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Stories from the North

8 Dec

 

I have been thinking a lot about Nordic literature lately. Maybe it’s because of the season but at this time of year all I want to do is hibernate, get the knitted socks out, drink hot chocolate and cosy up with an old favourite classic or a suitably melancholic Scandi book. Maybe it’s simply because the cold and the darkness here in winter reminds me of home, so I want to read books that help take me there while I’m here in England. Either way I think that stories from the Nordic countries are just the perfect thing to read at this time of year.

For the past few years I have noticed that more and more literature from the Scandinavian and Nordic countries get translated into English and it makes me so happy that publishers dare to take a chance on books from smaller languages. Without translations those stories won’t reach very far and without English translations in particular I can’t recommend them or share them with people here. And while my mother tongue is Danish and I can read both Swedish and Norwegian as well, they also help me to encounter books from Nordic countries whose languages I can’t read, such as Finnish and Icelandic.

Literature is known for its ability to take us away, from ourselves and where we are, from the life that we lead. It just wasn’t until I moved to a different country myself that I realised literature can also take us home. So here are a few Nordic reads I have enjoyed lately, because they have reminded me of home and helped to soothe my always lingering homesickness but also because they have taken me on a journey.

 

 

 

The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat: and other stories from the North – ed. Sjon and Ted Hodgkinson*

“The North: home of epic storytelling, birthplace of the saga, where stories of human survival have long been sculpted by the region’s natural elements, from sheltering forests to islands lashed by unforgiving seas. This exquisite anthology, selected by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson, collects fiction from across the Nordic region in all its thrilling diversity; storytelling that is often rooted in the world of folklore and fairytale, or sometimes stark realism, and typically served up with a dark and dry wit of this world on the brink.”

I don’t read a lot of short stories so when I do, I select them carefully and this is such a beautiful collection of stories! When I first heard about the collection and saw which authors had been picked, I was amazed at the diversity of the selection and excited to see some of my favourites like Kjell Askildsen in it, as well as authors from Greenland and the Faroe Islands that I wasn’t familiar with.

Rather than reading them all in one go, I have been taking my time with the collection, dipping in an out of the book and savouring each story. The experience has been a little bit like picking out a piece of chocolate from a box and letting it slowly melt in your mouth until all the flavour comes out. I even took the book with me when I recently went home to see my family and spent a weekend in our wood cabin in Sweden reading it while the woodstove burned. I thought there was a lot of variety in the stories but also something that made them feel connected to each other. There is a simplicity in both the writing and in the plots that is typical of Nordic literature, fantastical elements even in the stories that belong more to realism and a sense of a threat or something sinister lurking in the background of ordinary, everyday lives.

These stories really deserve to be read and what better time to do it than in the middle of winter when everything is at its darkest and bleakest. One story in particular, the Man in the Boat by the Swedish author Per Olov Enquist really got to me and has been haunting me ever since, so much that I find myself still thinking about it now many weeks later.

 

 

 

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town – Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen*

“In a small hillside town, Olli Suominen – publisher and discontented husband – is constantly losing umbrellas. He has also joined a film club. And Greta, an old flame, has added him on Facebook. As his life becomes more and more entangled with Greta’s and his wife and son are dragged into the aftermath of this teenage romance, Olli is forced to make a choice. But does he really want to know what the secret passages are? Can he be sure that Greta is who she seems to be? And what actually happened on that summer’s day long ago?

Absorbing, atmospheric and often very funny, Secret Passages in a Hillside Town is an intoxicating novel about the grip of the past and the romance of what has been lost.”

When Pushkin Press got in contact with me last year and told me that the author of one of my favourite novels, The Rabbit Back Literature Society, would be publishing a new book this winter I got very excited. Despite not really being into magical realism, I had found myself falling absolutely in love with the Rabbit Back. So a part of me was worried from the beginning that I would be putting too much expectation on Jääskeläinen’s new book before even opening it.

I don’t know if that’s the reason I didn’t really like Secret Passages at first. I didn’t warm to Olli and found both him, his life and the whole plot very weird and a bit ridiculous. Despite that there was something alluring about it that made me want to keep reading, if only to get to the end to find out what all the mystery was about. And what an ending that turned out to be!

This turned out to be such a strange, different and also slightly heart breaking love story, a story about a lost childhood, memories and all the ways we can hurt and abandon each other as we go through life, either because we mean to or because they get tangled up in our lives along the way. It had a dream-like quality that made everything in the story seem unreal, like the experience you sometimes get when you are dreaming of something that is constantly just out of your reach even when you try to move towards it.

