Wednesday, November 30, 2011

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST by Stieg Larsson

Lisbeth Salander is wanted for murder and has been shot in the head. Her surgeon, Dr. Jonasson, just wants to save her brain and her life, regardless of what crimes she may have committed. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist, her sometimes friend, sometimes lover, sometimes neither, just wants to expose the corrupt system that has victimized Lisbeth since she was a child. There are more Swedish characters here than I could possibly keep up with, and that wouldn't be such a problem, except that I occasionally got confused as to who was a good guy and who was a bad guy—or gal, as the case may be. The primary bad guys are Lisbeth's brother Niedermann (whose name I word-associated to Neanderthal), who cannot feel physical pain, and the ultra-sleezy psychologist Teleborian. The plot, along with various subplots, conspiracies, and intrigues, builds to a crescendo with Lisbeth's trial, in which the whole hornet's nest is exposed to all parties, right up to the prime minister. This may not be a literary thriller, but it is certainly a gripping one, and a beautifully fluid translated one; there are none of the awkward phrases that so often annoy me in a translation. Realism may not reign supreme here, but at least the two main characters are heroic without being flawless. Lisbeth is amazingly resourceful but manages to antagonize even her supporters at times with her refusal to divulge even the most benign secrets. Mikael's relentless endeavor to clear Lisbeth's reputation and record is sullied slightly by his philandering ways. This book seems to have more female heroines than the previous two, including Mikael's latest paramour, the statuesque Inspector Monica Figuerola, plus Lisbeth's lawyer (and Mikael's sister) Annika Giannini, and Milton Security's Susanne Linder, whose client is the eternally gutsy Erika Berger. Thank heavens it doesn't end in a cliffhanger.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

ILLUMINATION NIGHT by Alice Hoffman


Alice Hoffman seems to like misfits. This book has both an outrageously tall man, Eddie, and a 4-year-old boy, Simon, who is not growing at the normal rate. The little boy's parents are Andre, who restores motorcycles, and Vonny, a potter. Next door, Jody, a headstrong teenager, has moved in with her grandmother, Elizabeth Renny, who has recently acted on her belief that she can fly. Oddly enough, Elizabeth's and Jody's cohabitation is the best thing that could have happened to either of them. Jody develops a crush on Andre, of which he's fully aware, and Vonny develops agoraphobia and is afraid to leave her house. Vonny's disorder is a mixed bag for Andre, as he can't decide whether to bask in Vonny's dependence on him or to make an effort to help her overcome it. It also has mixed results with Simon, who suddenly starts getting taller as Vonny has to relinquish some of her over-protectiveness. After toying with a series of boys her own age in order to make Andre jealous, Jody falls for "the giant," who avoids being seen during the daytime. His life has some parallels, in fact, with Vonny's, as they are both restricted in their contact with the outside world but due to very different types of fear. A tragedy befalls this island community, and Simon, who has been heretofore shielded from the word "death," suddenly has to bear a very heavy burden of guilt and grief, especially for such a young child. I would say, though, that fear—of the dark, of ridicule, of abandonment—is the predominant theme here. There are many ways to deal with it—repress it, outgrow it, or seek help to conquer it.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

SECOND NATURE by Alice Hoffman



A story of a boy raised by wolves? Only Alice Hoffman can pull that off. And the story is really about the man after he rejoins civilization. Uncommunicative and possibly violent, Stephen is handcuffed for his trip from the hospital's psych ward to the state mental hospital, when Robin impulsively hoodwinks his guards and whisks him to her home. Word slowly leaks out about the man, and guess who gets the blame when a teenage girl turns up dead, her throat neatly slit? In the meantime, though, Robin has fallen in love with him. Now Stephen is torn between his love/lust for Robin and his desperate need to get back into the wild. This would be a much better book if it weren't so unfailingly predictable, but I was still curious enough to find out how things would ultimately play out. My take on this was that we all tend to fear that which we don't understand, and even the strongest relationship is susceptible to doubt and mistrust when the pressures and prejudices of the outside world start closing in.

Monday, November 21, 2011

FORTUNE'S DAUGHTER by Alice Hoffman



Lila is reading tea leaves for a living when she meets Rae, a single mother-to-be. Rae is about the age that Lila's daughter would be and awakens Lila's desire to meet the daughter she gave up for adoption. Now Lila is married to Richard, who is unaware of the daughter and is frustrated and hurt by Lila's sudden mysterious trip back east. Meanwhile, Rae needs a birthing coach to stand in for her double-crossing boyfriend Jessup, and Richard may as well step in while Lila is gone. There's plenty of melodrama to go around, and eventually it seems that everyone comes full circle. I enjoyed reading this book, but I don't think it really breaks any new ground. Plus, both women annoyed me somewhat. Lila is keeping a secret from her husband for no reason that I can see. He already knows that she attempted suicide, and I think that's more shameful than bearing a child at 18 years old. And Rae repeatedly sacrifices her self-respect to let Jessup back into her life. I wonder if the author intended to depict these women as courageous, since they appear to me to be succumbing to their respective weaknesses.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

