Civil Action

Harr, Jonathan. A Civil Action. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Confessional: this was my third attempt to read this. The first two times I got bogged down by the legalese of it all, but for some reason the third time was a charm. Because this was a Hollywood movie (one I didn’t see, of course) I was expecting a different ending. This is the tragic but true story about a group of Woburn, Massachusetts citizens and the lawsuit they filed against two major companies for dumping what they believed to be cancer-inducing chemicals into their drinking water. Instantly, I think of 10,000 Maniacs and their song, “Poison in the Well.” I don’t think it was written for or about Woburn but it’s eerily similar. Residents in the song and of Woburn know their water “tastes funny” and during certain times of the year they avoid consumption of it all together. Some go so far as to complain loudly, but time and time again they are told the levels of toxins are negligible and there is nothing to worry about. It’s only after Anne Anderson’s child develops leukemia, and Anderson starts to notice multiple cases of the rare disease in her hometown, that she decides to hire an attorney, Jan  Schlichmann. The rest that follows is a series of brutal court battles. There are times you think it’s an open and shut case and other times when it’s no so obvious. The depositions and testimonies leave you wanting to pull your hair out. Every single detail is covered in Harr’s story. My suggestion is, after you have finished reading the book, do some research about the trial. Read about what happens later and it will make you feel better.

Reason read: John Jay was born in December and became the first Chief Justice of the United States in 1789.

Book trivia: Most people will remember this as a 1998 movie starring John Travolta. As a book it was a best seller and won the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.

Author fact: At the time of publication Jonathan Harr lived and worked in Northampton, Massachusetts.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Legal Eagles in Nonfiction” (p 135).


The Reader

Schlink, Bernard. The Reader. New York: Vintage International, 1998.

By now I am sure everyone has seen the movie of the same name (2008). After all, Kate Winslet (did I spell that right?) won an Oscar for her portrayal of Hanna Schmitz. At least I think she did. I have not seen the movie nor did I watch the Academy Awards last year, although I hear the movie deserves to be seen if for nothing else than that reason – Hanna/Kate. However, being a librarian I think the book deserves to be read first. Without a doubt.

Anyway. Bernard Schlink paints a hauntingly beautiful love story tinged with pain. The premise is simple. Michael Berg as a young boy of 15 is seduced by a woman at least twice his age. He confuses his coming-of-age feelings with falling in love with Hanna Schmitz and becomes confused and almost devastated when she disappears from his life as suddenly as she had first entered it. Michael is a burgeoning law student when his path crosses Hanna’s again. Hanna is on trial for an unspeakable war crime. As a law student Michael can only guess as to why Hanna does not defend herself, nor does she even try. He spends the duration of the trial wrestling with her apparent guilt as well as the memories of the old passion he no longer feels for her. Obviously there is a lot more to the story but I’ll leave that for you to find out. Like I said, read the book.

Favorite lines: “We did not have a world that we shared; she gave me the space in her life that she wanted me to have” (p 77), and “Illiteracy is dependence” (p 188).

Author Fact: Bernard Schlink has written detective novels as well as short stories.

Book Trivia: The Reader has been translated in over thirty different languages. The movie thing you already know.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “What a Trial That Was!” (p 244).


Gideon’s Trumpet

Lewis, Anthony. Gideon’s Trumpet. New York: Random House, 1964.

If you have ever wondered how the statement “you have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will appointed to you” first came about you should read Gideon’s Trumpet by Anthony Lewis. Gideon’s Trumpet follows the case of Clarence Earl Gideon, a petty thief who had been in and out of jail all his life. After landing in a Florida jail for breaking and entering Gideon managed to file a handwritten petition certiorari with the Supreme Court claiming his right to legal counsel was violated during his trial. the Supreme Court agreed. This launched Gideon v. Wainright, a landmark case that started the evolution of the Miranda Warning. While Lewis’s book is brief it is highly readable and informative. It is easy to see Clarence Gideon, and even the legal system, as real humans making history.

Favorite quote: “Every spring the justices struggle to overcome procrastination, to compromise their differences, to finish up opinions on all the argued cases so that they can end the term in June, as scheduled, and go off to lie in the sun or make speeches at lawyers’ meetings, as the spirit moves them” (p 38). Too funny. Sounds like where I work.

Author Fact: Anthony Lewis resides in MA (according to his wiki page).
Book Trivia: According to IMDB Gideon’s Trumpet was made into a made-for-television movie in 1980.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called “Legal Eagles in Nonfiction” (p 135).


Snow Falling on Cedars

Guterson’s fall back on the descriptions of mildew and a soggy wetness happened enough times that I felt like I had to wring myself out periodically. Snow Falling on Cedars (for those of you who haven’t seen the movie) is about a Washington state coastal community rocked by scandal. A fisherman is found dead in the water. Evidence at the scene points to foul play and incriminates an obvious suspect: a man who has had a well-known, long-standing family grudge against the victim. The most alluring characters are the accused’s wife and a winsome reporter covering the case. Of course, there is history between them and that only complicates the case.

