The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John LeCarré
Filed under: 20th Century,Book Reviews,Infinite TBR — Ibis at 8:43 pm on Tuesday, August 10, 2010

From the back cover:
“In this classic, John le Carré’s third novel and the first to earn him international acclaim, he created a world unlike any previously experienced in suspense fiction. With unsurpassed knowledge culled from his years in British Intelligence, le Carré brings to light the shadowy dealings of international espionage in the tale of a British agent who longs to end his career but undertakes one final, bone-chilling assignment.

When the last agent under his command is killed and Alec Leamas is called back to London, he hopes to come in from the cold for good. His spymaster, Control, however, has other plans. Determined to bring down the head of East German Intelligence and topple his organization, Control once more sends Leamas into the fray—this time to play the part of the dishonoured spy and lure the enemy to his ultimate defeat.”

My thoughts:
On the face of it, one might suppose this novel is merely an outdated relic of a bygone era, a piece of genre fiction whose value at the time of publication might have been judged solely by how entertaining it was. However, this novel deserves its reputation as a classic of the twentieth century, offering much more insight than a typical spy story. It does have great spy novel elements too: plots and stratagems that take the reader by surprise, dark “action” scenes behind enemy lines, and a beautiful young love interest for the protagonist. But its strength as a novel lies in its exposition of the ubiquity of immorality in the fight no matter what the ultimate principles might be. In this particular instance, the fight is the Cold War, but it could just as easily be “the War on Terror” or what have you. They say that we on this side are fighting for good (i.e. human rights, anti-terrorism, freedom, democracy), and yet those very principles are being sacrificed with secret prisons, torture, and putting child soldiers on trial. Things haven’t changed much since this book was written, sadly.

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 6:50 pm on Sunday, August 8, 2010

From the publisher:
“Mary Barton, the daughter of disillusioned trade unionist, rejects her working-class lover Jem Wilson in the hope of marrying Henry Carson, the mill owner’s son, and making a better life for herself and her father. But when Henry is shot down in the street and Jem becomes the main suspect, Mary finds herself painfully torn between the two men. Through Mary’s dilemma, and the moving portrayal of her father, the embittered and courageous activist John Barton, Mary Barton (1848) powerfully dramatizes the class divides of the ‘hungry forties’ as personal tragedy. In its social and political setting, it looks towards Elizabeth Gaskell’s great novels of the industrial revolution, in particular North and South.”

My thoughts:
This novel was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I started reading it at a time when I was looking for something fairly light-hearted. The murder element didn’t deter me because from the description it didn’t appear that we would get too attached to Mr. Carson before his untimely demise. I was, however, quite surprised to find nearly the first third of the book to be depressing and distressing as characters we’ve come to care about dropped off like flies, and all for the simple want of food, shelter, and adequate medical care (which alas, is still with us today). After the dismal beginning, however, the story followed along the lines I had initially been expecting and I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

As a social commentary, I imagine it would have come across like gangbusters at the time, with an empathetic understanding of working class life and how intimate with utter poverty it really is. You wouldn’t find this in Jane Austen or, I think (I haven’t read ’em all) George Eliot. And though Dickens often covers the same territory, his mechanism is satire rather than strict realism.

And then just for pleasure, we get a bit of a sensation novel in the last half, though it’s not as sensational as, say, a Wilkie Collins or R. D. Blackmore—Gaskell’s penchant for realism comes into play there too. A good novel for fans of nineteenth century literature (especially if you’re looking for something shorter than the typical Collins or Dickens).

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 4:11 pm on Saturday, August 7, 2010

From the back cover:
Catch-22 is like no other novel. It has its own rationale, its own extraordinary character. It moves back and forth from hilarity to horror. It is outrageously funny and strangely affecting. It is totally original.

Set in the closing months of World War II in an American bomber squadron off Italy, Catch-22 is the story of a bombardier named Yossarian, who is frantic and furious because thousands of people he hasn’t even met keep trying to kill him. Catch-22 is a microcosm of the twentieth-century world as it might look to someone dangerously sane. It is a novel that lives and moves and grows with astonishing power and vitality—a masterpiece of our time.”

My thoughts:
This novel is undeniably a masterpiece. It is not only a commentary on the absurdity of war (and capitalism thrown in for good measure), not only an encapsulation of the entire 20th century Zeitgeist with all of its angst, humour, brutality, and tragedy, but a metaphor for human life itself. Absolutely brilliant with great characters, outrageously funny episodes, and a jumble of a timeline that works both to confuse and elucidate the action (how’s that for a paradox?). I loved every minute of this book, even when I cried. I listened to the audiobook version (read by Trevor White), which I would highly recommend, and I thought the novel was so fantastic that directly upon finishing it, I put it on my wishlist for a hard copy for my permanent collection. This deserves to be on the top ten list of 20th century novels for sure. But I’m not going to touch the sequel with a ten-foot pole. Some things are best left alone, and I get the feeling this is one of them.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 11:07 pm on Friday, July 9, 2010

From the publisher:
The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright’s eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter is drawn into the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his ‘charming’ friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.”

My thoughts:
I quite enjoyed this “sensation novel”. It was extremely suspenseful and though I knew in advance what some of the plot twists were going to be, I was completely enthralled throughout. Not only did Wilkie Collins provide a wonderful escape to the nineteenth century complete with inheritances and stratagems, mad women and secret societies, mysterious foreigners (why are they always Italian?) and cruel men in power, but The Woman in White can be read with an eye to the rights of women and their position as second class citizens in every situation. On top of it all, Collins has given us the gift of Marian Halcombe, one of the strongest, most intelligent, most worthy of Victorian heroines.

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