Tag Archives: john grisham

Second-half review

So, j’ai fini. The fifty-book challenge can finally, and mercifully, be laid to rest — not that I didn’t enjoy it, because I most certainly did. (And I’ll get to that in a later post: the ups, the downs, the profound life lessons learned. Things like that. Hint: purchases of $25 or more on Amazon.com get free shipping. This was crucial in making the fifty-book challenge less challenging financially.) It’s strange: these days I’m reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, a lengthy novel I’d been putting off forever, and there’s absolutely no deadline for its completion. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to read without even a slightly gnawing sensation of panic.

Anyway, in adhering to tradition (by which I mean my solitary midpoint recap), please allow me to dole out the awards to best and worst of fiction and non-fiction, for my last twenty-five books. But first, a few statistics. On the year, I read thirty-five works by males and fifteen by females. (Believe it or not, this ratio actually improved in the second half of my challenge, with sixteen books by men and nine by women. I am ashamed. In my defense, most of my selections were culled directly from major publications’ book review sections, which are overwhelmingly biased towards male authors.) And although I considerably improved my fiction exposure (fifteen of my last twenty-five books, or sixteen if one counts the hopelessly naive polemic by Roger D. Hodge, The Mendacity of Hope), I ended the challenge with an even split between fiction and non-, with twenty-five books apiece. I would go into further detail — divisions by nationality, book length in pages, median year published, etc. — but that would only serve to depress me and, even worse, would require actual research, which (as anyone who’s kept up with this blog should know by now) is the bane of my passively critiquing online existence.

Onward, then.

Best Non-Fiction Book: The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Bouillier

This feels a little like cheating. As a memoir, The Mystery Guest hovers somewhere between the realms of fiction (from which all memoirs take their cues) and fact (to which all memoirs purportedly aspire). But while the genre is ambiguous, the quality of the story, and the depth of feeling it achieves, is anything but. Grégoire Bouillier manages to capture, in the space of a tidy little book with a very skinny spine, the inner psychotic that rears its ugly head in all of us, given the right (wrong?) circumstances. In the case of Bouillier, this circumstance is his invitation to a birthday party of a woman he does not know, as the “mystery guest” of a former lover who had left him without explanation five years before. Perfectly depicting the protagonist’s — his own — frayed nerves amid the taut ambiance that builds throughout the party itself, Bouillier courageously unravels the mysteries of his mind, laying bare his insecurities and thus affording grateful readers an eerily familiar reminder of the sheer insanity of romance.

Honorable mention: Unfortunately, none.

Best Fiction Book: The Thieves of Manhattan, by Adam Langer

Perhaps it’s the gleeful manner with which Adam Langer mocks every aspect of the publishing industry. Or perhaps it’s simply the fact that, in getting such literary bunk published, Langer’s distaste for editors’ discernment was vindicated by his novel’s very existence. But whatever the reasons, The Thieves of Manhattan is at once a laugh machine and a sober inspection of the challenges facing modern writers in a shifting publishing landscape. Employing a niche jargon so drenched in industry particulars that he includes a glossary at the end, Langer hilariously documents the commercialization of literature, a transformation that has placed the works of ex-cons and Pulitzer Prize winners on the same bookshelf at the local Barnes & Noble. Clearly, Langer is a man more amused than outraged at the rapidly disappearing distinction between novels and non-fiction, and he references numerous hoaxes, forgeries, and plagiarisms within his own novel. It may be that Langer, exhausted by high-minded denunciations of authorial appropriation, decided that the best rebuttal was to mirthfully engage in the practice himself. For this, The Thieves of Manhattan won’t snag him a Pulitzer Prize, but it will provide his readers with a basic, and far more useful, reward: a most enjoyably clever story.

