Ignore the unfortunate Scandi-crime title. This is an intensely-researched and carefully-crafted work of historical fiction, s...moreThree and a half stars.
Ignore the unfortunate Scandi-crime title. This is an intensely-researched and carefully-crafted work of historical fiction, set in early nineteenth century Iceland. It recounts the final months of the tragic life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who is condemned to die by beheading for her role in the murders of two men. Hannah Kent breathes bleak and chilling breath into the facts of the case: Agnes was the last person to be publicly executed in Iceland. Several documents in translation pertaining to the case are interspersed throughout the narrative, anchoring this novel to its factual origins.
Months after her conviction, Agnes is released from a dank, windowless cell into the care of Margrét and Jón Jónsson and their two daughters, Lauga and Steina, in rural north Iceland. The family is mortified by this invasion, but as public servants just shy of abject poverty, they comply. Agnes has requested the spiritual counsel of a young clergyman, Assistant Reverend Thorvadur Jónsson, or Tóti (no relation to Agnes's host family), to serve as her spiritual guide through this unthinkable time in Limbo. The Reverend becomes her confessor and it is through their conversations and Agnes's inner thoughts that the reader learns of Agnes's life and the circumstances leading up to the murders.
For such a simple premise--an observation of a woman's final months of life--Ms. Kent floods the story with style and intent. The Gothic rendering of Iceland, of Agnes's life story and her relationship with one of the murdered men, creates a shaded and shadowed narrative. There is no color here, only stark whites, fathomless blacks, and grays of every hue. The period details center us in the characters' world. And Ms. Kent uses Agnes's tragedy to usher in themes of feminism and moral relativism (the guiding hand of her mentor Geraldine Brooks is felt most strongly here). Agnes relates her story in first-person, but the community interacts and observes her from third-person distance. Unfortunately, the thinness of the plot strains under its heavy burden of the author's stylistic ambitions.
Setting Agnes's final months against the backdrop of such a stark landscape is brilliant, but the tradeoff is that flashback must be used to show the circumstances leading to the murders. It diffuses the tension and trips up the pacing. And Tóti, the meek, inexperienced clergyman, is so hapless that Agnes's whispers have a perfunctory air. I found myself drifting, skimming, checking my watch, wondering why the past mattered, now. I wanted to know so much more of this woman than what flashbacks and inner monologues could provide.
Hannah Kent's writing is beautiful, elegant, tremendous. But it is often overbearing. The metaphors clamor and compete for attention and can be repetitive. Burial Rites is steeped in atmosphere and at times the poetic imagery swallows the plot and feels self-indulgent, whether it's the mossy mucus of Margrét's lungs (we see and hear a lot of Margrét's mucus) or the weather that comes in like a gasp, or staggers through the window, bodies tied like lambs to slaughter, corpses rotting like meat, the smell of blood-- it's not the presence of these haunting, effective images, it is their repetition that had me twitching. Kent even mixes in some heavy-handed symbolism with ravens and stones to lend depth to Agnes's character.
The author hits her stride about two-thirds of the way into the narrative, as Margrét's, and to a lesser extent, Steina's, relationships with the condemned deepen and become heavy with meaning and regret. This was the story I wanted to see more of.
I keep tripping over reviews that note Hannah Kent's age when she wrote her striking debut novel. Making a thing of her age is regrettable. Ms. Kent was an accomplished writer before Burial Rites and like any artist, she will continue to grow, evolve, and deepen her talents. Eleanor Catton, 28, was awarded the 2013 Man Booker for her astonishly-originalThe Luminaries; Eimear McBride is raking in the awards, including the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, written years ago when she was in her 20s. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Joshua Ferris, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Dinaw Mengestu, Téa Obreht, Karen Russell, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nathan Englander and Junot Díaz, Michael Chabon, and David Foster Wallace --- the list goes on. All writers who achieved extraordinary things in their mid 20-mid 30s. Hannah Kent doesn't need our condescension.
I didn't enjoy this novel overmuch, but I'm appreciative of the writer's tremendous sense of place, style, and storytelling. I look forward to her next work.
There is no one for creating rich, unpredictable, maddening, hilarious and heartbreaking characters like Louise Erdrich. To read her is to study the c...moreThere is no one for creating rich, unpredictable, maddening, hilarious and heartbreaking characters like Louise Erdrich. To read her is to study the craft of creating unique voices -- each of her characters, and there are so very many in The Beet Queen -- takes three-dimensional, Technicolor shape in your mind.
Within The Beet Queen are familiar names and faces, such that I encourage any reader to begin with Love Medicine to get the full scope of the Kashpaw history, but it's not necessary to wring full satisfaction out of this novel.
It may seem that three-stars is a low rating, but I assign this within the context of the other Erdrich novels I have read. The Beet Queen didn't elicit the same sense of wonder and depth of emotion as Love Medicine or The Round House and at times I felt a profound weariness. Multi-generational novels that span decades can lose something to time - a sense of immediacy and an over-familiarity with the characters' behavior - that wears down the edge of the plot.
