Sunday, August 29, 2010

A "Culinary" Review

Ye Olde English Shoppe and Tea Room
3606 Old Phila Pike _Intercourse, PA

I grew up visiting Great Britain in the summertime and doing such things as eating high tea (a meal that seemed more like “supper” to me than the hot drink after which it is named) at my great aunt’s big, old house in the English countryside or cream tea at one of London’s finer department stores (which brings to mind delicious, cream-stuffed, buttery pastries and ├ęclairs). When Americans talk to me about having “tea,” what we end up having is usually more reminiscent of eating currant buns (although Americans don’t eat real currant buns. I’ve discovered that currant scones make a fairly good substitute) and drinking tea at some little pastry shop in Tunbridge Wells on a Saturday morning than what I think of when I think of “tea.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with currant buns and tea at 11:00, but it isn’t “tea.” However, now that I’ve been to Ye Olde English Shoppe and Tea Room in Intercourse, PA on many occasions, if any American wants to invite me to tea at this place, I will jump at the opportunity to relive my childhood memories.

The shop seems somewhat out of place in this village, which is Amish Central. Its storefront is located in a little strip of stores with a long wooden, front porch that is much more likely to bring to mind “Little House on the Prairie” than “Little House in an English Village.” However, once you step inside the door, you enter a whole new world, all Victorian flowers and d├ęcor. The front room is a shop that sells imported china, jewelry, and other items. More importantly, it sells food, the sort of food that is hard to find in Lancaster County, if you are someone who longs for certain British “delicacies” like Mars Bars, Marmite, Digestive Biscuits, and Salad Cream. I stop at the store regularly to stock up on such items.

If you have come for lunch or tea (and you’d better make reservations, if you plan to do so, especially during the summer months), you will most likely be greeted by the proprietress. You will know her by her English accent and her friendly warmth (that warmth especially on display if you happen to buy a jar of Marmite, something most Americans don’t buy). You will be led into any number of cozy rooms, all pinks and yellows and lavenders and presented with a menu that is a little bit odd, to say the least, since it features, yes, high tea, but also a good old Ploughman’s lunch (in England, that’s pub fare, not tea room fare). I have yet to try the Ploughman’s lunch, because I do not plough, and thus, it (sausage roll, wedge of sharp cheese, French bread stick, and pickles served with a salad garnish) always seems a bit heavy for my middle-of-the-day meal, but one of these days, I will have to skip breakfast (or maybe hop a plough with an Amish farmer or two for a few hours on a Saturday morning) and stray from the delicious “quiche of the day and salad” to try it. It’s going to be hard to give up that quiche, though, with its delicate crust, non-greasy, egg-y filling, and fresh ingredients, like to-mah-toes and mushrooms. I enjoy the salad served with tangy, light mayonnaise-y salad cream. That stuff comes in a bottle, and I am sure it is full of all kinds of ingredients that are not good for you, but I was served it at so many relatives’ houses traveling around England when I was young, that a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers topped with it (even more than strawberries and cream at Wimbledon) has come to mean “England” to me.

When I take visiting friends to Ye Old English Shoppe for tea, we have typically been eating our way around Lancaster County and don’t need high tea. We do very well with a scone filled with cream and jam or with crumpets served with butter and jam, and a choice from a wide variety of teas, served in individual, flowered pots. I like Earl Grey and fruity herbal teas (I know, not what any true Englishman would drink, but there you have it), so I usually have one of those. I have always loved the British tradition of serving baked goods with cream and jam rather than butter and jam. It provides a lift and lightness to something as heavy as a scone that butter could never provide. I have yet to find any other shop where I can get real crumpets. How to describe a crumpet to someone who’s never had one, which I find myself constantly having to do? The best I can come up with is a cross between a pancake and an English muffin, but that doesn’t really do it justice. You’ll just have to eat one yourself and see what you think.

