Simon and the Oaks (Simon och ekarna) by Marianne Fredriksson

This novel was given to me as a present by someone I love very much. Reading it brings me back to my time in Sweden, though I lived there in a different time and in a different part of the country. I have grown to love this author, who is famous for her wonderful descriptions of people, especially women, and their relationships. This book is a good example of her style, focussed on the characters’ inner lives, but it has a lot of action as well. This makes it a great book to start with if you’ve never read anything by Marianne Fredriksson. Coincidentally, it actually was my first book written by her, and so it is meaningful to me in more than one way.

Simon Larsson, only eleven years old, says goodbye to his childhood one day by declaring that the oaks he used to have conversations with are just old trees and nothing more. He thinks he is too old for the ‘nonsense’ his active mind comes up with, now that he is about to start at a good school in the city of Gothenburg. From now on, he wants to occupy his mind with rational, sensible thoughts and as much learning as possible. As we follow him growing up, it appears that he is unable to reduce his world to facts, much as he tries. To a young man trying to come to terms with things like family, sexuality, race, love and war, an academic mind serves well but it doesn’t suffice. When he is finally grown up, it turns out that he still needs the dreams that, years ago, made the oaks talk.

But at eleven, Simon is the only boy in his school who comes from a blue-collar family and, to make matters worse, he looks like a Jew. The beginning of the story takes place in 1939, and as you might or might not know, antisemitism in Sweden was soaring (even today, Swedish Jewish communities spend 25 percent of their income from member fees on safety measures). At the start of the Second World War, Sweden became paralysed with fear that Nazi Germany would invade their country. A thousand times more afraid, and rightly so, were the Jews living in Sweden, many of whom had fled from Germany and knew the Nazi violence firsthand. In Simon and the Oaks, one of those people is Isak. He is one of Simon’s classmates, whose Jewish family has fled from Berlin. The boys become fast friends and stay friends throughout the war years, and ever after. Their friendship brings their two vastly different families together: one quite poor and ordinary, the other rich but troubled.

I’m from a country that actually was invaded by the Nazis and we of course know that Sweden escaped that fate, unlike neighbouring Norway. However, I hadn’t realised the amount of uncertainty and fear the mere possibility of invasion brought with it for five years, especially for the people who stood to lose the most. Marianne Fredriksson knows how to paint an era and she does so in detail. It makes a story of ‘almost-but-not-actually-war’ incredibly nerve-racking. More than that, she recognises that the war didn’t stop at the surrender by Nazi-Germany. Europe is broken, the Jews are decimated, not to mention the psychological damage they have suffered. But time does not stand still and boys will continue to grow into men, and Simon and Isak do.

Throughout the war years and their aftermath, the hard reality of Simon’s existence is softened by something magical: his love for music. Hearing an orchestra play, even on a grammophone, will paint a scene in front of his eyes, as clearly as in real life. At first he doesn’t know what connects him to music in such a special way, but growing up he discovers secrets about himself that explain a few things. However, his strong imagination keeps on puncturing reality until he can accept that he can’t understand everything.

The mystical elements in the story are often linked to scenes of nature, which is, in my experience, a very Swedish thing to do. The Swedish do love their country and its natural beauties, and they will never stop singing the praises of their woods, rocks and lakes and general wilderness. I mean this quite literally: they must have written tens of thousands of songs and poems about nature. Sometimes it seems like you can either adore Sweden with complete abandon, or hate it with the pessimism of psychological thrillers, also produced in great numbers by the Swedish. The special thing about Marianne Fredriksson’s work is that there is a bit of both: love for her country to a point and criticism without desperation. The combination of these different aspects brings forth the best in the Swedish writing tradition and negates at least in part the excesses.

Like I mentioned, Marianne Fredriksson is at her best when writing complex characters. Following them throughout the book will let you see them develop, but also make you discover new and unexpected sides to them, that they possessed all along. There are many interesting characters in this book, but one of them jumps out: Karin, Simon’s mother. She is a wonderfully soft, caring woman, not a saint, but just kind. She has built a family out of love and sheer willpower and keeps adding new members to it by welcoming them in her house. She is truly the person that holds all the main characters together, and to accomplish that she will cross some boundaries. This flawed mother is one of the most sympathetic characters in the book, to me more so than Simon himself, who can be quite callous. By a lovely coincidence, Karin also happens to be the name of the wonderful woman who gave me this novel.

