Tag Archives: World War II

Tinker Tailor

writer sailor

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961 by Nicholas Reynolds (William Morrow, $27.99, 384 pages)

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy by Nicholas Reynolds chronicles Ernest Hemingway’s time as a spy and his involvement in politics on the world stage during the years 1935 through 1961.

As to credibility, Reynolds was a Marine for 30 years, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and eventually became the curator of the CIA Museum.  He references 107 primary sources and each chapter is replete with citations to support his claims.

While Writer, Sailor is almost certainly factually accurate, I am not certain this book entirely succeeds.

The book chronicles some aspects of Hemingway’s personal life such as his downward spiral into depression, his four wives, and his extremely excessive alcohol intake; though this is not news, nor is it the main point.  Reynolds also tries to tie some of Hemingway’s writing to his wartime experiences, particularly with For Whom the Bell Tolls and his time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and then his final book, The Old Man and the Sea.  He also name drops quite a bit.  For example, correspondence with Archibald MacLeish and his friendship with John Dos Passos are frequently referenced.  The book tells of Hemingway’s love of Cuba and briefly alludes to some interactions with Batista and Castro.  But, again, there is not much new ground covered here.

What would be considered new ground for most is Hemingway’s dalliance with the Soviet NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, and involvement with the American OSS, the predecessor of the CIA.  Hemingway was not a Communist, and perhaps not even a Socialist, but he hated Fascism and during the 1930s was disappointed in America’s lack of resolve to fight against it.  He was particularly upset with the Pearl Harbor attack, which he believed was due to complete negligence on the part of the American government.

Hemingway’s travels during this time are discussed.  How he managed to get around on both official and personal business is interesting at times.  One of the most interesting stories is the chapter on Pilar, Hemingway’s cabin cruiser, and its role as a spy ship in 1942 and 1943.  This would prove to be the most significant of Hemingway’s wartime adventures.

writer, sailor, soldier, spy back cover

Most Hemingway buffs and literary scholars would find nothing of interest in this work.  But while it succeeds in chronicling his adventures – and there are some interesting tidbits to be gleaned among the way, the truth is that Hemingway’s involvement as a spy did not seem to lead to any major intelligence that impacted the outcome of the war – or particular battles – in any way.  If so, it was not evident in the pages of this book.

Recommended, with the reservation that the book seems to promise more than it delivers.

Dave Moyer.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school district superintendent and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Who Let the Dogs Out

Three Guys to Take Along on Vacation

Who let

Who Let the Dog Out?: An Andy Carpenter Mystery by David Rosenfelt (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 336 pages)

And they’re off… Andy, Laurie, Rick and the two dogs are back with a strange dilemma at the Tara Foundation Shelter. Cheyenne, a lost dog, took up residence at Andy’s shelter only to be spirited away by a professional burglar.

David Rosenfelt is back to his funny and wise cracking self as he spins the tale of a murder and a missing pooch. This, the 13th Andy Carpenter mystery, is every bit as fresh and engaging as the ones that preceded it. Rosenfelt makes his characters vulnerable in a writing style that is easy to enjoy.

This is a book that’s an excellent read over a lazy weekend or during a week away on vacation.

Well recommended.

World gone by

World Gone: A Novel by Dennis Lehane (William Morrow, $27.99, 320 pages)

Indeed, the world of his third book in a trilogy by Dennis Lehane has gone by. The time is World War II and the settings include Cuba and Tampa, Florida. The fact that a war is raging affects both the good and evil people who move through this tale. The notion that war takes the best men for duty thus leaving the less competent behind at home is applicable to gangs of criminals. This is an aspect of war that has never occurred to this reviewer before.

The location during Lehane’s chosen time frame is not one this reader considered particularly compelling or relevant for today. Perhaps with U.S.-Cuban relations resuming the connection between the main character, Joe Coughlin, and Cuba has some merit. Coughlin has business challenges not unlike his counterparts in the legitimate business world.

Dennis Lehane is a very well known author (12 books, four of which have been made into movies). He seasons this tale, World Gone By, with abundant background and biographical information about his characters – thieves, murderers, and extortionists. The pace is slow and a bit plodding. As the plot develops, the reader becomes aware of the human foibles and quirks of these “bad guys.” They should be despicable but Lehane sympathetically portrays the people behind their life situations.

