Review: Tähtikirkas, lumivalkea by Joel Haahtela (eng. Star Bright, Snow White)

PAPERBACK; 269 P.
OTAVA, 2013
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Disclaimer: This book has, unfortunately, not been translated into English. Thus all the excerpts here have been translated by yours truly.

Tainted by a tragedy in his homeland, a young man writes diary entries in Paris in 1889. The young man succeeds to gain a position as a correspondent in a news agency and takes the reader on a magical trip to sizzling Berlin and its intoxicating nights, and later far far away to the colonialised Far East.

In 2012 in Helsinki a descendant of this young man finds his diaries and discovers that every one of us leaves a mark on the world. But there are those that pay a dearer price for it, and who mourn for the sake of others.

Similarly to Neil Gaiman, of whom I’ve written here previously, Joel Haahtela is one of those authors who I’ve been meaning get into more and to discover what the hype around him is really about. My first try with Katoamispiste (The Vanishing Point) wasn’t really a big hit, but I’d heard much praise for his newest novel, Star Bright, Snow White, that I decided to include it on my 20 Books of Summer reading list. And having now read the novel, it turns out that I still don’t quite get the hype, but do enjoy reading and admire his writing style.

The story of Star Bright, Snow White follows a young man who has been banished from his home country Finland to Paris, France. On his partly self-inflicted exile the young man writes in his diary letters to his lover, who he’ll probably never see again. The book is told in diary entries that slowly reveal what caused the young man to abandon his love, his art studies and his country and how this trauma is reflected as years and decades go by. Despite his Finnish background, the young man speaks rather fluent French and, through his uncle’s connections, he is employed in a French news agency during The Great Exhibition 1889. About a decade later the man has been promoted to foreign correspondent – first to Berlin in 1913–1914 and later on an excursion to the Far East in early 1920s. Star Bright, Snow White is a story of an idealistic budding artist on a crash course with the brutalities of life and in developing an identity.

Like Katoamispiste (The Vanishing Point), Star Bright, Snow White is  a beautifully written exploration of humanity, in which style runs the game. Haahtela describes vividly the historical aspects of Paris in late 1889, The Great Exhibition, Berlin in the 1913, and the self-induced alienation and estrangement that the character feels towards his homeland. It is a puzzle with missing pieces in which the reader has no clear answers. For example, is the main character trying to escape from his past by running away and diving head first into his work, or is it simply his a fear of inadequacy? The journal entries of the book cover short periods of time and can often jump as much as 15 years forward without any explanation. As a whole, Star Bright, Snow White was an interesting and emotional experience – especially the final notes of the diary were heart-wrenching.

Haahtela has a talent for writing historical fiction with his own style and the time periods covered in this book were definitely ones that I haven’t read much about and that appealed to me very much. However, the novel left me questioning whether I had grasped it’s meaning or not. Right when I felt like I got it, it seemed to slip away from my hand and run between my fingers. Also the main character stayed aloof and I didn’t really get a sense of him. As for the present day part, I didn’t really care that much for it except that it brought some sort of closure to the story. I’d recommend Star Bright, Snow White to readers who enjoy complex characters, unanswered questions, and a bit of artsy European history thrown into the mix.

3.5/5

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Review: Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

PAPERBACK; 112 P.
TRANS. EMILY AND FLEUR JEREMIAH
PEIRENE PRESS, 2013/2009
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

A postmodern Victorian novel about faith, knowledge and our inner needs.

The late 1870s, the Kentish village of Downe. The villagers gather in church one rainy Sunday. Only Thomas Davies stays away. The eccentric loner, father of two and a grief-stricken widower, works as a gardener for the notorious naturalist, Charles Darwin. He shuns religion. But now Thomas needs answers. What should he believe in? And why should he continue to live?

‘A stunning, poetic work. Like Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood, Carlson evokes the voices of an entire village, and, through them, the spirit of the age. The apparent tensions between science and spirituality, Darwinism and humanism, reach a beautiful, life-affirming resolution.’ – Meike Ziervogel

I came upon Mr Darwin’s Gardener soon after Peirene Press had picked up White Hunger to be translated, and I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of the title before – considering that the book is translated from my native Finnish. As I started looking up reviews of the book, all the reviews I read were very positive and having now read the book, I can see why. Similarly to The Rabbit Back Literature Society, I discovered a gem of Finnish literature through translation!

