In 1906-1907 Selma Lagerlöf published The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (orig. Nils Holgerssons underbara resa), a book she had been commissioned to write as a geography textbook for Swedish school children. Rather than writing a normal, boring, textbook she wanted it to be exciting and interesting, while still being educational. The result was the story about Nils Holgersson, who angered the local tomte on his family farm in southern Sweden, and as a punishment got shrunk until he too was small as a tomte. In this new miniaturized state, he travelled with the wild geese all the way from his family home in the far south, to the mountains in northernmost Sweden and back, visiting all the Swedish regions along the way.
While the plot itself is simple, shaped like a classical morality tale, what stands out is Lagerlöf’s storyteller abilities and the way she makes the landscapes come to life. In a time when few children would have travelled much farther than the next village, it must have been especially fascinating to follow Nils’ travels (and by air no less!). Lagerlöf gives all Swedish regions memorable and accurate descriptions (Skåne seen from above is e.g. described like a chequered cloth, with fields and pastures forming the squares) and tell not only of Nils’ many adventures along the way but also retells old myths and stories from each region. The result is a novel which has not only been used in Swedish schools but which has been reprinted again and again, translated into 40 languages, listed on Le Monde’s list of 100 books of the century, and filmed multiple times. It is very far from your ordinary geography textbook. In 1909 Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman to be awarded the Noble Prize in Literature (although not primarily for Nils Holgersson).
I had read about Nils, adventures as a child, but unfortunately not in school where we instead read a bland story about a boy and his cat travelling through Sweden, clearly inspired by Lagerlöf but with none of her genius. However, I wanted to reread it as an adult and therefore added it to my Classics club reading list. This summer, when I was finally able to return to Sweden for vacation after months of closed borders, it was lovely to imagine travelling freely with the geese. It ended up being one of my favourite reads this summer.
The summer vacation is unfortunately already over, but despite the odds I did get my usual mountain summer filled with hiking and reading. It is always a bit hard to return home, although I have to admit that it is lovely to again have access to hot showers…
This year I have read more than usual, a total of 101 books since January. This is probably largely due to a stronger than usual inclination to go for easy reads, many of them unmemorable, but I have had some real reading highlights during the summer. I have been thrilled by Doctor Glas, Hjalmar Söderberg’s tale about the morality of murder, read creepy ghost stories by Dan Andersson in Det kallas vidskepelse and travelled through Sweden in Selma Lagelöf’sThe wonderful adventures of Nils, the latter particularly relevant in a time when travel is again difficult. I have also read two excellent, but rather different, short story collections, The thing around your neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jag ser allt du gör (I see all you do) by Annika Norlin. All of these are highly recommended. In addition my recent discovery of the high quality publisher Archipelago Books, helped me ensure that not everything I read came from European or North American authors.
While my weeks outside internet coverage have been wonderfully restful, they have also meant that I am hopelessly behind on everyone’s blogs. So if any of you have read anything you particularly want to recommend this summer, I would be happy to hear about it in the comments…
Growing up in Sweden it is very hard not to be heavily influenced by Astrid Lindgren. If you haven’t read the books yourself, chances are that someone read them for you, or you watched the TV-series or went to Astrid Lindgrens värld, the nice family park dedicated to her characters. In my case it was all of the above. Somewhat later I discovered the Narnia books, which I read and reread until I almost knew them by heart.
Findus and the fox (Rävjakten), picture book by Sven Nordqvist.
Who will comfort Toffle? (Vem ska trösta knyttet?) picture book by Tove Jansson.
All of Astrid Lindgren’s more famous works but especially Brothers Lionheart and Ronia the Robber’s Daughter.
Island of the blue dolphins by Scott O’Dell, the first chapter book I read on my own.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
Momo by Michael Ende
I read lots of Fantasy as a teenager, but little of it has stayed with me. The Harry Potter books came when I was already a teenager, so they had less influence on me than they might have had, but I still remember them fondly.
What did stay with me though was Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem, which I was a bit obsessed with. I also read all the Arctic and Antarctic literature in the local library, which certainly influenced me.
Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh
Shackleton’s incredible voyage by Alfred Lansing
Antarktisboken describing the Norwegian–British–Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949–1952, main author John Giæver
Mot 90 grader syd by Monica Kristensen
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
City of My Dreams by Per Anders Fogelström
Kastanjeallén by Dea Trier Mørch
Gaudy night by Dorothy Sayers
As a student my hobby reading was mostly crime fiction, much of it enjoyable but little of it memorable. I did however learn more about glaciers, sang a lot of Bellman songs, and discovered both The Summer Book and Jane Austen. Oh, and I wrote a thesis, I guess that technically counts as a book too.
