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Friday, July 23, 2010

"Dear Money," "This Must Be the Place," more

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Friday July 23, 2010
Susan Hasler
Thomas Dunne/St
ISBN 978-0312576035
310 pages

Reviewed by Patrick Anderson, who reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Washington Post
Susan Hasler, who toiled at the CIA for 21 years, has written a first novel called "Intelligence" (an ironic title if there ever was one) that's a biting satire of the agency she once called home. Maddie James, Hasler's 38-year-old heroine, is a little bit crazy. Her work as an "alchemist" in the "Mines" -- an analyst for the CIA -- has left her that way. Among the things that drive her mad are her pantyhose, her nutty mother, her worthless ex-husband and her mostly nonexistent sex life. She talks a lot to her pet rabbit, Abu Bunny, and bases some of her predictions about possible terrorist attacks on nightmares that have their origins in her having been terrified by the flying monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz" when she was 6.
But Maddie's biggest frustration is that, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she and her fellow alchemists were right. They insisted that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks and possessed no weapons of mass destruction, but the Bush administration ignored them and persisted in launching a war against the wrong country. The novel's biggest villain is an unnamed "VP" who battered CIA directors into submission and forced alchemists like Maddie to suffer in silence. Be it noted that Hasler resigned from the CIA in 2004, the year after the ill-fated invasion of Iraq.
The main action of the novel comes a few years later in the Bush administration, when Maddie and her fellow alchemists become convinced that a new attack on American soil is at hand. They have a certain amount of chatter to go on -- fragments of intercepted cell-phone talk -- and are trying desperately to connect the dots. We readers know Maddie and her fellow alchemists are right because Hasler takes us into the mind of a young Arab who is planning a suicide attack here in Washington. This young man, after a wretched childhood, seeks peace in jihad. He is thrilled by the prospect of taking thousands of Americans to their deaths and indifferent to his own: "For what I must do," he thinks, "my individual, personal life has to be abandoned like the useless trivia that it is."
As Maddie and her friends attempt to thwart this plot, the author treats us to a take-no-prisoners portrait of the CIA. Although right about the Iraq war, Maddie and her fellow analysts are mostly hapless eccentrics. (One is a "licensed opossum rehabilitator.") Even their sex lives are presented as comic relief. Hasler saves her most pointed attacks for the agency's political masters. The thuggish VP and the president himself are only glimpsed from afar (a report that "The President doesn't want to hear this" dooms their impassioned case against the invasion of Iraq); but two others, a woman and a dead man, are roasted at length.
The dead man is a former CIA director who sounds a lot like William J. Casey, the Reagan pal who headed the agency when Hasler joined it in 1983. This character is presented as a cynical manipulator who twisted facts to suit his political ends -- and his sins are rewarded with an inglorious death by doughnut. ("The man collapsed at his desk, falling forward into a large powdered doughnut filled with raspberry jam.") The other villain is a woman called Dr. Beth Dean (aka Death Bean), a comely young Bush foreign-policy adviser who is "a rich, spoiled political appointee" and sports "a blond helmet" and "the requisite triple strand of Republican pearls." Is it my imagination, or is this woman still out there making anti-Obama pronouncements on cable news shows?
Along the way, Hasler offers mostly despairing insights into the CIA. Maddie says, "If there is one hard lesson I've learned in this town, it's that ass-covering trumps national security every time." "There are no policy failures, only intelligence failures," Hasler tells us twice, meaning that the White House and Congress never make mistakes, only drones like Maddie. The terrorist attack that Maddie is trying to prevent leads to a spectacular event -- no more details will be revealed here -- that the Bush administration tries to use to justify an invasion of another Middle Eastern country. Is history about to repeat itself? Or will Maddie and her fellow alchemists be able to prevent another disaster?
Of course, if you think the invasion of Iraq was necessary, even wise, you'll hate this novel. But if you think it was a tragedy brought about by top-level arrogance and deceit, you'll probably savor Hasler's bitter comedy. It's a very funny book about a deeply unfunny slice of recent history. Read it and weep -- but you'll be laughing too.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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MORNING MIRACLE: Inside the Washington Post -- A Great Newspaper Fights for Its Life
Dave Kindred
ISBN 978-0385523561
266 pages

