Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lisbeth Salander and My New Kindle Addiction

It's rare the books create social phenomena.  (Insert your own social commentary here.)  Over the last decade, it's happened only three-ish times.  One started in 2001 or so with Harry Potter, which became incredibly popular when phrases started getting thrown around like "my kids actually want to read now!".  Another happened in 2003 with The DaVinci Code--and, while it was a fun story and a well-done thriller, the only reason that Dan Brown's books became known to the mainstream at all was an overblown religious controversy.

And in the last few years of the 2000s, Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander books somehow accelerated themselves into the public consciousness.  It's surprising.  Harry Potter had the tween vote going for him, Robert Langdon was the darling of every media outlet in the world for a few months... and Salander?  The books about her are just good.  Yet they're all over the place--people not usually known for being voracious readers have read all three of the books in the series and love them.  Larsson has acquired piles of accolades in countries all over the globe.  And as recently as fall 2010--two full years after its US release--there were nearly one hundred people waiting for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo at the Berkeley Public Library.

By last August, I'd been told so adamantly by so many people to read these books that in a Netflix-esque move, I broke down and put the first one, Dragon Tattoo, on hold.  Four months later, I finally got my hands on it and read it over Christmas.  It didn't disappoint.  Larsson has a real talent for putting together intriguing, complex plots that are perpetually one step ahead of you as you read--so you can't help but keep reading more.  His books aren't page-turners in the classic thriller (Dan Brown) sense of spewing plot at a breakneck pace and organizing it into two-page chapters.

Instead, Larsson is so adept at bringing multiple characters and plots together that you keep reading just to see how it all shakes out.  Sometimes it's political conspiracy, sometimes it's cold-case forensics, sometimes it's gritty journalism... and Larsson's knack is putting it all together gracefully and (mostly) believably.

Dragon Tattoo turned out to be such a great read that I wanted to read the following books (The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest) as immediately as possible.  The prospect of another four-month penalty lap courtesy of the BPL wasn't looking so good, but fortunately I had a new friend in the Amazon Kindle.  This thing is magical and deadly.  It makes reading so damn convenient that you will want to take it everywhere and read.  Whether that's a good thing will depend entirely on how much free time you have and how many five-to-ten-dollar checks you're willing to offer in tribute to your new Amazon overlords.

Needless to say, I bought both Fire and Hornet's Nest immediately, but it took an embarrassingly long time to get through them both because things like "doing my job" reared their ugly head come January.  Now that I'm finally finished, I can say for sure that the entire trilogy is absolutely worth reading, though it does come with a couple of caveats.  A major theme in the trilogy is violence against women and society's role in preventing it (or at times condoning it), and to drive home his point, Larsson isn't afraid of including some graphic scenes of abuse and rape.  But we're all adults here, and given that those scenes actually serve a point (rather than being merely pornographic, like similar scenes included in many movies), they're easy enough to look past.

The other popular criticism of the series, and of Dragon Tattoo in particular, is that it's too fundamentally Swedish for an international audience to be able to enjoy it.  Characters make plenty of references to decades-old Swedish politicians, shop at Ikea and drive Volvos, and live on streets that have the character "å" in their names.  It's confusing and even a little off-putting at first, but the overwhelming Swedishness gives the books character.  And either Larsson or his editor had the grace to start adding footnotes to elucidate the more obscure references to those of us that live outside of Scandanavia.

Are these books "classics," Lisbeth Salander destined to become this generation's Tom Sawyer or Sherlock Holmes?  I've long ago given up the "classic" discussion, but one thing's for sure: the best chance that these books have of being read decades from now is Salander herself.  She's an incredibly complex character: reliable even though few people understand her at first, moving past "self-sufficient" into just "selfish," intensely good at what she does but downright poor at what almost everyone else can do.  Salander's competence to function as a normal adult is raised as an issue throughout the series.  The reason she's such a fascinating protagonist is that although most of the skepticism (and of course all of the abuse) directed towards her is downright wrong, Salander can't help but call her own competence into question.

Read Stieg Larsson's books for Lisbeth Salander; read them to feed a Kindle addiction of your own; read them just to get your friends off your back.  You won't be disappointed.

Currently listening: "Go Places," the New Pornographers

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