In Translation: Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees (Bienes historie)

Knowing my love of reading and joy in discovering new Norwegian works, my parents gifted me Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees in Norwegian over a year ago. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read it. It is such an interestingly structured and thought-provoking book about humans’ relationship to bees as well as relationships and expectations between family members. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it, and luckily, now non-Norwegian readers in the US can enjoy it as well since it very recently came out in translation here.

I’m always curious about how works in original language compare to their translated versions. Usually, I just read my Norwegian books in Norwegian, but this time I actually had the opportunity to read it in English as well. (The US publisher Touchstone kindly provided me with a digital advanced readers copy.) I was impressed by Diane Oatley’s translation. It was a very smooth reading experience in English. Nothing jumped out at me as being different from the Norwegian edition. In particular, I was impressed with how well she treated the different language usage by each of the main characters.

Though I haven’t seen the American edition’s physical cover in person yet, I hear it’s gorgeous! It shimmers and is textured. I may just have to buy myself a physical copy of the American hardcover just for the cover.

The novel is made up of three distinct storylines revolving around bees. It’s basically a look at the role of bees in the past, present, and future from the perspective of a family in each of those time periods, and the chapters alternate between these three narratives. The first storyline begins in England in 1852 when beehives are being perfected, the second one in the United States in 2007 when there is an increase in the number of colony collapse disorders being reported, and the last one in China in 2098 when humans have had to resort to hand-pollination due to the total collapse of bees. As the book progresses, the reader begins to see how the three families’ stories intersect. Once the book is finished, it’s interesting to look back and notice the common threads that weren’t obvious before.

On top of it being a book about human’s relationship and reliance on bees, it is also about family relations and expectations. It looks at husband-and-wife relationships as well as relationships and expectations between parents and their children. It is not a smooth journey for any of them. The most heart-breaking family dynamic is that of William’s family in England. William puts all his time and energy into trying to prove his worth to his son. However, it is his daughter Charlotte who is interested and eager to learn from her father and help him with his work.

Each of the narratives was very engaging, and it didn’t take long before I was totally absorbed in the book. My favorite narrative was that of Tao in China. It was a depressing and grim world she lived in, but her quest to find out what happened to her son when he suddenly got sick and was whisked away by authorities without any explanation was a definite page-turner. Through the different storylines, I not only learned about the history and practices of beekeeping, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but I also got a glimpse of a world suffering from a total bee collapse, which was unnerving. Luckily, there was a glimmer of hope at the end.

My only complaint of the book was that in each of the three families, the hopes for the future were placed on a son. I understand that might have had to be the case for England in the 1850s, but it didn’t need to be that way in both the 2007 and 2098 narratives. Having the emphasis be on a daughter in one of those two later time periods would have been okay, I believe.

Overall, this was a unique novel combining dystopian, contemporary, and historical fiction into a very engaging and thought-provoking piece, which will stay with me for a long time.

The History of Bees is the first book in a planned series called The Climate Quartet. Maja Lunde explains The Climate Quartet on her website as follows:

“I realized I was nowhere near done writing about man and nature, neither had I stopped imagining a future where the consequences of the way we treat our wonderful earth has become ever more grave than what we see today. And from these thoughts, the idea of writing four, loosely connected books evolved, each one a stand-alone novel emphasizing specific, clima related themes: Insects, water, animals, and finally seeds and all things that grow.”

“Each novel has parallel storylines that play out both in our time and somewhere in our not-too-distant future, in addition to gazing back at our past. All four explore humans in nature and the consequences of the choices we make, not only with regards to nature and the climate, but also the people around us. Because it is through the exploration of our closest boundaries – within families, between lovers, between parents and children – one best sees the reflections of the larger picture.”

The next novel in the series, Blue, comes out this fall in Norway. I’m eagerly awaiting its publication.

Book Details:

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What I’ve Been Reading Lately: August 2017

Once again, I’m joining Modern Mrs Darcy’s Quick Lit link-up where readers share short and sweet reviews of what they’ve been reading lately. It’s been two months since I last shared what I’ve been reading, and it’s been vacation time with plane rides and down time, so I’ve had a chance to read quite a few titles. Luckily, all of them were worth finishing this time.

Did you know that August is Women in Translation Month? I just learned that this month. I seized the opportunity to add some female authors in translation to my reading list. Continue reading

What I’ve Read: Vidunderbarn (Child Wonder) by Roy Jacobsen

Recently, I read Roy Jacobsen’s Vidunderbarn (Child Wonder) for my Scandinavian Book Group. I always make a point of reading a Norwegian book in anticipation of (or during) our annual summer trip to Norway to brush up on my Norwegian, but I don’t often read another beyond that. I’m grateful for discovering this book group because it’s given me an added incentive to search out new (to me) Norwegian authors and carve out more time to read Norwegian.

