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.


The Cat Who Sang for the Birds, by Lillian Jackson Braun

I know Lillian Jackson Braun wrote a bunch of these, but beyond that I don’t know much about the franchise, but this one was on the library’s bookswap spinner, so I grabbed it. I’m not much of a mystery reader, but I get the impression they’re generally a bit more, ah, investigative. Qwilleran is awfully complacent, even for an armchair detective. In fact, one thing that struck me about this book is its oddly rose-colored view of isolated communities. Moose County is a ridiculously idyllic place with a highly educated and sophisticated populace, fine arts, fine dining, and comfortably middle-class demographics. There are resort communities somewhat like this, but I get the impression there’s something of a constant tension between the residents-of-leisure and the folks who provide services to them, which is really not how Moose County is described. The entire setting felt so artificial as to distract me from the narrative, which is kinda fine, since the narrative is one of those comfortably non-illusion-destroying ones where everyone who is initially presented as unpleasant is guilty of something, and everyone who is initially presented as decent in fact is. In other words, not much to chew on here. The eponymous cat gets to display a fair amount of random intuition which I guess is a signature element of the series but seems completely irrelevant.

See also: Wikipedia