As a critic, you encounter all kinds of books. Some are just awful. Some are worthy, but dull. A few are good; some books even entertain. Then there are books you live in. (They don’t come along very often.) Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest is one of those kind of books. As thrilling as any adventure story, and grounded in awe-inspiring research, this magnificent account of the British Everest expeditions of the 1920s and the doomed attempts of George Mallory to scale the world’s tallest mountain is one of the best books I have ever reviewed.
National Journal has just published a fine and deeply depressing piece about the toll bin Laden has taken on the US economy. It’s a necessary counterpoint to all the chest thumping of the past week. .
Reading it, I couldn’t help but think of the comment from the fellow out in Washington state who would not shave his beard until bin Laden was killed or captured: “No one really won,” he said, newly shaven. “Everybody’s been hurt in all of this.”
Believe it or not, Germany’s last financial obligation from the First World War will be fulfilled this Sunday . With a final installment of a staggering reparations bill, Germany will have met the terms laid down by the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles. This is the way wars end— not with a bang, but an entry in the ledger book.
In a fascinating piece about the relationship between two quintessential British institutions—the Times Literary Supplement and spying—the historian Keith Jeffery looks at how various TLS hands reviewed spy fiction and memoirs, genres which emerged in the years after WWI. Not surprisingly, the British Secret Intelligence Service was none too happy when ex-employees wanted to tell their story. But there was often not much to tell—Somerset Maugham, who worked as spy during the war, observed that the work of an agent was “on the whole extremely monotonous,” and produced much that was “uncommonly useless.” Maugham’s fictionalized versions of his experiences, which he collected in his Ashenden tales, hardly compare to the over the top action of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels. Indeed, the TLS reviewer, praising Maugham with faint damns, concluded that his work was “only moderately entertaining.”
Then there was the paranoid former Chief of Secret Service who outlined his memoir thus: “The book will be quarto size, bound in red, top-edge gilt, subtitled ‘The Indiscretions of the CSS.’ It will have four hundred pages, all blank.”