My thanks go to Net Galley and Mariner Books for the invitation to read and review; Our Man in Tokyo is for sale now.
For the most part, my curiosity about World War II has been slaked, but this book has a different point of view than any other I’ve seen. American history students know of the miserable experience of the two Japanese ambassadors to the U.S., whose own government did not even give them a clue that Japan was about to bomb Pearl Harbor, right there on American soil. But I had never heard a word about their counterpart, the U.S. ambassador to Japan. Joseph Grew was a skilled and seasoned diplomat, and he tried mightily to find common ground between the two nations. Of course, in the end he was more or less shouting into the wind. But I had never read a single thing about him, and so this biography caught my interest.
Readers should know that the last two thirds are much more interesting than the beginning. I don’t care about Grew’s early life, or his marriage, or his golf game. I’m in this strictly for the historical record regarding the U.S. and Japan during the period leading up to the war; also, of course, I wanted to know what happened to him, stationed over there as he was, once war broke out. All of these things are explained clearly and in a conversational manner that is easy to read or listen to. (Since I had fallen behind, I checked out the audiobook from Seattle Bibliocommons, and it sped things up for me.)
The various politicians with whom Grew dealt are interesting indeed. The divisions within the government itself, and also within the Japanese military, created all manner of problems with communication and decision making. There are some bizarre circumstances, and they’re well described. But also interesting to me are the less historically necessary, yet fascinating tidbits that he picks up along the way, living for a decade or so in Japan. Here’s just one nugget for you: Mt. Fuji was (and is) a popular vacation destination, but just prior to Japan entering the war, a terrible trend developed. Young people in their twenties and even their teens went to Mt. Fuji in order to throw themselves into the volcano! When 500 young lives had been lost, the government acted. There were no mental health clinics, and no counselors. Instead, they simply made it illegal to sell anyone a one way ticket to Mt. Fuji. And the really weird thing is, it worked! I am still shaking my head over this one. Kemper’s biography is full of these odd little bits that I doubt you will find anywhere else. His research and documentation are sterling.
As to the audio book, the reader does a serviceable job, apart from his dreadful pronunciation of Japanese names. Shudder.
I recommend Our Man in Tokyo to anyone interested in reading nonfiction about American diplomacy in Japan just prior to the outbreak of war between that country and the U.S. Don’t be ashamed to skip a couple of chapters at the outset if you wish; there’s not much there that will become important later.
Jennifer Ryan has created a niche for herself as a novelist that writes stories for and about women during World War II, set in England. In this one, a group of villagers form a club for the purpose of recycling and reusing wedding gowns, which are otherwise impossible to procure due to war rationing. We have three main characters and a manageable number of side characters. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.
I experienced an odd mix of reactions to this novel, at various points. At the outset, it’s an information dump tied together by story components. That’s okay; I’ve seen it before. We get it over with so that we can go forward knowing the relevant facts.
Our main characters are Cressida Wescott, a London fashion designer driven back to the manse of her birth when both her home and business are struck by Nazi bombs; Grace Carlisle, an underconfident vicar’s daughter who’s about to enter a marriage of convenience to a much older man of the cloth; and Violet Wescott, niece of Cressida, who is desperately in search of an appropriate Royal peer to marry, because she deserves nothing less. Through circumstances, the three become close friends. Using Cressida’s professional experience and the generous donations of women in the village, and eventually beyond it, they are able to create lovely dresses for themselves and others, with the understanding that each dress must be passed on to another bride once the first user’s nuptials are over.
By the 40% mark, my notes say that although this story is becoming a bit predictable, I am so in love with these three women that I don’t mind at all. There are some bumps along the way, to be sure. For example, Violet is aghast when she is called up by the British government to serve her time doing war work. On the one hand, I had never known that (many) British women were drafted during this conflict to serve in noncombatant roles, so this is interesting; on the other hand, it takes about ten pages for Violet to transition from the world’s most obnoxious snob, to a positively egalitarian one-of-the-girls. There’s no process, no development; it’s as if Houdini has appeared suddenly, drawn his cape over her, whisked it away, and presto, she’s a different person. At this stage, however, I make a note to myself and then resolve to enjoy the rest of the story.
