Saturday, September 26, 2020

Mark Sullivan "Beneath a Scarlet Sky" Review


Mark Sullivan  Beneath a Scarlet Sky Review

My wife has been reading about the Holocaust ever since she devoted a major teaching unit to it for her sixth grade classes years ago. She recommended Sullivan’s BENEATH A SCARLET SKY to me and since I am an avid consumer of WWII stories, I pulled it up on our Kindle. 

A young Italian boy named Pino Lella is the main character in this semi-historical narrative that covers the last days of WWII’s Italian campaign. Pino was a real historical figure, but Sullivan’s novelistic treatment has espoused a host of negative charges ranging from total fabrication and faulty dating to his easy acceptance of Lella’s accounts without sufficient confirmation from other source

With that caveat what we do have is the story of Pino’s exploits as a savior of Jews and a spy for the resistance and the allies. He begins his career as a 17 year old experienced mountaineer who guides Jews over the Alps to safety in Switzerland. A bit later he returns to his home town of Milan (now ruled by Mussolini and occupied by the Nazis) and is rather quickly and astonishingly taken on as the personal driver by general Hans Leyers, a high ranking Nazi industrial engineer. Leyers has a mistress in Milan and the mistress has a maid named Anna who Pino falls desperately in love with. Pino now sports a Nazi armband but has become a spy who delivers German plans to his Uncle and the Resistance.

Both General Leyers and Lella seem to fall under a single quote from the book that seems to highlight at least one truth. “The game of life, it is always preferable to be a man of the shadows, and even the darkness, if necessary. In this way, you run things, but you are never, ever seen."

The prose is rather rudimentary and sometimes even wooden. There seems little room for real reflection on the human feelings that lie beneath the firestorm of action. I also have no doubt that the narrative and timelines have been tweaked to make Lella’s involvement in major events more dramatic.

Even with these problems I still found it a good historical reminder of the Allies’ slow and bloody progress north in Italy as the war was winding down in France. My recommendation is if you decide to read it, take it more as an adventure novel rather than history.  It will always be hard to tell from this distance if Lella and his brother were embroidering their own lives like fisherman whose catch gets bigger with each passing year or if Sullivan just wanted to make his story more appealing and exciting to the potential movies producers who expressed interest in it. 

i.e. enjoy but buyer beware.



Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Louise Penny GLASS HOUSES (2017) review


Louise Penny Glass Houses (2017) review

Let’s start with a summary of a conversation from about half way through the book. Myrna (the psychologist and bookstore proprietor), Reine-Marie (Gamache’s wife), and Gamache (our heroic and always troubled detective) are discussing why Pinocchio was not a real boy? It was not just because he was made of wood, but that he had no conscience, other than Jiminy Cricket. People with no conscience at all are called psychopaths. We are used to the rather transparent movie villains of this type, but most psychopaths are far cleverer than that. They have mastered the art of pretending to care, that it is they who have been wronged, and then achieve their retribution by masterful manipulation. (Think Iago,) Gamache is beginning to pierce the  fog that the Cobrador appearance has laid down and now starts to posit that  someone in the background was manipulating all the participants as well as the investigators. As Penny puts it, someone was lurking in or around the village who was “in fact not quite human.”

It is this driving force that Armand Gamache must deal with and I wish that Penny had been more successful in elucidating it.  Somehow the early narrative line that keeps shifting from the lead up to the murder and back to the trial of the accused murderer never quite gels. As one critic noted, there is “too much teasing with too little action,” There is “too much philosophizing and repetition of the same situation.”  

Why Penny feels it necessary to conceal the identity of the accused from the reader is beyond me. It may create some early suspense, but everyone in the courtroom can see the identity for themselves so why not us? Another bothersome detail from the early going is that Penny’s normal skillful integration of weather and nature seems to have gone astray. She puts Chief Gamache in a literal hot seat by turning the courtroom into a sweaty tizzy by the convenient loss of the air conditioning. This may have been pertinent symbol for the Scopes Monkey Trial, but seems rather too contrived for the modern day.  

What does still work is the establishment of an atmosphere of fear and dread through the use of the scary legend of the Cobrador, who historically stood silent and shamed a miscreant until they broke down. That element tracks nicely through the entire book.

