The Street Lawyer by John Grisham

Night on city street during snowstorm, pedestrian barely discernibleIn the first paragraph of The Street Lawyer, novelist John Grisham puts hot-shot lawyer Michael Brock into an elevator with a pungent homeless veteran who minutes later threatens to blow up Drake & Sweeney and its 800 lawyers.

The lawyers survive.

The homeless man does not.

Mike is shaken up by his first-ever encounter with a homeless person. He begins doing research into the causes and responses to homelessness. In the process, he stumbles upon information that shows his own law firm benefiting financially from dumping poor people on the streets.

Mike visits a free legal clinic for the homeless and is fascinated by what he sees. He only has to be asked once to come make sandwiches one weekend, and Mike decides to quit Drake & Sweeney to work with Washington DC’s homeless.

Grisham does all the things writers of crime novels are required to do—bring in bad cops, have his client beaten up, get him a new girlfriend—but he does them in muted ways so they don’t become the whole story.

The story ends predictably but plausibly for Mike, who matures a lot in a few months.

Grisham produces a fast-reading, intriguing tale that leaves readers with a lot to think about.

The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1998. 348 p.
1998 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Like Water for Chocolate

Two Mexican women prepare food Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate defies categorization, as you might guess from the subtitle: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies.

Each of the 12 installments is about some specific event and features a related recipe.

Part romance, part social criticism, and part historical novel, the story feels like a fairy tale. As in fairy tales, the focus is on the story, not on why the story is important.

The story is about Tita De la Garza, who is literally born in a kitchen on a ranch in Mexico around the turn of the 20th century. As she grows older, Tita becomes a culinary artist in a time when cooking was backbreaking labor.

As a teenager, Tita wants to marry Pedro, a neighbor boy. Mama Elena (Tita’s real mother, though she acts like a wicked stepmother) insists Tita, as the youngest daughter, remain unmarried and care for her in her old age. So, Pedro is wedded to Tita’s older sister.

At the wedding (for which Tita has to make the wedding cake), Pedro tells Tita he only married Rosura so he could stay close to her.

If Esquivel’s unusual novel doesn’t tickle your fancy, it will certainly make you appreciate your microwave.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen, trans.
Doubleday. ©1992. 245 p.
1993 bestseller #9; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Butter Battle Book

Yooks on the Butter Battle Book cover march for bread buttered side up
Which side are you on?

From its cover, The Butter Battle Book appears to be another Dr. Seuss picture book with rhymed text for children.

However, inside is an anti-war message for adults by the man behind the pseudonym, Theodor Seuss Geisel.

The Yooks and the Zooks live on opposite sides of The Wall. Zooks eat their bread butter side down while the Yooks eat theirs butter side up.

A young Yook, encouraged by his grandfather, begins throwing increasingly dangerous missiles across the wall at the Zooks, who retaliate with increasingly more lethal weapons of their own.

The Big War is inevitable.

The Yooks hide in a hole in the ground as the grandfather, leaps up on the wall to drop a bomb on the Zooks and finds himself eye-to-eye with a Zook with a bomb to drop.

Who will drop it first?

The book ends with the words, “We will see” opposite a blank page.

The last page of the story is followed by a blank page
The blank page at the right should be read as the end of the story.

The Library of Congress classified the book as (1) War-Fiction and (2) Stories in rhyme, both more fitting than the children’s collections where it tends to end up.

Today, 30 years after the Berlin Wall came down, The Butter Battle Book is a Cold War Era relic out of place among Dr. Seuss’s children’s books.

The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss
Random House. 1984. Unpaginated
1984 bestseller # 5: My grade: C-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

“…And Ladies of the Club”

A lady dressed for 1868 club meeting on cover of “...And Ladies of the Club”
font and image recall 1860s

“…And Ladies of the Club” opens in 1868 as Congressman General Deming tells Waynesboro Female College graduates, “The hand that rocks the cradle is mightier than the hand that wields the sabre.”

The novel focused primarily on two graduates, Anne Gordon and Sally Rausch, reveals the truth underlying that cliché.

Both graduates are invited to become founding members of a local women’s literary club.

Sally accepts because she thinks the club might become influential in Waynesboro.

Anne accepts because Sally did: She can back out later.

