The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
By Stieg Larsson
Knopf, 563 pp., $27.95
The final installment of Stieg Larsson's trilogy brings an international sensation to its thrilling, bittersweet dénouement. Larsson died of a heart attack shortly after finishing the first trio of novels, and despite rumors of a half-finished fourth book and an outlined fifth and sixth, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is likely to be the last we hear of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist for a while.
Larsson had an explosive start with the airtight, self-contained The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, now a Swedish feature film and perhaps slated for an American adaptation as well. Then he wandered into sensational, at times convoluted, territory with The Girl Who Played With Fire. Dozens of characters opened up new plot lines. As suspenseful as its prequel, the second installment nevertheless required more focus and suspension of disbelief as it built to book three, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.
Here, we pick up exactly where book two left off — with Salander, our anti-establishment, hacker heroine hospitalized from a gunshot to the head and still suspected of a triple homicide, and with Blomkvist, the renegade reporter, trying to shake down the relationship between Salander's grave misfortunes and shady government dealings. Smaller subplots involving Blomkvist's friend and sometime lover, Erika Berger, form a somewhat unnecessary tangent, but a slow and steady call to justice for the novel's most despicable characters makes up for any time lost in ancillary stories.
What Larsson does best is create distinctly loathsome villains, complex and captivating heroes, and an expert take on how injustice and violence are systematically perpetrated. In the end, it is Stieg Larsson's talent for storytelling — not his efforts at eradicating violence against women — that sells his books. — Hannah Sayle
Walks with Men
By Ann Beattie
Scribner, 112 pp., $10 (paper)
Ann Beattie practically invented the contemporary, ironic, seriocomic independent-woman story, and here she is again: Walks with Men is Beattie's dizzy take on the Bright Woman with an Insufferable Man romance. Her protagonist, Jane, is smart, well liked, and successful. Neil tries first to educate her, then torments her in all the ways a controlling male can.
"Italics provide a wonderful advantage: you see, right away, that the words are in a rush. When something exists at a slant, you can't help but consider irony," Beattie writes early on, signaling the tone of this novella. And shortly after, after a darker side of Neil is revealed: "If you think for a minute, you might guess what happened next, because clichés so often befall vain people."
This talking-into-the-camera approach is vintage Beattie. And her voice is offbeat but precise, pitch-perfect. She is at times like a jazz musician riffing on a theme — her barbed sentences reminiscent of Don DeLillo, another expert at revealing the zeitgeist with a can opener of biting wit.
Beattie's characters in Walks with Men, all intellectual movers and shakers in 1980s New York, talk like this: "You have something invested in thinking I'm more desirable than I am." And: "Some guru's living inside him like a tapeworm, excreting peace and love." Such offhand dialogue with a pen dipped in blood is consistently amusing. From Beattie's first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter in 1976, through her brilliant short stories and several remarkable novels, she has chronicled the contemporary with perceptive satire that is practically unrivalled.
Near the end of Walks with Men, Jane comments, "Neil reached across the table and took my hand and narrowed his eyes — it was the way he punctuated important moments, as if time were a vowel he could elongate simply by staring." In Walks with Men, one often wants to stop and savor such observations, to write in the margin of the page: delicious. — Corey Mesler
Between a Heart and a Rock Place: A Memoir
By Pat Benatar with Patsi Bale Cox
245 pp., $25.99
I know all the words to "Heartbreaker." I make perfect power-ballad fists every time "We Belong" comes on my '80s satellite radio station. And I cry every time I hear "Hell Is for Children." Okay, maybe I don't really cry, but all this is to say that I'm a huge fan of Pat Benatar's music. That said, I knew absolutely nothing about her before reading her new memoir, Between a Heart and a Rock Place.
I imagined Benatar's life in her band's heyday to be that of a typical rock star — blacking out on stage after downing a bottle of whiskey, snorting coke in dressing rooms, doin' it with hot male groupies on the tour bus. But Benatar's memoir reveals quite the opposite — no sex, no drugs, but plenty of rock-and-roll. For a rock star, Benatar led a pretty boring life.
A normal kid from Brooklyn with good parents on a tight budget, Benatar sang in New York clubs until Chrysalis Records discovered her. She met the love her life in the guitar player for her band. With the exception of about one year, Benatar and Neil Giraldo (better known as "Spyder") were joined at the hip. Today, they're married with two really hot twentysomething daughters. Benatar rarely mentions alcohol and claims she didn't get into drugs.
