Tag Archives: Jens Christian Grøndahl

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 April 2018: Part Two

Cover imageWhereas the first part of April’s paperback preview had its feet firmly planted in the States, this second instalment wanders around Europe beginning in the UK with Elizabeth Day’s The Party. Scholarship boy Martin Gilmour meets Ben Fitzmaurice at Burtonbury School, becoming firm friends with him despite their wildly differing backgrounds. Over the next twenty-five years, these two are bound together both by friendship and by a secret about Ben that Martin is determined to keep. However, as the blurb hints, things may be about to change when ‘at Ben’s 40th birthday party, the great and the good of British society are gathering to celebrate in a haze of champagne, drugs and glamour’. Sebastian Faulks is quoted as finding it ‘witty, dark and compelling’.

Over the North Sea in Denmark, Ellinor, the recently widowed narrator of Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy, stands in front of her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, Henning, then Ellinor’s partner. Ellinor and Georg had been married for decades but she’s never quite shrugged off the feeling that she’s leading Anna’s life. Now that he’s dead there’s no one she wishes to talk to except Anna. At the heart of this quietly powerful, beautifully crafted novella is a loving, forgiving friendship. It may be a meditation on love and loss yet the title is a reminder that life goes on.

East across the Baltic to Latvia for Eli Goldstone’s Strange Heart Beating in which Seb takes himself off to the birthplace of his beautiful wife Leda after she drowns in the lake at her local park, her boat capsized by a startled swan. Grief and how well we know those we choose to share our lives with are explored in this witty and original piece of fiction which has a rich vein of dark humour running through it nicely offsetting its sombre subject.

We’re turning back on ourselves and heading for Ireland with Molly McCloskey’s When Light is Like Water which rounds off April’s paperbacks. This slim, quietly brilliant novel tells the story of Alice who came to Ireland from Oregon as a young woman and fell in love with an Irishman. Decades later, back from her job with an NGO at a Kenyan refugee camp and blindsided with grief at her mother’s death, Alice finds herself obsessively thinking about her brief marriage.

That’s it for April’s second batch of paperbacks. A click on the first title will take you to a more detailed synopsis and to my reviews for the last three should you want to know more. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of paperbacks they’re here. New titles are here.

Books of the Year 2017: Part Three

Cover imageSummer’s favourites wander around the world a little taking in novels from Scandinavia, South Africa and the USA, beginning in June with Monte Carlo, a book by a Belgian author. Ending on the night of the first moon landing in 1969, Peter Terrin’s novella tells the tale of a God-fearing mechanic who becomes obsessed with the actress whose life he saves when she’s caught in a conflagration. He’s badly burnt, but she’s unscathed. Jack arrives home a hero but as the year passes with no word from DeeDee, no acknowledgment of his sacrifice, his obsession with her deepens. From its vividly dramatic opening, this beautiful dreamlike novella had me in its grip. I’m hoping that more of Terrin’s fiction will be translated soon.

Tom Malmquist’s In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is a piece of autofiction that also deals with trauma, this time the death of his partner a few weeks after the premature birth of their daughter, beginning with Karin’s emergency hospital admission and ending with their daughter’s first day at pre-school. Stunned by grief and exhausted by lack of sleep, Tom finds himself caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare in which he must prove himself to be Livia’s father. The novel plumbs the depths of Tom’s grief through which shine flashes of joy as he learns how to take care of his beloved daughter. I’m not entirely taken with the idea of autofiction but this is an intensely immersive, heart-wrenching book which I hope proved cathartic for its author.

June ended with Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which explores the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of the Bredin family. Lottie – furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him – finds a dilapidated house in Devon and takes the entire, thoroughly metropolitan family off there, renting out their London house in the hope of raising enough money so that both she and Quentin can buy separate homes. What she hasn’t bargained for is something nasty in the woodshed. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now. I’m looking forward to the next instalment of her loosely linked state-of-the-nation novels.Cover image

Just one book from July but it’s a particularly lovely one. In Victoria Redel’s Before Everything five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying having called a halt to the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the constant conversation the five of them share, struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin.

