Focus on Scandinavian books in January #NordicFINDS23

What happens when I put my mind to reading my Nordic books for a Nordic reading challenge: #NordicFINDS23. All the books I could find from Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark or Sweden.

For January, Annabel at AnnaBookBel.net challenged us to read Nordic literature. I needed no second bidding. Nevertheless, I hadn’t expected to have as many Nordic books on my TBR as I did. In fact, I have reallocated some of them to read later in the year because the month just wasn’t long enough to fit them all in. And it certainly wasn’t long enough to write my reviews, so they will be added whenever I get the chance. I also got carried away and listened to a couple of radio programmes about Iceland (because I didn’t have any books set there), I listened to Danish music. Then I realised that the (relatively) recent ‘lifestyle trend’ of Hygge was Danish and rushed off to the library to get yet more books. I do love a reading mission!

Logo for #NordicFINDS23: a map of Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden
NordicFINDS23: Annabel’s challenge to read Nordic books

TBR pile problems

Having gathered together two piles of books and some vaguely Scandinavian-style accessories (some of which may have come from IKEA), I attempted to take a photo. Unfortunately my cat Midnight decided it looked like a cozy corner to sit, so my first attempts were thwarted. Trying to make the best of a bad job, I posted the photo to Twitter to see if anyone could guess what was on the pile, but only Annabel hazarded a guess.

My books for #NordicFINDS23. Obscured by a black cat sitting in the way!
#NordicFINDS23. Midnight photobombs my books

Nordic books TBR (and an imposter)

It wasn’t until the cat had moved off and I’d taken the photo I originally planned that I realised there was a ‘deliberate mistake’; one of the books is not Nordic at all, but by a Dutch author. It ended up in the pile because the January theme for a BookCrossing challenge is ‘clean and new’. So these were my Nordic-themed books at the start of the month, with their current status.

Possible books to read for #NordicFINDS23
Book piles for #NordicFINDS23
  • SWEDEN: Inge en Mira (Two Women) (1999), Marianne Fredriksson, translated into Dutch by Janny Middelbeek-Oortgiessen. Read and reviewed on Goodreads. 4 stars.
  • FINLAND: Purge (2008), Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola Rogers. I’m still reading this because I had a disaster: my copy of this was a second copy found at the BookCrossing Convention in Mainz in 2019, which has never been read. Unbeknownst to the person who passed it on to me, this copy was misbound, missing one section and repeating another. Very frustrating! I have ordered it from interlibrary loan.
  • SWEDEN: Verteller van de wind (Chronicler of the Wind) (1995), Henning Mankell, translated into Dutch by Cora Polet. Set in Mozambique, about a boy living on the street, telling his story in the last nine days of his life. Still to be read.
  • FINLAND: De grens (The Limit) (2006), Riikka Pulkkinen, translated into Dutch by Lieven Ameel. Postponed until March (theme: maps).
  • NORWAY: A Man in Love (My Struggle 2) (2009), Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett. How does a self-absorbed man manage to make his over-detailed life story so compelling? I’m glad my husband doesn’t write about me and our family like this. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but it will probably be 4 stars.
  • FINLAND: De huilende molenaar (The Howling Miller) (1981), Arto Paasilinna, translated into Dutch by Annemarie Raas. Saved for another year.
  • DENMARK: De profeten in de eeuwigheidsheidfjord (The Prophets of Eternal Fjord) (2012), Kim Leine, translated into Dutch by Gerard Cruys. Saved for another year.
  • FINLAND: Moominsummer Madness (1954), Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Warburton. Read and enjoyed. Still to review.
  • SWEDEN: My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises (also known as My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry) (2013), Fredrik Backman. This features a possibly autistic character and fairytale elements. I hope to be able to read it later this year.
  • SWEDEN: Een zeldzame vogel [A rare bird] (1986), Jostein Gaarder translated into Dutch by Lucy Pijttersen, Kim Snoeijing. Postponed until February (bird theme).
  • SWEDEN: The Solitaire Mystery (1990), Jostein Gaarder, translated by Sarah Jane Hails. Postponed until April (theme: games and sports).
  • SWEDEN: We noemen hem Anna [We Call Him Anna] (1987), Peter Pohl, translated into Dutch by Cora Polet. I decided to pass this on at a BookCrossing meeting without reading it. The theme of bullying and suicide did not appeal.
  • SWEDEN: Ronja de roversdochter (Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter) (1981), Astrid Lindgren, translated into Dutch by Rita Törnqvist-Verschuur, ill. Ilon Wikland. Still reading.

