Swooning Over This Book, I Am


Safe Passage has shanghaied me.  The minute I finished, I was ready for a second reading.  I want to send it to friends who live life with ferocious passion.  Or passionate ferocity.  The ones who dream, who wonder, who say, “what if?”  Visionaries who can execute a plan.  Friends for whom zest is more than a lemon.

Forget Thelma and Louise.  Ida and Louise will bowl you over.

The book covers three periods in the life of British spinster sisters.  Each one, alone, would make a dazzling book. The first period (1923-1936) paints their love of opera and initial friendships with opera celebrities.  The second season (1937-1939) narrates their travels to Germany almost every weekend under the guise of going to the opera in order to facilitate emigration for desperate refugees.  The third act (1939 -1950) gives a remarkable account of life in London during the Blitz and post-war operatic adventures. 

Listen to me. 

You don’t have to know, understand or even like opera to enjoy this book. Because the remarkable thing is how two typical office workers making £2 – £3 a week saved £100 each to travel to New York to see an opera.

It never occurred to Louise and me to suppose we might get someone
 else to provide us with what we wanted, or to waste time envying
those who…could do with ease what we must accomplish with difficulty
and sacrifice. All our thoughts were concentrated on how we could do it.

First Louise bought a gramophone and ten records. When Amelita Galli-Curci made her English debut, Ida and Louise skipped lunches, scrimped to buy tickets.  They discovered opera.  Galli-Curci, their favorite soprano, only sang opera in America.  It was simple: if they wanted to hear her in an opera, they must travel to New York.  (I get this: I flew to Chicago to hear Yo-Yo Ma play the cello; our family and friends drove six hours through an epic snowstorm to hear blues singer-songwriter Eric Bibb.) Without telling anyone, the Cook sisters sketched a budget and systematically saved £1/week.    They continued to attend operas, queuing on camp stools for up to 24 hours in order to get cheap seats in the gallery. Rarely are such exacting frugality and such exuberant extravagance found in one personality.

But let no one suppose we were not happy. Going without things is
neither enjoyable nor necessarily uplifting in itself. But the things you
achieve by your own effort and your own sacrifice do have a special flavour.

They did something wonderfully naive: they told Galli-Curci their plan.  She was delighted, offered tickets and asked them to look her up in New York.  Thus began the first of many close friendships with the celebrities of the day. The Sisters Cook were commoners, plain British women (think Susan Boyle…before).  Yet their enthusiasm, their untrammeled joy must have been attractive, as evidenced by their host of friends.


Ida began writing romance novels to finance their opera habit.  A trip to Verona followed a trip to Florence; they traveled to Salzburg then to Amsterdam to see Strauss conduct.  Through their friendship with opera stars they became acquainted with Jews looking for an escape from the Nuremberg Laws.

And so, at the very moment when I was making big money for the first
time in my life, we were presented with this terrible need. It practically never
happens that way. It was much the most romantic thing that ever happened
to us. Usually one either has the money and doesn’t see the need, or one sees
the need and has not the money. If we had always had the money we might
not have thought we had anything to spare.

For an German adult to emigrate to the safety of England, a British citizen had to guarantee financial responsibility for life for the emigrant.  After Ida and Louise exhausted their resources, Ida took any public speaking invitation to inform people of the urgent need for sponsors.  Ida bought a flat in London for transitional housing for the refugees; the sisters continued to live with at home with their parents.  The sisters’ efforts secured safety for twenty-nine people.

When September 1939 arrived, their refugee work was over.  What follows is an extraordinary account of life during the Blitz.  An entire city worked during the day and slept in underground shelters at night. 

One of my most vivid memories of that first night was the five minutes before
Out.” There were prayers for those who cared to join in, but no
compulsion on those
who did not. Only a courteous request for quiet
for a few minutes. In the crowded,
rather dimly lit shelter,
there was the murmur of a couple of hundred voices repeating
ageless words of the Lord’s Prayer. And the not very distant crash
 of a bomb lent a terrible
point to the earnest petition, Deliver us from evil,
breathed from the farthest, shadowy corner.

Though Ida and Louise didn’t have the faith of Corrie ten Boom, there is a quote my husband has already used in a Sunday School class.  [When polio struck Marjorie Lawrence she had to give up opera and sing from a wheelchair.]

“What was it, Marjorie,” I asked at last, “that keeps you bright and courageous
in spite of
everything? You must have some very clear and remarkable
philosophy to support you.” She
smiled a little mischievously,
but replied without hesitation, “Well, you see, many people
in God and make themselves miserable.
We believe in God and have lots of fun. That’s all.”

