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“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” features a middle-aged investigative journalist and a youthful computer hacker struggling with personal demons. It is the first book of a Scandinavian crime fiction trilogy by Stieg Larsson. He died four years ago, before seeing his novels rise to the top of best-seller lists around the world. Diane invites listeners to join her and a panel for this month’s Readers’ Review.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. For this month's Readers' Review, the first volume of the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson's crime novel trilogy "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." The book introduces Mikael Blomkvist, that's a hard name to pronounce, a middle-aged muckraking journalist and Lisbeth Salander. She's an asocial, but extremely intelligent young computer hacker. Together they expose a complicated international financial fraud and the evil past of a wealthy Swedish family.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio, Deirdre Donahue, she's book critic for USA Today, welcome back, Deirdre.
MS. DEIRDRE DONAHUEThank you, Diane.
REHMAlways good to see you. Anna Stenport, she's director of the Scandinavian Program at the University of Illinois. Good morning, Anna, thanks for being here.
MS. ANNA WESTERSTAHL STENPORTWonderful to be here.
REHMThank you. And Edward Kastenmeier, he's vice president and executive editor of Vintage/Anchor Books. Good morning and welcome.
MR. EDWARD KASTENMEIERGood morning, thank you.
REHMSo good to have you all here. This has been quite an adventure in reading and for those of you who have read the book, I hope you'll join us with your questions, comments. For those of you who have not yet been one of the 44 per minute here in the United States who are buying and reading the book, we're not going to give away the ultimate secrets. It's very important, I think, because people are continuing to read this book.
REHMSo keep that in mind when you call us with your comments, your questions, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, you can join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Anna, I'm going to start with you because you are director of the Scandinavian Program at the University of Illinois. You are also Affiliate Associate Professor of Literature at Gothenburg University in Sweden. Tell me what you thought of this novel.
STENPORTI think this is an amazing novel in so many ways and I also think it's a very problematic and interesting novel in other ways and as I'm sure we'll talk about today, but it's -- for those of you who have read or are reading it's a captivating page-turning book that draws very skillfully on a long tradition of crime novels and crime-novel writing. But it's also a book that really explores some very deep psychological issues and it's also a book that exposes, I think, problems of Western states in the contemporary global world. And perhaps exposes some unexpected facets of contemporary Swedish culture.
REHMThat's what I wanted to get to. I'm interested in its portrayal of Sweden.
STENPORTSo am I (laugh). And of course, it's -- for many Americans and people outside of Sweden, Sweden is known today perhaps as the purveyor of IKEA furniture, light, beautiful birch wheat furniture presented in a very pedagogical fashion in large IKEA stores with -- where products have exceptionally funny names. And Sweden also has a legacy, of course, of being a welfare state that takes care of its citizens from cradle to grave.
STENPORTBut in reading this novel, we see that there are a number of people, especially Salander, who have fallen through the cracks and I think that's part of what Stieg Larsson does. He wants to expose some of the legacy of a Swedish culture of tolerance, of taking care of people and showing how maybe that can backfire.
REHMEdward Kastenmeier, tell us about Lisbeth Salander.
KASTENMEIERWell, she's sort of a singular character in literature. I mean, here you have this diminutive, I think 4 foot 11 woman...
KASTENMEIER...ninety pounds, very slight, who society is constantly trying to make a victim and yet she refuses to be put into the role of the victim. She rebels. She always gets her way. She always figures out how to get from under those who are trying to make her a victim and I think that that's a huge strength for the book is this one character that we, on some level, can admire. You know, we would love to have her strength. We would love to have her independence. This is a woman who no one really tells her what to do and I think we admire that and I think that it appeals to us. And I think also the role she's put in by society and particularly men in society fills us with a righteous outrage. We're outraged on her behalf.
REHMI'm gonna expand on that just a little bit. She is a ward of the state...
KASTENMEIERA guardian, yes.
REHM...as it were. She has had a very, very troubled childhood, the details of which we don't learn until much later. She has a photographic memory. She is just brilliant at hacking into computers and it is that hacking ability that brings her together with the other major character. Deirdre...
DONAHUEMr. Dreamboat, honestly, I mean, you know, the original title, I guess, is "Men Who Hate Women." Well, this is a man who women love.
DONAHUEAnd I have to say, I think what's so fascinating about the book is you really do have women -- you know, we want Lisbeth to be our friend, to help her because she is really kinda the 21st century computer hacker. She could help you do anything, but men want to be Mikael Blomkvist. I mean, he is like the bumble bee of love. He -- you know, James Bond had to at least chase the women. This guy, he is just some sort of healer out there. I mean, to meet him is to take off your clothes and jump on him. I mean, it's astonishing. It's actually charming, but at a certain point, you do begin to roll your eyes, at least we females.
DONAHUEI mean, he really is. He's incredibly committed to his magazine, he's unbelievably principled, he -- but the only time he pauses in his, you know, uncovering evil, he -- in fact, it's because, you know, some another woman needs him.
REHMIt's fascinating to me that and this is going into a bit of the background of the book and Anna, perhaps you can help us with this. These three manuscripts were deposited at Stieg Larsson's publisher and then racing home, having deposited them, he ran up seven flights of stairs because his elevator apparently was not working and dropped dead. Is there any suspicion in Sweden about this sequence of events?
STENPORTThere were at some point in time speculations, but as far as I know, the death was of a heart attack of completely natural causes. So there is, as far as I know, very little to the speculations.
REHMAnd the reason I ask that is because others have speculated that Stieg Larsson, who himself was working for a magazine very much like the magazine about -- or for which the character, the main character in the book works, could it have been that he, Stieg Larsson, was writing about himself?
KASTENMEIEROh, I think yes, certainly, to some degree. You know, I think -- and much of the speculation is that there were elements of Lisbeth in him as well, but Mikael Blomkvist is a traditional crusading journalist. Stieg Larsson spent his entire adult life working hard to expose rightwing organizations and corruption of power in Sweden. He was very dedicated to these causes. He was very dedicated to helping the disenfranchised against the forces that wanted to keep them down. That was part of the mission of Expo.
KASTENMEIERAnd Expo was not just a publication, but it was also a foundation and it is still today the major resource for rightwing and fascist and Nazi organizations in Sweden. It has more information on that than anyone else because they've been documenting that. And so I think Millenium, to some degree, is a reflection of that. I mean, the issues that Millenium addresses are different, but I don't think he wanted to be too personal, but he certainly felt, I think, a strong affinity for Blomkvist.
REHMThe manner in which he weaves together details starting with the flowered, framed pictures that Mr. Vanger, the elder, receives in the opening of the novel and he is wondering where his lost niece is, Harriet Vanger. She died, quote, "when she was 16." She disappeared and she used to send him these framed, flowered compositions and yet he is still getting them year after year after year and wondering who's sending them, Deirdre.
DONAHUEAnd he is absolutely convinced it is an attempt to drive him insane and he is determined that's why he -- you know, they investigate Mikael because he's had his career deep-sixed by this hideous libel. You know, he's been charged with libel. He's going to go to prison.
REHMHe's been convicted.
DONAHUEConvicted with libel and he's going, he spends three months in prison. Sweden prisons sound rather remarkably relaxing. And then he -- they get him and he is on the case and he brings those skills in.
REHMDeirdre Donahue, she's book critic for USA Today.
REHMAnd for this month's Readers' Review, we've chosen the number one national bestseller, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." It's the first in a trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. I hope you'll join us as we talk about the novel, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Maryann takes issue with my use of the word muckraking journalist to describe Blomkvist. What do you think, Edward?
KASTENMEIERI don't know why she takes issue with that. I think he is a muckraking journalist. I think he is a traditional journalist. He's somebody who works very hard to try to uncover corruption in society and he's dedicated to that. And at numerous points in the book, he actually criticizes other Swedish journalists for not digging deep enough and saying that what he's exposing should've been exposed by others long ago if they had been doing their jobs adequately and not just regurgitating press releases from major corporations.
REHMAnd here is another e-mail, this one posted by Dee. She says, "Larsson makes the point about how crime reporters in the past had seldom, if ever, written about financial crime and that crime reporters were not expected to investigate intricate dealings on the stock exchange. This must have been a big challenge for today's media people being forced to actually fully understand the very complex financial shenanigans that have occurred in society in the recent decade. That sort of brings it right to the present, doesn't it, because Blomkvist does, in fact, go into very intricate financial dealings, which also uncover Nazi collaborations." Anna.