Mr Darwin’s Gardener is set in a small country village of Downe in Kent in the 1870s – most notably known as the home of scientist Charles Darwin. Tomas Davies, who works as Mr Darwin’s gardener, has recently been widowed and has, consequently, drawn away from the village society. The villagers look after one another, although mainly from behind of the window glass, and at the heart of the story lies their reaction to a member distancing himself from the community. However, aside from the problem of Mr. Davies, every villager has their own problems and hidden aspirations. For example, Mary Kenny wants to be a writer but never has the time to write and Rosemary Rowe hides something from her husband. By switching the focus of the narration from one character to another, Carlson not only shows the village life from many perspectives but also presents the power of the collective consciousness and how it affects those within the circle as well as those outside.

I absolutely adored Mr Darwin’s Gardener with its thought-provoking passages, glimpses of life and the poetic writing that balanced it all. However, I must admit that this book is not for those who want to read a book as quickly as possible. I actually started the book twice, because the first time around I just couldn’t get my head around it. Nevertheless, the strangeness of the multiple voices gradually became clearer and won me over. The writing style and the layers of the story make it utterly engrossing; how something so strange and at the same time so intricate and cleverly constructed has been written is beyond me. Moreover, Emily and Fleur Jeremiah’s translation carries the lyrical aspect of the text extremely well and I can’t wait to read this also in its original form. Mr Darwin’s Gardener is not a very conventional novel as it doesn’t focus on around a single event but offers snapshots of varying scenes that weave together. The one character notably missing from the village life is Mr Darwin himself, although he is often remembered in the discussions of the villagers.

All in all, Mr Darwin’s Gardener was such an enthralling experience that I find it hard to express just how much I enjoyed it. It’s definitely one of my favourite reads of this year. If you are looking for lyrical and poetic writing, discussions on the dichotomy of religion and science, or a book about life in the Kentish countryside in 1870s, you should definitely look up this book.

5/5

I have decided that the cover of the book should not be too dark and the front page will have a simple gravure. The typeface must be discreet so that the book does not scream at you. It should look elegant and appeal to intelligent persons, not women who buy cheap little booklets, Mary Kenny says.

Mary Kenny says: My reader is certain to be an educated woman. She won’t put the book down just because the author’s name is still unknown. No, she will leaf through the pages, taking care not to bend them. I am going to demand a proper binding, so that people can read the book in bed comfortably. On the other hand, if my reader were to start reading at night, perhaps she would not be able to stop and go to sleep. I will begin writing really quite soon.

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Review: Maa on syntinen laulu by Timo K. Mukka (Eng. The Earth is a Sinful Song)

HARDCOVER; 229 P.
GUMMERUS, 2013/1964
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Disclaimer: This book has, unfortunately, not been translated into English. Thus all the excerpts here have been translated by yours truly. 

Timo K. Mukka’s exquisite debut novel is like a ballad – startling and beautiful in its coarseness. The story follows Martta, a young woman, and a small village in Lapland where people are torn between feverish religiousness and strong sexual instincts. Martta falls is love with a Sami reindeer herder and their brief and unconventional love story is described in a way that is rough and naturalistic but at the same time very lyrical. Against the backdrop of the powerful and extreme nature of Lapland and the depressing life of a closed community. The religious fervour and the oppressing atmosphere of the homestead create a tough opposition for Martta’s love story.

Timo K. Mukka (1944–1973) published his debut novel at the tender age of 19. The reception of the novel was crushing as the strong descriptions of the sexual and religious acts were too much for the readers at the time. The attitudes of the media and the readers remained conflicted throughout Mukka’s career and the appreciation for his works began rising only after his early death. Nowadays Timo K. Mukka is considered one the most influential Finnish writers of his time.

Having lived some years in the northern Finland, you cannot avoid hearing the name of Timo K. Mukka. Mukka lived most of his life in northern Finland and many of his novels are also set in there. However, although his reputation still lives on, he is not a novelist whose works are particularly read or appreciated. In that sense, there is a clear divide between the readers in northern Finland and in southern Finland, where Mukka’s influence is stronger. As for me, I probably would not have picked up The Earth is Sinful Song for a long while if it were not for the TBR 274 list. The blurb and the themes don’t really appeal to me that much and it was only because of the cover and some reviews praising his unique writing style that I decided to give this novel a try.

