Friday, February 17, 2012

The Tattooed Girl by Dan Burstein, Arne de Keijzer and John-Henri Holmberg

Love it or hate it, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series has a ubiquitous presence not only in pop culture but also in political theory, feminist theory and Swedish tourism, as illustrated by The Tattooed Girl: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of Our Time. Complied by Dan Burstein, Arne de Keijzer and Larsson’s friend and colleague John-Henri Holmberg, this ought to be required reading for fans of the series, as it not only provides trivia behind the publication and translation of the three novels; it also explores in depth the social and political context in which they were written.

Made up of essays and critical evaluations, the book is divided into four parts: “The Man Who Conquered the World,” about Larsson himself; “The Climate is Cold, the Nights are Long, the Liquor is Hard and the Curtains are Drawn,” which is about the history of Scandinavian crime noir and its integration into Western markets; “How Stig Became Stieg: An Intimate Portrait,” which details significant events of Larsson’s life, including his changing his name; and “The Millennium Files,” which summarizes various themes and motifs within the series and concludes the book with a timeline of Larsson’s life and career. The many contributing authors are journalists, feminists, book critics, editors, interviewers, and close friends of Larsson, covering a wide range of contextual material within scholarly and philosophical treatises.

Several essays reveal Larsson’s lifelong love of science fiction, and one provides summaries of his earlier writings: short stories published in sci-fi magazines long before the Millennium trilogy came into being. Many essays contain polarizing views, such as those providing both praise and criticism for the feminist sensibilities of Larsson’s work. One essayist analyzes the translated versions from Swedish to English, which leave out key passages and thereby shortchange a large part of the fan base. Still others assess the portrayal of the infamous Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film adaptations, and contemplate what her popularity among readers bodes for a future of strong female characters.

Larsson himself is consistently portrayed as a deeply committed and socially conscious journalist dedicated to exposing corruption and fighting injustice at the risk of his life, as he was often a target of Neo-Nazis and other extremist groups. Firsthand accounts of his vivacious personality and passion for social justice reveal the elements of his belief system and political leanings that were integrated into his written work.

In short, fans of Lisbeth Salander should not miss this one, for they have only skimmed the surface of an endlessly multifaceted series that is both aesthetically and socially relevant. Also recommended is the fan blog based on the book, which provides the latest information on the upcoming films, and other such updates:

Monday, February 13, 2012

Confessions of a Privileged Arab-American Woman

Here's a sample from The Tattooed Girl (which you may or may not have already read) about Fadime Sahindal, whose death Stieg Larsson wrote about in his essays on violence against women:
On January 21, 2002, twenty-six-year-old Fadime Sahindal was shot to death by her father in Uppsala. She had left her Kurdish family after refusing to submit to their views on morality. Se had become a public figure after giving a speech to the Swedish Parliament about the plight of young women in many immigrant families. Her father said that she had dishonored her family by openly criticizing its morality and flaunting her independence, leaving him no choice but to kill her. Her murder was also a reminder of the 1999 killing of nineteen-year-old Pela Atroshi by two of her uncles.
Every now and then a news headline about the appalling treatment of women and girls in the Middle East catches my eye. They often involve honor killings, child marriage, women being forced to marry their rapists, women being publicly flogged or beheaded on suspicion of witchcraft; the list is endless. Besides making me sad and angry, stories such as those often make me ashamed of my Arab heritage.

Sometimes I wonder, how can I be proud of my origins while such things are happening in that part of the world? Who wants to claim an identity that’s long been associated with such savagery? Eventually I came to think that maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Instead of being ashamed of my origins, perhaps I should be counting my blessings.

Compared to many other Arab women, I live a pretty privileged life. By assembling a list of said privileges, I hope to learn how to consider myself lucky, rather than be wholly frustrated with such injustices.

