In the past couple of weeks, I managed to lose myself in two such novels. In addition to reading in the great outdoors during daylight hours, I managed to stay up into the wee hours several nights running to get deeper into "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," by Stieg Larsson and "The Help," by Kathryn Stockett.
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is a fast-paced thriller along the lines of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." Quickly you are drawn in to the story of a Swedish journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, who is to be imprisoned (in a white collar prison) for libeling a wealthy industrialist.
In the year he serves his jail term, he finds himself taking some time away from the magazine he runs with two friends to take on an assignment of an odd sort out in the Swedish hinterland. He is hired to clandestinely investigate a decades-old murder, with very little to go on and most of the witnesses part of a powerful Swedish family, with a cover story of writing a history of the family of the murder victim.
The enigmatic and antisocial Lisbeth Salander, the actual girl (24-year-old) with the dragon tattoo, among others, becomes his research assistant, and together they find themselves in dangerous territory. That's an understatement to the shocking violence - much of it against women (there's your warning) that comes with that territory.
As my friends who'd read it told me, this book is brought to a slow boil over the first 150 pages or so and then you literally don't want to put it down. Stick with it, several pals said. And they were right.
There are few things for which I'd willingly and happily give up sleep, and a good book is one of them. This one kept me up a few nights in a row.
Eventually, I'll probably pick up Larsson's other two books in his Millenium trilogy: "The Girl Who Played With Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest." They are the last books we see from Larsson, a onetime Swedish journalist, who died of a heart attack in 2004 before they were published to sensational international popularity. What a shame!
The next book I read, at the suggestion of my boss, Nancy, and borrowed from our free little book corner libary at work, was a welcome change of pace:
"The Help," a completely different story in pace and style and, well everything, is set in the American south in the 1960s. It's remarkable in that it's Kathryn Stockett's first novel, and because of the ease with which she gives voice to several different black women in domestic positions for white families in segregated Jackson, Miss.
Stockett, who grew up in Mississippi with a black maid herself during the novel's time period, tells a tale of love, racism, social mores of the time, and an era of injustices and great change in the area of civil rights. She writes from several different perspectives: Maids Aibileen and Minny, and privileged white writer "Miss Skeeter." Each voice rings true and compelling, with the brave and loving Aibileen my favorite of the storytellers.
Skeeter convinces Aibileen, Minny and a number of other maids to lend their anonymous voices to a book about how black maids are treated in the south at that time - circa 1962. At a time when "the help" is raising their employers' children, they are not allowed to use restrooms inside the houses, eat at the same table, use the same dishes or even share a library - let alone a school. Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers are among those fighting for equal rights who are mentioned in this novel.
Aibileen and Minny agree to help Skeeter, at great risk to themselves and their families, because it's the right thing to do, they feel.
As Aibileen puts it: "Wasn't that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought."
I won't spoil things by telling you what the outcome of that book project is, but suffice to say this novel is every bit a thriller as "Tattoo" was. And yes, I was up all night finishing it.
I haven't found the next book worth staying up for. I have "Shanghai Girls" by Lisa See and "The Gravedigger's Daughter" by Joyce Carol Oates on tap for fiction reads. We'll see about a personal finance book...