This is a transcription of Episode 10 — Sweden: So Happy, So Murdery.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to season one, episode 10 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, we get curious about Sweden.
David: Sweden’s the country that brought us endless guilty pleasures, things like ABBA and IKEA, Minecraft, H & M, and Candy Crush. But they also brought us Greta Thunberg and the Nobel Prize. We’ve been to Sweden.
Melissa: We have! We went to Stockholm last year to celebrate your birthday.
David: It was really nice.
Melissa: [laughter] We had dinner at that Viking restaurant. We drank mead. And ate really big pieces of meat off of a platter with our hands.
David: And we got announced when we went into the restaurant.
Melissa: I forgot about that!
David: We got announced and everyone cheers that you’re there.
Melissa: Pretty good birthday.
David: Yeah, that was nice. And we saw that ship: the Vasa.
Melissa: That is an amazing museum.
David: Yes. So, the Vasa is a ship that sunk in 1628, and then they brought it back up in 1961, and then they built this really elaborate museum around it, which includes things like displays on how they brought it up and little video interactive pieces and forensic recreations of the people who drowned on that ship when it went down.
Melissa: It sank really, really quickly.
David: Yeah. The King or whoever commissioned it —
Melissa: The King —
David: — had ideas about how blinged out he wanted it.
Melissa: [laughing] That’s true.
David: And the shipmakers were all, like, ‘No, no, we can’t. It’s too top heavy. It’ll never work.’ And he was like, ‘No, it’s fine.’ And they put it in the water and it went a couple of hundred yards and —
Melissa: Just… plunk.
David: It tipped it over.
Melissa: I have to say that when we were doing research before we went to Stockholm for vacation, I was reading about the museum, and I kind of, like, shrugged my shoulders and thought, ‘Yeah, that’d be fine.’ And we ended up going on a day that was really rainy and gross outside. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I think it’s really hard to visualize it because the ship is enormous, and they literally built the museum around this ship. Everything in that building is to accommodate the ship itself.
David: Yes. If you say, ‘I’m going to a museum about a ship,’ you’re kind of, like, ‘Really? OK.’ But it’s just, it’s really well done. It’s nicely designed.
Melissa: We’ll put some links in show notes so that you can see video of the Vasa.
David: Are you ready to give us the 101 on Sweden?
Melissa: I am. I’m going to start with the most basic. Sweden is officially called the Kingdom of Sweden, which makes it sound like something out of a fairy tale. It’s located in Scandinavia, so visualize your world map. We are north of Western Europe. Norway is to the west of Sweden. Finland is to the east across the Baltic Sea. To the south is Denmark, and Denmark and Sweden are connected by a bridge.
David: All of that is Scandinavia.
David: And none of that is, like, politically unified in a way. It’s just kind of a name for ‘that area over there.’
Melissa: Yes. They have historical and cultural and language similarities.
David: Most of them are connected directly by land, so there’s a lot of generations and generations of people going back and forth between those areas.
Melissa: The land area of Sweden is in the top five in Europe. It is about the same size as California.
David: It’s BIG.
Melissa: I feel like it’s really easy when you’re reading books set in places that you haven’t been to, to think that all of the cities are really close to each other. But if you think about San Francisco to San Diego, that’s really far, and Sweden is about that long.
David: And in Sweden’s case, it’s true. The cities are in the south part of the nation. It’s a little bit like Canada in that regard where all the cities are southern, but then you’ve got miles and miles and miles of forest and tundra.
Melissa: Right, because the rest of it is covered with forests. 50% of Sweden is covered with forests. There are also 100,000 lakes and 24,000 islands give or take a few hundred I guess.
David: So it’s a natural paradise.
Melissa: It is. Very outdoorsy, but I’m going to talk about the outdoorsiness when I discuss one of my books. It’s a little scary.
Melissa: We’ll get to it. Stockholm is the capitol. But you may also have heard of Gothenburg, Malmo, and my favorite one to say: Uppsala.
David: What’s up, Sallah?
Melissa: What’s up, Sallah? [laughter] As of 2018 the population was 10 million people, and they have one of the highest standards of living in the world.
David: 10 million people is not a lot of people for area the size of California.
Melissa: No — Sweden has one of the highest standards of living in the world. Very low unemployment, a low birth rate, very well developed welfare system, and one of the world’s longest life expectancies. The life expectancy for men is 80.6 years, and for women, it’s 84.1 years.
David: Wow. And that’s average.
Melissa: It’s average. It’s really good.
David: Swedish people also rank really highly on the happiness rankings that people have come up with. They tend to be content with their lot. I read that part of the reason people think Swedes are so happy and have such a long life expectancy is that there’s a really strong sense of community.
Melissa: 91% of the Swedish population report that they, quote: ‘know someone they could rely on in a time of need.’
David: That’s nice, huh?
Melissa: Yeah. I think that would make you feel really secure, and mentally and physically healthy. I feel like we should talk about the Vikings just really briefly to set everyone’s expectations about what’s going to happen today.
David: I wanted to read a book about Vikings, and then I realized that while there were Vikings in Sweden, it’s more of a Norway thing.
Melissa: Yes. There were Norse people in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway who were Vikings, but most of the concentration is a Norway.
David: The Scandinavian area is kind of defined by ‘places Vikings have been.’
Melissa: Exactly. So for people who are really interested in Vikings, we’re not going to talk about them today, but we will when we talk about Norway on a future episode.
David: All you Viking fans.
Melissa: All you fans of marauding and pillaging. Let’s talk about music! Sweden is the world’s third largest exporter of music after the United States and the UK. It’s known for producing great pop bands whose songs get stuck in your head FOREVER.
David: The number one being —
Melissa: ABBA. Also The Cardigans, Ace of Base, and The Hives. We will put some videos in show notes so you can have a little Swedish dance party in your house.
David: In the 70s — I think I read this — ABBA was the fourth largest industry in Sweden.
Melissa: I believe it. They were huge. You probably have more Sweden in your life than you realize. International companies founded in Sweden include Ericsson, Volvo, Saab, and two of my personal favorites: IKEA and H & M.
David: IKEA is crazy in its size and scope. I thought about doing two truths and a lie just completely about IKEA. One of the things that I found for instance is — there’s the Billy bookshelf. They make 15 of those every minute, and they sell one every five seconds.
David: And they’re named after one of the employees.
Melissa: Speaking of IKEA —
David: Yes —
Melissa: You may have eaten their meatballs.
David: I have! You have seen me do it.
Melissa: Those are Swedish meatballs, which is actually a legit traditional Swedish dish. They are usually pork, and they’re served with a brown gravy and buttered boiled potatoes and lingonberry jam.
David: Do you know that the Swedes stole those from the Turks?
Melissa: I do you know that, which broke my heart a little bit [laughter], but I do like Turkish food, so —
David: There are Turks who are still a little upset that people think those are Swedish meatballs.
Melissa: We will be discussing the history of Swedish meatballs and sharing a recipe in Food + Fiction on our blog this week, so look for that. So another, a big part of the Swedish culture is Midsommar festivals. We just watched that movie. It was very disturbing.
David: Traditionally for Midsommar, according to this movie, you get together with your village and then you kill some people in some really highly creative and fascinating ways.
Melissa: I’m going to go ahead and tell you that that is not what actually happens in Midsommar in Sweden.
David: As far as you know —
Melissa: Midsommar in Sweden is a celebration of the longest day of the year when it is light for 24 hours because Swedes have to muscle through the months and months of darkness. It’s a long winter.
David: So far this lines up with the movie 100%. [laughter]
Melissa: The festivities begin around noon with a big picnic, and they’re followed by dancing around a maypole. As I’m saying that, I’m realizing the dancing around the maypole was a really big part of that movie, too.
Melissa: The festivities continue late into the night because it’s light outside. Sure. They drink beer and schnapps and aquavit, and they play games. No murdering.
Melissa: According to tradition. If you collect seven different flowers and put them under your pillow on Midsummer’s Eve, you’ll dream about your true love.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: Finally, let’s talk about fika.
David: Ah, fika! I loved fika! We went to that place. We had coffee. We had cake.
Melissa: Yes, fika is a coffee and cake break. The other thing that’s important about fika is that it’s not just about the treats. It is about really slowing down, taking a break, savoring the moment, and talking with friends. This is not grab a piece of cake and shove it in your face while you walk down the street drinking coffee out of a to-go cup.
Melissa: It’s a ritual.
David: Sit down. Maybe with friends.
Melissa: It’s so good for mental wellbeing and productivity that in most offices, it is mandatory. Give your staff a fika break.
David: That’s nice, huh?
Melissa: I really enjoyed the cardamom bun that I had at the bakery when we had fika.
David: Also, that was a really pretty bakery.
Melissa: Oh, they had — we’ll put some, we’ll share some photos. The bakery was small. It had big windows, so it was very light and area inside and they had just had baskets of freshly baked bread with all kinds of seeds and cardamom buns and cookies and other Swedish pastries. And really good coffee. It is rare for us — I don’t know about you, audience — it is rare for us, in the middle of a regular day, to take a break and just sit down and have a little treat like that in the middle of everyday life. It was really, really nice. I think everyone should embrace fika.
David: I think so, too. Plus cake. Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I am.
David: Okay, so I’m going to present three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel does not know which one is true. First we have to talk about the Icehotel. Do you know about the Icehotel?
Melissa: I mean I know it exists.
David: All right. So, 200 kilometers above the Arctic Circle is a place called the Icehotel. The Icehotel is built from ice from scratch every year and then it melts in the spring. And people go stay there. It has 60 rooms. The interior temperature can get as low as -22 Celsius or -8 Fahrenheit.
Melissa: Oh, that’s really, that’s quite chilly. [laughter] I was, like, 32 isn’t so bad.
David: It’s cold in there, and you sleep all bundled up and all of that. You can get there in about 90 minutes from Stockholm by plane or 12 by train.
Melissa: Oh, I bet that’s a really beautiful train ride.
David: I think so too.
Melissa: Oh, we should definitely do that.
David: Rooms are about 400 bucks a night —
Melissa: So, for one night —
David: It’s a little spendy. So the statement is: The Icehotel is required to have fire alarms, despite being made a frozen water. [laughter] That’s statement one.
Melissa: That’s a good one.
David: Statement two: It is illegal to vote for Donald Duck in national elections in Sweden.
Melissa: Is Donald Duck on the ballot?
David: No, but he’s written-in frequently. [laughter] And three: a Swede got health benefits for being addicted to dance. [laughter]
Melissa: In a country that gave us ABBA, I can see how that might be a problem. These are really good ones, Dave. You’ve outdone yourself.
David: Thank you very much!
Melissa: Okay. I think that Sweden is so progressive that if you want to write-in a vote for Donald duck, they’re going to let you do that. So I think that that is a lie.
David: It is illegal to vote for Donald Duck in national elections. Here’s the thing with Donald duck: Apparently all of Scandinavia has a thing for Donald Duck, and he’s more popular than Mickey, by far. There are stamps. There are widely-read magazines in multiple languages, and every year, there’s a Christmas special that’s re-aired, and it’s called Donald Duck and His Friends Celebrate Christmas, but it’s in Swedish. The segments include Ferdinand the Bull and a short with Chip and Dale, and a segment from Lady and the Tramp and a sneak preview of upcoming Disney movie, and that all ends with Jiminy Cricket performing ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’ And they have showed that every year for, basically, as long as anyone can remember and everyone watches it. It’s a thing.
