Recent reading 5

A list, sometimes annotated, of books recently read:

  • Richard Bassett [2012]: Hitler’s Spy Chief. New York: Pegasus. A biography of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr. This book appears to be a reissue (also revised?) of a book first published in 2005. The subject and argument of the book are fascinating, but sadly this is not matched by the writing, which is just appalling.

    The first problem is with the status of the book. The inside cover pages say “copyright 2011”, and “First Pegasus Books hardcover edition 2012”, yet the Acknowledgements section is dated 2004. Various references to contemporary events throughout the book also indicate a date of writing of around 2003 or so. The front section contains a “Preface to the American Edition” which is undated, but cites letters written in 2008 and 2009. The author’s sloppiness with dates is manifest throughout the book, and it is often very hard for a reader to determine exactly which year events being described actually happened.

    A further great sloppiness concerns the use of names – many people, like citizens of Indonesia, appear only to have surnames. Later references will often find a first name attached to the surname – is this the same person, one wonders? It is as if the author assumes we know as much as he seems to know about minor Nazi officials, and temporary clerks in MI6.

    The book actually reads like the author’s narrative notes for a book rather than the book itself, with much background information missing or assumed to be known by the reader. Is this his first draft perhaps, ready for editing? How could one write on the topic of German foreign intelligence in WW II without discussion of the XX Committee, for example? Admittedly, the author does make one single reference to this operation (on page 280, out of 296 pages of text), but with no explanation of what the committee was doing or an evaluation of its work, and not even a listing in the index. And given the author’s argument that Canaris was an internal opponent of Hitler from before the start of WW II, then an analysis of the alleged success of the XX operations in outwitting Nazi intelligence is surely needed here. Was Canaris complicit in these operations, for example? Especially if, as the author believes, Canaris met with his British opposite number, Sir Stewart Menzies, during WW II.

    And like a person too eager to please, the author’s sentences run on and on and on, with clause after subordinate clause, each introducing a new topic or change or direction, or dropping yet another name, in some drunken word association game. Where were the editors when this book was submitted? On vacation? On strike? Reading the book requires a reader to fight past the author’s appalling prose style to reach the interesting content. Sadly, Admiral Canaris still awaits a good English-language biography.

    The book makes a very strong claim, which is not supported by the citation given by Bassett. On page 167, we read:

    “in Finland where the British forces sent to help the Finns against the Soviets in 1940 were actually assisted in their passage by the Germans. German air and land forces were instructed not to interfere with the progress of these British forces.”

    For this very bold claim, Bassett cites Frederick Winterbotham, The Nazi Connection, p. 164 (London 1978). But Winterbotham’s book seems to have nothing about the Winter War. Finland is not even in the index.

    Basset also cites Winterbotham for a claim that Luftwaffe General Milch visited the Royal Air Force in Britain before the war. However, none of the pages of Winterbotham’s book which mention Milch say this.

  • Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman [2012]:  Spies Against Armageddon:  Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. Levant Books.
  • Milton Bearden and James Risen [2004]: The Main Enemy:  The Insider Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB.  Presidio Press.
  • Natalie Dykstra [2012]:  Clover Adams:  A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.   An intelligent and sympathetic life of Marian (“Clover”) Hooper Adams (1843-1885), pioneer of art photography, wife of Henry Adams, and a daughter of transcendentalist poet, Ellen Sturgis Hooper.   She was a friend and muse to Henry James, and a distant relative of the step-family of George Santayana.
  • Archie Brown [2010]:  The Rise and Fall of Communism.  Vintage.
  • James Douglass [2008]:   JFK and the Unspeakable:  Why he Died and Why it Matters. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
  • Sidney Ploss [2009]:  The Roots of Perestroika:  The Soviet Breakdown in Historical Context. McFarland and Company.
  • David Maraniss [2012]:  Barack Obama:  The Story.  Simon and Schuster.
  • Ben MacIntyre [2012]: Double Cross:  The True Story of the D-Day Spies.  London: Bloomsbury. Reviewed here.
  • Colin Eatock [2009]: Mendelssohn and Victorian England.  London: Ashgate.  A detailed and comprehensive account of Mendelssohn’s visits to England (and his one visit to Scotland), and his activities, musical and other, while there.
  • George Dyson [2012]:  Turing’s Cathedral:  The Origins of the Digital Universe.  Allen Lane.   A fascinating account of the involvement of the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) in Princeton, NJ, in the early development of scientific computing, led by that larger-than-life character, Johnnie von Neumann.
  • Gordon Brook-Shepherd [1988]: The Storm Birds:  Soviet Post-War Defectors.  Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Neil Sheehan [2010]:  A Fiery Peace in a Cold War:  Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon. Vintage Books.  A fascinating history of the US inter-continental ballistic missile program in the 1950s, told through a biography of one of its parents, USAF General Bennie Schriever.    It is easy to forget how much practical expertise was needed for successful missile and satellite launches, as with any new and complex technology.   As a consequence, we forget how few of the early test launch attempts were successful.  The Vanguard 3 rocket, for example, launched just 3 satellites out of 11 attempts between December 1957 and September 1959. (Vanguard was a USN project.)

