Category Archives: book reviews

A strange book: how lawyers helped justify torture.

John Rizzo was the second-highest lawyer in the CIA for much of the 1990s and early 200os. On several occasions he was acting chief counsel, when the top job was unfilled. Rizzo’s book Company Man (published by Scribe) describes how the CIA came to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” after the 9/11 attacks.

company-man-book coverThe first really important capture of an Al Qaeda member after 9/11 was a man named Abu Zubaydah, the head of logistics for future operations against the US. The CIA feared another attack on the US might be immanent, and they needed to get any information out of him. His interrogators found him an “arrogant,… twisted, smug little creep,” (p.182-183) who told them lots of old news, mixed with outright lies.  When using standard legal interrogation methods, and ‘playing by the book,’ Zubaydah’s interrogators were getting nowhere, they sought permission to use a series of nine harsher interrogation steps, from slaps to the face, and escalating measures up to water boarding.

Because the CIA had been stung by previous accusations of illegal activities, those in charge of the interrogations wanted to ‘cover their asses’ by getting a CIA lawyer to tell them their proposed methods were legal. That request came to Rizzo, who in turn sought the opinions of the Department of Justice. every proposed action was described in sometimes ludicrous detail. A slap to the face had to be with an open hand, the fingers splayed and hit below the ear.  If he was shoved against a wall, they had to have a fake,  flexible wall installed, so that Zubaydah wouldn’t get bone fractures. Further down the list, he might be placed in a small box that forced him to curl up, and then harmless insects would be dropped into the box. “Why?” asked the lawyer  “Zubaydah hates bugs,” a CIA official replied. “It will be something harmless, but he won’t know that.” (p.184-185) And so it began.

Lawyers in the DOJ managed to somehow convince themselves that something wasn’t torture unless it resulted in  pain associated with “death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions.” When the CIA needed to brief the congressional leadership, former POW Senator John Mc Cain sat stony faced and silent, and made a one-sentence comment at the end. “It’s all torture.”

I’ve described above what I consider, from a public interest view, one of the most controversial parts of the book. But much of the book gives an insight into the operational culture of the CIA, and how it changed over time. Covert actions, almost non-existent under President Carter, rose dramatically up under Reagan, and lawyers had to draft a Presidential “Finding” authorizing every last one.  People in the field wanted endless memos from lawyers telling them whether they could legally do various things. Even buying mules to give to the mujaheddin in Afghanistan needed a lawyers approval! It’s an interesting book, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Guantanamo Bay, how the secret prison system came into existence or the general culture of intelligence organizations.

It’s a five-star book.

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Is religion the major cause of wars? Karen Armstrong argues “No.”

Fields of Blood book coverOne only has to turn on the TV these days, or go to any internet news feed, to be confronted by horrific images of religious violence in the Middle East.  For those who saw the images of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the gunman murdering the wounded policeman on the pavement outside those offices, the religious violence seems all around us. So: Is religion to blame for most of the mass violence in the world?

Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood (Random House, 500 pages) traces the history of warfare since the invention of settled agriculture. Armstrong, a former Catholic Nun, has become one of the English-speaking world’s foremost scholars on the history of religion. She points out that in hunter-gather societies, there is no real warfare, except occasional skirmishes with nearby tribes, since the entire population is needed for food collection, and there is no agricultural surplus to sustain a kingly priestly, or soldier class. Once settled farming begins, and farmers are producing enough to support more than their own families,  a class of rulers, soldiers and priests can emerge.

The pace of agricultural innovation is terribly slow, however, so the only way that the new ruling class can expand its wealth is to conquer another nearby area and seize its surplus. That’s the start of warfare.

Throughout history, religions have been ideologies that propped up the legitimacy of the ruling class. (Have you ever known of a society where the major religion denied the legitimacy of the ruling class? How did that work out?) Warfare, Armstrong claims, occurs at times of social and economic change, and religion becomes enlisted in the political cause, rather than being the cause.

She also argues that the major conflicts of the 20th century were not religious. The first world war was not religious, and Germany didn’t start world War II  to spread either of its two recognized religions (Catholicism, and Lutheranism).   In the 1930s, Japan didn’t invade it’s neighbors to spread Shinto and Buddhism: China already had Confucianism and Buddhism, Thailand was already Buddhist, and Korea already had Buddhism.

