Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Bend in the Willow - an ordinary woman, an extraordinary amount of pain

Willowood, Kentucky 1965 - Robin Lee Carter sets a fire that kills her rapist, then disappears. She reinvents herself and is living a respectable life as Catherine Henry, married to a medical school dean in Tucson, Arizona. In 1985, when their 5-year-old son, Michael, is diagnosed with a chemotherapy-resistant leukemia, Catherine must return to Willowood, face her family and the 19-year-old son, a product of her rape, she gave up for adoption. She knows her return will lead to a murder charge, but Michael needs a bone marrow transplant. Will she find forgiveness, and is she willing to lose everything, including her life, to save her dying son?

My thoughts:
A Bend in the Willow is not for the squeamish or overly impressionable or prone to hypochondria. If you read the synopsis, it's full of provocation. It raises some very unsavory topics such as rape, domestic abuse, murder, care for a disabled relative, pediatric cancer and bioethics, all of which can be easily sensationalized. Those hot button topics cause an immediate emotional response from the female readership for which the book is presumably intended. There is the bread and butter of women's fiction and Lifetime movies. I do not say it with contempt. I do not look down on women's fiction, as long as it's done at a high artistic level, and its goal is not to perpetuate the feeling of being victimized while demonizing the male figures. I was curious to see how the author would handle those staple ingredients and weave them into a plot line.

Susan Clayton-Goldner does a pretty good job creating a convincing female character who has been kicked around by life a few times. Having spent her childhood in poverty, Catherine (aka Robin Lee) experiences Catherine/Robin is really an ordinary woman, whose ambitions do not extend far beyond having a happy nuclear family life. She has an underdeveloped ego that she eagerly pushes aside to accommodate the interests of other people. She selflessly carries a child of rape to term and gives him up for adoption. She puts her career in medical records aside to raise her son Michael with her new husband Ben. She takes on the role of a caregiver for her ailing father-in-law. And she is willing to sacrifice her freedom for a chance to save her youngest son after he's diagnosed with leukemia. For Catherine/Robin it's always other people before her. I realize that not every reader is going to like a character like that. If you are looking for an escapist fantasy featuring a larger than life warrior princess, this is probably not the novel for you. But the fact is, there are women with such value scales even in 2016. 

Speaking of time period, the novel spans 1950s through 1980s. Before the internet and social media, so it was easier for a person to disappear and reinvent herself under a different name. Also, being diagnosed with cancer in 1985 is a little different from being diagnosed today. The prognosis back then was a lot sketchier.

I knew this was going to be a hard read for me, because leukemia hits a little too close to home. The author does not shroud, downplay or sugar coat the horror of parents with a child who's diagnosed with a chemo-resistant form of blood cancer. If you have a vivid imagination, if you are prone to playing out the worst case scenarios, do not pick up this book. You will not sleep at night. I know I didn't. This is not a generic fluffy heart-warmer. It's a piece of very raw women's fiction at its finest.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Veles - pan-Slavic environmental god


Today's guest of honor is Veles, a major pagan pan-Slavic deity, the patron of earth, water, forests and the underworld. His number one rival is Perun, the supreme and egomaniacal god of Thunder. The battles between Veles and Perun will remind you of our recent presidential debates. In fact, there was so much tension between Veles and Perun, that the statues honoring the two respective gods were never built side by side. If a ruler built the two statues in close proximity to each other, his entire domain would be caught in a conflict between the two gods.

Here is a contemporary sculpture depiction of Veles walking between an ox and a bear. The ox represents domesticity, agriculture, sedentary civilization and private property. The bear represents untamed wilderness and raw instinct. The bird on his shoulder represents the balance of freedom and responsibility. In light of an impending ecological crisis, let's take a moment to honor Veles.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The universal "Thaddeus" - Polish stereotypes in literature

Greetings, commies and fellow deplorables!

Today I would like to share a guest post in Unusual Historicals "Meet My Protagonist" series. I chose Thaddeus Dombrowski, the accident prone, guilt-ridden, sexually exuberant, passive-aggressive husband of my fifteen-year old protagonist Renate in The Gate of Dawn. In American pop culture, Polish men have been subject of many good-natured jokes. Behind every stereotype, there is a bit of anthropological history.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Happiest Mom on the Block - a tale of unspeakable tragedy and recovery

Greetings, commies and deplorables!

