The Storm Petrels by Gordon Brook-Shepherd (1977, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)
This book provides the stories of five of the earliest defectors from the fledgling Soviet Union. Comprised of equal parts spy thriller and historical essay, it grants insight into the conflict between Stalin and Trotsky following Lenin’s death as well as the state of the USSR during the early Stalin purges.
Brook-Shepherd is no fan of Lenin, Trotsky, or Stalin. The book makes clear his distaste for all three, but reserves special contempt for Stalin. Through the details surrounding the five chosen defections, he justifies his viewpoint.
Each case is that of a person who was a prominent government figure, someone who had truly believed in the philosophies propounded by early Soviet leadership. Each was a person who had seen widespread betrayal of others like them, and had come to recognize the utter duplicity and moral bankruptcy inherent in those philosophies. In the case of Walter Krivitsky and his mysterious suicide, the book also points a finger of culpability at Soviet agents inside both the UK and the US.
By itself it’s an informative work that manages to balance historical detail with espionage stories. There is additional value to be found in contemporary context. What Brook-Shepherd was doing in this book was illustrating how a single person could come to utterly rule a nation despite working toward the ruination and death of thousands. It stands as one of many warnings to stand guard against those who would seek expansive control over others.
This Shape We’re In by Jonathan Lethem (2001, McSweeney’s Books)
All book reviews tend to overuse certain terms. Mine are simplistic: “engaging” and “interesting”. They represent two things I seek when I’m trying to select a book to recommend. Neither of them will be used to describe this novella.
On the surface the book is a riff on Barry Malzberg’s “The Men Inside”, which is a brilliant but bleak reimagining of the concepts behind Fantastic Voyage. Everything is filtered through Lethem’s penchant for odd, representational imagery and multiple layers of meaning.
The problem here is that the story feels like Lethem has gone through the motions of producing a work before nailing down what it is he wants to say. It’s like listening to an expert ramble for ten minutes before realizing that they’ve lost track of what point they’re trying to make.
There’s one good reason to read this book: it’s a very cheap, quick way to experience the style of one of the more highly acclaimed modern authors while simultaneously getting a taste of the type of experimentation McSweeneys – a popular literary publisher – enjoys. If you run across it in a used bookstore or on the shelf of a friend who’s inclined to lend you books, and you are curious about Lethem, this is a viable introduction.