Thursday, November 26, 2009


Joseph Finder is the acknowledged master of the corporate thriller and I enjoyed his earlier books, Power Play and Paranoia. But he seems to have lost some of crackle and pop in this book. The pages keep turning, but the payoff is not great.

For one thing, he strays in this book away from a purely corporate world, setting the book in DC and making a fictional version of Blackwater the central corporate entity and mixing politics, kickbacks and mercenaries into the story.

One annoying thing, which is difficult to pull off and which doesn't really work here, is switching back and forth from first person to third person in the narration.

But the main problem is that the hero, Nick Heller, who is the first person narrator, isn't as interesting as Finder's earlier protagonists. In fact, none of the characters, with the possible exception of Heller's teenage nephew, arouses much sympathy or takes on any real dimension. This may have been true in the earlier books as well, but it was less noticeable then. Several of these characters are simply plot devices garnished with a tell-tale trait that don't really convince. There is no love interest for the hero, who plays protector to his sister-in-law and nephew (his brother is the one who vanished), and no back story for that dimension either.

But Nick Heller is of course an ace, an ex-Special Forces, martial arts, all-around know-it-all. For some reason, he kept reminding me of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther character, but without the charming quirks. Finder had better luck with his business types. He can't match Flynn or Balducci or Silva on the op hero. The sister-in-law is a virtual nonentity, and the DC police officer role seems written for Morgan Freeman to play.

The plot, too, in contrast to the earlier books, is fairly derivative. There are a couple of twists, but the main line of the plot was never really in doubt. The climax and the denouement are a bit out of sync and both fall flat.

In short, if you want to read a book by Joseph Finder, read Power Play and give this one a pass.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Zero

This book by Jess Walter, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2006, is a bit like Don DeLillo meets John Le Carré meets T. Coraghessan Boyle. DeLillo's influence -- White Noise, Libra, even The Names -- dominates but there is also an original voice, the same that I encountered and liked in Citizen Vince. Walter's narrators are intelligent and empathetic. The books are sophisticated and postmodern but nonetheless compelling in the fluency of the prose, the satirical humor and the genuine emotion they portray.

The narrator in The Zero, Brian Remy, has gaps in his memory, so his narration careens from a Memento-like absence to a Being There type of simplicity.

This is a story of 9/11, or as Walter says in the interview included in my paperback edition, a story of 9/12. The author plays on all our shared images of that specific tragedy, while universalizing it by avoiding any specific references to the World Trade Towers or Ground Zero, which becomes simply The Zero. The president and the mayor (The Boss) remain nameless. The plot is complex, rendered more so by the memory gaps the reader shares with Remy, but handled with such grace by the author that you can actually follow it. Some of Remy's observations are mordantly funny, and some of the secondary characters, such as Remy's old partner Gutarek or his new colleague Markham, are wickedly satirical.

While the paranoiac and reactionary behavior of the government in the wake of 9/11 is the mainspring of the plot, the emotional punch comes from Remy's dazed and confused perspective in the wake of 9/11, his tenuous connection to what is left of reality, his suspected complicity in abandoning the ideals we are supposed to be defending. The book is cynical, but Remy remains an idealist -- an unhappy and ultimately defeated idealist.

I liked Citizen Vince and loved The Zero. I had bought the latter when it came out in paperback and had it sitting on my shelf for a couple of years. Of the three "9/11 books" I've read recently -- see my posts on Netherland and The Relucant Fundamentalist -- this is for me the one that really begins to plumb the depths of what it means. I went to a reading of Don DeLillo's at the Barnes & Noble at Union Square many years ago and asked him during the Q&A session why he wrote Libra. He said the real question is why did they shoot Kennedy. An author's task, he said, is to examine and render society's traumas, as DeLillo did with Libra and Walter does in this book.

I was in New York at Ground Zero shortly after 9/11 and so many of Walter's descriptions here capture the poignancy of the moment so well (Walter was working on assignment in New York at the time and saw much of the aftermath firsthand). His character laments at one point that by bulldozing away all the rubble the authorities robbed the battleground of its meaning and turned it into another hole in the ground. The subsequent controversy over the what to do with Ground Zero shows the truth of that.

Walter has since written The Financial Lives of the Poets, which seems intriguing, and has two earlier detective-type novels set in his home town of Spokane. Janet Maslin wrote of Walter in a New York Times Review that he was a "ridiculously talented writer" -- a blurb-writer's dream, but in this case an accurate description. I've gone from being a fan to being a devoted fan, and look forward to reading his other books.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Most Wanted Man

This book appealed to me when I saw it in Politics & Prose because it is set in Hamburg, a city I lived in for two and half years and visited again for the first time in a long time in September. It is classic Le Carré -- smoke and mirrors, betrayal upon betrayal, a pervasive cynicism limned with the slightest glimmer of hopeless idealism.

But I'm still puzzling over Alan Furst's over-the-top praise for the book in his NYT Book Review piece, blurbed on the cover, that this is Le Carré's strongest, most powerful novel. It is certainly accomplished, but far from being his best novel. It is detached, almost passionless in its understatement, and much less moving than A Constant Gardener, which while technically not as perfect has an undercurrent of genuine passion and outrage, and characters that have more depth and humanity.

It is more a return to the gray world of espionage, but without the looming menace that Cold War espionage lent to both fiction and reality. The main protagonist, Tommy Brue, is a British merchant banker who is basically as flat as the characters in the earlier and now largely forgotten Single & Single. While Le Carré is clearly fascinated with the possibilities of a banker as hero, he has yet to find the right formula to make it work.

Brue, 60, in his futile love for a young, attractive lawyer is more pathetic than anything else. It is difficult to relate to any of the other characters in what is virtually an ensemble cast, in the way that one could relate to George Smiley, as remote as his world was to most of us. Brue is a pale shadow even of Harry Pendel in The Tailor of Panama, also pathetic but a good deal more complex and interesting. Annabel, the lawyer, scarcely emerges as anything more than an old man's fantasy.

For some reason, Le Carré felt obliged to be discursive about espionage and terrorism in a couple of long set pieces couched as briefing presentations by characters, including one whose only role was to make a discursive presentation. Why, really, when his showing already conveys the message so much better? Is he afraid we don't get it. Yes, Gardener had some of that, too, but the reader was more willing to forgive it because of the evident sense of outrage.

There is a hint of outrage here, but submerged in the ultimate sense of futility as all of the characters fatalistically play their roles in a scenario they know is doomed. There is little surprise in the denoument, either for the characters or the reader, though at least in the second half of the book the pace does carry you along easily enough.

There is also little sense of Hamburg, though Le Carré is clearly familiar with the city. But whereas he could convey a compelling sense of place when it is London or Berlin or even Bonn or Africa, there is no real sense of a specific location here. Perhaps Hamburg's charms are too subtle to figure in a drama of this type.

Despite the impressive blurbs and the NYT Bestseller emblazoned the bland cover, I was totally unaware of this book's existence until I saw it in the bookstore. Perhaps Furst overpraised it in the hopes that Le Carré would someday hype a book of his, though why Le Carré would feel the need to do that is a mystery.

One is reminded in these late Le Carré novels of late Picasso, where the artist could make a fortune signing his name to pieces still better than what most other painters were producing but not possessed of the same vitality and originality as his earlier work.

The author does succeed in transferring some of the moral ambiguity of his Cold War thrillers into the post-Cold War environment of the "war on terror." But, again, it seems to lack the menace or urgency of that earlier setting. The book is not a waste of time, but don't believe the hype.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Emigrants

It's a mystery how a Bavarian living in England and writing in German can produce such shimmering prose in translation. Perhaps it's because W.G. Sebald, who headed the British Centre for Literary Translation at the time of his premature death, reviewed the translation himself, or because the translator is also a poet, or because the prose in the original is so powerful -- or, most likely, all of the above.

What a dazzling vocabulary, which carries the reader along in a torrent of detail rendered so deftly that you become entranced. The prose captivates the reader as the author takes you so effortlessly through a maze of memory and recollection, recountings and memoirs and brings you to the poignant moment between life and death. This is simply an outstanding book.

Several people, notably John Marks, have recommended Sebald to me and I did start some time ago to read Austerlitz without finishing it. Perhaps my mood is different now or this book is more accessible, but in any case I finally understood what they were talking about.

In narrating his encounters with the four emigrants of this book -- are they real, fictional? -- Sebald verges into the phantasmagorical so slyly you scarcely realize it's happening. But it's a fantasy rooted always in mundane detail. A great uncle is accompanying an heir who doesn't just take part in an air show in France but in the Quinzaine d'Aviation de la Baie de la Seine at Deauville in August, 1912.

One of the most appealing aspects of Sebald's prose for me is his devotion to geography. When I was writing Superregions, it became clear to me how important it is in understanding how people behave. The whole ghostly theme of this book is "wandering out" of your native home (the German title is Die Ausgewanderten) to a different setting.

The combination of Sebald's love of words, his attention to detail and his focus on geography yields some especially nice passages: "So I flew once more to New York and drove northwest along Highway 17 the same day, in a hired car, past various sprawling townships which, though some of their names were familiar, all seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Monroe, Monticello, Middletown, Wurtsboro, Wawarsing, Colchester and Cadosia, Deposit, Delhi, Neversink and Niniveh -- I felt as if I and the car I sat in were being guided by remote control through an outsize toyland where the place names had been picked at random by some invisible giant child, from the ruins of another world long since abandoned."

