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‘Tove Jansson: Work and Love’ by Tuula Karjalainen *****

The best part of Tove Jansson’s centenary celebrations is, for me, the plethora of new books released, which showcase both her own work and her life.  The second biography of Jansson, written by Finnish art historian Tuula Karjalainen, is released today by Particular Books, and follows Boel Westin’s work, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, which was released in January.  Whilst the titles of both books are similar, it is Karjalainen’s which stands out, and which, I feel, provides the best insight into Jansson’s work.

Jansson was born in Paris in 1914, and moved to Finland in her early childhood.  The blurb of Tove Jansson: Work and Love states that she ‘led a long, colourful and productive life, shaped by the political, social and cultural landscape of 20th-century Finland’.  The blurb of the book says, quite rightly, that Karjalainen has conjured up ‘a vivid picture of Jansson’s extraordinary life’.  Rather than focus solely on Jansson’s literary output, as Westin’s work largely does, Karjalainen has taken into account her writing and artwork in equal measure: ‘Her life’s work is enormous.  It should really be discussed in the plural, because she had several careers – as an author of fairytales, as an illustrator, painter, writer, stage designer, dramaturge, poet, political caricaturist and cartoonist’.  Much of Tove Jansson: Work and Love has been built around the ‘decades of personal correspondence and journals’ which she was able to examine following Jansson’s death in 2001.

Tove Jansson: Work and Love was first published in Finland last year.  In her book, Karjalainen begins with a lovely section entitled ‘To the Reader’, which speaks of the early days of the relationship between Tove’s parents, Signe and Viktor.  She goes on to write about the things which she has personally gained from peering into Jansson’s life: ‘Stepping in… has been a rich and wonderful experience, though I had constantly to be aware that I might not necessarily be welcome.  Tove has been the subject of biographies, studies and dissertations written from many different points of view.  She permitted it during her lifetime, despite not always being very interested’.  The structure of the book is interesting, and certainly works well; it hovers somewhere between being a chronological and thematic account, Karjalainen believing that these elements are of equal importance in such a biography.

Tove Jansson: Work and Love is incredibly well written, and such care has been given to its translation.  Lovely photographs and beautiful specimens of Jansson’s art, all in beautiful colour, have been interspersed throughout.  Karjalainen adds new information and thoughtful musings to the impression previously given of Jansson’s life and work.  Quotes have been included from those who knew her best, and who have devoted time to examining her life.  Karjalainen has even given such thought to the book’s title; it is based upon Tove’s ex libris motto, ‘Laborare et Amare‘, the two elements of paramount importance for her.

It is clear throughout that Karjalainen has such respect for Jansson and her work, and sums her up perfectly in the following paragraph: ‘Tove’s life was fascinating.  She challenged conventional ways of thinking and moral rules in a country where old prejudices, especially on the subject of sexual behaviour, maintained a strict hold…  She influenced the values and attitudes of her time, but was no flag-bearer – instead, she was a quiet person who remained uncompromising in her own life choices’.

Tove Jansson: Work and Love is a sheer joy for all of Tove’s admirers; it is in depth, compassionate, far-reaching and absolutely stunning.  The book itself is absolutely beautiful, and its gloriously colourful back and spine are sure to delight every Moomin fan.

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Joining the Classics Club

I have been thinking of joining the Classics Club for quite a while now, and have finally got around to making a list.  I was originally going to go for fifty books, but I have upped the number to one hundred because I found it so hard to narrow down.

When making my list, I took into account books which I already own, either in physical or ebook format, and those which I can check out from the library.  I have included eight re-reads in my list, and a few ‘modern classics’ too.  I have tried to include all genres – fiction, children’s, poetry, non-fiction, and even a graphic novel nestle amongst my choices.  I have also included several books from the Virago and Persephone lists to tie the challenges together.  I am beginning the challenge as of now, and am aiming to finish it by the 31st of December 2015.  I will be updating the list as and when I read the books on my newly created ‘Classics Club’ page, and will link the reviews there too.

