The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson, Knopf, 2005

WARNING: Spoiler & Sensitive Material ⚠

1 Star

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Book – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I found BR Meyer’s A Reader’s Manifesto an Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in the American Literary Prose to be a useful gauge in analyzing Steig Larsson’s the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. No, TGwtDT was not published in the US, but it was a blockbuster-literary-phenom here, so using that book is relevant. What differentiates novels like The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo from other lengthy blockbusters like, say Gone Girl is that the former takes itself much too earnestly to be appreciated. TGwtDT is a bestseller, yes, but it deals with a serious topic no other book has touched: violence against women!

I read a review of TGwtDT that derided readers who complained the book was too slow, and chided readers for not knowing how to skim over the unimportant parts! That’s how real readers read, don’t you know! Look, I’m no speed-reader, but I’m a believer in that words have meanings. They exist for a reason. If I skim a lot, it’s a sign that the author has lost my interest.

This belief seems to be confusing for some. Like the literary critics in Meyer’s manifesto write: 

“If anyone has earned the right to bore us for our own good, it’s [NAME REDACTED],” writes Salon Martha Russo. “Since [HE] is smarter than we are,” intones John Leonard in the New York Review of Books, “trust [HIM].”

A Reader’s Manifesto an Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in the American Literary ProseBR Meyer

Such is the early 21st century mindset about LITTER-A-CHORE.

Since I do not own the physical version of TGwtDT, and don’t intend to everagain listen to the audio, I cannot quote verbatim from his book. So I will borrow from Myer’s manifesto when he criticizes Cormac McCarthy’s tiresome writing from one of McCarthy’s later works:

“He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.”

CORMAC McCARTHY- THE CROSSING

Replace eggs and tortilla with sandwiches and bread and add in even more copious amounts of coffee, and there you have about 10%-15% of Larsson’s book. It’s tedious.

Feminist Tome or Something Less Noble?

As TGwtDT deals with rape and murder, it’s not unusual that there would be explicit scenes depicting this. The heroine Lisbeth Salander is raped by her social worker two various times. Once, orally in his office and the second time anally in his home after he has ties her to his bed.

These scenes are written in a slightly horrific, yet detached manner. It’s not these scenes that I question; it’s the revenge scene that follows. Lisbeth turns the tables on the social worker when she returns to his home, ‘promising’ another night of sex for pay, then tazes him, ties him to his bed and rapes him.

But the way the scene is written is done in an oddly titillating manner. Lisbeth stands at the foot of the bed, dressed all in black, wielding a whip, with her dyed-black hair, tattoos and piercings giving her a dark dominatrix look as the man struggles against his bonds and ball-gag. Lisbeth proceeds to rape him with an anal plug without the use of lubrication. She then tortures him by tattooing a message across his abdomen. Lisbeth finally ends his torture by showing the man a video that she recorded from the previous encounter when he had raped her. For an hour and a half she forces him to watch this!

Frightening stuff, one would think, but the way it’s written is done in such a kinky manner, that I—a long time reader of subtle kink—can spot it when I see it. This scene is supposed to be critical to the novel as it shows the true nature of Lisbeth and the depths she is capable of.

To me, though. it reads as a writer’s fantasy of being dominated by a tough woman. It’s more like, “Yes, I am a bad, bad, evil man. I am a filthy dirty man, and I must be punished. I understand you will stick painful things up my bum without lube. Oh, it hurts, oh it’s painful…but…now…I am in a quiet, almost hypnotized state of ecstasy at your masterful female dominance. Oh…yes I will do whatever you say. I will be your slave.”

Genre Fiction That Takes Itself Too Seriously

Many years ago I read Jane De Lynn’s Some Do where a similar scene is portrayed. After a friend is brutally raped and dies as a consequence, several women avenge that savagery by raping her attacker. However in Some Do, the scene was disturbing. The man is assaulted in his office, blindfolded and gagged, and there is not even a sniff of subtly or eroticism; it was pure female anger at masculine oppression, replete with horror and a lust only for vengeance.

