The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson Friday, Apr 13 2012 

This third and final novel in the Millennium trilogy is an immediate continuation of the story begun in The Girl Who Played with Fire. Lisbeth Salander is in the hospital, fighting for her life after a gunshot to the head. After her recovery, she faces another battle, this time against charges of aggravated assault and attempted murder, not to mention forces within the Swedish government that have been trying to keep her silent on a secret matter for years. With the help of the few supporters and friends she has left in the world, including Millennium publisher Mikael Blomkvist, Salander must fight back against the terrible injustices that have plagued her since childhood. Of course, considering what they’re up against, they are in almost as much danger as Salander herself.

I have to admit that after thoroughly enjoying the first two books in this trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was a bit of a letdown. The plot was overly complicated yet lacking in suspense, with much more setup than actual story. There were also far too many characters to keep track of easily. The subplot about Erika Berger, while somewhat interesting, often felt awkward and unnecessary, like Larsson was trying too hard to add substance to a secondary character. The romance (if it can be called that) between Blomkvist and Monica Figuerola was cliché and unworthy of the other, far more interesting relationships that have populated the trilogy. While Lisbeth Salander is, as always, a powerful presence, I thought that her viewpoint got put aside a little too much in favor of other characters, whether heroes or villains.

For me, though, perhaps the biggest fault in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is that the social commentary is not as well integrated as it was in the other two novels. Here, the text comes off as more of a diatribe against Sweden’s flaws than it does as a thriller that confronts social issues. As a result, there are some very long, dull passages in the text that I would have liked to skip over, but did not feel I could.

The last 100 pages or so of the book are, fortunately, a big improvement, with gripping courtroom drama and some of the thrilling kinds of moments that made the first two books so great. The conclusion is fairly satisfying, though a bit predictable, and written in such a way that one cannot help but join in the speculation as to whether Stieg Larsson was planning any more books in the series before his sudden death in 2004.

Whether Larsson intended to write more books or not, I can honestly say that, despite the flaws of the last book, the Millennium trilogy is a strong thriller series that both challenged me and kept me on the edge of my seat. Skeptical as I was at first, I understood why these books were so successful well before I finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Larsson’s greatest accomplishment, of course, was the character of Lisbeth Salander, whose toughness, intelligence, and complexity defy the usual standards for thriller characters, especially female ones. Even if I don’t remember every single detail of this series, I will certainly never forget her.

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The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht Tuesday, Apr 3 2012 

Natalia is a young doctor in an unnamed, fictionalized Balkan country. As she travels to a remote area to assist in inoculating children at an orphanage, she is coping with the recent death of her beloved grandfather, who was also a doctor. She tries to learn more about her grandfather and his life through the fantastical stories he left behind, namely the tale of the “deathless man,” whom Natalia’s grandfather encountered several times throughout his life, and one about “the tiger’s wife,” a mysterious young woman who befriended a tiger in the grandfather’s village when he was a child. In the midst of all this, Natalia is also confronted with the bizarre, morbid secrets of the area surrounding the orphanage where she is working.

Obreht certainly has an amazing way with words and the style of magical realism, and many passages in the novel are quite stunning as a result. The fables interwoven into Natalia’s story are especially captivating for their blending of magic into the real world. Unfortunately, this style gets in the way of the book having much substance. The Tiger’s Wife comes dangerously close to not having any plot. I wouldn’t expect such a meditative novel to be action-packed, but the book goes a little too far in the opposite direction. It felt as if absolutely nothing happened over the course of the novel, at least as far as Natalia was concerned. I did not believe that Natalia developed as a person or even learned anything important over the course of the novel; to be frank, I was never entirely sure what she was trying to learn or understand about her grandfather in the first place.

Nearly everything in the novel is connected by the theme of dealing with death and loss, especially in a war-torn region where these things are always present. However, Obreht never seems to have any deep insights about this theme, and the prose, beautiful though it may be, becomes so obscure and convoluted that I found it difficult to draw any conclusions about death, loss, and the author’s thoughts on those matters myself. This thematic hollowness is yet another example of nothing really happening in The Tiger’s Wife, albeit in a more theoretical way. Perhaps this is a characteristic of magical realism that I have yet to understand, but I found it disconcerting and disappointing. Even if a novel is not full of action, I like to learn something or have some more insight after reading it, and that simply did not happen with this book.

