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.


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.)


Damion Searls and Joseph O’Neill Discuss Amsterdam Stories

On Monday, I had the pleasure of attending a reading–at my local lit hub, Greenlight Bookstore–of selections from Dutch author Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories, followed by a talk between translator Damion Searls and author Joseph O’Neill (Netherland), who lived in The Netherlands as a child and also wrote the collection’s introduction. Preceded by a casual jenever tasting (jenever being the ‘whiskey of The Netherlands,’ but certainly an aquired taste…)  it was a really animated and interesting talk with lots of great anecdotes and insights about the Dutch cultural imagination, translation practice, and Nescio.

I wanted to share some of the highlights that I scribbled down in a notebook during the event, and also encourage New Yorkers with an interest in any of the above topics to attend Searls and O’Neill’s upcoming reading and talk at 192 Books next Tuesday, April 24, at 7:00 PM. 192 Books is a great shop, but it’s tiny, so if you plan on attending, take the advice on the website and RSVP for the reading at 212.255.4022. (Any of you Dutch-lit enthusiasts in Boston and the San Francisco Bay area should also check the NYRB Events calendar–there will be a number of events promoting Amsterdam Stories in both places over the next month or so.)

For reference, I reviewed Amsterdam Stories for The L Magazine recently. My review is here.

On to the talk highlights:

Nescio and His Counterparts

Joseph O’Neill read from what is, as far as I can tell, Nescio’s most famous story, “The Freeloader,” after which Damion Searls nominated him to narrate any forthcoming audio versions. (I can confirm: O’Neill does have a very soothing reading voice.) Searls then read a few pages of “Young Titans,” which is about many of the same characters (and is one of my personal favorites in the collection).

Both selections inspired their readers to make some contextual comparisons between Nescio and some of his “accidental contemporaries” (as O’Neill put it). For his part, O’Neill evoked Kafka, discussing the “existential dilemma of the clerical worker” that permeates both Kafka and Nescio’s work (although Nescio was more successful actually holding down such a job), as well as Robert Walser (which Searls seconded). O’Neill cited (the freeloader) Japi’s famous line–“I am, thank god, absolutely nothing”–as being a classic Walser statement; that line made me and probably many others think of Melville’s Bartelby (“I prefer not to.”) Searls made comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald and more notably, Mark Twain.

The Twain comparison was particularly interesting, for one, because the frequently held Dutch opinion that Nescio’s work is “untranslatable” is derived in great part from its colloquial style and phrasing–its “Amsterdam-style of Dutch.” Searls said that, in Dutch, Nescio’s writing reads a lot like Huck Finn.

The ‘Untranslatability’ of Nescio (and the concept of untranslatability in general…)

As I mentioned above, there has been a sense among many Dutch readers that Nescio was somehow ‘untranslatable,’ that his prose and stylistic qualities simply could not be replicated in another language. Searls took a very practical stance on this (much like that of David Bellos, in his recent book on translation, I might add). “The thing about translating, Joe,” he quipped to O’Neill, “is that nothing is untranslatable–you just have to decide what you care about and what you don’t.” He continued, saying that when he spent time and ‘read into’ Nescio’s work, he concluded that in one example, “contractions–not so important,” but rather, for the purposes of the English translation, the overall tone was what mattered most.

(For what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly subscribe to this perspective. )

Searl’s Involvement in the Nescio Translation

Although Nescio is still a huge deal in The Netherlands–someone pointed out that if every Dutch person hasn’t read his stories, it’s probably the case that they were assigned to read him in school, but skipped it–his work has never been translated into English before. There was some speculation that the Nescio estate was extremely cautious (‘maybe too cautious’) in allowing an English translation because it would likely be the source text–rather than the original Dutch–from which further translations into Chinese or other languages would be made.

Searls was introduced to Nescio while at a writing retreat in a Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. Since his primary second language (get that?) is German, he found a copy of Nescio’s stories in German and read that first. He loved it, and so decided to pick up the Dutch original to “see if [he] could handle it.”

Alongside his German translations, Searls has also translated from French and Norwegian (the latter of which he said–delightfully–that he learned basically just so that he could translate the author Jon Fosse, who he “thinks is really great.”) Amsterdam Stories is Searls’ first translation from Dutch, and while he doesn’t have speaking fluency in the language, his grounding in German allowed him to develop a comfort in written Dutch with relative ease.

Nescio in the Dutch Cultural Imagination

Image of De Titaantjes (sculptor: Hans Baayens) via Akbar Sim on Flickr.

