Patty Hearst was the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most influential media men in American history (think Fox News) when she was kidnapped in the early 1970s by a shadowy radical group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. During her months of captivity, Patty Hearst came to sympathize with her anti-establishment captors, going so far as to rob banks at gunpoint, and firing weapons at innocent bystanders. Toobin does a reasonable job of setting the context of the period: the Vietnam War was refusing to come to an end, African Americans were raging against oppression, women were recognizing their own restrictions, drug use was up, domestic bombings by radical groups against symbols of government and police brutality were in the thousands, and the country was divided between blue-collar supporters of law and order and youthful proponents of peace and equality. A lot like today’s red-blue divisions. Toobin’s fundamental question is whether Patty Hearst’s law-breaking escapades were the result of her kidnapping and fear for her life if she did not act in accordance with her kidnappers, or whether, as the historical record indicates, Patty voluntarily switched allegiances, moving from far right to far left, and was responsible for her own actions. The question of the extent we are responsible for our own behaviors or are swayed by larger societal forces is a great question, but unfortunately, it is buried for most of this book as the moment-by-moment details of the kidnapping ordeal are laid out.
In a surprisingly so-so book, Jeffrey Toobin follows The Nine, his phenomenal account of the Supreme Court’s evolution from the 1970s to the Obama years, with a series of case since Obama took office. Toobin’s highly liberal perspective takes deep offense at the judicial activism spearheaded by the five to four Republican majority that now rules. Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Fox-ian judges Scalia and Thomas have employed an originalist approach to the constitution positing that what the Founding Fathers laid out in the 18th century is immutable, which of course is nonsense. Rather, after several decades of a bench dominated by Democratic appointments whose members took judicial activism to enlarge the rights of minorities and the impoverished, the current Republican majority is turning the tables. Gun control, campaign finance reform, and employee rights are on the way out as corporate power gains ascendancy. Toobin cries foul and since I agree with his politics I concur with his conclusion, but his approach is transparently biased. The one exception was the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Obamacare; Roberts switched sides to give the President a victory, but even this Toobin argues was an intentionally forfeited battle in service to a greater conservative agenda. The cases Toobin selects are undoubtedly the most important of the last five years, although his explanations are sometimes so full of legal jargon they are difficult to absorb with only a single reading. Not as compelling as his first book — more of a series of sequential articles — but nonetheless I finished with a feeling of very deep unease about the future of the country.
In 2001 Deborah Lipstadt was brought to trial in Britain for libeling by David Irving in Britain after she described him as a Holocaust denier. Sitting on the witness defending the experiences of victims and survivors, Deborah Lipstadt recognized the parallels to the last great Holocaust trial. Nearly 40 years earlier Adolph Eichmann stood inside a glass booth in an Israeli courtroom and insisted his actions were neither criminal nor anti-Semitic. The Eichmann Trial is an excellent follow-up to Hunting Eichmann as Lipstadt places the trial in historical and global context. Only 15 years after the end of WWII, Israeli prosecutors called a string of survivors to the witness stand. The world’s reporters relayed the stories of individual suffering not abstract millions. Jews the world over, Israelis, and gentiles were forced to ask themselves if they had been Germans would they have had the courage to risk their lives to save others. If they had been European Jews would they have tried to preserve their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, no matter how slim the chances, by acquiescing, or would they have fought their captors, in an act of certain suicide. This book dissects the question of what makes a fair trail in a situation like this? It asks us to think about who we can judge — Eichmann, modern-day deniers — and maybe who we cannot, i.e., those Jews that worked for Germans to rule other Jews rather than defy Germans and die. It’s a short book, more like a long academic essay that is packed with wrenching ethical questions.
After briefly summarizing the anti-Semitic atmosphere under which Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused, convicted, and imprisoned for treason by France military and political authorities, Begley makes a powerful case that current anti-Muslim feelings in the U.S. has led to the comparable incarceration (without trial) of Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo. Point well taken. The book is short, but so densely written that it is hard to follow if you are not already familiar with the case. Keeping the players straight is very hard work, which is rarely a good thing if you want to keep readers reading.
I once read that we read mysteries to learn about another place or time or culture as much as for the mystery itself. Devil’s Corner is vintage Scottolini: a young, Italian, feisty, female investigator goes after bad guys, this time in the crack cocaine trade. That’s what I learned about — the economic structuring of street trafficking. There’s also something fascinating about women writer’s of the murder mystery trade. The investigator’s in Scottolini’s books worry about their hair and whether their purses match their shoes and how many calories are in dessert rather than the male writer’s cop who worries about booze and babes. So I learned about women, too. This book is similar to her others. It clips along, there’s danger and real humor, it snows in Philadelphia where the plots always occur, and everyone important is Italian. Barbara Rosenblatt read the audio book I listened to and she’s the very best. September 2007.
About a trial of a libelous author who writes about Nazis, autobiographical. Uris is a class-act story teller making big books go by quickly.
There’s a good reason this book made many top ten lists for 2007. It’s a very easy read full of insider information about the Supreme Court, but presented so off-handedly and contextually that the book never feels salacious or gossipy. Toobin, the New Yorker legal affairs correspondent, recounts stories we know well — abortion rights debates, the Lewinsky scandal, Bush v. Gore, the Anita Hill hearings — but he fits them into a grander story line of the evolution of the court over thelast 40 years and attaches personalities to judges that seem so remote in Nina Totenberg’s stories on NPR. December 2007
About a trial of a libelous author who writes about Nazis, autobiographical. Uris is a class-act story teller making big books go by in quickly.