Sunday, October 12, 2008

Books for Readers #113

Meredith Sue Willis's

Books for Readers #113

October 12 , 2008


The following notes, except if otherwise credited, are from Jeffrey Sokolow, who stresses that he is a reader, not a scholar, but that he has developed an interest in the spy craft of the Cold War, both histories and memoirs. This month, then, we’ll learn about some books we might explore in this area.

Jeffrey writes: “Since an old friend told me to read Gilles Perrault's THE RED ORCHESTRA (and later I discovered Leopold Trepper's memoir, THE GREAT GAME), I have had an interest in reading espionage literature. Why stories of clandestine work would appeal to me I cannot imagine. One rich source of information is participant memoirs. Two books by spouses of murdered agents are very worthwhile: OUR OWN PEOPLE: A MEMOIR OF ‘IGNACE REISS’ AND HIS FRIENDS by Elisabeth K Poretsky and WILLI MUNZENBERG: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY by Babette Gross. There are also two recent biographies of the remarkable Munzenberg, who practically invented the front group. Best after his widow’s memoir is THE RED MILLIONAIRE: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF WILLY MUNZENBERG, MOSCOW'S SECRET PROPAGANDA TSAR IN THE WEST by Sean McMeekin. (The sensationalistic title is unfortunate.) A second biography by Stephen Holder is so tendentious politically that I really cannot recommend it.

“Another recommendation is SONYA’S REPORT by Ruth Werner. Werner was a very successful agent who remained loyal to the German Democratic Republic to the end. Her memoirs were published there before the Wall fell. It is an exciting read. Also recommended is SECRET SOLDIERS OF THE REVOLUTION: SOVIET MILITARY INTELLIGENCE 1918-1933 by Ramond Leonard, the first full-length discussion of Soviet military intelligence, known by the acronym GRU. The majority of with the more glamorous and well-known Cheka (‘the unsheathed sword of the proletarian revolution’) and its successor organizations (OGPU, GPU, KGB) while ignoring military intelligence, which was even more active in the espionage field. Leonard deals with many of the people whose books I cited elsewhere (Reiss, Poretsky, Krivitsky, and others).

“Although not specifically about espionage, Aino Kuusinen's memoir (THE RINGS OF DESTINY: INSIDE SOVIET RUSSIA FROM LENIN TO BREZHNEV) is noteworthy. Her husband, Otto, was a Finnish Communist, a favorite of Lenin's who rose to be a member of the Soviet politburo whereas her path took her from the corridors of the Kremlin to the Gulag.

"Two Soviet master spies lived to write memoirs. General Orlov, who wrote THE MARCH OF TIME: REMINISCENCES, had a long life (he let Stalin know he knew who was who in the Cambridge ring but would keep quiet if he and his family were untouched) while General Krivitsky died in mysterious circumstances. Krivitsky’s book is IN STALIN'S SECRET SERVICE.

“Although written by a former FBI agent, A TIME FOR SPIES: THEODORE STEPHANOVICH MALLY AND THE ERA OF THE GREAT ILLEGALS by William E. Duff, a biography of the tormented priest turned master spy, is very sensitive and sympathetic to the protagonist's moral qualities. A short summary of the cases discussed above may be found in the first of these two works by Gordon Brook-Shepherd: THE STORM PETRELS: THE FLIGHT OF THE FIRST SOVIET DEFECTORS and THE STORM BIRDS: SOVIET POSTWAR DEFECTORS.

“Although I have not read it, THE LOST SPY: AN AMERICAN IN STALIN'S SECRET SERVICE by Andrew Meier seems of special interest.... According to the blurb, it's the story of Isaiah Oggins, said to be ‘a Columbia University undergraduate who joined the fledgling Communist Party in 1920. Recruited by Soviet intelligence in 1926, he went to Europe in the guise of an academic; his residences acted as centers for Soviet espionage. After 1930 he sailed to China and Manchuria for various undercover schemes, then traveled to Moscow in 1939 during Stalin's purges. Despite long, loyal service, he was arrested and sent to an Arctic gulag, and despite frantic pleas for Oggins's release from his wife, and more modest U.S. government efforts, the Soviets murdered Oggins in 1947 to keep his story from getting out.’

