Books--the virus-proof art form--and more

Ways to stay reading and watching this winter

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David Strathairn as real-life World War II hero Jan Karski in Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski presented at The Yard stage of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo Credit: Manaf Azzam.

While live performance has returned to Chicago stages--with a mix of extreme caution, determination, and relief coupled with no small degree of nervousness--the one lesson the pandemic has taught everyone is that books are the "old reliable" great escape, even if TV and the Internet can be crucial showcases for newly created virtual works in all areas of the arts. So here is a look at two newly published books by writers with deep Chicago connections, as well as news of a "live" one-man show with a powerful Holocaust theme.

Elly Fishman's 'Refugee High'


It all began when Elly Fishman penned a story about the immigrant and refugee students attending Sullivan High School in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood while working as a writer and senior editor for Chicago Magazine from 2013 to 2017.

Then, Fishman--who grew up in Hyde Park, is a graduate of the University of Chicago, and is now an associate lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee--decided to return to Sullivan and more fully explore the challenging and often tumultuous lives that some of its students faced during the 2017-18 school year. These include everything from deportation threats, to unwanted arranged marriages, to gang encounters.

The result is Refugee High: Coming of Age in America (The New Press), a deeply moving and timely book, written with support from the Studs and Ida Terkel Author Fund.

Fishman homed in on the school and family life of four students: A sophomore girl from Iraq; a senior boy from Guatemala; a Congolese sophomore boy who grew up in a refugee camp in Tanzania; and a sophomore girl from Myanmar; with several immigrants from Syria also in the mix. She also captured the challenges faced by Chad Adams, the school's steadfast principal (now in his ninth year on the job), and Sarah Quintenz, the indefatigable director of the school's English language learner program.

"In choosing my subjects I started slowly, with trust games and candy as prizes," said Fishman. "And I needed kids who spoke enough English so that translators were unnecessary. But what was so surprising and delightful was that despite their different experiences, and traumas, and harrowing experiences they were all still teenagers with universal desires--connected to social media, interested in the latest fashions and dances, and in possession of cheap cell phones they could use with free Wi-Fi by hanging out around McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts, even if they couldn't afford a meal."

"My Jewish grandfather, who emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1938, read my book and told me: 'I saw myself in some of these kids.' In fact, many Jews who attended Sullivan in past decades still give generous support to the school. They remain woven into the fabric of a student body that is now made up of about 700 students, with nearly half of them immigrants or refugees from 38 countries who speak a total of 38 different languages."

Coco Chanel's dark side


It's a good bet that at one time or another most women have strolled by a department store perfume counter and dabbed a bit of French designer Coco Chanel's iconic scent, Chanel No. 5, on their wrists, or examined one of her pricey quilted leather purses, or searched for the perfect "LBD" ("little black dress"), the outfit she so famously championed as a mark of understated sophistication in the 1920s.

Chanel died in 1971, yet her company--which she founded in 1910, and which turned the initially impoverished girl into a rich and famous celebrity designer with a slew of lovers--has endured as a hugely profitable luxury operation.

Meanwhile, it has been widely known that there was something far darker in Chanel's life than her notion of elegance and financial success. And in her newly published book, Coco at the Ritz (Pegasus Books), Gioia Diliberto--a journalist and author of biographies of such women as Jane Addams and Hadley Hemingway--explores that highly toxic aspect of the designer's life by means of a vivid novelization that draws heavily on historical material.

For as it happens, during the rise and fall of the Nazi occupation of France in the early 1940s, Chanel, who was steeped in antisemitism (despite having a number of Jewish friends and an important Jewish business partner) lived in the posh Ritz Hotel in Paris alongside a slew of Vichy officials.

And she engaged in an intimate, multi-year relationship with Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage (known as "Spatz"), an established Nazi propagandist and spy, and a reputedly handsome man 13 years her junior. Chanel, who was known to self-administer morphine injections from time to time, was in her 50s at the time, and had temporarily shuttered her business.
 
Diliberto's book opens at the moment in late August of 1944 when two young men, part of the French resistance, arrived at Chanel's door in the Ritz. As she describes the moment: "When the doorbell rang at eight thirty on that hot, languid morning, Coco knew they'd come to arrest her." 
 
From there, the history of the designer's complex and incriminating wartime behavior is expertly chronicled. And it climaxes, several hundred pages later, in a superbly imagined, highly theatrical final chapter that pits Chanel against her "Interrogator" in what has all the makings of a riveting one-act play. And the interrogation is only intensified by the possibility that her release on charges of spying for the Nazis was in some way due to the intervention of Sir Winston Churchill, Britain's most fervent anti-Nazi. 
 
A Dramatic Portrait of Jan Karski 
 
Some were collaborators, like Chanel, in France. Some were among the "indifferent." And some, like Jan Karski, were fervent resistance fighters who risked their own lives in their attempts to save Polish Jews during the Holocaust. 
 
Karski's efforts, which earned him a place among the Righteous Among the Nations in Yad Vashem are now the subject of  Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski . The one-man show by Clark Young and Derek Goldman is to be performed by Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn, running Nov. 3-14 in The Yard at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. 
 
Among Karski's many notable acts of resistance as part of the Polish underground was his trip to the U.S. in 1943 when he delivered the first eyewitness reports of the Holocaust to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and others-warnings that were met with inaction and disbelief. Karski (1914-2000), emigrated to the U. S. after World War II and taught for several decades at Georgetown University. He was featured in Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's epic 1985 film about the Holocaust. For tickets to Remember This, visit chicagoshakes.com
 
Hedy Weiss, a longtime Chicago arts critic, was the Theater and Dance Critic for the  Chicago Sun-Times  from 1984 to 2018, and currently writes for  WTTW-TV's website and contributes to the  Chicago Tonight  program. 


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