Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2004)

I am trying my hardest to understand why Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2004) is such a runaway bestseller, because I really did not like this book at all. And I love books!

I borrowed this one from my mother, who got it from my sister, who got it in a gift exchange at Christmas. Neither of them had read it yet, but I had heard so much about this and the other two books in Larsson's posthumously published Millennium series that I was interested to check them out. I think it is pretty fair to say that I will not be finishing the trilogy...

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo focuses on Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist in Stockholm, and co-publisher of an investigative magazine along with his best friend and (married) casual sex partner, Erika Berger. Blomkvist gets a tip on financial fraud being committed by the Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström from a friend who wants to remain an anonymous source. The first hundred or so pages of this 600 page book trudge us through the financial misdealings, Blomkvist's publication of an article on Wennerström, and his eventual trial and conviction for libel when his story falls apart.

The conviction does not bode well for Blomkvist's journalistic career or for the future of his magazine, so when he is contacted by another Swedish businessman, Henrik Vanger, about a mysterious opportunity, he decides to make a trip to an island up north to see what Vanger has to say.

Vanger is the patriarch of a corporation that has been a major business in Sweden for generations. The company is currently run by Vanger's nephew, since Vanger is getting older, but ownership of the company is divided between a couple dozen relatives who all have skeletons in their closets and who just can't get along. Vanger doesn't like many of the other Vangers, and part of his dislike stems from a day 34 years ago when his favorite niece Harriet, who was 16 at the time, disappeared from the island without a trace. Although no body was found, Vanger is convinced she was murdered by one of his relatives and he wants to pay Blomkvist a huge amount of money to research the case for a year and see what he can find. At the end of the year, Vanger also promises to give Blomkvist some dirt on Wennerström, who started his career with the Vanger corporation. Not having any other choice, Blomkvist agrees.

Oh, and that girl? With the tattoo? She is the anti-social and uncommunicative Lisbeth Salander -- an accomplished hacker and investigator with some serious emotional problems. She was hired to investigate Blomkvist by Vanger's lawyer in preparation for Vanger's offer of employment. Blomkvist eventually gets his hands on her report on him and is so impressed by her researching skills that he asks her to be his assistant in the disappearance of Harriet.

So, doesn't sound too bad, right? Why don't I like it? Here are some of my thoughts in bulleted list format:
  • The structure and narrative is a mess. Larsson wrote this book and the two sequels in his spare time (he was professionally a journalist). He submitted them to a publisher in 2004 and then unexpectedly died at the age of 50. This book reads like the editor was so moved by Larsson's death that he decided not to change a thing from the first draft.
  • The characters are flat and unappealing. You would think that in 600 pages we could start to feel something about Lisbeth or Mikael but I didn't understand (or care about) either of them any more at the end than I did at the beginning.
  • Larsson is weirdly specific about some things. This is nitpicky, but it bugged me: nothing was ever a laptop, it was a Mac PowerBook. And then he would give the model number. And the amount of RAM. And the hard drive size. He would mention a database program. Then mention who wrote it. That it was shareware. And then give the URL for the program! Again, the book seems unedited.
  • The writing, especially the dialogue, is not good. Possibly a translation problem? Still, it didn't work for me at all.
  • A scene in a corporate archives where our irritating tattooed pixie does some all night research and then leaves things in a mess for the archivist (who she calls a slut) did not make me happy.
  • The solution to the mystery is both dumb and unearned. And is then followed with another 100 pages about financial malfeasance and bank fraud.
And here is the big thing: Larsson's heavy-handed message about violence against women. The original Swedish title of this book is translated as Men who Hate Women and that is pretty appropriate since, as Alex Berenson points out in his review (which I largely agree with), "Except for Blomkvist, nearly every man in the book under age 70 is a violent misogynist." Add to that the fact that every woman under 70 in the book instantly wants to sleep with Blomkvist (and most of them follow up on that urge). Larsson is obviously anti-violence. This is made abundantly clear with the statistics about violence against women in Sweden that start off each section of the book. However the book itself is so black and white about its misogyny and so explicit in its scenes of violence (particularly sexual violence) against women, that it feels like Larsson is trying to have his cake and eat it too.

