The Flat Bureaucrat


Title:                      The Flat Bureaucrat

Author:                 Susan Hasler

Hasler, Susan (2015). The Flat Bureaucrat: A CIA Satire. Asheville, NC: Bear Page Press

ISBN:     978-0996577908

PS3608

Date Posted:      April 26, 2017

For Shelby Wexler, being crushed by falling concrete is only the beginning of a bad afterlife. As a senior official of the CIA, he considered Congressional oversight committees the highest form of retribution. He never entertained the possibility of post-mortem accountability. Enter Virgil, an obnoxious and expired polygraph examiner, who sends Shelby on a backward journey through the events leading up to the terrorist attack that killed him. Who was responsible? Who dropped the ball? The answers are not the sort likely to surface in a Senate hearing room. The Flat Bureaucrat is the stand-alone sequel to Susan Hasler’s hilarious and terrifying debut novel, Intelligence. Informed by Hasler’s two decades in the Agency, these books will make you laugh and make you think about the CIA and national security in a whole new way.

If Susan Hasler’s Intelligence[1] was “24” meets “The Office”, it’s sequel, The Flat Bureaucrat, is “It’s a Wonderful Life” meets the 9/11 report. In case it isn’t readily apparent, that’s a good thing.

Hasler’s years as an analyst in the CIA have served her well in her latest novel. She is able to pinpoint the absurdities, the screw-ups and the personalities, not just in the world of modern intelligence, but in modern office life. As with the best novels, by focusing on the specificity of working at the CIA, the author opens the story up to the universality of working in an office anywhere. It draws you into the story whether you are a spy fan or not.

John le Carré, the granddaddy of spy novelists, is known for creating a whole new vernacular when talking about “The Circus”, his version of MI6; Hasler has managed to take this concept to even greater heights for the CIA. Her co-opting of mining terminology to define the various areas of the CIA is not only a perfect way to give context to the various players, but also allows for some great moments of humor with various acronyms used to great comic effect.

Much of this inventiveness and satire was present in Intelligence. What gives this novel a greater weight is a sense of mortality, of seconds slipping away, that pervades the story. We have a limited time on Earth; how would we look back on it and would we say we took advantage of every second we had? It’s hard not to let those questions pass through your mind as you read. But don’t get me wrong, this is not a dirge. Hasler is light on her feet and knows when to defuse the tension with humor and when to get more contemplative.

Although it provides a complete story, it does leave room for a sequel. Here’s hoping we see it.
Highly Recommended.

[1] Hasler, Susan (2010). Intelligence. New York: Thomas Dunne Books-St. Martin’s Press

Half-Sheep


Title:                      Half-Sheep

Author:                  Susan Hasler

Hasler, Susan (2014). Half-Sheep. Asheville, NC: Bear Page Press

OCLC:    896942729

PZ7

Date Posted:      April 25, 2017

Subjects:

Reviewed by Mike Billington[1]

Fictional aliens have visited Earth many times in the past.

Some have been friendly, others terrifying but none—even E.T.—have been as “human” as Piyat, the unwilling female volunteer shot to Earth from a dying planet in author Susan Hasler’s excellent Project HALFSHEEP: Or How the Agency’s Alien Got High.

I found this to be a wonderful book on many levels.

It is, for example, beautifully written. Hasler has a real command of the language and her talents are on full display in this novel of life in the United States in the years following World War II. Her descriptions of people, of places and of events are spot on and they rope the reader into her narrative.

And what a narrative it is: Full of all the paranoia that marked America in the Age of McCarthy and other right-wing demagogues who cynically used the “Red Scare” to win elections and Constitutional concessions from the people they were allegedly trying to protect. Their paranoia allows them to treat Piyat with disdain and a total lack of humanity. They imprison her, experiment on her and treat her roughly; utterly failing to realize that she is more intelligent than they are by a long measure. Her treatment because she is alien closely parallels the treatment of Trudie, the woman who first recognizes that Piyat is special in a way the buttoned-down, fear-driven men around her do not. Like Piyat, Trudie is also imprisoned: Her cell is a loveless marriage to a cruel man who controls her life and her property.

Perhaps that’s why she and Piyat bond so quickly?

In any event, Hasler’s dual story lines give her the opportunity to make some very sharp observations about the status of women during the Fifties and the present.

