Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler by Trudi Kanter

While the title evokes something I'd expect to come from the mouth of Mel Brooks, this touching memoir is an unexpected treasure. Trudi Kanter, a milliner, was enjoying the life of a successful businesswoman, making hats for the chic and well-heeled of Vienna, when Hitler ratcheted up his campaign for European domination by annexing Austria in 1938.  Her slim memoir recounts her life before, during, and afterward.  She was a woman of stern stuff whose survival instinct allowed her, her husband and her parents to survive the era while millions like her did not. 

Despite the dark subject matter, the book is practically breezy in her descriptions of lavish, pre-war Vienna, the mercurial fashion world, and her deep love for her husband, Walter Ehrlich, though it is counterbalanced by the desperation and fear that accompanied the times and her extensive labors to seek safety for her family.

As a kid, I had a guitar teacher who was incredibly talented and, in my naivete, I couldn't understand how it was that he hadn't left my little hometown and made the big time instead of giving Saturday afternoon lessons at the music store to dopes like me for three bucks an hour.  When I asked him this question, he told me "You can be good but you have to be lucky".  That has always stayed with me and Kanter's tale proves out the theory.  Repeatedly, her luck, often in concert with her tears, her looks or her sheer pluck, allowed her to find some kind soul who smiled on her or some tired bureaucrat who looked the other way and awarded her a visa, a necessary document, or letter of recommendation that took her from Vienna to Prague to the relative safety of London.

Making this even more interesting is that, beyond what she reveals in the book, little is known about Kanter.  She died in 1992. She self-published this story in 1984 but the book has been long out of print and no one knows who holds the copyright.  Luckily, an editor found a copy in a book shop and was moved enough to republish it with a new introduction by British novelist Linda Grant and a new sub-title: A True Love Story Rediscovered.  It is well worth your time.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

There is little I can add to the voluminous praise for Michael Chabon's latest novel, Telegraph Avenue.  It is a brilliant work that stands alongside the best of the author's canon.   However, since I am one to offer my two cents even when not asked, a few observations:

  • As I've stated many times, I'm a sucker for a story of fathers and sons so with Telegraph Avenue, it seems I've hit the motherlode.  There are fathers and sons, fatherless sons, sons and sons, adopted fathers and sons, and men who fit the description "he was like a father to me".  Good fathers, bad fathers, reluctant fathers, confused fathers.  Yearning sons, angry sons, naive sons, and sons you expect to start belting out "Papa, Can You Here Me?".  Actually, damn near any of the male characters might.  Chabon writes at great length about what masculinity comprises but also never fails to show the many, many facets that co-exist within each person.  I think what the author tries to get at in the heads and hearts of his characters is less what it means to 'be a man' and all its attendant failures but what it means to "be a mensch".  (You can look that up if you need.)  That said, I believe his female characters (there are three) are better men than most of the male characters. 
  • For the first time since 1999's Werewolves In Their Youth, the story is set in the present day.  Works like Kavalier & Clay and Yiddish Policeman were thick with history and Chabon loves to delve into the details so I wondered if I would be left wanting without the historical elements the author loves to brandish like a scimitar (see Gentlemen of the Road).  Not to worry.  If anything, Telegraph Avenue allows Chabon to indulge his vast knowledge of jazz, blaxploitation films and other pop culture without being too showy or hipper-than-thou.  Let's face it--the man loves minutiae.  Because of him, I know what phosphenes are.  You can look that up, too.
  • A friend told me she thinks Chabon loves his characters.  While I'd never considered it in those terms, she's right and that was evident throughout Telegraph Avenue.  There are few writers who can create characters more vivid than Chabon and while we don't always love these characters completely, I believe it's because we aren't meant to.  Instead, we root for them and know, deep down, they will do the best they can despite their limitations, which are often in abundance.  Sound like anyone you know?  Sounds like EVERYONE I know and that is among the reasons this book is such a success.  
  • Do not be intimidated by his reputation, by the page count, or the fact that his work is regarded as "important".  Just read it.  You will have to commit to it to a degree as there are a lot of characters and a great deal going on, mostly all at once, but the reward is great as is the author's ability to transfix us, transform us, and transport us.