Mixed results

By Linda C. Brinson

I didn’t read Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel Water for Elephants, but I heard high praise for it from a number of people. Back then, I was editing and writing for a newspaper’s weekly book-review page, and I rarely had the luxury of reading a book that someone else was going to review for me. It went on the list of books I mean to read one of these days, and it’s still there.

When Gruen’s new book, At the Water’s Edge, arrived as an audio book, I could hardly wait to listen.  When I did, my reactions were decidedly mixed.

AT THE WATER’S EDGE. By Sara Gruen. Read by Justine Eyre. Random House Audio. 8 CDs; 10 hours. $40. Also available in print from Spiegel & Grau and in a Random House Large Print Edition.

Maddie Hyde and her husband, Ellis, are a young, spoiled couple who live in the home of and firmly under the thumbs of his well-to-do parents in Philadelphia. World War II is raging toward its end, and Ellis has greatly disappointed and embarrassed his father, a former Army colonel, by being found ineligible for military service because he’s colorblind – a condition that, oddly, had never before been detected.

The uneasy relationship between the elder and younger Hydes reaches the breaking point after Ellis and Maddie disgrace themselves at a New Year’s Eve party at a high-society home. When the young couple is called on the carpet, the end result is that they find themselves tossed out of the house and bereft of the lavish allowance that has supported their lifestyle.

Ellis decides that the only way to prove his courage and salvage his relationship with his father is to go to Scotland and find the Loch Ness Monster, something that his father tried and failed – notoriously – to accomplish years earlier. His inseparable best friend, Hank, helps arrange an improbably passage by ship to Scotland for the two of them and, of course, Maddie. After a rough journey, they find themselves staying at the only accommodation available in the village near the loch, an old inn with few amenities.  Making matters worse, food is rationed and air raids necessitate nightly blackouts and occasional trips to a bomb shelter.

The local customers and the sparse staff at the inn have nothing but contempt for the obviously spoiled young Americans who are off on a lark while the young men they know are dying in the war or coming home with serious injuries.

Ellis, especially, and to some extent Hank do nothing to change the locals’ bad opinion. Supercilious and demanding, they are the ugliest of ugly Americans.

Maddie, though, often left alone at the inn for days as the two men pursue their adventures, gradually comes to know the young women who work there, others in the village, and, eventually, the brooding man who runs the inn.

The book has possibilities. I’m a fan of historical novels that combine fictitious characters, even a romance, with real events and people. But the characters and plot must be believable and compelling for this sort of novel to work.

Before talking about the book’s flaws, I will say that I listened to the end, and that doing so was not a waste of time. This book is one of those that is better, I suspect, in its audio version. Justine Eyre did a lovely job with the Scottish accents, a delightful element that would have been missing in my own reading of the book. The story overall was interesting enough to keep me listening, but I think the flaws would have made me set the print version aside as not worth the effort.

My biggest problem with At the Water’s Edge may be that I was never able to believe the central premise: that finding the monster would put Ellis back in his father’s good graces, or even that Ellis believed that it would.

That problem is compounded by the way Ellis quickly deteriorates into a cardboard character, a thoroughly depraved one, once the trio arrives in Scotland, and Hank is little better. Even as Maddie grows in depth and self-awareness, the young men become stereotypes.

The latter part of the book becomes mostly a predictable, rather formulaic and contrived romance novel with some rather confusing supernatural elements thrown in. The news from the front, played on the inn’s radio nightly, the telegrams announcing war casualties and the occasional air raids are just interesting enough to make one wish Gruen had done more with that part of the story.

The story’s symbolism – that there are very real monsters (Hitler, Ellis) around us – is presented with a heavy hand, and also stated outright in case the reader still doesn’t get it.

A historical novel about hunting for the Loch Ness Monster might have worked. There have been many successful novels set during World War II, and there’s always room for another. A romance with an evil husband and a gallant lover with a mysterious past could have been fine for those who like that sort of book. But these elements never really come together to make At the Water’s Edge the book it should be.

 

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A liberal arts education, plus survival skills

Paul O’Connor finds that frequent digressions make this book all the more rewarding.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

NATURAL BORN HEROES: HOW A DARING BAND OF MISFITS MASTERED THE LOST SECRETS OF STRENGTH AND ENDURANCE. By Christopher McDougall. Random House Audio. 16 hours. $45. Read by Nicholas Guy Smith. Also available in hardcover from Knopf. 352 pages. $26.95

In May 1944, British agents and Greek resistance fighters accomplished one of World War II’s most remarkable special ops. They kidnapped the commanding general of Nazi Germany’s 70,000-strong garrison on Crete.

The Germans were dumbfounded not only by the audacious abduction but also by the getaway: If the general were still on the island, as all but the most ridiculous of contrived clues indicated, how could the abductors have escaped across the razor-sharp rocks and forbidding terrain of the island?

Christopher McDougall uses that question to present his argument that humans have natural strength and inherent abilities that go far beyond what we employ today.

The book is built around British agents plucked from the nation’s artistic and intellectual circles not for their soldierly skills – they had few of those – but for their imaginations. Winston Churchill wanted a behind-the-lines force creatively terrorizing the enemy.

Kidnapping the general would only terrorize the Germans, however, if the abductors got away with him. To do that, the agents would have to exhibit the primal physical capabilities modern man has lost but that survive among the Cretan population.

And to explain how Cretans could survive on little or no food and water while traversing outrageously rugged landscape with German pursuers hell bent on catching them, McDougall provides his readers and listeners with a wide-ranging liberal arts education.

In various chapters, he discusses Greek mythology, history, geography, literature and culture, human physiology, nutrition, exercise science, martial arts, primal hunting, psychology, strength training, corporate food, British MI6 and American workout culture.

Listening to the book brought to mind Victor Borge, the renowned pianist and comedian who would annoy and amuse his audiences by starting to play only to stop abruptly to tell a story. That’s what McDougall does to us: He starts to tell the story of the kidnapping, its planning and execution and the attempt to escape, but every time we get rolling, it’s off on a tangent, maybe on nutrition, The Iliad, a school teacher/hero in Pennsylvania, or why corporate gyms and exercise machines really don’t do us much good. (I listened to this book, by the way, while on an elliptical trainer at my gym.)

Then there is the other story he tells: his quest to piece together the full story of the operation, including a replication of the arduous climbs and descents the agents undertook.

Despite the digressions, I loved the book, and wish I had climbed off the trainer and scribbled down a few nutritional and exercise tips.

McDougall’s primary point is that man has lost natural skills that kept him healthy and strong. On Crete, those skills survive – and so we can reacquire them- and that is how the abductors got away. But, whether they actually got the general off the island, I won’t say.

Nicholas Guy Smith reads the book expertly in the audio version.

  •  Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.               
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A jerk, but a fascinating one

I’m pretty sure Paul O’Connor listened to this audio book about Steve Jobs on his iPhone. I edited this review on my Macbook. It’s interesting to learn more about a man who had such a major impact on our lives.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

BECOMING STEVE JOBS: THE EVOLUTION OF A RECKLESS UPSTART INTO A VISIONARY LEADER.  By Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Read by George Newbern. Random House Audio. 16 hours, 21 minutes. Also available in hardcover from Crown Business. 412 pages. $30.

Was Steve Jobs a jerk?

Since the Apple co-founder’s death in fall 2011, that question has persisted in the discussion of his life and role in the digital technology revolution.

Walter Isaacson, in his authorized 2011 biography, argued a convincing case that, yes, Jobs was a jerk. He wasn’t alone; conventional punditry was not kind to Jobs.

Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, two Fortune magazine journalists who covered Jobs for 25 years and knew him well, had a somewhat different view.

Yes, Jobs was a jerk, they write in Becoming Steve Jobs, The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader. But not all the time.

The overwhelmingly negative reporting on Jobs’ life upset many of his friends and co-workers, so they granted interviews to the authors, hoping to tell the other story.

The result here is still an indictment of Jobs.

He was arrogant, immature, lavish in his spending, passive aggressive, meddling and egotistical. He had a quick temper and was prone to belittle people who didn’t meet his standards, or whose work didn’t. He was a shit to his daughter, whom he disavowed after her birth, and to some of his earliest employees, whom he cut out of the first big financial bonanza at Apple.

