Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Final Moomin Tales

c1965; trans. by Thomas Warburton
And now we come to the book in this series that I found most unsettling. In this one, Moominpappa is going through a midlife crisis, and decides to move the whole family to an island he's seen on a map. He wants to take over the lighthouse on this island and live at the edge of the sea.

The core of this book is loneliness and anomie. It was almost frightening in the sense of isolation between characters and the comfortable settings of the previous books. It's like a long dark night of the soul for the Moomin universe. At least that's the sense I get from it.

Thankfully, Little My is in this one, quite happily exploring the strange island and living in the moment, fully herself as usual. Tough, cynical, practical, ironic, Little My is always fully herself. She exists; she does not have an existential crisis of any kind.

Each of the Moomins is trying to find a reason for living, a purpose of some kind. Moominpappa is restless and unhappy, Moominmamma tries to make everyone comfortable as best she can, and subdues her own longing to go home, back to her comfortable house and garden - until she discovers an unusual artistic talent. Moomintroll, meanwhile, makes himself a snuggery in a patch of scrub forest on this odd island where even the trees move away from unknown things in fear. And he encounters sea horses on the night beach, as well as the reappearance of The Groke, who has followed them there. It's an unsettling read, and one that I found many-layered, with multiple readings possible. It's complex and disturbing, and yet on another level, it's a kind of Swiss Family Robinson story that child readers might enjoy -- Jansson is always an astonishment. 

c1970; trans. by Thomas Warburton

This final entry into the Moomin series does not feature the Moomins at all; or at least, it features only their absence and influence, and their home in Moominvalley.

It follows various characters who arrive in Moominvalley expecting to find the Moomin family, and particularly the welcome of Moominmamma -- but nobody is there (because they are still all on the island in the sea). Is the comfortable Moomin world gone forever?

Snufkin, Fillyjonk, Mymble, Toft, Grandpa-Grumble & the Hemulen all gather in the Moomins house and try to make it their own, while waiting for the Moomins to show up -- from where or when they aren't sure.

They have to form their own social understandings - who is sleeping where, who is responsible for what in this unintentional community, how long they'll stay, and so forth. Each of them has their own reasons for coming to Moominvalley, and Jansson reveals each character through their behaviour. It's an interesting look at the various other occupants of Moominland, and an interesting structure: a Moomin book in which the Moomins never show up. Until there is a hint of a return in the spring....

Throughout a long dark winter, however, the six lonely characters must find a way to help one another without the cheer of the Moomins (perhaps reflective of a depressed, post-war Jansson). Thrown on their own devices they come to a sense of community and help one another grow and develop, to the point that if and when the Moomins return they can meet them on an equal level, not as supplicants for emotional support. 

It's another sophisticated story, full of different levels to explore. There are quiet mystical moments, parties, petty arguments, and a bit of introspection going on. Everything is off kilter in these last two books, but in the final pages of this one there seems to be a hope that normality and cheer will return. 

What a series! Finnish weirdness at its best, thoughtful, surreal, funny, dark... so much to explore. The skill with which Jansson both wrote and illustrated this whole series means it's something that can be read repeatedly, with new insights from the familiar characters each time. Highly recommended for adult readers; you'll have to judge for yourself if these books are something your children would like to read. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Moomin Short Stories

c1962; trans by Thomas Warburton
This collection of nine short stories is a lovely entry into this series.

It features a range of characters, all experiencing the kind of longings that Jansson draws so well. From Moominpappa going off with the Hattifatteners in The Secret of the Hattifatteners, to Snufkin being interrupted in his Spring-time song making by a little forest Creep who just wants a name of his own in The Spring Tune, to an anxious Fillyjonk who survives imaginary disasters daily in The Fillyjonk who Believed in Disasters, characters are looking for meaning. And they are often forced, in a way, to look after one another even if they hadn't planned on it in the first place. 

There is a lot of melancholy and a search for meaning in much of this book. But there is also dry wit, and humour -- there is Little My  dominating everyone in A Tale of Horror, and the Moomins experiencing (and trying to comprehend) their first Christmas when they unexpectedly awaken from their hibernation in The Fir Tree. The contrast between what the characters know and what the reader knows in these stories results in much amusement. 

The last story, The Invisible Child, was a straightforward story of a little girl who becomes invisible due to neglect and is restored to fully visible by the kindness and attention of the Moomins after she's dropped off at their house by Too Ticky. Once she's fully a visible and lively child again, she gives Little My a run for her sarcastic money. I really enjoyed this one for its satisfactory completeness, no loose ends or aching sadness here. And of course I do love anything with Little My in it! 

There are a couple of other stories in the book, also worth reading, with many of the same themes. One features Moomintroll himself, another a neighbouring Hemulen. Nearly everyone gets a look in here.

All in all, this is a quite philosophical look at many states of being, through the lens of Moominvalley characters. These are complex and thoughtful stories that appeal on many levels, so that children and adults can both read and engage with them in their own ways. Jansson is rather a genius in this way, and this collection is striking. 

Next up, the conclusion to my Moomin adventures. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Moomins in the Middle

These two Moomin stories right in the middle were the best ones, in my opinion, and the two that I most enjoyed and am most likely to reread often.

c1954; trans. Thomas Warburton
Perhaps this is because they both feel a bit lighter, and have a wider cast of characters. They feel funny and charming, and they both feature my favourite character in all of Moominvalley, Little My. 

In Moominsummer Madness, there is another pesky flood. The Moomins end up finding a temporary home in what turns out to be a floating theatre. There are mistaken assumptions, new friends, humour, and the best ever image of Little My floating down the river in Moominmamma's sewing basket. 

Alongside the Moomin family we follow the adventures of Snufkin, Little My, the Hattifatteners, the Fillyjonk, Hemulens, Mymble and more. We really get to see a wide variety of the characters Jansson created, and learn more of Snufkin's hatred of park keepers and his unexpected talent for babysitting. 

This one is so surreal and charming and such fun. It was the first Moomin book I read, as I own it in hardcover, and then reread as I was trying to follow the series order. I really enjoy this volume. 

c1957; trans. by Thomas Warburton
Moominland Midwinter is almost the exact opposite, both seasonally and structurally. It focuses on Moomintroll and Little My, the only two members of the family awake during the winter season -- Moomins hibernate, you see. Little My is her usual pugnacious self and throws herself into winter sports. Moomin wakes unexpectedly and experiences a cold and quiet time of year without his usual friends and relations (aside from Little My of course). There's the Groke, and the poor squirrel who encounters it; there's Too Ticky who is spending the winter in the Moomin's boathouse, and the creature who's living in her closet. And the Hemulen who skis over to Moominvalley and tries to organize jolly winter sports because that's what Hemulens do -- they are very extroverted and participatory. 

Poor Moomintroll must find his place in this strange winter land, and wonders if he should wake up Moominmamma or just go back to sleep himself. It's a new look at Moominvalley, and a very enchanting one at that. 

These two together make a satisfying and complementary read. I'd definitely recommend reading them together, and visiting Moominvalley in all seasons. 


In Moominsummer Madness, it's Snufkin who finds Little My in the river, and he tucks her into the brim of his large hat to travel along with him. From that vantage point, Little My makes her usual sarcastic and straightforward comments. It's one of their exchanges that inspired a wall quilt I made featuring Little My. You can tell I'm a fan. 

Saturday, March 09, 2019

More of the Moomins

c1948; trans. by Elizabeth Portch
This third book in the Moomin series, Finn Family Moomintroll, was the first one translated which sparked the Moomin madness that resulted in their level of popularity outside of Finland.

It's also cheerier and lighter, funnier and full of more characters than the first two. The cover shows many of the new characters who became recurring elements of the Moomin stories. 

In this one, Moomintroll & Sniff find a top hat in the hills and take it home. Unknown to them, it's the Hobgoblin's magical hat, and has mysterious properties that will change whatever is inside of it. 

Hijinks ensue. Until of course the sensible Moominmamma comes up with a solution that suits them all. 

I really loved this one. The mellow nature of the Moomin household comes through; they welcome everyone who shows up, in a matter of fact way. Even little Thingumy & Bob, who steal Moominmamma's handbag for a brief spell. The wonderful Snufkin appears here, and the story has so many calm, teachable moments among the episodic effects of the Hobgoblin's hat. It's a delight, and one I'd definitely share with young readers who like weirdness of this sort. 

c1950; trans. by Thomas Warburton
Book 4, The Memoirs of Moominpappa (also known as Moominpappa's Memoirs and The Exploits of Moominpappa) details the years before Moominpappa met Moominmamma. He tells his life story to his family and friends in chapters about his childhood and his youthful adventures with Joxter and The Muddler (who just happen to be Snufkin and Sniff's absent fathers).

I found this one slightly less effective as it's a lot of telling, and recollection by Moominpappa, amongst the daily adventures of the younger crowd. In the previous book, things were continually happening. In this one, there is a lot of listening going on. 

It's still amusing, and it gives a stronger background to all of the characters that play a role in these stories. The Moomin world is fleshed out a little more, and we find out about some unexpected connections. 

This one has more adult appeal than kid appeal in some ways -- a little more philosophical, a bit more idea driven. It's also charming in the best surreal Jansson way. 

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Discovering the Moomins

c1945; trans. by David McDuff
I've only discovered the Moomins as an adult; very recently in fact, when I read the entire series in ebook format at the end of last year. Tove Jansson was Finnish but wrote in Swedish, and these have all been translated, more than once. 