I am

…allowed to vote

…allowed to drive

…free to pursue an education

…free to pursue an education in the field of my choosing

…free to choose my own significant other without fear of being subject to an honor killing by my father, uncle or brother

…not expected to marry young, serve a man and bear sons for him

I can

…go out in public without being supervised by a male member of my family

…live on my own, without the help of a man, and not be branded a prostitute

…buy and wear the clothes I want

If I were raped:

I would not be obligated to marry the man

I would not be reprimanded for bringing shame upon the family

I would be given medical aid for my physical and mental state

Needless to say I have much to be grateful for. Obviously, since I live in America, I have no control over what goes on in the Middle East, and how women are treated there. I can write about it, I can spread awareness, I can donate money in an attempt to make it all better; but ultimately the best thing I can do is take pride in what I am and not take my privileges for granted, even while I struggle with a mixed sense of pride and scorn for Arab culture.

As we all know, Lisbeth herself is not the activist type. She's not likely to bother herself with the treatment of other women unless she's personally confronted with it. She focuses on herself, on surviving the life that she lives, and in doing so embodies the strength and independence associated with feminism. She becomes fabulously wealthy and isn't afraid to indulge and invest in her own well-being, hence the tropical vacations and the swanky apartment she buys. Certainly she's not so personally consumed with the injustices in the world that she lets it affect the way she lives her life. I, on the other hand, tend to obsess over the injustices in the world and end up neglecting myself and what's going on in my own backyard.

If you make it a priority to be aware of human rights violations on a global scale, my advice is this: don’t be so consumed with righting wrongs that you lose sight of your own life and neglect to take stock of your privileges. Balance your sense of justice with a sense of self, and realize that appreciation for what you have is more constructive than any righteous fury you may feel.

Review: There Are Things I Want You to Know About Stieg Larsson and Me

Being one of the millions of readers fervently hoping for a fourth installment of the Millennium series, naturally I took to this memoir for a few answers. Written by the widow of novelist Stieg Larsson—the man behind the notorious Girl With the Dragon TattooThere Are Things I Want You to Know about Stieg Larsson and Me by Eva Gabrielsson is more than the inside story of one of biggest names in crime fiction; it’s a love story of epic proportions; a compelling, intimate portrait of two soul mates with a shared world vision and commitment to fighting for human rights.

The book chronicles Stieg and Eva’s respective childhoods, and how they rose from humble beginnings, met at a political rally in their late teens, and for the next thirty-two years, would be life partners and collaborators; a politically-charged, socially conscious couple and a force to be reckoned with. Stieg incorporated many aspects of his life into his novels, which Eva contributed to. They worked together on their political magazine, Expo, and when Stieg began receiving death threats from ultra-nationalist groups for his writings, the couple took measures to protect themselves, which included avoiding being seen together in public and abstaining from marriage and other such institutions that would legally bind them together.

Details of Stieg’s upbringing provide much enlightenment on the man behind the Millennium trilogy: how he was rejected as an infant by his parents and raised in by his country-dwelling grandparents; and how the traditional values of this older generation shaped his own worldviews. Following Stieg’s death, Gabrielsson would bear the brunt of the bad blood between him and his family, as his father and brother greedily bid to claim his estate and intellectual property and deprive his livelong companion of her share.

Gabrielsson writes with great candor as well as affection for the man she loved for most of her life. Throughout their fights and their estrangements, and despite Stieg’s workaholic tendencies, their bond always endured. She reveals their mutual love of science fiction, their passion for sailing, the locations they travelled together that are featured in his novels, and the dialogue between them that Stieg used for his characters. Through use of examples, Gabrielsson leaves no doubt that she was a significant contributor as well as supporter of Stieg’s literary ambitions.

Fans of the Millennium trilogy will find more than what they’re looking for with this book. More than just a tell-all or an exposé, There Are Things I Want You to Know is a deeply moving homage to a dedicated journalist, activist and remarkable storyteller. With so many falsities being published these days by those wanting to capitalize on his success, Gabrielsson’s account has an authentic and heartfelt quality, and is the one fans should be picking up.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What Would Lisbeth Do?