But, few among us are all bad. And the angle of this book is that Jobs grew as a person, as a businessman and as an artist. He made amends with his daughter, becoming a good parent to her and to her step-siblings. He was generous to his employees both financially and in personal support.

As current Apple CEO Tim Cook is quoted as saying late in the book, no one as selfish as the Jobs depicted in the popular press would have been as generous, as supportive or as beloved as Jobs.

For those not eager to read or listen to a long book about a jerk, or a sometimes jerk, our authors still provide a fascinating story. It is a history of the personal computing industry from the mid-1970s when Jobs and his first partner, Steve Wozniak, began designing, building and selling Apple computers.

My favorite chapter focused more on Bill Gates than on Jobs, on how Gates recognized that by seizing the market for his operating systems and software he put Microsoft at the center of the industry. In a later chapter, the authors explain how Gates unwittingly outlined the future path of Apple’s ascendancy, the computer at the center of a hub of digital products for music, video, personal computing and telephone. Gates envisioned it as a course forward for Microsoft, although we can see today that it was a challenge for which his company was not suited.

It would be Jobs and Apple who brought digital technology to individual customers, providing them with devices that they didn’t know they wanted but that eventually enriched their lives.

The book is a great read or listen, but the authors’ choice to tell the story in the first person singular is annoying. The reader never knows who is writing, whether the “I” involved in one story or another is Schlender or Tetzeli.

But don’t let that stop you. This book is worth a read or listen.

  •  Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.
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Frankly, my dear

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

A TOUCH OF STARDUST. By Kate Alcott. Random House Audio. Read by Cassandra Campbell. 11 hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in hardback from Doubleday.

Kate Alcott has done it again. She’s written another historical novel that’s a romance – the adventures and travails of one fictional young woman – wrapped in a real story, with real people.

Earlier, Alcott gave us The Dressmaker, a novel grounded in fact about the sinking of the Titanic and its aftermath, and The Daring Ladies of Lowell, which spins its tale around the real story of a the murder of a young woman textile-mill worker in Massachusetts in the 1830s.

This time Alcott inserts her fictional heroine, Julie Crawford, into the Hollywood intrigue and drama surrounding the filming of one of the greatest movies of all time, Gone With the Wind, in 1939.

Julie is a young college graduate from a good family in Fort Wayne, Ind., which just happens to be the hometown of Carole Lombard. Lombard, of course, is the actress with whom Clark Gable (Rhett Butler in the epic movie) is having an affair while awaiting his divorce, much to the displeasure of the studio.

Despite her parents’ misgivings, Julie has come to Hollywood with hopes of becoming a screenwriter. She takes a job in the publicity office at David O. Selznick’s studio, but soon she is hired away to be Lombard’s personal assistant. That job not only thrusts her into the personal world of Lombard and Gable, but also gives her a good vantage point to view the crises and triumphs of the film’s production.

Through Julie’s eyes, we witness Selznick’s difficult, demanding personality. We see the racism, sexism and anti-Semitism that were rampant in Hollywood. We become aware of the growing menace of Hitler across the Atlantic, and how the movie moguls had no desire to tell the story of what was happening in Europe.

It’s great fun to read the details and insider stories of how this classic movie was put together in the low-tech world of the late 1930s.

Carole Lombard, a strong, funny, devil-may-care woman, becomes Julie’s friend and role model, living proof that a girl from Fort Wayne can shed her Midwest, middle-class strictures and make something of herself. Gable comes alive endearingly, false teeth, big ears, fragile ego and all.

As in Alcott’s two previous novels, the thread that holds the book together is Julie’s personal story – her efforts to become a screenwriter, and, of course, her love life. Julie falls in love with Andy, a young assistant to Selznick. Andy is Jewish, a fact that would appall Julie’s father. After his grandparents in Germany are arrested by the Nazis, Andy grows increasingly disillusioned with the world of movie-making and conflicted about his relationship with Julie.

Combining such a love story with fascinating history, working in real historical events and figures – this is Alcott’s stock-in-trade. Each of her novels draws some criticism along the lines that she’s trying to tell too many stories, that the historical novel might be better without the romance thrown in.

Those who don’t want a fictional heroine and her love affair worked into the mix should probably read some other book. The rest of us can enjoy a story that moves along nicely amid a fascinating and well-researched bit of history.  Alcott includes an informative chapter at the end that details what happened to Lombard, Gable and others after the months depicted in the novel.

