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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 5/30/2009

Dave Beck

Our book reviewer Nancy Pearl shares the skeptical world view of one of her favorite authors, John LeCarre. Nancy tells us that LeCarre's latest book 'A Most Wanted Man' is especially critical of covert activities carried out in the name of national security. Nancy speaks with KUOW's Dave Beck.

I don't do a lot of rereading these days (time is short and the world of new books that I want to read and include in "Pearl's Picks" is large), but an author whose books I find myself returning to time and again is John Le Carre. My absolute favorite is "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," but I also love "The Night Manager," "The Constant Gardener," "Smiley's People," "A Perfect Spy;" really, pretty much all his novels (except "The Honourable Schoolboy," which I remember as being so unbearably sad that I've never been able to bring myself to pick it up again). I reread Le Carre so often because I appreciate (and share) his jaundiced view of human motives (especially when it comes to the machinations of governments) and enjoy watching how that all plays out within the intricate plots he dreams up. From his early novels on, he's made no effort to hide his skepticism and disapproval regarding many of the sub rosa activities carried out by Her Majesty's spy service, Britain's MI6, nor his frequent unhappiness about MI6's relationship with their American cousins (that would be our CIA.) Bush administration supporters be forewarned: in this book, like his last one, Le Carre makes no secret of the fact that he despises what America's government has been up to in its effort to deal with the threat of international terrorism in the post 9/11 world. In A Most Wanted Man (Scribner, 2008), Le Carre plays with a convention that Alfred Hitchcock also favored — that of the innocent man caught up in events that threaten will either make him or break him. Issa, an illegal Muslim immigrant, half–Russian, half–Chechen, arrives in Hamburg, Germany, stating that his only desire is to become a doctor so he can return to Chechnya and practice medicine among those who need him most. His world collides with Tommy Brue's when Annabel, a young, idealistic, and very attractive German civil rights lawyer who is working to prevent Issa's deportation by the German government, discovers that Issa has evidence linking his own father, a former Soviet general, with Tommy's father, who began Brue Freres, a private British bank now located in Hamburg. Soon the representatives of various national spy services begin to gather. Is Issa who he says he is, or is he part of a terrorist plot to wreak havoc and rain death on western countries? The Germans, nervous about young Muslim illegals, want him off their soil as quickly as possible. They're especially sensitive about the fact that he's come to Hamburg, since many of the terrorists involved in 9/11 lived, and planned their terrorist activities, in that city. The British government wants to use Issa for their own ends, while the Americans know in their heart of hearts he's lying from the word go. The novel, like all of Le Carre's oeuvre, is both suspenseful and cynical. I found that I dreaded turning every page because I was afraid of what was going to happen to Tommy, Annabel, and Issa, but I couldn't stop reading it.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann (Doubleday, 2009) would be a perfect gift for any dad on Father's Day. Or for anyone, male or female, who enjoys a bit of history, a bit of mystery, and a lot of (true) adventure. Although reading it doesn't provide quite the same adrenaline rush as, say, Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" or Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm," it definitely deserves a place next to them on any bookshelf. Certainly, fans of those two books won't be disappointed with Grann's tale. The author, a staff writer at The New Yorker, combines first rate reporting skills, an engaging style, and an adventurous spirit to tell the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett, his 21 year old son, and his son's best friend disappeared in the Amazon in 1925 while looking for remnants of the fabled once flourishing and wealthy City of Z. Before that final, fateful expedition, Fawcett had made six successful, groundbreaking, and health destroying treks through the deepest jungles of the Amazon, all in pursuit of geographical knowledge. But he was determined not to give up his dream of finding that tantalizing lost City of Z. As Grann pores over maps and diaries and visits Fawcett relatives, he decides to retrace Fawcett's last journey through the "green hell" of the Amazon (which he does, accompanied by his samba dancer guide and despite the fact that he's unable to read a map, likely to get lost in his home borough of Brooklyn, has bad eyesight, and has never been what you would call an outdoorsy sort of guy) to see what he can find out for himself. One of the reasons I like books like this is that you tend to pick up a lot of tangential information as you're reading along. Following Grann following Fawcett, we learn about the founding of Britain's Royal Geographic Society, the great explorers of the 19th century, the influence on Fawcett of Arthur Conan Doyle's novel "The Lost World," and of the many dangerous, and frequently deadly, insects, fish, and parasites that would seemingly put anyone in their right mind off a trip into the great rainforest of the Amazon. Luckily for those of us who take our adventures vicariously, it didn't deter either Fawcett or Grann.

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