Sunday, November 20, 2016

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Author: John Le Carré

Category: I was inspired to read this after I saw the movie version with Benedict Cumberbatch, et al.

My thoughts: If I’m being honest, the basic idea of the Cold War—East vs. West; U.S. vs. USSR—was introduced to me by the cinematic classic…Rocky IV. Perhaps this did not present a balanced view of a complex, decades-long conflict. As someone born during, but toward the end of, the Cold War, I was only able to really view, or attempt to understand it, when I got older. And now I am incredibly fascinated by the Cold War, which could almost be called World War III. I mention all of this because Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is FULL of Cold War intrigue.

Another thing that inspired me to read TTSS is the letters of Jessica Mitford. In her letters, she mentions Michael Straight, who was involved in the infamous British spy ring. That spy ring inspired Le Carré to write TTSS.

So, the plot. TTSS takes place in 1973. Just to set the scene: at this time, there was East Germany and West Germany. Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, and Hungary were “satellite countries” of the USSR, which was still in formation. TTSS is set among the world of British intelligence officers who work at the Circus, Britain’s intelligence agency. At the beginning of the story, George Smiley is brought out of retirement in order to discover the identity of a mole in the Circus. He and his former boss Control, had previously been fired after a disastrous mission in Czechoslovakia. For his investigation, Smiley teamed up with Peter Guillam, another Circus guy. Peter was my favorite character. When the mole is ultimately revealed, Peter feels “not only betrayed but orphaned.” He looked up to the older Circus agents, one of whom was the mole, and he felt the sense that the grown-ups had failed him. 

TTSS is not an easy-breezy read. There is a pretty big cast of characters—I had to keep a list of them. Two of the most intriguing characters, however, are “off-screen,” so to speak—Ann, Smiley’s unfaithful wife, and Karla, Smiley’s adversary in Moscow Centre (the Russian intelligence agency). TTSS also highlights the idea that Britain was not exactly a central figure in the Cold War, whose chief “combatants” were the United States and the Soviet Union. Not only that, but by 1973, the British Empire was mostly a memory—a fond one for some of the characters. The idea of nostalgia for the faded Empire is a central one in the novel. TTSS is a very engrossing read. And certainly more nuanced than Rocky IV

Great passage: And his fancy that he was being followed? What of that? What of the shadow he never saw, only felt, till his back seemed to tingle with the intensity of his watcher’s gaze; he saw nothing, heard nothing, only felt. He was too old not to heed the warning. The creak of a stair that had not creaked before; the rustle of a shutter when no wind was blowing; the car with a different number plate but the same scratch on the offside wing; the face on the Metro that you know you have seen somewhere before: for years at a time these were signs he had lived by; any one of them was reason enough to move, change towns, identities. For in that profession there is no such thing as coincidence. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Hons and Rebels

Author: Jessica Mitford

Category: I realized, as I was finishing Decca, that I would miss reading things that Jessica Mitford wrote. So I decided to read Hons and Rebels, her 1960 autobiography. Also, I decided to call it Hons and Rebels, instead of Daughters and Rebels, which was the original U.S. publication title. I think Hons and Rebels sounds better.

My thoughts: I loved it! Hons and Rebels covers Decca’s childhood and ends around 1940, when Decca was a young adult and her first husband Esmond Romilly was leaving to fight in World War II. She grew up really isolated in the Cotswolds, and mainly had her family and a nanny for company. The Mitford parents, Lord and Lady Redesdale (aka Muv and Farve), didn’t believe in sending the girls to school, so they were educated by Lady Redesdale, then a succession of governesses. The girls learned a rather skewed lesson in English history—they were taught that the U.S. was kicked out of the British Empire because of misbehavior (needless to say, that is not how I was taught the origin of the United States). Decca and her sister Unity developed a language called Boudledidge (Unity’s nickname was Boud), and Decca and Debo established the Society of Hons (hence the title, Hons and Rebels). As the 1930s dawned, Decca discovered socialism, while Unity became a rabid fascist. At their London home, Unity carved swastikas in the windows, while Decca countered by carving hammer and sickles. Their shared room was divided with Nazi and Communist material, and the two girls once got into a catfight about their views. In her letters, Decca makes it abundantly clear that she cannot stand Diana, her other fascist sister. But Decca can’t bring herself to hate Unity in the same way that she loathed Diana. In Hons and Rebels, she wrote, “Perversely, and although I hated everything [Unity] stood for, she was easily my favorite sister, which was something I could never have admitted in those days, above all to Esmond.”

