Category Archives: Languages

Iceland noir, with some colour

To get in the mood for Iceland I reread Ævar Þór Benediktsson’s short story about the librarian who finds her library empty of books one morning. And who then drops her Moomin mug.

No, I didn’t go to Iceland. Daughter did. (It was ‘on her way’ back from Baltimore…) And no, there has been no dropping of Moomin mugs at all. But I gather Reykjavik had all sorts of lovely things a person could buy. Including a shop window full of every colour Kånken backpack. (She gave me one for Christmas, so no need to shop for more. The backpack; not the shop window.)

Kånken

She did go to the library, though. They had an exhibition of photographs on, which to her surprise they charged for. Must be in case more Moomin mugs drop. She got her zeroes a bit wrong, too, having recently exposed herself to the Chilean peso, where it was quite reasonable to pay 15,000 for lunch. (I think, anyway.) 1000 krona in the library, however, was more than expected.

The day after Daughter’s arrival in Reykjavik, I noticed BBC Four had the new season of Icelandic noir Trapped on. I wasn’t entirely sure it was wise to watch the horrendous things that might happen in Iceland, but we did anyway. Seems the Resident IT Consultant had watched season one, while I hadn’t. I’d forgotten this.

It’s grim. I suppose if the weather was sunny, the noir would kind of fail, so maybe the grey drizzly surroundings are to be expected. I find the people – the fictional characters – unlikeable. I went to school with that girl. Didn’t like her then. Don’t like her now. The men are all the same as those who sit on Swedish park benches with a carrier bag next to them. And don’t drink the water in the stream, whatever you do!

The lit up town at night is pretty, though. And I almost understand some of what they say.

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The Art of White Roses

Cuba, 1957. It’s not a time or a place we get to visit much in YA literature. In The Art of White Roses Viviana Prado-Núñez takes the reader to Marianao on the outskirts of Havana, where we meet the Santiago family, and especially 13-year-old Adela, named for her dead grandmother.

It seems no one likes Batista. Nor do they seem to be supporters of Fidel, and I suppose that’s quite normal. Most of us fall between the extremes, don’t we?

Viviana Prado-Núñez, The art of White Roses

In their neighbourhood, people are disappearing and they don’t know why or what’s happened to them. Besides, people are more worried about everyday kinds of things. Adela doesn’t much like the nuns at school, and her parents are struggling, both with daily survival and with their marriage. Adela’s grandfather lives with them, spending his time watching television, occasionally uttering words of wisdom.

What with [the fear of] people being killed, and things like infidelity and rape, there is much adult content here. Adela seems to understand much of it, while her three year younger brother Pingüino for all his flamboyant naughtiness, does not.

This is less about the Cuban revolution and more a novel of growing up and making sense of the normal world. The explosions and the killings are mostly a backdrop.

Viviana freely admits in her author’s notes that she doesn’t know what Cuba was like back then. That’s all right. I still felt transported to a new and interesting place, full of life and smells and colours. She wrote this book as a teenager, and this mostly shows in a certain lack of guesswork as to what wasn’t really very common in 1957, anywhere. It’s a bit like unthinking mobile phones and knowing you have to work out what you’d have done without them.

Those are just details, and this story is a wonderful description of life as most of us haven’t known it, except in the way all lives are quite similar, in some way.

There is much, well, relatively much, Spanish in the book. I don’t know to what extent that might make it harder for a non-Spanish speaker to read. For me it added more, nice flavour. By not translating it all, Viviana at least doesn’t talk down to her readers.

Our Castle by the Sea

This novel by Lucy Strange, about the outbreak of WWII, was more painful to read than I’d expected. Or, indeed, felt before. It also made me harbour quite unpleasant thoughts about Mr Churchill.

Lucy Strange, Our Castle by the Sea

12-year-old Petra and her older sister Magda live in a Kent coast lighthouse, with their lighthouse-keeper father, and their German mother. Yes, German. Never popular with local people, it seems the outbreak of war freed up any inhibitions they may have had about what you can say and do towards the wrong kind of foreigner.

The children are also tainted by their semi-foreignness and life becomes quite hard for the whole family. This is more than a war time story, however, and veers more towards crime fiction as the story grows.

It’s fascinating; no question about that. But you read it with your heart in your throat, thinking about what internment might have meant. Or treason. And then there is the case of evacuating children.

But it’s the lack of human warmth from some of the people you perhaps thought were friends and neighbours that really got to me. And more so, what it reminded me of.

Have we learned nothing?

Which uni?

Life’s not easy.

I don’t know if anyone here remembers little ChocBiscuit? Not that he will be so little these days. Son has grown up, and hopefully, so has ChocBiscuit. Some years ago I wrote about him and his family here. Not that it matters.

But I had another narrow escape – other than the one I mentioned then – chatting to his father.

There we were, sitting on the uncomfortable chairs at the local playgroup. I must have told him about my Swedish background. That’s unusual in itself, as I tend to avoid such things. Maybe he heard me talking to Son. Because with his own connection to Sweden, he’d have understood.

Without further ado, he asked whether I’d gone to Uppsala or Lund. Which is interesting, as I’d not even hinted at being ‘educated.’ For all he knew I might have left school at 16.

But there he was, asking the Swedish equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge? As though any given country only has the two universities that you could possibly have attended. Or that you are clearly such a proper person that there are only two options, and they need to know which one, before proceeding with the conversation.

Me, I merely skulked, sinking further into the uncomfortable chair, whispering that I went to Gothenburg. I have no recollection of what he said to that. He should have mentally kicked himself for assuming too much, while possibly feeling grateful I had at least gone somewhere.

Through his first wife he had many memories of Uppsala, so he talked about those days. And I never turned the tables on him, but if I had, the answer would have been ‘Oxford.’

The Legend of Sally Jones

This is all about where you belong. It needn’t be the place you were born, although you will probably always miss it, while still being happy – or not – somewhere else.

Serendipity – and Pushkin Press – brought me Sally Jones, the ‘prequel’ to Jakob Wegelius’ The Murderer’s Ape. It’s not, really. But for those of us who came to Sally Jones in her second book, it will feel like a prequel. For the English language market it is a new book, just published, translated by Peter Graves. The Swedes had the original ten years ago, awarding it prizes.

Jakob Wegelius, The Legend of Sally Jones

Jakob Wegelius did all the illustrations for his recent novel, but here he has really excelled. The Legend of Sally Jones is picture book; each page a work of art. Especially the back cover is gorgeous. And the story is lovely and really tugs at your heartstrings. Now we know what made Sally Jones who she is, and why she is so loyal to her friend the Chief.

Because all through The Murderer’s Ape you have to take it on trust that he deserves all the love Sally Jones shows as she searches for a way to prove he’s no murderer. When you’ve read The Legend of Sally Jones you know.

Sally Jones met some quite bad people when she grew up, but also a few lovely ones. Even her worst humans proved useful as they taught her some of the many skills she later on puts to good use. If you want your gorilla to be your slave, don’t teach them to drive.

Doctoring on

Graduation, McEwan Hall

Monday was exhausting! I got out of bed well before my normal comfort time, so I could be outside the McEwan Hall in Edinburgh by ten. The Resident IT Consultant and I were meeting Son and Dodo to receive our tickets for the morning’s graduation ceremony. I had to to and fro a bit with my bag and got the elderly confused witch treatment from a kind usher who’d probably seen it all before.

So with a boiled egg in my pocket, I climbed all those stairs, going round and round in a spiral. But being early, I found a seat I liked. Narrow seats, though. You have to be quite friendly with the person you sit next to.

Graduation, McEwan Hall

Anyway, a mere eleven years after arriving in Edinburgh, Son graduated for the third time, and was hit – sorry, tapped – on the head with John Knox’s breeches, and got to shake the hand of the Vice-Chancellor. By that time I’d almost nodded off, and was lucky to come to and realise a group of red-trimmed doctoral gowns were standing ready to go. I got my camera out, but as expected the results were so dreadful that I have again resorted to theft on social media. (I’m hoping most of the photos belong to Dodo. Pardon, I mean Dr Dodo.)

Graduation, McEwan Hall

Graduation McEwan Hall

Afterwards I went downstairs and was confused in front of the same usher, who remembered me from before. I’m very memorable.

Graduation, McEwan Hall - Son with supervisors

Then it was photos and chatting outside, and shaking the hands of all three of Dr Son’s supervisors. Not just the one for him. But we agreed we’d all done a great job* getting here, and I don’t just have the train journey in mind. Was also introduced to someone from Borås, which doesn’t happen all that often. (Not since early October, anyway.)

Graduation, McEwan Hall

When we’d admired each other enough, Drs Dodo and Son marched off and the Resident IT Consultant and I tried to keep pace with them, as we weren’t quite certain where lunch was to be found. (Söderbergs, a few minutes away.)

After many carbohydrates had been consumed, some of them vividly green, we walked back to Son’s university HQ for some red wine, and water, and crisps, and more chatting and shaking of – occasionally the same – hands.

And then the two oldies staggered home.

*I have read the thesis. It is actually quite good, if I say so myself. Interesting, and more readable than many such things. (Tracing the Transmission of Scandinavian Literature to the UK: 1917-2017.) Someone else, not related to him, or us, also said it wasn’t bad.

If you want to make it easy for yourself, a short version can be found in this talk in Lund earlier this year. After the first minute or so, it’s even in English.

The Poet X

This is such a beautiful book! Elizabeth Acevedo has written a teen love story, a story about finding your place in the world, and a story about how to stand up to your family and a society that only sees one thing when looking at you. And she has written it as poetry. It really works.

Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X

I had my doubts, but I quickly lost myself in the book, realising that you don’t need all those words found in other novels. It’s perfectly doable to describe a complex story about a teenager in Harlem this way. X (Xiomara, really) likes poetry and writes a lot of it herself, keeping it to herself as well. She needs it to make sense of the world.

X’s mother is hard on her, but as an adult I could see that she loves her daughter. She just doesn’t trust anyone, and wants X to be careful and pious, not to see boys, and to go to church.

Were it not for the poems and the beauty of this book, it’d be just another teen story, set in New York, featuring girlfriends and boyfriends and enemies and bullying at school, teachers, neighbours, the priest, and so on.

I’m not a great fan of poetry, so the fact that I loved this so much, is proof how well the concept works, and what a captivating story Xiomara has to tell. I’m not at all surprised the book has been nominated for the Carnegie medal, and I hope it goes a long way, maybe even to the top.

I was also pleased to see that Elizabeth incorporated a lot of Xiomara’s Spanish home language, without always translating every word or line. There is even a whole poem in Spanish, although that does get a translation on the next page.

So very lovely, in so many ways.