My list is as follows:

1. Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
2. The World That Was Ours – Hilda Bernstein
3. The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck
4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
5. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
6. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
7. A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
8. The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoevsky
9. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
10. Romola – George Eliot
11. Medea – Euripides
12. The Sound and The Fury – William Faulkner
13. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
14. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
15. Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
16. The Mayor of Casterbridge – Thomas Hardy
17. Les Miserables, Volume II – Victor Hugo
18. What Maisie Knew – Henry James
19. Death in Venice – Thomas Mann
20. Suddenly Last Summer – Tennessee Williams
21. A View From the Bridge – Arthur Miller
22. Rilla of Ingleside – L.M. Montgomery
23. Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery
24. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe
25. Nine Stories – J.D. Salinger
26. Poetry – Sappho
27. Antigone – Sophocles
28. East of Eden – John Steinbeck
29. The Pearl – John Steinbeck
30. Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck
31. Sweet Thursday – John Steinbeck
32. The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien
33. Someone at a Distance – Dorothy Whipple
34. We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
35. Nana – Emile Zola
36. The Rainbow – D.H. Lawrence
37. Watership Down – Richard Adams
38. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
39. The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough
40. Eugene Onegin – Alexander Pushkin
41. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
42. Kristin Lavransdatter – Sigrid Undset
43. The Kalevala – Elias Lonnrott
44. Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane
45. Crome Yellow – Aldous Huxley
46. Blindness – Henry Green
47. Berlin Alexanderplatz – Alfred Doblin
48. Independent People – Halldor Laxness
49. A Sicilian Romance – Ann Radcliffe
50. Babylon Revisited – F. Scott Fitzgerald
51. The Beetle – Richard Marsh
52. Disturbing the Peace – Richard Yates
53. Living – Henry Green
54. Cold Spring Harbor – Richard Yates
55. The Beautiful and Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald
56. Save Me the Waltz – Zelda Fitzgerald
57. The Mystery of the Yellow Room – Zelda Fitzgerald
58. The Birds Fall Down – Rebecca West
59. Novel on Yellow Paper – Stevie Smith
60. The Life of Charlotte Bronte – Elizabeth Gaskell
61. Maude – Christina Rossetti
62. Saplings – Noel Streatfeild
63. Maus – Art Spiegelman
64. Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke
65. Poetry – Rainer Maria Rilke
66. The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar – Edgar Allan Poe
67. The Clergyman’s Daughter – George Orwell
68. Young Hearts Crying – Richard Yates
69. Dead Souls – Nikolai Gogol
70. Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov
71. Ann Veronica – H.G. Wells
72. Mary Olivier: A Life – May Sinclair
73. Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther – Elizabeth von Arnim
74. Lady Audley’s Secret – Mary Elizabeth Braddon
75. The Group – Mary McCarthy
76. The Cossacks – Leo Tolstoy
77. The Kreutzer Sonata – Leo Tolstoy
78. Resurrection – Leo Tolstoy
79. Mother – Maxim Gorky
80. Heidi – Johanna Spyri
81. Five Little Peppers and How They Grew – Margaret Sidney
82. Le Morte d’Arthur – Sir Thomas Malory
83. The Prince – Niccolo Macchiavelli
84. The Histories – Herodotus
85. Octavia – Seneca
86. Barnaby Rudge – Charles Dickens
87. The Bell Family – Noel Streatfeild
88. Black Mischief – Evelyn Waugh
89. The Giver – Lois Lowry
90. Greenmantle – John Buchan
91. The Machine Stops – E.M. Forster
92. Stoner – John Williams

Re-reads:
93. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
94. Howards End – E.M. Forster
95. Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
96. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
97. Collected Poems – Alfred Lord Tennyson
98. The Bacchae – Euripides
99. Daisy Miller – Henry James
100. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

 

Are you a member of the Classics Club?  What do you think of my choices?  Do we have any on our lists in common?

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‘The Lost Child’ by Suzanne McCourt ***

Of Suzanne McCourt’s debut, The Lost Child, the Weekend Australian writes that ‘there’s a watchful intensity to McCourt’s writing, a remarkable ability to discover within the most concrete details a rich and raw emotion’.  The Lost Child takes place in Burley Point, a fishing village in southern Australia, during the 1950s, and has been compared to work by the likes of Anne Tyler and Eudora Welty.

Sylvie Meehan, our child narrator, is just four years old when the book begins.  She is perceptive; she notices and relays everything which she observes, even if she does not quite understand it.  McCourt constantly reminds us that she is an impressionable child: ‘I am keeping quiet and being good like Mum says I should’, she tells us quite early on.  Of her father, Sylvie says, ‘He is still wearing his good shoes.  I know his toes inside those shoes are as white as crayfish meat.  I wish his toes would grow into crayfish legs and get caught in a crayfish pot and cooked and cracked open at the fish factory and his white toe meat plucked out by the women picking fish: that is my wish’.

The Lost Child spans the twelve subsequent years of Sylvie life, and is hailed as a ‘gut-wrenching and sophisticated coming-of-age story’.  Her childhood is not an overly happy; despite having friends, she is often desperately lonely, and her parents are odds with one another.  Their divorce isolates her even further.  It is when her elder brother Duncan goes missing that she really begins to blame herself for her situation, thinking that his disappearance is all her fault.

From the outset, McCourt’s childlike descriptions are written so well: ‘On the mantelpiece, Mum is a bride with a mermaid tail and a frothy veil’, ‘I am full of scorching air and angry words’, ‘Mrs Crank looks like a fox with bushy, red hair’, and ‘Under the blanket, I choke on dead fairies’.  Many of the sentences which the author weaves are quite enchanting, particularly in the novel’s beginning.  McCourt has filled the first few chapters of The Lost Child with musings which are of the utmost importance to children, and which endear us to Sylvie in consequence: ‘I wish I had money to waste from trapping rabbits like Dunc, instead of sixpence inside a pig that I can’t get out’.  The sense of place has been well built, particularly with regard to the comparisons which Sylvie makes: ‘I put my head under the blanket.  I am a wombat in a hole full of hurt and hot air’, and ‘My fingers are witchetty grubs, wrinkled and white’, for example.  The plot within The Lost Child is sometimes quite unexpected; one can sense that something unsavoury is about to happen, but it is not always easy to guess what that might be.  A few of the scenes are quite violent, overly so at times.

Whilst the idea of The Lost Child and the use of an unreliable narrator such as Sylvie works well on the face of it, she often felt a little too wise for her age.  Some of the language used by McCourt seems far too advanced for a character so young to understand, as do some of the phrases used in the stream-of-consciousness narrative: ‘We tear into the bush on the other side of the bush, crashing through bracken and banksias, wattles and heaths’, for instance.  I cannot personally imagine a five-year-old crafting such a sentence.

The pacing feels a little unsuited to the plot at times too; time passes oddly in The Lost Child, so Sylvie is sometimes one or two years older from one chapter to the next, sometimes with no real indication for initial few paragraphs – or pages – that such a leap has happened.  The writing style does not perceptibly mature as the novel goes on, and this gives one the feeling of a day-to-day continuation within the novel, rather than subsequent years elapsing.  The only real progression which occurs is the way in which as she grows, different things occupy her mind – from pleasing her father with a gift as a four-year-old, for example, to developing a crush on her teacher when she is eleven or twelve.  It is perhaps worth mentioning too that Duncan does not go missing until after the halfway point in the novel, and it seems a little strange that this incident, despite it being of the utmost importance, is given away in the book’s blurb.  Overall, my review of The Lost Child is rather a mixed one, but if you want to meet an interesting child character, I would definitely recommend picking up the novel.

