Hornet’s Nest megahit megapost (with some catching up to do as well)

First, let’s deal with the US reception of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. (I can’t help but wonder if there was an editorial/marketing meeting about that apostrophe – or if it was simply misplaced and never questioned.)

As so often happens, the New York Times reviews the book twice. (There’s a different review editor and group of reviewers for the daily paper than for the Sunday Book Review.) While they are both positive, they are very different. Michiko Kakutani thinks the series has matured and improved with each volume.

“Hornet’s Nest” is the last novel in Larsson’s Millennium series that Larsson, the crusading Swedish journalist, completed before his sudden death from a heart attack at the age of 50 in 2004. It’s also a thoroughly gripping read that shows off the maturation of the author’s storytelling talents.

The trilogy’s first installment, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” depended solely on the irresistible odd-couple appeal of Salander and Blomkvist as a new age Nick and Nora; its plot devolved into a preposterous mashup of bad serial-killer movies. The second installment, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” attested to the author’s improved plotting abilities, moving backward into the past even as it accelerated toward a vicious and violent conclusion. Now, in “Hornet’s Nest,” Larsson effortlessly constructs an immensely complicated story line that owes less to the “Silence of the Lambs” horror genre than to something by John le Carré. . . .

The novels’ central appeal, however, remains Salander herself: a heroine who takes on a legal system and evil, cartoony villains with equal ferocity and resourcefulness; a damaged sprite of a girl who becomes a goth-attired avenging angel who can hack into any computer in the world and seemingly defeat any foe in hand-to-hand combat.The narratives of all three books are ultimately explorations of Salander’s past, and it is this past that explains the mysteries of her personality. For that matter, the page-turning suspense of these books has less to do with the pyrotechnics of Larsson’s often contrived plots than with the reader’s eagerness to understand how Salander came to be the way she is — why she is so leery of emotional commitment, why she has a deadly score to settle with her dreaded father, why she values survival above all else. . . .

At one point in “Hornet’s Nest,” a character observes: “when it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.” But while this seems to have been a concept that fascinated Larsson — the original Swedish title of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is “Men Who Hate Women” — these novels actually don’t have any didactic thesis to convey.

David Kamp, whose review is on the coveted front page of the Book Review, finds it didactic and thinks the first book better than the second, which he calls cartoonish. (I’m with Michiko on this one. I found the pacing much better in the second, the characters more developed, the situation more believable and less a mish-mash of locked-room mystery meets sexually depraved deviants. But each to one’s own.) Kamp feels the third works as well as the first and that in spite of preachy moments and too much coffee drinking, it all works very well in the end.

. . . there are plenty of the Larssonian hallmarks they have come to love: the rough justice meted out by Salander to her enemies; the strong, successful female characters, like Blomkvist’s lawyer sister, Annika ­Giannini, and Millennium’s editor in chief, Erika Berger; and the characters’ acutely Swedish, acutely relaxed attitude toward sex and sexuality. . . . Reading Stieg Larsson produces a kind of rush — rather like a strong cup of coffee.

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a lengthy article on the dispute over Larsson’s estate.  It reiterates the claim that Larsson had ten books planned and says they were to be his “pension fund.” It’s all very sad. But this bit also interested me:

Sonny Mehta, the publisher and editor in chief of Knopf, who bought the books for what he says now seems like a “very modest sum,” even worried that they might not catch on here. “I had nightmares that we would be the only country where the books didn’t work,” he says.

I didn’t think it would work either, not at the bestseller level. I assumed Americans, used to a diet of James Patterson Inc., wouldn’t have such a long attention span, quite frankly. I’m very pleased to find I was wrong.

Online, there’s an interactive feature on Larsson’s life and untimely death.

