“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan

Genre:         General Fiction (Adult)Manatthan Beach

Pub. Date:   Oct. 3, 2017

Publisher:    Scribner

Here is the thing about this author, Jennifer Egan: she is brilliant, I might go as far as to say there is a something Shakespearean in her writing, complete with betrayal and tragedy. But like Shakespeare, for me, she can be hard to follow. I did read her 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” “Goon Squad” has a complicated narrative with each chapter written as a tweet, or a music chart, or a PowerPoint presentation. In other words, her writing style is unique in this work.

In “Manhattan Beach” the author writes a traditional novel. The story spans from the years of the Great Depression to WWII. We meet the Kerrigans, a Brooklyn family, and learn of their successes and failures. There is twelve-year-old Anna, her adored father, Eddie, her mother and severely disabled little sister. They are a Brooklyn Irish family that is barely scraping by in the 1930s with a strong father-daughter bond. Sounds familiar right? But this is not “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” There is another protagonist, the New York gangster, Dexter Styles. The father works for him. The book’s title comes from the gangster’s wealthy home on Manhattan Beach.

This is a hard review for me to write because the book is clearly well researched, which is always a plus. The feel of the novel is realistic, as are the characters. Furthermore, I love historical fiction and as a native New Yorker, I was drawn into the story with its sharp observations of NYC in this time frame. Maybe it is the plot that bothered me? There didn’t seem to be a steady tempo. I felt as though I was reading three different stories about the girl, the father and the gangster. It is when Egan flashes forward several years that I began to have trouble with the storyline.

Anna at 19 is working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Her father has mysteriously disappeared. She alone is the breadwinner. She elbows her way into a job as their first female diver. She also sleeps with Dexter (who initially doesn’t realize whose daughter she is). Of course, there is a disastrous outcome. The affair’s beginning seems so unlikely that it reads absurd. No matter how talented the author is, this just feels like way too much soap for my taste. I cannot talk about the father’s fate for it would be a spoiler, but that also is a bit hokey.

So what do you say about a book written by an extremely talented author, in your favorite genre, with interesting characters that keeps you hooked until it doesn’t? I am not sure. (I wish I could quote to explain, but the publisher doesn’t allow this since the book is not yet published). Maybe, I need to brush up on my own skills. Or, maybe, it would have read better as interconnected short stories. Either way, I can safely recommend that you read this book if you wish to get lost in the world of the past, the Navy, a young woman breaking into a man’s field, speakeasies, nightclubs and the end of Prohibition. As well as a lovely family saga, expect your heart to break for them. Just don’t be surprised when things start getting far-fetched.

This is an Advanced Review Copy (ARC) book.  I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Vengeance of Mothers (One Thousand White Women)” By Jim Fergus

Genre:         Historical Fiction

Vengence of Mothers

Pub. Date:   September, 12, 2017

Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press

When I read this historical novel I wasn’t aware that it is a sequel.  I did have the feeling that I was missing the first part, but I wasn’t at all confused, meaning one can read it alone.  Set in the 1800’s the book begins with the journals of two sisters, the Kelly twins,  who were part of the Wives for Indians Program that sent “undesirable” women from prisons and asylums to marry Native Americans of the Cheyenne Nation as a means to encourage assimilation.  The Kelly sisters were part of the original story, “One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd.” In “Vengeance” the reader learns that their village is destroyed by U.S. soldiers while they were waving a white flag, in a raid that leaves their children and husbands dead.   The title of the novel comes from the sisters’ desire for revenge on the US Calvary. The second journal we read in this story belongs to Molly McGill, another woman sent to marry into the Cheyenne tribe. But when Molly arrives in the West, the program is virtually defunct, and the group of Cheyenne she was sent to meet is now on the run.  Originally, this batch of women was held as hostages by the Native Americans.  When given their freedom they decided to stay. Living with the Cheyenne would be as equally dangerous and as hard a lifestyle yet still desirable than to returning to prisons or asylums.