Recommended for Lehane fans.

dead simple

Dead Simple: The First Thriller in the Acclaimed Roy Grace Series by Peter James (Minotaur Books, $9.99, 457 pages)

Claustrophobia warning! Author Peter James casts his story lines one by one to set up a race against the suffocation death of Mike Harrison, a bridegroom and prankster, who is being dealt some serious playback by his buddies just days prior to his wedding.

Crisp dialogue with the right balance of details and description keep the action going. A third person narrator leads the reader through the crash of the bachelor party van and the deadly aftermath. Readers will settle in with Detective Superintendent Roy Grace while he addresses the disappearance of Mike Harrison.

Dead Simple is the first in a nine volume series by James featuring Roy Grace. Clearly, this thriller has piqued this reviewer’s interest. Here’s hoping the rest of the series matches up with this splendid beginning.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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All the Way from Memphis

Nightingale Palace 2

The Secret of the Nightingale Palace: A Novel by Dana Sachs (William Morrow, $14.99, 346 pages)

By the time the train arrived in New York City… Goldie Rubin Feld was ready. Somehow, through the force of her will, the past had grown smaller and smaller in her mind until, finally, it disappeared.

If you loved the novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, you owe it to yourself to check out the second novel by author Dana Sachs (If You Lived Here). As with Hotel, Sachs’ story deals with Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II and afterward. In Hotel, the city of Seattle served as the stage on which the story’s events took place; in Nightingale Palace, the city of San Francisco – past and present – serves as the primary stage.

As the story opens, thirty-five-year-old Anna is called to New York City by her grandmother Goldie – a relative she has not spoken to in five years. Anna is a widow and has never quite forgiven her grandmother for the way she spoke so poorly and disrespectfully about Anna’s late husband Ford while he was alive. Goldie is Jewish, in her eighties, twice-widowed, rich – she owns a Rolls Royce, and is extremely inflexible and demanding. Goldie wants Anna to drive her across the country to San Francisco in the Rolls Royce she’s named Bridget. Goldie left San Francisco in 1944, and she wants to return some artwork to a member of the Nakamura family. The Nakamuras lived in, and maintained, the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park befor they were rounded up and placed in a relocation camp.

Anna agrees to her grandmother’s unusual request because she’s become frozen in her grief and has no idea what’s going to happen to her next. Both Anna and Goldie seem to sense that something will occur during the cross-country adventure that will provide an impetus for Anna to decide what she wants and needs out of her life. (Ford has been dead for two years. Anna is alive, but barely so.) At the very least, it’s going to get her out of Memphis and give her the opportunity to see how other people live.

All that matters is elegance.

This is not a novel that can be read quickly, or should it be. Sachs has a great sense of style and elegance in the way she writes and it must be appreciated. Here’s an example:

…then, without fail, Henry (Nakamura) would pull out whatever beautiful object he had brought to the store and show it to her. Goldie would become transfixed. Carefully his slender hands would open a box, unfold a velvet wrapper, unwind a leather strap from an ivory clasp. Goldie would become almost immobile with pleasure. She would remember experiencing similar sensations when she was a child, watching her mother braid her older sisters’ hair, or do needlework, her fingers piercing the fabric as rhythmically as a musician strumming a guitar. For some reason, observing the fine, precise movements of someone else’s hands gave Goldie a peculiar, almost physical delight. When those hands were Henry’s, though, the experience became exquisite… those moments spent gazing at his hands moving across a little tea set or carved wooden box offered, for Goldie, a fleeting but almost divine consolation.

Nightingale Palace offers up, in the form of a novel, life’s lessons. These are lessons that in earlier times we might have learned from our elders. The story teaches us that everyone finds happiness and fulfillment in their own way, regardless of race, age, sexual preference, religion. It also teaches us that love is not always lost and that every new day holds out the promise of something better.

Something good might happen today.

We all have a chance to be happy here.

