Nässlorna blomma (Flowering Nettle) by Harry Martinson

Harry Martinson is a Swedish Nobel Prize Laureate, receiving the prize in 1974 together with another Swedish writer Eyvind Johnson ”for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos”. He also wrote poetry, and is one of the best known ’proletarian’ writers in Sweden. I have finally got around to read one of his most famous and auto-biographical books, Nässlorna blomma (Flowering Nettle).

It is about the boy Martin (Martinson’s alter ego), 7-11 years old during the story, and whose mantra is ”my father is dead and my mother is in California”. Martinson lost his parents at a young age; his father died and his mother left him to move to Portland, USA. He spent his earlier years in foster care. It has certainly influenced his writing in general and is specifically present in this novel.

We follow Martin from when his father dies and his mother leaves the children behind to emigrate to California. Times were dire, especially for a widow, with several children. The children were placed in foster care through the municipality, according to the norm; the family who demanded least money could have the child. It is terrible to think of how these children must have suffered.

Although Martin in the novel does not physically suffer very badly, although there are some beatings occasionally, it is the mental part that is most difficult for him to handle. He is missing his mother, love, closeness to a family member. His beloved older sister died young and that was the last person he loved. He is taken from one foster home to the next and in the end (at least of the book but not his life) he arrives to a home for older people with mental deficiencies. He helps out with the inmates and feels that the lady in charge is a surrogat mother for him. Then something happens.

Harry Martinson’s novel lingers between reality and dreamlike story telling. It is written from a 10-year old boy’s view, but the wisdom of these views belong to a much older man. ”Martin is described as a selfish, stupid, childish, self pitying, obsequious, coward and false.” I don’t really agree to all of these characterisations. His situation is of a vulnerable kind. A child that, in principal, has lost his family at a young age. Living in five different homes during as many years, with people he does not know that well. When he gets attached to people, it is time for him to move to another family. In those harsh days, parents did not have time and energy to give love to their own children, less to an orphan child. Maybe the description above is only natural for a child in his situation.

The story is a good description of the situation for the poor in Sweden in the beginning of the 20th century. It is written in a wonderful, easily read prose with dreamlike sequences and beautiful descriptions of nature, woven into the sad story of Martin. Harry Martinson has managed to delicately balance his story, and make it trustworthy. And, being a Nobel Prize Laureate book, easily accessible. An enjoyable read.

Original post by Lisbeth @ The Content Reader

The Living Reed by Pearl S. Buck

Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

With today’s review I’m moving from Israel on the western coast of Asia to the south-eastern edge of the continent, namely to the Korean peninsula. Keeping largely to herself the Kingdom of Korea managed to ward off territorial cravings of Russia, China and Japan for centuries, but modern times introduced Europe and the United States of America into the game. Power shifted continually towards the Japanese Empire and in the early twentieth century Korea was first occupied by and then annexed to her. The Living Reed by Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck tells he fictitious story of four generations of a Korean noble family working for their country’s independence. 

Pearl S. Buck, also known under her Chinese name 賽珍珠, was born as Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in Hillsboro, West Virginia, USA, in June 1892. Her parents being Presbyterian missionaries in China she grew up in Zhenjiang near Nanking. After college in the USA she returned to China and married the agricultural economist missionary John Lossing Buck. As from 1927 Pearl S. Buck devoted herself to writing and brought out her first novel titled East Wind: West Wind in 1930 which was immediately followed by The House of Earth trilogy (The Good Earth: 1931; Sons: 1933; A House Divided: 1935). In 1935 she got divorced and married her editor Richard Walsh with whom she had been involved since 1930. “For her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces” Pearl S. Buck received the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature. Other notable works of the prolific writer of fiction as well as non-fiction are for instance Dragon Seed (1942), The Promise (1943), The Big Wave (1948), Peony (1948), and The Living Reed (1963). Pearl S. Buck kept writing until her death from lung cancer in Danby, Vermont, USA, in March 1973.

