Monday, June 02, 2008
BooksFirst - May 2008
Funny Boys by Warren Adler
Comrade J by Pete Early
Both of the books I read this month were impulse check-outs from the local library in the new releases section. The library is a good place to find recent books that may not be getting the front of the store publicity at the local BigBoxOfBooks™.
I picked Funny Boys by Warren Adler because the cover blurb said it was by the writer of The War Of The Roses. While I haven’t seen that movie, I am a fan of dark humor and expected as much from this book. Dark it definitely is, comedy is a little tougher to call. The hero of the book is Mickey Fine, an aspiring Borscht Belt comedian that takes a job as the “tumbler” or social director/master of ceremonies at a Mob-run Catskills resort. The entire cast of Jewish and Italian gangsters talk with accents that would make Damon Runyon wince. Mickey is the jokester that is never short of a sub-Henny Youngman-esque one-liner.
Despite the corny lines, the humor in the book is plenty dark. The gangsters are based on real 1930s thugs and do all the killing, stealing, loan-sharking, and pimping you would expect. The book has a sexual explicitness that would be unheard of in a 50s gangster movie comedy. In the second chapter, Mutzie Feder, the ditzy high-school grad heroine, is brutally deflowered by her mobbed-up boyfriend. And that is just the beginning of her sexual degradation and the hands of the gangsters. That this story has a sweet romantic comedy screwball plot makes these scenes even more jarring.
Overall, I can't recommend this book because of the wildly clashing tones and themes. It aims to be a Pritzi's Honor type of satire, but the level of humor just can't be sustained.
I haven’t been reading that much non-fiction lately, but Citizen J by Pete Early caught my eye because I like true-life stories of espionage. The book details the career of Col. Sergei Tretyakov who was the second highest ranking spy in Russia’s UN delegation before he defected in 2000, long after the Cold War ended. The first part of the book details his rise through the KGB and its successor, the SVR, as a foreign field officer, first in Canada and then in New York.
The book is full of details about the methods of Russian intelligence agencies and how they dupe and trick officials into unwittingly or deliberately passing on classified information. Strobe Talbott, respected Russian expert and Clinton administration official, was a particularly valuable source, if not an actual spy. He also cites the myth of nuclear winter as advocated by Carl Sagan to have been particularly effective Soviet disinformation.
Among the revelations is that at one time two UN ambassadors from former Soviet republics were actually still-active Russian agents or informants. He also documents the way that a Russian SVR officer inside the Iraq Oil For Food program enriched cronies with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of shady deals.
It was the cronyism and kleptocracy of the Yeltsin and Putin eras that drove Tretyakov to betray his country. He was well rewarded for his defection but claims that money was not his motivation. He says he could no longer serve an organization that was so badly pillaging his motherland. A lot of the accusations in the book must be taken with huge blocks of salt because they are basically unverifiable. What can be taken as gospel is the in-fighting and treachery that takes place inside the Russian bureaucracy as they continue to try subvert and disrupt U.S. goals.
While we have declared the Cold War over as we take on The War On Terror, we must remember that we still have enemies elsewhere in the world.