At the same time, I am becoming uncomfortably aware, having read three of Ryan’s four novels, that these books follow the same formula: different women are thrown together during the war in order to solve a problem of some sort; we have a character from the lower income bracket; another character is a wealthy woman; and there’s a complete brat that will nevertheless be transformed and redeemed by the story’s end. Group hug.
There’s another concern here, too; Violet is assigned to drive a brash American officer around London. Every time she does so, the guy hits on her, and not subtly, either. He stalks her, he harasses her, and so she falls for him. Better make her a dress.
Have we not progressed beyond this hazardous trope?
The story has a hurried quality to it. At first, as I note that every time someone is happy, they grin—never smiling, smirking, chuckling, guffawing, or giggling, they grin, grin, and grin some more—I chastise myself for picking at a perfectly lovely story and I move on. But it gets worse, and by the end, I run a quick search, thanks to my digital galley and my reading app’s features—and discover the word has been used 51 times.
By the time we reach the conclusion, everything seems so obvious that I wonder if someone’s AI did most of the work here. And yes, of course that is hyperbole, but it’s also a disappointment.
Those that haven’t read anything by this author and that love historical romances may enjoy this book, but by the merciful end, I confess that I no longer did.
3.5 stars, rounded upward. I had proclaimed myself to be over and done with World War II fiction; there’s been a glut of it in the publishing world, and I have well and truly had my fill. My soft spot, however, is for any book written by an author whose work I have read and enjoyed. I reviewed Veletzos’s charming debut, The Girl They Left Behind, in 2018, and so when the opportunity came up, I agreed to read and review this one, too. It was a good decision.
My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation and review copy. This book is for sale now.
Eva Cesar, daughter of the well-to-do but terribly strict local bourgeois, falls in love when Aleandro, a Romani artist stops in her tiny town in Hungary. He is a painter and a fiddler, raising his younger brothers alone following the deaths of their parents. Eva’s father knows nothing of this romance, and it’s a darned good thing. Not only is her father a Nazi sympathizer and bigot, but she is already engaged to marry Eduard, a dedicated Red Cross physician whom she also loves.
The story follows all three of them over the years, shifting points of view. All three are likable characters; Aleandro is obsessive enough that he seems a little creepy at the outset, but as the story develops, that’s no longer the case. Eduard is a stable, likable human being, but he is the one that is least developed. Eva often makes passive decisions, which I find grating, yet these are the early 1940s, and women don’t yet know they’re entitled to be decisionmakers, at least in many regards. The plot seems to go all over the place, but it comes together quite nicely at the end.
There are two related developments I would have liked to see handled differently. First—and I’m telling you this because it occurs early—Eva becomes pregnant after just one night of passion with Aleandro. Picture me sticking two fingers down my throat. Gag, spit, gag some more; what an overused trope. But then it gets worse. Eva heads to a clinic where abortions are performed quietly, since the procedure isn’t legal; the facility is filthy, and the staff are rude; we briefly meet the doctor, who virtually has horns and a spiky tail, and dines regularly on the flesh of aborted embryos and fetuses. More or less, anyway. And with women’s rights to choose our own reproductive decisions under attack, this is the very worst possible time to put such vile propaganda into a novel. She flees, of course, and has the baby, of course. In fact, as I write this, I question my choice to knock off only half a star from my rating. I’m growing madder by the minute, just writing about it.
The most difficult aspect of a complex story like this one is deciding how to end it. I come back around when I see how tastefully and realistically this is achieved. The ending is both credible and sweet.
John “Lucky” Luckadoo was a bomber pilot in World War II in the most dangerous period of the European theater, and he survived twenty-five bombing runs, which was unusual. This is his story, told to us by the skilled wordsmith Kevin Maurer, and narrated by Holter Graham and Luckadoo himself. My thanks go to Net Galley, St. Martin’s Press, and Macmillan audio for the invitation to read and review.
The first portion of the narrative tells about Lucky’s early years, as well as his yearning to learn to fly. I feel a bit impatient as I read this segment, because I’m dying, like Lucky, to go to war. However, some of what I think is extraneous material proves to be important later on, so I’m glad not to have skipped anything.
