Tag Archives: Nordic Challenge

Through A Glass, Darkly by Jostein Gaarder

Through A Glass, Darkly - Jostein GaarderThrough A Glass, Darkly – Jostein Gaarder
Dolphin Paperback, reissued 2004
Translated from the original “I et speil, I en gåte” (1993) by Elizabeth Rokkan
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Best known for Sophie’s World, in which he sets out the history of philosophy for children or teenagers, Jostein Gaarder tackles some of the same subjects in Through A Glass, Darkly, albeit through a different and much shorter story.

On Christmas Eve, Cecilia lies in bed while her family celebrates below. Cecilia has cancer and while she fervently hopes to go skiing in a few weeks time, the reader soon learns that she is very ill. That night, an angel steps through her window and keeps her company. Over the following weeks, the angel and Cecilia share conversations about what it is like to be human, to live, to feel, and any other number of subjects.

What makes this story work is that Cecilia has the characteristics you imagine a child to have when you are no longer one yourself: she is naively curious, unafraid to ask questions or voice her opinions. The fact that the entity she talks to claims to be an angel does not scare her, but invites her to question beyond what she knows. And when she thinks that what the angel is saying cannot possibly be true, she says so. In many ways, the angel is like Cecilia, he asks questions about human life, just like Cecilia asks what it is like to be an angel. In the book they share a conversation and it is not the one teaching the other, but the shared exploration that is central. Even though the angel knows more about the sphere of God, so to say, he knows far less about the human condition, which establishes that more equal ground between the two characters. The only thing you could say is that the angel is impatient, and this annoyed me a little at times, impatient to know more about being human, impatient when Cecilia does not understand how different humans and angels are from each other.

Sometimes it is hard to gauge how your younger self would have reacted to a book, but in this case there is no doubt in my mind that my thirteen-year-old self would have loved this book. It does exactly what I always enjoyed so much about my religious studies classes in high school: it is not a book on religion trying to indoctrinate, instead it approaches questions of life (and death, but life more specifically) in an open-minded fashion, from the viewpoint of philosophy with a relation to religion. Although as a twenty-something I signal some inconsistencies and some parts where Gaarder seems to make small leaps that do not directly seem to follow from his previous line of reasoning, I know this would have bothered me less when I was younger.

When you read between the lines you can find Gaarder’s own opinions on religion in here, but I don’t think it is meant to be the kind of book to propagate one way of looking at the world. Instead, by looking at these questions through the prism of a girl who has a possibly fatal disease, it explores the ways of meaning-making about life and death and underlines the unknowable of that “other world”, thus: through a glass, darkly.

“We see everything in a glass, darkly. Sometimes we can peer through the glass and catch a glimpse of what is on the other side. If we were to polish the glass clean, we’d see much more. But then we would no longer see ourselves.”

Here comes the difficult part of writing this post: I can see why this book may sound (and be) problematic for strict atheist or religious people.* I can imagine atheist readers skipping this review after reading the first paragraph, thinking “an angel, I see, this books may be a bit too religious for me”. I would understand that reaction. However, what I loved about this book is that it can be read on different levels. Yes, it explores questions of a religious and philosophical nature, but it is also the story of the heartbreak and acceptance of love, illness, and loss. And most of all it explores humanity, what it means to live, to feel, and to care. As for the opposite side of the equation, those who keep to religious dogmas in a strict fashion, I would like to give warning. I have seen a few reactions on GoodReads that say that this book tries to incorporate evolution with the existence of God, and this goes to show that there is no logic to this book. It is true, Gaarder obviously does not believe that the one rules out the other, he also incorporates Scandinavian myths along the way, and this was something I personally enjoyed in his book, but I can see how this may not fit some worldviews, and if you feel strongly about such matters, than perhaps this book is best ignored.

If you do plan to read this, reading it around Christmas time is very fitting: the setting of snowy Norway, the Christmas celebrations of the family, and the contemplative mood of the book are my idea of a fitting read for the holiday season. Of course, the cover helps as well.

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* I in no way mean to claim that all religious or atheist people have no interest in exploring different world views, or philosophy and religion in general. I’d like to think most people are open to those kind of things, but I wanted to warn those who may find themselves reading the wrong kind of book based on my use of the word “angel” and “religion” so often in this post.

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Moominpappa’s Memoirs by Tove Jansson

Moominpappa’s Memoirs – Tove Jansson
(translated from the Swedish Muminpappans memoarer)
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1994
I read the Dutch translation.

In Moominpappa’s Memoirs, Moominpappa sits down to describe his life of adventure before he became the father of Moomin. The story alternates between Moominpappa’s memoirs and scenes in which he reads the pieces he has written to his family, who then continue to comment on it and ask questions.

Ever since I visited Sweden, I knew I had to read the Moomin books. Two of my friends there were great fans of the TV series, and I gave both of them a mug with one of the Moomin-characters on it for Christmas. This made them so happy that I knew the series could no longer be ignored. Unfortunately, now that I am on a book buying ban I am dependent on the library. And it appears (unsurprisingly) that this book is the only one the University deigned to buy in Dutch translation, the others are all in Swedish. I expect this wasn’t the perfect place to start, and yet, Moominpappa’s memoirs convinced me that I need to read the rest of the series.

In many ways, Tove Jansson’s book reminded me of Winnie the Pooh. I am sure I would have loved exploring the world of Moomin back when I was a child, but I expect that many of its subtleties would have passed me by back then. The descriptions of the different kinds of fantasy creatures, all with its own faults and qualities were things I found hard to grasp when I first read Winnie the Pooh and I expect I would have felt the same with this book. Yet, I cannot help but lament how I never had the chance to experience these stories as a child.

Anyway, as an adult, what I found most worthwhile in Moominpappa’s memoirs were its discussions of the many ways people can choose to cope with life. Many stories really deal with questions of our approach to life, while none of them are described as perfect. Moominpappa himself is described as a character keen on fantasy, who prefers to use his imagination. Other characters are either absorbed in thinking and/or scientific discovery, or collecting seemingly random things. Perhaps there is one kind of creature that Jansson describes more negatively: the Hemulen, who stick closely to what should be done and wish to restrict children in their exploits. Unsurprisingly, after reading The Summer Book earlier this year, Jansson feels little sympathy towards these creatures. Nevertheless, they somehow find their place in the end too.

I can imagine Moominpappa himself can get on the reader’s nerves. He is rather full of himself, emphasising his special destiny since birth, his claims to adventure and fame. At first, I found it hard to deal with his self-importance, until I realised that perhaps Tove Jansson meant us to feel this way and actually meant to ridicule memoirs: a genre that is usually written by people who consider themselves important enough to be read about by others.

I thoroughly enjoyed Moominpappa’s Memoirs, though I suspect I may have liked it better if I had read this after first getting acquainted with the world of Moomin through earlier books.

I read this book as part of the Nordic Challenge hosted by Zee.

The Children on Troublemaker Street & Lotta on Troublemaker Street by Astrid Lindgren

Lotta Uit de Kabaalstraat - Astrid LindgrenLotta Uit de Kabaalstraat – Astrid Lindgren
Ploegsma, 2009*

I fear the posts about books by Astrid Lindgren will always be the same. Yes, I loved this book. Yes, it made me smile and even laugh out loud. Yes, this is perfect for children. Yes, I still enjoyed it as an adult.

This collection of the two books published about the children on troublemaker street is about three children living in a yellow house on a street that is not exactly called troublemaker street, but that is renamed by the father of these three children, because they are always so loud (in Dutch, the translation reads noisy-street, but I assume that since another title by Lindgren had already been translated as Noisy Village, they could not use it again. Also, the Swedish bråk apparently means both noise and trouble, so there you go). While the book is about three children, Jonas, Maria and Lotta, and include descriptions of the family atmosphere, the character that steals the show is Lotta. Lotta is stubborn, and naughty, but also sweet and funny and hard not to love. She is the youngest and is often left out of the games of her older sister and brother, and teased by them when she cannot do the same things they can, but she always comes up with a smart remark or alternative. It is incredibly charming to read about Lotta’s adventures.

The first book contains short stories about Lotta and Jonas and Maria. The second is a rendition of Lotta’s ‘move to a different house’ (she goes to live in the attic of her neighbour’s garden house) when her mother makes her wear an itchy sweater. It is hard to say which book I liked best. I think they work perfect together, because the first book allows you to become acquainted with the whole family and understand Lotta’s role in it, which makes the second more enjoyable.

There is one thing that I feel I need to mention. One of the stories is called “Lotta looks like a negro slave” when she becomes blackened from soot in the chimney, which sounds incredibly offensive now. I know that this was not considered offensive during the time this was written in Sweden, but it is hard not to notice now. I just wanted to mention it, because I can imagine some people would like to ignore the book because of it, or perhaps be warned so they may skip over the story when they read it in the title. Personally, I think discussing the ideas behind the remark would be best. Despite my misgivings about that story, I still loved the rest of this collection.

* Dutch translation of the books Barnen på Bråkmakargatan & Lotta på Bråkmakargatan, translated in English as indicated in the title above.

I read this book as part of the Nordic Challenge hosted by Zommie. I cannot wait to read more Scandinavian lit, I am planning on reading a lot of it in the autumn and winter. It helps alleviate my melancholic wish to return one day.

The Children of Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren

De Kinderen van Bolderburen - Astrid LindgrenThe Children of Noisy Village – Astrid Lindgren, or, in this case:
The Dutch translation “De kinderen van Bolderburen”, which is a collection of 3 original Swedish titles: “Alla vi barn i Bullerbyn”, ‘Mera om oss barn i Bullerbyn”, & “Bara roligt i Bullerbyn”
Published by Ploegsma, 2010

I am starting to think Astrid Lindgren may be my favourite children’s author out of all the ones I love. With every book I read, or rather, revisit, my respect for her grows. Actually, reading the short introduction to her life included in this book, I realised I am curious to know more: refusing to marry the father of her child, when she got pregnant at 18 and had to move homes because of the scandal? I might sound like someone who is only looking for juicy details, but rather, combined with the love for the countryside and the Swedish life she knew, I am intrigued and definitely want to know more about this woman.

What shines through in “The Children of Noisy Village” (I really wish there would be a more perfect name for Noisy Village, it just seems.. wrong, somehow) is Lindgren’s respect for children. I can just picture her smiling while writing these stories, smiling about the world as children perceive it, smiling about how children can be “naughty” in small ways. Lovingly remembering those days by the creek, by the lakes, celebrating midsummer night and Christmas’ evening.

Reading this book feels like one big journey down memory lane. The memories of Astrid Lindgren, maybe. But certainly my own, even if I had never been to Sweden as a child, never played near lakes, nor celebrated midsummer. But I grew up with these stories and rereading them, I realised how much I wanted to be Lisa, as the main character is called in the Dutch edition. How much I wanted to live in a small village, close to the mountains, lakes and woods, as she did. How much I dreamed of friendships like the ones depicted. How I tried to copy they way she sent messages to the neighbouring children. I did that, with the two girls in my street, and I remember thinking of doing so after reading the story in which Lisa does so.

But it aren’t just my own memories which makes reading this book such a melancholy and yet cheerful experience. You can feel how Astrid Lindgren must have loved to depict a life like she did in here. And how, she may have been writing to preserve this kind of life, in a changing world. (I am unsure if this is true, but I think someone told me this, was it you, Zee? So I might be reading into things, but the feeling wouldn’t let me go while reading).

I cannot tell you more than that I loved revisiting this, and that, as I always feel after finishing a book by Astrid Lindgren, after finishing this one I felt that I need to make reading all of her works my next project. And owning all of them, of course. I know this post is not very useful to any who haven’t read this book yet. But I hope it might convince you to pick this book up, to read it to your children. To give the Astrid Lindgren beyond Pippi Longstocking a try.

This book counts towards Zee’s Nordic Challenge. Do you see a pattern here? I seem to become super sentimental when it comes to books read for the Nordic Challenge.

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

Four Major Plays - Henrik Ibsen“A Doll’s House” (1879) in:
Four Major Plays – Henrik Ibsen
Oxford World’s Classics, 2008
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository * 

I doubt I can say anything that has not been said before in this month’s discussion on A Year of Feminist Classics. So I’m posting small notes, simply because I’d like to have a record of this project by the end of the year.

A Doll’s House is about Nora and Torvald, her husband who has recently received a promotion in his job at the bank. Torvald treats Nora as a child, a precious pet, and throughout the book calls her names such as “my little sky-lark”, “little squirrel”, etcetera. This annoyed me to no end. But it also sets up the scene of their marriage perfectly: they interact as if by lines learned from a book, pet names once given and always there now. Only when they fight (which they do in several scenes) do the names suddenly stop, as does some of the condescending manner of Torvald.

As many before have said, I believe both Nora and Torvald are trapped in the social manners they are supposed to take on, by society. This does not mean that this doesn’t leave a lot more freedom towards Torvald to shape his life in a certain manner.

Actually, I disliked all the characters in this play. Torvald, Nora (how could she be/play so dumb and stupid?) and many of the supporting characters. When Nora plays with her children, she truly seems to be a child herself. It is as if the whole first act tells you: “see, this is marriage, and it is only right, because looks at what women are..”

I think it is only when the turn occurs in Act III that I started to go from feeling the play was “okay” to “good”. This is also where everything fell into place for me. Nora, especially, suddenly commanded a lot more respect:

Nora: It’s right, you know, Torvald. At home, Daddy used to tell me what he thought. then I thought the same. And if I thought differently, I kept quiet about it, because he wouldn’t have liked it. He used to call me his baby doll, and he played with me as I used to play with my dolls. Then I came to live in your house….

Torvald: What way is that to talk of our marriage?

Nora: What I mean is: I passed out of Daddy’s hands into yours. You arranged everything to your tastes, and I acquired the same tastes. Or I pretended to… I don’t really know… I think it was a bit of both, sometimes one thing and sometimes the other. When I look back, it seems to me I have been living here like a beggar, from hand to mouth. I lived by doing tricks for you, Torvald. But that’s the way you wanted it. You and Daddy did me a great wrong. It’s your fault that I’ve never made anything of my life.

The characterisation of the treatment of Nora as a doll in a doll’s house is so spot on for everything that went on in the play. And that last line shows how Torvald is trapped as well. Can we really agree with Nora that it is all Torvald’s fault? I think what Ibsen was trying to say was that it is society’s conditioning that was/is at fault.

As for the ending, you can feel the controversy. It must have been huge at the time (and the introduction tells me it was). I can see why.. I don’t think I necessarily agree with Nora’s choice, although I doubt if she had another choice to build up her own life. What it really made me stop to think about is how normal we still consider it for a woman to never leave her children, while a man leaving his is.. sad but okay. This play helped me consider that, something I had never thought about before. Isn’t it weird how a play that is more than 130 years old can still be so relevant today?

I am very glad I bought a book that has three other plays by Ibsen in it. I cannot wait to read them in the upcoming months.

This book counts towards A Year of Feminist Classics as well as the Nordic Challenge.

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