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The Book Report
Winter 2021: I'm continuing to re-read old Grisham novels, I've forgotten them, so it's like reading a new book. Some are very good stories, still timely. Grisham's a liberal, writing about one of the most conservative states in the country, Mississippi. Occasionally I'm shocked, often I'm amused, and once in a while I think about making a trip to Mississippi. Not too often. So in anticipation of Grisham's latest, I decided to read his first book, A Time to Kill, since the new book sort of takes off where Kill ended. It's a big, thick, heavy book, a challenge.
In A Time to Kill, small town lawyer, Jake Brigance defends a black man who has murdered, in cold blood, two young creepy thugs who had raped his daughter. Huge trial for Clanton, Mississippi. Complete with Klansmen, an angry sheriff's office and a town that had decided the case before it began. The story ran on and on, as Brigance was harassed by the Klan, and the townspeople. It's the V shaped plot, where each plot point gets worse and worse and worse, and then we finally reach the bottom of the V and things get better. The end. It's the basic thriller plot.
So then I decided to read his latest, A Time for Mercy. It's 5 years later in Clanton, Mississippi and nothing much has changed. Jake Brigance is once again called upon to defend an undefendable client. Nobody else will take the case of the 14 year old boy who has shot his mother's deputy sheriff boyfriend, also in cold blood.
Grisham is schlepping this book like mad. I'm saying think again about buying it. If you read A Time to Kill you might not be all that interested in this one. It's the same story, same V shaped plotline. Brigance goes through so much agony and misery before the trial finally happens. His situation just gets worse and worse, and when you think it can't get any worse, it manages to get worse anyhow. Enough already. I was so wanting the trial to begin. Same ending, sort of. Then Grisham raced through all the loose ends. I could tell that he was as tired of the story as I was. I'm surprised at my review because I basically like all of what Grisham writes. But this book didn't need to happen.
However, I am going to go back to my bookshelves and will re-read some more of Grisham's earlier books. I think there are still a few that I will enjoy. Grisham is a good story teller, and his earlier work touched on different matters of the law, occasionally omitting trials altogether. And then after two readings, I will be able to donate the whole shelf of Grisham law books to the Goodwill. Somebody else will enjoy them.
I needed a change of pace so I picked up Erick Larson's latest, The Splendid and the Vile. It's nonfiction, about Churchill's first year as prime minister, during the blitz, 1941. It's a great story, reads like a novel, and even though we know how the story of WWII ends, it's a brilliant personal look at Churchill, and how he manages somehow to convince the British people that they could win a war with Hitler. It's Hitler's powers of persuasion against Churchill's. I loved that angle. Because that's all Churchill had. There was no British war machine to throw at the Germans, just Churchill's voice and Churchill's determination. In fact, British troops were most successful at evacuating, running away from battles, and all out retreats, like Dunkirk.
I couldn't put that book down. Loved every descriptive page of Churchill in his bathtub chomping his cigar, Churchill at the dinner table for hours plotting his next moves, Churchill demanding more RAF planes, Churchill wandering through towns that had been bombed out crying with the survivors. Honestly, Larson brings it home. A triumphant work among the thousands of volumes that have been published about WWII.
And between the good reads, I started or half read lots of mysteries and thrillers always searching for the voice that might appeal to me. Most books were disgarded after a few pages. I'm picky about my pleasure reading.
I have just finished reading Rachel Maddow's Bag Man, another page turner. It's about Spiro Agnew, one of the most unscrupulous corruption artists ever to hold high public office. A story that most of us don't know. But just as Rachel thought, it's a story that needs to be told, immediately. When Agnew's bribery and kickback schemes surfaced, the prosecutors were surprised. They weren't looking for Agnew when the started investigating corruption in Baltimore's construction industry. But they found Agnew at the heart of it.
When the Agnew story exploded in the news, Nixon was neck deep in Watergate. Agnew wanted to be president, of course, but the justice department was in a frenzy. A crook like Agnew should never become president, he should be in jail, like the rest of the men who stole thousands of dollars from Baltimore over the years. And Nixon was hanging in there by his fingernails.
