Sigrid Undset’s Other Masterpiece – The Master of Hestviken – Vol. 1: The Axe

The Axe coverThe Axe (The Master of Hestviken, Vol. 1) by Sigrid Undset. Vintage, 1994.

I wonder if any reader of Sigrid Undset comes to The Master of Hestviken first.  It seems that most find their way here after spending many precious hours, days, and months living the story of Kristin Lavransdatter; the discovery of her world of 13th century Norway, as Undset unfolds it, is so fascinating and heartwrenching, one simply must return! What gratitude one feels that Undset wrote an equally monumental novel centered upon the characters of Olav Audunssøn and his wife, Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter. It appeared in two volumes, Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken and Olav Audunssøn og Hans Børn, from 1925-1927. The English version translated by Arthur G. Chater was dubbed The Master of Hestviken and published from 1928-1930. It is a tetralogy:

  1. The Axe
  2. The Snake Pit
  3. In the Wilderness
  4. The Son Avenger

These subdivisions were published in four paperbacks from 1994-1995 by Vintage,  with such beautiful cover art by Kinuko Craft.

My first copy, however, was a Plume (New American Library) paperback, complete in one volume, published in 1978. Its cover has more of the Viking flavor. I’m so glad to finally read it!

Master of Hestviken cover

It is a complex novel with many characters but the actions and beliefs of Olav drive the story. It takes place during the 13th century when the Christian faith was still young in Norway, beginning to transform people’s lives and sense of themselves more fully. Olav must deal with his own guilt and the consequences of a decision to conceal a killing, as he faces the contradictions in his passionate relationship with his wife Ingunn. Undset, a recent convert to Catholicism herself, portrays compassion and mercy in action among the churchmen and shows the struggles of a good man, Olav, living in the often violent world of medieval Norway. Undset’s women characters, such as Ingunn and Kristin Lavransdatter before her, are strong and independent; these traits are much more than words, but demonstrated over and over again, in the crucible of many troubles. Undset shows us so much–the whole arc of a life–with its times of growth, setback, sorrow, and joy.

I will add to this review as I read the first volume, The Axe.

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This book choice is part of two long-term reading challenges, Travel the World in Books (which I host along with Tanya of Mom’s Small Victories and Aloi of Guiltless Reading) and Read the Nobels hosted by Aloi. I am so grateful for the abundant creative energies of these women. Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928; she was only 46 years old, and the third woman to win (the first two were Sweden’s Selma Lagerlöf and Italy’s Grazia Deledda). Visit Guiltless Reading for more information about the combined challenge, including an Instagram challenge, during the month of April.



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Review + Excerpt: Beatrice Ojakangas’ Food-Filled Memoir, “Homemade: Finnish Rye, Feed Sack Fashion, and Other Simple Ingredients from My Life in Food”

ojakangas_homemade_coverHomemade: Finnish Rye, Feed Sack Fashion, and Other Simple Ingredients from My Life in Food by Beatrice Ojakangas. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. 216 pp., 40 b&w photos.

I thank University of Minnesota Press for providing an advance copy of this book, which should be of special interest to Northern Lights readers.

Finnish-American chef and prolific cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas has gifted her loyal readers and new fans with a most beautiful and heartfelt memoir of her life in food–a well-told tale of family origins, inborn talent, opportunities seized, and hard work–flavored throughout by her own irresistible spirit. I count myself among the loyal readers, since I own three of her cookbooks–The Finnish Cookbook, Scandinavian Cooking, and Scandinavian Feasts–the latter two also published by University of Minnesota Press.

In Homemade, I learned more about how she came to write The Finnish Cookbook, her first book, after a Fulbright grant to her husband Dick allowed the young family (she and Dick had two children by then) to spend a year in Finland, a year which Beatrice put to good use listening to people and collecting recipes. From that book, I already knew Beatrice Ojakangas as an engaging writer on Finnish culture as well as a food expert.

But wait!  I am getting ahead of myself and ahead of Beatrice, who begins Homemade at the beginning, with her family. Part I is devoted to the story of her grandparents, her parents, and her growing-up years on a northern Minnesota farm as the oldest of ten children. As she writes, “I’m 100 percent Finnish” and “I’m also 100 percent Minnesotan.” All four of her grandparents immigrated from Finland to Minnesota. She begins her chapter on her paternal grandparents with the poignant sentence, “I often wonder who I would be if my father’s mother had married the man she loved.” As a young woman, her grandmother Susanna (“Sanna,” or “Mummu” to her grandkids), born in Lapua, Finland in 1872, had fallen in love with a young Lutheran pastor who went on ahead to live in America, promising to send her a boat ticket to join him later, when they would be married. After months went by without hearing from him, Sanna regretfully accepted a proposal and ticket from another young man who had gone to make a new life in Minnesota. Just as she was packing to leave, another ticket arrived in the mail, one from her true love. But she kept her promise to the man she had accepted and left Finland with the pain of lost love in her heart.

My brief telling only gives a glimpse of the moving way Beatrice recounts this story, along with the sequel many years later, when Sanna met her first love again. Beatrice writes about her grandfather with respect for the hard but good life he provided for his family, the farming and logging work he did, with Sanna working hard on the farm too. The family that was, rather than the family that might have been, became the one that gave birth to her father Isä, who shared with his mother Sanna a love of roses and gardening. This chapter finishes out with a delectable recipe for Finnish Cardamon Coffee Bread, or Pulla; it is also found in Finland as nisu (a Swedish name for it) or vehnäleipä (wheat bread). Leftover bread (if there is any!) can be sliced and toasted to make korppu, the Finnish equivalent of biscotti, for dunking in coffee or hot cocoa.

Her mother’s father, Joel, the only one of five brothers to survive a terrible famine in Finland, also came to America and eventually settled in Minnesota. He was the one who gave his granddaughter the nickname “Peachie” or “Peaches” because her given name, Beatrice, unfamiliar to Finnish ears, sounded like “peetsi” (peach). She writes about this so affectionately, it is clear that she cherishes this lifelong nickname and its association with her good-natured grandfather.  He was also courageous, saving his two little daughters from a fire. Little Esther, who bore swirling scars to remember this ordeal by, would grow up to be Beatrice’s mother. Esther’s mother Ruusu died in 1918 (the year of a flu epidemic) and Joel, while still grieving, needed help with his farm and his children; he sent to Finland for a mail-order bride, Helena, who happened to be a professionally trained chef who had worked in Helsinki. Her special cooking skills were a sign of things to come in a later generation. Beatrice includes a recipe she pieced together, with a little trial and error, for Grandmother Helena’s sugar cookies.  Although Helena didn’t let little Esther in the kitchen, she must have picked up a lot on her own. She was determined to teach her own children, starting with Beatrice, to cook before they could read–something the author is duly proud of, both her early cooking skills and her brave and generous mother who passed them along.