A quarter of the way into the story, and we’re off. I am impressed by the descriptions, which are brief and unmistakably clear, written for general audiences of today. An example is when he tells us that a Quonset hut looks like a tin can that has been split lengthwise, then put on the ground, cut side down. Everything, from the planes, to the target, to the flying conditions is easily understood without talking down to the reader. The chapters are a good length, and the dialogue crackles. But now, we have to talk about that.
When anyone writes military history, whether it’s a biography, a memoir, a reference book, or any other nonfiction work, there must be citations for the facts and especially for quotations and dialogue. (I am proud of myself for not using twelve exclamation marks here; if there were an audio version of this review, I would be shrieking, so it’s just as well that we’ve stuck to print.) The author provides a bibliography at the end, and it. Is. Not. Enough. No, no, no! This is why so many writers in this field use historical fiction as a vehicle; the very best historical fiction communicates the same material, but is not bound to document facts. A bibliography alone would be just dandy for a work of historical fiction…which this is not. In fact, (said the American history and government teacher,) the four star rating is evidence of my appreciation for the clarity, organization, and pacing of this story; ordinarily I would go no higher than three stars for anyone in violation of this clear requirement. (Where was the editor?)
Moving on. The pace in the middle segment is brisk, but I have no problem putting it down and walking away when I am interrupted in my reading. That all changes at the sixty-sixth percentile, when the B-17 pilots and crews are sent on a mission to bomb Bremen. This is a huge mission, and a very dangerous one, as they are trying to bomb the canal where German U-boats are housed in broad daylight. At the same time, Goering is done watching his pilots get pounded, and he orders them to fight to the last man, and those that will not will be transferred to the infantry (note here that the German infantry is starving and freezing; pilots are much better fed.) Consequently, their aggression in the air is unprecedented, with kamikaze-like maneuvers that none of the Allies have seen from Germany up till now. During the portion of the book, I would not have left this story unless my house was on fire.
The callous decisions by higher-ups as to what an acceptable attrition level looks like, with about sixteen percent of active American airmen making it home alive after their service is done, is horrifying.
I have read a number of biographies and other historical works regarding this topic, but nevertheless, I learned some new information. I recommend this book to readers that are interested, but not to researchers or students.
Although the narrators do a perfectly fine job, I realize early that I cannot keep up with this level of detail without seeing the words, so I jettison the audio version and stick to the digital review copy. I recommend the audio version for those quirky souls that understand and retain spoken information better than print.
Well, heck. I have so loved this author’s most famous #1 Ladies Detective series, and more recently have loved his new, satirical series starring Mr. Varg. When I saw this stand-alone collection of short stories—a genre I enjoy—I leapt at the chance to read and review it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday, but this one fell flat for me.
The collection is scaffolded by vintage photographs from The Sunday Times. Smith provides one of these photos at the start of every story, and then writes something (fictional) about the people and events displayed. I am initially deflated by these, thinking it might be a good fit for some readers, but for me more of a cure for insomnia, because Zzzzzz, when I find the italicized portion, which is intended to be a you-are-there insert. Why, why, why does every Caucasian reader under the sun think that the best way to add some World War II spice to a story, is to interject some of the racist slurs used widely at that time against Japanese people? True, it was a much more mainstream practice back then for white people to use nasty, racist terms to describe anybody and everybody that wasn’t Caucasian; you weren’t entirely safe if you were from Eastern or Southern Europe, so predominant was this tendency. Yet every author understands that if your book is to see wide circulation, you’d better not go tossing anti-Black references in as casual conversational terms. But ah—the Japanese! Now, that’s different. The Japanese don’t fight back all that much, so probably it means they don’t care. (Pause while I retch for a moment or two.)
This cheap-and-easy bit of vile, racist pop culture took this collection down from three stars to two. However, I can assure the reader that had it initially been a four or five star read, it would nevertheless have dropped to an unfriendly rating when I ran across such ugly language.
Shaara is one of my favorite authors, and so I was delighted when I received an invitation to read and review. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; this book is for sale now.
