I read this book in my attempt to read more Icelandic authors, but the majority of the novel is set on William Randolph Hearst's property in CaliforniI read this book in my attempt to read more Icelandic authors, but the majority of the novel is set on William Randolph Hearst's property in California. The main character works for Hearst as a butler. Half of the book is his letters to his wife, who he abandoned in Iceland with the children, taking their money.
The story is told in a somewhat circular way between the letters and the present-day drama that I felt disconnected from both, and in the end you are merely where you started somehow. ...more
Disclaimer: I got a review copy of this from the publisher, but I was actively looking for a copy after reading about it somewhere online. Hooray!
KrisDisclaimer: I got a review copy of this from the publisher, but I was actively looking for a copy after reading about it somewhere online. Hooray!
Kristin Newman is best known as a sitcom writer - That 70's Show, How I Met Your Mother, and the Neighbors, and also branching out into shows like Chuck, which was funny but no laugh track. Of that list of shows, I loved The Neighbors, a show I was apparently the only person watching, since it has now been cancelled.
Television writers have very intense writing seasons with relatively high salaries, so while Newman's friends were busy getting married and having children, she interspersed a chain of monogamist relationships with amazing vacations. Each chapter in the book is about a different journey.
Her talent for comedy writing does come through in how she writes about her own life - there is a lot of sex, a lot of interesting experiences in different locations, and a fearlessness that I wish more people had. She was often drawn to travel in emotional times in her life - relationships ending or shows being cancelled or falling through - and this helped her throw herself into the new experiences. She talks about how one experience at 7 years old gave her that outlook - "One scary moment became something I was always willing to have after that in exchange for the possible payoff."
This book is full of payoff, from unbelievable gatherings of comedy writers around the world, instigated by someone known as Ferris Bueller to frequent plane ticket extensions because of adventures she couldn't bring to a close. She refers to her traveling self as Kristin-Adjacent, a character she settles into easily.
I wish I could say more about the book, but the BlueFire Reader app keeps crashing when I try to refer to my notes. I enjoyed it. Not for prudes....more
Hard to really rate this, because I'd guess this might be the only book of poetry and short stories translated from the Icelandic from the late 18th,Hard to really rate this, because I'd guess this might be the only book of poetry and short stories translated from the Icelandic from the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. This was originally printed in 1943. Important works, important writers, but did I enjoy it? Not really. The poetry in particular was rough, I'm not sure if I should blame the period or the translation, but it was like Wordsworth without the symbolism. Ugh. Apparently there is an entire school of Icelandic poets known as the farmer-poets, demonstrating the high value placed on learning, literacy, and writing throughout the classes and professions in Iceland. I guess you need something to do in the long nights of winter!
There are a few poems I liked - Swansong on the Moorlands by Steingimur Thorsteinsson, with a rhythm similar to Annabel Lee by Edgar Allen Poe (and every stanza ends with "_____ upon the moorlands.") I also enjoyed Thorvaldur Thoroddsen by Thorsteinn Gislason, because of it's combination of the fantastic history of the country along with the nature and how he feels about it. Abba-Labba-Lá by David Stefánsson was great fun and I even read out loud, about the character of Abba-labba-lá, who sucks human blood and went crazy because of wild beasts. Whee.
The short stories worked better in translation, I thought. Most of them had something to do with nature, usually nature was the catalyst in the form of a storm or the cold or maybe a whale. Just like the last book I read from Iceland, almost every male character's name was Jon (is this a rule? It's getting to be very confusing!) The last story in the book is from Laxness, who is the most recent writer included in the anthology.
For the foodie readers following along, there is a mention in a story of skyr, which has to be "cut out of the containers with an adze, carried in to the kitchen fire and thawed out." The footnote explains that this is the Icelander's favorite dessert, made of milk curds. I found a few websites that discuss it, and this blog post is among the best....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
I read this along with the The World's Literature group here in GoodReads, where we are reading Icelandic lit in 2014. This book is written by an IcelI read this along with the The World's Literature group here in GoodReads, where we are reading Icelandic lit in 2014. This book is written by an Icelander, but takes place in an unnamed place and time. It can't be Iceland because it has borders with war going on, and it can't be too far in the past because they mention computers.
The two main characters are Rafael, a paratrooper who comes to a home, kills all but one person, and decides to become a farmer and not return to the military life. Billie is the 11-year old girl left alive at the farm. Her self-image is disturbingly low in a very matter-of-factual way, and she mentions several times that she "might be retarded." Instead she is very well-spoken and mature and seems to know how to keep herself alive.
I felt sympathy for Rafael, and fear. Nothing seems real, everything may be allegory, but I think a bit of it got lost in translation....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
In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca moves between her mother's illness and death, apricots, a trip to Iceland, cancer, and quite a few other topics. They aIn The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca moves between her mother's illness and death, apricots, a trip to Iceland, cancer, and quite a few other topics. They are woven together in an impressive way, and the topic that starts is the topic that ends the book.
I connected the most with the parts about her relationship with her mother because of my own current personal experiences.
“I thought of my mother as a book coming apart, pages drifting away, phrases blurring, letters falling off, the paper returning to pure white, a book disappearing from the back because the newest memories faded first, and nothing was being added.”
I read it because it was a selection for my World's Literature group and our year of focusing on Iceland, but only a few sections are really about that experience. It was more of a stop along the way for her.
“Distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.”
She also writes about writing, reading, and storytelling, some good food for thought as I look toward teaching my storytelling class again in May.
ETA: Discussed on Episode 016 of the Reading Envy Podcast.
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.