Surely I’ve read more??

sundaysalonIt seems I have been operating under an illusion for the past few months. If you’d asked me one thing about my reading habit this year, I would have said that I read more of the current year’s new titles than ever before.  I didn’t set out with a plan to read the new works but I do like to have at least a sense of what’s new in literature. But when I saw the recently-announced list of 80 finalists for the 2015 Folio Prize, I realised the reality was very different from my perception.

Of those 80 books published in 2014, I have read just two: The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee and How to Be Both by Ali Smith. I’m half way through a third title – All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu and have three more on reserve in the library but I doubt they will get to me before the year is over. I know the list represents only a fraction of what was actually published this year, this is meant to be the cream after all, so it was entirely conceivable that I had read some 2014 titles that just never made the cut. A quick look at my reading list reassured me a little – there were another six works of fiction that I’ve read. Panic over!

The experience did make me look more closely at what I’ve been reading this year. I was in for another surprise – I finished only four titles from my Classics Club list which is very slow progress. If I’m going to complete the 50 books in this project by the target date of August 2017, I’m really going to have to get a move on.  I did considerably better with my world literature project fortunately (15 of the books I  read fell into this category).

I wouldn’t have known any of this if I hadn’t started keeping a list of everything I’ve read. I never did that before I began blogging so if you’d asked me what I was reading 5 years ago let alone 10 or 15, I wouldn’t have had a clue. Lists it seems do have their purpose.

How has your reading year been – any surprises for you too?

Taking the plunge with the TBR

2015tbrbuttonI didn’t join in any challenges last year despite multiple temptations because I wanted to focus on my own projects. As the new year beckons however I’m feeling that I need a bit of a nudge to clear some of the backlog of books on my shelves. The 2015 TBR challenge run by Adam at Roof Beam Reader came just at the right time so I’ve signed up.

It’s a very doable challenge since I can combine it with my projects (we’re allowed to double count books we read). Of the 12 books I’ve listed, four are from my Classics Club list, four from my Booker Prize winners list and the remainder from my world literature reading list.

And for once I know what I’ll be reading first – Daisy Miller/Washington Square by Henry Miller.

Travellers and the culture gap

Moscow metro travellers enjoy stunning design and free ebooks

Moscow metro travellers enjoy stunning design and free ebooks

Air travellers can look at masterpieces from Dutch artists while they’re waiting for their flight in Amsterdam. Metro and bus commuters in Moscow can download a book from the Russian canon of literature free of charge. What do we users of the British public transport get in the way of cultural diversions? Very little based on my experiences at our busiest transport hubs in the last few months.

Let’s start with Heathrow airport, one of the busiest airports in the world.  Apparently it does have an art gallery but this is only in Terminal 5. It’s probably the airport’s best kept secret since I’ve used this terminal at least 20 times in recent years and have never seen even a signpost for this place. Such a pity because it looks as if it has some high quality exhibitions (take a look at the T5 gallery website).  Other terminals though are a cultural desert unless you count shopping as culture.

Maybe the rail providers do a better job? St Pancreas is an architectural delight but offers very little else. Wi-fi isn’t free so if you’re stuck waiting for a train at Paddington you’ll have to rely on the tiny and always incredibly crowded outlet of W H Smith for any reading material. What a contrast to the metro system in Moscow where a virtual library of Russian classical literature has been made available free of charge; all you need is a smartphone or tablet capable of scanning a code.  Take one of the city’s buses, trams or trolley buses and you can get the same service.

Even Paddington is a huge improvement however on Cardiff’s central railway station and adjacent bus station. There may be some people fascinated by the habits of pigeons but I’m not one of them. Two minutes of watching them peck at a discarded cigarette end or cold chip is two minutes I will never regain and not even the sound of the national rugby team singing from the nearby stadium helped make the experience more interesting.

I know public art always attracts controversy and the argument that the money would be better spent on education, health etc act. But it seems our public transport hubs could badly do with some beautification.

What have you seen on your travels? Any gems of public art or culture you experience on your commute?

Please look after mom by Shin Kyung-sook

 

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How much do children know about the woman who brought them into the world? In Please Look After Mom, the children of one elderly Korean woman are forced to re-examine their relationship with their mother when she goes missing in a crowded metro station. In the process they discover secrets about her life and uncomfortable truths about their own attitudes.
Park So-nyo and her husband are en-route from their home in the countryside to visit their children in Seoul. So-nyo is not quick enough to board the train before the doors close, leaving her stranded on the platform . Her children immediately institute a search, publishing appeals in local newspapers and handing out leaflets on the streets. But while there are sightings of a disorientated figure with bloodied feat encased in blue plastic sandals, all the trails lead to dead ends. Recriminations ensue amongst her two daughters and two sons.