I hope these stories give a peek at the delightful family that Beatrice lets us in on. My favorite chapter is probably “There Were Ten of Us” in which we get a brief but fascinating portrait (including some charming family photos) of each of her nine siblings, four boys and five girls. One can’t be the oldest of such a crew without witnessing some major heartache and some triumphs too. She shares these tenderly and with an appealing pride in her siblings. The chapter called “Being Finnish” speaks honestly about the relations among different groups coexisting in an immigrant-rich state like Minnesota, and it offers a brilliant description of the very Finnish custom of sauna bathing every Saturday, to get scrubbed shiny clean for Sunday Lutheran services. This Saturday night ritual finished joyfully with a meal of delicious Lattyja (thin Finnish pancakes).

There is much more to tell from Beatrice’s early years, but I’ll let readers discover the stories and recipes for themselves. I’ll just mention that the “Feed Sack Fashion” in the book’s subtitle (and its own chapter) proves that her talents extended to sewing as well; she made clothes for her sisters and brothers from feed sack cloth in various prints available for free during the 1940s. The book includes a photo of her with her sisters, all wearing lovely matching dresses she designed and sewed herself; it was published in Seventeen magazine in a story on small town life.

In Part II, Beatrice has embarked on her career as a home economist. As a 4-H girl, she had already won State Fair prizes for her Cheese Soufflé and her Finnish Rye Bread (clippings, with photos of the young cook are included!).  While the cooking classes at the University of Minnesota’s Home Ec department were “nothing new” to this experienced home cook, she loved the chemistry and physics courses. One summer job at a private home gave her an on-the-spot apprenticeship in cooking “gourmet food” in quantity for large parties. In 1956 Beatrice Luoma married Dick Ojakangas, a geologist. While they were stationed in England for his ROTC, she learned about the Pillsbury Bake-Off. She won the Second Grand Prize for her Cheesy Picnic Bread (Chunk o’ Cheese Bread), and she hadn’t even had enough ingredients on hand to test out the variation she submitted!

I have already told you that Beatrice and Dick spent a year in Finland. When they returned to the States, they lived in Stanford, California and Beatrice landed her “dream job,” working at Sunset magazine. Working her way up from typing recipes to pitching ideas at planning meetings, she eventually began writing stories. She also did recipe testing for others in the Sunset test kitchens. Eventually, she presented her project for a cookbook of Finnish recipes to the publishers, and although they couldn’t publish it, they directed her to Crown Publishers: The Finnish Cookbook was born, and so was a new cookbook author. Since then she has written another 28 books about Scandinavian food and many kinds of food, for large crowds or just for two. Returning to Minnesota, and raising her own family, she still had many adventures to come, inventing what became the Jeno’s Pizza Roll for Chun King and appearing on television with both Julia Child and Martha Stewart.

Both the personal stories and career milestones are narrated in short, witty, and highly companionable chapters, punctuated by food-related incidents and capped by inviting and accessible recipes.  As an excerpt from the book, I present the chapter “No Recipe Needed” (pp. 56-57), which includes the recipe for Mummy’s “Juicy” Cinnamon Rolls.  Beatrice’s story of how her mother made these in quantity on the farm, working from memory and instinct (“no recipe needed”), and baking them in her wood-burning stove, pairs so well with the carefully documented recipe for home cooks today. Together, the story and the recipe should give a beautiful sense of the riches this book has to offer.


No Recipe Needed

There were always cinnamon rolls in our farm kitchen for snacks or to go with coffee. Mummy felt that the yeast-raised, slightly sweet rolls were much healthier than sugar- and fat-loaded cookies. She baked a huge batch of coffee-glazed cinnamon rolls at least once or sometimes two or three times a week, depending on what was going on. If we had many hired hands around, as in the spring for planting, or in the fall when Isä had lots of outdoor work to get done, that’s when we needed more kahvileipä [coffee bread].

When I searched her files for the recipe, I found only recipes from family and friends, but not Mummy’s cinnamon rolls. Reflecting on this, I remember her saying—“I just make them.” She didn’t need a recipe.

Here’s how it went. She would take the big tin bread pan down and smash a cake of yeast with a little sugar until the yeast made a smooth, soft paste. To that she would add three or four quarts of lukewarm milk and a little more sugar. Then she’d add the salt, some fresh eggs, sometimes six, sometimes eight (eggs make the dough nice and tender). Next, she’d start adding flour, slowly at first so that she could beat the batter until it was nice and smooth. She’d taste the batter and add enough sugar to make it taste good. Not too much. Then more flour, keeping the dough smooth. Before kneading the dough, she thought it was a good idea to let it “rest” for fifteen minutes or even half an hour until the yeast had a chance to permeate the batter and it became puffy. Then she would sprinkle more flour over the top and begin turning the dough over on itself (she did this by hand in her big bread pan). As she turned the dough over on itself, she would sprinkle more flour over and punch it into the center of the mixture. When the dough had enough flour added, it would no longer stick to her fingers. Then, she’d check to see there was no more “loose” flour and turn the dough over so the top of the batch was smooth. She would cover the dough with a muslin towel and then put on the pan’s metal cover and put it into a warm place to rise. This would take an hour or so.

Once the bulging pan of dough had risen, she’d cut off about an eighth of it and slap it down onto a lightly floured countertop and roll it out to about ½-inch thickness. Next, she’d spread the dough with soft butter and sprinkle it generously with cinnamon sugar and roll it up. With a knife (or sometimes with a string) she would cut the roll into 1-inch slices and place them on a greased cookie sheet. This she repeated until all eight portions of the dough were shaped into rolls.

There were about a dozen cookie sheets of dish-towel-covered rising rolls on every surface in the kitchen. On the woodstove there would be a syrup of coffee and sugar (about ¼ cup sugar to each cup of coffee), boiling. The rolls were baked about 10 minutes or so in a 375°F wood-fired oven. Then, when she took the pale-golden rolls out, Mummy would slather them with the coffee syrup to make them juicy. The sixteen dozen rolls that her recipe made sometimes lasted two days!

