I'll withhold rating this one, because I didn't finish it. I thought the Northern Italian setting sounded delightful, but the overt chauvinism and preI'll withhold rating this one, because I didn't finish it. I thought the Northern Italian setting sounded delightful, but the overt chauvinism and pretty absurd portrayals of women made this a real slog, and I'm giving up 130ish pages in. Blerg. ...more
As a rule, the fundamental premise for most mystery series featuring an amateur detective isReview published on Reviewing the Evidence in March 2018:
As a rule, the fundamental premise for most mystery series featuring an amateur detective is a shaky one. After all, elderly spinsters, small town librarians, and mystery authors don't generally live the kind of lives that lead them to get mixed up with one violent crime, let alone many. This, then, is one of the fundamental delights of Elizabeth Mundy's debut In Stranger's Houses: her protagonist—the plucky and ambitious Lena Szarka—literally goes through other people's dirty laundry for a living.
Lena is a Hungarian cleaner in London, living a version of that all-too-common and none-too-glamorous immigrant experience. Namely, she works exhausting hours at an unskilled, low-paying job while living with multiple roommates and dreaming of the day that she'll finally get a foothold in her adopted home. Add to that the fact that she's an Eastern European in post-Brexit London, forced weather all manner of oblique microagressions and blatant discriminations ("You're Romanian, too, aren't you? You come here to beg"), and you have the perfect of-our-moment set-up that would be compelling even if it weren't for the crime plot.
The crime in question is the disappearance of Lena's younger childhood friend, Timea, who's left her son behind in rural Hungry to try and make a better life for them both in London. So far, however, Timea only has a small room in Lena's apartment and a roster of failed relationships to show for her trouble and has become increasingly secretive and edgy with her well-meaning, but often pushy friend. When Timea goes missing, Lena is sure that the police aren't taking her disappearance seriously, and being the well-organized, Type A go-getter that she is, thinks nothing of jumping right into her own investigation—with occasional help, that is, from PC Cartwright, a young police academy grad who wants to prove to his rough and ready colleagues he's got more than just book smarts and can close cases, too.
Centering on Timea's client list and a former flame who never entirely left the picture, Lena's investigation is often rather pat, with one clue leading, quite conveniently, to another. And while there are a few clever red herrings and dead ends and even some genuine moments of tension—moments which thankfully compel Lena to show some genuine ingenuity in getting herself and her sidekicks out of trouble—the unraveling of the crime itself, while enjoyable, is not actually where this book's primary strengths lie.
Rather, Timea's disappearance forces Lena to reckon with her past, her choices, and her impact on the lives of people she cares about, often to unflattering effect. And she's a very compelling character, flawed in genuine and relatable ways, with a history that she didn't ever manage to put quite as far behind her as she may have once thought. The narrative then moves between past and present, between new acquaintances and old lovers, between fields outside of rural Hungarian villages and the bustling sidewalks of London's Angel and Islington neighborhoods. This journey is always bringing Lena closer to finding out what happened to her friend, perhaps, but more importantly, it's giving her cause to learn some deeper things about herself.
In Stranger's Houses is then not only an airing of other people's dirty laundry, but of Lena's (and Timea's) as well. Having doggedly pursued answers in a crime that hits very close to home, it will be interesting to see where the next, possibly less personal, case takes this very compelling leading lady. ...more
Taking its inspiration from idiosyncratic headlines around the globe, News Muse by Vala Hafstað combines two very Icelandic int(Review published here)
Taking its inspiration from idiosyncratic headlines around the globe, News Muse by Vala Hafstað combines two very Icelandic interests—the daily news and poetry—and uses these to paint a sometimes amusing, often ridiculous portrait of contemporary life.
With a few notable exceptions, the thirty-three poems contained in News Muse—all of which, cleverly, include hyperlinks to the original news stories in the e-book version—are composed of uncluttered, whimsically rhyming couplets. Stylistically, these are reminiscent of nursery rhymes, with the overall effect being that the (factually-based) content seems even more absurd than it already is.
Take, for instance, the poem ‘A Life of Luxury,’ which skewers the growing market for luxury pet products, such as epicurean dog chow or myrtle and fennel-scented “Fart and Away” pet candles:
I’m neutered, but to my amazement I’m blessed with equipment replacement: Prosthetic and custom-made nuts That boost both my ego and guts.
