Sunday, February 21, 2016

Operation Mincemeat: a masterstroke of intelligence and deception

Operation Mincemeat: How A Dead Man And A Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis And Assured An Allied Victory
By Ben Macintyre
Published in the U.S. by Broadway Paperbacks, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

In 1943, two British naval officers devised an improbable plan to fool Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, a plan so bold and audacious that it could never get approved, let alone pulled off.

Except the plan was approved by Winston Churchill and General Dwight Eisenhower and, against all odds, it succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of many. It's widely believed that the implementation of this ingenious plan succeeded in altering the course of World War Two.  

The true story of how the British and Americans deceived the Germans is told in Ben Macintyre's thrilling book, "Operation Mincemeat" (an earlier book about the events, The Man Who Never Was, was published in 1954 and it quickly became a best seller; a movie of the same name was released in 1956).

The plan was to create a fake identity of a purported British airman and arrange for the body to wash ashore in neutral Spain. The dead body would contain official documents confirming Allied plans to launch a surprise attack on Greece, when the actual attack would take place in Sicily. If the Germans believed that an attack on Greece was imminent, it would strengthen its resources in that area and leave southern Italy relatively exposed. At this point in the war, the Axis powers held an iron grip on Europe; the Allies needed a weakly-defended entry point in which to launch an assault, which would aid them in eventually liberating Europe.

For the plan to work, an extraordinary degree of luck and good fortune had to play into the Allied hands. In Spain, the Nazis had a vast network of spies and informants working in that country, and many of these agents needed to believe the ruse and pass false information up the chain of command. The opportunities for error were enormous. It's interesting to note the various forms of communication that were employed in fabricating this ingenious hoax - including letters, memos, diaries, newspapers, and good old-fashioned rumour and gossip.

Macintyre describes the lives, backgrounds and motivations of all participants with a superb sense of pacing and detail. At times, Operation Mincemeat reads like a thriller with sudden plot twists and mounting suspense. No detail is overlooked, from the intricate planning and choosing of a body to creating a fake identity and transporting the body to the coast of Spain. It's no accident that Ian Fleming (creator of the James Bond series) and Alan Hillgarth (an adventure novelist)  were among the officers who took part in the ploy.

Here, Macintyre sums up how a single, simple idea took shape and wound up changing the course of history:
"Amateur, unpublished novelists, the framers of Operation Mincemeat, dreamed up the most unlikely concatenation of events, rendered them believable, and sent them off to war, changing reality throughout lateral thinking and proving that it is possible to win a battle fought in the mind, from behind a desk, and from beyond the grave."
"OperationMincemeat" is an incredible story about an incredible chapter in the history of World War Two, and I give it two thumbs up. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Fitzgerald's tragic tale of wasted days and wasted nights

The Beautiful and Damned
By F. Scott Fitzgerald
First Vintage Classics Edition, August 2010 (Originally published in hardcover in the U.S. by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1922)

The protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Beautiful and Damned" is Anthony Patch, an intelligent, Harvard-educated young man with excellent prospects and a bright future ahead of him.  The year is 1913, and America is on the cusp of a brand new era that includes automobiles, moving pictures and exciting new industries. But Anthony has a problem: a stupendous lack of ambition and a refusal to engage in any form of purposeful work.

"The Beautiful and Damned" tells the tragic story of Anthony Patch and his attractive, socialite wife, Gloria, over an eight-year period beginning when Anthony returns from Europe to be near his ailing grandfather, Adam Patch. Adam is a respected industrialist worth millions who disapproves of Anthony's life choices and urges his grandson to stop dilly-dallying around and establish a career.

Anthony does make half-hearted attempts to find employment and to join the workforce, but he is easily bored and soon quits any so-called 'real' jobs. If young Anthony holds any aspirations for a career, it's to become a journalist/writer, but the actual work and effort required in becoming a writer is far beyond his grasp and desires.

During the span of the novel, Anthony and Gloria manage to live a life of complete debauchery, drinking and partying to excess almost daily, with a cheerful disdain for those who have to work for a living. The one consistent theme in the couples' life is their capacity for living on a small inheritance left by Anthony's mother, an inheritance that is gradually being squandered.

As their financial circumstances worsen, they are desperate for Anthony's grandfather to die, whereupon Anthony will inherit millions. But when the grandfather finally does die, the couple are mortified to discover that Anthony has been excluded from the will (except for a meager inheritance), and they suddenly find themselves weighing three unpleasant options - contesting the will in court, finding employment, or going broke.

