Hammock days. The roses of spring have become the scorched blossoms of July. The view from my writing desk captures little heat waves shimmering across the lawn where deer are so languid that they sleep in broad daylight, not fifty feet away, on hot, dry grass. It’s summer.
But, all is not lost. A hammock, slung in the shade between the branches of an ancient oak tree, a little folding table with a pitcher of limeade, and a stack of books. And, even though a folding table and a hammock are not a bed and a nightstand, in late July and early August they work the same – I am riveted by a book, turning page after page, or the book puts me to sleep. That is a win-win. So, on to another episode of On the Nightstand.
If this is your first visit to On the Nightstand, the books we review are rated by how well they keep you awake. A 20 watt book helps you drop right off (unless it’s so bad that you stay awake nit-picking) and a 100 watt book keeps you awake all night (or, in this episode, all afternoon). This month is an eclectic mix of things Pacific, things not so pacific, and old friends revisited. With that, let’s see what’s …
On the Nightstand
Fragrant Harbor, John Lanchester. In a departure from his Euro-centric novels, Lanchester writes of Hong Kong before World War II, during the Japanese occupation, and through to the hand-off of the British colony to the Chinese. But, in his remarkable way, he finds a point of view that is perfect. Tom Stewart has no prospects in England so sets out by tramp steamer for far-away Hong Kong. He is joined by a bank employee, a devoted couple, and two nuns, one of whom teaches him Chinese as the ship makes its way to the Orient. He finds work in a bank, which makes him useful to the Japanese when they take over, but also puts him in between the suddenly-captured English and the Chinese underclass of the island, and … one of the nuns. I’ll not say more. This is a 95 watt book!
Sailor Man, by Del Staecker, is a unique contribution to the study of naval warfare. First, Sailor Man focuses not on a particular battle, such as Leyte Gulf or Okinawa, or even on a particular warship, such as the Lexington or the Enterprise. It instead focuses on an ordinary seaman, J.P. Nunnally, whose primary job on-board was to helm a Higgins boat loaded with soldiers, marines, ammunition or supplies and get it from the USS Fuller onto Japanese-held beaches, from Bougainville to Okinawa. Second, it focuses on what it means to give one’s life for one’s country, but suffer instead of a hero’s death the slow destruction of body and spirit by post-traumatic stress disorder and the anesthesia of alcohol. Naval warfare is not designed to provide a teenager the tools for a successful civilian life, and Staecker has written a gripping account of just how much damage a sailor can absorb from watching suicide bombers kill his shipmates, seeing the next Higgins boat over explode with loss of all hands, and to absorb the never-ending blasts of shelling and aircraft attacks. We as a nation owed J.P. a better reward for his sacrifice and we as readers owe it to Mr. Staecker to read this excellent book. 80 watts.
Dead Wake, by Erik Larson, is the story of the last crossing of the Lusitania in 1915. Larson segues between stories of Captain Turner, the captain of the ship, and Kptl. Schweiger, the commander of German submarine U-20, as the two vessels close in on one another in paths converging from New York and Germany, meeting as they did near Queenstown, off the southern Irish coast. Larson has unearthed that the Lusitania was more than a passenger ship. She carried a load of munitions for the British army, and British naval intelligence had tracked the U-20 around Ireland as the German raider sank boat after boat, yet made no effort to alert the Lusitania to change course or to send warships to escort her to port. U-20 sinks the liner and almost three-fourths of the souls on board become…. souls. Larson also succeeds in peering deep into the passenger list of both victims and survivors, including Vanderbilts and infants, expectant mothers and diplomats. Unfortunately, he also wanders off into President Wilson’s love life and the Zimmerman Telegram but fails to connect them to the Lusitania sinking in a persuasive way. 80 watts.
