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Heart Of Darkness

Monday, January 05, 2015
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to [email protected]

While reading John Grisham’s latest bestselling legal thriller, Gray Mountain, set in America’s coal belt of theAppalachia Mountains, you have to remind yourself that you are not in Dhanbad, Bihar.  The way the big coal corporations destroy the land, exploit workers, use goon force to intimidate people, have politicians on their payroll and stop at nothing in their pursuit of profit is shocking, because it is taking place in the US, where the law is not as big an ass as it is in India. Grisham, however, disabuses you of that notion rather quickly. The only difference is that in India, there wouldn’t be a free legal aid centre to help poor miners in their fight against injustice.

When the book opens, bright and ambitious 29-year-old New York lawyer Samantha Kofer has her life on the fast track come to a screeching halt. In 2008, the US economy faced a crisis and ‘downsizing’ became the word of the day.  Samantha is axed too, but given a consolatory deal, if she agrees to work as an unpaid intern for a non-profit, she can keep her health benefits and when the conditions get better, have the chance of being rehired without loss of seniority. With several out of work lawyers on the streets, this is the best on offer.

With some misgivings, Samantha accepts and finds herself at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in a small town called Brady. Her new boss is Mattie Wyatt, who runs the clinic on courage, compassion and hope. Unlike Samantha’s well-heeled clients in her NY job, the people who come to the Clinic are poor and desperate.  There are cases of domestic violence and wrongful termination, but the biggest problem is the denial of benefit to miners who get the debilitating Black Lung disease after working in the coal mines for years.

The coal companies strip the mountains, pollute the air and water, and don’t care if people die in the process.  Initially, an outraged Samantha keeps spluttering, “This can’t be legal,” till she realises that the law can easily be manipulated by the powerful.

She meets the Gray Brothers—Donovan and Jeff—who, like their aunt Mattie, have made it their mission to fight the big coal corporations.  Samantha’s parents, both in the legal profession, are divorced, but willing to help her if she decides to return to New York to the city girl life that suits her. She tries to keep out of the battle, sure that she won’t be in this town for much longer, but she is drawn into it, and soon there’s no escape.  Mid-way an important character is killed, and Samantha becomes the only hope of the clients who have no other support.

The reader shares Samantha’s outrage, understands her reluctance and appreciates her idealism—Grisham has not made Samantha or any of the other characters larger-than-life, but they are all willing to make sacrifices for the people crushed by ruthless business conglomerates.

Gray Mountain is a hit  like all Grisham’s books, but this has an extra portion of rage, which is very welcome in these cynical times.
Gray Mountain
By John Grisham
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 384

Excerpt from Gray Mountain
The horror was in the waiting — the unknown, the insomnia, the ulcers. Co-workers ignored each other and hid behind locked doors. Secretaries and paralegals passed along the rumors and refused eye contact. Everyone was on edge, wondering, “Who might be next?” The partners, the big boys, appeared shell-shocked and wanted no contact with their underlings. They might soon be ordered to slaughter them.

The gossip was brutal. Ten associates in Litigation terminated; partially true — only seven. The entire Estate division closed, partners and all; true. Eight partners in Antitrust jumping to another firm; false, for now.

The atmosphere was so toxic that Samantha left the building whenever possible and worked with her laptop in coffee shops around lower Manhattan. She sat on a park bench one pleasant day — day ten after the fall of Lehman Brothers — and gazed at the tall building down the street. It was called 110 Broad, and the top half was leased by Scully & Pershing, the biggest law firm the world had ever seen. Her firm, for now, though the future was anything but certain. Two thousand lawyers in twenty countries, half of them in New York City alone, a thousand right up there packed together on floors 30 through 65. How many wanted to jump? She couldn’t guess, but she wasn’t the only one. The world’s largest firm was shrinking in chaos, as were its competitors. Big Law, as it was known, was just as panicked as the hedge funds, investment banks, real banks, insurance conglomerates, Washington, and on down the food chain to the merchants on Main Street.

Day ten passed without bloodshed, as did the next. On day twelve there was a flash of optimism as Ben, one of Samantha’s colleagues, shared a rumor that credit markets in London were loosening a bit. Borrowers might find some cash after all. But late that afternoon the rumor had run out of gas; nothing to it. And so they waited.