Both Anthony and Gloria are doomed figures in "The Beautiful and Damned." Especially Gloria who grew up believing that her charm and beauty would ensure a rich and happy life. The gradual deterioration of Gloria's beauty coincides with the strains in her marriage and the couples' growing financial misfortunes. Fitzgerald portrays Gloria as a woman trapped by her beauty, by her husband, and by her grand illusions of herself. 

A rare moment of true happiness and freedom occurs when she flees after the sexual advances of a stranger at a party at her home. Here is Gloria, having escaped the party, sitting on a railway plank in the rain:
"The oppression was lifted now - the tree-tops below her were rocking the young starlight to a haunted doze. She stretched out her arms with a gesture of freedom. This was what she had wanted, to stand alone where it was high and cool...She had thought she would never feel so young again, but this was her night, her world. Triumphantly she laughed as she left the plank, and reaching the wooden platform flung herself down happily beside an iron roof-post." 
As readers, we disapprove of the lives of Anthony and Gloria and their endless pursuit of money, and the shallowness of their characters, but Fitzgerald more than makes up for his characters' deficiencies with prose that glitters like jewellery, and his ability to portray New York high society in the early 20th century with such flair.

The ending of "The Beautiful and Damned" wasn't what I was expecting, which speaks to Fitzgerald's narrative skills in keeping readers guessing and his ability to offer delightful surprises - right up until the end.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Song for Steve

My dear cousin and close friend, Steve, passed away on a recent October morning, one month shy of his fifty-seventh birthday. I visited Steve a few times during the final months of his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive and fatal motor neuron disease that has taken the lives of five of my family members.

As the inevitable end drew near for Steve, I found myself reflecting on the years that we spent together growing up in Scarborough, Ontario, and the unforgettable adventures of our youth. We played little league baseball and road hockey together. We were in the same Boy Scout troop and spent hours playing in the ravine across the street from where he lived.

In our mid-teens, we both bought our first cars (Steve's was a candy apple red Chevy Nova, mine a sleek Pontiac Beaumont), which was like a rite of passage and a ticket to freedom. To help pay for gas and insurance, we both worked at a local gas station, and the stunts we pulled during that period gave new meaning to the phrase 'misspent youth.'

By the time we hit our late teens, we hung out and did some travelling together (Florida, Virginia Beach), but we also started to develop different interests. Steve attended Centennial College and was eager to pursue a career in his chosen field, while I spent my early twenties writing poetry and wandering through Europe.

One thing that united us - from childhood until middle age - was music. During our teens, we spent endless hours listening to and discussing our favourite bands: Queen, Supertramp, Bruce Springsteen, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Chicago, Peter Frampton, The Alan Parsons Project, and many more. The 1970s and early 1980s were a golden age for experimental rock and pop music and it gave rise to dozens of classic songs and albums. Steve always got a thrill out of discovering new bands and artists and he loved sharing these treasures with his friends.

Steve had a special ear for lyrics and was drawn to songs that told stories. He introduced me to such classics as Harry Chapin's "Taxi," Billy Joel's "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" and Bread's "Everything I Own." He once asked me to listen to the words of an obscure song by Styx called "This Old Man," which spoke about the dignity of work and how you shouldn't be afraid to express feelings of love for others. Indeed, this was a pretty mature theme for a 20 year old kid to understand.

Another time, Steve urged me to buy an album by an artist with the unlikely name of Meatloaf. So, we rushed over to the record store and I bought Meatloaf's "Bat Out Of Hell" album. We cranked the volume on his stereo and played it over and over until the grooves wore out. A few months later, Steve and I got a chance to see Meatloaf perform at Massey Hall in Toronto; it was one of the most memorable concerts of my life.

It is those memories of enjoying music together that has been such a comfort to me, in the months leading up to - and after - Steve's passing. I'll put on a song that reminds me of a moment from our past, be it the Scout trip where Steve tossed an unopened can of pork 'n beans onto a roaring bonfire, Steve driving us in his mother's car to Virginia Beach or Steve briefly piloting a Cessna as we flew over the cornfields of Markham. My wife asks me why I keep playing songs that remind me of Steve and that make me so sad. Yes, these songs evoke feelings of sadness but they are also a way of connecting to the past and keeping it alive.

We often hear that a picture is worth a thousand words, but music can be just as powerful in connecting the past with the present. Songs like "Candy's Room" by Bruce Springsteen, "Holdin' On To Yesterday" by Ambrosia and "Do You Feel Like We Do" by Peter Frampton remind me of where Steve and I were at a given time. Listening to these musical gems, four decades later, is a way of holding onto Steve and reliving our youth.

