Focus on the indies – Peirene Press

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Since I started reading book blogs more regularly I have been introduced to a number of interesting independent publishers. I now thought I should do my part and spread the word further, starting with my new favourite, Peirene Press.

Peirene Press focuses on short-format,maximum 200 pages, translated novels and memoirs by mostly European authors. As I prefer shorter novels and aim to read from as many countries as possible, they have been a perfect match. It doesn’t hurt that they are producing reasonably well-made and attractive soft-covers either.

Books I recommend from Peirene Press

I have enjoyed and would recommend all four books I have read from Peirene. However, I will focus on two of them, both dealing with life in the Soviet Union. The fact that I have a more relevant photo to illustrate these books than I do for the other two may or may not have influenced my choice…

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (translation by Margita Gailitis)

Soviet Milk is a Latvian novel following a mother and daughter whose relationship has been stunted by the mother’s depression. The novel is a beautiful portrait of their fragile relationship but also a broader commentary about the influence of oppressive regimes on ordinary lives.

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė (translation by Delija Valiukenas)

If the previous novel didn’t sound bleak enough I can instead recommend the Lithuanian novel Shadows on the Tundra. It is a well-written memoir which follows then 14-year old Dalia Grinkevičiūtė and her mother and brother during their deportation to the Lena delta in north Siberia. It is a truly horrifying account of the complete disregard for human lives that these deportations involved, but it also a survival story and as such not entirely without hope.

Other books from Peirene Press

From Peirene I have also read and very much enjoyed Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda and Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall. Under the Tripoli Sky, describes a childhood in Tripoli during the 1960s and would be my recommendation if you want to try Peirene Press but want to avoid the heavier themes in some of their other novels.

Have you read any of these books, did you like them? Do you have any recommendations of other books I should read from Peirene Press or suggestions on other indie publishers I should try?

As usual this post has not been sponsored in any way.

 

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Midnight’s children

Pink and white rosesWhen I was younger a thick book was a good book. I am a fast reader and I wanted books that would last me awhile. In the library I therefore went directly towards the heavier tomes and longer series. But things have changed, these days I find myself drawn towards the shorter fiction, preferring books with less than 300 pages. If a book approaches 400 pages I get easily distracted and start to read other books in parallel. This was the case for Midnight’s children (538 pages) which I have been reading on and off for several months.

Midnight’s children by Salman Rushdie is an award-winning novel following the protagonist Saleem Sinai who is born on the stroke of midnight of the day India gained independence. His history thus runs parallel to the history of India and events in his own life are often mirrored in Indian history (at least that is how he prefers to tell it). It is a meandering story, moving from the mundane to the magical, from trivial occurrences in the life of Saleem Sinai to major historical events.

I struggled quite a bit with the novel in the beginning. It is very well-written but I got lost among all the names and historical references which I was only vaguely familiar with. I therefore repeatedly put it aside to read other books. Of course that meant that I had forgotten even more names by the time I came back to it. However, about halfway in, the book picked-up pace a bit and I decided to make a concentrated effort to read in it every day. From there on my my impression of it greatly improved, I started to know who (almost) everyone were, the story suddenly made sense and I actually enjoyed it. 

It’s not really like any other book I have read but the book I associated it closest with is another book from my Classic Club reading list, Gösta Berling’s Saga by Selma Lagerlöf. The settings couldn’t be more different, in Midnight’s children we follow the protagonist (and his ancestors) over several decades as he moves across India and Pakistan, whereas Gösta Berling’s Saga takes place in Värmland, a sparsely populated Swedish region during a single year. However, both books feature larger than life protagonists, a small touch of magic, and are narrated in a style that stays close to oral tradition. More importantly, they are both more a rich portrait of a country (or a county in Lagelöf’s case) than a linear story.

First published in 1981 Midnight’s children  is on of the youngest books in my Classics Club reading challenge.

