11 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Larissa Kyzer on LoveStar by Andri Snær Magnason, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb and published by Seven Stories Press.

Larissa is a regular contributor to Three Percent, and with this continues her streak of Nordic lit reviews. LoveStar is a book I’ve been casting sidelong glances at here in the office, and have it high on my list of to-reads. But, with influences such as “Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Kurt Vonnegut to George Orwell, Douglas Adams, and Monty Python,” Magnason is sure to please.

Here’s a bit from Larissa’s review:

When Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason first published LoveStar, his darkly comic parable of corporate power and media influence run amok, the world was in a very different place. (This was back before both Facebook and Twitter, if you can recall such a time.) He noted as much himself in a recent interview with The Reykjavík Grapevine: “[w]hen it came out in 2002 it was called a dystopian novel; now it’s being called a parody. We seem to have already reached that dystopia.”

It is difficult to create a fictional milieu that touches on anything remotely related to technology or The Future and doesn’t feel dated pretty much the minute the ink dries on the page. (My favorite example of this is the Ethan Hawke Hamlet adaptation, which came out in 2000 and was peppered with cutting edge technology . . . like fax machines and Polaroid cameras.) As such, it is no small accomplishment that in the ten years since LoveStar was released, the book feels not obsolete, but rather prescient, or at least exasperatingly plausible.

The novel kicks off at some indeterminate point in the future, after a series of freakish, but not cataclysmic, natural events lead a group of intrepid Icelandic scientists to seek wireless alternatives to current technology. (An oversaturation of “waves, messages, transmissions, and electric fields,” they believe, is to blame for such events as clouds of bees taking over Chicago, driving out residents and flooding the downtown area with ponds of honey.)

Head over here for the entire review.

11 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

When Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason first published LoveStar, his darkly comic parable of corporate power and media influence run amok, the world was in a very different place. (This was back before both Facebook and Twitter, if you can recall such a time.) He noted as much himself in a recent interview with The Reykjavík Grapevine: “[w]hen it came out in 2002 it was called a dystopian novel; now it’s being called a parody. We seem to have already reached that dystopia.”

It is difficult to create a fictional milieu that touches on anything remotely related to technology or The Future and doesn’t feel dated pretty much the minute the ink dries on the page. (My favorite example of this is the Ethan Hawke Hamlet adaptation, which came out in 2000 and was peppered with cutting edge technology . . . like fax machines and Polaroid cameras.) As such, it is no small accomplishment that in the ten years since LoveStar was released, the book feels not obsolete, but rather prescient, or at least exasperatingly plausible.

The novel kicks off at some indeterminate point in the future, after a series of freakish, but not cataclysmic, natural events lead a group of intrepid Icelandic scientists to seek wireless alternatives to current technology. (An oversaturation of “waves, messages, transmissions, and electric fields,” they believe, is to blame for such events as clouds of bees taking over Chicago, driving out residents and flooding the downtown area with ponds of honey.)

Then comes the dawn of the “the cordless man,” who can both communicate and be communicated to through entirely internal methods:

bq.When men in suits talked to themselves out on the streets and reeled off figures, no one took them for lunatics: they were probably doing business with some unseen client. The man who sat in rapt concentration on a riverbank might be an engineer designing a bridge . . . and when a teenager made strange humming noises on the bus, nodding his head to and fro, he was probably listening to an invisible radio.

None of this, of course, is too great an exaggeration on technology that has come into being in the last decade, and even the absurd advertising methods that quickly become the norm in the world of LoveStar feel accurate. People in debt can rent out their brains’ speech centers out and become “howlers,” automatically screeching advertisements or reminders at specific passersby (“I can’t believe that guy is still wearing a Blue Millets anorak!” or “_Dallas_ is starting!”). “Secret hosts” are hired by companies to go around surreptitiously selling their friends products within everyday conversations. And everything—from birth to love to death—is monetized and monopolized by one gigantic corporation and its subsidiaries: LoveStar.

All of this, it bears noting, is just prologue and backdrop to the novel’s main focus: such is the sheer density of the world that Andri Snær creates within just the first few chapters. There are two main plots that overlap, somewhat achronologically. One follows the executive LoveStar himself in the last hours of his life (Andri Snær has likened the character to Steve Jobs; another reviewer saw Kári Stefánson, the founder of deCODE Genetics). The other plot follows the repeatedly thwarted attempts of a young couple, Indridi and Sigrid, trying to evade the corporate machinations that would break them apart from one another and re-pair them with their supposedly scientifically verifiable perfect partner.

There is a lot going on—arguably a little too much, as some of the larger themes get somewhat lost in the sweep of the (literally) explosive climax, or are, in some cases, grandly dramatized, but done so with little finesse. Though overall, it’s compulsively readable, due in great part to Andri Snær’s kooky creativity and the novel’s simple, straightforward style of prose (credit here to translator Victoria Cribb, who has translated, among others, three novels by Sjón and Gyrðir Elíasson’s Stone Tree).

Read today—in the wake of not only myriad technological advances, but also a worldwide financial meltdown the consequences of which were profoundly felt in Iceland, and will continue to be so for probably decades to come— LoveStar feels a bit like cracking open a time capsule. Its world is poised on the edge of implosion, held in check by only the tiniest bit of better judgement. “If we don’t do it,” LoveStar remarks before embarking on one last, ruinous power quest, “someone else will.”

16 October 12 | JT Mahany | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Per Petterson’s It’s Fine By Me, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and published by Graywolf Press.

This is the fifth book of Petterson’s to be published in English translation, the most famous being Out Stealing Horses, which won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was named a Best Book of 2007 by the New York Times and many other publications.

Here’s the opening of Larissa’s review:

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.

To read the complete review, click here.

16 October 12 | JT Mahany | Comments

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.”

23 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Peter Adolphsen’s The Brummstein, which is translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund and available from AmazonCrossing.

Apparently, this is the week of Larissa and AmazonCrossing books . . . As with her review of The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, this sounds like a really interesting book:

By examining the minute connections, unlikely coincidences, and painstaking natural processes that give shape to the daily world, the work of Danish author Peter Adolphsen encapsulates—both in form and content—Blake’s image of “a world in a grain of sand.” This has never been more literally true than in his most recently translated work, The Brummstein. Beginning in 1907, and ending over eighty years later, the novella follows a mysteriously humming stone found deep within a Swiss cave through its series of unlikely owners: a hapless German anarchist and his young Jewish sweetheart, a retired ticket clerk at a railway station lost & found, an orphan boy living alone in the woods, an avant-garde artist, and a museum curator. In following the ownership of the stone, The Brummstein also traces a crash course through European (German) history—in less than 80 pages, the reader experiences both World Wars, Spanish Flu, the rise of the Soviet GDR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, rather than focus on a larger, more sweeping narrative, The Brummstein is told on a much more personal, human scale. [. . .]

But the book’s concern is not really the Brummstein—the mysterious humming stone that an amateur explorer looking for the entrance to another world finds at the beginning of the story is basically a MacGuffin. This has been true for many other “lives of objects” narratives as well—Jenny Erpenbach’s Visitation and Nicole Krauss’s Great House come to mind—and is not in itself that unique a premise. What makes The Brummstein special, then, is Adolphsen’s incredible specificity and gift for compressing deeply incisive observations into just a few short passages.

Click here to read the full piece.

23 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

By examining the minute connections, unlikely coincidences, and painstaking natural processes that give shape to the daily world, the work of Danish author Peter Adolphsen encapsulates—both in form and content—Blake’s image of “a world in a grain of sand.” This has never been more literally true than in his most recently translated work, The Brummstein. Beginning in 1907, and ending over eighty years later, the novella follows a mysteriously humming stone found deep within a Swiss cave through its series of unlikely owners: a hapless German anarchist and his young Jewish sweetheart, a retired ticket clerk at a railway station lost & found, an orphan boy living alone in the woods, an avant-garde artist, and a museum curator. In following the ownership of the stone, The Brummstein also traces a crash course through European (German) history—in less than 80 pages, the reader experiences both World Wars, Spanish Flu, the rise of the Soviet GDR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, rather than focus on a larger, more sweeping narrative, The Brummstein is told on a much more personal, human scale.

Adolphsen has not yet been fully translated into English, but a good start has been made with the 2009 translation of his excellent novella Machine, and excerpts from his collections Small Stories I and Small Stories II, which were included in 2011’s Best European Fiction Anthology. Readers familiar with these other works will recognize many of the author’s prevailing thematic interests, as well as his favorite formal constraints in The Brummstein.

The book starts with a playful explanation of “the constant orogeny of the Alps,” and how the formation of the earth might be conceptualized on a time-line. “. . . if we apply the famous metaphor which depicts the Earth’s age as a calendar year,” the narrator begins,

when dinosaurs became extinct on Boxing Day, hominids emerge on New Year’s Eve, and when, at the time of writing, ten seconds have passed since the Roman Empire’s five seconds expired, then these events took place on December 19 and 23 respectively. In the West, the process of comprehending this vast expanse of time commenced just one and a half geological seconds ago . . .

There’s a PBS-narrator quality to Adolphsen’s explanations of the natural world, which manage to be clinical and dignified while simultaneously geeking out about how awesome geology is. (Machine, with its first page explanations of the petrification of a prehistoric horse, which eons later becomes a drop of gasoline, maintains the same delightful tone.)

But the book’s concern is not really the Brummstein—the mysterious humming stone that an amateur explorer looking for the entrance to another world finds at the beginning of the story is basically a MacGuffin. This has been true for many other “lives of objects” narratives as well—Jenny Erpenbach’s Visitation and Nicole Krauss’s Great House come to mind—and is not in itself that unique a premise. What makes The Brummstein special, then, is Adolphsen’s incredible specificity and gift for compressing deeply incisive observations into just a few short passages.

It’s rare that the full emotional weight of a relationship or a life can be concisely summarized—just think of how bland many obituaries are. But this is precisely what Adolphsen excels at. Consider a passage in which we’re introduced to Georg Wiede, an elderly retiree in Germany during WWII. After his apartment was destroyed by Allied air raids, Georg moves to a railway station lost and found hut:

It wasn’t until December 1943 that Georg finally overcame the inhibitions which had so far deterred him from helping himself to the lost items. He was driven by a noble motive: hunger. One of the suitcases might contain a tin of goulash or a bag of boiled sweets. He organized clothing such as coats and hats in neat piles at one end of the hut, making sure that each item retained its original ticket. Then he turned his attention to the suitcases, briefcases, et cetera. One by one he placed them on the table, and feeling like a surgeon with a patient on the operating table, he opened them up and laid out the contents in regimented lines. Then he returned the items in reverse order less anything he needed, which included two fountain pens, a small pile of books, a little money, some clothes, and an antique pocket watch. Whenever he took something, he would replace it with a small note with a brief description of the object and the following sentence: “I, Georg Weide, took this item of lost property in a time of great need.”

