Unfortunately, as we all know, traveling is off-limits right now. Everyone is asked to stay at home as much as possible and I’ve been in my apartment for more than two months now. Grocery shopping is the only meaningful event in my life right now, so I’m trying to stay positive and do a lot of things during this quarantine because I’m still one of the lucky ones.
Now I have more time to read and I thought that this could be the right time to write about books that will make you fall in love with Scandinavia. So here comes a list of books to read while in quarantine. I divided the lists in three main categories: contemporary literature, classic literature, and lifestyle books. Each category is divided by country and at the end of this blogpost, you will also find a bonus list from Iceland, Faroe Islands, and Finland.
- The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson (2009). This comic novel is probably longer than my life but rest assure you will read it in one week or even less. The title is quite long and unusual and so is the story, but I’ve never laughed so much while reading a book. The story is about Allan, an old man who decides to run away from his retirement home right before celebrating his 100th birthday. That’s where another adventure starts for Allan, whose past adventures we read along his present ones. You won’t regret reading this book, trust me.
- The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden, Jonas Jonasson (2013). At this point, I guess you’ve realized two important things: the first is that Jonas Jonasson is one of my favourite authors and the second is that he’s into long titles and unusual comic stories. The title in Swedish is Analfabeten som kunde räkna, literally “The illiterate who was good at math”. However, the editor decided to change the title into “The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden”. I think it is because titles starting with “The Girl Who” are generally more appealing to the public and it clearly recalls the titles of the books in Stieg Larsson’s famous Millennium saga. Since we’re talking about Jonasson’s works, at this point, you should read also Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All (2015).
- A Different Life, Per Olov Enquist (2008). The author unfortunately died in April 2020, so I thought it would be right to include his autobiography here. The story is told in third person as if Enquist is writing about a different life and not his own. Everything starts in 1934 in Northern Sweden and we can slowly see what happens not only in his life but we learn about European history in the twentieth century.
- Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004). If you’re looking for a horror novel, then I got you covered with Let the Right One In (Swedish: Låt den rätte komma in). The story is set in Stockholm in 1980s and it is not a coincidence that Lindqvist is often considered as the Swedish Stephen King. The novel was a best seller and it was later adapted in two films, two stage adaptations, and even a comic book. I think that the best film adaptation is Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008), while the American adaptation Blood Story… well, I don’t recommend it since it isn’t even set in Sweden and honestly I don’t like movies that adapt books too much rather than being more faithful. But this is just my opinion, of course.
- April Witch, Majgull Axelsson (1997). I was lucky enough to meet Majgull in 2018 in Rome, at the presentation of her novel Jag heter inte Miriam (I’m not sure if there is an English translation of this novel). Anyway, I want to recommend the novel that got her the August Prize, April Witch (Aprilhãxan). The novel was quite a surprise and it’s not the usual witch-horror story, instead it is far from being a fantasy novel. The April Witch (it’s not a spoiler, I swear) is Desiree, who was born with cerebral palsy and has violent epileptic seizures, therefore she cannot speak, nor walk, nor do anything else. Being an April Witch is what allows her to travel with her mind to find out the truth about her mother and how her life could have been if she wasn’t abandoned because of her condition.
- Egalia’s Daughters, Gerd Brantenberg (1977). How would the world look like if gender roles were inverted? If women had the power and men were the expected by society to take care of children? This is what you will find out by reading the feminist novel Egalia’s Daughters by Gerd Brantenberg. One of the most interesting aspects is language. Language mirrors the world we live in but if this world is reversed, then we find out that Egalian language is highly sexist. The book is rather hard to find, but it’s worth the effort.
- Don’t Look Back, Karin Fossum (1996). If you want to read Norwegian crime fiction, I got you covered with Karin Fossum. There are a lot of Norwegian crime writers (*cough cough* Jo Nesbø *cough cough*) out there but I decided to recommend you my dear Karin because it was the first crime novel I’ve read from Scandinavia.