One time, Steve and I were driving to Orillia, and the Bee Gees' "Tragedy" came on the radio. Steve thought the song sounded cheesy, but that didn't stop him from belting out the lyrics, "When the feeling's gone and you can't go on / It's tragedy..." in a high-pitched falsetto as he worked an invisible mic. Every time I hear that song, I laugh and think of Steve's exaggerated rendition.

At that time - we were both 20 - we didn't have a care in the world. We were just two guys cruising in my car and enjoying a moment that would become part of our shared experiences. All those years ago, Steve could not have imagined the special place those songs and moments would one day hold in the heart of a cousin whose grief today is beyond words. I'm sure there is a song in there somewhere, and when I hear it, I'll be reminded of the great man and friend that Steve was, and I'll be the first to tell others, That's a song for Steve.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Heat and hilarity in Bourdain's kitchens

Kitchen Confidential, Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
By Anthony Bourdain
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, paperback edition 2001

There are certain occupations that have always seemed so foreign to me that I've never been able to grasp why or how people are drawn to them. Cooking is one.

AnthonyBourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" dispels some of the mysteries of the culinary profession and answers some of my longstanding curiosities about what goes on inside restaurant kitchens. This amusing book - later made into a short-lived TV series starring Bradley Cooper - is a rambling memoir about Bourdain's first 25 years in the restaurant industry, written in a style that is brash, hilarious, and honest.

"Kitchen Confidential" starts with Bourdain's early fascination with food and follows his apprenticeship to becoming a respected, versatile and productive cook/chef in New York. As a young boy, while on a cruise ship with his family, Bourdain was served Vichyssoise for the first time and was totally blown away that a soup could be served cold and taste so delicious. Through his teen years, he continued to feed his appetite for all things food related and wound up studying at the famed Culinary Institute of America (CIA), a topic to which he devotes an entire chapter.

After graduating from CIA, Bordain's apprenticeship in the culinary arts began in earnest. Throughout his twenties and thirties, he bounced around New England and New York, working in an assortment of restaurants, from greasy spoons to high-end dining establishments, such as the Rainbow Room at the Rockefeller Centre. During these years, Bordain honed his chops and encountered a motley crew of characters who provide amusing fodder for his adventures in the kitchen.

His recollections of these colourful cooks, sou-chefs, master chefs, restaurant owners and busboys are told with frankness and insouciance. One of the most memorable characters is Bigfoot, a pseudonym for a legendary restaurant owner whom Bourdain worked for and who served as a mentor to him.
"He [Bigfoot], more than anyone else I encountered in my professional life, transformed me from a bright but druggie fuck-up into a serious, capable and responsible chef. He made me a leader, the combination of good-guy bad-guy the job requires. He's the reason I am never off sick, go to sleep every night running tomorrow's prep lists and menus through my mind."
I also enjoyed the story about Adam, a bread baker who regularly gets under the skin of his colleagues. "He may be the enemy of polite society," Bourdain writes, "a menace to any happy kitchen, s security risk and a potential serial killer, but the man can bake.... His bread and his pizza crust are simply divine." The author describes how out-of-control Adam's life is in all aspects and how in awe he is of the man's God-given talent when it comes to baking bread.

What makes "Kitchen Confidential" such a compelling read is Bordain's pull-no-punches writing style, his acerbic voice and his sardonic wit. Here he describes a period in which he managed a kitchen for someone nicknamed The Shadow in an Italian restaurant in New York:
"But I was off dope now...and comfortably sedated by methadone, I felt free to visit the service bar numerous times a night, so that I could pack my nose with cocaine. This gave me that lovably psychotic edge so useful for mood swings, erratic bursts of rage, and the serious business of canning people, thus saving my master money."
For years, Bourdain indulged in a variety of recreational substances, all the while managing to perfect his craft, expand his knowledge of the restaurant business and manage kitchens, both large and small, with workmanlike efficiency and flair. Cooking is clearly in Bordain's genes and his passion for food and cooking is plainly evident throughout this rollicking tale.

Bottom line on "Kitchen Confidential" is that it provides readers with a blunt portrait of the personalities and behind-the-scenes work that occurs inside restaurant kitchens. Although preparing food remains a source of mystery to me, and probably always will, "Kitchen Confidential" has shed a morsel of light on an activity that is an essential part of our daily lives. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

A spellbinding tale of depravity and glory in the Gilded Age

The Devil in The White City, Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Published in Vintage Books, a Division of Random House Inc., 2004

Erik Larson's "The Devil in The White City" is a non-fiction book that tells the true life stories of two men who worked in Chicago in the late 19th century. Geography and gender are about all that these men shared in common.

Daniel Burnham was a leading architect and city planner of his day, largely credited with being the mastermind and driving force behind Chicago's bid to host an exposition commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in North America.

