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Valeria's Last Stand

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Overview

The Hungarian village of Zivatar may be isolated, but it is not completely immune to the changes sweeping the country. The Soviets have left, and the villagers are warming to the blessings of capitalism?expensive cars, cheap women, and California fruit. It's all too much for Valeria, the village grouch. And yet, Valeria is not immune to change, either. Her routine trip to the market leads to unexpected love, and sets off a chain reaction through the entire village. A remarkably accomplished debut novel, Valeria's...

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Valeria's Last Stand: A Novel

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Overview

The Hungarian village of Zivatar may be isolated, but it is not completely immune to the changes sweeping the country. The Soviets have left, and the villagers are warming to the blessings of capitalism?expensive cars, cheap women, and California fruit. It's all too much for Valeria, the village grouch. And yet, Valeria is not immune to change, either. Her routine trip to the market leads to unexpected love, and sets off a chain reaction through the entire village. A remarkably accomplished debut novel, Valeria's Last Stand contemplates love, lust, tradition, and transition with wisdom and warmth.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Life in an isolated Hungarian village is turned upside down by an unusual love affair in Fitten's promising debut. In the small hamlet of Zivatar, 68-year-old Valeria is known by all as a cantankerous woman, quick to criticize everything from the produce at the market to the mayor's lofty ambitions to lure foreign investors to the town. But a chance encounter one day with the elderly local potter-a man Valeria has known for years but never noticed-changes everything. The widower potter falls just as hard for Valeria, despite his relationship with Ibolya, the owner of the village's only tavern. Unaccustomed to being smitten, Valeria tries to maintain her normal routine, but the village is in an uproar over this unlikely love triangle. The arrival of a traveling chimney sweep intent on bilking the townspeople sends another ripple through what was once a placid village. Fitten is not always successful in balancing character development with the larger themes of power and progress, but the irascible Valeria makes such a unique heroine that readers may be willing to overlook the story's less fluid elements. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In this warmly amusing first novel, true love overtakes a grumpy old woman in Hungary, and her remote village is thrown into an uproar. Feared harridan Valeria falls for the local potter, a hapless widower content to make plates for his local customers. The potter had been seeing the woman who runs the bar where all the local men hang out, and she soon becomes jealous of Valeria and plots to sabotage the budding romance. Initially indecisive, the potter finally realizes that Valeria, for all her contrariness, has inspired him to create artistic masterpieces. Subplots involve the potter's apprentice, who refuses to commit to his own love, and the mayor's efforts to drag the remote village into the modern age. Throughout, the other villagers and bar patrons form a kind of Greek chorus. In the end, true love will conquer all, even though it might be injured a little by a broken beer bottle. Enjoyable and poignant, this work is recommended.
—Jim Coan

Kirkus Reviews
Sharp-eyed debut novel limns life in a remote Hungarian town, a post-communist hotbed of greed, envy and romantic rivalries. During World War II, Allied and Axis tanks alike bypassed this unnamed village as not worth bothering with, but in 2000 its aggressive young mayor keeps inviting foreign investors to visit and finance local industry. (Results so far: one Dutch dog-food company.) Ridiculous, thinks Fitten's cranky, majestic heroine Valeria, who at 68 has seen it all and has little faith in any of it. Her main pleasure is visiting the village market, bypassing the "Chinese boom boxes, Polish electronics, GermanIntellectually if not emotionally engaging, and it's refreshing to see a neophyte author taking seriously the passions and opinions of older people. Fitten has a distinctive voice and a promising future. Author tour to New York, Boston, Richmond, Va., Asheville, N.C., Tempe, Ariz., Raleigh/Durham, Atlanta, Miami, Seattle, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Calif., Los Angeles. Agent: Bill Clegg/William Morris Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596916203
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 4/28/2009
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 8.56 (w) x 5.82 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Meet the Author

The Hungarian village of Zivatar may be isolated, but it is not completely immune to the changes sweeping the country. The Soviets have left, and the villagers are warming to the blessings of capitalism?expensive cars, cheap women, and California fruit. It's all too much for Valeria, the village grouch. And yet, Valeria is not immune to change, either. A routine trip to the market leads to unexpected love, and sets off a chain reaction through the entire village. A remarkably accomplished debut novel, Valeria's Last Stand contemplates love, lust, tradition, and transition with wisdom and warmth.

