Saturday, December 8, 2007

November (and One December) Book Reviews - Grisham True Crime; Ford's Jersey Series Continues; Hip Louisiana PI; US Defense Policy Analysis

I read just three books in November, one of which, Daydream Believers by Fred Kaplan, was an advance review copy from Amazon that to my knowledge, I'm only supposed to review on until the book's release in February 2008. That leaves two books: Louisiana Bigshot by Julie Smith and The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford. To beef up the numbers and to publicize what I think is one of the most important books written in awhile, I'm adding a December book to the list, The Innocent Man by John Grisham. I'll start with it and work backwards.

The Innocent Man by John Grisham

Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

The phrase "Grisham book" and word "important" aren't often found in the same sentence, but John Grisham's 2006 non-fiction book, The Innocent Man, allows me to state that Grisham has now written the most important book of his mega-successful career, and one of the most important I've read by any author.

The book recounts two murders in the small town of Ada, Oklahoma. Both victims are young women. In both cases, the local and state police investigating the case are stumped. But with a harrowing blend of extremely circumstantial "evidence", shocking crime scene photos, junk science, inexpert experts, jailhouse snitches and critical "dream confessions" induced by near-torture tactics, the police pin the murders on four young men of the area, two per murder.

The "innocent man" of the title is 30-something ne'er-do-well Ron Williamson, a schoolboy baseball star whose dreams of playing in Yankee Stadium dissolve in the low minors in a mix of arm injuries, booze and the onset of mental illness. By the time of the murder that consumes most of Grisham's tale, Williamson has washed up back home in Ada, and deservedly earned a reputation as a loudmouth loose cannon of sorts. Still his worst crime is passing a $300 phony check.

Skipping forward quickly, Williamson becomes the focus of the police's investigation and ultimately finds himself on death row in an Oklahoma criminal justice system whose aim seems to be to continuously reduce the amount of respect shown to death row inmates until it reaches zero. Shrewd detectives that they are, the police "know" that there's a second killer because of a misspelled warning message written in catsup at the scene, "dont chase us or ealse." Enter suspect two, single father Dennis Fritz, whose main crime is being a friend of Williamson.

I'll stop here regarding the "plot", even though this is a news story and you could look it up. (If you don't know the outcome of the story, skip over the photos in the middle of the book until you've finished reading.) While novelistic in format, The Innocent Man reads more like a newspaper report, or like a lawyer dispassionately recounting the facts of a case. (Well after awhile not so dispassionately, as the injustices against the accused and then convicted men pile up.) The issues raised by the case and brought to light by Grisham cover the gamut of criminal justice - abuse of police power, single-minded focus on particular suspects and deliberate ignorance of others, near-torture-induced confessions, prosecutorial arrogance, lack of resources provided to defendants, mishandling of evidence, coercion of expert witnesses, use of junk science to dazzle a jury, the general and mistaken belief by the community that the police only arrest guilty parties, and most compellingly in Williamson's case, the inability of the criminal justice system to recognize and deal humanely with mentally ill prisoners.

My wife read the almost 450-page paperback version in one day. She then bugged me to read it for several days until I interrupted my second attempt at Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer: A Novel and dove in. Even while sick, I finished it in a day-and-a-half. After his disappointing novella Bleachers, I'd pretty much written off Grisham (never have considered him much better an airplane read in the first place), but I'm deeply grateful to him to recognizing the power of this story and bringing to the attention of so many people with this fine book. I also salute him for sticking to the non-fiction format, resisting the novelist's urge to fictionalize the story and embellish it with tie-ins to the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 and the like. The Innocent Man may not stand up as literature to recently-deceased Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, but it's still a great book--the best true-crime story I've read with the most important messages about America's criminal justice system and its generally unrecognized threat to innocent men and women everywhere (and especially in Ada, OK where the DA that prosecuted the cases is still in office).

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

Ford's Private Jersey

Action and plot take a backseat to character exploration in Richard Ford's third novel about New Jersey-based sportswriter cum real estate agent Frank Bascombe, who having survived loss, tragedy and a career change in his first two appearances (The Sportswriter, which I tried to read unsuccessfully several years ago, and Independence Day), returns in The Lay of the Land for his self-named Permanent Period. Naturally gregarious, Frank is quite alone (except for the atomic BBs in his groin--there to fight prostate cancer) in November 2000 (the Gore-Bush election dispute is an ongoing element of the story), his children grown and moved away from New Jersey, divorced by one wife and left by the second. With his protege, Tibetan immigrant and amateur Buddhist philosopher Mike Mahoney, Bascombe manages his thriving real estate office on the fictional island community of Sea-Clift off the Jersey shore. In a hospital cafeteria, in a bar (or three), or in his seaside condo (not for sale but valued in excess of $1 million) alongside a diminishing band of secretive and/or eccentric and annoying neighbors, Frank searches for human contact. He goes so far as to arrange a catered Thanksgiving dinner for his children and their spouses, partners, or dates, even going so far as to invite his first ex-wife, a move that both he and former tennis coach Ann Dykstra immediately regret.

Counting almost 500 pages in the trade paperback edition, the novel includes at least 350 pages of the inner workings of Frank's mind. In just three days of thought and action before and on Thanksgiving, we learn more about Frank than most people would know about their spouses after 20 years of marriage. Along the way we learn a good bit about the Jersey shore real estate trade and about the idiosyncractic makeup of the whole of New Jersey, an amalgamation of small towns, boros, and villages struggling to maintain their identities in a big box world that wants to smush them together into market segments. When it comes the action can be violent, comic, pathetic or some combination of the three.

Well-written throughout, The Lay of the Land may keep you going even if character-driven novels aren't your speed. The big ending, which I read about four times, will be your reward. Five star elements - writing, character-development, detailed insight into setting; four star or less elements - plot and action. Overall four stars. Folks that liked John Updike's Rabbit series will probably like this one. I hope that Ford will use his considerable talents to write a truly great book (at least to my tastes) like Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex: A Novel.

Louisiana Bigshot by Julie Smith

Hot Stuff Louisiana Style

Not being a big fan or urban detective fiction, I never would have bought this book if not for taking a half-day class on character development in fiction writing taught by the author. The class was fun and informative, but I haven't written any fiction since the class. However, I did buy and read Louisiana Bigshot, one of Ms. Smith's 20 or so detective novels. The heroine of the story is young African-American Talba Wallis, a PI by day and the performance artist Baroness Pontalba by night. A friend is murdered and she convinces her boss to take the case. Investigation involves digging in the past of a nearby small town that hasn't advanced much culturally since the 1950s. Race, sex, violence and politics, the grist of a good Louisiana-set novel, are all here and capably handled by Smith's fast-moving style.

Hip, computer-savvy, but accident-prone Talba is a fun leading character, but with some issues of her own that she works on in parallel with the murder investigation. Her boss Eddie is an obese Yat from the old school, but he knows the key to unlock almost any door. Smith also creates a touching character to be Talba's spiritual guide, an aging retired minister who devotes his life to caring for his aging and ailing wife. Though the town at the center of the story is fictitious, Louisiana readers will recognize many of the settings. Like a fresh fried shrimp poboy, Louisiana Bigshot (which sounds like a good name for a hot sauce or a drink) - is a quickly-consumed and tasty treat. Three-and-a-half stars for the book and the extra half for its author teaching the fun course for a total of four stars.

Daydream Believers by Fred Kaplan

As a regular reviewer at, I got an advanced copy of Daydream Believers this book through their Vine program. The book will be released in February 2008. The author writes the column War Stories in the online magazine Slate (, which I've enjoyed for years. Having received the book for free, I owe a first review to that Vine program, so all I’ll say here is that if you read this book you will have a much greater understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the Iraq War and its aftermath. The title, taken from an old Monkees song, I think, undersells a very informative and important book. The “believers” part of the title is right on.


Anonymous said...

In it something is. Clearly, thanks for the help in this question.

Anonymous said...

Willingly I accept. The theme is interesting, I will take part in discussion. I know, that together we can come to a right answer.