Like everyone else, I bring my own experiences and biases to this novel, and this one is a potential hot potato. I am married to a Japanese citizen, and my in-laws still reside in Japan. The implicit, and at times overt racism that many authors bring to this topic—the Pacific theater of World War II, between the U.S. and Japan—ruins my mood for days, and consequently, I won’t even go near most nonfiction or historical fiction that focuses on this aspect of American history. When Shaara published To Wake the Giant, I signed on to read and review with great trepidation; I was afraid that I would not only hate the book, but emerge from it unhappy enough to abandon the author entirely. Imagine my delight when I found the opposite was true.
Shaara’s signature format is to portray the events that unfold through the eyes of key participants, delivering staggered narratives that include admirals and pilots on both sides as well as a code breaker on the American side. Shaara sticks to the truth, and by now I know this, so I’m not distracted by the need to fact check information that is new to me. His research and attention to detail is matchless, and his capacity to develop characters on the page makes me feel I would know these men if I ran into them on the street. My review copy, sadly, did not have the maps added, merely noting on what pages they would later be added; however, I once more defer to this author’s track record. I would bet my last dollar that the maps are also excellent.
One aspect that is usually a deal breaker for me is the frequent use of the period’s predominant racist slur, when Americans mention the Japanese. There are three syllables in this word, and they should be used. For those that plead that the one syllable word is authentic to the time and place, I would invite them to imagine a similar tale featuring a hypothetical African enemy during the same time period. What would be the expected, authentic term by which Caucasian Americans would refer to such enemy combatants, and to the government from which they hail? For the obtuse, I’ll tell you, it would be the N word. So would you just go ahead and drop it in there for the sake of accuracy, or would you use greater sensitivity and explain the alteration in an author’s note? You’d do the latter. Of course you would. In fact, likely it would be the only way your novel would see the light of day, and rightly so.
But here as well, Shaara gets a pass from this reviewer despite his use of the term I abhor, and the reason is his candor, addressing the racism of the time period right up front. Though you might think it obvious, I have never seen a successful author of World War II historical fiction do this, and he is absolutely clear about it. In fact, I began highlighting the introduction—don’t skip it! And when it was done, I found I had highlighted nearly all of it.
Whether you are drawn to this book from a love of history and the desire to learn a few things painlessly, or for the escapist entertainment that great novels provide, you can’t go wrong here. This is a damn fine book. I highly recommend it to everyone.
I enjoyed Ryan’s historical novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane, and so I was thrilled when Ballantine Books and Net Galley offered me a review copy for this one. It’s for sale now.
The story is set in rural England during World War II. We have four protagonists, all of them women. Audrey Landon is a widow; her husband died in the war, leaving her with two boys to raise on her own. The old family home, which she inherited from her parents, is falling apart, and she has no means to repair it. In some places, the roof has caved in.
The second is Audrey’s sister, “Lady” Gwendoline. Gwen puts herself first at all times, since nobody else ever has. She married for wealth and convenience, and she lords her affluence over her sister and everyone else. But her husband is a cruel man, and her existence is a lonely one despite its material comfort.
Zelda was a top chef in London, but once her pregnancy became visible, she had to get gone. Her landlord calls her a “trollop,” and she knows she can’t stay there now, so she applies for wartime housing. The volunteer in charge of placing her is Lady Gwendoline, who snickers with amusement as she assigns her to live in Audrey’s house.
Nell is a chef’s assistant at Fenley Hall, the prestigious old pile where Lady Gwendoline and Sir Strickland hold court. The chef, Mrs. Quince, has taught her nearly everything she knows, and it’s a good thing, too; the old lady isn’t getting any younger.
All four women enter a cooking contest held by the Ministry of Food, a “wartime cooking challenge” to showcase recipes that use ordinary ingredients and work around rationing. The winner will be the new announcer for The Kitchen Front, a wartime radio program—and this program existed in real life.
As in the last story, Ryan develops her four characters in a way I believe; the most benevolent have flaws, and the most unsympathetic, Lady Gwendoline, is complex and capable of change. It is Gwendoline that is most developed at the end, but all four are dynamic characters.
