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Source: Review copy from Julia Drake PR
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Who would know, when we found the chest in England, that it would become a haphazard postal system between a mother and a daughter?

The chest smells like my mother.  It’s the smell of Ponds Cold Cream–unguents of the fifties and sixties.  I put the chest in the living room, and it stays there like a heartbeat.

(from “The Post Box” in Enchantment)

I loved Thaisa Frank’s unique Holocaust novel, Heidegger’s Glasses, so I couldn’t wait to read her new short story collection, Enchantment.  There are 30 or so stories in this book, some as short as two pages.  I found something to like in each of them, mainly Frank’s ability to convey so much about her characters in so few words.  I enjoy her writing style, so even when a certain story didn’t grab me, I never felt the desire to stop reading.

A few of the stories in Enchantment really stood out to me, especially “The White Coat,” which is the tale of a women in a troubled marriage who wants to be invisible and the World War II-era ermine coat with which she is fascinated.  A handful of the stories have a supernatural element to them, like “The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire,” “The Dungeon Master’s Mother,” and “The Girl with Feet That Could See,” the latter about a young girl forced by her mother to perform in a circus freak show.

All of the stories have a heaviness to them, as most deal with troubled relationships or grieving individuals.  The characters are depressed or depressing, far from any kind of happy place.  In “The Silk Velvet Blouse,” for instance, a woman is in the hospital after a car accident in which she killed someone, and while she is understandably upset, the doctors and nurses around her are too accustomed to death and their role in it.

Although I enjoyed Frank’s writing and appreciated the originality and complexity of her stories and characters, there were a number of stories that left me confused or unsettled.  I probably missed some profound messages in them, but they felt unfinished to me.  I’d find myself really involved in a story, with no idea where it was going, and then it would just end.

Even so, Enchantment is an interesting collection of short stories worth checking out for the characters and the writing.  Some of the characters are so unusual and so real that they could provide enough material for a novel.  I’m sure I’d get more out of the stories with a second reading, so you’ll want to take your time with these.

Disclosure: I received Enchantment from Julia Drake PR for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Today I am thrilled to welcome Thaisa Frank, author of Heidegger’s Glasses, which I raved about last week to Diary of an Eccentric.  After I mentioned in my review that I was curious about what is fact and fiction in the novel, Thaisa offered to adapt an essay she’d written on the topic for my readers.  It’s a bit long, but if you’re as curious as I am about fact vs. fiction when reading historical novels, it’s worth reading.

Please give a warm welcome to Thaisa Frank:

The imagination is the weather of the mind.
Wallace Stevens, Adagia.

Over twenty years ago, when I’d written just one collection of short stories, I heard a woman’s voice from deep below the earth. She lived in Germany during World War II and was helping people answer letters to the dead. I knew her name. I could feel her claustrophobia. I also heard some of the letters. I wrote sixteen pages and stopped because I knew this woman lived in a world with so many strands only a novel could do it justice. I could even hear the length, like a few musical notes surrounded by hours of silence. But I only knew how to write short fiction.

I wrote other books. But the sixteen pages kept turning up in my studio, as if attached to springs. They turned up on the bookshelf. They turned up in a tax pile. They turned up under my printer. They even turned up inside a flyer from my son’s school–a long flyer, pleading for ecologically-packed lunches. They began to feel like a letter from the woman in the mine, asking me to tell her story. The paper grew more brittle and the typewriter print more antiquated. From time to time I saw her writing in a large room with other people. I always read the sixteen pages. I felt drawn to them. But I always put them away.

A few years ago, someone at a Christmas party told me that the philosopher Martin Heidegger once had a revelation that was caused by his own eyeglasses. As soon as I heard this, I saw the title Heidegger’s Glasses and knew I was going to write a novel. I had no idea what it would be about; but I was sure it involved World War II. I didn’t think about those sixteen pages I’d written so long ago until I’d finished writing the novel and received the galley proofs from my publishers. Then I found the sixteen pages–again on invisible springs–as if they were determined to remind me that they were the origin of the book. I read them over and realized they were a DNA of almost everything that became Heidegger’s Glasses. I also realized that even though they were about an imaginary world, that world was launched by real events in World War II. I hadn’t known about these events when I wrote those sixteen pages. I only found out about them afterwards, when I began to write the novel.

So what is fact and what is fiction?

Perhaps most importantly, the Reich never answered letters from the dead. But they did make people write letters–often just before they died. This procedure, called Briefaktion or Operation Mail, forced prisoners to write to their relatives, extolling conditions in the camps and urging them to come join them voluntarily. The letters, misaddressed or otherwise undeliverable, were usually returned to Berlin, from where they’d been mailed. The result was thousands of unanswered letters, most from people who had died. (Innumerable prisoners had to write letters as soon as they arrived and then were led to the gas chambers. The result is that they weren’t given numbers and there aren’t any records of their arrival or extermination.)