I linger over my food at this shop. Sometimes I go alone with a book, pretending to read while I eavesdrop on tourists’ reactions. I have yet to hear anyone voice displeasure. My only displeasure is stepping out of the shop and back into my American reality (although, if I close my eyes and listen to the clip-clop of an Amish buggy passing by, sometimes I can prolong the moment by pretending I am in 19th-century London, umbrella in hand, ready to walk back through the drizzle, having just had tea at a good neighbor’s house).

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Survival of the Fittest

The other day, I had to kill a cicada in order to put it out of its misery. It was lying on its back, its legs twitching and kicking, and ants seemed to be attacking it. I hate to kill anything, even when I know I am putting it out of its misery, but I especially hated killing a cicada, an insect that has always fascinated me with its impressive size, and the way it leaves its shell clinging to trees (or garage doors, as they seem to be doing a lot this summer). I'm not a fan of summer, but one thing that helps make the horrible heat bearable is the lovely sound of the cicadas singing. So, really, it bothered me terribly that I had to stomp on that cicada.

I am not someone who happens to believe that human beings are more important or superior to any other creatures on this planet. There are some creatures I happen to like better than others (I wouldn't exactly want to cuddle with a grub worm, say, the way I do with my cat), but I realize that the only thing driving me to make such distinctions is aesthetics, and aesthetics are very subjective. I happen to find most insects fascinating, as long as they aren't crawling on me or annoying me in other ways (buzzing flies and dive-bombing mosquitoes are anything but fascinating), whereas most people I know happen to think they're quite creepy. In fact, most people I know would think nothing of stomping on a cicada, would find it very odd that I was so upset about doing so. "It's just a bug," I can hear them saying. These same people say other things that make me cringe, like, "If those animal rights fanatics would give half the time and attention to humans as they do to animals, this world would be a far better place."

If I question these statements, many of my Christian and Jewish friends and family members will argue that we are superior because we are made in God's image or that we are the only ones into whom God breathed the breath of life. My atheist friends and family members will tell me that we are superior because we can reason (I am sure there are atheists who don't do this, but I know a lot of atheists who seem to worship human reason instead of a god). Those who are smart, though, would ask me, "What upsets you more: having to kill that cicada or being told a child you know has leukemia?"

And that's when I have to admit, that, okay, maybe I lied. Maybe I do think humans are superior in some way, because I would be far more upset to find out that a child I know has leukemia. It's also when I have to admit that all I'm doing is proving Darwin was right. That's all anyone is doing, as far as I'm concerned. Use religion. Use human reason. Use whatever you want to argue the point that we are, somehow, superior to a dog or a rabbit or a snake. All you're doing is responding to your biological imperative.

Darwin was all about two main ideas: survival of our own species and survival of the fittest. We will fight our own kind, if they are weak, because that will help insure that the strongest of our kind survive. Our species is more likely to survive if its strongest members survive.

It makes sense, then, that we would decide that we are superior to all other animals (all other living things, really). It's okay to sacrifice a dog or a pig or a tree to help a human survive because humans are superior to that dog or that pig or that tree. But I will not pretend when I favor a child with leukemia over a dying cicada that it is anything other than what it is, which is a desire for my own species to survive above all others. I don't pretend that God favors me over other creatures and that's why it's okay. I don't pretend that I have this great brain that other animals don't that grants me special rights. No. I acknowledge the fact that I am just a member of one of oh so many species populating this planet who is doing what all other species do in a very harsh world: looking out for me and my kind.

Truth be told, though, when I can ignore biology and let this brain I've been given as one of my species's survival tools (and we don't have much else, do we? Opposable thumbs and "big" brains. No fur. No camouflage. No speed. No natural poison. No super eyesight or super hearing or fantastic sense of smell. When you think about it, we're really quite pathetic. We have to make things -- shelter, weapons, etc. -- in order to survive. Others survive perfectly fine with what they have. Sometimes I wonder if God doesn't look at us, laughing, and say, "What was I thinking?") think about it, I am quite sure my species is going to be short-lived. On the time line of the universe, we will barely be a notch, unless, of course, we happen to be that marker known for destroying an entire planet. That could happen, but let's say it doesn't.

