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This is the Day

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay (Delacorte Press, $26.00, 432 pages)

William Landay’s courtroom novel, Defending Jacob, is interesting and engaging, but is it – as per the hype – this year’s version of Presumed Innocent?   Sorry, but no, it’s not.   This is one of those novels that comes down to the fake ending, where there are usually one or two twists that the reader didn’t anticipate or see coming.   But, this time around, the reader has to deal with three feints and it all seems a bit much.   The author is a graduate of the Boston College of Law, and I presume that at some point he heard an instructor state that, “The game is not worth the candle.”   That’s a law professor’s way of saying that a lawyer’s or judge’s argument is far too clever to be convincing; which is precisely the way I felt about Defending Jacob.

This is a story about a Chief Assistant District Attorney who takes on a case involving the stabbing death of a 14-year-old student at his own son’s high school.   It turns out his son is the prime suspect and, before you can sing a song by the 80s band The The, he’s banished from the office.   The next thing he knows, he’s the second chair to a criminal defense attorney who’s defending his son on a charge of murder.

“After a thousand years or so of refining the process, judges and lawyers are no more able to say what is true than a dozen knuckleheads selected at random off the street.”

“…it was a little late in the day to be switching sides.   I was not sure I could bring myself to defend the same scumbags I had spent a lifetime locking up.”

What Landay does well – quite well – is to express in a firm and gruff voice his doubts (as a former prosecutor) about the workings of the American criminal justice system.   But his protagonist Andy Barber comes off sounding less like a lawyer and more like one of those grizzled former cops who becomes a hard-shoe Private Investigator.   There were times, in fact, when I felt the story – set in 2007 – turn from color to black and white.   It sometimes seemed that, except for references to personal computers, I was reading something set in the 1950s rather than in near-current times.

Defending Jacob has its moments, but a better read in this genre is Tell No Lies: A Novel by Julie Compton, a taut courtroom drama that comes replete with “a surprise ending.”   That’s one surprise ending, not two or three.   Because when it comes to Scott Turow-style surprise endings, less is more.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Heart of the Matter

I used to work with a program that trained local prosecutors (deputy district attorneys) and public defenders.   One aspect often covered at these trainings was the importance of opening and closing arguments in a criminal trial, and the point was usually made that these arguments needed to be “tight” rather than rambling and lengthy.   I often see a parallel with book reviews…

To me, book reviews are both opening and closing arguments.   They are an opening argument when it comes to introducing a reader to a book that he/she is considering purchasing.   The review says, “Here is what this book is about, and why it may be of interest to you.”   But it should also warn, “I don’t know about your own tastes, so I’m going to provide you with my perspective on this novel/nonfiction book.”

The same review is a closing argument when it attempts to convince the prospective reader that this is either something worth reading or passing by.   “I think this novel is great because…”   or “I really tried to read this survey book about _____ but I just couldn’t grab on to it…”   The key, though, is that the closing argument is not about TRUTH in capital letters – a review is an opinion piece, and the opinion is only as good as the structure of the argument it holds.

What I love about reading book reviews is not the bottom line – did this reader/reviewer love or hate the book – but the validity of the argument that takes us to the buy/don’t buy recommendation.   Is it logical, is it well structured, is it internally consistent (not a review that praises the author’s writing style at one point while attacking it somewhere else), is it honest?   If I write a review indicating that I love a book, I’m just as interested in other reviews that praise or condemn the book.   Why?   Because I’m not looking to win an argument, I’m looking to see how each and every reviewer made their arguments.

Is there a difference between positive and negative reviews?   Yes, I think so.   It’s much easier to convince the average reader that you, the reviewer, love a book because (as has been said so many times before) everyone loves good news.   If I pick up an interesting-looking new novel at Borders and then use my BlackBerry to find reviews, I’m quite pleased to see 4-and 5-star reviews and flat-out recommendations.   I’m much less pleased to do a digital search only to read that this book is a disaster.   But, wait, maybe it isn’t – maybe I need to see how good a case is made by those who are criticizing it.

Decades ago, I used to read music reviews in every major publication of the time.   There were a number of reviewers that I really admired, including one in particular who never liked the same things I did.   But that reviewer always made a great case for his position, an enlightened and entertaining case.   He wrote a brilliant negative review of one classic album in a single sentence!

So, yes, it’s not the length of the argument that counts.   It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the amount of fight in the dog.   And the next time you read a book review, you may want to ask yourself, “Did this reviewer deliver both an opening and closing argument this time around?”   Don’t forget that you are the juror in the court of public opinion, and it’s your vote that counts each and every time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:   The Good Daughters: A Novel by Joyce Maynard.

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A Turbulent Flight

There are certain books that begin with a great premise and a great main character but which are simply unable to deliver on the promise of a well-told story.   This is one of those books.   This 303-page tale of a modern airline traveler loses its interest, its energy and its wings at about the 200-page mark.   From then on, the engines are stalled and the story glides awkwardly to a crash landing on a foam-filled runway.

Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham, a so-called Career Transition Counselor, who is hired to help downsizing companies get rid of employees without having them go postal.   Bingham must be part psychologist, part upward mobility trainer and – to a large part – a fraudulent New Age guru who’s supposed to convince the terminated workers that its all for the best.   Of course, Bingham (who views himself as a type of glorified and special purpose accountant) never has to stick around to view the actual damage – the failed marriages, lost homes and suicides.   He convinces himself that he does more good than harm as he flies every day or two on Great West Airlines circa 2001.

As we meet the not-very-likeable and self-absorbed Bingham, he’s submitted his resignation because he is about to accomplish the main goal of his life.   His primary objective is to be the tenth person in the domestic carrier’s history who has flown 1,000,000 miles without leaving the U.S.   Bingham travels so much that he has no home or apartment, he lives in the thin atmosphere land he calls “Airworld.”

There’s a lot of inside baseball talk that frequent flyers and frequent lodging chain sleepers will find entertaining…   For example, there’s much debate about the merits of Hilton-owned Hampton Inns versus Marriott Courtyards.   Which one is the best base for corporate warriors, and why is it that a traveler feels almost invisible at the larger Marriott and Hilton properties?   (And why is it that frequent travelers come to need Sound Soothers to sleep?)   Bingham also has this marvelous machine called the Hand Star, the apparent precursor of today’s BlackBerry smartphone.

The first problem with Air is the realization that Bingham is the only character that is remotely believable or plausible, and even this is a stretch.   The next problem is that the once-serious story turns into a hybrid science fiction-dark satire two-thirds of the way through its telling.   A lot of paranoia emerges among Bingham and those he encounters, which may mean that he’s gone insane…   Worse, it may signal that this tale was a put-on from page one.

I prefer to think that author Walter Kirn came up with a great start but had no finish.   (Nevertheless, he’s received a very large check from George Clooney’s people who are turning this into the star’s next film.)   Not recommended; simply not worth the time or effort required to get through it.   There’s just no payoff on arrival for frequent readers.

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