Today's guest of honor is the remarkably courageous, resilient and candid Katerina Mayants Nelligan, whose confessional memoir Happiest Mom on the Block approaches such agonizing subjects as parental bereavement. This book is her tribute to her firstborn Juliana, who is now an angel in Heaven.

A memoir of a wife and mother of four who shares her biggest struggles and breakthroughs in parenting, marital strife and more importantly understanding of her soul purpose. Everything was perfect when she met the love of her life and gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Until one day, a terminal cancer diagnosis of her daughter left her childless and suicidal. Shortly after losing her daughter, she lost her job, her friends and almost lost her marriage to infidelity. After hitting rock bottom, she was compelled to sets sail on a journey to discovering the meaning of life and blessings of tragedies. Along her journey she discovers the biggest eye opening, paradigm shattering secrets to true happiness and bliss. She was finally able to bask in the light that was once at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel. Giving birth to three more children she shares her biggest secrets to raising happy, respectful and loving children who adore life in the same way she does. This book is a compilation of thousands of hours of research and experiences that will leave the reader with a deeper understanding of the privilege of motherhood, the secrets to a satisfying marriage and the gift of discovering who you really are so that you too can be the happiest mom on the block!

My thoughts:
I found out about this author through a Russian parenting group on Facebook. Turns out, we are from the same hometown in the south-east of Belarus, a former Soviet republic. Maybe it's not my place to speculate about it, but I cannot help wondering if the terrible illness that took her firstborn is somehow linked to the radiation fallout from Chernobyl. Even though she is five years younger than me, her early childhood experiences are very similar to mine, especially her brief encounter with anti-semitism, which clearly left a lasting impression on her. And, just like myself, she chose to marry an Irish-American. I found myself nodding and smiling through various passages, as they were somewhat similar to mine. But you do not perceive Kat and James as a "mixed" or international couple. The cultural clash/integration is not the focus of the story. You start rooting for this ambitious, modern couple, who share a strong work ethic and a dream for a large family.

This book is very raw and candid. The author does not pull any punches when describing the horrific illness that took the life of her oldest daughter Juliana. Even if you have never been through such an experience - and I pray you never have and never will - you have probably tried to imagine what it would be like. If you bring a child into this world, there is no guarantee that he/she will outlive you. Infant death used to be a lot more common. I'm not saying that people in the bygone days had a thicker skin about it. But there were more bereaved parents out there who could relate to your experience. Losing a child in the 21st century can also feel isolating, because most families are spared this heartbreaking experience, due to the medical advances.

But, as the title of the book suggests, Kat and James' story does not end on a tragic note. Having gone through every circle of hell, they emerge victorious, their commitment to each other renewed. They go on to have three more children and rebuild their lives and careers.

Real life stories of love, loss and recovery are much more engaging than formulaic romance novels where all plot-twists are pre-determined by the demands of the genre. If you want an inspirational real life story, from a real life woman, not an actress on Lifetime channel, please consider "Happiest Mom on the Block".

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

When Our Worlds Collide - a Dystopian gem with a Greco-Roman vibe

Happy New Year, commies and fellow Deplorables!

Nothing instills hope like a good Dystopian/Apocalyptic novel. Today's guest is Kellie Wallace, who has become a frequent flyer on my blog. She's here today with a new release When Our Worlds Collide.

As one city’s fate hangs in the balance, a woman’s destiny is about to be determined…

Amira Frost is forced to watch her home be invaded by the warmonger state, Argos. Divided into multiple class zones, the city’s once peaceful existence is threatened.

When an opportunity arises for Amira to get close to the General, she accepts with the hope that her new position as his personal food taster can help reclaim the municipality, but she is pulled deeper into his regime than she initially anticipated.

