Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene published in 1958

A tired, middle-aged British expat living in Cuba whose wife left him with a charmingly willful and crafty daughter to raise is running a struggling vacuum cleaner dealership. And now, with his daughter's expenses increasing as she gets older, he is all but unable to make ends meet until fate drops an opportunity in his lap.

If left alone, James Wormold would be content to pass away his time licking his marital and career wounds in Havana, while raising his daughter. But that daughter wields her Catholic faith (he's a lapsed Protestant or "pagan" as she calls him) and forceful temperament like a weapon to coax and guilt what she wants out of him. Unfortunately, her victories have him sliding toward bankruptcy. Hence, when he's approached by Britain's MI6 to be "their man in Havana," his initial resistance breaks down as the additional income from spying looks appealing.

The problem is he has no background and receives all but no training from MI6 in espionage, so he does what any reasonable, amoral, modestly desperate but creative man would do, he makes up a network of spies versus actually doing the real work to recruit them.

This is the book's perfect moment: a life-weary vacuum cleaner dealer with a charmingly manipulative and spendthrift daughter discovers a talent for taking bits and pieces from local newspapers, government economic statistics and Havana's social registry to create a convincing network of non-existent spies that delivers fake reports so credible that the home office is impressed.

And that also becomes the problem. His "information" and "network" are viewed as being so good in the eyes of his superiors that MI6 sends him more resources, including a secretary and radio man. His small office quickly becomes quite crowded making it hard for him to "create" his reports with, in particular, his new, smart and attractive secretary trying to organize his efforts and, even, become the contact for his ersatz network. Effectively, it's hard to find time to file fake reports from your fake network when your new staff wants to meet your non-existent real network and file real reports.

Amping everything up, both the Havana government and the USSR get interested in his activities as they, too, believe his efforts are real; ironically, they believe because MI6 believes. Okay, so our humble vacuum cleaner dealer finds himself in the middle of a cold-war spy battle over his whole-cloth network. And when things start to get serious - midnight chases, assassination attempts, actual murders, threatened torture, you know, real spy stuff - he can't easily back out as no one believes him when he tells them he made everything up.

Because spies operate in a covert world of lies and deception, his "I made this all up" confession appears to everyone else like just another machination from the brilliant British spymaster in Havana. Throw in a local police chief trying to court Wormold's daughter while also investigating Wormold's covert activities, and Wormold's own budding affair with his secretary, who's beginning to get suspicious of him, and the entire gambit starts to unravel as the book races to a conclusion. And we'll leave it there as you'll want the end to be a surprise.

As a fan of Graham Greene's complex stories that have this reader, usually, a little lost for a while, it's nice to read one of his lighter efforts. Despite being just that, it still has all of Greene's usual wit and canny observations, especially of human wants and foibles, but without requiring the reader to regularly thumb back pages to figure out what the heck is going on.

Some hard-core Greene fans dismiss Our Man in Havana as "entertainment," but, one, what's wrong with that and, two, it's also satire that exposes the arrogance and insularity of several countries' intelligence efforts. Either way, it's a fun, well-written, quick page turner that also gives you a contemporary feel for both the Cold War's intelligence game and pre-communist Cuba.
 

eagle2250

Connoisseur/Curmudgeon Emeritus - Moderator
View attachment 49776
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene published in 1958

A tired, middle-aged British expat living in Cuba whose wife left him with a charmingly willful and crafty daughter to raise is running a struggling vacuum cleaner dealership. And now, with his daughter's expenses increasing as she gets older, he is all but unable to make ends meet until fate drops an opportunity in his lap.

If left alone, James Wormold would be content to pass away his time licking his marital and career wounds in Havana, while raising his daughter. But that daughter wields her Catholic faith (he's a lapsed Protestant or "pagan" as she calls him) and forceful temperament like a weapon to coax and guilt what she wants out of him. Unfortunately, her victories have him sliding toward bankruptcy. Hence, when he's approached by Britain's MI6 to be "their man in Havana," his initial resistance breaks down as the additional income from spying looks appealing.

The problem is he has no background and receives all but no training from MI6 in espionage, so he does what any reasonable, amoral, modestly desperate but creative man would do, he makes up a network of spies versus actually doing the real work to recruit them.

This is the book's perfect moment: a life-weary vacuum cleaner dealer with a charmingly manipulative and spendthrift daughter discovers a talent for taking bits and pieces from local newspapers, government economic statistics and Havana's social registry to create a convincing network of non-existent spies that delivers fake reports so credible that the home office is impressed.

