Category Archives: Finnish authors
I thought when I retired that I’d not only have oodles of time available to read but that I’d be quite prompt with my reviews. Neither has proved to be the case.
Instead of filling my days with reading and blogging, I’m juggling Pilates classes, the gym, gardening, National Trust volunteering, coffee shop visits with friend. Not that I’m complaining. It just means I have less time available to write content for the blog.
It’s been getting steadily worse over the last two years. Despite best intentions about wanting to do justice to each book I know I’m never going to catch up if I try and write full reviews for everything.
So I’m going to be sharing some mini reviews until I get the backlog down to a reasonable level.
Let’s start with three books that turned out to be so disappointing I had to abandon them well before the end.
Reading Through the Night by Jane Tompkins
Published by University of Virginia Press., June 2019. My copy was provided by Net Galley in exchange for a fair review.
Jane Tompkins was a literature professor but when she succumbed to myalgic encephalomyelitis (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome), reading was about the only activity she could manage.
Her relationship with books and the experience of reading changed substantially. She began to examine whether instead of reading for pleasure, a close examination of a book could provide profound insights into her life.
Her path of introspection begins with Sir Vidia’s Shadow by Paul Theroux, a memoir of his friendship and falling out with the Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul.
The book contains a detailed discussion of this book and Tompkins reactions to different episodes.
I happen to have read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Theroux’s book so I could relate to some of Tompkins’ comments. But she went overboard with page after page of commentary and analysis. I had been expecting to learn about the power of reading to sustain people through difficult times. But this felt more like an academic paper tracing patterns of feelings and behaviours.
I kept thinking surely she would move on to other books or authors. But not a bit of it. Tompkins became so enthused by learning about Theroux that she then progressed to another of his books (The Old Patagonian Express) . And so we were treated to yet another detailed analysis.
At which point (about 25% of the way into the book) I decided enough was enough.
The Midwife by Katja Kettu
Published by Amazon Crossing 2016. My copy was provided by Net Galley in exchange for a fair review.
The synopsis of this book sounded promising. It takes place in the final years of World War II when the Soviet Union and Germany are fighting for control of Finland. This is the backdrop for a romance between a woman nicknamed “Weird-Eye” ,who works as a midwife, and a war photographer who works for the SS.
Unfortunately the author seems to think her readers are deeply interested in the details of Finnish history at this time. Her book begins with a detailed timeline of events the significance of which was lost on me. When the narrative does get underway it becomes even more confusing – the narrative is written in the first person but it switches perspectives between different characters whose identity is not immediately obvious. Too confusing to be a pleasurable experience. Abandoned after 10%.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Published by OneWorld Publications in 2015.
This won the Booker Prize in 2015. It relates the story of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (never referred to by name, only as “the singer”) and its aftermath. I knew it was written partly in Jamaican patois but once I ‘tuned in” that didn’t present a problem.
The real difficulty was that it has a vast array of characters – the cast list at the beginning shows 75 names. Around a dozen of these jump in to tell their story. One is an American journalist, another is a kid called Bam Bam who saw his father shot in the head. There are several gangsters and a prostitute. Since their appearances are often short, I kept forgetting who they all were. That plus the non linear narrative made the whole book far too confusing.
I gave it a good shot but in the end decided I had far more enjoyable books waiting on the shelves.
The third Women in Translation month is about to begin and I’m tempted, so very tempted. I haven’t made much progress on my reading of books in translation this year so this would give me a bit of a much needed nudge. Only question is how to fit it in with so many other reading plans.
But it’s only for one month so I should be able to manage at least one shouldn’t I?
With optimism in mind I trawled through my TBR spreadsheet in search of possible candidates and narrowed it down to three options.
When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Skansen. This is the fourth novel by the Finnish-Estonian writer and was much lauded when it was published last year for its chilling account of occupation in Eastern Europe in 1940s. I bought it as a Christmas present to myself but haven’t found the time to read it yet. Wish my cover was as stunning as the image above shows.
Although the title says girl singular, this is actually about three young women, all college girls who live in a boarding house somewhere in Brazil. they have formed an intense friendship over the years which is tested by the political upheaval resulting from a coup in 1964. Publishing this was a brave move by Telles since it came out at the height of the country’s military dictatorship and is a strong critique of the country’s political repression.
My third choice is a bit of a cheat since it’s already on my 20BooksofSummer reading list. But needs must if time is short. Tree of Life: A Novel of the Caribbean is a 1992 novel by the Guadeloupean writer, Maryse Condé. The novel tells a multigenerational story about the emergence of the West Indian middle class. The Chicago Tribune called Tree of Life “a grand account of the Caribbean, the politics of race and immigration, and the intricate, often sordid legacy of colonialism”.
I’ve you’ve read these do let me know what you thought so you can help me make up my mind which to choose. And if you are also going to join Women in Translation month don’t forget to tell me what books you’ll be reading.
The severe famine that brought havoc and destruction to nineteenth century rural Ireland has been well documented. Less well known is that more than 250,000 people (about 15% of the population) died when Finland experienced a similarly devastating famine in the late 1860s.
This is the background to Aki Ollikainen’s short, disquieting novel White Hunger. It’s 1867: a year which saw the culmination of a series of poor harvests and a particularly harsh winter. Marja, a peasant farmer’s wife from the north, abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children Mataleena and Juho. This is a journey born out of desperation. Their goal is to reach St Petersburg where rumour has it, bread can be found. Not the stuff made pine bark, lichen and straw that they’ve been living on for months, but bread made with real flour.
The chances are slim that all the members of this little trio will survive. They are entirely dependent on the mercy of isolated households they find along the way. Marja struggles through a featureless landscape, from one nameless village to another, from farmstead to almshouse to barn. She experiences the kindness of strangers who share their meagre rations and also the brutality of those who have become embittered by the ceaseless trail of beggars that knock on their doors. Denounced at times as a thief and a whore, what drives Marja onwards day after day is not desperation alone but also hope.
… one day, maybe, there will be talk of things other than bread, the lack of it, or hunger and diseases. People would talk about the coming of spring, the melting of the ice. About the swans someone spotted on the Holy Lake. About the neighbouring fields being flooded.
The details of her journey are broken with scenes from a town where a doctor and a politician live in relative luxury. The doctor tries to shelter from the shock of the human tragedy, only occasionally feeling a sense of guilt; the politician puts his faith in a new railway to solve the problem. Not until the end of the novel does it become clear how these stories intersect.
Aki Ollikainen’s skill in this novella lies in the way he portrays a snow-bound landscape and ravaging hunger without becoming monotonous. Descriptions of the snow abound naturally along with vivid descriptions of the feeling of hunger. In spare and taut prose Ollikainen animates these forces of nature. Hunger becomes “an angry cat scratching, scraping, sinking its teeth into the pit of her stomach” while frost “spreads weedlike through the window frames along the timber joints across the wall.” and snow pushes in through doors “like a cadaver.”
It takes strong nerves to read this book about people brought to the edge of existence. But steel yourself to do so and you won’t be disappointed. Bleak and harsh it certainly is but utterly memorable.
Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen is published by Peirene Press (Peirene title number 16). Aki Ollikainen lives in northern Finland where he works as a reporter on a local newspaper. White Hunger is his debut work, published to great acclaim in his native country where he won multiple awards. He has written a second novel Musta satu but I haven’t been able to find out anything about this so far.
The Booker Talk household has been in a state of suspended excitement for the last week. I hardly ever win things in competitions or prize drawers (I suppose the fact that I don’t actually enter many of them might have something to do with that). But on the same day just over a week ago I learned that I had won, not one but two prizes.
First to arrive was a copy of White Hunger which is a debut novel by a Finnish author called Aki Ollikainen. It’s set in 19th century Finland and follows a young woman’s journey from Finland to St Petersburg in an attempt to save her young children from starvation. This was a give away from theoxfordculturereview.com (a wonderful source of info if you have any plans to visit the city) and published by Peirene Press. The book won the title of Best Finnish Debut Novel 2012 and Finnish Book Bloggers’ Best Book 2012 and is now available in English. Have any of you read this?
Just a few days later came a mystery gift from the London Review of Books as a result of a reader survey I completed. I’m now the owner of a canvas tote bag (much nicer than plastic carrier bags and cheaper too since we have to pay for those in Wales); a few items from their cafe and a nicely bound compendium of articles published in the LRB.
Two successes. Do you think I could make it a third??
Welcome 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?
Contemporary 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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