Here’s a smaller rendition of the juicy cinnamon rolls adapted to my favorite “refrigerator dough method”:

Mummy’s “Juicy” Cinnamon Rolls

2 packages active dry yeast

1 cup warm water

½ cup melted butter

½ cup sugar

½ cup nonfat dry milk

2 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

About 4 cups all-purpose flour


½ cup soft butter

½ cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

Coffee glaze

1 cup powdered sugar

Hot strong coffee

In a large bowl, combine the yeast and warm water. Stir. Let stand about 5 minutes or until the yeast foams. Stir in the butter, sugar, dry milk, eggs, and salt. Beat in flour, 1 cup at a time, until the dough is too stiff to mix; you may reach that stage before you have added all the flour. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours or up to 4 days.

On a lightly floured board, cut the dough into two parts. Roll one part at a time to make a rectangle 12 inches square. Spread with ¼ cup soft butter. Mix the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle with half the brown sugar mixture over the dough. Roll up into a firm, log-shaped roll. Cut diagonally to make about 1-inch slices. Place rolls on a greased baking sheet and let rise for 30 minutes or until golden.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the rolls for 10 to 15 minutes or until golden. Mix the powdered sugar with enough hot coffee to make a thin glaze. Brush baked rolls with the glaze.

Makes 24 large cinnamon rolls

*Reprinted with permission from the University of Minnesota Press from Homemade: Finnish Rye, Feed Sack Fashion, and Other Simple Ingredients from My Life in Food by Beatrice Ojakangas. Copyright 2016 by Beatrice Ojakangas.

From the Publisher

A celebrated cook’s recipes and reflections on growing up in a big Finnish family in northern Minnesota.

Beatrice Ojakangas, the oldest of ten children, came by it naturally—the cooking but also the pluck and perseverance that she’s served up with her renowned Scandinavian dishes over the years. In the wake of the Moose Lake fires and famine of 1918, Ojakangas tells us in this delightful memoir-cum-cookbook, her grandfather sent for a Finnish mail-order bride—and got one who’d trained as a chef.

Ojakangas’s stories, are, unsurprisingly, steeped in food lore: tales of cardamom and rye, baking salt cake at the age of five on a wood-burning stove, growing up on venison, making egg rolls for Chun King, and sending off a Pillsbury Bake Off–winning recipe without ever making it. And from here, how those early roots flourished through hard work and dedication to a successful (but never easy) career in food writing and a much wider world, from working for pizza roll king Jeno Paulucci to researching food traditions in Finland and appearing with Julia Child and Martha Stewart—all without ever leaving behind the lessons learned on the farm. As she says, “first you have to start with good ingredients and a good idea.”

Chock-full of recipes, anecdotes, and a kind humor that bring to vivid life the Finnish culture of northern Minnesota as well as the wider culinary world, Homemade delivers the savory and the sweet in equal measures and casts a warm light on a rich slice of the country’s cooking heritage.

About the Author

Beatrice Ojakangas grew up on a small farm in Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota–Duluth. Childhood 4-H, college Home Ec, and work as a hospital dietary assistant, food editor, teacher, homemaker, and mother influenced her cooking career and her food writing for such publications as Gourmet, Bon Appétit, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens, Midwest Living, Cooking Light, and numerous newspapers. Ojakangas is the author of 29 cookbooks and was inducted in 2005 to the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame. She received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Minnesota in 2007.

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Faroe Islands: “The Old Man and His Sons” by Heðin Brú #TTWIB

7456138Brú, Heðin. The Old Man and His Sons (trans. John F. West). Telegram Books, 2013. Kindle edition. (Original work published 1940, English translation 1970)

The Faroe Islands, situated in the North Atlantic halfway between Scotland and Iceland, still have a bit of the exotic about them. They are an archipelago of 18 volcanic islands with only narrow channels and fjords between them and stormy inlets to access them. From glacial activity, the islands often have steep cliffs, where abundant sea birds nest; the ground perched above these cliffs is covered by green turf on which sheep may graze. But the nearness of the sea at every point on these islands dominates Faroese life. We can get a beautiful picture of this fact from Heðin Brú’s tale of the old fisherman Ketil, his youngest son Kálvur, and his other sons. I was delighted to discover this book, so highly regarded by the Faroese themselves, in The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M. A. Orthofer, who called it “the best introduction to the Faroes.” The Faroese voted The Old Man and His Sons the best book of the 20th century. I will tell a bit of the story of Ketil and his sons, and then return to discuss further the Faroe Islands themselves and their premier author, Heðin Brú.

Ketil and his wife live outside the village of Sørvágur on the island of Vágar, the westernmost island except for tiny, picturesque Mykines. The old couple had 11 children, all of whom had married and left home, but for Kálvur, the youngest, who was a bit of an awkward and apprehensive lad. But being the only son left at home, he reluctantly followed his father and helped as best he could when there was work to be done. As the story opened, Ketil and Kálvur were mowing hay, when the alarm signaling a whale sighting in the fjord led the villagers to drop what they were doing and head to the sea. Ketil and his son “fully equipped themselves. They took along a whale-hook, a harpoon, a length of rope, a casting-stone and a whalespear, and set off.” Although taxis were loading to drive people over the mountains down to the shore, and his son wished to hire one, the old man preferred to walk over the rough terrain directly and save the money.  So they trudged along, sweating and straining with their gear, and arrived as the pod of pilot whales was being driven into the fjord. They found a boat that would take them on and joined the hunt. It was a gruesome (and now highly controversial) business, this way of eking out a living from the sea and providing food that might keep starvation at bay.  It came with an ambivalence that the villagers, even after many seasons of whale hunts, were still quite capable of feeling.

The people on the shore had now fallen silent, for though they rejoiced in the hunt, they were a little abashed at the slaughter, sobered to see the whales so mutilated and dying–those same whales that a little before had been swimming briskly and beautifully, with all the gleam and pride of the mighty ocean upon them.

As they surveyed the scene, a whale breached and landed across the boat carrying Ketil and his son. All jumped out in time except Kálvur who went under with the boat but came out all right, with only an injured arm and his own acute embarrassment.

Each man who participated in the hunt received a whale ticket which entitled him to participate in the auction of the whale meat. Ketil met one of his friends, old Lias Berint, who gave him some liquor to drink. With his judgment clouded and his own spirits too high, Ketil bid for and won 36 hundredweight of whale meat–3600 pounds!  Ketil’s son looked on in disbelief knowing that the cost of this much meat was much more than his poor parents could afford.  The bill for this summer escapade would come due the following March to the District Sheriff, who would sell off the household goods of unfortunate debtors who failed to pay up. Ketil’s wife was only too aware of this possible fate, which she had seen befall some of her neighbors in years past.

