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Gabriela, Cravo e Canela
Jorge Amado
Progress: 157/358 pages
Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (The Authorized Doubleday/Doran Edition)
T.E. Lawrence
Progress: 189/672 pages
The Creature from Jekyll Island: A Second Look at the Federal Reserve
G. Edward Griffin
Progress: 41/608 pages
Peter the Great
Robert K. Massie
Progress: 472/934 pages
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
Bradley K. Martin
A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge
Charles B. MacDonald
Progress: 191/712 pages
The German Army 1933-1945
Matthew Cooper
Progress: 198/598 pages
Corporal Hitler and the Great War 1914-1918: The List Regiment
John F Williams
Progress: 22/238 pages
The Futures - Anna Pitoniak

"THE FUTURES" has all the hallmarks that make for a compelling, well-written novel. It has a palpable sense of time and place that is readily relatable to any reader. And characters - both major and minor - who spring immediately to life within the first few pages or chapters. What's more: for anyone who has gone through and/or graduated from college or university and then found him/herself at a loss what to do with their life for 2 or 5 years afterward, this is a novel that will give some added perspective to that earlier time of being.

"THE FUTURES" largely revolves around the lives of Evan Peck and Julia Edwards. (The reader is presented with the experiences - separate and shared - of Evan and then Julia across different chapters. Kudos to the author for being able to so deftly place herself in a man's mind.) Evan hailed from a small town in the interior of Western Canada, where his parents had a small grocery business. It was the kind of town that maintained its own slow, measured rhythms. Its inhabitants tended to have modest ambitions and most never left town after graduating from high school. Evan, on the other hand, was one of the few who dared to believe that he could become a part of the wider world, and thrive therein. Hockey was his passion and through it, he secured a scholarship to Yale University in 2004. There, he made the acquaintance of Julia, who came from a well-to-do family in Boston with connections. (Her father was a high-powered lawyer.) They - both freshmen - began as friends and, gradually, that seemingly easy and comfortable friendship blossomed into a romantic relationship. 

What I loved most about "THE FUTURES" is how skillfully Anna Pitoniak was able to make plain and REAL the lives of both Evan and Julia, and how their relationship developed, flourished, and later fell apart. From Yale to post-graduate life together in a modest, walk-up apartment in Brooklyn in the summer of 2008. I'm not going to say much more than that - except that the immediate impact of the 2008 economic crisis is as much a major factor in influencing the heart of the novel as the characters themselves who strut themselves upon the stage in a city that never sleeps. 

Here are a few quotes to give you a flavor of what makes "THE FUTURES" compelling and self-revelatory:

Julia: "I could close my eyes, and the sounds of the party weren't so different from those in college, but I wasn't tricking myself. The feeling in the air had changed. There was a whole world out there, beyond wherever we were gathered. It didn't matter whether it was a cramped walk-up or a tar rooftop or a weedy backyard strung with lights. How you spent your time was suddenly up to you."

Julia: "I suppose, at the time [September 2008], I didn’t understand how rapidly my feelings toward Evan were evolving. ...We’d fought in college, but those fights always felt specific; firewords that faded into smoke as fast as they arrived. But in New York, in the real world, every annoyance and disagreement felt like a referendum on our relationship. The bitterness started to linger. I was seeing growing evidence of why this was never going to work.” 

Hands down, "THE FUTURES" is THE BEST NOVEL I've had the pleasure of reading so far in 2018.

A JOURNALIST'S LIFE IN WARTIME LONDON

Goodnight from London: A Novel - Jennifer Robson

"GOODNIGHT FROM LONDON" is a tender-hearted, at turns adventurous and perilous account of the experiences of a young American journalist, Ruby Sutton, who is given the opportunity from her employer to undertake an assignment in Britain during the summer of 1940 to provide both American and British readers with stories highlighting life on the UK home front.

 

Ruby experiences a lot of what the war was about, endures loss, and much more. Any reader who savors a richly layered, well-told tale will enjoy reading "GOODNIGHT FROM LONDON."

Go Set a Watchman: A Novel - Lee Harper

In sum, "GO SET A WATCHMAN" bears out Thomas Wolfe's saying 'you can't go home again.' Jean Louise (better known as 'Scout' from Harper Lee's best-selling novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird") journeys back from NYC (where she has lived for some time) to her family home in Maycomb County, Alabama. It is the mid-1950s and the South is in ferment. 