A Touch of Stardust might not be another Gone With the Wind, but it’s an entertaining book, worth the read or, read superbly by Cassandra Campbell, the listen.

 

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Saving “runners”

Here’s an intriguing review by Bob Moyer. The book is the latest in an interesting-sounding mystery series that I have somehow missed. What a treat to discover not just a new book that sounds good, but a whole series.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

A STRING OF BEADS. By Thomas Perry. Mysterious Press. 388 pages. $26.

When the Seneca Clan mothers offer Jane Whitefield A String Of Beads, it isn’t a present – it is a charge, a responsibility, a contract.  She must honor it, and find a fellow Seneca and childhood friend who has been falsely accused of murder. He has run away, and the clan mothers somehow know that saving “runners” is what Jane does, taking people away from their troubles.

Once again, she slips on her backpack, slips out of her carefully constructed middle-class life, and heads down ancient trails under modern highways, back to a life she keeps trying to leave. As the path to the finding and saving of her friend Jimmy twists and turns, so does the plot. Jane soon discovers that more than the police are following them. As they traipse across the countryside, the people after them become more professional. Unfortunately for the bad guys, they don’t know Jane is protecting their prey, and they go down in prodigious numbers.

But they don’t stop. Jane must find out who they are and why they want to kill Jimmy. As the bad guys get closer, and who they are becomes clearer, Jane picks up more people to protect. The author engineers one page-turning chase after another until a masterful confrontation near the book’s conclusion.

No spoiler alert is necessary here; it’s a successful series, and Jane survives. It is testimony to the author’s skill that even though we know what will happen, we keep churning ahead to learn how. Flavoring the narrative with interesting tribal information, and lots of technical advice on how to disappear in America, he adds another chapter in the career of a powerful female protagonist, unlike any other in the mystery genre.

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100 years later, Lusitania’s story is still gripping

I was already riveted by the early chapters of Dead Wake when Paul O’Connor emailed to tell me he was listening to the book, and it was terrific. I deferred to Paul for the writing of the review because he reads more historical nonfiction than I do – and because he finished first.

I say a hearty “amen” to all the praise he gives to the book. Like Paul, I enjoyed the way Erik Larson wove together the stories of the Lusitania, the German U-boat that sank her, the British Admiralty and the many people involved. I also liked the deft way he connected this story to the greater context of what was happening in the broader war and in the United States, where President Wilson was dealing with personal struggles.

And I would add that having listened to Scott Brick read many a Clive Cussler adventure novel, I wondered if I’d be able to adjust to hearing his voice narrating history. He did a fine job, modifying his usual dramatic tone in exactly the right way.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

DEAD WAKE: THE LAST CROSSING OF THE LUSITANIA. By Erik Larson. Read by Scott Brick. Random House Audio. 13 hours and 4 minutes. $45. Also available in hardcover from Crown Publishing. 448 pages. $28.

If only…

She had left the port of New York on schedule on May 1, 1915.

She had not stopped outside New York to take on passengers being transferred from another ocean liner.

She had run across the Atlantic at top speed.

The fog had not lifted off the coast of Kinsale, Ireland, in late morning May 7, or it had not slowed the ship for hours the previous day and night. Or the Lusitania had not made a course correction that led it right into the periscope sight of its assassin.

The Lusitania might have safely reached Liverpool, England, and the lives of 1,198 civilians would not have been lost.

On the afternoon of May 7, Germany’s U-20 sank the luxury liner Lusitania, the crown jewel of the Cunard Line, with a single torpedo, hitting an entirely lucky shot in just the right spot to set off secondary explosions on the ship and sink her in less than a half hour.

The shot was lucky first because the torpedo actually fired – often they didn’t in 1915 – and second because the U-boat’s captain had miscalculated his target’s speed. Had he hit the spot of the ship at which he was aiming, the ship most likely would have survived.

If only.

There is another “if only” that Erik Larson, in his thrilling new book, lays out. If only the British Admiralty had done its job.