I didn’t fall in love with it like I did with the Rabbit Back but there was still something about it I can’t quite put down in words.

 

 

 

One of Us Is Sleeping – Josefine Klougart

“The English-language debut from one of Denmark’s most exciting, celebrated young writers, One of Us Is Sleeping is a haunting novel about loss in all its forms.

As she returns home to visit her mother who is dying of cancer, the narrator recounts a brief, intense love affair, as well as the grief and disillusionment that follow its end. The book’s striking imagery and magnificent prose underpin its principal theme: the jarring contrast between the recollection of stability, your parents, your childhood home, your love, and the continual endings that we experience throughout our lives.

When I was home in November, I remembered to grab my copy of this book from the shelf in my room and took it back with me to England, so I could reread it here in the cold months and be reminded of the snow and the melancholic mood of Danish winters. Josefine Klougart has been one of my absolutely favourite Danish authors since her debut came out in Denmark in 2010. Reading her for the first time was a complete epiphany to me and while this book is one of her later ones it’s just as beautiful and one of the few that have been translated.

Klougart writes in Danish like no one else I have ever encountered. She has often been described as the Danish Virginia Woolf because of her long, stretching stream-of-consciousness sentences that weave in and out of each other. Her words have an amazing ability to create vivid images in your mind and they are so poetic, so lyrical and beautiful. I love books that carries a kind of silence in them and both Klougart’s words and the scenes she writes about are filled with this kind of poetic stillness. They make you slow down and notice all the little everyday things that Klougart is so good at writing about. Things and objects that might not seem important but make up our lives.

This is one of those authors that I really wish more English readers knew about. Even if just one person picks up the book after reading this I will be happy. I admit it’s not the easiest book to get a hold of, at least here in the UK (it’s easier in the US) but you can order it through Waterstones.

 

 

The Invisible Child – Tove Jansson

“A unique collaboration between the Moomins, Oxfam, Waterstones and Sort Of Books, The Invisible Child will raise money for projects that fight inequality and help women and girls everywhere escape from poverty, abuse and neglect.

In Tove Jansson’s much loved short story, The Invisible Child, the isolated Ninny is helped to regain her voice and take her rightful place in the world using a simple Moomin recipe. She is welcomed into the Moomin family and treated with equality and respect. This is one of the most touching of all Moomin stories and is paired in this unique book with The Fir Tree, the Moomins’ gloriously unselfish take on Christmas.”

One day when I was walking home from work at the castle, I found a £5 note lying on the street with no owner in sight. I felt bad picking it up but I put it in my wallet and for a long time I walked around with it, not being able to decide if I should treat myself to something nice or if I should give it to charity. Then Oxfam and Waterstones published this book with 100% of its £4.99 cost going to charity and my mind was made up to do both.

I grew up watching the Moominntrolls cartoons on television in Denmark but don’t remember reading any of the books, so this was my first one. The Invisible Child is such a sweet, little story and even though it’s a short and simple one, I enjoyed reading it and what it had to say about how we treat other people and how, if we are treated right, we let our real personalities show. The other story in the book, the Fir Tree I haven’t read yet, as I’m saving it for Christmas but a peek at the illustrations is making me think it will be just as sweet.

I’ve seen a lot of people on social media mention the Summer Book by Jansson this year, so after reading this I think I might finally try and give that one a read, too.

If this post has made you interested in finding more Nordic books to read I wrote another post a few years ago that you might like, too. And if you have any favourites you think I should read leave them for me in the comments, I’m always looking for more!

 

*These books were kindly sent to me from the publisher at my own request.

I Have Some Exciting News

15 Oct

 

You know when something exciting is happening and all you want to do is tell everyone about it? But you can’t because what you want to tell isn’t really settled yet and you need to keep it a secret before it is? That’s what my life has been like the last few weeks and now I have some pretty exciting news that I’m finally able to share.

I quit my job. I’ve handed in my resignation at the castle and this week will be my last. It feels very weird because I’ve worked there for nearly 2 years and it’s a special place to work but I am also really excited about leaving because… I got a new job! A job in a bookshop!

From the end of this month I will be a real bookseller in a real bookshop filled with real books. A bookshop with two floors and wooden beams in the ceiling. I have wanted to work in a bookshop ever since I finished my A levels and all through university, so I am super excited and being able to finally say it out loud feels great. It’s another dream I have worked towards making true.