Safe Passage is part Julia Child (if she took to opera like she did to cooking), part Oskar Schindler.
(Thanks to Frankie, reconnected friend from long ago and co-bibliophile; she lived through the war in London. I will always read the books you recommend.)

A Thread of Grace



  There’s a saying in Hebrew, he tells her.

No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us,

there’s always a thread of grace.

Mary Doria Russell’s A Thread of Grace  is a dense book. 

When I read it half-heartedly-dipping in here and there–I just couldn’t muster any enthusiasm.  There are many characters and more storylines than a modern novel usually has.  The place names are unfamiliar (many are fictional) and it is easy to become lost, dislocated.  Like Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, it takes a while to settle in and get comfortable. 

His face twists, but he holds back the tears,

determined not to commit the sin of despair.

After I finished this story of the Jewish resistance in Italy, sniffling and throat-lumping, I count it in the top five books about civilian life during WWII.  Russell (who grew up in my hometown, Lombard, IL) obviously knows both Jewish and Catholic culture deep down at the roots in this well-researched and well-written story. 

She nods and his glorious gap-toothed grin apears,

utterly transforming the homely face. 

To make a man so happy! she thinks. 

To make this man so beautiful..”Yes.” she says, “Really.”  

The courtship of Claudette and Santino, written with sparse, elegant prose, remains long after the book is finished.  Santino, a solid man, builds stone walls that will be standing 200 years after he’s gone.  Claudia (she Italicizes  her name) is a young refugee who is forced to grow up in a short space of time.  Like any book with Nazis and Jews, there is difficult-to-digest terror and violence.   

The old words come back, prayers he learned as a child. 

Misere mei Deus:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to the multitude of thy tender mercies.

The other relationship which barnacled my heart was between a Catholic priest, Osvaldo Tomitz, and Werner Schramm, a German Doktor who has deserted the Nazis.  The story begins with Don Tomitz hearing Schramm’s confession–who calculates that he has killed 91,867 people–and ends with Schramm acting as a priest to the father.  Don Tomitz wrestles with guilt, forgiveness, atonement and absolution as he ministers to broken people. 

May I share some of my favorite sentences?

~   Shutters open like windows in an Advent calendar.

~   Feeble as a good intention, he watches his own feet…

~   He could give a lecture on the natural history of terror.

~   He tries to thank God, but can’t help feeling like a thug’s wife who believe she is loved if a punch goes wide. 

~   Autumn light makes the varnished chesnut bookcases beneath the windows glow.  


The Longest Day

It was the longest, most miserable, horrible day
that I or anyone else ever went through.
~ Pvt. Felix Branham

The sixth of June, 1944, was an exhausting day,
a frightening day, an exhilarating day,
a sorrowful day, and a joyous day.
~ Lt. Charles Ryan, Company A

It seems overkill to write 600 pages to describe one twenty-four hour day unless that day is as momentous as D-Day.  Stephen E. Ambrose begins with the Nazis defenders, wheels his way around the beaches of Normandy, expands his viewpoint to the world watching, and ultimately offers an encyclopedic scope of one of the key battles of WWII.  It takes an historian and writer as skilled as Ambrose to seamlessly weave a narrative from hundreds of individual oral histories. 

In addition to the inspiration that comes from reading about courage and bravery, I gleaned several principles from this book:

•  The tactical difference between planning (offensive) and preparing (defensive). 
•  The power of exhortation; the more potent force of example.   
•  Isolation will cause loss of momentum.
•  The failure to advance while they had the advantage was a consistent weakness of the Allied forces. 

I can easily apply these lessons to the trivial-by-comparison struggle of losing weight.  If my weekly weigh-in shows a loss, I reward myself and act like the soldiers who stopped to brew tea instead of moving forward.  

This book is crammed with odd bits of information:

•  The Tiger, the biggest and best German tank got 1/2 mile to the gallon!
•  General Eisenhower did not give a single command on D-Day.
•  The D stands for Day (also H-Hour).  There are several D-Days in history.
•  “We are asking rather a lot if we expect Russians to fight in France for Germany against the Americans.”
•  The New York Daily News printed the Lord’s Prayer in place of lead article.
•  My favorite sentence: “To see tanks coming out of the water shook them rigid.”

