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Swedish expats use book club to survive London

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Swedish expats use book club to survive London
14:49 CEST+02:00
In a new three-part series, The Local takes a look across the North Sea and at how Swedish transplants behave in London. This week, we visit the decade-old book club that allows a troupe of women to use books to keep in touch with Sweden, but also to examine life in London through a Swedish expat prism.

The fish soup is served in porcelain bowls decorated with blue anemortes (blåsippor), the endangered flower that marks the arrival of spring back home in Sweden. Over the dining table, Sofia extolls the virtues of e-books to Linnea. E-books through the Swedish library system, that is. Never mind that the women are in London.

"I pay property tax on my house in Sweden and can't deduct anything because I have no income," the mother-of-five with a pixie haircut says.

"How much property tax?" interjects Linnea.

"About 18,000 kronor ($2,750)," Sofia replies.

"So you can take out 18,000-kronor worth of books," a third woman offers.

"More to the point, no one can get away with the excuse any more they can't get hold of the book," Sofia tells the rest of the Swedish Book Club.

Despite this, lawyer Ingrid has to 'fess up. She hasn't read the evening's book - Ondskan by author Jan Guillou, a semi-autobiographical tale of his harrowing years at boarding school.

"I'm sorry, I couldn't, I just couldn't," Ingrid says.

"All that evil, the nastiness, the bullying... seriously, I was depressed for two or three years after reading The Kite Runner."

"This book really exposed penalism before that term was even referred to outside those institutions' closed walls," says Sofia.

"And it's relevant today, just look at the stories coming out from Lundsberg," says Ingrid, referring to recent hazing reports from the prestigious Swedish school.

IN PICTURES: See some of the mostly Swedish books from the London book club's ten-year tenure

As much as the troupe discusses the books, these women - most in their thirties and early forties - also take their meets as an opportunity to examine life in London through a Swedish expat prism. The conversation quickly turns to gender-segregated boarding schools in their adopted country.

"I can tell straight away at work if a man went to a boys' school. They have no social skills and they cannot work with women," says Linnea, who works as an assignment editor in the photography industry.

The conversation goes from there, talking about how Swedes also "network" informally with old school friends but are loath to employ the N word as it is seen as too gauche. Sofia recalls that she swapped from Östra Real high school to Tensta, which was academically superior but cut her off from her posh social circle.

"I think my parents were actually appalled," Sofia recalls, as the conversation jumps back and forth about the merits and drawbacks to private education.

The conversation is characteristic of the book club, which is not only about books and friendships, but forms an expat support structure. That singles it out from other book clubs. Sofia is a member of an English club as well.

"But there it's more about literary technique, while here we use the books as a starting point for discussion," she says.

"My other book club is also very formal," says Linnea.

"We don't talk about our lives, but here... I mean, I remember I told you guys I was pregnant long before it was technically safe to do so, before I told many of my best friends even."

The club formed almost ten years ago, and almost as many babies have been born to the women since then. The evening's host, Jenny, has seven weeks to go before her due date - adding another baby to the sprawling family network around the book club. Despite work, husbands, and the demands of child-rearing, many of them find time to meet once a month.

For dessert, the gooey Swedish chocolate torte kladdkaka is served with cream out of a spritzer can.

Questions about some of the literary highlights and low points of the decade-old club spurs the group into lively debate again. Almost everyone disliked Happy Sally by Sara Stridsberg.

"She was just trying too hard," Kristina, a fashion designer, says of the author.

No one liked the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas either.

"I didn't even finish it, and I read everything usually," says Jenny.

Another trailbrazing feminist text, however, in the shape of Swedish bestseller Bitterfittan by Maria Sveland, at least had the members reaching the last page, and talking. The book, in which a feminist grapples with the real-life demands of combining work and having a child, divided the club down the middle, Sofia recalls.

"It was polarizing. On one hand, the club members who had children, on the other, those who didn't," she recalls.

The near unanimous conclusion - once the members rattled off an impressive list of books including Snabba Cash by Jens Lapidus but also Bang om Bang, the tale of Swedish war correspondent Barbro "Bang" Alving - is that they would like more books like Bitterfittan.

"It's fun when it's polarizing," Sofia says.

Ann Törnkvist

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