I decided I felt like reading some nonfiction before I plunge back into the fictional waters. This memoir by a CIA agent was just the thing.

I once knew a man who used to refer to the company he used to work for as “The Company.” My Dad used to insist that meant he’d worked for the CIA. I didn’t believe him, until one night the Company man drank a lot at dinner and said, without noticing it, “the CIA,” before he switched back to “the Company” in the next sentence. My Dad brought it up later, but the Company man insisted that he’d been joking…

Moran’s book is entertaining and often quite funny, especially the first two-thirds, which concern her training, most of which involves skills she will never need and much of which has a distinctly Keystone Kops air. From crashing cars through barriers to being “imprisoned” by cafeteria ladies, the training sequences are uniformly worth reading (if you like that kind of thing.)

The book loses steam when she’s sent to Macedonia, where she is instructed to work on extracting information from useless contacts who clearly know none. The last straw is when she and everyone else at the CIA are blindsided by 9/11, and then (in Moran’s opinion) support going to war against Iraq in an effort to cover up their utter failure to know or learn anything about actual terrorist threats. The end, in which she quits the CIA and gets married, is a bit of a whimper. I’d have been more interested to hear about how she managed to get permission to publish this book at all, and what sort of hoops she had to jump through to do so.

Still, I did quite enjoy the first two-thirds. Worth getting from the library.

Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy
Thanks to the one-three punch of Casino Royale, MI-5/Spooks, and a re-read of Tim Powers' Declare, I am now obsessed with spies, secret agents, moles, and all things deceptive and paranoid. Recommend me some good books (fiction or non), movies, TV shows, or other media about spies.

I already have Sandbaggers in my Netflix queue, and have read (but not really understood) Stoppard's Hapgood. I have never read John LeCarre or any of the other spying classics (so recs of specific books rather than general recs of an author would be good.) I am particularly taken by the angst of spying, the paranoia, the confusion between persona and identity, and the possibility of agents becoming so doubled, tripled, or quadrupled that no one really knows what side they're on, including themselves.

I've read enough about the Enigma machine to be interested, but is there a book about it that isn't incomprehensibly technical?

Finally, is there any good history on early spying, like pre-twentieth century?

ETA: During a recent visit to Costco, during which Dad used his wife's card since he didn't have his own with him (which you're not supposed to do there), he confessed that while he was living at the ashram, a combination of boredom and LeCarre had gotten him so obsessed with spies that he used to pretend to be one and see how far he could sneak through low-level security without actually displaying his ID. Damn, I wish I'd known that two years ago; I would have definitely mentioned it in All the Fishes Come Home to Roost. My father, the secret agent, slipping undetected through life.
rachelmanija: (Fowl of DOOM)
( Nov. 27th, 2006 12:50 pm)
I have now watched the first discs of Princess Tutu and MI-5 aka Spooks. (Links to non-spoilery introductions to the series-- read these, because they are better than any intros I could do.)

I think my head just exploded.

That is, either series could make one's head explode all on its own-- MI-5/Spooks by means of an extremely shocking and disturbing plot twist, and Princess Tutu because it is so totally demented (a pas de deux with a giant anteater in a tutu) and also the most metafictional thing I've ever come across, and that includes Revolutionary Girl Utena, the complete works of Jane Yolen, and Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem's "The Man on the Ceiling." Put them both together, and you get... well, for one thing, you get me sending these consecutive e-mails to [livejournal.com profile] oyceter:

Subject: Princess Tutu disc one

Body: !!!!!!!!!!!!! Anteaterina!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Subject: MI-5/Spooks disc one


Can't wait to see more of this. Um, hopefully with less [OMG SPOILER!]

By the way, turning on the subtitles was a good idea. Especially with the WTF accent that I think was supposed to be US southern but was actually more like "actor with thick Irish brogue attempts to replicate a US southern accent by studying the Japanese voice actors in the baseball episode of "Samurai Champloo.""

Both series highly recommended, with the following notes:

Princess Tutu: This seems very accessible. It uses a lot of anime conventions, but the context is European fairy-tales and ballet, so it's probably fine as a first anime. Also, it is charming, sweet, very smart and literate, and totally insane. As a bonus, the dub track is pretty good. The actress who plays Duck and does (non-spoilery) commentary on the first episode is delightfully fangirlish.

