A few recent reads

Autumn landscape

It is hard to keep up a book blog when you are not reading very much, but fortunately there have been some gems among the the few books I have read during the last few months.

Winter’s child by Dea Trier Mørch

Dea Trier Mørch is the author of one of my favourite novels, Kastaniealleen, which I don’t think have been translated into English, but this was my first read of her most famous work. Winter’s child is set in a maternity ward in Copenhagen during the 1970s. As I’ve understood it Mørch got frustrated by the lack of realistic descriptions of pregnancies and labour in art and literature, and wrote the novel to fill that void. I believe that she was successful, by framing it as a collective novel, although we do get to follow some characters closer than others, she is able to cover a wide range of experiences. Of course this also means that not every storyline has a happy ending, but overall I found it to be a warm and optimistic read, and I did like it very much. A few aspects in the writing and story seemed dated, e.g. I doubt wine is served in modern Danish maternity wards, and the author’s socialist leanings makes it slightly dogmatic in some places, but that slightly dated aspect that also helped soften some of the sadder outcomes. The novel is illustrated by the author’s own prints.

The housekeeper and the professor by Yoko Ogawa

Very different from the previous novel, but another really good read, The housekeeper and the professor is a quiet and sweet story about the friendship between a professor who has lost his ability to form new long-term memories, his housekeeper, and her son. As a former professor in mathematics numbers are one of the few things that remain constant in the professor’s life, something he can rely on when his memories are always lost, and numbers and mathematical theories form a large part of the communication between the three. I have read novels with a mathematical theme before, and despite loving mathematics I rarely think that they work, but this one I really enjoyed.

Water, ice and stone

I had planned to take a very active part in the ReadIndies month, but life got in the way and I have only now finished my first (only?) read for the challenge. Fortunately I have really enjoyed the book I have read; Water, ice and stone by Bill Green is a science memoir by a geochemist working on the lakes in the Dry Valleys in Antarctica. I don’t read very much popular science, as a scientist myself I have a hard time finding books, even from other fields, that are on an appropriate level, but I do love a good science memoir, and if it is set on Antarctica, a region I have always wanted to work in, well, that is even better.

Unfortunately a busy month meant that I read it in bits and pieces, loosing track of some of the people and some of the lakes along the way. However, this didn’t do much to detract from my enjoyment of the book. What I’m primarily looking for in a science memoir is an infectious love and fascination for science and an ability to move effortlessly between science, art and life, showing the broader picture of why we do science, and I certainly got that. Not being a great fan of lab work I have tended to think of geochemistry as an important but somewhat boring branch of geoscience. However, the way Bill Green tells the story is absolutely fascinating and I’m grateful for the opportunity to see geochemistry through his eyes!

Not surprisingly it was published by Bellevue Literary Press, a really interesting publisher focused on the intersection between art and science. During last year’s ReadIndies challenge I read A Matematician’s Lament and later in the year A Wilder Time, which was another memoir, written by a geologist working in Greenland. I never got around to reviewing A Wilder Time, but it was probably my favorite of the three.

Anna Karenina

It is done! I have finally read all of Anna Karenina! My first attempt a few years ago ended around page 200, but as I have been bored and in need of some sort of project, I recently decided to make a second attempt. This time I really enjoyed it!

I was still not very interested in the title character’s story arc, but that is really only one strand in this complex novel. Rather than writing a simple love story, Tolstoy dissects a section of Russian upper class society, includes several story arcs, and shows the events from multiple perspectives by letting us follow the thoughts of many in the large cast. The result is a rich story, filled with characters that are flawed, but for the most part easy to like (my favourites were Levin, Kitty and Dolly).

I am sure I missed a lot during this first read and I hope to return to it again, if not to reread all of it so at least to revisit some favourite scenes, but for no I am satisfied that it is finished.

Anna Karenina was part of my Classics Club reading challenge. I read it in the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation.

Ronia the Robber’s Daughter

I felt it was time for another reread of a childhood favourite, this time of Ronia the Robber’s daughter (Ronja rövardotter) by Astrid Lindgren. In it we follow Ronia/Ronja, daughter to the chief in a clan of robbers, as she explores the world around her and decides on her own future. A sort of bildungsroman in the shape of a middle-grade adventure novel.

Ronia’s need to balance her obligations to herself, to her family, and to her friend, forms the central conflict of the novel, with a particular highlight being the complicated father-daughter relationship. Parents in children’s fiction are usually either very good or very bad, or absent, but here we get a father who loves his child more than anything in the world, but who still manages to be a pretty terrible parent.

I guess that technically the novel would be classified a Fantasy novel, considering that the forest that Ronia spends most of her time in is full of vaguely mythological creatures, but it doesn’t feel like one. Rumpnissar, grådvärgar and vildvittror, are all the kind of creatures that almost exists, and which may perhaps still be glimpsed in the shadows on a dark night. In fact one of the things I love with this novel is how real the forest feels. My own childhood forest was a boring planted spruce forest, but exploring it I still felt much of the same sense of adventure as Ronia does in her more magical one.

Most of Lindgren’s novels have at least a small streak of darkness in them, but her Fantasy novels are among her darkest and most interesting ones. Although The Brothers Lionheart is my favourite Lindgren novel, Ronia is a close second, and is perhaps an even better, or at least less controversial, introduction to her novels. Highly recommended for both children and adults!

A Mathematician’s Lament

My next book for my Read Indies month is A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart, published by Bellevue Literary Press. A book I was fortunate to stumble upon at a local mini library/book swap.

The author is a research mathematician who began teaching in schools, and his lament centres on how mathematics education is focused on boring, repetitive, technical exercises, rather than seeing mathematics as an art form.

