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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Higher Hope

Book Review for Higher Hope by Robert Whitlow

On the cover of the book, there is a quote from WORLD Magazine that says “Writes in the style of John Grisham, combining compelling legal and ethical plotlines… but Whitlow has explicit spiritual themes.”

First of all, WORLD Magazine obviously never read John Grisham. Maybe WORLD Magazine read the back of a John Grisham novel and deduced that why yes, this is a book about legal stuff…. Therefore it will be perfectly applicably comparable to any other book about legal stuff. I know this because Whitlow and Grisham have only a few things in common: they both write about legal stuff involving young lawyers and they write based in the South. Other than that? Nope, not so much.

Also, the second part about Whitlow having “explicit spiritual themes” is true… but totally irrelevant. Well, okay, irrelevant in matters of if this book is good, if the characters are compelling, if it is an enjoyable read, if you would recommend it to a friend… because all those things are going to be in or not be in a book with or without ‘explicit spiritual themes’ and I, for one, would like to think that we read books because we enjoy the plot and the characters not because the characters and the author happen to believe in the same spiritual superstitions that we do.

Maybe that’s just me.

Let me put it out there front and center. I don’t agree with the faith or value system of the main character (Tami) in regards to her political views, her gender relations views, her religious views.

But, again, all that stuff is irrelevant because had the book been written well it wouldn’t have mattered. In fact, it still doesn’t matter I just know someone out there is going to say I am picking on this book because I don’t agree with her religious beliefs and since the book is seeped in her religious beliefs, I can’t be a fair judge.

So, let’s take out the religious part. Let’s just look at it in terms of actual literary devices such as narrative devices, narrative flow, character development and motivations. Is the book good based on these criteria?

A resounding No.

Narrative flow is a staple of novels. It is what ties the story together, giving us the information we need to follow along. It is the pacing, the structure of the book and it employs narrative devices like flashbacks, foreshadowing, symbolism, point of view, etc. In this case the narrative flow was constantly (read: practically every other chapter) interrupted by a switch in point of view.

We would have a chapter written in the first person (“I walked down the hall. I felt dizzy with anticipation.”)* from the main character Tami’s point of view. This worked well enough; as readers we perched ourselves in her head and watched the story unfold with all her impressions, thoughts, and emotions laid out before us. She took her place as our protagonist.

Then the next chapter would jolt us out of our comfortable first person view and thrust us into not only a different character’s view… but into the third person omniscient point of view. Suddenly it was “She (not Tami, a different she) sat in her rocking chair and thought about her life. She was tired.”* The other she, Sister Dabny, is not our protagonist but neither is she the antagonist… and she isn’t even a symbolic foil for Tami, she is just another important character.

Now, an intentional play with the narrative structure like this could have worked if there had been a pay off at the end. The switch between two different characters can be done, if done right,,,,, perhaps by being in first person for both so that the story can run on parallel tracks telling the same story from two different sides… which can be engaging. But in this case because we got so much more emotion and general character development (such as it was) in Tami’s case, the fact that we switch to third person for the competing story of Sister Dabny actually stifles the narrative flow taking us out of the story and leaving us bitter and unsettled. At the climax of the book we stay in Tami’s head and then don’t ever go back to Sister Dabny throwing the idea of parallel structure out the window and leaving us thinking Whitlow simply either couldn’t make up his mind or simple didn’t care.

The other thing that hurts this book is the lack of decent character development. Had the story been about a “normal” young lawyer, the author could have gotten away with a bit of sketchiness on the development side of things, counting on our general knowledge of young women raised in the south and such to cover any gaping holes in who she is. But Tami is special… she has this huge aspect of her personality that is driven by a very unique and very not at all mainstream religion that permeates her psyche and dictates her thoughts, feelings, actions. Yet it is never really explained to the reader. We follow her story getting bits and pieces of how her beliefs affect her and the world through her eyes but her actual motivations for believing what she does and how that translates through her actions is lacking.

And then Whitlow breaks his own rules in regards to Tami’s faith.

We have hundreds of pages preaching to us about what she will and will not do because of her belief system… but then there are two examples of her acting so out of character that we either think Whitlow went out to lunch one day and forgot who Tami is or that he was just lazy enough to think he could get away with having her do actions extremely out of character and hope his readers were lazy enough to not notice. The infractions are small enough that they could have gone unnoticed in any other character, but in Tami’s case we spend so much of the book getting beat down by the rigidness with which she lives her life that these moments stand out in sharp relief.

Again, had this been in some way obviously intentional, such as a way of showing the reader that Tami’s beliefs are crumbling or that she is changing; that could have saved it. But there is absolutely no indication of either thing and we are left scratching out heads and being generally frustrated.

