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Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History Paperback – March 12, 2002

3.8 out of 5 stars 68 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Fans of Mary Karr's groundbreaking memoir The Liars' Club will relish the similarly funny, tough-minded tone of Helene Stapinski's recollections centering on her family's petty criminal history in the sordid precincts of Jersey City. But Stapinski is nobody's clone; her autobiography has a tart, distinctively urban Northeast flavor that will ring a bell with anyone familiar with America's aging, deteriorating cities. You can practically smell the soap suds from the local Colgate factory and the stink of the bone-rendering plant in nearby Newark; people didn't settle in Jersey City, writes Stapinski, "they settled for Jersey City ... they settled for less." She was 5 years old in 1970 when her Italian American grandfather was arrested for threatening to shoot her whole family, capping a long career that included armed robbery and beating his children. The Polish American relatives on her father's side included a bookie and an epileptic prone to fits of rage who nearly killed a sibling by breaking his back. None of this was a big deal in Jersey City, notes Stapinski, who deftly interweaves her family's story with the rancid saga of Hudson County's corrupt political machine. She fled to college in Manhattan and a career in journalism without ever really escaping the ties of blood and loyalty; her frank rendering of her mixed feelings as Jersey City was slowly upscaled reminds us what is gained and lost through gentrification. Stapinski's salty, savory account conveys the gritty, enduring legacy of Jersey City: "so tough, I was always prepared for what might come my way." --Wendy Smith --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"The night my grandfather tried to kill us, I was five years old, the age I stopped believing in Santa Claus, started kindergarten, and made real rather than imaginary friends." This chatty and often engaging memoir of growing up among a rogue's gallery of tough characters may leave readers thinking Stapinski might have been better off with an imaginary family. Reminiscent of Michael Patrick McDonald's highly praised All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, but without that book's overwhelming moral force, this is the sad, often funny story of Stapinski's extended family of grifters, con men and women and petty crooks. At its best, it's a vivid portrait of working-class life in Jersey City, N.J. But too often it veers uneasily between disarming anecdotes (Stapinski's grandfather steals books from the public library where he works as a security guard) and terrifying details of lives out of control (her father almost loses his legs because of untreated but obvious diabetes), and doesn't sustain dramatic intensity. Stapinski, who has written for the New York Times and New York magazine, can be funnyAas in her descriptions of attending New York University, where she meets Jews, punks and lesbians, and reads the Village VoiceAand even illuminating, as when she describes the Machiavellian, if mundane, workings of the multitude of patronage systems that have corrupted Jersey City politics. Though she has a good eye for the details of family and community life, too often the emotions in this memoir feel imagined, not real. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 258 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (March 12, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375758704
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375758706
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #606,217 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I am not a huge fan of memoirs but I found Helene Stapinski's family history to be an interesting and well-organized read of life in Jersey City, as she and her family lived it. I am surprised at other reviewiers taking offense to her descriptions of her hometown and her views - while I found Ms. Stapinski to be opinionated, I also found that she did an excellent job of maintaining an emotional distance from the "story". I enjoyed peering into this life, with its stolen luxuries and potential for destruction - I don't imagine that this memoir is much different than what many others remember, or are experiencing now. While the book is not very cheerful, it is an honest and poignant view of a memorable childhood. I recommend Five Finger Discout for both its historical interest and its unique ability to draw the reader into the world of petty crime and abuse and for its understanding of family dynamics and loyalties. Not everyone grew up in Mayberry!
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Format: Hardcover
How easy can it be to write a memoir about your childhood when one of your earliest memories is of your grandfather's attempt to murder you and your family? How pleasant can it be to write about your childhood home given its now ubiqitous reputation as America's citadel of crime and corruption? The enormous moral and social courage alone Helene Stapinski had to muster to describe her life in Jersey City in the last third of the twentieth century make her memoir "Five-Finger Discount" worth reading. At times maddening, frightful, depressing and hilarious, the memoir magically brings us into the Stapinski family -- with its heritage of crime, violence and family abuse -- while simultaneously providing us with an enormously readable history of Jersey City, a place so corrupt, so venal, so thoroughly crooked, that its moral taint seems to rub off, along with sundry industrial residues, on its population. Indeed, theft is so common, that swag, as it is called, is not even considered wrong; it is simply a way of life. Thus, Stapinski's subtitle, "A Crooked Family History" is appropriately accurate, both a description of of her own personal circumstances, but as that of the larger political community, whose criminality looms everywhere.
As a child, Helene never considers her family anything but normal. Living upstairs from a neighborhood bar, she accepts the arrest of her abusive grandfather Beansie (a nickname derived from the fact that he stole some beans from a truck earlier in his life) as normal, the most recent of "a string of family crimes and tragedies, which I thought most people experienced on a regular basis." The diminuitive Beansie, nothing more than a small-time bully and crook, becomes the central lens through which Stapinski examines her family history.
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Format: Paperback
Helene Stapinskis story of her Polish immigrant family is a real eye-opener into the way of life of a New Jersey family of crooks. Tony Soprano eat your heart out ! Almost without exception, the males in the family are either in jail, going to jail or coming out of jail and are into every lurk and perk possible.The boys in the extended family have no hope from childhood, growing up in a depressed neighbourhood amongst ugliness in the old buildings and deserted factories. Getting food and "swag that fell off the back of trucks"is a way of life and conditions them to thinking that stealing is ok if you're not caught, right from childhood. I found it an interesting read as it exposed a world totally foreign to me and almost nonchalantly recorded the chicanery of the local political systems. It could have been a very depressing story except for the way that she describes the strength and weaknesses of the women of the family who hold the whole structure together.
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Format: Paperback
In "Five Finger Discount," Helene Stapinski has given us a memoir of both a town and a family. Jersey City, NJ, has long been considered the most corrupt town in the US, and from Ms. Stapinski's history of crime and politics the town deserved its appellation. It also seems her family deserved its place in the town, with a history of petty crime that started with the grandparents and ran its way through the generations. Although "Five Finger Discount," is localized, I think Ms. Stapinski has written about many Northeastern, immigrant, industrial communities. I grew up in Erie, PA, and her stories were not foreign to me. The numbers, the goods fallen off the backs of trucks, the crooked politicians and police figured enough in my life, and in the life of the Polish ghetto we finally escaped that "Five Finger Discount," could have easily been about Erie, if not in kin, at least in kind.
The one shortfall of this memoir occurs within the memoir of place. For a non-Jersey-ite I felt the extent of the history of Jersey City slowed the narrative. I could have done with less. For folks who live in the region, however, I'm sure the history will prove fascinating. Whenever my interest would lag, though, "Five Finger Discount," would return to the family. The strength of the memoir lies in the melding of both, but for me the family stories proved more rewarding than the sociology.
I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in a good family story mixed with true crime.
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