Time watching movies or online is well-spent. But time spent reading books is better-spent, and much, much harder to come by. Anytime can be movie time, or internet time. Reading time requires specific circumstances. Peace and quiet in a well-lit cozy place, that is. I know I won’t always have so many hours of quietude to myself. I’ve been trying to relish my reading time as much as I can. If my movie intake suffers, that’s alright. Keeping up with an influx of magazines takes hours out of the day. That’s time well-spent. I’m keeping up on my books as well…
I’d read a little Terry Pratchett a long time ago. The Carpet People, I believe it was, a book for children. Which was quite charming. Pratchett is rather acclaimed and prolific on the fantasy scene, and his Discworld series is very popular. There are closing in on forty of them, and they all take place on some kind of mythical flat-earth. The one I stumbled upon, Making Money, is a fairly recent entry and a direct sequel to something that’s come before, from what I could gather. I wouldn’t say it’s the most exciting fantasy novel I’ve ever touched – it deals with banking and the practicality of introducing paper currency in place of the goldish type. But I have to praise Pratchett’s style. He shares the absurd humor of Douglas Adams, always a welcome element. The funniness carries the book over the essentially boring bits about economy and gold-minting. Plus, there are Golems.
On a less fun note, I pulled out of the same donation bin (that’s how I like to acquire stuff) Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club. In which Karr vividly recollects an unenviable childhood dominated by an unstable, alcoholic mother. Karr’s father comes off throughout as a sympathetic, loving figure, while the mother is frequently terrifying. It’s not until the end that we learn the dramatic roots of her extreme unhappiness. There’s the parental drinking and fighting, a decrepit grandmother who’s a horror in her own right, dizzying swings from poverty to material comfort and a few traumatic episodes of violence and sexual abuse. All together those things could make for a mawkish poor-me whine-fest, but Karr keeps her head. She makes no bones about having been a mean, unpleasant child, and she brushes off any temptation to feel sorry for herself. Sure, there were some hard times but there were also plenty of good memories and love. The memoir ends on a healing note, when mother faces her demons and it seems like everybody’s going to settle down and be ok. Karr has since published another memoir, chronicling her own adult alcoholism and poor life choices, which just shows how a bad legacy, no matter how well or perceptively examined, carries on from one life to another.
Also somewhat downbeat, Starting Out in the Evening, by Brian Morton. A work I had never heard of and picked up out of a clearance bin on impulse. The term elegiac comes to mind. Morton isn’t the most graceful writer, and at first I was tempted to put the book down. But plain language is no impediment to a good story (as we’ll talk about more shortly) and Morton explores the terrain of aging poignantly. The story revolves around three figures representing three stages of life; a geriatric novelist contemplating his own faded legacy, an upstart grad student intent on refurbishing that legacy, and the writer’s middle aged daughter still trying to find her own place in life. The simplicity of Morton’s writing at first makes the story seem prosaic, but by the end it has become moving. The old writer faces the indignity of his age, and his impending death. The star struck young thing becomes disillusioned when faced with her hero’s evident decrepitude. And the daughter wonders what she’s achieved and where she’s going. It’s a bit sad, but also in a way hopeful. Each character comes to terms with his or her stage of life’s journey, and it ties together to illustrate the inevitable trajectories we all must make. The book jacket promises “Now a Major Motion Picture”. May not sound like a welcoming take-off point for a movie, but I’ve added it to my future watching list.
Now for the big event. I’ve been hearing louder and louder buzz about the whole Stieg Larsson phenomenon. Of course, who hasn’t seen promos for the upcoming Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movie. I just had to know what all the fuss was about. So I bought the book. The book has problems. There are about 200 pages of deathly boring exposition before the plot clicks into gear. There are elaborate introductions for superfluous characters. Unnecessary detail about the exact dimensions of Lisbeth’s hard drive, who lives in which house across from who, and Swedish guardianship law. Larsson also sees fit to include every instance when a character takes a shower or eats a disgusting-sounding liver and pickle sandwich. Then, the story barrels on for hundreds of pages beyond its natural stopping point (the big reveal and showdown, natch) meticulously tying up all the less compelling running subplots. Also, Larsson can’t really write. His prose is workmanlike, with a flair for dramatically unpoetic descriptions, awkward blocks of exposition between bouts of action, and dialogue that’s neither realistic nor artfully stylized. Nevertheless, underneath these technical shortcomings is a compelling thriller. After the first dull few chapters, I became completely engrossed. You’ve doubtless heard the bare bones of it; there’s a mystery, corruption, family psychodrama, and much touted gruesome violence. It’s in the case of the violence that the loudest criticism of Larsson’s work has come. The original Swedish title of the novel was Men Who Hate Women, and that about sums up Larsson’s main theme. Critics have claimed that Larsson exploited violence against women by making an entertainment of it, all under the pretense of deploring it. But he really does deplore it. Despite the bone-dry tone, the message comes through. Larsson’s books have caught on in a sea of blockheaded, similarly violent thrillers because he had a mission besides telling an exciting story in which girls and boys get raped a lot. He’s righteously pissed-off about the prevalence of cruelty and corruption that persists in a nominally civilized society. Besides, it’s an unfair criticism in the first place. Female victimhood and male depravity are the backbone of the mystery/thriller genre. Dead women are the engine of a million detective stories, and it’s only Stieg Larsson who brings that unspoken undercurrent into the open and makes it his boldly stated main theme. It’s the first angry feminist murder mystery. Though on the other hand, some feminists would deplore the book’s dour view of womanhood as a state of perpetual victimhood. It’s a condescension to portray women as magnets for constant abuse, they would say. Make of that what you will. It’s a flawed work, but one that’s undeniably struck a chord.