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Read an Excerpt

Valeria's Last Stand

A Novel
By Marc Fitten

BLOOMSBURY

Copyright © 2009 Marc Fitten
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-620-3


Chapter One

Valeria never whistled. Nor did she approve of people who did. In sixty-eight years, what Valeria had learned to be a truth about character was that people who whistled were crass. Whistlers were untrustworthy and irresponsible. They were shiftless. They were common. Butchers whistled. Peasants also. When they were supposed to be tending to their fields or completing any number of tasks peasants are meant to complete, Valeria was certain she could find them instead with their chins wet from a half liter of beer, sitting in the village's tavern, whistling at the slutty proprietress, and telling off-color jokes.

As for the butcher, he was the worst kind of whistler. He whistled right into his customers' faces. Blew his fetid breath right into the nostrils of anyone who visited him. Certainly, a visit to the whistling butcher on Monday was a trip to the health clinic by midweek.

Valeria thought about it while scrubbing the grout of her portico floor early in the morning. She was certain that the queen of England did not whistle. The Hungarian president did not whistle either. She followed a line back through Soviet history: Trotsky may have whistled; Lenin, certainly not; Stalin only whistled in madness. Subsequent leaders of the Soviet regime neverwhistled, not even Gorbachev. Yeltsin? Valeria's stomach turned when she thought about Russia's head of state. Yes, Yeltsin probably whistles, she decided.

And prior to the Communists, or reformed Communists, or whatever they called themselves these days, the aristocracy they had replaced had never whistled either. The Hapsburgs certainly never had. Valeria scoffed just imagining it. A whistling Hapsburg!

She brushed away a stray leaf with the back of her hand. She remembered hearing the village's mayor whistle and she swore.

True, it had only happened once, and in his defense, he did not know he was being spied upon. Still, Valeria was watching him. She did not like him. She did not approve of his flashy German car and flashier young bride. She considered the mayor to be nothing more than a cleverly trained chimpanzee, though more gauche and obtuse than any chimpanzee could possibly be.

Valeria sighed. The mayor was who he was, like everyone else of his generation. The young were all too gauche these days. Since the Soviets had exited Hungary-unceremoniously, she might add-the country had sidled up to the West like a cheap moll. In fact, self-respect seemed to have deteriorated. Adolescent men appeared from nowhere. They drove expensive cars and kept company with expensive, long-legged women, women who were useless in all capacities save sex, who lacked any apparatus that might make them useful to society's betterment. They certainly were not revolutionaries, these women. What with their narrow hips and small breasts, these simple-minded, androgynous-looking sexpots could not even breed tomorrow's revolutionaries. Valeria thought of the mayor's bride giving birth and laughed. Ornaments! That's all the new woman was good for these days-decoration. Why, just imagine it, Valeria thought, allowing oneself to be treated with the same disdain children have for holiday ornaments when they are rushing to get to their sweets and presents. Just imagine it-allowing oneself to be set aside casually, or thrown to the ground violently, or shattered against a wall, or, at best, if they were very, very lucky, to be stuffed in a box until the next holiday season. Valeria shook her head. Imagine it! A generation of women reared to turn off everything within them except the capacity for easy compliance to wet sex.

Valeria scrubbed more vigorously. Her face flushed.

Meanwhile, she thought, meanwhile, the mayor and his cronies slapped one another on their backs. They filled their bank accounts ... blew smoke at the citizenry ... had the nerve-the audacity, really-to call the whole stinking flea circus a democracy. Why, the Communists were philosopher kings when compared with the backslapping capitalists in charge of Hungary's new and improved free-market system.

Valeria spat at a speck of white bird shit and scratched it with a short fingernail.

She wiped her brow. Nothing was sacrosanct anymore. Ultimately, that was her problem with this new system. It bred contempt. The masses need the inviolable. Even Stalin knew that. The proper care and feeding of the masses requires and demands opiates! But the capitalists ran roughshod over everything. They left nothing untouched or undefiled. Even the insignificant succumbed to market pressure. Things as inconsequential as her favorite Brazilian soap operas were being interrupted with screaming ads for French douches and toilet paper! Why? Who allowed that? What was the point of it? How did screaming commercials-decibels louder than the program itself, so loud she couldn't escape them even when she went to the wash closet (yes, she even heard them in there)-how did screaming commercials (four times during her last program) make a democracy? It made no sense ...

