The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

OK, I’m a bit behind the times. And behind on my writeups, since I read this some time ago. But, yes, I only recently got around to reading the smash hit of a decade ago. Oh, well. Anyways, it might be the intervening decade but the aspects that jumped out at me, rather negatively, weren’t the ones I recall getting much play at the time. Namely, this book is manifestly about sexual abuse. Now, there are a couple of standard stereotypes for the parties involved in sexual abuse:

  • Sexual abusers are always men (this is the nearest these stereotypes will get to actual true statements, since sexual abuse is largely perpetrated by men).

  • Girls who suffer sexual abuse go on to become avenging badasses: they have all sorts of ninja-chick abilities of stealth and disguise and burglary and kung-fu, and they use these powers against all the evil, evil men out there. But they’re all broken inside and emotionally flat and need the love of a good man to learn to interact with other people in a non-sociopathic way.

  • Boys who suffer sexual abuse become monsters, perpetuating their own victimization on others. They’re usually pretty devilishly clever too, and in the end turn out to be completely fucking crazy.

  • Women who suffer sexual abuse are too old to develop into badasses, so they have to be broken spineless balls of fluff, or, more likely, corpses. They never know the identity of their attacker, because that would make it too easy.

  • Men never suffer sexual abuse, except in the form of Humorous Prison Rape in the kind of genre that depicts prison rape as funny.

Hopefully, it’s pretty obvious why these are all harmful. I know a lot of people love the avenging badass trope and find it empowering, but given that most victims do not, in fact, turn out to be superhuman ninjas but are simply normal humans trying to get through badshit as best they can, telling them, “why don’t you just manifest revenge skills and beat up all the bad rapemen?” is not actually all that helpful.

Now, this might be a bit unfair to Stieg Larsson, but suffice to say most of these are on display in his book. There’s no HPR, but it’s not actually genre-appropriate and I wouldn’t expect it. The identities of most of the specific examples are kind of spoilertastic, but I’ll focus on Lisbeth Salander. She is the very model of a modern rape-avenger chick. She’s violent and brilliant and mentally she’s kind of sick. She tattoos her exploiter and has lots of no-strings-attached sex. She hacks into computers and wears tattoos across her neck. In short she has repression making her a badass lunatic. She is the very model of a modern rape-avenger chick.

Ahem. As I said, about Lisbeth Salander. She ticks off pretty much all the boxes, and as far as I can tell the whole Bjurman incident, which was pretty much irrelevant to the plot, is just to give her bonafides as a defeater of nasty men who exploit helpless women. The one box she doesn’t fit into fully is that it’s not overtly spelled out that she’s been raped, but there is all sort of coy intimation that she suffered some sort of horrible childhood trauma. I assume the details of that eventually emerge in the sequels, and I would be very much surprised if it isn’t sexual abuse. There’s also another woman with childhood sexual trauma in the story, who is not nearly so badassed as Salander, so, I dunno, half credit for that?

Anyways, I’ve spent many words talking about rape cliches and giving Larsson shit for it. How about talking about something in the book other than ol’ Lisbeth? Well, it’s very Swedish, with IKEA and tunnelbanas and aquavit and little cottages in fishing villages. Saunas and free health care aren’t very prominent, but maybe they’ll show up in the sequels. Fortunately, Sweden is not all that much different from anywhere else, so the basic plot is not much impaired by my ignorance of anything much about it. I was slightly at sea with regard to the legal and political issues that came up: in the US, for instance, Blomkvist probably couldn’t be successfully prosecuted for libel, but I get the impression protections for that are very different in Europe (I know they are in the UK). Likewise, I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that one character was a neo-Nazi. I assume Larsson’s sensibilities are close enough to mine that this is a bad thing, but is it supposed to be an atypical thing? I know Sweden (and Scandinavia as a whole) has a complex, multi-layered interaction with both Russia and Germany from World War II that they’re still sorting out, so I have no idea what the public perception of neo-Nazis is there.

Ahem. OK. Enough griping about Swedishness too (after all, we should read books from other nations and cultures, and my incomprehension is my problem, not theirs). How is the actual prose and story? Pretty good, or at least good enough to explain its popularity. It is not dethless prose, but it has a good pace and every character who doesn’t have characterization defined by their role in rape is pretty well characterized. There are some reasonable false leads in the mystery but the identity of the actual perpetrator isn’t a complete gotcha. It works along most of the axes it wants to work on.