The unforeseen ending of Nightingale Palace is life-affirming and uplifting. It brings to mind the truth of Jackson Browne’s words, that sometimes it would be easier to change the future than the past.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the author.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics Books site:

http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-the-secret-of-the/

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Time Travel Mysteries

The Secret Keeper: A Novel by Kate Morton (Atria Books, $26.99, 496 pages)

Every family has a secret or two.   It might be an escapade by great-aunt Sally that nobody wants to acknowledge for fear of losing social standing in the community.   On the other hand, it might be a secret so huge and shocking that it lays buried in the subconscious of the only witness to the event.

Author Kate Morton makes good use of poetic illusions and warped time as she slowly peels back the layers of a family history with Laurel Nicolson (a renowned actress), Vivien Jenkins (a lovely and wealthy socialite), and Dorothy Nicholson (the mother of Laurel, her sisters and her brother) at its center.   The tale switches back and forth between time periods, mostly World War II and 2011.   Although the reader is provided with ample notice of the time switches, there exists a vague sense of unease and confusion conveyed by Laurel and her sisters.

Perhaps the fact that this is a story with action locales in the English countryside and sea-shore, London, as well as a flashback to Australia adds to the sense of wondering and aimlessness felt by this reviewer.   The descriptions of the devastation wrought by the London bombings are no doubt accurate and they are terrifying.   Also, there were times when a look back at prior chapters was necessary to clarify character names and roles.   This mild discomfort was well worth enduring for the remarkable payoff Ms. Morton reveals at the conclusion of her saga.

Well recommended.

Far North: A Magnus Jonson Mystery by Michael Ridpath (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 384 pages)

Get ready for a strange adventure when you read Far North.   By strange I mean out of the ordinary in terms of setting and vocabulary.   The setting is Iceland and the time is post-2007 economic crash that basically ruined the economy of the country.   While the rampant cheating and leveraging engaged in by business and banking moguls all over the world caused great harm, it was devastating for this cold and wind-swept country of less than half a million residents.

Basically, the tale is an English style detective story displaced to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.   As such the reader is treated to a nice travelogue with multi-generational murders and Nordic style myths and sagas.   Time switches among several periods beginning with August 1934 and progresses in odd intervals toward the fall of 2009.   Main character/protagonist Magnus Jonson is a detective of Icelandic background whose home is Boston, Massachusetts.   Magnus is hiding from gangsters he has fingered in Boston as he attends the police academy in Iceland.

Conveniently, Magnus is the sort of detective that can’t help detecting, even when the case may not be his own assignment.   Along the way he coordinates with other detectives to make sense of revelations he has made.   Childhood traumas have a way of insidiously seeping into the actions of damaged adults.   That lesson is hammered home throughout the gripping tale.

Note to potential readers:  The complex naming system for people in Iceland may be confusing and the pronunciation of geographic names may be daunting.   Don’t let that get between you and an exhilarating chase to the end.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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The Roundup

The Roundup – Some Quick Looks at Books

Wife 22: A Novel by Melanie Gideon (Ballantine Books)  –  Gideon’s creative novel is an all-too-much-fun story of a mid-life crisis wife who elects to take part in a marriage survey, and then decides that she might have fallen in love with the researcher assigned to work with her.   “Soon I’ll have to make a decision – one that will affect my family, my marriage, my whole life.”   Will Wife 22 sacrifice everything for a man she’s never seen or spoken to (and only exchanged e-mail messages with)?   This is a story with an ending that the reader will never see coming – unless that reader just happens to remember a certain quite clever hit song from the year 1980.

“…when did the real world become so empty?   When everybody abandoned it for the Internet?”   Wife 22 is a novel about current times, in which human beings communicate by each and every means except true personal, face-to-face communication.

Highly recommended.

Jack 1939: A Novel by Francine Mathews (Riverhead Books)  –  Mathews came up with a great premise in this fictional account of a young John F. Kennedy.   President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly recruits JFK to be his spy in Europe during the period preceding the outbreak of World War II.   The engaging, charismatic personality of JFK is here, but the intelligence of the future world leader is missing in action.