Vala’s current event inspirations are varied, with subject matter ranging from dog weddings in Sri Lanka (‘The Dogs’ Wedding Vows’) and that time that Icelandair flight attendants physically restrained a drunken, violent “air hooligan” with duct tape (‘Tied Up’), to Church-in-a-Pub meetings in Texas (‘Diwine’) and the death of a 37-year-old man who was attacked and drowned by a flock of angry swans (‘Swan Song’). Nevertheless, it’s clear that she particularly leans towards a few specific flavours of news story.
For one, with eleven of the collection’s poems about animals, it’s obvious that she enjoys quirky creature bulletins, and gets a lot of joy writing from an animal’s perspective. (One of the book’s more laugh-out-loud lines can be found in her poem “The Cheetah’s Response,” which relates the struggles of mating in captivity: “Attraction is sudden, complex. / Survival depends on wild sex.”) Vala also seems to enjoy more improbable factoids, news stories which reveal surprising bits of trivia like those one might read on a Snapple “Real Facts” bottle cap. For instance, that upon consuming a great deal of starch, people with "auto-brewery syndrome" will basically brew beer right in their own bellies as related in her poem ‘Auto-Brewery.’
But although it never veers into outright criticism or political commentary, where News Muse is at its best is when it pokes fun at the extremely decadent, the downright bougie, and the crassly materialistic. Thirty-dollar cups of Kopi Luwak coffee made from beans that have been extracted from the excrement of small mammals called civets (‘Hospitality’). Having one’s cremated remains turned into diamonds for her loved ones to wear (‘Diamonds to Die For’). The Chinese couple who “sold” their newborn to buy an iPhone 5 (‘Eye-Phone’); the German bishop (nicknamed “the bishop of bling”) who took a first-class flight to visit the poor in India and spent millions renovating his home (‘A Prayer’).
Despite the playful tone, it’s in these moments that Vala’s project is at its sharpest and most incisive. It’s a bit depressing, but it’s funny—because it’s true. ...more
Gerður Krístný is an immensely prolific writer, having produced some 18 books—including poetry and short story collections, novels for adults and children, a biography and a travel narrative—since her first publication in 1994. However, she is as of yet relatively unknown to English-reading audiences. For although several international collections have anthologised her poems and short stories, it was not until Gerður won the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2010 that one of her works, the winning poetry book Bloodhoof, was translated into English in its entirety.
“I feel as though I have been writing Bloodhoof since I was a child,” Gerður has stated, explaining that as a girl she was fascinated by Norse mythology. In fact, the first verse that she ever composed was about Odin, the ruler of the Æsir gods. In ‘Bloodhoof,’ she turns her attention to a well-known mythological episode in which the servant Skírnir travels across worlds to fetch a beautiful Jötunn maiden (also named Gerður) and bring her to the god Freyr, who has fallen in love with her from afar.
Bloodhoof's long-form retelling draws its inspiration from the ‘Skírnismál,’ (‘The Lay of Skírnir’). “This story has always been considered a romantic and beautiful story,” she explained. “But actually it is full of violence.” Indeed, Gerður’s spare retelling leaves no room for idyllic interpretations—no glossing over of the fact that in the ‘Skírnismál,’ the woman only agrees to go to Freyr under great duress—only, in fact, after he has threatened to kill her kinsmen and place a curse on her: “Over my head / the sword sang a song / the song of a maiden / who struggles / and dies / her neck decked with a slash.”
The poem’s deliberate pacing and stark imagery is emphasised by its layout: there is no more than a stanza on each page, sometimes no more than a few lines. Given the rhythmic alliteration of the poem in its original Icelandic (which often reflects the ljóðaháttur, or chant metre, of the ‘Skírnismál’), it is also particularly nice to see both the Icelandic and English text on the same page, as even readers who do not understand Icelandic will be able to get a feel for the sound of the original as they read along.
As translator Rory McTurk points out in his useful contextual introduction, Bloodhoof finally allows Gerður her own voice—the poem is told entirely from her perspective—where in ‘Skírnismál,’ she only speaks eight stanzas of 42. Additionally, both Eddic versions of Gerður’s story end with her promise to come to Freyr in nine night’s time, but neither actually relate the pair’s meeting. Bloodhoof, on the other hand, uses this first meeting as a jumping-off point, as merely the start of Gerður’s nightmare of abuse:
He wrapped my hair around his hand and led me
Freyr’s paws pawed me
reducing me to terror
scored a new scar on my skin each night
These passages of violence in Bloodhoof resonate particularly for being wholly unvarnished and direct. It is also important to note that this is not the first time that Gerður Kristný has written about these mythological figures. In fact, her first poetry collection includes a poem entitled “Til Skírnis” (‘To Skírnir’). Also narrated by Gerður, “Til Skírnis” ends with awful finality, on the lines “Dauðan lít ég svip minn / í sverði þínu,” (literally: “Dead I see my face / in your sword”).
