Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

The most disturbing thing about this book is that the vapid, false, and mind-numbing world that the media produces and the population so whole-heartedly consumes is so much like our own. The narrator points out more than once that the government didn’t take the initiative to ban books (and by extension, reflection and depth of thought and experience); the people themselves stopped wanting them.

In this world, humanity has rejected its own cultural history and the hard-won wisdom of preceding generations in favor of comfort and isolation. They choose to consume life second-hand, as remote spectators, accepting whatever their screens feed to them.

They wanted instead a world of empty thrills and non-stop stimulation. And then they wonder why they’re not happy. They don’t even understand their feelings of dissatisfaction, because those feelings have no place and no representation in the media-produced world they consume. Guy Montag doesn’t understand quite why he’s unhappy today, after being perfectly fine yesterday. His wife Mildred almost kills herself with an overdose of sleeping pills and doesn’t even know it.

In this world, war is entertainment, one more flash of excitement on the screen. War’s death and destruction are distant and abstract. As one character puts it, death is something that happens to other people’s husbands.

Everyone in this world is asleep, and they don’t even know they’re asleep. Swap out a few details–TV for the internet, the three-walled televisions for smart phones–and you have something pretty close to the world we live in now. Even the manner of death the society chooses for its outcasts is ironic: the robot dogs hunt them down and numb them to death with massive injections of procaine (novocaine).

What do you do with a world like this? Bradbury gives us the analogy of the Phoenix that must descend into self-immolation before it can rise again.

Fahrenheit 451 is an allegory. Bradbury doesn’t spend a lot of time on character development, because the characters aren’t the point. They’re merely types against which the characteristics of the world he portrays come into sharp relief. It’s a chilling read, not because it makes you think of the dystopia into which the world may someday evolve, but because it so uncannily portrays aspects of the world we live in right now.

Awareness by Anothony De Mello

This book reads like a transcription of talks given before live audiences. The initial chapters read like the joke-filled exhortations of a professional self-help writer, but the book begins to deepen around pages 60-70. De Mello was a Jesuit priest, a trained psychologist, and apparently a devoted student of both Eastern and Western religion. His knowledge is broad and deep, and he has obviously brought great passion to his learning.

At its core, this book is about the difference between reality and our constructs of reality, most of which we have inherited from our culture, our parents, our teachers, the clergy, and the media. The constructs are all second-hand and almost always false. Our suffering comes from the strife we feel when reality does not conform to our false understanding of how the world should be.

De Mello points out repeatedly that most people are not aware of the constructs they live by. These constructs include the ideas that we must succeed financially, that we must find another person to give us love, that illness and death are personal affronts, that we must adhere to this or that ideal, that our lives must go a certain way. Our false understandings control us through fear and desire, and they do so invisibly until we take the time to see them and root them out.

Even the love we think we feel toward others is often simply an expression of our need for approval and validation. We don’t see this until we look deep inside and discover that we expect to get something in return from the person to whom we think we are giving selflessly.

Our most deeply cherished beliefs are the most dangerous. De Mello offers this excellent observation and parable:

Reality, God, divinity, truth, love are unknowable; that means they cannot be comprehended by the thinking mind. That would set at rest so many questions people have because we’re always living under the illusion that we know. We don’t. We cannot know.

What is scripture, then? It is a hint, a clue, not a description. The fanaticism of one sincere believer who thinks he knows causes more evil than the united efforts of two hundred rogues. It’s terrifying to see what sincere believers will do because they think they know. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a world where everybody said, “We don’t know”?…

A man born blind comes to me and asks, “What is this thing called green?”

How does one describe the color green to one who was born blind? One uses analogies.

So I say, “The color green is something like soft music.”

“Oh,” he says, “like soft music.”

So a second blind man comes to me and asks, “What is the color green?”

I tell him it’s something like soft satin, very soft and soothing to the touch.

So the next day I notice that the two blind men are bashing each other over the head with bottles. One is saying, “It’s soft like music”; the other saying, “It’s soft like satin.” And on it goes.

We see this kind of trouble in the world all the time. This is the difficulty of trying to use concepts that people understand to point them toward concepts that they don’t understand. People get attached to the bits they understand, and their understanding ends there, often permanently.

We can only change our false concepts, De Mello says, when we become aware of them. In fact, our false understandings often lose their power as soon as we become aware of them. In this, he is in line with Socrates and the Buddhists, with the stoicism of Seneca and twentieth-century European existentialists. Life is flow. Abandon your ideas and go with it.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. There’s nothing more terrifying than being asked to accept what you cannot control or understand. Yet with the acceptance comes freedom.

