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Posts Tagged ‘John Le Carre’

Last Friday I checked out a book for the weekend: American Spythe debut novel by Lauren Wilkinson. It’s cerebral in the same way that John le Carré‘s novels are — very much informed by the psychology and strategy of spy-craft and what makes spies tick. It introduced me to a part of Cold War history overlooked by history books that focus predominantly on white males (the kind of textbooks which dominate the American education system, or did when I was growing up). And it’s a page turner.

The spy of the title is a a black woman named Marie Mitchell, raised by New Yorkers of Caribbean descent. In the book’s opening pages she engages in a fight to the death with an intruder at her home in Connecticut. The rest of the book takes place in Martinique, where Marie’s mother lives, and where she flees with her twin sons with the help of a family friend. Once there, Marie begins a series of journals meant to tell the boys her story — their stories, too — in case she doesn’t return from trying to put an end to the threat that stalks her. We learn that she worked for the FBI, doing well until she ended up back in New York where her boss held her back with menial work. She was recruited by the CIA to get close to Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso, and that story is what led to the attack on her life.

It’s both the terrific heroine — the merit of any good spy story is in its lead spy — and the incorporation of real events and people that I found compelling. It’s also a book which my grandmother would have loved. She introduced me to le Carré, and she loved books that had, as she put it “not one extra word,” by which she meant writing that was not only excellent, but contained no superfluous flourishes, spare storylines, or other distractions from good storytelling.

My grandmother was also a feminist and this book is full of wise observations about womanhood, sisterhood, motherhood. Marie writes to her boys about a conversation she has with her oldest friend, a man she loves but is not in a relationship with: “He exhaled slowly, clearly frustrated with me. I didn’t care. There have been a lot of men in this world who have tried to shape it by getting it to conform to their own ideology . . . . I want something else. I want to form you into agents of change — that’s the way I want to fight.” A few paragraphs later she calls mothering, helping her sons become good people who can make a difference, “the most revolutionary work I could do.” My grandmother often told me almost exactly that when I was young parent, that the work I was doing raising my kids would make more impact than anything else, and I shouldn’t forget that.

American Spy is a terrific read! I didn’t love the ending, which felt abrupt — I don’t need everything tied up in a bow, but I also don’t like being left hanging. But I’m hoping it indicates that Wilkinson plans a sequel.

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Last Night In Montreal was on my list of potential reads for my week off between jobs. I got it with a gift card my former coworkers gave me. I loved Emily St. John Mandel‘s Station Eleven, so I decided to give another of her titles a try, and it arrived before The Scapegoat. It was a really good read, one that reminded me a little of a David Lynch film, and a little of a John le Carré novel.

It’s enough of a mystery that I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the gist is that Eli, whose thesis deadline passed over a year before the book opens, is struggling to find meaning in his work and life when he meets Lilia, a lovely young woman who like Eli, is interested in languages. Although she tells him about her strange life — she was taken from her mother’s house by her father when she was very young and as an adult, she can’t seem to stay in one place very long — Eli is still shocked when Lilia leaves him. He is bereft, and then a strange postcard arrives directing him to Montreal.

St. John Mandel tells the story as Lilia and Eli see it, and as Christopher, the Montreal detective who has searched for years for Lilia, and his daughter, Michaela, see it. It’s a weird story full of rich details about languages, tightrope walking, and travel. It’s a story about what people will do for love, even hurt others. And it’s a very absorbing book that might keep you awake trying to read a few more pages. I’ve never read anything quite like it.

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Longtime bookconscious readers know my grandmother was a big influence in my life. She was a voracious reader, with very strong preferences and opinions about what she read. She was a big fan of the famous Strunk and White edict: “Omit needless words,” and was sure authors of long books had been paid by the word. Some of her highest praise for anything she enjoyed reading: “There was not one extra word. Every one belonged.”

She introduced me to many wonderful books, from A.A. Milne‘s poetry (she could recite “Disobedience,” as well as many other poems for children and adults, into her 90’s), to Vera Brittain‘s Chronicles of Youth and favorite biographies of political leaders (in particular John Adams and Winston Churchill) or heroic women (notably the only book that has ever made me absolutely sob, Eleni by Nicholas Gage). When my children were small and we moved to New England she sent me Shirley Jackson‘s Life Among the Savages.

Grandmother always had a book to recommend. And one piece of her advice I’ve followed more and more as I’ve entered middle age is that when life hands you lemons, you should slice them up to put in your tea and curl up with a good mystery or spy novel. She loved Agatha Christie, believed the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy books by John Le Carre are the epitome of good writing, and introduced me to one of our favorite heroines of all time, Dorothy Gilman‘s Mrs. Pollifax. I told her about Jasper Fforde‘s wonderful Thursday Next; she didn’t quite embrace Thursday’s snarkiness or odd time-warped world, but she tried it.

I think she would have loved Maisie Dobbs, who is a strong, independent woman whose fictional life experiences mirror some of Vera Brittain’s. I’m not sure if she ever tried Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I’m turning to both these days. Government shutdowns, overheated and misleading political rhetoric, shootings, and all kinds of other things I don’t understand have me turning to mysteries, even craving them.

Of course there is order to a mystery, which is comforting. There’s a definite sense of right and wrong, even when there are gray areas. There’s a clear villain most of the time, or at least a perpetrator whose circumstances or nature generally explain his or her crimes. There are clues that lead detective and reader alike to a conclusion, and there are mostly clean resolutions, where victims may have suffered but justice is served and all’s right again with the world. A series is also very comforting because the characters’ actions may be fresh but they are still familiar.

I have only two books left in the Maisie Dobbs series. If you love a gentle mystery author who writes without graphic violence nor ripped-from-the-headlines shock value and favors strong female characters, leave a comment so I’ll know what to read next.

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