Monday, March 30, 2015

2005: The Broker by John Grisham

The Author:



John Grisham (1955-    ) was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the son of a construction worker. At the age of twelve, his family moved to Southaven, Mississippi.  He graduated with a B.S. from Mississippi State University in 1979.  He passed the Mississippi Bar exam in 1981, and received his J.D. from the University of Mississippi.  In 1981, he married Renee Jones, with whom he had two children. 

Grisham began a successful law practice in 1981, starting in criminal law, and moving to more lucrative civil law.  In 1984, he was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives, a position he held in addition to running his law practice.  A case he witnessed while in the state legislature led him to write his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989).  He had trouble finding an agent and publisher.  He eventually found both, and a limited run of 5,000 copies was printed of his first novel.  In 1990, Grisham resigned from his position on state legislature and retired his practice.  In 1991, Doubleday published his second novel, The Firm.  It was a massive commercial success, as were his third and fourth novels, The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993).  His fourth book, The Chamber (1994) is the first of eleven novels to become the number one annual bestselling novel in the U.S.

Since 1989, Grisham has published a total of 29 novels, five children's books, and a work of non-fiction.  His family splits its time between homes in Oxford, Mississippi, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Grisham also serves as a board member on the Innocence Project. 


The Book:



Length: 
Subject/Genre: espionage/legal 'thriller

The Broker begins with the outgoing president doling out last minute pardons when the CIA director shows up insisting he pardon Joel Backman, a high powered DC attorney and power broker in prison for conspiring to sell access to a cutting edge satellite system.  No one knows who the system belongs to, so the CIA director's plan is to use Backman as bait.  Whoever's system he has the keys to will want him dead.  This is point, only a couple dozen pages in, where the novel stops making sense.  Backman is smuggled out of the country, first to a military hospital in Italy.  That the CIA planned to 'interrogate' him there is made abundantly clear, but he won't let them give him any medication, nor will he eat or drink anything they give him for fear he'll be drugged.  To clarify, the CIA is willing to ship him halfway across the world and plan to have others kill him, but they ditch their plans to torture him because he won't willingly ingest any drugged food.  The CIA murder a former white house official in the middle of London to keep Backman's location secret, but they are unwilling to even touch a hair on Backman's head.

Backman is sent to a small city in Italy, and later Milan, where he is told he is given a fake identity.  He's told that he's being relocated and is given an intensive language course and taught local customs, ostensibly so he can live off the grid for the rest of his life.  All of which is at direct cross-purposes to the CIA's plans.  There's absolutely no benefit to teaching him any of this, except that it allows him to escape their grasp.  There's passage after passage about Milanese art, culture, geography, history, food, etc. etc., none of which Backman needs to know if the plan is to leak his location to any foreign governments who'd want him dead. My assumption is that somewhere in Grisham's tax returns is a month long Italian vacation written off as a work expense.

While I was a bit bored by most of his early novels, they at least had internal logic.  The characters and organizations had reasons to do what they did, reasons that made sense rather than just providing the opportunity for something else to happen later.  I spent the whole novel wondering why the CIA did any of the things they did, which would have been tolerable if Backman had at least been interesting.  But he's just a stock character, the same late-middle-age high-price high-power workaholic attorney that we see in nearly every Grisham novel.  String of divorces? Check.  Estranged children? Check.  History of avarice and ostentation that he now regrets? Check.  He's a boring character in an unnecessary situation.

I'm not sure who this book is aimed at.  If you like legal thrillers, it's not for you, and if you like espionage thrillers, this is a poor example.  I could only recommend this to Grisham completists.

