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Book Review: The Passage

Summer is upon us and the time has come to go to the beach and get lost in a book.  But what to take?  If you’re like me, you don’t do trashy chick-lit.  That Candace Bushnell crap will never see my library shelf.  I want plot, action, good character development, some profound meaning.

So, The Passage, by Justin Cronin, may or may not be for you.

This was one of the most frustrating books I have ever read.  Er, listened to.  One word of warning, it is a loooooonnnnnngggg book.  The audible version is 40 hours long.  Maybe the audiobook is not the best format for this book but I’ll get to that in a moment.

I think part of my frustration is that the author tries too hard to be all things to all people.  Is the book an eschatological parable?  Science fiction?  An On-The-Road buddy story?  A love story?  An epic horror story spanning generations ala Stephen King’s interminable It?  A long winded luddite lecture on the perils of modern technology with a soupçon of magical realism?  A Beauty and the Beast fairy tale?  Who the frak knows?  It could be all of these things.  Some of them hang together.  Some of them hang separately.

There are two messages I got loud and clear from The Passage.  As Jackie Kennedy is reported to have said, “If you mess up your childern, nothing else you do really matters”.  The other one is, if you’re going to tinker with viruses, be sure NOT to use sociopathic murderers for your in vivo studies.  I made a note to self on this one because, *clearly*, scientists need to be reminded, ALL THE TIME, of their pretensions to divinity and the hubris that is inextricably linked in their DNA to their interest in biology.  Only scientists are capable of destroying our civilization.  Oil companies and investment bankers can not come close in destructive power to a guy in a white labcoat with a test tube.  We just can’t be trusted.

{{Sigh}}

Actually, it was the military that did it.  They recruited the scientist.

Ok, does anyone doubt that the Army has stocks of mutated biological agents that make smallpox look like a bad case of poison ivy?  Of course not.  But it’s not like they’re out to create a race of orcs.  I mean, come on.

So, here’s the premise of this weighty tome: A grief stricken biologist goes to South America to investigate a bat virus that has the power to cure terminally ill cancer patients.  Well, cure them temporarily.  There are a few kinks that need to be ironed out, like getting them to stop turning into immortal blood thirsty killers.  The Army sees this side effect as a feature, not a bug.  So, it makes the good doctor an offer he can’t refuse and gives him his own personal research lab in the mountains above Telluride, CO.  Enter the FBI agent, Wolgast.  Wolgast’s job is to recruit “volunteers” among death row inmates to participate in “clinical trials”.  The subjects are not told what’s going to happen to them but seeing as they don’t have many alternatives, most of the recruits sign up.  Then, the doctor says his research has progressed to the point where he needs a much younger subject.  He needs a child.  That’s where 6 year old Amy Harper Bellefonte comes in.

Amy is the abandoned child of a homeless woman turned prostitute.  When Amy was born, she and her mom lived with her grandfather in a poor but idyllic existence on an Iowa farm.  A series of unfortunate events leads to Amy’s abandonment at a convent with the eccentric Sister Lacy, and her subsequent abduction by Wolgast.  It doesn’t take long for Wolgast and Amy to bond.  Wolgast can’t bring himself to turn her over to research so he goes on the lam with her.  They’re both caught and Amy is subjected to a mutated form of the virus that brings her close to death.  Then, one night, all hell breaks loose on the mountain, the subjects escape and the world changes.  Once again, Wolgast disappears with Amy.  They retreat to an old summer camp in Oregon and hide from the chaos of the world around them.

And, Oh, what chaos ensues.  This is the most gripping part of the book.  Most of the details are provided by out of date newspapers that Wolgast finds while they’re hiding.  But there is one section concerning the evacuation of children from Philadelphia that is particularly harrowing.  The girl who tells it ends up in a FEMA camp in California.  She is part of the founding generation of survivors.  This is the end of the first part.

The second part concerns the California colony’s kibbutz-like existence.  They’re out in the middle of nowhere, 90 years later.  They haven’t heard from FEMA or the Army or nearly any other non-infected human beings for years.  For all they know, they’re the only ones who are left.  They sleep with the lights on, literally.  Light is the only thing that keeps the soulless virals at bay.  And their wind turbine powered batteries are starting to die.

