9/27/07

Mitch Albom Delights at George Mason University: A Chat

A chat between Carole and Chris....

Mitch Albom received a lifetime achievement at the Fall for the Book festival last night at George Mason University. Speaking to a large crowd, he wowed his audience. I know it's clich├ęd to say "I laughed, I cried" but I did both last night. His stories about how he became a writer of books was at once inspiring and hilarious. His reading excerpts brought tears to my eyes, much as his writing has done on numerous occasions. Okay, my kids would say, "Gee, it SO hard to get you to cry!" (Read heavy sarcasm here), but I noticed that I wasn't the only one blinking back tears last night.

I'm now an unabashed Mitch Albom fan, and as you'll see why in this conversation that Chris and I had the day after the event.

What struck you, Chris?

Carole, what struck me about Mitch Albom was his humanity. He seemed like a nice guy. No, he is a nice guy. He is humble, honest, and very down-to-earth. I usually detest that phrase, but it fits him perfectly. Modest. Doesn't take himself too seriously. Plus, he's funny--the stories he told! I laughed aloud and cried silently. I wonder if he's used to having a lot of red-eyed people talk with him.

Plus, how can you not like a member of the Rock-Bottom Remainders? Heck, the title of the last tour is "still younger than keith" — very fun!

Speaking of which, he said he didn't really write seriously until he was in his early 20s. Do you think his musical career aided him in the musicality of his phrases? I know you talked with him about his journalism career and how it impacted his writing.


I never thought about his musical background having an influence on his writing, but I bet you're right. I'm a huge fan of the small novel, and I think he does it so well. I was pleased that he mentioned how, when he wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, it was much briefer than his contract called for, but he really did not want to overwrite the book. He said he didn't want to dwell on the sadness by writing excessively about feelings.

I think that really summed up what I like about his writing. He allows room for the reader to feel--he creates a space for you. I have read some books, most notably Annie G. Freeman's Fabulous Traveling Funeral, and what I most HATED (don't get me started) about that book is that she left absolutely no room for the reader. She spent page after page telling me how to feel. It was painful.

Mitch, on the other hand, employs a minimal use of words, yet fully develops his characters and story line. I envy that, but I was encouraged by his answer to my question that his years as a journalist definitely has contributed to his streamlined, tight writing style as a novelist. There's hope for me yet!

Chris, when we write our collaborative novel, we'll need to be prepared for some interesting adventures on our fledgling book-signing tours. If Mitch's stories are at all typical of what a first-time novelist encounters, we're in for a lot of laughs, don't you think?

Oh, Carole, he made me laugh so much with his stories about the publication of his "small book behaving oddly," as he put it. First of all, I was disappointed but not surprised by the number of publishing companies who expected him to be writing the same thing he had up to that time: sports stories. (Didn't he say his first two novels were sports novels?) How many publishing houses turned him down?

About the big-name publishing magnate who turned him down because he thought the book wouldn't sell, he remarked, "I don't know where that guy is now. I'm sure he's found gainful employment in the food service industry."

After he found a publisher, he asked his literary agent if he would ever again be taken seriously as a sports writer after Morrie came out, and was told, "I wouldn't worry about it — nobody's gonna read it."

So he gets a publisher and sets out to write a book. He promised the publishers it would be about 350 pages. He finished the book and it wasn't exactly that long. But you know, I respect his decision to not write a longer book just because his contract called for it. He wrote a book that mattered to him, and he stuck by his guns.

I laughed about his book tour stories. Apparently a small book got an equally small tour. (Though the chairs on the Oprah show were probably bigger than the entire tour put together!) Where was that radio interview he talked about? And book reprints and distribution? May we have that sense of humor and adventure when we're on the road with our hopefully book-behaving-oddly!


His "small book behaving oddly" comment was great. Apparently when a book starts selling unexpectedly well, the publisher can't just come out and say that it is a hit because that would imply that someone did something wrong because they didn't anticipate it, so they say it's "behaving oddly."

His first print run was only 23,000 copies — that is only about 500 copies per state. Very low numbers, but he still envisioned selling them from the trunk of his car for the rest of his life.

Apparently, when you have written a book that no one expects to sell well, you don't get much of a planned book-signing tour. I particularly loved the story of the "radio station" in St. Louis that was actually in a woman's house. "You actually had to walk through her living room to get to the station," Albom related. "She did have microphones, but no stands, so she had taped them to gooseneck lamps. When we began talking I noticed that the window was open, which I know is generally avoided in radio. Sure enough, just as the interview got underway, the guy next door started mowing his lawn!"

"So, Mitch, tell us about your book."

"Well, I wrote it as a labor of MMMMMMMMMRRRRRRWWWWWRRRR!"

Every time he said something, the lawn mower drowned it out. He said that all six people who were probably listening heard a very odd interview.

As a sportswriter, Albom was turned down for Tuesdays with Morrie by 150 publishers before Doubleday reluctantly decided to take it on. After the book sold out of many, many reprintings, many of the publishers who rejected him initially wanted to talk to him about a sequel. He said it was amazing how many wanted him to do Wednesdays with Morrie, Thursdays with Morrie, Chicken Soup with Morrie. But he didn't want to do that — you have to respect that. I'm sure they were offering a great deal of money too.

Chris, when we go on Oprah someday, let's remember to have our agents arrange for smaller chairs so our feet actually touch the ground. We don't want to have them dangling like Mitch's did on his first appearance. Although, for all of his discomfort, he got a movie deal out of it.

Carole, I think it’s a great tribute to Mitch’s writing that all three of his “small” books have been made into movies--and two by Oprah. Maybe a little dangle pays off in the long run!

I often wondered how authors feel when their books are made into movies. I tend to be very critical of movies that started out as books, but Mitch was so Zen. “A movie’s a movie,” he said. “A book’s a book. A play’s a play. If it’s good as it is, it’s enough.”

I hope I can be that Zen when our movies make it to the screen (big or little). Of course, Mitch’s ability to write all three screenplays went a long way to creating that kind of Zen!

I also thought it was great that each of his books was about someone whom he admired greatly: Morrie, his mother, his Uncle Eddie. He truly believed in what he was writing — as he said, “I’ve never written something that didn’t matter to me.... If you don’t feel it in your stomach, you’re just churning it out.” (And churning is the operative word.) You really would have to believe in what you’re doing to go to 150 publishers, wouldn’t you?

His last book is the book that really got me. It also was the only book whose subject was still alive when it was published. I loved his story about that. “For the first time when I finished this book,” he said, “I could give it to [her] to read.” And when she did, her response was, “My favorite part was my pictures in the back.” As he noted, “You don’t want to miss that moment.”

He is working on a screenplay now with Adam Sandler, who wanted to buy Tuesdays before Oprah did but just didn’t--and Adam’s mom was adamant: “You should give up this silly stuff and do something like Tuesdays with Morrie!” So I guess the next best thing is to work with the author on your own project…. Did Mitch say when his next book would be out, or what it would be about?


He said that he was working on a book, but he didn’t reveal what it was about. I was intrigued by one of the audience questions: “Were you ever a nightclub singer in Crete?” He said, “Yes!” He also said that he is going to write about it someday. I’ll have to be sure and read that one.

I enjoyed his perspective on being able to enjoy his work in various forms of presentation—he has seen plays of Tuesdays with Morrie and watched the movies. He thinks it is important to value each for its own merits rather than always comparing it to the book.

Mitch Albom is an entertaining speaker, a self-effacing person to speak with, and a gifted writer with principles.

9/24/07

Book Reading/Signing Etiquette

At the Walter Isaacson reading and book signing at Fall for the Book, I encountered the rudest crowd I have ever seen at any literary event, let alone at Fall for the Book.

