Erik Valeur: Det syvende barn (review)

det-syvende-barnSo Det syvende barn (english title: The Seventh Child) was published in 2011 and became one of the year’s most praised books in Denmark. It won awards and everyone read it. My mother read it, my mother in law read it and eventually, now it has become my turn.

Now what is it with hyped Danish things? It seems to me that every time a book or movie is really hyped in Denmark, it usually just disappoint me when I get around to it. This one – same old story. I was just so disappointed. But for different reasons than usual. This time, I am disappointed because the author really has a good story but he just hasn’t have the skills or experience as a debut author to pull this story off.

This is a story of deceit, adopted children and possibly a scandal that reaches the highest levels of Danish government. In 1961, 7 babies are placed together in the Elephant room at  the famous children’s home Kongslund. All these babies have been left, abandoned or put up for adoption for various reasons. 5 boys, 2 girls. Now 7 babies randomly placed together in a room at a children’s home, doesn’t seem like much of a story but somehow, these children are not so randomly chosen after all. 6 of these babies are adopted by various families but the last child, a girl, has a birth defect and so she stays at Kongslund and grows up as the daughter of the head mistress.

In 2008, these  children receive a letter containing a pair of baby socks, an old article with a photography of the 7 small children as well as some kind of certificate about one of the children, a boy called John Bjergstrand. Several of these children have reached high positions in society and this letter causes a lot of disturbing ripples to spread through the society in both the political circles and the media.

Questions start surfacing: Did the famous children’s home hide the children of famous men so they could have their affairs in secret? Why are these grown up children suddenly receiving this letter? And more importantly – who send it?

This is the story of these 7 children and what they have in common. It’s the story of the awe-inspirering head mistress of the children’s home, Magna. It’s about corruption, hidden scandals and men with too much power. It has an unreliable narrator so you don’t really know what’s going on. There’s murders, dead dogs and eyes falling out. But mostly it is about lost children. Children who wasn’t held and loved right when they were born but left alone in a dark room, waiting for someone to love them, to want them. This book should be so good. But sadly, it doesn’t live up it’s potential.

From very early one, the writing really annoyed me. It felt artificial, old-fashioned and stilted and it just felt really out of place with the story. Also, some of the scenes don’t work. And a lot of the plot hinges on the importance of this very special children’s home and I just don’t believe how an election can be won in 2005 because of a children’s home. Or that the story can cause so much trouble for some of the powerful men. And I never quite got why it took place in some kind of alternative version of Denmark where things are almost like they are in reality but not quite. Why not just let it be in the real Denmark? Oh and what’s with all the deaths? Why do people continue to be brutally killed in this book? It really makes no sense that these kids are not only connected by their stay at this children’s home but also by such violent deaths. Yes, I know they are somewhat damaged by their harsh way of starting life, but still. It gets to be a bit too much, a bit too unbelievable.

So what it comes down to is this. The book and it’s story had much potential but the author wasn’t able to pull it off. The language didn’t work for me and the plot was unrealistic in parts. Also it was a bit repetitive and there was a lot of foreshadowing. The author also has a tendency to take a step back and narrate and explain the action instead of letting it play out. And he definitely leaves no doubt about his political opinions. Oh, and on page 398, it is said that Aristotle is not a philosopher. Really?

Maybe it’s because Denmark is such a small country and Danish is a small language that we don’t produce that many good things. Or that the ones that get all the prizes, aren’t all that great when compared to the best works produced in bigger countries. It’s all about maths, really. If your country has 315 million people, of course there’s a bigger chance it’s going to produce something amazing than a country who has only 5 million…

But Peter Høeg, Karen Blixen, Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard are all from Denmark. So we have some things to be proud of. This book is not one of those things. But the author has potential and hopefully, his next book will be better.

