This book, comprised of Irish author Padraic Colum's retellings of classic Norse myths, was on the shelf in our apartment when we moved in. Having onl...moreThis book, comprised of Irish author Padraic Colum's retellings of classic Norse myths, was on the shelf in our apartment when we moved in. Having only encountered Norse mythology in the wonderful illustrated D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, I thought it would be a good idea for me to reacquaint myself with these stories, which are referenced not infrequently in Scandinavian and Icelandic literature.
Colum's book is, as the cover claims, "very readable," although I found the choice to use a quasi-Old English throughout a little unnecessary. (The typical 'thees' and 'thous' and such became a bit grating after awhile, and don't really add significant gravitas of the Gods, either.) The story chronology also overlaps and reverses and reorients a fair amount, often owing to the structure of the myths themselves more than anything. This isn't actually a problem, rather it creates a sort of timelessness--especially in the early stories which characterize each god individually--and a sense of the scope of each immortal being's independent body of lore. Thor, for instance, has a really extensive set of his own myths and stories, many of which are related in this volume. Rather than be told in a strictly linear fashion, however, these tales tend to overlap and reference one another without entirely accounting for what happened in what order.
Overall, however, the organization of the myths into four sections--"The Dwellers in Asgard," "Odin the Wanderer," "The Witch's Heart," and "The Sword of the Volsungs and the Twilight of the Gods,"--creates a wonderful momentum and unity within stories which are, of course, linked, but were not perhaps originally told with such a coherent story arc in mind. As arranged here, the reader gets a clear sense of how simple acts have real resonance and lead to inevitable consequences, i.e. the barter of a sword for a wife, or the cruel, but seemingly innocuous act of killing an animal which leads to a compounding of events which eventually--literally-- bring on the end of the world.
Fate (with a capital 'F') is as much an actor in these stories as any of the characters, and yet each of the Gods and people involved are shown ways to avoid their grim fates, are frequently told point blank what will befall them if they choose one action over another. But that's really what makes these stories so moving and sympathetic in the end--they resonate so frequently with the very human shortsightedness and/or romantic weaknesses which lead even the most powerful and wise of beings to bring about their own downfalls. (less)
“You can’t hide in Iceland.” Or so is the hope of Officer Gunnhildur (Gunna) Gísladóttir, the stalwart, commonsensical “country copper” at the heart of Quentin Bates’s first crime novel, Frozen Assets. Although the (imaginary) small harbor village of Hvalvík sees little crime outside of traffic violations and the occasional disorderly drunk, Officer Gunna authoritatively takes over the complex investigation into the suspicious drowning of a Reykjavík man who was far too drunk at the time of his death to walk let alone drive over an hour to the Hvalvík harbor where he was found. Even more suggestive, the victim was employed by Spearpoint, a PR company with suspicious ties to some powerful Icelandic politicians, which is assisting with the development of a new and increasingly unpopular smelting plant that is being built just outside of town.
Hindered in her investigation by the unwilling employees at Spearpoint and urged by her superior to close the case as an accidental death, Gunna’s persistence is justified when yet another suspicious death -that of one of the drowning victim’s associates – is uncovered. Soon, she finds herself immersed in a complicated case that involves everyone from politicians and underhanded financiers to a scrappy group of environmental activists and a persistent gossip blogger whose merciless revelations of the foibles and misdeeds of Iceland’s elite have angered some very dangerous people.
Published by Soho Crime in the US, Frozen Assets maintains the strong and evocative sense of place that characterizes that imprint. Bates – who is himself British but has spent many years living in Iceland and working at a variety of odd jobs from netmaker to factory worker- clearly knows the country (and the countryside) well. Hvalvík–which was inspired by “…many of the quiet villages dotted around the coast of Iceland, where most people make their living from the land or the sea” – comes alive in a small luncheonette where the day’s menu consists of potatoes and a brusquely offered choice of “fish or meat?” In the small, smoky police station where the chief often opts to drive the “second best Volvo,” and where local sons and daughters divide their time between horse stables and monthly stints on fishing trawlers. And while Reykjavík is still a bustling urban hub by contrast, with a fair share of squalid basement flats and shady nightclubs, Bates draws together both locales in the mind of the reader, painting a portrait of a small and intimate country where no one can remain anonymous for long.
Gunna is also a satisfying creation–a character in the mode of Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson who patiently pursues her quarry with a gruff but straightforward charm. A talented policewoman, she transferred from the city police force to Hvalvík in the wake of her husband’s death, and is still negotiating the new balance of her life as a single mother and station chief with very few resources ad insufficient manpower.
