An Mi-6 spook, Thomas Kell, on involuntary leave for perhaps roughing up an Afghan captive in Kabul is called back into service when the incoming Division head of Mi-6 goes missing. Kell has all the latest hi-tech tools of his trade at his disposal, but in this suitably suspenseful caper, he mostly relies on his wits and experience to track down his old boss and the bad guys who are after her. He travels to Tunisia, returns to Marseille by ferry across the Mediterranean, and gets caught up with double agents, rogue agents, and territorial battles between spy agencies that bring us very much up-to-date now that the Cold War is over. Suddenly it is the Arab Spring that has the attention of intelligence agencies from all the Western countries. The action clips along while spies with crumbling or just plain boring personal lives and strong professional ambitions remain reasonably credible throughout. It is difficult to recount much of the plot without inserting spoilers, but as these types of books go, A Foreign Country is a winning diversion.
Shin Dong Hyuk was born into slavery in Prison Camp 14 in North Korea. He is also the only person to have survived an escape attempt. This is his story as told to Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden. Tens of thousands of North Koreans are locked up, many for being the offspring of perceived enemies of the state, e.g., nieces or nephews of relatives that defected to South Korea. Children are raised from birth like so many industrially produced piglets knowing deprivation, hunger, disease, and competition for survival. Death threats are real and executions, often for petty crimes like food theft of fraternizing with members of the opposite sex are commonplace and witnessed by all. Frankly, the dehumanization of inmates by prison guards does not seem all that unusual in light of what we know about torturous regimes throughout history. Not to make light of Shin’s despicable treatment, but what stands apart in this account is the emotional scarring that Shin continues to bear even after years of counseling and PTSD treatments in the west. Having had his developmental years so stunted psychologically he still finds it terribly difficult to trust, to plan for the future, to comprehend money, to think of anything beyond food.
Proulx spins a tall Texas tale about a loner named Bob Dollar sent to the mythical panhandle town of Wooly Bucket. His objective is to scout sites for an environmentally devastating pig farm for an international conglomerate called Global Pork Rind. Proulx has done her research leading readers rather forcefully to despise corporate agriculture and lament the loss of the good old days. She is at her best when she is pushing her farce as far as it will stretch, loosening up enough to become laugh aloud funny by the book’s end. Her descriptions of land, history, people of the earth, climate, even the buzz of insects before a thunderstorm are spot on and make the book worth reading. A few of her polemics drag. She lets oil drillers and the farmers who ran the regional aquifer get off the hook, too, in her single minded focus to give hell to businesses that raise pork units in deadly tight quarters. Read Proulx for her sense of place and character rather than for politics and plot.
In the 1940s a Bedouin searching caves above the western shore of the Dead Sea discovered urns with scrolls inside. He knew right away they were both ancient and valuable and sold them. When they turned up in the antiques market, archaeologists started searching for similar caves. When archaeologists weren’t there Bedouin continued hunting. The scrolls, hundreds of them, date from the first centuries BCE and CE making them contemporaneous with the life of Jesus. Christian scholars have analyzed the texts for clues to the lives of early Christians. Jewish scholars, when they were finally permitted to examine the scrolls, look to the texts to learn about the lives of Jews just prior to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Complicating matters is the adjacency of the archaeological site of Qumron, an Essene branch of Judaism that decisively separated itself from the Priestly cult of the Pharisees. This account is more of an academic summary article of the state of the archaeological and analytical affairs than it is a book worth curling up with. It is most fascinating for its insight into how historians of the period attempt to piece together archaeological and historical evidence to paint wildly contradictory canvases of life at the time. The lesson, not surprisingly, is that most of us peering back into the past find what we expect to see, oftentimes overlooking what might actually be there.
Four horse races are run at a bottom-of-the-barrel track inWest Virginia. The horses are knock-kneed, belligerent, over-the-hill, lazy, or used-up. So are the people that populate the track as their grooms, trainers, riders, and no-good-for-nothing hoodlums trying to make a fast buck. Gordon provides a view of people and horses I would never in my life meet and does so with such intimacy and accuracy that I felt I was in a neighboring horse stall peaking through a crack in the wallboards. Her races come alive, but somehow they don’t seem to be the main point. What Gordon wants us to see is that everything has a price. A horse can be bought, a race fixed, a trainer’s allegiance redirected, and even love can all be purchased. She captures each character’s manner of speech and thoughts with deadeye accuracy, but curiously, prints her dialogue with neither quotations nor attribution, leaving the reader to discern when words are spoken aloud and by whom. For that she won the National Book Award and though I couldn’t really put the book down it gave me a headache.