You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

When reading a book that has had a lot of hype, there is always the question of whether the book lives up to all the hype. A book must be on the bestseller list for a reason, right? I've heard a lot about Stieg Larsson and his novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so I was excited to finally read it.

The book has two main characters. Mikael Blomkvist is a financial journalist who has just been convicted of libel for a story he wrote about a wealthy financial tycoon. He and his married girlfriend Erika Berger run a financial journal called Millennium that is now in trouble of coming apart due to the libel suit and the advertising drying up. Blomkvist gets an offer from a different wealthy tycoon, Henrik Vanger, who is an elderly retired CEO of the Vanger group. The offer is ostensibly to write a history of the Vanger family, but the true goal is to investigate the disappearance of Henrik's great niece Harriet Vanger who vanished from the family island nearly forty years earlier. Blomkvist, who is at the low point of his career, accepts the offer partly because he has little else he can do, and partly because Vanger says that he has valuable information on Wennerstrom, the plaintiff of the libel suit.

The more interesting of the main characters is Lisbeth Salander, a twenty-five year old woman who has a gift for investigations and hacking, despite being a social misfit who is unable to relate to others and a ward of the state. Her distrust of authority, and specifically her refusal to talk to the police, become major points in the story. When her new advocate takes advantage of her, instead of notifying the authorities she takes matters into her own hands and blackmails him. This action looms over the rest of the story as we wonder what else Lisbeth might be capable of. She is clearly outside the mainstream.

Blomkvist studies the case for many months while staying on the Vanger family estate. He becomes friendly (and in one case more so) with some of the Vanger family, and finds that others are hateful. The Vangers have a long and sordid history that includes Nazis. Half of the family hates the other half, and they have to somehow get along enough to manage the family corporation. The history of the family provides the framework for the mystery of Harriet's disappearance; there are many suspects, though most have a sort of alibi since their pictures were taken during an accident on the bridge to the island.

When Blomkvist starts to make progress on the case, Vanger's lawyer calls in Salander to help with the investigation. Blomkvist and Salander soon end up in bed together in an unexciting sex scene. The two of them become a good team, with Blomkvist professional instincts and Salander's street smarts and l33t skills. He seems to take her diffidence (which borders on silent hostility) in stride. She does not know what to make of his sudden appearance or his interest in her life.

As a central character, Blomkvist is a bit too shallow. He is a skilled and driven investigator, which is important to a mystery story, but he seems to have no interests or life outside his work. Family doesn't come into his life. His ex-wife and daughter are only mentioned at the beginning and the end, except when his daughter drops in unexpectedly for to conveniently help with a plot point. I had expected this to develop into something more interesting, perhaps with his daughter being caught up with the same cult, or at least a similar cult, as Harriet, but the daughter disappears into the background and we lose any useful parallels.

Lisbeth is much more interesting, especially given her dark mysterious past (perhaps symbolized by her tattoos) and her unpredictable personality. She certainly takes up good parts of the story, though not enough of it in my opinion. If I were to read the sequels it would be for her. Following and empathizing with a character who is cold and ruthless is difficult, but Larsson pulls it off.

I found the writing to be plain and dull. The dialogue is bland to a fault. The words are all very matter of fact and directed to concluding the plot. The main plot itself is pretty good and unfolds nicely. The events build to a terrifying scene, and then the two detectives proceed to bring the case to a close. But the addition of a hundred pages of denouement which is basically Blomkvist pursuing his revenge on Wennerstrom seems artificial. It's a bit of a false climax after the decades old murder mystery. The two plots work well together, but it feels like the important parts are missing in the last section. The whole is a bit disappointing. B

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Thursday, September 23, 2010


Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis, was first published in 1922. It describes the life of George Babbitt, a moderately wealthy real estate broker in the prosperous city of Zenith. He has a wife, Myra, and three children. Babbitt is the iconic businessman, always ready to make a deal. He sees life through the lens of business and money, and through money the status it brings.

Babbitt is not above using shady means to get a deal. He uses his business contacts to get inside information and buy properties in order to sell them at inflated prices. Yet when one of his employees goes so far as to steal back a lease contract after getting a better offer, Babbitt is incensed at the employee. He sees no correlation between his shady dealings and those of his employee. When Babbitt gets involved at his church, it is to turn the Sunday School into a competition with the others in the city.