Agnew went into high gear, tearing into the journalists, smearing them, lying about them, proclaiming his innocence. It was all a hoax! he said. He also wanted the justice department investigated. How dare they say such things about him. On he went, with the voters behind him. Voters liked Agnew, for some odd reason, even though he was something of a pompous asshole. They had no idea what kind of a slime ball he really was. In addition to corruption, Agnew's personal life was unseemly, and his ethics were questionable, he was anti Semitic and he hated women. All of it. Sound familiar?
Rachel decided that this was a story that needed to come to the surface now. Most of America has totally forgotten Agnew and can't remember exactly what happened. At best, most folks remember it as some sort of tax problem. Well, it was way more than that. It was Agnew who paved the way, sort of designed the plotline, for a person like trump to destroy America in order to protect himself. Trump's corruption, evil deeds, petty cruelty and lack of political ability are way worse than Agnew's. But much of what the justice department had to give up to get Agnew out of office is now benefiting trump. And that's a tragedy. There is also a podcast, which I've heard is very good.
So I'm looking at some simple mystery novels to get me through the holidays. It's always reading time for me. The pandemic sheltering just creates more opportunity for somebody like me to dive in.
Ahhhh, reading at two am. Gotta love that.
Cheers for now, Dianne
Best of the lot that I read was Alan Furst's Mission to Paris. Gripping story set in Paris just before the invasion and occupation of Paris. Plenty of Germans there already. Tense times. Furst does these stories so well. I also read his Under Occupation. Not nearly as tense, but nevertheless, worth reading. Mostly he writes about regular folks who get sucked into being spies, carrying messages, hiding people, generally messing up their normal lives during these horrible times. He sets the tone and feel of WWII just right.
John Sanford's latest, Masked Prey was good, if forgetable. Maybe the 31st of the series. I enjoyed it. Both Sanford and his character Lucas Davenport are getting older. No matter, we still can't wait for the next book of the prey series.
I was also one of the one million who bought Mary Trump's book in the first week of publication. Too Much and Never Enough. Trump's niece writes about the family, how Donald came to be what he is. Quite interesting. She does know what she's talking about. I totally understand why Donald didn't want to see it published. Embarrassing for him. I will read two more on trump and then that's it. Hoax, about Fox news is coming out next week. We finally get a picture of that odd relationship between trump and his favor talk show hosts, and how it has shaped trump's ideas. And then Cohen's book, Disloyal. That will do it. I'll take out the trash then.
This past couple of weeks I've been re-reading Grisham novels, the early ones. They are nearly 30 years old now. I've totally forgotten the stories, so it's been a pleasure to read The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, and now Rainmaker. I'm also watching the movies. I thought the Firm was an awful movie. The adapters changed it so much that it lost its point. Skip that movie. Pelican Brief, the movie, was great, followed the plot nicely, the changes they made worked and didn't drift from the main plot. I'm going to watch the Client this weekend. As I read the story I realized that I didn't remember a word of it. I think I might have bought the book and somehow didn't read it. Nobody would forget the story of the 11 year old boy running from the Mafia.
More on Grisham, later. I will have read most of the old ones by then. The ones I remember, like the Chamber, I'm gonna skip.
Here is a short list of books that I managed to finish:
Camino Winds, John Grisham
City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert
Museum of Desire, Jonathan Kellerman
The Punishment She Deserves, by Elizabeth
I am going to be reading some popular fiction written by black writers. I had no idea that that was a culture onto itself. I just never figured that black folks might prefer to read black sleuths, solve black mysteries, become engaged in black thrillers. I'm gonna find out. Rather than reading "important" books whose intended audience might be white folks, I want to read what the typical black reader might enjoy. I will report back soon.
Go ahead, read all night, you probably don't have much to do tomorrow. That's what I'm doing.
