Mariano Rivera: A Yankee Legend Friday, May 4 2012 

Mariano Rivera gets his record-breaking 602nd save, September 19, 2011 at Yankee Stadium.

It’s unusual, if not unheard of, for a baseball team’s fans to love their closing pitcher the way Yankee fans love Mariano Rivera.

Then again, it’s unusual to find someone like Mariano Rivera, on or off the baseball field.

That’s why last night’s news hit us all so hard. A collapse on the warning track at Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City turned out to be a torn ACL. This certainly means that Rivera is out for the year, and quite likely it also means that his pitching career is over. While many fans have assumed that Mo would retire at the end of the 2012 season, this isn’t how any of us imagined his incredible career ending.  It was supposed to end with fanfare—ideally, of course, when Rivera recorded one last out in a deciding game of the World Series, bringing the Yankees their 28th championship. Instead, last night we were watching with tears in our eyes as Mo said that he wasn’t sure he’d ever pitch again, that he’d let his teammates down, and that he was staying in Kansas City for the time being so that he could “be there for the guys.”

Such an ending feels incomplete, unfair, and just plain wrong. Yet, as heartbreaking as it all is, it also reminds me of why we Yankee fans have been so blessed to have Mo on our team for so many years.  So now, sad as I still am at this news, I want to shift my focus away from how Mo’s time in baseball is apparently ending and celebrate what has been an amazing, inspiring career.

There generally wasn’t a whole lot of suspense when Mariano Rivera took the mound in the 9th inning. Most of the time, the Yankees had the lead, and with Mo pitching, they were going to keep it and win. The lack of suspense didn’t matter then; the excitement came from watching one of the most talented players in baseball at work. No matter how many times we saw Rivera throw that famous cutter, and no matter how many batters we saw him strike out or saves we saw him record, getting to see him pitch was a treat. Most of the Yankee home games I’ve been to weren’t particularly eventful, but I’ve never minded, because I always enjoyed seeing Rivera get the save, not to mention the thunderous standing ovation as he jogged onto the field to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”

The numbers for Mo’s career are certainly impressive. He’s recorded 608 regular season saves and 42 postseason saves (how fitting).  He has career ERA of 2.21 and a WHIP of 1.00, as well as 1,119 strikeouts. I’m sure that someone better versed in advanced statistics than I am could offer some more insights on that front. However, as remarkable as these numbers all are, they don’t tell the whole story. Yes, Mariano Rivera is the greatest closing pitcher in MLB history, and of course his incredible talent has a lot to do with that. But he is also the greatest because of his dedication to the game and to his team. Every game mattered to him in its entirety, whether he was going to get a save opportunity or not. By all accounts, he is an excellent teammate who is as consistent in being a friend and counselor to his fellow Yankees as he is in getting those saves. Though confident in his abilities (and why shouldn’t he be?), Rivera is also known for his humility and his quickness to give credit to his teammates for their successes. It’s never just about him.

Perhaps, though, Mariano Rivera has been at his most admirable on those occasions when things haven’t gone well. His blown saves are few and far between, for sure, but they’re so rare that they’ve always gotten noticed. Failure is difficult for any athlete to deal with, but Mo always faced the screw-ups and scrutiny with dignity. He took responsibility for his infrequent failures and promised to do better next time. Even with the disappointment of a loss, it was impossible not to admire his graciousness, and we Yankee fans knew that he would indeed do better next time. Greatness isn’t just about how rarely you mess up; it’s about coming back from those unusual failures as good as ever. Mariano Rivera has exemplified that throughout his baseball career.

Even with the speculation running rampant all over the Internet, I think it’s way too soon to know whether Rivera will want and be able to pitch during the 2013 season, or whether this really is the end of the road for him. Obviously, my fellow Yankee fans and I are hoping for the former. But whatever the future holds, though, this much is true: upon his retirement, Mariano Rivera will leave one of the greatest legacies in the history of professional sports, both on and off the field. His pitching talents are certainly something for younger players to aspire to, but his devotion to his teammates and his humility in the face of unprecedented success are even more so. Whether an athlete on the field or a fan in the stands, his example is one that we can and should all be proud to follow.

