Around the World In 80 Books: Russia and Norway

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Welcome to the next installment in my Around the World in 80 Books Challenge!  It’s exactly what it sounds like: I’m trying to read 80 books from 80 different countries/cultures around the world, and to add a frugal spin, I’m trying to do it all for under $20.

Here’s my running tally so far:
England– Free Ebook- $0
Turkey– Gift- $0
Scotland– Free Ebook- $0
Sierra Leone– Library Rental- $0
Jerusalem– Won in a Giveaway- $0
Mexico– Library Rental- $0
Sweden– Library Rental- $0

Grand Total: $0

And today’s books were both library rentals, so I’m still running at $0 spent!  Both of today’s books were recommended by readers, and I have to say I’m impressed by how well they know me.


Often cited as one of the best novels ever written, this one has had me terrified for years.  I’ve read and loved shorter Tolstoy novels before, along the lines of Fathers and Sons, but the sheer thickness of this one kept me at bay.

So much thanks to Prudence Debt-Free for encouraging me to conquer my fears by recommending it as a part of the challenge.  Because it may in fact be the best novel ever written.

First, for my PF nerds, let me get the interesting-to-you stuff out of the way.  This book is set in 19th century Russia.  It’s a book about life, and as we in the PF blogosphere recognize, money holds a significant position in all of our lives.  The main characters are extremely well off.  But within this behemoth you’ll catch Vronsky budgeting.  Levin and his wife (I won’t ruin for you who it ends up being) discussing couple’s shortly before he contemplates the cost of living in the city versus the country.  He also goes through great pains to find the best strategy to make his business profitable.  Oblonsky gets into terrible debt, forcing Dolly to live a life of extreme thriftiness.  (While you could argue it’s frugality, really what happens is that she’s forced to figure out how to live in poverty while keeping up with her class in society.)  When he confides his dark money secrets to obscenely wealthy friends, they scoff at the number.  Because they hold debts in much higher denominations.  Nikolai is a Bolshevik sympathizer, or at least identifies with their philosophy which was apparently taking root even then.

But this book isn’t about money.  Sure that’s a part of it.  But only because money is a part of life.  And that’s what this book is about:  life.  Life, and being human.  Almost every character has chapters written from their perspective.  It was amazing to me how I found such disdain for any one of the numerous characters, and then I would read their chapter.  And suddenly they seemed reasonable and “right.”  It’s really made me think about how I view others.  Maybe they do things that drive me crazy.  Maybe they do things I deem as just flat out wrong.  But more than likely they think they are doing good.  Or they are so weighed down by their own circumstances that they can’t see what is actually happening in front of them.  There is not always a clear answer on the right thing to do in this world, especially when we take into consideration the perspective of others.

Five stars, two thumbs up, and highly recommend.  It’s worth the time investment and then some.


One night, while I was still going to school traditionally, I was sitting on a bench outside of the dorms looking at the stars in the sky.  A friend came out to have a cigarette.

“Hey, what’s up, Femme?”

“Why do you think we’re here?”

The conversation started slowly with questions like, “What do you mean?”  But it evolved into an hour and a half conversation about existence and whether what we were doing truly mattered.

“Sh!t.  I just came out here to have a cigarette and then here’s Femme making me question my purpose of being.”

So when Poor Student recommended Sophie’s World, they hit the nail on the head.  I was warned that it was told from the perspective of a young girl, but that really made sense to me.  I was about Sophie’s age (14/15) when I started seriously thinking bigger and questioning the traditions I had been raised in.  As I’ve gotten older, those thoughts have slowed down as I’ve gotten bound up in the busyness and responsibilities of adulthood.

I don’t think that’s a good thing.

So this book was something I really needed to read.  It’s really more like two books in one.  Sophie ends up taking a philosophy course she didn’t sign up for, but you end up taking it, too.  On one hand, you literally learn the history of philosophy, while on the other you’re following Sophie through her mind-boggling journey.

The philosophy course portion blew me out of the water.  Gaarder is a phenomenal teacher.  For example, I didn’t know that philosophy has really been a huge driving force behind science for most of recorded Western history.  (To which my husband replied, “Seriously?  How did you not know that?”  I’m not sure if he counts me as intelligent anymore.)

I found a section that should be relatable for all the PFers out there in this one, too.  In post-Socrates Greece, there were two schools of thought around philosophy that were relatively contemporary with each other.  The first was the Cynics.  They believed that true happiness wasn’t dependent on any type of materialism or social power.  They didn’t see those with all of those possessions or power as any better than themselves.  It reminds me of a lot of people that adopt frugal lifestyles, particularly minimalism.  The one splinter I did see was that they didn’t believe health was important to happiness, either.  Pretty sure not everyone in that frugal mindset would agree there.

The other group was the Epicureans.  They believed pretty much the exact opposite.  The whole purpose in being here was to experience pleasure through the senses.  While they were far more material, they weren’t wholly irresponsible.  They recognized that their actions had consequences.  Doing bad things to your body for the sake of immediate gratification was foolish.  And using your resources to attain more pleasure down the road (like giving up chocolate bar purchases in order to save for a big trip to see the world, to use Gaarder’s example,) was the ideal path to take.  The goal was to attain the most pleasure in life as possible, so making responsible choices was highly encouraged.

