Now it can be told
I’m a Bletchley Park addict so prepare for some gushing. McKay’s book had a more social bent than most of the books I’ve read which were more focused on the mechanics of breaking the Enigma Code itself. McKay looks at the invention of the machines such as the bombe and the colossi and the people who invented them and kept them running 24/7 throughout the war. He explores some of the military operations that captured key pieces of information and most fascinating, the history of the war and how that interacted with the work at Bletchley.
The work of code breaking started out small. It was spearheaded by some key players from WWI. These men were the ones who had the vision to expand this work during the Second World War. To do this they not only gathered their former colleagues but they went to some top English schools and discreetly asked the professors who of their students might be good at this work. In short it was an old boys club….but what a club! These were the best and the brightest…and sometimes titled….of their generation. This was also the era of the gifted amateur and so this was another group that was gradually folded in. These amateurs were sometimes working class with brilliant minds and a driving work ethic that was ratcheted up even tighter by the Park’s shared purpose. Then there were the WRENS and other women who ran their feet off delivering messages between huts, typing, and creating a complex filing system so the already decoded messages could be collated easily against newly translated ones. Bletchley was a closed community so it also required waitresses and cleaners. The truly amazing thing is no one betrayed the secret that was Bletchley! Well almost no one but there was some clever damage control in these cases though it happened seldom.
Because so many of the Park workers were college aged this was their university. The intensity of their work put their learning on hyper speed. They made time for fun forming singing and drama clubs with some astounding talent….so much so that they took their performances to the nearby towns where they could be enjoyed.
I’m glad this information is being de-classified and that it’s now coming to light. Sadly, because of its secretive nature, some of the history of Bletchley has been lost. The participants could not reveal the part they played in the war. That’s why books such as “The Secret Lives of the Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park” are so essential.
This review is based on an e-galley provided by the publisher.
If you’d like to read more in depth about breaking the codes I’d recommend:
Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War, 1941-1945
Politic, Transportatin, and Information
The story of Pancho Villa and his band of miscreant rebels seems timely mostly because of the behind the scenes meddling from other countries. The way Butler tells Pancho’s story it’s filled with mystery, excitement, cross and double cross. There’s also lots of history or perhaps revisionist history included. Don’t miss the parts about the current modes of travel. Of course there were horses and carriages and railways influenced the action. Most exciting was the recent invention and use of the airplane! It was also a time when the newspaper was the most prominent and innovative means of disseminating what was happening in the world. Politics, transportation, and information are key factors in “Hot Country”.
Pancho is set on taking control of his native Mexico along with his loyal foot soldiers however this is complicated by the struggle between the US and Germany both countries are set on using the Mexican drama to further their own political agendas. The US, as such a close neighbor, is concerned about defending its borders. Christopher Marlowe Cobb is a newspaperman who goes to report the drama but winds up at the heart of the action. The story is filled with spies, mercenaries, thwarted personal and political ambition, war and murder. And it’s all placed against the backdrop of the imminent war in Europe.
Butler always writes well and “Hot Country” is no exception though, for my taste, there were far too many battle and fight sections but to be fair there’s no way to write realistically about Villa’s revolution without bloodshed. The parts concerning Cobb’s love interest and his relationship with his actress mother were top rate. The descriptions of Pancho and the main German protagonist were also well done. It was fun to see Butler write an adventure story.
This review is based on an e-galley provided by the publishers.
Love and Deception and Love
“Sweet Tooth” is set in the first few years of the 1970′s at the height of the cold war. Serena, who is anything but serene, is attending Cambridge studying maths at her mother’s insistence. She earns a third, poor girl. She’d much rather be studying English Literature because all her life she’s devoured book after book searching for an ever more romantic `I do’. To her delight she has a few love affairs while at school and one of her beaux leads her to a job at MI5 upon graduation. Since it was the 70′s there were two career tracks…a real one that includes promotion and possible excitement or at least interesting work and the one for women that involves typing, filing and making tea. No problem. Serena makes her own excitement. I’m a cold war, spy novel fan so I loved that angle and this one centered on literature, another interest of mine. McEwan provides a very believable plot that holds interest but I would have liked less romance and more intrigue, still I enjoyed the book quite a lot. I’ve never felt let down by ANY of his books.
