Sunday, November 21, 2010

Next week

Oh yeah. Coming next week: Keith Richards' Life. Oh boy.

The Confession

GRISHAM, JOHN. The Confession. New York : Doubleday, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-385-52804-7. Pp. 418. $28.95.

Until last week, I was a Grisham virgin. Life was bike rides and kittens and Christmas carols. Life was simple.  I worshiped at the altar of Great Literature. And I was not in the least bit curious to see what an author like Grisham had to offer the likes of me. I was innocent.

Then, on Sunday night, I found myself driving to the bookstore. I had made my decision. I was going to buy Grisham's newest book. I was nervous and I was scared. I tried to act casual as I walked through the door and into the overly lit entrance of the store, but I could tell that I'd been noticed. I walked directly to the shelf lined with copies of "The Confession," and plucked a copy as quickly as I could, but I was sure it was too late. I'd been seen picking up a Grisham novel, with the intention to buy. It was thirty percent off. "Not even a common whore gives discounts," I muttered under my breath, fumes of bourbon on my breath almost knocking me unconscious. And yet I wouldn't let go. I clutched the book to my chest, hiding the already all too familiar cover from prying stares. My heart was pounding as I stumbled over to the girl at the register. She flashed me a pretty smile, her eyes warm and open. Then she glanced at my purchase. The light went out, her eyes were dead. She flatly told me what I owed. I paid.

My face burned with shame as I ran out into the parking lot. I turned around one last time. The girl at the register was pretending to stick her finger down her throat, and then pretend vomiting into the money drawer. Life as I knew it was over. I drove home at a reckless speed, running red lights, leaving a path of destruction behind. When I finally made it to the sanctity of my home, I threw myself onto the bed and wept. Then I started reading. It was... meh.

The author, having just bought "The Confession," finds herself filled with self-loathing.
The author, having just read the first fifty pages of "The Confession," is filled with ennui.

I don't know much about John Grisham and what I do know I gathered from reading his bio on the dust jacket of his newest book. Apart from writing best-sellers, he's also on the Board of Directors of the Innocence Project in New York and in Mississippi. Maybe not surprisingly, his newest work is a piece of thinly veiled anti-death penalty propaganda. I don't necessarily feel comfortable calling it "propaganda," since I am myself not in favor of the practice of execution, but the piece is so carefully constructed to fulfill Grisham's agenda, I don't know what else to call it. The novel is obviously meant to entertain as well as instruct, but in terms of driving home a point, it ultimately fails. The whole story the author tells is a fiction, carefully constructed to build up the reader's ire, but one would be better off reading something like David R. Dow's "The Autobiography of an Execution," which was also recently published (Dow is thanked in Grisham's acknowledgments, by the way). I've only had time to read about "Autobiography", but I recognized several cases mentioned in regards to Dow's work that have been woven into Grisham's plot. Naturally, reading about the real execution of an innocent man is more distressing than reading a novel about one.

Apart from all this, I had some other issues with Grisham's book. In many ways the subject-matter is terribly one-sided. The author obviously feels no friendliness towards Texas and its right-wing government. Nevertheless, the writing is almost confusingly conservative. With the exception of the use of the internet and cell phones, this book could have been written thirty or fifty years ago. The men are White Men: governors, lawyers, cops. They drink bourbon, play tennis, and bark out orders. The women are wives, mothers, and daughters. They cook, answer the phones, and cheer lead.  And then there are the black people. They listen to rap and play football. Somehow the only black voices in a book about a black population are that of Donté Drumm, an innocent man condemned to death, and his mother's. Grisham may write for the black population. He just can't seem to write the black population.

I guess the real hero of the story is a Lutheran pastor from Kansas named Keith Schroeder who has to drive Travis Boyette, a serial rapist and the killer of Nicole Yarber, to Texas where they will try to exonerate Donté Drumm, who has twenty-four hours until he is to be executed for Yarber's murder. Schroeder is supposed to be a likable person precisely because he is a man of God, but he falls in line with the Reverend Lovejoys of the world : willing to fulfill his duties to a certain extent, and then retreat. Much of the book is him feeling reluctant about helping out, but helping out anyway. Upon first meeting Boyette in his office, Schroeder quickly "tire[s] of the meeting. Boyette showed no interest in God, and since God was Keith's area of expertise, there seemed little for him to do". There seems to be something innately wrong when an interest in God is the only ticket to a pastor's empathy. Anyway, that's Keith for ya. And he's the book's hero.

