Welcome back to On the Nightstand. Instead of proverbial May flowers brought on by April showers, this month has been ‘April deeds gave time for May reads,’ and I have had some time to dig into the book stack.
But did I read any page-turners? If a book on the nightstand keeps me up all night, it is a 100 watt hottie. If I read the same paragraph four times and the book hits my nose, I’m just trying to milk light out of a dead bulb. No watts, and down it goes. Most books are in between. And, I’m happy and sorry to say, this month has a bit of both.
Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst. Furst writes novels of low level World War II European spies, more or less ordinary people who find themselves dragged into something extra-ordinary. His first novels, Night Soldiers, the Polish Officer, others, were magnificent. As the brand wore on, the stories became a bit less so. By the time he wrote Spies of the Balkans, a tiresome tale of outsmarting the Germans in Greece, I was worried. Now, with Mission to Paris, we have the unlikely experience of an author imitating the style of his former self, Furst imitating Furst. He gives us a famous movie star in Paris who decides to spy for the US because he is approached by the Nazis through a socialite hostess while he is filming a movie where he falls for the refugee prop girl where…. Never mind. Read the early ones. This one is not up to his skillt. Dead lightbulb.
Monte Cassino, Peter Caddick-Adams, is a history of the Allied attempts to break out of the Neapolitan beachheads to penetrate the Gustav line in 1944, a wrenching and not-oft-told account of the Italian campaign that resulted, on the one hand, in the fall of Rome and, on the other hand, of the unnecessary destruction of Christendom’s oldest and most revered monastery, the Benedictine abbey that since AD 539 had stood high above the Liri Valley. Americans, Texans certainly, know the history from the perspective of the suicidal attempt to cross the Rapido River that destroyed the 36th Infantry Division, hand in glove with the tragic landings at Anzio. Caddick-Adams writes the entire account of the British, French, Polish, Indian, and German units as well as paying full homage to the Fifth US Army. It is a fine book. The only drawback is the pardonable difficulty in keeping all the numbered and nicknamed units sorted out as you turn page after page. The only thing he is not is Rick Atkinson. 90 watts, or more.
Lagnappe! Cajun for ‘unexpected gift.’ I got in an extra read:
Chickenhawk by Robert Mason. This is a pilot’s eye view of the Viet Nam war from the right seat of a Bell 212 Huey flying in the Happy Valley, the Drang, and all points of Hell from An Khe and Pleiku in 1965-1966. I could not put the book down. Mason drops us into places that can he can fly us out of only by using the main rotors as weed eaters to cut the enveloping canopy. We watch in disbelief as his friends are shot out from under him and others die from survivable hits when his unit is not given flak jackets, then ride with him in the wreckage back to a pad for his crew chief to hose out the sad remains of what hours before had been young Americans. Page by page his soul degrades as the demands of helicopter warfare in a constantly changing zone destroy everything he cares about except, perhaps, staying alive. Read this book. It is exceptional. 100 watts of halogen.
On the Nightstand:
Am reading the much vamped Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne, a 2011 Pulitzer candidate. It is a history of the best horse cavalry in history, who happened to be Comanche Indians of the American plains. A favorite early tease suggests that their range was so vast and so fast that a group of Mexican or Texan families eating dinner in San Antonio would feel completely safe by reading a report that the Comanches were known to be 400 miles away, the equivalent of Oklahoma City, when in fact such a modest distance rendered them exposed to immediate and serious threat of invasion, kidnap, and violent death. Oh my, keep reading.
Over on Channel 2 I am reading the novel Ironfire by David Ball, a novel of the very real battle for Malta between the Knights of St. John, defending, and Suleiman, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, attacking, in 1565, an event that left Malta in Christian hands and precluded the complete domination of the Mediterranean by the Islamic armies of the Middle East and North Africa. So far I can say that Malta appears to need more fresh drinking water, a lot, and that the brother and sister who are the principals are lucky to be alive.
In the Queue:
Capital, by John Lanchester. He is the author of A Debt to Pleasure, a wicked satire that every author should read to in order to learn about pace and character development. High hopes here.
The Greater Journey, by David McCullough, author of 1776, John Adams, and many other fine American histories. High hopes here, too.
Comments? Contributions? Bring us your tired, your hungry, and your recommendations for good reads. That’s what this site is for, to share good books with good friends.
See you soon,