The case for breaking up Facebook

From an essay in Technology Review:

Monopoly power is problematic even for companies that just make a lot of money selling widgets: it allows them to exert undue influence on regulators and to rip off consumers. But it’s particularly worrisome for a company like Facebook, whose product is information.

This is why it should be broken up. This wouldn’t answer every difficult question that Facebook’s existence raises. It isn’t easy to figure out how to protect free speech while limiting hate speech and deliberate misinformation campaigns, for example. But breaking up Facebook would provide space to come up with solutions that make sense to society as a whole, rather than to Zuckerberg and Facebook’s other shareholders.

The problem, of course, is that Facebook’s management (which reflects the biases and politics of Mark Zuckerberg), gets to decide which speech should be “free”, and which should be classified as “hate speech”.

The problem isn’t the true hate speech, but the speech that exists at the margins of polite conversation.

Facebook is not apolitical. Facebook is a projection of Mark Zuckerberg’s politics.

And that’s why it’s a cause for serious concern, given its near monopoly power.


Christianity growing in the U.S., as mainline churches decline

According to recent research from Harvard University, the state of American Christianity is a complex one:

Mainline churches are tanking as if they have super-sized millstones around their necks. Yes, these churches are hemorrhaging members in startling numbers, but many of those folks are not leaving Christianity. They are simply going elsewhere. Because of this shifting, other very different kinds of churches are holding strong in crowds and have been for as long as such data has been collected. In some ways, they are even growing. This is what this new research has found.
The percentage of Americans who attend church more than once a week, pray daily, and accept the Bible as wholly reliable and deeply instructive to their lives has remained absolutely, steel-bar constant for the last 50 years or more, right up to today. These authors describe this continuity as “patently persistent.”

As a Roman Catholic, I’ve seen evidence of this firsthand.

The Catholic Church, with its handling of everything from child abuse scandals to doctrine, has disappointed many lifelong believers in recent years.

(Read one of Ross Douthat’s two books on this matter for a detailed look at the problem.)

Many Catholics are now “lapsed”. (I would put myself into this category.) Others are leaving the Catholic Church for evangelical churches.

I probably won’t be attending an evangelical church anytime soon, by the way. While I acknowledge the problems with the Roman hierarchy, I am equally skeptical of small, “entrepreneurial” modes of religion. (I’m old enough to remember the Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker scandals of the 1980s!)


Book break: ‘1215: the Year of Magna Carta’

If you’re interested in the history of England during the Middle Ages (and if you already have some grounding in the subject), then you might enjoy this short volume by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham.

This is less a systematic history of the Magna Carta, than it is a series of historical anecdotes about the state of England in the early 13th century. (The chapters are broken down by topic: “School”, “Town”, “Education”, etc.)

I recommend this book to readers who already have some background in the subject matter because it is not a systematic, linear history.

This is, nevertheless, a very interesting book. You’ll pick up lots of tidbits about English life, religion, and politics around the time when the Magna Carta was signed. (The book also includes the full text of the Magna Carta.)

Beto O’Rourke for president?

Beto O’Rourke has announced that he’s running for president in 2020.

O’Rourke failed to beat Ted Cruz in 2018 for a seat in the Senate.

Last year was not a good year for Republicans; and it’s no secret that Ted Cruz has plenty of detractors. The election, therefore, should have been O’Rourke’s to lose. Yet O’Rourke somehow managed to snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory.

O’Rourke’s resume is singularly unimpressive. He’s served a single term in the House of Representatives.

Oh…and a stint on the El Paso City Council. He did found a small web design company…which he no longer seems to be affiliated with.

Oh, and he kicked around on the indie music scene for a while.

In short, at the age of 46, Beto O’Rourke has very little to recommend him for the White House.  Even if you’re a leftwing Democrat, this one must be a tough sell.

The Democrats have at long last found a candidate who makes Kamala Harris seem eminently qualified.