It’s perfectly understandable for Yankee fans, and baseball fans in general, to be sad right now, regardless of what you’ve heard about crying in baseball. Last night’s news was tough to hear, and the uncertainty in the air isn’t any easier. But despite this unfortunate, heartbreaking injury, Mariano Rivera remains dedicated to his beloved team, continuing to demonstrate why we’ve admired him all these years. Wherever his journey takes him next, we fans will certainly have something to feel sad about when he retires, but we will have far, far more to celebrate.

P.S. Mariano Rivera to reporters today: “I’m coming back. Write it down in big letters. I’m not going out like this.”

This is exactly what I’m talking about. We’re all rooting for you, Mo!

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.

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.

My 5 Favorite Mad Men Episodes…So Far Saturday, Mar 24 2012 

I started renting Mad Men DVDs from Netflix in late 2010. I had already heard a lot—way too much, in fact—about the series, and despite having already learned about most of the major plot points, I wanted to see it for myself. It has since become one of my favorite shows, and needless to say, I’m more than a little excited for tomorrow’s long-awaited season 5 premiere.

Originally, I was going to write about my top 10 episodes of Mad Men, but I wanted to be able to discuss each of my favorite episodes in a little more depth, so I reduced the number to five. These are the five that I believe are the best examples of the show’s great writing and acting, and maybe even the ones that best define what the series is all about. (And besides, picking just another five episodes to include with these five just proved too difficult of a decision, which I’m sure any fan of this show can understand!)

If you have never watched the show but plan to, or you’re not done with the first four seasons yet, there are some MAJOR spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk!

5. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Season 1, Episode 1)

Don Draper considers the possibilities for new Lucky Strike advertisements.

With new regulations coming for tobacco advertisements and increasing information about the health risks of smoking, Sterling Cooper’s creative director Don Draper must find a new way to market Lucky Strike cigarettes and soothe the company’s fears about their future. Meanwhile, he is also juggling a bohemian girlfriend in the Village with his picture-perfect wife and children in the suburbs.  The episode also introduces other key characters, including account executive Pete Campbell, office manager Joan Holloway, senior partner Roger Sterling, and Don’s naïve new secretary Peggy Olson, who has no idea just how much her life is going to change after that first day on the job.

The first season of Mad Men, in my opinion, was a bit uneven, but this first episode was a terrific start to the series, immersing us in its complex characters, sharp dialogue, and captivating atmosphere right from the opening scene, and already throwing in a few surprises as well.  It establishes right away that this isn’t going to be a nostalgia piece about the 1960s, but an honest look at the prejudices and bad behavior of the era that people are often quick to forget.  While the series faltered a bit after “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” this episode showed how much potential Mad Men had, and I was very happy to see that potential finally becoming fulfilled by the end of the first season.

4. “Meditations in an Emergency” (Season 2, Episode 13)

After keeping a secret for almost two years, Peggy tells Pete the truth about their relationship.

The nationwide panic of the Cuban Missile Crisis is brilliantly juxtaposed in the second season finale with crises in the lives of the characters. Sterling Cooper is being sold to a larger British firm, and no one at the office is sure what it could mean for the future…assuming there is one. Back at the Draper home, Betty, still separated from Don, receives some unwelcome news: she is pregnant with the couple’s third child.

What stands out most in this fine episode, though, is a cathartic scene between Peggy and Pete. After refusing to leave New York with his wife in order to “escape” a nuclear attack, Pete invites Peggy into his office for a drink and admits that he loves her and “should’ve picked [her] then.” Peggy responds by finally telling him that their brief tryst left her pregnant and that she gave the baby up for adoption. It’s a marvelously written and acted scene, and Peggy’s words to the shaken Pete reveal so much.  She is acutely aware of how much she’s changed during her time at Sterling Cooper; she’s no longer a meek, insecure secretary, but a gifted copywriter with an office who can hold her own against anyone else at the agency. While she a little seems unsure whether all the changes in her are for better or worse, she’s moved on from her onetime lover, and she isn’t letting him or anyone else define her anymore.

3. “Nixon vs. Kennedy” (Season 1, Episode 12)

Don Draper recalls his final moments as Dick Whitman in this flashback to the Korean War.

The employees at Sterling Cooper decide the 1960 election is a perfect reason to throw an all-night office party—a party that has, of course, some unexpected results. The real story here, though, is the revelation of how Dick Whitman became Don Draper—namely, by stealing the identity of an Army superior killed in action. It’s a shocking story that makes one realize the extent of Don’s resourcefulness and his desperation not to return to his old life. I found myself torn between horror at what he had done and understanding that he did what he had to do. Having watched the entire series twice now, I still don’t entirely know what to think of these actions.

