The Clever Badger One lab accident away from being a super villain

16Jan/1211

Mini Book Review: The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, Translated by Reg Keeland

Well, first order of business:

I haven't died since my last post.

In August.

Of last year.

Nor was I raptured in October.  Harold Camping was wrong again.

I have, however, been a victim of a busy schedule and probably some degree of overall burnout.

Anyway, new year - new goals, which include more writing, less me (and possibly a new bike...), and a few other things that are long overdue.

Let's start with the first.

For Christmas, I found myself the owner of a new Kindle Fire.  I fully accept that the Fire is, out of the box, basically an Amazon Vending Machine.  I'm good with that.  It's got potential, and I like the form factor better than the iPad.

I'd gotten my mom the DVDs of the Swedish versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's NestI'd watched them last year, and Mom had been reading the books, so we ended up more or less swapping.  (NB - I haven't seen the new American version of the first film, so any comparisons I make between the books and the films will refer to the Swedish productions.)

What I'd like to do here is capture some of my thoughts on the series without spoiling too many important plot points.  Thus this won't be a full-on review but rather some loosely connected thoughts and observations.  Bear with me while I try to re-engage the writing cogs.

I suspect that most people are familiar with the basic outline of the books - Swedish investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist finds himself drawn into an increasingly complex web of conspiracies when he's asked to help investigate a decades-old mystery and makes the acquaintance of hacker Lisbeth Salander and her aforementioned tattoo.

The first thing to note is that the original Swedish title of the book - Män som hatar kvinno - translates as Men Who Hate Women.  That proves to be the thread that ties the entire series together, and indeed the thread that has defined most of Salander's life.

(Larsson witnessed a rape when he was young, and never forgave himself for failing to help the victim.  The theme of the trilogy is derived from that event.)

In telling Salander's story of victimization - initially at the hands of her father and later at the hands of nearly every authority figure she encounters - Larsson also addresses issues of gender inequality in the workplace, in government, and in the perceptions of the population as a whole.

Lisbeth's brilliant intellect and single-minded thirst for revenge is set against her tiny, doll-like physique.  Her refusal to conform to social norms is used in the second and third books to attack her in the press and in the courtroom.1

Annika, Blomkvist's sister (later Salander's lawyer) draws on similarities between her youthful behavior and Lisbeth's to point out the double standards at work. Erika Berger, Blomkvist's married lover (and a very shrewd businesswoman) finds herself under attack because of her sexual habits. Female police inspectors in the story are looked down on by their male counterparts.

An interesting thing to notice is that Blomkvist (in the books - they leave out most of this in the movies) is portrayed as quite the player.  During the course of the books, Blomkvist carries on extended affairs with:

  • Erika Berger - his married lover who he has been with off and on for 20 year or so.
  • Cecilia Vanger - a woman who he investigates in connection with a decades-old possible murder.
  • Lisbeth Salander - who seduces him during the investigation of the Vanger case, and with whom he has a fairly lengthy relationship.
  • Harriet Vanger - Cecilia's long-lost cousin.
  • Monica Figuerola - a special police investigator helping to work out the conspiracy surrounding Salander's father.

I'm not sure if Blomkvist is written this way in order to serve as an example within the story of a man who can relate to women as equals, or if he's written as a typical Swedish male and I'm simply trying to view Swedish attitudes about sex through an American lens, or if there's something else going on.  The end result is that Blomkvist is clearly not a white-hat good guy, but is instead somewhat ethically suspect.  Ordinarily, I tend to like characters with some moral ambiguity, since it makes them more interesting, but I've got an issue with this sort of thing.2

There are a few other interesting characters spread across the books.  One of the most interesting, in my opinion, is Alexander Zalachenko.  Zalachenko, a Russian assassin who defects to Sweden in the 1970's, is Lisbeth's father.  The Swedish authorities recognize the value of the information Zalachenko can provide, and consequently give him a long leash, turning a blind eye to his violent habits and criminal endeavors.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, Zalachenko's value diminishes, but it's far too late to rein him in.  His activities form the nucleus of the conspiracies against Salander, but it's clear that the Swedish authorities who cleaned up after him and failed to control him are at least as culpable as he is.  What makes him interesting is that he's not just evil for the sake of being evil.  His actions seem consistent within the limits of his own self-interest.  He's aware enough to manipulate others into doing what he needs to be done, he thinks through the consequences of his actions, and he needs a motivation to do things beyond simply causing problems for a hero to solve.3

Overall, I enjoyed the books.  Having already seen the movies, I knew generally what to expect, but there was enough new and expanded material to keep me interested, especially the more detailed insight into Lisbeth's character.  The nuggets of Swedish political history that are sprinkled through the books give them some grounding in actual events, which is a nice touch.  Parts can be difficult to read - the assault on Salander in the first book, and some of the graphic descriptions of crimes throughout leave little to the imagination - but such scenes are important to advancing the plot.

