August, 1914: Russia was doomed

Author's name and novel title set in yellow and orange respectively against camouflage backgound of dust jacket.
Author and title stand out against the camouflage.

August, 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel about the first two weeks of World War I on the Eastern Front is not for the faint of heart.

Russian naming conventions are bewildering, the story jumps from one military unit to another, and the camouflage green liner-paper maps are hard to read.

Those who persevere will find the novel worth the effort.

The novel traces the events of the first two weeks of WWI. Russia had foolishly promised France they’d begin war operations 15 days after war was declared, long before the country was prepared to supply its front line troops.

Russia’s generals were mainly old duffers whose skills consisted mainly of “being able to compose the right sort of dispatches…which can make inaction sound like hard fighting.”

Up against a German army armed with tanks and connected by telephone, the Russian horse soldiers with 19th century weaponry and hand-delivered battle orders were out of their league.

Against this backdrop of incompetence on a monumental scale, Solzhenitsyn shows the rugged endurance and bravery of ordinary soldiers.

If you read nothing more of August 1914, read chapter 50 in which eight soldiers carry their regimental commander’s body home for burial. Even in translation, it’s a great piece of writing that can stand alone.

August, 1914 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Trans. Michael Glenny
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ©1972, 622 p.
1972 bestseller #2. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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A Small Town in Germany is a keeper, not a thriller

 A Small Town in Germany is cover art jacket of novel of that name
Dust jacket of A Small Town in Germany

A Small Town in Germany is a complex, Cold War era mystery that totters on the edge of a thriller.

In Germany, “an amorphous Movement* of popular resentments, popular protest and occasional violence” threatens Britain’s desperate attempt to gain admittance to the Common Market.

As if that weren’t enough, Leo Harting, a Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Bonn, has disappeared.

Boxes of documents disappeared with him.

London sends Alan Turner to Bonn to find Harting.

What Turner finds is a massive security screw-up: Harting had been a “temporary worker” at the British Embassy for 20 years without ever undergoing a security check.

The embassy staff are more upset by a missing tea trolley, typewriter, and electric heater than either their missing colleague or the missing files.

Instead of making Turner a sexy, James Bond type, John Le Carré keeps readers’ interest with the wealth of detail Le Carré accumulated during the two-and-a-half years he spent in Bonn doing the same Embassy job as the missing Harting.

Although Brexit has made a story about Britain trying to unite with Europe seem almost farcical, the populist movement of Small Town feels terrifyingly contemporary.

So, too, does the behind-the-scenes intrigue of men who want to rule without the annoyance of seeking office.


A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré
381 p. Coward-McCann, 1968. 1968 bestseller #3. My grade: B+.

*from the preface to the American edition of A Small Town in Germany. The full quote is “”An amorphous Movement of popular resentments, popular protest and occasional violence has come into being. The policies are immaterial: it is a Movement of the resentful mass; it is unified by its slogans, and fed by its dreams.”

 

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Salzburg Connection is high voltage spy story

jacket of The Salzburg Connection shows swastika over Austrian landscapeIn The Salzburg Connection, Helen MacInnes returns to a theme she explored in her earlier bestseller The Double Image: Nazi activity in the Cold War era.

This time, Nazis are protecting records that they can use for blackmail purposes when the time is right.

Like her earlier book, Connection has an unlikely hero.

Lawyer Bill Mathison is in Salzburg on business for a client, a science book publisher.

Photographer Richard Bryant had written them about a book contract he’d signed and for which he had received an advance.

The publisher had never heard of Bryant, doesn’t publish art books, and the check for the advance was written on a New York bank account used for undercover activities against the U.S.

While Mathison is trying to sort things out, Bryant’s car is found crashed in the Austrian Alps with two bodies in it burned beyond recognition.

Bryant’s wife, brother-in-law, and a family friend all know bits of the story about why Bryant was in the Alps.

Mathison has to figure it out.

MacInnes writes cerebral espionage stories with minimal violence tastefully conveyed and the obligatory love interest handled discretely.

MacInnes has little to offer beyond the plot, but dishes up that bit superbly.


The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes
406 p. Harcourt, Grace & World, 1968. 1968 bestseller #3. My grade: B+.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Christine is fake, not fiction

Alice Cholmondeley’s author’s note to Christine prefaces what Cholmondeley says are letters written to her by her daughter, Christine, who was studying in Germany the summer World War I began.

A note saying the publisher chose to alter names of some individuals reinforces the idea that the letters are true.


Christine by Alice Cholmondeley¹
©1917. 1917 bestseller #6. Project Gutenberg eBook #12683. My grade: C .

Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to frontlines
Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to the front, 1 August 1914.

In fact, Christine is a work not merely of fiction, but fabricated propaganda.

The letters’ details provide the proof.

Christine tells her mother a host of “facts” that a parent would have known without telling: the family is poor, Christine is to be away only one year, that no one else in the family has a talent for violin.