Last Sunday’s Op/Ed section also had an essay by Pat Ryan on Pippi and Salander.Both character share singular beginnings, an odd appearance, and “awesome skills.” Ryan writes,

An old colleague of Mr. Larsson’s has said they once talked about how certain characters from children’s books would manage and behave if they were older. Mr. Larsson especially liked the idea of a grown-up Pippi, a dysfunctional girl, probably with attention deficit disorder, who would have had a hard time finding a place in society but would nonetheless take a firm hand in directing her own destiny. That musing led to the creation of Lisbeth Salander, the central character in Mr. Larsson’s trilogy. . .

His fictional alter ego, Mikael Blomkvist, is a nod to another Lindgren character, the master detective Kalle Blomkvist. And the nameplate for Lisbeth’s new apartment reads “V. Kulla” — Pippi’s house was called Villa Villekulla. But don’t remind Lisbeth of her sunnier literary ancestor. “Somebody’d get a fat lip,” she says, “if they ever called me Pippi Longstocking.”

The Broad Street Review examines Salander as a feminist heroine and Steig Larsson as “currently the world’s most famous feminist author.” Marge Murray writes

What Ingmar Bergman did for Swedish private life— that is, expose its dark side— Larsson did for Swedish public life. His novels expose corruption and sexism in high places and provide a uniquely believable but heroic female figure to combat them. . . .

It is to Larsson’s credit that he created a heroic female figure— not a caricature, but a real three-dimensional creation. Lisbeth Salander, stranger than fiction, is a woman one can both empathize with and emulate.

Unlike other writers of crime fiction, Larsson overtly seeks to encourage feminist discourse and outrage. In effect Lisbeth is Larsson’s own version of a grown-up Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lingren’s unconventional, assertive and intuitive nine-year-old fictitious character. Where Pippi talks back to and makes fun of adults with alacrity, Lisbeth inflicts bodily harm on the private parts of her male tormentors.

Ellen Key, the Swedish social reformer and philosopher, has written that the emancipation of women was the greatest movement of the 19th Century. Larsson believed that the issue of women’s rights was not solved in that century. He contended that it is today’s biggest problem. His saga gives voice to the struggle of women in so-called emancipated nations like Sweden and, by association, the U.S. and the rest of the European Union. His novels may or may not change society. What can be said with certainty, however, is that Larsson is one hell of a read.

Richard Schickel reviews the book for the Los Angeles Times and isn’t very impressed with the literary quality of the books – he thinks Mankell, Nesbo, and Fossum all superior – and he puts the trilogy’s success down to – who else? – the Girl of the title.

I think Salander represents something new and unique in this genre. She’s a tiny bundle of post-modernist tropes, beginning with her computer skills. I know there are other crime novels featuring similarly gifted people — though I can’t tell from the examples Larsson gives whether her talent is genuine or pure nonsense. But that’s not important; the point is that she has an enviable mastery of a technology that is bound to impress Larsson’s gawking readership.

But that’s only the beginning of her singularity. She does not, for example, use her computer solely for crime-solving. She has also hacked her way into a multimillion-dollar fortune, which she keeps offshore and mainly uses for selfish purposes — like breast enhancement. She dresses badly, refuses to speak when authority figures — psychiatrists, cops — question her about her activities and, despite her tiny size, she is a martial-arts expert and deadly with guns. She’s also bisexual.

Simply put, Salander is a deeply radicalized feminist, portrayed in a manner designed to test the sympathies of a largely liberal-minded audience, the attention of which is diverted by the blur of his books’ nonstop action. Implicitly, Larsson asks us whether the understanding we normally, casually extend to the principles Salander acts upon can also extend to a character who so heedlessly exemplifies them. . . .

On the other hand, this irony keeps straying into one’s mind: In her vengeful, anti-establishment anger and propensity to violence, Lisbeth Salander is — that’s right — a perfect tea party heroine, a minor, accidental avatar of our scary new political climate. One is free to imagine her decent-minded creator shuddering in his grave at this unintended consequence of his venture into sub-literature.