Ms. Penny is also known to integrate larger philosophical debates into her murders.  Here Gamache has taken on his new position and has inaugurated a secret “burn all boats” plan in order to deal with the growth of international drug cartels. This threat is believable and current, yet it takes a leap of faith to believe that in a tiny place like Three Pines there would not be some notice of rampant strangers running vast quantities of drugs through multiple border gaps for years without raising a shred of suspicion until now. It is for this reason that I feel that Penny seems to be laying more on her idyllic fictional town of Three Pines than it can bear. Would the head of a giant multi-national drug cartel be so stupid as to run around with only one bodyguard no matter how safe he felt? Is the Bistro quite up to harboring so many sinister guests and more secrets behind fireplaces and in walls than are found in a dozen Dan Brown novels? I think not.

Nevertheless, Gamache’s moral wrestling match on the issue holds  attention. Long term revenge nags as various approaches are debated. Mahatma Ghandi’s thoughts about “a court of conscience” that goes beyond and above temporal laws keeps rearing up.  Gamache and his few confidants struggle with whether a moral imperative to tell the truth exists. Can such tragedies as the destruction of a Coventry or Dresden be defended when in pursuit of a later and more overwhelming defeat of the axis? And ultimately for Gamache can perjury or at minimum failure to reveal what you know be compensated for by a larger long term necessity?

The book may simply put Gamache on a pedestal just a few feet too high and then try to justify an overly outlandish premise with too many philosophic mind games. To be gracious here, perhaps the death of her real life husband while she was writing the book may have had an impact on Penny’s more pinpoint narrative skill. It would certainly be understandable. Meanwhile I shall leave Jiminy Cricket to deal with Pinocchio’s lengthening nose.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Book Review A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny


Review A Great Reckoning

It is difficult to begin a commentary on Louise Penny’s 2016 A Great Reckoning. There are just so many threads to connect. It clearly wants to find the good memories while continuing to root out decay and the evils of old wounds. As Beauvoir says toward the end of the novel, “. . . the world is a cruel place, but it’s also filled with more goodness than we ever realized. And you know what? Kindness beats cruelty in the long run. It really does. Believe me”

The key to the plot is that Armande Gamache has moved once again out of semi-retirement to take on the task of commanding the Surete Training School, whose students have been exploited and trained in cruelty by the corrupt police administrators of the past. The murder of one of the old professors at the school that Gamache has kept on staff in order to find final evidence of his corruption links four young Surete cadets as well as Gamache to the murder and to the search for secrets found in an old map. In this case it is a 100 year old orienteering guide found secreted in the walls of the Three Pines Bistro. The map connects a stained glass church window that honors young WWI war dead in Three Pines’ St. Thomas church and that prods a search to find the mapmaker and the identity of the young war victims. All is ultimately connected to the town, its quirky bunch of inhabitants, to Armand Gamache’s career and his family, and personal devils, and finally to the evils of the Surete itself.

The ending is moving and Penny leaves a solution to a final lurking question until the very last words. All told one of the very best in a series of very fine books that go well beyond the province of detective mysteries. Penny is in the league with P.D. James and Iris Murdoch when it comes to integrating philosophy, poetry, history, music, food, and brilliant evocation of nature and place into her work.  I mention Murdoch because we learn that while writing this book, she was dealing with early onset dementia in her husband, which is of  course a reversal but still a moving comment on how one moves on and creates in fiction as well as life.    

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Eric Larson's The Splendid and the Vile review


Larson Eric The Splendid and the Vile

“Mammoth” is a word that defines anything written about Winston Churchill. Everything about the man is more than life-size and the bibliography expands to fit his personality and accomplishments. Eric Larson with  The Splendid and the Vile  joins the list of eminent writers who have tackled the Churchillian mountain. The book’s five hundred closely packed pages covers only the critical period between his election as Prime Minister through to the war’s end. It differs from a standard military battle history because it tends to  concentrate on the man, his family, his inner circle, and the people who endured the horrors of the Blitz with him.   