Yet to read this is to experience a type of fiction that I see less and less of in contemporary works - a depth of character and a slow burn of context that eschews formula and is utterly unselfconscious. Powerful. (less)
There are moments of pure magic in every life, glimpses of beauty no grief can tarnish, that live on in the sheltered niches and alcoves of memory. This was one of ours. Remember these places and their treasures, that you may find your way there whenever the darkness of the world presses too close.
~ Dario Ciriello, recounting a night swim in the Aegean, surrounded by bioluminescent plankton.
This quote comes late in Aegean Dream, Dario's story of the year he and his wife, Linda, spent on the tiny Greek island of Skópelos. Sounds like just the sort of reflection someone who lives on an island so beautiful it became the setting for the movie Mamma Mia can afford to make. But read it again. For there is such sorrow in Dario's phrases. By the time he comes to recognize this moment of beauty, he and Linda have already made the wrenching decision to leave Greece.
Linda and Dario had left behind a comfortable life in California to immigrate to Greece barely a year before. It was a bold move, but not a crazy one. They had spent time in Skópelos and Dario, a British national, had EU citizenship. They were assured by the Greek consulate that residency for Dario would be automatic and Linda would have no trouble obtaining hers once they were in country. They had thought through plans for small business ventures for soapmaking (Linda) and housepainting (Dario), as well as a chance for Dario to spend more time writing. They spent over a year in the planning, including intensive study of the Greek language.
Their motivation, besides envisioning a life in a whitewashed cottage, shaded by olive trees, perched on an island in the middle of the cerulean Aegean? Oh, man, I could have written this:
Why then fear moving to another country, shooting for the moon? Life was to be lived, and they knew how to do that in southern Europe, where people had time for family and friends, and didn't measure their worth by how many hours the worked.
We knew there were risks. But the risk of growing old and having regrets because we'd been to timid to follow our dreams was the most frightening of all. What to others seemed like courage was, to us, necessity. It was survival.
Yes. This. ^^^
A year later they returned to California, on the edge financially and crushed emotionally. The same corrupt and convoluted bureaucracy that sent Greece into an economic tailspin and nearly took down the Eurozone not long after they left, slapped these two souls into a corner. Their only way out was to leave.
We're all familiar with the "Despite the infernal locals and all that annoying sunshine and cheese, we rallied and restored a medieval barn into the perfect home-within-a-vineyard residence in southern Europe" tale -- you know, those memoirs we love to hate: A Year in Provence, Under A Tuscan Sun, etc. We devour them like gluttons, unable to squelch our envy but helpless to stop building our own castles in Spain as we live vicariously through someone else's dreams come true.
But few of these stories have unhappy endings. It takes a very brave soul to admit when the dream has become a nightmare, it's time to cut losses, and move on. To turn back and reopen doors which you'd slammed shut and tossed aside the keys. It takes an even braver soul to release that story to the world.
Dario's recounting of their experiences is vivid and maddening, but fair. Funny. Honest. Reflective. There is so much affection for Greece and for the dear Greek friends who sheltered and tried their best to help usher the Ciriellos into the community and through the maddening maze of bureaucracy that you hold out hope it's not going to end the way you know it will (and this review is no spoiler-- even a cursory glance at the book's description lets you know what to expect). This is not a dump-on-Greece misadventure. This is the story of two smart, resourceful, courageous, and imperfect people trying to meet a culture on its own terms.
Aegean Dream hurt me with thousand tiny cuts. My husband and I left the Pacific Northwest for New Zealand just a few months before Dario and Linda left California for Greece. Our stories proceeded very differently--we had Permanent Residency and moved to a country where everything works with astonishing efficiency. I cannot fathom a place easier to immigrate to than the Land of the Long White Cloud. But we returned less than two years later, our hearts shattered. The how and the why shall become fodder for my own memoir that I'm still -- seven years after our return -- building the courage to write. But even though our circumstances were very different, our emotional journey has so much in common with Dario and Linda's. Aegean Dream was a cathartic and healing read for this traveler.
Others have had it far worse than us, and we count ourselves fortunate. Our trials have tempered us and made us realize how resilient and adaptable we are. We learned to live for the day, and to be happy with little. Would we risk such an adventure again? It's a question we don't dare ask ourselves.
I received a copy of Aegean Dream from the publisher for an honest review. My thanks to Panverse Publishing, founded by Dario Ciriello after his return to the United States. Now, there's a happy ending. (less)
Last week I crossed paths with two food-centric non-fiction books. One, a memoir, written by a famous chef, was set in my favorite place on the planet...moreLast week I crossed paths with two food-centric non-fiction books. One, a memoir, written by a famous chef, was set in my favorite place on the planet: Paris. I thought for certain I'd love it. I love memoir. I love Paris. I adore cheffy things. Alas, I kicked it to the curb after the first twenty-five pages.
The other, this book here, this rambling, occasionally pedantic, gushing and ripe-with-hyperbole look at the life and times of olive oil, I slurped up with gusto.
I read in a review of Extra Virginity (and I'll be damned if I can remember where, so apologies for lack of attribution and that I must paraphrase), "...Extra Virginity is proof that subpar non-fiction is always better than subpar fiction." I'd add in subpar memoir. Not even Paris can save lousy writing and arrogant affect. So, yeah, Tom Mueller is no Ruth Reichl or MFK Fisher, but he tells a tale of olive oil with such passion and integrity, it's impossible not to be caught up in the story.
There are a couple of different things going on in Extra Virginity. First and foremost is the investigation into the corrupt world of olive oil production and distribution. Mueller's book was born out of a story that he wrote for The New York Times. The unfortunate thing about a static book is that the book ends, but the story does not. Mueller does not go far enough into the investigation. The corruption he reveals surely penetrates the highest levels of Italian government and possibly EU regulatory entities. There is a greater story, a richer and more rotten one. But Mueller strikes me as a really sweet guy who wants everyone to get along and support best practices by buying only quality olive oil. A worthy goal.
I think he also naïvely and wrongly suggests that olive oil is somehow a world apart from other specialty food items in terms of corruption and scandal. Wine- from grape cultivation to production and distribution - is of particular interest to this oenophile. Unrest assured, the wine world is rife with shady business. Please don't tell me that Trader Joe's is putting $20 bottles of Amarone on its shelves out of the goodness of its heart. Just last week I read of an investigation into Soave producers believed to be adding Riesling to their wines to "spice it up." Sounds harmless, but as Mueller shows, cheating is cheating. Honest producers and consumers pay the price when the integrity of a beautiful food chain is broken.
The other thing at play in Extra Virginity is an unabashed love affair with this storied, sublime food. It is a narrative designed to seduce those enchanted by all things culinary (you know, that icky word, "foodies"). Mueller goes straight for the foodie jugular by painting scenes of the Mediterranean countryside, with Roman ruins and medieval farmhouses set in golden fields, presided over by sun-baked farmers and their round-hipped wives, or by chic, multilingual children who return to the family farm after years in high finance or industrial agronomy to embrace the simple life. Although, it's not so simple. Cultivating olive trees and producing quality oil is hella hard. Expensive. Many farmers tend orchards that they will not live long enough to see into production, hoping to leave a legacy to their families.
Mueller also offers an extensive history of olive cultivation and production and makes a hearty case for olive oil as the world's most perfect food. I found myself not only craving olive oil at many points, but wrinkling my nose with distaste at the clogging, cloying properties of butter and cheese. Can you just imagine? If you've read Extra Virginity, yes, you probably can.
There are some editing problems in Extra Virginity that rankled. The use of the word varietal with grapes, instead of cultivar or variety , mystified me. Varietal is an adjective; variety is a noun. For some inexplicable reason, variety was used correctly when discussing olives, but incorrectly with grapes.
Adjectives and adverbs are flung hither and yon and repeated to eye-rolling effect. The structure of the book seems haphazard, jumping around in theme and style. And, as I noted earlier, much of scandal is left unexplored.
But most importantly, this consumer's eyes were opened and her buying habits were changed. I've cooked with EVOO forever. My husband worked at an olive orchard and oil production facility in New Zealand and brought home buckets of unfiltered liquid gold (okay, liquid green). I've tasted the freshest, most delicious oils I never knew were possible. I understood that olive oil is as nuanced as wine. But really, I had no idea how complex the issues were and how vulnerable the industry is. Now I know what to look for, which questions to ask, and that my choices have consequences, both for my own health and for the health and sustainability of a noble fruit and its by-products. And like wine, I understand there is a great price to be paid when buying cheap olive oil.
ETA/Update: I've discovered that the fancy olive oil shop which opened up in my little village in December is supplied exclusively by Veronica Foods, the Berkeley-based oil purveyor founded by Veronica and Tom Bradley, champions of quality oil. Tom Mueller is a big fan. I can enjoy olive oils from around the world and feel great about my purchases!
Tom Mueller maintains an excellent website Truth in Olive Oil that is a must if you are interested in learning more about the options for purchasing quality oils and Mueller's commitment to changing the industry. Bravo. (less)
In the Author's Notes, Elizabeth Wein states she set out to write a good story, rather than good history. I love that. I love that she had the confide...moreIn the Author's Notes, Elizabeth Wein states she set out to write a good story, rather than good history. I love that. I love that she had the confidence to tell the story that was in her heart, in her way, with such panache.
This is a rollicking good tale, with clever, crackling writing, a brilliantly original plot, and irresistible heroines. Its legion of Young Adult fans have every reason to gush. I feel a bit curmudgeonly and contradictory saying that I found the story so implausible, it was hard for me to invest emotionally in the characters, and the painstakingly detailed aviation bits got to be a drag, but still ever so glad to have experienced Wein's sparkling imagination.
Readers who are still keen on reading more about female intelligence agents operating during World War II will be spellbound by Simon Mawer's outstanding (adult) novel, Trapeze: Trapeze by Simon Mawer(less)