And the award for Best Airplane Read goes to….

As a rule, I’m not a huge fan of airplanes.  They’re cramped, noisy, expensive, and (for those of us who fly coach, at least) have been designed with meticulous attention paid to maximizing physical discomfort.  However, as a necessity of modern existence, I accept that there are no better alternatives.   As a frequent flyer, I’ve become used to short flights.  In most cases, they pass uneventfully and, while not particularly pleasant, aren’t necessarily unpleasant.

Fourteen hour plane rides, on the other hand, suck.

I wish there was a more tactful way to put it, but there’s not.  Sitting in a single position, breathing tinned air, eating overheated artificial meals all while listening to the baby in front of you scream for hours just sucks.  Big time.

In my experience, the only distraction which can ameliorate the misery of a trans-Pacific flight (other than a medically induced sleep – thank you Tylenol PM!) is a good book.  In this vein, I’m nominating Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as the official Best Airplane Read Ever.  To the powers-that-be who hand out such awards, please take note.

My preference for airplane reads falls into what most people would consider genre fiction: Dan Brown, Dean Koontz, Michael Chrichton, John Grisham, and other similar authors.  Many would disagree with me, but I don’t consider any of these writers to be untalented.  Better than many of their more “literary” counterparts, these guys know how to tell a story.  Their language might be clumsy, their characters may be two-dimensional, but they keep the pages turning.  That’s important on an airplane because once the pages stop turning, there are a million unpleasant distractions which can pull the reader out of the book’s insulated bubble. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is a brilliant book, but the thirty page discursions into 18th century whaling methods are only going to give me time to think about how my legs are going numb because the guy in front of me has reclined his chair into my knees.  Koontz’s satanic serial killer living in an abandoned amusement park will probably hold my attention a bit longer.

At the same time, I am a serious reader.  I like my books to have some heft, physically and intellectually.  I appreciate well-defined characters and thought-provoking themes.  All too often, however, ‘serious’ literature is a bit too heavy to digest at 40,000 feet.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo pulls together the best of both literary worlds.  In its essence, it’s a piece of genre fiction.  It’s a murder mystery whodunnit that relies on many of the same devices which have made this particular genre so popular:  a mysterious prologue, a mismatched pair of romantically involved protagonists, countless red herrings, grisly scenes of torture and murder, last-minute escapes.  The chapters are short, the plot is meticulously detailed, and, as the mystery builds, the reader is swept along.

Where Larsson’s novel transcends its own genre is in its level of character development.  The two protagonists, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander are more than mere devices to move the story along – they come across as fully realized individuals with whom the reader can truly empathize.  Salander in particular is one of the more interesting characters in contemporary fiction.

The language itself also transcends its label of genre fiction.  One of the major drawbacks to picking up a Dan Brown or Dean Koontz thriller is the often abysmal prose.  Just as weighty subject matter can be a distraction, so can horrible writing.  Tired cliches, mixed metaphors, and lazy writing are the hallmarks of typical genre fiction.  Personally, I can usually overlook this, especially if the story is engaging enough.  In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the prose stands well above its contemporaries.  As it is a translation, credit is due to the translator, Reg Keeland.  The language, while not beautiful by any means, serves the story well and, at times mirrors the bleak landscape of the story itself.

The themes it deals with – financial malfeasance, domestic abuse, rape, murder – are by no means trivial.  It’s a dark book.  Very dark.  But the themes are dealt with in a very deft manner.  The reader doesn’t feel as if they are being preached at.  And, most importantly, they don’t detract from the story itself.

I’ve certainly read better books than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  But, I can’t think of a single book that is better suited to keeping a reader occupied as they hurtle through the air in an over-sized hollow bullet.  I can’t say I read the entire fourteen hours on my way back to China.  But, for the five or six hours in which I was chronicling the Vanger family history with Mikael Blomkvist and hacking into secure computer systems with Lisbeth Sanders, I was no longer crammed into seat 32J.  And that’s exactly what you want from a good airplane read.

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12 comments

  1. Fourteen hours! Aargh! I agree with you about Girl with the Dragon Tattoo–and the more I think about the books, the more enamored I am of the two main characters. Lucky for you there are two more books–that’s two more long flights!

  2. try a plane ride with a toddler on your lap it’ll feel alot longer than 14 hours 😉

    My father loved all the Larsson books but then hes a fan of that particular genre anyway.

  3. Thanks for your review! I’ve read so much about this book it’s hard to really get a feel for the book and if it’s something I would be interested in. The description of an Airplane Read sums it up nicely.

    Also, what’s the name of the Koontz book at the amusement park? I know I read it years ago but I think it ended up in one of my “lost book boxes” during a move.

  4. @Lisa – I couldn’t wait for anymore long flights. I ripped through the second book in a matter of days and have just received the third in the mail. They really are addictive reads and each book is just as good, if not better, than the one that came before it.
    @Jessica – I couldn’t even imagine doing that kind of trip with a toddler. I have never been a huge fan of crime fiction – the only ones I’ve read other than these have been exceptionally bad. I’m not sure that I’m a convert to the genre, but I’m still a huge fan of these particular books.
    @Alley – glad the review could help. The Dean Koontz book is Hideaway. I couldn’t remember last night when I was writing the post, and it just came to me this morning.

  5. Great Reveiw. With a review like this one the writer should pay you to read. I have heard all of the hype about these novels but really wondered what they were all about. Your reveiw gives a great perspective and tell me that this novel is just what I need a real page turner – really gripping fiction.

  6. @Gina – My fingers are crossed that Stieg Larsson’s estate has already put a check in the mail at your suggestion 😉 I definitely recommend this series, and not only as an airplane time-killer. They’re solid novels all around. I’m about a third of the way through the final installment now and I’m having a hard time concentrating on much else.
    @Greg – You still haven’t read them? I was pretty sure that I was the last to jump on the bandwagon. Next time you’re on a plane (or anytime you’re looking for something to read) give these a go.
    I did read your post about airplane reads. I agree but will add a corollary. Certainly, some books are going to seem better on a plane than if they were read in the comfort of your home. Likewise, some books that are brilliant at home may lose some of their luster on a plane. A personal example of this was Michael Chabons “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay.” A wonderful, wonderful book. The first time I picked it up was on a plane and I couldn’t get into it. I put it down after a few pages. When I picked it up a few days later while sitting on the beach, I got a horrible sunburn because I didn’t want to get up and move into the shade. Personally, I’m just easily distracted when I’m uncomfortable and I am rarely comfortable on an airplane.

  7. Thanks, Pete. I’ll hold the Larssons for the 22 hour (round-trip) to Brazil and back next May. Until then, I’m working on the Amazing Bottomless TBR box!

    1. Twenty two hours should be a good enough amount of time to finish the first book and get through a good portion of the second. If you want to wait until the long trip to read them, definitely don’t peek early. You’ll be hooked.

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