The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John Le Carre (1964)
This story is set during the cold war, shortly after the completion of the Berlin wall. Alec Leamas, station head of the West Berlin office of Circus (The British Secret Intelligence Service), loses his best agent at the commencement of the novel. He returns to London in disgrace, where Control (head of Circus), asks him to go back in the cold for one last mission. He will pretend to defect to the East German Communists, and drop hints which will cause them to suspect their best man, Mundt, of being a double agent. The hope is that the communists will be tricked in to destroying their own best asset – Mundt is a ruthless jew-hating leader, already despised by his second-in-command, Fiedler. With the promise of a large reward – enough to retire comfortably on – Alec assumes his new role.
Widely considered one of the best spy novels of all time (and recently receiving new attention as its made into a movie), I was eager to dive into this book. While I liked the clean writing style (which actually reminded me a bit of Hemingway), I was quickly lost about what was happening, and had to turn to wikipedia. Armed with some overview, and a little more background knowledge on the cold war, I returned to the book and found the plot much more exciting. Double agents, secret codes and the harsh-realities of the life of a spy – this is the real deal, this is to the spy novel genre what Treasure Island is to pirates. With its quick pace, the relatively short novel was a fast read, but an essential piece of classic literature.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Nick Carraway shares the summer he becomes involved in the disastrous lives of the rich. Seeking to establish himself in New York City after the war, Nick takes a house on Long Island. His small cottage is overshadowed by the mansion next door, and he is introduced to his rich neighbor by his third cousin, Daisy Buchanan. Daisy is a bit of fluff from the upper-class exactly like the rest of her circle – utterly irresponsible for any of their actions, a trait that their great wealth has allowed them to get away with. As the city bakes throughout the summer and Nick becomes more involved in their circle, he learns both about what the members of “society” are really about, and gets to know more about his mysterious neighbor.
It was with great pleasure that I re-read this classic. It was even better then I remembered, and it was easy to see why this has become the great american novel – it has it all. I will leave the full on analysis to the hundreds and thousands better suited to do so, but will just touch on a few highlights. Among other things:
- Overall: The book is a great read – well-edited, not too long, plot that keeps moving. The story is unfolded through a series of short views of these people, each scene is compelling, the boring parts are edited out, and the whole picture still feels complete.
- Plot: A wonderful story arc – the reader is distracted by a series of loosely related events that all come together in ways that are totally un-predictable, but feel inevitable. Somehow the reader finds themselves both surprised to find they are at the last page of the book, and yet satisfied that the story is complete. This is a remarkably difficult task for a novel, as evidenced by how few books manage to walk this line.
- Characters: Just as today, the best stories have characters you love to hate, and that you hate to love. Nick is totally sympathetic to the reader, giving us the perfect voyeuristic position to observe the antics of the others, while still preserving our ability to judge them. In doing so he introduces us to a wild cast of characters who fit in their place, and a few well-developed characters who in their own absurdity carry out the main story line, without turning off the reader.
- Themes: Money, rags-to-riches, love, hope, upward mobility, fascination with the rich, this book is the pre-cursor to reality tv of today, but takes many of the essential features, organizes them into a decent story, and presents in a far less annoying format.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (1939).
A combination of the Great Depression and the drought (the Dust Bowl) drove the Joad family to leave their home in Oklahoma and, in the true American fashion, head west in search of a better life. As their difficult journey progresses they realize thousands of other Oakies are also on the same journey, and tales that California is not all that was promised circulate. With no other option however, the family presses on. On arrival they find that a lack of rights and surplus of desperate labor has driven down wages and laborers are expected to endure intolerable conditions – the family becomes increasingly desperate.
Somehow I missed reading this book in high school, but I happened to pick up a copy recently and found it to be an engaging (if heart-wrenching) story. Tom Joad desperation springs not only from his own needs, but from watching his family suffer at the hands of greedy capitalists. While there may something appropriate about reading this book during the great recession, its also a bit of a comfort to realize how good things really are these days, despite the economic environment.
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
The Lamberts are a traditional (repressed) mid-western family whose three adult children live on the East Coast, but return home (by their mother’s guilt trip) for a family Christmas. The children discover their father is not well, and while their mother claims everything is fine, in reality the Lamberts are in shambles. The book reveals what has become of the family, and follows the disastrous choices the children have made, and how that affected their life.
I normally love quirky books, and the classic story city life v. country life (as well as enjoying a bit of dark humor), but found this book to be too much. The characters are depressing, and I disliked everyone (I never realized how important it is to root for at least one person in the book). Meanwhile, the side-plots wander for pages, leading the reader away from the plot and lost in the middle of nowhere, and give the impression the book is going no-where. This book may not be my style, or I may have been in the wrong mood when I read this, but it wasn’t for me. That being said, I certainly can recognize some good writing, and remain open to reading Mr. Franzen’s other works.
Note: The book moves between the fictional mid-western town of St. Jude and New York