Wednesday, March 28, 2012

THE KING OF TORTS by John Grisham

Apparently there's a lot of money to be made in class-action lawsuits—for the attorneys, not the claimants.  Clay Carter resigns his job in the D.C. public defenders' office to follow the advice of a shady stranger in the pursuit of a multi-million dollar settlement from a drug company.  This deal gives him the resources to plunge into several lucrative tort cases and draws his practice to the attention of other hugely successful attorneys who specialize in these types of lawsuits.  Clay is at first appalled at the trappings these lawyers have acquired, including private jets and posh homes, but he soon feels the need for all these luxury items, including a trophy girlfriend.  We know that it's only a matter of time before his house of cards tumbles to the ground.  The question is when and how everything will start to unravel as Clay becomes increasingly more cavalier about spending huge sums of money.  Meanwhile, the love of his life, Rebecca, whose nouveau-riche and obnoxious family never approved of Clay's public defender job, has dumped him and married someone else.  At first, I was hoping Clay had won the attorney's equivalent of the lottery, and I applauded his apparent disdain for going overboard with the accoutrements that go with his newfound success, but he disappoints in every way.  From a reader's perspective, this is not necessarily a bad thing, since we know he's going down eventually.  Will he find redemption and win Rebecca back?  This question is what kept me reading.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A PAINTED HOUSE by John Grisham

John Grisham's  A Painted House may not be the masterpiece that Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was, but it bears some resemblances in terms of content. Grisham's book is narrated by 7-year-old Luke Chandler, growing up on a farm in Arkansas, where Mother Nature can be generous or dastardly.  Luke's world centers around 80 rented acres that his parents and grandparents plant in cotton every year, and despite their mounting debt and the hard work, his life is relatively happy, thanks to a loving family and a bountiful garden.  The book centers on one particular picking season in the fall of 1952, in which his family hires two groups of pickers—a family of "hill people," the Spruills from the Ozarks, and a group of Mexicans.  Each group has its troublemaker, and most of the plot excitement revolves around them—Cowboy, the cocky, switchblade-carrying Mexican, and Hank, the insolent and bullying Spruill son.  Luke is enamored of the teenage Tally Spruill, especially her mischievous nature, despite her obvious attraction to Cowboy.  Last but not least, there's the sharecropping Latcher family, poor beyond description, with an unmarried pregnant daughter who won't name the father of her child.  The Latchers make the Chandlers look positively prosperous, but more importantly, they provide the Chandlers the opportunity to be good neighbors, despite the hardship their good will costs them.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD by Michael Cunningham

How do you have a love triangle of two men and a woman when all three are supposed to be gay?  Bobby is sort of asexual, actually, numbed by the accidental death of the older brother he worshipped, and Clare can hear her biological clock ticking.  That leaves Bobby's childhood friend Jonathan, who seems to be in love with both Bobby and Clare, but not in a sexual way.  They're sort of a tightly knit commune of three and do, in fact, eventually buy an old house near Woodstock, NY, in which to raise Clare and Bobby's daughter.  Cunningham is such a skilled writer that it doesn't matter if all the drama happens at the beginning (and the end) of the novel.  He makes it so easy for the reader to get caught up in the decisions these characters make regarding their unconventional relationships.  He's much too realistic, though, to imagine that a child can live with 3 parents without a split to occur sooner or later.   All three seems to be incapable of having a loving romantic relationship.  The author then adds Erich, Jonathan's lover, to the mix, as Bobby and Clare try to draw Erich into the fold, despite Jonathan's best efforts to keep that part of this life outside the "family."  I particularly liked the structure of the book.  Cunningham announces the narrator with each chapter heading, and the chapters are basically sequential, which each new narrator resuming where the last one left off.  I would venture that Jonathan is the main character, particularly since his mother is one of the narrators.  He feels that something is missing in his life, vanishes for a year, and struggles with the expectation that his life will truly begin at some point in the future.  One could perhaps conclude that Bobby, Clare, and Jonathan together make a whole (person? parent?), but I think not.  In the end, Cunningham reassembles the pieces into relationship units that have a better shot at survival.

Monday, March 19, 2012

SPECIMEN DAYS by Michael Cunningham

The original Specimen Days is an essay collection by Walt Whitman in which he reflects on wounded and dying soldiers, among other things, during the Civil War.  I have not read it, nor have I read his poetry collection, Leaves of Grass.  No matter.  This novel contains enough Whitman quotations to give the reader a pretty good idea of what he was about.  My take is that life is a cycle, and death is one phase of that cycle, in which our bodies return to the earth to contribute to the growth of new life, both plant and animal.  Cunningham's novel has 3 parts, each of which could stand alone as a novella.  The character names are roughly the same but the time periods are hundreds of years apart.  Are these intended to be reincarnations?  I'm not sure, but the characters' personalities are not necessarily similar from one incarnation to the next.  Lucas/Luke is a child in all 3 sections, with afflictions of some sort.  In the second section, Luke is actually dead, but another child (perhaps an extra incarnation?) takes his place and his name.  In the first section, it is Simon who has already died, and in the third section, he is half cadaver, half machine.  In the first book, the machines are the villains of the Industrial Revolution, whereas in the third, Simon the cyborg develops his own emotional and moral core.  What does all this mean?  That we as humans are becoming more like machines, and the machines are becoming more human?  And what is the point of naming the two male characters for two of Jesus's disciples?  I have no idea.  The female character is Catherine (a mill worker and occasional prostitute), then Cat (a forensic psychologist), and finally Catereen (a green reptile-like alien from the planet Nadia).  All three sections end with someone starting over in life—another reincarnation, of a sort.  The third section, however, is probably the most telling.  One being dies and replenishes the earth, one surrenders an opportunity for an improved life in order to soothe the passing of another, and one bolts toward another planet and the great unknown.  In truth, all three characters are headed to an unknown future, but one thing is certain: the cycle of life will continue.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Three narrators tell the story of Henry VIII's fourth and fifth marriages in this novel that mixes betrayal, greed, ambition, conspiracy, intrigue and even death with vanity and frivolity.  I devoured every juicy tidbit, and with my lack of historical perspective, had no idea how these women would fare in the end.  Not knowing the outcome made this novel even more enjoyable than The Other Boleyn Girl.  We have Jane Boleyn, wife of George, who gains the confidence of each successive queen, despite the fact that her testimony helped send her beloved husband and her beautiful sister-in-law Anne Boleyn to the scaffold.  Her scheming is all at the urging of the Duke of Norfolk, who has no scruples whatsoever and uses Jane as a manipulator and spy.  To make sure that her betrayal of Anne and George Boleyn was not for naught, she keeps trying to save herself, doing the Duke's bidding, even when she knows that more lives will be lost.  Anne of Cleves is the buttoned-up, dowdy woman destined to become Henry's fourth queen but without enough guile to gain the interest of the fat, stinky, lecherous old man who can have any woman in the kingdom.  Instead, he diverts his attentions to Katherine Howard, a beautiful, flirtatious, teenage maid-in-waiting.  She is quite the opposite of both Jane Boleyn and Anne of Cleves, in that she is too naïve and vain to realize that her deeds jeopardize the lives of her loved ones.  Sometimes in her efforts to keep us informed about all three women, the author becomes a bit repetitive.  We don't need frequent reminders that Anne of Cleves is just biding her time after the King discards her in favor of Kitty Howard.  The fate of these three women pivots on the whim of a man who has no qualms about executing anyone who presents the slightest threat to his sovereignty.  Consequently, life in his court is apt to be short-lived, and at one point the author raises the question as to why anyone would choose to be there.  Those who deem themselves safe are the most at risk.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

