Books for early spring, pt. 1 – non-fiction by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross-posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

Lots of time for reading when you’re waiting for broken bones to heal! Fiction to follow.

After the Last Border:Two Families and the Story of Refuge in America by Jessica Goudeau tells the often-checkered history of American treatment of refugees, the lofty national identity promised by Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty and the dissonant realities of our immigrant practices.  Goudeau importantly conveys the refugee experience through the eyes of two families: one headed by Mu Naw, a Karen tribe woman from Burma, coming to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand, and Hasna Al-Salam, a Muslim woman fleeing with family members from the violence of the Syrian Civil War to a camp in Greece and eventually to Austin, Texas. To protect her subjects, Goudeau changes the names of the Karen and Syrian refugees as well as the names of their family members and even of some caseworkers. Goudeau writes compassionately of the refugees’ desperation in trying to protect their families – the bureaucratic obstacles of government policies, the dangers of the journeys, the language and cultural barriers, the dire economic challenges, and the traumas of family separation. She makes clear that how we treat refugees says much about the soul of our country.  This powerful book should be required reading.

American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis by Adam Hochschild is a must read for anyone who questions whether civilization really makes progress. By the author of the brilliant Spanish Civil War book Spain in Our Hearts, American Midnight covers the years 1917 to 1921.  As the Great War loomed in Europe and income inequity roiled the home front, our country became increasingly nativist, anti-immigrant, racist, repressive and anti-labor. Conspiracy theories abounded about Bolshevik and anarchist plots, and free speech (whether spoken or printed) was trampled upon by passage of the1918 Sedition Acts. Woodrow Wilson ignored racial discrimination throughout the federal government and turned a blind eye toward violence and vigilantism in the name of national security. A young J. Edgar Hoover grew to prominence by spying, illegal detention and other abuses of power. Political prisoners crowded not only federal but state and county jails, often due to trumped-up charges. Many issues in American Midnight survive, and there are lessons to be learned from that period of history, made clear by Hochschild’s intense research, cogent writing and driving narrative.

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre is a detailed account of the secrets, lies and spycraft employed during the Cold War by the UK’s MI-6 (and MI-5) agencies and the Soviet Union’s KGB.  The CIA is secondary to those players in this account focusing on KGB spy Oleg Gordievsky, who rose through the ranks of Soviet super spies and simultaneously became a double agent for the Brits. Gordievsky’s parents and brother were KGB, as was his first wife,  but in the 1960’s – with the 1961 Berlin wall and the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia – Oleg became increasingly disillusioned with Russia.  Stationed initially in Denmark, he relished living in a freer society, and, after struggling with the issue, established a relationship with British intelligence agents. Over 30 years as a secret agent, he provided important information to the West that helped shape history at certain key inflection points. The tension of leading a double life took a toll, and eventually his duplicity was discovered by the KGB. He was ordered back to Moscow, where his life hung in the balance. (The “traitor” referred to in the title is Aldrich Ames, a CIA double agent, who is likely the person who blew the whistle on Gordievsky.) In a stunning maneuver worthy of a John Le Carre novel, the Brits extricated him, and provided protection for him and his family in a new life in England.  An amazing read that leaves this reader wondering about our intelligence capacity today.

2 Responses to Books for early spring, pt. 1 – non-fiction by Marjorie Arons-Barron

  1. Gordon Pugh says:

    Ben Macintyre’s Spy and Traitor is a must read for espionage genre cognoscenti and has even been lauded by none other than John le Carré as “the best true spy story I have ever read”. John le Carré certainly knew a ton about writing high quality espionage thrillers and Ben deserved that accolade in this instance.

    However, as a spy in his own right David Cornwell was an extraordinarily long chalk behind Oleg Gordievsky. Mind you, as the son of a fraudster, a known associate of the infamous London gangsters the Kray Brothers, David Cornwell was not necessarily as good at spying as he might have thought when looking in the mirror. Indeed, it seems that posthumously he had admitted he has more Achilles heels than toes!

    An intriguing brief News Article dated 31 October 2022 about all that (and about Pemberton’s People in MI6 et al) is well worth reading in TheBurlingtonFiles website. If you liked the Spy and Traitor by Ben of the Times you should read the epic non-fiction spy novel, Beyond Enkription in TheBurlingtonFiles series.

    Don’t expect John le Carré’s delicate diction, sophisticated syntax and placid plots but Beyond Enkription has been described as ”up there with My Silent War by Kim Philby and No Other Choice by George Blake”. So if you want to experience raw espionage written by a real secret agent give it a go. After all, in real life its protagonist was one of the mavericks in Pemberton’s People in MI6 and John le Carré turned down their offer of a collaboration.

  2. Sarah Cross says:

    Did John le Carré have more Achilles heels than he had toes? David Cornwell was a formidable yet enchanting character and may have been arguably the best writer ever in the espionage genre but was he the perfect spy? Probably not and he even agreed with that … in his posthumously published letters. For more on him as an imperfect spy do see TheBurlingtonFiles website and read an intriguing news article dated 31 October 2022.
    Some mavericks in MI6 called Pemberton’s People were disappointed David Cornwell was outwitted by Monty’s cousin. Do have a look at The Burlington Files series starting with Beyond Enkription as long as you don’t expect John le Carré’s delicate diction and sophisticated syntax.

    Beyond Enkription is an intriguing raw and noir fact-based spy novel and it’s a must read for espionage cognoscenti but what would it have been like if David Cornwell had collaborated with Bill Fairclough? Even though they didn’t collaborate, Beyond Enkription is still described as ”up there with My Silent War by Kim Philby and No Other Choice by George Blake”.