• Agent Zigzag by Ben McIntyre *** (of 4)

    agent zigzagPrior to the outbreak of WWII, the British citizen Eddie Chapman spent his youth blowing safes and robbing banks.  Passing in and out of jails, Chapman learned new techniques for thievery and when he wasn’t incarcerated, he fell in love, seriously in love, with a series of women.  When war erupted, Chapman was languishing in a cell on the isle of Jersey which fell under Nazi occupation and after failing to escape a couple of times figured his best chance for freedom was to volunteer to become a Nazi spy, that is, a British citizen employed by the Nazis to spy on the British.  A year or so later the Germans took him up on his offer, trained him, and air dropped him into Britain for the purpose of blowing up a British airplane factory.  Chapman’s apparent success led him to become one of the most decorated Nazi spies in history, only soon after landing in England, he also because one of the most celebrated spies in the British secret service, where he acted as a double agent spying on the Nazis.  Using newly released documents McIntyre uncovers a fascinating history of the spy war raging between Allied and Axis forces.

  • One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson **** (of 4)

    onesummerThe summer of 1927 begins with the worst rains the United States has endured in a century or more.  The Mississippi has flooded millions of acres and hundreds of thousands of people are homeless and facing starvation.  President Coolidge brings in the world’s most successful savior of human life since Jesus Christ, the man who almost single handedly saved western Europe from starvation during WW I.  Herbert Hoover.  The floods prevent a young pilot from getting out of his airfield in St. Louis and Charles Lindbergh almost doesn’t make it to New York in time to be the first person to fly the Atlantic and become the most famous individual in the world.  As Lindbergh takes off from Roosevelt field on Long Island he circles over Yankee Stadium where Babe Ruth is beginning his march toward breaking the all-time home run record for one season.  And we are only in May.  Bryson does a remarkable job of making us eager to awaken every morning to read the daily paper just to keep abreast of what might really be one of the most compelling four months of the twentieth century.

  • Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff *** (of 4)

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

  • Ninety Percent of Everything by Rose George ** (of 4)

    shipsI loved Rose George’s, The Big Necessity about toilets and the lack of them around the world.  I’m also fascinated by the sea and even once talked my way onto a container ship transiting the Panama Canal so I had high hopes for “Ninety Percent of Everything.”  Unfortunately, the title just about says it all, and the subtitle finishes the task: “Invisible shipping, the invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, gas in your car, and food on your plate.”  The rest of the book consists of George’s multi-week trip aboard a freighter traveling from England to Singapore.  Along the way she scrounges up facts about shipping with a particular focus on the unusual and dangerous pointing to particularly heinous acts of piracy, unscrupulous ship owners, and wrecked cargo vessels, their poor workers abandoned to the sea.  But it all feels like a stretch, as if someone wrote a book about the airline industry largely overlooking the hundreds of thousands of uneventful daily flights to focus instead on the one crash decades ago in the Andes where the passengers cannibalized one another to survive.  In the end, shipping is a business and working aboard ships is no more glamorous than driving a truck, slaughtering beef, or manufacturing sneakers.  We demand the products and Rose George makes us think hard about where they come from and how they get to us, but it never quite amounts to a full book’s worth of information.

  • This is the Story of a Happy Marriage ** (of 4) by Ann Patchett

    marriageThis is a collection of Patchett’s non-fiction essays, all previously published.  Well-written, autobiographical, unresearched, and self-aggrandizing.  Patchett is not only a strong writer, but she knows it and insists that you never forget it.  The second essay of the book, the longest, too, is advice to wanna-be writers.  Patchett’s bottom line is that to succeed as an author you must be really good, and by strong implication, as good as she is.  Not much encouragement there.  She has an essay about leaving her first husband and another about agreeing to take back her second husband.  It takes courage, I’m sure, to expose your marital difficulties in print, but given how reliably Patchett insists she is faultless, it is somehow understandable why her marriages have been problematic and less than comprehensible how she chose the title of her book.

