Manipulation & Exploitation

Little Drummer GirlTitle: The Little Drummer Girl
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage
Pages: 430
Rating: 2 of 5

I recently noticed that this book had been turned into a TV series, so I decided that it was finally time to knock it off the TBR list. I was curious to see how LeCarré would handle a female protagonist since all the other books I have read by him are pretty male-centric. It turns out that Charlie, a sex-obsessed actress who dabbles in radical left-wing politics, spends most of the book being manipulated and exploited by Israeli intelligence and Palestinian terrorists. Most of the time she is running on pride, stunned shock, lust, and/or anger. Hardly a strong female lead, but most of LeCarré’s male protagonists are some combination of angry, pathetic, and loathsome, so I suppose Charlie is par for the course.

The overall plot of the book follows Charlie’s “recruitment” (aka kidnapping, browbeating, flattery, and Stockholm syndrome) by Israeli intelligence and her subsequent mission to help track down a major Palestinian terrorist operating in Europe. Throughout the book Palestinians are portrayed relatively sympathetically (and who doesn’t feel compassion for people in refugee camps?). Israelis, on the other hand, are seen primarily through the lens of angry statements of suffering Palestinians and in the person of pragmatic, brutally efficient agents. Ethical explanations by the Jewish characters are little more than casual dismissal of concerns (“we’re saving Jewish lives”) or disillusioned near-agreement with the Palestinians that Israel’s behavior is from the same mold as that which perpetrated the Holocaust. To me the whole thing came off very one-sided and anti-Israeli.

Overall, this book featured the usual gritty realism at which LeCarré excels (thus 2 stars instead of 1). However, a plot centering on the manipulation and exploitation of a young woman and laced with anti-Israeli rhetoric was just plain angering and depressing. LeCarré is always on the disillusioned/angry side, but this was a bit much even for him.

The Anti-Philby

Title: The Spy and the Traitor:
The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Espionage History/Biography
Pages: 334 (plus citations & indices)
Rating: 5 of 5

Ben Macintyre spins another true tale of espionage and betrayal. In A Spy Among Friends (one of my favorite reads last year) he told the story of Kim Philby, the Soviet mole who wormed his way into the highest levels of MI-6. Now he focuses on “our” double agent: Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who spied for MI-6 in the waning years of the Cold War.

Macintyre captures the paranoia and internal conflict of a double agent from Gordievsky’s first tentative effort at contacting Western intelligence to the final daring overland escape attempt from the heart of the USSR. Along the way he highlights Gordievsky’s contributions to preventing nuclear war and promoting more cordial relationships between East and West. While a primarily positive portrayal of the spy (especially as compared to Aldrich Ames whose story is interwoven with Gordievsky’s), the book does not completely gloss over mixed motives, the personal toll on family, and other nasty parts of a life wholly dedicated to deception. Overall, this is a fascinating spy story, right up there with anything written by LeCarré… but real!

Catch-up with Mini Reviews

I’m starting to fall behind on reviews, so it’s time for a bunch of mini-reviews! No unifying theme…this is just the order in which I read them.

Title: Enforcer:
The Shira Calpurnia Omnibus
Author: Matthew Farrer
Genre: Military Sci-fi (Warhammer 40,000 universe)
Pages: 859
Rating: 3 of 5

Space marines bore me, so if I’m going to read a Warhammer 40K book, I usually go for the stories featuring other kinds of characters. This trilogy omnibus features Shira Calpurnia, an “adeptus arbites” – basically a combination of detective, SWAT, and judge. For me, the main interest in these stories came from their exploration of the inner workings and politics of groups like rogue traders, the ecclesiarchy, and the arbites themselves. At times Shira Calpurnia all but disappears from the stories as the scheming going on around her is far more interesting than anything she does in response to it. I never expect Warhammer 40,000 books to be anything more than pulp-y escapist sci-fi, and by that standard this was a decent read.

The Ministry of Fear by [Greene, Graham]Title: The Ministry of Fear
Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Thriller / Espionage
Pages: 226
Rating: 3.5 of  5

In this classic thriller Graham Greene weaves an improbable but entertaining spy yarn. He mixes in all the ingredients of an over the top “ordinary man accidentally caught up in a vast conspiracy” story and a “man with a guilty conscience due to past transgressions” story, all set during the London blitz…and somehow it works. It does have a good dose of Graham’s usual bleak cynicism as well, but it is well worth reading if you like that kind of espionage tale.