David: So, that’s had the side effect that when people are placing protest votes, they frequently write in Donald Duck as the candidate of choice. In a 20-year span, Donald has won one enough votes to be, in theory, Sweden’s ninth most-popular political organization. But because of that, in 2006, Sweden prohibited voting for non-existent candidates. So you can no longer vote for Donald Duck in Sweden.
Melissa: Wow, I’m surprised they did that.
David: So that leaves you with the Icehotel is required to have a fire alarm and a Swede got health benefits for being addicted to dance.
Melissa: Okay. I am going to say it’s ‘true’ that the Icehotel — [sighs] but why would the Icehotel have a fire alarm?! I feel like an idiot. — Yes, someone got treatment for being addicted to dance.
David: Let’s talk about Sweden’s social care because it is astonishing. Now, keep in mind that to do this, they pay a pretty high tax. It’s something like — it averages out to be about 50%, but it’s progressive. They have social security, affordable healthcare, five weeks of paid annual leave, just guaranteed. So five weeks of vacation for everybody. They have a really interesting maternity stay where they get something, like, 430 days off that they can split between the husband and wife as they would like. To a stay at the hospital for one night costs about $10.
Melissa: No it doesn’t!
David: $10 and prescription drugs have an annual cap. So you cannot spend more than this: $210.
Melissa: That’s really great.
David: Yeah. So as a result, a lot of people take advantage of this system. They also have a free education. So you can stay in college as long as you want. People get loans for room and board during that period, but those loans are on a 50-year payback. So basically you have the rest of your life to pay it back. To get to this though: So, a Swedish guy did not get health benefits for being addicted to dance.
David: But a Swede did get health benefits for being addicted [pause] to heavy metal.
David: Yeah, there a guy who claimed that he was addicted to heavy metal. He goes to about 300 concerts a year, and he finally got a few psychiatrists to say, ‘Yeah, fine, you’re addicted to heavy metal’ and the State supports him for about $155 a month to live his lifestyle. They also gave him a document that says, basically, ‘This guy is addicted to heavy metal, and if you hire him, you should be aware that he’s going to dress in heavy metal garb, he’s going to listen to heavy metal, and he’s going to probably flake and go off and see concerts every once in a while’. And he got a job as a dishwasher.
Melissa: Rock out, dude. So that means the Icehotel must have fire alarm.
David: Yeah. That’s what the local law says. If you have a building, you have to have a fire alarm, so they put a fire alarm in the Icehotel. And it went off once. It went off because somebody was smoking in a closet.
Melissa: Because it’s so much warmer inside the Icehotel than going outside to smoke?
David: I guess you’re protected from the wind?
Melissa: My takeaway from all of this is that I need to go to the Icehotel.
David: I agree.
Melissa: It’s, like, where I’ve landed after all of this.
David: I think that’s true.
Melissa: With some cardamom buns.
David: Are you ready to talk about books?
Melissa: I am ready to talk about books.
David: Let’s do it.
Melissa: I wasn’t sure if I should talk about this book because I feel like it’s kind of a classic and maybe everyone has read it already. But I like to hear people talk about books that I’ve already read, so I thought I would go for it. It is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I feel like we have Stieg Larsson to thank for Nordic noir kind of dominating publishing for awhile. This book came out in 2005, and it’s sold like crazy pants and it is definitely one of my favorite dark, murdery novels that I’ve ever read.
Melissa: Here’s why I love this book. Number one, it’s set on an island. It’s set on a fictional Island called Hedeby. People have theorized that this is based on an island north of Stockholm. So we’ve got an isolated setting, which I love, and it combines the tropes of a manor house murder mystery with a political thriller, a deeply, deeply screwed up family saga, and a character study of not one but two anti-heroes. I mean this is as if someone designed a novel specifically to appeal to me.
David: [laughter] And apparently you’re not alone on that.
Melissa: As if that wasn’t enough, it’s also set in the 1990s but it has plot threads that reach back to the 1960s and World War II. So we get a little bit of historical context as well. This is literally everything that I love.
David: Lisbeth Salander is one of the great characters of modern fiction.
Melissa: Lizbeth Salander is a heroine for the ages.
Speaker 1: The thing that I love about her in the book that I don’t think comes across as well in the movies is that she is just all contradictions. She’s tattooed and she’s punk rock and she wears scary eyeliner and a leather jacket and she can defend herself physically, but she’s also vulnerable and squishy on the inside. And ultimately, what she wants more than anything is to find somebody that she can trust and to love. So she’s a really powerful character, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit.
Melissa: So let’s roll back to where the story starts. And I have to say first that even though Lisbeth is a standout, the most important character in this book is the island and Sweden itself. It’s cold, it’s bleak. It’s kind of sinister and foreboding. In my notes, I wrote ‘violent barren landscape like the family’ question mark. It’s such a rich setting and has influenced these characters so much. This book really could not be set anywhere else.
David: One critic said, ‘Do the Swedes ever murder somebody in the summer?’ I thought that was good.
Melissa: Okay, so we’ve got this very vivid setting against which the story plays out. When the novel opens, we meet our first hero/anti-hero Mikael. He is a journalist and he has just lost a libel case and he’s going to have to go to jail for three months. This is a very successful journalist and now he’s going to jail. Not a good day for him. It’s worth noting that Steig Larsson was also a journalist in Stockholm in real life. He covered socialist politics, and he also did a bunch of research on right wing extremism. So through his character of Mikael, how we get a lot of inside details about what it’s like to be a journalist and what the politics Sweden are like. So Mikael is kind of at loose ends. He knows he’s going to jail, he’s not sure when he’s going to be called to go, and he’s going to be there for three months.
