Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire

I read the first book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy over the summer, when my mother visited for a week and unwisely brought the book in her carry-on. I hijacked the book whenever we weren’t otherwise occupied with coffees or my host sister’s wedding, without as much thought for whether she might want to read it, and finished the book in six days.

This seems now like the ideal way to read one of Stieg Larsson’s books. My time with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was so limited that I had to push through the dull parts, and later on couldn’t give much thought to, say, the striking similarities between Stieg Larsson and one of the trilogy’s main characters, Mikael Blomkvist. (Since reading the Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissist piece on the Millions I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that this trilogy is kind of like my stock of stories about the noble Peace Corps Volunteer Elena Ruby, out digging wells, teaching English, delivering babies, and saving the world.)

After finishing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo my thoughts on Stieg Larsson as a writer and Lisbeth Salander as a character were mixed, which is basically to say I had some suspicions that the book wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, but that I had read it so quickly I couldn’t put voice to any of my doubts about its quality. I just finished the second book of the trilogy, though, The Girl Who Played with Fire (mailed by my mom – thanks mom!) and having had more time to enjoy, or live with it, its prose, I am now slightly better equipped to voice the things I like and don’t like about the books.

Stieg Larsson is not, to state the obvious, a great master of prose. After about two hundred pages The Girl Who Played with Fire became a pretty interesting, if not gripping, read, but the first two hundred pages went so slowly that I thought I might expire before reaching the interesting parts promised by the gazillions of people who are reading and talking about these books. I am not sure how best to describe Larsson’s writing – because he writes about things with an exhaustive depth that yet fails to reveal anything about his characters or the world he’s writing about. He spends pages describing Lisbeth Salander’s trip to Ikea to stock her apartment, the details of how she found a new apartment, and before that her year-long trip around the world, but fails to reveal anything about Lisbeth as a person.

I’ve finished the first two books in his trilogy, and I will probably read the third, but that I’ll be waiting for it to come out in paperback, then for my mom to read it and mail it to me, doesn’t bother me. I won’t be going to Amazon to buy the last book for my kindle, as I did with The Hunger Games trilogy. And this is because ultimately, despite the hundreds of pages of back story Larsson provides us with, I don’t feel like his characters are real people, and I don’t care what happens to them. (Lisbeth Salander’s nearly been kidnapped? Huh. So-and-so and his pregnant wife have been shot, execution-style, in their apartment? Huh. So-and-so’s been shot in the head and buried alive? Interesting but still, Huh.)

This statement takes me dangerously close to the realm of “I didn’t like the characters so I didn’t like the book”-ism, which is not what I’m trying to get at. I just don’t care one way or the other about Larsson’s characters, and that makes it hard for me to care about the books in any lasting fashion. It’s not that I like or dislike Larsson’s characters, that I think they’re likeable or unlikeable; rather, I think they are occasionally interesting, but drawn in such a way that they often seem, despite the amount of space given to documenting their histories, flat. And what’s more, I can’t help feeling Larsson got tired of his own stories by the time he reached the end of his manuscripts – the trilogy’s first book ended suddenly and unsatisfyingly, with the case being investigated by Blomkvist and Salander wrapped up in just a few pages after hundreds of pages of background information. When I finished that book, I wanted more – not more description of say, Blomkvist’s bedroom technique, but a more fitting close to the case they had spent so much time investigating.

I’ve heard Larsson’s writing of women alternately praised and reviled, and on that front I land somewhere in the middle. His portrayal of Salander and the manner in which she takes control of her body and life, and responds to those men who “hate women,” is in some sense inspiring, but again, feels oddly flat. Despite the praising of Salander as some sort of feminist hero, she doesn’t read so positively to me – whether because her actions are balanced by Blomkvist’s ability to fall into bed with all kinds of women, victims of sexual abuse and all, and make them forget what’s come before, or because Salander responds to the sadism of men who hate women with actions just as sadistic as theirs.