The most interesting sections of the book deal with the crusades of the Middle Ages, and the religious ward of the 15 and 1600s, where religion really was at the center of the conflicts. The author has a knowledge of history that leaves me for dead.  For anybody who wants to get into the history of religion in a serious way, and is prepared to wade through some serious research, this book is a five star piece of work.

For those interested in reading some further reviews before committing to an arduous read, here is one from  The Guardian,  the New York Times   and here is publisher Random House’s description of the book’s subject matter. It’s a meaty read, but it’s worth it.

How do we deal with loss? Review of ‘The Fault In Our Stars’

The Fault in Our Stars is a well-written, superbly-acted film that deals with some of the big questions in life: how does loving someone with a terminal illness affect our own life and theirs, how do we want to be remembered after our deaths, will we be remembered at all, and does it matter one way or the other?

The Fault in our Stars film poster
The Fault in our Stars film poster

Teenagers Hazel, Gus , and Isaac all have different forms of cancer. Hazel has thyroid cancer that  has migrated to her lungs, making her cart an oxygen bottle everywhere. Gus had cancer resulting in the amputation of a lower leg. Isaac has had one eye removed due to a tumour, and will soon lose the other eye. They all meet at a teen cancer support group. Gus declares that he wants to live an extraordinary life and be remembered after he is dead. Hazel thinks this is grandiose nonsense:

“There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”

A relationship starts to bloom  between Hazel and Gus, but Hazel tries to warn Gus off investing too much emotion in her. She anticipates that her death will be like a hand grenade, damaging everyone around her. They swap favourite books, and Gus finds that Hazel’s is about a kid who dies of cancer, and the bookends in mid-sentence. They contact the author, an American living in Amsterdam, and arrange a trip to Holland to meet him. Instead of answering Hazel’s questions about the end of the book, they discover the author is a nasty drunk who kicks them out of his apartment. (They don’t know it just yet, but the author’s book is based on the death of his own daughter from cancer.)

They return to America, where Hazel’s condition worsens, Gus’s cancer returns, Isaac has lost his other eye, and the three write eulogies in preparations for each other’s funerals. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the film, I won’t reveal who dies first, or in what circumstances.

The notion that loving someone exposes us to hurt is not new. There is an old saying that, “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” The film puts it a little differently. One character says, “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world…but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices.” After watching the film, I thought about how loss is inevitable. I have two kids in their twenties. Both practice sports that carry a  risk of death. Perhaps I’d be happier if they did basketball or karate or surfing, or some other fairly harmless activity,  but as a parent, I can’t control what my adult kids do. And I can’t spend my life worrying that they might get killed. The possibility of loss is just something we all have to live with. The characters in this film fight over how exactly you face loss. The dialogue is superbly written, and the acting is excellent. If you go to see it, watch the facial expressions of the main characters, and listen carefully to the dialogue. You might want to go see it twice. I did. So, has anybody else seen it, or read the book? What did you think?

Note: this is my blog site. For my site about thesis editing services, go to the  RichardSnowEditing site.

Yossarian slept here: when your father betrays you

Catch-22, original book cover, from Wikimedia
Catch-22, original book cover, from Wikimedia

Would you feel betrayed by this? Imagine that your father, a famous author, wrote a novel that was clearly based directly on your own family, that it was negative in tone, that it described all his dissatisfaction with his wife, and that he included slabs of conversation that you (the daughter) actually had with your father.

That’s what Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, did in his novel Something Happened. Heller worked on the novel for 13 years. When his daughter read the proof, she was shocked.  In the book, the writer talks about his unnamed family members, recounting their faults, and how unhappy he was with them all. He talks about his efforts to intellectually out-fox his daughter. One chapter was entitled, ‘My Daughter is Unhappy’. His daughter, Erica asks, “was this a statement or a goal?”  When she asks him why he’s done this, he replies, “What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” What more devastating retort could a father make to his daughter?

In addition, Heller had an affair, which involved flying his lover in the same plane as he and his wife when they went to speaking engagements, and booking the lover into the same hotels. Yes, that’s right- he was carrying on with the lover under the same roof as his wife. When his wife Shirley employed a private detective agency and confronted him with documentary evidence such as credit card bills and photographs, he denied it, and told the rest of his family that Shirley was going crazy and needed a psychiatrist. When Heller was in hospital, Erica walked in on the lover at her father’s bed. Heller calmly introduced them. (The daughter by this time already knew the lover’s name and what she looked like.) After that, Heller reverted to denying the person ever existed. This is strange behavior indeed.