I first became aware of Roy Jacobsen when I was home in Oslo during the summer of 2016. A Roy Jacobsen book, Hvitt hav (published 2015), was on the display of top 10 paperbacks at a local bookstore, and another of his books, De usynlige (published 2013), was on a table of popular books on sale. I was happy to find a contemporary Norwegian non-crime author who wrote novels set in Norway, and I made a mental note to consider him for a future read.

When it came time to pick the next read for the Scandinavian Book Group, the other members of the group were happy to make the next pick a Norwegian one in my honor (it was my first meeting with them). The only requirement was that it had to be available in English, and they preferred a non-crime book. They had already read Jacobsen’s The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles (Hoggerne, published 2005), so I suggested Child Wonder (Vidunderbarn, published 2009). The description and reviews sounded interesting, and it had received the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize in 2009 which made it even more promising.

Child Wonder takes place in Norway in the early 1960’s and is about 10-year Finn who lives with his working mother in an apartment complex in a working-class suburb of Oslo. He is a boy who does well in school and enjoys playing outside with his friends. He and his mother get along well. Then their world begins to change. First, they convert Finn’s bedroom into a room that they can rent out, and soon a lodger is staying with them in their apartment. And he brings along a television that ends up in the shared family room. Next, they welcome Linda, Finn’s unknown 6-year old half-sister, into their family.

The book looks at their life together for a little over a year through the eyes of Finn. We see Finn’s relationship with the lodger take shape. We see Finn being a surprisingly mature support and help to his new half-sister. We see his relationship with his mother progress. We see Finn wonder about his worth and place in the family. We also begin to understand that the mother is struggling with something unknown to Finn.

My favorite part of the book is the summer they spend on the island of Håøya, the largest island in the inner Oslo Fjord. The lodger lets them borrow his 6-person tent that is set up on the island. Finn and his half-sister spend a few weeks there enjoying the “green paradise”.

One of the things that makes this book interesting is that Finn is an unreliable narrator. He is young and obviously doesn’t know or understand everything yet. He also doesn’t share everything he experiences. We are left to question and wonder about what we read, in particular about the half-sister (there’s something not right about her), the lodger and the mother’s relationship with him, and the nature of the mother’s struggle. It makes for a good discussion with others who have read the book.

I actually read part of the book in English (the e-book is available through Los Angeles Public Library). Jacobsen’s writing style consisted of very long sentences with very few periods and it slowed down my reading pace, so I had to switch over to English for a few chapters to get through it a little faster in order to finish in time for the book group meeting.

It was interesting to read part of it in translation. It was a British English translation so I had to think twice about some translated words and phrases. In particular, the British word “estate,” used very often, did not suggest the right meaning to me, but I understood what was meant. I found the translation to be consistent with Jacobsen’s writing style. One thing that shocked me, however, was that the translator didn’t just translate, he actually added to the English text. I noticed it in one case, but since I only read a small part in both languages, it made me wonder what other additions or changes the translator may have made in the rest of the book.

I enjoyed the book very much. This was a character-driven story that was both heart-warming and heart-breaking at times and that kept me questioning and wondering, even after finishing the book. I’m open to giving one of his newer books a chance. Norwegian readers, please let me know if you have a recommendation – whether it’s one of Roy Jacobsen’s books or another Norwegian read.

Book Details:

  • Norwegian Title: Vidunderbarn
  • Author: Roy Jacobsen (born 1954)
  • Norwegian Publication Date: 2009
  • English Title: Child Wonder
  • Translator: Don Bartlett with Don Shaw
  • US Publication Date: 2011
  • Awards: Norwegian Booksellers Award (2009)

You can support what I do on this website by purchasing the book at Amazon (or any other book or item for that matter). AVikingInLA is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. At no extra cost to you, you support my work. Thank you.

My Favorite Books of 2016

I’m getting back into my reading groove. I was proud of my 14 books in 2015, but it turns out I read more than twice that in 2016, 33 to be precise. A few factors influenced the increase in books read. First of all, my renewed interest in reading the previous year caused me to want to read even more, and I was constantly adding to my what-to-read-next list and always had a book ready when I finished the last one. Secondly, I finally tried audiobooks, which definitely helped add books to my completed list. It was great to have an audiobook available for runs, walks, and drives. I often found myself walking or running a little extra just to finish the chapter, and I didn’t mind if there was a little bit of traffic. And lastly, being a member of two book clubs is definitely an incentive to read.

