My Antonia

A group of sheep resting under a tree

Once more I made the mistake of waiting too long before reviewing and now I find myself with little to say. However, My Antonia is on my Classics Club reading list and thus must be reviewed. Perhaps I can use the classical homework trick of trying to distract you from my shallow writing by showing pictures of cute animals? Just look at those adorable sheep! I’m almost certain that there were some sheep in the novel somewhere…

It is unfortunate that I will have to do such a poor job reviewing this novel as it was one of my favourite reads this summer. The descriptions were beautiful, but without bogging down the text, and the characters felt alive and well worth knowing. I also really liked how the novel focused on the immigrant experience. As Sweden had a very high US emigration per capita I have heard much about the emigration from a Swedish perspective and really enjoyed seeing it from the US side. After having read O Pioneers! last summer and My Antonia this summer, Willa Cather is quickly becoming one of my favourite classical US authors.

 

 

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Micro reviews of some of my summer reading

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The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Well, that was one of the longest 250 pages novels I have ever read. And yet it all started so promising. An interesting premise, an atmospheric setting and then, just when I thought that the stage was set and the story would begin in earnest, Hawthorne instead choose to continue setting the scenes. Everything was described for pages upon pages, every plot twist foreshadowed to the point where I was bored by it before it even happened. Perhaps it would have been more rewarding to a closer reading but as I am not a very close reader at the best of times and even less so when I’m deeply bored (of fiction that is, I’m happy to dissect non-fiction when needed). I would have given it up halfway if I had not included it on my Classics club reading list.

Silas Marner by George Eliot

I read Middlemarch by George Eliot last summer and was deeply impressed, so naturally I had high expectations on Silas Marner. Especially as it features one of my favourite tropes, that of the grumpy old man, in this case the miserly weaver Silas Marner,  who opens up when he comes to care for a child (Goodnight Mr Tom is my favourite version of that trope). Perhaps my expectations were too high, at least I couldn’t help being slightly disappointed. Not that it wasn’t good, it was, but while the plot in Middlemarch seemed to flow naturally with only the slightest nudges from the author needed to put everyone were they should be, the plot in Silas Marner felt heavier and more contrived. As if the characters actions were done to ensure their just end, rather than stemming naturally from their characters. Of course it was still good,  with excellent writing, but I expected more.

Both Silas Marner and The House of the Seven Gables are on my Classics club reading list. Both are available for free from Project Gutenberg.

 

 

 

On books and apes

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Most of the year I prefer paper books to ebooks, but for my summer travels I fill my trusted ereader with everything that catches my eye on Project Gutenberg, to ensure that I will always have access to something to read. A title that naturally caught my interest in this process was The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley.

The story itself turned out to be a wildly improbable tale centred around a second-hand bookstore in Brooklyn shortly after the end of the first world war. However, it wasn’t the plot that made it worth reading but the way it was brimming with the love of books and filled by quotations from books and musings on books and bookstores. Unfortunately I didn’t have access to any of the books recommended in it.

However, in addition to all the recommended reading it also repeatedly ranted against bad literature. Shallow but entertaining books that people read instead of the much better books the author believed they ought to read. In the novel the book that more than anyone else symbolized this tendency was Tarzan of the Apes, which I imagine must have been a Da Vinci code of the early 20th century. As I did have access to Tarzan I decided to take the risk, ignore the warnings, and see what it was all about.

Having read it I can certainly see both why it was so popular and why it made more critical readers despair. The plot is of course improbable but fast-paced and reasonably captivating (and not much worse than the plot of The Haunted Bookshop). The writing is nothing special but unobtrusive. The greatest flaw is instead the characters who, all but Tarzan himself, are paper thin tropes. This is most disturbing for the African characters who tend to be based on racist tropes, but the European and American characters are only slightly less cliched, take e.g. the distracted professor who gets lost trying to find a post office in the middle of the jungle… I did like Tarzan though. His transitions from life as an ape and as a man is perhaps not great literature but it is fun and gives him enough internal conflict to make him stand out from the average pulp fiction character of the time.

I count Tarzan of the Apes as my classic from the Americas for my Back to the Classics reading challenge.

Rereadings

bookshelfI love rereading, the comfortable security in revisiting a book I know is good and the excitement of finding new details or perspectives in a favourite book, always mingled with the fear that what once was brilliant might magically have turned unreadable. In Rereadings  17 writers reread books they have read in childhood or youth and write personal essays around them. It is not reviews but rather personal reflections on the role a beloved book have had in their lives and how their relation to it have changed over time. The result are essays full of the love of books and reading and as a book-lover I found it a fascinating read. I especially enjoyed Barbara Sjoholm’s chapter on The Snow Queen and the one by Diana Kappel Smith on A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-Central North America.