De Mello notes that the few people who really do start to question their understanding of the world do so only after immense suffering. Only after it becomes too painful for them to hold on to their ideas of how the world should be. He notes that there are only two paths for those whose world-view is completely shattered: they become insane, or they become mystics.

De Mello is deeply critical not of religion, but of the way religion is practiced and misunderstood. If people devoted to awareness the time and energy they currently devote to worship, they and the world would be much better off. Toward the end of the book, he gives this excellent parable:

There was a man who invented the art of making fire. He took his tools and went to a tribe in the north, where it was very cold, bitterly cold. He taught the people there to make fire. The people were very interested. He showed them the uses to which they could put fire–they could cook, keep themselves warm, etc. They were grateful that they had learned the art of making fire. But before they could express their gratitude to the man, he disappeared. He wasn’t concerned with getting their recognition or gratitude; he was concerned about their well-being.

He went to another tribe, where he again began to show them the value of his invention. People were interested there, too, a bit too interested for the peace of mind of the priests, who began to notice that this man was drawing crowds and they were losing their popularity. So they decided to do away with him. They poisoned him, crucified him, put it any way you like.

But they were afraid now that people might turn against them, so they were very wise, even wily. Do you know what they did? They had a portrait of the man made and mounted it on the main altar of the temple. The instruments for making fire were placed in front of the portrait, and the people were taught to revere the portrait and to pay reverence to the instruments of fire, which they dutifully did for centuries. The veneration and the worship went on, but there was no fire.

This powerfully describes the problem of many of the world’s religions, where people are taught to direct their worship outward through ritual, rather than inward toward awareness, growth, and change. They have duty without fire, maintaining the symbols without ever discovering the thing the symbols were meant to lead them to.

“These are the more dangerous idol worshippers,” De Mello says. “They use a very subtle substance, the mind, to produce their God.”

True spiritual practice is not a palliative to soothe us in times of trouble. It is the root of how we perceive and experience the world, and it comes from surrender, from accepting that we can simple be without having to know or control or even understand. “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,” De Mello reminds us. “They toil not, neither do they spin.”

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones

In this extraordinarily beautiful and deep short novel, author Cynan Jones follows four characters through a summer day on a draught-stricken farm in Wales. Gareth begins his day by checking on two cows that are due to give birth. He finds the first one in the barn, kneeling beside her stillborn calf, “lowing sadly and gently.”

The second has disappeared, wandered off in the night to god knows where. Gareth sets out to find her, but first:

He took the dead calf by its ankles and lifted it from the straw that was bloodied by birth, not by the calf’s death. It was strange because the mother had licked the calf clean. He thought of the mother cow licking her calf and not understanding why it would not stand clumsily to its feet, its legs out of proportion, its eyes wide. Why the incredible tottering new life did not come.

As we follow Gareth on his search for the second the cow, we get a tour of the farm, the neighboring properties, and the bog. We also meet his wife Kate, his son Dylan, and his daughter Emmy. Every inch of this world is teeming with life, death, and memory, and the extraordinary power of this book comes from the author’s use of simple, direct language that is always tied to objects and creatures in the physical world, to natural processes and elemental needs that affect every living thing.

The farmer and his family–especially his daughter Emmy–are deeply aware of and viscerally rooted to the physical world around them. Even the insects can’t go unnoticed, from the cuckoo bee who invades the bumblebee’s nest to the flies that torment both the cow and its owner, to the lacewings that Emmy distinguishes from fairies. The lives of every being in the story are deeply intertwined, and like the thirsty pregnant cow wandering lost through the bog, most are driven by forces they feel but cannot fully understand. The dynamics between Gareth, his wife Kate, and their daughter Emmy are particularly complex, based in part on secrets, lack of communication, and misunderstood desire.

As Gareth searches the bog for his missing cow, he notes the skeletons of other animals who have perished there. The ones who wandered in during the wetter seasons got stuck and died, years or decades ago, and only now, in the drought, does the earth yield up evidence of their being. In reading his father’s handwritten memories, Gareth notes the old man followed a similar process as he tried to recall the important events of his life: it was as if he had drained the water from the landscape of his memory and let the earth reveal what was below the surface.

Memory and real care sit under the surface, like still reservoirs waiting to be drawn from.

It’s easy, he knows, to take from the surface of things, like dipping a bucket into water self-consciously: you can call up these things. But when it comes up unbeckoned, without self-control, set off by some scent in the air, or fear, you can be shocked by its depth, which you hold in yourself all the time.

