Tag Archives: D.C.

Life During Wartime

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Harper, June 2010)

“There was no statute of limitations on murder.”

Lauren Belfer has produced a grand, glorious and occasionally disappointing tale of medicine, war, love and other things in this 527 page historical novel.   This is primarily a fictional account of the discovery and development of penicillin soon after the United States’ involuntary entrance into World War II.   Belfer sets the scene well, convincing the reader that Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming experience for the average American; quite comparable to 9/11.

The primary character is one Claire Shipley, a photographer for Life magazine which literally provides her with the credentials to witness history in the making.   Claire eventually meets and falls in love with James Stanton, the physician who is heading the government’s military-based efforts to develop the new drug on a massive scale.   Claire can relate to the importance of Stanton’s mission since her daughter died from a blood-borne disease at a young age, a disease that might have been halted by penicillin.

One early surprise about this novel is that Stanton reports to a civilian authority figure in Washington, D.C. – a man by the name of Vannevar Bush.   Bush, a key scientist and organizer of the project that led to the development of the atomic bomb, comes across as a very serious and intelligent figure, yet with a touch of playfulness.   With Bush, Belfer succeeds in bringing a lesser-known historical figure to life.

She also succeeds, at least during the first half of A Fierce Radiance, in juxtaposing two stories, the story of the medicine, science and sheer luck behind the development of a life saving drug, and a love story.   Claire and James meet the love of their lives when they meet each other, but each has issues and problems that make their becoming a couple unlikely.   Each has perhaps seen too much of life by the time they’ve met.

If Belfer has played it safe to this point, she soon gambles with the reader’s patience and understanding.   This is because a murder affecting one of the major characters occurs, turning a two-headed story into a three-headed one.   Now the novel is not just about the war and medicine and love during wartime, it also becomes a crime mystery.   It seems at first a bit much especially when – wouldn’t you know it – a New York City Police Department detective (wise and grizzled) enters the scene.

Of course, the author has provided herself with a very broad field to work in here; one can tie together a lot of loose ends in almost 530 pages.   What Belfer does so well is to write in a voice that makes the reader feel “calmed and safe.”   There’s a patience and politeness in the voice that will seem familiar to readers of Anna Quindlen and to those who have read the other recent novel about life in the U.S. during World War II, The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.   It’s as if the oh-so-calm voice does take us back to an earlier time with ease.

Yet there are at least two problems with the telling.   First, the omniscient point of view of the narrator becomes tiring and also keeps the reader from knowing each of the characters as well as we would like.   Because the omniscient (godlike) narrator goes into the mind of every character, the author skimps on well-rounded character development.   This becomes frustrating to the reader and may be a major reason the omniscient voice is used less and less in today’s popular fiction.

Next, while Belfer has written a story that reads like an overly long screenplay, if it happened to be made into a film, most viewers would be far from satisfied with the ending.   The author does not take the easy way out, not at all…  Instead she ends the story with a whimper rather than a bang.   In this she may have successfully reflected the happenings of life in a truer way than it might be displayed in a scripted and highly dramatic Hollywood-style ending.   This may well be to the author’s credit but it is asking a lot – in fact, far too much – of a reader to devote more than 500 pages to a story that sometimes sizzles before it blandly fizzles out.

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Freedom Rules

Unbillable Hours: A True Story by Ian Graham (Kaplan)

“Mario’s case was my personal salvation…”

This is a nonfiction story of a person finding freedom.   Initially, it appears to be the story of one Mario Rocha, convicted of a murder in the Los Angeles area and sentenced to life in prison.   But it is actually the story of Ian Graham, a lawyer who worked for five years in the white shoe law firm of Latham Watkins.   Graham was one of a class of 47 first-year associates hired by the L.A. firm.   Only three of them remained working there after five years.