When it doesn’t work, The Brummstein tends to undercut its emotional resonance with an unsettling sense of absurdity that borders on nihilism. More than one character is dispatched in a freak accident—for instance, a married couple survives Spanish Flu only to be crushed by a chaise lounge falling from an apartment window. The narrative also drops off abruptly and unresolved, which may be alluding to the continuation of the story outside of the novella, but instead feels slightly apathetic.

If, in the end, The Brummstein has some shortcomings, these are mostly recognizable only in comparison to Adolphsen’s more polished Machine which, it should be noted, was written a few years later. Overall, it is a remarkably creative, unique, and resonant work, which can—and should—be read in one satisfying sitting.

21 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, which AmazonCrossing brought out this past January.

It may be due to my Icelandic Crush, but of all the books AmazonCrossing has brought out so far, this is the one that most excites me. Here are a few really choice passages from Larissa’s review that back up my interest:

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.”

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

21 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

7 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by regular reviewer Larissa Kyzer on Copenhagen Noir, edited by Bo Tao Michaelis and translated by Mark Kline (with one lone translation from the Swedish by Lone Thygesen) and published by Akashic Books.

As Larissa notes at the start of her review, this is one of the recent entries in Akashic’s long-running and very successful “CITY X Noir” series. Here’s a list of all of the noir books they’ve published.

And here’s the opening of Larissa’s piece:

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.”

Click here to read the full review.

7 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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 omionous outsiders that frequent the collection.

29 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad, translated by Deborah Dawkin

Language: Norwegian

Country: Norway
Publisher: Seven Stories Press

Why This Book Should Win: Reasons 1-5 listed below.

_Today’s post is by Larissa Kyzer, a regular reviewer for Three Percent and L Magazine. She has an interest in all things Scandinavian, which is one reason why it makes sense that she’d be writing about this book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by contributing reviewer Larissa Kyzer on Jacques Poulin’s Mister Blue, which just came out from Archipelago Books in Sheila Fischman’s translation.

Larissa Kyzer is a regular reviewer for us who has a great interest in all things Scandinavian and Icelandic. Mister Blue doesn’t quite fit that, but it does sound like a really fun book:

The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Click here to read the entire piece.

25 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Mister Blue opens on Jim, “the slowest writer in Quebec,” a former Hemingway scholar turned full-time novelist who now summers in his dilapidated childhood home, a ramshackle cottage in a quiet, uninhabited bay on the Ile d’Orleans. Jim’s daily writing follows a quiet routine with little to punctuate it other than semi-regular tennis matches with his brother, feeding and tending to his cats and the scrappy strays that invite themselves into his home, and solitary walks on the beach in front of his home. It is on just such a walk that Jim discovers footprints in the sand leading to a cave where someone has been camping. Finding a copy of The Arabian Nights in the cave with the name “Marie K.” written on the flyleaf, Jim becomes instantly besotted with this mysterious unseen stranger, whom he nicknames Marika.

Here, as in Translation is a Love Affair, real life quickly begins to intermingle with fiction and vice-versa. For Poulin’s characters, life itself is a process of composition, improvised and redrafted as unforeseen events take place. As Jim struggles to write a love story, he becomes convinced that his authorial problems can all be chalked up to the fact that he has ignored Hemingway’s rule: “a writer must stick to the subject he knows best.” He surmises that his story has stalled because “I was trying to write a love story without being in love myself.” Ergo, he whimsically decides, he must “take a closer interest in that person named Marika.”

But matters of the heart, much like matters of fiction, are not so easily constructed. Instead of meeting Marika, he meets a woman named Bungalow, a former housewife who left her “gilded cage” to run a shelter for young women in Old Quebec, and La Petite, who lives at the shelter but increasingly becomes a regular visitor at Jim’s cottage. The arrival of these two women takes both Jim’s fictional and real life love stories off course: the mysterious Marika continues to elude him, and obstinately, his fictional characters become friends instead of lovers, despite his frequent attempts to revise their relationship. The romantic story that he set out to write (and to live) gives way, ever so slowly, to a gentler, more protective, tender kind of love—that between himself and the curious, lovable, but often volatile La Petite—the love between a parent and child.

In simple, clean prose (musically rendered in Sheila Fischman’s translation) Poulin delivers his bittersweet tale with a restraint that belies true joy, the dogged optimism that complete strangers from totally different backgrounds and circumstances can find in each other real empathy and kindness. That such connections are right there in front of us, if only we trouble to look for them.
“What matters are the emotional ties that connect people and form a vast, invisible web without which the world would crumble,” Jim realizes. “Everything else to which people devote the greater part of their time, looking very serious as they do so, is of only minor importance.”

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.

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, which was translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal and officially comes out from NYRB Classics next Tuesday. (Or in NCAA time: The day of the “first” round of the tournament, which for once, could be cool. And yes, I know telling time by a sporting tournament is a sign of some sort of disorder . . . )

NYRB has been slowly issuing Tove Jansson’s ‘adult’ books over the past few years, starting with The Summer Book followed by The True Deceiver, which made the 2011 BTBA fiction longlist. (Click here for the special write-up.)

I’ve been meaning to find time to read Jansson’s books for a while now, and every review we post makes me more and more interested. Maybe after basketball . . . But seriously, she sounds fascinating, especially as one of the few Swedish-speaking Finns who have made their way into English . . .

Larissa is one of our top reviewers generally—but not always—writing about Scandinavian lit. She’s a great writer, and this review is no exception:

“There is no silence like sitting in a fog at sea and listening,” writes Tove Jansson in her newly-translated story collection Fair Play. “Large boats can loom up suddenly, and you don’t hear the bow water in time to start your motor and get out of the way.” Stuck waiting out a dense, chilling fog in a row boat somewhere between the coast of a small Finnish island and Estonia, Jansson’s aging companions, Jonna and Mari, fall into an old argument about their mothers—one had an annoying predilection for painstakingly buttered crispbread; the other was an incorrigible cheat at poker. Their conversation is short—discreetly hurtful in the way that one only can be after years of intimacy. But before the fog lifts, Jonna and Mari have come to an understanding, if not a full reconciliation. “Suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia,” Jansson writes. “They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

This episode is not only emblematic of Jonna and Mari’s time-tested relationship, it also reveals Jansson at her paradoxical best. Her prose is sparing and exquisitely clear. And at first, her stories and characters appear to be simple and straightforward. But once you’ve immersed yourself in a Jansson story, you realize that there is a great complexity simmering under the surface of her work—a whole life that exists, but is not made readily accessible to the reader. As Ali Smith puts it in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson writes “in a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency.”

Click here to read the full review.

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“There is no silence like sitting in a fog at sea and listening,” writes Tove Jansson in her newly-translated story collection Fair Play. “Large boats can loom up suddenly, and you don’t hear the bow water in time to start your motor and get out of the way.” Stuck waiting out a dense, chilling fog in a row boat somewhere between the coast of a small Finnish island and Estonia, Jansson’s aging companions, Jonna and Mari, fall into an old argument about their mothers—one had an annoying predilection for painstakingly buttered crispbread; the other was an incorrigible cheat at poker. Their conversation is short—discreetly hurtful in the way that one only can be after years of intimacy. But before the fog lifts, Jonna and Mari have come to an understanding, if not a full reconciliation. “Suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia,” Jansson writes. “They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

This episode is not only emblematic of Jonna and Mari’s time-tested relationship, it also reveals Jansson at her paradoxical best. Her prose is sparing and exquisitely clear. And at first, her stories and characters appear to be simple and straightforward. But once you’ve immersed yourself in a Jansson story, you realize that there is a great complexity simmering under the surface of her work—a whole life that exists, but is not made readily accessible to the reader. As Ali Smith puts it in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson writes “in a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency.”

Tove Jansson is most often recognized as a children’s author and illustrator—the visionary behind those delightful marshmallow hippos called “Moomins.” Her adult novels, which she didn’t begin publishing until she was nearly 60, have until recently remained very much in the shadow of the Moomin legacy. Fair Play is the most recent of Jansson’s ‘adult’ novels that New York Review Books has brought into English translation, following last year’s True Deceiver and 2008’s The Summer Book. The collection picks up two of the major thematic elements that run through each of its predecessors, namely the relationship between two women, explored against the back drop of a remote, idyllic setting. (True Deceiver was set in a snow-bound mountain village; The Summer Book on a small island in the Finnish gulf.) And as with the previous NYRB titles, Fair Play also draws on autobiographical inspiration: in this case, Jansson’s lifelong relationship with her partner, a Finnish artist and scholar named Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she lived for the better part of 40 years.

Each chapter in Fair Play serves as a snapshot, a brief window into the relationship between the frank and opinionated Jonna and the reserved and introspective Mari. Their day-to-day lives are quiet and happily mundane: they watch Fassbinder movies instead of going to dinner at a friend’s in the evening (with all its “pointless chatter about inessentials”). They re-hang pictures. They travel frequently, though their points of destination are often less than glamorous. On one trip through the American southwest, they spend a few nights at a local bar in Phoenix, Arizona; while in Corsica, one of their main destinations is a cemetery. They bicker frequently, and aren’t above childish jealousy or the occasional resentment. But mostly, they work, comfortable enough with the constancy of the other’s presence and support to spend the majority of their days writing and painting alone.

In “Videomania,” we’re told that Jonna and Mari “. . . lived at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbor, and between their studios lay the attic, an impersonal no-man’s-land of tall corridors with locked plank doors on either side.”

Mari liked wandering across the attic; it drew a necessary, neutral interval between their domains . . . They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.

It’s in the couple’s companionable solitude that Jansson defines her ethos of artistic creation, a deeply felt belief about the importance of maintaining one’s personal life without sacrificing her creative work, and the substantial space that is required to successfully balance both spheres.

Despite the quietude of Fair Play, it is nevertheless a work of remarkable courage. Jansson’s is not the flashy sort of artistic boldness that proclaims itself by way of constant transparency and self-revelation. Rather, she is brave enough to occasionally withhold information, to provide confidential glimpses into her characters’ lives, while still maintaining a distance from them—a sort of respectful privacy. She doesn’t outline the women’s romantic lives—we don’t find them in bed together, or even see them embrace. Jonna and Mari don’t articulate their love for each other directly, although they certainly reflect on their feelings internally.

Fair Play is after all, a book about separation and space as much as it is about intimacy. “We need distance,” Jonna tells Mari, “it’s essential.” The reader is allowed a closeness to these remarkable women, but in the end, their relationship is like any one in real life: private and fully known only to those who are within it.

30 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Laurence Cosse’s A Novel Bookstore, which is available from Europa Editions in Alison Anderson’s translation.

