Thursday, October 24, 2019

"Five-Finger Discount" by Helene Stapinski

The only reason I can offer as to why I have never posted a review of this wonderful book before is that I read it in 2001;  eight years before this blog began! Now, with that explanation out of the way.....

What a charming and masterfully written book this is. So much so that it even made the cut recently when downsizing our home with my wife, Sue, in North Carolina. Both lovers of books, we had massive amounts of them at the old house but clearly, many needed to go. This book was not one of those.

Over the years I have read this book several times, and the characters in Ms. Stapinski's life have become as familiar to me as the ones drawn by Harper Lee or even Betty Smith in their respective accounts of growing up, the iconic "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."  (Technically those books are fictional though both are actually thinly disguised autobiographies.)

I grew up in Brooklyn, just opposite Bayonne, the city a bit South of Jersey City. Perhaps that's why the book caught my interest. Aside from the story of her own colorful family, Ms. Stapinski has also painted a vivid portrait of the corruption which splashed across the headlines of the newspapers I delivered daily when I was about 12 years old in 1966.

Tracing her roots to find out just how her family got to Jersey City is a story familiar to most immigrant families. This includes the family skeletons left behind, and the characters surrounding you growing up. But her biggest question is why did they stop in Jersey City?

Her father and mother are immediately recognizable as being the same type of people we all grew up with. Hard working and basically honest folk, who bend the rules a bit when necessary to make ends meet, or provide something extra for the family.

Jersey City was a major shipping point for all kinds of  goods. From locally manufactured things like toothpaste to imported hams and clothes, a portion of everything seemed to "fall off the truck" just in time for birthdays, or even Christmas. It was the same in Brooklyn as it was in Jersey City. These were two cities where "bringing your work home with you" clearly meant something different than elsewhere.

Ms. Stapinksi writes ably; and with great style. On page after page the reader is regaled with stories of her colorful family; all their strengths and weaknesses are on display. But the love is there, too. I can feel it every time she goes to meet her Dad at the Majestic, the tavern he stopped into each night, coming home from work at the frozen food warehouse, a frozen portion of the nights dinner under his arm.

The author grew up during a time of great political and social change. Jersey City seemed to be doing it's very best to avoid both. Corruption was the norm. But, through the sepia lens of time, and with the skilled hand of a gifted writer, I actually find myself wishing for the "good old days" when I read this book.

We all have our quirky family members. But though many families try, usually in vain, to hide these black sheep,  Ms. Stapinski's family celebrates them in story, passing them down from one generation to the next.

It's a multi generational tale about the Polish and the Italian sides of her family and how they got together. It's also the story of the next generation, her parents. And, it is also the story of millions of 2nd generation Americans, and the line they walk between the values of their own heritage and the American "dream."

From her Grandfather Beansie, to her long suffering grandmother Babci, and her own parents daily struggle with the world around them, this book will keep you reading. And you'll come back to it again for a second helping. Because in so many ways we all share this story.

Masterly interwoven is the history of Jersey City and it's neighbors, along with the political corruption endemic to most industrial towns of the time. With a reporter's skill, she chronicles the major events of the times which came before here, allowing the reader to understand more fully the attitude of most in her community to legitimize the "swag", the stuff which "fell off the truck".

This book works on so many levels that it is almost impossible to do it justice here. You'll follow Ms.Stapinski's journey as a reporter on the local paper, to her year in Alaska and her eventual return to Jersey City, and ultimately her settlement in Brooklyn, where the trees grow. And when the time comes, when all of the loose threads of this tapestry are tied together, you'll savor the memories.

NOTE: Ms. Stapinski's father passed away on October 22, 1987. I happened to be reading that chapter on October 22nd. So, I found the authors web site and dropped her a note via e-mail. Mistaking me for someone else she replied with a short note which referenced a reading. Looking back at her web site I noticed that she has another book out.

It's about that family skeleton, a crime left behind in Italy.  That book is titled "Murder in Matera". You can be sure I will be reading and reviewing it here. Even if I have to find a copy which has "fallen off the truck."

Also of note is that "Five Finger Discount" was made into a mini series. I'll have to check that out. I wonder if the characters can be portrayed on film as vividly as the way in which the author presented them on paper. It will be a tough match....

Here is a link to the films website.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Eternal Spring

As long as there's a spring
I'll gladly brave the cold
dark days of winter
as the year is getting old.

As long as there are flowers
that come back every year,
I'll gladly take the darkness;
With it's cold and icy spear.

As long as there are people
planting trees they'll never see,
I have faith earth will prevail,
and last eternity.