What does a writer leave behind? Unfinished work, clues about the creation of his characters, experiences that worked their way into his writing. And, like everyone else, relationships. Kurdo Baksi met Stieg Larsson (author of the trilogy that begins with "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo") in 1992. Larsson was 38 and editor of the leftist magazine Expo. Baksi was 27, editor of another anti-racist magazine, Svartvitt.
Larsson had just published his first book, "The Extreme Right," on organized racism. (He would write other books on racism, misogyny and neo-Nazism.) From that meeting on, the two saw each other almost every day (in 1998 they merged the two magazines) until Larsson's sudden death in 2004. The two supported each other through crises, including death threats.
Baksi does a little research on his friend's background, but "Stieg Larsson: Our Days in Stockholm" (Pegasus Books, $22, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson) is the story of a friendship. Baksi writes that Larsson lived for his work as a journalist and activist. He had insomnia, was stunningly productive, had terrible eating habits and was haunted by certain memories that, in many ways, fueled his writing.
When Larsson was 15, he watched three friends rape a 15-year-old girl. He did nothing to stop them and, haunted by her screams, went to apologize a few days later. She refused to accept it. Baksi feels that Larsson has more in common with his character Lisbeth Salander than with Mikael Blomkvist. He believes that Salander is based in part on a young researcher at Expo whose arrest for domestic abuse was much publicized.
Baksi is still amazed by his friend's ability to write the novels in relative secrecy. In 2003 Larsson brought the completed books to a publisher who turned him down; the next publisher accepted all three.
Sit back and listen to a story, the rich and fantastic memoirs of 99-year-old Mathilde Kschessinska, ballerina with the Russian Imperial Ballet, mistress to czars and grand dukes. They called her Little K - she was the daughter of a great dancer and she grew up in the fin de siècle Romanov court. The Romanov dukes and princes chose their mistresses from the ballet and theater. But Little K made her own choice - set her determined sights on the young czarevitch Nicholas Romanov. When he chose a different wife, Little K became his mistress. This slender heroine of Adrienne Sharp's novel, "The True Memoirs of Little K" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25), moves through her life as corrupt courts and Russian winters swirl around her: "There are no words to explain the cold of a Petersburg winter," she recalls from her Paris apartment half a century later. It's a love story, a triumph of will, set in a Chekhovian landscape. The artist ends (like poet Anna Akhmatova and countless others) an enemy of the state, banished from history. She tells her story in an almost magical way - the reader dissolves into another time and place.
It began with his mother, Pat Conroy writes in "My Reading Life" (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, $25), who promised that books would make him smart. Each new discovery in nature inspired her to get him a library book. His father thought reading was showing off: "He would take me by the throat . . . lift me off my feet, strangle me and beat my head against the wall." Pat Conroy would write about his father, a child- and wife-beater, in "The Great Santini." "I felt like I had put a gun to my family's head and pulled the trigger," he writes here of the fallout of that novel.
Madame Bovary, Jay Gatsby - Conroy shows how these and other characters have lived inside him. He remembers his mother reading "Gone With the Wind" to him when he was 5 and for years after. He recognized the South he grew up in - his mother modeled herself on Scarlett O'Hara. English teachers, librarians, Count Tolstoy: These are Conroy's happy ghosts and guardian angels. "I grew up a word-haunted boy." Literature, he writes, taught him how to be a man.