It has been exactly one month since I reported that I had enrolled in a class at Stanford University on Nordic crime fiction, both written and filmed. At that time I reviewed The Terrorists by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahoo. Since then, our class has read Firewall by Henning Mankell, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, and Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. I promised you reviews of these books.
I, however, have not read these books.
That’s not exactly true: I read Larssen’s Millennium Trilogy back when they first came out and enjoyed them very much. By and large, however, this immersion into Scandinavian literature and, by extension, its culture, has not gone according to plan.
For one thing, we have focused the first three weeks on Sweden, which appears to be one screwed up country. The sort-of-failed experiment in social democracy, the corruption of all government services, the complicity with Axis forces in World War II that haunts the country to this day, and the psychological ramifications of living in a country where it’s always dark and/or snowy . . . just hanging around a classroom talking about it gets depressing. It seems that everyone’s neighbor is either a Nazi, a slayer of prostitutes a pedophile, or a drunk; in many cases, one’s best friend is a combination of two or more of the above. If I meet one more detective who is “sad-faced” or who has a terrible relationship with his grown children, all of whom are “sad-faced,” jag kommer att slå någon med en spade och sedan bli full på aquavit (”I will hit somebody with a shovel and then go get drunk on aquavit.”)
This week, I was therefore excited to leave Sweden behind and turn to Denmark – which evidently vies with Norway and Disneyland for the title of “Happiest Place on Earth” – when we began Smilla’s Sense of Snow. But look at this cover! This is exactly how the book feels:
Here we have yet another snarky female protagonist who is probably on the spectrum (hello, Lisbeth Salander). The novel begins with the funeral of a murdered six-year-old Inuit boy in the freezing snow in a nasty housing block in Copenhagen. Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen! It moves eventually to Greenland and to a sci-fi like conspiracy involving a fallen meterorite and killer parasite worms. Fun times! This is not what I signed up for.
Except, as it turns out, this is exactly what I signed up for.
I knew that switching to a new sub-genre of mystery might be problematical, yet I hoped that 1) I would find much – or, at least, something – to enjoy; and 2) I would meet other mystery lovers with whom I could share good conversation, a cup of coffee and a sly, “Let’s get outta here and go talk about Christie!” I even wore my And Then There Were None t-shirt to the first class and was immediately labeled a subversive by our instructor, a lovely doctor of languages who is of Swedish heritage herself and keeps asking hopefully how many of the students have Scandinavian blood in them. (The most I can offer is the memory of a cheese Danish I ate seven years ago before I turned gluten free.) Most of the students are in their 70’s or older, including my instructor, who is perfectly lovely but a little scattered. She goes off on tangents – some of them more interesting than the book at hand – and she reminds me of my mother in her relationship to technology. There’s a DVD system installed in the classroom, which she simply cannot get to work correctly. At the start of each class, I arrive to find a student technician standing at the front with our instructor, instructing her on how to use the machine. But it never seems to go according to plan. And so last week she let us out early. I found myself warring with the impulse to complain about a shortened class that I had paid good money for and the desire to kick up my heels and sing “Free Again” as I dashed to my car.
Now, halfway through the course, I have decided to re-align my options. I have read as many synopses of Smilla as I can find and am heading to my mom’s to watch the movie on Amazon Prime. I think I’ll skip the Nesbo on the list (The Bat) and concentrate on trying to read Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess. Lackberg has been crowned “the Swedish Agatha Christie.” Already I can tell that this is a boldfaced lie! The novel begins with the discovery of a woman’s body frozen solid in her bathtub. Does nobody use heat in Sweden? Right now, I am so grateful to live in California – expensive as hell and prone to earthquakes – and to be able to count the number of days I have seen snow on one hand. I assume before I start that the “Ice Princess” was murdered in her bath either by her own father, who has lusted after her ever since she was a babe, when he hung up his Reichstag uniform for the last time, or by the kindly neighbor down the road who has loved her since childhood . . . and who has dressed up all the dead prostitutes he has stuffed in his basement to look just like her. Please, don’t tell me if I’m right! I want to be surprised!
The problem with my plan is that I feel like such a cheat. Here I am, a teacher of almost thirty years, and I’m balking at doing my homework. And my reaction to this class is even seeping into my real life. For example, this is the year I am being evaluated under a new system that is so labor-intensive for the teacher that I’m not gong to be able to finish what I’m required to do. Everything is due on Monday!! I didn’t procrastinate – exactly – but I didn’t get the last two cycles done, and I have to deal with the fact that this means my grade will get lowered. And we all know where that leads:
How many of you, like me, needed to get an A? I always felt a desire to be among the best, and since I couldn’t accomplish that on the stage or in the athletic arena, I tried to be a fantastic student. Nowadays, I see my students grubbing mightily for grades. One boy came into my office a few weeks ago and railed against his puny B+. I mean, it’s almost an A-, and he’s almost certain to end up with a final A, but at the moment, a B+ was what he certainly deserved – in fact, I think I was a little generous. He put forth a series of arguments that would have done Perry Mason proud – God! I wish I was taking a course on Erle Stanley Gardner right now – but to no avail. And the thing is, I felt for the kid, even if I never had his nerve. In my day, we did not advocate so fiercely to our teacher’s face for every extra point. I remember how guilty I felt in my first university English class when I approached the professor with my midterm in trembling hands and notified her that she had added up the points wrong. I felt terrible bothering her, but as it turned out, I needed every point I could muster to pass her class!!! I always felt that the report card was the ultimate judgment: to my parents, who paid taxes so I could receive this education, to my own fragile sense of self-worth, and ultimately to my maker who would judge me when I got to the gates of Heaven. (“I’m so sorry, Bradley, but I see here that you received a C+ in 10th grade trigonometry . . . You are consigned to hell.”)
As I gear up to begin my final spurt of time as a public school teacher – four more years, I believe; one final high school cycle – I’m trying to teach myself to care a little bit less about the grade. So I get a “just okay” on my evaluation. My administrator is a great guy, we work closely together, and he knows how hard I work on the stuff that matters: the curriculum, the after-school play program, my duties as a department chair and teacher-leader at our school. Maybe he will take that into account when he sums up my year in his evaluation. Maybe he will have to go strictly by the book. I don’t envy him because I have to figure those things out every day. We will meet on Wednesday, and I promise you I will not take the tack with him that my student took with me. We’ll roll the dice and let ‘em lay . . .
As for my Nordic crimes class? Well, it’s always more enjoyable when you’ve done the reading. So my punishment will be feeling a bit more lost at every lecture. Hopefully, I’ll finish The Ice Princess in time and have something to say about that. In order to actually receive course credit, we need to submit a five-page paper on any Nordic crime novel that is not on our current list. Oh boy, extra reading! If I have time, I can write about the sequels to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If not, well . . . it was an experience, and it taught me something about what I don’t like!
I am trying to go easy on myself, even though the guilt is surrounding me as I write this. The final month of the school year starts Monday, and I’m feeling the same senioritis as the students who are about to graduate. It also doesn’t help – and here my GAD friends will probably understand – that there is a stack of books on my shelf waiting to be read that include several by John Dickson Carr, Norman Berrow, Patrick Quentin, Helen McCloy, Hake Talbot and many more. With over three dozen GAD novels on my TBR, I fear the likes of Henning Menkell and Jo Nesbo are, to say the least, främmande (translation: extraneous), They are about to be consigned to a used book bin somewhere. I’m sure that, as he shortchanges me, the bookseller will remark on how fresh and new the books appear to be.
That’s all I have to say on the subject. Don’t judge me too harshly. Tack för att du lyssnar.*
*Thank you for listening.