Two Book Reviews – The Sparrow and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I have been in Spain for almost 3 weeks – just soaking up the sun really and doing what I do best – philosophy. Okay, okay so I know the saying: a philosopher is someone who has abandoned (left?) their community. But I rarely get time to think properly so it was nice to have some time. Plus Spain at this time of year is gorgeous and …. NOT RAINING.

I did manage to squeeze in some reading: The Lost Road by Tolkien (well, by Chris Tolkien as much as John, but nevertheless an interesting take on Atlantis), A Spanish/English Dictionary and phrase book (yep- I plan to retire there so I have to learn), The Sparrow and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Not sure if I will get both the latter reviews down tonight but I want to say something so I will give it a go.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

I must admit, I have a big problem with this book. I have many smaller problems and I will start with those: first of all I found myself on page 5 and still not really engaged. I was no wiser what the premise of the story was until around page 100! I had to keep rereading the back cover to remind myself why I had got suckered into trying it. Basically loads of people had recommended and of course it sells very well, so being an author, I wanted to see what this guy had got. I soldiered on but when I came to a bit which said (and I am writing this from memory because I simply don’t want to open the book again): ‘She pulled him down to her breasts. Then she asked him if he wanted to stay the night.’ I threw the book down in disgust. “Women just don’t say that!” I shouted at my apartment walls. There was much worse to come and while the main protagonist’s mistress was a dominatrix editor and super-stunning (apparently) she seemed to be a docile sop in bed. I just couldn’t buy it. I had to literally force myself to read on because several times I felt sick at the stupid misogyny that seemed to fester within these dark pages. Every woman in the book seemed to either suffer an extremely unpleasant and violent death or cause one. I was nervous for Lisbeth – the eponymous character of the book’s title, thinking that she too would meet some awful, sticky end and I won’t give the plot away by revealing her fate. I also found that I guessed the main ‘twist’ in the tail of the story by page 120, although I was partly wrong. I was close enough to make reading the rest rather pointless but I soldiered on just so that I would qualify to write a review. How can I criticise if I haven’t read?

I found this a deeply disturbing book to read. The reason: It’s clear somebody has made a lot of money from the author’s three main novels which were only complete as manuscripts at the time of his death. It’s a publisher’s dream: no author to dispute layouts and edits or even to dispute the way it’s been marketed. I feel that this is why the book has become so successful, not because of any proper merit it deserves. That’s not to say that the author wasn’t very talented – I just think it reads as a first draft (albeit correct grammatically) and the author could have made something much better had he the time to re-edit it himself. Even with that in mind, I don’t think the book would have had the success, had not the publisher had free rein to market it as they pleased. This is my main problem with the book.

Returning finally to the misogyny which is unsuccessfully masquerading as feminism (in my view), I was not placated with the choice of Lisbeth as the subject of the book’s title. I think this is a last-minute attempt to make the author look like a feminist. I also found her character (and near all the others) quite unbelievable for the most part. Impossibly precocious and with an intellect and wisdom that most octogenarian philosophers would envy, she did make me care a little, but not enough. I really didn’t care much for the business aspects of the book which dragged on well past the climax/resolutiohn and in general I found the book cold and uncaring about its characters. It also grated somewhat that the deaths (where they occurred) of male characters were very much less painful and grotesque than those of the women, which again underlines my impression of a barely-concealed misogyny underpinning it all.

I would definitely not recommend this book to an impressionable young women who might just be taken in by the chique-death gallery of this book.

The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell

This was a more promising book than the above book, from the start. Character-driven sci-fi is for me! The book is an unusual, but certainly pleasant, melding of sci-fi, religious treatise and study of both characters and how they cross barriers in different societies. I most enjoyed the much darker interludes set in Rome and other parts of Italy after the return of the mission to the alien planet, during which the Jesuit priest at the centre of the tale is delicately inquisited by a modern collection of religious grotesques. I also very quickly fell for both alien species and loved the descriptions of their planet and cultures: something I attempted recently so I know how difficult it is. All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable read from beginning to end. The pace was good, the premise was set up early and the bits you really wanted to know didn’t come out until the very end of the novel.

On the down-side, I found the constant jollity, which the author seems to believe (probably correctly, although I couldn’t say) suffuses American culture at the moment, a bit irritating. The tirelessly (and tiresomely, for me) upbeat Ann actually got me down a bit and I couldn’t buy at all the way the men politely, and chivalrously maneouvred around the supposedly gorgeous ‘Mendez’. If she really was that gorgeous, men would not, in my opinion, be that reverent and polite to each other. This may be a misconception on the part of the author: that men can’t be just as nasty as women when it comes to envy and jealousy. It would have made a better read if they had been. In fact, the ‘crew’ of the mission to the alien planet all seemed rather too good to be true. There was not a hint of ‘darkness’ in any of them: no envy, possessiveness, greed and certainly nothing like cruelty or ambition. This meant that one of the alien species had to carry all the burden of nastiness, which seems a little unfair. The book moved increasingly towards a more sexual theme too, which I didn’t mind at all, but the complete absence of any graphic descriptions of sex I found off-putting. Sex is hard to write about, I agree, but to skip over it every time meant that the climax when it came, lacked a good deal of power. Anyway readers are just as nosy as real people would be – constantly on the search for something to stir the senses. The book badly lacked sensuality.

On the whole though, a very good book.


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