Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

By Stieg Larsson
New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010
Week 26      Fiction

Wow, it took me two weeks, but I have just now finished The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third book in the Millenium series by Stieg Larsson. This is by far the densest of the three books, but absolutely as fascinating. It ties up all the loose ends of the series (as you would expect).

The interesting thing is that it deals with corruption in the highest places—you would think it was an American book! The fireworks of the second book are over; there are dead bodies everywhere; Lisbet is barely alive under police guard in the hospital, and Mikael is about to uncover a secret service plot that involves the highest seats of government.

There’s plenty of action in this book, and a lot of it takes place in the courtroom. Mikael’s sister, Giannini, becomes Salander’s lawyer and unleashes some fireworks of her own as she shows that Salander is the victim in a vast case of political abuse. The book is not nearly as violent as previous books, but there is an awesome scene in which Salander nails her half brother Ronald’s feet to the floor with a nail gun.

The underlying theme of all the books is women and the varieties of abuse that they can be and are exposed to. The main protagonists in this volume are a set of appealing, strong female characters, all known by their last names, Salander, Berger, Giannini, and an Amazon named Figuerola. They are not appealing in the way that Precious Ramotswe is in the No. 1 Detective Agency, but appealing in a dark, brooding Scandinavian sort of way—characters that we are not likely to come in contact with in the United States. I have a feeling, however, that Lisbet Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo is the main reason that the books are such enormous hits. According to the LA Times review:
“Simply put, Salander is a deeply radicalized feminist, portrayed in a manner designed to test the sympathies of a largely liberal-minded audience, the attention of which is diverted by the blur of his books' nonstop action. Implicitly, Larsson asks us whether the understanding we normally, casually extend to the principles Salander acts upon can also extend to a character who so heedlessly exemplifies them.
The answer to that question is yes. Salander may be the toughest nut in Sweden, but she is also a victim — of the country's by-the-book social-welfare system and of simple human cruelty. We like her almost in spite of herself — such a lonely, solipsistic young woman, lashing out at a world she can manipulate but can never fully comprehend.”

The people I have polled who have read these books are vastly divided about them. I really enjoyed them but I have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to violence. My friends who didn’t like them are much more sensitive readers.

Here is a review of Hornet’s Nest in the New York Times:
I had to chuckle about this review, because the reviewer, David Kamp, dwells on the number of times the drinking of coffee appears in these books—at least once in every chapter. However, if you grew up in Scandinavian Minnesota, like I did, you don’t even notice. Coffee is the staff of life!

The Swedish movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is very good, by the way, and very true to the book. The other two Swedish movies, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest are soon to be released in the United States.

A Word About Audio Books

Week 25     Fiction

Several years ago, when my daughter was about 12, we were on a 14-hour straight through trip to New York City. I stopped at the library and borrowed an audio book of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It was very well done, and my daughter and I had a marvelous time listening to it and discussing it. It was a book that she never would have read but listening to it was a transformative experience.

On my trip to Duluth and back last week, I listened to two audio books, The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly and Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith. The trick about audio books is to get a good reader. Sometimes when you are driving, the reader can put you to sleep; other times you are riveted with attention all the way through.

Such was the case with The Lincoln Lawyer. This is the story of a Los Angeles lawyer, Mickey Haller, whose office is a Lincoln Town Car and whose clients are a series of low-life scum. When he finally gets a stellar client (a franchise client, he calls it) named Louis Roulet, Haller finds out that it’s not what he thought it would be. The reader of the audio book, Adam Grupper, is very good, the plot moves along quickly, and I didn’t get sleepy once. By the way, a movie of this book has been made and will be released next year. Sounds good.

I also enjoyed Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith. Paul Hecht read it very well and used lots of accents, which made it fun to listen to. This is a very funny book about a German professor whose only claim to fame is a 1200 page tome he wrote years ago about Portuguese irregular verbs. He has never gotten the respect he feels he deserves, and his quest to gain respect is hilarious. I laughed through four CDs and before I knew it, I was home.

Someone told me that the audio book of The Help by Katheryn Stockett has four readers, one for each of the main characters and that listening to the book really helped it come alive. So, the next time you are on a long trip, consider taking along an audio book. It will make the time go faster.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Cloister Walk

By Kathleen Norris
New York, Riverhead Books, 1996

Week 24     Spiritual

The Cloister Walk is a series of essays written by poet and theologian Kathleen Norris during a two-year period that she spent as an associate of sorts (an oblate) at St. John’s Abbey in western Minnesota. She is a Protestant seeking to find her soul at this quiet, sacred place. She learns that “Religion is about saving lives,” and in the process or living and working, she is saving her own life.

Among other things, the book is a meditation on the various saints whose days are observed by the monks at the abbey. She notes: “I hadn’t thought much about the saints; they seemed a Catholic thing, impossibly holy people. But I was learning to see them as witnesses to our limitations and God’s vast possibilities (as well as sense of humor) as Christian theology torn from the page and brought to life.”
The book also includes essays written about scripture read during the services at the abbey, the relationships she develops during this time, speaking engagements she has, and family matters she has to attend to. She finds the regularity as well as the ordinariness of the monastic life appealing, and finds the monks and nuns delightful, intelligent members of the community she embraces. “The Benedictines, more than any other people I know, insist that there is time in each day for prayer, for work, for study, and for play.”

