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.
A few years back I wrote a post explaining why everyone needs to read The Brothers Lionheart. This novel is known as one of the greatest classics in Scandinavian children’s literature, and with good reason. Although superficially a rather classical fantasy novel, it deals with questions of death, courage and family love in a way that few adult novels can match. It is a bit divisive, and certainly unusually dark for a middle grade fantasy, but it is also beautiful and though-provoking. I consider it one of my favourite novels all categories.
The last time I wrote about The Brothers Lionheart I carefully avoided spoilers but I just finished another reread and this time I want to discuss it properly. This blog post will therefore contain some rather large spoilers, including of the ending. Those of you who are bothered by spoilers and didn’t take my advice last time might want to stop reading here and go and read the book instead (it’s not a long read and, in my opinion, definitely worth it!).
That this is not our usual middle grade fantasy novel is clear from the beginning. Already on the first pages we learn that our narrator, nine-year old Karl/Skorpan/Rusky, is dying and afraid. His one comfort is his older brother Jonatan, who tells him stories about Nangiyala, the afterlife, a land full of adventures. And then not Karl but Jonatan dies, leaving Karl behind as the book reaches its darkest point, about 15 pages in. By the time we reach the third chapter Karl is dead too and as an emotional reader I’m definitely crying.
It is certainly a rough beginning, especially on adult readers, who might have a hard time believing in Nangiyala, but fortunately the novel doesn’t stay in that darkness. Instead things brighten considerably as Karl reaches the Cherry Valley, a beautiful valley in Nangiyala where Karl is no longer ill but able to run and swim and fish and ride, and above all to reunite with his beloved older brother.
Alas, that cheerful interlude can not last, gradually it is revealed that not all is not well in paradise either. What follows is plot-wise a rather traditional fantasy story with good vs. evil, just set in the after-life, but Lindgren uses that well known format to tackle some fairly heavy questions, and to prepare her readers for the ending, which in some ways is just as shocking as the beginning, only this time we are better prepared to face it.
A few things in the novel seem suspicious to an adult reader. Jonatan is rather young considering the things that he does in the novel, not to mention suspiciously perfect. It makes sense in one way as we see him from his younger brother’s perspective, and it is very clear that Karl loves and idolizes Jonatan, but from an adult’s perspective Jonatan does seem a bit too good to be true. There are also a number of convenient coincidences in the plot and a few allusions to Nangiyala as a “place where you get all you have wished for” and “part of an old-time dream” (my translations), all tempting a skeptical adult to suspect that Karl might not be a reliable narrator. That what we are reading is his feverish dreams, and that he only really dies at the end of the book. In that reading we get a beautiful but sad story of a young boy who uses the memories of his brother’s love and stories to find the courage to face his own death.
Explaining everything away as a dream is usually, rightly, considered a lazy way out for an author, but that reading assumes that Karl is in fact an unreliable narrator. Lindgren clearly opened the story for such an interpretation, but although it is always tempting to assume that the hidden and cynical read is the truer one, I am not sure that it applies in this case. Lindgren was a children’s author and she always wrote primarily for the child. It can thus easily be argued that the straight-forward read, assuming Karl to be a reliable narrator, is the primary one and that the alternate unreliable narrator variety was something she left for those of us too old and cynical to approach the story with child-like wonder. Either way the two alternate interpretations runs beautifully in parallel through the text, telling us a story about death and love and courage on whatever level we are ready to appreciate it.
Various things I like about the book
I love that it is so full of love. It may be dark but through it runs a thread of brotherly love strong enough to conquer death. I find that very hopeful.
I like that it shows courage as being afraid but doing the right thing anyway. Whereas Jonatan’s heroism is that of a fairy tale hero, and thus rather hard to live up to, Karl’s scared heroics seem more achievable, and in the end they are shown to be just as great.
I appreciate that it makes me face my own mortality, but also that it reminds me that it can be met with love and courage.