  • Title: Det syvende barn (The Seventh Child)
  • Author: Erik Valeur
  • Publisher: Gyldendals Bogklubber
  • Year: 2011
  • Pages: 692 pages
  • Source: Borrowed from my mother in law
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5
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Library Sale (Book Buying 2013 – part 3)

So good thing I don’t have a book buying ban this year because if I did, I would have failed it miserably so many times already that it’s almost unbelievable. But what’s a girl to do when there’s temptations everywhere?

Like this Saturday, we were visiting my mother in my old home town and there was a sale at the local library, the library where I spend a good part of my childhood. So of course, we had to go check out the sales – especially because the books were sold for less than a dollar each (= 5 kroner).

So here’s what my boyfriend carried home for me:

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A couple of years ago my boyfriend and I were in London and watched The Phantom of the Opera. It was an incredible experience so I’m really looking forward to reading this and seeing if it is as good.

The Martin Amis book I really want to read, is Time’s Arrow. But when I saw this one, I thought I might as well give it a try. I really want to like Amis and I’ve only read one book by him, Dead Babies, which I didn’t like so it will be interesting to see what I think about this one.

I have read Pride and PrejudiceSense and Sensibility and Emma and they were all good books. So I’m so looking forward to Mansfield Park!

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I don’t know anything about this Vladimir Nabokov novel but it is by Vladimir Nabokov so I thought it’s probably worth reading.

Dea Trier Mørch’s novel Vinterbørn (Winter’s Childwas published in 1976 and is a realistic portrait of Denmark in the 70s, told from the point of view of several different women. I watched the movie several times as a child and loved it so I’m looking forward to reading the novel.

Tove Ditlevsen is kind of a Danish Sylvia Plath. A woman, poet and writer, who ended up committing suicide. I have never read any of her works but I know of some of her poems because a Danish pop singer released an album where she sung some of Ditlevsen’s poems. This novel is called Man gjorde et barn fortræd (A child was hurt), about child molestation.

This, Barndommens Gade, is probably the most well-known poem by Tove Ditlevsen (probably only interesting for people understanding Danish):

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Library Loot (Friday March 1st)

badge-4Library Loot is hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader. Bloggers share the books they’ve rented from the library.

So as I wrote on my last (and first!) Library Loot, I hardly ever rent books at the library – and since that Loot was posted on January 18th, I think I have proved my point. However, I have been at the library several times in the meantime – just not to pick out books for myself. But today I did.

9780449911655_p0_v1_s260x420 the-lifeboat Sten saks papir

So one of my reading goals for this year, is to explore John Updike’s books a bit – that is, to read at least one novel by him. I’ve only read Terrorist and watched the movie version of The Witches of Eastwick so it’s about time to read some more of his works. Especially since I have been wanting to read his Rabbit books for years. So when the first one was available at the local library today, I grabbed it.

The last time I got books from the library, I got Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch – and I loved it. So when I saw Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat, I had to get it. The part of Jamrach’s Menagerie I loved the most, was the ship wreck and what happened after – and this is an entire book about the aftermath of a ship wreck. I’ve also heard good things about it on the Guardian Book Podcast so I’m really looking forward to it.

And finally, as I wrote just the other day, I’m trying to be a better reader and blogger of Danish literature. And recently I read a very interesting review of Naja Marie Aidt’s first novel Sten Saks Papir (Rocks Paper Scissors). Aidt is a poet and supposedly she writes a beautiful poetic and lyrical language in this novel about how we each have our own perspective and have difficulties getting past this and how, for instance, one person experiences something as a rape, while the other person doesn’t. I am really excited about reading this and hope it lives up to my expectations.

So this was my library loot. Did you get any good books recently?

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The Annual Danish Book Sale (Book Buying 2013 – part 2)

So today, the Annual Book Sale began in the Danish Bookstores. I feel a bit guilty about not reading that many Danish books, especially since I’m a Danish blogger writing a blog in English and therefore have a chance to tell people about good Danish literature. But of course, if I don’t read it, then how can I tell about it? So my goal this year was to get a few books by some good Danish authors – and I did, I think.

