Tag Archives: Helle Helle

Travels From My Sofa: Scandinavia

If 2020 had gone according to plan I’d have posted about our four-day break in the lovely city of Ghent in March and we’d be enjoying ourselves in Northern Italy right now. So strange are the times we’re living in that I’m just relieved that everyone I know is safe rather than disappointed but I can’t help missing the joys of travel so I’ve decided to revisit a few holidays, throwing in links to books I’ve reviewed, some from countries I’ve visited, others I‘d like to visit. If you fancy a change of scene, you’re welcome to join me. This time we’re off to Scandinavia beginning with Sweden.

If memory serves me right, and it often doesn’t these days, our Swedish road trip was in 2004 or thereabouts, beginning with a flight to Copenhagen. We started off in Skåne having crossed the bridge which would become so famliar to us from Saturday nights watching Saga Noren solving cimes in her own inimitable way. It’s a lovely area but what I most remember is our wonderfully eccentric B&B landlady, often to be found in her kitchen with one of her parrots on her head. She also had two gorgeous dogs who liked to sprawl in the sun. From there we headed to Gothenburg, a very pleasant city Feskekorka (Gothenburg)memorable for its fish restaurants one of which is housed in Feskekôrka, a smart modern market whose Swedish name translates as the fish church telling you all you need to know about the importance of fish to the town. The rest of the holiday was spent touring the Bohuslän archipelago with its pretty coastal villages, one famous for its inhabitants wearing their dressing gowns around town, before heading south. Our last stop was Malmö, slick and modern in comparison to picturesque Ystad, a stone’s throw away and home to Inspector Waliander, where I remember having tea in a lovely book-lined café before heading back to Copenhagen and home.

Swedish travels from my sofa: Astrid and Veronika, Wilful Disregard, In Every Moment We Are Alive, A Summer with Kim Novak

Louisiana (Copenhagen)Apart from briefly passing through on our way to Sweden, we’ve visited Denmark twice, each time a winter break in Copenhagen, both of which included a visit to the wonderful Louisiana, a beautifully designed modern gallery, crammed with all manner of treats. Given that both trips were in February, there wasn’t much chance of exploring the sculpture park which makes me want to add a summer trip to our travel list. Much of the rest of our time was spent hanging out in cafes and strolling around the much-gentrified harbour area, although I do remember a trip to a gallery exhibiting exquisite Persian miniatures and a visit to Christiana, a large commune established in 1971. Despite the city’s best efforts to shut it down, Christiana’s residents finally managed to gain a legal foothold in 2012.Cover image

Danish travels from my sofa: Often I Am Happy, This Should Be Written in the Present Tense, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,

I fell in love with the laid-back elegance of Helsinki while taking advantage of a free hotel room courtesy of a conference H attended in 2006. It was August, a lovely time to explore the city where, oddly enough, I saw my first red squirrel in the botanical gardens. I remember spending a great deal of time in Alvar Aalto’s beautifully designed bookshop, opened in 1969, which on that visit was fantastically well-stocked but sadly depleted nine years later when we revisited the city at the end of our trip around the Baltics. We enjoyed it just as much the second time around, marvelling at the Friday night cavalcade of vintage American cars on our last evening’s walk and wondering if it was a regular event.

Cover imageFinnish travels from my sofa: Letters From Klara, The Winter War, The Summer House

I’ve yet to go to Norway, although I hope I will some day. The gorgeous scenery shots in the Scandi crime TV series Twin and Wisting have whetted my appetite and I’ve long fancied a few nights in Bergen. I have visited it from my sofa, though, thanks to several memorable novels set there: Love, The Waiter, Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, The Sunlit Night, Echoes of the City

Remembering holidays may be as close as I get to having one in 2020 but if that’s the worst thing that happens during this strange year we’re living through I’ll count myself lucky.

Any vicarious travels you’d like to share?

Paperbacks to Look Out For in November 2015

Cover imageIn contrast to November’s surprising hardback bounty, paperback treats are pretty thin on the ground: just a paltry three, I’m afraid. I’ll start with the one I’ve already reviewed – Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense which surprised me when it was first published last year with its low-key but strangely gripping style. It’s narrated by Dorte who has moved into a bungalow just outside Copenhagen where she has a place at university. Somehow she never gets around to buying any curtains or attending lectures. Aimless and adrift, she knows what she should be doing but just can’t seem to do it. Nothing much happens but I found it hard to put this novel down. Such a shame about the paperback jacket, though. The hardback edition’s was gorgeous and suited the book beautifully, I thought.

Rather like Dorte, I didn’t get around to reading Han Kang’s The Vegetarian despite the many ecstatic tweets praising it to the skies, some of them from readers whose opinion I respect.  Yeong-hye is subject to horrible nightmares which prompt her to become a vegetarian, almost unheard off in strictly conventional South Korea. This small rebellion elicits ‘self-justified acts of sexual sadism’ in her own husband and obsession in her sister’s who makes her the subject of his disturbing artworks. Consumed by her own fantasies, Yeong-hye dreams of escaping her body and becoming a tree. ‘Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern-day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another’ say the publishers – I’m still not entirely convinced.Cover image

Not at all sure about this one, either, but Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl has a tempting synopsis. My previous experience with Diamant’s writing  left me feeling that it was somewhat overblown but we’ll see. Born in 1900 to immigrant parents, Addie Baum tells her young granddaughter the story of her complicated life set against the backdrop of the First World War. Immigrants’ stories – particularly the second generation – have a perennial appeal for me hence the novel’s attraction.

Sadly that’s it for November paperbacks. If you’d like a more detailed synopsis a click on the first title will take you to my review, the other two lead to Waterstones website. If you’d like to catch up with the much more exciting selection of hardbacks here is part one and here is part two.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (transl. Martin Aitkin): Quietly low-key but curiously gripping

This should be WrittenDon’t you just love that jacket? Having sounded off about the ghastliness of the Aren’t We Sisters? cover a few weeks ago I had to mention it. Brightly coloured, eye-catching and surprisingly well suited to what’s inside it’s perfect, well for me at least. This Should be Written in the Present Tense is a quiet, low-key, curiously gripping novel in which events are so rare they stand out like the vibrant streaks of colour that adorn its jacket.

It’s narrated by twenty-year-old Dorte who has moved into a bungalow just outside Copenhagen where she has a place at university. Somehow she never gets around to buying any curtains, just as she never seems to get around to attending lectures. It’s not as if she has much else to do – she sleeps much of the day, is insomniac at night, remembers her relationship with Per and her welcome into his house by his parents, then her life with his cousin Lars. She talks to her Auntie Dorte for whom she’s named, phones her parents, goes shopping, enjoys the kindness of strangers and bumps into an old study group colleague. Aimless and adrift, she knows what she should be doing but just can’t seem to do it. Life, it seems, is something that happens to other people.

I’m left scratching my head as to quite why this book, full of prosaic exchanges and torpor, is quite so gripping while at the same time hoping that Martin Aitken is busy at work translating Helle Helle’s other novels – she’s one of Denmark’s most respected modern novelists, apparently, but this is the first of her books to be translated into English. There’s a hint in the title and on the first page that Dorte is the one writing the novel but this isn’t a tricksy book full of meta-fictional cleverness, although perhaps it’s me that’s not clever enough to have spotted it. Instead it’s a book that gets under your skin – its drifting, melancholic narrator curiously engaging and oddly compelling.