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Operation Mincemeat: How A Dead Man And A Bizarre Plan Fooled The Nazis And Ensured An Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre.

Nonfiction book chronicling a British intelligence plot from the 1940s which can be roughly summed up as "drop a dead body containing fake intelligence into Axis territory in order to mislead the Nazis into thinking the Allies plan on invading Sardinia instead of Sicily during Operation Husky" although that highly, highly underestimates the amount of work and thought that wound up going into the plot. In fact the book goes into an astonishing amount of detail on all the people who got involved with this scheme, from the British intelligence operators who organized the plan, the various scientific experts they consulted on the details- including Sir Bernard Spilsbury, an undertaker, and an inventor who had to invent a special case to transport the decaying body- the Spanish civilians and government officials who got involved in the case of the British Officer Who Was Carrying Around Possibly Important Documents, and the various Nazi intelligence officers who wound up getting their hands on the fake intelligence.

The book is very informative and frequently amusing, demonstrating just how damned absurd WWII could get at points. One of the many hitches in the scheme, for instance, came later on when the fake intelligence wound up in the hands of Spanish bureaucracy and the British intelligence circle had to both 1) act like they were extremely worried about the missing papers and desperate to get them back before the Nazis could read them while 2) making sure that the papers did not get returned by the neutral Spanish bureaucracy before the Nazis could read them. Picture both the Allied spies and the Axis spies gnashing their teeth and fretting over a suitcase held by some oblivious Spanish officials and that is essentially the situation.

That said, on a personal level I think the thing that stuck with me most from the whole story was the identity of the body used, that of a homeless, mentally ill Welshman named Glyndwr Michael whose short life was incredibly tragic and went for decades with his identity entirely unknown; the British government had to do a lot of morally dubious things in order to pull off the scheme, including using the body of a dead man without getting permission from any relatives, so a lot of details about the plot, including the original identity of the body, were kept secret for a long, long time.

The Cat Who Could Read Backwards by Lilian Jackson Braun

I originally picked this up thinking it was from a series that [personal profile] thethrillof once recommended to me, known as the Cats In Trouble series- after reading the book I'm pretty sure it's actually the start of an entirely different series of detective novels featuring a feline mascot. It was a reasonably pleasant, breezy read, however. To the point of being a bit cartoonish in places, honestly.

The story centers around a reporter named Jim Qwilleran, a man with a mustache that gets a bizarre amount of attention, who was formerly known as an award winning investigative reporter, but whose career has steadily gone through a downward spiral for reasons that are never specified. He winds up applying for a job at a newspaper called the Daily Fluxion and getting a job as a feature writer focusing on the local art scene despite, as he puts it, not knowing "the Venus de Milo from the Statue of Liberty." He's then introduced to a variety of eccentric characters in said local arts scene including:

  • George Bonifield Mountclemens, the Daily Fluxion's incredibly scathing art critic with a talent for pissing people off and for cooking absolutely delicious food.
  • Ka'o-Ko Kung, nicknamed "Koko," who is Mountclemens' incredibly intelligent, pampered Siamese cat.
  • Cal Halapay, a wealthy, popular artist who mostly does paintings of cherubic children and is utterly incapable of listening to poor reporters who are trying to interview him.
  • Sandy Halapay, Cal's trophy wife who apparently flirts around a lot.
  • Earl Lambreth, the haughty owner of the one art gallery that Mountclemens actually seems to approve of.
  • Zoe Lambreth, the wife of Earl Lambreth, an incredibly talented artist who Jim Qwilleran winds up getting a crush on.
  • Butchy Bolton, a butch lesbian sculptor who works with metal and teaches art at college, protective friend of Zoe's.
  • Scrano, reclusive Italian artist who doesn't actually live in town but ships his paintings over occasionally. 
  • Nino, youthful sculptor of garbage and the sort of character you'd probably put "I Am The Walrus" onto his FST if you made a FST for him.

Naturally with this sort of crew murders start happening, and it's up to Jim Qwilleran to figure out Whodunnit and Whydunnit, while navigating a variety of red herrings and frequently getting pointed in the right direction by Koko the cat, who is either ludicrously intelligent and already figured out the mystery, or just has a knack for getting coincidentally interested in the same locations of important clues, Qwilleran isn't entirely sure.

Much like Qwilleran I pretty much had no idea who the killer was until the very ending of the book, although I feel the ending/the reveal was also sort of abrupt.

(On a side note various editions of the book's cover seem to present Koko as a pure black cat or, for one German edition, sort of stripey and fluffy, which annoys me because Koko is very specifically stated to be a Siamese cat. Come on, cover people.)

Seven Ages: A Brief Narrative of the Pilgrimage of the Human Mind as It Has Affected the English Speaking World by A Gentleman With A Duster.

Incredibly old history book I found in my library that post-dates the first World War but actually predates World War II. Not sure if the physical book I read was literally almost a century old, but it was definitely older than I am and physically handling it was interesting: the pages were thick and rough cut, it had that antiquated, vaguely vanilla, old book scent, someone had helpfully written the name "Harold Begbie" in pen beside where the book was credited to "A Gentleman With A Duster," there was a card pocket in the front from before the library checkout system had been computerized that indicated the book had been checked out before in 1963, 1964, and 1965, small fragments and strings of the binding were coming loose though the book as a whole was pretty well intact, and in general it felt just fragile enough that while I was reading it I was frequently slightly nervous I might suddenly horribly damage it somehow.

As for the book itself, it was... somewhat interesting, but also slightly frustrating for me to read because Mr. Begbie and I don't see eye-to-eye on several key points such as 1) a general attitude of British patriotism, 2) whether or not belief in God is crucial to an individual's mental health, 3) the appropriateness of certain side comments Mr. Begbie makes about "oriental" culture and the Irish, 4) whether or not we would totally adore Socrates if we ever met, 5) how tyrannical Darwinism is, etc. etc. I read this more for the heck of it than anything else, honestly.

The content is basically an overview of mostly-British history, focusing on the evolution of popular philosophy and theology, which Mr. Begbie roughly divides into, well, seven ages: The Age of Socrates, The Age of Aristotle, The Age of Jesus, The Age of Augustine, The Age of Erasmus, The Age of Cromwell, and The Age of Wesley, covering from 470 B.C. to 1791. The initial chapters, especially the one on Socrates and Jesus of Nazareth, focus heavily on the individuals they're named after, so I was initially expecting the book to basically be a series of short biographies on people Mr. Begbie considered especially influential; the later chapters, however, tend to focus more on the general cultural climate of the eras featured. Generally interesting especially if you're into British history, but again, I was often frustrated by the proselytizing tone of the whole thing.
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