Notes & Essays by David Rodeback, Writing, Language & Books

Ann Padgett on Writing: “Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV”

From Ann Padgett’s “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life,” in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (New York: Harper, 2013, pp. 19-60).

Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it out into a neat stream of organized thoughts so that other people can read it. Look at what we already have going for us: some level of education, which has given us control of written and spoken language; the ability to use a computer or a pencil; and an imagination that naturally turns the events of our lives into stories that are both true and false. We all have ideas, sometimes good ones, not to mention the gift of emotional turmoil that every childhood provides. In short, the story is in us, and all we have to do is sit there and write it down.

But it’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart. (p. 21)

Notes & Essays by David Rodeback, Writing, Language & Books

Novelists Writing Essays . . . and a Novel

I had an hour to kill in a university bookstore a while back. The results were more less predictable. I read several pages each in two books of essays and was hooked.

I’m been working my way through them both, reading an essay now and then. I’m enjoying both so much that I don’t really want to finish anytime soon. I’m not in too much danger of that, either. I keep going back to savor essays I’ve already read: both the writing and the thought — not that the two can be separated.

Novelist Marilynne Robinson, of whose fiction I have read exactly none, has enraptured me with her collection of essays entitled When I Was a Child I Read Books. She takes up large, serious topics, like politics, society, Christianity, and individualism. I think she’ll take up the American West somehow, in essays I haven’t read yet. So far her writing serves her themes very well; this is not a small thing.

I’ve read as much of Ann Patchett‘s fiction as I have of Marilynne Robinson’s. Her writing and thought have an irresistible personal charm and candor; in fact, these essays are part memoir. The book is called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, after the title of one essay. (That story is quite a story, to be sure.) Other essays are about reading, writing, books, and topics I haven’t yet discovered.

When I want to savor rich writing, but I’m in a mood for fiction, lately I’ve been turning to Richard Russo‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls. I picked it up on remainder or at a library sale somewhere, because I saw it as a miniseries years ago and found it charming. The writing is dense and rich so far. The long, pseudo-historical Prologue — annoyingly set all in italics — is something to savor. I suppose a prologue ought to be that good, if it is to exist. I don’t resent the existence of this one at all.

(Links to books in this post are to my Amazon store. Purchases help to support this site. But libraries are great, too. So is Barnes and Noble. And Powell’s. And Sam Weller’s. And so forth.)

Notes & Essays by David Rodeback, Writing, Language & Books

Leonard, Pronto, Hooptedoodle

Elmore Leonard passed away last August. He’s been called the greatest crime writer of our time, but that’s not a genre I know. Soon after his death, I read a tribute to him in one book review or another. I decided that, if he was that good at his craft, I should read one of his novels. You may have heard of Get Shorty or Mr. Majestyk, but I settled on Pronto (itself a bestseller two decades ago) and ordered it from Amazon.

I haven’t had a lot of time to read books lately, which is why one of my New Year’s resolutions — yes, I made some this year — is to read in a book almost every day, in addition to my extensive reading on the Web. So I decided to finish Pronto next, having started it shortly after it arrived. I’ve been chipping away at it of an evening, ensconced in my unconscionably comfortable “reading chair.” Then the flu arrived this week, and I had time to finish the book.

You’ve already gathered that I didn’t find Pronto irresistible. However, I did enjoy it. For those who worry about such things, I note an abundance of language I wouldn’t use in Sunday school or even a barnyard, as well as some scenes I wouldn’t consent to watch portrayed as written in a movie. That said, I think I’ll keep the book for future reference; Leonard was a master at dialogue, and I’m also interested in his dialogue-centered character development.

What sealed the deal for me last fall, when I considered reading one of his books, was a New York Times piece Leonard wrote on writing. You never know whether the title or headline came from the author or the editor, but it was “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.”

He briefly offers ten rules for writers. I presume these are the same ten he presents at greater length in his short book, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which I just ordered for my own collection.

He writes:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your own voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the oldest cliches of writing, but there’s a reason for that, and Leonard’s instruction in the matter is welcome.

