Category Archives: History

1 Disappointment and 1 Delight

Two more books checked off the list, and they couldn’t have been more different.  Because I like ending on a happy note, let’s start with the one that’s a solid example of literary mediocrity.

30319963Nicholas Reynolds’ Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy chronicles “Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961,” according to the subtitle.  Basically, Reynolds (who is the Museum Historian of the Central Intelligence Agency and has a military background) found some interesting papers that may connect Hemingway to Soviet spying.  Being a fan of espionage and Lost Gen writers, I had to read it.  While Reynolds presents a basic thesis that the papers he (and some other scholars) discovered suggest Hemingway may have been a Soviet spy, I’m beyond skeptical.  Much of the paperwork, when detailed, is based on Russian information curated by Russian individuals who then passed the information on to “the West.”

I’m no espionage expert, but I don’t trust any paperwork that describes a connection of a famous American with the Soviets when that paperwork is a summary of Soviet paperwork created by Soviets.  (And I’m not actually anti-Russian, but if you look at Cold War politics, it seems ridiculous to assume that the information is completely reliable.)

One of my main issues with the book is that the Soviet espionage Hemingway allegedly committed has no real evidence.  Sure, Hemingway met with Soviets, but he was also of a generation that is coming out of WWI and living during a dangerous rise of fascism that culminates in WWII and then develops into the Cold War.  Hemingway knew lots of people, and just because you communicate with someone does not mean you share their ideology.  Being anti-fascist does not immediately make you pro-communist.  Being anti-fascist makes you anti-fascist, and it’s completely understandable when you look at the historical context.

There are some interesting moments in the book about Hemingway’s career through three decades.  His return to Europe, for example, being influenced by the one and only spymaster-writer-inventor-Englishman extraordinaire Roald Dahl — that’s awesome.  Unfortunately, Reynolds limits the Dahl story to one page.  And I understand, the book is about Hemingway, not Dahl, but that’s the difference between this book and other military espionage books I’ve read.  Often, in other books, the author spends time incorporating more of the human story, whether it’s the spies involved themselves or just aspects of their lives that may or may not have influenced what happens now.  Spying is, at its core, a personal thing — especially during the 20th century, spies aren’t just machines with algorithms, but humans who place themselves in dangerous positions to gain information and in order to achieve that goal, they must form connections with other people.  Expand on the connections between people and I’m in.  That doesn’t happen here.

If I’m just looking at the history of Hemingway during this time, Reynolds does a pretty good job at relaying what’s happened.  The writing isn’t stellar, but it’s good enough.  Trying to make the connection with the Soviet spying, though, that’s where it collapses.  The Soviets only pop up on occasion and there’s just not enough there to convince me that he had any significant communication with Soviet spies.  After good chapters on Hemingway’s adventures, having really roughly established connections to the thesis about spying just brings the piece down.  Overall, if you’re interested in Hemingway during this period, you could still enjoy it.  I just think the repeated stretch to making Hemingway a sympathizer to Castro and company is less than convincing.

34117218Now, on the other side, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry — it’s been a big hit in the UK and is coming to the US in June 2017.  And it is so worth it.  Basic plot: during late Victorian period, a newly widowed woman moves from London to small town in Essex where there have been mysterious incidents that make the inhabitants think the legendary Essex Serpent may be reappearing.  Of course, there are several characters whose lives are tangled together, and there may or may not be some romance…

The great joy of reading this novel is the writing.  Perry develops her characters beautifully, and evokes the feel of Victorian writers in her style.  I just don’t know what I can say about it other than, as a fan of Victorian lit, I loved it.  The reviews compare it to Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens (bleurgh) and Emily Brontë, and I have to agree.  There’s just something in the writing that you don’t find often in contemporary fiction, and when I can sit with a mug of tea and a book during a foggy day and feel like I’m on the Victorian moors, that’s a pretty great job.

[Just in case, this next paragraph might get a little spoiler-y, although I’m trying to avoid it, so SPOILER ALERT (?)!  …  Still with me?  …  Okay, here we go.]