And that also becomes the problem. His "information" and "network" are viewed as being so good in the eyes of his superiors that MI6 sends him more resources, including a secretary and radio man. His small office quickly becomes quite crowded making it hard for him to "create" his reports with, in particular, his new, smart and attractive secretary trying to organize his efforts and, even, become the contact for his ersatz network. Effectively, it's hard to find time to file fake reports from your fake network when your new staff wants to meet your non-existent real network and file real reports.

Amping everything up, both the Havana government and the USSR get interested in his activities as they, too, believe his efforts are real; ironically, they believe because MI6 believes. Okay, so our humble vacuum cleaner dealer finds himself in the middle of a cold-war spy battle over his whole-cloth network. And when things start to get serious - midnight chases, assassination attempts, actual murders, threatened torture, you know, real spy stuff - he can't easily back out as no one believes him when he tells them he made everything up.

Because spies operate in a covert world of lies and deception, his "I made this all up" confession appears to everyone else like just another machination from the brilliant British spymaster in Havana. Throw in a local police chief trying to court Wormold's daughter while also investigating Wormold's covert activities, and Wormold's own budding affair with his secretary, who's beginning to get suspicious of him, and the entire gambit starts to unravel as the book races to a conclusion. And we'll leave it there as you'll want the end to be a surprise.

As a fan of Graham Greene's complex stories that have this reader, usually, a little lost for a while, it's nice to read one of his lighter efforts. Despite being just that, it still has all of Greene's usual wit and canny observations, especially of human wants and foibles, but without requiring the reader to regularly thumb back pages to figure out what the heck is going on.

Some hard-core Greene fans dismiss Our Man in Havana as "entertainment," but, one, what's wrong with that and, two, it's also satire that exposes the arrogance and insularity of several countries' intelligence efforts. Either way, it's a fun, well-written, quick page turner that also gives you a contemporary feel for both the Cold War's intelligence game and pre-communist Cuba.
A great review, as always. The details are fed to the reader of the review at an accelerating pace, securing the readers interest and imprisoning his/her mind with the details of the story...and then it stops, with we readers literally begging to be fed the details of the books conclusion and left with no other option than to acquire and read the book! Quoting the great cartoon character Snoopy, "Curse you, Red Baron!" :crazy:

PS: Great work...looking forward to the next one. ;)
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
A great review, as always. The details are fed to the reader of the review at an accelerating pace, securing the readers interest and imprisoning his/her mind with the details of the story...and then it stops, with we readers literally begging to be fed the details of the books conclusion and left with no other option than to acquire and read the book! Quoting the great cartoon character Snoopy, "Curse you, Red Baron!" :crazy:

PS: Great work...looking forward to the next one. ;)
Thank you for your kind comments.

It really is a fun, quick read, but being a Graham Greene book, it still offers more than the average page turner. I think you'll enjoy it.

"Eagle, if you need my help, I'm here for you." Your pal, Snoopy
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Snoopy as a WWI fighter ace is one of the best things about "Peanuts."
 

The Irishman

Active Member with Corp. Privileges
I'm halfway through Gibbon's 'Decline and fall' and still really enjoying it. Some remarkable turns of phrase. Truly this is among the best prose ever committed to the page.

I'm also listening to an audiobook of The Federalist Papers, which I have to say is fascinating and also rife with interesting insights.

Madison wrote this, which really stuck with me from a few days ago:-

Hearken not to the unnatural voice which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many cords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family; can no longer continue the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness; can no longer be fellow citizens of one great, respectable, and flourishing empire. [...] No, my countrymen, shut your ears against this unhallowed language. Shut your hearts against the poison which it conveys; the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies.
Later, Hamilton talks about the tempests which sometimes spring up and afflict a republic. I did think it interesting that he talks about the inevitability of popular 'paroxysms' which could burn hot and take in fair-sized segments of the population.
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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The Second Happiest Day by John Phillips published in 1953

Somebody, I'm not saying who, has a weakness for soap-opera-style novels from the fifties. This same somebody thinks the fifties was the peak period for this genre as, afterwards, it descended into excess as all the cultural guardrails came off causing storytelling to suffered as gratuituous sex increased.

