imagesWhen my ninety year old father-in-law requested a harmonica as a birthday gift, I was surprised at his ability to play old singalong tunes he had learned in his younger days.  The notes from his harmonica seemed as magical as the one Pam Munoz Ryan uses as the focus for her children’s 9780439874021_p0_v1_s192x300book – Echo.

The story begins and ends with a fairy tale, lending a mystical quality to the lives of the three young children who play the harmonica, as it is passed on from person and place.  Ryan uses World War II as the setting, and targets children with a talent for music.  Each child also has an obstacle to overcome, with music as their savior.The book is divided into three separate tales and each section ends with a cliffhanger, until all ends well as the grown-up children come together in the end.

Years after Otto receives the enchanted harmonica, mysteriously imbued with the voices of three abandoned princesses in the forest, Freidrich finds the harmonica in the local harmonica factory in 1933 Germany. Freidrich conducts symphonies in his head, despite ridicule from others and the purple birthmark on his face. Although his sister, Elizabeth, has joined the Nazi youth group, Freidrich, his father and his uncle, resist, and are targeted for questioning.

Mike and Frankie are orphans in what could be Miss Hannigan’s horrible home for boys in 1935 Philadelphia.  Both have a talent for the piano, and are miraculously adopted by a female Daddy Warbucks character, who also happens to be a former concert pianist.  Threatened by the possibility of being sent back to the home (Auntie really wanted a girl to adopt), Mike makes a deal – if he wins a spot in the national touring harmonica orchestra, his younger brother will not be sent back to the orphanage.

Finally, Ivy Lopez is the newest owner of the harmonica.  Her story in 1942 Southern California, a year after Pearl Harbor, focuses on racism and discrimination against migrant farm laborers and Japanese Americans.  Ivy’s father is hired to oversee a farm in Orange County, whose Japanese-American owners, the Yamamotos, have been sent to an internment camp. Ivy is forced to attend a separate school but is allowed to join the after school orchestra in the main school. She finds solace in music, and passes on the harmonica to the young Yamamoto who visits his family’s old farm before going off to war.

The story follows a formula for each section, providing historical information within the context of well-rounded characters.  Although the plots are sometimes hokey, the characters redeem the message of strength and courage. When Ryan pulls all the players together in the end, the resolutions to their trials seem contrived, but the endings justify their persistence and, anyway, fairy tales should always have happy endings.

The book is a little long and one of the stories could have been omitted but the careful attention to history and prejudice is worth the read – at any age.

Christmas Markets in Europe

While those who are trying to survive the cold weather would appreciate an escape to tropical beaches and swaying palm trees, Christmas just doesn’t seem real with a barefoot Santa on a surfboard.

I found the snow, gingerbread, mulled wine, and Old Saint Nick in Germany this year.

Required reading was Rick Steves’ German Phrase Book and Dictionary, but I found it was easier to point to the cookie I wanted instead of trying to pronounce lebkuchen.

The sparkling white lights marked the Christmas Markets in Germany and the Alsace region of France.

Santa still had the same markings, but his costumes were a little different, and in Basel, Switzerland, he gave me a tangerine instead of a candy cane.


And the sweets tasted as good as they looked.

Happy Holidays

– wherever you are!

I Just Read My First Library Book on a Kindle

With the promise of being able to download a library book, I asked Santa for the new Kindle (cheap version, not the Fire) and he delivered early – before an overnight flight to Germany.   Like many libraries, the Hawaii State System recently connected to Amazon to offer free downloads of their electronic books.  Unfortunately, the system had a long wait list for most books, and clicking on the “books ready to read” offered slim pickings – My Father’s Tears by John Updike or Christina Dodd’s Move Heaven and Earth.

The plane ride was bumpy and a movie I had missed – Martin Sheen in The Way – offered a pleasant distraction (beautiful scenery and worth renting if you haven’t yet seen it), but I managed to read through Dodd’s medieval romance – an easy formula read with the swashbuckling hero and the intelligent yet beautiful maiden.  Since Dodd’s Move Heaven and Earth was like following a Middle Ages soap opera, the book was a good primer for learning the assorted buttons on the Kindle.  If I pressed the forward button too long and skipped a chapter or two, I really didn’t miss anything.

Amazon’s marketing was successful; I’ve now purchased a few books for my Kindle.  The convenience of a thin pocket-sized contraption that can hold thick books and pages of story is hard to pass up – especially if you are trying to carry on luggage.  But, I did bring a few actual books along (just in case), and bought another in the Heathrow terminal en route.  The Kindle is nice, but turning pages is still better than pressing an arrow.

