Sunday, January 30, 2022

Paul Vidich

Paul Vidich is the acclaimed author of The Mercenary, The Coldest Warrior, An Honorable Man, and The Good Assassin, and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, LitHub, CrimeReads, Fugue, The Nation, Narrative Magazine, Wordriot, and others.

Vidich's new novel is The Matchmaker: A Spy in Berlin.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Vidich's reply:
On the evening of November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall, an enduring symbol of the Cold War, came down. It was a momentous night. No shots were fired and no lives were lost, but it was the beginning of the end of the forty-year long Cold War. The repressive East German government fell and the Soviet Union collapsed two years later.

The fall of the Berlin Wall is central to my new historical novel. Berlin happens to be a city that has been a deep well for well for espionage fiction. Nikita Khrushchev called Berlin “a swampland of spies.” Berlin was the friction point between the Communist Block and the NATO Alliance, and you had all these spies running around. Both sides recruited sources, placed penetration agents, and when necessary, undertook legally sanctioned criminal activity against each other.

Five books were important resources for the six months of research that I did. The books capture the drama of the Wall’s collapse and provide insight into East German’s pain of displacement in the weeks and months afterward.

The Berlin Wall’s opening was not planned by the East German ruling regime—nor was it the result of a bargain between either President Ronald Reagan or President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The accidental opening is superbly told in The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, in which prize-winning historian Mary Elise Sarotte reveals how a perfect storm of decisions made by daring underground revolutionaries, disgruntled Stasi officers, and dictatorial party bosses sparked an unexpected series of events culminating in the chaotic fall of the Wall. Sarotte brings to life a story that sweeps across Budapest, Prague, and Leipzig and on to the armed checkpoints in Berlin. The Collapse offers the definitive account of the night that brought down the Berlin Wall.

Markus Wolf, the legendary head of the Stasi’s foreign intelligence branch, was little known to Western intelligence officers. In his memoir, Man Without a Face, he emerges from the shadows to reveal his remarkable life of secrets, lies, and betrayals. The memoir illuminates the reality of espionage operations as few non-fiction works before it have. Wolf reveals the truth behind East Germany’s involvement with terrorism, and he describes how the Stasi used so-called Romeos, East German spies married to West German women, to collect intelligence. With its high-speed chases, hidden cameras, phony brothels, secret codes, false identities, and triple agents, Man Without a Face reads like a spy thriller—except this time the action is real.

Australian writer Anna Funder uses a series of East German character sketches to reveal life under former Communist rule in Stasiland: True Stories Behind the Berlin Wall. The German Democratic Republic’s surveillance apparatus, run by the Stasi (secret police), was more pervasive than elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc; many people became informers, while others had their lives ruined for minor infractions. Funder interviewed ex-Stasi employees and she befriended several survivors, recording their life of persecution. Funder shrewdly blends memoir elements with these personal histories and casts a keen eye on the remaining traces of the old regime.

Hester Vaizey, Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, details the dramatic changes that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 through the lives of eight citizens of the former East Germany in her book, Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall. What was it really like to go from living under communism one minute, to capitalism the next? All of the people in the book were born in East Germany after the Berlin Wall was put up in August 1961, so they knew nothing other than living in a socialist system when the GDR fell apart. Their stories provide a fascinating insight into everyday life in the now vanished East Germany—with a measure of loathing for the Stasi and some fondness and regret for a lost world of guaranteed employment.
Visit Paul Vidich's website.

Q&A with Paul Vidich.

My Book, The Movie: The Mercenary.

The Page 69 Test: The Mercenary.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Ron Walters

Ron Walters is a former journalist, college registrar, and stay-at-home dad who writes science fiction and fantasy for all ages. A native of Savannah, GA, he currently lives in Germany with his wife, two daughters, and two rescue dogs. When he's not writing he works as a substitute high school teacher, plays video games, and does his best to ignore the judgmental looks his dogs give him for not walking them more often.

Walters's new novel is Deep Dive.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve torn through a lot of epic fantasies lately (most recently Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, which was absolutely stunning), so for my current read I decided to go with something much more contemporary and intimate but just as fantastical and amazing: Swashbucklers, by Dan Hanks. To quote the back copy: “When Cisco Collins returns to his home town thirty years after saving it from being swallowed by a hell mouth opened by an ancient pirate ghost, he realises that being a childhood hero isn't like it was in the movies. Especially when nobody remembers the heroic bits - even the friends who once fought alongside him.”

