Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Interview with a Fox: Leena, founder of Vulpes Libris

We thought you might like to know a little more about the people behind the site, so we will be running a series of short interviews with the foxes starting a few weeks from now.  For today, a special farewell interview with site founder Leena, who is sadly leaving Vulpes a year on.

Well, of course, I think everyone would like to know about the genesis of Vulpes Libris!

I’ve had something of a love-hate relationship with blogs since I heard about them: I just couldn’t decide whether it was a brilliant medium or a completely pointless one. On the one hand, I loved Marie Phillips’s ‘Struggling Author’ blog – nowadays ‘The Woman Who Talked Too Much’ - and wished I could write something like it… but I knew that wasn’t for me, even if I had half her sense of humour.

So a less personal book blog seemed ideal, especially as I’d always wanted to write book reviews anyway. But after a few months I realised I couldn’t do that on my own – so I emailed a few lovely friends, people liked the idea, and here we are now. The thing is, there’s no point in having a blog of any kind unless it’s updated often and you can maintain a certain pace – and in my experience it’s almost impossible for a solo blogger. I don’t know how they do it and find time to read.

What brought you to book reviewing?

I’m not sure. It was, quite simply, something I wanted to learn. (Not sure I have, yet!) And I always tried to keep a reading journal without ever quite managing it. Now I’ve got the hang of that.

That’s something that intrigues me, by the way – the difference between your private response to literature and your public one. There’s certainly a big difference between the things I jot down in my little notebook and what I’ve written here.

In the sense that your public response necessarily has to be… well, not edited as such, but presented differently?

That, too. But there’s also that you begin to read differently: you seek out details you can elaborate on, you watch out for themes you can discuss. I’m not sure it’s an altogether positive thing. In a way, doesn’t it encourage stock responses to literature? I don’t mean that your response is too ordinary or unimaginative – if it’s an honest response, it can never be that – but more like reading a book for a feminist lit-crit course: you force it into a mould. There are typical ‘book club’ books, and I suppose there are typical ‘book blog books’ too. The kind that give you something, anything, to talk about. That isn’t necessarily synonymous with a great book.  In short, if I had to read every book with a review in mind, I think I’d lose a great deal of the pleasure I take in reading.

I entirely understand!  I suppose there is also the risk that reviews can become formulaic once you start thinking about what you should address, what other people have said, what other people may expect to read…

Yes – but there’s also the danger of trying too hard not to say what others have already said! I read this piece about clichés in book reviewing, and it made me realise – if I started worrying about all that, I would have nothing left to say at all. Better be honest and full of clichés than afraid of words.

Oh my.  I am guilty of using compelling a lot.

Compelling is a good word! There shouldn’t be anything wrong with using it. I suppose the trick is to recognise when you’re only calling something ‘compelling’ or ‘poignant’ or ‘thought-provoking’ because it’s the easy thing to say. But sometimes it’s just the right thing to say.

Now for a really tricky question.  Do you have a favourite book or books that you have reviewed for VL?

Off the top of my head, I’d have to mention Death and the Maidens by Janet Todd, Secresy; or, the Ruin on the Rock by Eliza Fenwick, and Finding Cassie Crazy by Jaclyn Moriarty.

Are these the books you most enjoyed reviewing, or the books you most enjoyed reading?

Death and the Maidens and Secresy were both – but in the case of Finding Cassie Crazy, I had a hard time writing about it. The book was a sheer delight from start to finish, but I didn’t know how to stretch that ‘sheer delight’ into 500-1,000 words…

And I thought it was just me that found good reviews harder to write!

No, it’s not just you! There are only so many ways to say ‘I loved this’.

And only so many ways to say it well, at that. So what’s in the future for Leena Heino?

Hmm… lots of writing and reading, I hope! I’ve got too many ideas for my own good and more enthusiasm than is healthy, so who knows how anything turns out.

I am, however, planning to win Wimbledon next year, direct a film, and hopefully save the planet from global warming.

We always ask this… please recommend five books!

1. Scoop (1938) by Evelyn Waugh. The perfect comic novel, if you ask me – perfect pacing, perfect comic timing, perfect prose, perfect everything. There’s a civil war – of sorts – going on in a fictional African country, and an obscure nature writer is accidentally sent to cover it as a star reporter. When you’ve got a known xenophobe writing a book like this in the 1930s, you are (or at least I was) constantly on the lookout for cringe-making racist moments, but among its other amazingness, Scoop is quite remarkable for its equal-opportunity fun-poking. Though if you’re an irritable Swede – caution advised…

2. Camilla (1796) by Fanny Burney. I wavered between two choices because I actually think Cecilia is Burney’s masterpiece, but Camilla is my personal favourite. On the surface it looks like your typical courtship novel and comedy of manners, but as you read on the book gradually morphs into a bizarre psychological (and distinctly feminist) nightmare with plenty of farcical humour thrown in. It’s definitely a love-it-or-hate-it type of book, if only because of its extreme length. But it’s funny and strange and has one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever read… albeit between two minor characters.

3. Jerusalem (1902) by Selma Lagerlöf. A wave of religious enthusiasm sweeps over a Swedish village, and the affected leave their friends and families behind to start a commune in the Holy City. One young man goes after them to fetch his beloved back – though he’s already been forced into a marriage of convenience, himself. This description does no justice to the novel: it’s beautiful and wise without being sentimental in the least. The book seems to be available in translation – multiple translations, even – but I’ve never read it in English so I can’t vouch for their quality. The writing is so lyrical (oh, no! clichés again) that a bad translation would really spoil the book.

4. The Idiot (1896) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Not perfect as a novel by any means, but still one of the books that have touched me most. Plus I’d like to marry Prince Myshkin… though I suppose there are enough women in the novel wanting to marry him as it is.

5. I couldn’t decide on one last book so I thought I’d mention two half-great new novels I’ve read recently, to make up one great novel. (See? Cunning.) One would be Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, a quite wicked and lovely YA novel about a girl who discovers she’s been chosen by a fairy king to be his Summer Queen – but she can’t think of anything she’d want less. (See a more detailed review here.)

The other one is An Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan, which nods at Austen’s Emma and Georgette Heyer, but still manages to do its own thing with delightful dialogue, wonderful characters, and the kind of convincing period detail that doesn’t feel like ‘period detail’ at all. Both books were slightly disappointing in having rushed endings, but I’d been having so much fun with them till then that I could easily forgive those.

Thank you Leena, and I hope you will keep in touch with us here at Vulpes Libris.

11 comments on “Interview with a Fox: Leena, founder of Vulpes Libris

  1. Trilby
    October 5, 2008

    Very sad to see you go, Leena, but we’ll look forward to your visits! As always, you’ve given me a couple of titles to look up immediately – “Jerusalem”, in particular…

  2. kimbofo
    October 5, 2008

    Great interview. Always nice to find out more about the people behind the blog.

    I’m not sure I totally agree with this sentiment though: “There’s no point in having a blog of any kind unless it’s updated often and you can maintain a certain pace – and in my experience it’s almost impossible for a solo blogger.”

    I used to be a slave to the blog and push myself to post every single day because I thought I’d lose readers if I didn’t. I burnt myself out. So at the start of this year I decided I’d only post when I had something to say, even if that meant I might only post once or twice a week. Occasionally there have been whole weeks when I’ve not written a single review. Did my reading figures slacken? No, if anything, they went up. If people like your blog enough to subscribe to your RSS feed then it’s not like they’re going to miss anything if you only post sporadically.

    On another topic, thanks for your top 5 books. I, too, love Scoop, and I’ll now hunt out the others. I particularly like the sound of Jerusalem.

  3. RosyB
    October 5, 2008

    Sad that you are leaving too, Leens. But sounds like you have a lot of pastures new to conquer (presumably that Wimbledon training with be taking up a lot of time). Interesting meditation on reviewing. I suppose, there is a negative side, but there is also a positive one in terms of the review sharpening up certain thoughts and reactions to the book. I think what’s interesting is how perhaps this can favour some books over others though. Often what are considered truly great books are the ones that can be endlessly discussed and reinterpreted. But this misses out swathes of wonderful books and lots of popular culture books which might be brilliantly written, full of entertainment factor and books one truly loves.

    What we did with our favourite children’s books was interesting I thought – talking about books we loved rather than admired. Somehow you can have that relationship with a book when you are a child. I wonder if that is why so many adults read Harry P etc – because you are allowed simply to get involved, blown away, absorbed in the characters and story and…love it.

    I can’t help thinking it’s partly the pollution of literary snobbery that is the problem and the idea that a book you like somehow says something about you as an adult. We just don’t think like that as kids. Perhaps the problem with a reviewing site is it encourages that way of thinking…but I still don’t think it need to…

    Keep in touch.

  4. Leena
    October 5, 2008

    Thanks for this, everyone – and thanks to Kirsty for thinking of the interviews in the first place!

    kimbofo, yes, I see what you mean – and I didn’t actually mean to imply that blogs that are updated less often are somehow lesser blogs. Some of my favourites have a very leisurely pace. I suppose it’s just something that bothers me personally, from a blogger’s point of view, not a reader’s: that being ‘slave to the blog’ thing that you mentioned. I don’t think I’d be capable of having a blog without constantly wondering whether I should do something about it. I already feel like that about my handwritten diary and it’s stressful enough…

    Rosy, Wimbledon will be especially tricky as I haven’t quite learnt to toss the ball yet, but I’m working on it ;) What you said being allowed to ‘get involved, blown away, absorbed in the characters and story and…love it’ is exactly what I mean… and probably why I (like many others, it seems) am so in love with YA at the moment. Polly Shulman said something very pertinent about that in her interview earlier – how involved readers are at that age. Can’t imagine why readers shouldn’t be that involved at any age.

    And in my experience, it doesn’t necessarily even have to be a ‘fun’, popular type of book – I’ve read many quiet, thought-provoking books, or very intelligent, fascinating books without coming up with anything especially fascinating to say about them. (For instance, The Secret History – I’ve been meaning to answer your Night Climbers comment for a week now, and still don’t know how exactly to articulate my thoughts about TSH…) And I think it’s important to give yourself permission to just read, every now and then.

    I hope you’ll both read Jerusalem, by the way – it’s a wonderful book and nobody seems to have heard of it in the English-speaking world! I’d be curious to know whether the translations are any good.

  5. Moir
    October 5, 2008

    You’ll be missed, Leena. Sometimes, you had more sense than the rest of us put together (only sometimes, mind …) and always reviewed such interesting and unusual books.

    Interesting to read kimbofo’s thoughts about keeping blogs up to date. I always feel a bit guilty if I see people have been checking mine and I haven’t written anything recently …

    I’ve read three of your five-going-on-six favourite books … and Jerusalem sounds intriguing.

  6. lizzysiddal
    October 5, 2008

    This is a sad day, Leena. But if it means you’ll enjoy your reading more, then que sera, sera.

  7. Leena
    October 6, 2008

    Thanks, Moira and Lizzy! Lizzy, just to clarify – I’m not leaving VL because I’m fed up with book reviewing: it’s a combination of time management issues and having a pair of eyes that don’t get along with computer screens…

    Moira, which ones would those three be? Let me guess – Scoop, The Idiot and Camilla? (If the last, did you love or hate it? ;))

  8. Moira
    October 6, 2008

    Good guess. :)

    I started out being indifferent … but then I sort of warmed towards it and ended up thoroughly enjoying it.

  9. Lisa
    October 6, 2008

    Really sad that you’re leaving, Leena, but determined to lure you back for guest reviews :) I can hope!

  10. Jackie
    October 6, 2008

    What a wonderful way to say farewell, though it leaves me quite sad all the same. You started a terrific site here on VL, Leena and I hope we can continue in your spirit. But I shall miss your warm and witty posts that were a joy to read.
    As a Lieutenant in the Myshkinites, I was thrilled to see “The Idiot” in your 5 favorites. Long live Prince Myshkin!
    Hope your eyes improve and be assured I’ll keep in touch via snail mail. :)

  11. Patty
    October 18, 2008

    Jerusalem is a wonderful book, you’re right Leena.
    The Italian translation is very good. I love Lagerlof’s style, it’s simple but has something magical.

    Ciao!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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