Thursday, December 29, 2011

Good American mystery writing????

A Cold Day for Murder (Kate Shugak, #1)A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Having started my mystery/detective reading with the Scandanavians has (I'm afraid) set me up for disappointment as I now attempt some Americans. I didn't hate this book but, to give a sense of my overall engagement, I actually couldn't remember if I had finished it.

Overall I do like the Kate Shugak character--strong female, enigmatic, non-conforming--but at times the novel felt more like a trite romance novel than a mystery. While it had a few nods to the deeper issues of discrimination of the Aleut tribe, none are satisfyingly explored.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Just Good-E-nough: The tie the BINDS

The Tie That BindsThe Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not my favorite Haruf novel (see Plainsong and Eventide) but often compelling although also quite depressing. I don't mind depressing yet struggle when the depressing stuff happens even before I can care about the characters and then just continues throughout. Still an interesting narrative structure with a first-person account from one of the main characters, Sanders Roscoe; also, innovative while also frustratingly the mystery introduced at the beginning of the novel is not fully explained until the very end (though it's fairly easy to guess). I suppose that's Haruf's point that you can't fully understand a person's life, in this case Edith Goodnough, until you experience all the details. As the narrator says about trying to understand Edith's actions and lack of action, "well, that was their business, because when you know people all your life you try to understand how it is for them. What you can't understand you just accept."

When all is said and done the theme and title of the book, "The tie that binds," slams you like a sledge hammer--bind indeed. The reader is left to decide if Edith was quite GoodEnough in the end.

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Finally: A Room with a View (the book)

A Room With a ViewA Room With a View by E.M. Forster

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book, even more than I thought I would. I've seen the film a half dozen times over the years; it was actually the first film Alison and I watched together. I think she had borrowed it from her father so I could see it. I can still see the kitchen/living room area in the on-campus BYU housing: Heritage Halls. Her building, Bowen Hall, was actually torn down this last year--many good memories at Bowen. And it was significant that Alison wanted me to see this film, a story about Lucy Honeychurch, a woman engaged to marry a man who did not know her, who saw her as a painting to adore. Yet a tall order to live up to George, the young man who continues to pursue Lucy even when she is engaged, proclaiming his belief in love and beauty.

So I already knew that I would enjoy the story, but didn't realize how much philosophical depth the book would convey. I should have known having read Forster's "A Passage to India" some years ago. The center of this depth is George's father, the aptly named Mr. Emerson.

When Freddy (Lucy's brother) and Mr. Beebe (the reverend) go to meet the Emerson's, Freddy impetuously asks them to have a "bathe" (i.e. swim in the pond) which leads to Mr. Beebe giving a dig to Mr. Emerson who has declared that the sexes are equal. To which Mr. Emerson replies, "I tell you that they shall be...I tell you they shall be comrades." Then Beebe asks if we are to raise them (women) to our level and Mr. Emerson continues his defense but raises it to a philosophical argument larger than gender: "The Garden of Eden which you place in the past, is really yet to come. We shall enter it when we no longer despise our bodies." In one fell swoop he undermines literal religious ideology, gender stereotypes and the western Cartesian dualism of mind and body.

Of course this exchange and others sets up George's critique of Lucy's engagement to Cecil Vyse as he declares that Cecil does not see her as a woman, in fact is incapable of knowing a woman. And then these words Lucy repurposes later in order to get out of the engagement. Near the end Mr. Emerson is the "saint" who understands Lucy's troubles and helps her follow truth (I can hear some of today's feminists disparaging how the Truth is brought to Lucy through the Emerson men--it was the turn of the century though) and finally admit to her love for George.

With a focus on Mr. Emerson the book is as much a love story as a philosophical declaration of the goodness of the body, of the fraud of the western duality of mind and body. As Mr. Emerson declares to Lucy in both the film and book, "You love the boy body and soul."

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Cities: An almost satisfying end to the Border Trilogy

Cities of the PlainCities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found myself at home again in the life of a young romantic cowboy (John Grady Cole) after having read both "All the pretty horses" and "The Crossing" some years ago. While I do not think this ending-trilogy-novel is as good as the first two, it still did not disappoint...well, until the last 20 pages. Three key scenes will stick with me: John insisting on stopping to help a truckload of Mexicans with their blown out tire; a vicious tracking and roping (yes, roping, where one dog is split in half) of wild dogs that are killing the cattle, ultimately leading to John returning to the scene to recover the puppies left without a mother; John's stylized and ritualized (think Tarantino) knife fight with the pimp (though I won't want to remember this last one).

But I also, surely to the chagrin of many high-brow reviewers, fell for John and his young epileptic Mexican whore (a word I do not use lightly, but is necessary), Magdalena. That's right I did; I read for plot, wanting badly for John to be able to bring her back to the cabin he had fixed up all the while knowing that there was no way in hell that either character, in the hands of McCarthy, were going to make it through alive.

I think the novel unravels at the end because it's supposed to be, ultimately, about Billy Parham, the young boy of "The Crossing" who beautifully and paradoxically harnesses a she-wolf (one of the only dynamic female characters in the trilogy according to one critic) in order to take her back across the border to the mountains of Mexico. Billy's life, who is now older in "Cities...", is supposed to make us to reflect over the entire trilogy and this novel ends with a homeless Billy and 20 pages of ontological philosophy spewed by a fellow homeless Mexican. But McCarthy let's this larger trilogy-ending-move escape him as the reader cares much more about John and his romantic refusal to let the violence (also witnessed in "All the Pretty horses") the old world Mexico derail his pursuit of what *should* be. Because of this I tend to agree with Ruth Gray in her Yale Review of books:

"Other than an esoteric recounting of a dream-within-a-dream at the end of the novel, McCarthy seems to have abandoned the story-telling project altogether...But after providing so much for us to ponder on our previous journeys through his literary world, McCarthy leaves us with little more than an entertaining story."

I might not take it quite this far, it's still more than a merely entertaining story; yet somewhere the wheels come off near the end. It is a shame that the book and the trilogy do not end with John dying in Billy's arms; instead McCarthy preserves the relic of the cowboy seeing Billy to old life and hitting us upside the head with a philosophical treatise.

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpyTinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's been on my bookshelves for almost 20yrs. Guess it's time to read it--serendipitously it looks like a new movie based on book is about to come out.

I could never quite get full-on into this book. Some sections really engaged me and I thought it was going to work for me, but it was tenuous and I'd lose it for 20 or so pages. Too cerebral? Too at a distance? Too much assumed knowledge about the British spy world? I don't know for sure.

Still, as with the other le Carre I've read you get much more than a mere spy novel. Take this reflection, near the end of the novel, as Smiley considers on the conspiracy he has helped to uncover:

"Like an actor, he had a sense of the approaching anti-climax before the curtain went up, a sense of great things dwindling to a small, mean end; as death itself seemed small and mean to him after the struggles of his life. He had no sense of conquest that he knew of. His thoughts, as often when he was afraid, concerned people. He had no theories or judgments in particular. He simply wondered how everyone would be affected; and he felt responsible...he wondered if there was any love between human beings that did not rest upon some sort of self-delusion...It worried him that he felt so bankrupt; that whatever intellectual or philosophical precepts he clung to broke down entirely now that he was faced with the human situation" (327).

It kind of reminds me of Eastwood's "Unforgiven" where as we root for the main character to win over his adversaries, the narrative itself pulls the rug out from us, forcing us to see that there are no conquests really, only people. Of course "Unforgiven" is much darker.

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