Melissa: So what do you do when you can’t go to work, but you know you’re going to go to jail soon. And at just the right moment, he’s offered a very suspicious lifeline by a man named Henrik Vanger. He is the patriarch of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families. Decades ago, Vanger’s niece, whom he absolutely adored, disappeared on a summer day. They don’t know what happened to her. And he wants Mikael to use his investigative skills to figure out what happened to his niece. So this is a cold, cold case. It’s the 1990s this happened in the 60s so the first thing that Mikael realizes he needs to do is interview all of the Vanger siblings who were on the island that day. They were all there for this big family get-together, and he gets to know them, and they are terrible.
David: In what way are they horrible?
Melissa: They’re all really intelligent, like, almost too smart for their own good. And they’re really tricky and they’re all hiding things. And you don’t know if they’re hiding things that have to do with the kidnapping or hiding things that have do with other things that they’ve been up to. So they all tell inconsistent stories and they’re all really kind of damaged. They’re so wealthy, and they’ve lived so isolated from regular people that they’ve kind of lost the thread of what the rest of the world is like. They’re super privileged. They have everything they could ever want or need.. They don’t seem to like each other very much. There’s a lot of backstabbing and gossiping and you have no idea who to trust.
David: Kind of a Knives Out situation.
Melissa: Yes, exactly. That’s the setup and then through a series of circumstances that I’m not going to ruin Mikael teams up with Lisbeth, who we have already mentioned.
Melissa: In addition to being a really interesting character as a human, she’s also a superhacker. So she really knows her way around digging into people’s histories. So they team up and as they’re digging into the past, they also are putting themselves into super-dangerous situations, which is really fun to read about — would not be so fun to participate in.
David: [laughter] Yeah.
Melissa: I mean, if this is your kind of thing. If you like a dark, psychological murder mystery where people are digging around in the past, and then it’s getting them into trouble in the present, this is your thing. It’s really, really dark, but it is not without hope. And there are some really tender moments between the characters. Everyone in this novel is really complex and that leads to super-interesting small moments of conversation and then really big life-threatening drama.
David: So this book is one of how many books?
Melissa: So, the original series was supposed to be 10. Stieg Larsson had a plan to write 10 books, but he died in 2004 after writing only three of them. And then they weren’t published until after his death. The first one was published in 2005, They were wildly successful. It makes me a little sad that he doesn’t know how much people love these books.
David: Right. I remember that. That he did not live to see the publication of even the first book.
Melissa: So 10 years after the first one was published in 2015, they had sold 80 million copies worldwide. And there are still new ones coming out. In 2013, the publisher hired another crime journalist to continue this series. So there’ve been three more since then, and the reviews are actually really good. So if you fall in love with Mikael and Lisbeth the way I did, you can read the first three that Stieg Larsson wrote and they’re a very satisfying trilogy. And then the story continues.
David: Do you know if he left the notes for the other seven?
Melissa: I believe that there were extensive notes for the whole arc of the series in his desk when he died. That in itself is a really interesting story. And a book came out I believe in 2019 that kind of tells Stieg Larsson’s story and the development of these books and his career as a journalist and how they led into the novels. We’ll put a link to that in show notes.
David: That’s cool.
Melissa: I, for one, am very grateful that he was able to write the first three books and get Lisbeth Salander out into the world because she’s just such a cool character. And if you’ve only seen the movie, I urge you to read the book because she has so much more nuance on the page. And I feel like she is — she’s great in the movies cause she really kicks ass. But she’s almost a little cartoony version of what punk rock is. And on the page, she’s just so much more complex and elicits, I think, so much more empathy as a character.
Melissa: To summarize my love affair with this book: It has tons of atmosphere. There are really interesting insider details about the world of magazine publishing and journalism and politics and hacking. But it all is woven into the story in a way that’s integral to the plot. It’s not just plopped on top to add detail to show that the author knows what he’s talking about. It’s woven into the story really well. And this is a very, very rich world with the weather and the history of Sweden feeding into the story. So I 100% loved it. That is _The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.
Melissa: What’s your first book?
David: My first book is _The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg.
Melissa: I like that title.
David: It is a good title. The book starts with a body. There is a beautiful woman and she’s apparently slit her wrists and her bathtub and the tub has frozen over.
Melissa: Oh, she’s the ice princess.
David: Yeah, the title pays off both in the corpse as well as her character.
Melissa: This is Camilla Läckberg.
Melissa: People love these books! I haven’t read any of them yet. I’m excited to hear you talk about it.
David: So that scene is described from the perspective of perhaps her killer. Definitely a man and whoever he is, he reaches out to touch her. And then there are these two lines: ‘The blood on her wrist had congealed long ago. His love for her had never been stronger.’
Melissa: That is so creepy.
David: I feel like the rest of the book sort of explores that image, right? Who are these people and why is she dead and why does he love her so much even now? And how did he come to see her? And, like, there’s no urgency about it either. It’s not like you would find somebody you love in the tub and be like, ‘Oh my God!’ There’s none of that in that scene. The book is set in a small coastal town of Fjallbacka, which is a real town that the writer grew up in.
Melissa: Oh, wow.
David: Yeah. About 900 people live there year-round.
Melissa: I wonder how they felt about Camilla Läckberg setting a book in their hometown.
David: So, there’s a whole series of these books, and there were movies made out of them and collectively they’re known as the Fjallbacka Murders.
Melissa: When your town becomes infamous.
