Book #4 The Confession by John Grisham & Book #5 Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

I haven’t properly read pulp fiction in many, many years. That is probably why when I was going through my dry reading period last month, I felt increasingly drawn towards books that would entertain me without demanding too much of my little grey cells. I finally picked up The Confession by John Grisham and Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.

The Confession by John Grisham

Now I have a little confession of my own to make. The only Grisham I read before this was The Pelican Brief. I tried reading The Runaway Jury for years, but I would get bored after the first couple of chapters. I’m not sure why that is. I found The Pelican Brief to be quite the page-turner, and The Confession was just as gripping. It’s one of those books where the blurb at the back grabs your attention and book itself mostly lives up to its promise. Donte Drumm is four days from execution. Nine years ago, he was arrested and tried for the abduction, rape and murder of a popular high school cheerleader. The case seemed air-tight to everyone:  the police, the victim’s family, the DA, the judge and the jury. Except that there was simply no evidence that Drumm had committed the crime. On the contrary, there was plenty of evidence that he did not have anything to do with it, and his tireless attorney Robbie Flak has been doing everything he can to stop the impending execution. However, the police and the system think they have their man and they simply want to shut such an ugly case up.

Then, just days before the execution, the real culprit surfaces. He’s a drifter and former convict with a history of sexual assault, and he’s dying of cancer. He now wants to confess. But of course, its not so easy, and plenty of precious time is wasted before Boyette can get anyone to listen to him.

The book is more than just a crime thriller: it addresses racial prejudices that continue to exist in the USA and more importantly, it takes an uncompromising stand against the death penalty. By the end, however, the novel becomes a bit of a soap box for Grisham and his reformist fervor mars the narrative flow.

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris 

I watched the movie before I read the book, so I knew what was coming. However, while watching the movie I did feel like I couldn’t quite get a grip on why exactly Agent Will Graham is so troubled and what his special gift is. I also wanted a clearer glimpse into the warped mind of serial killer Francis Dolarhyde. The book provided reasonably clear answers to both. In a nutshell, Red Dragon is about a serial killer nicknamed Tooth Fairy who has gruesomely murdered two families. In the race to prevent a third such attack and apprehend the killer, Special Agent Jack Crawford gets his protege Will Graham on the case. Graham, who has been retired for three years after notorious serial killer Hannibal Lecter almost disemboweled him, is understandably reluctant. Nevertheless, he is persuaded to join the hunt for the Tooth Fairy and even visits Lecter in jail to gain some insight into this new killer’s MO. Lecter not just taunts him, but also sends Tooth Fairy, with whom he has been corresponding, after Will and his family.

Dolarhyde, in the meantime, has fallen in love with a blind co-worker named Reba and seems to be trying hard to stop his murderous urges. But salvation isn’t so easy and as the book races towards a chilling climax, we find out what exactly made Dolarhyde the monster that he is today (abused childhood, naturally) and why Will is so indispensable to cases like this (he has a uniquely empathetic bent of mind, which often gives him flashes of understanding of killers’ motivations).

Lecter himself appears disappointingly little in this novel. Apart from sending Tooth Fairy to kill Will and his family, he doesn’t do anything else particularly nefarious, but even in his limited scenes he does quite a good job of taunting the tortured Agent Graham. I just might read Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising to find out more about him.

 

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Book #3 Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

When I was growing up, I had an idea of the kind of work I wanted to do. I would be a researcher. I would read, test hypotheses, develop theories and write about them in learned journals. I wasn’t yet sure what subject I was going to specialize in. I knew I enjoyed reading a variety of subjects. There was a time when I thought I wanted to be a forensic scientist, another time when I thought international relations would be the most interesting subject to study. Ultimately, I ended up studying history in college, and to those who assume that I must have been crazy to pick such a subject, I would only say, “You have no idea what you missed.”

I had always enjoyed history, even in school where I was one of the few who would bother to read the prescribed textbook and more. But history in college was a whole other thing. In the first place, there were no textbooks. The first few months were a bewildering time for most of us because everything we thought we knew about history – and about education – turned out to be utterly wrong. We had always assumed that history was a series of facts about the past. College taught us that one person’s history is another person’s fabrication. What history really boils down to is perspective and interpretation. Suddenly, we were looking at the same ‘solid’ facts from different points of view: imperialist, nationalist, revisionist, marxist, feminist, dalit. It was mind-boggling and yet exhilarating. Nothing we had assumed was true and we were suddenly forced to question everything that we had been taught in school. That was the other valuable thing we learned in college – how to ask questions. Growing up with a rigid and highly regimented education system, one of the first things that was snuffed out was curiosity. Pedagogy reigned in our school and asking questions, any sort of questions, was strongly discouraged.

