5 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s The Greenhouse, which is available from AmazonCrossing in Brian FitzGibbon’s translation from the Icelandic.

As Larissa—one of our excellent contributing reviewers, who loves the Scandinavian and is starting to learn Icelandic—points out at the beginning of her review, this is the first of ten (yes, ten) Icelandic works that AmazonCrossing will be bringing out over the next year. A few are announced on their site (a little place called Amazon.com that you may have heard of), and of the forthcoming titles, the one I’ve heard is most amazing is The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason (who is an incredible writer).

This is great news for the Icelandic literary scene, and will surely bring a lot more attention to the non-crime fiction writers one can find there. (Such as Bragi Olafsson and Kristin Omarsdottir, two Open Letter authors you should all read.)

Here’s the opening of Larissa’s very positive review:

2011 has been a banner year for Icelandic literature on the international stage. “Fabulous Iceland” was this year’s guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and in August, UNESCO named the Reykjavík as one of its five Cities of Literature—the only such city where English is not the native language. Perhaps even more notable for American readers, however, was the recent announcement that Amazon’s new publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, will release an astounding ten Icelandic titles in new English translations over the next year. Judging by the press’ first Icelandic selection, The Greenhouse by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, English-readers can look forward to a catalog of remarkable Icelandic titles in the coming months.

At once wryly observant and sweetly comic, The Greenhouse is a meditation on such sweeping themes as sex, death, becoming a parent, manhood, and finding a place for oneself in the world which doesn’t once fall prey to cloying generalizations or cliche. Rather, through the eyes of twenty-two year old Arnljótur Thórir—or Lobbi, as his elderly father affectionately calls him—author Audur Ava Olafsdottir breathes a freshness and sincerity into her subject matter which is as charming as it is insightful.

The novel opens with a birth and a death. Having lost his mother in a car accident just a year earlier, Lobbi is also adjusting to his unexpected new role as father. His first child, Flóra Sól, is the product of the unlikely indiscretion of “one quarter of a night, not even, a fifth, more like it.” His mother’s death and the birth of his daughter both take place on the same day, which also happens to be his mother’s birthday. Lobbi’s father ascribes this confluence to “some intricate system,” while his son dismisses the coincidences as meaningless chance. “In my experience,” he sagely remarks, “as soon as you think you’ve got one thing figured out, something completely different happens.”

To read the whole piece, simply click here.

5 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

2011 has been a banner year for Icelandic literature on the international stage. “Fabulous Iceland” was this year’s guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and in August, UNESCO named the Reykjavík as one of its five Cities of Literature—the only such city where English is not the native language. Perhaps even more notable for American readers, however, was the recent announcement that Amazon’s new publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, will release an astounding ten Icelandic titles in new English translations over the next year. Judging by the press’ first Icelandic selection, The Greenhouse by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, English-readers can look forward to a catalog of remarkable Icelandic titles in the coming months.

At once wryly observant and sweetly comic, The Greenhouse is a meditation on such sweeping themes as sex, death, becoming a parent, manhood, and finding a place for oneself in the world which doesn’t once fall prey to cloying generalizations or cliche. Rather, through the eyes of twenty-two year old Arnljótur Thórir—or Lobbi, as his elderly father affectionately calls him—author Audur Ava Olafsdottir breathes a freshness and sincerity into her subject matter which is as charming as it is insightful.

The novel opens with a birth and a death. Having lost his mother in a car accident just a year earlier, Lobbi is also adjusting to his unexpected new role as father. His first child, Flóra Sól, is the product of the unlikely indiscretion of “one quarter of a night, not even, a fifth, more like it.” His mother’s death and the birth of his daughter both take place on the same day, which also happens to be his mother’s birthday. Lobbi’s father ascribes this confluence to “some intricate system,” while his son dismisses the coincidences as meaningless chance. “In my experience,” he sagely remarks, “as soon as you think you’ve got one thing figured out, something completely different happens.”