British intelligence knew that Capt. Walther Schwieger, who was known to be a ruthless submariner, was operating his U-20 in the shipping- rich waters into which the Lusitania was headed. The British Admiralty failed to provide escort protection for the ship or to direct it along a safer course. Cautionary messages sent to the Lusitania were confusing, contradictory and incomplete.

None of this information is new. There is so much evidence of British incompetence in the handling of the Lusitania’s passage that a number of conspiracy theories survive as the 100th anniversary of the sinking approaches.

Why would the British conspire to have one of their own ships sunk by a German submarine early in the Great War?

Because this particular ship was packed with Americans, many of them prominent Americans, and the loss of so many lives might just be enough to draw the U.S. into a war it did not eventually enter for almost two more years.

What is new in this book, of course, is Larson, the master of long form nonfiction, a popular historian who culls the historical record to assemble a story that reads like fiction, and this one reads like Peter Benchley’s Jaws. As the passengers enjoy their luxurious voyage across the ocean, the predator lies in their path. Neither the shark nor the bait knows what lies ahead, but the reader does, and Larson builds the tension expertly.

Typical of his earlier work, Larson in Dead Wake tells the stories of the many characters involved, be he the captain of the ship, the lord of the admiralty, the prominent bookseller headed to London or the boy with measles quarantined below deck with his mother.

The tension for the reader: Who among the profiled will survive and who will die?

This is a book every reader will have trouble laying aside. As for the audio version, I found myself formulating excuses to get in the car for a half hour to listen through the sound system, or on the elliptical trainer with headphones, to hear the next chapter expertly read by Scott Brick.

  •            Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.

 

 

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Sunshine and shadows

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

Memory is such a complicated thing. It’s always fascinating to compare memories with a sibling or other person with whom you shared a long-ago experience. Sometimes details will be radically different; sometimes one person may have no recollection at all of something that made a vivid, lasting impression on another.

Case in point: I’ve recently reconnected with the person who was my closest friend in junior high and high school. One day I remarked that I had many fond memories of spending the night at her house, but none whatsoever of her coming to mine. Did I never reciprocate? She replied that she had vivid memories of spending time at my house, proceeding to tell me details about riding horseback and picnicking at the creek, and of my uncle arriving from out of town and taking us for a ride in a convertible. But she had no memories of my staying at her house.

In his impressive new novel, M.O. Walsh writes about memory – and much more.

MY SUNSHINE AWAY. By M.O. Walsh. Read by Kirby Heyborne. Penguin Audio. 9 CDs, 10 ½ hours. $40. Also available in hardcover from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Let’s get this much straight: My Sunshine Away is not a murder mystery. Some of the hype might lead readers to think that’s what they’ll be getting if they try this book, but it’s quite different from most whodunits, even when compared to those that are heavier on psychology than on action.

Instead, this is in many ways a coming-of-age novel. It’s told by a man looking back on the summer of 1989, when his world changed, and on how the events of that summer affected him and the girl he loved.

There is a crime, an ugly and devastating crime that shatters the seemingly idyllic suburban neighborhood on the edge of the swamps at Baton Rouge, La. The narrator was then a 14-year-old boy, living what on the surface seems an ideal life in a neighborhood where families often gather to for backyard crawfish feasts and kids can roam and play without fear. Most of the families are comfortably well off; most of the children attend a venerable, nearby private school.

Lindy Simpson is a star, a standout even in this picture-perfect world. She’s smart, beautiful, spunky and athletic. Our narrator, a year younger and a grade behind in school, grew up playing with her. As adolescence shifts into high gear, his feelings for her as a great pal are becoming more complex.

One summer evening as she’s riding home, right on schedule, from track practice at the school, Lindy is savagely attacked, raped and left, stunned and forever changed, to stagger home.

With that, My Sunshine Away does become a mystery. Lindy’s family wants the culprit caught, and police manage to come up with a short list of suspects. Our narrator is on the list. The question of who really attacked Lindy is a major theme throughout the rest of the book.

But who perpetrated “the crime,” as the narrator comes to refer to the rape, is far from the only theme. Life goes on, even after shattering events, and we follow the teenagers and their friends and classmates through high school.

A dramatic, even terrible event is not isolated, the narrator gradually realizes. What’s important is how people move on, and whether they are defined by what has happened. Also important is forgiveness, for those who have wronged us, as well as for our guilty selves.