A sampling of encounters:
  • A 60-something woman cut in line because she had a bus to catch. I suppose I should be grateful that she announced that before stepping in front of me. (I chose to not see her rudeness and raise her with a refusal. No one behind me audibly cast aspersions on that decision.)
  • The man in front of me continued his conversation with Isaacson while the author was signing my books.
  • A woman out of line (whose conversation with Isaacson made her sound like an event organizer) slipped in front of me to thank the author and assure him her book could be signed last.
  • When I finally had my audience with the author (unfortunately, it was after he signed and closed my books, without even a chance at personalizing the autograph, as he had done with the man in front of me), the man behind me pushed his books into Isaacson’s hands and leaned forward into my space at the signature table — then cut me off as I tried to thank the author.
I literally have not seen behavior like this at a signing or reading. These events can be chaotic, but there is civility, no matter how rabid the fans.

For those who need a refresher: one stands in line, hands the book(s) to the author, chitchats or asks a question, thanks the author, takes back the book(s) and steps aside. Then the next person approaches.

These Isaacson devotees were rude and unruly, and one would hope they had not taken Einstein’s challenge of defiance to mean the end of manners.

Update: Not two days later, I was at Mitch Albom's Fall for the Book reading and discussion, where the audience was very nice and polite. I thought it odd that so many of them left their seats to stand in the autograph line at the back of the room before the question and answer period began. However, to their credit, they filed over there quietly and stood respectfully and patiently in line and listened to the Q&A. The author chatted with every person whose book he signed, so the line didn't go fast, but not a single person made a sound or crowded their fellow readers. I think it's safe to say that not all readers are equal: some are more equal than others. I think I'll hang with the Albom crowd more often!

Fall for the Book: Einstein: His Life and Universe

Walter Issacson's affection and respect for his subject in Einstein: His Life and Universe was delightfully obvious as he spoke at one of the premiere events of the annual Fall for the Book festival.

Dapper and youthful, the former network mogul enthusiastically paced across the stage at the GMU Harris Theater. He spoke in length about the Albert Einstein he knew through letters, papers, diaries and interviews. He detailed with awe his experience touching documents Einstein wrote that changed the world, how he went to the places to which Einstein had traveled.

He marveled aloud about how the average lay reader could read Einstein’s papers — and proved it by explaining Einstein’s ideas in terms the average audience member could understand.

Isaacson said he considers narrative writers “non-academic popularizers.” He noted that many scientists had written, and will continue to write, on Einstein’s theories. He, on the other hand, was a “scientific popularizer,” something he would like to see more people attempt.

Truly, after listening to Isaacson speak about Einstein, I felt closer to the scientist than I ever had. Isaacson was able to bring about the humanity and brilliance of the man while at the same time recognizing his all-too-human foibles. I also think Einstein would have appreciated such a lay person reading what Isaacson called his “spunky little piece.”

Isaacson has written a number of books on very well-known historical figures, including Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Franklin (the latter of whom was a personal favorite of my father’s and the first Isaacson book I ever purchased). Isaacson said the subject he liked best was Franklin, thought Einstein was the most fascinating to him. Kissinger, with whom he now is acquainted, was the one he was least fond of because of the former secretary of state's moral compass.

The evening clearly belonged to Einstein, a late bloomer whose ability to visualize made him the scientist he was. Coupled with his rejection of convention, every day of his life he did exactly as his patent office supervisor commanded him to do: challenge every assumption and question every assertion. While these approaches were unpopular with his university instructors (and the reason he wound up in the Swiss patent office in the first place), it honed the mind of a person who, as a child, marveled at the unseen force holding his compass needle to the north.

Isaacson — and Einstein, in his time — encourage people to not be intimidated, but to think and challenge convention.

“Defiance of authority has been my guardian angel in this world,” the scientist once said, and one cannot help but embrace such thinking.

