Dairy Queen Days Reviewed

There’s no shame in writing a fiction book that is not David Copperfield or Count of Monte Cristo or another top flight fiction book. I don’t read a lot of fiction so as I write this review I’m trying to be fair and not expect everything to be a masterpiece.

Still, this was not a good book. It took me 276 pages to finally care about the characters and where the story was going. Given it took me 200 pages to get to the same point with Count of Monte Cristo that may not seem too bad. The big difference is that Count had 850 pages and this book has 283.

When I say it is not a good book, I do not mean to say there were no parts of the book I found interesting or compelling. In fact, one of the tragedies is that the more interesting characters were basically ignored. I think the protagonist in the story is supposed to be a sympathetic character, but mostly he seemed to me like a whiny teenager that was not going to be happy until he got to live the life he wanted. Even after the major trajectory change in the closing pages of the book, he runs away from a time when someone with an ounce of character would have stood firm. This is all the more pathetic to me because throughout the book, the author has been trying to show that he was the one person in his family that was sensible, sane, and resolute.

The book got on my reading list because I wanted to have something there that depicted my region of the country. Did it do that successfully? Probably it did. Basically every main character adhered to a form of religion but denied its power. Their faith was a showpiece, not a living and active reality in their lives. The protagonist’s father, a Methodist preacher, loved cliches and clever sayings more than the Bible. People showed up to church to get a show rather than be changed into the image of Jesus. There’s a line in the early pages of the book that captures that sense well: “An old piece of Bear Bryant wisdom. Joe Pike was fill of Bear Bryant wisdom. It had the ring of Scripture to it.”

So that was one of the disappointing things to me about the book. Yes, the Bible Belt is filled with people for whom Christianity is nothing more than a social construct, but it isn’t exclusively those people. There are lots of real, committed Christians in the Bible Belt. None of them made it into this book. The point of including a book with a regional focus is to experience your actual area through the lens of another person, not a caricature of your area. This book (written by an Alabama alum) presented small town Georgia as a series of fake people pursuing phone dreams carried along by sentimentality and regret. That’s just not reality.

Plus, it has a really dumb ending that makes no sense whatsoever.

Picking Cotton Reviewed

Picking Cotton is an interesting book because it brings together the stories of two people who on all basic levels should have nothing to do with one another. Jennifer Thompson was a college student raped in her home by a stranger, and Ronald Cotton was the man she falsely identified as her attacker. Cotton ended up wrongfully convicted and served nearly 11 years in prison.

As a book there really isn’t anything to complain about. It’s well written. The story is compelling. The characters are believable. For a true story they do a good job expressing their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Ronald is especially interesting to me because of the hope he finds in some incredibly flawed people like the father that never really supported him as a child. It’s generally written in the first person she said/he said format which works for what it is.

One thing I appreciated about the book is how closely it linked the root cause of Ronald’s false conviction to the overarching story. Ronald was the victim of mistaken identity due to what were common but still unhelpful law enforcement and prosecutorial practices. I don’t believe anyone said the reason he was wrongfully convicted was his race, which was refreshing. If we don’t look at the actual root causes we will never remedy these injustices, and I think this book helped in that regard. (about 75% of people freed by DNA evidence after wrong convictions were put in jail simply by eyewitness accounts.)

There is a lot of talk in the book about things like forgiveness, mercy, grace, God’s plan for us, etc. but they are generally not in line with the biblical definitions of those words. They are self serving usages about inner healing or leaving the past behind. Of course there is some value to that, but there is far more value to understanding and applying these terms biblically.

There are side characters such as Ronald’s legal team that I would have liked to learn more about. What motivates people to give up their time and energy to right these wrongs? I realize that one book cannot cover every angle of a story but this is something I think would have rounded out the book. It was also a bit long for me – at roughly 300 pages it seemed about 50-75 pages too long. In today’s day, I feel like a book should do more than what could be done in a 15 minute segment on an evening news talk show. Frankly, I don’t think this book did that to much of a meaningful degree. (The story is compelling but the 15 minute version can be found here.)