Reviewed by Rem Rieder, editor and senior vice president of American Journalism Review. He previously worked for six newspapers and one wire service.
"Morning Miracle" is a love story, a tale of passion starring a faded beauty trying desperately to hang on in a rapidly changing world.
The object of author Dave Kindred's ardor is old-school newspaper journalism, deeply reported public affairs coverage, the kind that can make a difference in people's lives.
"I love the smell of newsprint in the morning, and my favorite time of day is thirty minutes to deadline," writes Kindred, who has spent more than five decades in the business.
In particular, Kindred loves the journalism at The Washington Post, where he once worked as a sports columnist. In "Morning Miracle," he paints a vivid picture of the paper, its people, its triumphs and its struggle to survive in a media landscape transformed profoundly and inexorably by the Internet. (Disclosure: I worked as The Washington Post's deputy metro editor from 1984 to 1987.)
The book has an insider's feel, and no wonder: The Post opened itself up to Kindred, and he interviewed 155 people, most of them current or former Post staffers. After reading "Game Change," a relentlessly fascinating political page-turner packed with anonymous quotes, it was shocking -- in a good way -- to encounter a book consisting almost entirely of on-the-record material.
To illustrate why he thinks The Post is so special, Kindred devotes four chapters to different aspects of the newspaper's journalism. I found two particularly compelling.
The first focuses on the riveting series on awful conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center put together by reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull. It's a classic example of important investigative reporting in the public interest. Kindred traces the story from blind tip to powerful journalism via the tedious but essential back roads of shoe-leather reporting.
"Go there, ask questions, listen, watch, ask more questions," is the way Kindred describes the process. "Not many papers will give you months to do it, but the Post did. When you know the story, you write." This is the kind of work that is largely the province of professional news organizations. No matter how wonderful the blogger or citizen journalist, independent reporters are not very likely to pull back the curtain on a Walter Reed because such reporting often requires serious resources.
In another chapter, Kindred introduces Anthony Shadid, a gifted foreign correspondent with a penchant for telling the stories of ordinary people affected by momentous events. Shadid, who was shot while covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the Boston Globe in 2002, went on to report from Iraq for The Post. Despite the costs of his commitment -- the physical danger, the toll on his personal life -- Shadid talked of why he did what he did: "This will sound cheesy, but it is an overwhelming experience when you're defined by a story to that degree. And that's when journalism can really be great, when that's who you are, you're here to report that story."
Like so many love stories, though, this one is fraught with complications, and the Shadid saga underscores that fact. In the book's epilogue, Kindred reports that the correspondent has defected from The Post to the New York Times. "I adore The Post and (Washington Post Co. Chairman) Don Graham is still an inspiration to me," Shadid says. "But they're going a different direction in foreign, a lot more about policy, not going head to head on daily stories."
And, indeed, "Morning Miracle" explores The Post's plight as digital moves to the fore. There's much about the paper's bad news: declining circulation, plummeting ad revenue, shrinking staff, soul-sapping buyouts and the overall diminution of a great American institution.
Kindred places The Post's struggles in the context of today's media cataclysm without letting its executives off the hook. "The newspaper's problems were partly of its own making, allowing editors to overspend, and failure first to anticipate the Internet and then to comprehend its impact. But most of the damage came when the Internet's rapid maturation coincided with the collapse of the national economy. No one could stand in that tsunami."
The book, which will be published later this month, illuminates two potential turning points when The Post might have reacted more effectively to the digital revolution. The first dates all the way back to 1992, when then-managing editor Robert G. Kaiser had an epiphany on a fact-finding mission to Japan. Kaiser returned and wrote a memo calling on The Post to launch an electronic edition and plunge into the world of online classifieds. But the plan went nowhere.
Years later, after The Post had amassed a large national and international audience, almost by accident, thanks to the Internet, a task force headed by then-managing editor Steve Coll urged the company in 2003 to adopt "a somewhat more aggressive national and global Web strategy." But Graham rejected the idea on the grounds that the paper's emphasis was and should be regional.
Despite his affection for his subject, Kindred is by no means in the tank. He is merciless in his treatment of publisher Katharine Weymouth for her plan to host "salons" at her home, events for which high-rolling sponsors would pay handsomely for the privilege of mixing with Washington players and Post reporters at off-the-record sessions. After the plan became public and was widely criticized, as Kindred puts it, for "selling seats to representatives of special interests," Weymouth scrapped it and apologized to readers. Kindred also skewers Weymouth for expressing her distaste for "depressing" stories that advertisers don't like.
A particularly poignant episode in the book is the departure of longtime executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., an accomplished and widely respected journalist who succeeded the great Ben Bradlee. (Says Kaiser, "Ben created the Post. Len perfected it.") Weymouth had taken over as publisher, and she was looking for a more Web-focused editor to oversee the much-needed merger of The Post's print and online operations. But Downie, who started his Post career in 1964, didn't see it coming. He was particularly upset to get the word not from Graham, his longtime partner-in-Post, the man who had named him to the top newsroom job, but from Post Co. Vice Chairman Boisfeuillet "Bo" Jones Jr.
Kindred describes a surreal scene when Graham and Downie finally met at Graham's house. Graham was newly separated, and the furniture was still covered with sheets. The two went to a second-floor bedroom and sat on the only uncovered chairs in the house. "For both men, it was a wrenching moment," Kindred writes. "The future, once theirs, now belonged to others. They wept."
But the book doesn't end on a note quite that melancholy. Kindred envisions a future where indefatigable young journalists produce great work, just as a young Bob Woodward improbably did so many years ago as a rookie reporter during something that became known as Watergate.
Let's hope he's right.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Martha McPhee
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN 978 0 15 101165 0
346 pages

Reviewed by Lisa Zeidner, whose last novel was "Layover." She directs the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden.
The conceit of Martha McPhee's fourth novel, "Dear Money," is simple and alluring: Take an artsy, cash-poor Manhattan couple. Allow them to befriend a mega-rich Wall Street couple. Then switch 'em up. Will Chapman, an old-money financial type, quits his job to write fiction. And India Palmer, a mid-list novelist weary of living hand-to-mouth with her sculptor-husband, quits writing fiction to take a high-powered job as a bond trader.
India is actually hired on a bet, as in the old Eddie Murphy vehicle "Trading Places": A legendary trader brags to the head of his investment firm that, in 18 months, he can teach the clueless novelist to penetrate the secrets of the market. "You're a storyteller -- that's why I wanted you," the fittingly named Win (private plane, sailboat, ski lodge) assures India (credit card debt). "Most people are driven by consensus, but ... you're going to be reading, perceiving the larger story, and that's why we're going to win this bet."
India isn't a fish out of water; she's a fish tossed into the shark tank. It's 2004, and the mortgage-backed securities that she's learning to trade will eventually bring down the economy. "My world, down here among the masses, had never collided with the intricacies of high finance," India admits, but, as predicted, she's a quick study. Soon she's able to understand how "the restructuring of the mortgage pools came (with) an explosion of other mortgage-backed security products -- PACs and TACs and Z bonds and IOs and POs and floating-rate bonds and stripped MBS bonds and countless other derivative products that only the creators truly understood and that the politicians had allowed to become deregulated."
McPhee does a competent job of explaining what a bond trader actually does, but the material proves pretty dry. In fairness, it's hard to make poetry out of the stock market (though another recent novel that addresses the financial crisis, Jess Walter's "The Financial Lives of the Poets," does exactly that). Still, India Palmer is meant to have a particularly penetrating outsiders' view of Wall Street -- an artist's clarity of vision -- and McPhee doesn't deliver it. McPhee did her homework, but it still feels like homework.
Two other recent novels -- Jonathan Dee's "The Privileges" and Adam Haslett's "Union Atlantic" -- consider the moral compass of the Wall Street type, the secret soul of the filthy rich. Not a bad subject, in the era of Madoff. As a narrator, India is refreshingly frank in admitting that jealousy is her main emotion. She craves her rich friends' picturesque lives -- their beach houses and fancy tables at benefits. Chatty and confiding, she reveals the price of her dress ($775), the exact amount in her Vanguard account ($1,927.58), and the nationality of her masseuse (Korean). Unfortunately, apart from the jealousy, she doesn't let us much into her psyche.
While India claims to be crazy about her husband, she barely pays any attention to him. He doesn't so much as pout when she suddenly starts working 60-hour weeks. Her two girls -- whose private-school tuition was her primary motivation for ditching the artistic dream -- are ciphers, not to mention the least demanding children in the history of civilization. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too.
Of course, McPhee isn't aiming for strict realism. After all, "Dear Money" is a fourth novel about a fourth novelist who quits writing novels to be a trader. McPhee herself, though offered training by a real-life bond trader, has obviously chosen to stick with fiction. But this satire implies that the differences between the novelist and the money man are not quite as great as you might think.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Kate Racculia
Henry Holt
ISBN 978 0 8050 9230 1
350 pages