I enjoy lists of rules for writing, especially when they come from real writers instead of school teachers who aren’t real writers. George Orwell’s list in “Politics and the English Language” is a favorite. I’ve assigned the whole essay to my college writing students, when I’ve taught. It ends with this dictum: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”

When I saw in Leonard’s article the same healthy sense of humility and the willingness to confess that rules are tools, not shackles, I was hooked. You don’t get that sense from your junior high or high school English teacher, unless she is extraordinary, and some college teachers aren’t that sensible, either. (David R. Williams, author of Sin Boldly!, which everyone who wants to write well should read, is my hero among those who are that sensible.)

I don’t want to squander all the suspense, so I won’t list all of Leonard’s rules. You can read them for yourself — and you should, because most of the delight is in his explanations, not the rules themselves. I mention only the following.

It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of Rule #10, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

He is sometimes absolute where I am less so: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” I wouldn’t say “never,” but I mostly agree.

I’ll leave it to you to discover why Leonard mentions one of his characters, who tells how she used to write historical romances which were “full of rape and adverbs.”

Finally, in case you’re wondering, I note that the word hooptedoodle appears in Leonard’s explanation of Rule #2, “Avoid prologues . . . especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.” He attributes the odd word to John Steinbeck, who didn’t always avoid prologues. My fine New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd Edition) doesn’t know the word hooptedoodle, but I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.

What’s next on my reading list? I’ll have to decide soon. The flu hasn’t left yet, and (very strangely) I haven’t read Tom Clancy’s Command Authority, which I bought on the day it was released. It’s a leading candidate. But Heidi and I also have tickets to the musical version of Les Miserables a few weeks hence, and I’ve been meaning to read the entire, unabridged Victor Hugo novel before seeing the musical. I got about 100 pages into it last year and loved it.

If I didn’t have these two fine choices, I have another hundred or so books waiting to be read. A guy could have worse problems.

Notes & Essays by David Rodeback, Writing, Language & Books

Review: David Lodge, Nice Work and Thinks…

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Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine,


Nice Work (trade paperback): 288 pages. Penguin, 1990. ISBN: 0140133968.
Thinks (trade paperback): 352 pages. Penguin, 2002. ISBN: 0142000868.

Some years ago, I read a book of literary criticism by David Lodge. In a discipline where so much writing is deliberately murky, hopelessly trivial, or stridently ideological – or some unfortunate combination of the three – his prose was a refreshing, encouraging exception. His thoughts, like the sentences and paragraphs he created to express them, struck me as being carefully, artfully, precisely crafted. This is not to say that Lodge’s prose is sterile and mechanical; on the contrary, it manages, while never calling attention to itself, to be quite lively and fresh, and infused with a gentle, natural humor. One does not roll on the floor laughing, reading Lodge, but one tends to smile a lot, and sometimes chuckle aloud.

I was sufficiently impressed that I made a mental note to read some of David Lodge’s fiction someday. I have recently read two novels, Nice Work (1988) and Thinks (2001). They have several things in common. First, in both cases, the literary craftsmanship (perhaps I should say artistry, but it’s not just art) is superb, and the chapters are brightened by the same gentle humor I remember from his nonfiction. Second, both novels feature the collision of two worlds, which is to say that relationships develop between people with very little in common, who have to struggle mightily to understand each other.

In Nice Work a British government program designed to foster mutual understanding between the academy and the outside world ends up doing (strangely enough) exactly what it intends. Robyn Penrose, a temporary lecturer in English literature at the university, is assigned to “shadow” Vic Wilcox, who runs a factory. Robyn’s temporary status makes her at once vulnerable to receiving such an undesirable assignment and consumed by the quest for a tenured position somewhere – “nice work if you can get it,” as they say, and hence the title. Her fashionable leftist world view leaves her completely unprepared for the everyday realities of Vic’s occupation. The clash of ideologies and lifestyles is deftly drawn and delightful to read.

The cautious reader should note that there is some fairly candid description of sexual matters here and there in the novel, as the “mutual understanding” goes a bit farther than the government intended.

The two main characters in Thinks . . . are both in the academic world, at the fictional Gloucester University, but the gulf between them is vast. Helen Reed is a novelist, temporarily on the faculty to teach a course on creative writing. Ralph Messenger is the director of a research institution that is devoted to studying the phenomenon of consciousness and developing artificial intelligence. Each is introduced to the other’s world and finds it a strange.

This novel is something of a thought experiment on the nature of consciousness; the reader notices this long before encountering confirmation in the two pages of acknowledgments that follow the novel. To what extent is consciousness an objective phenomenon, reproducible from human to human, or perhaps even artificially? (One scientist in Messenger’s institute is trying to program a computer to simulate mother-love.) Can the mystery that is consciousness ever be solved? Reed argues, as I think Lodge also means to argue, that fiction is our best data on consciousness. Even though it is invented, as Messenger points out, and therefore of little scientific value, it probes its characters’ consciousness far deeper than we are presently able to probe an actual person’s consciousness.

Three voices narrate the bulk of the novel. One is Messenger’s; his chapters purport to be transcripts of his very private attempts to record his conscious thoughts as they occur, with as little ordering or censorship as possible. (Again, the cautious reader is warned that the man spends a fair amount of time thinking about sex.) Of course, as he notes early on, the very effort to express and record his thoughts implies some ordering and censorship, making his transcripts of little scientific use; but they serve their literary purpose. Reed’s narrative voice is in the form of journal entries, which are more carefully crafted and less spontaneous than Messenger’s ramblings. The third major narrative voice is a third person narrator.

Lodge’s exploration of consciousness relies on the technique of juxtaposing the three narrators’ views of the same events and ideas. This is far more artfully executed than the familiar television plot, where several characters recall and relate the same events in vastly different ways, often for comedic effect. Reed sets forth an idea in her journal, in the process of recording her discussion of the idea with Messenger, and Messenger examines it in his record, too. Ideas Reed encounters in conversation with Messenger even find their way into writing assignments for her students; some of the students’ writing fills two or three chapters of the novel, including a memorable sequence about an imaginary experiment to explore a person’s consciousness of color.

From time to time, events combine to teach one character or another quite forcibly that he or she has little or no idea what another person is thinking. This is hardly original with Lodge; such surprises play a major role in many novels. But in this case, these twists and turns in the plot are more than just devices; they are a commentary on the subjective, very personal nature of consciousness, and the role and importance of literature in exploring the nature of consciousness.

The philosophical implications are, in any case, quite profound. To the problem of consciousness are connected many larger issues: the existence of the self (or the soul), the immortality of the soul, the nature of personality and of conscience, the interrelationship of mind and body, the role of fiction, and so forth. For all that, Thinks . . . is admirably light on its feet. It may challenge the thoughtful reader, but it will also entertain. Lodge makes the scientific and philosophical issues involved about as accessible as they could possibly be, and thus manages, I think, to say something useful on the subject of consciousness.

Notes & Essays by David Rodeback, Writing, Language & Books

Review: David Czuchlewski, The Muse Asylum

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Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine,


Hardback: 240 pages. New York: Putnam, 2001. ISBN: 0399147454.
Trade Paperback: 225 pages. New York: Penguin, 2002. ISBN: 0142000604.

I hope my first novel, if I ever manage to write it, is as good as David Czuchlewski’s. He’s an author to watch, especially because his intentions appear to be literary, not merely commercial.

The Muse Asylum is not summer beach reading, which allows your brain to be left at home (or, at worst, demands it be left at home). You need not be well versed in literary criticism to enjoy this novel, but if the word postmodern scares you when you see it in a book review, this gem may not be for you.

Every fashion in literary criticism becomes ridiculous at the extremes. One of Postmodernism’s chief excesses is the notion that the author of a text (never a book or a story, always a text) is irrelevant to the meaning of the text. Roland Barthes went so far as to declare the death of the author, along with the “liberation” of the reader “from the tyranny of plot.”

The text supposedly speaks for itself, and it may allow interpretations which are completely at odds with what the author thought she meant. This is too much liberty and too little responsibility. I incline instead toward Vladimir Nabokov’s notion of the astute reader, who identifies with the author – as opposed to the postmodern reader, who ignores the author, or the typical reader, who identifies with a character. There may be some use in attempting to examine a text independent of its author, but when the “death of the author” becomes a dogma, one readily sees why the rest of the world cannot take most literary criticism seriously.

Enter a fictional American writer, one Horace Jacob Little, who prefers for theoretical or personal reasons (no one is quite certain) to write anonymously. That is, his books bear his name, or at least a name, but he hides from his readers so successfully that no one knows anything else about him.

His fiction changes the lives of three Princeton students, among many others, by opening minds to new and different ways of thinking. The Muse Asylum focuses on these three, during and after their Princeton years.