This book will linger in your mind long after you’ve finished it. The vivid imagery, the depth and simplicity of the prose, and the richness of the world the author creates are like magic.

Loose Girl by Kerry Cohen

Kerry Cohen’s Loose Girl is a memoir of emotional need in which the author recounts the compulsive sexual promiscuity of her teens and twenties and the underlying feelings of loneliness and desperation that drove that behavior. I was friends with a few girls like her during my own teens and twenties, and I had no idea they were feeling any of the things Cohen describes.

The value of this book lies exactly there, in her exposure of the underlying feelings and thought patterns that drive the behavior. Cohen, like the girls I knew, came from a damaged, dysfunctional family that left her with a damaged, dysfunctional psyche. It takes a confluence of conditions and events and timing, and perhaps an underlying susceptibility in a person’s innate disposition to produce the kind of compulsive behavior she describes, and she does a good job describing all of those factors.

Cohen now has a degree in psychology and counsels girls like herself. She notes that the psychological damage that led her to behave the way she did doesn’t simply go away, nor does the compulsion. Like a sober alcoholic, it’s simply something she has to acknowledge and manage. Her struggle, like the addict’s struggle, has been to reach a point of maturity in life where she understands the causes and effects of her behavior, and to develop the strength to choose the healthier path.

I recommend this book to everyone–to the girls and women out there who might not know that someone else was feeling exactly the way they did, and actually figured out how to say it. And to the guys who didn’t stop to think about the needs or desires of the person they were with.

Chasing Phil by David Howard

David Howard’s Chasing Phil follows the story of two agents from the FBI’s Gary, Indiana office who go undercover to infiltrate a ring of stunningly audacious and startlingly successful con men in the mid-1970s. When agents Jack Brennan and J.J. Wedick get a tip about a guy who ripped off a pizza store owner with bogus loan papers, they ask permission from their supervisor to go undercover. The idea was to record the con man, Phil Kitzer, making incriminating statements and possibly mentioning the names of other scammers the FBI could pursue. The scope of the operation was expected to cover one or two meetings.

At the time, the FBI had no history of running undercover operations. J. Edgar Hooover had prohibited them out of fear that his agents would become corrupted by associating too closely with the criminals they were supposed to be arresting. But this was 1976-1977, and with Hoover recently gone, the FBI was beginning to change its ways.

Unfortunately for Brennan and Wedick, neither man had been chosen to attend the Bureau’s first class in undercover training. Not only did they have to go in cold for their initial meeting with Kitzer, they had to use their real names and IDs. They had to charge incidentals on their personal credit cards and hope to be reimbursed. The FBI didn’t even have rules for what an undercover agent could and could not do, which would lead them to have to make a number of increasingly difficult spur of the moment decisions.

Brennan and Wedick’s informant introduced them to Kitzer by phone. After a number of calls, Kitzer asked them to meet him in the bar of a motel near Minneapolis. The agents, having no disguise, were so unprepared that Kitzer’s first comment on meeting them was, “Christ, you guys look like a couple of feds.”

The three men had a few drinks, chatted about ways to acquire and sell stolen government bonds, and generally hit it off. Kitzer, then drunk, told them to get in his car for a ride. Brennan and Wedick looked at each other, unsure what to do, since there was no protocol for what an undercover agent should do in this situation, and they had no backup to bail them out if things got dicey. The agents got into the car and hoped everything would be OK.

As they talked, they began to understand that Kitzer was no two-bit con man. Nor was he the type to go in and rob a bank of a few thousand dollars. Kitzer and his international ring of co-conspirators would literally steal entire banks by forging papers that guaranteed millions of dollars in funds and getting the bank’s owners to turn over the entire operation to them. Then they’d empty out the depositor accounts, sell fake certificates of deposit and fake loan guarantees that would never be honored.

They didn’t just do this to banks. They did it to hotels, land development projects, insurance companies, and all sorts of other businesses. Some of their scams were so large, they put the economies of small countries at risk.

When Brennan and Wedick returned to the office, they tried to explain to their supervisors the magnitude of what they had uncovered. It took them months to get the higher-ups in the Bureau to understand the scope and complexity of the operations these two agents had stumbled into.

For much of the book, the agents and the few above them who understand what’s going on spend an enormous amount of time and sweat just pushing requests through the FBI bureaucracy to allow Brennan and Wedick to follow Kitzer to his next destination. The scammers fly from airport to airport on the spur of the moment, while the agents have to get on the phone and ask headquarters if it’s OK to break diplomatic protocols by pursuing the operation into another country without officially warning the other country that they’re coming. In some cases, the agents find themselves working in other countries, unacknowledged and unprotected. Other times, they’re in countries with no working phones (yes, that was a thing in the Carribbean of the 1970s) and the FBI has no idea where they are or even if they’re still alive.