Larissa reviews for us on a regular basis, when she’s not learning various languages, writing for L Magazine, or reading Scandinavian lit . . . She’s a smart reviewer, and this look at Cosse’s novel is interesting both in its praise and criticisms. Here’s the opening of her review:

“Who should we see at the police to denounce attacks against literature?” Such is the question that two bookstore owners—one an elegant heiress, the other a self-educated, solitary, bohemian bookseller—solemnly pose at the opening of French author Laurence Cossé’s satirical biblio-thriller, A Novel Bookstore. Both avid and opinionated readers, Francesca Aldo-Valbelli and Ivan (Van) Georg embarked on an entirely idealistic enterprise—to open The Good Novel, “a perfect bookstore, the kind where you’d sell nothing but good novels.” Their inventory selection process was complex and clandestine: a panel of eight unidentified novelists—each with their own code name, such as “Quinoa” and “Strait-laced,” or “The Red” and “Green Pea”—would generate lists of titles to be stocked. Books on hand would be old and new, from countries worldwide. However, The Good Novel would not fall prey to current publishing trends, and would not depend on forthcoming novels or best sellers—“books not worth bothering with”—to make a profit.

The Good Novel had a fabulous debut, but its unfettered success was not to last. Shortly after its opening, the store faced a sudden onslaught of attacks. Vitriolic opinion pieces declaring the store’s mission to sell only good books as “totalitarian” were published in newspapers. Malicious customers arrived in hordes, ordering Danielle Steele books they never planned to pay for. Most shocking, three of the members of the secret selection committee were not only identified, but violently attacked by mysterious strangers who pointedly taunted them: “It’s like being in a bad crime novel, huh. . . . ? With vulgar characters and a stupid plot . . . So this isn’t a good novel, huh?”

Click here to read the full piece.

30 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Who should we see at the police to denounce attacks against literature?” Such is the question that two bookstore owners—one an elegant heiress, the other a self-educated, solitary, bohemian bookseller—solemnly pose at the opening of French author Laurence Cossé’s satirical biblio-thriller, A Novel Bookstore. Both avid and opinionated readers, Francesca Aldo-Valbelli and Ivan (Van) Georg embarked on an entirely idealistic enterprise—to open The Good Novel, “a perfect bookstore, the kind where you’d sell nothing but good novels.” Their inventory selection process was complex and clandestine: a panel of eight unidentified novelists—each with their own code name, such as “Quinoa” and “Strait-laced,” or “The Red” and “Green Pea”—would generate lists of titles to be stocked. Books on hand would be old and new, from countries worldwide. However, The Good Novel would not fall prey to current publishing trends, and would not depend on forthcoming novels or best sellers—“books not worth bothering with”—to make a profit.

The Good Novel had a fabulous debut, but its unfettered success was not to last. Shortly after its opening, the store faced a sudden onslaught of attacks. Vitriolic opinion pieces declaring the store’s mission to sell only good books as “totalitarian” were published in newspapers. Malicious customers arrived in hordes, ordering Danielle Steele books they never planned to pay for. Most shocking, three of the members of the secret selection committee were not only identified, but violently attacked by mysterious strangers who pointedly taunted them: “It’s like being in a bad crime novel, huh. . . . ? With vulgar characters and a stupid plot . . . So this isn’t a good novel, huh?”

While the novel flirts with the mystery genre, it ultimately defies such classification. Starting much like a thriller, A Novel Bookstore quickly steps back, exploring—in great detail—Francesca and Van’s first meeting, their histories, and their debates on everything from Pierre Michon to whether the store’s inventory should be organized alphabetically, chronologically, or geographically (they opt for combination of the three). Cossé also playfully manipulates the narration, starting the story in third person, and then revealing an unnamed first person narrator who is actually a character in the story as well.

Each character is precisely articulated, with personalized quirks and gestures and even wardrobes. Cossé observes the smallest details—such as a hole in the elbow of a favorite sweater—and imbues them with meaning. These characterizations, combined with such explicit details about preparations to open the bookstore, immerse one in a world that feels entirely real. The thriller aspect of the novel falls to the wayside, with its eventual explanation feeling almost irrelevant to the real meat of the book. Reveling in minutia, occasionally overwrought declarations of literary superiority (Cormac McCarthy is consistently touted the greatest living writer), and piquant asides on the state of literary criticism in France, Cossé seems to have created an ideal shaggy dog story: it’s not really a matter of what “happens” or doesn’t, as the case may be, but simply immersing oneself among these characters.

As the novel progresses, however, this verisimilitude gives way to a much more fictional fiction—a plot-driven, theatrical dénouement that feels strangely out of step with the rest of the novel. Suspicions that The Good Novel is the victim of a greater “conspiracy”—wrought by members of the greater (very cynical) literary community—are actually well founded. And as the trials and tribulations faced by the bookstore and its denizens become more and more dramatic and outlandish, so do the characters’ responses. “With all due allowance, something happened here that is comparable to what happened with Al Qaeda and its consequences,” the policeman investigating The Good Novel attacks remarks.

It seems clear that the dramatic shift in tone at the end of the novel is intended to symbolically illustrate Cossé’s pet moral: that mainstream society only has a literary appetite for banal bestsellers, and that “lazy and frivolous” critics and journalists are in great part to blame for this mediocre taste.“They heap praise on books that are nothing but fluff, and in the rush they overlook real jewels,” we’re told. But maybe there is a bit of a wink in the self-righteous exclamations of the downtrodden booksellers. Cossé is, after all, a journalist herself. In the end, perhaps the greatest strength of A Novel Bookstore is to simply compel readers to consider their own literary preferences more consciously. For as Van says, “one of the most fortunate purposes of literature is to bring like-minded people together and get them talking.”

25 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and reissued by Dalkey Archive Press earlier this year with a new introduction by Francisco Goldman.

Puig’s an all-time favorite of mine, and in my opinion, this is his best book. (Even better than Kiss of the Spider Woman.) (I’m actually flipping through the new Dalkey edition as I type and thinking about rereading this over the weekend . . .) Puig was an amazing writer, and although I wish Open Letter could’ve been the press to reprint his early works, it’s great that Dalkey is making all of these available again.

Larissa Kyzer is a frequent reviewer for us, her most recent review (like two weeks ago recent) was of Sofi Oksanen’s Purge. (Larissa knows a lot about Scandinavian lit, which is why she reviews a lot of Nordic books for us.)

Here’s the opening of her review:

Built on recollections of his small hometown in the heart of the Argentine pampas, Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango is a dizzy and heartfelt pastiche of seduction, jealousy, daydreams, and spoiled hopes in the lives of a self-indulgent and consumptive Casanova named Juan Carlos, his workingman best friend, and the women who suffer their affections. Blending documentary-style narration with the melodrama of radio plays and the clear-eyed aspirations of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Puig intermixes high and low art—“the avant-garde with popular appeal,” he once wrote—so as to delight and entertain while mercilessly laying bear the hypocrisies and regressiveness of village life.

In her biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, imminent Latin American translator Suzanne Jill Levine (who was also close friends with the author) notes that “Manuel saw Villegas [his hometown] as an ongoing melodrama or, translated to radio, a soap opera like the ones people used to listen to every afternoon . . .” Speaking of his friends and neighbors, Levine explains that, “. . . their feelings were the feelings of characters in a melodrama, and they spoke the language of those old songs, radio plays, and movies to which they were addicted.”

Heartbreak Tango likewise stages itself as a serial drama, and is divided into sixteen “episodes,” comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, diary entries, and scenes of dialog. Each episode is preceded by one of the myriad advertisements, tag lines, and song lyrics that surround these characters and color their points of view. “As long as you can smile, success can be yours!” claims a toothpaste commercial. “He treated her rough, and she loved it!” winks the tag line for a Jean Harlow film.

25 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Built on recollections of his small hometown in the heart of the Argentine pampas, Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango is a dizzy and heartfelt pastiche of seduction, jealousy, daydreams, and spoiled hopes in the lives of a self-indulgent and consumptive Casanova named Juan Carlos, his workingman best friend, and the women who suffer their affections. Blending documentary-style narration with the melodrama of radio plays and the clear-eyed aspirations of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Puig intermixes high and low art—“the avant-garde with popular appeal,” he once wrote—so as to delight and entertain while mercilessly laying bear the hypocrisies and regressiveness of village life.

In her biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, imminent Latin American translator Suzanne Jill Levine (who was also close friends with the author) notes that “Manuel saw Villegas [his hometown] as an ongoing melodrama or, translated to radio, a soap opera like the ones people used to listen to every afternoon . . .” Speaking of his friends and neighbors, Levine explains that, “. . . their feelings were the feelings of characters in a melodrama, and they spoke the language of those old songs, radio plays, and movies to which they were addicted.”

Heartbreak Tango likewise stages itself as a serial drama, and is divided into sixteen “episodes,” comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, diary entries, and scenes of dialog. Each episode is preceded by one of the myriad advertisements, tag lines, and song lyrics that surround these characters and color their points of view. “As long as you can smile, success can be yours!” claims a toothpaste commercial. “He treated her rough, and she loved it!” winks the tag line for a Jean Harlow film.

These epigraphs offer a bittersweet and ironic counterpoint to the mundane realities of the characters’ lives—days spent laundering rich women’s linens, doing backbreaking construction work, or fending off the advances of would-be suitors. As the book progresses, however, they begin seem less and less farcical, and increasingly reflective of the bubbling tensions at play in these individuals’ world. A “Miss Spring” pageant ignites jealousy and gossip among debutants. Juan Carlos seduces several neighborhood daughters (all friends), while simultaneously conducting a very public affair with a much older widow. A family loses their fortune and social standing when an English investor is snubbed by their daughter. A poor maid murders the father of her illegitimate son after discovering his affair with her employer’s daughter. Life imitates art, with fewer happy endings.

Puig’s first love was the movies (he originally planned to become a film director), a fact is apparent in much of his work, not least Heartbreak Tango. This is more than just a fondness for referencing movie stars and Hollywood films throughout his novels, though—it’s a way of seeing. Puig is a master of montage, of cross-cutting intimate snapshots of multiple characters to show them in their greater context. For example, in one episode, he follows everyone through their daily routine, while also revealing their greatest fears and desires in that precise moment. It’s a day much like any other day, filled with work and worry, and yet Puig imbues it with such specificity that even the most trifling desires resonate with the reader.

The fact of the matter is, however, that most of their greatest fears are legitimate ones—weighty and insurmountable problems which threaten to overshadow whatever small happinesses they are able to steal for themselves in the form of an air conditioned movie, a cool siesta, or a freshly pressed and polished uniform. Juan Carlos cannot raise the money he needs to go to an expensive sanatorium to be treated for tuberculosis. After marrying a well-to-do public auctioneer and moving to Buenos Aires, a neighborhood girl is still can’t afford to send her family money to pay for her father’s medical treatments. An unwed mother struggles to find ways to support herself and still spend time with her infant son.