Sally marries a German immigrant, Ludwig Rausch, a man with a passion for machinery and endowed with a business shrewdness equal to any Yankee’s.

Anne marries her childhood sweetheart, a doctor scarred by his experiences as a military surgeon and his family history.

Helen Hooven Santmyer traces the interwoven lives of the two women, their families, their small town, and America up until 1932.

Politics, wars, economic booms and depressions, social and technological changes are revealed the way people felt them.

“…And Ladies of the Club” is a marvelous work of historical fiction with an historical sweep and psychological intimacy equaling Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, John Galsworthy’s Forsythe novels, and Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown.

“…And Ladies of the Club”
by Helen Hooven Santmyer
Putnam’s. ©1982. 1176 p
1986 bestseller #6. My grade: A+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Jailbird: An oddball in dark places

Title page of Jailbird shows a yellow bird sitting a a tea cup.
The bird, a prothononotary warbler appears in the novel.

Jailbird is not what you’d expect from Kurt Vonnegut’s fertile imagination.

Jailbird is a fictional memoir combining a few oddball characters with a raft of real characters who commit immoral and criminal acts in public places.

Jailbird’s fictional narrator, Walter F. Starbuck, can do nothing right, even when he follows good advice.

The son of immigrant employees of a millionaire industrialist who sends him to Harvard, Walter holds a federal job until he inadvertently betrays a friend and is fired.

Walter’s wife to support him.

Walter finally gets work again in the Nixon administration, where he gets caught in the Watergate scandal and goes to jail.

Released in 1977, he goes to New York where he unlawfully fails to reveal a will  and soon is on his way back to jail.

Vonnegut cannot avoid including a few laugh-out-loud wise cracks and off-beat perspectives on ordinary life, but on the whole Jailbird is a dark novel.

Vonnegut uses the fictional Walter to examine the real history of labor relations in the U.S., the Sacco and Vanzatti trial, the McCarthy investigations of subversive elements, and the unequal distribution of wealth in America.

Vonnegut’s Walter, when asked why he concerns himself with the working class responds, “Why? The Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, ©1979. 246 p.
1979 bestseller #5 My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Overload: Inside the power industry

A blacked-out city and list of Arthur Hailey's other bestsellers are on the dust jacket of "Overload".
O in Overload shows city blackout.

Overload, like several other Arthur Hailey’s bestsellers, goes inside an industry the public takes for granted and reveals the internal problems the public rarely sees—the ones that could change their lives.

Overload is about the fictitious Golden State Power and Light, which its critics say is amassing huge profits to the benefit of stockholders and the detriment of electric and gas customers.

Nim Goldman is the too-outspoken assistant to GSP&L’s chairman. Goldman knows California production facilities are barely adequate to meet the ’70s energy demands. Without more energy generation and diversified energy sources, Goldman predicts an electrical famine within a decade.

Davey Birdsong, a colorful and dynamic activist, leads the popular opposition to anything that raises utility rates. The Sequoia Club has formed an uneasy, and secret, alliance with Birdsong.

Goldman has the usual discretely described sexual conquests typical of a Hailey leading man.

But Overload is unusual in two ways: Goldman is more sexually predatory than the usual Hailey hero, and two of the novel’s sub plots are awkwardly wedged into the main tale.

Despite its flaws, Overload is a page-turner whose picture of America’s energy problems and the inefficiency of government regulation of the power industry are still valid.

Overload by Arthur Hailey
Doubleday, ©1979. 515 p.
1979 bestseller #3 My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Slapstick: or, Lonesome no more!

As he did in Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut begins Slapstick: or Lonesome No More with a personal reference.

A clown with SLAPSTICK written where his lips should be is on novel's cover
Slapstick’s clownish dust jacket cover hides a serious message.

Vonnegut tells of flying with his brother to their uncle’s funeral and missing their sister who died from cancer two days after her husband died in a accident, leaving four children to be brought up by family members.

That, and seeing a performance of Tosca, starts him imagining a novel in the spirit of Laurel and Hardy who “did their best with every test.”

Slapstick is a series of loosely connected episodes about Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, M.D., age 100, currently one of three inhabitants of the Empire State Building (most other residents of Manhattan have been killed by plague) and former president of the United States.