Số đỏ/Dumb Luck, by Vũ Trọng Phụng

What a difference a century makes! Only a little more than a hundred years after Nguyễn Du’s elegant, Chinese-influenced epic, comes this howlingly profane and unashamed satire of a Vietnam deep in the grips of French influence. Satire, I fear, is a product of its time, and although there were certain elements of this romp through Vietnam which were quite amusing, among them the “Being There” motif of a wholly unqualified person rising stratospherically throguh society. The central conceit of this work, as I understand it, though, is an exploration of just what “modernization” and “Europeanization” were thought to mean in early-mid-20th-century Vietnam, simultaneously representing desirable progress and the abandonment of cherished traditions. The overarching theme thus becomes “modernization is a great thing… for everyone else!” This comes to the fore early on with Mr. TYPN (translated into English as Mr. ILL)’s vocal objection to his wife’s shopping at his boutique, and doesn’t really develop much more in the way of nuance thereafter. I feel like certain aspects of the story straight up sailed over my head, because I wasn’t familiar with either the pre-Europeanized Vietnamese culture (aside from knowing it was heavily Chinese-influenced), nor the particular stew of European influences and the lens they were seen through at the time. It was a reasonably enjoyable read, because it was fun and lively and clever even when not wholly comprehensible, but I fear I might not actually have gotten the joke.

Truyện Kiều/The Tale of Kiều, by Nguyễn Du

Pretty much all I knew about Truyện Kiều going in is that it was more-or-less the national epic of Vietnam and that it had a female protagonist. It’s actually a peculiar work, simultaneously very much an artifact of its time and somewhat atavistic; at a time when Vietnam was dealing with uniquely Vietnamese problems and trying to rebuild itself, it’s kind of peculiar to see a major poem which is cribbed shamelessly from a Chinese source (the plot is lifted from a forgettable sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Chinese novel). But the tale of Kiều is in some parts also the tale of Nguyễn Du, who was evidently a scholarly figure of a previous court and a previous era, one that looked to the Chinese with far more admiration. Nonetheless, it’s a mite perplexing to see that what is put forward as an extraordinary Vietnamese work is really quite extensively imitative of a foreign culture.

I was reading the annotated Huỳnh Sanh Thông translation, which was excellent: I have no idea to what extent it captured the specific poetic stylings of the original (my edition was a parallel text, but I am really in no position to evaluate the poetry of the Vietnamese text), but it managed to use excellent metaphors which gave me hope that it was, at least, a quite faithful translation, with ample glossing for those metaphors which would be opaque to a Western audience.

The story itself is… well, it’s not what you come to the text for although it’s a pretty surprising one when you get right down to it. Kiều is a character with surprising agency and reserves of character: she shows at turns emotional sensitivity, filial piety, cleverness, and determination, without ever overcoming her fate. The sense that she’s far too smart to keep getting tripped up by these misfortunes reminds me in many ways of Odysseus, but unlike the Odyssey (what with being a nineteenth-century tale), Truyện Kiều is relentlessly a work of realism. I was kept interested and invested in the character for sure (definitely more than in her beloved; and in fact her return to the ineffectual and callow love of her youth seemed to me somewhat a step down from the fiery and ambitious warlord who had been her major love interest in the second half of the text), and the text feels well-constructed. I read in some part as a story rather than as a poem, but I appreciated its poetic mode.

I’m not sure if Truyện Kiều is a work well worth the reading for everyone. I approached it chiefly out of curiosity, and with a disposition to like it. I’m not sure I came out of it really understanding Vietnamese culture or poetic style more than I went in, but I enjoyed it, for its stately and proper approach to what was often a rather sordid tale, and for its well-drawn protagonist. The glossed Huỳnh text appears to actually be an excellent translation, and fortunately the most widely available one.

A House for Mr Biswas, by V.S. Naipul

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Certainly, earlier this year, when V.S. Naipul was getting a moderate amount of flack for saying horrible things about his female colleagues, I was reminded that I never had gotten around to actually reading any of his books, so I settled down with this one, albeit with the thought in mind that Naipul really didn’t like women very much.

