Books: February 2012

by macksemil

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE – STIEG LARSSON

There are no innocents. There are, however, different degrees of responsibility” – Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played With Fire

I think that I picked up the first one of these because my father had read and enjoyed them. I don’t remember when I picked up the second book – must have seen it for cheap somewhere. This is the second installment of the popular series by Stieg Larsson. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series (originally called the Millemnium series in Sweden) was catapulted into the popular eye after Larsson died of a heart attack at age 50.( Coincidentally Larsson’s father died of a heart attack at age 50 as well. ) The manuscripts for the novels were found and published posthumously. The project was something that Larsson enjoyed writing in his spare time, on evenings after working as a magazine editor. Which leads me to believe that one of the main protagonists, Mikael Blomkvist, is a supercharged version of Stieg Larsson. According to wikipedia there is a dispute over the ownership of possible other installments of the series, with the late author’s wife on one side and family on the other.

Mikael Blomkvist is the James Bond of investigative journalism, exposing corporate scandals and sexing up whichever Swedish babe throws themselves at him at the time. (They even picked Daniel Craig to play Blomkvist in the US version of the film!) The other protagonist is a mysterious computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander who spends her time throughout the novel studying math, beating the crap out of people who mess with her and getting laid as much as possible. Sex is a major theme in this book, but none of it has much bearing on the story, the characters just have sex with eachother a lot. But we all love sex, you say? True enough, and I can’t fault anyone for wanting to read a sexy crime novel. However, ending every other chapter with “…and then they boned.” got a little trying for me.

 The book moves at a good pace and kept me hooked. The plot gets going once a young couple writing an expose of the human smuggling sex trade for Blomkvist’s magazine Millenium are gunned down in their apartment. By a series of coincidences Mikael is the first to arrive at the scene, and another main character’s fingerprints were found on the murder weapon. It turns out that the pistol used is registered to one of the bad guys from the last book – who is also found dead. The police are stumped, and employ the help of a private security firm where Salander used to work. From here it all speeds up and gets a little more strange with each chapter.

Over all it was a hit and miss book for me. While I enjoyed some things about the book, namely giving the nasty bad guys an ass kicking, the plot was stretched pretty thin in a few places. Larsson throws in some really out there characters which don’t help with this – a retired boxer, a giant genetically-deficient hitman unable to feel pain, an aging ex-Russian spy in hiding. The book is fast paced and exciting but in the second installment there’s more CSI-style cop meetings to trudge through. This might be one of those stories which is better told on film. Alright Stieg, I’ll ease up. The book is fast paced and suspenseful with some original ideas and hey, they got real popular. That’s cool. While it didn’t leave me with any sort of lasting impression it did keep me entertained for a few days.

BOOK -O-METER SCORE: 5/10

THE HUNGER GAMES – SUZANNE COLLINS

Destroying things is much easier than making them.” -Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

 This is the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy. My mother got me this book as a Christmas gift after hearing all about it. I hadn’t heard a thing about them but arrived back to work in Alaska this year to half of my co-workers reading or having read them. It seems to have captured a following, similar to Harry Potter and Twilight. It’s targeted at the same audience as HP and Twilight; middle schoolers. I read this book like I watch movies, by trying to force myself to pay attention until things start blowing up and dying. I thought Hunger Games was a tepid, watery broth made of equal parts  Ender’s Game, The Running Man, and Hatchet.

The novel builds a world called Panem, built in the post-apocalyptic land of North America. The brutal capitol government rules the “districts” with an iron fist. The protagonist Katniss is from Appalachia (District 12), known for mining. Her father died in the mines and Katniss was forced to support her mother and little sister by sneaking under the district fence and foraging in the forest. Each year the capitol selects two children from each of the twelve districts to fight in a competition at the capitol, the Hunger Games. The residents of the districts are forced to watch as their children battle to the death on television to remind them of the capitol’s control over their lives. Katniss’s little sister Prim is picked against all odds, but Katniss volunteers to go in her place.