Perhaps then, it is no surprise that these characters take refuge in the romantic dramas of radio plays, the fictional tragedies of their favorite tangos. That well into middle age, they still cherish remembrances of short-lived adolescent passion, even if over time, their memories have edited out fickle lovers and disappointed youthful hopes. Or as two childhood friends realize while sharing a cup of maté years later, “’[O]ne always thinks the past was better. And wasn’t it?’ . . . Both found an answer for that question,” Puig reveals. “The same answer: yes, the past was better because then they both believed in love.”

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Some time in the past I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen. Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers. (Finland-Estonia, Grove/Black Cat)

In terms of the book itself, I don’t have a lot to add to Larissa’s perceptive review. But to tie this particular post back into the actual WPR “Here On Earth” conversation that sparked this sporadic series of posts, I have to post a picture of Sofi, aka, the “woman with the most amazing hair.” (I feel like I must’ve mentioned this a half-dozen times during that interview . . . it was like my verbal crutch of the moment . . .):

I finally met Sofi at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and really enjoyed talking with her. I say “finally” because I was supposed to meet her at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival last fall, but she wasn’t able to make it due to a bout of the swine flu. And continuing with a bit of cursed luck, prior to PEN World Voices, she was supposed to read in California, but, well, the volcano nixed that trip . . . As a friend said, she could write a book on being impacted by the not-so-insignificant global disasters of recent times.

Anyway, Purge is a really interesting book, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else Oksanen ends up writing. She’s really at the top of her game right now, having recently won the Nordic Prize for Purge, and was named Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009.

Although this may not be the most uplifting of the books in our summer roundup, it’s definitely worth checking out.

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, which was translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers and published earlier this year by Grove/Black Cat.

Since this was one of the books I recommended on “Here on Earth,” I’ll save my comments for another post (which will be up in just a minute).

Larissa is one of our regular contributors and tends to focus on Scandinavian literature, which is one of her big interests. (That said, she’s also working on a review of Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango.)

Here’s the beginning of her review:

Although still much an unknown in the English-speaking world, Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen has become something of a household name in northern and central Europe. Declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009, Oksanen is the first to win both of Finland’s prestigious literary prizes—the Finlandia and the Runeberg—as well as winning this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize for her virtuosic novel Purge. At once a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, as well as a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual, Purge navigates the tragedies, petty betrayals, and reverberating guilt of three generations of Estonian women, all struggling to survive their own violent circumstances, no matter the cost.

The novel opens in 1991—the year after Estonia reclaimed its independence from Russia—with the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu stoically weathering childish torments (rocks thrown at her window) and more aggressive harassment (her dog poisoned) at the hands of her neighbors. One rainy morning, Aliide notices an injured young girl huddling in her front yard, and despite her misgivings, allows the girl to take shelter in her home. Zara is a young woman from Russia—a sex trafficking victim on the run from her captors. Having withstood a year of degradation and repeated assaults, Zara has lost everything. Everything, that is, except a yellowed photograph of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister, with both young women and standing in front of the very Estonian house in which Zara has taken refuge.

Oksanen originally staged Purge as a play, an origin that can still be recognized in its episodic scenes and deliberately moderated tension. In its current form, however, the novel’s fluid and unadorned prose (in a musical and nuanced translation by Lola Rogers) shares a closer kinship with a psychological thriller.

Click here to read the entire review.

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Although still much an unknown in the English-speaking world, Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen has become something of a household name in northern and central Europe. Declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009, Oksanen is the first to win both of Finland’s prestigious literary prizes—the Finlandia and the Runeberg—as well as winning this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize for her virtuosic novel Purge. At once a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, as well as a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual, Purge navigates the tragedies, petty betrayals, and reverberating guilt of three generations of Estonian women, all struggling to survive their own violent circumstances, no matter the cost.

The novel opens in 1991—the year after Estonia reclaimed its independence from Russia—with the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu stoically weathering childish torments (rocks thrown at her window) and more aggressive harassment (her dog poisoned) at the hands of her neighbors. One rainy morning, Aliide notices an injured young girl huddling in her front yard, and despite her misgivings, allows the girl to take shelter in her home. Zara is a young woman from Russia—a sex trafficking victim on the run from her captors. Having withstood a year of degradation and repeated assaults, Zara has lost everything. Everything, that is, except a yellowed photograph of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister, with both young women and standing in front of the very Estonian house in which Zara has taken refuge.

Oksanen originally staged Purge as a play, an origin that can still be recognized in its episodic scenes and deliberately moderated tension. In its current form, however, the novel’s fluid and unadorned prose (in a musical and nuanced translation by Lola Rogers) shares a closer kinship with a psychological thriller. Both Aliide and Zara are survivors in the truest sense of the word—their suffering purposefully repressed by sheer force of will, their sole motivation to protect themselves from further harm. And they are both connected by a dense and untold family history that has festered for over four decades.

As the novel delves into Aliide’s past and the thirty-odd years that Estonia spent under Soviet occupation, it becomes apparent that the events of the present have all spun out from the same traumatic incident—a brutal “interrogation” that Aliide endured at the hands of several soldiers. Rape and assault were frighteningly common experiences for young Estonian women during this time, although not ones which were ever acknowledged—even by others who had gone through similar attacks. Rather, these women became isolated within their own communities and families, silent and ashamed. Aliide not only goes to great lengths to secret her experience, but also to distance herself from other victims. “She recognized the smell of women on the street, the smell that said something similar happened to them,” we’re told.

From every trembling hand, she could tell—there’s another one. From every flinch at the sound of a Russian soldier’s shout and every lurch at the tramp of boots. Her, too? Every one who couldn’t keep herself from crossing the street when militiamen or soldiers approached. Every one with a waistband on her dress that showed she was wearing several pairs of underwear. Every one who couldn’t look you in the eye . . .

When she found herself in proximity with one of those women, she tried to stay as far away from her as she could. So no one would notice similarities in their behavior . . . because you never knew when one of those men might happen by, a man she would remember for all eternity. And maybe it would be the same man as the other woman’s . . . And they wouldn’t be able to keep themselves from flinching at the same time, if they heard a familiar voice. They wouldn’t be able to raise their glass without spilling. They would be discovered. Someone would know.

Even as Aliide’s attempts at self-preservation become increasingly damaging to those around her—even as she allows herself to become complicit in the violations, abuses, and deportations that take place in her own home—the novel still treats her with a great depth of empathy. This is not to say that she is absolved of her actions—much to the contrary. But she is understood to be a casualty of her time and circumstances, and utterly alone with her memories and her guilt. As she realizes late in the novel, her whole life was spent “[w]aiting for someone . . . Someone who would do something to help or at least take away part of what had happened in that cellar.”

Stroke her hair and say that it wasn’t her fault. And say that it would never happen again, no matter what. And when she realized what she had been waiting for, she understood that that person would never come. No one would ever come to her and say those words, and mean them, and see that it never happened again.

There can be no real absolution for Aliide. This fact may be difficult for American readers, who have perhaps become accustomed to narratives of trauma and emotional distress which end in redemption—in the characters achieving some sort of closure, if not an out and out resolution to their suffering. In reality, however, true healing is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, and impossible, the novel reminds us, if the victims involved are not able to discuss their experiences.

Where Purge does take hope, however, is in Zara, a young woman who has broken free of the cycle of victimization. Through her, Aliide’s experiences—as well as those of her grandmother and mother—will finally come to light. It is a painful history to be sure, as is that of the Estonian nation. But in order to move forward—in order to truly reconcile with the past—such stories must finally be heard and examined.

8 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece Larissa Kyzer wrote on Stig Sæterbakken’s Siamese, translated from the Norwegian by Stokes Schwartz and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press.

Larissa Kyzer is one of our regular reviewers, in part because of her great interest in Scandinavian lit. (Click her name above for a list of all her reviews.)

Siamese sounds pretty intriguing. And I wonder if the rest of the so-called “S-Trilogy” will make its way into English . . . (BTW, what is is with Norwegians and trilogies?)

Since his literary debut at the age of 18, Norwegian author Stig Sæterbakken has made a name for himself by challenging convention. At times, this challenge has manifested as an interrogation of the Norwegian nation’s sense of identity and its relationship to Europe. At others, it has revealed itself more questionably, such as during the 2009 Norwegian Literary Festival on “Truth,” when Sæterbakken, the festival’s artistic director, invited universally reviled Holocaust denier David Irving to be a speaker at the event. (In his New York Times review of Siamese, author Jim Krusoe suggests that Sæterbakken might have been reasonably motivated in this instance, inviting Irving in order to “see what would happen when an agreed-upon truth was forced to confront a pernicious, stubborn falsity.”)

More than simply igniting controversy, however, Sæterbakken has established himself as an accomplished poet, essayist, translator, and fiction writer with more than a dozen publications to his credit. His novella Siamese, which was translated into English earlier this year, is the first installment in Sæterbakken’s “S-Trilogy” (so-called because all three titles begin with the letter ‘s’). Sparsely narrated in unadorned, clipped prose, Siamese tells the story of Edwin and Erna, an elderly couple whose relationship embodies a sort of degenerating symbiosis, a mutually antagonistic and passively spiteful codependency from which neither can escape.

Edwin, the former administrator at a retirement home, is now almost completely blind and living in self-imposed isolation in his and Erna’s apartment bathroom. Subsisting almost entirely on gum and flat cola, Edwin has forced his body into the most fetid deterioration, a squalor sustained—and in some respects, supported—by his hapless, nearly deaf wife whom he harangues and berates as a matter of sport. Isolated as he is—dependent on Erna for everything from changing his catheter to spoon-feeding him the occasional meatball—Edwin takes every opportunity to exert the substantial control he has over Erna, and by extension, his waning life. “It’s my world in here,” he states proudly.

8 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Since his literary debut at the age of 18, Norwegian author Stig Sæterbakken has made a name for himself by challenging convention. At times, this challenge has manifested as an interrogation of the Norwegian nation’s sense of identity and its relationship to Europe. At others, it has revealed itself more questionably, such as during the 2009 Norwegian Literary Festival on “Truth,” when Sæterbakken, the festival’s artistic director, invited universally reviled Holocaust denier David Irving to be a speaker at the event. (In his New York Times review of Siamese, author Jim Krusoe suggests that Sæterbakken might have been reasonably motivated in this instance, inviting Irving in order to “see what would happen when an agreed-upon truth was forced to confront a pernicious, stubborn falsity.”)

More than simply igniting controversy, however, Sæterbakken has established himself as an accomplished poet, essayist, translator, and fiction writer with more than a dozen publications to his credit. His novella Siamese, which was translated into English earlier this year, is the first installment in Sæterbakken’s “S-Trilogy” (so-called because all three titles begin with the letter ‘s’). Sparsely narrated in unadorned, clipped prose, Siamese tells the story of Edwin and Erna, an elderly couple whose relationship embodies a sort of degenerating symbiosis, a mutually antagonistic and passively spiteful codependency from which neither can escape.