Bestsellers of 2005:

1. The Broker by John Grisham
2. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
3. Mary, Mary by James Patterson
4. At First Sight by Nicholas Sparks
5. Predator by Patricia Cornwell
6. True Believer by Nicholas Sparks
7. Light from Heaven by Jan Karon
8. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
9. The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd
10. Eleven on Top by Janet Evanovich


Also Published in 2005:

The Sea by John Banville
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka
Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Monday, March 23, 2015

2003-2004: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

The Author:


Dan Brown (1964-    ) was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, where his father worked as a professor of mathematics.  Brown went on to study at Philips Exeter and later Amherst, from which he received his B.A. in 1986.  He moved out to Hollywood to pursue a career in music.  He released a few albums by 1994.  In 1993, he moved back to New Hampshire with Blythe Newlon, whom he married, and taught English at Philips Exeter.  He and his wife co-wrote his first book: 187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman.  Brown was credited under the pseudonym Danielle Brown. He quit teaching to work full time in 1996 and published his first novel, Digital Fortress, in 1998.  Angels & Demons (2000) was his first novel starring Robert Langdon.  His fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code (2003) was the bestselling novel of the year it was published and the following year.  His next two novels, The Lost Symbol (2009) and Inferno (2013) were the bestselling novels in the year they were published.

The Book:


1st ed. cover/Jacket design - Michael Windsor


Length: 454 pages
Subject/Genre: Religious Conspiracy/Thriller

The Da Vinci Code is the second thriller starring symbologist Robert Langdon, who finds himself caught in the endgame of a centuries long battle between the Opus Dei, a real life Catholic organization, and the Priory of Sion, which in real life was an organization concocted in the 1950s by a megalomaniac would-be cult leader, who had documents forged to connect it to the similarly named Abbey of Sion (alt. spelling of Zion) that existed for a few centuries early in the last millennium.  Despite Brown's statements at the beginning of his book, there is no connection between the modern day and ancient organizations, nor were any of the famous historical figures members of either organization.  His declaration that "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate" is also blatantly false. For example, Langdon talks about how the pyramid above the entrance to the Louvre has exactly 666 glass panes, and that this was done at the express command of the president at the time.  Simply put: Bullshit.  Which brings me to my biggest problem with this book.

If you are the least bit skeptical of 'facts' like the above, if you have a passing knowledge of art history, if you can intuit the difference between a fringe theory and a widely accepted position, then Robert Langdon comes across as a well-educated hack.  He's more likely to host a reality show, right between Ghost Hunters and Alien Mysteries.  Hell, even his specialty is bullshit.  'Symbologist' doesn't even make etymological sense, and he's only called that because 'Art Historian' doesn't sound impressive enough.
   
I actually read both The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons when I was in high school, and they're pretty much the same novel.  There's a massive conspiracy tied to a religious organization and its history, Robert Langdon, with the help of a beautiful young woman has to solve a mystery, Brown does everything he can to shout that 'untrustworthy guy with a grudge' is the bad guy, but instead it turns out that 'guy beyond reproach' is the bad guy, roll credits.  I'm expecting The Lost Symbol and Inferno to follow this formula as well. Because if it works once, why not run it into the ground?  

But why did The Da Vinci Code work?  Or more accurately, why did it sell a metric shit ton of copies?  Good old fashioned controversy and lying.  Pretty much everything about the book and all the discussions treat the conspiracy fever dreams as accepted historical fact.  To quote the dust jacket from my copy: "The late curator was involved in the Priory of Sion -- an actual secret society whose members included Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Da Vinci, among others....The Da Vinci Code is simultaneously lightning paced, intelligent, and intricately layered with remarkable research and detail."  [bolded words mine]*   As to the first claim: Bull shit.  As to the second, the book has tons of research and detail, but much of it inaccurate.  The book garnered so much controversy (and therefore attention, and therefore sales) because it presented itself a true and radical reexamining of history, rather than a second-rate conspiracy thriller. The premise, in case you've managed to stay unaware, is that Jesus Christ had a kid, and that the Priory of Sion has always protected the descendant, as well as the holy grail, which is actually the body of Mary Magdalene.  Side note, the 1950's Priory of Sion, created by a man named Pierre Plantard, who claimed that it protected the descendants of the Merovingian dynasty (which is 5th-8th  century Northern European) which he tied to the medieval legend of the last great catholic emperor, all of which he claimed to be.  In 1982, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln published The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which was largely based on the forgeries of Plantard, and added the idea that Christ's descendants moved north and became the Merovingian Dynasty (*cough* Bullshit *cough*).  Anyway, despite being a fictionalized version of a fictionalized version of an easily debunked hoax, the public treated the claims in the Da Vinci Code as something  more than, to repeat myself, bullshit.

Anyway, as I'm sure you know, The Da Vinci Code was given a film adaptation.



