The stories George Crile tells in Charlie Wilson's War must be true -- nobody could make them up. This is a rousing tale of jihad on the frontiers of the Cold War, infighting at the CIA and horse-trading in Congress, spiced by sex, booze, ambition and larger-than-life personalities. — Thomas Lippman
An amazing tale, made all the more amazing because it was missed by the press. George Crile has written a book revealing the extraordinary details and intrigue of a secret war, and that alone would be a monumental achievement. But he has also written a book about how power works in Washington, about how the C.I.A. succeeded in this war but failed because it armed an ally who became our enemy, about how we might better understand Islamic fundamentalism, about how a solitary Congressman guilefully moved the U.S. government, and all of this comes with a breathtaking cast of characters worthy of a LeCarre novel. Only it's all true. And just as vivid.
Americans often ask: 'Where have all the heroes gone?' Well a lot of them come roaring through in this tour de force of reporting and writing. Tom Clancy's fiction pales in comparison with the amazing, mesmerizing story told by George Crile. By resurrecting a missing chapter out of our recent past, Charlie Wilson's War provides us with the key to understanding the present.
A cross between Tom Clancy and Carl Hiassen, with the distinguishing feature that it's all apparently true. . . . Throw in a middle-aged Texan belly dancer, an assortment of Congressional looinies, a few beauty queens, some ruthless Afghan rebels, and a murderous Pakistani dictator who only wants to be understood.
Christian Science Monitor
Crucial and timely. . . . Criles book, with its investigative verve and gripping narrative, is a comprehensive political assessment and sobering account of the power structures that run parallel to, but apparently unknown by, official government authorities.
Put the Tom Clancy clones back on the shelf; this covert-ops chronicle is practically impossible to put down. No thriller writer would dare invent Wilson, a six-feet-four-inch Texas congressman, liberal on social issues but rabidly anti-Communist, a boozer, engaged in serial affairs and wheeler-dealer of consummate skill. Only slightly less improbable is Gust Avrakotos, a blue-collar Greek immigrant who joined the CIA when it was an Ivy League preserve and fought his elitist colleagues almost as ruthlessly as he fought the Soviet Union in the Cold War's waning years. In conjunction with President Zia of Pakistan in the 1980s, Wilson and Arvakotos circumvented most of the barriers to arming the Afghan mujahideen-distance, money, law and internal CIA politics, to name a few. Their coups included getting Israeli-modified Chinese weapons smuggled into Afghanistan, with the Pakistanis turning a blind eye, and the cultivation of a genius-level weapons designer and strategist named Michael Vickers, a key architect of the guerrilla campaign that left the Soviet army stymied. The ultimate weapon in Afghanistan was the portable Stinger anti-aircraft missile, which eliminated the Soviet's Mi-24 helicopter gunships and began the train of events leading to the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and its satellites. A triumph of ruthless ability over scruples, this story has dominated recent history in the form of blowback: many of the men armed by the CIA became the Taliban's murderous enforcers and Osama bin Laden's protectors. Yet superb writing from Crile, a 60 Minutes producer, will keep even the most vigorous critics of this Contra-like affair reading to the end. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
This is a fast-paced and highly colored account, presumably true, of how a freewheeling Congressman teamed up with an Oliver North-ish CIA employee to funnel arms and money to the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet takeover of their country. The subtitle pretty well sums up not only what the book is about, but also its literary style and its target audience. Author George Crile is a CBS television producer, and has put his Washington insider's knowledge to good use. Representative Charles Wilson (D-TX), a 60ish and undeniably handsome politician, was frequently described as a freewheeling party boy with a perennial midlife crisis. Never really a Congressional insider in spite of his longevity, he was most noted for an extremely hawkish view of foreign affairs. The Speaker of the House viewed him as something of a loose cannon, but also as someone who could be useful if he could be held in check. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought everything together. Wilson leapt into extracurricular action, making under-the-table connections and deals that raised money, bought weapons, and got them into rebel hands. In the end he not only helped the mountain guerillas but also managed to spare his party and the House Leadership some discomfort. The combination of James Bond-like action, a noble cause, and sexual escapades proves too much for Crile, and he makes the most of the story. His narrative is fast-moving, supercharged, and overheated, chock-full of high drama and sexual innuendo. In short, it is great fun. KLIATT Codes: SARecommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Grove Press, 550p. illus. notes. index., Ages 15 to adult.
