Review: Knecht’s Who Is Vera Kelly

Who Is Vera Kelly
Rosalie Knecht

A clever spy novel that doubles as a coming out story, while also being an disection of gender and sexuality in 1950-60s American and is an subtle exposition of the catastrophic effects of U.S. involvement in Latin America. Many spy novelists are ostensibly liberals (LeCarre, Steinhauer come to mind) who use the genre to critique the lies and machinations of Western intelligence agencies. But few, if any spy novels address gender and sexuality, and none that I am aware have used the way the deceptions forced on some by the closets of 1950s America could turn into the skills to be a spy for the CIA.
If you’re a fan of the genre, (and I certainly am) its refreshing to see that you can keep the double crosses and international intrigue, while pushing thing in a new direction staring complex queer and female protagonists.
Recommended for the enthusiast.

Rosalie Knecht

Rosalie Knecht

Review: Ignatius’s the Increment

The Increment: A Novel
David Ignatius

David Ignatius is a true beltway insider. He writes for the Washington Post and he is a regular guest on Sunday morning talk show. However, unlike most beltway reporters, when he turns his hand to fiction, he can write a better than average spy thriller.

By far Ignatius’ best book is Body of Lies, but Increment isn’t too shabby either.

Shuttling between machinations within the C.I.A. and goings on in Iran, it is an entertaining ride. Ignatius knows the Middle East well, having covered it for number of years and his details about life in Iran ring true, but this book is at its best in describing the personalities and politics which play out within the American espionage and national security community. Though this book has its fair share of action, it is the meetings and deals brokered and broken which resonate. On the spy writer spectrum, Ignatius falls on the LeCarre side of things, his hero’s are flawed, but often idealistic and the government for which he works is at time incompetent. But that is what real life espionage is like, though I doubt it often hold as much excited as Ignatius generates in the final chapters of this book.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: McCarry’s Miernik Dossier

The Miernik Dossier

Charles McCarry

A clever spy novel written as a series of dossiers from the various spies and spy agencies tied up in a confused cold war battle for influence. All the classic spy novel motifs are here: betrayals both political and personal, glamourous and troubled women, troubled and glamorous men, sex, booze, violence.

The hook is that most of the novel takes place while the main characters are driving from Europe to Africa together in a Cadillac. It’s the kind of thing that could be hokey, but in the hands of a writer as talented as McCarry, works. If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll like this one.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Steinhauer’s All the Old Knives

All the Old Knives: A Novel
Olen Steinhauer

Steinhauer is one of the best espionage writers working today. Maybe the best, actually. His books hit the sweet spot of fast-paced plotting with well-drawn characters and top-notch writing.

This little book goes in a somewhat different direction from the action packed Tourist books. The concept is that it is a spy novel that takes place entirely during a single meal in a restaurant where layers of deception surrounding a terrorist event are revealed through a conversation between ex-lovers. It’s tightly written with crackly dialogue and a clever plot. I’m sure it’s already been optioned into a film.   If popular fiction is your thing, you’ll like this.


Review: Lynd’s the Last Spymaster

The Last Spymaster
Gayle Lynds

A poorly constructed and dreadfully written second rate spy novel.

As I have said on many occasions, I have no taste. If a book’s plot moves along at a good clip and is engaging, I’ll overlook clumsy writing. If a book is beautifully written, I’ll overlook a lackluster plot. But if a book is clumsily written and has a plot that fails to captivate, I am going to wish I never started the damn thing.

Here, the “spymaster” is unbelievable, the villain is too broadly drawn for a comic book, and the plucky young woman sidekick is too clichéd even for this cliché loving fan of the genre. While the plot has plenty of twists and turns, its construction left me unsatisfied. Said differently, many allegedly exciting things happen, but because the writing is poor and the characters badly done, I didn’t care.

Not recommended.

Review: Le Carre’s Tailor of Panama

A version of this review originally appeared on a now long defunct livejournal account.
The Tailor of Panama
John Le Carre

Le Carre, is in my opinion, the best espionage novelist of all time. If you’re fan of the genre, you’ve probably read at least some of his books. If not, you should.

