Agent Sonya by Ben Mcintyre

Agent SonyaThere have been several biographies and histories about women spies and resisters in World War II. It’s often hard to know what precipitates these mini-trends. I’ve read and enjoyed several of these books (links to them at the end of this post), but the one I read most recently is Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy by Ben Mcintyre. A friend gave the book to me with an enthusiastic recommendation. He was right on–this is a great story.

It’s hard not to think about risk-taking when reading this. What motivates people to insert themselves into life-threatening situations over and over again? Many of us have strong beliefs, but not all of us are willing to die for them. Agent Sonya–or Ursula Kuczynski, as she was born–did exactly this all of her life. She came of age in Weimar Germany, daughter of wealthy secular Jewish parents. Resentment against the Versailles Treaty permeated German politics in the 1920s and the economic disasters of the Weimar Republic only heightened dissatisfaction. Sadly, we know where it all led. 

Starting in her late teens, Ursula was attracted to the better world promised by the Communist Party and soon became an avid member, desperate to be of us to the movement. As she proved herself, she was given more responsibility. She married a young architect who was a Communist sympathizer but it was her love affair with Red Army intelligence officer Richard Sorge that set her firmly on the path to espionage. Sorge was an irresistible combination of charisma and brutality. Handsome and self-indulgent, he spent his life organizing networks of Soviet spies without questioning the ruthless regime he worked for. Ursula fell under his spell and never looked back. She worked in China and Manchuria before World War II, recruiting agents, organizing secret drops of information, and transmitting documents and reports to Moscow in the wee hours of the night. She endured marriages arranged by the Party, had three children, and rose through the ranks. 

Her most stunning achievement was during World War II in Britain, where, resettled in a Cotswold village, she integrated seamlessly into village life with husband number three and her three children. All the while, she had agents who infiltrated the British atomic bomb project. Stalin was desperate not to fall behind the U.S. and the U.K. in creating this weapon. Sonya’s agent, the atomic scientist Klaus Fuchs, provided her with detailed plans first in Britain and then from the U.S. when he was hired for the Manhattan Project. Her dispatches went straight to Stalin’s desk. 

This factual description of Sonya’s work doesn’t do justice to the fascinating details of her exploits and the way McIntyre portrays her emotional states. Her eagerness to be of maximum use to the Communist movement to which she was devoted always clashed with her concern for her children’s safety. She was torn between those two poles all her adult life. British and American intelligence agents were close but couldn’t imagine this ordinary housewife could be so dangerous. It’s a great story.

Here are some other books about women spies and resisters in World War II. There are many more. 

A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy From Fascism by Caroline Moorehead

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson

Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra by Shareen Blair Brysac

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

Home Before Dark by Susan Cheever

Home Before DarkThe full title of this book is Home Before Dark: A Biographical Memoir of John Cheever by His Daughter. Are people still reading John Cheever’s stories and novels? I hope so. Years ago, on my mother’s recommendation, I read The Wapshot Chronicle and The Wapshot Scandal  Although I no longer remember the plots, I do remember the settings and the tone and a few of the incidents. Cheever was the dark poet of suburban life in the1950s. The New York Times referred to him as “the Chekhov of the suburbs.” For many years he wrote short stories, dozens of which were published in the New Yorker; many of his stories won awards. But he felt that unless he could write novels as well, he would not be a fully accomplished writer, hence, eventually, the two novels set in the fictional New England town of Wapshot. Other novels followed.

In Home Before Dark, his daughter Susan remembers her father and the life she and her family led in his egocentric orbit. Cheever was not easy to live with: he was needy, self-absorbed and plagued by feelings of inadequacy. Alcoholism eventually ruined his health. He wasn’t a faithful husband. Finances were a problem for many years. He received many honors for his writing but those awards never brightened his life for long.

