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 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.
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!
It would be hypocritical of me to encourage my students to read novels in English, and then not do the same in Swedish. I actually think it’s a good exercise for EFL teachers, as well: choose a foreign language you can reasonably read and understand and make ongoing attempts to read in that language. It’s important to remember how frustrating a foreign language can be, at times, and help you empathize with your students and be a better teacher.
This is going to be a shorter review than usual, for what I hope are obvious reasons (i.e. novels in Swedish won’t really help anyone learn English). But I like to keep as complete a public record of my reading as possible, so I still want to make note of it here.
Author: Karin Boye
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.66 stars
Language scaling: N/A
Plot summary: Malin Forst is a seminary student in the period after the first World War. Romantic feelings for female classmate, Siv, paired with with the free-floating uncertainty in post-World War I Europe lead Malin to a crisis of faith and subsequent nervous breakdown, after which she has to reevaluate her life and reassess her own moral code.
Recommended audience: Fans of queer literature; fans of modernist literature.
In-depth thoughts: I was already familiar with Boye’s other novel, Kallocain, which I actually read in English when I was an exchange student at Stockholms universitet in 2007. I’m not sure if Kris is available in English, but Kallocain definitely is and I would recommend that for EFL students who enjoy science fiction. But Kris is much different; it’s much more modernist and experimental than the relatively straightforward and plot-driven Kallocain. Boye explores Malin Forst’s breakdown through inner monologues and dialogues, conversations among notable historical figures and personified abstract concepts, as well as straightforward narration. The novel is episodic, which is great when you’re reading in a foreign language and have trouble maintaining focus for long stretches. (I love Par Lagerkvist, but I also think he could use chapter breaks and now and then.)
Boye is primarily known as a poet, and that shows in the way she uses language and imagery throughout Kris. It only took me so long to finish Kris because I was reading three or four book simultaneously, on top of being busy. It’s a great option if you need something to read for SFI, SAS, or AKSVA.
ArmchairBEA is the Internet/social media version of BEA: Book Expo America. BEA is a chance for readers, authors, and publishers to mingle and share their love of the written word, not unlike Stockholm’s own (much smaller) Litteraturmässan.
I missed ArmchairBEA this year, which is a shame because it’s my favorite way to hear about new books and to find new book bloggers (and, increasingly, BookTubers — people who vlog about books on YouTube). It’s a potpourri of Twitter chats, giveaways, and blog prompts, and I’m so bummed about missing it that I’m going to participate anyway.
The first prompt is, as usual, a simple introduction prompt. In case you wanted to know more than what’s on my About Me page!
I am . . .
Most basically, I’m an American expat in Stockholm who cobbles together a living from freelance editing and EFL tutoring. I don’t see the fields as discrete; rather, they interact with and reinforce each other.
Currently . . .
I’ve just wrapped up lessons with three different students, just in time for me to pick up work on two (rather large) editing projects.
I love . . .
I love giving people the tools they need to articulate themselves. This is where editing and tutoring overlap, and it’s the best part of both jobs for me.
I also used to work in a jewelry-making supplies store, and incidentally that was my favorite part of that job as well. Only I was helping people articulate themselves through a very different medium!
On a less career/aspirational level, I love being outside in the sunshine (and being at home in the rain), reading, a good cup of tea, and Korean food.
My favorite . . .
My favorite Korean dish is budae jjigae (a spicy stew that includes assorted American-style meats), my favorite tea is Söderte, and choosing my favorite book would be like choosing a favorite child. You can read about my favorite books according to GoodReads, if you’re curious about my tastes.
My least favorite precious gem is the diamond. Controversial opinion time, I guess! But even if they weren’t an ethical nightmare, I would still be unimpressed. I’ve seen properly cut, high-quality quartz that has the same sparkle and flash as a diamond. And that’s not even including Herkimer diamonds.
My least favorite book is equally hard to choose, but out of a field of mediocre reads, one that stands out is Rabbit, Run. I’m not a big Updike fan.
My current read . . .
Oh, so many! I have two that I’m reading for group obligations: Madonna in a Fur Coat for my Internet book club and The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide for my in-person critique group. I’ve also borrowed The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage from a critique group friend, a book that is relevant to my interests as well as my ongoing writing project. Finally, my Swedish book of the moment is Karin Boye’s Kris.
