Altered Carbon

Following a thread over at Chez Worstall on sci-fi novels, I acted upon the recommendation of two commenters to take a look at Altered Carbon, a 2002 novel by Richard Morgan.  I’m not a huge sci-fi fan and when I tried reading some of the classics I found them too dated.  Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was an exception, but I couldn’t finish Stranger in a Strange Land.  However, I enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but that might be because I could visualise it better thanks to Blade Runner.

But one of the chaps who recommended Altered Carbon described it as “a sort of blade runner crossed with Sam Spade”, which was enough for me and so I bought it for my Kindle.  I found to my delight that the description was absolutely spot on, and I was hooked immediately.  I am rarely very impressed with modern fiction, with the last book that really held my attention being Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for which I shunned all in-flight entertainment on a long-haul trip between Nigeria and somewhere.  Altered Carbon had the same effect, and then some.  I can’t recommend it highly enough, and I am looking forward to reading the sequels.  I was also excited to hear that Netflix is making a TV series of it, which if done properly ought to be brilliant.

That’s why the Worstall Arms is the most popular pub in town.  Come for the economics, stay for the comments.


Female Role Models and Women in Films

The good folk over at Mostly Film have asked the questionPositive Role Models: Where are the Women in Film?

This question interests me on two levels.  The first is that I don’t think there are many positive role models for young women anywhere, let alone in films.  I have a habit of asking women who they would consider to be role models for young women and teenagers just to see if they have any more clue than me.  The last person I asked was my ex-pal Angela who was, as I’ve said before, a fully paid-up feminist.  Her first response was along the lines of historical figures, all worthy women: Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, and one or two others long dead who I didn’t know.  But when I asked her to name some that are still alive she faltered.  Michelle Obama: successful only in the sense of whom she married.  Elizabeth Warren: best known for having invented a Native American ancestry in order to get into Harvard Law School under an assisted places program.  And that was about it.  Being mischievous, I asked why Condoleeza Rice wasn’t considered.  She said she didn’t know, but I did: she was a Republican, and that would never do.  The same goes for Margaret Thatcher.

In fairness to Angela, she wasn’t the only one to struggle with this question.  A lot of women (including her) don’t follow sports closely enough to know the female sports stars, such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, who could easily qualify.  Most women when pressed propose Beyoncé, at which point I show them this:

Uh-huh.  Just what you’d want your teenage daughter aspiring to.

It’s a difficult question, one that’s a lot easier to answer for boys mainly because most of them are into sports of some sort (as to why boys generally like watching sport whereas girls generally don’t is a question I’d like to have put to Angela; no doubt the answer would have included the term “social conditioning”).  When I was growing up most boys were into football or rugby, so they had the likes of Ryan Giggs and Jeremy Guscott to hang on their walls.  Failing that, there was cricket or motorsports.  Of course we looked up to rock stars too, but the good thing about having sportsmen as role models is they are (usually) in good physical shape and are famous for mastering a discipline rather than doing something outrageous.  I believe girls and young women have a much tougher time finding a decent role model, for the simple reason there are a lot fewer about.

So it’s not surprising that it is difficult to find decent female role models in films, as this is merely part of a wider issue.  But it is also part of a second wider issue: there are not many decent female role models in films because there are so few decent female roles of any kind in modern films.  The reason for this, in my opinion, is mainly due to the dumbing down of all film roles, be they male or female.

In an age where studio executives refuse to take a risk and audiences apparently need to be spoon-fed every scene, film characters have become increasingly one-dimensional to the point that they might as well walk around with labels on saying “Goody” and “Baddy”.  Every “good” character has to have at least one scene early on showing us how noble and righteous he is (usually by kissing his wife and kids, or reading them a bedtime story) followed by one showing him wearing a pained expression during a moral dilemma (Tom Hanks’ recent output has taken this to nauseating levels); every “bad” character must be shown murdering somebody in a gruesome fashion or at least kicking a dog; and each character’s appearance must distinguish which side they’re on as effectively as a football strip (the turncoat in The Matrix was the one character with a huge scar down his face: he was never going to be anything else).  Ambiguity in a character is seriously frowned upon these days, presumably because there is a danger the audience might get confused.

It wasn’t always thus.  I recently watched Hud (1963) in which Paul Newman was cast as an arrogant, violent, irresponsible ranch-hand but somehow the audience ended up viewing him as the hero, much to the surprise of the actor himself.  This was in no small part due to a slick script and some very good acting on the part of Newman and the supporting actors, but it shows that once upon a time a character could be cast with the director unsure of how the audience would receive them.  I noted early on in the film that no modern production would feature a character like Hud, let alone in the leading role.  I also doubt that any modern actor could pull off a role like that.

Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939) is another example of a man cast with dubious morals, played superbly by Clark Gable.  It’s highly unlikely such a film would even get made today without turning into an anti-slavery harangue, and a character like Rhett Butler – who not only fights for the Confederacy but is a shameless womaniser and a blockade-runner to boot – would be sanitised into fighting for the other side as a minimum.

A third example is Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941), where he is as close as the story gets to having a hero yet thinks nothing of shagging his partner’s wife and doesn’t care one jot when said partner gets murdered, not to mention his misogynistic behaviour and slapping women around occasionally.  Could you see a modern detective being cast like this?  Not a chance, he’s too morally ambiguous.  In fact, all the characters in The Maltese Falcon are morally ambiguous, there’s not a single one I can recall that is particularly nice.

Now I mention these three films not just to illustrate complex and questionable characters played by men, but also because of their female leads.  In Hud, the part of Alma Brown is superbly played by Patricia Neal (Roald Dahl’s wife, as I later found out).  Her character is neither one of heroine or villain, she is simply what passes for an ordinary woman caught up in the mess that Hud makes around her.  But that doesn’t mean the character is uninteresting, by contrast she is as intriguing as the male lead with her own set of virtues and flaws, particularly her failed marriage which forces her to work as a housekeeper living in a small annex of the main ranch house.  Even though she is unquestionably a “good” person in the narrative, she ends up worse off than at the beginning through no fault of her own.  Very few, if any, of these elements would make it into a modern female film character, and they would be all the more dull because of it.  Neal’s character is so interesting because she has flaws and is ambiguous (e.g. complimenting Hud on his looks even after he tried to drunkenly rape her) – just like people are in real life.  Funny, that.

Rarely has a female character been better scripted than that of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, for which we can thank Margaret Mitchell.  I read the book when I lived in Nigeria, and was rather surprised to find the character an absolute bitch: she married her first husband in a fit of pique, the second one for money and security and spite, and the third (Rhett) while still pining after bloody Ashley to the point she ends up on her own and doesn’t seem to give a shit.  There is a line in the book where somebody (it might be Rhett) points out that O’Hara didn’t even bother to ask after her second husband upon hearing news that the group he was in had been attacked and some of them killed (including him, as it turns out).  But she’s a fascinating character because despite all of this she is incredibly strong and resourceful and you are always under the impression she is being forced by circumstances into taking certain actions and her heart generally lies in the right place.   What modern film would have a heroine like this?  Or modern book, for that matter?

I am sure modern actresses would kill to have had the opportunity of Vivien Leigh to play a character of such complexity as Scarlett O’Hara.  But as with the men, these characters simply don’t exist as the leads in a modern film, and the best one can hope for is a small supporting role usually as some sort of eccentric.  A female lead these days needs to be one of the following:

1. An innocent victim of some more powerful force (such as a violent husband, or asshole boss) who she eventually overcomes through perseverance and/or being much cleverer than her adversary. (A Goody)

2. A ripped, kick-ass chick straight out of comic-book fantasy who beats up Samoan extras and can throw knives through chipboard.  (Can be a Goody or a Baddy)

3. A sassy, independent, fuck-you-in-your-face, policewoman, soldier, politician, or CEO.  (A Goody)

4. A woman who saves her husband/boyfriend from his own stupidity. (A Goody)

What’s a girl to do if she wants to play Scarlett O’Hara or Alma Brown these days?  Little wonder there are few inspiring female role models in films if each character has been sanitised or exaggerated beyond all recognition of what it is to be human.

While male actors have also seen their available characters stripped down to almost cartoon levels, at least they still have one avenue of opportunity open to those who want a more interesting role: the chief villain.  It’s common to hear actors say they prefer playing villains because the characters are more interesting, and this makes sense: you can take more risks with a character that meets a sticky end (see Leonardo DiCaprio’s repulsive slaver in Django Unchained).

But what villainous roles are open to women these days?  Other than the tank-girl sidekick I mentioned at No. 2 in my list above, they don’t really have much option on that score, either.  Which is a shame, because women have starred splendidly as the villain in the past.  The character of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon is a great example, being fiendishly manipulative and greedy throughout and winding up being carted off to the gallows for her treachery, and played flawlessly by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.  More recently is Nicole Kidman’s superb performance as the evil weather girl in To Die For (1995), which I showed to Angela partly to demonstrate my belief that feminist-driven political correctness has over the past decade or two killed off the best roles for women in films.

The one exception I can think of is Rosamund Pike’s character of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (2014).  That was one of the most intriguing (and disturbing) female characters I’ve seen portrayed in a long time – which is presumably why the film did so well and Pike’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination.  Women deserve better roles in films and scriptwriters should stop pandering to the grievance industry and start creating complex, morally ambiguous, flawed, and sometimes nasty female characters which are also human and therefore believable.  Maybe then we’ll see a role model or two emerge.