SWAMPLANDIA! by Karen Russell

I had a hard time figuring out what type of book this is.  Is it a ghost story, an adventure, a fantasy, a family drama or what?  It's about three children who have grown up on an island in the Everglades at their family's theme park, Swamplandia!   (The exclamation point is part of the park's name.)  The main attraction was the children's alligator-wrestling mother, Hilola, until her recent death from cancer.  The crowds are dwindling, partly due to Hilola's absence and partly due to competition from an underworld-themed park called World of Darkness.  Alternating chapters focus on the oldest child, Kiwi, a teenage boy, who dreams of an Ivy League college education, although he's never attended school.  He takes off on his own and gets a job at World of Darkness, where he gets a reality check and struggles to make some money to help bail out the family business.  The father also heads to the mainland for a few weeks on some unknown quest, leaving his 2 daughters, Osceola and Ava, behind.  They fill their days attempting to contact their dead mother via a Ouija board and exploring the area, particularly a derelict dredge barge.  The 13-year-old Ava is our other narrator, who becomes alarmed when her older sister ostensibly elopes to the underworld with a ghost from the barge.  An indulgent itinerant man known as the Bird Man, claiming to know how to reach the gate to the underworld, agrees to help the despondent Ava find Osceola.  He doesn't scoff at her wacky story, seems trustworthy enough, and, well, he's the only adult around.  I was surprised at how this journey ultimately plays out, simply because I wasn't sure how fanciful or true to life the book was supposed to be.  I found that uncertainty somewhat intriguing, but for the most part I thought the plot dragged a bit.  There's a fairly long recounting of the life of Osceola's phantom fiancé, and I never grasped what the purpose of that was.  One thing is for certain:  the underworld that Ava and the Bird Man reach is a very scary place where bad things happen, but that's no surprise at all.

Friday, March 2, 2012


I don't have children, so all this bad-parenting-that's-really-not-that-bad doesn't resonate with me at all.  This book is about a Columbine-style massacre in which the perpetrator lives to stand trial.  The time period oscillates between the time before and the time after the killing spree and focuses on the boy (Peter) who did the shooting and a girl (Josie) who survived the incident—and their culpable parents.  Josie and Peter were childhood playmates, but then Josie started dating one of the despicable guys who tormented Peter, and therefore Josie stopped intervening on his behalf.   The author is not extremely judgmental about the parents but certainly faults them for seeing only what they want to see in their little darlings.  Case in point:  Peter's older brother Joey died in a car accident caused by a drunk driver.  Peter's mother found heroin and needles in Joey's room after his death but didn't tell anyone, because she didn't want to taint Joey's perfect image.  Asked if Peter and Joey were close, the mother responded that Peter worshipped Joey, when, in fact, Joey had bullied Peter his entire life.  The main characters behaved badly at every juncture, and they all seemed to be outliers.  In other words, the story would be more plausible if characters like Matt, Josie's boyfriend, had at least one or two redeeming qualities.  My favorite characters were Peter's lawyer and his wife, who attempted to defend Peter as being a victim of something akin to battered woman syndrome.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


One reviewer likened the opening pages to something from Cormac McCarthy.  In fact, the first chapter described such a brutal act of animal cruelty that I was tempted to abandon this book.  The violence subsides, but the plot continued to make me angry.  I suppose that an author hopes to induce strong emotions in the reader, but I think I've read enough books about drunken fathers to last a lifetime.  OK, that's not really what the book is about, but still….  After their parents die in a car accident, the teenage Buddy Hope (optimistic choice of last names) and his big brother Lee head west, where Lee finds work as a honky-tonk singer in Snake Junction, Idaho.  Buddy basically just lounges around until Irene, a 30-something beauty, appears on the scene.  She's known Lee's kind before, but Buddy piques her interest.  I'm reminded of the movie Summer of '42.  Basically, Irene teaches Buddy about justice and not jumping to conclusions, among other things.  Their relationship, short as it is, is marked by several such misunderstandings, at least one of which Irene intentionally plants.  All of these screw-ups just tended to get on my nerves.  I did sort of enjoy the scene where Buddy is thwarted in his effort to castrate a goat, until Lee shows up to mock his attempts and ultimately assist in the process.  Trying to lasso a goat:  funny.  Castrating a goat:  not so funny.  I'm glad that he never got around to the cats.