David: So about 900 people live there permanently. It’s a fishing village, but mostly it’s a summer tourist resort. I was surprised when I looked it up at how pretty the town is. The book paints it as just claustrophobic and a little dark and noirish. But if you look at the pictures, it’s, like, ‘Oh, that’s a really lovely little fishing village.’ Fjallbacka feels very noir in the book and everybody has a secret and everyone’s sort of in on everybody else’s business. Most of the book is told from the perspective of a woman who has moved away. Her name’s Erica. She lives in Stockholm. She’s a biographer. She’s returned to the town because her parents died in a car accident and she has to sort through their things and manage her relationship with her sister.
Melissa: There are just tragedies happening all over the place.
David: Erica had been childhood friends with the deceased woman, but they’d grown apart. The other investigator in the story is a local detective Patrick and together Erica and Patrick root out some complicated truths about the woman who died and the town’s past. They also get a relationship going through the book. Which is one of the things that I enjoyed most about it. One of the things that I liked about this book is that you never get a complete picture of the woman who died. You get shards of the truth. You see her from different perspectives of different people, but you never really meet her, which feels true. Somehow. After somebody dies, you don’t really ever get them — you just get the ghost of them and particularly in this instance, she is distant from seemingly everybody, and so that kind of reinforces the story.
David: The book has a strong sense of the Swedish coast, and the story’s sent in winter because Swedes murder people in winter — we discussed that. So the cold, long, dark nights and the snow kind of add to the story’s mood. The writer is on her second career. She started as an economist, and she took a course in creative writing and that went really well for her.
Melissa: I love stories like that. It’s like Amor Towles. He used to work in finance.
David: This is the first in a series. Her novels have all been number one bestsellers in Sweden, and she’s the most profitable native author in Swedish history.
Melissa: Good for her!
David: So this isn’t a murder mystery as much as it’s an exploration of a small town and its dark secrets. Maybe it’s a bit of a procedural. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys figuring out who did it, you won’t really find that here. Sometimes the reader has more information than the investigators. Sometimes the investigators have information the reader doesn’t have yet for the sake of drama, but if you enjoy a book where you’re poking around in the dark secrets of a small town —
David: And something that’ll give you a sense of a small Swedish fishing village in winter, this is definitely your book.
Melissa: It sounds like I would like that a lot because I don’t think usually I really care about who did it. I’m much more interested in the why and the secrets that come out. about people’s behavior that don’t have anything to do with the murder, but they’re doing suspicious things, so you find out what they’ve been up to.
David: Yeah. There’s a lot of that. There’s a whole lot of that. That sounds awesome. Yeah, it’s fun to read.
Melissa: My second book is completely different. It’s a historical novel set in 18th-century Stockholm.
David: Oooo, less murder.
Melissa: Less murder. It’s called The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann, and it’s a historical novel set in 18th-century Stockholm. There’s a little bit of a backstory with me in this book. I’ve had this book since it was published in 2012, and the first time I started to read it, I think I only made it to maybe chapter two.
Melissa: And I was really disappointed because it seemed like the kind of thing that I would really love, but I set it aside. And then when I was looking for great books for Sweden, this kept coming up in my searches, and I kind of remembered that it hadn’t stuck with me the last time, but I decided to give it another try. And I’m so glad that I did because I really, really enjoyed it. And I feel like that’s just more evidence for my belief that the right book finds you at the right time.
Melissa: So I will say, however, this book is a little bit of a slow burn, it kind of gradually reveals what kind of book it is. You know what I mean? Sometimes you’re reading a book and you don’t really know what kind of book it is yet.
David: Yeah. I like that when that happens.
Melissa: That’s usually not my thing, but I was really into this one. So there’s a lot of detail in this novel about court intrigue and political backstabbing and double crossing and how absolutely dastardly things can be going on under the surface while everyone is being very, very polite when they’re face to face. And the plot turns on the Stockholm Octavo, which is a spread of cards. They’re kind of like fortune-telling cards. They’re not quite tarot .They’re fortune-telling cards.
Melissa: And our hero is named Emil and he’s kind of a jerk in the beginning. He’s a bureaucrat and the office of customs and excise and he drinks and he plays cards and he’s really reveling in being a bachelor. But deep down he also kind of wants to find true love/
David: In 18th-century Stockholm.
Melissa: Yes, 1791. So one night, he goes to the gaming parlor that’s owned by Sophia Sparrow. Such a good name. And she lays out the Octavo to tell him his fortune. And the rest of the story explores how his quest for true love intersects with what’s happening in the court of Gustav III of Sweden.
David: So for those of us who are a little sketch on our Swedish history, do I need to know about the court of Gustav III?
Melissa: You do not. I am, myself, not a Swedish historian, so I was not very familiar with what was happening during the reign of Gustav III. I did when I got into the book and his name kept coming up, I did do a little Google and read the Wikipedia page and that was plenty to just have context for what was happening.
Melissa: But since we’re here, and we’re talking about him: He was a King during the Enlightenment and he was really forward-thinking. This is cool. He abolished torture. He granted freedom of the press. He advocated for religious tolerance. He promoted free trade and he strengthened the Navy. These all sound like very good things to me.
David: Those do.
Melissa: But here’s the problem. He was very divisive because a lot of his reforms took power away from the nobility and gave respect to regular citizens. So there were some people who didn’t like what he was doing. That’s the backdrop for what’s happening with Emil. So Emil and Mrs. Sparrow kind of get caught up in some intrigue, and I don’t want to give too much away because as I said, the story kind of slowly unwinds as you’re reading it, you don’t really know where it’s going or what’s going to happen and that is really part of the fun of this book.
Melissa: But if I was going to summarize it in a snappy way, I would say it’s like Dangerous Liaisons without the blatant sexiness.
David: Court intrigue and romance and seduction for the sake of seduction.