One thing that I didn’t mention in previous posts was that Esmond Romilly was Decca’s second cousin. Esmond had joined the International Brigade in the fight against Franco’s fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War, which figures heavily in this story. Perhaps for the first time, I realized how that war was a bit of a forerunner to World War II. Decca originally consulted Esmond’s brother Giles about running away to Spain to join the fight against the fascists. She met Esmond at a relative’s house, they ran away together (first to France), fell in love, got married, spent time observing Spanish Civil War goings-on, and decided to move back to London. Here, the fact that these two are children of privilege shines through. They received an incredibly expensive electric bill, because “No one had ever explained to me that you had to pay for electricity; and lights, electric heaters, stoves blazed away night and day” at her house.

The Romillys always had their ears open to politics, and they decided to move to America in 1939, until the political situation in England became clearer. They felt like the climate at the time was in a sort of purgatory, with war imminent, but not yet declared. “There was already question about which side England might find herself on,” she wrote about the atmosphere in early 1939. One of her friends thought “there was a real possibility that the Chamberlain Government might go full circle, that England and Germany might team up against Russia.” I really think Hons and Rebels is a great book for understanding the time between the World Wars, and the lead-up to and early days of World War II (see the quote below).

After reading this, I really came to admire Decca and Esmond. After running away, they really choose to stick things out, even though at times their liv
es were not easy. They definitely had the pluck and stubbornness to attempt to carve out the lives they wanted to lead, and fight for causes they believed in. Hons and Rebels was a quick read, really enjoyable, and really informative from a historical standpoint. I will probably read this one again.

Great passage: Out of the wild confusion of those first few days of the attack, one fact emerged; the German rain of fire against these ill-prepared, disunited countries had illuminated in one vast flash the real nature of the danger confronting Europe, had exposed for all to see and understand the criminal stupidity of the years of shabby deals and accommodation to Hitler’s ambitions. Overnight, the appeasement policy was buried forever. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford; Part 2

For part 2 of my thoughts on Decca, I’ve decided that the easiest way for me to break things down is by decade. So here goes.

During the 1960s, Decca continued with her muckraking efforts. She wrote an exposé of an Elizabeth Arden beauty retreat (and kicked Barry Goldwater’s wife, maybe on purpose, in the process). Also, Giles Romilly, Esmond Romilly’s brother, had a breakdown and committed suicide in 1967.

In the 1970s, Decca was pretty busy. She wrote a book about the trial of Dr. Benjamin Spockand others , became friends with Maya Angelou, and corresponded with George Jackson, Black Panther and author of Soledad Brother. Also during the 1970s was the rise of the “Mitford Industry,” or “Mit Ind” as Decca called it. A biography was written about Nancy Mitford after she died in 1973, but the real drama came over a book about Unity, published in 1976. A few words about Unity that I didn’t mention in the first post. Unity was obsessed with Adolf Hitler. She moved to Germany in the 1930s, and became part of Hitler’s inner circle. When Britain declared war in Germany, Unity shot herself in the head. She survived, was collected by her family, and lived in a brain-damaged state until her death in 1948. So in 1976, the most members of the Mitford family, including Debo, evidently did not want this dark family history brought up again. Decca felt that Unity’s biographer, David Pryce-Jones, was the best person to write about Unity. This culminated in a fight over a missing scrapbook from Chatsworth, Debo’s home, that played itself out over several letters. Debo and Pam accused Decca of stealing the scrapbook, and giving the author of Unity’s biography pictures from it. Decca was upset and hurt at being accused of stealing the thing, which was, in her words, the “size of a table.” The book about Unity also made Decca explore her feelings toward her sister. I think that Decca really mourned the Unity she knew before the latter became obsessed with Hitler and the dark side of history. By the way, Decca did NOT steal the scrapbook.

The 1980s brought some plot twists. During this decade, Kathy Boudin, daughter of Decca’s friends from her Communist days, was arrested in connection with a Brink’s armed robbery. Decca wrote about this in a letter to Maya Angelou, and really criticized Kathy. Decca was all for fighting against the Man, but she drew the line at actions that result in murder. Another letter written in the 1980s was to Michael Straight, who narked on a member of the British spy ring back in the 1960s. He, too, was a friend of Decca’s (and Esmond Romilly) from back in the day. Decca also exchanged letters with her nephew Jonathan Guinness, son of her enemy sister Diana, stating her refusal to cooperate with him on his book about the Mitford family. She made it clear that she had no time for him or his book. Yikes.  

