Monday, January 2, 2012

Gaiman, Larsson, Gaiman, Pratchett, Gaiman

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
by Stieg Larsson
Recommended Ages: 16+

This is the first book in the "Millennium Trilogy," named after the magazine published by its main character, Swedish financial writer Mikael Blomkvist. The six-part Swedish TV miniseries based on these books is packaged in the U.S. as the "Dragon Tattoo Trilogy." American audiences can now see a big-screen version of this book, starring Daniel Craig in the role of Mikael "Kalle" Blomkvist, a crusading journalist who (like the author who created him) specializes in exposing right-wing corruption—though, unlike Larsson, he does so mainly in the context of business. He is nicknamed "Kalle Blomkvist" after an Astrid Lindgren character known to all Swedes today, but whose stories have not come over to the U.S. in a big way. Adding still more confusion to this background is the fact that the book's original, Swedish title translates as "Men Who Hate Women," so if you try to start a conversation about this book with an acquaintance from Sweden, you are apt to get a blank look.

While you probably know already that this trilogy came out quite recently and is all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic, you might be surprised to learn that Stieg Larsson is no longer around to clear up any confusion or ambiguities in his books. Larsson, age 50, died of a sudden heart attack in 2004 after climbing seven flights of stairs to his office when the elevator was broken (source: Wikipedia). Keep your elevators in running order, people! We can't afford to lose good writers like that! At the time of his death, the Millennium Trilogy was only an unpublished manuscript, and a half-written fourth book was saved on the author's computer. Now see how far it has gone! Unfortunately, conflicting inheritance claims make it unlikely that any of us will live to see Book 4, finished or otherwise. So if you are as crazy about this book as millions of other readers, you will have to settle for the two sequels already published: The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (whose Swedish title means "The Air Castle that Was Blown Up").

It is obvious from these titles that the American market is more interested in the character of Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old, starved-looking, tattooed, pierced, socially awkward genius hacker who provides highly detailed background research for the clients of a major security firm, while at the same time living under a guardian because she is considered legally incompetent. I don't know if this is a result of something like Asperger's Syndrome (which Mikael Blomkvist suspects) or because of some kind of childhood trauma. (The Swedish telefilm, which I watched just after I read this book, drops some hints in that direction, but the book stays mum.) Diffident, self-contained, and elusive, Lisbeth is a hard person to get to know.

Salander gets to know Blomkvist long before he even knows she exists. She digs up his background for a prospective employer, who then hires Blomkvist in the aftermath of a disastrous libel conviction. In exchange for some real dirt on the white-collar gangster who set him up, Blomkvist agrees to write the family history of one of the oldest family-owned industrial firms in Sweden. Henrik Vanger, the retired CEO of the Vanger Corporation, sets the left-wing Blomkvist this unpleasant task mainly as a cover, while his real job is to try to solve the 40-year-old mystery of who killed a beautiful teenager named Harriet. One day, while the only bridge onto the family-owned island of Hedeby was blocked by an accident, Harriet disappeared and was never seen again. Since then, every year on Henrik Vanger's birthday, the old man has received a pressed flower like the ones Harriet used to give him. Vanger thinks the murderer is taunting him. He is convinced the killer is a member of his big, dysfunctional family, that Harriet was killed to hurt him, and that the flowers represent a 40-year campaign to drive the family patriarch insane.

At first unenthusiastic about his chances of finding anything that 40 years of police work might have missed, Blomkvist quickly realizes that he is onto something. A cryptic note in the back of Harriet's diary leads him to suspect that the girl was killed while trying to expose a serial killer in the family. Once Blomkvist brings Salander on board as his research assistant (the beginning of a relationship too complex to be missed, almost too explosive to be believed), the case starts to crack open like lake ice at the spring breakup. Suddenly both the girl with the tattoo and the journalist with a crusader's heart find themselves in terrible danger. And the truth turns out to be far weirder than either of them imagined.

