Wild Bill Donovan, The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage

by Douglas Waller, 2011, Free Press, New York

This looked like a pretty good book as the subject sounded pretty interesting.  On the plus side, the book did have a lot of information about what went on behind the scenes in World War II.  On the downside, for a biography, I didn’t feel as if I really knew Bill Donovan after reading the book.  The author provides a really good accounting of his actions and deeds, but I felt he somehow came up short in revealing the real person behind all of it.  The narrative also left me cold as it was primarily a chronological accounting of all the things that Bill Donovan did.  While Waller tried to provide a picture of Donovan through his relationships with members of his family, he just doesn’t seem to project the person well.

The bottom line is that the author managed to make what should have been a fascinating story very dull. 2 1/2 stars

With Wings Like Eagles, A History of the Battle of Britain

by Michael Korda, 2009, Harper, New York

This was a pretty interesting book, but only because I didn’t know much about this campaign.  Missing was a sense of the hardships that the pilots and crew went through as well as the impacts on the ground.  Korda attempts to give a sense of this but his descriptions seem to fall short.  Also, the book tends to be repetitive in places.

On the plus side, the book seems to be well researched and factual.  It’s too bad that it didn’t capture my imagination a bit more. 3 stars

A Question of Belief, A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

by Donna Leon, Audiobook narrated by David Colacci, 2010, BBC Audiobooks America

This was my first Guido Brunetti mystery.  It was interesting primarily because the setting was in Venice and the author does a great job of capturing the ambiance of the city.  Unfortunately, the story was extremely slow.  Each scene is described with a great deal of detail and this causes the story to unfold very slowly.  Also, the narrator’s normal voice is very slow and tends to bog the story down even more (his dialogue voices are much better than his narrator voice).  There actually wasn’t much to this mystery.  I liked the characters and the setting but I just wish there had been more to it. 2 1/2 stars

Room: A Novel

by Emma Donoghue, 2010, Audiobook read by Michal Friedman, Ellen Archer and Robert Petkoff, Hachette Audio

This was very interesting to listen to.  The voices were very realistic and the way the story was written made it believable.

My only criticism is that I felt the work was unfinished.  I think at least one additional chapter could have made it more complete.  Maybe the chapter or chapters would have fast forwarded fifteen years or so to view some of the longer-term after-effects of Jack’s and his mother’s incarceration.  Also, how did Jack and his mother accomplish some sort of separation after living together so closely for such an extended period?  These questions made it feel unfinished to me. 3 1/2 stars

I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941, A Diary of the Nazi Years

by Victor Klemperer, Translated by Martin Chalmers, 1999, Modern Library Paperback Edition, Random House, New York (First published in Germany under the title Ich will Aeugnis ablegen bis sum ltestn: Tagebucher 1933 von Victor Kempere, Copyright Aufbau-Verlag GmbH, Berlin, 1995).

First of all, this is a book that I wouldn’t ordinarily read but I found it in a box of books that my son had after taking a master’s degree in Eastern European History.  I picked some of the books out of the box thinking I would like to check them out.  I decided I would give this one a try.

It was a moving book for me to read, although it was also very tough to get through.  In the first place, I don’t particularly like reading diaries.  The day-to-day activities of a person seem to drag and, in this book, there is no exception.  Secondly, Klemperer spends much of his time working on his writing and there is a great deal of detail about the subject of one of his books, the literary history of 18th century France.  Ughh!!!

Where the book has impact, however, is in the depiction of the inexorable tightening of the restrictions on his freedoms by the Nazi regime.  Klemperer and his wife, Eva, are both Protestants, but he has Jewish ancestry and is deemed to be “non-Aryan.”  Because of his extraction, he is targeted with the same restrictions placed on Jews.

Klemperer is also fervently anti-Zionist and considers himself thoroughly German.  He fought in the trenches in WWI and has a close affiliation with German culture – at least in the beginning of the book when the Nazis first come to power.  He recognizes very early, however, that the National Socialist movement is severely flawed and that Hitler is a madman.  His continually references his overriding desire to outlive the Third Reich.

The cover of the book has a quote from Time Magazine comparing it to Anne Frank’s diary.  It says, “Richer and more disturbing than Anne Frank’s journals”.  There is some truth to that as it reveals a similar level of anxiety and fear.  On the other hand, this diary was written by a professor of literature versus a young girl.  Klemperer is a master of expression and captures his thoughts and emotions extremely well.  Another major difference is that Anne Frank was essentially isolated from the rest of the world while she was in hiding.  Klemperer and his wife are out living in society during this period (although his freedoms are gradually constricted).  He and Eva attempt to live “normal” lives while all of the lunacy goes on around them.  He has access to news accounts and speeches of the Nazis as well as the reaction of both Aryans and Jews to what is happening.  He is able to not only express his own feeling and reactions, but he also pays a lot of attention to the mood of others in Germany as all of this is happening.  It’s like having a recorder playing back the events and the resulting effects.

