Monday, June 16, 2014

Another excellent Crown release: The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird

Crown, 2014
448 pp

arc from the publisher, thank you!

Crown Publishing is definitely on a roll with great books -- first with Ben Macintyre's A Spy Among Friends (which comes out in July) and now Kai Bird's The Good Spy.  I can't wait to see what nonfiction they come out with next.

In his Art of War, the Chinese strategist and general Sun Tzu once offered some very good strategic advice about knowing your enemy, something like "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat." (from Wikiquote).  In The Good Spy,  Robert Ames is presented as a man who understood that logic in his work in the Middle East -- he spoke fluent Arabic, had an in-depth knowledge of the area's history,  and understood the people and where in their minds they were coming from. He knew & understood the differences among various peoples in the region, and didn't lump them all (as modern people are prone to do) into one group simply known as Arabs.  He also loved his work, and was a major player in the practical ops arena, making contacts whose knowledge was invaluable to American policy makers, even though the folks in DC didn't always follow his advice or had their hands tied because of past promises made. He was a the kind of agent who believed that up close and personal was a much better tactic for cultivating sources and gathering information than the buying of informants or later, the dependence on surveillance provided by gains in technology.  Ames was also a man who understood grievances and how past history continues to play a major role in the present, probably the most valuable lesson of all which sadly to this day often goes unheeded.  The author notes about Ames that
"He fell in love with the Middle East, its language, its rhythms, and its deep sense of history and place."
His "sense of human empathy" eventually opened up a number of vital intelligence channels that provided the US with critical information.  As an example, he was in long-term contact with Ali Hassan Salameh, one of Yasir Arafat's trusted men who headed Force 17, the PLO's intelligence agency, and through him, with Arafat himself.  Ames' communications with these men was often crucial to the protection of US interests in the area  at a time when American policy officially forbade contact between US diplomats and the PLO, but not always well received  because of the school of thought linking  U.S. interests and its "rote support of Israeli behavior."  To their credit, however, many of the higher-ups in government understood the necessity of keeping Ames' PLO channel open. Ames was also active behind the scenes after the overthrow in Iran of the Shah.  Along with an agent from the CIA, Ames targeted more "moderate" members of the Khomeini government as possible channels for information, sharing  U.S. intelligence with these people as a show of American sincerity -- but of course, that was all made moot with the taking of the American hostages by militants in 1979.

However, I have to say that the most eye-popping part of this book, for me, was the link between the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and rise of fundamentalist Shi'ites in the Middle East.  According to the author,  Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the horrific Sabra and Shatilla massacre that followed in the wake of the pullout of the PLO was a defining moment as far as understanding current events in the Middle East.  Prior to this moment, a promise had been made by the Reagan administration that when Arafat and the PLO left Lebanon for Tunisia, American peacekeepers would be left behind to guarantee the safety of the Palestinians left behind in refugee camps. But Caspar Weinberger decided they weren't needed, so ordered them to pull out.  Within hours, despite Israel's promise to the US that they would not be moving into the "heart of Beirut," the Israelis came in, violating an existing cease-fire agreement.  Then began the "relentless slaughter" by Christian Lebanese forces in the refugee camps while the Israelis stood guard.

The current secretary-general of Hezbollah states in this book that had it not been for the Israeli invasion, he doesn't believe that Hezbollah would exist today. The invasion, according to the author, "created a new political force called Islamic Amal, an organization that later morphed into what we know today as Hezbollah, the Party of God."  Literally thousands of Lebanese people were killed, and people who before this event just wanted to live in peace as much as they possibly could under the circumstances took  the radical road. One CIA analyst notes that "the Israeli invasion unleashed the Shi'ites," one of whom was an Iranian with contacts with the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), the "Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution." I'm starting to get a glimpse of why these people hate Americans so much. Seriously.

Ames' life and work, the glimpses behind the scenes at politics and policymaking are all very well portrayed here, and while I'd never heard of Robert Ames before, there may be some small merit in the author's thesis that when Ames was killed in the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, a sizeable chance for peace in the Middle East died along with him. He had the both the ear and the confidence of valuable players,  he worked tirelessly to help put out flames before they became raging fires, and gave up much of his family life in the interests of peace.  However, there are just way too many other factors in play, extant even before 9/11, besides the death of this man that may have killed the hopes for peace and stability.  Nevertheless, A Good Spy is a most excellent read, and it is definitely a book  that  a)I'll never forget b) I urge everyone who has an interest in trying to understand the current situation in Middle East to get a copy of and c) has definitely spurred my interest in further reading.  Kudos to the author, and my thanks again for my advanced reader copy from the publisher.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

So, you don't know who Randolph Stow is? Neither did I, but I still liked this book: Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family, by Gabrielle Carey

