Bruce Hoffman

It's Not Too Late: Great Fiction for the End of Summer Reading

Although most of my time is spent either thinking, researching, writing, teaching and now blogging about terrorism and insurgency, reading fiction consumes as much as of the remainder as possible.  As the end of summer approaches and a late beach holiday perhaps beckons, the following are the five best books (or, on in one case, set of books) I’ve read since June and therefore can recommend without hesitation.

[amazon 080211928X full] 1.  Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes.  There have been many fine novels about the Vietnam War.  Tim O’Brien’s classics Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried; Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War; Kenn Miller’s Tiger The Lurp Dog; and U.S. Senator James Webb’s Fields of Fire immediately leap to mind.  But Matterhorn may well be the best.  A Marine combat veteran and Rhodes Scholar, Marlantes reportedly worked thirty years on his novel.  And he has created a masterpiece.  Matterhorn shifts effortlessly between the big and small pictures of a war indelibly etched onto both our psyche and foreign and national security policies ever since.  Marlantes is equally adept with description and dialogue.  He deftly depicts unforgettable characters immersed in the deadly minutiae of warfare caught beneath the bureaucratic inanity previously made famous by Joseph Heller in Catch-22 and the director Robert Altman in the film, M.A.S.H.  “They were another example of a brain-storm that looked good in Washington, 10,000 miles from reality,” reads one caustic passage about a policy initiative that could just as easily have been dreamed up for Afghanistan today.   Indeed, it is difficult not to equate the American high command’s obsession with NVA and VC (respectively, North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong) body counts in Matterhorn to Washington’s current preoccupation with tallying al Qaeda and Taliban killed in drone attacks.  Matterhorn is a magnificent book: arguably the seminal fictional work of a war that we, like the author, cannot forget.

[amazon 0345476034 full] 2.  Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon is the perfect summer read: a gripping, deceptively complex yet elegantly explicated thriller.  It begins with a father desperately rushing his son, whose hand has been severed, to a rural hospital.  It then quickly shifts to the unnerving tale of a distraught brother searching for his brilliant, but erratic twin before veering to pick up the story of a high school graduate, cum Ivy League reject from a small mid-western town who has just run off with her history teacher in his super-charged Italian sports car.  Along the way appear a supporting cast of computer hackers, perplexed suburbanites, the Russian mafia and aggrieved parents, siblings, lovers, and friends that draws the reader ever deeper into in the story.  Chaon is an immensely fluid and clever writer and a superb storyteller.  Before the reader realizes it, he has tied everything completely together: neatly weaving the lives of his disparate characters into a single, taught and compelling narrative.

[amazon 1400066034 full] 3.  Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst.  Furst is a well-known spy novelist whose stories set on the eve or during the early months of World War II evocatively recreate that time, its existential stakes, and the best and worst of a continent struggling to survive.  The Spies of Warsaw; The World At Night; Dark Star; Kingdomof Shadows; and, The Polish Officer are just some of the distinctive thrillers this former foreign correspondent has previously enthralled readers with.  But, for my money, Spies of the Balkans is his best.  Set in Salonika (now Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city)during the lead-up to the German invasion, the book chronicles the tireless efforts of Costa Zannis, a hunky police special branch detective and reservist Greek Army officer to help save as many Jews fleeing Nazi Germany as possible while at the same packing in as much passionate love-making to as many different beautiful women as can conceivably be accomplished amidst the menacing sound of jack-boots marching across the continent.  Adroitly moving between Athens and Alexandria, Paris and Zagreb, and Berlin and the Macedonian frontier, populated by a gorgeous German-Jewish heiress married to a Wehrmacht colonel, a seductive British spy under cover as a ballet school teacher, the stunning wife of a Greek shipping magnate, and a loyal sheep dog, Spies of the Balkans is as captivating as it is sharply drawn.  Only Eric Ambler’s unsurpassable A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939) and his lesser known but also excellent The Schirmer Inheritance(1953) have painted a better picture of a region as amenable to spies, soldiers, and dogged police investigators as it is to crooks, smugglers, and terrorists, than Furst has.