Let's say we all die off, the way so many other extinct creatures have without destroying this planet. I'd love to know what will come after we're gone. After all, we could never have survived while dinosaurs roamed the earth. Maybe there will be some other gigantic animal that will take over. We now seem to accept the fact that birds, having evolved from them, are teeny, tiny dinosaurs. Perhaps there is something that will do the opposite, something that is teeny tiny now that will grow to be huge. I'm betting on insects. Maybe one day, cicadas will be stomping on other creatures to put them out of their misery.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

One of the great things about living where I do is that in the summer time we get a free concert every Sunday night. Lancaster's Longs Park Summer Music Series brings in bands from all over to play all types of music. It's an outdoor concert, rain or shine, and everyone picnics around the stage.

Last night, we got to see the Saw Doctors. It's been raining on and off here for the past few days -- something we've hardly seen all summer, but that seemed extremely appropriate for welcoming this Irish band, especially since it wasn't a violent, summer thunderstorm, like we usually get around here. No, it was a misty, not-really-raining-but-sort-of rain, exactly what one might expect to encounter in August in Ireland.

I'd never heard of the Saw Doctors until I read the description of them in the summer lineup for the concert series and decided they sounded just like the sort of band I like. Bob did some exploring online and told me he was sure I'd like them, so we made plans to go. That was, of course, before we knew it was going to be raining. But why should we let a little rain get in the way, especially since we have Gortex raincoats and nice big umbrellas?

We were not disappointed. What a fantastic band, the sort that you can tell are just having so much fun on stage. I loved all their songs and the way they encouraged audience participation (that's just so Irish, isn't it? I've never been to Ireland, but it seems to me that in every "Irish" pub I've ever been in, from Alexandria, VA to NYC to Boston, audience participation, when a band comes out to play, has always been a big part of the show). I also loved discovering that we have more than just Germans in this area. You should have seen all the Irish flags flying (of course, I later found out that people had come from places like Delaware and Philly to see them here, but still. In fact, one family had come all the way from NYC. He was Irish. His American wife has a sister living down here).

If one of the great things about living here is the Longs Park Summer Music Series, one of the great things about being married to Bob is that he is not the shrinking violet that I am. He likes to do things like, oh, meet the members of a band instead of worshiping them from afar (my standard means of dealing with talent that impresses me). He decided he wanted to wait backstage after the show to get them to sign the CD he had just bought. We patiently waited with maybe a dozen or so others, and our patience paid off.

Eventually Leo Moran (composer, guitarist, and singer) came out. He didn't just come out and sign CDs; he came out and hung around and chatted with those of us who stuck around (that would be two young men and Bob and me) for quite a while -- long enough for me to hear stories of huge moths flying onto one of his band mates during an outdoor concert, long enough to know that he'd like to live in Scandinavia for a winter, that he likes the four seasons (enjoyed our hot weather during the two weeks he was in the States on this tour), long enough to get his opinion on the Amish -- see? It was more than just a quick "hello." By this point, Davey Carton (composer, singer, and guitarist) had come out, and Bob had gone off to get his autograph, but I just stayed and chatted some more with Leo. It was just too much fun. I actually think that if he could have gotten the others in the band interested, he might have joined us for a beer at one of our local brew pubs.

All this is to say that my Music Monday song today is not a long-time favorite. It is a brand new favorite, one that was played last night and one that I found put to these beautiful photos of Ireland. Unfortunately, I can't get the YouTube video to embed and actually play (it will embed, but all you get is a lovely photo of a rainbow), so you will have to click on this link to hear "The Green and Red of Mayo." Looking at those photos, I am reminded yet again that if all the trees were suddenly to disappear from coastal Maine (God forbid), Maine would look an awful lot like those isles to our east. No wonder I love Maine so much.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Thus Was Adonis Murdered

Caudwell, Sarah. Thus Was Adonis Murdered. New York: Dell. 1981.

Before I get into a real discussion of this book, I have to tell you two stories about it. The first is how we happen to own a copy of it, which is a story about Bob and me. The second is a story about a number of characters, including my mother.

During Bob's and my first summer together, when we'd only been dating for about six months, he had plans to take a trip to Italy with his brother. That's when I discovered that he likes to read novels about the places he's going, just before he travels there. He came into the library where I was working at the time and asked me to help him find novels set in Italy. Using something called The Fiction Catalog (I'm not sure that even exists anymore. I haven't used it since the Internet came along), we found The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, which fit the bill nicely. He found other things, too, but I don't remember what they were.

Meanwhile, I had managed to find this title, described as being set partly in Venice. Amazingly enough, I was able to get a copy to give to him as a little going away gift the night before he left. It was a small paperback, perfect for the plane. Two weeks later, he arrived home from Italy, and, among other things, I was eager to know what he thought of Thus Was Adonis Murdered, which had sounded so good, and which I hoped to borrow.

"Oh, it wasn't really what you thought it was. I couldn't get into it."

I didn't know him well enough back then to know that that didn't necessarily mean I wouldn't love it (or that he might not even have bothered to crack its spine). All I knew was that I was a bit crushed that my gift had not been a success, but I bravely made no mention of this fact. I decided not to borrow it, though. Why didn't I question his assertion that "It wasn't really what I thought it was?" Such is the folly of a new romance.

Fast forward sixteen years, and here's your second story. This book is chosen for the CT mystery book club. Those of you who have borrowed and lent books from and to me may know that I have a terrible habit of leaving things stuck inside books. I pulled this book (which, of course, came along with Bob and all his other books when we got married, and which, by the way, I have, over the years, now that I know I shouldn't always listen to Bob's assessment of books, considered, from time-to-time, reading -- if for no other reason than that the cover was obviously done by Edward Gorey -- but, for some reason, never have). I pull the book from the shelf, start flipping through the pages, and find stuck inside it, a short letter from my mother, dated July 1997. Obviously, she had just been to visit Bob and me and had taken this book from the shelf without telling us. Her letter begins,

"I borrowed this book, so I could finish reading it. The author has a wonderful sense of humor!"

Next time I have to decide whether I should listen to Bob or to my mother when it comes to a book, I think I'll listen to my mother. Wonderful sense of humor indeed! At one point, I laughed until my stomach hurt. I have to warn you, though, before you go racing off to find a copy of this, that the humor, like (I am sure) the sherry the characters drink, is very, very dry. It is also very British -- full of that British self-mockery I so love, but I know it isn't everyone's cup of tea and that there are those who might be inclined to label it "precious" (but we won't name any names, here, of people who went off to Italy without me the first year we knew each other).

I really had no idea what to expect when I began this book. The endorsements use terms like "erudite," "witty," and "hilarious comedy of manners," but we all know how reliable endorsements can be. I have to admit that I was not much impressed by the first line of the book,

"Scholarship asks, thank God, no recompense but truth." (p.1)

I don't know about you, but that's not exactly the sort of first line that makes me think. "Ooo, this is gonna be fun!" No, I am afraid my first thought was, "Oh, God, some stupid thing I have to read for tenth-grade English that I'm gonna hate, and then I am going to be quizzed on how that first line fits into the whole book." But then Caudwell immediately begins to introduce the reader to the characters, and this reader couldn't keep herself from liking them all.

I quickly discovered that (had I been quizzed) I could easily say that the first line of the book reads that way because Hilary, a somewhat full of himself (or herself. We never know, right? Those of you who also read it, Hilary's gender is never mentioned, is it? I kept wondering if I'd missed that fact but actually came to think it was a wonderful ploy on Caudwell's part not to identify her narrator as either male or female. I've experimented with "genderless" characters myself on occasion, and enjoy it, but it's hard to do. I admire someone who can keep it up for the length of a novel) Oxford Don, just speaks that way. Hilary narrates the story (to some degree), and we get used to it; it's okay. I loved Hilary, despite his/her manner of speaking, for being so clueless about his/her own faults, while (of course) being so aware of others, in a way that might be obnoxious if it weren't such a clever ploy, and if the character weren't so endearing in other ways (i.e. for loving the other characters so much, underneath it all).

