I’ve been in the mood for some light reading recently, the type of entertaining reads that can be finished in one night. Usually that would have meant an Agatha Christie novel or some other golden-age crime novel but this time I made a new acquaintance, Worrals. Worrals is a young WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) pilot during WWII with a strong tendency to stumble on spies. The books are written by Captain W. E. Johns, more famous for his Biggles books.
I’ve got a soft spot for Biggles, I remember creeping back behind the armchair as a child to borrow my mother’s old copies (they happened to be placed in the least accessible spot). I still pick them up occasionally in second-hand stores and spend a few hours with mindless adventures. However, what’s blatantly missing from most of the Biggles books is women. The setting gives a partial excuse and anyway I prefer it to the open misogyny found in some other novels from the same time so I’ve mostly turned a blind eye to the omission. But it meant that when I heard that he had also written a series around a WAAF pilot I was interested but sceptic. I needn’t have worried, Worrals is a great character. She feels like Biggles’ little sister, same courage, same clear head in the face of danger, just with somewhat less experience (admittedly neither Biggles nor Worrals are very deep characters). She also have a very modern attitude to any suggestions that she may be less suitable for some jobs because she’s a woman.
Plot-wise they are not as good as the best Biggles books but neither is Biggles most of the time. I’ve read the first four books in the series and enjoyed all of them but liked the first one best. The first four (at least) are all written and published during WWII and that context made the books (which are really simple adventure stories) a lot more interesting.
Used Worrals books are not easy to find in my part of the world but the first three have recently been reprinted and in very nice editions (proper binding, good paper, I just wish they had kept the original illustrations).*
*No, I’m not sponsored in any way, I bought my copies myself.
My ambition not to buy any new books until I had read as many of my unread books as I had bought this year broke down. First I realized that I had counted some of my read books twice and thus that I was much further from my goal than I had thought and then I went to Paris and obviously had to buy some books because that’s what I do when I’m a tourist. So I have officially given up that ambition but at least I made a dent in my To Be Read piles while it lasted.
For the full tourist experience I went to Shakespeare and Company (thankfully not too crowded when I was there and thus lovely) in Paris and bought The Little Prince. It’s part of my Classics Club challenge so at least I had a good excuse (something that’s not true for all the other books I happened to buy).
The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a beloved children book, possibly even more loved by adults than by children (my suspicion). I knew it mostly from the illustrations which I really like. The text however took longer to convince me. It is in many ways a philosophical allegory, but to me it was of the kind that sounds good but doesn’t actually force you to think. On the other hand it is a children’s book so a somewhat simplistic approach is justified. It also gradually won me over and I found myself quite moved by the ending. So in the end I liked it but did not love it. It is however a quick and easy read, beautifully illustrated so it is worth giving it a chance.
There is a longing that might strike you when you meet the Arctic. You leave a piece of yourself behind, turning your heart forever towards north. I’ve had this longing for as long as I can remember.
Some years ago I had the opportunity to visit Svalbard in wintertime and found it to be everything I had wished for. During my time there I also encountered the art of a local artist, Olaf Storø. I fell in love with one of his prints at the local gallery but thought it too expensive (they are actually quite reasonably priced but I was a student at the time). I visited it several times at the gallery but in the end went home empty-handed.
A few months later I returned to Svalbard, determined to buy the print this time if I loved it as much as the first time (the fact that I by then had a proper salary helped). I did and the lithography in question has been one of my most treasured belongings ever since. Eventually it has been followed by some of his other prints, although none of them capable of replacing my first love.
Olaf Storø has a rare ability to capture the Svalbard landscape so that it feels true, which made it possible for me to bring a piece of Svalbard into my own home. Since then some of his art has been collected in book, Signatur, which is difficult to find and obviously written in Norwegian but which I wanted to share here anyway as I liked it so much. It is a rather unusual artbook in that various owners of Olaf Storø’s art are each sharing their stories around one of his pieces that they own and their relation to Olaf Storø followed by the artists own comments on the piece and how the owner got it. Together it creates an informal and personal portrait of the artist, but also brief glimpses into the lives of the owners, which include family, friends but also looser acquaintances.
You can find pictures of some of Olaf Storø’s art here.
The third book I’ve read from my Classics list is “The Queen of Spades and Other Stories”, a selection of novellas by Alexander Pushkin written between 1828-1836. Until now Tolstoy has been my favourite Russian author but I must say he’s got some real competition now.
My edition contained “The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin”, “The Queen of Spades”, “the Captain’s Daughter” and the fragment “The Moor of Peter the Great”. I liked all of them but found “The Queen of Spades” and “The Moor of Peter the Great” to be the most memorable. The language, also in Alan Myers’ translation, is beautiful, none of the overburdened descriptions that sometimes stifles its contemporary novels. The characters, although briefly sketched, are generally three-dimensional and interesting (excluding the Tsar family which seem uniformly good).
