Fariba Nawa, Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine, Kij Johnson & S. G. Browne
The joy of finding one's way through the bush of books is the abundance of great books well worth Your Valuable Reading Time. My inbox and my dining room table are almost always overflowing with great books. Moreover, there are lots of different types of books to keep you reading and re-reading.
Some will bring the world into clear focus, others will make it go away. But in the process of sitting down to read them, you'll be guided through a wonderful meditation that is likely to change the way you see the world afterwards.
If you pick up 'Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman's Journey Through Afghanistan' by Fariba Nawa (Harper Perennial ; November 8, 2011 ; $14.95), expect a homecoming like none you could possibly experience in your life. Fariba Nawa fled with her family from Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded in what seems like another era of history. Returning as a journalist with her family in the present, she discovers another world, a gritty, intense landscape torn asunder by drugs, corruption and war.
Nawa hones in on the human lives and stories, and her intense focus and crisp prose will transport readers into lives that seem almost inconceivably strange — and dangerous. Nawa knows how to write about some of the worst things on this earth in a manner that makes for utterly compelling reading. She has an amazing talent for crafting quick glimpses that add up to a visionary revelation. 'Opium Nation' is a work of true crime non-fiction on a scale that is breathtaking and heartbreaking, but engaging to read.
When she writes as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell seems to know our hearts especially well, and she's willing to use that knowledge to bring us characters we care deeply about to break our hearts, carefully, precisely, intensely. In 'The Child's Child' (Scribner ; December 4, 2012 ; $26), we get the novel equivalent of a set of Russian nesting dolls — nesting dolls that can whisper, cry, and scream about their confinement within one another. You'll meet Grace and Andrew Easton, who inherit a house, move in together and find a manuscript for a novel that begins to have unhappy parallels with their own unraveling lives.
Violence touches them and then minds that no longer see the world clearly. And for all that we like to think that our lives are pretty predictable, writing as Vine, Rendell has a knack for showing just how easily we can fall apart in an unconceivable manner. The only certain prediction one can make is that you'll read this book with your finger gripping the covers, terrified but unable to put it down. No, that is not the sound of your life coming apart. Probably not, at least.
Then, just when you think it is safe to be sane, you can pick up 'At the Mouth of the River of Bees' by Kij Johnson (Small Beer Press ; August 15, 2012 ; $16), a lovely collection of short stories that will unravel not your life but your perception of reality as a stable place where the expected happens. You'll find eighteen stories here, many of them award winners, all of them compelling, enchanting and strange.
Yes, you will find a lot of animals featured in these stories, even ponies, but not in any way you've found them before. Johnson gives you historical settings, science fiction horror, and the sort of variety that ensures you never know what's coming next.
Johnson crafts her work with consummate skill, giving readers short fiction that makes the genre — that of short stories, mind you — come rip-roaring to life.
At the end of your brief reading life comes the reading afterlife, in this case, S. G. Browne's yuletide animated corpse, 'I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus' (Gallery Books ; October 14, 2012 ; $14.99), a delightful hardcover, that like the zombies who come to life within, is hard to put down. Yes, it's a very welcome sequel to 'Breathers' that begins with Our Hero, zombie Andy Warner, in a body farm. And yes, Virginia, there is a little girl in this novel, and yes, she does see Santa Claus. But it's not the Saint Nick your parents told you was coming down the chimney. (This brings to mind the many bad movies where zombies are held off from a house by boarded windows, but never manage to go down the chimney.)
And yes, these are the kinds of thoughts that will ring in your skull when you read Browne's literally deadpan satire. Browne's voice is ever intact even if Andy's body is not. Prepare to hear zombie voices in your head, which I am guessing most experts in meditation would take to be a bad sign. Of course, this is why this book — all of these books — are so worth Your Valuable Reading Time.
10-24-12:Archive Review: David Wise Unearths 'Nightmover'
File Clerk With An Axe To Grind
Editor's Note: Here's a book that remains on the shelves out in the livingroom, and I see it every day, only to be reminded of the fascinating true-crime, weird bureaucracy story within. The sordidness of way in which the criminals reaped their rewards is a weird underscoring to the enormity of their crimes.
It's easy to turn a great traitor into a romantic hero. The business of spying lends itself to extravagance, to sweeping gestures, to bold figures making strong statements in a hail of bullets. But the great traitor of the late twentieth century, Aldrich Ames, is also the great exception. In 'Nightmover', David Wise traces Ames' story, revealing the great traitor as nothing much more than an insecure file clerk with the keys to the office and an axe to grind. 'Nightmover' is frightening in the very ordinariness of its story, in the everyday nature of the greed that led to dozens of deaths.
Starting with his arrest in 1994, 'Nightmover' jumps back and then traces, in roughly chronological order, Ames' career in the CIA. He was no James Bond. Instead, he worked quietly in an office and might have been selling insurance. He led a life of Kafkaesque service as a mid-level bureaucrat in an enterprise that had lost track of its own dimensions.
In hindsight, of course, it's all crystal clear. The only guy with a 40K$ Jaguar in the parking lot was moonlighting for the KGB and its military equivalent, the GRU. Wise, a veteran investigative reporter who has covered the US intelligence for 20 years, is able to get behind the anonymous clerk's face, and show the frustrated employee who stepped onto a slippery slope and never returned.
Wise jumps around his own timeline a bit much, and those totally unfamiliar with the affair will take a little while to acclimatize to his narrative style. But once the main characters of the drama — Ames, and his wife Rosario — begin to come to life, things quickly and inevitably fall together. In his first deal, Ames told himself he was scamming the Russians, selling them information they already had. Eventually, he began to deliver a steady grab bag of secrets he began to deliver, and reap the rewards. But as the leaks grew more and more dangerous, his colleagues were able to trace and capture the unlikely villain.
Along the way, Wise makes it quite clear that there was ample warning to anybody with eyes and the slightest concern that something bad was happening in Rick Ames' life. He was habitually and embarrassingly drunk, a condition most of his co-workers tolerated and covered up. He was driving an expensive car, had paid for a huge house with cash, and explained both vaguely as either the rewards of wise investment, or gifts from his mother-in-law. Like many in his position, his most difficult task was to keep his lies straight — and he wasn't even able to do that competently.
Just as fascinating as Ames' downfall is the process of finding the mole, a search that lasted for nearly eight years. Along the way talented agents are ignored or sidestepped, office politics torpedo hot leads and different sections of the enormous CIA bureaucracy manage to hold out on one another, thus losing the chance of catching the mole.
As the picture comes together, slowly, inevitably, it becomes clear to both those in pursuit of him and the reader that Rick Ames was not as much a "double agent super-spy" as he was a bureaucrat gone bad. In 'Nightmover', Wise dissects a case of high-level espionage and finds within not a tale of daring escapades, but the mendacity of a system so ineffective that it does not know, or will not admit, when it is fatally ill.
10-22-12:Jeffrey Toobin Administers 'The Oath'
Battle Royale for the Bitter Heart of Democracy
When Chief Justice John Roberts administered the Oath of the Office of the Presidency to Barack Obama on January 21, 2009, Obama got a bit ahead of him, and apparently flustered the usually serene Roberts. They managed to blow the Oath, to the degree that they quietly re-did it. It was just a hint of what was to come, and Jeffrey Toobin uses it as to begin his second non-fiction legal thriller about the Supreme Court, 'The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court.' Early on, Toobin quotes Byron White, a Justice who said that, "When you change one justice, you change the entire court." In 'The Oath,' Toobin follows the characters in the current Supreme Court to demonstrate the truth of this statement as he crafts a story of immense implications and subtle rivalries that play out on the national stage.
While it's not necessary to have read 'The Nine' before picking up 'The Oath,' those who have will be rewarded with a richly written, well-wrought saga of political change spanning decades. 'The Oath' does capture all the essential bits of 'The Nine' necessary to carry the story forward into the recent past and the present, leading up to two very different decisions; Citizens United and National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sibelius, the Affordable Health Care Act ruling. Toobin takes readers through an intense, nerve-wracking bout of change, stasis and characters on the cusp of a power struggle between two factions of a deeply-divided America.
At the forefront are the two men on the cover of the book; President Barack Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts. As Toobin points out, the men have much in common, yet they are very different in terms of governing philosophy. His portrait of Roberts is page-turning stuff, full of pithy, important observations written in entertainingly crisp prose. We meet a man who practiced the oath so many times his wife told him that their dog thought he was President; a man who cleaves to practicalities where others immerse themselves in theory. In short, Toobin creates a complicated portrait of a man who managed to lead the court to two decisions that seem almost diametrically opposed.
The details matter, and Toobin knows how many to offer and how to present them in a manner that ensures we never feel overwhelmed. This is especially true in his characterization of Barack Obama. It's not like Obama is underexposed. But Toobin captures those parts of his character and past that suggest not just the thinking behind his picks for the Supreme Court, but as well, his confrontations with the court. We meet a rather different President than the man who makes such inspirational speeches, and in fact, we meet the man who foundered at the first Presidential Debate — and we understand why that happened.
Given the split nature of the two major cases discussed so engagingly in this book, it is clear by the end of the book that the story of the evolution of the Supreme Court is not finished. In a sense, it never will be, and this is clear. But readers will certainly hope that Toobin himself is not done with the Court. No matter what the subject, it is clear that Toobin can write the sort of books that historians will consult in the decades that follow, and that readers can immerse themselves in at this moment. When you self-administer Jeffrey Toobin's 'The Oath,' prepare to recognize a historical moment — and hope that another arrives sooner, rather than later. Even if the consequences seem dire now, in the short and long run, well-written historical non-fiction literature helps to alleviate the malaise that history itself seems to nurture.
New to the Agony Column
12-02-13: Commentary : Susan Stinson Sees the 'Spider in a Tree' : Blessed in the Hands of An Unknowable God