And then we have the climax. Or rather, we get about half of the climax. The story focuses on a few things: a case Tami’s firm is bringing against Sister Dabny, Tami’s romantic entanglement with two young (highly unbelievable) men, and Tami’s decision about her career path. Only one of these story lines is wrapped up (and not in a very satisfying manner either) leaving the other two just out there… twitching and demanding attention.

Because of course there is a sequel to Higher Hope, the final page of the book tells us, called Deeper Water and if we really want to know what happens to Tami, if 413 pages wasn’t enough we can go out and buy it!

I think I’ll pass.

Feel free to buy, read, and agree/disagree with me. Oh, and if you have a grandmother like mine, this book might be the perfect birthday gift.

*Not actual lines from the book

Thursday, May 28, 2009


What’s the point in reviewing something everyone has read already, seen already, decided upon already?

It’s still fun!

But today I am going to review something a bit new… the pilot episode of Mental, a new medical show from Fox (home of that other medical show: House) that just premiered because lets face it, the summer rerun season is here and isn’t yet another medical show what every television network needs? (especially the network that is home of House.)

No? Well ok… I’m sure this medical show will have a totally new twist, a cast of characters so new and unique, a premise so smart and edgy that we, the audience, won’t be able to resist. And I am sure it will have nothing in common with Fox's other medical show; House.

Or not.

We join Dr. Gallagher (Chris Vance) who is a British hotshot maverick of a doctor who seems to like showing off his body and who has just started his new job running the psych unit of a large hospital in LA after only running a clinic in Vermont. (The Vermont angle is repeated so many times I figured the state paid for product placement.) Fish out of water meets hunky doctor who likes to break the rules… oh and has a bit of lust for his boss who might dress like the JC Penny’s version of Dr. Cuddy (from House) with the chest size to pull it off, but really is no substitute.

The similarities don't end with a flirtation to the boss and the desire to ride a bike (not a motorcycle like House but still a bicycle in LA) Dr. Gallagher seems to have more than a few things in common with Dr. House complete with wide eyed lackeys (doctors who play detective) who don’t understand his methods but admire his results and a tendency to do things his own way… such as get totally naked with a patient in order to win the much sought after element of trust.

Trust indeed.

Before the credits even roll I am drawing House parallels left and right with a few Lie to Me parallels thrown in for good measure and being secretly glad that the lovely Jacqueline McKenzie has made it back to the screen, as Dr. Gallagher's buttoned down foil, after The 4400 went kaput. (The 4400 by the way is an excellent sci fi show and should not be missed… check out the miniseries, you won’t regret it.)

Ahem, back to Mental. The show is okay… Dr. Gallagher butts heads with McKenzie's Veronica over whether routine or reality is a better form of therapy as expected. The show also has its moments of connection (throw cute kids into the mix and there you go) and a few moments of queasiness (the leering med student for example).

Can I go off on a tangent? What is it with people (doctors) on TV breaking and entering without any sort of repercussions. Doctors Without Borders has nothing on the crop of Doctors Without Permission. Do the ends justify the means? (Wait, this show is on Fox, home of 24 and Jack Bauer's Torture Always Works and the end so totally justifies the means that you better not even bother to ask... never mind, I withdraw the question.)

Gah, whatever. The show wants to celebrate both rational treatment and out of the box thinking, we are encouraged to feel bad for a dead cat (and dead spouse) collector, and we get glimpses of what the mental patients see and experience. As shticks go, this is well, sort of new. We get not so subtle ploys for emotional intrigue (someone has cancer, someone else has a sibling with a mental disorder Shocker!) but on the whole the show leaves little impact on the viewer after the end credits roll.

I may or may watch more episodes… chances are that had it started its run during the regular season it would have never seen the light of day but because of the summer schedule, it might have a chance. (But really, why not just watch House reruns and use the summer to catch up on your Netflix queue... or watch Glee!)

Despite the handsome doctor

(former Whistler from Prisonbreak... another Fox show where the ends always justify the means) and the always engaging Jacqueline McKenzie...

...I almost hope the show will fail so that they could be cast in something more worthy of their talents and my time.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Every now and then something comes along that I almost miss because I think I already know what it is.

Today it was Glee.

I had seen the promos and I had rolled my eyes… a musical comedy? Set in a high school? Gee… where have I heard of that before? Now, unlike many many people here in the States, I have avoided High School Musical in all its conceptions like the plague (except for the South Park parody) and I had no misgivings regarding that fact.

Glee looked like more of the same. Also, most of the “teen angst” shows on television do nothing to stimulate my interest. Gossip Girl? The Hills? Puh-leeeeze, take a pill and call me when you graduate and are in a show that matters.

But boredom can be a catalyst for greatness and so today I watched the pilot episode of Glee via Hulu.com.


Yeah the story is a bit contrived, yeah there is a slight (ok more than slight) after school special vibe… but the performances are really great and the cute little moments help keep the cheese factor at a tolerable level. There is also the matter of a stellar cast!

