Closing the books – 2020 edition

The geographical distribution (author’s country of birth) of my 2020 reading. (Guide on how to make this type of maps).

It is, finally, a New Year, and thus time for my final reading statistics post of 2020. All in all it has at least been a good reading year, in total I finished 141 books in 2020 (123 in 2019, 118 in 2018 and 99 in 2017), 63 by a woman, 76 by a man and 2 by multiple authors. Although the increase in books read may be partly due to a tendency to select less challenging reads and a higher proportion of comfort reads.

Decade of first publication for the books I read during 2020.

I may not have travelled very far physically in 2020, but fortunately my reading had no such problems. As in the previous years books by authors from UK (47), US (43) and Sweden (18) dominated my reading, but I have managed to read books written by authors from 23 countries (22 in 2019, 27 in 2018 and 21 in 2017), which I am fairly happy with.

Some 2020 reading highlights have included:

Even though I haven’t been very active this year, writing only 19 blog posts, book blogging remains my primary place for bookish discussions, so I am very happy for all of you who keep visiting and commenting, thank you!

Most visited blog posts in 2020

I wish you all a happy new reading year!

Eight Ex Libris

Winter river

Last year I began placing bookplates in my favourite books, creating a sort of core library with the books I treasure the most, the ones I believe I will keep forever. These books of course included my best reads, but also books cherished because they were gifts or particularly beautiful (and good, beauty alone is not enough to earn an Ex Libris in my library). I also keep a record of the selected titles, why they were selected, and make a note anytime I reread them. I have found it to be a good way to take the time to consider my books and what they mean to me.

Last year, the first year I had my own Ex Libris, I added it to sixty books, this year I have added it to another eight.

The first one I added was Howl’s moving castle by Diana Wynne Jones. This is a book I loved as a kid and still enjoyed when I reread it January. Books that are equally good on a reread are always good candidates for a bookplate, and this was also a particularly beautiful edition.

Trollkarlens hatt (Finn Family Moomin) by Tove Jansson was my second addition. All Moomin books are per definitions suitable for my Ex libris collection, but last year I did not have a good edition of this novel and now I do. This one is perhaps the most cheerful of the Moomin novels and was thus a perfect reread during a dreary March.

A woman in the polar night by Christiane Ritter. Well written arctic memoirs will always find a home on my bookshelves. This was a first time read, but one I had been longing to read ever since I discovered it in German in Longyearbyen. Finally it is available in English again.

My father has a copy of Asken Yggdrasil, a retelling of Norse myths by Alf Henriksson, and his copy was probably* my first real exposure to Norse mythology. This year I finally got my own copy and found it to still be a very good read.

Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (The wonderful adventures of Nils) by Selma Lagerlöf. Another book I read in my childhood and reread this year. Although physical travels have been difficult this year, this book allowed me to travel with the geese all over Sweden.

My family and other animals is Gerald Durrell’s entertaining memoir of his Corfu childhood. I read this one last year and loved it then and, as it turned out to be equally fun on a reread, it was an obvious choice for my Ex Libris collection.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier was a first time read and one of my best reads this year. I’m already looking forward to rereading it.

Black hole survival guide by Janna Levin was a Christmas gift. As a teenager I read plenty of popular science but since I became a scientist I find that much of it, even when related to fields I haven’t studied, to be either adapted for readers without a science background, and therefore often too simplified for me, or too technical to be read for pure entertainment. Janna Levin is an exception. She avoids most of the standard features of popular science astronomy books and goes directly for the more intriguing and abstract concepts and ideas, and does so without being particularly technical. It doesn’t hurt either that she is also a very good writer.

*My local library had the Danish Valhalla comics so it is possible that I read them first

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Agatha Christie sometimes have plots were the solution hinges on an objective look on the more immutable facts without all the distractions. Who died? Who gained? By keeping our intentions elsewhere, on alibis and presumed motives etc., she can distract us from those most basic questions until the final reveal. Only then does she change our perspective so that the new, often simpler, pattern of the crime emerges.

Reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier I was reminded of those kinds of perspective changes. Although a different type of storyteller, Daphne du Maurier too excels at shifting the perspective along the way, honestly giving hints to the objective facts of the plot, but making sure that the reader has their attention focused elsewhere at the time. As the story twists and turns so does the readers perspective.

I read Rebecca for the first time a few weeks back, but still find myself thinking back on it and looking forward to a reread when all the major plot points will be known by me and I can observe the author working behind the scenes to set it all up. While the perspective changes was what made me most impressed it was also a satisfying books in other ways, entertaining and easily read, with descriptions lush enough to enchant even a mostly non-visual reader as myself, and an intriguing plot. I will certainly read more books by Daphne du Maurier.

Frozen forest

I have been reading quite a lot lately, but seem to have no energy left to write down my thoughts. The weather is not helping, it seems to have been dark and wet and dreary for a long time now, but awhile back we did have one or two days with the most gorgeous hoar frost. I walked through a nearby forest then, transformed into a fairy land for the day, and took lots of photos. If I can’t get snow for Christmas I wouldn’t mind another round of this…

Bookshelf travelling

Last time I did bookshelf travelling I selected one that could carry me around the world, but this week I stay firmly within my comfort zone. This shelf is primarily dedicated to crime fiction but starting to the left you also see an odd collection of pocket books, brought together by their format and the fact that they fitted nowhere else.

In the middle is a collection of crime fiction picked-up in various second-hand bookshops. Most of them are from the seventies, which means that the cover art is great but that their condition is not. In this part you can find Agatha Christie in three languages, English, Norwegian and Swedish. I find that she loses very little from translation and the pacing and relative shortness of the novels was perfect when I wanted to get used to reading Norwegian. Dorothy Sayers is also represented and so is W. E. Johns with Biggles.

To the right is a pile of British Library Crime classics, including all my favourite ones, especially E. C. R. Lorac and Michael Gilbert. In fact, I only keep the ones I particularly liked, so all the books in the pile are worth a read if you like old-school crime fiction.

Hidden behind the other books is a row of modern crime friction, including my favourite among the Swedish crime fiction authors; Åsa Larsson. All in all this is a shelf full of good comfort reads.

Bookshelf travelling is currently hosted by Katrina at Pining for the West.

Bookshelf travelling

While physical travelling is difficult this year bookshelf travelling is still perfectly possible, hence the meme Bookshelf travelling in insane times, which was started by Judith at Reader in the Wilderness and is now hosted by Katrina at Pining for the West. As I love spying on other people’s bookshelf I have long followed the posts, but this is the first time I am joining myself, starting off with what is perhaps my most far reaching shelf. This is a bit of an odd shelf, featuring my books from three quality publishers, Peirene press, Bakhåll förlag (Swedish) and Virago, as well as books of similar type and literary quality from other publishers.

Browsing it takes me from 19th Century Russia (The Boarding-School Girl and City folk and country folk), through the Russian revolution (When Miss Emmie was in Russia) and all the way to modern Russia (Other Russias). Peirene press, one of my favorite publishers, bring me all over Europe and also for a short trip to Libya (Under the Tripoli Sky). North Africa, in this case Morocco, is also featured in Abdellah Taïa’s An Arab Melancholia, whereas Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus brings me to Nigeria.

I have only a single stop in Asia on this shelf, Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange weather in Tokyo, before taking off to south America where César Aira (The Lime Tree and The Seamstress and the Wind) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor) awaits. There I also meet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who is hanging out in Argentina in his novel Night Flight.

Farther north the US is represented by Anne Fadiman, Maya Angelou and Truman Capote, while Tanya Tagaq brings me to Canada. From there I return to Sweden where I encounter Elin Wägner and Ester Blenda Nordström (e.g. A maid among maids)

Finally I make it back to Europe again where I meet-up with Virginia Woolf, Muriel Spark, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Edith Olivier, Elizabeth Taylor and Winifred Holtby in the UK, and with Kate O’Brien and Molly Keane in Ireland.

