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Reading the World: ‘The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy’, edited by Johanna Sinisalo ****

Although I have showcased rather a lot of Finnish literature during my 2017 Reading the World Project, I felt that The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, edited by Johanna Sinisalo, would add something a little different to proceedings.  It is an anthology which is comprised of the work of twenty distinct Finnish authors, who span the period 1870 to 2003.  They range from the well-known – Moomin creator Tove Jansson and Arto Paasilinna, for instance – to those which have not been published in English before.   The entirety, with its rather broad scope, has been translated by David Hackston, and is one of the books in the Dedalus series of Fantasy Literature in Translation.

I must begin by writing that I am not personally the biggest fan of fantasy literature; I picked this up because much of it is involved with magical realism, mythology, and Finnish folklore, three topics which I find markedly interesting.  The Independent writes in its review of the book: ‘These excellent stories share an edginess that’s quite distinct from the quirkiness many contemporary English writers prefer to celebrate.’

In her introduction to the anthology, Sinisalo writes: ‘Literature written in the Finnish language is surprisingly young.’  In fact, written literature has existed for only a few centuries, and secular literature only since the 1800s.  Most Finns did, and still do, write in Swedish, which has official language status throughout the country.  As with other Nordic countries, literature is incredibly important for the population; many people read, and Sinisalo points out that ‘literature is read, bought and borrowed from libraries more than almost anywhere else.  Statistically Finns are among the most literate people in the world.’9781903517291

In The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, a lot of the entries are short stories, but there are also some carefully chosen extracts from longer works.  Each entrant is among good company; six of the twenty authors included have received the most prestigious literary award to exist in Finland, and many have been translated in a whole host of different languages.  Sinisalo has intended to ‘build up a cross-section of Finnish fantasy, both thematically and chronologically.’  Whilst the stories included are largely very different, Sinisalo writes that when compiling the book, she ‘observed that certain distinctly Finnish elements and subjects recur throughout these stories, albeit in a myriad of different ways, but in such a way that we can almost assume that, exceptionally, they comprise a body of imagery central to Finnish fantasy literature.’

Throughout, the sense of place and nature is so strong, and the collection is not simply a conglomeration of run-of-the-mill fantasy; rather, it is incredibly literary.  Finland’s rich history inspires the stories, which include such fantastical elements as werewolves, and resurrections of stuffed creatures, as well as isolated storms which play havoc.  Different perspectives have been used, including a very striking story told from the voice of a ghost.  The prose, overall, is beautiful, and its translation has been handled marvellously.

Some stories, of course, appealed to me more than others; I half expected that this would be the case.  However, the collection read as a whole is incredibly rich, and presents a splendid thematic idea.  It has reminded me of stories which I adore, as well as bringing new writers to my attention – Sari Peltoniemi’s ‘The Golden Apple’ is a firm new favourite, for example – which can only be a positive.

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One From the Archive: ‘That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Written’, edited by David Miller ****

The tales within Head of Zeus’ That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Written have been selected and introduced by David Miller.  The book’s blurb states, ‘Profound, lyrical, shocking, wise: the short story is capable of almost anything’, and goes on to describe the way in which the stories range ‘from the essential to the unexpected, the traditional to the surreal…  Here are childhood favourites and neglected masters, twenty-first century wits and national treasures, Man Booker Prize winners and Nobel Laureates’.

In his witty introduction, in which he leads an informed discussion about the power of the short story, Miller writes of the Herculean task of selecting the one hundred best tales ever written: ‘I’ve tried to remain dispassionate, searching for the finest, ending up being wholly and, I’d argue, usefully passionate.  I have spent weeks, then months, quarrelling with myself (and others) and, now there is a result, some will complain I’ve not included or y, or h or z or given due attention to the burgeoning literary genre or scene in delete as appropriate‘.  He goes on to say that ‘… as a short story is already a distillation, it gives the writer a far harder task to achieve everything, not just any thing.  Every thing in this book is as good as it can get’.

So many wonderful authors have been included in this anthology; just glancing at the full list on the back of the book before I began to read, I picked out Virginia Woolf, Anton Chekhov, Roald Dahl, William Maxwell, Ian McEwan and Flannery O’Connor.  The range of contributors is diverse, particularly when one takes into account the wealth of original languages in which the tales were originally penned.  Primarily, those in That Glimpse of Truth are English, but there are stories translated from Danish, Yiddish and Vietnamese to name but three.  The stories have been ordered by the chronological date of birth of each author as, says Miller, ‘that seemed easiest’. It is as good a way as any to organise a collection of tales, and there is consequently a marvellous progression from beginning to end.

The book’s title has been taken from a quote by Joseph Conrad, on why he chose to write within the short story form: ‘My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel… and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask’.  That Glimpse of Truth begins with a story from ‘The Book of Jonah’, and encompasses, among others, the Brothers Grimm, Nikolai Gogol, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Stefan Zweig, Edith Pearlman and Lorrie Moore.  The format of the book makes it a perfect volume from which to read one or two stories per day.  So many themes, perspectives, characters and emotions have been encompassed.  There are stories within stories, and also those which ask wider questions.

That Glimpse of Truth has been beautifully designed.  The book itself is lovely; a red hardback with a nicely designed dustjacket and ribbon bookmarks.  The only drawback is that there are rather a lot of mistakes within the majority of the stories, and it is a real shame that it was not better edited.  Regardless, at over 900 pages, That Glimpse of Truth is sure to keep every reader amused.  It is a marvellous collection, and has been thoughtfully put together, so much so that it is an absolute delight to read.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Reader’ by Ali Smith ****

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‘The Reader’ by Ali Smith

The Reader is a marvellous idea for a book, and it is great to be able to see what has inspired Smith to pursue her own literary career. There is a whole scope of different literature and non-fiction here, some of which is new to me, and some of which is dear to my heart. I loved the fact that Smith and I have so many favourites in common (Jansson, Plath, Mansfield, Anne Frank – all swoonworthy authors), and I feel that I have some real gems in store for me with Smith’s recommendations as my starting point.

Smith states in her introduction that she has decided not to write a personal comment alongside each inclusion. I felt whilst reading that this was a real shame, as for me, it undermines the entire goal of creating a personal reading anthology. Still, the pieces which she had chosen, for reasons unknown, were marvellous.

My favourites (both old and new):
‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austen; ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ by Billie Holiday; ‘Witch’ by George Mackay Brown; ‘We Shall Not Escape Hell’ by Marina Tsvetaeva; ‘Meadowsweet’ by Kathleen Jamie; ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston; ‘Wise Children’ by Angela Carter; ‘Housekeeping’ by Marilynne Robinson; ‘Everything is Nice’ by Jane Bowles; ‘Orlando’ by Virginia Woolf; ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’ by John Keats; ‘On the Ward with TV, iPod and Telephone’ by Kasia Boddy; ‘To Anybody At All’ by Margaret Tait; ‘Wants’ by Grace Paley; ‘On Angels’ by Czeslaw Milosz; ‘Ars Poetica?’ by Czeslaw Milosz; ‘The Cinema and The Classics’ by H.D.; ‘Mae West’ by Colette; ‘Colette’ by Lee Miller; ‘Bloodshed and Three Novellas’ by Cynthia Ozick; ‘A Writer’s Diary’ by Virginia Woolf; ‘The Journal of Katherine Mansfield’; ‘Unseen Translation’ by Kate Atkinson; ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas; ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ by W.B. Yeats; ‘Passengers with Heavy Loads’ by Joseph Roth; ‘The Falling City’ by Lavinia Greenlaw; ‘Kansas to New York’ by Louise Brooks; ‘Remedy’ by A.M. Homes; ‘The Darkling Thrush’ by Thomas Hardy; ‘Hymn to Iris’ by Alice Oswald; ‘Art in Nature’ by Tove Jansson; ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’ by Sylvia Plath; ‘The 24-Hour Dog’ by Jeanette Winterson; ‘The Living Mountain’ by Nan Shepherd; ‘Independence’ by Helen Oyeyemi; ‘The House I Live In’ by Maggie O’Farrell (absolutely stunning); the extract from Anne Frank’s diary; ‘From Berlin’ by Armando; ‘Cymbeline’ by William Shakespeare; and ‘Ninth Elegy’ by Rainer Maria Rilke.

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‘The Virago Book of Wanderlust and Dreams’, edited by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran ****

‘This collection of women’s writing about travel spans over 400 years, five continents, and a variety of characters from cross-dressers to armchair travellers. The authors include: Angela Carter, Jung Chang, Karen Blixen, Marsha Hunt, Bernice Rubens, Harriet Wilson, Beryl Markham, and Dorothy Parker.’

9781860494178The very idea of a Virago anthology is fantastic, and I have loved those which I have read to date.  They open new worlds; they put one on the trail of authors they perhaps haven’t heard of before, and individuals who pique the interest.  Unlike The Virago Book of Food, for instance, I wasn’t enamoured with every entry here, but I do love the thematic idea of wanderlust, travelling, and dreaming of places real and imagined.  Equally lovely is the unifying thread which St. Aubin de Teran writes of in her introduction: ‘courage in all its forms’.

There are many excerpts from novels here, and a couple from works of non-fiction or autobiography.  My personal interest was heightened in the following authors, whom I will certainly endeavour to seek out in the months to come: Bernice Rubens, Buchi Emecheta, Emily Perkins, Louise Meriwether, Paris Franz, and Liane de Pougy.  The collection, on the whole, is varied and engaging, and it was wonderful to see the inclusion of books as wonderful as A Woman in Berlin and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden.  The use of separate sections worked nicely, although the titles were often a little obscure, and didn’t seem to relate to anything included in one instance.

Wanderlust & Dreams isn’t the best Virago anthology which I have come across to date, but it is certainly entertaining and thoughtful, and is undoubtedly a good way to reconnect wit old favourites and discover something new.

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‘Dickens at Christmas’ ****

It is said,’ states the blurb of this book, ‘that Charles Dickens invented Christmas, and within these pages you’ll certainly find all the elements of a traditional Christmas brought to vivid life: snowy rooftops, gleaming shop windows, steaming bowls of punch, plum puddings like speckled cannon balls, sage and onion stuffing, magic, charity and goodwill’. Sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? Thankfully, ‘marvellous’ is an adjective which can be applied in good measure to this lovely book. 9780099573135

Dickens at Christmas contains many extracts from his seasonal writings, some of which are short novellas (‘A Christmas Carol’, which takes pride of place as the second story in the collection, and ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’, for example), and others which number just a few pages. All of Dickens’ Christmas books are included, along with a standalone story from The Pickwick Papers and those from various short story collections.

Dickens’ wit and love of Christmas shine through on each and every page. All of the many elements of this time of year have been presented by the master himself, and encompass both the rich and the poor, the merry and the miserly, the ghostly and the real. The religious aspects are mentioned in some detail, along with the importance of the family dynamic over the Christmas period. Each scene is wonderfully written and beautifully evoked. Only Dickens could write so meticulously and creatively about a rainy day: ‘the cold, damp, clammy wet, that wrapped him up like a moist great-coat… when the rain came slowly, thickly, obstinately down; when the street’s throat, like his own, was choked with mist; when smoking umbrellas passed and repassed, spinning round and round like so many teetotums…’

I cannot write a review of Dickens at Christmas without mentioning how beautiful this edition is. The cover sparkles, and Emily Sutton’s illustrations, both on the cover and before each story, have been wonderfully drawn. It is truly an object of beauty, and is sure to delight many people this Christmas – a perfect gift to show you care, or simply one with which to adorn your own bookshelves.

