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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The Plot: A novel great in its day

Section of dust jacket for *The Plot* shows Paris site of peace conference at night.

The Plot is a novel about a handful of characters trying to recreate their picture of themselves at their best.

It’s set against the background of a Paris conference aimed at keeping China from acquiring a nuclear bomb.


The Plot: A Novel by Irving Wallace
Simon and Schuster, 1967. 828 p. 1967 bestseller #8. My grade: B.

The story is, as blurb-writers say, “ambitious” and “monumental” — which means slow-starting and agonizingly complex.

Irving Wallace is a good story-teller, but there’s simply too much story to tell in one novel.

The lead character, Matthew Brennan, is an American who worked for the State Department until wrongfully accused of treason. He’s in Paris hoping to get one of the two people who can clear his name to speak for him.

Former political columnist Jay Thomas Doyle is in Paris to see his old girl friend who knows the man who can say who really killed JFK — and give Doyle material for a book to resuscitate his career.

The old girl friend is writing color pieces for a news service at the Paris Summit.

There’s also a heart-of-gold whore trying to get home to England, an incompetent who was America’s president at the time of Brennan’s troubles, and a host of other characters too numerous to remember.

Few readers who aren’t baby boomers or older will have the background knowledge to appreciate this great-in-the-day novel.

©  2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Egos Are Deadly in The Looking Glass War

John Le Carré’s The Looking Glass War is a tale of Cold War espionage undertaken by a World War II military spy agency.

Le Carré focuses on what makes the characters tick rather than in what they blow up.

Dust jacket of Looking Glass War shows mirror image of word War


The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré

[David John Moore Cornwell] Coward-McCann, 1965. 320 pages. 1965 bestseller #4. My grade: B-


Fighting to keep his agency viable, Leclerk sends agents to check reports of a suspected Russian missile site.

When the agent is killed, Leclerk sends his assistant, John Avery, to pose as Taylor’s half-brother, claim the body, and get the film he was carrying.

Despite inadequate preparation, Avery gets back to gets back to England alive, but without the film.

Next Leclerk recruits a man who served with the resistance during the war. Leister gets a month of training, which enables him to stay alive a couple of days when he’s slipped into occupied territory.

Each of these rather boring men is enticed, like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s children’s book, into an exciting world in which their expectations are turned against them.

Missiles turn out to be less deadly than inter-departmental feuds and civil service egos.

Looking Glass has too much blather for a spy story and too much spying for a good psychological novel.

It will keep your attention, but leave little to mull over later.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Armageddon Reveals the Price of Building Peace

dust jacket of ArmageddonArmageddon is a sprawling novel set as World War II ends and the Soviets move to turn Europe into Communist satellites.

The themes Leon Uris raises are as familiar as today’s news, but easier to examine with a degree of objectivity in a 75-year-old setting.

War-weary Americans want to pull out of Germany and let the Germans fend for themselves. General A. J. Hansen begs  American politicians to plan for a post-war political settlement.  He sees withdrawal would give rise to a more serious threat than Hitler’s Reich.

Hansen assembles a team of experts lead in everything from electrical generation to municipal government to design a plan for governing Germany after the war. Hansen sends them to a Nazi stronghold where they deploy and refine their plan.

Then Hansen redirects them to Berlin to begin guiding the city into rebuilding on democratic principles before the Russians can build Berlin into a Communist satellite.

When the Russians block all land routes into the city, leaving Berliners to face starvation in the frigid winter, Hansen fights against Congressional and military leaders to win presidential approval to attempt to supply the city by air.

Although Hansen is behind most of the novel’s action, he’s rarely seen in the novel. Uris reserves the role of the hero for the team of men who put their individual expertise at the service of America. Uris lists yards of facts about the Berlin airlift, emphasizing the monumental achievement and personal self-effacement of the men who made it happen.­

It takes a rare kind of man to serve his country without the benefit of pyrotechnics or reward and a different kind of courage to keep your mouth shut and go on working and believing when you are positive those around you are wrong. We don’t have enough men of this kind of dedication.

Armageddon
by Leon Uris
Doubleday 1964
632 pages
1964 bestseller #4
My grade: B+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Where Kim’s Concerned, Viewing Beats Reading

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is a tale of espionage, intrigue, and duplicity that would make a Tom Clancy novel look sissified—assuming anyone in this century is willing to wade through Kipling’s prose, which reeks of his Victorian-era education.

Kim is the orphan son of an Irish soldier stationed in India. Left under the nominal care of an opium addict, by 12, Kim begs, spies, lies, and steals.

Kim becomes the disciple of a Tibetan lama seeking the river that washes away sin. To earn traveling money, Kim delivers a message to Col. Creighton who is in the British Secret Service. The colonel sees Kim could be very useful.

Because of his soldier father, Kim is entitled to British protection and schooling. Kim spends his holidays tramping around India with his lama and getting involved in espionage.

Kim is packed with adventure, but it’s not exciting reading. The characters are not believable, and Kipling’s ponderous prose sometimes makes it hard even to tell which character is speaking. The stylistic problems are compounded by Kipling’s use of Indian and British idioms and proverbs translated into stuffy 19th century English.

In 1950, Kipling’s 1927 novel was made into a movie starring Errol Flynn. A  British television version 1984 stars Peter O’Toole. Either film version is more entertaining than Kipling’s novel.

Kim
by Rudyard Kipling
1901
Project Gutenberg Ebook #2226

 

Cold War thriller packs contemporary message

Nuclear Warning
Nuclear Warning

During a military exercise, American bombers armed with nuclear weapons streak off past the fail-safe point, headed for Moscow.

Watching blips on the air command’s radar screen blink are a congressman and a manufacturer whose equipment went into the complex system intended to make the nuclear deployment program accident-proof. All hope fervently that the radar reports are wrong.

Russians watching their radar screens are also convinced the problem is in the display: nothing has prepared them for an attack or an American accident.

The President calls Krushchev.

To prevent an unprovoked attack on Moscow, the President first tries to shoot down the US planes. When that does not work, he seizes the only option available to avert World War III.

With that material to work from and their taut prose, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler could not help turning out a thriller.

Fail-Safe, however, is not just a few hours’ entertainment. It’s a reminder that in any complex, untested system, the occurrence of several statistically improbable errors can bring the whole system crashing down. Perhaps if that lesson had been learned from this novel, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might not have come as such as shock to the American public.

Fail-Safe
Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler
McGraw-Hill, 1962
284 pages
1962 Bestseller #6
My grade: B+
Illustration Nuclear Warning 2 by Flaivoloka
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Family: People without Passports

A Russian family, “ex-big, ex-great, ex-prosperous” has dwindled to five members living in Tientsin, China in 1937. They operate a boarding house whose rooms they rent to a rag-tag assortment of people of various nationalities whose lives are defined in terms of what they no longer have.

The family is loving, interested in life, and hopeful for the future.

Before long, the Japanese invade China and the family’s already precarious financial situation becomes dire.

Mother has to let the young people leave: Lida to become an American war bride, Dima to be adopted by a lonely English woman, Peter to be smuggled back into Russia. As the biological family scatters, Mother loves the boarders into becoming a family.

Nina Fedorova’s fluid prose will be welcomed by anyone put off by the dense, turgid paragraphs that mark most Russian works. She writes with wit, and  sensitivity about the struggles of people whose lives consist mainly of looking for work and doing without. By then end of The Family, however, her praise of strong women slips into sentimentality.

Despite that sentimentality, The Family remains an eye-opening glimpse of the lives of people without passports in a hostile world.

The Family
by Nina Fedorova
Little, Brown, 1940
346 pages
My grade: B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni