Friday, 21 October 2016

reading list: Booktober 2016

Most delightful conversations between authors took place at a Lannan Literary event in April when Zadie Smith and Karl Ove Knausgård shared the stage. Karl Ove was there to read from his work Some Rain Must Fall, the fifth My Struggle book, and Zadie to introduce and interview him. She started the conversations with a witty story: At the airport, on her way to the event, she heard a woman saying to a friend: 'What kind of a person even says that out loud?' And she thought: 'I'm gonna go meet him now. I know exactly who it is.' Those who have read Karl Ove's revealing-it-all autobiographical novels are probably smiling now or laughing. At least the audience was. Book 1 is on my Booktober reading list and I'm so glad that I finally took the plunge. I wasn't sure the My Struggle books (Min Kamp in Norwegian) were for me, plus I'm always a bit skeptic about works that become immensely popular. But there was something that kept pulling me and when I realised that I had more or less listened to every other conversation with Karl Ove on YouTube I said to myself, This is getting ridiculous, knowing so much about these books and not reading them. I have hardly put the book down but I'm saving Book 2 for my next list and instead reading another work by him. Here is my list, which will stretch well into November:

· A Death in the Family: My Struggle 1  by Karl Ove Knausgård
· A Time for Everything  by Karl Ove Knausgård
· White Teeth  by Zadie Smith
· NW  by Zadie Smith
· Americanah  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
· Purple Hibiscus  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
· Avid Reader: A Life  by Robert Gottlieb

I have followed Zadie Smith for a long time - she has such a charisma on the literary stage - but never read any of her works until now when I bought her first novel, White Teeth, and borrowed NW at the library (sometimes it's all about the timing). Her new novel, Swing Time, will soon be published and I'm spotting Zadie-features all over the media, e.g. an interview in T Magazine by novelist Jeffrey Eugenides. She graces the cover of the latest The Gentlewoman, issue No. 14, Autumn and Winter 2016. I wanted to buy it but haven't found it in my town. Another author with charisma is the Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I loved Half of a Yellow Sun, read it twice and will probably read it again. I have wanted to listen to conversations between Zadie and Chimamanda at the Schomburg Center in Harlem in NY. I started watching and loved them together but before continuing I'm going to read Americanah, which I bought this summer. When I'm done with the novels on my list I'm reading editor Robert Gottlieb's memoir that was just published. As I write this, my copy is on its way in the mail and I'm so looking forward to holding it in my hands.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Cross with Stars and Blue, 1929

In August, when we were in London, my older daughter and I went to see the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern; one of the reasons for the trip. She had learned about O'Keeffe in art classes and it was my first O'Keeffe exhibition. Seeing many of my favourite paintings close up was a thrilling experience. One of them was Black Cross with Stars and Blue, 1929, which you can spot in my images:
This painting depicts a cross of the Penitente sect of Catholicism, frequently sited within the New Mexico landscape, but viewed here against the outline of Taos Mountain, a sacred site for the local Native American community. The composition thus emphasises O'Keeffe's understanding of the layering of cultural identity on the American landscape. As she described: 'It was in the late light and the cross stood out – dark against the evening sky. If I turned a little to the left, away from the cross, I saw the Taos Mountain – a beautiful shape. I painted the cross against the mountain although I never saw it that way.' (Tate, p. 68)
Another painting was Abstraction White Rose, 1927. I swear I had to stifle a scream when I saw it; my heart was beating faster when I stood in front of it. The exhibition closes at the end of October and I encourage you to see it if you are in London.

Booktober reading list in the making

images by me | Georgia O'Keeffe art via Studio International

Thursday, 6 October 2016

curried bean stew with coconut milk

The best moments in the kitchen happen when I have all the time in the world and no one is waiting for dinner. I let a film or a TV show run in the player while chopping vegetables for, let's say, a bean stew that I allow to simmer even longer than needed. On Sunday I had such a moment when preparing my curried bean stew with coconut milk, a favourite in this house. While preparing it I listened to conversations with the author Zadie Smith on YouTube (from 2010, part of the series Live from the New York Public Library). I forgot myself completely and cooked it for an hour, which was fine. Now that autumn has arrived there will be plenty of these moments. The list of ingredients may seem long but the stew is easy to make. All you need is time.