Edwin, the former administrator at a retirement home, is now almost completely blind and living in self-imposed isolation in his and Erna’s apartment bathroom. Subsisting almost entirely on gum and flat cola, Edwin has forced his body into the most fetid deterioration, a squalor sustained—and in some respects, supported—by his hapless, nearly deaf wife whom he harangues and berates as a matter of sport. Isolated as he is—dependent on Erna for everything from changing his catheter to spoon-feeding him the occasional meatball—Edwin takes every opportunity to exert the substantial control he has over Erna, and by extension, his waning life. “It’s my world in here,” he states proudly.

Here, my word is law. I know this room like the back of my hand. It’s as though I have a map of the room in my mind, and I’m intimately familiar with all its sounds, I hear even the slightest movement…It’s true, nothing that anyone does in here escapes my attention. I need to know their positions and what they’re doing at every moment. And whenever anyone else is here, anyone aside from Sweetie, that is, I immediately have the upper hand, immediately score a decisive victory over nature, over what nature’s taken away from me, now wholly at ease, empowered. It’s me who dominates the situation.

Despite all her slavishness, Erna too finds ways of exerting her dominance over Edwin. While her husband opts for more obvious aggression and emotional abuse, Erna’s manipulations and quiet acts of defiance remain almost entirely undetected by her husband. For instance, Edna’s deceit about Edwin’s trusted physician, Dr. Amonsen. Although the doctor has long since moved away, Erna continues to pass along medical advice to Edwin under Amonsen’s authority. “He’s always seen Dr. Amonsen as his savior. His faithful defender.” she explains.

. . . I’ve always lied to Edwin when he asked about Amonsen. I didn’t know what else I could do . . . When Edwin asks me to ask Dr. Amonsen about something, I always let a few days go by before I tell him what Amonsen’s reply was. And as long as I say it was Amonsen who told me this or that, Edwin accepts it immediately.

In the course of tracing Edwin and Erna’s increasingly confrontational power struggle, Siamese explores the truly elemental fears and desires that motivate all of us—the fear of death or inadequacy, the frailty of the body, the need to feel in control, the desire for power. The couple’s relationship is one that also has the potential to be read as a larger, historical allegory. Consider a speech called “My Heart Belongs to Europe. Therefore It is Broken,” that Sæterbakken gave in 2005, during which he discussed the former Norwegian alliance with Denmark. “Our union with Denmark lasted over 400 hundred years,” he said. “The Danish rule is often referred to as the ‘400-year-night,’ an expression taken from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt”:

Recent research, however, has cast doubt over our conception of this long lasting oppression that we, obviously being the weaker half of the Siamese twin Denmark-Norway, experienced during the union…[A] considerable part of the culture we think of as being fundamentally Norwegian, as symbols of Norway as a nation, has been given us by foreigners, Danes mainly, the influence from Danish culture, especially through trading, goes much further back in time than those 400 years of Danish reign.

Without delving too far into Sæterbakken’s assertions about Norwegian cultural history, one can still appreciate the symbolism that he seems to allude to here, and apply it to Edwin and Erna’s relationship in Siamese. The metaphor of two mutually dependent and mutually destructive countries can perhaps expand the scope of this hermetic novel and give it more resonance for readers familiar with Scandinavian history. No matter how it is interpreted, however, Sæterbakken’s novel presents a challenging and frequently disturbing portrait of the balance of power and wages of control in any codependent relationship.

5 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Tales of a Finnish Tupa, adapted by James Cloyd Bowman and Margery Bianco from a translation by Aili Kolehmainen with illustrations by Laura Bannon.

I know we’ve been a bit slow about getting new reviews online, but now that the BTBA fiction longlist posts are winding down (to be replaced by posts about the BTBA poetry finalists), I swear we’ll be getting everything back on track, with reviews of the new Oe and Ugresic books coming in the next few weeks, along with some reviews my students wrote last semester and a look at the new translation of Gombrowicz’s Pornographia. Not to mention the new Handke book, etc., etc. There are heaps of good books coming out this spring for us to cover . . .

But anyway, digression over, this review by Larissa Kyzer—a regular around here who has a great interest in all literatures Scandinavian—is about a collection of Finnish folk tales that the University of Minnesota Press reissued last fall.

It’s a frequently-cited notion that fairy tales and folk stories provide children with a sort of moral or educational compass. Don’t stray from the path. Don’t talk to strangers. Work hard and be honest. Don’t trust your stepmother. But while we may generally associate this literary form with children, it’s certainly one that continues to resonate with adult audiences. As the German poet Friedrich Schiller has been quoted as saying, “[d]eeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.”

Tales from a Finnish Tupa, recently reissued in a lovely illustrated edition by The University of Minnesota Press, will certainly resonate with contemporary readers for its humorous anecdotes which value enchantment and practicality in equal measure. The collection, which includes over forty “Tales of Magic,” “Droll Stories,” and fables, reverberates with themes of kindness to those in need, self-sufficiency, and common sense—as well as frequent encouragements to take advantage of anyone who does not exhibit the aforementioned qualities.

In “The Ship that Sailed by Land and Sea,” a young chimney sweep accomplishes impossible feats and wins a princess’ hand in marriage—but only with the help of the many magical strangers who he helped while on his journey. (As in many folkloric traditions, there are, apparently, simply dozens of unwed princesses just waiting for a resourceful fellow to come along and free them from the evil spells that bind them or sweep them away from persnickety fathers.) “The End of the World,” will be familiar to those who grew up with “Henny Penny,” telling the story of a foolish brown hen who thinks the world is ending after she’s hit on the head with an acorn.

Click here to read the full review.

5 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s a frequently-cited notion that fairy tales and folk stories provide children with a sort of moral or educational compass. Don’t stray from the path. Don’t talk to strangers. Work hard and be honest. Don’t trust your stepmother. But while we may generally associate this literary form with children, it’s certainly one that continues to resonate with adult audiences. As the German poet Friedrich Schiller has been quoted as saying, “[d]eeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.”

Tales from a Finnish Tupa, recently reissued in a lovely illustrated edition by The University of Minnesota Press, will certainly resonate with contemporary readers for its humorous anecdotes which value enchantment and practicality in equal measure. The collection, which includes over forty “Tales of Magic,” “Droll Stories,” and fables, reverberates with themes of kindness to those in need, self-sufficiency, and common sense—as well as frequent encouragements to take advantage of anyone who does not exhibit the aforementioned qualities.

In “The Ship that Sailed by Land and Sea,” a young chimney sweep accomplishes impossible feats and wins a princess’ hand in marriage—but only with the help of the many magical strangers who he helped while on his journey. (As in many folkloric traditions, there are, apparently, simply dozens of unwed princesses just waiting for a resourceful fellow to come along and free them from the evil spells that bind them or sweep them away from persnickety fathers.) “The End of the World,” will be familiar to those who grew up with “Henny Penny,” telling the story of a foolish brown hen who thinks the world is ending after she’s hit on the head with an acorn.

The importance of a strong work ethic and judiciousness comes across most clearly in the humorous tale of “The Wise Men of Holmola,” which introduces the residents of a village who are “quite different from the rest of the people in Finland, and rather queer in their ways.” The Holmolaiset, we’re told,

. . . were simple-minded and above all cautious. They liked to turn everything over very thoroughly in their minds before they came to any decision about it, and would make the most elaborate plans about even the simplest details of their daily life. When it came to any important question they would talk it over for weeks and months and even years, before they could make up their minds to act.

Egged on by a bemused stranger named Matti, the villagers allow their crops to go to waste and accidentally demolish their homes through their own foolish dithering. Their absurd demise serves as a humorous caution to those who would over-complicate even the most basic tasks.

Beyond considering the stories themselves, however, the collaborative authorship of this collection does need to be taken into account. There’s a fair amount of distance here from the original text: Tales from a Finnish Tupa is a reprint of an adaptation of a translation. The stories were translated by Aili Kolehmainen, for whom no biographical information is provided. (If Google can be trusted, though, Kolehmainen was also responsible for a prose translation of the Finnish epic poem Kalevala in 1950.) The translation was then co-adapted by James Cloyd Bowman, a children’s book author who was awarded the Newberry Honor Medal in 1938 for Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time, and Margery Bianco, the author best known for The Velveteen Rabbit.

This adaptive approach is not problematic in itself—folk tales are part of a long oral tradition in which each new storyteller augments, edits, and personalizes familiar stories to suit his or her own preferences. However, without any contextual supplements—such as a scholarly introduction about Finnish literary traditions or information about how the stories in the collection came to be included—Tales from a Finnish Tupa feels somewhat isolated from its original material and fails to resonate as fully as it might otherwise.

Bowman’s brief Afterword on Finnish folk lore serves this purpose rather poorly, opting for generalizations about “a pastoral people” who, “[o]n the surface . . . were cold and inexpressive, and seemed as frozen over as their lakes in winter.” Given the lack of ready information (in English) about Finnish literature, and moreover, the scarcity of new Finnish translations, the omission of a more nuanced examination of the text is felt all the more acutely.

Tales from a Finnish Tupa nevertheless remains a welcome addition to the cannon of international folklore, a fanciful collection which might best be shared out loud on a cold winter’s night.

4 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Unai Elorriaga’s Plants Don’t Drink Coffee, which was translated from the Basque by Amaia Gabantxo and published by Archipelago earlier this year.

Elorriaga is one of only a handful (or maybe only two?) contemporary Basque authors to have his work translated and published in English. (To put this is a weird, unhelpful context, over the past three years, more contemporary Basque works have been published in the U.S. than works of contemporary Hindi writers.) He’s a relatively young author—his first novel, Sprako Tranbia (A Tram to SP), was published in 2002 and won the prestigious Spanish Premio National de Narrativa—so hopefully he’ll have a long career in translation.

Larissa’s reviewed a number of books for us in the past. She also reviews for L Magazine, is working towards her Master’s in Library Science, and is studying Danish.

Here’s the opening to her piece:

Plants Don’t Drink Coffee, Basque author Unai Elorriaga’s first novel to be translated into English, spins four intersecting tales about the magic of everyday life. Narrated by Tomas, an earnest young boy and several other members of his sweetly eccentric family—including a rugby-obsessed uncle and a talkative teenage cousin with a flair for entomology—Elorriaga’s fanciful narrative captures the slight, quotidian dramas of small town life and imbues them with the clear-eyed wonder of a fairytale.

With his father seriously ill in the hospital, Tomas finds himself spending most of his summer days at his aunt’s home, helping his cousin Iñes collect insects for a class project. But one particular specimen eludes the pair, no matter how many ladybugs and beetles and grasshoppers they catch. The Orthetrum coerulescens: the blue dragonfly. Explaining to Tomas that “. . . there are very few blue dragonflies in the world, nine or seven, or fewer still . . .” Iñes hopes to impress her teacher by catching the rare insect. “But not only for that reason,” Tomas explains. “There is another reason too.”

Click here for the full review.

4 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Plants Don’t Drink Coffee, Basque author Unai Elorriaga’s first novel to be translated into English, spins four intersecting tales about the magic of everyday life. Narrated by Tomas, an earnest young boy and several other members of his sweetly eccentric family—including a rugby-obsessed uncle and a talkative teenage cousin with a flair for entomology—Elorriaga’s fanciful narrative captures the slight, quotidian dramas of small town life and imbues them with the clear-eyed wonder of a fairytale.

With his father seriously ill in the hospital, Tomas finds himself spending most of his summer days at his aunt’s home, helping his cousin Iñes collect insects for a class project. But one particular specimen eludes the pair, no matter how many ladybugs and beetles and grasshoppers they catch. The Orthetrum coerulescens: the blue dragonfly. Explaining to Tomas that “. . . there are very few blue dragonflies in the world, nine or seven, or fewer still . . .” Iñes hopes to impress her teacher by catching the rare insect. “But not only for that reason,” Tomas explains. “There is another reason too.”

This is what Iñes told me and her eyes were full of mystery when she said it: “The person who catches the blue dragonfly . . .” she said and then she went quiet. And then she did this thing with her lips, and turned them upwards and downwards, and that always means she is about to reveal a mystery, a big one, and then she added: “. . . becomes the most intelligent person in the world.” . . . This is why I want to be the one to catch the blue dragonfly. Iñes doesn’t need it. Iñes is already intelligent. Not me. This is why I want to be the one to catch Orthetrum coerulescens. To be like a doctor. Because doctors are the most intelligent people in the world.

While Iñes and Tomas search for their dragonfly, several other quixotic occupations consume their family and friends. Uncle Simon is secretly creating a rugby field on a local golf course. Cousin Mateo is investigating stories about his prankish grandfather, Aitite Julian, who just may have been the greatest carpenter in all Europe. Then there is Piedad, an elderly woman who visits Aunt Martina’s dress shop each day to talk about her lost love, the famous English architect Samuel Mud.

Through these small, earnest dramas, the reader becomes immersed in the complexity of each character’s life—the moments and people which have indelibly defined them. Theirs are stories of reconciliation and loss, affirmation and understanding. But while each of their experiences may be familiar—the death of a parent, the loss of a lover, the realization of an unlikely ambition—Elorriaga renders each with a quirky individuality and a refreshing lack of irony. The sense of innocent discovery that accompanies Tomas’ daily pronouncements—”[S]ome people wear glasses. Fish don’t wear glasses, but people who wear glasses and fish are similar because they both can’t see well.”—is equally present in Uncle Simon’s persistent calls to Ireland, volunteering his services as a rugby linesman. In the mischievous carvings on an armoire built by Aitite Julian. In Piedad’s strawberry-patterned dresses and imaginary cat named Samuel Mud.

Replete with small joys and charming revelations, Plants Don’t Drink Coffee will delight readers with its simple wisdom, delightful prose, and capricious cast of steadfast dreamers.

14 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon.

Bellatin’s a pretty interesting author (see this post about the recent NY Times profile) and hopefully a bunch more of his books (especially Flores) will come out in the near future.

Larissa—who’s reviewed a number of books for us—also reviews for L Magazine and is working towards her Master’s in Library Science, while also studying Danish. Recently, she wrote a very interesting piece on Scandinavian crime fiction that you can find here.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Although still an unknown in much of the English-reading world, experimental Mexican author Mario Bellatín is undoubtedly poised for a Le Clézio-esque breakthrough. A Guggenheim recipient, Bellatín is the author of nearly twenty novellas and short works, and has garnered so much success in the international market that he’s recently been courted by the preeminent French publishing house Gallimard to release several forthcoming novels in French translation prior to their publication in his native Spanish. Beauty Salon is only Bellatín’s second publication in English (Chinese Checkers, a compendium of three of his other novellas, was published in 2008).

The novella finds a lonely, unnamed hair stylist caring for the dying victims of an unidentified plague (strongly recalling the AIDS virus) in his converted beauty salon. Where once the salon was plush and dazzling—with elaborate aquariums and exotic fish lining the walls—now it is “simply the Terminal,” refitted with the bare essentials to care for victims of the disease who “. . . are strangers who have nowhere else to die. If it weren’t for the Terminal their only option would be to perish in the street.”

Click here for the full review.

14 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although still an unknown in much of the English-reading world, experimental Mexican author Mario Bellatín is undoubtedly poised for a Le Clézio-esque breakthrough. A Guggenheim recipient, Bellatín is the author of nearly twenty novellas and short works, and has garnered so much success in the international market that he’s recently been courted by the preeminent French publishing house Gallimard to release several forthcoming novels in French translation prior to their publication in his native Spanish. Beauty Salon is only Bellatín’s second publication in English (Chinese Checkers, a compendium of three of his other novellas, was published in 2008).

The novella finds a lonely, unnamed hair stylist caring for the dying victims of an unidentified plague (strongly recalling the AIDS virus) in his converted beauty salon. Where once the salon was plush and dazzling—with elaborate aquariums and exotic fish lining the walls—now it is “simply the Terminal,” refitted with the bare essentials to care for victims of the disease who “. . . are strangers who have nowhere else to die. If it weren’t for the Terminal their only option would be to perish in the street.”

Though dedicated to the care of his “guests,” however, the narrator remains distant, resigned to the suffering that surrounds him. (“I had witnessed so many deaths already that I came to understand that I couldn’t take on myself the responsibility for all sick people,” he explains succinctly.) Only men in the last, most desperate stages of the disease are admitted to the Terminal, and once accepted, they are allowed neither visits from the family and friends who have refused to take them in, nor “false hopes” of recovery, nor “religious images or prayers of any kind.” Guests are allowed to receive “money, clothes and candy. Everything else is forbidden.”

Bellatín’s prose is sparse and to the point, and yet, his narrator is frequently evasive—only hinting at memories either so painful or so joyful that he seems unable to fully articulate them in the midst of his current isolation. The reader is then left to fill in the blanks between the tidbits that he shares, the memories that he casually intersperses between explanations of his daily routine. “Before it was converted into a communal place to die,” the narrator explains in one passage, “the beauty salon would close up shop at eight o’clock.”

There were three of us working in the salon. A couple of nights a week we would get all dressed up after closing time, pack up a small suitcase and head off to the center of the city. We couldn’t travel dressed as women for we had already gotten dangerous situations more than once. Which is why we packed up our dresses and our make-up and carried them with us. Before standing on a busy street corner dressed as transvestites we would hide the suitcase at the base of statues of national heros . . . Our trips to the center of the city lasted until the early hours of the morning, at which time we would get our suitcases and head back to the beauty salon to sleep . . . We all slept together in one bed.

The memory trails off shortly after into other recollections before returning once again, pages later:

bq. My fellow workers, the ones I worked with in hairstyling and cosmetics, died long ago. Now I’m the only one living in the shed. The bed we all used to sleep in now seems too large for me alone. I miss them. They are the only friends I’ve ever had.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the porousness of the narrator’s revelations, Beauty Salon succeeds in suggesting whole worlds just outside of its pages. The effect is distinctly cinematic: a montage of images which catch the reader’s eye and expand the reality of this anonymous man, anonymous disease, and anonymous city far beyond the story itself. Black tetras and angelfish, Amazon piranhas and golden carp. A friend, dressed for the evening in high ‘European’ style, trimmed with feathers and long gloves. A dying man, wrapped in cardboard “to ease his trembling.” A steaming public bath, “exclusively for men,” with a “wooden counter in the lobby with multicolored fish and red dragons carved into it.” A bowl of thin chicken soup, served to the guests each day. A common grave.

Frank, haunting, and darkly evocative, the disparate imagery (perhaps more than the story) of Beauty Salon will linger in the readers’ minds long after the brief narrative has come to a close.

20 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Although I’m personally not a reader of Scandinavian crime fiction (unless you can somehow count Jan Kjaerstad’s trilogy in that group, which is closer to a leap than a stretch), I find the debate between Nathaniel Rich and Larissa Kyzer about why these books are so popular pretty fascinating.

First off, here’s the core of Rich’s explanation, which he articulated in this Slate review of the new Stieg Larsson book:

What distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility. When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness. There is a good reason why Mankell’s corpses tend to turn up in serene, bucolic settings—on a country farm, on a bobbing raft, in a secluded meadow, or in the middle of a snow-covered field: A dark bloodstain in a field of pure, white snow is far creepier than a body ditched in a trash-littered alley.

Well, Kyzer takes great exception to that in her L Magazine piece:

One need only skim recent headlines from mainland Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) to ascertain that the famed tranquility of the Nordic welfare state has begun to face some dramatic challenges. For instance: each of these countries has seen a marked increase in immigration in the last few decades, an influx which has challenged the homogeneity of the local populations, and more often than not, created quite an existential crisis for societies which have for so long been able to claim a fundamental sameness in traditions, language, and cultural outlook.

She then goes on to offer a different explanation:

It’s then more accurate to say that Scandinavian crime novels are not set apart from similar traditions simply because of the consistent contrast between peaceful settings and “the tawdriness of the crimes,” but rather, that the genre is unique because it tends to hold its society up to itself and take an unflinchingly honest stock of its failures. So often, these are novels of conscience and reflection. Novels which, in their own small way, take responsibility for a social system which makes earnest promises of inclusion and protection, but continues to fail so many of its constituents.

Both are rather interesting articles, and I’m sure many others will weigh in on this as well . . .

19 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, and published earlier this year by Archipelago Books. Larissa Kyzer—who has reviewed a number of books for us—wrote this piece, which makes the book sound both quiet and compelling:

Penetrating, beautifully sparse, and eerie in its stillness, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin tells the story of Helmer van Wonderen, an aging farmer whose life has been characterized by passivity, inaction, and a profound sense of isolation. Having begrudgingly taken over the family dairy farm after the accidental death of his twin brother Henk, Helmer finds himself, after 55 years, suddenly and unexpectedly the master of his own life—if only he knew what to do with it.

For years, Helmer has been “doing things by halves,” living the life that was intended for his brother, a monotonous existence at the beck and call of his tyrannical father. As the story opens, however, Helmer has moved his father, close to death, to a bedroom upstairs, an act of self-assertion that pushes him to reassess his past and the decisions—or lack thereof—that have left him stagnated and alone. “Why did I let it all happen like this?,” he wonders. “I could have said ‘no’ to Father and ‘do it yourself’ or just ‘sell up.’”

But while Helmer may not be satisfied with the life that he has accepted for himself, it is a routine that if not fulfilling, is at least familiar. “I’ve milked the cows, day after day,” he reflects.

Click here for the entire review.