Chicago had a lot to prove in hosting the World's Columbian Exposition, which became known as the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Until then, the city was famous as a hog producer and was considered something of a backwater. As Larson writes:
Failure was unthinkable. If the fair failed, Burnham knew, the nation's honour would be tarnished, Chicago humiliated, and his own firm dealt a crushing blow. Everywhere Burnham turned there was someone - a friend, an editor, a fellow club member - telling him that the nation expected something tremendous out of this fair. And expected it in record time....The fair would also have to make a profit.
"The Devil in The White City" also tells the chilling tale of a doctor and businessman by the name of H.H. Holmes, who earned the dubious distinction of being one of America's first documented serial killers. Holmes created a house of horrors just blocks from the site of the Chicago World's Fair and committed dozens of murders right under the noses of customers, friends, neighbours, passersby and the police. He was able to avoid detection for years because of the newness of this type of crime, the lack of investigative resources and Holmes' inherent charm, likeability and skill at manipulating others.

Both Burnham and Holmes possessed powerful egos and towering ambitions; the former harnessed his talents for good in pursuit of the highest forms of artistic expression and human achievement while the latter devoted his life to orchestrating acts of fraud and evil. Larson weaves the lives of both men into a captivating narrative that spans the years leading up to and immediately following the fair.

What I found particularly fascinating about this book is the process by which the fair sprang into being. Burnham, along with his fellow architects, landscape designers, construction workers and participating vendors essentially created a mini city from wasteland on the banks of Lake Michigan over a 26 month period. Blueprints, work schedules and deadlines were fast-tracked in a race against the clock to complete construction on time.

The odds seemed stacked against meeting this impossible deadline. A deepening recession, poor weather conditions, engineering and logistical problems, labour strife and other challenges threatened to halt production and derail the opening of the fair. That Burnham and fellow organizers managed to prevail is a testament to their tenacity and will to succeed. In the end, despite setbacks and cost overruns that tested the mettle of the fair's organizers, Chicago hosted a world-class fair, which attracted millions of visitors from around the world. The fair introduced the latest technologies, product innovations and concepts, such as the Ferris Wheel, Juicy Fruit, Shredded Wheat, Cracker Jack popcorn and Edison's Kinetoscope. The fair became a role model for fairs held around the world for the next century.

In documenting Burnham's challenges in producing the fair, and recreating the setting of the multiple murders that took place at the hands of Holmes, Larson creates an "edge of your seat" drama from start to finish and does a great job keeping readers in suspense. This book has it all: real-life drama, larger than life personalities, a quick pace and enough facts and statistics to satisfy any armchair history buff.

My only quibble with "The Devil in The White City" is the lack of photographs of the main personalities and of the fair itself. A few more photos would have been a complement to this tale that is so expertly told. But a quick Google search will yield many photos of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, along with reams of  information covering this epic slice of American history in the Gilded Age. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Moore's poignant examination of loneliness and despair

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
A novel by Brian Moore, first published in 1955; re-published in 1988 by New Canadian Library

"The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" is one of Brian Moore's earliest novels, published originally in 1955 to rave reviews. This book launched his career as a novelist and it was made into a 1987 film starring Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins.

Set in Belfast, Ireland, in the early 1950s, it tells the tragic story of a plain-looking spinster who suffers a crisis of faith and identity in her early forties. As a child, Judith was orphaned after the death of her parents. She was taken in and raised by her aunt D'Arcy. When Judith was in her late twenties, her aunt suffered a stroke and, for the next 15 years, Judith became her primary caregiver, forsaking her own dreams and happiness in the process.

The novel opens a short time after Aunt D'Arcy has passed away and Judith is moving into another cheap rooming house. Soon she is introduced to the housekeeper's brother, James Madden, an ex-pat who once worked in America and who has returned to his native Ireland. After accompanying Madden to church and to the movies, Judith thinks that Madden has taken a liking to her, and she entertains the possibility of a budding romance, possibly marriage.

She wonders if all the years of sacrifice, caring for her ill aunt, and her faith in God, will finally lead to happiness, a dream that has eluded her for years. But James Madden is not what - or who - he pretends to be, and Judith's hopes of a romance are dashed. She views Madden's rejection - along with his mother's alleged complicity in that rejection - as the last straw in finding true happiness, and respectability.

Madden's rejection triggers Judith's slow, sad mental breakdown. She resorts to drink to dull the gnawing realization that she will probably never find true happiness, and then begins to question her faith. Moore depicts that decline through Judith's eyes and through the eyes of her roommates, friends, all of whom are portrayed as selfish, greedy, cruel and uncaring. Even her local priest, Father Quigley, seems more interested in putting in his time at the pulpit: He'd rather chastise his congregation for attending movies than provide human compassion to a parishioner who needs help.

