Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

September Book Post

A month's worth of reviews, spanning the centuries from Ovid to Stieg Larsson. Enjoy.

Society Without God, by Phil Zuckerman :
The United States is arguably the most religious western Democracy. Denmark and Sweden are arguably the least religious western Democracies. Isn’t it strange and rather noteworthy, then, that it is in proudly religious America that guns are plentiful (especially handguns and semiautomatic assault weapons), the penal system is harsh and punitive, the death penalty is meted out on a weekly basis, drug addicts are treated like criminals, millions of children and pregnant mothers lack basic health insurance, millions of elderly people go without proper care, social workers are underpaid and overworked, people suffering from mental illness are left festering on city streets, and the highest levels of poverty of all the industrialized democracies is here. But in relatively irreligious Denmark and Sweden—two nations that most Americans would consider fairly “godless”—guns are nowhere to be found, the penal system is admirably humane, merciful, and rehabilitative, the death penalty has long been abolished, drug addicts are treated as human beings in need of medical and/or psychological treatment, every man woman and child has access to excellent health care, the elderly receive the finest care, social workers are well paid and given manageable case loads, people suffering from mental illness are given first class treatment, and the country boasts the lowest levels of poverty of all the industrialized democracies.

It pretty much is what it says it is. Zuckerman spends some time in Denmark and Sweden, the least religious countries in modern times (places like North Korea where dictators suppress religion by force don't count; Zuckerman is interested in the peoples' attitudes, not those of the state) and tests to see whether the absence of religion makes them any less happy or moral. The answer, which may be shocking to some but not to me is, why the heck would they be any less happy or moral?

In fact, Zuckerman's conclusions seem downright tame to me. I was getting used to the writings of folks like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, who argue that the presence of religion is downright harmful to happiness and morality. Then again, Zuckerman's observations aren't exactly conclusive science. He has interviews with a relatively small number of people chosen from the weighted sample of those who felt like talking about their nonreligion. And the selection of only two countries from the same corner of Europe is discouraging to wide conclusions. It may be that the happiness of Scandinavians is more due to the presence of legal drugs, affordable healthcare and six-foot, impossibly beautiful blonde women than to the absence of invasive church society. But then, by the time I got to the depressing final chapter comparing Scandinavian nonreligion with the excesses of the United States, it was pretty clear that, yes, some people really do need to be taught that it is "OK" and possible to live a good life without being dependent on a bunch of clergy to tell you what to do.

Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin :
She was sitting there, being fed questions, saying virtually nothing, to the point where her coaches asked Lieberman to take the lectern and start answering instead.
Schmidt and Davis arrived and were appalled by the scene they found. The room was hot and claustrophobic; the shades were drawn. The place was full of half-eaten hotel food and stank of moldering french fries. Palin, looking dazed, was surrounded, as usual, by stacks and stacks of index cards....
When Schmidt finished, he walked out in the hall and buttonholed Lieberman. “She’s down”, Schmidt said. “This whole process is affecting her confidence.”
Lieberman couldn’t have agreed more, although he wasn’t sure that having a former VP nominee show off his debating chops was the best way to build Palin up. The situation was wildly unconventional already: a Democratic Senator being imported into a top secret lockdown to assist a Republican vice-presidential candidate whose mental stability was in question. Now Schmidt asked Lieberman to perform another unorthodox intervention.
“You’re both very religious,” Schmidt said. “Go in there and pray with her.”

A very gossipy book about the 2008 campaign for President that made me feel a little bit unclean and not particularly trusting of the sources. Everybody comes off looking like a caricature of their worst political stereotypes. Barack Obama is cocky and aloof; Hillary Clinton a furious termagant who feels entitled to the job; McCain “a crazy uncle in search of a bathroom”; Biden a gaffe-prone brawler; Bill Clinton acting like he’s still President; and Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain, Sarah Palin and Elizabeth Edwards in a cage match contest for the title of bitchiest diva. (Elizabeth Edwards, of all people, reportedly wins that one in a TKO, stunning me. Then again, she’s battling advanced cancer, discovering her husband is unfaithful, and THEN expected to follow said husband around pretending nothing’s the matter. Is there anyone out there with the chutzpah to cast the first stone at her in such circumstances? Yes, there is—Heilemann and Halperin.)

Is there anyone who comes out looking worse than any of the others? Yes, there is. The staffers, named and implied, and other aides and political figures who granted interviews to Heilemannand Halperin and took big salacious dumps on the employers and supposed friends to whom you’d think they had a duty of loyalty.