The point that Nescio’s characters and writing still hold a place in the Dutch imagination came up several times. A couple notable examples of this:

  • A sculpture of his ‘young titans,’ in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark (see above image).
  • A Dutch pop band called The Nits had their biggest hit with the 1983 song “Nescio” (NYRB’s Tumblr has a video of the band performing the song here.)
  • [This didn’t come up during the talk, but is worth mentioning…] As recently as 2007, a newspaper survey of Dutch readers included his major short story collection in list of the ten Best Dutch Novels of all time

Searls noted that every Dutch person he’s ever met has known Nescio’s writing. Toward the end of the short Q&A that closed the event, he also related the best anecdote of the evening–a recent episode in which a Dutch man living in New York told him that “there is a bench in Red Hook that feels like Nescio!” that the man took took his father to visit  when he was in town.

Which, after reading Amsterdam Stories, I can totally understand. I might have to make a pilgrimage myself one of these days.

Amsterdam Stories

My latest review (on The L Magazine website here) is of the Dutch short story collection Amsterdam Stories by Nescio.

Nescio (“I don’t know” in Latin) was the pen name of businessman J.H.F Grönloh, who, born at the end of the 19th century and dying in the 1960s, lived through a rather fascinating time period in the world, which is certainly reflected in his writing. He wasn’t a prolific author by any means, but he is beloved to this day in his home country–as recently as 2007, a newspaper survey of Dutch readers included his major short story collection in list of the ten Best Dutch Novels of all time (“novels” is a bit of a misnomer, but still).

A few reviews/articles of interest related to Nescio:

“I am nothing and I do nothing”: On the Untranslated Nescio
An article on Bookslut written by Kevin McNeer, prior to the NYRB publication of Amsterdam Stories

Amsterdam Stories reviewed on The Complete Review

Amsterdam Stories reviewed in the KGB Bar & Lit Journal

My own review is below.


A slim collection of novellas, short stories, and excerpts from an unfinished novel, Amsterdam Stories introduces English readers to the complete works of Nescio, one of the most beloved Dutch authors. Neither a particularly prolific nor commercially successful author during his lifetime, Nescio’s fiction now resonates as a love song to Amsterdam, a snapshot of The Netherlands in an era of profound change, and a bittersweet reflection on talent and youth fallen short of its promise.

Latin for “I don’t know,” Nescio was the pseudonym of J.H.F Grönloh (1882-1961), a co-director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. In his professional life, Nescio embodied the middling bourgeois existence that haunts nearly all of his bohemian characters. Four of the best pieces in Amsterdam Stories explore this tension and follow the lives of a motley group of disaffected artists, including Koekebakker, a struggling journalist, and Bavnik, a self-deprecating painter.

In “The Freeloader,” Bavnik befriends Japi, an echo of Melville’s Bartleby who declares “I am nothing and I do nothing.” This pursuit intrigues as much as irks his acquaintances, each of whom is attempting to evade the numbing grind of office jobs and banal respectability. The story also showcases Nescio’s poetic use of language and lyrical repetitions: “The freeloader you found lying in your bed with his dirty shoes on when you came home late; the freeloader who smoked your cigars and filled his pipe with your tobacco and burned your coal…”

Koekebakker narrates in retrospect, balancing light-hearted nostalgia with loss. “We were on top of the world, and the world was on top of us, weighing down heavily,” he sighs in “Young Titans.” And yet, even though these young men were poor, working jobs which “confiscated the better part of our time… [and] kept us out of the sunshine,” even though Bavnik couldn’t paint the world as he really saw it, and their hopes came to nothing—the wonder of this age of possibility is clearly what matters to him in the end.

The romantic undertone of the Koekebakker stories may be attributable to the time of their writing—all between 1909 and 1914, prior to World War I. Contrast this with the “world in tatters” that Nescio describes in the astounding “Insula Dei,” which was written and set in 1942, during the Nazi occupation. Where his young artists spent their days wandering outside Amsterdam, admiring the setting sun “blazing yellow” on the dikes, “Insula Dei” finds its narrator, Dikschei, freezing on a “gray, icy day” waiting for a meager share of milk at the market. Meeting an ailing old friend, Dikschei takes him to a cafe, splurging his ration tickets on bread and ham. “These aren’t the first eventful times I’ve lived through,” he says, resigned. “[A]nd if I’m granted even more years… I will most likely get to my third war.” But in his friend’s declaration that he is “an island,” that no man can himself be occupied, Dikschei recognizes and embraces a quiet self-possession, an internal rebellion against forces beyond one’s control.