The Girl Who Played with Fire
didn’t, though, seem as offensive on that front as did the first book. This one has a different offense though; that the mystery we devote so much time to unraveling is explainable by Salander the entire time, and that about a hundred pages before the end much of the “mystery” is revealed in a monologue by one of the characters. There are books that can reveal aspects of their plot early on, or by an “accident” of publication (as with The Hunger Games trilogy – I knew that Katniss would survive the Games in the first book because there were two to follow, but it made no difference in my interest in the trilogy), but this ain’t one of them. By such tricks of writing, by having one character (Salander) knowing the whole story the whole time, and another (Niedermann) revealing most of the unclear plot points partway through the book, and another (Blomkvist) figuring out the whole thing largely while the reader’s eyes are trained elsewhere, Larsson reveals himself to have been a lazy writer.

Countless pages spent describing a character’s reasons for getting breast implants (then explaining again, twenty pages later, then again, a hundred pages later), or the intricacies of publishing a magazine, or just how two characters came to know each other doesn’t, then, mark a writer as energetic. This is something that a lot of people working on NaNoWriMo have been discovering this month, as I have sadly discovered in years past; it can be a hell of a lot easier to write at length (proven by this post, maybe) than it is to write well, or compellingly. The most I can say about this book is that I finished it but that I mostly pushed through so that I could remove it from the stack of books I’m currently working on. I guess this isn’t the worst thing you can say about a book, but nor is it the best.

Donate for Literacy this Holiday Season

I’m going off the beaten track today (though not off the cliched track, it seems) in honor of the holiday season and as my mild protest of Black Friday and the wasteful, rampant consumerism of the day.

If you read this blog regularly you’re probably vaguely familiar with some of the stuff I do in the Peace Corps, and that one thing I’m working on now is building an English language library in my school. I mean, that’s only half of it – we’re also working to improve the “infrastructure” of the library (I don’t know what that means, but it’s a good Peace Corps buzzword) by setting up a catalog system, and to encourage students to check out more books and thus read more. What this all means is that I am right now spending a lot of time trying not to tear my hair out, downloading trial versions of cataloging programs and testing them, and researching reading programs that have been successful in American schools.

Maybe you can see where this is going. It is, after all, the holiday season in America, smack dab between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which means it’s time for pleas for donations to go out. If you’re thinking that this post is a plea for you to donate books to me, you’re about halfway right; it’s a plea, for sure, but among other things I’ve learned during this project, it’s that the people who will work to collect and ship books halfway around the world are the ones you’ve worked with back home. And in my frustrating search for organizations that exist to donate books to Eastern European countries
(they don’t exist, not that I can tell), I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of great organizations that need your books as much as my school does.

I am as much, or more of, a hoarder of books than anyone I know, and only the impossibility of fitting my library in the two fifty-pound bags I could bring into the Peace Corps broke me of my desire to own pretty much Every Book Ever Published. But a lot of these books that I owned I never read. I never will read them. These books sat on my shelves for years gathering dust, and only having to move forced me to get rid of some of them.

So it being the season of giving and all, why not look at your own books and consider whether you really need to hang on to all of them? Why not pull out your boxes of children’s books that have been residing in your attic for twenty years and try finding a better home for them? Instead of waiting, like I did, to be forced to get rid of some of your books, why not do so now? It doesn’t, after all, cost anything to give away those books you’ve read once and don’t expect to return to, or the stacks you picked up as the result of some crazed enthusiasm rather than actual interest at the latest library sale.

It’s not, after all, only schools in Eastern Europe that need English-language books. There are countless schools and classrooms in the States that can use your unloved or forgotten books, and all it takes is a little legwork on your part to find local organizations that need your reading materials. (As a example, before I left my apartment in Philly I donated a lot of my books to the hospital at which I worked. If I hadn’t spent a year there, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that hospitals need books to distribute to their long-term patients.)