Under det rosa täcket by Nina Björk
Glaciers and glaciations by Douglas Benn and David Evans
With more recent reads it is more difficult to identify the ones that made a lasting impact and it was very tempting to just list excellent books I have recently read. However, I have tried to stick to books which I believe have influenced me more than others.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
The hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll
How the universe got its spots by Janna Levin
The Bloody Chamber and other stories by Angela Carter
Short summary: On how I spent a day rearranging my library in a new, less practical, way.
I do rearrange my bookshelves once in a while, mostly for practical reasons, but I never thought videoconferencing would be what prompted me. However, recently it started to bother me that the only shelves that were visible during conference calls were the ones with my unread books. In the unlikely case that someone asks me about one of them I would prefer it to be about a book I have read. Fortunately I found that my nature related books used approximately the same amount of space as my To Be Read -shelves, so I could have just let them change place. However, I had a bit too much time on my hands, and as I have written about before I enjoy combining my books in new ways, so I went for a less straightforward option.
In a large library a logical organization by e.g. genre and/our author name is of course necessary, but mine is not yet of a size where finding things is a problem, and thus I have more options. In this case I decided that rather than keeping my nature and science non-fiction together, as any sensible library owner would, I would mix them with memoirs, essays and even fiction of tangential relevance, hopefully finding new and unexpected links between them. I thus placed my ornithology field guides together with Bannerhed’s novel Korparna (the Ravens) and Durrell’s memoir Birds, beasts and relatives, all featuring birds in prominent roles, and placed my nature centred poetry among my Floras. Objectively the result is less practical than it was before, but it does make me happy to see weird collections like this one on my shelf:
The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy by Douglas Adams (fiction)
A fieldguide to getting lost by Rebecca Solnit (essay collection/memoir)
The gentle art of tramping by Stephen Graham (a guide to “tramping” from 1926)
Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski (travelogue/memoir) and
Trekking in Greenland (actual guidebook)
Strövtåg by Sven Rosendahl (“Ramblings”, nature essays)
I find these titles much more intriguing when placed together like this than any of them would be if placed alone or with more expected company.
I do have a sneaking suspicion that my urge to rearrange, and indeed this whole blog post, is a sure sign of me having spend a bit too much time at home lately, but at least I have a good excuse…
How do the rest of you organize your books? Anyone else favouring weird systems that are impenetrable to anyone but yourself?
Spring has hopefully finally decided to stick-around, the birch leaves are out and my walk paths are getting lovelier each day. Overall things are fine around here, which makes me feel a little bit guilty and very very grateful. Apart from having to switch to online teaching things have changed surprisingly little. I have lived far from my family ever since I moved abroad and with everyone coming online I almost have closer contact with them than I am used to.
What has changed is the amount of reading I have done, 41 books in the first four months, way above my average. Most of it has been comfort reads though, a clear sign of troubled times. In the last few months I have focused on crime classics, Moomin novels, and Science fiction (mostly Martha Wells’ murderbot series). Adding only Fredman’s epistles to my Classics club reading challenge and staying mostly in Europe and North America.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (reread)
I have waited long for the opportunity to read Christiane Ritter’s memoir from the year she spent living in a remote hunting cabin on Svalbard. I saw a copy of it ten years ago and it sounded perfect for me, but it was unfortunately only available in German. I am thus very happy that Pushkin press has decided to reprint the English translation so that I finally got to read it!
The memoir follows Christiane Ritter in the year 1934/1935 as she joins her husband and a Norwegian friend of his in a small lonely cabin in the north of Svalbard. Her husband, Hermann Ritter, is evidently already an experienced Svalbard hunter by the time she joins them but Christiane is a well-off Austrian with no Arctic experience. It seems courageous, if not outright foolish, of Hermann to ask her to join him for a full year. His Norwegian friend Karl is even convinced that “the lady from central Europe” will go off her head during the winter. However Christiane adapts to and eventually comes to love Svalbard.
It is perhaps not the most adventurous Arctic tale there is, Christiane does join on a few trips but mostly stays in the relative safety around the cabin. Even so life in the Arctic provides plenty of challenges and drama and in addition Christiane writes about the effects of darkness and isolation, of the harshness and beauty of the landscape and on how she changes in response to it. It is thus more introspective than most Arctic memoirs, which together with the fact that Christiane Ritter is a really good writer, only adds to its appeal. In some ways the it reminded me of Helge Ingstad’s East of the Great Glacier memoir, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. Although Helge Ingstad did get around a lot more, he too seemed more interested in the Arctic itself than in promoting his own accomplishments.
I’m staying in Moominvalley, which is a pretty great place to be in right now. Admittedly in the novel I just finished, Comet in Moominland, the valley had its own problems with a comet heading right towards them, but other than the slight question of impending doom, things were as they used to be.
