I read Smith's Changing my Mind last year and really loved it, but this short story/novella (which was apparently first published in The New Yorker) wI read Smith's Changing my Mind last year and really loved it, but this short story/novella (which was apparently first published in The New Yorker) was my first encounter with her fiction. It's so tightly contained, and yet it really gives you a sense of a whole wide world. The split narration structure—one close third narrator following the main character, Fatou, and one unnamed first person narrator standing in for 'us,' the people of the Willesden neighborhood where the story takes place—was rather genius. You get to be right in the story and next to the character and also outside, observing her impassively.
After reading this over one long bus ride, I found myself thinking about scenes and lines from this story for the whole week, reading passages from it out loud to other people. Probably time for me to pick up one of her novels. ...more
I'm reading this as part of my Contemporary Literature class this semester and am really enjoying it, although many of the stories are deceptively comI'm reading this as part of my Contemporary Literature class this semester and am really enjoying it, although many of the stories are deceptively complex (on a language level, I mean). Quick thoughts (not reviews) on some of the stories as I read them:
Jón Atli Jónasson: „Pizza, Pizza"
Enjoyed this one quite a bit, although it took me several hours—and lots of dictionary-checking—to finish. It's a 'nothing happens, but everything happens' sort of story: the main character is a pizza delivery guy who drops a pizza on his way to deliver it, returns back to the restaurant for a replacement, and that's about it. A covert writer who makes detailed, if somewhat guilty, observations about his coworkers and people in his life in a secret notebook he keeps, the narrator spends a lot of time thinking about the people around him, and sort of bouncing between two sorts of cultural/artistic poles and references in his life—Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and a host of American war movies, like Apocalypse, Now.
Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir:„Hvenær á maður mann og hvenær á maður ekki mann?"
This is a short-short that didn't go over well with my classmates at all (they seemed to think it was boring), although I found it rather funny. The titular line is, apparently, an echo of a famous (and famously circular) line in Iceland's Bell by Halldór Laxness, which I thought was interesting although I think I missed the significance of this echo a bit. The story starts a bit like chick-lit: the main character decides she's done with men, and so decides instead that she will give herself to God instead. And then it goes a bit wonky. She locks herself in a dark room, pushes the key under the door, and prepares herself for the arrival of God. He doesn't show for quite some time, however, and so she gets extremely hungry and weak while waiting. He does, however, come eventually, has sex with her, and then tells her that he doesn't really want her. This again reads a bit like absurdist chick-lit, and she struggles to figure out how it is that now, of all men, that god is rejecting her. God then goes about trying to explain that she's not a gift (from her) that he's rejecting, but rather, that by locking herself up like this, she's a gift (from him) that she's rejecting.
And all this packed into three, concise pages. ...more
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 represenNot 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. ...more
Another book I picked up while researching an article I was writing about Iceland's huldufólk, or Hidden People. Dr. Simpson's introduction was anotheAnother 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. ...more
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 lastThis 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. ...more
It is always a pleasant surprise to confirm—or reconfirm, as the case may be—that that great author that “everyone” says is so good, or that “everyoneIt is always a pleasant surprise to confirm—or reconfirm, as the case may be—that that great author that “everyone” says is so good, or that “everyone” is made to read in high school or college, or that Time has declared to be Important, is actually, sincerely worth the hype. So it happens that I’ve had it reconfirmed for myself this year that J.D. Salinger is, yes: really, incredibly good.
I enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye, but I actually read it too late (it wasn’t actually assigned to me in high school, when I really should have read it), and so it maybe hasn't been on the top of my Very Favorites list. Then I loved Franny and Zoey, which still stands as one of those books that I can read over and over, as I always remember loving it, but forget all the details, so then re-read it again and love it all over. Having just finished Nine Stories for the first time, I think it will be one of the latter kinds of books. I may not remember all of the details of each story, but I think the tone of the book will stick with me, and I will undoubtedly read and love it again in the future.
What stood out for me during this reading, stretched out over more than a month, is that I found myself constantly wanting to read little sections or snatches of dialog or wry observations out loud. Not only does Salinger just have an amazing talent for biting dialog which just sounds great to hear spoken, his turns of phrase also just tickle you (me) in a way which makes you want to share it. So it’s in this spirit that I’ve gone back through and found particularly quotable lines to share "aloud."