It’s easiest, and probably best, to donate to local organizations – to call your local library, schools and hospital to find out whether they’re interested in taking your books. But below I’ve put together a list of larger-scale organizations that could use your donations of books and/or money. These are geared to American readers, but if you’re coming from another country and know a great organization that could use donations, let me know and I’ll add it to the list.

  1. Darien Book Aid sends books to Peace Corps Volunteers working on library projects. I received a box from them and can vouch for the quality and usefulness of their books. If you live near them, in Connecticut, you can donate books, or you can provide a cash donation to help pay for shipping books to volunteers.
  2. Books for Africa sends shipping containers of books and takes cash donations to defray the cost of sending books overseas.
  3. Book Aid International, much like Books for Africa, accepts donations of money to help pay for book shipments.
  4. Books Behind Bars doesn’t handle book donations, but they list addresses of prisons in need of books and general instructions for donating your books to these prison libraries.
  5. The Prison Book Program is located in Massachusetts and doesn’t recommend shipping book donations, so I’ve linked to a page on their site with details on other prison book programs that may be closer to you.
  6. A resource page listing Native American K – 12 schools. There are some specific donation requests that you can explore from this site, notably the If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything program.
  7. Adopt a Library is a site with information on libraries seeking donations.

Trust me, your donations will be appreciated.


Review: J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction

My thoughts on Salinger might best be described as, I don’t know, generally admiring but uninterested. I’m vaguely aware that many people have strong feelings on him, and that a lot of these feelings grow out of The Catcher in the Rye‘s required reading status in high schools across America. I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye three times, though not once since graduating high school; and maybe Salinger doesn’t capture a universal teenage voice (is there such a thing? no more than there is one universal human voice, I don’t think) but he does create a unique voice for Holden Caulfield.

A couple posts ago I wrote about works that send me to google to figure out how “true” they are, so it must have been fate that brought me a copy of Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, thereby sending me to google to try disentangling the lines between Salinger and the narrator of these two novellas.

Both novellas are about the Glass family, in particular Seymour. It has been a while since I’ve read Salinger, so it was only partway through the first novella that I realized Salinger has written about these characters in other works, most memorably (for me) in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” (Any of you who love Salinger are thinking “duhhhh” right now, but sometimes I am not the most observant reader, or one with a very good memory.) Both are narrated by Buddy Glass, a writer who bears some resemblance to Salinger, even quoting in Seymour: An Introduction a story from Salinger’s Nine Stories, but in the novella written by Buddy Glass.

This may be the result of feeling generally frazzled (in the past two weeks I’ve helped run three spelling bees in villages near me, with eight more bees coming in the next two weeks; I’m beginning to put together a grant; my host sister Ava wanted to bake a “cake” [that is, a giant chocolate chip cookie] this afternoon), or the result of the style of Salinger’s writing, but I feel oddly incapable of putting together a review on these novellas. The first, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, doesn’t have much of a plot, but it is recognizable as a story. Buddy learns his brother Seymour is getting married, and obtains three days leave to go to New York for the wedding.

As with The Catcher in the Rye, the plot of this novella isn’t real notable. What gets me are Salinger’s descriptions, like this one of the overpowering sun as Buddy rides in a car with other wedding guests:

I felt as though we were all being saved from being caught up by the sun’s terrible flue only by the anonymous driver’s enormous alertness and skill.

And then a bit later, Buddy tries to answer the question of why he got into a car with a bunch of wedding guests he didn’t know, and why he then remained in the car for the interminable ride, writing that:

…the year was 1942, that I was twenty-three, newly drafted, newly advised in the efficacy of keeping close to the herd – and, above all, I felt lonely. One simply jumped into loaded cars, as I see it, and stayed seated in them. (25)

Some of Salinger’s descriptions, like a “box of Louis Sherry candies – half empty, and with the unconsumed candies all more or less experimentally squeezed,” are so spot-on that I feel this post, essentially an excuse to quote a bunch of lines from the book, is excusable.

