Just in Time for Christmas…a Vampire Remix.

Varney the Vampire Literary Remix, Cover via GalleyCat

This one’s just for fun…

Back around Halloween, GalleyCat, one of my favorite websites-about-all-things-literary, hosted its second annual Literary Remix Contest, which I am pleased to have participated in. The contest was sort of a large-scale Exquisite Corpse for writer-types. More specifically, from the contest description:

With the help from writers around the country, we will rewrite Varney the Vampire–a bestselling vampire novel from the 19th Century filled with enough star-crossed romance, vampire action and purple prose to inspire another Twilight trilogy.

You will rewrite a small section from the book your own unique style (from poetry to Twitter updates to cartoons to imitations of your favorite writer). We will publish and distribute the final product as a free digital book through Smashwords (complete with Victorian-era illustrations) so it will be available at the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, the Diesel eBook Store, Blio.com and others.

I believe there may have been some sort of prizes involved for selected contributors in the U.S. (not me), which is why it was a “contest” but I think that everyone who actually submitted a page was included. That’s really not the point, though–it was just a lot of fun to take part.

The page I was assigned was a great selection in that it was actually a story within the main plot that one of the characters is reading, which means it was entirely self-contained. It was an exceptionally, delightfully dramatic story, a Hungarian Hamlet sort of tale in which a nefarious duchess and her lover, a nefarious count, kill off her husband so as to take over his fortune and position, and relegate her son to a dank mine. (The son–spoiler alert–survives with assistance from a fellow miner, and eventually gets his revenge.) I re-wrote this tale in a sort of epistolary fashion: mostly telegrams (“Varnegrams” for the purpose of this exercise), but also “Page VI” gossip columns, and even a bureaucratic memo written from an overseer in a dank mine to his employers. (Being a former office administrator, I excel at bureaucratic memos, so this bit was particularly fun.)

The e-book is now ready and available for download in a variety of formats, so if you have a yen for out-of-season Victorian Vampire fiction and/or collectively wrought pulp fiction, I’d encourage you to head over to the Smashwords page where you can download the remixed book for free.

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New Reviews: Fish in the Sky and The Greenhouse

(This post is being reposted from my other blog, Eth & Thorn.)

I am immensely proud to have two book reviews–of two separate books–published in two different English-language Icelandic publications this month. After writing about Icelandic literature from afar for so long, it really is very exciting to be taking part of the literary dialog from within Iceland.

One of the reviews is of Fridrik Erling’s Fish in the Sky, and is published in the current issue of The Reykjavík Grapevine. (That review is accompanied by a nifty little graph about the increase in Icelandic translations into English over the last three years which was created to go along with some data I compiled on this subject–all due credit to the very helpful translation databases maintained by Three Percent.) The Fish in the Sky review isn’t online yet, but I will post it when it is available, or you can download the .pdf of the issue here and find the review on page 19.

The other review, published in Iceland Review, is of Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s The Greenhouse, which was released in its first English translation in 2011. I actually reviewed the book when it came out for the above-mentioned site Three Percent, but liked it so much the first time that I was happy to provide a second review now. And actually, although I thought I would just skim through the book to reacquaint myself with it before writing the review, I ended up enjoying it so much the second time that I read it all over again in one day. So obviously, I’m a fan.

You can read the review on the Iceland Review website, here, and I’ve also pasted the full text below. (Full disclosure: some of the points covered in this new review are similar to those I raised in my previous piece. But there’s no sneaky business going on–I got permission for this beforehand.)

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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.”

It’s Fine By Me

Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been a big fan of Per Petterson since his affecting novel Out Stealing Horses was published in English translation in 2007. Following the astounding success of that novel, we’ve been lucky enough to have a good deal of Petterson’s backlist published in English, as well his most recent novel, I Curse the River of Time, which in my opinion, deserves all the praise received by Out Stealing Horses, and then some more.