Aside from being “damp” I thoroughly enjoyed Guterson’s novel (liked it better than the movie, of course). The characters are intricate enough that I felt like I was progressively getting to know them as I would in real life. Coming from a close-knit, teeny-tiny fishing community I could relate to the drama and intensity the trial brought to it. Of course, no love story would be complete without a heart wrenching love triangle and this one lives up to the drama.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “What a Trial That Was!” (p 244). Oh! And also from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Living High in Cascadia” (p 153).


A Matter of Conscience

Hoppe, Sherry Lee. A Matter of Conscience: Redemption of a Hometown Hero, Bobby Hoppe.Nashville: Wakestone Press, 2011.

In a nutshell: A Matter of Conscience is about the trial of Bobby Hoppe. 31 years after shooting a man to death the football hero is finally brought to justice.
The first thing I have to say, just to get it out there, is that this is not a neutral, unbiased portrayal of one man’s fall from grace and subsequent redemption. The author fully acknowledges that in her forward. Written by his widow, Sherry Lee Hoppe, Bobby Hoppe is portrayed as a deeply religious man heavy with guilt and regret; a vehemently repentant mama’s boy. Subsequently, from page one his victim, Don Hudson, is painted as the super villain, the guy everyone would have gunned down if Hoppe hadn’t done it first.
Despite his widow’s insistence Hoppe was an angel I had a hard time believing in the depth of Hoppe’s alleged guilt since he never came forward with his self defense claim when the crime was first committed in 1957. True, he may have lived with “demons” for 31 years but he didn’t give much thought to Hudson’s family in that entire time. He probably would have kept his silence indefinitely had it not been for the victim’s family and their never-ending search for justice.
What A Matter of Conscience does really well is paint a socioeconomic picture of North Chattanooga, Tennessee in the late 1950s. Football and bootlegging were the heaven and hell of the day. As a young man in the poverty stricken south you were involved in one or the other. You either played a hero’s game or did the work of the devil. Both earned you a reputation worth fighting for.
But, probably the best aspect to A Matter of Conscience is the heart of the story – the trial. Ms. Hoppe takes you into the court room, puts you behind the defense table, and allows you to have intimate access to every nuance of her husband’s difficult case. Hoppe’s defense team was mesmerizing and the trial, mesmerizing.


Apology

Plato. Dialogues of Plato: Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, Republic. Trans. Jowett. New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1962.

It has been argued long and hard that Plato’s Apology is the true account of the trial of Socrates. As a witness to the trial he transcribes Socrates’s speech in his own defense as he faces his accusers. The court affidavit states Socrates is a “doer of evil; does not believe in the gods of the State, but has other new divinities of his own.” He is, through his own philosophies, corrupting the youth of Athens. Despite his eloquent and passionate speech Socrates is found guilty and sentenced to death by hemlock. Apology covers the trial, the verdict and the sentencing.

I find it interesting that while Plato does not reveal the number of votes that warranted a guilty verdict Socrates states, “but now, had thirty votes gone over to the other side, I should have been acquitted”  (p 32). Found guilty by only 30 votes! Another interesting moment is when Socrates confronts one of his accusers, Meletus. Socrates gets him to contradict the affidavit by admitting he thinks Socrates is an atheist. How can Socrates be both an atheist and someone who worships personal deities?

Favorite lines: “I admit that I am eloquent” (p 5), and “…I was really too honest a man to be a politician…” (p32).

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called What a Trial That Was! (p 243).


Anatomy of a Murder

img_43561Traver, Robert. Anatomy of a Murder. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1958.

If you want to get technical about it this was my first book of December – considering the first two were read while it was still November. A technicality, I guess.

Anatomy of a Murder was written in the 1950s by Robert Traver. From the moment I started reading it I couldn’t put it down. 439 pages went by in a blur. I read before bed, when I first woke, on the drive into work, on my lunch break, waiting in line at the grocery store…It had me hooked from the very first sentence. It’s no wonder this novel became a movie. For starters, take the author – Robert Traver was the pen name for John D. Voelker who happened to be a lawyer and a judge in addition to being a fantastic writer. Secondly, Voelker used a real life murder than took place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. True stories are always fascinating.

So, here’s the story (now that I’ve set the stage, so to speak): Paul (Polly to his friends) Biegler is an ex-D.A. turned public defender set out to prove his client, Frederic Manion, murdered a bartender in a moment of insanity. Proving the insanity isn’t the only challenge of the case. Biegler must also prove Manion’s wife was raped by the bartender (and thus creating the moment of insanity) when all evidence surrounding Mrs. Manion’s attack is not admissible in her husband’s trial. The entire story is so well written you never want it to end.

Some of the many, many lines and phrases I found great:
“gently drunk” (p 13).
“Juries, in common with women drivers, are apt to do the damndest things” (p 39).
“I consider jealousy the most corrosive and destructive of all emotions and I long time ago made up my mind that I refused to be jealous of anyone or anything. Life is simply too goddam short” (p 73).

One last comment. I always thought that lawyers (of any kind) needed to show judges the utmost respect both in the courtroom and in chambers. Right? Well, someone needs to explain the scene on page 244 where Polly is in Judge Weaver’s chambers. Picture this, the Judge has just lit a pipe and Polly sits, “one leg over the arm of [his] chair.” I don’t even sit that way in my mother-in-law’s house!

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter, “What a Trial That Was!” (p 243).