I have learned that the first novel “The Journals of May Dodd” has been made into a movie.  I have also learned via Wikipedia that “the spark for this novel was an actual historical event that occurred in 1854. A Cheyenne chief did request the gift of 1000 white women as brides but the offer was rejected by the U.S. Army.”   This is an okay read though obviously written by a man for the author’s generalizations on women falling in love are stereotypical.  When Molly realizes she is falling for her Cheyenne captor, I felt it could have been a scene from the 1920s silent movie, “The Sheik” starring Rudolph Valentino.  However, I did enjoy learning about the Native Americans’ ways of life. Because of this novel, I intend to read more hoping it all will not be too similar to another movie named, “Dances with Wolves,” where Kevin Costner plays a disillusioned Civil War lieutenant who comes to realize that it is he and his government and not the Native Americans who are the real savages.  I say this because (although I agree with the statement), I would like to learn something new about the tribes other than that they seemed to be a more decent set of human beings than the whites who destroyed them.

This is an Advanced Review Copy (ARC) book.  I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Love And Other Consolation Prizes” by Jamie Ford

 

Genre:         Historical FictionLove and Other Consolation Prizes

Publishers:  Random House

Pub.             Date: September 12, 20017

Mini Review

This sweeping historical novel revolves around two World’s Fairs that take place in Seattle, fifty years apart. The narrator goes back and forth in time from his life during the 1909 and the 1959 World’s Fair. We first meet our male protagonist in China at the age of five in the year 1902. He watches his mother burying his infant sister alive (horrible to read). The baby is already near death from starvation. His destitute mother, who is near death herself, has him shipped off to America to save his life. Aboard the ship he and other Chinese children, and some Japanese children, are kept captive in the cargo and treated like animals. However, they manage to remain children even in such horrendous conditions. They played, teased, had a bully and formed bonds with each other. This reminded me of stories about German Jewish children in concentration camps who managed to play together before they were worked to death. On the ship, he meets a beautiful Japanese girl a few years older than himself. During the journey, he survives a body of water known as Dead Man’s Bay. Here the ill children that cannot be sold are put into a sack and thrown overboard (I need to google this to learn if it is true, but I am afraid of what I will find).

In America, he ends up as a charity student in a boarding school in Seattle. Though it’s a lucky break, the boy is very lonely and makes no friends and has no family. (Think young Ebenezer Scrooge being left alone in his boarding school when all the other kids went home for Christmas). But our boy does not grow up to be a bitter man as Scrooge did for the strangest of reasons. As a healthy preteen, he is raffled off in the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair. (Hard to believe that was legal but it was). He is won by a famous Madam in Seattle’s Red Light District. This is not an ordinary brothel. It’s is a high-class establishment, where the grand dame owner is famous for educating and caring for her girls. Instead of living in another horrible place where people treat him terribly, here for the first time, he has a family. He has a job he enjoys, first as a houseboy and later as the house’s chauffeur. His occupation as a man will remain a chauffeur. He is lucky to learn a trade because one day the house will eventually close. This happens when the famous Madam will succumb to an occupational hazard. The sexual disease is never mentioned in the book. Saying without saying that this house would never use such vulgar language, but the writing makes it apparent. In the interim, he discovers the Japanese girl he befriended on the boat to America also works in this establishment. And to his delight, he meets the Madam’s pretty daughter who is his age. The three of them become great pals and our young house boy falls in love with both. Even though the three live in a brothel the author beautifully captures the sweetness of a first kiss.

I should have gobbled up this novel. It has all the elements of good historical fiction. It is interesting as well as educating. The reader will meet crooked police, suffragettes, and learn about the politics of the times. Reading about the brothel was a hoot, but with enough sadness to keep it real. I giggled when the adult chauffeur’s grown daughters were shocked to learn that their ordinary parents have some unordinary and rather scandalous secrets. My issue is that from the time the boy is still a boy until he becomes a young man, he could not choose between the Japanese girl or the Madam’s daughter. The premise of the plot, which is supposed to be inspired by a true story, is a good read. But the love-story triangle (which remained innocent) went on and on, dragging out the pages. I didn’t appreciate trying to guess which girl he would end up with, because the guessing became tiresome. I wanted to jump into the book, grab the young man, and sing to him the Loving Spoonful’s lyrics “You better go home, son, and make up your mind.” However, even with my issues, I have to recommend the novel. It is rich in history and I personally got a kick out of learning that political morals haven’t changed one bit.