This line is quoted almost verbatim in Bloodhoof: “Dauðan leit ég / svip minn / í sverði drengsins,” which Rory has rendered as “I saw my face, / dead, reflected / in the envoy’s sword.” But in this echo, the line appears only half way through the book. And while great suffering follows the statement, so does great strength and resurrection:
Yet the body holds its own
The body holds firm
The body holds
with a foot stuck fast under a chair
a hand in the far corner
fingers all over the floor
I gathered myself into one piece
aligned my eyebrows set my jaw tucked in my liver and lungs
pressed my heart into service
Until eventually, Gerður rises to meet her oppressor: “In the doorway / I met Freyr / He saw his face, / dead, reflected / in my eye.” Still awaiting the vengeance of her kinsmen, Gerður has nevertheless freed herself in spirit, if not yet in body....more
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.”...more
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.”...more
On an early morning in Oslo in 1970, Arvid Jansen shimmies up his high school flagpole and replaces his nation’s flag with that of the Viet Cong. Confronted by the headmaster in front of his classmates, Arvid takes the opportunity to expound on the evils of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam and Norway’s complicit foreign policy, all the time being observed from a far corner by his good friend Audun Sletten. “I guess it’s all very important,” Audun shrugs, “but I am up to my neck in my own troubles, and it almost makes me want to throw up.”
Frequent readers of Per Petterson have by now come to know Arvid Jansen rather well. In typical Petterson fashion, Arvid’s life has been examined in alternating atemporal versions set forth in In the Wake and, most recently, in the masterful I Curse the River of Time. Arvid is often the vehicle through which the author explores and recasts episodes of his own past—“[h]e’s not my alter ego, he’s my stunt man,” Petterson stated in a 2009 interview with The Guardian. Vulnerable, self-absorbed, and made miserable by hindsight, Arvid is an incredibly sympathetic character. If for no other reason than this, then, English readers should be delighted to now have access to one of Petterson’s early novels (first published in Norway in 1992): It’s Fine By Me.
Arvid is a prominent character in the novel, but it isn’t his story. Rather, it’s that of his troubled friend Audun, a young man who, with his “real problems”—a violent and drunken father who is, luckily, often absent; a beloved but drug-addicted younger brother, killed in a car accident; a lonely single mother struggling to support her children; and numbing jobs with long hours and little respect—is the actual embodiment of the working class hero that Arvid has so frequently wished to be. But as seen through Audun’s eyes, there’s nothing in the least romantic about his situation in life.
“It’s fine by me,” (reminiscent of Elliot Gould’s own cynical chorus of “It’s okay with me,” in Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye) is Auden’s go-to retort, forced in its apathy when pretty much everything that he remarks on is anything but. In fact, Audun cares a great deal about what happens around him—cares about his sister who he thinks may be in an abusive relationship, cares about a neighbor whose brother is getting into drugs, cares about Arvid and his family, cares about doing well in school, and literature, and Jimi Hendrix, and woodsy hideouts where he felt safe as a child. But isolating himself and not caring—or at least giving the appearance of not caring—is far easier and exposes him less.
Although there actually is quite a lot in the way of plot happenings, It’s Fine By Me is a rather familiar, somewhat anticlimactic coming-of-age narrative where the ‘what’ matters far less than the ‘how.’ This is by no means Petterson’s strongest novel, nor should it really be expected to be—it was, after all, one of his first. But although the flashbacks and overlapping memories fold together less seamlessly than in other Petterson novels, although the emotional pitch is generally less subtle (lots of capital letter exclamations when people are angry), and the visual metaphors more overdetermined (a beautiful runaway horse, turning just before it knocks over young Audun and Arvid), the novel is still compelling, and sometimes even quite funny. (A scene in which Audun and Arvid have to figure out how to put gas in Arvid’s father’s car is particularly delightful.) Petterson’s characterizations are always both sharp and empathetic, his prose measured, poetic, and visual. One feels connected to Audun—truly concerned for him—and yet, due entirely to Petterson’s writerly sleights of hand, the reader can distinguish between what has become entirely compressed and unified in Auden’s mind: run-of-the-mill teenage angst and real, emotional (and physical) trauma.