That’s where the story starts to fall apart.  There are so many logical inconsistencies from this point on that even though the plot is still compelling, the stuff that doesn’t hang together started to grate on my nerves.  For example, the colony seems to have forgotten about modern medicine.  They don’t have antibiotics or anesthesia.  Ok, I know they may have used up the contents of their 50 ton push pack in 90 years but no one bothered to write down the recipe for chloroform or how to make penicillin from cheese mold?  And the battery problem: the guy responsible for running the power supply tells one of the more senior members of the colony of their impending fate and- they keep it to themselves?  No “let’s get together and brainstorm a solution or all 100 of us are going to die horrible deaths in, Oh, about a year”.  No, they just sit on that information.  Then, when a couple of the members of a clique get into trouble, the whole group takes off, leaving the colony to fend for itself, unaware that the lights are about to go out.  The colony is described as being kind and gentle to their children even after they learn the bitter truth about the world but they seem to not to have instilled a sense of moral responsibility to their community in them.  If you think you’re the last 100 people on earth, wouldn’t you go out of your way to make sure that community survival was paramount?

Amy comes back into the story.  Of all of the characters, her thoughts on being and existence are the most convincing.  But in the presence of others, you get no sense of the internal workings of her mind.  She is silent and passive, a mystery that drives the others to take action and her relationship to Peter, the reluctant leader of the group, remains woefully underdeveloped.  The other characters of the second half, trained survivalists, have all of the emotional depth of Degrassi High School students.  The action is punctuated by heart to heart conversations that lead nowhere and resolve nothing.  I don’t care about a bunch of college aged adolescents mooning over each other for months at a stretch.  Grow up and get to the frickin’ point already.

We do come to the point.  It should be thrilling but it seems a bit anti-climactic.  This is where the audiobook has its limitations.  Because, if you had the book, there are certain pages that you could comfortably skip right over but with an audiobook, you have to listen to the words to make sure you haven’t missed anything important and this. takes. for. ever.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the book really is good.  The first part is gripping and hair raising.  There are passages of astonishing beauty that make you ache for Wolgast and Amy.  There is no doubt that Cronin is a talented writer.  I think that the scope of the saga just got a bit too big and unwieldy.  He could have used a better editor to pare some of it back and focus the motivations of the characters.  And I have never heard so much overuse of the word “frown” in my life.  If a character has to express displeasure in any way, the frowny face seems to be the only option.  Didn’t Cronin have access to a Thesaurus?  Were there no other words to describe a furrowing of the brows?  A look of worry and concern?  A sense of disapproval?   But I digress.

Here’s my prediction: The book is going to be wildly popular.  There will be sequels.  The way the book ends, there almost has to be. If I were pushy enough to advise the author, I’d suggest that he spend more time world building.  An epic of this magnitude deserves an almost Tolkienesque attention to detail.  Take your time.  Please, please, please, tighten up the character relationships.  And try to figure out how things actually work. I realize that English majors don’t all flock to the hard sciences but make an effort to extrapolate.

As for the fate of this first of three books, there will be HBO miniseries or movie and a franchise and all sorts of character re-enactments.  There will be Halloween costumes and video games.  I hope they make a Wii version.  Get in on it early enough and you can say you were there when the phenomenon started.  Enjoy it while you can.

You never know when the world might end and the lights go off.

(Bwahahahahahhh!, she says, shaking her test tube)

Recommended.

Book Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Lisbeth Salander, that petite avenging angel with a wicked sting, is back in Stieg Larsson’s riveting conclusion of his Millenium Trilogy.

For those of you not familiar with Larsson’s novels, they can be described as a combination of James Bond journalist meets feminist hacker extraordinaire thriller mystery spy novels.  Larsson created an unusual pair of collaborators in Mikail Blomkvist, the publisher of the investigative journal magazine, Millenium, and Lisbeth Salander, an anti-social genius, who is her own one woman posse against the abuse of women.  Ironically, in the last two novels, the pair have two whole scenes where they are in the same room together.  The rest of the time, they have to find clever ways to communicate through an almost impenetrable wall of security.

In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, we pick up the threads from the previous novel, which ended with a cliffhanger.  Hornet’s Nest opens with Lisbeth in intensive care, having been shot in the head by her own father who she is accused of attempting to murder.  She lead Mikail “Kalle” Blomkvist on a chase throughout the last novel, where he gradually uncovers her troubling past and starts to realize the magnitude and power of her enemies.   In the final novel, Lisbeth’s case reaches into the very core of Swedish politics and its security services.  Lisbeth’s enemies want to disappear her to a psychiatric institution for the rest of her life in order to keep their secrets.  It’s Blomkvist’s task, along with an almost Dickensian cast of supporting characters, to expose the truth before Lisbeth gets carted away in a strait jacket.  To free her, he needs Lisbeth herself to employ her incredible hacking skills.  But how to do it from the hospital where she’s recovering, under tight security and the prison where she’s shortly to be sent to await trial?