This statement ends up being wiser than Lobbi could imagine, as all of his best laid plans and worldviews are systematically upended throughout the novel. Feeling himself to be somewhat superfluous in the life of his daughter, and at loose ends with his father and autistic twin brother at home, Lobbi decides that rather than go to college, he will travel to a remote (unnamed) village monastery abroad to work as an gardener. Although he is generally indecisive and frequently unsure of himself, the decision is not a difficult one. Lobbi was “more or less brought up in a greenhouse” by his mother, who shared with her son a knack for cultivating tomatoes, flowers, and roses where once had only been “a flat stretch of barren land with rocks surrounded by wind-scattered pebbles.”

Lobbi is not even out of Reykjavík when his plans begin to go awry. He falls ill on the plane and must be hospitalized upon landing. Once recovered, he rents a car and begins his long journey, only to find himself lost in a deep forest and unexpectedly transporting an inn-keeper’s daughter to her drama class, 350 kilometers out of his way. Finally arriving at his destination, he finds solace in the monastery garden and a mentor in a monk with a love of dessert liqueurs and art house cinema. But he has not been working at the garden long when he is contacted by the mother of his child, an aspiring geneticist who would like Lobbi to “bear [his] part of the responsibility” and help her look after Flóra Sól while she completes her thesis. Thus, in very short order, Lobbi finds himself living with a woman, raising a daughter, learning to cook, and hopefully, figuring out what he wants to do with his life.

The Greenhouse is a meandering novel and although there are quite a few happenings throughout the narrative, not much actually “happens” per se, and nor does it need to. Lobbi’s daily negotiations of quotidian responsibilities are so sweetly related that something as simple as making dinner can become a rich, humorous, and illustrative moment. From Brian FitzGibbon’s seamless translation, it is clear that Audur Ava is a beautiful prose stylist who uses simple and straightforward language and imagery to convey complex emotions and observations. Interspersing scenes from Lobbi’s daily life with reflective moments from his past—the last conversation he had with his mother, sitting up and watching his daughter sleep the night that she was born—Audur Ava creates a fully realized portrait of a young man coming into himself without even really being aware of his own transformation.

The Greenhouse is a novel about finding beauty in the everyday, in simple moments and acts—in making dinner, and planting roses, and helping a child learn to walk. It is a story of creating meaning in one’s own life, especially in the face of chance and coincidence.

12 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Audur Ava Olfasdottir’s The Greenhouse, translated by Brian FitzGibbon, is one of only three Icelandic translations coming out in 2011, so it deserves a special bit of attention. This also happens to be the first Icelandic title to be published by AmazonCrossing, the relatively new imprint that’s dedicated to doing all books in translation.

First up, here’s a bit about Audur herself:

Auður A. Ólafsdóttir was born in Reykjavík in 1958. She is a lecturer in history of art at the University of Iceland. She has worked as an art historian, and taught history of art, e.g. at the Icelandic Drama School, and has been director of the University of Iceland Art Collection. She has curated art exhibitions, and written about art and art history in various media. [. . .]

Auður has been universally praised for her uniquely hypnotic style and artistic approach. She grips the reader by presenting believable characters who have to cope with unexpected and often comic situations, and she constantly takes the reader by surprise. [Bio from Fabulous Iceland.]

The Greenhouse (referred to elsewhere as The Cutting) is Auður’s third novel, and came out in Iceland in 2007, and really is about a greenhouse (in part):

For Lobbi, the tragic passing of his mother proves to be a profound catalyst. Their shared love of tending rare roses in her greenhouse inspires him to leave his studies behind and travel to a remote village monastery to restore its once fabulous gardens. While transforming the garden under the watchful eye of a cinephile monk, he is surprised by a visit from Anna, a friend of a friend with whom he shared a fateful moment in his mother’s greenhouse, and the daughter they together conceived that night. In caring for both the garden and the little girl, Lobbi slowly begins to assume the varied and complex roles of a man: fatherhood with a deep relationship with his child, cooking, nurturing, and remaining also a son, brother, lover, and…a gardener. A story about the heartfelt search for beauty in life, The Greenhouse is a touching reminder of our ability to turn the small things in everyday life into the extraordinary.

On the Amazon page for this book there’s also an interview with Auður:

Q: What inspired you to get inside the head of a twenty-something man?

AAO: The novel tells the story of a very young father who is “practically brought up in a greenhouse” and has three main interests in life: sex, death, and cultivating roses. The story focuses on his many complex roles as a son, a twin brother, a lover, and a father. I was particularly interested in fatherhood, which is in many ways an abstract experience—especially when you have a child with a stranger, like Lobbi does—compared to the woman’s experience of giving birth. I like to play with traditional gender roles by talking about male sensitivity. [. . .]

Q: Through Lobbi’s grief-stricken eyes after the death of his mother, you paint Iceland as barren and desolate place. But how would you describe the country yourself?

AAO: The natural landscape is breathtaking. It is like being lost in space or in infinity, and it gives you the feeling of total freedom. Being an Icelander also means being part of a small community of 317,000 people and being constantly confronted with the unpredictable: weather, volcanic eruptions, bankruptcy. Being an Icelandic writer means expressing myself in a marginal language that no one understands.

And here’s a brief excerpt:

Because I’m leaving the country and it’s difficult to know when I’ll be back, my seventy-seven-year-old father is preparing a memorable last supper for me and is going to cook something from one of Mom’s handwritten recipes, the kind of thing Mom might have cooked on such an occasion.

—I was thinking of having fried haddock in breadcrumbs, he says, followed by cocoa soup with whipped cream.

I pick Josef up from the care centre in the seventeen-year-old Saab while Dad tries to sort out the cocoa soup. Josef is standing eagerly on the sidewalk and clearly happy to see me. He’s in his Sunday best because I’m leaving, wearing the last shirt Mom bought him, violet with a pattern of butterflies.

While Dad is frying the onions and the fish lies waiting on a bed of breadcrumbs, I stroll out to the greenhouse to fetch the rose cuttings I’m taking with me. Dad follows me at a distance with the scissors to get some chives to put on the haddock. Josef follows silently in his footsteps but has stopped entering the greenhouse since he saw the broken glass after the February storms, when several windows were smashed. Instead he stands outside by the mounds of snow, observing us. He and Dad are wearing the same waistcoats, hazel brown with golden diamonds.

—Your mother used to put chives on her haddock, says Dad, and I take the scissors from him, bend over an evergreen bush in a corner of the greenhouse, trim the tips off the chives, and hand them to him. I’m the sole heir to Mom’s greenhouse, as Dad frequently reminds me. Though it’s hardly a vast plantation; we’re not talking about three hundred and fifty tomato plants and fifty cucumber trees that have been passed down from mother to son here, just the rosebushes that pretty much take care of themselves and about ten remaining tomato plants, maybe. Dad is going to do the watering while I’m away.

—I was never really into greens, lad, that was more your mother’s thing. One tomato a week is about all I can stomach. How many tomatoes do you think these plants will yield?

—Try to give them away then.

—I can’t be constantly knocking on neighbors’ doors with tomatoes.

—What about Bogga?

I say this knowing full well that Mom’s age-old friend probably shares Dad’s limited palate for food.

—You don’t honestly expect me to go visiting Bogga with three kilos of tomatoes every week? She’d insist on me staying for dinner.

I know what’s coming next.

—I would’ve liked to have invited the girl and the child, he continues, but I knew you’d be against it.

—Yeah, I’m against it; me and the girl, as you call her, are not a couple and never have been, even though we have a child together. It was an accident.

I’ve already explained myself perfectly clearly and Dad must surely realize that the child is the result of a moment’s carelessness, and that my relationship with its mother lasted one quarter of a night, not even, a fifth, more like it.

....
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