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VINE VOICEon 29 August 2011
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book started out well, I was readily drawn in to the life of Russian, Stalina Folskaya, who leaves her homeland for America in 1991, at the age of 51. I would have liked a bit more about her reasons for leaving, especially as she left an elderly, demented mother behind in St Petersburg. However, we meet her as she is preparing to leave and so assume those thought processes are behind her.

Arriving at Kennedy Airport, she makes her way to Hartford, Connecticut, where she stays with her childhood friend, Amalia. As is all too common in the emigre experience, her chemist's qualifications are of no value in her new land so Amalia finds her work as a maid at a local 'short-stay' motel. Stalina settles into this new way of life and persuades the proprietor to allow her to decorate some 'theme' rooms. Her Gazebo room and Roller Coaster room are an instant hit and The Liberty Motel adds 'Rooms for the Imaginative' to its motel board. Strangely, though she thinks about decorating other rooms, nothing happens for several years.

Unfortunately, I thought the novel collapsed in on itself at this point (about 2/3 through). Suddenly the motel ownership changed, 'suits' were on the scene, and Stalina breaks up with her closest friend over a thieving incident.
I don't want to spoil the story for prospective readers so I can't fully explain why I lost patience with the book at this stage, but all these events occurred with no build-up or back-ground and my star rating plummeted from a good 4 stars to only three.
A love interest in America would have been good too.

There were some really nice touches too though, particularly the relationship between Svetlana, the kitten, and Zarzamora, the crow. The flash-backs to Stalina's life in Russia were also interesting and the episode with the ashes made me smile.

This was a reasonable read but, for me, fell a bit short of the mark.
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"We don't celebrate (Valentine's Day) in Russia. We don't need a special day for the heart. Emotions for Russians are like test tubes of boiling sulfurs. Everything is potentially a drama. I noticed that holidays here (in America) always coincide with sales in stores. In Russia we have parades." - from STALINA

In STALINA, author Emily Rubin, apparently born outside Russia (as inferred in the Acknowledgments), has written the fictional memoir of a Russian émigré, Stalina Folskaya, who, at age 56, arrives in Berlin, Connecticut (pronounced BER-lin, not Ber-LIN) from St. Petersburg - a.k.a. Leningrad - and finds fulfillment creating the fantasy decor of rooms in a short-stay, no-tell motel catering to surreptitious sexual trysts.

Despite the locale, the core of the novel is the stories that Stalina tells of life in the old country. These are entertaining enough although, when compared to A Mountain of Crumbs, a true memoir by Elena Gorokhova, the reminiscences have been overlaid onto the main character by the author who, I gather, created them after research performed in Russia itself. In contrast, Gorokhova actually lived what she wrote about. What this means, in practice, is that, the fictional memories aside, Stalina could just as well have hailed from Fresno. No matter, however, as this doesn't detract from the book's overall appeal.

I suspect the market for stories, fictional or otherwise, about growing up in the old Soviet Union stems from the enigmatic nature of the place to most Americans during the years of the Cold War. That's a reason I, for one, find them engaging. For those with similar interests, STALINA is worth the read.
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on 6 February 2011
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Stalina is one of the older Russian generation who dreamed of a life of freedom in the west and emmigrated to America, leaving behind the poverty and privations of Russia even in the 21st century. Emily Rubin's novel follows her halfway across the world into her new life, where she meets some of her childhood friends who have done the same thing. Bravely leaving behind her sick mother, she embarks on a new job in a motel, despite being a trained chemist, and soon becomes indispensible to the owner with her imaginative ideas for revamping the rooms for their 'short stay' customers.