Each of them is given a voice in Shin Kyung-sook’s best selling novel. Her first born son, and favourite children, Hyong-chol realises he has taken his mother’s love for granted and never made her feel welcome when she visited him in his city home bearing gifts of kimchi that she’d taken hours to prepare. Her eldest daughter realises that she has ignored her mother’s needs and failed to act on the signs of her failing health. She remembers how her mother’s “dark eyes which used to be as brilliant and round as the eyes of a cow that is about to give birth” had grown dim with pain as she began suffering blindingly painful headaches. Instead of showing gratitude to the woman who had sold her only ring to pay for education, she had made perfunctory calls home.
These children – and her unfaithful husband – come to see this woman in a new light. They learn that she was illiterate but had striven for decades to hide this from her family. They learn that she had been secretly working at an orphanage in her spare time. They learn that she was suffering from cancer and was in constant pain.
The novel treads familiar ground in many ways particularly in representing the figure of the mother as the eternal nurturing nucleus of the family.

You realize that you habitually thought of Mom when something in your life was not going well, because when you thought of her, it was as though something got back on track and you felt re-energized.

Much of the popularity of this book (it won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize) stems from its ability to go further than rendering the universal story of family love and to tap into the anxieties felt in many societies like Korea about the way their old values, including the bonds of the family, are unravelling under the influence of economic development. Towards the end of the book, Shin Kyung-sook’s un-named narrator comments on the demise of the ancestral rites that used to hold families together.

When people used to hold ancestral rites in time-share vacation condos, they worried about whether ancestral spirits would be able to find them but now people just hop on planes.

There is a sense that what Shin Kyung-sook has done is to turn the disappearance of one woman into a metaphor for the disappearance of the old values of her country. It begins to take on the tone of a wake up call – a warning that the essential qualities of Korea are, like those of So-nyo – are threatened with extinction.

Please Look After Mom was published in Shin Kyung-sook’s native South Korea in 2009. Since then it has sold upwards of two million copies worldwide, its popularity boosted significantly when it was chosen by Oprah Winfrey to be one of her ‘books to watch’. It was given to me as a gift by a work colleague who discovered I was looking for novels by Asian writers that would help me understand something of the cultures of this part of the world. I hesitated to read it for a while because I was afraid it would turn out to be little more than a highly sentimental story. I’m so glad I was proved wrong.

Snapshot of December 2014

Day 1 of a new month and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.

Reading

I’ve been promising myself that I  would get around to reading Elizabeth  Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters this year ( it’s been on my TBR shelf for a few years). I was hoping for something with a similar focus on a social question as the only other novel of hers that I’ve read – North and South – but so far this is more a study of English provincial life just before the 1832 Reform Act.

Listening

Almost finished the audio version of Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman in which multiple narrators turn detective to try to discover what happened to the character in Daphne du Maurier’s most famous work. Was the suicide verdict justified or was Rebecca murdered? And what happened to Mrs Danvers? To answer the questions our amateur detectives have to dig into Rebecca’s past. Its more enjoyable as an audio book for me then as a book to read.

Watching

I’m back in the USA which means I get another fix of Law and Order. I’ve no idea how many series of this were made but there seems to be an endless supply when you add the spin off Law and Order Special Victims Unit into the mixture.

 

 

50 Questions about reading the classics: Part 2

classicsclub3The Classics Club has posted a survey asking members 50 questions about their experience of reading classic works of literature. Here are my ramblings on the first 25 questions. 