Jean Louise has much to reflect upon and revisits different stages of her life in a Southern society that increasingly becomes too restrictive to her liking. There is family conflict that lays bare the eccentricities and contradictions in people. "GO SET A WATCHMAN" is not a great novel, but it was worthwhile to read as a way of getting a glimpse into a moment in U.S. history when a society based on the 'old verities' and racial segregation found itself compelled to take steps to make a better society for all its citizens.
 

WHAT THE WORLD MIGHT HAVE BEEN LIKE IF JFK HAD LIVED -

The Memoirs of John F. Kennedy - Donald James Lawn

When I first became aware of the novel, "THE MEMOIRS OF JOHN F. KENNEDY", and its premise, I was highly skeptical. Alternative history novels are hardly my cup of tea. Many of the practitioners of the genre - from my perspective - tend to get carried away with their story ideas and concoct novels that take far too many liberties with established historical timelines and personalities, reshaping them in ways that hardly seem plausible or feasible. 

Yet, in the case of this novel by Donald James Lawn, I was intrigued. Its premise is based on President Kennedy having survived the assassination attempt against him in Dallas, TX, on November 22, 1963. JFK makes a slow, painful recovery, runs for re-election (against Barry Goldwater) and decisively wins a second term in 1964. Given a two-term Kennedy presidency, the courses of a host of issues that shaped and defined the 1960s - e.g. Vietnam, Civil Rights, and U.S.-Soviet relations - were altered in some rather intriguing ways. I confess that, as President Kennedy is one of my heroes, I wanted so much to believe in what this novel was about. Which is why I read it with a highly critical eye. 

Lawn has crafted a novel that realizes a credible scenario that might have come to pass had JFK not been assassinated and juxtaposes it brilliantly with the relationship Kennedy forms with a Washington Post journalist (by the name of Patrick Hennessey) who came to his attention both through Hennessey's book (an exposé of the McCarthy trials, which JFK much admired) and from the time he briefly covered JFK's re-election campaign on Air Force One during the late summer of 1964. Four years later, as JFK's tenure in the White House draws to a close, Hennessey is enlisted by the President to help in writing his memoirs. This is done discreetly because JFK doesn't want to be seen (by some members of his administration) as tipping his hand towards the type of story he wants told of his Presidency, as well as the legacy he wishes to leave the country and the world at large. 

In this novel, Lawn takes the reader both through the first crucial weeks after the assassination attempt, and also through the developing personal relationship between both JFK and Hennessey during September and October of 1968. To keep these 2 interconnecting stories both in one novel in this way, isn't easy. But the way JFK, Jackie Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, LBJ, and several of President Kennedy's closest aides (Dave Powers, Pierre Salinger, and Kenny O'Donnell) are fleshed out, lend considerable credibility to this novel. I really felt that Lawn had captured through several of the JFK - Hennessey conversations (in the White House, on the golf links at Glen Ora, or at Hyannisport), the essence and spirit of JFK the man. Lawn could easily have made a mess of this novel. But I salute him for making a novel that made me want so much to experience the world as it might have been had President Kennedy not been so cruelly taken away from us. 

A Matter of Honor: Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame, and a Family's Quest for Justice - Anthony Summers, Robbyn Swan

In "A Matter of Honor: Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame, and a Family's Quest for Justice" Anthony Summers has written what is likely to be the definitive account of the events that led to the Pearl Harbor attack (on the U.S. Pacific Fleet) of December 7th, 1941 and the failures among the U.S. political and military leadership that helped make the attack likely. 

Summers has a deserved reputation as a journalist/writer who leaves no stone unturned and scrupulously explores every source available to him, checking thoroughly for the veracity of various documents and data he finds on a subject that is his prime interest. Some years ago, I read his biography of J. Edgar Hoover - 'Official and Confidential, The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover' - which made me a fervent fan of his work. (The way he was able to marshal facts and personal accounts from people who both worked closely for Hoover or suffered as the result of his unjust acts, absolutely captivated my interest in the book.) And here in "A Matter of Honor", as a way of giving a further scope to the common narrative of the Pearl Harbor attack that has been perpetuated for decades, Summer provides the reader with a compelling account of the life and career of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel - the commander of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Here was a man who devoted his whole life to the U.S. Navy, from his time at Annapolis in the early 1900s, to the various commands he served - always earning the highest commendations from his superiors. He truly epitomized through his personal conduct and service all that could be asked for from an officer. 

Yet, from the time, Kimmel was made commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in February 1941, there are factors that Summers brings to light that show that Kimmel and his Army counterpart, General Walter Short, were not provided with all the resources they needed to defend Hawaii against a possible Japanese attack. This was during a time when diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Japan were deteriorating, and by the latter part of 1941, it was judged likely by both Washington and the top military leadership that war between the 2 countries would result. (Indeed, the U.S. military had broken the Japanese military and diplomatic codes - and so, had some sense of what Tokyo was contemplating as a resolution to its impasse with Washington.) 

This is a book that anyone who wants to know the definitive account of who(m) is (are) responsible or culpable for the tragedy of Pearl Harbor should read and then quietly reflect upon. I know that I will never again judge Admiral Husband Kimmel as guilty as dereliction of duty. In my view, he was a convenient scapegoat (which is not easy for me to admit, as someone who had earlier accepted wholesale the official stories behind Admiral Kimmel's and General Short's "neglect" of Hawaii's defense).

He 162 Volksjäger Units (Combat Aircraft) - Robert Forsyth, Jim Laurier

For both its conciseness and scope, "He 162 Volksjäger Units" offers a fascinating story of the development and deployment by the Luftwaffe in combat of a remarkable jet fighter. The He 162 'Volksjäger' (People's Fighter) was developed and tested in the latter part of 1944 (continuing into the Spring of 1945) in response to a call for a fast, nimble fighter jet that would be easy to build and fly. An aircraft that would be built in the shortest amount of time with basic construction materials (both steel and wood) and also an aircraft in which Hitler Youth glider pilot trainees could be easily trained to fly in combat.

 

The book goes into considerable detail in showing the reader how the ideal and the reality behind the He 162 did not always coincide. Photographs and illustrations are aplenty, which will delight any aviation enthusiast and model builder. Osprey has again produced a first-rate book on an aircraft, which despite its limited combat use, incorporated features (e.g. the first ejector seat to be successfully deployed on any aircraft) that would later be adapted by a future generation of jet planes.

PERILS OF A PILOT IN WARTIME

The Diary of Sonny Ormrod DFC: Malta Fighter Ace - Brian Cull, Frederick Galea

"Sonny" Ormrod epitomized both the unflinchingly honest and scrupulous diarist, as well as the dedicated & courageous fighter pilot. During his service in the Royal Air Force (RAF) - which he joined soon after finishing school in 1940, age 18 - Ormrod kept several diaries, detailing his experiences and impressions of his fellow pilots. It was his intention to make those diaries into a memoir after the war. Thus, this book by Brian Cull constitutes a belated (though abridged) memoir.

The book takes the reader from October 1941 - when Ormrod was in the UK with 605 Squadron awaiting an imminent posting overseas - to April 1942 - when Ormrod was serving with 185 Squadron on the besieged Mediterranean island of Malta. Not many people perhaps know that, at one point during the Second World War, Malta was the most heavily bombed piece of real estate on earth. It was the lynch pin in Britain's efforts to retain a presence in North Africa and the Mediterranean against the Axis Powers. From Malta, British air and naval vessels would harry German and Italian ships sending supplies to Rommel in the Western Desert during the height of the fighting there in 1941-42.

Ormrod arrived in Malta with 605 Squadron during November 1941. At the time Italy's Regia Aeronautica alone was bombing Malta, which the British were generally able to cope with. The Luftwaffe, who had had a presence over Malta earlier that year, had withdrawn its units to take part in Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. This somewhat relieved the pressure on Malta for several months. As a result, sinkings of German and Italian ships became almost prohibitive to the Axis, so both the Germans and Italians resolved to destroy Malta through air assault. This is reflected in Ormrod's diary from December 1941 onwards, when the Luftwaffe returned to assist the Regia Aeronautica in trying to neutralize Malta.

Indeed, for Ormrod and his comrades, their job of helping to defend the island became an increasingly difficult and perilous undertaking. (The Maltese people also suffered greatly. Nevertheless, they endured the increasingly daily bombings from January 1942 with good grace. Ormrod's descriptions of the island, both aloft and on the ground, made tangibly real for me the stresses and horrors of what it must have been like to be in Malta at that stage of the war.)