As a set of interconnected mysteries, the books work very well, and I highly recommend them on the strength of that alone.  If you happen to find topics of social justice and the treatment of women in different layers of society are more your thing, you'll find a good helping of those in here, too.

-Jay
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1In some ways reminiscent of the way women like Monica Lewinsky and Casey Anthony have been portrayed in the media. Guilt or innocence often seems secondary to digging up lurid personal details.

2I suppose it's worth mentioning that all of Blomkvist's liasons are consensual, and none of his partners have an expectation of long-term monogamy. Nevertheless, his characterization reminds me a bit too much of people who I know who think with their penises.

3Writing convincing villains is hard.  Too often you end up with a 2-dimensional character that exists solely for the purpose of doing bad things.  Like Darth Vader.  He was nothing but a glorified errand boy.  When George Lucas tried to give Vader some depth in the prequel trilogy, all he really succeeded in doing was establishing that Vader was a whiny, arrogant errand boy.  Or consider the typical characterization of the devil, who seems to turn up for no reason other than to function as an agent of evil.  That's a topic for another day.

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  1. I haven’t seen the American movie, either. I enjoyed, and would generally recommend, the books and the Swedish trilogy (though I agree with some of your points, particularly the odd contrast between Mikael’s rather casual approach to sex and the crusade against sexism/violence against women — but maybe this is a roundabout way of suggesting that a less possessive approach to sexual relationships might result in less violence against women?).

    Interesting review, and good to see you back at the keyboard! Have a great 2012!

  2. I have seen the original Swedish films and enjoyed them; I am debating whether to see the English language version. I am somewhat ambivalent about remakes/translations. I used to be less sanguine about them, but have come to accept them as a chance to re-examine or interpret a story. After all, I think The Maltese Falcon iconic version was the second or third film of the story. I like the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes more than Bazil Rathbone, which I still enjoy.

    My initial difficulty with books and stories I have read before their being made into films remains worrying about the interpretation. A good film is likely to make me want to read the story and, perhaps, gain more from it. An enjoyable story, made into a film, sometimes loses too much.

    Welcome back, CB. May you write more, before the Mayan doomsday ends us all.

  3. “Nor was I raptured in October.”

    Forgot to mention that I LOLed at this line…!

  4. I just re-read the article and noted your ownership of the Amazon Funnel . . . I mean Kindle. With the better screen, some browsing, and the price of Kindle books, the device has moved up my list from “interesting” to “possible.” I really have mixed feelings about this, especially concerning books and publishing. Perhaps your thoughts on this could be grist for an upcoming post and discussion.

    • I’ve had a Kindle DX (the large form e-ink version) for a couple of years now, and think it is an excellent (if somewhat overpriced) reader, so long as you’re reading straight text. I picked the larger one primarily because I felt that the standard (at the time) Kindle screen size was a little too small. The whispernet connectivity was handy, particularly when I bought it, since I was traveling a lot for work at the time. I still use it quite a bit, and it’s often pressed into service by one of my kids. When the wireless connectivity is turned off, the battery lasts for weeks.

      The Fire is an altogether different animal. It’s not unfair to call it an Amazon Vending Machine, but if you spend a little time rounding up some third party applications, you can turn it into a fairly useful tablet. It’s biggest shortcoming, in my opinion, is the lack of a SD/microSD slot. The on-board memory isn’t huge, since Amazon is trying to steer customers to its cloud services. Ebooks don’t take up much space, so you could keep a fairly sizable library on the device, but apps will chew up that portion of the memory in a hurry. A microSD slot would have cost pennies to add to the device, and they have huge storage capacities these days.

      The Fire’s web browsing works pretty well. In concept, I like the idea of shifting most of the heavy lifting of the browser back to the server side, but I don’t think that it makes a huge difference in speed compared to the Droid tablet version of Firefox. I haven’t done any systematic speed comparisons, though, and considering the number of devices in the house that are competing for WiFi bandwidth, it’s entirely possible that the browser itself isn’t the choke point.

      The reading experience on the Fire is excellent. The sharper screen resolution compared to the e-ink screen, and the option to tweak the background color makes it easier on my eyes, and being able to read in low light is a big plus.

      I’ve also found that video streaming (e.g. Amazon’s Prime videos) works very, very well, and their catalog of available titles is fairly broad and growing. I cancelled NetFlix before I got the Fire, so I can’t really speak to streaming other than Amazon’s service.