Though a crazier life would have made for a more sensational memoir, one theme runs throughout the book, which made me realize why Benatar is so much bigger than the sex-and-drugs rock-and-roll stereotype: Benatar paved the way for female equality in the male-dominated rock world of the early 1980s.
She fought tooth and nail against the record company's insistence that she use her sex appeal to sell records. She even slapped a record company exec when he told her people weren't coming to her concerts to hear her sing. You go, girl!
Benatar spent most of her early career trying to convince the industry to take her seriously as a musician rather than as just a pretty face. She succeeded in not only protecting her own image but also helping future rocker girls break into the boys-only rock club. If Benatar had spent her time downing pills and slutting around, it's doubtful that she'd have been able to do what she did for aspiring female musicians. And maybe a crazier life would have made for a more scandalous memoir. — Bianca Phillips
Pat Benatar will be signing Between a Heart and a Rock Place at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Friday, July 9th, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. She and her band will be performing that night at the Memphis Botanic Garden.
Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman
By Sam Wasson
HarperStudio, 231 pp., $19.99
Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's is iconic. You can picture her now, can't you? The fitted black dress, the pearls, the cigarette holder?
But in his new book about the making of the movie, author Sam Wasson also argues that she — Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly — was the beginning of the modern woman:
"There was always sex in Hollywood, but before Breakfast at Tiffany's, only the bad girls were having it. ... In Breakfast at Tiffany's, all of a sudden — because it was Audrey who was doing it — living alone, going out, looking fabulous, and getting a little drunk didn't look so bad anymore. Being single actually seemed shame-free."
Is that overstating the case? Given the ubiquity of Hollywood in American culture, perhaps not. The dress in the opening sequence, made by Hubert de Givenchy, begat what is now known as the "little black dress" in a time when women wore pastels, florals, and lace.
Black was for widows — in real life — and for "bitches" — in the movies.
"There is Margo 'Fasten your seatbelts' Channing in All About Eve, Norma 'I am big' Desmond in Sunset Blvd., and before them ... there was Rita Hayworth as Gilda," Wasson writes. "Even before they open their mouths, we know these ladies are going to be two big handfuls of heat-packing trouble — and it's the black that tells us so."
For those who have never read the movie's source material, Truman Capote's short novel by the same name, it's important to note the changes between the book and the film. In the novel, Holly has an illegitimate pregnancy and a miscarriage. The narrator, or Paul as he's known in the movie, is gay, and the relationship between the two is strictly platonic.
Paul's sexuality, in particular, is an important change, crafted to suit both a romantic comedy and the Production Code censors. The narrator's sexuality in the book made his relationship with Holly almost necessary in the movie, something that would have been banned by the censors otherwise. It also distracted the censors from the fact that Holly was a "working girl."
Capote wanted his friend Marilyn Monroe for the role, but producers thought someone so overtly sexual would also draw the ire of the censors. (Capote wanted to play the role of the narrator, but producers wisely nixed that idea, as well.)
Hepburn's good-girl image, however, was just what was needed. The studio sold the character as a good-hearted "kook," and the result was a picture that challenged the status quo without anyone noticing.
Despite Holly's (oldest) profession, the movie allowed young women — at a time when want-ads were still divided by gender — a taste of the freedom that Holly experienced. And that's as indelible an image as a little black dress or Tiffany blue. — Mary Cashiola
I Curse the River of Time
By Per Petterson
Translated from the Norwegian by
Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson
Graywolf Press, 233 pp., $23
To read a Per Petterson novel is to feel like you have been sleepwalking through life — such are his powers of observation and emotional wattage. The breakout success of his 2007 novel, Out Stealing Horses, proves there is a hunger in American readers for this type of author. That it took a small nonprofit publisher, Graywolf Press, to recognize such readers speaks to Petterson's allure. His newly translated novel, I Curse the River of Time, delivers — and more.
There is so much interiority in this novel that narrative events are almost inconsequential. Here, the first-person narrator, Arvid Jansen, a compelling, if immature, 37-year-old, faces the loss of two women he deeply loves: His mother is diagnosed with cancer, and his wife wants a divorce. Petterson's novel covers a few dramatic days in 1989 with circuitous paths back and forth in time. The heartbreaking pain is rendered with a sparsity matching the austere setting in Norway and the family's summer home in Denmark.