Still, there are some scenes that Grisham delivers poignantly. The hour leading up to the execution and the scenes involving Drumm's mother and her grief are genuinely moving.

I should reiterate that this is Grisham's twenty-something book and the only one I've read. It's hard to come to a quick conclusion about a writer's oeuvre when I've only read such a small sliver of it. Let's just hope there are better works out there and maybe better ones to come. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Next week

I forgot to add: Next week I will be reviewing John Grisham's The Confession.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

LARSSON, STIEG. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-307-45454-6. Pp. 590. $14.95.

I know, I know. I've already broken my own rules. But baby, rules were made to be broken. Also, Larsson's "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is the first of the trilogy, which I think makes it okay to review. Besides, I was planning on reading it someday anyway. And this week I did just that. 

The book is about people who live in Sweden, who drink a lot of coffee, have a lot of personal and professional enemies, and print a lot of documents. It's also a tale of murder, libel, rape, torture, gangsterism, and financial journalism. And wending their way through this mess are two unlikely heroes, Mikael Blomkvisk and Lisbeth Salamander. Naturally, they stalk each other, meet up, team up, have some awkward sex, and solve the mystery. Besides this, they're the original odd couple: Mikael, naive, idealistic, middle-age, and a total DILF; Lisbeth, introverted, goth, mopey broody sulky chick and the most annoying fictional character since Bella Swan. Half the characters she runs into also think she is "retarded" (Stieg's word, not mine). You're supposed to not help but like her, but somehow I managed. Fortunately in Sweden, goth kids are considered mentally unstable, and Lisbeth's hellish relationship with a new guardian is one of the most gruesome subplots in the book. Don't plan on eating anything while reading the scenes that involve Bjurman. I myself learned the hard way.

The murder mystery itself is pretty gripping, and Larsson must have been an avid reader of the genre before his death in 2004, and there are many authors, both English and Swedish, that crop up over the course of the novel. There are times when the characters actually refer to other mystery authors and favored mystery tropes to describe the case in which they themselves are involved: "[T]he list of suspects consists of a finite number of people trapped here. A sort of locked-room mystery on an island format?" In many ways this is a meta-murder mystery, with Henrik Vanger, the man who commissions Blomkvist to solve the mystery, acting as the author of a thriller, while Blomkvist reacts to it the way the reader should. As Larsson humbly puts it, "Reluctantly [Blomkvist] had to admit that the old man's story was intriguing". Which it is, when the Larsson sticks to it.

Stylistically, the novel stumbles, but this could be due to a lazy translation (by Reg Keeland). Unfortunately, I can't say who's to blame. What I do know is that the piece is rife with platitudes and clichés, sometimes more than one per sentence: "I have to choose between two evils, and in this case there are no winners". And then twice on the next page: "I don't intend to hang [her] out to dry"; "I would have hung him out to dry". This kind of repetition shows a lack of imagination when it comes to writing dialogue, but it could also be the translator's inability to properly convert snappy Swedish talk into anything remotely natural-sounding in English.

All in all, I found myself half engrossed, half repelled by Larsson's first installation. I will probably read the other two, just not right now. What makes a man turn goth? I don't know. I think the answer lies somewhere in the next book.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Please understand that this project is merely the pass time of one individual who is already fully employed by the state (I won't tell you which). If you see any spelling and/or grammatical errors, please understand that I don't have an editorial team to whom I can turn.
Thank you.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Earth (the Book)

STEWART, JON, et al. Earth (the Book). New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-446-57922-3. Pp. 244. $27.99.

Rare is the book that claims to have been written by a television show. In this case, the television show comprises of a group of writers cum editors, and a separate but equal group of twelve just plain old "writers". I think the main difference is that only the former are getting paid and only the latter are going to have to bother putting this work on their new résumés.

Jon Stewart has become a pretty important guy over the past few presidential elections, and maybe the culmination of his influence occurred last week at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear with Stephen Colbert. Like the rest of my demographic, I wanted to go, but couldn't afford to. Still, Stewart is a fantastic person, even if he is not Stephen Colbert, and I was excited and actually willing to part with a twenty to buy his new book, the second he (and "others") have produced in the format of a faux textbook. Right of the bat I should say it was not that much fun to read, much like a real text book.

"Earth (the Book)" was written for the supposed aliens who will supposedly arrive on our planet just after we supposedly technologize ourselves into supposed extinction. It's kind of a cute gimmick, which invites several anal-probe jokes within the first few pages, but it gets old, and fast. Behind this premise is the intention of informing and instructing the (human) readers on the follies of mankind, but the piece is, overall, rife with inconsistencies and misinformation. Fortunately, the only people who will be reading this book cover to cover are Jon Stewart fans, and they basically all know what's what anyway. I still find it irksome that the two-page spread on Advertising laments that "We went from being exposed to one or two ads a day (1900) to 5,000 a day (2000)" while displaying no less than seventeen. Actually, the entire book is dotted with advertisements, rendering the reading experience not unlike watching the Daily Show, except it's not as funny, and there are more advertisements.

Part of the problem may be that this is the product of many minds (like the Daily Show, in fact), all trying to be witty, with some succeeding ("Dora [the Explorer] was a plucky little girl who taught children how to shout instructions at brown people in Spanish"), while most of the others fail. I blame the "writers" of the book for the incredibly lame "Places to See: The Manila Folders". In addition, the book is dotted with grammatical mistakes and spelling errors, leaving me to wonder how this kind of stuff could get past five editors.

Nevertheless, the book is crammed with detail and lots of pictures, which will provide a more engrossed reader with hours of silent chuckles, if not any outright guffaws. Part of the reason for this lack of hilarity might be the authors' compromising humor for inaccurate postulating, such as "This page was itself once part of a temperate forest". It was in fact once part of a temperate tree farm. Let's not get overly dramatic here. It also does not seem fair, or in any way upstanding to the Jon Stewart Code of Sanity, to tell the aliens that the Muslims will "fuck you up". Which this book does, leading me to believe that Jon Stewart may have had less to do with its production than I originally thought.

Coming up next week: Steg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo".


Oh, the New York Times Best Seller List. Such a strange, bold, unapologetic categorization of what American readers are absorbing this week, like, right now. Justly segregating Fiction from Non-Fiction, Hardback from Trade from Mass Market Paperback! So concise, and yet so informative! The latest Mitch Rapp installation, he's fighting terrorism! Jon Stewart, he's the guy from the Daily Show! Fuck, he is the Daily Show! And he's written a book!
Which is why I'm a little confused. The New York Times Best Seller List is such a prominent part of the Book Review, with its own three-page spread, within which generally nestles the newest ad for Kindle. Why is it then, that no one will actually review the gems that make their way to the top of the list? Sure, it happens. Like, once every blue moon. So for the poor sap who opens up his Sunday edition to that page somewhere towards the end and sees that Lee Child has a new book, and man is it selling like, I don't know, sliced bread, God forbid Jonathan Lethem condescend to read it, let alone write 500 words on it.
That's where I think I should come in. I propose to give TBR a break and do their dirty work for them. I will read the tomes that reach the number one spot, and I will inform on and, if necessary, critique the work in question. I doubt I'll have much to complain about. Most of the works that make it up there should be pretty great, is my guess. Americans have good taste in literature, from what I've observed at every airport terminal in the country.
I've set up some rules and guidelines. They have been pretty well thought out. It took me all of fifteen minutes.
1. I will review the top item on the Fiction hard cover list unless
a) It's already been on the top spot and I have therefore already reviewed it.
b) It's part of a series. As they say, Fuck that shit.
2. If the item has been disqualified (see above), I move on to the top of the Non-Fiction list.
3. And so on and so forth.
Thus, for the week of October 31st, I read The Daily Show with Jon Stewart's "Earth (the Book)" because Vince Flynn's "American Assassin" is something like the ninth book in his Mitch Rapp series. Nine books! That's like nine years' worth of reading material for the average American!