Four Icelandic Novels to be Translated into English, Published by Amazon Crossing

So, yes, we’ve heard all the complaints against/issues with Amazon’s new publishing and philanthropic endeavors (some of which are more valid than others…) but I continue to find the internet mega-seller’s dedication to literature in translation a compelling point in its favor. Case in point: Iceland Review reported this weekend that four new Icelandic titles which had not been previously translated into English will be published by the new Amazon Crossing press within the next year or so.

One of the titles is a historical novel set in 15th Century Iceland by Vilborg Davídsdóttir, with a pretty sweet sounding premise:  “a young mother and her illegitimate son are cast under the spell of the assistant to the Bishop of Hólar who knows more than the words of the Bible.”

The remaining three of these novels are crime titles by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, and were, admittedly, selected on the basis of sales potential:

“Amazon Crossing bases its selection of Ingólfsson and Davídsdóttir’s work to a large extent on reader reviews from different countries; they have especially been praised on the German Amazon site. Ingólfsson’s books have sold 150,000 copies in Germany.”

But (and I’m talking to you, genre snobs and lit elitists) I contend that it is a very good thing to introduce more American readers to popular writers of popular genres which are written in other languages from other countries. It’s all about expanding our limited literary horizons, and everyone needs a ‘gateway’ read. I came to Einar Már Guðmundsson by way of Arnaldur Indriðason myself, and both are authors I enjoy and respect. Let’s hope to see more Icelandic titles coming our way in the very near future.

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Frozen Assets

My most recent review is of Quentin Bates’ new crime novel Frozen Assets, set in a small (imaginary) Icelandic fishing village and starring the gruffly appealing Officer Gunna. Check out Bates’ blog, Graskeggur, for more info on forthcoming titles in the series.

My review was published on Reviewing the Evidence. You can read it on their website, here, or the full text is below.

***

“You can’t hide in Iceland.” Or so is the hope of Officer Gunnhildur (Gunna) Gísladóttir, the stalwart, commonsensical “country copper” at the heart of Quentin Bates’s first crime novel, Frozen Assets. Although the (imaginary) small harbor village of Hvalvík sees little crime outside of traffic violations and the occasional disorderly drunk, Officer Gunna authoritatively takes over the complex investigation into the suspicious drowning of a Reykjavík man who was far too drunk at the time of his death to walk let alone drive over an hour to the Hvalvík harbor where he was found. Even more suggestive, the victim was employed by Spearpoint, a PR company with suspicious ties to some powerful Icelandic politicians, which is assisting with the development of a new and increasingly unpopular smelting plant that is being built just outside of town.

Hindered in her investigation by the unwilling employees at Spearpoint and urged by her superior to close the case as an accidental death, Gunna’s persistence is justified when yet another suspicious death -that of one of the drowning victim’s associates – is uncovered. Soon, she finds herself immersed in a complicated case that involves everyone from politicians and underhanded financiers to a scrappy group of environmental activists and a persistent gossip blogger whose merciless revelations of the foibles and misdeeds of Iceland’s elite have angered some very dangerous people.

Published by Soho Crime in the US, Frozen Assets maintains the strong and evocative sense of place that characterizes that imprint. Bates – who is himself British but has spent many years living in Iceland and working at a variety of odd jobs from netmaker to factory worker- clearly knows the country (and the countryside) well. Hvalvík–which was inspired by “…many of the quiet villages dotted around the coast of Iceland, where most people make their living from the land or the sea” – comes alive in a small luncheonette where the day’s menu consists of potatoes and a brusquely offered choice of “fish or meat?” In the small, smoky police station where the chief often opts to drive the “second best Volvo,” and where local sons and daughters divide their time between horse stables and monthly stints on fishing trawlers. And while Reykjavík is still a bustling urban hub by contrast, with a fair share of squalid basement flats and shady nightclubs, Bates draws together both locales in the mind of the reader, painting a portrait of a small and intimate country where no one can remain anonymous for long.

