In Review: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Author: Tom Franklin
Year of publication: 2010

your brain on books rating: 4

Larry Ott and Silas “32” Jones were friends, once upon a time.  But racial issues in rural Mississippi during the 1970s complicated their already strained friendship, so the two boys grew apart and grew up.  While Jones became a popular jock on the baseball team, Ott struggled to find a group of his own.  Then a local girl vanished when she was supposed to be at the drive-in with Ott, and he was never able to shake off the fingers that pointed in his direction.

Decades later, Jones is the town constable, and Ott is nearly a shut-in, only leaving his home and his beloved horror novels to work at his auto-repair shop where he never has any customers unless an out-of-towner who doesn’t know him happens to have some car trouble while passing through.  Ott learns to accept his alienation and his empty hours, but he finds himself thrown back into the spotlight when another girl goes missing and the rumors from his past make him the most likely suspect.  Now it’s up to Jones to separate the facts from the speculation, bringing him face-to-face with the man who was his best friend when he himself had nothing.

If readers weren’t already aware that Franklin’s novel is set in the South, it shouldn’t take them more than a chapter to figure it out; the narration of the story has a very relaxed pace – slow, but not so much as to be debilitating.  This pace assists the storytelling in two ways: 1) by making more authentic the experience of being in small-town Mississippi, and 2) by reinforcing the idea that things in some areas of the South don’t change quickly.  In this case, that slow-changing atmosphere includes people’s impressions of each other, and Ott’s pain is apparent because of it.  Just by browsing the back cover copy, readers will get the feeling that Ott may not be guilty of the crime of which others have accused him, so slow-moving decades of forced isolation make it easy to empathize with the poor, lonely bookworm.  Just go ahead and call him “Boo Radley.”

With readers already on Ott’s side, there’s one thing more pressing than the anguish over Ott spending all those lazy, hazy, crazy days of every single summer all by his lonesome: if Ott isn’t a murderer (and throughout the novel, however innocent Ott might seem, that’s still an “if”), who is?  Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is primarily a whodunit mystery, but the work’s greatest strength is the fact that the interpersonal relationships will become as important to readers as the anticipation of learning the killer’s identity.  Franklin works with a small cast of characters, which allows him to fully develop the relationships between each protagonist and the secondary characters that surround them, both during the 1970s and the story’s present.  Readers will have to juggle their feelings about Jones and Ott’s former friendship and actions since, all while trying to label one of the small town’s inhabitants a cold-blooded killer.  The fact that the townspeople are quick to blame Ott just adds another layer to an already captivating story – because guilt is assigned before the police even begin to collect evidence for the latest crime, readers will have an emotional investment in the outcome, not just a passive interest.

If there is one thing to say about Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, let it be this: there are good books that are plot-driven, and there are good books that are character-driven, but great books strike a balance between both elements.  Franklin has found that balance, and thus told a great story.

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In Review: The Last Day of a Condemned Man

Author: Victor Hugo
Year of publication: 1829

your brain on books rating: 3

An unnamed man uses sheets of paper supplied by his prison guards to record the last six weeks of his life before he faces execution for a crime never fully detailed.  In this short narrative, he chronicles his day-to-day musings in his cramped cell and notes the drudgery of prison life that is punctuated only by the occasional, brief period in which he has the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the world moving on without him from a barred window.  With an ever-present sentry watching him from the hall as his only companion, the prisoner eventually realizes exactly what he is losing as the shadow of La Guillotine grows darker and the Place de Grève awaits.