Ankle boots may make a larger comeback than expected this fall—or at the very least, a more meaningful one.

Hundreds of walkers, including men, will soon sport women’s footwear at the YWCA’s annual “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” event on Thursday, Oct. 20 to raise awareness about domestic violence against women.

“This event shows what it means to be a woman,” said Heather Finlay, CEO of the San Diego County YWCA. “We are not going to put a stop to domestic violence with just women; we need help from men, society and the community. Everybody needs to take a lead role in ending violence against women, and this is something that actually works.”

The annual event—a fundraiser for the YWCA of San Diego County—asks participants to wear women’s shoes while walking one mile in downtown San Diego to raise awareness about the issue while fundraising for the nonprofit’s programs.

“It’s really a community event,” said YWCA’s Development Manager Carol Ann Chambers, who has worked with the nonprofit for five years. “It’s a nice way for us to engage our men because it’s not just a women’s issue, it’s a community issue.”

Read the rest of the article here:

It's certainly no secret that the Millennium series has been praised for its portrayal and condemnation of violence against women, and for its feminist vigiliante character who has taken the world by storm. Our very own Lisbeth Salander has become quite the topic of discussion and debate among scholars, essayists, feminists and the like.

While she is often considered a feminist character, the general consensus (which includes the girl with the dragon tattoo herself, Noomi Rapace) is that she is not a role model.

For one, who can picture Lisbeth taking part in something like this? A walk against domestic violence? I can just hear her saying, "Pssh. What will that do?" Clearly our Lisbeth prefers wielding a Molotov cocktail and/or a tattoo gun in order to enforce her own, not-so-legal form of justice. While it can be argued that her situations and her justifiable mistrust of the law call for such drastic action, clearly this is not recommendable behavior. If any of use were to do half the things she does, we'd be looking at some lengthy prison sentences.

While we may see such demonstrations against domestic violence as important and useful, how would it look for someone like Lisbeth? For her, domestic violence is not merely a cause or an idea: it hits close to home. In her mind, what does standing in solidarity accomplish? Nothing. A walk for domestic violence certainly didn't stop her father from beating her mother. Setting him on fire, on the other hand, did.

In any case, Lisbeth is not the activist type, nor is she an idealist. She's a survivor. While she does inspire readers the world over, clearly it has never been her intention to do so. While "What Would Lisbeth Do?" is certainly a catchy slogan for merchandise items, clearly it's not to be taken literally.

Cafe Press, you are amazing.

I myself am certainly in favor of such events that spread awareness. I would gladly take part in this event if I could. I believe there are many different ways to be a feminist, and taking part in demonstrations is one of them. Hacking into computers, wielding a Taser and subjecting wrongdoers to torture are Lisbeth's methods - and are much easier to get away with in the fictional world.

By all means, let's admire Lisbeth and cheer her on, but imitating her behavior is probably not a good idea. Let's embrace our feminist identity and tap into the Lisbeth Salander in all of us - but while we're at it, let's keep it safe and legal.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series comes full circle with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, in which our cunning and resilient heroine has her day in court and ceases to suffer in silence. This sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire provides cathartic resolution for both readers and for the character Lisbeth Salander, as all the injustices committed against her from an early age are brought to light in the courtroom.

The “hornet’s nest” refers to the corrupt government branch that worked with Lisbeth’s sociopathic father and targeted her as a witness to his crimes. The branch’s officials do indeed become a swarm of angry hornets, fighting back with sabotage of the trial and attempted assassination, and thus begins a test of loyalty for the ones fighting for Lisbeth: journalist Mikael Blomkvist; his sister Annika Giannini, who becomes Lisbeth’s lawyer; her former employer, Dragan Armansky; and her former guardian and father figure, Holmer Palmgren.

In this volume, Lisbeth—an antisocial, self-serving and fiercely independent woman—grows and matures as she learns to trust her lawyer and others fighting for her cause. She gains some level of introspection and social conscience as she sticks her neck out for others in a way she hasn’t done before. This is a considerable milestone for her character, and readers who have become attached to her will surely follow this maturation process with some relief that she is slowly evolving from a sullen, socially awkward loner into a more responsible citizen.

This novel has previously been criticized for one too many subplots and an overtly convoluted and long-winded plot, but personally I thought it all came together exceptionally well. Larsson cares enough for his characters to tell their individual stories, regardless of whether the details of their lives are integral to the plot, and I believe that’s to be admired. He’s also not afraid to challenge his readers, and he keeps the pages turning with sharp dialogue, unexpected twists and the suspense surrounding Lisbeth’s eventual fate.

One way in which the book’s end is not satisfying is that Lisbeth continues to be an intriguing character, one that readers will want to continue to follow through further trials and tribulations. One gets the sense that her story is not over, that her life will continue once the pages have turned and the book is closed. Larsson has done an impressive thing in creating such a vivid character, one that has resonated with readers the world over. I believe she’s going to live on, one way or another.

I can’t help wondering how many Lisbeths we’ll see on Halloween this year.

Review: The Girl Who Played with Fire

It was quite a pleasure to get re-acquainted with my beloved Lisbeth Salander in The Girl Who Played With Fire, which far exceeds The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in pulse-pounding suspense, page-turning intrigue and absorbing character study. Ever the social activist, author Stieg Larsson also provides a good share of social commentary on the sex trafficking trade, which is an integral part of the novel’s plot.

The staff of Mikael Blomkvist’s political magazine, Millennium, plans an exposé on the underground trade of sex trafficking, which will reveal a number of inside jobs involving corrupt authority figures, such as policemen and detectives. When the two primary journalists working on the project are found shot to death in their home, Lisbeth’s fingerprints are found on the murder weapon, and she becomes the prime suspect. Throughout the journey to prove her innocence, both Lisbeth and Blomkvist track down and interrogate a number of men that the story had sought to expose, and Lisbeth’s search for truth and exoneration leads her to a larger conspiracy in which she confronts the demons of her past.

The Girl Who Played With Fire provides more insight on the enigma that is Lisbeth’s character than the previous book did, with details of her harrowing upbringing adding dimension to her antisocial personality and trust issues with authority, as well as her motives for taking the law into her own hands. In this volume she reprises her role as a vigilante, tracking down men guilty of sex crimes and subjecting them to physical and psychological torture until they admit to their wrongdoings and provide her with answers. It is later revealed that this drive to avenge abused women stems from Lisbeth’s devotion to her mother, who she witnessed being abused at a young age. Indeed, though Lisbeth’s endeavors are illegal, and some might say immoral, she remains a sympathetic and relatable character, and the most captivating heroine I have come across in recent memory.

However, as within the first installment, Larsson fails to provide depth and dimension to Blomkvist’s character, whose actions are meant to move the story along rather than to develop his personality. This means of plot advancement is nonetheless successful, as the suspense builds up with every bold leap he takes in his self-appointed mission to clear Lisbeth’s name. One notable improvement is his development is that, this time around, his overriding drive to uncover the culprit has tangible motives, as he is in Lisbeth’s debt for saving his life in the previous novel; plus he is determined to avenge his murdered friends.

The novel also introduces an interesting cast of cops and detectives who face the challenge of tracking down the elusive Lisbeth. Among these is the veteran policeman Officer Bublanski, who is initially convinced of Lisbeth’s guilt but then realizes that the case is larger and more complex than previously thought, as he is torn between what he’s told and what to believe.

Although The Girl Who Played With Fire is categorized as a murder mystery, the struggles of these characters are internal and at once profoundly human, and it is Lisbeth’s personal journey that is even more riveting than her external mission to right the wrongs committed against her. Once again, Lisbeth shines as the integral driving force that provides a deeper human element to the twists and turns of Larsson’s narration.