 


The college admissions scheme and helicopter parenting

As CNN reports, there is big money to be made from helicopter parents who are willing to do almost anything to secure a place for their progeny in one of America’s elite schools:

 

The college admissions scheme revealed Tuesday is the largest of its kind ever prosecuted, federal prosecutors said, and features 50 defendants across six states, millions of dollars in illegally funneled funds and a handful of the country’s most selective universities.

But at its core, the alleged scheme is remarkably simple — and brazen.

Cheat on standardized tests. Bribe the people who decide which students get admitted. All the while pretending that money was for charity.

“I’ll speak more broadly, there were essentially two kinds of fraud that Singer was selling,” US Attorney Andrew Lelling said, referring to William Rick Singer, the figure at the center of the scheme.

“One was to cheat on the SAT or ACT, and the other was to use his connections with Division I coaches and use bribes to get these parents’ kids into school with fake athletic credentials,” Lelling said at a press conference in Boston.

A total of 50 people were charged in the case. Those arrested include two SAT/ACT administrators, one exam proctor, nine coaches at elite schools, one college administrator and 33 parents, according to Lelling.

 

I’m not against people caring about their children—quite the opposite, in fact.

We should also note that while some children now have parents who are willing to fraudulently pay “enormous sums” so that they get into Ivy League colleges, there is another class of children who aren’t so lucky: Children who are mostly being raised by single mothers in the inner cities and the fringes of the suburbs. More than ever, perhaps, there are great disparities in the private resources—not just of money, but of parental effort—that are being put into our nation’s children.

(Our pundits and academics like to talk about “privilege” a lot. The biggest determinant of “privilege” is not your skin color, but who your parents are…assuming you have two of them, that is. If you have two married parents who care about your future, you’re “privileged” in the present environment, our neurotic obsessions about race aside.)

Helicopter parenting began with good intentions. Its original practitioners were mostly older GenX-ers, who grew up as key latch kids in the 1970s and 1980s, often in what were then called “broken homes”.

The idea was to improve on the sometimes deficient parenting practices of the Baby Boomers, or “Me Generation”, who (so the narrative goes) were more concerned with careerism, or “finding fulfillment” in second marriages.

Most of the Gen-X parents in my social circle are more attentive parents than their parents were. Once again, it’s hard to criticize anyone for loving their children, and you feel like kind of a grinch or a crank when you even take a step in that direction.

Nevertheless, any good intention can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. I know parents in my age group who spend all of their free time—and I mean all of their free time—attending their children’s extracurricular events. Often the grandparents do, too.

My parents, who remained married, and provided me with a secure, loving environment, probably attended five or six of my athletic events throughout all of my K through 12 years.

My grandparents attended one school play.

This didn’t bother me. In fact, I wanted to get some time and space away from my parents. (This is something that I often tell parents: Your kids really don’t want you hovering over them every minute.) Nowadays, though, you’re regarded as a deficient parent if you fail to sit dutifully through every dance recital, select soccer game, and cheerleading competition.

I know parents who constantly monitor the whereabouts of their 18- and 19-year-old youngsters via smartphone apps. Sorry, folks, but that isn’t good parenting; that’s neurotic.

And so it goes with college admissions. When I was a high school senior (the 1985~6 school year) the college applications process was something that the average seventeen-year-old handled independently, with only occasional help from Mom and Dad.

No more. Nowadays, the college admissions process is the equivalent of a family-run military campaign. Parents are intimately involved at every step of the process. I know at least three sets of parents who actually wrote their children’s college entrance essays.

I can’t even imagine my parents doing that…and I’m grateful for it. My parents allowed me to become an independent adult. Too many of today’s parents seem content to perpetuate their children’s dependence on them.

If moderately affluent parents (my friends) are willing to write their children’s college entrance essays (a subtle, though mostly overlooked form of cheating), then it really isn’t that big of a stretch to imagine that wealthy parents are willing to shell out enormous bribes for a spot at Yale or Stanford.

Whatever its original intentions, helicopter parenting has become a cult, a very first-world affliction of mostly white/Asian, affluent parents. The recent college admissions scandal is a clear warning sign…as if we needed yet another one.

Everyone complains about the helplessness and general incompetence of the younger generation. (A recent report states that today’s young adults can’t even use can-openers.) They’ve become a joke. Talk to anyone who hires young employees, and you’ll hear that most of them are undisciplined workers who lack basic common sense.