Graham’s telling of the overwrought work environment at Latham Watkins brings John Grisham’s The Associate to real life.   Experienced and new attorneys find themselves pulling all-nighters, sometimes wearing the same clothes for three days.   Much of the work involves looking through truckloads of documents, and responding to interrogatories in major corporate litigation cases.   Graham comes to see that he is “simply unsuited” to working in this environment, where one’s professional life is dedicated to “resolving the problems of, or enriching, corporations.”

To Graham’s good fortune, Latham is committed to pro bono work.   “Pro bono public – for the public good – is a tradition of the legal profession focused on the idea that every lawyer should devote at least a portion of his or her time to representing indigent clients or worthy causes for free.”   The young attorney Graham volunteers to work with two senior, experienced attorneys on the case of The People vs. Mario Rocha.

At 16, Rocha attended a night-time party that was crashed by at least two gang members.   A young man who was celebrating his college admission was killed that night.   This happened at a time when there was pressure from all levels (federal, state and local) for the City of L.A. to do something about its gang problems.   The two shooters are identified pretty quickly, but Rocha is also arrested after being identified in a photo lineup by attendees of the party.

There are multiple issues with the evidence against Rocha, but he is nevertheless arrested and charged with homicide.   He is tried with the two known gang members, the presumption being (although Graham argues that it was never proven at the trial) that he was also a gang member.   Rocha’s family members are confident that he’ll be acquitted, but they hire an attorney with minimal experience who devotes just eight hours of preparation to Mario’s defense.   As a result, Rocha is convicted by a jury and sentenced to life behind bars.

This is the background to the events covered in Unbillable Hours.   Graham finds himself driving to Calipatria State Prison to meet with Rocha and, surprisingly, discovers that he’s developed a “goddamned conscience.”   In other words, he’s found a cause that offers rewards greater than the mega bucks he’s getting at Latham (where the garage houses so many new Mercedes and BMW automobiles that it is said to look like a German automobile dealership).   But overturning a criminal conviction in California is virtually impossible, so Graham’s going to have to move Heaven and Earth to do so.   They also may need a miracle, which comes in the form of a Catholic nun’s efforts.

It’s no surprise that Mario Rocha is eventually freed, and this telling of how that is accomplished is fascinating.   Yet, again, Unbillable Hours is more about Graham than it is about Rocha.   When Graham initially visits Rocha at Calipatria he begins to ponder what a “loss of freedom” means.   He also comes to see that Rocha is a very intelligent young man who was not privileged to get the same breaks in life as Graham, the son of a lawyer.

This reviewer had just two concerns with this nonfiction account.   Although most of the story is told in layman’s terms, there are times when the language will be difficult for a typical reader to follow:  “It is clear no witness exists who could have proven Petitioner’s innocence as he claimed.   The testimony failed to raise credible evidence of Petitioner’s innocence by a preponderance of the evidence.”   Yes, this is language from a court document, an order, but it would have been well to translate it into simpler terms.

Graham also fails to ascribe the best of motives to the actions of prosecutors and others in this account.   Prosecutors must act on the information gathered and provided to them by law enforcement and/or their own investigators.   In general, they are very talented and skilled individuals who do not work to get rich.   (Graham, by his own admission, did not know how to draft motions when he became involved in the Rocha case.)   It may have been beneficial to have included an addendum giving the assigned prosecutors a chance to express their views and perspectives on this case.

Mario Rocha today is an undergraduate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.   Ian Graham is experiencing a different kind of freedom, speaking at law schools and to public defenders.   He no longer makes a six-figure salary, but he is unshackled enough to “see a world and a life beyond the confines” of a large corporate law firm.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Another Book Giveaway!

Thanks to Anna at Hachette Audio, we’re giving away three (3) audio book sets of On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System by Henry M. (Hank) Paulson, Jr.   This is the unabridged version, on 13 CDs, that contains a special conversation with the author not found in the printed book version.   Each audio book is valued at $34.98 U.S.; $41.98 Canadian.

