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Briefly Noted – September 2013

Monthly book reviews in brief from the staff of Prairie Schooner and associates
The Cuckoo's Calling

Vol. 2 Issue 6. September 2013. Ed. James Madison Redd.

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith | Reviewed by Jacqueline H. Harris

What the River Carries by Lisa Knopp | Reviewed by Caitie Leibman

Driving on the Rim by Thomas McGuane (A Short-shrifted Review) | Reviewed by Shane Moritz


 

Robert Galbraith. The Cuckoo’s Calling. Mulholland Books, 2013.

Reviewed by Jacqueline H. Harris

Though undoubtedly the majority of the those who read Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling will do so because they are more interested in J. K. Rowling than the advertised plot of her pseudonymic release, the benefit is that countless new readers who never thought they were interested in fantasy until they read Harry Potter are now adeptly introduced to the genre of detective fiction. Due to the author’s manifest knowledge of the mystery conventions popularized by writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie, The Cuckoo’s Calling delivers the necessary suspense to keep readers asking for more. Private detective Cormoran Strike is a rough, complicated, newly single ex-army police officer with just the right combination of savviness, brutality, bitterness, and emotional baggage. Sleeping on a cot in his office with only one other client and weekly death threats, Strike is in no position to turn down his newest case: a brother who suspects his famed model sister’s suicide—a well-publicized fall to her death from her posh London apartment balcony—was, in fact, cold-blooded murder. Cormoran’s newfound sidekick, a temp secretary aptly named Robin, is both intelligent and independent, a welcome change from simpleminded, star-struck narrators often featured in the detective genre. The story is complicated, nuanced, and features a large cast with characters both well-developed and distinct. Rowling’s deft writing style masterfully handles dialect, dialogue, and description, and despite the novel’s length (over 450 pages) the plot is an intriguing, well-paced page-turner. Though NPR’s Maureen Corrigan found the ending lacking in surprise, readers will find it to be the most satisfying conclusion possible from the ongoing list of suspects and motives. This series debut sets a solid foundation for the author’s future installments.

 

Lisa Knopp. What the River Carries. University of Missouri Press, 2012.

Reviewed by Caitie Leibman

Lisa Knopp layers rich historic and personal detail to create a stunning landscape of thought in her collection What the River Carries. This series of essays remains unified by its mesmerizing gaze on that natural element that has long transfixed the inhabitants of North America. She divides her exploration by river, considering the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Platte in turn.

Most impressive about Knopp is her ability to keep readers afloat in her dense narratives of place. For one, she maintains engagement by threading implication and significance throughout her river histories. The reader learns in a moment that Muscatine, Iowa, once was responsible for a third of the world’s button production, and in the next understands the pressing need to reinvigorate mussel species that have been devastated by industry. This blend of present and past—sometimes distant past, as in the earth’s geologic formation—brings relevance to the hypnotic force of these rivers.

This relevance helps Knopp achieve something truly special with her work: her intimate treatment of these subjects informs a connection to place. And I admire Knopp’s own journey to understand place, as in the way she reimagines her “bland, flat … unstoried, unsung” impression of the Platte (155): she writes that as her own work began to find its voice in essay, she appreciated that the Platte shaped itself with braided streams as she braided ideas on the page. As she frankly recounts her river relationships, Knopp allows readers to consider their own.

The work evokes so many scenes of the American consciousness—the adventures of Lewis and Clark, native tribal gatherings, river bluffs at a stream’s bend, fishing, camping, driving—a reader can’t help but flow along with Knopp on this thoughtful journey.

 

Thomas McGuane. Driving on the Rim. Knopf, 2010. (A Short-shrifted Review)

Reviewed by Shane Moritz

Berl Pickett is the socially-impotent, sexually-active country doctor in Thomas McGuane's tenth novel, from 2010, Driving on the Rim. Though the novel could use some radials (or narrative traction), it's still a delightfully linguistic thrill-ride from an American giant.

“Acknowledging that there is a difference between being naïve and being innocent, I will say that I was entirely naïve,” Berl says, commencing to narrate his tale in a disorderly fashion. We like where Berl is taking us, but never sure of the conditions, or whether this route is best (again, the car needs tires!). Readers hip to McGuane's customary cynics, may need to adjust their spectacles: Berl's bright, but he's a bit of a bumpkin, easily the most unhip of McGuane anti-heroes. Not a charmless attribute by any means, as many of his female counterparts will attest.

However, the novel may contain too many females, too many males, and too many dogs and cats for that matter. I don't recall Middlemarch ever having this many characters. Cowboys, silver-tongued crash pilots, overeducated nudniks, comely hot dog vendors and saucy salsa instructors are just a few of the identities that cross Berl's path. For much of the novel, Berl's medical practice is the window into this colorful community, but also the door that his associates show him when he's accused of neglecting an ex-lover in her suicide. The sprawling cast causes the potentially gripping plot to lose some of its hold.

But McGuane readers were never high on plot to begin with. The drollery, in the vein of Twain, consistently sparkles. Mood stabilizing sentences tend to hide what can otherwise be a bumpy ride. And his trademark wry humor abounds. On Berl's aversion to sports, particularly basketball: “It disturbed me to even watch them, where fans huddled to watch two groups mob each other in their underwear.”

“McGuane is a giant in heart and body, and where are the giants anymore?” Barry Hannah, the late, great prose-pervert genius, wrote thirty years ago. It's now 2013 and this giant is still fit, his heart is strong, I heartily recommend all his great books.

 


Jacqueline H. Harris is a Ph.D. candidate in nineteenth-century British literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She specializes in children’s and coming-of-age literature and has earned certifications in Women’s & Gender Studies and Nineteenth-Century Interdisciplinary Studies. Caitie Leibman teaches English and coaches competitive speech at Doane College. She is a Ph.D. student in composition and rhetoric at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she also holds an M.A. in creative writing. Shane Moritz studied writing at Northern Arizona University and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.


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The editors of Briefly Noted welcome submissions of short reviews from our readers. The series features short reviews of books published in 2012 or 2013; however, we occasionally publish short-shrifted reviews of significant older works under the radar. We're looking for reviews that are punchy and to the point, around 100 to 300 words. Send all submissions to pswebed@unl.edu with “Briefly Noted" in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you in brief!

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