Hilary happens to be friends with five young barristers (all of whom went to Oxford, except one who went to Cambridge. I probably don't need to tell you that there is plenty of the sort of joking you would expect in reference to the poor soul who was feeble enough of mind to have attended Cambridge). One of these barristers Julia goes off to Venice in pursuit of love (or at least a happy fling, although her sentimental character would prefer love) and soon finds herself accused of murder. Julia is an endearing, hilarious character, the sort of person who is highly brilliant but quite unaware of what goes on in the world around her. If she were a cartoon character, boulders would roll off cliffs right beside her; anvils would drop from high rises, missing her by inches; bridges would collapse the minute she stepped off of them; and she'd be busy studying her map, never noticing a thing.

The plot is actually more complicated than that (much more) and includes tourists on an art lover's adventure, shady antique dealers, a wealthy heir who is terrified of England (and who can blame him?) due to a horrible public school experience he had there, and the Inland Revenue. To figure out some of the main clues in the book while happily reading and laughing along takes someone with far, far more experience reading mysteries (not to mention someone who is far, far more clever -- an Oxford Don, say) than I, but that didn't matter. I loved the solution (and the very sneaky clues) once they were presented to me. I didn't feel the urge to cry, "Foul play!" as I sometimes do when a murderer, and how he/shedunit, is revealed to me. It worked. All I could think was, "Touche." (Damn blogger and my inability to put that accent where it so belongs.)

I also liked the way this book was written. It was a mixed bag. Some of these so-called "brilliant" experimental writers out there today could take a lesson from Caudwell. Here we had somewhat of a first-person narrative. We had somewhat of an epistolary novel. We had dialogue in place of description. It worked beautifully. I was barely aware of all the different forms.

A good deal of the novel is nothing but long letters from Julia written to her young friends back in London (and, thus, to Hilary, who has come to London to work but seems to be spending every lunch and coffee hour with Julia's friends while she is away). The letters are sent to Selena and read out loud by her to the other 3 (all young men, one of whom is about to go off to Italy himself to deal with the heir who is terrified of England) and Hilary. The contents of the letters are interspersed with dialogue from the reader and listeners, and I have rarely encountered a technique that so well provided for fantastic characterization. The rest of the book is Hilary's narration and some key correspondence involving the answer to whodunit in the end. It all tied together beautifully. I'm envious of Caudwell's abilities (so green, actually, people might start thinking I'm The Grinch).

The book also inspired me to do some other reading. Julia makes some very amusing references to Desdemona and Othello, which had me pulling Othello off the shelves. Next thing I know, I was done reading the entire play (argue all you want with me, but that is absolutely my favorite Shakespeare tragedy, perfect in every way but mostly because Iago is one of the most perfect villains ever written). Next up, in the not-too-distant future, will be Two Gentlemen of Verona, and I'm thinking I ought to read some more Italian authors (any suggestions anyone?). I went online to see what else Caudwell has written and discovered three more titles in the series. I'll have to see if I can get my hands on those.

Meanwhile, because he witnessed my laughing so hard over this book, Bob keeps asking me if he shouldn't try it again. I'm not sure. My sense of humor, my British background, and I have rubbed off on him over the years. Maybe he won't find it as "precious" as he once might have, but I'm not positive about that. I am positive, however, that if he does read it and doesn't like it, I won't be crushed (that's what sixteen years can do to new romance).

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Other-Worldly Maine

It was December 30th. I had just walked out of the Southwest Harbor Public Library in Maine, where I had been working, because (being a telecommuter), I could, and the Southwest Harbor Public Library is one of the most charming places I know. If you are going to have to work while in Maine, I can't think of a better place to do so.

I decided to take a walk. Yes, I know the temperature was hovering somewhere around 12 degrees (we're talking about Maine in December. The temperature was merely being lazy, doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing. After all, a mere two days earlier, it had put all that time and effort into rising way up to nearly 40 degrees). The wind was no longer blowing the way it had been for a day and a half, and with my multiple layers and warm mittens, I was most definitely dressed for 12 degrees. Besides, in the part of Pennsylvania where I live, I don't often get to walk in 12 degree temperatures.

