It is the season for lists

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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.

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?

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Reading challenges -status report and plans for 2018

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During 2017 I attempted to follow the 30-20-20-10 reading challenge, that is, to read books from 30 countries, by 20 male and 20 female authors and from 10 decades. The decades proved to be the easiest part of the challenge, I finished them already in January and by now I’ve read books from 20 decades. Reading books by 20 men and 20 women also happened without any real effort, I was finished with this part of the challenge in August without really trying. So in the end it was only the 30 countries that actually worked as a challenge but there I struggled. With a few days left of 2017 I’ve only read books from 21 countries. The challenge still worked in that it made me read a lot more broadly than I normally would but I will need to use 2018 too to finish it.

The other challenge I started in 2017, the classics club, has also been a real treat. Here the challenge is to read and blog about at least 50 classics within 5 years. As I started my list on October 22nd and have already finished my first 5 books on my list I believe I’m well on my way. This challenge has been a lot of fun and also comes with a great community so I look forward to continuing with it during 2018.

Challenges for 2018

  • Finish the 30-20-20-10 challenge (read 9 books from countries I didn’t read any book from in 2017).
  • Read 12 books from countries I rarely read from (countries I read no more than 1 book from in 2017, this mini-challenge will naturally overlap substantially with the 30-20-20-10 challenge).
  • Read and blog about at least 12 books from my Classics club reading list.
  • Read at least as many of my unread books (including new books) as I buy in 2018. (I may have cheated and just bought eight new books with a January delivery which won’t count so I will have a head-start on this one).
  • Join the Back to the classics reading challenge which should overlap nicely with my reading for the classics club and provide even more great discussion on the classics. Considering my other challenges I don’t want to out too much pressure on this one but I want to finish at least 6 of the 12 categories and hope to do most of them.

 

 

Gösta Berling’s Saga

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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 Little Prince

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My ambition not to buy any new books until I had read as many of my unread books as I had bought this year broke down. First I realized that I had counted some of my read books twice and thus that I was much further from my goal than I had thought and then I went to Paris and obviously had to buy some books because that’s what I do when I’m a tourist. So I have officially given up that ambition but at least I made a dent in my To Be Read piles while it lasted.

For the full tourist experience I went to Shakespeare and Company (thankfully not too crowded when I was there and thus lovely) in Paris and bought The Little Prince. It’s part of my Classics Club challenge so at least I had a good excuse (something that’s not true for all the other books I happened to buy).

The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a beloved children book, possibly even more loved by adults than by children (my suspicion). I knew it mostly from the illustrations which I really like. The text however took longer to convince me. It is in many ways a philosophical allegory, but to me it was of the kind that sounds good but doesn’t actually force you to think. On the other hand it is a children’s book so a somewhat simplistic approach is justified. It also gradually won me over and I found myself quite moved by the ending. So in the end I liked it but did not love it. It is however a quick and easy read, beautifully illustrated so it is worth giving it a chance.

 

 

The Queen of Spades and Other Stories

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The third book I’ve read from my Classics list is “The Queen of Spades and Other Stories”, a selection of novellas by Alexander Pushkin written between 1828-1836. Until now Tolstoy has been my favourite Russian author but I must say he’s got some real competition now.

My edition contained “The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin”, “The Queen of Spades”, “the Captain’s Daughter” and the fragment “The Moor of Peter the Great”. I liked all of them but found “The Queen of Spades” and “The Moor of Peter the Great” to be the most memorable. The language, also in Alan Myers’ translation, is beautiful, none of the overburdened descriptions that sometimes stifles its contemporary novels. The characters, although briefly sketched, are generally three-dimensional and interesting (excluding the Tsar family which seem uniformly good).

I’ve read this collection a novella at the time with many interruptions so I will focus on the last one, “The Moor of Peter the Great” which is a fragment of a historical novel or novella inspired by the experiences of Pushkin’s great-grandfather. It follows Ibrahim who’s navigating the double roles of the privileged position as a favourite of Peter the Great and the role of the constant outsider. The novella’s description of racism feels surprisingly modern for an almost 200-year-old text and Ibrahim is a fascinating character I would have loved to read more about. Unfortunately as it is only a fragment it ends abruptly but I still recommend reading it. (Look up the “real Ibrahim”, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, Alexander Pushkin’s great-grandfather, it’s well worth it!).

“The Moor of Peter the Great” takes place in the early 18th century, shortly after the battle of Poltava, which made the references to historical events especially interesting from a Swedish point of view. I was also interested in the captive Swedish officer which is a minor character in the story and which Pushkin infuses with as much humanity as the other characters. Here too, Pushkin may have been helped by his family background, his great-grandmother was Swedish. Of course as it’s written more than a century after Sweden’s final defeat in the war any animosity may have calmed down. Anyway, I found it amusing.

So far I’ve read much more from my classics list than I expected to. Partly because I feel inspired by the challenge and by all the great books on the list but also because I decided that I may not by any new books until I’ve read as many of my unread books as I have bought this year. In total I have read more books this year (75) than I have bought (51) but that includes rereads and borrowed books so I’m still eight books behind. I did leave myself some loopholes but it’s still a strong motivation. As several of the classics on my classics list made it there just because they were unread or half-read classics that haunted my bookshelves I have started with some of these.

 

 

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).

Metamorphosis and other stories

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When I first started studying the local bookstore had a campaign were they handed out T-shirts with the text “Kafka hade inte heller så roligt” loosely translated as “Kafka didn’t have much fun either” and for a few months those shirts were a common sight on the streets in my new home town. Although it wasn’t the first time I had heard about Franz Kafka the imagery stuck and I have kept thinking about him that way. Reading something by him for the first time did nothing to change that impression. Kafka excels at creating uncomfortable and bizarre situations and then staying there, digging deeper and deeper into them. In the end I admired it a lot more than I enjoyed it.

The book I read was an anthology which apart from the title novella also included “The Judgement: A story for F”, “In the Penal Colony” and various shorter stories, all in translation by Michael Hofmann. It was on my list of 50 classics to read with the Classics Club.

Metamorphosis is available from Project Gutenberg (translation by David Wyllie).