Honorable mention: The Lotus Eaters, by Tatjana Soli; and All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, by Lan Samantha Chang

Worst Non-Fiction Book: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, by Steven D. Smith

This may come as a bit of a surprise, since I was not unkind to Steven D. Smith in my review of his book. But my own brand of disenchantment is owing not to lack of substance but of style: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse is, quite bluntly, not that interesting. Smith’s particular axe to grind revolves around a practice he calls “smuggling:” the influence of moral judgments on public dialogue despite their conspicuous absence as explicitly delineated premises. In the author’s view, this results in a disingenuous conversation: the participants cannot help but unconsciously draw on their individual belief systems but are prevented, through a collective desire for credibility among peers, from admitting these principles’ central role. The concept of “smuggling” is an intriguing one, but The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (as suggested by the title itself) is, to put it lightly, an extremely dry analysis of its effects. Really, though: thumbs up for the idea.

Dishonorable mention: Once again, I didn’t read any particularly horrible non-fiction books in the second half. It was, overall, a steadily decent non-fiction batch (without many outliers) this time around.

Worst Fiction Book: One Day, by David Nicholls

David Nicholls likely deserves better from me. It’s not exactly fair for a beach read to be judged as a Serious Book. Then again, One Day was once reviewed in The New York Times. As Spiderman’s uncle once explained, not unkindly, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Mr. Nicholls, I do hope your film adaptation of the book does well at the box office, since (as I mentioned in my earlier review) that was clearly the objective you had in mind the entire time. There is nothing wrong with this, except for the fact that books written as screenplays tend to exhibit, well, diminished literary value. And I don’t think I’m being cruel here. The driving concept of the book — a peek, on the same calendar day of each successive year, at a pair of mutually-obsessed protagonists — is better suited for straight-to-TV fare than for serious dissection. But read it I did, and skewer it I must. One Day is probably not so bad when the only alternatives are celebrity gossip mags and racy tabloids. People Magazine he is not, but neither is he Ian McEwan or Margaret Atwood. John Grisham, then?

Dishonorable mention: Tinkers, by Paul Harding; and If You Follow Me, by Malena Watrous

I’m still not quite finished with this blog. There’s definitely one more post coming, at the very least. Keep checking back!

#46: Blink

What does Malcolm Gladwell have in common with Glenn Beck, Adam Lambert, Ronald Reagan, Paul Krugman, John Grisham, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Jesus Christ? An uncanny ability to polarize, that’s what. (As for his tendency to invent categories of strange bedfellows, well, he’ll just have to share that dubious distinction with yours truly.) Gladwell and his book, Blink, have evoked praise from writers at The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, Time, and the Associated Press. He has also attracted criticism, sometimes from unlikely corners. Highly regarded Seventh Circuit Court judge Richard Posner dismissed Blink as “a series of loosely connected anecdotes, rich in ‘human interest’ particulars but poor in analysis.” More bitingly, he notes that “one of Gladwell’s themes is that clear thinking can be overwhelmed by irrelevant information, but he revels in the irrelevant.”

Harsh words are these, but one must consider the source. Who appointed Posner the judge of right and wrong? (OK, so Ronald Reagan.) And when’s the last time a casual reader willfully plunged into the dark recesses of a judicial opinion? For all of Posner’s eminent reasonableness, his jurisprudence has the popular appeal of an electrocardiograph. Interestingly enough (or not), just such a transmission is one of the subjects of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. “The ECG is far from perfect,” Gladwell informs us, and so are his analogies. But at least in the latter’s case, a quick skimming is still a decently pleasant endeavor and one whose proximate cause is curiosity, not heartburn. Mr. Posner, know thy audience.

This isn’t to say mild discomfort won’t accompany the book-reading. Blink deals in just the sort of Ripley’s Believe It or Not-esque anecdotes that shoo us scurrying over to Wikipedia for furious fact-checking even as we wallow in vague notions of gullibility. Like the counterfeit kouros sculpture to which Gladwell’s gaze continually returns, Blink “had a problem. It didn’t look right.” Whether this instinctive skepticism regarding the book’s simplistic reasoning can be attributed to thin-slicing or careful analysis, I know not. I am armed only with an incredulity that the long-term success of a marriage can be diagnosed within fifteen minutes, or that commission-seeking car salesmen discriminate not intentionally but due to the unconscious “kind of biases that many of us carry around in the nether regions of our brains.” And while I can believe that information overload actually reduces our ability to formulate practical solutions, I’m not so certain the answer is to “put screens in the courtroom” to protect defendants — who would remain “in another room entirely, answering questions by e-mail or through the use of an intermediary” — from race-, sex-, and age-based discrimination.