The attempts a living a normal life while these events are happening are notable.  Despite losing his job as a professor of literature at one of the state schools of higher education and being severly constrained financially, he manages to build a house, learn to drive, buy a car, go on trips, visit relatives and friends, go out to eat, etc. (at least until his house is appropriated in 1939 because he is “non-Aryan.”)  He continues to focus on the books he is writing, even after he is forced into confinement.

The book ends suddenly at the end of 1941.  I have not investigated whether there is another volume that covers his diary from that point on.  The preface of the book tells of his eventual fate so that is never in doubt, but I am curious as to what he experienced between 1941 and the end of the war.  I am not sure, however, I will ever read that as I had such a difficult time wading through this volume.  It was a tough read, but ultimately I am glad I read it.  Heaven help us if a bunch of nut cases ever manage to take over power here!four stars

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

by Carson McCullers, originally published in 1940, read by Cherry Jones, 2004, HarperAudio

This book was one of my worst experiences.  The novel plodded along giving the reader the minutest details about each of the character’s daily existence.  For instance, I wasn’t much interested in a party where the boys and girls just hung around and looked at each other, especially when this non-activity went on and on.  There are similar passages throughout the book that just lead to nowhere.

I got this audio book thinking it was one of the great novels of the South and I would be enlightened.  Instead, I was extremely disappointed.  The characters all seemed like stick figures to me.  I couldn’t get close enough to them to really care about their lives.  One of the characters is a black doctor who, when he isn’t treating his destitute patients, sits around reading Karl Marx and Spinoza and laments that he can’t seem to connect with his children.  Duh!

Compounding the problem with the novel is Cherry Jones’ less than stellar performance.  When emotion is called for, she cranks up the volume as she substitutes her shouting for real intensity.  At other times she seems to over-phrase the lines so that the listener anticipates hearing something that should be significant, but it usually isn’t.

Why did I ever get through all twelve disks?  I don’t know.  I had a three-day drive from Rhode Island to Florida and many times I thought I should abandon it.  I didn’t and suffered all three days.

Maybe this novel was a sensation when it was first published back in 1940 because no white writer had attempted to capture the essence of black poverty in the South.  Having read some Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck that focuses on the same subject, I would have to say that this attempt pales in comparison. 1 star

The Coldest Winter

by David Halberstam, 2007, Hyperion, New York

Excellent book, although a bit tedious at times.  I didn’t know much about the Korean War.  A friend of ours read this book and thought it was worthwhile so my wife gave it to me for Christmas.  Well, it is July now and I finally got through it!

Halberstam gives a scathing account of Douglas MacArthur and his actions (and non-actions) in Korea (I had read a book previously that gave the same opinion of MacArthur in the Philippines).  I now rate MacArthur about zero: minus 10 for his defense of the Philippines, plus 10 for his island hopping strategy in the Pacific leading up to the fall of Japan, minus 10 for his actions in Korea, plus 10 for the Inchon landing (he was lucky), and plus 10 for his administration of Japan post-war, and minus 10 for his insubordination to the President.  When he did things well, he did them very well; when he did things badly, they led to disasters.

The other thing I took away from the book was how nasty the right-wing Republicans were in those days, putting their ideology and world view above the good of the country.  (I guess not much has changed as we approach our debt-ceiling crisis in August of 2011, some sixty years later.)  I am also amazed at how we managed to get ourselves into the mess in Vietnam after we should have learned from the lessons of Korea.  This book gave me the urge to read Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest which tells that story.

At times I felt that Halberstam beat a good horse to death with the amount of detail he used to back up his argument and it, at times, felt repetitive.  On the other hand, it was easy to read and follow.  It is sad that the author was killed in an automobile accident only a few weeks after he finished this, his last book. 4 1/2 stars

Evening Class

by Maeve Binchy, 1999, audio book read by Kate Binchy, Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio

The book is a nice story, is pretty well written and the reader (who I presume is the author’s daughter) did a nice job of reading.  Other than that, there is not much to it.  The characters are all individuals who have had issues in their lives, and all of them are uplifted and their lives are straightened out simply by attending a woman’s Italian classes in the evening.  I presume that some individuals can have this effect on others, but this seems to be a bit of a stretch.

The author attempts to introduce a bit of mystery and suspense at the end of the book , but a murder mystery this is not and even this situation seems to turn out well.

Enjoyable but quite a lot of fluff! 2 1/2 stars