There’s some other stuff that happens between then and when the kids start killing eachother, but I forgot what it was. I have a vague recollection of a fashion show and some dialogue between expendable characters. What little I do remember leads me to believe that the rest isn’t worth the effort to recall. In the arena Katniss uses her advantage of skill in the forest to outwit and out survive the other contestants. I thought that this part of the book was pretty decent – it was fast paced and involved children bludgeoning eachother to death with whatever was at hand.  The author thankfully only wasted about half of this section on the sappy love story and reserved the other half for the fun part.

The real value that I found in this book was its real world applications. In my opinion we should be requiring The Hunger Games reading at all schools and assigning the students to design different ways of killing their classmates in the post-apoctalypic future. Secondly, the amount of rage against the machine that this novel is capable of  inspiring in young minds should entice them into radical politics even before they go to college.

If you are 14 or younger – read this book.

If you are over the age of 14 – here is a list of suggested reading which should give you everything that The Hunger Games offers and much much more: Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card, 1984 by George Orwell, Hatchet by Gary Paulson, Running Man by Richard Bachman, The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Alas, any effort to get kids to destroy their potential high school love lives with Science Fiction fandom is probably in their best interest in the long run anyway. For this reason alone, I have added a point to the Book-O-Meter score.

 BOOK-O-METER SCORE : 4/10

DAYS AND NIGHTS OF LOVE AND WAR – EDUARDO GALEANO

We walk along the Barcelona boluvards, fresh tunnels of summer, and we draw up to a stall where birds are sold. There are cages for one and for several birds. Adoum explains that in one-bird cages a little mirror is placed inside so the birds won’t know they are alone.

Later, at lunch, Guaysamin talks about New York. He says he has seen men there drink by themselves at counters. That behind the row of bottles there is a mirror and sometimes, late at night, the men throw their glasses and the mirror shatters to bits.” -Eduardo Galeano, Days and Nights of Love and War

Eduardo Galeano was reccomended to me by friends that I visited in Colombia last year after I asked about their suggestions for books on Latin American history. Galeano is most famous for his other historical works, The Open Veins of Latin America and the trilogy Memory of Fire. Days and Night of Love and War is set during Galeano’s eleven year exile from Uruguay and was originally published in Cuba. The book won the Casa De Las Americas prize in 1978.

Galeano has a very unique writing style. It took me a little while to get used to. The pace he sets with his unique organization was a little bumpy at first. I settled into the rythym nicely after a few dozen pages and was thereafter lost in Galeano’s prose. His style is a mix of journalism, mysticism, short story, biography and history. The entries are divided into blocks of text ranging from a few sentences to five or six pages. They are listed under different headings, some of the headings are unique and some repeat throughout the book. Under each heading is a story or anecdote from Galeano’s life. Taken as a whole they represent a patchwork quilt of memory that paints a sweeping portrait of South America in these tumultuous years. While the scope is vast, Days and Nightsis a deeply personal book.

Days and Nights is an ode to life and a condemnation of those who suppress the beauty in people. Eduardo takes us through his career of writing for various magazines as his friends and loved ones are kidnapped, , imprisoned, tortured and killed by the secret police of  authoritarian dictatorships. Galeano himself was jailed and targeted for murder for his writings under the oppressive Uruguayan and Argentinian regimes in the 1970s. He tells of surviving malaria, losing God, visits with important political figures, guerillas in the mountains, temporary lovers, authors, artists. Galeano speaks of his personal struggles but also the struggles of those who have no voice to do so; the very poor and illiterate, the executed and assassinated, those on the edge of sanity. The terror imposed by the authorities is an overriding theme. Galeano champions those who live boldly in the face of the ever-present violence. I got the feeling from this book that Galeano always had the hounds of the state on his heels.

There are powerful lessons in this book and Galeano’s writing is a pleasure to wade through. It is a tightly packed book, I finished the 168 pages feeling like I had just read the story of someone’s whole life, perhaps many peoples’ lives.  Days and Nights of Love and War it is a declaration of the triumph of the human spirit over repression. I’ll definately be reading more of Galeano’s work soon.

BOOK-O-METER SCORE: 10/10

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