The father and the sea

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Moominpappa at sea by Tove Jansson is the second to last Moomin novel and takes place at the same time as Moominvalley in November.

It starts as the Moominpappa is going through a bit of a life-crisis. Things are getting a bit too comfortable and he starts to suspect that his family doesn’t really need him anymore. The solution is obviously for the family to leave their comfortable home and move to an isolated lighthouse where the father can prove his pioneer spirit (I want to blame Moominpappa for this but while it may have been his dream it was actually Moominmamma who decided it).

The result is a melancholy story about a family growing apart from each other, carried by Jansson’s amazing ability to write characters and scenes that feel absolutely true, although centred around a family of Moomintrolls.

While all Moomin novels have a touch of melancholy it is more dominant in the two last ones. In some ways I feel that the earlier Moomin novels are children’s novels that can be read by adults, while these last two are adult’s novels that can be read by children.

Moominpappa at Sea is part of my classics club reading challenge. As it was first published in 1965 I also want to use it for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge. However, I’m not sure whether to use it as my Classic Comic Novel or my Classic Tragic Novel, as common in Nordic literature it includes quite a bit of both.

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Ex Libris

Book pile

When I first started out planning which books I would use my ex libris for, I assumed that it would more or less be a list of my favourite books. However, when I actually started to consider which of my books I really wanted my ex libris in, it became more complicated. Instead of asking myself if a particular text was a favourite of mine, I found myself thinking more about the physical book and whether or not I would want to hang on to that particular edition forever. Some of my favourite books are almost falling apart and will eventually have to be replaced so those hardly make sense to label. Others I have in more than one edition and deciding which edition to label is not trivial. Take the Narnia books for example, should I place my ex libris in the Swedish edition which I read again and again as a child but which is now brown or fragile, or in my quality English edition, which I have no personal history with, but which I most likely would choose for a reread?

For now I have deferred any difficult decisions and only placed them in books I plan to keep through good times and bad.

These were the first ten I selected:

Sommarboken (The Summer Book) by Tove Jansson

A favourite book by a favourite author, an easy choice.

Nordisk fjällflora (Field Guide to Nordic Mountain Flowers) by Örjan Nilsson

I’m not much of an amateur botanist but my grandmother was and this field guide is full of her notes on flowers she has seen. As I spend much time in the Swedish mountains I got it as a gift from her. The fact that it already contained her ex libris made it extra special.

Kastanjeallén by Dea Trier Mørch

My mother has selected a small book canon which all her children are getting, and out of those this one is probably my favourite. The way it describes life from a child’s point of view is not unlike Jansson’s The Summer Book.

Bröderna Lejonhjärta (Brothers Lionheart) by Astrid Lindgren

Death, courage and love. This is one of the bravest children’s book I know.

Visor och ballader by Dan Andersson

Poetry by Dan Andersson, one of my favourite poets.

The hunting of the snark by Lewis Carroll

I’m not sure why I love this nonsense poem so much but I do, especially the description of the sea chart without the least vestige of land. My edition has Tove Jansson’s illustrations in it which of course makes it particularly good.

Århundradets kärlekshistoria (Love story of a century) by Märta Tikkanen

Memoir of a dysfunctional marriage in lyrical form, this one is a classic.

Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh

I have read this one so many times that I had to replace my original softcover edition which was falling apart. Admittedly a slightly weird book for a teenage obsession but a perfect antidote to all the math hating protagonists in children’s and YA literature. (Why do authors keep using this trope? No wonder that children conclude that math ability is something you are born with rather than something you learn).

Antarktisboken ( The White Desert: The official account of the Norwegian–British–Swedish Antarctic Expedition) by John Giæver and others

I love the Arctic and the Antarctic but have always been more interested in the science part than in the patriotic flag-planting adventures. This account from a Norwegian-British-Swedish research expedition to Queen Maud Land in 1949-1952 is thus perfect.

How the universe got its spots

Well-written memoir/diary with interesting musings on cosmology. I got it as a gift from a friend at my dissertation which makes it extra special.

 

 

 

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.

 

November reading

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In October I finished another novel from my Classics club reading list, Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson. All I had left to do was to write a review, ideally post it during November considering its theme, and go on to other novels. Unfortunately I got stuck, November is already gone, and I still haven’t written that review.

It was not really writing the review that was the problem, I just had too much other things going on, but by now I think that the wisest course of action is to write something, anything, and move on.

So what can I say about it? Well, it was good, melancholy and beautiful, like Jansson almost always is. It is the last books about the Moomins and the Moomin family is not at home. Instead we meet some of the supporting cast from the other books, people who have all come to depend on the Moomin family’s presence and struggle to fill the void on their own.