I read many very good books last year, but there were only three books that earned the top rating of five stars, books I thought were “amazing” (description used by Goodreads): The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, and Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum. These are books whose stories absorbed me and have stuck with me. I’ve recommended them without hesitation to friends and family and even given them as gifts. In the following list, I also included some other books that I really enjoyed, two of which are Scandinavian.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

If I had to choose my absolute favorite book of 2016, it would probably be The Nightingale. It was a pick by my book club. It is a WWII book like so many others, but it explores what I feel is a fascinating, hidden story of WWII. It looks at the lives of two sisters and the roles they played during the war. One sister lived in Paris and became actively involved in the resistance. The other lived in the countryside with her husband and daughter. The husband had to go off to fight, and soon her town was occupied by the Nazi Germans. Both women experienced frightening and difficult situations, but they showed great strength, courage, and perseverance. This book is often mentioned in the same breath as All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, another WWII book that takes place in France. I read that one in 2015 and enjoyed it greatly, but The Nightingale is my favorite by far.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Almost tied for first place is Behold the Dreamers, my Book of the Month pick for September, 2016. It’s a look at the life of an immigrant couple and their child who came from Cameroon to New York City to fulfill the American dream right before the financial crisis of 2007–2008. At first, I was turned off by the fact that they were trying to game the system, coming as refugees when they really weren’t, but I quickly let that feeling go as I was absorbed into their daily lives filled with struggles, joys, and difficult decisions. The ending was not what I expected but I was very satisfied with it. The author Imbolo Mbue is a native of Cameroon and now lives in New York City. I highly recommend this book for anyone eager to diversify their reading with an #ownvoices or immigrant story pick.

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

I came across this YA book just by chance. The cover jumped out at me at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April, 2016. How could I resist a cover with Norwegian heart waffles? It turns out Tell Me Three Things has nothing to do with Norwegian heart waffles, but the cover stuck with me. Then, shortly thereafter, I saw it recommended by the teen readers council at our local children’s bookstore. I figured, let’s just give it a try. I loved it. It was a light but moving unputdownable book that I forced myself to put down so it would last longer. It’s about 17-year-old Jessie who moves to Los Angeles to live with her dad (and his new wife and her teen son) after her mother dies. She has to attend a small, private high school, and soon an anonymous person calling themselves Somebody Nobody offers to help her navigate school life. They communicate through emails and texts. I loved the sweet mystery that was wrapped up into this story as Jessie tried to find her way at her new school and figure out who the mystery person was.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

This was another book club pick, one that I would not have picked up otherwise. The story takes place in North Korea and is about Pak Jun Do, the son of a woman who was “stolen” and a man who ran a work camp for orphans. During Jun Do’s years growing up at the orphanage, he gets his first taste of power as he decides such things as which orphans get to eat first or assigned certain jobs. From there he rises in the ranks and he eventually takes on the life of a rival to the supreme leader Kim Jong-il (1994-2011). Though the book is fiction, it was highly researched by the author and even included a (very supervised) trip the country. The book is a fascinating but extremely disturbing look at life in North Korea. It was one of our book club’s best discussions.

Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson, narrated by Tavia Gilbert

I came across this book when looking over a list of 15 audiobooks that enhance your reading experience. This is the story of Alice who is sent to Los Angeles to be an assistant to Mimi Banning, a reclusive author who has only published one very successful book decades ago but now needs to complete another since she has become broke. Alice is supposed to monitor Mimi’s progress, but instead she becomes full time caregiver for Mimi’s 9-year-old son, “a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth-graders”. I loved Frank and was so glad he finally had someone who appreciated and understood him and gave him the time and attention he deserved. If you want to give the audiobook a try, the narrator Tavia Gilbert really did a wonderful job enhancing the reading experience.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated from Spanish by Lucia Graves

I read this book many years ago but decided to reread it for our summer trip to Barcelona. I loved it then and yet again now. It takes place in Barcelona after the Spanish Civil War (1945 and onwards) and is about young boy Daniel who discovers a book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and becomes obsessed with it. He sets out to discover all he can about about the mysterious author. Along the way, he encounters murder, madness, and love.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman, translated from Swedish by Henning Koch

I read this book for my Scandinavian Book Group. It is a wonderfully sweet story about the relationship between a girl and her grandmother. Elsa is not your normal seven-year-old. She is unusually mature for her years, and her best friend is her crazy but devoted grandmother. When her grandmother dies, Elsa is sent on an unusual quest through letters left behind by her grandmother. Elsa’s quest is interwoven with a fairytale story that her grandmother told her growing up. Slowly but surely, we learn more and more about the complicated life of the grandmother and the others living in the apartment building. The ending was surprising but very satisfying.

