Norwegian Wood, Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way is marketed in the U.S. as an unlikely sensation in Norway where it hit the best seller list. It was just released last week on the American market in an English print version. Being immersed in cutting, splitting, stacking, writing about, and making videos on firewood recently, and generally being particularly interested and enamored of the subject, I decided to get a copy the day it was released with a mind to review it. So, here it goes. And, in keeping with my recent intent, a video review to go with it, though there is nothing there that isn't here.
Norwegian Wood is by Norwegian novelist Lars Mytting. It occupies a ground somewhere between general interest journalism and practical information. It is well written and the translation is solid. I found myself resonating with certain passages and just impressed by others. In some of the more practical parts it leans toward a style that just hammers out bits of information as if to just get it over with, but most of it is smooth reading. I’m an impatient reader. I ended up skimming quite a bit, but I do that with movies too and even novels. Few books can captivate me to read every word. It may be that I was just too familiar with a lot of the subject matter to read every word. But that’s just me being impatient and scanning for information that is relevant to me. Overall, I found it an enjoyable read with a good flow.
The book is very much written from the Norwegian and Scandinavian perspective. Clearly written as an address to a Norwegian audience the book has a steady, attenuated vibe, like an evenly overcast day. Much like a lot of Norwegians seem to be. Norwegians don’t strike me as a very jaunty people, but it certainly sounds like they know their wood and I appreciate pragmatism. Norway has ministries and campaigns related to wood to encourage and refine the practices of wood cutting and wood burning, enacting laws to protect consumers and increase efficiency. There are some interesting personal stories and profiles, mostly about old men and their love of firewood. One study even looked at who puts up the firewood in Norway, the answer? Older men who have reached the “wood age”.
The book seems very well researched and there is probably not much in the way of misinformation. I learned quite a bit, and there is some material that might be worth referencing again. There is a lot of data on things like energy content per cubic meter of some woods, the time it takes wood to dry and the enormous quantities of wood burned in Norway each year. There is some good practical information on when to cut and how to dry that I wasn’t really familiar with. Bark stripping is something I hadn’t ever thought of- to cut logs and remove long narrow strips of bark on the sides to allow them to season, rather than cutting them up into rounds right away. I probably don’t have any need to do that here, but it makes sense in some contexts. And this book is very much in a cultural and physical context. For a people that have to deal with extreme subzero temperatures, the Norwegians certainly seem to have refined the process of cutting, seasoning and stacking firewood. Stacking wood, and pictures of stacked wood have a prominent presence in Norwegian Wood, amounting to little more than firewood porn. Nothing wrong with that! Gimme more. The photos are very nice. I’ll warrant they’ll have you thinking about maybe stacking that firewood a little more creatively. I found myself lying in bed planning just how to stack my firewood into a picture of an acorn instead of sleeping. I think this blog may soon be host to a picture of my firewood stacked into some kind of mural...
My firewood pile is a mishmash of mixed woods, most harvested standing dead, and full of odd shapes, with the occasional substandard rotten piece. I don’t split them neatly and the woods I burn often just won’t split neatly. I bash them apart heavy metal berserker style, and if they are small enough to fit in the stove they go in the pile. After seeing and reading about the perfect uniform carefully seasoned, beautiful firewood of Norway, I have to confess to some feeling of inadequacy. I and my firewood are not inadequate though of course, we are very adequate to our context thank you very much, but adequacy doesn’t always hold up under the scrutiny of society. Well, no subzero temps here, or Joneses to keep up with, or is it Jonessons?. Still, my rag tag firewood stacks seem like a dead lawn in a perfect suburbia compared to the beautiful stacks throughout this book. In a land where lack of heat is life threatening, it makes sense that firewood is a cultural anchor and source of pride for Norwegians. Here I could put on a couple sweaters and do without it entirely if I had to, or go cut it as I need it during the winter to scrape by, which I've had to do many times.