I myself would add: learn about that which you are defying. Prove yourself right by knowing all about what you are trying to prove wrong.

9/19/07

The Reader - Review by Chris

Books in translation have a hard road to travel: they have to retain their quality and depth while being worked into an unintended language. Anyone who understands a second language winces at the cinema as the subtitles of a movie lack the depth, subtlety or specificity of the original language on the screen.

I would like to blame Bernhard Schlink’s flatness on the translation and hope the original German relays more of the character’s humanity and depth. I fear that is not the case. I fear, instead, the narrator, the author, did not get close enough to the characters or the story to reveal enough to engage me, let alone let me understand their motivation for such odd actions. The resolution was unsatisfying, incomplete.

In The Reader, an adult Michael recalled his relationship with Hanna that started with their chance encounter on the steps of her apartment building. He was sick and she helped him. When he returned later to thank her, he got dirty helping her in her with chores and she offered to wash his clothes and bathe him — a bizarre leap for a 15-year-old boy and a woman old enough to be his mother.

I never understood the relationship because there never appeared to be a connection or passion between them (and I never could get past their ages at the start of the situation). The story of a teenage boy was told by his adult self and the narrator never allowed readers either in the present or in the past. The narrator kept a distance between the reader and himself at every age. Indeed, the narrator keeps distance between himself (and, subsequently, the reader) and every other person in his world. I never got close enough to understand if it was the nature of the narrator or the shortcoming of the author.

The book is completely void of the smoldering eroticism described on the book jacket. The descriptions of their sexual encounters were cool, distanced, like everything else in the book.
Finally, The Secret was not enough of a shocker for me to consider it with a capital-S. Although Hanna’s deficiency was surprising for that moment in history, it is not enough for most people to keep secret at the cost of their reputation and personal liberty. Plus, a woman who would molest a young boy has bigger secrets than the one that sent her to prison for nearly two decades.

Most stories set in Germany during and immediately after World War II feel the need to address The Question: how could an entire nation allow the Holocaust? Michael was a teen and blissfully unaware; indeed, his self-centeredness was stifling and nearly cauterizing, but not completely unrealistic for a boy coming of age. Later, he took his parents’ generation to task for their sins — but not Hanna, who was of their generation and actually accused of crimes. He refused his grandfather’s blessing, he would not address his father, but he separated Hanna from the adult fray. I wonder why he afforded her such unwarranted innocence (lack of guilt or guile, not ignorance) — because he chose to see her as a contemporary, or because her Secret made her an innocent, a brainless idiot who allowed herself to be railroaded because she was not intelligent enough to understand the case and the world around her?

I have no idea why Oprah would choose this book over so many other better ones. Her selection of non-English authors in the past was more unerring, as with Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, a haunting and rewarding read.

In the end, the book was uninspiring, uninteresting and a complete puzzle not worth trying to unravel.

Postscript (1/7/08): The Reader is being made into a movie which as of early January 2008, would star Nicole Kidman. I'm sure it's because Carole read it. Practically every book she reads is made into a movie.

9/14/07

Buddy, Can You Spare An Eye?

I think I'm in a little over my head. And that's with the stack of books starting at chest height.

My reading list is getting almost dangerous. Between the two Isaacsons (not counting his newest), a couple of Alboms (yes, I'm hooked on the "Brad Pitt" of the book world, thanks to Carole for her criticism and phraseology!), another Gaiman and a book of women poets from antiquity to the present, I'm going to be a little busy for a while. And we won't even get into the newest releases in a new stack next to the Fall for the Book authors.

Or the All Fairfax Reads book.

And how about The Red Tent, which I have shared with three people, put a fourth copy on a communal bookshelf and have promised to discuss with at least two other people?

Or the new-to-me copy of Benefits, the feminist science fiction from college I finally found? Or the two — no, three novels on the living room chest?