 

 

For a while now I haven’t been happy in my job at the castle. Despite some good colleagues and how amazing it has been to show people around the castle, working there just isn’t working for me anymore. There have been many long days, of coming home late after a long commute and being so exhausted I couldn’t stand on my feet after walking up and down the spiral staircases of the castle and the hill it stands on. Now a 5 day work week will be a 2 day one and the 15 hours I have spent travelling to and from work every week will be reduced to 4. I will have more time to rest and to write, and books won’t just be something I try to cram into my life in the time inbetween.

There are things I will miss from working at the castle; Overhearing something funny on the radio while standing in a corner of the castle stewarding a room; The way the light hits the coloured stained-glass window of the chapel and colours the stone walls with blue and red and yellow; The conversations I’ve had with visitors about history, about what we make of it and learn from it; The camaraderie of sharing jokes with my colleagues over tea and biscuits in our medieval mess room, the walls scribbled with 18th century graffiti.

I will take everything I have learned from that place and all the memories I have made there with me. So I’m just going to enjoy my last few days of working there, take it all in while I still can and wait excitedly for the next step in my life.

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading #3

7 Jul

 

It’s been a while since I last posted anything. I have been trying to take things more slowly, to plan less, to cram less things into my days and to take time to just sit and read in my favourite chair, occassionally putting my books down to watch a bit of Line of Duty, Mad Men and Downton Abbey. I got so many books for Christmas and all of the presents I got for my birthday in March were books except for two. I have also been treating myself to some books from my wish list and my parents have been spoiling me with “just because” book gifts to make me happy. So I have had plenty of books to choose from lately and have read some amazing stories in the past few months. Hence, having been a bit too busy reading to write anything new for the blog.

 

 

Homesick – Eshkol Nevo

“It is 1995 and Noa and Amir have decided to move in together. Noa is studying photography in Jerusalem and Amir is a psychology student in Tel Aviv, so they choose a tiny flat in a village in the hills, between the two cities. Their flat is separated from that of their landlords, Sima and Moshe Zakian, by a thin wall, but on each side we find a different home – and a different world.
Homesick is a beautiful, clever and moving story about history, love, family and the true meaning of home.”

Daniel got me this book for Christmas after seeing it in our local bookshop. I hadn’t heard of it before but the description of Noa and Amir’s story of living both literally and symbolically between two places made me want to read it. I am always looking for other people’s stories about place attachment and home, and the fact that Noa is a photography student caught my interest too.

While I do read a lot of translated literature, I have been trying to read more diversely and I was curious to read a book from a language and a part of the world that I don’t know much about. It’s not a heavily political book but it does – very subtly and eloquently I thought – touch upon the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It does not take sides so much as show the effect the conflict has had upon people on both sides. What really struck me and surprised me was how much I had in common with the characters and how much I could relate to Noa and Amir, as they live in a country and a reality that feels very far away from my own. But time and time again both life and literature is showing me that we are not that different from another. We all want the same things, like wanting to belong somewhere and to someone.

 

 

The Reader on the 6.27 – Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

“Guylain Vignolles lives on the edge of existence. Working at a book pulping factory in a job he hates, he has but one pleasure in life . . .

Sitting on the 6.27 train each day, Guylain recites aloud from pages he has saved from the jaws of his monstrous pulping machine. But it is when he discovers the diary of a lonely young woman, Julie – a woman who feels as lost in the world as he does – that his journey will truly begin.”

As much as I have liked to complain about my daily train commutes for years I still love train travel and I love reading about other people’s journeys on trains. I also like reading about books and reading, and about people who love them, too. So it probably doesn’t come to anyone’s surprise that I was really excited about this book. You might even have seen it in my Christmas post in the Christmas edition but I ended up returning it when Daniel got me this copy as I preferred the standard cover.

This could so easily have been a heavy book to read, it is after all a book about lonely people. Unnoticed people. But it is also about people who do seemingly small but nevertheless brave everyday acts to be happy and more fulfilled, like writing a witty diary, reading aloud on a train or going on a quiet quest to find someone, even when it seems impossible that you ever will. This was a really sweet and light book but I also thought it was less predictable and had more to say than some of the other lighter books I have read this past year. It had more character than I had expected.

 

 

 

The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald

“In the small East Anglian town of Hardborough Florence Green decides, against polite but ruthless local opposition, to open a bookshop.