Arvid's relationship with his mother, whom he recalls looking like Greta Garbo or Ingrid Bergman, is deeply plumbed. They share a love of literature and movies, and though Arvid is one of four sons, called "Squirt" by his mother, his dependence on and need for her companionship opens and closes the novel. They have suffered a rupture because of his enthusiasm for Communism and because of his decision to leave college and become one of the "people," an industrial worker like his parents.
The arc of Arvid's marriage appears as a youthful romance. His wife is "she" or "the girl," and it seems he never abandoned those early years of infatuation. One poignantly rendered episode — the couple have rented a cabin for a night in wintertime — causes Arvid to wonder "how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this could be ground to dust."
The unfathomable nature of time and the characters' perceptions of it dominate I Curse the River of Time. The title itself is a line from a poem by Mao — an unlikely source but somehow suited to the freshness of Per Petterson's new novel. — Lisa C. Hickman
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
By David Mitchell
Random House, 496 pp., $26
A Westerner living in the East, David Mitchell has written eloquently and extensively about Japan, specifically how that country's culture, politics, economy, and history intersect with the rest of the world. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is his first historical novel, and yet its implications feel very contemporary. It combines political and corporate intrigue in the late 18th century with a tumultuous romance and swashbuckling adventure, as Mitchell examines the relationships between Dutch and Japanese traders and doctors during the waning years of the restrictive Edo period. Despite its heft and historical scope, the story proves just as engrossing and immersive — and, especially during a daring escape, just as suspenseful — as any summer beach read.
Meticulously plotted to the minutest details in order to define the particularities of Nagasaki in 1799, Mitchell has written Thousand Autumns as a literary triptych, dividing the story into three long sections that read like separate novellas. Each has a unique setting: a man-made island in the Nagasaki bay that serves as a trading post for the Dutch East India Company; a nunnery high in the mountains where the unspeakable is ceremoniously perpetrated on the sisters; and finally a trade ship in the midst of a revolution.
In prose that is precise in its descriptions of Japan but never sterile, Mitchell populates these locales with an array of intricately drawn characters both Dutch and Japanese, who spend most of the novel trying to communicate in languages that don't match up. It's no coincidence that he includes numerous interpreters, who convey messages between the merchants but almost always fumble words in the translation. Mitchell only hints at the meanings lost and mangled in these exchanges, but in this rich and impressive novel, he conveys eloquently how these characters are impossibly isolated no matter how desperately they yearn for connection and understanding. — Stephen Deusner
By Bruce Watson
Viking, 370 pp., $27.95
They were youthful explorers, idealistic and almost unbelievably brave, the Marco Polos and Christopher Columbuses of civil rights, who in the summer of 1964 sallied forth to the edge of the civilized world — namely, segregated Mississippi — to cultivate the seeds of human justice.
Here, for example, was Mickey Schwerner, of Brooklyn Heights, New York, owner of a '59 Volkswagen and a cocker spaniel named Gandhi, who, with his wife Rita moved to Meridian, Mississippi, to work among impoverished and disenfranchised blacks (or "Negroes," as they were still being called) early in 1964, even before Freedom Summer itself was organized. Naive at first, Schwerner would tell a reporter, "We're actually pretty lucky here. I think they're going to leave us alone."
Schwerner, who was so bold as to grow a goatee and campaign openly for the elimination of "Colored Only" signs on drinking fountains, would find out otherwise. As a sheriff in northern Mississippi would prophesy later that summer, when several hundred more like-minded youth, schooled at a special training facility in Ohio, landed in the state, "Some folks are going to get hurt, maybe killed, but then things will settle down."
Many, perhaps most, of the youthful volunteers, were hurt, and Schwerner, along with a local black youth named James Chaney and another New Yorker, Andrew Goodman, would become martyrs, the "Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman" of FBI posters in the summer of 1964, when they turned up missing in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Beaten, slain, and buried in a mud-dike by white lawmen who were Klan members, they would become part of civil rights legend, the symbols of a vast and overdue social makeover.
As Freedom Summer by Bruce Watson makes clear, the burden of this transformation was also borne by many more who were nameless, who lived through the pain and the heroics to build schools, register voters, start health clinics, and, above all, arouse a subjugated population that began the journey out of terror and hopelessness that summer.