This weekend there is also an Indian Literature Readathon arranged by Nandini, Shruti, Charvi and Aditi. Unfortunately I don’t have time to join but head over there if you are interested in Indian reading recommendations.

 

Mapping your reading

Map over my 2018 reading made in QGIS

Map showing the countries I’ve read from during the first six months of 2018.

The complete guide to an unnecessarily complicated way of mapping your reading

Loyal readers of this blog may have noticed that I enjoy mapping my reading so I thought I would present you all with a guide on how to do these maps. Unfortunately the way I do it is way too ambitious for such a simple task but if you want to go deeper into the art of map-making this may be a good place to start. A much simple option is just to google “map countries I’ve been to” and use any of the free map generators.

Start to keep track of your reading

No matter what alternative you choose for mapping your reading, the first thing you need is to keep track of it. I use a simple spreadsheet where I have one column with countries and one column with the number of books read by authors from that country. I update the numbers after each book I read and add new countries to the list whenever needed. We are not actually going to link this table with our map (although it is possible) so this time a paper list will work equally well.

Install QGIS

If you want to do it the complicated way the first thing you need is a GIS program. I recommend QGIS which is free and open source but if you have another GIS program such as ArcGIS that will also work (but then you can’t exactly follow this guide although the principles are the same).

GIS programs are not primarily programs for making pretty maps (although they can be used for that) but for analysing geographical data (GIS means Geographic Information System). If you ever want to calculate how many children that lives within a kilometer of a library, a GIS program is what you need (plus databases with information on where all libraries are and were all children lives). In short GIS programs include loads of functions we will completely ignore in our simple mission to show our reading on a world map.

QGIS together with installation instructions can be found here. I’m using QGIS 2.18.7 for Ubuntu for this guide but we will only use standard procedures so I doubt they change noticeably between versions from the same generation. I therefore recommend using either the latest release or the latest “Long term release repository”.

Download country borders to use in your map

Natural Earth is a great source of free map data. In this case we are only after the country borders but do take a look around the website and see what else they have got. If we greatly over-simplify things we can say that the raster data they have is ready made images for your maps whereas the vector data is things you can play around with and adapt to your liking. We are planning to play with our data so we want vector data.

More precisely we want this data set with country borders adapted for a small-sized world map. Or, if you are planning a regional map, either this one, or this one (most detailed), which both include more details.

  • Download the map data of your choice and save it somewhere where you can find it again.
  • It will download as a zip-file so you need to unpack it. If you right-click on it you probably have an option to Extract or similar, that is what you want to do.

Create a new map

Now we finally have everything we need to create our map.

  • Start QGIS
  • Create a new map by selecting Project -> New
  • Add your country borders by selecting: Layer -> Add Layer -> Add Vector Layer and select Browse. Find the map data you downloaded and select the ne_110m_admin_0_countries.shp file (if you choose one of the more detailed options it will instead be called ne_50m_admin_0_countries.shp or ne_10m_admin_0_countries.shp). You should now see a world map with country borders.
  • Go to Project -> Save to save your GIS-file.

Add your data

  • You should have a part of the screen called Layers Panel where the map you just added is listed. If not, go to View -> Panels and select Layers Panel from the drop-down menu.
  • Right-click on your map in the Layers Panel list (called ne_110m_admin_0_countries or similar) and select Open Attribute Table.

You have now opened a table with country information. What we want to do here is to add the information about your reading to the table.

