Lifestyles of the rich and vapid

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

DISHONORABLE INTENTIONS. By Stuart Woods. Read by Tony Roberts. 7 CDs, 8 hours. Penguin Audio. $35.

dishonorableWhen a prolific author cranks out books in a series with astonishing rapidity, a reviewer is often left with little to say other than that those who like this series will probably like the latest offering. That’s true unless the latest offering is not really up to par, which I fear is the case with No. 38 (but who’s counting?) in Stuart Woods’ Stone Barrington series. This one may be worth a listen, but probably not worth a read.

The basic elements are here in Dishonorable Intentions, of course: Stone, a former New York City detective turned incredibly wealthy lawyer who doesn’t ever seem to do much work, lives a life such as most of us could hardly imagine. Flying his private planes, he jets around the world to his various luxurious homes. He’s first-name or even more intimate friends with all sorts of people in high places, including the (female) president of the United States. Money is no object. Servants take care of most of life’s troubling necessities. Stone and his friends can eat and drink lavishly, never gain a pound and only occasionally suffer even a minor headache.

And there’s sex, of course, lots of sex, but all very polite. Women – wealthy, well connected and elegant, of course – just fall into bed with Stone.

In the better books in the series, all this elegant and indulgent lifestyle is the backdrop for some sort of crime that Stone, often with the help of his buddy and former NYPD partner Dino (now New York police commissioner), must solve.

But this time out, Stone is just trying to deal with the annoying, not to mention dangerous, activities of the Russian ex-husband of his current lady friend, Gala, who seems even shallower than the usual eager beauty. The couple jets around trying, in vain, to lose the angry ex and his Russian mob henchmen. Along the way, they have some largely gratuitous sex adventures involving a highly placed third party, an arrangement that strains credulity. Would a woman with a highly sensitive job really put herself at risk in this way?

As an audio book, Dishonorable Intentions is a reasonably amusing way to spend a few hours while, for example, traveling. Tony Roberts’ reading allows us once again to gape at a fantasy lifestyle. With no real plot, though, the print version would offer little incentive to keep turning pages.


Posted in Popular fiction, Thriller/Suspense | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Benedict Arnold: The rest of the story

Paul O’Connor, student of history, takes a look at a new book about one of the most reviled characters in America’s past.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

VALIANT AMBITION: GEORGE WASHINGTON, BENEDICT ARNOLD AND THE FATE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. By Nathaniel Philbrick. Read by Scott Brick. Penguin Audio. 13 hours, 30 minutes. $45. Also available in hardback. Viking. 448 pages. $30.

arnoldMost Americans, even the service writer at my car dealership’s garage, know of Benedict Arnold: Traitor. Scumbag. One of the characters on the AMC TV series TURN.

Yes to all of those characterizations. But there’s always more to these stories than we got in eighth grade American history, and Nathaniel Philbrick in Valiant Ambition has delivered the fuller context of Arnold’s treachery.

In addition to all of his negatives, Arnold also had some considerable positives. He was one of the America’s best generals in the Revolutionary War, the genius and hero of a naval encounter on Lake Champlain that spoiled British efforts to follow up on their capture of New York, and again both the genius and hero of the decisive stages of the Battle of Saratoga. He may have been whipped in Connecticut and at Quebec, but he proved his courage repeatedly, exacting heavy British casualties as their price for field success.

He was twice wounded seriously in combat, and he expended nearly his entire fortune, which he had earned in the years before the revolution, in the patriot cause.

So, what led a man who had given so much to the cause of independence to commit treachery against his own people? This is where Philbrick tells Arnold’s side of the story.

For reasons that we today would probably consider political corruption but which were seen as essential in the 1770s, Arnold was repeatedly passed over for promotion. The glory and honor he deserved for his courage in battle and his genius in the field were frequently stolen by others, namely Gen. Horatio Gates after the Battle of Saratoga. Lesser officers were promoted over him, while less competent commanders disregarded his sound advice and counsel.

The last straw came in Philadelphia, where he was military governor after the British evacuation. Joseph Read, the scoundrel who several years before had betrayed Washington after the loss of New York, was head of the civilian council and hell bent on establishing republican and egalitarian purity in the city. He tried to have Arnold tried in civilian courts and then succeeded in pressing military charges. Only one minor charge stuck, but that was too much for Arnold’s exalted sense of honor to accept. He went over to the British for a sizable reward.

Philbrick doesn’t take Arnold’s side. The general had plenty of faults, had clearly tried to profit illegally from the war and was dangerously self-centered. Arnold, Philbrick tells us, was going to do what was best for Arnold, not for his nation or for anyone else.

