Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Dangerous Otto Katz: The Many Lives of a Soviet Spy

Although born a Baby Boomer, I was raised by parents for whom WWII was the defining event in their lives. Every year on December 7, my mother sent me off to school with the admonishment to remember that it was Pearl Harbor Day. My family watched every movie ever made about the war and all of the television series set during the war.

The Cold War with its accompanying Duck and Cover Drills defined my life. Signs in public buildings directing visitors to fallout shelters were ubiquitous. NATO stood guard in Europe. A war was being fought in Viet Nam to prevent the spread of Communism in Asia. I read long and deeply trying to understand the how and why of the Communist threat that hung like a malevolent cloud over my life.

When I picked up this book, my first thought was “Otto who?” I thought that I knew just about everything about the political threats of the first half of the Twentieth Century. The reason I had never heard of Otto Katz is that he was so successful as a spy, few people ever knew his real name. Born in 1895 to a wealthy Czech family, he was a lazy playboy and a “useless” soldier during WWI. After the war, he drifted to Berlin joining the art scene and becoming a true believer in Socialism.

It was his wealthy background and artistic contacts that made him such a successful spy and fundraiser for the Russians. He travelled the world using different names and passports making him difficult to track by Western intelligence agencies. He spent time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, in Hollywood amongst German expatriates such as Marlene Dietrich and the director Fritz Lang, and in Mexico City where Germans who had fled Hitler’s Germany had settled.

In the end, it was his cosmopolitanism that did him in. In Stalin’s paranoid mind, anyone who had spent significant amounts of time outside of the Eastern Bloc was suspected of having been turned by Western intelligence agencies. The fact that Katz was a Jew sealed his fate. He was tried and executed in 1952.

Author Jonathan Miles does a good job of tracing Katz’s complex life. The book is rich in detail about Katz’s life up to the beginning of WWII. After that point, the narrative becomes less detailed and more hurried as if Miles is impatient to get to the end of his story. Katz’s trial, execution and rehabilitation a decade later are given short shrift. I wish that Miles had taken more time and given more weight to the last decade of Katz’s life. It was an important period not just in his life, but also in world history. WWII shaped the political landscape of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Katz was an important participant and deserves a full treatment of his entire life, not just part of his life.

Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury USA

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Just Enough Jeeves

If you have never read anything by P.G. Wodehouse, this book is an excellent place to start. It contains two novels and a collection of short stories, all featuring Bertie Wooster and his omniscient manservant, Jeeves. The stories collected here span most of Wodehouse’s career, from among the first Jeeves stories to the last.

One drawback to reading an anthology like this is that it is much like watching a House marathon on television. The plotlines are all the same. In House’s case, the first 15 minutes are devoted to the setup, introducing the new patient, his/her misdiagnosis and the friends and family surrounding him/her. The next forty minutes see House and his team pursue various clues while making wildly wrong diagnoses until in the final ten minutes House has an epiphany and comes up with the correct diagnosis. The fun, of course, is in the byplay between the characters and like any good mystery, guessing which are the real clues and which are the red herrings.

Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories are much the same. Each story starts out with Bertie and his friends and relatives faced with a seemingly insurmountable personal situation, which after much drama is neatly solved by Jeeves. The fun in these stories is the dry, English humor and guessing what solution Jeeves will come up with. “Drama” is relative. Like Seinfeld, these stories are about “nothing”. Nothing important (to anyone but the rich, selfish characters) ever happens. No one ever dies or is seriously hurt. Yet to the characters in the stories, the situations in which they find themselves, are of vital importance. Only Jeeves can save them.

All the stories are told from Bertie’s point of view. We are never privileged to enter into Jeeves character or thinking other than to hear his explanations of the solutions he comes up with to solve the dilemmas of the idle rich. His simple but effective answers to their seemingly insurmountable problems, offers him an opportunity to comment on their ignorance without actually calling them morons. Bertie and his friends and family remain blissfully unaware that he is mocking them.

Review copy courtesy of W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Cleopatra: A Life

The reviews of this book present an interesting dichotomy. Scholarly reviewers rave about author Stacy Schiff’s ability to flesh out the life and times of a queen about whom very little is known. Other reviewers complain that there is very little about Cleopatra herself in the book. Although not a professional historian, I am firmly in the camp with those who stand in awe of this recreation of an extraordinary woman.

History is written by the victors. As Schiff points out, in Cleopatra’s time they were men, Romans whose culture did not allow for powerful women or female rulers. In their eyes, she was the enemy who had seduced Caesar and Mark Antony, bent them to her will and contributed to their destruction. Subsequent authors through the ages, accepted this interpretation of her and embroidered on it.

In this book, Cleopatra’s life is placed in the context of both the Egyptian culture that she ruled and the Alexandrian culture of the ruling class (her ancestors were Macedonians who had conquered Egypt). Both of these cultures allowed for a woman ruler, unlike many other ancient cultures. To the Egyptians, she was a goddess, the incarnation of Isis.

Both cultures allowed her to rule without a husband unlike many future European queens who were forced to make the difficult choice of remaining single like Elizabeth I of England or choosing a husband who either alienated her subjects like Prince Philip of Spain, the husband of Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary, or cost her her throne like Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary Stewart of Scotland.

Her world is brought to life in this enchanting book. One can almost smell and feel the humid, spice laden air of Alexandria and the chill of the Roman hills. The colors, the pageantry, the rites and the people come alive.

It’s been more than thirty years since I last took an ancient history course but the author provides plenty of background information on each country and personage who was a part of Cleopatra’s life. I was able to follow along with no problem.

Unlike the heavy, ponderous style of male biographers, Schiff’s writing style is peculiarly suited to her subject. Her light feminine style provides the perfect voice for a smart, fearless, feminine queen.