I wish two things about this review: one, that he did not use the phrase “sub-literature,” particularly after praising other crime fiction authors. Second, that if he was going to accuse readers of being so indiscriminate in their understanding of the political and social issues in the book, that he did more than assume it is on the bestseller list because a) readers are too ignorant to understand the feminist subtext and b) the feminism of the books is overwhelmed by a strong heroine’s inherent anti-intellectual fascist tendencies. The more I think about it, the more infuriating I find this review.

(I’d like pause a moment to propose a maxim for reviewers: say what you honestly think about a book, but please, don’t insult its readers. You’re reviewing a BOOK for god’s sake, not evaluating the intelligence of those who enjoy it. That’s just a cheap way to show off. And a suggestion for review editors – don’t give a book to reviewers who despise the genre it’s in. That’s all – thank you.)

A reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle thinks this is the weakest of the three books and found it slow, “droll” (I suspect the writer meant “dull”) and hard to follow. USA Today also finds it not pacey enough and predicts fans will be disappointed.

But though a reviewer for the Herald in Madison County, Mississippi, thinks it could be pacier, he (or she) is willing to slow down, knowing it’s the last, feeling the same pangs as when reading the final installment in the Harry Potter series. “I’m really going to miss Stieg Larsson and his brave band of heroes, just like I miss Harry, Ron and Hermione. Reads like these don’t come around often enough. Savor the prose; cherish the characters.”

And if the US covers have left you scratching your head, Karen Meek has unearthed this explanation from Knopf. I love hearing from designers about their thought process.

Peter [Mendelsund, who has his own blog] chose to use a more abstract, but bold, image.

Knopf’s twist was achieved with the subtle interaction of the Trade Gothic type and a great piece of art in yellow and orange Day-Glo inks. Add a dash of cyan (shades of colors in the blue/green spectrum) to create the green dragon lurking in the background and a tablespoon of black for the title, flap copy, and Stieg’s photo, and voilà!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s jacket colors create an unconscious sense of danger, flashing a warning to readers to proceed with caution, as they may find this story dangerous, seductive, and gripping. Once it has you, there is no exit, no U-turn. The use of the dragon imagery on the jacket might seem incongruous with we know of Sweden, but the dragon cues us to the underlying differences between what we know and the author wants to show us. Larson’s Sweden is not place just filled with coffee shops, cold vistas, and IKEAs. It is a place where women and children are victims of powerful men and the system punishes those who are different or who deviant from the norm. Salander’s tattoo is as jarring as she is within the context of the pseudo-sanitized Swedish setting. The combination of the dragon’s symbolism and the flashy garishness of the neon colors clue us into the dark and spiraling adventure of Larsson’s thriller.

In other news . . .

Powell’s is having a sale on Scandinavian crime fiction.

Maxine offers her third installment on her response to the Swedish Book Review’s special issue on  crime fiction.

Glenn Harper reviews Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing and wishes it lived up to the promise of its opening chapters.

Caite reviews The Indian Bride by Karin Fossum, giving it a thorough analysis and finding it both challenging and rewarding.

Cinema Cafe goes to the source before viewing the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – and is impressed, finding it absorbing and complex and addictive – “like crack on paper.” (I thought that was acid . . . )

Shannon Schwantes reviews the Italian film version of Karin Fossum’s novel Don’t Look Back. It has been retitled The Girl by the Lake (La Ragazza del lago) and the action has shifted to Italy. Since we’re reading this book in my first term seminar next fall, I’m hoping to get a copy of this film; it would be interesting to compare versions.

Spinetingler thinks Jo Nesbo’s The Devil’s Star has a complex plot worthy of its complex hero – and is well-written to boot.

The Weekend Argus (South Africa) has a Reuters story that start out on a snarky note – “Take a fictional female detective who inspects crime scenes in the morning, interrogates her suspects at noon and picks up her three-year-old at daycare after work. Now call it Nordic noir and await the accolades” – but then describes it as “starkly detailed, tightly plotted, often interwoven with social themes” – quoting Jo Nesbo and Jan Guillou on the impact Mankell and Stieg Larsson have had on foreign interest in Scandinavian crime. It sounds as if a criticism of the “femikrimi” that Dorte writes about got grafted onto another story.

And last, but far from least, this excellent article: Nordic Noir has a lengthy and fascinating post on Swedish neutrality during World War II, the neo-Nazi movement, and the uneasy relationship Swedes have with the past. (This is certainly also the case with Norway, which was occupied.) She proposes a thought-provoking and valuable theory:

. . . perhaps one can argue that Swedish noir gains life in part because of a vague, disturbing sense that truly terrible secrets lie just below the surface of everyday, prosperous life.  It’s enough for any sleuth (whether a detective, reporter or fiction writer) to ponder at length.  One wonders if the very hiddenness of it constitutes its own kind of collaboration—and wonders, as well, how it actually affects Swedish culture.  For in the case of Nazism in Sweden, it’s harder to always characterize evil as ‘over there’ in Germany—it’s homegrown, and not yet fully accounted for.

One reason I find this so compelling is that it takes Bill Ott’s idea that post-cold-war immigration has played a role in the rise of crime fiction in Scandinavia and situates it in modern history, linking a past that is hidden with a present that is revealing tensions that could be ignored in a less multicultural society.

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6 thoughts on “Hornet’s Nest megahit megapost (with some catching up to do as well)

  1. Great, meaty post, thank you. (And for picking up that apostrophe!). The Woman from Bratislava by Leif Davidsen is another good example of the Nazi occupation/guilt reverberations, this time Denmark. And Jo Nesbo attacked this theme for Norway in one of his novels that was in the “trilogy within the series” published out of order – I think it was Redbreast. Interesting how Nazi guilt is still a preoccupying factor even today. I suppose it will pop up in one of the Iceland books next! (Indridason did addess the cold war and communist Eastern Europe in The Draining Lake, very successfully I think).

    I totally agree with you about reviews, btw. A reviewer does not have to like a book, but he/she should not have the preconceptions of despising a genre or its readers. I defy any reviewer to have a day job like mine and live on a diet of superintelligent, philosophical, literary, tome-like highbrow volumes. My brain needs something relaxing at the end of a hard day!

  2. This is by far the most worthwhile article I found awaiting me among the 447 items in my Google Reader this cold wintry morning (and that includes all the stuff from the ‘proper’ media too). Thank you.

    The thoughts of the designer of the US covers of the ‘Girl’ books reminded me of when the organisation I worked for spent a gagillion (or so) dollars on a new logo that looked to us all like a black square with two yellow lines cutting across it diagonally but to the designers signified something that took two and a half pages to explain. I’m afraid I still like ours better but then I’m a simple soul 🙂

  3. Thanks for this great post, Barbara. I am one of those who loved the first book and didn’t really like the second one — to the point where I thought I would skip the Hornet’s nest (that apostrophe is gonna bug me!). But now I’ve changed my mind — I do want to see how this trilogy ends. Mind-boggling to think he had 10 books planned out.

  4. Don’t get me on logos! The stories I could tell (not dissimilar to Bernadette’s). The new Waterstone’s logo is another case in point – it is sort of OK but not as nice as the perfectly serviceable and elegant old one — and I wonder how much it cost them and how much of those costs could have been put into a direct service to book buyers (ie their core customers, who probably are not the kind of people likely to be swayed one way or the other by the shop’s logo).

  5. Inside story on that apostrophe: Knopf says it’s more common American style to have a nest of a single hornet. Also: Amazon UK had it that way until I revised it with an email complaint to Hornets’…

  6. And will everybody please lay off about the coffee drinking? Sweden is statistically the #1 per capita consumer of coffee in the world, and they like it strong. Even Pippi Longstocking drank coffee, though the 1940s UK translator changed it to tea. (Revision has duly been made by Tiina Nunnally in her new translation for Penguin, along with upgrading Pippi’s sea captain father from a “cannibal king.”) I love Swedish coffee, they really know how to make it. Let’s hear it for meaty reviews and blogs.

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