Sunday, April 26, 2015

Module 13--American Born Chinese: A Review

by Gene Luen Yang

Yang, G. (2006).  American Born Chinese.  First Second Book, New York & London.

Integration can be a tough balancing act.  Sometimes one is pressured to conform to one's race/ethnicity to where you cannot be "American".  Other times, you want to move so far from your own heritage that you practically disown it.  American Born Chinese, a story based in part on author Gene Luen Yang's life, ties three seemingly separate stories together to form one large story about identity, stereotypes, and the importance of being 'you'.

The first story involves the traditional Chinese story of The Monkey King.  Having achieved deity status, the Monkey King leaves his domain to hobnob with the other gods.  However, because he is a monkey (and has no shoes) he is denied entry.  Infuriated, he attacks all the other deities and begins to cause such rampages through the various worlds of the other gods and goddesses, demons, and spirits that they all gather to seek out the Four Emissaries of Tze-Yo-Tzuh (He Who Is, THE God), begging for help.  Tze-Yo-Tzuh attempts to reason with the Monkey King, telling him that he is still a monkey and that He created him to be a monkey.  Despite the proof of Tze-Yo-Tzuh's power the Monkey King remains stubborn in his determination to show he isn't a monkey.  In near-desperation Tze-Yo-Tzuh buries the Monkey King under a rock, where he remains for five hundred years until the Monkey King realizes, through a monk, that he could have been freed if not for his own arrogance and pride.

The second story is that of Jin Wang, a second-generation Chinese-American who has moved from the confines of San Francisco's Chinatown to a predominantly white community.  As the only Chinese-American, he doesn't fit in, and somehow falls into a friendship with Wei-Chen Sun, recent émigré from Taiwan.  Over the course of their time, Jin falls for Amelia Harris, a nice white girl.  They do date, but her best friend Greg (whose hairstyle Jin has copied to be more 'Yankee' with curious results) asks him not to date her, telling Jin he's all wrong for her.  He never overtly says it's because he's Chinese, but Jin takes it as such.  Angry, he fights with Wei-Chen, who got him to lie for him about the date. 

The third is on Danny, a blonde, blue-eyed American whose life is constantly turned into a nightmare whenever "Cousin Chin-Kee" comes.  Chin-Kee is every Chinese stereotype imaginable (and I figure a few more): buck-toothed, heavily accented, always wearing traditional Chinese clothes and a queue.  He also eats cats and dogs, openly lusts after American women, and is boorish to boot, embarrassing him at every opportunity with his horrifying manners.  Danny has had to move every year whenever Chin-Kee comes around, and has finally had it with this walking stereotype.  Danny hits him, but is no match for Chin-Kee's martial arts skills.

It's at this point that American Born Chinese gets all three stories and brings them together.  Chin-Kee is not real.  He is actually the Monkey King in disguise.  The Monkey King then tells him that since he's revealed himself, it's time for Danny to do the same.  He then transforms Danny into whom we learned earlier he really was: Jin Wang.  We also discover that Wei-Chen is the Monkey King's son, who had like his father become a disciple of the monk who had helped the Monkey King find who he really was and accept it.  Having grown disillusioned with humans (and having lied), Wei-Chen has walked away from the path, becoming self-indulgent and angry.  Eventually, Jin finds Wei-Chen, with the chance for both reconciliation and acceptance of who they are.

American Born Chinese is extremely clever in how it ties all three stories together.  It isn't as if there aren't clues to the eventual resolution (one wonders how the very white Danny could be related to someone like Chin-Kee), though I would argue that perhaps there was a little bit of cheating.  We don't get indication that Amelia and Melanie (the girl Danny fancies) might be one and the same or in any way connected.  I figure this was done to if not throw the reader off the track at least to have us concentrate on the horror that was Chin-Kee than anything else.

