Gösta Berlings saga

It took several months, but I finally finished Gösta Berlings saga. I read it years ago in English; now it was time for Swedish. The only problem is that when you read dense Swedish for most of your work day, there’s not a lot of brain left over for dense Swedish for fun. As a result it took me much longer than it normally would to finish a book of this length and linguistic heft. (Not to compare the quality of writing in a Selma Lagerlöf novel to that of a financial report!)

Cover of Gösta Berlings saga by Selma Lagerlöf
Image courtesy Ansgar Forlag

It’s Gösta Berlings saga, it’s good, the end. What’s more interesting about the book is how many English translations there are. The English translation I originally read was the 1918 edition put out by the American-Scandinavian Foundation, which is essentially Lillie Tudeer’s translation with supplemental material from Velma Swanston Howard, and I remember it as a bit of a slog. I can’t put my finger on it, except to say that it felt very dull and dead. But there have since been three other translations and I thought it would be fun to look at how they all handle that iconic opening line.

The original:

Äntligen stod prästen på predikstolan.*

Or Äntligen stod prästen i predikstolan, depending on which edition you’ve read. Mine is from 1920, so rather than i.

The Lillie Tudeer translation (1894):

The pastor was mounting the pulpit steps.

This is obviously, at a bare minimum, not particularly faithful to the original.

The Pauline Bancroft Flanch translation (1898):

At last the minister stood in the pulpit.

Already we’re much closer to the original.

The Robert Bly translation (1962):

At last the minister stood in the pulpit.

This translation is not a wholly new work but an edited and revised version of the Flanch translation, so not at all surprising it’s identical to the previous one.

The Paul Norlen translation (2009):

At long last the minister stood in the pulpit.

This translation is an entirely new work, and straightaway we have a little extra flavor in the text.

Since I’m writing this in English, I suppose I should leave off with a recommendation for which translation to pick up. Well, it goes without saying that I’d give a pass on the omnipresent Dover Thrift Edition or any other version of Lillie Tudeer’s translation. I’m the most curious now about Paul Norlen’s translation, though I have an all-or-nothing brain and so will probably burn through all three of the other versions in short order anyway.

Wise Child

Someone in one of the more obscure online corners I haunt was waxing nostalgic about Monica Furlong’s Wise Child a few months ago. My interest was piqued, since it sounded like something I would have loved as a middle schooler, and luckily I was able to find a copy without much trouble at all.

Cover of Wise Child by Monica Furlong
Image courtesy Alfred A. Knopf

After the death of her grandmother and without other family who can support her, the eponymous nine-year-old protagonist in Wise Child is taken in by Juniper, the village cailleach. Over the course of the book, Juniper helps Wise Child transform from a bit of a brat into someone more considerate, thoughtful and self-sufficient. She also teaches Wise Child the healing arts and some of the basics of magic to prepare her for becoming a witch, what Juniper calls a doran.

The comparison that immediately springs to mind is to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. There is certainly a fantastical element but, like Cooper, Furlong keeps the magic grounded in Scottish folklore (or at least appears to, I’m no expert). The prose is a delight to read, even as an adult. Furlong also has an informed understanding of everyday life in medieval Scotland, always specific in her description of foods, textiles, and buildings. This isn’t hand-wavey Ren Faire style Ye Olde Europe.

Unlike The Dark is Rising, and most other fantasy novels, the story in Wise Child is fairly low stakes. The conflict is entirely interpersonal—rivalry between Juniper and Wise Child’s mother, Maeve; the village priest’s animosity towards Juniper. That’s all pretty small potatoes compared to the thousand years of darkness, hurricanes a-blowin’ and rivers overflowin’, cats and dogs living together mass hysteria you usually expect in the genre. This probably accounts for the difference between the distinct characterization of Wise Child versus the sort of bland everyman (everyboy?) of Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising. When you’re coming up against the end of the world, the drama overshadows the characters and flattens them. But for interpersonal conflicts and personal development, you need nuanced, layered characters.

I don’t know how I missed this gem as a child. I would have seen a lot of myself in the awkward and precocious Wise Child, I’m sure. As an adult, it was refreshing to dip my toe back in the kind of middle grade reading that wasn’t trying to stealth market to adults (what’s up Young Adult) but that also didn’t condescend to its younger demographic. Wise Child was exactly the light summer reading I needed in a world that’s going up in flames.

Black God’s Kiss

One of the last books I finished in 2021 (a record reading year for me, though maybe not for entirely good reasons) was Black God’s Kiss, a selection for the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club’s January meeting.

Cover the 2007 edition of Black God's Kiss by C. L. Moore

Or, well. To be more precise, the short story “Shambleau” by C. L. Moore  was a selection for the meeting. Beyond that, we were left to our own devices to find what we could of Moore’s writing elsewhere. The Stockholm public library had Black God’s Kiss, a 2007 edition of the anthology of Moore’s “Jirel of Joiry” that Paizo first collected and published in the 80s, so I rounded out my sci-fi experience with a generous helping of fantasy.