Anyway, the reason I’m dwelling on all this now is because I read the most wonderful book, full of the sort of questions that traditional academics would sneer at. Freakonomics, with its motto “assume nothing, question everything” gave m brain one of the sharpest jolts it has received since college. And it’s not because of the answers to the questions it poses; it’s the nature of the questions themselves. What do estate agents and the Klu Klux Klan have in commom? What to school teachers and Sumo wrestlers have in common? What does the legalization of abortion have to do with the declining crime rate in the United States? These weren’t questions I had ever been keen to find answers to, but I realized suddenly what a lot of questions there are in the world. And most of them are so very interesting.

I don’t think I can write about this book the way I have written about others. I’ll only say that it’s packed with facts and interpretations, is easy to read and digest and will keep you on your toes. It’s a good, pacy read and if you’re new to non-fiction, you could do worse than picking this up. It won’t really help you understand economic theory and statistics, but it will show you how the tools of one discipline can be used to answer the riddles of everyday life. If you feel, even just a little bit, that you need to have your curiosity about life piqued, read this book. It will help.

Book #1 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Enough has been written about hype surrounding the publication of Haruki Murakami‘s 1Q84.  The novel, published in three parts in the original Japanese and as a single, fat volume in English, was on bestseller lists around the world for months. It has been called Murakami’s most ambitious work till date. Some felt that his gamble with the length worked and that Murakami managed to produce a work of great complexity and depth, while others found the novel to be bewilderingly tedious and repetitive.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve long been a Murakami fan. I know that he treads the same ground in each of his novels, addressing the same issues of urban disconnection and loneliness. His narrators tend to be passive men who have some rather remarkable experiences, which usually feature either talking cats or over-sexed and gorgeous women or both. I don’t care. I still like Murakami, because his words speak to me. There’s something about how he describes the inner lives of his protagonists that is achingly beautiful. He describes that urban malaise, loneliness, with such grace and precision, that you feel no other writer could do justice to it. And it’s weird, because it’s not like his prose is lush and descriptive. ‘Casual’ and ‘matter-of-fact’ are his style, with a liberal dose of symbolism. While he writes about modern Japanese society, his stories have always seemed so universal.

Being the fan that I am, I’m sorry to say that I was rather disappointed by 1Q84. I applaud Murakami’s ambition and his stamina and his great imagination, but this book felt clunky. There was none of the grace and enigma that marked the slimmer Kafka on the Shore or Sputnik Sweetheart. His most voluminous work before this was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but that was definitely a more accomplished work – rife with horror about base human deeds. The chapters that dealt directly with Japan’s involvement in Manchuria during the Second World War would have made a good enough book on their own.

In 1Q84, Murakami harks back to more recent history: specifically the Aum Shikrikyo cult, which was responsible for the Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995. The cult described in 1Q84, Sakigake, has not yet gone to such awful extremes, but it is sinister nonetheless. It’s run on strictly autocratic lines, with a great Leader at it centre. Not much is known to the outside world about Sakigake beyond the fact that it calls itself a commune and its main business seems to be cultivating and selling vegetables. However, as the novel progresses we learn more and more about the true nefarious nature of the cult.

The action begins with the publication of Air Chrysalis,  a novel by the seventeen year old schoolgirl Fuka-Eri. The novel wins a prestigious literary award and becomes a bestseller. The novel tells the story of the Little People, enigmatic little creatures who have great wisdom and great power, and who seem to be based on real life creatures with a connection to Sakigake. The novel’s publication throws into turmoil Fuka-Eri’s life, and along with her, that of Tengo Kawana, a math teacher and aspiring writer who had, in collusion with the author, her guardian and her editor, re-written and polished the novel before it was published.  Then there’s Aomame, a gym instructor who moonlights as an assassin for a rich old Dowager. What binds the two women together is a vendetta against all men who abuse women, and Aomame is particularly efficient of getting rid of such men. One of her assignments brings her into contact with Sakigake and after that, her life changes forever. The stories of Tengo and Aomame are linked by a long-ago afternoon they shared, and during the course of the story we find out the nature of their relationship and the lasting effect they had on each other.

1Q84 certainly has its high points: the longing that Tengo and Aomame have for each other is wonderfully rendered, as is the peculiar relationship that Tengo shares with Fuka-Eri. Then there is that wonderful chapter which appeared in the New Yorker, featuring the short story Town of Cats.

