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Posts Tagged ‘FInland’

When I saw The Summer Book by Tove Jansson at The Green Hand bookstore in Portland in May, I was intrigued. Jansson is the Finnish-Swedish author of the Moomin books, and I didn’t realize she had also written books for adults. This book is about a young girl, Sophia, who spends summers on an island with her father and grandmother — by page nine we learn her mother has died. The book is made up of twenty-six brief chapters, each a glimpse into Sophia’s life.

Jansson herself spent most of the summers of her life on various islands in the Pellinki and Stockholm archipelagos. She describes both the wild natural beauty and the impact of people’s presence on the islands very vividly in The Summer Book (I could picture the house where Sophia’s family lived because two summers ago I read Finnish Summer Houses).

But far more than simply being evocative of a beautiful place, The Summer Book captures the strangeness of being a small motherless child growing up with a fair bit of freedom and a quirky grandmother who is a bit childlike herself. They talk and walk and play and Grandmother lets Sophia do things her father wouldn’t. They scold each other and use bad words and sing and Grandmother smokes.

Jansson tells readers what Sophia is feeling —  she gets angry with her cat for killing birds and stops speaking to him, she feels suddenly afraid of a seal skull she found on the beach, she shouts and gets frustrated and irritated with a friend who comes to the island and is afraid of the boat and the bugs. Jansson also tells readers what Grandmother is feeling. At one point she tells Sophia she couldn’t sleep and began “thinking about sad things.” She begins to describe being old: “I mean it all seems to shrink up and glide away,” Grandmother said, “and things that were a lot of fun don’t mean anything anymore. . . . ” Sophie gets upset and argues until Grandmother gives her an example: she can’t remember what it’s like to sleep in a tent, which Sophie has done.

“Well I’ll tell you what it’s like,” Sophia said. “You can hear everything much clearer, and the tent is very small.”

As Sophia goes on talking, Grandmother remembers better. And in exchanges like these, Jansson manages to portray what it’s like to be young and misunderstood and old and misunderstood. This is a lovely, quiet book, a series of sketches more than a story, an unfolding of life rather than a plot. If you want to be transported by your reading, this is the kind of book to do that. If you want a story with a beginning, middle and end, it might not be to your taste. I enjoyed it very much — I like to read books in translation, to experience a taste of some other place’s literature. I’m not going to any remote islands this summer, but The Summer Book took me to Tove Jansson’s and it was a wonderful place to visit.

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I’m working on two Book Bingo cards this summer, one from Concord Public Library and one from Regina Library. For “a book with a summer word in the title” on Regina’s card and “a book set in a country you’ve never been to” for Concord’s I read Finnish Summer Houses by Jari and Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen. I’d listened to a 99% Invisible episode which introduced me to Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, and then I looked in the catalog for a book with summer in the title and came across this gem, which seemed serendipitous since i had Finnish architecture on my mind. This book made me want to move to Finland and get a summer house. Which my offspring pointed out I probably can’t afford.

Anyway, fantasy aspect aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which I read on my iPad. The design aesthetic of Finnish summer houses varies, but most in this book were meant to fit into their natural surroundings — lots of boulders, which are probably my favorite landscape feature, trees, lakes, coasts — which are pretty reminiscent of northern New England’s natural surroundings. So the houses are mostly simple and seamlessly relate to the land. And they are very practical, meant to be low maintenance places where a family can relax and enjoy themselves and enjoy nature. Lots of wood and windows, utilitarian kitchens, and built-in or built to fit furniture.

Several people I know whose reading tastes I admire have recommended another Scandinavian book, A Man Called Ove by Swedish author Fredrick Backman. I read My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry and Brit Marie Was Here back in March but Ove scared me because I knew it dealt with the main character’s suicidal thoughts. I needn’t have worried — it’s as charming, funny, and humane as Backman’s other books. Ove is a classic grumpy old man, tired of missing his wife, whose been dead six months. He decides he wants to die, but he keeps getting interrupted by various goings on in his neighborhood, where he’s lived for forty years. His neighbors all think he’s angry and unapproachable but as the book progresses readers come to know that under that exterior, Ove is kind, loyal, hard working, honest, and dependable. He cares about other people far more than he lets on, and he may use politically incorrect language  (he refers to a gay character as “bent” ) but he is tolerant and caring — he takes that same young man in when he has nowhere to go after coming out, and Ove convinces the young man’s father to talk to him later.

It may seem a little bit tired, the curmudgeon who is really a good guy underneath the gruff exterior, but Backman makes this archetype fresh and he works in social commentary in a way that pleases this Jane Austen fan. A Man Called Over is a brief book but it addresses masculine stereotypes and manliness, the lack of practical knowledge in today’s society (fixing a bike, making things, repairing an engine, etc.), immigration, social services bureaucracy, globalisation, aging and elder care, “problem” children in schools, and NIMBY-ism and gentrification, to name a few. Plus his main characters are just interesting. Parvaneh, one of Ove’s new neighbors, is someone I’d like to be friends with. Actually I’d like to live in their neighborhood. And, Ove takes in a half-frozen at missing a good bit of fur. Anyone who (however grumpily) adopts a needy cat is ok by me, even if he’s fictional.

A good read, probably just the thing if you can’t bear to look at any more news. it’s definitely the kind of book I’d take on vacation.

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