I won’t comment too much on “Shambleau” here, because it’s not in the Black God’s Kiss collection, but you can easily find it in the Internet Archive’s fantastic collection of old pulp magazines. That said, the protagonist of “Shambleau,” Northwest Smith, appeared in several other stories by Moore, including a crossover story with Jirel of Joiry that does appear in this collection.

To provide some context, our organizers suggested C. L. Moore after doing a deep dive into the real-life pulp writers who inspired the writer characters in the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars.” There is widespread fan agreement (and maybe even official Word of God?) that the character Kay Eaton is a fictional analogue for Star Trek writer and producer D. C. Fontana as well as pulp writer C. L. Moore. (That said, while Eaton in the episode is instructed not to disclose her gender, there’s nothing in either Moore’s or Fontana’s biography indicating they did likewise. Moore used initials to hide her identity, but that was to hide her status as a published author from her employer, not necessarily to obfuscate her gender.) That was the first time I’d ever heard of Moore so this was undiscovered country (hah! hah!) for me, and I think most, if not all, of our book club members.

Up to this point I’d already read several short stories from the magazines in question—primarily Weird Tales, but also a few others like Astounding Stories—so I was familiar with their typical literary style. I bring this up because Moore writes in the same style and thus her stories have a certain breathless “biff! pow! socko!” quality to it that’s no longer en vogue. And like so many of these other stories, the characters are really second billing to the Weird and Astounding elements: the alien settings, the supernatural forces, the fantastic magic. Does Jirel really evolve in the way we expect characters to do today? Only very slightly, perhaps, in the title story. Do we get a glimpse into her inner life, thoughts, dreams? Not really. Does she have any defining characteristics besides “proud” and “violent”? Nope! It’s not entirely science fiction or fantasy as it’s commonly written today, but if you’re already well-read in the genre then Moore does not disappoint. The stories advance at a  breakneck pace through the weird and magical 16th century France that Moore has created, the kind featured in countless Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.

The collection is entirely short stories. While the first two are tied together through their plot, and a couple of the later stories make oblique reference to the events of the first, all of the stories stand on their own and exist in a sort of self-contained vacuum. This only makes sense, when you consider their original publication over several years in various editions of various magazines, but readers going in expecting (for whatever reason) a long-form novel would be confused and possibly disappointed. Even with that understanding, it can take a moment to shift gears when you’re mostly used to reading novels, or short story anthologies where the stories are entirely disconnected in terms of plot and characters.

From a genre historical perspective, these were a lot of fun. After countless words spilled about Manly He-Man Heroes running around beating stuff up, having a Xena Warrior Princess run around and beat stuff up is a welcome change. One refreshing difference from stories we see today is that Moore never presents it as weird or unusual for Jirel to be the feudal head of Joiry or the commander of her men; no secondary character remarks on how Joiry is unnatural for being commanded by a woman, and none of the foes Jirel faces (who run the gamut from relatively mortal wizards to unearthly sorceresses to vague, abstract supernatural forces) underestimate or undervalue her because of her gender at all. Nor is Jirel simply a palette swap of Conan the Barbarian. Several of the conflicts in the stories are driven by romantically or at least sexually charged encounters rather than overt violence; Black God’s Kiss is maybe my favorite in the collection because despite being a swords-and-sorcery revenge story, the story also captures the erotic tension of competition and rivalry well.

With that all said, I’m not entirely thrilled with the cheesecake cover art of this edition of the collection. I guess boob armor and tactically inadvisable exposed skin is now a fantasy art trope, but it clashes with Jirel’s actual character. Her dress is invariably actual armor, a doeskin tunic, or some kind of fancy gown. It seems to miss the point to take a pioneering woman fantasy protagonist and give her the Heavy Metal treatment. Of course, the original cover art for “Black God’s Kiss” isn’t really a proper representation either:

Cover of Weird Tales with the text

Overall the stories were fun and compelling, and I really wish that Moore had used them to launch into a full-length novel so we could spend more than an hour or two at a time with Jirel and her world. Or, barring that, more than just six stories would have been nice. By contrast, Conan the Barbarian appeared in 18 stories published before Robert E. Howard’s death—not counting Conan-adjacent pieces and posthumously published works. Perhaps if there had been an equal volume of Jirel of Joiry stories, she’d have her own beefcake cinematic avatar to cement her place in pop culture history.

It’s not too late for that, I suppose! I nominate Ronda Rousey for the role.

The Boggart

I originally read The Boggart in elementary school, and then re-read it back in December, so no matter how you slice it I’m cheating a bit (or have fallen quite far behind) to bring it up for a book post in February. To which I say: come at me, bro.

