Friday, May 25, 2012

That Reminds Me

Lately, it seems like every book I read reminds me of one or two others. I don't mean that the book I'm reading seems derivative, but it has tended to have a similar setting or theme that makes me feel like it should be read together with the book it brings to mind. Since I've been on a World War II-era book binge, I suppose this phenomenon shouldn't be surprising.

As soon as I heard about Simon Mawer's Trapeze, I had to read it. The book tells the story of Marian Sutro, a young Englishwoman who is recruited into Britain's Special Operations Executive as an agent. Winston Churchill's mandate to the SOE was to "set Europe ablaze" by working with local resistance forces to fight Germans in occupied countries, especially France. Marian comes to the SOE's attention because she has a French mother and grew up in Geneva, speaking French.

Marian jumps at the chance to join the SOE, even though it's not at all clear to her what the agency is, or what, exactly, they want from her. She's just looking forward to be doing something exciting for the war effort. In the first part of the book, Marian is recruited and sent off to her training, which includes coding and decoding messages, armed and unarmed combat, stealth killing and explosives. Oh, yes, and a parachuting course, so that the agents can be dropped by moonlight into occupied France. We meet Marian's upper-crusty superiors and her more down-to-earth trainers and fellow agents. Other trainees include the charming and lively Benoit, with whom she begins a relationship, and Yvette, a nervy widow and mother of a young child, who constantly worries she will wash out of the SOE without having a chance to return to her native France.

The second part of the book covers Marian's drop into a village near Toulouse, and her meeting with members of the underground network there. The big action takes place in the third part, in which Marian is sent to Paris on a mission to bring supplies and messages to Parisian agents. The Paris network has been compromised, leaving Marian with few resources and not knowing who can be trusted. This part of the book was nail-bitingly tense, with a frightening and violent climax.

Noor Inayat Khan, SOE agent
Trapeze immediately brought to mind one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, Leo Marks's Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945. Marks was a very young codes officer at the SOE. He supervised a team of women who used brute-force methods to decode messages that had become garbled, and he taught coding techniques to field agents. The men and women who went into the field had only about a 50/50 chance of survival––and they knew it. They just went on with the job; even those who had young children. Many were captured by the Germans, tortured, sent to concentration camps and killed. Marks tells their stories and breaks our hearts. Simon Mawer has had a long fascination with the female agents of the SOE and pays homage to them through this book.

Marian's training description in Trapeze reminded me of similar scenes in William Boyd's Restless, with its Eva/Sally character. Their training experiences were remarkably similar, and both had a tough-minded determination to get on with the job.

As the summer Olympics in London approach, it seemed like a good time to read David John's Flight from Berlin, which revolves around the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Let me just start by saying this is a formulaic book––but in a good way. It won't improve your mind or make you think deep and important thoughts. John is just a good storyteller, who has a talent for characterization and can make an outlandish plot filled with cartoonish Nazis, numerous chase scenes and zeppelin stowaways seem believable enough to keep your eyes from rolling around too much.

Jesse Owens
First-time author John's heroine is Eleanor Emerson, a 1932 Olympic gold-medal-winning swimmer who is married to a bandleader and likes to drink, smoke and spend her evenings in nightclubs, sometimes singing with the band. She immediately clashes with delegation chief Avery Brundage over her shenanigans on board the ship taking the team to Europe, and ends up being booted from the team. But she's made herself popular with the press and gets a special correspondent assignment. Once in Berlin, she meets British reporter Richard Denham. In classic Hollywood-movie style, they clash and then come together. They become involved in the story of Hannah Liebermann, a world-class fencer who is the sole Jewish member of the German Olympic delegation and, separately, in the pursuit of a mysterious dossier that the Nazis are desperate to acquire.

The action of the plot moves from the Olympic Games (including a description of Jesse Owens's spectacular long jump win and his surprisingly warm reception by the largely German stadium crowd) to the streets and nightclubs of Berlin, a party at the home of notorious Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels, the famed Tiergarten and, most spectacularly, the zeppelin Hindenburg.

Eleanor Holm
David John based his Eleanor Emerson character on real-life Olympian Eleanor Holm, who really was a hard-partying girl married to a bandleader, and whose wild behavior on the cross-Atlantic trip practically provoked Avery Brundage to change his last name to Umbrage and definitely did get him to kick Holm off the team. Like Emerson, Holm used her press popularity to get a correspondent job for the Games. John also based the Hannah Liebermann fencer character on Helene Meyer, the only Jewish member of the German Olympic team. John spices the story with many other characters who existed in real life, most notably Brundage, who infamously pulled two Jewish athletes off the US relay team, and Martha Dodd, the social butterfly daughter of the then-US ambassador to Germany, who (Martha, that is) had lovers who were members of the Nazi SS and another who was in the USSR's diplomatic corps and intelligence service.