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“Isadora” by Amelia Gray

Pub. Date:  May 23, 2017

Publisher:  Farrar, Straus and GirouxIsadora

In this unusual historical fiction, we meet Isadora Duncan (1878-1927).  She was a controversial and successful American dancer who performed throughout Europe.  Breaking with conventional ballet, she spearheaded a cutting-edge technique that accentuated a natural and free-flowing style over traditional inflexible ballet. Today she is known as the “Mother of Modern Dance.”   The author, Amelia Gray, lets us know that in both Duncan’s professional and private lives, she disregarded convention.   Her children were born out of wedlock by different men.  On stage, she was barefoot wearing scarves inspired by Greek imagery that peeked at her breasts, which sometimes resulted in banned performances.  She was the epitome of a bohemian.  (Think of the artists Frida Kahlo).   I was hoping Gray would focus her novel on the notorious dancer who lived and loved without boundaries.  However, Gray did not.  The novel only concentrates on the aftermath of her children’s death.  In 1913 Paris, her children and their Nanny drowned when their runaway car went into the Seine.

When I began this book I wasn’t aware that the author’s formatting was different than any other historical fiction that I have read.  Each chapter starts off with a concise heading that clarifies what we are about to read. Then after the heading, each chapter reads like a disturbing stream of consciousness narration.  I confess I was often confused.  Gray’s writing made me feel as if I were having a particularly intense bad dream.   And I believe that was her goal.  I have never read Gray’s short story, “Museum of the Weird” but I have the feeling that “weird” may be her style.   Yet for myself, while reading “Isadora,” I often I felt as though I was perusing a poem that I couldn’t quite grasp.  It left me feeling disappointed because the words sounded splendid, possibly brilliant, although I just didn’t get most of it.  (Because of this, I now intend to watch the film “The Loves of Isadora” with Vanessa Redgrave playing Isadora).  However,  Gray did a great job in helping me understand that Duncan grieved as she lived, full of melodrama and spinning out of control (like the car that took her children’s lives), bordering on the edge of insanity.  I will not tell you what she did with her children’s ashes.

In this story, there were narrators other than the protagonist.  There were also observers written in the third person.  (I think Junot Díaz is the master of this kind of hybrid style of writing).  You will need to be on your toes to follow the quick changes.  Still, Gray does manage to pull it off.  One voice was her sister Elizabeth who had a leg limp not allowing her to dance.   Instead, she ran the dancing schools her sister founded.  Elizabeth was totally reliant on Isadora and loathed her for that reality.  She appeared to be the level-headed sister until you catch on that her supposedly great loves were merely her friends, and the romances were actually all in her imagination.  We also get a good glimpse on Duncan’s grief-induced turmoil in her letters to the father of one of her children.   In these letters, Isadora’s sentences fringe on insanity.  Paris Singer, the heir to the Singer sewing machine empire, was the father of her other child.   Duncan was living with him at the time of the car accident.  To hear it from Singer, he was the brains and she was the temperamental artist.  Duncan would have disagreed, but it may have been true as he was influential in her many triumphs.   These different viewpoints enhance the story of a dazzling self-destructive dancer who found fame on the brink of World War I.  Shades of the coming war were only hinted at in this tale.  The focus was all on Duncan’s anguish.  Personally, I would have enjoyed reading about the historical moments that took place during her lifetime.  As I mentioned, I honestly only comprehended sections of the book due to the dysphoria-like writing style, which I always have trouble understanding.    But if you enjoy that genre, and you can handle absurdism in a historical fiction then this book is for you.

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“The Witchfinder’s Sister” by Beth Underdown

Pub. Date:  April 25, 2017The witchfinder's sister

Publisher:   Penguin Books

In this historical fiction the character of the sister is fictional, but her brother, Matthew Hopkins, was a real person, and a real witchfinder.  He even had the title of “Witchfinder General” during the English Civil war (1642-1646).  (I had to google this to believe such a title existed).  I was hoping to learn a bit more about the war between the Royalists, supporters of King Charles I and the Parliamentarians, supporters of the rights of Parliament, but the author decided to just educate the reader on how the fear of witches was pronounced by the general fear in England at this time.