I like that it doesn’t glorify violence. That is a hard thing to accomplish when a central premise of the story is the fight between good and evil, but in this story the main heroes are a pacifist and his younger brother, neither of which is doing any fighting, but who are still shown to be true heroes. The ending is also in line with this message in that it shows that even a fight for the best of causes, there is one in the story, although our heroes are not fighting in it, will still cause irreparable harm. That even when necessary, and it is hard to describe the fight against Tengil’s tyranny as anything but, there are no pure happy endings after a war.
So is it a sad book? Yes, but it is also a hopeful book filled with death-defying love. I find it very comforting.
Have you read it? What did you think about it? I would love to discuss it with you! (With spoilers obviously, this is not a book that can easily be discussed in a spoiler-free way).
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!
For my next indieread 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.
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.
Kjerringa som ble så lita som ei teskje (Mrs. Pepperpot) by Alf Prøysen
Mrs. Pepperpot, or teskedsgumman/teskjekjerringa as she is called in Norwegian and Swedish, is the protagonist in a series of children’s book by Alf Prøysen. Every time she gets particularly busy she tends to suddenly shrink to the size of a tea spoon (tesked/teskje). Fortunately she instead gains the ability to speak with animals and this, together with her wit, allows her to solve the various problems her miniature size causes.
My impression is that these are stories that ought to be read aloud for a fairly young child. In many ways the stories resemble classical Norwegian fairy tales and the language, in the Norwegian version written in dialect, should be well-suited for reading aloud. Unfortunately I had no child to test this on and read silently I found the stories a bit short and simple and not that interesting for an adult reader.
The Carey novels are a series of historical fiction novels centred around British history (mostly war history) and all following a member of the fictional Carey family. In Captain of Dragoons the focus is on Charles Carey, a Captain in the Duke of Marlborough’s army.
I am always interested in a good adventure story and Captain of Dragoons indeed feature thrilling events such as duels, espionage and daring escapes, but for some reason I failed to connect with the main character, which made all of it a bit flat. All in all I found it fairly well-written for the genre and I did enjoy it, but it would probably have been more interesting if I had a bit more of an interest in UK history.
Rasmus på luffen (Rasmus and the Vagabond) by Astrid Lindgren
I have saved my favourite for last. Of course you never go very wrong with Astrid Lindgren and Rasmus and the Vagabond, despite being one of her lesser known books, is a lovely book. I don’t think I have read it before but I vaguely remember the TV-series.
The protagonist Rasmus is a nine-year-old orphan. After having been once again rejected by a pair of potential parents, who instead picked a curly haired girl, he decides to run away from the orphanage to find some parents for himself. As an adult I could see multiple ways this could go wrong but fortunately the first person he meets is Paradis Oskar, a friendly vagabond who takes him under his wings. Less fortunately they soon encounter a pair of robbers who tries to blame Oskar for their deeds.
As an adult reader the robber-plot was the least interesting part of the story, although I’m sure it would have been thrilling to the intended audience. I was however very much invested in Rasmus quest to find himself some parents. Rasmus is a lovely portrait of a sensitive, affection starved boy, and his friendship with Oskar is very sweet.
In 1906-1907 Selma Lagerlöf published The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (orig. Nils Holgerssons underbara resa), a book she had been commissioned to write as a geography textbook for Swedish school children. Rather than writing a normal, boring, textbook she wanted it to be exciting and interesting, while still being educational. The result was the story about Nils Holgersson, who angered the local tomte on his family farm in southern Sweden, and as a punishment got shrunk until he too was small as a tomte. In this new miniaturized state, he travelled with the wild geese all the way from his family home in the far south, to the mountains in northernmost Sweden and back, visiting all the Swedish regions along the way.
While the plot itself is simple, shaped like a classical morality tale, what stands out is Lagerlöf’s storyteller abilities and the way she makes the landscapes come to life. In a time when few children would have travelled much farther than the next village, it must have been especially fascinating to follow Nils’ travels (and by air no less!). Lagerlöf gives all Swedish regions memorable and accurate descriptions (Skåne seen from above is e.g. described like a chequered cloth, with fields and pastures forming the squares) and tell not only of Nils’ many adventures along the way but also retells old myths and stories from each region. The result is a novel which has not only been used in Swedish schools but which has been reprinted again and again, translated into 40 languages, listed on Le Monde’s list of 100 books of the century, and filmed multiple times. It is very far from your ordinary geography textbook. In 1909 Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman to be awarded the Noble Prize in Literature (although not primarily for Nils Holgersson).
I had read about Nils, adventures as a child, but unfortunately not in school where we instead read a bland story about a boy and his cat travelling through Sweden, clearly inspired by Lagerlöf but with none of her genius. However, I wanted to reread it as an adult and therefore added it to my Classics club reading list. This summer, when I was finally able to return to Sweden for vacation after months of closed borders, it was lovely to imagine travelling freely with the geese. It ended up being one of my favourite reads this summer.
The summer vacation is unfortunately already over, but despite the odds I did get my usual mountain summer filled with hiking and reading. It is always a bit hard to return home, although I have to admit that it is lovely to again have access to hot showers…
This year I have read more than usual, a total of 101 books since January. This is probably largely due to a stronger than usual inclination to go for easy reads, many of them unmemorable, but I have had some real reading highlights during the summer. I have been thrilled by Doctor Glas, Hjalmar Söderberg’s tale about the morality of murder, read creepy ghost stories by Dan Andersson in Det kallas vidskepelse and travelled through Sweden in Selma Lagelöf’sThe wonderful adventures of Nils, the latter particularly relevant in a time when travel is again difficult. I have also read two excellent, but rather different, short story collections, The thing around your neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jag ser allt du gör (I see all you do) by Annika Norlin. All of these are highly recommended. In addition my recent discovery of the high quality publisher Archipelago Books, helped me ensure that not everything I read came from European or North American authors.
While my weeks outside internet coverage have been wonderfully restful, they have also meant that I am hopelessly behind on everyone’s blogs. So if any of you have read anything you particularly want to recommend this summer, I would be happy to hear about it in the comments…
I’m staying in Moominvalley, which is a pretty great place to be in right now. Admittedly in the novel I just finished, Comet in Moominland, the valley had its own problems with a comet heading right towards them, but other than the slight question of impending doom, things were as they used to be.
Mumin (Moomin) is once again the protagonist and together with Sniff he sets out on the dangerous journey towards the observatory to learn all they can about the coming disaster. Along the way they pick up a few new friends, Snusmumriken (Snufkin), Snorkfröken (Snork maiden) and Snorken (Snork), who all make their first appearances in this story. I especially enjoy Snusmumriken, a care-free tramp and Mumin’s best friend, who always makes me long for a few nights in the woods.
Comet in Moominland is the second of the Moomin books and thus has less of the beautifully melancholy feeling prevalent in the later books, but what it has instead is a strong feeling of adventure and a promise that no matter how dark it looks, in the end all will be well.
Troubling times calls for comforting books and few things are as comforting Tove Jansson‘s Moomin family. In addition the novel I selected for a reread, Finn Family Moomintroll (original title: Trollkarlens hatt, Direct translation: The Magician’s Hat) is probably the most uplifting of them.
In The Magician’s Hat (I really don’t like the English title…) we follow the Moomin family and their friends during their summer adventures, adventures that are getting even more magical by a certain influence from a strange black hat. While all the Moomin novels have at least a touch of melancholy in them, this one is a distinctly happy story.
In general I like the darker Moomin stories better, especially Moominland midwinter and Tales from Moominvalley. It is not even Jansson’s best summer novel, her The Summer Book is one of my favourite books in all categories. Still, out of the lighter Moomin books, this one is probably my favourite. I enjoy the overarching story-arc around the magical hat and reading it just gives me the feeling of a happy summer holiday.