Monday, 31 March 2014

eleven, thirteen, sixteen: george smiley

by John le Carré (1961-1963)

 George Smiley was a British agent during the war. When a man he had interviewed for the agency is found murdered and the agency doesn't do anything about it, he decides to leave. Before he leaves, he is determined to solve the case. The case is a tricky one and involves German agents on British solved, and one of them manages to run off to Germany.

After leaving the agency, he is asked to look into a murder at a religious private school. The wife of one of the professors was found murdered after she had written to a Christian newspaper's advisory column about fearing for her life. The victim believes that her husband will kill her, but he has an alibi for the time of the murder.

A spy should always be out in the cold, because that means that no one takes notice of him.  When the circle of Leamas' agents is killed one by one in East Germany, all signs lead to the leader of the East Germany's secret agency. As it turns out, he is the one who ran the operation in Britain a few years earlier. Leamas decides to infiltrate the East German agency, but first he must make himself interesting enough for them to recruit him.

I have spent the previous month reading about George Smiley, one of the most famous character in crime and mystery novels. Even after three books, it is hard to paint a picture of George, except that he is peculiar looking and his wife left him. He is definitely a character that manages to go unnoticed. And in the Spy Who Came in from the Cold he is only mentioned, and it is hard to understand which role he played in the infiltration of the East German agency.

I have yet to discover why John le Carré is such a popular writer. I found the first book incredibly hard to read because of the language. I wanted to find my red pen and rewrite a lot of the sentences. The plot didn't make the reading easier and in all three books it seems like too much is left out for us readers who haven't spent time working as a secret agent. Luckily the language improved in the second book and I hardly had no complaints when I came to the third book, and I guess it will continue to improve in the rest of his work.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold must have been a great read when it was published in the height of the Cold War drama. It gives a good picture of the Cold War, and I really liked the British Communist Elizabeth Gold and how brainwashed the East German Communists were. I'm fortunate because I have just taught the kids about the Cold War and especially Berlin, so I had no problems with the setting and background. If you are interested in reading this, you should at least read about the Cold War on Wikipedia at some point so you understand the background of the book.

What I really cannot fathom is that not only one, but three of the George Smiley novels have made it onto the 1001 books you must read before you die list (insert some rant about male experts and male readers and their thirst for action here). Surely there must be better books to put on the list. Because I need to read books in a chronological order, I must endure all the George Smiley books in order to cross off Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People. Let's hope that Smiley grows on me.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was March's read in Line's 1001 books reading circle

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (2013)

 “And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides. They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. Where the life expectancy is thirty-five years? We smiled. Is is there where dissidents shove AK-47s between women's legs? We smiled. Where people run about naked? We smiled. That part where they massacred each other? We smiled. Is it where the old president rigged the election and people were tortured and killed and a whole bunch of them put in prison and all, there where they are dying of cholera - oh my God, yes, we've seen your country; it's been on the news.” 

Darling grows up in a shantytown called Paradise in Zimbabwe. Her family used to be rich, but then lost everything, her father went to South Africa and hasn't returned, so all Darling has is her group of friends. Then, when she is 10, she is sent to DestroyedMichygen to live with her aunt. Though she gets all the food she can eat and has every Apple product available, she is homesick. 

Darling's narrative is a delight to read, first of all because it starts out with the voice of small child who doesn't understand everything she witnesses and then grows until Darling is a teenager who is an expert in American slang. It is easy to follow her narrative and it is an easy read despite the serious topics which are brewing underneath. Although Zimbabwe is never mentioned, it is easy to figure out which country and despot it's all about. And yet, my favourite part was the American one. It is probably because of the culture crash, and the way she describes the perfect normal life of teenagers.

This book would have dazzled me if it wasn't for the fact that I have read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie last year. They are very similar in both theme and setting, although Darling is just a kid. They are both great and I recommend them both.

Sunday, 23 March 2014


Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (1966)

"'You remind me of a dear friend with whom I was on very close terms in London - Dr Mustafa Sa'eed. He used to be my teacher. In 1928 he was President of the Society for the Struggle for African Freedom of which I was a committee member. What a man he was! He's one of the greatest Africans I've known. He had wide contacts. Heavens, that man - women fell for him like flies. He used to say "I'll liberate Africa with my penis", and he laughed so widely you could see the back of his throat.'"