Title: A Biblical Answer for Racial Unity
Authors: H. B. Charles Jr., Danny Akin, Juan Sanchez, Richard Caldwell, Jim Hamilton, Owen Strachan, Carl Hargrove, Christian George
Genre: Theology/Philosophy, Race Relations
Pages: 122
Rating: 3 of 5

This is essentially a lightly edited version of nine sermons/speeches given at a conference on racial unity. If you want a very basic survey of some general biblical principles that apply to racial unity, this is worth your time. However, if you are looking for actual “where the rubber meets the road” applications, you won’t find many here other than the most basic and generalized.

1000 Years of Annoying the French by [Clarke, Stephen]Title: 1,000 Years of Annoying the French
Author: Stephen Clarke
Genre: Anglo-French History / Humor
Pages: 506
Rating: 4 of 5

In this humorously biased history, Stephen Clarke chronicles the long history of mutual antagonism between France and England (starting with the Norman Conquest). Along the way he delights in pointing out French self-sabotage and does his best to suck the grandeur out of any French accomplishments. The book is a lot of fun to read and contains a lot of great trivia…just don’t use it as a main source for serious research.

Title: Dear Committee Members
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: Humor/Satire
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Last year Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement came in 6th on my Top 10 list.  That was the sequel to this book, which was just as enjoyable. As I said with The Shakespeare Requirement: if you’ve ever been involved in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. This one is in the format of dozens of letters of recommendation written by a harassed English professor in a struggling university. Cleverly mixed in with the recommendations is the story of his rather pathetic personal and professional life and ongoing battle with the all-powerful economics department.

Title: Superheroes Can’t Save You:
Epic Examples of Historic Heresies
Author: Todd Miles
Genre: Theology (Christology)
Pages: 208
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Theology professor and self-professed comic book aficionado Todd Miles uses seven different superheroes to illustrate various Christological heresies (wrong beliefs about Jesus Christ according to classic Christian theology). For example, Ant-Man illustrates modalism in which rather than the Trinity being three separate co-equal co-eternal persons, it is simply one person who presents himself in three modes. For each heresy Miles gives a brief survey of its history, a biblical explanation of why it is unscriptural, and a warning as to why (even though this makes for a cool superhero) a Jesus with this nature would be insufficient to provide eternal salvation. This is fairly basic theology, but it’s a fun way to be exposed to the classic Christian understanding of who Jesus is.

Title: The Red Record
Author: Ida B. Wells
Genre: History of Lynching
Pages: 102
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book/pamphlet was an emotionally difficult read but it is historically important. Ida B. Wells records (sometimes in heartrending detail) many instances of racially motivated lynchings in the late 1800’s and pleads for people to take notice and speak out against it. For me it was a painful reminder that far too many white Christians have been (and sometimes still are) shamefully complicit in racial injustice either actively or through passively standing by and doing nothing while mumbling some variation of “they brought it on themselves.” The writing itself is a little repetitive and spends maybe a bit too much time on the feud between Ida Wells and the head of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, but that does not detract from its importance.

Do you have what it takes?

Title: Secret Agent Brainteasers:
More Than 100 Codebreaking Puzzles Inspired by Britain’s Espionage Masterminds
Author: Sinclair McKay
Genre: Puzzles / History
Pages: 288
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: May 7, 2019 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review)

The question of this book is “do you have the mental acuity to be a secret agent?” Light, chatty descriptions of the history of various British intelligence agencies and famous spies alternate with collections of 8-10 puzzles loosely tied to the spy skills described in the historical section.

The puzzles vary significantly in difficulty. Many (most?) of them are variations on anagrams and/or arranging words in boxes. In some the spy connection feels genuine and in others it seems like a random puzzle from any old brainteaser collection with the spy bit “tacked on.” A few of the puzzles require knowledge of British places, history, etc. that a non-Brit might have a hard time coming up with. I would recommend this, if you enjoy word and pattern recognition puzzles (and spy trivia). You should definitely go with the printed version rather than the ebook so you don’t have to re-create all the grids, diagrams, etc. on a seperate piece of paper.

Britain & the Confederacy

Title: Our Man in Charleston:
Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South
Author: Christopher Dickey
Genre: History (American Civil War)
Pages: 400
Rating: 4 of 5

This book provides a unique Brit’s-eye view of the American Civil War. Even though “Secret Agent” appears in the subtitle, don’t expect a convoluted spy yarn. This is the story of British consul Robert Bunch whose tireless activities mostly involved schmoozing politicians and sending his superiors reports on the society and goings-on in Charleston (and the South in general).

