A sympathetic portrait of a reluctant, little-known German-American double agent on the eve of World War II.
There are several spy rings that overlap and converge in journalist Duffy’s (The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland, 2007, etc.) immensely readable account, all involving the German immigrant’s notion of “patriotism.” For many of the select machinists who worked at the Carl L. Norden production facility at 80 Lafayette St. in lower Manhattan, being a good German meant delivering blueprints of the top-secret “bombsight” mechanism to the Abwehr to improve the Luftwaffe’s bombing accuracy and thus “save millions and lots of time.” Many immigrant laborers were virulently anti-communist and members of the right-wing German American Bund, which paraded openly its support of National Socialism through the streets of the German neighborhood of Yorkville at a time before the FBI, and its emergent director J. Edgar Hoover, had declared the group an internal threat. Yet the other kind of patriotism involved loyalty to one’s adopted country, personified by William G. Sebold (1899-1970), who fled the political chaos of Germany in the 1920s and became a naturalized American citizen in 1936. By an extraordinarily unlucky turn of events, when he returned to Germany to visit his mother at the outbreak of war, he was roped into working for the Abwehr in order to get back to the United States. Unbeknownst to the Nazis, he had also contacted the FBI; among the German immigrant community of Yorkville and the Brooklyn Sperry Gyroscope Company, they uncovered a whole nest of subversives offering defense secrets to the Nazis. Sebold ultimately helped to convict 33 traitors in 1941 in what was known as the Duquesne Spy Ring—the first feather in Hoover’s hat. While colorful personalities proliferate throughout the narrative, the understated character of Sebold gleams.
An entertaining work duly informed by Duffy’s knowledge of both the war and New York City.
A family from Mexico settles in Delaware and strives to repair emotional and physical wounds in Henríquez’s dramatic page-turner.
The author’s third book of fiction (Come Together, Fall Apart, 2006; The World in Half, 2009) opens with the arrival of Arturo and Alma Rivera, who have brought their teenage daughter, Maribel, to the U.S. in the hope of helping her recover from a head injury she sustained in a fall. Their neighbors Rafael and Celia Toro came from Panama years earlier, and their teenage son, Mayor, takes quickly to Maribel. The pair’s relationship is prone to gossip and misinterpretation: People think Maribel is dumber than she is and that Mayor is more predatory than he is. In this way, Henríquez suggests, they represent the immigrant experience in miniature. The novel alternates narrators among members of the Rivera and Toro families, as well as other immigrant neighbors, and their stories stress that their individual experiences can’t be reduced to types or statistics; the shorter interludes have the realist detail, candor and potency of oral history. Life is a grind for both families: Arturo works at a mushroom farm, Rafael is a short-order cook, and Alma strains to understand the particulars of everyday American life (bus schedules, grocery shopping, Maribel’s schooling). But Henríquez emphasizes their positivity in a new country, at least until trouble arrives in the form of a prejudiced local boy. That plot complication shades toward melodrama, giving the closing pages a rush but diminishing what Henríquez is best at: capturing the way immigrant life is often an accrual of small victories in the face of a thousand cuts and how ad hoc support systems form to help new arrivals get by.
A smartly observed tale of immigrant life that cannily balances its optimistic tone with straight talk.
Five kind and honorable people are caught up in the depredations of the Great War in this first stand-alone novel by the author of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series (Leaving Everything Most Loved, 2013, etc.)
In 1914, as war looms, newlyweds Tom and Kezia Brissenden are making a go of the farm Tom inherited from his father, a farm that would have been part of the estate of wealthy gentleman Edmund Hawkes had not his great-grandfather lost it to Tom’s great-grandfather in a darts game. Kezia, a vicar’s daughter, is earnestly striving to supplant her finishing school ways with those of a farm wife, consulting a housewifery guide, The Woman’s Book. Although Hawkes is attracted to Kezia, he keeps a respectful distance, just as he is cordial but not friendly toward Tom. This distance persists as Tom and Hawkes both enlist and are sent to the front line in France, where Tom, a private, serves under Capt. Hawkes. Kezia keeps Tom’s spirits up with her letters describing the sumptuous meals she prepares for him in her imagination, where wartime food shortages and government inroads on the farm’s production aren't problems. The whole battalion soon looks forward to her letters and the occasional fruitcake. However, Tom is scapegoated by this novel’s closest thing to a villain, the cynical and embittered Sgt. Knowles, who resents the influx of so many green recruits. Meanwhile, Tom’s sister (and Kezia’s best friend), Thea, anguishes over whether she will be arrested for her activities as a suffragette and pacifist. Ultimately, she decides that the only way to escape government oppression is to reaffirm her loyalty: She becomes an ambulance driver at the front, where Kezia’s father, Rev. Marchant, is ministering to troops in the trenches. Without questioning either the cause of the war or the dubious tactics employed, seemingly, to ensure maximum loss of life for minimal military advantage, these characters simply get on with it, reaffirming our faith in the possibility of everyday nobility.