Having thus set Arnold’s treachery in context, Philbrick is then able to provide a more complete telling of Arnold’s failed attempt to surrender West Point to the British.

Philbrick is a master storyteller, but he falls short in explaining the significance of Arnold’s betrayal. The author relates the relentless internal politics of the American forces during the war, their self-serving leaders and a civilian leadership that was inept at best and either corrupt or delusional at worst. Philbrick posits that Arnold’s treachery shook both military and political leaders out of their self-serving coma and into the reality that they would lose the war if they did not act for the greater good.

But he doesn’t provide sufficient evidence to make his case that Arnold was the catalyst of this transformation. Fortunately, this theory appears only in the prologue and the final few pages. The great bulk of this book is solid reporting on a fascinating episode in American history.

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





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Dean, Mike and Jimmy

Yes, I went to Wake Forest College/University (it changed names midway through my student days). But Wake Forest had moved from Wake County to Winston-Salem in the 1950s, and although as a student I quickly learned that beating Carolina, especially in basketball, was a Big Deal, and even though we still talked about the ACC’s Big Four, we Demon Deacons were no longer really in the college-basketball crucible in the heart of the state of North Carolina. The greatest intensity was among Carolina, Duke and N.C. State.

Even though Wake Forest was on the periphery of the great rivalries, I believe I have a reasonably good perspective on the subject of this storied rivalry. I married a Duke alum (and ardent fan) in the mid-1970s, and we soon moved from Baltimore home to North Carolina, where for at least five months every year, college basketball was all consuming. As TV coverage of the games and tournaments expanded over the years, so did the intensity of emotions during basketball season. Every winter and early spring, our collective sense of wellbeing rose and fell with the outcomes of basketball games.

Though one of them went to Wake Forest and the other to the Naval Academy, our children to this day are unable to wear that light shade called Carolina blue. The older son texted me from his home in Las Vegas a couple of years ago to say there was a great sale on outdoor chairs at a local store, but they were all Carolina blue and he just couldn’t bring himself to buy any. That son had a stuffed toy dubbed Danny Furry back when Danny Ferry was a Duke star. The other son had a Bobby Hurley jersey and refused to dress as anything or anyone but that Duke star every Halloween. Even though I have been proud to teach at Carolina’s fine journalism school for several years, there are no Carolina bumper stickers on my car, no Carolina blue to be seen anywhere.

So it was with some curiosity that I placed the first CD of an audio version of John Feinstein’s new book, The Legends Club, into my car’s player. Would I find it tedious to hear about games and controversies I’d lived through? Would this be more insider basketball than I really cared about?

Little did I realize what a treat I had in store.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE LEGENDS CLUB: DEAN SMITH, MIKE KRZYZEWSKI, JIM VALVANO AND AN EPIC COLLEGE BASKETBALL RIVALRY. By John Feinstein. Random House Audio. 13 CDs; 15 ½ hours. Read by the author. $50.

9780399565656You think you remember these things, but you don’t. I’d forgotten, for example, that a young Mike Kryzysewski became the new head basketball coach at Duke the very same year (1980) that a young Jim Valvano took on that position at N.C. State.

John Feinstein’s riveting new book, The Legends Club, reminds us of those details, and also tells us a lot more we never knew. He relates, for example, the few choice words that Coach K’s wife, Mickey, uttered when she heard that Valvano was also coming to the heart of Atlantic Coast Conference country and would be coaching in Raleigh, just a few miles from their new home in Durham. Valvano had been on the New York coaching scene at Iona while Coach K was at West Point, and she’d been looking forward to a respite from his overwhelming personality.

Both the the new coaches, in their early 30s, would labor to build their programs in the shadow of Dean Smith, who was already a larger-than-life presence at the third ACC school in the Triangle, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For the next 10 years, the three teams competed against one another and on the national stage. They won national championships – Carolina in 1982; State, most improbably, in 1983; and Duke, finally, in 1990. And then, also at the end of the 1989-90 season, Valvano was dismissed in disgrace from State.

But the story doesn’t end there, of course. Feinstein goes on to tell of Valvano’s struggle to figure out what to do after he was no longer coaching, and of his valiant fight against the cancer that took his life in 1993, at age 47. He describes the evolving rivalry between the two greats who remained, Smith and Coach K, and eventually Smith’s retirement, decline and death. And he talks about how Coach K has grown and changed over the years, both as a coach and as a person.

