East of the Great Glacier

Photo of a valley on Greenland

Helge Ingstad was a Norwegian explorer, lawyer, trapper and author of popular travel books, one of which I have recently finished. The book I read, East of the Great Glacier, takes place during an expedition to East Greenland in 1932-1933 which Helge Ingstad led.

As far as I understand it, the political background to the expedition was that Norway wanted to annex this uninhabited part of northeast Greenland and another part in the south. The contested regions had historically often been used by Norwegian fishers and hunters and Norway claimed that these parts were terra nullius and free for the taking. Denmark on the other hand argued that all of Greenland was under Danish jurisdiction. Ingstad and his expedition was on northeast Greenland to strengthen the Norwegian claim and to prepare for future use of the land by arranging infrastructure (hunting cabins). While they were on Greenland the case was taken to the Permanent Court of International Justice where Norway lost and subsequently withdrew its claim. (Why have no-one told me this story before!?!)

Anyway, the political situation may have been the reason for the expedition but it only plays a minor role in the book. Instead we follow the expedition through good times and bad. Ingstad is an excellent writer who mixes descriptions of the daily life of the expedition with intelligent comments on the landscape around him and all of it is filled with a contagious love for the Arctic. If you are interested in Arctic literature I recommend it.

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A few Norwegian reading recommendations for 17th of May

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It is the 17th of May, Syttende Mai, and Norway is celebrating its National Day. As a Swedish immigrant to Norway I find it all somewhat bewildering. Nevertheless I thought I’d do my part here on the blog by highlighting two of my favourite Norwegian authors, Henrik Ibsen and Anne B. Ragde. One classic dramatist and one modern novelist, something for everyone…

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906)

Henrik Ibsen is a classic dramatist and probably the best known Norwegian author. He was a very influential early modernists and his plays remain widely played today. He wrote realistic plays that still feels modern, although they are much less scandalous now. His best known play, A Doll’s House, is also my favourite and is freely available in an English translation at Project Gutenberg.

Anne B. Ragde (1957 – )

I have mentioned Anne B. Ragde before on this blog but her name is worth repeating. Her writing is sharp, her characters and her plots interesting. I particularly admire her ability to write stories that balance humour and darkness but never feel shallow. I also appreciate the warmth she brings to her characters which often makes me sympathize with the most unlikely characters. Unfortunately I believe only one of her novels, Berlin Poplars, is available in English but that one I can really recommend.

Gratulerer med dagen Norge!

 

Midwinter reading recommendations

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I once brought some Jack London novels to a remote Arctic area thinking that nothing could be more appropriate than sitting in my own tent reading about the cold, hard lives of dogs, wolves and people in the Arctic. It turned out I was wrong. When I actually lay there in my sleeping bag I wanted nothing more than the second-hand warmth of Jane Austen’s novels (I had brought a well-filled e-reader so fortunately that was an option). I realized that actual cold requires books that will keep you warm and comfortable (and this even though my visit was in the summer time so no real hardship).

I thus suggest that the following winter-themed books all benefit from hot cocoa, a fire in the fire-place and a winter storm safely on the other side of a 3-glass window.

Fiction

Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson

This novel tells the story of the time when the Moomintroll unexpectedly woke too early from his winter sleep and of his explorations of the cold, white, winter world outside. Although officially a children’s book it is well worth reading for adults too.

Sun storm (UK: The Savage Altar) by Åsa Larsson

If you are looking for a classic Scandinavian crime novel Åsa Larsson is my favourite. Her first book, Sun storm, takes place in Kiruna (north Sweden) in midwinter so expect plenty of cold.

Non-fiction

The Expedition by Bea Uusma

This book follows the ill-fated Andrée expedition towards the North Pole and the author’s long and personal quest to find out what actually happened to it. This is a surprisingly thrilling history and deservedly won a major Swedish non-fiction award in 2013.

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

The Worst Journey in the World is one of the classic Antarctic memoirs. It is written by one of the younger, surviving members of Scott’s South Pole expedition (not part of the final South Pole team). The fact that it was written by a junior expedition member makes it perhaps more personal than most memoirs from this time. (This book can be found for free on Project Gutenberg, I recommend the illustrated version).

 

It is the season for lists

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In which I make various lists of my favourite 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.

Pre-20th century

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.

Best non-fiction

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!

Best re-reads

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?

Gösta Berling’s Saga

Forest around lake

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.

Gösta Berlings saga

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.

 

 

 

The blue light

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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 Poetic Edda

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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).