Amatka was the last selection of 2018 for the Austin Feminist Science Fiction Book Club. I read the Swedish original; the others theoretically read the English translation, but this year is such a busy time for everyone that I might have been the only one to read it.
Author: Karin Tidbeck
My GoodReads rating: 2 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.82 stars
Language scaling: N/A, read in Swedish
Summary: Vanja, a government worker, is sent to the distant colony of Amatka for a new project. Things are not what they seem, and language starts distorting reality in unsettling ways.
Recommended audience: Dystopia fans
In-depth thoughts: The first thing I did after I finished Amatka was to text my friend and fellow book club member in Austin: “Amatka was weird…thought I didn’t get some parts because Swedish, but nope. It’s weird. I’d love to rep Swedish baked goods and sci fi, but….not missing much maybe with this one.”
And that about sums it up for me. Tidbeck signals towards a very ominous past but never really clarifies it. I spent the majority of the book taking this to be a “real world” dystopia (based on real Earth and real history and set in this universe, more or less), but the ending makes it very clear we’re in an entirely different universe with very different rules, which then seems to defeat the purpose of it being a dystopia. In the end you’re left with a handful of powerful scenes (a librarian being ordered to destroy everything but the “useful” books; parents longing for affection from their communally raised children who clearly don’t seem to pay them much mind) that have no real skeleton connecting them, no unifying purpose.
I usually like to take my time and savor each and every piece in Asymptote before I link to my favorites here, but between NaNoWriMo and work that is simply not going to happen. I made time for cursory reading, at least, and my work did not go unrewarded!
I love Antoinette Fawcett’s essay on Translating Bird Cottage. I don’t have the luxury of spending days, weeks, months to find the right word, to research women’s undergarments in the early 20th century, to do field studies—but I understand the drive to do so. There is always the attendant obsession with finding just the right word, but there is also (if you are translating a piece you love, for the sheer love of it and in the hope that you can bring a thing you love to people who wouldn’t experience it otherwise) the desire to connect with the writer, to walk in their footsteps, to live in the story, to be their companion (or maybe be them). It’s the same reason I had to visit Walden Pond last year, and the reason I carried America Day by Day with me while I was in New York in 2016.
I try to make a point of reading Swedish magazines and journals when I can. Sometimes I only have the brain power to focus on something short and article-length, and it’s good to mix up my literary fiction reading with popular non-fiction.
One of the unintended benefits of this project is that I’ve collected numerous tips on Swedish authors to read. Historiskan always profiles an author or two in every issue, and Populär Historia put out a special issue earlier this year, dedicated to “pioneering women,” that was chock full of writers (or women who did exciting things and also happened to write about it). I have a list in my phone of all the names that have turned up so far in my reading, and if I find myself at the library without another book to get, I see if I can find what’s there.
Language scaling: N/A (read in Swedish; available in English as Men and Other Misfortunes in a collection entitled Stockholm Stories, translated by Betty Cain and Ulla Sweedler)
Summary: The daily struggles of four working-class women who share an apartment in Stockholm at the turn of the last century.
Recommended audience: People who liked the concept of Lena Dunham’s Girls but found the actual execution unappealing
In-depth thoughts: I didn’t remember much about Wägner when I checked this book out from the library, except that she was a suffragette and her name was on my list. But I did remember this photograph of her:
At the turn of the last century, there was something of a mass exodus of young women from the Swedish countryside into larger cities, leading to a social phenomenon of young women who could (more or less) support themselves and therefore weren’t as desperate to marry as they would have been in previous generations. Norrtullsligan is a quick survey of daily life of four of those women (the “league” referred to in the title). The day’s media addressed this civilization-ending phenomenon with the same breathless pearl-clutching that today’s media uses with Millenials, making Norrtullsligan something like the Swedish 1900s version of Girls. Except better.
The league (Baby, Eva, Emmy, and the narrator, Elisabeth) takes on headier issues of suffrage and worker’s rights while also dodging everyday headaches like insufferable relatives, sexual harassment from bosses, and heartache. Nonetheless, Norrtullsligan avoids being didactic and moralizing. The social commentary springs organically from the women’s lives and situations, rather than dictating plot points. Wägner’s prose is also a delight: 100 years old and somehow still fresh and contemporary in tone. Elisabeth is the best kind of narrator, wry and witty and ironic but with plenty of compassion. It’s a short book that reads quickly, yet still manages to address a wide range of larger issues. It’s like an explicitly feminist and infinitely more cheerful Doktor Glas.