Fairy Tale Interrupted: A Memoir of Life, Love and Loss by Rosemarie Terenzo (Gallery Books)  –  John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s former executive assistant tells us about what it was like to have the “dream job” of working for America’s Prince.   It’s a fascinating account told by Terenzo, a young blue-collar Italian-American girl from the Bronx who became John’s scheduler and gatekeeper.   The problem is that it feels like half a memoir; the deaths of John and his wife Carolyn Bessette in July of 1999 tragically interrupted the charged personal lives chronicled here.   (Terenzo recalls that her final conversation with John was sadly  banal.)

Discretion: A Novel by Allison Leotta (Touchstone)  –  Some readers will no doubt find this to be an exciting political-thriller about a young woman killed while visiting a U.S. Congressman’s hideaway office in the U.S. Capitol Building.   But I was never able to suspend my disbelief in the main characters, especially the female protagonist, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis.   Curtis’s criminal investigation extends into the most sordid sexual aspects of the District of Columbia.   It just seemed unnecessarily overblown.

The Distance Between Us: A Memoir by Reyna Grande (Atria Books)  –  This is a sad, yet moving and life affirming true story of three impoverished children in Mexico whose parents abandon them in order to escape to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side, the United States).   Overcoming many obstacles, the two sisters and their brother eventually find their way to Los Angeles, where they discover that their parents are living apart from each other.   Despite such a horrendous upbringing, the siblings survive and Reyna goes on to both forgive her dying father and to graduate from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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A Book I Want to Read

Jack 1939: A Novel by Francine Mathews is a book that will be released in just a few weeks by Riverhead Hardcover Books.   Here are a couple of blurbs about this tale of a young John Kennedy, and a synopsis.

“Jack 1939 is a marvel – a brilliantly conceived, riveting tightrope race across Europe in the predawn war of World War II.”   Stephen White

“Jack 1939 is a triumph: an exciting thriller, an intriguing exploration of a troubled time, and an absorbing take on the early history of one of America’s most iconic figures.   Highly recommended.”   Iain Pears

Charming.   Reckless.   Brilliant.   Deadly.

It’s the spring of 1939, and the prospect of war in Europe looms large.   The United States has no intelligence service.   In Washington, D.C., President Franklin Delano Roosevelt may run for an unprecedented third term and needs someone he can trust to find out what the Nazis are up to.   His choice:  John F. Kennedy.

It’s a surprising selection.   At twenty-two, Jack Kennedy is the attractive but somewhat unpromising second son of Joseph P. Kennedy, FDR’s ambassador to Britain (and occasional political adversary).   But when Jack decides to travel through Europe to gather research for his Harvard senior thesis, Roosevelt takes the opportunity to use him as his personal spy.   The president’s goal: to stop the flow of German money that’s been flooding the U.S.; money directed by Adolf Hitler for the purpose of preventing FDR’s re-election.

In a deft mosaic of fact and fiction, Francine Mathews has written a gripping espionage story that explores what might have happened when a young JFK is let loose in Europe as the world spins rapidly toward war.   Jack 1939 is both a potent combination of history and storytelling, and a unique, entertaining read.

Jack 1939: A Novel will be released on July 5, 2012.   It will also be available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.   (Information provided by The Penguin Group, USA.)

Joseph Arellano

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Coming Attractions (2012)

Here’s a sampling of new and upcoming books that might well wind up on the to-be-read stack.

The Bungalow: A Novel by Sarah Jio (Plume; December 27, 2011)

We loved The Violets of March by Sarah Jio and thought it was one of the best debut novels of 2011.   Now Jio returns with a quite different type of story set in Bora Bora during World War II.   Wrote reader Laura Bolin on Amazon: “The Bungalow was an old black and white movie straight out of my grandparent’s generation.   I was swept away by Jio’s vivid descriptions and I loved every minute of it.”

Tuesday Night Miracles: A Novel by Kris Radish (Bantam Dell; January 3, 2012)

An entertaining story about an almost-retired counselor who tries to help a group of four women – all of whom have serious pending matters with the legal system – manage their anger issues in court-ordered group counseling sessions.   The women will have to graduate from the group in order to return  to their normal lives.   Oh, and they don’t like each other at all – which means that the counselor is going to have to take some drastic (and perhaps even professionally unethical) actions in order to get them to a kinder and gentler place.

