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Thursday, September 6, 2012

"Felice's Worlds: From the Holocaust to the Halls of Modern Art" by Henry Massie


Felice Massie was a student in France, caught up in the horrors of Naziism when she was 20 years old.  Cut off by the war from her family living in a small village in Poland, she shifted from one country to another attempting to find a home for herself and a means to rescue her parents, brother and sister.  As the Holocaust descended on her shtetl, she arrived penniless in America.  Over time she raised a family and amassed one of foremost collections of American modern art.  Her boldness and resilience became a beacon of hope and inspiration for others.


"Henry Massie never blinks as he creates an astonishing chronicle of a life in diaspora. Only a son could capture this passionate spirit, who escaped both Adolf Hitler and Joe McCarthy." --Patty Friedmann, author of TOO JEWISH

“Henry Massie's FELICE'S WORLDS is a labor of love in more ways than one.  A daughter of the 20th century, Felice Massie's journey is both a personal odyssey and a window on some of the most important events in political history and the modern art world.  It's also the story of a remarkable woman who was ahead of her time in many notable ways.  Although there are heartbreaks along the way, Massie also captures his mother's sense of humor and most of all, her remarkable coming of age in Europe, Palestine and America.  This is a book you'll want to share with your friends and gift to everyone who appreciates the skills of a wonderful writing talent.  Don't miss it.” --

            Roger Rapoport, author of Hillsdale: A Greek Tragedy in America's Heartland, and journalist,   The Frequent Flyer.

Particulars of the Book : 

Genre: Biography/Memoir/Historical (Holocaust)
Publisher: booksBnimble
Publication Date: Feb, 2012
Pages:  211
 About the Author :        Henry Massie
Henry Massie is a psychiatrist, award-winning author, and pioneering researcher in the field of autism. FELICE'S WORLDS--From the Holocaust to the Halls of Modern Art, is the a memoir and biography of his mother, a brilliant and beautiful woman who participated in many of the most critical periods of the 20th Century.
Learn more about him here:

Email Address: booksbnimble@gmail.com
Website Address: www.booksbnimble.com
Twitter Address: @booksbnimble
Facebook Address: /booksbnimble
An Interview with Dr. Massie :
1)  First of all, please tell us a special something about what makes you "tick."  When you aren't writing, what are you doing.

When I'm not solving my fictional characters' problems or recreating real people's lives on paper, I'm in my office consulting with patients, trying to help them solve problems in real life.  I'm a psychiatrist.  And when doing none of the above, I may be walking with my dog on Goat Rock beach in northern California.
 2)  You chose a specific genre, a place and time to write about, what made you choose it?
The genre chose me.  Felice's Worlds is a biography of my mother, in a sense her memoir.  It is often in the very words she used to tell me about her life and adventures during some of the critical periods of the 20th century.  It is also a double-memoir about how her brilliance, boldness and emotional burdens affected me.  Her story was dying to be told.
Currently I am working in the very different genre of a highly fictionalized account of how somebody I knew was influenced by his friendship with Marilyn Monroe when he was in high-school and she was in her thirties, in the two years before her death.  It is called Prom Date.  I fell into writing it because of my fascination with people's desires and dreams and how they turn out.
3)  Please share with your readers where you like to write. Do you have a particular space or desk?  What can you see from your desk?  Do you have props you use to write from?  What about special "charms?"
I have three desks:  one in my office where I keep charts and so forth, one in a study in my house in Berkeley where I pay bills, and one at my cabin near Guerneville, California, near where the Russian River flows into the Pacific Ocean.  The desk at the cabin is where I do my writing.  I need to escape from the city desks to the cabin to be creative.  "Living on the river," as people say, is to live in another world that fosters fantasies.  From my desk there I see three redwood trees reaching to the sky, climbing so high that I can't even see their tops if I put my face to the window and peer up.  My desk is completely cluttered with paper, clippings, and notes to myself.  My two desks back in town are neat and orderly.  The trees outside my window are my writing totems.
4)  In your opinion, what makes a book a great one?
A great book has to suck me into it like a whirlpool.  After a spell of reading, the characters and their dilemmas in a great book make me feel so tense that I need to put the book down and get some breathing space.  The language and imagery has to be alive and poetic.  I don't think books that obsess over little details and tiny shades of meaning and feeling are great (I call them dandelion cottage books) even though many critics adore them. 
5)  Which author(s) most influenced your love of books from childhood?
Starting in about fourth grade I read every Hardy Boy adventure that came out.  They still influence my writing.  In sixth grade I switched to a series of books about American history for young people.  They taught me about real people and events.  My interest in character developed in high school when I started reading Faulkner.  My favorite was his novella The Bear.
7)  Please share with us the underlying message of your book.  What would you like your readers to take away after having read the book?
There are several themes running through Felice's Worlds:  1) War endures through millennia in the land called Palestine and Israel because of the never-ending folly of men with guns, 2) Those who suffered the Holocaust have passed their psychological trauma from one generation to the next and the next, 3) Traumatized though they may be, some people show amazing emotional resilience, 4) Beauty may save the soul, but only so far.
I'm content if readers understand these things better after reading Felice's Worlds.
8)  Were you able to keep your original title?  What was it, if not?
The title of Felice's Worlds was fluid, a shifting about work in progress as long as the book was a work in progress.  It didn't crystallize until the book was finished, with help from the publisher.
9)  Is there a song or music in general that might best represent your book as a theme song. 
Yes, Eastern European klezmer music captures the book.  The publisher, BooksBnimble, created a video trailer for Felice's Worlds, with an excerpt of Felice speaking about her past when she was in her seventies, and with pictures of her village on the Polish-Russian border, and her home and art in America.  The trailer's klezmer music has snippets of jazz from the 1930s, gypsy rhythms, and Jewish folk melodies. You can access the trailer by going to YouTube, or via the publisher's website, or via the Amazon listing for the book, I believe.
10)  If you could write your book again, what would you change?
Felice's Worlds went through three or four drafts, with input from friends and two editors.  For the final draft I told myself this time I want to get it right, leave nothing I'm dissatisfied with on the page, say what I want to say, and say it cleanly once a for all.  I'm satisfied with what's there.
11)   What was the worst distraction you had to fight through while writing your book? 
Working on the book was riveting.  It could eat me up, gobble up all my time.  I needed to fight myself away from it by looking for distractions.
12)  What did you feel or think when you held the first copy of your book in your hands?
I felt that I had done justice to Felice's life.
13)  Tell us a secret about your book we wouldn't otherwise know, please!
Felice had a saying:  Truth is better than fiction because it is more unbelievable.  Perhaps she invented some of her truths.   
I appreciate so much your taking time for this interview, Hank.  Thank you for being so candid!
Dr. Massie Discusses Feminism and "Felice" :
One of my areas of particular interest is feminism in writing and life.  I'm delighted to bring this guest post by Dr. Massie on the subject!
“How my mother influenced my perspective on women and feminism.” 
My mother was my first teacher, not unusual of course, but she was an unusually dramatic one, so I learned from her that women could have many strong emotions, be well educated, and have strong opinions.  They didn't have to be like many other mothers in my parents' circle, playing bridge for long, silent hours at a country club.  I also learned from my mother that women didn't have to be like the low-key Midwestern men around me who worked endless hours a day and rarely showed any feelings.
 My father commissioned a portrait of my mother just after they married, "So I will have something to remember you by if I lose you," he said.  It captured her at her most beautiful, and my mother hung it over her bed for the rest of her life.  I slowly understood how important it was for her to always know how alluring she was in her youth, and how terribly important it was for her to feel loved and lovable.  I imagine those feelings are important to most women.  I could see that my mother knew how to flirt, to touch a man gently on the shoulder, and how to offer her cigarette to be lit.  She said to me toward the end of her life, 'If I had girls I would have raised them to have feminine interests and femininity.  It is important for a girl to make herself as attractive as possible. Girls are created, are genetically endowed to look pretty, and a normal girl should be raised to make herself as attractive as possible with her endowment.  Beauty is its own essence and very agreeable in life.  It is the pleasure of living.  It is necessary to cultivate beauty, not just of the body but of the mind."
Perhaps this doesn't sound like Felice had an ounce of activist Feminism in her, but when she was lecturing on modern art at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, young women flocked to her.  She advised them on their love-life and mentored them in their education.  She never spoke of the Feminist movement, however one of her college students saidheight of feminism in the 1970s, "She was the quintessential modern woman.  That short hair [like Audrey Hepburn's], those clothes [colorful folkloric during the day, black skirt to the knee with a black top in the evening], that lovely petite body with the big brown eyes.  She was alive, forceful, independent and challenging." 
Since I respected Felice, in turn I respected her own brand of feminism which she exuded just by the way she was.  I had the unusual experience for a son growing up in those days of being mentored in my own education by her.  Other sons were mentored by a father, uncle, professor, or coach.  My mother directed me to countless books which we discussed together over the years.  In my mind womanhood became linked not just with femininity but also with erudition.  Unfortunately her erudition didn't extend to the kitchen for she never learned to cook beyond scrambling eggs, broiling a steak, and fixing a salad.  Nonetheless, my father, brother and I still admired her.  She was not just my first teacher but the best teacher I ever had.  
The Dame's Review :
This is a rather long review of "Felice's Worlds:  From the Holocaust to the Halls of Modern Art," but I thought the book was especially fascinating and I wanted to bring as many elements of it as I could to my readers.
What I found intriguing about this biography were two things in particular:  1)  it often read like a novel, and 2)  it was the most clear expose' on the Holocaust and European history that I'd read outside of text books.  Finally, this book answered a question I'd wondered about when I worked as an interior designer for so many years; that is, why did so many of my Jewish women clients choose contemporary designs and art for their homes?  What drew them to contemporary styles even in their dress, for the most part?  It was so apparent to me, I wanted an answer...
Henry Massie is a very strong writer, of that there can be no question.  His skill at keeping the story flowing and within an interesting and understandable context is compelling.  But his strongest area of expertise was evident in his understanding of European cultural relationships, WWII history as it affected Jews in Europe, and in the beauty of architecture and culture of these countries historically.  Reading these sections of his book was mesmerizing.  Along with the story of his mother in detail, we learn the circumstances of her world as it shattered like crystal around her.  It made for a rare and unforgettable read.
Felice comes through as an indomitable spirit.  She is brave above all things.  Beautiful and stalwart, she faces tragedy, hunger, homelessness and loneliness like a champion.  I often wondered as I read the book, if it could have been as easy as it seemed for her to transist from one extreme hardship to another.  I was struck by her life culled from education as an anchor in a stream in which she was initially left abandoned by a mother who was disconnected from her.  Intellectual pursuits and artistic understanding became a lifeline for her, her entire life.
The point I want to make here about design, art and contemporary culture which Hank Massie personifies in his mother comes about as he describes her culmination and "soothing of her survival guilt" through the adaptation of the philosophy and spirituality of beauty and aesthetics.  I loosely quote here some of the thoughts/sayings that he uses in reference to Felice:
   "..needed something new.  The war had annihilated everything--European Jewish culture,  what we believed in, society's values...  There's no nostalgia in abstract expressionist art because it had never existed before."  Felice
   "...new for a new life...a cleansing purity in the new art after the meanness and horrors of WWII."
   "Beauty will save the world," she thought.
   "The art took them away from the realities of the world...to a place where beauty reigned and where evil was overcome by its radiance."
   "Beauty could be like the antidote to the horrors and feelings of the Holocaust."
I think this answers many of my personal questions I've had about the aesthetic of contemporary design and art for the Jewish families I know and love.  When a past has been wiped out, and family memories are too painful, looking forward may be one of the only joys to cultivate and surround oneself with.
While I didn't think "Felice's Worlds" was a perfect book; it often made Felice out to be saintly in her perfection, beauty and intelligence,  I thought it was altogether a wonderful experience of a read.  It was a biography that certainly lifted the veil on Holocaust survival from the perspective of not just one, but several generations, including Henry Massie's own life.
I would recommend this book particularly for those interested in this time in history, and in survivors of the Holocaust, as well as the history of expressionist art.  A beautiful book.
5 stars                Deborah/TheBookishDame




It's hard to say that one "likes" a book about the holocaust, but I recently read two books, "The Book Thief" and "Code Name Verity", that I loved. They were both tragic and gut wrenching, but at the same time they were hauntingly beautiful books. I will be adding "Felice's World" to my must read list. Thanks for the review!


Awesome interview and review! My favorite part of the interview is when Massie says, 'The genre chose me.' How powerful is that!

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