I heard a lot about this book and have to confess I was a bit skeptical.
How wrong is it possible to be be?
If you’ve read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out A Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson you’ll love this too – it has a very similar style.
Not a word is wasted. There’s very little flowery exposition, just lean spare evocative writing that shows much much more than it tells – the author respects his readers and relies on their intelligence to pick up the nuances and commonalties of human experience and feeling.
Without being in the least saccharin or mawkish, it’s both funny and positive – and surprisingly affecting.
You’ll be sorry to reach the end but exceedingly glad you read it!
I know because Goodreads tells me so. Or at least Goodreads tells me that I told it that was the number.
Actually it was the number, I didn’t game the system though of course it is possible. It was the first time I had ever consciously kept track of how many books I read over a year.
Thoughts on the experience?
It definitely made me much more aware of how many books I had read, and was reading. How often do you realise that days have gone by and very few or maybe no pages have been read? It’s easy as we all discover to lose time, to get lost in other things, to be the fly in molasses. The Goodreads counter knocked lassitude on the head – ‘You’re on track!’ or ‘You’re 2 books behind’. It never went beyond two, the kick in the pants worked wonders ever time.
Added to the impetus was the % read tracker on my Kindle. Between the two, there was a steady drumbeat of recognition of progress made, or not, and encouragement to stay on track, or catch up.
Over time this did though grow to be a little disconcerting. Only 15% through a book? 1 book behind? Time to up the pace…..maybe speed up? Skip a little even? There were targets to be met after all!!
This was the downside of what was mostly a positive experience. A ticking clock measuring anything inevitably pushes towards a greater tempo, and then greater still, as it counts down, ever closer to the moment on 31 December and the final reckoning. The odd psychological effect was that even though the figure I set was entirely of my own choosing, and no one cared or was watching, and the unseen outcome counted for absolutely nothing, it did assume a significance just by being there. I not sure I liked that feeling, and especially not to have it bound up and instilled with reading – a pleasure and a realm intended to be as enjoyable as it is because it was separate from deadlines and pressures, walled off in its own sanctuary beyond normal space and time, and the everyday world. Though of course really it’s not – but it’s nice to think that way.
It’s easy (and in the grand scheme of thing right) to say that the best response was to just chill, since the grand total was freighted with no meaning – nothing was lost at 98 or gained by 103 books read.
And yet. It mattered. Oddly, and perhaps inexplicably so. I’m not sure why. I wasn’t competing with anyone. As I said no one was keeping an eye on me. I didn’t mention any total or the challenge to anyone, let along invest any importance in reaching the figure.
So why care? A good and puzzling question. A challenge is a challenge perhaps? Losing to oneself is the worst defeat of all? Keeping track highlighted how much time is actually ‘wasted’, as it might be termed, not reading? Maybe 100 books doesn’t seem a very large number? Especially in a year? With over 1,200 on my Kindle alone? And more to add? And that leaves aside all the paper mounds and pyramids accumulated and waiting to be explored?
In a way I suppose keeping track revealed a tangible mortality of time, a limit that is real and insurmountable. Our thread of life is finite and what we do with the length available, in so far as we can ever know or guess what that is, is a series of choices.
And all of the time a clock is ticking.
Like it or not.
I set the 100 books goal again this year, with a bit more trepidation and hesitation than last.
“…in protest against her parents…For instance she wrote her short English essay in German and claimed in a History exam that the Bronze Age began on the 14 February 1972”
If you’ve read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson’s first book, the style in his follow-up novel will be familiar. For those who haven’t read his breakout work, the fact that he has retained this same approach is a very good thing.
The Swedish author has a way with words, with ideas and plot turns and twists, that are all his own. Something akin to Terry Pratchett, Jonasson can convey deep thoughts about serious topics with a light touch, one that’s often also laugh out loud funny.
The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden is not quite as funny as the original book, but very good fun none the less. Jonasson relishes unexpected developments and story direction, constantly surprising his reader with his inventiveness.
