This book tries to do many things - it has a hint of dystopia, not very fleshed out. It is somewhat biographical about Orwell, but only to explain whyThis book tries to do many things - it has a hint of dystopia, not very fleshed out. It is somewhat biographical about Orwell, but only to explain why the main character ends up on the Isle of Jura. It talks a bit about advertising and tries to connect it to Orwell's 1984. Written differently, I think the advertising guy fleeing to the Hebrides could have been a compelling story except...
This is a book about whiskey. The author talks more about whiskey - the different varieties, how they taste and smell, oh the peat, oh the caramel - than any of the rest of those topics combined. I think he should consider writing a "Whiskey of the Hebrides" book since that seems to be the true fascination. It watered down (har har) the rest of the novel....more
I visited the new home of the library of my childhood with my mother, and this book was in the new books section. She checked it out for me and I readI visited the new home of the library of my childhood with my mother, and this book was in the new books section. She checked it out for me and I read it in a day. It's a light read about the love of reading and books, and how that love connects a person to those around them. That description sounds schmaltzy but I needed something uplifting and this book did the trick. Also it is set on a cold weather island, so we were pretty much made for each other, this book and me.
"He had spent hours with the man over the last half-dozen years. They had only ever discussed books but what, in this life, is more personal than books?"
Each chapter starts with a brief synopsis of a short story, a part of Fikry's own journal that takes on a deeper meaning as the story progresses. I have written that list down to read a few....more
Blasphemy, but I feel like in reading one book by Laxness I kind of have him covered. He gets repetitive in his patterns and it makes the actual plotBlasphemy, but I feel like in reading one book by Laxness I kind of have him covered. He gets repetitive in his patterns and it makes the actual plot in his novels take a long time to get to.
This is my third year with a group here in GoodReads called The World's Literature. In 2012 we read Japan, last year we read Turkey (which started meThis is my third year with a group here in GoodReads called The World's Literature. In 2012 we read Japan, last year we read Turkey (which started me on all kinds of paths), and this year (2014), Iceland will be our theme. It is fitting that we started with a novel by Laxness, the only Icelandic citizen to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
This is the story of Iceland during the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was poverty-stricken and controlled by Denmark. The bias against Icelanders causes all sorts of problems for the central characters, who are imprisoned, beaten, have property stolen from them, and are generally treated like trash. (Even I am not certain I'd want to smell an Icelander of this era if it's even half as bad as the Danes claim!)
The great irony of this, of course, is that Iceland is also the home of the great Scandinavian sagas, arguably the roots of the Danish traditions (at least, this is what the fictional characters are claiming in the centuries of this book.) One of the characters, Arnas Arnaeus, spends most of the novel trying to hunt down pages of these old hand-written tales from people who have resorted to using them in mending or for food because of their abject conditions.
Laxness modeled the book after the old sagas, and this adds an element of magic to the novel. Even the criminals feel heroic, particularly Jón Hreggviðsson, whose story is central to the novel. Sagas are treated as fact, as history, and are quoted verbatim on a frequent basis, usually in song (one in particular I think is made up for the novel.)
As Snæfríður Íslandssól quotes to Glyndenløve, a Danish royal:
Though a man loses his wealth and his kin, and in the end dies himself, he loses nothing if he has made a name for himself."
Why only three stars? The novel is largely about court proceedings and the law, which has to be the absolutely least interesting element of any society (to me.) Also, almost all the important male characters are named Jon, adding a great deal of confusion to following the story lines. I've heard that Laxness writes differently in every novel, so I'm looking forward to another experience.
For the foodies: beyond generic foods like shark, soup, and steak being mentioned, one meal starts with bowls of raisin porridge. I found a few recipes online, and was most intrigued with this list of Icelandic Yule dishes. I'm sure I'll experiment with some before the year is out!...more
I don't often sit and read a history book, but this one manages to be readable while still being well documented. I've been trying to read books fromI don't often sit and read a history book, but this one manages to be readable while still being well documented. I've been trying to read books from and about Iceland this year, but I have yet to pick up The Sagas of Icelanders. I feel like I should have read them simultaneously.
Once I got past the idea of using sagas (which feel like myth) as history, it was fascinating to have details woven into historical record to help explain or illuminate some of the facts. Puzzles like did people wear underwear, and were there really human sacrifices?
As someone who wildly embraces her Viking ancestry, I also appreciated the narrow focus of this book - the early settlements of Iceland up to around a little past the "Viking Age," which is usually marked at 1066.
Iceland is isolated enough and has gone through few enough changes in leadership that some things are remarkably the same, particularly the language. Most other European languages made major transitions between 1066 and now, while Icelandic is largely the same. I have a fire to study it at some point....more
Between reading this novel and writing this review, I listened to this great interview with Sjón on the CBC website. It illuminated some of the littleBetween reading this novel and writing this review, I listened to this great interview with Sjón on the CBC website. It illuminated some of the little bits in the novel, such as the theme of the goodness of nature and the magical powers of poetry.
This is a very short read, told in three parts, set in Iceland in 1883. The first happens chronologically after the second, but introduces the blue fox and the reverend. The second introduces Herb-Fridrik and Hafdís and the startling history of infanticide in Iceland. The third turns into a fantastical story with avalanches, talking foxes, and magical poems.
The writing is very vivid, about the landscape but also the people:
"He was of medium stature, stout, and bulky about the chest. His features were course; his forehead of middling height but broad, giving his face its character. He had small steel-blue eyes, set deep under heavy brows that met in the middle, and a high-bridged, thick nose. The set of his profile and chin could not be made out for the dark-red beard, shot through with silver, which overlaid cheek and jaw, reaching down to his breast. He had grizzled earth-brown hair. A domed birthmark perched high on his left nostril.
Such was the man in the snowdrift."
Sjón intentionally bases his novels on little bits of fact that he has discovered along the way. I look forward to reading his other works, perhaps even beyond my year of reading in Iceland....more
I'm not surprised I had not heard of this author, as this is his only work translated into English so far. It was a happy accident that I saw it on thI'm not surprised I had not heard of this author, as this is his only work translated into English so far. It was a happy accident that I saw it on the new books shelf at the public library.
The book is in the form of a letter, from an old man to the love of his life, recently deceased, explaining his regrets and his perspective. It is heavily couched in Icelandic mythology and folklore, and while I didn't get all the references, there is a nice glossary helping to draw the connections. I'd love to go back someday and read some of the old sagas.
I kept thinking of The Old Man and His Sons, which while about the Faroe Islands, has a similar feeling. The old way described in unappealing but nostalgic ways (why did we ever stop washing our hair in urine?), the shift toward a commercialized, city-based culture as the traditional arts fade out, and a reluctance to leave what is deeply ingrained as "home."
There are also a few shocking revelations if you read well enough between the lines.
There is an interesting discussion on the intelligence of the sheep farmers, who used to have rousing discussion during late winter evenings. Another reviewer pointed out this article on the Icelandic reading tradition so perhaps despite the narrator's concern, reading and discussion has continued to be important, but perhaps the perspective has shifted.
"These were people who had come up with their own meaning of life. They were instinctively clever, because no school had told them how to think. They thought for themselves. Such people are gone now, and I scarcely believe they raise them in Reykjavik nowadays."
A few quotes about the relationship the letter is about: "You two are the only religion I've ever had."
"I've loved you only to live in anguish and an intentional lovelessness. That the distance from you kindled a longing for closeness, but as soon as that closeness was offered, I withdrew and would sacrifice nothing!"
The art in the panels before each chapter is gorgeous, from an Icelandic artist Kjartan Hallur. The art has a feeling of harkening back to the old too, so it seems very fitting for the book. This is one example:
In my year of reading Icelandic literature, this book had to be included. The author is not Icelandic but spent quite a bit of time there doing researIn my year of reading Icelandic literature, this book had to be included. The author is not Icelandic but spent quite a bit of time there doing research for the book. Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland, for the murder of Nathan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. Kent found many conflicting accounts of the story and the character of Agnes, and took the opportunity to focus on developing her story.
One thing I've noticed about books written about Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Hebrides - authors really love to describe how everything smells. I will forever remember the description of whale blubber being ground into the dirt where people sleep in The Old Man and His Sons, and this novel does the same.
Even love is described in a combination of strong smells:
"...I was so happy to be desired. When the smell of him, of sulfur and crushed herbs, and horse-sweat and the smoke from his forge, made me dizzy with pleasure. With possibility."
While this combination of smells would be difficult to translate to pleasure in our modern times, Kent is effective in creating a multisensory experience of the Iceland of the early 1800s, one that is beholden to Denmark for judiciary decisions. That creates the drama in this story, because the convicted killers are sent to live with minor government officials and their families in northern Iceland prior to the executions. Agnes bonds with the family she stays with, as well as Toti, a young assistant minister. Her story is very gradually told in the days before her beheading.
I don't think any of that is a spoiler, this is after all based on a documented account. Other than smells and tastes and the landscape, Kent captures the very literate Iceland of the 19th century, the same country that churned out the "farmer poets" of the same era.
"I like the sagas best. As they say, blíndur er bóklaus maður. Blind is a man without a book."
I should mention the sagas while I'm at it. A strange pattern happens in Icelandic lit, one I've seen in the poetry and in the best known novelist of the 20th and 21st century - Halldór Laxness. The sagas are so ingrained in the people that somehow they fall into the patterns of the storylines in their own lives. This happens with Agnes too. Despite the fact that Agnes is a historical figure, the parallel between her life and the Laxdæla Saga is not lost on Hannah Kent, and she includes bits of it in the novel. Perhaps all historical figures are set to become their own hero(ine)s.
And now I'm even more convinced I need to read these sagas!
In another happy coincidence, Burial Rites was recently shortlisted for the Bailey's Womens Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Orange Prize. Of the titles I've read, this could definitely give Adichie a run for her money.
Some of the books and movies I love pull back the veil and reveal me to be a hopeless romantic, and this is going to be one of them. I sat and read thSome of the books and movies I love pull back the veil and reveal me to be a hopeless romantic, and this is going to be one of them. I sat and read this cover to cover without a break, except for when the emotions got too intense and I flipped over to check my e-mail. The entire book, set during both world wars, is written in letters. During the first world war, the letters are between a female poet living on the Isle of Skye and a slightly younger male fan of her work. The second world war letters are between more than two people, trying to unravel the mystery of the first.
Maybe it's because I believe in love growing between strangers who have never met, or maybe it's because I have experienced the intimacy of letters from a far off place, but this book grabbed the breath out of me. Add to it being set in the isles of Scotland with bits of Gaelic thrown in for good measure, and I'm surprised I can even write coherently....more
This first novel by Amy Brill was inspired by a trip she made to Nantucket, and a brief mention of a teenaged female astronomer from the first half ofThis first novel by Amy Brill was inspired by a trip she made to Nantucket, and a brief mention of a teenaged female astronomer from the first half of the 19th century. For me, this had some elements that I'd have a hard time not enjoying - the setting of Nantucket, an early feminist out of sorts in a time period that expects women to marry and to abandon intellectual pursuits, and a character who works in a library. Set during a very real period in Quaker history where plain speech and dress was still the expectation, and Friends could be disassociated from their Meeting for being outside of the community's expectations.
I'm not sure what I think of the romance in the novel. The whole noble-savage element was present despite the fact that I could tell the author was trying to make him unique and a catalyst for the astronomer to learn how to think with emotion and not just fact. Despite my discomfort, the scenes of romantic tension were some of my favorites in the book. It didn't hurt that he was from the Azores, and the ongoing mention of two cold-weather islands catapulted me to the end....more
The war(s) in the Balkans divided families, sometimes for decades, and that is the premise at the center of this novel. Two sisters, Magdalena and JadThe war(s) in the Balkans divided families, sometimes for decades, and that is the premise at the center of this novel. Two sisters, Magdalena and Jadranka, are now adults and the younger sister has gone missing in New York Sister.
The story winds around several different periods of time, centering around this family. The turmoil felt very raw, very recent, still unresolved, despite some hopeful moments. At times, I would lose the thread of a character because of the somewhat circular storytelling, but I usually found my way back. I enjoyed the descriptions of the tiny island culture and how it contrasted with the rest of Croatia, as well as the difficulty of navigating NYC after such a small life.
"None of the islanders are themselves when the wind blows."...more
In trying to describe this book, I end up with a fairly long list - a journal of 16 year old Nao living in Japan, her great-uncle's diaries from WorldIn trying to describe this book, I end up with a fairly long list - a journal of 16 year old Nao living in Japan, her great-uncle's diaries from World War II, a biography of her grandmother Niko, and a later-parallel story of Ruth, an author living in Canada who finds Nao's journal and other ephemera washed up on her island shore. Just these ideas and concepts were almost one too many, and then the author decided to throw in a touch of bizarre quantum mechanics, people struggling with Alzheimers, memory loss, suicide attempts, bullying, and a bizarre character trying to plant ancient plants.
If the list seems overwhelming, I do think it was too much for 400ish pages. At times it just gets to be a bit of an information dump. Add in the constantly defined Japanese terms and philosophers remembered by the plant-husband and the great-uncle in his letters (really, he quotes French philosophers verbatim!)... you would think it would be hard to cut through to the story. Nao's personal story still kept me reading, although she suffered from the same paralysis as the rest of the characters in the book, where instead of reaching out to solve their problems, they punish themselves.
One little tidbit from Nao's journal that is a good capture of her tone: "Whenever I think about my stupid empty life, I come to the conclusion that I'm just wasting my time, and I'm not the only one. Everybody I know is the same... Just wasting time, killing time, feeling crappy." (Quote from NetGalley version, may be altered in final.)
The presence of quantum mechanics in this book might seem puzzling, but her zen-nun grandmother teaches her, "to do zazen is to enter time completely." Nao takes that idea into her journal and addresses all her entries to the "Time Being," inviting the reader to travel with her. The title read that way becomes a play on the words.
ETA: The funniest thing happened when I went to NetGalley to post my review of this book - the book had disappeared from that database. Maybe the author knows what she's talking about, maybe my actions made it disappear. :P...more