When the narrator comes home to the village by a bend in the Nile, he notices a stranger amongst the crowd. The stranger is intriguing, and soon the narrator is obsessed about him. His name is Mustafa Sa'eed and he had suddenly settled down in the village and married a local girl. Right before his sudden death, Mustafa tells the narrator about his life.

He grew up around Khartoum and happened to be one of the smartest in his class, so he was sent to Cairo to continue his education. From there, he went to London, where he became very successful and popular, especially with the ladies. So popular that a couple of them committed suicide after he was finished with them. And then he killed the one he married, spent some time in jail and went back to Sudan.

It's a mix between north and south, old and new, and when you read it, you realise that there are no differences between us and them, regardless of who you or they are. It's a story about love and madness. I liked the prose and the book gave me a lot of things to think about. It's definitely a good quick read that will leave you pondering.

I chose this for an African book in Bjørg's off the shelf challenge and it's been on my shelf since 2010, so it was about time to read it. 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014


A True Novel by Minae Mizumura (2002)

 Taro Azuma is a billionaire who grew up as a poor boy with his aunt's family where he was treated poorly. Taro is the gossip of the Japanese community in New York as he as always been stand-offish and mysterious. Minae meets him first when she is a young girl and he is the private chauffeur to one of the big men in her father's company. Later, when Taro is rich and Minae is a writer, she is sought out by a Japanese, Yusuke, who wants to tell her Taro's story.

Yusuke got to know the story when he by accident or pure luck crashed into a gate of a cottage in Karuizawa, where an old maid lives. She lets him sleep in the shed and from there he swears he sees the ghost of a young girl. The maid, Fumiko, has served the same family since the war, and has known Taro from he was a kid living in the neighbouring house and until now, when she is his employee. She decides to tell him about her life, and the story of Taro and Yoko, probably because she wants it off her chest.

The prologue to this story is so long that it's a story in itself. And then when the real story begins and takes you back over time, it's like reading a completely different book. At first I struggled with the real story because I was so caught up in the prologue, but as the story progressed it mesmerised me. I have been spending months reading this, just a couple of pages in bed at night, because I didn't want it to end.

The author says that this is a Japanese twist of Wuthering Heights. It's been 10 years since I read Wuthering Heights and I don't remember much except moors and Heathcliff (but this might also been influenced by Kate Bush). I'm going to reread Wuthering Heights as soon as possible, and then I might (but probably not) write a note on the two books.

This is also a tough competitor to the prettiest book in my collection. Just look at the cover(s). And it was the thing which caught my eye and made me buy it (yes, I always judge the book by its cover). The paper is glossy and the book is full of black and white pictures of the places in the story. And dividing it in two makes it a lot easier to carry it around because it's nearly 900 pages long.

Did I mention that this book is great?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014


the Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

“They were not friends. They didn't know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike. For an instant the wordless shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear.”

Tom Ripley is a man with no purpose and he takes whatever he can get. When he gets an invitation to go to Italy to try persuading an acquaintance to go back home, he immediately says yes. But the man, Dickie Greenleaf doesn't want to go home, so Tom decides to stay as well in Mongibello, and eventually moves in with Dickie. Tom is a sociopath and he is insanely jealous of Dickie. He then murders Dickie and pretends to be Dickie, but Dickie's friends are suspicious. Will they find out the truth?

 Highsmith has made the impossible possible, and I actually rooted for the murderer, even if he has nothing likeable about him. It was fascinating to read about how he fooled everyone and just kept spinning his net of lies. The book made me yearn for a time I have never known and travelling around Europe. I think she captures the mood of Americans in Europe at that time and the book reminded me both of Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I became hooked on Mr Ripley, and I'm glad that there are 4 more books to look forward to.

This was February's book in Line's 1001 books reading circle, and although I read it in February, I just have been too busy to write about it until now. Which is bad because I have forgotten what I wanted to say.

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