Here’s an example of his graceful descriptive writing, from a letter to his soon-to-be wife Mary Winternitz while he was living in Saratoga Springs: “Everyone asks me if I’m going to come up here to live. If you liked the place it would be a possibility. It’s a raucous, genial, half-town, half-big-city. Main Street on a windy night is a lonely and desolate place, but there are at least five cozy bars full of civilized people. The race track has left this whistle stop with a lot of urbane graces. Rents are low, and credit at the grocers’ seems to be inexhaustible.” It’s easy to visualize Main Street at night with a thin man in a trench coat and a slouch hat pushed along on a windy sidewalk from one bar to another. Can you see how Edward Hopper or George Bellows would have painted it? 

Susan Cheever writes that her father’s gift was his “intense concentration on what you can see and hear and smell and touch. He focused on the surface and texture of life, not on the emotions and motives underneath.” His talent was that those surfaces and textures told all we needed to know. 

Like many writers, Cheever had demons, demons that drove him to write and to drink. He wrote in his journal, “I see a world of monsters and beasts; my grasp on creative and wholesome things is gone…How far I have come, I think but I do not seem to have come far at all. I am haunted by some morbid conception of beauty-cum-death for which I am prepared to destroy myself. And so I think that life is a contest, that the forces of good and evil are strenuous and apparent, and that while my self-doubt is profound, nearly absolute, the only thing I have to proceed on is an invisible thread. So I proceed on this.” 

Cheever’s writing reminds me of John Updike, also a master at short stories. (My father gave me a copy of Pigeon Feathers, one of Updike’s first short story collections, when I graduated from high school. I read Updike’s short stories for years. I still have several ripped from the pages of the New Yorker in the late 1960s.)


Laurie Colwin

Family HappinessJust a short post to say that I just heard the good news that Laurie Colwin’s books are going to be re-released by her publishers. Colwin, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of reading her novels, short stories, and cookbooks, was a very special writer who died much too young. Her tone was a little arch, a little knowing, but never cloying. She wrote about our lives and the unexpected things that bring us happiness. Start with any of her novels, like Family Happiness or A Big Storm Knocked It Over.  She wrote regularly for the New Yorker and Gourmet–her food writing is elegant and delightful. (I used to make her black bean soup recipe.) 

If you enjoy novels by Emma Straub, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Catherine Schine, or Margot Livesey, I think you’ll like Laurie Colwin’s writing too. 


The Vixen by Francine Prose

VixenProse’s new novel is nested: several stories resting uncomfortably together. It’s not uncomfortable for the reader, just for the main character, Simon Putnam. Poor, naïve Simon, just out of Harvard with a major in folklore and mythology, of all things.  The novel’s set in1953: Joe McCarthy’s HUAC hearings are in full swing and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg have just been executed for passing secrets to the Russians. In the opening prologue, Simon and his parents (who knew Ethel Rosenberg) are watching Ethel’s execution on TV in their Coney Island apartment. Prose’s juxtaposition of their banal conversation and the horrific event is a brilliant piece of writing.  

With the help of his well-known cultural critic uncle Madison Putnam, Simon lands a low level editing job with a literary publisher: Landry, Landry, and Bartlett. (There’s only one Landry; the second iteration of the name is for pretentiousness.) Simon is the slush pile reader, but one day Warren Landry comes by with a special manuscript: The Vixen, the the Patriot, and the Fanatic. Simon’s task is to edit the manuscript in secret. It’s a bodice-ripper that Landry hopes will sell millions and save the company from financial ruin. The only problem for Simon is that the main character in all those steamy sex scenes is easily recognizable as Ethel Rosenberg. Sex with the prosecutor! Sex with her jailer! Simon knows the book is trash and that by trying to improve it he’s betraying his parents and their belief in Ethel’s innocence. He’s also betraying his own literary ideals. “Some compromise could still be brokered between trash and treasure,” Simon muses, afraid to fail on his first assignment. 

It gets more complicated. Simon falls in love with the author, Anya Partridge, first from her photograph then when he meets her in the asylum where she’s a resident. They have sex in the Terror Tomb in Coney Island, the first in a long line of trysts in dark places. He’s also in love with Elaine, the publicist at Landry, Landry, etc. His famous uncle takes him out for a boozy lunch. How is it that all of Simon’s fantasies about the publishing world are coming true? Here the reader begins to sense that something’s not quite right and Simon’s being played. There are other levels in this story and the reader can identify some of them ahead of time but probably not all. Echoes of the Norse folktales that Simon loves start to color the plot. 