Through it all, Petterson allows for a quiet hopefulness, the possibility a better future for Audun. There is resonance in the clichéd assurances of a sympathetic neighbor: “You’re not eighteen all your life,” he tells Audun. “That may not be much of a consolation, but take a hint from someone who’s outside looking in: you’ll get through this.” ...more
“No one knows better than I that the boundary between reality and fiction in every story runs meanderingly through the middle of language, concealed and incomprehensible—and movable.”
This observation, made by one of The Canvas’s two increasingly unreliable narrators, is easily applied to the novel itself, a sophisticated Choose Your Own Adventure that’s not only a complex narrative but also a significant exploration of how form and structure irrevocably affect a story’s reception.
Delving into truth, memory, empathy, and self-making, Stein’s novel takes inspiration from the real-life scandal of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a Swiss man who notoriously penned a successful but falsified Holocaust memoir in the late 1990s. The Canvas is comprised of two stories: that of Jan Weschler, a Jewish publisher living in Munich, and of Amnon Zichroni, a dedicated scholar of the Talmud who can physically experience the memories of others. The tales literally begin opposite and upside down from one another—the book has two covers, and Jan and Amnon’s stories meet in the middle; a reader could start at either end of the book or alternate back and forth between the two. These narratives intersect abruptly and surprisingly; whose version of events you believe largely depends on whose you read first.
Stein immerses the reader in the lives and memories of both characters—in Jan Weschler’s East Berlin upbringing and eventual conversion to Orthodox Judaism; in Amnon Zichroni’s brush with secular literature as a child and his resultant move to Switzerland. Rather than providing any real sort of clarity, however, the intimacy provided by the first-person narration actually obscures the stories more; in particular, Weschler’s discovery that his life is not what he remembers is profoundly shocking not only to him but also to the all-too-trusting reader....more
In Trail of the Spellmans, the fifth installment (or “Document #5″) of her popular Spellman Files series, Lisa Lutz’s hard-drinking, wise-cracking P.I. Isabel (Izzy) Spellman has her hands full dealing with several compromising surveillance jobs, a house-sitting assignment for an OCD mathematics professor, and all-out chaos at home. Which is, of course, what makes it fun.
Much in the vein of a Carl Hiaasen caper, Lutz’s Spellman novels are delightfully humorous romps, more about the zany characters and their convoluted mishaps than about any serious investigation. For those new to the series, a little background: Izzy, a former rabble-rouser and incorrigible snoop, has been an investigator in her family’s San Francisco business since the age of twelve. She shares her caseload with her parents and also her college-age sister, Rae, who not only seems bored at work these days, but has inexplicably begun to fake her surveillance reports. Then there’s Izzy’s older brother David, once an “excessively fashionable,” type-A lawyer who has now given up his career to be a stay-at-home dad for his eighteen-month-old daughter.
This time around, we find Izzy juggling three or four loosely interconnected mini-mysteries (some professional, some not) which give the story a bit of structure around the ongoing family drama. Among other upheavals, the Spellman parents now have a new household member: Demetrius Merriweather, (‘D’) a former client who was wrongfully imprisoned on a murder charge for fifteen years. Rather than pursue a lucrative lawsuit against the state, however, D spends his time baking delicious treats that then must be locked away from Izzy’s dieting father. Additionally, her relationship with San Francisco cop (and live-in boyfriend) Henry Stone is threatened by the prospect of a ‘serious talk,’ that Izzy continually dodges by going on drinking bouts with her new friend, Henry’s mother. Add to that her toddler niece inexplicably referring to everything as ‘banana,’ her harried brother throwing Rae out of his guest house for reasons that neither sibling will explain, and her mother’s sudden craze for jam-packing her days with Russian lessons, book clubs, and crafts, and you get a sense of the dizzying antics that Lutz seamlessly integrates into one sitcom-esque novel.
Although the family back-story is central to the plot of Trail of the Spellmans, new readers to the series need not worry about jumping into the fray mid-series. Important family history is folded neatly into the current plot, and Izzy peppers her ‘file’ with snarky explanatory footnotes, as well as an appendix with dossiers on each of the primary characters. And while none of the discoveries that she makes throughout the novel are even remotely surprising to the reader, the overall narrative about Izzy’s relationship with her family and the family business does reach a watershed moment at the book’s conclusion. In this way, Trail of the Spellmans feels like a transitional installment in the series—a lighthearted bridge between the more fully developed plots that have preceded it, and the inevitable drama to come....more
By examining the minute connections, unlikely coincidences, and painstaking natural processes that give shape to the daily world, the work of Danish author Peter Adolphsen encapsulates—both in form and content—Blake’s image of “a world in a grain of sand.” This has never been more literally true than in his most recently translated work, The Brummstein. Beginning in 1907, and ending over eighty years later, the novella follows a mysteriously humming stone found deep within a Swiss cave through its series of unlikely owners: a hapless German anarchist and his young Jewish sweetheart, a retired ticket clerk at a railway station lost & found, an orphan boy living alone in the woods, an avant-garde artist, and a museum curator. In following the ownership of the stone, The Brummstein also traces a crash course through European (German) history—in less than 80 pages, the reader experiences both World Wars, Spanish Flu, the rise of the Soviet GDR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, rather than focus on a larger, more sweeping narrative, The Brummstein is told on a much more personal, human scale.
