A Map of Betrayal

9780307911605_p0_v1_s260x420Ha Jin examines the struggle of a Chinese spy torn between his homeland and his new American life in A Map of Betrayal. I found Ha Jin when I read his stunning portrayal of Chinese life in Waiting; he has the ability to transport the reader to China with his detailed descriptions and his emotional observations. In A Map of Betrayal Ha Jin creates a stirring inner conflict with the story of Gary Shang, the most important Chinese spy who infiltrated the CIA.

Lillian Shang, an American professor, discovers her father’s diaries detailing his secret past, separated from a wife and children in China, before he established his cover in the United States and married her American mother. Working for China, Shang constantly looked for a way to satisfy his yearning to return home, yet his ties through his new family and connections created a conflict of emotions and loyalties. Lillian returns to China to find his family, as Ha Jin slowly unravels a past full of history and intrigue.

Prominent names – Kennedy, Nixon, Kissinger, Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao – float through the narrative as the author connects the politics of the times to Gary Shang’s journey from lowly translator to astute analyst and secret arbiter for both countries. Ha Jin attributes a number of détente agreements, including renewed relations between China and the United States, to Shang’s secret efforts.

Although the detailed descriptions can be overwhelming at times, reading through them gives the reader the history to create an effective backdrop for Shang’s life. When the plot turns to reveal another generation of spies, Ha Jin follows the current attitudes between countries. The ending offers a clear perspective and poses the question: Is the man betraying the country or the country betraying the man?

A Map of Betrayal takes careful reading to catch all the nuances, but a worthwhile book to contemplate and possibly discuss.

Related Review:  Waiting

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11/22/63 by Stephen King

What if you could go back in time, what would you change?   Stephen King adds clever twists to the well-worn theme of time travel in 11/22/63 – but it takes a long time to get to the end – almost 900 pages.

Jake Epping, a burned out thirty-five year old English teacher in Maine, finds a portal to the past in the back of a diner scheduled to be demolished and replaced by an L.L. Bean, and decides to change history – specifically the day JFK was shot.  But no matter how long he stays in this parallel world, the portal always delivers him back to the same place and time he left, September 9, 1958.  The caveat: each visit rewinds when he goes through the portal again, so whenever he time travels, everything he did during his last visit is erased; his next trip is always the first time.  King warns “the past doesn’t want to be changed.

Stephen King’s talent for drawing a seemingly normal scene, with strange characters that are just a little off, and a plot that continues to change and surprise – sometimes terrifyingly – works well with the possibility that the world could be a better place, if only some painful history could be erased.  Although this is Stephen King, don’t expect the horrors along with the casual innuendo –  this tale is full of suspense and history and as strange as he usually writes, but not full of the usual terror.

Jake’s appreciation of the food and the life style of the era will have you yearning for a root bear and real cream in your coffee.

“…the air smelled incredibly sweet…Food tasted good; milk was delivered directly to your door.  After a period of withdrawal from my computer, {I realized} just how addicted …I’d become, spending hours reading stupid email attachments and visiting websites…”

While King plays with the familiar history, he adds the humanity that keeps the story suspenseful.  On a trial run to change the local janitor’s past, Jake tests his capabilities, armed with the knowledge of the brutality that is about to happen in the janitor’s past.  When he returns to the diner, he finds he has changed history but the “butterfly effect” created consequences.

Jake’s investigation follows Lee Harvey Oswald, but Jake’s love affair in the past with a beautiful dark-haired librarian with her own secrets, and his increased connection to people and places as they morph into an eerie combination of both worlds, will keep you reading.

How does it turn out?  Does he make a difference – change history?  Could he return to 1958, now changed with the new life he’s invented?  Throughout, time is the enemy and the controller; in the end, King has not only decided the mystery behind the assassination (as he invents it), but also offers a thoughtful treatise on life, love, and relativity.  I won’t spoil the journey by telling you the details, but the ending is both romantic and jarring.

At times, the descriptions and narrative are overdone, and King could have told the story in a shorter volume.  The book seemed to go on and on, but I got to a point of no return and could not stop; the key action is riveting and makes up for some of King’s meandering.  Though not a fan of Stephen King, I ploughed through this thick tome, and was not disappointed – suspenseful and provocative – with a good story and even better hypothesis on fate and time.

Don’t we all secretly know…{the world} is a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life…a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.”

Still Spinning Camelot – A New Book with Jacqueline Kennedy’s Words

Prompted by the 50th anniversary of her father’s Presidency, Carolyn Kennedy has released her mother’s interviews with Arthur Schlesinger, the historian and Kennedy aide.  If the previews and New York Times summary are true to the book, Jacqueline Kennedy’s voice seems to be the complement to Schlesinger’s own adoring personal and historic view in A Thousand Days: Kennedy in the White House, written and published about a year after the assassination.

Will you listen to the eight and a half hours of tape? read the transcript? catch the Diane Sawyer television special? Remember Camelot?

Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy  is due to be released tomorrow, but you can read the teaser in the New York Times – In Tapes, Candid Talk by the Kennedy Widow  or preview the pictures – Photos: New book Shows Another Side to Jackie Kennedy.

  • Was Jackie Kennedy really only 34 back then?
  • Do we really need to hear what she thought of Charles De Gaulle (egomaniac) or Indira Gandhi (prune)?

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Wendy Wasserstein – A Finished Note

Wendy and the Lost Boys was a slow read for me – not because it was difficult. Reading about Wendy Wasserstein’s life was more like a very long article in New York magazine or Vogue – with enough name-dropping to make it gossipy but with the added value of historical context and life-changing decisions. As Salamon marches through Wasserstein’s home life, college, and post-college angst, she clearly connects the early formative years to later success. If everyone you meet in life has some influence on how you see the world, Wendy’s cast of family and friends was the ultimate confirmation of this. Those around her were stored in her brain for retrieval as characters in her plays. In return, they often had the misfortune to recognize themselves on stage.

Nevertheless, her charged humor was successful not just because she “wrote what she knew.” If her characters seemed stereotyped, it was only because she had the models in her life: the nagging mother, who wants her daughter to be thin and marry a rich guy; the competitive brother who could not be beat; the gay friends she fell in love with but would never marry (Wasserstein wrote the screenplay for “The Object of My Affection”).

More than any of these, it was the professor who saw her possibilities; the colleagues who made her feel smart; the friends who bolstered her ego; her “husbands” who supported her – if you are lucky, you had at least one of each in your life. But don’t be fooled into thinking you have something in common with her; Wendy Wasserstein was unique.

So – the slow read…Salaman traces recent history in Wendy’s life: John F. Kennedy, Kent State, the Pentagon Papers, the Clinton Presidency, the attack on the World Trade Center. Familiar names of actors, directors, and writers line the narrative – the people and the times who made her who she was, and gave her the material to write. By the end, you may think you know her too.

Come to the Edge – A Memoir

The young love life of John F. Kennedy, Jr. – what a topic for a book. When I saw Christina Haag interviewed on a morning talk show, I was hooked, and wanted to read her memoir – “Come to the Edge.” The promise of an insider’s view of the young prince was enticing, since anyone else who knew Kennedy is either dead or not talking.

In a clever prologue, Haag remembers her first real kiss with JFK,Jr. After that, it’s bait and switch. This is Christina Haag’s memoir – her life, her parents, her friends.

Amazingly, she recalls where John John got his hair cut as a child, and because she traveled in the same elite private school circle as a teenager in New York City, she had invitations to parties and gatherings where she witnessed and sometimes participated in JFK, Jr.’s young adult transgressions. When they met again at Brown, they became housemates.

Later, a play about Irish lovers sparks the romance – the rehearsed kisses for their roles become real. Haag recalls their passion, moonlit walks, exciting adventures, and John’s terrifying recklessness (“…don’t tell Mommy, he repeated like a mantra.”). She could be writing a romance novel with sleepovers at Jackie O’s 5th Avenue apartment, the Kennedy Compound, Jackie’s house in New Jersey – magnificent backdrops as Haag vividly describes the settings (not the romps) in detail.

Jackie approved; Ethel didn’t; Rose would like to see him settled. Haag never reveals why they separated. She hints at her acting career, movie star Daryl Hannah, his inability to commit to marriage -to her, but in the end, just calls it bad timing.

Although the prose is flowery and the action self-serving, nothing shocking or new is revealed. Some of Haag’s insider experiences actually bring back the Camelot mystique, and she says nothing to dispel the aura of the former First Lady’s graciousness.

Great way to jump start a career? Haag reveals her reason for writing her story now; life is short for everyone, after all. And now her name will be forever linked with his.