Bunch’s disgust for slavery and the cruel, pompous hypocrisy of Charlestonians high society filled his reports as he kept his superiors abreast of the political developments up to and beyond South Carolina’s secession. With his Southern friends and acquaintances he hid his disdain well enough that none of them realized how much he abhorred their “peculiar institution” and how foolish he found the “fire eater” secessionists. According to the author, Bunch’s reports on slavery in the South and the possible revival of the African slave trade contributed heavily to Britain’s refusal to fully recognize the Confederacy (good man!).

Besides offering Bunch’s point of view, the book gives a decent overview of the national political maneuvering before and during the war. This includes both the jockeying to preserve slavery that led to secession*  and relations between Britain and both the USA and CSA. The political maneuverings involving Britain and the African slave trade were something with which I had only a passing acquaintance from previous study, so I found them particularly interesting.

The one major weakness that I found with the book is that the author almost always paraphrases or summarizes Bunch’s reports rather than quoting them at any length. I’m not sure if there are any direct quotes that are longer than a sentence in the entire book, and precious few of even that length. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a bit sparse and interpretive even for a popular level history book.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and appreciated reading about the Civil War from a different perspective.

 

 

* The “lost cause” narrative of the Civil War that portrays slavery as a red herring is unsustainable in light of primary source material (e.g. secession documents) even if you ignore Bunch’s eyewitness accounts

Best & Worst of 2018

In 2018 I read 121  books (38,307 pages) and reviewed 101 of them. Here are my year-end best and worst lists (excluding re-reads / click book titles for full review where available):

Top 10

  1. How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith & Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman – A much needed, truly non-partisan book about how American Christians should view and participate in the political process without losing their integrity
  2.  Darkness Over Germany by E. Amy Buller – A sobering look at the rise of Nazism, written during World War II (but with some worrisome parallels to current events)
  3. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – A whimsical dystopia about letters (in both senses of the word) & censorship
  4. Silas Marner by George Eliot – A classic story of providence & redemption that led Charles Dickens to write a well-deserved fan letter
  5. A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre – A true account of Ken Philby’s career as a Soviet mole in MI-6 (explains the cynicism of espionage authors like John LeCarré & Graham Greene)
  6. The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher – A satirical tale of academia & bureaucracy that rings all too true
  7. A Middle Earth Traveler: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor by John Howe – A collection of John Howe’s gorgeous, detailed sketches of Middle Earth
  8. Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey – A creepy thriller with multiple unreliable narrators
  9. Christianity at the Crossroads (no review) by Michael J. Kruger – An examination of the church in the 2nd Century (very similar to Destroyer of the Gods (reviewed) by Larry Hurtado but with a broader focus and better organization)
  10. Peril in the Old Country and Soul Remains (no review yet) by Sam Hooker – The first two books of the hilarious dark fantasy series, Terribly Serious Darkness

Honorable Mention: Robots vs. Fairies Edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe – An anthology of stories featuring our future overlords (robots, fairies, or both)

Bottom Ten

  1. Robot Depot by Russell F. Moran – A muddled near-future sci-fi thriller featuring Trumpian political views and pages of tangentially related roboethics infodumping
  2. Apocalypse 5 by Stacey Rourke – An incredibly derivative dystopian sci-fi story with Harlequin Romance-esque physical descriptions
  3. Our Kind of Traitor by John LeCarré – An espionage thriller with a ridiculously abrupt ending that leaves most plotlines unresolved
  4. The Magic of Recluce by L. E. Modesitt Jr. – A fantasy tale starring a sullen brat and oddly frequent use of onomatopoeia
  5. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley – A political screed with solid potential marred by extreme partisanism
  6. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs – A classic pulp adventure story complete with all the cheesiness and product-of-its-era racism you would expect
  7. Killing Floor by Lee Child – The first novel starring Jack Reacher in all his sociopathic vigilante glory
  8. Against Nature by Joris K. Huysmans – A tedious exploration of a hedonistic aesthete’s vain search for fulfillment
  9. Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne & Delilah S. Dawson – A satirical take on fantasy tropes that buries any cleverness under an avalanche of adolescent toilet humor
  10. Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, & a New Way Forward by Skot Welch, Rick Wilson, & Andi Cumbo-Floyd – A book about a genuine problem that offers few practical solutions and shames those who ask the wrong questions

Dishonorable Mention: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – An overlong, depressing classic on the consequences of greed and pride

And there you have it…I have one more NetGalley book to review (Soul Remains) and a couple sign-up posts for 2019 reading challenges to write, but this is probably the last post of 2018. Happy New Year!