Pull Ourselves Together



The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. 
If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb,
let that bomb, when it comes,
find us doing sensible and human things–
listening to music,
bathing the children,
playing tennis,
chatting to our friends over a pint
and a game of darts–
not huddled together
like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.

~ C.S. Lewis, written during World War II

Insert swine flu [or any crisis of the week] for atomic bomb. 
Lewis’ words are especially potent.
How will huddling and worrying add a day to your life?

I don’t want to discount the potential harm from swine flu.
Neither do I want to inflate the threat.

If the swine flu attacks me today–and I doubt it will–,
it will find me making a birthday dinner,
taking a walk, reconciling a bank
statement (one of my favorite tasks),
cleaning floors, answering the phone,
and reading a book.

What sensible and human things are you doing?

How to Cook a Wolf


“Nothing seems particularly grim
if your head is clear
and your teeth are clean
and your bowels function properly.”

The problem is how to characterize How to Cook a Wolf.   

~  It is a cookbook, but one with only 75 recipes added like seasoning to the prose.  Along the way you will learn how to cook fish, eggs, fritattas, polenta, gravy, bread and War Cake.

~  It is a book on frugality.

~  It is a survival book including a basic recipe for a gruel/sludge that will keep you alive.

~  It is sort of a social history, illuminating life at home during the second world war.

~  It is a dialog between the author and herself.  She wrote the book in 1942 and revised it in 1954.  The original is kept intact and revisions added in [brackets].  This is one of the most entertaining features.  As any writer knows, reading your work at a later date can make you alternately wince or nod your head.  Fisher, an opinionated writer, tends to argue with herself, retract a statement or two; but she admits at the end of one chapter that she is pleased with what she wrote. 

~   It is a book worth reading for its delightful prose.  W. H. Auden wrote about M.F.K. Fisher “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.”  Here’s what I want you to do: click on the link above, click on the picture of the book “Click to Look Inside” and read the table of contents.  I don’t know any other book with better chapter titles. 

If you are curious about the wolf in the title, it comes from the ditty by C.P.S. Gilman: There’s a whining at the threshold.  There’s a scratching at the floor.  To work! To work! In Heaven’s name! The wolf is at the door! 

Here’s some morsels of Fisher’s writing to further tempt you:

As for butter and other shortening,
I have always felt that I should prefer
too little of the best
to plenty of the inferior kind.  p. 18

[As an older and wiser frittata cook
I almost always, these richer days,
add a scant cup of good dry Parmesan cheese
to the eggs when I mix them.
Often I add rich cream too.
How easy it is to stray from austerity!]  p.61

I believe more firmly than ever in fresh raw milk,
freshly ground whole grains of cereal,
and vegetables grown in organically cultured soil.
If I must eat meats I want them carved from beasts
nurtured on the plants from that same kind of soil.  p. 71

The doubtful triumphs of science over human hunger
are perhaps less dreadful to the English than to us,
for in spite of our national appetite for pink gelatine puddings,
we have never been as thoroughly under the yoke
of Bird’s Custard Sauce as our allies.  p.152

In the old days, before Stuka and blitz became part of
even childish chitchat, every practical guide to cookery
urged you to keep a well-filled emergency shelf
in your kitchen or pantry.
Emergency is another word
that has changed its inner shape;
when Marion Harland and Fanny Farmer used it
they meant unexpected guests.
You may, too, in an ironical way,
but you hope to God
they are the kind who will never come.  p.187

All But My Life & The Hours After


All But My Life begins at 9:10 a.m. on September 3, 1939, when the Nazis invaded the Weissmann’s home town of Bielitz, Poland.  Immediately her family lost any sense of safety and security.  About the beginning of October there was a timid knock at the door.  It was not the ominous thump of the Gestapo, but a hesitant, tired signal.  It is strange how many feelings a knock can express, if you listen carefully. The book chronicles the progressive losses which accumulate one after another after another through the days after the end of the war.  It is staggering.  Layer by layer, everything Gerda treasures is stripped away. 

When she is liberated the only valuable thing she owns are the ski boots her father insisted she wear on the June day three years ago when Gerda was transferred out of the ghetto to a labor camp.  Her love and admiration of her older brother Artur, made his loss one of the heaviest of all. 

