BOOK & BLOG
August 8, 2007
Books of the Week: Robin McKinley, Donald Harstead
I took two books on my recent trip that provided not only good reading, but huge dollops of charm. Robin McKinley is a consistently excellent British writer, and BEAUTY is a wonderful book. Its a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fable, and though its not one of McKinleys strongest books, her weakest is better than most peoples best. Beauty is the plainest of three daughters, her name an anticipation of a condition that never came about. But Beauty, since shes a McKinley heroine, has inner resources. Shes devoted to her family (and theyre just about worthy of such devotion, which is very pleasant). Shes intelligent and shes hardworking, like most McKinley women, and if shes not completely honest with herself, well, shes very young and she grows into her promise.
BEAUTY pretty much follows the lines of the traditional story, and has a satisfying ending like the very best fairy tales. Beast is never described, but left to the imagination, which is the right way to do it.
Donald Harsteads KNOWN DEAD is a completely different read, but nonetheless as satisfying. Harstead writes police procedurals, which makes sense since he was a cop for many years. Harsteads great strength is his relaxed style, which makes excellent writing look easy. Ive never been disappointed by one of his books, which is saying something. Deputy Sheriff Carl Houseman is in his fifties, overweight, a former smoker, and he makes plenty of mistakes. Hes also happily married. Not like a lot of cop protagonists, is he? But Id rather spend time with Houseman than with many sexy divorced hard-drinking guys, and Ill tell you why: he respects women.
Women, in Harsteads books, are treated just like men. There are good women and bad women, smart women and dumb women, and Harstead never objectifies them or reduces them to sexual ciphers. And Harsteads low-key style is deceptively simple, and moments of great tension and great danger pass without the hysterical hype that mars some other books.
KNOWN DEAD is about the shooting of a police officer while hes keeping watch on a pot patch in the woods of Nation County, Iowa. Theres also a dead civilian, and the first assumption is that they shot each other. That proves not to be true, and the resulting confusion, the efforts of different branches of law enforcement to work with each other to some extent, anyway and Housemans determination to bring the true culprit to justice make a fascinating book. Please give at least one of Donald Harsteads books a try. Youll be well rewarded.
Im late writing a Book & Blog this week, so thisll carry over into next week. My husband and I went to Philadelphia for an anniversary trip this past weekend. We had a wonderful time at the King Tut exhibit (our reason for picking Philly), a bus tour, the Rodin Museum, the Liberty Bell, numerous restaurants, City Hall, and (heres the surprise) Eastern State Penitentiary. Dont skip this very old prison in your tour of Philadelphia. We loved it, though we picked a very hot day to go there. You need a moderate day with no rain to walk around the prison. Its truly a haunted place, and Im pretty sure there was an episode of Ghost Hunters filmed there. The idea of being incarcerated in such a place is absolutely terrifying. The theory (when the prison was built in the 1830s) was that all people would eventually repent of their crimes if they were given enough solitude, so thats how the prison was designed; maximum solitude. The prisoners never saw or spoke to each other, and they were let out into individual exercise yards twice a day. Their food was thrust through a little door. Not surprisingly, some of them went crazy.
In its later years, and largely due to extreme overcrowding, this theory of incarceration was abandoned in favor of a communal system in which the prisoners were allowed out of their cells for common activities. Of course, this shared time meant prisoners could be beaten and raped by other prisoners. So in exchange for unending solitude, you were safe; when you could mingle with others and gain some comfort from making friends, you were at great risk.
I tried to imagine which I would pick. What would you do? I like my own company most writers do but I dont know that Id be so fond of myself 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for years. On the other hand, I like to be safe. Hmmmm.
While we were gone, our daughter went with another family to the ASA South World Series in Ft. Worth. The team that invited her to play with them (one of their regular players couldnt go) actually won the tournament, and she kept us posted game by game. So everyone in the resident family had an excellent weekend.
Now back to the workaday world, with the start of school approaching with the speed of a bullet train. Volleyball practice, annual staff meetings, schedule changes . . . and another change in speeds as we segue into the Fall. I remember how anxious I was for school to start when my children were little. My best friend and I would call each other on the first day of school and sing Its the Most Wonderful Time of the Year to each other. Its probably psychological, but I always seem to work faster in the Fall than I do in the Summer. Its probably a holdover from youth, a voice whispering in my ear thats Its Summer, you should be on vacation thats responsible for this quirk.
I love Fall, and Im ready for the click thatll switch me into Fall mode.
© 2009 Charlaine Harris