Two partners ran Commercial Real Estate at Scully & Pershing. One was nearing retirement age and had already been shoved out. The other was Andy Grubman, a forty-year-old pencil pusher who’d never seen a courtroom. As a partner, he had a nice office with a distant view of the Hudson, water he hadn’t noticed in years. On a shelf behind his desk, and squarely in the center of his Ego Wall, there was a collection of miniature skyscrapers. “My buildings” he liked to call them. Upon completion of one of his buildings, he commissioned a sculptor to replicate it on a smaller scale, and he generously gave an even smaller trophy to each member of “my team.” In her three years at S&P, Samantha’s collection had six buildings, and that was as large as it would get.

“Have a seat,” he ordered as he closed the door. Samantha sat in a chair next to Ben, who was next to Izabelle. The three associates studied their feet, waiting. Samantha felt the urge to grab Ben’s hand, like a terrified prisoner facing a firing squad. Andy fell into his chair, and, avoiding eye contact but desperate to get things over with, he recapped the mess they were in.

“As you know, Lehman Brothers folded fourteen days ago.”

No kidding, Andy! The financial crisis and credit meltdown had the world on the brink of a catastrophe and everyone knew it. But then, Andy rarely had an original thought.

“We have five projects in the works, all funded by Lehman. I’ve talked at length with the owners, and all five are pulling the plug. We had three more in the distance, two with Lehman, one with Lloyd’s, and, well, all credit is frozen. The bankers are in their bunkers, afraid to loan a dime.”

Yes, Andy, we know this too. It’s front-page. Just get it over with before we jump.

“The exec committee met yesterday and made some cuts. Thirty first-year associates are being let go; some terminated outright, others laid off. All new hires are deferred indefinitely. Probate is gone. And, well, there is no easy way to say this, but our entire division is on the block. Cut. Eliminated. Who knows when owners will start building again, if ever. The firm is unwilling to keep you on the payroll while the world waits for loose credit. Hell, we could be headed for a major depression. This is probably just the first round of cuts. Sorry, guys. I’m really sorry.”

Ben spoke first. “So we’re being terminated outright?”

“No. I fought for you guys, okay? At first they planned to do the pink slip thing. I don’t have to remind you that CRE is the smallest division in the firm and probably the hardest hit right now. I talked them into something we’re calling a furlough. You’ll leave now, come back later, maybe.”

“Maybe?” Samantha asked. Izabelle wiped a tear but kept her composure.

“Yes, a big fat maybe. Nothing is definite right now, Samantha, okay? We’re all chasing our tails. In six months we could all be at the soup kitchen. You’ve seen the old photos from 1929.”

Come on, Andy, a soup kitchen? As a partner, your take-home last year was $2.8 million, average at S&P, which, by the way, came in fourth in net-per-partner. And fourth was not good enough, at least it wasn’t until Lehman croaked and Bear Stearns imploded and the sub-prime mortgage bubble burst. Suddenly, fourth place was looking pretty good, for some anyway.

FaceOff is a collector’s item for thriller fans.  It is an unprecedented collection of 12 stories in which some of the world’s best thriller writers and their characters pair up to solve cases.

David Baldacci is the editor, which is a good enough reason to pick up this book. Now imagine Michael Connelly’s Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch teaming up with Dennis Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie in the story Red Eye, or John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport with Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme in Rhymes with Prey; Ian Rankin’s John Rebus with Peter James’s Roy Grace in In The Nick Of Time; Lee Child’s Jack Reacher with Joseph Finder’s Nick Heller in Good and Valuable Consideration... and more exciting combos.

Needless to say, the book is unputdownable!
Edited by David Baldacci
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 397

Mary Kay Andrews’s Save The Date is a simple and simple romance, with all the ingredients in the correct order. The heroine is Cara Kryzik, who is trying to make a living as a florist in the snobbish and traditional Southern town of Savannah and the big bucks come from designing floral arrangements for society weddings.

 The ‘meet cute’ comes when Cara’s beloved goldendoodle puppy is mistakenly picked up by historic-building restorer Jack Finnerty, since he owns the same breed.  They are clearly made for each other, but Cara’s recent divorce has left her emotionally bruised and Jack’s ex hasn’t quite exited the scene; besides, she has to make a success of her business to prove a point to her disapproving father. Jack’s persistence wins over Cara, but there is a long list of problems to be overcome first. Save The Date is breezy read with generous lashings of humour—fans of the genre won’t have anything to complain about.

Save The Date
By Mary Kay Andrews
Publisher: St Martin’s
Pages: 400

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