Monday, February 9, 2015

The Round House/ crime fiction

This is on my blog

Dec. 18 The Round House: I cut out this Globe and Mail book review by Candace Fertile on Oct. 27, 2012:

It’s no surprise that The Round House, the 14th novel by acclaimed writer Louise Erdrich, is one of five finalists for the National Book Award (winner to be announced on Nov. 14). This novel continues the complex and sensitive saga of native Americans that Erdrich began with Love Medicine in 1984.

The Round House takes place in 1988 on a reserve in North Dakota. Geraldine Coutts, wife to Antone and mother to 13-year-old Joe, is late coming home one day. Antone and Joe set out to look for her, and they meet up back home only to discover Geraldine in a state of shock, her hands gripping the steering wheel of the family car. She has been brutally assaulted and nearly killed.

Antone is a tribal court judge and believes he must put his faith in the judicial system. But which one? Who has jurisdiction? The tangle of laws governing the lives of the Ojibwa on the reserve (or even determining who is Ojibwa) do not serve Geraldine. Joe wishes he could do something to help his mother who has completely withdrawn, spending time in bed, barely eating and rarely talking.

Joe wants more direct action than his father. And so over the summer, he tries to find out who hurt his mother and to devise a punishment. Like all Erdrich’s novels, this one is concerned with the challenges facing native Americans, and it touches on many aspects of life, including racism, family, friends, language, sex, violence and love. As befits its 13-year-old narrator, the novel is interlaced with references to popular culture and food, the focus of Joe and his three friends. They are captivated by Star Trek, especially The Next Generation. They want to be Worf. As Joe notes, “Worf’s solution to any problem was to attack.” The boys can make sandwiches disappear as if they were in a magic show, and they are tentatively exploring their growing sexuality. Every aspect of the novel is utterly realistic. Erdrich does not do romanticism or sentimentality. What she does is unflinching realism.

The novel works wonderfully both as social commentary and as a mystery, but over all it is literary fiction at its best. The Round House has echoes of characters from other Erdrich novels, such as the Kashpaw and Nanapush families. Vehicles are important, as is the imagery of fire. And worked into the fabric of the novel is historical perspective and information. Because of Antone’s work, Joe has access to legal books, which he devours, and he gives snippets of the landmark decisions that affect native-American life.

One of the central twists in the novel is that an Ojibwa family adopts a white baby girl named Linda because her parents reject her. She appears deformed when born, and the parents, Grace and George Lark, decide to let her die. Joe describes the Larks:

“The Larks were bumbling entrepreneurs and petty thieves, but they were also self-deceived. While their moral standards for the rest of the world were rigid, they were always able to find excuses for their own shortcomings. It is these people really, said my father, small-time hypocrites, who may in special cases be capable of monstrous acts if given the chance.”

Fortunately, an Ojibwa woman working as a night janitor saves the baby, and Linda is raised as an Indian and is loved and protected by her adoptive parents and siblings against the machinations of her biological parents. In Erdrich’s world, family is often composed of the people who take care of a person, and the issue of identity is key to all her novels. Bloodlines are also important to many characters and can cause problems. And, of course, the designation of who is an American Indian has much to do with complicated laws about blood. This novel shows unequivocally how messed up things are.

Erdrich controls the narration exquisitely. Joe has grown up and alludes to his adult life, but the novel is firmly focused on the summer when he tries to save his mother. Love, as Erdrich shows over and over in her work, is a powerful force, but it does not always lead to the right action. As Joe and his friends search for answers, the tumbledown structure called the Round House, once the heart of the Ojibwa community whose cultural practices were outlawed, signals the seismic shifts in the way of life of the people and how assaults on culture are as damaging as, if not more than, assaults on individuals. In many ways The Round House argues that these attacks stem from similar grounds. And that we must all work together to try to prevent more of them.

Candace Fertile teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria.

Crime fiction: I cut out this Globe and Mail article by Margaret Cannon on Oct. 27, 2012

The Vanishing Point

By Val McDermid, HarperCollins, 434 pages, $22.95

This novel, one of McDermid’s best stand-alones, begins with a trek though airport security. Stephanie Harker and her five-year-old ward, Jimmy, are on their way to Disneyland. To get there from London, they have to change planes in Chicago. They dutifully line up, wait, line up again. Stephanie knows that the plate in her leg will set off the alarm, so she tells Jimmy to wait as she goes through the doorway and is whisked aside for a personal inspection. As she is being prodded and questioned, a man in a security uniform takes Jimmy’s hand and the two walk away. Stephanie screams, tries to run, is restrained and eventually tasered. By the time she convinces airport security that she’s not a criminal, Jimmy is long gone.

The hunt for Jimmy is the tale here, but the clues to his disappearance lie in his and Stephanie’s shared past, and that takes us into the netherworld of international celebrity. Jimmy’s mother was Scarlet Higgins, child of poverty and neglect, who came to fame on a British reality television show. Stephanie was Scarlet’s ghost writer. Together, they sculpted the public persona of Scarlet the Harlot, hard partyer, tough gal. But there is far, far more to Scarlet’s life than anyone, even Stephanie, supposes. This book builds to a climax and there are at least three twists. Just when you think you know what’s coming, it doesn’t.

Salvation of a Saint

By Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith, Minotaur, 336 pages, $28.99

Here is the perfect novel for readers who love puzzle plots from one of Japan’s foremost mystery authors. The detective is physics professor Manabu Yukawa, and the murder, it appears, is impossible. The dead man, Yoshitaka, was murdered with a cup of poisoned coffee. He was about to leave his wife and she is the logical suspect, but she was more than 100 miles away when he died. One Tokyo homicide investigator believes she’s innocent, another is convinced of her guilt. Prof. Yukawa must use all his talents to sort the clues and find the truth.

Invisible Murder

By Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis, translated by Tara Chace, Soho, 340 pages, $29.95
This is a superb second novel from the authors of The Boy in the Suitcase. The setting is again Denmark, and the protagonist is the gutsy Red Cross nurse Nina Borg. The background is the ongoing tragedy of the Roma people, the traditional Gypsies, who are an oppressed minority in Eastern Europe and unwanted migrants in the West. This story begins in the ruins of the Soviet period and then moves to an abandoned garage in Copenhagen, where Nina comes upon a group of Roma boys hiding a terrible secret. As with the earlier novel, Kaaberbol and Friis tell a moral tale as well as a mystery.

The Fallen One

By Rick Blechta, Dundurn, 384 pages, $17.95

What if you lost a beloved husband under terrible circumstances, say a fire in your home. You were not there; you were performing in New York at the Metropolitan Opera. If you had been at home, you might have saved him. But you were not there. That’s the beginning of this terrific novel from Toronto’s Rick Blechta. Marta Hendriks cannot stop grieving, but after months of therapy, she is able to resume her singing career. Then, in a Paris bus shelter, she sees her supposedly dead husband. Is he real or the fantasy of a sick mind?

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