All in all this is one of my favorite shelves, full of excellent reading destinations

1956 in children’s literature

Kjerringa som ble så lita som ei teskje (Mrs. Pepperpot) by Alf Prøysen

Mrs. Pepperpot, or teskedsgumman/teskjekjerringa as she is called in Norwegian and Swedish, is the protagonist in a series of children’s book by Alf Prøysen. Every time she gets particularly busy she tends to suddenly shrink to the size of a tea spoon (tesked/teskje). Fortunately she instead gains the ability to speak with animals and this, together with her wit, allows her to solve the various problems her miniature size causes.

My impression is that these are stories that ought to be read aloud for a fairly young child. In many ways the stories resemble classical Norwegian fairy tales and the language, in the Norwegian version written in dialect, should be well-suited for reading aloud. Unfortunately I had no child to test this on and read silently I found the stories a bit short and simple and not that interesting for an adult reader.

See also Marina Sofia’s review of Little Old Mrs. Pepperpot.

Versailles

Captain of Dragoons by Ronald Welch

The Carey novels are a series of historical fiction novels centred around British history (mostly war history) and all following a member of the fictional Carey family. In Captain of Dragoons the focus is on Charles Carey, a Captain in the Duke of Marlborough’s army.

I am always interested in a good adventure story and Captain of Dragoons indeed feature thrilling events such as duels, espionage and daring escapes, but for some reason I failed to connect with the main character, which made all of it a bit flat. All in all I found it fairly well-written for the genre and I did enjoy it, but it would probably have been more interesting if I had a bit more of an interest in UK history.

Gravel road through a summer landscape.

Rasmus på luffen (Rasmus and the Vagabond) by Astrid Lindgren

I have saved my favourite for last. Of course you never go very wrong with Astrid Lindgren and Rasmus and the Vagabond, despite being one of her lesser known books, is a lovely book. I don’t think I have read it before but I vaguely remember the TV-series.

The protagonist Rasmus is a nine-year-old orphan. After having been once again rejected by a pair of potential parents, who instead picked a curly haired girl, he decides to run away from the orphanage to find some parents for himself. As an adult I could see multiple ways this could go wrong but fortunately the first person he meets is Paradis Oskar, a friendly vagabond who takes him under his wings. Less fortunately they soon encounter a pair of robbers who tries to blame Oskar for their deeds.

As an adult reader the robber-plot was the least interesting part of the story, although I’m sure it would have been thrilling to the intended audience. I was however very much invested in Rasmus quest to find himself some parents. Rasmus is a lovely portrait of a sensitive, affection starved boy, and his friendship with Oskar is very sweet.

My family and other animals by Gerald Durrell

In addition to the books above I have recently reread Gerald Durrell’s childhood memoir My family and other animals, which is one of my favourite memoirs, and which was also first published in 1956. I have previously reviewed it here, and can now confirm that it is well-worth a reread.

For other great reads from 1956 you should visit Karen at Kaggsy’s bookish ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a book, the two hosts of the 1956Club.

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils

In 1906-1907 Selma Lagerlöf published The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (orig. Nils Holgerssons underbara resa), a book she had been commissioned to write as a geography textbook for Swedish school children. Rather than writing a normal, boring, textbook she wanted it to be exciting and interesting, while still being educational. The result was the story about Nils Holgersson, who angered the local tomte on his family farm in southern Sweden, and as a punishment got shrunk until he too was small as a tomte. In this new miniaturized state, he travelled with the wild geese all the way from his family home in the far south, to the mountains in northernmost Sweden and back, visiting all the Swedish regions along the way.

While the plot itself is simple, shaped like a classical morality tale, what stands out is Lagerlöf’s storyteller abilities and the way she makes the landscapes come to life. In a time when few children would have travelled much farther than the next village, it must have been especially fascinating to follow Nils’ travels (and by air no less!). Lagerlöf gives all Swedish regions memorable and accurate descriptions (Skåne seen from above is e.g. described like a chequered cloth, with fields and pastures forming the squares) and tell not only of Nils’ many adventures along the way but also retells old myths and stories from each region. The result is a novel which has not only been used in Swedish schools but which has been reprinted again and again, translated into 40 languages, listed on Le Monde’s list of 100 books of the century, and filmed multiple times. It is very far from your ordinary geography textbook. In 1909 Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman to be awarded the Noble Prize in Literature (although not primarily for Nils Holgersson).

I had read about Nils, adventures as a child, but unfortunately not in school where we instead read a bland story about a boy and his cat travelling through Sweden, clearly inspired by Lagerlöf but with none of her genius. However, I wanted to reread it as an adult and therefore added it to my Classics club reading list. This summer, when I was finally able to return to Sweden for vacation after months of closed borders, it was lovely to imagine travelling freely with the geese. It ended up being one of my favourite reads this summer.

Lappland

Summer reading

Swedish mountain

The summer vacation is unfortunately already over, but despite the odds I did get my usual mountain summer filled with hiking and reading. It is always a bit hard to return home, although I have to admit that it is lovely to again have access to hot showers…

This year I have read more than usual, a total of 101 books since January. This is probably largely due to a stronger than usual inclination to go for easy reads, many of them unmemorable, but I have had some real reading highlights during the summer. I have been thrilled by Doctor Glas, Hjalmar Söderberg’s tale about the morality of murder, read creepy ghost stories by Dan Andersson in Det kallas vidskepelse and travelled through Sweden in Selma Lagelöf’s The wonderful adventures of Nils, the latter particularly relevant in a time when travel is again difficult. I have also read two excellent, but rather different, short story collections, The thing around your neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jag ser allt du gör (I see all you do) by Annika Norlin. All of these are highly recommended. In addition my recent discovery of the high quality publisher Archipelago Books, helped me ensure that not everything I read came from European or North American authors.

While my weeks outside internet coverage have been wonderfully restful, they have also meant that I am hopelessly behind on everyone’s blogs. So if any of you have read anything you particularly want to recommend this summer, I would be happy to hear about it in the comments…

read_aug2020
Map showing the author’s country of origin for all my 2020 reads

 

Personal book canon – a self portrait in books

Glacier

The classics club asks for our personal book canons, which is a topic I love to discuss. I have previously written a bit about my personal book canon and about some of the books that are especially important to me. This time I want to focus not on the best books I have read, but on the ones that I feel have had the greatest influence on me.

These are the books I believe shaped me

Childhood

Growing up in Sweden it is very hard not to be heavily influenced by Astrid Lindgren. If you haven’t read the books yourself, chances are that someone read them for you, or you watched the TV-series or went to Astrid Lindgrens värld, the nice family park dedicated to her characters. In my case it was all of the above. Somewhat later I discovered the Narnia books, which I read and reread until I almost knew them by heart.

  • Findus and the fox (Rävjakten), picture book by Sven Nordqvist.
  • Who will comfort Toffle? (Vem ska trösta knyttet?) picture book by Tove Jansson.
  • All of Astrid Lindgren’s more famous works but especially Brothers Lionheart and Ronia the Robber’s Daughter.
  • Island of the blue dolphins by Scott O’Dell, the first chapter book I read on my own.
  • The Moomin series by Tove Jansson.
  • The chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
  • Momo by Michael Ende

Teenager

I read lots of Fantasy as a teenager, but little of it has stayed with me. The Harry Potter books came when I was already a teenager, so they had less influence on me than they might have had, but I still remember them fondly.

What did stay with me though was Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem, which I was a bit obsessed with. I also read all the Arctic and Antarctic literature in the local library, which certainly influenced me.

  • Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
  • Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh
  • Shackleton’s incredible voyage by Alfred Lansing
  • Antarktisboken describing the Norwegian–British–Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949–1952, main author John Giæver
  • Mot 90 grader syd by Monica Kristensen
  • Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
  • 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
  • City of My Dreams by Per Anders Fogelström
  • Kastanjeallén by Dea Trier Mørch
  • Gaudy night by Dorothy Sayers

Student

As a student my hobby reading was mostly crime fiction, much of it enjoyable but little of it memorable. I did however learn more about glaciers, sang a lot of Bellman songs, and discovered both The Summer Book and Jane Austen. Oh, and I wrote a thesis, I guess that technically counts as a book too.

More recent additions

With more recent reads it is more difficult to identify the ones that made a lasting impact and it was very tempting to just list excellent books I have recently read. However, I have tried to stick to books which I believe have influenced me more than others.