Viewed with this preconception, it’s pretty easy to see Biswas as more than a little misogynistic. There is a very strong theme, from Mr Biswas’s marriage on, of Biswas’s persecution by more powerful women (mostly Mrs Tulsi) who despite their despotism are actually incompetent in managing their households. Shama’s character is presented less starkly, and I actually found her rather sympathetic (probably unintentionally, as Naipul seems to regard her as a loveless harridan).

Moving past the kinda distressing gender-presentation, it’s actually a pretty good experience-delivery system. Naipul’s prose is well-crafted, and he describes well a time and place alien to me: Trinidad, in the peculiar genteel poverty of a brahmin of little means. He expansively describes a spectrum of settings from remote villages to cities, and gives a good idea of the economic realities of privation punctuated by certain luxuries. As a character study I found it less appealing, since Biswas isn’t actually a terribly sympathetic character and feels more than a little bit like an unreliable narrator, prone both to overstating his own misfortunes and understating his own responsibility for them.

In all, Naipul wrote in a way I found easy to digest and quite absorbing, in spite of the fact that I was a little bit less than sold on the actual content of his writing. That speaks, I suppose, to his talent as a prose stylist.

See also: Wikipedia.

On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

I managed to miss most of the sci-fi series of the past few decades. I read Asimov’s series, and a lot of serial fantasy, but mostly missed out on recent serial sci-fi large series, although I’ve certainly heard of the Vorkosigan saga and the Honorverse and suchlike. But the Baen free library has some of the Honorverse books in it, so I finally got around to checking what the fuss is about.

It’s very much operations-and-logistics-oriented, and assumes a certain degree of familiarity with naval convention. I don’t know much about naval convention or naval history, but I get the impression that all the folderol about missile tracking ranges and impeller sidewalls is an attempt to make the ship-to-ship combat in this book resemble 18th or 19th century capital ship battles. The justifications used are reasonably solid if you buy into the particular technologies posited, and it steers clear, in spite of the naval metaphors, of most of the obvious flaws in quasi-nautical sci-fi space settings.

Plotwise it’s not deeply imaginative: our Fearless Heroine, set up to fail, turns the disadvantages of her situation into an opportunity, earns the respect of her subordinates, &c., but it does the job well enough and endears the cental character to the reader. The characters and situations are reasonably believable and it’s an entertaining enough page-turner.

I was vaguely reminded of Dan Brown’s bad habit of beginning each chapter with an occupational modifier before a name, since Weber dos that too. But it’s somewhat more natural in a military setting.

See also: Wikipedia, Baen Free Library.

Mr. Darcy’s Diary, by Amanda Grange

Ah, to be paid to write fanfic.

Jane Austen has experienced a resurgence of interest, and every possible mining of her intellectual property (particularly Pride and Prejudice and Emma, with occasional attempts to redeem Sense and Sensibility) seems to have been tried over the past few years. Thus one can achieve mdoest success by lifting the plot — and much of the dialogue — of Pride and Prejudice and changing the viewpoint character.

The best bits of this work were the ones copid verbatim from the original work, which is not wholly surprising. There’s not much new information, as such, in this book, and stylistically it’s nothing to write home about, but it was as good a way to kill time when I rad out of other books on a trip than anything else would be.

Oh, and one more quick note: more recently, Amanda Grange wrote Mr. Darcy, Vampyre. Trying to cater to every single trend simultaneously, are we?

The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells

This is surely Wells’ best-known work (followed, but not all that closely, by The Time Machine) and arguably one of the genre-defining works of modern sci-fi; particularly modern “hard” sci-fi. Edgar Rice Burroughs and suchlike folks would later carve out “soft” sci-fi, where the technological aspects play a secondary role to the story, but Wells took a more-than-passing interest in exposition, and the heavy hand of attempted scientific realism casn be felt here. There’s significant glorification of technology and wonder at the unverse (the latter albeit tempered by the sense of menace), all of which remains within the bounds of the understanding of science as it stood at the turn of the century. Some of that realism has been diminished by future contradiction of the contemporary state of knowledge, but for the most part the science has aged well. Stylistically it’s rather flat, but that appears to be by design, as if the work were meant to be a report (not unlike Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year).

See also: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg.