Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Latvia's Centennial week post #3: Books

Welcome back to this special series of posts celebrating all things Latvian! In honor of Latvia's upcoming centennial celebration this Sunday, I'm abandoning my usual focus on books, but for today, we'll combine the two.

(Post one was about my personal connection to Latvia, and post two covered the history of Latvia.)

Here are ten books that have meant a lot to me in my life as an honorary Latvian and 1/4 Lithuanian.

These two reference books were my lifeline during my first two stays in Latvia. Remember, this is all pre-internet, so it wasn't like I could hop on Google Translate. The Teach Yourself Latvian was a loan from an acquaintance of my dad's. (She says nearly 30 years after "borrowing" it without returning it. In my defense, I have a vague memory of trying to give it back to him at one point and being told to keep it.) It is stunningly dry and quaint, with an emphasis on agrarian terms that I found odd. It was actually pretty useless until I started to get some skills, then I could turn to it to work out how to handle new forms I was trying to master.  I found a 2009 edition on Goodreads, but mine was published in 1966.

The English-Latvian dictionary was a Powell's find. I had a two-way bilingual dictionary as well, and both books got heavy use. I'd look up the word in English, see a few possible translations, then look those up in Latvian to see which English translation matched what I was trying to say. I worked really hard at learning Latvian, and I am not sure where all that energy and focus went.  

There were not many travel guides to the Baltics in 1992. A Guide to the Baltic States was another Powell's treasure, and provides plenty of historical background. I guess there was more of that than of actual tourist information at that point! Again, the only edition on Goodreads is from 1998, but mine is dated 1990 and has the inscription, "For Dagmara, so that her free spirit may one day roam a free Latvia."

I picked Linguistics and Poetics of Latvian Folk Songs up just because it was so rare to find a book about Latvia in English. It turned out to be full of interesting (to me) essays. It was published in 1989 by McGill University in Canada by a Latvian emigrant who'd earned a PhD, and the author went on to become President of Latvia from 1999-2007, remaining one of the most popular and well respected politicians of their modern history. And I was all, "Wait, I read a book by her!"

Latvian knitwear is lovely, and yes, mittens are a big cultural thing. It's cold there, okay? Latvian Mittens is a great English language book that teaches all the fancy techniques. I learned to knit in college, and when I first went to Latvia I would pull out my knitting in the teachers' lounge to make myself seem approachable. It worked a charm, as the home ec teacher could not stop herself from coming over and showing me the "right way" (European way) to knit. 

The Exiled Heart by Kelly Cherry is an American poet's memoir of her 25 year affair with a prominent Latvian composer. There's an annual festival in his honor, and in addition to symphonies and the like, he wrote several pop songs that were wildly popular when I was in Latvia. Her book was pretty controversial there, given that he was still married to his wife when she published it. It was so interesting for me to read about her impressions visiting Soviet Latvia in the 70s. I had this book in English too, but I think I loaned it to someone at some point. 

 Song has always played a huge part in Latvian culture, so I would be remiss to not include one of my songbooks. Not to sound like an old lady, but I feel like internet culture has created a sense in many people that if you're not great at something, you suck at it. Case in point: many people won't sing in public because they don't think they're good enough. But in Latvia we sang all the time. Birthday party? Sing. Bonfire? Sing. There were choirs in every town and village, but even people who didn't join the choirs sang at the drop of a hat. Many of my fondest memories of Latvia involve singing along with my friends. Song collections such as the one pictured above made it possible for even foreigners who'd neither knew the tune nor understood the words to pick it up after a verse or two.

And yes, if you haven't read Between Shades of Gray yet, please do so. Ruta Sepetys's historical fiction takes a national tragedy that is barely known outside of the region and makes us all care deeply.

1 comment:

  1. I’ve read Between Shades of Gray! I think that’s the only Latvian book I’ve read. I really liked it.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!


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