Friday, June 22, 2012

City of Women is austere, sexy, and strangely uplifting

City of Women by David R. Gillham, an Amy Einhorn Book, published by  Penguin Group (USA).

What is it about Berlin 1943 that we keep revisiting this time of impending doom, as the once indomitable Third Reich began to crack up? Hasn't this era and its aftermath been explored ad nauseum in fiction and films like "The Berlin Stories"/Cabaret, “The Good German,” "The Piano," "Sarah's Key," "The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas," Erich Maria Remarque’s unforgettable play Full Circle, and of course Gunter Grass's "The Tin Drum.?"

Then I read City of Women by David R. Gillham (August, Penguin Group), whose heroine is someone I haven't met before. Sigrid Schroeder is not decadent, burnt out or a Nazi zealot who sees the light. She's a regular "haus frau,"except that she's not.  She has a job and no children, which separates her from her mother-in-law's generation. That woman continually scrubs, while self-righteously upholding the values of the Reich. She also expresses nonstop contempt for Sigrid. Yet the two women live together in her shabby flat.

What she suspects, and what we learn, is that Sigrid is an independent thinker in a time, where conformity keeps you alive. She is also alone in her marriage. Her husband has withdrawn from sexual and emotional intimacy. Though they share the same bed, her life a narrow one. She takes what comfort she can in routine; coexistence with him, until he's called up, and her job, as a stenographer in the patent office.

Yet this circumscribed life becomes claustrophobic, when German propaganda conflicts with the defeat of Stalingrad. As her husband leaves and the “Tommies” bomb every night, she's finds herself under scrutiny for her loyalty to the Reich. Too intelligent to openly voice her doubts, she retreats into her inner life. Her only desire is to collect her salary, deal with her mother-in-law’s incessant carping and put-downs, and enjoy time with her friend from work.

Sigrid finds a particular solace in the movies. What was interesting was that movies themselves, which were all propaganda, were no escape. She sought emotional space in the dark to exist as herself. In CITY OF WOMEN, Sigrid becomes extraordinary, because an authentic life finds her in this place. She may be hiding out, but at the movie theater truth collides with official unreality.

Behind the Heil Hitlers and the propaganda films and the many required sacrifices of civilians, is the uneasy feeling that the war is not being won. Behind the daily flow of law and order, the Gestapo hunt Jews. This enemy of the Reich is depicted as swollen frogs or greedy creatures with huge noses. Berliners have to square these images with the distraught men, women and children evacuated from their homes, beaten and murdered in the streets, who disappear en mass from the train station. They also cope with the stultifying  reality that a dropped word not in accordance with the official line, could be reported.

That meant arrest, beatings and torture in the underground cells of the Gestapo, or deportment to death. Then there's the loss of property and status not limited to individual "criminals, but whole families. War Widows and men serving were not exempt from punishment. So most people either espouse the cause or, like Sigrid, hide in themselves.

With men at the front, Berlin became a city of women. Yet in her theater, Sigrid finds one of those rare men, unable to serve or deserters. She carries a fish knife, in case her usual refusals are not sufficient. But she finds herself intrigued by this handsome man in his good camel’s hair coat, with his deep scratchy voice, and an animal magnetism that moves her. Despite her keen awareness of risk, there's something primal about this man she can’t refuse. And there's the intriguing fact he stands out, doesn’t even try to disappear.

When this man’s "warmth calls to her flesh," you're happy for her. Sigrid is not so young, probably mid 30’s, and not easy in any sense of the word.Yet in City of Women, she’s hot for this man in this theater, where she's anonymous. The passion makes her alive and she lives for it. City of Women is a very sexy novel, without being tawdry. The author has created a character you cheer, as she enjoys pleasure. The passion is not gratuitous but intrinsic to the story. Once it initiates her into life, she's less afraid.  

Sigrid is in the same theater, thinking it's her lover, when the 19-year old “duty girl” who looks after her neighbor's kids, sits next to her. The girl asks Sigrid to cover for her with the police. Sigrid does so, unsure why she's doing it. She also finds herself doing errands for Egon, not questioning the purpose. When the girl, Erica, is in danger of losing her job, Sigrid wants to protect her.