Red herring: De nieuwe wereld van William Tinker [The New World of William Tinker] (2007), Hans Ulrich.

Nordic listening

As I didn’t have anything Icelandic to read, I decided to listen to something about Iceland on BBC Sounds. I came up with the following two:

  • Iceland’s Dark Lullabies by Andri Snaer Magnason. I searched on ‘Iceland’ and up it popped. Dark yuletide tales and ethereal music. Oddly, there was an excerpt from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, if I remember correctly; hardly suitable for Icelandic tales.
  • Hulda’s Cafe by Tiffany Murray, narrated by Rachel Stirling. Five tales from Grindavik, a place of volcanoes and earthquakes, apparently the happiest town in Iceland. I loved the feisty Hulda who seems not at all averse to stripping off her clothes and posing on the lava to oblige her erstwhile lover. There’s a refugee who only speaks in bird calls until she wants to, irritating tourists who ignore instructions to stay off the rare moss (in which Hulda’s lover once disgracefully carved her name), puffin rescue and more. I may have the details wrong; that’s the disadvantage of audio for me, but this was a heartwarming group of connected tales. Recommended! Bonus fact: I learnt that there is a bridge in Iceland that improbably connects two continents over the Mid Atlantic Ridge, linking the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

That’s all for now. I will return very soon with more Nordic reading and listening. Thanks for the inspiration, Annabel!

Fragile by Alexa Weik von Mossner: superb dystopian climate fiction

Superb climate fiction in a dystopian future New York. A thrilling debut, highly recommended for fans of Emily St. John Mandel and Ling Ma.

In the past year I’ve read three books set in North America in post-apocalyptic landscapes, including Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Severance by Ling Ma. I enjoyed both, but Fragile had me spellbound. I was completely pulled in by the depth of Alexa Weik von Mossner’s descriptions of a devastated society that seems all too real.

Cover art for Fragile by Alexa Weik von Mossner. A cityscape of overlapping skyscrapers.
Fragile by Alexa Weik von Mossner: cover art

Realistic dystopia

If I had read this book a few years ago, I would have labelled it as scaremongering but realistic dystopian fiction. None of it feels far-fetched after the last couple of years of pandemic, with its PPE shortages and panic buying and the climate disasters of heatwave, wildfires and flooding. It feels all too close for comfort. We even had shortages of common medicines such as the contraceptive pill in Europe because of a rejected batch from China, and one container ship blocking the Suez Canal caused major logistical backlogs worldwide. Alexa Weik von Mossner has definitely being paying attention and incorporated these issues into her novel.

The year is 2057. The world has been irrevocably changed by rising temperatures and rising sea levels. There are no more farm animals, and legal meat production has been shut down to preserve stocks of antibiotics and reduce carbon emissions. Meat substitute is called art-meat, with the slogan ‘Better than nature!’ However, people want real meat, so illegal puppy farms produce dogs for human consumption.

It certainly raises an interesting question for meat lovers: how far would you go to taste meat? And would you eat man’s best friend if that was the only option? Especially if cultivated/cultured meat (i.e. tissue culture in a lab) was readily available. As a pescatarian/vegetarian, my son has already asked me whether I would eat cultivated meat and I don’t really feel the need.

The first scene is a group of activists rescuing puppies from a horrific meat farm on the Atlantic coast of the USA. One of these activists is Shavir, a young woman who works in a coffee outlet by day, but spends her spare time volunteering with Roots, a counterculture group started during the early 2050s Global Supply Crisis, living in makeshift cubicles in abandoned office buildings, tending an urban farm on the roof. She has recently left a rather one-sided relationship with a rich idealist and garden designer who helps sponsor Roots, Finn Larsen.