The essays, which were originally published in The American Scholar, have been selected by Anne Fadiman who is also author of my favourite book about books, Ex Libris. Recommended!

On a different topic I am happy to find that I finally feel inspired to step outside of my reading comfort zone again, after months of primarily reading British Library Crime Classics and similar. I am currently reading Khirbet Khizah by S. Yizhar (so far I find it well-written, interesting, and deeply disturbing) and have three books in the Penguin European Writers series heading my way.

Kallocain

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Kallocain is a dystopian novel by Karin Boye, a Swedish author otherwise best known for her poetry. First published in 1941 it drew inspiration from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and the political situations in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union at the time. However, it carefully avoids too close resemblance to either country, partly to avoid the censure which was active in Sweden during WW2.

As in Zamyatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984, which it pre-dates with eight years, it takes place in an dystopian future where an authoritarian state sees and controls everything. The protagonist, Leo Kall, is a chemist who invents a truth serum, Kallocain, which will make anyone reveal their deepest thoughts. Such a serum is of course a valuable weapon to a state which wants to control every aspect of the lives of its subjects, but the truth also has some unexpected side-effect, including in Leo Kall’s own life.

I read Kallocain for the first time in high-school but included it on my Classics Club reading list as I wanted to revisit it as an adult. However, I’m not really sure why I keep reading these classical dystopias as I don’t really enjoy them. Of course they explore interesting topics, but I prefer to connect with the characters in a novel and the extreme brainwashing generally suffered by the characters in these novels makes that very hard. I did like this one a bit better than 1984 though, so I would recommend it to anyone who do enjoy dystopias.

As it is a Swedish classic I count it as my Classic From a Place You’ve Lived for my Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

 

Crime novels for Easter

Photo of a yellow tulip

As I mentioned in my previous post Norway has an excellent tradition of reading crime novels during Easter and, as I have read little but cosy crime lately, I thought I should do my part to support the tradition by highlighting my favourite recent reads. All from the excellent British Library Crime Classics series.

Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R. Lorac was the first crime novel I read this year, thanks to a recommendation by Kaggsy. The mystery itself is good but fairly standard, the real treat is instead the atmosphere of war time London. First published in 1945 it must have been written during or directly after WW2 and it really shows.

Having read this one I immediately got the two other novels by E.C.R. Lorac currently in print, Bats in the Belfry (1937) and Fire in the Thatch (1946). They were both good mysteries, especially Fire in the Thatch, but they lacked that special setting that made Murder by Matchlight stand out.

The Division Bell Mystery, first published in 1932, is set in the British parliament. It was written by the Labour politician Ellen Wilkinson, who give us an inside view on the life in parliament, together with a neat locked-room mystery. Although the mystery was rather standard the inside-view of the political life in the 1930s was not, and I really enjoyed it. This one was also recommended by Kaggsy, who clearly have great taste in crime novels.

My third new BLCC favourite, Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert, is set in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy during late WW2, a setting the author knew from personal experience. Many of the characters are rather flat and easy to mix-up and the mystery is fine but nothing special, however the setting is unique and claustrophobic. Although I may not have cared too much about who the murderer was, I really wanted to know who would escape and how. All in all it was probably the most thrilling BLCC I have read, and offered an interesting glimpse of life in a POW camp. Really recommended!

What all three books had in common was that they offered something more than just a decent mystery. They showed me glimpses of interesting worlds I can never visit, war time London, the British parliament during the 1930s, a POW-camp in Italy, all places that the authors knew well (I guess, I haven’t confirmed whether or not Lorac was in London during WW2). Only books can bring me to those places.

 

A Late Beginner

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I recently treated myself by ordering three of Slightly Foxed’s paperback memoirs as my first book order for the year.  Two of them, Frances Wood’s Hand-grenade Practice in Peking and Dodie Smith’s Look Back with Love are still in my TBR-pile, but I just finished the third one, Priscilla Napier’s A Late Beginner.

In A Late Beginner Priscilla Napier looks back on her childhood in Egypt during the early 20th century. We follow her from a very young age and until she leaves Egypt in 1921, aged twelve, to go to school in the UK. The first world war and the early steps toward Egypt independence occur in the fringes of her consciousness, mingled with all the normal interests of a young child. Although largely written from a child’s perspective, Napier still manages to give a lively image of the Egypt she knew.

I really like memoirs that place you in the middle of important historical events. Of course the format is a limitation in that you only get one, usually not very objective, perspective on events, but what you gain is the impressions and feelings of someone who was actually there. It is the closest thing I know to time-travel. This one was a really good example.