“Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.”

Brown Baggers Book Club met virtually on Thursday, September 16 to discuss A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré. Le Carré passed away on December 12, 2020, right before our annual potluck selection meeting, sparking interest among our members to read one of his famous espionage novels. Le Carré worked for both the Secret Service and the Secret Intelligence Service in the 1950s and 60s, hence the pen name (Foreign Office officers were not allowed to publish under their own names). A Perfect Spy draws heavily from his life as a professional spy and as half of a troubled duad — the main character’s relationship with his father is based on Le Carré’s relationship with his own father, who was a con man “of little education, immense charm, extravagant tastes, but no social values” (LitLovers). 

Sounds interesting, right? Especially when it has come to be known as Le Carré’s “masterpiece.” So how did our readers respond? Put quite frankly, we had our fair share of halfhearted shrugs; readers were often “waiting for something to happen.” They found the writing flat, lifeless, convoluted, and arduous. The experience was like driving through fog; every few pages the fog would clear, and the book would move quickly, but then it would quickly bog down again. Most people found the novel a little slower than anticipated, but one reader held nothing back as he gave his impression: finishing the book, he felt he was “worshipping at the altar of masochism.” 

Was there anything to be had here? Yes! Some readers (albeit a very slim minority) stated the novel was excellent (but they too had a bone to pick — the novel being too depressing). Others appreciated that part of the journey of reading a spy novel is the process of deciphering and organizing code names and true alliances. Related, we had readers who enjoyed the trickery, secrecy, and “trappings of spydom.” 

There was also the character study of the lead, Magnus, and his father. Readers described the father as a “despicable and interesting” character. The two love each other, but the father ultimately destroys the son, creating him to be the “perfect spy” (a euphemism for soul-selling). We had interesting conversations about love and loyalty which harkened back to the classic games of morality: would you let a bus filled with children (all strangers) die to save your family? Is any one person worth more than another? Do some of us have an obligation to be selfless and impartial that others of us do not share? And how does patriotism fit into all of this? Can an abstraction such as country, value, belief, or religion trump a human being? In summary, our readers found this one more intellectually interesting than exciting. 

How would you answer the questions found above? If you read the book, did your reading shape your answers in any way? Has any book ever shaped a belief you hold? 

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss The Yellow House by Sarah Broom on Thursday, October 21. Please email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

If you’ve read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré and would like a chance to discuss it, consider attending the Mystery Book Group‘s virtual discussion on Tuesday, September 28, 1-2:30 pm. For more information, email Evan at estankovics@jmrl.org.

Books Mentioned: 

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

Call for the Dead by John le Carré

Smiley’s People by John le Carré

Hoffman’s Hunger by Leon de Winter (not owned by JMRL; suggest a purchase if you’re interested!)

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (read the JMRL blog post)

“I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

Books on Tap met outside at Champion Brewing Company on Thursday, September 2nd to discuss J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  

As usual, we started the discussion with some background information on the author, who was a World War II veteran and later in life a recluse. The success and controversy around the book as well as aspects of his personal life (including a nine month relationship with eighteen-year-old Joyce Maynard when Salinger was fifty-three) brought him undesired publicity.

A coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye takes place over a few days in New York City, 1951. The protagonist and unreliable narrator, sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield, has become a cultural touchpoint, often referred to as an important 20th century literary character. NYC is also a “character” in the novel as Holden visits so many NYC landmarks over the course of his wanderings.

Several in the group had never read this classic; others had read it years ago and were revisiting it. Most enjoyed and recommended the novel, finding the theme of adolescent angst timeless, but a few of our readers found the story exhausting and didn’t care at all for Holden.

While written for an adult audience, The Catcher in the Rye is often on English class required reading lists in many high schools. As such, it has also been frequently challenged or “banned” due to some of the profanity and behaviors of the characters. A timely read for Books on Tap, as Banned Books Week 2021 takes place later this month.

Other books mentioned:

Frannie and Zooey

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Joe Speedboat by Tommy Wieringa

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian (discussed by this group Nov. 2015)

Salinger/Joyce Maynard on PBS 

Books on Tap will meet on Thursday, October 7th, at 7 pm, to discuss Still Life by Louise Penny. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information.

Bring Your Own Book Club

Did you know that Louisa has a Bring Your Own Book (BYOB) club? This monthly gathering is a new, different kind of book club. Instead of worrying about finding and reading the library-chosen book for each month’s discussion, no preparation is needed — just show up ready to talk about anything you’ve read recently (or even not so recently). You’ll connect with other readers, walk away with recommendations and new ideas, and get a chance to sing the praises of your favorite books. This club meets on the 4th Tuesday of every month, from 4-5 pm, at the Louisa County Library

At the August meeting, members discussed a wide variety of titles and enjoyed meeting in person. If you are suffering from “Zoom fatigue” and are looking for an in-person program, consider joining the BYOB club! The next meeting will be held on Tuesday, September 28. Email Ophelia at opayne@jmrl.org with any questions. 

Titles Discussed: 

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult 

Brought to book club because….generally a Picoult fan, but this title didn’t work for this reader. Too heavy-handed with research and dry descriptions of a thematic topic that didn’t captivate in the way many other Picoult topics do. 

The Sweet Taste of Muscadines by Pamela Terry

Brought to book club because….it’s amazing! So many settings, each one interesting. It starts right off with a bang, and continues to be a page-turner, as you are genuinely searching for clues throughout. Told with universal themes of family, faith, and community. 

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

Brought to book club because….stylistically, it almost felt like a parable, with nameless characters of “the wife” and “the boy.” With a fascinating, controversial topic like abortion, this title begged the question….science has evolved to accomplish so much, but have our psyches evolved to accommodate the wealth of information?

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Brought to book club because….couldn’t put down this sweeping, emotional, inspiring story about a family within the throes of the Vietnam War and the Land Reform (1954-1956). So much beauty and sweetness, but also heartbreak and terror.  

The Woman with the Blue Star by Pam Jenoff 

Brought to book club because….this book did its job in bringing forth powerful emotions. This reader was upset and frustrated, but that shows how evocative the book was. Connected the underground setting, which was such a vivid image and contributed greatly to the emotions, to Colum McCann’s This Side of Brightness.

What book are YOU going to bring to the BYOB meeting on September 28? Hope to see you there!