Potpourri

I’m trying to review at least 100 books this year…9 to go. Toward that end, here is a random assortment of 5 mini-reviews.

Title: Our Kind of Traitor
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 320
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This tale of an average British couple whose lives become entwined with a Russian mobster/defector started out as one of LeCarré’s better post-Cold War novels (which, honestly, isn’t a very high bar). However, the ending was just stupid. It felt like LeCarré got bored and just quit writing. The final action of the book made sense, but it was absurdly abrupt and left almost all of the plot lines unresolved.

Title: Fearsome Journeys
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy Short Stories
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5

I purchased this primarily because it has a Black Company story in it. That story was mediocre…as was the collection as a whole. I have no idea why this anthology is titled Fearsome Journeys as there are few stories that focus on journeying. The unifying theme actually seems to be people with morally ambiguous (at best) professions: mostly mercenaries, thieves, and assassins. It wasn’t bad, but a bit one-note.

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Russian Fairy Tale Fantasy
Pages: 368
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is ridiculously well-written for a first novel! The fairytale style and 13th century (I think) Russian setting were fascinating. What annoyed me was the “dour, manipulative, fear-mongering Christianity vs. harmonious paganism” narrative that was fairly central to the story. Depending on your particular worldview, your mileage may vary…stylistically it was a well-executed fairy tale (of the original variety, not the the cutesy Disneyfied kind).

Title: Judge Sewall’s Apology:
The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of a Conscience
Author: Richard Francis
Genre: Colonial American History
Pages: 388
Rating: 4 of 5

Samuel Sewall was the only judge from the Salem witch trials to publicly apologize for his involvement. While that apology is the source of the book’s title, the book actually covers his entire life as recorded in his journals. The author presents Sewall as charming and ahead of his time in regard to slavery, the treatment of native Americans, etc. He sometimes lays it on a bit thick and seems to read too much between the lines, but overall this is an interesting, informative look at Puritan culture and religion.

Title: The Shakespeare Requirement
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: General Fiction / Satire?
Pages: 309
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you’ve ever worked in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. I would say that it’s satire, but the woes of the new head of the English department trying to wrangle his colleagues into agreeing to a mission statement while fighting off the economics department (and convince the public that he is not anti-Shakespeare) ring all too true. Hilarious!

Espionage & the Afterlife

Title: Summerland
Author: Hannu Rajaniemi
Genre: Espionage Thriller / Alternate History / Supernatural Fiction
Pages: 304
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/26/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

The overall plot of this book follows a mole hunt on the order of LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. However, in this alternate 1938 death is merely a transition into a different dimension (or something) that still interacts with the world of the living. “The Great Game” continues on both sides of death as the British and Russian Empires vie for supremacy with the Spanish Civil War as their chessboard.

I won’t go into much detail about how Summerland (where dead Brits go) and the Presence (the Soviet collective afterlife) work because gradually discovering how this world operates and what kind of effect the meaninglessness of death has on society is half the fun. The actual spy storyline is well-plotted, incorporating historical characters and events and heading in an unexpected direction by the end.

Unfortunately, there were a few issues with the writing style that detracted from my enjoyment of the book: weak characterization that made it hard to tell characters apart, stilted dialogue due to no one using contractions, and too much time spent on our protagonist’s relationship woes. Some of that may be my own personal preference or exhausting schedule lately, so don’t let me discourage you if this sounds interesting. The author has created a fascinating world, and I would love to read another book set there.

MI-6: The Old Boys’ Club

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by [Macintyre, Ben]Title: A Spy Among Friends:
Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: True Crime / Espionage
Pages: 328
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is a tale of cold-blooded betrayal by a charismatic double agent and of monumental incompetence by his colleagues at MI-6 who sheltered, enabled, and defended him for several decades . Soviet mole Ken Philby (and associated traitors in “the Cambridge five”) wreaked havoc in both the British and American intelligence communities, compromising operations and costing the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Ben Macintyre examines Philby’s career with a focus on his friends/dupes in the intelligence community, especially his closest friend and most loyal defender, Nicholas Elliott.

Clearly, the authors had to wade through massive amounts of self-justification and obfuscation in writing this book, so we are getting version of the story of which a definitive version is probably impossible. That being said, his presentation is convincing, well-sourced, and hangs together well. MI-6 is portrayed as an above-the-law “old boys club” that couldn’t be bothered to do serious background checks on “gentlemen” and refused to believe that one of their own class could really be a Soviet agent (even when presented with damning circumstantial evidence by MI-5 and the CIA). I think that the author was trying to be as nice as possible in his portrayal of Philby’s friends, but to me Nicholas Elliott comes off as a class-blinded moron and naive fool of the first order.

