless subject of vindictive, vengeful ex-lovers. Marared, Avelynn's arch-rival for the affections of Alrik, is one of the most memorable female antagonists I have encountered in historical fiction. The infamous "psycho ex-girlfriend" is an eternal archetype. Physically and intellectually inferior to Avelynn, Marared relies on more traditional feminine tricks like fabricating pregnancy stories and threatening her rival with curses and spells. Despite her hatred for the protagonist, Marared is a sympathetic villain. She is a pawn in a much larger political scheme. Her rage is that of a discarded woman. Her heart is filled with fury, but at least she still has a heart - unlike her mother Sigy.

White magic is benign and useless, more of a placebo. Dark magic renders violent short-term effects but is sure to backfire. Ultimately, her heroine must rely on her own intellect and physical endurance as well as her ability to build alliances in order to triumph over her numerous ill-wishers. The author does not abuse the deus ex machina gimmick to advance the plot. Even though spirituality and magic play a major part in the novel, in the end, it is a combination of brain, muscle and iron that win.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Let me turn your phony liberal tears to pearls: Connecticut Commie speaks

Greetings, commies!

I usually don't get this personal on my literary blog, but in light of massive political masturbation on Facebook following the surprising election results, with oceans of bodily fluids streaming, I felt compelled to lift my skirt and show a little cheek. Disclaimer: I am commenting on my own personal experience, not generalizing by any means. Although, I suspect, many of you have similar experiences. I promise, tomorrow I'll get back to reviewing books and interviewing authors.  

In case you didn't know, I graduated from Stamford High School in 1996. I am friends with many of my former classmates on Facebook and even attended a reunion, just for the heck of it. Most of these people were not my friends in real life. In fact, they made my life rather unpleasant, deliberately or not. My social status during my high-school years would be best described as that of a token "freak" - a political refugee from Eastern Europe, with frizzy hair, a deviated septum, a bone marrow disorder and a vague Eurotrashy accent that has since been erased. It was perfectly acceptable for them to make me the subject of pranks and countless lame Cold War era jokes. Russians, Ukrainians and Poles are an easy target. You can bully them without being accused of racism, and people from those countries are not inclined to any kind of organized activism. They just suck it up and soldier on. And that's just what I did. I kept up with the honors program, staying in the top 5% of the class, combating intense anxiety by cutting my forearms and throwing up in the bathroom.

Fast forward twenty years. November, 2016. Donald Trump has just won the election. Many of my former tormentors have been expressing distress over the election of a candidate described as "racist, homophobic and bigoted", among other things. They demonstratively wring their hands and express concern for their "black, Muslim, gay, transgender, Hispanic, etc." friends. I find it fascinating that the same people who ridiculed, taunted, bullied, insulted and ostracized me throughout high-school are suddenly so concerned for the emotional well-being of their "minority" friends. Dear Class of 1996. I don't believe that for a second that you are concerned about anyone or anything beyond your own privileged butts. You don't have any minority friends, or if you do, by some miracle, then only as a fashion statement. You only surround yourself with Beautiful People, whose speech is littered with exclamations like "Awesome!" and "Amazing!"

Please, do not tell me how heartbroken and worried you are about your imaginary black, purple, Reformed Zoroastrian, Martian, trans-species imaginary friends. You are the same self-centered, hypocritical, prejudiced posers you were in high-school.

Deplorably yours,
Connecticut Commie

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Blue of Her Hair, the Gold of Her Eyes - another sci-fi gem from John B. Rosenman

Greetings, commies!
Another great short story from John B. Rosenman. Interestingly enough, October was a breast cancer awareness month. And that's exactly the diagnosis the heroine of his short story is hoping for. But the news she receives is infinitely worse. As a cancer patient, she could at least expect compassion and support. In her case, the prognosis is quite grim.

Rachel's mysterious disease causes everyone, including her husband, to fear and reject her. Then her body starts to change in amazing ways. What will she ultimately become, and can she survive and find a new sense of identity amid the terror of her transformation?

My thoughts
Set in a near future, The Blue of Her Hair, The Gold of Her Eyes is written in a very accessible, skillfully understated style, without any excessive drama. This short story is loaded with symbolism, built in metaphors and powerful messages that encourage the reader to think critically, explore his/her own beliefs about medical ethics and human rights. There are so many universal topics explored, from mass paranoia, to social ostracism, to pressure to give up the fight.

Americans like to think of themselves as humane, tolerant and compassionate, but when a mysterious illness, reportedly worse than cancer or AIDS, spreads through the community, everyone's tolerance is tested. The main character is one of the highlights in the story. Rachel, a social worker who dedicated her lie to helping others, finds herself discarded after receiving a devastating and mystifying diagnosis. She encounters rejection and companionship in most unexpected places. What really endears her to me is her refusal to beat her chest in self-pity. Her philosophical disposition and willingness to accept her fate give her an advantage over other patients stricken by the same disease. But I won't ruin the story for you. Pick it up and read it yourself!

