Jul 212014
 

SHAKE-OFF-cover-660x1024The protagonist, he goes by several aliases, but Michel Khoury appears to be his given name, is a former Palestinian refugee from Lebanon.  His parents were murdered during the Israeli-sponsored massacres in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.  Stateless and without family he is fathered by a friendly Palestinian who in time teaches Michel the tradecraft of undercover work, but with a twist.  The goal of these Palestinians is to undercut the piecemeal Oslo peace negotiations of the 1990s with a truly comprehensive peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis.  Michel couriers secret messages around the world until he makes the one mistake no spy should ever make.  He falls in love with a British girl.  Khoury’s slow awakening to the entanglement of high stakes espionage he has entered, and how he has unwittingly dragged in his first real love, provides terrific suspense without ever dropping into polemic.  Remarkably, this book eschews diatribe about middle eastern politics while embedding in one of the great political feuds of our time.

Jul 132014
 

serviceThe war after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq consists of 500,000 broken soldiers, men and women returned to the United States suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI).  Five hundred thousand with invisible wounds to their brains.  Asked to fight in invisible wars that most Americans failed to track, they served two and three rotations against enemies they could not find, but whose specialization in guerilla tactics ensured that our soldiers spent many of their days searching for improvised explosive devices.  They watched their closest friends blown to small pieces, or had their own heads rattled against the roof of an exploding humvee.  And when they could not function any longer they were sent home.  The result, in addition to an ever-increasing rate of post-combat suicide, has been a half million cases of severe depression, unrelenting insomnia, flashbacks, anger, guilt, uncontrollable rage, and anxiety.  This book reduces the painful numbers to a handful of real people struggling to reassemble their lives.  Their plights are heart breaking in large part because Finkel’s writing is so delicately caring and insightful.

Jul 062014
 

Tears-of-Autumn-McCarryOK, it’s a period piece Spy Novel.  Think Ian Fleming.  Sean Connery.  In this caper, Paul Christopher works for the CIA and he speeds around the world piecing together the hidden culprits behind JFK’s assassination.  Christopher’s hypothesis is Oswald was hired in retaliation for American attacks on prominent Vietnamese families.  I’m not much into Kennedy conspiracies — there seem to be an bottomless well of them — but the book rings true mostly because its author was a spook himself in the CIA.  The craft of 1960s Cold War spying appears realistic even if from our current vantage point it feels like it is being rendered in black and white with a cheesy saxaphone soundtrack.  Vietnam, the Congo, Rome, and Paris are all atmospherically accurate — you can just about taste the Parisian drizzle and can hear the street calls in Saigon – and the characters are about as authentic as any on Mad Men.  I’m not sure anyone who was born after 1980 would get  this book, but if you can recall the 1960s, Tears of Autumn is a nice trot down memory lane. Tears of Autumn is the second novel in the Paul Christopher series.

Jun 272014
 

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Ever since returning from France and tasting all their wonderful preserves I’ve been determined to see what I can do at home.  So far, and it’s just strawberry season: 16 jars of strawberry jam, 4 of strawberry syrup, 4 rhubarb jams, two pies, two strawberry-rhubarb crisps, and three pounds of frozen strawberries.  Looks like cherries are next!photo1 (7)

Jun 222014
 

memorialWhen Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and tens of thousands of residents were trapped in a city without electricity, water, sewage, law, government, shelter or near-term prospects for rescue, hospitals were among the hardest hit.  Medical staff worked around the clock to care for patients without working ventilators, regulated IV drips, air conditioning, sterilized equipment, or working toilets.  Exhausted doctors needed to make new triage lists daily, not only making life and death decisions regarding whom to treat, but also which patients were most likely to survive evacuation lifts when they did arrive.  Should the terminally ill be evacuated first or last?  Should those closest to dying be rushed to the front of the line when a helicopter arrived or could a doctor make a judgement that death was likely in any case and give the space to someone whose future looked more promising?  Promising in what way?  Most likely to live?  Greatest number of dependents?  The brightest outlook for high quality of life?  Determined how?  Among the hospitals swamped by Katrina was Memorial where after five days of chaos a doctor and two nurses were accused of euthanizing patients.  While Sheri Fink does a fine job of raising ethical issues about end-of-life decisions, her book is tedious.  The first half describes the lives of the entrapped and the second covers the indictment and trial and every tiny piece of evidence against the accused doctor.  Alas, most of the evidence has been covered in the first half of the book and reading about it for a second and third time in legalese does nothing to enhance its power.

Jun 222014
 

snailIt’s a standard genre.  Expat, in this case British, lives in France long enough to write an irreverent, comic, snarky account of French mannerisms.  He describes how the French eschew rules, scrum instead of queue, adore denying service to anyone and everyone, are hopeless romantics (at least with their mistresses), work fewer hours on job than any employees in the world, and insist that nothing — not war nor peace — interrupt their daily break for a two hour lunch.  Unfortunately, Clarke is neither sufficiently funny or nasty enough to be completely compelling.  On the other hand, my French cousins say his accounting of French behavior is spot on making it a worthwhile book for anyone who has been to France.

Jun 082014
 

history-of-loveOn the upside, the main character Leo Gursky, who survived the Nazi invasion of his Polish village of Slonim by hiding in the woods for three years, surviving on worms and stolen potatoes, is so indelibly drawn by Nicole Krauss that now, sixty years later, you can hear the gravel in his voice and feel the sadness in his heart.  Leo’s one and only love, Alma, slipped out of Poland just before the Nazi invasion and when Leo finally finds her in New York City after the war, he learns that Alma, thinking Leo had perished along with the rest of the villagers, has married another.  For the next sixty years he pines for his lost Alma (Spanish, by the way, for soul.)  If only the plot were so simple.  Instead, there are novels within novels, sometimes even multiple versions of novels within novels, the question of who is speaking at any given time is revealed only by obscure glyphs above chapter headings, and the relationships between characters is so confounding that a reader will do well to map their connections.  While there are scenes that float from the page, as real as Leo, the book as a whole is hard to follow without a scorecard.

Jun 072014
 

army-at-dawnThe year is 1942.  Axis powers have taken control of Europe, east Asia and the Pacific, North Africa, and are threatening to consume Russia.  Britain, the last western power, is teetering and the U.S. is slowly engaging its war machinery.  The first direct contact between inexperienced American forces and the German Army is the battle for North Africa, which rages for two years back and forth across the inhospitable deserts of Tunisia and Algeria.  What makes Rick Atkinson such a brilliant commander of storytelling is his ability to focus on individual bullets splintering rocks just above foxholes and at the same time understand and describe the huge wheeling actions of whole armies across seas, continents, months, and years.  When the Germans are finally defeated in Tunisia it marks their first major loss and a coming of age for American forces, who (in Atkinson’s second book, The Day of Battle) are now prepared to leap the Mediterranean to invade Sicily and face the Wehrmacht head-on in the battle up the Italian boot toward the German homeland.