Not a bad collection, so far as I can tell—there's some overlap in stories with other noted collections, but still a nice variety that is not represen...moreNot a bad collection, so far as I can tell—there's some overlap in stories with other noted collections, but still a nice variety that is not represented elsewhere. The translations are nice to read—they sound like oral stories, which I appreciate.
My main quibble is that the introduction is quite short and doesn't give a lot of context to the reader. Also: the table of contents is in the back of the book, which I didn't realize until after I was done using it. That would have made it a lot easier to reference and flip through. (less)
Another book I picked up while researching an article I was writing about Iceland's huldufólk, or Hidden People. Dr. Simpson's introduction was anothe...moreAnother book I picked up while researching an article I was writing about Iceland's huldufólk, or Hidden People. Dr. Simpson's introduction was another invaluable resource for me, with great details about mythological beings and their reception by the people who would have been telling/hearing these tales, as well as further information on the collection of the tales in the first place.
I very much enjoy Dr. Simpson's translations—they retain an oral quality, for one. Additionally, each story is followed by fantastic notes and context, often placing a tale or a strain of tales into a larger thematic family.
A really great reference, and fun reading, too. (less)
This was one of the books I shipped with me to Iceland with the intention of boning up on Icelandic mythology and folklore. It wasn't until just last...moreThis was one of the books I shipped with me to Iceland with the intention of boning up on Icelandic mythology and folklore. It wasn't until just last week, however, that I finally cracked the volume, as part of research I was doing on Iceland's huldufólk (Hidden People) for an article that I was writing.
The introduction here by Terry Gunnell proved to be invaluable, with great context about the settings and environments that folktales would be told in, a characterization of huldufólk and 'huldufólk-lore' (my silly pun, not his), and information about Jón Árnason's collection of these tales in the mid-1800s.
The retellings by J.M. Bedell (those I've read thus far) are indeed engaging, as was his stated intention: "In an attempt to engage my readers, I kept most of the marvelous details translated in the cited texts...but retained the right to use all the techniques available to any storyteller of fiction—writing scenes, creating suspense and drama, and varying points of view."
My favorite huldufólk-tales in thus volume thus far have been "The Origin of the Hidden People," "The Father of Eighteen Elves," "The Elves' Dance on New Year's Eve," and, of course, the title story. (less)
My first Zweig, but certainly not my last. I obviously have nothing to compare to, but these two stories (or one short story and one novella) seem to...moreMy first Zweig, but certainly not my last. I obviously have nothing to compare to, but these two stories (or one short story and one novella) seem to be a great introduction to the author's work, both thematically and in terms of the writing style.
The writing is lovely—descriptive without getting too bogged down in flowery descriptions, evocative without being showy. Zweig's descriptions of characters are also wonderful. These people—the blind woodcut collector who lives in the German countryside and Jacob (Buch)Mendel, the obsessively single-minded book pedlar—are definitely 'characters' in that you don't really imagine them as people that exist outside of a book, but they also feel very well-fleshed out, very true to their own stories. Likewise, both of these stories feel entirely complete—their outcomes totally inevitable. (Note: I don't mean predictable, so much as fated—part of a greater, historical storyline that simply couldn't turn out any other way.) The first story, "The Invisible Collection," especially so—almost reading like a fable that you've read many times before.