The film includes Ian McKellan, Audrey Tautou (Amélie) and stars Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon as he attempts to beat Forrest Gump's record for historical revisionism.

I have two more novels in this series to read, and I'm going to read them with the view of Robert Langdon as an educated loony and the novel as his unsubstantiated claims.  As for my recommendations to you, just watch Ancient Aliens.  At least that will only take you 45 minutes.

*As I was copying this out, I noticed that some letters in the dust jacket are bolded.  If you put all the bold letters in order, you get "Is there no help for the widow's son," a phrase tied to freemasonry, the subject of his next novel.


Bestsellers of 2003:

1. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
2. The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
3. The King of Torts by John Grisham
4. Bleachers by John Grisham
5. Armageddon by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
6. The Teeth of the Tiger by Tom Clancy
7. The Big Bad Wolf by James Patterson
8. Blow Fly by Patricia Cornwell
9. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
10.The Wedding by Nicholas Sparks

Bestsellers of 2004:

1. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
2. The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
3. The Last Juror by John Grisham
4. Glorious Appearing by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
5. Angels & Demons by Dan Brown
6. State of Fear by Michael Crichton
7. London Bridges by James Patterson
8. Trace by Patricia Cornwell
9. The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
10: The Da Vinci Code: Special Illustrated Collector's Edition by Dan Brown


Also published in 2003-4:

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
2666 by Roberto Bolaño
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Runaway by Alice Munro
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Doubt by John Patrick Shanley





Monday, March 16, 2015

2002: The Summons by John Grisham

The Author:



John Grisham (1955-    ) was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the son of a construction worker. At the age of twelve, his family moved to Southaven, Mississippi.  He graduated with a B.S. from Mississippi State University in 1979.  He passed the Mississippi Bar exam in 1981, and received his J.D. from the University of Mississippi.  In 1981, he married Renee Jones, with whom he had two children. 

Grisham began a successful law practice in 1981, starting in criminal law, and moving to more lucrative civil law.  In 1984, he was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives, a position he held in addition to running his law practice.  A case he witnessed while in the state legislature led him to write his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989).  He had trouble finding an agent and publisher.  He eventually found both, and a limited run of 5,000 copies was printed of his first novel.  In 1990, Grisham resigned from his position on state legislature and retired his practice.  In 1991, Doubleday published his second novel, The Firm.  It was a massive commercial success, as were his third and fourth novels, The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993).  His fourth book, The Chamber (1994) is the first of eleven novels to become the number one annual bestselling novel in the U.S.

Since 1989, Grisham has published a total of 29 novels, five children's books, and a work of non-fiction.  His family splits its time between homes in Oxford, Mississippi, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Grisham also serves as a board member on the Innocence Project. 

The Book:



Length: 341 Pages
Subject/Genre: Crime?/Legal "thriller"  

The Summons focuses on Ray Atlee, a law professor at the University of Virginia.  His father, an elderly, dying chancery judge, sends him a summons (like the title.  Get it?!) to come back to Clanton, Mississippi (the setting for other Grisham novels, including The Chamber) to discuss the will.  Ray's addict brother, Forrest, is also sent a summons.  When Ray arrives, his father has already passed away, leaving a handwritten will declaring Ray the executor and asking that everything be split 50/50 between Ray and Forrest.  The family, though descended from southern gentry, was never well off, so imagine Ray's surprise when he finds about three million dollars in cash hidden in his father's house. Just so you know, it takes over seventy pages for the novel to get this far into the story.  There's a lot of brooding about how Ray's father was always so distant, bitter nostalgia about small town Mississippi, and a subplot about Ray's divorce that never goes anywhere.  

Anyway, Forrest arrives, and they call the coroner.  Someone tries to break into the house and take the money, but Ray had already moved it.  In fact, much of the rest of the novel details Ray's attempts to hide the money, to find out where it came from, and to figure out who's trying to find the cash.  The first is interesting until it becomes tedious, the second is interesting until the cop-out ending, the third is self-defeating, because the pursuer's method of intimidation (anonymous notes left on his car, etc.) show that he knows where Ray is, but won't harm him.  Because with the information  we know the pursuer has, he could just shove Ray into the back of a van and get him to say where the money is. That the pursuer can, but doesn't, do anything like that, tells me as a reader that he's not a serious threat, which of course leads up to a pointless twist ending.    