“A Perfect Day for a Banana Fish”
She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing.
“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”
”Well, wudga marry him for, then?” Mary Jane said.
“Oh, God, I don’t know. He told me he loved Jane Austen. He told me her books meant a great deal to him. That’s exactly what he said. I found out after we were married that he hadn’t even read one of her books. You know who his favorite author is?”
Mary Jane shook her head.
“L. Manning Vines. Ever hear of him?”
“Neither did I. Neither did anybody else. He wrote a book about four men who starved to death in Alaska. Lew doesn’t remember the name of it, but it’s the most beautifully written book he’s ever read. Christ! He isn’t even honest enough to come right out and say he liked it because it was about four guys who starved to death in an igloo or something. He has to say it was beautifully written.”
“Just Before the War with the Eskimos”
Ginnie openly considered Selena the biggest drip at Miss Basehoar’s—a school ostensibly abounding with fair-sized drips—but at the same time she had never known anyone like Selena for bringing a fresh can of tennis balls.
“What happened?” Ginnie asked, looking at him.
“Oh…it’s too long a story. I never bore people I haven’t known for at least a thousand years.”
“For Esme—with Love and Squalor”
”I thought Americans despised tea,” she said.
It wasn’t the observation of a smart aleck but that of a truth-lover or a statistics-lover.
“Yes; quite,” said my guest, in the clear, unmistakable voice of a small-talk detester.
He sighed heavily and said, “Christ, Almighty.” It meant nothing; it was Army.
Loretta was Clay’s girl. They meant to get married at their earliest convenience. She wrote to him fairly regularly, from a paradise of triple exclamation points and inaccurate observations.
Clay stared at him for a moment, then said, rather vividly, as if he were the bearer of exceptionally good news, “I wrote Loretta you had a nervous breakdown."
“Yeah. She’s interested as hell in all that stuff. She’s majoring in psychology.” Clay stretched himself out on the bed, shoes included. “You know what she said? She said nobody gets a nervous breakdown just from the war and all. She says you probably were unstable like, your whole goddamn life.
X bridged his hands over his eyes—the light over the bed seemed to be blinding him—and said that Loretta’s insight into things was always a joy.
“You know that apple Adam ate in the Garden of Eden, referred to in the Bible?” he asked. “You know what in that apple? Logic. Logic and intellectual stuff…I never saw such a bunch of apple-eaters,” he said. He shook his head.
During the "Golden Age" of British crime fiction, Ronald Knox, a British clergyman, literary critic, and author of several crime novels himself, wroteDuring the "Golden Age" of British crime fiction, Ronald Knox, a British clergyman, literary critic, and author of several crime novels himself, wrote the "ten commandments" of crime fiction (see here: http://goo.gl/v1saO). These rules vary from "Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable" to "No Chinaman must figure in the story." (In his introduction, Škvorecký explains that despite the regrettable epitaph, the rule "was not a display of racism on the part of the good Father, but simply his reaction to what was one of the most hackneyed ploys of cheap detective stories.")
Since the writing of these "commandments," most have been broken in very good examples of crime fiction. Josef Škvorecký, a Czech author who emigrated to Canada following the Prague Spring, set out to break all of Father Knox's rules in this collection of short, linked crime stories. You, the reader, are charged with two tasks when reading: determining not only whodunnit in each story, but also which sin Škvorecký has committed against the commandments. (If you need some help working out the "who," the "what," and the "how" of each story, the "Ab-solutions" in the back will clear things up for you.)
Each of the ten stories find the gorgeous, clever, and world-weary Czech night-club singer Eve Adam unexpectedly playing detective in run-down bars and seedy districts all over the world. Having been cleared of a murder she was wrongly convicted of in the first story (with the help of Škvorecký's usual leading man, Detective Boruvka) Eve joins a traveling Czech performance group. But whether she's in Sweden, Italy, San Francisco, a cruise across the Atlantic, or Prague, certain things don't change for Eve--for all her cynicism, she's a romantic who can never stay away from smooth-talking men, and wherever she goes, someone seems to unexpectedly turn up dead.
