Fish in the Sky

Farsælt komandi ár, everyone, or: Happy New Year!

As I mentioned recently, I had the pleasure of reviewing Fridrik Erling’s Fish in the Sky for the December issue of The Reykjavík Grapevine. The review has now been made available online, which you can see here. Or, you can just read the full piece below.

Some interesting links and background context, for those of you who might be interested:

  • Fridrik was a founding member of The Sugarcubes (with Björk, author Bragi Ólafsson, and current Reykjavík City Council member Einar Orn Benediktsson, etc.) before he decided to focus his attention on his writing.
  • Although he has worn many professional hats–biographer, screenwriter, and graphic designer, among others–Fridrik’s novels “…usually either depict children or are written for children, if not both.” See Hákon Gunnarsson’s article “At the Crossroads of Childhood: On the works of Friðrik Erlingsson” over at literature.is for a more comprehensive overview of his work.
  • Fish in the Sky was originally published in 1998 under the title Góða Ferð, Sveinn Ólafsson. The novel was translated by the author. As he says in his translation note (which you can read via the “Look Inside” preview on Amazon.com, here): “Halfway through this [translation] process, a translation by Bernard Scudder was brought to light. This translation was immensely helpful during the editing process.” Fridrik dedicates the English edition of the novel to Scudder, who died in 2008.
  • Fridrik was interviewed a few years ago by Groupthing when Fish in the Sky was published (in Britain, I think). The interview–conducted, it seems, by a teen interviewer–has some really interesting snippets about Fridrik’s work, his decision to leave music, writing for a youthful audience and more. Worth a watch.

***

“To actually cease being a child, that’s probably the greatest experience in life.” So thinks Josh Stephenson, the unusually sensitive and observant teen narrator of Fridrik Erling’s Fish in the Sky, a recent English translation of his novel Góða ferð, Sveinn Ólafsson. Josh has just turned thirteen and, according to his mother, is “one year closer to being considered a grown-up.” But getting older isn’t helping Josh make sense of life—it only seems to be complicating things.

Like most thirteen year olds, Josh occupies a purgatory somewhere between innocence and worldliness, regularly bouncing between pure joy and deep despair as he tries to navigate the seemingly insurmountable problems that crop up around him. First, there are his parents: his mostly-absent father who spends nearly all of his free time with his girlfriend or drinking buddies and his ardently religious mother who is too exhausted from working two jobs to pay much attention to his problems. Added to Josh’s list of worries are his rebellious older cousin—a girl—who moved in with Josh and his mom and is living in his closet, a vindictive math teacher, humiliating gym classes, the possibility that he has fallen in love, and the horrifying fact that he has started to get pubic hair. “I’m like a piece of bread in a toaster,” he thinks. “No matter which way I turn, all around me are the glowing iron threads that heat me up until I start to burn around the edges.”

Fridrik captures the profound extremes that characterize adolescence with a balance of poetical empathy and sly humour, all delivered through Josh’s sometimes wry and often perplexed observations. Of an irritating but popular classmate, Josh reflects that “It is unbearable how shameless and disgustingly free of low self-esteem he is.” While guiltily thumbing through a nude magazine he admits to finding “…at least two really hot descriptions of copulation,” which he doesn’t entirely understand. There is self-awareness and self-depreciation in Josh’s flailing attempts to reconcile with the world around him that ring very true to the teenage experience.

Although he spends most of the novel navel-gazing, Josh does undergo a significant transformation in discovering the simple truth that everyone has problems (many of which are more serious than his own), and everyone feels alone in them. The universality of this theme is further underscored by the fact that in the English translation, Fish in the Sky has very few orienting details that identify it as occurring in a particular country or even a particular time period. It’s worth noting that Fridrik completed the English version himself with reference to a translation by the late, great translator Bernard Scudder, to whom he dedicated the book. All of the character names have been anglicised, and while certain small details may hint at the original version’s Icelandic origins, it stands as a story that could have happened anywhere, to any young person.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Copenhagen Noir

My latest review is of the short story , Copenhagen Noir, part of Brooklyn-based Akashic Books’ popular City Noir series. This isn’t the most timely review, but sometimes it’s good to take a peak back at releases you missed initially, right? My review was published on Three Percent here; full text is below.

