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)
During the "Golden Age" of British crime fiction, Ronald Knox, a British clergyman, literary critic, and author of several crime novels himself, wrote...moreDuring 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. (less)
One of the strengths of Alda Sigmundsdóttir's short essay collection The Little Book of Icelanders is its intimacy, the fact that in reading you feel...moreOne of the strengths of Alda Sigmundsdóttir's short essay collection The Little Book of Icelanders is its intimacy, the fact that in reading you feel as though you are listening to someone relate the quirks of neighbors and friends over a cup of coffee. It seems no surprise, then, that part of what stands out about Alda's translations in the concise and plainly-worded collection Icelandic Folk Legends is the immediacy of the stories. Right from the start, you're told that some of the stories explain how places currently in existence were named, that there are differing accounts of what precisely happened in some instances, that certain features of the tale have led people to believe that it is meant to represent such and such a farm or mountain pass. An example from the last lines of the story "Þorgeir's Bull," which tells of a sorcerer who creates a menacing magical bull endowed with many forms and powers, the better to harass the woman who turned down the sorcerer's offer of marriage, his neighbors, and eventually he himself:
"It is said that the bull outlived Þorgeir, for he had not managed to slay it before he died. Some say that when he was on his deathbed a grey cat--some say a black pup--lay curled up on his chest, and that would have been one of the bull's guises. Some people claim that the bull was created at the beginning of the 18th century; others that is was near the middle of that same century."
Public debates about whether a mythical bull had been created at the beginning or in the middle of the 18th century might not generally be of that much relevance to the author--or the reader. But in these stories, it very much matters, because while called 'folk tales,' these stories are really all being presented as truth. A further illustration of this is in the fact that most of the stories are about characters whose full names are known, but when it happens that the names of characters aren't, no fake character names are inserted. The statement "their names are not known," then adds to the sense of veracity overall--the narration is sticking to plain facts here, and not even making up names for the sake of simplicity.
There's little to no embellishment within the text--no introduction to explain folk traditions to the reader, no real attempt to create follow more traditional patterns of Western narration--you're not really going to find the exposition, rising action, falling action, and dénouement here. This is not uncommon of orally-based storytelling, of course, but the abruptness of certain tales may surprise those who are more familiar with retellings which attempt to round out story lines for contemporary readers. Instead, there is a sort of layering effect: as you read more of the tales and are more immersed in the rural village and farm settings, becoming more familiar with what kinds of occurrences are possible--such as hidden people taking humans into their homes inside of boulders; witches riding horses' thigh bones for their annual Christmas meeting with the devil; charms which spirit away whole flocks of sheep--the happenings become less fantastical feel more true, more possible.
There is also a wry, underlying sense of humor that runs through many of these tales, with one--"Kráka the Ogre"--standing out the most in this respect. This story tells of "...a menacing creature...[with] a penchant for the masculine sex and an aversion to being alone." As such, Kráka regularly kidnaps farmers and shepherds and takes them back to her cave for company. In two instances the abductee refuses to eat anything except some very difficult to obtain delicacy (12-year-old cured shark; fresh buck's meat) and so Kráka goes on long journeys to find these foods only to discover that her 'guest' has escaped when she returns. (We're told that while running after the first man she yells out to him, "'Here is the shark, Jón; cured not 12 but 13 years,' to which he made no reply.") Later we're told that this lonely villain "was planning a large Christmas celebration which she took great pains to prepare for. The only thing that was missing, in her opinion, was a bit of human flesh, which she considered the greatest delicacy." It's not said who was going to attend the ogre's Christmas party, but just the fact of it, alongside the missing hors d'oeuvre of human flesh (I pictured an ogre in an apron), seems so wonderfully absurd.
The one thing that I think this collection is missing is an explanation of where the source material was derived from. Alda is listed as the translator, not the author, so these are apparently not her own retellings. I would be very interested to know from what source these stories were collected, whether they were brought together from many collections or one, and whether or not these are stories that many Icelandic readers are familiar with, or just representative of the folk tradition in Iceland. (less)