Jake Burnett starts reading Horace Jacob Little in high school. At Princeton, he introduces the captivating Lara Anne Knowles to Little’s works. Jake and Lara become more than friends, until Andrew Wallace steals her away. Significantly, the Horace Jacob Little book Jake gives to Lara finally falls into Andrew’s hands. This marks the beginning of the end of Andrew’s sanity.

Andrew loses his mind at Princeton, finally becoming convinced that the invisible, godlike Horace Jacob Little is the author of a vast conspiracy to destroy him. He believes that someone murdered the original Horace Jacob Little, took his place, continued to write under his name, and confessed his crime in an obscure way in his “next” novel. Now the impostor seeks to kill Andrew, who has figured it all out.

When the novel begins, after Princeton, Jake is working for an alternative newspaper in New York City. In an effort to boost circulation, his editor assigns him to do what no one else has done: find Horace Jacob Little and interview him. This assignment leads Jake to renew his association with both Andrew and Lara.

Through all the plot twists, nothing is quite what it seems. Or, rather, some things might be, but it’s devilishly hard to tell. The person Jake finally finds and interviews may or may not be the real Horace Jacob Little. An obvious suicide may not have been a suicide. Insane fantasies may not all be insane, after all. And Andrew’s obsession, the exposure of the supposed murdering impostor, may be contagious. The key to the mystery turns out to be at the Muse Asylum, a haven for the gifted but insane.

The novel is written in the first person, but there are actually two voices. For the most part, Jake and Andrew alternate chapters. Jake’s account begins with the assignment to find Horace Jacob Little. Lara plays the sane third party and a love interest who is for Jake ultimately unattainable. Andrew’s chapters are excerpts from his autobiography, written at the asylum as a therapeutic exercise, and focused on the Princeton years. In these chapters, Lara is the love of his life and a friendly island in an ominous sea of faces, any of which might belong to the mysterious Horace Jacob Little or one of his minions. Keeping track of which narrative voice is which is a bit of a challenge for a few chapters, but that is not too much for a good writer to expect of good readers.

Read simply as a mystery, The Muse Asylum is fascinating and full of unexpected reversals. Read as a commentary on the Postmodern death of the author – actually, the complete irrelevance of the author – it is a delightful poke at a fashionable critical extreme. For in this fictional world, the author is far more important than the text. Jake and Andrew cannot embrace Horace Jacob Little’s works without desiring, even obsessively, to discover and understand the authorial mind which created them. And it works both ways: what, and how much, the text says about its author is an open question, in Horace Jacob Little’s case. In the end, it may well be more than everyone but Andrew had supposed.

Read at a psychological level, this novel poses, but leaves unanswered, some delicious questions: What is insanity? How is it related to genius? Who is sane, and who, really, is insane? At the end of the novel, one is inclined to doubt that there are easy answers.

Since authors do seem to matter, after all, I note that David Czuchlewski is a Princeton graduate and a medical student in New York City, and is working on his second novel. I’m looking forward to it.

Note: David Czuchlewski’s second novel was Empire of Lightwhich was published in 2001. I very much enjoyed it and have since watched in vain for a third novel.

Notes & Essays by David Rodeback, Writing, Language & Books

Art without Adrenalin: A Review of David Baldacci’s Wish You Well

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Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine,


Hardback: 401 pp. New York: Warner Books, 2000. ISBN: 0446527165.

When I was in the fourth grade, my family moved from Boulder, Colorado, to a small, unincorporated farm town in Idaho, which had a post office but no traffic lights. I was a city kid, so my immediate sense of its smallness was based on the absence of public transportation not only in my new hometown, but also in the small nearby city and the larger cities up and down the interstate.

But size wasn’t the biggest shock. In the mid-1970s Boulder was trying desperately to be Berkeley, California. I was probably wrong, but my impression then was that there were very few people in southeastern Idaho who were even aware that there was any world at all outside the borders of Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.

The children at school and at church were not accustomed to newcomers. They greeted my arrival with countless petty persecutions. It didn’t help that I instantly found myself well ahead of all the other students in every subject I had already studied at Aurora 7 Elementary – except orchestra, because my new school didn’t have one.

I came near the beginning of a wave of immigrants from out of state, so I suppose my classmates were experiencing their own version of culture shock. At the time, however, I only noticed my own.