I’ve got more to say, but I want to stop a minute and ask you to let me know:

Where do you fall on the Cynic/Epicurean spectrum in regards to your views on happiness and money?

I really think long-term I’ll need to own this book, as I could have highlighted the whole thing and need to go back to pick up on the parts that didn’t really sink in.  But here’s one of my favorite sections:

“Satre emphasized that man must never disclaim the responsibility for his actions.  Nor can we avoid the responsibility of making our own choices on the grounds that we ‘must’ go to work, or we ‘must’ live up to certain middle-class expectations regarding how we should live.  Those who thus slip into the anonymous masses will never be other than members of the impersonal flock, having fled from themselves into self-deception.”

I also love how reading these books is expanding my view on things.  For example, the American Revolution.  Scotland’s book showed me how the revolution was partially attributable to a fight between Scotland and England that started on Scottish soil.  In some ways, it was an extension of the power struggle manifested largely in religious tension between these two countries.

Another assumption I had around the American Revolution was that it was the inspiration that sparked the French Revolution.  Whether that be something that was indoctrinated in me or something that I simply assumed based on what I had learned in history class is kind of irrelevant:  the opinion that I took to be fact was there.  But Gaarder attributes it to the Enlightenment philosophy that had a firm hold on Europe at the time, and was very strong in France.  That’s not to say the same European ideas didn’t heavily influence both revolutions, but as Gaarder makes no reference to the American Revolution, I’d take it that this viewpoint isn’t prevalent enough to be worth noting outside our shores.  Or at least in Norway.

And that’s the wonderful thing about books.  They can expose us to a culture’s ideas and vantage points without concern for if we accept or understand them.  I’m sure a twenty-something working mother in Pittsburgh reading in 2015 wasn’t Gaarder’s target audience.  But because I picked up his book, he reached me.  Ideas are powerful.  And being flexible in our own, or at least exposing ourselves to those of others, allows us to relate not just to other human beings outside of our identified culture, but to our own world in new ways.

As for the part of the book that was about Sophie, it wasn’t bad.  Sophie herself grated on my nerves every once in a while, but I suppose that just speaks to the authenticity of Gaarder’s writing:  teenagers in real life grate on my nerves every once in a while, too.  This part of the story didn’t really pick up until half way through the book.  And at the end I would have liked to see him explore quantum physics as it seems like it would have been appropriate, and the entire field from my non-expert vantage point seems to be philosophy without concrete knowledge at this point in time.  It could have potentially fit everything he had going on in the Sophie part of the plot.  But everything in between was pretty well done.  It twists and turns and shocks and awes.  Warning: The next sentence contains a spoiler.  If you want no part in that, simply don’t click on the link, which is an Amazon Affiliate one.  It really reminds me of this movie, which I kind of loved, except the details of how the complexities of reality work out are quite different.

Overall, highly, highly recommend.  As many stars as Anna Karenina?  No.  But the goal of this novel is different, and it fulfills its specific goal well.  Plus the myriad of things you will learn is crazy interesting.

On Deck

I’m reading this one currently because it’s this month’s selection for the official Travel the World in Books readathon.  Loving it so far!  Though I have to admit, I’m more than a little bit behind due to how long the previous two took me to finish.  I’m all about playing catch up in Spain, though!

Have a book you want t recommend?  I’d love to add it to my queue!  Here are the countries I already have covered, in addition to the ones listed above that I’ve already finished:

Canada: The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be by Farley Mowat recommeded by Messy Money
Afghanistan: The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg recommended by Savvy Working Gal
Nigeria: I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani recommended by Guiltless Reader
Philippines: May Day Eve and Other Stories by Nick Joaquin recommended by Guiltless Reader
Iceland: Scarcity in Excess by Arna Mathiesen & Thomas Forget
Sudan: The Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih recommended by Kate Wilson
Kenya: Out of Africa by Karen Blixen recommended by Christine from The Wallet Diet
China:  Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang
JapanTotto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi recommended by Suburban Finance
France/Spain-ish:  Legends and Popular Tales of the Basque People by Mariana Monteiro
EthiopiaThe God Who Begat a Jakal by Nega Mezlekia recommended by Based On a True Story
French Antilles: Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Conde recommended by Based on A True Story
SurinameThe Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia McLeod recommended by Based On A True Story


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12 thoughts on “Around the World In 80 Books: Russia and Norway

  1. Mel

    Holy cow – I can’t believe you wrote about personal finance lessons in Anna Karenina. This is a terrific post! Way to find something frugal, fun and educational. You are a total mom ;o)

    1. Emi

      I just read this recently, too! I definitely noticed the financial stuff — Levin indeed has couple’s financial squabbles, but I was more into the farm management and real estate deals, ha. Can you believe what an idiot Oblonsky was, knowing he was being schnuckered in his forest sale??
      If I had hosted this week, I would’ve picked this post as my favourite!

  2. vickie morgan

    such a neat idea…and you are having such fun! I reserved a book at the library this week -it’s so nice to just walk in and pick it up. Have a great time reading around the world.

  3. Prudence Debtfree

    So glad you chose Anna Karenina : ) Like you, I find I’m far more astute than I used to be when it comes to references to personal finance in novels. Jane Austen’s scoundrels, for instance, are so often bad with money. I’m going to have to read AK again – just to get these personal finance insights. Sophie’s World sounds fascinating. Great post!

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