A well-constructed nonfiction legal thriller from prizewinning journalist Leamer (Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach, 2009, etc.).
In 1998, Harman Coal Company, owned by Hugh Caperton, was destroyed in what was proven through the court system to have been a fraudulent declaration of “force majeure” by Donald Blankenship, then chairman of the massive coal company Massey Energy, one of the largest employers in West Virginia. Leamer uses the more than 14 years of court battles, organized by Dave Fawcett and Bruce Stanley, Caperton’s Pittsburgh lawyers, as the scaffold on which he unfolds this amazing account of contemporary political corruption, skulduggery and mayhem, a situation compared by the New York Times to John Grisham's courtroom drama The Appeal. When, in 2002, Blankenship was defeated and Caperton awarded $50 million in damages, the coal king proceeded to buy his way through West Virginia's elected Supreme Court of Appeals to overthrow the verdict. According to Leamer, Blankenship gave “more money, by far [$3 million plus], than any other group or individual in any one judicial contest.” The refusal of a corrupt judge to recuse himself was successfully pursued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared that “a fair trial in a fair tribunal is a fundamental constitutional right.” This, however, was not enough to secure financial redress for Caperton, whose appeals in West Virginia were rejected for a third time in 2009. The vote, his lawyers believed, “was not just a defeat but also an insult and attempt to silence them.” The case proceeded against a background of blackmail, negligence and mining disasters, which eventually combined to precipitate Blankenship's ouster.
An eye-opening story about the relations among politics, business and justice.
The bad seed/nurture vs. nature theme updated as a teenaged sniper’s mother tries to understand the why behind her son’s criminality, in a series of letters to her not so mysteriously absent husband.
Two years earlier, when he was not quite 16, Kevin Khatchadourian went on a murderous rampage and now lives in a juvenile facility, where his mother Eva visits him regularly if joylessly. Although she has won a civil suit brought by a grieving mother who held her parenting responsible for Kevin’s acts, Eva does not doubt her accountability any more than she doubts Kevin’s guilt. Is she a bad mother? Is he a devil child? The implied answer to both is yes. Eva and her husband Franklin were happily married until she became pregnant in her late 30s. The successful publisher of bohemian travel guides who loves her work, Eva is more ambivalent than Franklin about the prospect of parenthood. When Kevin is born, her lack of instantaneous maternal love is exacerbated by Kevin’s rejection of her breast. The baby shows—or she sees—plenty of early signs that he is “different.” He refuses to talk until he’s three or toilet train until he’s six—a matter of choice, not ability. Babysitters quit; other children fear him. Franklin, a bland, all-American type about whom Eva talks lovingly but condescendingly, notices nothing wrong. He defends Kevin against all accusations. When Eva’s daughter Celia is born, the contrast between the children is startling. Celia is sweet-natured, passive, and a bit dim, and Eva is amazed how naturally she and the girl bond. Meanwhile, Kevin grows into a creepily vicious adolescent whose only hobby is archery. The impending disaster is no surprise despite Shriver’s coyly dropped hints. Eva’s acid social commentary and slightly arch voice only add to the general unpleasantness—which isn’t to say Shriver lacks skill, since unpleasantness appears to be her aim.
Not for the faint-hearted or those contemplating parenthood.
Nearly three decades of scandal, expertly exposed.