 

 

  1. Which classic character reminds you of your best friend? Biddy in Great Expectations. Loyal, generous and honest. What more could you ask for?
  2. If a sudden announcement was made that 500 more pages had been discovered after the original “THE END” on a classic title you read and loved, which title would you most want to keep reading? Or, would you avoid the augmented manuscript in favor of the original? Why? I would stick to the original – what’s to say that 500 more pages make it any better.
  3. Favorite children’s classic? I loved Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl Series, maybe because I had a secret desire to break out of my shell.
  4. Who recommended your first classic? It was probably bought by my mum on the basis that’s what she loved as a child.
  5. Whose advice do you always take when it comes to literature. (Recommends the right editions, suggests great titles, etc.)  There are too many bloggers to mention here whose guidance I appreciate.
  6. Favorite memory with a classic? Reading
  7. Classic author you’ve read the most works by? I haven’t counted but it would probably be Wilkie Collins
  8. Classic author who has the most works on your club list? I’m surprised by this since it wasn’t my intention but it seems to be Charles Dickens
  9. Classic author you own the most books by? This would be C.P. Snow, an author who seems to have completely disappeared from our consciousness. I spent hours scouting the second hand shops in Hay on Wye to collect the entire Strangers and Brothers series (eleven novels written between 1940 and 1970) and then never got around to reading them. They’re in the house somewhere.
  10. Classic title(s) that didn’t make it to your club list that you wish you’d included? I’ve overlooked Emile Zola it seems – only one of his titles made it on my list even though I’ve loved everything I read by him and there are many I have yet to explore.
  11. If you could explore one author’s literary career from first publication to last — meaning you have never read this author and want to explore him or her by reading what s/he wrote in order of publication — who would you explore? Zola’s Rougon-Macquet series. I know some other readers have said it isn’t necessary to read them in publication order but I’d like to see how the series developed.
  12. How many rereads are on your club list? Eight out of a list of 60 are titles I’ve read previously. I chose them again because I read them in too much of a hurry to fully appreciate ( they were required reading at university). Having now re-read Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter and The Power and the Glory  I can see what I missed the first time around I’m looking forward to starting afresh with George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and Adam Bede.
  13. Has there been a classic title you simply could not finish? Tale of Two Cities. I have tried the latter about three times now and always come to a halt at the same point.  I also gave up on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela – very slow and repetitive
  14. Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving? Mice and Men was a surprise
  15. Five things you’re looking forward to next year in classic literature? Reading five books from the list!
  16. Classic you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year? Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s long overdue
  17. Classic you are NOT GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?  Probably The Good Soldier – by Ford Madox Ford. I’m going off the idea of reading it and may well take it off the list
  18. Favorite thing about being a member of the Classics Club? Being challenged by the monthly questions
  19. List five fellow clubbers whose blogs you frequent. What makes you love their blogs? Fleur in her World; Heavenali; ;Nishita’s Rants and Raves; Roof Beam Reader;  The Book Musings
  20. Favorite post you’ve read by a fellow clubber? An explanation of Zola’s theory of naturalism that appeared in the Shiny New Books newsletter – read it here 
  21. If you’ve ever participated in a readalong on a classic, tell about the experience?  My first – and only experience – was reading Crime and Punishment. It started well but I found I enjoyed the book so much I couldn’t slow down to the pace of the readalong.
  22. If you could appeal for a readalong with others for any classic title, which title would you name? Why? Canterbury Tales – it might help me finish it
  23. How long have you been reading classic literature? It started in earnest about 40 years ago one summer when there was a heatwave in the UK and I spent all day in the garden. I took to going to the library and getting as many books as possible by authors with exotic sounding name.
  24. Share up to five posts you’ve written that tell a bit about your reading story. Reviews, journal entries, posts on novels you loved or didn’t love, lists, etc. My review of Little Dorrit; A Favourite Classic Poem; My Favourite Literary Era; Love and Hate in the Classics; The Influence of Classic Novels
  25. Question you wish was on this questionnaire? (Ask and answer it!) What book from the twenty-first century will be a classic for the future? And my answer – I have absolutely no idea because I’m still trying to understand what makes some books ‘a classic’ that gets read and re-read for centuries and others (like the C. P Snow titles mentioned earlier, just drop off the cliff).

50 Questions about Reading the Classics: Part 1

classicsclub3The Classics Club has posted a survey asking members 50 questions about their experience of reading classic works of literature. Here are my ramblings on the first 25 questions. 

