On the face of it an uplifting story of a group of eight hayseeds from Washington state who come together to become the world’s best rowing team. They stand for all that is good in America — hard work, optimism, rags-to-riches, democracy, talent, and above all a can-do attitude — when they compete for gold in Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. Brown’s writing is so evocative that you can feel the cold wind on Lake Washington during a late-fall practice, endure the doubt inside the mind of every student-rower anxious about paying for an upcoming semester during the height of the great depression, crane your neck watching a tight race, and in the end, when all goes right, fly on a boat with eight oarsmen working in perfect synchrony. You really do want these guys to beat the Nazis.
Henry and Celia were working for the CIA in Vienna when a hijacked plane landed and failure of international spy agencies to respond appropriately led to the death of everyone on board. Six years later the CIA is still trying to figure out what went wrong and Henry tracks down Celia before closing the books on the case. At the time of the hijacking Henry and Celia were lovers, spies, intelligence gatherers, in the midst of a frantic race to outsmart terrorists, and professional liars. Now, we watch as the two meet for dinner, both in search of a truth that has eluded them, and both playing all their spycraft skills at the table.
After a couple of decades of living in Britain, Bill Bryson decides to journey around the country one last time before moving with his family back to the U.S. He takes seven weeks to do a grand loop stopping in towns large and small to describe the British Isles of the early 90s with special attention to beer, architecture, and people, in that order. No doubt, the more you know of England the more you would appreciate his observations, but even without being able to fully appreciate the locales he was visiting, I was left with some rather wonderful impressions. Firstly, Bryson reminds one of the value of seeing the world at walking speed. That alone made me reevaluate the amount of daily energy I devote just to keeping up. Secondly, tied as I am to the natural world, I don’t pay nearly enough attention to the power of buildings as individuals or in their collective. Thirdly, this book is vintage early Bryson. He is so funny on so many occasions I laughed aloud as if I was the one who had consumed one too many brews. If you have a chance to listen to the audiobook. It’s a remarkable read aloud.
Prior to the outbreak of WWII, the British citizen Eddie Chapman spent his youth blowing safes and robbing banks. Passing in and out of jails, Chapman learned new techniques for thievery and when he wasn’t incarcerated, he fell in love, seriously in love, with a series of women. When war erupted, Chapman was languishing in a cell on the isle of Jersey which fell under Nazi occupation and after failing to escape a couple of times figured his best chance for freedom was to volunteer to become a Nazi spy, that is, a British citizen employed by the Nazis to spy on the British. A year or so later the Germans took him up on his offer, trained him, and air dropped him into Britain for the purpose of blowing up a British airplane factory. Chapman’s apparent success led him to become one of the most decorated Nazi spies in history, only soon after landing in England, he also because one of the most celebrated spies in the British secret service, where he acted as a double agent spying on the Nazis. Using newly released documents McIntyre uncovers a fascinating history of the spy war raging between Allied and Axis forces.
Sixteen monks live in an isolated Canadian monastery dedicated to Pure Gregorian Chant, God, and the obscure Saint Gilbert. Until there are fifteen monks because the Priar has his skull crushed. Inspector Gamache and his sidekick Jean-Guy Beauvoir are called to the northern waters and deep forests of Quebec to investigate their eighth mystery in this Louise Penny series. It is Penny’s best. Gamache and Beauvoir do waht they can to penetrate the silent, mysterious, centuries old abbey while the monks practice the same analysis on the inspectors of the Quebec Surete. The monks love chants, the chants mesmerize all who hear them, and questions arise: why are some men called to become solitary monks; others find solace in solving murderous crimes; a few succumb to their inner demons with murder; and some men turn away from music and can only find inner peace through drugs. This is a multi-layered novel that also performs what we so often want from a good mystery. Yes, we have suspense, but we also learn something. Here we are treated to the invention of music, the inner workings of a contemporary, if very remote monastery, and the simple beauty of Gregorian Chant.
Of course I’ve heard of John Brown, the abolitionist, who tried to start an insurrection and free the slaves by himself. But, truth is, that is about all I knew of him until reading this fictionalized account of his life. The beautifully rendered narrator, who I suspect is the one truly fictional character in the book, is a young black boy nicknamed “The Onion.” Onion is freed from slavery by Brown in the 1850s and lives with John Brown’s army of abolitionist minded children, freed slaves, Indians, Jews, and spotty hangers-on. Only thing is John Brown mistakes Onion for a girl and thus Onion lives disguised as a girl for several years. It is not as strange as you think because survival for blacks under the dehumanizing burden of slavery required any possible ruse to avoid being worked to death (or worse) like a flea-infested mule. Onion portrays John Brown as a religious zealot of such ferocity as to be frighteningly fanatical. Yet, at the same time Brown was the one person in America to move beyond rhetoric regarding the savages of slavery to the very actions necessary required to undo the evil practice. While Brown’s attempts to overtake Osawatomie, Kansas and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia were folly, the Northern States were very soon to follow his example.
Greene is supposed to be one of the great storytellers of our age, and this version read aloud by Colin Firth (pitter pat goes my heart) won two separate awards for audiobooks, but frankly, what a sleeper. Maurice Bendrix, just like the author, Graham Greene, has a torrid affair. In this version, she is disguised as Sarah Miles (though the book is dedicated to his real paramour), who is married to a British bore named Henry. The story reads like the Graham Greene’s fantasy. Anyway, back to the plot which plods along with great pain due to our protagonists insatiable jealousies. Then the book turns religious as most of the characters wrestle with their consciences, in great detail, over the existence of God. That might have been important in England in 1951 when second World War memories were still fresh and the book was recently published, but I can’t say it makes worthwhile reading today, unless you are a pro at mid-twentieth century Brit lit.
The premise is a standard trope of science fiction: time travel. And each time the main character, Jake Epping, closes his eyes and taps with his toe in the back of a dark closet to find the rabbit hole that will transfer him from the year 2011 to 1963 you have to be much better than me at suspending disbelief and suppressing a giggle. Nevertheless, once you’ve cross the threshold, you will find yourself fully enveloped by Stephen King’s prodigious talents as a master story teller. Epping has the chance to go back in history and uses his opportunity to undo injustices he knows will be forthcoming. He saves a friend’s friend from a crippling hunting accident and protects a work colleague from a father so abusive that in the late 1950s the drunken father murders his wife and most of his children with a sledge hammer. Then Epping takes on Lee Harvey Oswald with the aim of preventing the assassination of JFK. The reader is asked to overlook the fact that Epping’s primary means of preventing bad stuff from happening is to murder criminals before they commit their acts. Hmmm. If you get that far, then you can wrestle with what additional impacts a change in the past will have on the future and whether it makes more sense to devote yourself to the woman you love or, because there really isn’t any other option in this book, protect President Kennedy and the future of the world.
The 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.
The summer of 1927 begins with the worst rains the United States has endured in a century or more. The Mississippi has flooded millions of acres and hundreds of thousands of people are homeless and facing starvation. President Coolidge brings in the world’s most successful savior of human life since Jesus Christ, the man who almost single handedly saved western Europe from starvation during WW I. Herbert Hoover. The floods prevent a young pilot from getting out of his airfield in St. Louis and Charles Lindbergh almost doesn’t make it to New York in time to be the first person to fly the Atlantic and become the most famous individual in the world. As Lindbergh takes off from Roosevelt field on Long Island he circles over Yankee Stadium where Babe Ruth is beginning his march toward breaking the all-time home run record for one season. And we are only in May. Bryson does a remarkable job of making us eager to awaken every morning to read the daily paper just to keep abreast of what might really be one of the most compelling four months of the twentieth century.