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f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

December 14, 2006

Exile: facts & fiction, Israel & Palestine

Filed under: Book Reviews — David Giacalone @ 7:13 pm

ExilePattersonNS Six months ago, f/k/a posted its first book review, taking a close look at Jeremy Blachman’s Anonymous Lawyer: A Novel (Henry Holt and Co., 2006), which we considered to be way too much of a good thing. Our negative opinion was clearly a minority viewpoint among webloggers. Therefore, because f/k/a is not a must-have internet forum for publishers, I was quite surprised when Holt’s Marketing Director sent me another book to review — this time, an advance copy of Richard North Patterson’s novel Exile, which is scheduled to be released on Jan. 9, 2007.

Richard North Patterson, Exile ExilePatterson

I’m a fan of both courtroom and international thrillers and was immediately interested in Exile‘s storyline: Thirteen years out of Harvard Law School, David Wolfe trashes a budding career in California politics and seemingly turns his back on his Jewish heritage, fiancee, and community, to defend a Palestinian woman (with whom he had a brief, secret love affair in law school that still haunts him), who is charged as the “handler” in the murder conspiracy of the Israeli Prime Minister, who was the victim of a suicide bombing in San Francisco.

Even more, I was intrigued by the publisher’s premise and promise: That the novel “has the power to teach people the nuances of the legitimate arguments on both sides” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while offering “a fair assessment of the genuine grievances, irrational blind spots, and historical justifications” of the combatants.

tiny check In August 2004, Evan Schaeffer wondered whether it mattered that the weblog version of Anonymous Lawyer was a “fictional “account of life in a large law firm. If Holt’s Marketing Director had read my response, he would know my predilection: As I noted then, “Me? I’ve gotten more truths from fiction than non-fiction.”

My state of ignorance or confusion concerning anything beyond the surface facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and my (self-assessed) lack of bias for one side over the other, probably make me a good candidate for putting Exile to the test as truth-illuminating fiction.

IsraelOne thing seems clear: deep understanding of this conflict, whose resolution seems crucial for creating any hope of stability in the Middle East, won’t happen from merely staying up with daily news reports. Just yesterday (Dec. 13, 2006), we outsiders could have read “Court Lets Palestinians Sue Israeli Military: Immunity Denied In Certain Cases” and “Palestinians Kill Hamas-Linked Judge” in the Washington Post; plus the Haaretz Editorial from Tel Aviv, “Iran grows strong, the world yawns” (about the conference in Tehran of Holocaust deniers), and the Boston Herald editorial “Another tradegy in Gaza” (calling for the Hamas government in Palestine to resign, after the slaying of three children of a Fatah intelligence officer), and not have any real idea of the human turmoil and the genuine and imagined historical grievances behind them. Following up by reading today’s coverage of retaliations, accusations, and new tragedies would also not help much [– update (Dec. 15, 2006): nor would more news like this, “Rival Factions Exchange Gunfire in West Bank, Gaza,” Washington Post].

That’s why i was willing to give fiction a chance to put this important conflict into a fuller context and better relief. It helps, of course, that I heartily agree with the statement of prominent Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, which appeared in yesterday’s Washington PostQ&A: Looking at Israel Through Many Eyes” (Dec. 13, 2006):

Q: What can fiction accomplish in portraying a conflict that is all around you that nonfiction cannot?

A: Fiction can bring up the complexities, give options that people would never think about. Fiction also introduces human beings. In my first novel, “The Lover,” there was an Arab boy who worked in a garage. And so many people said to me afterward, “When I see the Arab boy in the garage where I go, I look at him differently after reading your book.” . . . And I was proud I was able to bring Arab characters to my novels. Of course they are complex, they have problems, but they are real. Fiction can enlarge.

Indeed, to further test the fiction versus non-fiction hypothesis, I am — once I actually do review the novel, immediately below — also going to briefly discuss three non-fiction books that have recently been published about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

  1. PalestinePeaceCarter Jimmy Carter’s Palestine Peace Not Apartheid (Simon & Schuster, Nov. 2006)
  2. Jeffrey Goldberg’s Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide (Knopf, October 3, 2006)
  3. Ali Abunimah’s One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse
    (Metropolitan Books, October 31, 2006)

tiny check In brief, I liked Exile a lot. Although I usually listen to action novels of this size (nearly 600 pages; 21 hours on audio), the story never got bogged down on paper. Exile works very well as a complex criminal courtroom drama, with Patterson demonstrating his background as a litigator, and presenting readers with interesting ethical and tactical issues (e.g., what do you do when interviewing witnesses targets them for immediate assassination?). The posture of the criminal case naturally leads the protagonist to travel to Israel and the West Bank in pursuit of evidence and background information.

