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Books | Fall (and Winter) Reading 2014/15

I was knocked out by a cold last weekend and am only now starting to feel normal.  This  meant my half marathon training dropped down to zilch, but at least I was able to keep reading (and to be honest, I kept working too, but that’s a different story).  So I guess that means it’s time for another book update!

Fall Reading 2014

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

I was pleasantly surprised by how absorbed I was by The Interestings.  It follows a group of teenagers after they meet at a camp for the arts in upstate New York in the 1970s. It’s the story of their close knit friendship — and their occasional envy of one another — over the decades as they move into the present day.  Although the plot line isn’t necessarily spectacular or full of twists and turns, it pulled me in just the same. I very much attribute this to Wolitzer’s writing talent.  I’m keen on checking out some of her other books — any suggestions?

Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton

This famous book hardly needs an introduction. I read it either in high school or college (I don’t really remember), but truly did not comprehend the anguish contained in its pages.  I was inspired to read it again — since it’s been sitting on my bookshelf all these years — after finishing Mandela’s autobiography over the summer.  Paton, a white South African, was a well known supporter of the African National Congress and gave remarks at one of Mandela’s court trials.  The story brought me to tears in a way that I might not have experienced, had I not already had South Africa’s long struggles in the back of my mind. Totally worth rereading!

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

This beloved book contains the separate stories of a German boy (Werner) and a French girl (Marie-Laure) over the course of World War II, whose paths eventually intertwine.  The premise sounds almost cliche, but I promise it’s not!  Werner is an orphan in the Ruhrgebiet, desperately wishing to escape the oppressive and dangerous mines which killed his father.  Using his uncanny mechanical and mathematical abilities, he joins one of the Nazi training schools for youth.  Eventually he numbs himself to the reality of the Nazi ideology, so overwhelming is his desire not to return to the hopelessness of the mines.  Blinded as a young girl, Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris, before escaping to the seaside during the Nazi occupation, where she becomes active in the French resistance. Doerr does a masterful job of intricately weaving their stories together, so that it feels like utter fate when their paths do collide, and continue to intertwine even decades later. A wonderful read.

Courtroom 302, by Steve Bogira

I think the most terrifying thing about Courtroom 302 is its portrayal of how the justice system actually functions when it functions according to the law.  As in, there is something terribly unjust about the U.S. justice system (yeah, I know, news flash).  Bogira spent one year in a criminal courtroom in Chicago, following the cases presented to one particular judge.  I expected racial and class injustices (of which, there were many examples) and the absurd number of small time drug offenses clogging the system, but what I wasn’t at all aware of is the extensive use of plea bargaining as a means of coping with the overcrowded system.

Trials, and especially trials by juries, take an inordinate amount of time and energy, of which the overworked judges have absolutely none.  With this in mind, public defenders and defense attorneys often encourage defendants in criminal cases to agree to a plea deal.  In other words, pleading guilty to a charge in exchange for guaranteed probation or less prison time.  A plea deal quickly wraps up the case, avoids a lengthy trial, and lightens everyone’s workload.  Of course the issue is: not every defendant is guilty, but many are coerced into accepting the deal by threats of long(er) prison sentences if they would be convicted.  Meaning they could walk free on probation if they accept the deal (tempting right?) or serve a minimal amount of prison time — but they will be forever branded as a convicted felon, making it difficult to (re)enter the legal labor market in order to get out of the spiral of crime. See where this is going?

Bogira tells of an informal system of punishment inflicted by the judge if a defense attorney can’t sway his or her clients to waive their right to a trial — resulting in harsher sentences for those defendants who insist on trials. Maybe I’m just naïve, but I found this completely shocking!  The book was published in 2003, based on observations from 1998, so I have to hope some of this has changed in the meantime, but I sincerely doubt it. Does anyone with a law background have insights they could share on this topic?  I’d love to hear them.

At the moment I’ve just picked up Gawande’s Being Mortal, and of course, I’m completely loving it.  What are you reading?

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