Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Girl Who Takes An Eye for an Eye -- Lisbeth Salander and Book Review


Photo: from the book's pic on my Goodreads review page

A bit of a letdown after Lagercrantz's excellent previous The Girl in the Spider's Web, his continuation of Stieg Larsson's Millenium series. This one takes a loooooooooong time to get going--more than half the book, I'd say. It's a little dull and plodding; only the faith that it would all mesh explosively at the end kept me going. And that mostly didn't happen, either.

It's extremely dry writing, more so than the already dry Nordic Noir usually is. I don't know if it's the original writing, or the translation, but I think it's the first, because there's only so much spicing up you can do with original material. It's very straightforward, lots of simple sentences, with no feel for its own drama. It's like a book-length newspaper article. It's interesting, but the reader should figure out the twin twist long before the author finally gets there. And because it's so drawn out, the reader should get the minor twin twist long before the author also gets there. There are no surprises here.

It's also very bloodless, though the three women of the story--Salander, a psychopathic baddie she meets in prison (and what the hell was Lisabeth doing there?) and a victim also in that prison--do come away extremely black and blue. Salander actually should've gotten a ton of broken bones, but somehow doesn't. And two characters survive a major stabbing, and they both crawl into the forest and survive. While Salander suffers quite a bit here, Blomkvist sleeps around with almost everyone.

In fact, I would've given this one two stars but for the truly great epilogue--three freakin' pages that save the book and show Salander at her most true form, really being her. By far it's her most honest scene, the Salander we've grown to appreciate and respect. Too bad she's not allowed to be like this at all throughout the book until this point. If you feel like stopping short on this one (and I almost wouldn't blame you), do me and yourself a favor and read the epilogue before you put it down for good. You don't have to read the whole book to fully appreciate it, either.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Accidental Tourist


Photo: from the book's Goodreads page

Smooth as silk novel with such believable characters and life-lessons that it seems like a life parable, which I guess it is. Spot-on writing has no genre to fall back on, so no tropes, no easy scenes or action to pass the pages. Just life, and daily living, making the mundane magical and the ordinary extraordinary. This has always been one of my favorite books, though I haven't read it in over 20 years, and it's only gotten better with age. One of the unique things about it is that there is no villian, exactly, except maybe fate and life itself. A writing teacher will tell you that Sarah is the antagonist, and I suppose on paper she is, but really the biggest obstacle for Macon Leary is Macon himself, which is the whole breathy idea of the book: We are our own worst enemies, as is our inability to adapt and move on. Simultaneously impossible and necessary, moving on is the only way to live, even if it makes living more difficult. Would Macon have done so if Sarah hadn't left him to begin with? No. Would it even be necessary but for what happened to their son? Of course not. But you have to ride the wave, or (as the extended metaphor shows near the end) you have to just ride the plane's turbulence and strap yourself in, because what else can you do? You can't prepare to much or worry to much, or live your life not living your life. If you do, you may turn into a man so afraid of the world that he writes travel books about not experiencing anything, about not leaving your hotel room, or trying new restaurants, or doing anything but what you've got to do for business in that city and then going back home. But life isn't like that, and your idea of what home is may change as well. The entire conceit of The Accidental Tourist is one of the best extended metaphors in all of fiction, and all the novel and writing have to do is just follow the wave it makes.

Anyway, you owe it to yourself to read this one. The movie is good, too, but don't let it stop you from reading this. This is a rare book that you can read 20 years apart and still get as much, if not more, out of it now than you did then. Like a classic movie, this book can be experienced over and over again, and savored like a favorite line or a classic meal. I couldn't effusively praise it enough.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Sunday, September 10, 2017

IT -- Movie Review

Extremely good movie, high on creepiness even if it was low on scares. I'm normally not a fan of movies with child actors, but these guys did not disappoint. One of the better young casts, equal, but not better, than Rob Reiner's Stand by Me, based on King's novella, The Body. Good movie, quite a feat if, like me, you're a big fan of the book, so you know what happens. Faithful adaptation of the book with good new, creepy scenes.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Surrender, New York by Caleb Carr


Photo: Hardcover front, from its Wikipedia page

Alternately good, and bad, well-written, and lazy, erudite, and at times pedantic, this book has got to be the most Jekyll-and-Hyde I've ever read. It really almost defies explanation. Some of the writing almost approaches The Alienist, but this book overall is nowhere near that great book, frustrating because it's the same author, and it's obvious that it could go there, but...

The book opens well enough, I guess, but it takes awhile for the crime to show itself. When it does, it's well-written and atmospheric. You won't think of a mobile home quite the same way again. One Goodreads reviewer hated it, but it's well-done. All of the crime scenes are well-written and thoroughly imagined--one of them perhaps a little too much so, involving a baby, a toilet, and a guy who gets shot 46 times. There's overkill there, and it isn't with the 46 shots. The ending is satisfying; in fact, it works better than it has any right to, but it's a case of been there and done that for me, the main character and one of the cops.

So that's all well and good. What wasn't:

--Normally long books don't bother me. I'm okay with long, leisurely strolls of a book, when it's okay that it sometimes takes circuitous paths. Some Stephen King books are like that. Lots of books 1850-1950 were like that. The Alienist and its sequel are a little like that, though they're tight and well-written a helluva lot more often than they're not. But this one is bloated solely because Caleb Carr falls in love, lazily, with his main character, his sidekick, a young boy who joins them, and a cheetah. (Yes.)  Fact is, with a little editing, the locker-room jiving between Dr. Jones and Dr. Li could've been tolerable. But there's no editing, from the publisher, the writer, or from the characters themselves--and they become sophomoric, boring and an absolute trial. Carr was maybe trying for a bit of 48 Hours-like dialogue here, but Jones and Li aren't Nolte and Murphy, and it's an eye-rolling mess. You don't like them together. You don't like how they talk. You wish they'd shut up and grow up and for God's sake shut up again. Curb some of their painful banter that Carr clearly enjoys and you lop off a good 50, 75 maybe 100 pages. After page 475 or so, I began skipping over it and just looking for the plot points.

--You'd think I was a prude when I say that the sheer number of f-bombs (and similar words) defies belief. I mean, there are hundreds of them, perhaps more, in this almost 600 page book. I'm not kidding when I guess that there's at least, on average, one per page. I'm guessing there are about 750 such bombs, and they're said by two doctors and a young kid. There are so many of them that I kept imagining Annie Wilkes's diatribe against lazy swearing in writing. Her speech perfectly fits this book. There are that many, and by God she may have been right. And I was incredibly happy to see that literally every review I read--from Michael Connelly's very favorable review in the New York Times, to other appreciative reviews, to some scathing Goodreads reviews--they all mention the sheer unbelievable number of obscenities. And we all wondered, How could Caleb Carr not hear them? How could he not notice how many there are, and how bad it is?

--The love interest for the almost 40-year old main character is beautiful, blonde--and 20. (Yes.) Need I say more? Carr's descriptions of their interactions and budding romance simply aren't believable.

--Kudos to bringing to the nation's attention the existence of "throwaway children," which in my job I've seen more often than I'd care to remember. But the (bloated, overlong) plot device of a governor, an Assistent D.A. and various other relevant law enforcement and political figures covering it up because they're afraid it'll make them look bad? It's been a problem since the 80s, and it's already made every state look bad. Simply not believable.

--Long, windy novels work when the narration is folksy and believable, or the characters are very likable. Neither is the case here. So it's not a long, leisurely walk. It's a stumble. When you agree to read a long tome, which Carr clearly likes to write, and that's fine, then you're readily sacrificing the time and you're willing to go along with a narrator, wherever he takes you, which you're aware could be all over the place. But, again, the plot has to be agreeably labyrinthine, which this isn't. Or it has to be agreeably written and smooth and light as a feather, which this isn't. Or the main character and his world have to be very likable, or at least very relatable--and they're not. Frankly, all of the reviewers I read agreed that Dr. Jones isn't all that agreeable a guy. This is bad because a) it makes it even more unbelievable that a beautiful 20-year old would fall for him so quickly, and b) because it's obvious that Jones is a stand-in for Carr himself, so in essence we're not agreeably relating to the author as a person. Makes you feel bad.

And so you might be wondering why I rated it 3 out of 5, which means I liked it. I suppose I would've given it 2 1/2, if I could have, and maybe even 2, but overall the promise of it, and of Carr's potential, kept me going, until I couldn't take Jones and Li anymore and I started skimming. I have to admit that I just read the last 125 pages to see who done it, and to see what happens to Ambyr, to be honest with you. Lucas, too, I suppose, though he was too precocious for me. The last half feels like maybe it was mailed in, though the resolution is written much better than the 100 or so pages before it.

So don't be looking for Carr's earlier, better works, like The Alienist, because you won't find it here. Though this was light years better than the one previous to this, an incredibly long, convoluted, badly-written mess about a forgotten culture in the middle of the German forest, and really one of the more clear Did Not Finish I've ever had. That one wasn't a book to be put aside lightly--it was to be thrown with great force. (Apologies to Dorothy Parker.) Anyway, here's to hoping that Carr goes back to the beginning, and really analyzes why Lazlo's books worked, and his latest hasn't.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

John Adams by David McCullough


Photo: Hardcover book, from its own Goodreads page

Unbelievably thorough and weighty biography that sounds, and probably is, the definitive book of John Adams. It is very concise and dense, and though good, it took me a couple of months to read, which is highly unusual for me. (I can read 750 pages in less than a week, if so moved.) Its density was a hindrance to my own fiction writing, so I had to stop frequently and for long lengths, as I couldn't digest the authoritative tone of the nonfiction and be creative with my own fiction at the same time. I don't pretend to understand it, but it's so.

Adams seems to be the odd man out in the history of the American Independence. We remember Washington, Jefferson and Franklin--who was never president--but we forget John Adams, two-time Vice-President to Washington's President, savior of potential wars between the U.S. and France twice, and Britain once. Maybe he's remembered for defending British soldiers when they fired on a riled-up Boston mob (and he got them acquitted, too), and maybe we remember that he and Jefferson died within hours of each other on July 4th, and the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but we don't remember much else, and maybe we should.

The book is very fair, as it points out his misdeeds and vanities as they occurred, and when he writes or says something ridiculous, McCullough says so. The author also does a tremendous job fleshing out other very important "characters" in these 750 pages, namely Abigail Adams, who was as on top of things politically (if not more so) than were the politicians of the time; Thomas Jefferson, a spendthrift and a clotheshorse who owned slaves but was mostly against slavery, who died very much in debt and who took more pride in his creation of the Declaration and of The University of Virginia than he did his presidency; Benjamin Franklin, who was apparently a pain in the neck for Jefferson and Adams to work with in France, and many others. They are all worthwhile to read about as well.

The writing is straightforward and respectable. McCullough knows the time and its characters and he covers it all. Probably the most compelling is the Jekyll-and-Hyde Thomas Jefferson, so a few random tidbits:

--The vote in Congress took place on July 2, 1776, and the signatures came mostly in the beginning of August. Adams and Jefferson wrote a great deal on July 2nd, and both wrote next to nothing on the 4th. Adams said that July 2nd would live forever in the history of the nation, that is was deserving of fireworks, parades, parties, etc. Really went on a great deal about it. Nothing about the 4th. But in old age, both men swore the vote happened on the 4th, but it didn't. But that's what people remembered, hence the holiday. And of course both died within hours of each other on July 4th.

--Despite writing that all men had the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Thomas Jefferson owned about 200 slaves. All of the Heminges were granted freedom in his will--except for Sally, who he fostered children with. She had to be freed by someone else after he died. His other 200 or so slaves were sold off to other slaveholders after he died.

--Without ever explaining why, Jefferson had all correspondence--hundreds of letters--between he and his wife burned. Shocking loss to history.

--Monticello means "small mountain." Jefferson built this mansion of mansions, and a small community, with slave labor, and he wanted to live there, very antisocially.

--Jefferson came from money and married into more money, but spent so much of it on his paradise on the hill, and on other things, like the best wine and the best furniture and food, that he went hopelessly into debt.

--The Virginia State Lottery was created initially to pay off his debts, but it didn't do very well and when he died, everything had to be sold off, and his debts still piled up.

Anyway, an erudite and engrossing read that may take you some time if you're not used to long biographies, like I'm not. But it may be a quicker read for you if you don't have to put it aside for awhile like I did. A friend of mine read it all in about a week or so. Either way, a remarkable and worthy read, and a very good primer of what good politics and presidents can do. John Adams himself was remarkable for the sage and simple wisdom he espouses--stuff that should be heeded today by those who most need the wisdom. It behooves us to understand it, too. 

The primary one I took away: The President of the United States agrees, in the Oath of Office, to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, not necessarily the United States itself. There is a subtle, and maybe striking, difference. Think about it and see if you agree, but I ask you this: With what has come down the pike in these past few months, what is supposedly being protected, the U.S., or the Constitution? They are not one in the same, and that which supposedly benefits one does not benefit the other.