Blindgang by Jørn Lier Horst

This was my Norwegian read this summer while in Norway, a compelling “cozy” crime story that kept me reading throughout the long summer days. (The English version Ordeal translated by Anne Bruce will be available August 8, 2017.) It is book #10 in the William Wisting series (5th to be translated into English). I had already read #9 Hulemannen (available in English as The Caveman) and knew I liked the police investigator William Wisting, so I had no hesitation picking up another by Horst. It’s really a story of everyday life in a small Norwegian coastal town. A single mother and her one-year-old daughter move into a house inherited from a grandfather with whom she had a rocky relationship. As she makes the house her own, she comes across a locked safe that is bolted to the basement floor. It turns out the safe contains important evidence to a crime that has given the police trouble for a while. This is a character-driven police procedural. The main characters are very likable and relatable. Horst writes about normal daily routines and unusual happenings with equal clarity. I’m looking forward to reading another William Wisting book next summer.

Thinking back about the books I read in 2016 was a fun experience. It’s like revisiting with old friends. Comparing them to ones I read in 2015 was interesting. I’m learning more and more about my reading likes and dislikes, and I’m reading more books outside my normal tendency and seeking out more diverse books. I look forward to another productive and diverse year of reading!

Disclaimer: AVikingInLA is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

What I’ve Read: Lars Mytting’s Svøm med dem som drukner (The Sixteen Trees of the Somme)

Svoem-med-dem-som-druknerLars Mytting’s Svøm med dem som drukner was my Norwegian read this year in anticipation of my yearly trip to Norway. I had not heard of the book, nor the author, until I received it from my parents for my birthday. It came highly recommended from friends of theirs, and it had received the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize for 2014. I started reading it without any ideas of what it was about.

Not only did the book meet all my criteria for my Norwegian book selection (it was by a Norwegian author, it was in Norwegian bokmål, and it generally took place in Norway), but it had the added bonus of brining alive a bit of Norwegian history with which I was not very familiar. My hope is always that my book selection will transport me back to life in Norway while also refreshing my Norwegian language skills. This book went above and beyond what I was looking and hoping for.

I loved the book! And  – updated 8/15/17 – I am extremely happy that I can recommend it to English readers now. The novel is now available in English with the title The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, translated by Paul Russell Garrett. Continue reading

What I’ve Read: Min Kamp (My Struggle, Book 1) by Karl Ove Knausgård

Min Kamp KnausgårdIn my desire to read a Norwegian book once in a while to maintain my language skills, I recently read the first book in the six-book autobiographical series, Min kamp (My Struggle) by Karl Ove Knausgård. Interestingly, it wasn’t my choice, but the pick for my book club here in Los Angeles. I don’t even know if the woman who suggested it knew that I was Norwegian. Knausgård and his work had been in the book news a lot recently in conjunction with his US tour for the release of the English translation of his third book. Knausgård’s first book was suggested in hopes that it would be a little more serious and discussion-worthy than some of our more recent reads.

The timing worked out perfectly because I was right in the middle of trying to decide what Norwegian book to read next in anticipation of my upcoming trip to Norway. Last year I read the first of the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbø. This year I was looking for something new. A cousin in Norway had suggested Knausgård’s Min kamp last year when I put out a request for suggestions for my next Norwegian read so it was on my list, but I didn’t know if I was ready to read it yet. I had the impression it would be a long, heavy read about someon’s life I wasn’t necessarily very interested in.

The book turned out to be much more engaging than I expected.  Continue reading

What I’ve Read: Jo Nesbø’s Flaggermusmannen (The Bat)

I make it a point to read a Norwegian book or two every year (and it has to be a book by a Norwegian author, not any book translated into Norwegian, except maybe a Danish or Swedish book). It helps me maintain the language. I speak, read, and write Norwegian fluently, but over time words escape me. Reading a book in Norwegian brings back lost words and adds new ones. Reading a Norwegian book during spring is always good timing in preparation for our upcoming annual trip to Norway.

Flaggermusmannen  

This spring, I read Jo Nesbø’s Flaggermusmannen (The Bat), the first in the popular Harry Hole detective series. A fellow Norwegian here in LA had spoken highly about the series, and I had read an article about tours given in Oslo featuring Harry Hole locales. I was intrigued.

I easily found a digital version in Norwegian at a Norwegian online bookstore. Yeah for modern technology! But I had to pay more than twice as much as I would have had to pay for a digital Harry Hole book in English, $18 vs $8. Boo expensive Norway! Since reading it in Norwegian was important to me, I splurged. Continue reading