I however, see an anger in American Born Chinese.  Jin is resentful and angry about being asked to conform to odd ideas others have about Chinese-Americans (like the idea that they eat dogs, to which his teacher says to the class the family must have stopped doing when they came to America, even though Jin has never lived in China).  The Monkey King similarly is angry that he is constantly dismissed as a 'monkey' (even though he is one) by others.  He goes out of his way to master all sorts of disciplines to show how strong and powerful he is, but he still is a monkey.

Yang's biggest anger is reserved towards the Chin-Kee character.  It was only afterwards that it was pointed out to me that the name "Chin-Kee" was meant to read as 'Chinky", as in the ethnic slur 'chink'.  I remember how the term 'chink in the armor' was used in an ESPN article about rising basketball star Jeremy Lin; there was an uproar that cost the writer his job and reputation. Whether the ESPN writer was even aware of the term 'chink' or not is still unclear, and I for one think the matter was completely overblown, Anthony Federico (the writer) having been sacrificed to the altar of political correctness due to a commonly used term that he in all likelihood wasn't aware of its double meaning.

I can speak only for myself, but I was not aware that 'chink' was a racial slur against Asians and Chinese in general.  I also am aware of the term "chink in the armor".  I don't think Federico meant to use a slur when describing Lin (who by all accounts is a very nice guy and Tim Tebow-esque in terms of his Christianity, who has forgiven Federico in a way many people refuse to).  In short, the entire 'chink in the armor' brouhaha was in my view a group of highly sensitive people who seek out offense and think saying that if one is having 'a gay time' that person should be prosecuted for a hate crime against homosexuals.

However, while the entire Jeremy Lin situation was in my view wildly overblown and ESPN was in my view cowardly for not standing up for an employee who made an unwitting pun, the case of William Hung is another matter.  There is a very clear reason why Yang selected the Ricky Martin song She Bangs for Chin-Kee to sing, accent and all, to a horrified group of students at the library.

Hung was a civil engineering student from Hong Kong when he auditioned for the singing contest show American Idol.  His rendition of She Bangs was a horror: totally out-of-tune, and with an accent that made things in turns more hilarious and cringe-inducing.  The judges could not contain their laughter as Hung, who was thoroughly unaware of how awful he sounded, belted out this hip-swinging number, throwing in uncoordinated dancing in the process.  IF all that weren't enough, Hung's genuine cluelessness about it all added a layer of the bizarre to the proceedings.

William Hung was genuinely not in on the joke, that joke being himself.  America, and the world, laughed profusely at Hung: both at his total lack of talent but at his complete inability to understand that people were laughing at him.  His thorough lack of guile was oddly endearing, but Yang (and I imagine, many Asians) saw in Hung every stereotype of Chinese: buck-toothed, heavily accented, and highly intelligent academically but thoroughly dumb in other ways.  The fiasco of She Bangs did give Hung an odd musical career, but my guess was that Hung didn't get that people weren't cheering him on because they thought he was good.  They were cheering him on to either laugh at him or pity his ignorance. 

Chin-Kee might not have been modeled on Hung per se, but I find it hard to believe that the walking stereotype picking that particular song was a mere coincidence.

I am a bit conflicted about American Born Chinese, though I'm not Asian myself.  I appreciate Yang's message that like the Monkey King, we can be only what we were created to be and that nothing can change who we are.  However, I am not comfortable with the idea that Yang might have that as someone from an Asian background (or black, or Hispanic) that a member of an ethnic/racial background pretty much has to 'stay in his/her place'.   Is Yang suggesting that Jin and his family would have been better off staying in Chinatown "among their own"?  Is Yang suggesting that those who are minorities should not want to join the majority culture, that somehow wanting to break away from the conventions of our distinct culture are on a fool's errand? 

I don't think he is, and I think the theme of becoming something we are not is important, but I have no problem accepting Jin or Wei-Chen as American.  I think it is because my mother has an accent, and she is American through and through.  One's accent, one's looks, are not impediments to being American, but perhaps to Yang, the idea of a Chinese American who has faced some foolish bigotry joining the dominant culture is somehow wrong or impossible.  I don't accept that. 

Granted, I may be reading too much into things, but one can't help bringing their own past when reading books that perhaps suggest that a monkey cannot aspire to be part of a world he wasn't born into regardless of how hard he works. 