This novel is just tedious.  Ray spends half his time drenching himself in nostalgia and recriminations.  His quest for the source of his father's money is mostly comprised of dead ends, but that's only because he waits until the very end of the book to look through his father's papers.  Ray points out again and again his father's annoying habit of keeping pretty much every document for the last fifty years of his life, but for some reason doesn't bother to check the papers for clues, clues which he finds on his first day of looking, and which leads him directly to the source of the money.  There's no reason Ray didn't check the papers first, except that over 100 pages of useless investigating would have to be cut from the manuscript.  This novel had no idea what it was supposed to be.  A nostalgic reflection on small town life and family?  A mystery novel about a mysterious three million and the people chasing after it?  A legal thriller about the difficulties of hiding and laundering a large sum of money?  Well, Grisham tried to do them all at once, and it didn't really work.

Bestsellers of 2002:

1. The Summons by John Grisham
2. Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy
3. The Remnant by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
4. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
5. Prey by Michael Crichton
6. Skipping Christmas by John Grisham
7. The Shelters of Stone by Jean Auel
8. Four Blind Mice by James Patterson
9. Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales by Stephen King
10. The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus 

Also published in 2002:

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami



Monday, March 9, 2015

2001: Desecration by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye

The Authors:




Jerry B. Jenkins (1949-   ) was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  He attended the Moody Bible Institute from 1967 to 1968, and Harper Community College from 1968 to 1970.  In 1971, he married Diana Whiteford.  He was a news editor for the Moody Bible Institute's radio station, and then a sports writer/editor for various publications until 1971.  In 1973, he published the first of over 180 books he wrote or coauthored, including autobiographies ranging from Hank Aaron to Billy Graham (autobiographies in the way that "X's life story, as told to Y" is an autobiography).  He worked for Moody Publishing in some capacity from 1973-2006, teaming up with LaHaye to write the Left Behind series in 1995.  He is the current owner of the Christian Writers Guild.



Tim LaHaye (1926-   ) was born in Detroit.  He served in the US airforce from 1944-1946, and married Beverly Ratcliffe in 1947.  He received a B.A. from Bob Jones University in 1950 and a Doctorate in Ministry from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in 1977.  He worked as a pastor from 1948-81.  In 1980, LaHaye joined the board of Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority."  He has repeatedly written and stated that the there is a secular humanist conspiracy designed to end Christianity and take over the world.  According to LaHaye, this conspiracy includes everyone from the U.N. to the NAACP to the Illuminati (no, really.  This is not a joke).  I try to remain impartial in this part of the posts, but this guy is an out and out theocrat.  He explicitly believes that the US government should be run under biblical law, that the state should stop funding education (except Christian education (unless it's Catholic, or Unitarian, or anything except apocalyptic evangelical Christianity)).  He's a fanatic who thinks that the rights of the American people, not to mention international relations, should be governed exclusively according to his religious beliefs.  And these books have made him a millionaire many times over.

The Book:




Length: 432 Pages
Subject/Genre: Rapture/Christian fiction

While doing the research on the bio section of this post, I found the Tyndale publishing bio page for Jerry Jenkins which claims that Desecration "was the best-selling book in the world in 2001."  The failure to distinguish between the best-selling adult fiction book in the United States and the best-selling book in the world is not surprising coming from authors that consider the US a last bastion of Christian supremacy in a world of evil, evil secular humanism and the U.N. a vehicle for the nightmarish situation of countries cooperating (because American Exceptionism only works if we refuse to work with others).  

