Agent Sonya, by Ben Macintyre*****

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.

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyFRUcCLNns

The Kaminsky Cure, by Christopher New***

thekaminskycureThe Kaminsky Cure is a satire of Nazi Germany previously published and now offered anew in digital format. Thanks go to Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review, and for the DRC, which I received free of charge. This title is available to purchase now.

Who would have thought it possible to satirize such a terrible time and have it come out in anything other than terrible taste? But New carries it off, using a pre-school aged child in a mixed family—with one Jewish parent and one Anglo parent—as his narrator. Several times the precocious tot points out aspects of his own narrative that are actually impossible, as for example when the child tells us exactly what is contained in something written and then blandly points out that he cannot read yet. It just makes it funnier.

The appealing thing about this novel is that it brings up the reality which should be obvious to any thinking person that has paid any attention to this particular time and place: most Germans as well as Austrians were entirely in favor of Hitler’s takeover, and although there were Jewish families, many of them in fact, that wanted out of Nazi-occupied Europe as quickly as they could go, there were others that had never embraced their culture and had converted to Christianity in some cases generations earlier; and such is the case with our protagonist’s family, which wants only to pass itself off as Aryan so that it can join in the party. Young Martin, the protagonist’s older brother, longs to become a member of the fearsome SS, Hitler’s storm-troopers. Ah, the uniforms! The ferocity! The authority!

Our toddler-narrator, meanwhile, observes his own family with platonic remove, contemplating which members have violated one edict or another and should therefore be turned in to the authorities. After all, that’s one of the things he has learned in school. Children are the future, and it’s up to them to weed out those older folk that fail to comply with important social changes.

It’s what Hitler would want him to do.

There’s one twist and then another, but overall I found that the story’s momentum lost steam as it progressed, because there was really just one joke here, and it could only be played so many ways before it became repetitious. Nevertheless, it’s wholly original, and when faced with an event as horrific as the Holocaust, one either has to laugh or cry.

And amazingly, New has created a way to help us laugh, at least for a little while.

Hitler is Alive!: Guaranteed True Stories Reported by the National Police Gazette, edited by Steven A. Westlake**

HitlerisaliveI was invited to read and review this compendium of articles from long ago by my friends at Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley. I appreciate the invitation. The articles in the collection were really published in a tabloid by the title above during the period after World War II ended, and they are presented here as a bit of humorous nostalgia, rather like the spirit of Punch or The Onion. These articles will tickle the funny-bone of some of its readers, but it wasn’t a good match for me.

It appears that Hitler did indeed have a man-made island set up as a place of retreat; most likely, word of the USA’s nuclear weapons program had filtered through and so an alternate location was devised for him and those he needed with him. In the end, his defeat was so clear and so absolute that even he could see there was no point in going there. However, between the Allied leaders’ claims that he was dead before anyone really knew what had happened and a few other intriguing details, journalists had a great deal of fodder to chew on for the period that followed. The overall tone at times nears hysteria, and because of this, it seems comical now.

Because it was not written initially to be humorous but instead was regarded by its writer as hard journalism, there is a lot redundancy, with old facts being repeated and new ones added in. I suspect that a much more amusing novella could be written using these articles as their basis; on the other hand, Hitler has been the subject of so much other historical fiction that it would have to be unique indeed to stand out from the crowd.

Those considering purchasing this collection might do well to go to a retail site that offers a chance to read sample pages first. If it works for you, go ahead and make the purchase. I have to confess I made it about halfway through and then bailed.

This collection was published Jan 12 of this year and is available for purchase now.