A sad, beautifully written, contemplative testament.
A man desperate for cash makes a deal with the reality TV devil in this thoughtful, occasionally lecturing second novel from Harper’s deputy editor Beha (What Happened to Sophie Wilder, 2012, etc.).
Eddie is an erstwhile actor who’s given up on the occasional Law & Order gig to teach at the tony New York City Catholic boys school he attended. The job doesn’t pay enough to cover the in vitro fertilization treatments he and his wife, Susan, have signed on for, but a friend of a friend suggests a way to make some quick money: Sell the footage he recorded of himself with his ex-girlfriend Martha, now a red-hot actress. The sex tape boosts his bank account but botches everything else: Susan kicks him out of their apartment, he’s fired from the school, and the tabloids turn “Handsome Eddie” into an object of ridicule. Eddie is desperate to right himself morally and reconnect with Susan, especially since the IVF treatment worked, but he’s no longer in charge of his own story: A reality TV producer has made Susan the star of a show about her pregnancy, and Eddie can only enter the picture when the narrative is appropriate for his redemption. This is the stuff of comedy, but Beha gives it a sober-sided treatment; he’s concerned with the ways mass media hijack our sense of free will to the point where we only play-act at emotions and live vicariously through celebrities. That theme is old news, and Beha’s scenes about viral popularity and entertainment-TV news cycles are familiar and didactic. But the storytelling is ingenious. As Eddie becomes increasingly stage-managed to appear more “authentic,” Beha infuses the story with rich, potent irony, suggesting how susceptible we are to others’ plotting.
Beha gets to have it both ways: His novel is at once brisk and episodic while critiquing the limits of brisk, episodic narrative.
A foreign correspondent examines the intertwining histories of two Tomlinson families—one white, the other black—who shared a common past spent on a Texas slave plantation.
After spending more than a decade covering wars in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, Texas native Tomlinson returned to the United States with his consciousness of man’s inhumanity to man permanently raised. Determined to expose the way his family past was implicated in the problematic history of racial relations in America, Tomlinson began by probing an alleged connection to former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson. The author learned that both he and LaDainian had descended from families that had lived on a plantation called Tomlinson Hill. Scouring family papers, archival documents, area history books and the Internet, Tomlinson pieced together the stories of the two families. Starting in the years preceding the Civil War, his ancestors established Tomlinson Hill and began keeping slaves who would eventually take the family name. Later mythologies about the South would transform all slave owners, including the Tomlinsons, into symbols of graciousness and gentility. At the same time, they erased one essential truth: that violence and injustice toward blacks was a fact of life on all plantations. This attitude persisted into the 20th century, becoming embedded in the ideology of the Ku Klux Klan, which claimed to celebrate the “heroic” values of the Old South and managed to draw members of Tomlinson’s own family into the Klan’s ranks during the 1920s. Even after the civil rights movement, the supposedly enlightened teachers in the Dallas county schools Tomlinson attended “walked a careful line in teaching about race, holding no one responsible for the sins of the past.” The author offers not only a detailed history of two families brought together by circumstances greater than themselves; he also opens an honest conversation necessary to begin healing the centuries-old racial rifts that have marred American history.
Another crackling tale of adventure from journalist/explorer Sides (Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin, 2010, etc.), this one focusing on a frigid disaster nearly 150 years ago.
When the Jeannette, commanded by a dashing officer named George De Long, disappeared in the Arctic waters of Russia on a long expeditionary voyage that began in the summer of 1879, American newspapers thought it did not necessarily mean disaster: They preferred to see it as a sign that the ship had broken through the dreaded polar ice and was now sailing freely, if without communication, in the open polar sea. No such luck: As Sides documents, the Jeannette and its crew met a gruesome end; toward the end of his narrative, we tour their icy cemetery, here the Chinese cook gazing serenely into the sky, there De Long lying barehanded with arm upraised, as if he “had raised his left arm and flung his journal behind him in the snow, away from the embers of the fire.” When contemporaries took that tour and reports came out, the newspapers were full of speculation about even more gruesome possibilities, which Sides, on considering the evidence, dismisses. Given that a bad outcome is promised in the book’s subtitle, readers should not find such things too surprising. The better part of the narrative is not in the sad climax but in the events leading up to it, from De Long’s life and education at sea to the outfitting of the ship (complete with a storeroom full of “barrels of brandy, porter, ale, sherry, whiskey, rum, and cases of Budweiser beer”), personality clashes among members of the crew, and the long, tragic history of polar expedition.
A grand and grim narrative of thrilling exploration for fans of Into Thin Air, Mountains of the Moon and the like.
A tale of espionage, alcoholism, bad manners and the chivalrous code of spies—the real world of James Bond, that is, as played out by clerks and not superheroes.