I’m a McEwan fan and have read about half of his books. If this book had been written by any other author I’d probably give it five stars but in comparison to his other books it fell slightly flat. It lacked the dense texture of “Atonement”, the immediacy of the situation in “Saturday”, the emotional depth of “On Chesil Beach” nor the humor in “Solar”. For now I’ve rated it a four out of five stars but as I sit with it more that might change. I only finished it yesterday and sometimes, depending on how a book lingers in my mind or doesn’t, my rating may change though I can only imagine in this cause adding a star, not deleting one.
This review is based on an advanced reading copy supplied by the publisher.
Retribution: A Love Story
There are many wonderful things about “In Sunlight and in Shadow”. Helprin’s writing reminds me of novelists from an earlier age where things were more leisurely and people had time and patience to read longer books. The Victorian Age? Helprin indulges in digressions which might sound potentially boring but almost every time he makes a stunning observation. This isn’t a book you’ll want to skim. Let yourself ease into its pace and you’ll be rewarded in my opinion. The depictions of New York and its inhabitants are especially vivid though it’s a city that has been described so times by so many authors. There’s a magical quality to Helprin’s `take’ that’s just shy of fanciful.
Harry Copeland, a returning World War II vet, is seeking retribution for a wrong that has been done to him, though, thankfully, retribution is not the main theme of the book. At heart this is a love story between two people from different walks of New York life, Catherine comes from society’s elite, Harry, is middle class from people who fought to attain that status. And he’s Jewish which in 1946 still carries a stigma. He’s also fought in a war to help annihilate this prejudice and free the people who suffer/suffered because of it. He’s not willing to stifle his standards. When he and Catherine get together it’s electric and immediate. The rest of the world seems to fall away yet they’re eventually forced to deal with things like the fiancé she’s jilted and the failing business Harry’s inherited from his father.
Overall this is a workmanlike novel. I’m not meaning any disparagement by that. Helprin uses his plot to hang lots of insights and beautiful vignettes upon and there are parts that soar as when he describes Catherine rehearsing for the musical she’s going to be in or Harry’s experiences as a pathfinder in World War II. Another part that stood out concerned how two out of towners experience New York for the first time. Helprin doesn’t neglect any part of the City; he takes you from working class to high class life and everything in between. There are layers to New York that create its lushness just as there are layers to “In Sunlight and in Shadow”; all of them necessary, many of them dazzling.
There is an over idealization of women with an emphasis, of course, on young women as the ideal. There are characters that show up for what seems like no reason other than they were pretty girls. The love story dips into extremes at times and just misses being caricature. In my opinion what Helprin does well he does so, so well he can’t be faulted for the less than perfect parts. I was reading an Advanced Reading Copy so perhaps some of this was edited out by time it went to print.
This review is based on an advanced reading copy provided by the publisher.
That’s exactly how I remember it.
Banville is often compared to Nabokov so I suppose it’s inevitable that he write his own version of a “Lolita” story but with the twist that it’s from a male perspective this time. Here Alexander Cleave, a boy of fifteen, is the victim. Banville’s use of language and his sense of humor are staggering. He doesn’t so much provide belly laughs as he does a nod or a chuckle for example a Hollywood film director stays at Ostentation Towers and another luminary is a professor of Applied Deconstruction. His descriptions of the natural world are lovely. “Ancient Light” is an apt title because this is a book of memories. Even current events have roots in the past. And nothing happens just once.
There are three stories told here. One is of Cleave’s childhood and his early `love affair’, another, from an adult perspective, is told in flashbacks about a death from ten years ago that’s left Alexander grieving, and the third story is about his current life. Alexander is a career stage actor yet on the verge of retirement he’s suddenly offered a leading role in a movie based on an enigmatic man whose life touched his own though he’s not sure to what extent. In fact part of what he tries to find out is just how intimately this character, Vander, played in his past.
