Category Archives: book reviews

Two novels on undercovers and infiltration – #Spycops #Spycopsfiction

Books reviewed:

  • Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad (1911)
  • Demo by Richard Allen (New England Library, 1970)

 

So, I am guiding my reading a bit, because I am Writing A Paper.  These two are both

  • about Russian secret intelligence operations overseas.
  • about the infiltration and attempted disruption of dissident social movements.
  • pretty tough to read (for different reasons).

There ends the similarity.

Under Western Eyes (UWE) is a late novel from Joseph “Heart of Darkness” Conrad, and apparently almost broke him in the writing (and me in the reading – not to War and Peace levels, but in the same ballpark).  It’s about a young student, Razumov, in Moscow who gets caught up – against his will – in an assassination plot and its aftermath.  The majority of UWE takes place in Geneva, where he is attempting to infiltrate/spy on some expat Russians.  My god it goes on. This is Conrad, so obvs there is an Unreliable Narrator, an elderly Brit trying to keep his lechery under control. It is, apparently, a Novel of Ideas.  Yes, well, Conrad sure does stint on the car chases and explosions…

People say things like this-

“I’ll tell you what you think,” he said explosively, but not raising his voice. “You think that you are dealing with a secret accomplice of that unhappy man. No, I do not know that he was unhappy. He did not tell me. He was a wretch from my point of view, because to keep alive a false idea is a greater crime than to kill a man. I suppose you will not deny that? I hated him! Visionaries work everlasting evil on earth. Their Utopias inspire in the mass of mediocre minds a disgust of reality and a contempt for the secular logic of human development.”

(Conrad, 1911: 95)

This is Conrad, of course, so there are plenty of acid observations to be going along with

“No!” Razumov interrupted without heat. “Indeed, I don’t want to cast aspersions, but it’s just as well to have no illusions.”

Peter Ivanovitch gave him an inscrutable glance of his dark spectacles, accompanied by a faint smile.

“The man who says that he has no illusions has at least that one,” he said, in a very friendly tone. “But I see how it is, Kirylo Sidorovitch. You aim at stoicism.”

(Conrad, 1911: 207)

and, if you like it really really over-wrought

Then, looking hard at me with her brilliant black eyes—

“There are evil moments in every life. A false suggestion enters one’s brain, and then fear is born—fear of oneself, fear for oneself. Or else a false courage—who knows? Well, call it what you like; but tell me, how many of them would deliver themselves up deliberately to perdition (as he himself says in that book) rather than go on living, secretly debased in their own eyes? How many?… And please mark this—he was safe when he did it. It was just when he believed himself safe and more—infinitely more—when the possibility of being loved by that admirable girl first dawned upon him, that he discovered that his bitterest railings, the worst wickedness, the devil work of his hate and pride, could never cover up the ignominy of the existence before him. There’s character in such a discovery.”

(Conrad, 1911: 379)

But tbh, I would not have finished it but for the Paper (see below) (And yes, this is almost certainly a reflection on my shallowness rather than the book’s worth!)

richard-allen-demo-bk

Meanwhile, Demo is a 1970 offering from the New England Library (men of certain age will know that this means violence, sex, sexual violence and Social Darwinism that would have Herbert Spencer saying “steady on old chap”). This book is the kind of trash that gives enjoyable trash a bad name.  The racism, sexism, classism, unabashed madness of it all makes it a very hard read.  Plot? Well, if you can call it that – some old farts from a thinly veiled Special Operations Executive get it in their heads that all the demos around the world are being orchestrated by Moscow.

Here’s a flavour of the writing (warning, there are pages and pages of this-

The colonel felt pride wash over him as Mai Bedford lifted her glass high. It was a distinctive appelation (sic) – like Flying Tigers and Desert Rats. But for sheer guts and courage none of those others could begin to match a Hartsman or Hartswoman as they had fondly been called in those final days of Europe’s torment. These were the backbone Britain and the Free World had needed when dark clouds clouded the horizon> They had been a strange mixture of bravery, nervelessness, patriotic neurotic so vital in that ancient game called espionage.

(Allen, 1970: 19)

And they are right – there is a baby-faced KGB agent inciting and pulling the strings, while getting laid a lot (who knew that Bolsheviks could be so, well, horizontal).