There’s also a subplot regarding Blomkvist’s long time lover, Erica Berger, which should be subtitled “Men At Work”.  Berger leaves her post at Millenium to become Editor-in-Chief of what sounds like the Swedish equivalent of the New York Times.  She encounters institutional sexism of the subtle and maddening kind that only a woman would know about.  You know, the passive-aggressive non-compliance of her male colleagues, the continuous undermining of her authority by men who appeal to higher authorities, the guys that refuse to answer their emails and drag their feet when they’re summoned or “forget” to invite her to important meetings, the guys that change her work without telling her, substituting their own decisions for hers.  Shit like that.  It’s not sexual harrassment.  It’s just an environment of stone walling, dismissiveness and undermining.  In this case, Berger also has a cyber stalker who seems determined to sabotage her relationships with some of her employees as well.  The overall effect is to make Berger look less than competent, overwhelmed and not fully in control of her job.  Ladies, has this ever happened to you or someone you know?

Larsson died in 2004 and all of his books have been published posthumously.  But through his Millenium series, he has an uncanny knack for pinpointing the causes of modern societal decline.  He takes on the newspaper industry’s recent tendency to print lies uncritically, without examining the sources of leaks or their motives.  He lays out how shareholders and corporate CEO’s undermine their businesses by consuming profits at the expense of their core functions.  And he begins to get a grip on the violation of civil rights by his nation’s security apparatus.  It’s in this last area that we get an ironic taste of how far America has fallen since these books were written.  Larsson still looks to the United States as the gold standard in protecting an individual’s Constitutional rights against state abuse and he postulates that Lisbeth’s case would result in Congressional hearings here in the good ol’ US of A.  I guess he hadn’t yet heard of Jose Padilla.  It’s very difficult to sympathize with a suspected terrorist and yet, through Lisbeth’s case, it’s very easy to see how perceptions can be twisted and how an innocent person can be locked away for life if “state security” is invoked.

Hornet’s Nest ties up loose ends for the trilogy and could be seen as the author’s attempt at a satisfying conclusion.  The truth is stranger than fiction.  Larsson had almost completed a fourth book and had outlined the plots of several others when he died unexpectedly of a major heart attack at the age of 50.  The NYTimes profiled the struggle over his estate.  He died without a will and his family is battling with his long time companion, Eva Gabrielsson, over the rights to his books.  Gabrielsson says she didn’t write the books but suggests very strongly that she had significant influence over them.  Having read all three, I believe her.  It’s very difficult for me to believe that any man, even one as peculiarly sensitive and insightful as Larsson, could have this intimate a knowledge of what it’s like to be female in the modern and corporate world.  Gabrielsson says she’s not interested in the money so much as creative control.   Larsson’s father and brother got just about everything according to Swedish law but Gabrielsson has the hard drive from Larsson’s computer with the remaining novels on it.  The resolution of this battle of wills could be just as interesting as one of Larsson’s novels.

In Hornet’s Nest, Larsson portrays women who won’t back down, who learn how to protect themselves, don’t care what men think of them and have the courage to tell the world how incredibly annoyed they are about the whole state of affairs.  Go, Eva!

Highly Recommended.

Book Review: The Clinton Tapes

Taylor Branch with Bill and Hillary Clinton

Taylor Branch with Bill and Hillary Clinton

I’m going to start a rating system for the books I review based on the cleanliness of my kitchen.   I hate cleaning and I don’t like to be tied down to a book, especially on the weekends when there is so much to do.  So, I download from audible, strap on my iPhone and start cleaning the kitchen.  The cleanliness of my stove is directly proportional to the quality of the book.

I rate The Clinton Tapes, Wrestling History with the President as 5 sponges.  It’s so engrossing and well written that before I knew what I was doing, I had dismantled the burners and drip pans and wiped everything down twice.