For a brief while, I use the audio version of this book, which I obtain from my local library. Jasmine Blackborow does a fine job as reader in most regards, but there is a side character that turns up in a couple of emotionally charged scenes, an Italian prisoner of war, and when she voices him, he sounds like Dracula, which ruins the magic. For this reason, I recommend sticking to the printed version.
The first half of this story is almost unputdownable, and for a time I nearly forget my other books. But as the climax approaches, things become predictable, almost formulaic, and the ending is a bit too tidy for my tastes. The scenes toward the end with Mrs. Quince are overwrought. It’s not terrible, but because I am so far in love with the first half, I am disappointed by the denouement. Also, if recipes must be included, as apparently they must, the author should give them character by using the substituted ingredients in the instructions; the more desirable ingredients can be footnoted.
Ultimately I rate The Kitchen Front four stars; five for the first half, three for the second.
What kind of nerve does it take to go up alone in a fighter plane and duel with an enemy? Race of Aces is an account of the best Allied fighters in the South Pacific during World War II. My thanks go to Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy. When I missed the publication date, I obtained a copy of the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. This proved to be a very good thing.
John R. Bruning does a fine job introducing each of the best fighters to us, and when he begins with a young man from Portland, Oregon, which is where I grew up, I was instantly engaged. There are five fighters whose stories are told here: Portlander Gerald Johnson, Richard Bong, Tommy McGuire, Neal Kearby, and Charles MacDonald. The framework for the story is a competition for a prize offered by the iconic pilot, Eddie Rickenbacker, who promised a bottle of excellent bourbon to the first pilot to break his record of 26 planes shot down. The men’s heroism—and sometimes recklessness—makes for a compelling narrative for readers of military history.
I begin by listening to the audiobook as I make dinner, following up later each day by going over the digital review copy. However, I soon discover that the detailed descriptions of noteworthy dogfights are impossible to envision unless I do both at the same time. Soon my routine is to listen to the passages in between battles, knowing that whatever I am doing, I’d better drop it and grab my tablet so I can follow along once the pilots take to the air. When I do this, I am rewarded with a clear mental movie of what is unfolding. Some of these fights are breathtaking in their intensity.
A flying ace is someone that shoots down five or more enemy planes. The vast majority of World War II flyers were competent and may at some point have shot down a plane or two, but the aces were few and far between. They were often working with substandard equipment—with the best American machinery reserved for the war in Europe. One noteworthy statistic caught my attention. “Fewer than 5 percent of combat fighter pilots achieved acehood, but they accounted for 47 percent of all the enemy planes knocked out of the sky.”
Again and again, I read instances in which the Allied fighter pilot plays a game of chicken with his opponent, flying straight at the enemy plane; usually the enemy veers off at the last minute, and once in awhile it’s the Allied fighter. There’s one noteworthy instance when they fly so close that the American pilot’s wing knocks into the Japanese plane; they find a smear of green paint on it after he lands. And so I kept wondering, what if nobody blinks? Of course, my mindset is diametrically opposite that needed for warfare; I think like a teacher. Don’t run with scissors. Slow down. Watch where you’re going, young man. Don’t wave your pencil or you’ll put somebody’s eye out. These guys, on the other hand, were warriors:
“Carl held his course and refused to break first. Blev watched in horror as he flew straight into a Zero, the two planes exploding with all the violence of a 500-mile an hour collision.”
Despite short rations at times, missing mechanical tools and parts of planes, and a number of other challenges, these men crippled the Japanese air corps in this part of the world, and because of this, the five aces were particularly loathed by the Japanese pilots. One of them is shot down toward the end, and although he survives the crash, he is shot repeatedly after he goes down. It’s just as well that he’s dead by the time they get to him:
“After he fell to the jungle floor, the Japanese stripped everything off him, including his boots, watch, clothes, jacket, and dog tags. They left his naked body unburied, sprawled facedown at the base of the tree, his parachute still entangled in its branches like a canopy for his anonymous grave.”
It’s a weird sort of compliment.
The audiobook frees me to check details not provided in the book itself. There is a description of the different aircraft available to the men, and as I listen. I search for images of them and find some diagrams; there are parts of the craft mentioned and I have no idea what they are. Hopefully those that pick up the finished copy may find some photographs or illustrations, but I have none, so I run some searches.
