Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

Although the book and its title is about Lisbeth Salander, the majority of the story involves the investigation of a woman's disappearance over 40 years before, and the investigation is by Mikael Blomkvist, a discredited journalist. Salander's story is intertwined with Mikael's until the two finally meet and connect in a way neither, perhaps, has before.

Salander is an antisocial 25-year-old woman who has been a problem all her life and is therefore a ward of the court, subject to the whims of her so-called guardian. But she is no victim. She ultimately controls others, directly or otherwise. And her appearance, small, thin, and often sullen and withdrawn, belies her sharp intelligence and instincts. She is fortunate to find herself a freelance place with a security company, where she does investigations and turns out to be the most gifted and capable investigator there. Or perhaps anywhere, given her lust for information. She is hired to investigate Mikael Blomkvist by the head of a large industrial company, Henrik Vanger, who wants to know as much as he can learn about the journalist before hiring him to investigate the disappearance of his niece. Because of this association, Salander later meets Blomkvist and assists him in the investigation.

While the plot is complex the story is really about the characters Blomkvist and Salander. Don't be misled and think it's a romance. While there is sex it is far from any kind of romance I've read. Thank heaven. The characters are absorbing, unique, believable. Throughout the book are statistics about women and violence in Sweden, which offer a hint of the underlying theme here, which is about women, strong women, and abuses of power, including violence against women. The actions and thoughts of the women read very real to me, which makes me curious about Stieg Larsson and his life and how he came to have such a passionate and compassionate understanding of women. My sister Cathy, who sent me this book, said the same thing, that she was curious, wants to know how he came to this place.

The story is interesting on another level as well. Because it is set in Sweden and by a Swedish writer, the Swedish culture and laws are embedded in it. Books written from "the inside" rather than by an observer give us truer pictures, I suspect, of life in other countries.

I have already put the other two books in this series on my wishlist and I suspect I will just order them soon.

The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro

I read Munro’s Runaway and decided she was a new favorite author. So I was happy to find another of her books on the notable books lists.

This one is more truly autobiographical than Runaway, and in fact almost historical. Munro traces her own family back several generations, learns what she can about them, and tells little stories about them here, before she reaches her own generation and settles on her own stories.

She freely admits to embellishment, even breaking into the middle of a story to say, “I can’t say for sure this happened”. It appears, from her stories about herself, that she has long enjoyed embroidering, but it’s more than that. She wonders, “might this have happened?” "what if that happened?" And maybe these things did happen, if not in the precise way she imagines them.

I did not love the early stories. I was missing something, the emotional element. It was there in some cases but clothed differently, lightly touched, and so the stories did not draw me in the way the Runaway stories did. However, as they came closer to her own generation the stories filled out more, seemed to have more substance. And when she got to her own time and her own life, they are just beautiful.

It was good to have the background, too, where she came from, her distant as well as immediate past. All of it fits into who we are.

I loved her descriptions of how she felt when butted up against different “classes”, when she herself qualified as “poor”. This might be a major theme of the book, in fact. Her distant relatives were far from rich, and it was a search for a better life that brought them across the Atlantic and into Canada (as well as into the US in some instances). From generation to generation, the family members worked hard and accepted who they were and their position in life, even as they knew they had the brains to equal the intellectual elite that might at times shun them. There is pride and a sense of place here, even down to the gifts offered for Alice's first wedding.

Alice herself stands out as a child, somehow does not quite fit in. She’s attractive enough, she's bright, she's thoughtful, but she likes to indulge in activities that are seen as "time-wasting" by others in the family and by the community at large. Reading, enjoying that thing called "nature", simply being alone with her thoughts. These things are not productive. When she finds a suitor her family breathes a sigh of relief.

I most enjoyed the intimate moments, and there are many, the honesty in how Munro looks at herself, the lack of self-pity or any idea that she had ever been "unfortunate". She even manages to trade on her upbringing, to use it to surprise, even shock, others, especially when she adds elements to it that were never there. I gained a great sense of her and I like her, even envy her.