Many pilots like Ormrod bravely and faithfully met their responsibilities, while others were malingerers and made excuses not to fly on certain missions. This angered Ormrod and several diary passages reflect his disgust and disdain for those squadron mates who were willful shirkers. Flying Hawker Hurricane fighters, they were outmatched in terms of performance and speed by the latest German and Italian fighters: the Messerschmitt 109F and the Macchi MC 202, respectively. One passage for me - from Tuesday, April 14, 1942 - illustrates the challenges and terrors of trying to cope with the daily attacks by what were now swarms of enemy aircraft:

"[Wigley - one of Ormrod's closest friends] landed with but eight gallons of petrol remaining. His bravery and contempt for the enemy almost at times approaches madness. If ever a pilot in this war deserved a DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross], I consider Plt. Off. Wigley to deserve one. No odds deter him. Whose courage surpasses his? Few could out-fly him. Yet since he has not an aircraft in which now here it can well be done, he is unlikely to win a DFC because he is unlikely to win six confirmed victories. Most probably some newly arrived Spitfire pilot, who has never taken the odds that Wigley has, nor at such a disadvantage will, if he has the luck and a little skill, mount a score of six soon, be awarded a DFC and acknowledged by the world as Wigley's superior; a hero of the Malta battles. Hurricanes without speed and cannon cannot hope, except rarely, to bring down fast and heavily armoured German aircraft. Whereas the Spitfires can do it often in spite of the opportunities their pilots waste. This is our moan. We love the old Hurricane that has carried us gallantly and saved us on innumerable occasions but we know that old age has now overcome it."

Sadly, Ormrod's luck would run out 8 days later, on his 20th birthday.

An Explorer in the Air Service (WWI Centenary Series) - Hiram Bingham

"AN EXPLORER IN THE AIR SERVICE" (which was originally published in 1920 by Yale University Press) is Hiram Bingham's account of his time as an officer in the United States Army Air Service (1917-1919) in which he headed, first in Washington the Personnel Office of the Air Service - and then was sent to France in the Spring of 1918 as Chief of Personnel at Tours, where he labored for a few months before he managed to wrangle a transfer to Issoudun, where the U.S. had established a complex of military airfields 100 miles SE of Paris. Bingham, who had undergone flight training in the U.S. in March 1917 prior to the country's entry into the war and went on to earn the designation of Reserve Military Aviator (R.M.A.) the following August, wanted to freshen up on his flying skills. His work as Air Service Personnel Chief was so all-consuming that he had had no time for flying. 

From reading this book, one quickly sees how much of an aviation enthusiast Bingham was. (Indeed, before joining the U.S. Army, he was one of the persons instrumental in the establishment of the U.S. Schools of Military Aeronautics at 8 universities across the country - from Cornell to UC/Berkeley - which provided ground school training for Army aviation cadets, who later received advanced flight training in Europe.) At Issoudun, he was placed in command of the Third Aviation Instructional Centre (AIC). The Third AIC was the largest primary instruction and pursuit training school in the Air Service. It was made up of a series of airfields where pilot trainees were put through various stages of training, from simplest (Field 1, where the trainee pilot learned to taxi a 'wingless' plane at high speed along a straight course, so as to get a basic feel for handling a plane) to advanced (Fields 7 & 8, where formation flying, simulated aerial combat, and gunnery were taught). 

In reading about the training that took place at the Third AIC, Bingham goes into considerable detail in sharing with the reader the realities and challenges of training pilots and meeting the frontline requirements the Air Service placed upon him and the officers under his command throughout the summer and autumn of 1918. Sometimes the pilot trainee who has his heart set on flying 'pursuits' (fighter planes) fails to catch on to the demands of flying a fast, high-performance, single-seat airplane. No matter how hard he tries to keep his place in formation or learn combat tactics, he doesn't measure up. He falls short and his deficiencies become all too clear to his instructors. Rather than waste any more precious time and resources on a pilot trainee who doesn't have what it takes to serve in a pursuit squadron at the Front, he is shunted off into training as either an observation or bomber pilot (at Field 10, which was much larger than the other fields). 

Throughout the book, there are many photos of the various aircraft types that were used at Issoudun, as well as photos of Issoudun itself and some of the men who served there. Those photos gave me a very real sense of what it must have been like to be in the U.S. Army Air Service in France during World War I. There are also detailed illustrations of some of the flight maneuvers (e.g. the 'vrille' or spin, vertical virage, wing slip, and renversement) prospective pursuit pilots were expected to master.  Sometimes I would take a break from reading and study these illustrations. I would then close my eyes and try to imagine that I was in a Nieuport or SPAD fighter carrying out these intricate movements with deft handling of throttle, control stick, and rudder. 