Light though Raise High may be on plot, it does have one: Buddy travels to New York, goes to the wedding, finds that it has been called off, jumps into a car with other wedding guests, and then spends the day listening as they abuse Seymour for not showing up for his own wedding. In the second novella of the book, Seymour: An Introduction, Salinger abandons all pretense of plot. The novella is Buddy’s attempt to write about Seymour following his suicide, and is as much a digression as a piece about Seymour. Buddy directs comments to the reader and remarks upon his own writing career and life, which often veers towards Salinger’s own, as when Buddy writes of receiving:

…poignant Get-Well-Soon notes from old readers of mine who have somewhere picked up the bogus information that I spend six months of the year in a Buddhist monastery and the other six in a mental institution. (132)

Buddy also writes at times of his intentions for the text at hand; so that even if things did not turn out as he intended, the reader knows where he had planned to go with the writing:

You can’t imagine what big, hand-rubbing plans I had for this immediate space. They appear to have been designed, though, to look exquisite on the bottom of my wastebasket. (142)

Although Buddy quotes from Seymour’s letters and other writings, the novella basically lacks form and simply follows Buddy’s train of thought, which frequently lands on writing and Buddy’s intentions for his own work. One of my favorite parts of the novella was when Buddy wrote of what he wants the Seymour he writes of here to do:

What is it I want (italics all mine) from a physical description of him? More, what do I want it do do? I want it to get to the magazine, yes; I want to publish it. But that isn’t it – I always want to publish. It has more to do with the way I want to submit it to the magazine. In fact, it has everything to do with that. I think I know. I know very well I know. I want it to get down there without my using either stamps or a Manila envelope. If it’s a true description, I should be able to just give it train fare, and maybe pack a sandwich for it and a little something hot in a thermos, and that’s all. (164)

What this novella does, though, is to blur the lines between truth and fiction, to make it unclear where Salinger’s craft lays and where Buddy’s, where the obvious details Salinger pulls from his own life end and where Buddy’s attempts to create his brother on the page begin. Not much may happen in these novellas, sure – nothing happens in the second – but the way Salinger plays with the form of the stories is fun and rewarding to see.

(This is, isn’t it, an inexcusably bad post? But I enjoyed the book and wanted to write something on it, even if of poor quality apart from the quotes from the novellas themselves. I guess that, like Buddy Glass, my hopes for this piece of writing were above my current capabilities.)

Classic Read: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

Probably the best thing that came out of my studying for the GRE was my brief abandonment of flash cards to reread Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I am pretty sure I read this in high school, but my memories of it were vague, unpleasant, and largely written over by my repeated viewing of the Gossip Girl episode in which the students of Constance Billard are acting out the play in typically self-absorbed fashion.

Now that the GRE is over I can do what I’ve been wanting for months, and get back into reading more of Wharton’s work. I’ve always halfway thought that most of the classics I read in high school were ruined because, well, I was reading them for high school, and rereading The Age of Innocence helped me realize that those books don’t have to reside in a permanent state of ruin and agonized five-paragraph essays. Wharton’s portrayal of the restrained society of Newland Archer and the manner in which he and Ellen Olenska resist their mutual love in order to protect his fiance and then wife, May, is heartbreaking; the more so when, at novel’s end, we glimpse the lives of Newland and May’s children, and their repudiation of many of the social mores that had held Newland away from Ellen.

I am not, however, writing because I have re-reread The Age of Innocence, but because I moved on to Wharton’s Ethan Frome, formerly known to me as “that book where they sled into a tree.” The book couldn’t be more distant from The Age of Innocence in terms of the society Wharton describes, and I was impressed by how she represents this sort of hardy, farming New England lifestyle as well as she does the excesses and restraints of New York society. (This book was a good reminder to me, hater of Boston and hot toddies and riding jackets and all the other things I imagine compose New England life, that not every New Englander is a graduate of Harvard.)