Feinstein, a noted journalist and author who began his sports-writing career at Duke and graduated just three years before Coach K’s arrival, has added a great deal of research to his extensive first-hand knowledge of the great rivalry among these three coaches who are all now college basketball legends. He drew stories and insights from not only the coaches, but also their families and those who worked with and played for them.

The result is a wonderful book that does many things. It enables fans to relive the ups and downs of many years of memorable (and sometimes forgettable) basketball seasons, with more insight and less emotional stress than the first time around. It reminds us of such great players as Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and James Worthy, just to name a few who graced the courts in central North Carolina. (These were the days when many good players stayed in college until they graduated, or at least for more than one year.) When I’d arrive at some destination after having listened to the book while driving, I’d find myself wondering why everyone wasn’t talking about what I’d just heard, so vivid is Feinstein’s reading of his own words.

But The Legends Club is far from just a recounting of past basketball games and seasons. One indication of the scope of the book is that Feinstein doesn’t write in strictly chronological order, but rather moves back and forth in time when doing so helps give context and perspective.

That context and perspective are part of what makes this book great. Feinstein helps us to see things more clearly than we could in the excitement, jubilation or heartbreak of the moments. We see both the bigger picture about college basketball, and the even bigger picture about how basketball fits into the world beyond the gyms and arenas.

Feinstein also helps us see beyond the legends to understand more about these three men who have had such a presence in college basketball and American popular culture.

The personal stories, the insights Feinstein gives us about the three and their evolving relationships are perhaps the most memorable part of the book. Coach K was with Jimmy V when Valvano died. In one way or another, all three men came to respect the others and value the rivalry that helped elevate them all. And even in the throes of intense, often cutthroat competition, there are higher values. It’s interesting how often Feinstein quotes one or another of these men as saying he did something, maybe something unexpected or seemingly out of character, because it “was the right thing to do.”

The book brought tears to my eyes several times, and not a one of those times involved the outcome of a basketball game. And there are also passages that will have you laughing out loud. There’s the story, for example, of how Dean Smith’s wife, having just given birth to one of their daughters, was sure the baby’s life was ruined when, lying in a hospital, she heard that Duke had beaten Carolina. And how one of Coach K’s daughters was apparently a result of his celebration after that same game, and the two sets of parents were seated side by side several years later when the two girls were performing in a piano recital…

I can’t really speak to how enjoyable this book will be for someone who’s not a fan of one of these basketball teams, but I suspect anyone with any interest in sports will find The Legends Club highly entertaining, informative and moving. For those of us who’ve lived and breathed this rivalry, the book is a gem.






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A new look at a forgotten war

Before he was a journalist or a public school teacher or administrator, and before he was my husband, Lloyd Brinson was a young U.S. Marine officer who served in Vietnam. He finds much that’s worthwhile in a new book by a writer who was a young soldier in a different war.

Reviewed by Lloyd Brinson

PUMPKINFLOWERS: A SOLDIER’S STORY. By Matti Friedman. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 242 pages. $25.95.

pumpkinWelcome to Matti’s world… and to Avi’s… and Eran’s… and Mordecai’s and…. on and on – a seemingly endless roll call of Jewish teenagers doing their obligatory time in the Israeli Army to protect the artificial borders of that country from her neighbors in the 1990s.

Pumpkinflowers is Matti Friedman’s crisp, matter-of-fact description of how the army turns boys just out of high school into soldiers and then sends them to do dangerous things for reasons no one seemed (then or now) to understand. The author describes eloquently the purpose of this tale: It is to put on record one account of a war that nobody realized was happening. These teenagers suddenly: “… found themselves in a war – in a forgotten little corner of a forgotten little war but one that has nonetheless reverberated in our lives … and in the world since it ended one night in the first spring of the new century. Anyone looking for the origins of the Middle East today would do well to look closely at these events.”

After basic training – aka boot camp – Avi and Matti and the other boys-turned-soldiers in this story were sent to man The Pumpkin, the name of an outpost on a hill in Lebanon, ostensibly placed to deter terrorism. As the story progresses, the reader begins to see how the Hezbollah used the Pumpkin and the other botanically named outposts to train personnel, experiment with tactics and exploit the Israelis, turning that “Party of God” into the powerful threat it is today.

Few of us – even those of us with combat experience – enjoy spending much time reflecting on the absurdities, atrocities and contradictions of warfare. Even fewer people who enjoy books want to be handed a platter of hors d’oeuvres detailing the human suffering of the participants of war and the agonies of the innocent – and some not so innocent – bystanders.

But this tale of the life and death of the Pumpkin – and the lives and deaths of its inhabitants — is such compelling reading that I wish it could be required reading for anyone running for public office in any civilized country.

The Pumpkin was not decorated with flowers, or much of anything except the bare necessities for defense, for observing the enemy and sending out patrols. One of these new soldiers’ first view of the Pumpkin was “a jumble of dun netting and concrete.”

“Flowers” meant trouble. When the young soldiers – many of them teenage girls doing their time – at the operations center in Jerusalem heard the radio operator from the Pumpkin say “flowers,” they sent helicopters, to pick up the wounded (flowers) and fly in replacements. “Oleanders” were worse news. Those were the dead.

There are officially three parts to this gripping account of that drab little Lebanese hill: The first describes Avi’s experiences in the early and mid-1990s; the second details how Jewish civilians – led by the mothers of the “flowers” and “oleanders” – reacted to the Pumpkin’s worst disaster; and the third is the time Matti and his friends occupied the outpost. The last 34 pages of narrative (preceding the footnotes) are sort of an epilogue, but are as riveting and insightful as the preceding pages. Matti tells us how he tried to draw a conclusion – to reach an end to the war he fought: “It wasn’t a conclusion. On the hill we had been at the start of something: of a new era in which conflict surges, shifts, or fades but doesn’t end, in which the most you can hope for is not peace, or the arrival of a better age, but only to remain safe as long as possible.”

Matti survived his time on the Pumpkin, became a journalist and is still trying “to remain safe as long as possible.” You’ll have to read this little masterpiece to find out about the others… and to find out about the ultimate fate of the Pumpkin. The rest is still a work in progress.


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A grim reminder

A new audio version of a 2006 book offers some important lessons about our not-so-distant past.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

FIRE AND BRIMSTONE: THE NORTH BUTTE MINING DISASTER OF 1917. By Michael Punke. Read by Christopher Grove. Random House Audio. 9 hours, 17 minutes. $20.

fireWrite a novel that’s made into an Academy Award winning movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and the publishers of your previous works, even a local history, will rush to reissue and create an audiobook. That’s what’s happened to Michael Punke, author of The Revenant, and his 2006 history of one of America’s worst-ever mining disasters.

Just before midnight, June 8, 1917, a fire in the main shaft of the Granite Mountain mine set off a disaster that cost 164 lives. This is a history of the courageous men who tried to rescue their fellow miners, of those who died in the mine and of the families left behind.

But, as compelling as that narrative is, there is a bigger story here, one of corporate America, from the Gilded Age through the 1920s, with some strains continuing well beyond to the early 21st century.

Butte, Montana, was the home to some of the world’s best copper deposits and, as fate would have it, that copper was discovered about the time when world demand spiked because of the harnessing of electricity.

Punke begins his history just as prospectors are finding the copper, and he carries it through the vicious business and personal rivalries of the late 19th century and early 20th. The stories involve political corruption at its most flagrant and the rivalries of the national unions that sought to represent the miners.

As one fortune after another is made, corporate mine consolidation progresses. In the end, only Standard Oil remains after it has swallowed Anaconda Copper and brought with it harsh labor standards and one of the worst political oligarchies the U.S. has ever known. The power of that oligarchy is on full display when, after an unfavorable court ruling, Standard Oil shuts its Montana operations and throws the entire state into an almost instant Depression. The governor and legislature had no choice but to bend to the company’s demands.

Along with all of the bad guys, there are heroes. B.K. Wheeler is the local U.S. attorney who fights courageously for the miners and then surprisingly appears, years later, as a key player in one of the U.S.’s most significant political crises. There is also Maness Duggan, whose leadership in the mines allows more than 20 men to survive the fire.

Americans of late have forgotten the conditions under which their great grandfathers worked. Many don’t know why unions were needed, or why government safety and antitrust laws ever passed. This book is a grim answer, a painful one at times, to those questions.

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Down on the street

Reed Farrel Coleman, an established master of the hard-boiled detective genre, has a novel out that’s billed as the start of a new series, about Gus Murphy, a retired cop in Suffolk County, N.Y. Bob Moyer, an established fan of noir books, finds it a promising beginning.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

WHERE IT HURTS. By Reed Farrell Coleman. Putnam. 353 pages. $27.

HurtsReed Farrell Coleman sure knows his way around Long Island.  Whenever he heads out, ex-cop Gus Murphy travels through a detailed landscape that gives context to his search for answers.  “Right around where Union Avenue turns into Long Island Avenue is one of those ugly patches we Long Islanders like to pretend don’t exist … where the dirty work gets done by brown-skinned men,” and Gus gets shot. He stops to talk to the owner of Harrigan’s Bar, where the “mutts” at the bar “…never know if the next guy coming though the door was there to collect on their debts or to extract late fees … as much matters of skin and bone as dollars and cents.”  A Christmas Santa mooning passersby on a neighboring roof illuminates an empty lot where T.J. Delcamino’s body was dumped.