Throughout the book, we get a glimpse of a poet at work, the thought processes as well as the struggles that plague her during this time. Amidst it all, she reveals the Holy Spirit at work in her life, how the scripture illuminates her search for meaning, and how her life slowly begins to change its course as she works, prays, and learns in this monastic environment. She finds that the prophets and the poets have much in common; both look at the scripture and interpret it for the world, in ways that are unique.

Reviewer Molly Finn seems to say it best: “Thirty pages or so into my second reading, I discovered what is remarkable about The Cloister Walk. The entire book is a prayer. One of Norris' definitions of prayer is ‘being ourselves before God.’ In this book Kathleen Norris opens herself to receive the word of God and to send it forth into the world. This is what she learned as a lector in the Benedictine monastery where she stayed: ‘The liturgy of the Word is prayer. You pray the Scriptures with, and for, the people assembled, and the words go out to them, touching them in ways only God can imagine. The words are all that matter, and you send them out as prayer, hoping to become invisible behind them.’" .

One thing I learned as I read this book is that it is better to read it in small doses. Because I felt compelled to read this book within one week, and it is extremely dense and deep, I got bored with some of the chapters, which I think if I had been reading a chapter a day, would not have happened. Norris has many interesting things to say, and I wanted to pay attention and learn from her. It was just too much for one week.

The most amazing part of my having read this book this week is that I am in Duluth, Minnesota, helping my mother transition to hospice care in this her 91st year. My mother is at the Benedictine Health Center, a nursing home on the campus of the College of St. Scholastica. I am staying at a student apartment, comfortable but spartan, and I have to walk past the chapel and the monastery to get to my mother. The setting has given me a sense of place for The Cloister Walk and how Norris must have been feeling as she wrote this book. I am away from husband and children, but connected in intimate ways with Mother, with her nurses and caregivers. Before I leave on Sunday, I plan to walk through the monastery and chapel to complete my journey with Kathleen Norris. On a side note I learned through this book that St. Benedict was the brother of St. Scholastica. That was an aha moment for me, the thorough Protestant that I am.

Do I recommend this book? Perhaps, if you are ready for dense, meaty religious fare. I found the chapters on Jeremiah, the Psalms and the chapter on reading the New Testament all the way through every year to be especially useful to me personally. I do have to say that I skipped over some of the chapters that I didn’t enjoy, but in a book of essays, that is truly possible. There is no plot that is missing. I particularly valued the emphasis placed on liturgy; the older I become, the more I seem to value the sense of order that liturgy gives me. By dwelling on the liturgy, I can find myself pulled through the worship experience and come out on the other side personally fulfilled and in touch with the holy.

An interview with Kathleen Norris about her newest book, Acedia and Me, in the Sojourners magazine:

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Help

By Kathryn Stockett
New York, Putnam, 2009

Week 23         Fiction

When you are in your 60s, the events of the 1960s seem not so very far away. If you are young, the Civil Rights struggle seems like ancient history. Stockett brings one small corner of the struggle to life in her novel, The Help, which deals with a small group of young Jackson MS upper middle-class housewives and the “colored” maids who serve them. These African American women, both beloved and despised, take on most of the burden of the homes and children; the young wives take on bridge clubs, church socials, Junior League and charity work—for the poor orphans of Africa.

Stockett, herself, was raised by an African American nanny in Jackson MS, so the book has the ring of truth about it. There is a semi-autobiographical feel about one character, Skeeter—perhaps the thinly disguised author—a budding writer who seeks to interview the maids and publish a book about their stories. Although emboldened by the Civil Rights struggle swirling around them, the women are also afraid that if their stories are told, they will lose their jobs, their dignity, and perhaps their lives. When the book, Help, is published and the Jackson housewives begin to realize that the stories are about them, all hell breaks loose in the community.

This book has it all: humor, pathos, irony, suspense, and a page-turning plot. There are a lot of characters to sort through, but the chapter headings and decent character development eases the transition from one story line to the other.

The reviews have been all over the book; the New York Times was quite critical, but the Washington Post mostly generous in tone. (I have included links to both.) One thing I noticed was that the maids speak in dialect while the housewives do not, except to use the term “nigra” and “colored” when speaking about the African American community. Wondered why. But despite the reviews, this book has been on the bestseller lists for the past year and will be the topic of discussion for our book club this month. Interestingly enough, Stockett’s childhood friend, Tate Taylor, optioned the rights to the book and the movie is in production right now.

This book has all the markings of a great summer read. I would recommend it for beach reading.

Here is the New York Times book review:

Also the Washington Post:

A rather long but interesting video interview of Stockett by Katie Couric:

Kathryn Stockett's website: