What I read

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As a historian, I like to look back, and now is the season of “My Year” reviews. You can let Spotify tell you which songs you listened most to (in my case, I’ve used the app so little outside the gym, I wonder if I should discontinue my subscription), you can see on Instagram which photos were most liked. You can track your time or expenses and review 2018 in that way. I decided, this year, to look back at the books I read.

A convinced me to register at Goodreads last year. At that point, I didn’t really see the point of telling an app what I read. But now I am hooked! It’s a social network so you can see what your friends are reading, you can update your progress (motivational!), by your ratings the algorithm recommends new books for you, and when my mother asks me if I have a good book suggestion, I just look at my Goodreads, and say, “Oh, yes, Americanah!”

I really think Goodreads has spurred my reading. (The fact that I through my Kindle and my amazing friend Emily have access to the Los Angeles Public Library has helped a lot, too.) The automatic Goodreads year review confirms this: I read almost 9,000 pages this year! The longest book was “American Wife” and let me tell you, I savored every minute of it. The most popular one, among other reads, was Eleanor & Park, which I thought was mediocre at most, and pointless in a way. The least popular was Elizabeth II’s biography. Such a great book! I assume it’s “not popular” because it’s German and Goodreads is used by mostly Anglophones.

I read 28 books (and abandoned 10, including some I thought would capture my attention, like “The Buried Giant”, “My brilliant friend”, “The Art of Fielding” and “Main Street”). If anyone is looking for recommendations, these were my favorites:

What Alice forgot, by Liane Moriarty: I realize this is a chickflick, but basic concept of a 40-something-woman losing the last ten years of her memory, is original and the writing is compelling, potentially – maybe depending on your own life situation – leading to deeper thoughts. I read this, almost 500 pages, in a few days on a trip to Luxembourg.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche: There’s a reason this book is hyped. Everything about this book is awesome, except the end (but that’s okay). Reading “Americanah” opened up my mind to the fact that the world is not just Europe or America.

Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan: This book also follows the “ehm, I am so ignorant to non-Europe” pattern. It’s downright elating to expand one’s knowledge of other cultures – and don’t worry, this book is so popcultural and easy to digest, you will enjoy reading it. Then, you have to go see the movie which came out 2018 – good fun!

Sisterland, American Wife and Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld: Yes, I went on a Sittenfeld spree. I knew I liked her, but now I know I am a fan. All three books (the only ones available I hadn’t read yet and I read them straight after another) were good. “Eligible” is a modern version of “Pride and Prejudice”, “Sisterland” is a supernatural tale about twins, and “American Wife” is a novel of Laura Bush’s life. It’s so well-written that you start feeling empathy for Republicans.

Jag heter inte Miriam (My name is not Miriam), by Majgull Axelsson: One of the, actually few, Swedish books I’ve read this year (Kindle, L.A., see above). The story is about a Roma woman who survived the concentration camps and came to Sweden, pretending her entire life to be Jewish because Roma were deported in Sweden even in the post-1945-era. A touching book that taught me some facts I didn’t know (e.g. I wasn’t fully aware of how extreme Dr. Mengele’s sadistic experiments were).

Es gibt Dinge, die kann man nicht erzählen, (Some things cannot be told) by Kirsten Boie: This author is the German Astrid Lindgren and anyone who says elsewise doesn’t know anything. For many years, I’ve been a devoted Boie reader. This story collection about children in Africa, that Boie personally knows, made me cry.

One book that had an exciting basic idea (eight scientists living under glass for two years as an experiment – this really happened and Steve Bannon was part of it!), but couldn’t make it on the recommendation list, was The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle. I consciously hadn’t read a Boyle in literally 12 years and once again my verdict is: good start and then he just rambles for 250 pages too long. And the award for worst book I’ve read this year goes to Bill Clinton’s “The President is missing”. I don’t even know why I finished it. Sorry, Bill!

Now there are 19 days left in this year. My plan is to finish the two books I am currently reading: Ian McEwan, Nutshell (a murder case told from the perspective of an unborn baby – super weird but now I want to know how it ends) and Elizabeth Strout, Anything is possible (tales from the small town never have been this interesting).

A good book is like a garden carried in the pocket.

(Persian proverb)

Unfortunately, amazon doesn’t pay me anything for posting links to their website, but I am thinking it’s the easiest way for you to find out more about the books.

