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3.07.2008

Book Review--A Painted House

First, I'll share with you a brief news story that was sent my way by close buddy Doug Harrison.

The Police chief of Lansing, Michigan, says the city is ready for any attack, even one by zombies. "People can feel confident," he said. "If zombies start invading, we'll know how to close the streets. We can get chainsaws, too. If a swarm comes in on I-496 westbound, we'll block off the exits so they miss the city."

That little gem was found in the Oregonian's column The Edge.

John Grisham's novel A Painted House met with mixed reviews when it was first published in 2000. Many derided his pacing, one of the work's greatest strengths. And some thought he was in over his head after fleeing the safe harbour of the legal thriller that he had come to dominate.

I really like the book. Told in the first-person through the eyes of seven-year-old Luke Chandler, A Painted House chronicles three generations of cotton farmers and their trials in Arkansas in the 1950s. The story is as much about the transition between eras--an agricultural economy toward a commodities-based economy--as it is about the brutal murder that stands as the story's central conflict.

I think this is a literary novel, and Grisham is right at home here in taking his time to really describe life in rural Arkansas. The major difference in this project and, say, A Time to Kill (a classic, in my estimation) is the different ratios of expository writing. In ATtK, Grisham sends the plot down the chute at break-neck speed. Here he can indulge in some very engaging characterization (I love the family patriarch, Eli Chandler) and really focus on the tedious, risky prospect of relying on a crop to remain afloat. Farm life is depicted with care and reverence and the audience's emotions rise and fall with the Chandlers as elements outside of their control--namely weather and work ethic--impact their ability to harvest the cotton.

I think Grisham doesn't get enough credit as a stylist, and if you haven't looked at A Painted House I think you should. I finished J.G. Ballard's The High Rise last night and it was also good--though the second act had some major flaws. Fans of dystopic science fiction will no doubt devour Ballard's caustic appraisal of social class in exurban London...

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