There’s a term for it: Doomscrolling.


It means obsessively checking the news or social media to see what awful thing has just happened.


That isn’t exactly what I’ve been doing, but, for the past four years or more, I’ve been reading more and more and more bad news. I’ve felt compelled, not by a need for dread, but because I felt it was my civic obligation to know what was going on.


I had to understand how COVID worked. I had to understand masks and vaccines. I had to understand tax policy and the negative impact of social media and global warming and impeachment and the collapse of the medical system and blockchain and the overvaluing of the stock market and Brexit and the war in Ukraine and poverty and the first amendment and the second amendment and the fourteenth amendment and every awful, complex, polarizing and depressing thing that was leading, any day now, to dystopia.

If you'd like to start reading again, here are three books that you might find interesting. Two are first books in a series, so there's a potential for twelve good reads in total.

There are currently eight books in Herron’s series, and Apple’s six-episode first season is based on the first book in that series, titled, of course, ‘Slow Horses’.


Herron’s first book introduces us to Slough House, a run-down pile of offices above a run-down Chinese restaurant in London, and to its staff, a group of failed spies, shuttled off from MI5 to do meaningless clerical work in hopes they’ll give up and quit without becoming a bother to the HR department.


The place is run by Jackson Lamb, a fat, slovenly, boorish, obnoxious, politically incorrect former ‘Joe’ (that is to say, a spy who worked in the field). Imagine a bitter George Smiley, with a nasty and sarcastic wit. We’re not sure what crime sent Lamb to Slough House, but we get the impression that maybe he didn’t fit into the modern MI5 of committee meetings and career-climber backstabbing.


Lamb’s staff (referred to derisively in MI5 as the ‘slow horses’) is a delight, ranging from a social misfit IT guy, through an actually-very-good junior agent, to one female staffer with anger management issues that she genuinely wants to indulge. 


Somehow, in spite of the fact that they’ve been assigned to clerical work in Slough House, they always manage to end up in the middle of a real crisis, doing real agent stuff.


Herron’s plots are complex, twists are sudden, and characters can get killed off without warning. These are real spy novels, in the LeCarré vein, but they feel almost like satires of LeCarré, and, for me at least, they’re a lot more fun to read.


The San Antonio library has all eight books. With two exceptions, they’re available in all formats — paper, ebook, and audiobook.


1. Slow Horses (all formats)

2. Dead Lions (all formats)

3. Real Tigers (no audiobook, but all other formats)

4. Spook Street (all formats)

5. London Rules (no audiobook, but all other formats)

6. Joe Country (all formats)

7. Slough House (all formats)

8. Bad Actors (all formats)


By the way, the first season of the Apple series is pretty faithful to the book, and Gary Oldman is a perfect fit for Jackson Lamb (who, in my mind’s eye, had never been fat, in spite of Herron’s description of him). But again, it’s no match for the book.


THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB (FICTION SERIES)


In a way, this series is a light version of the ‘Slow Horses’ books. Instead of a run-down office, the books are set in a moderately upscale retirement community. The characters include Ibrahim, a retired psychologist; Ron, a former firebrand union organizer; Joyce, a former nurse; and their dangerously capable ringleader, Elizabeth, who, it seems, may have been an agent in MI5.

Thankfully, it didn’t make me depressed, which I understand is a common effect. But it did leave me feeling a bit helpless. There was just too much to fix, even though, somehow, I felt like that was my job. I felt like I had to have an opinion on everything, and I needed to participate in solving every problem.


I eventually realized that I had to cut back.


I realized that I didn’t have to know the status of every issue, every day. I didn’t have to follow Senator Joe Manchin’s daily position on legislation (after all, it will be different tomorrow).


I also realized that time I spent reading these bite-size chunks of quickly-vaporizing information was draining all the reading energy out of me. I was no longer reading books. I was no longer reading long-form journalism.


So I decided to do two things.


First, I decided I’d resume real reading — of books and long magazine and journal articles.


Second, I decided I’d share with you what I’m reading and ask you to share with me the things you’re reading. 


I’ll go first. Here are a few books I’ve been reading lately that you might enjoy. All of them are available from the San Antonio library. You'll also find them in bookstores.


SLOW HORSES (FICTION SERIES)


One of the best-received new streaming series this year is Apple TV’s ‘Slow Horses’, starring Gary Oldman. And, yes, it’s good. However, it isn’t half as good as its source material — a series of novels by Mick Herron.

Because they don’t want to play bingo or whatever might be organized for them by the staff, these four have instead organized into a club that meets every Thursday and tries to solve cold murder cases. (To keep away other potential joiners, they list it on the community bulletin board as ‘Japanese Opera: A Discussion’.) But, like the crew in Slough House, they somehow end up being involved in very real, very un-cold events.


And, also like the Slough House books, the plots are twisty. One big difference between these books and the Slough House books, however, is that the atmosphere is lighter.


The author, Richard Osman, is a good writer with a light, clever touch. He can create a vivid character sketch in just a few words (One of my favorites, introducing Ron, the former labor leader, who can be difficult: ‘Ron’s picture was rarely in the papers without the caption “Talks between the two sides collapsed late last night.”’)


There are now three books in this series (the third is due out in September). Here they are, in order, including the formats available at the San Antonio library.


  1. The Thursday Murder Club (all formats: paper, ebook, audiobook)

  2. The Man Who Died Twice (paper and ebook)

  3. The Bullet That Missed (paper copy is on order -- you can put a hold on it now)


PUTIN'S PEOPLE (NON-FICTION BOOK)


The Slough House series and the Thursday Murder Club series are both fun. But I couldn’t go completely cold turkey. I couldn’t just walk away from doom.


So one of the books I picked up was this deeply researched book, released back in 2020, that explains how Putin and Russia became what they are today. And more than that, the book explains what Putin and Russia are today, which, I guess, is even worse than I had thought.


Catherine Belton, the author, spent years as Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times. She has also reported on Russia for Business Week and the Moscow Times. She is now an investigative correspondent for Reuters.


Her book takes us from the collapse of the Soviet Union through the Yeltsin years to the complete takeover of Russia by Putin and the KGB, using blackmail, extortion, bribery, and — eventually — the full power of a corrupted legal system to take control of the country’s assets. When we hear about wealthy Russian oligarchs, Belton tells us, we’re really hearing about the caretakers who are put in charge of all those businesses but who ultimately report to the Kremlin.


Putin is pretty cynical about the West, which, he believes, mouths pretty pieties but really cares only about money. He’s got some evidence for that. When he was ruthlessly taking control of businesses owned by the early, independent oligarchs, he was able to mute Western objections by simply cutting Western oil companies and banks in on the plunder (while giving them a show of legal niceties for cover).


It’s a dense book, but still reads easily. There’s an abundance of characters to remember (think War and Peace); personally, I remember the characters better with photos, so it can be handy to read with a browser and search engine handy.


This book is available from the San Antonio library in paper, ebook, and audiobook formats. 


YOUR TURN


Now that I’ve started reading again, it’s getting a bit easier, so I’ll have more books to recommend in the future.


But I’d also like to hear from you. What are you reading that you’d recommend?


If you’d like to share your reading with me, you can click the contact form on this page, or you can send me an email at jim@lavaca-and-friends.com

Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.

Worth a read

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The eight books in Mick Herron's 'Slough House' series.

The three books in Richard Osman's 'Thursday Murder Club' series.

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