Sisters in Law, by Linda Hirshman

Sisters in LawIf there’s one genre I read less than historical fiction, it’s nonfiction, and this book club pick is more or less historical nonfiction. Indeed, I was tempted to feign food poisoning and avoid this meeting altogether, but by the time food poisoning would have been a valid excuse, I had already read, finished, and kind of actually liked this book. Best laid plans and all that.

This is a relatively academic work of nonfiction (though not nearly as academic as a previous club pick), and a few members of the club are academic types, so from their comments I will say that if you read a lot of academic nonfiction this one may not be one of your favorites. But as a person whose nonfiction reads are generally limited to awesome pop-science nonfiction (yeah, Mary Roach!), this just seemed… different.

The obvious point of this book is to tell the stories of the first two female Supreme Court justices, Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Hirshman does a very quick trip to their childhoods at the beginning of the book, but the meat of the book starts with their respective law school careers. Hirshman talks about the sexism these ladies faced in attending law school only a few years apart, and how difficult it was for both of them (O’Connor more so) to get a foothold in the male-dominated world of law.

Then Hirshman gets to her real point of the book, which is to talk about the myriad legal cases argued and judged by the two women, as lawyers and later justices, that have to do with women’s rights. Hirshman lays out all of the equal-rights cases that Ginsburg helped put before the Court and how the results of those cases generally moved the rights argument forward, and also talks about how each of the ladies and their male counterparts voted and opined on these cases.

Since it’s the Supreme Court we’re talking about here, this actually gets pretty interesting as we see how the various justices vote on cases either with their respective leanings (conservative vs. liberal) or with the influence of justices on the other side. Each case plays into the next and it’s fascinating to see how justices who might not have voted a certain way on a case feel compelled to do so after seeing how other cases have set precedent. (Or, later, how they completely ignore precedent and start rolling back Court decisions, which is nuts.)

Hirshman does a pretty good job of making Supreme Court arguments and decisions accessible to people like me who almost actively avoid politics and history and boring things like that. There are a few places where she brings up a “famous” or “landmark” case and then assumes the reader knows what’s up, but generally there’s enough information to get by.

As I mentioned above, I am a big fan of the pop-science book of the sort where you have to stop reading every few minutes to let the people around you know a cool new fact you just learned. This book doesn’t have many of those cool new facts, but it did, for me, impart a new base of understanding the Court and politics in general, so that’s probably a good thing!

Recommendation: If you know a lot about the Supreme Court and/or O’Connor and Ginsburg, this is probably not the book for you. But for total newbs like me, this is a pretty decent read.

A Walk Across the Sun, by Corban Addison

A Walk Across the SunThis book… this was a weird book for me. It was a book club pick and I started it the day before the meeting (shocking, I’m sure) and I was like, eh, maybe I just won’t bother, there aren’t a lot of people on the RSVP list anyway. But then I was like, no, I should read it and show up like a good book club member, so I read the first chapter, in which two Indian girls lose their entire family in seconds to the 2004 Christmas tsunami and then get kidnapped while trying to get to safety at their school. Then I was like, man, I definitely do not want to read this book, it’s going to be super depressing. But maybe I’ll give it 50 pages? So then I read the second chapter, in which a high-powered lawyer has a depressing Christmas and then on his way home witnesses a kidnapping that his father later says might be a trafficking and also when he sees his parents admits that his wife left him following the death of their child. In case there wasn’t enough story to this story already?

At this point I was like, I’m definitely not reading this book, but maybe I’ll just check in on those kidnapped girls and see how they’re doing, and then I read the whole book in one sitting.

When I relayed this to my book club, they were like, oh, you must have loved the book! And I was like, actually, I thought it was pretty terrible.

So on the one hand, it’s definitely a page turner. I wanted to know what was going to happen to these girls, and as much as I did not care about the lawyer fellow of course he ended up involved in the case because how else was that going to work, and so it was interesting seeing the girls’ stories from the outside.