The explosive child-molestation scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church in recent years began as a handful of tenuous legal cases in the mid-1980s. Former Newsday reporter D’Antonio (Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O'Malley, Baseball's Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles, 2009, etc.) traces the history of these scandals from those first few cases in Louisiana and Minnesota to the national and international news sensations they would one day become. The author weaves a captivating tale of legal drama set against the backdrop of an intransigent ecclesiastical hierarchy. The real-life characters of the story range from colorful to tragic; flamboyant lawyers, alcoholic clerics and activist abuse survivors all help make the story a true page-turner. Yet, while entertaining as a work of legal drama, readers are struck on every page by the horror behind the history. D’Antonio presents the terrible facts of underage sexual abuse, though without making his work prurient. He conveys, however, a double tragedy. Molestation and rape are bad enough, but when coupled with an institutional and almost universal disregard for the victim by church officials, the book becomes an ethical commentary on a grand scale. Though D’Antonio sometimes concentrates on the personal lives of his characters in ways that appear like he is filling out a novel (“While driving alone or wheeling a cart through the aisles of the local Cub Supermarket in the middle of the night, Julie found herself overwhelmed by fears and doubts”), these overdramatized word pictures do little to detract from the service D’Antonio has done in compiling this history of scandal. In a readable manner, he has helped document a watershed era in the life of the Roman Catholic Church.
Riveting and fascinating—sure to serve future generations well as they look back on this era.
A thoughtful consideration of the massive challenges and moral burdens faced by individuals paroled after long sentences for the most severe of infractions.
German-born Heinlein possessed understandable trepidation regarding the pursuit of this project through the labyrinth of “re-entry” from the American prison system: “It is hard to look a murderer in the face….Yet considering the rising number of murderers being released from prison, it becomes harder and harder to turn away.” In 2007, while receiving a master’s degree in journalism from NYU, she began attending events at the Fortune Society (“the crème de la crème of American halfway houses”) in upper Manhattan, following three men as they acclimated themselves to urban society after a quarter-century or longer behind bars. Heinlein develops authentic, nuanced portrayals of her central characters, noting that while all showed remorse and dealt admirably with the challenges of re-entry, questions regarding their redemption remain tricky. Arguing that, since murder sentences represent the extremes of incarceration, their re-entry process would be the most difficult, she observed the three as they dealt with everything from relationships with women to dining in neighborhood restaurants, as well as more profound issues such as their own determination to rebuild their lives and make up for lost years. As she got to know them and weighed their own responses to the moral quandaries of their crimes and punishments, the author makes sharp observations about the tattered world inhabited by released convicts. Heinlein notes that almost “no one employs ex-cons except the agencies that promise to help them,” particularly in hard economic times.
A deeply compassionate book that poses urgent questions about the end product of imprisonment and the social thirst for vengeance.
The successor to Tartt’s wildly successful debut (The Secret History, 1992) is another ambitious dark-hued melodrama—destined for big sales, though it’s an intermittently creaky performance.
The burden of sorrow that afflicts the family of a murdered child, an introspective preadolescent turned avenger and detective, and a clan of redneck malcontents who make Faulkner’s Snopeses look like the Sitwells are among the lurid materials tossed amiably together in this very long, very overheated, yet absorbing novel. It begins magnificently, with a tense prologue that describes the discovery of nine-year-old Robin Dufresnes’s hanged body on a hot Mother’s Day afternoon in a small Mississippi town. The story then leaps ahead 12 years, to show us Robin’s mother Charlotte still paralyzed by grief, his sister Allison (unable to remember what she alone presumably witnessed) sleeping 16 hours a day, and her younger sister Harriet—bookish and virtually friendless—persuaded that she knows who killed her brother (the murder was never solved), and how to punish him. Tartt whips up a townful of vivid eccentrics (prominent among them are the Dufresnes girls’ four unmarried great-aunts, from whom Harriet solicits details about their family’s hushed-up history), creating a rich backdrop against which Harriet and her partner in intrigue, an ingenuous boy named Hely Hull (who adores her), evade embarrassments like church camp and parental discipline, eavesdrop on a passel of sinister snake-handlers (thereby discovering the perfect instrument of revenge), and pit themselves against the local white-trash Ratliff brothers, led by murderous psychopath Farish, who conceals the amphetamines he produces in a remote water tower. Despite an overload of staggered false climaxes, it’s all quite irrationally entertaining. Direct allusions and glancing references alike make clear that The Little Friend is Tartt’s homage to the romantic adventure novels of Twain and Stevenson—and, for much of its length, a rather bald-faced imitation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Still, the characters are gritty and appealing, and the story holds you throughout. Tartt appears to have struck gold once again.
Whatever they do in the dark, Coe makes it clear there’s plenty of darkness in which to do it.
At the center of the novel is Lallie Paluza, a pre-pubescent star on the British telly in the mid ’70s. Lallie is undeniably talented, doing an assortment of impressions as well as a kind of Vaudevillian farce in her popular sitcom, and some of her most ardent fans are about her age. Primary among these fans (it’s good to remember that “fan” derives from “fanatic”) are Pauline Bright and Gemma, who follow every show with breathless excitement. Pauline is a “bad” girl from the wrong side of the tracks. She comes from a family notorious for producing petty criminals, and she seems heading in the same direction, for she lies, fights, skips school and swears with abandon. Gemma, in contrast, comes from a more genteel family, but one that’s emotionally distant and dysfunctional (as Tolstoy might remind us) in its own way. Lallie-fever gets unbearably intense when the girls find out that she will be coming to their bleak Yorkshire town to shoot a movie. Not only do they hope to meet her, they also hope to get bit parts in the film. Coe switches narrators from the naïve and somewhat prim Gemma to a neutral, third-person voice that introduces us to an eccentric cast of supporting characters such as Frank, Lallie’s febrile and twitchy manager, who wonders what will happen to his own professional life when Lallie hits adolescence; Katrina, Lallie’s stage mother, who both protects and exploits her daughter; Vera, an aging actress who resents being upstaged by a 10-year-old; and Quentin, a sex-obsessed American producer who’s trying to decide whether Lallie would be right for a part in The Little Princess.
A rich novel that explores the “darkness” of social dysfunction both in 10-year-olds and in the adult world.
A high-class meal provides an unlikely window into privilege, violence and madness.
Paul, the narrator of this caustic tale, initially appears to be an accomplished man who’s just slightly eccentric and prone to condescension: As he and his wife prepare for a pricey dinner with his brother and sister-in-law, he rhetorically rolls his eyes at wait staff, pop culture and especially his brother, a rising star in the Dutch political world. The mood is mysteriously tense in the opening chapters, as the foursome talk around each other, and Paul’s contempt expands. The source of the anxiety soon becomes evident: Paul’s teenage son, along with Paul’s brother’s children, was involved in a violent incident, and though the videos circulating on TV and YouTube are grainy, there’s a high risk they’ll be identified. The formality of the meal is undone by the parents’ desperate effort to keep a lid on the potential scandal: Sections are primly titled “Aperitif,” “Appetizer” and so on, but Koch deliberately sends the narrative off-menu as it becomes clear that Paul’s anxiety is more than just a modest personality tic, and the foursome’s high-toned concerns about justice and egalitarianism collapse into unseemly self-interest. The novel can be ineffectually on the nose when it comes to discussions of white guilt and class, the brothers’ wives are thin characters, and scenes meant to underscore Paul’s madness have an unrealistic vibe that show Koch isn’t averse to a gratuitous, melodramatic shock or two. Even so, Koch’s slow revelation of the central crisis is expertly paced, and he’s opened up a serious question of what parents owe their children, and how much of their character is passed on to them.
At its best, a chilling vision of the ugliness of keeping up appearances.
An al-Qaida watcher lends some farsighted insight into the group’s motivation and direction.
Editor-in-chief of the London newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, Atwan (A Country of Words: A Palestinian Journey from the Refugee Camp to the Front Page, 2009, etc.) has evidently been studying the terrorist organization for decades (he interviewed Osama bin Laden twice). Here, he presents a wealth of strategic information and cleareyed assessment that casts American efforts in a fairly naïve light. There are some essential givens about the group that need to be grasped before an effective approach can be tendered: that the organization has only grown horizontally since the killing of bin Laden, so much so that the elimination of one leader only leads to martyrdom and replacement by others; the group is inextricably linked to the Taliban and will probably be present as the Taliban moves back into Afghanistan with the vacuum of American withdrawal; and the group has anticipated the fall of the Arab dictators and the re-establishment of an Islamic Caliphate across the Arab world, which looks something like the Arab Spring. Indeed, senior leaders such as Ayman Al-Zawahiri have been preaching this philosophy for some time. Atwan offers a chilling narrative that covers the group’s activity in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, where it hopes for its strongest toehold; Iraq and Afghanistan, as the U.S. departs; the Maghreb, Africa, Indonesia, China and even ex-Soviet Muslim states; and an increase in “lone wolf” jihadist attacks in the West. Moreover, the group has cunningly adapted the Internet for its ideological spread.