Swain won the Presidency with the slogan “Lonesome No More” and instituted a program in which Americans were assigned to families identifiable by middle names consisting of a noun and a number.

Vonnegut’s absurd characters are no more real than a Laurel and Hardy sketch, but realism is not his point.

His characters are parables, zany to get your attention and direct it to a message:

“Human beings need all the relatives they can get—as possible donors or receivers not necessarily of love, but of common decency.”

Slapstick: or, Lonesome no more!
By Kurt Vonnegut. ©1976. 243 p.
Delacorte Press/S.Lawrence
1976 bestseller #7. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Choirboys are no angels

The Choirboys in blue carry billy clubs like this one.

Author Joseph Wambaugh knows cops. He worked 14 years for the Los Angeles Police Department until, with two novels and a nonfiction book to his credit, he quit to write full time.

The Choirboys is a about five sets of partners working the LAPD night shift. They are an oddly-assorted bunch, including military veterans, college graduates, do-gooders and do-others-first types.

They have nothing in common except the shared misery of doing a thankless job directed by incompetent supervisors for a public that hates their guts — and choir practice.

Choir practice is what the boys in blue call their weekly booze and broads bacchanals in MacArthur Park.

Officially, choir practice doesn’t happen because nothing LAPD officials refuse to admit happens, happens.

The guys in the patrol cars are on their own with disastrous results.

Less a novel than a collection of episodes, without Wambaugh’s frequent references to the shooting that would happen later The Choirboys would hardly pass for a novel: 10 main characters are about eight too many.

Wambaugh gets the details right, though. The topics of conversation and the language remind me of working the police beat as a newspaper reporter—and of why I hated working the police beat.

Cops are not choir boys.

The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh
Delacorte Press ©1975 346 p.
1975 bestseller #1. My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Hailey’s Wheels is flat.

In Airport, novelist Arthur Hailey used a single fictional airport to put in the infrastructure needs of American’s airports in human perspective.

Black dust jacket of wheels has only tiny figures of people standing around a car.
Not a very racy cover for a book about cars.

In Wheels he attempts to tell the behind-the-scenes story of the entire auto industry. He can’t squeeze it all into an average-length novel.

Wheels has three main stories: The marriage of Adam Trenton, who is head of General Motor’s newest product launch, and his sexually under-served wife, Erica; the relationship of GM product designer Brett DeLosanto and Barbara Zaleski, an ad agency creative working for auto industry clients; and Rollie Knight, a black ex-con who gets a job at GM through an employment program aimed at Detroit’s home-grown underclass.

Those three stories would be plenty for a novel, but Hailey brings in two others to give a rounded picture of the industry. In the process, he lets the air out of the main stories.

In its own way, each of the three stories’ endings is as unsatisfactory as a Monday-built automobile.

Hailey’s allusions to current events probably kept 1970’s readers attention, but they they won’t gain much traction with 2018 readers: Today Hailey would need to give free car washes to every reader who finishes the novel.

Wheels by Arthur Hailey
Doubleday, 1971. 374 p.
1971 bestseller #1. My grade: B-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight is a comic novel about unfunny topics, such as murder, written by an angry man.

Dust jacket of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot StraightAuthor Jimmy Breslin, a brash New York Daily News columnist, invents a gang war between a Mafia don “Papa Baccala” and malcontents who want to get a bigger share of the proceeds: 100 percent is the figure they have in mind.

Instead of liquidating his opposition, Baccala decides to keep them quiet by letting them organize a six-day bike race and keep most of the money.

The opposition, led by Kid Sally Palumbo (Palumbo rhymes with Dumbo, get it?) are total incompetents.

Breslin makes fun of the incompetent crooks he invented, but beneath the sometimes ribald humor is a deep anger against competent political crooks and the intertwined police and justice systems that work against the innocent.

The film rights to Gang were sold before the book came out, which probably accounts for the novel’s sales: The novel is mostly a series of theatrical sight gags, funnier seen than read about.

The novel’s lasting contribution is undoubtedly its title: Referring to an organization as “a gang that can’t shoot straight” has become shorthand for systemic incompetence.

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight by Jimmy Breslin
Viking Press, ©1969. 249 p.
1970 bestseller #7. My grade: C-

Reviewer’s note: Breslin died March 19, 2017.

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni