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.)

***

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.”

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The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning (Review #2)

Hallgrimur Helgason (via Iceland Review)

I reviewed Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning twice: for The L Magazine in March and most recently, in a slightly extended piece for Three Percent. The newest review is in full text below; you can also read it on the Three Percent website here.

***

Former soldier and current hitman for the Croatian mafia in New York, Tomislav Bokšić, nicknamed Toxic, has dispatched roughly 125 people. It’s a fully ingrained way of life for Toxic—he feels “restless if three months go by without firing a gun”—and takes pride in his professionalism. As a “triple six-packer,” he even holds something of a record in the business: his last 18 consecutive hits have not only been completed successfully, but each was accomplished with a single bullet apiece. But as Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning opens, Toxic is in trouble: “Hit #66 was a miss,” he says.

Don’t get me wrong. I got the bullet into the guy’s head safe and sound, but there was some serious aftermath. The mustached Polish guy turned out to be a mustached FBI guy. What was supposed to be a bright and sunny murder in broad daylight became a nightmare.

Which is how Toxic ends up going into hiding, fleeing his cushy life in New York City and heading back to Croatia to maintain his “LPP, or Lowest Possible Profile.” But even that plan goes awry and instead of heading back to his homeland, the beleaguered hitman ends up on a plane to Iceland under the assumed identity of a Southern televangelist named Father Friendly.

The second of ten Icelandic novels to be published in English by Amazon’s internationally-oriented publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning is a darkly comic novel which commingles irreverent indifference with sincere introspection and the possibility of redemption. As Toxic settles into his exile on “Lilliput Island”—a country he discovers has no handguns, no army, and hardly any murders (but plenty of good crime writers—there’s actually a list of Icelandic crime authors worked into a conversation)—he reflects back on his life as a killer, both as a soldier during the Yugoslavian civil war, as well as a contract killer. And while it wouldn’t really be true to say that Toxic feels a deep remorse for his actions, in the course of the novel, he is able to both reconcile with his past and plan ahead for a very different future.

While The Hitman’s Guide has much to recommend it in terms of plotting, pacing, and characterization, it is particularly interesting on a more “meta” level as well. For one, since Toxic arrives in Iceland with little to no previous knowledge of the country and culture, the book acts as something of a crash course in Icelandic society and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes, his observations about Iceland are more factual: he learns that it was originally christened by Irish monks, that Iceland has no prostitutes, and that “the beer costs a bear.” In other cases, the observations are a little more (self-)mocking (“According to Icelandic house rules, you’re allowed to enter in your shoes if they cost more than two hundred dollars”), and a bit opaque for someone unfamiliar with say, Iceland’s satirical contestant in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. But however these cultural snippets are conveyed, upon finishing the novel, the reader comes away with a fairly strong, if somewhat slanted, sense of Reykjavík and Icelandic culture.

Another interesting feature is the author’s use of language. Hallgrímur originally wrote The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning in English rather than Icelandic, and has an almost playful approach to rhyme and description throughout the novel. Toxic refers to a contender for his girlfriend’s affections, an Italian mafioso, as “the Talian Mobthrob.” In another passage, he describes the late-setting sun: “At 10:33 the sun is still burning on the horizon like an orange lantern at an outdoor Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn.” The descriptions don’t always hit their mark—there are a few too many laboriously detailed passages about female anatomy, and sometimes the imagery borders on overwrought (“The Balkan animal, which is my soul, is always hungry for prey”), but overall, the prose and dialogue is fresh and expansive. There are also a host of phonetic jokes about Icelandic words and names that Toxic mishears and then renders into stilted English, making countless puns on street names around the capitol; Icelandic phrases are renamed into things like “Guard the Beer,” and Reykjavík’s famous Kaffibarinn becomes “Café Bahrain.”

Both The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning and Hallgrímur Helgason seem assured to find a dedicated audience in the United States. As of this writing, the novel is among Amazon’s Top 20 Mysteries and Thrillers (although neither genre seems to really fit the book). Perhaps its success will allow for more of Hallgrímur’s Icelandic language novels to make it into English translation in the future.

The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning

Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning
My newest review (in The L Magazine) is of Icelandic author Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning. I’ll actually have a second review of the book published shortly, so I’ll dispense with giving much background about the book. But a little about the author, who should be familiar to many English-readers after the success of his novel 101 Reykjavík, which was also made into a popular movie. (Anecdotally, I might add that 101 Reykjavík is, after Independent People,the book that most people who I’ve had conversations about Icelandic literature with seem to know about.)

Anyhow, here are a few links of interest re: Hallgrímur, who in addition to being a talented author, is also a painter, translator, and newspaper columnist:

  • Back in 2002, The Guardian asked Hallgrímur to list his top ten books. The list includes the aforementioned Independent People by Halldor Laxness, Ulysses by James Joyce, and Lolita by Nabokov. He also includes Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which really made a lot of sense to me in terms of his own writing. Of that book, he commented:

“None of us could continue to write in the same way after this. At the time, I was preparing to write 101 Reykjavik and I have to say that American Psycho helped me a lot in finding the right tone. As I always find violence in books and films a bit silly, the strongest parts for me were the small bits on pop music: Genesis, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, etc. This was an absolute revelation.”

  • He maintains a rather entertaining, (mostly) English language Twitter feed here.
  • And lastly, a YouTube video of Hallgrímur performing his poem “Suit and Tie” about the Icelandic financial meltdown. Written and performed in English, this will give you a good sense of his rather lyrical and rhythmic use of language, which is one of the more enjoyable aspects of The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning.

The full text of my review is below.

***

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.

The Greenhouse

I’ve written here several times about Amazon’s new publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, which is focusing on “foreign language books from around the world,” and most notably (to me, at least), has partnered with the Icelandic literature fund to release TEN new fiction translations from Icelandic in the next year. I was delighted to review the first of these translations, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s The Greenhouse, for Three Percent (review published here). It’s a fantastic book–perhaps the best newly-published novel I’ve read this year–and I’m hopeful that we’ll be seeing more of Auður’s work in English in the future.

In addition to authoring three novels, Auður is a full-time art historian and lecturer in art history at the University of Iceland. (She expressed a refreshingly pragmatic point of view on working full time while being a novelist in a Q&A published by AmazonCrossing (link below): “I think the main impact of working full-time as an art historian is that there’s a longer gap between books.”)

The Greenhouse has garnered a great deal of praise prior to its translation into English–the French translation in particular has won two awards: the Canadian Prix des libraires du Québec award for best of best foreign novel this year and the Prix de Page in 2010 for  “Best European Novel.”

For further reading on Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir and The Greenhouse, see:

***

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 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.