Thursday, 23 November 2017

Astrid Lindgren's war diaries: A World Gone Mad

Astrid Lindgren's war diaries: A World Gone Mad · Lisa Hjalt

One of the books on a reading list I shared in March was A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45, published last autumn in English by Pushkin Press (translated by Sarah Death). Astrid Lindgren was a Swedish author who wrote fantastic books for children. When we lived in the UK it seemed as if people only knew Pippi Longstocking and not the other wonderful characters she created. I still remember moments in primary school when the teacher read Seacrow Island during breaks; one of the books from childhood that I have read countless times and hold dear is The Brothers Lionheart. I doubt children think much about the personal life of an author, they simply forget themselves in the world he or she has created, thus the war diaries showed me a side to the author I knew nothing about: Lindgren as a young mother trying to grasp the horrors of the war, not without the feeling of guilt in a neutral Sweden.

Do Lindgren's war diaries have anything to add to what already has been written about the Second World War? What I found interesting is that she is barely 32 years old when the war breaks out and clearly feels the need to record its progress. She collects press cuttings and writes entries of various lengths in leather-bound journals, a total of seventeen which were found in her home in Dalagatan in Stockholm after her death in 2002 (published in Sweden in 2015). The book only contains the entries, and some illustrations, and it surprised me how thorough she was in her accounts. I thought I was about to read Lindgren's personal thoughts but soon realised that this was a book about the war in layman's terms.
Astrid Lindgren's war diaries: A World Gone Mad · Lisa Hjalt

Lindgren comes straight to the point without overdramatising, although she naturally experiences fear and anger. The first entry is written on the 1st of September 1939 when the Germans invade Poland. With a constant voice she compares the peaceful life in wartime Sweden - where there was no conflict, only the effects of rationing - to the horror elsewhere in Europe, especially in the neighbouring countries Finland and Norway. When she starts working for the Swedish Intelligence Agency, in its postal control division reading overseas mail, the war gets closer; she mentions this one 'profoundly sad Jewish letter' from the Continent to a friend in Sweden.

By Christmas 1944 the reader realises that something serious has taken place, she has experienced a breakdown which many who don't know her story could interpret as a consequence of the war and her work: 'I've had a hell of a six months this second half of 1944 and the ground beneath me has been shaken to its very foundation; I'm disconsolate, down, disappointed, often melancholy - but I'm not really unhappy.' She never writes in the diary what exactly is the cause but those who have read about her life know that there were troubles in her marriage. Her husband had met someone else and had asked for a divorce, which he then didn't go through with.

The diaries predate Lindgren's fiction writing but on its pages we witness the birth of an author; during the war she is writing her first children's books: 'I'm the happiest when I write.' However, the book is not a diary of an author, as I have heard people say, that is, it's not a diary with entries about fiction writing and style. Her first book, about a girl called Britt-Mari, was published in 1944 and for that one received an award. In March 1944, when her daughter is bedridden with measles, Lindgren is working on the first book about Pippi Longstocking and on the book's last pages there is an illustration of the rejection letter she received after submitting the manuscript in April 1944. A year later she talks about Pippi again, about rewriting - 'to see if I can make anything of that bad child.' We all know how that turned out.

I can recommend the book, which is very readable and, as stated above, showed me a new side to my favourite author from childhood. My quibbles have to do with the book not containing more illustrations. There are photos of Lindgren and her family but I would have liked to see more photos of the diary entries and press cuttings, particularly those relating to some key battles that Lindgren writes about in her entries. It would have helped to connect more visually with her experience of the war.

A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45
By Astrid Lindgren
Pushkin Press
Hardcover, 240 pages, illustrated

Monday, 30 October 2017

№ 12 reading list ... from the Land of Ideas

№ 12 reading list | Ayobami Adebayo, Peter Hedges, Isambard Wilkinson  · Lisa Hjalt

My № 12 reading list was supposed to appear on the blog in September - that stack of books looks good, doesn't it? - but I got busy packing. As in moving, to Germany. Ich bin ein Bremer! Not quite a declaration carrying the weight of Kennedy's Ich bin ein Berliner ... except for us, the family. We are settling in our new home and exploring our surroundings. My first task was arranging the books and creating a reading nook, and then, to feel more at home, setting up the kitchen and making the first Friday pizzas. Bremen has many cafés and restaurants and everywhere I have been the atmosphere has been the way I like it, relaxed and unpretentious. I have already visited two bookshops in the centre but no library, yet. Because of the move the time for reading has been somewhat limited, but I have finished the first two works on the list and I'm well into a few others. Three publishers provided books for the list, for which I'm grateful: Canongate [1], Eland Books [2] and Fox, Finch & Tepper [3]. I will be reviewing these three books on the blog later.