Gun Games: A Novel by Faye Kellerman (William Morrow; January 3, 2012)

Faye Kellerman once again showcases Peter Decker of the Los Angeles Police Department and Rina Lazarus, likely the most popular husband and wife team in modern crime fiction.   A series of shocking adolescent suicides at an elite L. A. private school is at the heart of this thriller.   As if this isn’t enough, there’s  also the fact that Decker and Lazarus have brought a very troubled teenager into their home: Gabriel Whitman, the son of a psychopath.

The Confession: A Novel by Charles Todd (Wm. Morrow; January 12, 2012)

An historical crime novel, continuing Charles Todd’s World War I veteran, and yet still highly effective Scotland Yard Inspector, Ian Rutledge.   Rutledge struggles with a startling and dangerous case that reaches far back into the past when a false confession by a man who was not who he claimed to be resulted in a brutal murder.

Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir by Doron Weber (Simon & Schuster; February 7, 2012)

Not to be confused with Anne Lamott’s novel Imperfect Birds, this is a moving memoir about a boy born with a defective heart – located on the right side of his chest – who weathers major heart surgeries before being hit with a highly unique, perhaps untreatable disease.   Those who years ago read Death Be Not Proud may be drawn to this account.

Spin: A Novel by Catherine McKenzie (Wm. Morrow; February 7, 2012)

Kate’s an ambitious – if self-damaging – reporter who goes undercover.   She enters a drug and alcohol rehab clinic to find out what’s happening with the popular and troubled young actress Amber Shepard.   “Imagine if Bridget Jones fell into a million little pieces, flew over the cuckoo’s nest, and befriended Lindsay Lohan along the way…”

The Lola Quartet: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books; May 15, 2012)

We gave a highly recommended rating to Mandel’s 2010 novel The Singer’s Gun, which was as gutsy as it was unique and engaging.   Her third novel examines “questions of identity, the deep pull of family, the difficulties of being the person one wants to be, the un-reliability of memory, and the unforeseen ways a small and innocent action can have disastrous consequences.”   It’s bound to be worth the price of admission.

Joseph Arellano

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Homeward Bound

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (Berkley Trade, $15.00, 352 pages)

dilloway housewife

“The person I used to be could have only made one choice; the grown up (me) might have made a different one.   That was how life was.   You only figured out the right thing after you were too old.”

This is a finely told story of two persons and two cultures.   It may well appeal to those who loved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford or The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz.   The many fans of Lisa See are also likely to be drawn to it.

This is, first, the story of Shoko, a young woman in Japan at the end of World War II who marries an American G.I. – one of the many occupiers of her island nation – and then moves with him to San Diego.   In the USA she finds great prosperity, but also some loneliness accompanied by discrimination.   Her transformation is assisted by a guidebook, printed in Japanese and English, labeled How to Be an American Housewife.

The character of Shoko is based on the author’s mother, Suiko O’Brien, who told Dilloway that “her life would make a great book.”   It does, and Shoko relied on a book that her American husband had given to her called The American Way of Housekeeping.

The second story is the tale of Shoko’s southern California-raised daughter, Sue, a character who might be reflective of some of the author’s own experiences growing up.   Sue is a divorced mother who perhaps does not properly appreciate her own mother until Shoko begin to experience serious health problems.   Shoko understands that her time on earth may be short and she wants nothing more than to visit her estranged brother Taro in a village in Japan, one not too far from Nagasaki.

As children Taro and Shoko were told that they shared the blood of the Emperor’s royal family.   When Shoko, attempting to live on her own as a young woman, begins to spend time with a lower-caste man, Taro sees this as bringing shame upon their family.   He vows to never forgive her, and Taro also hates the Americans who bombed his country; thus, Shoko’s marriage to an American (a”Charlie”) is another sign of Shoko’s betrayal to family and country.

Once its determined that the elderly Shoko needs a life-saving heart operation, she is set on convincing Sue to visit Japan in her stead.   She wants Sue to find Taro and deliver to him a request and a message.   This may be the final thing that Shoko asks of her daughter and Sue elects to honor her mother’s wishes.

