29 December 2006

The Warlord's Son, by Dan Fesperman

December 29 2006 (07:28:00)

Borzoi Books, Alfred A. Knopf. 320 pages.

This is an adventure novel for our times. Set in Pakistan and Afghanistan late in 2001, the story involves a reporter named Stan Kelly, or "Skelly," and his "fixer," Najeeb. Najeeb is the character of the title. His father is a great malik in the mountains across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, but Najeeb is estranged from his father. Having been educated in America but brought up in the Pashtun tribal world, Najeeb is hired by journalists to interpret, guide, and protect them from dangers they can only partially understand. He is a fixer, and without a fixer a Western journalist will perish in this jungle.

Skelly is sent to Pakistan in the hope that he can get into Afghanistan and report on the developments there. Osama Bin Laden, that most wanted criminal of the Western world, is said to be at large in the mountains. This could be the story of Skelly's career, and he is excited to be after it. Skelly's been moldering stateside trying to live a more normal life than that of a foreign "hack." The life of a foreign correspondent, however uncomfortable and inconducive to success with one's family, has gotten into his blood, and he yearns to be back in the thick of danger and intrigue.

Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, couldn't be a more dangerous or intriguing place. This is the small, backward nation of warlords and the Taliban, the underdeveloped third-world country that -- in spite of its poverty and lack of modern technology, bled the Soviet Union for years as it tried to dominate this land. Afghanistan may have been a much more powerful force than the saber-rattling of NATO, Reagan, and the Free World in causing the demise of the hammer and sickle. But the United States of America, having suffered the unforgiveable obscenity of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, seemed to have no choice but to take action against the Taliban. The Taliban could be seen as the protectors of Osama, and as such they were a valid, organized enemy that could be militarily attacked and definitively beaten -- at least in theory -- while Osama seemed and seems today like a foul smelling cloud of smoke: offensive, harmful, fatal, yet elusive and impossible to grab, grasp, confine, or destroy.

Skelly and Najeeb manage to get a ride into Afghanistan with the rear guard of a returning warlord. Almost immediately they are involved in a firefight, things fall apart, and begin to get truly complicated. As the plot progresses, Najeeb's family is involved, old resentments are brought to the surface, and a layer of intrigue is added. Added to the mix is the presence of certain shady American characters, Hartley and Pierce*, who remind us of the involvement of our own political and industrial interests and the role they play in the larger tragedy engendered by Western Imperialism, the clash of cultures, and the disingenuous liars on all sides.

Meanwhile, back in Peshawar, Najeeb's girlfriend is trying desperately to escape the bonds of purdah and escape to rejoin her lover. A series of mysterious threatening notes to Najeeb and the death of a malang, a sort of Pashtun holy recluse, by murder, make another frightening subplot. And I haven't mentioned the involvement of shady characters from the ISI, a very loosely defined Pakistani intelligence-gathering organ.

I turned these pages rapidly, and enjoyed The Warlord's Son immensely. I see that Mr. Fesperman has written a few others. I'll have to give one or more of them a try.

*It's interesting to get a glimpse into the fiction writer's mental process. "Hartley" and "Pierce" are names given to certain electronic oscillator circuits. Mr. Fesperman may have a little engineering in his background, or perhaps it's just a coincidence. But the observation is just too irresistible.

For more information about Hartley and Pierce oscillators, read Sine Wave Oscillators, by J.B. Calvert, an article posted on the University of Denver's website.
More Information

* Pashtuns of Afghanistan, an article at Afghan-Network.net
* The Rise and Fall of the Taliban, an article at Afghanland.com
* Pakistan Maps, and Afghanistan Maps at the University of Texas at Austin

24 December 2006

Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

December 24 2006 (04:05:00)

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small,
And the ones that mother gives you, don't do anything at all,
Go ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall.
--White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane.

If you haven't read Alice and/or Through the Looking Glass, don't put it off. If you have read it, do it again. It doesn't take long, that's for sure. I found this old paperback on a rainy Sunday afternoon and was soon lost down the rabbit hole.