In one incident, the only plane tickets Brennan and Wedick can get on an hour’s notice have GTR (Government Transport Request) stamped across the top–a dead giveaway that they’re feds traveling on government orders–and they have to try to hide their tickets from the crooks who they’re chatting with as they board. And all this is happening while one agent has to travel the world with a tape recorder the size of a brick strapped to his back.

Phil Kitzer turns out to be a fascinating character. He’s intelligent, charismatic, and persuasive. Because he has a deep knowledge of banking, finance, insurance, and law, he is often the lynchpin on which the scams of other con men depend.

Kitzer also has a thorough knowledge of the criminal justice system, which he has easily outwitted before. When the government brought its best lawyers to take him down after a massive insurance fraud in the 1960’s, he not only got himself acquitted of all charges (though he was clearly guilty), but he humiliated the prosecutors in the process.

During their months of travel together, Brennan, Wedick, and Kitzer develop a strong friendship and a deep mutual respect. Though Kitzer may be on the wrong side of the law, he’s an extraordinary person by any measure, and a hard guy not to like.

In one scene, when Kitzer still has no idea that Brennan and Wedick are undercover agents, he explains to them in chilling detail the inner workings of the FBI’s decision-making process, which he’s managed to infer by simple observation. He then goes on to analyze the tactics and shortcomings of federal prosecutors, and describes how he can easily outmaneuver them. Brennan and Wedick know he’s not just talking. He’s actually done all the things he describes.

The FBI finally comes fully onboard with the operation when some of Kitzer’s associates connect with members of the Mafia in New York. Then the operation that the Gary, Indiana office has spent so many months just trying to keep afloat becomes the FBI’s number one priority. As one agent remarked decades later, Brennan and Wedick’s undercover work exposed so many criminals, the FBI could still have been working on the cases in the 1990’s if they chose.

Things get dicey for the agents as the operation moves to New York. With the involvement of the Mafia, the agents face their first threat of real violence. At that point, they’re still working under their real names. Anyone can look up their families in the phone book. They’ve even had to turn over their social security numbers to some particularly paranoid criminals who wanted to check their credit records.

The amazing thing about this book is that it keeps getting better as it goes on. I won’t spoil what happens when the agents finally reveal themselves. The book takes an unexpected turn there, and it’s a good one. It’s rare to find a non-fiction book in which the story and the primary characters deepen unexpectedly at the end, but this one, and it’s well worth the read.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

When I read Robin DiAngelo’s article How White People Handle Diversity Training in the Workplace, I had the same hostile reaction she described seeing in so many of her workshop participants. I came away from it thinking, “Of course people are going to be angry with you if you try to put the Klansman’s hood on them.”

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

The article got under my skin in a way few things do, and I was still thinking about it months later when someone on a mailing list recommended White Fragility. So I bought a copy and I read it slowly.

The book painstakingly (and painfully) lays out an argument that boils down to this:

  • American culture is fundamentally racist, preserving racial and social hierarchies over centuries through a number of subtle and not-so-subtle means.
  • Everyone raised in American culture has absorbed a racist ideology, whether they are aware of it or not.
  • People of color are aware of it. Whites are not.
  • Unless you make a conscious and continual effort to work against the racist defaults in your thinking, your attitudes, your behavior toward and treatment of others, you are perpetuating and reinforcing the racist system.
  • You will not become aware of your racist attitudes and behaviors until you are willing to become aware of them, and a big part of that willingness lies in the ability to listen to others, and to accept their experiences, perspectives, and opinions as legitimate. (This is where “white fragility” becomes the great obstacle.)
  • You can never completely unlearn the prejudices and assumptions of the culture that formed you, but you can begin to see when they shape your actions, and when those actions become hurtful.
  • The process of becoming aware can be deeply uncomfortable, but as you become aware, you can choose a better path.
  • Awareness and choosing are a constant process. You will never be done.

The hardest thing about reading this book was the feeling of being put in checkmate, the sense that by simply being white and male, I was the oppressor and the bad guy, no matter what. DiAngelo’s arguments do box you in if you’re white, and there is no counterargument that will let you out of the fact that you are at the top of a racial hierarchy, that you see the world through an unacknowledged racial lens, and that the perspective you take to be universal and benevolent is often exclusive and harmful. DiAngelo says:

Whiteness rests upon a foundational premise: the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm. Whiteness is not acknowledged by white people, and the white reference point is assumed to be universal and is imposed on everyone. White people find it very difficult to think about whiteness as a specific state of being that could have an impact on one’s life and perceptions.