The book, written by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Taylor Branch, is based on an oral history project initiated by President Bill Clinton in the very early days of his presidency and extending to the months after he left office.  Clinton and Branch kept this project secret from most of the White House staff and met approximately 77 times while Clinton was in office.  The meetings were taped but all copies of those tapes were retained by Clinton in a “safe place” in the White House, which turned out to be his sock drawer.  Branch recorded his own impressions of the meetings on the way home from the White House, sometimes dictating into a recorder at three in the morning from his car.  The audible version of the book features an excerpt of one of these recordings as the opening track.

The project tapes were subsequently used by Clinton as the foundation for his book My Life.  But where that book seemed more like a great beginning chapter, followed by a play by play of events that seemed prompted by a review of his schedules over eight years, Branch gives us the color commentary of the Clinton presidency.  At the start, Branch alerts the reader that he is an FOB, Friend of Bill.  He was Clinton’s roommate in Texas during their campaign for McGovern in Texas and gave advice to Hillary about whether or not to move to Arkansas.  But 20+ years had passed between that time in Texas and Bill’s ascent to the White House.  Clinton probably couldn’t have picked a better historian to help him with this project but this reader always has this relationship in the back of her mind.  Branch liked Bill.  Heck, *everyone* likes Bill.  It’s hard to stay mad at him for too long.

Early on in the Clinton presidency, Bill gets the low down on what the Republicans are about to do to him from Bob Dole.  Dole comes off as a mafia don who pretty much tells him that it’s his party’s intention to obstruct him in any way possible.  Nothing personal.  What’s surprising is Clinton’s reaction to that knowledge.  It’s like he doesn’t quite believe it.  It seems incomprehensible to him that civic duty and responsibility are not core Republican principles.  He adapts but I wondered how he managed in Arkansas all those years.  Eight years as a governor should have given him some experience with dealing with the other party.  But I suppose Washington DC is nothing like Little Rock.  Clinton is brilliant and political but the demands of the job are a little overwhelming at first.  It takes him a good portion of his first term for him to get his political sea legs.

The press plagued Clinton throughout his presidency.  He didn’t understand what motivated them and resisted advice to throw them a bone every now and then.  Branch speculates that Clinton lacked the authoritarian streak that is necessary to keep them in their place.  Sally Quinn comes off as a malicious fabricator of extreme and salacious fantasy.  About Maureen Dowd Clinton quips that she seemed pissed that other people in the world were leading happy and productive lives.  I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure what it was about the Clintons that frosted the media’s crockies but Hillary might have inadvertently stumbled on something close to the truth when she visited with some Chicago Cubs players.  The young multimillionaires were complaining bitterly about the tax increase they were getting under Bill.  She remarked that they seemed to be unaware that they were getting paid so well because the federal government was making conditions for that wealth possible.  They hadn’t made the connection to the common good.

But it is probably this very groundedness in public service that makes Bill and Hillary Clinton both endearing and maddening.  Their focus on their goals is intense and it sometimes allowed them to be blindsided.  Their devotion to one another and their daughter Chelsea borders on the fanatical.  And they are also human, vulnerable and touchy.  Bill is open, gregarious and generous.  He reminds me of a good bartender.  He starts a conversation with you and a dozen other people but when he comes back to you, he hasn’t forgotten anything.  Hillary is shrewder, more wary and funny.  She was his best advisor.  Too bad he didn’t always follow her advice, especially regarding the appointment of the Whitewater special prosecutor.

We get a sense of the other important people in the Clinton administration as well.  Surprisingly, the one cabinet member who may have had the most influence on his presidency and with whom he was least able to persuade with his open nature was Janet Reno.  She and Louis Freeh were perpetual pains in the ass.  Their lack of political acumen undermined him throughout his presidency on many issues but because of the intense media focus on the Republican instigated scandals surrounding the Clintons, he was unable to dismiss them without looking guilty.

Clinton also has regrets.  He didn’t really have a problem with NAFTA, although he knew he was going to lose support from some of his party.  In his overall picture of the world, Mexico wasn’t the problem.  China was and still is.  He fretted over Chinese prison labor and general working conditions there.  But his relationship with the Chinese was strained and something got lost in translation.  In the middle of his presidency, he regretted that he hadn’t yet gone to China.  He thought the Pakistan-Kashmir-India conflict was the most volatile in the world and was stunned by the readiness of the parties involved to start lobbing nukes at one another.  His last unattainable goal, hammering out a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, was undermined by Ariel Sharon.  He came so close it must have been devastating to see all that work come to nothing.