The Tailor of Panama was the first book of his I read (I picked it up in an airport in Germany, which feels kind of right). In some ways, it’s an outlier. LeCarre’s masterpieces, the Smiley books, all take place mainly in the dank offices and dark alleys of cold war Europe. Here we’re in sunny Panama, but its still a world of mirrors and lies, deception by and to those we love, and understated implied, violence. LeCarre is still one of the best dialogue writers in the business. His ear for the way we speak is unparalleled.
In the Le Carre cannon the Tailor of Panama may be a minor work, but if you’re a fan of spy fiction it is certainly still a book worth reading.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

The Books I Read in 2012

Attention conservation notice: this post is long and has nothing to do with working out. 

I have kept a list of every book I have read I have read since I was thirteen years old.  Yeah, obsessive record keeping didn’t start with my running log.  Below is a list of every book I read this year followed by my idiosyncratic one sentence review.  Books are either recommended, meaning I think I the average reader will like them, not recommended, or recommended for a specific sub-group of readers.

I read thirty three books this year.  A general trend in my reading over the last couple of years is that I am reading less, and more of what I am reading can only be described as mind-candy pop fiction.  Such is adulthood.  I want to go home and work through the Organon, but somehow or other I often end up reading another spy novel.

Anyway, here’s the round up of what I read this year*

Best Fiction Book:  The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. 

This book is actually better than the hype and considering the hype, that’s saying a lot.  My wife, who hates baseball, loved it.  I, who have little patience the young lions of American literary fiction, loved it.  I think you’ll probably like it as well.

Best Non Fiction Book: Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin. 

A really great overview of an empire which had a huge influence on modern society and about which I knew little.  Goodwin’s approach in covering the cultures, politics, and wars of the empire is clever and approachable.  I feel like I still have a lot to learn about the Ottomans, but this is a great place to start.

Book Which Was Much Better Than I Was Expecting:  Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, by Benjamin Yorr

I picked this one up because it got a good write up in the Times and had the words Yoga and Obsession in the title.  I was expecting a someone annoying experiential journalism piece written by a snotty New Yorker ironically judging the yogis around him.  Instead, its an insightful look into yoga culture and a thoughtful critique of Bikram yoga.  I was disappointed this one wasn’t longer, which is high praise for any book.

What Was I Thinking When I Got This Book and Why Did I Read The Whole Thing?: The Four Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat Loss, Incredible Sex and Becoming Superhuman, by Timothy Ferris

Honestly, there must be something wrong with me.

