Tag Archives: Tove Jansson

Endless Reads Review: A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

a winter book

 

The cover is grainy in the dim light of my living room. I long for the light of longer days. But this will do, for a book on winter -

 

I started this story collection on the 30th of December, so it’s a cross-over from last year’s Endless Reads to this, and so occupies disputed territory. Liminal. The book in question is not at all an uncertain book in its prose, in Finnish writer Tove Jansson’s matter-of-fact sentences, her wry peering at the foibles of human nature, but in its form – the way it is frustratingly not enough of one thing or another. And where I would accept this in other, more experimental authors, I felt let down by Jansson who is otherwise so steady.

 

It is composed of stories taken from Jansson’s childhood experiences, and then with a sudden lurch, those of her late adult life. There are also fragments of fan letters and personal correspondences which Jansson has tinkered with to make the speaker seem more or less needy. This was my least favourite section. It does lead into the letters from a Japanese fan, but that part was so sad, lacking the paired responses from Jansson herself. Later, there is even a purely fictional story about a young man on a ferry to England, forced into a painful, burdensome empathy with every one he meets – people are always showing him photographs of their relatives – I can’t help reading this and feeling a little like it is the literature of an exhausted, famous writer.

 

However, I’m neglecting to mention the earlier tales of childhood, which are full of wonder. ‘The Iceberg’ is a beautiful story of a night-time encounter with the ice. As Frank Cottrell Boyce says in the afterword, it lingers, is touching, precisely because of its smallness, because ‘She does not go out and conquer the wilderness. She does not return home with trophies of antlers or wild flowers. She gives away something of herself and somehow gains.’

 

Another favourite was ‘The Dark’ in which the young Tove delights in tormenting her friend Poyu over the darkness that encroaches on a public outdoor skating rink. They play with the snakes in the carpet, the dark lines of the fabric which cannot be stepped on for fear of a writhing mass attacking them. It’s also an insight into Tove’s artist father, who would take her out to see housefires and reveled in their chaos, the chaos of storms. And Tove’s mother, who would paint images of Moses in the reed basket, and with her ‘gentle and grave’ profile, tells Tove stories that charm back the dark. The whole piece illustrates the ferocity with which children see and fight back and latch on to places and people of safety, against the vastness of the world.

 

In the end, I much prefer Jansson’s The Summer Book, which I read last year. It has more continuity, more stability – something which suits the inherently calm, definitive blocks of her writing. A Winter Book is a companion piece that doesn’t quite match the predecessor. It is not a white crust of it, deep enough to come over the top of your boots and crumble wetly into your socks – its is only a light smattering of flakes, nothing that will lie too long, but lovely nonetheless.

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An Endless Year in Review

the meadows in autumn

 

2012 is nearly over – it’s been a year of open spaces. A year of close reading. A year of patient steps. Anticipations, damp days, wandering the city (see my love letters here)

Of writing this second novel, and hoping, still, for the first. Of making friends online (- you’ll see them on my blogroll there, though I should do a big long post addressing them) and discovering literary journals, where my work fits, or I  find what turns something in my heart.

 

I’ve read 44 novels this year, and I’m working on the 45th. I’m a pretty slow reader, needing to take breathers, often distracted, so I feel happy with this total. Before the year’s out, I want to say a few things about the writing that has stayed with me – I’m lucky, in that a lot of what I read this year was utterly wonderful. Not all of it was new, or even new to me. But here are my picks of the best:

 

I began reading Humanimals: A Project for Lost Children by Bhanu Kapil an hour before the bells rang in 2012, and its hybridity and excellent prose has haunted my imagination. If I get the chance, I’ll be seeking out more of Kapil’s work in 2013.

 

The Summer Book introduced me to the wiseness and gently wood-carved sentences of Tove Jansson. I’m reading A Winter Book right now, and loving it almost – though not quite as much – as the sunsoaked earlier novel.

 

Green Girl by Kate Zambreno – how can I begin to talk about how much this book inspired so much in me this year? I can’t possibly do the stark, girl-centred, needling thing justice. Or the many conversations it inspired across so many online platforms?  Just be glad that it sent me towards Zambreno’s blog and Heroines, which if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? Participate!

 

Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith taught me the power that can be contained in an almost-novella, written with such care, without an ill-placed word.

 

Zazen by Vanessa Veselka was on the other hand an explosion, an earth-scorching revelation of words. I await her next works with the eagerness of a sailor’s wife, standing on a pier, watching a maelstrom wreck the waters.