Set in the months leading up to Iceland’s catastrophic financial collapse, the threat of imminent disaster simmers under the surface of Frozen Assets, although this tension is never quite borne out within the novel. Bates assembles a sprawling cast of idiosyncratic characters and engaging subplots – a young journalist trying his hand at the crime beat; a gluttonous taxi driver and petty offender who gets in too deep with a far more criminal set – but the abundance of these additional elements occasionally obscures the novel’s original premise. However, the raw material of Frozen Assets still makes for a gratifying read, and Officer Gunna will undoubtedly earn herself fans eager to see where her next investigation takes her.(less)
My oft-cited professor friend suggested this book to me, explaining that Larsen was half-Danish (and a librarian) and a frequently overlooked member o...moreMy oft-cited professor friend suggested this book to me, explaining that Larsen was half-Danish (and a librarian) and a frequently overlooked member of the Harlem Renaissance. Even though my friend forewarned me that the prose of Passing was, perhaps, not its strength, however, I have to admit that the clunky phrasing and frequent over-explication of characters' thoughts and motivations ultimately distracted me enough that I didn't finish the book.
This semester, Passing is on two syllabi at the Master's program I work at--one for a class on race and sexuality, and one for a class on literary theory. As such, I'm guessing that viewed through the right theoretical lens, it's a rather illuminating text. However, the little I've read about Larsen suggests that in terms of execution and readability, this novel may not be the one to start with. So sometime in the future, I'll probably give Quicksand a try. (less)
I was skeptical starting this book. Primarily, this was because I made the mistake of seeing the movie before I had read it, which is not always an is...moreI was skeptical starting this book. Primarily, this was because I made the mistake of seeing the movie before I had read it, which is not always an issue, but in this case definitely tainted my perception of the story. I can see now why they tried to develop these books as films, but honestly--I'm not sure it's really feasible. Pullman's Bizzaro version of our own world is a rich, multi-layered one with political, religious, and racial tensions which are at once familiar and completely foreign to the reader. There's a great deal of nuance and background to this world that requires a moderated, patient development that can simply not be compressed into a feature-length film. (Or at the very least, not into the film that they ended up making...)
I'll also say that at the start of the novel, even with my relative familiarity with the material, I found myself confused. Pullman has an excess of plotlines to initiate, back stories to uncover, and characters to introduce. And although the world he immerses you in is very interesting, it does take awhile to become comfortable there. Lyra herself is not immediately the most sympathetic of characters, and Pullman's efforts to create a believable child's voice for her is occasionally annoying and awkward. (For a few chapters she rolls between an English vernacular and an 'unaccented' speech pattern and also ends almost every sentence with 'right?') Also, in one of the first key scenes, it doesn't seem like her character has any emotional depth or powers of inference. She prevents her uncle from being poisoned, for instance, only to turn around and have a completely natural, unfazed conversation with the person who attempted to kill him. This is a kid who is supposed to insatiably curious, and she seems to just accept the situation without thinking.
Don't give up, though! Once he gets further into his story, Pullman does a very good job refining his characters' traits and personalities and settles into his world comfortably enough that he doesn't constantly need to be introducing new peculiarities.
I'm not even sure where to begin parsing the story at the moment, but suffice to say that I was particularly struck by the following things:
1) While Pullman's anti-Church/anti-religious agenda is extremely evident, I found it interesting that he doesn't create any real dichotomy between it and Science, for instance. And even if you initially think that there is a clear line between good and evil here, I'd argue that no such balance exists anywhere in the novel. The church is bad, but science fails, too. Both are selfishly motivated, blinded by their own ambitions, and unmoved by the prospect of the damage that their ends will create. If Pullman has any real affiliation, it's with Academia, but then again, he seems to be skeptical of the institution's ability to create any meaningful change or have any positive effects on the world outside of itself.
2) This would be a rough--albeit completely immersing--book to read as a child. There is a whole lot of darkness in these stories and children are, almost always, suffering at the hands of adults. They are abandoned, lied to, kidnapped, physically and emotionally harmed, and even killed. ("Why do they do these things to children, Pan?" Lyra finally laments towards the end of the novel. "Do they all hate children so much...?") Routinely accepting this ill-treatment as a matter of course, however, Lyra seems to be training herself to combat these threats by cultivating the very skills that are being used against her--for instance, we're constantly told that she's an excellent liar. So in many ways, there's no real hope in future generations overcoming the 'sins' of their parents--they're simply doomed to repeat them.
3) For a book that takes such a hard line against organized religion, it's interesting that Pullman not only douses his story with Biblical undertones and what might be loosely called 'spirituality,' but also draws upon Biblical stories and hints at larger allegories. Passages in Genesis are rewritten and worked into the story. Lyra is even posited as something of a savior--prophesies have spoken of her and the changes for all humanity that she'll bring about and there's even a sort of Gethsemane scene where Lyra, left entirely on her own, laments her fate and wishes that 'this cup could be taken from her,' as it were.