I've pointed out in plenty of my past posts some problem religious fiction often runs into, especially for non-religious readers.  For example, in Costain's The Silver Chalice, a slave girl suggests the protagonist pray to a particular Hebrew angel.  He is soon after rescued, and converts on the spot.  A Christian author or reader wouldn't see a problem with this because they accept that Christianity is true and the protagonist was simply discovering that fact.  Whereas, from a non-religious perspective, this is just lazy writing (character development through convenient epiphany) and clearly fails to understand the perspective of people who don't already believe.  While there are exceptions (e.g. Cronin's The Keys of the Kingdom) most of the religious on the list so far have had these issues.  But whereas Costain might have been a little stuck in his own world view, LaHaye and Jenkins have their heads so far up their asses that they're looking out their own mouths.  Throughout the first nine books there must be at least a hundred internal monologues all bemoaning not believing sooner.  No matter where they are or what they're doing, they have time a page of didactic moralizing. I lost count of how many scenes feature a character flipping through their bible, dramatically apostraphizing a raptured love one and declaring how obviously true the bible was the whole time!

For people like LaHaye and Jenkins, the bible is unquestionably, literally true, and the only reason not to believe is denial.  As such, people who before the rapture didn't believe that the bible was literal truth for trivial reasons like "lacking evidence" or "being demonstrably false," hold the same opinions after the rapture.  Because LaHaye and Jenkins consider the bible to be as obviously true now as it would be after the freakin' rapture.  Look, I'm not religious.  At all.  I'm an empiricist.  But if every evangelical Christian and young child vanished in an instant, you'd find me in church ASAP.  The problem with this series isn't that it starts with the premise that Revelations is literally true, the problem is that nothing else in the series makes a goddamn bit of sense.  They want to make plot points reflect prophecy?  Fine.  But the plot points still need to make sense in the context of the novel!!!  Russia sending half its air force and all of its nuclear arsenal at Israel does not make sense!

In case your mercifully unaware of this series, it's about a group Christians forming a paramilitary force and fighting against Nicolae Carpathis, the anti-christ.  There are two immediate problems with this.  One:  As the characters are incessantly saying, if they die they go to heaven.  The best case scenario is they live the seven years to the end of Armageddon, and then they die and go to heaven.  Not much at stake.  Second:  They know everything that's going to happen!  Every twenty pages they consult the book of Revelations to see what will happen next.  Since Revelations seems to be infallible, it doesn't matter whether any operation succeeds.  Because no matter what it ends with Jesus coming back and defeating Satan.

This leads me to a question that really needs to be asked, and for which I have been unable to come up with a satisfactory answer:

Why doesn't the anti-christ ever, at any point, read the Book of Revelations!?? 

Imagine if Sauron had a copy of Return of the King or if Hitler had a copy of Churchill's The Second World War, and then just decided to not read it.  Things explicitly predicted in Revelations frequently take Nicolae by surprise.  He frequently attacks Christian theology, which he is a part of, but is completely shocked whenever god intervenes.  He's cartoonishly incompetent.  In Desecration, he realizes there's a mole, as information stated on his plane is making its way to the heroes, who managed to plant a bug there.  Nicolae, who uses guided missiles, live broadcast, and cyber-security, tries to find the spy on the plane, determines that no one is guilty, executes two cabin crew (which he knows are innocent) and then promptly forgets that information is being leaked.  Is he not aware of listening devices?  

It's impossible to take him seriously.  At one point in Desecration, Nicolae puts a saddle on a giant pig and rides it around Jerusalem.  Characters point out that this is done to be offensive to Christians because Christianity came from Judaism and pigs aren't kosher.  You know what else isn't kosher?  Horses!  And camels!  How am I supposed to take this guy seriously when he would ride a giant pig around a city for no good reason?    Desecration ends with rapid cuts between some characters.  Here's Carpathia's parts:

"Target one locked, armed," one pilot said.  The other repeated him.  
"Here we go!" Nicolae said, his voice high-pitched.  "Here we go!"
"Yes!" Nicolae squealed.  "Show yourselves; then launch upon your return!"
"Yessss!" Carpathia howled.  "Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!"  


He vacillates between charismatic efficiency and total lunacy on a paragraph to paragraph basis.  One moment he's Lex Luther, the next he's Yosemite Sam.  He's like a goddamn Nicolas Cage character.



Yeah, that happened.   But wait, there's more.  The 2014 Left Behind adaptation was actually a reboot of the low-budget trilogystarring Jesus Christ superstar Kirk Cameron.




Look, this series is bad.  From a pure craft standpoint, it suffers at every level.  The plot is incoherent, the prose is tedious, the characters are nothing more than a job title and two adjectives, pacing is erratic... with this level of competence I'm just impressed that they managed to get the pages in the right order.  

I was originally thinking of recommending this because it's so bad, like how I get people to go to midnight screenings of The Room, but I can't in good conscience do that.  Because every dollar that goes to this series makes its way into LaHaye's pocket, and the fact is, LaHaye is a deranged and dangerous individual.  It's not because he's religious.  It's because he actively supports (and works for) organizations that consider the state to be an arm of religion.  Because any money that goes to him will go towards the dissolution of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the rights of anyone who isn't an evangelical Christian to live how they see fit.  I often put jokes in my reviews, but when I'm serious I don't use hyperbole.  LaHaye actively supports turning the U.S. into theocracy, and I can't in good conscience recommend anything that would put a single cent in that man's pocket.



Bestsellers of 2001:

1. Desecration by Jerry B. Jenkins and Time LaHaye
2. Skipping Christmas by John Grisham
3. A Painted House by John Grisham
4. Dreamcatcher by Stephen King
5. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
6. Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub
7. Last Man Standing by David Baldacci
8. Valhalla Rising by Clive Cussler
9. A Day Late and a Dollar Short by Terry McMillan
10. Violets Are Blue by James Patterson

Also Published in 2001:

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Atonement by Ian McEwan



Monday, March 2, 2015

2000: The Brethren by John Grisham

The Author:




John Grisham (1955-    ) was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the son of a construction worker. At the age of twelve, his family moved to Southaven, Mississippi.  He graduated with a B.S. from Mississippi State University in 1979.  He passed the Mississippi Bar exam in 1981, and received his J.D. from the University of Mississippi.  In 1981, he married Renee Jones, with whom he had two children. 

Grisham began a successful law practice in 1981, starting in criminal law, and moving to more lucrative civil law.  In 1984, he was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives, a position he held in addition to running his law practice.  A case he witnessed while in the state legislature led him to write his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989).  He had trouble finding an agent and publisher.  He eventually found both, and a limited run of 5,000 copies was printed of his first novel.  In 1990, Grisham resigned from his position on state legislature and retired his practice.  In 1991, Doubleday published his second novel, The Firm.  It was a massive commercial success, as were his third and fourth novels, The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993).  His fourth book, The Chamber (1994) is the first of eleven novels to become the number one annual bestselling novel in the U.S.

Since 1989, Grisham has published a total of 29 novels, five children's books, and a work of non-fiction.  His family splits its time between homes in Oxford, Mississippi, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Grisham also serves as a board member on the Innocence Project.


The Book:



Length: 366 pages
Subject/Genre: conspiracy/legal thriller

The Brethren is hands-down my favorite Grisham novel so far, and suffers mostly from  Grisham's determination to keep much of the novel serious instead of treating it as an all out farce.  The basic premise is this:  Three corrupt judges in their late middle-age, called the brethren, are inmates at a minimum security federal prison.  In addition to operating their own court within the prison, they run a mail scam with the help of an alcoholic attorney on the outside.  They take out ads in gay magazines with the intent of blackmailing closeted respondents.  I know, this isn't very funny.  But then there's the other major plot of the novel.  Russia is stepping up its game, and the CIA is worried about a new cold war.  They decide they need a president they can count on to give them practically unlimited funding, so they choose an inoffensive unknown congressman from Arizona named Aaron Lake.  Now put two and two together, and you end up with the CIA in a battle of wits with some crooked judges, letters get forged, intercepted, and redirected, and the entire weight of United States intelligence gets thrown at finding three people already in custody.      

The blackmail and underlying social issues are serious, of course, and I understand Grisham's decision to treat it seriously, but he realizes the comedy in much of the story, and treats it as such, leading to what is often a bumpy transition between humor and drama which rarely works.  Maybe I'm just a bit burned out on the rest of Grisham's novels, so one that is sufficiently different from the rest may have an undue luster of originality.  If nothing else, it was nice to see a Grisham novel where everyone was running around like chickens with their heads cut off, instead of one guy with a master plan that unravels slowly (slowly, not because the plan requires time, but because he has to hit 400 pages somehow).  

I don't know if I'd offer an unsolicited recommendation for The Brethren, but it is certainly one of Grisham's better works.

