In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

November 2016

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren created one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature, Pippi Longstocking, while she was laid up in bed with an injured ankle, during World War 2. She had already written and published articles and short stories, but her job was working in the letter censorship division of the Swedish war office, reading and censoring all mail going in and out of neutral Sweden. At home, she started to create a diary scrapbook of war news at the outbreak of the war, not for publication, but for her own self, to make some kind of sense of the war. These diaries were not in the public eye until recently, and they make extraordinary reading.

Astrid Lindgren counted her blessings—the Swedes were far better off than their other Scandinavian and European neighbours, a fact she was acutely aware of. Her outlook is extremely global, possibly because of her day job, and very probably because she didn’t personally suffer many privations in her daily life. This is not meant to be a personal diary, the author doesn’t reveal very much of herself, but she does give tantalising glimpses into her family life—creating appealing vignettes of her domestic self. Her detailed descriptions of their celebratory meals are interesting (food is often a theme in war diaries, understandably); Sweden did have rationing, but nothing like the rest of starving Europe. Pippi Longstocking’s genesis is noted, but modestly, the author would have had no idea of what she had just created in the anarchic, freedom loving Pippi.

In her diaries, Astrid Lindgren was writing and collating articles for herself and her family, never the less, she is extremely engaging, descriptive but economical, summing up complex situations adroitly in just a few lines, and with an admirably clear eye. Her impressions are immediate, but considered—she had her own biases, but could always see both sides of a story. She was more than Swedish, she was Scandinavian, and extremely sensitive to the situation of her neighbours, particularly the Finns and Norwegians. With the addition of some news articles and letters, (mainly in Swedish), and a concise index of everyone mentioned in the diaries, this is a really compelling book, especially since its author was such a very outstanding person. A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-45 ($40, HB) is due for release in December)

My favourite book for 2016 is White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World by Geoff Dyer. I laughed, I cried, and  learned a lot about art and foreign travel in between. Geoff Dyer’s latest book is both funny and profound, he has a very clear eye, and a wonderfully light touch. ($33) Louise

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