In Defense of Henrik Pontoppidan (and Other, Lesser-Known Laureates)

Thanks to Pete for pointing out Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece about this year’s Nobel Prize winner, Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s a humorous piece, and though perhaps it doesn’t tread new ground with regards to its criticism of the Nobel Prize (and how much we as a literary community still value it, despite our kvetching about the award winners each year), Gopnik does get in some nice quips. (My personal favorite being “The Nobel thus not only crowns a career but provides the basis for a fine future Javier Bardem/Antonio Banderas movie.”)

All the same, I’d like to take the opportunity to defend one of the lesser-known Nobel Laureates who are laughingly brushed off in the article: Henrik Pontoppidan. Says Gopnik,

Last week also revealed that, however much we may discount the Nobel Prize, we still prize it. No matter how many times the worthy losers console themselves with their fellows—who wouldn’t rather be in the company of Proust, Auden, and Nabokov than of Erik Axel Karlfeldt and Henrik Pontoppidan?—we’d all still take the meatball if the Swedes would only offer it. You would have thought that the second-rate nature of some prize-winners would have produced a general degradation of the prize. If you give the Oscar to the likes of “Ordinary People” and “Chariots of Fire” often enough, won’t your prize be worth a bit less? Just the opposite: the more often an established prize goes to a dubious candidate the more valued it becomes.

Pontoppidan was an influential member of the so-called “Modern Breakthrough” movement in Scandinavia in the late 19th Century and won the Nobel–in an odd combo award with fellow Dane Karl Gjellerup–in 1917, for, as the Nobel committee rather anticlimactically put it, “his authentic descriptions of present-day life in Denmark.” His novel Lykke Per (Lucky Peter) is quite famous, although it–along with Pontoppidan’s other novels–has since fallen shamefully out of English translation.

I ran across one of Pontoppidan’s short stories, “The Royal Guest” in an anthology called The Royal Guest, and Other Classic Danish Narrative. It’s a wonderful story and after finishing it I instantly set about finding more of Pontoppidan’s work in English. There’s little to be found, unfortunately, although the University of Wisconsin did translate two more of his stories as part of their “Wisconsin Introduction to Scandinavia” (WITS) series. My personal favorite is “The Polar Bear,” which is just a lovely, lovely modernist story about a bohemian Danish pastor who is sent to minister in Greenland.

It was really on the strength of just these two short stories that I decided to try to learn Danish. I wanted to be able to read all of Pontoppidan’s (and other Great Danes’) work, and, if possible, make it available to others to read in English as well.  And so I’m going to take this opportunity to re-post the (very) informal review I wrote in 2008 on “The Polar Bear.” It (the story) is well worth your while, and is very cheaply available ($5 a piece) with all the other titles in the WITS series on the University of Wisconsin Scandinavian Studies website. Skål!


“The Polar Bear”
By Henrik Pontoppidan, Translated by James Massengale

I obtained a copy of The Polar Bear through inter-library loan. So, thank you, University of California’s Southern Library Facility, you really made my day. Or maybe even my year.

This was such a lovely short story, filled with the type of elegant, visual prose that writing instructors the world over are pointing to when they admonish their students to “Show!” and “Not Tell!” But even so, the dialog and the fluidity of the story are never bogged down in lengthy, over-flowered passages. Observe our first introduction to the novel’s protagonist:

Imagine for yourself, dear Reader, a large, flaming red face, with a snow-white, tousled beard hanging down from it; and hiding, here and there is the rough chinhairs, more old remnants of green cabbage slop, breadcrumbs or tan-colored snuff tobacco than one might find completely appetizing…It should also be pointed out that Pastor Muller was exactly six feet one and a half inches tall, that he had lost a finger on his left hand, and that he presented himself to the world, summer and winter, in the same marvelous costume, consisting of a moth-eaten dogskin cap with a visor, a pair of gray checkered trousers stuck into a pair of massive boots that stank sourly of whale oil, and a short, shiny old hunting jacket, a so-called “rump-cooler,” that was buttoned tightly over his huge, giant-like body…

The Polar Bear is a novella about Thorkild Muller, a reclusive, undereducated, and outcast Danish pastor who is reassigned to a parish in Greenland. Muller quickly finds a sense of belonging and fulfillment living with the Inuit, and becomes integrated into their nomadic society. In his old age, however, Muller returns to Denmark and finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in a confrontation with the Danish church.

