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
A very good friend sent this book to me via another very good friend who was going to be traveling through Iceland last year. Both of them highly recoA very good friend sent this book to me via another very good friend who was going to be traveling through Iceland last year. Both of them highly recommended the book to me (the second friend read it over the course of her plane ride) and even still, it took me quite a long time to read it. But I'm very glad I did finally, and thankful to both of them for the recommendation and US-to-Iceland delivery service.
A Man Called Ove is heartfelt and sappy and yep, you see most, if not all, of the plot shifts coming about a mile away. But it's heartfelt and sappy in a really lovely, comforting sort of way—a rather life- and humanity-affirming sort of way—and that's actually kind of refreshing. It hits the right notes and it makes you feel good about the world and its curmudgeonly main character is just such a good curmudgeon. Definitely a chicken noodle soup and slippers sort of read. ...more
Thanks to the excellent year-end stock in the English language section at our local used bookstore, I lucked out this Christmas with four beautiful MuThanks to the excellent year-end stock in the English language section at our local used bookstore, I lucked out this Christmas with four beautiful Muriel Spark paperbacks. With eight hours of flight time from the US back to Iceland ahead of me, I decided to start with this "curiously disturbing" novella, and basically read it through in one sitting.
As with all of Spark's novels that I've read thus far, Not to Disturb drops you into the story once it's already started—there's no preamble, no back story, no real explanation of what is going on. the dialog is round-about and confusing at first; you don't know who any of the people talking are. And yet, rather than deterring you from continuing (or deterring me, as it happens), it just sucks you further in. You sink into the story and just figure out what is going on as you go. It's disconcerting, yes, but it's also clever and addictive and seriously hard to pull off.
The 'what's going on' of the story is (again, unsurprisingly) absurd and strange and really quite weird. As are many of the characters and relationships, for that matter. And while there are all these characters and obviously unspoken story lines (I wonder, actually, if this started as a different book, or if this is a paired down version of a much more extensive novel), there's a lot that is simply not gone into here. There's so much story that exists completely off the page. I find this rather amazing, particularly as someone who, as a writer, is always compelled to fill in all of the back story, to make sure that the reader has all the 'irrelevant' information before the real story gets underway.
And perhaps this isn't always the best way to go. Because Spark demonstrates here, sometimes the most compelling way to tell a story is to only hint at the whole of it. ...more
I read this book in about a week, in a couple rather long sittings. I enjoyed it—although I was, admittedly, a bit grossed out by the murder itself anI read this book in about a week, in a couple rather long sittings. I enjoyed it—although I was, admittedly, a bit grossed out by the murder itself and surprised at J.K.'s leaning to the grotesque in this instance—but I found myself a lot more aware of her writing in this book than I ever really have been. People are frequently giving Rowling grief for her awkward writing and her clunky phrasings. To me, this has never been so much of an issue: she's a great storyteller and an excellent plotter ('diligent' is the word that comes to mind first when thinking about her ability to plan ahead in a storyline) and I don't think that everyone needs to be able to write a Proustian sentence in order to be a worthwhile writer. But in The Silkworm it feels like Rowling is actively trying to overcome her critics and showcase a stylistic prowess that is ultimately more self-conscious than it is successful. And that kind of took away from the experience for me.
I can deal with the fact that she occasionally employs super awkward phrasings and the fact that she over-describes pretty much everyone's appearance, but other things caught me up short. For instance, throughout the book, she throws in these crazy vocab words—not the "25 cent" variety that my English teacher used to encourage us to use, but rather the $2 bill variety. That is to say, words that are special and unique, perhaps, but that no one anywhere really uses, let alone her characters. (That Strike is an Oxford man doesn't really change this, no.) I mean: "albescence" - 'The act of becoming white; whitishness.' Or "etiolated" - 'pale and drawn out due to a lack of light; Having lost vigour or substance; feeble.' There are times when a playful use of extensive vocabulary can work (I always used to enjoy the fact that I generally had to refer to a dictionary at least once when reading a Michael Chabon book), but here it feels forced and awkward and unnatural when compared with the rest of the text.