Threaded through these explorations are four key women, the married lover who’s also the mother of his best friend, his wife, his daughter, and Dawn Davenport, his leading lady in the movie they’re making together. Each main character seems to have a double or to have a reflection. With all the doubling of characters and the flopping between past and present I found myself wondering who the real person was, which reality was more real, the `ancient’ memory or the current reality. Or were either of them accurate? To muddy the waters Banville throws in allusions to Greek fables further throwing doubt on the narrator’s account. In the end it didn’t really matter what the truth was because, just like life, no memory is ever 100% accurate and who’s to say which interpretation of events are real? It’s what we give our attention to that counts, that gives things weight.
This review is based on an advanced reading copy provided by the publisher.
This isn’t a horrible book: in fact the premise caught my attention. It has many famous characters such as Cesare Borgia (Rodrigo, the pope’s middle son, who was a cardinal and after his brother, Juan, was killed Cesare was released from the church as he’d been wanting to be and took over Juan’s duties as head of Rodrigo’s army), Niccolo Machaivelli, and Leonardo Da Vinci. I hated the characterization of Da Vinci, making him into almost a caricature of what some might consider homosexual behavior. That was the only part that really grated; the other 60% I was able to get through (I couldn’t force myself to continue to the end) was so, so. There wasn’t enough of a mystery or utilization of these famed people to compel me to read on. I hate abandoning books unread but I hate worse being kept from better stories and better writing.
For what it’s worth I thought the recent HBO series about the Borgias was wonderful.
This review is based on an e-galley provided by the publisher. Perhaps it was better reading in the finished version?
Two Eyes are Plenty
Cornell Woolrich is one of the principal `Film Noir’ writers. Many of his idiosyncratic books have been filmed as was “Night has a Thousand Eyes”. There are parts of this book that sparkle just like the title but there are other places that it slows down mostly in the police investigation sections when the main protagonist, police officer Tom Shawn, isn’t involved. The first 30% of the book is bang on, a real page turner; vintage Film Noir. The scene: A rich beautiful girl in distress, under the moonlight, scattering money, precious jewels, and expensive cars until Shawn, the working stiff aka a policeman, comes to her rescue. The two retire to a Hopperesque diner to get out of the San Francisco fog and to discuss our heroine Jean Reid’s plight.
Jean is desperate because of a horrible prediction about her father’s fate. This is where Shawn and his buddies get to work to try and figure out the fortune hunter’s angle, how he seeks to benefit from the Reids’ vast wealth. And during the depression a lot of people will do a lot of things to survive. The cops need to find out quickly how to prevent Reid’s preordained death. As often with Film Noir the themes are fate, the occult and the inevitability of a horrible death. I’m not sure how this book would have read to contemporaries (1945) but from a modern view point there are parts that seem very farfetched. Yet I can’t help but reflect that some of the current genre books about vampires and zombies are just as fanciful. The vampires are just swapped out for different boogie folks in “Night” so suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride. This is a fun book. I’m glad Woolrich is being re-printed.
Included is a preface by Francis M Nevins revealing Woolrich’s two other pen names and some of his personal back story, his years as a film writer in Hollywood and his retreat back to New York to live with his cantankerous mother, his brief marriage. His most familiar movie is Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”.
This review is based on an e-galley supplied by the publisher.
I love adventure, lost treasure stories and this one is screaming at high decibel! Irene Blum is the behind the scenes curator at a prestigious art museum throughout until the mid 20′s. This means she does the work, others get credit for it. Her specialty is Asian artifacts particularly those of Cambodia, specifically the Khmer tradition that blossomed between 9,000 AD through 1,500 AD and then mysteriously, and suddenly, disappeared. No one knows why. When she suddenly has the chance to prove herself by traveling to Asia to find some defining treasures she’s up for the challenge…and the danger. “The Map of Lost Memories” is partly a love story between a man and a woman but also love between parent and child, and mentor and protégé. In her travels Irene meets some dangerous, some knowledgeable, and some irresistible characters. All of them have essential knowledge for her search. She recruits them to her cause and they head to the jungle. To complicate things these protagonist have their own agendas which don’t always mesh with Irene’s. Fay incorporates politics, history, morality, and art throughout this exciting story. She delves into the Asian world outlook vs. the West, ancient traditions and values vs. those of current times. She explores religion and the need to seek and preserve ancient knowledge and who has the right to it…the ancestors or those who created and preserved it or the entire world. To be specific should the rich West, the ones with the money to protect the treasures abscond with them with the goal of protecting them it and allowing relatively many access to it or should it stay where it evolved? As you can see “The Map of Lost Memories” is an adventure story but it’s much more. The only thing lacking in my opinion is a longer slog through the Cambodian wilderness, to be blunt I wanted more swashbuckling adventure, though the ending was near perfect.
