26 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that Cyber Monday is underway, it’s about time for the “Best of Everything!!!” lists to start coming out. (Or, as documented at Largehearted Boy, continue coming out.) Personally, I fricking love these sorts of lists, to find books/albums that I need to check out, and to serve as fodder for my anger . . . I’ll bet at least half of an upcoming podcast will be an escalation of complaints about some utterly predictable list of shit that most four-book-a-year readers will slobber over . . . And hopefully our year end lists (in books, movies, and music) will get some other cultural elitists all bent.

But for now, the only year end list I’ve checked out is this Kirkus one, which is definitely my favorite, since it includes TWO Open Letter titles: Children of Reindeer Woods by Kristin Omarsdottir, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith and My First Suicide by Jerzy Pilch (Kirkus LOVES the Pilch), translated from the Polish by David Frick.

There are a number of interesting books on this list—Kingdom Come by J.G. Ballard, The Investigation by Philip Claudel, Arcadia by Lauren Groff, Lazarus Is Dead by Richard Beard, and Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye—but not many (any?) from small, nonprofit presses. YAY TO US FOR OVERACHIEVING!

I love both of these books, and you can buy them from your local independent bookstore, from Amazon, from B&N, or directly from us: click here for Children, and here for Suicide.

However you get them, I hope you do. And I want to take a second to give a special shout-out to Lytton Smith and David Frick for translating these. Both books set forth their own unique difficulties, and both translators totally nailed it. Congrats to both of you!

1 June 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Children in Reindeer Woods, which Lytton Smith translated from the Icelandic and is available from Open Letter.

This is the first book of Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s to be translated into English, and it received a great amount of attention when we brought it out this past spring.

Introduced a few weeks ago, Aleksandra Fazlipour interned with me last semester and wrote a ton of book reviews, including this one.

Here’s part of her review:

In Children in Reindeer Woods, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, who is also a playwright, presents an interesting reflection on war. On what is introduced as a peaceful day, three paratroopers invade the temporary home for children where Billie lives and kill everyone except Billie right in front of her. Unexpectedly, one soldier turns against his two comrades and kills them, sparing the young girl yet again. Rafael chooses to retire from the military and start over as a farmer—he goes so far as to shoot off his toes in repentance for murders he commits. We are invited to glimpse into a world fraught with the horrors of wartime and the wonders of childhood by seeing things through the perspective of Billie (although the story is not always told directly from her point of view), an eleven-year old girl who seems too old for her years.

Ómarsdóttir pushes the limits of storytelling, testing the line between the creative mind of a child and what the audience is expected to believe as fact in this surreal world experiencing a devastating war. Billie herself is not any ordinary child—at eleven, she has many ideas about the world around her, about love and relationships, and has many interests that are way beyond her years, yet in spite of this she seems convinced that she is “retarded.” The prose is often frantic, feverish, and sometimes repetitive in a way that draws us into this vaporous, mysterious world. Although the story is not told in Billie’s perspective, the winding and often stumbling style of prose and the hopeful yet naïve tone seems characteristic of either of the two major characters in this fable-like tale.

Click here to read the entire review.

1 June 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In Children in Reindeer Woods, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, who is also a playwright, presents an interesting reflection on war. On what is introduced as a peaceful day, three paratroopers invade the temporary home for children where Billie lives and kill everyone except Billie right in front of her. Unexpectedly, one soldier turns against his two comrades and kills them, sparing the young girl yet again. Rafael chooses to retire from the military and start over as a farmer—he goes so far as to shoot off his toes in repentance for murders he commits. We are invited to glimpse into a world fraught with the horrors of wartime and the wonders of childhood by seeing things through the perspective of Billie (although the story is not always told directly from her point of view), an eleven-year old girl who seems too old for her years.

Ómarsdóttir pushes the limits of storytelling, testing the line between the creative mind of a child and what the audience is expected to believe as fact in this surreal world experiencing a devastating war. Billie herself is not any ordinary child—at eleven, she has many ideas about the world around her, about love and relationships, and has many interests that are way beyond her years, yet in spite of this she seems convinced that she is “retarded.” The prose is often frantic, feverish, and sometimes repetitive in a way that draws us into this vaporous, mysterious world. Although the story is not told in Billie’s perspective, the winding and often stumbling style of prose and the hopeful yet naïve tone seems characteristic of either of the two major characters in this fable-like tale.

