Spycraft in Cold War England

1001 BooksI’m still in England with a book from the first edition of the 1001 Books list. This is a perfect beach read, and that is exactly where I listened to much of it today, with a sleeping 4 year old on my lap. I also listened to way too much of it late last night when I should have been sleeping. I forced myself to turn it off around 2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is classic spy fiction, and I’m a sucker for a complicated, dangerous plot. This was the monthly group read for the 1001 Books Group on Goodreads, a complete change of pace from Moll Flanders. It’s part of what makes that list fun–a little something for everyone. So my scorecard for July to Sept is as follows:

  • Orange July 1 2 3
  • Around the World: Africa: 1, 2 Asia 1 South America 1 2 3 4 5 6 Other countries 1 2 3 4
  • 1001 Books 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
  • Nobel: July Aug Sept
  • Pulitzer: July Aug Sept
  • Great Africa Reads: July Aug Sept

And here is my Goodreads review:
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Smiley Versus Karla #1)Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book made me a little nostalgic for the Cold War. Not for the actual Cold War, but for the genre of spy fiction that it inspired. I really enjoyed the genre, and it is still fun, even in a different global context. Le Carre is a master of the genre–creating interesting and complex characters and convoluted plot lines that puzzle readers with all their interwoven threads right up to the last page. I’m sure that I will make time for more George Smiley in the future. A little spoiler-free plot summary–George Smiley, recently kicked out of Britain’s MI6 spy agency, finds himself unexpectedly drawn back in one night. A British agent from Asia has come to England with a tale that suggests there may be a Russian mole right at the top of “the Circus,” as MI6 is called. Smiley and a few others set out to try to separate fact from fiction, right under the noses of those they are investigating. Much of what they are investigating seems to connect, in part, to an incident in Czechoslovakia just before Smiley and several others were let go, which largely destroyed the career of the former head of the Circus, just months before his death. You will want a scorecard for this book–there are lots of names and aliases and operations to keep straight as you try to anticipate the solution to the puzzle. If you need your plots easy to follow, this book will probably frustrate you, but if you can bear with the frustration, as the characters must in sorting this out, you will probably enjoy the book a great deal.

I do think of these as guilty pleasure reads–while there is work in following and trying to figure out the plot, it is a very different type of work than following Salman Rushdie or hanging in there with the emotional challenges of writers like Khaled Hosseini. When people die in spy novels, so long as they aren’t the actual protagonists, I’m not moved to tears. I may be sad for them, or I may just be caught up in the game. I really didn’t want to put this book down, but I didn’t feel profoundly moved, or unable to speak at the end. At times in my life, most of my reading has been of the mystery/thriller sort, but when I switch to more challenging and substantive stuff, I tend to look on these stretches a little like I look on binge-eating on sweets. It is fun while you are doing it, but in retrospect you realize you might rather have filled up on stuff that is a little more sophisticated and nourishing. Still, thanks to the 1001 editors for putting a few of these sorts of books on the list. Sometimes it is just really great to have ice cream for dinner.

View all my reviews

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About Beth Parks Aronson

I am Associate Professor of Psychology at Lamar University. Previously, I was a psychologist in private practice in Jenkintown, PA where I specialized in anxiety disorders and working with people living with chronic and life-threatening illnesses. I am a little addicted to good literature. Ok, a lot addicted.
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2 Responses to Spycraft in Cold War England

  1. Chad Sayban says:

    Sometimes you just need a book like this to clear your head a bit before diving into the more sophisticated reading again.

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