2017 has started off with a bang and here I am, still trying to process how come it’s already March. [Cue confused Travolta GIFs.] In my previous post I swore I wasn’t going to sign myself up for any additional reading challenges in 2017. Well, turned out I was wrong. One of my absolute favourite book podcasts of the moment (Sivumennen, in Finnish) started their own reading challenge called “The Shelfwarmer” challenge. According to them, a shelfwarmer is the literary equivalent of a benchwarmer in sports – a book that just keeps sitting on your bookshelves, sometimes for years and years, waiting for its moment to shine. The idea is simple: choose twelve books – one for each month – and, you guessed it, read them!
Seeing that it’s already March, I’ve already finished two books from my list. Some of them you might recognise from my previous 10 books I look forward to reading in the autumn list and some come with a track record of previous trials. As per usual, the books on this list are a mix of Finnish prize-winners, classics and a few popular bestsellers from the past decade. I’ll try to provide brief descriptions for each of the books, but as I haven’t read them, there isn’t really that much to say.
12 books. 12 months. Let’s read.
January – The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The first book I finished from this list has actually only been sitting on my shelves for less than six months. However, it could have easily sat there for years. The Elegance of the Hedgehog was an international bestseller back in the mid-2000s, and it’s also been turned into a film (which I didn’t know until after I’d read the book). It’s a poetic and philosophical exposé at the life of an old French concierge in a Parisian apartment building as well as one of the residents of the building, a highly-intelligent young girl planning her suicide.
February – The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
My second read was Joan Didion’s autobiographical reflections on the year after she unexpectedly lost her husband of 40 years and had the daughter hospitalised for pneumonia. Didion is often hailed as one of the “iconic American writers” and I’ve been curious to find out why. I enjoyed The Year of Magical Thinking and I think it’ll grow on me over the years, but there were times when it also felt a little cold and distanced. Moreover, I don’t think this book answered my question. I guess I’ll have to dig up some of her earlier works, such as Slouching towards Bethlehem or The White Album to find out.
March – Huojuva talo by Maria Jotuni
Huojuva talo (trans. Precarious house) is a Finnish modern classic about domestic violence, abusive relationships and expectations in relationships. It was written in the 1930s but published 20 years later posthumously, I believe partly because of its autobiographical nature as well as the heavy subject matter that Jotuni disentangles. The book follows a young woman’s search for a true family. It covers issues of parental alcoholism, mental illness, marital abuse, inequality between sexes as well as class. I expected the book to be a heavy read, but I was surprised by how very readable and beautiful the prose was. The narration flows with ease and the beauty of the language alleviates some of the pain inside.
He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät by Jussi Valtonen (trans. They Don’t Know What They’re Doing)
The winner of Finlandia Prize 2014 is a novel on father-son relationships, science, animal rights, social media, globalisation and … that’s about all I know. Some say it’s a literary thriller which I’m all for. Moreover, the World English rights of the novel have been sold to Oneworld, so I guess we should expect a translation soon?
Jokapäiväinen elämämme by Riikka Pelo (trans. Our Daily Life)
The winner of Finlandia Prize 2013 is a story about a Russian poet and her daughter at the break of 20th century who flee the country to central Europe following the revolution. The writing is said to be stunning and the plot to be tear-jerking, so I think I’ll save this for the autumn months. It feels like it’ll make an enjoyable cosy-up read. The book also came third when Finnish book bloggers voted for their favourites of the year in 2014.
Oneiron by Laura Lindstedt
The winner of Finlandia Prize 2015. (See a pattern here?) Oneiron tells the story of the meeting of eight women from different countries, races and ages who meet after their death. It has been praised left and right, the rights have been sold to several European countries and I even listened to the author talk about the book twice before I caved into the hype and bought the book. And then… I just didn’t read it. I tried to pick it up late last year, but couldn’t get into the right frame of mind. The World English rights have also been bought by Oneworld, but there are no news as to when the English translation is expected to come out.
Stoner by John Williams
Similarly to The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I’m also cheating with Stoner. I found my copy from a charity bookshop in about 8 months ago. Despite falling in love with the prose after the first five pages, I’ve never settled down to reading it. It’s one of those books that I know I’ll love and that I’ve been saving up for that “perfect moment”. Stoner is a “forgotten classic” that tells the story of quite an ordinary man named William Stoner who, though born into a poor farming family, gets into a state university to read English literature and becomes a scholar.
The Trial by Franz Kafka
My education in German literature is quite elementary, and especially Franz Kafka is an author that I’ve always found fascinating. However, I’m sorry to say that the only book of his that I’ve read is The Metamorphosis because it was a required read. However, the premise of The Trial is quite famous: A man named Josef K is arrested and charged for a crime that is never revealed to him. I bought my German edition of this classic a couple of summers ago on a whim. However, the absurdity and reputation of Kafka has intimidated me to avoid this short novel.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Gulliver’s Travels is another classic that’s been sitting on my shelves for years. I honestly can’t even remember when I bought this one. Sometimes I’ve even forgotten I own it and been pleasantly surprised to find it lodged between other classics. What I know of Jonathan Swift’s most famous work – aside from the lilliputtians – is that is a satire and social commentary on humankind. I’ve also heard it being compared to Twain’s snarkier writings, which sounds promising.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina was supposed to be my big summer book of last year. I started reading it in May and got about half-way through by the end of June, but after that I fell off the reading wagon. The story of this Russian aristocratic family had so many characters and overlapping plot lines that I just couldn’t keep up with it, especially with my otherwise busy schedule. So this year I plan on dedicating one month to Anna Karenina and hopefully the second try will reveal better results.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Anne Brontë is the lesser known Brontë sister and often overshadowed by her more popular sisters Charlotte and Emily (of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights fame). However, the little bird on the blogoshpere tells me that out of the three it was, in fact, Anne who was the feminist, the forward-thinking and boundary-breaking rebel. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a story of a young widow who moves to a new village and has the local tongues wagging due to her secretive past.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg
Another book that has frequented my TBR lists, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow deals with the disappearance of a young boy that turns into a murder mystery. One of the themes of the book is study of identity politics between people from Greenland and from Denmark, which sounds interesting as I know next to nothing about life in Greenland. I bought this during my first years of university in hopes that it would get me back into reading. Well, I did eventually get back but not because of this one.
I haven’t yet decided which book I should choose as my March book. At the moment I’m drawn between Huojuva talo and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but a part of me is also suggesting that maybe I should try tackling one of those Finlandia tomes instead. We’ll see what happens. I’ll keep you posted. xx
i also have Elegance of the Hedgehog but have hesitated about reading it after reading another by her which was just OK. You have a good mix to look forward to for the rest of the year ….
Thanks Karen! From what I’ve heard, The Lives of Elves (her second novel that came out last year) was a big disappointment to many readers who loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog. So I’d still urge you to give The Elegance a chance, even though you didn’t particularly fancy the second novel.
Oh,I loved both The Trial and Anna Karenina.
I’m still in love with the latter!! 🙂
Wonderful! I think AK is one of those books that you grow and learn to appreciate more as time passes, because I seem to think of it more fondly now than I did while I was reading it.
I just finished Anna Karenina and I liked the majority of it, but you’ve really got to take your time with it and digest every word. I read a couple of books inbetween reading it.
Thanks for the tip! I, too, tend to read shorter books and plays inbetween big tomes, but I think in the end that was the reason why I got so distracted from finishing AK. This time I’ll be prepared! 🙂