The Brothers Lionheart

A few years back I wrote a post explaining why everyone needs to read The Brothers Lionheart. This novel is known as one of the greatest classics in Scandinavian children’s literature, and with good reason. Although superficially a rather classical fantasy novel, it deals with questions of death, courage and family love in a way that few adult novels can match. It is a bit divisive, and certainly unusually dark for a middle grade fantasy, but it is also beautiful and though-provoking. I consider it one of my favourite novels all categories.

The last time I wrote about The Brothers Lionheart I carefully avoided spoilers but I just finished another reread and this time I want to discuss it properly. This blog post will therefore contain some rather large spoilers, including of the ending. Those of you who are bothered by spoilers and didn’t take my advice last time might want to stop reading here and go and read the book instead (it’s not a long read and, in my opinion, definitely worth it!).

View over a cloud covered landscape

That this is not our usual middle grade fantasy novel is clear from the beginning. Already on the first pages we learn that our narrator, nine-year old Karl/Skorpan/Rusky, is dying and afraid. His one comfort is his older brother Jonatan, who tells him stories about Nangiyala, the afterlife, a land full of adventures. And then not Karl but Jonatan dies, leaving Karl behind as the book reaches its darkest point, about 15 pages in. By the time we reach the third chapter Karl is dead too and as an emotional reader I’m definitely crying.

It is certainly a rough beginning, especially on adult readers, who might have a hard time believing in Nangiyala, but fortunately the novel doesn’t stay in that darkness. Instead things brighten considerably as Karl reaches the Cherry Valley, a beautiful valley in Nangiyala where Karl is no longer ill but able to run and swim and fish and ride, and above all to reunite with his beloved older brother.

Alas, that cheerful interlude can not last, gradually it is revealed that not all is not well in paradise either. What follows is plot-wise a rather traditional fantasy story with good vs. evil, just set in the after-life, but Lindgren uses that well known format to tackle some fairly heavy questions, and to prepare her readers for the ending, which in some ways is just as shocking as the beginning, only this time we are better prepared to face it.

Unreliable narrator?

A few things in the novel seem suspicious to an adult reader. Jonatan is rather young considering the things that he does in the novel, not to mention suspiciously perfect. It makes sense in one way as we see him from his younger brother’s perspective, and it is very clear that Karl loves and idolizes Jonatan, but from an adult’s perspective Jonatan does seem a bit too good to be true. There are also a number of convenient coincidences in the plot and a few allusions to Nangiyala as a “place where you get all you have wished for” and “part of an old-time dream” (my translations), all tempting a skeptical adult to suspect that Karl might not be a reliable narrator. That what we are reading is his feverish dreams, and that he only really dies at the end of the book. In that reading we get a beautiful but sad story of a young boy who uses the memories of his brother’s love and stories to find the courage to face his own death.

Explaining everything away as a dream is usually, rightly, considered a lazy way out for an author, but that reading assumes that Karl is in fact an unreliable narrator. Lindgren clearly opened the story for such an interpretation, but although it is always tempting to assume that the hidden and cynical read is the truer one, I am not sure that it applies in this case. Lindgren was a children’s author and she always wrote primarily for the child. It can thus easily be argued that the straight-forward read, assuming Karl to be a reliable narrator, is the primary one and that the alternate unreliable narrator variety was something she left for those of us too old and cynical to approach the story with child-like wonder. Either way the two alternate interpretations runs beautifully in parallel through the text, telling us a story about death and love and courage on whatever level we are ready to appreciate it.

Various things I like about the book

  • I love that it is so full of love. It may be dark but through it runs a thread of brotherly love strong enough to conquer death. I find that very hopeful.
  • I like that it shows courage as being afraid but doing the right thing anyway. Whereas Jonatan’s heroism is that of a fairy tale hero, and thus rather hard to live up to, Karl’s scared heroics seem more achievable, and in the end they are shown to be just as great.
  • I appreciate that it makes me face my own mortality, but also that it reminds me that it can be met with love and courage.
  • I like that it doesn’t glorify violence. That is a hard thing to accomplish when a central premise of the story is the fight between good and evil, but in this story the main heroes are a pacifist and his younger brother, neither of which is doing any fighting, but who are still shown to be true heroes. The ending is also in line with this message in that it shows that even a fight for the best of causes, there is one in the story, although our heroes are not fighting in it, will still cause irreparable harm. That even when necessary, and it is hard to describe the fight against Tengil’s tyranny as anything but, there are no pure happy endings after a war.

So is it a sad book? Yes, but it is also a hopeful book filled with death-defying love. I find it very comforting.

Have you read it? What did you think about it? I would love to discuss it with you! (With spoilers obviously, this is not a book that can easily be discussed in a spoiler-free way).

Further reading

The dangerous temptations of literature

I was in the mood for some classical crime and as I had none unread I went for a reread of Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison. The mystery was of course still good, I find that Sayers’ novels work well also on a reread, but what struck me particularly this time was the sweet omelette eaten in one of the scenes. A sweet omelette with jam, is that really a thing? All the omelettes I have had up to now have been salt and savoury.

This called for an experiment. Unfortunately the description in the book was not really a enough for a recipe, so I picked the easiest one I could find online instead. In it 1 egg, 1 teaspoon of sugar and 1 table spoon of flour was beaten together in a cup, fried in butter and served directly with berries or jam. Definitely tasty!

I am sure the more advanced recipes I found would have made it even better, but it was good enough to convince me that sweet omelettes are a thing, and that they make for a very nice snack. Thank you Dorothy Sayers!

Earlier temptations: Maple syrup candy

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

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

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.

Organizing my library

Bookshelf

Short summary: On how I spent a day rearranging my library in a new, less practical, way.

