As promised on the inside flap, Jonathan Raban's new book, My Holy War: Dispatches From the Home Front, reads as an "irregular personal diary," gathering 17 essays of commentary and personal reflection on the state of the Western world since September 11, 2001. In other words, it's a disjointed, inconsistent collection that has little cohesion.
That's not to say it's a bad read—Raban is a talented writer, and each of the essays, taken separately, are fascinating, if predictable, snapshots from the perspective of a liberal Englishman living in Seattle. But as a whole, the book suffers from a lack of editing. In lieu of a thematic line running through the selections, certain specific topics recur throughout the book, but don't develop into anything poignant. Like the fact that Seattle is the only large city in America that has a downtown seaport—making it a very attractive target for terrorists onboard poorly inspected boats. We're reminded of this fact in almost every single essay.
The "personal diary" setup also suffers from the sheer speed with which international politics change. It begins in early 2002—before the Iraq invasion, before the elections—and continues through early 2005. Reading about the events as written is a lot like reading The Diary of Anne Frank, without the Holocaust. You already know how the story is going to end, and it's depressing as hell. Raban writes optimistically about Howard Dean and the Democratic primary (spoiler alert: Dean lost), and then of Kerry's campaign against Bush (spoiler alert: America lost). And with the recent revelations of Bush's approval of a program to spy on Americans, Raban's words about our "current" security state seem downright naïve.
Taken as a collection of "remember when" stories, My Holy War is fairly rewarding. The book really works when Raban deals in the personal, rather than the overtly political, as in "Termina Camino Real," which details a road trip with his daughter to Mexico so she can work on her Spanish. It hints at the effects of globalization, but through a witty and touching father-daughter road story, making all the rehashed commentary on Middle East politics seem unnecessarily cold by comparison.