A good deal of this retelling is not pleasant. You must endure the destruction of Coventry, Plymouth, and London in excruciating detail. On one of Churchill’s now legendary excursions into the smoldering wreckage of London, Larson reports he asks a small boy what he wants to be when he grows up. The boy responds with a depth beyond his years, “Alive!”

That may illustrate the “vile” of the title, but there is plenty of time devoted to the splendid too. We have detailed reconstructions of the composition  and delivery of some of his now famous speeches to Parliament and humanizing glimpses of the man in his bathtub puffing on a big cigar while dictating messages. One humorous quote was from a young woman who feared she would die a virgin if she didn’t have sex with her boy friend.  Her diary records "If that's really all there is to it, I'd rather have a good smoke or go to the pictures."  

Even more interesting are detailed accounts of Churchill’s family life. We get to peer into his relationship with his wife, Clementine, his young daughter, Mary, and the roving eye of his son Randolph’s wife, Pamela.

Finally there are many portraits of the political figures and aides who surrounded the great man. My own knowledge expanded as I learned more about people like Lord Beaverbrook, his airplane construction tsar, Jock Colville, his administrative assistant, Professor Lindemann, the armament guru, and Inspector Thompson the sole detective who was his constant bodyguard.

By and large the book reads as smoothly as a novel. The pictures emerge through evocative descriptions. One example I recall came in another of Churchill’s many walks to survey bomb damage. Larson says, “In his long overcoat over his round form, he looked like the top half of a very large bomb.” Only occasionally are we bogged down in too much detail. The main item I recall in this vein was a full page devoted to a list of drug supplies that the hypochondriac Rudolf Hess packed in a suitcase when he flew into England toward the end of the war.

Anyone with a penchant for WWII biography will find this book fulfilling. Churchill the man was often erratic and sometimes  downright weird, but there is no question that he was  “Splendid.”

A final suggestion. If you have never been to London, do not miss the experience of touring the Admiralty War Rooms where a lot of  this book takes place. It is now a splendid museum.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Labor Day Musings


Labor Day Musings  9/7/2020

On Labor Day 2020 a Public Broadcasting post asked readers to send them some thoughts about their first jobs. It provided me with a perfect excuse to do some current writing labor by recounting my memories of the first four jobs I held. If my musings strike a chord perhaps you could put some things down from your life that might be of interest to your children or relatives.    

Job Number One was the proverbial starting point for young boys of my generation--i.e. newspaper delivery. Shamefully, it is pretty much gone now. Even a lot of the newspapers that might be delivered now have been chewed up and spit out by one of the nastiest consequences of our internet centered age.

Sometime around the age of twelve in 1950 or thereabouts, I began to help a school chum named Bob Slindi with his paper route. A while later he wanted out and I took it over. You collected your money in cash once each week. It must have a little over two dollars. You then paid your bill at the Milwaukee Journal distribution shed located just behind the beer depot at 20th and Morgan. You had to pay your bill for number of papers given out and if you couldn’t collect the week’s tab from a customer, you had to pay the Journal anyway. No credit was allowed. That reaffirmed early on a sound business rule that in business you always have to have enough cash on hand to pay your suppliers. Saturday was the normal collection day.

It is important to remember that in the 1950’s most people, and of course mostly men, brought their weekly pay packet home in cash on Friday. Even if you were paid with a check, you would have to cash it somewhere before you got home because banks in those days were often not open on weekends. That also unfortunately led to Daddy stopping of at the local dispensary after work for a few slugs with the boys. That was not my dad, but it was the dads of some of my friends. For all of my dad's working years at Lindsay Brothers, he would board the #79 bus in a suit and tie to go to work and he would always go downtown for lunch. I think my dad was paid by check and believe that he would have cashed it at the Marshall & Ilsley Bank over his Friday lunch hour. That evening he would turn cash over to my mother who would insert it in a budget box containing envelopes for each month’s household expenses and savings. He would keep out money for his bus passes, his lunches, and some basic personal recreations like golf and bowling. 