19 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Penetrating, beautifully sparse, and eerie in its stillness, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin tells the story of Helmer van Wonderen, an aging farmer whose life has been characterized by passivity, inaction, and a profound sense of isolation. Having begrudgingly taken over the family dairy farm after the accidental death of his twin brother Henk, Helmer finds himself, after 55 years, suddenly and unexpectedly the master of his own life—if only he knew what to do with it.

For years, Helmer has been “doing things by halves,” living the life that was intended for his brother, a monotonous existence at the beck and call of his tyrannical father. As the story opens, however, Helmer has moved his father, close to death, to a bedroom upstairs, an act of self-assertion that pushes him to reassess his past and the decisions—or lack thereof—that have left him stagnated and alone. “Why did I let it all happen like this?,” he wonders. “I could have said ‘no’ to Father and ‘do it yourself’ or just ‘sell up.’”

But while Helmer may not be satisfied with the life that he has accepted for himself, it is a routine that if not fulfilling, is at least familiar. “I’ve milked the cows, day after day,” he reflects.

In a way, I curse them, the cows, but they’re also warm and serene when you lean your forehead on their flanks to attach the teat cups. There is nothing as calming, as protected, as a shed full of cows on a winter’s evening. Day in, day out, summer, autumn, winter, spring.

In the absence of any truly meaningful, reciprocative human relationships, Helmer has forged quiet connections with his animals. He finds solace in the ritual of milking his cows, keeps two identical donkeys as pets, and almost drowns himself trying to save a sheep mired in an irrigation ditch. And it is through natural imagery such as this—swallows sleeping on telephone lines, a hooded crow alighting outside the kitchen window, ducks swimming in a pond—that Bakker (a former linguist who has since become a gardener) is able to not only reveal more of his taciturn protagonist’s interiority, but also bring the narrative to a kind of gentle compromise between what should have been and what simply is.

On an unexpected trip to Denmark—his first holiday “in thirty-seven years of milking day and night“—Helmer walks down to a beach at sunset. “The beach is deserted,” he says.

There are no hooded crows in the sky and even the busy grey sandpipers are missing. . . I am the only one for miles around making any noise . . . I know I have to get up. I know the maze of paths and unpaved roads in the shade of the pines, birches and maples will already be dark. But I stay sitting calmly, I am alone.

By the novel’s close, Helmer has found some measure of peace and acceptance in his quiet life—even in his solitude.

13 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When first published in Denmark in 2005, Morten Ramsland’s Doghead was a staggering success. Although Ramsland’s prior poetry collection and first novel had been largely overlooked, Doghead received widespread popular and critical acclaim, winning numerous national prizes, including the prestigious Danish Booksellers’ Golden Laurels Prize. Four years later, Doghead has now made it to the United States, and has already garnered its author the perhaps well-meaning, but dubious title, of “Denmark’s John Irving.”

A sprawling, dark-humored, frank, and stringently cynical novel, Doghead traces four generations of the Eriksson family, whose vividly offbeat members include wayward sailors, epic drunks, would-be painters, over-attentive mothers, adulterers, accomplished liars, orphans, and escapists. It’s a generally unhappy clan, a collection of almost-strangers who find themselves bound together not so much by blood ties or loyalty, as by common history.

For this is a family that is irrevocably steeped in its own lore. Each person is defined by several stories that are repeatedly told to nephews, nieces, and grandchildren—by the three or four nicknames that each of them have been christened with. (The narrator, Asger Eriksson, is known at various points of the novel by no less than five titles: The Liar, The Latchkey Kid, The Bastard Boy, The Danish Shrimp, and The Bandit. Each name is the product of its own story.) It’s a hermetic mythology, as illuminating as it is often reductive. But it is only by retelling (and painting) these family legends that Asger can connect with his family and finally reconcile with the years of misunderstanding, neglect, cruelty, and obliviousness that have characterized most of the Erikssons’ interactions. “It’s as if the stories have started taking control of me,” he admits. “They’re driving me back towards my own birth and motives that I’m not sure I’m quite ready to confront.”

In her recent New York Times book review, Clare Clark declares Doghead to be a “bleak book” which “. . . while enthusiastically engaging with the coarser aspects of life, displays a grimly pessimistic view of human nature.” And though she’s certainly not wrong in her estimation of the novel’s resignation to the realities of familial callousness and vindictiveness, Clark does perhaps disregard the book’s real motives. This is not a novel that seeks to redeem its characters, so much as it is a story about the possibility of catharsis through art. Asger’s grandfather struggles all his life to have his cubist-inspired paintings accepted, only to find peacefulness in mundane pastel landscapes in his old age. His grandmother Bjørk is for decades the family storyteller, weaving tales not only about the family’s history, but also the beauty and magic of her Norwegian homeland. Asger himself runs away to art school in Amsterdam following a grim adolescent episode.

Where the book does ultimately misstep, however, is in its failure to flesh out this catharsis for its readers. Rather, the novel seems to collapse under its own weight by the last third of the book, when Asger begins to relate his own role in the family history. Rattling off one tragedy after another, Asger’s personal revelations feel mechanical and disconnected, and at times, unnecessarily dramatized. Where Asger, The Narrator, was a perceptive and empathetic figure in the novel, Asger, The Character, reads far less truthfully, even in the midst of his most intimate disclosure—a story in which the eponymous “Doghead”—the monster that he believed lived under the basement stairs of his childhood home—is finally revealed.

Despite its shortcomings, Doghead remains an impressive tribute to the complexity of familial relationships, the profundity of art, and the importance of a shared history. “The stories were the glue holding our family together,” Asger explains at the end of the book, “it was only after they vanished that everything began to disintegrate, and slowly we were scattered to the winds.”

10 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Danish author Peter Adolphsen’s Machine, which came out last year from MacAdam/Cage.

Larissa Kyzer—who’s reviewed a number of Danish and Scandinavian books for us—makes Adolphsen (and his work) sound really interesting, and, for lack of a better word, condensed:

Although Danish author Peter Adolphsen has made a name for himself as a formalist for whom economy is a virtue (to date his five novels and short story collections are less than 300 pages combined), “as a reader,” one reviewer writes, “you feel you have covered a huge distance with him.” Drawing comparisons to Borges and Kafka, Adolphsen has written parables and parodies, “ultrashort biographies,” children’s books, and a collection called En Million Historier (A Million Stories), which allows the reader to construct, well, a million stories, from ten pages of interchangeable two-line segments. Machine, Adolphsen’s second novel to be translated into English, fits very well within this paradigm, spanning millions of years, several continents, the lives of three people, and one drop of gasoline within its brief 85 pages.

You can read the rest by clicking here.

10 February 09 | Chad W. Post |

Drawing comparisons to Borges and Kafka, Adolphsen has written parables and parodies, “ultrashort biographies,” children’s books, and a collection called En Million Historier (A Million Stories), which allows the reader to construct, well, a million stories, from ten pages of interchangeable two-line segments. Machine, Adolphsen’s second novel to be translated into English, fits very well within this paradigm. . .

Read More...

20 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Larissa Kyzer’s write-up of Danish author Peter Fogtdal’s The Tsar’s Dwarf is the latest addition to our review section.

It’s fitting that Larissa would be the one to review this—in addition to reviewing for The L Magazine and working towards her Master’s in Library Science, she’s also studying Danish.

Fogtdal is the author of twelve novels (_The Tsar’s Dwarf_ is the first to be translated into English), and also writes a very entertaining blog. His rant about Michael Phelps was pretty funny and here’s an entry from his recent reading tour:

My last stop was Scandinavia House on Park Avenue in New York. Scandinavia House is the mecca for Scandinavian con artists coming to the US. It’s owned by the governments of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland. It’s a stylish place in stylish concrete. Actually, it used to be the East German embassy, but when DDR ceased to exist, the Scandinavian countries bought it.

“Are there still hidden microphones in the ashtrays like in the good old days?” I ask my host.

Kyle shakes his head. He doesn’t think so, but then again, what does he know? Well, maybe more than he wants to admit. Kyle’s name is Reinhart, that sounds pretty East German to me.

I decide to pull down the shades and interrogate the man.

“Who’re you working for, anyway?” I demand to know. Kyle laughs. He is actually from Minnesota and has lived in Kulhuse in Denmark. If you’ve never heard of Kulhuse don’t feel too bad; no one else has.

In terms of the novel, Larissa’s review if quite positive and makes this sound really interesting:

During a recent reading at the Scandinavia House in New York City, Danish author Peter Fogtdal explained some of the circumstances that led to the creation of his twelfth novel (and first to be translated into English), The Tsar’s Dwarf. Having set out to write an account of the ill-fated meeting between Denmark’s King Frederik IV and Russian Tsar Peter the Great from the latter’s perspective, Fogtdal had something of an epiphany. “How could I write from a Russian perspective, if I’m not Russian?” And so, he explained, he “did the only natural thing: I wrote a novel from the first person perspective of a Danish female dwarf.”

If the complications of believably rendering a voice so different from oneself weren’t enough, consider the circumstances of the novel—Sørine Bentsdatter, the titular character, is gifted to Peter the Great during his visit to Denmark in the early eighteenth century. Alternately treated as a grotesque oddity and a beloved pet, Sørine is forcibly taken to Russia, where she acts as a jester for the Tsar and Tsarina, is committed to a cloister where monks employ whips and bloodletting in order to free women of their evil spirits, and is eventually shipped off to the Tsar’s Curiosity Cabinet, where she is displayed alongside embalmed bodies, reptiles, fossils, a trained bear, and all manner of “human subspecies and deformities.” [Click here for the rest.]

20 November 08 | Chad W. Post |

During a recent reading at the Scandinavia House in New York City, Danish author Peter Fogtdal explained some of the circumstances that led to the creation of his twelfth novel (and first to be translated into English), The Tsar’s Dwarf. Having set out to write an account of the ill-fated meeting between Denmark’s King Frederik IV and Russian Tsar Peter the Great from the latter’s perspective, Fogtdal had something of an epiphany. “How could I write from a Russian perspective, if I’m not Russian?” And so, he explained, he “did the only natural thing: I wrote a novel from the first person perspective of a Danish female dwarf.”

If the complications of believably rendering a voice so different from oneself weren’t enough, consider the circumstances of the novel—Sørine Bentsdatter, the titular character, is gifted to Peter the Great during his visit to Denmark in the early eighteenth century. Alternately treated as a grotesque oddity and a beloved pet, Sørine is forcibly taken to Russia, where she acts as a jester for the Tsar and Tsarina, is committed to a cloister where monks employ whips and bloodletting in order to free women of their evil spirits, and is eventually shipped off to the Tsar’s Curiosity Cabinet, where she is displayed alongside embalmed bodies, reptiles, fossils, a trained bear, and all manner of “human subspecies and deformities.”