1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 onion
3 cloves garlic
2 peppers, red and green
2 celery sticks
75 g trimmed green beans
150 g frozen, diced sweet potatoes (about 1½ cup)
100 g frozen, diced butternut squash (about ¾ cup)
1 can (400 g) kidney beans (14 oz)
1 can (400 g) cannellini beans (14 oz)
4 teaspoons (vegan) vegetable bouillon powder
1 teaspoon tandoori curry powder
(or 1 teaspoon mild curry powder and ¼ teaspoon chilli powder)
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon red chilli flakes
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon Italian herb mix
1 can (400 g) tomatoes (14 oz)
1 can (400 ml) coconut milk (14 oz)
optional: a handful of spinach
Maldon sea salt flakes to taste

Start with preparing the vegetables and beans: Peel the onion and garlic, chop and finely chop. Remove seeds and dice the peppers. Finely slice the celery sticks. Slice the trimmed beans coarsely. In the stew I use frozen, diced sweet potatoes and butternut squash. If you cannot buy them frozen use fresh ingredients. Rinse and drain the kidney and cannellini beans in a colander.

Heat the coconut oil in a large saucepan on low-medium heat. Cook the onion and garlic for a few minutes until the onion has softened. Add the other vegetables and cook for a few more minutes, gently stirring with a spoon. Add the beans, bouillon powder (or 2 stock cubes), spices and herbs, and combine before adding the tomatoes and coconut milk. Increase the heat and bring to the boil while stirring gently. Cover with a lid and let it simmer on low heat for 20 minutes. Stir in the spinach, if using, then tilt the lid to allow the steam to escape and allow to simmer for another 15-20 minutes. Taste with Maldon sea salt flakes if needed.

Serve the bean stew with perhaps sourdough bread or stone baked baguette.

Uppskrift á íslensku.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

early autumn 2016 reading list

Saturday morning, coffee and books. In the background on repeat, Cat Power performing her cover of Troubled Waters; I never tire of this song. It's time to share my early autumn reading list - yes, there will be a late-autumn one, I already have some works lined up. I wanted to include Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys on the list but it wasn't available at the library and my ordered copy hasn't arrived, yet. I loved Michael Douglas in the film (2000), directed by Curtis Hanson, who passed away last Tuesday. I have already finished two books on the list and one of them is The Little Book of Hygge, which I recently reviewed on the blog. At the moment I'm reading five books at once. Some are short story collections so I pick up the one I'm in the mood for. Here is the list:

· Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
· The Outsider by Albert Camus
· The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
· A Winter Book: Selected Stories by Tove Jansson
· Anecdotes of Destiny by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)
· In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
· Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
· The American by Henry James
· Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
· The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking

At the library I spotted Yoshimoto's Kitchen, her first book, and had to borrow it to read again. Japanese authors are so wonderfully different. Many years ago I worked in a bookshop with school and took the risk of recommending it to a customer, who struck me as a reader ready for something different. Sometimes it was tricky recommending books to customers, not everyone has the same taste (luckily) and I didn't want anyone to waste money on something they didn't enjoy. Well, this one came back to tell me that she had loved it, that it was 'different', and she went home with a stack of my favourite books.

Stéphane Audran as Babette in Babette's Feast (1987)

Two Nordic authors are on my list. You know already about my love for Karen Blixen. Many years ago I read her story Babette's Feast and have since treasured it. It's featured in the story collection on the list and I'm looking forward to reading it again. Have you seen the film (1987, original Danish title Babettes gæstebud)? It's one of my favourites. It won the Oscar in the category Best Foreign Language Film. The other Nordic author on my list is Tove Jansson, who became famous for her books about the Moomintrolls (see my recent post about The Moomin Shop in London). She also wrote fiction for adults and I don't understand why I hadn't read any of them before. I'm so enjoying the two on my list. The Summer Book, first published in 1972, is a beautifully written story about a six-year-old and her grandmother, who spend a summer on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland (Jansson herself had a cabin on a tiny, remote island in the same Gulf). The story has no plot, it's about life and nature. Such a quiet and calm read.

Tove Jansson at her cabin on the Finnish island Klovharun

The other book on the list that I have also finished is Casino Royale, Ian Fleming's first book about James Bond. I was not impressed, which is the reason I didn't include it in my photo! Perhaps my expectations were too high because I enjoyed the film. The plot is interesting but I was simply bored during the reading. There were also sentences that I had to read twice to believe my own eyes ('the sweet tang of rape' (p. 201); it was published in different times, in 1953, but hello, misogynistic much?). One day I will probably give Fleming another chance and read From Russia with Love, which many consider his best. Just not yet.

1: image by me | 2: still via BFI · credit: Panorama Film A/S, Det Danske Filminstitut, Nordisk Film + Rungstedlundfonden · director + screenplay Gabriel Axel | 3: via Tove Jansson

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

arrival of autumn

Early morning yesterday I quickly went into the garden and for a moment sensed the arrival of autumn when I noticed the fading colours of the hydrangeas. Without wishing to sound dramatic, I almost felt a pang in my heart because the weather has been so wonderful lately - the proper Indian summer I wished for - and I'm not quite ready for colder days. It's a luxury to still being able to enjoy a cup of coffee on the sunny patio, but it seems to me that from this day forward I will be drinking it inside and looking out the window.