Now pretty well forgotten, Kim Philby (1912-1988) was once a byname for the sort of man who would betray his country for a song. The British intelligence agent was not alone, of course; as practiced true-espionage writer Macintyre (Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, 2012, etc.) notes, more than 200 American intelligence agents became Soviet agents during World War II—“Moscow had spies in the treasury, the State Department, the nuclear Manhattan Project, and the OSS”—and the Brits did their best to keep up on their end. Philby may have been an unlikely prospect, given his upper-crust leanings, but a couple of then-fatal flaws involving his sexual orientation and still-fatal addiction to alcohol, to say nothing of his political convictions, put him in Stalin’s camp. Macintyre begins near the end, with a boozy Philby being confronted by a friend in intelligence, fellow MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott, whom he had betrayed; but rather than take Philby to prison or put a bullet in him, by the old-fashioned code, he was essentially allowed to flee to Moscow. Writing in his afterword, John Le Carré recalls asking Elliott, with whom he worked in MI6, about Philby’s deceptions—“it quickly became clear that he wanted to draw me in, to make me marvel…to make me share his awe and frustration at the enormity of what had been done to him.” For all Philby’s charm (“that intoxicating, beguiling, and occasionally lethal English quality”), modern readers will still find it difficult to imagine a world of gentlemanly spy-versus-spy games all these hysterical years later.
Gripping and as well-crafted as an episode of Smiley’s People, full of cynical inevitability, secrets, lashings of whiskey and corpses.
Popular British author Moyes (The Girl You Left Behind, 2013, etc.) offers another warmhearted, off-kilter romance, this one between a financially strapped single mother and a geeky tech millionaire.
Ten years ago, Jess Thomas got pregnant and dropped out of high school to marry Marty. Two years ago, hapless Marty temporarily moved out of their home on the southern coast of England to sort out his life. He never returned. Cleaning houses by day and working in a pub at night, Jess barely earns enough to support her 10-year-old daughter, Tanzie, and her 16-year-old stepson, Nicky, whom she’s been raising since he was 8. Jess worries constantly about sensitive Nicky, a moody goth regularly beaten up by the local bully. Math genius Tanzie presents a different crisis: She’s been offered a generous scholarship to a private school her current teachers say she needs, and Jess can’t come up with the balance. The only hope is winning prize money at a math tournament in Scotland, but how to get there? Meanwhile, one of Jess’ cleaning clients, computer whiz Ed Nicholls, has come to stay in his seaside vacation home to avoid publicity surrounding insider trading charges. He and Jess share an instant mutual dislike, but when he ends up drunk at the pub, Jess makes sure he gets home safely. Partly out of gratitude, but largely to escape pressure from lawyers, his ex-wife and his sister—who’s nagging him to attend his father’s birthday party—Ed offers to drive Jess, her kids and their large dog to Scotland. A road-trip-from-hell romantic comedy ensues, complete with carsickness, bad meals and missed signals. Unsurprisingly, hostility evolves into mutual attraction. But Moyes throws in a few wrenches, like Tanzie’s failure at the competition, Ed’s father’s cancer and the cash Jess has secretly kept since it fell out of Ed’s pocket at the pub that first night.
Moyes has mastered the art of likable, not terribly memorable, but far from simple-minded storytelling.
An unvarnished picture of Southern life by debut author Howorth, co-owner of the storied Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.
After many years, Mary Byrd Thornton receives news that her then-9-year-old stepbrother’s unsolved murder is being reopened. In response, she breaks a plate—a Corelle plate, not her Spode china, because she has a “maddening way of second-thinking her impulses.” As the loose plot follows Mary Byrd from the deep South to her hometown in Virginia to meet the cold-case detective, her impulses and second guesses set the tone. Most of the story takes the form of Mary Byrd's internal monologue, which can indeed be maddening. She’s dedicated to her life as wife and mother in a small college town in Mississippi but unconvinced of her value or efficacy in those roles. She's antsy, too, alert for opportunities to escape into her small stash of prescription pills or dabble in infidelity as she has before. The result is a character who vibrates between self-castigation and stubborn defiance, like a teenager. She makes phone calls in a closet to avoid scrutiny by her family’s longtime African-American housekeeper, Evagreen, sensing that she doesn’t have the right breeding or attitude to earn Evagreen’s respect. This and other moments where Mary Byrd recognizes her white privilege are awkward. She embodies a soup of self-awareness, liberal guilt and helplessness surely familiar—and uncomfortably accurate—to many white people. It’s intriguing that Howorth’s omniscient narration veers into Evagreen’s thoughts at times and later spends a night in the mind of a homeless black man named Teever, a fixture in town. Both are dealing with their own tragedies but exhibit a grounded, confident quality that Mary Byrd lacks. How conscious a judgment this is on the author’s part is hard to say.
Howorth’s dedication to capturing the messy, fraught and politically incorrect pieces of Mississippi life ultimately makes for a compelling read.