eleven, thirteen, sixteen: george smiley

by John le Carré (1961-1963)

 George Smiley was a British agent during the war. When a man he had interviewed for the agency is found murdered and the agency doesn’t do anything about it, he decides to leave. Before he leaves, he is determined to solve the case. The case is a tricky one and involves German agents on British solved, and one of them manages to run off to Germany.

After leaving the agency, he is asked to look into a murder at a religious private school. The wife of one of the professors was found murdered after she had written to a Christian newspaper’s advisory column about fearing for her life. The victim believes that her husband will kill her, but he has an alibi for the time of the murder.

A spy should always be out in the cold, because that means that no one takes notice of him.  When the circle of Leamas’ agents is killed one by one in East Germany, all signs lead to the leader of the East Germany’s secret agency. As it turns out, he is the one who ran the operation in Britain a few years earlier. Leamas decides to infiltrate the East German agency, but first he must make himself interesting enough for them to recruit him.

I have spent the previous month reading about George Smiley, one of the most famous character in crime and mystery novels. Even after three books, it is hard to paint a picture of George, except that he is peculiar looking and his wife left him. He is definitely a character that manages to go unnoticed. And in the Spy Who Came in from the Cold he is only mentioned, and it is hard to understand which role he played in the infiltration of the East German agency.

I have yet to discover why John le Carré is such a popular writer. I found the first book incredibly hard to read because of the language. I wanted to find my red pen and rewrite a lot of the sentences. The plot didn’t make the reading easier and in all three books it seems like too much is left out for us readers who haven’t spent time working as a secret agent. Luckily the language improved in the second book and I hardly had no complaints when I came to the third book, and I guess it will continue to improve in the rest of his work.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold must have been a great read when it was published in the height of the Cold War drama. It gives a good picture of the Cold War, and I really liked the British Communist Elizabeth Gold and how brainwashed the East German Communists were. I’m fortunate because I have just taught the kids about the Cold War and especially Berlin, so I had no problems with the setting and background. If you are interested in reading this, you should at least read about the Cold War on Wikipedia at some point so you understand the background of the book.

What I really cannot fathom is that not only one, but three of the George Smiley novels have made it onto the 1001 books you must read before you die list (insert some rant about male experts and male readers and their thirst for action here). Surely there must be better books to put on the list. Because I need to read books in a chronological order, I must endure all the George Smiley books in order to cross off Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. Let’s hope that Smiley grows on me.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was March’s read in Line’s 1001 books reading circle

fourteen.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (1966)

‘You remind me of a dear friend with whom I was on very close terms in London – Dr Mustafa Sa’eed. He used to be my teacher. In 1928 he was President of the Society for the Struggle for African Freedom of which I was a committee member. What a man he was! He’s one of the greatest Africans I’ve known. He had wide contacts. Heavens, that man – women fell for him like flies. He used to say “I’ll liberate Africa with my penis”, and he laughed so widely you could see the back of his throat.'”

When the narrator comes home to the village by a bend in the Nile, he notices a stranger amongst the crowd. The stranger is intriguing, and soon the narrator is obsessed about him. His name is Mustafa Sa’eed and he had suddenly settled down in the village and married a local girl. Right before his sudden death, Mustafa tells the narrator about his life.


He grew up around Khartoum and happened to be one of the smartest in his class, so he was sent to Cairo to continue his education. From there, he went to London, where he became very successful and popular, especially with the ladies. So popular that a couple of them committed suicide after he was finished with them. And then he killed the one he married, spent some time in jail and went back to Sudan.

It’s a mix between north and south, old and new, and when you read it, you realise that there are no differences between us and them, regardless of who you or they are. It’s a story about love and madness. I liked the prose and the book gave me a lot of things to think about. It’s definitely a good quick read that will leave you pondering.

I chose this for an African book in Bjørg’s off the shelf challenge and it’s been on my shelf since 2010, so it was about time to read it. 

fifty-six.

Helter Skelter by Bugliosi & Gentry (1974)
the True Story of the Manson Murders
 Helter Skelter is a song by the Beatles. Charles Manson believed that the Beatles spoke to him through the White Album and that they ordered the Family to start a race war.

On the night to 9th August 1969, four members of the Family broke into the house rented by Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, and killed 5 people. One of them was Sharon who was over 8 months pregnant. The killers wrote pig on the front door using blood. A day later, seven members of the family set out again to kill. This time the victims were the La Bianca family, and both victims were tied up and brutally murdered. The killers wrote the words healter skelter, rise, death to pigs with blood when leaving the house.

The investigation is a mess, and it took a long time before the police connected the two cases. The trial which followed, was the longest and most expensive, and resulted in the death penalty for Charles Manson and three of the girls.

The book is written by Vincent Bugliosi who was the prosecutor in the case, with the help of Curt Gentry. That means that this is a thorough account of the entire case, starting with the murders, and then to the trial. It also gives a detailed account of Manson’s life and the way he gathered the Family members. The afterwords, written 25 years after the trial, tells what happened to the members of the Family since then.

It is a long and really detailed book, with nearly 700 pages. As it is written by the prosecutor, I felt that a lot of it is not really necessary to get a clear picture of the murders and the trials. But then again I don’t feel that I need to ever read another book about Manson again. It is the most sold true crime book in history, read it if you’re curious about the cult and the murders.

forty-two.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
“Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” 
Jean Louise Finch, also known as Scout is barely 9 years old when she is witnessing her father, Atticus, defending the trial of his life. A black man has been accused of raping a white girl in the small town Maycomb, Alabama. But Scout and her brother, Jem, are also obsessing over their neighbour, Boo Radley, who has never left the house, and they do as much as they dare to get him to come out. And when he finally comes out, it is to save their lives.
Although it’s told through the eyes of the child, this book deals with many important topics; racism, class and gender. It is also based on Harper Lee’s personal life and the people around her, including Truman Capote, and a court case where her father defended two black men. 
I first read the book a couple of years ago, and I found it heavy and remembered very little of the story. I knew I loved it, but couldn’t remember why. I’m glad I reread it and I found it easy to read this time around. I love the way Scout tells the story. It is definitely a book I will read again and I must also get around to see the film. 
It is still an important book and a must-read. This was also the August book in Line’s 1001 books challenge
 “We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe- some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others- some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men. But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.”

thirty-eight.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1963)
(first published in 1980)
Ignatius J. Reilly spends his days eating junk food, writing notes and screaming obscenities at the telly and his mother. After a series of unfortunate events which puts his mother in debt, he has to go out in New Orleans to look for a job.

Is it possible to like a book if you hate the main character? I really disliked Ignatius, and I know I should feel sorry for him because of his obvious mental state, but I just can’t. His obnoxious character annoyed me so much that I was at several occasions tempted to give up. I often skimmed the parts which were all about him, and especially his notes and letters. But luckily the rest of the characters made this book worth the read.

And yes, it is an absurd tale with some very interesting characters. All my sympathies went to Mrs Reilly and I also found her friend, Santa, hilarious. The rest of the characters make the story interesting, but some of them I found as annoying as Ignatius himself. The ending certainly made me think. And it almost made me root for Ignatius.

This was July’s book in Line’s 1001-books reading challenge.

forty-one.

Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O’Brien (1967)
Kate and Baba are both married and living in London. Kate is married to Eugene, the man she once fell in love with and they have a child, but she has an affair with a politician. Baba is married to Frank, who is extremely rich, but also a violent drunk.
Final book in the Country Girls trilogy, and the most disappointing one. Mainly because it doesn’t give the full picture and is more rushed. And I definitely didn’t like how Kate turned into a suffering woman. What saves this book is that for the first time Baba is the narrator. And she is as witty as Kate is whiny.
I’m not happy that this didn’t give any proper finale for the trilogy – just more unanswered questions.  I also didn’t like that the entire book was set in London instead of Ireland, it lost some of its charm that way.

thirty-seven.

Girl With Green Eyes by Edna O’Brien (1962)
 (also published as the Lonely Girl)
Kate and Baba are still working in Dublin, dirt poor and out to find boys. Kate meets a much older gentleman, Eugene. Eugene is a film maker, lives on an estate, and worse; Protestant and divorced. Kate falls head over heels and starts to sleep over and eventually moves in. Something her drunken father isn’t pleased to find out about.

The second book in the Country trilogy and I liked this one much more than the first one. This is wittier and has more action. And I liked the sexual awakening of Kate and her journey from a innocent young Catholic to a lover. However, I didn’t like how little Baba appeared in this one as she’s always hilarious and I love her and her standard-phrase to Kate; you’re a right looking eejit. 