"AN EXPLORER IN THE AIR SERVICE" is one of the best books of its kind that I've ever read. Bingham speaks both to his time and to today's generation with words that are sometimes prescient about aviation, as well as fanciful. His candor in speaking about America's lack of preparedness in developing the Air Service once the country is at war serves as an indictment of the narrow vision or blindness shown by the Army General Staff, which failed to appreciate aviation's potential and utility on the battlefield. Bingham himself says that "... it must never cease to be a source of amazement to our descendants that, while the great nations of the world had been fighting for their lives for two years and a half, and ordinary common sense would have seemed to have dictated the necessity of preparing for the day when we, too, should get thrown into the gigantic conflict, so little should have been done of what is known as 'General Staff Work.' " 

Anyone who wants to understand the origins of U.S. military air power, start here. This book is absolutely priceless. 

A REAPPRAISAL OF 'BLITZKRIEG 1940'

Blitzkrieg: Myth, Reality, and Hitler’s Lightning War: France 1940 - Lloyd Clark

"BLITZKRIEG - Myth, Reality, and Hitler's Lightning War: France 1940" provides the reader with a fairly comprehensive account of the German invasion of the Benelux countries and France during May and June 1940. The author sets out to show that the German victory in Western Europe was by no means certain. Indeed, Hitler had plans to invade Western Europe as early as November 1939. But postponements were made on several occasions owing to the weather. There was also an occasion in which a Luftwaffe courier plane carrying the invasion plans veered off course and crashed in Belgium in January 1940. The German officer who had the plans, tried to burn them but was thwarted by the Belgians who soon arrived on the scene. This led the Allies to believe that the Germans would attack them in the same way as had happened in 1914. For their part, the German General Staff had their fears of repeating the mistakes of 1914. Thus, the plans for invasion were altered. 

The French entered the war in a state of wearied resignation with little enthusiasm for offensive operations. Their political and military leadership were prepared for a war of attrition. They had expectations of the Germans attacking them, Luxembourg, and Belgium in much the same way as they did in August 1914. To that end, their plan was to commit their best units - along with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) - to Central Belgium in response to a German attack there. But, as the author points out, the French top commander Maurice Gamelin failed to take into account the possibility of the Germans making a bold thrust through the Ardennes Forest with their tanks (the Ardennes was regarded by the French as impassable to tanks and thus was lightly defended on the premise that the Germans would never make a major attack there). So, when the Germans sent their tanks, motorized units, and infantry through the Ardennes and into the key town of Sedan, Gamelin treated the German thrust as a diversion, requiring little response. But the Germans were wary of attritional warfare, knowing that their chances for success rested on exploiting any breakthrough with speed, dash, and savage attacks against the French designed to shock them both militarily and psychologically. Consequently, the Germans were able to reach the English Channel 10 days after the invasion began and within the following fortnight to compel the BEF to evacuate from the ports of Boulogne and Dunkirk. 

"BLITZKRIEG" contains pages of maps showing the development of the German offensives in the West (codenamed 'Fall Gelb' and 'Fall Rot') and several photos, which should appeal to any student of military history, as well as the general reader. 

Again from reading this book, I learned how much success or defeat in a military campaign encompasses many factors - human, economic, political, and psychological - that, taken together, contribute to the triumph of the conquering nation (Nazi Germany) and the demoralization and defeat of the opposing nation (France). 

'THE ARIZONA COWBOY' FLIES HIGH OVER THE WESTERN FRONT

The Balloon Buster - Norman S. Hall
 

"THE BALLOON BUSTER" is a slim biography - told by the author with some dramatic flourishes - about America's No. 2 fighter ace of the First World War: Frank Luke, Jr. of Phoenix, Arizona (1897-1918).

 

Luke's combat record with the 27th Aero Squadron is all the more remarkable because between September 12, 1918 and September 29, 1918, Luke scored the bulk of his 18 confirmed victories over the Western Front. The bulk of these victories were against the German Drachen or observation balloons, which were highly dangerous to attack because they were heavily protected by anti-aircraft artillery and machine guns -- as well as by a covering flight of German fighters. These 'Drachen' (which carried an observer) were used to great effect to spot Allied artillery over the battlefield, whose positions could then be accurately pinpointed and destroyed - thus playing a significant role in the outcome of any battle or offensive.

