Sunday, May 26, 2013

May 2013 Books

My foray into WWII continues.  I am also reading posts from last month's Poetry Blog Tour, hosted by Savvy Verse & Wit.

Hornet Flight by Ken Follett
Published: 2002
Rating: 4

A quick read by the master of historical fiction.  This tale is about the Danish resistance during WWII.  It is a critical time in the war - Germany has invaded Russia and Churchill fears Russia will fall soon unless the British can divert Germany's mighty Luftwaffe's (air force) focus back to protecting the homeland.  Thus an all-out blitz of RAF's Bomber Command is scheduled but they need intelligence on Germany's radar capability and how to elude it.  The main radar station is in Denmark.

The afterward tells the important and often un-sung work done by courageous resistance fighters:
The Danish Resistance eventually became one of the most successful underground movements in Europe.  It provided a continuous flow of military intelligence to the Allies, undertook thousands of acts of sabotage against the occupying forces, and provided secret routes by which almost all Denmark's Jews escaped from the Nazis. 

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
Published: 1951
Rating: 5
Prizes:  1952 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Excellent book - I loved it and would highly recommend.

While I decided to read The Caine Mutiny because of the WWII connection, I would actually categorize this novel as a psychological thriller with WWII as its backdrop. It is a story of how rational men, confined in a small space (minesweeper) under extreme pressure and operating under strict military rules of behavior within a set chain of command will act in the hands of a madman.   A similar story could be told about adult behavior in a strict, religious construct or within a family ruled by a tyrannical, psychotic and abusive father.

What makes this work compelling is that Herman Wouk's experience in WWII on two destroyer minesweepers is captured so succinctly that the reader knows what it was like for the sailors and officers:
Another day and another passed of rough seas and lowering skies; of rolling and pitching, cold winds, and cold damp eating into bones softened by tropic warmth; of a treadmill of watches in a wheelhouse dank and gloomy by day and danker and gloomier by night; of sullen silent sailors and pale dog-tired officers, of meals in the wardroom eaten in silence, with the captain at the head of the table ceaselessly rolling the balls in his fingers and saying nothing except an infrequent grumpy sentence about the progress of the work requests....the world became narrowed to a wobbling iron shell on a waste of foamy gray, and the business of the world was staring out at empty water or making red-ink insertions in the devil's own endless library of mildewed unintelligible volumes. 
Back on the ship after shore leave:
There would be hundreds of thousands of miles of steaming, and probably many battles, before the ship would come into these waters again with its bow pointed the other way.  The sun, dead ahead, sinking beneath ragged banks of dark clouds, shot out great spokes of red light which fanned across the western sky.  It was an uncomfortable similitude of the flag of Japan....Willie closed his eyes, listened with pleasure to the hum of the ventilators, and felt in his bones the vibration of the main engines, transmitted through the springs of his bunk.  The ship was alive again. He felt warm, and safe, and at home.  Drowsiness came over him almost at once, and he slept deliciously. 
Eccentricities, those fungi of loneliness and boredom, began to flourish on the Caine.
The awesome responsibility that a ship captain feels:
...a shrinking of his personal identity, and a stretching out of his nerve ends to all the spaces and machinery of his ship.  He was less free than before.  He developed the apprehensive listening ears of a young mother; the ears listened on in his sleep; he never quite slept, not the way he had before.  He had the sense of having been reduced from an individual to the sort of brain of a composite animal, the crew and ship combined.  The reward for these disturbing sensations came when he walked the decks.  Power seemed to flow out of the plates into his body. 
The psychological affect on the protagonist, Willie Keith, serving under a strange, psychotic captain named Queeg:
Willie began to develop a deep, dull hate for Queeg. It was nothing like the boyish pique he had felt against Captain De Vriess.  It was like the hate of a husband for a sick wife, a mature, solid hate, caused by an unbreakable tie to a loathsome person, and existing not as a self-justification but for the rotten gleam of pleasure it gave off in the continuing gloom.
I recognize the same dual-time disconnect that Styron brings up in Sophie's Choice - see post.
Willie stared at the holocaust for a minute or so, while a warm fragrant breeze fanned his face...then Willie sat at his place again, and dug his spoon into the mound of white cream attractively laced with brown.  It occurred to him that there was an unsettling contrast between himself, eating ice cream, and marines on Namur a few thousand yards away, being blown up.  He was not sufficiently unsettled to stop eating the ice cream, but the thought worked around like grit in his mind.
And an example of a kairos moment in Willie's life:
With the smoke of the dead sailor's cigar wreathing around him, Willie passed to thinking about death and life and luck and God.  Philosophers are at home with such thoughts, perhaps, but for the other people it is actual torture when these concepts - not the words, the realities - break through the crust of daily occurrences and grip the soul.  A half hour of such racking meditation can change the ways of a lifetime.  Willie Keith crushing the stub in the ashtray was not the Willie who had lit the cigar.  That boy was gone for good.

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson
Published: 2010
Rating: 4

I picked this book up in March at the Shakespeare & Co bookstore on the upper East Side in NYC.

The book focuses on three Americans who made London their home during the darkest days of the war.  They were immersed in British politics and society and used their influence to shape policy and public opinion in both England and America.

What I learned from this highly recommended book:

  • Life in London during the worst of the Blitz when the city was bombed for 57 straight nights.
  • The resiliency of the British people and the amazing volunteerism that arose to tackle domestic problems that the government could not handle such as the crucial task of making the numerous shelters bearable.
  • Changing of the US ambassador to England from isolationist Joseph Kennedy to New Hampshire governor, John Gilbert Winant, who became a well-known and beloved figure to the British monarchy, prime minister, military leaders and general public.  
  • England became the base of US military operations which meant the enormous influx of American GI's in British cities and countryside.  Despite speaking the same language, the cultural and stereotypical barriers were huge.  The British described American soldiers as "over-paid, over-sexed and over here" while Americans remembered the British as the "murderous redcoats who tried to destroy the infant United States during the Revolutionary War".  There was also a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the British colonial policies; the Americans were interested in freeing Europe/Far East from Nazi/Japanese tyranny, not upholding the British Empire. 
  • FDR made unilateral decisions in foreign policy, working with Churchill directly and by-passing Winant's role - much to his frustration.
  • Two other Americans were W. Averell Harriman, head of the Lend-Lease program and Edward R. Murrow, head of CBS news in Europe.  He produced the famous radio broadcasts that educated America on the European War.
  • Very sad and shocking end to Winant's life.  

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
Published: 1978
Rating: 4

Another quick read where Follett surmises that one of Hitler's most trusted and ruthless spies, code name Needle, has discovered the truth regarding the Patton ruse, meant to trick the Germans into thinking the cross-channel invasion would be at Calais, rather than the beaches of Normandy.

British intelligence track The Needle to a small island where he is going to alert Germany via radio broadcast and then rendezvous with a U-boat for the trip back home.  The only person in his way is a beautiful, courageous young mother resulting in a nail biting ending.

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