 

 

Maj

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Photo: Bokbloggen

With all due respect for non-fiction, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better for me to read fiction. I’ve always loved a good story, it somehow gives more to one’s soul to immerse oneself in an author’s world than to further educate oneself on the snow lepards in Kirgizistan. But that’s just me, maybe you’re super fascinated with snow lepards.

Currently, I’ve started reading ”The Secret History” by Donna Tartt because after the ”Goldfinch” I felt I need to read everything Tartt ever wrote. Which is, actually, just two more books. Unfortunately, ”The Secret History” is a little creepier than it’s bird-centered sucessor (or maybe I just have a way too lively imagination) so at night, I first cannot stop reading and then I am so spooked, I have to take up the book I recently finished reading and re-read it to calm down. This book has zero creep-risk while at the same time being absolutely masterful. I feel I need to tell the world about this outstanding accomplishment in contemporary Swedish literature. Enter MAJ.

The trilogy about the Northern Swedish housewife Maj begins shortly before World War II and ends thirty years later. “Giving birth”, “Care for one’ own” and “Life at any cost” – the entire book series is all about what Maj should cook for dinner and when she should clean the windows. How, on earth, can 1500 pages on domestic chores spellbind the reader?

It’s because between the worries about infant care and fika baking, the drama of our grandmothers unfolds. This book lends its voice to a marginalized majority; without probably even wanting to, this book is a fierce advocator of feminism – because it is through the life of Maj the reader sees that women did not get to choose 70, 60, 50 years ago. Not their husbands, not their education, not the number of children they want to have. Not even what they would serve when hosting a dinner because society’s expectations were very clear even on that.

 This generation raised today’s people, and those who follow behind need to read Sandberg if they want to understand why Maj’s home is still such  a loaded political and feminist scene. Dagens Nyheter

The three books about Maj became a real page-turner for me, the words have „an immediate flow which the reader is sucked into without resistance“, as the critics wrote. Sandberg’s narrative is complex but not complicated, and somewhat hypnotizing.

The book combines Maj’s perception with her husband’s thoughts and the author even talks to her protagonist, „– am I writing correctly about you now?“, she wonders in the middle of a sentence, embodying the ambiguity of the story, the character, the times.

 This is a highly elegant novel, so linguistically driven, so heavy with rage, at the same time personally and politically indignant. Göteborgsposten 

What is particularily impressive is how the author did not choose to make Maj a heroine that you just simply must love and identify with. Instead, she is contradictory, sometimes very chicken-hearted, well-meaning and confined by her own inner conflicts. A real person, so to speak. When reading the three books, you smell the food from her kitchen and you see her going through town, she is so very real that I would not have been surprised if she’d sat in my living room one day.

 And the angst  is so heavy that the lines almost give way. Fokus  

With her, I marched through the history of the 20th century, from food ration coupons to newly established housewife gymastics classes. Not in Stockholm, but in Örnsköldsvik, observing the all too often overlooked North of Sweden. The story is so well-researched that it becomes hard to believe ist author is only in her forties. You think she personally was around to witness the kitchen proceedings – no, to cook these meals herself, to have these conversations during the war, to decorate her home in 1950s style.

 What impresses the most is the ability to build excitement around a life that on the surface appears to  be fairly uneventful . […] That kind of novel that occupies the reader, with characters who creep close and stubbornly linger in the mind after you have (reluctantly) closed the book . Svenska Dagbladet

Despite her tendency to irritate the reader, Maj wins a place in one’s heart, she is trying to do her best, after all, and it is heart-breaking to witness how contact with her own family reduces with every year that goes, how her few friends die, and how she and her husband have no way of reaching out to each other.

Kristina Sandberg who authored this skillful story was awarded the most prestigious Swedish literature prize, Augustpriset, in 2014 for her work. The jury motivated its choice as follows: „Some life journeys remain invisible. With her epos about housewife Maj, Kristina Sandberg shows that a whole odyssey can be contained within the walls of a flat in Örnsköldsvik. A fragile and wounded family life in the wellfare state is depicted with distance and empathy.“

When you close the book and Maj slips from your grasp, you wonder: Are you going to be okay now, Maj?

And while it feels as if Maj loses something when being translated, I still sincerely hope that these books will published abroad, too. We need them, also – or even more – in Germany.