Graywolf Press has now brought out a translation of It’s Fine By Me, Petterson’s third novel, which was originally published in Norway in 1992. I reviewed the novel for Three Percent, which you can either read on their website, or see in full below.

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It’s Fine By Me
Per Petterson, Translated by Don Bartlett

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.”

The Canvas

My most recent published review is of Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas and was published in The L Magazine. The review is posted here, but the full text is below.

When preparing this review, I didn’t find an abundance of information in English on Stein (hopefully that will change presently), but I did turn up an interesting video interview that the German TV station DW-TV ran with Stein, “Identity and Memory,” which refers to the young author as “the voice of a young self-confident generation of Jews in Germany.” (Early tidbit: Stein is not only an author, he’s also a “computer specialist and management consultant,” which I thought was an interesting day job that I wouldn’t have guessed from the novel’s content at all.)

***

“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’ 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.

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.)

A Note on Imminent Departures

As you, my dedicated reader, have no doubt noticed, my posts here on The Afterword have been somewhat more sporadic than they used to be and there are less reviews posted than there have been in years past. This is because–I can finally say it out loud now–I have been granted a Fulbright to study Icelandic at the University of Iceland for the 2012-2013 academic year. (Yay! crowd noises Yay!) As such, I have spent the last beaucoup (or “boo-coo,” as we used to say at home) months (years) working on grant applications and acceptance paperwork, travel logistics, preliminary language study, and the whole nine yards. In the midst of all this, my reading and reviewing has had to take a back seat; it’s immensely hard (at least it has been for me) to construct a coherent thought on any remotely challenging literature when you’re trying to decode another country’s visa regulations.

I’ve now got most of the aforementioned logistics worked out, or am in the process of getting them worked out, but I won’t be back to regular reviewing for awhile, I don’t think. It’s absolutely my intention to continue posting informal, and–as it’s possible–professional reviews on this site going forward, but I can’t say with what regularity. So bear with me, check back, and accept my very appreciative thank yous for ever taking the time to visit this blog. It’s been a pleasure to write and know that a few someones out there in the world (read: The Internet) are reading. (Hi, mom!)

Oh, and should you have any interest in reading about Icelandic grammar, the culture shock of the recently expatriated, or other little odds and ends while I’m living in Reykjavik next year, please feel free to drop in on my other, new blog: Eth & Thorn.

Farewell to Partners & Crime

Yesterday I learned the sad news via GalleyCat that after 18 years in business, Partners & Crime, the superb West Village independent bookstore dedicated entirely to new/used/rare mystery, crime, espionage, and thriller fiction is closing. The one positive–and it’s a big one considering recent bookstore closure trends–is that P&C does not seem to be shuttering because of any problems with rent or sales. (It’s not every closing bookstore that thanks its landlord…) Here’s the goodbye message they’ve posted on their website’s homepage:

After 18 years in the shop on Greenwich Avenue, Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers is closing its doors on September 20th.

We’ve had a great run and have enjoyed helping a generation of readers find the books they love.

We’ve had a lot of fun, learned a tremendous amount, and enjoyed our time with all of you – customers, authors and publishers.

Stop by, reminisce and check out our THANK YOU sale — and maybe find that favorite title you really can’t live without!

Couldn’t have done it without you!

With our great appreciation to all , and a special thank you to Bernard Charles, our landlord, for all their support.

So there you have it–a little over a month to do just as P&C suggests: stop by, say thank you, buy a book, and bid adieu to a great New York City institution.

For my part, I thank you very much, Partners & Crime! Your interested, interesting, friendly, and knowledgeable staff assisted me in particular with tracking down/selecting a number Scandinavian crime novels, right as I started getting into the genre. Some of these were harder to acquire than others, too: I remember, for one, the gentleman who helped me order Lime’s Photograph when I was frustratedly trying to find any Danish thrillers or crime fiction whatsoever–I actually enjoyed our conversation more than the book.