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Although the current social and political landscape of Denmark make it a natural setting for contemporary crime writing, the country has, until recently, remained in the shadow of its Nordic neighbors in this respect. This is not to say that Denmark is lacking authors of mysteries, crime stories, and thrillers of all stripes—merely that those authors have not generally made their way into English translation, and more particularly, into the American market. But the Swedish/Norwegian (and to a lesser extent, Icelandic and Finnish) choke-hold on the English-language crime market relented last year, with a wave of Danish publications. The Boy in the Suitcase by writing team Lene Kaaerbøl and Agnete Friis, The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen, Call Me Princess by Sara Blædel, and, of course, Denmark’s obligatory entry in the astoundingly successful Akashic Noir series, Copenhagen Noir, all were published in the US in 2011.

“You have arrived in Scandinavia. You have just entered a long, bitter winter. Here there are no free rides. Here you are left to your own fate.” So begins Naja Marie Aidt’s “Women in Copenhagen,” the first story in Copenhagen Noir. And while this bleak depiction of Denmark’s welfare state may seem a tad overwrought to an outside observer, it does characterize a general unease that underlies each of the collection’s stories. Copenhagen Noir serves as a sort of shadowy primer to the growing insecurities and upheavals taking place in Denmark today. As Bo Tao Michaëlis (a cultural critic and author of several books on American authors including Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) notes in his introduction to the collection,

Gone is the provincial city appointed as capitol; instead, one is confronted with a metropolis where the food is from the Middle East, the wine from California, the women from Africa, and the mafia from Russia. Mafia! A new word at these latitudes, where crime formerly took place among bands identified with city neighborhoods and regions.

A threat from without characterizes many, if not most, of the stories in the collection. The featured immigrants or “New Danes,” embody a general, though never fully articulated, xenophobic fear. Within the collection, these Others tend to fill three basic roles: victim (underage, illegal sex workers; asylum seekers), small-time delinquents (thieves, drug dealers), and brutal crime bosses. It bears noting that one of the better stories in the collection, “The Booster Station,” was written by Seyit Öztürk, identified in his bio as a ‘New Dane’ of Turkish descent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Öztürk’s story—a sort of Stand By Me tale of two teenage boys finding a dead body by the train tracks in the residential neighborhood of Valby—entirely lacks any ethnic or racial signifiers, as well as the associated dread that these characteristics seem to carry in many of the collection’s other stories.

This is not to say that Copenhagen Noir doesn’t have it’s high points. A skittery tension and ominous atmosphere pervade many of the stories, and are strong enough features in several (such as “The Elephant’s Tusks,” and “Savage City, Cruel City”) to make up for any plot-based shortcomings. The collection reaches its apex with the classically noir tale of a down and out detective called “Slepneir’s Assignment,” which was written by “former public servent” Georg Ursin who “had his literary debut at the age of seventy-one.”

But as Akashic Books has cleverly ascertained with its noir series, a large swath of avid crime readers are also armchair travelers, so Copenhagen Noir is also thankfully peppered with unique, regionally-specific details which subtly convey the cityscape and cultural customs of Copenhagen and Danes in general. Helle Helle has some fine (and completely innocuous) details of this sort her story “A Fine Boy,” in which the narrator stands in for the cashier at a hot dog kiosk (hot dog stands or polsevogns are almost as ubiquitous in Copenhagen as they are in New York City) while the cashier’s baby son, sleeps unattended in a pram outside on the back porch (another Danish custom: babies are often left alone in their prams on the street while their parents go into shops or are otherwise engaged). These small details add to the overall picture of Copenhagen, and balance out the otherwise grim portrait of pimps, prostitutes, and ominous outsiders that frequent the collection.