Saint-Lô and the Mausoleum of La Famille Blanchet

I first visited the old mill near Campeaux mentioned in the previous post in August 2014, two years ago.  When I was there I took the opportunity to visit the nearby town of Saint-Lô, where I went to the cemetery and then spent twenty minutes or so locating the mausoleum of the Blanchet family.  Readers are entitled to ask why, and so I shall duly explain.

There is not much to see in Saint-Lô.  It was destroyed to the tune of 97% during the battle for its liberation in July 1944, causing one American solider to remark “We sure liberated the hell out of this place”.  It was rebuilt, as Wikipedia puts it, as follows:

The dominant style was a neo-regionalist functionalism which was dominated by concrete. Its dated and monotonous character was soon criticised.

And for this reason there is very little worth seeing in the town.  One thing of interest, however, is the monument to Major Thomas Howie, who was the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division after the D-Day landings.  As the story goes:

On the morning of July 17, Howie phoned Major General Charles Gerhardt, said “See you in St. Lo”, and issued orders for the attack. Shortly afterward, he was killed by shrapnel during a mortar attack. The next day, the 3d Battalion entered Saint-Lô, with Howie’s body on the hood of the lead jeep, at Gerhard’s request, so that Howie would be the first American to enter the town.

After the war, the town of Saint-Lô erected a monument to Howie, shown below.

However, Thomas Howie wasn’t the only US army major fighting around Saint-Lô on that day.

One of the most influential books I have read, at least insofar as it made an impact on me, is Colonel David Hackworth’s About Face.  During his development as an officer, Hackworth was greatly inspired by the wartime exploits and soldiering abilities of one Glover S. Johns, Jr who would lead the vanguard of American troops sent into West Berlin by John F. Kennedy in 1961 as a show of strength as the wall was going up.  In his book, Hackworth refers to Johns’ own book, The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô, an account of his day-to-day experiences as the commander of the 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division over a period of one month leading up to the liberation of Saint-Lô.  Hackworth praised the book’s extremely well written descriptions of each military operation and action the battalion undertook, and believed the book should be required reading for all infantry officers.  Having never forgotten its name, eventually I ordered myself a copy and read it for myself.  As a story of the Battle of Saint-Lô it isn’t much good, but as a highly readable account of what life was like for an American soldier fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy and the day-to-day role of a battalion commander in a major war, it is probably the best out there.  In other words, it’s for military nerds but not for the casual reader.  One thing is for sure though, it gives you an idea of the horrendous casualty rate the American infantry suffered while up against a German army that even on the back foot was still highly capable.

Towards the end of the book, as Major Johns’ unit is entering Saint-Lô, he found the place he had chosen for his command post was too dangerous and he was losing men at an unacceptable rate, and so he sent one of his subordinates off to find a better one.  Quoting from The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô:

Half and hour later the S1 came up to lead him back to his new home in St. Lo, which turned out to be an imposing mausoleum in the cemetery!  On the facade were two words Johns would always remember, “Famille Blanchet.”  He balked at the idea of moving in with the Blanchets; but when he looked inside he decided it was the best command post he would ever have.

The walls were of polished marble blocks 18 inches thick, with a heavy door set back under a small but equally solid portico.  There were no windows to be blown in, so that only a direct hit on the front steps by something big would have any chance of hurting anyone inside.  It would take a bomb to damage the building itself.

Inside, on the ground floor, was a small chapel.  Though the room was only about 10 feet by 15 feet in size, it would hold everyone who had legitimate business there.  Furthermore, there was plenty of room outside for the runners to dig foxholes so there would no longer be any excuse for bunching up.  Under the chapel was a crypt, reached by a narrow flight of stairs leading down from one side.

The vault was largely occupied by an enormous stone sarcophagus.  The thing sloped upward towards the entrance, the high end having a flat surface on top which was at an awkward height but would do better than nothing for maps.  A small stone tablelike affair was set into the wall opposite that end, with barely room for one straight chair.  The crypt was cramped, but it would do.

Space around the sarcophagus itself was limited.  A man could walk by without touching, or lie down full length and be comfortable, but two men could never pass one another.

The Germans had used the vault too.  Empty wine bottles lay about, and a half loaf of hard, dry bread took up space on the little table.

Remembering this passage from the book, I decided to find this mausoleum for myself given I was in the area, and take a look at this obscure little piece of military history.  When I did, I looked inside and poked my head down the stairs into the crypt and found it exactly as Major Glover S. Johns had described it having been there 70 years before.

The broken cross on the top bears witness to the mausoleum’s past, as does the shrapnel marks on the exterior walls.  But a small scrap of paper in cellophane off to the side marking it out as a waypoint on some sort of military tour was the only indication that anybody else knew about this tomb’s role in the liberation of Saint-Lô and the battle for Normandy.


