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Book Nook - 26-02-2019

Tuesday, February 26, 2019
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to

The Girl In The Cold War
At the best of times, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to get into the murky all-male world of espionage. And Marie Mitchell is young black woman FBI agent, who wants to a spy at the height of the Cold War. She knows that however smart or brave she may be, the men will not give her any significant assignments, so when she does get a dubious-sounding but exciting job, she takes it.

Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy is a perceptive novel with a likeable protagonist—it will possibly be made into a film soon, though this spy universe is not glamorous, like the one inhabited by James Bond or Ethan Hunt. It’s dirty and dangerous.

When the book opens, Marie is asleep at home with her twin sons in the next room. Her senses sharpened by her FBI training intercept a hitman, and she has to shoot him before he does.  She knows that the racist white cops will make life tough for her, even though she clearly killed in self-defence, so she escapes with her kids to her mother in Martinique, and writes her astonishing story for her sons to read in case she does not survive another attack,

Back in 1987, Marie is doing dull jobs for the FBI, recruiting informants and dealing with “oppressive amounts of paperwork” that lands at her desk. The daughter of a New York cop, and younger sister of the ambitious Helene, whose dreams inspired her, Marie wants more out of her professional life.

A shady CIA man, Ed Ross, recruits her to join a mission to somehow find a chink in the armour of Burkina Faso’s charismatic leader, Thomas Sankara (a real life character), so that the CIA can get rid of him and install a puppet president—the kind of nasty game the US still plays, but back then the fight was against the USSR and all communist regimes around the world.

Marie is aware that she is the clichéd honeytrap, but she is genuinely attracted to Sankara; she also had another reason to accept the job—Daniel Slater, the man who recommended her, was the colleague and boyfriend of her sister who died mysteriously and Marie wants to find out what happened.

After a meeting with Sankara in New York, where he goes off-schedule to meet the black community in Harlem, Marie is sent to Burkina Faso, where she finds serious attempts being made to overthrow Sankara, who is, nonetheless, hugely popular with the people for all the work he does for their upliftment. Marie is caught in bind, not willing to go beyond a point to aid the CIA, and then finding out that there are wheels with wheels. In reality too, Sankara was violently assassinated by his closest associate.

Marie gets out of Burkina Faso using her own quick thinking and courage, but finds out soon enough that a spy can never really escape the past. Lauren Wilkinson deftly handles the various complex threads of the story, and paces it so that it never gives the reader breathing space. The book simply demands to be read in one sitting. American Spy is a worthy addition to the list of Cold War-era spy fiction. And, it ends at a point that indicates a possible sequel.

American Spy
By Lauren Wilkinson
Publisher: Randon House
Pages: 304


Excerpt of American Spy
When my sister Helene was thirteen she was obsessed with spies, and read as much as she could about them. For an outsider, it might’ve seemed like her preoccupation was unusual, that it was surprising for a black girl from Queens to know so much and have such strong feelings about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. For me, that was simply who she was.

Our father’s closest friend, Mr. Ali, was a Fed and when she started grilling him about his work, to his credit, he took her seriously. He answered her questions thoughtfully, treating her like a potential agent instead of dismissing her as a girl child. It was through their conversations that she decided she didn’t want to be a spy because she didn’t want to be anyone’s lackey. She wanted to run them.

Every summer, the three of us (me, my sister, and our Airedale Bunny) would stay at our grandfather’s in Brooklyn for a few weeks. When Goldfinger came out we went to see it at the Sumner Theatre, which was in walking distance of his brownstone. While I’d thought it was sexy and cool and a little scary, she’d thought it was ridiculous. She said Ian Fleming was no match for John Le Carré, whose spy novels were advertised as the real thing. He was in MI6, she’d said, eyes shining.

I’ve since read the Le Carré biography that argues he was interested in spies and secret lives because his father was a confidence man and a professional liar. I think that conclusion was drawn too neatly—people are too complex for such simple arithmetic—but I understand the purpose it serves. Our mother could pass for white; she could hide in plain sight. And then one day she suddenly she left us, and that is all a spy does—they hide in plain sight, and once they’ve exploited all they can from their relationships, they leave. I know what would’ve been written in Helene’s biography.

Our grandfather sent us to a black day camp run by St. John’s Rec Center in Prospect Heights. We were given yellow T-shirts with St. John’s Camp on them, and green plastic totes in which to keep our lunch and bathing suits and whatever money we had. At thirteen, Helene she felt she was too grown up for St. John’s, but went because she was popular there and because I liked it so much. They took us on field trips; my favorites were the ones to McCarren pool, in Williamsburg, on the other side of Brooklyn.

