Saturday, October 09, 2010

Dream Team

I have a new favorite crossover fantasy: Richard Feynman meets Leo Marks.

It took me months to read Between Silk and Cyanide, but you shouldn't take that as a criticism of the book.  It's episodic and a bit of a whirlwind, which made it pretty easy to put down and pick up.  In a lot of ways it worked better to read it that way--the information flies fast and furious, and it's easy to get overwhelmed by names, operations, plans, codes. 

The author, Leo Marks, is the son of the owner of 84 Charing Cross Road, which you really absolutely have to read if you haven't yet.  The book is about his experience in the code department at SOE, which was one of the British intelligence agencies in World War II.  He was a bit of a wunderkind and developed most of the codes that were being used by the end of the war.  He was unorthodox, uninterested in (and ignorant of) politics, intense about codes and unambitious about everything else.

Sound like anyone else?  Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman is a different kind of memoir--most of Feynman's hijinx only coincidentally took place in the war effort.  But the civilians trying to work with the military to accomplish a big job while jumping through bureaucratic hoops are all very similar.  And I think Dick Feynman would have been fascinated and excited by Leo Marks' coding revelations.  My 11th grade history teacher, Miss Lavoie, had a guest list for the dinner party of historical characters that she'd have if she could.  I'm thinking this is mine.

Silk and Cyanide is a fun read, but there are certain things one might expect that it's not.  It's not a very personal story--the story feels very personal, and you get the strong emotional weight of the lives that are on the line in their work, but none of the story whatsoever takes place outside of the office (with the exception of the author's realization that the portly gentleman across the alley who never draws the curtain in his bathroom is a general).

It's not really a place to get a good overall picture of the history of the war, either.  Marks doesn't try to tie everything together--there are dozens of operations, hundreds of agents, officers, coders.  Everyone has a code name.  You meet a lot of them only once.  Not many of the stories are closely tied together--they're great anecdotes, each one offering a glimpse of the experience, and they create a very real portrait of what the experience was like, but they don't let you recreate the history.

This is a book that's about the ride, not the destination.  There are acronyms for departments that never get defined, characters you only meet once.  It's deftly handled, though--if you need to remember someone, they get a nickname or a clear identifying trait. 

Maybe my review isn't perfectly clear, but I really loved this book.  It was funny and informative and inspiring, and I kind of love Leo Marks a little.  It wasn't what I expected, and I started out feeling overwhelmed, but once I went with it, trusting the author to give me all the information I needed to understand what was going on, it was a smart, fun, fabulous ride.

1 comment:

Brenda Pike said...

I wish there were a like button on this thing, because I have nothing to say except that I enjoyed your review.