Some Do was written by an American woman in the 1970s and The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo was written by a Swedish man in the 2000s. There was a vast difference in the way the parallel scenes were depicted. One was written with a raw anger beneath it, filled with a sentiment of “We’re not taking this anymore! We will fight back and hurt you worse if you hurt us!”

Larsson, it seems, wrote his book as an aggrieved male figure for all the violence committed against woman by men as a dark-revenge fantasy.

The initial rapes of Lisbeth were crude, but didn’t disturb me overmuch. That sort of sexual violence is de riguer in murder-mystery books, unfortunate to say. But it was Lisbeth’s revenge scene where I had my “epiphany.”

Controversial Opinion

As a person, I can’t judge Larsson, However, as a reader judging an author, I certainly can. His character of Lisbeth is not a true woman: she is an amalgam of all that is “cool” and “ballsy” about women in media: a cartoon/manga/movie/porn version of what a “kick-ass woman” is. Weird that in a book originally titled Men Who Hate Women Larsson used a female protagonist who is a caricaturized version of post-modern ideal femininity to conquer all the bad evil men.

(Or perhaps Larsson WAS so smart he knew exactly what he was doing? Maybe. Even so, I didn’t care.)

Eh, if you’re going to market a mass-murder/rapist book as feminist theory, at least make it a teeny bit based in realism. And interesting.

And I apologize to Dan Brown for all the mean things I said about him. I won’t take them back, because they’re true! It’s that I should have kept it all in perspective in the “literary” sense. There’s being a successful hack who knows he’s a hack. And then there’s being a hack that’s pawned off as a literary genius and arbiter of feminism. Plus, there’s the fact that Larsson died relatively young, so like Kurt Cobain, no one can EVER complain about Larsson’s talent.

(Ok, that last part WAS cruel. But I won’t take that back, either.)

Awful, awful and boring book!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, Broadway Books, 2012

Spoiler Alert ⚠

5 Stars

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book – Gone Girl

July 2013 was a difficult month.

I had ordered Gone Girl for beach reading on a very rare family vacation. I hadn’t been out of the country for 12 years and was looking forward to it. The book didn’t arrive in time, so I lay in the sun for hours without a summer blockbuster to enjoy. While the food, beaches, and people of Nassau were wonderful, due to various reasons I came back from the trip in bad spirits. And there, waiting in my mailbox was Gone Girl, a work of fiction to befriend me in my time of illness and self-pity. It became a twisted friend, one that fed upon my sickness and bad feelings.

Spending so much time in the heat was not the smartest thing to do for someone with lupus. A massive flare-up occurred, with a fever registering at 105.5˚F. Much worse, despite the many visits to the vet, my sweet little English bull terrier was suffering from a terminal illness. I couldn’t move out of bed to care for her properly. Plus, there were family matters to deal with that were unsettling. (In retrospect, those issues were trivial, but being sick with my beloved doggie dying didn’t make for rational thoughts). I was angry at everything: my body, my family, and the vets. I couldn’t do anything but lie there a dizzying fog, where occasional moments of lucidity and strength allowed me to flip the pages and read.

Gone Girl fed that dark place inside me with even more darkness. At the time, I was not in a state to process it in the right perspective.

The plot appears simple. A wife goes missing. The clues left behind can mean only one thing: someone killed her. The person most likely to have done it was the husband, Nick. A media firestorm ensues as the search for wife Amy leads to startling revelations about a seemingly perfect marriage.

Alternating with Nick’s narration are entries from the Amy’s diary, giving us an insight into the marriage before the disappearance. We are fed little bits of information, piece by piece at a time, molding the reader’s opinion like potter’s clay. Then events then take an odd turn and we see our perspective has been skewed all along. What we are told is not always true. Gillian Flynn created a warped, revolting world about two people so horrible that they destroyed everything in their path because they were selfish fucks.

Which horrible person do we root for? The side you pick may say something about you, something disturbing.

I’m ok with that. No doubt about it, I’m on Team Disturbed.

Here Be Spoilers & Rants

First of all I loved Amy. I know she is a horrible person and in real life I would run away from anyone who was 1/10th as crazy as she was. But as a character, she had me rooting for her 100%. Yeah, she was evil, but so is Hannibal Lecter and readers, moviegoers, and TV-watchers root for him. Why doesn’t Amy get any love? Those wheels in her mechanical brain were always turning. Even when things didn’t work out as planned, she always kept rolling and going on to something new. What she did to Nick was a wicked thing, to set him up for her murder, hoping he’d get the death penalty. Regardless, it was she who drew me into the story, not Nick.

I am satisfied that at she got her “happy” ending, as messed up as it was. If you watched “Breaking Bad” and loved Walter White even at his most evil, then you might find Amy sympathetic. Then again, maybe not. One could argue Walter had legitimate reasons to down a dark path, although it was his ego that kept him on it. Amy was always ego, a broken human being who wasn’t truly a person, just whatever persona she decided to put on. God, I loved her.

On the other hand, I loathed Nick. I hated his fake good guy identity. He was a liar, a thief, and a cheat. If Amy was a sociopath, Nick was a narcissist. He walked through life with his good looks and expected women to take care of him. Unlike Amy he did become self-aware and own up to his flaws, but it wasn’t enough to turn him into a good guy hero. Nick was perfectly content to have his sister pick up the slack at work, his wife pay for his bills, and his mistress take care of his sexual and emotional needs. Plus he was dumb, a fatal flaw in a character.

Nick takes his wife’s money to start his dream bar in his sleepy home town, far from their life in New York. He gets do what he wants and live his life while Amy sits home and waits for life to happen. Screw that. He’s no hero.

Then again, Amy’s certainly no heroine.

On the scale of evil, she’s far worse than Nick. Amy is a liar, a psychopath, a stalker, a killer. She frames innocent people for crimes and delights in ruining peoples’ lives. She is beyond redemption. Nick is merely a scummy, mooching adulterer. He pales in comparison.

Despite that, Amy’s entertaining as hell and fun. She’s so crazy that even in my sick haze, I kept reading to see what she would do next. Her “Cool Girl” rant is one off the most enjoyable passages I’ve ever read in modern books. It had me nodding, “Hell yes!”

Opinion of Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn excels at characterization. She never writes about good people. In her books all the people are different levels of suck. You wouldn’t want anything to do with these slimy, twisted characters (Save for Go, Nick’s sister, the only “sinless” character in this book. And the baby, of course!)

Nick and Amy are both the protagonists and antagonists; both are villains in a story with no heroes. Many readers hated the ending, thinking the bad guy got away with it all, but I liked it. It’s a perfectly perverse conclusion for a perverse romance. Although it was a bit rushed (a commonality among Flynn’s endings).

The concept of how people forge intimate bonds with media images of beautiful crime victims while demonizing the suspects is depicted in Gone Girl with perfect, biting satire. Flynn’s books deal with sharp themes on what it means to be a “man” or “woman.” She is by far the most entertaining, insightful, and well-written author of the recent popular-phenom books I’ve read, blowing away those over-praised duds by silly Dan Brown and humorless Stieg Larsson.

Of her three novels so far, Gone Girl is my favorite, which is saying something, as her other two other books, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, were incredible dark reads. I anxiously await Flynn’s next book. It can’t come soon enough!

The Da Vinci Code By Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, Doubleday, 2003

2 Stars

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Book – The Da Vinci Code

When I was a kid, I adored the Saturday morning cartoon “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo.”

 photo pupnamedscooby.jpg
Remember this ABC Saturday a.m. cartoon, kids? No? Damn, I’m old.

It was my favorite incarnation of Scooby Doo as it was bright, colorful, amusing, and kept me wanting more. While reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, I was reminded of this series, only because I was amazed that a made-for-children animated program had more wit and mystery than this mess of a book. I started to read this and went into a tizzy. What the hell was Brown guy thinking? Did millions of people worldwide truly take this poorly-researched, poorly-written junk seriously?

