Doc Reviews “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” by Stephen King

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Cover copyright by Scribner

 

This collection of short stories, most of which has already seen the light of day through being published in magazines or other media, is anything but rubbish. I told a colleague some years back that King appears to have hit his stride again. Yes, even for its ridiculous made-up-on-the-spot ending, even “Under the Dome” was a ripping read. “11.22.1963” was pretty awesome, “Doctor Sleep” likewise. So I walked up to the local library for my copy of “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” without any hint of trepidation, assuming that I would walk into territory that was not just familiar, but pleasantly so. For the most part, I was right.

The book seems to find its healthiest pulse-rate with two of the longer stories, “Mile 81,” about an evil car (beyond anything “Christine” could have hoped to do) and “Ur,” a happy little fantasy that King originally wrote to be exclusively available to the Amazon Kindle. Some of the writing is unashamedly predictable (“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” and “Bad Little Kid”) but the writing is tinged with just enough of King’s tell-tale dialogue (think Quentin Tarantino without the mustard) and apparent joy for the writing, that the pleasure is in the journey, and not the destination.

The one downer for me was “Blockade Billy,” which was a novella published in book form in 2010. I read it back then, and perhaps because I was soured on the notion of publishing a tiny book with a Big Boy price tag on it, I really didn’t care for the negative tone of the writing. Re-reading it didn’t do anything to improve the experience for me this time around. I’m sure King will get over it.

This is a nice little collection of shivery reads, something nice to have on the shelf and take down every now and then, rather than all at once like Doc did. More of a treat if you spread your 20 slices of cake out over an extended period of time, rather than chew them down all at once. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a rainy day on the street, and 10 being a sunny day at the beach, Doc gives this effort a solid B+.

Doc Reviews “Against All Enemies” by Jeffrey M. Carney

cfDoc finished reading “Against All Enemies” by Jeffrey M. Carney several nights ago, and have been trying to put into words enough thoughts on the book to make a somewhat coherent review. Doc’s struggle comes from the fact that the Carney is not only a convicted spy, but also someone with whom Doc worked and, at one point or another, may have had a beer or two. True story. So I finally gave up trying to be coherent in the review, and will simply offer my thoughts. It’s still a review, of sorts. You know how Doc can be.

Bottom line up front: This is a well-written piece of historical fiction. In the book, Carney writes down his version of his life, from his formative years growing up in Ohio and Florida, to his enlistment in the United States Air Force, through his decision to illegally cross the border into East Berlin and begin a career spying for the MfS (what most of us know as Stasi) in East Germany. He details his arrest (“kidnapping,” in his words), his trial, and life while incarcerated at Quantico and Fort Leavenworth. There’s also a very brief glimpse of life after Leavenworth.

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Before getting into the details of the book, let me offer two observations that are apparent from the start. Jeff is a very good writer; I believe the book has not been ghostwritten – there is no indication in the book or by doing a thorough Internet scrub; I believe these really are his words, and he’s got a really good style for getting his writing to come off the page. This includes sprinkling his pages with some pretty dark but often brilliant humor. Describing one of the Special Agents from the USAF Office of Special Investigations during his trial, in which the SA appears to be rather full of himself and tries to project his importance by deepening his voice, Jeff describes the SA as reacting with surprise at how his voice sounds, comparing it to a dog hearing itself fart out loud for the first time. In the middle of a grim scene, this line just jumped out, and I laughed. There are comparable lines throughout.

Another observation is that this book was in desperate (and unrealized) need of a good editor. No, even a so-so editor would have done. Based on the lack of evidence of a publisher’s name on the copyright page, you can tell this isn’t even a “vanity press” publication – it’s self-published, and I am assuming that, back in the day, it was rushed to publication just a bit in order to cash in on the Manning and Snowden frenzy, which carried along with it the misguidedly gullible audience that believes these two people are somehow heroes. Perhaps I’m taking too great a leap. Regardless, the misspellings and awkward grammar can sometimes be forgiven, but punctuation errors gallop across the page like a gazelle with its ass on fire. You’re welcome for that visual.

For the most part, Jeff only uses first names and last name initials. Those who worked in Berlin during these years will no doubt recognize a lot of names and personalities. The dialogue Jeff provides, like narrative bubbles in a comic book, do not ring true, but that can be written off simply as poetic license. There are others (not co-workers) whose last names appear – I’m not sure why that decision was made, but it tended to slow me down, as I wondered if there was an agenda I was missing. No idea. For what it’s worth, Jeff has nothing overly negative to say about his Berlin or Goodfellow Air Force Base co-workers on an individual basis, at least for this publication.

ceA final observation on the publication before diving into the text: a number of sections, we are told, were redacted by intelligence agencies during the standard counterintelligence review to ensure no sensitive or classified information makes it to publication. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the redactions – Jeff leaves black spots where the cuts were made, and the majority of information represented by these spots are painfully obvious to those who worked with him. Cutting out the word “Tempelhof” or “TCA” or “Marienfelde” seems trivial and silly. I’ve seen this review process in action, and I don’t doubt that they honestly were the result of the review of a number of agencies, as Jeff says; these reviews rarely make much sense, and it’s not unusual to see the exact same information that had been redacted on page 122 to show up in all its glory on page 126. It can be distracting for the reader, but it can also be a bit of fun to try to figure out what puzzle piece goes in the blank.