The story is narrated by the sister who is widowed and forced to move back home with her brother.  She quickly learns that home is no longer a safe place and that her brother has grown into an evil man who longs for power.  He insists that she be a part of his witch investigations.  The tale reads like a psychological horror story, but is all the more terrifying knowing that such events in history did indeed happen.  Hopkins was a frightening monster. “My brother, Matthew set himself to killing women…but without once breaking the law.”Matthew-Hopkins

The inhuman methods that Hopkins used in his investigations are difficult to read.  Women were tied to a stool and not allowed to sleep for hours, which often led to sleep-deprived confessions.  Females accused were pricked with special needles in their vaginas and if an animal licked the blood they were considered witches.   Another example where death was the only outcome was when suspects were tied to a chair and thrown into water: all those who “swam” (floated) were considered to be witches and were then hung.  Of course, when the innocent didn’t float they died a watery grave rather than by the gallows.  I believe we are all familiar with the days of the witch hunts, still, I didn’t expect to gasp in horror, as I did when reading exactly what went on during the so-called investigations.

The author, Beth Underdown, does an impressive job in taking the reader back into this ghastly time in history.  (Think of the Arthur Miller play and the 1996 movie version of the play “The Crucible”). I could feel the uncertainty and fear in the villages caused by a righteous lunatic.  Who would be next?  One daughter gave false evidence against a group of women who lived in her village with the promise that her mother might be spared.  I will leave you to guess if mother and daughter lived.

Underdown makes it easy to read between the lines, that the Hopkins’ witch trials had more to do with politics than potions, not to mention gender issues.  Now here we are in the year of 2017 and despite all that we know, we still can breed the hysteria that can create a monster.  I can’t help but wonder if humankind will ever learn.

 

 

 

“The Last Neanderthal” by Claire Cameron

Pub. Date:  April 25, 2017The Last Neanderthal

Publisher:   Little, Brown and Company

This is a novel about the makings of the female species. There are two female protagonists. One lives in the present and the other lives forty thousand years ago. The author, Claire Cameron, weaves the two females’ very different lives together in flashbacks and flash-forwards. Cameron writes her novel as if it is a thesis, with a theory that needs to be proved. Her hypothesis is that our ancestors were strikingly similar to the humans of today. Her end notes have an impressive list of references on the subject, showing that she did her homework. In the hands of a lesser author, this dissertation-like focus could be the book’s weakness. Instead, her storytelling skills are so good that it is the book’s strength. It reads as a historical fiction, a mystery, a fast-paced suspense tale with taboo sex, and a love letter to the human race, with an emphasis on the female ability to create life.

The modern day woman is a pregnant archaeologist who is racing to get grant funding to continue her work on Neanderthal artifacts before her baby is born. The bones she finds in her dig are of two bodies and they are a shocking discovery because they are of a female Neanderthal and a human male buried together, positioned as if embracing. In the distant past, the Neanderthal teenage girl is also pregnant. She is racing to find shelter before her baby is born. It is crucial that this baby lives since she knows that her species’ numbers are low. Her mother taught her that her reason for being born is to reproduce so the “family” can continue. (Family here can mean their immediate family but is also used as their word for all Neanderthals). It is clear to the reader that the female bones found by the archaeologist are the bones of the female Neanderthal protagonist. Both the Neanderthal girl and the modern day woman have very difficult births, one without her partner, in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, and the other alone in a hole in the earth during a snowstorm. Both almost lose their life giving birth and have to decide whether to save their own life or the life of their unborn baby. This type of choice always makes for a thought provoking and heart-tugging read.

By itself, the story of the modern day heroine would have been a good feminist tale, asking if working women can have it all—a fulfilling career and family life? The author adds in a postpartum psychosis episode, and the Archaeologist begins to think about killing her baby. This temporary madness makes for an interesting story but it has been written before in “All She Ever Wanted” by Rosalind Noonan and other stories on this subject. But the story of the Neanderthal girl is so intriguing that I sometimes became annoyed when the next chapter focused on the Archaeologist. In the girl’s story, I became lost in the world of 40 thousand years ago, when the last families of Neanderthals roamed the earth. They were incredible people, and I choose to call them people because of what I learned in this book. Yet, they had an animal-like fairness to them that modern humans do not have. Unless desperate, they never killed a baby animal. They understood that this would disrupt the balance of the order of life because then the baby bison would not grow and continue the circle of life.