In addition, Hasler—who spent more than two decades working for the CIA—casts a knowing eye on the workings of it and other “intelligence” agencies back in the day when it was often considered disloyal to voice any criticism of the government and its workings. It was a time when even newspaper reporters and editors took quiet payoffs from the CIA and other agencies for privately informing on co-workers and people they came into contact with: A terrible time in American history despite the Herculean efforts of television and the film industry to paint it as idyllic. Hasler’s descriptions of the self-righteous men who ran the country’s spy agencies in those dark days perfectly captures, in my opinion, their lack of respect for women, their recklessness, their paranoia and their almost complete perversion of the American ideal.

This is an excellent novel that will sometimes make you smile, sometimes make you laugh, and sometimes make you wonder why we Americans are always so ready to judge on appearances alone.

In short, it is a novel that will make you think.

I highly recommend it.

[1] Mike Billington, at Amazon.com, author of Corpus Delectableon. Downloaded April 25, 2017

 

Intelligence


Title:                      Intelligence

Author:                 Susan Hasler

Hasler, Susan (2010). Intelligence. New York: Thomas Dunne Books-St. Martin’s Press

LCCN:    2010002340

PS3608.A847 I58 2010

Subjects

Date Posted:      April 24, 2017

Review by Patrick Anderson[1]

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 cellphone 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 (a.k.a. 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.

[1] Patrick Anderson, Washington Post (July 5, 2010). Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post. Downloaded April 24, 2017

The Great Derangement


Title:                      The Great Derangement

Author:                 Amitav Ghosh

Ghosh, Amitav (2016). The Great Derangement: Climate Change And The Unthinkable. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press

LCCN:    2016018232

PN56.C612 G48 2016

Subjects

Date Posted:      April 24, 2017

Reviewed in The Intelligencer[1]

Are we deranged? Acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that future generations may well think so. How else to explain our imaginative failure in the face of global warming? Ghosh examines our inability to grasp the scale and violence of climate change. The extreme nature of today’s climate events make them peculiarly resistant to contemporary modes of thinking and imagining: hundred-year storms and freakish tornadoes. Ghosh shows that the history of the carbon economy is a tangled global story with many contradictory and counterintuitive elements.

Review by Ananya Bhattacharyya[2]

The hallmarks of Booker Prize nominee Amitav Ghosh’s writing are sensitivity and perception, and people who read his novels derive from them insight and pleasure in equal measure. But what also defines him as a person and as a writer is his engagement with the real world. Just take a look at his blog, recently updated with a photographic piece about Bhutan’s Centenary Farmers’ Market, or read some of his eclectic essays.

The Great Derangement, which is based on a series of University of Chicago lectures, is about humanity’s insane inaction in the face of climate change. And one of the central points Ghosh makes is this: “When future generations look back upon the Great Derangement they will certainly blame the leaders and politicians of this time for their failure to address the climate crisis. But they may well hold artists and writers to be equally culpable—for the imagining of possibilities is not, after all, the job of politicians and bureaucrats.”

He points out that while authors like Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Barbara Kingsolver, Doris Lessing, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, and T. Coraghessan Boyle have written about “the accelerating changes in our environment,” the literary mainstream remains “unaware of the crisis,” in part because realistic fiction has expelled the incredible from its pages. Also, especially in the Anglosphere, the idea of the novel has come to mean, as John Updike put it, “individual moral adventure,” as opposed to narratives about the collective.

Interestingly, Ghosh says he tried and failed to successfully fictionalize a real event he witnessed as a young man—the first tornado to hit Delhi, in 1978. When converted to fiction, what had actually occurred seemed improbable. Moreover, he writes, “Within the pages of a novel an event that is only slightly improbable in real life…may seem wildly unlikely: the writer will have to work hard to make it appear persuasive.”

And that is the reality of the challenge climate change poses to fiction writers: When the improbable happens, how does the writer make that reality believable?

Even now, writing about climate change is “to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house—those generic outhouses that…have now come to be called “fantasy,” “horror,” and “science fiction.” Yet, Ghosh’s point is that climate change is very real and quite deserving of a room within realistic fiction.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to ponder, however, whether we can expect literary novels to have an iota of impact on society. After all, when Ghosh asks whether it’s the job of artists and writers to imagine possibilities, the implication is that ideally artists ought to be cogs in the wheel of the fight against the impending crisis.

