The Summer Book

by Tove Jansson

Other authorsKathryn Davis (Introduction), Thomas Teal (Translator)
Paperback, 2008

Call number




NYRB Classics (2008), Edition: Later Printing, 184 pages


"This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia's grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland."--Publisher's description.

Media reviews

In Why Read the Classics, Italo Calvino defines a classic as "any book that comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans". He indicates how a classic book reduces the noise of the contemporary world to a background hum when we read it, and conversely is always
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itself there in the background "even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway". The Summer Book is a world apart. It is very good to have it.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member labfs39
What a delightful little book! In a series of short vignettes, the relationship between six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother is slowly uncovered with all its quirky, lovable details. Sophia is by turns precocious, imperious, frightened, and maternal, while her grandmother swings between the
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wisdom and the childishness of the very old. Together they explore the small island that is their home for the summer, shared only with nature and, very peripherally, Sophia's father. Together Sophia and her grandmother build secret hideaways and a miniature Venice, write the definitive book on bugs, concoct life-saving remedies, and trespass on a newcomer's island. Sophia learns about life and love in the dappled light, while her grandmother considers her own mortality. The stories are an ode to life and to the natural beauty of the islands in the Gulf of Finland, where the author spent much of her own life. Don't expect life-changing insights or a gripping plot, but rather the quiet joy of summer and childhood and a life well-lived.
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LibraryThing member kvanuska
Are the best books the simplest one? Lately those seem the books that are striking all the right chords with me. The Summer Book is not filled with any obvious mysteries or dramas, and there are only three characters that matter -- a six-year old girl named Sophia, her grandmother, and the tiny
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island in the Gulf of Finland where they summer; Sophia's father is but a hard-working shadow with only a story about his near-mythic bathrobe to coax him out of the plot for a bit. I fear that if this book had been taken in hand by a publicist it would've been marketed as a collection of stories (shudder). Yes, each chapter could be slipped from the novel and read alone, but the book's gossamer thread of theme -- life unwinding itself towards death -- would have been severed.

One tiny sentence brings Sophia and her path on that thread into focus: "Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead." Rather than writing off her amazing mix of fear and bravado, rage and compassion, as the vagaries of a six-year old, we must look at her through the prism of this one simple, perfectly wrought sentence.

Then we meet her grandmother in a moment typical of this entire novel, a moment that dances on the edge of humor and sadness:

"Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rain forest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.
'What are you doing?' asked little Sophia.
'Nothing,' her grandmother answered. 'That is to say,' she added angrily, 'I'm looking for my false teeth.'
The child came down from the veranda. 'Where did you lose them?' she asked.
'Here,' said her grandmother. 'I was standing right there and they fell somewhere in the peonies.' They looked together.

The love story between these two women and their island has all the hope, humor, despair, loss and light that anyone could ever hope to find in a novel. Find this book. Read it. And love it because it deserves all the love we can give.
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LibraryThing member scohva
A book about the relationships between the young and the old and humans and nature - it consists of vignettes that take place on an island in the Gulf of Finland where a young girl, her father, and grandmother spend their summers. I liked this book more and more with each story and really began to
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get a feel for their way of life on the island. It's one of those books that would probably be even better read in an appropriate setting, some small island somewhere or some place in Scandinavia in the summer.
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LibraryThing member Jannes
The kind of book that awakes a vague yearning within you. A love letter to the finnish arcipelago, yes, but also to that strange sense of friendship and understanding that sometime transcends age and generational gaps.

ou think it would be sentimental, this story about childhood and summer and
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aging, but it's really not. It's poetic, intoxicating and ever so slightly bittersweet. One of the most wonderful things I've ever read.
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LibraryThing member isabelx
Grandmother sat in the magic forest and carved outlandish animals. She cut them from branches and driftwood and gave them paws and faces, but she only hinted at what they looked like and never made them too distinct. They retained their wooden souls, and the curve of their backs and legs had the
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enigmatic shape of growth itself and remained a part of the decaying forest

A book about the relationship between a little girl called Sophia and her grandmother (based on the author's mother and niece), during the endless summers spent on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. It's a very relaxed existence, pottering about, swimming, making model cities, sailing to the mainland to pick up supplies and visiting other islands in the archipelago, although the grandmother is increasingly old and frail, and relies on her stick to get about.