№ 12 reading list:
· South and West: From a Notebook  by Joan Didion
· Stay with Me  by Ayobami Adebayo [1]
· Travels in a Dervish Cloak  by Isambard Wilkinson [2]
· What's Eating Gilbert Grape  by Peter Hedges [3]
· The Unwomanly Face of War  by Svetlana Alexievich
· Autumn  by Ali Smith
· Hitch-22: A Memoir  by Christopher Hitchens
· How Fiction Works  by James Wood
· Against Interpretation and Other Essays  by Susan Sontag

Usually there are a few library books on my reading lists but this time the books are all mine. A dear friend in Iceland gave me a generous Waterstones gift card on my birthday, which I used to purchase the works of Didion, Sontag, Wood and Alexievich (if you're following on Instagram you may have noticed). Later I was viewing the works of the late Christopher Hitchens in a bookshop when I spotted his memoir, which had escaped me - so glad I bought it. Reading Autumn by Smith felt right this autumn and something tells me I will be reading her new one, Winter, this coming winter. I also have my eyes on some new Icelandic titles that I would like to feature on the blog. And then there is a new publication this autumn that I'm very exited about: Patti Smith's latest, Devotion. She is such a wonderful writer.
№ 12 reading list | Ayobami Adebayo, Peter Hedges, Isambard Wilkinson  · Lisa Hjalt

The three works to be reviewed later:

The 'fiercely independent' Canongate is the publisher of Stay with Me, the debut novel of Ayobami Adebayo, a young Nigerian author who I can only hope is working on another fiction. Without giving away the plot the synopsis reads: 'Yejide is hoping for a miracle, for a child. It is all her husband wants, all her mother-in-law wants, and she has tried everything - arduous pilgrimages, medical consultations, appeals to God. But when her relatives insist upon a new wife, it is too much for Yejide to bear. It will lead to jealousy, betrayal and despair.' The book was shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.

The focus of Fox, Finch & Tepper is to publish 'literary fiction titles with a strong sense of place that have already been published and that deserve resurrection.' What's Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges is a perfect example. I had only seen and enjoyed the film, starring Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and Juliette Lewis, but how wonderful it feels to read the book. Hedges's writing style is pure delight.

Eland Books - 'keeping the best of travel writing alive' - recently published Travels in a Dervish Cloak by Isambard Wilkinson. He first visited Pakistan as a teenager and during the War on Terror he worked there as a foreign correspondent. I waited for a proper Wi-fi connection in our new home before starting this book because I wanted to be able to look up things and places. That is what good travel writing makes you want to do. I believe Wilkinson will teach me a lot about Pakistan and its culture.

Bis bald!

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Schuyler Samperton Textiles

Schuyler Samperton Textiles, designs, patterns: Nellcote, Cordoba, Celandine · Lisa Hjalt

The world of textile design got richer this year when Schuyler Samperton, a Los Angeles–based interior designer, took the plunge and introduced her own fabric collection under the name of Schuyler Samperton Textiles. With the launch of the fabric line, a dream came true for Samperton, who has been collecting textiles since her teenage years. The word stunning describes my first impression of her collection, which exists of eight fabrics made of 100% linen, available in various colourways. For two months I have been admiring the details of her patterns and asking myself, Where do I even begin to share this beauty?

Schuyler Samperton Textiles, design: Nellcote petunia
Nellcote/Petunia by Schuyler Samperton Textiles

You may have seen some of the fabrics by Schuyler Samperton Textiles on my Instagram account this summer, but for the first blog post I landed on the Nellcote/Apricot in a leading role, a bohemian pattern that to me depicts a certain playfulness. (The detail above shows the colour Petunia.)

The Nellcote/Apricot is the fabric and colour I would like to use for a cushion or two in our new living room, after we have purchased a new sofa - I'm moving soon, about to start packing! I have been playing with ideas and every time this is the pattern that feels right, plus its colours match well with the textiles I already have and the ones I have my eyes on.

