Mar 302014

frozenTo ferry supplies, munitions, and personnel to the European front in WW II required skipping across allied airfields in Canada, Greenland, and Iceland.  The major impediment was the weather in Greenland makes for some of the worst flying conditions in the world: violent winds, spontaneous storms, and viciously cold weather.  Frozen in Time is primarily the story of a transport plane that went down in one of those storms.  A rescue plane with nine crewmen is sent out to search, but it too crashes in bad weather, destroying the plane and damaging, but not killing any of its crew.  Over the course of days, then weeks, then months additional rescue attempts are launched, and a third plane disappears, yet the crew from the second plane, battling frostbite, gangrene, broken bones, and depleted spirits survives for months buried in a hand-hacked ice cave on the edge of a yawning crevasse.  Zuckoff does a brilliant job of keeping us on the edge of our seats.  He is a little less successful in holding the tension of his secondary story: the contemporary search for the plane and men in the third plane, now buried somewhere beneath three dozen feet of ice.

Jan 012014

the-guns-at-last-lightLike a great general, not a good one, but a great one, Rick Atkinson tracks the final battles for European supremacy as the Second World War ground to close.  Simultaneously, he debates grand military strategies, political realities on several homefronts, and problematic relationships among national leaders like Montgomery (England), De Gaulle (France), Stalin (Russia) and Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander.  And just when you have the big picture and can imagine hundreds of thousands of soldiers swinging about the continent, Atkinson has you read the final letter from a soldier in the trenches, an important reminder that war is senseless for young men dying individual deaths.  All the while, again like the general who must track every detail, Atkinson explains how much successful warfare depends on provisioning.  The correct size ammunition must be manufactured in large numbers in a state in the U.S. and then find its way in sufficient numbers to the right gunners facing German sharpshooters somewhere a few hundred miles inside France.  The same is true for warm socks, powdered milk, gear boxes for over-used half-tracks, and petrol for fuel-guzzling tanks.  All of it has to be manufactured quickly (what happens to soldiers on the front if there are not enough laying chickens to produce dehydrated eggs?),  labeled correctly, shipped promptly, and transported efficiently along stretched supply lines.  What if it all goes on schedule, except for the fuel or the gear boxes?  Then nothing else moves.  Atkinson presents a remarkable view of WW II from an observation post that perceives a lot more than just men shooting one another.

Sep 032013

iron-curtain-20882-20130113-95World War II came to an end in large measure because the Russian Army came to the aid of the Allied Forces.  Irate at having lost twenty million citizens, Stalin’s troops raced into Germany to crush the Nazi Army.  Their war prize was control over the countries of Eastern Europe:  Poland, East Germany, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia.  Initially welcomed as liberators, Stalin’s communists enforced brutal dictatorships across the bloc.  Dissenters were shipped to Siberia, tortured, or disappeared.  Economies fell under total state control.  Freedoms of the press, dissent, religion, even thought were strictly and forcefully prohibited.  Anne Applebaum’s book is a comprehensive survey of how these countries were crushed, by whom, for what purpose, and in what time frame.  Divided by subject matter — religion, economy, industry, etc. — Applebaum provides myriad examples first from Poland, then Hungary, and then Germany.  Repeat.  The net result is a prize winning piece of research (National Book Award Finalist and a Pulitzer), but a book that is no more interesting to read than a communist manifesto orated during a May Day march.

Mar 172013

Reinhard Heydrich, The Blonde Beast, ruled Czechoslovakia for the Nazis until he was assassinated in 1942.  One of Hitler’s favorites — how is it I was unaware of him — he was the model Aryan: tall, physically strong, ambitious, murderous, a founder of The Final Solution, and in charge of subduing a conquered nation.  And yet one Czech and one Slovak parachuted in from England with the intention of killing the highest Nazi official in their occupied country.  The book is a cliff hanger, expertly crafted, originally in French, and translated into English, so the perspective is uniquely European.  The book’s subtitle insists it is a novel, but if it is, the author’s presence as the researcher hunting for the assassins’ stories is so real, it is difficult to imagine what part of the account is fictionalized.