Norwegian Wood is an attractive, solidly constructed (I have the hardback), well laid out, well researched book. Being very pragmatic, I would have preferred more carefully laid out instructive material, but there is no doubt that there is a lot of good practical information in the book. And pragmatic as I may be, I was moved by some of the less practical stories and philosophic musings about something close to this pragmatic heart, like this quote
“Something else to consider is the way the woodburning stove brings people into a very direct relationship with the weather. You are your own thermostat, you are the connecting link between the subzero temperatures outside and the relative warmth within. When you heat with wood you have to go out to the woodpile, come back in again, and start your fight against the cold. It's bitter, and it bites, but you can do something about it. In this one small but vital arena, you are in touch with the bare necessities of life, and in that moment you know the same deep sense of satisfaction that the cave dweller knew.“
That is something I’m always struggling to explain in regard to various things.
I also loved this quote: “All his life he'd chopped his own firewood, and although he'd put his saw away for good now, he still enjoyed the feel of each log in his hand, the smell that made him feel he was at work inside a poem, the sense of security in his stack, the pleasing thought of the winter that lay ahead, with all those hours of sitting contentedly in front of his woodburning stove. In much the same way, I suppose, that no one gets tired of carrying bars of gold, he knew that what he held in his hands was his insurance against the cold to come. “
I have one semantic or technical quibble with the book and that is the seemingly loose use of the term chopping. I'm not sure if that usage may be due to inappropriate translation into english, or if chopping is used colloquially in Norway for all or most of the processes involved in putting up wood, which it sometimes is here. Personally I think chopping should be reserved for cutting across the grain of the wood with a sharp edged tool such as an axe and not used for the acts of splitting or sawing wood. First, that is what it means, and secondly, there is not another term to replace it for what it actually means, which means there is the potential for some confusion. Sometimes it is used appropriately in the book, and sometimes not. I could go on, but that's just my opinion.
So, who might like this book? The human interest and general interest thread is pretty strong, but there is also plenty for the practical wood cutter, especially northern dwellers. I think any Scandiphile would enjoy it quite a lot. I would say that if you cut firewood and live in the northern birch and conifer belt which wraps much of the northern hemisphere, it is probably essential reading. Other people that might enjoy it or find it useful would be anyone that is a true wood cutting and firewood burning enthusiast, who just wants to read more about something they love… like a gun collector or car guy would collect piles of books on those subjects. This is full of total geekage about a nation full of firewood geeks who sit around debating the relative merits of stacking wood with the bark up or the bark down. That sounds great to me. That's my idea of a good time. I wish it was like that where I live. If you like to cut, split, stack and burn firewood, AND talk about it in between, again, this will be a good read. I think almost anyone who is interested in the subject, or immersed in it, will find something useful. The question in many cases will be more whether it is worth the retail price. That’s a more personal issue. Given that I don't have much of an income right now, it's not so great or enough of a reference book, that I feel like I need to own a copy. I'll probably sell my copy just to get the money back so I can buy something else cool to review (like this Japanese cleaver style hatchet which I'm dying to get my grubby hands on for a thorough test and review!). I don’t doubt that I’ll want some snippet or quote in this book at some point though. It would make a great library book, so you could always read it and then donate it to your local library, most of which are in desperate need of support. The quality of the book is definitely above average for these days, and any library should be happy to have it in the stacks. That way you can always read it again anytime. Maybe I’ll do that.
You can read the introduction to the book as a preview on Amazon ( http://amzn.to/1MsvpVi )
One word of warning, the print is rather small, so most people over 50 will be bustin’ out those reading glasses.
I have to go shoot a squirrel for dinner. I can hear them calling me. Then it’s off to work on putting up firewood. There is hardly anything I’d rather do. I'll leave you with a poem from the book.
The Scent of fresh wood
is among the last things you will forget
when the veil falls
The scent of fresh white wood
in the spring sap time:
as though life itself walked by you,
with dew in it's hair
That sweet and naked smell
kneeling woman-soft and blond
in the silence inside you,
using your bones for
a willow flute.
With the hard frost beneath your tongue
you look for fire to light a word,
and know, mild as southern wind in the mind,
there is still one thing in the world
you can trust