Just as the young narrator does, we learn the painful truths that linger below the surface in even a tranquil, affluent late 1980s neighborhood. We learn the secrets, agonies and heartbreaks. Families are not as happy as they seem. Innocence gives way to cynicism or despair.

The narrator, looking back on his adolescence from a more mature future life, is at times appalled at his youthful obsessions and callowness, and so are we. Sometimes, he wonders how much to trust his memories, and we wonder how much to trust his account. But we like him as we would care for a troubled but promising teenager, and the story is compelling as we want to know what really happened, and what happened after that.

The writing is often beautiful, especially in descriptions of the natural world in which these children grew up. It’s insightful and sometimes painfully – even frighteningly – frank in its depictions of the thoughts and actions of a teenage boy obsessed with a girl.

I have two complaints. One is the amount of attention and space given to the effects that Hurricane Katrina had on Baton Rouge, primarily in the form of refugees from New Orleans. The hurricane hit in 2005, long after “the crime,” and during a time in the narrator’s life that is otherwise little described. What M.O. Walsh writes about Katrina is interesting, but it’s hard not to think that it belongs in a different book.

The other is that there are enough basic grammatical errors as to be distracting. I listened to the audiobook, ably read by Kirby Heyborne, so I didn’t make notes of the errors, but I found them annoying. The narrator is a college-educated adult professional, so there’s no apparent reason for him to speak ungrammatically. The lapses took me out of the story. The sad thing is that they would have been so easy for an editor to fix, and doing so would only have made the book better.

That said, the story is worth the read or the listen, and I look forward to Walsh’s next book.

 

 

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Generals and their battles

When Paul O’Connor went traveling during his recent break from professorial duties in Chapel Hill, he took some serious reading matter along for company.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

WASHINGTON’S REVOLUTION. By Robert Middlekauff. Knopf Doubleday. 384 pages, hardcover. $30.

THE LAST BATTLE. By Cornelius Ryan. Simon & Schuster. 576 pages. $18.99, paperback. Available also on 14 CDs, $34.95, or by download, $20.45. 15 hours, 50 minutes. Blackstone Audio. Read by Simon Vance.

Time to scratch “general” as my next career possibility. Generals invest too much effort with politicians. Did that in my first adulthood.

In these two books, consumed concurrently over spring break, one read, one listened to via audible.com, the authors report on generals who, although separated by 170 years, had to fight not only an armed enemy but also their supposed political leaders.

When George Washington took control of the continental army on the heights above Boston in 1775, he was charged with building a national army for a nation that didn’t exist, out of civilians who neither understood, nor adhered to, the concept of military discipline, doing so while answering to a civilian body that had little authority and less treasure.

In Washington’s Revolution, author Robert Middlekauff details something most American school children learn young: Washington had to scrape and scrounge for food, weapons, clothing and shelter for his army, and all the while individual soldiers were prone to desert or reject re-enlistment. He pleaded with the Continental Congress for resources and got less than the bare minimum.

Congress could provide no more. It had no taxing power; that rested with the states, a collection of political entities that did not yet consider themselves a political union.

Nearly two centuries later, two gigantic armies were moving toward Berlin in winter 1945, ready to destroy the Third Reich. Cornelius Ryan tells this story splendidly in his 1965 book, The Last Battle.

As 1945 opened, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Anglo-American armies, not only had to get his forces across the Rhine, through the industrial heart of Germany and into the capital, but he also had to hold together a fractured coalition.

Eisenhower had to balance the competing interests and egos of a dying President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at home, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and French leader Charles DeGaulle. He had to coordinate with the approaching Soviets and their despot, Josef Stalin. And just to make matters worse, he had to babysit his two gifted prima donnas, U.S. Gen. George Patton and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.

On the Russian front, the two leading generals, Marshal Georgi Zhukov and Marshal Ivan Konev, were in a race to Berlin, desperate to beat each other, the Americans and the British, all the while wondering if Stalin favored the other or might have him executed at dawn.

But the general for whom Ryan’s readers undoubtedly, and surprisingly, come away with the most sympathy has to be the German, Gotthard Heinrici, commander of Army Group Vistula on the Oder front to the east of Berlin.

