THE BEST OF THE LAW: MEET HORACE RUMPOLE

The most recent category in The Field Library’s Reading Challenge for 2019 is “Read a Book About Law,” and frankly, that’s probably the easiest category of the lot.  If you want fiction, there’s the usual Grisham and Turow, Grippando and Scottoline, just to name the most obvious and popular choices. If you’re more a nonfiction person, there are books about famous trials, famous Supreme Court cases, about the operation of the District Attorney’s office, the U.S. Department of Justice, criminal and civil law practitioners.  Nobody should have any trouble finding a book he or she wants to read in this category, but I just want to recommend what I consider to be the best series of books about law and lawyers around: the Rumpole books by John Mortimer. We have a couple of them here at The Field Library, including The First Rumpole Omnibus, which contains Rumpole of the Bailey, The Trials of Rumpole and Rumpole’s Return, a fabulous introduction to this wonderful character and his world.

Horace Rumpole, if you’ve never encountered him in print or on television (Leo McKern portrayed him, brilliantly, on the old Mystery! Series on PBS), is definitely a character.  A British barrister who’s been around the block many times, senior to most of the other barristers in his chambers (don’t worry, you’ll learn all the British terms for the practice of law by reading Rumpole), forever an ordinary barrister and not Queen’s Counsel (which Rumpole refers to as “Queer Customer”), the kind of barrister who gets the high paying, high prestige cases.  While barristers can choose to prosecute or defend accused criminals (and some do both), Rumpole is resolute: he never prosecutes (his argument is that he doesn’t want to be responsible for putting some poor unfortunate in jail), but only does defense. He loves trying cases, and while (as is almost always the case in criminal defense) he loses a lot of his cases, he has more tricks up his sleeve, a greater ability to draw out the truth in cross examination and a greater ability to size up and persuade a jury than almost all of the other barristers around him.  He drinks too much (his favorite cheap drink is a vintage he refers to as “Chateau Thames Embankment” or “Chateau Fleet Street”; in one of my favorite stories he’s involved with wine connoisseurs, where he’s hilariously out of his league), he smokes cigars incessantly, he eats badly and refuses to follow any trends. He’s sarcastic and well-read, and he is riotously funny.

Rumpole is such a great character I would read his escapades even if he were the only person in the stories, but half the enjoyment of the stories lies in the supporting cast, from his long-suffering wife, Hilda (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”, as Rumpole calls her behind her back), to the Timson family which seems to consist of thieves, burglars, fences and general fodder for Rumpole’s work, to the (shifting) population of Rumpole’s chambers, all of whom are individualized and given their own nicknames by Rumpole.  He appears before some judges more than once, so you get to recognize them by their names and their behaviors, but even those we only see once are memorable characters in their own right.

Through the many stories (only Rumpole’s Return is a full length novel), we get to see the English justice system in action, we learn the difference between barristers and solicitors, and we get to know an extraordinary collection of characters on all sides of the law.  Honestly, if you want the best possible introduction to the glories and tribulations of the law, you could hardly do better than starting with Horace Rumpole.

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THE ROAD GOES EVER ON: THE PARADE

Dave Eggers’ new book, The Parade, is a very unusual kind of novel.  It doesn’t have conventional characters, a conventional setting, or most of the accouterments of modern novels, and to top it all off, it’s extremely short, more like a novella than a novel. But after a somewhat slow start, the book sneaks up on you so that by the time you reach the climax, you’re both surprised and moved by what you’ve been reading.

The Parade starts out, and seems to be for most of its length, a simple, fable-like story.  There are two main characters, neither of whom has a name (nobody in the whole book has a name, in fact, which takes some getting used to).  They refer to themselves by numbers, our protagonist being Four and his co-worker being Nine. They’ve been flown in to a place in the middle of a southern part of this unnamed country which has just ended a war.  Their job is to pave a road that joins the southern part of the country, the more rural part, where the recent rebellion took place, with the northern part, the more urban and sophisticated part where the seat of the government was, and is again. The idea is that the country will be united physically after the cease fire, and there will be all kinds of good things coming to the south as a result of this new road, starting with a fancy parade from the north on the preplanned day of the road’s completion.  

