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Browsing ‘Great Game’ explores CIA’s role in shaping the Middle East

  • McClatchy-Tribune News Service
  • Published Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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“America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East” by Hugh Wilford (Basic Books, 384 pages, $29.99)

In the 19th century, the British had a phrase to describe their effort to keep Russia from extending its imperial influence through Central Asia and into the crown jewel of the British empire, India.

It was called the Great Game, with both sides spying, gathering intelligence and manipulating local leaders and populations to their advantage. Rudyard Kipling used the term in his classic 1901 novel “Kim.”

In his new book, “America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East,” Cal State Long Beach history professor Hugh Wilford explains how the same phrase, and many of the same risky tactics, came to describe the post-World War II effort by U.S. operatives to shape the modern Middle East.

There are cross-currents and intrigues aplenty in “America’s Great Game”: British spies versus American spies, rivalry between the State Department and the CIA, career conflicts between various American officials and the role of U.S. advertising executives: “Mad Men” in the Middle East.

A clean writer and top-notch researcher, Wilford tells his tale briskly. He is also honest with his readers. Getting to absolute truth – determining, say, who orchestrated the Iranian coup that brought the shah to the throne – is often not possible. In retirement, CIA officers told competing stories. The agency’s records remain locked away.

“Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon” by David Landau (Knopf, 656 pages, $35)

Its dust jacket hails “Arik,” published this month, as “the first in-depth, comprehensive biography of Ariel Sharon, the most dramatic and imposing Israeli political and military leader of the last 40 years.”

Comprehensive it certainly is, and author David Landau’s timing is fortuitous. Sharon, who died Jan. 11 at age 85, was soaring in the polls when he was felled by a stroke in December 2005. After suffering a second, more severe stroke in January 2006, Sharon fell into a coma from which he never recovered.

Landau, former editor in chief of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, began work on the biography shortly after Sharon suffered that stroke.

He discusses the highlights and lowlights of Sharon’s remarkable career from the perspective of a left-wing Israeli with what to American readers may seem like mind-numbing detail, with a heavy emphasis on inside baseball.

“Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs (Quirk Books, 399 pages, $17.99)

Talented fantasy writer Ransom Riggs has finally produced the second volume, “Hollow City,” in his series dealing with “Miss Peregrine.”

Aiming at the young adult market, Riggs has a talent for writing unusual characters. While the plot is familiar – magical children escaping from evil oppressors, and protecting their teacher and mentor – he has a richness in his writing style that draws you in and makes you wonder who will survive the adventure.

In the original book, the hero, Jacob Portman, discovers he has special powers, and is rescued by Miss Peregrine, an ymbryne (think “good witch”), and taken to her island, where he meets other special children who are called “peculiars.”

Riggs has a twist for the unexpected. His characters, the “peculiars,” are unusual. There is even a touch of Lewis Carroll when the children meet talking animals. Mix in time loops, history and “peculiars” from all times and places, and you have a heady mix to enjoy.

Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times Jack Kelly, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Tish Wells, McClatchy Washington Bureau

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