Lisbeth Salander is, make no mistake, a fascinating character. Her fascination affects the men around her in fascinating ways. While they worry that she may be the perfect victim for a male predator who likes to hurt women, Lisbeth proves surprisingly resourceful, not to say relentless, in deflecting danger back onto the "men who hate women." And when you get down to brass tacks, violence against women is what this book is really all about. A lingering stench of Swedish Nazism, a brusque polemic against financial journalists who toady up to big-business interests, a subplot about corporate espionage in the journalistic field, and some "adult content advisory" worthy bedroom scenes add dimension to the tale; but what will really shock you, what will echo in your mind, what will haunt your dreams for days after you open this book, are the statistics of violence against women, including physical assault as well as rape and murder, quoted at strategic points throughout this book... and the steps the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would take to punish the men who perpetrate it.

Good Omens
by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 14+

Two of my favorite authors teamed up in 1990 to write this irreverently funny take on prophecy, the Antichrist, and Armageddon. Then audiobook reader Martin Jarvis joined the party and kept me in stitches for a week's worth of my daily drive to and from work.

The full title of the book is Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. We find out, within the book, that Agnes had the misfortune of being the only 100% accurate prophet in English history. As a trade-off for all her predictions coming true, Agnes couched them in bizarre riddles which are impossible to decipher until after their fulfillment; and she made sure that her book of prophecies, its only surviving copy handed down through generations of her descendants, focused specifically on the fortunes and misfortunes of her own family. So, where it comes to predicting the winners of the next World Series, Mrs. Nutter will be no help. But she has plenty to say about the End of the World.

Meanwhile, in the hilariously twisted cosmos imagined by Messrs. Pratchett and Gaiman, the powers of Good and Evil have their own plans. An eleven-year countdown to Doomsday begins with the birth of the Spawn of Hell in a tiny, rural hospital run by a very talkative order of nuns who are secretly satanic. The nuns are supposed to swap the Antichrist-child with the son of an American diplomat and his wife, but due to a farcical mix-up, he gets raised by a salt-of-the-earth family in a small English village and turns out, by sheer chance, to be a rather nice boy. Adam Young unwittingly uses his reality-bending powers to keep his hometown safely isolated from the rapidly changing outside world. Even the hellhound sent to Adam on his eleventh birthday becomes, at his master's whim, an adorable little mongrel with one twisted ear. Adam's small gang follows him in an endless series of games driven by the power of sheer imagination... hardly guessing how much power that is. And the angels of light and darkness haven't a clue.

Two of those angels have formed an unlikely friendship over the millennia, in spite of being on opposite sides. Aziraphale (the flaming-sword guy from the Garden of Eden) and Crowley (formerly Crawly, the serpent from ditto), disapprove of each other's methods but get along like an old married couple. They rather like the world, particularly the comforts of twentieth-century life, and aren't in a hurry to see it end. But what can they do, when those higher up (and lower down) will brook no interference in the Ineffable Plan?

Whatever they do, it's going to be a mess. For not just the two angels, but a lot of other confused people with conflicting points of view show up for the party, including an apprenctice witch-finder whose heart isn't quite in it, a nice young witch with an encyclopedic knowledge of coming events, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who are now more accurately described as the Four Motorcyclists and who enjoy their work a little too much. The tension of worldwide catastrophe builds and builds, not (as one might expect) in the Middle East, but in a sleepy village in the English countryside where all depends, finally, on whether young Adam's nature (being the Seed of Satan) or nurture (his nice upbringing) win out.

Here is a book that impishly pokes at millennialistic notions about the End Times, the interpretation and re-interpretation of obscure medieval prophecies that fill pages of each week's supermarket tabloids. It might, perhaps, poke a little harder than one quite likes at Judaeo-Christian cosmology in general, and it certainly deserves both "occult" and "adult" content advisories. But if you lighten up a little, you might enjoy it anyway; enjoy it for its quirky characters, the comic-opera pacing of its various plot-lines, the goofily bizarre imagery, the cutting wit, and the disarming silliness of the sayings and doings it describes, from the revenge of a medieval witch about to be burned at the stake to the good-natured bickering of four children in an idyllic small town. All that and a funny dog too! How can it go wrong?

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Recommended Ages: 12+

This novel for young readers by the author of Coraline won the 2009 Hugo Award, Carnegie Medal, and Newbery Medal—a hat-trick unique in the the history of these three awards—respectively the highest honors for English-language fantasy novels, children's novels published in the U.K., and ditto in the U.S. When I got around to reading it some three years later, it achieved another honor that only applies to the very best books: It made me cry. But that happened at the end of the book; let's not get ahead of ourselves!