The show centers around a group of misfits who somehow come together in the high school’s glee club. It is the quintessential whole is more than the sum of its parts with a dash of high school cliques are evil and not everyone fits into a little box. Decent enough messages.

Will it last, I have no idea, I loved Firefly and look where that got me, but until it takes its final bow, I will be an avid supporter and gleeful spectator.

Don't Call Me a Crook

book Review for Don’t Call Me a Crook.

Reading a memoir offers the unique experience of seeing someone’s life through their own eyes…. Which can be both a good and a bad thing. First off the conversational tone used in Don’t Call Me a Crook flows easily and keeps the reader engaged. On the other hand the story meanders along like a drunken fable, keeping in chronological order sure, but also recounting the matter of his life in what can only be described as a bragging tone of juvenile triumphs. With the same laid back air of one discussing the weather Bobby talks about violence, death, theft, and the engines of ships. He clearly isn’t looking for approval but an audience who would be shocked and held in awe for all his many adventures. What he doesn’t realize that while we might listen with our mouths slightly ajar, it is more with a dawning horror than a growing sense of admiration that we finish his tale.

As a reader of mostly fiction (and occasional writer of the same) I always find myself looking for the hidden meaning, the sense of symbolism and subtext that can turn the average story into something of fine literary merit. Considering the source material for this book I was surprised to find a current of human nature and human tragedy woven into Bobby’s recollections that I think totally escapes the author himself.

Bobby is a sociopath.

Of course, he doesn’t start off that way; he starts off as a frolicking fun loving chap who might lack for a clear focus or direction in life but who’s charm and is on par with an excitable puppy. His early adventures, or misadventures, involve a sort of mischief and whimsy. The things he swipes and the ways in which the swiping occur are entertaining and we neither fault Bobby nor really hold him accountable.

But something changes… Soon Bobby’s adventures take on a sinister edge, a violent streak and an acceptance of the darker parts of human nature. The scariest part is that Bobby himself is unaware of either the shift or that his current activities aren’t on the same forgivable level as his earlier mischief.

Watching the boy become the man and the man slowly turn into the monster while knowing that he is unaware of any change is a sobering experience. One reads the second half of the book wondering how far Bobby will go. The reader wonders if Bobby will see the error of his ways and if redemption lies in the epilogue.

The answer is no.

It is a big leap from petty thief to murderer but Bobby makes it without batting an eye. His lack of guilt and subsequent actions leave little room to doubt his severe disconnect from his fellow human beings.

By the end of the book I was mesmerized but not in the way I think Bobby intended. The story ends almost abruptly and one knows that Bobby went on to have more adventures. In a sick way I wanted to know what happened next while at the same time feeling relieved that I wasn’t going to be party, even by proxy, to Bobby’s crimes.

Honestly, I enjoyed reading the book even if it did wander on and on a bit toward the end where Bobby at last succumbs to the easy to fall into trap that threatens every memoir or biography; eventually the story turns into nothing but a long list of “And then I did this,” followed by “After that, I did this” with no overriding theme or sense of intended cohesion except of course that it is our narrator who is present in all the adventures.

This is a trap, as previously stated, that is not only common but easy to fall victim to and thus I am willing to make allowances for it. The book was published in 1935 by a small publisher and perhaps we might forgive Bobby for not being a literary marvel… it is enough that he is a good storyteller.

Even if the meaning of his story is beyond him.

Feel free to read the book for yourself and let me know what you think!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

State of Play

I saw State of Play over the weekend thanks in large part to the mention give by Mr. B.

(I love Mr. B’s blog, you all should check it out.)

Anyway, here are my humble thoughts regarding State of Play.

Great! Compelling! Interesting! Thought Provoking!

The movie starts off with a bang.. or rather a nail biting foot chase that has all the classic sort f chase moments of the runner knocking into people, causing great loud crashes of miscellaneous items and then getting from a rather crowded downtown area into a dark and pretty darn empty alleyway in seconds flat. What happens next is shocking and yet completely predictable. I think this sums up the movie pretty well actually. There were times of pretty sever intensity, where I was on the edge of my seat, along with moments o “A-ha!” and twists being unraveled… all in a back drop of a semi predictable “journalist must find the truth” sort of story.

I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The interaction between Crow and McAdams was fine if a little cliché and Ben Affleck delivered as always a solid performance. The fact that his college sweetheart wife (Robin Wright Penn) looked just a shade too old for him wasn't even as distracting as it might have been with less talented actors.

What I found most interesting about the movie was, as is often the case, the story that underlined the whole thing. In this case the point was of "Trying to do the Right Thing" with a sprinkle of "Unintended Consequences" and just a dash of "What is the Real Story Anyway?"

The real story is sobering, frightening, and highly noteworthy.

In other words, should you wish to avoid the crowds of Star Trek, need a bit more substance than Wolverine and want a thinking movie that will make you feel... check out State of Play.

This post will be crossposted over at Perhaps We Learned Something....