At length, my new milieu and I became accustomed to each other. I found some friends at school. Before and after school, and during summer vacation, I tended half an acre of vegetable garden and worked on nearby farms. Somehow, in the process, I came to appreciate the land and its people, to see the quiet goodness that often concealed itself behind bad grammar and dirty overalls.

We were 60 miles from where my mother grew up, though not so distant, culturally. So when David Baldacci announces in his introduction that he is offering a sort of history of “both where and how my mother grew up,” he has met me on familiar territory.

Lou (“don’t call me Louisa Mae”) Cardinal is twelve years old, the tomboy daughter of a struggling, gifted writer, Jack Cardinal, and Amanda, his gentle, insightful wife. Little brother Oz (for Oscar, after Oscar Wilde) is seven. On the way home to New York City from an outing in a borrowed car, there is an accident. Jack is killed, Amanda is left a vegetable, and mother and children are launched on an unexpected journey from New York City to the mountains of Virginia, where the children will grow up in the care of their great-grandmother, who is also named Louisa Mae Cardinal.

My own culture shock pales next to Lou’s, and the minor trauma of my father’s unemployment hardly compares to a father’s tragic death as a motivation to emigrate. Nor were my rural persecutors as vicious as Lou’s. But as I read this gentle, moving novel, two parallel plots unfolded in my mind: the fictional saga of Lou and Oz in a strange, new world; and my own, very similar memories of childhood.

The two plots – mine and Baldacci’s – have many common details. Lou and Oz find themselves far ahead in their new country school. They plant corn. They discover manure’s rich potential for pranks. Eventually, their chores, once unimaginably strange, become “as natural as breathing.” They find friends and protectors. They find a kindred spirit in attorney Cotton Longfellow, the great-great-great-grandson of the famous author, who lives in rural Virginia because it is as far from literary Boston as one can possibly be.

In the beginning, when they discover that nature itself is far bigger than New York City, Lou and Oz are frightened and intimidated. As time passes, their awe is undiminished, but they begin to feel almost at home in the daily battle to hold back the encroaching wilderness, as did I. Still, at least until the epilogue, they are destined to remain outsiders (albeit sympathetic outsiders) in the alien world where Jack Cardinal grew up, but where his literary gift and the culture that appreciated it mean nothing.

I indulge my personal reflections here to make two points. First, my personal response to Wish You Well is so rooted in my own experience that my objectivity is in doubt. (I don’t apologize for this.) Second, and more significantly, David Baldacci has succeeded in creating what his fictional Jack Cardinal achieved: “vivid landscapes densely populated with flawed characters who, with each turn of the page, seemed more real than one’s family.”

Since we tend to caricature our own family members, and because we are prone to look forward, not behind us, such a book has merit far beyond entertainment. It can cause us to see those around us and our past with new eyes.

Obviously, this is not a Baldacci thriller. There is some legal drama, but it is more in the spirit of To Kill a Mockingbird than of modern legal thrillers. There is the occasional auto accident or explosion, even arson, but they are realistic and believable, not sparks in a turbo-charged engine invented to drive the plot at a frenzied pace.

The heroes and villains are not the stock characters of thrillers. Rather than a brilliant, ruthless, megalomaniac billionaire or a corrupt politician, the villains here are a cruel farmer who starves his wife and children, and a gas company. Even the latter evil is less that of a corporation than of the men who work for it, who think they can buy whatever they want.

The heroes are quiet, reflective children, not daring, desperate, resourceful, beautiful adults. The people around them are not the bright lights of business and politics, but the good people of the mountain, mostly illiterate but not stupid. Where in a thriller great battles might be won or great crimes committed, here there is a schoolyard brawl and a triumphant barn-raising.

In short, Wish You Well is much nearer to everyday life than the conventional best-selling thriller. Metaphorically, it is Simon Birch or Forrest Gump, not Air Force One.

As days and years pass, Lou deliberately learns a great deal about her father, who, though deceased, is very much present throughout the novel. The children live with the woman who raised him, in the house where he was raised, in the world about which he wrote his books. They read his schoolbooks and attend his school. He is more of a presence than Amanda, who remains alive in the next room, but unresponsive.

In the economy of novels, Baldacci would probably have killed Amanda, too, if she were not meant finally to come back to life. I wondered how he would pull it off, and whether it would be believable. Perhaps this means the device is a bit too obvious for so artful a novel.

I won’t spoil the suspense, though, except to note that I’m not sure miracles have to be believable. Maybe they are not, by definition. Perhaps, like life, so humane and realistic a tale of faith and family and sacrifice would be incomplete without miracle. At least the concluding miracle here is more plausible than the plots of most thrillers.

Some Tom Clancy fans complained when, after two novels, he began to devote more pages to his characters and fewer to high-tech weaponry. Perhaps some Baldacci fans will protest that love, faith, sacrifice, and everyday villainy are a poor substitute for high adventure, romance, and evil in high places. Not I.

In terms of his language, Baldacci here is still very much the author of the page-turning thriller. His artistry is in the tale he tells, not the words and sentences he used to tell it. One does not pause to savor his prose, as one must, for example, when reading Annie Dillard. Still, this is a good story, told well enough to keep me turning pages.

I get Baldacci’s thrillers at the library or buy them in paperback, enjoy them, and pass them on. I bought Wish You Well in hardback, and I’m glad. This one I’ll keep. I’ve recommended it to friends. I may even read it to my children. This is his best work to date, but I hope it doesn’t remain so. I’ll keep reading his thrillers, if he’ll keep writing them, but I hope he has another novel or two in him like Wish You Well – or even better.

Notes & Essays by David Rodeback, Writing, Language & Books

Review: John Garrard and Carol Garrard, The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman

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Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine,


Hardback: 436 pages. Free Press, 1999. ISBN: 0684822954.

Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) is among my favorite authors, and his best novel, Life and Fate, is my favorite twentieth century novel. (It is available in English translation, though it deserves a better translation than it has received to date.) Grossman’s reputation in Russia deservedly eclipses Solzhenitsyn’s and Pasternak’s, though his work is little known in the English-speaking world. Life and Fate is many things – an 800-page novel can afford to be – but, above all, it is as profound a statement on human freedom as I have ever read.

The Bones of Berdichev is a the first book-length biography of Grossman in English. The title refers to Berdichev, a city in Ukraine, where more than 18,000 Jews were slaughtered in three days in September 1941. One of them was Grossman’s mother. But this is not only a biography; it is also a history of the Holocaust, from a very personal viewpoint. As such, it is not light or enjoyable reading; it is dark, deeply moving, rewarding reading.

Grossman is nearly always in the foreground, but the Holocaust looms large, as it did for him, through his years as a renowned and gifted war correspondent, and through the official disgrace in which he lived his last years, as punishment for writing things the Soviet government did not want to be written.

As the Garrards note, “Grossman was in fact a man of deep contradictions, like the times in which he lived. His was a life full of moral, cultural and philosophical conflicts.” Such a life is interesting enough, but there is more. This is the life of “a human being who went through the fires of hell and emerged with his soul intact.” There is, therefore, much to admire, and much to learn.

In the Preface the Garrards demonstrate an unfortunate tendency to preach, but after that, this is as fine a scholarly biography as one might hope to encounter.

Notes & Essays by David Rodeback, Writing, Language & Books

Review: John Grisham, The Testament

[toggle title=”Author’s Note”]

Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine,


Mass Market Paperback: 544 pages. Dell, 1999. ISBN: 0440234743.

A personal confession: I have a graduate degree in literature from an Ivy League school. My favorite legal thriller is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I prefer to read in the original Russian. Yet I have also read, quite shamelessly, all nine of John Grisham’s novels, including The Testament, and I have enjoyed each of them enough to read the next one. I can admit this because my mentor at Cornell, a leading literary scholar, convinced me that his taste for cheap detective novels was not a vice or a betrayal of higher art.

For me a Grisham novel is an escape. I expect it to be competently written, but not psychologically or philosophically profound. I expect entertainment that doesn’t insult my intelligence or stretch the limits of believability too far. (Alas, The Runaway Jury did the latter, but I was fresh from a month of jury duty when I read it.) Grisham fills this bill quite nicely. He is an order of magnitude shallower than Scott Turow, whom I also enjoy, but he is also much easier to read. Some of you will also care, as I do, that Grisham is generally free of sexually explicit content, unlike Turow.

In Grisham’s novels someone (besides me) is always escaping from something. More often than not, our hero or heroine is fleeing that favorite Grisham villain, the large law firm, with its vicious power struggles and well-paid servitude. If the firm is not actually trying to visit a violent death upon our hero, as in The Firm, it is battering his psyche, tearing apart his family, ruining his health, threatening professional or financial ruin, or ruthlessly hardening him to the plight of the poor, the homeless, and everyone else who doesn’t drive a late model BMW or better.

In this case, as The Testament begins, most of the damage is already done. Middle-aged attorney Nate O’Riley’s family is already shattered twice over. His financial ruin is an accomplished fact. He is emerging from drug rehabilitation for the fourth time in ten years, and he’s about to be disbarred over some improprieties involving the IRS. For all that, Nate is a brilliant litigator, when sober.

No sooner had I met Nate than I concluded that, in the end, he probably would escape most of his troubles, come to grips with the rest, and somehow start a new life, away from the litigation that drove him repeatedly to alcohol and harder drugs. Even with these general expectations established from the beginning, however, I found ample suspense. Better still, it wasn’t difficult to care about two or three of the characters. The rest are another matter entirely.

The Testament is written mostly from a comfortable, anonymous third-person viewpoint, but the first two chapters are narrated by one Troy Phelan. This cranky, elderly, eccentric multi-billionaire cannot continue to narrate for the simple reason that he pitches himself over a railing and falls several stories to his death at the end of Chapter Two. This is just after he has signed a new will in a dramatic meeting with three ex-wives’ worth of his children, where three distinguished psychiatrists have certified him mentally capable. The children believe he is leaving them at least half a billion apiece, but his real goal is to leave his good-for-nothing offspring very little, and to make his last testament (which gives the novel its title) virtually incontestable.

The rest of the novel confirms what we have already seen through Phelan’s eyes: His children are base creatures, and they deserve his hatred. Their lawyers are more intelligent, but otherwise no better than their clients. Grisham is good enough at what he does that, unless you’re kinder than I am, you’ll despise them all too. You won’t want this spoiled riffraff to get the money any more than you wanted the insurance company to win in The Rainmaker. Perhaps you’ll be objective enough to feel this way because of the damage they could do with all that money, but for me it was more personal. I just didn’t like them.

In the new will Phelan leaves nearly everything to an estranged, illegitimate daughter, Rachel, whom no one knew he had. She has disappeared into the jungles of Brazil, where she lives a simple Christian life as a missionary among isolated tribes who know nothing of the modern world. Predictably, Nate is dispatched to find her; it’s a good time for him to be out of the country. With considerable difficulty, and then almost by accident, he locates her. Also predictably, she initially displays no interest in her father’s massive financial legacy. Meanwhile, back in the Northern Hemisphere, Phelan’s other children are increasingly obsessed by the money they have, the money they owe, and the money they think they can get.

Three questions kept me turning pages. First, Rachel has escaped modern civilization to a simple life of selfless goodness. She is happy and content. Will she return to the modern world to claim her fortune, or not? If so, what will become of her? Second, what will happen to Nate? Will he survive his jungle adventures? Will he become a missionary there? If he remains in society, will he stay clean and dry? Will he slide back into the gutter, perhaps never to return? (Given Grisham’s penchant for happy endings – that is, for successful escapes – I didn’t really believe he would leave Nate in the gutter.) Above all, there is the matter of the money. Will Phelan succeed, posthumously, in the worthy cause of keeping his legitimate children’s grimy hands off his fortune?

For me there was suspense on a different level, as well. Given the prominence of the Brazilian rain forest in the novel, and the ongoing tension between the simple, primitive life there and Nate’s intense, destructive lifestyle in the modern world, I was afraid Grisham might end up preaching some politically correct sermons before he was finished. Happily, he does not. He lets one character refer briefly to the rate at which farmers are encroaching on the rain forest, but there is no heavy-handed political arm-twisting. Nor is The Testament a tirade against the wealthy. However despicable Phelan’s offspring may be, there are others in the novel who wear the trappings of wealth with some dignity and generosity.

I am told that in good fiction at least one character evolves — grows, learns, degenerates, something. Here one of them does; it would give too much away to say which one. I am also told that in works of serious literature, the reader evolves. There is little danger of that here. I don’t think The Testament changed me at all. I didn’t expect it to. I read Grisham solely for entertainment, and he’s plenty good at that.