Second only to them are Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt, The McCain advisers who sat down with their boss in late August and told him, “America deserves Sarah Palin”. And no, they were not angry when they told him that. I’m convinced that, but for Davis and Schmidt, we would not now have the swarm of zombies chanting about muslims and socialists and birth certificates, stockpiling guns to shoot at police officers, and preparing to send to Washington the stupidest, cruelest, most xenophobic, dangerously unhinged politicians I have seen in my lifetime. Thank you, Steve and Rick. If the predictions about this year’s election go as planned, you’ll be right. America will deserve Palin.

There is at least one decent feature to the book. It reminded me of why I supported Obama, and why I went Woo-Hoo when he won, and the incredibly deep kimchee we would be in politically, financially and socially if he had lost. At a time when I was lapsing into Bush-era cynicism, Game Change revived my hope for our President and our Country.

The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer :
The prisoner had taken a deep puff and was leaning back now against the trunk of the tree. His eyes had closed, and for the first time there was a dreamy expression on his face. Croft felt a tension work itself into his throat and leave his mouth dry and bitter and demanding. His mind had been entirely empty until now, but abruptly he brought up his rifle and pointed it at the prisoner’s head. Gallagher started to protest as the Jap opened his eyes.
The prisoner did not have time to change his expression before the bullet crashed into his skull. He slumped forward, and then rolled on his side. He was still smiling, but he looked silly now.
Gallagher tried to speak again but was incapable of it. He felt an awful fear and for an instant he thought of his wife again. Oh, God save Mary, God save Mary, he repeated to himself without thinking of the meaning of the words.
Croft stared for almost a minute at the Jap. His pulse was slowing down and he felt the tension ease in his throat and mouth. He realized suddenly that a part of his mind, very deeply buried, had known he was going to kill the prisoner from the moment he had sent Red on ahead. He felt quite blank now. The smile on the dead man’s face amused him, and a trivial rill of laughter emitted from his lips. “Goddam”, he said. He thought once again of the Japanese crossing the river, and he prodded the body with his foot. “Goddam,” he said, “that Jap sure died happy.” The laughter swelled more strongly inside him.

A war book, written not too long after the war, about a platoon of marines on half of a Pacific Island, trying to take the other half from the Japanese. The action cuts frequently between the officers and the enlisted men and culminates in a dangerous recon mission involving only the thirteen protagonists, from which not all of them will return.

Mailer pretty much takes the “put people in danger, find out who they are” theme and shows us heroism at its most exalted and at its most pointless and banal, as well as cowardice as both contemptible and as commonsense avoidance of danger. The sum is a look at the human condition in several forms.

There are battle scenes showing the glory and the stupidity; scenes explaining the good and bad aspects of the rigid military code and the chain of command; officers acting honorably and dishonorably and enlisted men doing the same. Several flashbacks involving the lives of the main characters prior to their entry into the marines, and speculation about what’s happening on other fronts and back home. In all, a vivid panorama in which you get to know and care about many characters before the things happen that tie it all together. Recommended.

In the Castle of my Skin, by George Lamming :
Africa invades us like an invisible force we dare not acknowledge, fearing the journey may take us beyond the boundaries of our approved instruction. And all this subliminal life goes on in spite of the determined resistance of the official institutions. The white myths, firmly planted by conquest and enslavement, have been internalized, and continue to work like litmus on the black rock whose history we have not yet summoned to our rescue.
Sometimes the twilight darkens and threatens to obliterate all memory in the tidal wave of capitalist consumerism. America spreads itself like a plague everywhere, capturing the simplest appetite with the fastest foods and the nameless fripperies the advertising industry instructs us are essential needs. it is this obstacle the world of the ancestral spirit may not survive. A new class of black housewife now flies from these islands to Los Angeles for some novel brand of underwear. The barbarism has become the style of a new ruling group: a new breed of professional nationalist who may be heard in international councils arguing the case for a new economic order. They are the adolescent offspring of that slave culture which has persisted through school and college, university and people's parliament.

One of my all-time happiest memories ever is of a time when I visited the island of Barbados and parties on a pirate-themed boat ride with a perfect steel band and perfect spiced rum punch and the most perfect clear-turquoise ocean to swim in at the perfect temperature. I didn't want to leave. George Lamming's autobiography is about the other side of that English coin, about a childhood spent living on that island paradise as one of the people who don't leave and who don't have money for party boat rides.

Yes, they dive for coins thrown into the water by white tourists. Yes, they clean houses and are overseers for the rich white landlord and chase the poor who trespass on the spacious grounds. Yes, their school has them chant Biblical lessons of white superiority until they learn to feel inferior. Mostly, though, they keep to themselves, having fun trying to catch crabs by the shore or putting pins on the railroad tracks to be run over and made into knife blades.

Like Anderson's Winesburg Ohio or Naipaul's Miguel Street, a lot of the book is an homage to everyday people who can't read it, the writer having declared an affection for the place and the people and learned what there is to learn about them before...yes, leaving. After the events of In the Castle of my Skin, Lamming went to get a real education in Trinidad, then England, and finally became an American professor, a part of the country he blames for the Caribbean’s problems in his early book.

Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome :
The boy listened while the able-seaman told him all she knew about treasure islands. She knew a great deal. She told him how pirates captured ship after ship and took all the treasure out of each ship and made the crew walk the plank and fall into the sea to feed the sharks, and then how the pirates sank their prize and sailed on to capture another, to be emptied and sunk in the same way. She told him how, when the pirate ship was so crammed with treasure that there wasn't room for dancing on the decks and the pirates could hardly get into their own cabins when they wanted to go to sleep, they sailed to an island and buried the treasure in a safe place. She told him how they made a chart so that they could come and find the treasure when they were tired of pirating and wanted to retire and live in a house by the seashore, where they could spend their days looking out to sea with a telescope and thinking of the wicked things they had done. ("Or live in a houseboat, like Captain Flint", said Roger.) She told him how pirates always, or nearly always, lost the chart and how the treasure seekers ("That's you and me") sometimes found the treasure instead of the pirates. She told him how sometimes the pirates fought among themselves till none were left, so that nobody knew where the treasure was. ("But we know, because I heard them putting it there.") She was still talking about it when they heard Susan calling from the camp and, paddling back to the island, put on their shoes and stockings and ran to the camp for tea.

I found this one on a "how many of these have you read?" list, and it rocked my world, even though I haven't been in the target demographic for years. Where was this book during my childhood by the lake?

It's pretty simple. Two households, two boats, six kids, and one big lake with a lot of islands and coves to explore and camp on and give pirate names to. And the Swallows and the Amazons (that's what they name their boats) have friendly rivalry and very serious parleys and plan pirate mayhem together and learn about things like blazing trails and making landing lights and speculate about the treasure that the grumpy man in the houseboat may have. Their mission: to make as much fun and mayhem on the pirate seas before the holidays end.

The Redhead and her sister have long loved their children’s book serieses by LM Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Apparently the world of Captain John and Able Seaman Titty and the others is a whole 'nother series in a similar vein, with boats. If it continues in the vein of the first, they’ll end up using their boats as pretend space rockets and enacting the precursor to Spaceman Spiff Versus the Menace of the Overcooked Broccoli People. Probably best read in a boat on the lake, but a yard with sufficient foliage and animal life on a nice Autumn day will do just fine.

The Planet of the Apes, by Pierre Boulle :
When she spoke about men, I knew she meant bestial creatures endowed with a certain sense of imitation and presenting a few anatomical similarities to apes but of an embryonic psyche and devoid of the power of thought.
"It was only a century ago," she said dogmatically, "that we made some remarkable progress in the science of origins. It used to be thought that species were immutable, created with their present characteristices by an all-powerful God. But a line of great thinkers, all of them chimpanzees, have modified our ideas on the subject completely. Today we know that all species are mutable and probably have a common source."
"So that apes probably descend from men?"
"Some of us thought so; but it is not exactly that. Apes and men are two separate branches that have evolved from a point in common but in different directions, the former gradually developing to the stage of rational thought, the others stagnating in their animal state. Many orangutans, however, still insist on denying this obvious fact."

This one was written in the 1960s, but reads like something HG Welles or Jules Verne might have written 70 years earlier, both in terms of the stiltedness of the perpetually astonished two-dimensional everyman narrator and in the shallowness of the speculation. In a trope as old as Jonathan Swift, Boulle reverses the roles of two species, steps back and says, "Oooh! Neat, ain't it?" Apes wear the clothes and talk and the humans grunt and are kept naked in zoos where they throw dung at monkeys. Booga-Booga, kiddies!