Adolphsen has not yet been fully translated into English, but a good start has been made with the 2009 translation of his excellent novella Machine, and excerpts from his collections Small Stories I and Small Stories II, which were included in 2011’s Best European Fiction Anthology. Readers familiar with these other works will recognize many of the author’s prevailing thematic interests, as well as his favorite formal constraints in The Brummstein.
The book starts with a playful explanation of “the constant orogeny of the Alps,” and how the formation of the earth might be conceptualized on a time-line. “. . . if we apply the famous metaphor which depicts the Earth’s age as a calendar year,” the narrator begins,
when dinosaurs became extinct on Boxing Day, hominids emerge on New Year’s Eve, and when, at the time of writing, ten seconds have passed since the Roman Empire’s five seconds expired, then these events took place on December 19 and 23 respectively. In the West, the process of comprehending this vast expanse of time commenced just one and a half geological seconds ago...
There’s a PBS-narrator quality to Adolphsen’s explanations of the natural world, which manage to be clinical and dignified while simultaneously geeking out about how awesome geology is. (Machine, with its first page explanations of the petrification of a prehistoric horse, which eons later becomes a drop of gasoline, maintains the same delightful tone.)
But the book’s concern is not really the Brummstein—the mysterious humming stone that an amateur explorer looking for the entrance to another world finds at the beginning of the story is basically a MacGuffin. This has been true for many other “lives of objects” narratives as well—Jenny Erpenbach’s Visitation and Nicole Krauss’s Great House come to mind—and is not in itself that unique a premise. What makes The Brummstein special, then, is Adolphsen’s incredible specificity and gift for compressing deeply incisive observations into just a few short passages.
It’s rare that the full emotional weight of a relationship or a life can be concisely summarized—just think of how bland many obituaries are. But this is precisely what Adolphsen excels at. Consider a passage in which we’re introduced to Georg Wiede, an elderly retiree in Germany during WWII. After his apartment was destroyed by Allied air raids, Georg moves to a railway station lost and found hut:
It wasn’t until December 1943 that Georg finally overcame the inhibitions which had so far deterred him from helping himself to the lost items. He was driven by a noble motive: hunger. One of the suitcases might contain a tin of goulash or a bag of boiled sweets. He organized clothing such as coats and hats in neat piles at one end of the hut, making sure that each item retained its original ticket. Then he turned his attention to the suitcases, briefcases, et cetera. One by one he placed them on the table, and feeling like a surgeon with a patient on the operating table, he opened them up and laid out the contents in regimented lines. Then he returned the items in reverse order less anything he needed, which included two fountain pens, a small pile of books, a little money, some clothes, and an antique pocket watch. Whenever he took something, he would replace it with a small note with a brief description of the object and the following sentence: “I, Georg Weide, took this item of lost property in a time of great need.”
When it doesn’t work, The Brummstein tends to undercut its emotional resonance with an unsettling sense of absurdity that borders on nihilism. More than one character is dispatched in a freak accident—for instance, a married couple survives Spanish Flu only to be crushed by a chaise lounge falling from an apartment window. The narrative also drops off abruptly and unresolved, which may be alluding to the continuation of the story outside of the novella, but instead feels slightly apathetic.
If, in the end, The Brummstein has some shortcomings, these are mostly recognizable only in comparison to Adolphsen’s more polished Machine which, it should be noted, was written a few years later. Overall, it is a remarkably creative, unique, and resonant work, which can—and should—be read in one satisfying sitting....more
The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.
Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.
