July 30, 2009
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Coffee. The single most important, life-giving substance to Stieg Larsson's character, journalist Mikael Blomkvist. I can only assume that offering, making, and drinking coffee is in Sweden what saying "hello" or shaking hands is here in the USofA: Essential to the Social Order!!! Even in the midst of hugely dire straits, in times of both great trouble and jubilant celebration, furious study, thoughtful contemplation, meeting with strangers, or even (most incongruously) dead-smack in the middle of the night after being awakened, putting on a pot is the first thing anyone in this story ever does. I wish I had this book in an electronic format, just so I could do a word count on "coffee"; I have to assume that one word appears in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" upwards of 100,000 times, in a 465-page novel. And with the generally accepted publishing standard of 250 words-per-page bringing the probable word count of this novel to around 116,250, that means that by my estimation, 86% of the words in the book are "coffee." Sounds about right.
Aside from the monofocus on brewing that apparently Essential Nectar of Scandanavia, Stieg Larsson offers up an entertaining, page-turning thriller. And it is a thriller, like most other thrillers -- Silence of the Lambs, Jurassic Park, et al. I guess I went into this book thinking it would somehow redefine the page-turner, based on all the accolades it was being afforded, but in the end I have to remind myself that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes an acclaimed, fast-paced crime novel is just that. It will almost certainly be a movie within minutes.
And on those simple grounds the book succeeds quite well. I thought the beginning of the story dragged a bit, but the middle was furiously paced and impossible to stop reading, while the end was a wild mash-up of about seven different climaxes in succession. I suppose the multiple plotlines and multiple payoffs is part of what distinguishes this book from Grisham/Patterson/Crichton, but it felt a tiny bit overstuffed to me.
At the same time, it was certainly engrossing and "fun" to read from beginning to end. (I put "fun" in quotes because a lot of the "fun" depends on how you feel about graphic violence and torture in your thrillers.) Some of the stylistic issues I took with the novel may or may not be able to be chalked up to the perils of translation (from Swedish by Reg Keeland), and the characters are great. People really go crazy over the brilliant, badass, emotionally-crippled Lisbeth Salander -- the sidekick to journalist Mikael Blomkvist who outshines him in every way -- and to a large extent I can see why. Further, while perhaps too much was made of this, there were some Big(ish) Ideas in this book (on business ethics, journalism, um...tattooing?) that are missing from plenty of other thriller fare, so that is all in this book's favor.
All in all, I enjoyed "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" very much, and it was a perfect plane/vacation "romp." (Again, depending on how you feel about sexual violence in your vacation "romps.") I look forward to the second volume in the trilogy that Stieg Larsson completed before his untimely death -- "The Girl Who Played with Fire," already on order from Amazon -- and I hope that each book builds upon the success of its predecessor such that Vol. 3 will be the best of all, and "Dragon Tattoo" will be relegated to being primarily an entertaining set-up.
July 15, 2009
I don’t know why I was so adverse to reading them; my sister had read all four and friends (or at least people I know on Facebook) extolled their virtues (e.g., girliwenttohighschoolwith is hoping the kids take a long nap today. I want to finish “Breaking Dawn!”). But for whatever reason, I resisted (but not before asking someone last summer how the last book ended; in hindsight, maybe that scratched the itch).
But a couple of weeks ago I was leaving Jewel and the Red Box beckoned me with its promise of easy entertainment for only a dollar and before I knew what was happening, I was throwing the DVD case into my recycled-plastic bag (I’m not a monster). And later that afternoon, when I started watching it, I was filled with that same giddy feeling I used to get in sixth grade when we had somehow -inexplicably and against all odds – gotten one of the new releases from the video store. I don’t know how to put it into words, but it was the same mildly euphoric sensation I had when I watched “Adventures in Babysitting” for the first time. But like any drug, the hit was momentary and by the end of the movie I was bored and conscious that all of its technical skill was just masking a crummy story.
I say all of this because I subsequently got annoyed that all of these young readers (and maybe the books are FANTASTIC; I haven’t read them) had gotten jazzed up over such a mediocre tale. I mean, aren’t vampire stories supposed to have violence? Action? Characters that you care about? Especially because I had spent two semi-sleepless nights reading a genuinely unnerving Young Adult novel, “The Hunger Games.”
“The Hunger Games” takes place in America in the distant future, except that civil war and massive famine have caused the country to be restructured in thirteen districts. As a result, the government requires each district to send two representatives (selected via lottery) to take place in a “Battle Royale” fight to the death that is subsequently televised. The whole thing is broadcast continuously to the nation, serving as a hodge-podge of “Survivor,” “Miss America,” and the Oscars. Rather than give you a blow-by-blow account of what this book is about, I will instead offer this brief list of why it is a better reading choice than “Twilight,” especially for the young women in your life.
- Katniss, the main character, is a bad-ass with a bow and arrow. If a coven of vampires tried to lure her into an abandoned dance studio, she wouldn’t just wander in – she’d have scoped the whole place out the previous twenty-four hours, crouched high in a tree, and then have unloaded bloody hell on them all.
- Remember how I said how Twilight has no action, violence, or characters you care about? That’s because when Stephanie Meyer went to the suspense bank, the teller said, "Oh, sorry, Suzanne Collins just took out a massive withdrawal." Collins allows you to get to know the characters, relate to them, care for them, and then remind you that they are either going to have to kill everyone else or be killed themselves. And she kills off important people! Not just some old guy who might as well have the word"disposable plot device" flashing above his head when he walks on-screen (again, maybe in the book his death was heart-rending. I am a philistine and only watched the movie).
- She deals with teenage chastity in a realistic way. I had read abunch of arguments that "Twilight" was just abstinence-only claptrap glossed up in gothic romance. I don't know if I buy that but I did remember thinking "BORING" during any and all of the Pattinson/Stewart scenes (except the one where he gave her a piggyback ride and Roadrunnered up the mountain. That should have been an eight minute round-the-world montage, in my opinion). While both stories take place in out-of-the-ordinary circumstances, Collins at least has the grace to give Katniss more sophisticated emotions than "Why is he being so mean to me? Argh!" Any relationship Katniss chooses to have would complicate/endanger her life back home. Since she has been stuck in survival mode for so long, her romantic longings seem more like the blossomings they are meant to be, unlike Bella's "somebody thinks I'm special?" sniveling.
In all, "Hunger Games" kicks ass. I hope all the seventh grade girls who have been heaving around Stephanie Meyers oeuvre for the past few years give it a chance. We'll probably see a lot less "Team Edward" t-shirts, and a lot more ladies on the archery course.
July 13, 2009
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This was a tough book to get through. The writing could be mesmerizing; it could also be an arcane slog. Allusions fly by, obscure references pile up, unknown or forgotten historical-literary-political figures wave mysteriously as the prose hurtles past them. Some stuff I knew. Much of it -- well, most of it -- I had no idea. I went fully half the book hoping that "theosophy" would recede into the background from the main plotline before finally succumbing and googling Rudolph Steiner. (I dutifully read the wikipedia entries and poked around on theosophy.org, but a fat lot of good it did me. Try for yourself -- you'll see what I mean. Oof. That's Rudolf Steiner below on the right...whatta charmer!)
At any rate, parts of Humboldt's Gift were very funny, parts were full of keen insight, and parts were written in gorgeous, flowing language. Having not read anything by Saul Bellow before, I didn't have the faintest idea what to expect, and, in terms of pure writing, he didn't disappoint. But whole chunks of the book felt like endless words upon words upon words full of ideas ideas ideas and after awhile it just got to be too much. Too too much.
I complained to my wife over and over that there was never a place to take a break, stick in the old bookmark and call it a night. (I have a moral objection to simply stopping mid-page, mid-paragraph, mid-thought, but with this book I was eventually forced to chuck those delicacies right out the window.) No chapters at all, and barely any section-breaks! You could go three pages just looking for a paragraph, for the love of mercy! It was a lot to handle, and I admit to feeling occasionally overwhelmed, sometimes trapped, eventually antsy.
I would love to read some other Bellow -- living here in Chicago is the prime time to do so, right? -- but I need a good, long, cleansing break before I tackle him again. Maybe after a couple fun, breezy Elmore Leonards I'll feel up to the challenge once more.
ps - thank you, Brendan. You are a gentleman. I'm a better person for having gotten through it in the end.
July 8, 2009
We love you,