Škvorecký taps into his inner Conan Doyle, and stresses logic and deduction in each tale, but honestly, sometimes the stories are convoluted enough (much like a Sherlock Holmes story) that it would prove a difficult thing to work out the answers. But while the stories occasionally feel a bit too clever, the surrounding characterizations are really rich and entertaining. Characters reoccur throughout the book and anecdotes told in one story pop up again and are put to good use in another. (You really have to read all of the stories in order--they build on one another in small, but meaningful ways. Also, it's best to read each story in one sitting--it's easy to forget little pertinent details and clues otherwise.) Eve is a sharp narrator, and a very funny observer of human folly--including her own--which really makes this a pleasure to read. ...more
I'm reviewing this collection this month and am hopping around among the various sections/stories (there are actually a lot of big name authors included), so I'm just going to list some brief impressions of the stories as I read them so as to not totally muddle them in my head.
Part I: (Men and) Women
*Women in Copenhagen: Decent. Fairly good atmosphere, and an interesting enough back story, but little comes of it. Credibility is somewhat stretched in the very first paragraph of the story, with the lines, "You have arrived in Scandinavia. You have just entered a long, bitter winter. Here there are no free rides. Here you are left to your own fate." I'll give you that the winter's are cold, but c'mon with the abandonment bit. Me thinks the welfare state doth protest too much.
*One of the Rough Ones: Bleh. Very harsh story, very violent. Young women/sexual abuse/etc. It would be hard for me to determine honestly if this is a good story. It's just not for me. I skimmed.
*Australia: Pretty good. Yet another example of scary immigrants in Denmark (this time, Polish/Eastern European sex traffickers and drug dealers), which is irritating, and it does veer into a more visceral sort of violence at the end, which again, I'm just not a fan of. But I actually thought a lot of the characterizations were strong. There are multiple characters who all get some form of narration from their points of view--a small time 'clean-up man' and member of the prostitution syndicate who's saved up a great deal of money so that he can run away and start over; a Polish prostitute named Adina who has escaped and is hiding out in the apartment of one of her Danish patrons; a young Moldavian girl who has been sold in prostitution by her parents (but not yet actually handed over to the prostitution ring); a brutal pimp searching for Adina. And everyone looking for an escape route. The ending resolves well, although I actually suspect that there was a misprint of two characters' names. There's a change-of-heart twist at the end that doesn't really make sense given the men in question. But either way, it's got a good ending.
*All I Want Is My Baby, Whoah Whoah, Woah Woah Woah Woah: Inner monologue of a would-be psychopath. Slightly more interesting because the narrator is a woman, incensed because of an insulting pick up attempt--someone tells her that she looks like Keith Richards and she just loses it. Lots of dramatic language, but not actually much here.
*A Fine Boy: Okay? Not much here, but again, some good atmosphere. Also a fine bit of 'real Denmark' detail: a major plot point hinges on a character leaving her child outside in a stroller while she's working inside at a restaurant. This is a thing--really. Scandinavians leave their babies outside, unattended, in their prams all the time. Even when it's cold or rainy. They just tuck them under their blankets and cover them with little plastic wind guards and don't fuss about it.
Part Two: Mammon
*When the Time Came: Pretty darn good, with some flaws. More good atmosphere, localized and relevant immigration/racial tension and themes, and a nicely contained story with decently drawn characters. The immigrant characters get perhaps a more surface-level treatment and/or motives, but there's still some sincere empathy throughout.
*Sleipner's Assignment: Very good. So far, my favorite in the collection. Love the rundown, shady PI and the fact that he scales gothic-style apartment buildings--like climbs straight up the side of a building in the name of surveillance. Good tension and allusion to possible violence without needing to actually get brutal. Bears noting that the author, Georg Ursin, published his first (crime) novel at the age of 71.
*Debt of Honor: I started this one and stalled--it was a bit muddled. But then again, it's a story by Klaus Rifbjerg and he is, firstly, kinda a big deal, and secondly, not the most straightforward of authors, so I need to go back and try it again.
*When It's Tough Out There: Oh boy. Full veto. This one is really, really bad. Woman seeks revenge on her husband, who she has discovered is a brothel owner, by becoming a prostitute in his brothel. Oh, and her mom was a prostitute and died from an overdose when she (the narrator) was a child. Also, weird racial undertones. Also, terrible dialog. No. Just no.