As DiAngelo elaborates on all the subtle manifestations of the white-centric viewpoint that we (whites) see as normal, natural, and beyond question, the inescapable box she constructs around us keeps getting tighter–the box that says You are participating in this unjust system, whether you acknowledge it or not, and you are complicit in it until you begin to actively work against it.

This is where most white people check out. This is where they feel they’re being blamed just for being who they are. The blame feels unjust–I know, because I’ve felt it sharply, not just from DiAngelo, but from others–and it drives a lot of people away. I think the deep resentment that sense of blame engenders showed up in the 2016 election, when many white voters essentially said, If you’re going to make me feel bad about who I am, I’ll never be on your side.

But the point of White Fragility is not to blame or shame anyone. The point is first to open people’s eyes to perspectives they cannot or will not see; second to force them to ask themselves if, in light of these new perspectives, they’re still willing to support the status quo; and finally, for those who say they want change, to call them to action, not by joining some big social movement, but simply by opening up and making changes in how they interact with others in their day to day lives.

The hostile reactions of white fragility constitute a refusal to acknowledge one’s own involvement in difficult problems that affect everyone in our society. Those who won’t acknowledge problems won’t confront them. And many who do acknowledge them won’t take necessary action, in part because they view changes to their own behavior as an admission of guilt. But DiAngelo’s point is “to move past guilt and into action.”

In addressing issues of race with whites, “What [people of color] are looking for is not perfection but the ability to talk about what happened, the ability to repair.”

Unfortunately, many whites can’t even get to the point of talking. Many whites–myself included on a number of occasions–have looked at basic calls for justice and even simple requests to acknowledge injustice as attacks on white people, white culture, white history. This is the response you get when you try to question things that are “beyond question,” when you hit at issues that truly are at the foundation of a person’s and a society’s cultural identity. (Especially if it’s an unacknowledged cultural identity.) DiAngelo does a good job of pointing out how social norms have conditioned whites not to talk about race, and to view the explicit pointing out of racial injustice–especially by people of color–as a social transgression, if not an act of outright hostility.

After reading her book, I see DiAngelo’s work not as attempt to put the Klansman’s hood on me or anyone else, but as an effort to take off our blinders. The author points out repeatedly that racist acts do not necessarily stem from the bad intentions of evil people, but from the unexamined attitudes and uninformed actions of people raised in a racist society. They come from the default behaviors of people who consider themselves good and just, and who can’t stand to be shown that the effects of their actions are often neither good nor just.

This book is politically charged. Its unsentimental analysis of American culture and white psychology is difficult to accept (for whites) and difficult to refute. For white readers, it pushes buttons you didn’t know you had, or wouldn’t admit were there. It risks provoking your hostility, your resentment, and your hatred by asking you to examine deeply held assumptions, by asking you to look at things you were taught not to see, and by pointing out ways you need to change.

This book will get under your skin, which is why you need to read it.

 

A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

Williams is one of the great underappreciated American crime writers of the 20th century. A Touch of Death, first published in 1953, bears the hallmarks of many of his other works: a down-and-out guy around thirty years old who’s not as smart as he thinks he is, a very smart and practical woman who’s more interested in getting things done than in sticking anyone else’s ideas of morality, and a seemingly simple caper that turns out to be vastly more complicated than it first appears.

A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

Lee Scarborough, a former football player who is nearly broke as the story begins, accepts a proposition from a woman named Diana James, whom he’s just met. She wants him to drive a few hours north to the small Texas town of Mount Temple, sneak into the home of the wealthy Madelon Butler, and steal the $120,000 in cash that Ms. Butler’s late husband embezzled from the bank.

Scarborough has an easy enough time getting into the Butler mansion, but as he searches for the money, he sees signs that others have been there before him, apparently searching for the same thing. Well, wait a minute, he thinks. What happened to those people?

He then discovers there’s another person in the house that was supposed to be empty. Madelon Butler is in her bedroom, drunk and listening to classical music on a phonograph. In a minute, it gets worse as Scarborough discovers he’s not the only prowler in the house.

We’re only in chapter three at this point, and our protagonist is already in way over his head. I won’t give away what happens from there, but Scarborough’s problems get a lot worse, especially when Diana James unexpectedly reappears. Scarborough begins to understand that he has unwittingly walked into the middle of a feud between two sharp and ruthless women who truly hate each other. And he has the perfect mix of desperation, false confidence, poor judgment and greed to make his situation a whole lot worse.

One aspect of this book that is unusual for the crime/noir genre is that there is no sex or even sexual attraction between the criminal protagonist and the femme fatale who assists him on his path to self-destruction. Lee Scarborough and Madelon Butler genuinely dislike each other. Ms. Butler never reverts to sex appeal to manipulate people. She’s smart enough to get what she wants by simply outthinking everyone.

As the plot continues to thicken, we watch Mr. Scarborough try to think his way out of the hopeless checkmate position that Madelon Butler has maneuvered him into. The sense of the ever-tightening noose makes this book reminiscent of Jim Thompson’s work, though where Thompson is the better psychologist of perversity, Charles Williams is more ingenious at constructing an endlessly twisting
plot and a devastatingly effective femme fatale.

Madelon Butler, unlike many women in the noir genre, is no underworld tramp. She’s cool, well educated, and exceptionally articulate. When Scarborough asks her why she killed her philandering husband, she says:

I had borne his other infidelities, but when he calmly decided that I was going to support him and his paramour for the rest of their lives, I just as calmly decided he was going to die.

Though the opening chapters of the book are a little clunky, and some of Scarborough’s early decisions tax the reader’s credulity, the ever-thickening plot of the story soon makes up for those shortcomings. As the web of current and past events becomes more and more dense, the reader feels Scarborough’s world spiraling out of control. We feel his growing sense of paranoia, his sense of entrapment, and the full unraveling of his mind.

Though I don’t think this is Williams’ best work, it’s still a very good read. If you find yourself liking this book, check out an even better work of his, The Hot Spot.

Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson

This is a superb piece of journalism and one of the best true crime books I’ve read. In fact, it goes far beyond true crime, richly portraying every stratum of an entire culture and era. The core of the story concerns the sudden and mysterious 1969 death of a wealthy young woman who was well known and well liked throughout her community. The woman’s marriage had been in trouble at the time of her death. Her unhappy husband had a new lover, and immediately after the death, her vindictive father blamed the husband for murder.

Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson (Non-Fiction)

I won’t go too far into the plot, because the plot twists a hundred times before the book ends, and each time you think you understand a character and the significance of the events they’re involved in, something new comes along and upends your understanding, forcing you to reevaluate.

Thompson does an excellent job presenting a tale that involves a number of Houston’s wealthiest families, as well as prostitutes, thieves, hit men, cops, prosecutors, boozers, addicts, bullying oil men, and celebrated surgeons–with the politics of oil and money hovering over it all.

If this had been a novel, readers might reject it as too complicated and too far-fetched. But real life is messier than novels, and as one writer pointed out, fiction has to stick to what’s probable, while real life only has to stick to what’s possible. The second realm is much broader than the first, and much more difficult to wrestle into a thorough and coherent story.

Thompson is an excellent portrayer of characters, and he introduces each new character with rich and salient detail before they become actors in the story. The prostitute is not merely a prostitute. She’s a fully fleshed out human being whose past informs an intelligent world view. By the time you see her interacting with the other characters and making decisions, you understand her motives, her fears and desires. The same goes for the cops, the oil man, the thief, the prosecutors, the young woman and the husband. Because the author has taken the time to make them all well rounded, relatable characters, you begin to see each part of the story from each character’s perspective, and the story that could stand on plot alone becomes exceptionally rich and multifaceted.

The brilliance of this work lies first in the scope and depth of the author’s research, and second in his ability to tell a tale such a complex tale with such richness, nuance, and clarity. If you like stories that portray complex (and lurid) human interaction within a rich social and historical context, you will love this book. Thompson makes it easy to sink in for the long, strange trip.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude is set in a boarding house in the London suburb of Thames Lockdon during the winter of 1943. A number of Londoners have abandoned the city after the German blitz and taken up residence in the Rosamund Tea Rooms, where they live under the weight of the war and government-imposed nighttime blackouts.

The Slaves of Solitude, by Patrick Hamilton

The book presents a cast of characters forced together by the war who would never have come together on their own. The protagonist, from whose perspective we see most of the action, is the prim, repressed, highly observant and highly sensitive Miss Enid Roach. Her sometime love interest is the heavy-drinking, good-natured American lieutenant Dayton Pike. Her rival and nemesis is the conniving and underhanded Vicki Kugelman, and her tormentor is the hilariously boorish, cringe-inducing bully, Mr. Thwaites.