And then to top things off, the mayor was a whistler!

Thank goodness, she thought to herself. Thank goodness they lived in a small village, deep in the steppes, in the middle of nowhere -and oh how Valeria was thankful for this point. She could rest assured that even the mayor's whistling, loud as it was, would fall on deaf ears. If the mayor-only the cleverest of peasants-wanted to whistle, it did not matter; no one of importance would hear him and think less of the village. In fact, if, from afar, the queen of England or the Hungarian president happened to hear the mayor's whistling as they were writing one another letters, they might look up for a moment and wonder, but then they would shrug and write the faint whistling off as wind stirring a distant crop of sugar beets; the mayor's tinny whistle would be as insignificant to their ears as leaves falling on forgotten hunting grounds-as insignificant a sound to their cochleas as the candelabra flickering in their studies.

Except lately, the mayor himself had started bringing foreigners in. As though he had intuited that he needed an audience. Investors, he called them. Hardly any outsiders had ever come through their village before, and it had been that way as long as Valeria had been alive. In fact, Valeria remembered watching German tanks as a young girl along with her friends as the machines sped along the horizon making their way to Russia. Then, later, on the horizon again, she watched as British tanks arrived. The phalanxes hammered one another for days. And still later on, as a teenager, she watched the horizon for three days as a parade of Russian tanks made their way to Budapest. None of the tanks ever turned in their village's direction. They were always heading toward coordinates more valuable, toward more interesting or important places to occupy. While this should have been cause for great relief, to some it was almost an insult. Indeed, it damaged the psyche of the villagers so much, this sheer disinterest by the tanks-by anything really-that when the new expressway was built, the villagers insisted that the signs not mention their village at all.

"Reaching us isn't really worth anyone's petrol," some said.

"We only have one thermal spring anyway," said others. "Tourists would be better off at Balaton."

The Gypsies working on the road crew shrugged and offered the villagers the blue road-sign, which was quickly mounted in the village's tavern.

Things change, however, and the mayor had his hand in all of it. Foreigners were visiting all the time now, it seemed.

Valeria looked at her handiwork and nodded. The blue tiles were clean. They sparkled. The grout was bone white. She moved her bucket to the concrete steps. A child had offered to paint them for her, but she had refused. Clean was good enough for her. She pulled her brush from the sudsy water and attacked them. She couldn't help but think of the mayor, and she cursed again.

It was the people's fault, what this village was becoming. After all, they had voted the mayor in. The people of her village had put him where he was. Her neighbors! The most immoral, unreliable, uninformed, uninspired, and insane group of has-beens, alcoholics, pedophiles, perverts, unwed mothers, sissies, and Gypsies she had ever known. Her thoughts on this point were not exaggeration. She had lived in the village her entire life. She knew the village's citizens intimately for what they were-a shiftless group of malcontents, maladroits to the last scruffy-necked man, overweight woman, and unclean child. And all of them smiting and nodding as they pulled the lever that put in power a man she would not have trusted with her trash.

She washed up.

Valeria did not consider herself a killjoy. Not in the least. In fact, she kept a ring of keys at her side, like a jailer, and sometimes she liked to shake them. When she felt pleased or content, instead of whistling or smiling she just tugged at the string around her hips until the dangling keys-nearly one hundred of them-started to shake. She felt this act to be supremely appropriate to a woman her age. It was fun.

She left her cottage and headed for the market while it was still dark out. As she had for many years, she reached its entrance with her chin jutted forward and her eyes owlish just as the sun was peeking out. She clutched her basket ahead of her like a battering ram. She marched through the throng of shoppers and thought nothing of ramming her meaty elbows into the ribs of other women, or against the jaws of loud children, or against the backs of slow old men. If it meant she could save a few forints on the last of the tripe, or if it meant she might be able to purchase a fresh carp, so fresh that its tail still smacked against crushed ice, she would elbow her way through a crowd or ram them with her basket and then shout in her victims' astonished faces to boot.

She ignored the mongers hawking junk on the sidewalks out front. She had no regard for Chinese boom boxes, Polish electronics, German cassettes, or aluminum pans. She ignored the counterfeit sneakers piled high in assorted colors. She preferred to pass them as quickly as she could and head, instead, into the belly of the market, toward the stalls, where her neighbors displayed their fruits and vegetables.

Inside, she was like a raptor. She scanned the great hall, walked about, and investigated each and every cranny. The market was a place of commerce and Valeria acted accordingly. She allowed herself even fewer pleasantries while there. She haggled and harangued like a magnate and then bought little or nothing.

She jabbed her fingers into her neighbors' stockpiles, poking and handling their orange carrots, white carrots, turnips, rutabagas, tomatoes, parsley, pears, and asparagus. Most of these foodstuffs Valeria grew herself. She had no reason to buy anything. She was merely inspecting, checking for quality.

Her neighbors shook their heads at her. It was the same scene every day. Some even shooed her away.

"Leave my food alone," they said. "Why are you touching that?"

Valeria ignored them and continued inspecting.

"It is always the people with the worst-looking vegetables who complain the most," she answered.

When Valeria found something she did not like or that she felt should not have been sold, she looked up at the vendor, focused on the sheepish face staring back, and shook her head.

"You're not selling this, are you?"

The vendor turned red. Whether out of anger or embarrassment one couldn't say.

Regardless, they all responded the same way.

"You're crazy. Get away from my vegetables."

"But you can't possibly mean to sell this?"

"Why not? Go away."

"I wouldn't feed this to my pigs," Valeria said. "You'll poison somebody with this."

A few shoppers would stop and listen. The vendor would shake her head and smile at them.

"Valeria, there is nothing wrong with my vegetables. I've grown them all in my garden. I eat them myself." The vendor smiled. Her eyes were full of rage.

Valeria then sniffed the vegetable in question and shook her head.

"How old is this?"

The vendor was speechless.

"Why does it smell like urine?"

The vendor shrugged.

"Are you letting your cat pee on these? You should be imprisoned," Valeria said, and tugged at her keys.

She ruined sales. Villagers, though they didn't like Valeria, never questioned her knowledge. Every morning word traveled quickly through the market about who was selling rotten produce.

It was rare when Valeria found a fruit or vegetable grown better than one she could grow herself. In those instances, her eyes again focused on the vendor. Then she nodded her head in appreciation before asking, "Who are your parents?" The vendor answered and Valeria nodded, trying to remember. Then she congratulated the vendor, bought the vegetable, took it home, and examined it. When she could, she would save the seeds and crossbreed them with her own near-perfect vegetables.

Valeria was just as knowledgeable about the fish and meats. In fact, no one in the market was safe from her. Even the women who sold spices made sure to hide their older bags of seasonings when Valeria was walking by. Since the country had opened up to the West, even in Zivatar, new fruits and vegetables had been introduced. In what was once a room of potato browns and spinach greens, colors like orange and red stood out like Christmas lights. In the first heady days of capitalism, when exotic fruits were still a novelty, people who hardly ever went shopping made special visits to the market just to look at pineapples. Valeria wasn't interested in foreign fruits and vegetables, mostly because she could not grow them, but also because of their blatant sensuality. Tropical fruits were swollen with flesh and juice. They were sticky. They were uninhibited. The first time she held a banana, Valeria was offended.

"How can you sell such vile things at the market?" she asked.

"It's a banana, Valeria. You know that. Taste it."

Valeria peeked at it and shook her head.

"I will not. It's for monkeys."

"It's not. The mayor buys them all the time. It's good. Here, just have a bite."

Valeria tasted it. She had to admit that it was good. Still, tropical fruits disturbed her, and except for the occasional banana, she left them alone. Besides, they were ridiculously expensive. Only the young capitalists could afford them. Valeria noted that besides the mayor's love of bananas, the mayor's bride was always buying bags of oranges. Bags of them. Ostentatious is what it was. In the old days, families only shared an orange at Christmastime. One orange. It was a treat. Valeria was certain that for most families that was still the case. How long would it take a stick-like woman to eat a bag of oranges, Valeria wondered? And how could the mayor allow his wife to leave the house wearing more makeup than clothing? A woman with a slippery mouth, long legs, and no hips to speak of, carrying an expensive bag of Valencia oranges ... what had the world become?