Bestsellers of 2000:

1. The Brethren by John Grisham
2. The Mark by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
3. The Bear and the Dragon by Tom Clancy
4. The Indwelling by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
5. The Last Precinct by Patricia Cornwell
6. Journey by Danielle Steel
7. The Rescue by Nicholas Sparks
8. Roses Are Red by James Patterson
9. Cradle and All by James Patterson
10. The House on Hope Street by Danielle Steel

Also Published in 2000:

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by David Eggers
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
White Teeth by Zadie Smith


Monday, February 23, 2015

1999: The Testament by John Grisham

The Author:



John Grisham (1955-    ) was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the son of a construction worker. At the age of twelve, his family moved to Southaven, Mississippi.  He graduated with a B.S. from Mississippi State University in 1979.  He passed the Mississippi Bar exam in 1981, and received his J.D. from the University of Mississippi.  In 1981, he married Renee Jones, with whom he had two children. 

Grisham began a successful law practice in 1981, starting in criminal law, and moving to more lucrative civil law.  In 1984, he was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives, a position he held in addition to running his law practice.  A case he witnessed while in the state legislature led him to write his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989).  He had trouble finding an agent and publisher.  He eventually found both, and a limited run of 5,000 copies was printed of his first novel.  In 1990, Grisham resigned from his position on state legislature and retired his practice.  In 1991, Doubleday published his second novel, The Firm.  It was a massive commercial success, as were his third and fourth novels, The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993).  His fourth book, The Chamber (1994) is the first of eleven novels to become the number one annual bestselling novel in the U.S.

Since 1989, Grisham has published a total of 29 novels, five children's books, and a work of non-fiction.  His family splits its time between homes in Oxford, Mississippi, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Grisham also serves as a board member on the Innocence Project.  


The Book:



Length: 435 pages
Subject/Genre: Last Wills and Testaments/Legal Thriller

The Testament is the most boring of the Grisham novels so far.  The story begins in the first person, with elderly billionaire Troy Phelan preparing his last will and testament.  The details are mildly interesting, but suffice it to say that he convinces his relatives (who he hates) that they'll be getting everything.  He arranges the situation so he'll be declared sane by some of the best expert witnesses around, before jumping from the top floor of his skyscraper.  Phelan's family and lawyer are surprised to discover that he has left everything to Rachel Lane, an illegitimate daughter no one knew about.  To make matters worse, Rachel is a missionary living with a remote tribe somewhere in the Pantanal, a massive wetland region in South America.  Phelan's lawyer tasks his recovering alcoholic colleague, Nate O'Riley, with finding the heiress.  Also, this all takes place around Christmas, and Nate is repeatedly clear about his intense dislike of the holiday spirit.

Pictured: the real war on Christmas

Despite appearances, Grisham doesn't seem to own any tourism ventures in the Pantanal.  Half the story focuses on how much O'Riley hates Christmas, loves alcohol, and just wants to make it out of the Pantanal alive.  The other half focuses on just how scummy and vulturish Phelan's kids and grandkids are.  This part would be more interesting if Phelan hadn't explained how his plan to make sure they got nothing worked, and this is a John Grisham novel: the bad guys never win, or at least not completely.  So, half the time we're stuck with a pretty unsympathetic screw-up as he tries not to get eaten by alligators in a pseudo-adventure story, and the other half of the time we just hear about a clan of unsympathetic screw-ups as they try to carve off a piece of the estate of an unsympathetic billionaire.  The people you're clearly supposed to be rooting for are annoying, the people you're supposed to hate are just exasperating, and it really just drifts aimlessly.  By the time O'Riley finds Rachel you're as sick of the journey as he is, and then there's just another level of frustration when you find out [SPOILER]--- she doesn't want the goddamn money!     

This is an aimless, boring, and all around pointless novel.  


Bestsellers of 1999:

1. The Testament by John Grisham
2. Hannibal by Thomas Harris
3. Assassins by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
4. Star Wars: Episode 1, The Phantom Menace by Terry Brooks
5. Timeline by Michael Crichton
6. Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King
7. Apollyon by Jerry B. Jenkins and Time LaHaye
8. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King
9. Irresistible Forces by Danielle Steel
10. Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

Also Published in 1999:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami