Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

May 31, 2014 

book cover


The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames

Kai Bird, Crown, 448 pages

Arguably no American was more familiar with the Middle East’s tortured dynamics than Robert C. Ames, the subject of Kai Bird’s engrossing biography, “The Good Spy.”

Bird shared a Pulitzer in 2005 for “American Prometheus,” his biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. He brings the same careful scrutiny to Ames.

Ames was a Zelig-like figure for America in the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s, seemingly involved in every crisis, “the closest thing to an irreplaceable man,” as CIA chief Bill Casey said at his memorial.

Others called him an “American Lawrence” of Arabia, a charismatic figure who loved the language, rhythms and politics of the Arab world. But it was also recognition that Israeli intelligence and even some CIA colleagues thought Ames acted as an advocate for the Arabs, especially for the Palestinians.

Ames walked a careful line between espionage and diplomacy, and Bird brings us along. Budding Arabists will enjoy details about groups and leaders now barely remembered. Lay readers will enjoy a taut narrative of assassinations and bombings of the era. But this is serious history, not a thriller.

Bird argues that Ames’ work as a spy paved the way for the Oslo Accords, the 1993 peace agreement between Israel and the PLO. Had Ames lived, Bird writes, he might have “helped heal the rift between Arabs and the West.”

Perhaps. The Oslo peace process collapsed in 2000 amid fierce new Israeli-Palestinian fighting, and Ames’ legacy is far from clear. This absorbing book suggests that even the best of intentions, and the best of spies, aren’t enough to bridge the chasms in the Middle East.

Los Angeles Times

Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76

Dan Epstein, Thomas Dunne Books, 400 pages

The 1970s were famously known as the Me Decade, but they were also a spinoff decade. So it makes sense that Dan Epstein, the pop-culture-savvy author of the ’70s baseball book “Big Hair and Plastic Grass,” decided to pen a spinoff of his own.

“Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76” spotlights arguably the craziest year in a decade of Major League looniness. Maverick owners Bill Veeck and Ted Turner upset the old guard with a torrent of promotions to distract from their lousy teams. (My favorite: Headlock and Wedlock Day, for which Turner’s Atlanta Braves hosted a group wedding ceremony and a wrestling exhibition.). Free agency was about to shift the balance of power from owners to players. Hair was long. Punk was rocking. Disco was thumping.

Epstein knows his pop music and his politics, and he deftly weaves them in and out of the baseball doings. The analysis feels a bit hit-and-run; Epstein seems more comfortable as a surveyor than a cultural critic. No shame in that. “Stars and Strikes” is as hard to put down as its funky predecessor. I’ll be there when he moves on to the ’80s.

Dallas Morning News

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