      Amazon has also given Prime members the option of “borrowing” books, although that is currently limited to one book within a calendar month, and the lending catalog seems to be overly populated by titles such as “The Lusty Cowgirl” and “Passion in the Afternoon”. If that’s your thing, you’re set. I’d rather see more history and biography myself. (Also, a number of library systems around the U.S. are getting into the e-book lending game. The overall catalog of titles, as far as I can tell, is small but growing, and isn’t so replete with heaving bosom fiction.)

      I do wish that the price of e-books would drop. In many cases, the e-book is very nearly the same cost as the paper version, and that’s a problem with the pricing model, in my opinion. I often find myself having to weigh the value of physical shelf space against the convenience of portability and the chance that the DRM on the e-books will render them inaccessible at some point. I’ll often choose the physical book in that situation, which rather defeats the purpose of the whole exercise. (I also tend to make margin notes in books that I read, and have a somewhat complex shorthand that has evolved through the years. That doesn’t work well in an e-book.) If I felt any confidence at all that the authors involved received more profit from an e-book than for a similarly priced paper copy, I wouldn’t have much of an issue, but as it is, I strongly suspect that the extra profit realized by not having to print, bind, and ship a paper book goes straight to the publishing house.

      Does this provide some fuel for discussion?

      • Well, damn, CB! You’ve covered in reply what you could have made a leading post (not too late to bump it up). Aside from some technical details, which hands-on experience might inform for me, but which you have given good descriptions of, you have covered it pretty well.

        It’s actually the Kindle edition vs. paperback cost which has a certain appeal for me. I have reached a point where, even with books, stuff begins to own me, rather than the opposite. Like you, I have concerns about the income or profit distribution.

        Also, despite suggestions from Amazon, I really do not think it matches the experience of noticing or discovering new books, authors, or titles just by scanning a bookshelf or section in a store.

        • Amazon’s suggestion engine is interesting. When your AI has to consider selections of a 7th grader, a 10th grader, and me, you get some very peculiar hits.

      • I have looked at the Kindles, in the plastic, and have decided that I am most likely to get the Touch. Part of this is influenced by already having an iPad in the household, else I might be tempted by the Fire. The Touch has better legibility for my aging eyes and seems to operate more fluidly than the basic one. It has limited browsing, but I became used to using the iPad for that, while traveling or just for convenience. Especially while traveling, the idea of only having to keep track of the device, rather than the multitude of books, really becomes appealing.

        In fact, it was on vacation that I began to become less of a curmudgeonly luddite about the things. They can be very handy for many computer chores not requiring a lot of keyboard use – e-mail, editing photographs, catching up on the latest CB posting, etc. . There is even a Kindle app, although I believe the Touch is more suited to dedicated reading.

        • When I traveled a lot for work, I usually had at least 2 books in my backpack, along with whatever else I was dragging along. That, as I’m sure you know, gets old fast.

          I recently figured out how to check out e-books from my local library. That’s a very nice feature to be able to use (although the peculiarities of e-book licensing mean that the library only has a few “copies” of any given book, so it’s not the wide-open literary faucet I might have hoped for).

          I’ll admit to becoming increasingly fascinated with the iPad. I suspect I’ll eventually succumb to the temptation, sell a kidney, and pick one up.

  5. Heh, heard that! Though in my case it’s not a function of young’un’s still in the home (though my granddaughter is coming over more often), but of buying gifts for people with tastes different from my own.

    I’ll buy a board-book for my gd, and then I get baby’s board books mixed in with my “regular” fare of selections for weeks (or until I *correct* the recommendation).

    Or I’ll go on amazon to buy a pack of undies. You’d think amazon would know that I’m not a buyer for an apparel store, and that once I’ve, er, covered my immediate need for new undies, I won’t be needing anymore for a while. But, no…

    The one that bugs me the most is when I buy the tenth in a series of some author’s books, and when my purchase history will show I’ve bought the eighth, ninth, and tenth in recent years.

    Suddenly, I’m getting recommendations for the fifth, sixth, and first in the series. Now, if my amazon records showed that I’d ONLY bought the tenth in a series, I can see the utility, both ways, for recommending the first. I mean, it’s possible I’ve only recently discovered the author, didn’t realize I was jumping into the middle of a series, etc. It could be helpful to recommend earlier books in the same series.

    But… Where it ought to be apparent (even to an algorithm in a computer) that I’m buying the series in order, then recommending earlier books in the series (or the paperback when amazon “knows” I bought the hardcover last year) is a waste of resources.

    For some reason, though, they haven’t hired me to straighten them out on issues like this.


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