Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré

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 dishonored spy and lure the enemy to his ultimate defeat.

The first time I became interested in John le Carré's work was when Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Benedict Cumberbatch was advertised prior to its release. I'm a huge fan of Cumberbatch (or The Batch, as he is affectionately known) whose Sherlock won me over, and curious about the movie I suggested the book for my book club's reading list. Majority asked for a more famous novel by le Carré so here we are.
It is easy to understand why this book has stood the test of time: it is a fast-paced, intelligent, emotionally-engaging thriller with characters who are easy to care about and even the shift of perspective from what I would describe as "inner circle third person" to "outsider third person", which was quite obvious, didn't change that. I think le Carre employed this device to hide certain things from the reader without making Leamas an unreliable narrator. He was counting on the reader to figure out what was really happening as the novel progressed and with the little hints along the way it wasn't that hard. The book could've become boring at that point considering that the action isn't in chases or gun-fights but in a steady execution of the plan, but le Carre had an ace up his sleeve. With the perspective back to "inner circle third person" the reader got to realize along with Leamas that he wasn't as inner circle as he thought he was. A three-level conspiracy, my friends, how delicious is that?! I won't say more for the sake of not spoiling the ending, but you see how this book is never exactly what it seems at first, with characters pursuing secret agendas to the very end.
Written in the middle of the Cold War and being a spy thriller it is no surprise that this book pits characters who are both physically and figuratively on different sides of the Berlin wall against each other. Le Carre talks ideology here and doesn't leave any room for doubt as to which side he is on. I don't know how historically accurate the details are and the year on the calendar didn't allow for ambiguity if one wanted to be published and widely read, but the fact remains. While there aren't any gray areas as far as le Carre's and Leamas' allegiances go there are plenty of them in the rest of the novel. I suppose it is like that in the business of spying where the ends justify whatever means necessary. As Leamas said, the only criteria of success is results, and ethics are sacrificed at every turn.
The most memorable and thought-provoking character for me was Liz, particularly because little about her is straightforward. She is young, naive and idealistic but she is locked in a gray area even more so than the spies who've made it their home. She belongs to the Communist Party yet she dislikes its everyday defining characteristics, she sees a socialist state first-hand yet she doesn't question her beliefs, she rejects the capitalist ideals yet she is devoted to a man who is as ideologically far from her as possible. She gives the depth and the heart to this novel, particularly by showing Leamas the man underneath the mask of the spy and making the reader care for those who at the end of the day are collateral in the game of politics.
This book was published almost 40 years ago and is set even earlier but it doesn't read as dated. In fact, if I didn't know when it was written I would've taken it for a historical spy thriller. Now I'm even more curious about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy because I am confident that le Carre knows what he is doing so expect to see me talking about it here at some point in the future.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Marcus aka “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he already knows how the system works – and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.
But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they’re mercilessly interrogated for days.
When the DHS finally releases them, his injured best friend Darryl does not come out. The city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: "M1k3y" will expose the DHS himself.

We all know someone who insists on paying for everything in cash, or who won't bank online, or who is absolutely convinced that big brother is out to get them and everybody else, or at least that big brother is watching. We listen to them and think to ourselves "That's just crazy talk. Can you say Paranoia?". But what if they're right? What if those security cameras are more than just ordinary anti-theft precautions? What if our spending histories are tracked by some entity other than our banks? What if all the electronic devices we've come to rely on so much can be and are monitored to establish our movement patterns and what not? It's not really paranoia if what you're concerned about is really going on. Cory Doctorow examines a world like that, a world where everything is bugged. School books have chips in them, gait recognition cameras are everywhere, credit cards and public transit passes are used to track movement of their holders, and all this feeds into whatever agency is in charge, be that the school board or the Department of Homeland Security. After a terrorist attack the system is thrown into overdrive and Marcus is one of the first victims of the indiscriminate checks performed by the overzealous officials, who seem to be looking for someone, anyone to pin the crime on. At only 17 he's scared but he's not backing down, instead he's fighting the system with its own weapons.
My favorite thing about Marcus is that he is a realistic character in that he is not some superhero devoid of fear, and when he is afraid he is not too proud to admit it. At the end of the day he is just a kid against adults who have all the power, he fights when he can and with the tools he has but he isn't reckless about it because he knows that more than just his freedom is on the line. And when things go as far as they can with the status quo unchanged he recognizes that it's time to take the fight to the next level, time to hand it off to those with more resources and more influence. He is also a 17 year old with a life outside of the fight. He has a girlfriend, he is at odds with his dad, he reads books and does school work, he plays video games and mouths off to his teacher.
Marcus' father is a character who represents the "I'm not doing anything wrong so I don't see what the big deal is, let them check and monitor and catch the bad guys" side of the argument, and I'm glad that Doctorow wrote him this way. I'm also glad that this wasn't his position from the very beginning of the book, it showed that people can and will change their minds under certain circumstances. It also showed that such changes of heart are not seamless or painless.
Marcus' friends and acquaintances cover the remainder of the spectrum, from spirited support of his actions to adamant disapproval. There are also those who are spies out of necessity, recruited by the DHS to infiltrate the underground network. The tensions resulting from these interactions provided the difficulties that made the story more believable, after all life's not all black and white, the gray often dominates the playing field and that's just how it is.
Overall I loved this novel, but what made it a little less enjoyable for me is all the technical talk. Marcus often walks the reader through what the different bugs and gadgets are, how they work, how they can be deactivated or circumvented, and since I'm the kind of person who loves her gadgets but doesn't particularly itch to find out how the software and hardware work it went over my head on occasion. Besides, I figured it was all author's imagination steeped in today's technological reality. But then at the end of the book one of the afterwords is by a security technologist, whose job is basically to figure out how electronic systems can be broken and how to make them more secure, and the other is by a professional hacker. Imagine my surprise and general feeling of unease when these real-life guys started talking about how Doctorow's "inventions" either do exist or aren't that far-fetched. There is also a bibliography with an extensive list of eye-opening titles. I admit, after reading these sections I started to wonder whether I should move my family to a cash-only basis for daily transactions to protect us from the possibility of both big and little brother infiltration (let's face it, if the government has no interest in us there's probably a marcus hacking away within a 2-mile radius from our house). In the end laziness won over that sentiment, but the seed has been sown.
This is a very well-rounded novel that is fast-paced and written in a voice that is casual without being too adult or too adolescent. It poses interesting questions and explores a variety of standpoints that are just as relevant today as they were when the book was published, if not more so. I recommend it without reservation, especially if you are the kind of reader who loves their gadgets, wants to know how they work inside, and wants their privacy to remain their own, regardless of whether there's anything to hide besides grandma's secret pie recipe.