Perhaps. But who raised them to be so helpless?

GenX helicopter parents. That’s who.

It’s time for this to stop. It’s time to reassess the helicopter parenting cult, and let children transform into adults again, instead of remaining the perpetual “projects” of their overattentive parents.

How to begin? Start with something small. You might begin by deleting that iPhone app that you use to constantly track the whereabouts of your eighteen year-old son or daughter.

John Kasich: a man without a party

In an op-ed on CNN, John Kasich asks congressional Republicans to defy Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexican border:

“Sometime soon, Republican senators will have the opportunity to demonstrate — as 13 Republicans did in the House — their love of country and their commitment to constitutional values by voting for the resolution to disapprove the President’s emergency declaration. Instead of acting like they’re afraid of their own shadows, Senate Republicans must use this vote to — at long last — stand up and defend the Constitution.”

One has to feel sorry for John Kasich. He’s not nearly far left enough to be a Democrat nowadays. At the same time, he’s clearly not aligned with the majority of Republican voters.

It isn’t that John Kasich makes no appealing arguments. In an ideal world, President Trump would not have declared a national emergency. In an ideal world, both parties would be eager to secure the border. Border security would be a bipartisan issue. (Securing the border is, after all, the first imperative of any national government.)

Two factors prevent this, however.

First of all, the Democratic Party recognizes that border security is not in its own best interests. To put the matter crudely: The more immigration we have—whether legal or illegal—the more Democratic votes we will have.

Everyone knows why, though few commentators (even on the right) like to talk about it: New immigrants from Third World countries are predisposed to favor economic redistribution—which is what the Democratic Party is all about. If the GOP’s natural constituency is white voters in so-called “red states”, the Democratic Party’s natural constituency can be found in the millions who are desperate to cross the U.S. border. If only they could all vote in US elections…we would never elect another Republican again!

Secondly, the Democratic Party has taken a sharp left turn in recent years. The new blood of the Democratic Party—Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib—all identify as socialists. The party is also in the grip of identity politics hysteria. The Democratic Party now sees the “browning of America” as a way to purify America of its past racial sins. This makes mass immigration from Latin America an almost spiritual imperative.

In short, the Democratic Party has become a haven for leftwing fanatics. More frightening still is the fact that the fanatics did not vote themselves into office. Someone—many people, in fact—voted Omar, Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into the House of Representatives.

Everyone knows this. Even moderate members of the Democratic Party know it. The fact that John Kasich does not seem to know it shows how out of touch he has become in the Republican camp.

So why doesn’t John Kasich simply join the Democrats? John Kasich is relatively popular among Democrats at present, because he has willingly stepped into the role of anti-Trump Republican. Were he to formally switch sides, he would run afoul of the anti-white sentiments that currently dominate the Democratic Party. (Nor can I envision Kasich declaring himself a Marxist, along with Ocasio-Cortez, et al.)

This is a shame for John Kasich, who is probably a moderate Democrat in his heart of hearts. Bill Clinton won two terms in the White House in the 1990s as a moderate Democrat, but those were different times.  There is no market for moderates in the Democratic Party of 2019.

Unfortunately for John Kasich, there is also no market for Republicans who are unwilling to acknowledge the untenable situation of the porous U.S. border.

Kasich wants to be seen as a nice guy who is the friend of immigrants, most of whom, it should be said, are perfectly decent people. But the immigration question is inextricably bound to the Democrats’ desire to remake America as a country that is a.) socialist, and b.) ethnically reengineered. This is a radical project that will transform the United States into Venezuela, if it proceeds according to the fevered dreams of those on the left.

Like it or not, now is a time for taking sides in regard to border control. You’re either for open borders, and the social/economic experiment that entails, or you’re for secured borders, and controlled, measured immigration. You can’t have it both ways.

But John Kasich insists on having it both ways. This is why John Kasich is occasionally interesting as a commentator, a philosophical gadfly of sorts…the tortured conscience of the Trump-dominated Republican Party.