Throughout the book, Branch distills what Clinton learned about the nature of his office and the respective parties. Early on Clinton chides the Democrats for lacking courage.  He rants about the congressmen in safe seats who don’t stand up for party principles while letting their more vulnerable colleagues fall on their swords.  He sees the Republican focus on style and character for the shiny distraction it is from the more serious task of governing.  He finds Bush I to be uninspiring because he doesn’t run on what he believes while Bush II is cold and unprepared while hiding behind a false mask of compassionate conservatism.  His post election meeting with Al Gore shows how much the party itself has been damaged by 8 years of relentless criticism.  “Criticism works”, Clinton remarks early in his first term.  It’s hard for even the insiders to shake it off of themselves.

There’s a message here for the Democratic party.  Clinton’s presidency had a steep learning curve.  He says he would have liked a third term because he was just getting the hang of the job after the second.   But this book allows him to pass on the insights that he started accumulating early on.   It might have been written by Branch but one sees Clinton in it, winking at the reader.

Highly recommended.  Five sponges.

Note: The audible version of the book is abridged.  I’m betting the unabridged hard copy version is even better but don’t expect to get any work done.

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Summer Reading: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Oh, stop your whining.  You won’t have to write a paper or anything.  (hmmm, maybe that’s only meaningful to the users here who have kids in school.)

Stieg Larsson, Swedish journalist turned thriller/mystery writer, created a fascinating character in the shape of a spritely, stinging, punk avenging angel named Lisbeth Salander.  He got off 3 books out of a proposed 10 in the Millenium series before he died of a massive coronary caused by years of heavy smoking, proving that nicotine truly is the most evil substance on the planet.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is the sophomore success to Larsson’s debut The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Run, do not walk to the nearest bookstore and buy the sucker.  If you haven’t read the first one, you’ll be doubly blessed this summer as you kick back on the beach with your SPF 50 and cooler full of beer.  We won’t see book three until some time in 2010 but there is plenty in these two books to chew on like Swedish granola.

The Millenium series revolves around two characters: Mikhail “Kalle” Blomqvist, investigative journalist exposing the nasty, sexist underbelly of Sweden’s cool exterior, and Lisbeth Salander, the twenty something computer hacker extraordinaire with the obsessively private personality.  Blomqvist and Salander’s last adventure has made her rich beyond her wildest imaginings and she disappears for 2 years to travel the world, while Blomqvist and his business partner and part time lover, Erika Berger, delve into the seemy depths of the sex trade.  When one of their contract investigative journalists working on the importation of sex slaves from the former eastern bloc countries is executed in his apartment, newly returned Lisbeth Salander becomes the prime suspect.  It’s Blomqvist’s task to put the missing pieces together to exonerate her without much help from the decidely unhelpful Salander as she goes on the run and communicates with him by hacking into his computer at night.

Larsson’s Millenium series is part mystery and part commentary on society’s uneasy relationship with women.  Mikhail Blomqvist is the ideal man- for both men and women.  He’s a Matt Taibbi type who has the suave and debonnair touch of a James Bond.  Women want to sleep with him because he respects them and treats them like adults.  In fact, maybe Larsson just wanted to suck in as many readers as possible but most of Blomqvist’s lovers are women in their forties, independent and with highly developed erotic personalities.  Jeez, it makes me want to move to Stockholm.  Salander represents a new generation of women who’s not partial to one sex or another.  She uses sex to get the little amount of intimacy she allows herself to experience.  But it is Larsson’s uncanny knack of getting into the heads of men and revealing what they really think about women that feels just about right.  His characters are not politically correct.  The sex trade gangs reduce their victims to a collection of human parts, police commissioners make no attempt to disguise their contempt for their female subordinates and Salander’s colleagues at the security company she works for cavalierly expose women’s private lives for money.

Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza would be right at home in Larsson’s world.  Several reviewers have remarked that the book loses momentum in the middle while the interested parties begin their investigation of the crime.  But those of us who are tuned into how the media works will immediately recognize that Larsson has laid out the anatomy of a media smear campaign, directed at a woman with few allies and all for the purpose of sensationalizing and money making.  The life of the character in question, her hopes and dreams and even the most sensitive details of her personal life are exposed to the world to the point where the media image is unrecognizable to the character herself.  Larsson shows that you don’t have to be a member of a sex trade gang to brutally dehumanize a woman.  It can be done with the flick of a pen.

Highly recommended.

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