Luke, who had been assigned to the 27th Aero Squadron in July 1918 (then commanded by Harold Hartney, with whom Luke developed a rapport; Hartney later commanded the First Pursuit Group. of which the 27th was a part), was regarded as a 'lone wolf' by his squadron mates. He was a bold, intrepid pilot who claimed an unconfirmed victory the following month, which further alienated him from his fellow pilots. They regarded Luke as a braggart and a non-conformist. But no-one could deny his skills as a fighter pilot and (after September 12, 1918) his bravery. Luke teamed up with Lt. Joseph Wehner (the 2 men proved to be kindred spirits) and over a 6 day period during the Battle of St. Mihiel, formed one of the most effective 1-2 teams of any fighter squadron in the United States Army Air Service (USAS) on the Western Front. Between September 12 and September 18, 1918 (when Wehner was killed in a dogfight protecting Luke while Luke was attacking German observation balloons over the battlefront), Luke was credited with shooting down 10 Drachen and 3 enemy planes. What makes this record all the more remarkable is that in the course of the September 18th mission alone, Luke shot down 2 Drachen and 3 enemy planes!

Luke was distraught over Wehner's death and was given a 2-week leave in Paris. But Luke was restless. He cut his leave short and returned to his unit. On his last mission over the lines (September 29th, 1918), Luke dropped a note to an American unit. The note contained the following message: "Watch three Hun balloons on the Meuse. Luke." Well, Luke attacked those 3 balloons and shot them down! (These victories were confirmed by that American unit). Sadly, Luke was gravely wounded and crash landed in a village behind German lines. Rather than surrender, Luke shot it out with a group of German soldiers who returned fire and killed him.

On the whole, "THE BALLOON BUSTER" - though told with some hyperbole - was an interesting book to read.

 

Spirit of the Blue: A Fighter Pilot's Story - Hugh Thomas

Peter Ayerst led a unique and varied career as a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot. He joined the RAF in 1938 and was the recipient of a thorough, peacetime flight training program. 

Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Ayerst was posted to France with No. 73 Squadron, flying the Hawker Hurricane fighter. He saw extensive action against the Luftwaffe during the 'Phoney War' period (which lasted up to May 10, 1940, when Germany launched its Blitzkrieg against Western Europe), the Battle of France, the Dunkirk Evacuation, and the Battle of Britain.

Following the conclusion of the Battle of Britain, Ayerst was given flight instructor duties in the UK, which he carried out til he was posted to serve with a Hurricane squadron in North Africa in September 1942. He went on to fly combat missions over France in the aftermath of the D-Day landings, and finished the war flying bomber escort missions. 

Ayerst was part of a rare breed of RAF fighter pilots who had seen action throughout the war. In peacetime, he became a test pilot and carried out administrative and command duties til he retired from the RAF on May 5, 1973. All in all, this is a good book for any aviation enthusiast. 

IN THRALL TO THE DANCE OF TIME

On With The Dance - Michael Hardwick

"ON WITH THE DANCE" is a continuation of the 'Upstairs, Downstairs' series of novels and carries the Bellamys and their servants into the early post-World War I years. 

The novel begins in July 1919, on the day that the Victory Parade is scheduled to take place in London. Richard Bellamy, now a member of the House of Lords, had recently returned from France with his new wife Virginia (and her 2 young children; like Richard, she had been a widow for several years following the death of her first husband, a naval officer, early in the war), where they honeymooned and took in both the Paris Peace Conference and Versailles, where the peace treaty formally ending World War I had been signed on June 28th.

 

Since his remarriage, Richard is no longer living at 165 Eaton Place and is looking for a new house near Hyde Park with Virginia. He meets after the Parade has run its course, with James, his son, who is as morose and restless as ever. Though the war has been over for 8 months and James has fully recovered from the wounds he sustained at Passchendaele, he has been aimless and with little enthusiasm for getting his life on a firm track so that he can begin to move forward and settle himself. Georgina (his cousin by marriage - the 2 had hovered on the edge of falling into a full-scale wartime romance given the smoldering attraction each had for the other; however, since the Armistice and the various shocks - personal, social, and economic - taking place in Britain as everyone tried to adapt themselves to a peacetime world - their passion had ebbed and died, though both remained as close friends) tries to cajol James into enjoying the fireworks outside. But James' enthusiasm has apparently been used up through his earlier participation that day in the Victory Parade. 

The staff at Eaton Place has a new footman and under-parlour maid. Edward, now discharged from the Army, and his wife Daisy had left the employ of the Bellamys several months earlier to eke out a living for themselves. Both pay a visit to their former colleagues 'downstairs', trying to display a new air of confidence, that in truth, neither has. Edward's job as a door-to-door salesman isn't getting him any closer to establishing for himself, Daisy, and their unborn child the type of success he craves for himself. 

