Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Client

by John Grisham

Government is something given to humanity by God, yet sometimes it can be so frustrating that one wonders whether government is a blessing or a curse. The Client is an excellent illustration of government gone awry. The story is about an 11-year-old kid named Mark Sway. He's a poor kid, living with his mom and kid brother in a trailer park in Memphis. One day when he and his brother, Ricky, are out in a deserted lot, they encounter a lawyer from New Orleans, who has driven up to Memphis for the express purpose of ending his life. Mark impulsively thwarts the lawyer's attempt to asphyxiate himself, only to end up getting caught. The lawyer drunkenly threatens Mark's life and ends up revealing his reason for committing suicide. He has a client who is a Mafia hitman, and that client has revealed the location of the body of his latest victim. The D.A. needs that information to get a conviction and the pressure has just gotten to be too much for him. He tells Mark the location of the corpse, assuming that Mark will die with him. But a combination of the lawyer's drunkenness and help from Ricky allows the kid to escape. The kids run home and Ricky, overwhelmed by the experience, shuts down. The police and other organizations try to help the family, but when word leaks out that Mark knows the location of the body, the government's attempt to protect the family is hampered by the desire to find out the information on the missing corpse. Normally I don't care for the precocious kid character, but Mark is vulnerable enough to make me like him. Also, since one of his foes is dull bureaucracy, I can't help but root for the guy. Overall the characters aren't as well-rounded as in other John Grisham novels that I've read, but I'm still glad I took the time to check this one out.
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Friday, December 29, 2006

Sutter's Cross

by W. Dale Cramer

This tale is set in a small town in Georgia. It's an old farming town that has been developing into a tourist destination over the past decade or so. As the blurb on the back reads, the people there "live in comfortable homes, have comfortable portfolios and wear comfortable clothes." But then discomfort arrives in the form of Harley, a drifter who doesn't fit the community standards and thereby challenges the status quo. He seems to be a catalyst that brings changes into the lives of the main characters. It's an entertaining read. Essentially good waiting room material. At time it gets a bit preachy, as "Christian" fiction is want to do. But it also did a nice job of expressing the little "miracles" in the Christian life that modern American Christianity tends to ignore. So for that, I'm inclined to offer Mr. Cramer my forgiveness.
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Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Murder for Her Majesty

by Beth Hilgartner

This tale is a combination of two clichés: the endangered child who is forced to fend for his or herself, and the child who pretends to be a kid of the opposite gender. In this case, the child is Alice Tuckfield, an upper class eleven-year-old in 16th Century England. Her mother had died some years before and as the story starts she has just witnessed the murder of her father. She makes her way to Yorkshire, in an attempt to contact a friend of her father's. Tired, hungry and cold, she encounters a group of choirboys who take her in. After a day or two, they get the idea for her to masquerade as a boy and she ends up joining them in their home, school and choir. Meanwhile, her father's killers are on the lookout for the missing girl. The question is, how long can Alice maintain her masquerade? Will she survive long once the secret is revealed? The story starts slow, but my interest was captured as I got to know the characters and the killers drew nearer. It's a nice book to check out if you've got the time.
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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Case of the Worried Waitress

by Erle Stanley Gardner

Not much to say about this one. It's a Perry Mason mystery, in which Mason encounters a waitress who's in need of help. She's a young woman who was recently orphaned and has moved in with her aunt. She has cause to suspect that her aunt is involved with some shady dealings and is looking for some legal advice. Since she's seeking it from Perry Mason, more crime happens and she finds herself in legal trouble. The book is fun, readable waiting room material. I enjoy Perry Mason books as they take place in the mid-twentieth century, a time just before I was born. It's like taking a trip to another era, but one that is vaguely familiar.
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Monday, December 25, 2006

Christopher Columbus: The Intrepid Mariner

by Sean J. Dolan

This one's a little biography of Christopher Columbus, written for middle school students. It focuses on Columbus' drive, first to become a sailor and then to find backers for his plan to reach the Far East by sailing westward. The book features Columbus in a positive light, obviously, though it is fair in recounting his acceptance of slavery and general arrogance. While I would only consider it waiting room material, it does serve as a good biography to introduce one to the life of this influential figure of history.
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Saturday, December 23, 2006