The English translation is available on Google Books if you’d like a preview. I’m not entirely sold on it myself, though I appreciate the work that Cain and Sweedler did in bringing Norrtullsligan to the wider English-speaking world: Stockholm Stories is available via Xlibris, a self-publishing company, meaning that they probably invested a great deal of their own money into making it available. Something about the English translation, however, falls a little flat for me. Swedish speakers, even if non-native, would do better to just read the original.
Magiska Amerika Södern was a free choice I allowed myself at the library, despite a pretty heavy bookish agenda. (My book club roster now includes four different groups.) What would a Swede make of the American South?
Author: Daniel Svanberg
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.33 stars
Language scaling: N/A (only available in Swedish)
Summary: Daniel Svanberg spends nearly two weeks traveling throughout the American South, singing the praises of Southern cuisine and musical history and asking people why they love America.
Recommended audience: Anyone nostalgic for those halcyon days before the 2016 election
In-depth thoughts: The first thing I realized, when I sat down to write this post, was that I don’t think I ever wrote about Amerikanskt here, which is a tragedy.
And the fact that my first instinct, with this book, is to think about another book pretty much says it all. Svanberg is often self-aware enough to recognize that he is a naive and wide-eyed wanderer (his own language, not mine) but he glosses over those moments in favor of enthusing over roadside diners, sweet tea, and the blues. You can’t blame him for that, of course, but the result is that the book tows a weird line. Svanberg seems like he’s self-aware enough to know that he’s not really digging very deeply here, and yet he makes no comment at all on the lack of depth. There is engagement with the more brutal and inhumane parts of America’s history that played out in the South but it feels very pat and surface-level: glib statements about how terrible slavery and Jim Crow was, but no connection to the legacy that remains even today; an enthusiastic nostalgia for Americana and everything the “retro” vibe entails without considering the flip side of that coin.
There are a couple other conceits that run throughout the book: images of heavenly choirs are invoked at almost every meal, surreal dreams about the day’s travels close the end of every day, and “The Shadow,” a metaphor (if heavy-handed) for his own depression and despair over…not ever really understanding America, I guess?…is a constant companion.
If I were a Swede reading this, I think I’d be disappointed. The over-reliance on the above cutesy conceits takes up valuable word real estate; the resulting pictures painted are neither broad nor detailed. But I’m not Swedish! I’ve even done my own (shorter) road trip through the region from Pennsylvania to North Carolina and back, up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway. I don’t need someone to tell me what it’s like; I’ve been there.
Instead, the value I got from it was the little Swedish observations, similar to comments my sambo would make during his visits over Christmas and New Year’s. (“The cars here are HUGE.” “Wow, that’s a lot of churches for such a small town.”) And that’s something you really have to actually be American to appreciate: having someone comment on the Tarantino-esque “little differences” you’d never notice yourself because it’s such an ingrained part of your existence. The cars have always been this size; there have always been three different churches in this tiny little village of only a couple hundred people. Why would it ever be any different?
My favorite that Svanberg points out is the little red flag on American mailboxes you flip up to indicate that there’s mail inside, either to pick up or to be delivered. Of course that’s different between the two countries; I just never would have considered Sweden’s lack of a little red flag on mailboxes something worth remarking on. I can say with 100% certainty that I never felt like it was something missing here. Only when someone else pointed it out did I realize “Oh, I guess maybe that would be something weird and noteworthy if you grew up literally anywhere else.”
Sadly, those moments were few and far between, and more ink was spilled on little metaphorical asides about The Shadow that I feel a little guilty for not enjoying because it seems like Svanberg was really aiming for pathos with them. Most of the time the book felt a little slow and draggy without really digging too deeply, even though the writing itself was pretty peppy and engaging. Other Americans might enjoy an outsider’s perspective on their own country, but at the end of the day, Amerikanskt is the better book.
While at The English Book Shop looking for something else, I stumbled across The Helios Disaster. I’m obsessed enough with Linda Boström Knausgård to read or buy almost everything she writes (though not enough to keep up with new releases). I’ll have more to say on the available English translation after I’ve read and compared the two; at the moment I’ve only read the original Swedish.