From the start, we feel we have a pretty clear idea of what kind of people our main characters are.  Four is a rule-keeper, a man who’s driven the machines that spread the asphalt and paint the lines on the roads for years and years.  He’s worked for this company for, apparently, most of his life, and he sets a high value on doing the job right, not getting distracted, not getting involved with outsiders and being punctual and hardworking.  Nine, whose job is to go ahead of Four on a quad, making sure there are no possible obstructions, living or otherwise, to slow down the paver, the RS-80, on its way, is the opposite of Four. Sloppy where Four is tidy, rash where Four is cautious, willing to ignore the rules when he feels like it, eager to interact with the locals through whose lands they pass, Nine is guaranteed to drive Four to distraction.  Four puts up with Nine’s antics as long as they don’t delay the mission, but he imagines how he’s going to get back at Nine for his insubordination and his recklessness.

Along the way, Nine gets into increasing amounts of trouble, and Four finds himself interacting with the locals much more than he ever intended to do.  He’s suspicious and annoyed at himself for bending, and then breaking, the rules, especially when he does so to help Nine, but gradually (VERY gradually) we come to see some of the human side of Four and see him as more than the Felix Unger of this odd couple.  I have to give Eggers credit here for his use of details: the food Four eats, the way he deals with his tent, the way he plugs his earphones in to blot out the sounds of the rest of the world, are all things we begin to see differently as we get to know the character better.  By the end of the book, I even came to feel some sympathy for Four, rigid as he often seems and acts.

I’m not going to give away the plot. It’s the kind of book that’s better experienced than explained. Suffice it to say that, while I had some intimations about where the story would ultimately go, it still packed a surprising wallop at the climax. If you want a short, relatively quick read that makes you think after you’re finished, check out The Parade.

HOW TO FIX YOUR BOOK GROUP

I’m going to assume, rightly or wrongly, that the people who are interested in reading a blog about books, especially new books, and about library goings-on are also people who tend to belong to book clubs.  I run a book group here at The Field Library myself, and am starting another book group at a nearby Senior Living Community (hi, Drum Hill!), but as a library clerk, I also have dealings with other people who are in different book groups.  When four or five patrons come in within a day of each other, all looking for a particular book, odds are good that they’re trying to get the book for their book club.

Maybe you’ve encountered something like this yourself.  A book is chosen for the group, and of course everybody needs to read it before the next meeting (or at least everybody tries to read it before the next meeting).  You have a choice: you can either buy the book (electronically or in print), or you can try to borrow it from your local library. If you don’t know much about the book and aren’t sure you’re going to want to keep it, or if you’re not the kind of person who wants to accumulate books for whatever reason, or you just don’t want to spend money if you don’t have to (all legitimate aims, by the way), you’re going to go to the library to try to get a copy there.

And then you run into a problem, because the person choosing the book for the group hasn’t checked to see if there are any copies available at the local library.  Maybe it’s a new, popular book, a bestseller even, so the book chooser just assumes every library has it. Probably every library does have it, maybe even a couple of copies of it, but because it’s new and popular, all those copies are checked out, and even if you put it on hold, there might be a number of holds already on the book ahead of you (sometimes hundreds, literally), which decreases your chances of getting the book before your next meeting.  Or maybe it’s an older, more obscure book, and there simply aren’t enough copies in the library system to accommodate all the members of your book group.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  When I offer choices of books to the Field Notes Book Group, I’ve already checked to make sure there are enough copies of that book available in the system (not already checked out, not already on hold) that everyone in the group can get one. You can do this, too: check the catalog and look at the number of copies the library system has of the book, and decide accordingly.  If it’s the hottest book of the month and there are a hundred copies, all of which are checked out, and there are three hundred holds, maybe that’s not the book you want to choose for this month. Maybe you want to wait a couple of months so more copies will be available. Maybe your friendly librarian could suggest another book that is more readily available that would also be a great read and discussion starter.  

