Category: Thriller

Dystopian Thriller

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve written a post.  Lots of things going on these last couple of months that I won’t get into, but I’m going to try to get back on the wagon, as it would be a shame to let this project fall by the wayside.  I decided to go with a short but profound thriller by P. D. James, The Children of Men.

As you’ll have gathered from the title of the post, the story is set in a dystopian society in the not-too-distant future.  The year is 2021.  For twenty-five years, human beings have been unable to procreate, plagued with infertility.  Thus, the youngest members of society are in their mid-twenties, and the population trends geriatric.  The consequences of this plague are numerous: many have lost the will to live, committing ritualistic mass suicide; the lack of fertility has led to a dwindling interest in sex, so that the State purveys p*rn left and right, trying to maintain the societal libido; in England, convicts are shipped to a penitentiary on the Isle of Man where chaos reigns, though crime on the mainland is at an all time low.  In this bleak situation, Theo Faron, our protagonist, is recruited to a conspiracy that advocates for change in the government.  The cousin of the Warden of England, Theo would seem particularly well placed to persuade him to make the desired changes.  After some convincing, he makes the effort, but to no avail.  Thus ends the first half of the novel.

In the second half, Theo once again becomes involved with the conspiracy, learning that, by some miracle (not literal – no virgin birth here), one of the members has become pregnant and needs his help.  The rest of the story describes the group’s efforts to find a place for the delivery of the child safely far away from the government – a task harder than it sounds, as the government is on to the group, which has been blowing up landings from which the mass “suicides” are launched.  Filled with twists and turns, the story rushes to an intriguing and unexpected climax that tantalizingly leaves unanswered many of the difficult questions the story raises.

This is the first James novel I’ve read, and it did not disappoint.  Her style is elegant and engaging, and it is filled with profound insights on the nature of faith and the human condition, without being an overtly religious story.  Take this description of humanity’s relationship to science:

“Western science has been our god.  In the variety of its power it has preserved, comforted, healed, warmed, fed and entertained us and we have felt free to criticize and occasionally reject it as men have always rejected their gods, but in the knowledge that, despite our apostasy, this deity, our creature and our slave, would still provide for us; the anaesthetic for the pain, the spare heart, the new lung, the antibiotic, the moving wheels and the moving pictures… Science was never a subject I was at home with… Yet it has been my god too, even if its achievements are incomprehensible to me, and I share the universal disillusionment of those whose god has died.” (5)

Or the following dialogue regarding the existence of God toward the end of the story:

“I don’t think [God] bargains.”
“Oh yes He does.  I may not be religious but I know my Bible.  My mother saw to that.  He bargains all right.  But he’s supposed to be just.  If He wants belief He’d better provide some evidence.”
“That He exists?”
“That He cares.”

In a brief nine sentences, James eloquently sums up the strongest argument against the existence of God, and yet in a way that the challenge could be met.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this book is its eerie similarity to western culture today.  Though human beings are not incapable en masse of procreation, the tendency in most western countries is toward reproductive rates below replacement level, and one wonders what kind of future is in store for western civilization.  The Children of Men grapples with these and other questions in a compelling and insightful way.  Highly recommended.

Twenty-three down, (at least) twenty-nine to go.


A Prayer for Peace in the Holy Land

Can a man who grew up in a climate of violence and hatred, whose father was repeatedly arrested and detained for years on end, who himself was beaten, tortured, and imprisoned, escape the cycle of violence and become an advocate for peace?  Mosab Hassan Yousef, author of the memoir Son of Hamas, seems to be living proof that the answer to this heartrending question, thankfully, is “Yes.”

Yousef is the oldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders and leaders of the Islamic terrorist organization Hamas.  Son of Hamas tells the gripping tale of his upbringing in the midst of overwhelming suffering, his arrest and decision to work as a double agent for Shin Bet, the countless narrow escapes he managed as he gathered information for the organization, his secret conversion to Christianity, and his ultimate decision to abandon espionage and immigrate to America, convinced that the ordinary means would never bring a lasting solution to the sad problem that is the Middle East.

The story is filled with tragic accounts of the violence that plagues the Holy Land.  From an early age, Yousef witnessed the deaths of his fellow Palestinians, the periodic arrests of his father, the ostracism his family endured as a result, and the seeming impotence of Palestinian attempts to overthrow their Israeli oppressors.  Little wonder that by the age of eighteen he shared the same hatred for the Israelis that many (though not all) Palestinians feel.  And yet, despite this painful and traumatic childhood, in the midst of his trials Yousef realized that there was blame to be had by all, both Israelis and Palestinians.  At first this led him to give up his plan to use his cover as a Shin Bet operative in order to murder the people who had arrested him.  Yousef spent the next ten years collaborating with Shin Bet, in the process saving countless lives from terrorist threats.  Nevertheless, he eventually came to the conclusion that his spy work would never bring lasting peace to his homeland.  Part of what led him to this conclusion was his slow but gradual conversion to Christianity.  Gripped by the message of Jesus, particularly as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, Yousef abandoned his ancestral faith and, at first secretly, embraced Christianity.  It was only after he left the Holy Land that he relayed the devastating news to his father.

