This week’s reading:
- Journey Into Fear, Eric Ambler
- Berlin Game, Len Deighton
- Mexico Set, Len Deighton
- London Match, Len Deighton
- A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray
- Rebel Angels, Libba Bray
- The Sweet Far Thing, Libba Bray
- Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine
I was reading Mexico Set on the subway when the middle-aged man across from me leaned forward. “Wait,” he said. “Is that Len Deighton?” He seemed both shocked and delighted that someone would be reading such an old spy novel, so we started talking about why I thought the Game-Set-Match series was worth my time. Fortunately for you, I’ll give you the actually-coherent version of what I told him.
Deighton hits the sweet spot between a story that is bound to the time and place of its telling, and a story that has universal relevance. Deighton does a great job of making the world he portrays specific. The main character grew up in postwar Berlin, and that experience shapes his loyalties and challenges. For example, one major conflict he encounters has to do with the relative value of street knowledge versus book knowledge when it comes to running spy networks. He’s got the former, but not the latter – and Deighton uses this conflict to get into larger themes of how bureaucracies work, what motivates people to become spies, and the nature of human fallibility. The office politics were particularly well drawn; Deighton makes them successfully dramatic and works through their consequences, large and small. I also appreciated the twisty-turny plots on both sides, and the question of who really comes out ahead at the end of the day.
In short: I liked, but did not love, the other Deighton books I’ve read. I did love these, and I think they stand the test of time remarkably well.
I read both the Bray and the Fine books on my iPad, which has been a fascinating reading experience, but probably requires a post of its own. (For example, I want to explain the simple thing that Amazon could do to make me buy TEN TIMES AS MANY BOOKS on the iPad. Or perhaps I shouldn’t, for the sake of my book budget!) For now, I’ll confine myself to what I thought of the books themselves.
The Fine book is important. Like, capital-I-Important. She does a wonderful job of reviewing the research on how malleable our performance of gender is, and why a lot of the neurological studies purporting to show gender differences are basically junk. (There’s junk neuroscience in many fields, of course, but neurosexism is a biggie.) She’s a wonderful writer, too. For example, she demolishes the “I raise my kids gender-neutrally, so their gendered behavior MUST be biological!” argument with an extended riff on the differences between left-handers and right-handers. It’s made me walk around mentally replacing every reference to gender with references to handedness instead. This exercise will rapidly show you just how much instruction we get, every single day, on how to perform gender appropriately – and how invisible it is, most of the time. Seriously: try this. It will change your life.
Some of the critiques of the book have slammed her, claiming that she doesn’t allow any role for biology in gender differences. I actually found her to be very reasonable on this topic. Her central point is basically, “Get some data for that, please, because the data that exists does not show what you claim it shows.” It’s very hard to make a debunking book compelling, but she manages it. I do have two critiques of my own, both relatively minor. First, I think she’s a little hard on Simon Baron-Cohen. I worked with him many years ago, and at least at the time, he was trying to convey a complicated idea about population differences in autism, which he was testing with methods that could reveal the role of biology. That’s not to say all’s well in Baron-Cohen-ville: I really dislike his choice to refer to his brain types as “male brains” and “female brains,” and it sounds like I need to read some of the claims he’s made in more recent papers. Second, I was sad the book wasn’t longer! It’s about 30% notes and references, which the scholar in me appreciates, but I really wanted more more more of her wonderful, thoughtful writing and did not get it. Sad. Still, as these things go, those critiques aren’t major ones.
Finally, Libba Bray. Oh, oh, Libba Bray. I so wanted to love these books. It’s like A Little Princess! With magic! And hot girls kissing! Unfortunately, I found the whole magical world problematic, and I kind of wanted to kick the main character in her nonexistent nuts most of the time. What I’ll take away from this book are the wonderfully evocative images, like Pippa leading her gang of friends (which I will not describe further in the interests of avoiding spoilers), and the effective balance of period atmosphere and female power. That balance was the best thing in the book, actually. You really feel like you are being taught to be a Victorian lady, and the protagonist and her friends are all constrained by their gender in ways that drive much of the plot. At the same time, you can almost smell change in the air by the end of the third book; in their lifetimes, these girls would wear pants and win the vote and gain some measure of independence*. Plus they are involved with a freaking magical secret society of women that they have to keep hidden from the authorities, which hits a lot of my “Make Jess Happy” buttons.
Time to go figure out what to read next!!
* Despite my mixed feelings about this series, it reminded me of Buddenbrooks. Both portray a world that is doomed, but does not know it is doomed, and in fact becomes more and more heavily invested in enforcing its own social norms as it comes closer to destruction.