Really, I am in over my head. I need to give up my day job to get some reading done. Or give up sleeping. If I didn't have to worry about a house payment, the decision would be a no-brainer. (Wait, which would I sacrifice again? Sleep or the job? Or both?)

So, please, save me from myself. If you see me wandering into my Borders (it is "my Borders," truth be told, with as much as my paycheck as I deposit there when I leave with my new stack), stop me. If you see me balancing books precariously in my arms as I precariously step out of Yesterday's Rose, don't believe me when I say they're all for the lunchroom. The public library isn't safe by any means: those books are free! (Fines not included.) And let's not mention the dime or freebies shelf. Intervention isn't a bad idea.

But instead, I'd prefer a second set of eyes so I can catch up on my reading.

Until then, look for me behind the towering stack of books on my table. I'll see you on the other side of the page.

9/13/07

I'm a Believer!

Darn you, Mitch Albom! Darn you for being so good!

I was all set to be a snob, equating Mitch's writing to cotton candy, vapid fluff of no value.

Then I read For One More Day, his newest release.

Maybe it was the fact that my father died about a year and a half ago and the loss was still fresh. Maybe it was the fact that my mother died when I was five, before I had a chance to establish an adult relationship with her and understand the loss and what it would continue to mean throughout my life.

Whatever the reasons, the book touched me deeply. I read while I distractedly stirred the sweet and sour sauce, glancing up from my book every few paragraphs to make sure I wasn't burning anything. I read while David finished the sweet and sour sauce. I looked longingly at my book all during dinner — but I didn't race back. It was a mix between wanting to finish and wanting to savor, mixed with a little fear of what honesty I would find in its pages.

It was well-written. The characters were rich, the dialogue was realistic, the storyline was compelling. Tell me: wouldn't you want to know what happens when a lost and defeated man who tries to commit suicide instead spends the day with his dead mother? Read Carole's review below for a true (and great) review.

I cried, but not until the end. (And you must read from cover to cover. Every page.) The rest of the time, I read cautiously as the lesson unfolded.

I was satisfied with the book. I enjoyed it. I will read his other works soon, but I will savor the magic of For One More Day just a little longer.

9/12/07

For One More Day - Review by Carole

I always think that I'm not going to like Mitch Albom's books--they are too commercially popular, Oprah produces the movies based on his books, and they are schmaltzy. Yet, I'm compelled to read them because I'm fascinated by the small novel. And Albom really knows what he is doing here.

I told Chris, who says that she is going to try to get over her anti-Albom stance, that Mitch Albom is like the Brad Pitt of writers, in that, I want to think that he just isn’t that good, but darn it, he really is!

In For One More Day, you ache over Charley's losses in his life. It is clear from the beginning of this tightly written piece that Charley is who he is and how he is because of his father. Yet, it is his mother who helps him begin to redeem himself. Charley decides to kill himself, and, failing to do so, he wakes up to see his mother standing there. A comforting notion, until Charley shares with us that his mother died eight years ago.

While I wanted to learn more about Charley and what this experience means, I also was intrigued by the notion of what could happen or change if you could be with someone you loved "for one more day." I read this on eve of September 11, and I could not help but think how many people were wishing for such a chance at that moment.

Throughout the book, Albom inserts vignettes titled either Times My Mother Stood Up for Me or Times I Did Not Stand Up for My Mother. They are heartbreaking--in two pages, Albom can bring tears to your eyes or raise goosebumps on your arms. Often, you even can see where the vignette is leading, but you want to keep reading.

It's an afternoon read that stays with you. Albom continues to surprise me--after three such surprises, you would think that I would just say that I like Mitch Albom's books. Instead each time has been a struggle that I wind up pleased to have waged.

9/11/07

Reading: Where Polyester Jumpsuits are Optional (so to speak)

Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital.
- Thomas Jefferson



When I hear the phrase “electronic books,” I envision a future of lifeless, cold possessions and fashion: awful polyester jumpsuits and computers that cook your food to spec.

Apparently, I need to adjust my vision because, again, companies are trying to push a “paperless” society sans books. ("Envisioning the Next Chapter for Electronic Books," New York Times, September 6, 2007).

Haven’t they learned their lessons?

Our hearts are in the right places. BlackBerrys and cellular telephones have begun to rid the world of phone books and day planners. Sleek and sophisticated, they have all the information without a page in sight. However, do not ask the person whose machine has met its demise by crashing onto the sidewalk or into a pool. (Further, do not ask how many back up their information as often as recommended by the manufacturer. Or required by the errant hot tub.) (No, I am not writing from experience.)

A book machine sounds intriguing, I have to admit. I am an old-school book person, but how cool would it be to have my entire stack of books in a machine the size and weight of a single paperback?

I would think it cool until I had a few hours to kill. Then I’d rue the day I tossed aside my real paperback for the machine.

Anyone who has spent hours in front of a computer monitor is nodding in agreement. I spend time at home in front of the computer, too, and I am grateful when I turn off the machine and pick up a book.

I love the feel of a book, its heft in my hand: heavier for thicker books or hardbacks, lighter for some smaller and paperbacks. The distinct difference between hardback and paperback is not wholly determined by the difficulty factor in keeping the pages open while the reader is opening the candy bar wrapper. (I nearly wrote “peeling an orange,” but no one would believe that piety from me.)

Books allow for curling up in bed or stretching out on the floor, lying on a towel on the beach or on a blanket under a tree.

Books give something for the cat to aim for (required by Divine Cat Law: Thou shall recline on whatever the Human is reading, or if all else fails, recline on the Human).

During daylight hours, light reflection rarely if ever blinds readers to the words on the page. In contrast, try dialing the phone or seeing a digital photo in an LCD panel when the sun is in the wrong position for reading.

And how often does a reader want to lament the inability to read because the battery is dead? (Unless you’re eight years old and reading under the bedsheets, batteries usually are not necessary for reading.)

I could go on and on about why I prefer books to handheld devices, but it comes down to tactile satisfaction. I want to hold what I read. I want to hold the pages between my fingers as I reach the end of a page, flip the pages, use my hedgehog bookmark, pretend to not read ahead on the page when the tension rises in the storyline…. I want the satisfaction of holding a volume in my hand, seeing how much I have read by looking at where the bookmark juts out at the top of the book.

I am not a Luddite. I appreciate the machine for its uses. I just wouldn’t want to use it for one of my true joys in life: curling up with a book. On this topic, Thomas Jefferson and I agree: I cannot live without books.

9/6/07

If I am Missing or Dead - Review by Chris

Memoirs are under great scrutiny by readers, and they should be. Memoirs are not fiction. Now, recounting a conversation from 20 years ago may require a certain amount of backfill, and I do not begrudge an additional “What do you mean?” in re-created dialogue.

However, when writers make up criminal records, life experiences and characters, as did Jonathan Frey in A Million Little Pieces, they must admit to writing fiction.

If I Am Missing or Dead: A Sister's Story of Love, Murder, and Liberation is not fiction. Janine Latus has written a chilling memoir that is brutally honest about herself and her family. It hearkens to another unsentimental and unrelenting recent memoir, The Glass Castle.

The description on the dust jacket of If I am Missing or Dead is gripping: Amy, Latus’ youngest sister, fears for her life while in a romantic relationship. When Amy goes missing, and a few days later is found dead, her boyfriend is charged with murder.

Although the dust jacket begins there, the author instead begins his memoir with her birth as the twin who survives. What she survives as she grows up, however, are insidious horrors. At nearly every step of the way, she finds danger with even the safest of people. Alcoholic, abusive, abandoning, suspicious — and those are the keepers with whom she builds her life.

Please do not mistake this for The Bastard Out of Carolina or Jude the Obscure, novels so dark and foreboding I wept as I read them (and in the case of the former, refused to read beyond page 70). Latus treads softly and masterfully. As the horrifying facts of her tale unfold, her telling of them is amazingly honest and revealing.