I’m eagerly waiting for the final book in the trilogy to show up in my mailbox and I have put more books by Edna O’Brien on my wish list.

thirty-six.

the Country Girls by Edna O’Brien (1960)
Caithleen and Baba grew up together on the Irish country side and are sent to a convent when they are fourteen. Caithleen comes from a poor home and her father is a drunk, while Baba comes from a richer home where the mother is the drunk. The girls hate the convent and they try to get expelled so they can go off to Dublin and meet nice boys.
Caithleen and Baba don’t have the best of friendship as Baba is always walking over Caithleen, but they do not really have anyone else. And while Caithleen is the smart and serious one, Baba is the airhead who only thinks about boys. 
I really enjoyed reading this book, it was a perfect light summer read although it has its depth. And I certainly can understand why this book and the following sequels were burnt and banned in Ireland in the 1960s. 
I’m also glad I found the Lost Girl / Girl with Green Eyes in a used book store in Seattle as I just had to figure out what Caithleen and Baba get up to in Dublin. I’m also browsing every used book store in my way to find the last book in the trilogy. And Edna O’Brien is one of those author I definitely am going to read more of. 

thirty.

Big Sur by Jack Kerouac (1962)
“And in the flush of the first few days of joy I confidently tell myself (not expecting what I’ll do in three weeks only) ‘no more dissipation, it’s time for me to quietly watch the world and even enjoy it, first in woods like these, then just calmly walk and talk among people of the world, no booze, no drugs, no binges, no bouts with beatniks and drunks and junkies and everybody, no more I ask myself the question O why is God torturing me, that’s it, be a loner, travel, talk to waiters, walk around, no more self-imposed agony…it’s time to think and watch and keep concentrated on the fact that after all this whole surface of the world as we know it now will be covered with the silt of a billion years in time…Yay, for this, more aloneness” 
 Jack Duluoz, Kerouac’s alter-ego has passed 40, is tired of fans who break into his house, and he seriously needs to take a break from alcohol and drugs. So he borrows his friend Monsanto’s cabin in Big Sur to spend some weeks in solitude. But the death of his beloved cat sends him on a binge. So Jack soon finds himself out and about in San Francisco and Los Gatos, but although the nights are awesome with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the days are spent in nervous agony and Jack’s nerves are failing him.
This is the saddest Jack Kerouac I have read. The way Jack is struggling with depression and reality is getting more and more evident by the pages. He also steals his friend Cody’s mistress, Billie, and they spend some mad weeks together, and Billie wants them to get married and Jack to be the father of her son, but Jack is sure that the son is the offspring of the devil. It’s more the language rather than the events that makes this book so sad, I’m in love with Kerouac’s style.
“But I remember seeing a mess of leaves suddenly go skittering in the wind and into the creek, then floating rapidly down the creek towards the sea, making me feel a nameless horror even then of ‘Oh my God, we’re all being swept away to sea no matter what we know or say or do”

My reason for picking this book up now, is that in a little more than a month’s time, I’ll find myself in Big Sur. I’m hoping it will be as beautiful as Kerouac describes it, and I’m sure there will be some nights with too much wine as well. There’s a film adaptation coming out later this year, along with an adaptation of On the Road. I will also throw in a recommendation of the album One Fast Move or I’m Gone by Jay Ferrar and Benjamin Gibbard. It will be on heavy rotation on the road from San Francisco to Big Sur!

sixty-seven.

A House for Mr Biswas by V.S Naipaul (1961)
 But bigger than them all was the house, his house. How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without it: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large, disintegrating and indifferent family; to have left Shama and the children among them, in one room; or worse, to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.”

Mr Biswas’ mother was told to keep him away from water by the Hindu pundit whom told his future. Yet Mr Biswas seeks water which eventually leads to his father’s death. Mr Biswas comes from a poor family, and he is sent to various jobs without much luck. He eventually gets a job painting signs for a rich family and he falls in love with one of their daughters.

Marrying the girl, Shama, means marrying the family. And the Tulsis are the in-laws from hell. Mr Biswas has to live with them and work for them for very little money and bad food. All he wants is to be able to build or buy a house for his family.

V.S Naipaul impressed me with a Bend in the River, and a House for Mr Biswas is also a great read. I really enjoyed reading about Indian descendants in Trinidad and Tobago. This book wasn’t as comic as the cover made it to be, but it definitely put me in a good mood. I have already put more of his books on my wish list.