Current Events

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Covert Affair, Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS; End This Depression Now; Wolf Hall; The Object of Beauty; and The New Republic

Jenifer Connant.  A Covert Affair, Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS.   The subject is the OSS in Asia during WW II and what happened to some of the principal players in the postwar years.  It centers around Paul and Julia McWilliams Child, but the story of their friend Jane Foster, a painter and a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, is more dramatic and takes over the narrative.  Jane was the ex-wife of a Dutch colonial in Indonesia.  Besides being fluent in Malay, she was good looking, irreverent and smart, perfect qualifications for the OSS.  Jane, Paul and Julia all became friends while working at the OSS station in Ceylon.  Later Paul and Julia moved on to Kunming where they learned not to love Chiang Kai Shek.  In 1945 Jane volunteered for duty in Indonesia where she came to know Sukarno, became convinced that the Dutch should not retake control of their colony and wrote a major report on the situation.  The report was well received, and she was given the opportunity to brief Dean Acheson, but unfortunately she gave a copy to Jack Soble, a member of a Soviet espionage ring.  Charges that Jane was a Soviet agent were never proven conclusively, but she ended up seeking asylum in France.  There’s lots of good stuff here about Psy war, McCarthyism, the difficulties of getting American POWs home at war’s end, the strange situation where Japanese troops were used to  police Saigon and parts of Indonesia after they were retaken by the Allies, Edgar Snow, Soviet spies, Julia’s development as a chef and author and the intellectual side of Paul Child.  He was a strange man.  Unfortunately, the book is not very well organized.  When I finished I was glad I had been exposed to a series of incidents and anecdotes, but I wasn’t sure how it was all supposed to fit together.  A symptom of the problems is Connant’s tendency to refer to the principal characters by their first names for chapter after chapter.  When you are listening to a recorded book, it’s not so easy to flip back to check.  December 2012  
Paul Krugman.  End This Depression Now.  See my review in my blog under the label “Political Economics,” December 20, 2012
Hilary Mantel.  Wolf Hall.   This is a sympathetic treatment of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son making his way in a really nasty world.  It covers the period of Henry’s courtship of and marriage with Anne Boleyn.  There is a wealth of detail about life in 16th C England.  In an historical novel one expects the author to fill in the blanks.  Mantel does this so well that one constantly wonders what is fiction and what is based on records.  As for Cromwell, he does seize the reins of power and enrich himself, but in each individual action he seems to be proceeding as a lawyer and faithful servant of the king, not a corrupt and evil politician.  One theme that runs through the book is the character of Anne Boleyn, an amoral and ambitious woman who will stop at nothing to become queen.  Another is the downfall of Thomas More, who comes off here as a religious fanatic who would be as cruel to those who didn’t accept his faith as they were to him.  Since I had a seminar course in Tudor England my senior year in college, most of the players here were familiar to me.  It was a great review of the history of the period and much more.  I am impressed with how Mantel could humanize Cromwell by filling in the spaces in the historical record.  At my college, Thomas More was a saint.  Now I’m not sure just what that means.  Wolf Hall was the family seat of the Seymour family.   December 2012
Steve Martin.  The Object of Beauty   The amazing Steve Martin has written a novel that nails the New York art market in all of its hustle and money.  Daniel Frank, a writer for Art News, tells the story of the rise and fall of his friend Lacey Yeager.  Lacey uses a fine mind and an even finer body to climb from the basement of Sotheby’s to owning her own gallery in Chelsea.  Along the way we meet a lot of millionaire and billionaire collectors; some are really art smart and some are clueless.  Lacey’s fortune falls with the stock market crash in the fall of 2007.   Martin knows the market – he recently sold a Hopper for over $20 million, but he isn’t buying any more because art has gotten just too expensive.  As I read along, I wondered how I could distinguish between the real people like Peter Schjeldahl and Martin’s fictional characters.  I found the artist Pilot Mouse was loosely based on the British tagger Banksy, but Ivan Aivazovsky, a Russian painter who did a work that Lacey bought for a song and sold for a fortune, is the real deal.  This was a great read for an art historian; I am in awe of Martin’s knowledge of the New York scene.  I’ll finish with a quote from Martin in the Reuters review of the book, when it came out in November 2010: "Just for the record, I love the art world," Martin said. "I really like everything about it except, you'll see in the book, artspeak, which is slang for esoteric art writing which is impossible to parse or understand. It's probably the thing I attack most in the book."  December 2012
Lionel Shriver.  The New Republic.  It’s hard to get into a novel when you dislike the main character from page one and that never changes.   I’m glad I didn’t give up because it’s a good story, even if there is almost no one to identify with.  Edgar Kellog, age 39, quits his job as a corporate lawyer in the hope of becoming a successful journalist.  He’s always been very good at whatever he did but always second best, and wants a new start.   After six months of free-lancing and near starvation, he takes a job as a stringer for The New Republic, a national newspaper like USA Today and heads off to the Barba Peninsula in Portugal to replace Barrington Saddler, who has disappeared, and moves into Saddler’s house and office with the understanding that if Saddler turns up, he’s out of a job.  Barba in all of its windblown misery is an invention of the author.  The big story in Barba that justifies the presence of correspondents from the major media is the worldwide terror campaign of the S.O.B., a secret organization which seeks Barban independence from Portugal and expulsion of Muslim immigrants, principally Moroccans.  The duly elected ruling political party in Barba supports the same objectives.  The S.O.B. has been totally quiet since Saddler’s disappearance, and Edgar finds there’s not much to do. Eventually Edgar figures out from Saddler’s notes that the S.O.B. exists only in Saddler’s imagination.  Whenever there was a promising terrorist bombing anywhere in the world, Saddler would put on a heavy accent and phone the NY Times to take responsibility for the S.O.B.  Edgar decides to carry on with Saddler’s ruse and is so successful that Lisbon starts to pay attention to the grievances of the local government and all sorts of money starts to flow into Barba.  Unfortunately for Edgar, he goes a little too far; the locals figure it out, steal his computer with the passwords he uses when he calls the Times and start doing a little bombing of their own in Barba.  Two attempts are made on Edgar’s life and he narrowly escapes a bombing which kills the wife of a journalist colleague.  Edgar has to flee.  Where he goes is interesting and again he ends up second best again in a situation a lot like that of the protagonist in Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust.

No comments:

Post a Comment