Karin is the best among many parents, and the relationships between them and their children form a theme throughout the book. It turns out that there are many ways in which a parent can fuck up and as many ways in which a child can judge and punish his or her parents for that. The parents in the story all display different levels of selfishness, harshness and unrealistic expectations. Their children in turn react as young people will and don’t make the situation any better. Seeing these developments in every parent-child-relationship in the book is slightly dispiriting. But then, very subtly, some things start to improve. It doesn’t develop into more than the possibility of forgiveness, but to me that was enough to make Simon and the Oaks quite dear to me.

Cinderella Award, for all the bad parenting going on (and to celebrate just desserts)

Marianne Fredriksson, Simon och ekarna (Stockholm, 1985)

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Jo Robin

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

‘Fahrenheit 451: the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns…’ Ironically, my copy of this book was damaged by water, after I took it with me on our hike through the Ardennes. Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel published in 1953 on the burning of books, something that shocked the author immensely when it took place during the war. Ray Bradbury himself has said on numerous occasions that he didn’t try to predict the future, but in fact tried to prevent it. I’m not sure he succeeded though. It’s considered an American classic and even though I think the message of this book is an important one, I did have a lot of problems with this book. This review does contain a large amount of spoilers, so be warned.

Guy Montag is a fireman and he loves the adrenaline rush his work gives him. As everything has been made fireproof years ago, the fire brigade now has the purpose of burning books, which are forbidden. The captain of the fire brigade, Captain Beatty, explains that books all contradict each other and they make people confused and doubt themselves and the world they live in and therefor it makes them unhappy. And society has to make sure everyone is happy. Guy Montag, however, is not happy and a series of events causes him to really start thinking, for the first time in his life. First, he meets a young girl, Clarisse McClellan, who is unusually cheerful and clever, and often scolded for asking ‘why’, instead of ‘how’. Then he finds his wife, who has tried to overdose on pills. A cold and practical medical team comes in to pump her stomach and blood, and no one seems to actually care about her. Shortly afterwards, the fire brigade gets a call and they burn down a house of an old woman who had hundreds of books hidden in her home. The fact that this woman chose to be burned alive, rather than just see her books burn, really messes with Montag’s mind and that’s when the reader finds out he has been hiding books himself.

The fact that books are outlawed in this novel is quite disconcerting, but I think the warning in this book is twofold. First, there is that of censorship. I grew up in a house filled with books, in every corner. My mother, who was an English student and is now a librarian, has loads of novels and my father has his own study filled with theology and history volumes. I have a neat little combination of everything, and a collection of a size to match. The burning of books is horrifying to me and so it should be. When I was little, I loved the sight of all these books surrounding me, as I felt they contained the knowledge of the entire world. The thought of this being compromised through censorship is hard to imagine and the stuff of nightmares.

Secondly, there’s the theme of media taking over our lives. This book is the epitome of the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’, with society controlling every thought. People are completely disconnected from their surroundings and from other people. Everyone appears to be obsessed with ‘The Family’, a sort of sitcom on TV, instead of being with their own families. People walk around with these tiny earpieces that give you the news and commercials every second of the day. The state keeps everyone ‘happy’ and happy means as little to think or worry about as possible. This is a dystopian novel, but are we really that far off now? Books are not being burned, thank God, but we do live cut off from reality to a degree through media.

I do love dystopian novels and this one really is spine chilling. The state monitors everything and they watch every move you make. If something makes people think or talk to each other at length, they simply ban it. People who don’t conform simply disappear. The first sense you get of how terrifying this dystopian society actually is, is when Clarisse McClellan, the girl who asks too many questions, simply ‘disappears’. And people actually go along with all of this! As a bit of an outsider, an anarchist and a rebel, this is incredibly scary to me. Brilliantly, Bradbury describes this society like it is nothing out of the ordinary, as though you are part of it and part of the people who question nothing. The ‘wait a minute…’ feeling therefor settles in the pit of your stomach and you never really let go of that unease throughout the book: the paranoia the characters feel becomes your own, while reading. The author really did an amazing job on this.