The rest of the story is driven by Ketil’s attempts, along with his wife, to raise the money through strenuous work. Ketil and his son went out fishing numerous times, hoping to make a profit, but often something or someone foiled their efforts.  His older sons refused to help more often than not, because they had their own problems or because of the feud between Ketil’s wife and her daughters-in-law. Their neighbor Klávus, who begged and stole food, rather than work for it, was no help either; what’s more, Kálvur kept on giving away meat and fish to Klávus’s daughter, whom he was courting (he was not at all shy with her!).  Ketil and his wife bought great loads of wool at the market and spun it into yarn, which Ketil’s wife knitted into sweaters. Although these were sold for a good price, none of these efforts yielded enough to make up for the debt they owed. Ketil rejected his wife’s urging to sell off some of the whale meat, since he feared this would be the last meat he could get for them.  Sadly and reluctantly, they sold their only cow to make their payment; the cow had just given birth to a calf but it would be two years at least before she would be grown enough to give the old couple milk. On that forlorn and abrupt note, the story ends.

The main theme of The Old Man and His Sons is the generational divide. It’s as if the old men are still living in the saga days, doing things the way they had been done for centuries, whereas the sons had joined the modern age in both their thinking and their practice. The old men expected backbreaking work and preferred walking to riding in cars, rowing to steering a motorboat, and traditional sources of income to business in the larger towns. After fishing, Ketil and Lias, who were spending the night at the shore guarding their catch until daybreak, settled down to warm themselves and chat:

While the water was heating up, they took off their shoes, hung their stockings up to dry, and toasted their feet on the hearthstones. Then they leaned right back against the wall of the shelter, chuckled to one another, and lit up their pipes.”The sea–it’s a real blessing to us, the way it gives us catch after catch. One day you’ve not got a mouthful left, the next day your storehouse is overflowing.” They talked on in this fashion. …

Then Lias Berint said, “Many’s the time we’ve felt the pinch, but taking it all around, would you and I want to change places with anyone else?”

“No,” said Ketil, “it’s good as it is. I’m an old man now, with one foot in the grave, but this I can say, we’ve never gone short of food in our house, God be praised, though it’s often looked pretty bleak, I must admit.”

The older generation preferred their plain houses with turf roofs, while the younger folks built fancier, more modern homes closer to town. One time when a squall came up, Ketil’s turf roof started to come off in pieces. He ran to get his middlemost son to help hold it down, but he refused, saying they should just replace it with corrugated iron and save all the bother. Instead, the hardy old men assembled and literally laid their bodies across the turf to keep the roof from peeling away in the wind. It was just expected that they would help each other in this way.

It’s not that Ketil’s sons would never help out: they went with him on an expedition to net fish and helped with the cleaning and gutting of the large catch, but they were appalled when the old folks were doing this messy work directly on the dirt floor of their main room!  They cleared out the mess and set to work on a plastic tarpaulin with modern tools. Another incident showed that Ketil’s eldest son still looked out for his father. After Ketil’s buddy Lias died accidentally, nasty rumors were spread by one man in the village that Ketil might have done him harm for personal gain. This eldest son gave the rumormonger a thrashing in the street, along with a warning never to slander his father again.

Some of the fishing episodes reminded me of Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s experiences with the fishermen of Greenland (described in his memoir An African in Greenland).  Both Greenland and the Faroe Islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark, as self-governing regions.  It has been 76 years since The Old Man and His Sons was published and a lot has changed for the Faroes.  Both Faroese and Danish are taught in the schools, and the currency is the Faroese króna tied to the Danish currency.  Although Denmark joined the European Union, the Faroe Islands remained outside of the EU and negotiated separate fishing rights and a trade agreement.  Because of worldwide protest led by environmental groups such as Greenpeace, who continue to call for a ban on whale hunting, the hunting of pilot whales has been regulated to some extent. The meat cannot be sold but must be shared out in the community according to a complicated system based on local customs and priority.  This acknowledges the needs of these small communities who may not have enough to eat otherwise.  The fishing industry, however, is still the primary economic engine of the Faroese economy, although they receive substantial subsidies from Denmark.

I don’t want to leave the subject of these islands without showing their beauty. Here is a view toward the fjord of Sørvágur, where the novel was set.




Topographic map of the Faroe Islands. Oona Risanen (Mysid)

Sørvágur is not far from the Faroe Islands’ only airport.  All the other islands can be reached by ferry, car, or helicopter. A tunnel has been built connecting Vágar with the big island of Streymoy, which has the capital city of Tórshavn, another one connects Eysturoy and Borðoy, and more tunnels are in the works. About 48,000 people live on all the islands, with double that number of sheep!

Bradt Faroe IslandsI have learned a lot about the Faroe Islands (including that fact about the sheep) from the latest (4th) edition of the Bradt guide, and I highly recommend it for the quality of James Proctor’s writing and the depth of information and history it offers. Plus it has this beautiful cover with two stunning gannets in their splendor. Birding is one of the chief attractions of the Faroes, and seabirds of many kinds–puffins, kittiwakes, fulmars, storm petrels, and more–can be found on cliffs and slopes of several of the islands. As the author says, coming across a large group of them at once is an experience both exhilarating to the spirit and pungent to the nose!

The bright colors in which most buildings are painted make even a small seaside village a photographer’s delight. For me the timber churches with their turf roofs are among the most beautiful. Here is the Funningur Church on the island of Eysturoy.



Funningur Church, Eysturoy, one of 10 remaing old wooden church on the islands. Photo: Vincent van Zeijst.

Heðin Brú is the pen name of Hans Jacob Jacobsen, who was born in Skálavík (Sandoy) in 1901 and died in 1987 in the capital city of Tórshavn. Besides writing The Old Man and His Sons (Feðgar á ferð), along with other novels and many short stories, he was also a prolific translator, with Faroese translations of Hamlet, The Tempest, The Brothers Karamazov, Wuthering Heights, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and other works, to his credit.  In 1988, a commemorative stamp was issued in his honor.

Faroese Writers: Heðin Brú. Stamp FR 165 of the Faroe Islands. Engraving: Czesław Słania. Date of issue: 6 June 1988.

This review was inspired by our “island adventure” in June for our Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge. Tanya of Mom’s Small Victories invited us to pick a book set on an island, and she compiled this amazing list of 35 Best Books Set on an Island.  You will find some new and classic island novels (most set in warmer climates!)–perfect for planning your own island reading adventure.


TTWIB reading challenge latest image



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“Independent People” by Halldór Laxness: First Impressions for #ReadNobels #TTWIB April Challenge


I have really enjoyed this month’s Travel the World in Books (#TTWIB) challenge, organized by Aloi of Guiltless Reading, who invited us to read one book by a Nobel prize-winning author. Her announcement post for April’s combined challenge has the linkups of those who participated, along with numerous helpful links for learning more about the Nobel Prize in Literature and the diverse array of authors it has recognized.  Becoming better acquainted with these authors–both those we have read already and those still awaiting our exploration–was the best part of the challenge for me, since I now have a better conception of how the prize has grown and changed over time, especially in its expansion beyond Europe to Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Australia.