It is true that Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath started a movement that inspired Congress to pass laws benefiting farmworkers. Yet, instances of novels, literary or otherwise, leading to societal shifts are a thing of the past. These days, television and films appear to exert more power than novels. For instance, according to a 2012 poll, “27% of people who had changed their minds about gay marriage from anti- to pro- in the last decade said that they made their decision after watching gay characters on shows like Modern Family and Glee.”

What recent novel has changed the way society behaves or thinks or feels on that scale? None that I can think of. But maybe another important question to ask is: Has literary fiction relegated itself to irrelevance?

Ghosh isn’t the only writer critical of the novelists’ bubble. In this Literary Hub essay, Aleksander Hemon writes, “If some future historian attempts to determine what occupied the American writers’ minds since the beginning of the millennium by reading all the Pulitzer Prize fiction winners between 2002 and 2016, s/he would find few traces of Bush, or Iraq, or Abu Ghraib, or Cheney, or the financial collapse, or indeed any politics.”

In 1954, Francois Truffaut wrote an essay criticizing mainstream commercial French cinema for its pedestrian focus on “psychological realism” and excessive reliance on literature. That essay, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” challenged and changed French cinema, giving birth to a movement called the New Wave.

Here’s hoping that this little book will have an impact as well, not just on literary fiction but on art and cultural production as a whole. The stakes—to understate it dramatically—are pretty high.

[1] The Intelligencer (22, 2, Fall 2016, p. 139 ).  Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. Other reviews and articles may be found online at  www.cia.gov.

[2] Ananya Bhattacharyya,” Why aren’t more literary novelists writing about the environment?” Washington Independent Review of Books (October 17, 2016). Ananya Bhattacharyya is an assignment editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, Literary Hub, Washingtonian, VICE, the Baltimore Sun, and Reuters. She tweets at @AnanyaBhatt. Downloaded April 24, 2017

Unit 400


Title:                      Unit 400

Author:                  T.L. Williams

Williams, T(erry) L. (2014). Unit 400: The Assassins. Ponte Vedra Beach, FL: First Coast Publishers

LCCN:    2013943666

PS3623.I5643 U55 2014

Summary

  • “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is reeling from a devastating attack on its covert training center in Bandar Deylam, Iran. In retaliation Iran’s Supreme Ruler unleashes an ultra secret weapon—Unit 400. This cadre of trained assassins has its roots in ancient Persian culture, when Ismaili leader, Hassan al-Sabbah, unleashed the Hashasin from their mountain fortress at Alamut to assassinate political and religious foes. One man stands in their way—former Navy SEAL Logan Alexander”—Excerpt of summary from the back of the book.

Subjects

Date Posted:      April 21, 2017

KIRKUS REVIEW[1]

Ex–Navy SEAL Logan Alexander returns in the sequel to Williams’ 2012 novel Cooper’s Revenge[2].

Alexander is in a good place: He has a huge office at his own consulting firm with a beautiful view of downtown Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, and he’s made it through combat relatively unscathed. Things are calm until he leaves the office for what he thinks will be a routine lunch with his friend and colleague Hamid. Instead, Logan witnesses Hamid getting stabbed in the chest and left for dead. He tries to help Hamid hang on, to no avail, but his friend manages to whisper to him, “Be careful, Logan. Unit 400”—a code for the Qods Force, a dangerous Iranian assassination squad. Logan soon discovers that the weapon that killed Hamid is none other than his very own SEAL-issue knife—the same one he used to bring down Col. Barzin Ghabel in Iran. He tries to figure out how the knife could have made it all the way to Boston and what it could mean. One thing is clear, however: A deadly message has been sent. From that moment on, Logan is back in the cross hairs, zigzagging across the globe to bring down Unit 400 and stay alive in the process. As a sequel, the story doesn’t pay as much attention to character development as some readers might prefer, but those familiar with the original novel will be pleased to find the same Logan Alexander in charge. Classic elements of a modern espionage story abound: mystery, intrigue, danger, technology, and, importantly, a sense of immediacy, thanks to the global forces at play. Those with a taste for military fiction that tackles current events will find this story enticing. The author might have taken more time to explain the history of Middle Eastern conflicts, but that’s hardly in the job description for a quick spy yarn. As it is, readers definitely won’t feel shortchanged by this consistently exciting thriller.

