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.

***

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.”

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.


Why This Book Should Win the BTBA: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Three Percent is posting write-ups of each of the 25 books nominated for the long list of this year’s Best Translated Book Award (BTBA). I was pleased to be asked to contribute my own piece for Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? It’s a casual recap/list of awesome things about this great book, but gave me a good excuse to go back and re-read much of the book, which was among my favorites last year. The re-read did nothing but confirm my positive feelings about the book, so I highly recommend that you check it out.

While I was reacquainting myself with Buzz Aldrin, I also ran across some interesting related links that I wanted to call to your attention:

  • Harstad has had three pieces of short fiction published at Words Without Borders, which are all available online, here.
  • The Power of Second,” and interview conducted with Harstad for The Brooklyn Rail, in which the author admits that despite what Buzz Aldrin might suggest, he’s “not a great Cardigans fan,” and also that “the novel as a whole will possibly read nicely to the sound of Beck’s Sea Change and Sigur Ros’s Ágætis Byrjun,” which sound like great pairings to me as well.
  • A 2010 piece in N+1 called Into the Woods: On Norwegian Literature” by Silje Bekeng uses Harstad and his work as an example of young Norwegian writers who “have found ways to use classic themes to reflect on the era they’re writing themselves into.” I remember reading this piece at the time and really enjoying it, but Harstad’s book hadn’t been published in English yet. Having read Buzz Aldrin now, Bekeng’s observations resonate more, but it’s still an interesting article if you haven’t read the book.

My “Why This Book Should Win” piece for Buzz Aldrin is on the Three Percent website, here. The full text is also below.

***

When we meet 29-year-old Mattias, the narrator of Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, he is happy and satisfied with his life. He loves his girlfriend, Helle, who he has dated for twelve years. He loves his job as a gardener at a local nursery–so much that he often comes in early to just sit in the quiet of the garden alone. Idolizing Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, Mattias only wants to “be a smooth running cog in the world. To do the right thing. Nothing more.” Instead of seeking recognition for his talents (he’s a wonderful singer, for instance) or trying to distinguish himself in an impressive career, Mattias instead hopes to blend into the background, “to vanish into the commotion out there, to be number two, a person who made himself useful instead of trying to stand out, who did the job he was asked to do.”

The simplicity of Mattias’ world is upended in short order, however, when Helle leaves him for another man (someone who “wanted to be seen in the world”), and he loses his job at the now-bankrupt nursery. Depressed and hopeless, he follows his friend’s band to a music festival on the Faroe Islands. The next thing he remembers is waking up face down in the rain, in the middle of a dirt road in the Faroe countryside, with 15,000 kroner in his pocket.

Norwegian author Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? was, without a doubt, one of the best books I read last year. Won over almost immediately by just the title, I picked up the book on a whim and then spent the next few days delightedly underlining each wonderful sentence or clever bit of dialog until I realized that if I didn’t stop, I’d soon have underlined the whole book. As I read it, I talked about the book incessantly, reading bits aloud in bars, and generally recommending it to every third person I met on the street. The book is extremely well written, it’s funny, and it’s affecting without being trite. But as is so often the case with books that I’ve truly loved, it’s hard to go back and objectively critique it. What’s easier–and more fun–is to give you a short list of reasons that Buzz Aldrin is a fantastic book that you should go read now, and a great contender for this year’s BTBA:

1. It’s wonderfully written. Johan Harstad is an incredible prose stylist who pays particular attention to natural details. (All due credit to translator Deborah Dawkin that the language reads so fluidly.) Harstad has a knack for intermixing delightfully odd observations (“Tuesday. The week’s most superfluous day.”) with fantastically long, melodic trains-of-thought which fully immerse you in Mattias’ perspective. The opening paragraph of the book has a great example of this:

“I bend over the tulips, gloves on my feet, small pruning shears between my fingers, it’s extremely early, one April morning in 1999 and it’s beginning to grow warmer, I’ve noticed it recently, a certain something has begun to stir, I noticed it as I got out of the car this morning, in the gray light, as I opened the gates into the nursery, the air had grown softer, more rounded at the edges, I’d even considered changing out of my winter boots and putting my sneakers on.”

2. The Faroe Island Setting: A write-up in Kirkus Reviews embarrassingly referred to Buzz Aldrin as “the long-awaited Great Faroese Novel,” by which they probably meant not to discredit the brilliant (and actually Faroese) novels by William Heinesen, but rather to point out that the Faroe Island setting is as much a character in this book as any of the people. As described by Harstad, the Faroese landscape is not only evocative and otherworldly, it also provides an important counterpoint for Mattias’ isolationist worldview. There are less than 50,000 people living on the Faroe Islands, so it’s impossible to blend into the background as Mattias would like. As he comes to realize, “…for each person that died, there was one less inhabitant, one less person to meet on the road, one less person who spoke the same language.”

3. The Cardigans: Never has a book paid better homage to this Swedish pop band (you know you loved them, too). One of the book’s main characters listens exclusively to albums by The Cardigans because “…everything I need is in this band.” Also, each of the book’s four sections is named after a different Cardigans album. (Funnily enough, Harstad said in an interview that he isn’t really a big fan himself. “I chose the band because I couldn’t figure out who would love such a band.”)

4. The Cultural Collage: Harstad brings together a variety of historical and cultural reference points (beyond The Cardigans)–from Radiohead and Top Gun to the unsolved murder of Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme, the start of Bosnian War, the Chernobyl disaster, and the Challenger space ship explosion–not just to prove his zeitgeisty prowess, but also to create a fully contextual background for his characters and their general sense of unease and displacement. The main action of the book takes place between the mid-eighties and late nineties–not so long ago, and yet, long enough to be able to reflect back now on what a unsettling couple of decades it was.

5. The Epic Thor Heyerdahl-esque Escape: Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian adventurer and anthropologist who sailed roughly 8,000 km from Peru to Polynesia on a homemade raft (the Kon-Tiki) in 1947. After a particularly unexpected plot development, Mattias and his companions make a similar voyage from The Faroe Islands to the Caribbean. It’s awesome.

Headhunters

I recently wrote about Jo Nesbø’s stand-alone thriller Headhunters, which beside being a notable publication for enthusiastic fans of the author’s previous thrillers starring Detective Harry Hole, also caught my attention because all of the proceeds from its publication, subsequent translations, and film adaptations will go to support Nesbø’s literacy charity, The Harry Hole Foundation. I was, nicely enough, able to snag a copy of the book to review on late notice. My review of the book is on Reviewing the Evidence (here) or the full text is below.

It bears noting that Nesbø is an author that I just keep coming back to, even though I only like his work about half of the time (maybe less, actually). I find this interesting. I was relatively unimpressed with The Redbreast (which was wildly popular) and honestly, Headhunters wasn’t up my alley, either. But I just loved The Devil’s Star. I keep coming back to Nesbø because I really love his detective: Harry Hole is a complicated and interesting creation–some one that you root for, even when you don’t like him (or, in my case, don’t particularly like the plot line of the book he’s in). Perhaps the fact that Headhunters is a stand-alone without Hole set me up to be a little less taken with this novel, but I think I’m just not the Ideal Reader for this type of thriller. At any rate, I look forward to my next visit with Hole–last time I left him, it looked like things were on an upswing for him.

Without further ado:

Headhunters
By Jo Nesbø, Translated by Don Bartlett

Norwegian author Jo Nesbø has made a name for himself worldwide with the success of his crime thrillers starring the down-and-out detective Harry Hole. Arguably, most of the appeal of these novels is not in the creatively gruesome crimes and criminals that Nesbø creates, but in Harry Hole, whose raging alcoholism and determined self-destruction cannot completely obstruct the fact that beneath it all, he’s really, as Nesbø himself has said, “a Decent Guy.”

Roger Brown, star of Nesbø’s standalone novel Headhunters, diverges from Hole in all essentials. An arrogant, chauvinistic, and incredibly successful corporate headhunter, Brown moonlights as an art thief in order to supplement the decadent lifestyle he and his wife maintain, often stealing valuable paintings from the corporate candidates that he interviews for prestigious directorial positions. Brown is, as he tells us frequently, “king of the heap,” the best of the best: he’s never nominated a candidate for a position who has not ultimately been hired for the job. The secret of his success? The nine-step interrogation model developed by Inbau, Reid, and Buckley for the FBI.

Brown is not a “Decent Guy.” Not even his relationship with his wife Diana, who he very nearly worships, reveals a sense of compassion or real devotion. (Women in general are given rather two-dimensional motivations and weaknesses throughout the novel—as one man gruffly remarks late in the novel: “Oestrogen makes you blind.”) There’s almost nothing likable about Brown, and in some respects, that’s okay. Meeting his match in Clas Greve, a Dutch-Norwegian CEO superstar who also happens to own a priceless painting by Peter Paul Rubens, Brown finally has to really work not only to come out on top, but to survive at all. Unable to resist such a score, Brown steals the Rubens painting, only to discover that Greve has been an actual headhunter—trained by the Dutch army to track down drug dealers relentlessly through unfamiliar jungles. Here at last, is someone who is as ruthless as Brown. The reader is left to simply sit back and watch them destroy one another.

The ensuing chase and multiple double crosses are not for the faint of stomach—Brown’s attempts to elude Greve lead to some desperate, and in many cases, disgusting measures. For some readers, these episodes will be just farcical and gross enough to be amusing, but mostly, the latter half of the novel becomes sadly tiresome. Nesbø also can’t seem to commit to writing a strictly unlikable character, and develops a flimsy backstory for Brown which is meant to provide justification for his callousness and lead him to eventually reform his ways. What transformation does occur is rather flat, though, and Brown remains a pathologically self-serving and self-justifying man.

All the same, it bears noting that Jo Nesbø himself is a Decent Guy, and with the very successful initial publication of Headhunters in Norway, he created the Harry Hole Foundation, which gives out an annual Decent Guy (or Decent Lady) prize to deserving individuals to donate to the literacy-based charities of their choice. All domestic and international proceeds from Headhunters—including those from the film version that was made in Norway— will go directly to the Harry Hole Foundation, to continue to support literacy projects in developing countries.


A Tangential (and Reassuring) Moment re: Danish Linguistics in Jo Nesbø’s New Novel, Headhunters

Image courtesy of The Copenhagen Post

I was sitting on the subway reading Jo Nesbø’s newly translated stand-alone novel Headhunters today when I stumbled over an interesting tidbit about the Danish language that just had to be researched further. The main character, a Norwegian man named Roger Brown (British father), is having an affair with a Danish woman. During a morning tryst, he recalls:

“This morning…she had whispered something Danish in my ear that I didn’t understand, since from an objective standpoint Danish is a difficult language–Danish children learn to speak later than any other children in Europe…”

In terms of the novel, this is a bit of a tangential aside, but it didn’t seem like a factoid that Nesbø would just make up completely. So I did some light googling and voila! I easily found an interesting and brief article on this very subject published recently in The Copenhagen Post: “The Danish Language’s Irritable Vowel Syndrome.” According the (amusingly titled) article,

“A 15-month-old Croatian child understands approximately 150 words, while a Danish child of the same age understands just 84 on average.

It’s not because Danish kids are dumb, or because Croatian kids are geniuses. It’s because Danish has too many vowel sounds, says Dorthe Bleses, a linguist at the Center for Child Language at the University of Southern Denmark.”

The article goes on to explain that there are nine vowel sounds in Danish, but to make matters even more difficult, much of Danish pronunciation is swallowed. (I can personally attest to this: one of my Danish instructors remarked that in order to correctly pronounce a word in Danish, you had to follow the “three potato rule”: pretend you have three potatoes in your mouth and then say a word. That’s when you’ve got it right. I only ever made it up to one/one and a half potatoes, I am sorry to say…)

The linguist in the article, Dorthe Bleses, compared the rate at which children growing up with seven different languages–Danish, Swedish, Dutch, French, American English, Croatian, and Galician–learn to speak their native tongue. And Danish definitely gave children the hardest time. But never fear, says Bleses. The Danes do catch up:

“‘…the difference between the Croatian child and the Danish child doesn’t persist. Once the children have reached the third or fourth grade, the linguistic code has been cracked, and then other things have significance for whether the student learns well,’ she added.

In other words, according to the linguist, it takes Danish children with Danish parents until they are nine or ten years old – in the third or fourth grade – to “crack the code” of the Danish language.”

So head’s up for those of you learning Danish as adults: it’s a long, hard road–even for native speakers–but you’ll get there!

Fun Reads for Friday (And the Long Labor Day Weekend)

Although this first one is more dispiriting than fun:

Book Loving City Forgoes Free Ones for a Week.” William Yardley for the New York Times, August 31, 2011.

“The Seattle Public Library, a beloved civic trophy in a book-loving city, whose directors are plucked away for plum jobs by presidents and philanthropists and whose buildings are often beacons of design, is closed all week — yet again. The furlough, intended to save about $650,000 from the system’s $50 million budget, has become something of a late-summer tradition in recent years, hardly as welcome as the weather.

“It’s an unfortunate tradition,” said Marcellus Turner, who started as the city librarian on Aug. 15 and promptly got a few days off, unpaid.

“Library Closed Aug. 29 — Sept. 5 Due to Budget Cuts,” say the bold red signs on the doors at the central library, a jolt of glass and steel by the architect Rem Koolhaas.”

The article also touches on an interesting trend that I was unaware of: “In Seattle…being the city librarian has become something of a launching pad.” It seems that several of the Seattle Public Library directors have been plucked from their positions by the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates and President Obama for other high profile librarian gigs.

***

Is BookLamp’s ‘Book Genome Project’ the Future of Discovery?” by Edward Nawotka at Publishing Perspectives, August 24, 2011.

Hailed by some as the “Pandora for Books,” BookLamp aims to break a book down by its essential elements and use those to hyper-scientifically make recommendations to its readers. The program

“…breaks a book up into 100 scenes and measures the ‘DNA’ of each scene, looking for 132 different thematic ingredients, and another 2,000 variables.”

So say, for some bizarre reason, you really want to read a book that is just like The Da Vinci Code. Says BookLamp CEO Aaron Stanton:

“We have found that it contains 18.6% Religion and Religious Institutions, 9.4% Police & Murder Investigation, 8.2% Art and Art Galleries, and 6.7% Secret Societies & Communities, and other elements — we’ll pull out a book with similar elements, provided it is in our database.”

Now I actually really enjoy Pandora–not having a really fine-tuned ear or a lot of in-depth awareness of music composition (although I have some), I like being able to enter a song or artist or composer and have Pandora tell me that I’m responding to the key that the music is in, or the fact that there is a strong male vocalist, or that there is a repeating structural element that is standing out. For books, somehow–and I’m guessing that this is more a function of my own relationship to literature and my general faith in my ability to select books I’ll like–the project seems a little cynical. Perhaps I’d like to think that there isn’t some formula that a computer program can use to dissect a novel and what someone responds to in it.

But I’m inclined to ignore my gut reaction on this and consider that for someone who doesn’t have piles of “books to have read” strewn haphazardly around the house, this might be a great way to learn not only about new books, but also develop a better sense of what qualities she, the reader, is enjoying in a book. And what’s not to like about more self-aware, informed readers?

New assignment: I’m going to try out BookLamp in the next week and report back on the qualities considered in each book, and the types of recommendations yielded. Perhaps I’ll get some good book recommendations myself.

***

Jo Nesbø’s novel Headhunters (first published in 2008) will be released in English this month.

Lots of interest here. Firstly, this is not a Harry Hole book. (Nesbø has a number of non-Hole titles to his credit, including a variety of stand-alones and the “Doktor Proktor” series, which starts with the novel Doktor Proktor’s Fart Powder. These are for kids—see here.)

Secondly, it came out in 2008 and is only now being released in English here, even though it was apparently a big deal in Norway when it was first published–it won the Norwegian Book Club Prize for Novel of the Year in 2008. (The delay is also not that surprising, really. The Hole novels have been a hit here, so perhaps the publisher didn’t want to overflow the market with too many Nesbø books at once?)

But thirdly, and most interestingly, with the publication of Headhunters in 2008, Nesbø established the “Harry Hole Foundation” which will receive “[a]ll proceeds from Headhunters, in all editions and formats including the movie adaptation…” (The movie has already been made–it came out in Oslo last month.)

Nesbø talks about his decision to start the foundation here:

I also made a decision that was very important for me. But not until Greedy Jo had had a serious discussion with Decent Jo. The decision was that all the income from Headhunters, domestic and international, would go towards a plan I had been mulling over for a while: basic reading and writing classes for children in the third world. My motivation was principally twofold. I have been privileged enough to be able to travel all over the world, and what this traveling has taught me is that the ability to read is a basic prerequisite for citizens to find their bearings in society so that genuine democracy can exist and so that those same citizens can create a better life for themselves and their families. Besides, I had also realized that I did not have—and would never have—a lifestyle that matched what was gradually becoming a rather large amount of money in my bank account. And there were surely plenty of other very human motives there, too: feelings of guilt that things had gone absurdly well, the need to be liked, to buy myself karma, an indulgence, redemption, etc. But I do not imagine that self-analysis by an overpaid Norwegian writer is very important to an Indian girl who receives ten years of schooling and can return home to her village afterwards, perhaps as a teacher, and be a role model for other girls and mothers.

So we set up a foundation, the Harry Hole Foundation, which would award an annual prize called A Decent Guy or A Decent Lady, and a stipend that the prizewinner, with the help of a committee, would invest in literacy projects. And the following year, in 2009, we did just that. The Decent Guy prize went to a prison chaplain, Odd-Cato Kristiansen, and the stipend went to the Naandi Foundation that helps provide schooling for deprived girls in India.

So yeah. Jo Nesbø: Decent Guy. Read more about Headhunters on Nesbø’s website here and feel free to feel good about going out and buying a new book for yourself when it comes out.

Enjoy not working on Monday!

BBC Special on Nordic Noir

I’ve had a slew of posts lately about Nordic crime fiction–I suppose it only makes sense as the temperatures spike in North America that we’re all eager to dip into novels set in colder climates. At any rate, a Goodreads friend just recommended an episode of the BBC documentary series Time Shift called “Nordic Noir: The Story of Scandinavian Crime Fiction” that I thought I should pass along.

The program is organized around the work of notable Nordic crime authors, such as Stig Larsson, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and Arnaldur Indriðason. Using Larsson’s Millenium series as its starting point, the show leans heavily toward Swedish authors (no Danish or Finnish crime authors are included), and has some strange moments. For instance, there are several tangential discussions of the methods cinematographers and actors use in TV adaptations of popular crime novels to increase tension and convey pathos without dialog. The segment on Arnaldur Indriðason is pretty heavy on flowery talk about Icelandic weather in place of much information about him as an author or crime fiction in Iceland in general. But depending on the author, much of the information is new and interesting. I especially enjoyed Karin Fossum’s segment, particularly her discussion of her different approach to telling a story about a murder, and also the revelation that she was actually very close to a murderer in her own life.

What the program did best, though, was give contextual information about the political climates in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, including the rise of neo-fascism and xenophobia, Norway’s discovery of oil and pursuant national wealth, and the unsolved murder of Prime Minister Olaf Palme. The show does a good job of explaining how these events have effected the political climate of different countries, and by extension, how they have resonated in the region’s crime fiction.

I’ve imbedded the video below–happy viewing!