It's the story about a boy who grew up in a graveyard. His name: Nobody. Nobody Owens, adopted by a couple of kindly ghosts on the night his parents and older sister were murdered, has been given the freedom of the graveyard until he grows up. This means that, for the time being, he can "fade" so that ordinary mortals cannot see him; he can "haunt" by putting the frighteners on the living; and he can slide through solid stone and earth to visit the crypts and coffins of the neighborhood, whose owners form a sort of extended family to him. Because, don't you know, it takes a graveyard to raise a child.

Nobody's adventures bring him into contact with some strange beings, including ghouls, a werewolf, a witch, and a vampire. But he is only really in danger from a secret organization whose motives for killing his first family, and for planning to kill the boy himself, are revealed at the very end of the book. Though Nobody is pretty safe while he remains inside the cemetery gates, his danger remains very real because—well, because boys will be boys. Sometimes they rebel. Sometimes they sulk. Sometimes they get lonely for the company of kids their own age. For a while, Nobody even tries to go to school. In spite of all his mistakes and near-disasters, he remains a spirited and active youngster whose wits make him a match for men far stronger than himself.

Whimsical and weird, moving and macabre, this story is like a cross between Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride and Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Books. You can laugh at the little ways of all the denizens of Nobody's graveyard, but because he loves them, you can't help but love them too. And while the character of Silas, Nobody's undead (but also unliving) guardian, is not the first vampire in fiction to be depicted as a sympathetic character, the reason why he is one in this case comes across (at least to me) as the final twist of the corkscrew, unstopping the tear ducts all the way to the book's messy, nasally congested finish.

by Neil Gaiman
Recommended Ages: 13+

One of the most enjoyable weeks I have spent commuting to and from my workplace was the week I borrowed the CD book of Neil Gaiman himself reading his "Author's Preferred Text" of this novel. This is the novel that, in 1996, really put him on the map for those of us who missed the Sandman graphic novels and the BBC teleseries (co-written by Lenny Henry) on which this book was based. In fact, it is now regarded as something of a classic, the starting point of a flourishing genre of "London Below" fiction, so that the dust-jacket blurbs of such books as Mike Shevdon's Sixty-One Nails and China Miéville's Un Lun Dun tout them as "Neverwhere for the next generation," or the like. Having read those books before this one, I can't help sensing that I've fallen behind the class!

Well, thanks to the miracle of audiobooks, I'm not so far behind now. And I can't complain that the book reader didn't know the author's intentions. With Gaiman himself reading his preferred text, I learned that he has a good voice for storytelling, that he knows how to sell a variety of character voices and British dialects, and that he may even be as good an actor as writer. An all around entertainer, our Neil is. And judging from the fact that London seems to occupy more alternate realities than any other city on Earth, his influence appears to be spreading.

Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young London office worker with a gentle spirit, a bossy fiancée, and a blissfully ordinary life. One night as Richard is walking to a dinner date, an encounter with a gravely injured street person knocks his life out of its comfortable groove. Because he stops to help a filthy and bleeding girl named Door, Richard loses his fiancée, his job, his flat, and finally, his connection to reality as he knows it. Suddenly people can no longer see or hear him, or remember that he existed. So Richard goes underground. Literally. Down into the London Below, from which Door came and to which she has returned.

All Richard really wants is a way back to the life he knew. But before he can get it, he must learn to believe six thousand impossible things, and without the benefit of breakfast. He meets people who can communicate with birds and rats. He encounters an angel, a vampire-like creature called a velvet, a legendary beast, and a dead man come back to life. He makes friends with a girl who has the power to open any door, even where there wasn't a door before; and he makes enemies with two characters who have been torturing and killing for fun and profit since the world began. He visits a "floating market" where more or less fabulous beings swap more or less fabulous items; he undergoes an ordeal that many have tried before, but none have survived; and he demonstrates a curious blend of abject cowardice and heroic courage that ensure, whether or not he gets home to London Above, that London Below will never be the same.

Richard and Door are a likable couple. So are some of their dodgier neighbors in the underworld of magic, menace, and outright madness; though you may not immediately guess which ones are and aren't to be trusted. Through Gaiman's written and spoken word, they live vividly in my imagination. I am actually afraid to watch the BBC series, lest the world of Neverwhere become an obsession. I already have plenty of obsessions. But my inner world has plenty of room for another first-rate fantasy like this!

No comments: