Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Spy (2003), as the title suggests, is a non-fiction work about espionage, a topic that has held perennial interest for me over the years.  Specifically, it chronicles the career of Robert P. Hanssen, an FBI agent who spied for both the Soviet Union and Russia over a 22 year period (1979-2001).  He is arguably considered the most damaging mole in the history of American intelligence, and was responsible for betraying at least three Soviets working for America who were later executed in the USSR for treason.  In addition to betraying American operatives, Hanssen sold highly sensitive information about US nuclear strategy and electronic intelligence gathering methods.     

Rather than go into great detail about Hanssen's career, I would urge you to read the book.  Suffice it to say that it is an interesting read for someone not overly familiar with the daily workings of the intelligence world.

One question nagged at me throughout the book and was never really explained to my satisfaction.  In 1979, Robert Hanssen had been an FBI special agent for a mere three years and recently transferred to the counter-intelligence section.  How is it that he was immediately given access to such highly sensitive information as the identity of Dmitri Polyakov (codename TOPHAT), one of the most productive CIA spies in history?  I was not clear if this sort of access would be customary or, more likely, was given to Hanssen as part of his new duties.  Either way, this seems like a gross error on the part of the FBI.  Of course, as the author notes several times over the course of Spy, hindsight is 20-20.

For me, the strong point of the book is in the final chapters, where Wise analyzes Hanssen's motivation for his espionage activities.  These chapters are largely based upon interviews with a psychologist who spent several weeks debriefing Hanssen in the immediate aftermath of his arrest.  In fact, Hanssen gave permission for the psychologist to break patient-doctor privilege so that this information might be presented.  It is clear that unlike some other notable spies, financial considerations were never in the forefront of Hanssen's mind (unlike the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by Aldrich Ames, the CIA mole who received over 2.7 million dollars for betraying upwards of ten agents working for the US and UK).  Nor was Hanssen ideologically motivated.  Instead, he seemed to harbor a serious inferiority complex that, over time, developed into a deep-seeded hatred of the FBI.

Wise's account stumbles in a few places (particularly unclear was the account of the Felix Bloch incident), though it is a fairly well written account and moves along at a good pace.  I give it four hamsters based mostly on my interest in the subject matter.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Little Country

For some reason, I always get irrationally excited when I read the quotes on the backs of books.  They get me really pumped about reading a book--I suppose that is why book publishers put them on the covers of so many books.  Nary a book goes by without somebody proclaiming it is the bee's knees, the best thing since sliced bread, or some such sentiment.  Well, the quotes on the back of The Little Country were in this vein, with high-caliber authors like Orson Scott Card, Greg Bear, and Gordon R. Dickson saying that with this novel de Lint was raising the bar for fantasy writing (or something along those lines).  When, o when, am I going to realize that those quotes are just marketing ploys?

The Little Country (1991) is a mythic fantasy novel set in Mousehole, a small village in Cornwall, England in contemporary times.  The story revolves around a mysterious book that is discovered by Janey Little, a folk musician by trade, in her grandfather's (known for some inexplicable reason as 'The Gaffer') attic.  The book, a one-of-a-kind edition of an unpublished story, was written by a deceased family friend, William Dunthorn (an author of some renown), and placed in The Gaffer's care to guard.  Over the years, various parties have shown some interest in obtaining the book, though The Gaffer has always written the attention off as people trying to make a buck off his dead friend.

As Janey begins to read the book, all sorts of odd things begin to happen.  Her old boyfriend shows up unexpectedly in the village after a long departure following their breakup.  An American woman with unknown motives begins to poke  around Cornwall.  A reporter from Rolling Stone magazine shows up for an unannounced interview with Janey Little.  We eventually come to discover that an ancient magic is stirring (*gasp*!), and it is up to Janey and her companions to guard its secret from outside forces who would put it to nefarious purposes.

Intervening chapters tell the story that unfolds in the Dunthorn book as read by Janey Little.  These detail the adventures of Jodi, a local girl who is captured by an old widow rumored to be a witch.  Her escape and subsequent marshaling of Mousehole townfolk against the widow unfold alongside the "main" story of Janey Little.  While the story-within-a-story idea is an interesting narrative technique, it was not clear to me that these chapters actually told the Dunthorn book's story until near the end of the novel.  On the other hand, maybe I'm just slow...?

I found the first half of the book to be almost excruciatingly boring.  Yes, the characters of Janey and her gang are well set up, but there is little in the way of action.  The parallel story with Jodi was the only thing that kept me going.  A major plot point revolves around a simple misunderstanding between Janey and her ex-flame that would have been cleared up in minutes by any normal adult.  Instead, it just leads to all sorts of melodrama.

A positive comment:  the setting of the novel is extremely well realized.  Cornwall, with its connection to the ocean and links to the Celtic past, provides the perfect setting for a magical world to intersect with ours.  De Lint obviously has a love of this country, and he writes about the land very well.

I was going to give the book a flat two hamsters, but the last third of the book improved by quite a bit.  In the end, I'll score it a strong two and a half hamsters (I really need to find a graphic to add the half hamsters in!).  Without doubt, there is a subset of readers out there that would probably find The Little Country to be a great read, but I'm afraid I'm just not in that group! You can quote me on that.