Southwest Harbor is a tiny little coastal, blink-and-you-miss it New England town. The library is on what must be Main Street (although I've never seen any signs to that effect. It's just a route number). If you turn town a side street, you'll find, along with a coffee shop and a couple of restaurants, the post office. Among other things on Main Street, there is a wine and cheese shop and Sawyer's Market, which sells atrociously-priced-for-visiting-New-Yorkers groceries and specialty foods but is a fun place to visit, nonetheless, especially for freshly baked cookies. The street lights this evening illuminate these little shops, as well as the real estate agent, insurance company, and other businesses that are mostly closed this time of year. In August, the streets would be lined with parked cars, and the sunset would be hours away yet, but now there was only one other car parked on the street besides mine.

I think of John Irving. This is John Irving's New England. I probably think of John Irving, because he was the first author who made me long to visit New England (technically, to revisit it. I'd visited it when I was six, and my family drove from North Carolina to Canada, but my memories of it are of hotel rooms and swimming pools). No, there is no boarding school, which would be necessary to make this a real John Irving town, but it's a town -- village, really -- straight out of the pages of John Irving. The fishermen and construction workers sit next to the teachers and tourists at the local bar.

However, I also think of Richard Russo. The fishermen and construction workers and teachers would be sitting in his local bar, which could be in Maine but is probably somewhere in upstate New York instead. The tourists are few and far between, so we have lawyers, or something, to replace them. No tourists, but there may be a whore sitting at the far end of the bar. Nobody knows it -- yet -- but she's actually the lawyer's (the richest man in town's) illegitimate daughter. Her brother, however, is about to discover this fact.

I turn down a well-lit side street, a residential street. The snow crunches under my feet as I walk past modest houses and cottages, many unlit, either because they are summer rentals or because their families have not yet arrived home from work, and I search for tell-tale signs of life. I look for bookshelves through the windows of those few houses that have lights on inside. I notice that I don't see any televisions, usually noticeable in most lit homes after dark. I think of Ray Bradbury's story The Pedestrian. I haven't read it since I was in high school, but I think of it every time I am on an empty street, walking through snow after dark. I'm not sure I even remember the story all that well. I ought to reread it. But I remember snow. I remember dark. And I remember the character who saw the blue glow of television sets through house windows. I also remember it being one of those few stories I had to read for school that I actually loved.

I pass by a manhole-covered storm drain. For some reason, water is gurgling in a very odd way underneath it. It sounds almost like a park fountain is hidden underground or something. Why is the water doing that? I wonder if there is a clown down there under that manhole cover, because suddenly, I am no longer in John Irving's New England. I am in Stephen King's New England, his Maine. My steps quicken to hurry past it. It is one of the few books that so scared the crap out of me that I couldn't finish it, and I'm not one of those people who is normally terrified of clowns.

So, I have gotten past the scary manhole cover. However, I am approaching a part of the street where there are no lights. I know perfectly well that I am going to have to go back past that manhole cover to get to my car. Do I turn around now and quickly get past it, or do I dawdle a bit? No, if I dawdle, it might discover me and follow me. I turn around and try not to run past that sound of gushing water.

I make it safely back to the main drag and decide to stick to its well-lit sidewalks for the remainder of my walk. I remember that a few days earlier, Bob and I had been at Lowes looking for an extension cord. I'd been walking around the store and happened to pass some huge, black storage bins, big enough to hold a couple of good-sized bodies. I found myself thinking, "One of those could be used in a horror story. Someone gets trapped inside somehow and dies and haunts it." As I wandered around some more, I began to realize that so much in the store could be used in a horror story. Good horror stories, after all, always come from the ordinary, from what people don't expect to find, from the aisles at Lowes. My next thought, of course, was, "I'm so weird. Does anyone else come up with horror stories while walking the aisles at Lowes?"