At our final parting, when I was fifteen and my brother nineteen, he asked me to be brave and take care of our parents.  My promise to him was my most sacred vow.  And during the years that followed, I did the best I could–always, I suppose, in the hope that he would praise me when we next met.  How could I have imagined that on a snowy winter’s night many decades later, in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel would express the fulfillment of part of that irrational hope when he took me into his arms and said, “I have waited so long to meet Arthur’s little sister.” As I wept, he stroked my hair and said, “You have been very brave.”  He had never met my brother but had read what I wrote about him, and with uncanny sensitivity he had identified with us; thus he gave me the praise I had hoped to hear from my brother.

Gerda’s story continues with The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in War’s Aftermath.   The first American soldier to see Gerda on Liberation Day was Kurt Klein.  In spite of her filthy, broken down, ematiated figure, there was a spark in Gerda which immediately attracted Kurt.  A Lieutenant in the Army, Klein was also  Jewish, born and raised in Germany before he emigrated to America.  Two months after meeting her and the evening before he was shipped to another location, Kurt asked Gerda, alone in the world, to marry him.  Their letters during their year of separation before they could marry form the framework of this book. 

This book grew on me, the second half more absorbing than the first.  Gerda’s daily letters offer a mosaic of life in Munich immediately after the war.  How can she reconcile the kindness of her landlords with the fact that they were Nazi party members since 1933?  Her plight underscored the difficulty displaced persons had in proving who they were, getting visas, with so little documentation available.  Gerda worked for a while with the Bavarian Aid Society.  Her descriptions of the people seeking help are either full of sorrow or ironic humor. 

Because Kurt and Gerda are both so articulate, their letters, which they translated for the book, are rich reading. They cover daily life, problem solving, hope for their future, acknowledgment of painful realities, yearning for the miraculous appearance of a family member, and, at their core, a deep love for one another.   

Thanks to my friend Frankie (who lived in London during the war) for turning me on to Gerda Weissmann Klein’s books.  

Hitler’s Struggle, Mein Kampf

Why did you want to read Mein Kampf (My Struggle)? 

•  Initially I wanted to see how transparent Hitler was.  How clear were his statements?  Abraham Foxman writes in the Introduction:  “Mein Kampf’s existence denies the free world the excuse of ignorance.”
•  Hitler’s opening words.  “To an ever-increasing extent world history became for me an inexhaustible source of understanding for the historical events of the present; in other words, for politics.  I do not want to ‘learn’ it, I want it to instruct me.  (p.16)  Reading this book is one of the steps in answering the question ‘How could the Holocaust happen?’
•  History fascinates me.  It is so interconnected: one really cannot understand WW2 without a knowledge of WW1; the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 is an important context of WW1, Napolean etc. etc.  A mentor long ago convinced me of the value of primary source documents. 

What was your overall impression?

I agree with Mussolini who called it ‘Hitler’s boring book‘.  Hitler considered himself a gifted orator.  He was no writer.  It was hard to follow his circular logic.  Much of his rhetoric was vitriol and vituperation.  Frankly, it was agony to read.  My husband could not understand my compulsion to make it through to the end. 

Was there anything to like?

Surprisingly, yes. 
•  Describing the poverty of his youth: “Hunger was then my faithful bodyguard.” (p.21). 
•  “The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. ”  (p.180)
•  This phrase tickled me: “a sneak and a spineless lickspittle”
•   He advocated strong sports and physical fitness programs for boys. 
•   Hitler’s commentary on (generic) committee members: “…who were in a kind of continuous pregnancy with excellent plans, ideas, projects, methods.”  He said that the best means of making them harmless was to assign them to some real work.

So.  How did he really feel about the Jews?

•  Gradually, I began to hate them [Jews].  p.63
•  I had ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and became an anti-Semite. p. 64
•  All who are not of good race in this world are chaff.  p. 296
•  personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew  p.324
•  The Jew is the great master in lying.

Whom, besides the Jews, did Hitler hate?

•  Pacifists
•  Marxists (particularly that Jew, Karl Marx)
•  Parlimentarianism
•  Western democracy
•  Mixed races (particularly in Slavs)
•  Signers of The Treaty of Versailles
•  Bastards, physically degenerate, mentally sick
•  France (inexorable mortal enemy of the German people)

Were there any foreshadowings of Hitler’s invasions?

•  Hitler describes correct foreign policy as “a strengthening of our continental power by gaining new soil in Europe.” (p.612)
•  These circles never even began to realize that Germanization can only be applied to soil and never to people.  (p.388)

Final thoughts?

Mein Kampf is a witness against Hitler and his followers.  He clearly articulated the philosophy of Nazism.  While the horror of ‘The Final Solution’ wasn’t revealed, the open hatred of Jews is never hidden.