In typical fashion, Sebald takes you from upstate New York in 1984 just a few pages later via Uncle Ambros's memoir to Jerusalem in 1912, after passing through Deauville in 1991.

Sebald's attitude to his native Germany is decidedly ambivalent. He describes a grotesque fellow passenger on a train ride in Germany and observes: "I could not say whether the physical and mental deformity of my fellow-passenger was the result of long psychiatric confinement, some innate debility, or simply beer-drinking and eating between meals." And yet two pages earlier, another memoir (real, fictional?) lovingly described Sebald's own native countryside: "In the summer of 1921, soon after our marriage, we went to the Allgaue, and Fritz took me up the Ifen, the Himmelsschrofen and the Hohes Licht. We looked down into the valleys -- the Ostrachtal, the Illertal and the Walsteral -- where the villages were so peaceful it was as if nothing evil had ever happened anywhere on earth."

These are largely dark stories of despair, where the simple pleasures of life in the end are overcome by humanity's sad fate. The Holocaust and its impact is an abiding theme of Sebald's work and in this book, the tragedy is everywhere. But it's not just the Holocaust. Rather, that overwhelmingly evil event is just an extreme manifestation of the human condition.

I look forward some day to reading this book again, perhaps in German. It is so rich, it's clear that one reading only scratches the surface. Sadly, because of an automobile accident that killed Sebald at age 57, we will only be able to enjoy him by reading and rereading the handful of works he has left behind.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Three author friends of mine are about to see years of work crowned with publication of their books early in the new year. They are all serious books, scheduled for publication after the holiday season, and I’m looking forward to reading them. I’m very happy for my friends, who have worked very hard on these books and wish them every success.

Water: The Epic Struggle For Wealth, Power, And Civilization by Steven Solomon is due out in early January. It’s certainly been an epic task for Steve to boil down, no pun intended, the history and politics of so essential an element as water to a manageable length.

Steve found a working structure and dove into the task (don’t know why these water images come to mind) with immense energy. He wants the book to help frame the discussion of what is sure to be one of the globe’s biggest issues in the coming decades, much as Daniel Yergin’s book about oil, The Prize, helped establish the policy discourse about that resource.

Steve’s forte prior to taking on this project was business and finance, and his 1995 book on central bankers gains new relevance in light of the current financial crisis. He has a tremendous analytical capacity and a deft journalistic style that is sure to bring this subject to a wide audience.

Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power by James McGrath Morris is due out Feb. 9. Jamie has put in hundreds of hours and thousands of miles in tracking down new source material for this biography.

Jamie came to Pulitzer after writing a biography of a New York World editor Charles Chapin in The Rose Man of Sing Sing (still in print!). He has devoted himself full-time to bringing out the first full biography in a generation of one of the most famous men in American journalism.

Jamie uncovered the unpublished memoirs of Pulitzer’s brother, brought to light formerly secret government documents, and found some financial and business papers in a St. Louis trash bin.

He worked and re-worked the text with his editor to get a book that is both authoritative as a biography and readable for what is likely to be a wide audience familiar with the name from journalism’s most distinguished prize.

What a story! Born in Hungary, Pulitzer arrived in this country not speaking a word of English to go on to become one of the greatest press barons in our history. But in his success, he became an obsessive and isolated Howard Hughes-like character, virtually blind and sailing the world in his yacht to avoid noise.

Jamie is a born biographer, who relishes the small, telling details that bring people to life. He is enthusiastic about life and loves his work, and that is bound to infuse this book with a compelling vivacity.

Keeping The Feast: One Couple's Story Of Love, Food, And Healing In Italy by Paula Butturini is scheduled for publication Feb. 18. This memoir is certain to break readers’ hearts as Paula relates the sorrows and joys of what she and her husband, John Tagliabue, have gone through since he was shot covering the 1989 Romanian revolution for the New York Times.

John has written about his subsequent depression in the Times magazine in a searing, personal narrative. Paula puts it in the context of their life together in Rome, dealing with the effects of his illness and yet creating an environment of warmth and happiness for themselves and their daughter.

I haven’t unfortunately had the chance to visit them for years, but I know firsthand the kind of warmth they can create over a bowl of polenta or pasta from a very happy visit with them in Rome at Christmas time some years ago, or from the Thanksgiving dinner in Berlin where I first met them, before John’s terrifying experience in Romania, but in the aftermath of another family tragedy.

Paula is a journalist who has covered everything from revolutions to the Vatican, and has written a number of engaging travel pieces for the Times over the years. But I’m sure what will give the book its wide appeal is her strength of spirit and her incredibly human warmth, which is a balm for anyone fortunate enough to cross her path.


Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Syrian American who was falsely imprisoned in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But Dave Eggers' narrative nonfiction is not about a confrontation between the U.S. and Islam after 9/11. It is a book about what a colossal f---up the rescue efforts were. It is above all a very personal story about how one man reacted to danger and responsibility and how that affected his family.

Zeitoun was arrested in flooded New Orleans on suspicion of looting. He was arrested along with another Syrian American and two white Americans. Under the circumstances, the arrest itself was not a grievous miscarriage of justice. The subsequent treatment of all four men and the violation of their civil rights was.

Zeitoun is released on bail after 20 days. He did not eat or sleep well during his captivity, so he lost 20 pounds and looked a good deal older. His family, worried literally sick because he had no opportunity to call them, and especially his wife, were traumatized.

But the others arrested with Zeitoun on the same flimsy evidence were held much longer -- six to eight months. We are not even sure from Eggers' account if one or the other of them wasn't actually guilty of looting.

Zeitoun himself, whom the reader comes to know fairly well, castigated himself for his "hubris" in staying in New Orleans because deep down he wanted to emulate the heroism of his older brother, a champion swimmer who was prematurely killed in a car accident in the full blossom of youth. Even if he was justified in staying through the storm to take care of his house, his business and his rental properties, and even if he was able to help rescue stranded people in the first days of flooding, he owed it to his family, he felt in retrospect, to have availed himself of emergency evacuation possibilities as the crisis dragged on.

He didn't evacuate and although he evaded encounters with armed gangs he was in suspicious enough circumstances to get arrested. He was together with the other three men in his rental property, where the landline phone still worked, with a blue and white motorboat that had been seen in a looting incident and electronic equipment piled on the dining room table to save it from the flood waters. It didn't help that two of the men arrested had large amounts of cash with them.

The narrative of Camp Greyhound and the Hunt prison is riveting and dramatic. In some ways it overshadows some equally interesting narratives. The back story of Zeitoun growing up in Syria and roving at sea for 10 years before settling in Louisiana and courting his wife, Kathy, a young divorcee and convert to Islam.

The narrative of Katrina and its aftermath was for me the most gripping. Like a good catastrophe film, the book eases into the event showing people going about their lives as usual, as radio bulletins of increasing seriousness warn of Katrina's approach. Zeitoun's family evacuated and he remains in his home, placing buckets to catch leaks as the storm blows over. He uses his secondhand canoe to silently paddle through flooded neighborhoods, hearing cries for help and summoning rescue teams for an elderly couple, a disabled woman and others. He hears dogs trapped in a couple of houses and finds a way to feed them, returning every day to give them food and water. He visits his rental properties, his mosque, he pitches a tent on the flat roof of his garage to escape the heat and odor of the house.

Zeitoun is a resourceful, honest man that you cannot help but admire. Whatever his motivation, he responds generously and courageously to the unexpected crisis resulting from the storm. Perhaps it would have been wiser to evacuate, but it was hardly hubris to stay. He could not anticipate the grief that would come to his family when his arrest made him suddenly incommunicado. One tie keeping him in the city was the need to feed those dogs, who in the end died of starvation during his captivity, a note of true pathos.

Eggers tells the story resolutely from the point of view of Abdul and Kathy Zeitoun. We are asked to swallow without comment Kathy's feeling of "liberation" as a woman in Islam, even though we know that women in Islam do not enjoy anything like what we would consider equality or freedom. The generosity and caring of the Muslims in the narrative are contrasted with the callousness of the non-Muslims, including Kathy's own family. It is all true, but of course it is not the whole story.

The book is what is now called narrative nonfiction. Dialogue is fabricated on the basis of recalled conversations. Interior monologues are based on long interviews with the subjects. There are touching family photos. In his earlier book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers, by his own account, compressed incidents and timeframes. Since he makes no mention of it here, he presumably is not doing it in this book. In any case, the book reads like a good novel. It takes us inside characters, it transports us into a dramatic situation, it moves to a climax and it leaves us transformed in some small way.

While Eggers' earlier book, which I have not read, was a type of memoir, this is more journalism the way Tom Wolfe envisioned it in The Right Stuff and his other early works. The writing is elegant but not showy, letting the story grip the reader directly. It is artful, but the art achieves a transparency like that described by Roland Barthes in The Degree Zero of Writing -- the language does not refract or distort the meaning but conveys it with great lucidity.

Zeitoun reduces the drama and catastrophe of Katrina to a personal story that each of us can relate to. It gives the freefloating outrage that all of us instinctively feel about the criminal incompetence of the rescue efforts a focus on a genuine injustice and real harm to a family. It shows us that just because the Zeitouns, like so many others in New Orleans, are able to move on, damaged but resourceful and hopeful, does not remove the injustice that was done. Probably few will ever pay for the crimes committed, but that is no reason to forget the misdeeds and no reason not to punish those we can.