Despite this dramatic change, Yousef maintains a deep affection for his father and the rest of his family.  To me, this was one of the most moving aspects of the book.  Yousef’s embrace of Christianity has not led him to vilify his past or his family members.  Throughout the book he reverently describes his father as a man of deep faith and integrity, a man he loves and respects despite their religious disagreements.  Happily, this love runs both ways.  As a leader of Hamas, if Sheikh Yousef were to disown Mosab, he would effectively be pronouncing a death sentence on his firstborn son.  Amidst the feelings of pain and betrayal, the elder Yousef has chosen rather to protect his son.  In a phone conversation between father and son after the younger Yousef had left for the U.S., the elder tells his son, “No matter what happened, you are still my son.  You are part of me, and nothing will change.  You have a different opinion, but you still are my little child.”

In a postscript Yousef talks about why he chose to write the memoir, addressing the common cynical evaluations of such books as bids for money, fame, and power.  He denies such charges, noting that he could have had more than his fair share of these had he stayed in his homeland, and that he has turned down similar opportunities since moving to the States.  Rather, he wrote the book as a sign of hope for those who despair of ever finding a resolution to the strife in the Middle East.  If someone as embroiled in an organization like Hamas as he could find a way out, then there is hope that some day that land may find a real and lasting peace.  For those of my readers who are people of prayer, may it be our fervent prayer that that day may come soon.

Ten down, (at least) forty-two to go.


A punk Pippi?

Today’s book is the third book of the Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Yesterday was one of those stormy, wet days that discourages a person from even taking a walk with the dog. So I sat down and read this book. All of it.

Like with the second book in the series, one cannot sum up the plot, which if anything, seems even more expansive and rambling on this go around. But the basis of it is that Lis Salander is on trial for attempted murder, dark government sources are at work, and crusading journalist Blomkvist is trying to dig up the truth and save Salander. Okay, so a few thoughts. This book was clearly the least edited of the three–it isn’t as tight and suspenseful (until the last 200 pages of so), and that makes sense given that Larsson died before he had a chance to really edit the original, raw manuscript. But the book is still compulsively readable, and gives a satisfying conclusion to the series.

Much has been said about the violence in Larsson’s books. I have to say when I read the first book in the series (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) this past summer, I was put off by the descriptions of rape and sexual sadism. Granted, Larsson does not linger over them, but they are there, and that is part of the reason why I did not immediately finish the series. This time around with the last two books there is more murder than rape (that doesn’t really make anything better) but again, the descriptions are brief-they exist mainly to move along the plot. Even so, I am still not sure how I feel about this particular issue in the books. I understand why Larsson uses violence in his books, I understand his point, and I don’t think he could have done it any other way– but still, these books are not for the squeamish.

Then there is Lis Salander. My mom read the series before I did, and when I asked her about it in an email after she finished she told me that she was thinking about “Lis Salander all the time.” That is to say, Salander is Larsson’s most unusual creation in these books. Some reviewers have called her a “punk Pippi Longstockings”– Salander is a computer hacker, an wiz kid with Aspergers, and an abuse victim of the most horrible sort. She operates outside of society because society has failed her. It is also important to point out that Salander has a strong set of morals. Her own morality, to be sure, but she has a sense of personal responsibility and a rather unique sense of right and wrong. As a character, she is unforgettable– where Larsson came up with her is beyond me, but she does linger in the reader’s mind (like my mom said) long after one is done with the books.