 Every Book I Read I 2012

  1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John LeCarre – Recommended
  2. Krapp’s Last Tape and Other Dramatic Pieces, Samuel Beckett – Recommended for enthusiast’s of high modern theater.
  3. Romeo and Juliet (Arden), William Shakespeare – Recommended
  4. Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Barnes – Recommended for those wishing to brush up on their undergraduate philosophy degree.
  5. The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach – Highly Recommended
  6. The Moro Affair and the Mystery of Majorana, Leonardo Sciascia – Recommended for those interested in left-wing terrorist organizations in 1970s Italy.
  7. Richard II (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended for obsessives determined to read every work by the Bard in chronological order.
  8. Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, A.C. Grayling – Recommended for those trying to determine whether Ludwig is worth the trouble.
  9. Arctic Rising, Tobias S. Buckell – Recommended for connoisseurs of global warming dystopia futures.
  10. A MidSummer Nights Dream (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended
  11. The Four Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat Loss, Incredible Sex and Becoming Superhuman, Timothy Ferris – Recommended for idiots (like me) who enjoy reading pop science about working out even when it was written by the world’s biggest frat boy.
  12. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr – Recommended
  13. The Honorable Schoolboy, John LeCarre – Recommended for readers of spy fiction.
  14. The Ex Pats, Chris Pavone – Recommended for readers of spy fiction who have read all the LeCarre and Steinhauer books listed here.
  15. Death at La Fenice, Donna Leon – Recommended for mystery fans dying to visit Venice even if everyone tells you that you will be disappointed.
  16. King John, William Shakespeare – Not recommended.  The only reason to read this is if you’re trying to read everything the Bard wrote.
  17. Drive, James Sallis – Recommended for fans of really well written crime fiction.
  18. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Thomas R. Martin – Recommended for buddy amateur ancient historians.
  19. Istanbul Passage, Joseph Kanon – Recommended for cold war espionage fans and those about to travel to Turkey.
  20. The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare – Recommended if only because of its is the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays – if you are going to talk about Shakespeare, then you need to talk about the Merchant of Venice and you really cannot talk about the Merchant unless you have read it.
  21. The Snake Stone, Jason Goodwin – Recommended for mystery fans traveling to Turkey.
  22. Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire, Jason Goodwin – Recommended for those, like me, with limited knowledge of the Ottomans.
  23. The Black Monastery, Stav Sherez – Not recommended.
  24. The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum – Recommended for the thriller enthusiast, especially those on an inter-continental flight
  25. King Henry IV Part I (Arden), William Shakespeare – recommended.
  26. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell – recommended.
  27. King Henry IV Part 2 (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended
  28. No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy Seal, Mark Owen – Not recommended
  29. The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, Matti Friedman – Recommended for amateur Hebraists and book nerds.
  30.  In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, Joel M. Hoffman – Recommended for students of Hebrew.
  31. The Nearest Exit, Olen Steinhauer – Recommended
  32. Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, Benjamin Yorr – Recommended
  33. An American Spy, Olen Steinhauer – Recommended

Next year I hope to finally finish my project to read all of Shakespeares works, once again cross the fifty books in a year threshold, and balance the serious with the frivolous a little better.

*Note that I am trying out the Amazon associates program with this post.


Review: Littell’s The Company

The Company: A Novel of the CIA
Robert Littell

A better than average page-turner spy novel tracing the history of the agency through the stories of a group of men who come into it as it was being formed and end up in the upper reaches of the organization. Clearly based on real guys, some of them going mad from the secrets (Angelton), others of them moles for the USSR (Philby). This covers the well trod territory of the Berlin Station, the Bay of Pigs and Hungary. Fun if you’re into this kind of thing, which I totally am.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

* Side note: Here’s some book nerd trivia for ya, Robert Littel, who has written scores fo these type of popular fiction books is the father of Jonathan Littel, who wrote Les Beinveillanter (released in the U.S. in May 2009 as the Kindly Ones), the award winning book about Nazi sickos.

Review: LeCarre’s Spy Who Came In From The Cold

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley Novels)
John LeCarre

This is the one that made LeCarre’s name. It is a dark look at the horrible machinations of the KGB and MI6 at the height of the cold war, and the price that a number of foot soliders in that war played. This book sets the form that LeCarre will work to perfection until the collapse of the soviet union – damaged British agents versus evil communists with a fair amount of innocents on both sides getting taken down in the whole mess. It also introduces, though does not focus on, the man who would come to define LeCarre’s mid-career masterpieces, George Smiley.

If you pretend to be interested in the spy fiction genre, you need to read this. Even if you don’t, it’s a great read, you should check it out.

Recommended for the Enthusiast.

Review: Le Carre’s Our Game

Our Game
John LeCarre
Perhaps the best of LeCarre’s non-Smiley novels this one centers on the relationship of a fellow traveler socialist turned British Cold War spy and his longtime handler and what happens in their broken lives when the Cold War that framed their identities ends. Like most Le Carre novels, the plot is well constructed, the characters are complex and near perfectly drawns, and the dialogue is top notch.

As we all know, no one does this genre better than LeCarre. No one here is a hero, nor, really, an anti-hero. For all the international intrigue, they’re really just broken men and women muddling through and the spying is really just a way to talk about betrayal, the British class system, dysfunctional relationship. Who can resist?

Recommended for the enthusiast.