Tag Archives: Looking East

Information Wars

A Geography of Secrets: A Novel by Frederick Reuss (Unbridled Books; $25.95; 288 pages)

“Secrets don’t keep, they putrefy.”

A lush, other-worldly feel permeates this philosophical novel based in Washington, D.C.   Author Frederick Reuss presents two tales that portray the human toll paid by the families of those who work in the shadows where espionage is practiced.   The first-person narrator of the initial tale is the adult son of a recently deceased former CIA operative.   The reader is not advised of the son’s name although everyone else in the chapters devoted to him are clearly named and fully developed as characters.  

The son is an old-school style cartographer who experiences life through the methodology of his work.   He engages physically with the area he is mapping in order to infuse the end product with authenticity.   The son and his mother are easily recognizable as collateral damage created by his father’s activities in the Foreign Service.   The mother was jettisoned from her marriage and replaced by other women while the son is left with the sense of never really knowing who his father was.

The second tale is told in the third-person.   The primary character is a technical wizard/spy named Noel Leonard who works for a top-secret government agency.   Noel gathers information about the activities of the enemy de jour using satellite technology and super sensitive spy cameras.   This information is used to plot bombing attacks.   His only passion in life is golf and he excels at it, primarily because he is an expert at judging the trajectory of objects.   Noel’s wife and daughter are kept in the dark about just what he does at the office which creates difficulties for all of them.

Each of the characters is seeking to throw light on the secrets that have made a huge impact on their lives.   Their searches take them to Switzerland, the son for his father’s funeral and Noel for an information-sharing conference.   Noel longs to blurt out the truth of his profession in order to clear the air and connect with his family.   The irony was not lost on this reviewer that it is in Switzerland, a neutral country, that they find key elements of their quest.

Both of the men convey a sense of invisibleness, a holding back, rather than surging forward.   Neither of them seeks out people or participates in group activities.   They are observers – watchers – rather than front line participants in life.   Their searches for connectedness to family and place are often derailed by purposeful withdrawal.   The sense of their invisibleness is heightened by the way they recede to the edges of the action in life.   The son and Noel are infused with a strong sense of distrust, or maybe anxiety about sharing their innermost selves with others.   The two men repeatedly approach and dance away from the secondary characters.

Author Reuss allows his tales to meander rather than dragging the reader along on a chase.   He is extremely skillful at describing the essence of Washington D.C. which is full of historic meaning, vast institutions and seats of power.   It is there that people become ants swallowed up by the workings of government.

These are unique and well drawn tales.   Thought provoking.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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The Barricades of Heaven

The Opposite Field: A Memoir by Jesse Katz (Three Rivers Press)

“Better bring your own redemption when you come/ To the barricades of Heaven where I’m from…”   Jackson Browne

“Some nights I think, just maybe, I have found the place I belong.”   Jesse Katz

There are probably just three groups of people who will be attracted to this memoir by Jesse Katz – parents, baseball fans and those who love the greater city of Los Angeles.   No, make it four groups, as nomads must be included.   Nomads in this case being defined to include those who were born and grew up in one part of the United States but found their true, instinctual home in another part of the country.

Jesse Katz is one of those nomads but in his case it was genetic.   His parents met and were married in Brooklyn, but felt the need to move a million miles west to Portland, Oregon.   This was the pre-hip Portland, a city of mostly white persons before it became the ultra-cool city that attracted Californians – a city with a bookstore so big that it requires a map to get around inside of it.

Author Katz grew up in a humble apartment complex near downtown Portland’s Chinatown, his father a suffering artist and later a professor at Portland State.   Katz’ mother was a late bloomer, a Robert F. Kennedy inspired feminist-activist who eventually was elected to the State Legislature, then became the first woman elected as Speaker of the Assembly before becoming a two-term Mayor of the Rose City.

But this is Katz’ story which describes his escape from Portland as a teen, moving to the wilds of Los Angeles, a city that he so accurately describes as the anti-Portland.   In L.A. Katz – “a white boy” – found that, “I had become a minority, the exception…  I was a curiosity even.   God how I loved it!   Los Angeles…  Where had you been all  my life?”

Katz first lives north of downtown before he moves to the multicultural community of Monterey Park.   Monterey Park, a city of taco stands, noodle shops and Mexican restaurants, bereft of national retailers, where the local 7-Eleven sells the Chinese Daily News.   There he burrows into the Hispanic-Asian suburb (yet an independent city) just 7 miles east of downtown L.A.’s skyscrapers.   And he finds a new life that centers around the seemingly minor sport of Little League baseball.

Katz, a reporter by profession, becomes the Little League coach of a team that plays at the La Loma fields in Monterey Park; coaching a team that includes his son Max.   Max, unlike his father, is himself multicultural, the product of his Jewish father and Nicaraguan mother.   The game of baseball as played by children may not seem to offer great lessons, but Katz comes to find the truth as expressed by writer John Tunis:  “Courage is all baseball.   And baseball is life; that’s why it gets under your skin.”

The game gets under Katz’ skin to the point where he agrees to serve as the Commissioner of Baseball for the multi-age league centered at La Loma.   This means that every waking moment for several years, not devoted to reporting on gangs for the Los Angeles Times or writing about the city for Los Angeles magazine, is reserved to keeping the league afloat.   It is, in many respects, serious business but also fun…  “I could not escape the feeling that Little League was like summer camp for adults, a reprieve from whatever drudgery or disorder was besetting our regular lives, a license to care about things, about events and people, that otherwise would have passed us by.”

Katz wisely chooses to omit little of the successes and failures that he encountered, both as “The Commish” and as the single father of a teenage son.   This is a look back at a life lived both large and small, and a look at a city, Los Angeles, that embraces the people who make up its communities.   Yes, the city and its suburbs embrace its citizens in a fashion that is far more real than the media’s myths of L.A.’s violence and tawdriness.

This reader, who lived in L.A. and learned to love it (and was embraced by it), would love to raise a toast to Jesse Katz (AKA Chuy Gato).   Perhaps one day he will let me buy him a beer at the Venice Room in Monterey Park (“the seamy cocktail lounge that sooner or later everyone ended up at…”).   A toast to greater L.A., the barricades of Heaven; a place to which we were not born, a place we discovered before it was too late.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from The Crown Publishing Company.   The Opposite Field was released in trade paperback form by Three Rivers Press on July 13, 2010.

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