Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow by Donald McRae

This book was provided free of charge through Amazon Vine

I knew more about Clarence Darrow's famous cases––defending Leopold and Loeb, The Scopes Trial, and the Sweets––than I did about the man. Though growing up in a family that was pro-union with an immigrant grandfather who supported the Communist party, was an atheist, and nearly arrested during the Palmer Raids , I had a vague sense of who Darrow was and what he stood for. Still, I probably wouldn't have considered this book had it not been available to me through the Amazon Vine program.

Overall I'm glad I did decide to try it. While I generally prefer my biographies (though this is really only a partial biography dealing with the end of Darrow's life) a little more straight forward and less inclined toward the dramatic, when dealing with an individual I might not normally read about, a slightly lighter treatment makes for an easier read. Former South African Donald McRae did an excellent job of researching, and his dramatic touch perhaps was necessary when dealing with a figure who depended so much on drama to win his cases.

At first I wasn't too keen on references to Darrow's love life with Mary Field Parton, his almost life-long mistress, mostly through her diary entries, especially as she wasn't present for any of the main events. Yet they did serve to provide insights into Darrow's character. On the other hand, telling so much from her point of view left me wondering whether she was his "one and only" or as Darrow's wife Ruby obviously thought, one of many or someone who insinuated herself into his life for personal gain. A little more about Ruby Darrow––who, after all, was there for most of the trials––other than how she appeared through his mistress's eyes, might have provided more balance.

What enthralled me the most about this book, though, was the history.  Amazing that back in the 1920s this avowed atheist, Clarence Darrow, could have so much support in the press defending two obvious sociopaths and the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. In our more "modern" times hiring an atheist as your defense lawyer would be tantamount to flipping your own switch on the electric chair. I also remember learning about the Scopes trial in high school and thinking how lucky I was to be living in a time when Evolution could be taught freely. That was 1969.  We could definitely use more Clarence Darrows today––men and women not afraid to claim the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution.

All in all, a book worth reading.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Shades of Luz by John Gorman

This book was provided as a free review copy by the author.

John Gorman's first novel Shades of Luz is a fun read, though I must admit I'm a little surprised it found a publisher. That's not criticism. It's just that the book is hard to classify, and classification––or genre––seems to carry far too much weight with agents and publishers these day. Happily All Things That Matter Press must be somewhat more flexible.

Shades of Luz is part coming-of-age novel and part love story and even a bit surreal at times. Benny Fluke is a 29-year-old still living at home and working on his Master's thesis, the subject of which he keeps changing. He meets the elusive Luz while selling stuffed animals for a fake charity, and from then on she threads through the story, popping in and out of his life, encouraging him to move out of his parents' house, eventually sharing his apartment, but always hovering between friend and lover. The story is enlivened still more by some oddball and humorous minor characters and Benny's unusual workplace where he goes from overseeing the monkeys who pick stocks on a dartboard to championship thumb wrestling within the same company. And then there's that strange secret about Benny's Mom.

As a Baby Boomer I'm used to thinking of coming-of-age novels dealing with teens, but 29 is probably on target for the current coming-of-age generation. One thing that did confuse me a bit about the novel was the time period in which it was set. While much of it seemed current, Benny's workplace seemed a little futuristic, though maybe it was just meant to be fantastic. Whatever, it added interest and humor.

I "met" John Gorman when I accepted and edited Boba Fett Blues, my last official job with The Rose & Thorn. So I wasn't surprised that Gorman is at his best in those scenes that reminisce on childhood and adolescence.

Here's wishing John Gorman success with Luz and all future endeavors.