Death and friendship are also themes in the first of August’s two favourites: Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy. Ellinor stands in front of her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, Henning, then Ellinor’s partner. Georg and Ellinor were married for decades but she has always felt she was leading Anna’s life. She’s a stepmother who has never felt the children were hers; accepted by the family but standing at its edge. Now that Georg has died there is no one that she wishes to talk to except Anna. Ellinor’s grief is such a private, painful thing, not a rending of garments or tearing of hair but a constant ache of absence as much for Anna as it is for Georg. This loving, forgiving friendship is at the heart of Grøndahl’s quietly powerful novella.

Cover imageSummer’s last book is Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg, an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway which follows a set of disparate characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013. Just as Woolf’s novel reflected the preoccupations of her time, so Johannesburg offers us a snapshot of South Africa’s capital on the day after the death of Nelson Mandela. Melrose deftly knits the many threads of her narrative together, shifting smoothly between her characters and offering a microcosm of this complex country where white privilege often shuts itself away behind razor wire and navigates the constant stream of black hawkers from comfortable, air-conditioned cars. It’s an ambitious, expertly executed novel which made me wonder why I hadn’t read Melrose’s first book, Midwinter.

That’s it for summer, a season I cling on to for as long as I can. Autumn gets off to a darker start although not as Gothic as I was expecting…

All links are to my reviews on this blog. If you’d like to catch up with the first two instalments of my 2017 books of the year they’re here and here. And for those of you who’re flagging, it’s the home straight on Monday.

Often I Am Happy by Jens Christian Grøndahl (translated by the author): A meditation on grief, love and friendship

Cover imageI remember reading Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Lucca when it was published in the UK in 2003, too long ago to recall the detail of its story but an impression of quietly elegant prose stuck which is what attracted me to Often I Am Happy. Its premise is also an intriguing one: recently widowed, Ellinor stands in front of her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, Henning, then Ellinor’s partner.

Georg has been felled by a heart attack at seventy-eight. He and Ellinor have been married for decades but she’s never quite shrugged off the feeling that she’s leading Anna’s life. Now that Georg has died she’s bought herself a small apartment in the down-at-heel neighbourhood of Copenhagen where she was brought up believing that her farther died in the war. Both Anna and Henning were killed in the accident but not before Georg had discovered their affair. Stunned by grief, Ellinor had taken herself off to Anna’s house in the afternoons after her death, helping to bring up her twins and keep house for Georg until they became a couple. Ellinor has always cast herself as an outsider, falling in love with Henning and into a marriage which didn’t feel entirely right. She’s a stepmother who has never felt the children were hers; accepted by the family but standing at the edge of it. Now that Georg has died there is no one that she wishes to talk to except Anna.

This is a quietly powerful, beautifully crafted novella. Grøndahl’s pose is elegantly spare, studded with vivid images: ‘the snow on the summits resembled torn lace where the grey-blue mountainside showed through’; ‘Life went on without you; the years passed like an express train, its windows full of new faces’. Ellinor’s grief is such a private, painful thing, not a rending of garments or tearing of hair but a constant ache of absence as much for Anna as it is for Georg. Anna’s twins while accepting of Ellinor’s love as children have grown into distant middle-aged men while her love for them has become ‘the recollection of a feeling, not the feeling itself’. ‘Yes, it is true that one is no longer oneself’ in the face of grief she tells Anna but as Ellinor unfolds her story, revealing secrets long hidden, it seems as if she has never quite inhabited herself. At the heart of Grøndahl’s novella is a loving, forgiving friendship for a vibrant woman of whom Ellinor says I have ‘warmed myself in front of you’. It may be a meditation on love and loss yet the title is a reminder that life goes on.

