I still can't figure out why eighteen people showed up last Tuesday night at the Menlo Park Library to discuss Stieg Larsson's Swedish noir mystery The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Add in two librarians--me and youth services librarian Jennifer Wilkins--who made a cameo appearance to talk about the Girl With the D.T.'s more wholesome Swedish forebearer, Pippi Longstocking---and you've got twenty people who showed up.
If you have ever led a book group in a public library, you know that this is a pretty big crowd. Unless, of course, the author shows up. But there is no chance of Stieg Larsson doing this. The long time journalist/social activist/leftist --who had little money to his name-- died of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of fifty--having just turned in three manuscripts of what have now become the internationally bestselling Millenium Trilogy. (Film rights have also been sold)
I was hesitant to suggest Dragon Tattoo to the group of brilliant readers-- mostly women --but some great men, too--most over the age of fifty--who belong to the Menlo Park Library group. Here are three reasons why:
1) Book group leaders have long been told to avoid mysteries because once members share when they knew what--you have nothing to talk about. As a result, the groups that discuss mysteries, tend to take on a genre or an oeuvre--booktalking many tomes at once.
2)There are a lot of people having a lot of spontaneous sex in this book--and the friendly sex gets short shrift, while the violent and deadly sex is described in detail. I am fine with sexual metaphors and similes and all the other literary ways we can talk about sex. But I have a harder time with more direct personal connections. Consider the time that the group read, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink in which a naive teenage boy in post-Nazi Germany is seduced by an older woman in her thirties.
"I think this is sexual abuse", said a woman in the book group.
" I disagree," said a husband, who was attending the book group for the very first time--with his wife.
"I had wonderful sex as a teenager, when I was seduced by our older, family maid" .
The group came to a standstill and....the wife was not amused.
Here was my chance to jump in as a book group leader.
The obvious follow-up: Anyone else here been seduced by household servants?
Wish I had asked that.
Instead, I asked the lame, "Was there too much sex or too little sex in this book?" Just enough?
Why was The Reader suddenly sounding like Goldilocks and the Three Bears?
3) The mystery in Dragon Tattoo is a "locked room" mystery about a missing teenage heiress, who disappeared forty years ago,from a remote Swedish island. No body is ever found--and the plot revolves around what happened to her and why? There's also a subplot about corporate evildoers. Some have said that the "locked room" device and the corporate malice themes have been overdone--was anyone going to care--especially in Silicon Valley, where sophisticated minds are creating the next "killer ap?" Oh wait...do people still say "killer ap?"
Still eighteen readers showed up, eager to discuss the book... telling me they could not put it down. Here are five reasons why:
A heroine to remember: Amazingly they all related to the girl with the dragon tattoo, herself--24-year-old, pierced, tattooed, computer hacker Lisbeth Salander--a slight woman with a powerful mind and photographic memory--who was once a victim, but now lets no foul deed go unpunished. Woe to anyone who tries to get the best of this woman--sexually, financially, socially, or any other way. I don't think that any of the women in my book group have any body piercings or tattoos--but I shouldn't be making tacit assumptions. Actually, (forgive the Monday morning quarterbacking) it might have been a fun icebreaker .
"There is a little bit of Salander in all of us," said one very un-Salanderlike woman. Correction: She did not outwardly resemble Salander . Who knows what lurks within? Shoulda, woulda, coulda asked.
Some reviewers have suggested that Salander is so adept at cracking computer code and so awkward in her human interactions that she must have Asperger's syndrome. But my readers were able to relate to her rather than diagnose her.
I, myself, wonder if Salander is the next wave of feminism--fourth wave? Fifth wave? I always forget which wave we are up to.
Location, location, location: Readers loved the remote island location in Sweden and said that "they could feel the cold." The loved that everyone walked around the island, even though it was cold. The loved that the island was so small that you could see who was home and who was out, by checking the lights in people's windows and the shadows cast upon the window panes. Maybe they loved it because the location was as different as you can get from Silicon Valley? On the other hand, Dragon Tattoo has become an international bestseller, so maybe everyone loves it, because they island is different from where they live.
Not a word wasted: They loved that the plot moved along with journalistic precision and that they were not overburdened by descriptions of sunsets or landscapes or clothing. Each word was precise, they said.
Wishful thinking: They could not believe that Salander's investigative partner, 43-year-old investigative reporter Michel Bloomqvist, could really be such a "chick-magnet"-- approached by and bedded by women from all walks of life. But they forgave that as a vanity from author Larsson--whose life mirrored Bloomqvist's in so many ways.
The sex and the violence: As for the sex--which in this book is co-mingled with violence--they said that they held their breath as they read the passages. Was it the suspense? Was it the eroticism?
Pass the Ikea cracklebread and the Anna's Swedish ginger cookies please.
I was too chicken to go there. And I was called on it by one of my book group members who also happens to live in my building. Note to book group leaders: When book group members live in your community, expect side-conversations and helpful feedback on the way to the dry cleaner.
There is one more factor worth blogging about--which is how do you manage a book discussion when eighteen people show up? Especially when most of them have liked the book--so there is not much to argue about.
Stay tuned for the next blog post: Deconstructing the Dragon Tattoo.
Causes Lauren John Supports
Keplers Bookstore Circle of Friends (Menlo Park)
Friends of the Menlo Park Public Library
Book Group Expo
Marin Agricultural Land Trust...