Decca passed away in 1996. But her letters written in the 1990s are pretty awesome, especially viewed with hindsight. She wrote to Katharine Graham, giving her advice on writing what would be her acclaimed memoirs (published the year after Decca died). And she corresponded with Maya Angelou about the latter’s support of Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court. Decca thought her friend’s support of him was misguided, and told her so—leading to a brief falling out (I must say, I’m on Team Decca in this case). The two reconciled, thankfully, and we get a wickedly funny letter from Decca to Maya throwing shade at PrincessMargaret.

I must give a shout-out to editor Peter Sussman.  He did an amazing job as editor. He must have combed through so many letters, and his footnotes are so thorough. Mary Lovell, Mitford biographer, said that the Mitford ladies are so popular because they “seem to have taken the twentieth century by the throat.” In my opinion, Decca had the strongest grip.

Great passage (in which Decca gives writing advice to Maya Angelou before the latter’s poetry reading at Bill Clinton’s inauguration): “Idea: Spend some solid time re-reading every single one of your own poems. Simply read over each poem as though you were someone who was reading them for the first time—not as the author. Perhaps, if you did this, the unique Maya rhythm—or rather I shld say series of rhythms, as you vary everything depending on subject, and many of yr phrases within the poems may seem v. apt. Not, obviously, that you’ll repeat them, but just be inspired by YOUR work not somebody else’s.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford; Part 1

Silly Decca
Author: Jessica Mitford; Editor: Peter Sussman
Category: This is the first time I’ve read this book.
My thoughts: I have decided to do two posts about this book, because it’s over 700 pages—it seems that Jessica Mitford spent a lot of her life writing letters. So far, I’m absolutely loving this book. Jessica, or Decca, as she was called, was funny and sarcastic, and seems like she would have been fun to hang out with.
 I had heard about the Mitford family over the years, and when I was in college, I read Decca’s sister Nancy Mitford’s novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Decca was the second-to-last child of Lord and Lady Redesdale, British aristocrats. Aside from Decca, the family consisted on Nancy (the novelist), Diana and Unity (the Fascists), Debo (the duchess), and relatively quieter siblings, Pam and Tom. Aside from Tom, who went to Eton, the siblings were not formally educated. Decca was a born rebel, and at 18 she eloped with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s nephew-by-marriage, to Spain during the Civil War there. The two of them later moved to the United States, and became friends with Virginia and Clifford Durr and Katharine Graham. When World War II began, Esmond joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and he and Decca had a baby, Constancia. The letters from Decca to Esmond when he was away during the war are seriously precious. Sadly, Esmond was killed in 1941. One letter in this section, written in 1943, is from Decca to Winston Churchill, in which she expresses disdain that her sister Diana and her husband Oswald Mosley, who was head of British Union of Fascists, had been released from prison (Diana and Oswald had been locked up in 1940, after Britain declared war on Germany). Indeed, Decca made it clear in many of her letters that she loathed Diana because of her politics. I think Decca blamed folks like the Mosleys for Esmond’s death. In one letter to her second husband Bob Treuhaft (from 1955), written when Decca was visiting her family in England, Decca expresses anger at her mother for having lunch with the Mosleys. Decca wrote that she told her mother that she and Constancia (who she calls Dinky, Dink, Donk, and Dinkydonk in various letters) won’t attend because they “do not care to break bread with murderers.” As the kids today would say, Decca knew how to throw shade.
Decca and Bob were also members of the Communist Party during the early 1950s. And in her letters she details the harassment she and her husband endured from “Red Hunters” of the time. She was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and she and Bob had their passports confiscated. It makes one livid, as Decca would say, how folks were treated during this time. Decca was also really passionate about civil rights issues. In California, where she and Bob lived, she fronted for black couples who wanted to buy houses, in order to get around real estate discrimination. She once did this in a neighborhood that the District Attorney, her nemesis, lived in—he put his house up for sale when he found out a black couple was moving into his neighborhood. In the early 1960s, Decca was in Montgomery, Alabama, visiting the Durrs when the Freedom Riders also came to town. She visited a church where MLK was giving a speech and ended up being trapped inside the church with him and many others all night while an angry white mob surrounded them (the Durr’s car, which Decca borrowed to drive to the church, was destroyed in the melee).
Decca also writes about her efforts as an author. She worked on her autobiography, Hons and Rebels, while in England, and mentioned, in her letters, how curious her family was about the contents. In 1963, two things happened: Decca published her bestseller The American Way of Death and JFK was assassinated. The latter event is notable because Decca’s sister Debo, the Duchess of Devonshire, was friends with him—JFK’s sister Kathleen was married to Debo’s brother-in-law, Billy Hartington. Billy was killed in World War II, and Debo kept in touch with the Kennedys. In fact, Debo told Decca that Bobby Kennedy actually read The American Way of Death, and used a bit of advice from the book while choosing a casket for his brother’s funeral.
That’s a lot of information, and it’s only about the first half of the book! Stay tuned for part 2.
Great passage (from a letter to her mother-in-law in 1959): The dinner party was a riot. There were about 8 rather dullish people there, including Peter’s rather dullish wife, and his daughter who popped in and out between dances…We were invited for 7, and between then and 9 there wasn’t a sign of any food, just enormous drinks of whiskey. At 9, Peter set a table for 8, groaning and complaining bitterly as he did so about what a lot of trouble it was; on it he set a small platter of bought cold meats, legs of chicken and the like, and a tiny salad. As I was served first, I took almost everything. And that was all, except for some strawberries and cream (strawberries are currently selling for about 25 each). No coffee, bread, vegs, almost no nothing. Masses of wine, tho, with dinner, and brandy after. This is just what Cedric was telling us about that sort of English person; if they don’t have servants, or if the servants are out, they simply give up, and would rather starve than cook.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is