Have you read this book? Did you like it? I won't hold it against you if you did, because I am honestly baffled by my response to this book.

Monday, June 14, 2010


As an archivist, I get to use lots of fun tools: bone folders, microspatulas, um.... pencils? But the most fun of all is my brand new toy, the sling psychrometer!

First of all, the name "sling psychrometer" is immensely fun to say. Almost as fun as hygrothermograph.

Secondly, it is helpful in that it tells me the actual relative humidity in a room, allowing me to mentally calibrate my digital (and uncalibratable) temperature/humidity monitors and then be sad because the humidity is always too high in my storage area and there isn't anything I can do about it.

And thirdly, and most importantly, when using the sling psychrometer, you actually whirl it around in a very satisfying way. Just take a look at this video and watch some sports dude show you how to use this tool.

Sling Psychrometer!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Good Wives (or Little Women, Volume 2) by Louisa May Alcott (1869)

After the success of Little Women in 1868, Louisa May Alcott penned a companion volume in 1869 that is sometimes bound separately as Good Wives and sometimes (like in the case of my grandmother's copy of the book that I'm reading), bound together as a second part of the story.

I had read this part of the book once before, but not nearly as many times as I read the first part of the book. Maybe it is because I'm grown up now, but I liked the "young womanhood" part of the collection even more than the childhood part.

In Good Wives the oldest March sister, Meg, marries her fiance John Brooke and starts a family. Jo, the second daughter (and the one modeled after Alcott), refuses the hand of their cute and wealthy and nice next door neighbor Laurie who has loved her since childhood. She breaks his heart and he heads to Europe while she goes to New York City to work as a governess and work on her writing. The third daughter, Beth, stays close to home and is still a little sickly from her battle with scarlet fever, but is just as kind and thoughtful as ever. Little Amy, the artistic one, hits the jackpot as a companion to her wealthy aunt on a trip to Europe where she stretches her artistic wings.

Although each of the "Little Women" are moving further and further from their childhood home, they are still just as close with their mother and one another. Each is sometimes tempted and starts down the wrong path, but their solid character and good upbringing always bring them back to the good life. This book deals with more grown up difficulties, tragedies, and blessings, but the core of the characters is just the same as when Alcott laid their foundations in the first volume of the book. And I challenge anyone on earth to write a better betrothal scene than Alcott. She has two in this book that got me a little weepy they were so perfect.

There is still some moralizing in this book (it was written in the late 1800s after all), but nothing that a patient reader can't handle. And if you give it a little time, you are rewarded by passages like the following (which I'm going to quote at length, because I can). This is particularly revealing since Alcott herself never married:

"An old maid, that's what I'm to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps; when, like poor Johnson, I'm old, and can't enjoy it, solitary, and can't share it, independent, and don't need it. Well, I needn't be a sour saint nor a selfish sinner; and, I dare say, old maids are very comfortable when they get used to it; but—" and there Jo sighed, as if the prospect was not inviting.

It seldom is, at first, and thirty seems the end of all things to five-and-twenty. But it's not as bad as it looks, and one can get on quite happily if one has something in one's self to fall back upon. At twenty-five, girls begin to talk about being old maids, but secretly resolve that they never will be. At thirty they say nothing about it, but quietly accept the fact, and if sensible, console themselves by remembering that they have twenty more useful, happy years, in which they may be learning to grow old gracefully. Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God's sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason. And looking at them with compassion, not contempt, girls in their bloom should remember that they too may miss the blossom time. That rosy cheeks don't last forever, that silver threads will come in the bonnie brown hair, and that, by-and-by, kindness and respect will be as sweet as love and admiration now.

Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is the readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind, regardless of rank, age, or color. Just recollect the good aunts who have not only lectured and fussed, but nursed and petted, too often without thanks, the scrapes they have helped you out of, the tips they have given you from their small store, the stitches the patient old fingers have set for you, the steps the willing old feet have taken, and gratefully pay the dear old ladies the little attentions that women love to receive as long as they live. The bright-eyed girls are quick to see such traits, and will like you all the better for them, and if death, almost the only power that can part mother and son, should rob you of yours, you will be sure to find a tender welcome and maternal cherishing from some Aunt Priscilla, who has kept the warmest corner of her lonely old heart for 'the best nevvy in the world'.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010


In February 2008, I reported that I really wanted an Asus Eee netbook. And today, in June 2010, I am writing this post from my very own Asus Eee netbook. I still think the name is dumb, but the tinyness and funness are exactly as I anticpated. Netbooks!

