Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Reviews by Linda Ginn...

Linda reviewed these as a part of our Adult Summer Reading Program.

Grisham, John. The Confession. New York: Random House Audio, 2010.

Despite the lack of any physical evidence, a young man is sentenced to death for the murder of a young woman; and the conviction and sentence are affirmed by the state court system. The setting is Sloan, a fictitious town in East Texas. Nearby real East Texas towns are Marshall, Longview, Denton, and Paris. The missing young woman, Nicole, is white, and the convicted young man, Dante, is black. In the same high school class, she is a popular cheerleader and he is a football star with a good future ahead of him. An anonymous telephone call pointed the police toward Dante, and the girl’s gym membership card was found near a local river. The police detective bullied Dante, lied to him, and threatened him with the death penalty for nearly a day. Finally Dante gave a detailed confession, which he later recanted. At trial, the telephone tipster lied because he believed Dante had taken his place as Nicole’s boyfriend. The confession and testimony of the jealous former boyfriend convicted Dante. The jury was composed of 12 white people.

Eight years later, still with no body found or direct evidence to tie the young man to the supposed murder, execution is a few days away. The book opens with the visit of a recently released parolee to Keith, a Lutheran minister in Topeka, Kansas. The man says he has a lethal brain tumor and will die soon, that he is struggling with the burden of his past actions, that the wrong man is about to be executed in Texas. The minister struggles with his own responsibilities and convictions, and ultimately decides to help the man tell his story in hopes of stopping the execution.

Dante’s lawyer, Ronnie, is a man who embodies the best and worst characteristics – driven, passionate, belligerent, fearless in negotiations and at trial, and willing to offend and/or sue just about anyone. But he signed on to Dante’s defense, and he won’t give up. We have all seen lawyers on TV going to the mat for their clients. Grisham makes the breed almost admirable, flawed though this one is.
The families of Nicole and Dante deserve mention. Nicole’s mother fills the slot of the grieving parent who, deprived of real answers, focuses her grief into sharpened hate. She works just as hard as Ronnie to keep media attention on her daughter and the convicted Dante, but for a different purpose. Dante’s mother and extended family bear their grief with quiet dignity and then work to reconcile the black and white communities of Sloan.

In novel form, this story functions as a condemnation of the death penalty and calls into question legal systems in states where capital punishment is practiced. Keith, the Lutheran minister from Topeka, is the character who, apart from lawyer Ronnie, rehearses his thoughts about this aspect of society’s desire to feel safe and secure. The role of churches and ministers also plays a part in this story. Some pastors will not take an official stance on social and political issues or preach on them from the pulpit. Others see their pulpit as the right place to preach about political issues, even political candidates, and seek to guide their church members in action.

Do we not all want good to triumph over evil? I do. I feel satisfaction (vindication?) when the bad guy loses at the end of the book or film. But that anyone rejoices at the death of another person – that is something different.
A novel or film isn’t the best venue or format for the learning of history, of course, but a novel or film can inspire some greater learning about historical events. This novel can do the same for the social issue of capital punishment. A person who might never spend 12-15 hours reading up on capital punishment moratorium initiatives in state legal systems could very well spend those hours listening to this story – and thinking about the issues involved.

Meyer, Stephenie. The Host. New York : Hachette Audio, 2010.

Science fiction with a twist that is new in my reading experience – this story is told from the perspective of the alien being inhabiting the body of a human woman. Alien beings are called souls. Physically, they resemble silvery centipedes. And, of course, they are inserted at the base of the brain and entwine their long tentacles into the human brain to control it and the body. Their presence can be detected by an unhuman reflection when a light is shined into the eye. Souls have come to Earth, one of many planets they have colonized, to inhabit the bodies of all the people on the planet. The souls can potentially live forever by being implanted in one body after another, with time in cryotanks while being moved from planet to planet.
Most of Earth has been colonized. Melanie Stryder, one of the few humans apparently still free, is caught and becomes the host to Wanderer, who is starting her tenth life on as many planets. Wanderer is supposed to explore Melanie’s mind and memories and report the information of any other humans to the Seekers (the equivalent of undercover police). Except for the actions of Seekers to catch humans, the souls are so gentle that there is no longer any crime or conflict or war on Earth. But Melanie is so strong she refuses to relinquish control of her mind to Wanderer and eventually begins to try to influence Wanderer and then to taunt her. Who will win this battle?

Wanderer, a lonely soul, becomes attached to Jamie, Melanie’s younger brother, and Jared, the man Melanie loves, through the experience of memories as Melanie doles them out to her. Having become discontent in her life as a parasite on Earth and having found no other preferred companionship, Wanderer embarks on a journey into the Arizona desert to find Jared and Jamie, directed by Melanie according to memories of cryptic clues given to Melanie by her eccentric, survivalist uncle Jed years before. To get back to Jared and Jamie, Melanie decides to trust Wanderer at least to some extent.

When Wanderer is found by Jed and his group (the clues caused her to be spotted and tracked from a great distance), more of the books great conflicts are set up – cultural prejudice, survival instinct, determination to resist and keep fighting. Jed, the survivalist is in charge of the community of humans living in the cave he found many years before, is unwilling for his niece’s body to be killed outright. He suspects early on that only Melanie’s strong presence and participation could have brought Wanderer to the desert. Jared is both attracted and repelled. Ian O’Shea, another member of the community, begins to believe that Melanie is present along with Wanderer, but develops his attachment to Wanderer. Romantic conflict involves two female personalities in one human body, and two men.

The greatest secret Wanderer protects is how to remove a soul from a human’s body, something the humans are trying to learn by trial and error. When parties leave the cave to steal food and supplies, they also capture an implanted human and bring that person back for medical experimentation by the doctor of the community. Wanderer’s initial response to the doctor is understandable – he is the torturer, the butcher of souls.

Trust and loyalty, choice and sacrifice, individual and community good – these are consistent themes. When Wanderer comes to value, even love, humans as individuals and not as just host bodies, she knows it is ultimately wrong that her species came to this planet. For her to leave Melanie and the planet, she has to trust in human good.

We talk and think about diversity and unity among people and communities. This story invites thought about diversity and unity on a different scale. It crosses species and planets. Even so, it seems to be all the same. Respect for life in all its forms is at the core of our relationships. What will we choose to do to put things right, if an option is open to us?

Please see more of her reviews on the OGPL's Web page. Look for her reviews on The Land of Painted Caves, The Lost Gate, and The Sword-Edged Blonde.

Linda Ginn