It’s how it is about it


“I don’t hate my brother. If anything, I may pity him. He’s a complete idiot, and he’s the one who hates me.”

“He hates you?”

“Precisely. I think that’s why he came back here. So that he could spend his last years hating me at close quarters.”

I reflected at last month’s book club meeting that maybe one of the reasons I stopped reading (and essentially couldn’t stand) Pillars of the Earth was because of the violence against women that it portrayed.

Let me now retract that.

Consider movie critic Roger Ebert’s take on the content of film: “It’s not what a movie is about. It’s how it is about it.”

Reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m struck that violence against women (which this book has, in buckets—not literal buckets, but close) can be handled as engaging rather than unilaterally offensive, placed into context, and used for developing respectable characterizations and not just as a device for hurtling along the plot. I can’t say that I’m in love with the lifestyles of Larsson’s various characters (whose respective theme songs—trust me on this one—could be “Love the one you’re with,” “You give love a bad name,” and “Love stinks.”). But I have to admit that after a while—even with the story’s (spoiler warning!) crazed creeps and the women they’ve trapped—I couldn’t put the book down…and didn’t feel like I needed to take a shower when I finally did.

The original Swedish edition of Dragon Tattoo bore the title Men who Hate Women, which, while accurate (in spades), is not exactly the kind of thing that will keep Americans in suspense. I’m not making a feminist commentary here; it’s just that I think Americans may like a little mystery in their mysteries. With the less direct title, I, for one, was surprised at the extent to which one limited group of men in the book could hate women…and how those women (or one in particular) chose so creatively to respond.

Yes, I enjoyed reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Would I recommend it? Well, yeah, but with a strong graphic content warning.

Another point of interest for me was that this is one of those rare books I could imagine a man reading. Let’s face it—so much of today’s fiction is written for a women’s audience. But I could see a man reading and enjoying this combination mystery, family epic, detective novel, crime story, corporate morality tale, and miniature computer catalog (I swear, I’ve never seen the word “iBook” in print so many times in one place). I do have qualms about the sinister ground it covers, but, hey, I can’t police the conscience of the entire reading universe.

On now to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. That one can’t be so edgy. Not, I guess, unless the original title was UK Women Who Stabbed Their Men With Dull Potato Peelers while Reading Collections of Charles Lamb in their Blood-Soaked Nighties. I’ll let you know on that one, one way or the other.


Why I stopped reading “Pillars of the Earth”


Delighted was I when I found Pillars of the Earth, my book club’s next selection, at a church yard sale.

If only the church ladies had read it—honestly, I would have appreciated some well-intentioned censoring on this one.

Yesterday, I stopped reading Pillars of the Earth; I was on page three fifty something, in the middle of the scene where (spoiler alert!!!) the former earl’s daughter is unwittingly applying for a position as a prostitute. She does this because she’s anxious to earn the one penny that the jailer demands as a bribe for her to see her father, who is in prison after his plot to overthrow the dubiously appointed king is discovered by an otherwise lovely priest (one of the book’s few bright spots) and foiled by the girl’s very bitter, violent, and misogynistic former suitor.

The earl’s home is brought to ruins, and the girl hides out in the ruins until she is raped by not one, but two men. After she escapes from them, and then escapes one more time from some thug in the forest, she finally finds the jail where her dad is imprisoned and sadly is turned away, but not before she finds out that he’s dying.

Oh, and did I mention the other sunny plotlines about the abandoned newborn, his mother’s death in childbirth, the pig stealing, child clubbing, rampant unemployment, and the woman so ugly that she looks like someone in a painting about the tortures of hell?

If I wanted all that, I would have re-watched Pulp Fiction—at least it’s got some dancing.

What also needled me about Pillars of the Earth was all the profanity. Believe me, I’m under no illusion about the moral standards of the 12th century. Besides the raping, pillaging, drinking, and general thievery and deception, I’m sure there was plenty of bad language. But was it the same bad language that people use today? Was it the kind of the thing that you’d hear streaming out of Joe Pesci‘s mouth in Goodfellas? I haven’t done extensive research on this, but I’ll tell you, there’s nothing that will shake me back to the 21st century faster than the careless placement of an overused modern-sounding expletive. And if the profanity in the book was authentic to the period, then all I can say is shame on you 12th century-ers: your mouths need a good washing out.

I closed the book for all of those reasons, and, thinking about it now, I abandoned the story because it was so very hopeless. In this book, you don’t just lose your job. You lose your home, your pig, your wife, your baby, your forest-acquired lover, your clothes, your dignity, and all your tools besides. If you score two horses, then you’d better know that they’ll be stolen away by the next chapter. It was like a fortunately/unfortunately record that skipped eternally on the unfortunately part, until it was so lopsided that it was downright demoralizing.

Part of me wants to finish the book because I want to be able to discuss it at my book club meeting next month. Part of me wants to burn it because I don’t want anyone else to consider prescription medication to chase away her intense reading-induced blues. With 600 pages to go, I guess somebody might suggest that I just hang in there.

Um, no.