All the Moomin books can be enjoyed by both adults and children but this one may be especially relevant for adults. I really liked it and do recommend it, but only if you have read most of the other Moomin books first, as it also act as a  farewell to Moomin valley.

A maid among maids

Sheeps in a meadowIn 1914 Swedish farms had difficulties finding enough labourers. Many young people from the country side preferred to move into the cities or emigrate to America to the hard work as a farm labourer. At this point a young Stockholm journalist, Ester Blenda Nordström (1891-1948), decided to find out for herself what it was that made people leave. Using an assumed name she applied for a position as a farm maid and spent a month working as a farm labourer. Back in Stockholm she wrote about her experience, first in an article series and later in a widely popular book, En piga bland pigor (A maid among maids) which is the one I have just finished.

So why do we need an outsiders perspective on the hard farm life when Sweden have so many great working-class authors who wrote about their own experience? Well, I must admit that I found the outsider’s perspective really helpful. Reading it today we are all outsiders and Nordström, as a very modern woman in 1914, acts as a bridge between me as a modern reader and the common life in 1914. She asks the questions I would have asked and she comments on thing I find notable but which may have been considered too normal to mention by someone who was not an outsider. She also wrote this before the working-class authors really broke through in Sweden so it was cutting edge both in its theme and the way it was done. It doesn’t hurt either that she was an excellent writer and that the book is genuinely funny.

In Swedish this type of undercover journalism is called wallraffa (to wallraff) after the famous German journalist Günter Wallraff. Perhaps it would have made even more sense to name it after the Swedish journalist who used the method more than fifty years earlier.

I may have already ordered some of her other works. I can’t wait to read about her time hitch-hiking through America or the time she spent one and a half year in Kamchatka. Unfortunately she doesn’t seem to have been translated into English so if you want to read anything by her my recommendation is to either learn Swedish or pester your favourite publisher until they translate her for you, whichever seems easiest

A Time on Earth

Birches in a meadow

The year is 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis casts its shadow over the world. In California the ageing Swedish-American Albert Carlson feels death approaching. The time has come for him to look back on his life and reflect on what he did with his one time on earth.

A Time on Earth (Din stund på jorden) by Vilhelm Moberg is a story about death and about living. About Albert who abandoned his dreams, and about his brother Sigfrid who died young and never got the chance to fulfil his.  It is a melancholic story, filled with regrets over two lives which never became what they ought, but it is written with a compassion for the characters which prevents it from being too bleak.

Albert Carlson has lived his whole adult life in the USA but never managed to make it his home. Now he spends his days in a lonely hotel room with his memories. He suffers from the common emigrant curse of longing for a country which no longer exists, the Sweden he knew has moved on without him (as an emigrant myself this is something I fear). The story moves back and forth from Albert’s life in California to his childhood in rural Sweden, both beautifully portrayed in the novel.

A Time on Earth is a beautiful book, which kept me captivated from the beginning, but it is not a very cheerful read. I believe I should find something a bit lighter for my next read.

This book was on my Classics Club reading list. I read it in Swedish but an English translation exists.

 

 

Why everyone needs to read The Brothers Lionheart

Cherry blossomsThe time has come for me to review one of my absolute favourite books. A book I added to my Classic Club reading list just to get an excuse to re-read it (again) and review it. I’m  talking about The Brothers Lionheart (Bröderna Lejonhjärta) by Astrid Lindgren.

The Brothers Lionheart is primarily a children’s book, aimed at rather young children, but it has plenty to offer older readers. Indeed it is a highly unusual and brave novel. The main-character and narrator is ten-year-old Karl Lionheart and already on the very first page we are told that he is about to die. The story is however not as bleak as it may sound. For children this is primarily a fantasy adventure which deals with sibling love, death and the nature of courage in a way no other children’s books do. It has some really dark parts but it doesn’t stay in the darkness and, as all is told from a child’s perspective, it never really scared me as a kid.

In many ways this novel is more melancholic when read as an adult. Lindgren lets us read between the lines and glimpse a sadder, but equally beautiful, story. She wrote this novel at a time when her favourite brother was seriously ill and a note of love and grief runs through the text. It may look like a children’s novel but it is not afraid to take on the big questions. The result is sad and wise and comforting.

I don’t want to spoil the plot for those of you who have yet to read it, just tell you that you should. I can’t guarantee that you will like it, it is not for everyone, but if you do it is something really special.

If you don’t mind spoilers read this excellent review, but beware, it does give away much of the plot including the ending.

I need to discuss this book with everyone and that can’t be done properly without spoilers so spoilers are welcome in the comment section for this review. If you have not read it yet, avoid the comments and go and read it instead (and do come back to let me know what you thought).

TW: Death, ableism.

Edit (August 2019): There is now a really interesting, but spoiler-filled, discussion in the comment section. Those of you who dislike spoilers may want to avoid the comments until you have read the novel.