Jeff’s account portrays him being raised by a sadistic bully of a father and a simpering victim of a mother, afraid to leave the brute she married for a number of reasons. Jeff eventually escapes after a series of episodes that, if true, are astonishingly tragic – even more so, since he is unable to rescue his two younger brothers from that nightmare of a household; he is able to enlist in the Air Force, and in short order finds himself enjoying the needed structure of basic training. Get used to that concept of “structure”. It pops up again and again throughout the book.

Once in the USAF, Jeff seems to settle into a regime. His modest German skills allow him to move ahead in his training, and his sharp observations on life during tech school (English class, target language training, and his arrival to Goodfellow for his final round of training before his first field assignment) bring back a lot of memories for Doc. His description of his arrival in Berlin is similarly well-handled and allowed me to reminisce.

There are a lot of inconsistencies between Jeff’s recollection of events in Berlin and how they actually went down, especially when it comes to timelines. We both got to Berlin around the same time (I arrived the day before he did), and while a lot of events aren’t exactly chiseled in the stone of my memory, I still have a good grasp on the timeline and the outcome of most of them. There is no point in Jeff having made stuff up with the events in question, I think he may have either a) a faulty memory or b) simply shifted things around to tell what he thought was a more compelling story. Either option is not what you look for, however, when you’re reading a non-fiction book in search of facts or, for that matter, motive when it comes to little things like espionage. Still, I will give him a pass on this.

Searching for real motives is a tricky effort with Jeff’s version of events. In his words, he wanted to make sure that neither side had the advantage over the other in the race to destroy the world and everyone living in it. His work as a linguist in a classified facility helped keep the Warsaw Pact at bay, and the only way he could make sure the playing field was level was to engage the other side. There’s also a lot of “I was always misunderstood” and “my work and efforts are unappreciated” (along with, by his own admission, too much beer and self-pity) that strengthened his walk through Checkpoint Charlie.

The “impact” of one of the more telling episodes that he relates is brought up a couple of times in the book. He points to an example of what, in actuality, was standard operating procedure back in the day on the part of both Soviet and American military border “showdowns,” as well as those Warsaw Pact and NATO forces. In Jeff’s version, this was a massive one-off exercise on the part of the American cowboys in the White House and DoD that he knew would very likely trigger nuclear war; his breathless account of how he spent the day after his mid shift (when he learned of the exercise) trying to alert his handler is entertaining reading, and perhaps it really did go down the way he described it, but I can’t help but wonder why his handler didn’t laugh in his face at the information.

There are a number of timelines in his story that I was looking forward to reading in the book, considering I only had my own point of view as a frame of reference. When I got to those sections, Jeff did not disappoint.

cgFirst, the way he went about his espionage activities while assigned to Marienfelde. A lot of rumor (and some interesting OSI briefings) pointed those of us who worked with Jeff in the right direction, but the level of detail he’s able to provide (even with redacted parts) was impressive. Someone in my position cannot help but feel at least a little anger when reading the casual way in which he got away with his activities, and the pride with which he details their accounts, but at some point the mature reader has to set aside personal emotions and look at it, if nothing else, from a counterintelligence aspect and use it as an exercise in “lessons learned”.

Along the same lines, his work for the MfS at Goodfellow was also well-documented, including trips to meet with his handlers. It was nice to read of some of his intelligence failures, as well – the effort to replicate highly classified documents on microfiche is one example. Along these lines, the section detailing his circle closing in on him at Goodfellow, along with his desertion and arrival back in East Germany, was worth reading as well – he doesn’t provide specifics that explain why the lead-up events in Texas occurred, but he lets the reader in on the fact that he had obviously been acting in a manner that had his supervisors so concerned that he had been scheduled for a battery of psychological evaluations.

Another section of the book I was looking forward to was the run-up of events which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the impact that those events (along with reunification) had on his life in East Germany. It was at this point that Jeff reveals that he felt almost as betrayed by his bosses as he himself had betrayed his co-workers and country years before. He conveys the true sense of panic he must have been feeling when he realized he was headed down a rabbit hole, that he needed to give up everything he had been working for with the MfS and find a new home, a new organization that could use his skills. But with freedom sweeping across Eastern Europe at the time, his options were obviously quite limited.

The events leading up to Jeff’s capture are not accurately told, but it’s probably the official version that Jeff was given; this keeps a lot of good people from having their names published. The true story of his discovery and capture are probably classified, so I’ll leave it at that. Suffice to say, his capture and subsequent movement to the US, and inevitable incarceration, all make for an intriguing read. The structure provided by his incarceration, in very different ways at the Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force levels, also helped him keep moving forward and helped him survive. The book’s afterword (a Berlin-based dialogue between him and his son, after his release from prison) appears to be a contrivance, but I suppose I’ll never know if that’s the case. Either way, it’s not a bad couple of pages of writing, and its purpose is to cement your understanding of Jeff’s desire for a world free from the threat of nuclear holocaust.