Of course, we've come too far in our S-F for Boulle's level of depth to be really interesting. I've seen better alternate worlds in which North America was settled by Africans who enslaved the Europeans, and that was just interchanging racial backgrounds, not species. I've seen worlds in which you watched the everyday behavior of what seemed like just an interesting foreign culture, and later learned that you had been reading about raccoons and otters the whole time.Apes on a planet? Ah well, at least you know what you're getting straight off.

Pretty brief, and worth reading once. The ending is different from the movie, too, so you don't know exactly what's coming. But after that, you may be sick of all the motherf***ing apes on that motherf***ing planet.

The Metamorphoses, by Ovid :
Without another word, seething with silent rage, she prepared for her terrible deed. Even so, when her son came close and greeted her, drawing down her head with his little arms, kissing her and prattling childish endearments, the mother was shaken. Her anger was checked and, against her will, tears gathered in her eyes. But as soon as she felt her excessive love for the child weakening her resolution, she turned away from him again, to look at her sister’s face. As her eyes went from one to the other, she upbraided herself, saying: “Why does one of them speak to me so lovingly, while the other has no tongue to speak at all? Why does he call me mother, when she cannot call me sister? See the kind of man you have married, you, Pandion’s daughter? You are not worthy of your father! It is criminal to feel affection for a husband such as Tereus!”
She hesitated no longer, but dragged Itys away to a distant part of the lofty palace, like some tigress on the Ganges’ banks, dragging an unweaned fawn through the thick forest. He realized what was in store for him and, stretching out his hands, cried, “Mother, Mother!” and tried to throw his arms around her neck. But Procne drove a sword into his side, close to his breast, and did not even turn her face away. That wound alone was enough to kill him, but Philomela took the sword, and cut his throat as well. While his limbs were still warm, still retained some vestiges of life, the two sisters tore them apart: the room was dripping with blood. Then they cooked his flesh, boiling some in bronze pots, and roasting some on spits.

This is the kind of book of tales Valente (In the Night Garden, last month’s bookpost) was reacting to. In 355 pages, 15 chapters, this single volume distills most of the ancient Greek myths into Reader’s Digest form, with emphasis on “metamorphosis”, the transformations of people by the dozen into trees, flowers, animals, birds, fish, Gods, flames, you name it. If it existed in the old times, someone was changed into it, either as punishment or as tribute or out of love or out of pity.

There’s no way out of it. If you piss off the gods, they’ll change you. If you endear yourself to them, they’ll change you, or a different God will be jealous of the first one’s affection, and change you. If you mind your own business, you’ll probably find Diana or Pan or someone changing in the forest, and be changed into something. If you wrap yourself in cotton wool and never leave the house, they’ll get curious about what you’re doing in there, and they change you! Punch in late, and they change you! File a faulty complaint, and they change you! Omigosh, is that a BLUE LETTER?....

I’ve never seen so many myths squashed all together like that at once. Looked at in this form, there’s enough oathbreaking, betrayal, adultery, rape, incest, child-murder, parent-murder, tricking other people into killing their beloveds, feeding people the flesh of their dead children and lovers, if it’s evil it’s in there, all on the part of Gods and mortals alike to give even the Old Testament a run for its money in the Disgusting Scripture Olympics. Ovid seems to go out of his way to make the myths worse than the originals, or perhaps they’ve been sanitized and rewritten by educators with an agenda over the centuries. For example, I was always taught that Arachne foolishly challenged Minerva to a weaving contest, and was changed into a spider for her pride because she lost. In Ovid’s version, Arachne actually defeats Minerva, and is supposed to receive praise and honors as her prize, and the Wisdom Goddess herself is so overcome with rage at having lost (“I cannot bear to lose!”) that she changes the winner anyway. You don’t have to play by the rules when you are a God, apparently. Then there’s Atalanta, the fastest runner (and don’t even get me started on how the really cool chyx, the hot tomboys who worship Diana, are forbidden to love boys as a condition of having their superpowers. Worst game-rule ever, except maybe for the one that says that, for a man to win their love, he has to defeat them.), who, it is implied, could probably have outraced Hippomenes, gold apples and all, but lets him win on purpose ‘cause she wants him. In Ovid’s version, the heroine and her boy-toy go off to live happily ever after, except that on the way, Venus is hot for Hippomenes and becomes jealous of Atalanta, Diana’s favorite, so she causes them to get excited and make love in a temple before their wedding, thereby enraging different gods, guessed it, change them! They become wild beasts, and later the same beasts kill Venus’s beloved Adonis, which leads to further tragic mayhem.