For every controlling force, a resistance is born…

The Ravens’ elusive leader, Grayson Roe, has one goal—to lead the resistance to victory against the barbaric military. Dedicated and ruthless, he sets out to use Amira to their advantage by offering her a proposal she's unable to refuse. Nothing will stop him from regaining control over his city and its people—not even the dark haired beauty whose loyalty seems questionable.

A city threatens to fall and a decision needs to be made…

As the battle rages, Amira is caught between two opposing forces and reevaluates her allegiance when her loyalty is tested. Her home is under attack, her friends and family are dying, and she is faced with a grueling decision that has the power to save or bring down an entire city.

When worlds collide, she must choose between saving her home or surrendering to the one man who threatens to destroy it all—including her.

My thoughts:
I have been following this young author's work for a number of years now, and I've read all of her books. She has produced a string of stimulating, extremely readable and memorable stand-alone novels. Her two topics of choice are WWII historical romances (with the emphasis on historical/military versus romance) and Dystopian/apocalyptic. It seems that every Tom, Dick and Harry writes Dystopian novels nowadays, and the quality is all over the board, with literary merit often compromised in favor of action. Dystopian fiction is a concept fiction. Just as sci-fi and horror movies do not require big name Hollywood stars to stand on their own, as long as the premise is good, same applies to Dystopian novels. One does not expect elaborate literary experiments in a Dystopian novel. But Wallace elevates her fiction a few notches above, because she does invest into character development and literary crafstmanship. "As Our Worlds Collide" has a distinct Greco-Roman vibe, as the characters and places have names that seem to be taken out of Greco-Roman mythology. But that's not the only ethnic pantheon that the author taps into. For instance, the protagonist's name is Amira, which means "princess" in Arabic. There is also a character named Vesna, which means "spring" in Russian. If you are into foreign languages, mythologies and world civilizations, you will enjoy this novel at a new level.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Three cheers for super mom! - pro-natal propaganda in post-WWII USSR

Here is a lovely pro-natal poster from the late 1940s Russia. World War II had depleted the population of able-bodied marriageable men. Women were encouraged to repopulate the country, even if they did not have a steady partner. This is a very interesting poster showing a mother with ten children. The father is NOT in the picture. The implicit message in the propaganda poster is that your duty is to procreate, even outside marriage, if necessary. Women who pursued single motherhood by choice were given perks and medals for their selfless sacrifice. By late 1950s the demographic crisis was eliminated more or less, and traditional two-parent families were encouraged. Notice, the boys are sporting uniforms - the next generation of warriors!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Kennedys' Curse over a Russian family - Yelena Litinskaya's confessional memoir

Greetings, commies and fellow deplorables!

Another post for my Russian speaking readers. I wanted to share a very short but intense confessional memoir by Yelena Litinskaya, a Brooklyn-based librarian, linguist and one of the most prominent figures in the Russian literary scene. The memoir is complete with poems written over the course of her turbulent marriage and some photographs.

My thoughts
They say that the question of ethnicity is not relevant for the truly educated, enlightened individuals. At least that's the point of view held by many Russian-Jewish immigrants, especially those who come from mixed families. And yet, this principle does not stop Yelena Litinskaya, the author of the confessional memoir "A Descendant of the Istratov Dynasty", to make humorous comments regarding her second marriage. Her remarks are good-natured and self-deprecating. She refers to herself as a typical overbearing Jewish mother and wife, while her husband Dmitry, is depicted as an old-fashioned Slavic titan, the stuff of Russian folk tales. Picture an animated, petite Jewish woman and a melancholic, tormented Russian man. There seems to be a curse hovering over the noble Istratov family from which Dmitry comes. A string of tragic deaths plague the family: freak accidents, mental illness, addition, suicide. You immediately think of the Kennedys. That is the baggage that the wide-eyed Jewish girl inherits when she falls in love with her Russian titan. On the intellectual level, these two seem like a golden couple, she an accomplished linguist and he a brilliant radio producer. Like many talented people, however, Dmitry is terrifyingly impractical and prone to self-destruction. The dark cloud that hovers over his family eventually engulfs him. Yelena, a creature of the light, is powerless to rescue him. She lives to tell the story of their tumultuous, deeply sensual love.