Latus takes readers out of their personal safety zones with clear, precise, startlingly crisp language and honest self-revelations. These revelations are acts of bravery. Readers can envision exactly what she describes, whether the gift from her husband is jewelry, vicious cruelty or a sound beating.

She does not retreat from telling the truth about her life and choices. Never judgmental, Latus observes her sister’s plight at the same time she reveals her own. Latus does not need to draw parallels, instead allowing readers to judge for themselves.

Amy, Latus and others in this memoir remain human. Even the “bad guys,” though cruel and abusive, are never vilified. She lets the story speak for itself, a rare gift in today’s writings.

With this book, Latus answered a question I harbored for years: what prompts a woman with whom I can identify to stay in a situation I would like to think I would not tolerate? The author is educated, financially self-supporting and independent — all qualities I identify with self-sufficiency and autonomy, and qualities I like to think I share. Even Amy, in her final days, remained smart and level-headed, leaving behind enough evidence to help her searchers and defenders in case of her demise. So how can women similar to me wind up there?

It's a lot of things, Latus proves. It's not understanding that someone does not have the right to treat another in that way. It's cumulative: throw a creature into a pot of boiling water, the creature will fight for her life — but place her in a pot of slowly heating water and she will allow herself to boil to death. It's believing the lies because you believe in the liar. It's a pinch of shame and a dash of self-loathing. It's different for everyone but painful for all.

This was a very good book with a humbling story. I recommend it — and I hope it will start people thinking and talking.

9/3/07

Plain Truth - Review by Chris

The premise of Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult was intriguing: a zealous prosecutor and gleeful police detective accuse an unmarried Amish teenager of murdering her newborn. A defense attorney at her own crossroads takes on the case and comes to terms with her own life and career while doing her job.

Unfortunately, the novel does not live up to this potential. The story loses interest very early with trite characters and unimaginative plot developments. The author throws in a few red herrings, which were frustrating. Worse than that, the final plot twist, while not outside the realm of possibility, presented a wholly unexplored character development.

I have finished mediocre books because of their compelling storylines or satisfactory character development. In this case, the whodunit ensnared me. Unfortunately, its resolution was completely unwelcome and disappointing, and made me wish I had not read the last few pages.

The two Picoult books I have read (Plain Truth and My Sister’s Keeper, and not in that order) follow the same formula: a young woman needs legal assistance. She gets an attorney who, acting as an older sister, provides life lessons, protects her from herself as well as her own family and helps her maneuver through the minefield of the legal system. The attorney encounters a love from the past and surrenders to it. No matter what happens to the defendant, the lawyer lives happily ever after. And watch for the shocking plot twists.

In Plain Truth, the characters’ self-discoveries are unoriginal. The lawyer Ellie burned out winning cases for unsavory people and she assumes this Amish “innocent” is the same. Ellie moves to the Amish family’s farm while preparing for the trial, and the bucolic farm gives space to find herself, away from the big city and her unsatisfactory life. Her old friend — the only one who can help her case — is a college flame who is (conveniently) divorced.

Meanwhile, the defendant Katie is having pedestrian affairs and complications from leaving the farm. The supernatural occurrences central to Katie’s character development are nothing more than a careless and awkward connection to what appears to be an auxiliary character.

Other characters are two-dimensional and offer no surprises: a father whose identity with society supercedes the needs of his family, a mother who bends to her husband’s will but manages a single mutiny that brings about the family’s troubles, a steadfast love who can and must follow his heart at all cost to his dignity and pride, a brother whose banishment causes long-term ripples in the family, a callus and shallow “Englishman” whose intrusion in the family causes the expected lifelong disruption, and a community full of contrived and wholly unoriginal characters.

I do not intend to read another Picoult novel soon. Her formula doesn’t work for me.