Part Three: Corpses
*Savage City, Cruel City: This story was actually written in Swedish, and takes place in Malmö, which is actually the third largest city in Sweden (by population), but is kind of considered a suburb of Copenhagen because of its strong ties to Denmark, both culturally (it was, back in the day, a Danish territory) and economically. Malmö and Copenhagen are also connected by one of the longest bridges in Europe, so there is a lot more cross-over between it and Copenhagen now than there even used to be. All of this is very interesting context, and there is a sort of prose poem quality to the language and the pacing. Also, one of the main characters, a drunk detective named Nils Forsberg who is going through something of a spiritual crisis, has a lot of potential. I'm not sure that it really came together as well as it might have, but not a bad effort.
*The Elephant's Tusks: Meh. Starts with a lot of potential, and more good atmosphere. But nothing comes of it, and the ending is not only strange and a little gross, but kind of irrelevant and pointless.
*The Booster Station: Very Good--my second favorite in the collection after "Sleipner's Assignment." The author's bio reveals that the story was written by a "New Dane" (the incredibly loaded Danish term for immigrants or Danes of different ethnicities)of Turkish descent, although it doesn't have any of the racial or ethnic signifiers that carry so much weight and dread in the rest of the collection. It's very much like Stand By Me: two teenagers find the body of a young woman by some train tracks and convince themselves (briefly) that they are going to be heroes by catching the culprit themselves. As one boy becomes more obsessed with this plan, the other begins to have doubts about not reporting the crime immediately. Tautly paced, good characterization, lots of dramatic developments--some of them very unpleasant, but not gratuitous.
That's all but the last two. I'll probably finish those shortly, but will also have an overall review shortly. ...more
A slim collection of novellas, short stories, and excerpts from an unfinished novel, Amsterdam Stories introduces English readers to the complete works of Nescio, one of the most beloved Dutch authors. Neither a particularly prolific nor commercially successful author during his lifetime, Nescio’s fiction now resonates as a love song to Amsterdam, a snapshot of The Netherlands in an era of profound change, and a bittersweet reflection on talent and youth fallen short of its promise.
Latin for “I don’t know,” Nescio was the pseudonym of J.H.F Grönloh (1882-1961), a co-director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. In his professional life, Nescio embodied the middling bourgeois existence that haunts nearly all of his bohemian characters. Four of the best pieces in Amsterdam Stories explore this tension and follow the lives of a motley group of disaffected artists, including Koekebakker, a struggling journalist, and Bavnik, a self-deprecating painter.
In “The Freeloader,” Bavnik befriends Japi, an echo of Melville’s Bartleby who declares “I am nothing and I do nothing.” This pursuit intrigues as much as irks his acquaintances, each of whom is attempting to evade the numbing grind of office jobs and banal respectability. The story also showcases Nescio’s poetic use of language and lyrical repetitions: “The freeloader you found lying in your bed with his dirty shoes on when you came home late; the freeloader who smoked your cigars and filled his pipe with your tobacco and burned your coal...”
Koekebakker narrates in retrospect, balancing light-hearted nostalgia with loss. “We were on top of the world, and the world was on top of us, weighing down heavily,” he sighs in “Young Titans.” And yet, even though these young men were poor, working jobs which “confiscated the better part of our time... [and] kept us out of the sunshine,” even though Bavnik couldn’t paint the world as he really saw it, and their hopes came to nothing—the wonder of this age of possibility is clearly what matters to him in the end.
The romantic undertone of the Koekebakker stories may be attributable to the time of their writing—all between 1909 and 1914, prior to World War I. Contrast this with the “world in tatters” that Nescio describes in the astounding “Insula Dei,” which was written and set in 1942, during the Nazi occupation. Where his young artists spent their days wandering outside Amsterdam, admiring the setting sun “blazing yellow” on the dikes, “Insula Dei” finds its narrator, Dikschei, freezing on a “gray, icy day” waiting for a meager share of milk at the market. Meeting an ailing old friend, Dikschei takes him to a cafe, splurging his ration tickets on bread and ham. “These aren’t the first eventful times I’ve lived through,” he says, resigned. “[A]nd if I’m granted even more years... I will most likely get to my third war.” But in his friend’s declaration that he is “an island,” that no man can himself be occupied, Dikschei recognizes and embraces a quiet self-possession, an internal rebellion against forces beyond one’s control. ...more