Books to Look Out for in August 2017

Top of my August list has to be Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark. I remember taking The History of Love on holiday one year and losing myself in it; one of those books that stayed with me for some time. I wasn’t quite so enamoured with Great House but hopes are high for this one which is about two people: a retired lawyer who takes off from New York for the Tel Aviv Hilton to the mystification of his family and a novelist who has left her husband and children in Brooklyn, heading to the same hotel – familiar from childhood holidays – in the hope of clearing her writer’s block. ‘Bursting with life and humour, this is a profound, mesmerising, achingly beautiful novel of metamorphosis and self-realisation – of looking beyond all that is visible towards the infinite’ say the publishers rather grandly.

Jonathan Dee’s The Locals also features a character fleeing New York, this time for a small town in New England just after 9/11. Hedge fund manager Phillip Hadi employs Mark Firth, recently swindled by his financial advisor, to make his new home secure. These two men are from very different worlds: one rural middle class, the other urban and wealthy. Hadi’s election to mayor has a transforming effect on Firth’s home town, one that will have implications for Firth and his extended family. ‘The Locals is that rare work of fiction capable of capturing a fraught American moment in real time. It is also a novel that is timeless in its depiction of American small town life’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing to me.

One more New York link then we’re off to Boston followed by two jaunts outside of the USA. It seems that the success of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko has prompted her publishers to re-issue Free Food for Millionaires which I remember reading and enjoying when it was first published here in the UK ten years ago. It’s about Casey Han, the daughter of working-class Korean immigrants, whose years at Princeton have left her with a decent education and a set ofCover image expensive habits but no job. She and her parents both live in New York but they inhabit very different worlds. ‘As Casey navigates an uneven course of small triumphs and spectacular failures, a clash of values, ideals and ambitions plays out against the colourful backdrop of New York society, its many layers, shades and divides…’ say the publishers. I remember Casey as a particularly endearing character.

Over to Boston for J. Courteney Sullivan’s Saints for All Seasons which follows sisters Nora and Theresa from their small Irish village to Boston. When Theresa becomes pregnant, sensible Nora comes up with a plan, the repercussions of which will echo down the generations for fifty years by which time Nora is the matriarch of a large family and Theresa is a nun. ‘A graceful, supremely moving novel from one of our most beloved writers, Saints for All Occasions explores the fascinating, funny, and sometimes achingly sad ways a secret at the heart of one family both breaks them and binds them together’ say the publishers which may sound a little over the top but I do love a family secret theme and I remember being completely engrossed by Sullivan’s previous novel, Maine.

It sounds as if dark secrets may be at the heart of Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I am Happy, a novel he’s translated himself from his native Danish. Ellinor is addressing Anna, killed forty years ago in the same skiing accident that felled Henning who was both Ellinor’s first husband and Anna’s lover. Anna’s husband, who became Ellinor’s partner, has died and Ellinor is taking stock, looking back over her life and confiding in her long dead best friend ‘because there are some secrets – both our own and of others – that we can only share with the dead. Secrets that nonetheless shape who we are and who we love’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely.

Cover imageI couldn’t quite work up the enthusiasm for reading Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, for some reason. I’m not sure why. Lots of other readers seemed very keen. Johannesburg with its appealing structure sounds much more up my street. The events of the novel take place during the day Nelson Mandela’s death was announced in what sounds like a panoramic story of a scattering of the eponymous city’s inhabitants including a ‘troubled novelist called Virginia’, a polite nod of acknowledgement to Ms Woolf for borrowing her structure. ‘Melrose’s second novel is a hymn to an extraordinary city and its people, an ambitious homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and a devastating personal and political manifesto on love’  say the publishers.

That’s it for August. Let’s hope the sun will be out and those of us who hail from often overcast Northern Europe can get out and read in it. If you’d like to know more about any of the books, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis. I’m off on my hols for ten days on Friday morning, earlier that I can bear to think about, planning to post my Man Booker wishlist on my return.