Icelandic Folk Legends

As you’ll have seen from the post below, I’m not updating this blog as frequently these days, the better to focus my attentions on learning Icelandic and getting settled in Reykjavík, my current hometown. Nevertheless, I won’t pass up the opportunity to post the occasional casual book review here, as well as what published ones I am able to write–keep an eye out here for my forthcoming review of Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas (in The L Magazine) as well as Per Petterson’s It’s Fine By Me (on the website Three Percent).

I’ve been making frequent visits to the Reykjavík Public Library these days, and on my last trip ran across Icelandic Folk Legends, translated by Alda Sigmundsdóttir. Readers of this blog may remember Alda as the author of The Little Book of Icelanders and also the blogger behind the very entertaining and informative blog The Iceland Weather Report.

Icelandic Folk Legends was actually a much earlier project for Alda; it was first published in 1997 and then a second edition was published in 2007 (this is the edition I read). Although another print run doesn’t seem likely, Alda has now reissued the collection as an e-book, with two additional stories, as well as an introduction and “a “field guide” to the apparitions.” You can read more about the e-book and purchase it on her website, here. The collection also received a very positive review in The Reykjavík Grapevine when it was reissued in 2007; you can read that review here. Below you’ll find my own (casual) review of the collection.

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One of the strengths of Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s short essay collection The Little Book of Icelanders is its intimacy, the fact that in reading you feel as though you are listening to someone relate the quirks of neighbors and friends over a cup of coffee. It seems no surprise, then, that part of what stands out about Alda’s translations in the concise and plainly-worded collection Icelandic Folk Legends is the immediacy of the stories. Right from the start, you’re told that some of the stories explain how places currently in existence were named, that there are differing accounts of what precisely happened in some instances, that certain features of the tale have led people to believe that it is meant to represent such and such a farm or mountain pass. An example from the last lines of the story “Þorgeir’s Bull,” which tells of a sorcerer who creates a menacing magical bull endowed with many forms and powers, the better to harass the woman who turned down the sorcerer’s offer of marriage, his neighbors, and eventually he himself:

“It is said that the bull outlived Þorgeir, for he had not managed to slay it before he died. Some say that when he was on his deathbed a grey cat–some say a black pup–lay curled up on his chest, and that would have been one of the bull’s guises. Some people claim that the bull was created at the beginning of the 18th century; others that is was near the middle of that same century.”

Public debates about whether a mythical bull had been created at the beginning or in the middle of the 18th century might not generally be of that much relevance to the author–or the reader. But in these stories, it very much matters, because while called ‘folk tales,’ these stories are really all being presented as truth. A further illustration of this is in the fact that most of the stories are about characters whose full names are known, but when it happens that the names of characters aren’t, no fake character names are inserted. The statement “their names are not known,” then adds to the sense of veracity overall–the narration is sticking to plain facts here, and not even making up names for the sake of simplicity.

There’s little to no embellishment within the text–no introduction to explain folk traditions to the reader, no real attempt to create follow more traditional patterns of Western narration–you’re not really going to find the exposition, rising action, falling action, and dénouement here. This is not uncommon of orally-based storytelling, of course, but the abruptness of certain tales may surprise those who are more familiar with retellings which attempt to round out story lines for contemporary readers. Instead, there is a sort of layering effect: as you read more of the tales and are more immersed in the rural village and farm settings, becoming more familiar with what kinds of occurrences are possible–such as hidden people taking humans into their homes inside of boulders; witches riding horses’ thigh bones for their annual Christmas meeting with the devil; charms which spirit away whole flocks of sheep–the happenings become less fantastical feel more true, more possible.

There is also a wry, underlying sense of humor that runs through many of these tales, with one–“Kráka the Ogre”–standing out the most in this respect. This story tells of “…a menacing creature…[with] a penchant for the masculine sex and an aversion to being alone.” As such, Kráka regularly kidnaps farmers and shepherds and takes them back to her cave for company. In two instances the abductee refuses to eat anything except some very difficult to obtain delicacy (12-year-old cured shark; fresh buck’s meat) and so Kráka goes on long journeys to find these foods only to discover that her ‘guest’ has escaped when she returns. (We’re told that while running after the first man she yells out to him, “‘Here is the shark, Jón; cured not 12 but 13 years,’ to which he made no reply.”) Later we’re told that this lonely villain “was planning a large Christmas celebration which she took great pains to prepare for. The only thing that was missing, in her opinion, was a bit of human flesh, which she considered the greatest delicacy.” It’s not said who was going to attend the ogre’s Christmas party, but just the fact of it, alongside the missing hors d’oeuvre of human flesh (I pictured an ogre in an apron), seems so wonderfully absurd.

The one thing that I think this collection is missing is an explanation of where the source material was derived from. Alda is listed as the translator, not the author, so these are apparently not her own retellings. I would be very interested to know from what source these stories were collected, whether they were brought together from many collections or one, and whether or not these are stories that many Icelandic readers are familiar with, or just representative of the folk tradition in Iceland.

(These questions might be answered in the new e-book introduction, of course.)

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Summer Reading Recap: Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man

Dorothy B. Hughes

I’m not often very good at making a to-read list and then sticking to it. More often than not, I go off course when one of my to-reads turns out to just not be what I’m in the mood for, or I run across an exciting and unexpected title and forgo things that have been gathering dust on my shelf in order to satisfy spontaneous curiosity. This is neither good or bad, as far as I’m concerned, it just tends to be how I read. But this summer, I actually made a to-read list (here), and I’ve done a decent job of  keeping up with it. Of the five books I listed, I’ve read two so far, starting with Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable ManMy brief and informal recap is below, and if you’re at all interested in Hughes’ work, you may also enjoy the following pieces on her work:

The Sultana of Subversion: Three Hardboiled Novels by Dorothy B. Hughes,” by Jenny McPhee, bookslut, June 2012.

An Unsung Heroine,” by Sarah Weinman, Bookslut, February 2004.

Fever Pitch,” by Ariel Swartley, Los Angeles Magazine, May 2004.

Dorothy B. Hughes, A Mystery Writer and Historian, 88,” New York Times Obit from 1993, written by William Grimes.

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I was primarily interested in Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man because it is a crime novel (written by a woman) set in Arizona and from the cover description, it sounded like the main character was in some way dubious or not what he seemed–I love those unreliable narrators. About 60 pages into the book, however, my expectations were completely turned on their head in one of the cleverest narrative twists I’ve read in some time.

I’m not often troubled by spoilers, but I won’t ruin this for anyone by going into the aforementioned twist in detail. Suffice to say that Hughes’ revelation is partially a revelation because it shouldn’t be one at all, and yet the dropping of one small fact changes everything you’ve read up to that point and contextualizes the rest of the novel in a far more meaningful way than your average ‘wrong-man’ scenario. She’s a gifted writer–her prose is spare but really descriptive when it needs to be, and she puts a great deal of empathy into her characterizations, which I think is pivotal in a good crime novel. Through her characters in The Expandable Man Hughes not only effectively conveys a sort of looming paranoia and tension–and the agonizing feeling that the person one most needs to escape is, perhaps, oneself–but also ably places both herself and her readers in the same frame of mind, which makes for a rather jittery reading experience. (In a good way, of course.)

I’ll also say that this is one of the best evocations I’ve read of Arizona since Betsy Thornton’s High Lonesome Road (makes sense–Hughes lived in New Mexico), and it’s particularly touching to read her descriptions of Phoenix on the verge of becoming the sprawling, overdeveloped, contentiously urban city that it is today. I loathe Phoenix as it is now–as it’s been since my childhood–and in some ways, that’s just the Tucsonan pride coming out. But in the 60s, when the book is set, Hughes describes a city which is not yet large enough that one can easily hide there, a city which is only just starting to raze the natural landscape for suburban housing developments and which still lays claim to meandering country roads winding next to canals shaded by mesquite trees.

I wasn’t totally sold on the way the plot wrapped up–there’s some last minute amateur sleuthing that is a little contrived–but this is beside the point. I will certainly be tracking down more of Hughes’ books soon–maybe next In a Lonely Place, which was turned into a movie with Humphrey Bogart.

El libro que no puede esperar

Yesterday, I came across this Galley Cat post about El libro que no puede esperar (The Book That Can’t Wait), a new collection of Latin American fiction published by Eterna Cadencia which is printed with disappearing ink. Once the book is exposed to light and air (it’s sold in shrink-wrapped plastic pouches which have to be torn open), the ink will begin to fade. So it is only actually readable for about two months. After that, all you have is a blank book.

If this seems like a somewhat self-defeating, gimmicky concept, consider the rationale. Per the video embedded below:

“Books are very patient objects. We buy them and then they wait for us to read them–days, months, even years. That’s okay for books, but not for new authors. If people don’t read them, the authors don’t make it to a second book. That’s why Eterna Cadencia, an independent publisher and bookstore, decided to create something different, to launch their new authors into the market: The Book That Can’t Wait.”

Okay then. So now you’ve got an interesting concept, one which actually alters the relationship between the reader/book buyer and not only the purchased book, and also the book’s author. Additionally, given the limited time frame during which you can actually read it, this book challenges the expectations that most of us have for a reading experience. I’m not sure I’m totally in favor of it, honestly, but it’s worth parsing a bit.

On the reader/book relationship:

  • Part of the appeal of buying books, honestly, is owning the object itself. I freely admit this–I like being surrounded by books in my home and while I could just get everything from the library, there are a lot of books that I prefer to own rather than borrow. But it’s not like buying a painting–unless you are a collector of artist books, the object itself is still valuable and desirable because it’s functional, not solely because it has a beautiful cover. So if you buy a book which quickly loses its functionality, and isn’t in and of itself a beautiful, timeless object, what do you have, really? A conversation piece, I suppose, but not much else.

On the reading experience:

  • Part of owning a book is that you can always refer back to the text–can re-read and re-experience a story or novel. I’m not a chronic re-reader myself, but I do often find myself going back to specific passages in a book, or just as importantly, lending it to someone else who I think would enjoy it as well. By essentially restricting the reading experience to one person–the person who buys the book–you lose the communal, social possibilities–the shared experience of book lending. This is not so different from the ludicrous proprietary restrictions on a good many e-books right now which can only be read on one person’s device and can’t be easily or freely shared among readers. I understand that the intent is to encourage people to delve into a book quickly, but if the whole point is to boost new authors, wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest if those authors could be exposed to more readers through book sharing?
  • Again, most readers expect that their reading experience is not finite, but that it can be repeated, at least in part, over and over again. You return to a favorite passage, re-read a memorable scene, share the book with someone else. Owning a book usually means that you can go back and if not have the exact same experience each time, at least have a very similar one. But if the text itself disappears and you can only really read the book once, then this reading experience becomes much more similar to that of watching a play on stage. As a theater-goer, you know and expect that you will see a play or performance only once. Even if you were to go back and see the same play a few days later, it would be a different experience–you’ll never replicate the first performance completely. El libro que no puede esperar necessitates an experience more like theater-going than reading, and I actually think that’s one of the most interesting, and possibly successful, aspects. You have to be much more present and attentive during the initial reading because you don’t really have the option of going back and revisiting it again in a few months.

On readers’ responsibility to authors:

  • This is where I think the logic gets fuzzy, or perhaps just more transparent. According to the video, if  “people don’t read [authors’ first books], the authors don’t make it to a second book.” I get what they are saying: if an author’s first book doesn’t sell enough copies, then they frequently aren’t deemed successful enough to have a second book contract. But there is a big difference between being read and selling books. And this essentially brings us to the same argument that is being staged about all kinds of media/cultural output (most frequently music).

    To rehash the basic point: People (consumers) have grown accustomed to being able to access cultural products for free, and therefore are not buying nearly as many of these products as they used to. As a result, not only do the (book/music) publishers and corporate entities suffer, but the artists do as well because they can’t make a living from the sale of their art.

    I understand and, to a point, support this argument and its parallel imperative: if you value an artist’s work and want to see more of it, then you should support it–basically, you should pay for it. (I’m not going to get into all the gray areas with copyright law, open access, etc. right now–just keeping it simple for now.) But it doesn’t necessarily follow here that it is my responsibility as a reader to support all new authors by buying expensive books that I can only read once. It doesn’t follow that just because I buy this anthology and read it right away that the publisher will put out all of the included authors’ second books, either. It may be arguable that as a reader who is interested in international fiction I should make an effort to become acquainted with (and purchase, even) the work of up-and-coming authors, but I’m not sure that it’s any more my responsibility to support work just because it is new than it is the responsibility of the publisher to create multi-book contracts with new authors who may not furnish them (the publishers) with immediate best-sellers.

    And it still is a pretty slippy slope to imply that new artistic talent can only be nurtured by the frequent purchase of hard-back, first-run books.

To conclude: this is an interesting concept for sure, and it has kept me thinking (and writing) for two days now, so at the very least, Eterna Cadencia can be pleased that its hope to bring attention to the project has worked out. Although, I have to say, what I’ve spent all this time thinking about is the book’s format, not its content. I don’t know a single author in this collection. So maybe this project was a bust after all?

From Arizona to Iceland: A Summer 2012 Reading List

In honor of the summer solstice today, I thought I’d put together a list of books I’m very much looking forward to reading this summer. A few of these are new releases (or soon-to-be releases), a couple are older titles. All of them should be entertaining, which is what you obviously want in a summer book–a blazing sun and 50%+ humidity can make it hard to focus on denser tomes–although not everything on this list is, perhaps, a traditional ‘beach read.’ I seem to have also planned myself an armchair world tour, starting in the U.S. and working my way half way around the world before I’m done.

Any particular book that you, dear readers, are looking forward to dipping into whilst poolside this summer?

The American Southwest

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

NYRB is bringing out this title by Hughes, a New Mexico-based mystery writer and critic (1904 – 1993), in July. I am not familiar with Hughes’ work (she was the author of 14 noirs and detective novels), but am intrigued by at least two other of her better-known works, the quirkily titled The Cross-Eyed Bear, and In a Lonely Place, which was made into a film with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. The Expendable Man seems like a good place to start, though, particularly because I’m always on the look-out for books that accurately capture Arizona (my ‘homeland’). And the plot doesn’t sound half bad, either. From the description on the NYRB website:

“It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man.” And Hugh Denismore, a young doctor driving his mother’s Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix, is eminently educated and civilized. He is privileged, would seem to have the world at his feet, even. Then why does the sight of a few redneck teenagers disconcert him? Why is he reluctant to pick up a disheveled girl hitchhiking along the desert highway? And why is he the first person the police suspect when she is found dead in Arizona a few days later?

Switzerland, (East) Germany, Israel

The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (Translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen)

I was delighted to receive a review copy of this title, forthcoming from Open Letter Press in September 2012. The book, which I’ve just started, is a sort of literary “Choose Your Own Adventure” loosely modeled “on the true story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose fabricated 1995 Holocaust memoir transfixed the reading public.” The Canvas contains two interconnected narratives which tell the respective tales of Jan Wechsler, a Jewish publisher and writer living in Berlin who receives a mysterious suitcase one Shabbos afternoon, and Amnon Zichroni, an Orthodox student of the Talmud who was born in Israel and is then sent to live with an uncle in Switzerland.

Part of the fun this book promises is the format–the two stories begin opposite and upside down from one another and read toward the center of the book. As it explains on the cover, “There are two main paths and intertwined side-trails running through this novel. Behind each cover is a possible starting point for the action. Where you begin reading is up to you, or to chance.”(For what it’s worth, I started with Jan Weschler’s story and already know that one of his opening chapters–in which he talks about the way books, particularly borrowed ones, are inexorably wrapped up in past memories–will remain with me for a long time. It’s just wonderful so far.)

Norway

It’s Fine by Me by Per Petterson, Translated from the Norwegian by Don Barlett

I believe that this book was already published in English in 2011, but Graywolf Press is bringing out another edition this coming October. It’s Fine by Me finds frequent Petterson stand-in Arvid Jansen (the narrator from the remarkable I Curse the River of Time and also In the Wake) in his youth, befriending Audun, a troubled new kid at his school who shares Arvid’s love of authors like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. Per Tim Parks in The Guardian:

“…this edgy bildungsroman makes explicit what many will already have suspected: for Petterson, the craft of writing, of carefully reconstructing life’s precariousness in sentences as solid and unassuming as bricks, is itself a way of building shelter. For those who see danger everywhere, literature is a place of refuge.”

I think Arvid Jansen is a marvelous, complicated character, and I think Petterson has done a remarkable thing in carrying him through multiple novels and multiple points of his life. (Also interesting is the fact that (I think) Arvid doesn’t actually narrate It’s Fine by Me–I think Audun does.) I’m definitely looking forward to this one.

England

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
Another NYRB title, Angel is the story of a dreamy shopgirl in Edwardian England who rises above her circumstances to become a successful author wealthy manor-mistress. I’ll be coming to this book with prior–although perhaps inaccurate–expectations: it was the basis for François Ozon’s opulent, lavishly campy romp of a film, starring Romola Garai and Michael Fassbender. I don’t know how the movie relates to the source novel yet, but on its own, its a rather delightful feat of melodrama, if you’re into that sort of thing, which I certainly am.

Based on what I’ve read about Taylor and Angel–Sam Jordison’s recent post in The Guardian’s Books Blog, “Rediscovering Elizabeth Taylor–the brilliant novelist,” is good for quick context–I won’t be surprised if the novel strikes a more serious, reflective tone, but either way, I’ll definitely be interested in comparing the original and its adaptation.

Iceland

The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness (Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson)

I’m slowly but surely working my way through the cornerstones of Icelandic literature–the Sagas and the novels of Iceland’s only Nobel laureate to date, Halldór Laxness. Thus far, I’ve read The Great Weaver from Kashmir, one of Halldór’s early novels and certainly an interesting introduction to his oeuvre, even if it isn’t one of his ‘larger’ works. I’ve also read (and loved) Under the Glacier, which contains one of my all-time favorite quotes: “Remember, any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity.”

I’ve read about half each of Independent People and Iceland’s Bell, and was greatly enjoying both when I got distracted in my reading–not finishing in these instances is not indicative of the books’ quality, for sure. But until I get the beginning of both of these half-read novels out of my head so that I can start them again fresh, I would like to read another one of Halldór’s ‘lighter’ novels. The Fish Can Sing, set in the small settlement of Brekkukot and told through the eyes of the orphan Álfgrímur, who–from what I can tell from pieced-together summaries–spends the book reflecting on his simple upbringing, storytelling, and the larger, (Danish) world outside of Brekkukot . I believe there’s an opera singer involved, too.

This is perhaps a measly pitch for reading the book, but it sounds wonderful to me. There’s a good review by M.A. Orthofer over at The Complete Review, and that site also archives a number of other reviews of the book, too.


Spontaneous Reads: Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink

As a rule, I am perilously bad at keeping up with periodicals, lit mags, and other regular media outlets–I can’t exactly say why, but even if the topic of a long-form essay really interests me (I’m thinking here of a recent New Yorker piece on IKEA that I still haven’t finished, some six or seven months later), I often will often start it and then let it languish in a basket on my living room floor, collecting dust until I finally give up and recycle it. This is not an aesthetic judgement on the state of journalism, or even a stringently articulated preference for fiction–I just tend to spend more of my time reading short stories and novels.

My partner, however, is an adamant and regular cover-to-cover reader of several periodicals and is generous about sharing tidbits here and there of  recently acquired, timely, and esoteric factoids from journalists whose work he reads regularly. I’m often rather impressed and entertained by his summaries of articles and essays he’s been reading, so it was nice for me to recently pick up a copy of Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink–a collection of food writing in that magazine from the 1930s to the early 2000s. I frequently enjoy food writing–I think cooking and eating make for very fertile and evocative springboards for other interesting topics (memory, history, socio-cultural analysis, etc.) and it’s just fun to read about delicious food. So this collection provided an ideal framework for me to dip into the journalism that I’m always telling myself I should read more of.

Overall, the collection is wonderful; a very interesting window into the development of The New Yorker, as well as the gastronomic topics and themes that were very of the moment in which they were written. I also very much appreciated that many of the pieces were as much about the people involved in the production of food/meals as the food itself.

Since I read the collection almost cover to cover (not counting the fiction section, which looked enjoyable, but wasn’t the point for me), I made some short observations on most of the pieces as I went through. The book was divided into several sections, which I’ve indicated in bold.

Continue reading

A Mini Mystery to Ponder Over the Long Weekend (And Beyond)…

For those armchair detectives out there who also love winning free stuff, the UK-based Book Depository is holding an eight (business) day competition to solve the “mystery of Damian Blade’s death.” The winner will receive 50 crime novels, “[r]anging from good ol’ noir and Victorian creepy to Scandinavian and downright bloody…” Here are the terms of the competition, per their website:

All you need to do is solve the mystery of Damian Blade’s death. How did Damian die? What is the cause of death in this peculiar case? We will present you with a story and give you eight clues on eight working days via our blog, starting Thursday May 24. We will use Facebook and Twitter to alert you to them.

Your first entry will be the one that counts and there will be a draw from all the correct answers; make sure you take the time to examine all 8 clues thoroughly and solve the mystery to be in with a chance to win 50 nail-biting crime books.

The prize cache is not an astounding mix of titles, but still pretty dependable, including The Complete Sherlock Holmes, The Killer Inside Me, Stig Larsson’s complete Millennium series (eh…), some mass market thrillers (James Patterson etc.), a handful of classic noirs, and even one of Melville House’s new crime releases, He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond. Worth competing for, I’d say, especially since the first clues have been rather adorably rendered. The first one is below; the rest (and full instructions/FAQs) can be found on the Book Depository website, here.

FIRST CLUE

It’s nearing midnight. Damian Blade is lying dead next to his beloved, albeit moth-eaten armchair. Perhaps you wouldn’t be able to tell immediately but, make no mistake, curious friend, Damian stopped breathing two hours ago. There is no murder weapon to be found. The room is locked from the inside and the absence of life is deafening…

Bridge Series Event on Monday: Dalkey Archive Translators

From the Bridge Series website, here:

 

Celebrating the Translators
of Dalkey Archive Press’s National Literatures Series

A Reading and Discussion with

Todd Hasak-Lowy, Mary Ann Newman,

Burton Pike & Damion Searls

moderated by

Joshua Cohen

Monday, May 14, 7 PM

McNally Jackson Books

52 Prince Street (between Lafayette & Mulberry)
New York, NY 10012