In the second scene, Jake is watching a holographic news report on his Spine, an embedded device that make mobile phones and televisions obsolete. He is watching news about sweatshop workers in Cambodia who are rioting because their houses are being demolished to build a sea wall to protect not their homes, but factories. They shake their fists at the drone cameras, angry at the western world that caused the environmental catastrophe. This will affect Jake personally because he works for SAFE: Special Agency For Essentials, responsible for sourcing medicines and other essentials. Many medical supplies are normally shipped from Cambodia for the City of New York: antibiotics, antivirals, anticoagulants.

On behalf of New York City, Jake’s job is to solve the logistical nightmare that is the global supply chain in the face of unpredictable weather and shortages of antibiotics and other lifesaving medications. Without antibiotics, no surgery can take place. As he is fully aware, distribution of the food and medications they secure is uneven, biased in favour of the rich area of Manhattan. And it is distributed according to an impenetrable AI system that only its creator understands. Overriding it is not an option, even in an emergency, when hospitals run out of the antibiotics they need to perform surgery. The system will only allow them to reallocate resources once a state of emergency has been declared.

To add to the chaos, the city is undergoing a serious heatwave over and above the 2°C raise in global temperatures. The only way many people cope is to take an emotion regulating drug called Emovia. Now the supply of this is also failing and could lead to major civil unrest. What is more, it is not deemed to be a critical medication, whatever the consequences if it runs out. Jake will have to cheat the system to ensure supplies and prevent revolution.

Jake and Shavir know each other by sight as Jake takes a detour every day to buy his morning coffee from her as he is so attracted to her. In spite of their different backgrounds, they form a relationship which will test their loyalties and provoke many heated discussions.

It’s an indication of how immersive this is that I scarcely wrote any notes about this book. I would definitely recommend it for anyone who enjoys speculative fiction and climate fiction (cli-fi). Ten out of ten!

BOOK SERENDIPITY

When you’re a bookaholic, the chances that you recognise similarities between recently read books is pretty high. I’ve always marked this as coincidence, but an alternative term used by several book bloggers is book serendipity. I noticed several in this book.

Book serendipity: drug side effects  

In Aerobics Can Be Deadly, Sho Tanaka warns that using nicotine patches on an empty stomach can be dangerous. In Fragile, “emotion regulators weren’t meant to be combined with stimulants. Drug interactions could be disastrous, ranging from mood swings and aggressive behavio[u]r to blackouts, seizures and organ failure.”

Book serendipity: sweeping something under the rug

In The Quincunx, Johnnie watches the footman sweeping the dust under the rugs. In Fragile, Jake says “The market’s swept clean” and his boss David replies “Then start looking underneath the rugs.”

Book serendipity: warmed sake

In Aerobics Can Be Deadly, Sho Tanaka’s sister Jenny serves him warmed sake rather than tea. It’s woody scent is intensified by heating it, apparently. In Fragile, Shavir’s friend Troy is bored working at the restaurant bar once diners are seated and his only jobs are to heat a few bottles of sake and draw beer. I didn’t realise sake was supposed to be warmed; I’m sure it was drunk cold when we visited a tasting place in Japan.

I Will Die On This Hill: Autistic Adults, Autistic Parents, and the Children Who Deserve a Better World by Meghan Ashburn, Jules Edwards

One of the main points of this book is that non-autistic people need to listen to autistic people’s opinions, not only of treatments, but of their inclusion in society. A great place to start is by reading this book. Even if you think you know something about autism, you’ll probably learn something new. If you know it all already, then perhaps you should be an active advocate and/or ally, and this book has some great suggestions about how and where. If you are a parent or teacher looking for answers, this is a great primer on how to do that and how to connect with the real experts: autistic adults. So-called experts are often wrong about the best way to help because there is a legacy of misinformation and well-meaning treatment of autistic people to try to make them fit, or to exclude them, some of which is considered abusive by autistic adults who have been subjected to it. They deserve better lives and the rest of us should be more open to learning from them rather than trying to change them.