My personal feeling is that you shouldn’t have to spend money in order to join a book discussion group.  Reading should be free, and the pleasures of reading a book together and talking about it shouldn’t be limited to people who can afford to buy a new hardcover or e-book every month.  Check out your library before you choose the book. Ask for help. I know I’d be delighted to advise book group leaders on good reading selections that their members can get their hands on quickly.  

Give it a try.  You have nothing to lose but your frustrations.

BEYOND THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE: LOST AND WANTED

If you’re interested in a new novel that takes on questions of science and faith, of female friendship and the power of the different kinds of love, try Lost and Wanted, by Nell Freudenberger.

Back in the day, Helen Clapp and Charlotte Boyce were closer than sisters, the kind of friends who told each other everything about their lives.  They were college roommates at Harvard, and shared all their struggles and triumphs at school and after: the time a professor hit on Charlie, Helen’s frustrations as a young woman trying to make her way in the world of science, Charlie’s troubles trying to break into the world of Hollywood screenwriting as a black woman, the challenges they both faced as parents.  But as Helen advanced to a tenure track professorship at MIT, wrote bestselling books that explained science to lay people, and arrived at a breakthrough in the esoteric field of fifth dimensional space, Charlie began to disappear from her life. Their calls grew less and less frequent, Charlie became more elusive, and Helen, if she thought of Charlie, assumed they were just growing apart.

Until Charlie died suddenly, and Helen suddenly realized what she’d been missing.

So far, you might think you’re reading a normal “women’s fiction” book, but things take a bit of an odd turn. After Charlie’s death, Helen gets a phone call from her.  This is impossible in Helen’s scientific view of the world, and yet, she can’t help believing that this really was Charlie talking to her, and that brings Helen back into Charlie’s world, her memories of her friendship with Charlie and everything that went along with that, including her long-ago relationship with Neel Jonnal, a prize-winning physicist who’s on the verge of winning a Nobel Prize.  Helen is forced to reconsider the choices she’s made in her life, the rules of science which have always limited and steadied her world.

Did something supernatural happen?  Does friendship survive death?  Are there second chances in life?  Read Lost and Wanted to find out.

 

 

 

NEW AND EXCITING HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

While we’re waiting for the Westchester Library System to make the full transition to its new software, and all the books released after February 18 are finally available (and not just sitting on a table in the back of the library, waiting for cataloging!), let’s focus some attention on books released before the freeze.  In this particular case, I want to call your attention to some of the newest history books available here at the Field, ranging from England in the 1600’s to Revolutionary War era America, to Hawaii and California in the early part of the 20th century.

The Familiars, by Stacey Halls, takes us to the era of one of the most famous witch hunts in English history, the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 (a good 80 years before our own famous Salem witch trials), through the persons of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a young wife trying to find a way to survive her latest pregnancy, and Alice Gray, a midwife promising to help her.  As the fear of witchcraft heightens in the countryside, Alice falls under suspicion, and Fleetwood is forced to wonder whether this woman is really just the healing woman she says she is or whether her skills come from a pact with the devil. And in either case, if Alice is in danger of being tried and executed as a witch, how will Fleetwood and her baby survive?  A different look at witch trials, The Familiars asks the question of how much witch scares were reflections of fears about women in general.

If I told you that Dear George, Dear Mary, by Mary Calvi, is about our first President, odds are that you’d be thinking “Mary? You mean Martha, don’t you?”  After all, we all know that Martha Washington was George Washington’s wife. However, before he was President, before he knew or married Martha Dandridge Custis, George Washington fell in love with another woman, Mary Philipse, a New York heiress and one of the richest women in North America (the name Philipse should sound familiar to people like me who live in Westchester County). The novel, based on hundreds of letters and journal entries and other primary sources, gives us a different portrait of the Founding Father, not only his private life but also the origins of his feelings about Great Britain and the sources of the greatness he would demonstrate in the American Revolution and later.  Why George didn’t marry Mary Philipse, what happened to Mary, and how the two of them lived their respective destinies is the heart of this fascinating historical novel.