Independent People coverI have been reading Independent People, the most important book by Iceland’s 1955 Nobelist, Halldór Laxness. It was published (as Sjálfstætt fólk) in 1934/35. James Anderson Thompson is the translator of this beautiful paperback in English, which also includes an Introduction by Brad Leithauser. I recall reading Leithauser’s ecstatic praise of this novel in The New York Review of Books in 1995, and the Introduction reprints his article. It was titled “A Small Country’s Great Book” and began with the memorable sentence:

There are good books and there are great books and there may be a book that is something still more: it is the book of your life.

For Leithauser this was it, and he goes on to explain why this book about a struggling Icelandic sheep farmer was so fascinating and touched him so profoundly.

Bjartur of Summerhouses is a man who could probably have held his own with the protagonists of the legendary Icelandic sagas.  He appears to be as mean and stubborn as Egill Skallagrímsson, the 10th-century poet and anti-hero of Egil’s Saga. Bjartur himself composes rhymes and fancies himself a bit of a latter-day bard. Above all, he is defiant. He verbally mocks and ignores the ancient custom of placing a stone on the hill known as Gunnucairn, or Gunnvor’s cairn, the burial mound of a murderous old woman who was executed long ago in the area. Feared down the centuries, Gunnvor’s curses have seemed to haunt one sheep holding in particular, familiarly called Winterhouses. But Bjartur will have none of it, and hurls insults at Gunnvor’s memory, as he passes the cairn. After 18 years of working under the region’s Bailiff, farming for hire, he has saved enough money to buy the land called Winterhouses, and, dismissing the past, he decides to call it Summerhouses–as if merely renaming the place will turn around its long history of ill luck.

He and his friends talk and think of nothing but sheep and how to keep their flocks healthy, because year in, year out, the health and well-being of their sheep mean the difference between economic independence and falling back into near-slavery or starvation. As Bjartur surveys his new holding with its small croft-house, he voices his thoughts to his only companion, his rather forlorn dog, Titla:

“Size isn’t everything by any means,” he said aloud to the dog, as if suspecting her of entertaining high ideas. “Take my word for it, freedom is of more account than the height of a roof beam. I ought to know; mine cost me eighteen years’ slavery. The man who lives on his own land is an independent man. He is his own master. If I can keep my sheep alive through the winter and can pay what has been stipulated from year to year–then I pay what has been stipulated; and I have kept my sheep alive. No, it is freedom that we are all after, Titla. He who pays his way is a king. He who keeps his sheep alive through the winter lives in a palace.” (p. 13)

By and by, this independent man decides he needs a wife and chooses Rosa, the youngest daughter of a neighboring farmer. She had been working for the Bailiff of Myri and his wife, who was a poet and graduate of an agricultural college.  At Bjartur and Rosa’s wedding, the Bailiff’s wife romanticizes the simple joys of the peasants’ life “close to the land” in a long-winded speech, presumably in their honor. Laxness’ satire here is biting, because it is already apparent to the reader that life on these farms is often brutal and perilous, and not a country idyll.

Rosa has been living with the well-to-do Bailiff’s family for a while, albeit as their servant, and so the change to Bjartur’s rustic croft-house depresses her. It is low and dark, with a mud floor and only a small window in one of its turf walls. On their way to see it, Bjartur flatly refused her tearful entreaties to let her stop and leave a stone on Gunnvor’s cairn to ward off evil luck; this rueful beginning to their married life leaves Rosa both angry and miserable. Homesickness, poor food (mostly dried catfish), and Bjartur’s dismissal of her wishes at every turn, begin to weaken her in body and spirit.  When she complains and begs for a cow to provide some milk and cheese, he says no, but promises to make her a vegetable garden someday, but only after he has paid off some of his land’s debt. She wonders, what if she has a baby?–surely she can have meat and milk then? Nonsense, he says.  “She stared at him with anguish-stricken eyes and everything personal seemed suddenly to have been wiped out of her face.” (p. 40) It’s certainly painful to read about her suffering, and ironic that he thinks obsessively about securing his independence while he makes his wife a slave.

There’s a lot more to Bjartur’s story. His daughter, Ásta Sóllilja, will challenge Bjartur with her own implacable will.  This will be the pivotal relationship in his life, and I will write more about them when I get to the end! Thanks again to Guiltless Reading for a great #ReadNobels challenge!


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#ReadNobels for Travel the World in Books in April @ Guiltless Reading


My esteemed co-host, Aloi of Guiltless Reading, is hosting our Travel the World in Books (#TTWIB) event for April, combining this ongoing challenge–to read our way around the world with diverse books–with her own fabulous challenge to read books by Nobel prize-winning authors. Her announcement post for April’s combined challenge has all the details, including numerous helpful links to reviews and resources for finding books to choose from. The main thing is to pick ONE BOOK for April, something by an author who garnered the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Independent People coverI will be reading Independent People, the most important book by Iceland’s 1955 Nobelist, Halldór Laxness. James Anderson Thompson is the translator of this beautiful paperback in English. That’s the lovely thing about the Nobel prize–it tends to motivate skilled translators to take up that author’s works and make them available to more readers worldwide. As another example, Emma of Words and Peace, herself a translator, reviewed 2014 Nobelist Patrick Modiano’s So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood (in English translation) last year for our October #TTWIB Readathon.  As you might guess from the cover, Independent People takes place on a sheep farm in Iceland. It was published (as Sjálfstætt fólk) in 1934/35 and Halldór Laxness remains the most important writer of modern Iceland. This book, the story of Bjartur of Summerhouse’s struggle to keep his sheep farm solvent and retain his independence, is perhaps closest in spirit to the legendary Icelandic sagas that are the jewel of Iceland’s literature. Laxness echoes this literary heritage brilliantly, yet he crafts an astute 20th-century novel around this stubborn, no-nonsense character and his daughter, Ásta Sóllilja.

I’m looking forward to answering the rest of Guiltless Reader’s fun and stimulating questions slated to chart each week’s progress and cheer on our exploration of Nobel writers. I’m also thrilled to be reading one of the hallmark writers of the Northern Lights countries, and one of the key books that motivated my starting this reading project in the first place.