The novel is funny and touching, but Prose is also making comments about the paranoia of that era (and our own). It’s 1953 seen through the lens of 2021 and reflected back to us through a coming of age tale. Do I make it sound complicated? It’s not–Prose is in complete control of her story and characters and sweeps the reader along, chuckling all the way. 

If you enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s novel Transcription or Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, you’ll find echoes of those novels in The Vixen


Historical Fiction about New York City

Great MistakeI’m still mostly reading my daily LitHub email rather than books; life is still a little complicated here but I will get back to reading books soon. Here’s a link to an interesting interview with Jonathan Lee, about his new novel, The Great Mistake, about the historical character Andrew Haswell Green, who did as much as anyone to create the New York City we live in today.

Green’s fingerprints are on Central Park, Columbus Circle, Broadway’s boulevard-like appearance, and several of our most important museums. He also pushed for the 1898 consolidation of the five boroughs–what many people thought of as a great mistake, hence the title. At the age of 83, Green was murdered on the front steps of his house. His name and reputation descended rapidly into obscurity and he’s little known today.

What great material for a biographer or novelist! In the interview (reprinted from Interview Magazine), David Goodwillie asks Lee about the decision to fictionalize Green’s life. Lee gives an interesting answer: there were years in Green’s life where little or no historical information was available. Writing Green’s life as a novel gave him the opportunity to fill in those gaps. There’s also an interesting discussion between Green and Goodwillie about what makes fiction “literary.” Here’s what Lee says: the literary writer toils in…not the minutia, exactly, but the interior, the personal, the moments that may be just as life defining but from the outside might look small, even inconsequential.”  I think that’s one aspect of literary fiction but not the whole enchilada.

I read and enjoyed Jonathan Lee’s last novel, High Dive, about the IRA’s assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England in 1983. I’m guessing Lee is drawn to historical fiction that allows him to fill in the blanks. I’ll put his new one on my to-read list.

Sean Duffy 3There’s at least one other fictionalized version of the assassination attempt at the Brighton Hotel: Adrian McKinty’s mystery In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, part of his Sean Duffy series. I loved that series and hope McKinty will write at least one more!

Literary News

50926341867_91d82639f0_cI subscribe to LitHub, a daily roundup of literary news. It’s an enjoyable way to start the morning instead of reading the other kind of news. LitHub‘s an eclectic mix of excerpts from new books, stories from literary history, interviews, and book recommendations. There’s always something interesting to read. Today I followed a link to an interesting article titled How History Has Failed to Tell the Story of the Gold Rush Women

I also read the article about the tedious process of bookmaking in the 15th century, when an entire goat was needed to make parchment for one page. Articles from The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a link to an interview with poet Paul Muldoon are among other interesting pieces that round out the issue.

I’m writing this because I’m going to take a break from posting on this blog for a few months. Too many complications in my life right now! So think of LitHub as a substitute until mid-summer, when I plan to be back. I’m giving a (virtual) talk through the East Hampton Public Library in June on memoir and I will post the details so you can join me if you like. 

If you haven’t guessed, the picture above is from a Babar alphabet book.  Happy reading!

Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

Last Night Twisted RiverA friend loaned me this book with an enthusiastic recommendation. Although many people love, love, love John Irving, I’m not one of them. Years ago I read The World According to Garp and there are two distasteful scenes from that novel that still won’t leave my head. Since Last Night in Twisted River was so highly recommended by someone I trust, I thought I’d give it a try. I can’t get it out of my head, but for good reasons.

Irving is a great storyteller and this story is multigenerational, about a father-son relationship. It’s complicated, so bear with me while I try to explain at least part of the setup. The story opens in a logging camp in Coos County, New Hampshire, where Danny Baciagalupo and his Dad, Dominic, live in the cookhouse. Dominic cooks for the loggers. Danny’s beautiful mother, who died when Danny was young, haunts the story and all the characters. Irving repeatedly cycles back to the details of that fatal event and its consequences. There’s also a cast-iron skillet that hangs on the wall, and like the proverbial gun on the mantelpiece, it, too comes back to haunt the characters.

The logging camp alongside the river is a rough and dangerous place. Loggers get sucked into the swift current when they’re shifting logs downstream to the sawmill. Danny lives in fear of the river and the violence of the men who work in and around it. As he grows up in this harsh and unforgiving place, Danny tries to make sense of the relationships among the adults around him. The Native American women who help his father cook know more than they will tell him; they think  it’s for Danny’s own good that he’s kept in the dark. But it’s in the dark that a terrible accident happens and Danny and Dominic run from Coos River to save their lives. They move around over the next several decades for safety, but eventually there’s a return to the logging camp for closure, both for Danny and the reader.

Irving’s descriptions, especially of the logging camp, are so vivid that I could feel the cold in my teeth as I was reading. I wasn’t entirely happy with the way he writes the women (that was my problem with Garp) but it’s a great tale. There are other memorable characters that populate the story, but I’ll leave it to you to meet them. It kept me on the edge of my seat at times, hoping that things would come out right, that Danny and Dominic would have some peace. It’s an absorbing tale to sink into in a comfortable chair on a rainy day with something hot to drink and a piece of good chocolate!

Brood by Jackie Polzin

BroodI read this short novel in one sitting, captured by the distinctive first person narration of the unnamed main character. She’s raising chickens, four multi-colored, empty-headed creatures that occupy a great deal of her time and thoughts. In the first few chapters, I had to keep reminding myself that Brood is fiction, not memoir; that’s how real it felt. It’s also an indication of author’s skill. There are only a few additional characters: Percy, the narrator’s husband; her mother; Helen, her real estate agent friend; a few neighbors who stop by. There’s not much plot; it’s not the point of the novel.

We accompany the narrator on her chores taking care of the chickens through the frigid Minnesota winter, record-breaking heat in summer, and a tornado. She also cleans houses for her realtor friend. Through these activities we are part of her thoughts and a darker aspect of the novel begins to surface, an undercurrent of grief and loss. Caring for the chickens is more than just a mundane activity or hobby. Despite this undercurrent, the novel is filled with humor. One of the chickens–the alpha hen–is named Miss Hennepin County.  Gloria, another chicken, “stood distant watch over the garden like a member of the Secret Service, eyes, unblinking.” Rabbits in the garden are like “zaftig trolls.” A raccoon loads up garbage in an old briefcase and toddles off, as if to another job. At her mother’s house, a greying piece of meat is “resurrected with the life force of ketchup.”

It’s hard to believe that this is a debut novel; it’s filled with such astute observations. The narrator carries her grief alone: “Life is the ongoing effort to live.” Her tactless friend, Helen, “errs most often on the side of talking.” Her husband, Percy, waits, oblivious to her pain, to hear about an academic appointment that will mean a move to a town where they can’t take the chickens. What will happen to the chickens? The contrast between the chickens, who only know the present moment, and the narrator, who knows so much more, is the beating heart of this wonderful story.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Night Watchman

A new book by Louise Erdrich is always an event. Years ago I read and enjoyed her first two novels, The Beet Queen and Love Medicine and I’ve been reading her books ever since. I just finished the latest one, The Night Watchman, on the same day that Deb Haaland was confirmed as the first Native American woman to head the U.S. Dept. of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I don’t normally write about anything political, but the timing was so fortuitous, and Erdrich’s book so wrenching about the relationship between Native American and the U.S. government, that I had to make the connection here.

The Night Watchman is based on letters that Erdrich’s grandfather wrote to 1953 to protest a proposed new policy regarding Native Americans. Ostensibly the policy will “emancipate” Indigenous people; actually it will terminate the federal government’s treaty obligations, opening up tribal lands for public acquisition. Erdrich has been writing about these issues for years, using fiction to illuminate the heart-wrenching stories of Native American lives. Her novels are often set in the tribal lands of the Turtle Mountain band of the Chippewas in North Dakota, the tribe she belongs to.

