Friday, July 27, 2012

A good quick read with some problems

The Water's EdgeThe Water's Edge by Karin Fossum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good read but not my favorite of Fossum's. While an interesting exploration of the nature of pedophilia, often the dialog between Sejer and Skarre, the central detectives of the series, feels forced, created merely to further the philosophical debate about pedophilia. For example,

"Why are they mainly men?" Skarre wondered.
"Well...I'm not expert but women are much better at initmacy and emotions than men. What we are dealing with here are men who are not in touch with their own feelings...They try to solve the problem by developing paraphilia. Paraphila means 'to love something else'."

Really? The definition of paraphilia was necessary??

With too many lectures between the two detectives, I actually got much more caught up in the Reinhardt and Kristine, a couple of side characters who happen to find the body of the dead boy. Here we get the rich textured lives of a couple who are unable to communicate. Neither is wholly evil, in my reading, but both are flawed and these flaws are accentuated as they react in opposing ways to the discovery of the body--Kristine brilliantly recalls various details to the detective, but then wants to move on while Reinhardt becomes obsessed about the case, taking pictures the child's body with his cell phone at the scene and then reading every story in the newspapers.

Overall if you are looking for a good quick read (just over 200 pages) this book will work well for most detective fans. But don't expect the brilliance of The Indian Bride.

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Magic with consequences and talking cats--what more could one ask for?

Plain KatePlain Kate by Erin Bow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A dark fairy tale set in medieval times, Plain Kate is a competent and independent girl in the tradition of strong heroines in fantasy novels like Coraline or in historical fiction like Beetle (Midwife's apprentice). The magic in the novel is much more appealing than the standard Harry Potter type where anything goes: as Linay, the witch, explains he can help her escape persecution, but then she must give him her shadow. The key difference in this world is that magic comes at a cost and therefore doesn't exist somewhere high in the sky unattached to human desire and pain. Magic here is about choices with consequences.

And we get a talking cat, again very similar to Gaiman's black cat in Coraline--both cats are persnickety and blunt and, importantly, still cats instead of simply a human with fur. A great example: when Kate announces that the Roamers, those who gave her safe passage, have turned on her and are going to kill her, the cat, Taggle, responds, “Who? What? And would you please stop that muskrat!” Taggle certainly cares about Kate, but is still ultimately a fierce carnivorous cat.

A wonderful quest story which satisfyingly ends with heartache and surprises.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

A book on the darker arts of writing

The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, ArtThe Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More literary and less personal than I thought it would be and she does focus a lot on white male authors (Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner etc--though quite a lot on Virginia Wolf) as one goodreads reviewer points out; still a solid read about writing with a different angle than one usually gets (see Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird or Stephen Kings On writing). I found many compelling passages: "One is born not to suffer but to negotiate with suffering, to choose or invent forms to accommodate it" (67) or "writing, for me, is primarily remembering" (140).

This is not, though, a book for those wanting a pick-me-up, a motivational tract with inspirational quotations about writing (except for the predictable "Write your heart out." In fact many of the histories and tidbits are bound to chase a would-be writer away as when she cites Virginia Wolfe who declares that she lived in despair while writing and only found her books tolerable once she had forgotten what she had meant to write.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

The miraculous (and finally redemptive) life of Edgar Mint

The Miracle Life of Edgar MintThe Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There were times when I did not want to finish this novel--not because it dragged, but rather because I couldn't bear any more suffering on the part of its main character named, of course, Edgar Mint.

Edgar's head is run over by a mail truck, he spends months in hospital, and when he finally gets out he is terrorized by Nelson Norman at the Fort Apache William Sherman school for Indians. And this terror is not cutesy as the name, Nelson Norman, would suggest: it is, rather, the literal shit-eating, hot wire, sadistic version. There are some emotional reprieves for the reader as Edgar makes some meaning of his misfortunes by typing everything out on his Hermes Jubilee typewriter and makes one friend, Cecil, who always sucks on dum-dum suckers and comes from an Indian heritage which still knows about the land and arrows and hunting.

Udall's craft is certainly reminiscent of John Irving--the sweeping grand structure, the curious characters (e.g. Barry the doctor who "saves" Edgar bizarrely comes in and out of Edgar's life and Art, a wheelchair-ridden old man and fellow patient, who cherishes each letter Edgar sends him until they meet again), and the journey of a boy into manhood reminded me of both The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Yet the redemption in the last few chapters broke me open completely, surpassing anything I'd felt for John Irving character.

Maybe this blissful redemption is connected to my older years, my own yearning for redemption from and because of the painful events in life or maybe Udall simply takes the reader further into the depths of anguish before offering some redemption or perhaps, more simply, the beautiful redemption caught me off guard. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, finishing the last few pages of this novel is singed in my memory. And it wasn't only the emotional redemption, but also a rational and insightful redemption as Edgar reflects on his relationship with God, he says they are at a "stand still": "I will keep my sins to myself. I have learned to accept them as my own, and there is some small comfort in that" (419).

I can't imagine much better from a character, for that matter.

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