The King's Fifth

by Scott O'Dell

This book is a tale about "gold fever", the malady where one becomes so obsessed with obtaining gold that one loses all sense of morality and common sense. The year is 1541 and a cartographer named Estéban de Sandoval is sitting in prison awaiting trial. He is accused of not paying the king a fifth of the treasure he discovered, as required by law. In flashback, Sandoval recounts how he came to travel through the lands of Nuevo España (modern day Mexico and Arizona) searching for gold. It's an interesting peek back into the lives and times of the Spanish invasion of North America. As for the tale itself, well, it's almost a stereotypical tale of greed and arrogance. I kept flashing back to the movie Mackenna's Gold as I read the book. But the characters were interesting and the ending is somewhat positive. As waiting room material goes, it's pretty good.
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Monday, December 18, 2006

The Story of the World: Early Modern Times

by Susan Wise Bauer

This one's the third of the four volume series, subtitled "History for the Classical Child". It covers world history from around 1600 to the year 1850. Like its predecessors, Ancient Times and The Middle Ages, it presents history as if telling a story. It also bothers to inform the reader what was happening outside of European lands during those years. Check it out.
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Friday, December 15, 2006

The Stilwell Papers

by Joseph W. Stilwell

I like to think of myself as well read, with an interest in history. Now and then, however, I find myself reading about an era I've never studied before and I realize that I am but a dabbler in my study of history. With this book, I've felt even more naive than that. I have a passing knowledge of World War II, a time when the Allies banded together to take on the evil Axis powers, where FDR and Churchill wisely guided the great Anglo-American partnership to put an end to tyranny. Heh. I should have known that it wasn't quite that simple. Yet when I read this book, I found myself reading about a World War II different from that I had known. I realized that I had never got around to reading a first hand account of World War II, much less any sort of critical history of the era. Well, that has now changed. The Stilwell Papers is a collection of journal entries, letters and writings by General Joseph Stilwell. General Stilwell spent most of the war trying to coordinate the Allied effort in China, attempting to get the English and Chinese governments to get together to push the Japanese out of Burma. His Papers outlines three years of frustration, full of government incompetence and disagreements. FDR comes across as more of a politician and yes-man than a saint. Chiang K'ai-shek as an ignorant gangster. It doesn't give a pretty picture of the war effort in China. But General Stilwell's writings have a ring of truth, as befits a first hand account of historical events. Of course, I'm sure the other players have their own accounts of history, which might be equally worth checking out. The Stilwell Papers was a nice place to start.
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Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Time to Kill

by John Grisham

I'm tempted to think that this one is about truth, justice and the American Way gone wrong. The story is set in Mississippi and opens with the account of a ten-year-old girl, Tonya, being raped by two men. They abuse her, try to kill her but end up abandoning her to die in a ravine. She is found, taken to the hospital and, eventually, the two men are arrested. The wheels of justice begin to turn, but Tonya's father, Carl Lee, decides to take matters into his own hands and guns down the rapists as they are being led from the courthouse back to jail. The book then deals with the attempts of Carl Lee's lawyer to get him acquitted. Since Carl Lee is black and the rapists where white, the trial ignites all sorts of reactions in the community as justice, prejudice and the law collide. It's not a pretty picture, but it's a thought provoking tale. There's no clear ideals in the book, no truly heroic people. While the lead character, lawyer Jake Brigance, is a good guy, he's not above lying or manipulation to get Carl Lee acquitted. Carl Lee, of course, is as guilty as can be, though you tend to sympathize with him and can fully understand his motivation. I suppose you could say that it truly does depict the American Way--nothing is pure, everything is tainted by evil. I was on one jury myself and, while the case was nothing as remotely important as this one, we, too, brought our prejudices and private concerns into the jury room. I left that trial, like I left this book, feeling that the verdict wasn't perfect, but I guess it was the best we could do. Anyway, this is definitely a book worth checking out.
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Anne Frank's Tales From the Secret Annex