P.S. Those with ereaders, heads up: Doctorow makes the novel available on his website free of charge in a variety of formats under the Creative Common License. Yes, he is that cool.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

May Biblio-Update

Greetings from the strawberry patch!
Hi, guys :)
Spring is in full swing in my neck of the woods and although it's a bit chilly for my taste (and no, you won't hear me complaining about the heat in August) nature's promising all kinds of goodies. Our strawberry patch is the one I'm most excited about. Hubby spent all day yesterday bunny-proofing it so my hopes are high.
If you've been following the blog you may have noticed that things haven't been going according to plan exactly. That's because back in January on a whim I took a Coursera Fantasy & Science Fiction course. We read a book a week, had to write essays, watch videos, evaluate each other's work and I loved every minute of it. Well, except for the part where a peer accused me of plagiarism because I used the phrase "socio-economic issues" in an essay. That wasn't fun but that was one essay. You've been reading my reviews for the books we covered ever since I realized that I haven't been posting any for all the studying, and I hope you've been enjoying them. So far these are the Fantasy & Sci-Fi curriculum novels I've reviewed:
Only Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is left but you'll see it on Sunday.
I had a short reprieve and have been able to catch up on my book club reading but today that's over for the next 15 weeks: I'm beginning two consecutive Coursera courses and there will be lots of work involved again. The first is a basic writing tools course which I'm taking as a grammar refresher to help me in my writing, those pesky commas get me every time. The second is called Fiction of Relationships and it will be examining relationships in a number of works of fiction covering the last several centuries, so you'll be seeing reviews of some more classics. I've been saying for a while that I needed to catch up on those and here's my chance! I expect it will be a very interesting and informative experience and although I'm a tiny bit intimidated by the fact that it's a Brown University course I'm at the same time very excited to have the opportunity to participate in it. Here's my reading list:
Manon Lescaut - Abbé Prévost
Bartleby the Scrivener - Herman Melville
Benito Cereno - Herman Melville
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë
Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka
In the Penal Colony - Franz Kafka
The Country Doctor - Franz Kafka
To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
Light in August - William Faulkner’s
Ficciones - Jorge Luis Borges
The Ice Palace - Tarjei Vesaas
Beloved - Tony Morrison
Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee
I will do my best to post at least 2 reviews every three weeks although Special Feature posts will probably continue to be in short supply until about the middle of August. I'll do my best to post something special every once in a while but girl's got to prioritize!
Since my reading plans for this year are getting a major overhaul I think it's safe to say that I won't be able to read all the books I so giddily posted about at the end of last year. Oh well, may be next time :)
Hope the year's going well for you all!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day To All Moms!

That was me and my mom, me in bed sick and my mom reading to me. This is how readers are made! I don't know who the artist is but this picture made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside :)

Review: The Cat's Table - Michael Ondaatje

In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy boards a huge liner bound for England – a ‘castle that was to cross the sea’. At mealtimes, he is placed at the lowly ‘Cat's Table’ with an eccentric group of grown-ups and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys become involved in the worlds and stories of the adults around them, tumbling from one adventure and delicious discovery to another, ‘bursting all over the place like freed mercury’. And at night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner – his crime and fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.

