Sep 17, 2009

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (with a Thank You)

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

Today's BBAW blogging topic is to write about a book we were introduced to by a fellow blogger. So let me begin by telling you how I discovered Tove Jansson's wonderful The Summer Book: some weeks ago I wrote a post asking for recommendations of quiet, subtle books about connections, not necessarily romantic ones, and Gavin suggested this book. And as I was telling you the other day, if there's one thing I know it's that I can trust Gavin's recommendations. There's one more blogger I can thank for my discovery of Tove Jansson: Cath at Read Warbler. I confess I had never heard of Jansson before, not even of the Moomin books, until Cath posted a link to the "Which Fantasy Writer Are You?" quiz. My number one result was, not very surprisingly, Philip Pullman. But the quiz told me I was also like Ursula K. Le Guin and Tove Jansson. Considering how much I love the first two authors, it only made sense to read the third as soon as possible (my edition of the book, by the way, has a blurb by Philip Pullman).

But anyway, let me tell you about The Summer Book: It's a novel in stories, about a summer that six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother spend together on a small island in the Gulf of Finland. Sophia's mother is dead, but her presence, or rather her absence, haunts these pages. Sophia's father is also spending the summer on the island, but it's the child's relationship with her grandmother that is at the centre of these stories.

The Summer Book by Tove JanssonI could tell you that my favourite stories were "Of Angleworms and Others", about a tract Sophia dictates to her grandmother about small critters and their vulnerability; "The Cat", about the independent cat Sophia loves and the affectionate one she does not; and "The Tent", about the first time Sophia sleeps in a tent. But that wouldn't be saying much, because the charm of The Summer Book isn't in what happens in these stories. It's in its humour, its gentle irony, its wisdom, its quiet tenderness and understated feelings.

Sophia and her grandmother explore their small island and some of its neighbours, and while they're at it they have conversations about live and death, loss, memory, faith, growing up and growing old, humankind's relationship with nature, and the people that surround them. These conversations are simple - there isn't a single line of dialogue that sounds unbelievable for a six-year-old - but they're moving and meaningful all the same. Together, the two learn how to move around people, how to love a place, and how to let it go.

The island itself is treated almost like a character, and The Summer Book's wonderful sense of place was yet another thing I loved about it. I could almost smell the salt and hear the waves; it made me want to be near the sea. This book is not in any way an environmental treaty disguised as a novel, but the sensibility behind it is very much one of respect, of consciousness when it comes to our impact on the places we inhabit. Sophia and her grandmother love the island, and they treat it with a tenderness and care that befits that love.

Probably not everyone will love The Summer Book, but if you don't mind a slower, gentle, subtle read, then I highly recommend that you give it a try. These stories have been in my mind ever since I finished it, and the more I think about it, the more I realize how much it really touched me.

Finnish Islands

Bits I liked:
If only she were a little bigger, Grandmother thought. Preferably a good deal bigger, so I could tell her that I understand how awful it is. Here you come, headlong into a tight little group of people who have always lived together, who have the habit of moving around each other on land they know and own and understand, and every threat to what they're used to only makes them still more compact and self-assured. An Island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at their horizon.

"He is no longer among us," Verner explained angrily.
"Oh, you mean he's dead," said Grandmother. She started thinking about all the euphemisms for death, all the anxious taboos that had always fascinated her. It was too bad you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn't have time.

One summer, Sophia was suddenly afraid of small animals, and the smaller they were, the more afraid she was. This was altogether new. Ever since the first time she trapped a spider in a matchbox in order to make it a pet, her summers had been full of caterpillars, tadpoles, worms, beetles, and similar uncompanionable creatures, whom she provided with everything they could want from life, including, eventually, their freedom. Now everything was changed. She walked about with cautious, anxious steps, staring constantly at the ground, on the lookout for things that crept and crawled. Bushes were dangerous, and so were sea grass and rain water. There were little animals everywhere.
They Read It Too:
Vulpes Libris
Stuck in a Book
Paperback Reader
Libri Touches

(Did I miss yours?)

And look! Ali Smith loved it too.


  1. Oh, but this sounds so perfectly lovely! High, high, high it goes on the wish list! Those passages are wonderful. I don't know why, but I've always hated euphemisms for "dead" myself. And that last passage...that just feels so incredibly authentic!

  2. I have only just discovered the Moomin graphic books, which I don't remember from childhood. Though I did love the Moomin stories. They were just lovely. This book sounds delightful and definitely one I would read.