One feels empathy for Judith, a caring and sensitive women whose best years have passed her by, who is ridiculed and pitied by those closest to her, and whose remaining years will likely be filled with more loneliness and rejection. With each passing day, Judith becomes painfully aware that she's reached a point in her life where she is unloved, alone, afraid, and beyond hope.

Through the use of occasional interior monologues, Moore takes readers into the minds of his characters to reflect on their personal biases and their attitudes towards Judith. Here is Judith's interior monologue in the midst of her decline, while she is sitting in the back of a taxi:
"Oh, I'm in trouble, in awful trouble. And nobody to help me. Where? I've got to talk to somebody, some friend, someone who can advise me, the faith, I've lost my faith, I've burned my boats and it will happen soon, it will happen. Now, if You're there, she screamed wordlessly. Now show me. Anything, a bolt of lightning, strike me down, anything. But don't leave me, don't leave me alone."
By the end of the novel, poor Judith has clearly lost her faith, her dreams, and her way in the world. Alongside Judith's heartbreaking predicament, Moore also explores the themes of class struggles, the passage of time, and the social and religious attitudes of Ireland in the early '50s.

In Judith Hearne, Moore has created a fictional character who is deserving of our empathy, a character who will resonate with readers long after the book is closed. In my opinion, "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" ranks as a great fictional narrative from one of the 20th century's great - and sadly underrated - storytellers.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Maltese Falcon is as hardboiled as it gets

If there is a such a thing as a perfectly-written crime novel, you'd be hard pressed to find a more worthy recipient than The Maltese Falcon. More than eight decades after its original release, in 1930, the book remains a true classic in the genre of hardboiled crime fiction.

Written by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon is a well-plotted, well-written detective story that has been enjoyed by generations of readers, and inspired generations of writers as well. The book has been adapted twice for the big screen, most notably a 1941 film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre. It has spawned several TV parodies as well.

There are so many aspects of The Maltese Falcon that make this a delightful read. The precise use of language, the clever plotting, the subtle humour, the dingy San Francisco streets of the '20s and the lowly band of characters all make this a delightful and entertaining story, which stays with you long after you've finished reading it.

The main protagonist is Sam Spade, a cynical, cigarette-rolling private detective whose work partner, Miles Archer, has just been murdered. Some believe that Sam might have had a hand in Archer's death because of his affair with Archer's wife, Iva. The police question Spade about his potential involvement in the murder and believe him to be a suspect.

The death of Spade's partner triggers a series of events involving an amusing cast of characters, some of whom are intent on obtaining a rare and priceless figurine/bird. Among those wanting to find this bird are Brigid O'Shaughnessy, an attractive and duplicitous blond who tries to win the affections of Spade; and Casper Gutman, a heavy-set and charismatic art collector who has been trying to acquire the bird for 17 years.

Readers must remember that Hammett wrote this novel in the 1920s, when social attitudes about gender equality were much different than they are today. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade views women as little more than sex objects, and his actions towards them are mistrustful and misogynistic, as illustrated in this scene in which O'Shaughnessy is literally throwing herself at Spade:
Their faces were a few inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and he kissed her mouth roughly and contemptuously. Then he sat back and said: 'I'll think it over." His face was hard and furious.
At many times while reading The Maltese Falcon, I felt myself cringe at scenes like this one. I know Hammett was writing for a different audience, but that doesn't make Spades' demeaning attitudes and actions towards women any more palatable. Indeed, they don't call this hard-boiled fiction for nothing.

When it comes to describing his characters, Hammett pulls no punches and has no qualms about calling a spade a spade (pun intended). Here is the author's no-holds-barred description of Gutman when we first meet this character:
The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown.
Hammett rarely misses an opportunity to call attention to Gutman's obesity, frequently referring to him as "the fat man." In Hammett's hands, such descriptions serve both as comic relief and the advancement of plot. Gutman remains a sly and calculating character in appearance, mannerisms and speech, and you know that he'll say and do anything to win the bird. That's part of what makes him so likeable and endearing.

The story advances with a steady and sometimes quickened pace, and with each chapter, readers feel closer to discovering the true motivations of the characters and the mystery of the rare figurine. Hammett does an exceptional job tossing all of the plot twists into the air, juggling them for our amusement, and making sense of them at the end.

There is a reason why The Maltese Falcon is still deemed such a pioneering work of fiction, decades after its original publication. For those who haven't had read it, you're missing a unique reading experience.