“The literature on the Cambridge spies Philby, McClean, Burgess, Caincross, and Blunt is vast. The most recent books based on long interviews with Philby and those based on the Soviet files are of most interest....The latest books I am aware of are these: MY FIVE CAMBRIDGE FRIENDS (by Yuri Modin -- written from the perspective of a KGB handler); THE PHILBY FILES by Genrikh Borovik and Philip Knightly (makes use of KGB files; ironically, the Center had its own version of James Jesus Angleton, who was so paranoid and suspicious that she led the Center to discount the reliability of their greatest assets); PHILBY: KGB MASTERSPY by Philip Knightly ( Knightly is a serious British scholar who spoke to Philby in his final year, when he wanted his story set down more or less accurately); and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF KIM PHILBY: THE MOSCOW YEARS by Rufina Philby, a personal memoir by Philby's widow.”

To this list of books, Woody Lewis adds, “I think Kim Philby is one of the most fascinating tragic characters in this space. There are so many stories wrapped up in his, and the influence, both ideological and literary (Greene, Fleming, Le Carre, et al), is beyond question. Even Ishiguro's REMAINS OF THE DAY, though concerned with Nazis and not Communists, shows the receptivity with which the ruling class approaches those systems that compete with western democracy, however one defines it.”

To which MSW would add another literary take on espionage in the twentieth century, John Banville, THE UNTOUCHABLE. See notes .

-- Meredith Sue Willis


More frm Jeffrey Sokolow: “I just remembered a wonderful book by Larry Berman entitled A PERFECT SPY about about the Vietnamese reporter for TIME magazine during the war, Pham Xuan An. He also worked as a secret agent for the resistance and was really the North's eyes and ears inside the American camp. He earned the respect of his American colleagues for his honest reporting and kept their respect after they learned that as a patriot his loyalties lay with the Vietnamese rather than the American side. He was uniquely loyal both to his side and also to individuals whom he befriended on the other side. It's quite a story. The book is based on interviews witn An in his final years. The Vientamese also published a short book on An but it's probably a lot harder to get hold of. Anyway, it's not as revelatory as Berman's book. This could open a look at other memoirs of the war by Vietnamese sources, including those who were afterwards disillusioned. I found quite interesting A VIETCONG MEMOIR: AN INSIDE ACCOUNT OF THE VIETNAM WAR AND ITS AFTERMATH by Truong Nhu Tang (former justice miniser for the NLFSVN), FOLLOWING HO CHI MINH: THE MEMOIRS OF A NORTH VIETNAMESE COLONEL by Bui Tin (a journalist, as senior officer on the spot, he took the surrender from the last S. Vietnamese president) and FROM ENEMY TO FRIEND: A NORTH VIETNAMESE PERSPECTIVE ON THE WAR by Bui Tin and Nguyen Ngoc Bich.
“Finally, I understand at least one volume of General Giap's memoirs have appeared in French but not in English; his theoretical works are in my opinion unreadable to the general public but the sections of the memoirs I've seen translated are gripping. Hopefully he will find an American publisher. He is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding military figures of the last century.”


I read UNDER THE NET by Iris Murdoch, and found it charming, funny, and altogether a pleasant read. It was the first time I felt like I really got what Murdoch is doing. Maybe I needed the first person point of view to hold things steady for me. The tone takes off in a tone of twentieth century Oxbridge frivolity, and the story stays light in the sense that narrator Jake Donahue continues to act foolishly and get into scrapes from which he only disentangles himself with great effort and pain. He makes multiple errors of judgement and lays out red herrings of plot for us wherever he turns– and this works, because they are red herrings to him too. Then, towards the end, he takes his first real job ever, and becomes downright touching in his desire to do well. This is really a story about how a man’s arrogance and errors cause him to suffer, and also about how he comes out a better man at the other end, which makes it a comedy, of course! My hands-down favorite Murdoch so far.


Shelley Ettinger writes to comment on Orson Scott Card's political views (I praised ENDER’s GAME in the last issue– see She says, “Thought I might as well pipe up and let you know that this guy is an ultra-reactionary anti-gay zealot who has repeatedly written and circulated vicious anti-lgbt rants. His rants have gotten a lot of attention from lit bloggers, who are more or less generally progressive and so are appalled by his politics and then torn over whether his politics mean they won't read his fiction anymore.”
Whether a person’s fiction can be separated and enjoyed and respected separately from the person’s political views is worth discussing. To judge Orson Scott Card ’s political views for yourself, take a look at a recent editorial piece by him in the at MORMON TIMES .


