Tag Archives: CIA

Scone Island – Frederick Ramsay The Happiness Advantage – Shawn Achor

Still reading and even more all over the map than during the challenge. In some ways I miss the discipline of one book and one blog post per day. But I would have to be an heiress to keep that up so it is something of a relief to let go of the deadlines. Oddly, though, I detest the daily grind of imposed work-for-hire that eats hours of time in research and writing to formula and for a pittance. It was slightly easier to face that when I wrote something just because I wanted to every day. That development could use more thought.

Scone Island was a pretty good adventure–political thriller, if you can imagine such a thing set on a sparsely inhabited tiny island off the coast of Maine with no electricity or phone service but plenty of spooks and bad guys out to get them. Frederick Ramsay writes convincingly about CIA operations and various National Security Agency type scenarios. His bio doesn’t list any insider experience though so I wondered for the whole book how much of it I could trust and how much wouldn’t pass scrutiny by a true intelligence agent.

The hero of the story is Ike Schwartz, a small-town sheriff now and a former undercover operative who is suddenly a target in a deadly web of assassinations. His serious heartthrob, Dr. Ruth Dennis, the president of a university, is recovering from a health trauma involving a broken leg as well as a brutal year managing a faculty mutiny and the two run away to Scone Island for some R&R. Ruth has inherited a cottage from her aunt and Ike slips a generator and a real coffee pot into their gear, not being much of a fan of roughing it. They arrive on Scone Island to hear about a fatal fall from a cliff that will affect, almost immediately, their own safety.

Lots happens. Some of it is very far out there. Good amount of tension and the requisite international issue at stake. Ruth’s mother Eden is a pistol. I liked it enough to read another one–it’s part of a series–but the location really did have its limits and the constant verbal sparring between Ruth and Ike was exhausting after a while.

The Happiness Advantage is Shawn Achor’s bible of how–and why–to be happy. It’s a positive psychology book that cites an impressive number of studies showing the effect optimism and a feeling of well-being can have on your health, career, productivity, longevity and other significant bits of your life. I really really liked the first half of the book in which Achor talks about the cult of the average, positive outliers, the power of your mindset, the tetris effect (getting stuck in a mind-loop), and, in general, how happiness precedes success and not the other way around. Lots of very good science in language a lay person can easily absorb. (Achor, like the Harvard grad student he was, footnotes his references copiously at the end of the book.)

The second half seemed to stretch on–and on. Achor is a corporate trainer and I think he just turned the advice too much into career and company success tips for me. I preferred the personal information and I’ve read (or been subjected to) most of the corporate remedy stuff before. Heavy social networking is one of Achor’s rules for achievement, for instance,  and that seemed tiresome, even though I know connection and community are mental health pluses. But Achor does have a fair amount to say about how your mind and attitude directly impact the minutest details of your existence so The Happiness Advantage holds up.  Stick with the early chapters unless you are a corporate manager trying to jazz your team out of a slump.

 The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work   Shawn Achor | Crown Business   2010

 Scone Island: An Ike Schwartz Mystery   Frederick Ramsay| Poisoned Pen Press  2012

True Believers – Kurt Andersen

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True Believers is a wild ride through the tensest days of the late 60s when drugs were good for you, anarchy was an honorable pursuit, ivy league educations were–and were not–hotbeds of revolution.  Into this hurricane three James Bond freaks from the midwest pitch themselves like skydivers with predictable precipitous descents.  Kurt Andersen gets so many things right about that time. A lot of what happens to his protagonist Karen Hollander and her best friends Chuck and Alex reflects real history, real political turmoil, real life-or-death stakes and the real choices available to privileged white kids with troubled consciences and vivid imaginations.

After she turns down an appointment to the Supreme Court that would have capped a distinguished career in law, Karen Hollander resumes her life as a tenured academic in California–and decides to write her memoir. This has the immediate effect of driving old acquaintances into an outraged  frenzy of denial and to the brink of suicide. People are on the brink throughout this book and some of them lose their footing. Something happened in early 1968 that Karen has kept hidden for more than forty years. It’s a secret with potential dire consequences and it is the reason Karen Hollander could never risk the background investigation that would precede an appointment to the Supreme Court. Her life, career and reputation are not the only ones endangered by her eleventh-hour candor.