The overall atmosphere of the book is one of repression, claustrophobia, and forced closeness. But it’s still one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. The inhabitants of the Rosamund Tea Rooms have sunk into a toxic atmosphere of sniping and resentment, and the house is dominated by the boastful, pompous, and impossibly obnoxious Mr. Thwaites, a Dickensian comic character whose sole joy in life is to torment everyone around him.

His favorite target is the meek and even-tempered Miss Roach, who tries to maintain a sense of dignity as she absorbs his abuse. This would be depressing if it weren’t so funny. Because no one in the boarding house will stand up to Thwaites, he freely expresses his ill-informed opinions on everything, in the most obnoxious ways possible.

This scene gives a good flavor of the character and the writing. By this point in the book, we know that neither Mr. Thwaites nor any of the other characters has ever been wealthy. They’re are all stuck at the boarding house precisely because they can’t afford to go anywhere else.

The meal was breakfast: the subject, utility clothing. “As for the stuff they’re turning out for men nowadays,” said Mr. Thwaites bitterly, “I wouldn’t give it to my Valet.”

Mr. Thwaites’ valet was quite an old friend. An unearthly, flitting presence, whose shape, character, age and appearance could only be dimly conceived, he had been turning up every now and again ever since Miss Roach had known Mr. Thwaites. Mostly he was summoned into being as one from whom all second-rate, shoddy, or inferior articles were withheld. But sometimes things were good enough for Mr. Thwaites’ valet, but would not do for Mr. Thwaites. Mr. Thwaites’ spiritual valet endowed Mr. Thwaites with a certain lustre and grandeur, giving the impression that he had had a material valet in the past, or meant to have a material valet in the future. Mr. Thwaites also occasionally used, for the same purposes, a spiritual butler, a spiritual footman, and in moments of supreme content, a spiritual stable-boy. He had at his disposal a whole spiritual estate in the country.

In the close atmosphere of the story, the narrator spends a lot of time parsing the statements and subtle actions of the characters, as in the passage above. Sometimes the close parsing is funny, sometimes it’s revealing and insightful, and often it’s all of those things at once.

Though she sees quite clearly, poor Miss Roach is too modest and retiring to assert herself, and life seems to happen to her in confusing ways. She’s as ambivalent toward her American lieutenant as he is toward her, and for a long time, she can’t decide whether or the German provocateur Vicki Kugelman is evil or simply coarse, obtuse, and ill-mannered.

It isn’t until the end of the book that Miss Roach begins to see what the reader sees quite clearly in the beginning and then loses sight of: that the primary causes of her being so stuck in life are first, the impossible, smothering situation into which the war has forced the residents of London and its environs; and second, the fundamental elements of her character that make her so maddening and empathetic. Anyone as observant, sensitive, and unassertive as she will be pushed around by life.

Still, you can’t help liking her, especially when the narrator reveals her thoughts, as in this scene, where she returns home from drinks with Vicki:

The thought of these three drinks, as she let herself into the Rosamund Tea Rooms, accidentally brought to her mind another thought–the thought that whereas she had paid for two out of these three drinks, Vicki had paid for only one, and that this unequal division of payment had taken place, actually, on three other occasions. She rebuked herself for this thought.

She was, she saw, always having thoughts for which she rebuked herself. It then flashed across her mind that the thoughts for which she rebuked herself seldom turned out to be other than shrewd and fruitful thoughts: and she rebuked herself for this as well.

Patrick Hamilton is today most famous for his play Gaslight. Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman starred in the 1944 film version, from which comes the term gaslighting, which means to psychologically manipulate a person (usually a woman) in such a subtle and thorough way that they begin to doubt their own judgment, perception, and sanity. Hamilton was an acute observer of human motives, psychology, and social interaction. The Slaves of Solitude puts a comic twist on his sharp and accurate observations. It’s a wonder, and a shame, that the book is not more widely read.

I Was A Spy by Marthe McKenna

I picked this up after the New York Times ran a belated obituary for Marthe McKenna in September, 2018. This book reads like a non-stop adventure novel. McKenna (nee Cnockaert) was in her early twenties and studying to be a doctor when the war broke out. The Germans overran her native Belgium before their progress was halted and the front-line trenches formed just past her hometown of Westrozebeke. Her town was destroyed and she and her mother were forced to move a little further behind the lines to Roulers, where the Germans had set up a hospital.

Cnockaert volunteered as a nurse at the hospital, where she treated both German and Allied soldiers. If you’ve ever read accounts from other WWI nurses, you know what a horror that job was. Around the time she moved to Roulers, her aunt, an independent and free-spirited loner, recruited her as a spy for the British Secret Service.

Cnockaert was able to gather quite a bit of information from the German officers billeted in her house. (Every house in Roulers was forced to board German soldiers during the war.) Because Cnockaert worked at the hospital and had to be on call at all times, she was one of the only citizens in town who carried a pass that allowed to violate the German curfew. Her pass allowed her to go anywhere at any time, while her dedicated and extraordinary work at the hospital kept her above suspicion of the German authorities. (Because of her medical training, she was more skilled than the other nurses, and her personality made her a favorite of doctors, patients, and hospital administrators alike.)

Cnockaert recounts a number of fascinating missions, in many of which her life was on the line at every moment. In one of her first missions, she sweet-talks the German officer who runs the railway station, trying to extract information from him about when a munitions train will arrive. She gets the information, in a very clever manner, and as she does so, she comes to recognize the German officer who she has just swindled as a fundamentally decent man forced by his country to do job he may not necessarily like. With deeply mixed feelings, she passes her information on to the British, knowing it will lead to the violent death of the man who has just helped her. Two days later, she watches British planes bomb the munitions train, blowing up not only the train but the entire station, with the German officer inside.

Cnockaert passes on other valuable information to the British, including information about a previously unknown German submarine base, a behind-the-lines telephone from which an unfaithful Brit has been passing secrets to the Germans, and most importantly, plans for the large-scale bombing of London that, thanks to her warning, the British were able to thwart.

Her greatest regret comes from an incident whose significance neither she nor the British understood at the time. She reported that a munitions train had arrived in Roulers carrying large cylinders unlike any she’d ever seen before, and that she had gathered from the talk of local soldiers these were bound for the front lines. The Brits replied that they wanted information about troop movements, and they were not interested in cylinders.

Cnockaert continued to investigate the cylinders, and she also reported that two unusual German officers were now billeted in her house. They spent their days studying weather reports, measuring windspeed and making maps. The Brits again replied they weren’t interested in such information, but she continued to search for details, because the constant chatter of the German soldiers about an imminent turning point in the war told her something big was about to happen.

The last things she reported before that Germans carried those mysterious cylinders to the line was that the officers billeted in her house were not standard army officers. They were university professors who taught chemistry. She also mentioned overhearing a soldier who had unloaded the munitions train saying the canisters contained chlorine. Again, the Brits were not interested. No one understood at the time what was afoot.

The first chemical attack of war came just after her final report, and Cnockaert was the head nurse at the hospital that received the first hordes of choking, chemically burned soldiers. Although the townspeople were used to the sight of soldiers arriving with their arms and legs blown off, even parts of their faces missing, the sight of the gassed, burned and choking soldiers so horrified them that for the first time, they rose up in open protest against the Germans.

This is just one of number of incidents the author recounts. There are many more, and many of them are more harrowing because the author is so bold and forward in her attempts to extract information from the Germans. In many cases, she’s the only Belgian in a room full of male enemy soldiers. And in many cases, she travels great distances on foot, in the dark of night, to distant towns and country farmhouses, avoiding German patrols again and again, while knowing she has to show up at work the next morning looking fresh and clean or she’ll blow her cover.

One of the more striking aspects of this book is the portrait it paints of a long-lost world. Although the Europeans were fighting a twentieth-century war with twentieth-century weapons, they were still living in a nineteenth century culture. Cnockaert, a farm girl, speaks fluent Flemish, French, German, and English. The German officers, while overrunning her country, are unfailingly polite to her, just as she is to them. German and Allied soldiers are treated side-by-side in the hospital. The savage war is playing out in a society that is far more civil than American society is today. In reading of these people who so easily shifted their conversation into another language to accommodate the person they were talking to, I felt a pang of loss for a civilization that once prized cultural knowledge and now scorns it. (America, that is.)

Another striking aspect of the book is how intimately the dramas of the war played out just behind the front lines. The Germans and the Belgian spies slept under the same roof. They ate and drank together. As the war wore on, they commiserated, all of them sick of it and wanting to return to normal life. Cnockaert herself, as a nurse, often treated and rehabilitated the very soldiers whom her information had caused to be wounded, and she always treated them as fully human, not as enemies. Everything is muddled in war.

There is much more to the book than I’ve spelled out here. It’s a fascinating read, and in the four years of the war, Cnockaert did more living than most people do in a lifetime. She may have been the only person in the war to have won the highest national honors from both the Germans and the Allies. She was awarded the German Iron Cross for her work as a nurse, and the both the Belgian and French Legions of Honor, along with special recognition from the British, for her work as a spy.

If you get a chance, read this book. It’s a hard one to put down.