I also found there to be a strange insistence on what amounted to a rather boring interpretation of the relationships between men and women, and also a rather simplified, kind of dull perspective of gender. I've generally felt that Rowling's treatment of male and female characters, as well as their interactions with one another in her books, haven't been bound by particularly stodgy gender boundaries or dichotomies. But here, there's a rather lot of disparaging essentialism regarding women. For instance, "Women, in his experience, often expected you to understand that it was a measure of how much they loved you that they tried their damnedest to change you." Or, when explaining to Robin the possibility that a woman could have perpetrated such a grim murder (she doesn't think a woman would have), Strike remarks, "Look it up on the net. When women turn, they really turn." And it goes both ways, albeit to a lesser extent. Robin "knew something about male pride; quite apart from Matthew, she had three brothers," and also had "an unusual and accurate insight into the frequently contrary reaction of males to female concern." Perhaps Rowling is trying to get inside of her male protagonist's perspective and thinks that his digressions on femaleness and women are just authentic representations of his character. But it's a bit boring and simple and frankly, I think she can do better.
This isn't to say that I won't keep reading the series—I think there's still enough here to be interested in and I'm enjoying her foray into the crime genre. But again, I think she can do better. ...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
A reference volume I picked up while writing an article on huldufólk, or Hidden People. Lots of useful context and historical information. InterestingA reference volume I picked up while writing an article on huldufólk, or Hidden People. Lots of useful context and historical information. Interestingly, the back half of the book includes sections which don't dissect or examine mythological folklore, but rather speak to "The cultivation of supernatural gifts and second sight," a sort of how-to guide based on literary and historical sources. ...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
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 toMy 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. ...more
This was my first foray into the Rebus series, one which I had been eying for a long time—not least due to its Edinburgh setting. Funny then that theThis was my first foray into the Rebus series, one which I had been eying for a long time—not least due to its Edinburgh setting. Funny then that the one I picked to start with didn't actually take place in Edinburgh at all. No matter, though: A Question of Blood was a nice introduction to the character and his backstory, I think, even though it is a rather late entry as far as I can tell.
I finished the novel pretty snappily, without finding myself bored or distracted and wanting to jump over to other plots and books (a common problem for me). The interwoven plotting and snappy pacing are both work well, the characters and relationships clearly drawn, and the various intrigues all reasonably twisty. Good news all around. Personally, I thought the main subplot related to Rebus' suspicious injury (suspicious because his hands have been severely burned and a man he'd had altercations with died in an arson fire) was resolved a bit too easily, as was the internal inquiry into his possible role in a murder. Additionally, while it does draw out the suspense and the reader's uncertainty, the fact that he knows whether or not he's telling the truth about his involvement in the event but *we* don't know is kind of a cheat. It feels artificial, given that we are inside his thoughts for much of the rest of the book, but it's not written first person so I suppose Rankin can get away with it.
There were also times throughout the novel that I found Rebus' outsider status as your prototypical "loose canon" cop—complete with the wise-cracking, the disregarding authority, the inadvisable outbursts, etc.—a little forced. We get it already—he's a lone wolf (except he's not). No need to overdo it.
As a last side note, I loved the author intro on the book—the stories about the characters that Rankin wrote in after auctioning character rights and the anecdote about being pranked by a member of Belle and Sebastian. Good way to get a feel for Rankin's sense of humor and also nice to see how he incorporated a character that he didn't himself dream up from scratch, but rather had to work in as a sort of exercise. ...more
Taking its inspiration from idiosyncratic headlines around the globe, News Muse by Vala Hafstað combines two very Icelandic int(Review published here)
Taking its inspiration from idiosyncratic headlines around the globe, News Muse by Vala Hafstað combines two very Icelandic interests—the daily news and poetry—and uses these to paint a sometimes amusing, often ridiculous portrait of contemporary life.
With a few notable exceptions, the thirty-three poems contained in News Muse—all of which, cleverly, include hyperlinks to the original news stories in the e-book version—are composed of uncluttered, whimsically rhyming couplets. Stylistically, these are reminiscent of nursery rhymes, with the overall effect being that the (factually-based) content seems even more absurd than it already is.
Take, for instance, the poem ‘A Life of Luxury,’ which skewers the growing market for luxury pet products, such as epicurean dog chow or myrtle and fennel-scented “Fart and Away” pet candles:
I’m neutered, but to my amazement I’m blessed with equipment replacement: Prosthetic and custom-made nuts That boost both my ego and guts.
