Short takes: Book reviews, in brief



A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

Ben Macintyre, Crown, 368 pages

The most intense scene in Ben Macintyre’s vivid and fascinating “A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal” is two middle-aged English gentlemen, who came up as spies through British intelligence, tea “lying courteously to each other” at tea in 1963. Some authors would turn that moment into literary Ambien. But in Macintyre’s hands, it hums.

One of those men was H.A.R. “Kim” Philby, perhaps the most notorious double agent in history. For almost three decades, he worked as a Soviet spy in British intelligence, passing information to Moscow that would cripple British and U.S. intelligence operations.

The other man was Nicholas Elliott, and about the only thing he didn’t have in common with Philby was his allegiance. Both men, Macintyre tells us, were raised by nannies, and both formed their identities at Britain’s finest schools. Both loved a good, wet evening out. Philby once polished off 52 brandies in a single evening, and Elliott once saved a waitress by dousing her with “three glasses of white wine” after a flambé attempt gone awry.

Philby’s story has been covered before. Macintyre’s aim is to describe the “very British relationship” between these two men. He succeeds admirably.


The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection

Michael Harris, Current, 256 pages

Michael Harris’ “The End of Absence” offers a fascinating assessment of this moment we inhabit and, for those old enough to remember, highlights the rare opportunity we have to recall what it was like before our days were filled with unstoppable status updates and the suffocating weight of thousands of emails.

“As we embrace a technology’s gifts, we usually fail to consider what they ask from us in return – the subtle, hardly noticeable payments we make in exchange for their marvelous service,” he writes. “We don’t notice, for example, that the gaps in our schedules have disappeared because we’re too busy delighting in the amusements that fill them. We forget the games that childhood boredom forged because boredom itself has been outlawed. Why would we bother to register the end of solitude, of ignorance, of lack? Why would we care that an absence has disappeared?”

Though Harris doesn’t totally answer those questions, he makes clear something has been lost. He may be most eloquent when he sounds an alarm on behalf of those with no memory of the world before, those young minds that have been rewired by our new normal: “I fear we are the last of the daydreamers. I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value.”

Associated Press