  • Click on the small pencil symbol in the upper left corner, this allows you to make changes to your table.
  • Press Ctrl+W to add a new column to your table. A window opens where you can select the properties of your new column.
    • Give it a name, for example Read2018 (avoid blank-spaces or other special characters).
    • Also decide what sort of data you want in your column (numbers, text etc.). If you are listing the number of books you have read you will only be using integers (numbers without decimals) so select Whole number (integer).
    • Press OK and your new column will be created and can be found after (to the right of) the existing columns.
  • I find it easier to have the list of my reading next to the actual country names rather than behind a lot of information I don’t care about. To arrange it that way, right-click on the top (title) of your new column, and select Organize Columns from the drop-down menu.
    • Choose Unselect All and then reselect (click on the box for) ADMIN (country names) and the name of the column you just created. Click OK and you will see a much simpler table with only the information you are interested in (if you took away too many of the columns you can open Organize Columns again and reselect the ones you want).
  • Start adding the information about your reading. To do this, just click on the Read2018 column (or whatever you called your new column) on a line for a country you have read from and write the number of books you have read from that country. Then continue to the next country by clicking on the line for that one.
  • When you are done, press Ctrl+S to save.
  • Click on the small pencil symbol again to leave the editing mode.
  • Go to Project -> Save to save your GIS-file.

Show your data on the map

Now all the data is in but you still have to do a few things to make it visible.

  • In the Layers Panel, right click on you map (same as when you opened the table) and choose Properties.
  • In the window that opens, select Style.
  • At the top of the new window you now see a field saying “Single symbol”. Click on it and change it into “Graduated”.
  • You now see a field called “Column”, click on it and select the column with you new data (e.g. Read2018 if that is what you called it earlier).
  • In the field “Color ramp” select a color ramp you like.
  • In the field “Classes”, select the number of different colors you want to use. If you select the same number as the maximum number of books you have read from a single country you will get a different shade for each number. (Some final tweaking may be needed to make this work perfectly but you should get close enough in this way).
  • Click on “Classify”
  • Click on “Apply” to see your new map.

Most likely you new map will be missing a lot of countries, that’s because you haven’t told the program what to do with the countries you haven’t read anything from.

  • In the “Style”-section of the “Properties” window (where already you are unless you just closed it), click on “+”. You will now have a new entry in you list of classes. Most likely it has the values 0.0000-0.0000 which is what you need. You can however click on the numbers to change them if you want to specify some other numbers for some reason.
  • Click on “Apply” again and the missing countries should be back.
  • Go to Project -> Save to save your GIS-file.

Make your map pretty

If you are unhappy with the colors or the line thickness or something, these can also be adjusted in the “Properties” window.

  • Double-click on the symbol you want to change in your list of classes. A new window will open.
  • Click where you see the text “Simple fill” and you will get options for changing the fill color, line color, line width etc.
  • When you are done, click “OK” which will return you to the “Properties” window. Click “Apply” to see your new map.

The final thing we are going to change is the map projection. Drawing a three dimensional Earth on a two dimensional screen means that compromises have to be made but we can select compromises that are not too misleading or ugly.

  • Open the “Properties” window again (Right-click on the name of your map in the Layers Panel).
  • Select “General”.
  • Find the small symbol that looks like a globe with a cone-shaped hat. It should show “Select CSR” when you hover over it (on the right-side of the window). Click on it.
  • You will now see a long list of Coordinate systems of the world. If you know the name of one you like you can use the “Filter” field to search for it. For my world maps I’m using one called World_Robinson  EPSG:54030.
  • Click on the coordinate system you want and click “OK”.
  • You are now back in the “Properties” window, click “Apply” to see how it looks.
  • If your map disappeared, click on the “Zoom full” symbol in the main window (magnifying glass with arrows) or press Shift+Ctrl+F.
  • Go to Project -> Save to save your GIS-file.

Export your map

The only thing we need to do now is to export the map.

  • The simplest export option will make a .png image of whatever is shown in your main window so zoom in or out in you map until everything you want to show is visible.
  • Go to Project -> Save as image (in the main menu)
  • Save your file somewhere you can find it.
  • Go to Project -> Save to save your GIS-file so you can use it for future maps.

Congratulations, you are done! Please let me know if it worked for you.

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.