The quick look behind the scenes of California politics is believable and interesting, as is the depiction of national security intrigue — in and between the USA and Israel — which pits worries about public image and political damage against the need of both prosecution and defense to learn material facts that go to the actual role and guilt of the defendant, Hana Arif, or the existence of an elaborate scheme to frame her. In addition, the protagonist’s romantic quandary, naivete and pain were well-drawn, as was his uncomfortable relationship with Hana’s angry husband, and her marital strife over how to raise their Moslem daughter.

ExilePattersonNS With some reservations, I believe Patterson achieved his wider goal, which he says was stimulated by his “friendship with two brilliant advocates and experts with very different perspctives” — Alan Dershowitz, impassioned defender of Israel; and Jim Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute, who challenged Patterson to write a novel that “combines the absorbing qualities of good fiction with a nuanced portrayal of the tragic conflict”. I believe that I’ve learned much about this multi-layered historical, geo-politcal, and religious struggle, through the pages of Exile. The new non-fiction books that I also perused were not as helpful on that score.


May 29, 2006

“Anonymous Lawyer: a novel” — way too much of a good thing

Filed under: Book Reviews,Haiku or Senryu — David Giacalone @ 9:38 pm

[from f/k/a, May 23, 2006]

Anonymous Lawyer, the narrator-protagonist of the eponymous weblog and soon-to-be released novel, by Jeremy Blachman, has no problem verbally shredding young lawyers, when their work does not meet his expectations. Prof. Yabut and the rest of the f/k/a Gang, however, feel a twinge of regret writing this review of Anonymous Lawyer: A Novel, after reading an advance copy sent by Jeremy and his publisher, Henry Holt & Co.). The book will be officially released July 25, 2006.

We already know that Jeremy Blachman can write scathingly funny, satiric prose, stay in character, and attract a large following, writing frequent postings in the weblog format. Fans of AL (the weblog) discovered he was the author behind the cynical “fictional hiring partner at a large law firm in a major city,” when Sara Rimer of the New York Times exposed him in “Revealing the Soul of a Soulless Lawyer” (Dec. 26, 2004). Many were shocked that a third-year Harvard Law School student could convince readers in the thousands that he was an experienced lawyer-combatant in wars between and among partners and associates at an elite law firm.

What we didn’t know, when Jeremy turned his NYT unmasking into a book deal, was whether this law school graduate — who’d rather be an author than a lawyer — could also write a novel. Unfortunately, after reading AL:a novel, I still don’t know.

Yes, the book is filled with funny, bitter, and (at times, insightful) zingers, just like the weblog. But, there are far too many other aspects that are just like the weblog. The first-person narrator continues to be soullessly cynical, conniving and cruel — there is no background, no depth or growth to the Anonymous Lawyer character. The other characters, with the slightest of exceptions, are not even cardboard cut-outs; they are simply nicknames — e.g., the Jerk, the Guy with the Giant Mole, the Suck-Up, the Bombshell. As for plot, it is so thin as to be virtually transparent. We end up with a hard-copy version of seven weeks of the fictional partner’s weblog.

The publisher apparently wanted a novel based on the weblog (to exploit the publicity bonanza created by NYT and all the weblogger buzz). Someone with editorial authority decided to write the entire book in weblog form — using time-dated “postings” varying in length from a few lines, to a few paragraphs, and occasionally a few pages. It might be possible to use that format and write an excellent novel, but I believe this gimmicky choice made Jeremy’s task of creating a satisfying narrative, plot and resolution, and having satisfying depth of scene and characterization, much harder. (Having a true narratvie and storyline that was punctuated with weblog postings would probably have created a structure far more conducive to success.)

In his Acknowledgments, Jeremy thanks a long list of friends for “useful feedback on structure, character development, plot, and more.” If the “Anonymous Lawyer” had any friends, he would surely have been far less generous.

So far, there have been only a few “reviews” of the book:

Crime & Federalism‘s Mike Cernovich says he stayed up late and finished the book the same day he received it, and “The book is brilliant.” Howard Bashman’s wife, “tremendously loved the book.” Inside Opinions quotes Great Teacher Onizuka, at AutoAdmit, who thinks it’s “very funny” and “This is going to be the “One L’ for 2Ls, summer associates, and biglaw attorneys.” I am looking forward to Denise Howell’s review and hope that Evan Schaeffer will give us his frank opinion. [update: On July 5, 2006, Ernie-the-Attorney Svenson enthusiastically recommended the book as “friggin’ hysterical.”]

