Sunday, January 23, 2011

In Cooking as in Writing

There are times when cooking reminds of writing. In cooking, as in writing, there is a base of skills that provides the bedrock for creatiyy. Learning the basics of stocks, soups, sauces and the proper manner of doing things provides a platform for letting imagination and time take you where it will, and so it goes with writing. With a solid base of grammar, punctuation and format, the world, and fantasies, are yours.

I didn't really get that until I began cooking classes, just another in the endless toolbox of procrastinations that keep me from writing, and doing anything productive, except for the cooking. As I studied sauces and planned what I could do with them, the idea of writing crept up on me. Why couldn't I use the same techniques for writing? I could, but what was the use? There is less subjectivity in the end results of cooking than there is in writing -- or is there?

It's all a matter of taste and taste lately is what has been plaguing me for weeks now. Tastes change, but good food never changes. Then again, maybe it does. Once upon a time a well prepared steak was tasty and now it's about beefiness and subtle layers of flavor and even about the texture (mouth feel it is called). It's no longer about a well prepared steak that needs no more garnishing than salt and paper and a hearty appetite.

And then the are the purists, those who are satisfied with steak garnished with salt and pepper, but the trick is in finding them. I love a good steak as much as the next writer, but there are levels to a well prepared steak, and it begins with the basics. In this case, a good cut of steak, tempering the meat and cooking it to perfection. Sauces and the rest are merely adornments. I must keep that firmly in mind because, even though tastes change, there are times when creativity takes you only so far.

Such is the case with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Stieg Larsson is no more, but his books live on. I caught the first two Swedish movies based on his books and realized I had downloaded the first book into my e-reader. I enjoyed the movies, although they were quite violent, and one thing did keep hitting me: why was the book named for a girl who is only part of the story? Lisbeth Salander does feature in the movie, but it revolves more around another main character, or rather two: Mikael Blomqvist and Harriet Vanger. Lisbeth's story is part of the whole, but the focus is on Harriet Vanger who went missing and is presumed dead nearly forty years ago and Mikael Blomqvist, a financial reporter with his own magazine who has been snookered into believing a fake story to discredit him. Eventually, the two -- Lisbeth and Mikael -- will get together to solve the mystery together, but in the meantime they live separate lives. And here's where the basics of a good story come in, or rather don't in Larsson's case.

Larsson spends a great deal of time on information dumps, big clumps of knowledge that have nothing to do with the story and are dumped in one big clot of text that goes on for pages and pages. Dan Brown does the same thing, although Brown does it a little better. No wonder the book is over a thousand pages long, too much information that has no bearing on the story. Who really cares about the court case that brings Mikael to leave the magazine since it all happened before the story begins or the ins and outs of financial chicanery that might be interesting to a few financial or crime reporters? And yet there it is front and center and clogging up the story, which should be pretty straightforward. In cooking, this would be drowning a good piece of meat in far too much heavy, artery clogging sauce.

There are several information dumps all through the first part of the book, and I've only read four hundred or so pages, and they really muddy up the story, which was far more straightforward than the movie. In that instance at least, the movie is far better than the book: no information dumps. I'm almost afraid to get into the second book in the series, let alone the third, if this kind of thing continues, and, reports have it, that Larsson planned ten books in the series, the equivalent of a 10-course meal with heavy sauces and garnishes obscuring the focus of the meal. Keep it simple, stupid, except that Larsson is no longer and I cannot let him know that he could have pared down his book to half of what it is and made it better without losing a single thing.

Oh, well, I suppose there are some up sides to all of this, but I'm at a loss to think what it is. I do intend to finish the first book and wait patiently for the release of the third movie because I am certain it will be far better than reading the book. I'd rather spend $3.99 on renting the movie, English subtitles and all, than reading yet another sauce and garnish heavy book in which I'd be pressured to find the least little bit of the story before I lose it again in the next course. What I wouldn't give for a simple palate cleanser between courses, or a hint of what the featured meat, fish or poultry hides in the sauces.

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