Meet the woman who invented the Moomins

By Constance Grady

Moomin toys from the 1950s. Characters by Jansson Tove, toys designed by Atelier Fauni, photo taken by Helsingin kaupunginmuseo.
Wikimedia Commons / Olimar under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects.

Lots of people are struggling right now. But I think books are a helpful salve — if you can get your mind into a place to read. It feels good to focus on something finite, and something outside of what is happening in the world. It feels good to remember that this is not the only way the world ever was or ever will be.

That’s why we’re stepping up our books coverage at Vox. Last week, we started Ask a Book Critic, a new advice column where you can write in and tell me your very specific mood, and I will provide book recommendations to help you get into a reading groove.

And, because books are more fun when you have someone to talk to about them, we just launched our new book club, where we’ll be able to read and nerd out about books together. The first post goes up next Friday! We’ll be talking about N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, which I reviewed earlier this week. Come join us. I can’t wait to talk with you.

In the meantime, here is the web’s best writing on books and related subjects for the week of March 29, 2020.

Given the weight of the world, I had tossed aside my usual literary fiction and heavy essay collections in favor of pulpy summer thrillers and comedic memoirs. But not even their fast-paced plots and deftly written jokes could hold my attention for more than a few moments. I’ve plucked book after book off the shelf only to abandon them on my night table after a feeble attempt at reading before bed instead of scrolling mindlessly through Twitter for the umpteenth time. It’s felt like losing a friend in a time when we’ve already lost so much.

  • Morning News’s 2020 Tournament of Books is over, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People has won the day even after being knocked out in the opening round. (The Tournament traditionally contains a zombie round in which commenters can vote for their favorite dead books, which is how it came back.) Here’s part of the debate over Normal People from the final round:

Helen Rosner asks if “Normal People had been written by a man, wouldn’t we all groan and sigh with how predictable it all is?” I sat and thought about that comment for a long time. Is that true? I think she means that on the surface it’s another novel about young, heterosexual love, the kind that has been written over and over again back to a time when most novelists were men, and if certain male writers had written Normal People it no doubt would detail how the devoted love of a young woman saves an emotionally damaged man or something. But Normal People isn’t that kind of novel. I think if a man had written Normal People exactly the way it is, we’d all be rather startled, frankly. But it was an intriguing point to raise.

“The fact that the literary community is still in full swing, even from their homes, and behind their screens, is moving and encouraging,” she said, speaking in Spanish.

“I think it is my duty, and the duty of every writer, whether is a science-fiction writer, a journalist, a poet, each at their own pace and within their own capacities, to document this moment,” she said.

Offering her own life as a model, May positioned herself as a secret-sharer who could provide a professional network to young female artists. She was, I would argue, just as skilled at crafting an argument as painting a picture. And many of the qualities we are now admiring in Amy — her ambition, her clear-eyed assessment of the injustices facing women, her rhetorical power in maneuvering through life and getting what she wanted — are also applicable to Amy’s real-life counterpart.

In talking about books, we habitually use the present tense to describe the story’s action. The novel’s protagonist is happy or afraid. The memoir’s antagonist is furious or deranged. The poem’s speaker is alight with love. Is, is, is, as though the act of reading itself suspends us in an endless present, removed from the consequences of time. As though we ourselves are timeless creatures: young or old or in-between, as the tale requires, no matter how many actual years we carry in our cells.

Many libraries are putting the 3-D printers from their makerspaces into use.

In Maryland, the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System has sent two of its 3-D printers home with a staff person to soon begin printing shields for health workers’ masks. The library is donating labor and materials for this effort, and like other organizations around the state, is working with Open Works, Baltimore’s biggest makerspace community, to make sure everyone is compliant with specs for the production of the shields.

It was during these turbulent creative years that Jansson invented the Moomins, a close-knit family made up of the boyish Moomintroll, the obliging and practical Moominmamma, the adventure-seeking Moominpappa, and Moomintroll’s pretty and vain girlfriend, Snork Maiden, along with an auxiliary cast of non-Moomin friends. They live together in peaceful, verdant Moominvalley, but frequently venture beyond its borders. Jansson wrote to a friend that the characters had taken shape “when I was feeling depressed and scared of the bombing and wanted to get away from my gloomy thoughts to something else entirely. ... I crept into an unbelievable world where everything was natural and benign—and possible.”

The coronavirus shutdown is like no other she’s faced, even the one in 2012, when her Mystic store flooded during Hurricane Sandy. But with that, “The tide came in and the tide went out,” she said. “I saw an end to that.” She knew roughly about how long it would take to move all the books out, rip out the floors and repaint the walls, and reopen her doors. But now, “The future is so uncertain, we don’t know how long this is going to go on,” she said. “The tide hasn’t gone out yet.”

  • I follow a Twitter account that’s just excerpts from Samuel Pepys’s 17th-century diary, and lately I’ve been envying our boy Sam his social life. (I have not left my apartment in 16 days; on Twitter, Sammy’s living it up with nonstop carriage rides.) But Lapham’s Quarterly reminds us that Pepys, too, lived through an epidemic — and he journaled his way through it:

So walked to Redriffe, where I hear the sickness is, and indeed is scattered almost everywhere, there dying 1,089 of the plague this week. My Lady Carteret did this day give me a bottle of plague water home with me. So home to write letters late, and then home to bed, where I have not lain these three or four nights. I received yesterday a letter from my Lord Sandwich, giving me thanks for my care about their marriage business, and desiring it to be dispatched that no disappointment may happen therein, which I will help on all I can. This afternoon I waited on the Duke of Albemarle, and so to Mrs. Croft’s, where I found and saluted Mrs. Burrows, who is a very pretty woman for a mother of so many children. But Lord! to see how the plague spreads. It being now all over King’s Street, at the Axe, and next door to it, and in other places.

  • At Vulture, Bess Kalb talks with Molly Young about how it feels to promote a book right now:

For a certain kind of person there is something intensely humiliating about self-promotion. But maybe doing it in a pandemic elevates it to the level of camp.
I feel like a 6-year-old showing my painting off: Do you love it? Do you want it? But I’m doing it as the world burns. I feel like an asshole all the time.

And here’s the week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with all our books coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!