It was still a stretch to my budget, but lets pretend that I have saved $8.00 a month for the past 29 months. That seems reasonable, right?

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Swiss Family Robinson (1812)

I recently finished reading The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann D. Wyss (1812) in 134 delightful serialized chunks delivered to me via e-mail by I had never read this classic novel as a child, and I figured it would work well in a serialized format.

As you might remember from the dozens of movies and television shows based on this plucky and ingenious Swiss Family, the book begins with our heroes (a mother, father, and four young boys) getting in a shipwreck on their way to Australia. Everyone else on the ship is lost, but the family eventually makes their way to an island that is bereft of human beings but conveniently filled with almost every plant and animal life the father and sons have ever read about in their natural history, engineering, history, and adventure reading.

The first half of the book is very procedural: how they built their first shelter, how they got food, how they built a better shelter, how they moved around the island, how they built an awesome shelter in a tree, how they built another awesome shelter in a grotto, how they cultivated food and livestock, and the list goes on and on. Liberally sprinkled around these lessons of survival and ingenuity are moral lessons on how to be a good man, how to treat your wife and family, and how to frequently bow down and thank the lord. The moral lessons get a bit trying, but this book was written in 1812 by a Swiss pastor, so I think we can let him have his morality.

In the second half of the book things suddenly get very exciting when, after returning from a two day trip exploring the unexplored parts of their island, the father and three of the sons come back home to find their canoe missing and the wife and youngest son taken from the island. They quickly give chase in their small boat, making it to another island and getting into quite a bit more trouble before their prayers are answered and (as you might expect) the family is reunited. The story of their reunion and the nice way things work out for the family's future on their island paradise is a satisfying and well earned ending to this enduring story.

Fun fact: The family is not actually named Robinson -- Robinson comes from Robinson Crusoe and the title lets us know that this is the Swiss family version of that famous castaway story.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Elysiana by Chris Knopf (2010)

My latest selection from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program is Elysiana (2010), a stand-alone novel from established suspense writer Chris Knopf.

Elysiana is a fictional barrier island off the coast of New Jersey. It is one mile wide, twenty-five miles long, and sees a huge population increase every summer when the tourists descend upon the elongated coast line. In the summer of 1969 a whole hoard of interesting characters find themselves on Elysiana, crossing paths with one another, working through painful pasts, and making up our story:
  • Gwen ends up on the island after coming down from a three day drug trip that started in Chicago and on the tail end of some major daddy issues.
  • Jack has lived on Elysiana for years, the only resident of a giant hotel built by his grandfather. He works as a lifeguard on the beach patrol and mostly lives inside his head, partly as a product of surviving a four year coma after a teenage accident.
  • Avery Volpe is the militaristic head of the beach patrol, and possibly the most powerful person on Elysiana in the summertime.
  • Norm Harlan is the city manager with ambitions to oust Volpe and the mayor. He also has a distractable wife and a precocious daughter named Sweetie who is constantly getting lost.
  • Sylvia Buente fails to kill herself when she is rescued by Mike Ditzler, one of the life guards with his own complicated life story, and who is now holed up in his apartment.
  • Petey Amato is a small-time crook and surfer who is pretty big-time on this little island.
And the list goes on and on and on. Add in an island-wide super party on the heels of the biggest storm in the century, and you have a recipe for lots of plots, sub-plots, romance, violence, and quirkiness.

The novel is solid overall, although with so many characters no single story line really draws the reader in. And with so much action, there isn't much time for characterization, which leaves some of these potentially very interesting people feeling rather thin. However, Knopf wrangles his sub-plots well and everything is tied together in a satisfying way, and with a very nice climax. This would be a nice summer read that wouldn't disappoint, as long as you didn't expect too much from it.