Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Smilla Jasperson knows snow and ice, thanks to her childhood in Greenland, where her mother was an Inuit hunter.  She now lives in Copenhagen with financial help from her wealthy Danish father.  When a neighbor child, Isaiah, falls from a rooftop and dies, she determines that he was being chased, just by examining his footprints in the snow.  The police, however, are apathetic and uncooperative, and the boy’s mother is an alcoholic.  Her only ally is a mechanic who also befriended the child, and his behavior becomes suspicious as the novel progresses.  When Smilla discovers that the boy’s father died on a clandestine expedition, she begins investigating whether there’s a connection between the father’s death and the son’s.  Along the way, she encounters a cast of unsavory characters who threaten her life, but Smilla is pretty capable when it comes to self-preservation and self-defense.  In this regard she bears some resemblance to that other Scandanavian heroine—Lisbeth of Dragon Tattoo fame.  As is often the case with a translation, I found it difficult to keep the characters straight, and this book is not nearly as fast-paced as Larssen’s trilogy.  Smilla also burdens us with a fair amount of technical stuff about ice formation, ice structure, ice-breaking, etc.  I will say, though, that reading a novel that is partially set in Greenland is a first for me.  As long as the action was taking place on land, I stayed absorbed in the story, but eventually the path to uncovering the truth leads Smilla to a job as a sort of stewardess on a ship.  At this point I thought the book started losing its believability.  The ship’s crew and guests are the most dangerous creeps yet, and their mission is to complete the task that was aborted on the expedition in which Isaiah’s father died, no matter what the cost.  Not until the end does Smilla have an inkling of what lies in store, and her unlikely ally on the ship is a junkie.  I have no complaints about the nebulous ending, but some of the other answers to the whole puzzle left me scratching my head and feeling like it was all a little above my pay grade.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

ANDREW'S BRAIN by E.L. Doctorow

Andrew is a cognitive scientist who seems to attract serious misfortune.  He accidentally killed his first child, and his wife Martha divorced him over this mistake.  His second wife Briony dies, and he feels indirectly responsible for her death as well, although I’m not really sure why.  In fact, there are aspects of this book that I don’t understand.  Before Briony’s unfortunate demise, she gave birth to a daughter, Willa, and Andrew delivers her to Martha, partly as a replacement for the child they lost and partly because he doesn’t trust himself to take care of another infant.  Andrew at times speaks of himself in first person and then wanders into third person, as he tells his story to someone he calls Doc, who tries to keep Andrew on topic.  Like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the book’s structure is that of one long conversation, with periodic ramblings on Andrew’s part.  Many passages are a bit too cerebral for me, especially as Andrew waxes eloquent about the brain versus the mind and the possibility of technology ever duplicating brain function.  Andrew asks Doc an important question near the end of the book, to which Doc replies in the negative, but I’m unable to determine if there’s some sort of subterfuge on Doc’s part.  I do know that the author skewers George W. Bush, thinly disguised, and his advisers, nicknamed Chaingang and Rumdum, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack.  (Who is Peachums?)  This section is perversely funny, if you can get past the fact that it’s a little disturbing, not to mention way out in left field.  The author drops hints everywhere about Andrew’s true self, including his self-proclaimed lack of remorse or feeling and the President’s nickname for him, but, again, I don’t know how to interpret these clues or even if interpretation is warranted.  Understanding a book is not always a prerequisite for enjoyment, but it helps.

Monday, June 16, 2014


Daniel Lewin, along with his wife and infant son, is on his way to pick up his sister, Susan, who is in a mental institution.  Daniel is not exactly the picture of sanity himself, but he and Susan have reason to be a little unbalanced.  Their parents, Rochelle and Paul Isaacson, were Communist Party members in the 1950s and found themselves on Death Row after a flimsy trial for espionage.  Certainly the Rosenbergs come to mind, and Doctorow’s novel, published in 1971, has fictionalized their story, focusing on the children and the impact of their parents’ execution on their lives.  Daniel retraces the past, mixing first- and third-person narration, including a stint for him and Susan in a children’s shelter, from which they escaped, only to be caught by their parents’ lawyer, Ascher, and returned to the facility.  Eventually they found a home with Robert Lewin, son of Ascher’s partner, and his wife.  From that point on, their lives were as normal as could be, given their notoriety, the grief over the loss of their parents, and their mounting anger at the system that demanded their parents’ execution, despite a lack of evidence and a possibly unreliable witness.  The Isaacsons basically took the fall, refusing to divulge who their friends were and thereby impeding their own defense, much to Ascher’s exasperation.  I can admire their integrity in this attitude, especially since their execution basically took the heat off their revolutionary compatriots.  However, they sacrificed their children to the cause in the process, and since none of their friends came forward to help them, I can’t help feeling that maybe their friends weren’t worthy of the Isaacsons’ supreme loyalty.  The most oily character is Selig Mendish who fingered the Isaacsons for passing American technology secrets to the Russians, earning himself a mere 10-year incarceration.  Doctorow reminds us that American history has its share of ugly eras in which our own citizens suffer needlessly at the hands of the government whose job it is to protect them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Christine is a woman in her forties who wakes up each morning in bed with a strange man wearing a wedding band.  In the bathroom she finds photos of the two of them together and wonders what is going on.  Her reflection is even more terrifying, because she can’t remember her adult life at all.  Christine has an unusual type of amnesia characterized by the fact that sleeping through the night erases all of her memories.  Fortunately, a scientist named Ed Nash has developed an interest in her case.  He calls her every morning after her husband Ben leaves for work and tells her where her journal is hidden.  Ben does not know about Nash or the journal, and one of the first things she reads in the journal is that she should not trust Ben.  Every day her opinion of Ben vacillates between that of a loving husband and that of someone who has his own agenda for keeping her in the dark.  Each day Christine rereads her journal from start to finish and adds that day’s discoveries, building up a reasonable substitute for a short-term memory bank.  She finds that Ben has lied to her about everything from the birth of their child to the cause of her memory loss.  She tries to convince herself that he is just trying to protect her from truths that she cannot handle, because she really has no one else to rely on.   Then she starts having flashes of memories that help her start to assemble some of the pieces of her former life.  This book is sort of a cross between the movies Memento and Groundhog Day, but I don’t mean to imply that Christine’s story is funny.  In fact, it’s quite tense, and with each successive journal entry, I kept my fingers crossed that she would be able to build on that day’s knowledge and make the appropriate decisions the next day.  However, nothing is a given in Christine’s world, and she’s completely cut off from everyone except Nash and Ben, who both seem a little shady.  She finally reconnects with her old friend Claire, and the storyline gathers speed, as the intensity ramps up.  I wasn’t at all surprised by the ending, but the ride was still a thrill.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

