Lars Mytting, Norwegian Wood

If I may be so bold as to open this review with a fairly technical term from the world of literary criticism, Haruki Murakami, author of the acclaimed novel Norwegian Wood, can suck it. Quite simply, his is no longer the most interesting book of that name.

Image from
buy the book there!
You people can stop laughing any time, though. What's so funny about Lars Mytting's Norwegian Wood having the subtitle Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way, a subtitle that happens to be accurate and precise and without even the smallest shred of irony?

Fine. Yes.

Yes, I do see that this book is the perfect IKEA fake-book prop, perfect enough that not even IKEA would allow it on their shelves, and yes, the joke's on me for seeing it at Bolen Books before Christmas, thinking it'd be hilarious to buy it for my brother-in-law, and then having it turn up under my tree. ("Because you're a tree-hugging hippie with glasses! Right? Right?")

And especially for having it become one of the most pleasurable reads I've had in a long time.

Murakami can keep his ambiguity, his allusiveness, his narrative instability, because I appreciated Mytting's clarity of purpose in this book, mirroring the clarity he describes as essential to splitting logs: "The work requires your full and complete attention, and if it doesn't get it you might find the ax sticking out of your leg" (p96).

This version of Norwegian Wood is nonfiction and useful, stuffed with detail, but somehow it's neither a manual nor a handbook. A 25-page chapter about how different woods burn; a 25-pager about the history of axes and saws, plus current options for same; a 15-pager about how to dry firewood, plus how dry it should be (17% moisture, if you're wondering): somehow, with all this detail, Mytting's writing is so engaging as to approach addictiveness.

Estonian nuns climb ladders, annually,
to build these woodpiles. Lars Mytting says so.
It's killing me, for example, that I haven't yet used my oven to kiln-dry a few chunks of fresh firewood so that I can establish a baseline for how dry my current batch of firewood is getting outside. I can hardly believe that I don't have three different axes. I'm ashamed of just how unlike the image here is my tiny, fragmented, barely flammable woodpile: "Like the fermentation of beer, the seasoning of wood should be a slow and undisturbed natural process, untouched by the bustle of life elsewhere. The time it takes is the time it takes" (p.135).

Frankly, I suspect that I've started to become an elderly Scandinavian man. At one point Mytting explains that anthropological studies have confirmed that there's a measurable phenomenon in Scandinavia that's referred to colloquially as "the wood age" or "the wood bug." Later in life, men become obsessed with their woodpiles, enough that I don't think Viagra sells very well there, committed to splitting wood properly, drying it carefully, and stacking it immaculately. Swedish men over 65 living in the country, in fact, apparently spend an average of 98 hours per year in "firewood-related activity" (p97). I just hope my family's prepared for The Change.

And yes, of course I've seen Peter Kavanagh's loathing-filled complaint in The Walrus about all things Scandinavian: "At his best, Mytting delivers a clear exploration of Norway's wood fetish. But in so doing, he has made himself the fetishist-in-chief." Kavanagh's real objection, in true Walrus style, and in true-north-strong-and-free style too, is that there's not enough fetishizing of Canada. Rather than "Why Scandinavia?" (or "Why Portland?", come to that), Kavangh's real complaint beneath his presumably self-ironizing hater-ism about Lars Mytting and Norwegian Wood is "Why not Canada"?: we're just as hearty, we think of ourselves as similarly progressive, and damn it, we're just as weird under the surface, but somehow the whole world's reading Scandinavian detective fiction on IKEA couches!?!

Get over it, Peter. Canada's doing just fine. Let the Scandinavians have their fun.

Now, if anybody needs me....


theresa said…
We heat mostly with wood and love this video from This is That -- it makes me wish I'd thought of this business idea because I think it would be way more lucrative than poetry...
i loved hm's version best.
fiona said…
Sounds good - will check it out.

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