Hardborough becomes a battleground. Florence has tried to change the way things have always been done and, as a result, she has to take on not only the people who have made themselves important, but natural and even supernatural forces too. Her fate will strike a chord with anyone who knows that life has treated them with less than justice.”

Daniel got me this book back in February when I was going through some stuff and I don’t know if it was because of this or because of the story itself but it became a really comforting book to snuggle up with on slow morning, where I stayed in bed to give myself some time. I’d never read anything by Fitzgerald before but after reading this I will definitely be reading more. It was a little sad at times but it was also strangely and quietly comforting to read about someone who tries to do something for themselves, who goes for something in life, even when other people are trying to discourage them. It’s a quiet kind of rebellion that I really admire.

 

 

Milk and Honey – Rupi Kaur

“Milk and Honey is a collection of poetry and prose about survival. About the experience of violence, abuse, love, loss, and femininity. The book is divided into four chapters, and each chapter serves a different purpose. Deals with a different pain. Heals a different heartache. Milk and Honey takes readers through a journey of the most bitter moments in life and finds sweetness in them because there is sweetness everywhere if you are just willing to look.”

I don’t read a lot of poetry as I find it difficult to understand poems, even after taking a module at university that was supposed to teach me how. I also find myself avoiding reading anything too heavy these days, as I have enough heaviness in my own life without reading about someone else’s. So if it hadn’t been for my friend Claudia, who lend me her copy along with her recommendation I probably wouldn’t have read it but I am so glad I did!

I guess one of the reasons Kaur’s collection have become so popular is the fact that it’s easy to read and understand, it’s incredibly relatable and although I was struggling to read some of the poems that mention abuse and suffering, I also found her poems incredibly empowering, and I was surprised how much reading them affected me. They reminded me that we can take painful experiences and grow from them, like the poem dedicated to the reader on p. 158, which I think is my favourite. So thank you Claudia, for making me read outside my comfort zone and for empowering me that way by lending me someone else’s empowerment.

 

 

 

All Passion Spent– Vita Sackwille-West

“When the great statesmen Lord Slane dies, everyone assumes his dutiful wife will slowly fade away, the paying guest of each of her six children. But Lady Slane surprises everyone by escaping to a rented house in Hampstead where she revels in her new freedom, revives youthful ambitions and gathers some very unsuitable companions. Irreverent, entertaining and insightful, this is a tale of the unexpected joys of growing older.”

On my Birthday back in March we went to my favourite second-hand bookshop Skoob where I found this pristine, seemingly untouched copy of this book, which Daniel bought for me as an extra present. I knew that Sackwille-West had been part of the Bloomsbury group and that she was a gardener but I had never realised she was also a writer.

I loved how rebellious this novella felt, how much it celebrated autonomy and the life of the artist! There are so many expectations in life about what we are meant to do, both those imposed by others and those we impose ourselves, so it was absolutely wonderful to read about a woman, who after a long life of servitude to her husband and family finally chooses a life of her own and in her own image. To me, it became a testament to the way I have chosen to spend my own life surrounded by art and literature, which I know have made other people raise their eyebrows, the same way Lady Slane’s decisions do. I hope it will be a reminder that it is never too late to start living the life you really wanted.

 

 

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

“The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.

Brilliantly conceived and executed, this powerful vision of the future gives full rein to Margaret Atwood’s irony, wit and astute perception.”

I normally only write about 5 books in each post but I am making an exception to my own rule because I just finished Atwood’s novel the other day and I couldn’t wait to write about it. It’s the first Atwood book I’ve read and now that I have finished it, I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to discover her work. I remember coming across it laid out on tables in bookshops but I don’t remember ever knowing what it was about. It took the recent release of the TV series to make me discover it and to make me realise that it was something I wanted to read.

It’s been a long time since I have read a book not only of such a high literary quality but which has made me stay up late and get up early, only to cram in as many chapters as possible between work and other responsibilities. I loved everything about it, from the dystopian theme and short descriptive sentences, which came more and more to life as the story unfolded to it’s feminist angle and what it had to say about society. It is a novel that is so many things at the same time but it just works. It’s political, feminist, a grim fairy tale allegory and surprisingly, a reflection of the time we live in now. It never stops to amaze me how close science fiction writers come to the truth when they predict what the future will look like, even years before such a reality would seem plausible. It made me appreciative my own situation, my own freedom, so much more. It’s a story that will be haunting me for some time.