A full month of books, but also one in which I got obsessed by a specific topic late. So I’ll chop this into two entries: one for the non-obsession books then a second, tomorrow, for the books that haunted my dreams for a couple weeks.

The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
The Quiet American – Graham Green
I began the month in a bit of a Vietnam jag. I read an article about Pham Xuan An, “the perfect spy” of the Vietnam War, which got me interested in reading more about the war years. I had Perfect Spy set aside for the end of the month, but got sidetracked.

Anyway, O’Brien’s work is one of the classic stories that came out of the Vietnam era. It’s a collection of his short stories about his days in the war, how he battled with himself over whether to enlist or run to Canada when his draft number came up, and how one of his comrades reacted upon returning home. All interspersed with vignettes about his encounters with his old buddies after the war.

Green’s work often comes up on lists of both best spy novels and best novels about Vietnam. I found it fascinating for how it foretold what would happen a decade later. It was originally printed in 1956, when Vietnam was still France’s problem. But his protagonists’ predictions that America would one day be the foreign power that was most involved in Vietnam obviously came true.

Two very different views of the Vietnam era.

Emily, Alone – Stewart O’Nan.
I try to knock out one O’Nan book each year. Normally, I love his books because in most, I forged a quick emotional bond with the characters. I never really felt that here, in a story about an elderly woman going through her daily routines. Maybe that’s why I didn’t connect: this felt almost like a running list of the things that Emily did rather than some insight into the lives of retired widows living alone. I didn’t hate it. But I also didn’t love it.

The Kill Artist– Daniel Silva.
I’m pretty sure I’ve read one of Silva’s espionage thrillers before, but I wanted to go back and start his Gabriel Allon series from the beginning, so I have a default “I’m not sure what to read right now and need something quick” choice. I think I chose wisely, and the Allon series will help me through 2014.

Allon is a former Israeli assassin – retired from service after his wife was injured and children killed in an attack by Palestinian terrorists – restoring paintings in the English countryside. But he is pulled back into duty when the man who harmed his family is discovered in the midst of a plot to destroy an imminent peace agreement.

There’s some good, tense action. A nice angle when an Israeli agent goes undercover to seduce a Palestinian, and is forced to listen to his litanies of Israeli crimes committed against his people. An unexpected turn at the moment of climax, and another fun twist during the denouement. All-in-all, an entertaining piece of espionage/terror fiction.