So these codgers get their mostly willing kids to do counter-espionage. Most of this seems to be done by shagging hippies (always with huge tits, obvs) who have relevant info-

““They’re avid protesters. Anything goes for that Cy, Tim. He’s part Panther, part anti-pollutionist, part anti-Vietnam. You name it, he’s in there pitching against established order. He hates pigs, too,” and she laughed uproariously.
(Allen, 1970: 45)

There’s a grotesque faux-apologia for My Lai and by the end……. ah, look, I can’t go on.  It’s repetitive, lurid, gratuitous, with plot holes you could stage a march of millions through.  …  I would not have finished it but for the Paper (see below).  This is not a book that should be tossed aside lightly. It should be…  blow-torched.

Weirdly it makes zero reference to the Angry Brigade shit that was going down at the same time. It should be read against the slightly- later “Leftwing Terrorism in Britain literature” that has been so well-explored by Joseph Dartington.

 

 

I am writing an article for an upcoming conference, organised by the State Violence Research network with the title “Spies Like Us: Of the usefulness to activists of fictional representations of the agent provocateur and the spy.”

IF YOU KNOW OF ANY BOOKS, FILMS, PLAYS, TV shows that have a representation of the penetration of a social movement organisation (ideally an environmental one), ideally by a member of the police (but corporate spy will do), ESPECIALLY if it set in the recent past (i.e. since, oh, 2000), then please let me know!

 

At the moment the A-list includes

Vida by Marge Piercy (an all-time favourite, which I look forward to reading with my all-time favourite wife in a few weeks)

My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru

The Invisible Circus by Jenny Egan

Invisible Armies by Jon Evans

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

The meh list

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad

 

The Under NO circumstances attempt to read list

Demo by Richard Allen

 

(I will do a separate review for some non-fiction that I read – Under Cover, Deep Cover etc)

 

 

The I don’t know yet list

The Weatherman Guy by Jon Burmeister

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Brilliant neglected book: “Ecological Pioneers” #Australia #environment

ecolpioneersI like to believe I’ve read a lot these three and a half years (even by my own somewhat Rabelaisian standards).  Specifically, on the Australian environment movement/climate change/climate policy etc.  I’ve read a few excellent books, a few stinkers and lots in between (thankfully mostly at the ‘excellent’ end, and towering piles of journal articles (I mean this literally).

And I seem to have inadvertently saves (one of) the best for last (or latest):

Ecological Pioneers: a social history of Australian Ecological Thought and Action  by Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill is an absolute delight (and largely neglected its seems – I’ve seen very few references to it anywhere else – so hat tip to William Lines’ Patriots, from 2006).

The authors have clearly been involved in various environmental battles, kept their eyes open and figured out who would be worth talking too.  But beyond ‘the usual [and deservedly so] suspects’ of Judith Wright, Bob Brown, the Dunphys, Jack Mundey, Val Plumwood etc, but also great capsule portraits of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Russel Drysdale, the folks behind ‘Keyline’ (a land management system that inspired the Permaculture people – and there’s a great section on David Holmgren too).

Alongside that is a very necessary, well-written and downright useful section on indigenous views of nature/landscape/country and “ownership”, all the way up to the Mabo decision.

Look, I could gush for hours, and quote liberally (I spent three hours today typing up some ‘must-not-forget’ bits.  The tl:dr is this: if you have any interest in ecological thinking, its provenance, Australia etc, then this is a must must read.

Guilty Pleasure: Jackson Lamb thrillers

Pointy end of the thesis is upon me. I am getting it done. I’d possibly be getting it done marginally quicker if it weren’t for Mick Herron‘s “Jackson Lamb” thrillers.

I stumbled on the first, Slow Horses in a charity shop in Glossop (as you do). The conceit looked amusing – what if MI5 had the same problem as any other large organisation – there are always people who should never have been recruited, who have screwed up or burnt out but are too difficult to sack directly (they know where the bodies are buried, or would cause awkward scenes). So, what do you do, you slough them of to somewhere and give them meaningless work until they quit… It probably happens, who knows.

