What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

October 2019

 - Wednesday, October 09, 2019
SCOTT V: Stasiland by Anna Funder & The Spy & the Traitor by Ben Macintyre—After watching the excellent HBO series Chernobyl, I decided to stay behind the iron curtain and picked up Stasiland by Anna Funder, which I’ve been meaning to read for a very long time. It’s a fascinating, humane and tragic (and occasionally humorous) look at the lives of East Germans under communist rule—specifically under the eye of the Stasi: the state police. The tales include near-escapes over the Berlin Wall by a teenager; an interview with the man who actually painted the line where the wall was built; and a heart-breaking story of a family divided between the two Germanys, among many other first-hand accounts. Much of the appeal of this classic work comes from the author’s own weird and wonderful experiences in East Germany and her empathy with the men and women she interviews.

My cold-war momentum then quickened with Ben Macintyre’s The Spy & the Traitor, recommended by my colleagues and John Le Carré, who calls it the best true spy story he has ever read. I have to agree. This story gripped me from page one and never let go. It’s about the recruitment and attempted defection of British Intelligence’s most valuable asset in the KGB, Colonel Gordievsky. It reads like a Tom Clancy spy thriller and I had to keep reminding myself that this actually happened. The most chilling aspect is just how high the stakes were, not only for Gordievsky but between the two nuclear superpowers who could have easily blundered into a nuclear exchange if not for the rogue KGB agent.

STEF The Katharina Code and The Cabin by Jørn Lier Horst—Norwegian author, Jørn Lier Horst is my latest find. On perusing the crime pages of last month’s Gleaner and seeing The Cabin, I knew I was in for a treat—especially once I realised it was book two in the Chief Inspector William Wisting series, which started off with The Katharina Code. These are great detective reads, the focus is all on the solving of solving aq crime. Both stories introduce the reader to a cold case and as the investigation and evidence is re-examined and new leads are discovered you find yourself shadowing Chief Inspector William Wisting and his team of investigators, including his journalist daughter, Line. Henning Mankell readers will like Hørst, and he is bound (I’m hoping) to deliver many more books in the Wisting series.

CHLOE: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez—This is a remarkable book about an unusual trifecta of grief, writing and dogs. The unnamed protagonist, who is a writer and writing teacher, finds herself suddenly lumbered with responsibility for a middle-aged Great Dane following the suicide of a dear friend. Although she is not in the market for a pet, the narrator finds herself rearranging her entire life around the dog, Apollo. She wonders constantly what Apollo is thinking, how he is grieving for his lost owner and how she can best provide for him in his few remaining years. Dogs are not allowed in her apartment building and the Great Dane is not a subtle breed to be hiding, so the narrator soon finds herself facing homelessness as well as social isolation from the many friends who think she is crazy to be harbouring the dog.
Nunez’s writing is direct, spare and conversational. It reminded me very much of Jenny Offill, one of my favourite writers, in that she writes in poignant vignettes that seem to speak directly of her own experiences—particularly her difficulties with writer’s block, and the idea that autofiction might be a cure. (It seems that dogs can also benefit from the autofiction cure. While grieving, Apollo destroys an enormous volume of Knausgaard. Later, he places the same title by the narrator’s side and tacitly asks her to read from it.) Like Offill, Nunez’s writing also offers a myriad random facts that you’ll have to interrupt your reading to verify. (Allow me to save you the effort in one such case: yes, Ted Bundy did volunteer at a suicide-prevention hotline.)
The theme of suicide is woven throughout the book and for this reason many might find it difficult, but despite this it is a rather hopeful book. The narrator has done her best by her friend and by Apollo, and slowly, she does come to know this. She has also found a writing process that has started as a cure for one thing and ended as a cure for another. She has written herself better.

JOHN: The Secrets We Kept is a spy story set in the late 1950s. Dr Zhivago Has been banned in the USSR and the CIA plan to use the book against the Soviets  and will go to extraordinary measures to procure a copy. What makes this book so different from other Cold War thrillers is that the main characters are women, and the males are in supporting roles. It is refreshing to see women occupy centre stage rather than being relegated to the typing pool or the bedroom. Plot wise the book is on par with Le Carre or Robert Littell’s excellent novels of the CIA The Company and Legends. I loved it!