This Gladwellian resort to logical deus ex machinas has rattled many a critical reviewer. It is one thing to remind readers that “a black man [in Illinois] is 57 times more likely to be sent to prison on drug charges than a white man.” It is quite another to mount a defense of this same criminal justice system in the very next paragraph, in which Gladwell elaborates, “I don’t think the car salesmen in the study meant to discriminate against black men…Put a black man inside the criminal justice system and the same thing happens. Justice is supposed to be blind. It isn’t.”

A more generous take on law enforcement may not exist. In fact, while we’re at it, we might as well remind aspiring historians that the Holocaust’s targeted killing of Jews was nothing more than a slight statistical anomaly, and that the Ku Klux Klan’s public disgrace was due entirely to a silly cultural misreading of the burning of crosses on minorities’ front lawns. One would think that, on the occasion of the black-over-white incarceration multiplier reaching double digits, there may be sufficient evidence to suspect systemic abuse. But then, Malcolm Gladwell is nothing if not unsuspecting. In Blink, he argues that what we process in the first two seconds of any given event is often more valuable than the subsequent (and more detailed) analysis. His editors and proofreaders, God bless’ em, appear to have taken his advice quite literally.

#32: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Philip Pullman’s provocatively titled The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is but one member of a collection of books known as The Myths Series. According to the blurb at the back of the book, this compilation “brings together some of the world’s finest writers, each of whom has retold a myth in a contemporary and memorable way.” Pullman is the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, which includes Northern Lights, also known as The Golden Compass or the atheist rebuttal to The Chronicles of Narnia. I’m not sure whether this qualifies him as a card-carrying member of the World’s Finest Writers Club; but if The New York Times can laud John Grisham as “about as good a storyteller as we’ve got in the United States these days,” I suppose it is only fair for Pullman to have his moment in the sun too.

Of course, he earns his adulation a bit differently than the author of legal thrillers. Where Grisham imbues his characters with deeply held notions, often religiously invoked, of justice and individual responsibility, Pullman veers instead towards iconoclasm, tolerating Jesus the human while lamenting the Christianity he spawned. If you’re looking for groundbreaking material, you’ve come to the wrong place; this idea has been raised countless times before, not least of all in the thought-provoking (if a bit repetitive) biography Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road, by the estimable clergyman Paul-Gordon Chandler.

It is admittedly a bit rarer to find this emotional juxtaposition expressed in such unabashedly heretical terms. Jesus and Christ as twin brothers? In Pullman’s deftly weaved universe, the former was a natural-born rebel from childhood, “getting into mischief, stealing fruit, shouting out rude names and running away, picking fights, throwing stones, daubing mud on house walls, [and] catching sparrows;” Christ, meanwhile, “clung to his mother’s skirts and spent hours in reading and prayer.”

As he approaches adulthood, Pullman’s Jesus gradually takes the comforting form familiar to Sunday school conceptualizations. However, Christ, who — at the urging of a mysterious Greek stranger — takes on the thankless role of Jesus’ stenographer, soon finds some aspects of Christ’s teachings troubling and others pedestrian. To remedy the first ailment, Christ resorts to historical revisionism, heeding the Orwellian words of his Greek mentor: “History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history.”

The second problem was a bit thornier. Recognizing the value of organization, Christ attempts to persuade his brother to embrace something resembling a formal movement. Jesus rebuffs him, however, preferring his spontaneous charisma to what he perceives as the stolidity of an intellectual bureaucracy. Fortuitously, the approval of Christ’s enigmatic tutor allows for a bit of creative license. Thus, when Jesus scolds Peter for his belief in him as the Messiah, Christ writes instead that “Jesus had praised [Peter] for seeing something that only his Father in heaven could have revealed, and that he had gone on to make a pun on Peter’s name, saying that he was the rock on which Jesus would build his church.” (The Catholic Church should be duly horrified.)