Billie labels Rafael a murderer: an odd title for a soldier whose profession it is to kill people. This begins to blur the line between soldier and civilian life. However, in spite of the harsh label she bestows on Rafael, Billie is hopeful in the way that is characteristic of childhood but has ideas and wisdom beyond her years, trusting Rafael and the circumstances but still questioning him without disobeying him when she suspects he has killed an unexpected visitor who goes missing. In some ways, Rafael becomes the family that she lost when she was left at the temporary home for children in Reindeer Woods, whose whereabouts we do not know (other than that they are in fact alive). Billie’s discussion with the chickens in the henhouse captures her unique perspective:

“Good day, little chickens. I am the spring-man. I suppose I should vacuum, in here. Today’s Saturday, and that’s when people clean their residences and also the hen houses, though less frequently since animal-kind has fewer requirements. Perhaps because nature is expected to see to cleaning itself. But how are you going to get swept? God’s natural brush, storms, never reach in here, do they? Poor you. In your shitty beds. But I still envy you. A little. Not much. A little.”

Billie’s story is even stranger and more fantastical than she is as a character. Additionally, there are many different displacements that strip away the setting and add a mythical, fable-like quality to the story—the presence of modern-technology, including cell phones and computers, is confounded by a strange sense of tradition where little girls still curtsy and wear fancy dresses and lace socks daily. Furthermore, it is difficult to tell where the story takes place, because although the story is translated from Icelandic, Iceland does not have a military, the name “Rafael” has Italian or Spanish roots, and at one point the word “señorita” is used to refer to a woman. These displacements seclude Rafael and Billie in a dream-like setting where Billie’s dolls carry out conversations (with Billie and Rafael guiding them, of course) and sometimes kill themselves as part of their dramas, and where Billie’s father is a puppet who is ensnared by her mother by refusing to securely sew back on his damaged arm and thereby handicapping him:

One time, when Abraham’s arm ripped off during a brawl between the puppeteers about what should happen whether to go home or to the pub, Soffia refused to sew it back on; she took the torn arm and hid it. Borrowing a wheelchair was easy for a doctor, and so began a period of diligence in which Abraham sat at Soffia’s home in the wheelchair and wrote his work of jurisprudence; Soffia worked her shifts, and between them she sat at home too, reading medical books and pushing Abraham around in a wheelchair. She enjoyed pushing him. He enjoyed letting her push him because he loved depending on her, a change from the time when he didn’t want to depend on anyone Amidst this peaceful medical work, writing, and reading, Billie arrived. No-one had expected that. Abraham had thought his life’s mission on earth was not to have children, thought he was meant to break the mold, to exceed the frame that had been planned for him. It occurred to him that he might abandon mother and daughter before everything became too complicated and messy. Then he would leave behind a little souvenir which, amusingly enough, would grow larger, and he could fulfill his obligations as jurist somewhere else in peace and quiet.

My love, sew my arm back on, asked Abraham.

Soffia: No, Abraham. It isn’t good for you to drink beer now.

The disembodied and surreal nature of wartime that Ómarsdóttir in this story prevents the reader from knowing what is in fact real in Billie’s world, Reindeer Woods, or what is being fabricated through the eyes of a child or a nation fogged over by war. However, the dreamlike nature of the novel only increases its appeal, and makes Children in Reindeer Woods a more memorable tale.

22 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all you GoodReads users, we’re giving away 10 copies of Kristin Omarsdottir’s Children in Reindeer Woods though their special program. To enter, simply click on the button below before March 31st.

In terms of this book, it’s a very intriguing novel that’s kind of like a war book that’s not about a war. It opens in shocking fashion with a group of paratroopers descending on an idyllic farmhouse and killing everyone in site. Then one paratrooper turns on the others, and by page three, the only people remaining are Rafael—a soldier who wants to start life over as a farmer—and the eleven-year-old Billie, a precious and strange child who had been living at the Children in Reindeer Woods foster home.