It’s wonderful, which is actually extremely tragic, in that most of you won’t have access to a copy to read and those of you who do out there in Southern California don’t seem to take advantage of it. (The borrower slip in the back of the book shows that this was only rented from the library once in April 2005. So, shout out to my library buddy in California–you have excellent taste.)

As translator James Massengale notes in his Afterword,

There has been a real need, in our modern Scandinavian literature classes, for an exuberant story with no battle of the sexes, no lengthy account of awful diseases, no “depressing realism.” The Polar Bear was chosen partially as an answer to the common student reaction of the type: “do the Scandinavians always get depressed or divorce, or commit suicide in their stories?” The answer, as far as this novella goes, is certainly no; but that does not mean our story is simplistic, or that it lacks depth or “debate.” The choice also has the advantage of bring to students’ attention the name of an outstanding but less-known Danish author, Henrik Pontoppidan, who, despite winning a shared Nobel Prize for literature in 1917, has not remained within our American-Scandinavian teaching “cannon.” He needs to be reinstated, along with a number of other Scandinavian writers of both sexes who have been brushed aside by the great Ibsen/Strindberg steamroller and the restrictive policies of some of the larger publishing houses.

The Trail We Leave

Right off, let me say that The Trail We Leave is really a splendid book. Jumping between a very empathetic style of observation and a sense of humor which really delights in the obvious absurdity of personal relationships, this is one of the best short story collections I’ve read in a long time, hands down. (The last really wonderful collection being Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, for what it’s worth. And Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians had its high points, too, for that matter, but I digress…)

The author, Ruben Palma, has an interesting back story to be sure. According to his bio in the back of the book, he grew up in Santiago, Chile, graduated from high school in 1971, and, after dabbling in “esoteric and eastern philosophies” “participated actively in what he believed was a libertarian, leftist movement” which he eventually left because of its “authoritarian nature.” Palma became an army deserter after the coup in 1973, and became a refugee with the United Nations’ protection. The next year, at the age of 19, Palma moved to Denmark. After 25 years in his adoptive country, Palma then actually started writing in Danish, the product being the aforementioned (and very highly acclaimed) story collection.

Most of the stories deal with the experience of (mostly Chilean)immigrants in Denmark in some measure–although some diverge slightly from this formula. We meet a Chilean man whose relationship with his Danish girlfriend is completely and absurdly upended when his language instructor sends an amorous postcard to his home. There’s another man who flees to Finland over New Year’s after some particularly complicated relationship issues, where he meets a man from Bangladesh who is trying, futilely, to win the affections of a Finnish foreign aid worker he met while she was working in his hometown. A little girl practicing her Danish lines in a school play while remembering her home town of Playa Verde.

The thread that runs through each of the stories is one of disjuncture and alienation, the turbulent negotiation of learning to integrate in a society so entirely different from one’s own, of wanting to become something (and someone) new, while still desperately hanging on to what one once was. And while the experiences of the characters are all exquisitely unique and completely specific to them, Palma not only captures the “borderland,” or the “strange places between a country forever lost and a new one,” (as the translator writes in his notes) but also the very sticky process of identity creation and revision that everyone goes through.

The complications of identity creation are best articulated in “The Return of Roy Jackson,” one of the best stories in the book. In it, Artemio Sandoval, a Columbian expat in Denmark, recalls a moment in his boyhood when he decided that he would be a writer one day:

The child Artemio had just written another story about Roy Jackson: his own fictitious cowboy who rode through wild landscapes while he shot at Indians and bandits. In ‘The Return of Roy Jackson,’ as the story was called, the hero, after many years’ absence, had returned to his home town and freed it from the iron grip of a tyrannical villain.

The child used to end all his stories with a drawing, and full of excitement, he concentrated on making the very first stroke: a light, horizontal line drew Roy Jackson’s jawbone, and from there he assumed his full shape gradually…

Suddenly, the child’s mother came in, and her usual flurry seemed to fill the whole room in a flash…She stopped and smiled; her youngest child was far off in his own world when he bent over a piece of paper with pencil in hand. She went over to him, hugged him, closed her eyes and stared into the future…’Some day you will be a famous author, my Temito’…’

And so, even through all of the dramatic events that eventually bring Artemio to Denmark, he still retains this idea of himself as an author. But things aren’t so simple. At first, he must transition to his new country. Then, he must decide what project deserves the majority of his attention. His writing goes nowhere. Time passes. Artemio takes on the persona of an author without ever really writing anything–“His clothes, movements, voice–his whole being took on a kind of literary appearance. Little by little people in his circle of acquaintances referred to him with a certain respect as “the author” or “the one who writes.” But he’s stopped writing all together.