A good rant by someone who is passionate and knowledgable about a topic is usually fun to read, and this short book is no exception. While he discusses the problems in the US education system, it is recognizable to all of us who have wondered how the creative and beautiful subject that is mathematics, can be taught in such a boring way in schools. His solutions may be somewhat extreme, but that makes it a great starting point for discussions. All in all I found it both interesting and thought-provoking.

The publisher also seems promising, focused as they are on books at the intersection between arts and science. Having enjoyed this book I went to their website and immediately added three more titles to my wish-list.

Every Friday by the gate

For my next indie read I selected a WW2 memoir, Varje fredag framför porten (Every Friday by the gate) by Wanda Heger.

The memoir begins during the German occupation of Norway during WW2, when Wanda Heger’s father was arrested and sent to Germany. Thanks to his family connections he was eventually released, but only under the condition that he and his family stayed in Germany. Frustrated by the forced exile Wanda Heger and her siblings began visiting Norwegian prisoners, eventually locating the Sachenhausen concentration camp. At this time official humanitarian organizations were barred access to the camp, but a young Norwegian woman bringing food packages to her countrymen must have seemed fairly harmless, and she managed to get into the outer part of the camp where she became a weekly visitor. While there she could find out names and prisoner numbers of the Norwegian prisoners and have some careful secret communication with them.

From this rather simple beginning the organization gradually grew and Norwegian prisoners were traced also to other concentration camps. The prisoner lists created from the information made it possible to send some food and medicine to the camps and were also important for the Swedish-Danish White Buses rescue mission during late WW2, a rescue mission in which Wanda Heger and the group around her also took active part.

I found this an unusually inspiring WW2 memoir, perhaps because it focused on aid rather than death, and because they were so successful. I would really recommend it but unfortunately it has not been translated into English (but to French and German).

The memoir was published by Bakhåll förlag, one of my favourite Swedish indie publishers. Bakhåll förlag has also published A Maid Among Maids, which I have previously reviewed.

Miss Pettigrew lives for a day

I have long wished that I loved Persephone books. The ambition of publishing lost books, mostly by women writing in the first half of the 20th century, is great, and the books are published as attractive soft cover volumes. The quality is a bit variable but that is not the main problem either, I gladly read books by much worse authors if the plot includes a murder. Instead I fear that it is a matter of taste, having previously tried four of them I found three rather boring. The fourth, Miss Buncle’s book, was a lightweight comfort read, but really rather sweet. That was the only one I kept.

However, it being Read Independent Publishers Month, I thought I would give them one final chance, this time with Miss Pettigrew lives for a day, their bestseller. The story is a classical Cinderella story about poor and jobless Miss Pettigrew who accidentally ends up in a world of glitz and glamour. Hardly an original story, but the Cinderella trope is popular for a reason, and the result is rather charming and uplifting. A lightweight read, with a few casually racist remarks of the kind common in books from the 1930s, but other than that I did enjoy it.

While I am still not really a converted Persephone fan, they do have many loyal followers, so if you do enjoy early 20th century fiction you might want to give them a try. They have a clear publishing profile so if you like one of them there is a good chance that you will like several other.

The Pear Field – mini review

Peirene Press is one of my favourite publishers. They specializes in high quality, short format (less than 200 pages), translated fiction, mostly from Europe. More importantly, I have found almost all of the ones I have read to be really good. They can be bleak, and frequently pushes me a bit outside of my reading comfort zone, but, thanks to their short lengths, it never gets too daunting.

Their latest title, The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, is no exception. It centres around the children in the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children, basically an orphanage in the outskirts of Tbilisi. The main character is 18-year-old Lela who have stayed on after finishing the school and who acts kind of as a big sister to all the younger kids. While parts of the story are rather bleak, there is also a warmth in the relations between the children which lend some hope to it, and the writing is of the high quality I expect from a Peirene Press novel. Overall a good read, and probably my first one from Georgia.

Thank you Karen and Lizzy for hosting Reading Independent Publishers Month!

Votes for women

My latest read is Pennskaftet by Elin Wägner, a novel about the Swedish suffragette movement, written by one of the actual key suffragettes. First published in 1910 the novel was written as the fight for equal voting rights was still being fought. It would take until 1919 before Swedish women got the full right to vote, and until 1921 before the first election in which they could use it. This of course makes the novel particularly interesting to read as a time document. Although fictionalized it gives an interesting insider view into the movement. Also interesting were the portraits of some of the different types of women drawn to the movement, often from the growing group of educated self-supporting women.

The novel is occasionally distracted by arguing the cause, but it still works well as a novel. The focus is clearly on the movement but it included some excellent portrayals of women friendship and a sweet romance, which gave it balance. It also has some for the time rather daring opinions on sexual morals, which I found uplifting. All in all I really enjoyed it. It has been published in English as Penwoman.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Agatha Christie sometimes have plots were the solution hinges on an objective look on the more immutable facts without all the distractions. Who died? Who gained? By keeping our intentions elsewhere, on alibis and presumed motives etc., she can distract us from those most basic questions until the final reveal. Only then does she change our perspective so that the new, often simpler, pattern of the crime emerges.

Reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier I was reminded of those kinds of perspective changes. Although a different type of storyteller, Daphne du Maurier too excels at shifting the perspective along the way, honestly giving hints to the objective facts of the plot, but making sure that the reader has their attention focused elsewhere at the time. As the story twists and turns so does the readers perspective.

I read Rebecca for the first time a few weeks back, but still find myself thinking back on it and looking forward to a reread when all the major plot points will be known by me and I can observe the author working behind the scenes to set it all up. While the perspective changes was what made me most impressed it was also a satisfying books in other ways, entertaining and easily read, with descriptions lush enough to enchant even a mostly non-visual reader as myself, and an intriguing plot. I will certainly read more books by Daphne du Maurier.