I like to read themes and what better themes this summer than politics and thrillers. I read many trump-bashing books, which I highly recommend. I'm calling them quality trump-bashing, written by insiders who have witnessed the chaos and crime. The books have been out for a while but the shocking stories of this disastrous presidency continue to haunt us. I like to keep up with politics so this was required reading for me. I cannot remember a time when politics and the presidency has been so all-consuming.
Team of Vipers, by Cliff Sims. This book was written by a staffer (the IT guy in charge of digital ads, website, stuff like that) who was with the trump organization for 500 days. It's an insider account, one of the early ones. He details the chaos at the very beginning when trumps' campaign was messy, unorganized, and nobody knew exactly how to run one. Highly readable. Good insight into the first (and I hope only!) trump campaign.
The Threat, by Andrew McCabe, who was made acting FBI director after trump fired Comey (Comey's book is very good too. See below.). Trump fired McCabe too, just two days before his retirement, after a long and distinguished career in government. Trump made up a bunch of lies to discredit him, just like he did Comey. There's nothing trump hates worse than government men who are loyal to America and the constitution, rather than to him personally. This book explains what was going on in the WH, and how the FBI works. One is working against the people, the other one is working for the people. You guess which is which.
Commander in Cheat: how golf explains trump, by Rick Reilly. Trump cheats at golf. That's one of the creepiest things a golfer can do. Cheat the score, cheat the postings, cheat the lie, bump the ball, steal your partner's ball. And declare himself club champ at all of his courses, without entering the tournaments. His golf buddies put up with it. I have no idea why. Golf is based on good sportsmanship and honor. Trump lives his life like he plays golf, by cheating. Disgusting.
Fear, by Bob Woodward. I only read part of this one because I knew most of this story by the time he published it. I followed Mueller and Rachael. It was a rehash. Too bad.
Kushner Inc, by Vicky Ward. Jared Kushner is a twit. This book is about the greed and ambition of the Kushner family. They are all sleazy, mobbed up imbeciles. I think at this point, Kushner, the son in law, would have been fired if he wasn't Ivanka's husband. There is much to be investigated about this family, especially their Saudi ties. I hope somebody eventually gets around to it.
Siege, by Michael Wolff. Chaos in the second year of trump's presidency. Probably the most hair-on-fire trump reading that I encountered. But I liked it. I think Wolff was a little more under control with his second book about trump. We have heard the stories many times, Wolff frosts the cake. Nobody has told the "real" story yet. That will come much later, and will be even more disturbing.
(Please note that none of these books were about conspiracy theories, wild lies or other trash that has also been published.)
After slogging through all that political intrigue, I needed a change, and it was still high summer, so I decided to look for a thriller series that could take me away from the grime and sleaze of the trump world. Found the perfect series, the "prey" series by John Sandford. There are 29 books in the prey series at this point. I read them all. They are page turners. I'm hoping there will be more. There is nothing like a good book about serial killers to take away the bad taste of trump.
Serial killers are not all psycho maniacs, but some are. I liked the psychotic killers the least. There are lots of random mass murderers out there, some murderers get away with it because of the victims they choose. Serial killers usually kill randomly, mostly women, often prostitutes. Women in the wrong place at the wrong time, often bars at closing time, hanging around the streets after hours, high jacked or kidnapped in shopping center parking lots, like that. Be careful out there! Cops aren't too interested in chasing down prostitute killers. Hmm.
Serial killers are ones we most often hear about. But there are other categories, for example, paid assassins. Hit men. Stone cold killers, who just do it for money. They get a contract, they do the work, don't leave any traceable evidence, and then collect a check. They have no personal connection to the victim, which makes is nearly impossible to track them down. The prey series included a hit woman, two of the most interesting books were about her. Rinker! She's gone now. Too bad.
Other mass killers don't intend to murder more than one person, but things out of hand. The killer has to murder more people to cover up his or her first crime. Things just get out of hand. Some killers who are simply trying to drive to Mexico or Canada to disappear, and unfortunately end their lives in shootouts with cops. Lots of innocent bystanders and cops are killed that way.