  1. Share a link to your club listhttp://bookertalk.com/classics-club-list/
  2. When did you join The Classics Club? How many titles have you read for the club? I joined in August 2012 which means I have until August 2017 to read 50 titles. So far I’ve read 18 and given up on two.
  3. What are you currently reading? I have a confession – my current book isn’t from my classics club list. It’s All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu, a novelist from Uganda
  4. What did you just finish reading and what did you think of it? Confession number 2 – my most recent reading was Fear by Gabriel Chevalier, a novel set  in World War 1. . It’s been called a ‘rediscovered classic’ because it was first published in 1930 and then disappeared so I could have claimed it as a classics club read except that I hadn’t put it on my list. It’s uncomfortable reading at times because most of the narrative takes place at the Front and as we all know, soldiers in the trenches endured unimaginable conditions.
  5. What are you reading next? Why? Oh dear, that is one of those questions I find hard to answer because I don’t plan ahead. I choose usually according to my mood at the time. Whenever I plan, I end up changing my mind so I’ve stopped doing it. I know at some point between now and January 5, I will be reading Daisy Miller and Washington Square by Henry James since that was the book which turned up in the latest club spin. But as i’ve already written, I’m not relishing the prospect.
  6. Best book you’ve read so far with the club, and why? This would be L’Assommoir by Emile Zola, part of his Rougon-Macquet series. This is the third book from the series I’ve read and it was just as gripping as Germinal and La Bete Humaine. It’s a graphic story of a woman’s attempt to find happiness amid the grinding poverty of a working class district in Paris. Powerful writing.
  7. Book you most anticipate (or, anticipated) on your club list?  I wanted to choose some classics that reflected one of my other interests, world literature. I added Things Fall Apart  by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe to my list because it is one of the first novels by an African author to receive global critical acclaim.
  8. Book on your club list you’ve been avoiding, if any? Why? I’m not avoiding anything as much as maybe deferring the moment when I read the three books by Virginia Woolf.
  9. First classic you ever read? This is lost in the mists of time – I do remember reading Black Beauty but whether that’s the first I’ve no idea.
  10. Toughest classic you ever read? War and Peace I found hard going – not only because it was so long but I just couldn’t keep all those Russian names straight in my head. It didn’t help that Russians have three names and Tolstoy kept using them interchangeably so I was always struggling to work out who was being featured.
  11. Classic that inspired you? or scared you? made you cry? made you angry? Zola’s Germinal made me both angry and tearful. This is a novel about the desperate conditions of a mining community in Northern France and since my ancestors were coal miners, the book had a personal resonance. I kept thinking of my grandfather and great grandfather working in similar conditions.
  12. Longest classic left on your club list? No idea – Wives and Daughters looks long (and the print size is small) but whether it’s longer than Old Curiosity Shop I don’t know. Dickens can be rather wordy.
  13. Oldest classic you’ve read? Oldest classic left on your club list? Oldest one I’ve read is a play, Medea by Euripdes which dates from 431BC.  A surprisingly good experience. Oldest one left is Canterbury Tales from 1381 – I’ve started it but its the kind of book I can read only in short spurts
  14. Favorite biography about a classic author you’ve read — The Unequaled Self, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys was riveting. See my review here 
  15. Which classic do you think EVERYONE should read? The one THEY want to read – who am I to impose my ideas on someone else.
  16. Favorite edition of a classic you own, if any? My very battered copy of Middlemarch from university. It’s an orange cover Penguin full of tiny scribbles in the margins. I remember clearly sitting for hours reading this, desperately trying to get through it in time for a tutorial
  17. Favorite movie adaption of a classic? There are many TV serialisations I can watch repeatedly (Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth or Martin Chuzzlewit with the brilliant Tom Wilkinson as Mr Pecksniff ) but not many films. Two adaptations of E M Forster novels come to mind as ones I rate highly – Howard’s End with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins and A Passage to India  with, I think, Peggy Ashcroft
  18. Classic which hasn’t been adapted yet (that you know of) which you very much wish would be adapted to film.  L’Assommoir would make a good film, it has some wonderful set pieces
  19. Least favorite classic? One that I didn’t’ finish – Bleak House. It has a superb opening
  20. Name five authors you haven’t read yet whom you cannot wait to read. None – a lot on my list have been around for decades, or centuries in some cases. I think these authors can wait a few more years before I get around to them
  21. Which title by one of the five you’ve listed above most excites you and why?  If i was that excited I would have read them already wouldn’t I?
  22. Have you read a classic you disliked on first read that you tried again and respected, appreciated, or even ended up loving? ( I was ready to throw Portrait of a Lady in the waste bin but had to finish it because it was part of a literature course. Second time around (yes I had to do a second read in order to write the essay) I warmed to it more.
  23. Which classic character can’t you get out of your head? Scobie in Heart of the Matter by Grahame Greene, a man who tries to keep his moral centre but ultimately proves powerless
  24. Which classic character most reminds you of yourself? I wouldn’t wish that on any character
  25. Which classic character do you most wish you could be like? None of the people in the books I’ve read seem to have very happy lives so I have no desire to emulate them.

Books for the festive season

sundaysalonNewspapers in the UK pay scant attention to books normally but there are two occasions in the year when the question of book purchasing moves way up the agenda for their publishers.

Half way through the year we start seeing features recommending the books we should take on our summer holiday. For some reason newspaper arts editors seem to think we are interested in knowing what books actors and politicians will be reading. I’m always suspicious when I see the titles chosen by the latter —they sound so dull and worthy that they’ve probably been scrutinised by political advisers desperate to make their chap (or chapess) seem intelligent.

And then we get to the second point in the year, the one we are in right now. In the run up to Christmas you can be sure to find articles giving you suggestions of what to buy as gifts for grannie, little James and Agatha and impossible-to-buy-for brother.

This week saw the Daily Telegraph publish their ‘Books for Christmas’ annual feature which promised to bring a selection of ‘the year’s best books’ to the notice of readers. There are the usual autobiographies of minor actors and pop stars and the kind of compendium books that only ever make an appearance this time of the year. I’m going to cross every finger and toe I possess that no-one in my family follows through on some of their recommendations ; I absolutely do not want a biography of Beyoncé, nor can I imagine myself whooping with delight upon unwrapping 100 Things You Didn’t Know About Maths or 101 Two Letter Words which apparently sets the dictionary words of two letters in a rhyming quatrain.

The fiction selection promises far richer offerings. The columnist Tim Martin bypasses many 2014 published books by big name authors or that we’ve seen popping up in fiction prize lists. So Ian McEwan is out as is David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest, as Martin looked instead for titles that “took little for granted, questioned established structure and kept the reader perpetually off balance.'”. The resulting list is a blend of lesser known names with some that will suit people who like a challenge.

Here is his selection

  • Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill: charts the breakdown of a marriage using fragmentary narrative style
  • Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer: described as “a doomy, hilarious, thoughtful Cambridge comedy”
  • Shark by Will Self: a prequel to last year’s novel Umbrella
  • The Wake by Paul Kingsworth: this was long listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. It’s written in a pseudo-Saxon form of English so might be best read after a few glasses of ginger wine
  • Your Fathers, Where are They? And the Prophets Do They Live For Ever? by Dave Eggers: a novel about a lunatic who kidnaps his way up the American chain of command.
  • Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: a tale of a Russian prankster, author and politician
  • How to be Both by Ali Smith: shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize (and should have been the winner IMHO)
  • Tristano by the Italian writer Nanni Balestrini: this has to be the oddest title on this list. Each copy is unique since the sentences forming the text are shuffled, giving unique variations running into 16 digits. Nevertheless Martin says it is oddly compelling.
  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustevedt: a multi voice novel about a female sculptor who publishes her work under several male aliases
  • Look Whose Back by Timur Vermes: I think he is a German author. This novel is a comedy in which Hitler is reincarnated in modern-day Germany where he becomes a You Tube sensation
  • Outline by Rachel Cusk: a short debut novel about a writer teaching in Greece
  • End of the Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: a story based on the concept of one-life-multiple-outcomes
  • Orfeo by Richard Powers: mixes current themes like bio-terrorism with a passion for classical music
  • In the Light of What we Know by Zia Haider Rahman: Martin describes this as the year’s most interesting first novel, a ‘gobbling up of ideas around the financial crisis, war, terrorism, philosophy’

Do any of these pique your interest? From this list I think I’d be most inclined to go for the ones by Zia Haider Rahman and Jenny Offill. Which reminds me that I haven’t put my request list into my family yet. I’d better get going…..

 

How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering,

There’s a crack in everything,

That’s how the light gets in.

The lyrics of this Leonard Cohen song ‘Anthem’  provided the inspiration for the title of the ninth Chief Inspector Gamache novel by Canadian bestselling author Louise Penny. The cracks have steadily deepened over the course of the novels featuring the head of the Sûreté du Québec. How the Light Gets In sees the Chief Inspector in a particularly vulnerable position in his battle against the corruption he believes has penetrated to the heart of the police force.

