Some light flights with Worrals

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I’ve been in the mood for some light reading recently, the type of entertaining reads that can be finished in one night. Usually that would have meant an Agatha Christie novel or some other golden-age crime novel but this time I made a new acquaintance, Worrals. Worrals is a young WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) pilot during WWII with a strong tendency to stumble on spies. The books are written by Captain W. E. Johns, more famous for his Biggles books.

I’ve got a soft spot for Biggles, I remember creeping back behind the armchair as a child to borrow my mother’s old copies (they happened to be placed in the least accessible spot). I still pick them up occasionally in second-hand stores and spend a few hours with mindless adventures. However, what’s blatantly missing from most of the Biggles books is women. The setting gives a partial excuse and anyway I prefer it to the open misogyny found in some other novels from the same time so I’ve mostly turned a blind eye to the omission. But it meant that when I heard that he had also written a series around a WAAF pilot I was interested but sceptic. I needn’t have worried, Worrals is a great character. She feels like Biggles’ little sister, same courage, same clear head in the face of danger, just with somewhat less experience (admittedly neither Biggles nor Worrals are very deep characters). She also have a very modern attitude to any suggestions that she may be less suitable for some jobs because she’s a woman.

Plot-wise they are not as good as the best Biggles books but neither is Biggles most of the time. I’ve read the first four books in the series and enjoyed all of them but liked the first one best. The first four (at least) are all written and published during WWII and that context made the books (which are really simple adventure stories) a lot more interesting.

Used Worrals books are not easy to find in my part of the world but the first three have recently been reprinted and in very nice editions (proper binding, good paper, I just wish they had kept the original illustrations).*

*No, I’m not sponsored in any way, I bought my copies myself.

 

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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 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 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).

The Classics Club: Book list

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Considering my struggles to finish the book challenge I have already started it can be questioned whether I really need to participate in another reading challenge. However The Classics Club, consisting of members who all aim to read and blog about 50 classics within 5 years, seemed too fun to miss.

In my own list I have prioritized books that I own (18), especially those I haven’t read (5) or haven’t finished (8). Nordic authors feature heavily (20). I have tried to avoid rereads (thus no Jane Austen) but have included a few novels I haven’t read since I was a teenager (3) and a few I have read recently but wanted an excuse to read again (The Pillow Book, Brothers Lionheart and Gaudy Night). Overall I have tried to find a good balance between books I want to read and books I want to have read.

Book list
1 de Beauvoir, Simone: The Second Sex
2 Bellman, Carl Michael: Fredmans epistlar (Fredman’s epistles)
3 Boye, Karin: Kallocain
4 Bulgakov, Mikhail: The Master and Margarita
5 Carter, Angela: Night at the Circus
6 Cather, Willa: My Antonia
7 Alighieri, Dante: Vita nuova
8 Eliot, George: Silas Marner
9 Eliot, George: Middlemarch
10 Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby
11 Fogelström, Per Anders: Mina drömmars stad (City of My Dreams)
12 von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang: Faust
13 Hawthorne, Nathaniel: The House of the Seven Gables
14 Ibsen, Henrik: Peer Gynt
15 Jansson, Tove: Sent i november (Moominvalley in November)
16 Jansson, Tove: Pappan och Havet (Moominpappa at Sea)
17 Kushner, Tony: Angels in America
18 Lagerlöf, Selma: Gösta Berlings saga (Gösta Berling’s Saga)
19 Lagerlöf, Selma: Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (The Wonderful Adventures of Nils)
20 Lindgren, Astrid: Brothers Lionheart
21 Linna, Väinö: Okänd soldat (The Unknown Soldier)
22 Lönnrot, Elias: Kalevala
23 Moberg, Vilhelm: Utvandrarna (The Emigrants)
24 Moberg, Vilhelm: Din stund på jorden (A Time on Earth)
25 Morrison, Toni: Beloved
26 Plath, Sylvia: Ariel
27 Plath, Sylvia: The Bell Jar
28 Rhys, Jean: Wide Sargasso Sea
29 Rushdie, Salman: Midnight’s Children
30 de Saint-Exupéry, Antoine: The Little Prince
31 de Saint-Exupéry, Antoine: Wind, Sand and Stars
32 Sayers, Dorothy: Gaudy Night
33 Scott, Robert Falcon: Scott’s last expedition
34 Sei Shōnagon: The Pillow Book
35 Shakespeare, William: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
36 Sturlasson, Snorre: Heimskringla
37 Thoreau, Henry David: Walden
38 Thorvall, Kerstin: Det mest förbjudna
39 Tikkanen, Märta: Arnaía kastad i havet
40 Tolstoy, Leo: Anna Karenina
41 Tunström, Göran: Juloratoriet (The Christmas Oratorio )
42 Undset, Sigrid: Kransen (The Wreath, Kristin Lavransdatter triology, part one)
43 Walker, Alice: The Color Purple
44 Den poetiska Eddan (Poetic Edda)