The novel goes on to take the reader into the lives of both the Bellamys and servants over the next 4 years. And what a whirlwind those years prove to be! Years full of happiness, heartbreak, and anguish. Again I couldn't help but marvel over how a novel with 156 pages could be so engaging and compelling.

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life - Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy was a writer I had known of over many years by reputation. His books, 'The Lords of Discipline', 'The Great Santini', 'The Prince of Tides', and 'My Losing Season' I knew of through either their movie adaptations or via a National Public Radio (NPR) interview. This NPR interview Conroy gave when he was promoting his novel, 'My Losing Season' was one of the best I had ever heard. Conroy was so engaging, both with the radio host and the callers, that he made me - who has yet to read any of his novels - interested in the subject matter. Here was someone, I felt, who cared deeply about the subjects in his novel, and had a deep love for language and the written word. I was enthralled.

So, when I recently came across "A LOWCOUNTRY HEART: Reflections on a Writing Life" in a local independent bookstore, I had to have it. And it doesn't disappoint. This book - containing several of Pat Conroy's musings, reflections, blogs (a word he deplored), speeches, and eulogies from his widow, daughter, and best friend - gives the reader as full and rich a measure of Pat Conroy the writer and man that we are likely to get. He came across to me as a writer who loved and cherished the written word, the fans of his books, enjoyed the company of his fellow writers and their books, was very encouraging and supportive of women writers and up-and-coming writers, valued people, and embraced life to the full. 

"A LOWCOUNTRY HEART" I highly recommend for anyone who wants a fuller understanding of who Pat Conroy was and why his novels encapsulate so much of the magic, power, and beauty of geography, as well as the varied dimensions of the human condition throughout life.

'UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS' Goes to War

The War to End Wars (Upstairs Downstairs, #4) - Mollie Hardwick

THE WAR TO END WARS” follows hard upon “The Years of Change”, seeing the Bellamys and their servants at 165 Eaton Place through the four years of the First World War. Richard Bellamy, the father, a Member of Parliament, is given - as the war progresses - additional duties and responsibilities through his work with the Admiralty. His son, James, has rejoined the Army and is sent to France before the end of 1914. At first, the war is like a liberation for James from the discontent and restlessness that had a great effect on his moods from time to time. (Hazel, his wife, suffered from his neglect and occasional harsh temper – yet busied herself in various social activities in support of the war effort.) He takes pride in being in command of troops at the Front and sharing in their joys, sufferings, and sorrows. But as the war drones on into stalemate, James becomes disillusioned with the war and while home on leave, made the mistake of making his views known to a journalist. As a result, he was posted to a staff position in the UK, which he hated. But eventually, he is given active command of a new unit and is sent back to France. (Unbeknownst to James, it was Hazel’s influence with one of the Army’s high-ranking officers she knew as a social acquaintance that brought about James’ combat posting.) In the meantime, young Georgina Worsley (she was 19 when the war began), determined to do her bit, volunteers in a nursing program and upon passing, does a lot of the menial work nurses were often given in UK hospitals. She also worked with doctors and tended to wounded soldiers brought home from France. Eventually, Georgina is sent to France, where she works in a field hospital not far from the Front.

The servants in the Bellamy’s household (Mr. Hudson, the head butler and the acknowledged leader of the staff ‘downstairs’; Mrs. Bridges, the cook; Edward, the footman; Ruby, who worked closely with Mrs. Bridges in the kitchen; Rose, the head parlour maid; and Daisy, the under parlour maid) experience many ups and downs that seem to parallel the course of the war itself. Edward joins the Army and marries Daisy (both are very much in love) shortly before he is posted to France with a close friend who had been Best Man at his wedding. There, he manages to survive the hell of the Battle of the Somme. After many months in France, he is granted leave and returns to Daisy just before Christmas 1916. Together, they see in the new year, 1917, along with the rest of the Bellamy staff. But Edward is not quite the same. His nerves are shot. Shell-shock.

How it was that Mollie Hardwick was able to pack in so much drama and suspense in 220 pages amazes me. There were moments in reading “THE WAR TO END WARS” that I had to hold my breath or hold back tears. The world of the Bellamys and their servants became my world, too. For anyone who was a fan of the original ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ TV drama or became a fan of ‘Downton Abbey’, you’ll love this book.