There’s such a lot of information in this book that it is rather overwhelming. I was particularly impressed with the introduction by Morénike Giwa Onaiwu and the afterword by Jennifer Nelson. While I was reading the afterword, it occurred to me that it would have been helpful earlier in the book. Another fantastic aspect are the own voices who write short pieces throughout the book, putting into practice the authors’ recommendation that autistic people themselves should guide the way because they know exactly what it is like to be autistic, in all their individual and varied ways. The main authors, Meghan Ashburn and Jules Edwards were originally on opposite sides of the debate, both as mothers of autistic children, one of whom discovered she was autistic as an adult. They managed to bridge their differences and work together to produce a great resource that they hope will lead to improved outcomes for autism support.

This is a relatively short book with a lot of information and opinions packed into it. Even though I have read a lot about autism, as the mother of an autistic son, many of the ideas in this book were new to me. To be honest, I stopped reading about it years ago because a lot of the information doesn’t fit the way my son is, so seemed irrelevant. Worse, when I read parents’ accounts in the magazine about neurodiverse parenting, I would be upset because we didn’t seem able to find the same wonderful support that other parents were getting. On the other hand, when we met other parents of autistic teens and heard their stories, I was relieved that our son was able to live such a ‘normal’ life, without us having to rebuild our house, without meltdowns. Later, we had to accept that he really was going to follow his own path, and that’s where we should have been in the first place.

Personal experience

In I Will Die On This Hill, the two authors make the case for more interaction between what they term autism moms and autistic people themselves. In shared spaces (online and in real life support groups) the two sides can be antagonistic. Often it’s the non-autistic parents who disrespect the opinions and advice of autistic people, but it can happen the other way round, too: autistic people can be blunt and unaccepting of parents who come to these shared spaces looking for answers, but don’t know what the current accepted language is or who are looking for a ‘cure’ for their child. This often results in the two groups either arguing or splitting into separate forums. The authors explain why this happens, but suggest that both sides are seeking to help autistic children, so need to build bridges between the two communities. As they themselves have done: they met through Jules’ somewhat aggressive comments on Meghan’s autistic mom blog. Both are mothers of autistic children, but Jules was diagnosed as autistic as an adult. For her, this explained many of the difficulties she had experienced in her life. The thing that changed was that Meghan started to listen to what Jules and had to say and to respect her opinions as an autistic person.

The importance of own voices

This is one of the major threads in the book: parents of autistic children need to listen to lived experience. But it goes further than that: teachers, doctors and policy makers also need to take autistic needs into account. In the past, autismi was almost always treated as a problem to be solved or ‘cured’, to make autistic people fit into neurotypical moulds, creating severe mental and self-esteem issues. They were also segregated into special needs schools. With the advent of the internet, autistic people were able to meet up in online communities and develop their own preferred language and culture. And, as Jules points out, people with different backgrounds may have different needs from the mainstream white narrative. In her case, coming from a Native American background (or Indigenous to Turtle Island, as she puts it), she points out that her culture has always accepted otherness as a way to learn about a different point of view; an autistic child has something to teach the people around them. It also allows people to develop at their own pace, and this is a problem with mainstream ideas of therapy and education, which try to make everyone learn at the same speed or be sidelined. Autistic people tend to learn in stages, wait until they are sure before demonstrating a new skill. If they are stressed, they may shrink back into themselves, which from the outside looks like lack of progression or even regression. This makes it more difficult for autistic children to keep up, but this book emphasises that giving them the support and time they need is the best way for autistic children and adults to reach their full potential. Communicating in a way that suits autistic minds is far more effective.

Problem-solving

I Will Die On This Hill is not just a book highlighting the issues, it offers solutions. There is practical advice about how both neurotypical (NT)) parents and autistic advocates can communicate with each other more effectively. But also how NT people can help highlight issues less vocal autistic people have, not only online, but wherever they have any influence. NT people don’t tend to consider the autistic point of view, so they need frequent reminders. Meghan gives some great points to keep in mind to keep discussions effective and respectful and also about different levels at which people may wish to advocate for autism.

A few things I learnt

  • Neurotypical people are known as allistic; new word to me.
  • Autism Speaks and other autism charities are focussed not just on spreading autism awareness, but on raising money for a ‘cure’ for autism, rather than acceptance, support and community. The autistic community goes so far as to consider this ‘hate speech’ because, if it was up to the charity, autistic people would not exist!
  • The jigsaw piece logo that Autism Speaks has made a symbol of autism brings up images of either having a piece missing or not fitting in, whether or not that was the original intention. I remember watching a (Dutch) introductory film with autistic teens explaining how they were overwhelmed by all the input (sounds, words, images, movement, etc.) and had to piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle. To be honest, the image didn’t really help me understand autism and the puzzle symbol is rejected in favour of…
  • An infinity symbol, often in rainbow colours to suggest the huge variety of autistic experience and abilities. Also the colour gold. Both positive symbols accepted by the autistic community.
  • ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) is a way to suppress a non-speaking autistic child’s natural means of communication, i.e. behaviour. The therapy is time-consuming and leaves no time for parents to spend time doing fun activities with their children. The autistic community considers it abusive. I have to say, I’d never even heard of this.
  • Many autistic people benefit from AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) apps and equipment. Another possibility that had passed me by, though I have to admit, my son has always talked, so it wouldn’t have been relevant in our case.
  • There’s a hashtag on Twitter and other social media that can be used to find autistic advocates, #ActuallyAutistic (not to be used by the rest of us, of course).
  • Person-first terms are not preferred in the autistic community, so autistic person is preferred over person with autism (because it is an intrinsic part of the person and how they think and behave), not a health problem that can be removed by some treatment or therapy.

This book took me much longer to read than I had expected because there was so much to think about and, of course, I looked up extra material. Coincidentally I’ve been watching a few episodes of The Good Doctor with my son, which features a non-autistic actor playing an autistic doctor. In my opinion, he does an amazing job, but as mentioned in this book, any depiction of autism in popular culture tends to emphasise a specific type of autistic behaviour (he’s playing an autistic savant, and I suspect there aren’t many of them about). Inspired by I Will Die On This Hill, I decided to look up autistic opinions of the series and – no surprise here – reactions vary. Unsurprisingly, some people object to a neurotypical actor portraying an autistic person.

Further reading

Disclaimer: Thanks to NetGalley for providing a free e-book for review. This review reflects my honest opinions after reading.

Aerobics Can Be Deadly (Bucket List Mysteries Book 1) (2023) by Ryan Rivers

Cozy mystery fans, this may be your new favourite series! Set in a quiet Texas town where everyone knows everyone else and may well be related, this is a fun story with a darker undertone. Everything seems peaceful, until a murder takes place in the last place you’d expect it, that temple of health and fitness, the gym, during an aerobics lesson.

Cover image: Aerobics Can Be Deadly by Ryan Rivers. Two men in exercise gear, one small dog and a hint of a body on the floor
Cover: Aerobics Can Be Deadly by Ryan Rivers

Sho Tanaka and Levi Blue have only been friends for six weeks, but in that time they’ve become very close. Sho used to be a nurse, Levi was a teen star in a teenage detective series, but now he’s Mayor of Bluebonnet Hills, a small town in Texas.

Jenny, Sho’s sister, has challenged him to create a bucket list, but to spice it up, she’s added lots of ideas. First out of the bucket is the challenge to take part in a triathlon. Before that can happen, the friends have to join a gym to get into shape. They visit Lone Star gym, and before they know it, they’re signed up, not just for the gym, but to be extras in a fitness video with gym owner Barbara Lou (Barbie for short) and obnoxious trainer Nick.

Pining after his lost fame, Levi jumps at the chance of being on camera. Sho reluctantly joins in, but during an introductory visit, he notices Nick bullying the gym’s cleaner and speaks up. This leads to a physical showdown where Nick meets more resistance than he’d expected. When filming starts, Nick fluffs his lines and Sho notices he is wearing a nicotine patch. Knowing that Nick fasts before exercising, Sho’s medical background kicks in and he once again speaks up to warn Nick that using a patch without eating is dangerous. Nick ignores him, simply sending Trevor for some of his special water. Then Nick collapses and Sho is having symptoms, too. He is merely having a panic attack, but Nick is less lucky…

Together, Levi’s sleuthing skills gained from several years acting as a teen detective and Sho’s medical knowledge combine to make a perfect sleuthing pair. And Nick was such an unpleasant man that there are many people who are under suspicion of what turns out to be murder. And there’s more to come.