Cholmondeley is very good at detail, which gives the story a sense of “this happened.”

The text is strewn with German terms that monolingual American readers will need to look up.

Cholmondeley goes to great lengths to show the Germans as a nation are cruel, brutal, greedy, power-hungry, that they wanted war because war fit in with their philosophy and ambitions.

The value of Christine for today’s readers is less about its story — which is slender — than about its rhetorical strategy. As a study in persuasion, it’s well worth careful examination.

Techniques that Cholmondeley uses against the Germans might be used today against Muslims or Methodists.


¹Alice Cholmondeley is a pen name of Elizabeth von Arnim, born Mary Annette Beauchamp, an Australian-born British novelist. By her first marriage she became Gräfin von Arnim-Schlagenthin, and by a second marriage, Countess Russell.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mr. Britling Sees nuanced view of Great War

In Mr. Britling Sees It Through, H. G. Wells gives an account of World War I from the perspective of an intellectual with an optimistic view of human nature.

The title character, Mr. Britling, is a moderately well-known writer, who pens essays and articles from his study in Essex, England.


Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells

Macmillan, 1916. Project Gutenberg ebook #14060.
1916 bestseller #4. My grade B+.


Close up photo of HG Wells shows bushy eyebrows, tired eyes, and stubby mustache

Up until the German invasion, Britling tells anyone who will listen that the German people don’t want war.

When war is declared, Britling has to confront both the German support for the war and the British lack of preparedness for that war.

Soon he has to face harsher realities.

Britling is turned down for military service.

Members of his household, including his eldest son, enlist.

Britling’s understanding of war morphs from pins on a map into a girl delivering a telegram.

His political opinions change coincidentally.

Wells based Mr. Britling on his own experience. Indeed, the development of Britling’s thought as events unfold in Europe suggests reportage rather than imagination.

The plot, too, seems determined by historical events rather than story requirements.

Instead of fictionalizing, Wells follows the war so readers can have a sharp, nuanced perspective on one of the most significant events of the 20th century.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

In Secret: Ciphers, Espionage, Murder, and Mystery

In an American secret service office, Evelyn Erith opens a coded letter. It says the Germans believe Kay MacKay, an American concentration camp escapee, knows The Great Secret.

MacKay must be eliminated.

From that beginning, In Secret’s author, Robert W. Chambers,  sets up familiar scenarios which he promptly turns on their heads.

The novel’s series of shattered expectations generates incredible tension.

Evelyn finds MacKay, dries him out — the Germans had gotten him addicted to alcohol in hopes of getting information — and they go to Germany to get proof of what MacKay knows.

Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps

MacKay believes that for 40 years the Germans have been building a tunnel under Switzerland into France. Soon the tunnel will let them attack the French from behind French lines.

The proof the Americans need is accessible only from Mount Terrible, a peak in a part of Switzerland between Germany and France.

The Germans pursue them relentlessly.

What began as a series of attacks becomes a battle of attrition: The manpower, firepower, food, water, and winter clothing are controlled by the Germans.

Chambers works readers to the edge of their chairs, then pulls the chairs out from under them with a perfectly plausible but totally unexpected ending.

In Secret
By Robert W. Chambers
1919 bestseller #10
Project Gutenberg ebook #5748
My grade: B+

Photo credit: Mont Blanc 9 by marco_cecc

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Rediscover Twin American Explorers Christopher and Columbus

Mr. Twist talks to the twins, "Christopher and Columbus"

Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim makes Christopher and Columbus a joyous romp as twin orphans and their staunch friend who “would have been very handsome indeed if he hadn’t had a face” put their wits together to figure out how to survive in America’s 1916 anti-German hysteria.

Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas Twinkler, “very German outside and very English inside,” bravely call themselves Christopher and Columbus because they’re going to discover America.

The twin’s shipboard friend Edward Twist  is “a born mother. The more trouble he was given the more attached he became.”

The 17-year-olds, happily rolling their r’s , give Mr. Twist a great deal of trouble indeed.

The first “family friend” to whom the girls are sent has just left her home and her husband.

Edward and his sister would give the girls a home, but their dragon of a mother spits fire at having the twins under her roof.

The twins take matters into their own hands, entrain for California, and find another closed door.

Edward goes to their rescue.

What a country, Mr. Twist had thought, fresh from his work in France, fresh from where people were profoundly occupied with the great business of surviving at all. Here he came back from a place where civilization toppled, where deadly misery, deadly bravery, heroism that couldn’t be uttered, staggered month after month among ruins, and found America untouched, comfortable, fat, still with time to worry over the suspected amorousness of the rich, still putting people into uniforms in order to buttonhole a man on landing and cross-question him as to his private purities.

Von Arnim crafts a tangled plot, peoples it with believable characters, and lards the pages with witty descriptions such as, “She was a lady whose figure seemed to be all meals.”

Don’t leave this 1919 charmer undiscovered.

Christopher and Columbus
by Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim
1919 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg ebook #14646
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni