Double BANG Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo + The Book Thief

I realized after the last GGG book club meeting that I had never reported on previous meeting… OOPS! So here goes: two at once. Hope y’all can handle it.

In November we read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Practically everybody in the world has read this, it seems. We were very mixed in our reactions: some felt it was a total page-turner, and some felt it was mostly boring. Some felt the violence was gratuitous and too disturbing, and some felt it was appropriate to the story. We argued a bit about whether the eponymous Girl WTDT (Lisbeth Salander) is a character to be admired or pitied, whether she is a role model or a mess. We also argued about whether the other protagonist, Mikael Blomqvist, is a really nice guy or an apathetic loser.

girl with the dragon tattoo stieg larsson

Here’s what we agreed on:

  • The characters weren’t very knowable. You don’t feel particularly close to them (although some of us found them likable and some didn’t really).
  • There is something very satisfying in the revenge exacted by Lisbeth herself, even though it’s… unsettling.
  • We found certain aspects of the style odd – moments where the author goes into political researcher mode and rants about current affairs in Sweden, and moments where he goes all Ikea and describes everything in the room.

It’s good to know, when reading this book, that the Swedish title translates to “Men Who Hate Women”. Wikipedia says this: “When Larsson was 15 years old he witnessed the gang rape of a girl, which led to his lifelong abhorrence of violence and abuse against women. The author never forgave himself for failing to help the girl, whose name was Lisbeth – like the young heroine of his books, who is also a rape victim. This inspired the themes of sexual violence against women in his books.” Also, the books were written almost as a hobby, and published posthumously, as Stieg Larsson died of a heart attack, at age 50, in 2004.

I personally found this book exciting and easy to read, despite its length, and didn’t think the violence was gratuitous, although it was graphic and unsettling. I liked the characters. There were times when I got creeped out, reading about the decades-old murder mystery. (Wouldn’t you know it? Murder gives me the heebie-jeebies.) I’m sure I will someday read the next one, The Girl Who Played With Fire.

To sum up: I recommend! If you find it boring and stupidly brutal, too bad. There’s, like, jillions of people who agree with me (in over 40 countries!), so ha.

On to The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. A very different book.

the book thief markus zusak

Before I get into it… One thing in common between the two books is the use of foreign language. The Girl WTDT is a translation from Swedish, with quite a few bits left untranslated; The Book Thief is liberally sprinkled with German, which the author does translate. I, being a word/language junkie, love this. I want to figure it out, make connections, revive my long-dormant first-year German. Not everyone feels this way – some say it’s just a pain and you skip it anyway – an English-language book for anglophone readers should be English. A valid point. Any thoughts?

Before I read The Book Thief, I was talking to some co-workers about it, and they were trying to describe the writing. One called the writing extremely tactile, one said, “It’s like you can pick the words up.” I think one even said something about chewing on them.

By the second page, I got it. Totally tactile, chewable, pick-uppable language that creates images that stick in your mind as if you actually saw them. It’s extraordinary. I love that the author wrote this book for teenagers, and simply gave them great writing – he didn’t shy away from strange, arresting word combinations just because his intended audience was young.

Furthermore, the choice of Death as narrator (I’m not spoiling anything, you know right away) gives the book this unexpected, beautiful tone of love. It’s not scary Death – it’s tired, sad, overworked Death who wishes humans wouldn’t be so stupid. Seeing things through Death’s eyes is a unique experience.

Also, the characters are great. You get attached. Plus, there are so many other cool details. The unusual format of the writing, the drawings, the barely-visible text of Mein Kampf underneath the handwritten story… Great stuff, Markus.

Our meeting for this book was sparsely attended, since the weather was bad, but the four of us enjoyed talking about which parts were most heart-wrenching or memorable or fascinating for each of us. I was the only one with a new copy that has the conversation with the author at the back, and I felt compelled to share several bits. How Zusak missed his characters when he was done writing; how he was “a mess” writing the climactic end scene between the two friends (you know which one, if you read it); how he likes the idea that “every page in every book can have a gem on it”.

**Side note: My copy of the book also has “Questions for Discussion” at the back, and they, in contrast, are awful. For example, #2: “What is ironic about Liesel’s obsession with stealing books? Discuss other uses of irony in the novel.” Yeurk!! High school essay fodder, I guess. Actually, I pretty much always hate the “Book Club” section at the backs of books – just inane questions or instructions that feel like boring assignments.**

Obviously, I loved the book, highly recommend it, but here’s what I shall take away most:

  • war SUCKS,
  • and bombs especially.

World War II was not fun for anyone, including average German citizens and even Nazis. Everyone was scared or angry or both. And bombs, well. Just stupid. What do they accomplish?? Seriously. Just bad horrible badness that does not discriminate.

I know, what a revelation.


4 thoughts on “Double BANG Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo + The Book Thief

  1. Lindsay says:

    I think I was responsible for the ‘chew on the words’ comment. Haven’t read Girl but may. Love what you said and totally agree with your Thief comments. Sobbed when things happened, I don’t know what the author would have done himself when he was finished. It would be a terrible loss, I’m sure.

  2. diblog says:

    Yep, Lindsay, I’m pretty sure you were. Wouldn’t it be amazing to someday write a book where you loved your characters so much?

  3. Krista says:

    LOL, I love your comment “he goes all Ikea and describes everything in the room” – so true! I bought the second one but I haven’t read it just yet…
    Did you share the “pick-uppable words” (that’s a completely cool phrase) comment with us a book club? I don’t remember it, but I wish I had thought of it myself. I know I was thinking that you couldn’t do The Book Thief as a read aloud/audio book because you would miss so much of what is on the page.

  4. diblog says:

    Now that you mention it, Krista, you’re right – a lot of the “pick-uppability” comes from the visual words on the page.

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