The one thing this book lacks is aerobics! Every time anyone works up a sweat, something dramatic happens to put a stop to it. I was also completely unconvinced by the sweatbands, which I haven’t seen since the early 1990s. And sequinned headbands; were they ever a thing?

This is a fun story with a lot of silliness, but there is also a serious side. Some of the characters are recovering from substance abuse, there’s bullying, references to grief and serious health issues. But the main thrust is the amateur investigation into the murder and what happens next. Nothing too grim, nothing gory, nothing to keep you awake at night. But the mystery isn’t solved and the tension doesn’t let up until the very end. Bonus: there’s a cute little dog who has a role to play in solving the mystery.

Disclaimer: Thank you to Book Sirens for the free e-book. My review reflects my honest opinion.

Hotel Splendide (1941) by Ludwig Bemelmans

If, like me, you love to read about the excesses of the time between the wars and learn a little history in the process, you will love this collection of reminiscences. Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) was a splendid raconteur and bon vivant, a fabulous illustrator and author, but before all that, he worked in hotels. Hotel Splendide is a collection of stories he wrote based on his life behind the scenes in top hotels in New York, particularly the Ritz-Carlton, where the rich and famous went to stay and visit the glamorous restaurant and ballrooms. Bemelmans focusses on the people who made those excesses possible: the waiting staff, kitchen staff and the entertainers. And a very entertaining lot they are, though full of quirks and some very dubious behaviour. I adored this book!

The name Bemelmans seemed vaguely familiar when I saw this book offered on NetGalley. When I looked him up, I discovered that he was the author and illustrator of the classic Madeline picture books. And I say ‘classic’ because I’m sure I’ve heard of them, but they haven’t really achieved that status in Britain or the Netherlands. I’ve certainly never seen them in a bookshop or library. So my knowledge must be based on ‘best of’ lists of childhood favourites by bloggers.

Waiter in tuxedo serving lady and gent at table with candelabra. Cover image for Hotel Splendide by Ludwig Bemelmans
Hotel Splendide by Ludwig Bemelmans

Background to Bemelmans

The cover with its old-fashioned design and that somewhat familiar, somewhat Dutch name attracted my attention. The name is explained by his father, Lambert, who was Belgian; his mother was German, but Ludwig was born in what was still the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Meran, now Merano in Italy. He spent his formative years on an island in a lake in Gmunden, Austria, speaking French with his governess or mademoiselle, childishly mispronounced as Gazelle. His father ran a grand hotel there, so hotels were in his blood.

His life was about to take a dramatic turn when his philandering father ran off with another woman, leaving behind two pregnant women: his wife and Gazelle. The latter took her own life and the former returned to Regensburg in Germany, where her father ran a large brewery. Ludwig was teased for his poor German and hated the discipline at school; he described it in disguised form in one of the stories in this collection. According to rumours he spread himself, he was expelled from school, then sent in disgrace to stay with his father in America after he had shot the head waiter at the hotel, who had beaten him. His father failed to meet him in New York, so the 16-year-old Ludwig found himself a job as a busboy at a fancy hotel. And his experiences there formed the basis for this wonderful collection of stories of behind-the-scenes life at Hotel Splendide, a thinly disguised version of the Ritz-Carlton. Each story is a perfectly observed tale of characters and incidents which you can imagine Bemelmans telling as tall tales from his past.

“Monsieur Victor used our tables as a kind of penal colony to which he sent guests who were notorious cranks, people who had forgotten to tip him over a long period of time and needed a reminder, undesirables who looked out of place in better sections of the dining-room, and guests who were known to linger for hours over an order of hors d’œuvres and a glass of milk while well-paying guests had to stand at the door waiting for a table.”

In the first story, we are introduced to the incompetent waiter Mespoulets who was always a great animal lover, until he took Bemelmans to his house and unexpectedly did something horrific to a canary. We also meet the tyrannical maître d’ Monsieur Victor. Later we learn that Victor randomly fired staff every so often just to keep everyone on their toes. As Bemelmans progressed up the ranks, he was able to protect certain people by moving them to positions which better suited their abilities, or lack of them. Eventually, Mespoulets remained only because of his beautiful handwriting, used for menus and place cards. But eventually, he was sent away and suspected of using his talents for more sinister purposes, or so Monsieur Victor was led to believe. And finally his story has a wonderful sting in the tail to finish the collection.