The Last Day of a Condemned Man is presented as a real document written by the protagonist and found after his execution.  This type of presentation was a common trend for the time period, in which authors concealed themselves behind purportedly real but actually fictional protagonist-writers or posed as record-keepers for the experiences of the same (think Edgar Allan Poe’s sole novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym).  Hugo’s name was almost certainly attached to this short novel upon publication, but he, himself, was not as well-known at the time as he would be in the years that followed – The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was not published until 1831 and Les Misérables not until 1862.  However, even superficially positioning the protagonist as a real prisoner and Hugo or the novel’s editor as the finders of the historical record would make less threatening a work that had the potential to be greatly controversial in France at the time; The Last Day of a Condemned Man is first and foremost a compelling piece of social commentary that raises questions about the morality of capital punishment by bringing the emotional tolls of a death sentence to light.

Hugo successfully harnesses the protagonist’s growing dread of the Place de Grève as a tool to coerce pro-capital punishment readers into absorbing the prisoner’s trauma before they realize they’d rather turn the other cheek.  The prisoner does not garner much sympathy at the start of the narrative, going so far as to state that he would prefer death to the alternative: life working in the galleys.  But as his six-week stay of execution dwindles – the appeals process was much shorter back then – the reality of his situation dawns upon him with the harsh brightness of, well, the morning sun on La Guillotine’s polished blade.

The humiliation at the prospect of having the townspeople gawk at his decapitation, the anxiety when he thinks of his young daughter growing up without him – these confessions transform the protagonist’s primary role from that of just another convicted criminal to that of a man with whom readers can relate.  Even the fact that his crime remains vague is key for Hugo’s goal; the lack of focus on what the protagonist has done makes the crime unimportant.  The ordeal he faces now overshadows all else, pushing readers’ attention toward his pain.  His desperation crescendos in his final hours, but his final plea for five more minutes to wait for a possible pardon does not lessen his character in our eyes.  The contrast between this groveling, broken man and the indifferent convict from the initial courtroom scene does more to convince us that capital punishment is cruel and unusual than that the protagonist is a coward who cannot face the consequences of his actions.

The merit of this work is the high quality of Hugo’s writing and his ability to argue against capital punishment without ever criticizing it outright.  However, readers should be prepared to find that there is little plot to speak of – a necessary evil of narration from a man locked in an eight-foot-square room  – which can make the story less enjoyable for those who prefer a faster-paced narrative.  The novel’s brevity lightens this blow.

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In Review: Bag of Bones

Author: Stephen King
Year of publication: 1998

your brain on books rating: 3

I have to preface this review by stating up front that I am a huge fan of Stephen King.  I could give you five reasons why It is one of the greatest works of literature of the last 30 years.  In my world, Springtime is King-time, because during the spring of my senior year of high school I read one of his books, and I liked it, so I kept doing it.  I’m big on tradition.

With that said, let’s get down to it.

Mike Noonan, famous author and resident of Derry, Maine, becomes a widower when his wife, Johanna, drops dead of an aneurysm in a parking lot.  His subsequent grief gives him extreme writer’s block to the extent that he can’t even open his computer’s word processor without getting physically ill.  There are nightmares, too – about Johanna and their lake house, Sara Laughs, named for the 1930s jazz singer Sara Tidwell who vanished from the area under mysterious circumstances.  Whether out of curiosity or desperation to face his fears and be rid of them, Noonan moves to Sara Laughs, where he soon gets the feeling that he’s not alone.

But that sometimes spooky, often chummy who’s-rearranging-my-refrigerator-magnets feeling is limited to the house.  Noonan accidentally – and later, intentionally – gets involved in a custody battle over little Kyra Devore, whose mother, Mattie Devore, is the widowed daughter-in-law of computer mogul Max Devore.  The longtime residents of the lake town turn their backs on Noonan out of fear of and loyalty to Max, who might also know a thing or two about what happened to Tidwell back in the day.  In a series of events that range from uncomfortable to haunting, the eye of the storm focuses on Kyra as Noonan is left to deal with Sara on his own; and she wants revenge.

