Thursday, April 30, 2009

Library Loot 4

I stopped in at the library on my way home today and found an embarrassment of riches awaiting me on the hold shelf.

The War Against Miss Winter by Kathryn Miller Haines was a LibraryThing recommendation, prompted, I'm sure, by my recent addition of the latest Maisie Dobbs to my collection. It's the first book in a mystery series featuring Rosie Winter, an aspiring actress in WWII era New York, who takes on a part time job at a detective agency and finds herself involved in a more dramatic bit of sleuthing than she anticipated. In a cover blurb, Rhys Bowen declares: "Haines perfectly captures the feel, sights, and sounds of New York in the 1940s." It sounds promising, does it not?

When I clicked over to Amazon in search of a description of the aforementioned Miss Winter book, another recommendation in a similar vein popped up. Apparently those who purchased it sometimes also purchased Million Dollar Baby by Amy Patricia Meade. The latter is the first instalment in yet another historical mystery series featuring a spirited female sleuth, one Marjorie McClelland, a young mystery writer who begins to find her life imitating her art in 1930s Connecticut. Definitely worth a look, I thought.

Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism by George Grant is one of those books that I've heard so much about that I feel as if I've read it even though I haven't. But an excerpt from Michael Ignatieff's new book, True Patriot Love, which recently appeared in The Globe and Mail presented a view of Grant's work that diverged markedly from the impression of it that I'd gleaned from other sources. Clearly, it's high time for me to read it for myself and arrive at my own conclusions.

In my last library loot post, I mentioned my newfound appreciation for Martin Millar's work and my determination to read all of his books. Next up in that venture is Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me, the catalogue copy description of which strikes me as very odd but entirely irresistible.

Recently, wearied by reading a couple of 500+ page novels back-to-back, I put out a call on Facebook seeking recommendations of slim, minimalist novels. My friend Susann suggested Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald. Here's a snippet of description from the jacket copy: "This marvellously witty book, while it doesn't pretend to be an accurate history of Broadcasting House, tells what it was like to work there during the spring and summer of 1940. This was the time when the Concert Hall was turned into a dormitory for both sexes, the whole building became a target for enemy bombers, and, in the BBC as elsewhere, some had to fail and some had to die." I've long been meaning to read something by Fitzgerald, and this book sounds like an excellent place to start.

And, finally, I picked up a trio of books by or about Astrid Lindgren. It won't surprise you to hear that all that musing last week about the Pippi Longstocking/Lisbeth Salander connection set me off on an Astrid Lindgren binge. I began with the Pippi Longstocking books, a number of of which I own and had read several times before. But now I'm ready to branch off into a couple I've not previously encountered. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson made reference not just to Pippi but also to a Lindgren character who was new to me, boy detective Kalle Blomkvist. Another blogger tipped me off that in the English translations, Kalle Blomkvist became Bill Bergson, so I typed that name into the library catalogue and turned up Bill Bergson and the White Rose Rescue, a neat little volume which is packaged much like a Hardy Boys book. I ordered a copy of The Robber's Daughter as well, which I'm told is one of Lindgren's best books. And also, for a bit of context, Astrid Lindgren: A Critical Study by Vivi Edström.

It was a joy today, albeit a bit overwhelming, to find that these books had appeared on the hold shelf for me so quickly and all at once. The library is truly a miraculous place. And now, I'd better get reading.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

It's a good thing that so many people raved to me about Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; otherwise, I might not have persevered beyond the first thirty pages. In the early going, it seemed to me to be too densely detailed and, frankly, not all that interesting. Quite a bit of background was required to explain a complicated financial fraud that set the story in motion, and that sort of thing makes my eyes glaze over. But around about page thirty, Lisbeth Salander, the tattooed girl of the title, made her first appearance, and from that point on I was riveted. I had to cancel everything else I had planned for the day because I couldn't stop reading. It proved a mind-bogglingly good book in the end—yet another triumph in Scandinavian crime fiction.

