Easter time is the time to read crime novels in Norway (påskekrim) and as I pretend to be a well-integrated foreigner I will of course join in. I’m really looking forward to it too as I have a major work-deadline right before Easter which is currently eating most of my reading and blogging time.
However, I need some help, I don’t know what to read. I love classic crime so I’m thinking a nice pile of 3-4 British Library Crime Classics or similar would be perfect but I don’t know which ones to choose. Anyone have any favourites to recommend? I like both the classic locked room mysteries and the more adventurous varieties. I would love to have some great cosy reads to look forward to while I work…
I read The Little House in the Big Forest as a child and, although I have forgotten much of it, one scene in particular has stayed with me. I am of course thinking of the time they made candy out of maple syrup. As a child the thought of making candy in the snow was endlessly fascinating to me and I lamented the lack of sugar maples in Sweden.
However, it is said that it is never to late to have a happy childhood and I finally realized that I didn’t need a sugar maple, just ordinary maple syrup and the fresh new-fallen snow outside. Tonight I have finally fulfilled that particular childhood dream and although I may have eaten a bit too much I have no regrets. Thank you Laura Ingalls Wilder!
Read books since I started the reading challenge in January 2017.
I did it! I have read books by authors from 30 nations (if I include Sápmi which I do). Not in a year which was the original challenge but in a bit under 1.5 years. I struggled a bit in the beginning but gradually I got better at finding great books from countries I normally don’t read from and I became braver in my reading choices.
What have I learnt?
In the beginning I was a bit too ambitious in my reading choices which slowed down my progress. If my goal had been to read one book per country and never return it would have made sense to make that one book really count. However, that’s not what I was trying to do. Instead I was gradually expanding my reading comfort zone and for that it helped to keep it simple. Often the cultural context of a novel was unfamiliar and it made more sense to select books that was not too demanding in other ways. I therefore dropped any ambition that the books I selected had to be particularly literary and I preferentially opted for shorter novels. Along the way I also got better at finding great literature in translation, identified a few interesting indie publishers and found many excellent international bloggers .
Good sources of literature in translation
And other stories publishes an eclectic collection of mostly translated fiction. Among them The Lime Tree by César Aira (which I liked) and The Seamstress and the Wind by the same author (which I found too weird).
My favourite discovery in translated fiction has been Peirene Press which publishes translated fiction by mostly European authors. I would have preferred a wider reach but Peirene Press has some other advantages that makes up for it. Most importantly all the books I have read from them (3) have been excellent. They also only publish shorter works (maximum about 200 pages) which makes me much more willing to risk trying a new author. And I like the look of their books…
I would like to add more links here, please let me know if you have recommendations of similar resources from other regions (excluding literature from the UK and the US which is easy to find anyway).
I won’t start another reading challenge rightaway but I will keep tracking author’s country or origin for my reading. Hopefully it will show that I keep exploring new reading grounds. Next year I consider once more trying to limit my book buying but to give myself a free pass for books from countries I normally don’t read from to encourage more diverse reading choices.
It may be because I spend too much time musing in front of my bookshelves rather than actually reading my books but I really enjoy rearranging my bookshelves (to a moderate extent of course). My library (that is, the part of my living room where my bookcases live) is not large enough for the books to actually need to be sorted in alphabetical order and as I’m the primary user I instead try sort them in ways that makes sense to me. Mostly that means that I place books that I feel somehow belong together adjacent to each other in the bookshelves but there are often multiple interesting ways to that. My books by Lewis Carroll for example give a different impression next to my books about the history of mathematics than they would have if I had placed them among my children’s books. That also means that every time I reorganize my bookshelves I get to see some of my books in a new light.
Moving is of course the major reason for re-sorting a library. After one move I placed all my “books I find brilliant by woman authors” in age order on the same shelf and could suddenly see a line of great authors stretching back to Sei Shōnagon. Rather than individual authors they became part of a great history.
As in any categorizing effort I of course ended up with multiple difficult decisions. What if I loved one book by an author (A Room of Ones Own) but struggled with another (Mrs Dalloway) should I place one of them on the brilliant books shelf and the other in the general fiction section or prioritize keeping them together (and if so, where)? Should I include children’s books? What with books that could be placed on this shelf but also really should be placed in one of my other categories? To solve these issues I allowed myself to make some rather arbitrary decisions. Woolf and Sayers got one work each on my canon bookshelf with their other works shelved in other places whereas I kept all my Tove Jansson’s adult fiction together for now. I excluded children’s books not to overcrowd the shelf although that sadly excludes Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren which is otherwise a key work in my personal book canon. The final result may not be my ultimate personal book canon but it is close enough for now.
These are the books that currently live on my brilliant books bookshelf:
The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon
The collected works by Jane Austen
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Mörkret som ger glädjen djup and Love Story of the Century by Märta Tikkanen
The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Bloody Chamber and other stories by Angela Carter
Kastanjeallén by Dea Trier Mørch
I find it very satisfying that whenever the world tries to tell me about a literary canon filled by male authors with only the rare woman scattered in it I can look in my own bookshelf and see an unbroken line of brilliant female authors and know that there is more than one truth.