In his review of American Born Chinese, Ned Vizzini states that Tze-Yo-Tzuh is Yang's own invention and not based on Chinese myth (unlike the Monkey King).  If that is so, then Yang is proving an unreliable narrator, taking advantage of Western ignorance to take a stab at his audience.  It would be no different than if I threw some 'Mexican' legend from my own creation and tossed it at an unsuspecting audience.  That disappoints me if this is true, because Yang then is being a bit deceptive himself. 

However, American Born Chinese is a well-written tale, that contrary to what Vizzini holds I think ties things together rather well.  The illustrations are quite excellent, and there is a lot of wit within the story (Jin's desire to be a 'transformer' having a wonderful double meaning).  It may not be strictly logical (again, how neither Danny/Jin's parents were unaware that Chin-Kee was not the other's sister's son, let alone how they would feel comfortable never attempting to modifiy Chin-Kee's boorish behavior doesn't make sense).  However, I don't think pure logic was what Yang was going for.  I'll take it as allegory, one with a very strong message.

I applaud the idea of being true to yourself.  I don't applaud the idea that being true to yourself locks one into their own stereotypes.


I would offer a program of playing traditional Chinese music, or having a puppet show or a storyteller tell of the Monkey King (whom I was exposed to thanks to the special Big Bird in China). As there are illustrations, perhaps an art contest or program about "Being True to Yourself" as the theme.      

Born 1973


Vizzini, N. (2007, May 13). High Anxiety.  New York Times Sunday Book Review. Retrieved from   

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Module 12--Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman: A Review

by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Ty Templeton

I feel the need to start with full disclosure.  I'm not into comic books.  Basically, my whole knowledge of figures like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man (among others) comes from the film and television adaptations.  Currently, the Batman television prequel Gotham is not just a hit, but is among one of my favorite television shows. Through the campy 1960s television show, the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films, the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, up to Gotham, I took it as fact that Bob Kane had created Batman out of whole cloth on his own.  Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman brings us some shocking news: Kane was not alone.  Bill Finger, whom Kane has admitted was integral to the creation of this iconic figure, remains virtually unknown, even to Batman fans.  Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ty Templeton's book not only sets the record straight, but gives this hidden figure his due in a book I think Finger would be proud of. 

Milton Finger wanted a job, but in the Depression, his Jewish background (and first name) would probably keep him out of work.  He turned Milton into the more American "Bill", but work was still hard to come by.  He dreamed of being an artist and writer, but could only find work as a shoe salesman.  A chance encounter with another cartoonist, Bob Kane, soon started them on collaborating.  Inspired by the success of Superman, they worked to create another equally successful character.  Their character was different than the popular ones of the day. He would be a vigilante, human, with no superpowers.  Kane took the idea to their publisher, who liked it.  Finger agreed to write Batman stories without credit (a typical arrangement at the time).  Kane also hired other artists to serve as illustrators and ghostwriters, including one named Jerry Robinson.

Bob Kane

Finger not only wrote many Batman stories, but came up with much of the Batman mythos: his origin story of young Bruce Wayne, whose wealthy parents were murdered, Wayne's hometown of Gotham, the Batcave and Batmobile.  Finger also created the young Dick Grayson, the first Robin, and villains such as The Penguin and The Riddler.  Finger would jot down tidbits in a journal, using them for ideas, but was happy to share these notebooks with other writers.  In time, he married a woman named Portia, had only one son named Fred, and kept working on Batman.    That changed in 1964, when comics editor Julius Schwartz started talking openly about Finger's contributions.  Jerry Bails, a Batman fan, began investigating and interviewing Finger, publishing an article giving Finger co-credit.  Kane did not take this kindly, but neither Kane or Finger pushed on the issue of credit. 