However, practically all the characters in the story are quite two-dimensional and this bothered me. The only really interesting character, and one with a bit of depth to her, is Clarisse and she disappears early on in the book. Guy Montag seems very much like a vacant character at first. Also, his wife nearly overdoses and he doesn’t really seem to care, and then she betrays him for having books and all hell breaks loose and all of a sudden he’s worried about her: it doesn’t make sense. He eventually starts reading the books he’s been hiding and that’s when he breaks loose. He searches out a former English professor, Faber, he once met and they hatch a plan to take down the system. He never actually gets that far, as he goes on an impulsive spree and endangers a lot of people in doing so. This was just very annoying to me: Guy Montag is not an intelligent man. I understand that not all main characters have to be smart, but it was very frustrating to read and you spend half your time screaming at him: don’t do that! I’m guessing the idea behind this is showing that Guy is named Guy because he could be anyone: a ‘regular Joe’. But in the end, through his own actions he is forced to run and hide, and he doesn’t actually accomplish anything.

The style of writing is probably one that everyone has strong feelings about. As an American classic author, Bradbury is often praised for his unique prose. Some may find his style incredibly poetic and skilful. I did not. I feel like Bradbury is simply trying to hard, with far too long sentences without anything to add. There are too many metaphors and adjectives for my liking and I had a hard time ignoring something that irritated me so. Let me give you an example: ‘With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.’ Get to the point! Or you might love this style; it’s all a matter of taste. I found it a hindrance.

Today I listened to my professor going on for over fifteen minutes about how books are no longer necessary and bibliophiles are being put to shame by the invention of audiobooks. Not only did this infuriate me to no end and I had the hardest time biting my tongue, but it also made me think of the ending of this book. In the end, Guy Montag meets up with a group of refugees who live outside of society. Most of them are in fact English professors or used to have some kind of academic profession, and are therefor now useless to society. They explain to him that they, the ones who are trying to save books, are actually burning them as well! Come again? Yes, they are book-burners. However, they do memorize entire chapters and people all over the country are involved in this scheme, so that when the day comes that books are no longer illegal, they can write them all down again.

This is a bad idea on so many levels. First off, there’s a lot that can go wrong with this plan! What if someone dies, before they can pass on their chapter onto their children? And, trust me, if paragraph seven of Augustinus’ ‘Enchiridion’, for example, is missing, you won’t be able to understand much of the rest of the book. What if someone remembers a bit of the Bible incorrectly? Major drama can occur, as we know, through different interpretations alone! What if the person who has the plot for some great detective novel memorized goes missing? It’s just a faulty plan.

Secondly, books are so much more than just carriers of knowledge. I’ve been thinking about this: what makes the object book so important? We can’t imagine life without poetry, novels or the Bible. But why? And this is one thing that this story does very well: you will contemplate this while reading. Why are books worth saving? The answer, to me, is that each book is unique. Sure, we invented book printing, but as the horrible Captain Beatty points out in this book: no two books agree with each other. We live in a time where we are already being forced to conform more and more, and books are a much-needed refuge in my opinion. They contain alternatives, knowledge and imagination. Now for the object book; it is nothing but a symbol, maybe. They give me a sense of comfort and the powerful idea that I have all this knowledge in a physical shape in my hands. Though books can be pieces of art, they are just objects. But in the War, people who wore a red cross on their jacket didn’t get shot. That red cross didn’t protect them from the bullets, but it’s a symbol that everyone knew and respected. Books are the same: they are the symbol of freethinking and knowledge. Symbols are incredibly powerful: you don’t shoot someone from the Red Cross and you simply don’t burn books.

Fahrenheit 451 is not only about book censorship, but also about an obsession with media. This is what I loved most about this book: Yes, it is frightening as a prospect, but we absolutely should still read this book and take its warnings seriously. So, here’s to the people, the authors, who have gone before me and taught me all I know, and here’s to the people with whom I can discuss all the books I’ve ever loved, face to face.

Relevance Award: for warnings still to be heeded

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (New York, 1953)

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Thura Nightingale

Ordinary victories (Le combat ordinaire) by Manu Larcenet

As the saying goes: ‘A picture says more than a thousand words’, and that is certainly true for this book. This book is one of those graphic novels that show that drawings and pictures are able to tell a beautiful story when used well.

This book tells the story of the life of Marco. Marco is a French freelance photographer, who used to travel the world to take pictures of sad events. Now he is back in in his house in rural France. He seems tired of traveling the world, and he wants time to think about a new project that he can feel passionate about. This worries his mother, because she beliefs that every man needs a job to feel good. Marco’s mother is the type of person who always openly worries about people, and in that way gives the impression of never being proud. Marco suffers from severe anxiety attacks, which can explain the worry of the mother a bit more. She figures they will become less when Marco has something to do in his life. Marco’s father was a dock worker until he became severely ill with Alzheimer’s. His parents live by the sea, and now his father sees the same boat passing for the first time, 5 times every day. Marco also has a brother who is his best friend. The brother is married and becomes a father in the book. All these people in Marco’s life have a big influences on what he thinks and help him to realize certain aspects of his own character.

In this book the dock and its workers play a big role. That is because Marco grew up among them and they feel like family. That is why he decides to portray the dock workers for his next photography project. Another reason to portray the dock workers is because the shipyard is closing and all its workers face an uncertain future. Marco wants to photograph the people when they are still there. It feels a bit as if he wants to photograph them as a remembrance of a past that is never coming back. In a sense he has to say goodbye to a part of his youth with the closing of the dock. This shows that many elements of the book are very well thought-through.

An important element of Marco’s story is the anxiety attacks he experiences. Those are related to fears Marco has, which might, or might not, be rational. The origin of these fears and attacks are never really fully explained in the book, and I think that is one of the strong points of this book. In this way, the readers can draw their own conclusions. Also, this tells us that not every issue a person struggles with has to have a clear origin to be real. Not giving Marco a precisely defined dramatic origin story makes him more normal, and therefore more relatable. This is not a dramatic story. It is a story about a guy who tries find his way in life. Personally I am a big fan of stories like that because they can teach us a lot about people. Also it is heart-warming to read about the joys ordinary people experience, despite the difficulties they face. This is also reflected in the title ‘ordinary victories’, which is more or less a literal translation of the original French ‘le combat ordinaire’ (the ordinary fight).

There are three central themes underlying the story in this book. One is the development of Marco’s career as a photographer, and how he finds his own style. The dock workers play a big role in that. The second theme are the bonds of love and family. The third theme is managing to deal with traumas and the question of forgiveness and redemption. This sounds like widely diverse themes for a book, but when you think about that those are not really weird choices. Life often does not consist of well-ordered themes. In this book the different themes are handled well and are nicely integrated.

And now let’s talk about the typical graphic novel parts. Personally I am a great lover of graphic novels. In my opinion they give you two great things in one: a story and artwork. Also, every time when I am in a reading slump, graphic novels help me to find my way back to reading again. The book I am reviewing here managed to pull me out of my latest reading slump. I understand that people prefer words to images in order to allow their own imagination to process the story, but I don’t do that in general anyway. I love reading because it allows you to travel along with the mind of someone completely different from yourself. Therefore it is also lovely to see the interpretation other people give to a story in either words or pictures. In graphic novels the two are combined which makes the journey in another person’s head even more vivid. The pictures below are a good example of the kind of artwork you can expect in this book. As you can see, it is not detailed work, but minimalistic. Still the author manages to make this an emotional book with images which tell a part of the story with simple drawings.

 

A downside in this book was that, up until about the middle Marco’s brother and his family played a big role in the story. Then they sort of have a fight and they are not mentioned again. This bugs me because there were things going on in the brother’s life which I wanted to know the ending of. Also the brother is more of a best friend to Marco, so it is unlikely he just disappears without a word. It read as if the author simply forgot about that part of the story halfway through the book, which feels uncommonly untidy when compared to the rest of the book. Beside the brother’s storyline, this is a book that feels complete and well-thought out in all aspects and will certainly be a joy to read for anyone who likes to travel along with the life of an ordinary man who finds his way in life.

Van Gogh award for a book that brings a person back to words with pictures.

