Friday, December 30, 2011

Review: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
Reviewed by Mary Sue Daoud, 12/30/11

Corporate espionage, libel gone wrong, sociopathic heroines with a penchant for hacking…and two villains so heinously evil and insane that they take on the exaggerated feeling of caricatures—that is the bulk of Stieg Larsson’s first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Vintage Crime, 2008).

          With all the hype surrounding the series and the movies, I ordered the book from the library and settled in. I had hoped it would be an intriguing read and a pleasant way to while away an evening.

          The book opened intriguingly enough. Journalist and magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist was just sentenced for libel against bigtime financier Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Found guilty, he was given a whopping fine that cleared him out and took with it quite a bit of the magazine. Burned out, he left on a leave of absence in order to take a break, do his jail time, and write the family history another bigtime CEO and patriarch, Henrik Vanger, hired him to do, mainly as a cover for the main reason Vanger hired Blomkvist: to take one more go at the mystery that had dominated Vanger’s life—the forty-year-old case of Vanger’s missing niece. In exchange, Vanger would give him the information and evidence Blomkvist would need to take Wennerstrom down.

          Just as in any big family, there are lots of interesting characters and subplots whose stories thicken and enhance the plot as Blomkvist uncovers their stories and motivations and dialogues with them. To help him along, Blomkvist hires Lisbeth Salander, a troubled and abused punk with a gift for research in the way of massive hacking. Together, they uncover the horrible skeletons in the Vanger family closet—graphic, violent beyond description, involving rape, incest, kidnapping, torture, murder (several actually), and a variety of other obscenities.

          It’s at the climax, when Blomkvist is in the heinous clutches of the villain, that the reader realizes that the plot has suddenly taken an extremely ridiculous twist. Such villains are far more suited to horror stories than this pseudo-realistic mystery story. Never mind that Larsson felt driven to think about and write up such dark characters—what possessed him to write a story with such believable, complex characters like Blomkvist and Salander, then saddle it with such grotesque villains? What could have been a fairly good story lost its unity and turned into a lumpy, uneven, out of proportion story with all the steam gone out of it.

          Does evil have to be so grotesque for us to realize, Oh look, that is, without a doubt, evil? What about the things the other characters do—things that are morally questionable and, in some cases, remarkably stupid, like Blomkvist having three affairs through the course of the book, one of which was a longstanding one with a married woman (and the husband knows about it and is totally fine with it.) Why is this book so popular?

          The book ends relatively happily, with the loose ends more or less tied up, and the mysteries satisfactorily solved. It could have been a believable book, too, if the antagonist’s story had matched in tone and in context. But with such disproportionate evil, the story has the feeling of being written around the antagonist, and the rest just window dressing to set him off. As he wrote two other books based on Blomkvist and Salander, that was obviously not intended.

          I don’t think I’ll be spending more time with Larsson’s stories—where is my Eliot?!

Ogma: After W.B. Yeats

I wish you peace—           
The peaceful solitude of hard study by lamplight,
Time passing quickly as the beauties of the Rose increase,
And Elysium breaks into your sight.
I wish for you its ancient days
To catch you in the Druid tune,
To mire you down in temple clays
So the light of the lamp becomes the moon
Of ten thousand years ago,
When the wind was cold and we who are old still lived on earth below.

I wish you peace—
The mournful peace of ancient splendor lost,
Robed in the Druid mist,
Of sentinel trees embossed
With an ancient script and an ancient tongue
To welcome you home when your heart is great enough to fit to mine
And the soaring final song of peace is sung,
And the notes mixed into the firmament of dark wine,
And the Danaan kind have brought you into Faerie for me, to my throne,
Where the wind is cold and we who are old now dwell in Danaan land, alone.

I wish these things for you, my love,
Because you’ve wandered long.
My wine tastes much like you, my love,
And like you, it is strong.
The song burns in my veins, my love,
The song of your new-learned tongue.
For the wind is cold and you who are young will dwell in Danaan land unsung.

So drink to all you’ve lost, my love,
For so do I.
Sing for all you’ve gained, my love,
For so do I.
For the wind is cold and we who are old now dwell in Danaan land below.

written for Poetry Class, Fall 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Pantoum

The danger of memory is that it never dies.
I was ten and still remember America’s shocked face,
And the smoke and the ash covered the skies
On the day the towers fell from grace.

I was ten and still remember America’s shocked face,
And for a time the rain meant what the poets said,
On the day the towers fell from grace
And war and dissension wed.

And for a time the rain meant what the poets said—
Complacent ash falls ghostly, thickly gray,
And war and dissension wed.
And spectral figures loom in the smoke of dead Pompey.

Complacent ash falls ghostly, thickly gray—
Obscuring the memory of the past ten years
And spectral figures loom in the ruins of dead Pompey:
The mournful strings behind the keening of our tears.

Obscured the memory of the past ten years—
And this land has written on the wall:
The mournful strings behind the keening of our tears
Still cry defiance. Hell was paid; there was no fall.

And this land has written on the wall,
And the smoke and the ash that covered the skies
Still cries defiance. Hell was paid; there was no fall:
Because the danger of memory is that it never dies.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Logic of the Bible: Creation

After twenty years, I think I'm finally beginning to get the silvery outline of the supra-rational logic of the Bible in my mind.

On the one hand, it's very exciting to know that twenty years (nine of which, I've lived consciously Christian; meaning, I know I'm under grace :) ) still isn't enough to comprehend the Word of God. Which is exactly as it should be; there's a reason why people don't worship something they totally understand. 

On the other hand, it's awe-inspiring. I love the order God has set up in the world.

I started to see it several months ago, during a philosophy class. I don't remember who we were studying, but the general gist of what we were discussing was (I think) whether it was possible for God to do something wrong. If not, we couldn't say that He could do anything; if He could do something wrong then He wouldn't be a perfect and holy God then. Of course, theodicy quite rightly was brought up.

The revelation I got was that God created the world.

Some revelation, hunh? Something I've had driven into me only since before I can remember.

But...I don't think it was ex nihilo. Or at least, out of nothing has a more limited meaning than I ascribed to it. I think creation is more properly thought of as out of God. 

Creation stemmed from the nature of God. 

An issue I suppose I have to face is how to define nothing. No thing. The absence of anything -- material and immaterial, I suppose. Physically, that makes sense. God needed no physical thing to create the world. Hence ex nihilo

But God couldn't have created the world without creativity, which implies an ability TO create, which implies an active mind and nature. In order to be created, the world NEEDS God (and of course, this is assuming Genesis). Even if before Creation, the world could somehow have existed as a nebulous floating idea (which is Platonic, perhaps, but rather unfeasible), there would have been no way to pull it into reality without the mediation of Christ.

As I believe God is sovereign, I think He did much more than just pulling it into reality. I believe HE CREATED IT. 

I have no idea how to explain what I mean, so I'm going to revert to Tolkien. In "Tree and Leaf" he wrote this:
"Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light 
through whom is splintered from a single White 
to many hues, and endlessly combined 
in living shapes that move from mind to mind. 
Though all the crannies of the world we filled 
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build 
Gods and their houses out of dark and light, 
and sowed the seed of dragons, 'twas our right 
(used or misused). The right has not decayed. 
We make still by the law in which we're made." 

He calls man a Sub-creator, through whom the characteristics of God are separated through the prism of mankind and combined again in different threads, shapes, forms, colors to create "new" things, but within the framework/structure of "the law in which we're made." That law is God's nature, out of which we and the whole world were created.

So when David in Psalm 68 asks the many-peaked mountain of Bashan why it fumes with envy, or when God asks Job in Job 38 if the rain has a father and who has put wisdom in the mind, when Jesus didn't quiet His followers from glorifying Him because the stones would cry out---it makes sense. 

I'm not suggesting some nebulous pantheistic idea here, note. All the world is NOT God (heavens to Betsy, if it was! Why put God in a box, even a very pretty one!). But how much more wonderful is the world when one looks outside and sees why the sun must rest on the trees as a benediction, and why the wind in the leaves sounds the happiness to the peace of the waves on the lake! They can't help it - they were made by a perfect God - "For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God." (I had to get to Romans at some point :D)

As breathtaking as that is, though, it still doesn't approach human limitations of logic. God created the world and, yeah, creating it out of Himself is jaw-dropping...But, it's not a perfect world.

Achingly true, that.

to be continued.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Well, I've caught up with the times?

I went to the library after work yesterday to chat with Mrs. Pensgard and get some books to read, and they're lurking in the back of my mind calling my name. I started one last night that I suppose I shall have to finish, although I don't really want to. It's the last Harry Potter. I started reading the series summer before last, I think, and I'm finally down to the last one. Boring, mediocre series -- I don't see what all the fuss is about.