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New Book Club: ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte

I have been corresponding with the lovely Susie at Girl With Her Head in a Book of late about starting a little online book club.  We have decided that our first ‘trial’ book, as it were, should be one which both of us have very much enjoyed in the past, and one which we were keen to re-read.  We have therefore decided that our inaugural book club choice will be Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Susie and I would love as many people to join in with our project as possible.  We have decided upon the first week in January to post our Wuthering Heights reviews, so that we aren’t too bogged down in Christmas things, and to give everyone else a chance to read the novel too.  If you’re planning to join in, please let us know!

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‘There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family’ by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya **

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family is the newest work published in English by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.  The New York Times believes her to be ‘one of Russia’s best living writers…  her tales inhabit a borderline between this world and the next’.

The blurb of There Once Lived a Mother… states that in these ‘darkly imagined’ novellas, ‘both cruelty and love dominate relationships between husband and wife, mother and child…  Blending horror with satire, fantasy with haunting truth, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s newly translated tales create a cast of unlikely heroines in a carnivalesque world of extremes’.

Anna Summers has translated the book, and has also penned its informative introduction.  At the outset, she sets out the ‘story-swapping culture’ which exists in Russia, and goes on to inform us that ‘the three novellas in this volume tell extreme stories that couldn’t be heard for many years – censorship wouldn’t allow it’.  Summers believes that Petrushevskaya is incredibly important within the Russian canon, describing, as she does, ‘in minute detail how ordinary people, Muscovites, lived from day to day in their identical cramped apartments…  She spoke for all those who suffered domestic hell in silence, the way Solzhenitsyn spoke for the countless nameless political prisoners’.

Of the author’s protagonists, Summers says the following: ‘Reading Petrushevskaya is an unforgettable experience.  This testifies to the exceptional power of her art, because her characters, by their own admission, don’t make particularly fascinating subjects.  In this volume, her heroines are tired, scared, impoverished women who have been devastated by domestic tragedies…  Such women are boring even to themselves’.

The three novellas within There Once Lived a Mother… are entitled ‘The Time Is Night’, ‘Chocolates with Liqueur’ and ‘Among Friends’ – Petrushevksaya’s best-known and highly controversial story – and were published in Russia in 1988, 1992 and 2002 respectively.  Each story is unsettling, and they are quite stylistically similar too.  Despite the lulling and almost simplistic narrative voices used in There Once Lived a Mother…, the sense of foreboding is incredibly strong from the start.  Atmosphere is built up marvellously through Petrushevskaya’s use of sparse wording, which gives the reader an immediate indication that something is not quite right.

In these stories, cruelty nestles into every crevice of life.  The narrator of ‘The Time is Night’ is a poet named Anna, who looks after her young grandson, Tima.  He is a young boy who at first appears ‘jealous’ of her ‘so-called success’, and she consequently blames him for all of the problems in her life.  As the tale goes on, however, one realises that Tima is the only thing which she is living for.  Her existence is bleak; her paralysed mother has been in hospital for seven years, and her son has been in prison.  Her daughter, Tima’s mother, is living away with ‘baby number two’, her ‘new fatherless brat’, and taking all of the money which should be Tima’s.  Anna, whilst headstrong, is rather naive, and despite her poor quality of life, there is something in her narrative which prevents any sympathy being felt for her.

The brutality and violence within There Once Lived a Mother… seem senseless after a while, making the stories rather a chore to read.  The cast of characters are not quite realistic; their foibles and traits sometimes sit oddly together, and any believability is therefore diminished.

Vincent Burgeon’s cover design is striking and rather creepy, and certainly sets the tone for the words within.  There Once Lived a Mother… is stark and oppressive, and whilst the tales are certainly not for the faint-hearted, Petrushevskaya does give a moderately interesting insight into a stifling regime.  The novellas here are stranger than her short stories, and far more disturbing.  Summers has done a good job of translating the work, but there is something oddly detached within the tales, even when the first person narrative perspective has been used.  Emotion is lacking in those places which particularly need it, and whilst it is harrowing, the narrative style – particularly in the second story, ‘Chocolates and Liqueur’ – does not suit.

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