Monthly Archives: March 2012

Defending Jacob

I had heard about Defending Jacob on the Books On The Nightstand podcast. Michael Kindness was raving about it. I walked by it in the bookstore a number of times. I finally picked it up at Target and started reading it.

I was immediately taken by the legal part of the book. I should digress and say that the book is part legal thriller and part family drama. The legal part appealed to me because I love stuff that deals with the law. The family drama appeals to me because (to a much lesser degree), we’ve been going through teenage stuff with the teenager kids. I do not want to say too much about plot because there are some twists and turns that I don’t want to ruin for anyone.

Andy Barber is the First Assistant DA in the Boston area. His job is the get all the new cases that come into the DAs office. He lives in Newton, which he describes as partly Rockwell-esque Americana and part modern suburb – yuppie parents, privileged kids. The story begins with Andy getting a call about a murder in Cold Spring Park. The victim turns out to be a classmate of Jacob’s, Andy’s son. The kids are 14 and in 8th grade.

The first suspect is a child molester on probation who lives in an apartment that abuts the park. The questioning of the suspect never really gets underway because his attorney shows up. The case languishes until pieces start falling together that look like Jacob is the prime suspect. Jacob is eventually arrested and a trial ensues.

The family unravels as slowly as the legal process unfolds. Laurie, Andy’s wife and Jacob’s mother, starts out as everyone’s rock. The daughter of a psychiatrist who believes that there is nothing that cannot be talked through. Andy is quiet and internal. Laurie knows people’s names and is the glue, as Andy describes her, of her friends and the family. After Jacob is arrested, Laurie’s friends disappear. She sits alone in the courtroom – with a space bubble of feet on either side.

Andy helps with the defense and gets a defense attorney he’s faced in court many times to represent Jacob. Jonathon and Andy work to present Jacob’s defense….. And that is where plot discussion will end.

I do not want to ruin the book. I will say that I found Laurie to be the most interesting, if least developed characters. The book is told from Andy’s point of view and Andy is the narrator, except in the parts that are quotes from Grand Jury testimony. I almost wish that the book had been written from Laurie’s point of view. She is the most complicated character and the one most affected and effected by the events that unfold. I found myself wondering what she was thinking. We know what Andy’s thinking. Laurie remains an enigma.

I will not talk about the end here. But if any of you have read the book, I would love to know your thoughts about it. I think the book is well-written and contains the right amount of legal thriller tension and literary drama.

I will say that the end is not my favorite ending ever. If only because there is not the amount of closure I would have liked. But it is a remarkable book. I highly recommend it.


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Those who know me well, know that I’m somewhat fascinated by Watergate. The break-in at Democratic National Headquarters happened shortly after I as born. When I was in high school, I saw the movie All The President’s Men, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, based upon the book by Woodward and Bernstein.

Thomas Mallon’s Watergate is not a re-telling of history. It is a fictionalized version of events that surrounded the Watergate affair. Let me start by saying that the book does not portend to be factual. Nor does it pass judgment on anyone. It tells the story from the point of view of several people.

President Nixon, his wife, Pat, his secretary Rose Mary Woods, E. Howard Hunt, and Fred LaRue ¬†all appear as main characters in the book. They are supported by Alice Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, and the usual Watergate suspects. Woodward and Bernstein are only mentioned a few times.

The center of the story is really Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s long-suffering secretary and Pat Nixon, his long-suffering wife. The book seamlessly melds fact and fiction. Some people will probably have an issue with that. I read it for what it was – fiction. A story. A compelling story, but a story. Just like 11/22/63 or Oswald’s Tale. They are fiction based on real events.

I enjoyed the obvious amount of consideration and research that Mallon put into the book. He does not make any of the characters seem dumb or emotionally unbalanced as has been said of Nixon. I appreciated the efforts he undertook to make sure that people were not portrayed as evil or even wrong. Just as people doing what they thought was right nor that needed to be done.

The story bogged down in a couple of places and at times, I was particularly concerned with some of the people in the story. There are a lot of characters and if you are unfamiliar with Watergate and the players, you may have a hard time following sometimes. But. If you like suspense stories and political dramas, you will like this book. Put aside your bias toward one side or the other, and enjoy the ride that Mr. Mallon takes you on. It’s well-worth your time and effort.

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The Orphan Master’s Son

There has been a TON of talk about Adam Johnson’s book about North Korea. So much so that I could not ignore it. It was reviewed in the New York Times Review of Books. Books on the Nightstand’s podcast dedicated a segment to it. So, I had to buy it and read it. I have mixed feelings about the book. Very mixed feelings.

The book follows Pack Jun Do – the son of the orphanage master. Pack names the boys, decides who eats the good food or at all, and gives them job assignments. He is conscripted into the military and when he is mistakenly assumed to be an orphan, he is sent into the tunnels. He spends his time in the tunnels at the DMZ looking for defectors and checking on the South. He is next assigned to a man who goes to Japan and kidnaps citizens for various purposes at the request for North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il. He kidnaps a photographer, an opera singer, and a girl drowns.

Once his mission kidnapping people is over, he is assigned to a boat to eavesdrop on the Americans and Russians and Japanese in the sea near North Korea. He listens at night. He hears people with short wave radios telling stories, the men on the space station playing chess, and two American girls attempting to row across the ocean. He is particularly fascinated with the girl who rows at night. She talks into her headset while rowing.

The Americans board the ship and cause all sorts of problems when the steal the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The crew and Park weave a story and the one crew member is said to be a hero. Their next trip out, the hero steals a life raft and disappears. A shark bite later, Park is a hero. He goes to Texas with a delegation to meet a Senator. Park is given a cell phone/camera that sends pictures to the CIA agent he meets. When he comes back, he is sent to a mine camp.

At the mine camp, Park escapes. I’m not going to divulge the rest of the story because that is where the book starts to get….interesting.

I will say that I had a hard time with the first 75 or so pages and the last 50 or so pages. Adam Johnson is a good writer and he has studied and been to North Korea. The biggest problem I guess I had with his book is the over-the-top torture and violence. It’s not prevalent throughout the book, but it appears enough times to make one uncomfortable reading it. I’m not sure if it was meant as over-the-top satire or deeply black humor or seriousness.

I struggled with this book a lot more than I expected. I expected it to be sometimes funny and mostly a story of life in North Korea. And to some extent it is. I just has some issues with the torture scenes and some of the outlandish plot twists.

That having been said, if this book is an actual depiction of life in North Korea, I cannot be more thankful to not live there. Food is scarce. Peoples lives mean nothing. Electricity is scarce. The government, which is really a cult of personality, does not allow for individualism at all. It is an Orwellian society that even exceeds Orwell’s imagination. It is a terrifying picture, even if half-true, of what the place is like.

So, the question is, do I recommend this book? I suppose I would if you are interested in North Korea or dystopian stories. If you are sensitive to torture and violence, however, I would not recommend it, especially toward the end.

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