The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

by Stieg Larsson

 

I’m a longtime fan of this blog, so I’m excited to be a guest blogger here. I’ve never been a guest blogger before, and I hope I don’t spill food on the carpet. But now that I’m here, I want to talk about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first installment of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

Published posthumously in 2005, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an international smash hit. It sold 15 million copies in the US and spawned two well known films, one featuring James freaking Bond. Even before reading it, I knew this series was a big deal. Having read the first two novels, and preparing to start the third, its easy to see why.

Dragon Tattoo’s plot begins when wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger summons crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist to his family’s private island in Sweden. He hires Blomkvist to live on the island and investigate the decades old murder of his beloved niece, Harriet.The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo After a while, Blomkvist teams up with anti-social researcher Lisbeth Salander, and together they search for answers in a web of corruption, brutality and horrible familial relationships. To top it off several of the Vangers are former Nazis, in case all of that wasn’t twisted enough for you.

Larsson begins the novel at a crawl, which is why almost anybody who has read the book will tell you about its lengthy exposition (for the record, I actually enjoyed the exposition). He gives a crash course in Swedish politics and economics, as well as a detailed history of the horribly demented Vanger family. Then, he makes us study the lead characters, Blomkvist and Salander, illustrating their backgrounds, personalities and motivations. Eventually, this meticulous setup gives way to a crime drama so captivating that you’ll be unable to stop reading it.

Larsson refuses to give us the bulk of the plot until we understand Dragon Tattoo’s two leads and world they occupy. Blomkvist and Salander do not meet until halfway through the novel, and the narration alternates between them as their paths gradually converge. It is an unusual but effective narrative trick, one that makes their collaboration feel like a seismic event that launches the story into overdrive. We know they will join forces, but watching the pieces fall into place is nonetheless captivating. And once they come together, all the reader can do is hang on for dear life.

I thought the novel’s strengths came from its lead characters. Blomkvist is a righteous man in a dark world, following the truth at all costs, cracking unsolvable puzzles and seducing almost every woman with whom he exchanges words. Larsson was a journalist himself, and Blomkvist seems like Larsson’s personal ideal. I remember being amused that Daniel Craig, in all his Bondian majesty, was chosen to plan a journalist. By the end of the book, I felt like he was the only choice. If James Bond had inexplicably gone to journalism school, he would’ve been Mikael Blomkvist. He’s an excellent lead character in every way.

I found Salander even more compelling. She comes from a broken home and horrible circumstance, but survives on the strength of her intellect and guile. She refuses to play nice with anybody, but does so in a way that doesn’t feel contrived. I spent most of the novel trying to understand her, eventually sympathizing with her and rooting for her. Salander is the eponymous Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and as Larsson reveals more and more of her character, I came to realize she, not Blomkvist, is the moral center of the story. She and Blomkvist often reach the same moral conclusions, but Salander does so in a much more interesting way. They complement each other in the strangest ways, and it’s impossible not to admire their characterizations.

The novel’s third central character is Sweden itself. Larsson pulls back the curtain of universal healthcare and high quality of life and scrutinizes every hole in Sweden’s fabric. He condemns the systemic misogyny, the shortcomings of the welfare system and the corruption of some of Europe’s model industries. He even weaves a fierce critique of the global financial system into the novel’s final act. Had he been alive when the market crashed in 2008, Larsson would’ve no doubt been among the first to say he told us so.

Somehow, Larsson takes this detailed characterization, meticulous exposition and pointed social criticism and weaves it into an intense, mesmerizing novel. It’s startlingly violent in spots, but each instance feels like a necessary piece of the lurid puzzle Larsson is creating. Many of its characters seem to serve no purpose other than to advance the plot, but Salander and Blomkvist are such dynamic and compelling leads that I didn’t even care. And without spoiling it, I can assure you that the novel’s final act is harrowing and well designed. All said, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made me eagerly anticipate the rest of the trilogy, even if it makes me never want to live in Sweden.

It’s dark, intense and violent, but The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an immersive and well-crafted saga with two captivating characters at its center.

The Blood of Flowers

by Anita Amirrezvani

 

First there wasn’t and then there was. Before God, no one was.