STENPORTYes. And what is so fascinating about this novel is that it manages to be both a story of contemporary Sweden and of characters who live in a modern world and even a hacker who tries to get through the very structure on which part of our society lies, internet, technological communication and so forth. But it also uncovers aspects of Swedish culture that may be lesser known, especially given Sweden's legacy of neutrality during the Second World War and it's position of maintaining neutrality during the Cold War.
REHMHere is an e-mail from a professor at Wake Forest University who says, "Would you please comment on the historical backdrop for the narrative and that is Sweden's complicated role in World War II and the role of Nazi affiliated parties in 20th Century Swedish history?" She goes on to say, "When I was reading this book, I was reminded of Peter Hoeg's depiction of a dark Danish past in 'Smilla's Sense of Snow.' But Smilla and Lisbeth Salander deal with their difficult circumstances in quite different ways." Anna.
STENPORTRight. So both Norway and Denmark were invaded by Germany during the Second World War. Sweden managed to keep its independence under the flag of neutrality, but there were very strong factions in Swedish politics at the time that collaborated with the Nazi regime. But it was less known and it took a long time for that dark history to come into full public view. What we can say is that Stieg Larsson is drawing on that research that became available much, much later and brought it to public and even the world's attention in a very, very strong way through this novel.
REHMHere is another e-mail and this will, I'm sure, get to many of you. It's from Delaney who says, "I'm disappointed that you highlighted this book on your show. It's not great literature. It's just popular, in part, because of the titillating nature of sexual sadism directed at women. Yuck. Bad taste." Deirdre.
DONAHUEI have to say I really, really enjoyed the first two books and I found them fascinating page-turners. I have to say I am slightly astonished that people seem to think that this has -- I found them, frankly, better written, more interesting, but I think they're in the same genre, frankly, as "Silence of the Lamb" and "The Da Vinci Code." It's all about secret conspiracies.
DONAHUEYou know, the two protagonists have super human abilities to punish the evil. I mean, it's the -- they're certainly very fun, but this is not great literature. And I do think that there are -- Mimi Schwartz in Entertainment Weekly said she has a lot of problems with that whole sense of Stieg Larsson wants it both ways. On one hand, he's Mr. Feminism, there's a very strong feminist tone. On the other hand, though, this is a very sexually graphic disturbing book about really creative ways to torture and kill women.
KASTENMEIERWell, he felt very strongly about the issues he worked for. He obviously was supremely dedicated in his life to helping women and the disenfranchised in his society. He also was steeped in mysteries. He had read a huge number. In this book, he cites a number of mystery writers, mostly women, that he is particular fans of, Elizabeth George, Val McDermid, Dorothy Sayers. I think in order to write the book, he needed to straddle that line between his message and the commercial and I think he does a wonderful job.
KASTENMEIERBut I think he needed to buy into some aspects of the genre in order to create a book that would reach a mass popular audience and communicate his concerns about what was going on in this society he saw in the broader world. And yet at the same time, he has these interludes in the -- you know, the introduction to each part is a quote about the abuse of women in Sweden. And I think what he's saying there is, call this fiction, ignore this at your peril. This is really out there. The things I'm talking about are real.
KASTENMEIERAnd Ava Gaden (sp?), his Swedish Publisher, has said that actually he said to her a number of incidents in the book that are horrific and troubling are based on real cases or an amalgam of real cases. And so I think in his mind, he was writing a popular commercial novel, but that was also trying to communicate what was really happening in society that people weren't seeing.
STENPORTLike Salander the character and without giving away too much, I hope, Salander is both hero and villain, both victim and perpetrator. This is not a black or white character. This is an extremely complex character with competing motives and whose psychology is very complicated. Like that character, one could argue that this novel is both -- tries to have it both ways in a similar way, that it tries to paint a complex picture that doesn't -- that's not, like Deirdre was saying, straight forwardly feminist or straight forwardly entertainment literature that sort of draws on violence. So I think in some ways that one could think about it that way.
DONAHUEActually, what I find the charm of the book in a strange way is I think he was a very serious -- I think he was a real crusading journalist and I think he wrote these for himself for entertainment. I think he falls madly in love with his character. I mean, she's the most amazing kind of mystery heroin since Miss Marple readjusted her shawl. You just kinda go, where did she come from? And like, I mean, she is the series, I mean, and you just become so worried about her and you fall -- you sort of want – you know, you also fall in love with her and you worry about her.