The plot isn’t complex: Langdon Brown, Harvard professor of Cryptology, or some such nonsense, is in Paris to give a lecture and then meet the overseer of the Louvre. But before Langdon can meet him, the art scholar is killed. Langdon is called by police to go to the Louvre to solve some puzzling clues. A mysterious young beauty, Sophie Neveu, arrives and then Langdon is soon considered the prime suspect of the murder. The two flee from police, while solving “complex” puzzles that lead to more clues.

Meanwhile, in Rome, Bishop Arringarosa, head of the secretive organization, Opus Dei…

The Right Reverend, His Excellency, the Bishop

…has sent his henchman, Silas, a self-flagellating, albino monk who wears brown robes and wraps barbed wire around his thigh so it constantly bleeds (because that’s the kind of guy who blends into a crowd) to make sure a secret regarding the Holy Grail—-one that could destroy the whole Christian faith—-is never revealed.

The book was obviously written with its eye on Hollywood (I haven’t yet seen the movie, and this book doesn’t inspire me to do so). Langdon is referred to looking like “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed” and Dan Brown admittedly wrote the character of Bezu Fache with actor Jean Reno in mind. I enjoy good pulp-fiction, a potboiler that leaves you on the edge of your seat, waiting to know what happens next…but this book was not that kind of read.

For people with ADD/ADHD like me, The Da Vinci Code is split up into short chapters, which should make for easy reading. However, they usually end with nail-biting cliffhangers such as:

“Now, I’ll tell you the rest of the story.”

Or: 

“I can’t drive a stick-shift!”

Dun-Dun! Can you feel the suspense?

Lots of Action: Running and Talking, Driving and Talking, & More Running and Talking!

The pacing is all wrong; the book is 450+ pages long and 90% of the action takes place over 12 hours. Perhaps my definition of a fast-paced novel is different than Brown’s: to me, it’s not one set in a short period of time, but one where a lot of action and suspense occur. Stuff happens here, but mostly it’s just running: Langdon and Sophie escape from the police, they hide though out the Louvre, then drive through the streets of Paris to the countryside to meet a friend, fly to England, hide some more, and skulk their way to another museum, always fleeing from police and bad guys.

All the while, there are a lot of stupid questions asked by supposed code-expert Sophie. Langdon’s long-winded explanations of facts that Sophie should be more than aware of are ham-handedly inserted to enlighten the reader. Thrown in are lots of extemporaneous, long speeches about what this work of art represents plus stupid flashbacks. For example, as they’re pursued by cops, Langdon thinks: “Hmm, this reminds me of the time I was sharing my divine knowledge with prison inmates in a speech about the ambiguous sexuality of the Mona Lisa. She’s really a dude. That blew the their minds. I’m so smart, heh-heh.”

There is another flashback where Landon describes the Fibonacci code to a class of Harvard students who are shocked and dumbfounded that such a series exists in nature.

Really? A 15 year-old-stoner who’s watched Darren Aranofsky’s misnamed “Pi” knows the relevance of this basic sequence!

There are plenty of other silly ideas, such as Langdon stating that the Greeks used the word Eros as an anagram for rose. But this makes no sense because “Eros” is Greek and “rose” is English or French. In Greek, rose is ρόζα which translates into roughly “rhodon” or “rodon,” and the alphabets are different besides!

Brown claims in the painting The Last Supper there is a disembodied hand holding a knife at Jesus’s back. In every version I’ve seen, it’s Peter who is holding the knife. (Ok, some art historians claim that it was added in a restoration of Leonardo’s work, as he was such a master of the human form that it makes little sense to have Peter in such an awkward, unnatural pose.)

But Brown is no religious historian either; his “facts” should in no way be taken as such. He’s an average pulp writer trying to make a controversial book and sell copies, and by hitting those divisive notes he shows himself to be a better salesman/promoter than author.

It’s Just Fiction, Relax…

I realized to take Brown’s errors with a grain of salt as I had a huge epiphany about halfway through this book. In a startling revelation, Langdon points to his Mickey Mouse watch and discloses that Walt Disney, like numerous notable historical figures, was one of the keepers the Holy Grail’s secret. Many of his films were filled with hidden “Easter Eggs,” such as the “The Little Mermaid” where Ariel’s red hair makes her a perfect match for Mary Magdalene!

And I finally got it, slapped myself on the forehead, and exclaimed, “D’oh!”

Dan Brown is screwing with the reader and had a jolly old time laughing his way to the bank.

Like the—ahem—History Channel’s program “Ancient Aliens,” he throws so much crap and conjecture that some might figure, well, even if 1% of what’s said is true, then this changes everything! We are through the looking glass, people!

Dan is both a hack and a genius! What’s more he made himself known as a “preeminent” author and made a ton of cash!

Thankfully, I got this e-book for free.

Opinion of The Da Vinci Code

As long as I’m entertained, I can tolerate a silly plot. For me, the Da Vinci Code started out as horrible, then mildly irritating, then unintentionally quasi-hilarious.

If you want to find something amusing that skewers sacred cows, I suggest watching the South Park’s “Fantastic Easter Special” episode, which was snot-flying-from-the-nose-hysterical and revealed the Catholic Church’s true secret:

 photo truepope.jpg
Papa Lepus

If you want a nail-biting action-thriller, look elsewhere; as far as I’m concerned Sidney Sheldon’s reputation as “The Master Storyteller” is still safe. If you want to search religious or artistic truth, seek non-fiction, documented sources. Brown might claim his facts are so, but some simple research will show otherwise.

Far from being the engaging blockbuster that I had heard, I found The Da Vinci Code to be an unremarkable let-down filled with flat characters and silly “twists.” Christians of all stripes, Gnostics, atheists, agnostics, historians, lovers of art, readers who enjoy characterization or fast-paced thrillers or even mildly entertaining books, all these people should be offended, because if you’re paying good money for an appealing story, this isn’t it. But like I said, I got it for free, so there’s that.

This was a frustrating read, but it wasn’t so boring that I hated this thing. That’s a positive, I suppose.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins, Riverhead, 2015

SPOILER ALERT ⚠

2.5 Stars

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Book – The Girl on the Train

Everyone at some point in their life has fallen into despair. Perhaps we have all experienced a moment where we want to lapse into oblivion and forget everything awful that ever occurred. When there is no hope, there can only be a dark, deadly, void.

From the moment I picked up Paulina Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, the main character intrigued me. Here is a woman, Rachel, an alcoholic divorcee, unemployed and unable to have children. She is prone to blackouts and has deep psychological issues. Her husband, Tom, left her for sexy Anna, a younger woman, with whom he has a baby. Now the new happy couple lives in Rachel’s old house, a house she passes every day as rides the train into London, to a job which she no longer has.

Just a few houses down from her old home lives another couple: a young, beautiful pair, into whom Rachel puts all her feelings of hope. Now here is a truly happy couple. She doesn’t know their names, so she builds a life for them in her own head: a perfect life, calling them Jess and Jason.

But then Jess goes missing. Where did she go? What happened?

Little by little, ugly truths are revealed. Jess’s real name is Megan and her husband’s is Scott. Everyone in the book is a suspect, especially Scott, Rachel, and even a ham-handedly placed “red-herring.”

An Imitation of a Better Book?

This book has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and it should, for there are similarities.

–The word “Girl” is in the title.

–A supposedly perfect married couple and a blonde, possibly pregnant, wife goes missing and the husband is accused.

–There are crime groupies (In this case, it’s the main character).

–Use of first-person-present tense and unreliable narration that alternates from character to character to add a sense of confusion.

–A supposed critique of upper-middle-class marriages.

But while Flynn’s writing is gleefully over-the-top, her characterization rapier-sharp and spot on, The Girl on the Train is self-indulgently mopey. At first I felt so bad for Rachel, a woman callously screwed over by life. But does she shake herself off, say “Eff you haters!” and make things better for herself? No. She just whines and drinks and sulks. And while she has every reason to be angry with life, at a certain point it’s just too much! She makes for a very unlikeable character, and not in a good way.