Redolent of long hot summers, this was the perfect book to read on the final days of my summer holiday.
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LibraryThing member Copperskye
A charming little book!

The main action in The Summer Book happens before the start of the story and is mentioned just once and described in a single sentence on page 9.

“Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was
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It’s that death that sets the tone and helps the reader understand the characters, especially Sophia. Not that it’s a sad book, but it helps to know that this little girl is struggling with a huge loss. Sophia spends the summer on a small, isolated island in the Gulf of Finland with her Grandmother and father and the book is really a series of vignettes about their day to day lives. My favorite was 'Of Angleworms and Others' which I found especially poignant.

This is a slow and languid book that should not be rushed but rather savored and enjoyed in the shade on a hot summer day.
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LibraryThing member detailmuse
One evening, Sophia wrote a letter and stuck it under [her grandmother’s] door. It said, “I hate you. With warm personal wishes, Sophia.”

This gentle novella is presented as vignettes about a petulant six-year-old girl and her grandmother as they reel from a trauma that goes nearly
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unmentioned. Set over the summer (one or many, it’s unclear) on an isolated island off the coast of Finland, I felt immersed in the subtext of nature -- island and water and weather -- and promptly added Jansson’s A Winter Book to my wishlist.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Through a series of vignettes, Tove Jansson evokes summer on a tiny island off the coast of Finland. Sophia—an earnest but tempestuous little girl—spends her summers with her grandmother and her father. Her mother is dead, and one of the first questions she puts to her grandmother is, “When
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are you going to die?” Grandmother is wise and wily and immensely patient, but equally wilful as her young charge. Sophia is as quick to anger as the summer storms and just as quick to see that anger dissipate. With her grandmother she struggles with friendship, love, and ever-present fear.

Sophia’s father is a silent presence working at his desk or gardening or placing the fishing nets, but he does not speak. The focus is entirely on Sophia and her grandmother.

I am fascinated by what Jansson is able to accomplish with her simple, concrete, but thoughtful prose. At one point the grandmother admonishes a visitor, “Stop talking in symbols…why do you use so many euphemisms and metaphors? Are you afraid?” Certainly Jansson is unafraid to face head on the anguish of loss and impending loss. She follows the solution that Sophia and her grandmother arrive at on many occasions, which is to invent stories that incorporate the people and events confronting them, rendering them manageable. “It was a particularly good evening to begin a book,” notes the narrator, and I think you will agree when you take up this one. Certainly recommended.
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LibraryThing member CarltonC
Much more a collection of connected short stories rather than a novel, this is a delightful book with some beautiful vignettes of a grandmother and granddaughter and their changing relationship. The book is set mainly on a small island in the Gulf of Finland and many stories have a strong sense of
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place. Some stories work well to create a feeling or mood well, such as 'The Road' or 'Sophia's Storm', others are poignant without being sentimental about the experience of getting old.
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LibraryThing member kwohlrob
You have to applaud simplicity in writing. It is the hardest thing for a writer to achieve. That sense of keeping the book ‘small’ for lack of a better term, honing the story down to the barest strokes on the canvas. I always thought Hemingway did it beautifully with The Old Man and the Sea.
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Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson is another great ‘small’ book that draws you in with its perfectly simple prose and contstruction.

In many ways, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is closer to the latter. It is a series of vignettes, rather than flowing narrative. It almost reads like a short story collection with all of the vignettes focusing on young Sophia and her grandmother, de facto stand-ins for the writer herself. At the time of writing, Jansson was a in her sixties, a grandmother, but also had recently lost her own mother (which happens to Sophia at the start of the book). It is this great understanding of both characters that allows her to imbue them with such life. Sophia is a precocious child, prone to fits and bouts of crying, and yet, can switch to being serene and adult. The Grandmother on the other hand is loving and accommodating, constantly nurturing Sophia in her adventures, but then swings into bouts of adolescent anger and bad behavior. The wonderful scene where she breaks into a neighbor’s house is a great example.