I do not, for a minute, delude myself into thinking I am a John Irving, a Richard Russo, a Ray Bradbury, or a Stephen King. I'm wondering something, though. Did John Irving ever walk the streets of a small New England town and find himself thinking, "That wine and cheese shop would be a great place for my eleven-fingered, one-legged, sex-addicted, feminist proprietor to work"? Has Richard Russo sat at a bar, in a strange town, on a frigid night and thought, "This is where the bartender who narrates the story and is secretly in love with the whore works"? I don't have to ask: I know Ray Bradbury has walked down a deserted, snow-covered, residential street at night. But did Stephen King ever pass by a manhole cover and hear water that sounded like it was struggling to push itself up and out? I'm hoping the answer to all these questions just might be "yes." That way, if I'm weird, at least I'm in good company.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Larsson, Stieg. Keeland, Reg, tr. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. New York: Vintage. 2008.

Although it was tempting to do so, I wasn't going to post about this book, because I've got all these TBR challenge books to write about, as well as books for my library's blog, but then I saw the movie and found myself thinking, "I must post about this book." And I wanted to do it here, not for the library (where I could have done so), because I've been told to keep those posts relatively short. A post about this book cannot be short (in fact, I am hoping I don't put you to sleep while you're trying to get through this one). Then Litlove wrote about it before I'd gotten around to it, and I remembered I needed to get around to it, so here I am.

This was one of the most disturbing books I've read in a very long time. In fact, I almost couldn't get through it. I very nearly put it down and never picked it up again after I got to one of the most hideous rape scenes I've ever read (and believe me, I've read plenty of hideous rape scenes in my time), one that was despicable in every way imaginable. But something (other than masochism) made me want to pick it up again.

Bob assured me that what I had read (which had given me nightmares, because, of course, I had read it right before going to sleep) was the worst of it and that I would like it if I kept going. I wasn't sure I trusted him, though. Truth be told, I was kind of pissed at him for urging me to read this book, one that was putting me through such an emotional wringer. Why wasn't he saying, "There, there. That's all right. You don't have to read the big, bad, nasty book if you don't want to" instead of "Keep going. You're tougher than that. Fight through your repulsion. It's worth it. You're really gonna think it's worth it." Damn him. He was right.

Lispeth Salander (the "Girl") is the sort of woman who is the ideal victim: she's tiny; she's an outcast in society; she's had a very rough childhood and adolescence. And, yet, she refuses to be a victim. She is a vigilante who fights for what she believes, and what she believes happens to be that men who mistreat women are evil bastards who deserve no mercy. (I find it interesting that the Swedish title of the book is Men Who Hate Women). She is flat-out brilliant, a modern-day Robin Hood, and I couldn't help but love and admire her (even though she is not, really, very lovable).

Her sidekick, the "crusading journalist" (as the back cover copy calls him), Mikael Blomkvist can't help loving and admiring her, either. He's an interesting character in his own right, a bit "too-good-to-be-true," but it works for the sake of the book. And by the end of the book, we find that even he, Mr. Goody Two Shoes, can find himself in an ethical dilemma that has him behaving in ways he never would have believed possible.

These two eventually come together to solve the 40-year-old mystery of the disappearance of a teenager from an "upper crust" family. They soon discover that they are involved in something far more dangerous and far-reaching than they had any idea. And, yes, it involved "men who hate women." In fact, scratch the surface a bit, and almost every man in the book seems to be one who hates women. Needless to say, Lispeth does not take kindly to them.

When I was stuck in the midst of this book, trying to decide if I would continue with it, I did something I don't normally do before I've finished a book: I went online to see what others were saying about it. I read in a few places that Larsson had been accused of being misogynistic. That caught my attention. Larsson opens each section of the book with statistical quotes concerning violence against young women in Sweden. Despite the brutality in the book, I didn't see how anyone could seriously sling such accusations.

By the end of the book, I really didn't see how anyone could seriously sling such accusations. Oh yes, there is plenty of grotesque, horrible, nauseating violence against women. The book can almost get you wondering if men just don't naturally despise women. However, it is clearly a diatribe against that sort of violence. There is none of the eroticism often associated with violence against women that I find in the works I would label misogynistic. Lisbeth is the embodiment of this diatribe. She fights back (and wins).