Most of his best agents have been despatched to other duties, replaced by a team that is hostile and insolent towards him. Of more personal concern to Gamache is the fracture in the previously close relationship he enjoyed with his police partner Jean-Guy Beauvoir. They had worked together for 15 years, Gamache as the mentor and then the prospective father in law, until  a dramatic shoot out in the last novel, destroyed Beauvoir’s trust in his leader. Now he has gone over to Gamache’s arch rival, Chief Superintendent Francouer, a man with few scruples who callously manipulates Beauvoir into drug addition in order to further his plan to take full control of the Sûreté.

HowTheLightGamache is not the kind of man who will sit back and wait for this to happen. But after a potentially violent confrontation in police headquarters even his confidence wavers.

Armand Gamache had always held unfashionable beliefs. He believed that light would banish the shadows… He believed that evil had its limits. But looking at the young men and women staring at him now, who’d seen something terrible about to happen and had done nothing, Chief Inspector Gamache wondered if he could have been wrong all this time. Maybe the darkness sometimes won. Maybe evil had no limits.

Fortunately he still has a few friends in high places when he needs them. But none of them could ever have imagined the monstrous nature of Francouer’s real ambition and the revelation of a conspiracy that goes to the heart of the country.

While How the Light Gets In develops into a battle between good an evil on an epic scale, Penny makes her readers wait for the denouement by introducing side stories that seemingly have no connection to the main plot. This main story involves the murder of an elderly woman who turns out to be the last surviving member of a set of quintriplets born during the Great Depression, whose lives were lived in a bubble of fame. Another narrative thread involves the suspected suicide of a middle aged government worker. Both events turn out to be connected though we don’t discover how until the final chapters of the book.

As in many of the earlier novels in the series,  the plot requires Gamache to return to the small village community of Three Pines and to renew his friendship with its inhabitants. Gabi and Oliver who run the bistro; Myrna the bookshop owner; Clara the artist and the acerbic highly talented poet Ruth Zardo all get roped in to help Gamache solve the murder. Their friendship with Gamache puts them in the path of danger however as the forces seeking to destroy Gamache follow him to this remote village. Can the villagers protect Gamache? Will Beauvoir be able to rescue his chief? Will Gamache ever see the light of goodness return?  I’m not about to spoil the suspense by revealing the answers – you’ll just have to read the book for yourself.

Read it for its carful plotting. Read it for its delightful portrayal of a community and its quirky inhabitants. But more especially read it for Penny’s subtle portrayal of her central character. We’re used to fictional police chiefs who have their faults and their demons. Gamache doesn’t come from the same damaged mould as Morse or Wallander but that doesn’t render him any the less interesting. He is a man who exudes kindness and respect; a man moreover of absolute integrity who believes that there is goodness in the world and its his job to make sure it never gets extinguished.

Armand Gamache had always held unfashionable beliefs. He believed the light would banish the shadows. That kindness was more powerful than cruelty, and that goodness existed, even in the most desperate places. He believed that evil had its limits.

 

Endnote

A new edition of How the Light Gets In was published in paperback in the UK in November 2014. Thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing me with an advance copy via NetGalley.

Many of the earlier books in the series can be read out of sequence but before reading How the Light Gets In you’ll want to read its predecessor The Beautiful Mystery which explains the breakdown between Gamache and Beauvoir.

The View from Here – Books from Finland

imageWelcome to the world of books. In the last feature in this series we were enjoying the sunshine of the Caribbean. Now we’re heading to a country more associated with snow than sand. We travel to Finland to hear from Soila Lehtonen, Editor in Chief of Books from Finland, an online journal of writing from and about Finland. 

What is your journal about?
Books from Finland is a modest but persistent attempt to make Finnish literature more known abroad…. an English-language literary journal, founded in 1967, now published by FILI/Finnish Literature Society. It was a printed journal until the end of 2008, then went online. Our (free) online version is very accessible – and in many ways easier to make, too. Me and my colleague in London, Hildi Hawkins, do the actual work. It is financed (modestly) by the Finnish Ministry of Education, but an independent editorial board and the editors choose what to publish.

In short: ‘The journal is aimed at professionals in the field of books and literature, publishers, editors, translators, researchers, students, universities, Finns living abroad and audiences generally interested in Finland and Finnish literature.’

The idea is to serve anyone interested about Finnish literature, by publishing articles, reviews of books, sample translations of both fiction (both contemporary and classic) and non-fiction. We’re not trying to constantly emphasise the ‘Finnishness’ of it all, even though we feature Finnish literary life and books published in Finland. We try to introduce good literature, well-written and original – and books with little chances of becoming huge international bestsellers: contemporary and classic poetry and non-fiction, for example.

