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Somebody’s Watching You

The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do by Eduardo Porter (Portfolio Hardcover, $27.95, 304 pages)

“There was a time when the United States offered workers a shot at prosperity.”

“The nicer the nice, the higher the price / This is what you pay for what you need. / The higher the price, the nicer the nice. / Jealous people like to see you bleed.”   Sylvester Stewart (AKA Sly Stone)

Author Eduardo Porter relies on well-known and documented studies for background in supporting his thesis that each thing we decide to purchase has a price.   The price does not always make sense to us.   Moreover, some prices are so attractive that they lead us to make wrong-headed decisions.  

Porter has divided his study into nine elements, each of which carries enormous importance for almost everyone.   The chapter devoted to things reveals some surprising conclusions such as that auctions are searches for fools, those who would actually pay more than an item’s true worth.   The most compelling chapter for this reviewer is about the price of life.   While life is generally perceived as priceless, there are strict rules regarding the criteria used to arrive at the specific figures for victim compensation awards.   (Talk to any law student who has taken Torts and he/she will explain this further.)

The direct approach taken in this book may be a bit jarring for some readers.   And the discussion of the price of women contains phrasing that is sometimes confusing.   This reviewer needed to reread certain passages in order to understand – or attempt to understand – the conclusion(s) drawn by the author.  

This survey book is reminscent of others that have used an organizing principle, like The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, to bring the reader to an intended conclusion.   Recommended – although the price of $27.95 for just 300 pages seems a bit high!

Ruta Arellano

Reprinted courtesy of San Francisco Book Review.   “A fascinating journey through what we see every day – but do not think enough about.   Eduardo Porter makes you think hard about the corporate interests at work behind the veil of prices (and much more).”   Simon Johnson, co-author of 13 Bankers.

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Driven to Tears

i-knew-youd-be-lovely

I Knew You’d Be Lovely: Stories by Alethea Black (Broadway, $14.00, 240 pages)

“I Knew You’d Be Lovely is an impressive offering, from a strong new voice, of stories about life’s desperation.”

Consider a formula for producing a promising new writer: the courage of Jane Mendelsohn and Emily St. John Mandel; the calm and precise voice of Maile Meloy; the microscopic focus of Joan Didion; and the world-weary irony of Roald Dahl.   This just about sums up what you get with Alethea Black, the author of this new collection of short stories; a collection that stands up well alongside Meloy’s Both Ways is The Only Way I Want It.

Meloy wrote about people who wanted more than they were offered in their life’s current circumstances.   Black writes about people who are at the end of the dock, ready to jump into the water.   They’re not sure that a change is going to improve their life – they only know that life cannot continue the way it is.   Her stories take us to the point where each character is about to experience a major change.   We’re never quite sure as to whether the change is for the better, as her characters have disdained the need to look before they leap.   In a sense, she writes about people who have been driven to tears and near madness, either by their past imperfect actions or sheer inertia.   Now, they’re going to improve their lives even if its kills them.

Black writes on a very human scale, without exaggeration; however, as with Dahl, her stories are sometimes symbolic of both larger and smaller things.   And, as with Dahl’s short stories, there’s often a sense of unreality just off-stage – as if we’re going to be surprised by something unexpected any second now.

The weaknesses in this compilation might best be explained by analogy.   If it were a record album, this reviewer would state that the songs were placed in imperfect order.   And the weakest song (story) was selected for the title.   Instead of, I Knew You’d Be Lovely – a tale about a young woman who attempts to select the perfect birthday present for her boyfriend, and comes up with something extremely unexpected – a better selection would have been the second of the thirteen tracks (stories) which was earlier published in Narrative magazine, The Only Way Out is Through.   (On a bookshelf, The Only Way Out is Through would sit well next to Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.   Case closed.)

“Law school had been the classic intellectual sanctuary from certain practical considerations.   Then it had ended, and he’d needed to make a living.   So here he was.”

Despite a few minor issues, I Knew You’d Be Lovely is an impressive offering, from a strong new voice, of stories about life’s desperation.   If Ms. Black has a fault it is that her coiled strength is never fully let loose…  There’s a sense of structure that’s a bit too quiet and organized (and intellectually proper) from this Harvard-educated writer who quite likely has the ability to “roar like forest fire” when she’s ready.   Perhaps she’ll roar when she releases her debut novel.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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No Icing on This Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel by Aimee Bender (Doubleday, $25.95)

“I wondered what he knew about the family; what he didn’t know.   What family he lived in.   My mind wandered around.”

This novel begins with a charming and unique premise.   A young girl, Rose Edelstein, finds that by eating food prepared by others she can taste (experience) the moods and feelings of the preparers.   This has particular relevance when it comes to her mother’s sadness, but later her guilt.   Her mother is having an affair, the knowledge of which Rose wishes she did not possess.

“The guilt in the beef had been like a vector pointing in one direction…  I hated it; the whole thing was like reading her diary against my will.   Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life…  I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.”

This discomfort on the part of our protagonist also affects the reader; at least, it affected this reader.   Rose has been given a power she does not want and it makes  her life messy and unpleasant.   At one point, early in the story, she is hospitalized after raving about wanting to get rid of her mouth.   If she didn’t have her mouth in her face, she wouldn’t have to eat and wouldn’t have to feel what others are feeling.