“In the middle of the gravel was a large sign with black letters that said PRIVATE PROPERTY—NO TRESPASSING.

‘We’ll go ashore,’ Grandmother said. She was very angry. Sophia looked frightened. ‘There’s a big difference,’ her grandmother explained. ‘No well-bred person goes ashore on someone else’s island when there’s no one home. But if they put up a sign, then you do it anyway, because it’s a slap in the face.’

‘Naturally,’ Sophia said, increasing her knowledge of life considerably.’

‘What we are now doing,’ Grandmother said, ‘is a demonstration. We are showing our disapproval. Do you understand?’

‘A demonstration,’ her grandchild repeated, adding, loyally, ‘This will never make a good harbor.’”

The interaction between the two is often hilarious and at other times really touching. They constantly swap roles, as in that scene from “The Neighbors,” where the grandmother can’t help but behave childishly while Sophia grows instantly into an adult. Writing from her advanced age, Jansson is able to look back at the two sides of herself and imbue a sort of rough love between them.

What truly grabs you about The Summer Book, strong characters aside, is its sense of place. It is a book of and about Scandinavian life on a tiny island in the Finnish archipelago. In her introduction, Kathryn Davis describes the book’s “unusual point of view, which hovers above and around the island and seems not so much to move from grandmother to granddaughter as to share them.” It’s imbued with the air, soil, and water of the small archipelago island where the stories are set. It has that contemplation and patience that one finds in Swedes, Norwegians, and Fins. Jansson gives you that sense of awe when viewing the landscape. You can feel yourself amongst the marshes, bilberry bushes, Rosa Rugosa, polished stones on the beaches, wet grass, and dense forests. You can feel yourself floating around in the small boats and feel the wind and rain on your face. You can see the long slow sunsets that last until after 10 pm. In many ways, the characters are small compared to the natural surroundings they walk through. It is a very Scandinavian appreciation of nature and while reading it you get a sense of walking through one of Carl Larsson’s watercolors.

While not all of the vignettes in The Summer Book are solid, “Berenice” and “Dead Calm” fall a little flat, the rest more than make make up for the duds. Some are quite funny, such as “The Neighbor,” “Of Angelworms and Others,” and “The Cat.” Others have a wonderful sense of sadness such as “Midsummer” or the closing “August.”

“Every year, the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade away without anyone’s noticing. One evening in August you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sudden it’s pitch-black. A great warm, dark silence surrounds the house. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive.”

As you keep reading the vignettes in The Summer Book, you always feel yourself there, walking along with Sophia and her grandmother, or floating in the boat, soaking up the atmosphere of the tiny little island in the Finnish Archipelago. It has that same quality that all great paintings from Scandinavian painters have, whether it be Munch or Larsson or Zorn, to instantly give you a sense of that northern lit sky and the serenity of the landscape beneath it.
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LibraryThing member richardderus
Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In The Summer Book Tove Jansson distills the essence of the summer—its sunlight and storms—into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing
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the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship, build boats from bark, create a miniature Venice, write a fanciful study of local bugs. They discuss things that matter to young and old alike: life, death, the nature of God and of love. “On an island,” thinks the grandmother, “everything is complete.” In The Summer Book, Jansson creates her own complete world, full of the varied joys and sorrows of life.

Tove Jansson, whose Moomintroll comic strip and books brought her international acclaim, lived for much of her life on an island like the one described in The Summer Book, and the work can be enjoyed as her closely observed journal of the sounds, sights, and feel of a summer spent in intimate contact with the natural world.

The Summer Book is translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

My Review: I am a person who likes quiet. My home environment, when I'm able to force my will on my roommate, is free of audio pollution like TV and radio. Perhaps in compensation, I love spy stories and space-war epics and historical novels with battles, explosions, near misses with the main character dangling from rooftops...the very essence of un-quiet.