I became fascinated with other side stories in the novel too, such as the girl’s friendship with a tiger too old to hunt. He would come to visit her like a pet and she would give him strips of meat, usually cooked. (The Neanderthals would eat raw meat immediately after a successful hunt but once brought home the carcass is cooked). The Neanderthal girl and the tiger jointly knew that if it came down to it, one would kill the other even though they were friends. It is survival of the fittest with a certain kindness and respect. Another character that intrigued me is a boy child that the mother Neanderthal takes in when she finds him lost and orphaned. He became a much loved family member even though they see him as an odd looking child as well as rather strange. He had impressive qualities that they did not have. Something about his arms allowed him to throw and hit a target as only an adult could. Unlike the others, who rarely use their voice to communicate in words, he chattered all day long, driving the others crazy. And a difference that made this reader laugh out loud is that the family worried that when his time came he will never find a mate, because he is such an ugly looking male, no female would find him attractive enough to want him. (Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I guess Neanderthals were not physically attracted to humans’ facial features).

I will not share what happens to each of the female heroines or their babies. It would be a spoiler. I will share that one of my favorite parts in the Archaeologist’s story is when she is in labor and couldn’t talk with the doctor so they locked eyes and somehow managed to communicate without words, just as the Neanderthals did. This book makes me want to pay attention to my own forgotten senses lost from lack of use. I often joke that my sinus and spine pains can tell me when the weather is about to change. Could this be how modern Homo sapiens modified our alertness to nature? And can we once again regain instincts that we have lost? The author made me truly feel for our ancient ancestors as if they were my relatives and not just extinct creatures that I once read about in a history book. This is a powerful novel that made me often tear and sometimes laugh, all while exploring the concept of what makes us human?

 

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“The Patriots” by Sana Krasikov

ARC books are given before publication to professional the-patriotsreviewers for free in exchange for an honest review.  I missed the publication deadline on “The Patriots,” and did not remember I owned the book until I saw a review of it in the NYT (which I did not read for fear of influencing my own review). I do hope my review, being written after publication, will still assist with this book’s sales, for this is historical fiction at its finest. The story revolves around a Jewish girl, from Brooklyn who lived in Russia from 1933 to 1979. The author, Sana Krasiko, moved between voices and decades. The story is linear except for the prologue, which takes place in the 1950s. After that the story of the mother, which is told chronologically and in the third person, begins. However, her story is punctuated by the first-person voice of her 60-year old son, who narrates in the year 2008. I enjoyed this writing style— it kept the prose fresh while showing the different views of the times. Both mother and son lived in Russia for parts of their lives. In the 1930s, when most were immigrating to the US, our heroine was leaving New York for the Old World. She remained trapped there under Lenin and Stalin’s rule. She was sent to a prison camp. The son was forced to live in orphanages until his mother was released in the 1950s. But before all this happened, she was romanticizing the possibilities of creating a better life in Russia. Looking at today’s news, this book could hardly feel more relevant to this reviewer. I shyly admit that I did not know that Putin was once a KGB officer.

In this novel, our Russian bound teen originally wanted to go to an elite American Women’s College. However, the family finances stood in the way, as her father’s business suffered from the Depression. She thus entered the co-ed world of NYC’s free public college education. It was here that she discovered other Jewish students arguing Marxism-Leninism and Communism vs. Capitalism. Her desire for pearls was replaced with a passion for political activism favoring socialized states. Think Barbara Streisand in “The Way We Were.” She graduated, and in her first job met and fell in love with a Russian man who was in the US for only a few months. To the horror of her family, she booked passage on a steamliner to Russia. She told her family that she was off to pursue her dream job and that she would be gone for one year, maybe two. In reality, she was really going to meet up with her Russian lover. Once she arrived and finally located her man, he rejected her. It appears that he was worldlier than she was, informing her to go home for she was in way over her head and that the USSR does not at all resemble a US college campus. Her pride would not let her return home. Besides, “Purges and politics aside, there was plenty of fun to be had in Moscow in 1934.” (One of the nice things about reviewing after publication is that I now can use quotes, unlike pre-publication.)