University of Queensland Press, 2013
228 pp

A few months back while blurb-reading through the longlist for Australia's Stella Prize, the blurb of Moving Among Strangers caught my eye. I have no idea why -- I had absolutely no clue who Randolph Stow was, so really, my interest probably shouldn't have been so piqued.  But it was as if this book somehow managed to exert some strange, weird pull on me and all I know is that I had to have it.  While Randolph Stow, his writing, and his feelings about being a writer in Australia are all  certainly a big part of this book, it is also a very personal sort of memoir of the author who, because of her interest in Stow, comes to understand more about her mother and father, and finds herself reconnected to long-absent members of her extended family.  It is indeed a little gem of a book that combines her own family story to the story of this writer who penned the line  "we are here as shipwrecked mariners on an island, moving among strangers, darkly." As I read through her memoir, this line out of Stow's The Girl Green as Elderflower (one of two epigraphs) came to take on a surprising amount of meaning in both lives.

The author had been (and still is) a long-time admirer and devotée of Stow's work. While Joan (Ferguson) Carey, the author's mother, was dying from cancer, Gabrielle sent author Randolph Stow a card to let him know.  He and Joan Carey had known each other  a long time, since his "age was in single figures." In his return note that arrived after Joan's death, he mentions her nursing job at Geraldton, her marriage to Gabrielle's father Alex, her favorite ballerina, and the time Joan "met Alex again (accidentally on a park bench)." Gabrielle realizes that in this brief note, he's told her things that she herself did not know about her mother. For example, he notes that when he was a schoolboy and later an undergrad, Joan's letters "from London were like a window on the world."  While pondering why her mother would write to "a young man, an adolescent thirteen years her junior, who wasn't a relation," she also comes to the understanding that Stow knew much more about Joan than Gabrielle did -- maybe he knew more about her family than she knew as well.  He'd left a phone number, but because of her mental state after the death of her mother, she never called him, and  he died about a year later.   In 2010, while attending a memorial event for Stow, she is reunited with cousins from her father's side of the family, who ultimately became instrumental in helping her  make some incredible, previously-unknown and  personal discoveries about her parents.  As she notes,
"If my mother had not died I wouldn't have written to Stow. And if I hadn't written to Stow and received letters in return, I might not have felt so compelled to attend his memorial. And if I hadn't attended that memorial I would not have rediscovered my relatives and found a clan I truly belonged to. And if I hadn't rediscovered my family, I would have had no reason to visit White Peak and no one to accompany me to Geraldton. And if I hadn't visited White Peak I would never have gone on to uncover the part of my father's life that he always kept secret. And his life, and my mother's, would have remained mysterious and obscure." 
In the process of  revealing her discoveries about her parents, Carey also writes that  "family stories are full of secrets," and makes the point that whoever is the "trusted narrator" owns the "official version" of those stories. In her case, as she was to realize, there was another "completely different story."  She finds the same is true with Stow -- especially when she traveled to Harwich, England, where he had lived out his final years, finding "two versions of Stow ... in one small pub."

All through her own personal and family narrative, she inserts bits and pieces of Stow's story, talking about his writing, and how his life experiences, the landscape and the people helped not only to inspire his work, but how parts of all of these came to be included in his books.  She also notes that critics and readers were "bothered" by Carey's "search for spiritual meaning" in his books, because "Australian critics were not receptive to the exploration of religious ideas in fiction."  While English critics found much to admire in his Tourmaline (1963) for example, Australian critics rejected his "gift -- of fable and poetry combined with realism."  One scholar later stated about Tourmaline that at the time of its publication,  it was "too austere, too truthful, ... too much in opposition to a whole set of beliefs and attitudes by which Australians had come to domesticate the outback." His writing also reflected his fascination with the tragedy of the shipwrecked Batavia, seeing in it "something very significant about Australian history and mythology," .... images of Australia both as a prison and as Eden, themes that were reinforced in his work.   Stow eventually moved to the  UK as a sort of self exile, and never came back.

Obviously there's much more about this book that I could write, but it should suffice to say that it is truly a wonderful little book. I was surprised to learn, after having read this book and looking up Stow's obituary,  that he'd won the Australian Literature Society's (ALS) gold medal for his collection of poems entitled Act One published in 1957,  and that he'd also won the Miles Franklin award as well as another ALS award for his novel To the Islands, published in 1958.  I don't think that this info came out in Ms. Carey's book. But,  considering that I had no clue who Randolph Stow was when I first picked up this book, by the time  I got to Ms. Carey's  description of  coming upon the location of the original merry-go-round by the sea in Geraldton, I was actually compelled to buy a copy of Stow's book of the same name.  Moving Among Strangers is  a lovely book that has a bit of a painful personal edge throughout that a reader can't help but to notice, offering a much more in-depth experience than say a straight-out biography of Stow would have.   Ms. Carey also expresses herself in a straightforward way so as to make her book extremely reader friendly and accessible.  I am not a big memoirs person, but truthfully, given that I was unfamiliar with the subject of this book,  I was completely engrossed in this book the entire time I was reading it. It is definitely a book I can most highly recommend.