And speaking of Shelley Ettinger! She has a brand new literary blog called READ RED, at Her interesting October 9, 2008 post is about her continuing relationship with libraries.
Barbara Riddle-Dvorak also has a new blog that is worth getting to know at


Cat Pleska’s October essay on West Virginia Public Broadcasting at


Anna Egan Smucker’s new book for children is just out– GOLDEN DELICIOUS: A CINDERELLA APPLE STORY is a true tale is set in the American heartland more than 100 years ago. The Stark brothers dream of cultivating the perfect new apple in their Missouri nursery, and a poor farmer in the hills of West Virginia finds a new tree with Golden Delicious apples in his field. He sends the fruit to the Starks, and the brothers are dismissive of the yellow apples– until they taste them!
Noel Smith’s poems THE WELL STRING have been published by Motes books ( with a foreword by Silas House. Lee Smith calls the poems “highly charged with intensity and originality,” and Ron Rash says, “THE WELL STRING is a significant contribution to Appalachian Literature.”
Also new from Motes Books is Jim Minick’s new book of poems HER SECRET SONG at
A CURE FOR SUICIDE by Larissa Shmailo has just been published by Červená Barva Press at
Janna McMahan has an enjoyable article about her family coming to appreciate her writing career at
– and she has a new book coming out in 2009!

Dory L. Hudspeth’s book of poems I’LL FLY AWAY has just been published by Finishing Line Press at . George Ella Lyon says “Dory’s Hudspeth’s poems catch your attention sideways, surprise your field of vision, lift off just when you think you’ve got them in focus.”
The multi-talented poet Arthur T. Wilson narrates “The Sketchbook” on the Raymond Wojcik CD PICTURES AND STORIES. See
The fall issue of THE SALT RIVER REVIEW is up at
The Autumn 2008 issue of PERSIMMON ( is up with poetry from Northeast women over sixty, including Judith Arcana, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Alicia Ostriker, and Susan Donnelly. Also sculpture by Lorraine Bonner, fiction by Elizabeth Morris and Louise Smith, and nonfiction by Bonnie Lee Black and Marian Clark. They are accepting West Coast women poets’ work from Nov. 1st to Dec. 15th. Check guidelines at .
Fall 2008 issue of THE INNISFREE POETRY JOURNAL is now available at In addition to established and emerging poets, there is in their "Closer Look" series, a generous selection of poems from the books of Marianne Boruch, including her new collection, GRACE, FALLEN FROM (Wesleyan University Press, 2008). You can read Innisfree 7 three ways: (1) online, (2) as a downloadable PDF file, (3) as a 106-page, 6x9, perfect bound hard copy you can purchase from the print-on-demand publisher for $6.65 plus shipping. The direct link for a hard copy is


In the September/October 2008 issue of the SCBWI magazine (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators at, Joëlle Anthony shares some websites on plot, story, structure, and more: take a look at ;;; and .


FICTIONALLY SPEAKING: FICTION AND CREATIVE NONFICTION, a workshop with with Thaddeus Rutkowski on Saturdays, Nov. 1, 15, 22, noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 5, 7-9 p.m. At the Asian American Writers' Workshop, 16 W. 32nd St., 10th floor. This is a workshop for writers new to fiction or creative nonfiction, as well as those who want to take their work to the next level. Traditional and experimental prose writers welcome. Cost: $175 general, $150 members. Contact: or 212 494-0061. For more information, go to
Also starting in November if you happen to live in suburban New Jersey is MSW's Prose Narrative workshop for Playwright’s Theater on Thursdays 12:30 PM to 2:30 PM starting in mid- November. Go to and scroll down to “Writing Prose Narrative.”


Adam said...
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CHARLAX said...
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neal said...

The sensationalistic title is unfortunate. A second biography by Stephen Holder is so tendentious politically that I really cannot recommend it. “Another recommendation is SONYA’S REPORT by Ruth Werner. Werner was a very successful agent who remained loyal to the German Democratic Republic to the end. Her memoirs were published there before the Wall fell. It is an exciting read.



oliviaharis said...

Hundreds of books for children and young adults are published in New Zealand every year. Our quarterly round-up, The School Library , will make it easy to choose books for children and young people.

Sherry said...

Most of Jeffrey Sokolow's recommendations seem to be memoirs but I wonder what he or others might have to say about John LeCarre. His new novel about the "war on terror" seems to be getting a lot of good attention, which leads me to think I may not have "got" LeCarre in the past.