Hard times in the Highlands

I was embarrassingly pleased with myself for both purchasing and finishing a Man Booker nominated novel before the winner was announced.

Never mind that I failed to post my review before Paul Beatty was handed his award, because Graeme MacRae Burnet’s His Bloody Project (Saraband 2015) deserves to be discussed long after the literary world has turned its gaze towards the next longlist.

MacRae Burnet begins his book by claiming to have found his 19th century relative’s letters whilst researching the Scottish Highlands. Taken aback by their literary quality, he decides to publish them. The relative, we hear, is Roderick ‘Roddy’ Macrae, a young lad of only 17 who has slaughtered people in cold blood in the tiny, nine-house crofter village of Culduie. The book then consists of his own account of the events, written in an Inverness prison while waiting for his trial, as well as statements from other villagers, medical experts, et cetera. At the risk of sounding like an idiot, I’ll admit I was fooled—for a while at least!

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Culduie today

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Poetry changes lives

Wow. That was quite something. Like Moby-Dick, Kai Erik’s Paha Kirja (The Evil Book) is unlike any novel I’ve read before—though in a completely different way to Melville’s book.

Reading The Evil Book (2015, Otava) book reminded me of my favourite kind of literature: stories that rise above the mundane and self-evident, and made me question why I would ever settle for anything less. For me, the most enjoyable books tell an entirely new kind of a story, or with entirely new kind of characters, or in an entirely new kind of way. I want to be questioned, challenged, woken up by the book—and that, by the way, doesn’t mean the book will be a struggle to read. So many blurbs I see in bookstores these days seem to me to be about circumstances and people we are much too familiar with and have already witnessed in numerous films, other books, in our own lives. I can see the appeal in wanting to read a story that speaks directly to us by way of familiarity, but I often find that the writers who do write about something new or using a new approach manage to say more profound things about our reality and everyday lives than those who strive to describe it.

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The Åbo Akademi humanities building in which many of the events take place.

Right, rant over. The Evil Book is what you would call humanist horror as it’s set within the literature department of the Swedish-speaking Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland. The main characters are one of the department’s literature professors, the 50-something Mickel Backman, nicknamed Iron Man by the students due to his bad back; and the literature student Calle Hollender, who is struggling to find enough interest to do any of his coursework and prefers instead to dabble in stand up, smoke weed and watch Netflix. The events kick off when one of Mickel’s students, the talented but self-destructive Pasi Maars tells him he wants to write a dissertation on poetry collection by an obscure 1920s modernist called Leander Granlund. The collection was never published, and it carries a horrifying reputation of making anyone who reads it kill themselves. Mickel is shocked by the sudden mention of Granlund: turns out one of his friends from his own student days committed suicide after going mad writing a Master’s thesis on the poems.

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A Serbian holiday

Sorry about the silence—been trying to get over the Brexit horror. I’m not sure the reality has quite sunk in yet. In addition to the multitude of other consequences, what impact will Brexit have on the future of publishing books in translation in the UK, the number of which has been on a significant rise over the past years ?

Despite all the confusion, fear, and sadness I will try to gather my thoughts and review the great book that is Kati Hiekkapelto‘s Tumma (Otava, 2016)! This is the third book in her series on the Yugoslavian-born detective Anna Fekete, who lives and works in Finland, and will be published in English with the title The Exiled later this year by Orenda Books. Orenda also published the two first installments, and you can read my thoughts on the previous book, The Defenceless, here.

After the murder of her father, also a police officer, in the 1980s and the start of the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s, young Anna flees to Finland with her mother and brother Àkos. But even after nearly 30 years, the past won’t leave her alone. The Exiled begins almost directly where The Defenceless ended: after a long winter, Anna is finally on summer holiday and travels to the borderlands of Serbia and Hungary to visit her family and friends. Her mother has moved back, and even her recovering alcoholic brother, who Anna begins to realise has been her strength and stay in Finland as well as the only link to her roots, is planning on remaining in their home village after falling in love with a local during a visit.

 

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Tiszavirag, the hatching of a local mayfly species, which the locals call ‘the blooming of the river Tisza’

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Covers I saw and liked: Hot Milk

Hereby begins a new weekly series on cool book covers.

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Lovely vintage-y feel—does the book take place in the 70s, perhaps, or refer to it? Who is the girl, and why is she alone? She looks vulnerable and her fragility is underlined by the massive mountains. She is on a beach, but this is not your usual holiday scene. I also love how the title, Hot Milk, is both connected to the hot weather in the image, and contrasts it—hot milk would be drunk when it’s cold outside.

Finnish literature in focus: Kati Hiekkapelto—The Defenceless

Kati Hiekkapelto (b. 1970) has an interesting background. She hails from the northern city of Oulu, and studied fine art and special education before working with immigrant children as a special needs teacher. She lives on a 200-year-old farm in the countryside, which means she gets to spend the long, dark, and cold Finnish winters not only writing, but also chopping wood and shovelling snow. Hiekkapelto speaks fluent Hungarian, thanks to having lived in the Hungarian-speaking part of Serbia.

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Kati Hiekkapelto

Hiekkapelto’s genre is crime fiction, the Nordic noir, and her heroine Anna Fekete, a 30-something detective whose family escaped Hungarian speaking Serbia to an unnamed city somewhere in northern Finland during the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s. The first book in the Fekete series, The Hummingbird (Kolibri), was published in Finnish by Otava in 2013 and in English a year later. The other two parts to come out so far are The Defenceless (Suojattomat, 2014), and The Exiled (Tumma, 2016). Hiekkapelto won the prize for the best detective novel, awarded by The Finnish Whodunnit Society, in 2015.

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Haven’t you heard? It’s Finnish

This is a new series in which I will be presenting and talking about books from Finland. First up: a very short introduction to Finnish literary history up until the 1980s.

Finnish literature might just be the next big thing. Sweden and Norway are both quite well established on the world literature scene after the successes of Karl Ove Knausgård, Jonas Jonasson, Henning Mankell, and many others, but Finland is still waiting for its big break. You might in the past heard the names of Tove Jansson (of the Moomins fame), Arto Paasilinna (who enjoys popularity in France), or more recently Sofi Oksanen. Pushkin Press published the YA novel Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff a few months ago, and Aki Ollikainen‘s White Hunger (Peirene Press) was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Finland was also the guest of honour at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair. So much great Finnish literature is being translated right now, you really should stay in the loop!

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Moominpappa enjoys life

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Let’s talk about poo

A little non-fiction this time, in the shape of The Gut by Giulia Enders.

It’s quite surprising really how taboo talking about the human digestive system and its by-products still are. Think about another taboo topic, sex, which has been discussed and shown in public from every possible angle for at least the past 20 years, and has in this process practically lost all of its taboo status. You might discuss your bedroom activities with your girlfriends, but the consistency of your poop? Much more unlikely.

Enders is, without a doubt, doing her part in stripping these topics off the air of secrecy and embarrassment that currently surrounds them. In The Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ (Scribe), first published in German in 2014 and in translation in 2015, Enders succeeds in talking about our digestive system in a way that is engaging and fun, but at the same time maintains a sound scientific backing. The first two sections of the book cover the digestive process from the moment food enters out mouth to the moment it exits, transformed into feces. The third part deal with the little helpers and adversaries that colonise the entire digestive systems, the millions upon millions of microbes, and the effect their workings have on us from protecting us from allergies to giving us a food poisoning.

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