I’ve read this collection a novella at the time with many interruptions so I will focus on the last one, “The Moor of Peter the Great” which is a fragment of a historical novel or novella inspired by the experiences of Pushkin’s great-grandfather. It follows Ibrahim who’s navigating the double roles of the privileged position as a favourite of Peter the Great and the role of the constant outsider. The novella’s description of racism feels surprisingly modern for an almost 200-year-old text and Ibrahim is a fascinating character I would have loved to read more about. Unfortunately as it is only a fragment it ends abruptly but I still recommend reading it. (Look up the “real Ibrahim”, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, Alexander Pushkin’s great-grandfather, it’s well worth it!).
“The Moor of Peter the Great” takes place in the early 18th century, shortly after the battle of Poltava, which made the references to historical events especially interesting from a Swedish point of view. I was also interested in the captive Swedish officer which is a minor character in the story and which Pushkin infuses with as much humanity as the other characters. Here too, Pushkin may have been helped by his family background, his great-grandmother was Swedish. Of course as it’s written more than a century after Sweden’s final defeat in the war any animosity may have calmed down. Anyway, I found it amusing.
So far I’ve read much more from my classics list than I expected to. Partly because I feel inspired by the challenge and by all the great books on the list but also because I decided that I may not by any new books until I’ve read as many of my unread books as I have bought this year. In total I have read more books this year (75) than I have bought (51) but that includes rereads and borrowed books so I’m still eight books behind. I did leave myself some loopholes but it’s still a strong motivation. As several of the classics on my classics list made it there just because they were unread or half-read classics that haunted my bookshelves I have started with some of these.
If I were to define a Classic a key characteristic would be their ability to leave a trace in the reader and/or culture at large. Influencing people, later works or even the language itself in their wake. Rarely is that clearer than when it comes to the classical mythologies. The Norse myths have named the days of the week (in the Scandinavian languages and in English), formed proverbs still in use ( such as “Där ölet går in går vettet ut” roughly “where the beer goes in, sanity leaves”) and continue to influence works through the centuries (Wagner, Tolkien, Marvel, Gaiman).
The Poetic Edda (also called the Elder Edda) is a collection of epical poems about Norse gods and heroes. During the 13th century these myths were collected and written down in Codex Regius. This text now form the primary document for The Poetic Edda but other poems of a similar type and age are often included.
I got the Poetic Edda in Christmas gift last year and have been reading it on and off since then. So it has been another slow read but unlike Metamorphosis and other stories I have mostly enjoyed it. While it is hardly something to read from cover to cover in one setting it was mostly very readable. The poems range from high to low, from funny to bloody to tragic and back again. I might not read the whole again but I will certainly revisit some parts.
I read it in a Swedish translation (Den poetiska Eddan) by Lars Lönnroth which included helpful notes and introductions to the texts. It was on my list of 50 classics to read with the Classics Club.
There is an English translation available for free at Project Gutenberg but I found that it lacked much of the lyrical qualities of the text. So if you want to read it I would suggest looking for a more modern translation. If you want to try just a piece of it I would recommend Völuspá (Prophecy of the Völva) which is reasonably brief, covers (at least in passing) much of the mythological framework and generally is one of the best parts (and probably the most famous).
When I first started studying the local bookstore had a campaign were they handed out T-shirts with the text “Kafka hade inte heller så roligt” loosely translated as “Kafka didn’t have much fun either” and for a few months those shirts were a common sight on the streets in my new home town. Although it wasn’t the first time I had heard about Franz Kafka the imagery stuck and I have kept thinking about him that way. Reading something by him for the first time did nothing to change that impression. Kafka excels at creating uncomfortable and bizarre situations and then staying there, digging deeper and deeper into them. In the end I admired it a lot more than I enjoyed it.
The book I read was an anthology which apart from the title novella also included “The Judgement: A story for F”, “In the Penal Colony” and various shorter stories, all in translation by Michael Hofmann. It was on my list of 50 classics to read with the Classics Club.
Metamorphosis is available from Project Gutenberg (translation by David Wyllie).
It’s still only May but the temperatures for the last few days have equalled those of the height of summer. Fortunately I got to spend a few days by the sea, lying on a warm rock in the sun, eating (imported) raspberries and reading.
With summer thus officially here it is time to collect my summer reading. Most important is The Summer Book (Sommarboken) by Tove Jansson. In a series of loosely connected episodes we follow a young girl and an old grandmother through a summer on an island in the Finnish archipelago. Often funny and always down to earth, it paints a beautiful but melancholy picture of life and summers. I try to re-read it every summer.
If one book by Tove Jansson is not enough I’m happy to continue with Finn Family Moomintroll (Trollkarlens hatt) which follows the summer adventures of the Moomin family.
Otherwise my summer reading tend to be dominated by lazy reads. Battered copies of cosy crime novels (mostly Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers), suitable for reading in the shadow under a tree or during a long journey.
Best combined with: Ice-cold elderflower cordial and fresh, sun-warmed, berries.
A review of “The summer book” can be found here