This is also why he’s unlikely to ever hold a major public office again, either as a Democrat or as a Republican.

Should authors narrate their own audiobooks?

This is a question that has been coming up frequently of late on the various indie author boards.

The question is only natural. Dedicated narrators charge around $250 per finished hour to narrate, edit, and master audio files.

That means $2,700 to $3,300 to convert a 100,000-word novel into an audiobook.

No, those numbers aren’t in Japanese yen. They’re in US dollars.

To be fair to the narrators: Although $250 per hour sounds like a lot, the narrators aren’t necessarily charging the same hourly rates as corporate attorneys, heart surgeons, and high-class call girls.

Notice that I said, per finished hour. That means not only reading the material, but also editing out obtrusive plosive sounds, loud breaths, and overly lengthy pauses. It means mastering the files to make sure they meet certain technical specifications.

According to some estimates, five to ten hours of work can be required to produce a finished hour of audio for an audiobook.

Audiobook production requires a material investment in both hardware and software. There is also something of a learning curve, as sound engineering is both an art and a science. To become competent in sound engineering isn’t quite as difficult as becoming an attorney or a heart surgeon (I won’t speculate about the difficulty of becoming a high-class call girl); but it isn’t exactly simple, either. There are many new concepts to absorb and understand. Unless you have worked with audio at the technical level in the past, all of these concepts will be completely unfamiliar to you.

So hopefully I’ve made clear: No one should be resentful of the narrators who charge $250 per finished hour to deliver store-ready audiobook files.

That said, $2,700~$3,300 represents a significant upfront investment for most indie authors. If you’ve got a backlist of ten books, that means that you could buy a new Toyota Corolla for what it would take to convert your entire library into audiobook format.

It is only natural, then, that some authors are asking the question: Why not just do this myself?

Why not, indeed? This brings us to the debate. There are plenty of reasons for doing it yourself…and for not doing it yourself. I don’t believe that there is an absolute, one-size-fits-all, right or wrong answer to this one. As is so often the case in this life, the only succinct answer is: It depends. 

To begin with, the writer who seeks to produce her own audiobooks will have to be comfortable reading her own work in a very public way. Many writers are painfully shy. I am amazed at the number of writers who are terrified to appear on YouTube or on podcasts. Many are too shy to even post their author photos on Facebook or their Amazon author pages. These authors almost certainly won’t feel comfortable reading their own fiction, and that will show in the results.

Narrating an audiobook is also a unique skill, above and beyond other forms of public speaking. I don’t believe that professional theater training is a prerequisite, but it would certainly help. At the very least, no author should attempt to read his own work for audio without first having listened to hundreds of hours of audiobooks as a consumer. If you don’t like audiobooks, if you aren’t a consumer of audiobooks, then you have no business narrating them. 

And then there’s the investment and technical side, which I’ve touched on above. Some writers embrace technology, others shrink from it. Can you learn about RMS, noise floors, and hard limits as eagerly as you learned about three-act structure? Are you willing to plunk down the money needed to purchase a computer with decent processing power, a high-quality mic, and other equipment? Are you willing to pay for Pro Tools or Adobe Audition software?…Oh, and are you also ready to ascend the learning curve that it takes to competently use them?

In regard to this last point, I would offer one piece of cautionary advice. On writer forums, I occasionally see writers state that they are overwhelmed by Scrivener (a popular non-linear word processing program designed for writers). If you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener, then you probably shouldn’t try to produce your own audiobooks.

(I don’t mean to imply that you’re an idiot, by the way, if you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener….But I do mean to imply that you aren’t very technically inclined if you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener….We all have our own strengths and weaknesses. I can run a six-minute mile; but I can’t make simple free throw shots on the basketball court with any degree of reliability. Know thy strengths, know thy weaknesses.)

That all said, there are plenty of reasons for embarking on self-production…if you have the basic aptitudes and willingness.

One of the big arguments for self-production is this: The job that you hire out might not be any better than the job you could do yourself, with a bit of preparation.

There are few formal barriers to entry to the narrator field. Anyone can hang out a shingle as a narrator nowadays. Many of the narrators you encounter in the marketplace might be only a few steps ahead of you…or possibly a few steps behind you.

Let’s start with the quality of the narration itself. If you’re going to hire Scott Brick (the narrator of most of the Clive Cussler novels, among many other books) then Scott Brick is almost certainly going to do a better job than you. By all means, hire Scott Brick. Scott Brick is not only a consummate professional, he’s a “brand”. (I’m far more likely to consider an audiobook from an unknown author if Scott Brick is the narrator.)

I don’t know what Scott Brick charges per hour, but it’s probably more than $250; and his schedule is likely booked months or years in advance. I am therefore going to assume that you won’t be hiring Scott Brick. You’re going to hire some narrator from the online marketplace, whom you’ve never heard of before.

I’ve listened to many samples from lesser known narrators on the Audible site. Most of them meet a basic level of competence; but the indie author might honestly ask: Is that voice, that quality of narration, worth $250 per hour?

On the technical side, some of the independent narrators seem to be just as tech-averse as the average indie author. Many seem to have backgrounds in acting. When you think of someone who is technically proficient, is a drama major the first person who comes to mind?

It might therefore be easier to just bite the bullet, and learn about RMS, noise floors, etc.

Yes, it’s hard…but not heart surgery hard. It’s more like building-your-own-backyard-deck, or learning-conversational-Spanish hard.

You also have the option of recording and editing the audio files yourself, then hiring out the final mastering—which is not free, but which is far cheaper, in most cases, than $250 per finished hour.

The quandary of whether or not to narrate one’s own audiobooks, then, is a uniquely personal one that every author needs to carefully assess.

Whichever way you go, audiobook production isn’t going to be easy or cheap. Accept that from the get-go, or don’t even start.

The question is: Given your priorities, proclivities, and resources, are you better to sacrifice ease (self-production), or are you better to sacrifice cheapness (outsourcing)?

That’s the decision that you have to make; and whichever one you choose, you’re likely to encounter a bit of buyer’s remorse if your audiobook sales don’t meet your expectations.

The Democratic Party and the broken Melting Pot

Ask the average American who the most significant new Democratic member of Congress might be, and you’ll likely get the name ‘Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’. The leftwing media loves AOC because she’s young, female, and diverse…and she embraces Marxism.

Many Americans on the right, meanwhile, are eager to cast AOC as the frightening new face of the Democratic Party. Surely, the argument goes, AOC will repel moderate voters in the suburbs…many of whom voted against Trump in the 2018 midterm election.

Things might work out that way. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez certainly says some silly things. But if it is difficult to take AOC seriously, many Americans will also have a hard time perceiving AOC as a genuine threat. After all, she’s charming and personable, and there’s a video of her performing dance routines from The Breakfast Club as a college student. No matter how daffy her ideas about economics, it’s hard to perceive her as a bomb-thrower.

I would submit that the real face of radicalism inside the Democratic Party is not the much ballyhooed AOC, but two other freshman congresspersons: Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

At present, Rashida Tlaib is best known as the congressperson who shouted “Impeach the motherfucker!” at a public event. (She was referring to Donald Trump, of course.)

More significantly, though, Tlaib has cozied up to pro-Hezbollah, pro-Hamas activists. She proudly asserts herself not as an American, but as a hyphenated, Palestinian-American. In practice, that means more Palestinian than American. Since taking office, Tlaib has spent a conspicuous amount of time with anti-Israel groups, many of which have radical Islamic ties.

Ilhan Omar is a Somali-American…once again, with emphasis on the hyphen, and emphasis on the label to the left of the hyphen. Not only does Omar typically appear in public in traditional Somali garb, she also focuses on the causes that would be of most concern to a politician in the Muslim Middle East. Like Tlaib, Omar has wasted no time making public statements against Israel and the Jews, and showing her support for Islamic radicals.

In a classic instance of politics making strange bedfellows, Ilhan Omar garnered support from none other than David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The leftwing media promptly buried the story, which didn’t fit the accepted narratives about diversity and multiculturalism.