Santayana on Stickney

George Santayana was friends with Joe Trumbull Stickney.  In 1952, five decades after Stickney died from a brain tumour, Santayana wrote a letter about their friendship to William Kirkwood.  The letter is reproduced in facsimile in M. Kirkwood’s life of Santayana (1961, pp. 234-235).

Via di Santo Stefano Rotundo, 6
Rome, May 27, 1952
To Professor Wm. A. Kirkwood, Ph. D.
Trinity College, Toronto
Dear Sir,
It was a happy impulse that prompted you to think that the books you speak of and their annotations, and especially the lines in praise of Homer written by my friend Stickney would interest me. They have called up vividly in my mind the quality of his mind, although the verses represent a much earlier feeling for the classics, and a more conventional mood than he had in the years when we had our frequent moral fencing bouts; for there was a contrary drift in our views in spite of great sympathy in our tastes and pursuits. These verses are signed Sept. 15/ 90. Now Stickney graduated at Harvard in 1895, so that five years earlier he must have been about 17 years old. This explains to me the tone of the verses and also the fact that they advance line by line, seldom or never running over and breaking the next line at the cesura or before it, as he would surely have done in his maturity, when he doted on the dramatic interruptions of Shakespeare’s lines in Antony and Cleopatra in particular, and in all the later plays in general. [page break]
I see clearly the greater mastery and strength of impassioned drama, if impassioned drama is what you are in sympathy with; but I like to warn dogmatic critics of what a more naive art achieves in its impartial and peaceful labour and the risk that overcharged movement or surpluses [?] runs of drowning in its deathbed [?] waters. Every form of art has its charm and is appropriate in its place; but it is moral cramp to admit only one form of art to be legitimate or important. The reminder of this old debate that I had with Stickney who enlightened me more (precisely about the abuse of rhetoric) than I ever could enlighten him about the relativity of everything has been a pleasant reminder of younger days: although I am not sure that much progress towards reason and justice has been made since by critical opinion.
With best thanks and regards
Yours sincerely
G. Santayana

M. M. Kirkwood [1961]:  Santayana:  Saint of the Imagination.  Toronto, Canada:  University of Toronto Press.
Previous posts on George Santayana here, and Joe Stickney here.