Years of Change (Upstairs Downstairs) - Mollie Hardwick

Before 'Downton Abbey', there was 'Upstairs, Downstairs.' This book, 'THE YEARS OF CHANGE', is based on an episode of Upstairs, Downstairs that takes the Bellamy Family and their servants at 165 Eaton Place from the spring of 1912 to August 1914. 

Once I began reading 'THE YEARS OF CHANGE' on the subway to work earlier this week, I didn't want to put it down. For all of its 239 pages, it was packed with some of the most lively, intense, and at turns joyous and tragic family drama that I've encountered in a novel for quite a while. The reader also gets full views of what the lives of both servants and their so-called 'betters' (i.e. the ones upstairs as represented by the Bellamy Family) were like in considerable detail. For instance, the Bellamy son, James, a rather restless, impatient and frustrated man who had left the Army (he had been an officer in India) to take up a job in London -with his father's help - with a trading company, had married a typist in haste after professing undying love to her. After the first few weeks of shows of passionate devotion and affection, the marriage settles into one of stultifying indolence. One couldn't help but feel sorry for Hazel, James' wife, who clearly deserved better. There is a scene at a hunting party in the countryside (to which James had been invited by one of his moneyed, propertied friends) in which all the invited couples had retired for the night after a day of hard riding and shooting. James was peeved at Hazel for having defied his edict that she not ride. But she had been urged on by Lady Diana Russell (who had fancied James for some time - but having been spurned by James when he was feverishly in love with Hazel, she settled for a marriage offer from another man of her class she didn't love) and several of her friends to join in the hunt. Besides, they assured Hazel they would have a placid-tempered horse for her to ride. Well, Hazel was given at the last minute a more spirited horse to ride, which gave her a fright and made her a spectacle before James and his conferes. Hazel suspected that James, having regretted married her, was awaiting his chance to steal away in the night to Lady Diana's room for some "horizontal refreshment." After all, under such circumstances, it was not at all unusual for the rich and privileged set in Britain to quietly swap partners overnight. So long as discretion was observed and maintained, there was no reason for complaint from an aggrieved husband, or cause for public scandal. 

"THE YEARS OF CHANGE" is packed with so much. I enjoyed becoming acquainted with the Bellamys, the young Lady Georgina Worsley (a distant relation of the elder Bellamy's newly arrived from a Swiss boarding school), the society in which they lived with all its complex social standards and rules, as well as the servants 'downstairs - Mr. Hudson, the head butler and manager of staff; Mrs. Bridges the cook; Edward, the footman; Daisy, the sweet assistant parlour maid he came to love; Rose, the head parlour maid; and Ruby, the loveable, well-meaning, and unassuming kitchen servant. This is a novel that, once you begin to read it, you'll probably find yourself staying up all night to reach the finish. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
 

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames - Kai Bird

"THE GOOD SPY: The Life and Death of Robert Ames" is a book with a dual character which tells a history of U.S. diplomatic and espionage activities in the Middle East during the Cold War. First, it is a story about a most remarkable CIA officer, Robert Ames, who devoted the whole of his 23 year career in the Middle East to helping develop and secure peace in that troubled region through engaging with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at a time when the U.S. disavowed any contacts with it. And it is also a story of the evolution of U.S. Middle East policy between the 1960s and the early 1980s. 

Reading "THE GOOD SPY" rekindled some of my earliest memories of the Middle East from the 1970s. And for that reason, it was both refreshing and a much appreciated learning experience to receive from Kai Bird fuller accounts and analyses of events as diverse as the Black September murders in Munich during the 1972 Summer Olympics; the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975; the courage Egyptian President Anwar Sadat displayed in his attempts to make peace with Egypt's erstwhile enemy, Israel, which culminated in the Camp David Accords of 1979; and the 2 tragic events of 1983 in Lebanon which profoundly altered the U.S. approach in dealing with what is now (as was then) a seemingly intractable conundrum in the Middle East. 

"THE GOOD SPY" is a book I recommend to anyone who wants to understand why efforts to obtain peace in the Middle East have proved illusory since 1948. It also gives the reader insight into the sincere efforts of Bob Ames (he was one of the CIA's premiere Arabists who spoke fluent Arabic and loved the people of the Middle East and its varied cultures) to help provide a platform from which Israelis and Palestinians could establish ways of peaceful coexistence and reconciliation - and the realization of the 2-state solution and a lasting peace.