I've been utterly enchanted with them, and think I would have loved them as a child. Just my thing; weird, unpredictable, funny, melancholy, with nature, songs and friendships high in the mix. 

The Moomintrolls are a family of trolls who look vaguely hippo-ish: Moominmama, Moominpapa & little Moomintroll, whose family is the centre of a larger circle of characters in this odd little world. 

The Moomins & the Great Flood is the first book in the series; I found it a bit different from all that follow, in some key ways. First, it's very short in comparison, only 52 pages. Next, and more vitally, it's much more fantastic and dream-like than the following stories. It's a little fairy tale on its own; the Moomins' home is flooded in a great spring flood, with Moominpapa away with the Hattifatteners, a group of silent nomadic creatures. Moominmama and Moomintroll flee into a forest to escape and come across flower fairies, shadowy creatures, and dangerous serpents; they reach a safe house where an old man has a garden full of sweets but realize the false nature of this temporary security and keep moving. They sail across the sea in an armchair and finally find Moominpapa up a tree where he's escaped the flood, and together they settle into their new house in Moominvalley where they will live for much of the rest of the series.

You can tell from this that it's a plot-filled short novel, with dream like logic and magical coincidences. It's slightly creepy in the best way, and is quite unsettling. It was also the last of the 9 Moomin books to be translated into English and is apparently considered to be more of a 'prequel' than the start of the series. It was weird and wonderful in a very Finnish way. 

c1946; trans. by Elizabeth Portch
As to the next book, it starts the series proper. Many of the recurring characters are introduced in Comet in Moominland. And still in this one, the world is unpredictable and unsafe -- young Moomin and his friend Sniff travel at great length to an observatory in the mountains to get the truth of an ominous prediction about the arrival of a comet that is going to land right in Moominvalley and destroy everything. It's a Frodo & Sam kind of journey with perils and encounters with new creatures along the way. In the end, the comet does not destroy Moominvalley (though it does in the comic book version of this tale) and the family is restored, along with their friends, to safety. 

The tone of the book is dark, with the looming destruction of their comfortable world in the forefront. The characters' roles seem reversed, with the children going on a journey to find out what is happening and the parents at home seemingly not taking things as seriously. 

I've read that both of these books were written in wartime and reflect the uncertainties and terror of the war years, along with Jansson's own resultant depression. I only found this out after reading the whole series, but it really makes sense, as these two are definitely the most unsettling of the series (although I'd make an argument that the eighth book in the series was more terrifying to me as an example of an existential crisis). Reading them as an adult is perhaps more of an intellectual experience, with the implications of political and social thought in its context standing out for the reader. As a child, I think I'd have been more likely to simply engage with the characters and the fantastical events for themselves, and fully enter this imaginary world. 

But I really, really liked this whole set of books -- some particular titles more than others but as a whole they are quite wonderful. I only wish I'd discovered them sooner. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

The Sculptor's Daughter

The Sculptor's Daughter / Tove Jansson; translated from the Swedish by Kingsley Hart
New York : William Morrow, 2014, c1969
192 p.

I read this charming memoir at Christmas, which was suitable because it's so dreamy -- I think looking back at childhood suits the nostalgic nature of the season. Also because this book ends with a chapter about Christmas in Tove Jansson's home (also her parents' studio), featuring a large Christmas tree & an unusual celebration of the season.

I dipped into it again recently so I could share it, and it is just as fascinating on a second look. Tove Jansson (probably best known for the Moomins) was an interesting woman. A visual artist and a writer, she was a Swedish speaking Finn, and lived with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä for over 30 years. 

In this short memoir, she shares memories from her young childhood in short, discrete chapters. Each one shares a moment told in the perspective of a child -- they are startling and dreamy, unexpected and strange. Her imagination turns a carpet into a rolling sea, a small grove into a chapel, and more. 

There is also a lot about her upbringing in a family of artists and nonconformist types. Her father was a sculptor and her mother a successful graphic designer who among other things designed bank notes and stamps for the government. And her mother supported the family financially through this work. Tove's parents both hoped for their children to also become artists and supported their creative explorations with freedom to wander, think, and make as children. This tendency comes through strongly when you read the Moomin stories, where the family is a strong unit but everyone can do their own thing as they wish to. 

Reading this is fascinating because Jansson's voice is so particular. She is able to create a vivid setting in just a few words, and is able to convey the felt experience of childhood in these essays, not just recalling them but re-experiencing them. The 'aliveness' in them is arresting. 

If you have any interest in Tove Jansson, or in shared childhood stories, this is definitely one you'll want to read. It's a life that is so different from modern childhood, but one that seems universally appealing. I really liked it. 

Friday, March 01, 2019

12th Annual CanBook Challenge: March Roundup

Update: I have switched back to the old InLinkz system for the moment -- it is no longer supported but should still work for us to gather up a few links for our challenge for this month! So link away!