Brass, by Xhenet Aliu*****

“I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

Brass Waterbury, Connecticut is the place to go for immigrants, the Brass Manufacturing Capital of the World; that’s true, anyway, until the plant closes. Elsie Kuzavinas waits tables at a Greek restaurant while her mother slaves over the assembly line at the Peter Paul Almond Joy Mounds factory nearby.

Elsie tells us that “My mother had warned me when I took the job to watch out for the Albanians that worked at the Ross, because she heard they treated their women like sacks and that their tempers ran hotter than the deep fryers in the kitchen.”  Nevertheless, she falls for the line cook, Bashkim hard and fast.  When he offers to take her home one night and then deliberately points his Pontiac Fiero the wrong way, she falls silently complicit, because even if he turns out to be a serial killer, she would be “happier to have died Bashkim’s victim than his nothing-at-all.”  Elsie knows that Bashkim had left a wife behind, but they don’t talk about it.

That’s just one of Bashkim’s rules. Nobody is allowed to talk about Bashkim’s wife.

In fact, Bashkim is a humdinger, and seeing Elsie’s slow transition from battered mistress to—not a crusader by any means, but a woman that has a bottom line involving basic safety and minimal security—is bound to make readers sit up straight and pay attention. And when an apologetic relative tells a bruised Elsie that Bashkim didn’t mean to hurt her, I want to cheer when Elsie says, “Of course he did. That’s what fists do.”

Elsie’s story is told alternately with that of the daughter she begets with Bashkim. Lulu is her mother’s daughter, a reckless girl who’s got little to lose. Their stories are presented in a bold, original second person narrative that is unforgettable.

By now I am supposed to have told you that I read this book free thanks to Net Galley and Random House in exchange for this honest review. But when a debut like this one comes along, the superlatives come first, the disclaimers second.  Aliu has positioned herself on the literary map, and I dare anyone to try to knock her aside.

Lulu didn’t get the college scholarship she had worked toward; all her hopes and dreams were riding on it. She needs more than an education, she needs to get out of the house. In desperation, Lulu sets out to meet her daddy, convinced that if he can actually see her, he will make everything right for her. Ahmet, a fickle, sweet boy that adores her, agrees to drive her to Texas. Lulu’s journeys, both outward and inward, kept me from thumbing off my reader when midnight came. The inward journey joining Lulu and Elsie is hypnotic.

This story is available to the public January 23, 2018. It’s badass working class fiction. Every feminist, every mother, every daughter, and everyone that loves excellent fiction should get a copy of this book and read it.

Because for all of us, it is better to be Aliu’s readers than her nothing-at-all.

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair *****

thejungleIt’s not your best beach read, but it’s an important bookmark in the history of American literature.

The second wave of immigrants who came to the USA around the turn of the century (our setting is 1905) came mostly from Eastern Europe. Political turmoil and poverty were the push factors for myriad Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Turks and others who needed to get away, and the still vivid hope of the American dream, the possibility of social mobility unthinkable in Europe, was the pull factor. The Statue of Liberty still meant something back then.

It wasn’t as simple as it seemed, though. One of the primary large cities to which immigrants flocked was Chicago, and one of the chief industries that would offer them work–as usual, work that those born here would not do–was meatpacking. It looked like good money, even after meeting coworkers who had fewer body parts at the end of their tenure at the packing plant than they’d had going in. It was bloody, nasty, inhuman, and heartless, both toward the workers and the animals. And the stuff that landed on the conveyor belt went into the product to be sold at the supermarket, whether it belonged there or not.

I’ll let that sink in a moment.

Sinclair’s novel was intended to be a workingman’s call to arms. Cast off the bonds of wage slavery. Let the people who do the work own the means of production, set the time tables, and divide the spoils. He’d been reading Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and believed his book would be a revolutionary vehicle. After all, working people read back then, and their attention spans had not been reduccd by the instant gratification that television and video games would later provide. He hoped it would be effective.

It was, but not the way he planned. When Americans read about all of the disgusting stuff that was landing in what they intended to serve for dinner, they revolted, and the Food and Drug Administration was born.

Today, meat packing workers are still among the most injured and the lowest paid, and they are still largely manned by immigrant workers.

The bottom line: read this for its historical importance and its place in American literature, but don’t expect to enjoy the experience. It’s pretty grisly material, but rightly so.