Schuyler Samperton Textiles, design: Doshi persimmonSchuyler Samperton Textiles, designs: Nellcote, Caledonia, Celandine · Lisa Hjalt

Left: The Doshi fabric in Persimmon. Right: In foreground, Nellcote/Apricot; top, Caledonia/Mandarin; bottom-left, Celandine/Sunset

Of the eight designs, the Doshi fabric is the one with a loosely printed pattern, a simple botanical motif. You can easily use any of its five colourways to draw out another colour, resulting in a beautifully decorated space. For this post I chose the Doshi/Persimmon but I also have a crush on a blue version, Doshi/Lake. The floral fabric also seen in my image above is Celandine/Sunset.

Some other time I would like to feature the Caledonia design in more detail on the blog. It's the floral fabric with the butterfly in my image above, in the colour Mandarin. This fabric also has a bird motif.
Schuyler Samperton Textiles, designs: Nellcote, Cordoba, Celandine · Lisa Hjalt

Another Schuyler Samperton design I'm fond of using in my new home is the Cordoba fabric with a paisley motif, seen folded in the colour Spice in my image above, and in detail below (also spotted in Indigo under the ceramic vase). I have yet to decide between the Cordoba/Spice and Cordoba/Dahlia.

I will be featuring more fabrics later. In the meantime you can view the full range of fabrics on the website of Schuyler Samperton Textiles, where you will also find a list of showrooms.

Schuyler Samperton Textiles, design: Cordoba spice
Cordoba/Spice by Schuyler Samperton Textiles

A few years back I featured the work of Schuyler Samperton on the blog. The suzani lovers out there may perhaps remember this particular post where, among others, I shared an image of a West Hollywood bedroom (scroll down), belonging to a residence she designed. She studied art history and decorative arts at Trinity College, NYU and Parsons School of Design, and for four years she worked for American interior designer Michael S. Smith. Her interior design projects are accessible online. Throughout September I will be adding some of my favourite Schuyler Samperton spaces to the Lunch & Latte Tumblr page.

Textile and interior designer Schuyler Samperton and her dog. © Schuyler Samperton Textiles/Alexandre Jaras

Sunday, 23 July 2017

№ 11 reading list | Middle Eastern and crime fiction

№ 11 reading list | Middle Eastern and crime fiction · Lisa Hjalt
№ 11 reading list | Arundhati Roy and my Persian cat · Lisa Hjalt

Sunday morning coffee, a new reading list and Gilead by novelist Marilynne Robinson. Take my word for it, it's an excellent start of the day. July hasn't finished and already I'm presenting a new list, the second in one month. The reason is simple: there were many short books on the last one. The new list has a taste of the Middle East. For years I have wanted to read Palace Walk, the first book in the Cairo trilogy by Egyptian author and Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Another first for me is the Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. A fellow lover of literature on Instagram recommended her second novel Waking Lions (translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston) and gave three reasons: 1) It takes place in Beersheba (Beer-Sheva), which, according to him, is unheard of in Israeli literature. 2) It's the perfect setting for the characters, living on the margins of society. 3) The story sheds some light on racism in Israel; it revolves around Eritrean and Sudanese refugees. I was sold and luckily my library had a copy when I picked up the new novel by Arundhati Roy.

№ 11 reading list:
· The Ministry of Utmost Happiness  by Arundhati Roy
· Palace Walk  by Naguib Mahfouz
· Waking Lions  by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
· The Black Prince  by Iris Murdoch
· Gilead  by Marilynne Robinson
· So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood  by Patrick Modiano
· The Redbreast  by Jo Nesbø
· Instead of a Letter  by Diana Athill
· Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls  by David Sedaris

I am still reading Jigsaw by Sybille Bedford that was on my last reading list but I have already finished The Redbreast by the Norwegian Jo Nesbø on the new one. At some point this third book about Detective Harry Hole (the first in the Oslo series) became a page-turner and I couldn't put it down. Crime fiction isn't exactly my go-to genre but occasionally I have read everything available by a particular crime author (mainly the Nordic authors; it all started many years ago with the Icelander Arnaldur Indridason and his Detective Erlendur). Nesbø's Harry Hole is an interesting character and I intend to see what happens in Nemesis, the next book in the series.

I have started Sedaris's book but I had to stop reading it before bedtime because my son, who likes to read with me, was unable to concentrate on his book because of me laughing. This is tears-running-down-your-face laughter. I tried to stifle it but it didn't work. Sedaris is, simply put, dangerously funny and I cannot wait to pick up his Diaries. Marilynne Robinson is an author I'm revisiting; I read Home when we lived in Luxembourg. I don't understand why it has taken me so long to pick up Gilead (both books take place in the same period and town, also her work Lila). The prose of Gilead is beautiful; no wonder it brought her the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005.
№ 11 reading list | Middle Eastern and crime fiction · Lisa Hjalt

I would like to finish with a quote by author Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) that I have already shared on Instagram and wanted to keep on the blog as well. Asked about her method of composition in an interview that appeared in the summer 1990 issue of The Paris Review, Murdoch replied:
Well, I think it is important to make a plan before you write the first sentence. Some people think one should write, George woke up and knew that something terrible had happened yesterday, and then see what happens. I plan the whole thing in detail before I begin. I have a general scheme and lots of notes. Every chapter is planned. Every conversation is planned. This is, of course, a primary stage, and very frightening because you've committed yourself at this point ... [Moving on to the second stage.] The deep things that the work is about declare themselves and connect. Somehow things fly together and generate other things, and characters invent other characters, as if they were all doing it themselves. (Issue 115, Summer 1990)

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee · Lisa Hjalt

Earlier this year, the novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, an American-Korean author, was published by Head of Zeus (Apollo). My review copy appeared on my № 8 reading list. It's a story about a Korean family in Japan, about their immigrant experience, their struggles and resilience, spanning eight decades in the 20th century. My feelings about the book are slightly mixed, mainly for its quick pace - its 490 pages read very fast - and the fault I found with the lack of character development. However, I think the book's message is important and historically valuable, for the author casts a light on a social problem I was unaware of: the treatment and oppression of Koreans in Japanese society for decades.

The title of the book, the word pachinko, needs explanation. It first appears halfway through the book. Pachinko is a pinball game and the pachinko parlors are a huge industry in Japan; its revenues are higher than the export revenues of the motor industry. The pachinko parlors were one of few places that would hire Koreans. What is more, the only housing solution for Koreans was a tiny shack in ethnic ghettos for no one wanted to rent out properties to them.

Pachinko tells the story of four generations, beginning in 1911, in a fishing village in the south-eastern part of the Korean peninsula, the year after Japan's annexation of the country. To fastforward slightly, a love affair with a married man leaves the fifteen-year-old Sunja pregnant. Her family is saved from ruin when Isak, a Christian minister from the north, offers to marry her and take her with him to Osaka, in Japan, where they arrive in April 1933.
Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee · Lisa Hjalt

At the start of their journey, around page 80, the story really takes off and becomes somewhat of a page-turner. The writing style is plain and because of conversations the pace is quick, which is also the book's main flaw. Instead of developing the characters, giving them more depth, and allowing the reader to stand still with them to gain a better insight, it feels as if the author is constantly moving the story along, perhaps to fit it into historical context. Min Jin Lee's story is certainly interesting but the storytelling lacks density.

She divides the book into three parts: The first two are mainly about the immigrant experience, about Sunja and her family's struggles in an ethnic ghetto, and on a farm during the war. The third part starts in April 1962 and mainly deals with her descendants. At that point the family is financially more stable, and the younger members later prosper with the help of the pachinko business. In my opinion, this is where the author derails; the third is the novel's weakest part. Min Jin Lee introduces a new set of characters - few of which I grew fond of - and leaves a gap by almost abandoning the older generation. Sunja and the older family members seem to fade into the background, as if they are no longer of much importance, when in fact it seems to me that so much if left untold of their story, especially of their feelings.

Sunja is a character that I grew to love and hoped to get to know better in the third part. About hundred pages in, finally, came this glimpse of insight into her mind: 'All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer—suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother—die suffering. Go-saeng—the word made her sick. What else was there besides this? She had suffered to create a better life for Noa, and yet it was not enough' (p. 420). Alas, it was short-lived. The author took us straight into conversations and moved the story along.
Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee · Lisa Hjalt

Even though Pachinko isn't a literary masterpiece, one has to honour the author's effort. Part of me wants to root for the book because of its themes and its relevance to the times we live in: immigration and identity, and the treatment of immigrants and refugees. This is where I think Min Jin Lee is at her finest. There is scrutiny of Japan but she avoids feeding opinions to her readers and the pit of letting them see things in black and white. I completely trust her research for the book, of the Korean experience in Japanese society, and I believe she leaves it to the reader to pass judgement.