“Over the course of several packed days, I’d tasted my mother’s affairs and had (a) conversation with my father…  I was not feeling good about any of it…”

Rose has a boring attorney father, a brother who isolates and who is soon departing for college, and an unhappy mother who regularly disappears for a couple of hours of errands – which is when she meets her lover.   She lives in a household of people who hardly communicate; people who regularly ask questions of each other that go unanswered.   This also applies to others in Rose’s life.   For example, she asks her Spanish teacher, “How was your weekend?” before her instructor turns away and walks off to roam the aisles of the junior high school classroom.

Aimee Bender’s writing style is clipped; words often appear to be missing from sentences, from paragraphs, from pages.   Maybe the words are missing because, in this imaginary world, humans simply don’t understand each other – relatives or strangers – and therefore, are not competent about talking, listening, responding.   Perhaps the oddest of all things is that this story is not set in an isolated small town (Mayberry, if you will).   No, it is set in an earlier day Los Angeles, where mega communication was already the order of the day.

There must be an intended message buried somewhere in this 292-page novel that I missed.   After its charming opening pages, Lemon Cake seemed to immediately bog down.   It read more like a novella or an overly extended short story than a true novel.

Perhaps I just don’t have the taste for this recipe.   Lemon Cake left me feeling empty and sad and confused and hungry for something with some heft.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Iced Revenge

Revenge Served Cold by Jackie Fullerton (Thomas House Publishing)

Kathy Spence awakens in the middle of the night and finds herself in a living nightmare…

This is author Jackie Fullerton’s second Anne Marshall mystery novel.   Anne is a court stenographer attending law school when she’s not working at her day job.   She also has a very special secret.   Her father passed away two years prior to this story.   Mr. Marshall visits Anne in the form of a ghostly spirit, complete with pipe smoke that alerts her to his impending appearance.   He assisted her in solving a murder during the past year.

This time Anne gets herself, the law school study group and a wide circle of friends involved when a professor from the school is run down and killed by a late-model white Cadillac.   And the car just happens to belong to Kathy Spence, the professor’s wife who has a drinking problem and persistent depression.

Ms. Fullerton makes good use of the background that she acquired when the youngest of her five children went off to school.   She fills the plot with a full array of characters.   There are several very nice couples in the mix with whom Anne and her fiance Jason, a young deputy district attorney, spend time and socialize.   Anne is a kind, caring heroine who has a stubborn streak that everyone can see.   She has lived in the same small town all her life and it is a place that’s not immune to the sinister plotting of outsiders.

The story begins a bit slowly and this reviewer was initially skeptical about the promise of an action-packed mystery given the characters introduced early on in the plotline.   There was no need to doubt the potential for action.   As soon as the bad guys came on the scene, thing began to quickly heat up.   (The ice melted.)   By the end of the book, my full attention was riveted on each page.

This is an excellent summer paperback read with just enough drama and peril to keep a reader on the edge of his or her beach chair.   Recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by 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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Loneliness Is Just A Word

Lonely: A Memoir by Emily White

“…the lonely were more likely to have died than the nonlonely.”

Emily White’s Lonely succeeds as a survey book, specifically when she examines the surprising lack of research on what would appear to be a nearly essential topic for study – human loneliness.   She finds, for example, one study which demonstrated that post heart surgery patients were twice as likely to die if they experienced the effects of loneliness.   She also describes the  more standard physical impacts that plague the person who is determined to be lonely, and to her credit she had “to find the papers…  myself.”

The book is much less effective when it attempts to serve as a self-proclaimed memoir.   To be explicit, the book would have been far more engaging if it had begun with a review of the research on the matter of loneliness, and then finished with White describing its impact on her own life.   This is because much of what she stated in the opening seems either odd or contradictory.

This reviewer suspects that most readers will approach the topic with an understanding of loneliness as isolation.   We are lonely when we must be away from the people who are close to us; as when, for example, someone leaves the family nest to go to a faraway college.   But such loneliness is temporary and others come in to fill the empty spots in our existence.

White, however, is the person who is lonely in crowds; she states that, “I just feel a lack of connection around people, even when I’m around people.”   Thus, she responds to this by spending more time alone and, “The more time I spent alone, the more difficult I found it to be around others.”   This seems desperately confusing, especially when we read about how she chose to live way across town from friends and relatives:  “…odd…that I should have chosen a place so far removed (to live).”

White also appears to display a knack for making lemons out of lemonade.   Of cherished car drives with her father she complains that they “always ended.”   And although in law school she was surrounded by smart people, it seemed to signal the start of her era of self-isolation.

This reviewer must disclose that my life and the author’s appear to be considerably parallel as to our experiences, and yet, the very ones that she found limiting were for me empowering.   Thus, we may have a clash of perspectives here.   So, I will re-emphasize that White presents some valuable information when one views this work as a review of a little-developed field.   To her credit, she raises some questions that do call out for an answer – such as whether or not loneliness is inherited.

White might have been served by having the assistance of a professional writer who could have toned down her tendency to look at life through somber dark-colored glasses.   A second set of eyes in the person of an editor might have added a bit of needed joy to this look at our lives and the need we have to share it with others.

A review copy was provided by Harper.

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