Then Erica makes off with clothes Sigrid had donated. She tracks her to a house, where Jews are in hiding. Sigrid's at a crossroads. Her decision takes her into an underground world, where Jews are saved in an entangled network of safe houses and operatives.

Sigrid's resourcefulness grows with her learning curve. She continues her passionate affair but doesn't disclose her private cause. Sigrid's habit of discretion is akin to her personal code of ethics. Reminescent of LeCarre, she's a kind of female Smiley, decent in her deception. Though aware of the contradictions of her position and the inherent hypocrisies, she soldiers on.

This is a heroine who compromises herself because she can't do otherwise. Whether it's her ethical code or her "good heart," or naivety, her motivation is left untidy. Like in Remarque, the gray of reality proves more arbitrary than the black and white of personal ethics. Emotionally, Sigrid has to almost "hollow" herself out, to fulfill her mission.

That she does so isn't about heroism but independence less of the mind than the soul.  And her reward, when finally love becomes a separate destiny, is the exercise of freedom. I found City of Women austere, sexy, and strangely uplifting.


Monday, June 18, 2012

What happens when a Devoted Conservative & a Die-Hard Liberal decide to talk--YOU'RE NOT AS CRAZY AS I THOUGHT (But You're Still Wrong) Potomac books

You're Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You're Still Wrong) : Conversations between a Devoted Conservative and a Die-Hard Liberal by Phil Neisser
and Jacob Hess published by Potomac Books.

This book, in my opinion, should be read by every American who might possibly be sick of the "punch & judy show" we call national politics. This is the rare nonfiction book I'm reviewing, because I think it's important (not because I do book pr, though I choose books I think are valuable).

Jacob Hess and Phil Neisser are the Conservative and Liberal, who engage in dialogue about “hot-button” issues seeking not agreement but understanding. And it hasn't come easily. The two met at a conference on dialogue. Jacob was one of the few conservatives presenting, Phil had recently published a book, saying how Americans no longer knew how to disagree constructively.

Though Jacob, a religious Conservative of Mormon background, has convictions totally opposed to Phil, who is a liberal atheist, they agreed that the nation has become completely polarized. Even if average people might not be as extreme as the media portrays our national politics, everyone is affected by the vitriol.

Contrary to the national past-time of liberals and conservatives bashing each other as "idiots," they decided to do something new that's as old as our constitution. Remember the play 1776, where in a steamy Philaelphia  summer, Puritans and Quakers, Boston Brahmins and Louisana plantation owners, came together to form a new country?

Did they do this by denouncing each other and creating political blockades, or by engaging in dialogue? Jacob and Phil went through a similar process. For more than two years, they engaged in extensive conversations, writing back and forth, coming up with nuanced answers to difficult questions and listening , often through gritted teeth, until they actually got where the other was coming from.

And while they still disagree, they did gain enough understanding to make them think we might yet find a bipartisian process that would enable the nation to make bigger strides. And on an individual level, they feel there is much to be gained by inviting that neighbor you think is a political weirdo for a beer. Mutual respect creates a lot more optimism than political paranoia.

Why do conservatives and liberals have differing takes on Authority?  What is the problem with gay marriage? Here are some of the "hot button" topics they address in a thoughtful way you won't hear on any station:

*Why the equal rights argument doesn't convince many gay marriage opponents
*Why many gay marriage supporters see their position as pro-family
* Should government be out of the marriage business altogether?
* What about the tricky question of biology?
* Isn't marriage just a legal contract to formalize an economic arrangement?
* In this time where so many children are born out of wedlock, isn't any kind of marriage a way to reinforce the institution?

* Are gender roles outdated or still crucial to our society? --e.g., Should women be raised to be nurturers and boys be raised to be protectors and providers?
*Do shows like “family guy” undermine fathers?
*Should transgender people be “normalized” in our culture?
*Where's the respect for working women, many of whom are the sole support of the family?

* Can an atheist be moral?
* How do religious and nonreligious people perceive evil?
* Is the separation of Church & State a God-less concept?
* What kind of ethics and community do atheists subscribe to?
* How can you plan a future, if you believe the apocalypse is around the corner?

*What is legitimate authority?
*Is the solution less government and more personal responsibility?
* Where does public assistance end and individual responsibility begin and end when it comes to aid to immigrant groups?"  
* Is the profit motive too dominant in our culture?
* Should Big Pharma have more or less government controls?
* What's the best role for government in education?