- My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgård (2009). It’s a series but I recommend reading book one of the series. He is quite a controversial author since in this autobiographical series he tells everything that happens to him, including embarrassing moments or life events that a “normal” person would usually keep more hidden. Why I think you will like it? He describes every single detail and will make you feel what he’s feeling. You will have a hard time trying to lift your eyes from those pages.
- Doghead, Morten Ramsland (2005). As my friend Francesca wrote on her wonderful blog, Doghead can be considered as an atypical Nordic saga about the Erikssons. It will take you a couple of days to read this fun and weird story. It is hard, at times, to understand who is living what, but you won’t be disappointed by Doghead.
- Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, Peter Høeg (1992). Another example of Scandinavian Noir, I bet you will love Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow as much as I do. Miss Smilla grew up in Greenland and she knows how to recognize all types of snow. The novel won the Edgar Award in 1994 and the Silver Dagger Award in 1994.
- The Man Who Wanted to be Guilty, Henrik Stangerup (1973). I will try to summarize what I think about this wonderful novel: you will read the modern dystopian development of Kierkegaard’s concept of guilt, while Stangerup subtly criticizes the Scandinavian welfare state. I also chose to include this novel in my MA dissertation, so here you will have to trust me hands down.
Great authors, great stories:
Here you will find classic authors that shaped the national literature of their countries.
- Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen (1890). This play is one of the most known written by Mr. Ibsen and it is my favourite. The main character, Hedda Gabler, is a strong independent woman who definitely doesn’t fit the stereotyped role of women at the end of the 19th century. You can find it anywhere online and you can read it in a few hours.
- A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen (1879). I know I already recommended Ibsen, but I couldn’t let you go without mentioning one of the plays that founded the modern dramatic production. Here we see how Ibsen attacks the bourgeois concept of family that considers women as objects in the hands of their husbands. Is Ibsen feminist? I would be wary with labels in his case. My personal opinion? If an author writes about women, their role in society, depicting them as strong characters who want to be independent from their husbands, it doesn’t necessarily make the author a feminist. At least not automatically. I would love to hear what you think about this.
- The White House, Herman Bang (1898). The story is set in Als, an island in the Baltic Sea where Bang was born, and it’s autobiographical. The author recalls his childhood and in particular his mother Stella. I don’t know if it’s just me, but when I read this novel for the first time, I couldn’t help but thinking of The Stroll by Claude Monet. Well, we could definitely say that Herman Bang imported French naturalism in Denmark. In his The White House, as well as in the sequel The Gray House (1901), Bang doesn’t describe nor comment his characters but he portrays them as they were independent actors on a stage.
- The True Story of My Life, Hans Christian Andersen (1855). Although Andersen is mostly known for his fairytales, I believe that his autobiography is one of the most interesting books ever. We learn a lot about his life experiences and his career as a man of culture, but also we can see how life was for artists in the Romantic Age. Here we can see the same plot of his fairytale The Ugly Ducking: he was born in an extremely poor family and he had to struggle a lot before he could be recognized even just as a decent artist.
- Seven Gothic Tales, Karen Blixen (1934). Personally, I’ve never liked Frau Blixen too much. I don’t know why, maybe I’m just biased. But I can’t ignore one of the most influential women of Danish literature, although she used a male pseudonym at first. As the title makes us understand, Seven Gothic Tales is a collection of… gothic tales. I must admit that I have a favourite tale, the Supper at Elsinore.
- Kallocain, Karin Boye (1940). I won’t recommend any other novel as this one. This is the novel that made me fall in love with dystopian literature. I’ve already read it twice since 2020 started. It was one of novels I analyzed for my MA dissertation. The story is about a chemist, Leo Kall, who invents a serum called kallocain. When the police injects people this serum, they start telling the truth about anything. I might spoil the novel for you if I keep writing. So, if you’re into dystopian fiction, you can’t miss Boye’s Kallocain.
- Miss Julie, August Strindberg (1889). Strindberg is probably one of the most influential writers ever, but he definitely was a controversial personality. However, I will try to ignore my slight disdain for him. I can’t help it, sorry, but I must recommend on one of the most beautiful plays in Swedish literature.