Like a lot of Gen-Xers I’m a sucker for 80s nostalgia, so this sort of premise is automatically going to hook me. What’s keeping me invested beyond the plot of a reemerging supernatural threat, though, are the relationships between the characters, particularly the relationship between Cisco and his son, George. I’m not a single-parent like Cisco, but in some ways that makes me even more sympathetic to his struggles. I know how hard it is to be a good parent when there are two of you wrangling the kids. People like Cisco who have to parent on their own have so much more on their plate than I’ve ever had to deal with, which makes his successes and failures all the more poignant. I haven’t finished reading Swashbucklers yet, but I am excited to see where the plot and Cisco’s relationship with George takes me. If parent-centric fantasy sounds like your jam, you should definitely check it out.
Visit Ron Walters's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Soraya M. Lane

Soraya M. Lane graduated with a law degree before realizing that law wasn't the career for her and that her future was in writing. She is the author of historical and contemporary women's fiction, and her novel Wives of War was an Amazon Charts bestseller.

Lane lives on a small farm in her native New Zealand with her husband, their two sons and a collection of four legged friends. When she's not writing, she loves to be outside playing make-believe with her children or snuggled up inside reading.

Lane's new novel is Under a Sky of Memories.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I most recently read The Mother-in-Law by Australian author Sally Hepworth, and I loved it so much that I went straight to the bookstore and purchased the only other novel of hers they had in stock, The Younger Wife! Hepworth has been on my to-be-read pile for some time, and she stood out to me because she’s Australian and because I love following her on Instagram. I also really like to read novels that are completely different to what I write - I adore reading historical fiction, but when I’m in the middle of drafting my own historical fiction, I reach for a different genre. Hepworth’s cast of flawed yet loveable characters and excellent dialogue made me an instant fan of her writing, and she’s definitely an author I’ll be reading more of. I had no idea who had committed murder in The Mother-in-Law, and I love a good page turner like that!
Visit Soraya Lane's website.

Q&A with Soraya M. Lane.

My Book, The Movie: Under a Sky of Memories.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 14, 2022


D.W. Buffa's recent novel is The Privilege, the ninth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. The tenth, Lunatic Carnival, will be published in the spring. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the Twentieth Century in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore:
Before appealing to history, those who insist that America is, and has always been, a racist country should have read some. They would have learned, among other things, that one of the most serious complaints the American colonists had against British rule was that the British had introduced slavery and then stopped every effort the colonists made to end the importation of slaves. They would also have learned, if they did not already know, that the American Civil War was fought on a moral issue, an issue which Abraham Lincoln, in the Cooper Union Speech of February 27, 1860, framed with marvelous simplicity:
If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced and swept away,” insisted Abraham Lincoln in his Cooper Union speech of February 27, 1860. “If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality - its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension - its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy.
What did those who fought the war, and those who lived through it, think of slavery as a moral issue, a question of right and wrong? Edmund Wilson, one of the country’s most important literary figures in the twentieth century and without question its greatest literary critic, tries to answer this question in his remarkable book, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, published in l962. Wilson writes not about what happened, but what was written about it. He begins with Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

It is a story that “came so suddenly” to Harriet Beecher Stowe, “and seemed so irresistibly to write itself that she felt as if some power beyond her had laid hold of her to deliver its message, and she said sometimes that the book had been written by God.” If she thought it had been written by God, or at least with God’s assistance, it was because, Wilson explains, she assumed “that every worthy person in the United States must desire to preserve the integrity of our unprecedented republic; and she tries to show how Negro slavery must disrupt and degrade this…by tempting the North to the moral indifference, the half-deliberate ignorance, which encourages inhuman practices, and by weakening the character of the South through luxury and irresponsibility that the institution of slavery breeds.”