I once brought some Jack London novels to a remote Arctic area thinking that nothing could be more appropriate than sitting in my own tent reading about the cold, hard lives of dogs, wolves and people in the Arctic. It turned out I was wrong. When I actually lay there in my sleeping bag I wanted nothing more than the second-hand warmth of Jane Austen’s novels (I had brought a well-filled e-reader so fortunately that was an option). I realized that actual cold requires books that will keep you warm and comfortable (and this even though my visit was in the summer time so no real hardship).
I thus suggest that the following winter-themed books all benefit from hot cocoa, a fire in the fire-place and a winter storm safely on the other side of a 3-glass window.
Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson
This novel tells the story of the time when the Moomintroll unexpectedly woke too early from his winter sleep and of his explorations of the cold, white, winter world outside. Although officially a children’s book it is well worth reading for adults too.
Sun storm (UK: The Savage Altar) by Åsa Larsson
If you are looking for a classic Scandinavian crime novel Åsa Larsson is my favourite. Her first book, Sun storm, takes place in Kiruna (north Sweden) in midwinter so expect plenty of cold.
The Expedition by Bea Uusma
This book follows the ill-fated Andrée expedition towards the North Pole and the author’s long and personal quest to find out what actually happened to it. This is a surprisingly thrilling history and deservedly won a major Swedish non-fiction award in 2013.
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Let’s first take a closer look at the actual list. It’s called “100 books to read in a lifetime” and consists of both children and adult books, fiction and non-fiction. Out of the 100 authors, 73 are US citizens (6 of these have or have had additional citizenships) and of the remaining 27, 13 are from the UK. Ninety-three of the books were written in English. It also includes non-fiction books covering US politics, heroes and baseball which would never make any “Top 100” lists outside of the US. It is also very light on non-fiction (and fiction) covering the rest of the world. A more accurate title might thus be “100 books for an American to read in a lifetime”.
I followed Brittany’s suggestion and found that I had read 22 of the titles and that I recognized either the title or the author for 59 of them (I may slightly underestimate the real values here in cases where I know the Swedish title but not the English). However, if I only look at the non-US authors I find that I have read 44% of the books (12) and recognize 89% (24) which could indicate that these are on average better known internationally (based on the very questionable assumption that I’m at all representative for non-US readers in general).
The original Amazon list had two stated goals; that the list would cover all stages of a life and not feel like homework. Considering that we are talking about Amazon I’m guessing that they also had the additional goal of including books that would sell well. Based on the contents of the list I would also say that it is either aimed at US readers, compiled by editors who mostly know US literature or a combination of both.
So why would I be interested in which 100 books Amazon US wants people to read? The short answer is that I’m not, but I’m interested in “Best books”-lists in general. Many of them apparently aim at listing some sort of universally true selection of “Most Important Texts” which is interesting but obviously impossible. No list editor can completely avoid bias, they haven’t read every text, won’t enjoy everything and may have specific cultural bias which narrows their selection (which doesn’t mean the resulting lists are not often both interesting and useful). They may try to minimize the bias (e.g. by adding co-editors with a different background) but some of it will always remain.
Alternatively the list-editors may embrace their biases, instead of eliminating them they may state them outright (or just make it obvious as in the Amazon list case). The US bias of the Amazon list would indicate that it is a relevant list for anyone who has the same bias (e.g. Americans) or who are interested in that point-of-view but probably irrelevant for anyone else. In this case it means that the Amazon list is probably currently irrelevant for me but that could change, e.g. if I decided to move to the US (unlikely) and wanted to understand the culture better. By knowing the (major) biases of the list editors it is easier to find the lists that are actually relevant for me. I would be interested in the same type of lists from other parts of the world, either with editors with a similar bias as my own (as they would probably select books I would be interested in) or from parts of the world I feel I know too little about. US media, however, already gets more than its fair share of my time so I’m not really interesting in using this particular list to expand my reading.
I’m fairly sure that I’m the only one really interested in the details of my reading during 2017 but the ending of the year provide a perfect excuse to indulge in charts and statistics and so I will.
In total I read 99 books during 2017. Most of these (56%) were by UK or US authors but I managed to read books by authors from 21 countries* which I’m reasonably proud of, although I failed my ultimate goal of 30 countries. It is however embarrassing that I didn’t manage to read a single book by an author from the African continent so I will have to do something about that in 2018.
Out of the 99 books I read, 15 were re-reads, 35 were bought this year and 22 were e-books (mostly from Project Gutenberg or the library). 52 of them were in English, 38 in Swedish and 9 in Norwegian. I found that I read books by roughly as many men (49%) as women (44%) and published during 20 different decades. So all in all a reasonably varied reading list and I discovered some great books during 2017.
I also began blogging more regularly and published 16 blog posts between May and December 2017. (My very first post was already in November 2016 but then it took until May before I wrote my second post and the blog really got started). The most popular one was my Classics Club book list but my favourite one talked about literary whales.
For anyone actually reading this post, thank you! I’m grateful for every reader and hope to keep posting a few posts per month through 2018.
*I counted Nils-Aslak Valkeapää to Sápmi rather than Finland so it wasn’t just countries.