Mister Blue opens on Jim, “the slowest writer in Quebec,” a former Hemingway scholar turned full-time novelist who now summers in his dilapidated childhood home, a ramshackle cottage in a quiet, uninhabited bay on the Ile d’Orleans. Jim’s daily writing follows a quiet routine with little to punctuate it other than semi-regular tennis matches with his brother, feeding and tending to his cats and the scrappy strays that invite themselves into his home, and solitary walks on the beach in front of his home. It is on just such a walk that Jim discovers footprints in the sand leading to a cave where someone has been camping. Finding a copy of The Arabian Nights in the cave with the name “Marie K.” written on the flyleaf, Jim becomes instantly besotted with this mysterious unseen stranger, whom he nicknames Marika.
Here, as in Translation is a Love Affair, real life quickly begins to intermingle with fiction and vice-versa. For Poulin’s characters, life itself is a process of composition, improvised and redrafted as unforeseen events take place. As Jim struggles to write a love story, he becomes convinced that his authorial problems can all be chalked up to the fact that he has ignored Hemingway’s rule: “a writer must stick to the subject he knows best.” He surmises that his story has stalled because “I was trying to write a love story without being in love myself.” Ergo, he whimsically decides, he must “take a closer interest in that person named Marika.”
But matters of the heart, much like matters of fiction, are not so easily constructed. Instead of meeting Marika, he meets a woman named Bungalow, a former housewife who left her “gilded cage” to run a shelter for young women in Old Quebec, and La Petite, who lives at the shelter but increasingly becomes a regular visitor at Jim’s cottage. The arrival of these two women takes both Jim’s fictional and real life love stories off course: the mysterious Marika continues to elude him, and obstinately, his fictional characters become friends instead of lovers, despite his frequent attempts to revise their relationship. The romantic story that he set out to write (and to live) gives way, ever so slowly, to a gentler, more protective, tender kind of love—that between himself and the curious, lovable, but often volatile La Petite—the love between a parent and child.
In simple, clean prose (musically rendered in Sheila Fischman’s translation) Poulin delivers his bittersweet tale with a restraint that belies true joy, the dogged optimism that complete strangers from totally different backgrounds and circumstances can find in each other real empathy and kindness. That such connections are right there in front of us, if only we trouble to look for them.
“What matters are the emotional ties that connect people and form a vast, invisible web without which the world would crumble,” Jim realizes. “Everything else to which people devote the greater part of their time, looking very serious as they do so, is of only minor importance.”...more
Tomislav Boksic, or Toxic, is the go-to hitman for the Croatian mafiReview published in The L Magazine on March 14, 2012, here: http://goo.gl/M8JcA
Tomislav Boksic, or Toxic, is the go-to hitman for the Croatian mafia in New York. A former soldier, Toxic prides himself on his impeccable hit record, his “sex bomb” girlfriend, and his decadent Manhattan lifestyle. But when kill #67 turns out to be an undercover FBI agent, Toxic has to flee America, assume the identity of a televangelist named Father Friendly, and hide in Iceland, a country he only knows from travel advertisements of “lunar landscapes and sunny faces.”
In the wake of its financial collapse, Iceland has invested significant energies in exporting itself both as a tourist destination (think of all those alluring subway ads), and—justifiably—as a hotbed of cultural innovation. A new partnership between AmazonCrossing and the Icelandic Literature Fund is representative of this effort: The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrímur Helgason is one of ten Icelandic novels that the press will release in English this year. Hallgrímur previously gained attention in the U.S. with his slackers-in-the-city novel 101 Reykjavík, and Baltasar Kormakur’s subsequent film adaptation. (There’s a fun moment in Housecleaning when Toxic discovers “the most famous bar in the land, heavily featured in some hip movie years back”—referring to the iconic Kaffibarinn in 101 Reykjavík.)
Housecleaning shares much of 101 Reykjavík’s sensibilities. On one hand, both protagonists—with their respective rating systems for women—could use some feminist sensitivity training. On the other, both books make for great mini-guides to Icelandic culture. It’s a clever device in Housecleaning—Toxic is essentially a tourist, so there’s ample reason to share factoids about Iceland: the country has no army, prostitutes, or handguns; and on particularly warm days (60ºF), businesses close for a “sun-break” so that “employees can go outside and enjoy the heat wave.”
Housecleaning is also notable in that it wasn’t actually translated from Icelandic—Hallgrímur wrote the novel in English. The prose is rhythmic and fluid, and showcases his linguistic creativity. Toxic not only has a flare for descriptions (“her hair… has the color of butter fresh from the fridge”) but also converts all the Icelandic names and words he hears into a phonetic English hitman-ese: he hears a woman’s name, Gunnhildur, as “Gunholder.” The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning was written prior to Iceland’s meltdown, but these efforts to familiarize outsiders with Icelandic culture and situate the country in a greater global context feel particularly appropriate for the current moment. ...more
A slim collection of novellas, short stories, and excerpts from an unfinished novel, Amsterdam Stories introduces English readers to the complete works of Nescio, one of the most beloved Dutch authors. Neither a particularly prolific nor commercially successful author during his lifetime, Nescio’s fiction now resonates as a love song to Amsterdam, a snapshot of The Netherlands in an era of profound change, and a bittersweet reflection on talent and youth fallen short of its promise.
