Sunday, February 24, 2008

John Grisham

We discovered yesterday evening that in a match between Valentine’s Day and John Grisham, Grisham wins hands down, writes Jeannine. We had a big turnout and lots of fans of the author. Many had read all of his books, or most of them, and the few newbies among us all seemed suitably impressed. Not that there weren’t “quibbles”; we can poke holes in most anything. But it was fun discovering that others had the same favorites, or saw the same problems in some of the titles. But before I go on, here is a list of Grisham’s books, both fiction and nonfiction. We were throwing out titles right and left, so this will help you keep score.

Legal fiction: A Time to Kill (1989); The Firm (1991); The Pelican Brief (1992; The Client (1993); The Chamber (1994); The Rainmaker (1995); The Runaway Jury (1996); The Partner (1997); The Street Lawyer (1998); The Testament (1999); The Brethren (2000); The Summons (2002); The King of Torts (2003); The Last Juror (2004); The Broker (2005); The Appeal (2008)

Non-legal fiction: A Painted House (2001); Skipping Christmas (2002); Bleachers (2003): Playing for Pizza (2007)

Non-fiction: The Innocent Man (2006)

Our decorations were “legal”, and our cooking Southern with a little birthday and Valentine’s Day on the side. Law books, judge’s robe, briefcase and accoutrements (legal pads, post-its, pens and pencils, folders and legal forms) were spread across the table with a sprinkling of Grisham titles and court related photos amongst them. We had cornbread (recipe attached) and chili, lots of Valentine’s Day cookies, snacks and even most of one member’s ice cream birthday cake!

We began with one of the “newbies,” who decided to try The Partner, and enjoyed the intricacy of the deception and especially the ending (no spoilers!). She didn’t know why she had never read a Grisham before, but would definitely read another. Several other people had read the same title, all liked the twists and turns of the plot, but several did NOT like the ending. The final tally was 2 liked, 2 disliked the ending. Now you want to know what the ending was, don’t you? Not telling.

Now we’re going to start throwing out titles, because you can’t read just one. The next member read both The Painted House and King of Torts, and enjoyed both, but the favorites are still The Client and A Time to Kill (both were many members’ favorites, and many think A Time to Kill is still Grisham’s best book). Another member’s favorite was The Rainmaker. And one was struck by Street Lawyer, because it was the only one with “motivated, religious principles.” The author’s own principles and morality were discussed on several occasions, speculating on how much Grisham’s own situation influenced his characters wrestling with the temptations of money and power.

We moved away from the barrage of favorites to a member trying out one of Grisham’s non-thrillers, Bleachers. “The Superbowl was on,” she said, so it seemed the thing to read. Bleachers is about high school football in a small Southern town. The reader said it was good, not one of his best, but he developed tightly knit characters, a sense of community and the effects of secrets.

Then it was back to the thrillers, and another new reader tried out The Client, which was so good she went back for more, but the shelves were bare. It is the story of an 11-year-old boy and his younger brother who witness an event that traumatizes his brother into total silence. When the mob becomes involved and his family endangered, the boy hires himself a lawyer, and does he pick the right one, or what? With danger from every direction, that boy outwits them all. A very satisfying read, and a good movie too. It was agreed that it was one of the better film adaptations of Grisham’s work. For those who loved The Client, a similar title by Jonathan Kellerman was recommended, Billy Straight.

Our next reader had read everything by Grisham except his nonfiction work, The Innocent Man (at which several people piped up that it was a wonderful read as well). She liked that each book focused on some aspect of the legal world “where you want to take someone and shake them.” She is just starting his new book The Appeal, which she had with her, was holding close, and slapping at hands creeping nearby.

Quite a few people had read The King of Torts, about a Public Defender invited to take on a class action tort. He does this so successfully that it becomes his whole practice, and he gets very rich very fast. And the richer he gets, the greedier he becomes, and the lower and lower he morally descends. With a happy ending and even a little romance. Huh? Guess we have to read it to find out how that turns out. I’m trying very hard not to include spoilers here, but our actual discussion was all over the place, with everyone trying to remember which book had which plot twist, and what happened there, and how did that end, and, no, no, we’ll discuss the movies later, and…. I look at my notes now and they’re pretty useless.

The next member had picked up both “jury” titles, The Last Juror and The Runaway Jury, and liked the second one best. She was fascinated to learn how a jury operates and can be swayed when a character finagles his way onto a jury and starts making one demand after another.

Several members discovered Grisham with The Firm and continued on with his legal thrillers, and many had the same opinion that his early thrillers were the best (many votes for A Time to Kill), but that he hit a bad patch with The Chamber. Some agreed that The Chamber was “too preachy.” Several of his legal titles were considered more message than thriller, and turned them off. Quite a few people had trouble with The Brethren, one even going so far to say he was “one of the first authors to make me give up reading a book.” Many of these early fans were happy that the book club had brought them back; they tried later titles and were happy Grisham was back in form.

Several people also said these are great stories to listen to. One was especially enthralled by the reader of the CD edition of King of Torts (the library copy is read by Dennis Boutsikaris).

One of our hardest to please members enjoyed both The Firm (unbelievable but fun) and A Painted House (realistic and highly recommended) and he will read more! A Painted House also had many votes for favorite or best book, definitely Grisham’s most successful departure from legal thrillers. Another member noted how so many protagonists in Grisham’s titles must wrestle with the morality of great wealth, and speculated that it was Grisham’s way of dealing with his own great success.

And then there is his one attempt at humor, Skipping Christmas. I emphasize “attempt.” Several people said “be nice,” but I’m sorry, it is absolutely dreadful. The only thing worse is the movie they made from it, Christmas with the Kranks. I wanted to blow up the entire neighborhood. Merry Christmas.

We had one reader come to Grisham from a completely different angle. She had tried other legal fiction by Scott Turow and had been so turned off that she never tried Grisham or any other legal thriller writers. Her first taste of Grisham remedied that situation. Another author recommended was Philip Margolin, who writes legal thrillers set in Portland.

And finally, our specialist in the field and only attorney in our group, absolutely raved about The Innocent Man, Grisham’s only nonfiction work. She is not a fan of true crime books, but this one had her riveted. The case came to Grisham’s attention through his participation in The Innocence Project, which is a group that tries to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals. She said in this case the main problem was the original investigation fixated on a known problem individual and never bothered to follow other leads. The book illuminated not only law enforcement and the legal system, but also the legal situation of the mentally ill. She said it was wonderful. Someone also mentioned that Grisham doesn’t intend to write more nonfiction; the work is too hard.

We never even made it to the film versions. We’ll have to save that for another meeting. We did, however, have a brief report from the member we sent home with the Agatha Christie biography last meeting. There was no reason given for Christie's brief disappearance beyond the fact of her mother’s death and her husband dumping her for another woman (obviously forgetting her experience with poisons). And there seems to be no resemblance between Poirot and her ex-husband, another good theory laid to rest.

There was also a brief mention of Phyllis Whitney’s recent death at the ripe old age of 104! The most common refrain heard at the meeting and on the Dorothy-L listserv is “my mother and I used to enjoy those.” And you know, my mother and I DID both enjoy those. Several mentioned her books as a possible club selection, but I checked, and they all seem to be out of print. Maybe her death will prod a publisher into reprinting them.