Husbands killing wives and family members. Employees killing the boss and trying to cover it up. Dysfunctional family mass murder. Accidental murders -- it goes on. This is the group we usually see on TV, a la Colombo, and Murder, she wrote, Criminal minds, all of those old chestnuts.
Notice I didn't mention the mass murders we are living through these days: school shootings, theater shootings, mall shootings, highway shootings, event shootings. These are a special category. Domestic terrorism. Sanford doesn't touch this subject.
The entire prey series was a fun ride. Great continuing characters, the quest to right the wrongs of the world. Each books was about 12 hours of Kindle time. Not a lot of time if you are reading for an hour or so in the morning and evening. Easy to get to the end, and on to the next one. Thanks Sandford!
The prey series begins before cell phones came along. The transition to mobile phones is gradual. Currently, it's all about the phones. The thing I noticed most was that the motives for the murders stay the same, but the means of catching the killers changes. In the early books, (I think he's probably been writing this series for about 15 or 20 years), communication is limited and difficult, it's easier to hide in plain sight, tailing a suspect, either on foot or by car is more difficult. Then along come computers and cell phones. It's easier for cops to stay in touch with each other, gathering evidence is quicker and way more technology in use. Lots of geeks sitting at laptops help catch killers without ever leaving home. We are definitely losing our privacy! For the killer, it's harder to hide, but easier to communicate with the gang or companions. Lots of cell phones, tracking them, listening in on them, using them in varied and unique ways. Burner phones.
At the moment, I'm reading another Sandford collection called the Virgil Flowers series, which is exactly the same as the prey series, but instead of Lucas Davenport as the main character, we have Virgil. Virgil, who works for Davenport, and has been hired to solve the difficult cases outside the Twin Cities. I'm liking these stories very much too.
Louise Penny: While I was reading Sandford this summer, every once in a while, I took a break and read a Louise Penny. She is wildly popular, mostly with the ladies I think. She writes a psychological mystery series set in the Montreal area, starring Inspector Gammach, who lives in a small Canadian hamlet called Three Pines. In every book there are always three distinct plots that sort of intertwine. First, something disastrous is happening to Montreal, like a bridge going to be blown up, or a dam breaks, some awful drug epidemic occurs. Second, Gammach's job is always in jeopardy due to political intrigue within the homicide department. Third, a murder has occurred in Three Pines. The citizens of the quaint hamlet spend most of their time either socializing at the Gammachs house, or in the lodge which is a combination coffee house, restaurant, bookstore, and meeting place for a group of very eccentric town folks. Some are likeable, others are a pain. This isn't my favorite series but I think I've read most of them. Don't ask me why.
After reading so many mysteries and thrillers, I realize how hard it is to write an engaging story when the storyline is pretty much the same in every book. It's all about solving the crime, but the crime solver is front and center, whether it's a police procedural, a private detective, or an innocent bystander.
The books are really all about talking things out, and the story follows the main character's daily life as he or she goes about trying to solve the perplexing riddle. The only variations are the settings where the conversation occurs, and perhaps what they are eating and drinking, and what they are reading when nothing is happening. All books are on-going chases, all books should introduce the culprit somewhere in the story, most books feature various locales, and lots of the work involves tramping around the countryside, breaking into houses, surveillance of suspects. Like that. And in the best of the mysteries and thrillers you learn something interesting that usually has nothing to do with crime-solving. I love that part.
So when you think about it, mysteries are really sort of slow moving stories with lots of talking, thinking, perusing the evidence, trying to fit the pieces together. If you don't like puzzles, and the time it takes to figure things out, you will not be a fan of thrillers. It's not as easy as it sounds to write such stories. If they are done well, they are riveting. No wonder they are so popular.
To sum up this reading season, I read a whole bunch of books this summer, way too many to count or acknowledge individually. I enjoyed the book journey immensely. But now that fall is there, I need to do other things, get out a bit more, sleep a little better, and as usual, find some more engaging books.
