Book Beat: Music and the Cold War

Submitted by S. Wallin on

The first song I remember falling in love with as a child was a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1, played by Van Cliburn. I’ve listened to other recordings of this piece, and it’s just not the same. I get all choked up, every single time. As a child, I didn’t know anything about Van Cliburn, Tchaikovsky, or why his playing of this piece of music was so important (I was only 6, after all). Lucky for me, there’s a book that tells the whole story: Moscow nights: the Van Cliburn story: How one man and his piano transformed the Cold War, by Nigel Cliff.

If the Cold War is a topic you want to explore further, there are plenty of options available, including some recent nonfiction:

The Cold War continues to inspire great new fiction, too. Check out these thrilling tales of spies and double agents:

  • Defectors, by Joseph Kanon. A CIA agent defects to the Soviet Union in 1949. 12 years later his brother is allowed to travel to Moscow to meet with him and put the finishing touches on his memoirs. But of course, there’s much more to it than that…
  • A most clever girl, by Stephanie Marie Thornton. Based on a true story. Elizabeth Bentley builds a Soviet spy network in the United States during WW2, but clashes with her agency as the Cold War progresses.
  • The secrets we kept, by Lara Prescott tells the story of two secretaries turned spies whose mission is to smuggle the manuscript of Dr. Zhivago out of the USSR. And, if you haven’t yet read Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, wouldn’t it be fun to check it out at the same time?
  • American spy, by Lauren Wilkinson. It’s 1986, and Marie Mitchell’s FBI career is going nowhere - until she has the chance to join a task force to undermine the president of Burkina Faso, a charismatic communist revolutionary.

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A version of this column first appeared in The Messenger, September 2022.

Find more book columns in our Off the Shelf blog.