Set as they both are in the years following WWI, or per the "The Invisible Collection"'s subtitle, "during the inflation period in Germany," there is also certainly a political aspect to both of these stories, although it reads now as simply being on the right side of history. Zweig, I recently found out, having fled Austria after Hitler's rise to power, committed suicide with his wife in Brazil in the early 40s out of despair over the state of Europe and the rise of fascism. And there is certainly a mournful regret that hangs over these stories, even when not mentioned outright (as it is on occasion). But overall, there's a touching humanistic appreciation within this work which balances out what are ultimately pretty tragic tales. (less)
With the Iceland Noir conference coming up in November, now seemed as good a time as any to read another Erlendur novel, the first I've picked up sinc...moreWith the Iceland Noir conference coming up in November, now seemed as good a time as any to read another Erlendur novel, the first I've picked up since Voices, maybe six years ago. I wasn't overwhelmed by Voices, I will admit, but I really liked Erlendur as a detective, so such a long pause in the series does feel a bit strange to me. And for reasons I really can't remember, if I had them in the first place, I skipped over the next title in the series, The Draining Lake and went for this one instead. So, starting it, I was a bit concerned that I wouldn't remember enough of the detective's back story to follow that continuing plot line. As it turns out, I needn't have worried on the latter point, as the back story plot picks up in a new spot, but with plenty of reminders to help old readers remember, and new readers catch up.
There are an enjoyable number of intertwining circumstances and stories in this installment: Erlendur's ordeal losing his brother in a snowstorm when he was a child dovetails with the murder of a Thai child whose older brother then feels responsible for not protecting him better. Additionally, there is an ongoing missing persons case and a possible child abuse case which loom on the sidelines, effecting Erlendur's general mood and response to the case as it unfolds. Not to mention other painful life-filler, such as Sigurður Olí's ambivalence about adopting a child now that it has been determined that he and his partner can't have their own child, and Marion Briem's death.
This is also the first crime novel set in Iceland that I have read after moving here, and it is certainly interesting to read about Reykjavík and know the streets which are being mentioned, the shops, and the statues. It adds one more layer of verisimilitude.
The racial tension in the novel is presented with nuance and accuracy, I think, although I did find myself bristling at the regular use of the word "colored" to refer to Icelanders of non-white ethnicities, specifically Thai people. I have been asking around, but still am not totally sure if this is just a direct translation of a regularly used Icelandic term, or a bit of an anachronism in the English. I'm interested enough that I just might try and pick up the Icelandic version for comparison.
A lot of the office politics within the gallery setting were enjoyable, as were the passages where characters outline the ways in which they have dete...moreA lot of the office politics within the gallery setting were enjoyable, as were the passages where characters outline the ways in which they have determined that a work of art might be a forgery (my favorite fun fact: no birch trees with straight trunks existed in Iceland in the middle of the last century). But while there is a lot that actually happens in this novel, it never really felt like it got off the ground. There is a lot of back story, and either it or any one of the many sub-plots, character relationships, etc. could really have used some more development.
It is definitely a novel in which the setting comes through, however. I very much enjoyed reading the descriptions of Reykjavík and the surrounding areas, and getting even a cursory feel for the art scene here. (less)
I was really happy to have finally gotten to this book--I have been meaning to read Juan Rulfo for a long time--but I think I will definitely need to...moreI was really happy to have finally gotten to this book--I have been meaning to read Juan Rulfo for a long time--but I think I will definitely need to give it another read in the near future, when I can either read it in one sitting or be more attentive as I go. The narrative starts so straightforwardly, but the shifting of voices and achronological sequences make the story actually rather complex. So while I really enjoyed the reading of Pedro Páramo, I felt like I was sort of skating atop the surface of it. I will definitely spend more time diving in--to stick with the metaphor--the next time I pick it up. But the chorus of voices, the eerie settings, the flashes of past tragedies, and the feeling of inevitability as the narrative progresses will definitely make another read worth it. (less)
An English translation of an Icelandic book of comical images (is this a particular graphic/comic form, I wonder?) Generalizations About Nations is fi...moreAn English translation of an Icelandic book of comical images (is this a particular graphic/comic form, I wonder?) Generalizations About Nations is filled with just that. The nations included are "categorized by a complicated system of whims and random and sudden epiphanies" (much like the real world, honestly) and these subdivisions are actually rather interesting in and of themselves. The Americas are organized together, for instance, which makes geographic sense, but then, for instance, Lebanon was included in the Asia section, which surprised me.