The Muslim Middle East is filled with radical Islamic politicians, who are almost uniformly obsessed with Jews and Israel. As an American citizen, this need not concern me overmuch. What does concern me is that Tlaib and Omar are acting as radical Muslim Middle Eastern politicians, while serving as members of the U.S. House of Representatives. This is what makes most of us recoil from these two, and tell ourselves that whatever his personal flaws (and let’s be clear, there are many), Donald Trump still represents the lesser of two evils.

Let us be clear about this, too: The problem is not where Tlaib and Omar came from. (While Tlaib was born to Palestinian parents in Detroit, Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia.) Almost from the beginning, Americans have come from the world’s troubled places. My grandmother’s people came here many years ago, because the Great Famine had transformed Ireland into a hellhole. (Despite Donald Trump’s calls for more immigration from Norway, most Norwegians have little incentive to immigrate; things are fairly nice where they already are.)

Ireland in 1850…Greece in 1921…Vietnam in 1975…El Salvador today…These are the places that  Donald Trump so ineloquently called “shithole countries”.

But what makes you American is your desire to assimilate, to leave the blood feuds and backward ways of your homeland behind. This is the concept of the “melting pot”, embodied by the Latin phrase: E pluribus unum: “from many, one”.

No Americans would recoil from Omar and Tlaib if they cast aside their Somali and Palestinian identities, and embraced new American ones. (On the contrary, this would make them inspirations to most Americans.) But Tlaib and Omar have chosen to bring the backwardness of their homelands to America with them. More importantly, they have chosen to bring the backwardness of their homelands to their roles as members of the House of Representatives.

A certain percentage of readers will be offended by my suggestion that new immigrants have a duty to assimilate, to leave the conflicts of their homelands behind. If you’re on the left, the Melting Pot is out, and multiculturalism is in.

But the Melting Pot is what enables us to function as Americans, rather than as competing factions of hyphenated this and that. A multicultural nation is a nation of endlessly squabbling factions that have nothing in common. Historically, most multicultural nations either break up, or collapse into civil conflict.

But the left has joined the new concept of multiculturalism with the old concept of American immigration…and made immigration into something that Americans on the right and in the center no longer view favorably.

To quote the ineloquent Donald Trump again: It used to be that immigrants left the shitholes behind them. But since the left has embraced multiculturalism, the new ideal is to bring the shithole with you, to make the shithole part of America.

This is why Americans on the right complain that unfettered immigration has made America into “a country they no longer recognize”.

The problem isn’t having brown-skinned neighbors. The problem is having congresspersons who are more Palestinian than American, more Somali than Minnesotan.

Blinkist and the shortening American attention span

I’ve been following the news about Blinkist, the new app that promises to deliver “the key ideas from bestselling nonfiction books in just 15 minutes”.

The premise of Blinkist is that no one has time to read anymore. We’re all just so distracted nowadays, and our attention spans are so short. So we need things like…Blinkist.

But why is that, exactly?

Work? Yes, most of us have jobs. But did people not have jobs in 1999? Or 1979?  As I seem to recall, the job is not exactly a twenty-first century innovation.

But who has time to read an actual book…when there’s all those updates on Facebook…and did you hear about that latest outrage on Twitter? And you’ve got loads of text messages coming in….all of which are urgent and important, of course.

Just the other day, I was driving in suburban Cincinnati, when a woman about my age drove through a red light and nearly ran into me.

She wasn’t drunk or high. She wasn’t fleeing from the police.

She was talking on her frigging cell phone.

Yes, I understand that things change. I don’t expect this to be the America I grew up in anymore. But maybe this mantra about the inevitable shortening of the American attention span is something we ought to resist a bit more.

Do we really need an “app” to condense books for us? Or do we need more time with books, and a bit less time with cell phones and their many “apps”?

‘The Reckoning’ by John Grisham: Ed’s review



I recently finished reading this latest novel by John Grisham. This is a very good book, although it is a little different from John Grisham’s previous offerings.

The standard John Grisham novel goes something like this: An attorney has happened upon a scandal of some sort, usually involving a big pot of money. (The money may or may not be held in a numbered account in the Cayman Islands.)

The attorney faces some moral quandary. Maybe someone approaches the attorney looking for assistance. Perhaps the attorney is threatened himself. The perpetrators of the scandal are invariably mafiosos or the corrupt managers of some Big Evil Corporation.

In the end, the attorney makes the right decision, solves the problem, and saves the day.

I’m not knocking the standard John Grisham Formula, mind you. (On the contrary, John Grisham is one of my favorite authors.)  But The Reckoning substantially deviates from that formula.

The Reckoning opens in the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi, in 1946. Forty-three year-old Pete Banning, a successful farmer, respected local citizen, and decorated World War II POW, is about to commit an inexplicable homicide.

Banning drives into town, where he shoots the pastor of his Methodist church, Dexter Bell.

Banning is arrested and charged with murder. Of course.  When questioned by the sheriff, he refuses to say why he did what he did.

Pete Banning’s young adult children plead with him, as does his older sister. But Banning simply won’t say why he murdered Dexter Bell.

It is also revealed that while Banning was away fighting the war (and presumed dead) Dexter Bell spent a lot of time with Pete’s wife, Liza. When the story opens, though, Liza has been sequestered away in a mental institution.

Suffice it to say (mild spoiler alert) that the outcome for Pete Banning is not a pleasant one. After Banning meets his fate, the story jumps back in time, to cover Pete’s exploits during the war, as a POW, and later a guerrilla fighter, in the embattled Philippines.

In the final section of the book, we finally learn why Pete Banning killed Dexter Bell.

No, I am not going to reveal the reason. I would, however, caution you against assuming the most obvious answer.

Although I liked this book quite a bit, many readers did not agree with me.  The book seemed to upset many readers who were expecting the Grisham Formula. Here’s a 1-star review from Amazon:

Crappy, pointless mess:

If I were a writer and knew that I would have to give up money if I didn’t have a “book” on my publisher’s desk by a date certain, and time was up, this is the kind of load of crap I would dish up. What passes for a plot is meaningless: the whole book is fleshed out with WW II history that needn’t be narrated as fiction, and arcane minutiae of criminal and civil procedure that couldn’t be more boring and, moreover, is woefully inaccurate. I actually felt that I’d been tricked into reading this steamer by being bamboozled by Grisham’s reputation, on which I can’t comment. BORING!!!!!!

The Reckoning is not “boring”. But you do need something beyond the attention span of an eight year-old to enjoy it. In many ways, The Reckoning is more like something that Stephen Hunter or W.E.B. Griffin would have written.

To be fair to the readers who didn’t like this book: John Grisham has now been publishing novels for about thirty years. To put a personal spin on this, when Grisham published his very first book, the initially overlooked A Time to Kill (1989), your humble correspondent was a bright-eyed twenty-one year-old.

I am now a not-so-bright-eyed, world-weary fifty year-old. My concerns and preferences are not what they were thirty years ago. I am a different person. So are you…if you were even alive in 1989.

Why then, should we expect that John Grisham is the same writer that he was when George H.W. Bush was president? The Reckoning is not The Firm, Grisham’s breakout success of 1991.

Why should it be, though? The Firm was a long time ago.

Longtime writers almost always evolve. Sometimes readers like the changes, sometimes they don’t. I used to read Stephen King’s early novels over the course of two or three days. But starting with It (1986), King adopted a meandering, bloated style that is a sharp departure from the taut, economical storytelling of the novels he wrote in the 1970s, and the first half of the 1980s. I now struggle to get through a Stephen King novel. I’ve been working on The Outsider for several months now, reading it in bits and pieces, while I’m reading other books.

(But that’s just me: Some readers prefer the new Stephen King.)

If The Reckoning is any indication, Grisham is moving away from the legal potboiler, in the direction of the literary thriller. This pleases me…But it clearly doesn’t please everyone.

To recap: The Reckoning is a very good novel, but you should not begin it with an expectation that you are about to get another helping of the Grisham Formula. Be prepared for something new, and different.

And if you’re not open to something new and different from John Grisham, then you might want to skip this one, and reread The Firm or  The Pelican Brief instead. They’re still very good books, too.