Phil and Jacob are proposing a "grass roots" movement for bringing  common sense back to American politics. Their blog is a resource for intellectual independence in this year of orchestrated political warfare. So read this book, if you've got the courage. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Operation Ruby Slipper is over the rainbow

Operation Ruby Slipper by John Meyer (Grace Note Publishing)

John Meyer is a songwriter, who's written comedy lyrics for people like Joan Rivers and Lily Tomlin. His song "I'd Like to Hate Myself in the Morning," was sung in Judy Garland's last American TV appearance. And Meyer's memoir, Heartbreaker, was about his attempt to rescue Garland from her demons. So why, you might ask, has he written a novel, casting her as the heroine in a 1943 spy story, and why should we care? I actually think this novel is not about someone who knew Garland "cashing in" on the relationship. I believe Meyer's novel is a act of friendship, a tribute to the very positive, endearing qualities Garland possessed, including a strength of character that made her addictions more sad. In this book, Judy's courage, her sense of adventure and great humor, make her a heroine for any time. Though I'm not a fan of Judy Garland, beyond enjoying the Oz movie, and I dislike the maudlin cult around her memory, in this novel I liked her as a personality.

In Operation Ruby Slipper we meet Garland at 21, feeling her way toward adulthood, though she's old enough to have affairs, drink, and take "Dex" (given by the studio to keep her weight down). This Garland enjoys her work with Mickey Rooney, her fame, and all the studio perks--clothes, cars, champagne. Above all, she enjoys that her singing gives pleasure. She likes having fans and being admired. Judy's wise to the studio and the movie world, but she's not jaded about life. Garland is innocent, curious about people. Enthusiasm animates her. Yet she quickly sizes people up, comparing them to characters or actors. Situations call to mind plots of movies. When people talk, she thinks of dialogue, sounds evoke lyrics.

Meyer's Judy has wit and laughter that punctures pretense. She can also be filled with compassion for a "down" friend. Mercurial is the word used to describe the star's mood shifts, referencing her astrological sign, Gemini. The mercurial thing may be accurate but it's a bit annoying, along with the nn...sound she makes throughout the book, when she's insecure. I'm more interested, when Meyer puts her in action. This happens with a mysterious summons to Washington. She's asked to serve her country on a spy mission. Judy rises to the occasion. A bit far-fetched but it's made plausible. She's asked because a reclusive Nazi Physicist is a fan. The American Office of Strategic Services needs a photo of him and she's given a shoe with a concealed camera. There's no time to waste, he's developing a nuclear-powered battery for Hitler's u-boats, who knows what's next!

Judy's mission is more than fun and games, though we're treated to a flight on Howard Hughes luxurious plane with Steinbeck and Martha Gellhorn. She's given a packet of information but no training. She also receives a strange dental cap, "supposed to help her in a tight place." Judy's patronized in this, as she is, at first, by almost all the men she comes in contact with, from the Secret Service, Jeremy, her handler and accompanist, Rudi, the pivotal double agent, variou Nazis, who all assume as a pampered star and a young woman, she's not smart or capable. She of course takes their measure and they regret their errors.

All the harrowing details of being a spy in a war zone and the ongoing crises, Judy handles with creative flair. Both shrewd and intuitive, what does her in, true to character, is her emotional vulnerability and need for love. In this novel, she no sooner finds it, then the devastating reality of war, destroys her romance. When she finally meets her Physicist, he's a gentle sad man, the only one in the novel who on first meeting fully appreciates her--and he's gay. By the end, Meyer has Judy learn the lessons she perhaps missed in real life. She stands up to General Patton, leverages her photo of the Physicist into a meeting with Eisenhower, and figures she can now stand up to Louis Mayer. This Judy has experienced her capability in dire circumstances. She understands about power and won't be victimized. She's not older but far wiser. When she meets Minnelli, you get the idea this young woman will really make it.

I took this fantasy, as a friend's wish for what might have been--based on the best of who Garland was. She made a fun heroine. This novel is obviously recommended for fans of Garland and old Hollywood. It may also appeal to WWII buffs, who like spy novels. And, because this book depicts the world of a closeted Nazi who is also a perceptive scientist, it may hold particular interest for a gay audience.