Book reviews for May 22, 2014


NON-FICTION:

“The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames” by Kai Bird; Crown (448 pages, $26)

The collapse last month of America’s latest efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal marked another spin in the relentless cycle of heartache, conflict and terrorism in the Middle East. Arguably no American was more familiar with the region’s tortured dynamics than Robert C. Ames, a legendary CIA officer and Mideast specialist who is the subject of Kai Bird’s engrossing biography, “The Good Spy.”

Bird shared a Pulitzer in 2005 for “American Prometheus,” his magisterial biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. He brings the same careful scrutiny to Ames, and partly for personal reasons: The son of a U.S. diplomat, Bird had lived as a boy near the Ames’ home in Saudi Arabia.

Ames was a Zelig-like figure for America in the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s, seemingly involved in every crisis, “the closest thing to an irreplaceable man,” as CIA chief Bill Casey said at his memorial.

Others called him an “American Lawrence” of Arabia, a charismatic figure who loved the language, rhythms and politics of the Arab world. But it was also recognition that Israeli intelligence and even some CIA colleagues thought Ames acted as an advocate for the Arabs, especially for the Palestinians.

Ames somehow walked a careful line between espionage and diplomacy for much of his career, and Bird brings us along. Budding Arabists will enjoy details about groups and leaders now barely remembered. Lay readers will enjoy a taut narrative of assassinations and bombings of the era. But this is serious history, not a thriller.

Bird argues that Ames’ work as a spy paved the way for the Oslo Accords, the 1993 peace agreement between Israel and the PLO. Had Ames lived, Bird writes, he might have “helped heal the rift between Arabs and the West.”

Perhaps. The Oslo peace process collapsed in 2000 amid fierce new Israeli-Palestinian fighting, and Ames’ legacy is far from clear. This absorbing book suggests that even the best of intentions, and the best of spies, aren’t enough to bridge the chasms in the Middle East.

“Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America the Bicentennial Summer of ‘76” by Dan Epstein; Thomas Dunne Books (400 pages, $28.99)

The ’70s were famously known as the Me Decade, but they were also a spinoff decade. “Happy Days” begat “Laverne and Shirley.” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” gave way to “Lou Grant.” So it only makes sense that Dan Epstein, the pop-culture-savvy author of the ’70s baseball book “Big Hair and Plastic Grass,” decided to pen a spinoff of his own.

“Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ‘76” spotlights arguably the craziest year in a decade of Major League looniness. Maverick owners Bill Veeck and Ted Turner upset the old guard with a torrent of promotions to distract from their lousy teams. (My favorite: Headlock and Wedlock Day, for which Turner’s Atlanta Braves hosted a group wedding ceremony and a wrestling exhibition. What a bargain). Free agency was about to change the league’s economics forever, shifting the balance of power from owners to players. Hair was long. Punk was rocking. Disco was thumping.

This isn’t a book to assign a cultural studies class. It’s a book to gulp down at bedtime as your head spins with nostalgic images of Oscar Gamble, John “The Count” Montefusco and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Epstein, an admitted Tigers fan, has great fun with Detroit’s eccentric, underdog pitcher who captured the country’s imagination by talking to the ball, racking up wins and gushing with boyish enthusiasm at every turn.

Epstein knows his pop music and his politics, and he deftly weaves them in and out of the baseball doings. The analysis feels a bit hit-and-run; Epstein seems more comfortable as a surveyor than a cultural critic. No shame in that. “Stars and Strikes” is as hard to put down as its funky predecessor. I’ll be there when he moves on to the ’80s.

FICTION:

“To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” by Joshua Ferris; Little, Brown (338 pages, $26)

Paul O’Rourke is a quintessentially contemporary protagonist — of a certain sort. He’s a dentist, and a good one, with a practice on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and a condo overlooking the Brooklyn Promenade. He’s a Red Sox fan, wrestling with the unexpected letdown of his team having won the 2004 World Series, a victory that, in some essential way, has left him bereft.

“I didn’t want my team to lose,” he notes; “I just didn’t want my team to be the de facto winner…. The days of trembling uncertainty, chronic disappointment, and tested loyalty — true fandom — felt vitally lacking.” As to why this is important, it’s an expression of identity, framing Paul as part of “a cursed and collapsing people,” scorned, neglected, their very purpose one of degradation and of loss.

This posture of rootlessness, of drift, occupies the center of Joshua Ferris’ third novel, “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” which Paul narrates with an offhand grace. He is, like so many of us, lost in modernity, surrounded by choices but unable to connect. His relationships are fleeting, overly idealized; they end as soon as they get real. He has no friends, not really, just a trio of women who work for him in the dental office and the patients about whom he cares in the abstract. He detests digital culture, which distances him from a world to which he can’t relate.

“To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” can be read as a further meditation on a theme, a novel that raises questions about meaning and belonging, even if the only answer is that we will never know. “What’s the point?” Ferris writes in the opening chapter. “In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark, bacteria consumes the pancreas, flies lay their eggs, beetles chew through tendons and ligaments, the skin turns to cottage cheese, the bones dissolve, and the teeth float away with the tide.”

“Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary” by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien; Houghton Mifflin, NY (448 pages, $28)

One does not casually read “Beowulf.” It takes commitment. It also takes a good translation, and few were better at that than Oxford don J.R.R. Tolkien, better known now as the author of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

His son, Christopher, has finally, and reluctantly, published Tolkien’s version of “Beowulf.” As he says in his prologue, his father wrote the translation in 1926 before he went to Oxford as professor of Anglo-Saxon. He would continue to study the poem for decades and lecture on it, but did not produce another translation.

“Beowulf,” a classic man-vs.-monsters tale, was originally written in Old English between the 8th and 12th century. The only existing copy is in the British Museum under glass.

The poem was a pivotal inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien, who was fascinated by the language and history. If you have read Tolkien’s fantasy, you can see the influence of “Beowulf” in “The Hobbit,” in which an enraged dragon whose golden hoard has been robbed comes out burning the countryside.

What comes through clearly in Tolkien’s translation is a reflection of a time and a culture. Warriors sit at their kings’ tables, elegant “ring-laden” queens serve mead, the warriors go raiding and die. The women who lament at Beowulf’s funeral pyre sing of a sorrowful future, “singing in sorry, oft repeated that days of evil she sorely feared, many a slaying cruel and terror armed, ruin and thraldom’s bond.”

While most of “Beowulf” is in modern English with copious notes for those fascinated by Tolkien, if you are studying Old English, you are in for a treat. Christopher Tolkien has included various notes and sections in the original.

“Prayer” by Philip Kerr; G.P. Putnam’s Sons (432 pages, $26.95)

Philip Kerr’s new novel, “Prayer,” is a fright-filled meditation on faith by a troubled FBI agent set in modern Texas.

The book is just out in the United States, but it has been available for several months in other countries, where it has caused quite a storm among fans.

As a reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “Prayer” “goes completely wacko.”

I’m a big fan of the Scottish-born author, who’s best known for his German detective Bernie Gunther. And I was ready to declare this book a mess.

My view, however, changed over the final 20 pages, a tidy coda to what had become a supernatural scare show. Overall, the book entertains and makes you think, a good combination.

Kerr says a big influence on “Prayer” was “The Exorcist,” the book and the movie. It’s apparent.

Kerr has also written children’s books and other novels in addition to his Gunther books. In “Prayer,” he takes regular readers far from the Gunther comfort zone, as evident from Amazon reviews.

While some love the new novel, others say it is unbelievable, full of caricatures, offensive, pessimistic and “dreadfully disappointing.”

 

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