Ethan Frome is a short book, and I suspect that the general story is familiar to anyone who has been through a high school English class, skimmed Wharton’s wikipedia page, or read the back cover of the book. The title character, Ethan, lives with his wife Zenobia (Zeena for short) on a failing farm in a small town in New England. Ethan married Zenobia seven years before the story at book’s center occurs, and did so in some haste; Zenobia is his cousin, who came to care for his mother when her health failed. Afraid of being left alone, Ethan asked Zeena to marry him, after which she sought to distinguish herself by becoming even iller than his mother.

Wharton shows the illusions under which Ethan and Zeena marry, their dreams of greater things, and because we come into the story years later, when Ethan is a crippled man in his fifties, still eking out a living on his farm, it’s almost heartbreaking to glimpse the heights they dreamed of reaching early in their marriage. Here’s one of the earliest descriptions of Ethan, coming from the unnamed narrator of the book:

He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface…

Zeena, too, has changed with the years and become almost a part of the landscape; “Zeena herself, from an oppressive reality, had faded into an insubstantial shade.” While the reasons for the Fromes’ fading in Starkfield can’t be wholly applied to Zeena – there are a lot of mitigating factors, like the difficulty of selling a barren farm in order to move elsewhere – it’s her reluctance to move somewhere where she might get lost that Ethan seems to pick as the reason for their hard and constricted lives in this small town.

She chose to look down on Starkfield, but she could not have lived in a place which looked down on her. Even Bettsbridge or Shadd’s Falls would not have been sufficiently aware of her, and in the greater cities which attracted Ethan she would suffered a complete lose of identity. And within a year of their marriage she developed the “sickliness” which had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances.

Ethan and Zeena bring out an orphaned cousin, Mattie Silver, to act as Zeena’s nurse and help, and over the year that Mattie is with them Ethan begins to fall in love with her. Wharton does a striking job of showing Ethan’s mute inability to communicate this love, or much else, with Mattie for most of the novel; although he’s only 28 when the novel’s major event takes place, he seems far older.

It’s never flatly stated whether Zeena realizes that Ethan and Mattie have developed feelings for one another, but that’s the likeliest explanation for her sudden decision to send Mattie away to an uncertain future and hire on a new girl to care for her. Ethan wavers on how best to act, whether to attempt running away with Mattie (but as in the early years of his marriage, he has no money with which to escape Starkfield) or to act the dutiful husband by Zeena’s side. The decision is ultimately made for him by Mattie’s decision, after they pause their final trip to the train station to take a sled ride, to, well…sled into a tree, thus ending all earthly miseries and keeping them together forever and blah blah blah.

Predictably, things don’t work out as well as they did in Mattie’s fevered imagination. Neither Mattie nor Ethan dies, but their lives are irreparably twisted and brought to a sort of ruined pause. Neither of them will ever get out of Starkfield, and though they may spend their lives together – in Zeena’s home – they are both changed sufficiently by their sledding accident that this time is nothing more than a joyless counting of the years.

Wharton leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination here. One of the things that attracted Ethan to Mattie was her personality, which could probably (unlike mine or Zeena’s) be described as “sparkling.” We only see Mattie one time after the accident, and the shift in her personality suggests that she belatedly realizes she made a Big Mistake when she told Ethan to sled into that tree, and that Ethan’s been feeling that for over twenty years.

Besides her apt characterizations, Wharton describes New England winter so fully that it feels almost like a character itself. Before entering into Ethan’s story, the narrator writes:

But when winter shut down on Starkfield and the village lay under a sheet of snow perpetually renewed from the pale skies, I began to see what life there – or rather its negation – must have been in Ethan Frome’s young manhood.

Or this description of the landscape:

…above the fields, huddled against the white immensities of land and sky, one of those lonely New England farm-houses that make the landscape lonelier.

Or this description of snowfall:

…the snow began to fall straight and steadily from a sky without wind, in a soft universal diffusion more confusing than the gusts and eddies of the morning. It seemed to be part of the thickening darkness, to be the winter night itself descending on us layer by layer.