I do rearrange my bookshelves once in a while, mostly for practical reasons, but I never thought videoconferencing would be what prompted me. However, recently it started to bother me that the only shelves that were visible during conference calls were the ones with my unread books. In the unlikely case that someone asks me about one of them I would prefer it to be about a book I have read. Fortunately I found that my nature related books used approximately the same amount of space as my To Be Read -shelves, so I could have just let them change place. However, I had a bit too much time on my hands, and as I have written about before I enjoy combining my books in new ways, so I went for a less straightforward option.

In a large library a logical organization by e.g. genre and/our author name is of course necessary, but mine is not yet of a size where finding things is a problem, and thus I have more options. In this case I decided that rather than keeping my nature and science non-fiction together, as any sensible library owner would, I would mix them with memoirs, essays and even fiction of tangential relevance, hopefully finding new and unexpected links between them. I thus placed my ornithology field guides together with Bannerhed’s novel Korparna (the Ravens) and Durrell’s memoir Birds, beasts and relatives, all featuring birds in prominent roles, and placed my nature centred poetry among my Floras. Objectively the result is less practical than it was before, but it does make me happy to see weird collections like this one on my shelf:

  • The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy by Douglas Adams (fiction)
  • A fieldguide to getting lost by Rebecca Solnit (essay collection/memoir)
  • The gentle art of tramping by Stephen Graham (a guide to “tramping” from 1926)
  • Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski (travelogue/memoir) and
  • Trekking in Greenland (actual guidebook)
  • Strövtåg by Sven Rosendahl (“Ramblings”, nature essays)

I find these titles much more intriguing when placed together like this than any of them would be if placed alone or with more expected company.

I do have a sneaking suspicion that my urge to rearrange, and indeed this whole blog post, is a sure sign of me having spend a bit too much time at home lately, but at least I have a good excuse…

How do the rest of you organize your books? Anyone else favouring weird systems that are impenetrable to anyone but yourself?

Status report

Spring morning

Spring has hopefully finally decided to stick-around, the birch leaves are out and my walk paths are getting lovelier each day. Overall things are fine around here, which makes me feel a little bit guilty and very very grateful. Apart from having to switch to online teaching things have changed surprisingly little. I have lived far from my family ever since I moved abroad and with everyone coming online I almost have closer contact with them than I am used to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What has changed is the amount of reading I have done, 41 books in the first four months, way above my average. Most of it has been comfort reads though, a clear sign of troubled times. In the last few months I have focused on crime classics, Moomin novels, and Science fiction (mostly Martha Wells’ murderbot series). Adding only Fredman’s epistles to my Classics club reading challenge and staying mostly in Europe and North America.

read_janapr2020

Reading highlights

Closing the books – 2019 edition

read_2019
The geographical distribution (author’s country of birth) of my 2019 reading. (Guide on how to make this type of maps).

A year has ended which means that I once again get to use all the data that I have collected in my trusted reading spreadsheet during the year.

All in all it has been a good reading year, in total I finished 123 books in 2019 (118 in 2018 and 99 in 2017), 51 by a woman, 52 by a man and 20 by multiple authors.

read_2019_decade.png
Decade of first publication for the books I read during 2019.

As in the previous years books by authors from UK (46), US (33) and Sweden (11) dominated my reading, but I managed to read books written by authors from 22 countries (27 in 2018 and 21 in 2017). Although the numbers are down a bit from 2018 I am still happy with them as they indicate that even without the reading challenge I participated in in 2017 and 2018, I still keep reading fairly widely. Among books not originally written in English or Swedish, my favourites this year was The Good Shepherd by Gunnar Gunnarsson (Iceland), Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag (India) and The three-body problem by Cixin Liu (China).

Some other 2019 reading highlights have included:

2019 was also the year I rediscovered how much fun Science Fiction novels can be and I made heavy use of Baen’s free library to try new authors (their free anthologies are especially great for that).

I also got my first proper ex libris, which made me really consider what my physical books actually mean to me. 60 of the books that are most important to me now carry a bookplate and I plan to add ca 1 book per month to that number from here on.

Book blogging has also remained important to me, although I have been somewhat less active than in 2018. It is 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 2019

I wish you all a happy new reading year!

 

Memories around books

text

I come from a family where reading is valued and books abundant, something which has undoubtedly shaped my taste (and given me an academic advantage). Books matter to me, not just as vessels for text, but as objects. The first thing I do when I spend more than one night in a new place is to place all the books I brought or bought somewhere where I can see them. In my eyes a shelf of books will always make a home more inviting, something I believe most book-lovers would agree on (and most real estate agents would question). Books may not be all I need to make a place a home but they are a good start.

After spending a few days handling my books as I selected which ones to place an ex libris in and carefully glued it on, I have started to think deeper about books as objects. Vessel of information/entertainment, object of beauty, identity marker, status symbol, paperweight, memorabilia and link to previous readers, there are so many roles a book can potentially fill. Of course in most cases the text is what is important, in which case the best answer to the eternal paper book vs ebook question is probably whatever is most convenient. However, the last few days have reminded me of just how full of memories some of my books are. Memories of past reads, of the person who gave the book to me or of the time I bought them. For some books those memories are more important to me than the actual texts.

I have really enjoyed spending some time with my books and rediscovering those memories. As of now 34 of my books have gotten bookplates, which feels like a good starting point. I also have a notebook where I write a few notes on each book I label, to remind myself why they are important to me. So those books are properly catalogued, even though none of my other books are.

I have found the whole process to be a good reminder of just why I like to surround myself with physical books, something I didn’t expect when I first decided that I wanted my own bookplates. I guess rearranging my bookshelves might have fulfilled the same purpose of spending time with my books, but this was more fun.

What about you, which roles do your books fill?