The arrival of autumn was very different when we lived in Iceland, where it arrives earlier and more rapidly. Going berry picking was essential and driving to the Thingvellir National Park to see nature dressed in its finest autumn apparel. Over here big and juicy blueberries from Poland arrive in stores, apple and plum trees bear fruit, and hydrangea shrubs start to fade well before the leaves change their colours.

For me another sign of autumn is Virginia Woolf. In August last year I started reading her diaries and this summer having just read a few pages of her diaries, and letters, I feel the need again to read a few entries before going to sleep. It feels as if she is always writing by the fireplace, which is particularly comforting. Speaking of Woolf! This weekend I saw new Woolf paperback editions from Vintage Classics. The Finnish artist Aino-Maija Metsola illustrated the covers (for a few years she has designed for Marimekko) and I think it was love at first sight when I saw the cover of Mrs Dalloway. The other books in the Woolf series are The Waves, The Years, Orlando, To the Lighthouse and A Room of One's Own that also contains the sequel Three Guineas.


Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking

Last weekend I got a copy of The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well, which explains the Danish concept of 'hygge'. The author is Meik Wiking from The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, whose job it is to research what makes people happy. It's published by Penguin and comes in a neat format, not too big, which makes it quite thick, 288 pages. It's readable and fun and beautifully designed, filled with photographs and illustrations of Scandinavian motifs. Wiking thoroughly explains the idea of hygge and how the Danes, the happiest nation according to studies, know the art of creating an intimate atmosphere. He uses researches and charts to support his case, but the book never feels dry or academic. He strikes a balance between facts and figures with a flowing, light, and often humorous text.

Before sitting down to tell you about the book it felt fitting to create an atmosphere of hygge. I made hot chocolate and a delicious bread roll before lighting the fireplace.

For an Icelander the concept of hygge isn't unfamiliar. Danish culture is similar to ours and we learn the language at school (or any other Nordic language of choice). In Iceland we would probably use the word cosy to explain hygge but it doesn't quite grasp the idea. This is the way Wiking explains it:
Hygge is about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things. It is about being with the people we love. A feeling of home. A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world and allow ourselves to let our guard down. (p. 6)
Most Danes connect hygge with autumn and winter but the warmer months aren't excluded from hygge. I found it interesting that Wiking compares the Danes with the Dutch, who have a similar concept called 'gezelligheid'. The difference, however, is that the majority of the Dutch associate it with going out, to a café or a bar, while the majority of the Danes associates hygge with the feeling of home.

Having lived in Denmark, I have many fond memories. I also happen to have Danish ancestors: On one branch of my family tree is a Danish great-grandmother and on another branch is a great-great-grandfather. I often notice that foreigners view Denmark as some kind of utopia and seem to think that it's free from the social problems other countries deal with. I was glad to see Wiking mentioning this view. When you live in Denmark you definitely become aware of a certain sense of community, which I cannot quite explain, and you realise that the welfare of its citizens is important.

How do the Danes create hygge and what makes them happy? Wiking mentions many factors, such as cosy homes and togetherness, inviting friends over to enjoy food and drink. Candles and the correct lighting are very important - 85% Danes connect candles with hygge. The Christmas month is particularly hyggelig (adjective). I have lived in a few countries and it's my opinion that no other nation knows how to better create the perfect Christmas mood. Copenhagen is my dream city in December and nothing compares to strolling its cobblestone streets, seeing the candles in the windows and experiencing the ideal Christmas spirit. Wiking devotes a chapter to Christmas and when talking about the food he mentions risalamande, which is one of our Christmas traditions. I have already shared the recipe of this Danish rice and almond pudding with cherry sauce on the blog.

One thing in the book caught my attention because it's something I have often thought about. Wiking refers to a survey that shows gratitude having an impact on happiness. The results show that being grateful not only increases happiness, but also makes us more helpful, more forgiving, and less materialistic (p. 280). This is what Wiking has to say about hygge and gratitude:
Hygge may help us to be grateful for the everyday because it is all about savouring simple pleasures. Hygge is making the most of the moment, but hygge is also a way of planning for and preserving happiness. Danes plan for hyggelige times and reminisce about them afterwards. (p. 281)

During the reading I was convinced that my daily life has hygge in abundance - perhaps it's in my blood - but if I have to mention one thing that I do every day it would be enjoying a cup of quality coffee and reading a book. Each time my choice of hygge-corner in the house simply depends on my mood.

If you feel that you need hygge in you life I highly recommend getting a copy of this book. It's full of ideas.