Anthologies etc.
45 Kafka, Franz: Metamorphosis and other stories
46 Lie, Jonas: Fortellinger i utvalg (Selected stories)
47 Mansfield, Katherine: Short story collection
48 Pushkin, Alexander: The Queen of spades and other stories
49 Rumi: Selected poems
50 Selected Bible books: Psalms, Revelation

Goal date
20th of October 2022.

Bonus classics
Melville, Herman: Moby Dick
Verne, Jules: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

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Origins of the books I will be reading as part of the challenge (for some of the older authors this was not trivial to determine and some of those were therefore rather arbitrarily assigned a country). There clearly will be some blank spots in my reading also after this challenge.

More a tadpole than a fish?

Sperm whale battling squid

I had an excellent summer for reading. No internet, few disturbances and quite a bit of rain. Thanks to these fortunate circumstances I finally read a few books I have been postponing, including “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea” (fun but not very memorable) and “Moby Dick” (excellent!).

Reading these novels next to each other I amused myself by comparing their descriptions of whales, especially cachalots (sperm whales). Moby Dick is naturally full of descriptions of whales but I was particularly interested in the following section:

“First: The uncertain, unsettled condition of this science of Cetology is in the very vestibule attested by the fact, that in some quarters it still remains a moot point whether a whale be a fish. In his System of Nature, A.D. 1776, Linnæus declares, “I hereby separate the whales from the fish.” But of my own knowledge, I know that down to the year 1850, sharks and shad, alewives and herring, against Linnæus’s express edict, were still found dividing the possession of the same seas with the Leviathan.

The grounds upon which Linnæus would fain have banished the whales from the waters, he states as follows: “On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their movable eyelids, their hollow ears, penem intrantem feminam mammis lactantem,” and finally, “ex lege naturæ jure meritoque.” I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug.”

Having thus dismissed Linnæus arguments the narrator continues by defining a whale as “a spouting fish with a horizontal tail”. The truth of this statement is of course dependent on your definition of fish but I would side with Linnæus here and argue that a whale is not a fish.

In contrast we have the following description of cachalots from captain Nemo in “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea”, amusingly just after he declared the hunting of Baleen whales (unless fresh meat for the crew was needed) a “murderous pastimes.

“Those are sperm whales, dreadful animals that I’ve sometimes encountered in herds of 200 or 300! As for them, they’re cruel, destructive beasts, and they deserve to be exterminated. […] We’ll take no pity on these ferocious cetaceans. They’re merely mouth and teeth!”

The main character in “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea”, Professor Aronnax, agrees with this assessment and adds: “The sperm whale is an awkward animal, more tadpole than fish, as Professor Frédol* has noted.” which I find a glourious insult to the world’s largest toothed whale. I already argued that a whale is no fish, the intriguing question now is whether it is also true that a cachelot is more a tadpole than a fish?

To answer that question I used science and internet, more specifically the site timetree.org which gives the time of divergence of two species, that is the time when their evolutionary ancestors separated. To test whether a cachelot is more a tadpole than a fish I searched for the divergence time of the following species:

  • Physeter macrocephalus or cachelot (sperm whale)
  • Rana temporaria or common frog as a representative of tadpoles.
  • Gadus morhua or cod as a representative of fishes.

Fittingly all three species got their scientific names from Linnæus in his Systema Naturae (1758).

From timetree.org I learnt that the evolutionary branches of cachelot and common frog got separated around 352 million years ago, in the Early Carboniferous. Cachelot and cod on the other hand got separated already 435 million years ago, during the Silurian, and are therefore less closely related. It would thus be at least partly fair to call a cachelot more tadpole than fish”

The more difficult question of whether a tadpole is more a cachelot than a fish I leave as an open question for the comment field.

Cachalots (sperm whales)

*Le monde de la mer by Alfred Frédol. I can’t read French but based on a Google translation of Frédol’s text I believe he only described the general appearance of the cachalot when he likened it to a tadpole. Still an insult but a bit more reasonable.