Late summer book reviews: Spies, true crime, Vietnam and COVID


Daniel Silva’s new spy thriller, “The Cellist,” featuring Spy Chief of Israel Gabriel Allon, will keep you up well into the night. Silva’s newest book is about as contemporary as you can get, set against the background of COVID, “Q,” Russian election interference and the impact of laundering dirty money. In this book, Allon has enlisted a smart, adventurous young woman who — as a world class cellist — is tasked with infiltrating the world of an art-loving Russian kleptocrat. 

Allon is thrown into to the chase when one of his Russian friends (to whom he owes his life) is murdered by the Russian chemical novichok. The chase to bring down the killer and his Russian allies takes Allon and his band of spies to London, Amsterdam, Geneva and Washington for the inauguration of the new president and an edge-of-your-seat ending, which you likely won’t have seen coming. 

“The Cellist” has kidnappings, murder and a textbook description of how to launder money to the tune of billions of dollars. I would highly recommend this book for thriller fans.

“Another Kind of Eden” will not disappoint James Lee Burke fans. Dysfunctional and disturbed families are a centerpiece of Burke’s fiction, and he has found that the American West in the early-’60s is a perfect setting for psychopaths of all stripes. His protagonist, Aaron Holland Broussard, doesn’t ride into town on a horse to clean up the criminals who run the city, but nevertheless he does a stellar job in righting wrongs and tracking down a possible serial killer of young women. By no means is this a straightforward mystery, but it is a story that is entangled with fantasy, witchcraft and a bit of romance.

Burke uses his masterful fiction writing to create a time and place that seems to predict the tumultuous ’60s and the wandering gangs of flower children who are as evil as Charlie Manson’s crew. Burke’s 41st novel — although a short 240 pages — will force you to hit snooze after a long night of reading. In this book, both the protagonist and his paramour ride off into the night.

Another book that deserves a look is “Lieutenant Dangerous: A Vietnam Warrior,” by the award-winning political cartoonist Jeff Danziger, who served in Vietnam in 1969. In the book, Danziger follows his tumultuous experience of trying to avoid combat in Vietnam. He makes all the right moves to stay behind the lines by learning Vietnamese with the hope of ending up as an interpreter. In pure Yossarian-style, Danziger discovers the incredible absurdities of war firsthand. Tim O’Brien, the award-winning author of “The Things They Carried,” has called the book “one of the best personal accounts to emerge from the Vietnam War.”

Danziger pulls no punches about his own ignorance of how war is conducted, and even writes his U.S. senator about the absurd things he sees – never a good idea for a grunt. Like most who served in Vietnam combat, he is relieved that he is coming home but fears adjusting to his new life stateside. Danziger had no intention of writing a Vietnam memoir until he had a conversation with young military-aged men and women about serving in Vietnam. 

The book, which is available on Amazon, is a valuable addition to Vietnam War literature. It is punctuated by some of Danziger’s cartoons showing everyday life in a combat zone. One of my favorites depicts the sign he saw when he exited the troop carrier for his 12-month tour. The cartoon shows a soldier hefting a duffle bag and his M-16 peering at a sign that says: “You have a friend at Chase Manhattan.” 

I’ve probably read 50 memoirs from those who served in Vietnam: Danziger adds a valuable perspective to the genre.

I then turned my attention back home to a different battlefield, where medical professionals are on the frontline fighting COVID — itself a dangerously unpredictable enemy. The new book, “A Pandemic in Residence: Essays from a Detroit Hospital,” by Michigan neurology resident Selina Mahmood, who works at Henry Ford Hospital, takes us inside her life as a first-year resident, which happens to overlap with the onslaught of COVID. In addition to being a doctor, Mahmood is an intellectual who seamlessly quotes philosophers and other writers in her series of 15 essays in her 135-page book, which is available on Amazon. She certainly paid attention in her history classes at the University of Michigan. In one essay she writes: “I returned to the hospital the next day to learn that a nurse on another floor had died of the virus. She’s dead and we went on and are here.”

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