This is a lovely book that rolls along at the right pace and introduces characters who are believable and interesting. From Nadia, whose parents betrayed Stalina's father to the authorities, right through to Svetlana the cat, these are characters you feel you know. When Stalina vistied Brighton Beach I felt I was there with her, having visited it myself and heard Russian being spoken all around me. Coney Island has the biggest expatriot community of Russian Jews in the world but is rarely mentioned. This novel gives an interesting slant on the Russian experience.
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VINE VOICEon 29 March 2011
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Stalina is named after Stalin by her mother, partly to protect her since she was a Jew in the Soviet Union, but also because her mother, though afraid of Stalin, is nevertheless a communist.

Stalina trains as a chemist in the Soviet Union, but when she moves to the United States in 1991 finds that the only jobs she is offered involve hazardous substances and too little regard to safety. So she takes a job as a maid in the Liberty Motel, working for Mr Suri, an Indian gentleman whom she comes to admire and like. The motel is situated in Berlin, on the outskirts of Hartford, Connecticut.

The `motel' makes its rooms available to couples who have nowhere better to go. Payment is by the hour. Mr Suri is given to watching the clock and one of Stalina's duties is to phone the clients fifteen minutes before their time is up.

Stalina takes her work seriously. Given the nod by Mr Suri, she turns her attention to interior design, turning the rooms into fantasy destinations and marketing them as `rooms for the imaginative.' Some of these designs are described in detail. Though I found them unattractive the clientele make frequent repeat visits.

But Mr Suri's plans for the development of the motel, together with Stalina's success in marketing the rooms, proves too much for the local mob who are also in this line of business. So they `buy him out'. Stalina is sad to see him go but is retained by the new owners to run the motel and makes a success of it.

The story is told in the first person. It is always interesting to see how an author handles that. Some go for an educated person, a professional or academic, who can be counted upon to be as articulate as the author. A few choose someone less articulate who nonetheless has insights to offer, however eccentric their expression may be. And some have used for their narrator a person who, while telling the story in an interesting manner, also reveals a great deal about his or her character without realising it. John Galt was a master of this technique (the Scottish novelist of that name, not the fictional character in Atlas Shrugged).

In this case, the issue is complicated by the fact that Stalina, though a professional, is Russian and is therefore recounting events in a foreign language. But her father, a poet, had been fond of English literature and so her knowledge of English had begun in childhood. Though reference is made to her heavy accent, it seems that over the years she has acquired an excellent command of English. The author's use of first person narrative works well. Stalina has a voice of her own, not only in the way she expresses herself but also in her attitude to life. She is always direct and businesslike.
'Life was so different at the Liberty Motel. I'll now take a moment to describe the décor of my room designs.' ( Page 44)

'The next bit of my story will explain how my life in Berlin, Connecticut, and in the world, suddenly and completely changed.' (Page 126)

Just as she is direct with the reader so she is forthright with those she has dealings with, be they friend, acquaintance, customer or foe. Her US destination was chosen because her friend Amalia had gone there before her. However, she learns that Amalia has been ripping her off by selling some of the Russian brassieres that she, Stalina, had brought with her to supplement her income. The confrontation between the two is very sharp and Amalia becomes an ex-friend. Despite this, Stalina takes Amalia's cats, Shosta and Kovich, when Amalia leaves the area. She likes animals and observes their behaviour closely.

Stalina is open to life in all its variety. She is not a censorious person and accepts the wide range of behaviours she comes across at the motel much in the spirit of a human zoologist. She notes but does not deplore. For example, speaking of two of her favourite clients she says:
'I wanted to ask them why they were not together like a regular couple. They could love each other and take care of each other. The rest of the world would just have to understand.' (Page 85)

At its extreme this attitude to life might be questioned, and never more so than when a woman is found hanging in one of her rooms. Stalina phones the police at once, as the reader would expect, but the police are in her pocket since some of them frequent the motel. There is no interest at all in whether the woman hanged herself or someone did it for her. Was this only because she was a known prostitute? I don't think so.
`We'll call this a suicide. No worries - we'll take care of the body. You can go back to work.'
The other officer said, `No need to mention this to anyone, Ms Folskaya. We've got your back.' (Page 189)
Most people would recognise a big difference between suicide and murder but in this case no one, including Stalina, seems to care.