THE MASTER by Colm Toibin

The term "Jamesian" has been used to refer to anything related to William James, philosopher/psychologist, or to things related to his brother, author Henry James. I would have liked Toibin to have explored more fully the relationship between these two brilliant men, but instead he focused on Henry James and his other relationships. He depicts James as a conflicted homosexual who attracts women as well, one of whom may have committed suicide over him. Toibin writes in a Jamesian style here—stilted and formal. In fact, I think the book would have been more effective if it had been written in first person. However, the third person narrative has one distinct advantage: it further imitates James's style by using real people—in this case, Henry James himself—as inspiration for fiction. Several of James's friends recognized themselves in his novels and were more likely to feel flattered than offended, even if their doppelganger was an unsavory character. To me, though, this period in James's life, between the huge failure of his play Guy Domville and the publishing of his novels The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, is quite boring. Toibin does describe the events that James may have seized for the plots of his later novels, but nothing much at all happened in this time period, except that he bought an old house in Rye, where his drunken staff members embarrassed him in front of his occasional guests. In fact, the major events, particularly the deaths of friends and family, did not occur during this time period and are presented as retrospective ruminations, triggered by various accusations and implications. Henry James seemed to have a lot of friends and was supposed to have been very good company, but his reticence with regard to his relationships, both male and female, made him seem standoffish, self-centered, and quite dull.

Monday, November 14, 2011

AUTHOR, AUTHOR by David Lodge



I'm not a huge fan of Henry James, but David Lodge does a fair job of channeling him in this somewhat fictionalized bio, written in a formal, Jamesian style. It focuses mainly on two aspects of James's life—his failed attempts as a playwright and his friendship with George Du Maurier, a more successful but less gifted writer. James struggled between good will toward his friend and jealousy of Du Maurier's popularity. He could never have imagined that The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove would be made into major motion pictures later in the twentieth century. Lodge characterizes James as a celibate homosexual, married to his art, who never realized commercial success during his lifetime. On the other hand, although Du Maurier created the character Svengali whose name has entered the lexicon, his work has not stood the test of time, but his granddaughter Daphne's has. There are several other well-known writers of the period, including Edith Wharton, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and H.G. Wells, who peripherally figure into James' life. It was especially interesting to me, though, that Du Maurier's grandchildren by his daughter Sylvia were the boys who inspired J.M. Barrie to write Peter Pan. Also, James's agent's daughter married Rudyard Kipling. What a small, interconnected, and talented world Henry James inhabited.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand



Louis Zamperini was a juvenile delinquent in Torrance, California, before he discovered running, at the behest of his track-star brother, in the 1930s. Louie gained some notoriety as an Olympic athlete and then became a bombardier in the Pacific during WWII. His plane went down some 2000 miles east of Japan, and he and the pilot survived 47 days of starvation, thirst, exposure, and shark attacks in a poorly equipped, bullet-ridden inflatable raft. Louie's resourcefulness in creating mischief was channeled toward survival—capturing food and rainwater, dodging bullets, warding off sharks—as they drifted toward land. Impossible as it may seem, the worst was yet to come. The Japanese had a reputation for extreme brutality in the treatment of POWs, and the truth exceeded even the most horrible rumors. Louie's defiance did not serve him well in the various prison camps where he landed, but the conditions were horrific and the beatings severe for all the POWs there. Reading page after page of this became somewhat of a challenge for me, as Louie's situation became more and more unimaginably gruesome. His survival is, of course, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, but I was even more amazed at the ability of Louie's body to recover from so much physical abuse, some of which was self-inflicted. The photos, particularly those of Louie's crew and friends who did not survive, are gems that I lingered over, contemplating who they were and how their families suffered unfathomable grief and in many cases the torturous uncertainty that accompanied the disappearance of a loved one whose fate and whereabouts were unknown.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

THE SUBMISSION by Amy Waldman




A hand-picked jury is debating the merits of the various submissions to a design contest for a memorial at ground zero. The jury does not know the identities of the entrants. Claire, whose husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks, lobbies for "the garden" and wins over the majority. The jurists are thrown into a tailspin, however, when they learn that the winner's name is Mohammed Khan—obviously a Muslim. Someone leaks this juicy tidbit to the press before the official announcement, and political bedlam ensues. The author treats this controversy with the seriousness that it deserves and posits two sides to a moral dilemma with no perfect solution. My favorite line is the book is this quotation from a music executive: "'It just makes me uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable makes me even more uncomfortable.'" This perfectly describes my feeling about the situation. We all love that American stands for freedom, but our gut feeling is that having a Muslim-built memorial for a site destroyed by Quran-quoting terrorists is a recipe for disaster. Is the memorial really a martyr's paradise? Such was not Khan's intent, but his motives are not clear to the public, because he's not talking. Born in Virginia, he's indignant that his lineage has caused his allegiance to be called into question. From the public's perspective, he's an enigma, but he's really just too proud to buckle to the scrutiny he deems unfair. Claire, for all her high-minded initial support of Khan, begins to vacillate when a loathsome reporter plants a seed of doubt about Khan's political leanings. The reporter's lack of ethics and her success in duping Claire made me angry. I wanted there to be some non-Muslim who supported him unequivocally. Alas, Khan's egotism and intransigence ensure that even American Muslims ultimately abandon his cause. I love the title and all of its possible meanings. There's a comment in the book that Islam is submission, but isn't all religion submission to a higher power? Then there's also submission to public opinion, to emotion, to ambition, to political pressure—all of which come into play here. My only criticism would be that we never get close enough to Claire or Khan to experience their inner turmoil. The author brings focus more to ourselves and our own principles, and how we as a country and as individuals respond to this type of polarizing argument.