Book ’em


I like to get stuff done. Most mornings, before my feet even hit the floor, I’ve composed a mental to-do list for that day. Mail the taxes, buy some milk, write a book review, bathe our dog, read to my daughter’s first-grade class, pick up a fifth of vodka. You get the picture.

Some days I even manage to check a decent number of tasks off my list. More often than not, however, too many unexpecteds—the puddle of cat vomit I step in when exiting my bed, a forgotten permission slip that has to be delivered to school, a phone call from a long-absent pal—prevent me from crossing anything off. And that bugs me.

But why? Who gives a rip if I don’t change the sheets or weed the flower bed? I can do it tomorrow. Or the next day.

Then again, maybe I need to get the rest of my family in on the act. No, I don’t want them carrying around silly, Sisyphean to-do lists in their heads. Instead, I need to delegate some of what’s on my list to them.

The first pass-along item came to me while wading through a sea of books, papers and clothes on the floor of my oldest daughter’s bedroom. Too many possessions, too little storage space, I thought. So I suggested she and her father visit Lowe’s to buy an assemble-it-yourself bookcase.

They took their assignment quite seriously, and quickly began calculating which belongings would call the new shelves home. They also measured where the bookcase would live, and decided on its height and the number of shelves it should have. Notebook in hand, they headed out.

A couple hours later they pulled back into our driveway. Instead of the expected large box, several pieces of lumber were sticking out the rear of our SUV.

“Nothing in stock satisfied our needs,” my husband explained. “So we’re going to build something ourselves.”

In addition to the wood, they’d purchased wood screws, primer and a quart of Pepto-Bismol pink paint. For their plans, they turned to Google Sketchup, a free application that allowed them to make a 3-D model of the final bookcase, with exact measurements for the required parts.

All right, I thought. We’ll be lugging the thing up the stairs by bedtime Sunday night.

But for weeks, Project Bookcase didn’t move past the planning stages. I had to step over the raw materials whenever I needed something from the storage shed on the fringe of our property. It was both a nuisance and a constant reminder of how little tolerance I have for started-and-abandoned projects.

But I kept my cool. O.K., there was the one time that I threatened to saw the wood into tiny pieces and feed them to our gerbils.

Then I decamped for a long weekend in Washington, D.C. The day after I got home, I opened the door to the storage shed, fully expecting to see a still-untouched pile of lumber. Shockingly, the lumber had morphed into a bookcase, freshly primed and drying atop a small plastic picnic table.

Well that’s interesting, I thought. In the ensuing days, dinner table conversations were peppered with reminiscences of a noisy electric saw, mixing up shelves and sides during assembly and plugging ill-drilled holes with wood putty.

On a rainy Saturday a few weeks later, my husband and both daughters disappeared. I went shopping. When I returned home and toted my purchases upstairs, I caught a whiff of something not entirely unpleasant—fresh paint.

I peaked into my daughter’s bedroom, and there is was: a three-shelf, Pepto-Bismol pink bookcase that fit beautifully between the desk and closet. It was perfect. And took only three months to complete.

Book ’em

Book ’em

A Time to Kill (1988)
Grisham’s first—and perhaps most critically acclaimed—novel, A Time to Kill was inspired by a court case the then-lawyer observed in De Soto County, Mississippi, where he maintained a law practice and held a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives. He wrote the novel in his spare time between 1984 and 1987, then spent two years shopping it around to publishers. It was finally given a measly initial 5,000-copy printing by the small, now-defunct Wynwood Press. It would not be until Grisham’s later success that readers would truly take notice of A Time to Kill.

The Firm (1991)
Grisham began work on this tale of an idealistic young lawyer caught up in the machinations of a sinister law firm the day after he finished A Time to Kill. Still largely unknown among readers and critics, Grisham was once again forced to hit the pavement to try and secure a publisher. The route the novel eventually took to publication became the stuff of industry legend. A copy of his manuscript, collecting dust on a publisher’s desk in New York, somehow found its way into the hands of an anonymous huckster in Los Angeles, who recognized the novel’s promise and contacted all the major L.A. publishing houses under the pretense that he was Grisham’s agent. When several of them began to bite, he called the author’s real agent, and thus The Firm found its home at Doubleday Books. It would go on to become the best-selling novel of 1991, and eventually a film starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman.