Latin for “I don’t know,” Nescio was the pseudonym of J.H.F Grönloh (1882-1961), a co-director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. In his professional life, Nescio embodied the middling bourgeois existence that haunts nearly all of his bohemian characters. Four of the best pieces in Amsterdam Stories explore this tension and follow the lives of a motley group of disaffected artists, including Koekebakker, a struggling journalist, and Bavnik, a self-deprecating painter.
In “The Freeloader,” Bavnik befriends Japi, an echo of Melville’s Bartleby who declares “I am nothing and I do nothing.” This pursuit intrigues as much as irks his acquaintances, each of whom is attempting to evade the numbing grind of office jobs and banal respectability. The story also showcases Nescio’s poetic use of language and lyrical repetitions: “The freeloader you found lying in your bed with his dirty shoes on when you came home late; the freeloader who smoked your cigars and filled his pipe with your tobacco and burned your coal...”
Koekebakker narrates in retrospect, balancing light-hearted nostalgia with loss. “We were on top of the world, and the world was on top of us, weighing down heavily,” he sighs in “Young Titans.” And yet, even though these young men were poor, working jobs which “confiscated the better part of our time... [and] kept us out of the sunshine,” even though Bavnik couldn’t paint the world as he really saw it, and their hopes came to nothing—the wonder of this age of possibility is clearly what matters to him in the end.
The romantic undertone of the Koekebakker stories may be attributable to the time of their writing—all between 1909 and 1914, prior to World War I. Contrast this with the “world in tatters” that Nescio describes in the astounding “Insula Dei,” which was written and set in 1942, during the Nazi occupation. Where his young artists spent their days wandering outside Amsterdam, admiring the setting sun “blazing yellow” on the dikes, “Insula Dei” finds its narrator, Dikschei, freezing on a “gray, icy day” waiting for a meager share of milk at the market. Meeting an ailing old friend, Dikschei takes him to a cafe, splurging his ration tickets on bread and ham. “These aren’t the first eventful times I’ve lived through,” he says, resigned. “[A]nd if I’m granted even more years... I will most likely get to my third war.” But in his friend’s declaration that he is “an island,” that no man can himself be occupied, Dikschei recognizes and embraces a quiet self-possession, an internal rebellion against forces beyond one’s control. ...more
Part road novel, part bildungsroman, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s The Greenhouse is a meditative story of love, death, fatherhood, and creating meaning in life even when it seems to be entirely dictated by chance. Published in English translation in 2011, it is the first of ten Icelandic novels that online retailer Amazon committed to publishing in the next year via its literature-in-translation press AmazonCrossing.
The Greenhouse opens on Lobbi, a young man to whom things seem to just happen—things which he is rarely equipped to handle. The last year has been particularly unsettling in this respect: first, his mother, with whom he was very close, died in a terrible car accident. Exactly a year later—after being unexpectedly conceived in “one quarter of a night, not even”—his first daughter was born. Feeling superfluous in the life of his child and misunderstood by his aging father, Lobbi is only really comfortable when he is gardening. And so, he decides to leave Iceland for an isolated monastery in a foreign country, hoping to restore a once-legendary garden to its former splendor and add to it a rare species of rose that he cultivated in his mother’s greenhouse.
Once Lobbi begins his journey, little goes to plan. He falls ill almost immediately after he departs and later gets lost and has to detour through a labyrinthian forest. He’s barely settled into his gardening routine at the monastery before the mother of his child arrives with his daughter, asking him to “bear [his] part of the responsibility” and look after the girl while she works on her graduate thesis. But instead of collapsing in this new role, Lobbi rises to the demands of fatherhood, and finds himself embracing such simple tasks as roasting potatoes and picking out hair ribbons.
Auður Ava is not only a fiction author, but also a practicing art historian. So it seems only natural that her prose is particularly visual in its descriptions, such as when Lobbi first arrives at his new village and sees the monastery on the edge of a cliff, “…severed in two by a horizontal stripe of yellow mist that makes it look like it’s hovering over its earthly foundations.” There is a tangible richness to each setting in the novel. Lobbi imagines the lava field where his mother died, visualizing a landscape of “russet heather, a blood red sky, violet red foliage on some small trees nearby, golden moss.” The cozy warmth of her greenhouse, a sofa among the tomato plants, contrasts with the forest Lobbi drives through “which seems endless and spans the entire spectrum of green.”
