A few days ago I did something I haven’t done in a long time. I gathered a stack of books and set it by the bed, there to better reach the different titles as I pursue a plan to read more for pleasure over the next several months. In the stack are a number of books I’ve brought back from Latvia in recent years but just haven’t made the time to read, as well as some favorites and classics I’d like to visit again—or perhaps for the first time.
I’m a slow reader, so I may not make it through the entire stack before autumn arrives. While others tear through books, I often find myself chewing on well-crafted sentences or dialogue. I used to hate that I couldn’t get through a book as fast as someone else, but I’ve found an inner peace knowing that the author probably didn’t tear through the process of writing, either. He or she deserves the respect of a slow reader, I tell myself.
I’ve already made it through one book, Monika Zīle’s Tase ar hibiska ziedu (A Cup of Hibiscus Blossom). Published in 2000 by Jumava, it’s essentially a crime novel that centers on a young couple, Ērika and Daumants Jukna, who have to navigate the disappearance of Ērika’s brother-in-law, the arrival of a long-lost relative from New Zealand and the general goings-on of a small seaside community. It was the first of Zīle’s works I’ve read, but I’m not sure I’ll be looking for more. While Tase served to enhance my vocabulary, the story unwound too quickly for my taste.
Crime novels have become an indulgence for me, especially non-American crime novels. Over the years, I’ve become a fan of Janwillem van de Wetering’s series of Dutch crime stories about detectives Henk Grijpstra and Rinus de Gier (published by New York-based Soho Press, the same folks who put out Latvian-American author Agate Nesaule’s memoir A Woman in Amber), as well as Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s series of novels set in Stockholm. To this list I’ve added the krimiķi of Latvian author Jānis Ivars Stradiņš.
Stradiņš consistently uses two characters, Valts Kronbergs and Roberts Štāls. The latter is Dr. Watson to the former’s Sherlock Holmes. I first encountered Stradiņš’ work in Austrumu bankas miljoni (The Eastern Bank’s Millions), a 1995 tale that at the time seemed to plod along. But after the real-life collapse of Banka Baltija and the swirl of news about troubles in Latvia’s financial sector, a fresh look at the book got me hooked. Over the years, I’ve added a number of Stradiņš titles to my bookshelves. In the stack for summer reading is Viltus lieta (The Deceit), published in 2002. I might also re-read another of his novels, Mežvidu velns (The Devil of Mežvidi), published in 2001.
Also on the list is Daigās rotaļas, a collection of short stories and novellas by the Latvian-Canadian author Eduards Freimanis. Published in 1961, the author presented the book to me in 1983. It’s been too long since I read his touching words.
The biggest book in the stack is Uguns avoti (The Sources of Fire), a classic by Ģirts Salnais about life in Rīga during the early 1930s. I’ve never read anything by Salnais and am looking forward to this book. Uguns avoti was published in Latvia in 2001, but my copy is the one published in 1955 by the Daugava publishing house in Sweden. I chuckled at the publisher’s note at the end of the book, which apologizes to readers for the fact that the last sections are printed on a slightly different tone of paper. Neither the publisher nor the author, the note explains, had figured on the book being so big—714 pages!
Not everything in the stack is fiction. Two titles touch on one of my favorite subjects: history. Ronis – Mana būdiņa un pils (The Ronis: My Shack and Castle) is the life story of Hugo Legzdiņš, who served on one of Latvia’s two pre-World War II submarines. Yes, Latvia had submarines! Born in 1903, Legzdiņš began his career as the radio man for the Ronis and was its last commander. When the Soviets occupied Latvia, they relieved Legzdiņš of duty and destroyed the sub. The book was published in 2002.
The other historical work is another memoir. Tēva gadsimts (My Father’s Century), published in 2001 by Uldis Lasmanis, is the story of his father, Voldemārs Lasmanis, who lived from 1904-1991. What interests me about this work is that the Lasmanis family lived in Sunākste in south-central Latvia, the same area my father’s family is from.
A few other books are in the stack, but the one I’ve just started reading is not by a Latvian author. It’s Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, a 2003 novel about immigrant life in the United States. As the promotional copy on the dust jacket proclaims, the story “takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans.” Although it’s not about Latvians, The Namesake reinforces some of the universal themes of migration and assimilation, as well as of the human struggle to define oneself.
Time to stop writing. My stack awaits.
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