The author’s Long Island is “…a place of demarcations:  some subtle and gradual, some obvious and ugly,” and a place that lets him demonstrate something else:  Coleman sure knows his way around the hard-boiled genre.

Gus drives a shuttle van for an airport motel people didn’t come to to stay, they “…came here to leave.” His career, his family, his life, all fractured by the unexpected death of his son, he lives in that limbo Where It Hurts.  Until Tommy Delcamino comes along, and shakes Gus “…from (his) grief-stricken sleepwalk.”  When Tommy asks him to look into the death of his son TJ, Gus turns him down at first.  When he decides to talk to Tommy about it, he finds his body — and a bullet for himself.  That’s when the gumshoe hits the ground.

Gus gets shoved around, shot at again, and shunted off even by his old police buddies, letting him know somebody doesn’t want him snooping around.  In true fashion of the genre, that intent only increases Gus’ intent.  He gets a light back in his eye, and then hits that point in any good Private Eye book, when “a flurry of images … flashed through my head.  And suddenly things had fallen into place.”

Coleman takes us “…down on the street where the violence and dark magic was done,” and brings both the reader and Gus back into the light with more answers than when we started.

  • Robert Moyer is a Renaissance man who lives in Winston-Salem when he’s not traveling the world.



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Learning to fly

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE ATOMIC WEIGHT OF LOVE. By Elizabeth J. Church. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 333 pages. $25.95.

atomic-weight-of-loveMeridian Wallace’s father, a high-school teacher, died when she was 11, but not before he had instilled in her a love for learning and a determination to succeed. Her widowed mother worked hard to make sure that Meri would have the opportunity for a good education, even though that was hardly the goal of every girl growing up in 1940s America.

When she starts at the University of Chicago at age 17, Meri is book smart but socially naïve. She doesn’t quite know how to deal with the fraternity boys and their clever chatter. Other girls at her boarding house offer her tips on clothes and guys. Meanwhile, she immerses herself in her studies and excelled in her classes.

So it’s no wonder that she’s vulnerable to the attentions of Alden Whetstone, a brilliant physics professor who is 20 years her senior and divorced. The first thing Alden does to win her heart is to excite her mind, by helping her to understand how birds fly. Birds are Meri’s passion; her dreams are of pursuing a Ph.D. and being an ornithologist.

But all this is taking place against the backdrop of World War II. Pearl Harbor is bombed not long after Meri starts at Chicago, and not long after she and Alden begin a relationship, he leaves for Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he’s working on a very important, top-secret project.

The story of Meridian Wallace becomes, in a way, the story of a brilliant young woman who sacrifices her ambitions to become a scientist when she marries an established scientist whose work is deemed much more urgent and important. In a way Meri’s story is a cliché, but only in the sense that variations of it have been told many times – because it’s so true.

This is a coming-of-age story that grows into a life story. When we first meet Meri, she’s 87, long widowed. Through her eyes, we follow what often seems one woman’s largely unremarkable life, against the backdrop of the development of the first atomic bomb, and then the changes in American society when life moved on, often tumultuously, after that war’s end.

Meri’s story is that of so many women who came of age in the 1940s and for several decades after that. Young women struggled to balance their ambitions with society’s indoctrination that marriage was the ultimate goal – if, indeed, those young women even had their horizons opened sufficiently to have ambitions besides those of marriage and family. It’s the story of how women had to struggle against not only prejudices but also laws that made it difficult for them to be truly independent. It’s the story of a struggle that still goes on in the life of many women today, despite changes wrought by the women’s movement and other societal changes.

And yet, this book is also much more. The background of life at Los Alamos is fascinating, even though we, like Meri, see only glimpses of what was really happening. And, although Meri’s dreams of graduate studies at Cornell are deferred again and again until they die, she pursues her observations and studies of crows on her own, out in the canyons and cliffs of New Mexico. Elizabeth Church’s descriptions of these intelligent birds and the landscape they inhabit are fascinating.

Eventually, after years of frustration and pent-up resentment, years of fitfully trying to fit in with the other Los Alamos wives, Meri has a love affair, with a younger man who’s been marked by another war, the one in Vietnam.

Then her struggle changes to that of balancing her desires, her hopes, with the bargain and the commitments she made when she was very young. Women are supposedly liberated now, but what does that mean?