I won't attempt to sum up the plot. It's too complex to be boiled down in that fashion and, in any event, I don't want to give anything away. Suffice it to say that there were several twists, and I didn't see a single one of them coming. Riveting plot(s) aside though, the greatest strength of the book for me lies in the characters, particularly the aforementioned Lisbeth Salander who strikes me as a wholly original creation. I read somewhere that one of the inspirations behind Salander was another famous figure of Swedish literature, Pippi Longstocking (and Astrid Lindgren—as well as several fine authors of crime fiction, Swedish and English—is name-checked more than once in the text). This is a bit horrifying to contemplate, as I hate to imagine Pippi living through some of the experiences Salander has had to endure. Yet it also seems perfect, as Salander certainly shares Pippi's grit, independence, and eccentricity.

Author Stieg Larsson died before the book was published, at the tragically young age of fifty. But he had already submitted two sequels to his publishers along with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. So even as we lament the loss of a great writing talent, English readers still have two more novels to which to look forward. The second in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire is not due out in English translation in North America until July, but it was released in the UK in January. I think rather than waiting patiently for July, I'll be putting in an order for the UK edition at The Book Depository pronto.


I did a bit of digging to find the source of the Lisbeth Salander/Pippi Longstocking connection and found this quotation from an interview with Larsson cited in a newspaper article:

Salander's character [...] was inspired by the strong-willed redhead Pippi Longstocking in the children's books by the late Astrid Lindgren."What would she have been like today? What would she have been like as an adult? What would she be called? A sociopath?" Larsson told book store industry magazine Svensk Bokhandel in the only interview he did about his crime fiction. "I created her as Lisbeth Salander, 25 years old and extremely isolated. She doesn't know anyone, has no social competence."

Then I came across a marvellous post by blogger Dorte Jakobsen in which she explores the parallel in depth.

Finally, lest I've given the wrong impression with all this talk of Astrid Lindgren, I ought to make clear that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a decidedly adult book which is at times very violent (though, even in my squeamish opinion, not gratuitously so).

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Latest Library Loot

I picked this lot up yesterday at my beloved local library:

Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (translated from the Swedish by Lois Roth): Contemporary Swedish crime fiction is garnering a great deal of attention all over the world these days. But apparently it all began several decades ago with the Martin Beck series penned by husband and wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Roseanna, initially published in Swedish in 1965 and and in English translation in 1967, is the first in this ten-book series. I recall having trouble tracking down English translations of these books at one time, but a number of them have been re-released by Random House in the past year (with more to come), so now I get my chance. (Did I mention that I'm going to visit Sweden for the first time this summer? Expect my reading of Swedish literature to ramp up in the coming months in anticipation of that trip!)

How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater by Marc Acito: I relish a good comic novel, and my friend Melody, who has impeccable taste in books, gave this one a rave review on Goodreads recently.

Advice for Italian Boys by Anne Giardini: A post by Kerry at Pickle Me This alerted me to this one. I gather that the main character in the novel is a personal trainer and much of the action takes place in a gym, and I can't help but be curious about a literary representation of a setting that is currently so familiar to me.

The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar: I recently read Millar's Lonely Werewolf Girl after having my interest piqued by a post about it by Colleen at Chasing Ray. I loved every minute of that book and upon reaching the end immediately resolved to read everything else Martin Millar has written. So, next up is The Good Fairies of New York. Click through to the descriptions of each on the Soft Skull site, and tell me if you can resist them!

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers (audiobook, narrated by Ian Carmichael): I'm a fan of Dorothy Sayers and I'm always on the lookout for audiobooks to enliven my stints on the treadmill at the gym, so I took note when Litlove praised the BBC's audiobook series of Sayers novels narrated by Ian Carmichael. I put several on hold and, after many months of waiting (they must be much in demand), this is the first one to turn up.

A good haul, all in all, wouldn't you say?

Saturday, April 04, 2009

That Side Door into a Story

Abigail Thomas on why she gives assignments in her writing classes:

I give assignments in my writing classes because it's hard to make something up out of a clear blue sky. Two pages is all I ask, and it doesn't have to be a story. It doesn't have to be anything. It can contain a character who shows up out of breath. It can contain a lake and a bunch of swans. There can be conversation or silence. It can take place entirely in the dark. I have learned we do better when we're not trying too hard—there is nothing more deadening to creativity than the grim determination to write. At the very least, assignments can provide a writer with a nicely stocked larder, and some notion of where the mind goes when it's off its leash. And once in a while, if we're lucky, an assignment helps you find that side door into a story you've been staring too directly in the eye.

From Abigail Thomas, Thinking About Memoir (2008).