MI-5/Spooks: Smart, gripping, well-acted. Would probably be enjoyed by many people who liked Casino Royale, with the caveat that the violence, while not graphic, is much more disturbing. I didn't think it was gratuitous, but I could see how people might disagree. On the other hand, there isn't much of it and it's mostly implied rather than seen. Turn on the subtitles if you have a hard time with the accents. Apparently some people on Netflix were really offended by the lack of Muslim terrorists in the first two episodes; so, warning that there are no Muslim terrorists in the first two episodes.

Feel free to comment with clearly labeled spoilers WITH THE TITLE OF THE SHOW IN THE SUBJECT HEADER, and FOR THE FIRST DISC OF EACH SHOW ONLY.

Spoil anyone for any episodes past 5 of Tutu and 2 of MI-5, and I will do that thing that happened in the first disc of MI-5.
rachelmanija: (Default)
( Nov. 26th, 2006 10:25 am)
I've never been a big fan of James Bond, though I treasure the memory of watching Octopussy, which was partly shot in India, in a New Delhi theatre so jam-packed that we all would have died if it had burst into flames, with a crowd of people who cheered madly every time they saw a location they recognized or when a random extra they knew walked into the frame. Otherwise, I've watched them when they were on TV or when someone else wanted to rent one. The ones with Sean Connery are fun, although annoyingly sexist and a bit slow in between the action set-pieces, and the Roger Moore and recent ones are a bit ridiculous. I've never much cared for camp, so the alleged humor of a lot of the dialogue eluded me.

I've also read one Ian Fleming novel, The Spy Who Loved Me, which was pretty awful although possibly not characteristic, being narrated by a totally unconvincing woman whom Bond rescues, and which devotes about a fourth of its length to her unremarkable, yet pruriently described sex life. It further alienated me by having her think things like "Every woman enjoys a bit of semi-rape." EW.

Casino Royale, which ditches the elaborate gadgets in favor of something vaguely resembling realism, was much more to my taste. Though I loved the ways in which it is dialogue with the earlier Bond movies and the Bond iconography, it could easily be enjoyed as a particularly well-done action movie even if you've never seen a James Bond movie, or dislike the whole franchise. I suspect that the people most likely to dislike it are fans of the Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan films, which this seems a reaction against.

There are terrific action sequences, but stripped-down, relying on physical stunts (like a marvelous chase at the beginning through a Tetris-like construction zone) or old-fashioned suspense (a variant on the bomb-defusing scene, which takes place entirely in the front seat of a car with Bond on the phone to headquarters.) Judi Dench and Daniel Craig have wonderful chemistry, and I now am dying for a prequel where we see M as a young agent. There is an annoying interlude with a random Bond girl early on, but the actual female lead, though not an action heroine, is believable and not helpless. Plus, she is involved in a shower scene that is not what you would normally think a shower scene would be, and is not only the emotional center of the movie, but has now gone on my top ten list of hottest scenes ever filmed.

When I saw Casino Royale, I realized why I have never been much of a Bond fan, though I do like a good action/spy movie and enjoyed many elements of the Bond films: I never believed that Bond could be hurt. Of course you know going in that Bond won't die; but I know when I watch Lord of the Rings that the Black Riders won't catch the hobbits in the Shire, and that Boromir will succumb to temptation, and yet I still feel a terrible suspense every time I see the film. It's all in the presentation: acting, script, and direction. I never believed for a second, in any Bond movie before this one, that anything really bad could ever happen to him. And that prevented me from ever being truly engaged with the character.

Casino Royale made me worry about Bond. Daniel Craig's knuckles bleed after he punches people, and his face bleeds when other people punch him. He's not a perfectly suave and unflappably competent gentleman who can stroll out of any confrontation with his hair slicked back and a perfect quip on his lips; but that's the persona you can see him creating for himself. This is the beginning of Bond, and the Bond icon is something we see being constructed onscreen. The whole movie is about the tension between the persona and the barely-glimpsed self, between elegant poker games and men getting beaten to death in stairways. Bond is arrogant, and he makes mistakes; and his mistakes have consequences. He's sexy, and he knows it and uses it to his advantage; but he's not really conventionally handsome, not like a Teflon model. There's a line early on about the lifespan of a double-0 agent, and it echoes through the whole movie. This has got to be the only Bond movie ever where you believe that he could die.


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