Ultimately, I don’t care at all who wins the bottle of bourbon, and I have trouble remembering who is who, apart from Gerald Johnson. But that doesn’t bother me; I am not in this thing for individual biographies of the pilots, or because of the Rickenbacker contest. I want to know more about the World War II pilots, and the contest between the five men provides an excellent framework for that information.
The audiobook, while useful, does have some small glitches. The narrator should have taken the trouble to find out how to pronounce place names. The story begins in Oregon, and every time the word “Willamette” is used—Willamette Valley, Willamette River, and so on—the mispronunciation sets my teeth on edge. I catch myself snarling at the reader as if he is there in the room with me. His general manner while describing the military aspects of the book, which of course is most of it, has a documentary feel to it, and it works well, but now and then we veer into the private lives of the pilots, and when more sensitivity and nuance are called for, the reader is still using that clipped documentary voice you’d associate with a movie shown in your high school social studies class. Because of these things as well as the complexity of the fight scenes, I recommend the printed version over the audio. However, if you can swing it, the best way of all is to use them both simultaneously.
Nobody can dispute that Bruning knows his material, and copious research was done to produce this book, at least on the American side of it. It is a bit longer than it needs to be, and my own preference would be to edit it down a bit. Also, although the “J” word is only used in quotations, it shouldn’t be used at all. Those that squawk about authenticity should try inserting the “N” word, which was also freely used during this time period, into the quotes, just to test the assertion, and then it’s obvious that of course no reputable author should publish such a thing. Racist terms, no matter how common to the time described, have no place in any reputable history publication, and he should have worked around them.
With these caveats, I recommend this book to those that enjoy military history.
It’s hard to believe that Florence Adler Swims Forever is a debut novel. Rachel Beanland has stormed our literary beaches, and I hope she does it forever. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
The title character dies almost immediately, which is a bit unusual all by itself. The central storyline centers on Fannie, Florence’s sister, who is in the midst of a dangerous pregnancy. She’s already had one premature baby that died at 3 weeks, and so this one Is being closely monitored. Because of this, the family closes rank in order to prevent Fannie from knowing that Florence has died until after the baby’s birth, lest she miscarry. However, Fannie isn’t the main character; the point of view shifts between the present and the past, from one family member to another, eight all told, in fairly even fashion.
My first reaction to this premise—keeping her sister’s death from Fannie for what, two months—is that it’s far-fetched to think such a plan could succeed. But as the story unfolds, I realize that information was not a constant presence during the late 1930s, as it is now. There was no television yet; a radio was desirable, but not everyone had one. Fannie asks for a radio for her hospital room, but she’s told they’re all in use. Too bad, hon. Newspapers and magazines were explicitly forbidden for visitors to bring in; the lack of news is explained in general terms as “doctor’s orders,” and back then, doctors were like little gods. If “Doctor” said to jump, everyone, the patient most of all, leapt without question. And then I see the author’s note at the end, that this story is based on an actual event from her family’s history! It blows me away.
Besides Fannie and Florence, we have the parents, Joseph and Esther, who have a meaty, complicated relationship; Fannie’s husband Isaac, who is an asshole; Fannie and Isaac’s daughter, Gussie, who is seven; Florence’s swim coach, Stuart; and Anna, a German houseguest whose presence creates all sorts of conflict among the other characters. Anna’s urgent need to help her parents immigrate before terrible things happen to them is the story’s main link to the war. All characters except Stuart are Jewish.
Because I missed the publication date but was eager to dive into this galley, I supplemented my digital copy with an audiobook from Seattle Bibliocommons. This is a wonderful way to read, because when something seems unclear to me, I can switch versions, and in the end, I feel well grounded. The audio version is read by eight different performers, and the result is magnificent.
Read it in print, or listen to the audio; you really can’t go wrong. The main thing is that you have to read this book. As for me, I’ll have a finger to the wind, because I can’t wait to see what Beanland writes next.
Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now.
Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow.
Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also.
Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula.
There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought.
The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none.* I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity.
Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands.
Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening.
This book is highly recommended.
*An alert reader tells me that the final version includes photographs of Ursula and all the major players.