The term “indie” became a cliche some time ago. Indie film, indie music, indie video games, etc. Being outside the mainstream is the traditional common theme in all things “indie”. Labeled by marketers as a member of “Generation X”, I will assert my Madison-Avenue-given right to be cynical, and suggest that this rebellious term went corporate before Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John penned their first advert to the Corinthians. You can thank me later for that little cutting-edge piece of insight, but I digress before I begin.
Starting less than a year ago, a first-time author named Val Landi began marketing his self-published A Woman From Cairo, which he had been shopping around to the publishing establishment for sometime. The novel got some buzz from the literary blog “establishment” (here, here, and here) back in the spring, and after reading about it I contacted Mr. Landi, who was kind enough to send me a book. (The book lacked the advertised autograph, but I’ll live.)
As some of my three readers may know, I spend the school-year grading papers and the summer at the gravel pit, so I don’t always get to all of my extra-curricular enjoyments in a timely fashion. Reading is high among those enjoyments, but Mr. Landi’s book had dropped slowly down the literary Jenga game next to which my wife and I sleep as more recent interlopers got placed on the top. Due to my participation in the Winter Stacks Reading Challenge, I finally finished Mr. Landi’s book. The first chapter took me seven months, the rest took two days. Good for you, Mr. Landi!
In his most recent post, the author wrote:
“I find it delightfully ironic that A Woman from Cairo, an “Indie” book being launched on Amazon.com should be signed for development as an Indie film to be presented at the Sundance Film Festival…”
The truth in labeling A Woman From Cairo as “indie” really depends on where one sits. On one hand, if “indie” is a do-it-yourself term describing how one creates, publishes, and markets a finished product, than Mr. Landi is most definitely an “indie” author. From reading the discussions about his book, publishing insiders and published novelists seem to agree that “Big Publishing” snubbed Mr. Landi in spite of his having a saleable product. He then found an alternative and “independent” route to publish and sell his book. This is certainly the “indie” blueprint.
On the other hand, it seems to me that Mr. Landi is pushing the limits of the spirit of “indie.” If “indie” is a way of doing something, it is also, I think, a reason for doing something. It provides an idea or an aesthetic that one cannot find in mass media. In his website bio, we find that the author has worked for Bantam, IDG, and Microsoft. He is currently the president of Realtime Publishers, where his bio reads, “senior sales and marketing executive for both Fortune 500 companies and entrepreneurial startups.” Not really an “indie” resume. In fact, one might argue that Mr. Landi has the resume of a successful e-publishing industry insider. His blog subtitle is “Notes on Technology, Politics, and Religion”, but the posts are really focused on the marketing of his book. At times the blog feels like a marketing research project right down to what looks to me like the censoring of comments. Corey Doctorow and Ian Hocking types get on, but one finds no comments from fans or readers without their own blogs.
Anyway, two of Smokler’s comments stick in my mind here. He said, “indie lit is ultimately based on sort of romantic notions that don’t apply anymore.” Perhaps this is true. We don’t need “indie” anymore because technology has provided just about anyone with the drive, the means to produce, publish, and distribute. We are all “indie” now.
Another quote also sticks out when viewed through Mr. Landi’s blog as lens. “A book will become a calling card for people with mini-media empires. So people will use a book to kind of advertise themselves.” Sometimes I get the feeling that writing a good book wasn’t the purpose here, marketing it was.
Either way, a good read was written. This isn’t high brow literature, but decent genre fiction, which will appeal to the spy novel set. Mr. Landi has a winner in my opinion, albeit with flaws. If he has some longevity, he might do with terrorism what Tom Clancy did with the Cold War. I agree with several other blog reviews I read that A Woman From Cairo is too long. There is dead wood among much of the character development. Some of the characters, like Julie and Nan, were superfluous and could have been easily eliminated. The character best written, in my opinion, was Sanna.
The strength of the book is the plot, which slowly unravels what we don’t know through fast paced events. Some of the Red Cell stuff was excellent, and probably what reminded me of Clancy. Mr. Landi successfully juggled multiple intersecting plotlines with clarity and tension, then brings them all together in the end. I have one suggestion for the Man From Madrid, the planned sequel to this book. Surprise the reader at the end. Give us a twist, or unexpected ending. I liked the end to this one as it maintained the tension using Sanna’s decision to detonate (or not detonate) the bomb.
My mom wrote a review for the book during this past summer. She is not a spy novel aficionado, but did introduce me to Clancy’s Red Storm Rising so she’s not a beginner either. Here is what she had to say:
If you are looking for a good beach read, Val Landi’s A Woman from Cairomay be just the ticket, if you don’t mind running the risk of a sunburn. The opening scene pulls the reader in immediately as you witness the assassination of El Sheik (Osama Bin Laden) by Al Qaeda’s number two man, El Tabib, who, coincidently, also played a role in the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. This event is captured on film, and getting this film out to the public drives the plot forward. The intrigue and topicality of this first chapter compels you begin chapter two, and by then you’re hooked. The structure of the novel is very controlled, and this enhances the feeling of being drawn in, bit by fascinating bit. The chapters are short and move quickly from character to character and place to place, each adding another piece to the puzzle, until finally they all converge in the climax. It is an effective structure. It allows Landi to keep you engaged and to keep the plot moving quickly. This is especially appreciated by those who do read on the beach.
The characters in A Woman from Cairo are cleanly cut. There is little superfluous information on each; yet, there is enough background given so the reader has an understanding of motives, and enough knowledge to make them believable. This is appropriate as it is, essentially, a plot driven book. However, I found the anti-heroine, Sanna Hamaj, to be unsympathetic despite her tragic background. The brutality of L’Houssaine’s torture and death, at her hands, and her cold and cruel treatment of Alika, made her seem more of a killing machine than a human being. This may be a lack of empathy on my part and not the author’s. I simply do not understand the mentality of suicide bombers, not on the evening news nor in Landi’s book. There is much to admire in the character, Alika, however, and she makes a perfect foil to Sanna.
I did appreciate Landi’s use of the various settings to move the plot forward. The action races from Afghanistan, to Egypt, to Manhattan, and finally, to Utah and the Sundance Film Festival. The settings are disparate, which makes them interesting, but each place gives us a different take on the action; each gives the reader a feel for its own part in the story. This is especially true of the Utah sequences.
I was somewhat disappointed at the lack of world response to the showing of L’Houssaine’s documentary. This fact, added to the closing chapter with El Tabib sending his new protage off to New York City until the time is right for him to become a part of history, screams for a sequel. The message that they are here, unnoticed, living among us, and waiting, is frightening enough in fiction; in reality it is too terrible to comprehend.
I agree with Mom, that Mr. Landi has a possible movie success on his hands. He has grabbed a topic that will have some shelf life, as we watch the bumbling “War on Terror” with no end in site.