On Friday, January 18, 1974, Bill Finger died.  Fred Finger scattered his ashes in the sea, but not before placing them in a Bat-Sign he made on the beach.  After Finger's death, Kane gave Finger credit...with his words, but never asked that he be given credit in print.  "But Bob didn't amend the part of his contract requiring that he always be listed as the sole creator of Batman", the book notes.  However, Finger's old protégé Jerry Robinson kept Bill Finger's legacy alive with the creation of the Bill Finger Awards for Excellence in Comic Book Writing. 

Bill the Boy Wonder is a fascinating portrait of a hidden figure to most if not almost all Batman fans.  Finger comes across as a pretty affable guy, perhaps too affable.  His lack of insistence in not asking for co-credit for creating one of the most iconic comic-book figures is puzzling to say the least.  With the success of Batman in various serials and the 1960s camp Batman show, Finger had plenty of time and opportunities to lay down the law if he so wished.  He had a strong case, but Finger never pushed or insisted on credit.  This despite the fact that Finger's contributions to the Batman storyline was an open secret among their colleagues.  Kane himself talked about how Finger did much to shape Batman to the figure we know him today, but just as Kane never pushed for Finger to get recognition, neither did Finger.

From Kane's perspective, it is understandable.  Batman is a major franchise that is still popular today.  From Finger's perspective, it is still puzzling.  Did Finger simply not care?  Did he think it wasn't worth the trouble to get a byline?  Did he think the work was reward enough? Bill the Boy Wonder never answers that question, I think because there is no answer possible.  Finger has been dead for forty years, as is his son Fred.  Bill Finger is so mysterious a figure that the book notes that the author was able to find only one known note in Finger's handwriting, and that was from around 1942. 

However, the book itself makes for a fascinating read.  The Author's Note which details more information about Finger as well as Nobleman's search for information is in itself fascinating read.  We learn that few pictures of Bill Finger exist, and that the search was drawing blanks because he had changed his name from Milton.  We also learn a far stranger story about what happened after Finger's death. 

His son Fred was gay, so it was believed Finger had no heir.  Fred Finger's belongings were given to a Charles Shaheen.  Shaheen had been receiving small royalty checks from DC Comics and it was thought the checks ended after Shaheen's own death.  However, DC Comics had been sending those royalties to a Jesse Maloney, a drifter.  In the course of Nobleman's investigation he discovered Finger's niece and nephew, who asked him why he didn't talk to Finger's granddaughter.  The fact that Finger had a grandchild was stunning given Fred Finger's open homosexuality, but Nobleman learned that Fred had been married briefly to a woman and had a daughter named Athena.  Athena was tracked down through MySpace, where she shared that her dog's name was Bruce Wayne.

Athena filled in the missing pieces.  Charles Shaheen had been her father's long-time partner, but the family didn't like Shaheen.  Maloney had claimed to be Fred Finger's brother (though Maloney's relationship to Shaheen, whether it was romantic or not, is not known).  Once Maloney was unmasked (no pun intended), DC began sending all of Bill Finger's royalties to Athena, which helped in raising her own son, Bill Finger's great-grandson and final heir. 

I imagine even Commissioner James Gordon would find this tale extremely bizarre.

Ty Templeton's illustrations capture the look of comic books, with their panels and split images.  A few illustrations, like the Wayne murders and the various figures Finger either created or co-created (such as Robin, The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin and The Riddler) are so evocative of Kane's illustrations (no one disputes Kane did artwork for Batman, though he himself did not write the stories).  They are beautifully rendered.  A particularly poignant moment is when Fred Finger places his late father's ashes on the beach, having shaped the sand into a Bat shape.  "The tide crept in and swept them out to sea," the box says.  It's a beautiful moment.

From the serials to Gotham, all Batman fans bow in salute.


In the Kirkus Review of Bill the Boy Wonder, Nobleman gets enormous credit for the amount of research that went into rescuing this figure from near-oblivion.  Certainly Athena Finger is grateful for Nobleman's research, and not just in financial terms.  The grandfather she never knew (Bill Finger having died two years before her birth) is now assured of the legacy that came too late for him.  We now have the story of Bill Finger, the man who made Batman the man he is today.