Best in small doses, on an empty stomach.

I See Rude People, by Amy Alkon :
The more high-tech and complex our world gets, the more people tend to romanticize "the simple life". Now, maybe you're a better person if you live in a cabin in the woods with no TV, electricity or running water--or maybe you're Ted Kaczynski. Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, now lives in more modern surroundings--a federal prison where he's serving a life sentence for maiming and murdering numerous people to sound the alarm about the "tyranny" of a high-tech society.
We have a tendency to get all misty-eyed about early men and women, painting them as "noble savages" living in Bambi-like harmony with nature while selflessly looking out for each other. The reality? They had the same genetically programmed tendencies to lie, sneak, steal, cheat, and behave like thoughtless buttwads that we do today. But, back then, being seen as greedy or narcissistic or being caught scamming another member of your band could get you voted out of the cave and forced to go it alone--very likely a death sentence in an environment not exactly rife with Motel 6s and 7-Elevens.

I have mixed feelings about Amy Alkon.

1. My old college humanities texts by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau about ManInAStateOfNature would be a lot more fun and readable if they had used phrases like "Thoughtless buttwads" to say what they meant.

2. Alkon ("The Advice Goddess" on her blog) is one of those women, like Molly Ivins and Barbara Ehrenreich, who make thinking look easy and can fell giants at ten paces with devastatingly funny bon mots. Her picture shows an attractive, confident-looking redhead that You Don't Want To Mess With. I See Rude People is funny and readable, and I had an immediate urge to praise Alkon as my new heroine.

3. Once I got over my initial impression, Alkon started to give me the creeps.

For one thing, she wants to bring back "public shaming", like when the Mennonites pointedly turn their back on you for days whenever you walk by, because you farted in church. or some of the guys in town get together and burn down someone's store because he's rocking the boat by selling to the coloreds. Most people I know who talk wistfully of the days of "public shaming" are either religious assholes, Republican assholes, Religious-Republican assholes, or people who have just been hurt in such a big way that they're temporarily not themselves and are coping by venting some poisonous hatred. They're the kind of people whose one true purpose in life is to seek out people who can be deemed "No Good Shits" so they can Dump on them. Alkon has compassion, but only for those who deserve it.

For another thing, I couldn't shake the feeling that the writer's "Goddess" persona was a fictional Mary Sue character manufactured for her by the publishers, and that she's really somebody else entirely....someone who is using her “advice to be nice” as makeup to cover some serious blemishes. And sure enough, before too long she’s scolding murdered drug addicts for their poor choices (it’s OK, they can’t hear her) and citing the “we’re hardwired into the traditional roles established by Our Savannah Ancestors” theory of robotic humanism. Even her revenge stories seemed contrived. How many of you who have had to listen to annoying people talking loudly into their cell phones in public have had them announce their names, phone numbers, or other info that would enable you to track them down and tell them how obnoxious they were? I don’t think I ever have.

I’m disappointed. I wanted to like her, but I’m pretty sure we’d annoy the living shit out of each other if we ever met. Even so, there’s no denying she’s smart and funny most of the time, and even makes sense more often than not. Don’t take my word for it; go sample her blog here ( ); if you like those entries, you’ll probably at least be amused by I See Rude People.

Lost Horizon, by James Hilton :
The chief factor in the government of Blue Moon, Chang went on to say, was the inculcation of good manners, which made men feel that certain things were "not done", and that they lost caste by doing them. "You English inculcate the same feeling," said Chang, "in your public schools, but not, I fear, in regard to the same things. The inhabitants of our valley, for instance, feel that it is "not done" to be inhospitable to strangers, to dispute acrimoniously, or to strive for priority amongst one another. The idea of enjoying what your English headmasters call the mimic warfare of the playing field would seem to them entirely barbarous--indeed, a sheerly wanton stimulation of all the lower instincts."
Conway asked if there were never disputes about women.
"Only very rarely, because it would not be considered good manners to take a woman that another man wanted.
"Supposing someone wanted her so badly that he didn't care a damn whether it was good manners or not?"
"Then, my dear sir, it would be good manners on the part of the other man to let him have her, and also on the part of the woman to be equally agreeable."

After reading the real-life Tibetan adventures of Heinrich Harrer (Bookpost, November 2009) and Alexandra David-Neel (Bookpost, February 2009), Hilton's fictional tale of a supposed idyllic paradise in a lamasery that nobody else knows about seemed downright tame. With the exception of one important detail that might spoil the novel if I talked about it, it's Buddhist life far from anywhere and glossed over to be seen as the best it can possibly be, without any of the corruption or bandits or yak dung. Four occidentals find themselves there after a plane crash and gawk about for a while about how serene it all is and how happy the people are, and have various predictable reactions (like clockwork, one of them wants to start a mission and make them all into Christians, another one wants to mine the place for gold, a third spends the entire book becoming more and more deperate to leave and go home, while the last one, the enlightened one, decides to join the sect and live there forever, far from the madding crowd and all that). And then the very short book is over before the characters or the culture of Shangri-La can be set forth in more detail than that.

Then again, it could have been worse, and been like Islandia (Bookpost, January 2010), and gone on for 900 pages of encyclopedic detail about the place. Lost Horizon may have been innovative in the 1930s; it doesn't seem to have much to say today. Then again, my paradise is more the tropical island with forests kind, not the glacier kind.

Hitch-22, by Christopher Hitchens :
Another young man lodging at the same address was Bill Clinton. I don’t recollect him so well though my friend and contemporary Martin Walker, later to be one of Clinton’s best biographers, swears he remembers us being in the same room. The occasion was to become a famous one, since it was the very time when the habitual and professional liar Clinton later claimed that he “didn’t inhale”. There’s no mystery about this, any more than there ever was about his later falsifications. He has always been allergic to smoke and he preferred, like many another marijuana enthusiast, to take his dope in the form of large handfuls of cookies and brownies.

Christopher Hitchens reminds me of my most contentious internet pals who argue about everything under the sun, in part because he defies ideological classification. He simply has his own moral compass, and is unswervingly loyal to it. He’s the only person i can think of who has ripped into Mother Theresa, Bill Clinton, Christianity, Islam, the bush dynasties AND Ronald Reagan. I’ve agreed with him and found him to be a clever, devastatingly witty poke in the eye to smug authority. I’ve disagreed with him and found him to be a drunk, pompous idiot and pawn in the hands of smug authority.

I’ve also read memoirs and diaries this year alone ranging from Andre Gide to Helen Keller to Anne Frank to John Howard Griffin to Kafka. Hitchens’s is by far the most entertaining.

In the 1950s, he’s going to English schools where floggings and bullying are still encouraged as character-building experiences, and meeting the future literary and intellectual leaders of his generation. In the 60s, he’s there in Castro’s Cuba, Prague during the uprising, and psychedelic London. In the 70s, he’s acquiring dual citizenship and rhapsodising about New York and DC. In the 80s, he’s getting turned on by Margaret Thatcher (Ewwww!) and, according to him, being the only one on earth to stand up for Salman Rushdie. In the 90s and beyond, he’s all over Saddam Hussein, opposing Desert Storm and then standing up for regime change. And always, anyone who doesn’t take his side is an idiot or willfully siding with evil. Aren’t politically opinionated people fun? It’s hard to tell whether he’s my soul brother or my enemy. He also serendipitously refers to at least six books that I've read this year alone and many more from years past. I find our similarity in bookish tastes and in role models both comforting and scary.

Hitch-22 is an amazing book for anyone who argues about ideology, especially if, like Hitchens and I, you’re the type who makes up your own mind about what is right, without regard to authority figures or the weird and inconsistent packages associated with “right” and “left”. You may learn by example and warning to avoid some of the mistakes made by gadflies past. You may get a strange desire to sit at a bar with a salon consisting of him and your most contentious internet debaters and annoy the living shit out of each other. Very highly recommended.

Herzog, by Saul Bellow :
If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.
Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there. But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong. He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the sun. He was so stirred by these letters that from the end of June he had moved from place to place with a valise full of papers. He had carried this valise from New York to Martha’s Vineyard, but returned from the Vineyard immediately; two days later he flew to Chicago, and from Chicago he went to a village in western Massachusetts. Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead.

Some books, I get around to too late in life for them to be of use to me (see Anne frank, last month’s post). This one, I came to too early. Let me try it again in 20 years and see if I like it then.