In The Night Watchman we follow several tribal members: Thomas, the night watchman and Council member who is moved to write to the Congressional sponsor of the legislation; Patrice, a young girl who travels to the Twin Cities to search for her sister; Wood Mountain, a young boxer who loves Patrice; and others whose voices enlarge on the picture of reservation life. As the Kirkus reviewer wrote, “In Erdrich’s hands, daily life on the reservation comes alive, the crushing poverty and lack of opportunity tempered by family cohesion and the wisdom of the elders.” That wisdom is embodied in Zhaanat, Patrice’s mother, whose unusual hands express her intuitive relationship with the natural world. Erdrich’s writing, as usual, combines quotidian detail with penetrating and rapturous descriptions of the characters’ relationships with their surrounding and traditions. It’s a potent combination. There were several times when I had to take a break from the story, especially during Patrice’s odyssey to the Twin Cities, a true descent into Hades. If you’ve read Erdrich’s other novels, you’ll enjoy this one; if you haven’t, The Night Watchman is a good place to start.

To go back to the beginning of this post, Heather Cox Richardson, author of the daily blog Letters from an American, wrote about Deb Haaland’s appointment the morning after. Since you’ll be reading this at a later date, it’s Richardson’s March 15th post. In case you’ve forgotten, Richardson gives a short summary of the ways we’ve betrayed the Native Americans: the land grabs, the “removals,” the efforts at forced assimilation through boarding schools, and the disdain for Indigenous culture. It’s all in Erdrich’s novels.

What do we look for in a novel?

Ruined by ReadingI’ve always believed that appreciating good art in any medium requires our effort. Good art doesn’t come to us–we go to it. The more we extend ourselves to understand what the writer (or artist or composer) intends, the more we can learn from it and the more it will enrich our lives. Of course, that begs the question–what is good writing? How do we know what writing is worth our close attention? Not all writing is good and, of course, “good” is a subjective term. There were even times when Shakespeare was considered just a middling playwright. And maybe, for practical purposes, “good” writing is just what we enjoy whether it’s critically acclaimed or not.

And speaking of critics, I like what Vivian Gornick said in a recent interview with Hannah Gold from The Nation: “I think it was Baudelaire who was the first literary person that I know of to describe criticism as autobiography. The first time I ever saw that sentence I understood how true it was. In other words, what any writer does is essentially give the reader a view of how the writer sees the world…the idea that the critic is omniscient, is committing in ironclad terms the right and the wrong, the good and the bad, as if coming from above, is ridiculous. It’s just not true.” Gornick always has interesting things to say about literature and I’ve read many of her books, mostly essays about literature, life (hers), and feminism.

I recently came across an article on this topic in The Guardian titled Pretentious, impenetrable, hard work…better? Why we need difficult books by Lara Feigel. You may enjoy reading it and thinking about the issues it raises in terms of your own reading. I’ve loved reading the challenging novels that reward close attention, like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, but like a dieter, I enjoy cheating with a thriller, fantasy epic, or mystery. In the same way, I love going to the Frick Museum to feed my soul with those remarkable works of art, but I also enjoy the costume exhibits at the Metropolitan. The pleasures of reading are many and can be found in many places and many genres. Librarians have a saying, “Never apologize for your reading tastes.” My goal with this blog is to provide variety so everyone finds something they enjoy, but it’s also to write about the harder stuff, the stuff that makes great art. I recently spent two years reading Proust with a group in New York. Did I love every word? No, but it was a rewarding experience to spend time with a writer who understands the human heart so thoroughly and with other people who appreciated exactly this quality in his writing. 

The book cover at the top of this post is Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s short memoir Ruined By Reading: A Life in Books , a delightful book about the power of reading in her life. It turns out many readers have the same kinds of experiences with books; Schwartz just knows how to put those experiences into words.