SYCAMORE ROW by John Grisham

We’re back in Clanton, Mississippi, but this time with attorney Jake Brigance, protagonist of A Time to Kill.  After local businessman Seth Hubbard hangs himself, Jake receives a letter that Seth had mailed on the eve of his suicide, asking Jake to probate a perfectly legal handwritten will, leaving most of his $20 million riches to his black housekeeper Lettie Lang.  A court battle ensues, led by a passel of lawyers representing Seth’s two adult children and a few grandchildren.  The handwritten will supersedes a more traditional will that divided Seth’s estate among the family members, and their attorneys set out to prove that Seth was not in his right mind when he penned the handwritten will, due either to the influence of his housekeeper or the pain medication he was taking for lung cancer. Jake seems to have the outcome well in hand, given that he’s very friendly with Judge Atlee, who is presiding over the case.  However, Judge Atlee wants a jury to make the decision, and a mostly white jury spells trouble for Jake, especially after Lettie’s drunken husband kills two teenagers in a highway accident.  His chances get even worse when the opposing attorney uncovers disturbing facts about Lettie’s employment history and Seth’s dalliances with women.  Jake has an ace up his sleeve, though, that even he doesn’t know about until late in the game.  I found this all made for an absorbing read, but I think it could have been so much better.  Grisham should have withheld from us the existence of the two surprise witnesses that blow Jake’s case out of the water.  Then the ambush would have had as much impact on the reader as it did on Jake.  Also, the question throughout the book is why did Seth change his will, and Grisham throws some very large hints our way, so that the introduction of this information at the trial is anti-climactic.  Plus, the critical evidence takes a circuitous route to the courtroom, and its detour seems entirely unnecessary, except to make its arrival barely in the nick of time.  I hope that the lack of suspense in this novel is not a sign that Grisham is starting to phone in his legal thrillers.  That would definitely be less than thrilling.

Monday, June 2, 2014

THE LAST JUROR by John Grisham

Willie Traynor jumpstarts his journalism career by purchasing Clanton, Mississippi’s weekly newspaper in 1970.  Soon he finds himself caught up in the murder trial of Danny Padgitt, clearly guilty, and a member of a local family known for illegal businesses and the corruption of many local authorities.  The trial becomes personal when Willie’s good friend Callie Ruffin becomes the first black juror in the town’s history.  Padgitt becomes available for parole in about 10 years, but rather than jump a decade in time, Grisham fills us in on the changes taking place in Clanton.  Segregation of the schools ends, and the citizens, still seething that Danny didn’t get the death penalty, vote out of office most of the politicians that were in the Padgitts’ pocket.  Willie becomes a local fixture, having finally cut his hair and spiffed up his wardrobe, championing unpopular causes and upgrading the paper.  He’s made such a success out of it that by the time Danny Padgitt is a free man, Willie has an offer that he can’t refuse.  He’s come a long way from the Syracuse University student who squandered his grandmother’s college funding.  The power of the press sits squarely on his shoulders, and he uses it to open Clanton’s eyes a little wider, while at the same time trying to be fair, printing opposing opinions as well as his own editorials.  I thought that over the course of ten years, such a popular young man should have had more than one romantic liaison, but he claims that most of the women are married by the age of 20.  In any case, except for Callie, there are not any leading ladies in this novel, but Grisham populates it with several colorful men, including the newspaper’s staff (which does include a woman) and the denizens of the courthouse, including Danny Padgitt’s slimy lawyer, Lucien Wilbanks.  This may not be the usual Grisham legal thriller, but it still bears his mark, with his main character taking risks and making his presence felt, and his destiny becomes intertwined with the town’s.