Herzog is the story of the mid-life crisis of a middle aged Jewish schlamazel and intellectual, the kind who can’t decide what to eat for breakfast without phrasing it as an ethical question. As the story opens, his second wife, who has been robbing and cuckolding him, is taking him to the cleaners in a divorce, and he’s numbly shrugging and allowing it to happen because, hey, what can you do? Make a fuss? He spends more than the first half of the book having flashbacks, pondering the meaning of life, and drafting rambling, unfinished letters that, I guess, are supposed to make Moses Herzog into a Job figure or an embodiment of how the human condition hasn’t really been changed over the centuries. Only later on does he finally take some actions (and stop writing those weird letters) and begin to pick up the pieces and find purpose to his life, after a lot more suffering, flashback and present. I’d say he was “finding redemption”, except that it seems to me he’s much more sinned against than sinning.

I couldn’t get into it. I’m too young and too fortunate to be that depressed, and those of us who aren’t generally take pills to avoid the states of mind that Herzog goes through. There is humor, but it’s the kind of humor used as a defense mechanism so that you don’t cry.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson :
The rules for social interaction in school had always baffled her. She minded her own business and did not interfere with what anyone around her did. Yet there was always someone who absolutely would not leave her in peace.
In middle school she had several times been sent home after getting into fights with classmates. Much stronger boys in her class soon learned that it could be quite unpleasant to fight with that skinny girl. Unlike the other girls in the class, she never backed down, and she would not for a second hesitate to use her fists or any weapon at hand to protect herself. She went around with the attitude that she would rather be beaten to death than take any shit.
And she always got revenge.
Salander once found herself in a fight with a much bigger and stronger boy. She was no match for him physically. At first he amused himself shoving her to the ground several times, then he slapped her when she tried to fight back. But nothing did any good; no matter how much stronger he was, the stupid girl kept attacking him, and after a while even his classmates began to realize that things had gone too far. She was so obviously defenseless it was painful to watch. Finally the boy punched her in the face; it split open her lip and made her see stars. They left her on the ground behind the gym. She stayed at home for two days. On the morning of the third day she waited for her tormentor with a baseball bat, and she whacked him over the ear with it. For that prank she was sent to the head teacher, who decided to report her to the police for assault, which resulted in a special welfare investigation.

Bottom line: I’m on Team Love It.

I had to wait behind over 100 people on the library’s reserve list to get at the three Stieg Larsson books. Fortunately, the library had many copies, and I ordered them all at once so I won’t be waiting too long for the others. I read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in public places and had random people come up to me and point at the book while giving confidential thumb-up gestures. It’s not hard to tell why, as the book combines the best elements of a spy thriller, a locked room murder mystery, a girl-power story and a dysfunctional rich family soap opera.

Of the two main characters, one, Mikael Blomqvist, is pretty much a standard investigative protagonist with a lot of moxie and integrity, who is given an offer he can’t refuse, to investigate the decades-old disappearance of the most promising member of a dysfunctional Swedish industrial dynasty. The other protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, the punk supergirl hero who leaves William Gibson’s Molly, Seanan McGuire’s Toby and John Green’s Margo in the dust, is the one who has everyone talking. If you don’t see what the fuss is about early on, stick with it. Eventually, Mikael and Lisbeth DO meet and put their talents together, and that’s when the magic really starts to happen.

I’m told there’s a Team Hate It out there that has somehow decided Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is misogynistic, I suppose because of some nasty and potentially triggering descriptions of abuse of women and girls. Misogynistic is when abuse is described in such lascivious detail that it seems the author is getting off on it and wants the reader to as well. Misogynistic is when it’s implied that women bring harm on themselves by not being careful or submissive or something. Drawing attention to the problem is not approval of the problem; it’s embarrassing to have to point that out. Larsson is clearly advocating an end to the violence (he even intersperses statistics on abuse between the chapters), and the villains definitely get their comeuppance. When one of them tried to force himself on Lisbeth, my immediate thought was, “Oh, that asshole is SO going to wish he hadn’t done that!” I was not disappointed. Lisbeth is written to give the outward appearance of being physically, mentally and socially helpless, easy prey for the predators. Half the fun is watching the predators discover she isn't helpless; the other half is watching Mikael discover the benefits of having her in his corner. that's why, the next time someone asks me, "Pirates or Ninjas?", I will say, "Lisbeth!"

There’s a lot of interesting detail about Swedish society and high finance. The mystery part suffers a little from having one twist too many. I recommend it highly. Of course, to The Redhead, Larsson is just another of my outdated dead white-guy authors.

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