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What are you reading? 'Ma's Dictionary: Straddling the Social Class Divide'

Recommended by Carmel DeMaioribus of Duluth::Recommended by Jill Lyman of Duluth

Title: "Ma's Dictionary: Straddling the Social Class Divide"

Author: Milan Kovacovic

Publisher: Greysolon Press

Genre: Memoir

SYNOPSIS: University of Minnesota Duluth French professor Milan Kovacovic recounts his life's unlikely path as the son of Slovakian parents working in France during the tumultuous years of World War II. His father died when he was 18 months old, and his mother ("Ma" in the title) worked as a live-in domestic in France. He lived with an elderly peasant couple in a small village in Normandy, France, and was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. A few years later, Kovacovic found himself at the opposite end of the social divide: living with a wealthy Parisian family (for whom his mother cooked) and attending an elite boarding school (on scholarship). His future in France looked bright until his mother inexplicably decided to immigrate to America. Thus, Kovacovic was forced to begin again -- this time as a high school student in the U.S. -- on a much rockier road.

REVIEW: On the surface, this is a sweetly told and fascinating memoir; underneath, it's an understated but powerful commentary on life from the perspective of a man who has experienced it in strikingly diverse ways.

As Kovacovic unfolds his complicated family history, he shares wonderful stories and astute observations. His descriptions of day-to-day life with his elderly peasant guardians in northern France -- who didn't even have running water in their simple dwelling -- are captivating and stand in stark contrast to the privileged life he experiences later while living with a wealthy Parisian family. In a typically philosophical way, he reflects on his early childhood in Normandy: "I lived a life made rich, ironically, by our destitution and our archaic mode of living. This paradox can be viewed as the revenge of poverty, which magnifies sensory perception and makes one forever appreciative of the smallest satisfactions, including creature comforts taken for granted by more privileged people."

Kovacovic is a keen and thoughtful observer, and the stories in "Ma's Dictionary" are beautifully told with honesty and humor. His insights on human nature, education, social class, culture, immigration, government and justice are both entertaining and thought-provoking, and make this a warm and rewarding book to read.

Also recommended by Jill Lyman of Duluth

One might suspect Milan Kovacovic guilty of plagiarism because his recently published book so closely resembles "Jude the Obscure" by Thomas Hardy, however, Jude is a fictional character, while Milan is a real person telling us the story of his life. His memoir, "Ma's Dictionary: Straddling the Social Class Divide," just happens to read like a work of fiction.

Milan's childhood would certainly be deemed unconventional by American middle-class standards. In describing his mother, or "Ma," he asks us to imagine "someone who has demonstrated an incredible sense of adventure, as well as unusual initiative and resourcefulness, by moving during her lifetime from Slovakia to rural Normandy, then to Paris, Chicago, San Francisco and finally Duluth." Imagine young Milan accompanying her on those adventures. In order to survive and thrive, he had to become fluent in Slovak, French and English, respectively.

Like the fictional Jude, Milan struggled to break free from the constraints of his social class. He understood that one of the roads leading out of poverty and obscurity was through higher education, yet he encountered many roadblocks along the way. Unlike Jude, Milan's story has a happy ending.

I encourage you to read Kovacovic's memoir to find out how he became an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he teaches courses in French language, culture and literature. Hats off to you, Milan. Chapeau!

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