Of course, the drama doesn’t stop there. After stealing a box of photographs and other items meant for Don in a previous episode, the ever-sneaky Pete Campbell knows about Don’s past and attempts to blackmail Don into giving him the coveted Head of Accounts position. There’s been tension between Don and Pete since “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and it reaches a boiling point here. It’s the first time we see Don losing control of the situation; he is clearly terrified that his years of lies will be exposed and everything he has worked for will be ruined. However, this cat-and-mouse game between Don and Pete, one of the most gripping story arcs in the series’ history, comes to a conclusion neither of them expects as agency patriarch Bert Cooper steals the show with his answer to Pete’s attack on Don.

2. “The Suitcase” (Season 4, Episode 7)

Peggy and Don grab a bite at a diner after arguing earlier in the evening.

Set against the background of an historic boxing match between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, “The Suitcase” focuses on the complex relationship between Don and Peggy. After Don’s demands for a Samsonite campaign disrupt Peggy’s birthday plans, the two have a brutal argument about Don’s tough treatment of Peggy and who deserves credit for what. Later in the evening, though, the two go out for dinner and drinks and confide in each other more than they ever have. Don talks about his unhappy childhood, while Peggy discusses not wanting what women her age are expected to want. After a surprise confrontation with former Sterling Cooper employee Duck Phillips–also a former lover of Peggy’s–the two fall drunkenly asleep on the couch in Don’s office. The following morning, Peggy comforts Don after he learns that his beloved confidante Anna (the real Don Draper’s widow) has died from cancer—news he’s been avoiding since the previous day.

This is one of the most acclaimed episodes of Mad Men, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a near-perfect combination of wit, emotional rawness, and surprisingly tender moments between Don and Peggy.  These two have often been very hard on each other, but they have also have a connection that neither has with anyone else at the office, or outside of it. Peggy can say things to Don that she can’t say to most other people. Don respects Peggy and her talent, and unlike a lot of other men at the agency, he doesn’t see her gender as any reason for her not to be successful. These are two people who are happiest when they’re working, and despite the tension that arises between them from time to time, on a personal level, they’re more comfortable with each other than with their own families or lovers.  “The Suitcase” does a wonderful job of observing and analyzing all of this without other distractions. Whether there’s a romantic future for these characters or not (I’ve heard it speculated, and I have mixed feelings), this is one of the most interesting relationships on television.

1. “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” (Season 3, Episode 13)

A personal end and a professional beginning come together in Don Draper's life.

Who knew that there’d ever be so much action in one Mad Men episode? Just as Don and Betty’s marriage is breaking up, Sterling Cooper and its parent company are for sale to McCann Erickson. Don, Bert, Roger, and Lane know the takeover will destroy their positions and their power, so they decide to take action. With a secretiveness that rivals any well-done caper movie, they get themselves fired from Sterling Cooper, recruit a few key employees to join them, and steal all the important client materials they’ll need for their new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  Because there was so little discussion of the possible sale in previous episodes, this incredibly clever episode is full of thrills and surprises, and it makes the audience feel as if they’re in on the best secret ever. The episode is further boosted by Joan’s return to the office where she belongs, using her managerial skills to help with the transition to the new firm instead of wasting them at home on her irritating, ne’er-do-well husband. Perhaps the best moment, though, is when Don visits Peggy at home after she rejects his offer to join the new firm. He’s been tough on her all through season 3, but he wants to reassure her that he values her abilities. “I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you,” he explains, finally convincing her. It’s an incredibly touching moment and a nice preview of what would happen later on in “The Suitcase.”

Once again, part of Mad Men’s brilliance is its juxtaposition of its storylines. The dissolution of the Draper marriage isn’t exactly a shock at this point, but it’s still heartbreaking to watch Don and Betty explain the situation to their confused, devastated children. Positioning that sad end in Don’s personal life against the excitement and hopefulness of the new agency is a brilliant move, not only because it presents a reflection on endings and new beginnings, but also because of what it says about Don Draper himself. No matter how unable Don is to save anything in his personal life, he will always find a solution when it comes to his work. With its sharp combination of hope and despair, meditation and action, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” is everything we’d come to hope for from Mad Men (and then some), and yet it reveals that nothing on this great show will ever be quite the same.

Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn at the New-York Historical Society Friday, Mar 16 2012 

Jean-Baptiste Belley, an important figure in the Haitian Revolution.

Last week, I visited the New-York Historical Society for the first time since its renovation. Even more so than before, the museum is an absolute must-see for any history buff living in or visiting the New York area. With its exciting exhibits and diverse collection, it is a great place to learn more about the history of both New York City and the United States.

What I’d especially like to discuss today is one of N-YHS’s current exhibits, titled Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn. The exhibit is focused on the American, French, and Haitian revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and it is the first exhibit to present these three revolutions as “a single, global narrative.” It documents the various sources of dissatisfaction among the peoples of the Atlantic, dating back to the British victory in the French and Indian War, which brought Britain to the height of its imperial power in North America.

There are many objects of great interest on display, both from the N-YHS collection and other institutions in the U.S. and Europe. These include paintings and political cartoons, a first edition of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” abolitionist Thomas Clarkson’s “Africa box” used in his anti-slavery lectures, and even the original Stamp Act from 1765, on loan from the Parliamentary Archives in London.

These object come together to cover a wide range of topics important in the revolutionary era, including the role of coffeehouses and newspapers as catalysts of dissatisfaction and dissent, Enlightenment ideas that sparked the American Revolution, and the transition from the acceptance of monarchy to the new ideal of popular sovereignty.  The exhibit does a particularly good job of discussing how these revolutions and the raised new questions about the ethics of slavery and what the standards for human rights should be.

As a history buff, I was pleased to see how well Revolution! demonstrated the connections between these three revolutions and paid so much attention to the Haitian Revolution. The American and French Revolutions and how one influenced the other are covered numerous times in history classes at every level of education, but in all the history classes I’ve taken in my life, I don’t recall the revolution in Haiti being taught extensively, if it was even mentioned at all. I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Haiti and now feel inspired to do some reading about its revolution, which, I believe, was just as bold as the American and French ones that came before it.

The major events included in Revolution! are extraordinary enough on their own, but seeing how much these three countries influenced each other during this era makes them even more remarkable. The relatively new field of Atlantic history is not without its critics (almost nothing in academia is, I suppose), but it does the important work of highlighting how interconnected Europe, Africa, and the Americas were during the early modern era. To talk about one without talking about the others results in a failure to tell the story of that time in history as fully as possible. It was exciting to see a museum exhibit that shows such a good understanding of this concept.

Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn runs at the New-York Historical Society until April 15, 2012. You can learn more about this exhibit and others at the New-York Historical Society here. After my recent visit, I look forward to seeing what the Society has in store for us history buffs next.

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson Sunday, Mar 4 2012 

At the beginning of The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth Salander is now independently wealthy, thanks to her involvement with bringing down corrupt businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström. Returning to Sweden after a year of traveling the world, she starts thinking about her future.

Mikael Blomkvist has triumphantly returned to his position at Millennium, but remains baffled by Salander’s cutting him off from her life after their return from Hedestad the year before.  He is working with promising young journalist Dag Svensson and Svensson’s girlfriend, Mia Johansson, on a book and an edition of Millennium dedicated to sex trafficking in Sweden—a project that promises to be a shocking, unprecedented exposé. Dag and Mia are killed in their apartment shortly before the magazine’s publication, and much to Blomkvist’s horror, Lisbeth Salander’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon. Matters only become worse when Salander’s guardian, Nils Bjurman, is also found dead. Even as the Swedish public vilifies Salander and shocking secrets about her early life are exposed, Blomkvist remains determined to prove that his one-time friend and collaborator did not kill anyone. As Blomkvist struggles to make the authorities reconsider Salander’s guilt, Salander herself is forced to deal with the demons of her past, and her own connection to the story Dag Svensson , Mia Johansson, and Blomkvist were determined to tell.

This is an even more complicated thriller than its predecessor, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and while it did occasionally get a bit overwhelming, it was almost impossible to put down. The plot is, as is the case with many thrillers, a bit far-fetched, but it is exciting and engrossing nonetheless; I stayed up much later than I should have several nights because I was so anxious to see what happened next. There are quite a few surprises along the way, including some revelations about Salander that were very different from what I expected. The social commentary is even more scathing than in the previous novel, yet it still feels organic to the plot. I expect the same from The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the final installment in the trilogy, which I just began reading.

