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Austin Chronicle Off the Bookshelf

AUGUST 23, 1999: 

D.A.: Prosecutors in Their Own Words by Mark Baker (Simon and Schuster), $24 hard

Mark Baker is the Brothers Grimm of the law enforcement world. Having gone after the stories of cops and bad guys (in books entitled, unsurprisingly, Cops and Bad Guys), his latest book plumbs the splendors of prosecuting. And there are splendors here, the story of the man with a tattoo of a snake on his penis, the story of the man whose hand slipped on the gun he was holding -- six times -- and numerous of that ilk. But that is all glitter -- for true aficionados of the legal system, the fascinating thing is to hear insiders talk about the reality of case load, plea bargains, bad and good cops, juries, the prosecutorial penchant of judges, and the conflict between a middle-class public with an ancien regime taste for punishment and a court system set up to defend that Enlightenment bauble called constitutional rights. -- Roger Gathman

Lapham's Rules of Influence by Lewis Lapham (Random House), $19.95 hard

  • Seek out the acquaintance of people richer and more important than yourself.

  • Any book on your shelf for longer than three months you can presume to have read.

  • The résumé is the most important of American literary forms.

These are among the hundreds of observations in this irreverent self-help guide for "careerists." It's almost as if Lapham, the editor of Harper's, had been saving up all of these bons mot (to borrow from the book's often excruciating high tone) until he had collected enough of them to telephone his publisher. Armed as ever with a fearsome vocabulary, Lapham's 130-page critique begins with a trademark essay invoking everyone from Tocqueville to Oprah. The broad-ranging witticisms that follow are by turns hilarious and peculiar. Most of these topical grenades are lobbed with pinpoint precision at the bootlickers who dwell among us. Lapham's Rules of Influence brings to mind Lisa Birnbach's The Preppie Handbook (minus the handy illustrations), but falls short of the spectacular testiness of Paul Fussell's Bad: The Dumbing of America and Class. -- Stuart Wade

Due South: Dispatches From Down Home by R. Scott Brunner (Villard), $19.95 hard

Due South is charming and sweet in an arena that hemorrhages charm and sweetness. But Brunner excels at storytelling, and has honed his skill to a dazzling edge with his experience as an NPR commentator. Even if his stories do sound like scripts for his next show, he is an adroit craftsman with an impeccable command of rhythm and timing. From the banal (all soft drinks in the South are known as Coke) to the bittersweet (that unspeakably complicated thing called Fatherhood), Brunner reveals facets of the South like a perfectly cut gemstone. His treatise on "Bless your heart" is hysterical. He illustrates the phenomenon of the double meaning of the phrase as such: You may say, "Couldn't find a parking space? Bless your heart," or the other meaning, "Poor thing got knocked up at the Prom, bless her heart." A fine, but distinct, difference. On the other end of the spectrum, the essay on visiting his father on his deathbed makes the reader ache with him. And gratefully so,like a friend who wanted to be there for him. -- Stephen Macmillan Moser

The Pig Farmer's Daughter and Other Tales of American Justice: Episodes of Racism and Sexism in the Courts From 1865 to the Present by Mary Frances Berry (Knopf), $24 hard

When a friend and I were sexually assaulted at age 12, we were advised by my friend's mother, a lawyer, not to wear our school uniform to court. She recommended slacks, suggesting that the shortness of our plaid skirts might give the judge "the wrong idea." That idea, and the many ideas, stories, and stereotypes that judges and juries bring to the courtroom are the subject of this book. Berry analyses the reasons behind appellate court verdicts from 1865 to the present with attention to race, class, gender, and sexual orientation and puts court opinions, jury comments, and testimony in a historical context. Although at times Berry seems willing to gloss over the intricacies of certain cases in order to emphasize her conclusions, this book methodically confirms what many of us have experienced firsthand -- that too often a verdict of "guilt" or "innocence" has more to do with prejudice and preconceptions than with justice. -- Angela Miller

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