Clara and The WhistlerMay 22, 2019
It was the summer between 7th and 8th grade. I don't remember if it's something that I wanted to do, or something that my parents made me do, but I was flown out to Reno to spend two weeks with my Uncle John. I like my uncle very much, and I look back on those couple of weeks with fond-if-not-faint memories of my time there, but I'm not really sure why it was that I went in the first place.
One example of this fond/faint memory is that, one day -- and I don't remember where we were going, why we were going there, or what we did once we got there, but -- we'd gone on a long drive to some place to do a thing. I was riding in the backseat of my uncle's then-wife's Jeep with him driving and her riding shotgun; the ride was over an hour each way and it was boring in both directions. Paul Simon's Graceland was on repeat and, other than "You Can Call Me Al," I had not yet grown to appreciate the album's complexities.
By the time "Gumboots" came on for its first go-round, I started going through the seat-back pockets. This two hour-plus round-trip road trip would expose me to a few of my firsts: hearing Graceland in its entirety (a few times over); drinking hazelnut coffee; trying an Altoid, the curiously strong mint; and reading a book by John Grisham, with whom I share a birthday (I did not know this at the time).
Despite being 13 and not fully able to grasp Graceland's greatness, the hardcover copy of Grisham's The Chamber that I'd found in my seat-back snooping immediately had its hooks in me. I ripped through the novel in a couple days, quickly read through his earlier works and kept up with his next few releases for a few years as well.
(It's sort of easy now for me to write off John Grisham as being uncool 20 years later, but if you look at a list of the best-selling fiction novels by year, Grisham held the #1 spot from 1994 to 2000, and a few sporadic years after that as well, and having read through this Golden Age of 90's Grisham, I feel as though my 13-to-18-year-old self maintains that it might have at least been a little deserved at the time.)
And then out of no where, I took a long break from reading all together. My 20s-to-mid-30s were a bit of a blur with life (or something like it), and reading was never high on my list of things to do. It might not've even been on the list, if I'm honest.
I suppose I spin this nostalgia-tainted yarn to try to justify why I even decided to read Grisham's 2016 novel, The Whistler, in the first place. The other half of this justification is that I just recently purchased a Kobo eReader.
Rakuten makes a few different models of Kobo eReaders, and is really the only company that seems to be giving Amazon any sort of run for its money in this market. The Kobo line-up of offerings tend to be fairly comparable to the Kindle line across the board, and where Kobo might lack a Kindle feature here, it makes up for it with a different feature elsewhere.
The Clara HD is Kobo's answer to Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite. The Clara is not water-resistant like the newer Paperwhites are, but it weighs a few hairs less (compared to my wife's slightly older Paperwhite, anyway). Both devices have 300ppi e-ink displays, but the Kobo has a lighting system that bests the Kindle by offering an adjustable (manual or automatic) shift toward a warmer hue for less distracting nighttime reading.
Amazon's digital bookstore is massive, but Kobo's is nothing to sneeze at and, with very little effort, one can de-DRM his or her Kindle book collection and load them on to the Kobo with ease (I have done so already with the handful of Kindle books I'd originally purchased to read on my iPad). All Kobo devices support a wider-range of file formats than Kindles, too, so supporting various DRM-free files is a snap.
(A brief aside: I really do make an effort not to buy things from Amazon if I can help it. But when I do, I do so through smile.amazon.com. This allows a half a percent of what I spend on my order to be donated to a charity of my choosing without spending a penny more. Amazon gets that write-off, but at least I'm 0.5% helping a good cause. Kobo does something similar, but for local, independent bookstores. If you buy an ebook through their website instead of through the device itself, a portion of that sale goes to the store you selected.)
(Shit! Another aside! But it's also important: The focus of any e-reader should rightly be all about the books, and I'll continue talking about the books in a moment, but I do want to take a second to say that one feature built into the Kobo software that I love is Pocket support. A read-it-later service now owned by Mozilla, Pocket lets you save links and articles to the app/service to read when you have more time. Since this is now part of a device that's way more distraction-free than a phone/tablet/computer, I'm actually getting through my backlog of articles when I'm between books. It's pretty incredible. Okay, books...)
Amazon gives Kindle owners who subscribe to its Kindle Unlimited service access to books in a similar manner to how Prime Video works for movies, whereas the Kobo software ties directly into a local library card-carrying member's account for digital checkouts via built-in OverDrive support. I've been using the Libby app on my iPad to check-out books digitally already, but I really hated the reading experience on the iPad itself, so having this capability baked into the Kobo experience was another small draw for me to go Kobo.
When you search for a book in the Kobo Store, you can choose if you want to buy it or see if it's available digitally through your llibrary with OverDrive. If the title is available, you can check it out right then-and-there, or place a digital hold on it which we can all agree is a ridiculous concept, but here we are.
If you click on your library system's offerings, OverDrive will recommend books that are available to check-out right now, and/or popular reads, as well as selections from a few random categories (one category currently listed is "Motherhood: All Love Begins with Them" and features Bird Box, but also Trevor Noah's Born a Crime).
Since the OverDrive integration was one of my most anticipated features, as soon as I got the Clara HD setup, I browsed the "Available Now" section and within seconds was reading something that I never had designs on, John Grisham's The Whistler, because why not?
One reason why not, it turns out, is that The Whistler isn't very good.
The plot, while plausible I suppose, never thickens and remains flat from soup to nuts. Written as though it's the novelization of a straight-to-video (straight-to-Netflix?) legal thriller, all of the major conflicts feel forced and the action lacks urgency.
Adding to that, the characters are pretty one dimensional. Sure, they find themselves in dangerous predicaments, but I never cared what happened to anyone (I don't want to spoil whether or not anyone dies) (but someone does!) (and it's the main character's partner!!). And the dialog...I laughed at points because my eyes could only roll so far in reaction to how people interacted with each other.
The equal opposite reaction to this mess, however, was that I couldn't put it down. My wife would ask what I was reading and would be surprised that I was sticking with it. Sometimes, once you're so far into something, the only way out is through.
With me recently reigniting my love of reading, I had all these questions around what the root of my dissatisfaction with The Whistler really was.
Did I dislike the book because it's just a poorly written book? Was Grisham ever good in the first place? Was I too young at the time to understand if he was or wasn't? Did my years of not reading make me grow out of or away from his brand of evergreen, movie-of-the-week style of writing? Am I overthinking everything?! I think the best answer I can land on for all of these questions is "Probably."
Am I overthinking everything? I'm really trying not to, but I probably am. Does reading one book out of catching a whiff of nostalgia and then the book not living up to a feeling I had when I was 13 even really matter? Not in the least.
Did my years of not reading have an effect? Probably, but here's a platitude I keep going back to in my head that I think you're really going to enjoy: People change. Good one, right?
Was I too young at the... yeah, I probably was. For a lot of things. Whatcha gonna do?
Was Grisham ever a good writer? Probably. I mean, he did successfully shift a few units over the years, and a couple of them made decent movies, but neither of these things excuse how bad I found The Whistler to be.
Now, reading on the Kobo is simply delightful! The display is clear and plenty bright enough, even at 2% brightness, for nighttime reading (or bumped up a bit in direct sunlight), it's just the right size and weight for one-handed reading, and -- much like everything I just wrote, or the Energizer Bunny -- the battery keeps going and going and going... (I probably charge it once a month? Thanks e-ink!).
But I'll end (finally) with this: I certainly don't recommend reading The Whistler, but I would probably read another John Grisham novel if I were, like, bored, or whatever. I'd just hope that I could enjoy it more like I used to and less like I did just now.