DONAHUEAnd she has sex with men and women, but she has no friends and, you know, she just seems so damaged and I love the fact that I think that's the secret to the book. I think that guy wrote them, he loved mysteries and this is how he relaxed and enjoyed himself. And he's, like -- I bet he probably -- I mean, I don't think it -- there's -- it's not the cynical aggressive, I wanna make a lot of money and sell the film rights.
REHMAbsolutely. I fully agree with the last thing you said. However, I did not have the impression he had fun writing these novels. I felt he was very serious from the moment he began, that he was setting out to tell a story, not only for fictional purposes, but to describe his world as he saw it as a journalist and as he wanted to write about it as a fictional author. In other words, perhaps these were things he could not write about in truth, but chose to write in fiction. Anna.
STENPORTThe three novels that we have that have been published were part -- or are part of an anticipated 10-novel series and in that way...
REHMHow do you know that?
STENPORTThis has been reported by friends and collaborators who knew Larsson well, that this is how he was imagining, that this would be a 10-part series. And what I like to think about, too, is that in that way, Larsson draws on a long tradition of European literature. Let's think about something like Charles Dickens or Balzac the French novelist who wrote enormous long series about their contemporary conditions for a contemporary audience and who wanted and needed to sell lots of copies. They were not deemed classics when they were published and it may be that the Larsson novels are never deemed classics or great literature, but there is that impetus, I think, in trying to present the contemporary world, both its good and bad sides from sort of investigative position.
REHMLet's open the phones and take in lots of our callers' ideas. If you'll put headphones on, you'll be able to hear them as we go. First to Stephanie, who's in Silver Spring, Md. Good morning, you're on the air.
STEPHANIEGood morning. As I was reading the book, I was quite surprised by the sexual violence statistics that were given at the beginning of each chapter. I thought that was really in contradiction with my impression of Sweden as this very progressive state. And I just wanted to know what Anna thought of that as a Swedish person, how she might of think that that changes the reader's perception of the country.
STENPORTI have two brief comments here. I find these statistics very interesting, too. The problem is that there are no sources given for them and I do not know exactly where these statistics come from. Of course, Sweden, like any other society, has tremendous problems with violence and abuse against women. And I think that this is part of what Larsson wanted to get more exposure toward. But it may actually have been to our advantage if we had also gotten more information about where we can find some of these statistics so that we can do more work with them.
REHMAnd of course, we're talking about Stieg Larsson's book, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," first in a published trilogy. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Edward, I want to go back to this question about planned nine-novel -- or 10-novel...
REHM...series. Had you heard about that, too, when you first saw this?
KASTENMEIERWhen we first saw it? I don't know that I heard about it at that time. I subsequently saw that he had said to Ava Gaden, among others, that he...
REHM...he's lived with for 30...
KASTENMEIERNo, no, no, no. That's Ava Gabrielson. Ava Gaden was...
REHMOh, I'm sorry.
KASTENMEIER...at Norstedts in Sweden.
KASTENMEIERAnd I believe she said that he said he might do five or 10 books. So I think when he handed these in, he may not have had the whole 10-book series in mind, but I think that solidified later. And I find it interesting because if you look back in the history of Swedish literature, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö did a famous decology, 10 books, in the late '60s, early '70s. And those were also crime stories, so there was a history of that in Sweden. One of the interesting and remarkable things about the publishing of these books is that he had completed two and was significantly into the third before he ever submitted it to Norstedts.
KASTENMEIERAnd I think if you look at the trilogy, it's because it's so interlocking. He was creating a trilogy that was more interlocking than they generally are. And that he probably didn't feel like the first book was truly finished until he knew exactly how the third book was happening because I've seen that he also revised as he went along to weave in things that would become important later in the books. And so clearly, he was thinking long-term from the get go.
REHMNow, what about rumor, false, fiction, whatever? Is there a fourth novel on his computer that the woman he lived with for 30 some years apparently has?
KASTENMEIERBy all accounts, that seems to be the case. There seems to be some portion of a fourth book and it's not clear whether that will ever see the light of day or when, 'cause she is not choosing currently to release it. I think she thinks about his legacy quite seriously and maybe somewhat concerned about having somebody else finish a book he worked on or there may be other issues involved. But apparently, there are some pages somewhere that nobody I know has ever seen.
REHMThere are also huge inheritance issues in Sweden, Anna, as to who is going to reap the benefits of this extraordinary publication, movie rights. The second movie is already out, which I have not seen. I have seen the first, but the second is already out. How is the government of Sweden likely to deal with this issue?
STENPORTWell, according to Swedish law, the common law wife with whom Stieg lived for 30 plus years has no legal rights to the inheritance, since there was no will written. And the Swedish legal system is less flexible generally than the one in the U.S. I mean, it's much less likely that a lawsuit would be brought out. Or if it were that a judge would settle it and so forth in ways that we -- in ways that could be expected in the U.S. legal system. So as far as I know, there have been different attempts at settlements between Stieg Larsson's father or brother with respect to Ava Gabrielson, but nothing has come of that yet.
REHMAnd it has been written somewhere that Stieg Larsson hadn't talked to his father or his brother for decades?
DONAHUEActually, The New York Times had, I thought, a really good story that I thought really presented who Stieg Larsson was and the whole relationship between the -- because apparently, Stieg Larsson had lived with his grandparents while his parents worked in Stockholm. But according to this article, which I thought really kind of presented this idea that it's become so bitter, they're so enraged. And, you know, you have this woman who's been involved for 30 years with this man who obviously -- and she has her own presentation. And yet the brother and the father turn around and say, in fact, he did call us on the cell phone. I mean, it really is a tragedy, the fact that he hasn't been able to see what's happened, his success.
REHMDeirdre Donahue, she's book critic for USA Today. Our Readers' Review for this month, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
MS DIANE REHMAnd we're back with this summer's top bestseller, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," the first in the trilogy by author Stieg Larsson. As I'm sure you've heard, Stieg Larsson deposited the finished books with his publisher who accepted them. Stieg Larsson ran home, perhaps in great excitement, ran up seven flights of stairs and died of a heart attack. It's really that in and of itself is quite a story, unless Stieg Larsson turns up alive somewhere 10 years from now and says it was all a big hoax. Let's go back to the phones, 800-433-8850. Now, to Cindy in Cleveland, Ohio, you're on the air.
CINDYMy question is about the publication of the books in the United States. Why was there such a significant time delay in publishing and making the books available in the U.S. when they were already translated into English and available in England, for example?
KASTENMEIERIt's not atypical for it to take some time. We wanted to -- once we had acquired the books, which was, you know, they had already been a success in Britain. And I think their success here mirrors their success around the world and that that was very helpful to us. But we realized that we had something that could play beyond the genre, something that was bigger. And we wanted to make sure we took our time to get it right. And book publishing actually generally takes a fair period of time, nine months to 12 months before a book is ready to go into press in order to drum up the support in house, to get out-of-house readers so it's part of the publishing process to take your time and make sure everyone is as enthusiastic as you are about the title.
KASTENMEIERAnd, you know, there was a recent article on the number of covers we went through because we wanted to make sure it didn't look like a standard thriller because, again, these were books we realized internationally and potentially here in the United States could play well beyond people who read mysteries and thrillers.
DONAHUEI do -- one thing that I'm fascinated by is apparently the British translation is different 'cause I like the translation, but is it (word?) who does the one here. But wasn't there some controversy around the British translation that?
KASTENMEIERThere's not a big controversy around it, particularly. There were some minor adjustments to make it more American, I think, but we basically used the British publication. I don't think there's a great distinction. There was -- so no. I don't think...
REHMOkay. Thanks for your call, Cindy. Let's go to Joe who's here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Joe, you're on the air.
JOEHello, hi. I'm so glad you're spending time on this book and I certainly disagree with the caller who found it a waste of time. I think compared with Dan Brown -- in fact, you have a stylist here of some stature. Dan Brown's writing is interesting for the content, but in terms of his actual words, he's not a master. In the crime genre, I found this one of the most literate, one of the most linguistically playful books I have ever read. I should also say that I'm a translator of Swedish literature from Strindberg to the other Stieg Larsson, who we won't get into, and I'm very aware of that style element, but the thing I want to comment on most is Lisbeth Salander. I think that here we have a unique -- a truly unique character in terms of a woman hero.
JOEShe's not just kill bill. She's not just doing things the way men do them. She is incredibly sensitive and it is even said she may have -- I've forgotten the clinical name for it, but...
