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 me...moreThis 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!(less)
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 th...moreI'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:
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 th...moreSome 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.(less)
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 of...moreThis 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.(less)
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 Jad...moreThe 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."(less)
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 World...moreIn 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(less)
I loved the setting of this novel, portraying life on an isolated lighthouse island on important trade routes between the Indian and Pacific oceans. I...moreI loved the setting of this novel, portraying life on an isolated lighthouse island on important trade routes between the Indian and Pacific oceans. I wish I knew if there is a specific island it is based on since I couldn't find one on a map. There is a Janus Island, but it is in Antarctica, and Janus Rock is a band.
There were some bits of narrative confusion for me. At one point the storyline completely drops and we are given an entirely different tale of Isabel's grandfather, one that tries hard to be relevant but really interrupts the flow of the story. It just felt completely unnecessary. I cared more about the relationship of Tom and Isabel, because being isolated together on an island is surely something that would bring you together. It took too long for her to crack through to his story for me, and I think the story would have been more effective if that had happened before she spins around into grieving for her lost children.
I was not as interested in the baby story, but I felt like the capture of the life of Australians on the edge of their own country was realistic and interesting.
A few quotations from the ARC (may be different at publication date): "If a lighthouse looks like it's in a different place, it's not the lighthouse that's moved."
"A lighthouse is for others; powerless to illuminate the space closest to it."(less)
I hadn't heard of this book before it was longlisted for the Orange Prize, but I'm certainly glad it was brought to my attention. It is a well-researc...moreI hadn't heard of this book before it was longlisted for the Orange Prize, but I'm certainly glad it was brought to my attention. It is a well-researched, historical novel based on the journals of the real minister, Neil MacKenzie, who travels to St. Kilda in 1830 to convert the heathens, whether or not they want to change.
What I liked: -There is Gaelic throughout the novel, and as someone who has studied Scottish Gaelic (very casually, don't be impressed), I really enjoyed seeing little bits of that. While she borrows some place names for the island from the highlands, it gave additional opportunities to use the beautiful words, and it helped place you there.
-This is obviously well-researched. It contains a lot of information about the patterns of the birds and the sea, and the extreme hardship of living on the island. It was similar in feeling to a book I recently read set in the Faroe Islands, The Old Man and His Sons, where every bit of survival depends on knowing the best time to kill the birds or hunt the seals.
What I didn't like as much: -The character of Neil MacKenzie is incredibly frustrating, and perhaps that is true to his journals, but he never grows! He never learns! He never changes. He leaves St. Kilda just as stubborn and possibly more set on being the man in charge.
-The idea that the wife never learns any Gaelic to communicate with the other islanders? I mean, really? None? Can that be true? For her to be more of a redeeming character, she would have needed to immerse farther than also losing her children to the 8-day curse. Or maybe this is a product of the marriage between religion and colonialism.
-The lack of point of view from the St. Kildans. To me, the ancient history of the island, which the St. Kildans clearly are respectful of because of their unwillingness to change, is the more interesting story. I think I would have liked if the author had moved a little farther beyond the facts she was finding. It ends up being a little shallow of a story, with the repeated patterns between Neil and Lizzie, and Neil and his 'congregation.'
Overall, I'd give this about 3.5 stars, and one entire star of that is my own sentimentality for cold weather islands, remote places, and Gaelic. I wouldn't expect it to make the shortlist, but if it does it would have to be because it tells one historic story of a place that has since been abandoned to the birds.(less)
This took me a while to read. While it is written in a very believable and interesting Guernsey English, nothing much happens. Ebenezer Le Page writes...moreThis took me a while to read. While it is written in a very believable and interesting Guernsey English, nothing much happens. Ebenezer Le Page writes three books about his life, really focusing on the turn of the century up until the first world war, then through the second world war, and then the period up to his death as tourism and telecommunications move in.
The ending redeemed how I felt when I was trudging through the middle, and I want to give this 3.5 stars, not quite 4 because I can't imagine reading it again. I think the elderly, somewhat stubborn Ebenezer was the voice I was hearing throughout the book, and it fit best in the end.
"[Dozens of Guernsey boys are] just busting to get away from the island; and, when they do get away, they're breaking their hearts to come back. That's why I have never left Guernsey, me. I knew I would only end up where I begun."
"I haven't said nothing about my cousins, and the cousins of my cousins; but then half the island is my cousins, and the cousins of my cousins."
"God made this island with a good climate and a good soil, especially suited for the growing of fruit and vegetables and flowers, and for the breeding of two kinds of creatures: Guernsey cows and Guernsey people."
Near the end, (view spoiler)[Ebenezer says, I have tried to put down the worst as well as the best, but you got to read between the lines." (hide spoiler)]. It makes me want to re-read it, and read more between the lines!
"It was just the room was full of something because he was there."
Little culinary hints: Funeral food - "It was only bread and butter and cheese and Guernsey biscuits...." (authentic recipe from the Guernsey Islands Trust) Ebenezer brings Jim a "gâche" from his mother (and his dog) in the hospital (oh look, this exists, see here). "cream cakes from Le Noury"