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Peter Høeg is probably the most well-known contemporary Danish author. I have read De måske egnede (Borderliners) recently and really liked it and years ago, I read Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow) and didn’t like it all that much, but I did take a huge break while reading it so it’s probably my own fault that I didn’t like it. So today, I bought Smilla as well as his newest novel, Elefantpassernes børn (The Elephant Keeper’s Children). I’m looking forward to reading both these books!

I also bought Morten Ramsland’s Sumobrødre (Sumo Brothers). Ramsland’s first novel, Hundehoved (Doghead), was hugely popular some years ago and was internationally published. I haven’t read either of them but I have heard that he should write a bit like John Irving and since I love Irving, I’m very excited about this one.

But I didn’t stick to just Danish books. I also took the opportunity to get a few English books. Not a lot of English books is on sale so the selection was very limited.

battle-hymn-of-the-tiger-mother mrs-dalloway

When Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was published, it caused a huge controversy. I had no intention of reading it since I don’t want to raise my daughters with no sleepovers and only extremely limited time to play. However, I heard an interview with Chua recently – and what she said, made sense. It sounded like she had some good thoughts and ideas so I decided I wanted to give her book a try.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway was also on sale and since I only own one book by Woolf (Orlando) and I’ve only read one (To the Lighthouse), I knew I wanted to bring this one home with me too. Especially since I liked To the Lighthouse.

So five books got to come home with me today as well as a couple of Tinkerbell books, a Winnie-the-Pooh book, a princess-ballerina book and two coloring books. So all in all a good day!

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Jørgen Leth: Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge (English title: The Yellow Jersey in the High Mountains) (review)

Do you love the Tour de France?  If not, this book is not for you.

With that said, let’s talk about it anyway. In this book, he covers specifically the Tour de France but also other events in professional cycling. The book is originally published in 1995 so the amazing year (1996) where the Dane Bjarne Riis won the Tour is not covered, neither is the victories of Marco Pantani, Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich, Alberto Contador – or Lance Armstrong. Well, except in a brief foreword to the 2009 edition for some of them. And this is my main problem with the book – I started following the Tour in the early 90s so I don’t know that much about the years before and while it is interesting and Leth writes it well, I would have loved to have read more about the riders I knew and know and the races I’ve watched. This is flashbacks to Leth’s personal highlights of the Tour, his thoughts on professional cycling, doping, food in France, working as a film director and a commentator and more. And it’s fascinating.

As I’ve written earlier, Jørgen Leth has a way with words. And even though this is a non-fiction book about a bike race, it’s wonderfully written. And I don’t think the beauty of it’s writing is only because Leth is a poet and has a way with words. It’s also because he writes about what he loves.

Jørgen Leth loves bike racing and he writes about this love, specifically about his love for the Tour de France. He writes about his heroes, how he in particular love the tormented riders, the ones who has a bit more to fight against than just the stages and the mountains. He is drawn to the underdog, the rider who has weak knees, who doesn’t believe in himself, who struggles against inner demons. He loves the riders who can attack and shake everything up. And maybe that is because of his poetic eyes which see the beauty in the struggle, the beauty in the lone rider struggling across the highest mountains pursued by a chasing peloton, the beauty in an attacker cheating the sprinters of their finish.

As he puts it: ‘Bike riders ride bicycles. They ride from one place to another. They ride up, and they ride down. The first to arrive at the finish, has won. Along the way, things happen. It’s as simple as that.’ (p. 303 – my translation). And it is as simple as that. But what he then goes on to point out, is, that out of this, people emerge, looking directly out of the pictures, trying to create something extraordinary. And when that happens, Leth is ready to see it and frame it. To spot the moment which steps out of itself to become something durable. Something to remember and look back on.

