Sunday, August 26, 2012

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

Over and over through the years as I've read books about real life spies ("Comrade" Kim Philby and Sidney Reilly among others) I've been struck by how much more amazing these non-fiction stories were than those concocted as would-be pulp fiction thrillers. I've also been struck at how all the best spies were anything but good people, and they shared traits of cruelty and self-love that bordered on sociopathic narcissism. Ben Macintyre's biography of Eddie Chapman gives us a man who continues that dubious tradition. This page-turner is fact-filled and well-written and the life it tells of outdoes anything fiction has cranked out in quite a while. It's a very enjoyable read that presented the history of someone I personally had never heard of before I was introduced to him in this book.

Eddie Chapman was no James Bond or even a Sidney Reilly, but he was one of the boldest, most brazen con men ever to serve a nation or a cause, and in so doing he found some redemption from the wrongs of his earlier life. From his days as a roguish charmer who infiltrated high society and first infatuated and later blackmailed rich women in the most callous and base ways imaginable, this safecracker, thief and extortionist found himself sprung by the Germans early in the war when he was then serving a fifteen-year sentence in an English prison in the Channel Islands.

The charismatic Chapman, as liked by his German liberators as by those who'd known him back home, was then recruited by the Nazis as a spy who agreed to do their bidding and sabotage a British aircraft factory in Hertfordshire. He parachuted back onto his native soil during the busy Christmas season of 1942, only to prove his ultimate loyalty by going to the British and offering to in turn spy on the Germans. Ultimately faking the attack in Hertfordshire and returning to Germany through neutral Portugal, Chapman concocted a plan in which he would assassinate Adolph Hitler at a political rally. Although this plan obviously never came to fruition, Chapman bravely continued his double agency thru to the war's conclusion, an astounding feat of skill, luck and sheer courage all the more amazing considering the short lifespan of most other double agents.

So skilled was he at his falsehoods that Chapman was befriended by a number of well-placed Nazi personnel, and was decorated for his service to the Third Reich. Eventually after a posting in German-held Norway, late in the war Chapman was again smuggled into the United Kingdom where in his most noble deed he saved countless lives by concocting false reports to the Germans on the accuracy of their V1 and V2 rockets. In his communiqu├ęs Chapman claimed these flying bombs were landing beyond their intended targets, causing the Luftwaffe to re-adjust them to locations the British deemed less populated and therefore safer.

Incredibly after this the gifted liar and actor Chapman returned yet again to Nazi-controlled Norway, where he continued to be of service to his government in London, this time by turning over misleading information to the by-then moribund German military.

Chapman's life was one of amazing luck, daring, and amorality, but his story is also one of a man who betrayed nearly every friend who ever trusted him, and who ruined many lives, even as his service record shows he saved many others. He went on to not only survive the Second World War but live to old age, profiting from an MI5 pension and from the proceeds of the book and film royalties to his remarkable story. Macintyre skillfully takes us into the deeds and era of this confidence man turned double agent, and in doing so has given his readers a fine work of non-fiction that is a pleasure to complete.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Group Pictures-Speak

We were so happy that Mary could make it this month! Not even a serious car accident could keep her away! Can't wait to see her new CLEARWATER BLUE car...just like Karen's!

We all liked the young adult selection this month. We agreed that Speak seemed to have a few far-fetched and predictable themes, but we still enjoyed it. We thought it was a great book for young and older adults!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

This book has been on my "to read" list for years. Years ago I read, Walking Across America and it was fabulous. I will get to this book this year!! He has also written a few others, but one at a time!

Your initial reaction to Bill Bryson's reading of A Walk in the Woods may well be "Egads! What a bore!" But by sentence three or four, his clearly articulated, slightly adenoidal, British/American-accented speech pattern begins to grow on you and becomes quite engaging. You immediately get a hint of the humor that lies ahead, such as one of the innumerable reasons he longed to walk as many of the 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail as he could. "It would get me fit after years of waddlesome sloth" is delivered with glorious deadpan flair. By the time our storyteller recounts his trip to the Dartmouth Co-op, suffering serious sticker shock over equipment prices, you'll be hooked.
When Bryson speaks for the many Americans he encounters along the way--in various shops, restaurants, airports, and along the trail--he launches into his American accent, which is whiny and full of hard r's. And his southern intonations are a hoot. He's even got a special voice used exclusively when speaking for his somewhat surprising trail partner, Katz. In the 25 years since their school days together, Katz has put on quite a bit of weight. In fact, "he brought to mind Orson Welles after a very bad night. He was limping a little and breathing harder than one ought to after a walk of 20 yards." Katz often speaks in monosyllables, and Bryson brings his limited vocabulary humorously to life. One of Katz's more memorable utterings is "flung," as in flung most of his provisions over the cliff because they were too heavy to carry any farther. The author has thoroughly researched the history and the making of the Appalachian Trail. Bryson describes the destruction of many parts of the forest and warns of the continuing perils (both natural and man-made) the Trail faces. He speaks of the natural beauty and splendor as he and Katz pass through, and he recalls clearly the serious dangers the two face during their time together on the trail. So, A Walk in the Woods is not simply an out-of-shape, middle-aged man's desire to prove that he can still accomplish a major physical task; it's also a plea for the conservation of America's last wilderness. Bryson's telling is a knee-slapping, laugh-out-loud funny trek through the woods, with a touch of science and history thrown in for good measure.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

September Book

No big decisions this month...we've decided to read The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters!

What's the point of solving murders if we're all going to die soon, anyway?

Hank Palace, a homicide detective in Concord, New Hampshire, asks this question every day.

Most people have stopped doing whatever it is they did before the asteroid 2011L47J hovered into view. Stopped selling real estate; stopped working at hospitals; stopped slinging hash or driving cabs or trading high-yield securities. A lot of folks spend their days on bended knee, praying to Jesus or Allah or whoever they think might save them. Others have gone the other way, roaming the streets, enjoying what pleasures they can before the grand finale. Government services are beginning to slip into disarray, crops are left to rot.

When it first appeared, 2011L47J was just a speck, somewhere beyond Jupiter's orbit. By mid-October it revealed itself to be seven kilometers in diameter, and on a crash course with the Earth. Now it's March, and sometime in September, 2011L47J will slam into our planet and kill half the population immediately, and most of the rest in the miserable decades that follow.

All of humanity now, every person in the world--we're like a bunch of little kids, in deep, deep trouble, just waiting till our dad gets home. So what do I do while I wait? I work.

Today, Hank Palace is working the case of Peter Zell, an insurance man who has comitted suicide. To his fellow police officers, it's just one more death-by-hanging in a city that sees a dozen of suicides every week. But Palace senses something wrong. There's something odd about the crime scene. Something off. Palace becomes convinced that it's murder. And he's the only one who cares.

What's the difference, Palace? We're all gonna die soon, anyway.

As Palace digs deeper, we are drawn into his world. We meet his sister Nico and her screwup boyfriend, Derek, who are trying to beam S.O.S messages into outer space; we meet Erik Littlejohn, a "spiritual advisor" helping his clients through these difficult times. Palace's investigation plays out under the long shadow of 2011L47J, forcing everyone in the book -- and those reading it-- to confront hard questions way beyond "whodunnit."

What basis does civilization rest upon? What is life worth? What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?

Can't wait to read this one! Looks like it's a planned trilogy and set to become a TV series!
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