Gunna is also a satisfying creation–a character in the mode of Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson who patiently pursues her quarry with a gruff but straightforward charm. A talented policewoman, she transferred from the city police force to Hvalvík in the wake of her husband’s death, and is still negotiating the new balance of her life as a single mother and station chief with very few resources ad insufficient manpower.

Set in the months leading up to Iceland’s catastrophic financial collapse, the threat of imminent disaster simmers under the surface of Frozen Assets, although this tension is never quite borne out within the novel. Bates assembles a sprawling cast of idiosyncratic characters and engaging subplots – a young journalist trying his hand at the crime beat; a gluttonous taxi driver and petty offender who gets in too deep with a far more criminal set – but the abundance of these additional elements occasionally obscures the novel’s original premise. However, the raw material of Frozen Assets still makes for a gratifying read, and Officer Gunna will undoubtedly earn herself fans eager to see where her next investigation takes her.

The Girl in the Green Raincoat

My latest review is of The Girl in the Green Raincoat by Baltimore-based crime novelist Laura Lippman. This was my first foray into Lippman’s substantial oeuvre, and I was intrigued not only by her headstrong female PI, Tess Monaghan, but also the fact that the whole of the novella was serialized by The New York Times Magazine. This, I think, is completely delightful–the serialized novel was once a very popular form, particularly in the Victorian era, and I love the idea of returning to a gradually building narrative each week or month, like waiting for a new episode of your favorite TV show. And given our culture’s flagging attention spans and general enjoyment of serial narratives, it seems like an ideal format for contemporary readers to embrace again. Also, what fun for the author.

Fun is the word on Lippman’s Raincoat–it’s an unabashed take off of Rear Window, which is admitted outright by one of the characters in an early sequence. Lippman also happily drew inspiration from a variety of other sources, including, among other things, Daughter of Time by Scotland’s turn of the century crime queen Josephine Tey. Says Lippman in her afterword, “Never Steal Anything Small,”

“T.S. Eliot said that immature poets imitate, mature poets steal. By that standard, The Girl in the Green Raincoat is felony larceny by an unrepentant recidivist. I stole my sister’s idea, I stole from the aforementioned Rear Window and The Daughter of Time, I stole my aunt Judy’s dog, Gabriel, to create the high-strung but loyal Dempsey. I stole from the casework for Detective Gary Childs, who did, in fact, come face-to-face with a modern-day Bluebeard. I even stole from Chekhov. Take his famous edict about a rifle on the wall, substitute “greyhound/bedpan” for rifle, and you have the framework of The Girl in the Green Raincoat.”

On the strength of this late entry in the Tess Monaghan chronicles, I plan to go back and start with the beginning of the series, Baltimore Blues, very soon. Also, since it is abundantly and repeatedly clear to me that Baltimorians have the sort of rabid love and fixation with their city which I’ve heretofore only ascribed to New Yorkers, I might have to make a trip to Lippman’s beloved burg sometime soon.

My review of The Girl with the Green Raincoat was published on the website of Reviewing the Evidence. Read it here, or the full text is below.
***

Originally serialized in The New York Times Magazine in 2008, Laura Lippman’s The Girl with the Green Raincoat takes a playful cue from Rear Window as its intrepid private eye, Tess Monaghan, finds herself subjected to two months of bed rest at the end of her pregnancy. Forced to endure a strictly healthful diet, minimal movement, and constant blood pressure readings, Tess quickly grows bored watching old movies and rereading her favorite novels, but takes some solace watching the comings and goings of the dog walkers and pets that frequent the park across the street from her home. One pair in particular catch her eye: a young woman in a striking green coat and her Italian greyhound who is decked out in a matching ensemble. When the woman disappears, ostensibly abandoning her dog in the park, Tess suspects that she may have been the victim of violence. And although her best friend, fiance, and plucky buisiness manager, Mrs. Blossom, doubt Tess’ suspicions, they agree eagerly enough to placate the whims of a bedridden mother-to-be and help her run down leads and interview suspects.

As her vicarious investigation progresses, Tess and Co. not only become the somewhat unwilling custodians of the abandoned dog—a fierce little beast with a fear of the dark and a penchant for antique chamber pots—they also locate the husband of the missing woman, a man whose wives (three previous) seem to have an unusually high mortality rate.

This is a simple, fun story done very well—the type of story one reads in one sitting on a rainy afternoon or long trip. The plot  is relatively swift and poses few major setbacks, but Lippman adeptly keeps up the pacing and plot twists, pausing every so often to allow Tess to reflect on impending motherhood, or spend a little time learning more about her friends and loved ones. As Lippman notes in her afterword, the book differs somewhat from her previous novels because it “gave [her] multiple chances to write about love, marriage, and family. In almost every chapter someone tells Tess such a story.”

These anecdotes—Tess’ father’s story of when he first saw her mother, her best friend’s reflections successful but unsurprising career at her family’s trust—are where The Girl with the Green Raincoat really shines. A popular character who has featured in ten previous novels, Tess receives a fresh treatment here. As she goes forward, balancing motherhood and the life of a private investigator, Tess Monaghan is sure to be well-received by readers new to Lippman’s series as well as avid fans.

Fair Play

My most recent review is of Tove Jansson’s Fair Play a lovely collection of semi-autobiographical vignettes about two aging artist-companions living on an island off the coast of Finland. One can easily draw links between the stories about Jonna and Mari to Jansson and her own partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she lived, worked, and traveled for the better part of her adult life. However, the relationship portrayed in the book transcends direct corelation and more broadly–and beautifully–speaks to the tenuous balance of creating art and building a meaningful, lifelong relationship with another person.

Fair Play, like True Deceiver, which I reviewed last year, is a difficult book to write about. If this seems to imply that it is a “difficult read” or in any way not enjoyable–it doesn’t. Rather, Fair Play is truly lovely–a vibrant, enjoyable reading experience for Jansson’s clear and elegant prose and her subtly perceptive observations. But it is much more complex and rich than might immediately come across after you first finish the book. As Ali Smith discusses in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson’s work can be characterized by its “mysterious transparency.” Moreover, some of the most profound moments in the book take place in the spaces between conversation and revelation–in what goes unsaid. To quote Ali Smith again:

A lot isn’t said. “Don’t tell me things I already know,” one says to the other amiably. There’s a lot that doesn’t need to be said out loud. It’s a novel with a profound sense of discretion at its core. But the flip side of silence is voice, and the flip side of nothing much happening, as always with Jansson, is that absolutely everything is happening.

The other element that is worth drawing attention to is Thomas Teal’s absolutely seamless translation. Smith again:

The “blend of perfectionism and nonchalance” that Mari sees in Jonna is apparent all through Jansson’s own writing style–perfectly caught itself by Thomas Teal, a luminous translator of Jansson’s twin talent for surface and depth, simplicity and reverberation in language, and someone who knows how to convey her gift for sensing the meaning in the most mundane act or turn of phrase.

In summation, Jansson’s novels have been some of my most valued reading experiences over the last couple of years. We’re lucky that NYRB has made a mission of translating her previously unavailable “adult” novels. I’ve yet to read her Summer Book–although it’s been on my bookshelf since several Christmases ago–and if anything, Fair Play has made me look forward to dipping into that previous novel when the weather finally turns warm again.

My review of Fair Play was published on Three Percent. You can read it on their website, or see the full text below.

***

“There is no silence like sitting in a fog at sea and listening,” writes Tove Jansson in her newly-translated story collection Fair Play. “Large boats can loom up suddenly, and you don’t hear the bow water in time to start your motor and get out of the way.” Stuck waiting out a dense, chilling fog in a row boat somewhere between the coast of a small Finnish island and Estonia, Jansson’s aging companions, Jonna and Mari, fall into an old argument about their mothers—one had an annoying predilection for painstakingly buttered crispbread; the other was an incorrigible cheat at poker. Their conversation is short—discreetly hurtful in the way that one only can be after years of intimacy. But before the fog lifts, Jonna and Mari have come to an understanding, if not a full reconciliation. “Suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia,” Jansson writes. “They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

This episode is not only emblematic of Jonna and Mari’s time-tested relationship, it also reveals Jansson at her paradoxical best. Her prose is sparing and exquisitely clear. And at first, her stories and characters appear to be simple and straightforward. But once you’ve immersed yourself in a Jansson story, you realize that there is a great complexity simmering under the surface of her work—a whole life that exists, but is not made readily accessible to the reader. As Ali Smith puts it in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson writes “in a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency.”