As Christopher Hitchens notes in his review in The New York Times, Pullman is attempting to make explicit the divorce of Christianity from its roots. But the end result reads a bit like tracing the cause of a marital infidelity back to the couple’s lack of a Foreman grill. Christ, at times, substitutes for the devil, a journalist, and, weirdly, Judas Iscariot; in none of these roles does he truly take on any symbolic meaning. Philip Pullman has found and refashioned his myth of choice, with the primary corollary of further clouding Christ’s position within an already complex historical tradition.

#18: The Big Short

In describing the behavior of Wall Street bankers prior to the financial crisis, many adjectives have been bandied about. Greedy, say some; arrogant, claim others. What is only now beginning to gain ground on these populist declarations of discontent is a third, and far more horrifying, descriptor: stupid. This trait may at first seem less offensive to those of us who flaunt our self-prescribed moral superiority over these perceived miscreants. The reality, however, is anything but comforting. In The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and Liar’s Poker, dabbles in the thriller genre, often to hilarious effect, as he details the inner workings of a financial world that was truly ill-prepared for its inevitable Waterloo.

I’ll admit it: The Big Short is a very, very entertaining book. Mine is an admission whose sheepishness can only be understood once one has finished reading the book. It reads like a John Grisham novel, yet John Maynard Keynes is a far likelier neighbor on a library shelf. Lewis is profligate in his use of such terms as “big Wall Street firms” (32 occurrences, according to Google Books) and he is wont to transcribe entire conversations whose accuracy is often questionable but whose content leaves the reader in stitches.

Ultimately, it is funny, isn’t it? Here were our best and brightest, as David Halberstam might say, assuring us that our money was safe, that real estate prices would continue to rise, that subprime loans were the healthy product of a heightened ability to reduce risk, not a house of cards upon which much of the global economy now rested precariously. And they were wrong, not because they intentionally lied (though some did), but because they failed to recognize the bright red flags everywhere on (and sometimes off) their own balance sheets.

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s civil lawsuit against Goldman Sachs this week has resulted in even more vitriolic rhetoric against investment bankers and their ilk, a demographic Lewis takes no pains to please in The Big Short. He opens his book with this: “The willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grown-ups remains a mystery to me to this day.” And he ends it on an account of his lunch with an investment banker, his old boss at Salomon Brothers, recounted with equal parts nostalgia and regret. In between, he rips apart much of the industry, railing against “the madness of the machine” and buttressing his anecdotes with footnotes that occasionally take up half the page.

It’s hard to say whom Lewis ridicules more, the bankers or the ratings agencies: while The Big Short is premised on the fact that high-powered bankers failed to research or even understand their own investments, Lewis makes it painfully clear that the foundation upon which all risk analysis rested was the highly coveted — and, it turns out, highly manipulable — ratings from industry leaders such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s. According to Lewis, employees of these firms, instead of conducting far-reaching investigations into the nature of subprime collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), simply took at face value much of what the banks told them. And since there were large fees to be had for each rating bestowed on these shadowy financial instruments, Moody’s and S&P had significant incentive to perpetuate the subprime industry.

In one particularly enlightening passage, Steve Eisman, one of the book’s central characters whose disgust for Wall Street types figured prominently into his investing strategy, explained the lack of incentives for analysts at ratings agencies, a misalignment that helped to create and foster the crisis. “‘They’re underpaid,’ said Eisman. ‘The smartest ones leave for Wall Street firms so they can help manipulate the companies they used to work for. There should be no greater thing you can do as an analyst than to be the Moody’s analyst…So why does the guy at Moody’s want to work at Goldman Sachs? The guy who is the bank analyst at Goldman Sachs should want to go to Moody’s. It should be that elite.'”

The Big Short is filled with quotes such as this. And although not all of them are as penetrating or as keenly observant of the recession’s underlying fault lines, each is helpful in piecing together a panorama of the landscape that existed in and around these “big Wall Street firms.” Michael Lewis has not compiled a tell-all here; if he has revealed any industry secret, it is simply the astonishing truth that, in the subprime lending business, there were none. When the dust had settled around our financial ground zero, it soon became apparent that even Wall Street had failed to understand Wall Street. In this, if nothing else, it shares the same fate as Main Street.

#6: Family Album

There are so many things one could say about Penelope Lively’s Family Album. (For one, it has nothing to do with the book of the same title by Danielle Steel.) Here, I will quote a few: “a haunting new novel” (Dominique Brown, New York Times); “another winning demonstration of [Lively’s] wit” (Ron Charles, Washington Post); “one of her most impressive works” (Joanna Briscoe, The Guardian).

To this could be added “thoroughly underwhelming,” or — perhaps less generously — “a meandering tale lacking a protagonist, an antagonist, a plot, a progression, character development, and, while we’re at it, a point.” To varying degrees, completing the journey that is reading a book generally elicits the self-satisfaction of literary accomplishment; at the conclusion of Family Album, that feeling was something closer to relief.

To be fair, the story isn’t awful, just repetitive and needlessly preoccupied with trifles. (Yes, trifles. If you’re neither familiar with nor amused by English idioms, you’ve one more reason to cross this novel off the reading list. On the other hand, Lively appears to have appropriated a decent portion of vocabulary words from GRE prep courses. This would seem rather jejune if not for her literary fecundity.)

In a genuine attempt to cut the author some slack, I frequently reminded myself that there is much — everything? — about the intricacies of English middle-class existence about which I know nothing. (The term “Edwardian” is bandied about with alarming frequency, for example.) If that is the extent of it, then I apologize to Lively’s loyal readers across the pond and respectfully retreat to lighter American fare. Perhaps Danielle Steel? The characters populating her Family Album are said to “face the greatest challenges and harshest test a family can endure, to emerge stronger, bound forever by loyalty and love.” But then, those words were written by her publisher; and besides, as guilty pleasures go, I remain unwaveringly yours, John Grisham.

But I find it unlikely that cultural ignorance alone can explain the yawning gap between Family Album‘s aspirations and its reality. Maybe familial experience, then? I have as many siblings as Alison Harper has children (six), and perhaps that’s just the problem: none of these dark, festering secrets and tensions strike me as extraordinary, or imbued with any larger meaning. Loud, rambunctious dinner conversations cut short by an ill-timed outburst? Self-imposed emotional detachment from the less pleasurable aspects of childhood? Par for the course, methinks. (Doesn’t everyone do that?)

And now I’m starting to sound like Gina, the second child who, in an email to her siblings, agrees with her older brother that “all families screwed up, more or less.” I just wish Penelope Lively’s editor had kindly informed her of the same. Even the looming family secret, revealed midway through the book, is a letdown, almost a cliché as these things go, and both central and irrelevant to the story at the same time. Making matters worse is the grating redundancy; each sibling marvels, in a never-ending revolving door of memories, at how the formative years stubbornly retain their familiarity while growing increasingly foreign. The children themselves, from infancy through adulthood, are too numerous to animate with believable personalities, and so become terribly one-dimensional. Sandra can do nothing other than shop for clothes and look elegant. Paul must always drink heavily and display utter disregard for social etiquette. Clare just dances, and that is all. Even the interweaving style with which Lively travels through time and space to indulge her characters’ collective nostalgia is arbitrary, with just enough proximity to Kazuo Ishiguro’s similar tendencies to bring him to mind while silently reprimanding her for trying on his shoes.

There are, disappointments notwithstanding, some highlights amidst the unimpressive remainder. Strewn among the unremarkable hiccups of nostalgia are poignant touches that strike a chord with anyone who has grown up, left home, and returned, astonished at the changes. “Goodness,” Katie exclaims in an email to her brother, Roger. “A married Gina, who’d have thought it.” Similarly, towards the end, as Alison recounts the glory days of her motherhood at Allersmead, it would require an inhuman imperviousness to pain for the tragedy of her existence not to weigh heavily on the spirit of the reader. (And once again, specters of Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day haunt Alison’s pitifully denialist closing reflections.) It’s just that the characters themselves seem to cope more serenely — and authentically so — with their upbringing than their creator does, and that, generally speaking, should not be the case. Chalk it up to big-family cynicism, but this is one family album I won’t be flipping through again any time soon.