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.
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.
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).
In which I make various lists of my favorite 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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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).
Although the traditional Swedish way of celebrating the Swedish National Day is by ignoring it, I though I should make an exception and list a few books that may serve as an introduction to Swedish literature. I made a rather narrow selection this time so I may come back and expand on this topic later.
Sweden’s probably most influential author is Astrid Lindgren, best known for her books about Pippi Longstocking. Her books (and the TV-series made from them) have been loved by Swedish children for decades and form an integral part of a typical Swedish childhood. Some familiarity with her books is thus useful for anyone trying to learn about Swedish culture. For an adult reader I would recommend Ronia the Robber’s daugther (Ronja Rövardotter) or the, slightly more controversial, Brothers Lionheart (Bröderna Lejonhjärta, my favourite) as good starting points.
For classical Swedish literature Vilhelm Moberg, Per Anders Fogelström and the Nobel prize winner Selma Lagerlöf are all good choices. Vilhelm Moberg’s series The Emigrants (Utvandrarna), about the Swedish emigration to America, and Per Anders Fogelström’s City of My dreams (Mina drömmars stad), about working-class people in Stockholm, are also good introductions to 19th century Sweden. A few of Selma Lagerlöf’s novels are available in English at Project Gutenberg.
For Swedish crime I would recommend the novels by Åsa Larsson or Henning Mankell. I particularly enjoy the well-captured north Swedish setting (Kiruna) in Åsa Larsson’s novels.
It’s still only May but the temperatures for the last few days have equalled those of the height of summer. Fortunately I got to spend a few days by the sea, lying on a warm rock in the sun, eating (imported) raspberries and reading.
With summer thus officially here it is time to collect my summer reading. Most important is The Summer Book (Sommarboken) by Tove Jansson. In a series of loosely connected episodes we follow a young girl and an old grandmother through a summer on an island in the Finnish archipelago. Often funny and always down to earth, it paints a beautiful but melancholy picture of life and summers. I try to re-read it every summer.
If one book by Tove Jansson is not enough I’m happy to continue with Finn Family Moomintroll (Trollkarlens hatt) which follows the summer adventures of the Moomin family.
Otherwise my summer reading tend to be dominated by lazy reads. Battered copies of cosy crime novels (mostly Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers), suitable for reading in the shadow under a tree or during a long journey.
Best combined with: Ice-cold elderflower cordial and fresh, sun-warmed, berries.
A review of “The summer book” can be found here