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Men Who Hate Women

by Stieg Larsson
(That's the original title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I read that last fall, mostly on a boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam. I read the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, in much less exotic surroundings, a couple months later.)

I've gone back and forth a half dozen times on these books. They're good in that I found them hard to put down, and memorable (moreso for character - especially Lisbeth Salander, she of the titular tattoo - than plot or style). After I returned ...Played With Fire to the library, I actually reserved a copy of ...Dragon Tattoo so I could read it again (I sold my mass market paperback copy to a used bookstore in Hanoi for 20,000 dong, which I spent on beer). There's some undeniably satisfying moments where utter creeps get exactly what's coming to them and the good guys win. The 'good guys' are a punky antisocial girl with a photographic memory and a vengeful mean streak, Lisbeth Salander, and a crusade-y journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, modeled more-or-less on Larsson himself. The dynamic between these two characters is well-balanced - they're a genuine team, each having the chance to save the other's ass in turn. Salander, in particular, is a great character - a complicated, prickly, smart vaguely-criminal vaguely-superheroic bad-ass who is poorly-served and underestimated by the society she lives in. (This photo of the actress who plays her in the Swedish films based on the books is pretty close to how I imagined the character looking and how I've always wanted my hair to behave.) There's something of a point to all of it, suggested by the Swedish title of the first book and the eyebrow-raising statistics that head each section, meant to demonstrate that for all of Sweden's reputation as a pretty idyllic (albeit cold) place, it's also got its share of black marks, not least of which is a pretty appalling amount of sexual violence and misogyny.

Which is where I start to waver on all of it. Because though it's pretty clear Larsson was writing with the intent to expose and condemn that violence and misogyny, he's also written a couple books (the third has yet to hit America, though apparently a couple copies of the UK edition are circulating in the library system - I'm like 600th in line) that try to play it both ways - having his shocking! depraved! cake and eating it too, like a literary Law & Order: SVU. Though Larsson doesn't glamorize (or, in my opinion, sexualize) the violence in these books, he's still writing stories in which depictions of violence against women are used, let's face it, for entertainment. These are potboilers, not journalistic exposés or dissertations. The fact that they feature a number of women fighting back in various ways against violence directed at them, often with great success, mitigates this, but not enough to make me totally comfortable with it all. It beats hell out of torture porn, but it's still kinda icky. In some ways, the filling-in of Salander's backstory in the second book comes along with some real back-tracking on the feminist bona fides (such as they are) earned by the first. What's sort of interesting is that few punches are pulled when describing sexualized violence, but actual sex is treated in a much more circumspect way. Very un-explicit consensual sex, though there's quite a lot of it. I'm not sure what that means in the overall "Is This Okay With Me?" calculus, but it stuck out.

And oh lord does the prose suck. Pages and pages of grocery lists and inventories, bloodless recitation of computer specs and every ingredient of every sandwich. I know fuck all about network security or hacking, but the passages describing some of Salander's extra-legal investigative techniques strain credulity. I know more about the exact cost of various household goods and foodstuffs from this book than I would've gotten out of Lonely Planet: Sweden. It's not Twilight-Bad, but it's still pretty bad.

Hurry up, Minuteman Library System patrons, I want to read the third book so I can feel conflicted all over again!

Some interesting spoiler-y discussion at Feministing. The last comment is particularly interesting.
Though I disagree with some aspects of this review, it gets at why I felt so uncomfortable with these books, even as I raced through them.

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