Reading books by authors from 30 countries

World map

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).

Ayebia specialises in literature by African and Carribean authors. I’m currently enjoying their anthology African Love Stories (edited by Ama Ata Aidoo). Thank you Darkowaa for the review that introduced me to it!

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…

A few relevant blog posts I found along the way

Beginner’s guide to Baltic Literature by Agnese

Ann Morgan’s list of books from her blog “A year of reading the world”

Darkowaa’s list of Ghanaian authors and their books (3 part series, links to the two first parts can be found at the end of her post).

Stuart at Winstondad’s Blog have also reviewed a wide range of translated fiction (sorted by country).

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).

What’s next?

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.

 

 

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A selection of brilliant books

Mountain sunset

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
  • Selected poems by Emily Dickinson
  • Gösta Berlings’s saga by Selma Lagerlöf
  • A Room of Ones Own by Virginia Woolf
  • Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
  • The Summer Book and various short stories collections by Tove Jansson
  • 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.

This blog post was inspired by a discussion on Calmgrove’s blog about various ways to link different books. I was also inspired by this article about the art of unpacking a library from The Paris Review.

Midwinter reading recommendations

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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.

Fiction

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.

Non-fiction

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

The Worst Journey in the World is one of the classic Antarctic memoirs. It is written by one of the younger, surviving members of Scott’s South Pole expedition (not part of the final South Pole team). The fact that it was written by a junior expedition member makes it perhaps more personal than most memoirs from this time. (This book can be found for free on Project Gutenberg, I recommend the illustrated version).

 

Why openly biased lists may sometimes be a good thing

DSC_0905Brittany at Perfectly Tolerable started an interesting meme based on the Amazon (US) 100 books to read in a lifetime list. This list is quite obviously aimed at an US audience (as noted by Paula at Book Jotter) but I’ve been thinking about the various biases of “Must read lists” for awhile so I will use this list as an example and discuss why I think that lists with a clear bias can be a good thing.

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.

Closing the books

Map indicating the countries I've read from in 2017

Read_2017_countries
Author’s country of origin

In which I summarize my year of 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.

Read_2017_gender
Author’s gender

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.

Read_2017_decade
Number of books read per decade published

*I counted Nils-Aslak Valkeapää to Sápmi rather than Finland so it wasn’t just countries.

It is the season for lists

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In which I make various lists of my favourite 2017 reads.

A great thing about late December is looking back on the year and consider memorable events, or in the case of a book blog, reads.

Another great thing is how easy it makes it to find a topic for a blog post.

I thus here present the mandatory “best reads of the year” lists. Only one of the books is actually published in 2017 but all of them are great.

20-21th century novels

  • The Love Story of the Century (Århundradets kärlekssaga) by Märta Tikkanen. Why haven’t I read Märta Tikkanen before? I knew it was a Finnish classic (written in Swedish) about a passionate but deeply dysfunctional marriage but I somehow never got around to read it before now. It is both beautiful and thought-provoking and makes some very sharp observations about love and relationships. It’s written as poetry so I’m not sure if there is an English translation that does it justice but it’s probably the best book I read in 2017.
  • Berlin Poplars (Berlinerpoplene) by Anne Ragde. Anne Ragde is another new author for me and another instant favorite. This novel about a dysfunctional Norwegian family was a best-seller upon publication but for some reason I never got around to read it before now. It was great! The characters are slightly cliched but given sufficient depth and written with a warmth and a humor which made them very memorable. It has been translated into English and I really recommend it!
  • Cold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon. Elizabeth Moon is my go-to author when I want a well-written SF page-turner with interesting characters that actually evolve through the series. Perhaps not as memorable as the previous ones on the list but it’s what I read when I don’t want a challenge, just something entertaining and good. This one is her latest novel and build upon events in her Vatta’s War series.

Pre-20th century

I’ve read some great pre-20th century classics this year, partly though the Classics Club reading challenge. The four I list here were by far my favorite ones. They have all been discussed previously on this blog.

  • The Queen of Spades and other stories by Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin is competing with Tolstoy for the spot as my favorite Russian author and this collection included his best known short stories. A great read!
  • The Poetic Edda. The Poetic Edda is a collection of epic poems about Norse gods and heroes. Being Swedish I sort of knew many of the legends before but this was the first time I read any of the source material (except small excerpts). It was a lot more readable than I had thought and I expect to re-read at last parts of it.
  • Gösta Berling’s saga by Selma Lagerlöf. A Swedish classic centered around a community in Värmland (west Sweden) during the 1820s. Each chapter is a partly independent story, covering various people and episodes. Taken separately they are the kind of half-mythical stories I could picture being told in 19th century Värmland  but Selma Lagerlöf brilliantly weaves them together into a rich portrait of the region.
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I hadn’t planned to read Moby Dick but I happened to get plenty of reading time and limited reading options. I’m glad I did, I really enjoyed it. Reading it just after finishing “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea” also provided some interesting contrast.

Best non-fiction

I didn’t read very much non-fiction in 2017 but much of what I did read was excellent.

  • Country Boy by Richard Hillyer. A quiet memoir of the childhood of a boy in an English farm-labor family and his longing for reading and learning. Lory at The Emerald City Book Review made a great review of it.
  • Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski. I hadn’t read anything by Jenny Diski before but I certainly plan to now. It is partly a memoir of a terrible childhood but Jenny Diski is far too good an author to make it the normal cliched type of memoir.
  • Signatur about Olaf Storø. A personal portrait of my favorite artist of course I loved it!

Best re-reads

And finally honorable mentions of my best re-reads in 2017.

  • Emma by Jane Austen
  • The Summer Book (Sommarboken) by Tove Jansson
  • Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh

Have you read any of the books on these list? What did you think?

Reading challenges -status report and plans for 2018

bumble-bee

During 2017 I attempted to follow the 30-20-20-10 reading challenge, that is, to read books from 30 countries, by 20 male and 20 female authors and from 10 decades. The decades proved to be the easiest part of the challenge, I finished them already in January and by now I’ve read books from 20 decades. Reading books by 20 men and 20 women also happened without any real effort, I was finished with this part of the challenge in August without really trying. So in the end it was only the 30 countries that actually worked as a challenge but there I struggled. With a few days left of 2017 I’ve only read books from 21 countries. The challenge still worked in that it made me read a lot more broadly than I normally would but I will need to use 2018 too to finish it.

The other challenge I started in 2017, the classics club, has also been a real treat. Here the challenge is to read and blog about at least 50 classics within 5 years. As I started my list on October 22nd and have already finished my first 5 books on my list I believe I’m well on my way. This challenge has been a lot of fun and also comes with a great community so I look forward to continuing with it during 2018.

Challenges for 2018

  • Finish the 30-20-20-10 challenge (read 9 books from countries I didn’t read any book from in 2017).
  • Read 12 books from countries I rarely read from (countries I read no more than 1 book from in 2017, this mini-challenge will naturally overlap substantially with the 30-20-20-10 challenge).
  • Read and blog about at least 12 books from my Classics club reading list.
  • Read at least as many of my unread books (including new books) as I buy in 2018. (I may have cheated and just bought eight new books with a January delivery which won’t count so I will have a head-start on this one).
  • Join the Back to the classics reading challenge which should overlap nicely with my reading for the classics club and provide even more great discussion on the classics. Considering my other challenges I don’t want to put too much pressure on this one but I want to finish at least 6 of the 12 categories and hope to do most of them.