I think there are a few good programs that can come from this.  One is to put Bob Kane "on trial" and discuss the ethics of crediting someone for their work (remembering that Finger never pushed or insisted on credit).  A comic-con is also plausible, as is a comic-book creation contest...with winners getting full credit.  A Batman exhibition, where we see the evolution of the character, is also worth considering.

Bill Finger


Book Review: Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman by Marc Tyler Nobleman (2012, April).  Kirkus Reviews.  Retrieved from

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Module 11--Ballet For Martha: Making Appalachian Spring: A Review

by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca

Greenberg, J. and Jordan, S. (2010).  Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. Roaring Book Press, New York. 

I figure making a book about the creation of an iconic American ballet is a tough sell.  You've got to be true to history and you have two subjects that don't lend themselves naturally to the written word: the art of dance and the art of music.  Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, does this efficiently, with beautiful illustrations and great text that together flow as easily and excellently as Aaron Copland's score and Martha Graham's choreography. 

Martha Graham:
We get a quick introduction to our three figures: Martha Graham, the choreographer (or creator of dance), Aaron Copland, the composer, and a generally unsung figure in the creation of the ballet Appalachian Spring, Isamu Noguchi, the artist (in this case, set designer). 

Each figure goes through a creative process and progress.  For Graham, it is coming up with both a scenario and with the dance movements.  She has to create a story that can be told in dance, and that can be both creative and one that can be performed by the dancers.  It isn't easy, as she keeps working and reworking her choreography.  Graham also has the added burden of finding her style not embraced by the times.

Aaron Copland
For Copland, it is in finding the right music to which to tell the story he's been given: a pioneer wedding.  He comes across a Shaker hymn, which inspires him.  He writes out the music, waits for it to be approved, and even doesn't mind when the score is rearranged to fit the dance.  For Noguchi, it is going beyond his usual sculptures and creating a minimalist set that can work with the dancers and their movements.

Finally, the big day comes: October 30, 1944, where Appalachian Spring (a title Graham found in a poem and which she liked despite having nothing to do with the ballet) premieres in Washington, D.C. at the Library of Congress.  Ballet for Martha then describes through words and illustrations the ballet itself and the great success Appalachian Spring had.  The book ends with the idea of a revival of Appalachian Spring, with new dancers coming to recreate this uniquely American story.  We know that it is a new interpretation, for we see a multicultural dance company performing the dance.  We also get a "Curtain Call" section, giving brief biographies of Graham, Copland, and Noguchi and the footnotes that credit the information.

Isamu Noguchi:
Ballet for Martha as I said has a very difficult task.  How exactly does one recreate on a page the freedom of movement or the sound of music?  Appalachian Spring is one of the seminal works of American culture: Copland's score, in particular his interpretation of the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts is among the greatest and most recognizable works in American music.  The choreography to Appalachian Spring was a landmark in American dance.  Therefore, how to show this physical work in a book?

A great deal of success to Ballet for Martha is due to Floca's illustrations.  They are simple but elegant.  In particular, Floca has a vitality when illustrating the leaping and movements of various dances.  We don't just see the illustrations to show how Appalachian Spring was, but also a previous Graham ballet, 1929's Heretic.  We don't get a description of what Heretic is about, but the fact that Floca's illustrations show Graham all in white facing a group of women towering over her all in black is a strong explanation of what Heretic entails.  We see this with Floca's illustration for Appalachian Spring as we see the exuberance and the quiet of the dancing.

Floca throughout Ballet for Martha shows us how the dancers told the story through movement.  The text by Greenberg and Jordan take great care to explain what is going on in the story.  Ballet can be a bit opaque to many people, especially children not involved in ballet.  As such, to see Greenberg and Jordan's text alongside with Floca's illustrations we get as much impact as possible for the page.

"The bridegroom leaps and bounds like an acrobat, strutting, swaggering, showing off for his bride." 

The text above is complimented with illustrations of the various athletic movements of the male lead, concluding with a full-page illustration of the Bridegroom posing in a powerful position, muscular arms thrust out, almost as if he were more prizefighter than ballet dancer.  They do the same when they describe the 'fiery' movements of the Preacher, almost as an avenging angel warning sinners of the wrath of an angry God.