The subtitle of The Living Reed immediately identifies the book as a novel of Korea. To be precise it’s a historical novel showing the country’s striving for independence between 1881 and 1945 at the example of the Kim family of the clan of Andong who are rich scholars belonging to the highest nobility of Korea and having a long tradition in the royal service. The story begins in Seoul in spring 1881, when a second son is born to Il-han and his wife Sunia. Meanwhile the older son got angry and broke several young shoots in the bamboo grove in the garden and Il-han explains to him that
“…, they grow only once from the root. The plants these shoots might have been, waving their delicate leaves in the winds of summer, will never live. The shoots crack the earth in spring, they grow quickly and in a year they have finished their growth. You have destroyed food, you have destroyed life. Though it is only a hollow reed, it is a living reed. Now the roots must send up other shoots to take the place of those you have destroyed. …” 
It’s a crucial moment in Korean history because the country is torn between those who like King Kojong and Il-han believe that only opening up to the world, especially to the United States of America, can save the millennia old Kingdom from annexation and those who like Queen Min and Il-han’s father trust in the traditional policy of seclusion under the suzerainty (and protection) of the Chinese Empire. Although neither Il-han nor his father holds an official position at the Royal Court, they are both loyal advisers to the Royal Couple. However, unrest is growing among Koreans and Il-han sets out to travel the whole country to get to know his own people. On his return home Il-han finds Queen Min in his house. She is hiding from the bloodhounds of the former Regent, who meanwhile seized power, and he saves her as is his duty. Some months after her and her husband’s restoration to the throne, Il-han and others are sent to the USA and Europe to learn more about those countries. After the experience Il-han is more than ever convinced that Korea needs the USA on her side and accordingly advises King Kojong. A treaty with the USA is made and first steps towards the modernisation of the country are initiated, but old and new political as well as social tensions are steadily growing over the years. Rebel groups like the Tonghak are attracting members everywhere and as it turns out Il-han’s elder son Yul-chun, who is now a young man attending a foreign school in Seoul, belongs to it. At the same time China, Russia and Japan are heading into war and the independence of Korea is threatened, but the USA don’t intervene as their treaty with Korea proclaims, not even when Japanese troupes enter the country and kill Queen Min. While Il-han’s younger son adapts to the Japanese regime, his elder son fights it and disappears for a long time while a rebel called “The Living Reed” enters the scene. 

The whole story of The Living Reed is told by a third-person narrator, but Pearl S. Buck decided to add a first-person epilogue to explain what inspired her to write the novel and above all to provide a link between the plot that ends with the arrival of US-American troupes in Seoul in 1945 and the independent, though divided Korea of the early 1960s. For a better understanding of Korean history the author also wrote a historical note as an introduction which is quite interesting although I doubt that it made the story any more accessible than it would have been without it. The first part covering the period between spring 1881 and Korea’s annexation to the Japanese Empire in 1910 takes up almost half of the books and is told in great detail, while the following two parts dedicated to the periods between 1910 and the suppression of the Mansei Demonstration in 1919 and the years from 1919 to 1945 are much shorter and seem too cursory by comparison. As regards the descriptions of life in exile and under Japanese rule, I also suspect that they might not be very realistic because they feel strangely light and uncomplicated. An important focus of the entire novel is on change, namely on the individual as well as on the political and social level. Characters are modelled with great skill and narrative foresight although the special traits of Il-han’s grandsons make expect much more of them than the plot offers because the author opted for a rather sudden – and in my opinion unsatisfactory – ending. To tell the story of the Kims and Korea Pearl S. Buck used simple language which is at the same time poetic and sometimes imitating traditional Korean ways of narration. 

All in all I enjoyed reading The Living Reed by Pearl S. Buck and plunging into a world that is so far from my own experience and into aspects of history which have been known to me only rudimentary because they are too loosely connected to what happened in Europe at the time to be taught in our schools. It’s certainly a book that helps to raise cultural awareness and understanding for the historical as well as ideological background of the lasting division of the peninsula into a secluded Communist North and open democratic South Korea. Therefore I believe that it deserves to be read by many more people than it is today.

Original post on Edith's Miscellany:

Download August @ReadNobels Wallpaper featuring Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth

Happy August! Yes it is time for our new calendar! If this is the first time you're hearing about this, these calendar wallpapers are a fun monthly project I cooked up for myself and is a sneaky way of promoting the Read the Nobels Reading Challenge for 2016. I select an author who has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, a book cover, and a quote.

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Author Photo: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Originally posted on Guiltless Reading.

How does one stay whole, sane, live with integrity amidst contradictions?

About Snow by Orhan PamukDread, yearning, identity, intrigue, the lethal chemistry between secular doubt and Islamic fanaticism–these are the elements that Orhan Pamuk anneals in this masterful, disquieting novel. An exiled poet named Ka returns to Turkey and travels to the forlorn city of Kars. His ostensible purpose is to report on a wave of suicides among religious girls forbidden to wear their head-scarves. But Ka is also drawn by his memories of the radiant Ipek, now recently divorced. Amid blanketing snowfall and universal suspicion, Ka finds himself pursued by figures ranging from Ipek’s ex-husband to a charismatic terrorist. A lost gift returns with ecstatic suddenness. A theatrical evening climaxes in a massacre. And finding god may be the prelude to losing everything else. Touching, slyly comic, and humming with cerebral suspense, Snow is of immense relevance to our present moment.

My two cents

So here's a review that has been languishing in draft. It's because I couldn't pick up another book for maybe about a week after reading this book: it gave me such a horrendous book hangover. In the best possible way: it provoked, it triggered so much in me. It got to me, ok, pretty hard.