I do love Dashiell Hammett

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.

The opening of Red Harvest, written in 1929 and the inspiration behind Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars, Miller’s Crossing, and Last Man Standing whereby a man arrives in a town plagued by two warring factions and plays one off against the other as the body count racks up.

I first read this story in my early 20s in university, and loved it.  I re-read it a few years later and still enjoyed it as much.  Then I read it again early this summer and was rather sorry it wasn’t as good as I remembered it.  Age, I guess.  It’s still a good book though, and from one of my favourite authors.


Wonderful Wodehouse

One of the few advantages of being stuck in Lagos traffic for over an hour each working day is I get to read an awful lot, and thanks to my newly procured Kindle, I have a never-ending supply of books, especially those which I always meant to get ’round to reading.

A few weeks ago I downloaded a P.G. Wodehouse collection.  I’d read two of his novels before, and had been mightily impressed.  Still, nothing caused me to laugh out loud so suddenly and for so long as this passage from one of the Jeeves and Wooster stories:

“I suppose everyone has had that ghastly feeling at one time or another of being urged by some overwhelming force to do some absolutely blithering act. You get it every now and then when you’re in a crowded theatre and something seems to be egging you on to shout ‘Fire!’ and see what happens. Or you’re talking to someone and all at once you feel ‘Now suppose I suddenly biffed this bird in the eye!'”

That last line still has me laughing as I read it now.

Besides which, how true!  Where on earth does this urge come from?  Is it the same urge, which I for years thought was unique to me, which you get when you look over a cliff or off the stern of a ship and you think “Now what would happen if I jumped off here…” when it is damned obvious what would happen but still you come away thinking you did pretty well to restrain yourself.  Is there a name for this?  Or an explanation?

No such explanation is required for why P.G. Wodehouse makes me laugh.


The Millenium Trilogy: A Review

Back in spring 2010 I read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, having heard that it was pretty good.   I had intended to review it, not least because I promised this chap that I would give him my thoughts on it, but idleness took over and I never bothered.  Also, I read the second installment, The Girl Who Played With Fire, immediately afterwards and I thought I might review the whole trilogy.  Unfortunately, I’d kind of had enough by that point so I didn’t get around to reading the third book, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest until last month.  So now I have some free time and some rather strong opinions (who me?) on the books, I’ve decided to write a review of sorts.

Firstly, the good.  There is a fair bit I will criticise about the books, probably unfairly, but since when has this blog been about fairness?  This blog is about my opinions dammit!  Erm, anyway.  The first book is set on an island somewhere off the coast of Sweden.  This was probably the book’s biggest draw for me: I will read (or watch) pretty much anything set in Scandinavia (likewise Japan, but that’s not really relevant now).  I find thrillers set in cold, snowy climates to be far more atmospheric than those set in deserts or big cities.  The Economist noted that Nordic crime fiction seems to be pretty successful, so I’m clearly not the only one.  I liked Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow for its atmosphere (snow kills all sound, making complete silence actually achievable, something almost impossible in most places).  I also loved Gorky Park and Polar Star which although not set in Scandinavia offer a similar atmosphere provided by the climate of Moscow in winter and the Barent’s Sea respectively.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an intriguing locked-room murder mystery scaled up to a small island.  The potential perpertators largely belong to a disfunctional family who run a sprawling but faltering industrial conglomerate now on its third generation of family executives.  The intrigue amongst the family members is superb, and probably strikes a note with those familiar with Sweden’s real-life family-run industrial conglomerates which see board positions shuffled between siblings, offspring, and cousins and whose actual ownership configuration is an impossible puzzle for a taxman to solve.  Larsson also throws into the mix a foolproof plot device: Nazis.  Any story which has Nazis lurking in the background is a good one (James Lee Burke’s Dixie City Jam being an exception, I thought the Nazi angle in that didn’t fit at all).  I don’t know what it is about Nazis, but they make the best baddies.  Take a look at the Indiana Jones films, for example:

Raiders of the Lost Ark: baddies = Nazis =brilliant
Temple of Doom: baddies = Indians = okay
Last Crusade: baddies = Nazis = brilliant
Crystal Skull: baddies = Russians = crap

An uncontestable formula, I’m sure you can agree.  Anyway, where was I?  That’s right.  Certain family members had links to Nazis before and during WWII, something which was not unusual in Sweden.  So in one flick of the pen, Larsson introduces murky business conglomerates and Nazi associations into the story which, if set anywhere else would cause a rolling of the eyes but, this being Sweden, hits pretty close to home.  It is this, along with the island’s mysteries, which make the book good.  As an intriguing thriller, it does its job well.  The reader is kept guessing, the hero of the book – a journalist which we’ll talk about in a minute – engages in some good old Tintin-style sleuthing which includes digging out old photos and tracking down witnesses from events which occurred decades ago, and the conclusion – although not tremendously satisfying – is sound enough.  At least you don’t chuck the book in the corner saying “What the hell?”

And for me, it was the setting, the familial intrigue, the island, and the original mystery which was the main strength of the book.  The weakness, I felt, was in the main two characters.  Oddly, it is the characters which many feel drive the trilogy’s success, but for me both of them were flawed, one fundamentally and the other needlessly.  This is why I consider the first book to be the only one which is worthy of the praise, the latter two books focus on the characters established in the first one, minus the disfunctional family.  And minus the Nazis.  There’s my formula being proven again.

The central male character of the trilogy is the journalist Mikael Blomkvist.  He is a free-spirited, brilliant investigative journalist in his mid-40s with rock-solid principles (he occupies the moral high ground even from a prison cell) and who is given a free pass by his friends, family, and colleagues to behave however he wants – which is usually without any concern for others nor accepting any responsibility – because, I think, he has such sound principles (did I mention them?) and he is so brilliant (did I mention that?).  On top of that, every woman he comes across seems to turn into a gibbering teenager desperate to get him into bed.  Can you see what the problem is here?  Larsson, a Swedish journalist in his mid-40s invents a character of a Swedish journalist in his mid-40s who cannot put a foot wrong (at least not with any real consequences) and goes around beating off women with a shitty stick.  This has mid-life crisis written all over it.  Credulity is seriously stretched in places.  We have the chief editor of the magazine for which Blomkvist works, an attractive, highly-professional married woman called Erika Berger, engaged in an ongoing affair with Blomkvist – with the full knowledge and consent of her husband!  Yeah, like that often happens.  I mean, blokes get to bang their female bosses all the time and their husbands just murmur something about “I know only he can satisfy you” all the time, no?  But even this I could believe if he was trying it on with anything in a skirt, but alas no.  Blomkvist stands aloof and the women plead with him to bed them, and once he has done so he rolls over and says words to the effect of “Y’know love, I can shag who I like and I intend to carry on doing so” and the grateful woman replies with “Sure! Sure!  You shag who you like, I won’t mind, but if ever you feel like coming around here and giving me one, here I am.  Any time you like!” ‘Cos aye, women are just like that!

I’m not the only one who finds this incredible.  Melanie Newman writes for the feminist magazine The F-Word, and also happens to be by sister (family get free plugs on this blog), and she has this to say:

Larsson’s hero, Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist in his 40s, is only slightly more believable. While something of a moral crusader, constantly railing against other reporters who fail to dig deep into corporate corruption, Blomkvist – or “Bonkvist” as he has been dubbed by some reviewers – is far from an old-fashioned sexual moralist. He’s “a big hit with women” who has had several love affairs and “a great many casual flings”. “An obscure journalist,” we’re later told, “once even urged him to seek help for his sex addiction.” Blomkvist is no sexual predator, however: it’s the women that make the moves.

In the first book, we’re told that Blomkvist has a daughter who he doesn’t see much. His marriage broke down because he couldn’t stop having sex with his long-term mistress and boss, Erica, who has her husband’s permission to sleep with her lover. When Blomkvist moves to a small town to investigate the disappearance of a young woman, he’s only been in his new home five minutes when a woman is stripping off for him. Erica isn’t at all bothered when she walks in on them both – she’s happy to share. Later Salander persuades Blomkvist to sleep with her and, naturally, falls in love with him. We’re repeatedly told that the age gap doesn’t matter for her.

It’s not hard to see what Larsson has done here: he’s created a character which he himself longed to be.  I mean, who wouldn’t?  It would be like me writing a book featuring a brilliant engineer who turns up when he likes, makes up for weeks of absenteeism by knocking up a subsea separation design which cause his male colleagues to drop their jaws in awe, whilst he quietly bones the high-flying female project director despite him having an orgy with the admin girls only that morning.  In reality, if you don’t turn up you get fired, your input to any design will be insignificant and in any case somebody else will get the glory, the project director will be an old battleaxe and it’s all you can do to get the admin girls to book the conference room let alone get an orgy on the go.

In creating a character who is the author’s ideal, Larsson is not alone.  Years ago I read this rubbish, Mallory’s Oracle, and quickly got tired of a heroine who was a beautiful, super-intelligent former orphan who gave everybody the cold shoulder even as they swooned all over her.  Here’s what one commenter wrote:

I don’t require a main character I can like or “identify with,” so I don’t mind that Kathy is mostly unlikeable. What I do mind is that she seems like such an obvious authorial fantasy, a “Mary Sue,” if I can use a term from fanfiction. She’s tall, impossibly beautiful, cool, tough, slim, green-eyed, and brilliant; she’s a computer wizard who consistently reduces men — from her boss to her father’s friends to her grizzled cop colleagues to her business partner — to lovesick jellies who are happy to exist in her thrall and to let her get away with almost anything. Finally, of course, she both saves the day AND gets romantically rescued by her various knights.

We’re constantly told how many people staunchly love and are charmed by Kathy despite her sociopathic inability to respond to them, but we’re never actually *shown* any aspects of her character or behavior that would make these reactions plausible.

Obvious authorial fantasy. That adequately describes my reaction to Larsson’s Blomkvist.  What’s more, the unrealistic portrayal of Blomkvist is hardly going to be helped by the character being played by Daniel Craig in the Hollywood adaptation of the novel.  Now our intrepid journalist has an athlete’s body and reminds everyone of James Bond.  Job done, I think.

Sadly, the other main character, Lisbeth Salander, is much more believable but has been subject to a complete cop-out by Larsson.  To describe this, I’ll refer to this post by Pootergeek who is writing about one of the Harry Potter films:

The real problem with Harry Potter is what ultimately did for the Star Trek franchise. There is no sense of genuine danger or threat because, instead of using pre-existing elements of the story to resolve tension, Rowling just pulls an answer from nothingness, adopting Trek’s subatomic-particle-of-the-week approach to all cliffhangers.

“Captain, the ship will be destroyed within seconds if we can’t stabilize the hull!”
“Perhaps we can re-route the phasers to produce a stream of deus-ex-machinons!”
“It’s working!”

How can you give a toss about a story in which at any minute you know Rowling is going to do everything but tell you “it was all a dream”?

Lisbeth Salander’s main gift is an ability to hack into any computer any time she wants provided she has a laptop (or even a Palm) and an internet connection.  It takes her a matter of minutes to break any password of any computer in the world, remotely.  Well that’s handy!  So whenever Salander finds herself in a tight spot, a quick flutter of the keyboard and suddenly she’s a billionnaire with a new identity.  Or she has her adversary’s location and movements right in front of her.  Thriller writers should take great care in choosing a special ability for their heroes (and their villains, for that matter).  In fact, most times it’s better they have none at all.  In Peter Hoeg’s novel, Miss Smilla’s upbringing in Greenland gave her an unusual – but entirely believable – ability to interpret footprints in the snow, leading her to question the circumstances by which her neighbour, a small boy, fell from a roof.  Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko has no gift at all save for a plodding stubbornness which at times borders on machoism.  When faced with a seemingly unsolvable problem, or backed into a corner, they need to think their way out of it, and this is what keeps the reader interested.

Making somebody a brilliant hacker is not far short of giving them an ability to fly.  Hacking is pretty damned hard to do, and (from what I can gather, I am no expert) most hackers target large corporations or government computers for the challenge they present, and once inside stumble across any particular information by chance.  It is rare you hear about a hacker targetting a specific indvidual and coming away with such stuff as security camera footage from where he’s been hanging out.  In fact, you never hear about it because it would be damned near impossible. Going back to Mallory’s Oracle, here’s what somebody wrote about the heroine of that story, who was also a brilliant computer hacker:

Also, this woman hasn’t met a computer that she can’t hack into! Come on, without this superhuman ability, the whole story falls apart.

Quite.  And it’s equally applicable to Larsson’s story.  But Salander’s talents don’t stop there: she also has a photographic memory, enabling her to remember whole reams of text having browsed them for mere seconds.  The character’s flaws are welcome, especially after a few pages of Blomkvist fighting off the chicks.  She is socially inept and has been appallingly treated by the Swedish authorities as a child.  Here I think Larsson had a good story going: the fact that it is possible for a functioning adult to be declared incompetent and have their lives placed in the hands of a guardian who holds considerable authority over every aspect of their lives is something worth exploring in a novel which is clearly intended to take a swipe at certain aspects of Swedish society.  Salander is also physically unattractive with a teenager’s body covered in tattoos and piercings, although I can’t help think that this description, coupled with her hacking abilities, will have teenage geeks thrapping in their bedrooms nonetheless.  But Larsson couldn’t resist giving her a boob job by the second book, and she was still getting laid anyway.  Not so unnattractive, then.  (By the time Hollywood has finished with her, she’s going to be your usual fit model running about in leathers, chasing Daniel Craig.)  Her personality stinks, but that causes as much frustration in those around her as it does in the reader, so that forms a solid basis of the character (although you have scant sympathy for her).  But then in the second book Larsson has her single-handedly kicking the shit out of two tough-as-nails bikers, something my sister points out in her article as being utterly ridiculous.  In short, Larsson has ruined what would otherwise be an interesting character by giving her a superhuman gift, stopping short of completing the flaws she is cursed with, and throwing in a few silly scenes to boot.

