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June 18, 2008

Book Notes - Dan Fesperman ("The Amateur Spy)

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Dan Fesperman's The Amateur Spy is a spy thriller set in the contemporary world, a book that not only entertains but also speaks out about the state of current world affairs.

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:

Fesperman's novel transcends the formulas. He uses suspense to draw you into the world in which his characters live, which unsettlingly happens to be the one we live in, too. As a foreign news reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Fesperman witnessed his share of the world's conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Middle East. And he has carried his reporter's techniques and insight into a series of novels - this is his fifth - set in those lands and elsewhere. His previous novel, "The Prisoner of Guantanamo," did more than most journalists have done to shine a light on that dark and troubling place.

In his own words, here is Dan Fesperman's Book Notes essay for his debut novel, The Amateur Spy:

It's hard to imagine why some espionage writers still miss the Cold War when they have the so-called Global War on Terror to write about. Before, look-alike spies from both sides lurked at embassy cocktail parties from Paris to Tangiers. They matched wits in their own capitals, or in proxy wars across the globe, and each side knew the other inside-out. It's why double-agents were so prevalent, and so hard to root out. Wilderness of mirrors, indeed. Today, all the mirrors are broken. Most would-be infiltrators stand out right away. And you certainly can't eavesdrop on any jihadis with a cocktail in your hand. On both sides of the fight, narrow minds cook up broad ideas for places they neither know nor understand. For the West this has produced a notable misadventure at Tora Bora and a pariah prison in a squatter's corner of Cuba. It also explains why an espionage amateur, such as a former aid worker with Middle East experience, might end up being recruited in a pinch to handle a tough assignment in Jordan. Such is the premise of The Amateur Spy, a topic I settled on after having explored the previous two scenarios in earlier books, The Warlord's Son and The Prisoner of Guantanamo. Three tunes in particular always run through my head whenever I ponder today's prevailing mentality, providing a sort of drumbeat to the imagination. All three songs give me the creeps if I bother to pay attention to the lyrics. Yet, all three are easy to sing along with, which I suppose is their point: Numb them with entertainment and they'll follow you anywhere, no matter how frightening the concept. That's why I've come to think of this trio as the ultimate soundtrack for the War on Terror. It's the sing-along chorus for John Q. Public, with its get-it-done, but-don't-tell-us-how-you-did-it subtext. Improbably, all three were written in the '70s, long before we ever heard of explosive belts, or Extreme Rendition, or a cutthroat bunch of desperado zealots known as Al Qaeda. Two are from the Elvis Costello album, Armed Forces. The third is from Talking Heads 77. As for the other songs on my play list, well, they're explained below.

Green Shirt, by Elvis Costello

Where to begin with the relevance of this one, other than the lyrics, which beg to be quoted with almost every headline. It's all here. A complicit news media, determined to oversimplify? Try:

There's a smart young woman on a light blue screen
Who comes into my house every night.
She takes all the red, yellow, orange and green
And she turns them into black and white.

How about the new willingness to accept harsh tactics once deemed unthinkable?

Better cut off all identifying labels
Before they put you on the torture table.

'Cause somewhere in the Quisling clinic
There's a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes.
She's listening in to the Venus line
She's picking out names I hope none of them are mine.

But the line that still raises the hairs on my neck every time is this one:

Better send the begging letter to the big investigation
Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?

Oliver's Army, by Elvis Costello

Elvis reportedly wrote this after being outraged by the presence of British troops in Northern Ireland, but the mentality could apply to any occupying force that would rather not be there, yet feels compelled to stay in order to "fight them over there instead of at home."

Don't Worry About the Government - Talking Heads

David Byrne's perfect take on a blissfully ignorant fellow who isn't the least bit concerned with what's going on in the centers of power as long as his life remains convenient and trouble free, with plenty of parking.

As for the rest:

Won't Get Fooled Again, The Who

Never mind the politics, this is the song that plays at a noisy taverna across the harbor of a secluded Greek island, during an opening scene of The Amateur Spy, as our hero Freeman Lockhart dines with his wife at water's edge, although in the text I simply identified it as "a blaring chorus of The Who." I tossed it in because it sums up the experience of every American who has ever crossed a great deal of water and sky to get away from it all, only to be aburptly confronted by his own culture when he least expects it. Like, for example, coming across an episode of "Martha Stewart Living" subtitled in Arabic while seated in a Palestinian refugee camp, or meeting up with a starving barefoot boy in a Michael Jordan jersey at a UN feeding station, miles from any paved road. The playing of the song, for me, summed up that feeling of instantaneous dislocation.

Home At Last, Steely Dan

I initially wanted to use a verse from this piece as an epigraph, mostly because the song's retelling of The Odyssey evoked the feel of Freeman's impending journey, right down to his wife's choice of beverage on the cozy night his life changed forever:

She serves the smooth Retsina.
She keeps me safe and warm.
It's just the calm before the storm.

Why Betrayal?, by Abu Hilal, and Do You Believe Me, or Should I Swear to You?, by Hamid Ahmed

I discovered both these tunes on a 1997 compilation disc, Sif Safaa: New Music From the Middle East, and they're my favorite tracks when I'm trying to settle into the right mood for setting scenes in that part of the world, the next best thing to boarding a flight to Amman. Their appeal comes partly from their rhythms, and partly from their more traditional instrumentation (the lute-like oud, the violin, the middle eastern flute known as the ney, and drumming from the darbuka and bendir). They're also evocative of the kinds of music I seek out on the AM dial whenever I'm driving or riding across Jordan, and they never fail to evoke memories of my almost daily trips to the Iraqi border in early 1991, when I spent six weeks in the country during the first part of the Persian Gulf War. That trip takes you past a crumbling Crusader fortress in Azraq which was once a billet for T.E. Lawrence. It then drones across an immense lava desert of black basalt to the forlorn outpost village of Ruweished at the Iraqi frontier. The Arabic rhythms are perfect for bouncing along in a cab with the springs shot or, if you prefer, swaying along on a camel, Beduin style. Although any Beduin these days generally prefers traveling by Toyota truck.

Dan Fesperman and The Amateur Spy links:

the author's website
an excerpt from the book

The Big Thrill review
Bookgasm review
Bookreporter review
Economist review
Entertainment Weekly review
Oregonian review
Publishers Weekly review
Reviewing the Evidence review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Telegraph review
Toronto Star
Washington Post review

BBC Radio 4 profile of the author
The Rap Sheet interview with the author
The Signal interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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