Friday, November 30, 2012

Double Cross

Ben MacIntyre has written a series of books dealing with the Allies adventures in misleading the Nazis during World War II. Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat were his 2 previous books on this subject. Double Cross deals with the Normandy invasion, or more specifically with "Operation Fortitude." The operation was an elaborate ruse to keep Germany's attention focused on Calais, while the real invasion site was to be  the beaches of Normandy.

British military intelligence seems to be particularly adept at putting together the most surreal series of events and having the Nazis fall for it every time. The group involved in this charade were actually double agents. Several were actively recruited by the British, but others simply walked up to the British Embassy and volunteered. One actually started sending his own false information to the Germans after having his offers to spy be dismissed because he was considered a 'crackpot." The group is almost unbelievable: bored German rich boys, a double dealing import/export business owner, the organizer of a French spy network who is actually Polish, a bored rich Peruvian, a poultry farmer and a woman who actually wanted to spy for Germany and almost brought down the whole network over her beloved dog. These people were so entrenched in the German intelligence service one of them was actively involved in a plot to murder Hitler.

This book would seem to be fiction, except the background comes from recently released military documents. MacIntyre makes full use of them as he uses recorded conversations, payment histories and diaries to bring the charade to life.

I love MacIntyre's books. You simply can't make these stories up - they are almost bizarre in the way they unfold. But history supports them! These books read like a spy story, which of course they are, but they have the added bonus of being true. I recommend all his books.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Pyg.  The Memoirs of Toby the Learned Pig is edited by Russell Potter and is just what the title tells the reader it is - a memoir of a learned pig.

Toby is the first learned pig.  Others since have imitated him or performed lesser tricks. The learned pig is a pig taught to respond to commands in such a way that it appears to be able to answer questions by picking up cards.  Toby is actually a sapient pig who has learned to read and write, although he does, of necessity,  perform for a living.

Toby lived in late eighteenth-century England. After winning the blue ribbon at the Salford Livestock Fair and escaping his fate at the hands and knife of the butcher, Toby and the young human friend who rescues him, join a performing troupe, where Toby learns tricks and, then, learns to read.  Toby  goes on to study at Oxford and Edinburgh—meeting and interacting with such well known people as Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, and William Blake—before finally writing his own life story.  Toby is wise and witty.

The editor teaches Victorian literature, the history of Arctic exploration, and early media at Rhode Island College. and has the historical background and the sense of humor to create a great read.  He maintains a blog if you want to learn more:

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Friday, November 23, 2012

A Hologram for the King

A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers, is a postmodern novel whose tone and style bears resemblance to other contemporary writers such as David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Richard Powers and Neil Gaiman (Wikipedia, The enormous desert spaces and accompanying sense of loneliness and alienation echo scenes from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami. Water and well-like imagery are remarkable similar. At the same time, Egger's book is reminiscent of the work of older authors such as Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) and Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman).

The narrator in A Hologram for the King is 54-year-old Alan Clay.  Adam was once an executive at the Schwinn Bicycle Company when it was based in Chicago.  He helped the company outsource its manufacturing to China, ultimately putting Schwinn out of business.  Unwittingly, Alan outsourced himself out of a job.  His father, a World War II vet and former factory worker, never forgives him for undercutting the union.

When the book opens, we find Alan in Saudi Arabia with three young assistants from Reliant Corporation.  His job is to get the IT contract for a city still in its planning stage.  The King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) is just being built and its condominiums stand empty.  The three techies have set up equipment in a vast tent in order to present a hologram of their vision for this city of the future.
The only problem is that King Abdullah, for whom the presentation is intended, fails to show up day after day.  He seems to be out of the country and no one knows when he will return. With their wi-fi signal weak, there is nothing for the three assistants to do.  The tent is poorly air conditioned and food for the team is not forthcoming.  Outside they are surrounded by blistering desert heat. The ennui is almost palpable.

The stark, lonely surroundings mirror Alan's inner state of mind.  He has had a messy divorce from a woman described as cruel and unbalanced.  Alan has lost nearly everything.  His home is in foreclosure.  He cannot pay the college tuition for his only daughter, Kit. His one hope, like that of Willie Loman, is to make this one great sale.  If Reliant is awarded the IT contract for KAEC, Alan's commission will be in the six figures and his problems will be solved.  

(Alan) wanted to believe that this kind of thing, a city rising from dust, could happen. The architectural renderings he'd seen were magnificent. Gleaming towers, tree-lined public spaces and promenades, a series of canals allowing commuters to get almost anywhere by boat. The city was futuristic and romantic, but also practical.  It could be made with extant technology and a lot of money, but money Abdullah certainly had. (p. 39)

Throughout the book, Alan recalls the suicide of his neighbor.  The scene of the neighbor, newly converted to Transcendentalism, stepping into a pond haunts both Alan and the reader.  Alan keeps replaying the scene in his mind.  It took the man hours to fully immerse and no one tried to stop him or call the police. When the police were summoned, they acted only when it was too late.

What is Eggers saying here about our society?  That the neighbor believing, as did Emerson, in self-reliance, gives in to despair? What do the reactions of the bystanders--including Alan--mean?  Why did everyone go about their business as if nothing was happening?

Alan's sense of ineptitude (displayed through his sexual impotence) is increased by his lack of control in KAEC, Saudi Arabia. Failure and regret dog him.  But Alan, despite his many doubts and previous failures, continues to have hope for the future.  It is this optomism that distinguishes him from Willie Loman.  Is Alan a symbol of American capitalism itself?  As Pico Iyer concludes in his eloquent review:

Eggers has developed an exceptional gift for opening up the lives of others so as to offer the story of globalism as it develops and, simultaneously, to unfold a much more archetypal tale of struggle and loneliness and drift.  Public and private explorations come together, and as this groundbreaking writer grows wiser and deeper and more melancholy, evolving from telling his own stories to voicing America's, he might be asking us how we can bring the best parts of our past into a planetary future.
(New York Times Book Review, July 22, 2012)

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Skeleton Box

The latest Starvation Lake book opens in the locker room after a hockey game. Gus, the goalie and disgraced reporter, is having some beer with his teammates when the local sheriff wanders in and says Gus must leave with him. There have been a series of burglaries in Starvation Lake, while the home owners were out at bingo. Gus's mother's house is the latest and  this break-in  involves a murder.

Phyllis Bontrager, a neighbor was watching Gus's mom, was injured in the break- in.  She is the mother of Darlene Esper, Gus' ex- girlfriend.  It doesn't look good - Phyllis is severely injured and Gus's mother have memory problems. Nothing is ever taken in the burglaries, but the houses are messed up as if someone is looking for something. Luke Whistler, a reporter for the paper can hardly wait to investigate.  Gus is the current editor of the local paper.

The  exploits of the local hockey team run through the background of the story, it is after all state championship time. Small town politics, religious fanaticism and disorder and people who are not whom they appear are all in this story. This is a nice mystery, the story just flows along and it ties up some strings left over from the previous books. It works as a stand alone, however mostly because of the secret that Gus' mother has been keeping for years. That secret is at the heart of the story.

I have liked all the books in this series, they are a nice mystery with an interesting main character.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012


First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed.  Then about the murders, which happened later (p. 3).

Thus begins this luminous masterpiece by Richard Ford, a book that captures its reader from the first line to the last.  The narrator is Dell Parsons, now 66, as he recalls his life in Great Falls, Montana and his eventual journey to the prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada. 

