D-Day Spies, Lost Antarctica, Eating Dirt and More Recent Books

A new history blows the cover on British spies in World War II

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies Random House, Inc.

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies
by Ben Macintyre

When we think of D-Day we think of men splashing through the choppy waters, bombs dropped from the skies, blood-soaked sand dunes. But before the massive amphibious assault began, British intelligence was busy tricking the Germans into thinking the attack would take place elsewhere. To do this it relied on a network of double agents—spies who professed loyalty to Germany but were actually working for the British. By Macintyre’s assessment, convincing the Germans that the Allies would come ashore at Calais rather than Normandy was essential to the invasion’s success. He’s in good company. “I cannot overemphasize the importance of maintaining as long as humanly possible the Allied threat to the Pas de Calais area,” Eisenhower wrote after the battle had begun.

Double Cross is a fascinating group biography of the crucial figures involved in this deception: the spies, their lovers, their British handlers, the suckered German intelligence officers, the MI5 brass. The amount of research in this book is astounding, but it shows none of the labors of construction, skipping along with evident pleasure in the mysteries it unfolds. Macintyre, a historian and newspaper columnist whose previous books about espionage were Operation Mincemeat and Agent Zigzag, possesses a sense of timing and atmosphere worthy of the best noir. He tells his characters’ stories as though he himself had tapped the bedrooms and bars where clandestine conversations took place. One spy nearly derailed the entire operation because she was bitter about the mistreatment of her dog; one demanded a $150,000 advance from his German employers for “intelligence” (inaccurate, misleading information) that he would deliver at a later date; another tried to recruit the wife of P.G. Wodehouse as a double agent.

Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land
by James McClintock

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to scuba dive near the South Pole, beneath a six-foot layer of sea ice? Misery, most would assume. Not to James McClintock, a marine biologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, who has participated in 14 research expeditions to Antarctica over the past three decades. During one dive in the “bone-chilling” waters, he “lost all track of time” and was reminded that he’d reached his 30-minute limit only by his “painfully throbbing fingertips and toes.” You might not share his love of icy climes, but his enthusiasm for this frigid realm is infectious. “Estimates of visibility in Antarctic waters range upward of five hundred to a thousand feet, an order of magnitude greater than those recorded even in tropical seas,” he writes. “I could see forever.” And what amazing things he sees: peach-colored corals, giant marine worms, bright red sea urchins, “tiny orange sea butterflies.” On land he observes penguins, seals and spiny king crab. A close look at the life of a scientist in a strange wilderness for months at a time, and a revelatory exploration of the region’s unique wildlife, the book has a more desperate impetus as well: climate change and its potentially devastating effects. Mid-winter air temperatures on the western central Antarctic Peninsula have increased by about two degrees Fahrenheit per decade over the past 60 years, contributing to a drastic reduction of the seasonal ice that doubles the size of Antarctica every winter. If the ice that covers western Antarctica melts entirely, “it would raise global sea levels by about 10 feet,” McClintock writes. “Manhattan would be underwater and Florida would be history.” Some species already appear to be in decline. Studies link the rapidly dwindling penguin population in certain locations to the plummeting numbers of krill—a consequence of warmer seas. McClintock is a determined, evenhanded guide to the changes he sees, not a policy advocate or a strident environmentalist. Still, there’s no denying he’s deeply worried about the future of the pristine continent.

Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe
by Charlotte Gill

Never have I read such a beautiful book with such a dull premise: what it’s like to plant tree seedlings in the wake of logging companies’ destruction. Dig a hole, insert a tree, repeat. Gill estimates she’s carried out the maneuver a million times. A Canadian short story writer, she brings a deep sense of history, science and poetry to her backbreaking, ethically fraught labor. “Tree planting is a promissory note to the woods,” she writes. “Because we plant trees, logging companies can cut more today.” But Gill isn’t gloomy. She loves the work “because it is so full of things.... You just can’t believe all the things you saw or all the living beings that brushed past your skin.” Eating Dirt similarly brims with striking sensation and description—“handkerchiefs of mist” drift between “trees with mileage, like big old whales with harpoons stuck in their flanks,” and she and her fellow workers “tumble out of our trucks like clothes from a dryer.” Gill turns a subject that might seem narrow and confined into a lyrical essay about labor and rest, decay and growth. And this memoir-cum-environmental meditation is saved from preciousness by her gentle snark: “By all means, please, mow down the planet. World, we’ve got you covered.”

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t
by Nate Silver

I’m a fan of Nate Silver, whose New York Times blog, “FiveThirtyEight” (named for the number of members in the Electoral College), meticulously analyzes political indicators. But I’ve had little desire to delve into the brittle weeds of his dry art—the science of probability. Leave that to him, I figured. Statistics do not make me swoon. Silver’s new book, though, has a stealthy charm. Among the fields he covers: political punditry, baseball, meteorology, environmental disasters and gambling. Some topics, of course, are sexier than others. His account of his days as a professional poker player is more appealing than his detailed interviews with weather forecasters (despite his childlike enthusiasm for the finer points of cloud science). I approached a section titled “The Simple Mathematics of Bayes’ Theorem” with the same dread I once approached math homework, but I was smitten within a few sentences. This theorem can be used to figure out if your lover is cheating on you. (It makes sense when Silver explains it.) For all his obsession with detail, he offers some startlingly imprecise statements when he strays from the numbers. Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is “all about fate and prediction,” he writes. True? I don’t think any of Shakespeare’s plays are “all about” any one thing. Perhaps the instances in which Silver loses focus stand out because the rest of the book is laser sharp. Surprisingly, statistics in Silver’s hands is not without some fun.

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