So, we have Slough house (get it – Slow, slough of despond, sloughing off dead skin – ain’t English wonderful?), a nondescript building near Barbican where assorted drunks, gamblers, anti-socials and so on are under the caustic eye of one Jackson Lamb, a gross and harsh figure, somewhere between Pantagruel and the police chief Rawls in The Wire.

The Wire analogy is not amiss – in both we see law enforcement agencies struggling with budgets, office politics, incompetence and malice, before they even get round to their ostensible job (protecting the punters).

So far there have been four books (I gave the first to my mother-in-law, who went out and got the next three, read them and gave them back via the book delivery service also known as The Wife).

Slow Horses deals introduced Lamb’s charges – there’s a bravura opening sequence involving a young agent-in-training, River Cartwright trying to track down a terrorist in King’s Cross tube station. It all goes wrong…

I’ll copy and paste the Amazon blurb –

when a young man is abducted, and his kidnappers threaten to behead him live on the internet, River sees an opportunity to redeem himself. But is the victim who he first appears to be? And what’s the kidnappers’ connection with a disgraced journalist? As the clock ticks on the execution, River finds that everyone involved has their own agenda . . .

Dead Lions is the equally satisfying sequel – a clever weaving together of Cold War concerns, vaulting ambition and London’s super-rich.

The third, Real Tigers, has one slow horse kidnapped and the others not sure what is going on. There is a description of one British politician (a large loud blond who says things like ‘cripes’ and so on) that must have had the libel lawyers earning their keep…
This, about MI5’s problem with storing its hard-copy files was fun –

“For once, it seemed, Ingrid Tearney and Dian Taverner had been of one mind. A Confidential Storage facility was required, separate from Regent’s Park, and ticking three main boxes; acreage, security and a potential for plausible damage. In other word,s somewhere files could easily be said to have been lost to fire and flood, or eaten by rats, or consumed by mould.” (p68)

The fourth, Spook Street, finally succumbs to the hoary old “old mission/blowback/the Cold War” device for its plot and gets away with it thanks to Herron’s writing ability.

Each book takes place over a matter of days (in Spook Street one very very busy day indeed), with back stories slowly unfolding, punctuated with sudden and plausible violence

Herron can write dialogue, and create characters (it matters when slow horses die, and they do.) He’s good at mis-direction and his plotting and pacing are excellent.

Tl:dr This is a series to keep up with. But AFTER MY THESIS.

Book Review: Clade – superior #climate fiction #clifi

cladeWhen – not if, but when – I reread James Bradley’s wonderful set of linked short stories, ‘Clade,’ I will be on the lookout for two things; his references to the seasons, and his imagery of flight (in every sense).

These short stories, which follow one family from about now, through roughly beyond the middle of the century, have the thread of climate change and its impacts running through them.  Contra Amitav Ghosh’s excellent ‘The Great Derangement,’ there are novelists willing and able to take on the big question of the 21st century (and the 22nd, should we get that far) – what will the world look like as the Holocene unravels/is unravelled by our actions and inactions over the last 70 years (see this from today).

The opening story starts, sensibly enough, in Antarctica, as a young scientist (Adam – the name may be overegging the pudding a bit?) takes samples and waits to hear from his artist wife in Sydney as to the latest bout of IVF.  Spoiler alert – it works, they have a child, called Summer.  And things go on, as they do.

The stories are linked, sometimes obliquely (think Hemingway’s Men without Women), sometimes clearly.  There is the obligatory pandemic, handled well, and other stories musing on bees, teenagers, astronomy, cancer and more.  Bradley knows what he is doing, as he dips in and out of lives. Sometimes the climate impacts are direct (as superstorm) sometimes they can almost be ignored as inconveniences (no more coffee).  Smells, tastes, memory, it all weaves together, as we follow Adam, Ellie, Summer and others through the decades.

“She nods, the spiced sweetness of the honey still burning in her nostrils. There is something fascinating about the idea of a substance that changes with the seasons in this way, a reminder of a time when the planet still moved in its own cycles.” (p118)

And these seasons (or lack of them) go beyond ‘permanent global summertime’.

