At this time of year people who I know often share their reading list for the 12 months just past. I always find that interesting and have decided to mention some of the books that I read in 2020. I would appreciate your comments on any of them, or on your favourites. Here goes:
Agent Running in the Field, another spy novel by John le Carré, the acclaimed English writer. A friend on Facebook described this one as not le Carré’s best, but it will be his last because unfortunately he died on December 12 at age 89. Le Carré transcended the spy fiction genre long ago to become one of the great novelists writing in English. It must be said, however, that in his creation of female characters he was somewhat wooden. I have read most everything he has written, but earlier this year I searched out two that had eluded me — The Looking Glass War (1965), and A Small Town in Germany (1968). They are not nearly as good as his later fiction, indicating how much le Carré developed over the years as a writer.
The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, a history of the East India Company. A Scottish-born writer who now lives near New Delhi, Dalrymple is an excellent historian, and a good travel writer too. I have read many of his books. This one shows how cruel and cynical the British were in playing off rulers in the Indian sub-continent against one another. The East India Company also insisted on extracting profit from the land even in times of devastating famines. The company exercised a trading monopoly granted by the British king, had its own army and civil service, and was the de facto ruler of the sub-continent. Dalrymple makes abundant use of indigenous sources rather than the usual British ones. The result demolishes any argument that colonialism, British style, was a benign force.
Short Haul Engine, and The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out by Canadian poet Karen Solie. I had heard of Solie but never read her work until I came across a glowing article in the New York Review of Books. Solie was born in Saskatchewan, as was I, although she is younger. Some of her earlier work is situated there but her poems travel well. They are tough and unsentimental, even when they are erotic: “We met. That’s all. / If coincidence has a law/ its lonely.” Many of these poems are not easy to interpret and demand re-reading, as they should.
A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende. The novel begins in Spain during the 1936-39 civil war. Two young protagonists thrown together by the war, survive it, barely, and then emigrate to Chile. There they create good lives, until the coup in 1973, when the hunt for subversives and communists begins all over again.
Writing From Life. This book by deceased Canadian author Heather Robertson is a how-to for writing non-fiction and is as good as it gets. I have read and reread it.
The Spy and the Traitor. British writer Ben MacIntrye is becoming to non-fiction espionage writing what John le Carré is to spy fiction. This is the riveting story of how a highly placed Soviet KGB colonel named Oleg Gordievsky defected to England. The chapter describing his escape from Moscow to the Finnish border in the trunk of a British embassy car is as taut and exciting as any fictional writing one might encounter.
The Imposter, by Spanish novelist Javier Cercas. This is the true story of Enric Marco, a Spanish mechanic who conned the entire country into believing that he had been interned as a forced labourer in a Nazi concentration camp in Germany during the Second World War. Marco also convinced media and the public that he had engaged in underground resistance against the military regime of General Franco. None of it was true. The description by Cercas of Marco’s narcissism could be a letter-perfect description of Donald Trump, whose disorder is far more dangerous than that of Marco.
Strangers in the House by Saskatoon writer Candace Savage. She became curious about artifacts that she finds in the walls of her houses as she prepared to do renovations. Her search for the home’s original owners leads to her discovery that they were Québécois who had moved West via Northern Ontario. Savage weaves the Blondin family’s story into a broader historical tapestry in which they endure the vagaries of the Great Depression, not to mention the hysteria against francophones generated by the Ku Klux Klan during its Saskatchewan. Savage is granular in her approach, describing her detective work in old newspapers, the Ancestry website, and Henderson City Directories.
What You have Said Is True, a memoir by US poet Carolyn Forché. Many years after the fact, Forché describes how in 1978 a mysterious stranger rang her doorbell in California. He was a Salvadoran named Lionel Gomez and was the cousin of a poet friend of hers. He had come to insist that she accompany him to El Salvador, then under a brutal military occupation and on the brink of civil war.
Against her better judgement, Forché, who was then 28 years old, agreed to go to El Salvador, and then returned again and again. Gomez believed in her as a poet. He hoped that if he showed her the gruesome reality of death and disappearance in El Salvador, she might awaken the US public and decision makers the atrocities that they were supporting. Forché’s orientation, with Gomez as a guide and mentor, was one in which she routinely observed unspeakable atrocities. She did her best, through her writing and activism, to get the story out in the US and to get the Reagan and Bush administrations to change their policies, but to no avail. She also wrote poems about El Salvador but waited many years to write this harrowing memoir in 2020.
A Song for the Dark Times. Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin has created, in police detective inspector John Rebus, an iconic outsider within the police force in Edinburgh. Rankin tried to pension Rebus off but has pulled him out of retirement. A loner who smoked and drank too much, Rebus now has COPD, but he is forced into action when his estranged daughter becomes a suspect in the murder of her partner. Rebus solves the crime as usual but not without enduring a severe beating.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. This is a republished memoir of Hemingway’s life as a young writer in Paris in the 1920s. I read the book long ago as a university student and picked it up again at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore while visiting Paris late in 2019. I was impressed with the book when I read it as a student, but less so in rereading it now. Hemingway is unnaturally self-conscious about his writer’s life and does not have much of importance to say. But I love the Shakespeare bookstore.
It is Ben MacIntyre again with Agent Sonya, the true story of Ursula Kuczynski, a German woman of Jewish extraction and a communist who spied on behalf of the Soviet Union for decades. She worked in China, Manchuria, Poland, Geneva, London, and Oxford before fleeing to East Germany. As always, MacIntyre’s book is meticulously researched. He is assisted by the many books, including memoirs and autobiographical fiction created by Kuczynski, who had a second successful career as a writer after she fled Britain for East Germany when British intelligence was closing in on her.
Reading in 2021
I have a stock of other books in mind for 2021. I will tell you about them in 12 months. Happy New Year — and happy reading.
Don J. Usner. Blue Flower Arts