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‘Lagom: The Swedish Secret of Living Well’ by Lola A. Akerstrom **

‘Perfect for fans of The Little Book of Hygge and Norwegian Wood, find the balance in life that is just right for you. Let Lola A. Akerstrom, Editor-in-chief of Slow Travel Stockholm, be your companion to all things lagom.  As the Swedish proverb goes, ‘Lagom ar bast’ (The right amount is best). Lagom sums up the Swedish psyche and is the reason why Sweden is one of the happiest countries in the world with a healthy work-life balance and high standards of living.  Lagom is a way of living that promotes harmony. It celebrates fairness, moderation and being satisfied with and taking proper care of what you’ve got, including your well-being, relationships, and possessions. It’s not about having too little or too much but about fully inviting contentment into our lives through making optimal decisions. Who better than Lola A. Akerstrom to be your lagom guide? Sweden-based Lola is an award-winning writer, photographer , and editor-in-chief of Slow Travel Stockholm and she offers us a unique vantage point when it comes to adopting elements of a lagom lifestyle.Full of insights and beautiful photographs, taken by Lola herself, this authentic book will help you make small, simple changes to your every day life – whether that’s your diet, lifestyle, money, work or your home – so you can have a more balanced way of living filled with contentment.’

9781472249333I have a real love of Scandinavia, which is why I attempted to read Lagom: The Swedish Secret of Living Well, but for me, it fell short. I was expecting something akin to the wonderful lifestyle books published about the Danish hygge, but that is not what I got at all. A lot of what Akerstrom writes is highly obvious, and can even be construed as patronising at times. It feels as though she is addressing the reader as though they are an incredibly petulant child, and she is an adult with vast reserves of patience to deal with them.

I hoped that Lola A. Akerstrom’s take on the new Swedish phenomenon of lagom would be better than Anna Brones’ Live Lagom, which I found highly disappointing (and, incidentally, which I reviewed last week). Both, however, are very similar tomes, which address almost exactly the same themes, and contain an awful lot of overlapping content. I did like the structure which Akerstrom adopted, but found that a lot of it did not apply to me at all, or was not personally interesting. The only triumph within Lagom was the often lovely photography.

I have concluded that there is nothing overly groundbreaking to be learnt with lagom, and really, that most cultures which I am familiar with already practice a lot of the wellbeing which is linked with it. The majority of what Akerstrom says here could be worked out without too much trouble, and whilst the book is visually lovely, the rest of the content was rather lacking.

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Reading the World: ‘The Mind’s Eye’ by Hakan Nesser ***

I borrowed Hakan Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye from the library for inclusion in my year-long Reading the World project.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but I count myself as a fan of Nordic Noir, and thought it might be just the thing to read on a cold winter’s night.  This volume has been translated from its original Swedish by Laurie Thompson, and was first published in Sweden in 1993; the author was victorious in the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Prize for it, and subsequently won other prestigious awards for his later work.

9780330492782The Mind’s Eye is the first Inspector van Veeteren mystery, in which a history and philosophy teacher named Janek Mitter awakes to find that he cannot remember who he is.  He then discovers the body of his beautiful young wife, Eva, floating in the bath after an attack.  Even during the trial which follows, he has no memory of attacking his wife, or any idea as to how he could have killed her; indeed, ‘Only when he is sentenced and locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane does he have a snatch of insight.  He scribbles something in his Bible, but is murdered before the clue can be uncovered’.

The novel’s opening passage is quite striking: ‘It’s like being born, he thought.  I’m not a person.  Merely a mass of suffering’.  In this manner, Nesser gets straight into the story.  He continues thus when the body is discovered, using short, snappy sentences to capture the mood: ‘He entered the room and, just as he switched on the light, he became quite clear about who he was. / He could also identify the woman lying in the bath. / Her name was Eva Ringmar and she was his wife of three months. / Her body was strangely twisted…  Her dark hair was floating on the water.  Her head was face-down, and as the bath was full to the brim there could be no doubt that she was dead.’

The Mind’s Eye is rather a quick read, and a page-turner, at least.  It isn’t the most gripping mystery, nor the most memorable slice of Scandicrime; in fact, it lacks the darkness and the often twisted, gory killings of many of its contemporaries.  There are far more grisly whodunnits out there, and part of me wishes I’d selected one such instead.  Nesser’s effort is well plotted, and the plot points do keep one interested in the story.  I cannot help but feel that the blurb of the novel gives a little too much away, however.  There is nothing overly special about the translation, sadly; the way in which it is rendered takes away any memorable prose, and it uses many paragraphs made of short sentences to further push different points home.  Needless to say, it is not a series which I will be continuing with.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Garden’ by Magnus Florin ***

I hadn’t heard of Magnus Florin’s The Garden before spotting it in the library, but when I slid its small form out from where it was sandwiched on the shelf, its premise intrigued me and I added it to the large pile already finding breathing room in my arms.  Florin’s book was first published in Sweden in 1995, and has ‘long been regarded there as a classic of contemporary literature’.  The edition which I read, printed by the small press Vagabond Voices in Glasgow, has been translated into English by Harry Watson.  Florin’s prose is deemed ‘brave’ and ‘colourful’, and the book is proclaimed as ‘a work of imagination of intrigue, unafraid to question the shape of our world and the roots of existence’.

9781908251268Before I began, I was expecting to be able to draw some parallels between this and Kristina Carlsson’s Mr Darwin’s Gardener, which was published a couple of years ago by the wonderful Peirene Press.  Whilst it deals with different figures – one Charles Darwin, and the other Carl Linnaeus – there are many themes in common, and even the structures share some similarities.  The Garden presents a fictionalised account of Linnaeus’ life, the leading figure of the Swedish Enlightenment, whose classifications of plants and animals are still used in biology.

Linnaeus and his scientific counterpart in Sweden, Petrous Arctaedius, ‘imagined everything in the world divided into two halves.  The hard things in one half and the soft things in another.  The fixed and the moveable.  The annual and the perennial.  What had no tail and what had a tail.  That which was fast and that which was slow.  The two-legged and the four-legged’.  The pair take a straightforward approach to classification; they decide to simply halve the animals and plants to give one another a pool to work from: ‘Arctaedius took the amphibians, the reptiles, the frogs and toads and the fish.  Linnaeus took the birds and the insects, the mammals and the stones.  Along with the plants’.

Florin denotes the vast differences between Linnaeus and his gardener, the latter of whom ‘perceives things for what they are in themselves – and for their beauty or usefulness’.  The pair ‘often find themselves in dialogue, but rarely understand one another’.  For me, the gardener was a  shadowy figure; Linnaeus also only came to life in his fictionalised form in the sections in which his young siblings are taken ill, and when he himself is suffering.

Florin’s use of imagery and sense of place are deftly crafted, and there are certainly some lovely ideas here: ‘Linnaeus, awake, steps outside, strolls to his grove.  He hangs pairs of green Kungsholm glasses as bells on the branches of an oak, an elm and an ash in order to listen to the jingling caused by the wind when it rises.  They are his Aeolian beakers, his mind-harps of glass.  But this morning the wind is still, and the bells are motionless’.  Watson’s translation is nice and fluid; the prose is intelligent, and the patterns of dialogue interesting.  The novella, which runs to just ninety pages, is told in slim fragments, which do not lead seamlessly from one to another.  In fact, the overall feel is a little disjointed.  Whilst the story which Florin presents is fascinating, especially with its roots in reality, the structure makes it feel too fragmented to connect with.  The Garden is an interesting tale, but overall, it is a little underwhelming.

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