Above has been a bit of a digression, but it is germane to how I may have picked up some fairly conservative financial practices. I learned quickly on paper route collection day not to carry too much change other than singles and quarters. Occasionally we would have a customer who would insist on credit for next week if I didn’t have the correct change, but mostly they were feeling flush on Saturdays and would say on a $2.80 bill, “Don’t worry keep the twenty cents. ” A fifteen or twenty cent tip on a bill was the gravy that went into the piggy bank. The only other thing I remember about my paper delivery days is that if the weather was really bad mom would roll the car out and drive me around the two block circuit. Believe me that didn’t happen often, but I was always grateful.

Job Number Two was the summer I was fourteen, which would have been around 1952. I applied for a job as a caddy at Tuckaway Country Club. I would ride my bike north on 20th Street to Grange and turn right—a distance of about 2 miles. At 27th you had to cross busy Hwy 41 and neither mom or dad were too happy about that, but thankfully I survived. Tuckaway has long ago been sold off to create fancy suburban housing and nothing remains there to remind you of the wooded golf course other than one street called Tuckaway Drive.

The caddy drill was simple and unforgiving. You arrived early in the morning and signed in. Then you would lounge about in a roofed shed that was called, yes you guessed it, the “Caddyshack.” You would wait and wait until someone who knew you and had been satisfied with your service would ask for you or you would just sit until your number was called for a loop with a customer who had no preference. I remember no pull carts and certainly no motorized carts. We all hoped to be called by that generous guy who would tip well and generally looked down on the stiffs who did not tip and particularly the creeps who insisted on carrying their own bags. Some days you would get a loop or even two, but you made not a dime if your number didn’t come up or if the weather turned bad. A few extra coins were possible by picking up shag balls from members who used the driving range. You would take their empty bag and go down the range and pick up the balls they hit and put them back in their shag bag to use all over again. This was usually an easy couple of bucks, especially  if the guy practicing or warming up was good. Shagging for a beginner or a duffer was another story. They would spray balls all over the place and you could put a lot of miles on your sneakers before it was finished.

The big perk of the job was you actually got one morning a week when you could play the course for free. I think it was Monday as the busy days for the members were generally on the weekends. My dad was an expert golfer and loved the game all his life. I developed my own taste for the game that summer at Tuckaway, but I never got quite as good as Dad. I might have reached that level if I had not had a period of about twenty five years when I didn’t have the time to play much. On the other hand I was always good enough not to be a disgrace and did play regularly later in life until my shoulder gave out when I was 80. Golf is a fin and  lifelong sport.    

Job Number Three was my first true salaried position. It began at the ripe old age of fifteen when I was a scrawny little high school student who was able to compete on the Pulaski HS wrestling team in the 103 pound weight class. I won far more matches on forfeit than I did on the mat. Mr. Pauly, the coach, was just happy to have found someone light enough to make that weight.

I applied and got a job as a weekend busboy at the new Howard Johnson restaurant at 27th and Morgan. Nobody called it Ho Jo’s then. The restaurant was right near the equally new Southgate Shopping Center with its flagship Gimbels store. It was maybe ¾ of a mile away if you walked and a breeze if you rode your bike to get there. Busing tables was good for balance and arm strength. We were paid fifty-five cents an hour plus any tips the waitresses might share with us. Some did regularly and some were as cheap as those guys at Tuckaway who insisted on carrying their own bags. Howard Johnsons became my go to job for the next six years right through college. During my last two high school years, I spent most weekends and a fair amount of summers employed by the restaurant. I graduated to dishwasher and then to a real fountain boy, which paid an extra ten cents an hour and enabled me to interact with the customers more. It also gave me an opportunity to try all of the famous HJ 27 flavors, Mint Chip and Butter Pecan are still my favorite ice creams of choice today. I became an expert at making malts, floats, and fancy sundaes. The soda fountain was also right next to the cash register and if the hostess was away from her station, I was given permission to take checks and give out change. As I entered my college years, I worked more and more out front occasionally filling in to seat customers, act as relief cashier, and even getting a shot at being a waiter in the dining room or at the soda fountain seats during the late evenings. Hooray, you got tips there and I knew how to bus tables so didn’t have to share them with a bus boy. Another step up with a boost in wages was being tagged to help the manager take the regular Saturday inventory and to help unload and stow food deliveries. I even had a key to the basement store rooms.