Recent reading 4: Achtundsechziger

While elements of the left turned to revolutionary violence in most countries of the West at the end of the 1960s, three countries experienced this turn to a much greater extent than any other:  Germany, Italy, and Japan.  This fact has always intrigued me.   Why these three?     What facts of history or culture link the three?  All three endured fascist totalitarian regimes before WW II, but so too did, say, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Portugal, and Spain.  The countries of Eastern Europe, however, met the 1960s still under the Soviet imperium, and so opportunities for violent resistance were few, and in any case were unlikely to come from the left.   Spain and Portugal and, for a time, Greece, were still under fascism in the post-war period, so opposition tended to aim at enlarging democracy, not at violent resistance.   Perhaps that history is a partial explanation, with (some of) the first post-war generation, the 68ers (in German, achtundsechziger) seeking by their armed resistance to absolve their shame at the perceived lack of resistance to fascism of their parents’ generation.  Certainly the writings of the Red Army Fraction (RAF), the Red Brigades, and the Japanese Red Army give this as a justification for their turn to violence.
I have always thought that another causal factor in common between these three countries was the absence of alternating left and right governments.  With a succession of right-wing and centre-right regimes in Italy and Japan, and right-wing and grand-coalition (right-and-left-together) regimes in Germany, how were views in favour of socialist change able to be represented and heard?  Indeed, in the German Federal Republic, the communist party had been declared illegal in 1956, and remained so until its reformation (under a new name) until 1968.   And even the USA may not be an exception to this heuristic:  In 1968, the candidate of the major party of the left, Hubert Humphrey, was a protagonist for the war in Vietnam (at least in public, and during the election campaign).  And while the candidate of the major party of the right, Richard Nixon, had promised during the campaign to end the war, once in office he intensified and extended it.   For anyone opposed to the war in Vietnam, the democratic political system appeared to have failed;  indeed, one of those who had most publicly opposed the war, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated. It is interesting in this regard to note that the Weather Underground only adopted armed resistance as a strategy in December 1969, a year after Nixon’s election.   In Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism view of democracy, a key role of political argument and verbal conflict is to bring everyone into the political tent.  If some voices, or some views, are excluded by definition or silenced by assassination, we should not then be surprised that those excluded try to burn down the tent.
And perhaps because I like the idea of acting according to (an empirically-grounded) theory of history, I always found the primary argument of the RAF very intriguing:  That by engaging in armed resistance to the capitalist state, the revolutionary left would force the state to reveal its essential fascist character, and that this revelation would awaken the consciousness of the proletariat, leading to the revolutionary overthrow of the state. Although intrigued by it, I never found this argument quite compelling:  First, it could be argued that a democratic state only has a fascist character in response to, and to the extent of, armed resistance to it.  So predictions of its fascist tendencies become self-fulfilling.   Second, the history of countries ruled by fascism in the 20th century surely shows that life under totalitarian rule makes organizing and engaging in dissident activities, particularly group-oriented dissident activities, less not more feasible.     Third, I believe strongly that not only do ends not usually justify means, but often means vitiate ends.     This is the case here:  suppose the violent left’s violent resistance had indeed worked in overthrowing the governments they were directed at.  What sort of society would have resulted?   What we know of the personalities of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof and their revolutionary colleagues leads me to think that a Cambodia under the Khmer Rouges, rather than a Sweden under Olof Palme, would be a more likely description for life in a West Germany led by the RAF.  Thank our stars they failed.
These thoughts are provoked by some recent reading on the subject of leftist urban terrorism in the West, both fiction and non-fiction.  The fiction concerns the psychology and consequences of life underground, long after any thrill of plotting and executing armed resistance has passed.
First,  a novel about the Angry Brigade (AB), the lite, British version of the Red Army Fraction:  Hari Kunzru’s “My Revolutions”.   This is a gripping first-person account by someone who had participated in AB actions, and now, 30 years later, is living under an assumed name.  His past comes back to him, through some not-fully-explained, but dirty, tricks that British intelligence agencies seem to be running.  These dirty actions are (or rather, appear to be) targeted against those who were on the edges of the violent left, but not part of it, who have now risen to prominence in Government (Joschka Fischer comes to mind), and the narrator is used by the shadowy intelligence forces to blackmail or destroy the career of the target of the action.  The writing is fluent and plausible, and the tale engrossing.  Only occasionally does Kunzru trip:  Who ever uses “recurrent” (page 4) in ordinary speech?  (Some people may say “recurring”.)    Precisely how does the sun beat down like a drummer? (page 10).   But most of the novel reads as the words of the protagonist, and not the words of the novelist, indicating that a realistic character has been created by the author’s words.