Once again, though, Lisbeth Salander is what stands out more than anything or anyone else in this book. She only became more remarkable as I learned more about her. She’s one of the most morally complex, antisocial characters I’ve ever encountered, but also one of the strongest and smartest. It’s impossible not to root for her, even if almost none of the other characters do.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest picks up right where The Girl Who Played with Fire leaves off. Considering how this book ended, I’m expecting to stay up way too late a few more nights, unable to stop reading.

A Few Favorite Oscar-Winning Classics Sunday, Feb 26 2012 

As a movie fan, I thought in honor of tonight’s Academy Awards, I’d take a break from books and write about some of my favorite Oscar winning films. These are just a few of many, of course, but if there are any here that you haven’t seen, I hope you’re inspired to give them a try.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

The enormously successful film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone with the Wind tells the story of fiery Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and her many marriages and machinations in the years during and after the Civil War, including her passionate but difficult relationship with golden-hearted rogue Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). While I still believe the book is better, this movie features magnificent costumes, unprecedented cinematography, and all the romance and drama you could ask for in one film. The strong cast also includes Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award.

Casablanca (1943)

It has its logical flaws, but Casablanca also has a great and oft-quoted screenplay and a cast that does a wonderful job of bringing it to life. Former lovers Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund (Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman) are reunited in the Moroccan city during World War II, bringing back painful memories for Rick and drawing him into involvement with the Resistance, something he never intended before seeing Ilsa again. The result is a moving tale of love and sacrifice, and one of the saddest and most beautiful romances ever to come out of Hollywood.

All About Eve (1950)

One evening after a performance, aging Broadway actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) meets young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who claims to be her biggest fan. Margo quickly takes Eve on as her new assistant. Little do she and her friends know at the time what Eve’s true ambitions are, and the lengths she will go to in order to achieve them. All About Eve features a wickedly clever screenplay and a fantastic cast that includes Davis and Baxter in career defining roles, as well as George Sanders as sharp-tongued theater critic Addison DeWitt, Celeste Holm as Margo’s sweet-natured but conflicted friend Karen Richards, and Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest prominent film roles. It’s easily one of the smartest and most entertaining films ever made about show business, and it only gets better every time I watch it.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Released the same year as All About Eve, this film takes an equally brilliant but much more tragic look at the entertainment industry. Down-and-out writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) accidentally finds himself at the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former silent film star convinced that the public is still in love with her. Gillis agrees to help Norma with the screenplay that she thinks will be her Hollywood comeback, in exchange for a luxurious life in her spacious mansion. The two use and abuse each other for months as Norma becomes more and more delusional about a return to Hollywood; you’ll probably find yourself wondering who the real villain of this film is, if there is one at all. Equally haunting and entertaining, Sunset Boulevard explores the fleeting nature of fame and the disastrous consequences of not being able to let it go.

On the Waterfront (1954)

This exploration of union corruption and violence on the Hoboken, New Jersey waterfront is a tense and powerful film, one that is inspirational without becoming sentimental. Marlon Brando gives a brilliant, influential performance as dockworker Terry Malloy, who initially accepts the depravity of the union leadership but with the support of “waterfront priest” Father Barry (Karl Malden) and love interest Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) decides to take action against it. Wonderfully acted and written, this film is an important meditation on the impact of silence and of speaking out, the role of religion in a troubled society, and what people can do when they choose to move beyond their failures.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Although largely fictional, The Lion in Winter does a great job portraying the tense relationship between King Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn). Not only have Henry’s many affairs soured their marriage, but the two are also in conflict as to which of their sons should inherit the English throne. O’Toole and Hepburn are both at their very best here, giving James Goldman’s witty, brilliant script the treatment it deserves. Also noteworthy is the film debut of Anthony Hopkins, who plays Henry and Eleanor’s son Richard. Even if your knowledge of and interest in medieval history is limited, this is a must-see.