The Reich also relied on séances and information from the astral plane. Erik Hanussen, Hitler’s most important clairvoyant, predicted his rise to power and had a Palace of the Occult where he held séances until the Reich murdered him in 1933. The Reich was also fascinated by Lanz von Liebenfels’ concept of Ultima Thule, a place of extreme cold where a race of supermen lived. During the war a group called Die Thule-Gesellschaft (The Thule Society) met regularly to channel advice about war strategies from the astral plane.

The contents of my novel were drawn unconsciously from those sixteen pages. But the contents of my novel locked me into research where I found out about Operation Mail and the Nazi belief in the occult–both surprises to me.

I’d also done the kind of unwitting research that many writers do when they’re drawn to a subject long before they know they’ll write about it. A few years after I wrote those sixteen pages, I’d felt compelled to read everything I could find about World War II. I saw every documentary I could. I’m particularly indebted to a book I discovered called The Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege, published in 1991. Except for some photographs, this book consists solely of documents in chronological order. These documents detail the dissolution of Lodz where 200,000 Jews were forced into slave labor before deportation to extermination camps.

The documents are coded diaries or poems interspersed with decrees from the Reich about food rations, work hours, and deportations. Since the decrees are reproduced as photocopies, one has a sense of reading them as a prisoner in Lodz–crowded against other prisoners, clamoring to see a notice on a bulletin board.

Like key points in a novel, each decree signals an increased tightening of the vise. I read this book so often these decrees became a visceral introduction to the momentum that’s essential to longer fiction. But I read and re-read only because I was fascinated.

If the decrees helped me understand momentum, the coded diaries helped me understand people–people as they managed to be their best selves under ghoulish conditions. The diaries were well-written and full of detail. Many were by writers enlisted by the Reich as official Scribes to chronicle life in the ghetto. The woman in my original sixteen pages had been living among Scribes, so this was an interesting coincidence. The chronicles (not published) were full of praise for Lodz and ghetto life. But the coded diaries were about starvation, round-ups, and deportation. One Scribe was a famous Austrian writer named Oskar Rosenfeld who had an extraordinary depth of vision. His sensibility flowed into an important character–along with that of one another person.

The other person in this collaboration of character was someone I’d known in my twenties and then forgotten. But when I read his obituary in The New York Times, I realized he’d been an important force in my life, and in my sense of compassion for people in the camps. This was Stanley Adleman, whom I met long before I ever published, on a hot summer day in New York City. When I brought my broken typewriter to his Amsterdam Avenue store, I had no idea he repaired typewriters for almost every working writer in the city. I was young, in a crisis about love, and in no condition to understand anything about machines. But Stanley Adleman explained and re-explained every gear and wheel until he was sure I understood what was wrong with my typewriter and what needed to be done to fix it. Stanley Adleman seemed to hold me with his eyes and telegraphed a necessity for understanding that was so urgent, I forgot about my crisis and listened until my typewriter and its mechanisms–usually mysterious–became lucid. From the periphery of my vision, I saw blue numbers on his arm. When I left the store, I felt strangely free of concerns. And after I read his obituary, I remembered everything about him—including the fact that after that day I was never unhappy when my typewriter broke because I would be able to see him. I also realized I felt a kinship between his sensibility and that of Oskar Rosenfeld.

If indeed the imagination is the weather of the mind, then we all contend with the storms and rain and sun of our imaginations. And because the imagination is part of the world, we contend with the imaginations of people and groups who are distinct and sometimes far away. The imagination has uncanny instincts that allow it to leap beyond the limits of the mind. It can find doors to other centuries, read forbidden books, and meet improbable people.  Writing Heidegger’s Glasses has been an adventure in discovering the fluid boundaries between the life of the imagination and the facts of recorded history.

Thank you so much, Thaisa.  I wish you much success and appreciate the time you took on this essay.

For those of you interested in reading Heidegger’s Glasses, the giveaway accompanying my review ends Sunday, Nov. 14. You can enter by leaving a comment on my review post.  Click here to follow the Heidegger’s Glasses tour hosted by TLC Book Tours.

Disclosure: I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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I’ve warned them that they don’t understand that machines have their own Being, he said.  No vision.  No guiding principles.

Vision always trumps machines, said Asher.