 

Nine reasons to read The Goldfinch

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The Persians say, a good book is like a garden you carry in your pocket. I just finished a book like that, a book that has been so highly acclaimed that I started reading it sceptically. Whenever something has been talked up, I expect it to not bear up to the enormous expectations created. But “The Goldfinch”, the book that took Donna Tartt ten years to write, did not disappoint.(After finishing it, I am not at all surprised it took a decade to write.)

It is her unique combination of details (which make everything seem more real), in depth research (she must have spent months or years with art historians and antiquity experts) and unerring linguistic mastery to describe feelings and situations. While reading the book, I frequently stopped to jot down the way she had formulated things, something that happens very rarely with me.

Ten reasons that should convince you to spend reading time with “The Goldfinch”

  1. Donna Tartt describes adaquaetly what it is like to start noticing that you miss a deeper connection with some people.

But those sparkling blue shallows – so enticing at first glance – had not yet graded into depths, so that sometimes I got the disconcerting sensation of wading around in knee-high waters hoping to step into a drop-off, a place deep enough to swim.

2. She envisions what comes after death in the most beautful way.

But maybe that’s what’s waiting for us at the end of the journey, a majesty unimaginable until the very moment we find ourselves walking through the doors of it, what we find ourselves gazing at in astonishment when God finally takes His hand off our eyes and says: Look!

3. She elegantly phrases the fugacity of superficial beauty.

[He said] The pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty had to be wedded to something more meaninful.

4. Even the quotes she picks from others to open her chapters are eye-opening true.

We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves. (F. de la Roucefoucauld)

5. She touches the reader with her relatable protagonist and expresses his deepest pain gracefully.

When I lost her, I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congengial life.

For in the deepest, most unshakeable part of myself, reason was useless. She was the missing kingdom,the unbruised part of myself I’d lost with my mother.

6. She provides you with excellent compliments to use for the next person you like.

Everything about her was a snowstorm of fascination.

7. She portrays her heros in a way that you see them right before your inner eye because you know someone who is just that person.

Everything came alive in her company; she cast a charmed theatrical light about her so that to see anything through her eyes was to see it in brighter colors than ordinary.

My standoffish dad had hated this about her – her tendency to engage in conversation with waitresses, doormen, the wheezy old gus at the dry cleaner’s.

8. She gives you orientation for life.

That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway; wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.

9. She has the awareness for history worked out and she knows how to convey it to you.

It is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. […] And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire and sought them when they were lost and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.

Do yourself a favor and read “The Goldfinch”!

 

Book Dating

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As I mentioned earlier, I have joined the local library. It’s a bit funny actually because I have lot of books I own that I still have to read. The DVDs they have you can only borrow for one week which gives me watching pressure. (Really, how are you supposed to watch the first seasons of “Girls” in seven days? I actually stopped after episode 5 because that series is really overrated.) So I decided I could get value for membership fee by joining one of their events. Yes, the library hosts events! The one that sounded the coolest was “Bookdating”. I’m single, I read, I figured I was the target group.

The prospect of attending the bookdating night brought me back to my bookshelf of unread books. Was I to bring one book or more? And given the fact that I haven’t read 30 % of the shelf, which books a) did I read b) didn’t have a story that by recommeding them made me look like a weirdo c) were age-appropriate? It’s not that easy. You don’t want to appear like a besserwisser by taking a non-fiction book with you (“Look at me, I only read about the politics of English queens through the centuries”), you don’t want to appear overly naive-romantic by showing up with a diary novel of a 14-year-old that starts with contemplations on cleavage (“Hello, I’m superficial and stuck in my teens, waiting for the knight on the white horse”) or a comic book about the struggle of living in a dictatorship (“Good evening, I deeply care about democracy but not so much as to bring myself to reading something more challenging than a picture book”).

Yeah, you guessed it, I brought Désirée, Persepolis and England’s Queens.

The group made of was not ideal for dating: two men, five women and everyone except me and my company was out of my dating league age-wise. But that’s not what bookdating is about anyway. It’s more about dating the actual book. Just like with speeddating, you meet a new person (and, unlike speeddating, their books) every five minutes. That way, you gather lots of reading recommendations as every new person explains to you why the book they have brought is totally worth reading. And the best part of it is that the library has these books (or will buy them), so you don’t even have to wreck your wallet to put the tips into action. And who knows, maybe one day you end up at a table with a person who brought the same book as you? Then you know: that’s love.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Moment

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Kaiser Wilhelm II.

At lunch today, my co-worker talked about a book on French painters she had recently acquired. She was quite enthusiatic and said she believed she might have found her special, niche interest. “See”, I replied, “that might have been your Kaiser Wilhelm moment!”

I dubbed it that because I have been reading the monumental biography of the last German emperor since a couple of weeks, something that can probably be described as a very niche, almost nerd interest. The book is scholarly literature and yet it’s easy to read and rather intriguing. The author, John C.G. Röhl, wrote several thousand pages (he spent 17 years) on every detail of Wilhelm’s life. I was first acquainted with this work when I wrote my bachelor thesis on Wilhelm’s mother and grandmother five years ago and have been wanting to read Wilhelm’s biography ever since.

So now my before bed literature is about Wilhelm’s “Civil-Erzieher” (civil educator) and the (then) prince becoming friends with a Jewish boy (who wrote to his parents about that, “The Prince shook my hand and only mine, and none of the others!”) and the fact that he studied Greek for ages but French only two hours per week.The reason I find this so interesting is certainly that it is all about the personal and psychological factors that heavily influence world politics when power is passed on by heritage instead of ability. So if you ever need a strong argument against the monarchy, Wilhelm II.’s biography is your source.

 

Library Love

The impressive Stockholm Central Library (Photo Simon Paulin/imagebank sweden)

The impressive Stockholm Central Library (Photo Simon Paulin/imagebank sweden)

Remember how I suffered from the excruciating heat during my first weeks in Dizzel? Well, it seems that this town only offers two kinds of weather: burning heat or pouring rain. In the last week, I came home rain-drenched twice. And when I say rain-drenched, I mean completely wet to the bone.

Raininess does add to the mysfaktor/Gemütlichkeitsfaktor though – if you’re inside with a lit candle and a hot cup of tea. And – yes, a good book. Yesterday, I registered at the public library.

Libraries and me have history. We go way back. Some of my very first memories is the children’s section at Heidelberg’s public library. There was a dragon of some sort and a kind of reading arena (do I remember this correctly, mom?) and it was wonderful there.

Actually, I’ve gone through various public libaries in my life. In the small village where I went to primary school, I read through all the shelves. (They were rather limited numbers of shelves, to be fair.) In the small town we moved next, I was a frequent visitor in both the school library (with great enthusiasm, I read all of “Malory Towers” (“Dolly” in German) and “St Clare’s” (“Hanni und Nanni”) and we reenacted their Midnight Parties) and the so-called Catholic library (where the biography of a terrorist made the biggest impression on me).

Düsseldorf Library

Düsseldorf Library

As I moved to Bremen to study, I got to enjoy a large and most beautifully designed library. When my mom came to visit, we would plan spending an afternoon there, leaving with heaps of books. After relocating to Stockholm, I devoured all the Swedish literature I could finally access so easily. The Stockholm Central Library is a piece of architecural art, and the branches in the parts of the city are so many that it was never more than 10 minutes to walk to a library. They even have a library in the subway – so convenient! There, you could take “literature to go” with you in a paper bag that had “crime” or “love” written on it and preselected books in it.

Graduation Day, me in front of the Carolina Rediviva

Graduation Day, me in front of the Carolina Rediviva

In Uppsala, the dignified National and University Library Carolina Rediviva became my second home and I wrote my entire thesis in the cozy Karin Boye Library. Each Monday night, I would go to the local public library close to my student dorm and meet Janne and Britt, two eldery Swedes, who would practice language skills with me. The concept is called Medspråk and the library kindly hosted it. (I also took the opportunity to borrow a children’s book series on Queen Kristina there.)

Only in Hamburg, I never set foot into the library. In retrospective, this worries me because I kind of believe in the (allegedly Chinese) saying, “After three day without reading, one’s speech becomes tasteless.” I hope no one was bothered by my potentially tasteless speech.

So yesterday I took the important step to register at the Düsseldorf Library. It is squeezed between the main railway station, some weird sculptures, and the Consulate of Greece. I had very little time (and actually the last book of Moberg’s distinguished “Emigrants” series left to finish) but I remembered hearing recommendations about Donna Tartt who only publishes one book per decade and blows the critics away every time.

So now it’s me, the rain and “The little friend” for October.