 

I Have Blinded Myself Writing This by Jess Stoner wins best title and Book That Made Me Cry and stare off into space thinking of it. It’s experiemental, beautiful, humane – let me just throw some more words till you decide to go investigate.

 

Fast Machine by Elizabeth Ellen is one of those rare collections – one that I cannot stop reading. Normally I struggle to find the energy for short stories, but each of these connects, refracts or sparks the rest, and I felt like I was in a workshop for what this form can do. It’s the second book after I Have Blinded Myself Writing This to be published by small press giants, Hobart.

 

Domestication Handbook by Kristen Stone, another hybrid work, charmed me with its twisty, raw-fingered deployment of memoir and textbook and poetry.

 

Special, rather shocked mention to 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, for being such a messy and plain and overblown thing, which nevertheless slowed me down in my own work, made me consider my audience and how to talk to them.

 

Not too many men on this list, but it’s down to my vowed focus on female writers. Only 11 of the 45 books were written by men. No regrets. The world of book and poetry reviews is heavily weighted in favour of men, as Vida proved true of America last year.

 

So what will 2013 bring?

 

A superstitious year. Bad luck and good ahead.

 

More books – the first of the new year will probably be Errantry by Elizabeth Hand. Anticipating good things, from what I’ve read around it.

 

More writing.

More of my work shared, I hope. I am coming on with this draft, and really think, after absorbing so much great writing, that my own has improved. Nothing can be known in advance. I am prepared to patiently keep stepping forward, honing and learning every day.

 

More adventures. More of the seashore and the mountains and the countryside. Glens and slopes and lochsides. Another trip to London, in mid Janurary, this time with D – a Christmas gift from my parents.

 

A move, at the very least out of this cramped flat. Perhaps out of Edinburgh – mysterious, but I’ll know more in the Spring.

 

So much more – a new camera, to replace the last. I hope to work on my photography skills bit by bit, and bring you better images, views of places that have innately such beauty that I cannot distorted it too much.

 

 

And of course, reading. A new Endless Reads – I hope you’ll let me know of what books you’re thinking of tackling, which you’ve loved, which you have great furious hopes for.

 

And I wish you all a raucous or peaceful and in any case charming Hogmanay – see you back here, after the bells birth 2013.

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Endless Reads Review: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

I haven’t read so many passages of a book aloud to D, ever. I haven’t ever hummed between wanting to finish so I could rush to recommend and review, and  never wanting it to end.

 

This book warms the soul like a little pot of milk warms on an old black stove. It’s poignant and sharp-eyed and rueful and dryly funny. It’s a meditation on the inconveniences and loss experienced with aging, as well as the brash joyfulness found only in children. The characters are Sophia, a little girl, Grandmother, and Papa, who rarely strays away from his work. The setting is one island (sometimes others are visited in jaunts) in the Gulf of Finland, in Summer, in short headed chapters concerning variously unconnected, unyeared events. I would quote the whole book at you, if I wasn’t worried about the publishers getting annoyed with me. But just one passage?

 

Sophia is dictating a treatise on Angleworms to Grandmother, having recently cut one in half.

 

“Now don’t interrupt. It goes on like this: The worm probably knows that if it comes apart, both halves will start growing separately. Space. But we don’t know how much it hurts. And we don’t know, either, if the worm is afraid it’s going to hurt. But anyway, it does have a feeling that something sharp is getting closer and closer all the time. This is instinct. And I can tell you this much, it’s not fair to say it’s too little, or it only has a digestive canal, and so that’s why it doesn’t hurt. I am sure it does hurt, but maybe only for a second. [...] When it had calmed its nerves, it could tell right away it was shorter, and then it saw the other half right beside it. Let me make this a little easier to understand by putting it this way: Both halves fell down on the ground, and the person with the hook went away. They couldn’t grow back together, because they were terribly upset, and then, of course, they didn’t stop to think, either. And they knew that by and by they’d grow out again, both of them. I think they looked at each other, and thought they looked awful, and then crawled away from each other as fast as they could. Then they started to think. They realised that from now on life would be quite different, but they didn’t know how, that is, in what way.”

 

The microcosm of life on an island. Hidden caves with grass-covered alters within. Venice made of wood carvings set in a bog. The various temperaments of the sea. Old, taciturn friendships opening up to reveal further depths. My praise keeps bumping up against the ceiling of my clunkiness in the writing of it.

I want to read it on the slab-rocked shore of a temperate island, in summer.

I want to read it with my legs dangling in brisk clear water with the sun high overhead.

This book is coming with me, wherever in the world I go.

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