Heidegger nodded and told Asher he’d fallen out of the world as recently as a week ago.  Elfriede Heidegger had been dishing out stew, the handle had broken, and the ladle fell into the pot.  Without the ladle the handle became a ludicrous stick, and eventually the whole kitchen felt tilted.  Elfriede got irritated that he wasn’t helping.

Martin, Asher said — as he always did — we’re always in the world.  So there’s nothing at all to fall out of.

I know, said Heidegger.

Then why not just live here? said Asher.

Because no one can all the time.

(from Heidegger’s Glasses, page 188 in the ARC)

Heidegger’s Glasses is another novel sure to make my best of 2010 list.  Thaisa Frank mingles fact and fiction in a novel set in Germany at the end of World War II that paints a haunting and unique portrait of the Holocaust.  In 1920, Martin Heidegger, philosopher and member of the Nazi party “saw his glasses and fell out of the familiar world” (page xvii in the ARC).  He looked at his glasses and had no idea what they were or how they were used, and when he had a similar reaction to all the other objects around him, he wrote about it to his close friend (and later his optometrist) Asher Englehardt.

Fast forward about 25 years to a mine converted into the Compound of Scribes, complete with a cobblestone street and a simulated sky that changes from light to dark and back again with each passing day.  Adolph Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and other Nazis had a fascination with the occult, consulted astrologers and the astral plane, and used this knowledge in their war strategies.  To conceal all knowledge of the Final Solution, the Jews who were taken to concentration camps were forced to write letters to their loved ones to say they were okay and request that they join them.  By the time the letters reached their destination, the sender was most likely dead, and the recipients may have been relocated or killed as well.  The Compound of Scribes was part of a secret operation to answer the letters written to those whose lives ended in the concentration camps.  The scribes were Jews pulled out of deportation lines or saved from the gas chambers by their ability to speak various languages, as each letter was to be answered in the language in which it was written in order to appease the dead.

Himmler had forbade burning them:  he believed in the supernatural with a vengeance, and thought the dead would pester psychics for answers if they knew their letters were destroyed — eventually exposing the Final Solution.  Goebbels, who despised the supernatural, wouldn’t burn them for a different reason.  He wanted each letter to be answered for the sake of record-keeping so there wouldn’t be any questions after the war.  (page 20 in the ARC)

In the compound, readers are introduced to Elie Schacter and her lover Gerhardt Lodenstein, the SS officer in charge.  Elie collects the mail to be answered by the scribes, as well as numerous other supplies that come from raided homes, and she helps hide and transport people evading capture and deportation.  Lodenstein — who aids Elie’s resistance work — worries about her traveling through the woods at a time when it seems Germany will lose the war, and he knows she has another side of herself that she will not reveal.

All of the tension between Elie and Lodenstein comes to a head when orders are received from Joseph Goebbels, Nazi propaganda minister, related to a letter Heidegger sent to his optometrist, who was sent to Auschwitz and may or may not be dead.  Heidegger’s wife grew suspicious when her husband’s letter went unanswered, and the compound is ordered to answer the letter as Englehardt would have answered it and deliver a pair of glasses to Heidegger.  The lives of the compound’s inhabitants are jeopardized when a demand is made by the scribe called upon to write the response, Elie believes the orders can be used to get Englehardt out of the camp, and a foolish Major Stumpf takes matters into his own hands.

I’m always looking for something new in a World War II novel, and Frank offers the originality I’ve been seeking in Heidegger’s Glasses.  Frank does a brilliant job setting the pace and giving only so much information about the characters at one time, creating tension and compelling me to rapidly turn the pages to find out what happens next.  I hope readers will not dismiss Heidegger’s Glasses because there’s a bit of philosophy in it, as Frank writes the philosophical aspect in a way that is easily grasped.

I only wish there were an author’s note separating the fact from the fiction (to satisfy my curiosity) and quotation marks around the dialogue.  Other than those nit-picky things, I can’t say anything negative about this book and highly recommend it to readers interested in World War II and the Holocaust.

Heidegger’s Glasses merges philosophy, romance, history, and war into a novel that is both emotional and exciting and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.  This clever novel blew me away, from the intensity of the relationships to the sadness of and the meaning behind the forced letters.  It’s a novel that stays with you long after you turn the last page.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to participate in and kick off the Heidegger’s Glasses tour.  Click here to check out the remaining tour dates.

Courtesy of the publisher, Counterpoint, I have a copy of Heidegger’s Glasses to share with my readers.  To enter, you must have a U.S. or Canada address and leave a comment with your e-mail address by 11:59 pm EST on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010.  The winner will be chosen randomly.

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

Disclosure: I received a copy of Heidegger’s Glasses from Counterpoint for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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