The Summer Book is, in contrast, the quietest reading imaginable. Yes, there are island will experience a lot of those...there are misfit neighbors in ugly houses, and all of it is so much the proper order of things that they fail to create fear in the reader. The two or three hours you'll spend with this family as its members learn to grow, learn to let go, and simply earn their living won't be wasted.

I'd strongly suggest this as a midafternoon sunny-day read, or the quiet and the rightness of story and style will lull the tense, stressed, relaxation-deprived modern person into a deep, satisfying sleep.
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LibraryThing member janeajones
Jansson's writing is limpid, luminous and quietly exhilarating. The Summer Book is her acclaimed novel about the relationship between an aging grandmother and her young, motherless granddaughter as they summer on a remote Finnish island. Their interaction is simple, straightforward, and not
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in-the-least mawkish. But it's in the subtlety of their conversation that Jansson reveals her pre-occupations with discovery, creativity and aging.

"Later, Grandmother remarked on the curious fact that wild animals, cats for example, cannot understand the difference between a rat and a bird.

'Then they're dumb!' said Sophia curtly. 'Rats are hideous, and birds are nice. I don't think I'll talk to Moppy for three days.' And she stopped talking to her cat....

'You know what?' Sophia said. 'I wish Moppy had never been born. Or else that I'd never been born. That would have been better.'

'So you're still not speaking to each other?' Grandmother asked.

'Not a word,' Sophia said. 'I don't know what to do. And if I do forgive him -- what fun is that when he doesn't even care?' Grandmother couldn't think of anything to say."
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LibraryThing member danlai
I really didn't want this book to end, and that is probably the best thing I could say in a review, right? Might as well end this review here!

Spoilers, maybe. It might just be best to read this book blind and let the events develop as gracefully as they do in the book. But for those who want some
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more information, I'll tell the gist here: This book is a series of vignettes starring a grandmother and her granddaughter who are living on their isolated summer island. The novel is a quiet one. I barely even noticed that I cared a lot for these characters until it was almost over. The granddaughter has lost her mother, and in her absence the granddaughter's relationship with her grandmother is growing and strengthening. However, the grandmother is sick, and is getting worse. It's very clear this support system won't last; like summer, it is fading.

It's a great book.
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LibraryThing member Cecilturtle
I absolutely loved this series of vignettes about life on a remote island. With a vegetation and solitude reminiscent of Canadian cottages, it conjured all sorts of my own summers around the lakes of Ontario. The friendship between Grandmother and granddaughter is delightful, each looking after the
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other, bickering, playing and creating their own little universe so much so that the absence of a mother and shadow of a father is hardly noticeable.
This is definitely a book that I will reread with my family.
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LibraryThing member ed.pendragon
This is just the most perfect book; so perfect that I can scarcely bear to discuss it for fear of spoiling it. But I shall try; if at times I appear to be threading my way lightly round and through it, it's because I fear my clumsy tread will destroy its sublime delicacy.

The Summer Book
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(Sommarboken in the original Swedish) is a lightly fictionalised account of a couple or so summers spent by Tove Jansson's mother and six-year-old niece on a small island in the Gulf of Finland (that's the stretch of water leading towards St Petersburg). Nothing much appears to happen and yet it's so detailed you live every vicarious moment of every incident. Though Sophia's father is occasionally in the background this is essentially a portrait of a grandmother and granddaughter's relationship.

They squabble, they play games; they have deep philosophical discussions and have adventures. They explore theirs and other islands, they weather storms, interact with neighbours and range widely through the terrain of their imaginations. Short chapters with captivating titles -- 'Playing Venice', 'The Magic Forest', 'The Enormous Plastic Sausage' or 'The Crooks', for instance -- are so exquisite that a sensitive reader can only read one or at most two at a time, the better to savour and appreciate and ruminate on them. Little happens, but what does assumes great significance.

Running through it all is the sacred bond and unspoken love between grandchild and grandparent, one embarking on life, the other close to departing it; and yet there is nothing mawkish or melancholy about the to-and-fro between the pair of them, just the reality of an eternal present. Representatives of a wonderfully creative bohemian family, Signe and Sophia are the epitome of vivacity even when appearing to do nothing, simply because of the insights we get into their lively imaginations.