Ethan, Zeena and Mattie all seem subsumed by the loneliness of this landscape, and the story is ultimately as bleak as what the narrator sees as the negation of life in Starkfield during winter. And Wharton doesn’t shy away from this bleakness, from “the hard compulsions of the poor”; rather she shows how Ethan’s, Zeena’s, Mattie’s dreams of heading out into a larger world, are all made impossible by being poor and by honoring too strongly commitments to others, however rashly they were made.

I didn’t like Ethan Frome as much as The Age of Innocence, but it’s still a good one. (Dumbest summation of a review ever.)


Coffee and a Book Chick’s review
– the one that reminded me I wanted to read this book.

A good post on the unnamed narrator of the book. Indeed, he does read a lot like a novelist.

Ethan Frome at Project Gutenberg

What’s Literary Nonfiction?

Literary Blog Hop

Is it really fair that just two weeks after forcing me to define what “literary writing” is (I did not really define it, for those of you keeping track) the folks at the Blue Bookcase are asking for a definition of “literary nonfiction”? I mean, more accurately, they’re asking if I believe there is literary non-fiction. Of course I do! Of course there is plenty of literary non-fiction!

That said, I am not really sure how I would define it other than to say that, as with literary fiction, I know it when I see it. But like Connie at the Blue Bookcase says, I’d generally consider literary nonfiction to be any non-fiction book that places some emphasis on the aesthetic aspects of writing. And it’s a work of nonfiction that is maybe trying to do something new, in the sometimes confused world of fiction and nonfiction, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

If someone says there is not such a thing as literary nonfiction, I will probably have no choice but to roll over and die. How about Boswell’s Life of Johnson? (Entering the dangerous realm of books I haven’t read but maybe one day will. Maybe.) How about Nabokov’s Speak, Memory? Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale?

How about works that claim to be nonfiction but are really fiction, like the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus? (Thanks GRE! On a side note, this is one of those books that you can’t find a decent image for – which somehow increases my interest in reading it, incomplete or no.) Or those works that have a distinct grounding in events that, you know, actually happened, but are themselves fiction, like The Book Thief, or some of Hemingway’s novels, or Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried, which itself explores at length the question of what is “true” and “not true”?

Not all of these works I’m throwing out are nonfiction, strictly speaking, but in my mind they all land pretty close. As with In Cold Blood, it’s sometimes hard to draw a distinct line between fiction and nonfiction, and as O’Brien explores in his stories, sometimes what is true factually is not the most true thing we can find.

It’s typical of me that I turn a pretty simple question into a debate about truthiness, but I can’t help it because I’m sitting here at school waiting for classes to start for the afternoon and making plans for my adult English class I have tonight and trying to figure out my nightmare schedule for the next two and a half weeks (picture 10 spelling bees, mostly in villages about thirty minutes from my town), and am seeking desperately to think about something a little deeper than, I don’t know, how many “English stars” my students have to accumulate in order to win a Beanie Baby. And so often the books that seem the most true to me are not true in any strict sense. Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most true books I can think of, although it is definitely not literary nonfiction. It is literary fiction that captures something essential and real about the world, that maybe couldn’t be captured just by the facts, although some facts do make their way in, as with the banana massacre. (And hey, can’t we add Marquez to our “is it fiction or not?” list, with his The General in His Labyrinth? We can! We can!)

I have veered woefully off course. But to answer the original question, yes, I think there is such a thing as literary nonfiction, and I define it in about the same way I define literary fiction. But I also believes there’s some ever-shifting gray area between literary fiction and literary nonfiction, that some of the best works manage to shift across. I like those books that make me question something about my world or that send me to google in an effort to figure out whether an event is “true” or not. Like those dreams referencing earlier dreams that will always frustrate me as I try to figure out whether I really am footnoting my own dreams in later dreams, or if I am creating “past” dreams, I like the works that shake my world up just enough that I am left unsure of where I stand.