There are some generalizations included that seem be reflective of common stereotypes ("Icelanders are at least 15 decibels louder than other people"). Others which seem a little more politically or historically pointed ("Germans are so preoccupied with the past that they keep forgetting something," -- picture of an unattended child in a shopping cart.) As an American who has encountered a fair number of really unpleasant American stereotypes (the most unpleasant of which were, in great part, based on reality), I was pleased that the generalizations about my nation were not your typical Stupid/Rich/Cowboy American fare. Instead, "Every third American is either a vampire, zombie, or super hero" and "Nothing makes Hawaiian children happier than finding a beached corpse," (picture of children having a tea party under a palm tree with aforementioned dead body.)
The vast majority of these Generalizations, however, appear to be completely random and absurd (again, much like in the real world), which is precisely why they are funny. "In Macedonia, dropping an ice cream and/or popsicle is punishable by law." "Elderly women in Georgia suffer from an inexplicable urge to destroy things." Or maybe my favorite one: "Things are not always what they seem in Ghana," which is accompanied by a picture, somehow ominous, of a laundromat washing machine.
The artwork, I should mention, of course, is filled with a lot of sight gags and the drawing style itself is very detailed but still very clean (all b&w line drawing, but with a fair amount of shading). The people in each frame all tend a bit towards the grotesque, which seems like another bit of equal opportunity joshing. Race is represented without being exploited or exoticized.
Generalizations About Nations, could potentially be quite a problematic project, but I think it is a rather successful one. It is funny and pointed and sometimes the dark humor is a bit cracked (see the above line about Hawaiian kids), and gets across a larger theme about the absurdity inherent in xenophobia/stereotyping an entire country without having to belabor the point. (less)
When Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason first published LoveStar, his darkly comic parable of corporate power and media influence run amok, the world was in a very different place. (This was back before both Facebook and Twitter, if you can recall such a time.) He noted as much himself in a recent interview with The Reykjavík Grapevine: “[w]hen it came out in 2002 it was called a dystopian novel; now it’s being called a parody. We seem to have already reached that dystopia.”
It is difficult to create a fictional milieu that touches on anything remotely related to technology or The Future and doesn’t feel dated pretty much the minute the ink dries on the page. (My favorite example of this is the Ethan Hawke Hamlet adaptation, which came out in 2000 and was peppered with cutting edge technology . . . like fax machines and Polaroid cameras.) As such, it is no small accomplishment that in the ten years since LoveStar was released, the book feels not obsolete, but rather prescient, or at least exasperatingly plausible.
The novel kicks off at some indeterminate point in the future, after a series of freakish, but not cataclysmic, natural events lead a group of intrepid Icelandic scientists to seek wireless alternatives to current technology. (An oversaturation of “waves, messages, transmissions, and electric fields,” they believe, is to blame for such events as clouds of bees taking over Chicago, driving out residents and flooding the downtown area with ponds of honey.)
Then comes the dawn of the “the cordless man,” who can both communicate and be communicated to through entirely internal methods:
When men in suits talked to themselves out on the streets and reeled off figures, no one took them for lunatics: they were probably doing business with some unseen client. The man who sat in rapt concentration on a riverbank might be an engineer designing a bridge . . . and when a teenager made strange humming noises on the bus, nodding his head to and fro, he was probably listening to an invisible radio.
None of this, of course, is too great an exaggeration on technology that has come into being in the last decade, and even the absurd advertising methods that quickly become the norm in the world of LoveStar feel accurate. People in debt can rent out their brains’ speech centers out and become “howlers,” automatically screeching advertisements or reminders at specific passersby (“I can’t believe that guy is still wearing a Blue Millets anorak!” or “_Dallas_ is starting!”). “Secret hosts” are hired by companies to go around surreptitiously selling their friends products within everyday conversations. And everything—from birth to love to death—is monetized and monopolized by one gigantic corporation and its subsidiaries: LoveStar.