So far, next on tap are:
Blowout, by Rachel Maddow
Keep reading! Your faithful editor, Dianne
Spring 2019 I have a collection of books about books. It's a genre for book geeks. Weird, I know, but I love them. My friend Jane gave me one called The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell. The second hand bookshop is in Wigtown, Scotland, a book town. Apparently, if you find your way to Wigtown, you will see lots of shops selling used books. They hold international book fairs and people come from all over to buy books and listen to writers going on about whatever. So odd in the 21st century, right? The book is a diary of the day-to-day operation of the store, the business of selling used books sounds rather time consuming, difficult at times, and above all, sort of boring. Nevertheless, if I'm ever in Scotland (fat chance), I'll visit this store.
Next I heard there was another famous booktown in the British Isles, that has also been written up. The book is called Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, by Paul Collins. The town is called Hay-on-Wye and it's in Wales. The town is also filled with shops selling new and used books, and apparently they somehow make a go of it. Tourists and writers come for the book fairs, book scouts show up, travelers stop in, the locals buy books, life goes on. Paul's story is not so interesting. He and his wife and child show up, moving from America to this small town to start their own shop, maybe. My impression of Paul was not good. He said lots of twitish things about books, about book selling and about the town in general. They move away at the end. I was relieved. But the town itself is also on my list of places to visit.
Both books ended up in my collection. Good additions.
I'm getting rather picky about books in my old age. After the long slog through Africa with Paul Theroux last summer I've been wanting to read something lighter. I started The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George. It was a bestseller some years ago but for some reason I just got around to it. It's a novel about a French bookseller named Jean Perdu, whose shop is on a river barge docked on the Seine. He calls it the Book Hypothocary. Jean claims that he can tell what book a person should read by just talking to them for a few minutes. And that the book will make them feel better. He can solve other people's problems but he cannot solve his own. It's well written and charming, but by about half way through it, I found that I had had enough. I didn't want to know one word more about him or his book barge.
Most of the other books I started,
ended up the same way. Here are the ones that I read at least 50 pages
before deciding that I had enough:
When December rolls around I always resort to the thrillers. They seldom disappoint me. I ploughed thru a number of them between egg nogs and shopping trips. Past Tense, another Reacher novel, Dark Sacred Night and Two Kinds of Truth, by Michael Connelly, The Other Woman, by Daniel Silva. Thrillers don't need much analysis. You either like them or you don't. I do.
I hope you have had better luck with your book companions this past few months. Here's hoping the same for me in the coming months.
I spent most of the summer reading depressing books. I was making a virtual trip journal. I guess somewhere in between the folds I was happy not to be traveling. So the books I read definitely reaffirmed that feeling. I read four by Paul Theroux, one of my very favorite authors. He travels, usually by train, and writes about the people he meets and the experience of getting from place to place. He has odd experiences, gets himself into trouble at times, usually suffers, but slowly plods his way to his destination, examining things usually found under rocks. The reader goes along, it actually feels like you are there, even if you would never chose to go there on your own. He never chooses tourist destinations, never tells you where to stay or what to eat. But he does give you a first rate picture of what it's like, wherever he is.
First, I reread The Old Patagonian Express, a book he wrote about 30 years ago. One of his first. He begins his journey in Boston and he travels by train from Boston to Patagonia (which is at the bottom of South America). I had totally forgotten every word he had written so it was like going there for the first time. I know that I read the book because I made a hand-written list on the fly page, of the books he mentioned reading while on the trip. That's one of the things he does to pass the time. He brings books with him and reads incessantly, and comments on what he has read. I love that part.
Let me be brief, not much as changed for the better in Central or South America. Incredible poverty, dirty cities, crowded, decrepit trains, desperate people. Some lovely sights, but mostly just a disappointing and depressing journey that even Paul was glad to see ending, on a night train in Patagonia, literally the end of the earth.
Then I noticed on my bookshelf, Dark Star Safari, also by Paul Theroux. It had been resting there a while, from 2003, actually. I had forgotten to read it. Oh goody. This one begins in Cairo, where Paul is trying to get visas for his journey south. He wants to travel down the Nile, through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and eventually to South Africa. The first 120 pages are all Cairo, interesting, but I felt like he was dithering. The adventure starts when he heads off to Sudan, first by boat, and then overland, by car, then truck, sometimes by bus. He had an awful time, at one point riding on top of a truck being shot at by road bandits. A nail biter. He eventually gets to Malawi, where he worked as a teacher for the Peace Corps many years ago. It was a horrible disappointment to see that things have changed for the worse. Do-gooders expect and predict that things will get better once the people become educated. For the most part that didn't happen. He ends up in South Africa, but is actually reluctant to go back home. He had a great time, I was glad to hear that he got on the plane. I was exhausted by this book.
Next I read The Last Train to Zona Verde, published in 2013. Paul starts in Cape Town, where he left off in the previous book. His pals all tell him not to go to Namibia, and definitely do not even think of setting foot in Angola, but that was his plan. The book is subtitled: my ultimate African Safari. Paul is familiar with Africa, as we know quite well by this time.
I was captivated by this particular journey. It was cruel, and heart wrenching to read about the extreme poverty and deplorable conditions. Tourists, the safari people, tend to stay in parts of Africa that have been carved out for them, manicured and proscribed, so that nobody sees what's really going on. This book is truly an eye opener. Paul writes in a journal that he carries with him all the time. He also carries books, this time he read the same book several times because there was nowhere to buy another along the way.
He spent very little time on trains. They just aren't running any longer. When Africa was in the hands of the British, there were trains. Some still exist, but long gone are the timely schedules, clean coaches and reliable service. Now most folks catch rides on buses, and trucks making their way uneasily through the bush, over bad roads with dangerous check points and bandits. Crossing borders like tempting fate. Paul manages it but he is often in extreme danger. He's an old guy now, and he tries to blend in, so he is dismissed as just another harmless old man. I think if the local pols knew exactly who was snooping around, he would have a harder time of it.
I was fascinated, and felt like I had actually journeyed to darkest, bleakest Africa with Paul. Thank you for the ride, Paul. It was a stunning adventure.
But I wasn't done with Paul yet. I wandered into Barnes & Noble one day and found Paul's latest book, Deep South: four seasons on the back roads. 2015. This is a totally different kind of adventure. It's a road trip, with Paul driving. He lives in the Boston area, so he could drive. He relishes the ease and convenience of reliable transportation, so the journey is not the trek itself but the people he meets along the way. The deep south is in trouble, again Paul finds the poverty and rough living many folks endure. He makes lots of friends, and revisits them in each season. He travels through most of the south looking in odd corners, talking, or rather, listening to strangers, and then checking back with them.
It's not laziness that keeps mostly the black people in poverty in the south, it's lack of opportunity. No work, mainly. Most small towns that were doing well in the past, are now derelict and closed down, main streets boarded up. The reason is because the work left town. Most of the small towns at one time had some manufacturing or food processing company where most folks worked. Then bingo, no work, the plants closed. Most often the companies sent the work offshore. A familiar story. But the towns depended on the company for their survival. Now there is nothing. That's a familiar but depressing story. The towns need businesses of some type to move back. It's not happening.
But Paul finds resilience and fortitude, along with cultural history that is most interesting. He even does a riff on southern writers that I found quite interesting. He had time to delve into things that get overlooked these days.
I loved this book too, and was charmed that Paul finally found time to visit the US as subject matter for a travel adventure.
I did read, or partially read, a lot of books this summer but I won't bore you with them. I think it's time for some better books to get written. Slim pickings! So I'm currently reading books about books and bookshops. I'll fill you in later,
In the meantime,
Oh, you wanna find out what the Phantom was reading last year? Really? Click here then.
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