So begins Anita Amirrezvani’s debut novel, which, set in 17th century Persia, follows a few years in the life of an unnamed girl of newly marriageable age. The simple statement is invoked each time a story, usually a fable, is introduced. These fables are used as framing devices throughout the novel, as each chapter closes with a story about love, temptation, or unyielding kindness.

The story is told from the point of view of the young protagonist, a spirited teenage girl who is her parents’ only child. The first chapter centers on her happy relationship with her father and her unparalleled skills as a rug-maker. Everything goes awry, however, when a comet appears over the village and signals bad omens for the year. The Blood of FlowersThough she is anxious to marry, she fears that a marriage forged in the year of the comet will be doomed. Before she has much time to get a modest dowry together, her father dies suddenly while working in the fields. She and her mother are almost immediately forced into poverty. The women are thereby forced to move to the capital, Isfahan, and live with their only blood relation, an uncle named Gostaham. Gostaham, a wealthy craftsman, and his wife Gordiyeh live in a mansion, with food and clothes to spare.

Despite the riches of the household, the two women are treated as servants rather than family, and are under constant fear of getting thrown out. After a few months of adjustment, however, the girl finds ways to be very happy with her life in Isfahan. She is inspired by the beauty of the city, and begins to cultivate her craft of rug making under the mentorship of her talented uncle. She makes friends with women in the city, both very rich and very poor, and dreams of one day running a rug-making workshop for women.

I mentioned that the girl is “spirited,” but perhaps a better word for it would be “rash,” because she constantly makes choices out of passion without thinking of the consequences.  A few rash decisions put an end to her dreams, and she and her mother are kicked out of their home.  The mother falls very ill, and the girl resorts to begging on the street.  I’ll try not to include too many spoilers, but in the end, she uses her womanhood to her advantage and her luck turns around, but not in the way I expected.

Despite the high level of drama maintained throughout the novel, I very much enjoyed this book. The writing is captivating, the characters are dynamic, and the story has so much depth that it is easy to forget it is fiction. Through all her poor decisions, it is hard to fault the main character too much because she is so morally pure. She makes the best of the hard hand she is dealt, and she a strong, powerful female character. I do believe this is a feminist novel, the kind of feminism that I fully support. That is, not all of the female characters are strong or good, and not all of the male characters are evil. There are strong, amazing, resilient women and there are sensitive, charitable men. There are also selfish and vain women and chauvinistic, unintelligent men.

The life of a Persian woman in the 1620s was not easy. It was nearly impossible to be either financially independent or respected by society, but the girl in this novel accomplishes both. As she matures, she learns that beauty, riches and social status do not create happiness. Her community, her faith, and her art are the source of happiness for her, and, though it is not much, she considers herself lucky. She works tirelessly to bring her mother and friends out of poverty, but she never loses her moral center.

If you are at all like me, and are interested in Middle Eastern feminism and social class dynamics, I recommend this book. You’ll have to forgive some of the dramatics as well as a few gratuitous sex scenes, but it is a quick and entertaining read, so prepare to be engrossed in this book for a few days. At the very least, you will never look at Persian rugs the same way again.

Johnny Cash: The Life

by Robert Hilburn

 

Johnny Cash died September 12, 2003, at the age of 71. My memories of this event are pretty vague. I had just been in a major bike accident, spent a week in the hospital, and was on the verge of starting my first year of high school- two weeks late. I also wasn’t a huge Cash fan at the time, but it was all over the news, and Time magazine memorialized him on the cover. For a while after, if you’d asked me what I knew about Johnny Cash, my reply would’ve been that he died while I was hurt. That’s it. The Cash biopic came out a few years later, but when I saw it I pretty much agreed with Jon Stewart: “Ray with white people.”

Cash didn’t make an impact on me until my 20th birthday, when my dad gave me a guitar. I don’t lay claim to any musical ability, but for a while the guitar was a fun pastime for me (I really need to get back into it), and one of the first songs I learned was Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” I don’t remember why; maybe because it’s distinctive enough that even if I fucked it up, people would still recognize it? I dunno. The point is, though I knew nothing about Cash when he died a decade ago, I have been converted. I’m a fan.