Watson's chronicle does full justice to the three corners of that drama — the volunteers, the blacks of Mississippi, and, not least, the white population of the Magnolia State, which was forced to confront its own implicit savagery and to begin working its way out of it. Luckily for everyone, things never did quite "settle down." — Jackson Baker
By John Waters
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $25
John Waters has been thinking about mortality. In his latest book, Role Models, the improbably self-aware Baltimorean, whose early films represent a high-water mark for cheapo shock cinema, seems genuinely worried that his tombstone might say something like, "Here lies John Waters, the king of garbage." A sentence later he doesn't much care what people say when he's gone so long as his signature pencil-thin mustache is "drawn on" straight.
At 64 years of age, Waters remains joyfully subversive and will happily explain how the ideas in his most mainstream films make his later work more effectively corrosive than anything from his days underground. With Role Models, Waters even suggests that he's not always entirely comfortable with the reactionary nature of his early work, while inciting readers — a core audience of presumed misfits — to even higher levels of freakdom. Role Models only appears to be a book of essays about Waters' friends and heroes. It's more a chatty guide to the author's not-so-serious personality crisis; a giddy self-portrait of Waters reflected in the eyes of crooners, playwrights, murderers, and pornographers.
Is Johnny Mathis the anti-John Waters? Role Models opens with a light meditation on opposites as the author recalls a pair of meetings with Mathis, the smooth-voiced singer of mid-20th-century Christmas classics who defined "post-racial" at a time when America was anything but. Waters knows that Mathis is a Republican and a huge supporter of conservative causes. When the man who once filmed a chubby drag queen feasting on fresh dog feces stumbles across a photograph of George H.W. Bush in Mathis' collection, hilarious introspection ensues.
Waters' impish charm is a constant that brightens even his more pedestrian essays on Tennessee Williams and Bad Seed star Patty McCormack.
A profile of Charles Manson girl (and a decades-long friend) Leslie Van Houten is, however, Waters at his deeply conflicted best. The author is clearly smitten with the murderess whom he lovingly compares to Hilary Swank. But his digression-laden portrait of a thoughtful adult paying for the gruesome act she committed as a brainwashed teenage acid freak is an indictment of American justice that never loses sight of the fact that, unlike Van Houten, the dead don't get parole hearings. Waters is particularly pleased that unlike other prisoners whose careers he has followed, Van Houten came to grips with her actions and fought her way back to sanity without religion, which he sees as a king of quick-fix requiring the same blind faith that took Van Houten to some very dark places in the 1960s.
What's most surprising about John Waters is the warmth he cultivates while dishing out dysfunction. One comes away from Role Models believing that kindness may be the most subversive behavior there is. — Chris Davis
By Adam Ross
Knopf, 335 pp., $25.95
David Pepin has killed his wife, Alice. Or maybe she finally offed herself after suffering through the many years of their distressed marriage. Or maybe it's David's wishful thinking about Alice being out of the way. Or maybe he's writing about her death in his novel. Or maybe she framed him as revenge from beyond the grave. Or maybe something else.
Whatever it is, the police are certainly suspicious. Enter Detectives Hastroll and Sheppard. Hastroll has marital problems himself. His wife, Hannah, hasn't left her bed in months but won't explain what's wrong. It makes Hastroll very upset — and ravenous.
As for Sheppard, that would be Sam Sheppard, whom some will recognize as the infamous name of the convicted uxoricide of the 1950s. Is it the same Sheppard, the serial philanderer who killed his wife Marilyn and was convicted of the crime only to be retried 10 years later and acquitted? You bet it's the same guy, even though the real Sheppard died in 1970.
Thus the rough shape of Adam Ross' compelling debut novel Mr. Peanut comes into focus: bad husbands who victimize their wives and the women who compel them to think and do bad deeds. It's grist enough for an unpretty crime tale to get blooded by, but the author, who lives in Nashville and formerly wrote for the newsweekly Nashville Scene, has bigger matters to excavate.
With its emphasis on detective fiction as an entry point into metaliterary excursions, with its novel-within-a-novel device, and with its idea that catharsis for modern-day mankind can only be found in the desperate vacuum created by ascetic living, Mr. Peanut brings to mind the work of Paul Auster. But where Auster regularly chooses intellectual suspense over the physical, Ross revels in the flesh. His characters are constantly eating and screwing and have roller-coastering weight issues — all of it a psychosomatic manifestation of inner emotional turmoil.
Adam Ross has dedicated Mr. Peanut to his wife, Beth. Hilarious. — Greg Akers