The book gives an insight into what Heller was like as a person, and the answer is, ‘not very  nice, really.’ Still, the book is an insight into one of the twentieth century’s best-known writers. It’s well worth reading. Just be prepared to have some illusions shattered. Geniuses can be petulant, vicious and vindictive in their family affairs.

On another note , my novel, Fire Damage, a terrorism thriller, is now available as a paperback, here. It’s also available as a Kindle on Amazon US and UK. It’s based on the real-life Japanese religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo, which released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system. 

Crazy Japanese religious cults: how I got the idea for my first book

Today I thought about why I used the Japanese religious cult “Aum Shinrikyo” as the starting point for my first novel. My ex-wife and I stopped in Japan on our way back from Europe in 1985, and we visited Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. I loved the place. The train system was fantastic, the country was full of old temples with beautiful architecture, and it was easy to get around even though we didn’t know the language.

Kyoto in autumn, from Wikimedia Commons by Wikimedia user  FG2
Kyoto in autumn, from Wikimedia Commons by Wikimedia user FG2

In between about 1988 and 1997 l learned Japanese on-and-off in evening classes. My ex- and I started home-hosting Japanese visitors and Japanese students from nearby La Trobe University. In 1989 and in 1994, I visited again, only this time on my own. I stayed with Japanese friends.

The year after my 1994 visit, the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system. This event was a major shock to the Japanese people. They were not used to domestic terrorist groups engaging in mass killings in Japan. Soon everyone wanted to know: who are these people? The name Aum Shinrikyo means “Supreme Truth.” Their leader, Shoko Asahara, preached a mixture of Yoga, Christianity, Buddhism, and Nostradamus. He believed the end of the world was near. Don’t they all? He declared himself to be Jesus Christ. He used LSD and electric shock therapy on the group’s followers. Some were murdered.  Shoko was also big on conspiracy theories involving the Freemasons, the British Royal Family and the Jewish people. Yep, they were crazy as batshit. But the group had made a point of enrolling students from some of Japan’s top universities. They promoted themselves as the religion for the intellectual elite. After the gas attacks, Shoko and many of his followers were arrested.

When I stated my novel in the mid-1990s, I had a vague idea about a religious group mounting an attack on something in Australia. I asked: what if some of Shoko’s followers evaded arrest, invented a genetically modified virus, and threaten to release it at an international sporting event in Melbourne Australia. I invented a mini-Olympic Games that I called the “Pacific Games.” Setting the book in my own city seemed a pretty obvious thing to do. I could write scenes in Melbourne, and I had learned enough about Aum to visualize what they would do.

Sometimes I look at other writers and ask, “How did they get their idea?” How did Philip Hose Farmer get the idea to write Jesus  on Mars? (You guessed it: Earth detects some ancient Greek letters carved on a doorway into a mountain on Mars. They go inside and who do they find? Jesus and a bunch of guys following first century Judaism. I won’t spoil the plot.)

So, what’s the most unusual story idea you’ve seen in a book, and where do you think it came from?

I’d love to hear from you.

Note: this is my blog site.   For information about editing an academic thesis, click here.

My novel Fire Damage, an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, here : the novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here. For the paperback version, click here.

Why is John le Carre such a good spy / thriller writer?

I first came across John Le Carre’s novels 30 years ago. The first book of his I read was “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.” It dealt with a theme that recurs constantly through the remainder of le Carres’s books: betrayal, and the way intelligence services use and the dispose of people. The main character is sent on a mission where he risks his life going into East Germany during the cold war. He makes a shocking discovery at the end of the novel: a central belief he has held all the through the book, something he based his whole actions on, is in fact a lie. And the people who sent him into East Germany knew it, and used him to spread that lie, at the risk of his own life and that of his girlfriend. The book doesn’t have a happy ending.

In real life, le Carre (real name John Cornwall) was a spy.

He worked for the British Army’s Intelligence Corp in Germany in 1950, returned to England in 1952 where he spied on suspected communists for MI5 at Oxford, and he became a full time MI5 officer in 1958. In 1960, he transferred to MI6, and left the service in 1964 after ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” became a success. By this time, Cornwall’s cover as an MI6 agent had been blown by the real-life Kim Philby, a British agent secretly working for the Soviet Union.