The most powerful feature of this book for me is how poetic the language is. The lyricism of it, the almost dreamy quality of the narrative make this novel an experience of poetry in prose and the character's voyages throughout the book only become richer for it.
The novel's protagonist, Michael, tells the reader about the trip that changed his life both literally and figuratively when he was only 11 years old, although I didn't get a feeling that it was a journey of self-discovery in any sense. The boy simply experiences the adventures of the voyage and the adult reminisces about them and the events that followed, in a way wrapping things up for the characters, telling the reader where they ended up and how. Curiously enough the adult Michael is a writer, and Ondaatje himself arrived in England from Colombo when he was 11 on a ship called the Oronsay, just like the boy in the novel does. There is some speculation about whether the novel is autobiographical in a lot of ways and although the author hasn't confirmed or denied this I am inclined to believe that it is indeed autobiographical, however fictionalized and dramatized, especially in terms of a child experiencing life without direct adult influence and an adult fully understanding the real impact and meaning of those childhood experiences.
Michael's story is intertwined with stories of other passengers, many of whom aren't who they seem to be at first and whose presence makes for a multi-layered narrative. This reminded me of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who employs a similar story-within-a-story structure, and if you've been following the blog you'll remember that I enjoyed that book a lot. My favorite story-in-a-story was that of Miss Lasqueti, I found it even more touching and fascinating than that of the prisoner. Possibly that's because it is more subtle, there is no life or death drama and secrets in it, yet it got to me and made me think about the events of Miss Lasqueti's life and their undeniable effects.
There is quite a bit of jumping back and forth in time so if you usually have trouble with that - be prepared. It wasn't a problem for me at all, I actually enjoyed it because it gave the story a more mature feeling, clarified in a way why the 11-year-old protagonist didn't seem exactly pre-teen. After all it is an adult looking back through time at the child, reliving the experiences through the memories, offering insight that he wouldn't have had all those years ago.
This was one of the books I listened to as opposed to reading, and although having the author do the narration was very special because I knew that the intonations, pauses and pronunciations were done exactly as intended I think this is a book that should be read, be that on paper or eReader, especially if you are a person whose visual perception is better than audio perception. As I've mentioned before the writing is extremely beautiful and if you look up quotes from this book online you'll see exactly what I mean. I myself will be picking up this book again, this time soaking it all in from the page.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Review: Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire by Mireille Guiliano

When Mireille Guiliano became a senior executive and spokesperson for Veuve Clicquot, she took the Champagne to the top of the luxury market, using her distinctive French woman's philosophy and style. Now she uses those same talents and savoir faire to help readers pop their own corks and get the mostout of life. Drawing on her experiences at the front lines and highest echelons of the business world, she gives women (and a few men, peut-être) the practical advice they need to make the most of work without skimping on all the other good things in life.
Stylish, witty, and wise, Mireille segues easily from the small details to the big picture, never losing sight of what is most important: feeling good, facing challenges, getting ahead, and maximizing pleasure at every opportunity.

Mireille Giuliano is the author of a book you may have heard of, French Women Don't Get Fat. While I haven't read that best-seller of hers, not yet anyway (it's all for health, I assure you, vanity has nothing to do with it!), the title of this book made it seem like it would be a good read right now: lately I have been pondering career advancement, how we women fit into the world where men continue to rule, and why the situation is what it is. Guiliano was president and CEO of Clicquot, Inc. for several decades, so I figured she'd have some interesting thoughts on the matter.
I wasn't wrong. This French-born powerhouse tells it like it is, from women having to work harder and smarter than competitors to get ahead, to the fact that women continue to get the short end of the stick when it comes to compensation. What I liked though was that none of it was a lament of the situation. "It is what it is, face the facts, put on your big girl pencil skirt and go get 'em if that's what you want to do" is Guiliano's kind of career advice.
She is realistic about our feminine shortcomings (not playing up our own worth, not negotiating the terms to get what we want, gossiping, trying to take care of everything and everybody at the expense of ourselves) just as she is realistic about our strengths (ability to listen and see a problem from different angles, being flexible, being enough of a novelty to command immediate attention if we position ourselves as an equal with valuable insights to offer). She gives practical advice on topics ranging from presenting ourselves in the best possible light both on paper and in person, to entertaining, to value of excellent communication skills and time-priority balance. She talks about what makes a good leader and a good manager, the importance of not being reluctant to share information with other women and help each other advance, as well as the fact that sometimes chance and luck are huge factors in the course one's career takes.
Throughout the book she illustrates her points with real-life examples from her own career and experiences of other women, and men, she knows, which helps to make the book a more lively read. It is already written in a very accessible voice so these illustrations make it helpful and fun at the same time. If that's not fun enough there are recipes, self-deprecating humor, wardrobe advice and a healthy dash of French turns of phrase.
My only reservation regarding this book stems from the fact that despite all the positives I didn't get a feeling that it is aimed at women who aren't aspiring for corner offices. Granted, Guiliano writes from her experience, and she was a high-level executive in a luxury industry for many years, but not everybody is looking for titles with Cs in them, some of us just want to get out of the rut of the lowest levels of the support staff positions. On the other hand of course the time she spends talking about entertaining business associates or working with leaders of foreign companies only makes this book more useful for those of us who do want that C title. After all, tips on working smarter is something we all can use, from an entry-level assistant to a president of a corporation.
One last note: the very last sentence of this book is "Bon courage". Not luck, courage. That alone made the book worth reading.