It is the mid 1980s in Mississippi and Seth Hubbard, a cantankerous old buzzard, and self made millionaire hangs himself. Just before setting out for a sycamore tree with a rope and a ladder, he writes a new will cutting his immediate family out of any of his inheritance. Instead, he leaves 5% to his long-lost brother, 5% to his church, and the remaining twenty-odd million dollars to his black housekeeper of only three years, Miss Lettie Lang. Grisham is the master of the legal thriller and he does not disappoint. Lawyers, Hubbard family members, relatives Lettie Lang didn’t know she had all dive at the money like birds of prey. And while the legal maneuverings informed by greed are all fascinating, what really stands apart is how unapologetically this book faces up to issues of race. Rural Mississippi, at least in the 1980s, is defined by an undying antipathy of whites toward blacks and a history of racial discrimination so embedded it borders on toxic. Grisham tells it like it is.
Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff *** (of 4)
To ferry supplies, munitions, and personnel to the European front in WW II required skipping across allied airfields in Canada, Greenland, and Iceland. The major impediment was the weather in Greenland makes for some of the worst flying conditions in the world: violent winds, spontaneous storms, and viciously cold weather. Frozen in Time is primarily the story of a transport plane that went down in one of those storms. A rescue plane with nine crewmen is sent out to search, but it too crashes in bad weather, destroying the plane and damaging, but not killing any of its crew. Over the course of days, then weeks, then months additional rescue attempts are launched, and a third plane disappears, yet the crew from the second plane, battling frostbite, gangrene, broken bones, and depleted spirits survives for months buried in a hand-hacked ice cave on the edge of a yawning crevasse. Zuckoff does a brilliant job of keeping us on the edge of our seats. He is a little less successful in holding the tension of his secondary story: the contemporary search for the plane and men in the third plane, now buried somewhere beneath three dozen feet of ice.
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris *** (of 4)
Robert Harris makes his living fictionalizing famous historical events (see Pompeii). In this case, it is the end of the nineteenth century, and the French have unjustly stripped Albert Dreyfus of his rank in the French Army and disposed of him to die locked in a tin shed beneath the blazing tropical sun of Devil’s Island. It is a moment of overt anti-Semitism in France that results in a horrible miscarriage of justice that stains France ever after, and, I have to admit, an event about which I knew precious few details. Well, this book has the details, but the first half is just that, a drudge of notecards Harris must have used to construct his text. Harris presents the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Col. Georges Picquart, an officer who at first, following orders, assists in Dreyfus’s conviction. In the subsequent five years, however, Picquart is given the credit, in this account, for becoming a man of conscience who recognizes that Dreyfus has been framed and the Army is involved in a massive cover-up. The book does not come alive until its second half when at last it becomes a courtroom procedural. By the end, when Dreyfus is finally recalled to France, and Picquart has become France’s leading General, you are still left wondering about the larger picture. Why was France so anti-Semitic? On what evidence did Zola, Clemenceau, and their fellow Dreyfusards base their case against the government? And why do all of the main characters in Harris’ account speak with such identical, lifeless voices?
In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh *** (of 4)
Ghosh recounts the life of a Medieval Jewish trader, Ben Yiyu, who transported goods by ship from India to Egypt. Evidence of his trader emerge on scraps of paper from the famed Egyptian geniza, a millennial trove of sacred papers in Cairo’s synagogue. In order to fill in the gaps in Ben Yiyu’s life, Ghosh moves to a small village in Egypt, and then a second nearby village, to live among the Felaheen, farmers on the Nile’s banks. It is the early 1990s and rural Egyptians are being pulled from the timeless habits of sowing seeds and tending cows to the trappings of refrigeration, TVs, and urban colleges for able youth. So with the aid of the eyes and ears of a trained anthropologist, we find ourselves immersed in the daily rhythms of growing children, greedy landlords, temperamental imams, ambitious businessmen, and village elders serving endless rounds of mint tea. It is not lost on anyone that frequently we are observing a Hindu researcher explaining to his Muslim hosts his search for information about a Jewish trader. Because men and women in traditional Islamic culture lead such separate lives, you will need to read Guests of the Sheik, if you want to get an insider’s view of female lives.