Feb 032013

This is the tale of a irrepressible friendship between two women doing very unusual jobs.  It is World War II and England is barely holding its own as the Germans begin bombing runs over Britain.  Maddie, one of the two women, is a mechanical wizard who earns herself a place in the skies as a highly skilled pilot.  Queenie, the other, is a spy.  Consider how many female spies and pilots you can picture from that era and you have the underpinnings for a lot of suspense with a new twist.  I can’t give away more of the plot without being a spoiler. Ignore the book’s cover and be aware the book is written for Young Adults, but enjoy it.

Nov 302012

Very rarely is an author’s style so obstructionist that it interferes, but sadly, Kanon’s frequent indecipherability kept me from finishing.  Too bad.  I was in the mood for this kind of book.  World War II has just ended and the Cold War is heating up.  Former war spies are being called upon to acquire former Nazis for our side before the communists can claim them.  Istanbul is packed with undercover and double agents and is the perfect location for secret nighttime transfers of intelligence.  Not deep stuff, but surely the basis for fun.  At first, I gave Kanon the benefit of the doubt when he started the story midstream.  Then I figured he was being obscure because that must be how espionage feels.  But after one hundred pages of not being able to track his plot nor be certain who was speaking I gave up in frustration.


Jul 192012

Fredric Stahl, a handsome American movie star of Austrian descent is sent by his California studio to Paris to make a movie.  The year is 1939, the eve of Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and ultimately France.  Recognizing the opportunity to advance their political agenda, German spies target Stahl and ensnare him into promoting Nazi propaganda.  The American ambassador in Paris works Stahl as a double agent.  Much of the action takes place in a Paris deep with apprehension and the book provides a fascinating account of the dichotomous French views at the time:  stand up to the Nazis, now and forever vs. a post World War I sentiment to avoid bloodshed and an almost certain whipping before German might.  Bistro dinners, cocktail parties, smoky basement bars, even the damp winter chill of Paris in December are all on full display.  Unfortunately, the book feels like a black and white movie of the era that we have seen before.  The suspense and intrigue that should accompany this kind of book all feel two-dimensional rather than insightful or revelatory.

May 152012

William E. Dodd, an unassuming, dysthymic, history professor at the University of Chicago finds himself America’s ambassador to Berlin in 1933.  President Roosevelt is battling the country’s worst Depression with little time to focus attention on European woes so Dodd arrives in Berlin largely unprepared for the job with his wife, son, and man-hungry, 20-something year-old daughter, Martha.  The family is ridiculed as incompetent outsiders by the old-boy’s network in the U.S. State Department and largely brushed off by German officials.  Martha has relations with Nazis and Russian communists without her father’s awareness.  The increasingly marginalized William Dodd has the last word on his detractors, however.  First hand witness to Hitler’s ruthless rise to power he declares loudly and clearly that the Nazis are a terror to be reckoned with sooner rather than later.  No one listened.

May 012011

A short introduction to the dehumanizing, racist relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps at the outset of World War II.  We follow a single, nameless family from a small bungalow in Berkeley, after the father is hauled off for questioning by the FBI.  It is the day after Pearl Harbor.  Weeks later Mom and the two children are moved to a church, the Tanforan horse racing track, and finally a desert internment camp in Nevada.  Dislocation, despair, depression, disbelief, and quiet obedience pervade these Japanese stripped of their rights and dignity.  Dad is returned to his family four years later a broken man.  No explanation or reparations are offered by the U.S. government.  When the Emperor was Divine reads more like a young adult book than a great novel, but for those who don’t know much about the Japanese internment camps, this is a good place to begin.

Oct 182010

Lev Benioff, a 15-year-old Russian, Jewish kid and Kolya, a deserter from the Russian Army with an overactive libido and terrible constipation, find themselves trapped behind enemy lines during the Nazi siege of Leningrad.  The two must find a dozen eggs for the commander of the Russian secret service within a week or face execution.  The two will die if they don’t find the eggs for the NKVD or they will die if the Nazi SS captures them.  Kolya is worried about getting laid, taking a crap, and writing the next great Russian novel as they trudge through the snow searching for chickens.  Lev would be happy to just be kissed by a girl.  The SS is all around them.  The story starts slowly.  It all feels too self-consciously assembled like a novel.  By the time I was three-fourths through the book, however, I was flipping pages as fast as I could.