  • The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson **** (of 4)

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

  • Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen *** (of 5)

    sovietWhat an interesting idea.  Mix together a memoir of family history in the old Soviet Union with some Soviet history and the signature foods of the USSR’s distinct eras: Tsarist Russia, Russian Revolution, Leninism, Stalisnism, Brezhnev, Glasnost, Putin.  Then the author and her mother, both accomplished cooks, prepare feasts redolent of each decade since 1910 and invite Soviet emigres to reminisce about the smells of an pre-Stalin cornucopia or the despair of waiting on a 1970s bread line.  Perhaps because the author’s mother tongue is Russian, there is a kind of reverse construction to sentences and chapters that makes the text thick as stew.  The second paragraph of Chapter six, for example, “1960s: Corn, Communism, Caviar” opens with this sentence, “Coarse and damp was the bread waiting at the end of the line.”  The three strands of the book — von Bremzen’s family history, the story of the rise and fall of the USSR, and foods of a century — are all palatable, but in the end the flavors don’t quite meld into one delicious dish.

  • Going Clear by Lawrence Wright **** (of 5)

    scientologyIt took great courage to write this book.  Anyone that has ever crossed the Church of Scientology has, pursuant to church ideology, been hounded by goons, lawsuits (enough to bankrupt nearly anyone), private investigators, and vicious media attacks.  Lawrence Wright had to know it was coming when he started the book, but then again he did win the Pulitzer Prize for his investigation of Al Qaeda.  There are three major components to Going Clear.  The first is a thorough biography of its founder L. Ron Hubbard and there is no escaping the conclusion that the man was a lying, delusional, paranoid schizophrenic.  Part 2 describes the Church of Scientology’s doctrines as created by Hubbard and embodied by long-time leader David Miscavige.  Wright focuses much of his attention on the upper echelons of the Church — the Sea Org — and its alleged human rights abuses of its parishioners: kidnapping, isolation, physical and mental subjugation.  The other area of interest for both Wright and the Church is its courtship of celebrities like Kirstie Allie, John Travolta, and Tom Cruise.  Part 3 is a summary of abuses particularly as they are laid upon former members trying to escape the Church’s “Billion Year Contract.”  The footnotes are as interesting as the text in that every allegation is categorically denied by the Church creating a dichotomy of, “Wright says vs. The Church Says.”  Even if one-tenth of the Church’s accuser’s stories are valid the Church would have an awful lot of explaining to do.  Wright does not dwell on any benefits the Church provides.  Surely there must be many for anyone to even consider joining.  Others may react to the book by quickly concluding that Hubbard was a nutter and so are Scientologists.  On the other hand I found myself with my jaw dropping wider with every chapter at the absurdity and viciousness of the Church’s behavior.  That’s good writing.

  • Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff **** (of 4)

    leduffDetroit, once the nation’s industrial capital, is forty percent vacant.  Politicians are corrupt, robbing what little money still flows through the city.  Murderous thugs roam the streets.  Homelessness, hunger, despair, lawlessness, and unbridled fear imprison law-abiding citizens inside their homes.  Everyone else appears to be hanging onto street corners, jobless, self-medicating their misery.  Certainly, there are worthy people in Detroit, pockets of revival, attempts to replace the rotten timbers of a city already mostly submerged, so why read a book that is simultaneously so depressing and unflinchingly focused on the negative?  Because LeDuff can write like nobody’s business.  After ten years as a New York Times reporter, he returns to his city to write for the Detroit Free Press, covering the city with the guts of a war journalist and the keen eye of a native son.  Read the book because it will take you somewhere you would never go yourself and because no one could write this story any better.

  • The Oath by Jeffrey Toobin *** (of 5)

    In a surprisingly so-so book, Jeffrey Toobin follows The Nine, his phenomenal account of the Supreme Court’s evolution from the 1970s to the Obama years, with a series of case since Obama took office.  Toobin’s highly liberal perspective takes deep offense at the judicial activism spearheaded by the five to four Republican majority that now rules.  Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Fox-ian judges Scalia and Thomas  have employed an originalist approach to the constitution positing that what the Founding Fathers laid out in the 18th century is immutable, which of course is nonsense.  Rather, after several decades of a bench dominated by Democratic appointments whose members took judicial activism to enlarge the rights of minorities and the impoverished, the current Republican majority is turning the tables.  Gun control, campaign finance reform, and employee rights are on the way out as corporate power gains ascendancy.  Toobin cries foul and since I agree with his politics I concur with his conclusion, but his approach is transparently biased.  The one exception was the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Obamacare; Roberts switched sides to give the President a victory, but even this Toobin argues was an intentionally forfeited battle in service to a greater conservative agenda.  The cases Toobin selects are undoubtedly the most important of the last five years, although his explanations are sometimes so full of legal jargon they are difficult to absorb with only a single reading.  Not as compelling as his first book — more of a series of sequential articles — but nonetheless I finished with a feeling of very deep unease about the future of the country.