There is a clear enough demarcation between good and bad; Christians don't have to be worried about that. I forget where I read it, but someone had said that what was bad about it is that it taught kids that matter can be changed by magic. So what? What're the philosophical implications of that? In fact, I think that can even be a good perception to have - depending on one's understanding of magic. Three or four hundred years ago, the breakthroughs science has reached today would seem to be magic - would CHANGE MATTER. If people didn't think that matter could serve a purpose to create something different or something previous generations hadn't imagined, isn't that a bad thing? Take it a step further: what about creation ex nihilo? Or even make it personal: when we cook or bake, aren't we changing the molecular structure of food? That's one of my favorite things about baking - that grainy-looking goop turns into delicious things with totally different color, texture, smell, taste, etc.

Haha, I was supposed to be explaining why it's mediocre. I think it fails as good fantasy because it doesn't have something transcendent it is fighting for. Let me explain. Harry is fighting Voldemort not primarily because Voldemort is bad, but because Voldemort killed his parents and wants to kill him. Perhaps that's a minor quibble, but I'm not convinced that, had Harry's parents not died, Harry would still have gone on the quest for the Horcruxes (which Rowling took an unforgivably long time to get to, anyway) with the same sort of passion. That is, if anyone can call his bratty tragic-hero-with-an-inflated-ego-bigger-than-God's-complex a proper drive to pursue the good. Granted, that could still change before I finish book 7 (I'm 450 pages in) but considering how massive the series is, it'd be incredibly difficult to do without pulling some incredible miracle out of Voldemort's nonexistent nose.

When I think of fantasy, I think of pursuing a transcendent good. That's why I love Lord of the Rings so very much - there are men of high values like courage, integrity, honor, loyalty and love, who have an appreciation for the old fading or forgotten beauty - who have saudade; who fight for the sake of conquering evil, for the sake of gaining freedom, for the sake of being free from fear, free to love, free to live life with joy and happiness. Stories like that inspire people to pursue transcendent things. Harry Potter, despite the magic, is mundane. It doesn't have overarching themes that pull the reader in and make him part of the story (well, I guess I shouldn't generalize like that. It certainly does not pull me in, at any rate.) I don't see virtues I want to emulate in Harry Potter; in fact, reading Harry Potter makes me very happy I have a mother who is blunt in telling me what's wrong with me (basically, being willing to slap me upside the head when I start pulling out angsty-ness like dear old Harry's.) It's a book written for the modern conception of teenagers, the ones who want excitement without being challenged to shape up.

That's not to say Rowling doesn't try - she pulls that whole love thing from Dumbledore in book 5 or 6, I can't remember which. There's the whole fairness to the Muggles thing as well. But how well are these pulled off? Harry the Hero is so thickheaded he doesn't understand the overwhelming love and loyalty Ron and Hermione show him in coming with him, AND he's stupid enough to push them away when he needs them the most? (cf: Ron leaving in book 7.) How could Harry allow Ron and Hermione to walk into danger with him but let Ginny stay? (Though of course she, like a good little Potterling, carries on the resistance at the home front.) Harry is so wrapped up in his own heroism and his own sufferings it IS a wonder he manages to get that far. I'm with Snape on Harry's character. And certainly, without Ron and Hermione Harry would've failed a long time ago. And about the Muggles - Hermione wipes her own parents minds, "out of love." In my humble opinion, that makes Muggles look as stupid as Voldemort thinks they are. Are there any Muggles in the story arc that are given the spotlight as good people worth saving?? Not even the woman Harry and the others save, in Book 7, looks worth saving. Rowling gives readers no reason to really pity the Muggles and want Harry to save them.

Final opinion: mediocre. Three stars. Would have been four stars if the series had been three books instead of seven. Humph.

ADDENDUM: Also, now that I'm thinking about it, I wonder if I'm not wrong in saying that I don't see why Christians make such a fuss about it. I suppose, in a sense, Harry Potter is radically opposed to Christianity. In Harry Potter, the hero of the world is an arrogant little kid with a hero complex and a lot of issues. He's extremely human, in the vulnerable imperfect sense of the word. And as a Christian, I'm used to thinking of humankind in that sense. Not that we're irredeemable, but it took a proper hero - a perfect one - to save the world. Jesus was perfect; a perfect sacrifice to offer salvation. I AM used to superhuman superheroes. Harry is very ordinary with all sorts of faults. Actually, I think that IS his weakness! Why should he save the world when there are so many better qualified than he? (Ahem, for example, Hermione! The Weasely twins! Professor McGonagall!)

This post makes me laugh. It's right on the edge of ranting and raving :P. I think next time I shall have to talk about Ayn Rand.