Hilburn’s Johnny Cash tells the man’s story, from his childhood in Arkansas through the end of his life. He covers Cash’s stint in the Air Force, rise to stardom in the 50′s, troubled relationship with June Carter, problems with drugs for most of his life, struggle for relevance, and declining health in later years. Johnny CashWhile Hilburn’s writing should be enough to keep you interested, I found that much of my enjoyment came from being a fan of Cash’s music. Seeing the origins of “Folsom Prison Blues,” and then watching it climb the charts, just wouldn’t work as well for me if I wasn’t listening to the song on repeat in my head- and then comparing Hilburn’s story to the end product. As a fan, this is great, and it keeps a pretty hefty autobiography fresh and enjoyable, but it makes me wonder whether a non-fan would be able to get through the book.

Whether you’re a fan or not, though, I’m guessing that there might be a few things that will grab you like they did me. Cash’s drug abuse, for one. It’s scary, at times, to trace his transformation from a road musician, who turns to pills to help keep him up for concerts, into a self-destructive addict who can barely take care of himself, let alone his family. The cycle of addiction, with alternating periods of rehab and relapse, took its toll on me; I found myself rooting for him to succeed, and disillusioned when he would inevitably fail.

This pattern was reflected in other aspects of Cash’s life as well. It probably won’t surprise you that his drug addiction took its toll on the music. His career, starting off so well in the 50′s, would get out of hand pretty often- he could almost instantly go from genius to hack in the public’s mind. Sometimes going years without inspiration, Cash nevertheless felt compelled to keep putting out record after record that wouldn’t make a dent in the charts, often borrowing the styles of contemporary musicians or using a formula that had worked for him in the past, such as the horns that made “Ring of Fire” stand out.

All of this takes place in the context of Cash’s steady progression into old age, probably accelerated by his on-and-off drug addiction. It’s tough to watch the guy who had been a young gun in country music turn irrelevant over the course of a few decades (and just a few hundred pages), his attempts to revive his career looking more and more desperate. And I, for one, didn’t realize how sick he actually was for the last decade of his life, barely able to make music and completely unable to tour.

Cash’s story would simply be one of fading glory were it not for his reinvention in the 90′s, courtesy of hip hop producer Rick Rubin. Cash and Rubin worked on several albums together, and what must’ve struck many as yet another gimmicky ploy turned out to be the perfect pairing. Often drawing inspiration from contemporary artists, these records are simultaneously vintage and modern Cash, and the product is all the more impressive considering his fragile health. His cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and the accompanying video are a haunting account of his final years, underlined by the images of Johnny and June just months before their deaths.

I definitely know more about Cash than I did before. Is all of this new information necessary? No, probably not. I didn’t really need to know  his first wife’s name, or what years he was stationed in Germany, or exactly how many cycles of relapse and recovery he went through. On the other hand, this stuff provides context for Cash’s music, so as a fan I absolutely appreciate it. Hilburn is thorough, but he doesn’t get caught up on irrelevant factoids; he makes sure that if he’s dropping some information, it’s relevant to the larger story of Cash’s life, which is powerful enough to stand on its own.

Johnny Cash was a fascinating man and Johnny Cash is a fascinating book, so I’d recommend it to anybody interested in Cash or his music.

Boomerang

by Michael Lewis

 

In this semi-sequel to The Big Short, Michael Lewis travels across the globe to get a sense of how the real estate crash in the United States affected formerly solvent and prosperous nations. He calls it “financial disaster tourism,” and it’s a spot-on description. While the crisis began in the United States, it quickly spread across the world, eventually leading to a sovereign debt crisis in Europe. Lewis follows the money- or, more accurately, the debt- from country to country, meeting government officials and others to try to get a feel for what, exactly, just happened.

As Lewis explains in his introduction, he was tipped off by a man he was interviewing for The Big Short (who was subsequently dropped from the book) that the crisis wasn’t over just because governments bailed out the banks. The bailouts, in fact, only temporarily solved the problem; bank debt was merely converted into sovereign debt. While the United States is ostensibly much less likely to go bankrupt than a private company, bailouts provided only the illusion of solvency, in reality setting the world up for a bigger crash to come.

So Lewis travels to Europe, as the debt crisis unfolds in Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany. He seems to take pleasure in noting that while the whole world experienced the same boom and subsequent bust, each nation handled itself differently. Iceland, for example, which Lewis notes has around 300,000 people- half the size of Washington, DC- almost overnight moved from a fishing economy to a banking economy. BoomerangIcelanders started studying finance and investing their money all over the world. While this may have seemed like a good idea at the time, the bubble eventually burst, and Iceland was rudely awakened to the fact that maybe banking wasn’t the most solid of foundations on which to build their entire economy.

When he makes it to Greece, Lewis can’t believe the amount of shenanigans going on at all levels. The government pulls tax collectors off the streets during an election year, and taxes are generally seen an inconvenience to be avoided if at all possible. Even monks are tied up in a national scandal, related to shady real estate deals. Nobody trusts each other, lying and corruption are rampant, and the country can’t decide whether it wants to reform itself or not. The phrase “It’d be funny if it weren’t so tragic” kind of applies here. Possibly more accurate: “It’s pretty hilarious, though I’d imagine it’s not so funny if you happen to be Greek.”

And, indeed, I felt a little worse about laughing at the Greeks when Lewis finally made it to America. One of Lewis’ sources, an analyst named Meredith Whitney, believes that American government finances at all levels are in shambles, but that the federal and state governments will be able to push the hurt down to municipal governments. Many of these cities would likely go bankrupt keeping all of their promises- mostly pensions- and this in turn would alter the fabric of American society. When Lewis asks Whitney where the worst will hit, she directs him to California.

His trek through the Golden State is startling, to say the least. Lewis first spends a day interviewing former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, though it seems more like an excuse to go on bike ride around the beach while Ahnold talks about his life (which admittedly sounds awesome.) After his romp with the Governator, he travels to the cities of San Jose and Vallejo, California. San Jose appears to be in a bit of trouble, what with an overpaid public sector and falling tax revenues, but Vallejo is downright scary. When Lewis shows up, the only thing going on in the city seems to be a massive property auction. City hall seems closed, but Lewis eventually locates the city manager and his staff of one. Through Lewis’ talk with the Vallejo city manager, it’s hard to shake the feeling that if this is where America is headed, we might be in trouble.

Lewis writes books about either sports or finance, employing the same combination of careful research and fantastic storytelling for both. This makes it odd to read Moneyball, about a man who shook up Major League Baseball by coming up with a cheaper way to win, and then read books like The Big Short or Boomerang, which deal with the worst economic disaster in my lifetime. The latter, specifically, forecasts an even worse crash to come, and doesn’t provide much hope that we can avoid it. It’s just a bit jarring for me, as if Lewis is saying, “There’s no way that society’s going to survive the coming calamity. Don’t even try to avert it. Now, let’s talk about football.” He’s telling us that the sky is falling, but he doesn’t seem too concerned, which is itself somewhat unnerving.

Even at his most depressing, though, Lewis always entertains and informs me. Boomerang isn’t a work of optimism, that’s for damn sure, but it’s hard not to be amused by Lewis’ travels. It’s also hard not to be terrified.

Going Clear

by Lawrence Wright

 

I try to steer away from religion. In conversation, in life, and certainly on the net. But sometimes, just once in a while, a man reads a book about religion. And that man has a blog about books, and feels obligated to document what he reads, all to satisfy his adoring public.

Scientology. I certainly know more about it than I did before. I don’t want to get into their doctrine; I’d just fuck it up. Here’s South Park to explain it for you. Go ahead, I’ll wait. I know you like South Park. If you hate following links, and you can stand a significantly shittier Youtube video, here you go:

So that’s part of Scientology, but Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear isn’t really about Scientologist doctrine, and it’s hardly about the religion at all. Instead, Wright takes it upon himself to meticulously document the life of the religion’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and the birth and growth of the Church itself. It’s a pretty remarkable story, and Wright takes his task seriously.

The story starts with Hubbard, a man who, from his early days, seems to have exhibited that great American trait, the gift of bullshitting. Other, less profane, people, might call this gift ‘imagination’. And for a science fiction writer such as Hubbard, not only is there nothing wrong with this, it’s actually essential for success. Given how much pulp science fiction existed in the 1930′s, 40′s and 50′s, an outsized imagination and a strong work ethic could help one emerge from the pack. L. Ron HubbardHubbard had plenty of both, and used them to become one of the most prolific and successful authors of all time.

