Thursday, April 22, 2010

If the series had to end, this was the perfect conclusion

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
by Stieg Larsson

I came to this novel with great trepidation. I'd loved the first two novels in the series and was understandably saddened by the premature end due to the author's untimely death. Aside from that, I was worried that the novel would end with some terrible cliff hanger as the previous one had. For what it's worth, I'm happy to report that if this series had to end now, I'm completely satisfied with how the story of Lisbeth Salander, Mikeal Blomkvist, et al wraps up.

As mentioned above, The Girl Who Played with Fire ends on a cliff hanger. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest picks up exactly where it ends off. I'd liked the second novel in the series much more than the first because it dealt far more extensively with the eponymous character. That is also the strength of Hornet's Nest. I just can't get enough of Lisbeth Salander. She is endlessly strange, fascinating, endearing, and resourceful.

This final novel strikes the best balance of the three between Lisbeth's story and Mikeal's story, which essentially converge at this point. But other characters get their fair share of narrative time and a subplot involving Erica Berger particularly captured my interest. Every storyline allowed Larsson to show off new facets of his established characters.

One of the most fascinating things about the plot of this book (which obviously I'm being incredibly vague about) was that in another novel, the good guys and the bad guys could have easily switched places. There are no cookie-cutter heroes and villains in Larsson's world. Sure, there are people to root for, but there's a lot of moral ambiguity involved. All of which makes for complex and smart story-telling. And Larsson's plotting is as strong as it ever was. This novel is his best yet.

At nearly 600-pages, I plowed through the book at breakneck speed, my interest never flagging. It is sadly clear to me that Larsson had further stories to tell about his girl. Not every loose thread is tied up, but the important bases are covered. The novel's end was as satisfying as anything you could ask for.

Rest in peace, Stieg.
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Was there a kayak in Sense and Sensibility?

The Three Weissmanns of Westport: A Novel
by Cathleen Schine

Cathleen Schine's ridiculously delightful new novel is a contemporary take on Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Here, the unmarried daughters are middle-aged, New York Jewesses--children of divorce--exiled with their elderly mother to Westport, Connecticut. They've been taken in by wealthy, generous Cousin Lou, who treats absolutely everybody "Like family!" in the revolving door of his hospitality.

I feel no need to summarize the plot further, for a tremendous amount of the pleasure is in seeing how Schine "contemporizes" the tale. Rather than detract from the story, a basic familiarity with Austen's classic adds immeasurably to the read. Yes, you'll have a pretty good idea of where the story is going, but you'll have so much fun with the infinite cleverness of Schine's update. And don't put it past her to throw an occasional curveball.

I suspect The Three Weissmans of Westport is an homage of which any Janeite would heartily approve. It's done with such affection. And even if you're completely disinterested in the original, I don't see how any reader could keep a straight face through this laugh-out-loud satire!
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The real Jane Austen Book Club!

A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen
by Susannah Carson

I have just indulged in a week of Jane Austen. It's so good for the soul; I really should make it an annual tradition. I read one of the six original novels, a contemporary update of one of the novels, watched cinematic adaptations, and finally delved into this wonderful book of literary criticism. I'd been holding off, wanting to be just a bit more steeped in Janeism before I tackled it. I've been so looking forward to diving in based merely on the wildly distinguished list of contributors.

There are renowned literary critics like Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling, academicians like John Wiltshire and Janet Todd, classic novelists like Eudora Welty and Somerset Maugham, and contemporary novelists like A.S. Byatt and Jay McInerney. There's even a token filmmaker, Amy Heckerling! There is no hyperbole at all in the assertion that these are 33 (34, really) great writers. One name is more impressive than the next, and I've barely scratched the surface.

Based on the diversity of the contributors, you would be correct in suspecting the diversity of the essays in this collection. Some deal with the author herself, or the time in which she lived, others the entirety of her work, and some focus on a single novel. My first thought was to read the more general essays first and to then focus on the contributions specific to a novel after I had just read or re-read it, so that the particulars were very fresh in my mind. Now that I've been reading the essays, Austen's work, and the work of others inspired by Austen at roughly the same time, I don't believe my approach need be that rigid. Reading some of the essays on Emma while still reading the novel gave me great insights that I might not have come to or appreciated on my own.

I'm refraining, in this review, from pulling out quotes from the essays, but only because I wouldn't know where to start. There hasn't been one yet that wasn't infinitely quotable. Where's a highlighter when you need one? Some of the essays are more academic in tone than others (many have endnotes), but they are all smartly-written, challenging, and elucidating on this eminently worthy subject. This collection of essays will surely become a cherished reference I delve into over and over as I continue to enjoy Ms. Austen's timeless works the rest of my life.


"I recommend a little gruel before you go."

by Jane Austen

Many literary critics have proclaimed Emma to be the most accomplished of Jane Austen's novels. That may well be, but I don't personally number it among my favorites. That said, it easily deserves its five-star rating; I haven't read an Austen novel yet that doesn't.

Emma is, of course, the story of beautiful, young, wealthy and accomplished Emma Woodhouse. Of her, too many kindnesses can not be said. At least, that is the attitude displayed by everyone around Emma. She's heard nothing but praise and exaltations her entire life, and has come to quite believe her own billing. And while she generally means well, Emma has grown into an unforgivable busybody and snob.

Emma lavishes most of her attentions on her dear friend Harriet Smith. While Harriet is of a lower status and desirability than Emma herself, Emma feels confident she can improve upon Harriet, introduce her to all the right society, in short, make her a most advantageous match. Never mind the perfectly nice farmer who is already in love with her.

And so, Emma insinuates herself into the affairs of Harriet and several others around her. She is certainly not the most sympathetic of Austen's heroines and my feelings about her tended to fluctuate from chapter to chapter. Nevertheless, no conflicted feelings got in the way of the joy brought about by a patented Austen ending. Additionally, Austen proves yet again that humor based on an intimate knowledge of human nature is timeless. I defy you not to laugh over the antics of Emma's possessive and gruel-loving father. Austen's social satire is as sharp as it ever was.
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What is it about these circus stories?

Water for Elephants: A Novel
by Sara Gruen

Since acquiring my Kindle, I've started playing a new game. I download "samples" of all kinds of books. If I can get hooked in the first few chapters, well clearly the author deserves the book sale.

That is exactly what happened with Water for Elephants. Almost immediately I was completely drawn into the story. Ms. Gruen uses an effective framing device for her tale. Nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski is telling his story in flashbacks from his present in a nursing home. And it is the story of his first job out of veterinary school. The year is 1931 and the country is embroiled in the Depression. Tragedy sends Jacob fleeing his orderly life. Without trying to, the young man winds up running away to the circus.

Water for Elephants is a coming of age novel, a buddy tale, a period drama, and a love story. It's one of those rare novels that seems to captivate almost all readers. I came late to it, but I was as entranced as all those who have raved before me. Gruen's prose is strong, but it's her characters and setting that capture the imagination. I haven't been to a circus in decades, and have no particular interest in that life. But Sara Gruen is a fantastically gifted storyteller, in the most elemental sense of the word. I will be grabbing future novels upon publication. Highly recommended to all who crave a great story!
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