Friday, January 4, 2008

December Book Reviews - Grisham non-fiction (reprise), Kingsolver novel, French philosophical novel, Katrina columns, Pakistani debut, Jewish memoir

The Innocent Man by John Grisham

I reviewed this one in December, but once again, here's my review from

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 toxic 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 to be a friend of Williamson.

I'll stop here regarding the "plot", even though this is a news story and you could look it up. 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).

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Natural Passion

Published in the year 2001, this novel is surprisingly the last one Ms. Kingsolver has written, as she's since shifted to writing essays and non-fiction. In Prodigal Summer, she combines her training as a biologist with her experience living in Kentucky to tell three stories about people and nature in Appalachia.

In the first story subtitled "Predators", Deanna is a forest ranger living in virtual isolation in the Zebulon Mountain. In an opening chapter that kept me away from this book for about five years, she falls for animal bounty hunter Eddie Bondo. Lust ensues, then conflict as predator-protector Deanna and predator-pursuer Eddie compare notes. I learned a lot more about the delicate balance between predators and prey than I did about the relationship of lovers from this story.

Story two, "Moth Love", involves city girl Lusa, another trained biologist (the kind who studies moths), less comfortably situated as the new wife of a rural tobacco farmer with four overbearing adult sisters. Tragedy turns her already unsettled life upside down. Lusa's creative efforts to find both herself and her way among mountain folk are revealing, surprising and entertaining. Kingsolver's knowledge and compassion for country folk and her skill with scenes involving adults and children shine in this section.

The third story, "Old Chestnuts", features two neighboring antagonists, who, like Deanna and Eddie, are set in conflict by opposing views of the relationship between man and nature. 80ish widower Garnett Walker believes in the chemical destruction any and all pests, despite his more life-affiming work trying to save a nearly-extinct form of chestnut tree. Miss Nannie Rawley, a Unitarian of all things, takes a more holistic view of nature that is endlessly annoying to Walker. Kingsolver charmingly depicts the thawing of their relationship.
For the most part standing on their own, but told in an alterning manner, by their end the stories tell us of long-standing relationships among the characters--relationships that help shape their destinies.

Put off for years by the "lust in the moss" opening chapter, but despairing the wait for Kingsolver's next novel, I came back to this book. I'm glad I did, as Kingsolver's knowledge and love of nature combined with her skilled storytelling make for another special reading experience.

Four stars for both adult and teenage readers, especially those with a love of the natural world.

The Power of Flies by Lydie Salvayre

A Foothold in the Void

Author Lydie Salvayre, daughter of refugees from the Spanish Civil War (an experience so well conveyed in the amazing film Pan's Labyrinth), explores the metaphysical nature of murder and madness in the short, but startling book, "The Power of Flies". The protagonist, trying to maintain "a foothold in the void" as he awaits sentencing on a murder charge, "explains" his actions and his life to an audience of judge, lawyer, psychologist and others in a rambling monologue that owes heavily to the French philosopher Blaise Pascal. Among other dichotomies, he and Pascal claim that both great evil and great good can exist, and one doesn't have to choose between the two. The main character's prejudices, by turns humorous and disturbing, keep him from being very sympathetic, but he's always interesting, right to the last page as he works his way around to the crime that put him in his current predicament.

Four stars for adult readers for a challenging read, but not too challenging given that the book is only about 150 pages long.

1 Dead in Attic by Chris Rose

A Man and His City

The most personal book I've read about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans is this collection of newspaper columns from New Orleans Times Picayune writer Chris Rose. Proving that living somewhere involves more than occupying a house there, Rose seemingly suffers the trauma of all New Orleanians, even though his own house and family endure essentially no damage from the storm (other than a four-month relocation of wife and children to Maryland). The title refers to words painted on the side of a house as a message to recovery crews. More than a year after the storm, the words are still on that house.

Along with chronicling Rose's personal journey, the book serves a second purpose of telling the stories of dozens of other New Orleanians and "The Thing", as Rose calls Katrina. Among my favorites is the guy who collects magnets off the thousands of abandoned rerfigerators to cover his truck. Rose waxes poetic and fantastic along the way. You'll love "Refrigerator City" and maybe even his rants about Mayor Ray Nagin's "Chocolate City" comment (the column about breakfast with God and Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of a kind.)

This second edition is a combination of the popular shorter first edition and a second book initially intended to be published separately as "Purple Upside Down Car" (a phrase taken from Rose's young son noticing one of the many destroyed cars around the city).

My only complaint with the book is with its somewhat haphazard organization. The book is organized into several subsections and is for the most part chronological, but often not. Still, the columns within each subsection don't necessarily fit together that well. It's a minor complaint, since each column is so interesting that the reader is pulled along from one to the next. The book ends with Rose's year-end column from 2006, more than a year after the storm.

Four-and-a-half stars for the personal story of a storm's impact on a man and his city.

Bittersweets by Roopa Farooki
True Lies

Ms. Farooki's first novel has a clear theme--the power that lies can have over people's lives and the ultimate redemptive power of the truth. Though the story is set in Bangladesh and London, the story could be told in any setting. For at least the first half of the book, Ms. Farooki seems to hopscotch through the story--a little more depth might have helped the reader understand the characters better and give the story more continuity. When the final generation of characters is established and set in motion, the story tightens and improves, though the subplot of a son's sexual exploration seems a little drawn out and even superfluous. Some readers may find the ending to be a little too "sweet", but it's welcome after the "bitter" angst suffered by so many characters. "Bittersweets" has its charms, but doesn't quite measure up to the similar The Namesake: A Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri and lacks the scope and depth to compete with the brilliant writing about the subcontinent middle class by the incomparable Rohinton Mistry, author of A Fine Balance (Oprah's Book Club).

Just three stars for a book I spent a month trying to finish.

Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou by Jennifer Ann Moses

Book Better Than Title

I know the author, whose twin children go to high school with my daughter, and have read many of her columns on religious issues in the local newspaper. The unfortunately-titled "Bagels and Grits", which sounds more like a book on comparative cooking and culture between the Northeast and south Louisiana, made me feel like I know Jennifer Moses a lot better, as I've now read the story of her religious journey from a secular Jewish teenager in Virginia to a woman who teaches Hebrew at her synagogue and writes columns on religious issues.

Her journey and the book are inspired by of all things, volunteering a half-day a week in her new hometown of Baton Rouge, LA at an AIDS hospice. So many of the terminally-ill patients find comfort in their Christian faith, that Ms. Moses begins to consider how a deeper spirituality might improve her own life. Her longstanding Jewish identity prevents her from going all the way to Christianity, but a new rabbi at a local synagogue helps her find her way to a deeper understanding of Judaism. She even becomes a bat-mitzvah, completing studies in Judaism and Hebrew that Jews generally do while teenagers.

I found the story of Moses' rediscovery of Judaism in Baton Rouge (the "grits" part of the title) to be much more fascinating than flashbacks to her upper middle class upbringing in Virginia and young adult life in New York City (the "bagel" part). Still, Moses is a talented writer with a willingness to share quite personal information, making her book a quick read. One warning--if you're a big fan of "Tuesdays With Morrie" you might want to skip over Moses' two capsule reviews of that book. In her view, Mitch Albom's spiritual awakening doesn't quite measure up. I empathized more with Morrie's story than Mitch's, and didn't have such a negative reaction to the book, no matter its sentimentality.

Four stars for a well-written, serious and informative account of one woman's spiritual journey that will probably be best enjoyed by those of us in the Baby Boomer generation.

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