After reading this, it is easier to understand the cynicism in the spy novels of Graham Greene and John LeCarré (the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is based on Philby). Overall, it was a fascinating book, though largely in a “can’t look away from the tragedy being brought about by arrogant fools” kind of way.

Farewell to George Smiley

I just finished the last two books in my read-through of John LeCarré’s George Smiley stories. Reviews of the first seven books can be found here, here, and here. These last two books (written over 17 years apart) both take the form of reminiscences by aging spies associated with Smiley. I’m pretty sure that The Secret Pilgrim was supposed to be the last book, but LeCarré couldn’t leave well enough alone. Whether he was bored, broke, had a nagging discontentment with Secret Pilgrim, or something else, I’m glad he wrote A Legacy of Spies because it was a much more satisfying farewell to the pudgy little spy. Below you’ll find shortish reviews of the last two books and my final recommendations on which five of the nine books I think are really worth reading.

Title: The Secret Pilgrim
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 335
Rating: 3 of 5

This is basically a collection of loosely connected short stories strung together in the memory of an aging spy as he listens to the retired George Smiley answer the questions of eager young recruits. The theme of the stories seems to be “I’m a nasty philanderer and all the spy work I did was pretty much pointless, petty, and wasteful of human life including my own.” LeCarré always has seedy characters and a healthy dose of “is the spy business worth the human cost?” in his books, but he’s definitely in full bleak mode for this one.  George Smiley gives some final words of wisdom before bumbling out the door for the last time, but it’s all pretty vague and unsatisfying (which I suppose is typical George so it kind of works). Overall: well, written as always, but far from my favorite.

Title: A Legacy of Spies
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 265
Rating: 4 of 5

In this final (I assume) book, Smiley’s protege, Peter Guillam, is called in from his tranquil retirement in France to answer for his actions during operation Windfall (otherwise known as the events recorded in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). This book is largely an excuse to show what was going on before, after, and behind the scenes in that book since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold focuses almost entirely on the field agent involved rather than those pulling the strings (aka Control and George Smiley assisted by Peter Guillam).

LeCarré covers completely new material (mostly relating to setting up the mission and its aftermath) rather than subjecting us to watching the exact same scenes play out from a slightly different point of view. As an added bonus, in one brief aside we also get to find out what happened to Karla after the events of Smiley’s People. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it.

The framing story (Peter Guillam answering for his involvement in the mission which resulted in multiple deaths) just kind of petered out, but not before we finally get a relatively solid answer from George Smiley on what his “higher cause” was that kept him going all those years in spite of the beating his conscience took every time he destroyed someone’s life. Overall, I enjoyed it (though the “look how much of a womanized Peter Guillam is” got a bit old) and it was a nice end to the series.

 

Recommendations on which books to read (unless you’re a glutton for punishment like me and want to push through all of them):

You know how with the Star Trek movies only the even-numbered ones are worth watching? George Smiley has something similar going on, but I’d recommend the odd numbered books:

#1 – Call for the Dead – Worth reading as a good introduction to major characters and a decent story in its own right

#2 – A Murder of Quality – Not terrible, but not a spy novel either. George solves a murder at a boarding school. If you really like George it’s an okay read, but it contributes little to characterization or overall plot.

#3 – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – If you only read one John LeCarré novel, make it his one! This is THE Cold War spy novel. It is fairly stand-alone, but you would benefit from reading the relatively short Call for the Dead first.

#4 – The Looking Glass War – Probably my least favorite book of the series…incredibly bleak.

#5 (Karla Trilogy #1)-  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  George Smiley goes on a mole hunt. The events of this excellent book (based on the discovery of real life traitor Kim Philby) heavily impact the rest of the series.

#6 (Karla Trilogy #2) – The Honourable Schoolboy – A thoroughly seedy protagonist and overlong storyline that rather aimlessly rambles all over the conflict zones of the Far East make this pretty meh, and it does practically nothing in terms of advancing the Smiley vs. Karla conflict.

#7 (Karla Trilogy #3) – Smiley’s People – The endgame between Smiley and Karla isn’t as intricate as some of the other books, but is well worth reading.

#8 – The Secret Pilgrim – The author is in an extremely bleak mood again and George does relatively little in the book.

#9 – A Legacy of Spies – As stated above, a fitting end to the series (but it will make very little sense if you haven’t read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold).