Saturday, July 24, 2010

Blurbs and other fun stuff

Fun book stuff is starting to happen! Petty Magic recently got a couple of lovely blurbs from two of my favorite authors:
A charming curiosity shop of a novel, packed to bursting with secret histories and glittering marvels. With Petty Magic, Camille DeAngelis has given us a glimpse into a strange and enchanting world. It's dangerous good fun, and well worth getting lost in.
Jedediah Berry, author of The Manual of Detection

Love, magic, history, witches: it's all here, between the covers of this lovely book. Updike might have written it, if he'd had a better sense of humor.
Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish and Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician
(Also, in case you missed it, you might want to read my post about how Daniel has inspired me.)

The other exciting thing is this profile published Thursday in my local newspaper, the Burlington County Times!

I'm also working with the designer of these two fabulous websites to come up with a brand-new blog; more about that later.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Operation Mincemeat

World War II offers us far more interesting, amusing and subtle examples of intelligence work than any writer of spy stories can devise.
—Admiral John Godfrey

In Petty Magic, I refer to a couple of the most spectacular World War II hoaxes, both of which were part of a larger deception plan, Operation Barclay—constructing sham army camps to fool Nazi reconnaissance, and planting phony intelligence documents on a corpse in uniform. It took several incredibly imaginative, 'corkscrew-minded' intelligence officers to hatch each of these plots, and in my novel I give all the credit to my magician-spy, Neverino. These hoaxes were first devised not by a magician, but a novelist!

The hoax involving a corpse in uniform was codenamed Operation Mincemeat (Churchill had forbidden the use of obvious or jokesy code names, but apparently no one listened to him), and it's the subject of a riveting new book by British journalist Ben Macintyre.

To begin regaining control of Europe in the summer of 1943, the Allies first needed to take back Sicily—and the Germans were just as aware of its strategic importance. Taking advantage of Hitler's 'Balkan fixation' (because the Third Reich got most of its raw materials from Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia), the Allies would convince him that they were planning to invade Sardinia and Greece instead, and that Sicily was the phony target.

Human agents or double agents can be tortured or turned, forced to reveal the falsity of the information they carried. A dead body would never talk.

So here's the gist: the corpse-with-phony-identification idea originated in Basil Thomson's novel, The Milliner's Hat Mystery, published in 1937. Ian Fleming, the naval intelligence officer who would later pen the James Bond novels, was a fan of Thomson's, and he included it in the "Trout Memo," a list of possible hoaxes that was distributed among the intelligence chiefs at the very beginning of the war. Two other officers in MI5—the eccentric, unassuming Charles Cholmondeley ("Chumly") and the supremely confident lawyer Ewen Montagu—developed the idea and saw it to fruition.

Once the higher-ups at MI5 consented to the ruse, these two officers embarked on an elaborate planning process. St. Pancras coroner Bentley Purchase informed them that the body of a homeless Welshman, Glyndwr Michael, had just been brought in, and Cholmondeley and Montagu spent the next couple of months (with Michael in deep refrigeration) inventing his alter-ego, Major William Martin, complete with love letters and photographs, hotel bills, and snippy missives from his father and bank manager. Cholmondeley and Montagu spent so much time inventing him that they began to feel as if Martin had actually been a friend of theirs.

Cholmondeley, Montagu, and the other planners knew how the Nazis thought—their two biggest flaws (with regard to military intelligence and espionage, anyway) being 'wishfulness and yesmanship'—and if they could allow those phony documents to fall into the right hands, thousands of lives would be saved on both sides.

The operation got off as planned, and by the time 'Major Martin' arrived in Huelva, Spain, he stunk so bad the local forensic pathologist dismissed the inevitable anomalies (the corpse's face and the face on his ID card didn't quite match up; the body was too decomposed to have been in the water only a few days, as his documents attested) in favor of getting the heck out of the room. The body was laid to rest in a Catholic cemetery, and the suitcase and its contents got lost in a maze of Spanish bureaucracy and intrigue before the Nazis finally got their hands on it. The rumor of a Greek invasion spread, and thus began to substantiate itself; Hitler was convinced, and the ruse was complete.

The material is fascinating regardless, but Macintyre does a great job of bringing to life each character involved in the plot of Operation Mincemeat—from the aforementioned jolly coroner of St. Pancras ('He loved Gilbert and Sullivan operas, toy trains, boiled eggs, and his model piggery in Ipswich. He never wore a hat and laughed loudly and often') to the brave submarine commander assigned to the dispatch of 'Major William Martin', Bill Jewell, who only begins to fear for his life after falling in love with a Wren in Algiers. We get a keen sense of each player's desires and ambitions, their private histories and their miserable working conditions.

So why are so many details of the planning of Operation Mincemeat only now coming to light? After the war was over, there was still the possibility of a political backlash were the full story of the hoax to come out. British diplomats had conspired to deceive Spanish officials, so the revelation would have no doubt damaged Anglo-Spanish relations; furthermore, back at home, those who had orchestrated Operation Mincemeat had obtained the corpse by not-strictly-legal means, and exposure would have caused quite a bit of trouble for the coroner and other government offices involved in that particular aspect of the deception.

So, in The Man Who Never Was and on the international lecture circuit, Ewen Montagu spent forty years telling a story that was hopelessly incomplete—for the above reasons, and because Cholmondeley and several others abided by their MI5 oaths of secrecy for the rest of their lives. Macintyre had access to Montagu's personal archives, and along with information that has become available only in the last twenty years or so, he was able to write the most complete account of Operation Mincemeat we'll probably ever have. Its unputdownability is a testament to Macintyre's prowess as a storyteller. Highly, highly recommended.

[Edit: Since I wrote this I found there's another book on the subject that's also come out this year called Deathly Deception: The Real Story of Operation Mincemeat by Denis Smyth. It'd be interesting to compare them.]

Monday, July 19, 2010

Eastern Europe retroblog: back to Budapest

Kate enjoyed her freshly squeezed orange juice at a sidewalk café.

You know that stage in every trip when you realize you are 100% ready to be home again? Hopefully you don't reach that point any more than a day or two before your scheduled departure date; but in our case we'd been traveling for five weeks and Kate had been missing her right arm for nearly two [we'd said goodbye to Elliot in Sarajevo], so I think we reached it as soon as we got back to Budapest.

I started writing about some of the minorly unpleasant things that happened over those last couple of days, but I think I'll just show you some nice pictures and be done with it!

Exterior and interior shots of the Great Synagogue (Kate took the latter); a pretty fountain sculpture in a city park; a wonderfully atmospheric old shopping arcade; me at the same sidewalk café, having the most delicious coffee (with honey!) ever.

And that concludes my Eastern Europe retroblog. We're going to Peru for three weeks next month, so there'll be plenty more travel photos coming soon!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Harmony Homestead Dispatch #5

Sorry if I've been a deadbeat blogger lately—between farm life and all the fun stuff we do in between, there isn't much time left for puttering around on the internet (which, if I'm being honest, is what I'm always doing at home). Anyway, here's what we got up to last Thursday evening:

Circus Smirkus is a circus run and performed by children and teenagers. I can't tell you how amazing they are—it's like a professional show, so much so that you keep regretting your wasted youth (dude, I was watching Gilligan's Island all summer) even as you are continually delighted by the spectacle. If you ever get a chance to see one of their shows, don't miss it.

Clown noses come with your ticket. Me and my new little bro Nick.

These acrobats are like fifteen. Holy moly!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Zucchini Blossom Fritters

Zucchini blossoms are one of my favorite sights in the garden. Mouth-watering memories of the amazing zucchini flower fritters at Betty's restaurant on Lesbos (see my Greece retroblog post) got me wanting to fry some up for dinner.

It's really easy—wash the blossoms and cut out the pistils; whisk an egg and add milk and flour to make a batter (pancake batter consistency, I'd say); add salt, pepper, and a little something extra (I used cumin); fill the skillet with olive oil and fry 'em up. They have a lovely subtle-sweet flavor, and taste great dipped in tomato sauce.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Back in Babyville

I haven't mentioned my knitting in ages, mostly because I've been making gifts:

I knit this for Sally, my Mary Modern editor, who had a baby girl in April. It's the infamous Pea Pod Baby Set by Kate Gilbert, which is no longer available online (so many people on Ravelry are frustrated that they can't knit it). If you are reading this and don't have a copy, you know that I couldn't possibly email it to you if you dropped me a line to ask. Oh, no. (Raveled here.)

The Little Coffee Bean Cardigan by Elizabeth Smith is my new favorite pattern—I knit these for Lindsay's baby (due in July) and my nephew (sized up for a 2T). Let me tell you, I'll never knit a baby cardi in pieces ever again, and crazy stripes are a great way to use up odd balls. As you can see, the sleeves on the second Little Coffee Bean are much longer—I knit the first version to the pattern, but then I decided I wasn't too keen on the half-length sleeves; although I guess I'd have to see it on the baby to know for sure if it would look odd or not. (Raveled here and here.)

This hat (super-easy pattern here) isn't for any baby in particular—I just wanted to knit something fast that would cheer me up the week my grandfather died. (Raveled here.)