“With the videos selected and sequenced, she turns to the other elements of the installation, allowing the project to absorb her, working long hours into the night. It is always striking to her how often these periods of creativity seem to be connected to the advent of spring, the strange timelessness of the warm evenings, although whether this is innate, a tic in the chemistry of her brain, or a habit ingrained during her time as a student, those formative years when the most intense periods inevitably coincided with the sudden explosion of spring, is unclear to her.” (p133)

This brings up two thoughts for me – I should re-read Julian Rathbone’s Trajectories, and I need to read some William Calvin

If you had to quibble, you’d say that Clade (the word means  “a group of organisms believed to comprise all the evolutionary descendants of a common ancestor” occasionally falls into the ‘cosy catastrophe’ [warning: link to tvtropes] category – a term Brian Aldiss used to describe John Wyndham’s seminal novels, such as The Chrysalids, The Day of the Triffids and so on.  But that really would be a quibble – this is a very good book, one that can be read for the beauty of its descriptions, its well-drawn characters, or (as I am reading) as part of an exploration of the burgeoning sub-genre of ‘cli-fi’.

 

Disclaimer: I have had email correspondence with James Bradley in the past – he seems like a good bloke. If this book were pants, I’d have said so.

 

 

 

“Bel-Ami” – brilliant brilliant book about journalism, life, image, etc

How did I not know about this book?  Why was I not told?  Eh?  This is up there with The Wire as “cultural artefacts that everyone will have to engage with when I am chief fascist dictator”.

It’s by Guy de Maupassant, a French writer (mostly of short stories) who died from syphilis in the early 1890s after a short but brilliant and prolific career, writing about French society in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1.

Bel-Ami follows the ever-upward trajectory of Georges Duroy (the name changes in the course of the book). We first meet him basically starving on the streets of Paris. He meets an old army acquaintance who offers him a hand-up – an invitation to dinner, and money to hire the right clothes for such a dinner.  There is a wonderful scene, full of insight where Duroy climbs the stairs feeling the clothes ill-fitting and himself to be obviously a fraud. He bumps into an extremely elegant young man, beautifully turned out…. his reflection. And he learns to fake it till you make it (It would have been great if Maupassant had lived long enough to get down with Siggie Freud).

Duroy is a cad, a bounder, an  outrageous user of women.  He becomes a journalist (somewhere between Scott Templeton meets Sammy Glick) and the novel follows his ascent, alongside and over the bodies of various women (Duroy is as priapic as de Maupassant was).

There is fantastic stuff about corruption, appearances, hypocrisy, love, obsession.  The use of a painting of Jesus walking on water becomes a skilfully-used motif.

Really, this is a book to re-read every year.  Just amazing.

Books I definitely didn’t buy/get given

Chandler, A. 1977. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press.  [Chomsky rates this one highly. Definitely didn’t buy this for 99p in Lancaster.]

Fromm, E. 2003. Marx’s concept of Mann. London: Continuum. [Definitely didn’t buy this for 50p in Lancaster.]

Lawson, N. 2008. An Appeal to Reason: A cool look at Global Warming. London: Duckworth Overlook. [Definitely didn’t buy this for 50p in Lancaster.]

Green, A. 1997. Education, Globalization and the Nation State. London: Macmillan. [Definitely didn’t buy this for 50p in Lancaster.]

Books I didn’t get given for Atheistmas…

Black W. 2015. Psychopathic Cultures and Toxic Empires. Frontline Noir.

Before the Hunger Games – Feminist scifi and “The Female Man”

The Female Man is the best, most important book you probably* never heard of. Written in 1970 but not published until 1975, Joanna Joanna_Russ_obitRuss delivered a mind-bending and gender-bending work of genius. Think 12 Monkeys meets The Hunger Games with the sensibility of Thelma and Louise. Speaking as a man, and so accustomed to giving unsolicited advice (subs, please check this), you should relegate other ‘next reads’ and promote this to top of t’pile.

