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


Friday, February 20, 2015

Help Make a Movie!

My brother is a senior at NYU's film department, which means it's time for him to make a senior thesis.  The senior thesis, like an NYU film degree, is an expensive endeavor.  Hence, this humorous video requesting your support!






If this is the kind of film you'd like to see, or you just want to help out some aspiring filmmakers, click on the link below and send a few bucks their way.  (And leave a note saying you found out about it through me.  Intersibling politics are cutthroat.)


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A couple fun things

The first item for consideration is this comic from the always entertaining xkcd.com




That last panel led me to what follows, which might surprise you.  That Joyce wrote some (very, very) graphic love letters is well-known.  But have you heard them read aloud?   Funnyordie.com had some actors read Joyce's letters, and the results are funny.  Funny, and definitely NSFW.  





Monday, February 16, 2015

1998: The Street Lawyer 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:



1st edition cover


Length: 348 pages
Subject/Genre: Homelessness PSA/Legal thriller

Michael Brock was an up-and-coming anti-trust lawyer on his way to a partnership in a big DC firm, then the unthinkable happened.  A homeless man barged into the law office and held several of the lawyers hostage, including Brock.  He then berated them for their heartlessness towards the more needy, before mentioning something about an eviction and having his head blown off by a police sniper.  This may sound like the beginning of Quentin Tarantino's A Christmas Carol, but is really the impetus for what Grisham presents as a serious look at the plight of the homeless.    

First, let me say that the plight of the homeless isn't a joke, and that a society with more than enough food and resources to care for all its members and still doesn't needs to take a good long look in the mirror.  Michael Brock, after his harrowing experience, contacts the 14th street legal clinic, who represented the kidnapper previously.  He agrees to volunteer at a homeless shelter with a lawyer from the clinic, where he meets an adorable child and his family.  Said child and family freeze to death soon after, leading Brock to take steps in seeking justice.  This is one big problem I have with the novel.  Pretty much every character exists solely to spur on Brock's development, with no real motivation of their own.  His relatives are one-dimensional success-oriented cardboard cutouts, the homeless characters are extras borrowed from The Fisher King, and Michael Brock is a Scrooge-like persona, sliding from 'self-centered rich yuppie' to 'beleaguered defender of the downtrodden.'  For a book that clearly presents itself as having a clear moral purpose (helping the homeless), the homeless play a pretty small part in it.  It's about the brave lawyer turning down a promising career as a soulless attache to the rich in favor of becoming a brave lawyer with a heart of gold.  He further undermines his own point by focusing the plot on a criminal conspiracy against a group of homeless people, which, while it allows for a happy ending where they stick it to the man, detracts attention from the completely legal ways in which our current system is unjust.  Despite some sentimental speeches about society's apathy, the majority of the novel paints the altruistic lawyer as the salvation of America's homeless, at the same time relieving the readers of the sense of responsibility the novel is supposed to instill.  

I realize I'm being pretty harsh, but let me say that it's a good thing Grisham used his reach as a public figure to draw attention to a good cause.  As a novel, it's better than last week's The Partner as well as The Testament (which I'll review next Monday).  If you have some insatiable urge to read a Grisham novel, and this is the only one available, go right ahead.  Otherwise, skip it.

Bestsellers of 1998:

1. The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
2. Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy
3. Bag of Bones by Stephen King
4. A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
5. Mirror Image by Danielle Steel
6. The Long Road Home by Danielle Steel
7. The Klone and I by Danielle Steel
8. Point of Origin by Patricia Cornwell
9. Paradise by Toni Morrison
10. You Belong to Me by Mary Higgins Clark

Also Published in 1998:

The Hours by Michael Cunningham
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
Holes by Louis Sachar

Friday, February 13, 2015

Competitive Bad Writing

It's one thing to make fun of unintentionally bad writing.  There's Philosophy and Literature's famous, if short lived, bad writing contest, in which they highlight the worst in published academic writing, with the stated goal of exposing the use of technical jargon and impenetrable syntax as disguises for lack of insight.  Since 1993, Literary Review has awarded their annual 'bad sex in fiction' award.  Winners(?) of that honor include heavyweights like Tom Wolfe (for I Am Charlotte Simmons) and Norman Mailer (for The Castle in the Forest).  But, like the Razzies for film, these are awards for unintentional bad writing.  No one sets out to write a book or publish an essay with the goal of winning one of these awards.  No, it's a special kind of contest that gets people to produce wretched content on purpose.  

The first big, annual, bad-writing contest I could find began in 1977 and ran to 2005.  Originally a promotional even for Harry's American Bar & Grill, The International Imitation Hemingway Contest, also known simply as the Bad Hemingway Contest, was a runaway success, prompting submissions from amateurs and famous writers alike.   Here's an example from the 1986 winner, The Snooze of Kilimanjaro by Mark Silber:

Now he would never write the things he had saved to write until he learned to spell them. For instance, accommodation. One C, two Ms, or the other way around? He wasn’t sure. Or chrysanthemum? On rugged Kilimanjaro, there was not even a dictionary.

“How do they know I’m dying?” he asked the woman, indicating the crowd of undertakers, florists and wake caterers who were gathering at the edge of the campsite. “Is it the odor?”

“Of your poop?” she asked. “Or your poetry?”

She knew how to hurt him this woman, this female being, this person of the nonmale persuasion. And he would have hurt her back, at least challenged her to a thumb wrestle, if he hadn’t felt it just then. The cold stale breath.

Death.




 Presumably inspired by the IIHC's success, the Faux Faulkner award was created in 1989.  (Both the Hemingway and Faulkner awards were later sponsored by United Airlines, which ended its sponsorship of both in 2005.)  Perhaps the most prestigious extant bad-writing award is the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest.  Edward George Bulwer-Lytton was a Victorian novelist, whose novel Paul Clifford (1830) infamously begins with the line: It was a dark and stormy night...  The Bulwer-Lytton, run by the English Department at San Jose State University, has been giving out their annual prize since 1982.  Winners produce the worst first lines to novels from a variety of genres.  The 2014 winner:

  When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose. Elizabeth (Betsy) Dorfman, Bainbridge Island, WA    

Or one of my favorites from this year, the winner of the purple prose category: 

Cole kissed Anastasia, not in a lingering manner as a connoisseur might sip a glass of '82 La Pin, but open-mouthed and desperate, like a hobo wrapping his mouth around a bottle of Strawberry Ripple in the alley behind the 7-11. -- Terri Meeker, Nixa, MO   

Typically, bad-writing contests seem to be named 'in honor of' specific writers, and take on the tone of good-natured joking rather than mockery.  While the Bulwer-Lytton is the only major annual bad-writing contest I know of that's still giving out prizes, smaller once-off contests pop up frequently.  Enjoy the following video, in which Neil Gaiman reads the winners of a special Bad-Gaiman contest.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Shapes of Stories (Part 2)

A while ago I posted a video from Kurt Vonnegut's famous "Shapes of Stories" lecture.  In the decades following the lecture, we've seen the rise of what's been dubbed the 'digital humanities.'  This doesn't refer to hyptertext fiction or anything like that, but rather the use of mathematical algorithms to process data, often from thousands of books at once.  The Paris Review has a great write-up on Matthew Jockers' process of doing what Vonnegut tried to do when he was studying at the University of Chicago: figure out how plots are shaped, and just how many different shapes there are.  A more technical write-up can be found on Jockers' blog.

                                                                                                                                                                from matthewjockers.net