Why you should care
Because this is about great novels and nonfiction.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
The OZY Summer Reading Series: Each week we share a specially themed book list chosen by OZY staff.
Believe it or not, I hardly ever crack a spy novel (been there, done that). No, when I need a break from digging through foreign affairs sites, trolling conferences or jetting off overseas, I turn to an eclectic hoard of novels and nonfiction on my Kindle or iPad — devices that allow me to more easily indulge my habit of reading four or five books at a time. So as you contemplate the beach, consider these …
The only best-seller I’ll mention is David McCullough’s latest, The Wright Brothers. McCullough (Truman, 1776, John Adams) takes you to another time in America. A time of small towns, gifted tinkerers, inventors, hometown entrepreneurs — a kind of Silicon Valley before transistors. I got goose bumps reading about Dec. 17, 1903, when two high school-educated brothers from Dayton, Ohio, changed the world as they got their motorized “aeroplane” up off the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Bet you will too.
A world away in taste is my lifelong obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald, which recently led me to devour So We Read On, Georgetown professor Maureen Corrigan’s homage to The Great Gatsby, exploring why we keep coming back to this 1925 masterpiece so little appreciated in its own time. My guess is she agrees with one critic who said Fitzgerald possesses that most elusive quality: charm. If you’re game for literary biographies, you can’t do better than Matthew Bruccoli’s Some Kind of Epic Grandeur, the phrase Fitzgerald used to describe his life in a letter to his daughter. Equally engaging is R. Clifton Spargo’s Beautiful Fools, a historically grounded novel that seeks to re-create a late 1930s trip to Cuba by Scott and his wife, Zelda, who had been temporarily released from a hospital treating her incurable mental illness. And don’t skip Fitzgerald’s short stories, the best of which in my view are “May Day” and “Babylon Revisited.”
For a page-turner on espionage history, you can’t do better than Ben MacIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends.
I’ve also recently wrapped up two contemporary novels, dramatically different in style but having in common a deep and detailed exploration of what might be called “ordinary life” — A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Readers love ’em (me) or hate ’em, and I think those in the latter category miss the point when they complain they’re just reading about someone going through life. Tyler’s book — her 20th, and like all her others, set in Baltimore — is her latest exploration of generations of family life. She nails the complex feelings we all have about family relations and meets my test for a great novel, which is that her images stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Ditto for Franzen’s book, although it’s not for the faint of heart or those easily plunged into depression by characters who make foolish mistakes and struggle to relate decently to others. Tyler and Franzen are simply brilliant writers — but Tyler sneaks up on you, while Franzen assaults your senses.
OK, I know, so where’s the spy stuff? If hungry for a recent spy thriller, try The Director by The Washington Post’s David Ignatius. Ignatius “gets” the spy business — the lingo, the “tradecraft,” the complexity (and hey, I get a credit at the end). I’d also point you to Sweet Tooth, by the gifted British writer Ian McEwan, who weaves his novel around a young woman recruited into one of Britain’s services, MI5, in the 1950s. And for a page-turner on espionage history, you can’t do better than Ben MacIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends, the true story of Kim Philby, the high-ranking British intelligence officer recruited by the Soviets while still a student at Cambridge in the 1930s. Legendary CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton had trusted Philby so thoroughly that when Philby’s treachery was discovered, it threw Angleton into a downward spiral of paranoia.
So pick a few of these for the beach and get going!