The best thing about reading book blogs are all the great books you get exposed to. I could still have been completely oblivious to the existence of the excellent novel City folk and country folk if it weren’t for Kaggsy’s blog post about it and now when I’ve read it I just want to spread the word further.
City folk and country folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (translation by Nora Seligman Favorov) is a comedy of manner with sharp observations and wit not dissimilar to a Jane Austen novel. Of course comparing it to a Jane Austen novel sets the bar impossibly high, it is very good but it doesn’t have the tight writing of an Austen novel. What it offers instead is insight into the lives of Russian rural gentry, observations on the social changes that occurred in Russia during the 1860s and a plot which I wasn’t sure where it would take me. It was a perfect novel to ease myself back into my classics reading again. Unfortunately this novel seems to be the only text from the author that has been translated into English but one of her sisters, Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya, has a translated novel, The Boarding-School Girl, which I now long to read.
You should read this novel if you
- want to read a 19th century Russian classics but want to avoid the thicker or more tragic novels,
- love Jane Austen’s novels (just don’t expect it to actually be a Jane Austen novel), or
- if you just like the thought of reading a little known but excellent Russian 19th century author.
(Personally I’m guilty of all three)
I found some interesting and more in-depth reviews of this book here, here and here, although they, especially the two later, do give out a bit of the plot so if you want to avoid that they may be best read after the novel.
I’m counting this one as my 19th century classic for the Back to the classics reading challenge. There’s still time, until March 1st, to sign up to this challenge if you are interested.
The latest classic from my classic club reading list was La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri.
I really got myself into deep water with this book. It felt a bit like watching a game where you know none of the rules. One reason for my struggles was the disadvantage of reading it in translation which is always difficult with poetry. However, I believe the greatest barrier was the cultural one. I’m so used to texts were the plot and/or character development are central that I’m apparently lost without them. I eventually found some rhythm in the narration and enjoyed the ending much more than the beginning but it was a challenging read.
La Vita Nuova was first published in 1295, which probably explains my cultural chock. It is centred around the narrator’s impossible love for Beatrice and consists of a series of poems prizing her and describing her influence on the narrator and others. These poems are divided by texts describing the context of the poems and explanations of their structure. Little happens and Beatrice never really takes shape, she remains an idea, a living angel. Instead I felt that Love, both as a concept and its influence on those it touches, was the real focus.
In many ways it reminded me of The Sorrows of Young Werther which I read last year. In it the story is also centred around an impossible love and I got the impression that the main goal of the text was that it should be beautiful. As in La Vita Nuova the love described in The Sorrows of Young Werther was an idealized romantic love which appeared more like an idea than an actual human emotion.
So did I enjoy it? Not really but I’m glad I have read it. It was different from almost anything else I have read and I could see glimpses of the beauty in it. It was also a rather short read, although it still took me surprisingly long to finish, and it may help me to better understand references to Dante in later works. However, to really appreciate it I would have needed a much better understanding of the context and preferably to be able to read it in its original Italian.
I read it in a translation by Mark Musa but an earlier translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is available for free from Project Gutenberg.
La Vita Nuova is on my reading list for the Classics club and I also count it as my “Classic by an author that’s new to you” for the Back to the classics reading challenge. It also means that I can add another country, Italy, to my 30-20-20-10 reading challenge, only eight more to go.
The Dark is Rising in Susan Cooper’s classical fantasy series and the only thing that can stop it are the combined forces of a group of modern children (well 1960s children) and the heroes of Arthurian legends.
I have recently spent some enjoyable days with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series (well, four out of five books in it, I somehow missed the first one at the library). There are some parts that felt a little dated but overall this is a classic series that have stood the test of time very well, I’m sure I would have loved it as a child. As an adult I greatly enjoyed the first book I read in the series (Over Sea Under Stone) but lost interest a bit when it came to the sequels. I don’t think they are actually worse in any way but to me the real draw was the world-building and the mixture of modern children and Arthurian legends. This theme runs through the entire series but in the sequels it was no longer new and therefore less exciting.
As these are children’s books they are not too heavy on the darkness which I’m sure was a good choice for the intended audience. Personally I would have preferred them to be somewhat more nerve-racking. Nevertheless these are well-written and fun books with a good concept which worked reasonably well as a light read also for an adult reader.
What the series also did succeed in was to convince me that I want to learn more about the Arthurian legends (sometime, eventually). I’m not British and my knowledge of these legends can basically be summarized as a bunch of names and a sword in a stone which is somehow important.
I count Over Sea Under Stone (published in 1965) as my children’s classic in the 2018 back to the classics challenge.
I may have been somewhat unconvinced of the greatness of The Little Prince but Wind, sand and stars, also by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, more than made up for it.
The author was a pilot in the early days of air traffic and the memoir contains thrilling descriptions of these pioneering aviators and the dangers facing them. I would have loved this book for the flight scenes alone but it contains much more. Written as a collection of loosely connected essays it is partly a memoir of the early days of flying, partly a celebration of life and humanity. In the end there is also a chapter about a visit in Spain during the civil war. It should feel disjointed but somehow the language and the love of life ties it together.
In the memoir he carefully describes the pilots, their air-crafts and the lofty world they inhabit. I especially enjoyed his description of the world below, written at a time when few people had been in a plane I imagine it must have sounded a bit like the astronauts’ descriptions of the world from space does to us.
It was written during the 1930s and his descriptions of the people he met during his time in Sahara are sometimes uncomfortable. However, unlike many of his contemporaries he had the advantage of writing about people he had interacted with and to some degree clearly respected. The result may not be a fair description of the people of Sahara but it’s probably a true portrait of how they would have appeared to a Frenchman at the time. As such I found it very interesting. I also appreciated his obvious love for Sahara, where he lived a few years, and which I felt resembled my own love for the Arctic.
All in all I greatly enjoyed this memoir and found it both thought-provoking and beautiful. I may not agree with all of his views but I found it a very worth-while read and am glad that the Classics club challenge made me discover it.
The full list of classics I have read or plan to read in the Classics Club challenge can be found here. Two other reviews of this book can be found here and here.
In which I make various lists of my favorite 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.
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.
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!
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?
I guess all lovers of used bookstores know that feeling of suddenly stumbling upon a real treasure. A few years ago I visited a Norwegian used bookstore and looked through their tiny shelf of Swedish books and there it was, a large book, with gold coloured lettering, a map in relief on the cover and plenty of illustrations inside. That book was the 1903 edition of Gösta Berling’s saga (making it one of the oldest books I own) by Swedish Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf. It’s not particularly valuable but it is the most beautiful book I own. However, the size and fragility of the book meant that it has been lingering unread in my bookshelf for far too long.
The story of Gösta Berling was Selma Lagerlöf’s first published novel (in 1891) and consists of a series of loosely connected stories set in Värmland (west Sweden) during the 1820s. Following a pact with the devil a group of lazy upper-class drunkards, including the charming title character Gösta Berling, take control of an estate which they promptly mismanage causing disturbances (and multiple broken hearts) throughout the region. However, I found the main plot to be secondary, the real interest for me lay in the rich tapestry of stories of the lives affected during this year of disturbances. Together the stories created a loving portrait of the region. Each chapter is a partly independent story, covering various people and episodes and sometimes including supernatural elements from the local folklore. And what a story-teller Selma Lagerlöf is!
This is another book from my Classics Club list. I read it in Swedish but an English translation is available from Project Gutenberg.
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.