Other Russias

Photo from a Siberian small town

I am quite interested in Russian literature and have reviewed a few Russian novels on this blog before. However, all of them have been classics, modern Russian literature has largely remained a blank spot in my reading. I was therefore intrigued when I stumbled upon Other Russias, Victoria Lomasko‘s graphic reportage from modern Russia.

In the book we follow Lomasko as she draws juvenile prisoners, modern slaves, prostitutes and village children. She also draws during the Pussy Riot trial, a LGBT film festival and various protest rallies. The book consists of her pen drawings of the people she meets combined with quotes from the people she’s drawn and her own commentary. Generally drawn on-site the drawings range vary from quick sketches to somewhat more elaborate designs.

Lomasko is an artist, not a journalist, and her book is thus not a pure journalistic reportage trying to find the truth on specific topics. Instead she lends us her eyes as she explores and portraits various parts of Russia. It is thus not trying to be anything but a story of modern Russia as seen by Lomasko herself. Such an approach may be more subjective and biased but it is so openly which I appreciate. The fact that she is interested in portraying “invisible” people and social activists ensures a broader relevance of her work.

I found the book most relevant when it covered less newsworthy topics. I can find plenty of descriptions of the Pussy Riot trial elsewhere but many of the people she portraits I could have met nowhere else. All in all I found it very interesting.

An interview with Victoria Lomasko can be found here.

 

 

Reading books by authors from 30 countries

World map

Read books since I started the reading challenge in January 2017.

I did it! I have read books by authors from 30 nations (if I include Sápmi which I do). Not in a year which was the original challenge but in a bit under 1.5 years. I struggled a bit in the beginning but gradually I got better at finding great books from countries I normally don’t read from and I became braver in my reading choices.

What have I learnt?

In the beginning I was a bit too ambitious in my reading choices which slowed down my progress. If my goal had been to read one book per country and never return it would have made sense to make that one book really count. However, that’s not what I was trying to do. Instead I was gradually expanding my reading comfort zone and for that it helped to keep it simple. Often the cultural context of a novel was unfamiliar and it made more sense to select books that was not too demanding in other ways. I therefore dropped any ambition that the books I selected had to be particularly literary and I preferentially opted for shorter novels. Along the way I also got better at finding great literature in translation, identified a few interesting indie publishers and found many excellent international bloggers .

Good sources of literature in translation

And other stories publishes an eclectic collection of mostly translated fiction. Among them The Lime Tree by César Aira (which I liked) and The Seamstress and the Wind by the same author (which I found too weird).

Ayebia specialises in literature by African and Carribean authors. I’m currently enjoying their anthology African Love Stories (edited by Ama Ata Aidoo). Thank you Darkowaa for the review that introduced me to it!

My favourite discovery in translated fiction has been Peirene Press which publishes translated fiction by mostly European authors. I would have preferred a wider reach but Peirene Press has some other advantages that makes up for it. Most importantly all the books I have read from them (3) have been excellent. They also only publish shorter works (maximum about 200 pages) which makes me much more willing to risk trying a new author. And I like the look of their books…

A few relevant blog posts I found along the way

Beginner’s guide to Baltic Literature by Agnese

Ann Morgan’s list of books from her blog “A year of reading the world”

Darkowaa’s list of Ghanaian authors and their books (3 part series, links to the two first parts can be found at the end of her post).

Stuart at Winstondad’s Blog have also reviewed a wide range of translated fiction (sorted by country).

I would like to add more links here, please let me know if you have recommendations of similar resources from other regions (excluding literature from the UK and the US which is easy to find anyway).

What’s next?

I won’t start another reading challenge rightaway but I will keep tracking author’s country or origin for my reading. Hopefully it will show that I keep exploring new reading grounds. Next year I consider once more trying to limit my book buying but to give myself a free pass for books from countries I normally don’t read from to encourage more diverse reading choices.

 

 

A few Norwegian reading recommendations for 17th of May

Norwegian_mountain_area

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!