One aspect of the book that is not written about often is the issue of friendship. I found this particularly interesting given that most of the relationships between men and women in these books are unconventional by (ideal) American standards (although not by Swedish standards if I understand correctly.) Love affairs happen on and off. Characters have lovers, even while married , there are various trysts and so forth, and many of the characters live together while unmarried. Relationships are so varied, that there is not one norm in the book, and I think that is why it is important to notice that one character points out that “Friendship is the most common form of love.”  Because even while the relationships between all the characters exist in a myriad of forms, it is a friendship that propels the books forward–that is the friendship between Salander and Blomkvist. Now Salander doesn’t really want the friendship, but she eventually caves in to Blomkvist when she realizes it cannot be her against the world, even though she is naturally suspicious of anyone and has almost no real friends. Blomkvist himself doesn’t understand why he goes to bat for Salander– he mainly just acknowledges that he cares for her and likes her. Now I think this is crucial–sometimes we cannot control who we love, or who becomes our friends. Sometimes you just love someone and there is no rhyme or reason to it. Larsson gets this, and that is one of the things I felt that was compelling about Blomkvist’s character. In a world where sexual relationships are ambiguous, Larsson paints friendship as perhaps, the one great love that one can have for another. I think he might be onto something here– as a society we put a huge importance on romantic love (talking about “the one” and all that nonsense) but we don’t really talk about friendship in the same way. Friendships are quieter, but they are also just as important because romantic love comes and goes– and even when it stays the basis to all romantic love is a good friendship anyway. I think Larsson gets this, and I think the importance of friendship is a one of the main themes of these books, but it is a subtle theme, something that is humming quietly under the surface.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Women who hate men who hate women….

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Today’s Book review will be the second part of the Steig Larsson trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire

Before I get to the review I just want to say hello to all our new readers and welcome! We are very excited to have you along on our reading journey. After J’s review of  Carr’s book we got a lot of thoughtful feedback, and we really appreciate it. There is one thing I want to address–a  lot of people mused on the issue of how one can get children to engage with books when they have so many other distractions in the world. I can tell you from experience, that kids won’t read if their parents don’t set the example for them. I grew up with a mother who loved to read. Reading is what she did in her spare time. Although I grew up in the pre-internet age, we did, of course, have a TV and there were other distractions around like Nintendo (Duck Hunt anyone?). My parents never forbade these sorts of things, but by example they made it clear that it was better to read. I received books as gifts, books for good grades, books all the time- and because of their encouragement I loved to read. So if you want to help a young person love books you have to walk the walk, so to speak.

Okay onto my review. Larsson’s second book is difficult to review because you cannot sum up the plot. It is too complicated, plus that would spoil the fun of the book. The Lis Salander trilogy is extraordinarily popular, and much has been written about it by loftier critics than I, so I have decided that I will only address a few themes of the book in this review and then deal with the rest with my review of the third book of the trilogy (which I am reading right now.)

First of all, Larsson’s Sweden is not an Ikea-furnished utopia. It is a dark and dangerous world, and while this outlook was probably born from Larsson’s own perception of his home country it is  something I find intriguing. His descriptions of places in the book are spare, and in your mind’s eye you cannot help envisioning a cold, grey, place, thick with intrigue. I am sure this is intentional–it is also what helps with the pace and atmosphere in the book. Everything is urgent, interconnected, a web– and nothing, chief of all the main character, is as it seems.

Ah the title character, Lisbeth Salander– she’s one of the more original characters to come out of fiction in a long time. I actually plan to dedicate much of my next blog post on Lisbeth, because I just cannot shake her from my mind. But anyway, Lisbeth is a woman, who in Larsson’s words ” hates men who hate women.” And I think that  statement is one of the keys to Larsson’s main themes. In the world of this book, and perhaps in Larsson’s mind, many men hate women, and treat them despicably. The issues of abuse, rape and sex trafficking come up in this book (and in the other books in the trilogy) time and time again. Clearly, Larsson believes that many men  hold misogynistic ideas about women. While Larsson’s books are extreme in one aspect, they aren’t in another. The fact of it is that around 1/4 of all women in the US have been sexually assaulted. Think about that number. One in four. That means you likely know someone who has. And many of the assaults (both sexual and physical) are at the hands of men that they know-boyfriends, lovers, husbands, family members. Sorry to be such a downer, but one truth from these books is that women often do suffer at the hands of men– and especially at the hands of men who were supposed to protect and love them (as does the protagonist Lisbeth Salander.)

Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but I do think that is the main message of Larsson’s book. That we live in a world that is dangerous, especially if you are a woman, and I do think that in some aspect he is true. It is correct to say that women’s lives have become markedly better, that women have come to achieve so much in the recent decades, but I also think that it is no mistake that Larsson’s books are set in Sweden, which is not only his home country, but a country that is regarded as having the most equality of the sexes. I think that Larsson is taking a swipe at this vision of Sweden with his books.

As to the book itself, it is fast-paced, violent, and intriguing. The heroine, Lisbeth Salander is both infuriating and brilliant. When you read this book you really cannot put it down, so consider yourself warned–you need to make sure you have plenty of time to read it, or you will risk a “reading hangover” like I did, furiously reading at the wee hours to finish and only have a few hours to sleep before you wake up and go to work. I think that everyone will react differently to these books, but there is a reason why they are bestsellers.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C