Even American vegetables were suspect. Valeria examined the vegetables from America closely. The label on one crate read: CALIFORNIA RED PEPPERS. She bought one, just to see what an American pepper tasted like. She wasn't impressed. The pepper looked nice enough, it was big and clean, without a mark on it, grown in a hothouse, no doubt; but when she took it home and cooked it in a stew she was disappointed with its blandness-no tang at all, nothing but nitrogen.

Sometimes, when Valeria had an abundance of anything in her garden, she would arrive even earlier in the morning, set up a stall of her own, arrange her vegetables by color, and sell them at a fair but high price. She always sold out. Though the villagers didn't like Valeria, when it came to the quality of her goods, they could not question her. Her fruits and vegetables were never too soft, never tasted like rot had just set in, and never, ever smelled like cat urine.

Valeria grew them on her two hectares of land. That was three hundred hectares less than what her grandfather had owned before the Communists took everything, but it was more than enough land to carry her through the winter and support her livestock. Everything else was profit. Valeria felt she could afford to be caustic. She often was caustic.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Valeria's Last Stand by Marc Fitten Copyright © 2009 by Marc Fitten. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 14, 2010

    Funny, Light Read

    This was quite enjoyable. It is funny and a light read. It takes place in a village in Hungry that all of the invaders over the centuries had passed by and left alone. Valeria is 68 years old, never married, and does not have a good word for anyone. She goes to the market and criticizes all the vendors' produce as not being up to her quality standards. She is awakened from her meanness by the potter, who is a widow and who is inspired by Valeria to create real art. His first project for her is a ewer with peppers on it. It turns out so beautiful, but is damaged when he gives it to her. He then goes on to work on other items for her, which are as beautiful as the ewer. The owner of the tavern, Ibolya, who had been seeing the potter, is not too pleased with the potter's infatuation with Valeria, and she tries to undermine the relationship (Ibolya's hair often has a life of its own).
    Other characters are the mayor, who is trying to attract developers and investors, to the benefit of the town; the mayors wife, who is young and attractive, and likes fashion and spending money; the potter's apprentice, who is too shy to approach the woman he is interested in; and the final character to appear in the book, the chimney sweep, is an outsider and odious man, who just happens upon the town and sees a good opportunity to earn some easy money - the townspeople, especially the women, are taken by the sweep, seeing him superstitiously as a bringer of good luck, and overlooking or not even noticing his deficient personality.
    The book has the feel of a Shalom Aleichem story, even though the characters are not Jewish and the time in the present.

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  • Posted August 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    EXCELLENT ART DEBUT FICTION NOVEL!!!

    I am an aspiring author and I found the book delightful!...A three-sitting-read. Although I'd describe it as light, funny, but engaging; the plot is exemplary in demonstrating multi-level intrigue.

    The novel is set in Hungary after the destruction of the Iron Curtain. Now is a time of american controversy about Socialism, and Marc Fitten's novel lightly, almost unitentionally reflects the contrast of the free market changes as seen through the eyes of small town villagers.

    If Marc Fitten becomes as prolific...a new Danielle Steele writer has been born.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2009

    Charming and a bit silly and definitely off the beaten track

    I didn't think I would like this at first but found myself liking the characters more and more as I delved deeper into the book. By the time I was finished, I was charmed. Rollicking fun read about a bunch of elderly Hungarian villagers. Who would have known?

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  • Posted July 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    a cute story

    This is a cute enough story, but it didn't live up to the potential of the first few chapters. It started out like it was going to be a sweet love story and ended up almost as a farce. It's OK, just not what I was expecting. This could make a good movie though, and the ending would probably work better on film.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2009

    Pleasant Surprise

    I really enjoyed this first novel by the author.

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  • Posted February 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Elderly Hungarians gone wild

    I'm really disappointed. I definitely don't agree with the claim on the first page of the book that this story would appeal to readers of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

    The essence of the story had a lot of promise but at the end, it read like soft porn with most of the starring roles filled by elderly Hungarian people. There were a few spots I thought were well written, but most was just ordinary with substantial use of f-word.

    Not every book is for every person, this one wasn't for me.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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