With the two central characters failing, the reader is left needing a decent story to keep him interested.  As I said earlier, the first book provides this but alas the second two fall somewhat short.  To be fair, there is enough to keep the reader turning the pages, and it’s better than reading Dan Brown, but I’m not surprised I took a year’s break between the second and third installments.  The events got more and more predictable, and over three books the author’s irritating habits start to grate a bit.  Firstly, there is all this pseudo-feminist nonsense scattered about.  In the first book this takes the form of abused women statistics in Sweden, which I suppose sort of fits a story involving, as it does, abused women.  (I believe the original Swedish title was The Men Who Hate Women). In the second book, Larsson ditches the feminist stuff in favour of short discussions on mathematical formulae, which Salander is trying to solve in her head.  This is of no relevance to the story whatsoever, other than perhaps a device with which to build Salander’s character and hammer home the point that she is really clever.  The third book prefaces parts with random facts (I assume they are facts) about Amazons and warrior women and how great they all are, or something like that.  The whole thing, indeed the whole trilogy, seems to be a plea for women to accept…well, accept what?  The books?  The author?  I don’t know, but the feminist market might have been better captured if Blomkvist could have left his cock in his trousers, or at least the female characters spent less time on the end of it.

The other annoying habit is the author’s insistence in writing emails as emails (which are excruciating to read) and writing out the technical specification of any computers Salander owns.  This fails on two levels.  For starters, other than those wanking teenagers I mentioned earlier, nobody gives a shit how much RAM her iBook has.  Secondly, computers date.  Sure, when it was written the computer would have been the dog’s bollocks, but five years later those with any computer knowledge will be asking “Why’s she using that crap?”

What I wish the author had done was to put his efforts into strengthening the first book and forget about the trilogy.  There was a lot which could have been done with the Nazis and murky conglomerate angles but instead the story took us off down another route in the interests of preserving the characters.  And that’s the problem, in the last two books the characters are the story, and they are just not good enough to carry it.  My final verdict: read the first one, if you like the characters and aren’t irritated by the author, read the other two.  Otherwise, stop there.


Why Travel Writers Should Avoid Making Political Remarks

Extracted from Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux, an American writer.

Page 368:

All this order, prosperity and efficiency the Vietnamese had found for themselves after decades of war, in spite of us; we could take no credit for it.

Page 370:

‘What sort of work do you do in Saigon?’

‘I am an inspector in a factory,’ she said. ‘We make leather shoes for women.’

I drew a picture of a fancy stiletto-heeled shoe on a page in my notebook. She looked at it and smiled. She said, ‘Yes!’  They were exported to Europe and the United States.

I asked her how much money she made and the details of her work.  She said that she and her fellow workers earned $400 a month.  Could that be true?  Her husband earned $700 a month.  These figures were much higher than the salaries of comparable workers I’d met in Romania and Turkey.

So, other than making Vietnamese rich by setting up luxury goods factories and paying wages higher than those found in parts of Europe, the United States has played no part in the prosperity of Vietnam.


Sakhalin’s Literary History

It is well known that the remarkable author and playwright Anton Chekhov undertook an arduous journey from St. Petersburg to Sakhalin Island in order to study the conditions in the Tsarist penal colony.

What is less well known is that many famous literary works were the product of inspiration drawn from the author’s visit to Sakhalin Island.  I list a few of these below:

1. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler – Detective Philip Marlowe takes on a difficult case requiring his attendence in a progress meeting at the offices of a local oil company.

2. The Odyssey by Homer – Odysseus is working a 7/3 rotation on Sakhalin Island and is supposed to go home after each trip to be with his wife Penelope.  This epic poem is an account of the ten-year journey Odysseus undertakes following his first rotation and the dangers he faces, such as the Sirens of Chas’te who help our hero out of his clothes, the cyclops at the immigration counter whom Odysseus outwits by working on a business visa, and the milkman who has won Penelope’s affections whilst he has been away.

3. The Tristan Betrayal by Robert Ludlum – Oxbridge engineer Tristan Corey-Barnett arrives for a management role on Sakhalin Island with an oil and gas service provider, only to find that his salary will not be reviewed in the New Year and promises of a bonus were actually lies.  Tristan is also shocked to discover the existence of an incumbent in the form of a short, fat, unpleasant, incompetent, corrupt local woman of whom he was told nothing prior to coming.

4.  A Time to Kill by John Grisham – Rotating equipment engineer Carl Lee Hailey has been sent to Korea to renew his visa, a trip which involved him racking up several hundred dollars in expenses.  On his arrival back in Sakhalin, he submitted his business expense report as per the correct procedure.  Six months later Hailey has still not been reimbursed and calls up the appropriate department to find out what’s going on. The girl at the end of the phone says it’s nothing to do with her.  Another person says it is to do with him, but he’s off on leave.  A third person says it has been paid.  After making a series of international phone calls to his bank, Hailey confirms it has not been paid.  He calls the department again.  A girl says it is is nothing to do with her. Another person says he thought he’d been paid.  A third person says they have lost his business expense report.  A fourth person is off on leave.  Shortly afterwards, Hailey is on trial for murder.  Will the jury sympathise?

5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – Formerly known as “The Belle of 777”, the story of Anna Karenina tells of a simple girl working in the finance department of a foreign company who dreams of meeting a wealthy expat (preferably not much older than her grandfather), weekends in Japan, a child, and – if she’s lucky – an apartment.  Will Anna find a man and get her wishes before his wife finds out?

6. The 39 Steps by John Buchan – In this whirlwind action thriller we follow hero Richard Hannay through his work visa application process.

7. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown – A team of top engineers are tasked with decoding a commissioning procedure written by Julio Da Vinci, an Italian engineer who quit the project six months back without a handover.  This sad tale takes us through a journey of initial optimism which leads to despair, anguish, and ultimately, suicide.  Not for the faint hearted.

8. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare – A play set in the immediate aftermath of somebody having been caught not using a handrail.

9.  Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne – Phileas Fogg lives in London and has just signed up for a job in Sakhalin.  He has planned his route from London to Sakhalin via Moscow to perfection, but his employer has found an alternative route which will save them thirty-five dollars.  Unfortunately, this new route takes Fogg from London to Tirana on Albanian airlines where he must help refuel the aircraft upon arrival, and from there to Ankara by bus.  Leaving early in the morning eight days later, he will travel by taxi (the fare for which must be paid in daughters, sisters, or nieces) to Nagorno-Karabakh where Armenian bandits are enjoying shooting at Azeri soldiers who seem to have forgotten that the war ended 14 years ago.  Having served on an Azeri mortar crew for a period of no less than five weeks, Fogg will be permitted to walk to the coast of the Caspian Sea where, if he is lucky, he can catch a ferry across to Turkmenistan where, if he is lucky, he can avoid catching anything at all.  On the Turkmen-Uzbek border regular camel trains leave for Tashkent, which Fogg should make in about ten days if he avoids becoming somebody’s husband at the two-day stop in Kiva.  Assuming Fogg makes it, we can expect him to be crossing the Pamirs into Tadjikistan and onto China by the seventh week (or ninth if winter has set in) and making his way across the Gobi desert.  On the third day in the barren wilderness, he should turn northwards and into Russia where he will find himself in a barren wildnerness only with bears.  If he doesn’t loaf about he should make it to the Tatar Straits in good shape to strip to his undies, dive in the water, and strike out for the distant shore.  If he takes the recommended rest on Moneron Island, he should hit Kholmsk on the 79th day of his journey.  From there it is a simple day’s walk into Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, where he will find that nobody has arranged his accommodation and he has forgotten to bring his diploma.

10. The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas – A short story about a welder working for a local contractor who is forced to make his own PPE by his unscrupulous employers.


Andrew Meier’s Visit to Sakhalin

A couple of years ago I bought a book called Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After The Fall by Andrew Meier, and American journalist who spent 1996 to 2001 as Time magazine’s Moscow correspondent.  For one reason or another I never got round to reading it until now, and it appears I have been missing out on what is an excellent book.  But in one way I am glad I left it on the shelf so long, because one of the places Meier travels on his journey is Sakhalin Island, and obviously the chapter which he devotes to the place is a lot more meaningful to me now than a year ago. 

Meier opens the chapter with a quote, from an American who spent years on the island trying unsuccessfully to run its largest timber concern, which made me guffaw loudly.

I arrived on Sakhalin thinking Russia would be like Germany or Japan after the war.  But it turned out to be more like Germany or Japan during the war.

Yup.  That’s Sakhalin.


Obsessed? Me?

Books I have read over the past year:

Berlin: The Downfall, 1945, by Antony Beevor

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Among the Russians, by Colin Thubron

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk

Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia, by Peter Hopkirk

Putin’s Russia, by Anna Politkovskaya

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

Lost Heart of Asia, by Colin Thubron

In Siberia, by Colin Thubron

We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, by John Lewis Gaddis

Chasing the Sea:  Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, by Tom Bissell

Cancer Ward, by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia, by Catherine Merridale

Books I’m planning to read:

Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, by William Taubman

A Writer at War : Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, Vasily Grossman

Ivan’s War : Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, by Catherine Merridale

The Cold War: A New History, by John Lewis Gaddis

Black Earth: A Journey through Russia After the Fall, by Andrew Meier

In Denial: Historians, Communism, & Espionage, by John Earl Haynes & Harvey Klehr

God Lives in St. Petersburg, by Tom Bissell