Scholastic Books edition of The Boggart by Susan Cooper
Image courtesy Scholastic

Author: Susan Cooper

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.75 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Summary: The Vonik family inherits a castle in Scotland and brings a boggart with them back to Canada

Recommended audience: Fantasy fans; people who enjoyed Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Scottish mythology fans

In-depth thoughts: My occasion for re-reading this one was actually for work. One of my younger (former) students is very much into ghost stories and the like, and while I was trying to figure out the next thing I wanted to read, my eyes lighted on my battered Scholastic book fair edition of The Boggart. Mischievous ghosts and drafty Scottish castles? On brand!

I was right — it was a bigger hit than the other books I’d brought in — but my point here isn’t how I’m awesome at picking out books for students but about how much I haven’t grown out of this book.

I didn’t remember that much about it, except that it had a ghost and that ten-year-old me loved it. (How else would it survive countless book purges and a trip across the ocean?) The perfect time to re-read a book!

The first or second lesson I read along with my student, we got to a section about the titular boggart mourning the death of their very first human friend, and it choked me up. If your middle grade fantasy novel brings grown-ups to tears, then you’re a competent and accomplished writer. Also, points for using semicolons (happy semikolonets dag!) and having the characters’ mother apologize to another adult for being “bitchy.” We don’t have to banish semantic complexity or linguistic realism from children’s literature!

While charming, The Boggart still isn’t as effortless as The Dark is Rising; Cooper has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get her modern Canadian family to clue in to the ancient Scottish spirit turning their lives upside down, and it gets clumsy in places. A couple of moments are clearly meant to be whimsical or wonderful but feel a bit much, and a third act bad guy appears out of nowhere, to no end except to be a vague menace. What is considered the latest technology is also a key plot point, but this was the latest technology back in 1993, so there are also portions that are incredibly dated when you’re reading in 2019.

Review: Roar

This was the year I joined all of the book clubs. My Facebook book club is still going strong (to be fair, I joined that one in 2016); this year, I’ve been tagging along with the reads for my friend’s Austin-based feminist sci-fi book club and I just recently joined a vaguely YA-ish book club on Discord. Roar was the first book I read for that one (though far from the actual club’s first book).

The cover of Cora Carmack's "Roar." A Caucasian woman with bright white hair, a white dress, and knives strapped to her back stands on a small, rocky hillock with her back to the viewer, facing a stormy purple sky.
Image courtesy Tor Teen

Author: Cora Carmack

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.0 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: A princess born without any apparent magical storm affinity that will protect her kingdom runs away on the eve of her marriage to take those powers from storms by force so she can save her kingdom.

Recommended audience: Fantasy and romance fans

In-depth thoughts: Considering that this is a book put out by Tor Teen, explicitly and specifically marketed as a YA fantasy novel, and that I’m a woman in my thirties, I know full well that I’m not part of the target demographic for this book. It’s not entirely surprising, then, that this didn’t really appeal to my fantasy snob sensibilities.

Putting aside my own personal dislike for how the fantasy elements were handled (or more specifically, for how the fantasy elements were abandoned in favor of an over-the-top romance), Roar is the kind of fast-paced, easily digested, plot-driven story that works well when you want to practice reading in a foreign language. My own preference for these in Swedish are a series of Turkish cozy mysteries featuring a drag queen/badass martial artist/super hacker, so you know. To each their own!

In fact, Roar might work better than your average contemporary YA fantasy fare: I will credit Cormack with not suffering from Ridiculous Fantasy Name Syndrome in her writing. In a native language, such naming conventions (“Princess Alysia of the kingdom Pherylovia”) can be annoying; in a foreign language it can become an impediment. Beyond that, since the magic is all based on storms and weather—something that we actually experience in the real world—there isn’t much fussing with special words (or regular words used in non-standard ways) to describe magic and spells and so on. So, even this book was very much Not For Me, I wouldn’t have any problems recommending it to people who like this sort of thing, or who want to practice their English.

Review: Gösta Berling’s Saga

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!
The Dover Thrift Edition of Gösta Berling's Saga
Image courtesy Dover

 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.
Gerda Lundqvist as Fru Samzelius in the silent movie adaptation of Gösta Berling's Saga. Distraught and disheveled, dressed in piecemeal fur rags, she carries a torch, ready to burn her own home to the ground rather than hand it over to her enemies.
Gerda Lundqvist as Fru Samzelius.

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!

Review: The Castle of Crossed Destinies

I always get more reading done during vacations than any other time of the year. American English, Italian Chocolate was the first book I knocked off my TBR pile. The next one was The Castle of Crossed Destinies, which I started on the plane to Copenhagen and finished in the Hideout Cafe in Austin while I waited to meet my host and his girlfriend.