My summer plans . . .
I’ll be traveling to the US in August for a wedding.
My buddy . . .
My buddy Aaron is the one getting married! Here we are in Beijing during Lunar New Year 2010:
He’s conversant, if not fluent, in (Mandarin) Chinese, and when I touched down in Beijing on the evening before Lunar New Year, he put that Chinese to good use finding us a place to eat. All of the restaurants anywhere near our hostel had been closed all day, or closed early. When we got here, they initially turned us away, too, but he finally switched to Chinese and explained that it was my first night in Beijing, and that I had just flown in from Seoul without any dinner. Either his Chinese, my sad story, or both convinced them to let us in, and we shared a huge company meal, complete with alcohol and dancing.
And now he’s getting married!
My blog/channel/social media . . .
The other place on social media where you can find me is on Twitter (@KobaEnglish). I would rather eat rusty nails than start a video channel.
The best . . .
The best part of this trip will definitely be seeing so many of my friends in the US who can’t take the time (or spend the money) to come see me in Stockholm.
Happy Monday, everyone! I hope you had a lovely weekend. I spent mine (at least, my Saturday) at Stockholms Litteraturmässan. Last year I went alone, but this time, I managed to bring a friend along with me. This worked out for me—she very thoughtfully dropped by the panel on translation trends that I couldn’t make and picked up their rather snazzy-looking handout, so even if I missed the discussion I still have all of their data on translated literature. Not as fun as the discussion itself, but better than nothing.
The first thing I did was to hit the book market itself. While Stockholms Litteraturmässan has featured a wide range of salient conversations and presentations two years in a row now, it’s also clear that those presentations are directly tied to the promotion of at least some of the available books. Not that I want to fault them for making money; quite the opposite, actually. I grew up on a steady diet of Borders (RIP), Barnes & Noble, The Strand, and countless independent, local used bookstores all across the US: often large and almost infinitely browseable. Even in the age of Amazon.com they were doing well, or at least hanging on. For whatever reasons (economic, social, historical, geographical), such stores don’t exist here, by and large. (The English Book Shop and SF BokHandeln are notable exceptions and they have my undying loyalty forever.) For two days a year, the Litteraturmässan manages to fill that vacuum. Both times I’ve attended I’ve found something niche and fascinating (or just hard to come by) that I have yet to find anywhere else, and for that alone the event is worth it.
What makes Stockholms Litteraturmässan stand out, though, are the accompanying promotional-ish panels. The organization seems to cultivate an outward focus towards question of cultural intersections, politics, immigration, and global interconnectedness, both in the publishers and sellers featured in the market and in the books and writers they choose to promote. On the eve of the French election in a post-Trump milieu, these kinds of questions suddenly felt extra urgent.
The two panels I attended were the interview with Marlene Streeruwitz and the interview with Irena Brežna. Unlike last year, both of the panels I attended were conducted in English. A logical choice for an Austrian and Swiss-Slovak writer (Streeruwitz and Brežna, respectively) presenting in Sweden, but I should note that I didn’t deliberately gravitate towards the English presentations. 😉 I failed to take notes, so some general impressions.
Streeruwitz and Ihmels presented Smärtans ängel within the context of their new publishing house and organization writersreadwriters, which is coming out with other work aside from Streeruwitz’s that sounds exciting and vital. Their books are definitely going on my watch list. I failed to pick up Smärtans ängel at the event, but it looks to be available from Stockholms bibliotek. Good news for me!
The Swiss embassy seems to be very involved with this event. Their cultural liaison, Benita Funke, presented Brežna this year and was also a moderator in a discussion on contemporary women’s migrant literature from last year’s Litteraturmässan. It would be great to see other embassies join this project as well. Brežna herself was a warm and charming presenter.
Both Den otacksamma främlingen and Smärtans ängel are available from Stockholms bibliotek, so I look forward to reading them. As of yet, it appears that they lack an English translation, but I hope someone will come out with one soon! My German is a bit too rusty to tackle Austrian or Swiss German myself, alas.