The Moment

Fifty years ago in August, 1961, the border between East and West Germany was sealed and the new Wall kept anyone from leaving East Berlin.   This barrier to freedom stood until November, 1989.  In The Moment, Douglas Kennedy creates an event that changed the life of Thomas Nesbitt in Berlin in the 1980s when the Wall was still up.  Nesbitt, a travel writer, recently divorced, receives a package that forces him to remember his earlier years in Berlin.

Kennedy methodically wallows through over a hundred pages revealing his own theories on the writing process, true love, and the war – wisdom that seems mostly trite.   Not until the flashback with Nesbitt in Berlin twenty years earlier in the 1980s does the action start, with the narrative becoming a mix of historical fiction, romance, and spy thriller.  As Nesbitt relives his time in Berlin with Petra Dussman, an East Berlin translator for Radio Liberty who escaped to the West, his descriptions of a time and place that existed not that long ago are a window to living through the Cold War.

“The tension of being in a largely forbidden place, where the undercurrent police state paranoia was…tangible. East Berlin: the bogeyman of all Cold War nightmares.”

Petra’s backstory, when finally revealed after she and Nesbitt have become lovers,

Berlin Wall

confirms the horrors hidden behind the Wall. The descriptions of guilt by association as well as incarceration with physical and mental torture are compelling to read – the espionage only adds to the fervor.

Kennedy divides the story into five parts:  Nesbitt facing his demons in a loveless marriage; the flashback that slowly builds the historical snapshot of the Cold War; the climax with love, betrayal, coerced patriotism, and regret; the big reveal – not so hard to predict – when Petra tells her version of the story. Kennedy unnecessarily repeats too much of the story already told – until it diverts into an unexpected twist.

In the end, Kennedy returns Nesbitt to the present and ties up all the loose ends. Checkpoint Charlie has vanished, no traces of the Wall remain, Petra leaves a final letter, and Nesbitt makes an investment in the future.   In his last words, Nesbitt invokes “the moment…that tells us who we are, what we search for, what we so want to unearth…”  In Nesbitt’s life, Petra was his moment.

Did I like this book? Hard to say.   Yes – for the history, the romance, the bits of spy thriller.   But – over 500 pages – too long a moment.  The story could have been reduced to about 300 by omitting much of the repetition and clichéd observations on life and love.

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The Man in the Rockefeller Suit

It’s always a surprise to find out someone is not who you think he is.  Sometimes, the deception seems almost heroic – remember Frank Abagnale in his memoir of Catch Me If You Can, made into a movie, and now a Broadway show?  For Clark Rockefeller, however, the story is criminal and almost unbelievable.

Mark Seal’s The Man in the Rockefeller Suit tells how German born Christian Gerhartsreiter conned everyone into believing that he knew more than he did, that he had a storied and wealthy family background, and that he actually cared about relationships he curried.  Through interviews and letters, and by tracking the elusive Christian aka Chris aka Clark into his past, Seal reveals a man who would use anyone to better his own life.

Unlike Frank Abagnale, Chris/Clark is not a character you will like; you might even wonder how he was able to convince so many to support him.  When he offers to move the medieval Chichester Abbey, which he claims to own, from England to the United States, you may be rolling your eyes at the naiveté of his targeted marks.

Seal goes back to Germany to find the origins, which turn out to be relatively normal, except for a young opportunist’s motivation to better himself – without working for it.  Gerhartsreiter learned early to use everyone; eventually, he made it to America, married for a green card, and established himself in a small elite California town to begin to create the life he wanted for himself.

He managed very well, cleverly using acquaintances for introductions or as references; he often joined church groups and ingratiated himself with wealthy members – becoming a willing guest in their homes.  When someone suspected, or his bills caught up with him, he merely left and started another life, carefully erasing any traces  – using false social security numbers along the way. Seal includes 16 pages of photographs of Gerhartsreiter at different stages of his faked life journey; the man seems to morph into many different faces to match the new persona he adopts.

Eventually, he made it to New York City’s wealthy East Side, married Sandra Boss and divorced.  This part of his story was made into a made-for-TV movie.   He finally blows his cover when he kidnaps their seven year-old daughter, and leads authorities on a mad chase that eventually reveals who he really is.

I missed all the details of this story when it was current, not too long ago, but Seal’s accounting probably gave me more than I wanted to know.  His staccato reporting style added details that clogged the narrative, with Seal playing detective to track down and interview anyone who could document the unbelievable arrogance of a man who convincingly lived a lie.  The story attracted me with its premise, but Seal takes too long to tell it.

Seal ends with the breaking news that Clark Rockefeller has been indicted for murder – one of the do-gooders along the way that he conned.  And so, this real story that seems like fiction – continues.