Whether you’re a thrill-seeker looking for a fun read or a reader that analyzes characters and deeper themes, I can’t recommend The Girl Who Played With Fire highly enough. You’ll find that it delivers above and beyond your expectations.

Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

It took a couple years on the international bestseller list, as well as an acclaimed series of Swedish film adaptations, before the Millennium trilogy caught my eye. Normally I’m one to steer clear of the mainstream, so popular crime/action novels have rarely caught my eye. However, in this case, you can believe the hype. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the full package: an absorbing, action-packed murder mystery with all the suspense and psychological intrigue of a Hitchcock film, as well as engaging characters and a heaping helping of social commentary; particularly on violence against women, which author Stieg Larsson declared was the central theme of the series.

Henrik Vanger is an elderly billionaire, as well as the patriarch of a dysfunctional family, who has been haunted for almost forty years by the disappearance of his great-niece, Harriet. Though detectives have long since abandoned the case, Vanger employs Michael Blomkvist, a famous journalist, to solve the mystery through extensive research of archived police reports, articles and photographs. In his investigation, Blomkvist uncovers deadly family secrets and conspiracies traced back through generations of corrupt heirs to the family fortune.

Blomkvist enlists the help of Lisbeth Salander, a pierced and tattooed delinquent in her mid-twenties, who is living under legal guardianship due to being declared insane and thereby “legally incompetent.” However, Lisbeth is disarmingly intelligent and cunning, a skilled hacker and an expert at digging up confidential information. She’s an endlessly fascinating character made up of contradictions: strong yet vulnerable, proud yet insecure, antisocial yet displaying a sense of camaraderie with abused women. Although the book has plenty of merits, it’s Lisbeth that moves the story along and adds a significant human element to the mysteries and plot twists.

It’s through Lisbeth that Larsson effectively presents his criticism of the Swedish Guardianship Agency, which Lisbeth lives under the mercy of due to her psychological profile. Her guardian controls all her legal powers, including her bank accounts, and predictably, he abuses this power and sexually assaults Lisbeth. Furthermore, Larsson inserts facts and statistics on violence against women at the beginning of each divided section of the book. For example, Part I begins with “Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.” Lisbeth represents the millions of women who fall through the cracks in the justice system every day. She’s been abused by men all her life and has developed some severe trust issues with authority. On principle, she never seeks help from police, opting instead to take matters into her own hands—in her own, not-quite-legal way.

Michael Blomkvist, on the other hand, is not quite a likeable character, nor is he nearly as engaging. He’s divorced because of his infidelity, and is a neglectful father; other than that, he is the static Everyman, almost a stock character. Larsson does succeed, however, in making all his characters humanly flawed and thereby believable. Never does he shy away from Blomkvist’s flaws or go out of his way to make him likeable. I would imagine he neglected Blomkvist’s development in favor of Lisbeth, for she’s the star of the series. It is Blomkvist’s investigative journey through layers of mystery and corruption that is more intriguing than the character himself; therefore one might say the novel alternates between being plot-driven and character-driven, though it does provide a substantial amount of both.

The Vanger family is a morbidly fascinating lot: manipulative, bigoted, misogynistic, narcissistic—in short, they’re better than reality TV. Even Henrik Vanger himself, a reasonably benevolent man, reveals his manipulative side, though it’s more often used for good than for evil. The Vanger lineage contains several lifetimes’ worth of financial conspiracies and histories of abuse, and some of the more interesting characters are the few (fairly) sane members of the family who survive their upbringings relatively unscathed.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the most satisfying book I’ve read in a while. For the most part, it successfully combines action and mystery with character study, and the writing style flows in a way that makes it compulsively readable. I could barely put this book down until I finished it, all the while thinking, “What’s going to happen next?” This is a novel that keeps you guessing until the end, seizing your attention and holding it until the ride is over. If you’re looking for a book that will leave you breathless, as well as characters that remain with you long after the book is closed, take this one off the shelf and clear your schedule.