A follow-up to "Charlie Did It," a piece on CBS's 60 Minutes that Crile produced with Robert Anderson in 1990, this book is an account of Texas representative Wilson's efforts to aid covert CIA activities to get military aid to Afghanistan's Mujahideen guerrillas, who were fighting the occupying Soviet Red Army in the 1980s. As a member of the powerful House Defense Appropriations and Intelligence Oversight committees, Wilson was in a good position to play a role in the "Great Game" and may have seen himself as a new Lawrence of Arabia. This work must be based on unacknowledged interviews with the main participants, for there is no bibliography and few reference notes; more documentation could surely have been provided. With its colorful international cast of characters, this book provides powerful background for understanding our current predicament. But while this may have been the largest covert operation in U.S. history, it was not the most important; that honor goes to Operation Bodyguard, which hid the D-day invasion plan from Hitler. An interesting and readable story that is suitable for academic and large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/02; illustrations and index not seen.]-Daniel K. Blewett, Coll. of DuPage Lib., Glen Ellyn, IL Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Before you give yourself up to the sweep and scope of People of the Book, the captivating new novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks, grab some paper and a pen. You'll be glad you did. From the opening chapter to the closing page, Brooks crams so many people, places, and events into her ambitious and intricate account of a Jewish prayer book that she leaves you longing for a scorecard.
Brooks starts out easy. It's 1996 and Hannah Heath, an expert in rare books, has been lured from her laid-back life in Australia to Sarajevo, "where they just stopped shooting at each other five minutes ago." Hannah's job is to conserve and analyze the world-famous Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the earliest illuminated Jewish texts. The ancient manuscript, filled with images so rich and beautiful that it is now a priceless artifact, has appeared, vanished, and reappeared numerous times in its 500-year history. Its most recent rediscovery in war-torn Sarajevo, where a Muslim librarian has saved this Jewish holy book, is nothing short of a miracle.
Hannah, at age 30 a cranky and demanding loner, is the first expert to handle the Haggadah in more than a hundred years. Though uneasy in the bombed-out city, she's ecstatic at the chance to preserve the rare volume:
As many times as I've worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation. It's a combination between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby's head. The Sarajevo Haggadah lives up to her expectations. Decorated with pigments made from silver and gold, saffron, malachite, and crushed lapis lazuli, it's a thing of extraordinary beauty. It also contains startling anomalies -- paintings of the human form done at a time when this was considered the highest sin, and the depiction of the earth as round, drawn when such a radical concept was punished by torture and death.
Though Brooks's book is a work of fiction, the Sarajevo Hagaddah itself is quite real. The author first learned of it during her stint covering the Bosnian war for The Wall Street Journal. When the manuscript suddenly resurfaced, speculation about where it had been, and how and by whom it had been saved over the course of its lifetime, fueled her imagination. With scant information to get in her way, Brooks was free to blend existing fact with her own lively fancy.
Though Hannah gets the story started, the series of tiny artifacts she finds in the binding of the Haggadah soon send us across the Continent and back in time. A fragment of an insect wing leads to Sarajevo in 1940. Right away, we reap the benefit of Brooks's gift for quickly setting a scene:
The wind blew across the Miljacka river, hard as a slap. Lola's thin coat was no protection. She ran across the narrow bridge, her hands thrust deep in her pockets. On the other side of the river, a set of rough-hewn stone stairs rose abruptly, leading to a warren of narrow lanes lined with shabby apartment buildings. Later, with equal deftness, Brooks lets us share a character's yearning for a long-lost home:
We do not feel the sun here. Even after the passage of years, that is still the hardest thing for me. At home, I lived in brightness. Heat baked the yellow earth and dried the roof thatch until it crackled. And here, with the sparest of imagery, Brooks walks a desperate boy onto a frozen river, then breaks your heart:
Embracing his little sister, he stepped off the bank, onto the ice. He walked to the center, where the ice was thin. His sister's head lay on his shoulder. They stood there for a moment, as the ice groaned and cracked. And then it gave way. Each object that Hannah finds within the pages of the Sarajevo Haggadah acts as a springboard for Brooks to tell a new piece of the tale. A missing decoration on the manuscript leads to fin-de-siècle Vienna, where German nationalism is on the rise. Wine stains on the parchment point to the Inquisition in Venice. A white hair reveals a series of surprising twists in 15th-century Spain. In between historical chapters, Hannah's own life takes center stage. A love affair, a family secret, and a betrayal send the story spinning.
Gathered together, the historical vignettes form a patchwork of information, not just about the manuscript's journey, but also about the long and tangled history of persecution among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Brooks's knowledge runs deep. She packs each page with history and context, then illuminates them with emotion.
I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful. So I wrote and rewrote certain sections of historical background to use as the seasoning between the discussion of technical issues. That's Hannah explaining her approach to work, but it could just as easily be Brooks explaining the genesis of the novel.
For the most part, she -- and Hannah -- succeed. But a story made of fragments leads to a fragmented story. Though Brooks works hard to bring life and urgency to each new setting and cast of characters, the constant change can be jarring. The choice to move backward in time, from the present day to the Haggadah's creation in Spain five centuries ago, makes for a sometimes arduous read.
So keep that pen and paper handy. Write down names. Mark down dates. Using a map will probably help. How the lives of the people of the book merge, diverge, and reconnect forms the affecting arc of this ambitious and accomplished novel. --Veronique de Turenne
Veronique de Turenne is a Los Angelesbased journalist, essayist, and playwright. Her literary criticism appears on NPR and in major American newspapers.