Manu Larcenet, Le combat ordinaire (Paris, 2003)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

 

By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie

I don’t have any skills that would allow me to survive in a horror film. I can’t fight, I wouldn’t think up a strategy when I’m in a state of panic and, trust me, I run like a fish on gravel. The only hope I have of escaping such a scenario alive is getting out before shit goes down. Because my reaction on discovering something creepy would be an immediate ‘Oh hell no’, I might actually be gone before getting involved. For instance, while I was on a hike with my sisters this summer, we discovered some abandoned sheds in the woods, with dark cellars that seemed to go on forever when we peeked down. We could have climbed down the ladder and investigated, but we read enough stories to know that the things you discover in that kind of place are dead bodies, evil creatures and more such unpleasantness. So instead of waking up said unpleasantness, we kept walking until we reached France.
The reason I’m telling you this, is that the main character in By the Pricking of my Thumbs is much braver, much nobler and much smarter than I am. Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford (née Cowley) is intelligent, intuitive, stubborn and very likely to get involved once anything shady starts to play out. And something, indeed, starts playing out.

Imagine a sweet old lady, sipping from a glass of milk in the sunny communal room of the home for the elderly. She kindly makes conversation with you, while you are waiting for your husband, who is visiting his aunt upstairs. She’s pleasant, all fluffy white hair and pink cheeks and soft eyes. She asks if you would like some coffee or milk. And then, catching you looking at the fireplace, she suddenly asks: “Excuse me, was it your poor child?”
Now this is the point where I would smile, say “Goodbye, Mrs. Lancaster, thank you for the coffee,” and then run like the wind. I won’t have cute little ladies talking about dead children behind fireplaces. But Tuppence is a different kind of woman and when strange details start heaping up, she makes it her goal to unravel the whole, seriously sinister story.

Many books start out with a mystery that feels frightening and unhinged. Usually, in general but in Agatha Christie’s works as well, the mystery is explained at the end, thereby losing much of its ability to cause terror. Things are less scary if there’s a logic to them, right? Not so in this book. The thing that makes it brilliant is that the book is creepy throughout, but at least ten times as creepy when things are finally explained. I challenge you to read the final chapter without squealing a little. Tuppence deserves a medal, in my opinion, and so does Agatha Christie for coming up with a story so delightfully eerie.

It is one of her later books, published in 1968, and the third out of only four novels that feature Tuppence and her husband Tommy Beresford. I am now determined to read the other three, and the collection of short stories wherin they appear as well. Tommy and Tuppence are an older couple (in this book), rather ordinary, and happily married. They are one of those couples who stay in love for years and years, with inside jokes that are decades old and a very good idea of what the other is thinking, even if they don’t say anything. What makes them quite a bit more than ordinary however, is that Tommy is a secret service man with an impressive war record. In a less official capacity, Tuppence got involved in his business during the war, refusing to sit at home far away from important matters and from the man she loved. Their shared war experience helps the couple solve the new mysteries.

So, no snappy youngsters in this book, only these wonderful people with actual life experience, and the wisdom to know that an evening at home with someone you love and some well-prepared chicken for dinner trumps just about anything. The combination of Tommy and Tuppence’ kindness and concern for each other, their common sense and their love of adventure clashes spectacularly with insane goings-on of the small village to which Tuppence follows some clues. She is determined to find Mrs. Lancaster, who has disappeared without a trace, which makes Tuppence think that her utterances about the child behind the fireplace might be more than just the confused ramblings of a very old woman. In the absence of tangible proof, she follows clues of intuition and vague memories. This more than justifies the title, taken from the witch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: ‘By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…’

Like I said, I’ll avoid a horror scenario at any cost. That is, unless it’s in a book. I expected nothing would be better than a grisly murder mystery novel to take with me for a hike in the Ardennes, and I was right. There is something about lying in a little tent, listening to rain and a thunderstorm in the mountains around you, that makes you enjoy Agatha Christie’s brilliant British mind like never before. When you have written dozens of detective stories like Agatha Christie did, it is impossible that every book be equally perfect. Of the books that I read by her, I enjoyed some more than others, but By the Pricking of my Thumbs is my new favourite and perhaps will be until I’m in a home for elderly people myself. Then I can recommend this book to the other people who live there and if they won’t listen, I’ll scare them by singing nursery rhymes until they do.

Botany Award for all those clueless English people who get excited by wildflowers while terrible things are happening in their picturesque villages (may they ever stay ignorant)

Agatha Christie, By the Pricking of my Thumbs (London, 1968)

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Jo Robin