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The Books Spies Loved in 2021
A SpyTalk survey found an eclectic mix, but one debut thriller in special emerged
TURNS OUT retired spies and counterspies are like you and me after all—at least in their choices of books. Sure, they like the well turned spy novels of the high-lit variety—do I really need to cite Le Carré?—but their tastes even more often run to deeply reported, reflective books on politics, history, the environment and culture.
With the holiday book-buying season barrelling into view, I decided to survey some of some of SpyTalk’s friends in the intel world about their favorite books of 2021. Don’t dwell on it, I said. Just a line of two will be fine, about anything you read and liked in 2021, new or old. And, boy, was I grateful for their time.
So pour yourself a drink, find a comfy seat, and read on. You might find some surprises under this tree. (There’s no rank here, by the way: The responses of my correspondents are listed in alphabetical order.)
Ron Capps (Retired U.S. Army officer and Foreign Service veteran, founder of the Veterans Writing Project, author of Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years), now a contented singer-songwriter in Maine.)
“Non-fiction. (The Year of Environmental Reading)
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. Like the Arctic itself, the book is vast in scope, and rich in history, natural science and human folly. Highly recommended.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. A marvelous blend of science, history, and Native American studies written by a Native American scientist..
“Fiction. (I dusted off some old favorites for a re-read.)
Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. Beautiful writing. It is, all said and done, a love letter to the mountains.
Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh. Waugh’s first and arguably best comic novel. “
Glenn Carle (Retired 25-year veteran of the CIA Directorate of Operations, where he also served as a Deputy National Intelligence Officer. Author of The Interrogator: An Education.)
“So many to choose from. I'll say it was Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, by Gordon S. Wood. Positively magisterial. It transformed how I understand American culture and history. The most important lesson to take away, perhaps, is that those pushing for change in American society or in the structures of government cannot control the changes; the "new" America" moved beyond the conceptions of either the ruling Federalist elites, or of the "democratic" factions "led" by Jefferson, and then, later, Jackson; and that (2) our democracy is far more fragile than most assume, and that the anti-democratic forces are always present and nearly as strong as those supporting democracy.”
Ned Carmody (Case officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations for nearly 28 years, with interagency assignments to NSA, the FBI’s National Joint Terrorism Task Force, the U.S. Army War College and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.)
The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future, by Chris Whipple.
“At first I was put off by the gossipy tone. For example, I didn't need to know that Richard Helms had asked Lyndon Baines Johnson (his commander-in-chief) for permission to divorce his first wife. But overall Whipple provides details on events inside the agency that I was unaware of, even though I was in the building at the time. In total, the book is an excellent review of recent intelligence and national security history.”
James Clapper (Retired USAF Lieutenant General and Director of National Intelligence, 2010-2017.)
“I think my best read this past year was Jeff Grant’s novel The Swamp: Deceit and Corruption in the CIA. A great read, and just plausible enough to ring realistic, with some striking resonance with the real world. It was for me a real page-turner.”
Frank Figliuzzi (Retired former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence and author of The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau’s Code of Excellence.)
“1. Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALS. A deep dive into the real life tale of toxic leadership and a culture of compliance that led to war crime allegations against a SEAL team chief ultimately exonerated by Trump. It’s a microcosm of our current society.
“2. Hidden Valley Road. A page-turner of a true story about a large family, whose members are beset by schizophrenia, that becomes a petri dish for decades of modern mental health research. The race to find the cause and cure for schizophrenia, and to solve the nature vs. nurture question, reads like the best mystery novels.“
Jeff Grant (CIA veteran of the directorates of Science and Technology and Intelligence, the Office of Scientific Intelligence, and the National Reconnaissance Office. Author of The Swamp: Deceit and Corruption in the CIA.)
The CIA's Greatest Covert Operation: Inside the Daring Mission to Recover a Nuclear-Armed Soviet Sub, by David Sharp.
“The book is an insider’s perspective of the audacious attempt by the CIA to recover a sunken Soviet submarine that reveals how technology and risk were managed, not avoided. How operational decisions were made and bold individuals can be when given a long leash.”
The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, by CNN anchor Jake Tapper
“The book reveals how elements of a flawed strategy in Afghanistan led to the senseless loss of life in an indefensible U.S. Army outpost.”
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, by Steve Coll
“A look at Afghanistan from the time of the Russian invasion until 2001. A revealing insight into how the U.S. conducted a proxy war against the USSR, led by the CIA and implanted by fighters from throughout the Arab world. A reading of the book in 2021 (it was published in 2004) provides a stunning parallel to the events leading up to the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the rise of the Taliban and the US withdrawal in 2021. History repeats itself.”
The Great Alone: A Novel, by Kristin Hannah
“A wonderful look at life in a remote part of Alaska in the 1970's. A coming of age story for a young woman.”
Michael Hayden (Retired Air Force general, former head of the NSA and CIA, principal deputy director at ODNI. Author of Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror (2016) and The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies (2018))
“I recommend American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America, by Colin Woodard. It breaks down those cultures and the regions they each dominate. From the utopian ‘Yankeedom’ to the conservative ‘Greater Appalachia’ and liberal ‘Left Coast,’ looking at these cultures sheds an interesting light on America's political and cultural divides. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, some governors are acting among these factions — like California, Oregon, and Washington, of all which have parts comprising ‘The Left Coast’ group. It was 10 years ago. But I read this book again. It’s scary. I think he’s right.”
Dan Hoffman (Former senior officer with the CIA, where he served as a three-time station chief and a senior executive Clandestine Services officer, with tours of duty in the former Soviet Union, Europe, and war zones in the Middle East and South Asia.)
“I particularly enjoyed former CIA officer David McCloskey's Damascus Station. From an exfiltration gone awry with deadly consequences for an undercover CIA officer and her source to a stunning endgame replete with treachery and the most unlikely love story, Damascus Station takes the reader on a breathtaking journey in war torn Syria. McCloskey’s exceptional understanding of Syria—especially its ruthless military and intelligence service—is matched by his sophistication in the ways of CIA espionage tradecraft. Bristling with edgy Russian, Syrian, and American spies, McCloskey delivers a thrilling page-turner, leaving the reader rooting for a uniquely dauntless protagonist.”
Alma Katsu (30-year veteran of the CIA, NSA and the Department of Defense and author of 16 novels, including, most recently, the spy thriller Red Widow.
“One book I highly recommend to anyone is Stephen Graham Jones' The Only Good Indians, from 2020. Jones is Blackfoot, and does a superb job of weaving social commentary into flat-out great storytelling. Indians has won a slew of awards including, recently, the Mark Twain American Voice in Literature.
“Razorblade Tears, by Virginia author S.A. Cosby, is a violent story of revenge that also takes a clear-eyed look at prejudices of many ilks, including racial and class. It has been a runaway hit this year, making the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, TIME, and many other best books of 2021 lists. It's a fast, gritty, gut-punch of a read.”
Peter Lapp (retired senior FBI agent who specialized in counterintelligence cases against Cuban spies and economic espionage, among other issues)
“American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent, by Tamer Elnoury and Kevin Maurer (author of No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden). Tamer is an Arabic-speaking Muslim FBI agent who went undercover against an al Qaeda sleeper named Chilheb Esseghaier, who was plotting to attack sites in Canada. The book is a first-hand account of a Muslim American patriot who risked his life to thwart a terrorist attack against a critical ally. It reads like a movie and is a fantastic story.”
David McCloskey (Former CIA officer who worked in field stations across the Middle East and briefed senior White House officials and Arab royalty. Author of Damascus Station, his widely and wildly praised debut novel.)
“I'd submit Steven Pressfield's A Man at Arms as one of my favorites. I thought it was a poignant journey into the mindset of a warrior and a wonderful immersion in 1st century AD Palestine.”
Became CIA Chief of Disguises during a 25-year agency career. Coauthor, with her late husband Tony Mendez, also a CIA veteran, of The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War.
“Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr. Might win him another Pulitzer!”
Retired from the CIA’s senior executive service in 2014 after a 28-year career in its National Clandestine Service, which included serving in Moscow and running the CIA’s Russia operations. Co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment.
“Re spy books, Steve Vogel's Betrayal in Berlin was excellent. We are trying to make it into a film with the screenwriter Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams). I also like reading about Richard Sorge, and enjoyed Owen Matthew's An Impeccable Spy. I read several of Serhii Plokhy's books, on Yalta, the end of the Soviet Union, and The Man with the Poison Gun about the KGB assassination of a Ukrainian nationalist in the 1950s that shows how little has changed with the Kremlin's secret police.
“Checkmate in Berlin by Giles Milton, about post-war Berlin. First Casualty, by Toby Harnden, about the early CIA teams into Afghanistan, was excellent. I always read Evan Osnos and his book Wildland, about our political landscape, was really good. David McCloskey's first spy novel Damascus Station makes me eager to read whatever he comes up with next, and my friend and former colleague Marc Polymeropoulos wrote a fun and informative book on leadership, Clarity in Crisis. He now just needs to write about his experiences with ‘Havana syndrome.’”