But fear not, as the fifties was chockablock with saponaceous tales of family intrigue, illicit affairs, inter-generational fighting, backstabbing frenemies, old secrets being revealed, dirty business deals and societal hypocrisy: you know, all the lurid stuff that makes a good soap-opera novel so much fun. Standing proud as a wonderful example of this genre, but little known today, is The Second Happiest Day.

And in The Second Happiest Day, author Phillips brings us into the world of upper-class, old-line, Eastern Establishment money, power and society through the eyes of an outsider allowed an insider's look. Gus Taylor, a "townie" and orphan adopted by his well-bred-but-of-modest-means aunt and uncle, enters that elite world via a scholarship to a fictional New England prep school (think Groton) allowing him to live and study with boys from wealthy and influential families.

Though, before we learn that history, Phillips starts the story near the end where we meet an in-his-mid-twenties Gus on his way to a former prep-school friend's wedding.

Here, in New York City, at the snooty Water Club, we are introduced to many of Gus' friends and acquaintances and learn that there is a lot of subtext to all these relationships: nicknames that still have the ability to hurt, financial and moral debts that haven't been repaid, affairs that haven't been forgiven and plenty of resentments, slights and grudges (like a broken nose from an aggressive game of prep-school football, fifteen years ago) still smouldering.

At the center of it all is Gus' relationship with the affable, born-to-money George Marsh who becomes Gus' best friend in prep school. In George, Gus sees a person he'd like to be and a world he'd like to enter; whereas, George, always trying to please others, sees in Gus simply someone he hopes will be a good friend for life.

Okay, you get the set up and can probably guess a lot that will happen - deep friendships form at boarding school, awkward introductions to parents occur where money and background differences are apparent, then, as the boys mature, girls come into the picture and, finally, it's off to college, the Ivies of course. All along, Gus is the "outsider" "accepted" by the others, in particular, George, who has a preternatural need to be everyone's friend. But below the surface, everyone knows, and no one more than Gus, that he's not of that world.

The next real turn in the boys' lives starts when girls become a bigger part of the story as George's girl, Lila Noris - from an "old money" Sutton Place family, but with an atypical businesswoman mother - becomes a close friend of Gus' as well. And just when everyone is about to start his or her adult life, WWII intervenes, providing another opportunity for money, class and connections to drive wedges and determine outcomes in lives and relationships.

Gus and George both survive the war without physical injuries and with respectable war records, but with some friends lost and everyone edgier and feeling like they are behind in real life. For Gus, it's off to law school as he sporadically tries to extricate himself from the upper-class social world he loves, but cannot afford. For George, it's a series of career starts that never stick (the problem is he already has enough money), but his real goal is to convince the always-hesitant-to-commit Lila to finally agree to marry him.

And after much cajoling (a big red flag to any potential suitor), Lila, at last, consents to an engagement with George, but she won't set a date. So, George goes hither and yon in search of a career (Texas - oil, Connecticut - farming, Europe - ideas and connections), while Lila ponders her future, too often, on Gus' shoulder.

And this is where all the threads of the story come together. Will Lila marry George, the safe bet of money marrying money from the same "class?" Or will she call an audible, break her engagement and pursue a risky relationship with what has become, in George's absence, her (yup) friend-with-benefits Gus? Will Gus and George's friendship be able to withstand a Brutus-level backstabbing? Will Gus even be able to stay in the world of money and social connections he loves, but has never truly belonged in? Will poor-little-rich-boy George be able to stabilize his aimless life if Gus and Lila abandon him?

Along with some other subplots centered around parental betrayal, alcoholism and shockingly immature middle-aged adults, The Second Happiest Day is about to wrap up, so we'll stop here and leave its final plot surprises unrevealed. I warned you at the beginning that it is a soap opera, and a darn fine one, but no one will mistake it for great literature.

However, beyond being well-done, albeit, tawdry entertainment, the book is also a wonderful time capsule of an elite slice of America just before and after World War II. Be it prep schools, Ivy colleges, clubs, cars, attitudes about sex, drinking or business - Wall Street in particular - The Second Happiest Day provides a revealingly contemporaneous look at the Eastern Establishment during the peak of its power.
 

Dhaller

Advanced Member
I'm halfway through Gibbon's 'Decline and fall' and still really enjoying it. Some remarkable turns of phrase. Truly this is among the best prose ever committed to the page.

I'm also listening to an audiobook of The Federalist Papers, which I have to say is fascinating and also rife with interesting insights.