Church writes in an understated way. Much of the book proceeds quietly, much like Meri’s days when her solitary crow-watching is her main diversion from the life of a homemaker. Yet, like Meri, the book has depths and richness, and sometimes, a surprise.

The story does not offer a too-easy, fairy-tale sort of happy ending, but it does move to a believable, ultimately satisfying conclusion. Meri may not have had the career she envisioned, but she does discover a need that she’s remarkably suited to fill, and the way to make things happen.

Elizabeth Church’s debut novel is wise but never preachy, one woman’s story that is likely to speak to many other women.



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Fighting tyranny, fighting the elements

Tom Dillon, who’s been known to ski more than a little himself, finds much to like in a new book about a little-known saga of World War II.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

THE WINTER FORTRESS: THE EPIC MISSION TO SABOTAGE HITLER’S ATOMIC BOMB. By Neal Bascomb. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 378 pages. $28 hardback.

The-Winter-FortressThe history of skiing is a history of warfare. That’s shown in the earliest Norse sagas, the defeats the Finns inflicted on the Russians in the Russo-Finnish War, even in the exploits of America’s 10th Mountain Division in World War II.

There’s no more compelling story, however, than in the little-known work of a small band of Norwegian saboteurs and skiers to deny Adolf Hitler the chance at an atomic bomb in 1943.

That’s the story that Neal Bascomb tells in this new book, already optioned to become a major motion picture, and it makes this a rare find – a serious book about atomic energy that is also an absolutely gripping outdoor and winter survival tale.

The saboteurs’ target is a heavy water, or deuterium, plant at Vemork, deep in an inaccessible part Norway. Deuterium was thought at the time to be a necessary moderator of an atomic reaction, and the Norwegian plant was the only one in the world.

The Nazis who took over Norway (and the deuterium plant) may have thought its hard-to-reach location safeguarded it. But they reckoned without the skill and daring of Norwegian skiers and patriots accustomed to living in the wilds.

Much of the action takes place on the Hardangervidda, a cold and high plateau in the Telemark region between Oslo and Bergen. It’s here that one familiar with survival can hide out in the winter, and that’s what the skiers/saboteurs did.

For months, they had to survive alone in the “vidda,” hunting reindeer, foraging for moss, building snow caves, suffering blizzard after blizzard. Then, on the night of the mission, they had to ski for miles, climb a steep cliff, and then escape, all the while under threat of German attack.

It was a mission from which few expected to return. Indeed, the Norwegian and British officers who put together the mission warned them often of that. But few if any backed out.

Neal Bascomb is a New York Times best-selling author of such books as Hunting Eichmann, The Perfect Mile and Red Mutiny, who says he had wanted for years to write about atomic energy. When he happened on the Vemork story, he said, he was thinking about historical fiction. But that changed.

He realized that the story was “a tremendous mix of important history and survival/hunting adventure,” with daring characters, commandos parachuting into enemy-held territory in winter, and high drama. Kompani Linge, as the saboteurs were known, was perhaps a forerunner of U.S. Navy SEALS.

The leading character of this tale is a brilliant academic and reserve ordnance officer named Leif Tronstad, at the time of the German invasion a professor at the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim. After the invasion, Tronstad worked briefly with the Norwegian resistance, but he was eventually forced to escape to neutral Sweden and then Scotland.

There, he brought the Allies word of what was going on at Vemork, the importance of the plant to the German military – and crucially, how to infiltrate it.

Tronstad recruited countrymen for and eventually became a leader of Kompani Linge, named for a Norwegian Army captain who had been killed in an earlier attempt to wrest part of Norway back from the Germans. And it was Tronstad’s leadership that oversaw everything his saboteurs did – though he had to operate from Scotland and England.

He longed during the entire operation to be on the ground in Norway, instead of directing things from afar, and in the end his hopes were rewarded, as he was able to parachute into Norway and lead resistance toward the end of the war.

But the heart of the book is the work of the commandos on the Hardangervidda and in the small towns around it, surviving in the wild, dodging Gestapo manhunts and risking their lives for their country.

The book’s extensive research involved everything from top-secret documents to old family diaries and letters – as well as much time with the descendants of the men whose exploits Bascomb recounts. And it also included a long interview with the last surviving saboteur, a team leader named Joachim Ronneberg, 96 years old this year.

There’s not space here to go into the many different people who made up Kompani Linge, the details about their families and how they and Norway suffered under German occupation. Indeed, most of the main characters have passed on, and what Bascomb learned was almost invariably second-hand knowledge.

