"....few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into [her] heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memories to which, sooner or later - no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover or how much we learn or forget - we will return." -Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind

Friday, January 13, 2012

My brilliant friend Maisie

I love book series. I appreciate their pace. With the first book in a series I get to know a little bit about the character and the author begins to draw me in to what will hopefully be a lifelong relationship. As I read each subsequent book, I gradually get to know my new friend. What I especially like about a series is that I am shielded from the sadness that usually comes with the end of a good book because I know that with the next, I will get to spend more time with my pal. 

I sometimes ponder what my life would be like without Easy Rawlins or Precious Ramotswe, two of my favorite book series characters. They mean a lot to me. They are my teachers. They provide lessons on what goodness looks like, how to make a hard decision and live with the consequences, and how to learn from history. They also make me laugh.  A lot. I measure a book's worth by how much I would like to live in it. If only they would ask, I would kiss my husband goodbye and move in with Easy or Precious in a hot minute.

My latest series-love is Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. I have just finished reading the eighth (and at this point) last book in the series: A Lesson in Secrets. What can I tell you about Maisie? She comes from humble beginnings. Her father was a costermonger in pre-World War I London. What, prey tell, is a costermonger? Exactly!  This is why I love Maisie. She introduces me to all sorts of things that I wouldn't otherwise know about. And,  they are all worth knowing.

Her mother died at an early age and her father sent her into service. At her employers' home, Maisie not only worked hard, she also had the opportunity to discover a world of intellectual opportunities through the mistress' library. When she was caught reading books in the middle of the night, she was afraid she would be fired, but instead was offered the chance to be mentored by a great scholar.

While it may sound like a typical Cinderella story, it is most decidedly, not. Maisie's life takes many twists and turns, including a stint as a nurse in World War I. After the War, Maisie must regroup and put her life back together. She becomes a private investigator and psychologist. A large part of her success is the result of the careful cultivation and reliance on her intuition. Maisie doesn't solve cases on facts alone. She has feelings and understandings that go beyond what can be observed. Maisie possesses extraordinary ways of knowing.

Doesn't she sound brilliant?

The books aren't just about Maisie. They are about English society before and after World War I; the changing role and position of women in that era; and how people persevere in the face of devastating loss and poverty. Maisie Dobbs novels are about London and the English countryside and how new technologies (namely the motor car and the telephone) changed them both. They are also about those who have, those who have not and the consequences of injustice.

I hope you will introduce yourself to Maisie and become acquainted.  Please tell her Huff sent you.

Do you like book series?  Why or why not?

Photo credit: Author

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was not for me

GalapremiƤr av The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo i Katrineholm by katrineholmskommunDue to academic pursuits, I have been imprisoned in an ivory tower for these last two months. I was unable to engage in any activity not residing at the bottom of Maslow's triangle, including reading.

After fulfilling my sentence, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, was my first read. Given its popularity, I may not need to justify my selection, but now having read the book, I feel compelled to do so. The first reason I chose this book was that I was at the airport about to board a plane empty-handed, and the airport book store had a limited selection. I was also curious what all the hype was about, and I don't recall ever reading a book set in Sweden.

We quickly learn that our man, a journalist, has been convicted of libel for a story he wrote about a billionaire's shady business dealings. He subsequently leaves his job as publisher of the magazine and accepts a contract position to write the family biography of an aging tycoon. He will also be looking into the disappearance of the tycoon's niece which occurred some decades ago. The job pays handsomely and seems easy enough, so he sets about his work.

There are many layers to what goes on next. The family he is chronicling turns out to be harboring a number of awful secrets, including more than its fair share of Nazis and alcoholics. Some of these secrets just might play into the disappearance and suspected murder of the niece. Through a contrived series of events, our journalist teams up with an unlikely private investigator (who happens to have a dragon tattoo). Their relationship develops into both a professional one, in that they both become obsessed with solving the mystery of the disappearing niece; and a personal (and predictable) one, in that they could be falling in love, or something along those lines.

A couple other themes emerge in the telling: the unmitigated corruption of industry and its leaders, supported by the collusion of investigative journalists; and ethical quandaries faced by writers when they are provided with incendiary material by anonymous sources. 

The mystery is interesting. It spans six decades and involves an intricate web of characters. So, yes, I enjoyed the unraveling of the mystery.  But, the violence in the book is beyond what I wanted to endure. It is too much and it just keeps coming. It is gruesome, happens in unexpected places and frequent. I just kept thinking: please stop!

I've read that Mr. Larsson witnessed an extreme act of violence against a woman when he was young and spent some of his life trying to atone for not helping the victim. I applaud him for bringing the issue of the frequency and severity of violence against women to light, but enough already. 

The characters are the second problem I had with the book. In addition to the journalist and the girl with the dragon tattoo, there are a few other central players. Very few of them are likable, or even interesting. They lack depth and are fairly predictable. 

I can only recommend this book if you don't mind horrific violence, don't care much about characters and enjoy a good mystery. 

The original Swedish title of the book, translated to English, is Men who Hate Women.  This is a far more apt title, given its content. I guess the publishers didn't think American audiences could swallow it. Well, this one couldn't.

Did you like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

Photo Credit: katrineholmskommun