Want to go a little farther afield in your historical fiction?  How about trying Alan Brennert’s sequel to his bestselling Moloka’i, the newly published Daughter of Moloka’i, which takes place in Hawaii and California in the early part of the 20th century.  The protagonist, Ruth, was born in the leper colony at Kalaupapa to a woman suffering from leprosy, and given up for adoption.  Adopted by a Japanese couple who raise her on a grape and stawberry farm in California (you have an idea where this is going, don’t you?), Ruth is sent to the internment camp at Manzanar.  After the war, however, she is contacted by Rachel, who claims to be her biological mother, and comes to discover the truth about her past, and about Rachel’s life in the leper colony. The two women, separated for most of Ruth’s life, find their similarities and their differences and the great love that binds them together despite everything.

 

EXPLORING THE DARK SECRETS OF THE PAST: THE NEXT FIELD NOTES SELECTION

After a vigorous and interesting discussion of The Kinship of Secrets, talking about secrets and families, about the differences between cultures and within cultures, about what constitutes good writing and what doesn’t, the Field Notes Book Group chose our book for our March meeting, which will take place at The Field Library on March 16 at 11:00.  The book is A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick.  Copies will be available at the circulation desk this week.

A Reliable Wife is a historical novel set in the turn of the century rural Wisconsin, where Ralph Truitt, a rich man haunted by tragedy, has sent for a woman to be a “reliable wife.” The woman who has answered his ad is not what she seems, though: Catherine Land is no simple honest woman, but a woman with a dark past and secrets of her own, whose intentions with respect to Ralph are sinister in the extreme.  However, Ralph isn’t the easily manipulated rube she thought she was marrying, and the two of them will develop their own strange and twisted relationship, where nothing comes out the way either of them expects.

Come and join us for what promises to be a fascinating exploration of human nature and human deception.  We will have the usual snacks and coffee and scintillating company on March 16 at The Field Library.

 

EXOTIC SETTINGS, EXOTIC MYSTERIES

While a really good writer can make almost any setting, no matter how familiar, seem new and exciting, there does come a point when you want something a little different, when you want to see a mystery set somewhere you haven’t been before, somewhere that hasn’t been the setting for hundreds of other mysteries, in print or on film. So often the setting becomes an integral part of the story, so that it couldn’t take place anywhere else, or the setting itself almost becomes a character in the story, so a standard place often leads to a predictable story. However, we have two new mysteries here at The Field Library which take place in settings very unusual for the mystery genre, and as a result, the stories themselves take on different dimensions.

Jane Harper, the author of the first mystery, The Lost Man, has written two other books set in Australia (The Dry and Force of Nature).  This one, a stand alone, takes place in the unforgiving outback in central Australia.  The three Bright brothers each live on their own ranch, three miles apart, each the other’s nearest neighbor.  In December, Cameron, the middle brother, disappears. Months later, his two brothers, Bud and Nathan, find Cameron’s body lying dead at the fence that acts as a boundary for their lands. The family gathers to grieve, along with long time employees and recently hired ranch hands, but Nathan becomes suspicious about exactly how and why his brother died. Why would someone as experienced in the harshness of the summer outback have just wandered off under the hot sun? Could he have been forced to his death?  And if so, there are very few people who could possibly have had a hand in his death, all of them related, one way or another, to Cameron and his brothers. Family secrets emerge as possible motives for murder under the brutal heat and isolation of the outback.

If the thought of so much dry heat is too much for you, you can turn to Watcher in the Woods, by Kelley Armstrong, for a complete contrast. Watcher is set in the secret town of Rockton, in the Yukon territory, a place off the maps, where many of the inhabitants are criminals or victims fleeing from civilization.  Casey Duncan, our protagonist, is one of the three police officers who keep order in the town, and while she’s no stranger to violent crime there, she’s surprised that any outsider could find the place, let alone cause trouble there. A U.S. Marshal appears, demanding the officers release one of the residents to him, without specifying exactly who he’s seeking, and within a few hours, he’s been shot dead.  The pool of suspects is limited to the people in town, including Casey’s sister who just arrived, and Casey and her fiance, the town sheriff, have to determine what the Marshal knew and who was willing to kill to keep it secret, before the killer strikes again. In a town of so many secrets, so many people hiding from the world, that’s not going to be easy.

Take your pick: Australia or the Yukon.  You’ll enjoy a different world, and a different kind of mystery.

WHERE COLOR MEANS EVERYTHING: WE CAST A SHADOW

As a parent, how far would you go to take care of your child?  What would you be willing to sacrifice in order to protect your child from danger?  If you knew your child was going to be the victim of prejudice and trouble his whole life because of a physical trait you could get fixed, how much would be too much to get that trait fixed?

These are the questions at the heart of a new dystopian novel, We Cast a Shadow, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, but with a twist.  The added factor in We Cast a Shadow is racism taken to a new level.  In the future world of this book, a series of procedures have been created called Demelanization.  Skin can be lightened, lips thinned, noses reconstructed, all to make a black person look more like a white person.  Of course, there’s a cost for these procedures, and it’s not cheap by any means, but in the increasingly segregated and dangerous world of the United States, more and more African Americans are opting for these procedures.  

Our unnamed narrator is a black man who has managed to succeed in this world; he’s living outside the ghetto, he’s married to a white woman, he’s got a good, well-paying job as a lawyer in a large firm.  He’s also he father of Nigel, a biracial child with a black birthmark that’s growing larger and larger. He’s convinced Nigel’s only hope of success in this world is to lose all evidence that he has any African American traits at all, via the demelanization procedure.  

In order to afford the procedure, he has to make partner, win bonuses, at his firm, but he has to compete with the few other African Americans in the firm for whatever crumbs of status and money might be available. He’s willing to do whatever is necessary, as he defines necessary; even if this means engaging in humiliating and even degrading exercises.  His self-hatred and internalized sense of his own racial inferiority motivate him almost as much as his love for his son does.

At what point does protection become harm?  How far can a parent go to save his or her own child from a system that’s horrible and dangerous?  How far is the protagonist of We Cast a Shadow willing to go, and is that too far?   Suspenseful, satirical and thought-provoking, We Cast a Shadow is a book for our times.

WHEN THE RULES DON’T WORK: IN AN ABSENT DREAM

As anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time knows, I’m a huge fan of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, which has already won Hugo and Nebula awards and which, to my delight, shows no signs of ending in the near future.  The first book was Every Heart a Doorway, followed by the prequel, Down Among the Sticks and Bones (review), followed by Beneath the Sugar Sky (review), and now by the newest, In An Absent Dream.

The first two books are more closely related than any of the others, but you can easily read any of them independently, or read them out of order without getting confused.  The basic concept is that there’s a home for children who’ve come back to the mundane world from more fantastic places (think Alice in Wonderland or Narnia), who aren’t able to forget their other worlds and long to find a doorway or other portal back. There’s an inherent poignance, as the characters have all lost something precious and not all of them are going to be able to get it back, but that uncertainty and longing gives the books their tension and suspense.

In An Absent Dream departs a little from the usual structure, in that we don’t see the Home until the very end of the book, but it’s still at heart a story of a girl who gets to escape her normal existence by traveling to and staying in another world, at least for a while.

Katherine Lundy, our protagonist, is a quiet, well-behaved, book-loving girl of six when she finds the door in the tree that leads her to the Goblin Market for the first time. Since her father is the principal of the school she attends, Katherine has no friends and few deep connections to the human world, other than her parents, her older brother who barely interacts with her at all, and her baby sister who’s hardly a person yet. So she has little reason to hesitate when she sees the sign on the door in the tree that says “Be Sure.”

