Tag Archives: Defending Jacob

Favorite Book of 2012: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

I read a number of outstanding books in 2012. Among these were Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers, Defending Jacob by William Landay, and Canada by Richard Ford. However, my favorite book of 2012 was Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.

This is a highly subjective judgment, but, for me, a great book not only must have great characters and tell a compelling story, but it must say something important about the human condition. Chabon’s book does all of these things and more. It holds a mirror up to the times in which we live. The 2012 national election was proof yet again that we live in a divided nation, with 51 percent of voters supporting President Obama and 49 percent voting for his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Yet, political analysts noted a subtle, but permanent change in the electorate in 2012. No longer will elections be decided by older white males. The demographics of the country are changing. As I write this, Congressional leaders are deadlocked over a fix to the fiscal cliff, further evidence of what divides us.

Chabon acknowledges this diversity in Telegraph Avenue, but his message is one of hope. Telegraph Avenue is the fault line between a hardscrabble neighborhood of Oakland and the University of California at Berkeley campus. Chabon mines the rich diversity of this area as the setting serves to underscore the themes of racial, gender and political divisions, but he is not just interested in what divides us, but what brings us together.

The story centers on business partners Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a barely surviving used record store called Brokeland Records. The store is threatened when superstar athlete-turned-business-tycoon Gibson Goode,  proposes a mega entertainment complex for the neighborhood, including a used record store that will put Brokeland Records out of business.

One of the major aspects of this novel is music, specifically the soul music of the 1970s. At one point, Goode laments the changes he has witnessed in music. “The world of black music has undergone in many ways a kind of apocalypse, you follow me,” says Goode. “You look at the landscape of the black idiom in music now, it is post-apocalyptic. Jumbled-up mess of broken pieces. Shards and samples. Gangsters running in tribes. That is no disrespect to the music of the past two decades. Taken on its own terms I love it…But face it, I mean, a lot has been lost. Ellington, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, we got nobody of that caliber even hinted at in black music nowadays. I’m talking about genius, composers, know what I’m saying.”

Goode is talking about soul music, but he could just as easily be discussing politics, civility, or the state of our nation as a whole.

Later in the story, Nat Jaffe reflects on the unlikely business partnerships that he and his white wife, Aviva, have struck with Archy Stallings and his wife, Gwen Shanks. The breakup of their partnerships, he concluded, had more to do with class than race. “The differences in class and education among the four of them canceled out without regard for stereotype or cultural expectation: Aviva and Archy both had been raised by blue-collar aunts who worked hard to send them to lower-tier colleges. The white guy was the high school dropout , the black woman upper middle-class and expensively educated. It just turned out that a tower of elephants and turtles was no way to hold up the world.”

In the end Stallings has an epiphany of sorts and the reader is left with a feeling that things will be okay, that this volatile cast of characters will figure out a way to get along.

What was your favorite book of 2012?

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Book Review: “Defending Jacob,” by William Landay

William Landay’s bestselling novel, “Defending Jacob,” is both a legal thriller and a searing portrayal of a family’s anguish as it endures a crisis alone, abandoned by friends and neighbors.

The main character, Andy Barber, is the first assistant district attorney in a tony Boston suburb. He adores his wife, Laurie, and their son, Jacob. He is at the top of his game professionally. As the senior staff attorney reporting to the elected District Attorney, Barber gets his pick of the high-profile cases to prosecute.

When a student is found dead in a leafy park near the high school, Barber takes the case. But this is no ordinary murder. Andy Barber’s comfortable world is turned upside down when Jacob is arrested for the murder of classmate Ben Rifkin.

Landay explores these central questions: do parents really know their children, how far will they go to protect their children, and what happens to the fragile family dynamic when their beliefs about the basic goodness of their children are challenged? He also explores the variables that shape our children, from nurture versus nature to genetic behavioral predispositions.

The 14-year-old Jacob is in many ways a typical teen-ager. He is a puzzle to his parents, an unpopular student in school, and an active user of social media. He has few friends and some classmates view him as weird. He is guarded in his communications with his parents, revealing little about his life.

Andy Barber has a secret of his own. His father and grandfather were murderers. After Jacob’s arrest, he finally reveals his secret to Laurie, fearing the prosecution will use it to demonstrate the existence of a “murder gene” in his son’s DNA.

When the evidence begins to point toward Jacob, the District Attorney takes Andy Barber off the case and he is suspended with pay. Classmates tell police Jacob had a knife and a possible motive, since Ben Rifkin bullied him. And then Jacob’s fingerprint is found on the dead boy’s jacket.

The scenes where the Barbers meet with their attorney and a psychologist hired by the defense are among the most interesting in the book. During these meetings the Barbers learn some harsh, uncomfortable truths about their son. Landay, a former prosecutor, gives the reader an insider’s glimpse of the strategies and tactics of both the prosecution and defense and adds deft insights into the courts and the legal system.

As the trial progresses to its conclusion, a surprising plot twists jar the reader, but it’s the brilliant and shocking ending to this story that leaves the reader both satisfied and unsettled.

Readers who like Scott Turow will enjoy this story, though I found Landay’s characters not as complex as the characters that grace Turow’s novels. Still, this is a suspenseful story and a worthwhile read.

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