The same cannot be said for Dana Spiotta’s “Eat the Document”.   Although this book too is riveting, it is not nearly as well-written as Kunzru’s book.   The story also concerns the later after-life of some formerly violent leftists, presumably once members of the Weather Underground, now living in hiding in the USA, incognito.   The story is told through the purported words of multiple narrators, a technique which enables the events to be described from diverse and interesting perspectives.  I say “purported” because too often the words and tone of different narrators sound the same.  In addition, often a narrator uses expressions which seem quite implausible for that particular narrator, as when the teenage boy Jason speaks of “recondite” personalities in suburbia (page 74):  these are not Jason’s words but those of the author.
These works of fiction are partly engrossing to me because I once unwittingly knew a former violent leftist on the lam – the Symbionese Liberation Army’s James Kilgore,  whom I knew as John Pape.  I wish I could say I’d always suspected him, but that is not the case.  Indeed, if anything, I suspected him of being a secret religious believer.  He was serious, always intense, and softly-spoken, and ideologically pure to the point of having no sense of humour. The Struggle was all, and life seemed to be all gravitas, with no levitas (at least in my interactions with him.  I have no idea how much of this serious demeanor  is or was his true self.)  Adopting a position as a committed revolutionary is certainly an interesting strategy for a cover;  one does not expect underground weathermen to be regular attenders at Trotskyist reading circles, but Pape was.  (And he did the homework!) But perhaps someone with a sense of humour does not join a movement of revolutionary violence in the first place, at least not in a democracy.
In the non-fiction category is Susan Braudy’s history of the Boudin family, one of whose members, Kathy Boudin, was a member of the Weather Underground.   As with Kunzru’s and Spiotta’s novels, this non-fictional account is also riveting.   It is, however, appallingly badly written. For instance, for a history, the book is very fuzzy about dates – when did Jean Boudin die, for example?  And much of the text reads like third-hand family anecdotes, perhaps interesting or amusing to the family but not to anyone else.  (Aunty Merle always was partial to rhubarb and once asked for it in a restaurant.)    And lots of very relevant information is simply not provided, for instance the prison sentences given to Kathy Boudin’s fellow-accused in 1981.   As a history book, this is certainly a book.
Finally, a quick report on Hans Kundnani’s superb analysis of the extreme German left, Utopia or AuschwitzGermany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust.  Kundnani argues that there were competing strains within the violent German left in the 1960s and 1970s:  one strain engaged in struggle (against capitalist and western imperialist injustice) as a form of remedy for the failure – or at least, the perceived failure – of their parents’ generation to resist Nazism, and other strains comprising German-nationalist and, suprisingly, even anti-semitic tendencies.    The presence of such tendencies at least explains how some on the far left in the 1960s ended up on the neo-Nazi right thirty years later.  Kundnani’s book is superb – interesting, well-written, humane, engrossing, and tightly-argued.  I had only one small quibble, which is perhaps a typo or an oversight:  On page 252, Kundnani refers to German military participation in a NATO-led attack on Serbian forces on 24 March 1999 as the “first time since 1945, Germany was at war.”  Well, the Federal Republic of Germany perhaps.   The DDR sent troups to join the Warsaw Pact invasion of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in August 1968.   If I was a former citizen of the DDR, regardless of my opposition to that invasion, I would be annoyed that my nation’s history seems to have been forgotten by people writing after unification on German history.
UPDATE (2010-08-25): My remark about participation by the DDR military in the Warsaw Pact invasion of the CSSR in 1968 is wrong.   The forces of the DDR were, at the last moment, stayed, as I explain here.    Thanks to Hans Kundnani for correcting me on this (see comment below).
Bill Ayers [2001]:  Fugitive Days:  A Memoir. Boston, MA, USA:  Beacon Press.
Dan Berger [2006]:  Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. Oakland, CA, USA:  AK Press.
Susan Braudy [2003]:  Family Circle:  The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left. New York, NY, USA;  Anchor Books.
Uli Edel [Director, 2008]: Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex.  Germany.
Ron Jacob [1997]: The Way the Wind Blew:  A History of the Weather Underground. London, UK:  Verso.
Hans Kundnani[2009]:  Utopia or Auschwitz:  Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust. London, UK:  Hurst and Company.
Hari Kunzru[2007]:  My Revolutions.  London, UK:  Penguin.
Chantal Mouffe[1993]: The Return of the Political.  London, UK: Verso.
Dana Spiotta[2006]:  Eat the Document.  New York: Scribner/London, UK: Picador.
Tom Vague [1988/2005]:  The Red Army Faction Story 1963-1993.  San Francisco:  AK Press.
Jeremy Varon [2004]:  Bringing the War Home:  The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. Berkeley, CA, USA:  University of California Press.
Some previous thoughts on beating terrorism here.  Past entries in the Recent Reading series are here.