The plot is also just gothic enough to make it enjoyable, and not so supernatural to make me feel like I’m being forced to believe the truth is out there.  There’s death and darkness and London streets, but there’s no witchcraft or truly inexplicable monster in the story.  One review put it really well, that it’s the same feeling about reading a book in which the Loch Ness monster is part of the plot — you already know it doesn’t exist, so it’s about what you do with it after that.  This book becomes more about the hysteria that comes about when something is a mystery, and there’s a bit about the darkness of what humans can be capable of.  More importantly (as a reader of the incredible Elizabeth Gaskell), there’s a lot of the book that reminds me of the “condition of England” novels of the time, focusing characters and chapters on how poverty affects families and what options are available to make life better.  Gaskell, who I consider a champion of the “social novel,” did a lot of the same things Perry does now, namely giving characters in low social positions names and voices and stories for other characters to interact with.  By giving the lower classes names and backgrounds, the reader is connected to their crises (because all characters should face crises) and sympathizes.  It’s brilliant, and Perry does it if not subtly, then skillfully.

[End of the potentially spoilery (?) bits.]

The only bit of The Essex Serpent that I’m not in love with is the ending.  The last 20 pages were the weakest bit of the book, mainly because I expected a neater ending, but it’s not that the conclusion was bad.  The writing stayed strong, the characters were still good, the bits of storyline that I wanted to end a certain way were satisfactory.  I’m more than willing to compromise with a novel’s okay ending if the rest of the book has been exemplary — and that was the case here.  I put the book down with utter satisfaction and have already passed it on to a coworker to take on during the next rainstorm (probably sometime in the next month).  If you like Victorian novels, or gothic-y stories, or social novels, or good writing, it’s worth the read.

There’s the update – now on to waiting for Scott’s story collection next Tuesday so I can binge-read!  Until then, happy reading!

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An Unexpected Update

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned – it’s been an awfully long time since my last post.  For those of you who were waiting with baited breath, I apologize that you’ve probably passed out by now.  For those of you who forgot this blog even existed, here’s my reminder.

Life has been too hectic to write down comprehensible reviews, but I have been reading and now I’m going to give a super fast rundown of the past several months.  (And please note that my goal is to resume fairly regular reviews now that it is SUMMER and I don’t have essays to write or articles to read!!!)

18773666A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre – As usual, Macintyre made me read through this entire book in one sitting.  It’s the gripping tale of Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five, and his role as a double agent during the Cold War.  I can’t even begin to tell you how good it is, mainly because I just want you to read it.  Absolutely brilliant tale, fascinating insight into the men Philby betrayed, and all wrapped up in incredible storytelling that only Macintyre could give us.  A Spy Among Friends is due out in the US in hardcover July 29th.

18667978The Devil’s Workshop by Alex Grecian – The third in Grecian’s series of the Murder Squad (following The Yard and The Black Country) is quite a bit bloodier than I anticipated but, to be fair, it is dealing with the return of the most notorious murderer of all time – Jack the Ripper. As a… I hesitate to say fan because that’s just sick… person interested in the Ripper, I was a little overwhelmed by the amount of gore Grecian details in this novel’s murders.  I’ve done the research, I know what the Ripper victims suffered, I don’t need a reminder.  That being said, it’s a compelling tale with some pretty interesting twists.  Plus, the last page leaves you really wanting more.  For those of you who enjoyed The Yard and The Black Country, and who have a strong stomach, I definitely recommend this one.  The Devil’s Workshop is available now in hardcover.

41WF-Zh5jOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements by David McCullough, Jr. – So this book is basically an extension of McCullough’s commencement speech, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it.  McCullough addresses students, parents, and human beings in general in a sweet and funny collection of essays about the world.  As a student (and a member of a teacher-heavy family), I appreciated his commentary on students’ experiences in school now and the importance of accepting that not everyone is special, but that’s okay.  It’s funny, it’s poignant, and it’s pretty much perfect.  I’d recommend this one to every single person, just so that you can start to really accept that you are not special, and that’s what makes you you.  Available now in hardcover.

18170549The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan – A posthumously published collection of essays and stories from a promising young woman, The Opposite of Loneliness was a pretty tough read for me, mainly because she was about my age when she was killed in a car accident.  But, thanks to family and friends, Keegan’s works are collected here and they remind us of how much potential she certainly had.  The writing is crisp and clever and, while the stories’ subject matter was not always to my liking (college life, relationships, drugs), I appreciated the style.  Keegan’s essays, however, were beautiful.  Her ability to analyze life with real emotion and connection was wonderful, and I only wish the world could have experienced more of her writing.  Currently available in hardcover.


Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope and Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid – Here’s where I get excited: The Austen Project!  Basically, six famous contemporary authors are rewriting the Austen classics in modern times.  Now, before you get crazy and flip out and call me a treacherous heathen, how dare I blaspheme Jane’s name, blah blah blah, let me say this: it’s funny.  For Trollope’s offering, Marianne loves Taylor Swift and Elinor is studying to become an architect.  Just think about that for a moment, and realize how perfect that is.  In Northanger Abbey, there’s the overwhelming presence of Twilight vampires at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  These two books are fun, lively, and totally worth the read.  What I’m loving about the Project so far is that the treatment of the novels would, I think, make Jane proud.  To know that her works have become so popular that people want to translate them into modern pieces is pretty neat. (And for those of you who freak out about this and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – which was amazing – and all the other “updates” to Jane, let me point out that just about every single romantic comedy, BBC drama, and novel not based on Shakespeare is pretty much based on Austen.  Clueless, anyone?  So don’t think that this is a new concept – it’s not, and it’s been successful before and it’s doing well so far this time around.  And so endeth my rant.)

1618The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon – The nice way to put this one is that I’m so behind the times it’s not even funny.  I don’t know how I haven’t read this book until now – it’s sweet, it’s funny, and it’s beautifully written.  I’m sure 99% of the population has already experienced the brilliance of this one, but for that 1% who missed it (like I did), just read it.  I’m not even going to try to summarize or explain.  Just read it.


9791A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – Another old one that I should have read long ago but now that I’ve finally gotten there, I’m so glad I did.  As always, Bryson brings his intelligence and humor to the subject of the Appalachian Trail as he and his friend Katz try to hike the ridiculously long thing.  It’s super informative, super fun, and made me laugh out loud while I read it under a tree on campus.  If you’ve missed this one (like Curious Incident), you’d better get on it.


2029177Sundays at Tiffany’s by James Patterson – This is the first Patterson I’ve ever read, and I was pleasantly surprised.  I mean, let’s be honest – this isn’t the novel that will survive the test of time, nor will I say that it’s my absolute favorite.  However, I would recommend it to a friend and I would probably read it again.  Basically, the little girl’s imaginary friend leaves when she turns nine and then he shows up again when she’s in her thirties and dating a real jerk.  It’s magical, it’s sweet, and, again, read it in one sitting.  Well done, Mr. Patterson.


12331767High-Rise by J. G. Ballard – So let me begin with a moment of honesty: I only wanted to read this because I saw that Tom Hiddleston was lined up to star in the adaptation of it.  Now, for further enticement, Jeremy Irons has been connected with it.  All the reviews I’ve read of it said it was brilliant, genius, totally worth it.  I say, meh.  Basically, there’s a high-rise.  And people live in it.  But there are three almost distinct levels – lower, middle, upper.  You see where he’s going here?  As tensions rise between floors, people start dividing up and warring with each other and everything is pretty predictable if you’ve read any dystopian/sci-fi/general fiction ever in your life.  I’m of the opinion that it could have been condensed down from about 200 pages to about 5-10.  That being said, I can understand how it will make a compelling film if it’s adapted well.  This will probably be one of the few times when I prefer movie to book – but we’ll just have to wait and see.

And so endeth the list of things I’ve been reading (and that’s kind of the best of the best list). I won’t promise to be better about updating, but I’ll try my hardest and let you know how it goes.  As always, if you’re looking for a new book, I recommend finding your nearest independent bookstore and simply asking one of the workers what they suggest – sometimes that’s how you find that one book that changes your life forever.

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Philomena, now out in theaters

Philomena, now out in theaters

The only way I can begin is to say that, having literally just finished, this is a powerful and devastating book.  Originally published as The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Martin Sixsmith’s exposé recounts the story of Philomena, the birth of her son Anthony, and his adoption and subsequent life in America.  There are lots of brilliant aspects of this book – I think one of its great achievements is Sixsmith’s writing, which really does read like a novel – but overall I’m walking away with a hole in my heart and a greatly lessened desire to see the movie.

Let’s put it this way: you know it’s going to be a tough read when the whole point of the story is that the mother and her son are separated and trying to find each other.  But here’s what you might not be expecting (or, at least, I wasn’t expecting, probably because I’m not well-versed in modern history): they’re separated because of Americans wanting to adopt Irish babies and the Irish government/church working to make it possible through bastard children.

In the case of Philomena Lee, she is an unmarried pregnant woman in 1952.  Her child will not be “accepted” because of his mother’s position as a “fallen woman,” ideas which seem more compatible with a novel from Hardy than the twentieth century, but there you have it.  Sixsmith develops the budding relationship between Philomena and Anthony, even though the convent where she gives birth attempts to keep mothers and children separated to (I suppose theoretically) reduce attachment.

Of course, Philomena is pushed to sign her rights to her child to the Mother Superior, a nice American woman comes to adopt Anthony and Mary (the daughter of Philomena’s friend), and the children are whisked away from Ireland to live in America.

The stories of Anthony (now dubbed Michael) and Mary’s new life in America is heartbreaking.  Although Marge, the mother, seems to love her new children in addition to her three older sons, Doc (the father) appears to fluctuate in his affections.  And Stevie, the youngest son of Doc and Marge, seems to have it out for Michael, who has usurped his position as the baby brother.

Sixsmith follows Michael’s youth, touched by some traumatic experiences, through his adult life.  With a significant portion of text devoted to Michael’s college experience, during which time he accepts his homosexuality, the book feels focused on his growing understanding of himself.  As in all teen/young adult stories (fiction or nonfiction), the development of Michael’s sexuality is a pivotal point.  The time in which he lives is hardly conducive to homosexual behavior, and he struggles to balance his desires with society.

It must be a sign of how far we have advanced that this portion of the book did not make me uncomfortable, but frustrated.  My college (and even high school) experience was one colored by friends figuring out their sexuality, and though they met with some difficulties, I think they ended up feeling pretty comfortable.  And maybe it’s because I live in a smaller town with a tighter community than a big city like Washington, D.C. or New York, but I think the world has made some pretty positive steps.  It was frustrating to watch Michael navigating relationships, especially since they had to be fairly secretive, and often resulted in distressing break-ups.

Moving through college and into his adult life, the story becomes heavier.  Michael becomes a lawyer, explores wider sexual practices, and watches as the new disease (AIDS) crops up.  Eventually, he does develop a stable relationship with a man named Pete, but the road there is rocky.  And, despite the fact that I know this is a true story and very unlikely to end happily, I hoped.  And hoped.


Michael contracting AIDS is the worst part of this story.  His first test is clear, but the second time he isn’t so lucky.  I don’t know how else to say it, but Sixsmith does an excellent job of making your heart break.  Pete (who is clean and will live) trying to accept that the end is coming is especially horrifying.  And despite making several trips to Ireland, Michael is never able to find anything more about his mother than her name.

This was the passage that haunted me, though:

Early on the morning of Tuesday 15 August, after thirty-six hours at Mike’s bedside, Mary and Pete went to the cafeteria for coffee.  They returned at 11.30 to find Mike’s bed empty and the doctor writing up his notes.  Mike had suffered a series of cardiac arrests.  He had died at 11.10 a.m.

Sixsmith then describes his own work with Philomena herself.  A friend made the connection and they work together to try to find her son.  And when she finds out he’s dead, I think my heart actually broke.  Philomena is able to connect with Pete and at least find some peace in knowing that Michael/Anthony led a prosperous life.  And, most importantly, he never gave up his search for her.

I think it’s also important at this moment to point out that this is not an anti-Catholic, anti-Republican, anti-anything book.  Yes, there are elements that sound like it, but it needs to be read while keeping in mind the times.  If this story took place in 2014 (wow, it’s 2014 already!) it would certainly feel like a long essay on the badness of religion and the right wing, etc.  This was 1950s-1990s for the most part (obviously ending in the early 2000s), and issues like gay rights (or rights in general) were great dividers politically.  As a gay man working in the RNC, Michael would obviously have run into some issues.  And even in the moments when the Catholic church seems like a pretty bleak entity, there are still good people in it.  Philomena has stated “This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith” (read more here).  So don’t read this and praise or condemn its politics – it’s a different world, and one that offers us an a look into how far we’ve come.

As I’ve said, this is a haunting, wrenching story.  And I’m glad I’ve read it because I really did want to.  But I can’t say this makes me want to go sit through the movie when I know it won’t end happily.  Was it so wrong of me to hope for something positive?  For them to meet just once?  And I know that’s not the point – the point is that she found him eventually.  But my God, it’s a painful book.

So overall review: great writing by Sixsmith, and powerful story, but only read it if you’re in the mood to sob your heart out.

And now I’m off to find something a little lighter.  And a Kleenex…

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