This evocative prose, fluidly translated by Brian FitzGibbon, provides a nice counterpoint to the simple but perceptive landscape of Lobbi’s continuous internal monologue. In the end, his own transformation mirrors that of his beloved roses, echoing his mother’s gardening philosophy: “it just needs a little bit of care and, most of all, time.”
2011 has been a banner year for Icelandic literature on the international stage. “Fabulous Iceland” was this year’s guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and in August, UNESCO named the Reykjavík as one of its five Cities of Literature—the only such city where English is not the native language. Perhaps even more notable for American readers, however, was the recent announcement that Amazon’s new publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, will release an astounding ten Icelandic titles in new English translations over the next year. Judging by the press’ first Icelandic selection, The Greenhouse by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, English-readers can look forward to a catalog of remarkable Icelandic titles in the coming months.
At once wryly observant and sweetly comic, The Greenhouse is a meditation on such sweeping themes as sex, death, becoming a parent, manhood, and finding a place for oneself in the world which doesn’t once fall prey to cloying generalizations or cliche. Rather, through the eyes of twenty-two year old Arnljótur Thórir—or Lobbi, as his elderly father affectionately calls him—author Audur Ava Olafsdottir breathes a freshness and sincerity into her subject matter which is as charming as it is insightful.
The novel opens with a birth and a death. Having lost his mother in a car accident just a year earlier, Lobbi is also adjusting to his unexpected new role as father. His first child, Flóra Sól, is the product of the unlikely indiscretion of “one quarter of a night, not even, a fifth, more like it.” His mother’s death and the birth of his daughter both take place on the same day, which also happens to be his mother’s birthday. Lobbi’s father ascribes this confluence to “some intricate system,” while his son dismisses the coincidences as meaningless chance. “In my experience,” he sagely remarks, “as soon as you think you’ve got one thing figured out, something completely different happens.”
This statement ends up being wiser than Lobbi could imagine, as all of his best laid plans and worldviews are systematically upended throughout the novel. Feeling himself to be somewhat superfluous in the life of his daughter, and at loose ends with his father and autistic twin brother at home, Lobbi decides that rather than go to college, he will travel to a remote (unnamed) village monastery abroad to work as an gardener. Although he is generally indecisive and frequently unsure of himself, the decision is not a difficult one. Lobbi was “more or less brought up in a greenhouse” by his mother, who shared with her son a knack for cultivating tomatoes, flowers, and roses where once had only been “a flat stretch of barren land with rocks surrounded by wind-scattered pebbles.”
Lobbi is not even out of Reykjavík when his plans begin to go awry. He falls ill on the plane and must be hospitalized upon landing. Once recovered, he rents a car and begins his long journey, only to find himself lost in a deep forest and unexpectedly transporting an inn-keeper’s daughter to her drama class, 350 kilometers out of his way. Finally arriving at his destination, he finds solace in the monastery garden and a mentor in a monk with a love of dessert liqueurs and art house cinema. But he has not been working at the garden long when he is contacted by the mother of his child, an aspiring geneticist who would like Lobbi to “bear [his] part of the responsibility” and help her look after Flóra Sól while she completes her thesis. Thus, in very short order, Lobbi finds himself living with a woman, raising a daughter, learning to cook, and hopefully, figuring out what he wants to do with his life.
The Greenhouse is a meandering novel and although there are quite a few happenings throughout the narrative, not much actually “happens” per se, and nor does it need to. Lobbi’s daily negotiations of quotidian responsibilities are so sweetly related that something as simple as making dinner can become a rich, humorous, and illustrative moment. From Brian FitzGibbon’s seamless translation, it is clear that Audur Ava is a beautiful prose stylist who uses simple and straightforward language and imagery to convey complex emotions and observations. Interspersing scenes from Lobbi’s daily life with reflective moments from his past—the last conversation he had with his mother, sitting up and watching his daughter sleep the night that she was born—Audur Ava creates a fully realized portrait of a young man coming into himself without even really being aware of his own transformation.
The Greenhouse is a novel about finding beauty in the everyday, in simple moments and acts—in making dinner, and planting roses, and helping a child learn to walk. It is a story of creating meaning in one’s own life, especially in the face of chance and coincidence....more