This review is based on an advanced review copy provided by the publisher.
So much progress, so much still to achieve
I had the oddest feeling while reading this book that time both stands still even as it flees by. Povich starts the book with a vignette of three young professional women and their plight of career stagnation due to discrimination. Then she describes the stories of some of the principal complainants in the 1970 class action suit brought against `Newsweek’ for sex discrimination. Povich outlines not just their professional stories but also some of their relevant personal history including their outlooks on life, their career goals, and their unique personalities. This makes the story personal and the reader can’t help but root for their triumph. It seems so ludicrous from this distance to realize a lot of these women had Ivy league educations yet were stuck in the mail or research rooms of `Newsweek’. What a waste of an education, drive, and talent. They did win the suit but sadly, they had to continue to fight for what they’d supposedly won through the courts. An entrenched social system doesn’t change overnight. Also, not everyone longs to be at the top, many are content with fulfilling jobs that allow time for a family life. The downside to the situation is the women who’d been exiled to fact checking for the male writers sometimes didn’t aspire to be writers but felt compelled to try out for that slot after the suit and if they succeeded in becoming a writer they felt obligated to write `hard’ news rather than arts and culture articles regardless of their interests. Worst of all few of the women who lodged the suit benefited personally from it. It was the women who came after them who were able to take advantage of the opportunities these women made possible. Povich walks us through the decades post-suit and what that meant for women.
One of the worst enemies for women then and now is the desire to be `nice’, to be a team player, and to be thought well of. Women in positions of power are much more likely to be disliked than those in the typing pool. Worst of all finding a mentor is a challenge for women. Men can more easily find an older, more successful man to teach him the ropes, someone who will champion him and his career goals. Standing out or achieving recognition as a woman is seen as being pushy and rude. Not so for men especially if they have someone powerful to back them. It was then that I realized how relatively recent some of these changes were. And sadly the experiences of Jessica, Jesse, and Sara, the three women who sued for more job opportunities and less discrimination in 2010, still felt the sting of a culture that under estimates women and the family in general even today. This is a fascinating history of the workplace and I love how Povich informs on how both sexes benefited and/or were deprived of finding a work situation that best fit for them. So much progress, so much still to achieve.
This review is based on an e-galley provided by the publisher
Facing your Monsters
The author, Victor LaValle, doesn’t flinch from unpleasant topics. “The Devil in Silver” is set in a government run mental health facility where the unruly Pepper is taken by overworked cops after he gets into fisticuffs outside the school where his would be beloved works as a teacher. The man he confronts is also a teacher and her abusive husband. Rather than take Pepper to the precinct where they’d have to work overtime booking him with no pay due to cut backs the cops dump him at the local mental ward for a 5150 72 hour observation. Unfortunately for Pepper this turns into an open ended stay.
LaValle looks head on and with humor at race relations as well as the current tough economy. He explores what people will do to keep a paycheck….and what they won’t do. Some of the health care providers are long timers and they’re jaded with the overwork and low pay. They’ve become complacent and are now content to merely medicate the patients to keep them controllable. Into this mix throw in a patient with more profound needs who stalks and hurts the other inmates. Add to this equation a bright young ingénue nurse who wants to live up to her ideals of her profession and drama ensues.
LaValle uses literature and art to explore how the mentally ill have traditionally functioned in society with books like “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Jaws” and the art and letters of Vincent Van Gogh. Another interesting theme is collective social life and how that impacts the participants. I liked his humor especially relating to race relations but felt the use of the monster was over the top. I’m sure he meant to do exactly that with the `devil’…make a point. It just didn’t hold my interest very well.
This review is based on an e-galley provided by the publishers.