Here is a synopsis of On the Brink, followed by two excerpts from recent reviews:

When Hank Paulson, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, was appointed in 2006 to become the nation’s next Secretary of the Treasury, he knew that his move from Wall Street to Washington would be daunting and challenging.   But Paulson had no idea that a year later, he would find himself at the the very epicenter of the world’s most cataclysmic financial crisis since the Great Depression.   Major institutions literally teetered at the edge of collapse.   Worst of all, the credit crisis spread to all parts of the U.S. economy and grew more ominous with each passing day.

This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime economic nightmare.   Events no one had thought possible were happening in quick succession.   All eyes turned to the United States Treasury Secretary to avert the disaster.  

This, then, is Hank Paulson’s first-person account.   From the man who was in the very middle of this perfect economic storm, On the Brink is Paulson’s fast-paced account of the key decisions that had to be made with lightning speed.   On the Brink is an extraordinary story about people and politics – all brought together during the world’s impending financial Armageddon.

Paulson’s first-person account of the epic financial collapse is just that – straightforward and direct.   Shorn of anonymous, unsourced dish, it nonetheless offers plenty of excellent color and detail.   Daniel Gross, The Washington Post

Provides a palpable sense of the nearly moment-to-moment developments and obstacles…   Ted Sturtz, New York Journal of Books

This contest is easy to enter.   Just post a comment here or send an e-mail to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as one entry.   For a second entry, just tell us why you like to listen to audio book versions of best sellers.  

You must be a resident of the U.S. or Canada and have a valid residential address.   Audio books cannot be mailed to P.O. boxes.   

The On the Brink contest will be open until midnight PST on Sunday, April 18, 2010.   Good luck and good listening!

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Double Take

Double Take: A Memoir by Kevin Michael Connolly

“…you are only disabled if you are incapable of overcoming the challenges presented in any given situation.”

Kevin Michael Connolly is an accomplished young American, twenty-three years old.   He was a high school wrestler, a competitive downhill skier in college, and a silver medalist in the X Games broadcast around the world.   He’s traveled to many places around the world.   He’s usually seen moving along on a skateboard.   He’s had his photographs exhibited by the Smithsonian, and has a girlfriend in New Zealand.

Did I happen to mention that he was born without legs?   No.   Maybe that’s because Connolly does not view himself as disabled.  

Reading this memoir reminds the reader that perspective is everything.   Not only is it entertaining, but there are several points where you’ll find yourself laughing out loud.   Connolly does not take pity on himself; instead he focuses on the fact that he’s already had a great life and he’s well-known.   Maybe if Connolly had been born with legs he’d have been an average Kevin who never left Montana.

This is a memoir unusually illustrated with some of Connolly’s photos of shocked people staring at him.   It is an inspiring read about a human being who doesn’t concern himself with what he has lost or never had.   He’s a lucky man, sharing his bounty with us.

Harper Studio, $19.99, 227 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Have Ducati, Will Battle

Mace Perry is out to clear her name.   After years of dedicated service as a police officer on the Washington, D.C. force, she was set up to take a fall for a nasty crime.   Even her sister, the police chief, was not able to spare Mace the injustice of two years in prison.   Back on the street, well, more accurately back aboard her beloved cherry red Ducati racing motorcycle, she’s raring to go and knows just what it will take to clear her name.

This is no ordinary story and author David Baldacci, who has a spectacular list of writing credits to his name, is very adept at portraying spine tingling action.   The twist for this story is its remarkable likeness to the shoot ’em up cowboy movies this reviewer enjoyed at the Orinda Theatre on Saturday afternoons, albeit a long time ago.   True Blue (with the title song sung by Rod Stewart) would make an excellent movie with our heroine, her trusty sidekick – an attorney who is an ace at basketball and drives an Audi, plenty of villains – driving black town cars rather than wearing black hats, and more than an afternoon’s worth of fistfights.