Oh yes, and in this book, instead of the boy rescuing the girl, the girl rescues the boy. (I hope that isn't a spoiler for those of you who haven't yet read the book and still plan on reading it. You pretty much figure this is going to be the case quite early on in the book). I don't see that it is anything other than a champion of women, surprisingly sympathetic to their plight.

And that brings me to the movie. I've never watched a movie so soon after reading the book (I literally finished the last pages of the book the day we saw the movie). I've recently been thinking a lot about what it takes to adapt books to screenplays, and it was fascinating to me to see the decisions that were made when it came to adapting this one. On some levels, the filmmakers took a more conservative route (I found that fascinating, since everyone always rails against the loose morals of the film industry). Bob and I both questioned some of the changes (as well as the fact that the movie version obviously included material from the second book in the trilogy). However, overall, it was a fantastic adaptation.

Twenty years ago, I went to see the movie Presumed Innocent with a friend of mine who had not read the book. Sitting through it with her, I felt the constant need to explain stuff to her, thinking no one could possibly understand the complicated plot without having read the book, since the movie version seemed to ignore so many important details. I found myself drifting into that same mode of thinking with this movie. How could anyone possibly understand Lispeth from what little information this movie was providing? But then I realized I've recently seen two movies adapted from books that I hadn't read: The Ghost Writer and Shutter Island. I think I managed to follow what was going on quite well in both. In fact, maybe they were better for my not having read the book.

There we have it: the first time in my entire life, when instead of thinking, "The book is almost always better than the movie. If I have to forgo one for the other, it should be the movie for the book, and I must always read the book before seeing the movie [maybe now you can see why I'm not much of a movie buff. How many thousands and thousands of movies are there based on books?]," I found myself thinking, "Can it possibly be better to see the movie before reading the book?"

I don't have an answer, but it's an interesting question. If nothing else, I must commend The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for getting me to ask the question. I also must commend it for getting me to move past its brutality to see what provocative stuff lay beneath. Oh, and one more thing I was reminded of while watching the movie: my imagination (when prepped ahead of time. Movies become problematic when they are not based on books, or I have not read the book, and horrible things show up suddenly) is always far, far worse than anything portrayed on screen (I learned this when I was a teenager watching horror films based on books, but I'm always forgetting it). The worst scenes here were far more bearable for me to watch than they were for me to read.

It seems to me people either love or hate this book. Has anyone else (besides Litlove) read it? What did you think?

Monday, August 02, 2010

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

When I was a kid, I wished so badly that I could be a "rocker chick." Forget the fact that I can't carry a note, have two left feet, and play no musical instruments. I wanted to be a rock star. I often wondered if I couldn't just play something like the tambourine. After all, that's all Tracy did for The Partridge Family, and she'd managed to go on tour.

These women in bands were just so incredibly cool, weren't they? I loved Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads and later of the Tom Tom Club. Pat Benatar, too. Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane was one of those cool hippie chicks and what a voice she had! Who wouldn't want to be like these women. I was star struck.

But then there were two who were in a league all by themselves. I didn't just want to be like them. I wanted to be them. The first of these was Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. My wardrobe my entire senior year in high school could have been called "The Chrissie Hynde look," which means lots of black (hmmm, I haven't changed much since then). And then there was Deborah Harry of Blondie. Okay, I was already part-way there with Debbie Harry: I could be her without having to dye my blond hair.

Decisions, decisions today. Should I give you Blondie or The Pretenders? Blondie wins out (I'll save the Pretenders for a rainy day, if we ever have another one of those here), because I was dancing to the "Best of" last week (well, yes, I do dance in the privacy of my own home, or even at clubs and concerts, but don't expect to see me up on any stages performing for others). I have so many favorite Blondie songs, but this was the first video of theirs I ever saw (my introduction to "Top of the Pops," having just arrived in England and been invited over to my cousins' house to watch it). I saw Deborah Harry in this, and that was it. There was no turning back. She would become my idol for the next few years (who am I kidding? She's still an idol). Where are those fairy godmothers when you need them to come along and turn you into the woman you've always wanted to be?