Taking in the big picture with ‘The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’

  • The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi (Thomas Dunne Books, translation 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A window into the difficult life in Jerusalem primarily between the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State of Israel.  Yishai-Levi weaves together stories of four generations of a family descended from the exiles of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Jerusalem
  • Time: 20th century
  • This book, a bestseller in Israel, is a cross between a love letter to the seven generations of Jerusalemites in her family before her and a revelation of genuine cultural elements that created the boundaries in which her characters lived. Ideal for book group discussion.

Sometimes the appeal of a book goes beyond the story.  Sarit Yishai-Levi’s novel is rare in time, setting and community.  For those Israelis descended from Spanish Jews who migrated to Jerusalem in the early 19th century or earlier (often via Greece), the language and culture of the Ermosa family and their neighbors ring true.

In the Spaniol community, it is vital that marriage partners come from within the community. Many of the marriages are arranged, formally or less so. For several generations, it has been the curse of the Ermosa men that they fall in love with unsuitable women. Reined in by their parents, they marry more “suitable” partners and live with a longing for what they have lost. This disaffection is similarly passed down from generation to generation.

The pivotal character in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is Luna, the eldest and most beautiful of the three Ermosa daughters. Luna is her father’s favorite but a thorn in her mother’s side. She aspires to a fashion magazine lifestyle, separating herself as much as possible from the expected path.

The family’s life is circumscribed by the neighborhood and the family business. The expectation is that daughters will receive a basic education, get married and settle near family, working in the store only if truly needed. Everyone lives in close quarters with none of the conveniences one might imagine of a merchant family in the 1940’s. Their world begins to change dramatically as local boys return from serving with the British in WWII. These young men are looking to establish themselves and to choose their partners. Some become a part of the growing cells working to undermine the British Army enforcing the Mandate. These are some of the external forces compelling change in Luna’s generation.

Most Israeli novels seen in the US marketplace have been written by men. These men are usually the sons or grandsons of Eastern European immigrants that arrived either in the pioneer days or came as a consequence of the Holocaust. Less frequent are writings by the descendants of Jews of the Middle East, North Africa or the Iberian peninsula. The strength of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is the window it provides into the lives of the deeply rooted community where Ladino, not Yiddish, is the language of the home, and the cultural orientation is to the Middle East, not Europe.  The success Yishai-Levi has received with this novel is as much a testament to the love she shows for her Sephardic roots as it is for the story she has told.

 

Wandering NYC and life with Lillian Boxfish

  •  Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)
  • In 40 words or less: Lillian was a woman before her time. On New Year’s Eve, at 85 years old, she sets out to walk the important landmarks of her life in New York and revisit decisions, good and bad.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Primarily NYC
  • Time: New Year’s Eve 1984 and flashbacks
  • This book was pure pleasure. Lillian is based on a woman copywriter for Macy’s beginning in the 1930s. Kathleen Rooney captures both the bon vivant and the troubles that make a story worth reading. As a dedicated walker and child of New York, I was with Lillian every step of the way.

New York City has long been the destination for writers, actors and other aspirants with dreams beyond Main Street at home. Kathleen Rooney creates in Lillian Boxfish a woman pushing the envelope of the 20th century. Conveniently, Lillian is born in 1900 and comes of age with the new freedoms of the 1920s. This affords her the opportunity to seek a career in New York after graduating Goucher College, of course, living in a women’s residence, suitable for unaccompanied young ladies of the era. She eventually secures a position as an assistant copywriter for R.H. Macy, writing copy for the clever ads popular until widespread television advertising changed the field.

Lillian loves New York as much as she loves her independence. As a career woman of that era, her evenings and weekends were devoted to enjoying all the city had to offer and her growing expertise as a poet. Her colleagues were her core friends and occasional frenemy. While always very social, Lillian was disinclined to marry, move to the suburbs or give up her career.

All these stories are recounted in the course of New Year’s Eve, 1984, as Lillian walks across Manhattan, visiting many of the places that have defined her life. Although setting out alone, she isn’t particularly lonely, confidently stopping in fashionable restaurants for a cocktail and continuing on. At 85, she is still fit and interested in engaging with the city and all it offers, including bodega owners and young photographers she happens to befriend.