  3. I imagine you already know this doesn't sound like the sort of book I'd enjoy, but I'm glad you liked it and found a book to fit your needs when you asked that. I remember i had no suggestions at all...

  4. I love the excerpt about being afraid of small animals. I remember being a kid and how these fears could just show up one day and absolutely possess me. Like needles - I never used to be afraid of needles, and then one day I was, and I've never been able to shake it.

  5. This book sounds sooo good. Love the cover, so serene and peaceful

  6. This is one of my most loved books. I lent my copy to my sister and I probably wont get it back. A couple of years ago I did a series of illustrations for it - I wonder what happened to those.

    I especially loved the way the Grandmother dealt with the topic of death. And the way the very old woman and the young child seemed to have more in common with one another than with anyone else. Lovely book.

  7. This sounds like a book I would love! Off to check the library website now...

  8. This sounds great. I hadn't even heard of this, but here's another book I heard about from book bloggers!

  9. It saddens me that I didn't love this book as much as I expected I would.

    It is definitely worth reading though and one I suspect will grow on me.

    Thank you for linking to my review. I disovered this through Simon at Stuck in a Book's 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About List (on the righthand side of his blog - great resource for some obscurer books!)

    P.S. Congratulations on your very well-deserved award!

  10. Oh I've got this book sitting on my shelf but somewhere I had read that it was quite depressing and so I put it off. It actually sounds like it's just more of a thoughtful book. Thank you for such a great review!

  11. Just had to dive over here and say congrats on winning 'Best Reviews' at BBAW - you deserve it more than I can explain in a comment box, but in short you are so thoughtful and interesting when you write I want you to post all the live long day ;)

  12. You had me at "a novel in stories." I love books like this.

  13. This sounds lovely for several reasons. I loved the quotes, but I also love the idea that it takes on an island off Finland and this part: "child's relationship with her grandmother that is at the centre of these stories."

    I had a great relationship with my grandmothers and my niece has a great relationship with my mom (her grandmother).

    This is totally new to me.

  14. Wonderful cover. And I do read short stories once in a while. And novel in a story sounds good. I have quite a few of those.

    BBAW: Which book blogger is responsible for this?

  15. YAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!! Just saw your win and I couldn't be more excited. Seriously--this makes my entire BBAW and makes up for some of the disappointments I felt in the other categories (we don't need to go there).

    Hope you're having a great day, Ana.

  16. Congrats, my dear, on another FINE review. :)

  17. This sounds like a beautiful little book :) I'm glad that Gavin and Cath recommended Tove Jansson to you because I'm off to add this one to my list now! I love nice, quiet books like this

  18. I want to spend time with Sophia and her grandmother now. :-)

  19. Aww, sounds... relaxing.

    I've been hearing a lot about Ursula Le Guin lately, especially about her series with the androgynous beings who change to a certain sex every so many days (I can't remember the name of it). She seems really interesting!

  20. If you liked The Summer Book, I would thoroughly recommend The Winter Book...another collection of short stories that are so gentle and beautiful, and perhaps perfect for the upcoming cold weather (for some of us anyway!). Enjoy!

  21. p.s. if you are still looking for gentle, quiet books about loss and love and finding meaning in life, i heartily recommend Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall. A beautiful novel that really moved me.

  22. I was more than slightly addicted to The Moomin's as a kid! :) So when I came across this one on Bookmooch months ago. I instantly mooched it! And it's spent its time on my bookshelf moving up and down the TBR pile, but never quite making it to be actually read.

    Really should sort that.

  23. Well, if a book can be compared to Ursula LeGuin and it has a blurb by Philip Pullman, and you recommend it, then it's gotta be good (how could it not be, with cats in it ;) ). Thank you for the wonderful review, as always.

    Congratulations on your very well deserved award!

  24. Oh! I just loved the excerpts you provided! This book sounds wonderful and I have never read anything by Jansson before. Looks like another book I need to add to my list. Great review on this one, I could tell you really liked it, and I glad you were able to discover it thanks to another blogger.

  25. I do love a gentle book like this at times. I want to go to that island!

  26. Subtle is one of my fave writing attributes!

  27. I definitely don't mind reading a slower, gentle, subtle read, so I might just give it a try. Thanks for the review, Ana! :D

  28. I love this book so much, and Tove Jansson has become one of my favourite writers. Her books are so quiet, paced slowly and contemplatively, evocative of so much without huge amounts happening. I can see why some people find them boring, but I just sink into them... do also read A Winter Book (short stories), and Fair Play. I've just finished The True Deceiver, which is out in October, and while the character of the book is quite different, it's still discernibly Jansson, and wonderful for it.

  29. Yikes! I knew you'd love it and I am so glad you have introduced it to others. That's what this book blog think is all about.

  30. This one's going on my list, too. Thanks.

  31. Love the pics! Somewhat reminds me of Richard Peck's Grandma Dowdel series.

  32. This sounds lovely, it's going straight onto my wish list.

    I second mariel's suggestion of Astonishing Splashes of Colour. I really enjoyed it when I read it several years ago. I keep meaning to read something else by Clare Morrall but still haven't done so.

  33. I've never read this, but I enjoyed Finn Family Moomintroll by Jansson!

    I just took the fantasy writer quiz and got Ursula Le Guin, with Susan Cooper as the "you might also like...". And for C.S. Lewis was listed as my opposite - but I like all three!

  34. This sounds beautiful. I'm reminded of Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, where nature is treated like a character in itself - like you say the island is in this book. I immediately went to search for it in my city's library catalogue and there are already 13 holds ahead of me! I can wait, so I placed it on hold and am excited to get my hands on it.

  35. It's so funny that I was partly responsible for this because I myself have never read anything by Tove Jansson. I should, I know this, because I love Scandinavia and have always wanted to go to Norway or Sweden. I'll check the library next time I'm there and maybe I'll strike lucky.

  36. Debi: It is absolutely lovely! And I can understand why people use euphemisms, but I'm a fan of calling a spade a spade myself :P

    Vivienne: I'm glad I'm not the only one who didn't read them in childhood! It's never too late to catch up, though :)

    Amanda: That's the great thing about book bloggers - there's always someone who can help :D We pool our bookish resources every day!

    Jenny: In this case we do end up learning where her fear came from, but that too is really perfect.

    Violet: Serene and peaceful are perfect words to describe it!

    Masha: What a pity that you lost your illustrations! I'm sure they were wonderful :) And yes - I love Grandmother's very human but also very no-nonsense approach to death.

    JoAnn: I hope you find it!

    S. Krishna: Gotta love book bloggers :D I hadn't heard of it before Gavin mentioned it either.

    Claire: I think this is one of those books you need to be in the right sort of mood for! And I'll be sure to check out the rest of Simon's list. And last but not least, thank you so much :D

    Iliana: I actually didn't find it depressing - more like bittersweet, but with more emphasis on the sweet!

    Jodie, you are too kind. Thank you so much!

    Memory: Me too! I wish there were more of them.

    Beth: It saddens me that I never really got to know my grandmothers. One passed away before I was even born, the other when I was only four. I wish I'd had a relationship like that in my life!

    Guatami: I think that when well-done, this kind of structure works REALLY well. Sort of like in The Graveyard Book :D

    Trish: *hugs* Thank you - for EVERYTHING.

    Care: As always, you are too sweet!

    Chris: I still have in mind the one you recommended to me in that post, also about a child and an older person becoming friends. I'll be sure to read it too!

    Wendy: They were wonderful to spend time with!

    She: That's The Left Hand of Darkness, and it can be read as a stand-alone, really, even though it takes place in the same universe as some of her other books. I found it a challenging read - the first time I abandoned it, actually - but a worthwhile one. It gave me lots to think about!

  37. Mariel: Added The Winter Book and Astonishing Splashes of Colour to my wishlist - thank you!

    Bart, I hope you enjoy it :)

    ds: lol, can't suspect a book with cats in it ;) And thank you so much!

    Zibilee: Isn't the writing lovely? And hooray for bloggers and the books they introduce is to!

    Kathy: So do I!

    Eva: One of mine too :)

    Alice: I hope you enjoy it!

    Simon: Evocative is a perfect word for this. Thank you for the recommendations - I'll be sure to read her again!

    Gavin: It really is!

    Jeanne: Enjoy!

    Ladytink: Not familiar with the series, but I'll look it up!

    tanabata: Astonishing Splashes of COlour really sounds beautiful. And plus I love the title!

    Marineko: lol, it's funny how that happens, isn't it? I think it told me Lewis was my opposite too.

    Alana: I love books where nature - or a town, or any other sort of setting - is treated like a character. I'll be keeping an eye out for Prodigal Summer!

    Cath: I really think you'd enjoy this! And since you were the one to link to the quiz, I thought it'd be fair to blame you too :P

  38. The title of Astonishing Splashes of Colour actually comes from Peter Pan, which made me love it all the more!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.