But there is this from Ronneberg, which might well stand as a memorial for all of these little-known patriots: “You have to fight for your freedom and for peace. You have to fight for it every day, to keep it. It’s like a glass boat; it’s easy to break. It’s easy to lose.”

  • Tom Dillon is retired journalist in Winston-Salem.
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The remarkable story of the second First Lady Adams

Here’s an outstanding biography of an often-overlooked woman.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LOUISA: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. By Louisa Thomas. Books on Tape. Read by Kirsten Potter. 15 ½ hours; 13 CDs. Also available in hardcover from Penguin Press.

LouisaLouisa Thomas has applied her skills as a journalist and an author ably to the fascinating story of a First Lady who deserves the attention: Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president, and daughter-in-law of the second president, John Adams, and of the much better known Abigail Adams.

Like, I suspect, many people, I had barely heard of John Quincy’s wife and certainly had given her no thought before I read this book. I now learn that in 2014, Yale University Press published a biography called Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams by Margery M. Heffron, who unfortunately died while writing the book. That biography, I read, ends rather abruptly about the time that the younger Adamses moved into the White House.

Thomas’ book follows Louisa from her privileged if somewhat unorthodox childhood in London until her death in 1852 at age 77. And what an unusual, interesting life she led!

Louisa and her siblings were brought up to think of themselves as Americans because their father was from Maryland, but she was reared as an upper-class English lady and never set foot on United States soil until after she was married. In many ways, as Thomas makes clear, she felt an outsider all her life, no matter where she was

She and John Quincy, who’d been brought up to believe that service to country came first and personal pleasure was always suspect, were an unlikely match. They almost did not marry, and the pattern of discord mixed with strong attraction persisted through much of their long life together. Both struggled with depression at times, and though they were close in many ways, they often seemed not to understand each other.

Almost as soon as they married, her father returned to the United States in disgrace, having suffered a business failure that meant, among other things, that he never paid Louisa’s promised dowry, a development that profoundly affected Louisa’s image of her position as wife.

Her story includes living with John Quincy in foreign cities, mingling with royalty, as he pursued his diplomatic career, finding favor at court even though her husband was not socially inclined and she had to improvise to fit into their surroundings on his meager salary. When they lived in the newly independent United States for brief periods, she found herself profoundly unprepared for the role of an American wife, who was expected, among other things, to manage the household accounts and be able to milk a cow. No one did much to teach her, and John Quincy often made important decisions about their lives and the rearing of their children without consulting her.

One of the most amazing things she did was travel with their third son, a young child, and a few servants of questionable loyalty and ability, some 2,000 miles from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Paris to rejoin her husband. It was late winter, and her carriage alternately moved on runners across snow or wheels through mud. While they were traveling through areas devastated by the Napoleonic wars, Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to Europe. When she finally reached Paris, her husband seemed unimpressed by what she had accomplished.

Louisa, however, either understood then or came to understand how remarkable her feat had been, and years later she wrote an account of the journey. That account is only one of a wealth of documents that Thomas drew upon to write this book. Louisa grew and changed throughout her marriage, and as her self-confidence increased, she found her voice, and a great outlet for her emotions in writing letters, journals, memoirs and even satirical fiction.

Thomas does an admirable job of combining the great amount of historical and personal information available with her insights into Louisa’s thoughts and actions. She is sympathetic to Louisa, but not blind to her faults. She also does a masterly job of placing the events of the Adamses’ lives into the greater story of what was going on as the new nation moved forward, with its many challenges and the realities of its evolving political system. And yet, although she often deals with what the men who held the power were doing, Thomas always keeps Louisa at the heart of her story.

There is so much of interest in this book. For one, it makes painfully clear how difficult it was in that era to be a woman, even a woman of some position and privilege. Louisa suffered at least a dozen miscarriages; there may have been more that were simply written off, by John Quincy and even by herself, as more of her frequent illnesses. She was also subject to other illnesses and fainting spells, and the treatments for her ailments tended to be such things as bleeding and the application of leeches. Of the four live children to whom she gave birth, only one outlived her. Her daughter died as a toddler while they lived abroad, and two of her three sons died as young adults. She did what she could – mostly behind the scenes, of course – to advance her ambitious yet stubborn and rather haughty husband’s political career, always having to worry about gossip and the suspicions of other women, many of whom considered her a snobby foreigner.

It may be some comfort to those who are dismayed by the political climate in the United States in this election year to read Thomas’ descriptions of the vicious nature of politics in the early to mid-19th century, when John Quincy was in the White House and then for many years in the House of Representatives. Andrew Jackson, who defeated John Quincy for re-election, blamed the Adamses and their supporters in the 1828 election for the death of his wife Rachel, but Louisa Adams also suffered from her share of malicious attacks.

Slavery is an important theme, and Thomas makes it abundantly clear that slavery was widespread in the nation’s capital. Although John Quincy became an important abolitionist voice, even his reactions were complex, and Louisa, whose father’s family were slaveholders, had conflicting emotions and opinions. The rumblings that presaged the Civil War were growing ever louder during the Adamses years in Washington.

It’s also interesting to realize that we aren’t the only ones who live through rapid changes. When the Adamses first began traveling between Massachusetts and Washington, for example, the arduous journey could take weeks, but later in their lives, steamboats made it possible to cover the distance in a few days. And when John Quincy first began working as a diplomat, some Europeans were mystified as to what entity he was representing.

Fittingly, one of the most compelling aspects of the biography is the account of how Louisa grew from an insecure, dependent young wife into the strong, respected woman for whom both houses of Congress took the unprecedented step of adjourning in mourning on the day of her funeral. Thomas does not make the mistake of imposing too much of a 21st-century perspective onto a 19th-century woman’s life. She does, however, draw on the ample material available to her, including much written by Louisa, to bring alive the story of one woman’s journey through life.

This biography, beautifully read by Kirsten Potter, is a good choice for an audiobook. The facts, research and historical context are there, yet all comes together to be as captivating as most novels.

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A man of his times

Paul O’Connor found more than he expected in a new biography of General Custer.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

CUSTER’S TRIALS: A LIFE ON THE FRONTIER OF A NEW AMERICA. By T.J. Stiles. Books on Tape. Read by Arthur Morey. 23 hours, 42 minutes. $95. Also available in hardcover. Knopf. $30.

CusterAuthors of historical fiction often use a central character who, through benefit of position or chance, can be in place to witness the most important events in the story’s sweep.

Herman Wouk, for example, created Admiral Pug Henry and through both Henry and his family swept us along the Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

T.J. Stiles uses this mechanism in recounting American history from shortly before the Civil War through 1876. But Stiles uses a real character, and his book is nonfiction, not a novel.

Gen. George Armstrong Custer, known mostly for his demise on the Little Big Horn, serves as a splendid vehicle for telling the American story of the era. This is a biography of one exceptionally successful Civil War and Indian Wars general. But it is also the story of a liar, gambler, racist, philanderer, stock market sucker and writer, a man who repeatedly proved to be one step behind the evolution of America in his lifetime.

This is the story of mid-century America’s attitudes on race and gender, on westward expansion, the spread of railroads, the growth of railroad companies and the manipulations that led to the Panic of 1873.

Better than any other writer of the period I have read, Stiles explains the political system under which the U.S. Army and Navy appointed officers. And, in the contraction of the two forces after the war, he explains how both branches became more professional and merit-based in choosing officers.

Stiles also explains the financial dealings that grew Gilded Age monopolies and nearly bankrupted Custer.

Through the expanse of this nearly 24-hour listen, Stiles was telling Custer’s story.

An undisciplined cadet at West Point, Custer was fortunate not to have been thrown in prison upon graduation. He entered the war in summer 1861 as the Army’s lowest-ranked officer, but through a series of fortunate bounces, he was soon on the staff of Gen. George McClellan. Luck, Stiles says, was always on Custer’s side, until the day he died, that is.

Given a chance to lead men in battle, Custer excelled. He lacked as a manager and administrator, but when a battle started he was brave, brilliant and lucky. Any number of times, rebel soldiers came within a hair of killing him only to be killed themselves by Custer or one of his men.

Custer was a political animal from a Democratic family in Michigan who openly opposed President Lincoln. His politics were politically correct for McClellan but not for his personal advancement after McClellan’s fall from grace. To prop up his own career, therefore, Custer lied repeatedly about his own positions and actions, hoping to advance in a now Republican-dominated Army. But once it served his purposes, he switched back to the Democratic side, once again lying as to his previous positions. At each turn in his career, he depended on favoritism to advance and he played favorites when advancing those under his command.

His personal side was no more honorable. He cheated on his wife; he tried to cheat in finance but was himself snookered. He gambled himself into a dreadful debt, one that surfaced only after his death and which fell on his widow.

To be honest, when I downloaded this audiobook, I asked myself if I wanted to commit 24 hours to a man about whom I’d already read several books. In the end, I’m glad I did, because this is so much more than a Custer biography. It is a history of how America worked in that crucial quarter century.




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