Image courtesy Vintage Classics

Author: Italo Calvino

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.54 stars

Language scaling: C1+

Plot summary: Weary travelers at a castle and a tavern are rendered unable to speak, and so use a Tarot deck to share their stories.

Recommended audience: Those interested in modernist literature; those interested in Tarot cards; fans of Italo Calvino.

In-depth thoughts: I picked The Castle of Crossed Destinies up for two reasons. First, the Tarot deck conceit seemed like it would be relevant for a current writing project of mine and I wanted to see how Calvino handled it. The second reason was my troubled relationship with Calvino. I hated Invisible Cities but loved If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, so I wondered where on the spectrum this third book would fall. The answer is “somewhere in the middle,” so now I don’t know if Calvino is an author I hate, love, or am just apathetic about.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies is a contemporary version of something like The Decameron. There is no overarching plot or action; instead, it is a collection of fables and short stories. Some of them are original; some of them (if I understand Calvino’s epilogue properly) are myths and legends that he “retold” through a given sequence of Tarot cards. This isn’t what I was expecting or hoping for; I went in expecting something like Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, only with Tarot instead of I Ching and without the alternate history elements.

Putting that disappointment aside, I have to admit I didn’t really enjoy The Castle of Crossed Destinies. I didn’t hate it the way I hated Invisible Cities, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I’m not glad that I’m read it, but I’m not annoyed, either.

Book Review: Otto and the Flying Twins

I picked up Otto and the Flying Twins at a library sale some months ago, and in an odd coincidence (given the book’s subject matter) I had it in my bag while I was stranded in town on Friday.

Author: Charlotte Haptie

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.62 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Fantasy aficionados

In-depth thoughts: Teachers wishing to address prejudice and The Holocaust could do worse than to include Otto and the Flying Twins in the curriculum.

On the surface, it’s a whimsical fantasy story about an evil queen (though in an updated form of an evil councilwoman) trying to eradicate magic from the city, and the young boy and his magical friends who stop her. But dig a little deeper and it’s hard to deny the parallels with pre-World War II Germany: the “magicos” are declared inferior and a threat to the city’s well-being, relegated to ghettos or sent to work in moonstone mines.

It’s hard to strike a balance between light whimsy and serious hardship, and my only complaint with the book is that Haptie never finds a good balance; despite some serious moments, the mood tilts very heavily towards “fun fantasy.” Rather than address the very real problem that hatred and prejudice is built up over lifetimes and generations, Haptie compresses what was probably two or three centuries of anti-Semitic sentiment that contributed to the Holocaust into just a couple of years and the flimsiest of pretenses—essentially, one individual’s personal grudge. (And greed, but arguably it’s something like greed that drives people to blame The Other for economic woes, so that’s not so unrealistic after all.)

But it’s a fantasy book for middle grade readers, not Holocaust scholarship. I realize this is a very high-level nitpick, and I’m willing to overlook it because everything else about the book was delightful.

Anyone familiar with YA and middle grade tropes will see some of them refreshingly subverted or avoided. The titular Otto isn’t The Chosen One; that’s actually his dad, Albert who does much of the heroics (if off-screen). Otto is, of course, gifted with what everyone considers The Best Power Ever, but it’s well-balanced: neither over-powerful enough to render his friends useless, nor so under-powered that we wonder why anyone values such a power in the first place.

When his mom finds out that Albert hid his Karmidee heritage from her, she lashes out at him and spends most of the rest of the book angry at him, for ugly reasons (internalized prejudice) as well as respectable ones (building a life with someone only to find out they’ve lied about a very important part of themselves is bound to be a shocker). It’s a response that feels very human, especially because she balances it with protecting her family. There’s nothing worse than conflict driven by one or more parties being willfully stupid. Instead, Dolores does what she can to protect her undeniably magical family and keeps her frustration with Albert separate.

Otto’s obligatory female sidekick, Mab, isn’t presented as a love interest, which is refreshing—but this might be due to the target audience (the story feels and reads much more middle grade than YA). She’s not entirely useful, it feels like, except to explain things to Otto (and by extension, the reader).

The language in this book is something to behold. There is an air of genuine whimsy in this that I found lacking in Harry Potter. (Well, either lacking or totally oppressive.) Normal Police, widges, dammerung, an Impossible List . . . Haptie takes well-worn fantasy tropes and adds her own unique spin to them.

Otto and the Flying Twins is the first in a trilogy of books. I get the impression that they were meant to be a longer series, but seeing as the last one was published in 2006, I think it’s safe to say that the series stops at three books. If you can find it, get it. Otto and the Flying Twins is a great example of middle grade fantasy at its finest. More than that, it’s a great jumping-off point to discuss prejudice and resistance—topics that are going to be quite relevant for the next few years.