Some of those were written by non-Scandinavian authors but I believe that these books will help you understand better the Scandinavian lifestyle, even though some of these books might be too stereotypical and generalizing. Nevertheless, I think you will enjoy them.
- Lagom, Lola A. Åkerström (2017). I would need to write a blogpost just to explain the meaning of lagom. Let’s say that it means “just the right amount”. Åkerström explains how the concept of lagom can be applied in every aspect of our lives: from personal finances to our social life, from design to fashion or even mental health.
- The Little Book of Hygge: the Danish Way to Live Well, Meik Wiking (2017). If Åkerström believes that lagom is the “Swedish secret of Living Well”, Wiking explains how hygge can help us reach happiness. Hygge is an untranslatable word just like lagom, but again, I will try to simplify its meaning. Hygge can be the feeling of coziness and intimacy, you can feel it while alone or with friends. It is such a complex concept that all you have to do is buy this book and read it.
While I was waiting at Oslo Gardemoen airport, I decided to buy two unusual guides to kill the time. I found the Xenofobe’s guide to the Norwegians and Xenofobe’s Guide to the Swedes. They are aimed to “cure xenophobia“. Interesting, but also highly questionable because these guides are full of stereotypes. I mean, I like stereotypes as long as there is awareness that it is just an exaggeration rather than an interpretation of the truth. So yes, if you need something light to get to know Norwegians, Danes, or Swedes, bear in mind that if you read these short guides, you must be aware that they were written with humorous intent.
Bonus books from Finland, Iceland and Faroe Islands:
- The Year of the Hare, Arto Paasilinna (1975) – Finland.
- Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta (2012) – Finland. Yes, another dystopian novel but it is amazing.
- The Howling Miller, Arto Paasilinna (1981) – Finland.
- Under the Glacier , Halldór Laxness (1968) – Iceland.
- Detective Erlendur series, by Arnaldur Indriðason (1997–) – Iceland. He’s probably one of the most known crime writers outside Iceland.
Unfortunately, Faroese literature is less known and less translated into English or Italian. It is easier to read Faroese literature if you speak Danish since these novels are mostly translated into Danish. However, I recommend you checking this page to see if you can find more suggestions. Here are mine:
- Afternoon, Carl Jóhan Jensen (1979).
- Sólrún Michelsen:
– 2011 “Some people run in shorts” (translation of the short story “Summi renna í stuttum brókum”), published in Vencil Anthology of Contemporary Faroese Literature.
– 2017 “Some people run in shorts” in Anthology for contemporary Nordic Literature:THE DARK BLUE WINTER OVERCOAT.
– 2017 “Some people run in shorts” in Boundless Literary Magazine on-line.
- If you’re into Scandinavian Noir, then you should read Camilla Läckberg’s series set in Fjällbacka. The main characters are Patrik Hedström and Erica Falck. Camilla Läckberg is probably one of the most known crime writers outside Scandinavia. You will see the bloody side of Sweden.
- Amatka, Karin Tidbeck (2012) – [Swedish] . The novel belongs to a weird genre between science fiction and dystopian fiction. I guess it’s not a coincidence if the author herself says that she’s “creator of weird fiction”. Amatka is the name of one of the five colonies that were founded after a (nuclear?) disaster and where our main character Vanja moves to. In this world portrayed by Karin Tidbeck, objects disappear if people don’t label them often. It’s way less political than usual dystopian novels and focuses on the importance of words and language.
- Anything you can possibly find by the Danish crime author Jussi Adler-Olsen. I read Kvinden i buret a few years ago and I loved it so much that I’d dare to compare him to Stephen King. I’m not sure if there are English translations of his works, but if you understand Danish, Italian or any other language Kvinden i buret was translated into… then don’t hesitate.
I hope that this blogpost inspired you to read one of these books and I hope that these books will make you visit Scandinavia one day. If you liked it, feel free to save it or share it with your friends! Hejdå 🙂