Flight from Berlin put me in mind of those guilty-pleasure film thrillers from the 1930s and 1940s, with sneering Nazis played by emigrés who had usually fled the Nazis themselves. It reminded me slightly of Rebecca Cantrell's 2011 Game of Lies, third book in the Hannah Vogel series, in which Hannah is a reporter at the 1936 Olympics too. Although Cantrell's book is painstakingly researched, she doesn't tell nearly as exciting a story, and her Hannah Vogel is a mope, especially compared to Eleanor Emerson. A non-mystery novel that Flight From Berlin brought to mind was Frank Deford's Bliss, Remembered, about a US Olympic swimmer who goes to the 1936 Olympics. Eleanor Holm must have been some kind of inspirational! Deford's book had its moments, but much of its dialog was awkward and the story forgettable. More than Game of Lies or Bliss, Remembered, Flight from Berlin reminded me of Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. Larson's story heavily features Martha Dodd, and wonderfully evokes the mixture of excitement, fear and dread that prevailed in Berlin under the Nazis in the 1930s.

I also recently read Alan Furst's Mission to Paris. In 1938, France walks on a high-tension wire. Germany has re-armed and is on the march. Austria has become part of the glorious Reich, the Sudetenland and Danzig are being vociferously claimed, and the French wait to see what Hitler plans next.

Some of the French have already succumbed, willingly, to what they see as inevitable. Businessmen openly admire the new Germany and use their connections with certain newspapers to propagandize in favor of authoritarianism, falsely positing that anything to the left of that is equivalent to the menace of bolshevism. Too many politicians and bureaucrats are also ready to accept Germany's domination of Europe.

Many of France's refugees, on the other hand, are too well acquainted with the Third Reich to be anything but frightened for the future of Europe and themselves. Embassy and intelligence personnel from other countries, stationed in Paris, anxiously monitor developments and prepare for the worst.

Coco Chanel collaborated with the Nazi occupiers
Into this seething atmosphere comes Frederic Stahl, an American movie star who has arrived in Paris to make a movie. Stahl was born in Austria under the name Franz Stalka, then lived in Paris for several years. No admirer of the Nazis, Stahl is surprised to find many Germans and German-friendly French in Paris's high society––and just as surprised to find himself assiduously courted by them.

When courting is followed by pressure and threats by Germany's agents to get Stahl to act, essentially, as a celebrity supporter of the Reich, Stahl decides to become a player on the other side of the intelligence and influence war being waged.

Though I read a lot of World War II-era fiction, I have not been a fan of Alan Furst in the past, largely because I haven't been engaged by his characters. But I'm very much an admirer of this book––even if I'd still say characterization isn't Furst's strong suit. You might think that a pre-war espionage story can't be compelling, but Furst masterfully evokes feelings of tension and frustration, as we see the inevitable cataclysm building, and Stahl's efforts to hold back the storm. He also seems effortlessly to put the reader into the scenes he's created, so that we are there on the Paris streets, at the glittering parties, in the cafés, on the movie set.

In some ways, this book also reminded me of William Boyd's Restless. Not, as with Trapeze, in the part about the agent's training, but in the story of an agent engaged in pre-war intelligence; in Restless, a female agent working in the US for Britain, trying to move the US away from isolationism. I recommend both books for fascinating views of how war works before the shots are fired.

Note: I was given advance reading copies of Flight from Berlin (available July 10) and Mission to Paris (available June 10) for review. Parts of my review here appear under my Amazon user name on the Amazon product pages.


  1. This is very nice one and gives in-depth information. Thanks for this nice article.

  2. Thanks! I hope you have a chance to read and enjoy one (or all) of these books.

  3. Sister,
    I enjoy your blogs about WWII as well your interest in that time between the great wars. Do you ever read any accounts of the Pacific theater or are your interests only in the European events? My uncle died in early 1942 in the early chaos of the Java campaign after Pearl Harbor; he was an Army Air Corps pilot sent there and was on the U.S. Langley which was sunk by the Japanese & eventually to the U.S. Edsall where they were all lost. Perhaps, this is not the history so frequently used in fiction as the back story for a novel. I can understand that.
    I guess I just wondered if your wonderful curiosity and sense of history had ever explored this area of the war. I have always felt it to be a neglected area and many U.S. Navy ships went down in that period.