Babbitt is under pressure to conform, and this is largely a story of conformity: community pressure versus individual desires. Babbitt becomes known as a good orator and well liked by the city's influential men. He becomes vice president of the Boosters. He holds rousing parties, full of illegal alcohol. Even though Babbitt and his colleagues believe in Prohibition in theory, they feel it should only be intended for the lower classes. There is definitely a strong sense of class and entitlement among the peers.

Babbitt tries to fool around, though he doesn't succeed at first. He and his friend Paul, who is married to a spiteful woman, travel to New York and Chicago. But Babbitt is dismayed when he travels to Chicago on his own and finds Paul flirting with a woman. He tries to talk Paul out of doing anything he would regret, and for a while Babbitt feels better about Myra. But when Paul is arrested for shooting and nearly killing his wife, something seems to snap in Babbitt. He soon finds himself hanging around a wild group calling themselves the Bunch, and a middle-aged woman named Tanis who is a renter of his. His respectable friends look on Babbitt with dismay. When Myra returns from out of town he begins to treat her poorly, and she doesn't know what to think.

Things come to a head when Babbitt is invited to join the Good Citizens' League. At this point Babbitt must make a decision: continue to live his new wild life of freedom, or return to respectability by renouncing his new friends and new liberal politics. At first he refuses to be pressured into joining the group, but when he finds that business starts to dwindle away he changes his mind. He rejects Tanis and her friends and embraces his staid respectable married life.

Babbitt stands out as a character who's striving to fulfill his desires despite the demands of married life and the rules of society. He believes that he's always done what's asked of him and never what he really wants. His relationships with people are centered around money and status. He can't wait for his wife to leave town so he can make plans to fool around with single women.

I found the writing to be a bit dry. The first two thirds of the book get a bit monotonous, following Babbitt in his business dealings and society events. The story is an interesting snapshot of life during Prohibition. B

The full text of the novel can be found on Project Gutenberg.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Farewell to Lankhmar

Farewell to Lankhmar is the last installment of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories. The two heroes Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser have settled down on Rime Isle with their sweethearts Afreyt and Cif. There is a bit of nostalgia throughout the book as previous adventures and lovers are revisited, and the two heroes become reflective.

The first two stories bring mysterious and supernatural forces against the duo and their friends. The third story brings in their former magical patrons Sheelba and Ningauble to try to bring them back to Lankhmar and glory (Sheelba is turned into a female in this book). The god Loki awakes with a fire for vengeance against the Grey Mouser for vanquishing him. And two high ranking citizens of Lankhmar send assassins against the heroes. The two assassins become shadows of their targets, assuming the names Death of Fafhrd and Death of the Grey Mouser. When the assassins show up, the two heroes (under a curse that accentuates their distance from the world) haplessly lead them around the island until the assassination attempts are foiled. This largely involves a lot of luck and the help of their lady friends.

The final long section, "The Mouser Goes Below," is full of descriptions of previous adventures and characters from earlier stories. It comes across as a recap of the adventurers' lives, except with added commentary. Their past comes to life in the form of a love child for each of them, the backgrounds being revealed slowly and with great timing. The Mouser gets sucked underground where he watches his former Hisvet "discipline" her maidens in a pornographic scene. After being tortured by Death's sister Pain, he comes to and watches the Lord Quarmal give a lesson in treachery to his son. Meanwhile Fafhrd and the others continue to dig in the group for the Mouser. But soon Fafhrd is himself swept away to his past and finds himself floating up to a cloud ship captained by his former lover Frix. These former loves and suddenly appearing offspring provide a bit of comic relief and also dismay to their current lovers.

As a story it is a bit thin and lacking some of the fantastic elements of the first books. However the mixing of past and present provides an interesting contrast between the wild antics of their early years and the quiet businesslike attitude of their "retirement". Leiber even makes a comment about how adventurers in their retirement are often pulled out of it by others. The book is an interesting take on how the past can come back to haunt you or help you. B+

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