That is the major difference between Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. While Amy is irrefutably an evil, messed-up person, she takes control. Shit happened to her, but she is no victim. She will rule her life by any means necessary. Psycho stuff, for sure, but hell of an entertaining read. Perhaps Amy is not the perfect ideal of feminism, but she is a not someone who lets people screw her over. Rachel is just a sad-sack of misery, she should have just left town and moved on. I’m not an encourager of suicide, and Rachel was leading down that path, so it’s no fun to watch.

Weak Female Characters

Actually, in “The Girl on the Train” every woman is just there, saying, “Woe-is me! There’s nothing I can do about life, but pout and pine or do really stupid things and make it worse.”

Woman A: “My life sucks. It’s my ex-husband’s fault. Why did he make me so unhappy?”

Woman B: “My life sucks. It’s my husband’s fault. Why can’t he make me happy?”

Woman C: “My life is starting to suck. I’ll wait for my husband to do something about it and if he doesn’t, then I will…Maybe. But I’ll give him lots of chances first.”

The one character I felt awful for was Scott, the missing girl’s husband. 

If male-imposed misogyny was the theme of this book, then it failed. There was only one male who was a real woman-hater in this. The rest of the women-haters were the women themselves.

This book was popular enough with readers to become a motion picture.

I was conflicted about it. The ending is a major reason why.

Spoilers Ahead

The first half of this book is quite entertaining, with the plot zig-zagging and coiling to keep you guessing. But halfway through, the first mystery is revealed, and now instead of wondering what happened, it’s all about who did it.

I expected a twisted, dark ending, something on a par with Susanna Moore’s In the Cut. After a month of reading Agatha Christie, I was in the mood for a modern murder mystery with shocking revelations.

However, the ending was so predictable. The villain just sits there and does that “Let me tell you what I did and exactly how I did it” routine that just annoys me.

The crime is “solved” and the killer is dispatched.

I thought it would have been a perfect set up to have Rachel sent to prison for Megan’s murder. There Rachel is, standing before a stopped train that is filled with bored commuters looking on as she stabs her ex-husband in the neck in front of his shocked wife.

The way Anna was written, it would have made sense if she accused Rachel of being the killer. Anna had tons of documentation of Rachel’s drunken harassment and stalking. With a little bit of ingenuity, the real killer would have gotten away with it, albeit still dead. And poor Rachel would have suffered the consequences. Now that would have been an ending. 

Opinion of Girl on the Train

I listened to this mostly on audio while also reading it on the Kindle. Perhaps it was the soothing British accents that made this book tolerable instead of a wall banger. It’s one of those bestsellers that everyone is reading, and might even be a major motion picture in a couple of years.

To a certain extent I liked it, at least the premise, but there were many problems with the execution, so it’s a mixed rating.

Drive by James Sallis

Drive, James Sallis, Poisoned Pen Press, 1995

1 Star

Rating: 1 out of 5.

The Book – Drive

When the best thing about a book is that at least I can say I’ve read it, that’s sort of like saying: “Oh, chicken pox, I had that once! Root canal with Novocain wearing off, yup, I know the feeling! Hemorrhoids and explosive diarrhea, I hear you!”

Well, you get my drift…

Writer James Sallis’ so-called neo-noir crime-thriller novella, Drive, reads like something that would be assigned in a freshman English college course. It’s a terrible, post-modern action tale with tons of characters, ever-changing POVs, and a time-line all skewed so that important events happen in the middle instead of at the end, therefore losing any impact on the reader, and you don’t care when the story’s over.

It’s also one of the most boring books I’ve read. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has directed three of the most boring movies I’ve seen: “Valhalla Rising,” “Bronson,” and “Only God Forgives.” So how did these two artists combine together to make a movie I loved?

The film and book are so different; this is one of those rare cases where the movie excelled and the novella fell flat. Ryan Gosling played Driver as a man of few words who forms intense attachments to a select few. The Driver of this book is verbose and has lots of friends. It had to be the retro 80’s style and awesome soundtrack that fooled me into thinking the book would be just as slick and enjoyable as the film.

This book belongs in the ninth level of literary Hell, consigned to those who commit treachery, as I was duped into thinking this would be a masterpiece. I purchased this book thinking it was going to be an intense crime-noir; instead it ended being a crime that made me snore.