Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Black Russian 
by Vladimir Alexandrov

Frederick Bruce Thomas was born in 1872 to former slaves. His parents were able to acquire land and became quite prosperous farmers in Mississippi. They did well for several years until they were fleeced by a rich white man who tried to steal their property. The family lost everything and were forced to leave for Memphis where they ran a boardinghouse. After the murder of Frederick's father by a mentally unstable lodger, Frederick decided to get out of the South and worked as a waiter and a valet in Chicago and Brooklyn. Eventually he would go to London and France where Blacks were treated much better than in the United States. By the time 1899 rolled around, Frederick was in Russia. He would stay in Moscow for the next twenty years. Frederick gave himself a Russian name (Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas), married twice, had several children, and become a Russian citizen. He made his living and a fortune by owning variety theaters and restaurants. The Bolshevik Revolution wiped him clean and he escaped with his family (barely) to Constantinople in 1919. Frederick started from scratch and became rich again by having nightclubs that played jazz (a new kind of music) in Turkey.
Sound like an interesting story? I thought so. The first part of the book was really interesting and absorbing. By the middle, it started to sag and I was hard-pressed to continue reading. The last 90 pages were excruciating. There's not a whole lot of information on Frederick Bruce Thomas (no writings, no papers) so much of what is written here is conjecture. Thomas constantly reinvented himself and exaggerated events that may not have even happened. It's certainly admirable that he was able to create this wonderful life for himself. His work ethic came from his parents. Since there is not much about him, the book has plenty of chapters on the history of Russia and Turkey and this filler can become interminable. You don't really get a sense of who Frederick Bruce Thomas really was because the writing is just not that engaging.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

My Mother's Wars
by Lillian Faderman

Mary (the name she is given in America) came to the United States, in 1914, at the age of seventeen from Latvia. She was sponsored by her sister and brother-in-law and lived with them for a while. Mary's goal is to be a dancer but that is not practical so she works in the New York Garment District with squalid conditions and measly pay. Bored with her life at home, she goes dancing every night with a friend from work. Her brother-in-law is scandalized by her behavior and kicks her out.
When Mary is thirty-five and still barely making ends meet, she falls in love with a man who is ten years younger than her. Marriage is what she wants but that will never happen (he's got a girl in every port). While her romance is going on, Mary frets about the rest of her family still in Latvia where the storm troopers and Hitler are moving towards. She wants to get them out but doesn't have the amount of money that is needed to do that monumental task. 
Lillian Faderman (the name should actually be spelled as Federman) wrote her mother's story because Mary was illiterate in both reading and writing English. It's a quick read (three days for me) and interesting enough but they style is not very good and she just replicates what her mother told her even though, apparently, Lillian did historical research. 
The most annoying thing about the book is the extensive, over-the-top use of similes. I almost quit reading early on because of them but decided to grin and bear it and finish to the end.