The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #39: Triumph

Guess what! You can read more of my weird commentaries on my personal blog! What’s that you say, you have better things to do? Well…tough…read it anyway! (Here at the Scruffy Rube)

Running is a writer’s world. Alone with the sound of your breath and the pounding of your feet against pavement, you have all the time in the world to imagine and create stories, legends and myths. You can take your time to chronicle each and every alteration of the weather and the body until you have a big pile of overwrought imagery and irrelevant symbolism.

Jeremy Schaap cuts through a lot of the running falderal with his book about the Track and Field battles during the 1936 Olympic Games. Naturally the focal point is Jesse Owens, and he devotes most of the book to both illuminating and complicating the Buckeye Bullet for readers who know him only as a name from the history books. Owens is a reluctant father and an uneasy political figure who has no choice but to accept his position in the athletic pantheon. At times, he seems to be little more than a cliche spouting, anti-septic athlete, but that has less to do with Schaap’s writing and more with the carefully reassembled hodgepodge of quotes given to sportswriters of the day (making the plethora of cliches much more understandable). And a fair amount of time is spent reflecting on the Nazi ne’er-do-wells whose dreams of a demonstration of aryan supremacy were foiled by Owens, including Goerbles, Goering, Leinie Reifenstahl and, of course, Hitler himself. Their villainy is despicable to be sure, but in the context of their political standing, not wholly different from how the Olympics are sought after today.

Triumph is at its best when it focuses on Owens’ interactions with lesser known luminaries of his time, including AAU chairman and manipulative mastermind Avery Brundage, sprinting rivals Ralph Metcalf and Uliss Peacock, coaches Charles Riley and Larry Snider and the reluctant Nazi/Owens-ally-to-be Lutz Long. The audiobook’s narrator (Michael Kramer) doesn’t ape accents, but offers subtle variations on a slow, well measured drawl, to give each quote a degree of gravitas. There are some characters (including several inconsequential sportswriters and the utterly irrelevant Eleanor Holm-Jarrett) who bog down the story rather than support it, but those are minor complaints of a broadly interesting and honest look at a defining moment in American sports history.

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Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #101: Jackdaws by Ken Follett

An exciting war-time drama about female British agents sent to France during the Nazi occupation, charged with blowing up a crucial telephone exchange the Nazis have set up in a bomb-proof French chateau. The women must disguise themselves as cleaners to gain access to the chateau, and are recruited from all walks of life—the British aristocracy, criminals, even a transvestite—and for all sorts of reasons, with but one goal: to survive long enough to sabotage the exchange and facilitate the success of the Normandy invasion. The process of their recruitment is less than credible, and the behavior of these “agents” sometimes stretches the imagination, but they are colorful and appealing enough as individual personalities to help us embrace them.

Pitted against the group’s fearless leader Felicity Clairet is a cold-blooded German intelligence officer with a special “talent” for interrogation and a dogged determination to capture Felicity and, through her, the entire French resistance. He is an interesting character, a master torturer and psychological manipulator with less of an investment in a Nazi victory than in his own career. His relationship with his French mistress is an evolving one, which also reveals his vulnerabilities, making him an interesting and worthy counterpoint to Felicity.

Jackdaws  is a great thriller with an exciting plot, a colorful and mostly believable cast of characters, enough romance thrown in to keep everyone happy, and a nail-biting climax  sure to please the most jaded among us. If there is a bit of stereotyping of some of the Nazis (the sadistic torturer, for example), there is also a bit of stereotyping of British intelligence, but neither is so heavy-handed as to ruin a good story. Not great literature, but a good spy story and a fun ride.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #90: The Unlikely Spy by Daniel Silva

Silva’s first book, written before the famous Gabriel Allon series, surprised me with its heavy emphasis on history and much more nuanced characters than his later books offer. I found myself impressed both by Silva’s successful handling of an oft-told if fascinating period of history, and by effective combining of a satisfying political thriller with the personal stories he managed to weave so effectively into the intrigue of the times.

The Unlikely Spy takes place in 1944 in England, where the outcome of the Second World War now relies heavily on the quality of the intelligence and counter-intelligence each side can draw on. History professor Alfred Vicary has been drafted into MI-5 by none other than Churchill himself to run a dis-information operation against the Germany. He is in charge of turning captured Nazi spies, and using them to feed disinformation to German intelligence. He learns that there is a long-buried “sleeper” agent in London who has been activated to uncover the time and place of the Allied landing in France, and must identify the agent while protecting “Operation Mulberry” at all cost.

Vicary is a fascinating character, not one of the political elite but an unassuming professorial sort with a laser-like intelligencel. He has discovered to his surprise that he has a real talent for covert intelligence, but is constantly frustrated by the roadblocks deliberately thrown in his path by his immediate superior at MI-5, Sir Basil Boothby, who appears to be hiding some serious secrets. At the same time, we get to meet a cast of historical figures on the German side, from Hitler, Himmler, and Rommel, to Canaris and Schellenberg, and watch their deadly rivalries play out against the backdrop of war.

