Monday, February 01, 2010
BooksFirst - January 2010
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The Confusion by Neal Stephenson
The Doll's House by Neil Gaiman
For National Just Read More Novels Month, I decided to go for quality over quantity. The goal was to read the best books I could instead of just the most.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo doesn't count towards NaJuReMoNoMo since I started it way back in October. This book by the now deceased Stieg Larsson is huge word-of-mouth hit. At least part of it is the oddly exotic Swedish setting. Another factor is the slightly kinky narrative and the titular OCD fantasy girl.
A disgraced business journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, is lured into investigating a decades old disappearance. As with most murder mysteries, there is more to the tale than what first appears. The original title translates from the Swedish as Men Who Hate Women and there are plenty of them in this novel. We are talking some world-class brutal misogynists in this book. The creepy sado-masochistic scenes are more than disturbing.
I'm not quite sure what really explains the runaway success of this book. While it is a thriller, it is hardly taut. There are sub-plots that go nowhere. Blomkvist and the tatted up researcher don't cross paths until half-way through the book. Among the major characters are dozens of similarly named red herrings floating around. The novel could easily be a hundred pages shorter and not lose much. It was a good book, but didn't quite live up to the hype. Perhaps I am missing some clue, but I'm just not seeing what everybody else does.
Recently I have been running across lots of greatest science fiction lists and one of the books that kept coming up was Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. I'm not a big fan of military science fiction so I've never given this book a shot, but in a way it's the anti-Starship Troopers. Rather than glorify combat, it emphasized the random futility of warfare. Written in the Vietnam era, it has remains just as relevant today, if not more so. The edition I read has much longer, bleaker middle section than the original novel and it adds much to the tone.
Only now do I realize how much other novels owe this book. The relativistic time dilation that made the gap between Ender's Game and Speaker For The Dead plausible was in here. The detailed spaceship battles of A Mote In God's Eye resemble the maneuvers detailed here. I imagine nearly every book with a hint of interstellar combat owes it some amount of debt.
The book is not without its flaws. The sexuality is painful even when it is trying to be hip and open-minded. The minor characters are flat and often have a whiff of red shirt on them. But overall, this book is thought provoking. With a canvas of centuries, it paints an interesting panorama. It's a haunting book. One that drifts back into your periphery even when you think it's gone.
The real goal of the month was to make it all the way through the middle volume of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Taking place just after the events of Quicksilver, The Confusion follows the separate exploits of Jack Shaftoe and Eliza as they maneuver through pirate infested waters and the courts of Europe respectively. Tying it together is a MacGuffin load of mysterious gold.
For an eight-hundred page book that deals with banking and international commerce, the narrative is riveting and compelling. About half way through the book when I realized where the narrative arc was going, I became fascinated with the epic scope of the tale. Way more than a picaresque tale, it became a dissection of the world at a specific moment in time. There is real ambition here and for the most part, Stephenson pulls it off. It is more than a compliment to say that the undescribed interstitial episodes are probably more fascinating than other entire novels.
Despite being the middle book of a trilogy, it has very satisfying conclusion while still setting up the conclusion. After racing to the end I had to face the grim realization that there are nearly another nine-hundred pages in the saga. It won't take me until the next NaJuReMoNoMo to tackle them.
Having completed The Confusion a day earlier than planned, I still had time for one more book if picked the right one. For a fairly johnny come lately fan of Neil Gaiman (goth-lit rock god), it is perhaps surprising that I am unfamiliar with his magnum opus, the Sandman series. I read the first two volumes from the library but hit a dead end. Since then I have been picking up later books at locally run comic-book stores when I am near them.
The second true volume, The Doll's House, except for a single interesting sidebar story, tells of Morpheus hunting down some of his wayward minions. Along the way there are plenty of disturbing nightmares about abuse and torture and obsession. In the middle there is also an odd meta-swipe at the delusions of the traditional superhero type. Visually dense, the story requires careful attention to track the imagery and symbolism that are as important as the words.
So my final count is two novels and a graphic novel, so I'm giving myself the triple winner badge.