One one level this is about persons of one culture trying to find acceptance and peace in another one, one that is initially alien (“San Diego had become a foreign nation…”).   This is true of a Japanese woman suddenly transported to the U.S. and of her daughter who, several decades later, finds herself in older parts of Japan.   Shoko eventually finds the peace to state, “I became an American…”   Sue makes a transformational journey to the Land of the Rising Sun with her own daughter and she finds that she’s “homesick” for a place she’s never been to before.

On a second level, this is about the interest and spice that’s added to life when one accepts cultures, and the habits, traditions and foods of “the others.”   In the end, the differences between us add to our experiences rather than subtract from them.   Dilloway’s story is a much-needed tribute to multiculturalism.   It is a telling that is an extremely effective one precisely because it includes examples of the sad destruction brought about by hating and fearing those who are different from us.

And finally, this is a tale of forgiveness.   It is one thing for Taro to be asked to forget the mistakes he and his sister made while they were young; it may be another to ask him to forgive a nation whose planes shot at him and dropped bombs on his village during the 1940s.   Yet, because Shoko married an American serviceman the issues become joined in his mind and heart.

The best scene in How to Become an American Housewife is the one in which Sue’s Japanese relatives take her to visit the Peace Park in Nagasaki, ground zero for the dropping of the second atomic bomb.   When the bomb exploded over Nagasaki, Taro and Shoko were close enough in the nearby village to see the lights from the explosion and hear the sound.   As Sue walks through the park, she comes to understand the horror of war, the terror of how it ended, and the fact that nothing can change the past.

Dilloway’s characters come to understand, as we all must, that the pain of yesterday is no reason to destroy the present.   This debut novel is an impressive tribute to one woman, a mother, who lived a true and large life.   It is also a tribute to the best characters of people in two very different countries who, separately yet together, seek to find comfort in the noisy turbulence of life.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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This Ain’t No Disco

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Harper Perennial; $15.99; 560 pages)

“There was no statute of limitations on murder.”

Lauren Belfer has produced a grand, glorious and occasionally disappointing tale of medicine, war, love and other things in this 560 page historical novel.   This is primarily a fictional account of the discovery and development of penicillin soon after the United States was dragged into World War II.   Belfer sets the scene well, convincing the reader that Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming experience for the average American; quite comparable to 9/11.

The primary character is one Claire Shipley, a photographer for Life magazine which provides her with the credentials to witness history in the making.   In this role, Claire comes to meet and fall in love with James Stanton, the physician who is heading the government’s military-based efforts to develop the new drug on a massive scale.   Claire can relate to the importance of Stanton’s mission as her daughter died from a blood-borne disease at a young age, a disease that might have been halted by penicillin.

One early surprise about this novel is that Stanton reports to a civilian authority figure in Washington, D.C. – a man by the name of Vannevar Bush.   Bush, a key scientist and organizer of the project that led to the development of the atomic bomb, comes across as a very serious and intelligent figure, yet with a touch of playfulness.   With Bush, Belfer succeeds in bringing a lesser-known historical figure to life.

She also succeeds, at least during the first half of A Fierce Radiance, in juxtaposing two stories, the story of the medicine, science and sheer luck behind the development of a life saving drug, and a love story.   Claire and James meet the love of their lives when they meet each other, but each has issues and problems that make their becoming a couple unlikely.   Each has perhaps seen too much of life by the time they’ve met.

If Belfer has played it safe to this point, she soon gambles with the reader’s patience and understanding.   This is because a murder affecting one of the major characters occurs, turning a two-headed story into a three-headed one.   Now the novel is not just about the war and medicine and love during wartime, it also becomes a murder mystery.   It seems at first a bit much especially when – wouldn’t you know it – a New York City Police Department detective (wise and grizzled) enters the scene.

Of course, the author has provided herself with a very broad field to work in here; one can tie together a lot of loose ends in close to 600 pages.   What Belfer does so well is to write in a voice that makes the reader feel “calmed and safe.”   There’s a patience and politeness in the voice that will seem familiar to readers of Anna Quindlen and to those who have read the other recent novel about life in the U.S. during World War II, The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.   It’s as if the oh-so-calm voice does take us back to an earlier time with ease.

