The first novella in The Berlin Stories is “The Last of Mr. Norris” a.k.a. “Mr. Norris Changes Trains.” Isherwood names the main characters; William Bradshaw (his own middle names), and Arthur Norris who is modeled after Gerald Hamilton, known internationally as “the wickedest man in Europe.” Like Isherwood, William Bradshaw (narrator of the story), takes a train from Cambridge to Berlin. Initially visiting the city as a tourist. William decides to stay longer and begins teaching English lessons as a source of income. William meets Mr. Norris on the train ride and during the course of their conversation becomes wrapped up in curiosity about his lifestyle. Mr. Norris introduces himself by saying, “I only wish to have three sorts of people as my friends, those who are very rich, those who are very witty, and those who are very beautiful.”
William is inadvertently drawn into Berlin's underworld. He innocently engages in political activity with Mr. Norris after being convinced about his financial problems and lets himself get entangled in spy affairs. Mr. Norris keeps company with dominatrix Anni and Olga a cocaine-seller who receives stolen goods, takes in washing, and does exquisite needlework. Fraulein Schroeder is another memorable supporting character who runs the rooming house where William stays. Mr. Norris's assistant Schmidt is referred to as “a snake in the grass,” who ultimately forces him into exile. More a series of intertwining character sketches than a plot-driven novel, this story offers a vibrant look at Berlin night-life during a dangerous time in history.
“Goodbye to Berlin” is the second part of The Berlin Stories and is really a collection of several short stories, again based on Isherwood’s experiences as an expatriate living in Berlin during the early 1930s. With these stories, Isherwood shares how uncertain times were as late as 1932 and how fast it all came crashing down. The 1955 film “I Am a Camera,” starring Julie Harris, portrays the story of Sally Bowles and later is remade into a play. It was remade again as the 1972 musical “Cabaret,” starring Liza Minnelli. My book club visited The Blue Ridge Movie Lounge for a select showing of Cabaret and all agreed that even today it is politically relevant when exploring topics of fascism. Closely following Isherwood's novel, both the book and the film will leave you deeply thinking with a historical look at the last years of the Wiemar Republic.
Helen Craig, picture book illustrator, is recognized this month in celebration of her birthday, August 30, 1934. She is best known for creating Angelina Ballerina (a dancing mouse) with writer Katharine Holabird. Craig was born in London and during WWII evacuated to the country as part of Operation Pied Piper … a campaign to keep children safe from aerial bombing targeted at cities. As a young adult she spent some time in Spain where she studied drawing and ceramic sculpture.
Craig returned to the UK in 1967 and began illustrating children’s books in 1970. She was soon discovered by Sarah Hayes, children’s author, of Thame, Oxfordshire. They partnered together on a several projects, but became most recognized for a series of ‘Bear’ books. The first in the series, entitled This is the Bear, was randomly selected for review this month and is a great read-aloud story! It is similar to the style of story-telling used in the children’s classic This is the House That Jack Built. Fred the Bear is a very well-loved by his boy and may actually have some traits of a real-live animal! When the boy discovers Fred is missing, he somehow figures out that the dog has accidentally pushed him into a dustbin. From there Fred seems to have been hauled away by the garbage man to the dump. This is where it gets real interesting as the boy and his dog set off to rescue and bring him back home.
Children will love hearing This is the Bear read aloud since it is full of rhyme and repetition. This book would also make a great first reader for one learning to read on their own. Check out this book trailer video put together by the Ashe County Library Drama Club: https://youtu.be/Q0oqokmd2Jc and stop by the library for this and other Bear stories by Sarah Hayes and Helen Craig.