The Godfather (1972)

Marlon Brando won his second Oscar (which he famously declined) as Don Vito Corleone in this cinematic masterpiece, but The Godfather is primarily the story of Corleone’s youngest son Michael, played by then relatively unknown Al Pacino. Michael starts out with no intention of getting involved in the “family business,” but he gets drawn into Mafia operations and evolves from an idealistic young man into a ruthless, intimidating mob boss. The Godfather revolutionized the crime film genre by presenting mobsters as complicated characters and treating them (somewhat) sympathetically, rather than from the viewpoint of an outraged public. It’s a great story told through amazing actors, not to mention incredible artistic detail. No matter how many times I watch this film, I discover something new or think about it differently with each viewing. It may not be an imaginative answer, but when asked my favorite movie of all time, this is the film I name, with no hesitation. It simply never gets old.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré Tuesday, Feb 7 2012 

I don’t remember exactly when I added Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to my very long reading list, but the release of the new film based on the book reminded me what it was about and that I wanted to read it. A thriller set during the Cold War sounded perfect for me.

The novel takes place in the early 1970s and centers on the British overseas intelligence agency MI6. George Smiley, formerly Deputy Head of the Service, has been retired from the agency for about a year after being forced out of the agency by new leadership. However, when Civil Service officer Oliver Lacon learns that there is a Soviet mole codenamed “Gerald” in the highest ranks of MI6, he recruits Smiley to get back to work finding and exposing the mole, with limited evidence and without the knowledge of MI6, as new agency chief Percy Alleline and his three closest deputies are all suspects. If you want to know more about the plot…well, you’ll just have to read the book.

This is a dense, complex novel, and I found it took some effort to follow. A great deal of spy jargon is used, and I found it took a while to get all the terms straight and remember what they all meant. There are many characters—a few known by multiple names—and many intricate details and subplots. This is a much heavier read than many thrillers or adventure stories, and the reader definitely feels almost as much tension in the search for the Soviet mole as George Smiley and his former protégé Peter Guillam.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not for the impatient reader, but for those who can keep all the jargon, multiple identities, and plot complications straight in their minds, this is an intense, intelligent, and gripping novel. It presents an important side of the Cold War that doesn’t always come through in the history books, and it brings the intrigue and drama of “office politics” to a whole new level. John le Carré examines questions of loyalty, betrayal, and friendship throughout the novel, as well as the impact of losing one’s life’s work and of learning difficult truths about the important people in one’s life. Most importantly, it is an exciting story that combines intellect and action, always keeping both readers and characters constantly on their toes.

One of the most important aspects of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and what perhaps sets it apart the most, is the protagonist George Smiley. It is clear from his first appearance that he is not a James Bond type and probably never was. It also quickly becomes clear that Smiley was one of the best at MI6, and that his dismissal was a matter of office politics, not incompetence. As the novel moved forward, I found myself rooting not only for the mole to be found, but also for Smiley to expose the folly of the new MI6 chief and even regain his position in the agency. George Smiley, unlike many fictional spies (at least to my knowledge of the espionage genre), is far more substance than style, as fictional characters should be but often aren’t in the mystery/thriller genre.

The new movie of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is now nominated for a few Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Smiley. This is the kind of novel that I expect could make a great movie, and I look forward to seeing and reviewing it soon.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain Friday, Jan 20 2012 

Despite taking four years of high school English and majoring in English in college, I had never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until recently. Having finally read this classic novel, I find myself categorizing it with several other “classics” I’ve read over the years: books whose significance I appreciate, but which I cannot say I actually enjoyed reading.

The novel is disjointed, and most of the subplots are just variations on the same basic storyline—Huck Finn gets involved in a sticky situation and manages to lie his way out of it, with varying degrees of difficulty. On the surface, the book felt more like an adventure story written for children than a serious novel worthy of the discussion and dissection it has received. I realize Mark Twain must have intended for the book to read somewhat haphazardly, but I found it tiresome after a very short time. I did not want reading this book to feel like a chore, but I was soon pushing myself to continue and finish it. While I liked the two central characters well enough, I found many aspects of the story irritating and dull, and I was relieved to be done with it.

However, while I cannot say that I liked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I appreciate its significance to American literature, and its importance to understanding the era of American history in which it was written. This novel was one of the first in American literature to be written in the vernacular of the region where the action takes place, with a variety of dialects of Missouri and the Mississippi River region. Twain provides a vivid portrayal of the area where the novel takes place, one that teems with local color. It was one of the first novels to be so distinctively of a  particular region, and literary regionalism would become much more common in the decades after its publication. There is little doubt of the exact setting of Huckleberry Finn, and it is a story that could not take place anywhere else.