And that’s exactly what he does – both as a commentator and as a writer. He spots the extraordinary in the ordinary. He sees the beauty in the struggle, he praises the courageous and cheers the fighters. His sharp eyes separates the contenders from the pretenders – but praises the pretenders when they dare, even if they fail. As long as they fail in an epic way. And he frames it all in beautiful words for the rest of us – along with commentating on the landscape, the weather, the geography, all of which add that extra dimension to both the race and extraordinariness of it all.

Such a pity that this book hasn’t been translated.

  • Title: Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge
  • Author: Jørgen Leth
  • Publisher: Gyldendal
  • Year: 2009 (1995)
  • Pages: 330 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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Peter Høeg: De måske egnede (Title in English: Borderliners) (review)

When you have children, you find out that you have so much to learn. Not all of it makes sense at first. One of the things I’ve had to learn, was how to praise my child. That if your child has climbed high up on top of something and she says ‘look at me’, you’re not supposed to say ‘oh how good you are’ but rather, ‘oh look how high you’ve climbed!’ You do this to praise the action, not the child itself, so the child doesn’t think it has to do such things to have value. I think.

In part, this novel is about this. About how we value each others, how we evaluate children and students. It’s about three children, Peter, Katarina and August. Peter was orphaned at a very early age. Katarine has lived through her parents’ suicides. And August has been the offer of so much abuse that he finally snapped and killed his parents. They all attend Biehl’s Academy, an elite private school in Copenhagen, but something’s not quite right. All three have lost their parents and especially August are a troubled child. A troubled child that doesn’t belong in this particular school. So why is he there?

Peter and Katarina quickly discovers that there’s a plan with the school, there’s a plan with the students accepted to the school, with how the school is run. Trouble is, they don’t know what the plan is and they are not really allowed to talk with each other so they can figure it out. It’s pretty clear that it’s some kind of social experiment, some kind of attempt to prevent what you can call social darwinism. The school wants to take all the children, including the troubled ones, and bring them up and into the light, so to speak, by enforcing a very strict discipline. But if you choose a strict principle and stick to it no matter what, the result can be devastating even though your intention was noble in the first place. Especially in the school system if you forget that students are individuals and should be treated as such – and hitting children never do any good.

One of the things Peter and Katarina focuses on, is the question of time. How time changes depending on the situation you’re in. The importance of pauses. What lies between the lines. How there’s never been made a watch that’s precise, and what it does to you to have your entire life completely structured – and to be punished if you’re just a bit late.

This novel is slowly paced but then, all of a sudden, things happen. Crazy, painful, jarring things that makes you stop and go back and read it again to see if you really read what you think you read. And you did and your jaw drops – and then, the novel resumes it’s slow even pace and things proceed nicely and quietly. The chronology is also jumping from various points in the past to the present, making you have to stay focused all the time. I think that’s one of the reasons the slow pace works in this novel. In it’s pacing, I think it shows some of the points the narrator, Peter, makes about time. How suddenly events happen that change the way we live in time, the way we experience time. When these violent events happens in the book, you too are violently dragged into it and have to feel the immediacy of the action. Just for a few sentences. And then things slow down again and you can relax into the text once more. One of the things Peter wants to examine is if time moves faster when you’re not paying attention and I think the way Høeg wrote his book, is an example of this. When the jarring events occur, time stops for a little while – you are forced to focus and pay attention, and then, you read one and time starts flowing by again.

One thing I really love about this novel is the relationship between the grown Peter and his small daughter. How he has a hard time relating to her because of the abuse he has suffered throughout his life, the way the system failed him and he was too old before he had proper role models. But together, they find a common ground and she, perhaps, helps him most of all by just being a child, being pure feeling and reaction. She tries to bring order to her universe by listing all words she knows. She doesn’t get time at first – no children do – so she tries to understand it through other subjects that she does know. I think this relationship between father and daughter are beautifully rendered in it’s fragility.