Editors: Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck

Category: I have a friend who asked, via Facebook, if anyone wanted to borrow this book. Of course I did.

My thoughts: If I had to use one adjective to describe this book it would be “powerful.” The strength—emotional and otherwise—of this woman is an amazing thing to think about. The main speech of Fannie Lou Hamer’s that I knew about prior to reading this book is the one she gave before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. I heard that LBJ was so scared by the potential effect of her speech that he pre-empted it. I like the fact that the words of a sharecropper from Ruleville, Mississippi, could make the President of the United States shake in his boots.

However, this fierce woman, thankfully, gave several more speeches over the years. In some of them, she detailed the incredibly vicious beating that she suffered in Winona, Mississippi in June 1963—just a few days before Medgar Evers was killed. Her descriptions of her beating were really hard to read. She was arrested at night while on her way back to Ruleville from a voter registration workshop in South Carolina. She and other folks with her were detained in Winona, and while in jail the town sheriff told her, “We’re going to make you wish you were dead.” He then proceeded to force two black prisoners to beat her with a blackjack. How she survived that, I have no idea. There is a section of the book in which she gives testimony to the Justice Department about her assault. Spoiler alert: no one was ever convicted for what was basically her attempted murder. Dear reader, have things changed since that awful night in 1963?

The day after I borrowed this book, I went to Sunflower County, Mississippi (where my stepfather is from), which is composed of Indianola, Moorhead, and Ruleville. There’s a sign, as seen above, dedicated to Fannie Lou Hamer in Ruleville. Parchman Prison is also in Sunflower County, but that’s another story for another day. While in Sunflower County, I thought about the Great Migration, written about so wonderfully by Isabel Wilkerson. A lot of folks from that area of Mississippi left for Chicago or Detroit during the Great Migration. Reading this book, you can really sense the kind of brutal racial oppression that existed that make people want to leave. So it’s remarkable that folks like Fannie Lou Hamer had the courage to do what they did in such an environment. Personally, I think of people like her, who truly gave blood, sweat, and tears, every time I exercise my right to vote. And every time, I am thankful that people like her had the courage to fight.

Great passage: “Some of the white people will tell us, ‘Well I just don’t believe in integration.’ But he been integrating at night a long time! If he hadn’t been, it wouldn’t be as many light-skinned Negroes as it is in here. The seventeenth chapter of Acts and the twenty-sixth verse said: ‘Has made of one blood all nations.’ So whether you black as a skillet or white as a sheet, we are made from the same blood and we are on our way” (from a speech delivered at a mass meeting in Indianola, MS in September 1964)

Thursday, July 7, 2016


Even Rainbow Dash wants to read about Keith Richards.
Author(s): Keith Richards with James Fox

Category: I’ve wanted to read this for several years.

My thoughts: I had wanted to read this book years ago, but I think I was put off by the length.  But honestly, I believe that books come into our lives at the right time. And this book came at the right time. Although I am definitely more of a Beatles fan, there are several Rolling Stones songs that I really like: "Tumbling Dice" (great song to play while getting ready in the morning), "Gimme Shelter" (which is practically de rigueur for a Martin Scorcese movie soundtrack), and "Angie" (good for listening to while nursing a broken heart).

Years ago, I read a beautifully written article about Patti Hansen (Mrs. Richards) and her battle with bladder cancer. And of course, I heard all the stories about Keith’s drug use (the rumors are very very true, and it’s a wonder that he’s still alive). But his autobiography reveals that there is more to him than guitar solos and drugs. Keith Richards is basically a music nerd who has lived a really wild life. He writes about how growing up, he loved listening to blues artists from Chicago, and how he originally wanted the Stones to be a blues band. He was really influenced by Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and other Chicago blues artists, and has a tremendous amount of respect for his musical influences.

Keith is actually rather harsh on his bandmate Mick Jagger. I suppose that when you work with someone for the better part of fifty years, they are going to get on your nerves a few times. However, I think the shadowy figure in this story is Brian Jones. If there was one person I’d like to know more about after reading Life, it’s Brian Jones, although it seems like he was kind of a jerk. He was very gifted musically, but one gets the impression that Brian Jones more altered by the drugs than Keith Richards.

Keith Richards is pretty awesome, and this book is such a joy to read. It took me awhile to finish it, because it is rather long. It’s funny and filled with great stories. Toward the end, Keith tells of rescuing and adopting a stray but scrappy puppy in Moscow, getting him all cleaned up and naming him Rasputin. I like this little story because it shows how this guy who has been famous for most of his life is still human. After reading this book, you just want to hug Keith Richards, buy him a drink, and listen to all his stories. I bet there are some really good ones that weren’t included in the book!  

Great passage: What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people. To write a song that is remembered and taken to heart is a connection, a touching to bases. A thread that runs through all of us. A stab to the heart. Sometimes I think songwriting is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Rose Under Fire

By Elizabeth Wein

Category: This is the first time I’ve read this. I decided to read it because it has the same author as Code Name Verity, and I really loved that book.

My thoughts: This was hard to read, but really good—although, not as good as Code Name Verity. It was engrossing, but difficult to read because it was so heartbreaking.

The heroine of Rose Under Fire is Rose Justice, a young American transport pilot working in England during the latter half of World War II. The events in this book take place after those of Code Name Verity—Maddie Broddatt from Code Name Verity works with Rose. In late 1944, Rose is captured by the Germans and sent to Ravensbrück, a German work camp for political prisoners. There are French Resistance prisoners, Russian prisoners, and Polish prisoners. The Polish women are called “rabbits,” because they are subjected to gruesome medical experiments. Their legs are horribly misshapen as a result. Some of the monsters who performed those “procedures” were tried for War Crimes.

I never really thought about how many nationalities occupied the German concentration and work camps. In addition to American Rose, there’s Roza, a very young Polish prisoner who was one of the Rabbits, and Lisette, a French novelist (this isn’t portrayed in the novel, but I read that there were also British prisoners there). This blend of nationalities reminded me a little bit of Casablanca , how people from several different countries gathered in Morocco for refuge. Specifically, the scene where Victor Lazlo leads everyone in a sing-a-long to "La Marseillaise" sometimes popped into my head whilst reading about Ravensbrück —because in the camp, people from other nationalities came together against a common enemy. A very heartbreaking sidenote: I read somewhere that when the Red Army liberated Ravensbrück in 1945, Soviet soldiers raped some of the women in the camp. How horrible is that?

Ok, one thing about this novel is how brutally realistic it is concerning the day-to-day life at the camp. One horrid thing that I’ve never read anywhere else in any account of life in a German work camp…is about what happened with their bodily functions. Elizabeth Wein doesn’t shy away from mentioning this. The toilets at Ravensbrück had long stopped working by the time Rose was there, and the ladies had to go to the bathroom in a ditch. And because of the diseases that ran rampant in the camps and ravaged the women’s poor bodies—diseases that cause runny diarrhea…well, some folks liked to sleep on the top bunks so they didn’t get “rained” on.

There’s an ongoing refrain in this novel: “Tell the world.” The other day, there was a conviction for genocide that happened during the Bosnian War, which I remember hearing about on the news in the ‘90s but, like so many things, only began to understand during adulthood. World history has too many stories about mass tragedy (Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda…). I am thankful for the fact that usually there are a few brave souls who do stand up and tell the world.

Great passage: Lift is made when the air pressure under a wing is greater than the air pressure over the wing. Then the wing gets pushed upward. That’s how birds fly. That’s how kites fly—a kite is basically just a solitary wing. That’s how airplanes fly.

But people need lift, too. People don’t get moving, they don’t soar, they don’t achieve great heights, without something buoying them up.