In actual life Signe had died aged 88 in 1970, and The Summer Book is both a portrait of and a memorial to Tove's mother in the final years of her life. Despite creaking bones, perpetual tiredness and occasional irritability Signe's brain retains a youthfulness that in part comes from interaction with a curious six-year-old, a child who swears, cries and imparts nuggets of wisdom in equal parts.

I've focused on a relationship but we mustn't forget the eternal draw of the island, a microcosm of the world we live in, both insulating and isolating, where we can go to both lose and find ourselves. The minute observations of nature, of the changes in the season, of the constant adaptations required to survive in an island situation are all brought out with subtlety and sensitivity.

Esther Freud's foreword (to be also read as an afterword, I would suggest) beautifully echoes the allure of this book: when she declares that she would need "a whole summer to discover everything there is to do" she could also be suggesting that we'd need multiple re-readings -- and then some -- to discover all that this book has to offer.

But then, that's the joy of perfection.
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LibraryThing member Helenliz
This is quite lovely, in its own quiet little way. Don;t expect plot or progression, there isn;t any. It is simply a set of incidents that take place on a little island, occuplied by Sophia, Papa and Grandmother. Sophia and Grandmother spend quite a lot of time together over this one summer,
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exploring the islan, exploring what it is to be 6 and old, from two very different perspectives. There are things that happen, there is weather and the plants grow, and nothing much takes place. And yet it is lyrically beautiful. As it progresses you come to realise that it is a love song to Grandmother and all she stands for. This is was written after the author's mother, Grandmother, had passed away and it serves as a means of importalising this lovely woman in words that roll around on the page and bring her to life. It turns out to be quite beautiful and life affirming
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LibraryThing member myrie
complete poetic summer magic!! a dreamy but yet realistic book full of deep shit, but most of all this is a very pretty poetic book that makes you sincerely happy and warm (and full of wild anarchistic joy) and summerfantasies. the two anarkists-de-vivre grandma and her 6-(8?)yearold grandchild on
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an isolated rugged summer island in the Finnish Archipelago. They make up adventures, are philosophing, practises braveness in lazy summerdays and tries to just handle each other and life like every human has to do, handle with others and their love, life, plus their respective headstrong tempers in the mellow but yet wild, midnightsun-serene but rugged Finnish Archipelago. in a very unique, beautiful, stubborn poetic and fun tone. a pure delight, and very magic and dreamy in a non-boring, a bit harsch, and realistic way. very seize-the-day but not in a quasi-philosophic selfhelpbook way, more like a harsch hemingway if he was more romantic, cooler, smarter, didn´t have any complex and was more fun and quirky :P. okey, maybe it´s not deep in a hemingway way, more like a fairytale way. but, try it in the summernights! very summerish!! very dreamy/realistic, slowpaced and poetic! still easy to read.

"The novel reads like looking through clear water and seeing, suddenly, the depth." as the Guardian review says;

(btw, I like the pink covers best. that´s exactly how the Finnish summer archipelago looks like.)
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LibraryThing member debnance
A grandmother and her young granddaughter come to stay on an island for the summer. The mother of the granddaughter, we soon learn, has recently died. Jansson is too good of a writer to let the story circle around and around that, but the mother’s death lies quietly at the heart of the book. The
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real focus is the beautiful way the grandmother and granddaughter grow closer and closer. Jansson is a master and this book is a deserved classic.
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LibraryThing member marilynsantiago
Swedish woman, born in Finland. Writing about a generic island. Illustrations in this copy
LibraryThing member karensaville
I loved the sound of this book and couldn't wait to read it. It is really a collection of very short stories about a young girl and her elderly grandmother as they share life together during the summers on a very small private island in Finland. It doesn't flow as a novel although I preferred it to
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be portrayed as one rather than a book of short stories. Their life is a very simple one based around the weather and the joys of nature. The island is much smaller than I had envisaged when I purchaed the book so not many 'adventures' could be had apart from what they created from their imaginations. I liked the chapter when Sophe had a friend to stay and how she didn't like it at all. I didn't enjoy it as much as the rave reviews made me expect but will probably read it again. Read Jan11
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LibraryThing member kgib
I thought it would be a sweet grandmother and child observing nature... it was much better than that. Not sweet at all, but calming. I like how each chapter ended with a sentence that brought everything in the chapter together, but not a lesson. The grandmother and the child just got added to the
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list of my favourite characters in fiction.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
This is incredibly relaxing.