Fogtdal’s indisputable talent, then, it is for taking this impenetrable character and these bizarre circumstances and not only making them live for the reader, but frequently, rendering them with unexpected humor. Consider the following passage:

I keep staring at the monstrosity of a cake. It’s not yet finished, but the monster is taller than I am. Looking closer, I see that it has been adorned with all the details: gables, archways, and gilding. Even the doors look real, down to the last door handle, hinge, and doorframe . . .

“Put the dwarf inside the cake,” says Callenberg.

Before I manage to say a single word, a servant lifts me up. I try to scratch his face, but the servant is too strong. He laughs and drops me into a big hole. I land on my feet and can just barely see over the edge . . .

Now the hole is covered with a lid. The world disappears, and I find myself in the heart of the world’s most ridiculous cake, inside a hole big enough to hold only a dwarf. I gasp for breath and pound on the cake. There’s no air. I feel nauseated. I’m going to die. And if that weren’t bad enough, I’m going to die inside a cake!

Sørine is a rich and deeply realized character, but she is also often a difficult one to connect with. There’s a very good reason for this: not only has she been dropped within a set of almost farcically terrible circumstances, but, as a result of the lifelong mockery and abuse that she has experienced, her demeanor is caustic and aggressive, cynical and frequently quite cruel. She further compounds the distance between herself and other characters by referring to “human beings” as almost an entirely different species from herself. In putting the burden of empathy on the reader, and forcing one to fully consider the emotional consequences of the treatment that Sørine has received, however, Fogtdal uses his heroine’s alienation to the narrative’s advantage.

This process of learning to empathize with another is actually twofold: as the reader is learning how to empathize with Sørine, Sørine is also learning to empathize with others. Where at the novel’s start she’s equally spiteful towards “human beings,” dwarves, and “goodfolk,” by its end, she’s arrived at a place of acceptance towards those who have wronged her.

Sørine’s world is one in which everyone has their own share of suffering and everyone has been wronged. Tsar’s sons are murdered by their own fathers. Infants die of plagues. Dwarves are forcibly married for the amusement of aristocrats and displayed in museums. The Tsar’s Dwarf is a novel that shows us that regardless of the form that it takes, it is suffering that binds us together. And ultimately, it is this shared experience that makes it possible to be compassionate towards individuals who at first, seem impossibly different from ourselves.

10 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It seems fitting that we run this review of Iceland’s only Nobel Prize winner right after the Le Clezio announcement, and while Bragi Olafsson (our Icelandic author) is on his reading tour.

Larissa Kyzer—who reviewed The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo for us last month—wrote this review of the first Halldor Laxness book to be published in translation in quite some time. Published by Archipelago Books, The Great Weaver from Kashmir is considered Laxness’s “first major novel,” and it’s great that this is now available to English readers.

Over the past week, Bragi’s talked about Laxness quite a bit, about how incredibly funny his works are, and how contemporary Icelandic writers struggle to get out from under his shadow of influence. A few of Laxness’s other books are available in paperback—including Independent People—but for those who haven’t read Laxness, this seems like a great place to start.

10 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

If the international community recognizes Iceland for something other than Björk, vikings, and glaciers, it is undeniably the country’s historic and richly diverse literary tradition. Deemed by the Swedish Academy to be the “cradle of narrative art here in the North,” Iceland not only has the legacy of the sagas to its credit, but also a remarkably active community of poets and storytellers. As Icelandic author and journalist Birna Anna Bjornsdottir has noted, bibliophilia is part of the national character, and writing is an activity frequently practiced by “non-professionals”:

We sometimes claim that everyone in Iceland is a writer. Sure, it’s hyperbole, and as such slightly out of character for a literary tradition long characterized by understatement and restraint. Still, approximately 1,000 books are published here each year for a population of about 290,000, one book per 290 persons . . . The mailman moonlights as a veggie chef, and the DJ teaches kindergarten during the day. Both have a couple of books of poetry out . . .

But if Iceland is a nation of authors, it is still a relatively isolated one, with only a fraction of its works translated into other languages each year. Even Halldór Laxness, the so-called “bard of the Icelandic people” and recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1955 (Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate, keep in mind), has faced a relatively sparse translation rate. Of the 51 novels he produced in his lifetime (not to mention the plays and poetry), only a handful have been translated into English. Which makes Philip Roughton’s forthcoming translation of Laxness’s “first important novel Verfarinn mikli fra Kasmir (_The Great Weaver from Kashmir_) very exciting.

But The Great Weaver from Kashmir should not be mistaken for a “posterity” translation. A novel which captures the conflicting passions and pitfalls of youth into one tragicomic character, Kashmir can be read as a revisionist approach to Siddhartha—a rendering of one man’s search for spiritual enlightenment becoming confused and complicated by the zealotry and naivete of youth. Its protagonist, Steinn Elliði, is a self-aggrandizing, willfully divisive, and talented young poet who leaves Iceland on an impassioned, though obscure, quest. “In search of perfection” and planning to author “fifty perfect poems for God,” Steinn is the embodiment of adolescent enthusiasm—a man-child who believes himself to be uniquely capable and uniquely misunderstood. In a particularly delightful scene, Steinn rhapsodically enumerates his great potential for his foster-cousin, Diljá, who has been in love with him since childhood:

“. . . I’ve made a pact with the Lord about becoming the most perfect man on earth.”

“Why do you want to become so perfect?”

But he would not grant an answer to such an ignorant question. “I have vowed to leave no further room in my soul for anything other than the celebration of the spiritual beauty of creation . . . I am betrothed to the beauty on the visage of things. I intend to travel back and forth through existence like a jubilant monk of the world who beholds the smile of the Holy Mother in everything that exists. My bread and wine will be the glory of God on the face of creation, the image of the Lord on the Lord’s coins. I am a son of the Way in China, the perfect Yogi of India, the Great Weaver from Kashmir, the snake charmer in the Himalayan valleys, the saint of Christ in Rome.”

“I think that you might have lost your marbles!” said the girl, and stopped to look in his face, because she understood nothing.

Rather than resulting in any real sense of enlightenment, Steinn’s journey becomes progressively dispirited and confused. He cuts off already strained relationships with relatives and acquaintances, and travels alone, flirting with debauchery and misadventure throughout England and Italy. Eventually turning to the advice of a Benedictine monk, Steinn is baptized into the Catholic church and plans to join the monastic order himself. This decision reads as a horrible misstep, a tragic act of evasion, where the traditions and rituals of religious faith buffer Steinn from the emotional trials that face him in his life.

When awarding Laxness the Nobel Prize, E. Wessén stated that “All his important books have Icelandic themes.” The Great Weaver of Kashmir, however, should not be read as an “Icelandic” novel, particular to the trials and experiences of an Icelandic man. As a contemplation of the irrevocable mistakes one can make before he understands the consequences, and an empathetic portrait of youth gone astray, The Great Weaver from Kashmir is a novel that should resonate with audiences the world over.

16 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first book in the “Millennium Series.” (The other two titles—The Girl Who Played with Fire and Castles in the Sky—will be available from MacLehose Press in the UK in January 2009 and January 2010 respectively. Not sure about the U.S. versions . . .)

This review—titled “Something Rotten in the Welfare State”—was written by Larissa Kyzer, a new reviewer for Three Percent. (She has upcoming reviews of The Tsar’s Dwarf and The Great Weaver from Kashmir.) She works at New York University, lives in Brooklyn, and is working towards her Master’s in Library Science. She is also a contributing book reviewer for The L Magazine and is learning Danish in her free time.

16 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

In his 2001 article, “Scandinavian Crime Novels: Too Much Angst and Not Enough Entertainment?” author Bo Tao Michaëlis relates an American publisher friend’s understanding of Scandinavian crime novels:

You [Scandinavians] contrive to express this simultaneously social and existential anxiety in your crime novels in such a way that it . . . is self-critical, self-tormenting even . . . In your world, the typical crime novel detective is . . . not happy, and all the time his job makes him aware of the fact that something is rotten in your Scandinavian welfare societies.

The publisher (while perhaps simplifying matters a bit) may as well have been referring specifically to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. For although it does not fit the traditional detective novel format—dizzily combining the incisive social commentary of a political thriller and the ‘whodunit’ hermetic charms of And Then There Were None—it is a novel that is deeply and earnestly concerned with identifying social injustice and—if only vicariously—enacting cold and calculated retribution on those found to be at fault.

Before suffering a fatal heart-attack at the age of 50, Larsson made a name for himself as the journalistic force behind Expo, a magazine dedicated to ferreting out racist, anti-democratic, and extreme right-wing tendencies in Swedish society. Some of these concerns work themselves into Dragon Tattoo—one of the subplots focuses on a family’s deep involvement in the Swedish Nazi movement—but the narrative sets its sights on two primary evils: white collar corruption and malignant, unredressed sexual abuses suffered by women.

Each of these issues could easily be the subject of its own book, but Larsson goes to great lengths to illustrate how both are a product of the same well-meaning, but inadequate society. Larsson paints Swedish society as a place where “financial reporters treated mediocre financial whelps like rock stars” and violent crimes against women frequently go almost completely unnoticed and unpunished. One woman is victimized by family members for decades right under the watchful gaze of her guardian. Another—a former psychiatric patient and ward of the state—is repeatedly abused by her government-appointed trustee. (It bears noting that the novel’s original title—Men Who Hate Women—was far more pointed about these concerns.)

Something is, it seems, certainly rotten in the welfare state. And Larsson responds to his dismal view by producing two anti-heroes uniquely equipped to handle and redress the wrongs they witness occurring around them. There’s Mikael Blomkvist, the dashing and dogged financial reporter who finds himself on the losing end of a libel trial against a powerful and corrupt financier. And then there’s Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous tattooed hacker genius whose ability to recover from repeated trauma and resourcefulness make her the novel’s unabashed figure of promise and redemption.

But while both Blomkvist and Salander play to a reader’s (and perhaps especially an American reader’s) sense of karmic justice—stalking, beating, exposing, and draining the bank accounts of the novel’s multitudinous villains—they, and Salander especially, often reveal themselves to be more caricatures than fully realized characters. Blomkvist remains so fully focused on his original intent to take down his great corporate nemesis, that he seems almost unaffected by the 40-year spree of serial murders that he uncovers and the horrendous ordeal that he goes through at the hands of the killer himself. Salander, one of the novel’s most victimized characters, meets her attackers with one-liners and rejects assistance from the police (“visor-clad brutes”) and women’s crisis centers because they “existed for victims, and she had never regarded herself as a victim.” She’s certainly a powerful character, but her stoicism reads as a lack of emotional depth, and Larsson does her an injustice by not allowing her to experience genuine suffering at any point in the novel.

A compelling, complicated, and even epic read, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a remarkable novel, but one which ultimately resigns itself to a society which will always be blind to the evils beneath its surface, and where vigilantism is one’s only hope for justice.

....
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