Tag Archives: World War II

“Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson

Goodness, I haven’t blogged for many weeks! I’m happy to report that most of this delay resulted from good things happening in my life, like travel. Then there were some troubles, but nothing really far out of the ordinary.

BUT also, I read a book that brought me to a bemused halt! Yes, Cryptonomicon.

First, it’s huge – 900+ pages. Perfect if you are crossing Siberia by train in winter. (I wasn’t.) And it’s written in a style that mixes fact and fiction, cutting back and forth through time.

The mixture of fact and fiction makes me wonder is Stephenson wants his work to be accessible only to cognoscenti. His description of, for example, the Hindenburg explosion might be incomprehensible to many people. (And maybe I misunderstood…)

One message of the book is “war is hell”, to which I reply (as usual) “If so, why wrap it in fiction?” I was somewhat reminded of Catch 22 by  Joseph Heller, but that was more linear in narrative style.

Why did I keep reading this sprawling, often confusing novel? For the characters and their relationships. And because I’m interested in “contemporary” history, the times I (and my parents) lived through.

I have not delved into the reviews of this book. On Amazon.com alone they number 1,685, cumulatively awarding Cryptonomicon 4+ stars out of five.

I read (and blogged about) three other books by Neal Stephenson: Anathem, Snow Crash and Seven Eves. Anathem was my favorite, closely followed by Seven Eves. I will await recommendations from friends before I tackle another.


“The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer

This book was published in 1951, when the world was struggling to understand what had led to World War II and the Holocaust. The “true believers” Hoffer analyzed were Nazis and Fascists, with some discussion of early Christians and other movements. He believed all mass movements shared a definable set of characteristics.

Full disclosure: I didn’t read this book! I attended two 2-hour seminars on it, sponsored by my husband’s alma mater, and I read ABOUT the book and the author.

A subtext to our discussion was the election of Donald Trump. We’ve all suffered from shock. What does this mean about our country? Are we headed towards fascist type authoritarianism? Who voted for Trump, and why? As far as I know, the fourteen people (total) who attended the two seminars did not vote for Trump.

We decided that Trump’s supporters were not “true believers” in the same sense as Nazis and Fascists. There’s no reason to believe they would die for Donald Trump.

Hoffer believes certain segments of a population are vulnerable to demagogic leadership, namely those who feel angry and powerless. He speaks of spoiled or damaged lives, and mentions “failed artists”. I can’t parse that category.

Our discussion veered to other groups that offer up their lives. Suicide bombers. The Arab Spring protester who burned himself to death. Kamikazi pilots.

Though often described as a philosopher, Hoffer was not an academic. Wikipedia lists his occupations as “author and longshoreman”. He may not have graduated from high school. He was fluently literate in both English and German, and read voraciously. The US military refused to enlist him due to medical condition and possibly his age – he was 40 at the start of WW II. How he managed to publish “The True Believer” while laboring as a dockworker in San Francisco puzzles me.

A great deal of Hoffer’s writing was never published, but is available to scholars. I hope more of it will be extracted for publication. Now is the time for public dialog on the issues he studied.

“My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One” by Elena Ferrante

I couldn’t figure out how this book came to be on my Kindle. Sometimes I forget I’m not the only person using my account! Thanks, J, for spotting this wonderful novel, which was originally published in Italian.

What did I like about this book? I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I like authors who take childhood and children seriously. Ferrante never deviates from the point of view and story line of her heroine, who, in this book, is followed from about age 6 to 17.

What else? I decided to look up “literary fiction” to see if this book qualifies. Wikipedia tells me “literary fiction” has something more going on that just plot. It engages some important idea or concept. My Brilliant Friend deals with poverty, war, education (very interesting!), gender roles, social violence and other important issues, all within the framework of one life.

If I’m going to read “literary fiction”, I want to do it right… I consulted Thomas C Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor on the subject of symbolism. According to Foster, almost everything is a symbol, and most symbols carry both positive and negative connotations. (Foster was not so helpful as to list the symbolism of common objects.) One prominent symbol in in My Brilliant Friend is shoes. Speculating wildly, I would say that the shoes in My Brilliant Friend symbolize creativity, wealth and power. But fixing shoes (as one character does) symbolizes poverty and subservience.