Yet there are at least two problems with the telling.   First, the omniscient point of view of the narrator becomes tiring and also keeps the reader from knowing each of the characters as well as we would like.   Because the omniscient (godlike) narrator goes into the mind of every character, the author skimps on well-rounded character development.   This becomes frustrating to the reader and may be a major reason the omniscient voice is used less and less in today’s popular fiction.

Next, while Belfer has written a story that reads like an overly long screenplay, if it were made into a film, most viewers would be very far from satisfied with the ending.   The author does not take the easy way out…  she ends the story with a whimper rather than with a bang.   In this she may have successfully reflected the happenings of life in a truer way than it might be displayed in a tightly scripted and highly dramatic Hollywood-style ending.   This may well be to the author’s credit but it is asking a lot – in fact, far too much – of a reader to devote more than 550 pages to a story that sometimes sizzles before it blandly fizzles out.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   A Fierce Radiance will be released in trade paperback form on March 29, 2011.


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More Than This

The Postmistress: A Novel by Sarah Blake (Berkley Trade; $15.00; 384 pages)

The time is the years 1940 and 1941 and Americans are attempting to stay out of the conflict in Europe.   President Franklin Roosevelt has pledged to keep American boys from dying in a new world war, but most Americans are well aware that he’s stalling for time.   Hitler’s armies are invading countries throughout Europe and something is happening to hundreds of thousands of Jews.   This is the setting for The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

Blake tells the story of three women – three very different individuals with different personalities and needs.   Iris is the postmistress of the title, a woman who is thorough and organized in everything she does.   Iris takes pride in her discipline and in her preparation for all things.   Although she’s lacking a suitor, she travels to Boston to see a doctor who will certify her virginity; she’s sure that some man will one day find this to be a factor in her favor.

Emma is a transplant to the east coast, a small and frail woman who lost her parents early in life.   She wishes to have a new stable life with her physician-husband.   But Emma’s husband feels the call to go to help the victims of the German bombing of London.

Frankie is the tough and ambitious radio reporter stationed in Europe working with Edward R. Murrow.   She’s frustrated and wants to travel to find the “real story” of what is happening to the Jews.   She wants to be the voice of truth, a human alarm bell.

Something happens to each of these characters in The Postmistress.   Iris eventually wonders if she has placed duty to her job above simple human kindness.   Letters and telegrams bearing bad news travel through her hands.   Will the point come when she should show some mercy by withholding horrible news?   Would it make a difference?   Or would it place her in a position of arrogantly playing God?

Emma feels that she may lose everything, including a child on the way, if her husband places the needs of those in England above hers.   It’s not America’s war, right?   But then she may be powerless in the face of her husband’s desire to serve his fellow human beings.

Frankie becomes tired and devastated over what she observes in war-torn Europe.   Hitler’s armies are on the march and the people in the U.S. who listen to her radio show seem to refuse to accept the truth – the truth that war is inevitable.   Who else but American boys and men will save the world?

Whatever is coming does not just come…  It is helped by people wilfully looking away.   People who develop the habit of swallowing lies rather than the truth.

This novel tells us that stories get told when they need to be told – not before and not after.   There’s not a good time or bad time, simply the time.   Blake does a marvelous job of transporting the reader back to the early 40s in polite, calm and reasoned language.   Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to The Postmistress is to say that when you read it, you will place yourself in that time and place.   You will also ask yourself what you would have done in that time and under those circumstances.

Would you have sought delay as an isolationist (“It’s not our war.”)?   Or would you have been one of those who said, “We’re going to have to go at some point, so why not now?”   A simple question, perhaps, but the fate of the world – of freedom – literally depended on the answer.

Sarah Blake displays an intelligence in the telling of the story that is, sadly, all too rare these days.   In the end, this is an important story about normal people occupying a larger-than-life stage.   Blake tells it impressively and beautifully.   The Postmistress is a story that you will be thinking about weeks and months later.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Postmistress was released in trade paperback form on February 1, 2011.

The Postmistress made me homesick for a time before I was even born.   What’s remarkable, however, is how relevant the story is to our present day times.   A beautifully written, thought-provoking novel that I’m tellling everyone I know to read.   Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help.

 

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