Hope Was Here

Being a former waitress/service industry professional is one of those claims to fame that instantly bond you with other ‘survivors’–much like (hypothetically) being a former smoker, former inhabitant of the mid/southwest, former member of the military. On one hand, you’re so glad to have gotten out, and on the other hand you can’t stop reminiscing about the good old days, and feel immediately compelled to regale people with anecdotes about how many plates you could balance, or that particularly egregious example of what lows humanity can reach while eating, or your sure-fire ‘tips for tips,’ etc. It’s an industry that cultivates a very particular perspective, with a very particular set of experiences, that seem to be pretty much universal to anyone who’s been there.

Yes, I was a waitress. A pretty good one, if I say so myself. I worked at a burger and pasta-based sports bar which had aspirations to a classier clientele than is perhaps legitimately attainable in a strip mall in Arizona. I worked at a Mexican take-out place where my main job was sorting through the garbage to sift out the plastic baskets that the tacos were served in. I was a cater-waiter in New York for a upper-crust art society. All these experiences gave me a different perspective on waitressing (and thereby, humanity), and all, ultimately, convinced me that if I ever intended to enjoy food or people again, that I should quit. I have a profound respect for those who can take professional, full-time waitressing. I, alas, could not. But that doesn’t mean for a minute that I don’t eat up (bad pun intended) those books and stories which really revel in service culture. Because I really do. And Hope Was Here is a great addition to this genre.

The book is narrated by Hope, a teen whose mother was a stellar waitress, but a lousy parent. Her mom leaves her with a sister who excels at diner home cooking and a strong dose of server wisdom and takes off. Hope inherits her mother’s flair for waitressing, infusing it with a kind of folk-psychology and genuine empathy that makes the diner work environment seem like the ideal place for really connecting with one’s fellow man. It’s a warm and cozy sort of book–unflaggingly optimistic without being saccharine and annoying, clever without being disingenuously precocious. Hope is–you guessed it–hopeful, even in the face of great hardship or discouragement. She’s also tough and industrious and has a lot of common sense and heart. Frankly, she’s one of the most satisfying young female protagonists I’ve read in a long time.

And, oh, the food service tidbits (a waitress named “Flo,” for instance). One passage I liked so much I dogeared the page and read it out loud to my friend at work:

We met Lou Ellen, the waitress with the carrot-top hair. She looked me up and down, not impressed.

“You waitressed before?”

I looked her smack in the eye. “I’ve got eighteen months experience waitressing in the best diner in Brooklyn, New York and before that–”

“Counter or tables? Lou Ellen interrupted. She had a pinched together face.

“Both.”

“How busy did it get?”

“They’d be standing out in a line on the weekends and I couldn’t go to the bathroom for five hours straight even if I had to, it was so jammed.”

“I’ve been waitressing ten years,” she snapped back.

I didn’t ask how long she could hold it.

She layered three pancake platters on her left arm (I can carry five) and headed off to the booth in the corner.

A thought that occurred to me while reading this: Hope Was Here–which centers around a small-town political race between the diner owner and a corrupt mayor with ties to an eeevil dairy–was published in 2000. While it may have had some resonance during the presidential election that year, however, the whole ‘hope’ theme wasn’t exactly going strong at that point. But reading this book now, in the wake of Obama’s election and his hope-themed campaign, the book took on a whole new dimension for me. And I wonder if that’s generally true for kids reading the book now.

This also gives me an excuse to post one of my favorite Reading Rainbow episodes ever, where LeVar leans to speak ‘dinerese’ and works, briefly and unsuccessfully, as a short-order cook. (The book is The Robbery at the Diamond Dog Diner.) Highly recommended: watch–at least skim through!–here.

PEN World Voices Festival Schedule Announced

One of my favorite yearly lit events in New York is the PEN World Voices Festival. The festival (which is in its sixth year) runs for a week (this year April 26 – May 2) and features a diversely talented line up of authors from around the world. There’s a promising author line up this year, including authors I already know and enjoy, but perhaps even more importantly, many that I am unfamiliar with. I haven’t had a chance to look much at the schedule yet, but there’s plenty of time to starting marking your calendar.

See the schedule here.

The Book Depository

Thanks to Thomas at Premiere de coverture for posting about The Book Depository, a UK-based online bookseller which ships worldwide, for free. Finally, I don’t have to depend on Amazon.uk to ship books which are unavailable in the US–particularly those of the Scandinavian variety–stateside for exorbitant fees. There are so many books which get translated into English but then are only sold in the UK. This is opens up so many possibilities–wonderful!

Nordic Literature Prize 2010

The winner of the 2010 Nordic Council Literature Prize will be announced on March 30. And while most of the nominees have not, as far as I can tell, been translated into English, perhaps we can hope that their nominated works will be translated in the near future due to this honor. Former winners include Per Petterson, Jan Kjærstad, William Heinesen, Klaus Rifbjerg, Sjón, and many other literary luminaries.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (On Film)

Through a somewhat strange twist of events I find myself again writing about Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Strange, I say, because despite the fact that his Millennium series does have some merit, I really don’t like it that much. I know, I know. You’re welcome to disagree, but spare me–I intrinsically have trouble with the fact that readers pass around a book filled with incredible–and constant–violence against women, recommending it as if it were some jolly, fun-filled adventure romp. Sure, I can get the occasional ya-ya from a nice vengeance scenario, but I’m sorry–just because a female character gets her righteous retribution doesn’t mean that anything’s been solved on a deeper level. Additionally–and I admit, I haven’t read the last installment yet–the fact that Lisbeth suddenly becomes invincible in the 2nd novel, is, I think, completely farcical. In a fictional world which ascribes to real-world constraints, one should not be able to be shot in the head, buried alive, and then dig oneself out at the last minute. She’s tough. Not invincible.

But clearly, I digress.

The fact is, the series raises some really interesting topics of discussion, and I have legitimately enjoyed hashing these out. There’s the vigilante aspect and the social commentary on the faltering welfare state. There’s also Larsson’s context in the greater scheme of Scandinavian crime fiction. And now, there’s the film adaptation of the first book, finally available stateside.

So it seems, I will continue to be interested in discussing Larsson’s lasting effect on the genre–which undoubtedly, he’s had–while still not being able to jump on the freight train of overwhelming approval. I reviewed the film adaptation by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev (who I would actually like to know more about, although the New York Times did write a fairly interesting profile recently) for The L Magazine. The full text of the review is below or can be read on their website, here.

Update, 3/26/10: Anthony Lane posted more developed, but not dissimilar, review of the movie in The New Yorker. He (obviously) does a better job of getting at the actual film-making aspects, but also talks about Lisbeth’s overwhelming back story and the way in which Salander–and her traumas–are sexualized.You can read his review here.

***

The Sweden represented in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is one which consistently falls short of the promises of its cushy welfare society. In his novels, Larsson accomplishes his take-down by creating a comprehensive–if rather convoluted–portrait of systemic failure and abuse at every layer of society, highlighting both white collar embezzlement and institutionalized misogyny. In Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s film adaptation of the first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the layers of conspiracy and societal failure are significantly pared down, pulling focus to the ongoing tribulations (and retaliations) of Larsson’s avenging hacker badass, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Repace).

The story scuttles between multiple plots, most notably intrepid journalist Mikael Blomkvist’s (Michael Nyqvist) investigation into the disappearance and presumed murder of sixteen year old Harriet Vanger forty years in the past. In a convenient twist, Salander teams up with Blomkvist to investigate, discovering along the way the sordid history of the Vanger family (both their contentious family business and sympathies to the Swedish Nazi movement), as well as a series of unsolved, Biblically inspired homicides targeting young women all over Sweden.

While Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg’s screenplay does a reasonable job of reining in Larsson’s sprawling plot, its efforts to create an immediately empathetic heroine out of Salander are rather out of step with the novel’s overall concerns. Larsson goes to great lengths in his first book to emphasize that Salander–whose motivations and history remain, at least for a time, unknown–is one of a multitude of victimized women. The original title, after all, is Män som hatar kvinnor or, literally, Men Who Hate Women. In the English translation, the series has misleadingly become a saga about one woman, a preoccupation which is evident in the film adaptation as well. Salander is, after all, a sexy character, and the svelte Repace is given ample opportunity to vamp–bedecked in leather and dog collars, displaying her yakuza-style back tattoo during a shadowy sex scene, wielding tasers and golf clubs with brutal accuracy.

Foregoing much of the novel’s social commentary, the film might more appropriately be called Men Who Hate Lisbeth Salander. Within the first fifteen minutes, she’s been skeptically observed by a client at her workplace, sexually harassed by her guardian, and attacked by drunk hooligans in the pristine Stockholm subway who inexplicably punch her in the face and spit on her before she menaces them with a broken bottle. (And that’s not even the worst of it.) These incidents are not out of step with the source material, but deployed as monotonously as they are, they act as shorthand–a reductive way to humanize Salander while offering up a pat explanation for how she has become the suspicious, emotionally stunted and volatile person that she’s shown to be.

This is taken a step further when Salander’s backstory is prematurely introduced–images of her during a violent childhood incident are repeatedly intercut with scenes of her behaving violently in her adulthood. This incident will be thoroughly covered in the series’ next installment, but for now, the scene gives the audience yet another reason to root for our aggrieved heroine. Lying in bed with Salander, Blomkvist finally asks what the film has been pushing us to ponder all along: “What happened to make you this way?”