She contacts a few cohorts from back in the day who go ballistic. She engages her very cool 17-year-old granddaughter as a beta reader and her off-and-on government spook lover as a clandestine researcher. And she writes it all down, from grade seven or eight on. The hook grabs you and some of the characters–Waverly the granddaughter for one–are compelling. Lots and lots of flavor from an era that is deliberately misinterpreted by almost everyone who writes about it these days.  Andersen presents it much as it was and, for that and the plot, I kept reading. Really a pretty good book. But long. I think way too long. The inside of Karen Hollander’s head is relatively interesting but not irresistible. The revelations feel a bit dragged out and I kept reading through to the end to be sure I wouldn’t miss a very last-minute 180-degree twist. But It took forever for Karen to figure out what really happened and, to me, the telling was stretched beyond its natural resiliency.

I liked True Believers, partly because I detest the smug literati who deride the 1960s as some kind of delusional aberration full of fuzzy thinking and self-absorbed adolescents. Maybe you had to have been there. Kurt Andersen may well have been there–his book reads as if he was. But it goes on like a stoned conversation, fascinating in parts and too many words in others. Could have used a more rigorous edit, or a plot thicker than one woman’s hunger to resolve the guilt from her past sins. James Bond dispatched his enemies and his adventures more succinctly. A little of that brevity might have served the tale of Hollander’s treasons well.

True Believers: A Novel   Kurt Andersen | Random House  2012

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant – Alex Gilvarry

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Alex Gilvarry takes the gloves off in his witty, urbane, horrific and humorous novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. The story is the account of what happens to a hungry Filipino designer who makes the pilgrimage to New York after fashion school, seeking his fame and fortune. He finds a little of each. But, on the cusp of real success, with a nod from Barney’s, interest from Bergdorf’s and favorable reviews in “W” and other couture rags, he is kidnapped from his Williamsburg loft one night and spirited away to Guantanamo where he languishes for months in a hellish blur of confusion.

Boyet Hernandez is bright enough to toss quotes and attributions from Coco Chanel, Dostoyevsky, Donna Karan and the Bible into his droll observations but half the time he is comically flat-out wrong. Not so comical is his deliberately naïve view of his convenient downstairs neighbor, the duplicitous and calculating Ahmed, who bankrolls his foray into the fashion world. Ahmed triggers Boy’s bullshit sensor from the beginning but his easy cash is a lifeline to the white tents in Bryant Park during Fashion Week and Boy can’t resist. His willful blindness to what Ahmed is really up to lands him in custody for collusion and his scribbled recollections, mandated by his captors who provide him with yellow legal pads and pens, reveal his ambition and the traps that were set for him.

(B)oy (the label that signifies his name and the fact that he is headquartered in Brooklyn) builds month-by-networking-month towards acceptance and success, just as Ahmed, Ahmed’s shady accountant and his Indian moneylender launder terrorist funds through the start-up label. Boy’s Irish-American publicist has the unfortunate name of Ben Laden. The book is loaded with insider glimpses of the drug-fueled fashion business and the conditions of incarceration for guilt-by-association in America’s offshore prison. It’s both fascinating and chilling. Tons of fertilizer under tarps in the corner of a Bushwick apartment might set off clanging alarms for anyone less desperate and myopic. But the Kafkaesque world of post-911 indefinite incarceration might sour a less optimistic soul much faster than it suffocates Boy. In the middle of an inexplicable nightmare, Boy clings to his belief in the American dream.

Gilvarry has captured an almost cartoonish moment in history when what is real counts less than the fear-fiction that shadows all our lives. There are questions to be asked at the end of this very entertaining and sobering book: What defines real talent in the fashion industry? Who are the real terrorists and what price are we paying for our fantasy of security? And what the hell is a “non-enemy combatant” anyway?

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant: A Novel  Alex Gilvarry | Viking  2012