There is a type of reading experience I yearn for, the kind where I pick up a novel and find myself transported completely, unable to put it down–work, chores, my own writing be damned. It’s an experience that most readers hope to have but rarely find, otherwise there would be a lot more avid readers in the world. Although I read voracious and enjoy a lot of the material that makes its way to my bedside table, rarely am I so fully immersed in a story where the characters are so engaging, the narrative drive so tightly focused, that I’m in a constant state of anxiety; where the characters seem like real people rather than simply metaphors for life.
I can think of few books that have had this effect on me. Gloria, by my mentor, Keith Maillard, was one of them. So was The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, the novel on which Anthony Minghella’s film was based. Highsmith also wrote Strangers on a Train, adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock; this caused her to be forever known as a mystery writer, which the Cleveland Plain Dealer so aptly observed was “like calling Picasso a draftsman”. A crime was often at the center of Highsmith’s works, but her novels were existential in nature. Graham Greene once said that Highsmith created worlds that were “claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger”.
So what does Patricia Highsmith have to do with Stieg Larsson, Swedish author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Apart from them both being labelled as crime writers, nothing. It’s just that despite my piles of books by Hemingway, Nabakov, and Kafka, I’ve always had a soft spot for this type of fiction. Fiction that allows me to unwind after a long day yet has my mind racing with curiosity and asking, what the hell is going on?
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is more “literary” than most novels of its genre, employing a somewhat stark and minimalist style that is engaging despite the author’s tendency to pepper his prose with brand names and describe characters’ lunches in full detail (I can relate to that one!) And it seems like someone is drinking coffee on almost every page. Although the book is not as compulsively readable as Highsmith’s novels, I had a hard time putting it down and finished it off in a weekend. I’ve been trying to figure out why.
The trilogy has been hugely successful on a global scale, no doubt in part because the author died of a massive heart attack before its publication. As Larsson died without leaving a valid will, his father and brother inherited his whole estate, now worth twenty million euros and counting, while his common law partner of thirty two years got nothing. The battle in Sweden over the rights to Larsson’s literary estate has been going on for years and to this day is a hot topic.
Death magnifies fame. Would Marilyn Monroe be an icon were she still alive today, fat and having aged poorly, bound to a wheelchair a la Liz Taylor? The specter of Stieg Larsson’s ghost looms in the pages of his novels, adding another layer of fascination to the unlikely crime-fighting duo of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander. Though the mystery at the heart of the story is clever but not spectacular–anyone with a TV has seen it before–I suspect that these two characters have contributed to the novels’ success as much as the untimely death of their author. Cross a Neo-Nazi fighting journalist with an anti-social multi-pierced and tattooed computer hacker and you have a powerful combination–Sherlock and Watson for the Information Age.
The Swedish setting also seems to add to the appeal–at least on this side of the pond. Somehow I think I might have found The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo less engaging had it taken place in Boston. As many North Americans, I have always envisioned Sweden–Scandanavia in general–as a near utopia, where women are equal to men, everyone has great furniture, and eats open-faced sandwiches for breakfast. Larsson paints quite a different picture. It’s rather telling that the original title in Swedish is “Men Who Hate Women”. Such a title would never sell to English-speaking audiences, and if it did, it would be found in the self-help section of the bookstore, right next to “Women Who Love too Much”.
I have yet to read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the last installment of the trilogy. I’m saving it, like dessert after a particularly rich meal. I want to be hungry again so I can taste it.
IKEA Style Vegetable Medallions
I admit, I’ve long been a sucker for the cheap and chic coolness of an IKEA store. Mostly I like hanging out in the cafeteria. The food is never as good as it looks on the menu, but for half an hour on a busy Saturday morning, I can be transported to Stockholm, a city I’ve longed to visit.
These vegetable medallions are inspired by those currently served with their stuffed salmon–a perfect way to get your vegetables if you’re tired of salads and the same old, same old.
2 pounds cauliflower, chopped
1/2 pound broccoli, chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 pound potato
5 ounces parmesan cheese
1/2 cup panko (Japanese) breadcrumbs
about ten chives, chopped
dash celery seed
1) Preheat oven to 375F. Steam cauliflower and broccoli in an extra large pot until soft and mashable. In the meantime, saute the onions in butter over medium heat until brown and caramelized.
2) Boil the potato until soft, about twenty minutes. Drain and mash together with onions and chives in an extra large mixing bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
3) Add broccoli and cauliflower to onion and potato mixture and mash as much as possible. Add the oil, eggs, bread crumbs, and seasonings. Stir well to combine.
4) Fill muffin tins to the top with the vegetable batter and press flat. Bake for thirty minutes, or until golden brown. Cool in tins. Run fork along the edges of the tin and pop out medallions carefully.
- for gluten free medallions, substitute half a cup of corn meal for the panko
- broccoli and cauliflower need to be mashed very well; a food processor would be very useful in this case
- use a non-stick pan and grease it very well to prevent medallions from sticking