The Zimmerman Telegram, by Barbara Tuchman. Reading Dead Wake dovetailed with my current immersion in World War I and led me to dust off my 1979 (!) copy of this penetrating study of what really happened when Germany tried to seduce Mexico into joining the war against the hated gringos. Ms. Tuchman stands on the podium of brilliant narrative historians, along with Simon Schama and Rick Atkinson. Her work not only illuminates how British spies intercepted and verified the German telegram to the consul in Mexico and also arranged for it to be ‘re-intercepted’ by the US so as to deflect that the British were reading everything the Germans wrote, but also how Japan itself was flirting with Carranza to establish a port and military base in Baja California. To this she adds insight into how badly President Wilson bungled relations with Mexico, from the naval occupation of Vera Cruz to the fruitless search for Pancho Villa. This is a brilliant book. Period. 100 watts.
Cosi Fan Tutti, by Michael Dibdin. This is my first read of a very popular British crime novelist whose hero, Inspector Zen, is a beleaguered Italian police detective who sets out to avoid getting tangled up in one crime but winds up solving another. On this occasion he has been exiled to Naples, where he doesn’t fit in with the local force but does help his landlady deal with the fact of her two daughters’ mismatched love of two low grade hoodlums. Fortunately for all, he also cracks the case of who has been inflicting vigilante justice on local Mafiosi (by squashing them in garbage trucks….), rescues an American sailor who is trying to sell a purloined copy of a forthcoming video game, and discovers that his mother had an affair….. Great for crime readers and Italophiles, not so great for purists. 60 watts.
And, as long as we’re talking about brilliant books, herewith
The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson. This is my novel of the year and perhaps my book of the year. I may qualify that as a ‘so far,’ but it will take some phenomenal writing to enter the ring with this riveting story of Jun Do, a North Korean tunnel fighter whose job is to dig under South Korea in the darkness, always, and fight any enemies who discover the tunnel. He is given this high-mortality job by the Great Leader because Jun Do grew up in an orphanage and therefore will have no family to mourn him when he, like all tunnel fighters, dies. Instead, Jun Do succeeds so well that he is promoted to sneaking across the sea to Japan to kidnap an opera singer for the Great Leader and becomes a Hero. He is rewarded with English lessons and promoted to become a spy whose sole task is to listen to English language radio communications, where he begins to hear unbelievable things. Space shuttles. Women rowing across the Pacific. Shipmates who would defect… And that’s only the beginning of this stunning book. A 100 watt book only because that is my highest rating.
And, to wrap it up, What Happened to You Lazy Lou? By David Bristow. Not a lot of people in the US have been to Carlton Scroop. In fact, I think not a lot of British subjects have been to Carlton Scroop, situated as it is between Honington and Caythorpe. But I’ve been there, and I am a devotee of airplanes and of World War II and, as it happens, of crash reconstruction. Knowing this, my friend Louis Charalambous ran across this little self-published book and sent it to me. Accepting the limits of unedited work, this book is a delight, albeit a sad one, for Mr. Bristow’s grandmother was only one hundred yards away when an American B-24 Liberator and a C-109 (tanker version of the B-24) collided during a training flight at Carlton Scroop in 1944. The Lazy Lou was a war horse that had been in so much combat that it may no longer have been airworthy; the C-109 was new. The Lazy Lou was commanded by a beloved combat pilot and the C-109 by a hot shot who, survivor accounts show, zoomed in at 300 feet above ground level to fly in formation off the wing of the Lazy Lou. Sadly, and predictably, the American Military cemetery at Madingly is their final resting place. To me, this is a 90 watt book. If you can find a copy, you’ll enjoy it.
In the Queue:
Summer may not be long enough. I have some great books on the nightstand. For beginners, there’s
Us, by David Nicholls, the author of the great book and pretty good movie, One Day.
Meuse – Argonne, 1918 (America’s Deadliest Battle), by Robert H. Ferrell. I said I was beginning to immerse into World War I. In doing so, I’m bewildered by how little there is regarding not only America’s contribution to the war but how virtually nothing is written about the largest battle in American history, and one in which more American soldiers died than in any other engagement in our past, the Meuse-Argonne offensive in eastern France. I’m really looking forward to this, and to
They Called Them Soldier Boys, by Gregory Ball, the history of the 71st Brigade, 36th Division, in World War I. I’ve read Dr. Ball’s dissertation on a related subject, so have very high hopes for this work of history.
When we Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.
Crusoe’s Daughter, by Jane Gardam, author of Old Filth.
A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan.