Friday, May 30, 2014

S IS FOR SILENCE by Sue Grafton

I was looking for some light reading and mysteries are usually a quick read as one becomes absorbed in solving them.  I have never read Sue Grafton and picked this book up at a library sale.  It was written in 2005, and those who are Sue Grafton fans will recognize that it is part of the alphabet series she has made her own genre.  I believe all her books end up on the best seller list as Grafton has a legion of fans.

The story revolves around a flamboyant woman in a small California town named Violet Sullivan who disappeared in 1953 with her little dog and a stash of cash.  Violet had a penchant for the color she was named after and a thirst for liquor and men.  The story moves back and forth between 1953 and 1987 which is the year her daughter Daisy hires Kinsey Milhone (a reoccurring character of Grafton's) to finally solve the mystery that has bedeviled her for most of her life.

I found the book to be standard mystery fare following the pattern of a whodunit formula. There is the usual small town characters with several red herrings thrown in, mostly men who had relationships with Violet.  There is the threat of danger to our brave detective. The characters are superficially drawn without much descriptive detail or depth in their relationships.  They could easily inhabit a graphic novel. 

If you are a Sue Grafton fan you will like this book for it moves along with enough twists to keep you interested.  The ending wraps up neatly with no gasps of surprise.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

DOUBLE CROSS by Ben Macintyre (non-fic)

Macintyre has written an entertaining account of Operation Fortitude, a large scale attempt to fool the Germans into mistaking the plans for the D Day invasion of Normandy.  It was formulated to cause the Germans to believe that the actual landing would take place far north of Normandy in the Pas de Calais area. The account of these shenanigans reads like a British comedy, at times Monty Pythonesque.  The cast of characters is priceless. 

In his introduction, the author states that the oddball spies who were recruited to execute this plan were one of the oddest groups of military units ever assembled.  They included a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a mercurial Frenchwoman (of Russian background), a Serbian seducer, and a deeply eccentric Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming. 

This is a story of war, but it is also about the nuanced qualities of psychology, character, and personality; the thin line between fidelity and treachery, truth and falsehood; and the strange impulsion of the spy.  The Double Cross spies were, variously, courageous, treacherous, capricious, greedy, and inspired....One was so obsessed with her pet dog that she came close to derailing the entire invasion.  All were, to some extent, fantasists, for that is the very essence of espionage.  Two were of dubious moral character.  One was a triple, and possibly a quadruple, agent.  For another, the game ended in torture, imprisonment, and death.

The absurd notion that this group of turned spies could effect a complete pulling the wool over the German eyes, beggars belief.  But, somehow in a comedy of errors, they did.  Operation Double Cross under the leadership of a MI5 agent named Tommy Argyll Robertson who masterminded the ruse, was part of a larger plan called Operation Fortitude, in which a phony army of American and British, were able to make the Germans believe they were amassing in areas nowhere near their actual bases.  This included hallow models of planes, barracks, armaments and supplies.  It is all quite amazing, but certainly possible in this time before satellite spying and Internet bugging.  One interesting sidelight concerns Anthony Blunt who was later exposed as a Soviet mole.  He was part of the Double Cross deception at the same time he was feeding information to Stalin and the Russians.

One factor that made this operation successful is that the German counterpart to MI5, the Abwehr, was full of incompetent and corrupt officers who were skimming from the budget allotted by the German government for their spy operations.  It turned out that the Germans were paying so much to maintain these double agents who were working for the British that they spent what would be equivalent of more than 4.5 million pounds today, all the time ignorant of the fact that they were supporting both their own and MI5's spies.

At one point in this saga, there was a scheme that went nowhere, but was hilarious, which used pigeons to infiltrate the German pigeon coops in France which were used for sending messages to the battle front. Another crazy plot involved an actor impersonating General Montgomery who was sent to Spain to further confuse the Germans into mistaking the timing of D Day.

All this and more makes for entertaining reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and it further convinced me that all spies are double agents and straight out the pages of "Spy vs. Spy"  in Mad Magazine.  I recommend this book for any who would like a different take on behind the scenes planning in WWII.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

THIRTY GIRLS by Susan Minot (fic)

In the light of the recent and horrifying kidnapping of 200 young Nigerian girls, this book could not have been written at a more meaningful time.  In 2002, a similar incident took place in Uganda when more than 100 girls were forcibly taken from their school in a rural area. Susan Minot had covered that story as a journalist and has now written a fictionalized account of it. Her seriously important book was published just before the Nigerian girls were taken. The Ugandan rebel who was responsible for the earlier kidnappings was Joseph Kony of the Lord's Resistance Army and he is still at large these many years later. 

Minot alternates chapters in Thirty Girls telling two stories that are intertwined and dependent on each other in unifying the tale.  The first is the fate of the the Ugandan girls who were led away into the bush.  The school they attended was run by Catholic nuns, and on the night the school was attacked and broken into, there were four nuns and only one man on duty.  The Ugandan army had been patrolling the school grounds but were off duty that night.   The Mother Superior, Sister Giula, an Italian of great courage, along with a male teacher, wastes no time in setting out after the girls to try to negotiate their return.  She catches up to the rebels and makes a plea to Captain Lagira, a terrifying creature.  After much false politeness and fearsome threats, he agrees to let all the girls go except 30.  The unfortunate Sr. Giula is told she must choose the girls that will stay behind.  One of these girls is Ester Akello, and it is through her eyes that we learn the fate and the nightmare that follows for these girls.  Ester's voice is so true and so real that we forget that this is a work of fiction as we become caught up in her story.

The other part of the book is about a reporter named Jane Wood who has come to Africa to write a story on the children who have survived the kidnapping ordeal by escaping.  These children, and Ester is eventually one, are placed in a rehabilitation camp in order to help them re-enter a life as normal as possible given the circumstances. Jane became interested in their story when she meet the mother of one of the kidnapped girls at a New York dinner where the mother was seeking aid to help these abused children.

Jane arrives in Kenya and meets up with a free spirited friend who introduces her to a group of like minded friends.  They all decide to travel to Uganda together so Jane can get her story.  Along the way they make stops and find time to party a bit, adventure a bit, and drink a good deal.  Jane finds herself drawn to Harry a young man about 15 years younger than she.  She realizes it is a hopeless romance with no future, but she falls headlong into the relationship anyway.  Minot writes sensitively and realistically about their affair.  In all her books, Minot writes convincingly about human interactions and connections.

The climax of the book occurs when Ester and Jane's stories intersect. Several important actions result from their meeting.  I loved this book.  Even though it deals with a difficult subject that today we are reading about daily, Minot never wavers from handling the story with care and beautiful writing.  I recommend this book most highly and have urged all my friends to read it.  It is timely, and the story of the two women shows them brave and fearless in their emotions and sense of self.  They finds themselves through the brief time they have together, and both recognize the connection.  This book is a terrific choice for book clubs and all readers.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

WAVE by Sonali Deraiyagala (non-fic)

Deraiyagala has written a sad, brave and honest book about the loss of those she loved the most in the world.  She bares the intense grief the loss caused her which makes this memoir so real and truthful, that the reader feels her pain and wonders how she could endure such unimaginable loss. 

In 2004, on the day after Christmas, a horrifying tsunami born in the Indian Ocean spread over a number of countries causing the deaths of approximately 250,000 people, a number the mind can hardly accept.  We saw the images on t.v. and the destruction that is still in evidence in some areas. 
Sonali with her husband, Steve, two young sons, Vic and Malli, and her parents, was on holiday in the Yala National Park, staying at a beach-front hotel.  Their day began normally enough, and then the nightmare began.  What had been a sunny warm morning, with preparations being made to go to the beach, in a matter of minutes turned violent with a wall of water roaring inland.  Sonali and Steve grabbed the children and ran with no time to check on the parents in another room.  They raced outdoors and jumped into a Jeep that was departing with other guests.  It wasn't long before the Jeep was upended, and Sonali lost consciousness.  When she came to, she was being swept along in the maelstrom, bleeding profusely, and the rest of her family nowhere in sight. 

Sonali was eventually rescued, and after a fruitless search and in a state of shock, she realizes that she is the only survivor in her family. She never saw her husband, children or parents again.  In stark detail Deraiyagala allows us into her world in the aftermath of this tragedy.  She is eventually taken to her aunt's home in Colombo, but there is no recovery for her there.  She descends into a hellish state of depression fed by alcohol, hatred and resentment of those who survived.  Some time goes by, and she finds her brother has leased her parents home to a Dutch family on holiday.  She harasses this family in numerous ways, again fueled by her intense grief.  She goes back to the site of the hotel with her father-in-law in the hope of finding some shred of evidence of their former life.  Miraculously her father-in-law picks up a paper that turn out to be part of a report Steve was working on.  Sonali and Steve were both successful economists.  They met at University in England, married and had their careers and a nice home in London.

It was two years before Sonali could bear to return to London and enter the home in which they had lived.  The description of her re-entry and intense sadness at seeing everything just as it was left on the day they departed for their holiday is difficult to read.  Eventually with support of friends and family, Deraiyagala is able to piece part of her life together and begin recovery.  Seven years after the tragedy, she found some relief in writing this account.  She now teaches at Columbia and lives in Manhattan.

"Wave" was chosen as one of the 10 best books of last year by the "New York Times."  It is an intense book, maybe not for everybody.  It is beautifully written and with such honesty that it is an experience to read it.  Why do we read of another's suffering?  Perhaps it is important to remind us of our blessings and help us to realize that life goes on in the face of tragedy, that people find strength to carry on, and that we help each other through these bad times.  Those we loved and lost are kept alive through the happy memories as the bad memories fade.