The main plot of the novel, which is much greater than the sum of its parts, revolves around runaway Huck Finn’s journey with a runaway slave named Jim and Huck’s efforts to help Jim keep his freedom.  As such, Huckleberry Finn has been thoroughly analyzed over the years for its treatment of race, racism, and slavery—and over one hundred years after its publication, there is still debate about what Twain intended to say about race, and whether the novel is prejudiced or not.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the mid-1880s, twenty years after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. However, Twain sets the novel in a time when slavery still existed. By the 1880s, it was clear that the end of slavery had not done enough to improve blacks’ lot in life; especially in areas where slavery had once been the norm, they were still subject to an extremely low standard of living and terrible treatment at the hands of whites. I believe in this book, Twain wanted to draw parallels between life for blacks in the antebellum South and their lives after the Civil War. Through the character of Jim, who wants to be freed from slavery and to be reunited with his family, Twain challenged his white readers to realize that blacks deserved the same freedom whites had, and that the abolition of slavery hadn’t been enough to give them that equality. Jim is a man with hopes, fears, and dreams, not a nonentity who is meant to live enslaved on someone else’s land. Slavery here represents black life after abolition, and the harsh reality that little had changed by the 1880s.

However, while many readers believe that Huckleberry Finn is a condemnation of slavery and racism, others find the depiction of Jim to be racist. Jim is portrayed as extremely superstitious and rather unintelligent. I believe it is entirely legitimate to raise questions about Twain’s purpose in characterizing Jim the way he did. The novel is heavy on satire, so was he satirizing the stereotypes of blacks that were so prevalent in 19th century America, exaggerating them to make readers realize how foolish such perceptions were? Or did Twain not consider blacks equal to whites, but still believed they deserved better lives? It is always essential to remember that many abolitionists, including Abraham Lincoln, did not necessarily believe blacks and whites were equal. It would not be surprising if similar attitudes were still common in the 1880s; some whites would believe blacks should be treated better, but still subscribe to common prejudices. While I will not pretend to have any insights into the mind of Mark Twain, I do believe that satire was likely the purpose of this depiction, especially considering the strong presence of satire in Twain’s body of work. However, a sound understanding of American history has to leave open the possibility that there may still be at some traces of racism in Twain’s work, even if they weren’t necessarily conscious ones.

Disheartening as it may be to think that such an important and innovative American writer may not have been progressive enough to move beyond racism completely, it is important to remember that considering the racial situation in the United States in this era, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was still a forward thinking book for its time. Slavery had been illegal for less than a quarter of a century, and Jim Crow laws and violence against blacks were still considered perfectly acceptable. For a writer like Twain to question the justice of such racial inequality was still a bold move. While negative stereotypes are a significant part of Jim’s character, he is also shown to be a loving, good-hearted individual who takes better care of Huck Finn than Huck’s own father does. While Huck constantly questions the legality and morality of helping Jim escape to freedom throughout the novel, Twain clearly regards the moment Huck decides that he would rather “go to hell” than return Jim to slavery as one of important and admirable growth in Huck’s character. While it is certainly understandable to question some aspects of Twain’s approach to race in this novel, I do think that, ultimately, it is a decidedly anti-racist work.

There is much more that could be said about Huckleberry Finn, but since my interest in the novel focuses primarily on its discussion of race issues and understanding the book in the context of American history, I would like to conclude this review with a discussion of one of the most controversial aspects of the novel: the frequent use of the N-word. The presence of that infamous word has lead to many difficulties in teaching the book in literature classes, especially, I would guess, at the high school level. There has even been talk of eliminating it from at least some editions of Huckleberry Finn. While I understand the offensiveness of that word, I oppose removing it from any unabridged edition that is not adapted for children. I do not believe in sanitizing history, and I think that in order for the book to have its full impact, readers need to understand how commonly the N-word was once used. It was a word that, back in the 1880s and for decades afterwards, even “nice” people used in everyday conversation without giving it any thought. To eliminate the term from this book, or any other from the era, is to deny how commonplace—and often how casual—racism was for a huge part of American history.

So, while I did not find The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn enjoyable, and do not consider it the Great American Novel (I do not believe in that concept anyway—more on that some other time), I believe it is indeed one of the more important works in American literature. Anyone interested in literature, or in U.S. history, should read it, whether in school or independently. It may feel a bit like taking your medicine, but even if you do not particularly like the book, you will probably still benefit from reading it.

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