The narrator in this book is named Peter Høeg, the same as the author. Every school and institution the narrator Peter Høeg talks about in his novel excluding Biehl’s Academy, are real and Peter Høeg has stated that the novel was the most autobiographical of his works (at that point). When it was published, it was taken as an attack on the Danish school system from a man who had experienced the worst of it himself. But later, Peter Høeg reveals that the adoptive parents in the novel are in fact his real parents, that the only autobiographical elements in the book are his first and last name, his year of birth and his parents. Which means that the novel is about him – but at the same time, that it’s not necessarily about him at all. Peter Høeg has never lived anywhere else than with his biological parents. Even though he claimed in interviews that where the institutions were real, the events taking place were also real. But with the case of the fictive Peter Høeg getting punished by having his head stuck down in a toilet, that did happen – just not to him – and so on.

The things that did happen, are instead the things that take place on the fictive school. Biehl’s Academy is called Bordings Friskole in the real world and here the author went to school for nine years – and how the teachers hit the students on a regular basis and that Peter was kicked out of school at age 16, is true – among other things.

This means, that this book is a blur between fiction and reality. There used to be a sort of agreement between readers and authors that either everything in a novel was true or else, it was false, fiction. This agreement is no longer in existence. Now authors take parts of their life or others’ lives, and use it as they see fit. In Denmark, we have seen several examples of this. And it seem to make some people angry – on the point of law suits and of people being persecuted in the medias, loosing their jobs etc. Peter Høeg does it in this novel – other examples are Knud Romer’s novel Den som blinker er bange for døden and Jørgen Leth Det uperfekte menneske (apparently, neither of these has been translated to English).

For me, I love this play on reality. I think that this challenges the novel and explores the possibilities of combining fiction and reality in ways that we have never seen before. It doesn’t diminish the worth of the novel in any way. Rather, it’s the authors’s attempt to express themselves and their creativity and vision in ways they see fit. And Peter Høeg does this so very well in De måske egnede (which by the way is a much more appropriate title than the English Borderliners since the Danish title plays on Darwin’s expression of ‘survival of the fittest’.

  • Title: De måske egnede (Title in English: Borderliners)
  • Author: Peter Høeg
  • Publisher: Gyldendals Bogklubber
  • Year: 1993
  • Pages: 277
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

Review: Riis

Lars Sten Pedersen & Bjarne Riis: Riis (People’s Press, 2010).

Denmark is a country where people use bikes a lot – both for transportation and exercise. So when Bjarne Riis, a modest man of very few words, in 1996 won the world’s toughest cycling race, the whole country went nuts. Huge crowds of people stood along the route he was driven from the airport to Tivoli Copenhagen, celebrating.
Some years later, he admitted to using EPO and other performance enhancing drugs, and just like that he went from hero to villain. Even though everyone riding back in those days, were on EPO and his admission came just shortly after his entire team from those days had admitted to the same. But in Denmark, everyone felt betrayed and it has taken a lot of work for Riis, to get back on the nation’s good side.
This book is about his life – from his childhood, riding his bike as hard as he could, partly to be able to spend time with his father, who was partly broken because of the eldest son drowning in the neighbor’s pool by accident. The accident also caused the parents to divorce and split Bjarne Riis and his brother up.
We follow him as he fight to become a professional – which is hard work. But he gets some lucky breaks and slowly works his way up as a rider, becoming better and better, finally culminating in the 1996 Tour de France win.
After that, things don’t always go as planned – especially not in the 1997 race where we all remember him throwing his specially made bike away after it failed him and it was a de-throned champion who rolled into the streets of Paris that year.
But he stuck to it, rode several years after this and still won some great victories.
And when injury stopped him, he took some time off figuring out what he wanted to do afterwards. Again, sort of by chance, he becomes the owner of his own team and decides to make it the best in the world – and succeed by implementing new tactics, new strategies and new training methods.
Alongside his story of his professional cycling career, Riis tells about his private life, his first marriage with Mette and later, his falling in love with Anne Dorthe Tanderup, one of Denmark’s best handball players, whom he met at OL in Atlanta, his divorce from Mette and later marriage to Anne Dorthe – as well as about his 6 sons. I really like how kind he is to Mette, his ex-wife, how kind he talks about her and how he puts all the blame of their divorce on himself.
The book is co-written with a Danish sports journalist who has written about other Danish sports personalities. Especially in the beginning, this is a very uneven book, jumping around from paragraph to pararaph and rather poorly written. This however, improves as the book progresses – or maybe it improves as the events get more interesting. I don’t like the use of present tense throughout in the book, especially not since it jumps in time, begins in 2007, then goes back in time and moves up.
Most times, it feels honest account of his life, his professional career, his personal relationships, his successes and failures. But it doesn’t all ring all true. He admits to taking EPO, he says it’s partly because of curiosity, partly because he wants to test the best out there, partly because it’s in the environment all around him. But even though he admits to it, he doesn’t really credit the EPO with his victories. Instead he talks a lot about all his hard training and loosing weight and always being at the forefront of new training techniques and that being the cause of his victories, not really crediting the EPO with anything.
I like the extra insights it gives into the professional cycling word, the small psychological tricks the riders use to intimidate each other, how hard it is to make it and how much it really takes if you want to win Tour de France.
The book is interesting because it deals with his entire career and life – that’s what gives it 4 stars – definitely not the writing.