Monday, October 31, 2016

"Expensive materials do not lead to good architecture" - interview with architect Elena Kalman

Greetings, commies and lovers of beautiful architecture! Today I am pleased to feature an interview with my aunt, Elena Kalman, an accomplished architect, whose career started in Moscow.  Her portfolio spans an impressive collection of residential, commercial and religious buildings. In today's interview she talks about maintaining a philosophical perspective on her creations and not getting too attached to them.
MJN: I love your house in North Stamford. You use it as a portfolio piece - and for a good reason. I sense Japanese influences - stone, glass, open space. It's ideal for sophisticated, high-achieving empty-nesters. As an architect, do you also have to be an interior designer?

EK: Thank you, I am glad you like my home. The house where I live and have my office is one of the simplest and least expensive structures I have designed. My husband and I feel comfortable there.  In terms of Interiors: Yes, the architect, if she wants to have creative control, has to be able to design the interiors. Otherwise, the building would have a split personality.

MJN: You have hosted comedians and performers at your house. Indeed, it has plenty of open space that can be used for performances. I'm sure you've taken the acoustics into consideration. I am a little nostalgic for the days when every aristocratic family had a "salon" space at home, where musicians and poets would showcase their talents. 

EK: I do not have a "salon". It is a little too pretentious for my taste. I just had some interesting people, whom I knew, give on occasion an impromptu performance or a lecture, while passing through our town. In terms of acoustics: in a large theater you need to really have a specialist do the sound reflection and absorption calculations. In a relatively small space, like a house living room, if you have some reflective surfaces (glass in my case) and some absorptive surfaces (sofas and people), the sound should be o.k.

MJN: I love telling my Jewish friends that you were the one who designed the Chabad building in Stamford. I drive by it every day on my way to work. Do most people who go to Chabad in Stamford know that you are the architect? Do you think it helps to belong to a particular religion if you are designing houses of worship?

EK: I do not think the designer has to belong to the same religion as the congregation. In addition to several the Jewish temples, I worked on the Unitarian Church in Stamford and, in my youth did all the drawings for the former catholic Cathedral in Kamenetz Podolsky. I think all the houses of worship have a lot of spiritual energy and it is always inspiring to work on them.

MJN: One of my acquaintances, who is also an architect, expressed a great deal of sadness over the fact that the building she had worked on had been neglected. It's hard to see your architectural "baby" neglected. How do you separate yourself emotionally from your work once it's done?

EK: I would like to have my work properly maintained, but when the project is completed it is out of my hands. Religious organizations are notoriously bad with funding. Especially, it is true of Chabad. They do not charge a membership fee, as to make sure anyone feels welcome. They encourage donations, but these are unreliable. Anyway, there is no point of falling in love with your own work.

MJN: Is there a project you are fantasizing about completing that is currently out of your reach due to financial constraints? Do you have a dream building that would not be practical or commercial enough but would take a lot of money to build?

EK: Not really. I do not do fantasy architecture. I like the constraints of reality and each project that comes with its own constraints is a welcome challenge. Expensive materials do not necessarily lead to good architecture - just look at Mac-mansions in Greenwich and New Canaan. I do not ever want to work on any of these. It helps to have some financial freedom, but even more importantly, it is great to have a client who allows me to have creative freedom.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Stop breeder shaming! Pedgree versus shelter cats ...

Greetings, commies!
I don't post very often about animal rights, but I felt compelled to write this post to talk about my recent experiences. I have a long history of volunteering at shelters and supporting various rescue organizations (not all of them are created the same, but that's a different story). Recently I got into breeding Siberians. It's a life-long dream of mine that I'd had to put on hold long enough for various reasons. Finally, I am able to pursue this dream. Many of my friends are excited and supportive. However, many of my friends associated with various rescue organizations have expressed disapproval. They are saying "Why bring more cats into this world, when there are so many homeless cats? Don't you realize that by making more kittens, you are decreasing the chances of homeless cats getting adopted?" What people need to realize is that purebred cats and homeless cats are NOT competing. Pedigree cats are a fairly small niche market. Most people cannot dish out $1600-2500 on a cat. The vast majority of people who are contemplating adding a feline companion to their household will still go to a rescue organization. For most people, it's not a choice. Their finances will not allow them to pay $1500 for a Siberian or a Maine Coon. And most people who are able to afford a purebred are already supporting rescue organizations with their donations. Most cat shows have events dedicated to increasing the standard of living of shelter cats and spreading awareness. 

To my militant rescue friends: breeders are NOT your enemy. CFA and TICA are here to promote responsibility and compassion. We are working to nurture a culture where animals are treated with respect.

Shaming breeders and people who buy pedigree cats is like saying "How dare you give your child piano lessons when there are so many kids dying of hunger." Hunger will never be completely stamped out. It doesn't mean that those born into privilege should be stripped of benefits and opportunities.