  4. I'm much more interested in the European Theater than the Pacific Theater. But I SHOULD be more interested in the Pacific Theater because my father was also in the Army Air Corps (radio operator) in the Pacific Theater and would tell me stories very often about his experiences. My father-in-law was ALSO a radio operator in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theater and also likes to talk about his war. Maybe I feel like I got all the stories I need from those two?

    I agree that the PTO is a relatively neglected subject---certainly in fiction.

    It's good to hear that there are people who like my WW2 posts. I worry sometimes about overdoing it on that topic. And yet I have so many more I want to do . . . .

    1. No, you are not overdoing it! Please keep the WW2 posts coming as well as your other info regarding WW1 to WW2 years. I am reading Eric Larson's "In the Garden of the Beast" now after reading your remarks.
      Thank you so much.

    2. Sister, dismiss those thoughts please. Your posts about the wars and the period inbetweeen are wonderful. Keep them coming.

  5. Good grief, it's flight club day! My father was navigator on a bomber in the European Theatre.

    I was trying to think of Pacific Theatre books, but except for Pearl Harbor and some on the occupation of the Philippines, there don't seem to be many. The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia had a large exhibit years ago illustrating what led up to the battle of Midway, but I found it confusing. That may be why there are fewer stories about it; the war in Europe is easier for many people to understand.

  6. A Listener says:

    Dear Sister Mary M.:
    Regarding the SWPTO, below Is a copy of a post I made several years ago on a thread someone opened with the proposition that the campaign in New Guinea was a charade to feed MacArthur's ego, and a waste of time. Since my three brothers were deployed in the Pacific and two fought in New Guinea before island hopping up to land in the first waves of the invasion of Luzon, and I had followed the war very closely, this P.O'd me somewhat, so I whipped out what follows. It had the effect of shutting off the thread rather quickly.
    The statements that Japan did not have the resources or military strength to pose a threat to Australia, and therefore the men who fought in New Guinea were engaged in a useless charade, are interesting, but would, I suggest, come as a great surprise to the Australians alive at the time. Certainly, Australian Prime Minister Curtin was then expressing great concern. The reports are that when General MacArthur reached Australia, the Australians were talking of conceding New Guinea, and setting up a "Brisbane Line" to defend Australia. MacArthur moved his headquarters to Brisbane, squelched any talk of conceding New Guinea, and stated that they would defend Australia in New Guinea. As of the end of February, 1942, the Japanese had captured Hong Kong, driven down Malaya and taken Singapore, Manila had fallen, and the Americans driven onto the Bataan peninsula were in bad shape. The main British naval force, The Repulse and the Prince of Wales, had been sunk with ease by Japanese dive bombers. The Japanese had overwhelming naval superiority in the Pacific. The Japanese were attacking in Burma, and the British were asking for help to save India. As the Japanese were quickly taking the Dutch East Indies, the naval battle of the Java Sea pretty well wiped out the ABDA naval force in that area. Both Australia and India were threatened. As a result of its conquests, Japan controlled abundant food production, particularly rice, most of the world's natural rubber supply, three quarters of the world's tin resources, and a sizeable portion of the world's oil supply. It was shocking how quickly and easily this was accomplished. The battle of the Coral Sea stopped the invasion of Port Moresby. The battles of Midway and Guadalcanal, and the battles in New Guinea, finally stopped the Japanese advance. Were it not for a strategic error by Admiral Yamamoto, a few wrong judgments by Admiral Nagumo and others, and some Japanese bad luck here and there, these matters might have gone differently. To anyone alive in early 1942, and old enough to know what was going on (and sweating it out), it seemed very clear that Australia, India, China, and Hawaii were all threatened. We badly underestimated Japan at the time. It is a bit sad to see people not alive at the time, but who should know better, making the same mistake.


    I hope that the above gives you some feeling for what it was like at the time. My oldest brother's unit was originally scheduled to be part of the Bribane line, but was diverted to New Guinea when MacArthur overruled the Australians.

  7. Anonymouses (Anonymice?), thanks for your comments. You'll definitely be seeing more WW2 stuff!

    Peri, I've always heard how dangerous it was to be on bomber crews. How nice for all of us that your father lived to tell the tale.

    A Listener, thanks for taking the time to fill us all in on strategies and tactics in the Pacific Theater. My father was in Australia several times and did tell me how nervous people were there about the Japanese----as well as how wonderful he thought the Aussies were.