She enters the Goblin Market, a world where various kinds of humans, non-humans and partial humans live and work in reasonable harmony due to the operation of the market, which keeps everything fair by making everyone follow some straightforward rules: ask for nothing; names have power, always give fair value; remember the curfew.  The most important rule, it turns out, is the one about giving fair value. An uneven exchange results in debt, and too much debt can cause a person to be changed into something else (we see a couple of characters changed, partially or completely, into birds as a result of debts).

Katherine, who renames herself Lundy, meets another girl, called Moon, and Moon introduces her to the way the rules work and to the Archivist, an older woman who proves to be very important to Lundy’s future in the Goblin Market.

Lundy passes in and out of the Goblin Market a few times, and we get to know her and to see what the pull of that world is for her. The concept of fair value is fascinating, and the way the world is set up to make the transactions work is absorbing, as are the relationships between Lundy and Moon, Lundy and the Archivist, and Lundy and her family (especially her father and her sister) when she returns to this world.  And all the time, the clock is ticking down to Lundy’s curfew, the time she has to decide where she really belongs and to make a commitment to that world.

Obviously, since it’s part of this series, I had a feeling all along that Lundy wasn’t going to have a happy ending in the Goblin Market, but the suspense arises from not knowing what exactly is going to happen to her and how, and knowing or guessing in advance doesn’t make the ending any less poignant.

Like all the books in the series, In an Absent Dream is short, a novella rather than a novel, and that’s good and bad. It’s good because you can (and I did) read the whole book in a day, and it’s bad because the author has to leave certain things out (what did happen when Lundy and Moon battled the Wasp Queen, and what actually happened to Mockerie?). The lack of some details really doesn’t hurt the book, but you should be prepared for a book in which you sometimes have to read between the lines and guess at things.

Reading In an Absent Dream made me both impatient for the next book in the series and wanting to reread the first three books again.  It’s that good, moving, fascinating and thought provoking. If you’ve read any of the other books, I don’t need to tell you to hurry out to pick this one up and read it.  If you haven’t read the series (and why not?), do yourself a favor and check out In an Absent Dream and dive into a strange world of rules and debts and an all-powerful market that makes everything “fair.”

 

NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH: GOLDEN STATE

In this era of “fake news” and lies and the necessity of fact checkers, there’s something really appealing about the idea of a society where truth is the ultimate virtue and anyone who lies, even a little, is punished for it.  That’s the world of Golden State, by Ben H. Winters. Before you decide this is the world for you, however, you might want to consider, as Winters does, all the implications of how such a world would work and whether it would be an actual improvement over what we have now.

Something terrible happened in the past, but nobody in the world of Golden State knows what that was, because they do not keep their history.  The United States is no more, and the nation known as Golden State has arisen from what was formerly California.  In this nation, only truth is allowed, and the only people allowed to even consider possibilities other than verifiable fact are the Speculators, special enforcers like our protagonist, Laszlo, who are so sensitive to untruths that they are physically affected by the smallest of white lies, let alone major deceptions.  In order to make sure everyone is telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the state has turned into a veritable panopticon. There is no privacy for anyone; everything is always being observed and recorded, and citizens are required to keep diaries of everything they do, and to get other people to verify their versions of events.

Laszlo starts out with a new partner, investigating what should be a fairly simple question of whether someone who fell off a building died as a result of an industrial accident or whether he was pushed. With everything recorded and verified, this should be a piece of cake for Laszlo and his partner, but this is a situation where pulling on one thread begins to unravel everything. Over the course of the story, Laszlo begins to develop from a person who believes in all the rules and how essential they are to the functioning of the world to a person who starts to ask questions, even if they’re dangerous questions that go to the underpinnings of the whole society.  What, after all, IS truth? Who determines what truth is the real thing? How can human beings, storytelling creatures by nature, refrain from ALL forms of untruth?

Golden State probably won’t make you eager to return to a world where truth seems to be a vanishing thing, but it will make you wonder exactly how far we should go to the other extreme of honesty.