As the book progresses, it becomes less about war—the when and where of this war are displaced and made intentionally irrational, transforming this into a more mythic, or universal sort of story—and more about the relationship between these two characters who are building an oasis amid a culture of violence.

Back at the MLA conference, I gave a copy of this to a friend who texted me the next day to say that it gave her “the most fucked up dreams ever . . . in a good way.” It really is that strange and powerful and vivid.

It’s also going to be reviewed in the New York Times Book Review next month. So get your copy now, either by entering below, or simply buying it through our website.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristin Omarsdottir

Children in Reindeer Woods

by Kristin Omarsdottir

Giveaway ends March 31, 2012.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win
14 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re bringing Lytton Smith’s translation of Children in Reindeer Woods next April, which is a ways off, I know, but it still seems like the perfect time to introduce this strange, haunting novel.

This novel takes place at a “temporary home for children” called Children in Reindeer Woods, where eleven-year-old Billie lives. The book opens with an intense clash of styles, as a very pastoral description is uprooted by the sudden arrival of a group of paratroopers who kill everyone—except for Billie. Rafael, one of the soldiers, then turns on his compatriots, kills them, and decides to get out of the war and become a farmer with Billie.

What war is this? It’s very unclear. Initially it might seem like WWII (which doesn’t make a great deal of sense), but people use cell phones, a nun passes through on her way to buy a computer, etc. This sort of murkiness adds to the fable-like quality of the novel.

Kristin Ómarsdóttir is the author of several books of poetry, short stories, novels, and plays. She received Gríman, the Icelandic playwright award, in 2005 fo the play Tell Me Everything.

Here’s an excerpt from Children in Reindeer Woods, her first book to be published in English translation.

vii. Rafael shouldered the weapon and took the crockery into the kitchen. Then he aimed the gun at the girl. “You can play for an hour before you go to bed. You’ll play here.”

With the toe of his army boot, he gestured to an empty spot on the living room floor. Billie got up from the table, pulled down the hem of her dress, and curtsied.

“Are you tall for your age?” he asked.

Tall like my father was, she was about to say, but stopped her motormouth dead.

“You said you were . . . eleven years old.” Billie nodded her head. “Then you’re tall for your age. Do you still play or not?”

“Yes.”

“How does the daughter of the house spend her time?”

“I’m not the daughter of the house.”

“How does a bright young thing spend her time?”

“With Barbie dolls,” replied Billie, bowing because she felt she was replying to a king and kings like being replied to with bows at the end of sentences. “I am not a precocious child. I am late-developing, almost retarded, though I am not dyslexic. I
believe in God, the Father, the creator of heaven and the earth.”

Billie bowed. Rafael smiled without effort, and just as effortlessly the smile vanished from his face. His ordinary facial expression was in keeping with his physical strength and his deliberate movements.

“Where are the Barbie dolls?” he asked inquisitively. She pointed to the red plastic box on the bookshelf. He rummaged around in the box. “You know what? It was a pleasure to dine with you.”

That’s how a fully-grown man talks to a fully-grown woman, not to a girl, little or big. She stretched her back. Perhaps she’d gotten big. “The pleasure was all mine,” she replied, and curtsied.

“Play,” he commanded, setting the red box on the floor. Billie sat down. She had heard offhand comments that eleven-year-old girls were too big for Barbie. Perhaps she was retarded. Her father and mother had said, they were always saying, the two of them together and each of them separately:

Billie dear, don’t constrain your inner child.

Be a child as long as you want, even if you become the object of ridicule.

What does object of ridicule mean, Mom and Dad, what does object of ridicule mean?

When you get laughed at.

Why will I get laughed at, why will I get laughed at, Mom and Dad?

We don’t know you will get laughed at, but if, if, you get laughed at, you have our word that you can be the way you want to be, so long as it doesn’t hurt others. Other people’s laughter is not a death sentence. You can’t let others change your habits.

If she asked them whether she was retarded, they laughed like baboons. And so she took note of this, she would learn the truth for herself later. When she got bigger she would go to an institution, perhaps, and get the confirmation she currently lacked. The phone rang. Rafael, who was standing at the front door holding the cat, breathing in the evening breeze and the warm country air, turned in a half-circle and stared at the telephone. It was like he hadn’t seen a phone before. Like it made a difference to stare at it. You have to answer it. Then he looked at Billie. Back at the phone. He let the cat fall from his arms and went towards the machine, which stood on a pillar in the hall. It might be Soffia. She usually rang about that time, after dinner. The phone’s ringer fell silent. The army boots continued past the girl, and the man sat down in the rocking chair.

“Does the phone ring much?” he asked, massaging his forehead.

“It sometimes rings in the morning. Sometimes in the evening. Not often.”

“Who calls?”

“Someone or other.”

“Do you know any names?

She shrugged her shoulders; she couldn’t possibly say, my Mom. Perhaps the man would be sorry to hear her mom wasn’t dead. She dressed the Barbie dolls in new clothes, she combed their hair. The phone rang again. She acted as though the machine didn’t exist. The phone went dead. Rafael’s eyes closed.

The cat slunk slowly across the f loor, nuzzled at the rocking chair and the army boots, then jumped up onto the soldier’s lap. With his eyes still closed, he made room for the animal and put a hand on its fur. The other hand grasped the weapon, which rested on his chest like a bow and violin on a sleeping fiddle player’s chest. While he slept, because he snored, the playing girl took charge, and the dolls began to speak, competing to speak as though they had eaten lots of eggs, talking in soft voices:

viii. Ragga: I’ve gotten into even more trouble because I’m pregnant and going to have a child. I’ll leave it on the doorstep of some rich folk. I wouldn’t let anyone suffer my poverty and hardship.

Sara: I’ll take the child, dear Ragga; I cannot have children because in truth I have metalbelly.

Ragga: What is metalbelly, Sara babe?

Sara: Ugh, let’s not talk about it at this elegant party. Thank you for coming, my darling angel.

Ragga: Are you going to see Gugga? Teddy cut off her hair and sold it.

Sara: Let’s go and steal something from Teddy. Quick.

Ragga: Good idea! I likewise am dead tired of this party. It’s much more entertaining to go and play outside.

Sara: I had to host this party, my darling cinnamon bun, so no one would think that I’m retarded. Sara whispers to Ragga: I am, you see, retarded.

Ragga: Me too. Don’t tell anyone. Come and steal something from Teddy, Guggalugga’s husband.

They arrive at bald Guggalugga’s home.

Ragga: Guggalugga, you’re quite the sight! You’re bald.

A bald Barbie doll is added to the group.

Gugga: Don’t say that, Ragga, please, be nice to me.

Ragga: It’s best to speak the truth my angel, my raisin bun, I hope you’re not ill, dear Gugga. Where is that guy? Where’s that jerk of a guy?

The new Barbie doll, a boy-doll, who has been added to the crowd: I’m good. I’m good. As the saying goes: everything’s hay in hard times. I’m good. God bless us, God bless us all. I’ve sinned and now I repent. All the worst things humankind has
done had gathered inside me. I repented. God bless us, my child. Everything’s hay—

Sara and Ragga beat Teddy to pieces.

Gugga: Girls, be nice to Teddy. It’s not like you think, my hair will grow back.

Ragga: It won’t grow back, you donkey, you’re a doll.

They stop beating Teddy, who cries like an old crone.

Gugga: Girls, listen, please. Teddy’s momma ordered him to steal my hair because she said she would disinherit him if he didn’t and she gave him a lot of money for the hair. We were starving. Our stomachs howled. We would have died of hunger.
Didn’t you notice that we were beginning to lose weight?

Ragga: Is it better to be rich and bald?

Ragga punches Teddy.

Gugga: You’re one to speak, Ragga, pregnant and about to sell some rich people your child.

Ragga: I’m not going to sell it. I’m giving it away. That’s quite different. My offspring won’t be bought and sold like your hair.

Sara: I shall give Gugga my hair. I’m giving Guggalugga my hair.

“Wait a moment, I need to fetch the scissors,” said Billie, standing up.

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