Melissa: Yes! And you’re not quite sure who to trust. It’s really fun. Things that I loved about reading this book. Number one: Sophia Sparrow lays out the Octavo for the cards, and as time goes on, more cards are added to it and it changes and it’s meaning changes throughout the book. There are diagrams of the layout of the cards.
David: Oh nice.
Melissa: So that’s really fun to have that kind of tangible experience and see as she and Emil do things, it influences the cards and vice versa. Second, there is a whole thing about the language of hand fans. Do you know about this?
David: Of course!
David: [laughing] Back in my ancestral home of Cincinnati, we used hand fans for communication all the time. [laughing] Don’t be absurd. How are you supposed to tell somebody you want to go to the United Dairy Farmers with them if you can’t use a hand fan?
Melissa: Okay, but you at least know what I’m talking about. I literally had no idea this was a thing. It made me feel really dumb, but then I was also really excited to learn something new.
David: Why would you know that?
Melissa: Okay, so hand fans were like a really big deal from the 17th to 19th century. They were handmade from silk and they were decorated with scenes from books and from nature. And there were jewels and pearls and sequins, and they were a status symbol because you would hold it in front of your face and people could see it’s made from the finest silk. And they knew who the different fan makers were and who the most luxurious fan makers were. I mean it was, like, a whole thing.
David: Almost like purses now.
Melissa: Yeah. Yeah. Like the really important Birkin bag. Anyway, they were not just beautiful accessories. They were used for society ladies to communicate, particularly with men, in a way that was secret, but it couldn’t have been that secret because everybody knew the language. So there was even a fan that was printed with very, very small type that told ladies how to communicate when they were using it.
Melissa: But in the book there’s a character who teaches classes on how to use your fan properly. So for example, you could spell things out, you could take your fan and hold it in your left hand and touch your right arm. And that meant you were indicating a letter from A to E. And if you did the opposite, it was a letter from F through K and so on. There were different things you could do to literally spell out words. There were also symbols. So you could take the fan and place it near your heart. And that means you’ve won my love.
David: So like American sign language, you could have symbols that mean a phrase or you can have individual letters.
Melissa: Exactly. So all of this fan stuff plays a really big part in the book and it was really, really fun. Would it surprise you to know there are a lot of links on the internet talking about fan communication? I will put some in show notes.
Melissa: Another really prominent character in this book is the city of Stockholm as it was in the late 1700s. It really comes to life. It’s very immersive. About, I don’t know, maybe a third of the way into the book, I realized that I was really visualizing the city and everyone’s fancy costumes and all this stuff with the fans and it just really jumps off the page. Karen Engelmann is the author and she just did such a good job of creating the environment. She also has a walking tour of the locations in the book on her website.
David: Oh, cool.
Melissa: I will link to that in show notes because then you can look at them when you’re reading the book.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: I am so happy that I gave this book another chance. It was really, really a rewarding read. As I was reading the book, I wasn’t always sure why things were happening and where I was going on this journey with Emil, but everything builds and it all comes together perfectly. So when it lands, you think back to things that happened in previous chapters and it’s like this big ‘aha’ moment. Super, super satisfactory. That is The Stockholm Octavio by Karen Engelmann.
David: Let’s talk about Popular Music From Vittula. This is a novel by Mikael Niemi, translated by Laurie Thompson.
Melissa: Big props to translators of novels.
David: Particularly this one. Laurie Thompson did a fantastic job with the translation of this book. Popular Music From Vittula is the single best-selling book in Swedish history.
Melissa: I didn’t know that.
David: One out of every 10 Swedes owns a copy.
Melissa: Oh, that’s really cool.
David: Yeah, it’s a coming of age story about two young boys who grew up in North Sweden just along the border with Finland. And it is a work of magical realism. Things happen that both feel real and also kind of like they’re the sweet cloud of memory mixed with a child’s mind. For instance, we hear about a boy who locked himself into an iron boiler and got stuck in there for two years until he grew so large that he burst out of it.
Melissa: Whoa. And that’s not treated as super weird.
David: It’s just presented like this is the thing that happened. There’s a prominent witch character who is scary. There’s a music teacher that has thumbs right in the middle of his hands.
Melissa: Like, coming out of his palms?
David: Yeah. But it’s also solidly set in the world that we live. There’s a hard life and threatening teenage gangs and Beatles Music that helps guide the way. There’s ill-advised adventures with homemade liquor. The boys put on a rock show and that is every bit as wonderful and awkward as it should be. The writing is just lovely and funny and kind of harsh in a way that really reinforces the narrator’s voice and the local environment.
David: It’s set in Vittula, which is a real place. It’s a suburb of a village that’s just inside the rim of the Arctic Circle.
Melissa: That’s way up there.
David: It’s way up there. The name itself is a vulgarization of — and I’m going to blow this — but it’s Vittulajänkkä. So the title would be slightly absurd to a native,. It’d be something like ‘The Biggest Hits of Grand Rapids, Michigan.’ It’s a tough neighborhood. There’s a lot of drinking. There’s a of fighting.
David: It is a community of sort of soft-spoken women and silent men who drink and fight and work long hours of heavy physical labor. And for entertainment they hold drinking contests and fighting contest and strength contests.
Melissa: So there’s a lot of fighting and drinking, is what I’m getting. And what is the time period of this book?
David: The book came out recently and it’s a coming-of-age story, so it’s probably set in the late eighties, early nineties. One of the things that I loved about this book — so we’ve been talking about different ways there are two love a book. There is a chapter in this book that I want to talk about. It’s chapter 11. I can tell you exactly what’s in that chapter, and it still will not blow the sense of that chapter.
David: It is a wedding dinner. He describes this wedding dinner that is both wonderful and tense and everybody gets drunk and inappropriate behavior. So there’s a course of crispbread and salmon, and ice cold beer. There was a meat stew made with reindeer and golden turnips and almond potatoes that he describes in a rich broth tasting of ‘sweat and forests.’
