A list, sometimes annotated, of books recently read:
- Richard Bassett : Hitler’s Spy Chief. New York: Pegasus. A biography of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr. This book appears to be a reissue (also revised?) of a book first published in 2005. The subject and argument of the book are fascinating, but sadly this is not matched by the writing, which is just appalling.
The first problem is with the status of the book. The inside cover pages say “copyright 2011”, and “First Pegasus Books hardcover edition 2012”, yet the Acknowledgements section is dated 2004. Various references to contemporary events throughout the book also indicate a date of writing of around 2003 or so. The front section contains a “Preface to the American Edition” which is undated, but cites letters written in 2008 and 2009. The author’s sloppiness with dates is manifest throughout the book, and it is often very hard for a reader to determine exactly which year events being described actually happened.
A further great sloppiness concerns the use of names – many people, like citizens of Indonesia, appear only to have surnames. Later references will often find a first name attached to the surname – is this the same person, one wonders? It is as if the author assumes we know as much as he seems to know about minor Nazi officials, and temporary clerks in MI6.
The book actually reads like the author’s narrative notes for a book rather than the book itself, with much background information missing or assumed to be known by the reader. Is this his first draft perhaps, ready for editing? How could one write on the topic of German foreign intelligence in WW II without discussion of the XX Committee, for example? Admittedly, the author does make one single reference to this operation (on page 280, out of 296 pages of text), but with no explanation of what the committee was doing or an evaluation of its work, and not even a listing in the index. And given the author’s argument that Canaris was an internal opponent of Hitler from before the start of WW II, then an analysis of the alleged success of the XX operations in outwitting Nazi intelligence is surely needed here. Was Canaris complicit in these operations, for example? Especially if, as the author believes, Canaris met with his British opposite number, Sir Stewart Menzies, during WW II.
And like a person too eager to please, the author’s sentences run on and on and on, with clause after subordinate clause, each introducing a new topic or change or direction, or dropping yet another name, in some drunken word association game. Where were the editors when this book was submitted? On vacation? On strike? Reading the book requires a reader to fight past the author’s appalling prose style to reach the interesting content. Sadly, Admiral Canaris still awaits a good English-language biography.
The book makes a very strong claim, which is not supported by the citation given by Bassett. On page 167, we read:
“in Finland where the British forces sent to help the Finns against the Soviets in 1940 were actually assisted in their passage by the Germans. German air and land forces were instructed not to interfere with the progress of these British forces.”
For this very bold claim, Bassett cites Frederick Winterbotham, The Nazi Connection, p. 164 (London 1978). But Winterbotham’s book seems to have nothing about the Winter War. Finland is not even in the index.
Basset also cites Winterbotham for a claim that Luftwaffe General Milch visited the Royal Air Force in Britain before the war. However, none of the pages of Winterbotham’s book which mention Milch say this.
- Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman : Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. Levant Books.
- Milton Bearden and James Risen : The Main Enemy: The Insider Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB. Presidio Press.
- Natalie Dykstra : Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. An intelligent and sympathetic life of Marian (“Clover”) Hooper Adams (1843-1885), pioneer of art photography, wife of Henry Adams, and a daughter of transcendentalist poet, Ellen Sturgis Hooper. She was a friend and muse to Henry James, and a distant relative of the step-family of George Santayana.
- Archie Brown : The Rise and Fall of Communism. Vintage.
- James Douglass : JFK and the Unspeakable: Why he Died and Why it Matters. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
- Sidney Ploss : The Roots of Perestroika: The Soviet Breakdown in Historical Context. McFarland and Company.
- David Maraniss : Barack Obama: The Story. Simon and Schuster.
- Ben MacIntyre : Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. London: Bloomsbury. Reviewed here.
- Colin Eatock : Mendelssohn and Victorian England. London: Ashgate. A detailed and comprehensive account of Mendelssohn’s visits to England (and his one visit to Scotland), and his activities, musical and other, while there.
- George Dyson : Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. Allen Lane. A fascinating account of the involvement of the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) in Princeton, NJ, in the early development of scientific computing, led by that larger-than-life character, Johnnie von Neumann.
- Gordon Brook-Shepherd : The Storm Birds: Soviet Post-War Defectors. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
- Neil Sheehan : A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon. Vintage Books. A fascinating history of the US inter-continental ballistic missile program in the 1950s, told through a biography of one of its parents, USAF General Bennie Schriever. It is easy to forget how much practical expertise was needed for successful missile and satellite launches, as with any new and complex technology. As a consequence, we forget how few of the early test launch attempts were successful. The Vanguard 3 rocket, for example, launched just 3 satellites out of 11 attempts between December 1957 and September 1959. (Vanguard was a USN project.)