Ballet for Martha also gives us not just the story of the creation of Appalachian Spring, but about the importance of collaboration.  Each figure (Graham, Copland, and Noguchi) worked together to create Appalachian Spring.  We don't read that any of them said it had to be done their way.  In fact, we read that Graham had to rewrite her scenario again and again, and that Copland didn't object when his music was rearranged.  Whether the last part was true is not in the notes, but we trust that if there was, it would have been mentioned.  As it stands, there is no sense that Appalachian Spring was anything other than three great artists collaborating and working in tandem to create a masterpiece.  

Above all else, Appalachian Spring is an AMERICAN creation: a piece that is about an American subject, drawing from American music, infused with the American spirit of freedom.  This is why it was extremely clever to end Ballet for Martha with a whole new group of dancers performing Appalachian Spring, one that featured minorities in the prominent roles.   It shows that dance companies around the world are able to perform Appalachian Spring as a work that celebrates America, or at least acknowledges that the United States has its own unique culture. 


In her review for Ballet for Martha, Jennifer McDonald observed that after reading it, "the book's earnestness may appeal to young dancers (and will undoubtedly send them to YouTube to see "Appalachian Spring" for themselves." I can testify that it wasn't just 'young dancers' who were intrigued to see what Appalachian Spring was all about.   I think readers will want to know more about Appalachian Spring, and fortunately, we have video of the ballet with Graham recreating her original performance. 


Obviously, a performance of a selection from Appalachian Spring would be an excellent program to have for Ballet for Martha.  We could also have either a band perform the score's most famous work, Copland's version of Simple Gifts, or have a choir sing this and other Shaker hymns.    


McDonald, J. (2011, January 14). Rhythms of a New Land. The New York Times Book Reviews.  Retrieved from

Monday, April 6, 2015

Module 10--The Berlin Boxing Club: A Review

by Robert Sharenow

Sharenow, R. (2011) The Berling Boxing Club. HarperTeen, New York.

The Berlin Boxing Club is a brilliant book.  This story, while fictional, plays so authentically that it reads almost like the memoirs of a young man who with a mixture of good luck and skill manages to escape the horror that would engulf all of Europe.  Integrating the real and the fiction, The Berlin Boxing Club crafts its story of triumph, tragedy, and a young man's growth to manhood all in a brilliant

Karl Stern is a secular German with Jewish heritage, but he doesn't think anything of it.  The Stern family is not religious (Karl's father, Sigmund, is at the very least a hostile agnostic if not an atheist).  The Sterns are an intellectual family: Sig is an art dealer, Mrs. Stern is a cultured though emotionally fragile wife, and Karl's younger sisters Hildy (for Hildegard) is a typical child.  He and Hildy are very close, and Karl gladly accepts Hildy's nickname for him: Spatz.  This is from her favorite children's book series about the adventures of a mouse named Winzig and its friend, a bird named Spatz, who always outwit the stern train station manager Fefelfarve.  The Spatz und Winzig stories inevitably had their call to arms, "There's adventure in the air...and cake to be eaten!"   Karl has an enthusiasm for cartoons and dreams of creating his own strip, even creating some Spatz und Winzig cartoons for Hildy..  Mr. Stern thinks these activities are a waste.

Despite Karl's lack of observing Judaism and his non-Jewish looks (he is fair and has a small nose, due to his only non-Jewish grandparent), he is still Jewish by heritage.  That makes him a target for the Wolf Pack, a group of bullies who are encouraged to violence by the growing rise of Nazism in Germany.  The Wolf Pack beat him up viciously (confirming Karl's Judaism when they pull his pants down and see he is circumcised).  Karl ends up urinating in front of them, adding further humiliation.

He goes to the Gallery Stern, which is facing tough times from two fronts.  First, the Sterns were big proponents of what has been declared "degenerate art", now forbidden by the Nazis.  Second, as Jews their business has dried up.  Finances are down and while they put up a brave front it's clear times are tough.  However, help comes from an unexpected source: legendary German boxer Max Schmeling, who has done business with Sigmund and is something of a patron.  Schmeling is not fooled by Karl's "falling down stairs" story: he knows boxing bruises when he sees them.  He also sees that Karl has the raw material to be a successful boxer.

Schmeling's wife, actress Anny Ondra, has taken a shine to a painting of Schmeling (one of the few that isn't the kitsch the Nazis like), and the boxer and Sigmund strikes a very reluctant deal.  He will give Karl boxing lessons in exchange for the painting.  Sigmund, who finds the sweet sport beneath intellectuals, isn't keen on the idea, but who can deny Max Schmeling?  Karl for his part, is thrilled.

Max Schmeling

Karl finds himself in the Berlin Boxing Club, where Max does show him a few things, but most of his training is really done by the BBC's owner, Worjyk, and Nebling, a big guy with a soft voice that stutters and quite a gentle man.  Despite Worjyk's hesitation, what Max says goes, and Karl begins training at the BBC.  He also follows Max's instructions about the 300 to the letter (100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 50 pull-ups, fifty minutes of running).  Over time, Karl begins to build himself up physically and begins to also gain the respect of the other BBC members.  He even wins a few fights and Max hopes Karl will be the German Youth Boxing Champion.

However, times continue to get tougher.  Karl's beloved Uncle Jacob is arrested (whether due to his Judaism or his Communist activities or both is unclear) and sent to Dachau.  The Nuremberg Laws strip Jews of basic rights and Karl is expelled from his school.  Hildy has rotten apples thrown at her because unlike Karl and his mother, she looks like Sigmund (read, more Jewish).  The Gallery is forced to close and only money from printing secret invitations to boys/men's only parties hosted by a transvestite known as The Countess keep them afloat (the Countess and Sigmund having served together in the war, with Sig having saved his life).  Max is too busy with his fights against legendary Joe Louis to give Karl or the rising anti-Semitism much thought or notice (though we learn he is displeased by it all).  Eventually, Karl's romance with his Aryan neighbor Greta is discovered and because he mixed with a non-Jew, the whole family is evicted from their apartment.  They take refuge in the closed gallery. 

Barney Ross

Despite this (or perhaps because of this), Karl continues to train, his looks shielding him mostly from the bigotry.  He even finds new heroes, a whole world of Jewish boxers he was unaware of, like the American Barney Ross. Karl finds inspiration in boxers like Ross, who show that Jews are able to fight, these Sons of Solomon, these Hebrew Hammers.  They are not ashamed, and neither is Karl.  He comes close to his goal of a championship, even getting a beautiful blue robe with "Berlin Boxing Club" on it, until he fights one of the Wolf Pack in the ring and after the bully's loss, the others reveal Karl's Jewish heritage, disqualifying him immediately.

Eventually, Sigmund and Karl attempt to defend their home during Kristallnacht, but Sigmund is stabbed by broken glass by the crazed thugs.  His mother manages to get her husband medical attention but is forced to leave Karl and Hildy behind.  With no one else to turn to, he asks help first from the Countess (who takes them away while dresses as a woman during the chaos), and finally from Schmeling himself.  Schmeling is appalled at the violence going on but his star has fallen after he fell to Louis. Still, despite the danger, Schmeling does what he can and helps Karl and Hildy find their mother.  She insists on them taking some random books with them, as she and Max have managed to get them passage to a ship bound for America (despite having to separate them).  She will continue to care for their father, and as they leave, Karl discovers that the books contain rare works of art that they can use for finances.  While Karl and Hildegard Stern manage to leave Nazi Germany for safety in America, they still wish their parents were with them.  Still, 'there's adventure in the air, and cake to be eaten'.

Cletus Seldin "The Hebrew Hammer"
Born 1986

I was extremely moved by The Berlin Boxing Club.  Robert Sharenow uses a first-person narrative that allows us into Karl's mind.  In many ways, Karl's story is that of many a young man who find that being different makes them a target.  In this case though, it is mixed with the horror of the anti-Semitism that the Nazis would turn into one of the most barbaric crimes in human history.