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Travel the World in Books is Reading “An African in Greenland”


Our March 2016 Readalong selection is An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie.  I raved about this amazing travel memoir in November 2014 (see my review). Now I have the chance to share it with friends reading both fiction and nonfiction from many continents in the Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge.

For more information about the Readalong and discussion opportunities, visit the main announcement at The Fictional 100.  If you are interested, stop by one of our Twitter chats #TTWIB and/or visit our Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge group at Goodreads.


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An Estonian Tragedy–“Purge” by Sofi Oksanen

Purge cover GoodreadsPurge, a novel by Sofi Oksanen (Trans. from the Finnish by Lola Rogers). New York: Black Cat, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2010. (Original work Puhdistus published 2008)

Purge depicts the bitter realities of Estonian life during the post-war Russian occupation and Stalinist purge, through the tragedy of one family. The setting is Läänemaa, a western county of Estonia, bordering the Baltic Sea. Chapters shift primarily between 1992 and the immediate post-war years, with a few chapters set before and during the war to show the early lives of two sisters, Aliide and Ingel.

Although we first meet Aliide as an older woman living alone in 1992, the initial chapter is a single page from the diary of Hans Pekk, dated 1949, with the recurring title “Free Estonia!”  He complains of his isolation, but is irritated by Aliide:

“Liide’s always trying to get closer to me. Why won’t she leave me alone? She smells like onions.

What’s keeping the English?  And what about America? Everything’s balanced on a knife edge–nothing is certain.

Where are my girls Linda and Ingel? The misery is more than I can bear.”

The significance of his words only becomes clear as the story unfolds in the interplay of present events and family history. Each chapter quotes a symbolically resonant sentence from that chapter; the first one in 1992 is called “The Fly Always Wins” and grimly reveals Aliide’s state of mind as she obsessively tries to rid her kitchen of flies and their eggs. The imagery of flies and being like a fly on the wall will recur throughout the book. She becomes aware that a teenage girl is outside, lying in a disheveled state under a tree in Aliide’s yard. Despite her poor condition, she is alive and Aliide brings her inside, begins to care for her, and questions her reason for being there. The girl, named Zara, is Russian, but able to speak accented Estonian.  She has made the trip from Tallinn, looking for her grandmother’s family, and possesses one treasure, a picture of her grandmother and her great-aunt together as young girls. Aliide recognizes herself and her sister Ingel but, to the girl, she denies having a sister.  Zara also lies to Aliide about her past, but voices her very real terror that her abusive “husband” will be coming to look for her and she must hide from him.

The separate histories of Aliide and Zara are disclosed gradually in flashbacks. Aliide could not recall a time when she did not feel bested and loved less than her prettier, sweeter, more capable sister Ingel. Ingel cooked and preserved jam better and was altogether more satisfying a housekeeper and helper to their parents. When handsome peasant farmer Hans Pekk came to their house, Aliide fell in love with him on sight, but he, of course, fell in love with Ingel, and they were married–on a day that seemed to twist the knife in Aliide’s heart. The three of them lived together in the family home, even after their parents were gone, and the affectionate married couple had a baby daughter, Linda, compounding Aliide’s jealous resentment.  War separated them from Hans but the disaster didn’t end after the war. As in other Eastern European countries, German occupation was followed by Soviet occupation, and the brutalities continued. Hans was a freedom fighter (“Free Estonia”), but he was hunted by the Soviet police and began a period of hiding in their house in a closet concealed behind a cabinet–a horrible, lonely existence.  Aliide and Ingel were interrogated and tortured, and little Linda was also abused.  In her mind, Aliide became dissociated from her body, as if she herself were no longer there, except as a fly buzzing in the room.  After unspeakable degradations, Aliide continued to maintain that Hans had died in 1945, and she was eventually returned to their house. Ingel and Linda disappeared. We surmise they have been deported to Siberia. In her own mind, Aliide now had Hans to herself–he was certainly in her power, since she could reveal him at any time. What would become of them both?  Fueled by terror, Aliide sought relative safety in a marriage with a Communist party official, Martin Truu, and she became an occasional informant.  She still called herself Aliide Truu in 1992.

Zara, we learn from flashbacks, has been a victim of sex-trafficking in Vladivostok. Her captors were ex-KGB agents seeking to make money after the fall of the Soviet system.  She persuaded them to make a trip to Tallinn to find more lucrative clientele, and from there she escaped to find her grandmother’s home in Läänemaa. But her pursuers are not far behind, and when they catch up with her, arriving at the house, the only person standing between her and a return to her former life of sexual slavery is Aliide.  What will Aliide decide to do?

The last section of the book includes KGB reports that shed some light on the events in the book, but still leave many questions unanswered.

Purge was the No. 1 bestseller in Finland when it appeared, and it has been translated into 38 languages. It has garnered numerous literary prizes, most notably the Finlandia Prize, the Nordic Council Literary Prize, and the 2010 FNAC prize in France, where it marked the first time that this prestigious award went to a foreign author.  With her unflinching look at the ongoing human cost of the Soviet occupation, Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen is now a major young literary figure in Europe. Her latest book is called When the Doves Disappeared, which I first discovered after reading a review of it at The Book Binder’s Daughter.  I decided to review Oksanen’s earlier novel first, but hope to return with a review of this important new novel as well.

Purge captures the corrosive effects of jealousy with stark insight. It shows the devastating effects of torture, prolonged fear of reprisal, and sexual brutality, in explicit detail. With this warning to potential readers, I recognize the author’s distinctive achievement and recommend it to anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of this human tragedy, past and present.

Related links:

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“Babette’s Feast”: the Story and the Film

Babette's Feast cover“Babette’s Feast” is a short story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), the Danish author whose real life experiences managing a farm in British East Africa (colonial Kenya) led her to write Out of Africa (1937).  Anyone who has read that book, or seen the 1985 film of it, knows that, at the end of her time in Africa, she returned to her native Denmark where she would live out her days crafting her famous memoir as well as an impressive host of short stories. “Babette’s Feast” first appeared in a magazine, the Ladies’ Homes Journal, in 1950, and it was again published in 1958 in a story collection called Anecdotes of Destiny. Notably, Dinesen wrote in English and then translated her own works into Danish (so you won’t see any translator credited).

As a teller of tales, Dinesen did not restrict herself to any brief time interval. She could easily follow her characters across decades of their lives, to arrive at the moment that crystallized their destiny. “Babette’s Feast” is certainly such a tale, recounting the story of two sisters, Martine and Philippa, from girlhood to old age, and preparing these characters for one remarkable feast bestowed on them and their friends by their mysterious French housekeeper and cook, Babette Hersant.

Martine and Philippa lived with their father, the Dean of a small lay community of Pietists (strict Lutherans following an austere lifestyle much like the Puritans). Devoted to their father and faithful to their way of life, the young women were also radiantly beautiful and each attracted a suitor even in their remote surroundings. Dinesen devoted a section to each girl’s early love story. “Martine’s Lover” tells how a young lieutenant, Lorens Loewenhielm, was sent by his commanding officer to this very village to visit his aunt; he wanted the wild young man to spend some time away from too much high living and settle himself down a bit.  Lorens met Martine in church and, by and by, found himself frequently at the Dean’s table for dinner. Rather than pressing his suit to marry this girl who moved his heart, he became more and more intimidated, more and more uncertain of his resolve to reform, and left one day to resume his life in the army and the glittering court society. “Philippa’s Lover” was quite different; Achille Papin was a mature man and an artist–an acclaimed opera singer who came to the village to rest.  Listening to Philippa sing in church, he discovered her extraordinary singing talent and somehow convinced the Dean to permit him to give her voice lessons.  Achille had great plans for her to become a celebrated singer herself, and his wife, if she agreed. During one lesson, Achille at last expressed his love for her with a sincere kiss to finish their singing of the tender duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina.  In this case, it was Philippa who drew back from romance; she ended her lessons, asking her father to send her teacher a letter of apology.

Achille returned to Paris and never saw his dearly loved Philippa again but many years later he did one remarkable thing for her and her sister: he sent them Babette. She was a refugee from the Paris Commune, and without giving many details of her political activities, he asked and urged them to take her in and let her be their housekeeper. Innocently, he closed his letter by saying simply, “Babette can cook.”  The sisters had no idea at first what lay behind that simple truth.

Martine and Philippa were reluctant initially, wary of what this unknown Frenchwoman might be like and what sort of food she might thrust upon their simple tastes. Their genuine Christian charity prevailed, however, and they offered her a place in their home. They needn’t have feared; the discreet Babette kept her counsel and cooked plain cod and soup for the elderly sisters in the style they preferred. Twelve years passed in this way, until one day, Babette surprised them.  She announced that she had won 10,000 francs in the lottery! She proposed using this money to cook them a real French dinner, on the upcoming memorial occasion of the Dean’s 100th birthday. To do this, she would need to travel to Paris for a few weeks to order and obtain all she needed to prepare the celebratory feast.

They wanted to refuse, I think–not wanting her to use her money this way, and fearing she might leave them for good. Yet once again, their deep sense of fairness and charity prevailed and they let Babette have her way.

One more surprise was in store for them. The sisters learned that Lorens Loewenhielm, now a distinguished General, was once again visiting his aunt, who asked if he could accompany her to their celebration. Martine, beautifully composed, said yes without hesitation and prepared for this unexpected reunion with him.  For his part, the General wished to make amends for his lack of self-assurance in his youth, and cut a more confident figure at the dinner. He had never truly made peace with himself and the direction he chose for his life.

At last in the sisters’ home again, he was perplexed and pleased at the meal itself–the expensive wines, the rare ingredients, and gourmet dishes which reminded him distinctly of an unforgettable meal he had eaten in Paris years ago. Could this really be Veuve Clicquot 1860 he was drinking? Was this dish Blinis Demidoff, tiny pancakes filled with caviar? He took the first opportunity to speak, his heart brimming with a mixture of love and astonishment:

“Man, my friends, said General Loewenhielm, “is frail and foolish.  We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe.  But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble…”

“We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. … See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly.  For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”

What the General expressed was felt by each person at the table in her or his own way. The film shows beautifully, with just a few touches and words, how rifts were healed, arguments settled, love restored, between pairs of diners united in the glow of grace and forgiveness. Indeed, it was Dinesen herself who served up this moment of their mutually felt epiphany. “Unpacking” the full meaning and implications of the General’s speech is the interpretive work that the author gives us. In some ways, Loewenhielm functions in the story as the “wise fool”–an accidentally oracular figure–because he is the only one who does not know the open secret of Babette’s Feast, the unspoken uniqueness of it all. No one disabuses him of the impression that this is the way the two elderly sisters and their small conventicle of believers dined frequently, if not every day!

Babette's Feast DVD coverGabriel Axel’s exquisitely beautiful, touching, and warmly ironic film makes the dynamics of the special feast apparent in a way that surpasses even the perfection of Dinesen’s story–one type of artistic perfection vying and dancing with the other. We see the pious elderly community, which had clung together all these years in the Dean’s name and adhered to his austere example, come together to celebrate his 100th birthday and make a promise, one and all, to remain silent throughout the meal–not to give in to the stimulation of their senses by any exclamations or comment, either of pleasure or displeasure at the unusual food they are about to receive. The General, therefore, who is a special guest from outside the group, becomes the only mouthpiece to convey the remarkable flavors, textures, and rare delights of food and drink presented at the table. The only other exceptions are the kitchen boy who is given small portions to enjoy after his serving work is done, and Babette herself–the luminous and self-possessed Stéphane Audran–who allows herself to close her eyes in appreciation of a sip of wine and then gently smile.

The two-disc DVD version includes a booklet with Isak Dinesen’s complete story along with a very helpful essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu. He remarks on the fidelity of the film to the story, noting that short stories more naturally expand to fill the time of a feature film in the telling, without much pruning being required. Still, in the filmmaking it becomes the director’s story to tell as he decides, and Axel chose to move the story which Dinesen set in Berlevaag, Norway to her own native Denmark, to a fishing village in the region of Jutland. In the soundtrack, Le Fanu informs us, we hear dialogue in both Danish and Swedish; because of linguistic history, these related languages are mutually intelligible, so we can depend on knowing that the simple Danish folk understood the gist of what the Swedish General Loewenhielm rose to say with such deep feeling.

Can I review “Babette’s Feast” without talking about the food? Here the film excels indeed in showing us what Dinesen has described so vividly, the rich delicacies offered to these Spartan Danish palettes. (The New York Times review of the film in 1988 dwells on the ingredients of the various dishes, even including a few recipes.)  Vegetarians or the squeamish beware! Babette is a chef, and wants to use only the freshest ingredients, so we see the arrival of many live ingredients: a rustic cage of tiny quails who will end up in pastry for the cailles en sarcophage (“quails in sarcophagus”) and a big turtle who will sadly end up as soup. Plenty of butchered meats are hauled in to her kitchen, but we also see the lovelier, succulent treats of fresh figs, grapes, and other bounty of the garden.  It is revealed in the story (indirectly) and in the film that Babette once practiced her culinary art as chef at the Café Anglais in Paris.  It closed in 1913; here is a vintage photo taken before its destruction:


I will long remember the images from this jewel of a film, which deservedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the first Danish film to do so.  I can see the rapturous faces of the twelve people gathered around the table, gifted with a meal that seemed to erase any division between material and spiritual blessings, self-denial and abundance, effort and grace.  For that evening, “mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed,” and they all became one.