So much for literary criticism…

“Elena Ferrante” does not exist. This is the pen name of a person who (despite international acclaim and major prizes) prefers to remain anonymous, and who has been quoted as saying “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. Her publisher has respected her wishes. Speculation as to her identity is rampant and sometimes detailed. I, for one, am content to enjoy the books and let the author use whatever name she chooses.

I plan to read more by Elena Ferrante.

“Full Dark House” and “The Water Room” by Christopher Fowler

These are the first two books in the series about the fictional London “Peculiar Crimes Unit”, also known as the Bryant and May mysteries after the two protagonists.

These are first class mysteries, full of atmosphere and detail.

Full Dark House takes place during the Blitz, and reflects the anguish of a country at war. A German invasion is expected. Civil order is stressed near the breaking point. Deaths in a popular theater need to be solved. Bryant and May are young and inexperienced – the War forces people into jobs for which they are unprepared.

The Water Room takes place decades later, when Bryant and May are past retirement age and the Peculiar Crimes Unit is threatened with dissolution. Crime strikes a neighbor balanced uncertainly between slum status and upward mobility.

Bryant and May represent two different approaches to crime. Bryant is an intuitive and “non-linear” thinker, likely to propose mythical or psychological explanations for human behavior. He cultivates a wide acquaintance among London’s fortune tellers, psychics, witches, cultists and oddballs, sometimes using them to aid his investigations. May represents the “conventional” approach to crime – interview witnesses, seek motives and connections, repeat as necessary. Together, they solve seemingly impossible conundrums.

These books force the reader to confront the question, which am I, logical or intuitive? Given that “logical” is now (at least in theory) mainstream and dominant, how do I incorporate the intuitive into my mental processes? When do I rely on my “intuition”? Important questions! When does intuition slide into prejudice?

I have good friends on both sides of the line. I come down on the “rational” side… mostly. If I was a crime victim and the investigating detective decided to consult a psychic, I wouldn’t be pleased. How about you?

Wikipedia points out that the city of London itself can be considered a “separate character” in the Peculiar Crimes novels. This is especially true in The Water Room. London is built over ancient structures, including enclosed rivers and underground chambers. This historical framework adds a wonderful dimension to Fowler’s writing.

I plan to keep a novel or two from Fowler on my Kindle, against a rainy day or travel delay. Fowler is a very prolific writer. I won’t run out soon!

“The Ghost Army of World War II – How One TOP SECRET Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sounds Effects and Other Audacious Fakery” by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles

This book was an interesting antidote to Harry Turtledove’s eccentric fantasy fiction version of World War II. (See my blog entry dated March 24, 2016.) Beyer and Sayles wrote about the real World War II, and about DECEPTION as a tactic. These soldiers were officially known as the US Army 23rd Special Troops.

The trickery fell into various categories. First was camouflage. No surprise. But it was pursued at a very sophisticated level, and led to the assembly of a group of soldiers with exceptional artistic talent. Camouflage was needed both in the US (where it was assumed that Nazi spy planes might fly overhead), and in Europe, where troop movements needed to be disguised. Camouflage became less important as the War in Europe progressed, because Allied air power countered German spy missions.

The remaining measures were intended to confuse the enemy about the location of key military divisions, and to make the Allied forces look much more numerous and formidable than they were.

The techniques used were visual deception, sonic deception and radio deception, plus some “play acting”.

Visual deception meant setting up “dummies” or fake equipment, mostly tanks and guns. Inflatable rubber tanks and arms were used to create the impression of battle ready troops where none were available. (Inflatable people never worked out.) This could not have been believable without the addition of “sonic” deception. Any army on the move is noisy! Carefully prepared, highly realistic recordings were blasted through truck mounted speakers. But the whole performance had to be supported through radio deception. The enemy was always listening. Carefully scripted transmissions would continue long after a fighting division had left an area and been replaced by a deception team. Deceptive Morse code transmissions were also broadcast.