JOEThank you, which causes a sensitivity and an inwardness and an insecurity and yet she overcomes that. And she will become more and more vivid through this trilogy so that in book two, she will disappear for 300 pages and yet it will feel like she's controlling the whole city. Truly astonishing. So I will just conclude here with a remark that Mikael Blomkvist makes in the third book when he says he would like to convene a meeting of those who know her in the future. And in a moment of levity, he says, "When this is all over, I am going to found an association called the Knights of the Idiotic Table and its purpose will be to arrange an annual dinner where we tell stories about Lisbeth Salander."
REHMAll right, thanks for your call. Quite a remarkable reaction. Here's an e-mail from Vicki in Vienna who says, "I thought the story was good. I liked the twists and turns, but I'm often leery at books or movies that promote violence to women." You had the same reaction.
DONAHUEYes. I mean, I have to say that I really liked them and I think they're good, but I think they really are entertainments that do touch on some issues. And I have to be honest, I just simply -- compared to -- let's say, unless the statistics are wrong, I mean, I think the U.S., for example, has a lot more issues with, like, significant violence towards women. I thought there was something almost aggressively PC in the book at times. I mean, always really there are -- it's -- I don't find a lot of the other characters besides Lisbeth particularly two-dimensional as much as three-dimensional. I mean, they're very kind of, like -- you kind of go, oh, God, not another evil, you know, 50 plus man.
DONAHUEYou know, why are they all -- it's just -- I just simply do not buy into this idea that it is as rich in texture to say a Dickens novel. I just don't. And I think -- I don't find it -- I loved reading it, but I reread it for this panel and I also have to say just to be contrary, I think one of the things that the books have been so successful is because they're published by Knopf. They have beautiful covers. They've been very skillfully done. It's the aura of Scandinavia. There is that wonderful thing that you think Sweden is just, you know, every -- you know, happy blond guys romping around the maypole and you go, whoa, some of these guys you give, you know, tips on kink.
KASTENMEIERYou know, far be it from me to say it wasn't my house that actually made these happen, but it has been an international phenomenon. I mean, it's 42 countries currently, 35 million books, I believe, worldwide. People are responding to these books across a wide age range, across a wide number of -- great number of countries and, you know, I think many or most of those readers are women worldwide and so I do think it speaks to them.
STENPORTPart of the success, too, is that with -- as with crime novels generally in popular literature, that it plays to what we expect from the genre, but it does it in a slightly different way. Violence against women is predominant in cultural representation in entertainment, in films and literature and so forth. And here we have that element absolutely in the book, but yet it's done with a slight twist. So that may also be why it's so appealing to so many readers. It's something that we recognize as part of our culture, but we also recognize, perhaps, that Stieg Larsson is interested in going perhaps a little bit further in questioning why and also what the implications may be.
REHMAll right. To Lafayette, Ind. Good morning, Jane. Jane, are you there? Let's see...
JANEI am. Can you hear me?
REHMYeah, go right ahead.
JANEYeah, I just love your show and I love the books. And I was so happy to hear about them from an NPR show and so that's wonderful. I'm actually in my car driving to Ikea, of all things.
JANEAnd I have to laugh because I stayed up until 5:00 in the morning to finish the second book and there isn't anything else in the world I would probably be up at 5:00 a.m. to do, but I enjoyed the books so much. I was under the impression that feminism is further along, I think, in Sweden than it is in the U.S. and I wondered if your panel could comment on that. And also wondered why Lisbeth is tattooed all over when she really wants to become invisible.
STENPORTYes. Those are interesting questions. About the tattoos, this is just a little point of -- sort of cultural trivia, but actually, tattoos are extremely popular in Sweden.
STENPORTYes. There was an article in a major newspaper just a couple of days ago that called it, you know, a Swedish cultural trend to be tattooed, both men and women. So in a way, Larsson, you know, reflects on practices that are going on in Sweden, you know, at the time when he was writing the book. About feminism, yes and no. Sweden has a very, very strong legacy of promoting equality across classes, across gender and also equality around the world in terms of aid to developing countries and so forth. That given it may be, in some instances, that Swedish culture is, perhaps, more mainstream than we would imagine and that feminism has been very strong, I mean, in terms of, let's say, representation in Parliament.
STENPORTAlmost 50 percent of members of Parliament, a good, good, good portion of women of ministers in the government are. Yet, what I think that Stieg Larsson is doing is that he is not -- he's not a particularly critical feminist. He is, as Deirdre was suggesting earlier, perhaps more of the politically correct mainstream version that we may perhaps want to see a little challenged.
REHMInteresting. All right. To, let's see, Diane in Bowie, Md. Good morning, you're on the air.
DIANEYes, I had a question about the possibility that Mr. Larsson may or may not have had any idea about how encompassing these three books would be as multi-world hits.
KASTENMEIERI don't think he had a sense of how big they would be, but he, on a couple of different occasions and to different people, referred to them as his retirement fund. He was well steeped in the genre and he really felt he had something that was going to be quite successful, but I don't think he could have imagined it would have been successful on this level. Who could? It's really quite a phenomenon.
REHMBut I mean if, in fact, he was planning 10, then surely he had some sense that what he had done was good.
KASTENMEIERHe knew it was good. He did.
DONAHUEYeah, but don't you -- I mean, I have to say, like, sometimes the best books, like -- I remember Charles Frasier said basically, you know, when he was writing (word?) I'm writing for myself. I mean...
DONAHUEThe authors who really are good are the ones who -- they're writing their own book. They're writing from what they want. It's like Tony Morrison, I started writing because I wanted to read -- I wanted to read books about things I wanted to. So I think you can't -- I certainly say I love the lack of cynicism in that book. I feel he is out there, his fantasies, his love for the character. I mean, it's not a cynical book.
REHMAnd the book we're talking about is "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson. It's our Readers' Review for this month. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go to Concord, N.H. Good morning, Ginger, you're on the air.
GINGERGood morning, Diane. I wanted to make a comment about Sally and I'm calling for that because that's what Mikael calls her. She's just so fearless and she's like a super hero for grownups. She'll take on anything or anybody and do whatever she needs to do to defend and in order not to give anything away -- to defend her principles, secrets or whatever it is that she is hiding at the moment. And also, the point of reading a book is to be taken away to a place you've never been before or have never even thought about going to. And I think this series of books does exactly that.
REHMThat's a good point which may be why it's been such an extraordinary hit. I mean, who could imagine, other than Stieg Larsson, that people would be fascinated to read such complex and, at times, violent kinds of novels? What do you think, Edward?
KASTENMEIERYeah, I mean I think it is -- it's a remarkable phenomenon, you know, and I think that the books work on so many different levels. I mean, one of the interesting things, I thought, in reading them and one of the reasons why, I think, they stretch beyond the genre is that he has incorporated so many different aspects of the genre in each book, so he's not caught into a certain frame. He doesn't just write a locked room mystery. He writes a locked room mystery in the first book that's surrounded by a financial thriller and ends up a true thriller. The second book segues into a different realm and becomes sort of a police procedural. The third book becomes much more of a political novel.
KASTENMEIERAnd it's very clear from the few things he said about the books before he passed that he really saw that he was creating that large architecture and, I think, it's one of the things that broadens the appeal beyond those who are just interested in the genre is that he's cherry picking a number of different tropes from the genre and combining them into a really satisfying read.
REHMI don't have to ask you this question, Edward, but would you, Deirdre, recommend these books?
DONAHUEOh, absolutely. I mean, I have to say I was not as happy with the third book, but absolutely. I don't -- I do think that sometimes, you know, 13-year-olds -- it's a little -- I do think it's a bit graphic for them, but I found it kind of like an adult Hogwarts. It's, like, you go into this world and everyone's drinking coffee and it's both foreign and yet fascinating. And you want to live in that world with them. I think he wanted to write 10 books because he wanted to keep in this world he had created.
STENPORTYes. And I think there is an element, too, of Stieg Larsson very strongly in both Salander and Blomkvist. It is as if he's in a way using these protagonists to explore aspects of his personality. He pours the investigative rebel, revolutionary into Lisbeth Salander. He uses that aspect for a journalist in Mikael Blomkvist and part of what makes them interesting, too, is the liberal, sexual mores of these characters.
REHMAnna Stenport, she's director of the Scandinavian Program at the University of Illinois. She's an Affiliate Associate Professor of Literature at Gothenburg University in Sweden, Deirdre Donahue is book critic for USA Today, Edward Kastenmeier is Vice President/Executive Editor of Vintage/Anchor Books where he oversees Vintage Crime, including their Stieg Larsson program. Thanks to all of you for being here. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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