John Banville summarizes Canada's plot in an eloquent review for The Guardian (, Friday 25 May 2012):

The year is 1960, and the Parsons family--father Bev, mother Neeva, and 15-year-old Dell and his twin sister, Berner-- are settled, just about, in the city of Great Falls, Montana, having moved there four years previously.  Bev, a good ol' boy from Alabama, had been an air force bombardier who saw action in the Philippines and Osaka... Neeva, short for Geneva, "a tiny, intense, bespectacled woman with unruly brown hair, vestiges of which ran down her jawline," is Jewish, and has literary pretensions, or longings, at least.  She and Bev are an archetypal American married couple of the time, who just happen to become bank robbers.

Just the premise of this book is ingenious and worthy of exploring. Dell explains to us that his father returns from the war with an "unspecified gravity" (p. 7) and a misunderstanding of the world and his place in it. He has grand plans and lacks a moral compass.  In an attempt to make more money while stationed at Great Falls, he gets involved in illegal meat smuggling. He seemingly rationalizes his behavior by believing he is being passed over for promotions. His retirement from the Air Force at age 37 in 1956 may have been a face-saving move, but none-the-less, leaves him at loose ends.

As a civilian, Bev tries selling cars and then gets involved in another beef smuggling scheme with a group of Great Falls Indians.  When meat spoils and the Indians demand their payment or else, he hatches a scheme to rob a bank.  We gradually learn that he has glamorized bank robbery while still in the Air Force. That Neeva gets involved only shows the extent of her own lack of judgment. As Dell looks back on the event fifty years from when it occurred, he recalls:

Neeva came to the remarkably mistaken conclusion that robbing a bank was a risk that would facilitate things she wanted.  It was a miscalculation not very different from the one that has swayed her to marry Bev Parsons in the first place--giving up on the life she could've had , to lead what might've seemed a more adventurous and unexpected one, but wasn't.  With half the money from a robbery she wouldn't have to go back to her miscalculated life... (p. 92)

The second part of the book deals with the ramifications of a robbery that failed.  To describe what happens would be a spoiler.  How Berner and Dell cope and the characters they meet along the way make up the thematic core of the novel.

Canada is as much about alienation as it is about consequences for one's actions.  Ford's descriptions of the vast expanses of land that make up Montana, as well as his depiction of the rustic prairie across the U.S. border, are highly evocative. They call forth a sense of vastness, desolation, and loneliness.  These outer expanses mirror the emptiness the characters feel within. Despite this, the tone with which Dell recalls events is flat and utterly cerebral.  Dell's unemotional nature--his ability to get on with his life and not feel anger toward his parents--allows him to lead a full if uneventful life.  Berner, like Neeva, is inclined to make rash choices and act on her emotions.  Like that of her mother, Berner's personal history becomes a series of tragic mistakes. We learn of them as Dell does--at the end of Berner's life.

Canada's achievement as a literary work lies not only in the unique story it tells, but in its empathetic character portrayal.  The book's narrator, Dell, bears witness to his parents' misguided endeavors.  He later witnesses a much more horrific crime and even partakes in part of it.  That he is able to look at everyone, including himself, with detached understanding and forgiveness makes him remarkable.

Canada is a book whose appeal will negate age and gender differences.  It examines misguided decisions and their tragic repercussions.  But, ultimately, this book is about the redemptive powers of truth, self-awareness and responsibility.  To this reader, it bears some similarity in theme and style to Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner.  And like that fine work, it too is likely to become part of the canon of great American novels.

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Friday, November 9, 2012

Shadow of Night

Shadow of Night, the second book in Deborah Harnkness' trilogy begins where a Discovery of Witches leaves off.  Exactly where it leaves off.  Diana and Matthew have traveled back in time to the reign of Elizabeth I.  Matthew, a spy for the queen, and Diana are still searching for the alchemical manuscript, Ashmole 782.  Diana believes this might be able to explain her powers.

The book follows the exploits of Diana and Matthew as they search. Matthew's group of friends include Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Percy, Lord Northumberland among others.  Not everyone is who they appear to be.  While searching for a witch to teach Diana how to control and use her powers, they are turned into the church for punishment.  As there are witch trials going on in Scotland at the time, this is especially perilous for Diana.  Matthew has risked the wrath of the Congregation by marrying Diana, vampires marrying witches is a strictly forbidden act.