One strand of the narrative concerns the death of the young Stalina's pet dog and the disappearance of her father to the Gulag shortly after. This is subtle and handled very well. A connected strand of the story involves Nadia, a bossy girl Stalina knew as a child. To discover many years later that this same Nadia fronts the local mob which takes over the Liberty Motel stretches credulity. How likely is it that two girls from Leningrad end up as competitors in the sex business in Berlin, Connecticut?

This is an enjoyable book. Stalina comes over as a real person and one you like. I feel I have met someone new, as I would when she has spoken to me with such candour over two hundred pages.

Small points
The book under review is `an advance reader's copy, an uncorrected proof.' I can't think there is much to correct. The only sign of it I could see was this.
'The was is pulling up worms from the ground.' (Page 87)

Readers outwith the United States may be disturbed by a couple of past tenses. It seems that in the US the past tense of the verb `to fit' is also `fit'. I have come across this many times, for example in John Irving, but still find it strange. But here I also find `spit' used as a past tense despite the fact that the verb `to spit' is an irregular verb where the root vowel changes in the past. I can't help wondering if this past tense is common in the States while hoping that it isn't.
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Stalina is a quirky and charming story of a Russian woman, brought up in Stalin's era (and after whom she is named) and seeing out her later years in Massachussetts.

Her life has not been successful; she has no husband or children; she has no wealth; she works as a cleaner in a short stay motel despite having a degree in chemistry. But surrounded by mediocre people, she has no inclination to brood. She accepts what life has dealt her with wry humour.

The one exception to her good humour is the fate of her father - a Jewish writer who died in Stalin's labour camps. This has left a deep scar on her soul. She notes, with Russian irony, that her name is useful for judging who is a friend and who is not: those who are offended by it are friends; those who praise her pretty name are not to be trusted. And when she sees an opportunity to strike back at the long-gone Soviet system - strike a blow for her father - she jumps at the chance.

There is much to commend the novel. The settings are atmospheric, from the sleazy motel, through to the Russian community in Brighton Beach, and back to the Leningrad of Stalina's childhood. The writing is beautiful and Stalina's tone is perfectly judged. She sounds authentically Russian - not just in her words but also her thinking. She has pride in running the motel well and designing the tacky themed rooms; she has pride in looking after the dreadful clients; in ensuring that her boss's life is made easier. There is a determination to make her future through hard work (despite the situation she eventually finds herself in) but every now and then a humorous, rebellious streak shows through.

Stalina the person is a delight. So is Stalina the novel.
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on 11 May 2013
I would want to discourage anyone form reading this if the abstract catches your eye but somehow I did not fully engage with it. At the end I'm not sure what the point was but give it a go anyway. After it was very cheap - as in free
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VINE VOICEon 23 April 2011
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a fantastic book brought to my attention by Amazon vine. It tells the story of Stalina, an unfortunately named Russian middle aged woman who emigrates to the US after the fall of the USSR. It is wonderfully written and very competently crafted. It portrays the longing of an expat for the homeland left behind and the process of gradual settling in a new country. The story veers from the present (where Stalina works in a US motel) to the past (her life in Leningrad). This book will appeal to anyone with an interest in life under communist regimes, the travails of emmigration and human emotional stories that ring true. A very good book and I recommend it to everyone.
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VINE VOICEon 16 March 2011
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I really enjoyed this book. Although there is no real 'point' to the story as such, it meanders along nicely and is interesting. I found I really liked the main character Stalina, although you don't find out a lot about her or her feelings. She just has a 'good' feel to her and you just want to be behind her the whole way. Not your typical novel I would say, but good read.
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on 1 September 2014
I persevered to the end. I made it. But perhaps I could have done something more helpful with the time. It's OK ... The book is fine. It's just very very ordinary.
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on 7 September 2014
didn't find the story fascinating and had to force myself to finish it - somehow you always think it will improve but it didn't.
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