A worthy follow-up espionage tale.

[1] Kirkus, downloaded April 21, 2017

[2] Williams, T(erry) L. (2013). Cooper’s Revenge. Ponte Vedra Beach, FL: First Coast Publishers

Cooper’s Revenge


Title:                      Cooper’s Revenge

Author:                  T. L. Williams

Williams, T(erry) L. (2013). Cooper’s Revenge. Ponte Vedra Beach, FL: First Coast Publishers

OCLC:    848834601

PS3623

Subjects:

Date Posted:      April 21, 2017

T.L. Williams’ suspenseful first novel pits Navy Seal Logan Alexander against Iran’s super secret Qods Force, which is training and deploying terrorists to kill American soldiers in the badlands.

Satan’s Spy


Title:                      Satan’s Spy

Author:                  André Le Gallo

Le Gallo, André (2015). Satan’s Spy. D Street Books : Made available through hoopla

OCLC:                    974263006

PS3559

e book

Summary: We first meet Steve Church on a business trip in Bahrain where terrorists attempt to take over the hotel where he is staying. Using prior CIA training and tradecraft, Steve is able to blunt the attack until the police arrive. On the same day, the Director of the National Clandestine Service at the CIA calls to tell him that she wants to see him urgently. Steve, not knowing the nature of her interest, is conflicted. He is not wild about getting involved again with an overly bureaucratic CIA, and he knows that another CIA assignment would kill his relationship with his live-in girlfriend Kella, a former French intelligence officer. Nevertheless, without being an adrenalin junky, he prefers the excitement of the CIA to working for West Gate, a defense contractor, where he is a fast tracker. Initially astonished and dejected that Steve will again risk his life to obtain information that policy makers will ignore, Kella is unable to change Steve’s mind. Not willing to break off the relationship, Kella executes a mental somersault and recruits herself to go with Steve as his communicator. Meanwhile in Iran, the man who will become Steve’s nemesis, Ali Mousavi, captures, interrogates and executes a scientist suspected of working for the CIA, the Great Satan’s spy agency. He also orders a young American with uncertain loyalties, to Tehran from his home in California to work on a special project. Although Steve’s father Marshall is now semi-retired from the CIA (does a spy ever retire?), he recruits an Iranian intelligence operative on a secret mission to the United States. Without a permanent presence in Iran, the CIA turns to Steve to handle the new agent (XYSENTINEL) in Tehran. Under business cover, Steve and Kella take over the case in Tehran. Their initial goal is to collect intelligence on Iran’s nuclear plans and capabilities. Instead, they learn that Iran is preparing a massive cyber attack against the United States. Iran’s theocracy, humiliated by the American Navy’s control of the Persian Gulf, feels that anonymous cyber warfare is the card to play to force the Great Satan’ to withdraw from the region. From the start, external factors begin to trump Steve’s clandestine tradecraft. At stake is the future of the Middle East, the health of America’s economy, and the lives of Steve and Kella. Today’s headlines will take on an entirely new meaning after you read Satan’s Spy.

Date Posted:      April 20, 2017

Reviewed by AFIO[1]

This second novel from le Gallo is based on his CIA career, especially his experiences in Iran. The novel will resonate with anyone interested in current affairs.

The story catches up with Steve Church and Kella Hastings from their previous assignment (see le Gallo’s The Caliphate[2],) as they are sent to Tehran on a CIA mission to determine the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. While undercover, they unveil an insidious plan to cripple America’s infrastructure and must evade capture to prevent a disaster worse than Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined. The backdrop to the story includes naval clashes in the gulf, Inside-the-Beltway intrigue, and Iran’s religious and tribal mosaics. You will never read the headlines in quite the same way again!

The author has also written papers for intelligence journals and has spoken on intelligence topics to universities on each coast (e.g. Harvard Law and Stanford), to the national laboratories, as well as in the Distinguished Author Series at the National Counterterrorism Center. He was a Visiting Scholar at the Hoover Institution. Further details are available on the Mountain Lake Press website.

[1] Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) Books by AFIO Authors, downloaded April 20, 2017

[2] Le Gallo, André (2010). The Caliphate. New York: Leisure Books

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