Recent reading 3: Santayana

Santayana Harvard graduation photo
I’ve just read the memoirs of philosopher George Santayana, as mentioned in this earlier post.  They were published in three volumes, being written during and just after WW II.
The personal aspects of these memoirs are fascinating, and very enjoyable.   Santayana seems to have known everybody, or if not, he was related to them.  He had two families – one via his mother and father, Spanish colons in the Philippines, and one via his mother’s first husband and their children, American from Boston, not quite Brahmins but society people.  The two families, at least from this account, were Faulkneresque in their eccentricities, entanglements and bedevilments.  Santayana’s writing is as smooth as a gimlet and the reader is carried along as if reading a Doris Lessing novel.  No wonder the one novel he wrote – about his family and friends (The Last Puritan) – was such a financial success.
At least the first volume of his memoirs was smuggled out of Italy (where Santayana was living), allegedly with assistance from the Vatican’s international network, and published during the war.   It is therefore not surprising that it makes no mention, even allusively, to current political events.  Ditto the second volume.  I was surprised that even the third volume makes no real mention of the war, although it does contain a section near the end which seems to present Santayana’s political positions, although in an indirect and abstract way.   I wonder if the reticence was due to the extremity of his political beliefs.    Having been able to retire anywhere, he chose Rome and stayed there through the Mussolini years.   He also barely mentions the Spanish civil war in his memoirs, but perhaps this was still too close, with the possibility of his family being affected by his writing.   From the few comments he makes on matters political it is apparent he was a conservative, although he gives no good reasons for this.   (Nor could he.)
I can make no sense of Santayana’s writing in philosophy.   His writing typically consists of a sequence of abstract assertions and generalizations, none of which is supported by evidence or even argument.  Against each one I cavil and wish to argue the case, or at least to have  the pleasure of being the recipient of a case in support;  since he provides no justification for these assertions, argument-against them is difficult, and there are so many, it is tiring.   Perhaps this style was typical of the philosophy of his day.    I find that every academic discipline takes some significant statements or assumptions for granted, and that people in the discipline expend most their intellectual heft arguing over the trivial remainder.  People outside the discipline wonder how anyone could argue about the trivialities while ignoring the big issues assumed or implied at the start.
For the record, I’ll include here some quotations which struck me:

With parents evidently Catalans of the Catalonians how did my mother come to be born in Glasgow, and how did she ever meet a Bostonian named Sturgis?  These facts, taken separately, were accidents of travel, or rather of exile and of Colonial life; but accidents are accidents only to ignorance; in reality all physical events flow out of one another by a continuous intertwined derivation;” (page 8, Santayana 1944)
Catholicism is the most human of religions, if taken humanly:  it is paganism spiritually transformed and made metaphysical. It corresponds most adequately to the various exigencies of moral life, with just the needed dose of wisdom, sublimity, and illusion.” (1944, p. 98)
Even what we still think we remember may almost become the act of continually varying and misrepresenting his past, according to the interests of the present.  This, when it is not intentional or dishonest, involves no deception. Things truly wear those aspects to one another.   A point of view and a special lighting are not distortions.  They are conditions of vision, and spirit can see nothing not focused in some living eye.” (1944, p. 155)
It is or it was usual, especially in America, to regard the polity of which you happen to approve as sure to be presently established everywhere and to prevail for ever after.” (1947, p. 138)
Unattached academic obscurity is rather a blessed condition, when it doesn’t breed pedantry, envy or ill-nature.” (1953, p. 103)

George Santayana [1935]:  The Last Puritan:  A Memoir in the Form of a Novel. (London, UK:  Constable.)
George Santayana [1944]:  Persons and Places. (London, UK:  Constable.)
George Santayana [1947]:  The Middle Span. (London, UK:  Constable.)
George Santayana [1953]:  My Host the World. (London, UK:  The Cresset Press.)

