Book bits

Astrid and Veronika, By Linda Olsson

One of the minor downsides to being a book reviewer (and there are very few) is that almost nobody ever tells me, "You've got to read this!" (Well, aside from publicists, but that's a different story.) So when somebody says, "You'll love this," I pay attention.

The book in question is Astrid and Veronika, a quiet, gentle novel about two women: Astrid, a septuagenarian whom locals dub "the witch," and Veronika, a young writer who has rented the house next door. Veronika has just returned to Sweden after a youth spent following her diplomat father around the world; except for a disastrous visit to Stockholm as a girl, Astrid has never left her village.

The pain in both women's lives has crowded out almost everything else. "The memories of brief incidents occupy almost all time, while years of my life have left no trace," Astrid tells Veronika.

Over the course of seven months, their friendship helps both rediscover simple joys: Brahms, the smell of dill on boiled potatoes, the taste of pancakes with jam, a walk with a friend. Improbably in the annals of modern womanhood, Olsson even makes swimsuit shopping a triumphant occasion.

As their friendship deepens, the two share their secrets – none of which involve surprise parties or trips to Hawaii. But even though Olsson is writing about grief, "Astrid and Veronika" comes down wholly on the side of life (yet not in a sappy greeting-card kind of way). Olsson takes the tough-minded approach that people don't get to weigh the amount of love they've received in a lifetime and then decide whether they've gotten their fair share. It's not a question of avoiding suffering, one of her characters decides, it's a question of avoiding bitterness.

"Astrid and Veronika" is a first novel for Olsson, a native of Stockholm who now lives in New Zealand. At times Olsson errs on the side of the overly obvious, allowing her characters to repeat the same ideas over and again, just in case a reader might have missed a theme, which can get a little tiresome. And Astrid's story hits a few too many of Grief's Greatest Hits to be entirely realistic. But, barring a few purple passages about dead lovers, "Astrid and Veronika" is graced with spare, calm writing which neatly manages to avoid the overwrought.

Olsson quotes extensively from the poems of Swedish writer Karin Boye. One line in particular sums up the novel's ethos: "Now let me sing you gentle songs." There are surely many worse ambitions than that.
– Yvonne Zipp

Three Books about the Arctic Circle

When eight whaling ships became trapped in the ice on Alaska's northern coast in the fall of 1897, a missionary and seven Eskimo herders drove 400 reindeer more than 700 untracked miles in an attempt to save them. In a Far Country by former Newsweek editor John Taliaferro is a fascinating, true story, not only about the rescue itself, but about the brave and remarkable lives of the missionary, Tom Lopp, and his wife Ellen.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by novelist Vendela Vida is the story of a 20-something New Yorker who, upon learning that the man who raised her was not her father, sets out for Lapland in search of her identity. This taut story works neatly as a thriller but also offers an intriguing glimpse into the world of the reindeer-herding Sami.

Was Frederick Cook or Robert Peary the first to arrive at the North Pole? True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole by Bruce Henderson takes another look at the longstanding controversy. Henderson has written about the Arctic Circle before ("Fatal North") and here offers an engrossing and informed account of the lives and claims of both men, as well as the bitter rivalry that consumed them.
– Marjorie Kehe

What do writers read?

Figuring that nobody knows books the way that writers do, J. Peder Zane asked 125 well-known authors (including Julian Barnes, John Banville, Sandra Cisneros, Margaret Drabble, John Irving, Stephen King, Norman Mailer, and Tom Wolfe) to list their 10 favorite books of all time. All 125 Top-10 lists can be found in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books (W.W. Norton) where Zane also offers a composite list based on frequency of choice. The 10 books on which the writers bestowed the most kudos:

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov
10. Middlemarch by George Eliot

Readers' picks

I have read the novel A Princess in Berlin by Arthur R.G. Solmssen many times during the past 25 years. The story occurs during 1922-23 and describes the aftermath of World War I, the early years of the Weimar Republic, and the beginning of Nazism as seen through the eyes of a transplanted Philadelphia art student. An interesting tale well told.
– John Scheldrup, Solana Beach, Calif.

I'm reading A Poem A Day edited by Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery. Brief, but helpful notes as well as an excellent index are included.
– Norma Bruce, Columbus, Ohio

I'm reading U.S. Grant's Personal Memoirs,said to be the best autobiography by a US president. Grant's literary style is concise and intuitive, and his memory sharp. Plus there are many surprises along the way. A grateful nation today should read this book.
– David J. Marcou, La Crosse, Wis.

I just finished reading Pereira Declares by Antonio Tabucchi. The protagonist, Pereira, is a literary journalist who tries to stay out of politics at a time when politics cannot be avoided: Europe in 1938. I was thrilled by Tabucchi's grace in exploring the character of an aging, invalid man who is nonetheless intrigued and moved by the world around him.
– Marisa Moolick, Hollywood, Calif.

Ann Fessler's The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade hit me right between the eyes. As a very young social worker, I worked with a few girls in a Florence Crittenton Home. I had not a clue as to what they suffered. It's a tale we need to hear.
– Jean LeRoy, Bridgewater, Va.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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