Author: Linda Boström Knausgård
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.5 stars
Language scaling: N/A
Summary: A young girl in the north of Sweden realizes she’s an incarnation of the goddess Athena.
Recommended audience: Fans of Swedish modernism
In-depth thoughts: My first introduction to Boström Knausgård was Grand Mal, her collection of flash fiction. I’ve found that the longer her work gets, the more impact it loses. There are pieces in Grand Mal that have stayed with me years after reading them; their sparse minimalism is haunting and at the same time complete. Helioskatastrofen loses that minimalism, as the longer the story goes on, the more we necessarily learn about the world, and the more magic is subsequently lost. Still, there is something arresting and creepy about the worlds that Boström Knausgård creates, in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on.
If you’re not subscribed to Asymptote‘s newsletter or following their blog, you’re missing out. Their staff are like magical book sprites who leave little gifts of international literature in your RSS feed or email inbox. Rien où poser sa tête was one of those little gifts.
Of course, Nowhere to Lay One’s Head turned up in Asymptote thanks to Brigitte Manion’s review of the English translation. But since I have a passing familiarity with French, and really should practice a little now and then to keep it up, I opted to read the French original rather than the English or Swedish translations.
Author: Françoise Frenkel
My GoodReads rating: 5 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.94
Language scaling: N/A (I read it in French)
Summary: Frenkel’s memoirs of Vichy France, and her flight from Berlin to France to Switzerland
Recommended audience: Literally everyone
Content warning: It’s Nazi Germany; there is witnessed and described brutality throughout. (If you, like me, are easily stressed and need to know certain things from the outset: Frenkel, a Polish Jew, managed to escape Nazi clutches and find asylum in Switzerland, despite a few close brushes with the authorities. It all works out okay.)
In-depth thoughts: As a student, I had a hard time connecting with the books we read about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Fortunately I’m not a psychopath and so I can understand, on an intellectual level, why these books are important. I could then, too. I just resented them for not being better, considering the topic matter. Now that we’re apparently willing to give Nazis the benefit of the doubt, I’ve been wondering lately: what do I think students should read instead of what I read in school?
I’d argue that Rien où poser sa tête is a good candidate. Trying to convey the horror of what happened through the concentration camps can be a bit much to take in. (Not that it should be forgotten, either.) It’s so horrible as to be unreal, unfathomable. But because Frenkel handles the slow agony of daily life under the Nazi regime, with rations and visa applications and constant upheaval, it becomes easier to understand how these things were able to come to pass, and how they could easily come to pass again.
What’s one of your language-related (that is, something people say or write) pet peeves?
Editors are supposed to have an endless list of these, right? So the stereotype goes. We are the gatekeepers of language and so on and so forth. And I guess we all do, probably. But if you look at the layperson’s language pet peeves (“they’re/there/their”! “your/you’re”!) and the editor’s pet peeves, the overlap would probably be quite small.
It’s nobody’s fault, but somehow the waiter always comes over to check on you just when your mouth is full of food. Or maybe they do this deliberately so as to avoid getting sucked into an actual conversation with someone who wants to nit pick the seasoning of the vegetables.
What’s one of your technology-related pet peeves?
What’s one of your television-watching pet peeves?
Romance. Any time a show (or book or movie, for that matter) features a close friendship or even working relationship between a man and a woman, romance almost inevitably gets shoehorned in. If not outright romance, then something like Will They Won’t They. It chafes for a lot of reasons (lazy way to add tension, heteronormativity, implying that the only possible relationship between men and women is romantic/sexual) but I think this one hits me personally because most of my inner circle are men. (Not for “women are just too much drama!” reasons; it just seems to have happened.) The close friendships I have with women are also way different than how they’re portrayed in media (much more random weirdness, much less obsessing over shoes and sex) but at least they’re not wholly misrepresented as some kind of waiting room for romance.
This is, incidentally, why I love Elementary so much. Sherlock and Joan are #FriendshipGoals to the extreme. Of course, now that I’ve said that, I’ve cursed the show to fall victim to exactly this trap. Sigh.
What’s something you do that you know peeves others?
Swedish has an expression: tidsoptimist. This is someone who lacks a solid grasp of how long it takes to get to places and (the implication is) is usually late.