Review: The Sorrow Vaporizer

Louise Kringelbach: Sorgforstøveren (Lindhardt og Ringhof, 2008)

I recently read this book by a new Danish author and it made a huge impression on me. I really loved the idea that when you have a great sorrow, it shows itself as an animal; an animal that can change over time as your sorrow changes. I must admit that my love for this book may be slightly effected by the fact that I lost my father about a month prior to reading this book and therefore probably was in the right mindset for reading and enjoying this – although I guess it could have gone the other way completely as well. Suffice to say, I really liked it and recommend it and I’m reposting this review from Goodreads here in the hope that more people will hear about this book and maybe improve it’s chances of getting published internationally.

The Sorrow Vaporizer. Review by Christina Stind Rosendahl.
The premise of this book was so promising that I just had to read it, even though I don’t read a lot of novels by Danish authors – and then mostly read books that are very popular, by well-known authors or that people are talking about. This one is a first novel by a young female author and although it has gotten great reviews, it isn’t one of the big books of it’s year – which is actually a shame.
The book has it’s flaws – basically it’s just a story about a man suffering a huge blow and then trying to come to terms with it and figuring out what’s important in life. But the great thing of it all is that he works as a ‘sorrow vaporizer’, he helps people deals with their sorrow. Now the really brilliant thing about this book is that people’s sorrow sometimes manifest itself as an animal and then our main protagonist, Thor Moslav, helps people deal with their animals.
When the book starts, a man is killed by his sorrow animal. This animal is a huge elephant that has been vaporized to a baby elephant. Now this elephant is young and playful – and therefore not quite trustworthy. The death is ruled as an accident but still Thor Moslav is blaimed for the death and becomes the subject of a lot of harsh critique in the medias. This causes him to loose some of his patients and for the first time, he starts to question his work and his abilities.
The story itself is nothing special but the idea of the sorrow animals are amazing and the various patients with their animals are so great. How the animals sometimes hurt the people but at other times they become an important part of people’s lives, in fact count as pets or even more than that. I really like the idea of this. I wish that sorrow did manifest itself like that – would be nice having something tangible to deal with, something that over time would become a huge positive thing in your life. What is especially great about this idea is, that sorrows work this way. They hurt people in various ways – feels like a great burden sitting on your chest, preventing you from breathing for instance – just like a gigantic bird would feel it it was sitting there. Sorrows are changed over time – like an enormous elephant being changed to a baby elephant as the sorrows grows lighter and like sorrow gets more unpredictable over time. But over time most sorrows get more manageable – like a great big wolf turned into a terrier.
This was a very easy and light read and because of this whole idea, very enjoyable. I hope that it gets translated so more people can enjoy this small book.