David: There’s a lot of writing like that in this book where he just turns this thing and you’re like, ‘Yep, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Never heard it described quite that way.’… ‘In a rich broth, tasting of sweat and forests with circles of fat on the top, there’s a round of bread ‘still hot enough to melt lumps of butter.’ There’s schnapps and then there’s more schnapps. There’s sugar buns and biscuits and puff pastries. Sponge cakes with Arctic raspberry filling and bowls of whipped cream and newly-warmed cloudberry jam.
David: This was fascinating, there’s what he describes as sooty black coffee and cheeses, and that’s all served with a hard brown lump of dried reindeer meat. You put the reindeer meat in your mouth with the cheese and you drink the coffee through it. Then there’s brandy. And there’s toasts and more toast. During this entire time, he describes the build of the social engagement. It starts with just men sitting around like big lumps of stone around the table and gradually becomes more of, like, people getting drunk and having a good time. One of the things that’s happening during this sequence is the bride’s mom is urging everyone to eat by questioning their manhood. ‘So how can a clan so scared of filling their stomach manage to reproduce?’ That kind of thing. And then after all of that eating, there’s arm-wrestling matches.
Melissa: Of course.
David: And then boasting and then more arm-wrestling and then a sauna.
Melissa: I feel like second life goal from this episode get invited to a Swedish wedding.
David: I read that chapter and yeah, that was my reaction, too. How do I get an invite? How do I get in there? ‘Cause that sounded just fantastic.
Melissa: Can we add boasting and arm wrestling to our next dinner party?
David: And also a woman shaming you to eat more. I’d never heard that wrinkle on that.
Melissa: So good.
David: The author grew up in this neighborhood that he’s talking about. He still lives there. He is the founding owner of the only bookstore in the area. I highly recommend this book. I love this book. The translator has translated 15 novels from Swedish and he lives in West Wales.
Melissa: Sounds like they both knocked it out of the park.
David: Yeah. I highly recommend this book if you’re at all interested in coming-of-age or northern Sweden or even hearing about what people eat and drink and do up there. It’s Popular Music from Vittula by Michale Niemi and translated by Laurie Thompson.
Melissa: My last book is new. It’s called Black River by Will Dean, and it’s a crime novel, but instead of featuring a traditional detective or a police officer, our heroine is a nosy journalist. Her name is Tuva Moodyson, and she’s deaf and she uses hearing aids. She’s very, very matter of fact about being deaf. When a dumb country bumpkin says to her, Can you drive a truck? You’re deaf.’ She holds herself back from punching him in the face. Yeah. And then she says,’ I can do everything except hear.’
Melissa: So she’s great. I love her. Yeah. She’s very, very nosy because she’s a journalist and because she’s not a cop, she can go places and do things that the cops can’t do. So basically if she can get people to tell her things, she wins. And she’s really good at wheedling stuff out of people. But that also means that she has zero protection because she’s not a cop. She doesn’t have the police force behind her, so she walks willingly into dangerous situations all the time.
David: Sounds really stressful.
Melissa: It is a little stressful to read about her. She knows someone is angry at her, so she just confronts them with what she knows to see what they’ll do.
David: So most aggressive, over-the-top detective ever.
Melissa: She’s trying to get to the truth. Most of the action takes place in a fictional town called Gavrik. The town is made up, but it’s located in a real region of Sweden called Varmland. This is along the western border with Norway, and in real life it looks completely idyllic. It’s very green. There are lots of lakes. It’s the kind of place where you imagine everybody’s super outdoorsy and really, really healthy. Picks up goats and carries them over their heads and stuff. But in this book, the little towns of Gavrik and the towns around it, they’re bordered by this very dense, very spooky forest called Utgard. And basically Utgard is a main character in this story and the other books in this series. It definitely has a personality, and it has a huge influence on the people and on the action that takes place in these stories.
David: Is it a friendly forest?
Melissa: Oh no, not at all.
Melissa: The descriptions, Will Dean’s descriptions of it, are so good. It’s dark, dark in there in the middle of the day, and it stretches for miles and miles and miles. So when Tuva is driving, it’s a constant companion. The forest is just there.
David: . I hadn’t thought about the claustrophobia of a forest during a 2-month blackout month. In the Icehotel up in that town, they have darkness for four weeks. Totally. And then they also have light for two months in the winter. Light for 24 hours.
Melissa: When the story opens, Tuva’s best friend has gone missing. Her name is Tammy. And even though she’s Swedish, she was born in Sweden, as Tuva insists over and over. Tammy’s parents are Thai. And so that leads to some racism that the author handles really well because it’s not over-the-top, name-calling kind of racism. It’s the kind of casual, really prevalent people maybe don’t even realize that they’re doing it, kind of racism that’s so damaging. And so Tammy is missing and that racism kind of plays a part in how people react to her being missing.
Melissa: I feel like one of the other elements that makes the racism against her so insidious is that she owns a Thai food truck that everyone eats at and everyone loves. At the same time that they don’t really consider her Swedish. So she’s abducted from her truck, and it’s very obvious that that’s where the action it took place. That’s how they know she’s missing. And Tuva is determined to find her. So she makes it her mission to lead the search effort and kind of keep egging on the police to find her best friend. And on her way to figuring out where Tammy is and whether she’s alive or dead — because they just don’t even know, Tuva runs into a bunch of very, very shady and very entertaining characters. They live outside of town in a place called Snake River. There’s actually a snake breeder whose house is filled with compartments that hold all kinds of snakes.