Karl does not become more observant or religious.  He still pretty much has no real interest in G-d.  However, over time he grows to accept and embrace his Jewish heritage, especially after learning that contrary to Nazi propaganda, Jews can be quite tough physically.  They are not the 'mongrel', weak people they insist they are.  They are strong, powerful, and Karl sees that being Jewish does not equal being weak.

The Berlin Boxing Club is a tragedy and a triumphant tale.  We see how a great romance with Greta (who genuinely loves him) is destroyed by the world, but she is powerless and afraid to do anything about it.  We also see that the members of the BBC cared only about one thing: boxing.  They had no interest in whether Karl was a Jew or whether anyone else was (we learn that another member kept his Judaism secret and managed to leave for Palestine).  Once his heritage is exposed, we see the real tragedy of the divisions people place on themselves and others.

I was saddened when I read that Karl, in his rush to leave the Championship, noticed too late he left his robe behind.  He never did get it back, and that detail saddened me tremendously.

Yuri Foreman: Born 1980.
Boxer.  Rabbinical Student.

Sharenow also created some astonishingly cinematic moments in The Berlin Boxing Club.  In his first public fight, Karl wins in an open-air area where rain had been threatening to erupt all day.  Once they lift his hands in victory, we learn the following. 
"At that moment a loud clap of thunder drowned out the crowd, and the clouds finally burst, as if slit open with a razor blade.  Thick sheets of rain poured down, causing the crowd to instantly scatter.  Nebling and Worjyk ran fro cover, and I was alone in the ring.  I let the rain fall on me, cooling my heated body, and looked around the empty ring with a deep feeling of satisfaction.  I had won my first fight".

Sharenow captures this moment beautifully, the images pouring from the page.  He has an amazing power of description, from the triumph of Karl's first victory to the horror of The Night of Broken Glass.  Sharenow paints vivid and realistic portraits not just of the situations but also of the characters, real or imagined.  Max Schmeling is true to history: there is no record of him ever being sympathetic to the Nazis and as Sharenow puts in a post-script, Schmeling did indeed save two Jewish children during Kristallnacht, and while Karl and Hildy were not based on them (they were two boys), from that one historic point Sharenow spun a brilliant story.

He also provided fascinating detail about the last days of the Weimar Republic.  Tales about men like The Countess or Sigmund's evolution from hostility to quiet embrace of his son's boxing and artistic aspirations would be enough, but Sharenow mixing them into Karl's own story makes for more interesting and brilliant reading.

I can't find much to fault with The Berlin Boxing Club.  It's an authentic voice of a young man who finds strength (physical and emotional) through boxing, and who despite the horrors around him, manages to survive.  It was wise of Sharenow not to give us a purely happy ending or to give us a different conclusion.  We now have to speculate whether Mr. and Mrs. Stern were murdered in a concentration camp or whether Hildy and Karl really were separated forever.  It's an unclear world they are going into, but at least at this point, they are safe.

In a review for The Berlin Boxing Club, it is noted that a theme is how there are "hidden heroes among us, and that we can aspire to dreams and heroism ourselves".  I think this is so true, as Karl becomes his own hero, who could aspire to be anything.  He could continue to be a boxer, or become an illustrator.  Karl Stern's future in America is whatever he wishes it to be, and even within the confines of Nazi Germany, he managed to go far.  He is an inspirational character, and while The Berlin Boxing Club is historical fiction, I think it is also inspirational.


An obvious program would be to host a youth boxing match.  We could also invite the local Jewish community to speak on the Holocaust, and have an illustration contest in the style of Spatz und Winzig.  I also think showing copies of the paintings involved in the "Degenerate Art" exhibit or creating their own 'degenerate art' would be a great way to contrast Nazi ideas of art with those of the times;  it ties in well with the book because Herr Stern was an art dealer. 

Robert Sharenow


[Review of the book The Berlin Boxing Club, by Robert Sharenow]. Retrieved from