But on the other hand the writing is almost aggressively bad, with people’s eyes flashing all over the place and people making stupid remarks about lawyers and everything that happens to this lawyer being made of 100 percent pure contrivance. Like, seriously, he witnesses a kidnapping? And then gets all but fired from his job? And then takes his forced pro bono leave and goes to India to work with an anti-trafficking organization in the same city to which his estranged wife has fled from him? And then one of the trafficked girls ends up in Paris and lawyer fellow is all, well, I studied at the Sorbonne for a semester so I know Paris and will therefore go there and find this girl?

I am not usually one to complain about a plot contrivance, because otherwise how could any story happen? But in this case? Please.

My other giant problem with this book is that in the end it’s a story about a rich white American guy who goes to India to rescue girls in distress. This is not a terribly original story, and in fact there were several times where I thought maybe it wasn’t going to be this story, that the girls would do some rescuing of themselves, perhaps, but sadly it was not meant to be.

To end on a happier note, I did appreciate this book for shedding some light on a topic I’m not terribly familiar with, and the author for putting some information about how to help in his afterword. I’m not going to argue with charity and the elimination of human trafficking.

But maybe you could just skip this book and donate those dollars to some charities doing good works instead?

Recommendation: Read it if you want to or if your book club tells you to, but don’t seek it out as your next read.

Rating: 5/10

Plain Truth, by Jodi Picoult (15 January — 16 January)

Oh, Jodi Picoult. Just when I’m so angry at you, the library suddenly has all of your books. I remembered this as one of Picoult’s books that Laura loved a bunch, so I grabbed it. Thank goodness I did!

Plain Truth starts with a girl secretly giving birth in a barn and hoping for God to solve her problem. She falls asleep holding her baby, but when she wakes up it’s gone, and that makes her pretty happy. Unfortunately, it is found in the morning, dead and hidden in a pile of clothing. Katie, eighteen years old and found bleeding from her vagina, is the prime suspect in the baby’s murder, but she is saying she never even had a baby.

Ellie, a high-powered defense attorney, has just completed the case of her life in acquitting a child molester and is feeling pretty dirty about the whole thing. She leaves Philadelphia and her lame-tastic boyfriend for some relaxing time near Amish country with her cousin Leda. Unfortunately for Ellie, Katie is Leda’s niece and Ellie finds herself not only representing an alleged baby-killer but also living and working on her farm as well.

I thought this novel was just great. I enjoyed learning about the Amish culture, and seeing how Ellie and Katie both had to make concessions to the other to make their partnership work. There was, as always, a bit of melodrama, and a nice neat little ending (I would love to cut out that page and just leave some ambiguity for the next reader, but the library probably frowns on that), but overall a good time and a much more engaging read than most of the books I’ve grabbed recently.

Rating: 8/10
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Change of Heart, by Jodi Picoult (6 June − 8 June)

So… yeah. I think we established a long time ago that I love Jodi Picoult. This is her newest book, and I waited a few weeks in a library queue for it. Unfortunately, the book was okay. I was expecting awesome.

The premise of the book is that the hired help kills a woman’s husband and daughter and is given the death penalty for it. He seeks to atone by donating his heart, after his execution, to the woman’s other daughter who has some heart condition or other. The catch is that he can’t give his heart after dying by lethal injection, so an ACLU lawyer starts up a fight to get him hanged instead using some laws about religion and a lovely court battle. Along the way miracles happen. Like, miracles miracles − water into wine, feeding many with a little, curing the sick/dead (very Green Mile), etc. Some people think the murderer is a second coming, others don’t, religion starts fights again.

Like I said, the book was okay − I saw a couple plot twists coming a hundred pages ahead, and the religion thing got a bit heavy-handed, but I still stayed up until 4 in the morning finishing it, and that’s got to be a good sign.

Rating: 6/10