Book Review
Sunday, June 30, 2013
'The Marijuana Chronicles' -- An Anthology that Really Smokes

"The Marijuana Chronicles," edited by Jonathan Santloper

Any tome with the audacity to call itself "The Marijuana Chronicles" might seem to be setting itself up for a challenge. Comprised of eight pieces of fiction, six nonfiction, two poems and a comic strip, the breadth of the subject is staggering.

The pieces are presented in a rather random fashion, despite four section-headings forming an organizing principle that remains elusive to me. Too much "tell" when I wanted "show." I'd have preferred that the essays had their own section. Yes, I am biased and personally prefer fiction but those who favor the nonfiction form might also feel that the tales intrude on data or unvarnished opinion.

If anyone still wonders why Lee Childs is such a popular writer, "My First Drug Trial" goes a long way to convince, delivering a slowly intensifying punch, much like the weed itself. This cautionary tale on the brash logic of addiction clears the runway for the stories that follow. If Childs' character smokes weed to unleash ego, then "High" by Joyce Carol Oates brings on the void. Oates' specialty may well be drawing out the dangerous trickster: full of false promise, attacking when one is most vulnerable. The trickster always finds you, even years later, and you always succumb although you know very well it's a dangerous fraud.

Linda Yablonsky's "Jimmy O'Brien" describes weedy revelations that, well, aren't. Not really. A moment of intensity just this side of lethal yet leaving nothing in its wake.

"Zombie Hookers of Hudson" by Maggie Estep could only have been written in this century. At this point in the book, I had no problem believing the zombies were real and I rooted for them all the way. Give them another joint, they've earned it already! This was my favorite story in the second section and maybe of the entire collection. A really good read by an author I want to get to know better.

"Ganja Ghosts" by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a sharp tale about the careful cultivation of brands. Whether Tag Heuer, Prada, Marlboro or street sanctioned pot, they each cast a harsh light on illusion and disappointment in Singapore.

In the Good and Bad Medicine section, Raymond Mungo's "Kush City" draws parallels between the current marijuana debate and prohibition, making an easy case that morality is essentially a nonissue -- so by-the-way and foolish that it really no longer merits discussion and debate.

Some stories, although good, had only the loosest connection to pot. Some essays brought back, to those of us old enough to remember, the days of discovery -- and even back to such arguments as to whether Margaret Atwood was equal to any man. A favorite nonfiction piece, "The Last Toke" by Jonathan Santloper, describes a long-ago stoned and blundering moment of innocence betrayed, a view back to the decades of discovery finally brought down to earth by something harsh and unexpected (no, I'm not referring to the 1980s).

I do prefer my revelations layered, hidden in dialogue, imagined situations that keep me on guard anticipating the next sharp turn. I found myself longing for such lessons by narrative sleight of hand. For example by Rachel Shteir whose home-cure recipes in "Julie Falco Goes West" are worth the price of the book. Then there's Thad Ziolkowski's narrator in "Jacked," a perfect title to describe the power of the herb to bend a snooty narrator who's not fond of marijuana and claims it "tends to maroon me in my own head." A satisfying read that justifiably gets the last word.

"The Marijuana Chronicles" is a complex collection that explores a drug inherently different from others. One cannot, in good faith, espouse the virtues of heroin, cocaine or speed -- but marijuana is ambiguous, endlessly debatable. Violence is replaced by illusion and trickster themes are woven throughout the book.

"The Marijuana Chronicles," it has to be said, is a hopped-up little anthology that really smokes -- there's really no better way to put it. Available July 2.

-- Reviewed

by Jessica Argyle

"The Appeal" by John Grisham (Doubleday $27.95)

Often summer reading thrillers thrive on villains and heroes who are not overly complicated. It matters little if the characters are simply stick figures. The main thing is for them not to confuse the reader or slow down the plot. But who says a summer read can't carry a message? Or provide villains who are corporate titans and heroes who are idealistic, ambulance-chasing attorneys intent on saving the underdog from blatant corporate wrongdoing?

Take these ingredients and stir them into a fast-moving, well constructed tale and you have John Grisham's "The Appeal." The book begins as small-town Mississippi attorneys West and Mary Grace Payton bet everything they own to battle New York-based Krane Chemical and win a dream settlement of $41 million. Their client has lost her husband and young son to cancer, most likely brought on by Krane's flagrant chemical dumping into the Bowmore, Mississippi's water supply. The cancer rate since Krane built a plant there has soared to 15 times the national average and it's now called "Cancer County," with water so fouled that residents are afraid to shower in it.

In the real world, this would seem an-open-and-shut case, but Krane's major stockholder, greedy New York billionaire Carl Trudeau, doesn't see it that way. He is willing to do whatever it takes to overturn the decision and save Krane's stock. He will lie, cheat, cut secret off-shore deals, do insider trading, buy politicians and judges and ruin the lives of as many people as it takes to succeed. He is not accustomed to losing and he sure doesn't plan to be taken to the cleaners by a group of hicks from south Mississippi. He will spend whatever is necessary to prevail.

We found the characters in "The Appeal" very compelling. The Paytons come across as being both heroes and greedy, self-absorbed ambulance chasers. Ron Fish is a neophyte politician wowed by the newfound perks of corporate jets and political groupies. Supreme Court Justice Sheila McCarthy is a well-meaning person totally unprepared for a nasty campaign fight. Clete Coley is a clownishly opportunistic rogue as the third candidate. Barry Rinehart is the ultimate behind-the-scenes manipulator.

Grisham seems to be using "The Appeal" to make a case against elected judges. Apparently the book is inspired by a real-life, decade-long battle between West Virginia coal mining competitors A.T. Massey and Harman Mining. In that case, Massey's CEO contributed a large sum of money to unseat an incumbent Supreme Court judge. A very entertaining summer read.

-- Reviewed by David and Nancy Beckwith, authors of the Will and Betsy Black adventure series