Tove Jansson is most often recognized as a children’s author and illustrator—the visionary behind those delightful marshmallow hippos called “Moomins.” Her adult novels, which she didn’t begin publishing until she was nearly 60, have until recently remained very much in the shadow of the Moomin legacy. Fair Play is the most recent of Jansson’s ‘adult’ novels that New York Review Books has brought into English translation, following last year’s True Deceiver and 2008’s The Summer Book. The collection picks up two of the major thematic elements that run through each of its predecessors, namely the relationship between two women, explored against the back drop of a remote, idyllic setting. (True Deceiver was set in a snow-bound mountain village; The Summer Book on a small island in the Finnish gulf.) And as with the previous NYRB titles, Fair Play also draws on autobiographical inspiration: in this case, Jansson’s lifelong relationship with her partner, a Finnish artist and scholar named Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she lived for the better part of 40 years.

Each chapter in Fair Play serves as a snapshot, a brief window into the relationship between the frank and opinionated Jonna and the reserved and introspective Mari. Their day-to-day lives are quiet and happily mundane: they watch Fassbinder movies instead of going to dinner at a friend’s in the evening (with all its “pointless chatter about inessentials”). They re-hang pictures. They travel frequently, though their points of destination are often less than glamorous. On one trip through the American southwest, they spend a few nights at a local bar in Phoenix, Arizona; while in Corsica, one of their main destinations is a cemetery. They bicker frequently, and aren’t above childish jealousy or the occasional resentment. But mostly, they work, comfortable enough with the constancy of the other’s presence and support to spend the majority of their days writing and painting alone.

In “Videomania,” we’re told that Jonna and Mari “. . . lived at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbor, and between their studios lay the attic, an impersonal no-man’s-land of tall corridors with locked plank doors on either side.”

Mari liked wandering across the attic; it drew a necessary, neutral interval between their domains . . . They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.

It’s in the couple’s companionable solitude that Jansson defines her ethos of artistic creation, a deeply felt belief about the importance of maintaining one’s personal life without sacrificing her creative work, and the substantial space that is required to successfully balance both spheres.

Despite the quietude of Fair Play, it is nevertheless a work of remarkable courage. Jansson’s is not the flashy sort of artistic boldness that proclaims itself by way of constant transparency and self-revelation. Rather, she is brave enough to occasionally withhold information, to provide confidential glimpses into her characters’ lives, while still maintaining a distance from them—a sort of respectful privacy. She doesn’t outline the women’s romantic lives—we don’t find them in bed together, or even see them embrace. Jonna and Mari don’t articulate their love for each other directly, although they certainly reflect on their feelings internally.

Fair Play is after all, a book about separation and space as much as it is about intimacy. “We need distance,” Jonna tells Mari, “it’s essential.” The reader is allowed a closeness to these remarkable women, but in the end, their relationship is like any one in real life: private and fully known only to those who are within it.

Spontaneous Reads: The Adults

I recently picked up The Adults, the debut novel by (my Fort Greene neighbor) Alison Espach. I won’t bother with the preamble, because my review ran rather long. For variant perspectives on the book, check out the two book reviews that were published in The New York Times and New York Times Book Review just last week:

Coming of Age with a Quick Wit and a Sharp Eye” by Janet Maslin.

and

Growing Up Fast” by Alex Kuczynski

My own (informal) review is below.

***

I heard about Allison Espach’s debut novel, The Adults because, as a resident of Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, Brooklyn herself, she was going to be reading at my local bookstore. Her novel–and its heroine, the disenchanted fourteen-year-old Emily Vidal–seem to promise a fresh take on that oh-so-recurrent plotline: Rich Girl from Connecticut Isn’t Buying It and Rebels. So I went down to the bookstore and grabbed a copy off the shelf, just to give the first page a test-read, of sorts. And within several paragraphs, I was sold:

“They arrived in bulk, in Black Tie Preferred, in one large clump behind our wooden fence, peering over each other’s shoulders and into our backyard like people at the zoo who wanted a better view of the animals.

My father’s fiftieth birthday party had begun.

It’s true that I was expecting something. I was just fourteen, my hair still sticky with lemon from the beach, my lips maroon and pulpy and full like a woman’s, red and smothered like “a giant wound,” my mother said earlier that day. She disapproved of my getup…but I didn’t care; I disapproved of this party, this whole at-home affair that would mark the last of its kind.

The women walked through the gate in black and blue and gray and brown pumps, the party already proving unsuccessful at the grass level. The men wore sharp dark ties like swords and said predictable things like, ‘Hello.’

‘Welcome to our lawn,’ I said back, with a goofy grin, and none of them looked me in the eye because it was rude or something.”

It’s a good start, right? To me, the kind of start that promises crisp prose and creative dialog, and a young character who, in typical bildungsroman fashion, is going to learn that society–and the adults who live in it–haven’t figured everything out, and are (as she already thinks) frauds and just muddling around themselves, but she can still find an acceptable place for herself–either in or out of this world, as she chooses.

For awhile the book holds to this preliminary promise: Emily is told right before the party that her parents are getting divorced and her father is moving to Prague for his job. This is delivered, again, with great aplomb: “‘Your father and I are getting a divorce,’ my mother had shouted at my back that morning as I went upstairs to bathe for the party. My mother believed that…bad news felt better when it came at you fast, from behind, like a bullet.”

But if that piece of news doesn’t upset Emily’s world enough, her father is discovered to have been sleeping with the next door neighbor. And then the next door neighbor’s ailing husband kills himself–while Emily watches, from afar–and then the next door neighbor ends up being pregnant, with Emily’s half-sister.

This all happens within the 75 or so pages, and is, I think, an extreme overloading of Dramatic Plot Elements. One–maybe two–of these elements can start a book, can be the genesis of a character’s growth and development. More, and it sort of becomes like watching a soap opera, and the elemental punch of all of these emotional events diminishes until the author really starts losing credibility.

But Espach doesn’t stop here, she keeps piling things on. She creates a few semi-horrific scenes exemplifying the cruelty of high school students (as if we forgot), such as an attempted nose job in an unattended science class on a universally mocked and hated teen girl. And then, Emily–at 15 now–begins a sexual affair with her 26-year-old English teacher. This affair will be recreated throughout the novel, at four year increments, as Emily gets older. And while she seems to recognize that their ‘relationship’ constitutes statutory rape, she romanticizes this man throughout it all and continues to be manipulated by him well into her late 20s in a rather disturbing fashion. And we’re not dealing with a psychological masterpiece on par with Lolita here, so really–it’s just kind of ridiculous. She introduces the teacher to her father in her mid-twenties as her boyfriend, and when the father recognizes him as a teacher from her high school, the whole thing merits some tears, but really gets shrugged off rather quickly.

All of this is unfortunate, because one can easily see that Espach has talent. She has a great way of compressing and mixing chronology–allowing Emily to drift into memories of the past while going through something in the present, or pausing in the middle of a present event to fast forward into a character’s future. And she has a real sense for teenage characters–their speaking patterns, their simultaneous fascination and horror with sex, their vulnerability and the ease with which they are frequently written off or ignored by adults. As a great example of both, look at the Halloween-in-Spring dance scene: Emily dresses like a “super-hot kitten” and another girl as a “slutty banana.” One of their friends is taken to the hospital for drinking too much vermouth before the dance, but Espach assures us mid-scene that her life will go on and still be rich despite this troubling episode:

“An ambulance was sent for Martha, who would eventually be fine, who would never drink that much vermouth again. She would become the president of the Spanish Club and get into the University of Rochester, where she would lose her virginity to a thirty-year-old from Cork, Ireland.”

In the end, however, everything comes full circle, and this is the most irritating thing of all. The book begins at a party, and ends at a party (of sorts) in the same house in Greenwich. Nothing much seems to have changed. Which just makes the whole reading experience that much more exhausting.