The Earth is a Sinful Song describes the people living in a small village in northern Lapland in the 1940s. The main character Martta is a young woman approaching adulthood and the book follows her journey of coming to terms with her sexuality and the realities of marriage in a small, close-knit community. Mixed in to the story are the relationship of her parents, the angry and sickly mother, the father who alternates between heavy drinking and hard working, and the old man who keeps a close eye on everyone. The life in the community revolves around two opposing issues: alcohol and religion, both of which include a hefty dose of sexual acts. When Martta sets her heart on the disreputable reindeer herder, she has to deal with the reactions from both her family as well as her nosy neighbours.

The writing reflects the dialect of the region which sets the story on the context of Lapland in the 1940s. Most of the time the story felt light-years away from modern day and it made it very hard for me to understand the actions of the characters. The praised style of writing was great, and I adored the short snippets of the melody that was strewn between chapters – if only the rest had been as mystical as that I would have given it five stars regardless of the plot. In the end, The Earth is a Sinful Song however was not to my taste and I found myself occasionally very alienated from the book. I understand the controversy as well as the novelty of the book, but the crudeness was a bit too much for me personally. It made the point it was trying, but in no way was it in good taste. Keeping all this in mind, I still very much appreciated how the book challenged me as a reader – it pushed me outside of my comfort zone and made me view things from a different perspective. For that reason solely, I would recommend The Earth is a Sinful Song as an example of experimental and modernist Finnish fiction. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ll be taking on any of Timo K. Mukka’s other books any time soon. A very conflicting read.

3/5

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Review: Punainen viiva by Ilmari Kianto (Eng. The Red Line)

HARDCOVER; 174 P.
OTAVA, 1970/1909
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Disclaimer: This book has, unfortunately, not been translated into English. Thus all the excerpts here have been translated by yours truly. 

Ilmari Kianto’s (1874–1970) The Red Line was published in 1909 and depicts the time of the first universal and equal vote in Finland in the beginning of 20th century. The story is set in the rural community of Eastern Finland and it centers around a couple, Topi and Riikka, who try to understand the unravelling events of the approaching vote and the promises of social change that it might bring. The novel offers an insightful look into the minds of the poorer classes of the early 20th century and its characters have settled their place in the literary canon of Finland. This edition features the cover that was designed for the first edition, but never used due to the strong controversy of the topic.

For a long time The Red Line was a title that I instantly recognised as one of the Finnish classics but had no idea what the book was about. And had it not been for a paper that I’m currently writing, it would have stayed so for a few more years. Because of the political issues discussed in the book and the fact that it was published only two years after the first universal vote, it was considered rather controversial.

The Red Line begins with a beautiful description of the forest in the autumn, from the perspective of a great bear. As the bear falls into hibernation, we enter the small cottage of Topi and Riikka Romppainen and their small children who prepare for the upcoming winter with the dread that what they have might not be enough. As the winter sets in, their fears are realised and Topi has to travel to the closest village to sell some of their valuables to buy food for the family. However, as he arrives to the village, he is struck by the notion that something strange is afoot. The workers and farmers are holding meetings and reading the paper aloud. Topi is soon told that an election is arriving and there is a rumour that, for once, the poor will have a voice. When Topi return home, Riikka dismisses the news as village gossip but is soon proved wrong as politics comes knocking on their own door. As winter turns into spring the visitors of the small cottage tell of change that could turn their world upside down.

SO SO GOOD. This book had me hooked from the very beginning and I couldn’t believe I had ever not wanted to read it. The Red Line seems to have everything: complex narration, symbolism, beautiful description of nature, interesting language, heart-wrenching story but with an occasional glint in the eye. The red line of the title symbolises the voting process in which voters had to draw a line next to the candidate that they were voting for – with a red pencil. Simply reading about the two main characters anxiously preparing for this moment, the moment of drawing the line, was at the same time so strange and so empowering. The author has truly captured something very pure and raw about the people and the time. The Red Line isn’t a historical document per se, but it provides an insight to the history of Finland in a way that opened my eyes. In order to catch the references, you do need to understand the history of Finnish independence, but I’m sure it could also be read without the background information. The Red Line is definitely one of my new favourites! So if you ever do have the chance to read this, please do!

5/5

The day of the red line was fast approaching. The printing machines pounded on and on. Red letters whisked like fiery dragons across the country; biting till blood, lighting the spirit aflame.

Review: When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen

EBOOK; 320 P.
TRANS. LOLA ROGERS
KNOPF, 2015/2012
SOURCE: FROM THE PUBLISHER

From the acclaimed author of Purge comes a riveting, chillingly relevant new novel of occupation, resistance, and collaboration in Eastern Europe.

1941: In Communist-ruled, war-ravaged Estonia, two men are fleeing from the Red Army—Roland, a fiercely principled freedom fighter, and his slippery cousin Edgar. When the Germans arrive, Roland goes into hiding; Edgar abandons his unhappy wife, Juudit, and takes on a new identity as a loyal supporter of the Nazi regime…1963: Estonia is again under Communist control, independence even further out of reach behind the Iron Curtain. Edgar is now a Soviet apparatchik, desperate to hide the secrets of his past life and stay close to those in power. But his fate remains entangled with Roland’s, and with Juudit, who may hold the key to uncovering the truth…

Great acts of deception and heroism collide in this masterful story of surveillance, passion, and betrayal, as Sofi Oksanen brings to life the frailty—and the resilience—of humanity under the shadow of tyranny.

Sofi Oksanen is probably one of Finland’s most read authors. She draws a lot of her topics from her Finnish-Estonian heritage, and her historical fiction quartet depicts the events of the past century in Estonia. Her breakthrough novel and the second in the quartet, Purge, won the famed Finlandia Prize in 2008 and has been translated into several languages. When the Doves Disappeared is the third book in the quartet and is set in Estonia in the 1940s and 1960s.

When the Doves Disappeared begins with war in early 1940s where cousins Roland and Edgar are fighting against the Soviet Union for the freedom of their country. With the help of German forces the Estonians win the war, but whilst the others celebrate the newfound freedom, Roland feels conflicted about the new ally. Edgar on the other hand is sure that he will gain respect and prosperity under the new rule by taking on a new identity. However, along with the new identity, Edgar abandons his wife, who on her side has been fearing his husband’s return from the war. Twenty years later, Edgar has again changed sides and is now trying to find out what happened to Roland after the Germans arrived.

The story of When the Doves Disappeared does not follow a simple timeline, but jumps between the events of the 1940s and the events of 1960s. In the beginning of every chapter is a stamp that indicates what year is in question, which I thought was a clever way of showing time. The story revolves around the three main characters: Roland, Edgar, and Edgar’s wife Juudit. All have their own dreams, problems, deceits and weaknesses that are slowly revealed as the narration peels away the layers of the story. The topics in Oksanen’s books are often so harrowing and painful that I can only read few chapters at a time. However, once you immerse yourself in the story, the book is simply unputdownable. The writing is beautiful and I think Rogers’ translation flows really well. I’d recommend Where the Doves Disappeared to those who want to know more about the experience of Eastern Europeans during and after the WWII as well as to other lovers of historical fiction.

When the Doves Disappeared is released on February 10, 2015 in the U.S. (Knopf) and on May 7, 2015 in the UK (Atlantic Books).

4/5

She only hoped that her time wouldn’t come until some more ordinary day, that the last sound she heard would be the clink of a spoon on a saucer, the jangle of hairpins in a box, the hollow ring of a milk can set down on a table.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

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Review: The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

PAPERBACK; 346 P.
TRANS. LOLA M. ROGERS
PUSHKIN PRESS, 2014/2006
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Only nine people have ever been chosen by renowned children’s author Laura White to join “The Rabbit Back Literature Society,” an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: Ella, a young literature teacher. Soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual known as “The Game”? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura White’s winter party? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, as Ella explores the Society and its history, disturbing secrets that had been buried start to come to light…

The Rabbit Back Literature Society is the debut novel of Finnish author Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen and it was originally published in 2006. The English translation, published in 2014, was chosen as one of the Waterstones’ 2014 Book Club books. Had it not been for the popularity of the translation, I’d probably have never heard of this book – which is quite bizarre, I admit. However, the literary premise of the book sounded intriguing, so I decided to give the book a go.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society follows Ella Milana, who is a recent Literature Studies graduate and whose Master’s thesis focuses on children’s author Laura White’s Creatureville series. Ella is currently working as a substitute teacher in her home town, Rabbit Back, which consequently is also the hometown of Laura White and the famous Rabbit Back Literature Society. Ella’s life is at a crossroad – she has recently separated from her fiancée who could not deal with the fact that Ella can never have children, her father suffers from Alzheimers, and the substitute teaching offers no joys either. However, when Ella receives a tampered copy of Crime and Punishment, she discovers that there is a mystical disease that is changing all the books in the library. Soon after she receives an invitation to join the prestigious Rabbit Back Literature Society. However, Ella’s dreams of finally meeting the elusive Laura White are crushed when the author suddenly disappears into the air in the middle of Ella’s welcoming party. Now Ella is left to her own devices to navigate her way through the mysteries of the society.

The story of The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a mix of magical realism and the questions of authorship and inspirations. The book introduces a variety of characters, and as Ella plays “The Game” with the other members of the society, they all bleed. Rabbit Back is not a your typical Finnish small town, for there are many curious incidents, people lost in the woods, strange sights, and stray dogs (we rarely have those in Finnish cities). The magical elements don’t take the center stage in the book, but they provide a fairytale-esque backdrop to the story itself. Despite the whimsical cover and the fact that a lot of the book focuses around fairy tales and folklore, The Rabbit Back Literature Society is definitely a book for adult audiences. It includes some violent scenes as well as some seriously dark undertones.

Despite some of the gruesome elements in the story, I loved this book. It put me under a spell and confused me all the way from here to Sunday. In the end, I didn’t really know what was real and what wasn’t, which is a mark of a well-executed magical realism book. The subtext on authorship, integrity and inspiration was thought-provoking and offered insights I hadn’t come across before.  My only concern is that with a story as wide and large as The Rabbit Back Literature Society there might have been a bit too many elements in  the story for it stay coherent. By cutting out some of the plot lines and backgrounds, there might have been more depth to individual characters and themes.

The book presents an abundance of questions without providing all the answers, but there are a lot of hints. Some you can deduce by by reading between the lines – although people might interpret these hints differently. The Rabbit Back Literature Society would be a great book club book because it offers a variety of themes and I think is made to be talked about. I’d highly recommend this to everyone who isn’t too queasy about grit and enjoys being lost in magical realism.

4/5

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15 in 2015

As I’ve mentioned in some of my earlier posts, 2015 will be celebrated in Finland as The Year of Book. This is organised to promote reading and literature by hosting book clubs, author meetings, and other book related events. I’ll try to keep an eye out for the events happening near me, but instead of merely reporting from events that I’ve attended, I’ve decided to try and make 2015 also the year of Finnish literature also here in my blog. And for this purpose, I’ve coined my own little 15 in 2015 challenge.

Now, I must admit that this is not an original idea – I saw it prompted in the Finnish Goodreads group that I follow. The basic idea of the 15 in 2015 challenge is to read and review 15 books written by Finnish authors. My goal with this challenge is both to read more Finnish fiction and to raise awareness about the Finnish fiction that gets translated into other languages. I’ll try to keep an eye out especially for the books translated into English since it’s the language my readers seem most familiar with. I also plan on writing a second part to my Finnish authors post, because upon reflection there are so many Finnish authors that I’ve yet to mention!kirjanvuosi15

This is the official logo for The Year of Book. [A quick lesson on Finnish: KIRJA=BOOK; -N= the genitive case; VUOSI=YEAR] As the year progresses, I’ll be linking all the reviews to this master post, so if you miss any of the reviews, you’ll always find them here. In order to read 15 books in 12 months, I should read 1.25 books every month – which isn’t much, but I doubt that I’ll be as orderly as that 😀 But so much for the technical stuff, let’s look at the books!

Finnish books that I’d really like to read in 2015:

Adding a few comics/graphic novels into the mix:

I’d also love to write reviews for two books of which the English translation is published in 2015 and that I’ve read earlier: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen (translation published March 1, 2015) & Unknown Soldiers by Väinö Linna (translation published April 2015).

Let me know if you have any suggestions as to which book I should begin with or any recommendations! I’d love to hear them.

Cheers! x