Book Review: Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown

modern girlsIt is New York City in 1935. On the lower east side lives Rose and her daughter, Dottie, two Jewish women living what appear to be two very different lives. Rose is an immigrant, married with four children, Dottie being the eldest. Dottie is a career woman (as much as a young lady could be a career woman in 1935). She works as a book keeper for an insurance company and is about to be promoted to the head of her department and looks forward to attending college. She’s also being romanced by a nice young man named Abe.

As different as their lives seem, Rose and Dottie share a secret. They are both pregnant. And they aren’t exactly thrilled about the news. Now that she’s older and her children are nearly grown, Rose has a huge desire to get back into the activism that captivated her in her youth. Plus, her family is challenged enough with four children. Her childbearing days should be over.

As for Dottie? Well, for one thing, she is unmarried and Abe hasn’t put a “ring on it.” Oh, and there is the pesky fact that Abe is not the father. Dottie has been impregnated by a dastardly rake named Willie Klein, a fledgling journalist who wants to write stories about the turmoil that is taking over Europe, not settling down with a wife and a young mouth to feed.

Each chapter Dottie and Rose trade off, telling their stories in first person. We get their perspectives on their lives, their predicaments they face and the journeys they go through before they reach the final decisions that will shape their futures.

Dottie tries to find a reasonable solution to her unexpected pregnancy. She can’t tell Willie. He’d probably just run off, and besides, they’re not betrothed to each other. It was just one night…a night Dottie remembers was one of deep passion, which aroused an erotic awakening in her that she wonders if sweet Abe could ever muster if he could get past a few virtuous kisses and some chaste hugs.

Knowing she can’t keep her little secret a secret as her body blossoms with pregnancy, Dottie conjures up a plan to seduce Abe when they go on a week-end get away to a place called Camp Eden, a week-end that will rely on a bit of alcohol and a lot of seduction on Dottie’s part. She can’t face the idea of being a single mother to a bastard child. It would be a shandeh (Yiddish for shame or embarrassment to my fellow gentiles). As for abortion or adoption? Dottie also thinks of these two options, but they leave her feeling just as confused.

And then there are Dottie’s dreams for the future. Being a whiz at math, Dottie loves her job as a bookkeeper (despite a few sketchy co-workers) and desires a college education when often women didn’t even make it to high school (my maternal grandmother never did). But thanks to Rose, a college education might be a real option for Dottie…if only she wasn’t facing an unplanned pregnancy.

As for Rose, as much as she loves her family and arises to the challenges of making her small tenement apartment a home, which includes making the Friday evening meal, the shabbes, she knows there is so much out there. She hungers for the life she had when she was younger, the life that included embracing activism and social justice, especially when it comes to her fellow Jewish immigrants. But how can she embrace the passions of her youth if she has another child to take care of? What will she do?

Though Modern Girls starts a bit slow but once it gets going it is truly a compelling read. Dottie and Rose are two very engrossing characters facing huge choices at a time when women’s lives were so much more constricted than they are now. And yet at the same time, I found their options, dreams, fears, ideas and desires to very timely. Women, whether they be traditional “Roses” or contemporary “Dotties” face these enduring issues in 2016 (I’d like to know what they would think of the possibility of female president, which we might just get if Hillary Clinton gets elected and let’s not forget, Bernie Sanders, a Jewish man, also ran for president).

In the end, both Rose and Dottie make two very distinct decisions that are the best for the time and the predicaments they face. And instead of everything being wrapped up in a neat little bow, the reader is left hanging. How will Rose and Dottie’s lives turn out?

But Brown leaves us guessing, and that’s one of the reasons why I liked Modern Girls so much. It left the futures of both Dottie and Rose up to me, and I wished them nothing but happiness, but I also want a sequel to Modern Girls. Brown is a very talented writer, with a wonderful way of using both English and Yiddish, showing not telling the worlds Dottie and Rose exist, and making Dottie and Rose such multi-dimensional and captivating characters. It’s a great read and one that will inspire much conversation, and ideal pick if you belong to a book discussion group

 

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How To Build Girl by Caitlin Moran

How to Build a GirlBeing a teenage girl can really suck, and doesn’t Johanna Morrigan know it. In the opening of British columnist Caitlin Moran’s debut novel How to Build a Girl, it is 1990 and Johanna Morrigan is 14-years-old and living in a council estate (what Americans might call public housing) in Wolverhampton, England. Her family includes her would-be rock star dad who’s on disability, a mother who is suffering from post-partum depression after giving birth to twins, and her brothers, older brother Krissi and younger brother Lupin. The Morrigans struggle to survive on benefits and face a bleak future in an economically depressed England.