The Pelican Brief (1992)
The first novel written completely after Grisham’s retirement from the legal profession, The Pelican Brief took the conspiracy plot elements of The Firm and elevated them to the highest levels of government. The story of a law student embroiled in a plot to stack the Supreme Court with lobbyist-selected judges struck a chord with readers across the country; with a staggering 11.2 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, The Pelican Brief was the best-selling novel of the ‘90s. Due to The Firm’s runaway success, movie rights to The Pelican Brief were a hot property, and Warner Brothers ultimately optioned the book before Grisham even had a manuscript to show them. The 1993 film version, starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, was a sizable—if not blockbuster—success.

The Client (1993)
This thriller about a young Memphis boy witnessing the suicide of a prominent mob lawyer was published the year Grisham and wife, Renée, moved to Charlottesville with their two children, Ty and Shea; since 1993, the family has split their time between here and William Faulkner’s old stomping ground, Oxford, Mississippi. The Client was the third consecutive John Grisham novel to be made into a feature film. Joel Schumacher took time off from designing George Clooney’s benippled Bat-suit to direct Susan Sarandon in an Oscar-nominated performance as the boy’s lawyer. Grisham, meanwhile, took a hands-on approach to casting, insisting that his young protagonist be played not by a child actor, but by Memphis native Brad Renfro, thereby launching the young actor’s career. A TV show based on Grisham’s characters debuted the following year, but lasted less than a season.

The Chamber (1994)
This reflection on the moral ambiguity of capital punishment, framed against the backdrop of a racially charged Mississippi court case, revisits a theme Grisham first explored in A Time to Kill (and has now revisited in his newest work of nonfiction—see Cathy Harding’s review on page 27). It continued the unbroken streak of Grisham books being made into films, enlisting Chris O’Donnell and Grisham company player Gene Hackman to flesh out the author’s depiction of a desperate death row appeal.

The Rainmaker (1995)
Following the publication of The Rainmaker, his sixth novel, Grisham returned to the courtroom, honoring a commitment he’d made before the success of The Firm to represent the family of a railroad worker killed on the job. The author’s winning case against a large company eerily paralleled the plot of his latest novel: a David and Goliath story about a young, broke lawyer squaring off against an uncaring insurance company’s ace legal team. The film version, an early Matt Damon vehicle, was directed by Francis Ford Coppola—Grisham has called it his favorite of the films made from his novels.

The Runaway Jury (1996)
The Runaway Jury continued Grisham’s interest in individuals persecuted by large corporations—a main theme of The Rainmaker. This time he approached the subject from a juror’s perspective, depicting an intense jury selection process in a fictional “Big Tobacco” lawsuit. Naturally, it was made into a movie, starring John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman, and—you guessed it—Gene Hackman. The film version is notable for bringing longtime buddies Hoffman and Hackman together on camera for the first time.

The Partner (1997)
Something of a thematic sequel to The Firm, The Partner examines the fallout after a young Mississippi lawyer realizes just how corrupt his firm is and, rather than going down with the ship, fakes his death and disappears to South America, presumably taking millions of firm dollars with him. The bulk of the novel deals with that young Mississippi lawyer’s tribulations once he has been discovered in Brazil and extradited to the U.S. The Partner marks the first time ever a Grisham novel was not made into a movie.

The Street Lawyer (1998)
The Street Lawyer revisits a favorite Grisham theme, as touched upon in A Time to Kill and The Rainmaker: giving voice to the voiceless. In the novel, a high-powered attorney in the grips of a mid-life crisis of conscience quits his law firm to represent the homeless in court. Plans were made in 2003 for a TV series based on The Street Lawyer, but—despite a promising pilot being made for ABC—it was never picked up. More recent plans for a TNT mini-series version were similarly scrapped.