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2015 Reading Challenges–Nonfiction and Books in Translation (Perfect Together)

This blog is my place for visiting the “Northern Lights” countries of Scandinavia, including Iceland, by way of my dream reading list. I have books beckoning in each of my categories of literature, history, biography, travel, and food (see my project reading lists for the whole shebang).  But my primary focus for two new challenges will be biographies. Happily, the biographies I have in mind fit perfectly with two challenges posted by The Introverted Reader: the 2015 Nonfiction Reading Challenge and the 2015 Books in Translation Reading Challenge.

Here is my biography TBR list:

  1. The Fairy Tale of My Life: An Autobiography by Hans Christian Andersen; trans., R. P. Keigwin [Denmark]
  2. Hans Christian Andersen: European Witness by Paul Binding [Denmark]
  3. Jean Sibelius by Karl Ekman; trans., Edward Birse [Finland]
  4. Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland by Glenda Dawn Goss [Finland]
  5. Righteous Gentile: The Story of Raoul Wallenberg, Missing Hero of the Holocaust by John Bierman [Sweden]
  6. Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography by Joakim Garff; trans., Bruce H. Kirmmse [Denmark]
  7. The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown [Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland]
  8. Heimskringla: or, The Lives of the Norse Kings by Snorri Sturluson; trans., Erling Monsen and A. H. Smith [Norway]
  9. Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Tuula Karjalainen; trans., David McDuff [Finland]

Not all these are translations, and it is debatable whether the Heimskringla, which is traditional history in saga form, is quite fact or fiction. But in general, these books will fall into one or the other of the challenges above, or both.

I will surely want to include some literature in my Books in Translation for the year too!  Foremost, I want to start my reread of Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (translated by Charles Archer and J. S. Scott).

Finally, all these books are part of my ongoing participation in the Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Mom’s Small Victories, I’m Lost in Books, and Savvy Working Gal.

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“Scandinavian Christmas” by Trine Hahnemann–My first cookbook review!

Scandinavian Christmas coverScandinavian Christmas by Trine Hahnemann, with photography by Lars Ranek. Sterling, 2013.

One of the chief joys I anticipated when I started this blog devoted to a region of the world was the chance to review cookbooks! I like to read and collect cookbooks, but I’ve never had a good opportunity to review one over at The Fictional 100. Now is my chance! It  was an easy decision to select Trine Hahnemann’s Scandinavian Christmas for my first food review.   Hahnmann is a very accomplished food author and teacher, as well as a former caterer to touring rock stars! Copenhagen is her home base, but her work reaches well beyond Denmark.  I’m so glad that several of her books are available in English.

Scandinavian Christmas is a beautiful book. From the crisp red, white, and silver of the cover to the gorgeous full-color photography inside to the clear, attractive design of the recipes, this book was a joy to page through and learn from. The pictures felt close-up and immediate and carried me right into the sunny, snowy world of a Scandinavian Christmas, with its bright decorations, savory roasts and tangy fish, earthy root vegetables, and abundant sweet baking.

Hahnemann introduces the book with a Danish welcome–Velbekommen!-and explains that Christmas in Scandinavia “celebrates life and ‘hygge,’ a Danish term that is almost untranslatable, but encompasses comfort, camaraderie, and good food and drink.”  It is also “all about baking,” she says. Her chapters reflect these two themes and carry the reader through the season with “Christmas Baking,” “Gifts from the Kitchen,” “Advent: A Whole Month of Christmas,” “Christmas Party,” “The Christmas Eve Feast,” and “Christmas Day Smörgåsbord.”

Let’s get right down to the indispensable baking! Breads such as Lucia bread and Pulla bread are made with white wheat flour for a softer, more refined texture at holiday time than the many hearty rye bread variations that are the daily staple.  The most appealing cake for me was a Spiced Christmas Cake baked in a heart shape and decorated with piped hearts of white chocolate icing. The Honey Layer Cake with Orange Mousse also looked amazing and quite straightforward to make.  And then there are the cookies, lots of cookies, in many shapes and flavors. Here is her picture of the Crisp Cinnamon Cookies with a link to her recipe for them.

Crisp Cinnamon Cookies.

As intriguing as the baked goods are, some of the other dishes are what makes the Scandinavian Christmas menus seem distinctive: Roast Duck with Turnip Gratin, Caramel Potatoes, drinks with lingonberries and elderflowers, red cabbage cooked with spices and black currant cordial, and many varieties of winter salads (here are three).

3 Winter Salads with Spices.

Meatballs, served with pickled beets or lingonberry jam, are such a necessary item at the Smörgåsbord that she offers them up in four languages:  “frikadeller” (Danish), “köttbullar” (Swedish), “kjøttkaker” (Norwegian), and “lihapullat” (Finnish).  Her meatball recipe combines pork and veal with sage, juniper berries, and rolled oats.

I learned that there is a specific order for eating the offerings at the Christmas Smörgåsbord: first, the cured herring (often pickled); second, hot fish (flounder breaded in rye flour and fried like veal cutlets looked good); third, cold fish–all of these served with good rye bread. Then diners take a new plate and dig in to the hot meats (this must be the place for the meatballs!), and then finish with cheese and various homemade candies.

I like what the author wrote about the zest for life at this time of year, even as temperatures drop. For example, she suggests:

Celebrate one of the Advent Sundays outside.  Play in the snow: Remember there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. Serve hot drinks, salmon sandwiches, and “nisse” (elf) cake, make a stew and bake bread over an open fire.

Don’t forget to leave some rice porridge, topped with butter, sugar, and cinnamon, in the attic for the “nisse”–then, as she informs us, “he won’t eat your cookies or hide your favorite things; instead he will leave little presents in your boots.”  I especially liked the recipe for this simple comfort food and, equally, the one for sweet Rice Pudding with Hot Cherry Sauce.  I know I will want to make them, with or without elves in the house.

I recommend this book highly for anyone who collects international cookbooks or holiday cookbooks. Most of the recipes didn’t seem too difficult, but simply called for that extra bit of care that one wishes to put into a food gift or a special recipe for holiday meals and entertaining.

You can read more about Trine’s life and activities at her beautiful website, which features a very nice selection of her recipes.

You can read more about Smörgåsbord and Julbord (the Swedish version of Christmas lunch) here.


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