The Wall Street Crash 1929

Not many of the stories refer to the guests at the hotel. One that does tells of a quest to retrieve a fancy dress mandolin left behind by an esteemed lady, during which Monsieur Victor was injured. The narrator visited him at home, where he had a canary in a cage; there was a lot of it about. This story contains a long letter in French giving instructions, then repeated in English, almost as if it were included as an exercise in translation.

The next story, Easy Money, tells of how men in power let down their guard and gave waiters inside information, either on purpose whilst drunk or unwittingly by leaving an imprint on the waiter’s notepad. One of the hotel’s valued guests was the germaphobic Mr Tannenbaum, an investor for a university and several charities, who provided sound investment advice to Monsieur Victor. But Bemelmans also comments on the Wall Street Crash of 1929. “So sage was the advice he received there that in the late fall of 1929, when we read of a great many of our guests jumping out of windows and a great many others were beginning to talk to themselves in the street, Monsieur Victor rubbed his hands together with joy, was debonair with his guests and employees, and thought of building himself a villa on the Riviera.“

It’s apparently a myth that there were many ‘jumpers’ on the two fateful days that started the Great Depression. A myth that may have been partially fuelled by a young British reporter, a certain Winston Churchill. In fact, the suicide rate was higher in the previous summer, before there were any financial clouds on the horizon.

Man washing pots with cutlery cleaning tumbler behind him, the Tahara machine
Kalakobé, Senegalese casserolier at Hotel Splendide

The illustration at the start of the next chapter is of the Senegalese casserolier, or pot washer, Kalakobé. Behind him is a mysterious contraption that Bemelmans explains in this chapter as a Tahara machine: a rotating drum containing small balls for cleaning silverware. Fascinating! I found a video on YouTube of a similar Tahara tumbler machine, made by the American Laundry Machine Company.

 https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=meCcViwyqaY

In one of his stories, Bemelmans and a friend live in the most expensive suite in the hotel, eating leftover caviar and drinking champagne. In real life, Bemelmans used William Randolph Hearst’s suite to sketch in when off duty. Bemelmans’ colleagues encouraged him to become an artist due to his incredible talent drawing caricatures. In real life, he was ‘discovered’ when someone from the publishing industry saw a design he had drawn on a blind and encouraged him to draw children’s picture books.

Hyperinflation in Germany

Both the narrator and another lowly hotel employee, Fritzl, had gone to the same school in Regensburg, Germany. When they returned on a visit, they were considerably better off than when they left. They are confronted with the problems of hyperinflation, when cashing a traveller’s cheque for $100 was almost impossible as the face value of bank notes had been altered so, for example, a former 50 Mark note was now worth 500 Marks and the money had to be carried in a large bag instead of a wallet.

In another wonderful story, Bemelmans tells us about the magician, the ballet dancers and the dog. Biographical detail: Bemelmans’ first wife was a ballet dancer. The impression you get is of a man who, from a very early age, was a wonderful friend and always in search of adventure.

Further reading

You can find all you need to know about Ludwig Bemelmans in this article.  One of the people mentioned is Munro Leaf, the author of The Story of Ferdinand, which I blogged about for the 1936 Club last year. In 1937, Bemelmans drew the illustrations for Munro Leaf’s tale  about a dachshund, Noodle. After seeing how effective Leaf’s brief text was, Bemelmans pared down his own text in subsequent books. It was not until 1938, when Bemelmans was confined to a hospital bed in France after a bicycling accident on a family holiday, that he finally wrote his first Madeline book, the series that has remained his most popular. 

Article showcasing Bemelmans’ illustrations for the New Yorker and a mural in the Carlyle Hotel in New York. The Palm Court at the Plaza would also have made a spectacularly apt illustration for Hotel Splendide. The story about how Bemelmans came to paint the mural is a perfect example of his adventurous life: he painted the iconic murals in what is now known as the Bemelmans Bar in return for 18 months’ free board at the Carlyle Hotel for his family.

Disclaimer: I received a free e-ARC via NetGalley and my review is my honest opinion of the book.