Thursday, June 28, 2007

Patrick Radden Keefe

Patrick Radden Keefe is a writer who focuses on intelligence, international security, technology, and the globalization of crime.

His first book is Chatter: Uncovering the Echelon Surveillance Network and the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Leisure reading has become sort of an aspirational exercise for me lately. My bedside table is piled high with various novels, each dog-eared at approximately page 25. I acquire books much more quickly than I read them, and they collect there on the table, like a rebuke. Part of the problem is that between foreign policy research at the think tank where I work and research for various magazine articles and other writing projects, I'm obliged to read a lot of interesting nonfiction, and so I end up reading a lot of books in my spare time that are, strictly speaking, for work. This means I end up reading (or finishing, really) less and less fiction, which is a pity. Also: the Internet. It's eviscerated what meager concentration span I had to begin with.

That said, I've been reading two excellent books this week, both somewhat related to work. One is The Devil's Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea. It's a story about a group of migrants who crossed an especially barren, scorching portion of the Mexico/Arizona border in 2001. They were on foot and got lost, and fourteen of them died in the desert. I picked the book up because I'm halfway through writing my second book, which grew out of this article I wrote last year for The New Yorker, and deals with a boat full of Chinese immigrants who traveled around the world and ran aground off the coast of Queens, New York, in 1993. In that light, Urrea's book is daunting: it's beautifully written and observed, from his searing descriptions of the brutal landscape where these men came across to his brief portraits of the members of the border patrol, the "coyotes" who get paid to smuggle people across, and the walkers themselves. He's a poet, and his prose is very lyrical -- much more so than my own -- but it's instructive to look at the way he handles evidence that is similar to the sorts of evidence I'm handling. When you track down a report of the items recovered from the body of an immigrant who has died trying to get to America -- a belt buckle, a comb, a piece of paper with a stateside telephone number -- how do you put that on the page? Urrea just makes a list of these few spare objects: "taken all together, they did not have enough items to fill a carry-on bag."

The other thing I'm reading is a galley of a book that will be out next month, Inside the Red Mansion, by Oliver August. August was the Beijing bureau chief for the London Times, and his book is about a man named Lai Changxing, who was sort of China's answer to the Russian oligarchs -- a wily entrepreneur who got into business in a big way just as China's markets were opening up, and became one of the wealthiest men in the country. The Party ended up turning on Lai, and he went into hiding, becoming China's most wanted man. August's book is about his search for Lai (he eventually finds him in Canada, where Lai asked for asylum), which gives the book an almost thriller-ish narrative spine. But it's also a rumination on the thumping economic growth China has experienced in the last decade, the gaudy excess of the newly rich, and the enduring power of old-school corruption.
Patrick Radden Keefe currently works as a program officer and fellow at the Century Foundation, and as a project leader at the World Policy Institute. He is the recipient of a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship.

Visit his official website.

The Page 69 Test: Chatter.

--Marshal Zeringue