Mumin (Moomin) is once again the protagonist and together with Sniff he sets out on the dangerous journey towards the observatory to learn all they can about the coming disaster. Along the way they pick up a few new friends, Snusmumriken (Snufkin), Snorkfröken (Snork maiden) and Snorken (Snork), who all make their first appearances in this story. I especially enjoy Snusmumriken, a care-free tramp and Mumin’s best friend, who always makes me long for a few nights in the woods.
Comet in Moominland is the second of the Moomin books and thus has less of the beautifully melancholy feeling prevalent in the later books, but what it has instead is a strong feeling of adventure and a promise that no matter how dark it looks, in the end all will be well.
Troubling times calls for comforting books and few things are as comforting Tove Jansson‘s Moomin family. In addition the novel I selected for a reread, Finn Family Moomintroll (original title: Trollkarlens hatt, Direct translation: The Magician’s Hat) is probably the most uplifting of them.
In The Magician’s Hat (I really don’t like the English title…) we follow the Moomin family and their friends during their summer adventures, adventures that are getting even more magical by a certain influence from a strange black hat. While all the Moomin novels have at least a touch of melancholy in them, this one is a distinctly happy story.
In general I like the darker Moomin stories better, especially Moominland midwinter and Tales from Moominvalley. It is not even Jansson’s best summer novel, her The Summer Book is one of my favourite books in all categories. Still, out of the lighter Moomin books, this one is probably my favourite. I enjoy the overarching story-arc around the magical hat and reading it just gives me the feeling of a happy summer holiday.
Although I love paper books, ebooks are what really insures me against the dreaded “nothing to read” syndrome. To make sure that you all have plenty to read during these troubling times I have collected my favourite sources of free, legal (for some of the younger titles dependent on where you are) ebooks that don’t require a kindle ereader.
Project Gutenberg is my main source of ebooks and has as a very large collection of ebooks that are all in the US public domain. However the vast collection can sometimes be a problem as it may be hard to find the good stuff among all the obscure texts, unless you already know what you are looking for. If you don’t know what you are looking for the Top 100 list or the Bookshelves may help.
Apart from the more obvious classics I have enjoyed:
Lady Susan, perhaps less accomplished than Jane Austen’s more famous works (which are of course also there), but a lot of fun.
The MobileRead forum also has plenty of ebooks. Here you can find books in the Life+70 public domain, so some books not available at Project Gutenberg may be found here and legally downloaded if you are in a Life+70 year area.
The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Her more famous works are of course also there (and on Project Gutenberg as most of them are her earlier works), but this one is really charming and aimed at a slightly older audience.
Baen free library has a small collection of primarily Science fiction novels. Not all of them are good, even considering that they are free, but there are some fun novels to be found there. Be aware though that many of them end on a cliff hanger, which I guess is only fair when they give them away for free…
Among the Baen novels I have enjoyed Agent of Change, Fire with fire and Boundary. However, what I like best are the yearly short story collections. Several of the authors can get tiring in larger doses, but most of them work well in the short story format, so these are a lot of fun and a good way to identify the better authors.
A temporary but wonderful resource is Archipelago Books Free Library, which has some really intriguing titles. Archipelago books focuses on high quality translated fiction, which makes them my favourite type of publisher, and now they have made 30 of their ebooks freely available until April 2nd, which is even better. I have downloaded all of them (and bought two more because how could I not?) so I will have enough to read for a while.
And finally, don’t forget your public library, many of them offer ebooks that can be downloaded from home.
Have I missed any good sources, large or small, or do you have any reading recommendations for me as I expand my ebook library?
I thought that the spring was already here. The wind was warm, the sun shone and the snow only held on the higher mountains and in the most shaded spots. I should have known better, two days of heavy snowfall later and the landscape is white again (the photo was taken this morning). To get back into proper winter mood I decided to reread Moominland Midwinter (Trollvinter), my favourite winter book and one of the best Moomin books.
Moomin trolls are of course summer creatures who normally hibernate through the winters, but one year Moomin accidentally wakes up early from his winter sleep and thus becomes the first moomin troll to experience a winter. In moominland Midwinter we get to follow his explorations of the strange, cold, dark, lonely world he has awaken to. It is a bit of a bildunsgroman, with Moomin learning to adapt to and eventually enjoy his new environment, and a beautiful portrait of one of my favourite seasons. Perhaps the Nordic countries should just hand it to every immigrant from a warmer country to let them know what to expect?
As it is a Moomin book it is also filled with Tove Jansson‘s amazing characters. I know that it was first published in 1957 but I am sure that I have met most of them and some obvious relatives of Hemulen come by our summer cabin every year.