The Testament (1999)
Grisham drew on his own experiences as a missionary in Brazil to write this novel about an eccentric billionaire who leaves the entirety of his estate to an illegitimate daughter (who works as, yes, a missionary in Brazil). More overtly political than previous Grisham tomes, The Testament is equal parts legal thriller, Amazonian adventure, and a meditation on the poverty, disease and Western encroachment facing the indigenous peoples of the rainforest.

The Brethren (2000)
Once again exploring the moral gray areas that characterize so many of his works, Grisham here weaves a complex story out of concurrent plot threads: one about a trio of incarcerated lawyers (the titular “brethren”) scamming high-profile closeted gay men from behind bars, the other about a puppet presidential candidate set up by sinister government forces. The departure from Grisham’s traditional storytelling devices and character archetypes made The Brethren a divisive, love-it-or-loathe-it novel among his core fans.

A Painted House (2001)
The Brethren demonstrated Grisham’s interest in exploring different modes of storytelling; A Painted House accelerated the trend, marking a massive departure from anything he’d written before. Eschewing the legal thriller elements of his prior oeuvre, Grisham instead explored the territory of his literary idol John Steinbeck, writing a novel about a young boy entering sobering adulthood among a family of dirt farmers and their migrant neighbors. It was released by Grisham’s publisher, Doubleday, after first being serialized over the course of 10 months in the Oxford American literary magazine. It was later made into a Hallmark Channel TV movie starring Scott Glenn.

Skipping Christmas (2001)
Once again demonstrating Grisham’s restlessness with the familiar subjects of his legal thrillers, Skipping Christmas is a comedic novella about a middle-aged couple who decide not to celebrate Christmas, much to the chagrin of their neighbors, only to have to frantically throw together a Christmas celebration when their adult daughter and her fiancé announce a surprise visit. Skipping Christmas made its way into theaters as Christmas With the Kranks, a 2004 holiday release starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis.

The Summons (2002)
Bridging the gap between Grisham’s Mississippi roots and his adopted home, The Summons depicts a UVA law professor who returns to his boyhood home in Mississippi upon his father’s death, only to find millions of dollars in unaccounted-for cash buried in the backyard. The Summons takes place in fictional Clanton County, Mississippi—first created by Grisham to serve as the setting for A Time to Kill, and later revisited in The Chamber and other works.

The King of Torts (2003)
Named for every law student’s favorite nebulous branch of common law, The King of Torts examines the morally challenging rise of a successful lawyer, and the efforts he must make to sustain his success and integrity. The novel was Grisham’s first straightforward courtroom thriller in five years.

Bleachers (2003)
A depiction of generations of former high school football players convening to mourn their deceased coach—a highly controversial figure who was still immensely respected for his coaching ability and the tough love he gave his players—Bleachers reflects Grisham’s interest in the discipline and distinct culture of high school sports. Well-known for supporting his children’s athletics all through their school careers (Grisham famously mows his daughter’s team’s softball field during the season), the author would also explore the world of youth sports with his screenplay for Mickey, a film about little league baseball. Mickey is one of only two Grisham films (the other being Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man) that did not begin as books.

The Last Juror (2004)
Set, once again, in Clanton, Mississippi, The Last Juror tells the story a paroled rapist and murderer determined to take revenge on the jury that convicted him, as told from the perspective of a young newspaper editor. The novel is set in the ‘70s, and is a prequel, of sorts, to A Time to Kill, as it features younger versions of several characters from Grisham’s first novel.

The Broker (2005)
The Broker, considered by some to be a commentary on President Bush (whom Grisham, a former state Democratic representative, presumably would have liked to see defeated in the 2004 election), portrays a much-maligned lame duck president who grants a last-minute pardon to an imprisoned former CIA operative, who is then sent back into the field to uncover the truth about a mysterious satellite system. The addition of international political intrigue to Grisham’s work seemed to revitalize his interest in writing thrillers, and was received favorably by critics and audiences alike.