by Anne Frank

This is another one of those books that I picked up out of guilt. I would imagine that most folks in the Western world have heard of Anne Frank, the teenage girl who hid with her family in a house in World War II Holland. I, too, had heard of her, back when I was a kid. What I never did, either as a child or adult, was actually read her famous diary. So when we were sorting through a stack of books being lent to us, I saw her famous picture and said, "Oooh, Anne Frank, I should read that." Of course, this is not her diary. It's some other writings--stories and essays--that she happened to write back in the 1940's. So I read the book, attempting to fulfill some karmic obligation or something. It's not great--really just waiting room material. There are no themes or stories that I found really compelling. But they are good. The kid showed some potential. The fact that both her and her potential contribution to humanity were snuffed out in some damned concentration camp is a crime. So go ahead and give the Nazis the proverbial finger and give the book a read.
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Monday, December 04, 2006

Night Watch

by Terry Pratchett

When I was playing around with LibraryThing's Unsuggester the other week, I was amazed how many times books by Terry Pratchett showed up in response to the titles I was trying out. I hadn't heard much about Mr. Pratchett, save that his work was quite funny. Anyway, a bit later I was browsing in the English library on campus and--Behold!--there was a Terry Pratchett book on the shelf! Since I'm between school years at the moment, I borrowed the book to have a read. Night Watch is about Samuel Vimes, the commander of the police force of the city of Ankh-Morpork. He's chasing down a murderer when a magical storm sends both of them back into the past. It's a time when the city was awash in corruption, ruled by an incompetent despot who is bleeding the people dry. It's also a time when young Sam Vimes is starting out on the city watch. The elder Vimes ends up trying to find a place for himself in the past, find the escaped murderer and find a way back to his proper time, all while trying to steer his younger self down the (mostly) straight and narrow. It's a good time travel tale, even without the added pleasure of Mr. Pratchett's wit. I'm strongly tempted to put it on my shelf. It might even be the first step in changing the Unsuggester results.
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Sunday, December 03, 2006

America's Real War

by Rabbi Daniel Lapin

This book is not one that would be likely to make my reading list, but it was recommended by a friend. Rabbi Lapin is an Orthodox rabbi and, among other pursuits, a spokesman for the conservative side of American politics. In America's Real War, he gives his take on the political landscape. The central concept of the book, is that the real conflict in American politics is between those who want America to be a secular society and those who don't. He quickly recasts that into a conflict between those who believe in God and those who don't. The book covers why he believes that America is a Christian nation, how it has drifted from its roots in the last forty years or so and why it needs to retrace its steps if its going to remain a strong nation. (Intertwined with this is his justification for siding with conservative Christians and his condemnation of the actions of many liberal Jews.) In the beginning of the book, I was mildly surprised to find myself agreeing with him. Even though I'm theologically conservative, I don't necessarily apply theology to my politics. So while I'll disagree with a candidate's position on, say, abortion, I'll never try and evaluate the religious base of their position, nor if their beliefs would lead them to make other decisions with which I disagree. Whether I need to start doing so is something I'll have to mull over. But that was the extent of my agreement with Rabbi Lapin. As he moved from the initial definition of the problem, I realized that our definition of the two sides of the tug of war differed. About halfway through the book, he started using the word "Democrats" instead of "secular liberals", and "Republicans" instead of "religious conservatives". Had I read this book when it was published, in 1999, I might have accepted that switch better. But given some of the actions of the second Bush administration, I was not willing to accept such an equation. It also brought to light another failing in the book: Rabbi Lapin does not address any failings on the side of the religious conservatives. Perhaps that is due to his religion. Mine would demand admission that we're all sinners and so I would have to confess the failings of the "good guys". Anyway, the book left me wondering what Rabbi Lapin might have to say on some other issues, such as the Iraq War and the rampant government spending it incurred. I suppose I should, then, recommend that folks check this one out. It is an interesting and well written read, though it failed to move me to enlist on either side of the conflict.
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