At any rate, finishing this book was rather exhilarating. It remains to be seen whether Pullman can maintain this story for two more books, but I look forward to finding out. (less)
I'd been planning to read Holm's book of essays, Windows of Brimnes for quite some time. Not because I'm familiar with his poetry, but because it's a...moreI'd been planning to read Holm's book of essays, Windows of Brimnes for quite some time. Not because I'm familiar with his poetry, but because it's a book (travel narrative/memoir) about Iceland. But reading these essays spread over about a month in the best of circumstances--on trains, before bed, with my morning coffee--I found myself constantly going back and forth on how I felt about the collection--and Holm--over all.
On one hand, Holm is observant and anecdotal and rather funny, in a crotchety sort of way. He is nostalgic and sentimental and writes about nature and small communities and memory with an eye for detail and a distinctly romantic lyricism.
On the other, he can be really a pretty irksome narrator, chastising the reader for his/her dependence on cell phones and television, for not being able to play the piano, for not having read Spinoza. (I don't have cable, I read every day--I still can't play Hayden myself and don't feel the worse for it...)
Windows of Brimnes is a distinctly, explicitly post-9/11 meditation, but even when you agree with Holm, it's hard not to be aggravated by his often self-righteous kvetching. It becomes a case of Old Man Yelling a little too often.
But all the same, there are several really wonderful essays in this collection, so even when I was irritated, I found myself returning to the book. I'd even consider reading another one of Holm's essay collections, provided that I had something else to turn to when I'd had enough of his tsk-tsking.
When I was a kid, I went through a phase that I suspect many children in The-Cold-War-is-But-a-Faint-Reality age group went through: a Spy Fetish.
I l...moreWhen I was a kid, I went through a phase that I suspect many children in The-Cold-War-is-But-a-Faint-Reality age group went through: a Spy Fetish.
I loved any and all things related to spies, espionage, subterfuge, complicated disguises, and state-sponsored deception (don't read too much into that--I was a child and the idea that you could divide the world into the good guys and the bad guys was very appealing). Anyway, this included books about code languages, books that taught you how to make invisible ink out of lemon juice, and true narrative accounts of particularly famous--and usually doomed--intelligence agents. (Mata Hari was a particular favorite.)
I digress because while this phase may have been short-lived, the seeds were apparently sown deep. Because after re-reading one of my favorite childhood novels, Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, I found myself totally enthralled by the references to the Danish resistance. It was all so romantic and sexy and exciting and tragic and vitally important. The young idealists smuggling anti-Nazi newspapers to their relatives after curfew. The dried-blood and cocaine powder mixture that fishermen hid in handkerchiefs and sprinkled around their boats to deaden the senses of Nazi dogs searching for refugees. The theatrics (such as fake funerals) that were orchestrated to disguise the arrival of refugees to a safehouse. Great stuff. And so, I packed myself off to the bookstore to pick up anything I could find on the Danish resistance.
Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to have been much written in English (go figure) that specifically covers the Danish underground movement. I did find this book, though, which was written by a Harold Flender, who during the Nuremberg Trials had been amazed and appalled that on one hand, the Danes had been able to save almost their entire Jewish population (about 8,000 total, all but 430 some saved), but that on the other, theirs was the only nation that had collectively elected to take such measures. Believing that more effort should be made to highlight the Danes' remarkable feat, Flenders first created a short documentary for American television, and then set out to compile a far more comprehensive record of the individuals who were directly involved with the transport of the Jews to Sweden.
The result is a highly anecdotal, sometimes wide-eyed journalistic profile narrative which highlights the completely average people who ended up leading massive exodus efforts, but also the type of 'it-was-nothing' attitude that most of these people seem to have about the whole experience. When asked about the motivation for their involvement in rescuing their Jewish countrymen, interviewees cite reasons that span from 'I was a bored housewife and it seemed exciting,' to 'Of course I helped--these people were being persecuted,' to 'It was the right thing to do,' to 'I just wanted an excuse to annoy the Germans.' But on the whole, it seems to have been an automatic and spontaneous reaction. In fact, Flender makes a point of emphasizing that for most of those involved in the transportation of the Jews to Sweden, 'politics' played no part in their involvement. I would say that 'politics' has nothing to do with one's country being invaded and part of the citizenship being sent off to concentration camps, but the vibe is still distinctly minimizing.
Which made me think a little bit more about my attraction to sexy-espionage stories. If the impulse to involve yourself in an underground movement to save the lives of your persecuted neighbors--at great risk to yourself and your family--is just that, an impulse, a reaction akin to helping someone up when they trip or holding a door open for a little old lady, just the so-called 'right thing,' then perhaps I should start looking into more 'mundane' spy stories from now on.