Lillian’s life has its share of missteps along with the successes. She marries and has a child late in life for someone of that era while continuing to work. Changing societal attitudes run throughout, and her beloved career at Macy’s eventually comes to an end.  As a trailblazing woman in advertising, she is held as an icon and then abandoned as the feminist movement begins to take hold.

Rooney’s novel is a welcome change of pace. Adding to the attraction of Lillian’s character is the knowledge that she is inspired by the real life of Margaret Fishback, who did hold an assistant copywriter’s position with Macy’s and had her poetry published. While the story is pure fiction, I’d certainly like to be Lillian when I grow up!

 

 

‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ coming to a big screen near you

Ten years ago, Diane Ackerman brought the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski before the public in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Next Friday, March 31, the heroics of the Zabinskis will receive even greater exposure as the film The Zookeeper’s Wife comes to neighborhood theaters. I’ve been a cheerleader for the book for all ten years. It combines narrative nonfiction, nature writing and a little-known story of genuine heroes of the Holocaust in one tight package.

I’ve not had the opportunity to see the film as yet. Those who have seen it in preview have found it moving and frightening – both reactions completely appropriate to the subject at hand. The book is based in large part on Antonina’s journals.  Jan Zabinski was the head of the Warsaw Zoo when the Nazis invaded Poland. He and his young family lived on site, taking care of the animals as conditions worsened. For scientific reasons, several Nazi officers were keenly interested in the animals and spent considerable time at the zoo.

Of greater note are the extraordinary lengths Jan went to secreting Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto and hiding them within the zoo. Jan was the head of a cadre of resistance members that moved more than 300 Jews, partisans and other opponents of the Nazi regime out of and through Warsaw to safety in the countryside.

As is often the case, the screenplay for this movie was written by someone other than the author. Books and movies have very different ways of treating the same story.  When a screenwriter takes on the task of turning well-written nonfiction into a film the most important thing should be whether the truth remains in the telling. The cast for the film, headed by Jessica Chastain, is international and should help capture the range of people that were caught up in Warsaw during the war.

Make no mistake, this film will not gloss over the horrors of the war and just show cute animals. As in the book, there will be moments of humor and tenderness. It should also show the individual and collective depravity of the Nazi regime.  For this reason, it is rated PG-13. Anyone considering taking somewhat younger children who have had exposure to Holocaust material before should keep in mind that there may be very different reactions to pictures and sounds than to words on a page.

Without broad critical reactions, it is hard to know if the movie will have a wide distribution. If you can, see it.  Regardless, both the story Ackerman has to tell and her writing would make reading The Zookeeper’s Wife time well spent.

 

Making amends, making friends

  • My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (Atria Books, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Seven-year-old Elsa and Granny are best friends. Precocious and a misfit among her peers, Elsa gains strength from the magical stories Granny weaves. After Granny’s death, Elsa is sent on a quest connecting people Granny met throughout her life.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Non-specific Sweden
  • Time: 2012
  • This book is for you if you enjoy quest literature. Some characters are reminiscent of those in the Harry Potter books. Be aware that suspending belief about the sophistication of a seven-year-old is necessary. It is definitely NOT like A Man Called Ove.

Fredrik Backman made a splash on the literary scene when A Man Called Ove was first published in the U.S. in 2014. His third title, Britt-Marie Was Here, was released last summer. When I had the chance to speak with Backman at Book Expo America last May, I asked which of his books he’d suggest for some book groups I facilitate. His recommendation was My Grandmother… precisely because people seemed to either love or hate it. And he was right.

I am a sucker for a quest. I recommend Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger at every chance I get. Backman does an admirable job of connecting the reader to Granny and Elsa. While it is very hard to imagine that seven-year-old Elsa really has read all the Harry Potter books multiple times, it is no stretch to understand why her eccentric, anti-establishment Granny is her anchor in her confusing family. Elsa’s mother works constantly and is pregnant with Halfsie, soon to be Elsa’s half brother. Everyone seems to adore her stepfather but they have no special connection.  And her father and his new family are not very involved in her life. When Granny isn’t getting into scrapes with the local police and businesspeople she devotes all her attention and imagination to Elsa.

Granny’s unexpected death leaves Elsa bereft and adrift. The small apartment building that Granny and Elsa lived in is filled with characters. Some are a part of daily life, whether Elsa likes it or not. Others are disconnected and often far from view. Delivering an envelope written by Granny to a neighbor sends Elsa on a journey to learn about them all.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is alternately humorous and touching. The imaginary world Granny created to ease Elsa’s night fears is complex with memorable elements. Some of Backman’s descriptions of Elsa’s neighbors are reminiscent of people met in the pages of J.K. Rowling’s novels.

As Fredrik Bachman told me, some love the book, others really not. Having Elsa be a seven-year-old is a real sticking point for many. Backman used the timing of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia to bring Granny back home to care for her granddaughter, a choice that created unnecessary hurdles. For those who can buy into the intellectually precocious Elsa, Granny’s imaginary world, and the quest to find Elsa’s true family, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry may be a worthy undertaking.

A Pop-Up City and Women Helped Win WWII

  • imgresThe Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan (William Morrow, 2007)
  • In 40 words or less: In 1943, part of the Tennessee Valley was transformed into a top secret factory town to support the Manhattan Project. Denise Kiernan’s narrative captures the little-known story of the women, predominantly non-scientists, who were responsible for the machinery that created the fuel for the atomic bomb.
  • Genre: Narrative history
  • Locale: Oak Ridge, TN
  • Time: 1943 – 45
  • Read this to learn about an extraordinary military and social experiment that created a 70,000 resident city from scratch for a single purpose.

While working on another project, Denise Kiernan saw a 1944 photo of women working in front of large machines in Oak Ridge, TN. James Edward Westcott, a government photographer, documented the building and operations of the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW), the “business” portion of the city built for the war effort in the Tennessee Valley.

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Out of nowhere, government officials evicted families from their homes and farms with often less than 2 weeks to move and limited compensation. Kiernan details the massive physical labor involved in building a city from nothing and the lengths required to provide labor to meet needs from construction, manufacturing, quality assurance, human resources, commissaries, medical clinics and everything else for an “instant city” of almost 70,000. But it wasn’t all work, the community had bowling alleys, tennis courts, and movie theaters. Hard to imagine that those inside never talked about their work with their co-workers and neighbors, and those outside the gates knew nothing at all.

Focusing on a number of women whose letters and interviews give flavor to the history, Kiernan parses the hierarchical society that was built. The workers came from those that were displaced, people that worked the cotton fields and coal miners from Pennsylvania and West Virgina. Women educated as scientists often worked in administrative positions while lesser educated men supervised. Both because it was accepted and to placate the political figures in Tennessee, discrimination against African Americans was particularly egregious. While other married workers were provided housing options for the family, African American husbands and wives were separated and lived in single-gender huts. Their children were not permitted, in part because a separate school system would have been required.

Secrecy was of the utmost importance. Any infractions were severely punished, often with summary dismissal. The lack of information about the undertaking created great resentment in Knoxville, the nearest large community. People could not understand how train and truckloads of material continuously entered the facility but nothing ever came out.imgres-2

Interwoven with the accounts of the growing community and its work is information about the raw material, Tubealloy, that was THE SECRET. The layers of secrecy surrounding the decisions and those involved is seen in the shadowy information available even seventy years later. The key figures of the Manhattan Project periodically are mentioned early on. Those living and working at CEW were completely unaware of the scope or magnitude of the combined effort.

Key to bringing this project to life are the photographs of Ed Westcott, whose sole responsibility was to provide a photographic record of the entire project. He alone had access to everything from the operating facilities to the hospital to the garbage collection trucks.  His work is maintained in the National Archive and on a website, The Photography of Ed Westcott.

In my view, there is magic in uncovering untold history. If you have ever wondered how the US pulled off the development of the atomic bomb, here it is. And the story that is told about the women and men who operated in total secrecy “to help end the war” really is important in understanding the war being fought on the homefront in the later stages of WWII.