Book bits

Three books about spies, a review of 'Flower Children' by Maxine Swann, and reader recommendations.

Flower Children

Author: Maxine Swann

Growing up near Hanover, N.H. in the 1980s I saw my share of rural counter­cultural influences mixed with the stratosphere of Ivy League educations. I heard stories about what it was like to eat meat raised in the backyard from friends also considering which name-brand colleges to apply to for early acceptance. We had philosophical debates between classes and swam in the local dam and grilled on its banks hours before the prom.

That's probably why I found a certain poetic truth in Maxine Swann's Flower Children, the story of four children coming of age in 1980s rural Pennsylvania. Their parents, who had turned their backs on their upper-class roots a decade earlier, are making a go of it as hippies, attending protest rallies and building a house with a dirt-floor kitchen. The children wander as free as pollen on a breeze and watch their parents' skinny dipping parties from a safe distance.

But barely one step into "Flower Children" and things get complicated. Their father's new girlfriend drifts in and out of their house, picks vegetables from their garden, and attends family parties. Soon their parents separate.

Their father, who treats them more like his best friends than his progeny, arrives on weekends to pile them into his car for unplanned adventures. Their mother holds down the family fort, and occasionally a boyfriend becomes part of the family mix.

The children observe and move through these experiences with a detached nonchalance, told through Swann's compelling prose that flows as easily as water. Maeve, the second oldest, narrates every other chapter. But while boundary-free living may be liberating for adults, the children relish the comfort found in rules when they first begin attending school:

"They're delighted by these rules, these arbitrary lines that regulate behavior and mark off forbidden things...."

Despite the constant changes at home and efforts to steady a father who seems completely unhinged, the flower children take root and flourish. Their parents' needs and quirks fade as the children grow and the opposite sex becomes more interesting.

The short novel ends with a chapter titled "Return," where the siblings, now living on their own, reunite at the house. They find reassurance in "discovering in each other their own gestures," and they note changes, "[the house] has grown rooms and walls, like a crustacean that has added an extra shell." It affirms the old truth that "you can't go home again," except for this reader who, in the pages of "Flower Children," briefly found herself there again.

– Kendra Nordin

Three books about spies

The man who explained Vietnam to the Americans turns out to have been a spy. In Perfect Spy Larry Berman tells the true story of Pham Xuan An, the charming South Vietnamese journalist who befriended numerous US journalists stationed in Saigon during the war. Only later did it become clear that An was a communist and double agent working for the North Vietnamese government, proving that true stories are often the oddest of all.

Gabriel Allon rides again. The creation of author Daniel Silva, Allon is an Israeli spy who poses as an art restorer. In his latest outing in The Secret Servant, Allon uncovers a plot by terrorists to kidnap the daughter of an American ambassador. They hope to trade her for an Egyptian cleric being. Allon darts all over Europe in his efforts to save the girl, creating a gripping read that offers some genuine insight into the West's war on terrorism.

Some say he was the greatest spy of all time. Elizabeth's Spymaster by Robert Hutchinson is the compelling, detailed story of Sir Francis Walsingham, the man Elizabeth I counted on to run a vast spy network including double agents in Rome and Spain, tracking her enemies and perhaps saving her crown.

– Marjorie Kehe

Readers' picks

I've just finished The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr. Written for a Western audience, this eye-opening book illuminates the long-standing rivalry between the two major Muslim sects – Shiite and Sunni – and explains how the Iraq war has altered the uneasy balance that existed between them. Jennifer Thomas-Larmer, Orlando, Fla.

I was given a copy of The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason. It is the best well-written book that I have read in quite some time. Marian Edson, San Antonio

The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me by Lillian Gish and Ann Pinchot. Gish, who began acting at 5 years old, and Pinchot perfectly capture the early era of film productions. This book is a sweet telling of early cinema and its greatest actress. Jim Patterson, San Francisco

I am currently reading Emerson's essays. I tried to read these as a teenager, but found them tiresome. I recently readWhere Shall Wisdom Be Found? by Harold Bloom and decided to try again. They are much more interesting from an adult perspective than from a juvenile perspective. Bob Crompton, Woodstock, Ga.

I'm currently reading Vorkosigan's Game by Lois McMaster Bujold, one of the earlier books in her award-winning novels of Miles Vorkosigan. It is science fiction at its very best. The characters in her books come alive and Miles Vorkosigan is a marvelous creation. Humor, irony, compassion, action - Bujold is a master of it allRobin Hastings, Las Cruces, N. M.

The Unresolved by T.K. Welsh is historical fiction for young adults based on the real General Slocum steamship disaster. It was one of the best books I've read all year. Sylvana Joseph, New Orleans

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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