Madison wrote this, which really stuck with me from a few days ago:-



Later, Hamilton talks about the tempests which sometimes spring up and afflict a republic. I did think it interesting that he talks about the inevitability of popular 'paroxysms' which could burn hot and take in fair-sized segments of the population.
I am constantly amazed at how the "essentials" of The American Character were already set as early as the 18th century.

Reading de Tocqueville confers a similar sensation: wait, this was written almost 200 years ago?

DH
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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World War II Nebraska by Melissa Amateis published in 2020

As noted in the preface by author Melissa Amateis, World War II Nebraska is a blend of academic and popular history serving as a brief overview of Nebraska's activities and accomplishments during the war years.

It is a niche book that wonderfully helps fill a gap in popular history as it sits between the overarching war-strategy books and big-personality biographies of giants like Churchill on one side and the personal-account stories of the footsoldier, cryptographer at Bletchley, the spy who helped save D-Day, etc., on the other.

In all those different accounts, we are often told, almost as an aside, that the "home front mobilized" or "war production output increased while civilians pitched in with scrap drives and victory gardens," but the focus is elsewhere. In those books, the home front's "mundane" efforts are, frequently, all but taken for granted.

But here, in World War II Nebraska, we learn what really happened on the home front in, yes, Nebraska, but also, by proxy, much of the middle of the country. We see that all those planes that bombed Germany and Japan came about as factories and airfields were built with breakneck speed near cities and towns across "flat" and "interior" (safe from enemy bombing) states like Nebraska. And not only were factories for planes built, but Nebraska was the sight of several ammunition and ordnance plants: For the bombers to be effective, they need to have something to drop out of them that goes boom.

And while all the academic numbers and research are here, Amateis personalizes the stories as we see how some farmers were all but cheated out of their land (needed for airstrips and factories) by low-ball government bids. We also learn that rents often skyrocketed owing to the influx of workers as worker shortages were addressed by the "importation" of labor - including women and minorities - from other states, as well as, the utilization of prison and (yup) prisoner-of-war labor.

The ugliness of segregation of the armed forces is here, too, including even separate USOs and other recreational facilities for black and white servicemen. And, of course, with soldiers and airmen coming to the bases, venereal diseases spiked in the general population, despite all the military's efforts, including films and educational material for the troops, to prevent it.

But good also came to Nebraska in economic growth, new friendships and the incredible North Platte Canteen that welcomed and fed, solely from donations and volunteer work, soldiers passing through on trains. Nebraska was also home to a ground-breaking military-dog-training program. Additionally and wonderfully, several POWs - so taken with Nebraska and the USA - chose, after being sent home following the war, to immigrate to Nebraska.

In an inspiring section, we learn about notable Nebraskans whose individual efforts stood out even in a war, a moment in history and a generation marked by impressive personal sacrifice, courage and achievement. One stirring example is Nebraskan-born Ben Kuroki of Japanese descent who pushed against racial prejudice to be allowed to fight for his country. Pause on that for a moment: A man experiencing ugly racism in his own country still fought for and won the right to - what? - potentially die in combat defending a country that was humiliating him and relocating, to internment camps, many of his fellow Japanese-American countrymen.

And Kuroki not only won the right to join the military, he won the right to fly combat missions as a tail gunner over both Germany and Japan. There is nothing more complexly American in WWII than a Japanese American man having to fight for the right to join a B-29 crew to participate in bombing runs over Japan. We should never stop pushing against prejudice and racism, but one doubts that today's absolutist views could produce a man such as Kuroki who could balance the good and bad of his country with such dignity and purpose.

Lastly, we learn about Nebraska's prodigious agricultural output that helped to feed, not only American civilians and servicemen, but also, the United State's allies in war-ravaged Europe. Nebraska's excess farm labor and food output of the 1930s, which depressed wages and crop prices throughout that decade, became shortages of labor in WWII, as men enlisted, moved to cities or went to work in war factories, while increased food demand drove crop prices higher.

Yes, you want to read World War II Nebraska for its academic bona fides, its unique home-front perspective and its inspiring stories of small and large sacrifices and struggles. But you also want to read it so that the next time you're in the middle of a traditional World War II book that elides the contributions made on the home front, you will understand the depth of civilian commitment, focus, effort and patriotism that made the home front, in Nebraska and, by inference, the rest of the country, the backbone of those overseas WWII victories that are celebrated to this day.
 
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