I’ve been here for five years and I’m still a tidsoptimist. I still operate by American car-owning convenience and fail to take into account that I’m not leaving whenever I like, but according to public transportation’s time table. I’m stricter about this with clients, or with traveling, but socially? All bets are off. I get there when I get there. (Maybe this is why I don’t have many Swedish friends?)
This review is maybe a first for the blog: a Swedish translation of a book originally published in English. But: doctor, heal thyself; teacher, teach thyself. My advice to students is always first and foremost to read as much as possible. Why shouldn’t I follow my own advice?
Author: Maria Semple
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.91
Language scaling: ??? (best guess, based on the Swedish translation: B2+??)
Summary: Bee has just gotten top marks at her alternative school and as a reward, her family books a cruise to Antarctica over the Christmas holiday. Everything goes topsy-turvy when Bee’s mother, Bernadette, goes missing.
Content warning: Bernadette clearly has a host of psychological conditions and I’m not in a position to judge if the book handles that well or not. I’m also not a fan of Semple’s treatment of the Asian characters.
Recommended audience: Anyone who needs a dose of whimsy and humor
In-depth thoughts: Semple does interesting things with form and switches between Bee’s own first-person perspective and an assemblage of documents to build this story, which could have gone wrong but didn’t. I had no problems switching back and forth from documents to Bee’s narration to documents again. Bee, especially, was fun to read and the best kind of teenage protagonist: sometimes insightful, sometimes naive, never stupid. And I appreciate Semple staying away from working in any kind of shoehorned romance or love interest for Bee. It’s like adults who write for or about teenagers can only remember the boy- or girl-crazy part of teenagerdom angst, nothing else.
The transitions between sections feel sloppy sometimes, due to a jumbled-up timeline. The little blurb at the beginning of the story makes it sound like Bernadette has been missing for years, not mere weeks. I think Semple or her editor had an intuition that the timeline would be an issue here, and that’s why every extract is clearly dated. I have my own opinions about how I would have handled it as a writer or editor, but whatever, those aren’t that interesting!
The one thing I’m not entirely sure about is the Asian gags. There are two and half points here: the fact that Elgin’s secretary (who I read as Korean-American but I realize now could also be Chinese-American) is an overall kind of insufferable character (depending on your preferences) and the one-liner Bee has comparing her to Yoko Ono. As another blog points out, this grates both because Soo-Lin is pretty obviously not Japanese, and because the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles!” meme is incredibly tiresome. So even when Bee apologizes later for the remark and realizes how it must have come off, the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles” meme persists. On the other hand, Bee has just graduated middle school and so is around 14 years old. I’m sure I hated Yoko Ono when I was 14, too. Even though my favorite Beatle was/is George. So that’s half a point.
It’s Soo-Lin’s gossip-y insufferability that’s more cringe-inducing than the Yoko Ono gag, especially when the only other Asian characters that appear are a group of Japanese tourists on the Antarctica cruise Bee takes with Elgin. There is an inherent fish-out-of-water humor that comes with foreign tourists, a group of people who are plopped down outside of their normal context, but still. They don’t add anything to the plot; their presence is just a comic device intended to render the setting of the cruise as absurd as possible. That’s one point.
The other is that Soo-Lin’s partner in crime and even more insufferable gossip pal, Audrey (who is the semi-accidental antagonist of the whole book) gets to have a redemption arc while Soo-Lin remains just…there. Still kind of an awful-but-you-feel-bad-for-thinking-so character, no redemption, just literally handwaved away by one of the other main characters.
Despite this small misgiving, overall I had a really good time with Var blev du av Bernadette. It was a compelling read, and it was just the thing for me to kickstart my Swedish reading in 2018.
It’s a little presumptuous of me to sit down and review Selma Lagerlöf’s legendary debut novel more than 100 years after the fact, but since I want to keep a fairly accurate public record of the books I read, here we are!
Like so many bookworms, I have a tendency to acquire books faster than I read them. I try to make a concerted effort to focus on my book backlog whenever I can; I have a long-standing goal every year to read a certain number of books that I’ve owned for over a year. I picked up Gösta Berling’s Saga in 2008 at the very earliest and probably 2010 at the latest, so this one definitely counts. Good ol’ Dover Thrift Editions!