Everyone, or nearly everyone, has heard of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; no one, or nearly no one, remembers Francis Grierson. But, Edmund Wilson insists in a chapter entitled “Prophetic Visions,” Grierson’s novel, The Valley of the Shadows, gives us more than any other book “the sense of the national crisis for which people daily felt they were being prepared without having been given the power to control it - not so much a storm that was going to burst as a drama, a sacred drama, in which they would have to perform.” Grierson, who as a boy had heard Lincoln and Douglas debate, later wrote Abraham Lincoln, the Practical Mystic, in which he describes Lincoln “as the designated and conscious instrument through which larger forces were working.” Grierson’s account of those larger forces, the sense of destiny that seemed almost palpable, deeper and more profound than the histories that do little more than chronicle events. He writes, “things came about not so much by preconceived method as by an impelling impulse. The appearance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not a reason, but an illumination; the founding of the Republican party was not an act of political wire-pulling, but an inspiration; the great religious revivals and the appearance of two comets were not regarded as coincidences, but accepted as signs of divine preparation and warning.”
Lincoln himself felt the force of it. He attended a camp meeting when he was only twenty- three and heard a Methodist preacher declare that “the Dominion of Christ could not come in America until slavery was destroyed.” The sermon lasted three hours and, showing “that a great civil war would put an end to human bondage,” the minister cried out, “Who can tell but the man who shall lead us through this strife may be standing in this presence!” When the meeting was over, Lincoln told a friend, “when the preacher was describing the civil war, I distinctly saw myself, as in second sight, bearing an important part in that strife.”

Lincoln, who spoke about the “mystic chords of memory’ in his second inaugural speech, had foreseen that he would play an “important part” in the Civil War. Elected president, he “had foreseen and accepted his doom; he knew it was part of the drama.” He had for years had a recurring dream - a ship on its “steady way to some dark and infinite shore.” The night before he was murdered, he “dreamed again of the ship approaching its dark destination.”

And what of the South? Frederick L. Olmstead, who before he constructed Central Park in New York, had been a magazine editor, was sent by the New York Times in l852 on a three- month trip through the South. He then wrote The Cotton Kingdom, in which he observed that slavery “not only degrades the slaves but demoralizes the master.” At the big plantations slaves work eighteen hours a day. Poor whites, “who live as badly or worse,” are despised by the other whites and in turn detest the Negro slaves because they cannot compete with them in the labor market. Few newspapers are published and almost no books. Virginia, “has declined from its once brilliant civilization.” The planter class has no interest in literature or art, science or foreign affairs and there is no discussion of slavery.

No open discussion, that is. A number of Confederate women wrote privately about the South’s Peculiar Institution. Kate Stone, living with her widowed mother on a thousand- acre cotton planation worked by a hundred fifty slaves knew as well as any Northern abolitionist that slavery was wrong.

“I always felt the moral guilt of it, felt how impossible it must be for an owner of slaves to win his way into Heaven. Born and raised as we were, what would be our measure of responsibility!” Though the war “swept from us everything,” she never regretted the freeing of the slaves. “The great load of accountability has been lifted.”

Mrs. James Chestnut, whose father had been a leading force in the movement to secede and the first Southern U.S. Senator to resign, published her journal under the title, A Diary From Dixie. She had a horror of slavery. “Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and concubines; and the mulattoes one sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing is the attitude of Robert E. Lee who led the Southern army. He had emancipated “most of his slaves years before the war, and had sent to Liberia those who were willing to go.” The Virginia legislature had come “within an ace of abolishing slavery in l832,” an attempt which Lee had approved. Lee favored abolition, did not believe there was a constitutional right to secession, nor that there was adequate cause for revolution, detested the boasting of the “Cotton States,” despised “their habitual truculent arrogance and their threats against the ‘Border States’ for their reluctance to go along with them.”

Lee resigned from the Union army and fought for the South because, Wilson believes, of an “instinctive emulation of his ancestors, the manifestation of a regional patriotism more deeply rooted than loyalty to the United States,” the “same sense of honor and independence which stimulated Virginia to stand up to the Crown.” At the end of the Civil War, Lee said that, “So far from engaging in the war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.”

Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union armies and accepted Lee’s surrender, wrote a record of his campaigns which Mark Twain believed was the most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin before the war, Grant’s Personal Memoirs sold three hundred thousand copies. He said of Lincoln: “He was a great man, a very great man. The more I saw of him, the more this impressed me. He was incontestably the greatest man I ever knew.” Grant understood why the war had been fought. Traveling to Europe, Grant met Bismarck who expressed the opinion that the American Civil War had really been about preserving the Union rather than ending slavery. Grant told Bismarck that he was wrong, that the war was about doing both. The moment “slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt it was a stain to the Union that men be bought and sold, like cattle.”

Lincoln had understood it from the beginning, that slavery was the sin of the whole nation, and that it was necessary, in the words of another author, to “emancipate the American republic from the curse of slavery, a curse which lay upon both races, and which in different ways enslaved them both.”
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 9, 2022

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is the author of Emergence, Resistance, Ascendance, After America, Without Warning, Final Impact, Designated Targets, Weapons of Choice, and other novels, as well as Leviathan, which won the National Award for Nonfiction at Australia’s Adelaide Festival of the Arts, and the novella Stalin’s Hammer: Rome. He has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, Rolling Stone, Penthouse, Playboy, and numerous other magazines.

Birmingham's new novel is The Shattered Skies, the sequel to The Cruel Stars.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Birmingham's reply:
When John le Carré died last year I realised that I’d never read any of his novels. A bit of an oversight, really, because I quite like spy novels, and le Carré was undoubtedly the foremost author of literature set in that shadow world. I seem to recall, and I'm not even going to check Google here, that he passed away around about the time his penultimate novel Agent Running In The Field was released. I had a free Audible credit at the time so I grabbed it up.

The first surprise was that the author read his own work. To be honest, that was a bit hard to get past, because when he recorded the book le Carré was a very old man, close to his own death, and his voice although beautifully modulated did not match the narrator of the story, a washed up agent in his mid 50s. Nonetheless, I got past it because the writing was just so good.

I remember reading somewhere that le Carré books were not just the greatest spy novels of the last 100 years, they were among the finest works of literature, and thus some of the most exquisite observations of the human condition. It was not an exaggeration.

Agent Running In The Field was possessed of all of his usual, exacting detail about life as a spy, amazing really when you think about it, because he had been out of the game for nearly sixty years by that point. But it was also a master class in the use of the English language to reveal deeper and deeper layers of human frailty.

I read it at first simply because it felt like the right thing to do given that the man had passed away and would write no more. (As it turned out, he published another title posthumously). Having finished the novel, however, I was so impressed I decided to spend the rest of the year reading his famous ‘Karla’ trilogy, the triptych detailing the decades-long battle between the British spymaster George Smiley and his Russian counterpart, known simply as Karla. The first of these, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has long since entered the canon of modern literature – probably because it seemed to so accurately capture the reality of the Soviet’s penetration of British intelligence in the 1950s and 60s before we understood just how complete that penetration was.

A number of things struck me when reading the novel, foremost among them the squalid reality of life in the early 1970s. There was no James Bond glamour in these books, even though some of the spies do spend their professional lives jetting around the world, staying in nice hotels, and hooking up with early 1970s hotties. Mostly everything is grimy, low tech, squalid and demeaning. The past is another country, and it really sucks back there.

Ah, but the certainty. Even when the protagonists, particularly the Englishmen, have good reason to question the morality and efficacy of their work, they’re never allowed to lose sight of the fact that their enemy is monstrous. And in a way they are trapped by this, because they can see no way to defeat the monster that doesn't lead to them becoming monstrous themselves. It is a wonderful meditation on the sorrows of a politically engaged life that you can probably trace all the way back to the first Greek tragedies.

Reading the trilogy, which continued with The Honourable Schoolboy and concluded in Smiley’s People, it was possible and sort of wonderful to watch le Carré’s talents develop over a decade or so. He proved himself a writer of the first order in 1963 with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. But by the time we get to Smiley's People he's just handing out master class lessons like M&M's. I was highlighting certain passages as I went through the book, mostly to do with tradecraft so that I could go back and study them for my own spy novels at some point in the future. But in the end, I was so completely swept away by his skill that I gave up on trying to learn anything in the moment and just gave myself over to the pleasure of reading a grand story told by one of the great artists of the written word.
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My Book, The Movie: The Cruel Stars.

--Marshal Zeringue