And a final layer of trickery was added. The soldiers of the deception team would change their uniforms and the markings on their vehicles, and sometimes impersonate a specific high officer to convince the enemy of the location of a particular unit. Some “disinformation” was planted.

All of which added up to very dangerous work. The deception teams worked close to the enemy and were not heavily armed. Secrecy was essential. They were supposed to draw fire without getting killed.

Did it work? Information about the “ghost army” was classified for decades after the War, but the overall consensus was that their actions saved many lives, and may have been pivotal in the Battle of the Bulge. Had the enemy known of Patton’s weakness, perhaps he would have been overrun. (This oversimplifies a very complex situation.)

The deception teams included many artists. Although notes and journals were prohibited by security regulations, the artists were never separated from their sketchbooks. These books and their letters home constituted an amazing visual archive of World War II.

This book was preceded by a documentary film and a exhibition catalog. This may explain its slightly awkward style. But it is well worth reading!


“In the Balance (World War, Book One)” by Harry Turtledove

Alternative historical fiction! A new genre to explore! And what a great idea! After all, who can resist speculating on “What if the South had won the Civil War?” So I downloaded this highly recommended book. The premise is extreme – what if space aliens had invaded Earth towards the end of World War II?

I think this would have worked better without the space aliens (any universal threat would do, like an epidemic), but they allowed for an interesting line of argument, namely that a reader of science fiction might have an advantage when communicating with bug eyed monsters. Turtledove’s monsters are rather like lizards. The point, I think, is that reading sci-fi makes you mentally flexible. I agree, as long as it’s not your only reading matter.

Despite this interesting starting point, I found the book to be plodding. The characters were interesting but their dilemmas were rather predictable.

Turtledove made one joke he didn’t intend. The aliens come from a hot, dry planet, and they are headed for a military denouement with American forces in Illinois in mid-winter. Yes, winter is coming! Let’s hear it for Game Of Thrones.

I enjoyed another book series that posited a different path for WW II. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels take place in England, but after Nazi occupation during WW II. The occupation disrupted the country so extensively that Wales separated and became an independent nation. Tensions remained. This is not the theme of the books (which deal with the manipulation of time and the tribulations of heroine Thursday Next), but it provides an interesting subtext. (I think Fforde is classified as a writer of post modernist fantasy. I like him better than the other “postmodernists” I have encountered.)

I’ll read more by Harry Turtledove if I’m faced with truly challenging boredom (say a 30 hour train ride), but for now, I’m moving on to other authors.

“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

This novel has been wildly popular with book clubs. Friends recommended it enthusiastically. It has 17,000+ reviews on Amazon, with an average rating of 5.4/5! And guess what? It really is that good!

This is the story of two youngsters caught in the maelstrom of World War II in Europe. Lesson #1 – there is no childhood during war.

What did I find especially appealing? The relationship between Marie-Laure (who is followed from about age 6 to 17) and her father is touching and idiosyncratic. At a time when (as far as I know) the handicapped were often marginalized, the father pours so much energy and careful thought into his blind daughter’s training and education.

Werner, on the other hand, was an orphan, raised in a Children’s House that takes in the offspring of German coal miners who die on the job. Their caretaker is kind, but the living provided is barely above the subsistence level. Werner appears to have no alternative to becoming a miner when he turns 15. But, against the odds, he educates himself, finding and fixing a broken radio and learning a surprising amount of mathematics and physics from a battered textbook he salvages. The promise of education at a government school transfixes him. He steps onto the path to success within the Nazi party.

Marie-Laure and Werner meet at the very end of the War. He knows he is supposed to kill her. But the War is basically over and he is sick of killing. They are swept apart as the remnants of the German military machine are taken prisoner and French civilians are liberated.

War is hell. Survival is the exception. So don’t read this book when you are feeling emotionally vulnerable. But do read it!