Of course, the flip side, the ‘bullshit’ side, has to come out sometime. Hubbard’s recollections of his childhood are often, to put it mildly, of dubious accuracy. His military record doesn’t back up his own account of his experience in World War II, and he appears to have lied his way into the Navy in the first place. According to Wright, Hubbard sent false recommendations along with his application, and he embiggened his qualifications as a seaman and a scientist. Having secured his appointment as an officer, it appears that he bounced around from post to post, with his superiors often wondering how the hell they got stuck with a man who seemed to have no business in the military.

His military experience- as told by him- served as the foundation for his first stab at self-help, published in 1950 as Dianetics. The techniques outlined in this text allegedly helped him cure his war wounds, including blindness, though his records document no combat-related injuries. From what I can tell, the book itself is a jumble of pseudoscience that’s pretty much a ripoff of old school psychoanalysis, which is ironic given Hubbard’s and Scientology’s view of psychotherapy as an evil profession.

Dianetics evolved into Scientology, a set of beliefs and practices whose adherents would fight for decades to be considered followers of a legitimate religion rather than a cult. Hubbard would lead the Church of Scientology through persecution, exile, legal battles, and personal struggles, till his death in 1986. He was succeeded by David Miscavige, who leads the Church to this day. Though recognized in the United States as a religious organization, and therefore tax-exempt, Scientology continues to have a worldwide perception problem.

Wright weaves this history with the personal stories of Scientology ‘defectors’, including high-ranking Sea Org members as well as acclaimed film director Paul Haggis. Each of these people tells a different story, but all of them relate their enchantment, frustrations, and growing disillusionment with Scientology’s leaders and institutions. Haggis, for example, takes issue with the Church’s stance on homosexuality, and his fury when the Church stonewalls his inquiries into the matter leads to his resignation.

(The Church’s view of homosexuality is especially interesting in light of its desire to be associated with Hollywood, not exactly a homophobic culture; indeed, one of the Scientology’s early celebrity converts, John Travolta, strongly supports the gay community and has had his own sexuality called into question. According to Wright, the organization even helped Travolta maintain his straight public image. Additionally, several Church members, including L. Ron Hubbard’s son Quentin, are alleged to have been gay.)

Other ex-Scientologists describe what happens when one joins the Sea Org, Scientology’s clergy. In the 1960′s, feeling unwelcome in many countries, Hubbard and his followers took to the open sea- hence, the Sea Organization. Going ClearScientologists who join the Sea Org sign billion-year contracts, dedicating their mortal lives and a good chunk of whatever comes after to serving their Church. Though one might think that Scientology’s clergy and management would be treated better than most adherents, Wright and his witnesses claim that the opposite is the case. The Sea Org overworks and underpays its recruits, using their total faith and dedication to keep them in line. Wright describes horrifying conditions, including disgusting housing and meals that consist of scraps. These conditions only get worse for the Sea Org member who fucks up somehow, as they can be sent to the Rehabilitation Project Force, or RPF. Jesse Prince, one of Wright’s interviewees, claims that he was “incarcerated” in the RPF for threatening to leave the Sea Org, and made to work there for an indefinite amount of time, in his case a year and a half. And from the looks of it, the RPF is not somewhere you’d wanna be sent.

To be honest, Going Clear reminded me a lot of Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick’s account of North Korea from defectors’ perspectives. North Korean defectors claim a reluctance to defect out of fear for their families’ safety; the ex-Scientologists Wright interviews often worry about being labelled a Suppressive Person (SP), preventing future contact with their families and perhaps bringing the wrath of the Church down on family members. North Koreans recall a mix of fear, awe, and acceptance that keeps them in line; the former Sea Org members describe sticking with Scientology in similar terms.

While Wright is meticulously detailing the foundation and growth of Scientology, he continuously explores the reasons someone would join the religion, commit to the Sea Org, tolerate the abuse that members are put through. According to several sources, both Hubbard and Miscavige subjected their underlings to physical abuse. How can people trust a leader who at any point may give in to violent rages? When the FBI raids Scientology offices in 1977 and stumbles upon over a hundred RPF members in a dark basement, none of them try to flee; Wright wants us to ask ourselves why. Were they brainwashed? Or was it simply dedication to their beliefs?

For Wright, it really comes down to this question: how do we define the differences between a religion, a cult, and a criminal organization? Does that distinction matter?