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Summer Reading: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Oh, stop your whining.  You won’t have to write a paper or anything.  (hmmm, maybe that’s only meaningful to the users here who have kids in school.)

Stieg Larsson, Swedish journalist turned thriller/mystery writer, created a fascinating character in the shape of a spritely, stinging, punk avenging angel named Lisbeth Salander.  He got off 3 books out of a proposed 10 in the Millenium series before he died of a massive coronary caused by years of heavy smoking, proving that nicotine truly is the most evil substance on the planet.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is the sophomore success to Larsson’s debut The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Run, do not walk to the nearest bookstore and buy the sucker.  If you haven’t read the first one, you’ll be doubly blessed this summer as you kick back on the beach with your SPF 50 and cooler full of beer.  We won’t see book three until some time in 2010 but there is plenty in these two books to chew on like Swedish granola.

The Millenium series revolves around two characters: Mikhail “Kalle” Blomqvist, investigative journalist exposing the nasty, sexist underbelly of Sweden’s cool exterior, and Lisbeth Salander, the twenty something computer hacker extraordinaire with the obsessively private personality.  Blomqvist and Salander’s last adventure has made her rich beyond her wildest imaginings and she disappears for 2 years to travel the world, while Blomqvist and his business partner and part time lover, Erika Berger, delve into the seemy depths of the sex trade.  When one of their contract investigative journalists working on the importation of sex slaves from the former eastern bloc countries is executed in his apartment, newly returned Lisbeth Salander becomes the prime suspect.  It’s Blomqvist’s task to put the missing pieces together to exonerate her without much help from the decidely unhelpful Salander as she goes on the run and communicates with him by hacking into his computer at night.

Larsson’s Millenium series is part mystery and part commentary on society’s uneasy relationship with women.  Mikhail Blomqvist is the ideal man- for both men and women.  He’s a Matt Taibbi type who has the suave and debonnair touch of a James Bond.  Women want to sleep with him because he respects them and treats them like adults.  In fact, maybe Larsson just wanted to suck in as many readers as possible but most of Blomqvist’s lovers are women in their forties, independent and with highly developed erotic personalities.  Jeez, it makes me want to move to Stockholm.  Salander represents a new generation of women who’s not partial to one sex or another.  She uses sex to get the little amount of intimacy she allows herself to experience.  But it is Larsson’s uncanny knack of getting into the heads of men and revealing what they really think about women that feels just about right.  His characters are not politically correct.  The sex trade gangs reduce their victims to a collection of human parts, police commissioners make no attempt to disguise their contempt for their female subordinates and Salander’s colleagues at the security company she works for cavalierly expose women’s private lives for money.

Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza would be right at home in Larsson’s world.  Several reviewers have remarked that the book loses momentum in the middle while the interested parties begin their investigation of the crime.  But those of us who are tuned into how the media works will immediately recognize that Larsson has laid out the anatomy of a media smear campaign, directed at a woman with few allies and all for the purpose of sensationalizing and money making.  The life of the character in question, her hopes and dreams and even the most sensitive details of her personal life are exposed to the world to the point where the media image is unrecognizable to the character herself.  Larsson shows that you don’t have to be a member of a sex trade gang to brutally dehumanize a woman.  It can be done with the flick of a pen.

Highly recommended.

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24 Responses

  1. I just realized that it’s been years since I read any works of fiction. I stopped about the time I needed bi-focals. I hate to admit it but I was a shameless bed reader.

    • Well, you are in luck! I didn’t read either of these books. Who has time to sit in one place for hours at a stretch?
      No, just download the suckers onto your iPod from audible or iTunes and away you go! An audible account is cheap. You can get two books a month for the price of a lunch at Fridays.
      No bifocals required.

  2. Interesting that you reviewed this… I saw a review in a magazine while I was traveling and put them both on my list. Can’t wait!

  3. One question before I buy (it might make a nice read for the 5 hour plane ride home)…will it depress or uplift me? Sometimes seeing the relevance of “society’s uneasy relationship with women” can be anger-inducing, but you seem quite taken with the storyline.

    • I can’t speak for this book, but in the first book of the series, the rat basta’ds all got their comeuppance and there were enough good guys to allow one to retain hope for humanity.

    • Start with the dragon tattoo. There’s a scene of divine retribution in it that will thrill the cockles of your heart, whatever those are.
      You’ll be shocked and cheering at the same time. You do NOT want to be Lisbeth Salander’s enemy. What she does is on behalf of all mistreated women.

      • great. Thanks.

        • Aren’t you supposed to be having fun right now?

        • Ah…we’re relaxing today (kids are still sleeping, hubby is fishing in the Merced River) and we’re going to Yosemite for the sundown experience.