And if these issues aren’t enough, young Johanna has to also deal with being a fat, horny and insecure teenager with few friends and zilch romantic possibilities. A chance interview on a TV show causes Johanna to conduct herself in a rather embarrassing manner, and she is humiliated and mortified. Johanna is now desperate to change her life, but how?

By giving herself a make-over and renaming herself Dolly Wilde after Oscar Wilde’s lesbian niece, of course! She doffs a top hat, heavy eyeliner and cultivates an edgy and provocative alter ego. She starts taking out CDs from the local library, reads the best in rock and roll journalism, and fully immerses herself in a new-found musical education. Knowing she needs to make some money to help her struggling family, Johanna/Dolly somehow talks herself into writing record reviews for the rock magazine Disc & Music Echo despite having limited writing experience. However, what she lacks experience she makes up in talent and ambition.

Johanna/Dolly’s magazine colleagues sometimes treat her as an irritating kid sister, but she soon proves herself to be quite formidable as a music journalist. She attends rock concerts, gigs and parties, and ingratiates herself to musicians hoping to get the big scoop and write attention-getting features. Her record reviews are filled with witty observations and cutting opinions. Throughout How to Build a Girl Johanna/Dolly names all the top musicians of the 1990s—U2, Nirvana, Blur, Teenage Fan Club, the Stone Roses, Lush, Happy Mondays, Blur and James.

Soon Johanna/Dolly is fully immersed in the world of rock and roll. She hastily drops out of high school so she can fully focus on her budding journalistic career. Professionally, Johanna/Dolly impresses her colleagues and gets more assignments. Personally, Johanna/Dolly goes a bit crazy. She starts smoking, drinking and experimenting with drugs. She also cozies up a bit too much to some of her colleagues and the musicians she interviews in a desperate attempt to lose her virginity. Finally, Johanna/Dolly’s “V-Card” is punched and she is utterly elated. Somebody wants to have sex with her!

And soon lots of “somebodies” want to have sex with Johanna/Dolly, and she’s all-to-willing to comply. It seems she just recently had her first kiss, and now she’s compiling quite a huge list of lovers.

It is t this point of How to Build a Girl, Moran could have become a moralizing shrew and had Johanna/Dolly suffer some horrible tragedy for conducting herself like the town trollop. She could have had Johanna/Dolly suffer a brutal rape, get a rather annoying STD (or even worse, AIDS) or gotten knocked up. To my delight, Moran eschews these literary clichés, and allows Johanna/Dolly to embrace her sexuality, make mistakes that nobody would judge if she were a guy, and keeps on going while trying to mature in a world that often looks down on young women who don’t quite live up to middle class respectability.

But you know what? To hell with middle class respectability! The more I read about Johanna/Dolly’s adventures and journey to adulthood the more I liked her. Sure, she has her obnoxious moments—what teen girl doesn’t? But I cheered her on as she immersed herself into the intoxicating world of rock and roll, got her writing gig with Disc & Music Echo, met up with her favorite musicians, didn’t shy from expressing her musical opinions, admitted to being as horny as any boy, and somehow stayed devoted to her messed up family. I also felt deep compassion for her when she admitted to moments of crushing low self-esteem, family strife, embarrassing encounters of all kinds, and her struggles to connect with others.

How to Build a Girl’s Johanna Morrigan/Dolly Wilde is a vividly drawn character, both over-the-top bon vivant and down-to-earth geek. I’ve long admired Caitlin Moran as a columnist, and now I admire her as a novelist. How to Build a Girl is a literary rock star!

All God’s Children by Anna Schmidt

All God's ChildrenIn the first installment of romance author Anna Schmidt’s Peacekeeper series, All God’s Children, we are introduced to Beth Bridgewater, an American woman from Wisconsin who is now living in 1940s Germany with her Uncle Franz, Aunt Ilse and their young daughter. Beth originally came to Germany to help her aunt and uncle raise their daughter. Ilse has not been well since the birth of her daughter and she relies a great deal on Beth, who selflessly helps take care of her little cousin any way she can.

Early 1940s Germany was a perilous time. The Hitler regime was taking over and countless Jewish people were being sent to their death in concentration camps. Beth is horrified by these turn of events, and wonders what will become of her and her German relatives. She is also very concerned about her Jewish friends and acquaintances. In a somewhat hasty, yet giving move, Beth hands over her immigration papers to a young Jewish woman so this woman can escape Germany to avoid being sent to a camp. Now paperless, Beth can’t leave Germany to go back to her Wisconsin home.

Entering Beth’s life is Josef Buch. Josef is a former student of Uncle Franz’s, and is now studying to be a doctor. Josef chooses to live with Beth’s uncle and aunt so he can be close to his medical studies at the university. Despite the proximity to the university, it is a wonder why Josef would choose to live in a cramped apartment attic rather than parents much more spacious home. Josef’s father is also a high ranking official in the Gestapo. Hmm, could Josef also be part of the Gestapo? Is he a Nazi sympathizer? Could he possibly be a spy?

Josef is an enigma, and Beth questions his motives. Yet, she is also intrigued and drawn towards this handsome stranger. Soon she realizes Josef is also appalled by the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Like, Beth, Josef wants to also resist the Nazi regime and help Germany’s Jewish citizens who live under persecution every single day. Non-Jewish Germans must also fear for their lives; especially those who resist the Nazi regime.

Beth knows she most do something beyond giving away her immigration papers to a Jewish friend. And it is her strong Quaker faith, known as “Freunde” in Germany, that most guides her. As a Quaker, Beth is a pacifist. She refuses to take up violent means to defy the Nazis. However, she knows she can get help in other ways.

It isn’t long before Beth and Josef get involved with the White Rose, a resistance group who pass out leaflets exposing the evil of the Nazi regime and how to defy it. Both Beth and Josef bring their considerable gifts and strong moral code to the White Rose. Whereas, Beth is impulsive, she is also hugely giving and empathetic. And Josef’s considerable planning and organizational skills are also valuable to the White Rose.

Getting involved in the White Rose puts both Beth and Josef in a precarious situation, but they refuse to be deterred even though the face mortal danger every single day.

Before long, Beth and Josef find their friendship turning to love. With their shared commitment to helping others and defying the Nazi regime, they begin to have romantic feelings for each other. Beth and Josef can’t deny their strong feelings, and soon they fall in love and get married.

Unlike most newlyweds, Beth and Josef do not spend time unwrapping weddings gifts, setting up a household and contemplating starting a family. They face danger and death on a daily basis. And before long, Josef and Beth’s activities with the White Rose are discovered and they are sent to the camp Sobibor. Beth spends her days sorting out the clothing, shoes and various items of Soibor’s prisoners. These are prisoners who have already been sent to the gas chambers, a fact that horrifies Beth to her very core.

Despite being separated at Sobibor, Beth and Josef can spend some time together, and soon they lives are upended once again when they make a daring escape.

Beth and Josef face so much turmoil in their young lives uncertainty, violence, betrayal, near death and a gripping fear that they may never see another day. Yet, they are unwavering in their commitment peace, to their family and friends, to helping others and yes, to each other.

All God’s Children is a romance. But it’s so much more than that. It’s not a “bodice-ripper,” and it’s certainly not a romance of the clichéd “chick lit” variety. Too be honest, I’ve never been a huge romantic fiction fan. I went through a brief “bodice ripper” phase in high school, and to me, most “chick lit” has all the depth of a Jimmy Choo in-step. But Josef and Beth are two fully-realized characters who you can truly believe in. Beth is a young woman of both grace and gravitas. And we need more men like Josef.

I also have to give author Anna Schmidt a huge amount of credit for all of the research she did on World War II and the Nazi takeover of Germany and the rest of Europe. I must admit my own education on this horrific time is quite limited, just what I learned in school and through books like “The Diary of Anne Frank” and movies like “Schindler’s List.” I gained so much knowledge reading All God’s Children. I’m smart enough to realize that not all non-Jewish Germans were Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. Many were truly sickened by the Nazi regime, and many of them got involved in resistance movements and worked tirelessly on behalf of their Jewish neighbors and friends. Also, non-Jewish Germans suffered under the Nazi regime, with many of them being sent to concentration camps, and many of them facing torture and death.

All God’s Children piqued my interest in the White Rose, and through the miracle of Google, I did some research and learned so much more. I can proudly say members of the White Rose are now heroes of mine and I plan on reading about their work.

I also learned more about the Quaker faith. As a lapsed Roman Catholic turned Unitarian, I was only marginally acquainted with Quakers and how they live out their faith on a daily basis. I am in total awe how so many Quakers go above and beyond to help others, and do it without violent means.

Yes, All God’s Children is a lovely romantic story of two very notable and admirable characters. But it is also a story of courage, inspiration and a very worthwhile history lesson.