Scattered through time are four women with the same genes but different destinies. They are Janet, a mighty huntress/jane-of-all-trades who would eat Katniss Everdeen for breakfast and not even belch, from a future female utopia called Whileaway; Jeannine (initially ‘wet’, it seems) from a United States where World War 2 never happened and the Great Depression just went on and on; Joanna from a present like that of Joanna Russ, the author; and Jael, an even more ms.terious version, with an agenda, and secrets, of her own…

They meet – a distinct kind of hilarity ensues. That is to say, this book is very very funny, if you like your humour beyond wry to the point of gallows mordant. It’s well-observed (on the excuses and evasions of men about their blindness to/defensiveness about misogyny) and clever. The women are forever fish out of water, but never helpless. Janet (from the future female utopia) is bracingly blunt, for example, but also very ‘human’.
The narration shifts repeatedly, and to be honest I got lost a couple of times (ooh, an excuse to re-read, as if I needed)

In a section (there are nine) of part six, called “The Great Happiness Contest (this happens a lot)” Russ slabs in the following (there is a certain amount of meta-texual nodding and winking, which works wonderfully).

He: I can’t stand stupid, vulgar women who read Love Comix and have no intellectual interests.
Me: Oh my, neither can I.
HE: I really admire refined, cultivated, charming women who have careers.
ME: Oh my, so do I.
HE: Why do you think those awful stupid, vulgar, commonplace women get so awful?
ME Well, probably, not wishing to give any offence and after considered judgment and all that, and very tentatively with the hope that you won’t jump on me – I think it’s at least partly your fault.
(Long silence)
HE: You know, on second thought, I think bitchy, castrating, unattractive neurotic women are even worse. Besides, you’re showing your age. And your figure’s going.

Elsewhere in the book, there’s a gloomy bit on the costs of evolution –

Laur and Janet have gone to sleep together on the couch as if they were in a Whileawayan common bedroom, which is not for orgies, as you might think, but for people who are lonesome, for children, for people who have nightmares. We miss those innocent hairy sleepies we used to tangle with back in the dawn of time before some progressive nitwit took to deferred gratification and chipping flint.

And, finally and fearsomely, there’s an explanation of what we’d now call “demanding the good guy tokens”

I rose to my feet. “Excuse me,” I said, “but business —”
“Damn your business!” he said in heat, this confused and irritable man. “Your businesses isn’t worth two cents compared with what I’m talking about!”
“OF course not, of course not,” I said soothingly.
“I should hope so!”
Numb, numb. With boredom. Invisible. Chained.
“That’s the trouble with you women, you can’t see anything in the abstract”!
He wants me to cringe. I really think so. Not the content of what I say but the endless, endless feeding of his vanity, the shaky structure of self. Even the intelligent ones.
“Don’t you appreciate what I’m trying to do for you?”
Kiss-me-I’m-a-goodguy.
“Don’t you have any idea how important this is?”
Sliding down the slippery gulf into invisibility.
“This could make history!”

Russ did similar stuff in “On Strike Against God”, which should probably also be near the top of your to read pile. Anyway…

Books and their covers
The cover of the first edition is an example of Lewis’ Law – (that the comments under any article about feminism justify feminism).
300px-TheFemaleMan(1stEd)


Bang goes the canon

So why isn’t this book better known? Who can say for sure. Russ stopped writing novels while better-known authors such as Ursula Le Guin and Marge Piercy did not. But then, it’s not as if their books – The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, Woman on the Edge of Time, Body of Glass, are exactly on everyone’s tongue and constantly referenced in popular culture (though imho they should be!).
Maybe people only have ‘space’ for so many feminist gender-benders and utopias/dystopias, and Octavia Butler‘s Dawn and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are the incumbents respectively and ‘that’s all she wrote’?
Maybe because it wears its early second wave feminist politics on its sleeve it’s somehow dated? That’s a coy way of talking about the ‘anger problem’. There’s a lot of it. (Can’t think why. I mean, I thought everyone loved the patriarchy. Oh… yeah… right. ) But maybe the righteous (and right – and sadly still right) anger makes the book unassimilable? I don’t know. All I know (believe) is that Russ wrote a fantastic book, and it should be canonical.

Btw I went to a conference about utopias/dystopias in Newcastle in April. Good conference, but to my knowledge, nobody presented anything on this book. That’s a real shame, imho. There is surely a really useful reading of the Hunger Games (for instance) to be done ‘versus’ this Russ and some others.

Final thing I know; that there are many many cool things about being married to an ardently feminist bookworm. One of them is metre upon metre of cool fiction by women. Next up is a collection of short stories from the Women’s Press.

* Of course, not everyone is as ignorant as me…