Vala’s current event inspirations are varied, with subject matter ranging from dog weddings in Sri Lanka (‘The Dogs’ Wedding Vows’) and that time that Icelandair flight attendants physically restrained a drunken, violent “air hooligan” with duct tape (‘Tied Up’), to Church-in-a-Pub meetings in Texas (‘Diwine’) and the death of a 37-year-old man who was attacked and drowned by a flock of angry swans (‘Swan Song’). Nevertheless, it’s clear that she particularly leans towards a few specific flavours of news story.
For one, with eleven of the collection’s poems about animals, it’s obvious that she enjoys quirky creature bulletins, and gets a lot of joy writing from an animal’s perspective. (One of the book’s more laugh-out-loud lines can be found in her poem “The Cheetah’s Response,” which relates the struggles of mating in captivity: “Attraction is sudden, complex. / Survival depends on wild sex.”) Vala also seems to enjoy more improbable factoids, news stories which reveal surprising bits of trivia like those one might read on a Snapple “Real Facts” bottle cap. For instance, that upon consuming a great deal of starch, people with "auto-brewery syndrome" will basically brew beer right in their own bellies as related in her poem ‘Auto-Brewery.’
But although it never veers into outright criticism or political commentary, where News Muse is at its best is when it pokes fun at the extremely decadent, the downright bougie, and the crassly materialistic. Thirty-dollar cups of Kopi Luwak coffee made from beans that have been extracted from the excrement of small mammals called civets (‘Hospitality’). Having one’s cremated remains turned into diamonds for her loved ones to wear (‘Diamonds to Die For’). The Chinese couple who “sold” their newborn to buy an iPhone 5 (‘Eye-Phone’); the German bishop (nicknamed “the bishop of bling”) who took a first-class flight to visit the poor in India and spent millions renovating his home (‘A Prayer’).
Despite the playful tone, it’s in these moments that Vala’s project is at its sharpest and most incisive. It’s a bit depressing, but it’s funny—because it’s true. ...more
This book was a favorite of a great friend of mine (who gifted it to me in high school, incidentally) and I just now decided to dip back into it becauThis book was a favorite of a great friend of mine (who gifted it to me in high school, incidentally) and I just now decided to dip back into it because I've been trying to do more narrative non-fiction reading and White's essay "Death of a Pig" was referenced by two different authors (Geraldine Brooks and Ian Reid) during a writing workshop I attended in the spring.
There are some lovely essays here—the paean to the pig, yes, but I was also in a bit of a country mode and really enjoyed "Coon Tree" (the bit where he realizes that his poetical description of how raccoons descend from trees is actually just how this one raccoon descends is great) and "The Eye of Edna." And, of course, I have a great soft spot for "Here is New York" with its nearly perfect first line, "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy."
You do have to be in a mood for 'ol E.B., however, as he can be a great curmudgeon, grumbling about punctuation marks and those galdurn politicians and rambling on at length about his old wood fire stove and The Way Things Were. This isn't to say he's not a nice curmudgeon—he's a curmudgeon I would have gladly spent time with. But sometimes he takes on a sort of muttering, folksy provincialism that can be quite trying.
All the same, a wonderful—and instructive—collection when you're in the mood. ...more
There was a lot of build up for this book, what with it advertising that it was "by turns loved and reviled upon its publication," plus I remember atThere was a lot of build up for this book, what with it advertising that it was "by turns loved and reviled upon its publication," plus I remember at least three separate people talking to me about it when it was first released. It made its way on to my shelf as a Christmas present (not mine, even) and being intrigued and at lose ends for my next book, I picked it up.
I read the first half of the book in two sittings over two days and spent most of my time firstly wondering at the fact that I didn't hate it (young hip and artsy people wondering "how should a person be?" can, you know, get annoying) and secondly, thinking of all my female friends that I would recommend it to. And then, well, I sort of petered out. The drama of the middle part of the book, such as it was, felt a bit manufactured. Everyone felt big, deep things and there were huge breaches of trust, but honestly, I couldn't figure out quite what all the fuss was about. Then, as the book came to a close, it certainly felt like something had been accomplished, and there was closure, but again, I'm not totally sure what necessitated the closure in the first place.
The structure is pretty interesting—episodic short chapters, sometimes written in epistolary fashion or as if you were reading a play—although I hated the numbered sentences in all the emails (not really a big deal, but why are those numbers there?).
But honestly, I'm not sure that this book is as genius or as indulgent or as insightful or as navel-gazing as anyone seems to think it is. I don't regret reading it, certainly, and I will remember things from it, but not in any sort of deep, life-changing fashion....more