Berlinski, Claire 1968–
Berlinski, Claire 1968–
PERSONAL: Born May 20, 1968, in Palo Alto, CA; daughter of David Berlinski (a writer) and Toby Saks (a cellist). Education: University of Washington, B.A. (philosophy), 1988; Sorbonne, University of Paris, diploma (French language and literature), 1989; Balliol College, Oxford, B.A. (modern history; first class honors), 1991, D.Phil., 1993. Politics: "Independent." Religion: "Independent." Hobbies and other interests: Reading.
CAREER: Writer. Manager, Bangkok, Thailand, on staff, 1995–96; Asia Times, Bangkok, editor and staff writer, 1995–96; United Nations Development Programme, Vientiane, Laos PDR, on staff, 1996–97; freelance journalist, 1997–98; Voter News Service, CA, state manager, 1998; Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA, adjunct professor, 1998; Tompkins Management Development, Washington, DC, associate, 1998–2000.
Loose Lips (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor to periodicals, including Asia Times, Weekly Standard, and National Review, and to literary and scholarly collections.
ADAPTATIONS: Loose Lips was adapted for audio, read by Cynthia Holloway, Brilliance Audio, 2003.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Hot Wired (fiction) and The Dark Continent (nonfiction).
SIDELIGHTS: Claire Berlinski was born in California and grew up there and in New York and Seattle. Following the completion of her studies, she lived and worked in Britain, France, Thailand, and Laos as a journalist, academic, and consultant. Berlinski has written for a number of publications and is the author of Loose Lips, described as a "rousing, hilarious, compulsively readable debut" by a Publishers Weekly contributor.
At her home page, Berlinksi noted that she wrote the first draft in six months, "and rewriting it took another six months. My brother, Mischa, and I collaborated in the final revisions, working together via Instant Messenger." Berlinksi provides a transcript of some of these messages on the site.
Berlinski also reveals how a job in Bangkok led her to write the novel. Like her heroine, she was looking for work when she saw an ad in the Economist for "experienced sub-editors with an extensive knowledge of Asian languages and politics." She wasn't sure what a sub-editor was and, with the exception of China, knew she could not identify any countries in Asia, but she sent her resume. She met the two men who contacted her in a London hotel room.
As she wrote on her home page, "The curtains were drawn, the room reeked of smoke, and the two men interviewing me—a Thai with terrible skin and a German whose entire body was yellow with nicotine stains—were clearly drunk. As luck would have it, they just happened to ask me the one question I could answer: What did I think of the Nick Leeson bond scandal?" The previous evening, Berlinski had attended a dinner party given by mathematicians who had gone into detail about Leeson's exploits. She says that during the interview, she was able to provide "a detailed discourse on Stochastic calculus, Markov methods, and the characteristics of economic equilibria that support Black-Scholes option pricing—having no idea whatsoever what any of these terms meant, of course."
Berlinski was offered the job, and when she arrived in Bangkok, she was given an apartment filled with orchids and a staff of personal servants. The paper, Manager, was "unlike any news organ I'd ever imagined—a place where money was never an object, where the correspondents received salaries so profligate as to make the playboys of the Saudi royal family blush, where from time to time the publisher strode in accompanied by a dozen stunningly beautiful Chinese courtesans, made cryptic pronouncements about countering the White Man's neo-colonial journalism, and then took to his heels and strode out, leaving us all mystified, and where we never—I mean never—produced an article anyone would ever want to read. Everything we turned out was tedious bilge."
Berlinski noted that she has "many stories about that newspaper. Our features editor was thrown into a Thai dungeon on trumped-up drug charges, our deputy editor-in-chief was found to be moonlighting as a brothel owner, our Burma correspondent fell into a sewer while literally chasing a story and nearly died of blood poisoning. But those are for another book."
A woman Berlinski called "E," the paper's correspondent in an unnamed country, visited the Bangkok office, and the two women, both of whom had studied at Oxford, engaged in conversation. E told Berlinski that the newspaper she was working for was "'obviously' a highly elite, ultra-secret economic intelligence gathering unit for the [Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)]…. The second she said that, it all fell into place. Was it true? I have no idea. I'll never know the truth—how could I? But the more I thought about it, the more I loved the idea. From that day, I began to look at everyone around me in a different light. And once you start looking at things that way, you never stop."
Berlinski's protagonist in Loose Lips, Selena Keller, is living in Manhattan with a doctorate in Oriental studies but no job. On a whim, she sends her resume to the CIA, and within weeks, she is taking a battery of tests, which she passes to become a clandestine service trainee at the "Farm," the CIA's covert training facility. There she learns how to recruit foreign nationals to spy for the United States, as well as how to engage in hand-to-hand combat and practice emergency medicine.
Selena finds a friend in Iris, a beautiful but tough trainee, and romance with Stan, "a pale, fat man with small eyes and very spiky thick red hair" who befriends her after she fails surveillance training because of her inadequate driving skills. After graduation, assignments are handed out. Stan is assigned to Russia, while Selena is sent to Canada. Selena is betrayed, possibly by someone close to her, when she reveals classified, but not vital, information in an unsecured e-mail about fishing rights in British Columbia. "On the surface," wrote David Klinghoffer in National Review, "there is nothing more melodramatic at stake than that. You have to admire Berlinski for resisting the temptation to write a Robert Ludlum novel. The model here, if any, is Evelyn Waugh. The hilarious triviality of the Canada assignment will deeply offend any ardent Canadian nationalist."
Selena and her friends at the Farm lie to and manipulate not only foreigners, but also each other. "The motivation is vanity," wrote Klinghoffer, "the compulsion to fool yourself into thinking you are someone or something you are not. Lying is the tool of vanity. Berlinski's point is that no matter how inconsequential the lies may seem … dishonesty changes us inside."
Appraising Loose Lips, School Library Journal reviewer Christine C. Menefee felt that, although "some readers will simply enjoy this book as spicy light fare, others will also savor its dark undertones."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, April 1, 2003, Kristine Huntley, review of Loose Lips, p. 1381.
Kliatt, November, 2003, Bette Ammon, review of Loose Lips, p. 50.
Library Journal, March 15, 2003, Karen Core, review of Loose Lips, p. 113.
National Review, October 13, 2003, David Klinghoffer, review of Loose Lips.
Publishers Weekly, June 15, 2003, review of Loose Lips, p. 51.
School Library Journal, September, 2003, Christine C. Menefee, review of Loose Lips, p. 240.
Claire Berlinski Home Page, http://www.berlinski.com (January 27, 2004).