Dickens at Christmas is wonderful for already established fans of Dickens’ work, but it also provides a lovely introduction to his stories and style of writing. The volume can be easily dipped in and out of, and the stories themselves are so rich in detail that they can be read again and again. Their sheer timelessness makes them suitable Christmas fare for many years to come.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Wordsworth Collection of Classic Short Stories’ – Selected by Rosemary Gray ****

I love Wordsworth Editions, and when I saw a brand new copy of this doorstop-sized book (it comes in at over 1400 pages) in Brighton for just £3, I could not resist it.  It contains some marvellous authors – Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, etc. – and I hoped it would lead me on to some more fabulous books to read, as these collections so often do.  I really like the way in which an author biography has been included before their tales in this book, as it gives a great insight into the context – for example, the reasons as to how they became famous authors, and what inspired them to write.

I decided to start reading at the very beginning of November, and it took me almost an entire month to get through.  At first, I aimed to read one or two stories each night, or when time allowed, but on some days I found I did not pick it up at all, and on others I read five or six tales in one go.  I found Classic Short Stories to be a great collection on the whole, but it did feel a little imbalanced in that some authors were given several stories, and some only one.

My favourite stories were as follows: ‘The Box Office Girl’ and ‘The Umbrella’ by Arnold Bennett; ‘The Black Cottage’ by Wilkie Collins; ‘The Little Regiment’ by Stephen Crane; ‘Alicia’s Diary’ by Thomas Hardy; ‘The Real Thing’ by Henry James; ‘The Prussian Officer’ and ‘The Blind Man’ by D.H. Lawrence; and ‘The Legacy’, ‘Kew Gardens’, ‘The Mark on the Wall’, ‘The Shooting Party’ and ‘Together and Apart’ by Virginia Woolf.

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‘Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries’, edited by Martin Edwards ****

The eye-catching British Library Crime Classics publications now have a short story collection in their midst.  Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries has been edited by Martin Edwards, and presents a ‘collection of vintage mysteries’, all of which centre upon the theme of holidays.

In his introduction, Edwards writes9780712357487 that Resorting to Murder ‘shows the enjoyable and unexpected ways in which crime writers have used summer holidays as a theme’.  The tales have a wide range across the Golden Age of British crime fiction, encompassing both ‘stellar names from the past’ and uncovering ‘hidden gems’.  Edwards believes that some of the stories which he has selected for publication within the volume are ‘obscure’ and ‘rare’, and have ‘seldom been reprinted’.  Well-known authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett and G.K. Chesterton thus sit alongside the lesser-known likes of Basil Thomson, Leo Bruce and Gerald Findler.

Only British writers have been focused upon here, but the settings which they use as their backdrops are rather diverse.  We visit Conan Doyle’s Cornwall, E.W. Hornung’s Switzerland, and stop off at golf courses, secluded resorts and walking tours conducted in France along the way.

Edwards’ aim was to present ‘vintage stories written over the span of roughly half a century, and which have the backdrop of a holiday’, whether at home or abroad.  ‘This straightforward unifying theme,’ he tells us, ‘is counterpointed by the stories’ sheer diversity’.  The differing perspectives and shifts with regard to time periods and settings works marvellously, and ensures that the collection can be read all in one go by the greedy traveller, or dipped in and out of by the more relaxed reader.  Diversity exists between the detectives themselves, too; there are shrewd man-of-the-moment types who go out of their way to appear in charge of the situation, and those who are quite unsuspected by others until the pivotal moment at which all is revealed.

It is a nice touch that each story within Resorting to Murder has been introduced with biographical details of each author, as well as the ‘background to their writing’.  The only unfortunate detail which is missing is that nowhere does it specify which year each story was written or published in.  Chronologically ordered they may be, but one cannot help but feel that this small yet important element would have been useful in a collection which purports to show the progression of crime stories.

Resorting to Murder is engaging and filled with aspects of interest.  As is often the case with anthologies, particularly thematic ones, some tales are far stronger than others, but there is definitely something for everyone within its pages.  Resorting to Murder is a wonderful choice for summer escapism, as well as the perfect book for the discerning armchair traveller.

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