I wonder if I might have enjoyed The Tiger’s Wife more if it had been written as a series of loosely connected short stories. The fables of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife were very interesting and beautifully written, but the novel faltered when it shifted to the present and Natalia tried to connect these stories to learning more about her grandfather. The whole idea felt thinly stretched and completely unresolved by the end of the book. While Obreht definitely has a wonderful way with words and imagery, and a lot of potential, her debut novel definitely has the same major flaw I’ve seen with other young writers, and with a lot of so-called literary fiction in general. There is so much focus on the style that the plot is underdeveloped, and even the themes the author means to discuss get lost. In this particular case, I also thought that, for a novel so obviously intended to be “literary,” the characters were very one-dimensional and bland. As mentioned before, I saw practically no development on Natalia’s part over the course of the novel, and all her relationships appeared very superficial, even with the grandfather she claims to have loved and admired so much. Even the grandfather himself remains overly distant and undeveloped by the end of the book, when I’d expected that Natalia would have learned some deeper truths and understood him better at that point.

Basically, this is a book that had a lot of promise when I picked it up, but the potential was simply never fulfilled, at least not for me. I realize that this book has gotten many sparkling reviews and that I am somewhat of a contrary naysayer here. I do feel inspired now to read more established magical realism authors like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez, if for no other reason than to see what my overall response is to that style of writing. Still, even not having read much in this style, I think it’s way too soon to start counting Obreht as one of its great writers. Her use of language is impressive, but there isn’t quite enough depth to it yet. She’s got the style down, so I hope her future books will focus a little more on substance.

Julian by Gore Vidal Sunday, Apr 1 2012 

I love historical fiction, and in my opinion, Gore Vidal is a master of the genre. Having read Burr and Lincoln, which are both excellent, I decided to check out a Vidal novel that explores something outside American history. That brought me to Julian, his 1964 novel about the Roman Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus, often known as Julian the Apostate.

Twenty years after Julian’s death, Libanius and Priscus, two philosophers who had been Julian’s confidantes, have decided to attempt to have Julian’s memoir published. Once the process of doing so is agreed upon, the novel consists primarily of the manuscript of the memoir, along with the two philosophers’ marginal notes regarding their own memories of the events in Julian’s narrative—and often providing a more truthful, detailed account of what actually happened. Julian’s memoir details his early life and education, his ascent to becoming Caesar in the West, and eventually, his time as emperor. Much of the focus is on his transition from a student-prince only interested in philosophy to an ambitious military leader. Most prominent, though, is Julian’s contempt for Christianity and his interest in Mithraism and the ancient Roman gods, culminating in his efforts as emperor to restore the old Roman religion and eliminate the influence of Christianity altogether—efforts that would lead to his assassination in 363.

As I’ve noticed with the other Gore Vidal novels I’ve read, Julian has a brilliantly crafted structure that presents some worthwhile ideas. The comments on Julian’s memoir, especially from Priscus, frequently mention details that Julian chose not to include, either to make himself look more impressive to future generations or to avoid thinking about unpleasant memories. The notes between Priscus and Libanius throughout the memoir also present a more realistic perspective on some of the people Julian trusted and admired most. By writing the novel in this fashion, rather than simply as a fictional memoir, Vidal demonstrates that even a person’s own words cannot tell their entire story. There will almost always be unflattering details about their lives that they decide—consciously or unconsciously—not to discuss, and it will be up to other people to fill in those blanks. The structure of the novel also suggests that other people can often see the truth about our lives better than we can ourselves, especially when it comes to our closest friends. This is most obvious in Julian regarding the philosopher Maximus, whom Julian depends on for years for spiritual guidance and admires greatly. Priscus, on the other hand, can see that Maximus is more showmanship than spirituality, and that everything he says and does is carefully calculated to keep Julian’s favor.

The religious conflict of the era proves to be the most interesting aspect of the novel. Unsurprisingly from an author like Gore Vidal, the critique of Christianity is quite harsh, and the religion is presented as a serious detriment to tolerance and intellectual endeavors in the Roman Empire. However, it also seems to me that Vidal views Julian’s attempts to revive the “old gods” with some skepticism as well, especially regarding animal sacrifices and their use as some sort of indicator of future events. Though the novel is not exactly objective about this conflict, I did learn a lot about early Christianity and other practices of the era from it. I always appreciate an entertaining novel that also teaches me something and encourages me to learn more about a subject.

It is clear that Gore Vidal did meticulous research for this book, and Julian is a very accurate depiction of Julian the Apostate and the time in which he lived. It has a lot of the same qualities that I enjoyed so much about Burr and Lincoln, but also gave me the opportunity to find out more about a time in history about which I do not know very much. This is historical fiction at its very best, and I definitely recommend it to any fan of the genre.