Noonan is well-written, as he should be – we’ve met him before.  The middle-aged, reasonably successful but currently foundering writer who’s facing some fairly vicious inner (and outer) demons is not a new protagonist for loyal readers of King’s work.  Mike Noonan, Bill Denbrough (It), Mort Rainey (Secret Window, Secret Garden), Paul Sheldon (Misery), and Jack Torrence (The Shining) could probably form a support group and find some more of King’s brain children to join them.  I’ll say it only because it seems like he’s daring us to ask: King, are you projecting?

Still, Noonan’s believable, even if readers would be a little more impressed if they hadn’t already gotten to know him under several other names.  The protagonist, as well as the other characters, aren’t the main issue here.  It’s the progression of the story that really puts a damper on the reading experience.

Most stories follow a basic three act structure, adapted from the more classic five act structure of centuries past.  These three acts are comprised of the set-up (character introduction, general back-story, and the inciting moment that leads to the central conflict), the confrontation (the rising action, in which the protagonist tries to resolve the conflict) and the resolution (the climax during which the conflict is finally resolved and the subsequent tying up of any loose ends).  In other words, it looks a little something like this:

However, in Bag of Bones, King’s set-up is excessive.  Years pass before Noonan even decides to go to Sara Laughs, where all of the conflict takes place.  During this time, readers are treated to Noonan trying again and again to write, failing each time in succession, and instead mailing his agent manuscripts he had stockpiled from happier times.  To be blunt, I don’t think all of those words were necessary, to the tune of at least 30-50 pages.

The resolution is also problematic, mainly in that there isn’t much of one.  Once readers get past the set-up and arrive at Sara Laughs with Noonan, King builds and builds and builds his story only to peter out right after the climax.  Readers might wonder if, after all of the excitement had passed, King tired of his own work and just wanted to wrap it up.  I’m not asking for another six chapters, but the ending is too abrupt as it stands, leaving King with a three act story arc that even looks unpleasant:

There is one more warning that potential readers should also heed: let go of your expectations.  In many of King’s other works, such a warning might conjure images of monsters never before imagined, but not here.  And that’s not a good thing.  As the true master of horror, King doesn’t deliver on the promise that his previous works have established; readers will hang on in the hope of being treated to another tale of extraordinary terror, but they may be disappointed to find that Bag of Bones is just another ghost story.

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…and this is my brain on books.

If my Brooklyn apartment was going down in flames, I would grab them first.

I mean, if I had time.  Otherwise I’d definitely save myself and probably one of my roommates if she was incapacitated due to smoke inhalation.  If both of my roommates were down for the count, whomever is closest to the front door is the lucky winner.  Sorry, Roommate #2; I’m only human, and I can’t drag both of your unconscious butts down three flights of stairs.

But my books – I’m really very fond of them.  My Harry Potters, my Hunger Games trilogy, my Les Misérables, which I sought in what seemed like every used bookstore in the northeast until I settled for a new copy.  Apparently there’s not a huge market for used Hugo, but I’m sure the story was just as good with the pages in mint condition.

And I’m still searching for the perfect three-in-one copy of The Lord of The Rings.  Once I find it, that one will have a place of its own on the “Save in Case of Fire” list.

My point is that books aren’t just what we turn to when we’re bored.  There are much easier ways to be entertained these days.  We have to devote energy to books so that we might understand each story rather than just experience it.  When we turn the final page and clap that back cover shut in triumph (or tears – Peter Pan, anyone? that one left me emotionally gutted), we, you know, think stuff about the story.  Whether we liked it, whether we didn’t.  We might even know why, if we really want to put that kind of dedicated mind-power into it.

I usually do, because I don’t just care about stories; I care about how they’re written.  Did the authors say something profound, or did they just try to?  Kudos either way – getting a book published is no walk in the park, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that even if I didn’t fall in love with their writing, someone else probably did.  But whether the writing falls flat or it knocks the wind out of readers (nice one, Elizabeth Kostova – The Historian gets a top grade in my book), it’s worth talking about.

So that’s what I’ll do here.  And I promise I’ll be honest.

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