There's plenty written about these works and little that a person of my education and experience would be able to add to the critical analysis of Carroll's whimsical fiction. It's well known that these stories were written primarily to entertain children, some of them very specific children with whom Lewis Carroll (the pen-name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was acquainted, including young Alice (Liddell) herself. And it's also common knowledge that there are other levels, and jokes, to the stories, more accessible to adults and particularly to adults of the time, culture, and social class in which Carroll lived.

What attracts me to the story of Alice and her adventures in the Looking Glass world is that this is part of the quintessential English literature of childhood. Along with the Chronicles of Narnia, Baum's Oz classics, and others, these books find some place in most English-speaking children's mythology -- or at least I think they still do! -- and their landscapes and population are ever in our imaginations. When one sees an impatient, harried person checking his watch, one thinks of the White Rabbit: "Oh dear...I shall be late..." Imperious self-important tyrants always have something of the Red Queen about them, and who has not been in a conversation that reminded him of the one between the Hatter and the March Hare, with the Dormouse sleeping between them?

"Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter's remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English."

Through the Looking Glass, the second work, is said to be understandable as a complete chess game. It is also obviously rich with puns and inside jokes, and probably a great deal of humor at the expense of personages long deceased. This is all a great monument to the genius that called himself Lewis Carroll, but for me I value its capture of the time of life when we have the leisure and openness of mind to contemplate and observe the world that exists in our mirrors, when we think about whether the flowers mind being tethered to the ground, and when we have the imagination to conceive of a Rocking Horse Fly, "...made entirely of wood, and gets about by swinging itself from branch to branch..."
More Information and Where You Can Read the Books:

* The entire text of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, courtesy of the Gutenberg Project.
* This site is sort of an Alice fan-club site, I suppose; there's a lot of Alice-related information and much evidence of her influence on the world in which we live.
* Lenny's Alice in Wonderland Site seems a good resource for background and analysis of the work, nicely designed with great respect for the tales. Lenny is not above referring to the Disney movie that has no doubt been responsible for introducing millions to Alice and her adventures.

Gone, by Jonathan Kellerman

December 24 2006 (04:00:00)

This is the most recent I have read in the Alex Delaware series. In it, Delaware and Milo Sturgis are faced with a bizarre series of killings and an extremely strange set of people, all against the backdrop of Southern California's glitz and highways.

The romance between Robin and Alex seems to be rekindled in this story.

A good, entertaining read.

07 December 2006

Vanish, by Tess Gerritsen

December 07 2006 (00:54:00)

401 pages. Ballantine Books, 2006.

In the lunchroom at work we have a "free" table. Items placed on this table are free for the taking. I think there's a couple of t-shirts and a pair of shoes on it right now. Sometimes there's food. I have recently gotten some Jasmine rice and some tea there. Often people leave books. I frequently take advantage of the books. Once they've been read at home, I usually take them back for someone else. I try to make my own contributions to this table from time to time.

A couple of weeks ago I found Vanish on the table, and took it home with me. This is a very effective thriller, which I read in about 5 hours. Great literature, it's not -- but it has the quality of suspense and excitement that allowed me to suspend disbelief and criticism and get wrapped up in its plot and characters sufficiently to devour its pages in one long bite on a cold November Saturday afternoon-evening.

The story begins with a description of some illegal aliens from Eastern Europe being smuggled into the USA from Mexico. It then jumps to the city of Boston, where a busy medical examiner discovers a live person accidentally delivered to her morgue's refrigerated storage. It picks up speed, includes a very pregnant police detective and her FBI-agent husband who quickly become involved in the hostage-taking which is central to the plot.

I thoroughly enjoyed Vanish and will read another Gerritsen when I get the opportunity. I see that she is the author of Body Double. I assume that the film of the same name was based on that novel. I saw that film several years ago, and dimly recall it as a strange and suspenseful experience.

Having recently been roundly critical of another thriller that I didn't read nearly as fast as this one, I have to point out at least one defect in Vanish. While the mechanism of having the live person discovered in the morgue is certainly a frightening attention-grabber, I fail to see why it is a necessary part of the plot. Indeed, it's never really fully explained -- unless I missed that in my breakneck scan of the text. And what about the title? Surely a better one could have been chosen. The Die is Cast? Playing for Keeps? I don't know.

But don't let these minor details keep you from reading Vanish. I recommend it.