Readers who are only looking for a story will enjoy this book, enjoy its fast pace. But I'm afraid readers who turn to literature for the writing style, for sentences one wants to read again, and even write down, will be left a bit empty-handed.

By Min Jin Lee
Head of Zeus / Apollo
Hardcover, 490 pages

Pachinko appeared on my № 8 reading list.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

№ 10 reading list: rediscovering Modiano

№ 10 reading list: Modiano, book stack, latte · Lisa Hjalt

Sunday morning, latte, book podcasts, and a new reading list. When the skies are grey this is a delightful way to start the day. There are nine books on the list, which to some may seem a lot, but many of these are short and I have already finished a few, e.g. that second Patrick Modiano, In the Café of Lost Youth. My new favourite author. [Update: I changed the title of this entry when I realised shortly after posting it that I had indeed read Modiano before, years ago. It was this German edition of Villa Triste. I still remember buying it, in a small bookshop in one of those narrow cobblestone streets in Zurich. I need to reread it; I don't remember the storyline.] He is a French novelist who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014. Luckily, many of his books have been translated into English, and are available at my local library.

№ 10 reading list:
· The Ballad of the Sad Café  by Carson McCullers
· Pedigree  by Patrick Modiano
· In the Café of Lost Youth  by Patrick Modiano
· Invisible Cities  by Italo Calvino
· Stoner  by John Williams
· Point Omega  by Don DeLillo
· Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education  by Sybille Bedford
· The Captain's Daughter  by Alexander Pushkin
· Dancing in the Dark: My Struggle 4  by Karl Ove Knausgård

It is time to continue with Knausgård's struggles; I was beginning to miss his voice. The only book in the stack that belongs to me is Bedford's Jigsaw, which is partly autobiographical. A fellow book lover on Instagram recommended it and something tells me I will soon be picking up her memoirs Quicksands.

I meant to include Arundhati Roy's new fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, but I'm still waiting for the copy I ordered at the library. It will appear on the next list. Earlier this week she was a guest on the Guardian book podcast. Besides talking about the book, she also talked about her activism in India, which I found fascinating. The legal cases against her are many and ridiculous, but she has a wonderful sense of humour and doesn't hesitate to make fun of her opponents.

I have finished reading all the books on the Japanese reading list (№ 9), except The Tale of Genji (the one under my cup). It's long and I told you I would be reading it slowly. In case you were wondering, yes, I'm enjoying it very much. I still owe you two book reviews and some notes from my reading journal (right before sharing it, I accidentally deleted the draft of my Pachinko review! I sort of knew it by heart and I just have to finish typing it again). I hope July will be a good month for reading.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

summertime 2017 | new books

summertime 2017 new books, peonies, coffee cup · Lisa Hjalt

The longest day of the year is upon us and on the west coast of Scotland we have clouds and some rain. The ideal weather for mentioning new books, don't you agree, and for inhaling the scent of the peonies on my desk. I ordered two of these titles from the local library and hope I can add them to my next reading list:

· The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton). After twenty years, finally, a new fiction from Roy! Her novel The God of Small Things, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1997, is one of the most memorable books I have ever read.
· Theft by Finding: Diaries: Volume One by David Sedaris (Little, Brown). Quite recently he was a guest on The NYT Book Review podcast, talking about and reading from it, and there I was in the kitchen laughing out loud. He is simply hilarious.
· House of Names by Colm Tóibín (Viking). An author I still haven't read. On my to-read list is his novel Brooklyn, which I wanted to read before seeing the film (2015), starring Saoirse Ronan. Couldn't wait and am so glad I didn't. It's a beautiful film that I can watch over and over again.
· The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich (Penguin). She received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015. This is the long-awaited English translation of her classic oral history of Soviet women's experiences during WWII. Published in July.
· Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri (Faber). About a man, interestingly named Amit Chaudhuri, who returns to Bombay, the city of his childhood. Published in August.