Saturday, May 21, 2011

by Johanna Adorjan

Vera and Istvan were Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust (they were both interred at Mauthausen). Istvan never spoke about it when asked. They left Budapest in 1956 due to the Soviet Invasion and went to Denmark. There were many immigrants from Hungary and the Danish citizens welcomed them quite warmly. It seems that Vera and Istvan were quite happy in their new environment and didn't have too much trouble adjusting. They learned the language, acquired a dog named Mitzi, entertained, gardened, and listened to classical music. But all was not to be.
In 1991, the couple was found in their bed, hands entwined. They had committed suicide together.
Granddaughter and author, Johanna Adorjan, tries to reconstruct the last day of their lives. She interviews relatives, friends and neighbors who knew her grandparents much more than she did, herself. Johanna only has fleeting memories.
Istvan was a doctor, Vera a physiotherapist. They did quite well and lived comfortably: a nursemaid for their children, a cook, fancy cars, plenty to eat. This changed when they had to leave Hungary.
Those who knew Istvan said that he was introverted and didn't reveal too much. He absolutely adored his wife and would never do anything contrary to upset her.
They were inseparable.
Vera lived for her husband. On the surface, she seemed happy but in reality, she was not and was very insecure thinking that nobody loved her.
When Vera was in her seventies and still quite healthy, her husband, in his eighties, was declining. He was getting worse by the day and his breathing was labored. The thought of living without him was not something she would even consider even though the family invited her to stay with them.
So, the two of them made a pact to commit suicide. Vera bought the book Final Exit which she followed, meticulously. Istvan wrote out the prescription. They gave the dog away. She cleaned the house from top to bottom and baked a cake. The doors were locked. Vera left all the lights on. They were discovered four days later.
Who would have thought that a story about a couple who take their own lives could be so powerful? The way it is written in exquisite, simple prose makes the tale both intense and beautiful. The book is not very long (under 200 pages) and it doesn't take long to read. It's very hard to stop.
Theirs was a quite a romance both in life and in death.
Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

by Mary-Lou Weisman

Al Jaffee has been an icon at MAD since 1955 and is still going strong at the age of eighty-nine. The magazine drips with adult hypocrisy and has been read by three generations of American children (including yours truly) and continues to delight many more. Who better to create such satire than Al? His life is pretty much like one large comic strip.
Jaffee's parents were from Lithuania and when they first came to the United States, they lived in New York. Then they moved to Savannah, Georgia because Al's father, Morris, became the manager of a large department store. He did very well, but the same could not be said for his wife, Mildred. She never adjusted.
In 1927, Mildred uprooted all four sons and transported them and herself back to Lithuania. Jaffee was six years old. They went from having indoor plumbing, electricity and plenty of food to eat to a shtetl from the nineteenth-century and had to deal with outhouses, extreme hunger and abuse. Two years later, Morris, would come to rescue them (he lost his job due to the expense of bringing everybody home). In little more than a year, Mildred brought them back again to Lithuania and stayed there for four years. They would return to America without their mother and the youngest son, David.
While in Lithuania, his father would send the boys cartoon strips that left them enthralled. Morris was talented in his own right (too bad he didn't use it). He could replicate anything that he saw. His two oldest sons inherited his incredible artistic gift.
When Al came back to America, for good, it was quite an adjustment. He spoke with a Yiddish accent and was constantly ridiculed. The teachers saw his amazing abilities, though, and when he attended New York City's High School of Music and Art, his life changed for the best.
Somehow, Jaffee retained his tremendous sense of humor all through his tumultuous childhood and beyond.
What a story! Amidst such angst and suffering, there is plenty to laugh at. The entire book is illustrated by Jaffee so you can see what he went through in his artwork. The pages are very heavy and glossy but it's well worth it to see what he produced. Truly outstanding, very visual, and with meticulous detail, the pictures literally jump out at you.
It's a very fast read (I finished the book in two days) and the author did a tremendous job in her biography of a man who survived a horrendous, dysfunctional life and still came out ahead.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

by Erik Larson

William E. Dodd was a mild-mannered professor at the University of Chicago from 1909 to 1933. He loved history and was an authority on the American South. Eventually he hoped to finish a four-volume series, but time constraints and duties always got in the way. Dodd felt that he was stagnating at the university and thought that his career needed an uplift. He got it. Franklin D. Roosevelt chose Dodd to be America's first ambassador to Germany in 1933.
The entire family goes: Dodd, his wife, Mattie, his son, Bill, and his daughter, Martha. Dodd is a very humble man and prefers to not to live in a luxurious environment. He is so frugal that he brings over his old Chevy from America but will never drive it. Dodd leaves that to his son. He prefers to walk to work every day and he is constantly teased about that from his staffers. Their residence is a mansion with four floors (the family lives in the first three) and it's actually quite beautiful.
While Dodd is acclimating himself to Germany (he speaks the language fluently), his daughter, Martha, is totally enamored by the country and its inhabitants. She has no morals, goes to many parties and has one affair after the other, one of which will be with Rudolf Diels, the chief of the Gestapo. She will become quite an embarrassment to the family and the German government who keep tabs on her.
That first year will become quite pivotal because that is when Hitler becomes chancellor. Subtly and then, not so subtly, the climate changes as freedoms are restricted, rules are enforced, Americans are attacked for not bearing the Hitler salute, Jews are persecuted, the press is censored and new frightening laws are instituted.
In the Garden of Beasts is quite a tremendous story. I was riveted from the first page to the last. You get a true glimpse of what Berlin was like at that period of time.
Erik Larson fleshes out the weird and dangerous personalites of Hitler, Goring and Goebbels in such a way, that it literally makes you shudder.
I thought the title of the book was very appropriate. The family lived across the street from the Tiergarten, a beautiful park, which was really the only place anybody could go and not be watched and to have a private conversation. The name means "animal garden" or "garden of the beasts." Yet, all of Berlin would become paralyzed from the Nazis, the SS, and the Storm Troopers who would behave like monstrous beasts and terrorize the citizens.
Truly a superb narrative of a horrible time in history brilliantly written.
Very highly recommended.