Melissa: Tuva, because she’s like a dog with a bone, keeps going back to the snake-breeder’s house and poking around and at one point in the snake breeder shoves her into a dark room and slams the door and tuba doesn’t know if there are any snakes in there with her or not. And she’s freaking out. And then the woman opens the door and it says she was just kidding. She wasn’t really going to do anything to her.
Melissa: There’s also a couple that specializes in making tiny houses that have shipping containers and they act super suspiciously all the time. There’s a dude who sells auto parts on eBay as a living, but maybe he’s also dealing in something else, too. We don’t know what that is, there’s just this inkling that he’s maybe up to something.
Melissa: And then there’s also a shoe salesman who takes his work very seriously and I don’t want to give away what that means, but he’s a weirdo.
David: So Tuva’s kind of like poking them with sticks. She goes to see them multiple times. She learns all kinds of things about their lives and what they may or may not have had to do with Tammy’s disappearance. It’s all very kind of wacky, but incredibly sinister. I grew up in a small town surrounded by farmland and weird, creepy rural areas. And there were definitely those farms or houses that kind of seemed like compounds that had extended family members living on them and you weren’t really sure what they did for a living. So this kind of rang very true for me, I guess is what I’m saying.
Melissa: So the other thing worth mentioning is that this book is set during Midsommar.
David: Which we’ve already established is the most murdery time of the year. [laughter]
Melissa: And more accurately, very big celebration in the lives of Swedes.
David: Right, right.
Melissa: So there’s this really cool tension that Will Dean sets up with his story because it’s this big holiday. And people are having their picnics and dancing around the maypole. And at the same time, there are search parties looking for Tammy, and Tuva is just distraught because her best friend is missing. So there’s awesome dichotomy between the experience that most people are having, and then this really dark thing that’s happening simultaneously. During the physical search for Tammy, Tuva has to spend a lot of time in that forest that I told you about and the descriptions are really visceral. It’s dark in there, even in the middle of the day. The trees are overwhelming. They’re really tight together and there’s animals skittering through the brush and then the insects. The descriptions of the mosquitoes and the ticks made me never want to go outside again. Ever. And everyone there is used to it. It’s just part of life. Pick the ticks off the kids before they go swimming, kind of thing. It really was a lot but in such a good way. It’s really good.
Melissa: It literally sounds like the woods are trying to kill the people, but it makes for a really good setting for a story.
Melissa: So for readers who like a strong female lead and really twisty mysteries and are looking for something different because this is not a police procedural. This is, again, about a journalist. This is a really great book. It’s the third in the Tuva Moodyson series.
David: Would you recommend starting from the beginning?
Melissa: You know, I read and also really, really enjoyed the first book, which is called Dark Pines. But having read both of them, you do not have to start at the beginning of the series. Will Dean does a really good job of catching you up on Tuva’s back history so that when you’re reading the third book, you know who everyone is very easily, and you know what she’s been through before this book. If you wanted to read a three-book arc, the other ones are really, really good, too, so you can’t go wrong either way.
Melissa: That is Black River by Will Dean and also _Dark Pines.
David: Those are five books we love set in Sweden. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. Can you tell us about the special blog posts you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: We have some really, really good stuff coming this week. These posts will be Just heads up. If you go to our website directly from listening to this podcast on Monday when it is released, you will find the show notes, but through the rest of the week we’ll be sharing these posts.
Melissa: When we were in Stockholm, we went to the National Library of Sweden, which is a really cool library that’s open to the public with a really sweet café. Yes, but the thing that drove us to go to the library is a book called the Devil’s Bible. There will be a blog post about the Devil’s Bible on our blog very soon. It is a really cool story; It’s an amazing book.
David: The legend is that a monk wrote the Bible overnight to prevent the Devil from taking his soul.
Melissa: Yes. He illuminated an entire manuscript. It’s huge. The book itself is about a yard tall.
David: Yes, and it has a very memorable illustration of the devil in it.
Melissa: We’ll put a picture and show notes so that you can see it right now. But there will be a whole blog post about it soon. We’ve also got a Swedish meatballs recipe coming.
Melissa: Because you have to.
David: [laughing] It’s required.
Melissa: We will also have photos from our fika experience at the bakery. And there are many wonderful English-language bookshops in Stockholm, so we will share some photos and information about those. Stockholm is a really wonderful place for readers.
David: Stockholm is a lovely city in general. I found it really, really nice. I really liked the design of it, and it felt comfortable and chic and friendly.
Melissa: Not murdery.
David: Not as murdery as this podcast might lead you to believe.
David: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place. For more on Sweden, including the books we discussed today and more book recommendations and literary landmarks, visit our website at strongsenseofplace.com.
Melissa: I want to put in a plug for our free weekly newsletter. I write it every Friday that is a recap of what’s been happening on our blog, as well as a letter from me about what’s on my mind about books and travel and other good things that we love. The thing that’s really great about signing up for our newsletter is that it means you also get our free Reading Atlas, which is packed with beautiful travel photos and recommendations for books that will take you around the world, as well as audiobooks with a strong sense of place and some of our favorite book series. When you sign up for our newsletter, you get the Reading Atlas for free.
Melissa: Please also follow us on Instagram for photos and illustrations and short book reviews and other things we love. We are @strongsenseof.
David: If you enjoy the podcast, please rate it, and review it, and the most especially tell somebody.
Melissa: If you’ve already told someone else, thank you very much and thank you, too, for listening. This is our 10th episode. We’re so happy to have made it to the double digits.
David: It’s true. Hooray!
Melissa: We’re so glad to have you along with us.
David: Also, don’t forget to subscribe so you never miss an episode. Mel, where are we going on our next show?
Melissa: We’re getting curious about the tropical paradise and somewhat dicey historical background of Cuba.
David: Thanks so much for listening. We’ll talk to you then.
Top image courtesy of Liz Lawrence.
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