And then there is “Catherine Blake,” the beautiful and murderous sleeper agent who almost—but not quite—gets to throw WWII’s victory to the Nazis through her seduction of Operation Mulberry’s chief engineer, American Peter Jordan. Although Silva takes pains to give us an in-depth picture of Blake’s own history, including the fact that she has been blackmailed by the Nazis into becoming one of their super-agents inside England, Blake is nonetheless a scary stone-cold killer who never wins our sympathy. She also never strays too far from the cliché of the femme fatale, which is a notable weakness in Silva’s plot.

Perhaps most fascinating, for me, was the stunning wrap-up at the end of the book, where we not only discover the much deeper waters than ran under the intrigue Vicary was striving so mightily to unravel, but also what lengths the British were willing to go to deploy their psychological spycraft against their own, all in the name of what Kipling so famously called “The Game.”   Well done, Mr. Silva.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #82: City of Thieves by David Benioff

One of the most perfectly crafted novels I’ve read in a long time, City of Thieves is a multi-layered story told both simply and irresistibly beautifully. It is the tale of a survivor of the German siege of Leningrad during WWII, told to his grandson about a few days spent as a 17-year-old teen in the company of an AWOL Russian soldier, learning about friendship, sex, courage, patriotism, heartache, and love.

Lev, the virginal teenaged Jewish son of a poet father who was “disappeared” by the Soviet secret police under Stalin, is living alone in besieged and starving Leningrad after his mother and sister flee to the countryside. When he is caught searching the body of a dead German parachutist for food, he is tossed into prison to await execution—the wartime punishment for looting. Thrown into the cell with him is Kolya, a 20-year-old blond, blue-eyed literature-spouting hunk of young Russian manhood who got caught AWOL while searching for some female “company.” Execution is also the punishment for desertion. However, both Lev and Kolya are given a reprieve by a high-level Army colonel whose daughter is about to get married, but only if they can do the impossible–bring back a dozen eggs in four days, in time to make her a traditional wedding cake. This in a city whose population has already eaten its pets, and is down to eating shoe leather.

The two set out, first to scour the Leningrad black market to no avail, and then to cross German lines in search of a reputed farm with reputed chickens laying reputed eggs. Their adventures are many and gruesome, including encounters with cannibals, land mines, Russian partisans, and getting taken prisoners-of-war by the Nazis. Throughout, Kolya is determined to teach Lev the art of wooing a woman to his bed, and we are treated to his and Lev’s many and varied opinions on Russia’s vast literary body of works, the art of chess playing, and the mystic connection between constipation and winning war.

If this sounds like a comedy, be assured that it isn’t. It is a tale of the horrors of war, of death, of sacrifice, but it is leavened by Benioff’s lively wit, meticulous research into the city of Leningrad, and learned appreciation of Russia literary tradition. It is most of all a window into the human soul, as we follow Lev in his search for a dozen eggs and learn with him all there is to know about fear and courage.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #28: The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville by Clare Mulley

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The Spy Who Loved is the biography of Polish socialite Christine Skarbek who became British spy Christine Granville during World War II. While Christine’s life is fascinating in and of itself, this biography also reveals the difficult road of women who served in non-traditional roles during the war as well as highlighting Poland’s tragic history in the 20th century.

Mulley has clearly done an enormous amount of research on her subject, who certainly didn’t make it easy. Granville left very little behind, and the men who served with her and loved her made a pact not to reveal details of her life and to protect her memory after her death. Mulley tracked down sources written by contemporaries and was able to access personal archives as well as interview some who knew her. When her sources differ on the details of an event, Mulley goes to great pains to present the reader with all the conflicting stories before offering her own opinion as to what really happened. For example, it’s not clear whether or not Ian Fleming and Christine were acquainted or involved with one another, and perhaps Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale is based on Christine. Or not. One of my criticisms of this book is that it gets bogged down in details that could have been relegated to a footnote. Another is that the writing is sometimes repetitive. As a result, the story can drag along.

The best chapters are those that deal with Christine in action. When the war broke out in Poland, she was in South Africa with her husband. They made their way to England and Christine was the first woman involved in British special operations (spy stuff). Her goal was to get back to Poland to fight the Nazis and win back Poland’s freedom. The missions she supported were thrilling to read about. It was also interesting to note that because Christine was in Poland on behalf of Britain, the Poles who supported the government-in-exile were suspicious of her and wouldn’t work with her. This led to frustrating complications for Christine that had an impact on her work throughout the war.

As the Nazis conquered Eastern Europe, Christine in her lover/lifelong friend Andrzej Kowerski managed to keep ahead, working their way through the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean before reaching Cairo. Honestly, this section of the book is somewhat tedious but it does show how Christine struggled to get placed on missions despite her exemplary and daring track record. Eventually, she wa
s sent to occupied France, where the story gets very interesting again. By all accounts, Christine had a magnetic personality, not just winning over many men as lovers, but also talking her way around the Gestapo and even charming their guard dogs. She was a fearless and courageous patriot, who seemed to thrive on danger and adventure.

Once the war was over, Christine’s treatment by the British was shameful. She struggled to get citizenship, even when being offered some of the highest service awards for her contribution to the war effort, and she never really found meaningful work that would make the most of her formidable talents. Her tragic death in 1952 came just as she was about to move from London back to Europe.

While I enjoyed parts of this book, and I think that Christine’s story is amazing and inspiring, those who would like to learn more about women’s roles in intelligence during WWII might find a more accessible read in Sarah Helm’s 2006 work A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. Helm is a journalist and seems better able than historians or biographers to cut through the detail to put a readable story together (her book is longer than Mulley’s but seemed shorter to me). Plus, the women and men whose stories are featured in Helm’s book are some of the same people you meet in Mulley’s. Just not Christine.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #15: The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova

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This youth lit novel’s topic is Norwegian resistance in World War II. The story is told from the point of view of Marit, a 10-year-old in 1940 when the Germans begin bombing Norway. Marit’s parents send her and her younger brother Lars to mom’s hometown to be cared for by relatives while mom and dad join the resistance. Aunt Ingeborg is a school teacher and Bestefar (grandfather) is a fisherman.

Marit’s relationship with her grandfather is strained. She feels that he has always preferred Lars and she is also angry that Bestefar seems to simply go along with the Nazis rather than resist like her parents. The author provides plenty of historical detail for young readers as the relationship between Marit and Bestefar develops. Readers will learn of the Nazis’ initial attempts to win over Norwegians as “fellow aryans”, and, failing at that, the use of intimidation and arrest to keep them in line. Norwegians had to give their blankets, food, even radios to the occupiers. Teachers and ministers were forced to teach Nazi propaganda. When they refused, churches closed and one out of every ten school teachers were rounded up and sent off to camps. Wearing traditional Norwegian garb was also construed as an act of resistance and subject to punishment.

The author presents great detail about Norway, its people, their resistance to the Nazis and the price they paid. The action takes place over several years and shows Marit maturing and taking bold action on behalf of the resistance and ultimately learning the truth about her grandfather. A decent novel for kids to learn a little about World War II and the resistance.

ElCicco #CBR 5 Review #14: Lore (The Dark Room) by Rachel Seiffert

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Originally published as The Dark Room in 2001, Lore is being re-published now in support of a film due out this year. The novel is divided into three chapters, each dealing with one German and his/her experience of WWII and the aftermath of the Holocaust. The overriding themes deal with German guilt and the appropriate German response to its past.

Chapter one focuses on Helmut, a Berliner in his 20s, unable to enlist in the military because of a physical disability. Helmut is embarrassed, frustrated and jealous when his peers ship off to war and he is still home with his parents. He keeps detailed journals about the trains and passenger populations passing through the nearby station, noticing the while people keep coming into the city, the population still seems to be diminishing. To keep busy, Helmut starts working as a photographer’s assistant and finds he has a talent for the art, but the ends to which he employs this talent and his enthusiasm for it are disturbing. Helmut himself is a strange character. In addition to his physical impairment, he seems to have some social and emotional problems as well. The reader may be shocked by some of the things he does, but at the same time, the description of life in a bombed out, shell-shocked Berlin might elicit some pity, too. Helmut is a troubling character.

Chapter two is about Lore (Hannelore), a 12-year-old girl who becomes responsible for her younger siblings when her Nazi parents are arrested by the allies at the end of the war. Lore doesn’t understand exactly what has happened to her parents or why, but she knows that she has to hide evidence of her family’s connections to the Reich. As she takes her siblings on foot on the long journey to her grandmother’s house, the reader sees the poverty, hunger and displacement visited upon the Germans after the war. The reader cannot help but feel pity for Lore and her siblings. Their hunger and exhaustion are tragic and more than children should have to bear, but for Lore, there is also the gradual realization that the world she thought she  knew is very different from reality.

Chapter three is Micha’s story in Germany in 1997-1998. Micha is 30, living with his German-Turkish girlfriend and working as a teacher. As a result of a lesson related to the Holocaust, he begins to investigate his own family’s history during the war. Micha knew that his grandfather (Opa) had served in the Waffen-SS, but he, like the rest of the family, never bothered to ask questions about where he served, what he did, or what happened to him while a POW in Russia. As Micha investigates, he upsets his entire family and his girlfriend, who see no point in pursuing the question. Their feeling is that Opa was a good man who loved them, and learning the truth would make no difference; Opa is dead, so the truth cannot be known. But Micha’s research becomes an obsession and he is compelled to carry on. As he gets closer to the answers, however, he seems to hold back from learning the truth and struggles with his own motivations in pursuing it.

While the focus of the novel is on Germans’ experiences, Jews and the Holocaust are the unspoken backdrop. They are not characters, but the fact of their existence colors the reading of each chapter. You feel bad for feeling any sort of pity for the Germans, but you also question whether you would be any different than they were. And I think that is what the author wants. Be uncomfortable. Recognize the humanity of the enemy and deal with your feelings of revulsion and pity. It is a provocative novel and I couldn’t put it down.