Finally I was asked if I would be interested in handling some kitchen duties and in the summer before starting my senior year at Beloit College, I juggled Howard Johnson’s with Job Number Four. This was downtown at the Eagle Knitting Mills where I packed boxes of socks and did light warehouse and shipping work from 7:00 to 4:00 each week day. Monday thru Friday I would punch out and jump on a bus that would take me to 27th street where I transferred to another bus that would take me right to Southgate and the restaurant. I would grab a fast bite before starting the rush hour as chief grill cook. I’d get a break around 7:30 or so and then finish out the night in front as host and/or cashier or both. Weekends I would often work the grill in the morning and help out where needed for lunch since I could literally do every job in the place. The summer after I graduated from Beloit, I worked full time at the restaurant mainly in the kitchen or out front. I think it is fair to note that had I not been off to grad school in the fall of 1959, I might well have joined the managerial ranks in the restaurant trade and my life would have taken a much different turn.

There was a lot of informal learning going on in those first four jobs. I learned that the food industry involved hard physical work, risky returns, and long hours on weekends and holidays when everyone else was not working. Most of the employees were just   eking out a living from week to week while drawing a minimum or below minimum wage. Tips for the servers remain an inconsistent hedge. The unfortunate truth is that the restaurant business has changed little in the last fifty years. 

I did pick up a whole new vocabulary of slang and a lot of words that can’t be used in polite company at the restaurant. There was also knowledge about life in a world that countless millions inhabit, but that  I had never really been aware of before, and frankly thankfully never would really inhabit again. I heard at the big trestle table in the basement break room and in the sweat smelling windowless  locker room a raft of stories of life among the marginal and the struggling.  I do remember that a lot of our waitresses were divorced and or single mothers. There were footsore from the work, had kids, and were divorced or considering it because they were fighting to keep their sanity while trying to learn enough to buy groceries each week. I listened to people who talked about visiting friends or family members in jail and even heard some tales from a few who had been in a jail. All these people, whose names I no longer remember, were pretty much plain hard working folks who were earning just enough to get by and yet would take up a collection to help a fellow worker pay the rent, a hospital bill, or meet the next payment on a needed appliance or car. They were the salt that gave all life a flavor even if the cut of meat on the table was a bit tough.    

When I think back on it now, those four first jobs were also good training for spending a life teaching and working in and for the arts. The lessons learned have been ingrained. Showing up is half the battle; showing up on time adds another 30%; learning to do a job, no matter what it is, ties a bow on the box. There is even a sweet desert inside for those who have had the benefit of spending a life working at a labor they loved. Just think, I got paid for creating theatre, teaching young people about the  theatre, and for attending as many plays as I could.  

A Thought from the past about the Future

 I am in process of sifting through several boxes of old theatre files in order to feed the recycling bin with material that has sat in a closet since my retirement. I opened a file labeled Athol Fugard--South Africa's most acclaimed playwright and found myself looking at a review of his award winning play "Master Harold . . . and the Boys." Having just seen a revival of this play in AZ this past winter, I just felt I had to read it. It was written about the first production at Yale in 1982 by a young Frank Rich.

Hally, one of the three characters in the play, is a young white South African who has been mentored and raised by the two black men who work in his mother's tea room. A series of problems develops that cause the young Hally to attack and humiliate the black men horribly. Rich sees in this young privileged white man a boy who "is typical of anyone who attacks the defenseless to bolster his own self-esteem." Is this starting to ring a bell even forty years on?

This play centers on the creeping evil of "apartheid", but Mr. Rich talks also about how all hatred sneaks up, ignites, and then grows. He notes that Hally seems on track and admirable in the early parts of the play. He would appear to be someone you might vote for. However, as the play progresses, the young man becomes more cruel, spiteful, hateful and ready to assert his inborn power and superiority. In spite of this we find it hard to pull ourselves away from Hally. Rich then asks why do we stick to him even though we can feel and see he is sliding into an abyss. The answer appears to be because we see in Hally's behavior our own latent capacity for cruelty. Our own ingrained self-hate immobilizes us. We cannot admit our errors and turn to another solution. Trump and what he represents will never change. In order for us to change and break the old order, we must begin to finally see just who it is we really hurt when we give in to hatred.

Just a thought as we approach our current election. The past must always speak to the present.