Both Helene and I could swim; that we should know how to was one of the few things our parents agreed on, Agathe because she was from an island, and Pop because he’d learned at the Harlem Y. Growing up near a pool that black folks could use was one of the privileges he’d had that made him think of his childhood as a lucky one.

As I was sitting at the edge of the pool, tucking my pressed hair up under my bathing cap, running footsteps drummed behind me. I turned to see two boys my age jump in; while one of them bobbed up immediately, the other took so long to ascend that it scared me. Inwardly I chided myself: He’s fine. Don’t be so afraid. Still, when the boy broke the surface coughing and laughing, gems of water slipping out of his black hair, I was relieved.

I climbed down the ladder, tread water for a bit, then tentatively dog-paddled along the edge of the pool toward the deep end, avoiding the groups of kids who were shrieking and laughing as they played. I was almost to the far wall of the pool when I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders. They dunked me under. I flailed in the water, sending off plumes of bubbles as I tried to fight the hands off. Through the pool’s haze I recognized Rhonda’s worn-out green bathing suit.

Rhonda was probably twelve that summer. The hardness of her features, her sinewy neck, and the scars on her legs made her look rough, but she also always wore bows in her hair and floral dresses under her yellow camp T-shirt. Her appearance is seared into my memory because she picked on me sometimes. Little things mostly: a shove in the back, a yank on one of the braids Helene had done for me. Her behavior wasn’t exactly vicious; it was more like she wanted attention and had run out of good ideas.

I surfaced, coughing, heard a whistle tweet as Rhonda dunked me under again. I scratched her and she recoiled. I got free for a moment and broke the surface of the water. “Rhonda! Stop!”

She laughed and shoved me under a third time. I tried to push her hands off me, but she was much stronger than I was. I fought her until the strength started to course out of me. She was still laughing. I could hear it, muffled and coming from far above.

Helene’s skinny legs sliced into the water, causing a surge of bubbles. She tackled Rhonda, and I floated up to the surface of the pool, limply paddled to the closest ladder, and pulled myself out of the water, panting.

Helene pushed Rhonda’s head underwater and kept it there until the lifeguard blew his whistle. She let go and Rhonda bobbed up. As she was climbing out of the pool, my sister, who was just behind her on the ladder, yanked on Rhonda’s ankle, and she tumbled to the concrete pool deck. Helene pulled herself out of the pool and stood over her. A counselor flew to Rhonda’s rescue before Helene could land a punch. “Calm down!” the counselor shouted at Helene, which never failed to further agitate her.


The summary of Rajiv Vijayakar’s book states, “With the advent of sound, Hindi songs acquired a grammar of their own, thanks to the introduction of songs as a part of the narrative – a tradition that is unique to Hindi cinema. This gave rise to a class of professionals who acquired a star status that was in the league of the actors themselves – the lyricists. Rajiv Vijayakar’s book chronicles the journeys of leading film lyricists – from D.N. Madhok and Pandit Pradeep to Amitabh Bhattacharya and Irshad Kamil, including stalwarts like Shakeel Badayuni and Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Anand Bakshi, Gulzar and Javed Akhtar – who have woven magic with the written word. Filled with trivia and never-before-heard-of anecdotes, Main Shaayar Toh Nahin is an introduction to the contribution made by some of the finest wordsmiths to the Hindi film industry.:

Main Shayar Toh Nahin: The Book of Hindi Film Lyricists
By Rajiv Vijayakar
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 352

Andy Puddicombe’s book helps in “Demystifying meditation for the modern world: an accessible and practical route to improved health, happiness and well being, in as little as 10 minutes. Andy Puddicombe, founder of the celebrated Headspace, is on a mission: to get people to take 10 minutes out of their day to sit in the now. Here he shares his simple to learn, but highly effective techniques of meditation.

*Rest an anxious, busy mind* Find greater ease when faced with difficult emotions, thoughts, circumstances* Improve focus and concentration * Sleep better* Achieve new levels of calm and fulfillment.

The benefits of mindfulness and meditation are well documented and here Andy brings this ancient practice into the modern world, tailor made for the most time starved among us.”

The Headspace Guide to... Mindfulness & Meditation
By Andy Puddicombe
Hachette India
Pages: 225

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