What makes le Carre’s characters so interesting is that they often very flawed people. His own life experience gives him ample justification for books based on secrets, deceit and betrayal. Perhaps his best ever book was written in  1986. The cold war was still on. Le Carre writes  “A Perfect Spy”. It tells the story of a young man who has a conman for a father. The conman father is based on le Carre’s own father, who went bankrupt several times and ended up in jail for insurance fraud.

The main character (Magnus Pym) is a British intelligence officer who forms a relationship with a Czechoslovak intelligence officer in which they exchange documents so each can claim to have a valuable mole on the other side. The book contains a line that struck me as brilliant. When Magnus leaves home to hand over his first batch of documents, le Carre writes “…and Magnus stepped out into the night and became his father.”

And let’s be realistic: what do  intelligence agencies like MI6 and MI5 do? They get people from other countries to betray their countries. They burgle, they bug, and they spy on their own colleagues. Just read Spycatcher , the autobiography of MI5 officer peter Wright, who spied on his own boss in an attempt to discover if the boss was a soviet mole.

In the world of James Bond, good is good and evil is evil and James Bond never stabs anyone in the back. In le Carre’s world, intelligence agencies are prepared to cut people loose after they used them. The interests of your country matter more than the life of some informant.

In some ways, le Carre’s books remind me of the American film “Fair Game” (see here, and here ) about real life CIA agent Valerie Plame, who was exposed as a covert CIA agent by the White House when her ex-Diplomat husband criticised intelligence suggesting that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellow cake from Niger. Plame had scientists ready to defect from Iraq to the US, and they were left high and dry when Plame was exposed. (Gordon Libby got a jail sentence of two and a half years for exposing Plame, but George. W. Bush commuted his sentence.) Which just goes to show you what murky world intelligence can be. And le Carre takes through that murkiness in all its sordid detail. That’s one reason why his books are so compelling. There’s something fascinating about people who lie, burgle and bug for a living, and do it with the blessing of their country. Most of them believe that that they’re doing it for a “good” purpose, because “my country” is a good country. Don’t most of us think that? I’ll be sad when le Carre dies. I wonder who’ll take his place?

Any thoughts on why spy novels continue to be popular? Please, leave a comment!!!

Richard Snow

twitter: Richard_A_Snow

Passing as another race – what I’m reading this week

Passing as another race: what I’m reading this week.

The book-reading group I belong to is going to be talking about Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” next month. This deals with a topic I’ve only seen mentioned in one other book: people of African American decent “passing” as white. I’ve been vaguely aware that this exists in America, but it’s never been something I’ve had any reason to think about or discuss with any of my American friends. So, first a summary and then a few questions.

Roth’s book revolves around Coleman Silk, a college professor who is incorrectly accused of racism because one day, as he’s marking the attendance roll, he refers to two students who have never shown up for class by saying “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” I’ve never heard the word used in this sense, but apparently “spooks” is one term for African Americans. I’ve always thought a spook was either a ghost or a spy. In fact the two students are black, and lodge a complaint against Silk, which ends with him leaving his college. In fact Silk is actually a green-eyed, white-skinned African American who enrolled in the Navy in WWII passing as white. When he left the navy he got a scholarship to university as a white. For 50 years he has pretended to be white, in fact, to be Jewish. It is not until after Silks death that the narrator of the book meets Silk’s sister, at his funeral, and she tells the narrator of Silk’s history. Silk has just been buried as a Jew. He has, intentionally, married a woman with crinkly hair in case any of his children were born with crinkly hair. Silk’s only communication with his family has only been telephone calls between him and the sister, since he could never allow the two worlds to meet.

When he decided, 50 years ago what he was going to do, he told his mother and she said she realised his (future) children would never know her as their grandmother.

The book is set in 1989, during the time of the Monika Lewinsky scandal, i.e., it’s fairly recent in historical terms.

In Australia, the opposite issue to “passing” has arisen recently in a court case involving journalist Andrew Bolt, who suggested in a newspaper article that some fair skinned people of mixed descent identify as aboriginal in order to get art prizes and jobs reserved for aboriginals. But these people acknowledge their Austrian or English ancestry is not a secret – they couldn’t really hide it even if they wanted to) so the issue is not quite the same as in Roth’s book. (There’s a Wikipedia article on Bolt with links to his articles.)

It set me wondering: do light skinned African Americans today feel a need / or see a benefit from “passing” as white? How often on forms do people have to state their race? (I can’t recall any internet forms asking me my race (even just for ‘statistical purposes). Is it regarded as treachery to one’s group? Anybody got any thoughts? Anybody want to enlighten me?