YA Books for Adults: A List

After a recent article on the rise of YA book sales among adults, Flavorpill put together a top ten list of books for teens that will appeal to adult readers. I’ve read a number of books on the list, and thought it was well curated–a nice mix of contemporary titles (like Going Bovine, which I really should read soon) and ones that I remember reading when I was younger, like The Witch from Blackbird Pond and Catherine Called Birdy. The only pick I wasn’t a fan of was Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, but then again, that’s because I’m a curmudgeon.

Here’s the link.

Thoughts, anyone?

The Devil’s Star

I’ll admit that when I read Norwegian crime author Jo Nesbø’s first novel to be translated into English, The Redbreast, I was a bit ambivalent about it. It had gotten such high praise, and yet, I found the novel’s dependence on backstory and flashbacks a little overdone. (This is untypical for me, by the way. As a rule, I am very much in favor of backstory. But in this case, I felt like it overwhelmed the plot progression.) However, what I loved about the novel was its detective, Harry Hole, and its subplot, which dealt with an evil police officer who was involved in gun smuggling and other nefarious activities and also went by The Prince because, well, he listened to a whole lot of Prince (as in The Artist Formerly Known As…).

Because I enjoyed Hole and that unresolved evil cop plot line so much, I decided to read and review the newest English translation in Nesbø’s series, The Devil’s Star. And honestly, it was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read recently. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a little grotesque at times (in a creepy, goosebumpy, but still giggly-gross sort of way). But as a serial-killer novel goes, this one is great fun and really well done. There’s a passage which I found so subtle and cleverly executed (no pun intended) that I actually went into work the next day and read it out loud to my coworker. I won’t spoil it, suffice to say that the killer walks into a building and is seen by his next victim, but she simply notices him in the natural course of her normal observations. So the reader is given the opportunity to recognize the killer, but doesn’t realize it until about a chapter and a half later. I read a lot of crime novels and I am frequently able to Spot-the-Killer. But my hat’s off to Nesbø here, because the murderer got right past me, too.

I reviewed The Devil’s Star for Reviewing the Evidence (a name which I still find extremely clever for a crime and mystery fiction site). You can read the review there, or read the full text below.

Oh, and for anyone who lives in New York City, Jo Nesbø will be attending a book release party and signing at Idlewild books this coming Monday, March 15th. Details are on their website, here. The New York Times also just published a brief interview with him on their Paper Cuts blog.

Update, Thurs. March 18: Detectives Beyond Borders has posted the beginning of a two-part interview with Nesbø on their site. He discusses Jim Thompson, The Rolling Stones, and Canada. Definitely worth checking out.

***

Jo Nesbø’s The Devil’s Star opens in the middle of a sweltering summer heatwave in Oslo. A young woman has been found murdered in her shower. A finger on her hand has been severed and a red diamond shaped like a pentagram found under her eyelid. When, days later, another woman disappears and her severed finger is sent to police headquarters, the Oslo police find themselves chasing a serial killer who manages to slip in and out of homes, busy streets, and public places without ever being observed. The gruesome case is assigned to two of Oslo’s most accomplished detectives: Harry Hole, who has spent most of the summer on a world-class bender, and Tom Waaler, Hole’s most reviled adversary and the man he believes is responsible for the murder of his partner, Ellen Gjelten (an event which took place in The Redbreast).

Readers already familiar with Nesbø’s alcoholic, chain-smoking, deeply haunted but brilliantly talented Harry Hole will find the reticent detective much where they left him in previous installments of the series—bent on his own self-destruction, but still not completely able to turn his back on police work. Since his partner’s death, Hole has become increasingly obsessed with proving that the well-respected Waaler is responsible, conducting a vigilante investigation which has devastated his relationship with his girlfriend Rakel and her son Oleg, whom he has come to look on as a son. Moreover, Hole’s constant absences from work, lack of professionalism, and whiskey-soaked sprees have pushed even Crime Squad Chief Inspector Bjarne Møller—Hole’s most constant defender—to request his dismissal from the police force. Hole’s experience tracking down a serial killer make him a valuable addition to the current investigation, but it might well be his last.

Although The Devil’s Star is the fifth installment in the Harry Hole series (the third to be translated into English), readers unfamiliar with these novels would be well-advised to start here. Nesbø deftly introduces Hole’s ample backstory and integrates his antagonistic relationship with the insidious Waaler extremely well with the rest of the novel’s plot. As for the serial killer set-up—even those who tire of this narrative device will likely be drawn into the investigation. Nesbø cleverly integrates the murderer into the fabric of the story so as to give the reader clues to who the person is, but the eventual denouement —almost operatic in its grotesque reveal—will surely create some surprise in even the most jaded readers.

The Devil’s Star is a standout installment in the already monumentally popular Harry Hole series. With Hole back on an upswing at the novel’s end—sober and somewhat redeemed among his peers and loved ones—it’s anyone’s guess where Nesbø will take his dynamic anti-hero next.