When I closed the cover, I thought back on what I might have learned from reading the book. What stood out to me more than anything was Jeff’s sense of self-worth. I don’t doubt that he was viewed as an important figure to the East Germans, but I got the feeling that he viewed himself as the sun, the moon, and the stars to their intelligence collection efforts. I suspect that is far from the case, for a number of reasons. In addition, whether intentional or not, Jeff portrays himself as pretty much a prick. He’s often the smartest guy in the room, no matter who else is there, and that his emotions carry a hair-trigger – he explodes in fury when his concerns are dismissed or when he feels he is not being treated properly or in accord with his imagined sense of self-worth.

I think Jeff expected a lot more attention from the publication of this book than I imagine he’s gotten here stateside. I can picture him waiting for interviews from the major news outlets (he’s been interviewed on German television, but I expect Wolf Blitzer hasn’t had a chance to return his calls), and that the American public, once they hear his side of events, would be understanding and actually consider him a bit of a hero for keeping the world safe from nuclear war – but, to be fair, the American public hasn’t heard ANY side of events, not so much because the government wanted to protect all the damage from revealing the stuff he sold, but because he’s really not that big of a rat in the lab of espionage. He is not Ames, Hansen, Walker, Manning, or Snowden, not by a country mile.

Finally, I think he realistically knew that his former co-workers would not be lining up to tell him “Whoa! Now I get it! All’s forgiven.” He alludes to this a number of times in the book. The true betrayal in all of this was to the folks who worked with him, and whom he never gave a true chance to be a part of. But in one of his prison interviews with the military’s counterintelligence folks, he offers that if someone, anyone, had just reached out and said “Hey, Jeff, is everything okay?” that could have been the turning point, and he wouldn’t have turned out the way he did. Maybe I’m cynical, but I think that’s a nice convenient cop-out. Laying the blame on co-workers, even partly, is not only disingenuous, it’s chicken-shit.

Doc would recommend this book be read with an open but sharply-focused eye. And Doc recommends finding a library or otherwise free copy, because Doc doesn’t condone funding the chest-thumping of spies.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being shabby, 10 being snappy, Doc awards this book a B-.  It’s well-written, poorly-published claptrap disguised as non-fiction.

Doc Reviews “Best Boy” by Eli Gottlieb

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Books which deal with autism in any of its forms are almost assuredly going to be compared, at some point, to Mark Haddon’s outstanding “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Doc’s recent read, “Best Boy” by Eli Gottlieb, was also thrown into that mix. The problem with making this type of comparison is that you set the reader up for unfortunate and misleading expectations. We poison the well for the reader. How many books were letdowns because of comparisons to “Gone Girl” in the past two years? If you must know, that number is 814. Sigh.

With that out of the way, let me offer that I took the comparison with a grain of salt, digitally cracked open this e-book’s cover, and began to enjoy it right away. At the age of eleven, the narrator, Todd Aaron, has been placed in a “therapeutic community” for his autistic tendencies (and his family’s inability to cope). Present-day Todd is now in his fifties, and looks back methodically at the events which brought him hundreds of miles from his real home, and we are given a glimpse into some of the abuses he faced from various members of his family because he is different. Through the opening pages of the book, we are also introduced to Todd’s way of life as he has come to know it at the Payton Living Center, now one of the “elders”.

The book’s promise continues when we are offered the first glimpses of conflict in Todd’s life – a roommate that is passively confrontational, if that’s a thing, and a new member of the Payton staff, to whom Todd takes an immediate dislike and distrust. We’re also eventually introduced to a new patient, Martine, to whom Todd takes an immediate shine. These three characters create the cocktail for what is sure to be a massive and heartwarming climax of retribution, restitution, and harmonious understanding between Todd and his remaining family.

Wrong. And that’s okay; I’m not reading to find a syrupy Hollywood ending to my books. I rather enjoy how this book ends up; it’s more than appropriate, it feels complete. But there are a number of problems I have with the novel, and which keep Doc’s grade a little lower than what some breathless critics are offering.

First, without giving anything away (that’s not Doc’s style), there are three or four important loose plot ends that are never convincingly tied up (in some instances, not addressed at all). The author has allowed Todd’s antagonists to leave unnecessary strands of thread dangling at the end of the book; the lack of resolution in some cases can be explained as separate plot devices, but in this case, it had the odor of simple incompletion. For me, anyway.

In addition, there appears to be a ton of additional details going on in the narrative that Todd, our narrator, would likely not be able to incorporate into the telling of his story. I might be over-analyzing, and that’s fine, but I tend to take the whole package into account when I’m reading. And when a narrator begins providing details that seem to go beyond his or her capabilities, I tend to regard that as a bit of a poetic crutch. I’m probably being unfair.

In all, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, Doc gives “Best Boy” a firm B+. Nothing wrong with this novel other than a few missing pieces and some extra narrative package that I just felt wasn’t true to the main character’s ken. Hope you enjoy it!