Author: Selma Lagerlöf
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.71 stars
Language scaling: C1+
Recommended audience: Silent film buffs; people interested in Swedish literature (who can’t read the original Swedish)
In-depth thoughts: This edition is a translation from 1894 (with a few chapters being a little later, 1918); there have since been two subsequent translations, one in the 1960s and another in 2009. I don’t know if it’s entirely the age of the translations that sometimes make this a hard slog so much as the age of the work. I don’t see why anyone who can read Swedish would prefer this edition over the original, or why anyone who prefers English to Swedish would choose this one over the later translations (except for comparison’s sake). My wallet loves Dover Thrift Editions, but I don’t know if I’d recommend this one as an introduction to Lagerlöf.
Outside the language, there are other challenges: there’s a huge cast of characters and the structure is more episodic than purely narrative so chapters can feel clunky and disconnected compared to how novels are written today. (I feel like The Wonderful Adventures of Nils holds together a little better, even if it has a similar episodic structure.) Still, once you get into it, it’s still worth reading over 100 years later. Unsurprisingly for a very feminist and pro-woman, pro-women’s rights author, there are a lot of women in this large cast of characters, well developed beyond witches, damsels, and bimbos. They do some awful things, and they also do some heroic things. Of course, most of these women have a tendency to fall in love with Gösta, but then again, he’s the hero.
My personal favorite is the ostensible antagonist, Fru Samzelius. While she spends much of the book outcast from her farm and home, pitted against the cavaliers, she begins and ends the story with competence and dignity, and always does things on her own terms.
Doktor Glas, from around the same time period, has seen a modern re-imagining from the perspective of the antagonist, Reverend Gregorious. I want someone to do the same for Margarita Samzelius. She deserves her own book even more than Reverend Gregorious does.
Something like this just seems ripe for the miniseries pickings, to be honest. The episodic chapters would work just fine as standalone episodes, so the scripts would basically write themselves. Come on, Netflix!
The first week of October is National Customer Service Week in the United States and Kenya. Where have you received especially good customer service? Flying Scandinavian Air Services (or whatever SAS actually stands for) is always a treat. But that said, I value price over comfort in air travel, and Norwegian wins on that front. And they’re pretty good for a budget airline. Skimpy meal service (but I hate eating on planes anyway—the food is okay but it’s just so cramped), but the planes are new and comfortable.
Noraebangs (karaoke boxes) in Korea also are really good at customer service. One more than one occasion my friends and I received “service” items from the noraebang we were partying it up at: free beer, ice cream, or an extra half-hour of room rental.
The second Saturday in October was National Tree-Planting Day in Mongolia. When did you last do anything resembling tree-planting? When you’re a teacher, every lesson is like planting a tree!
October 4 was World Animal Day (the feast day of Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals). What’s an obscure animal you know a thing or two about?
Okapis are related to giraffes and, just like giraffes, have blue-black tongues. They’re also endangered, so maybe consider supporting okapi preservation as a holiday gift to yourself or others?
October 6 was National Poetry Day in Ireland and the United Kingdom. What’s a line of poetry that springs to mind now that you’re thinking about poetry? I’ve been thinking about Karin Boye recently, so here:
Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister.
Varför skulle annars våren tveka?
Varför skulle all vår heta längtan
bindas i det frusna bitterbleka?
Höljet var ju knoppen hela vintern.
Vad är det för nytt, som tär och spränger?
Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister,
ont för det som växer
och det som stänger.
Ja nog är det svårt när droppar faller.
Skälvande av ängslan tungt de hänger,
klamrar sig vid kvisten, sväller, glider -
tyngden drar dem neråt, hur de klänger.
Svårt att vara oviss, rädd och delad,
svårt att känna djupet dra och kalla,
ändå sitta kvar och bara darra -
svårt att vilja stanna
och vilja falla.
Då, när det är värst och inget hjälper,
Brister som i jubel trädets knoppar.
Då, när ingen rädsla längre håller,
faller i ett glitter kvistens droppar
glömmer att de skrämdes av det nya
glömmer att de ängslades för färden -
känner en sekund sin största trygghet,
vilar i den tillit
som skapar världen.
What’s in your pocket? Nothing, because my pajamas don’t have pockets!