Reviewed by Carolyn See, who regularly reviews books for The Washington Post
Remember those movies "Jason and the Argonauts" and "The Clash of the Titans"? They were in a class by themselves, with some of the world's most intricate special effects, back when special effects really were special, fashioned by actual human beings using clay and wire. When the Harpies sprung up out of nowhere and began to do their Harpy thing, you knew it! Those films were strange enough that they did not easily pair with others, so -- back when there were double features -- you'd often see two of them together. They were fairly terrible movies, but they carried their own wacky appeal. My mother loved the immortal line "Quick, Jason, the fleece!" and repeated it to the end of her life.
"This Must Be the Place" is a salute to those movies, in part, and a knowledge of them gives the novel its structure. If you know what a Kraken is or if you're a fan of Godzilla, you'll get this easily enough. Young Amy, growing up in a small town in the Northeast, is mesmerized by these films and an avid fan of Ray Harryhausen, the genius of this particular kind of filmmaking. She yearns to go to Hollywood, as do so many other American girls, but only so she can get work as an animator. We first see her on a bus heading west, writing a postcard of farewell to her best friend, Mona, but in truth, Amy doesn't care all that much for Mona, and that postcard is never sent.
Flash-forward about 15 years. Amy dies by electrocution in a freak accident at work, and her husband -- utterly devastated by Amy's death and still absolutely possessed by love for her -- perceives that he has never really known his mysterious, enigmatic spouse as well as he might have. He finds that old postcard addressed to Mona at the Darby-Jones Boarding House in Ruby Falls, N.Y., and travels across the country. When he shows up on Mona's doorstep, she turns out to be a charming single mom raising a teenaged daughter, Oneida. Mona earns her living by running the boardinghouse and a wedding cake business, though she herself has never married.
A subplot comes along about Oneida and her high school boyfriend. (Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that high school "is closer to the core of the American Experience than anything else I can think of," and novelist Kate Racculia obviously shares that sentiment.) Oneida, an intellectual geek with a killer body, is being pursued by Eugene, the most engaging character in the novel. He's a sweet guy who has spent inordinate amounts of time inventing a sinister high school persona: "He hadn't realized ... just how used he was to playing the part. It was second nature to lurch and swagger everywhere, to slit his eyes and grimace, to grin when a seventh-grader, staring, looked away nervously." In reality, Eugene is a timorous virgin, and he courts Oneida with an endearing combination of loutishness and naivete. Eugene is so dazzled with the prospect of sex with Oneida that he blurts out to her a hitherto well-kept family secret: His beloved father is, in fact, a professional art forger. Having told this secret, Eugene, appropriately, suffers the tortures of the damned.
Meanwhile, back at the boardinghouse, Amy's widower is somewhat bumblingly trying to find out what kind of person his wife was, and looks to Mona for assistance. "Amy had passions, and for a girl like Mona -- who, most days, felt as formless and doughy as a hunk of clay -- Amy was magic. It was a magic inextricably linked with the dreams and promise of her childhood. ...When she tried to recall what she had wanted out of life as a child, Mona could only remember wanting to be Amy's best friend -- until Amy took herself away and Mona grew up without her."
It turns out that Amy was alarmingly close to a Kraken (the kind of mythical sea monster Ray Harryhausen might mold from clay for a stop-motion animation project), more amoral and ruthless than anyone either inside or outside this novel could imagine, but her husband is far too pure of heart to believe something like that. He's innocent and kind, and his only connection to the monster world that Harryhausen cooked up is to have become the co-owner of an obese cat who bears the Harryhausen name.
This first novel carries within it collisions of every sort, not least of which are charming characters who collaborate to make wedding cakes and fall in love smack dab in a chillingly evil reality. The novel endeavors to describe and explain some truly monstrous human behavior, but I think it fails in this attempt. Sages down through the ages have never come up with an entirely satisfactory explanation of full-on sin, and seen in the context of this sweet story, it's as if a garter snake had tried to swallow a grand piano.
So, "This Must Be the Place" doesn't begin to come up with an adequate explanation of remorseless evil. On the other hand, it takes us down high school memory lane and makes a serious stab at educating us in the works of Ray Harryhausen and, surprisingly, Joseph Cornell. (But Cornell and his artistic boxes deserve another review of their own.)

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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