The quality of translation is of course vital: our translators are professionals and native speakers of English (and their number has always been limited…). As Finland is a bilingual country, they translate from Finnish or Swedish, some of them from both.

Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in Finland? For example, books from other parts of the world, or indigenous authors?

viewfromhereContemporary Finnish fiction has become popular during the past two decades: lots of new authors, new readers. This applies to prose as well as to poetry. (Social media certainly has further helped to make reading, and talking abot reading, more popular, and the media like authors, too.) In the 1980s and early 1990s, for example, translated foreign fiction was flourishing, whereas nowadays much less gets published.

Q. What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of literature by Finnish authors?

So many decades have passed since I was at school that I don’t remember that much…! But definitely Aleksis Kivi (d. 1872) was a compulsory author.

As Finland is a young culture and Finnish slowly developed into a literary language, Kivi was the first Finnish-language fiction author of lasting artistic quality – he had to create a literary style of his own, in which he excelled: his poetry contains the most beautiful verses ever written in Finnish. Kivi died insane in poverty, as there were pompous didactics and academics who disapproved of his perceptive realism in his best novel, Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers). I think at school we were mainly amused by his ‘funny’ language.

Q. Who are some of the major writers from Finland that you think deserve more attention? Why don’t we hear more of these writers given the huge popularity of Scandinavian literature in recent years?

As I’m not an author or a publisher, ‘huge popularity’ is not something I personally greatly value per se…. particularly if it relates to crime literature, for which Sweden in particular is now internationally known. Crime literature sells well, in Finland, too. I don’t think ‘sellability’ is among the most important qualities of literature, or any other art form either, for that matter. Filmmaker David Cronenberg has said about the difference between entertainment and art: ‘Entertainment wants to give you what you want. Art wants to give you what you don’t know you want.’ Personally, I want to read fiction which delights me with its language, perception, philosophy, originality, humour, intelligence, and I dont’t seem to find interesting combinations of these in contemporary crime literature.

I was writing this just before the Frankfurt Book Fair, the commercial literary mega event: 180 books by Finnish authors have been published in German this year, and as the Fair is an international event, and Finland is Guest of Honour there, the following years will undoubtedly draw more attention to Finnish literature.

There are some amazing examples of internationally successful Finnish fiction authors: Sofi Oksanen, Arto Paasilinna, Tove Jansson (of the Moomin fame, died in 2001), Rosa Liksom…. their works have been translated at least into 20 languages (Jansson’s, 44), including English. Works by Kristina Carlson, Tuomas Kyrö, Kari Hotakainen and Johanna Sinisalo have all been published in English recently.

Q.  Tell us about some of the themes and traditions of literature in your country?

Realism, realism. There was a carpenter in the 1970s who began to write fiction, i.e. novels based on his own life as a carpenter in the countryside. He published c. 30 thick autobiographical, naturalistic novels about his life as a carpenter in the countryside, and they sold very well.

This has changed of course a lot during the past few decades: new authors, new writing, new readers.

Q. Is there a noticeable difference between literature from Finland and that from your near neighbours Sweden, Denmark?

Our neighbours are Russia, Sweden and Estonia: three different cultures and languages (even though Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language and resembles Finnish — but not enough to be understood unless you’ve studied it). As Finland is a bilingual country, a large number of those who speak Finnish as their mother tongue are able to read literature also in Swedish (compulsory language in schools and universities). Finnish authors with Swedish as their mother tongue are of course read in Sweden (even though it must be noted that Swedes in general know a lot less about Finnish literature than one might expect…) Contemporary Swedish, Russian and Estonian fiction books get translated to some extent, but unfortunately I myself have spent the last decades reading Finnish books so intensely that I’m not able to characterise them..

Q. Should the big book publishers and book chains do more to make literature in translation available?

I think the situation in Europe has changed remarkably during the past 20 years, at least from the viewpoint of a small culture and language: recently Finnish publishers have begun to be more active in marketing their authors abroad, and there now are literary agents in Finland (previously there were hardly any). There are more competent literary translators as well: FILI has been organising training seminars for translators for years. All this reflects the fact that interest in translation from smaller languages in large countries has grown: it’s not so long ago when the percentage of translated fiction published in England was not more than two, it now has grown to four I think. Small steps, but definitely there, so yes, publishers too have done more.

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