Not to give away too much of the story but if you can think of another book that could conjure up a situation where the slightly drunk Prime Minister of Sweden is rooting out potatoes in full evening dress in a remote field while nearby the equally merry Swedish King takes an axe to the necks of three chickens you have one over on me.
Central to the story is a nuclear bomb that links the lives of all the characters, starting with the main protagonist Nombeko – a gifted young girl living on her wits in apartheid South Africa when we meet her first. A series of extraordinary events as well as some extremely ordinary ones involve South African government officialdom, Israeli intelligence, a family of Chinese counterfeiters, two Swedish twins with a secret and an angry young girl and her (possible) Countess Grandmother in rollicking waves of adventure, unexpected complication and frequent mayhem. Not forgetting the Swedish King and PM’s nocturnal culinary efforts.
In common with Pratchett, Jonasson has a gift for depicting reality as the most absurd perspective of all. Everything else he creates and conjures up seems remarkably reasonable in comparison, and this contrast tells us a great deal about our own world and how odd really are the things we take for granted as ‘normal’.
A charming, warm, and sweet tale of what life can throw at a person – and what they can throw back.
I’d never really noticed this pattern before but like many things once it was pointed out it seemed obvious: the almost ever present acacia tree and a savannah sunset on the cover of books about Africa. Why?
‘Last week, Africa Is a Country, a blog that documents and skewers Western misconceptions of Africa, ran a fascinating story about book design. It posted a collage of 36 covers of books that were either set in Africa or written by African writers. The texts of the books were as diverse as the geography they covered: Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique. They were written in wildly divergent styles, by writers that included several Nobel Prize winners. Yet all of books’ covers featured an acacia tree, an orange sunset over the veld, or both.
“In short,” the post said, “the covers of most novels ‘about Africa’ seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.”
What makes the persistence of these tired and inaccurate images even worse is that we’re living in an era of brilliantbookdesign (including this lovely, type-only cover for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah; her novel Half of a Yellow Sun begins the collage above). So why is it so hard for publishers of African authors to rise beyond cliché?
I asked Peter Mendelsund—who is an associate art director of Knopf, a gifted cover designer, and the author of a forthcoming book on the complex alliances between image and text—to help me understand how the publishing industry got to a place where these crude visual stereotypes are recycled ad nauseam. (Again and again, that acacia tree!)
He points first to “laziness, both individual or institutionalized.” Like most Americans, book designers tend not to know all that much about the rest of the world, and since they don’t always have the time to respond to a book on its own terms, they resort to visual clichés. Meanwhile, editors sometimes forget what made a manuscript unique to begin with. In the case of non-Western novels, they often fall back on framing it with “a vague, Orientalist sense of place,” Mendelsund says, and they’re enabled by risk-averse marketing departments.
“By the time the manuscript is ready to be produced, there’s a really strong temptation to follow a path that’s already been trod,” he says. “If someone goes out on a limb and tries something different, and the book doesn’t sell, you know who to blame: the guy who didn’t put the acacia tree on the cover.”
He adds that the underlying issue can be more pernicious: “Of course, there are the deeply ingrained problems of post-colonialist and Orientalist attitudes. We’re comfortable with this visual image of Africa because it’s safe. It presents ‘otherness’ in a way that’s easy to understand. That’s ironic, because what is fiction if not a way for you to stretch your empathetic muscles?”
That’s a reasonable diagnosis. But how to solve the underlying problem? Certain books are allowed to stand on their own; others—too often those by African, Muslim, or female authors—are assigned genre stereotypes. Mendelsund suggests that designers should start by initiating conversations with editors about what makes a book unique, so that they have something to respond to visually. And if that fails, and designers are pressured to use an offensive stereotype, Mendelsund says, “We can tell them that it’s racist, xenophobic, whatever.”
But change comes slowly. One day, Mendelsund predicts, there will be a best-selling novel by an African writer that happens to use a different visual aesthetic, and its success will introduce a new set of arbitrary images to represent Africa in Western eyes. “But right now, we’re in the age of the tree,” he says. “For that vast continent, in all its diversity, you get that one fucking tree.”’