There are a lot of developments and turns in the story which I won’t give away because you should really go out and read it yourself, but suffice to say that eventually, decades later, Artemio realizes that it was never writing that he really loved–it was drawing. And so his whole life, he’s been working towards becoming this person–and towards making people know him as this person–who he never really wanted to be. It’s devastating and liberating all at the same time.

The topic of immigration is a really fraught one in Denmark–a country which has been accustomed to having a coherent national identity, comprised of common traditions, and language, and culture. To become a citizen in Denmark, one has to renounce her former citizenship. It’s not a country that has much experience with the so-called ‘hypenated’ identities that the US does. There are no ‘Chilean-Danes’–a whole national debate has raged for years over what to call immigrants (I’ve believe they are still settled on “New Danes,” as the term, though who knows how long you have to live there before you can just be considered an ‘Old Dane.’)But again, although The Trail We Leave speaks to this very unique transitional experience, it will surely resonate with a much wider audience. I hope that we get more of his work in English in the future.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

I’ve been a big fan of Wells Tower since I first read his short story, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” in a fiction -writing workshop. The story is incredible–really up there with one of my favorite short stories of all time. It’s basically about a pack of aging, disenchanted viking marauders who go on a raid of a local village in part because they are trying to keep up with their younger, blood-thirsty counterparts, and in part, because they’re bored. The prose is beautiful–even when the events being described are anything but–and the voices and dialog are incredibly funny. They sound like surfers half the time, which is also just jarring and hilarious and unexpected and totally perfect all at once.

The surprising part, though, was that although Tower had been published in a variety of high profile journals (like The Paris Review) and was the recipient of a number of impressive awards (like the Pushcart Prize), he didn’t have a book of short stories out for quite a long time. He wrote quite a bit of journalism–including a wonderful piece for Harper’s which tells about his experience attending a young Republican convention called “The Kids Are Far Right,” which I highly recommend reading–but it didn’t look like a fiction collection was going to be available any time in the near future.

And then, to my utter delight, his collection was released in April 2009. I’ll admit–not all of the stories are near as good as the title story, and one of his stories (“On the Show”) was rewritten (there was a previously published version) in a way which I felt really didn’t work. But overall, it’s a really stellar collection, and Tower seems to me to be the heir to the Southern Gothic tradition that I love so much. So go read the book. But first, read my review, which was published for The L Magazine, either on their site, or below.

There’s also a review of the book in The New York Times, although I actually think it’s more of an extended summary than a review.

And…last thing, I promise…there’s also a great “book trailer” for the title story on YouTube, awesomely animated and read by Tower, here.


In his debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower paints a fragmented portrait of domestic upheaval and uneasy reconciliation. Peopling his darkly humorous, deadpan stories with estranged husbands and senile fathers, neglectful caregivers and aimless children, Tower explores the inadequacy of familial relationships and the anxiety provoked by ever-present yet inscrutable threats to one’s safety and happiness. A leopard stalks the woods outside a young boy’s home. A rapist lurks around a traveling carnival. A group of malcontent Vikings enact a brutal raid on a peaceful island village out of sheer boredom.

The tension rarely breaks the surface of the stories, but rather (with a nod to the grotesqueries of the Southern Gothic) manifests itself in the physical degradation of the collection’s cast of psoriasis-ridden, pimpled misfits. In “Executors of Important Energies,” a young man’s young stepmother becomes the sole provider for her rapidly degenerating husband. Our first image of her is of “…her sparse, dry hair, her mottled cheeks… her right eye… bloodshot and brimming with brine.” We meet a predatory hiker with a severely scarred arm in “Wild America,” and a child with a knack for lying who wakes up with a fungal infection on his lip in “Leopard.” It’s emotional poverty made visible, internal conflict inescapably displayed on the body.

It is this threat from within that comes to define the collection. For Tower’s characters are not only at odds with wildcats and menacing strangers. Ultimately, they struggle against their own worse impulses, their own cruelty. It’s a conflict most clearly expressed in the title story. A cadre of cynical marauders are party to a raid on a nearby village. Unimpressed by their younger, enthusiastic counterparts, the veterans still watch unfazed as a monk is subjected to what is inventively known as a “blood eagle,” and local daughters are swept away for brides. “…I got an understanding of how terrible love can be,” muses the narrator, once retired from his life of pillaging. “You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself.”