Here he is, doing his best to defend his country, and he has to deal with a delusional Hitler who makes a series of ill-considered and disastrous – to the German side – decisions as the Soviets approach Berlin. (Americans are well aware of Hitler’s missteps during the Normandy landings. Ryan informs us that his poor choices continued through to the end of the war.)

While Middlekauff’s book is finely researched, it is a slow read. And, after reading the much more engaging Washington histories written in recent years by David McCullough, Joseph Ellis and Ron Chernow, I really found myself asking how Middlekauff found a publisher. If there is something new in this book, I missed it. And Middlekauff brings nothing to the storytelling tradition of Western civilization.

On the other hand, Ryan’s book, which I started but never finished as a high school freshman, is every bit as compelling as the first two members of his World War II trilogy, “The Longest Day” and “A Bridge Too Far.” And this audio version is fabulously narrated by Simon Vance. It is worth a read (or listen) today, even if newer histories of the last battle may include historical records unavailable to Ryan 50 years ago.

  •            Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.
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The persecuted saving the persecuted

Readers of his review over the years know that Bob Moyer loves detective stories, mysteries and thrillers with fictional crimes perpetrated by fictional bad guys and gals. He’s also, however, intrigued by very real human stories of good versus evil, particularly those that took place during the Holocaust.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

VILLAGE OF SECRETS: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France. By Caroline Moorehead. Harper Collins. 384 pages. $27.99. (Book 2 of the Resistance Trilogy)

Twenty-seven. That is one conservative estimate of how many people it took to rescue one Jew from the Final Solution. After all, aiding a Jew was against the law, rewards were offered and retribution was swift. Rescue was no easier in occupied and unoccupied France; with alarming enthusiasm, the Vichy government cooperated with the collection of Jews for transport.

In resistance to this relentless collaboration stands the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, where legend has it that thousands of Jews were sheltered, and thousands more were shepherded through on their way to Switzerland and Spain, a rescue movement inspired by the pacifism of iconic preachers. The author examines this “legend” carefully, and, while not denying impressive rescues, brave leadership and great moral strength, concludes that numbers were not that high, and the leaders not that heroic. (“They were not saints.”) However, she does demonstrate the moral fiber of the plateau residents, who defied almost as a whole what they deemed to be immoral laws. She demonstrates, to paraphrase Hillary Clinton, it takes a village to save a Jew.

Villages, that is, and Jews, plural.  Four villages including Chambon, numerous communes, and farmhouses were and are spread across the plateau, almost inaccessible in winter, and a “health retreat” for its bracing air in the summer. Cold, chilly, silent – and that’s just the people.

The majority of residents were Huguenots and Darbyists, historic refugees from persecution by the Roman Catholic Church over the years. They had retreated to this countryside and kept to themselves. Silence and a heightened sense of religious responsibility, not civil obedience, of these persecuted minorities lay the perfect ground; the plateau was primed for unquestioning participation in the sheltering of – a persecuted minority. As the author says, “Morality was of greater importance than obedience to dishonest laws.” Legend has it that pacifist ministers such as Andre and Magda Trocme and others led this effort with their preaching; the author duly notes their influence, but gives more credit to the culture of the repressed religious.

The author enumerates one nefarious scheme after another concocted by these good Christians:  lookouts in local cafes, looking the other way by village police, trapdoors, lofts, secret exits, codes, forged papers and “schools” full of children from other places. Of course, there was many a slip between safety and the end of the war. Tragic collaboration of Vichy agencies set up to ostensibly aid Jews turned records over to the officials responsible for deportation. Families were separated, brave rescuers captured.

Nevertheless, the people of the plateau carried on their task. Rescues and shelter occurred even when the Germans used the village as a site for rehabilitation of soldiers wounded at the front. The strategies developed worked so well that they were used by the resistance toward the end of the Occupation, and “…the hidden Jews and their godly protectors” moved backstage in the story. In the last nine months of the war, not a single Jew was deported.

The author estimates that closer to 800 Jews were sheltered, and as many as 8,000 passed through on their way to safety. It is ironic that no one knows the exact number rescued or the exact number of rescuers precisely because of the culture of silence that made it all possible. Many of the participants to this day do not speak of their actions. One woman, awarded the Yad Vashem medal for the Righteous by Israel for saving Jews, refused the reward, saying she “…had not acted the way she did in order to receive a medal.” Subsequently, the end of the war precipitated what the author describes as the “memory war,” as people argue with vigor and frequently vitriol about who did what. The author herself has become embroiled in this war, as many participants have denounced her in one comment after another in the reviews of her book posted on Amazon since its publication in 2014.

Passions and imperfect memories aside, the author has delivered what seems to be a measured and thoughtful record elicited from available materials and interviews. Not that often have we had the opportunity to savor not just the indomitability of the human spirit, but also a community and culture that aided it.

  • Robert P. Moyer is a poet, actor, petanque champ, teacher and world traveler who occasionally settles down in Winston-Salem.

 

 

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Danger is in the eye of the beholder

Paula Hawkins’ debut thriller is getting a lot of attention, and for good reason.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. By Paula Hawkins. Read by Clare Corbett, Louise Brealey and India Fisher. Penguin Audio. 9 CDs. $40. Also available in hardcover from Riverhead Books.

When the blurb on the box calls Paula Hawkins’ debut novel “Hitchcockian,” it is not indulging in hyperbole. The Girl on the Train is a gripping psychological thriller, replete with surprising plot twists, not to mention a growing sense of danger.

This is a well-written book that should delight those readers/listeners who like to venture into the psyches of troubled people and the dark worlds that often lurk behind “normal” facades. Be warned, however: If you’re the sort of reader/listener who wants to like a story’s characters, especially the leading ones, you might be tempted to give up in disgust before you reach the surprising climax.

The story – the increasingly tangled mystery – is compelling, made more so as you gradually realize that few things are what they seem, and none of the narrators can be trusted. But those narrators, in addition to being unreliable, are exasperating and often unattractive. Their motives are questionable, and their decisions are often bad.

When an author writes about such unappealing characters, she has to hope that readers will be so caught up in the complexities and mysteries of the plot that they will stick with the story even if they don’t much sympathize with the people in it.

That’s why I found “The Girl on the Train” a particularly good choice to listen to as an audio book. Had I been reading a printed novel, I might well have given up on these people, especially the primary narrator, Rachel, before the thriller offered enough danger and complexity to make me keep turning pages. Why should I spend my time with a woman who lies to everyone, including herself, and drinks so much she blacks out and can’t remember what she did?

But the three skilled women giving voice to Rachel and the other two leading female characters drew me in so that I kept going, partly out of curiosity and partly out of a growing desire to know the truth of the matter.

Rachel rides the commuter train daily from her suburban flat where she rents a room from a college friend to London. The train passes right by the suburban house where she used to live with her husband, the house where he now lives with his new wife and their baby. The train goes slowly along this stretch, usually stopping for several minutes at a malfunctioning signal. She can look into the houses and back gardens, where the residents seem oblivious to any watchers on the passing trains.

A few doors from her former residence, Rachel notices a young couple living in a house very much like the one that was her home. Envious of what she believes to be their ideal world, Rachel calls them “Jason” and “Jess” and invents life stories for them. They seem to have everything that she has lost.

Rachel’s also obsessed with her former husband, Tom, and his new wife, Anna. Unable to let go, she often calls him after she’s had too much to drink, and sometimes she shows up at their doorstep, infuriating and frightening Anna, who comes to loathe Rachel.

Then one day, from the train, Rachel sees “Jess” kissing a man who isn’t “Jason.” The next day, “Jess,” who we learn is really named Megan, goes missing, and soon her disappearance is all over the news. Although Rachel can’t remember what she did or saw the night Megan disappeared, she does know that she was in her old neighborhood, and that she was very drunk.

And she does remember seeing Megan with the other man the day before, a sight that destroyed her fantasy of the perfect world of “Jess and Jason.”

Rachel becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to Megan. The story progresses through the alternating viewpoints of Rachel, Megan and Anna. Rachel has the main role, but Hawkins skillfully weaves in accounts by the other two women.

Literate, written with impressive insights into how people justify their actions to themselves, the book becomes more than a thriller. It’s a book about memory and perception, about how things and people are often not what they seem, and about the importance of what we believe – even if it’s something less than the truth. Even if we can’t be sure what truth is.

 

 

 

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