Everything in this book is bigger than life and supercharged.   Not over the top, mind you, just close enough to keep a reader’s attention.   The 454 pages literally flew by and it was worth staying up quite late to finish the book.

Highly recommended – True Blue is the equivalent of a fast fun ride on a Ducati, make mine yellow!

Review by Ruta Arellano.   This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of True Blue, the latest crime novel from David Baldacci.

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A book giveaway for Anglophiles!

My Paper Chase 2Ten years ago, a distinguished English reporter, Donald Trelford of The Observer, wrote this about Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday (London) Times:   “The book Harry should write now is the story of his own life, from St. Mary’s Road Central School in Manchester to the Sunday Times to the conquest of corporate America and rubbing shoulders with the Washington elite.”   Well, Harold Evans has now written that book, entitled My Paper Chase, and this autobiography of almost 600 pages is being released by Little, Brown and Company.   We have 5 copies to give away!

Here is the Google books overview of My Paper Chase:  

“In My Paper Chase, Harold Evans recounts the wild and wonderful tale of newspapering life.   His story stretches from the 1930s to his service in World War II, through town big and off the map.   He discusses his passion for the crusading style of reporting he championed, his clashes with Rupert Murdoch, and his struggle to use journalism to better the lives of those less fortunate.   There’s a star studded cast and a tremendously vivid sense of what once was:  the lead type, the smell of the presses, eccentrics throughout and angry editors screaming over the intercoms.   My Paper Chase tells the stories of Evans’s great loves:  newspapers and Tina Brown, the bright, young journalist who became his wife.   In an age when newspapers everywhere are under threat, My Paper Chase is not just a glorious recounting of an amazing life, but a nostalgic journey in black and white.”

It should be noted that Harold Evans was the newspaper editor who broke the worldwide story about thalidomide and led the effort to justly compensate the victims of this improperly tested drug.   My Paper Chase is 592 pages, sounds fascinating for readers and newspaper lovers (and prospective journalists) and sells for a list price of $27.99.   Thanks to Valerie at Hachette Book Group (HBG), we’re giving away five new hardbound copies to our own loyal readers.

What are the contest rules?   As usual, they’re very simple.   To enter this contest, send your name and e-mail address to josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as one entry.   For a second entry, complete the following sentence:  “If I were to visit England, the first thing I would like to see is _______________________.”  

The deadline for submitting entries – and we’re giving everyone plenty of time – is Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at midnight PST.   On Wednesday, November 25th, Munchy the cat will pick out the names of the 5 winners from a large plastic container.   The winners will be notified the next day, for Thanksgiving, via e-mail.   Don’t forget that you can’t win if you don’t enter!

Note:   For this contest, prior contest winners of HGB books are not eligible.   (If in doubt, enter anyway and we will verify eligibility.)   Also, you must receive your mail at a residential (street) address in the continental U.S. or Canada.   HBG will not mail books to P.O. boxes.

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When our Capitol Burned

Washington Burning by Les Standiford

This is a beautifully written, and ultimately moving, tribute to the founding and building of the nation’s capitol.   It is also a history lesson on the terrors of war; in this case, the destruction of the Capitol by British soldiers in the War of 1814.   In a brief 24 hours, 22 years of construction was destroyed with major damage to the White House and the Capitol building.

But the author’s key goal, well met, is to honor a man who was without honor in his time, the architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant.   L’Enfant was selected by George Washington to design the new Federal City.   His design worked so well that when, one hundred years later, a panel of the nation’s best architects and planners (including Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr.) was asked to re-design the city, they declined.   These experts affirmed that L’Enfant’s original plan was the perfect one.

L’Enfant is now buried at the highest point in Arlington after dying as a virtually penniless, abandoned, man.   This nation may never adequately repay the Frenchman L’Enfant for his services to his adopted country.   This book is a fine start.Burning 4  Three Rivers Press, $16.00, 353 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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