Friday, March 21, 2008

John Grisham: The Appeal

What does a company do when faced with a huge settlement after losing a law suit? Appeal of course. In John Grisham’s new book, The Appeal, that is exactly what Krane Chemical Corporation does.

But this is after all, a John Grisham novel, so someone’s going to play dirty. In this case Carl Trudeau steps up to keep the plot moving. He is the majority owner of Krane Chemical and many other companies. Not only does he not want to pay this settlement, he is worried about the numerous suits waiting in the wings. After all, his company has been dumping toxic waste illegally, and in the process causing cancer and death in a small Mississippi town.

So what’s an unscrupulous billionaire to do to improve his chances on appeal? Simple; change the political outlook of the Mississippi Supreme Court. The court has made most of its close decisions on a 5 – 4 vote, upholding jury awards.

The book deals with the lawyers who risked everything to take on Krane Chemical, the town people whose lives have been devastated by toxic waste, and the lawyers who sweep in to cash in.

But mostly, the book deals with an election for a Supreme Court justice. Carl Trudeau – through his minions – wants to replace Justice Sheila McCarthy who is due for re-election before the appeal will make its way to the court docket. She typically sides with the thin majority on jury verdicts. They select an unknown lawyer, Ron Fisk, to oppose her.

We get an up close look at dirty politics. I was pretty impressed with several of the nasty tricks. The forces of evil were particularly creative at creating issues, then painting McCarthy on the wrong side. And issues couldn't stick to Fisk, because he had no judicial record. Meanwhile, the electorate has no idea what is going on. After all, who pays attention to judges or judicial elections?

Grisham makes a compelling argument against the election of judges. But this is not just a politic op-ed piece. The Appeal is a compelling story that makes a point.

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
April 6, 2008

For thirty years Krane Chemical has dumped noxious chemicals at its plant in Cary County, Mississippi. Today the public water smells, tastes, and looks bad. No one drinks it anymore, and Cary County is now known as Cancer County, USA.

The tiny law firm of Payton & Payton (Wes and Mary Grace) has gone all but broke in a 71 day trial suing Krane Chemical on behalf of Jeannette Baker, who has lost her husband and son to cancer. Although Krane spared no expense on defense, it’s pretty obvious they are guilty, and the jury makes a very large award to Jeannette. Whew! She sure deserves it!

Needless to say, Carl Trudeau, CEO of Krane, is pretty mad. After yelling at his New York lawyers, he concludes “I swear to you on my mother’s grave that not one dime of Krane’s money will ever be touched by those ignorant people” in Mississippi.

Warning: The following paragraphs reveal a little more of the plot, but not the resolution of the story.

So Krane, of course, appeals, with the expectation of the case reaching the Mississippi Supreme Court early the next year. For a lot less than the cost of the verdict, Mr. Trudeau figures he can get the Supreme Court to decide in his favor – by helping elect a conservative judge in the coming November election. And he finds just the man to make it happen in a “consultant,” Barry Rinehart.

Much of the book describes the campaign for a Supreme Court position, with two “sponsored” conservative candidates running against the moderate incumbent, Sheila McCarthy. It’s a timely story for us in 2008, as we watch our various candidates posture and spend money. I sure hope real world elections are more balanced and honest than this Mississippi election. It’s horrifying what money can buy, perhaps entirely legally.

And a similar story is playing out today in Wisconsin – from the March 31, 2008 Green Bay Press Gazette:
MADISON — Effects of the bitter Supreme Court race may linger well past Tuesday's election… Both candidates spent much of the campaign attempting to fend off attacks that came from third party groups. Those groups spent millions on the race that many observers characterized as the nastiest in state history.

The Appeal is a fun read, and thought provoking in this election year, but it’s not my favorite Grisham novel. There are a bunch of interesting characters, and we learn a little about each of them, but not enough to get connected. I don’t find myself rooting for their respective successes and failures. Did Carl Trudeau succeed and live up to his vow??

Monday, March 17, 2008

Robert Harris: The Ghost

How refreshing! I just finished a book that was fun, fast paced, and hard to put down. Several of the books I’ve read recently were harder than this. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Robert Harris (which is almost everything he’s written). The Ghost did not disappoint.

Our protagonist is a professional ghostwriter. He has several celebrity autobiographies to his credit. But now he is selected for a new project – a political memoir.

A publishing company has paid a $10,000,000 advance for the memoirs of Adam Lang, former Prime Minister of Great Britain. The problem is that the political operative that was helping write the book has turned up dead, apparently after falling off the Martha’s Vineyard ferry, either as an accident or suicide victim. After nearly two years of work, the deadline is a month away, and the draft is totally useless.

As the new ghostwriter is on his way to meet Lang, news breaks that the former Prime Minister may have bent some rules in the war on terror. He is alleged to have ordered British special forces to kidnap four British citizens from Pakistan and turn them over to the CIA for interrogation. One is alleged to have died under torture. As the plot develops, the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague gets involved.

So we have a non-political ghostwriter walking into the middle of an escalating political crisis. Who has secrets to protect? Who might not like what the memoirs have to say? Was the original writer murdered? Was our writer hired because he’s a good writer, or because it’s safe to bet he can’t figure out what’s going on? What is going on in the interplay among Lang, his wife, and his long time assistant.

I rescanned the book, and never did find the name of the protagonist – a fitting touch for a ghostwriter. As I reflect on The Ghost, I think of a couple other layers of meaning. But I can’t really say much more without tipping too much of the plot. But overall, another winner for Robert Harris.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Alexandre Dumas: The Last Cavalier

As a long time fan of Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, etc.) I was excited to hear of an English translation of a long lost novel – The Last Cavalier. With the subtitle – Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napolean – I anticipated a 19th century D’Artagnan running around doing brave, foolish, and occasionally humorous things. I expected another swashbuckling adventure full of action, political intrigue, and maybe even a little “out of reach” romance.

I could not have been more wrong!

Part I, titled “Bonaparte” is essentially about Napoleon Bonaparte consolidating his power, transforming himself from First Consul (for life) to Emperor. It mostly tells the story of how he captures and executes enemies from both the Royalist resistance and revolutionary Republicans.

The book is full of strange diversions. It starts with two chapters dealing with Josephine Bonaparte’s debts. Those debts have no role further in the book – why do we lead with them? We have chapters dealing with who wears what to various balls, and even more strangely, who is qualified to dance which dances. The overall story of Bonaparte’s consolidation of power is interesting, if you discount the diversions. But it also assumes a more detailed knowledge of French history than I have.

A particularly interesting character is Joseph Fouché, Misister of Police. He maintains a network of spies, and seems to know everything. When Bonaparte tries to get rid of him as too independent, he secretly mounts a deliberately clumsy resistance, to discredit his successor.

Our supposed hero, Hector de Saite-Hermine, appears with a speaking role a little over 80 pages into the novel. Then he spends three or four chapters telling the story of the execution of his father and two older brothers, but nothing about himself. He drops in and out briefly for the next hundred pages or so, but not in any substantive role. Although in this section he wins and loses the love that attaches a tragic mystique to the rest of his life.

Part II, titled “Napoleon” is a story about Count Sainte-Hermine. But he is no longer using that name. Now he mostly goes by the name “René”. René can do no wrong. He is the best shot, the strongest man, the best swordsman, the most generous, the most gentlemanly. Everyone loves him – men and women. Except Napoleon. (If he appeared in more books, I would tire of him – just as I tired of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt.)

The second part does include a lot of swashbuckling adventure. But it also suffers from long diversions. René becomes a seaman on a corsair – or privateer. He joins his ship in Saint-Malo, so we have to drop back to 1100 to gather the history of the town. His adventures take him to Île de France, so we must drop back to the 1400’s to hear it’s story.

René kills tigers, panthers, alligators, and pythons in Burma with such abandon, it is obvious that Dumas comes from an earlier time. There is clearly no concern for endangered species - or for that matter, for non-European humans.

René returns from the Indian Ocean in time to join the regular navy and fight in the battle of Trafalgar. He even gets credit for the shot that kills Admiral Nelson.

René moves on to land based adventures in Southern Italy, but now he takes on the name Count Leo. Since his route takes him along the Appian Way, we learn of virtually every Roman buried along that highway. Again he gets credit for major victories for Napoleon’s forces, and wins the respect of Napoleon’s brother and generals – and any women who happen to be around.

Count Leo was close to the end of a particular challenge when Dumas died. So the editor of this edition wrote enough to wrap up the story line. It satisfies the story, but does not quite ring true to Dumas.

Finally, we get a few chapters with our hero, back to the René name, in Venice on the eve of an attack from Austria. He wins the hearts of the women and leaders, and I’m sure he would have comported himself admirably. But no one wrote this story.

I remember years ago reading The Count of Monte Cristo and not being able to put it down. Whereas, The Last Cavalier was eminently put-downable. So what’s the difference? This new book was translated by a true Dumas scholar. Perhaps he kept all the trivia when translators of the other books may have left stuff out. I read The Three Musketeers in both English and the original French. But maybe my French was bad enough that I skimmed past trivia. Or maybe Dumas would have cleaned it up for a full publication.

It’s been close to 40 years since I last read Dumas. I probably need to try one of the older books to see if they really are as exciting as I remember.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

John Daniel: Rogue River Journal, A Winter Alone

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
March 10, 2008

I met John Daniel at an authors and artists fair benefiting the Eugene Public Library. He told me Rogue River Journal was not about hardship and roughing it for the winter, but rather about his experiment with solitude and creativity. That sounded good, so I bought the book, and read it – but it wasn’t at all what I expected. John takes off in mid-November, 2000, and he sets up housekeeping in a small cabin near the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon, where he is soon snowed in – with no road out until spring. Rogue River Journal contains some interesting narratives of life at the cabin, encounters with various wildlife, local history, and living with no source of outside news, including who was elected president that fall. But…

This is also a book about John growing up, his relationship with his father, and about his father’s work as a labor organizer during the height of the American labor union movement. And from there it migrates into the story of John as a young man in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, where he lived a hippy sort of life in San Francisco and Portland, extensively enhanced his consciousness with drugs, and dealt with the Vietnam War.

I had trouble relating to these parts of the book. It was interesting to read about the early labor movement, but that wasn’t why I bought the book. And I wasn’t particularly interested in John’s childhood and his father’s assorted issues.

Things got more interesting to me in 1969 when John is trying to decide what to do about the draft. Support a war he thinks is wrong? Go to Canada? Go to jail? It made me recall what I was thinking about in those days – where my choice was to support the war but not kill anyone. (A little strange, I suppose.) Well, the book became a “page turner” for me as John indecisively muddled his way through the Vietnam War era. There was another outcome besides the three listed above.

Back at the Rogue River, John has to solve the problem of how a grown man gets away from civilization – leaving his beloved wife behind – for four and a half months. How does she know a bear didn’t eat him two weeks into the experience? How does he know she hasn’t been hurt in an auto accident? John is committed to not talk to another human for the duration of the winter. They come up with a solution.

It wasn’t what I expected, but I read Rogue River Journal to the end. John’s style is engaging, sometimes humorous, and easy to immerse into as I read a couple of chapters each evening. It got me thinking and wondering what I might learn from four months of solitude. (Arghh! How about one month of solitude?)