These short stories detail a slow and peaceful island life, long summer days, grandmother and granddaughter. Detailed peace and the build-up of life moments. A painting built up from colored daubs. Reminds me of Studio Ghibli movies.
LibraryThing member Michael.Rimmer
It's a long time since I sat down with a book and read it from cover-to-cover, but (apart from a necessary overnight sleep) that's what I did with The Summer Book.

It's a book of small incidents and and close intimacies between a young girl, Sophia, and her grandmother, who spend their summer months
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together on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. Even when the occasional large-scale event intrudes, such as the storm that Sophia prays for and then regrets, the focus is on the interplay between the child and her grandmother.

I like it that both characters are given equal voice, the point of view flowing gently from one to the other. Papa is with them, a loved and often worried-over figure, but he's usually "off-stage".

It's clear that the events of several summers are narrated in the course of the story, but there is little to indicate any growth in the relationship between the two - their attitudes towards each other are basically the same at the end as at the beginning: the child alternately loving and hating her grandmother and taking her presence for granted - she had never given thought to the fact that Grandmother must once have been married and that there was a Grandfather at some time in the past; Grandmother nurturing and cherishing the child, while finding her demands a nuisance and throwing petulant fits as unreasonable as those of the child's. The constancy of their relationship is a reflection of the endless summer days of the high latitudes. Ending the book with Sophia still a child, unchanged by adolescence and unaware of the minds and needs of others, Jansson creates something timeless.
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LibraryThing member nancyfreund
Thoroughly enjoyed this charming grandmother-granddaughter book by the creator of the Moomins. It gives a straightforward account of the extended summer on the family's small Swedish-speaking Finnish island as these two characters (nearly autobiographical, I understand) navigate through their daily
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routines and relationship with one another. If you loved Pippi Longstocking and occasionally ached for the wild child she is, wishing to know what life might have been like had she had more conventional parenting,this little novel points at possible answers. It's a book I'd like to read regularly.
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LibraryThing member Chrisbookarama
The Summer Book is a beautiful book. It's as if Tove Jansson took someone's most lovely summer memories and put them into words. I was drawn to it at first because it is about living on an island during the summer in a Northern climate. Being an island dweller, I know the best time to experience
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life here is in the summer. Gentle summers create the memories I hold onto during the brutal winter months.

The Summer Book is a series vignettes chronicling the day to day life of Grandmother and Sophia (and sometimes Papa). They have small adventures on their island in the Gulf of Finland. Grandmother is coming to the end of her life while Sophia is just six but dealing with the loss of her mother. Jansson wrote it just after her mother died, basing the characters on her own mother and niece. There is a pall of melancholy over the book. Jansson creates an excellent example of show-don't-tell in The Summer Book. In each vignette, we are shown how the characters feel through the things they do or say. We aren't told Grandmother is doing something to help Sophia feel better or that Sophia reacts the way she does because she is afraid of losing someone else. It's in everything they do. I don't know how a story about a tent could bring me close to tears but Jansson did it. There is plenty to laugh about as well.

Jansson wrote children's stories as well and this has that feel to it even though in is a book for adults. In a well written children's book, the story is simple but the message is a complex one. It is the same for The Summer Book. She knew children well enough to create a believable one in Sophia. Kids say the most startlingly true things at times; they express their anger and fear in surprising ways as well. They are complicated little creatures.

The Summer Book is the kind of book you read when you are some place quiet where you can ponder every sentence in peace.
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