This book is deceiving; it doesn't look all that thick but it is actually 426 pages, and crack it open and the text is tiny! Dense. I struggled to get past that fact in the beginning but once I made it into the second chapter, I was hooked. It is a pithy novel, like someone poured their life into it, and I doubt that's not far from the truth for Orhan Pamuk.

I loved that this was such a challenging read. I find it disconcerting that reviews are polarized. But I understand where people are coming from - it's hard to get around the fact that this is about a depressingly solitary and misunderstood life in a far flung country whose realities I know little about (although sadly, plenty in the news lately). But surprisingly that's what I loved about it: learning and getting out of my comfort zone, and realizing that despite country, culture, religion, everyone is merely trying to live their lives the best they can.

Collage of Kars, Turkey. 
By Kars Church Of The Apostles 2009.JPGBjørn Christian TørrissenKars Kalesi1.jpgSabri76Kars Panorama.JPGBjørn Christian Tørrissen - Derived from other images, as noted under Author, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34628630

Ka's solitary life is cobbled together from the viewpoint of Orhan Pamuk who is Ka's friend. Notice the author insertion here? In that respect, this reminded me of Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco. And like Syjuco's presentation of Philippine history, Pamuk allows us a glimpse Turkey's history, one where religion, politics, and power is complicated and multifaceted. The traditional clashes with the modern; nationalism is at odds with the status quo towards assimilation; Islamic belief, secularism and traditional religion are a contradictory mix; and the Eastern and Western belief systems collide. I wonder: how does one stay whole, sane, and live with integrity amidst these contradictions?

I love how Blue, Kars's resident revolutionary, is able to make sense of the dilemma:
"I refuse to be European, and I won't ape their ways. Im going to live my own history and be no one but myself. I for one believe it's possible to be happy without being a mock European, without becoming their slave. There's a word Europhiles very commonly use when they denigrate our people: to be a true Westerner a person must first become an individual, and then they go on to say that in Turkey, there are no individuals! Well, that's how I see my execution. I am standing up against the Westerners as an individual; it's because I'm an individual that I refuse to imitate them." - p. 314

Yet another dilemma presented is the reality of being a veiled woman in Turkey (sidenote: another book that tackles this on a more personal level is Silk Armour by Claire Sydenham, a book I highly recommend). The contradictions of revolt and freedom, of tradition and constraint is something that women must contend with daily in society to determine their own sense of identity. The rash of suicides of veiled students was an intriguing way of couching this daily struggle.

Poetry throughout, music, theatrical presentations: I reveled in the power of media in informing and agitating people, presenting fact and differing opinions, and affecting change. It highlights the fact that music and the arts is never going to disappear from our lives.

I can't not comment about the obvious theme of snow carried throughout the book -- its coldness and sadness it evokes, the stark white landscapes that it conjures. But also its beauty. Contradictions.

There is so much more to this book that I hate the idea of breaking this review down too much (plus I fear that my not completing this review will end up in my never getting this review up at all!). The most powerful thing for me about this novel is that this got me thinking and asking more questions, of learning about Turkey's multifaceted society and knowing that history shapes the lives of its inhabitants in many ways that we would never imagine possible.


There are certain aspects of this novel that raised a red flag in my mind. The most obvious is that this dense tome is intimidating. I actually read this over an entire month, in little manageable bits. I won't deny that it's heavy reading, but so totally worth it!

Another, the snow theme became academic towards the end. It kind of fell flat for me when I saw the diagrams and I thought the author carried it tad far. I often wonder with works like this if things get lost in translation (because this is a translated work), something I can only speculate about.


Set predominantly in Kars, Turkey, the landscape for this story is a fascinating mix of old and new built upon a history of conflict. Historic accounts and folkloric stories abound in this novel but one needs to read between the lines, do their research, especially if coming in from the cold.

Kars was the capital of the medieval Bagratid Kingdom of Armenia. In the 19th century, it was battled over by the Ottoman and Russian empires, with Russia eventually gaining control. During the First World War, the Ottomans took control of the city in 1918 but relinquished it to the First Republic of Armenia following the Armistice of Mudros. In 1920, Turkish revolutionaries captured captured Kars. The Treaty of Kars was signed in 1921 between the Government of the Grand National Assembly and the Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, establishing the current north-eastern boundaries of Turkey. Learn more here: Wikipedia - Kars, Turkey


An intimidating and challenging read about the tragically solitary life of a revolutionary in Turkey. Dense, provoking and allowing for introspection, I highly recommend this for those who'd like to learn more about the history and realities of conflict-ridden countries, and those intrigued by Pamuk's ability to encapsulate the dilemma of national self-identity vis-s-vis personal self-identity in novel form.


I read this book as part of the Read the Nobels 2016 Reading Challenge. This is written by Nobel Prize for Literature Laureate Orhan Pamuk.

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