My own conclusions are far more like those of Prof. Ann Althouse than of those praising the book. Althouse said on May 21, 2006: “I’ve formed a resistance to it after reading 20 pages.” She explains:

“My resistance is based on the thinness and emptiness of the narrator, who is a partner in a big law firm. . . .

“I already understand the bad feeling many young people get from working in law firms, and I don’t want to spend my time reading what I think is merely projected hatred and not a real character that can be understood.”

Prof. Althouse wondered if readers could give her any sufficient reasons for reading further. Your editor felt a similar “resistance” after reading a couple dozen pages of the book — the feeling that there was nothing happening beyond the one-note satire of the weblog — but decided that we “owed” it to Jeremy to see if the book turned into a satifsying novel. [I even sought out definitions of “novel” — like here, and there — to make sure I wasn’t being too harsh. At this point, I’m not even sure if you could call this a novelization of the weblog.]

Jeremy took a good thing, that offers a fun time to those interested in the arcane world of large law firms (and lawyer bashing), and gave us too much of it — without an expansion of scope and perspective that could keep a wider audience interested and satisfied. We like dark chocolate a lot around here, but on those dark nights when we eat not one large block candy bar, but five or six of them. the pleasure is soon replaced with the queasiness of obsession and excess.

My personal test for the success of a novel (and, of course, all I can give here is my personal reaction to AL: a novel, as I make no pretense to having expertise as a literary critic) is whether I want to share it with others — whether I want to lend it to them or recommend they invest the money and the time on the book. I can’t think of anyone in my circle of friends and acquaintances to whom I would hand this book with the expectation that they would enjoy or appreciate the experience of reading the entire book.

Yes, I might read aloud or email a sentence or two to a friend, for the wit or satiric insight. And, I might suggest they try the Althouse 20-page experience — which should suffice for getting the notion (and hopefully keeping them or their children from a life in BigLaw). Then, if someone new to Anonymous Lawyer found they enjoyed the humor or perspective, I would point them to the weblog, where they can get plenty more, in portions that are far more digestible, and without any great investment or literary expectations.

Scot Turow wrote a memoir of his first year in law school [One L], which had depth and vitality and genuineness. He then went on to become a highly-regarded novelist. I think Jeremy Blachman has a fine writing talent, but I do not know if he can find, structure, and sustain the depth and genuineness that it takes to write a good novel. I hope he gets the chance to do so, and to make a good living using his writing skills.

note: In migrating the weblog f/k/a to a new webserver in May 2006, we lost the original posting of this book review. Although we had the text elsewhere and are re-posting here, we do not have the Comments that were left by Evan Schaeffer and others (nor our reponses). Please accept our apologies. Previous Commentors are urged to repeat their thoughts and/or amplify on them at this reprise posting.

tagging along
with an ice cream cone
the senior partner

his quiet funeral—
a man who did
most of the talking

barry george, j.d.

the senior partner
has a senior minute

mid-argument –
opposing counsel crosses
her legs

a yearling
inching into the field
woodland shadow

first blossoms
my cell phone
set to vibrate

lengthening shadows
a stray dog
joins the picnic

hands in pockets–
the wait to view
VanGogh’s sunflowers

…………………………. paul m

“first blossoms” – Walking the Same Path; Heron’s Nest VI:4
“hands in pockets” – Frogpond XXVIII:3 (2005)
“lengthening shadows” – The Heron’s Nest (2004)
“the yearling” – TIny Words, May 23, 2006

Haibun Preview

stranger danger
by roberta beary
IN SCHOOL THEY WARN YOU about stranger danger beware
of all the people you don’t know don’t walk near the bushes keep
to the open street watch out for vans with sliding doors at home
keep the door locked don’t open up for strangers and they leave
out the part about the one with you in a place where no locks
can save you for years too long to count.

funeral over
the deadbolt
slides into place

by Roberta Beary, Frogpond XXVIII:2 (2005)

* from the news:-, “IL Doctor kills children and Himself”
(Evanston, IL, May 28, 2006):

”Police say a man killed his two young children by throwing them off the 15th floor of a Miami Beach hotel, then jumped to his death. It happened Saturday at the landmark Loews Hotel in South Beach. “The children were four and eight years old. Police say the vacationing couple from Alton, Illinois were celebrating their tenth anniversary.”

– Also, Miami, “Jumper ‘distraught’ in call” (May 29, 2006)

guest haijin:

thin winter coat
so little protection
against her boyfriend

John Stevenson
– from Quiet Enough (2004)

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