*****Moonglow: A Novel

Tarot cards

photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license

By Michael Chabon – It’s interesting Chabon labels Moonglow a novel right on the cover, because it’s also has one foot in the memoir camp. The character Michael appears, but the book is only tangentially about him, somewhat about his mother, and mostly about her parents. And what a fascinating set of grandparents he has! The story is based in truth—bolstered by footnotes as an occasional reality check—and leavened with humor. Yet many details and conversations must have sprung from Chabon’s impeccable imagination and his obvious love for two characters called only “my grandfather” and “my grandmother” throughout.

His grandmother, a beautiful and elegant Frenchwoman, survived World War II and the camps. With little more than a set of fortune-telling cards that would be springboards for stories she told her grandson, she emigrated to Baltimore. There the would-be Dolly Levis of the synagogue hoped to match her up with their young rabbi. The night they were to meet at a temple social event, the rabbi dragged his unwilling brother along, and a match was made, just not the one the women expected.

The Frenchwoman had a daughter already (Chabon’s mother), but his grandfather accepted her a hundred percent, as is. And “as is” was not easy. She suffered from severe bouts of depression that resulted in several hospitalizations, and the delusion that a skinless horse lay in wait for her. Nevertheless, they were a good pair. Keeping bad news away from her, as the grandfather insisted upon, “suited his furtive nature. She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand.”

The main story is the grandfather’s, and the premise of the book is that he was close-mouthed throughout life until the week before he died, when he told Chabon everything. “Keeping secrets was the family business. But it was a business, it seemed to me, that none of us had ever profited from,” Chabon says.

Chabon skips gleefully back and forth across time and space in recounting his grandfather’s World War II experience (where he participated in Operation Paperclip, an effort to snatch up the German rocket experts before the Russians could get them), his lifelong fascination with rocketry and model-building (NASA obtained some of his precisely detailed models), his prison experience, businesses built and lost, and a late-life romance in a Florida retirement village where a giant python was stealing the pets.

In short, the grandfather reveals and Chabon skillfully assembles and polishes a treasure chest of experiences, Dickensian in their variety, one to be explored with delight and wonder.

For very good reason, Moonglow (affiliate link below) was selected by numerous publications as a “best book” of 2016.

Sophie Scholl – The Final Days

Sophie Scholl, Nazis

Julia Jentsch as Sophie Scholl

Netflix finally sent a movie whose queue we’d been in for years (they must have only a single copy), and wouldn’t you know, it arrived the same week we saw another based-on-a-true-story German-subtitled movie about World War II, Labyrinth of Lies. But you don’t have to wait so long, the entire 2005 Scholl movie is available on YouTube, or you can watch this snippet (trailer).

Sophie Scholl, age 21, her older brother Hans, and several of their friends were students in Munich during the war and participated in a non-violent resistance organization called The White Rose. It was 1943. Stalingrad had just been lost, the Eastern Front was a disaster, and most German military leaders saw inevitable looming defeat. It was in that atmosphere that Sophie and her brother are arrested for distributing anti-war flyers at the university, and the movie focuses on her interrogation by the Gestapo. It doesn’t involve the thuggish violence one might expect; rather, it’s a duel of wits between Sophie and her interrogator, Robert Mohr, as she refuses to name accomplices.

Raised a Lutheran, Sophie’s religious beliefs were the basis for her opposition to the Nazi regime. In addition, her boyfriend Fritz Hartnagel who served on the Eastern Front had written to her about the mass murders of Soviet soldiers and Jews that he had seen. Her final words illustrate the strength of her convictions: “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

Although the law and the punishment are clear, what is also clear is that Mohr (played by Gerald Held) comes to respect Sophie’s courage, as played so movingly by Julia Jentsch. You might be tempted to think that when the defendants appear in the People’s Court for their show trial, the court’s President is played too broadly, like a hysterical fanatic. Watch the “extras” that accompany the film—and you’ll see some footage made at the trial. The actor playing the judge got it exactly right. As Roger Ebert said in his review: “Those who know their actions are wrong are often the loudest to defend them, especially when they fear a higher moral judgment may come down on them.” The extras include a lengthy interview with Sophie and Hans’s younger sister, Elisabeth, as well. Today, in Munich and elsewhere, there are numerous memorials to Sophie and Hans and The White Rose.

This award-winning film, directed by Marc Rothemund, was an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 87%, audiences: 88%.