Picture from "The Library Dragon" by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrations by Michael P. White

"Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist.
Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."
- G. K. Chesterton

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"The Confession" by John Grisham

John Grisham, master of the legal thriller, has been slipping in recent years but he comes back strong in The Confession. The story begins on a Monday morning and races towards the expected execution of one Donte Dumm set for that Thursday at 6:00 pm. Drumm is an innocent man, convicted of the murder of a popular cheerleader in the small Texas town of Sloan. Grisham begins by introducing us to the real killer, Travis Boyette, a convicted sexual predator recently released and diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor. Facing his impending death, Boyette seeks God’s forgiveness through the guidance of Reverend Keith Schroeder, who presses Boyette to confess in order that Drumm may be saved. If only it were that easy.

In The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, Joyce Sarick writes that “Legal Thrillers address abuses of the law and often pit a David against the Golliaths of corrupt lawyers, legal firms, and justices.” (Sarick, 2009, 76) Grisham is an avowed opponent of capital punishment and The Confession dramatizes his many arguments against it. The book is packed with many stock characters. Drumm’s lawyer, Robbie Flak is described as “brilliant and brash” and “consumed with social injustice.” He is Grisham’s “David” – up against the racist and corrupt Detective Kerber, who railroaded Drumm into a false confession, and a prosecutor and governor who are determined to save their reputations even if it means executing an innocent man.

It’s hard to feel much empathy for most of the characters who inhabit the town of Sloan. Those of the side of right (fighting against Drumm’s execution) while portrayed somewhat more favorably, still seem somewhat beaten down and hopeless. Those working against Drumm are portrayed in as negative a light as possible. Even the victim’s mother, Reeva, comes across as a conniving publicity seeker, shedding more tears for the camera than her daughter. The only character I felt empathy for was the Reverend. It is his struggle to do the right thing and bring Boyette from Topeka to Texas to stop the execution that I could admire and identify with, and this was the main appeal factor for me.

I also enjoyed the fast pace, and the many twists and turns as the story jumped from one legal maneuver to another, through multiple characters points of view and numerous settings. While Grisham goes into some legal terminology, he does so in such a way that it doesn’t bog down the story. The details of the rape and murder are kept to a minimum so there is limited graphic violence, language, or sex. While not everyone has a happy ending, my favorite protagonist, the Reverend, does which made me happy. Grisham manages to ends the book with one final shot at capital punishment, demonstrating that despite everything that happened in the book, ultimately the death penalty prevails.

Gisham, John.  The Confession.  New York:  Doubleday, 2010.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My Reading Profile – Characters, Familiarity, & Happy Endings

As I look back on some fifty years of reading, I notice some definite patterns emerging, yet I prize characters, familiarity, and happy endings above all. Once I discover an author I like I tend to read all their books until I’ve either read everything or just get sick of them. The first author I remember doing this with was Irving Stone back in high school. In my late teens I started with John Jakes. Based upon these two authors I would say that I found the historical settings of their works appealing. The authenticity of the material is also a factor. I like the idea that these books, while fictionalized, were rooted in facts. Even my most recent read, Stephen King’s 11/22/63 was in a sense historical fiction since the protagonist goes back in time to stop the JFK assassination. In addition, while these books all had action, the characters where the most important elements for me. I prefer a few central characters that I can connect with and become emotionally attached to. To this day I feel like I was a part of the creation of Michelangelo’s Pieta because I labored alongside of him in Irving Stones’ The Agony and the Ecstasy.

In my twenties I drifted to the emotional genres of horror and romance – Stephen King and Danielle Steele – yet characterization was still a key element. I realize that I began to prefer the kind of writing style that both these authors use. Both use plenty of dialog and action and only enough description to set the stage. They throw in just the right amount of violence and/or sex for me. The language they use is direct and straightforward (and in King’s case, often profane) and not at all dense or flowery. There is often a hint of humor or gentle sarcasm, particularly in King’s dialog. Neither writes what I would call literary novels. In fact, I eventually became bored with Steele’s novels because they seemed too formulaic. Fortunately, just when King’s books start to all sound the same, he throws in something totally off the wall. Because of this I can enjoy the familiarity of Kings writing (such as his occasionally cheesy dialog and his over reliance on writers and teachers as protagonists and North Eastern, Maine as the setting) while not getting tired of it.

Familiar characters are also important to me. Once I connect with a character, I enjoy revisiting them in future books. I realized this in my late twenties when I started reading series focusing on a main character such as Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels or Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone mysteries. I’m currently reading Grafton’s latest book V is for Vengeance and, despite that fact that she tends to use too much description for my taste, I will stick it out because I like the character. When I started reading the Harry Potter series to my daughter, I had never read a fantasy book before. I didn’t think I’d like fantasy yet I enjoyed reading these books as much as she did because I fell in love with the characters.

The fact that I agreed with the J.K. Rowling’s underlying messages of the importance of friendship and the triumph of good over evil also added to the appeal factor of this series. I like books that present an ultimately hopeful view of the world. I want my characters to face challenges and emerge victorious. As an eternal optimist I need my happy ending!