Recent reading 2: Spooks

For the record, herewith brief reports of recent reading of books on espionage:

  • Michael Holzman [2008]:  James Jesus Angleton:  The CIA, and the Craft of Counterintelligence. (Amherst, MA, USA:  University of Massachusetts Press).   A fascinating topic, not given justice in this poorly-written account.  Sentence without verbs.  Not fond of. I.   The author claims to have undertaken interviews with key players (although I only noticed one reference to such an interview), but the book is almost entirely written from secondary sources.    This means it has no new insights.  On some issues, the book is not up to date – eg, on the Nosenko affair, the author seems not to have seen Bagley’s book (see below), published a year before.  The writing is very vague about dates (a rather important failing for a writer of a history book), and lots of information is only provided en passant;   for example, we only learn about Angleton’s first child well after its birth.   Perhaps that is an editor’s failing, as much as an author’s.  There are worse problems:  the author appears to have a very unsophisticated understanding of marxism (p. 103), and his description of the Bay of Pigs invasion puts all the blame on Bissell and colleagues (p. 187), when some of it rightly belongs in the White House, including with JFK himself.    Relying on secondary sources and without new insights, Holzman could have shown us how Angleton’s literary training helped him in the world of intelligence.  Despite repeated claims that his literary education did help, we are not ever shown it doing so, nor given a detailed explanation of how it helped.   To show us this, Holzman would have needed to provide a detailed presentation of at least one theory of intelligence and counter-intelligence; this is something that would have been very interesting and very useful in itself, yet is also lacking from the book.
  • Tennent H. Bagley [2007]:  Spy Wars:  Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games. (New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press).  An insider’s account of the Nosenko affair, which I have blogged about here and here.  Bagley argues compellingly that Yuri Nosenko was a KGB plant, not a genuine defector.   From this he concludes that CIA should not have accepted him as a genuine defector.  As I argue, it is not certain that CIA did in fact accept him as such, despite what it looks like, and the benefits of accepting him (or appearing to accept him) may have outweighed the costs.  An intelligence agency needs to think through the wider consequences of its beliefs and of what are believed by others to be its beliefs, in addition to considerations of simple truth and falsity.
  • S. J. Hamrick [2004]:  Deceiving the Deceivers:  Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. (New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press). Hamrick argues that British intelligence knew that Philby, Burgess and Maclean were Soviet agents several years before their public exposures, and during this period used them to securely transmit messages — both information and disinformation — to the Soviet leadership, knowing it would more likely be believed if it came from the Soviets’ own agents.  If Holzman’s book about Jim Angleton (above) had included some discussion of theories of intelligence and counter-intelligence, this is just the type of case that such a theory would seek to account for.    The (alleged) facts of Hamrick’s book are fascinating, but the book itself is poorly-written, repetitious, acronym-rich and comes with added right-wing tirades.  There are even anti-Catholic tirades against the novelist Graham Greene and —for goodness sake! — the poet-priest Robert Southwell SJ (p. 32), who was executed in 1595.  These tirades are not only out-of-place here, but replete with errors.   One has to wonder at the immense power of a Catholic missionary that he can still provoke such an irrational rant four centuries after his murder by Elizabeth’s police-state. I am certainly one of Southwell’s admirers (see, for example, here), but there cannot be more than a score or two of people alive who even know of him.
  • Valerie Plame Wilson [2008]: Fair Game:  How a top CIA Agent was betrayed by her own Government. (New York, USA:  Simon and Schuster).  Published with CIA redactions shown.   Very well-written and her life story is fascinating.  Shame about her Government.
  • Tim Weiner [2007]:  Legacy of Ashes:  The History of the CIA.  (London, UK:  Allen Lane).  The best single-volume history of CIA, at least as far as an outsider can judge.  Well-written and thorough, although I would have liked more on Africa.  On page 80, Weiner claims the only two successful CIA-sponsored coups were both executed under Eisenhower, but what of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire in 1965 (see Devlin’s book below), and Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973 (and perhaps Malcom Fraser in Australia in 1975)?
  • Larry Devlin [2007]:  Chief of Station, Congo:  A Memoir of 1960-67.  (New York, USA:  Public Affairs).  An insider’s account of the role of CIA in putting Mobutu into power in Zaire.   Having once met Mobutu, I found this account fascinating, although, of course, I have no idea how honest or comprehensive it is.
  • Markus Wolf  and Anne McElvoy [1997]:  Man Without a Face:  The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster. (New York, USA:  Public Affairs).   A riveting read, which I read in a single day.  Markus Wolf presents himself, I am not sure how sincerely, as a reform Communist, an admirer of Andropov and Gorbarchev.
  • David C. Martin [1980]:  Wilderness of Mirrors. (Guildford, CT, USA:  The Lyons Press).  A detailed account of the relationship between Jim Angleton and Bill Harvey.  Well-written and an easy read.  However, the chronology of the events in the George Blake affair (pp. 100-102) is inconsistent.
  • Milt Beardon and James Risen [2003]:  The Main Enemy:  The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB. (New York, USA:  Ballantine Books).  Although mostly riveting, I skipped over the history of 1980s Afghanistan.   Reading of KGB watching CNN during the attempted coup of August 1991 to learn what has happening was very amusing.   The book would have been better if more had been included on the post-1990 period:  just when events get interesting, the book ends.

Recent reading 1

In a world more perfect than this one, I would have time to write lengthy reviews of the books I’ve been reading recently.  In this world, all I have time for is a brief mention.

  • Tristam Hunt [2009]: The Frock-Coated Communist:  The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. (London, UK:  Allen Lane).  A superb and sympathetic biography of Engels, written by an historian very empathetic to the rise and culture of 19th century industrialism.   My only (minor) criticisms arise from Hunt’s infrequent, but jarring, use of slang (a failing common in English-educated writers under 40, I have found) and the occasional reference to something which the author thinks he has mentioned previously, but has not.  Perhaps the editor was asleep.
  • Ian Leslie [2009]: To Be President:  Quest for the White House 2008.  (London, UK:  Politico’s).  An account of the 2008 US Presidential election by British journalist Ian Leslie.  No surprises for those of us who followed the race as it happened, but well-written, and good to have on record.
  • Charles McCarry [1995]:  Shelley’s Heart. (New York, USA:  Overlook Press).  A riveting political thriller from this master writer of espionage, about an attempted take-over the US administration by the extreme left through mostly constitutional means.    Well-written, and almost devoid of implausible events or inconsistencies.  (On page 304, in the one slip I found, we read of “both Presidents’ eyes”  in a scene where one President had already left the room.)  The main implausibility concerns the very nature of the conspiracy, which seems to have been prepared for years in advance, yet depended on the chance nomination of one person to the Supreme Court. Surely, truly-serious plotters would not have left step 1 of the masterplan to the whims of people outside the circle.  The characters, however, especially those on the left, are mere caricatures, and lack the greater depth which McCarry’s spy-fiction regular participants typically reveal.   Although he seems to have tried hard to appear politically neutral in this book, it is clear from this (and from his other novels), that McCarry’s own sympathies are with the right.  He also does not like modern art.
  • Helen Vendler [1997]:  The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Cambridge, MA, USA:  Belknap Press).  A superb commentary and detailed analysis of Shakespeare’s masterwork, which I have read, one sonnet and commentary per day, over the last half-year or so.   There is no question, after reading this, of the intellectual, linguistic and emotional heft of the Sonnets.    It is undoubtedly Marlowe’s best work!