All of this, it bears noting, is just prologue and backdrop to the novel’s main focus: such is the sheer density of the world that Andri Snær creates within just the first few chapters. There are two main plots that overlap, somewhat achronologically. One follows the executive LoveStar himself in the last hours of his life (Andri Snær has likened the character to Steve Jobs; another reviewer saw Kári Stefánson, the founder of deCODE Genetics). The other plot follows the repeatedly thwarted attempts of a young couple, Indridi and Sigrid, trying to evade the corporate machinations that would break them apart from one another and re-pair them with their supposedly scientifically verifiable perfect partner.
There is a lot going on—arguably a little too much, as some of the larger themes get somewhat lost in the sweep of the (literally) explosive climax, or are, in some cases, grandly dramatized, but done so with little finesse. Though overall, it’s compulsively readable, due in great part to Andri Snær’s kooky creativity and the novel’s simple, straightforward style of prose (credit here to translator Victoria Cribb, who has translated, among others, three novels by Sjón and Gyrðir Elíasson’s Stone Tree).
Read today—in the wake of not only myriad technological advances, but also a worldwide financial meltdown the consequences of which were profoundly felt in Iceland, and will continue to be so for probably decades to come— LoveStar feels a bit like cracking open a time capsule. Its world is poised on the edge of implosion, held in check by only the tiniest bit of better judgement. “If we don’t do it,” LoveStar remarks before embarking on one last, ruinous power quest, “someone else will.”(less)
A frank and poetic meditation on nature, relationships, and the choices that define us, Bergsveinn Birgisson’s Reply To A Letter From Helga paints an unflinching portrait of Bjarni, an elderly man on the verge of “the Great Relocation congenital to all men” who is ready to finally face the defining decision of his life and respond to a letter left unanswered for so many years.
When, in his youth, his lover Helga offered him the chance to follow her to a new life in Reykjavík, Bjarni chose instead to remain on the farm which had been in his family for generations, choosing his love for the land over romantic love and companionship. This decision was, and remains, a fraught and painful one for him. Even so, he maintains a clear sense of pride throughout the novel, a strength of purpose which separates his story from more conventional narratives of love lost. “I thought of what kind of person I would become in Reykjavík,” Bjarni writes.
Could I love you...under such circumstances? Is it so certain, Helga, that everything would have been fine for us? I would have dug a ditch for you and filled it back up again, the same ditch all my life...But abandon myself, the countryside and farming, which were who I am; that I couldn’t do.”
While his brief, but passionate, affair with Helga provides the basis for his reflections, his other lifelong love, “the district where my forefathers had lived for an entire millennium,” is what gives him purpose. For Bjarni’s message is as much a love letter to the country and to a nearly forgotten way of life as it is a paean to Helga. His language is simple but always richly sensual, particularly in its descriptions of nature, and its evocations of desire and longing. Often these elements combine, as when he describes the “Helga Tussocks,” which, “with their smooth, flat tops and steep, rounded sides, are made from the same mold as your breasts, by the same creative hands.”
Bjarni’s recollections also dramatise the seasonal rituals and complex relationships in a small, rural village, alighting on yearly sheep round-ups and ram exhibitions, on taciturn men sagely discussing politics at the local co-op, on the regular meetings and heated debates of the district Reading Club. (Bjarni has been an avid reader all his life, and quotes poetry, sagas, and psalms throughout the novel. This English translation includes a glossary of works cited, making for an excellent primer to great Icelandic literature.) His stories are not all happy ones: “I’m not saying that everything is so heavenly [in the country] and the people are utter angels,” he says. “Of course there is rumormongering and jealousy and all sorts of other hogwash. But these same people loan you a tractor tire in a pinch.”
Reply To A Letter From Helga is a rare novel in its capacity to measure and examine regret, courageous in its recognition that loving another person is not always enough in itself. “Love is also in this life I’ve lived here in the countryside,” Bjarni writes. “And when I chose this life and pursued it and didn’t regret it, I learned that one should stick to one’s decision, nurture it and not deviate—that this is an expression of love.”(less)