          I have a post going up at around 2pm EST (11 am Pacific Time) with some pics from yesterday.

          • The river was named by early Spanish explorers. They tried touring the Central Valley during the summer and nearly died of thirst.

            They found the river and named it “El Rio de Nuestra Senora de la Merced” (The River of Our Lady of Mercy)

            Farther downstream (near Snelling) you can see the ecological damage remaining from gold dredging operations.

          • There was a rockslide blocking part of 140 on the way in (they built two bridges to go around it on the other side.) that was pretty cool to see.

  4. Hey RD,

    I read Larsson’s first book on your recommendation and loved it! So of course I’m going to rush out and read this one. It makes me so sad to hear that Larsson had originally planned to write 20 books for this series. I guess I’m just going to have to savor and be grateful for the three that he gave us.

  5. I had a really hard time getting into The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Set it down, picked it up, set it down, picked it up… but once I got past the tedious front story it was riveting and I couldn’t put it down. My husband loved it too after I bugged him until he read it. I’ve had The Girl Who Played With Fire on pre-order for months and it finally arrived this past week, but my husband got first dibs so I’ll have to wait till he’s finished with it.

  6. Over here his books have been awaited with practically as much anticipation as that of the Harry Potter books! He’s extremely popular.

    There’s also been made a haunting movie based on the first book, with the title “Men who hate Women” and the sequal is in the making.

    You’ll probably never see this version in the US, but more likely an American remake, but here’s a trailer – to get the feeling of the movie. The actors are Swedish and the subtitles are Danish, so you probably wont understand much, heh.


    • Hey Pips!

      I’d love to see the Swedish version of the movie–I’m hoping you’re wrong and that we get to see it here in the states. I recall that Larsson originally wanted to title the book “Men Who Hate Women,” so I’m glad that the movie kept his title.

      I love watching foreign movies and I consider myself something of a film buff. But I was scratching my head trying to think of any Danish movies I’d seen. And then I remembered “Babette’s Feast.” What a gorgeous movie! Please let me know about other must-see Danish movies. I imagine that at least some of them must make it across the Atlantic.

      • Stieg Larsson was trying to tell us something. In the Played With Fire book, one of the characters says of another that Salander has to face the final event on her own, without any outside help. It is her destiny. Salander is everywoman and when she meets her match, it is misogyny personified.
        I think the reason his books have struck such a chord is because he understood the issue of sexism about as well as any man can. He was like a big brother who was telling it like it is and urging us to kick ass.

        • I totally agree. And Larrson also managed to expose the connections, both subtle and overt, between sexism and predatory capitalism–financial fraud, the sex trade, etc.–as well as outright fascism. As such, his books make for perfect reading for Conflucians.

          I also agree with everything you had to say about Mikhail Blomkvist. One of the reasons I’m dying to see the Swedish movie is that, from the trailer, it seemed to me that the actors who portrayed Salander and Blomkvist were brilliantly cast.

      • Hi Inky!

        Yes I love Babettes Feast too! Did you know that the director, Gabriel Axel, wanted Catherine Deneuve to play Babette, but for some reason she wasn’t able to. I’m so happy the role went to Stéphane Audran. She’s just perfect!

        As for Danish movies? Well, there’s always the Worst Monster Movie Ever Made, “Reptilicus”, lol. It was a co-production between Denmark and the US, and was made in both Danish and English. The Danish actors appeared in both versions (with a hilarious English pronunciation!). It is so bad, that it has become a cult!

        But we’ve had some great movie-makers since. I’ll come back to you. 🙂

  7. riverdaughter, I’ve just finished reading The Girl with the Dragon Hair, can’t wait to read Played with Fire. Although I read everything you write as soon as I see it, this I’m going to save for after I get my hands on the book. Don’t want to take the edge off. Haven’t read anything this good since the Alan Furst pre-WW II espionage novels. http://www.alanfurst.net/

  8. Hey RiverDaugher:
    You’re a teacher? Learn the difference between ‘your’ and you’re, and try not to contaminate any little minds.

    • No, I’m a computational chemist. Your and you’re are common mistakes. I type too quickly and edit not at all.
      Of course, you could make a federal case over it but then we’d just think you were a grammar nazi and ignore you for being rude.

      • Riverdaughter has a “t” in in too.

        • Jeez, she only found one accidental mistake. I see about 15. Who has the time? I mean, I’m not Dana Milbank and getting paid the big bucks.

          • Lol!

            RD, maybe your (not you’re 😉 ) punctuation is lacking too? If so her’s a little help via my great, late compatriote Victor Borge:

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