Unfortunately, the weak points outweigh the strengths of the novel. Let’s begin with the title. The events of the novel take place in the year 1984 but as Aomame notices, it isn’t the same world as she has always known. For one thing, there were two moons in the sky. And then major events of national significance seemed to have occurred, of which Aomame had no memory. She christens this world ‘1Q84’ because its a weird doppleganger of the actual 1984 she knew (the number ‘9’ in Japanese is pronounced the same as ‘Q’).  The title is also a clear reference to George Orwell’s 1984. However, the parallel drawn between Sakigake and the authoritarian society of 1984 seems too forced. Also the sinister Little People never really come across as quite so sinister. Their lines are like something out of a book for kids; they say things like “Ho Ho Ho”. Their appearance is often bewildering and comical, but never frightening.

In twining together the stories of the cult Sakigake and the personal quests of Tengo and Aomame, Murakami seems to be bringing together two very important questions of an individual’s life: the larger question of where we come from and the smaller, more intensely explored question of what our purpose in life is. He’s done this before to greater effect in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Here it just seems clumsy and very forced. The only reason all the cloak-and-dagger stuff about Sakigake exists is so that the two protagonists can meet each other in the end. Unlike the chapters on Manchuria in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which explored the question of historical guilt, the Sakigake portions don’t really seem to say much.

But of course, every writer is allowed an off-day. And even though I did struggle through some portions 1Q84, I did race through others. Murakami hasn’t lost his ability to weave a good tale; he just needs to be a little less self-indulgent next time.

*This is part of the Mt TBR Challenge as well as the Chunkster Challenge

**I know it’s weird to be posting book no.1 after book no. 2, but I had put off writing this post for so very long simply because I had to sort out my complicated feelings towards the book. The delay is forgiven, I hope.

A Sherlock Holmes interlude

Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m going through a dry period. Does it happen often? You do something you love, for every single day of your life and there comes a point when it exhausts you to merely think of the activity. I don’t think I’ve read a book with great attention since I read Freakonomics a couple of weeks ago, and even that took some doing. My concentration has been patchy, my attention has been wandering and my heart seems to have simply given up on books. It started with 1Q84 at the beginning of the year: the book demands a lot from the reader, and that’s not simply because of its massive size. I thought I could correct my ennui by reading a quick John Grisham, but even that took me a whole week to finish. Right now, I’m struggling with The Journals of John Cheever.

My real trouble, though, I think is that I’m suffering from a bit of a Sherlock Holmes obsession at the moment, probably triggered by the fact that Ionly recently watched the modern BBC adaptation, Sherlock. This show is one of the smartest modern adaptations I have ever watched, and I simply can’t stop going over it, again and again, in my head. I love the casting. The dishy Benedict Cumberbatch is fantastic as the title character; so good is he that now when I think of Holmes, I only think of him (whereas earlier, I could only imagine Basil Rathbone). He’s got the detective’s ‘machine’ side down perfectly, as someone with no social skills or tact whatsoever (there are hints that he may have Asperger’s Syndrome). And yet, there are moments when you can see how deeply he feels towards the few people that he cares about. I teared up more than once during the series 2 finale – once when he tells Molly that she matters, and the second time during his ‘farewell’ phone call to John.

I also adore the actors who have been cast as Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs). Mark Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes stumped me a little initially – the original Mycroft, as described by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is stout and stately, like Stephen Fry in Guy Ritchie‘s movie adaptations. But he’s grown on me too.

My absolute favourite, however, is Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson. Jude Law may created the template for the no-nonsense and assertive Watson, but I think Freeman does it so much better. Physically, he doesn’t match up to Cumberbatch: he is very average looking, short and in a crowd you wouldn’t notice him. But he has personality, and he brings it all to bear on his interpretation of Watson as the loyal, brave friend (not sidekick) of Sherlock Holmes, who also takes no nonsense from the detective and who often acts as his social guide. Weird as it may seem, sometimes Freeman manages to make Watson seem sexier than Holmes.

One of the greatest pleasures for me is to identify the parallels with the original stories and the kooky titles (The Speckled Band becomes The Speckled Blonde, for instance), and spot the reference to various other stories. The writing is simply brilliant, and many of Sherlock and John’s exchanges are lessons in how to write good, intelligent television that is also funny. Of course, there are endless riffs on the homoerotic tension in the two roomies’ relationship, such as the scene in the first episode where Sherlock thinks John is coming on to him. Or the endless instances when John has to clarify to random people that he and Sherlock are ‘just friends’. Somehow though, none of it gets old.

Also brilliant, if you’re following the show, is Dr John Watson’s blog which in this modern day, is how that other famous resident of 221B Baker Street records his roommate’s adventures.  Go check it out, and pay special attention to the comments. They are hilarious. Of course, all of this would really be much more interesting if you have watched the show, or are in any way Holmes-obsessed. You enjoyed the movies with Robert Downey Jr in them? You’ll enjoy this show more.