Sunday, April 11, 2010

"The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"

Stieg Larsson's novel, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is one of the best books I've ever read, and not just because I love Sweden. It has multiple, very intricate and tightly-woven plot lines that individually would have been good stories, but together constitute sheer genius. The book is part financial thriller: Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist initially is found guilty of libeling a financial magnate. In the wake of this, another captain of industry hires Blomkvist to his remote village to investigate the disappearance of his favorite niece, Harriet, forty years ago. The twists and turns that this investigation yields are nothing less than thrilling. While reading "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," I actually found myself grinning multiple times at Larsson's ingenuity, along the lines of "You go, Stieg! How did you think of that?! That was awesome!"

Blomkvist's path converges with Lisbeth Salander's, a 20-something genius hacker cum sociopath. This heroine has a huge chip on her shoulder, and initially comes across as crude, nasty, anti-social, and generally unlikable. However, like most of Larsson's characters, what you see is not what you get, and I could not help but fall for Salander's street-smarts, self-preservation, and unwillingness to get with the program and conform. I began to sympathize with -- but never pity -- Salander, for her character -- as sad as it is -- defies pity. You get the sense that she could go through literal hell, pick herself up, give the offender the middle finger, and enact her own brand of vigilante justice, as she indeed does in what I will only call the tattoo scene (because I hope that you choose to read this treat). Salander is one of the most moral characters I've ever encountered in literature: she firmly believes in doing the right thing, albeit her own version of doing the right thing, which eschews police in favor of more poetic, swifty justice. Another aspect of Salandar's character that I admire is that in spite of being the victim of brutal sexual assaults, she exudes healthy sexual confidence.

Besides the intriguing, well-crafted and well-written plot, this book (and the sequel, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," which I'm currently reading) is a window into the mind and heart of the deceased Larsson, an investigative journalist not unlike Blomkvist, who spent much of his career exposing the Swedish Nazi party and advocating for women's issues. This interest in women, especially violence and abuse of women, comes up repeatedly in Larsson's books, either directly in the plot, or in the random facts that open the chapters of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," like "X percent of Swedish women have been caused bodily harm by a partner." I heard a podcast with the American editor of Larsson's trilogy, who said to the best of his knowledge, the facts are accurate.

I want to tell you that I have never had an adrenaline reaction like I had reading "The Girl..." I distinctly remember feeling like hell from my Lyme Disease pain after going to a museum exhibit with my in-laws for a couple of hours. I came home, ate lunch, got into my pajamas, and intended to read for 15 minutes before sleeping for the rest of the afternoon. I hit one of climaxes of the novel much earlier than I anticipated. When I became aware of my body, I realized that I had arched my back up off the bed and rigidly held my arms still. My mouth was dry as a bone, my tongue glued to the roof of my mouth. My heart beat so hard I could feel it pounding in my chest. So much for sleep that afternoon; I just read another 50 pages.

I should give fair warning that "The Girl..." has brutal violence, but I never thought that it was gratuitous. The violent and non-violent tension throughout the book meant that I should not have picked it up after 8:00 p.m. to ensure that I could get to bed on time; the excellent, addictive nature of this narrative ensured that that never happened.

Today, I went to see the Swedish film version of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." I heard somewhere that there was an English version in the works, but haven't confirmed this. The concession guy's condescending attitude when hearing which movie a few of us were going to see made me think I was heading for suckville, but I can only guess he's not a fan of the books. I am so fond of the characters, I think I was destined to like the movie because the characters felt genuine. Blomkvist is as every-mannish and non-judgmental as I imagined him to be; Salander was as contemptible/sympathetic as she was in the book.

However, I found it irresponsible and annoying that the film's writers went so far in hinting at the genesis of All The Evil -- the event, or events, that were the tipping point in Salander's psychopathy. The first book of the trilogy shows you the aftermath of All The Evil; presumably, the precipitating factors emerge during "The Girl Who Played With Fire" and the third and final book, "The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest," which will debut in the U.S. on May 25. Yay! This spoiler only helped the movie a little by trying to shed light on the origin of Salander's mental health problems (to put it diplomatically), but mostly succeeded in just annoying me.

I am sad that Larsson passed away, so will not be gracing our world with any more excellent novels, but I'm grateful to him for handing in three excellent manuscripts before he died.

Ratings: book, 5 stars; film, 3 stars.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Worst, And Best, Of Humanity

I have been snowed under by Passover, so sorry for not posting. I've had a couple of experiences lately that are completely juxtaposed that I wanted to share. I always believe in delivering bad news first, so we'll start there.

I was working out at the gym when I spotted a 30-something year old man wearing a t-shirt that caught my eye. It said, verbatim: "Yes, I have lots of spare change, you homeless piece of shit. Thanks for asking." The bottom of the shirt depicted a pile of change. I was astounded that someone would consider designing, producing, and selling such a vicious shirt -- let alone wearing it. I don't exaggerate when I say that I would rather be naked than wear something that mean, and I don't have a beach-ready body, to say the least. I was stunned by that shirt, and walked away shaking my head. The gym's manager was exiting his office and said to me, "Is everything ok?" I told him to go read the shirt on the guy working out on the Arc Trainer. Later he said, "Next time I see that guy I'm going to say something to him about it."

I left the gym with that shirt on my mind, feeling bad for whatever exists in humans that would allow someone to feel ok propagating that message. It's easy for me to start feeling crummy about the whole human race when I encounter people like that, so I'm glad I had the following experience a few days later:

If you don't live in a big city you might not know that some homeless people ride the buses all day to give them air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. So, when I got on the D2 bus to head home, I wasn't surprised to see a homeless woman with terrible cataracts that I often see on that route. She must have said something to the bus driver about being hungry, and I started paying attention when the driver offered the woman an ice-cold bottle of water and a quart-size ziplock bag full of trail mix. The following exchange ensued:

Woman: "I don't want to take your lunch."
Driver: "You aren't. I already ate my lunch -- two tuna sandwiches!"
Woman: "Than what is this food? Am I taking your snack?"
Driver: "I always carry a snack and a bottle of water in case I see any of my homeless brothers and sisters and they're hungry or thirsty. I figure that it's my duty to take care of my fellow man."

I sat back watching this, stunned. In fact, tears are overflowing from my eyes right now. It's so rare to see such kindness in motion, especially the premeditated kind. This man goes to work every day with a meal for someone else. Wow.

I debated the rest of the bus ride home about whether to say something to the driver on my way out. I didn't want to embarrass either the homeless woman or him, but I felt so strongly, I couldn't help myself. I struck a balance by leaning over to him as I was getting off at my stop and said quietly, "I saw that interaction when you gave away your food. You are truly awesome, and I so admire you." He said, "Thank you. You're awesome too. Thank you for riding my bus today."

The interaction on the bus challenged me to think critically about what I actually do and what I should do to make the world a better place and take care of my fellow brothers and sisters. I donate money to charities that serve the homeless, but I'm considering buying a box of granola bars from Costco and carrying them in Kacy's dog-walking bag, where I keep spare bags, my iPod, treats, etc. I encounter homeless people several times a week who ask me for money or food, but I don't carry money when I walk the dog, nor do I feel sanguine about giving money to random people on the street.

The bus driver helped many more people that day than the homeless woman he fed. He helped me, and anyone else on board paying attention, by showing me humankind at its best. He gives service in a very tangible way, with a humble bearing, and an open heart. In a way, he helped restore my faith in humanity.

It took me two days to type this post.