Using his connections ( after all Matthew has lived in this time period before) Matthew tracks down where the manuscript is. But can they get it? The story line rips through Matthew and Diana's time in London and continental Europe while they try to stay alive and find the manuscript all without changing the future. And then get back to the present intact.

I loved this book. Part love story, thriller and lots of historical settings and characters. I am a big fan of the first book, A Discovery of Witches, and I loved this one too.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Bond on Bond

Just in time for the new James Bond movie Skyfall (opening Friday) we've got a fun new addition to celebrity books as Roger Moore himself takes us through 50 years(!) of James Bond on film in Bond on Bond. Moore goes out of his way to include trivia and history encompassing all the Bonds, although his best stories are his most personal ones.

Both Moore and co-writer Gareth Owen, who also helped Moore's earlier autobiography My Word is My Bond, do an excellent job in exuding what we assume is Roger Moore's real charming voice. The sound of the writing is somewhere between Moore's Bond and wealthy playboy, which makes it even easier to enjoy the many anecdotes that populate the book.

We learn of Moore's relationship with the other Bonds, and despite our desire to see him compete with Sean Connery in the public's eye the men appear to be friendly with each other. In fact, Moore states that Connery is his favorite Bond (besides himself, of course!) We also get colorful stories about the rest of the actors, producers, stunt people and directors who brought Bond to life. In fact, the only person in the book that Moore seems to dislike is Grace Jones, his costar from his final Bond flick, although his comments towards her are more snarky than mean.

The book is also filled with a potpourri of backstage photos, old advertisements, and my favorites, the old movie posters for every Bond film. We also get handy tips on how to dress, drink and smoke like Bond. It's also a treat that Moore treats Connery's Never Say Never Again (which competed with Moore's Octopussy at the box office) and the earlier comedic Casino Royale (starring Woody Allen and David Niven) as part of the Bond canon.

I'm not going to even pretend that this book has any depth, but it's a quick, fun read that you can knock off while getting your Bond fix on DVD at home. We can all argue about who made the best Bond but until Sean Connery writes his Bond-focused memoir we'll all have to agree that this is the best Bond-written Bond book around!

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Friday, November 2, 2012

Hot Art

This book claims that it is about "chasing thieves and detectives through the secret world of stolen art." And it does. What Joshua Knelman has really written about how easy it is to traffic in stolen art.  The author starts by interviewing a known art thief going by the name "Paul." Paul explains how he started out in Brighton, England as a "knocker." He would basically knock on the front doors of peoples homes and ask if they wanted to sell him something, a painting, some silver or any other treasure. Once inside the house he would check out what items he could steal at a later date. Paul was very successful at this.

Knelman interviews art thieves, individuals who have had art stolen, museum officials and gallery owners about thefts and how they are handled. He goes into depth about the various art theft investigative squads that are now in existence through out the world and how the stolen items travel around the world in a matter of days, if not hours. The first investigative agence in the United States was in the Los Angeles police department. Then came INTERPOL, Scotland  Yard, the FBI, Toronto police department and a squad in Quebec, Canada. There are also several international databases now in existence among then the Art Loss Register and one from INTERPOL called IFAR (International Foundation for Art research.)

It was surprising to me that it seems that there is very little oversight in the art world.  Titles are not registered anywhere on a routine basis and alot of art is sold for cash.  Considering the global fine art business is worth about $20 billion,  in 2008,  I couldn't believe it wasn't regulated. The figures for art theft from 2008  indicate that 16,000 pieces of art were registered as stolen or lost.

The book is an interesting one. It is populated by police and investigative characters who seem to genuinely want the art world regulated. It is also populated by those who want to keep things just as they are. If you want to learn about the dark side of the art world, this book is for you.

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