Eventually, she met a new young man. They married and had a child. Ironically, her husband was also a New Yorker who sympathized in Communist theories. In the early days of her marriage, her American passport was confiscated, which she demanded be returned to her. This was the beginning of her troubles with the secret police. Her confusion and fear during interrogations were shown when she informed on her best friend, another American girl that she met on the steamliner to Russia. Between non-stop questions with little time to think, she betrayed her friend in order to save her own family. In the long run she fails at this too. Despite her efforts to keep her family safe, her husband was shot, and she was imprisoned as a spy in a Holocaust-like concentration camp (think Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice”), being worked to death while covered with scabs from scurvy among other deadly ailments. These scenes were very hard to read. But, what was even harder, for me, was reading how her own US Embassy would not let her through the gates. It seems the US considered Americans in Russia as “pinko” traitors.

Still, before her imprisonment, she appeared happy to live in an apartment that held 12 people, with a common outhouse and a common kitchen where one had to hide their food for fear of stealing. These so-called apartments had no privacy or any conveniences at all. Even the light bulb in the entrance way was stolen so frequently that the residents were perpetually in the dark. While reading about the living conditions in “Patriots,” I had images of when the book and movie character “Dr. Yuri Zhivago” returned after the war to learn that his once-grand Moscow house had been divided into tenements. Her contentment to live in this manner left her son, as well as this American reviewer, very confused about how easily she adjusted when “She had grown up on the elm-lined streets of Flat-bush, Brooklyn, debated… at Erasmus Hall High, studied mathematics among the first emancipated coeds at Brooklyn College, tuned in to Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, and watched Cagney kiss Harlow on the projection screen at the Paramount.” How and why did this phenomenon happen?

Even in 1979, she refused to leave Russia to come to the US with her now grown son and his young family. She insisted that her life was in Russia, and that this was the country where she belonged. Mother and son had many issues around this subject. The reader knows that the real problem was as a 6-year old boy, her son, had no understanding that his mother didn’t abandon him, but was forcibly taken away from him. To make matters worse, the grown son was furious when he explained this to her and she replied that Russia takes care of their children.

Ultimately, she does leave for America with her son, most likely to be with her grandson who she adored. Sill, mother and son never got along. Until her last breath, she wished she stayed in Russia. “Maybe I would have been less hard on my mother had she been another ordinary Russian afflicted with that national form of Stockholm syndrome they call patriotism. But she wasn’t. She was, like I am now, an American….What I could not abide was her unwillingness to condemn the very system that had destroyed our family.” Sadly, what the son didn’t know was that when Stalin’s purges began, she decided it was time to go home. But, by then it was way too late.

Dare I say that this multi-generational saga will become a classic? The reader will go through the history of the pre-Cold War, Cold War, and post-Cold War told as a mother-son story. Once I finished the book, I wondered how the author’s own roots influenced her writing. Krasiko is a Jewish woman who was born in Ukraine and grew up in the former Soviet republic of Georgia before coming to New York. Her character of the mother was so complex that I couldn’t help but wonder if she was a real person. Or maybe, my thoughts are due to the author’s talent?

The book ends with the mother’s younger brother giving her now almost senior citizen son possible clarity on his Mom’s stubbornness, finally answering the how and why of the phenomenon of a typical Brooklyn girl becoming a loyal Communist party member. Maybe it had nothing to do with Russia at all but rather her guilt. In her decision to leave for the USSR she had hurt all those that she loved. It began with her family back in Brooklyn. Then it ended the life of her best friend, another 20-year old Brooklyn girl who also had dreams of a better world, as well as ending the life of her husband. And clearly hurting her son in all stages of his life. Unfortunately, her youthful optimism backfired on her. The uncle suggested that just maybe, his sister felt as if she didn’t deserve the comforts of America or a good life anymore? She was a living epitome of a sad Russian poem. Before Stalin became a Bolshevik revolutionary he was a poet. This book makes it clear that although Stalin is long dead his cruelty lives on.

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