A devastating history-cum-exposé of the Church of Scientology.
Wright has written about religion on several occasions (Saints and Sinners, 1993; Remembering Satan, 1994) and received a Pulitzer Prize for his book on terrorism (The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, 2006)—all of which clearly served as excellent training for this book. It begins, of course, with the life of L. Ron Hubbard, a manic-depressive, wannabe naval hero, sci-fi writer and self-styled shaman who “believed that the secrets of existence were accidentally revealed to him” after receiving a gas anesthetic in the dentist’s chair. After that experience, the visions kept arriving, leading to his 1950 self-help best-seller, Dianetics, which laid the groundwork for a “religion” where “thetans” (souls) are stymied by “engrams,” self-destructive suggestive impulses lodged in the brain (not a few of which were inflicted on mankind following an intergalactic war that took place 75 million years ago). Through personal, deeply revelatory counseling sessions known as auditing, adherents deal with these obstacles, and for wealthy celebrities, Scientology (and its many Hollywood connections) has supposedly cleared the path to success. It has also destroyed many others, usually less well-heeled people from within, who raise questions or try to leave, or outside forces (journalists, the IRS, family members) investigating the church’s multiple personal or financial abuses. Wright exposes the church’s many sins: covert espionage, psychological torment, threatened blackmail using confidential information from auditing sessions and constant physical assaults on members by tyrannical current leader David Miscavage. The author is also interested in something deeper: If it's all a con, why is everyone involved (especially the late Hubbard) so deeply invested in its beliefs? Wright doesn't go out of his way to exaggerate the excesses of Scientology; each page delivers startling facts that need no elaboration.
A patient, wholly compelling investigation into a paranoid “religion” and the faithful held in its sweaty grip.
A raucous black comedy about corporate management that’s tailor-made for anybody who’s ever gone to the office feeling like a lab rat.
When Stephen Jones, fresh out of college, arrives at the Seattle headquarters of Zephyr Holdings, he’s understandably eager to learn more about his new employer. Alas, Zephyr’s official mission statement (“to build and consolidate leadership positions in its chosen markets”) is no help, and his coworkers seem to spend more time investigating who stole a donut than actually working. In the first 70 pages, Barry (Jennifer Government, 2003, etc.) takes whacks at dysfunctional office culture, and the gags rarely rise above sitcom-level wackiness—one employee’s attempt to claim stupidity as a disability is taken seriously by the HR department, for example. But the book enters some sublimely Kafkaesque territory once Jones discovers his employer’s real purpose: Zephyr is, in fact, a training lab where new management theories are secretly tested on human subjects. If you change a project team’s goals every few hours, how long will it take them to break? What’s the best way to humiliate smokers and make them more productive? How do you threaten employees with layoffs while keeping up morale? Jones signs on for Project Alpha, under the wing of Eve Jantiss, a corporate functionary who’s as callous and cutthroat as they come. But once Zephyr requires whole departments to be consolidated or garroted, a disgusted Jones begins to sabotage Project Alpha and foment open revolt at the company. Much of the rhetoric in later chapters about how Zephyr workers are human beings, not fungible parts, would pack a stronger punch if we got to know the characters better—many of Jones’s coworkers are locked into simple subplots. But the author’s shrewd observations about corporate life still register.
Comic relief for any b-school grads (or Office Space fans) who’ve had their fill of Collins, Drucker and Peters.