Saturday 29 September 2012

September 2012 Wrap-Up

Compared to previous months, it may look as if I achieved very little in September.  However, appearances can be very deceiving - when you spend more than half the month on one book, you're happy to get anything else read at all...

Total Books Read: 6

Year-to-Date: 87

New: 6
Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 1
Review Copies: 4
From the Library: 0
On the Kindle: 1

Novels: 4
Novellas: 0
Short Stories: 1
Non-Fiction: 1

Non-English Language: 5 (2 Icelandic, Swedish, Japanese, French)
In Original Language: 1 (French)

Murakami Challenge: 0 (0/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 1 (6/12)
Australian Women Writers Challenge: 0 (5/10)
Japanese Literature Challenge 6: 1 (4/1) 

Books read in September were:

Tony's Turkey for September is: nothing

A very even month, with nothing deserving to be put aside for Christmas.

Tony's Recommendation for September is:

- Marcel Proust's À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs

The down-side to a very even month is that it's difficult to pick a winner.  While all six of September's offerings were entertaining and thought-provoking, only one kept me entertained for sixteen of the month's thirty days.  At times, reading Proust can be like watching paint dry, but it's worth it - mostly...

And the outlook for October?  Well, recently I have deliberately tried to abstain from begging for more review copies as I want to keep the next couple of months as clear as possible.  The main reason for that, of course, is that November is German Literature Month (organised by Lizzy and Caroline) - and I'll be getting ready for it from the middle of October.  Expect a lot of Teutonic reviews over the next couple of months :)

Thursday 27 September 2012

The Nature of Art

Some of you may well have heard of the name Tove Jansson in connection with her famous series of stories about the Moomins.  Others may even know that she went on to write works of fiction for grown-ups too.  However, I doubt that anyone is aware that I have a very big bone to pick with Ms. Jansson...

You see, I read Comet in Moominland when I was a child - at about the same time as Halley's Comet was being discussed on television, leaving me with the horrible feeling that the world was about to end.  Luckily, I (eventually) got over the trauma; otherwise, I could never have brought myself to try any more of Jansson's work ;)

All of which brings us to today's book, Art in Nature (review copy courtesy of Australian publishers Allen & Unwin), a short collection of stories linked loosely by the theme of art and artists.  Thomas Teal's excellent translation from the original Swedish, combined with a fairly light, playful style, makes this a book you can whisk through in a couple of reading sessions.  Despite this though, there's a lot below the surface for the reader prepared to dig a little deeper into Jansson's world...

Many of the stories focus on artists, creators of all kinds who are connected by their inability to separate their talents from their personal lives.  While this can lead the reader to sympathise with their plight, for example in the case of the titular hero of The Cartoonist (a man who is worried about exactly what happened to his predecessor), some of these people are simply not very nice.

In A Leading Role, a reasonably successful stage actress, about to take on her first major role, realises that the perfect model for the character she is to play is her cousin, a shy, dowdy, middle-aged woman.  The actress invites the cousin to spend some time in her summer house, where she proceeds to intimidate and bully her poor relative - just to see how she reacts under pressure...

This charming woman is nothing compared to another of Jansson's creations though.  The Locomotive is narrated by a nasty, unreliable character, a man who spends his spare time meticulously painting pictures of trains - despite never having been on one himself.  An habitual loner, he becomes obsessed with a woman he sees at the local station, only to turn on her when she starts to get a little too close.

The story is told as a series of diary entries, but the writer continually interrupts himself, unable to write down his ideas clearly enough for his liking.  At one point, he even decides to switch from first- to third-person, in order to achieve a more objective sense of detachment.  The actual effect is to heighten the feeling that the writer is a little detached from reality...

Several of the tales feature characters who have their best years behind them, and The White Lady, a story about a group of women out for an evening at an exclusive restaurant situated on an island, is probably the most telling of these.  A night that starts with levity and humour ends with the women feeling old and past it, faced with the reality of youth and beauty.  In a nice touch, the story ends with a heavy irony; as the friends wait for the boat to take them back to the city:

"Look!" May cried.  "There it comes.  Isn't it like Charon's ferry or something?  You like similes."
"By all means," Ellinor said.  She was tired and in no mood for anyone's similes but her own. (p.64)
I wonder how many writers secretly feel like this ;)

Although the English title of the collection is Art in Nature, the original Swedish-language version was named after another of the stories, The Doll's House.  This was one of my favourites, a story centred on a retired craftsman who decides to fill up his dull, empty days with a project to build a two-metre high edifice.  The project begins on a whim, organically, seemingly building itself, but once the craftsman starts, he is unable to cut corners:
"Alexander was in the grip of a passion for perfection.  He was not aware of how closely, how perilously, perfectionism and fanaticism are related." (p.76)
Gradually, the fanaticism begins to overshadow the perfectionism, causing some issues on the home front...

On the whole though, the title for the English-language edition is an apt one.  While not all the stories have art and artists as their focus, most of the better ones do, and the title story itself (the first of the collection) is actually a fitting summary of the book as a whole.  An old man is the caretaker of a temporary, outdoor art exhibition, a huge success which is scheduled to be wound up when the weather gets colder.  One night, when he discovers a couple who have stayed behind in the park to celebrate a new acquisition, we see that the artistic aura of the exhibition has rubbed off on him.  His thoughts as he gets ready to sleep that night could act as a motif for the whole collection:
"But what I said was completely right, he thought.  It's the mystery that's important, somehow very important." (p.21)
 And that mystery is the beauty of all art :)

Monday 24 September 2012

Putting Theory into Practice

I've been blogging for a while now (just over three-and-a-half years to be precise), but I'm afraid I have something to confess - I'm a fraud.  While I pontificate week in, week out on the literary qualities of the books that come under my gaze, the truth is that I have no literary credentials at all, never having studied literature at any level higher than GCSE back in England (and I didn't do very well at that either).  I know, I know, I can see the shocked expressions, and hear the stunned silences, from my end of the computer.  I apologise, truly.

I am trying to rectify this state of affairs though.  A while back, in the course of a chat on Twitter, Violet recommended a book which might be suited to a theoretical novice like me, Peter Barry's Beginning Theory (3rd edition), a text used in undergraduate literature courses and one I might be able to get my head around, despite the dense and confusing content trapped within.  After purchasing the book, I've spent the last few months dipping into it whenever I've had time between my usual fiction fare, and I definitely haven't regretted it - but am I actually any the wiser?

Literary Theory is an attempt to put the art of analysing literary texts on a par with other academic endeavours, putting in place a structure to enable critics to explain how and why they are evaluating texts.  It's not good enough to say that you think a work of literature is good or bad; you need to be able to show why you think this and what methods you have used to come to that conclusion.  It sounds fairly simple so far, but nothing could be further from the truth - as anyone who has ever attempted to come to terms with Post-Stucturalism or Freudian Psychoanalysis will know only too well...

This is where Beginning Theory is such a great book.  Barry takes the reader back to basics, explaining how literary criticism was practised in the past, before guiding them gently through the progressive waves of theories which came to challenge the status quo.  Liberal Humanism, Modernism, Stucturalism, Marxism, Post-Colonialism... all are introduced and carefully explained with practical explanations using authentic literary texts.  The book is designed for a reader who is interested in Literary Theory but has no real prior experience of the subject, and as someone who has been involved in the tertiary sector on both sides of the teacher's desk, I find it a much more helpful text than most I've seen.

As well as going over all the -isms you're bound to have heard of, the third edition of Beginning Theory also takes you through some relatively recent developments in the field.  Most of you will have heard of Queer Theory and Stylistics, but New Aestheticism and Presentism may be less familiar areas of study - and has anyone heard of Cognitive Poetics?  I certainly hadn't...  

One such area that I found interesting was Ecocriticism, a field of study which foregrounds the role of the natural environment in a text, seeing it as an important agent rather than merely the backdrop of the story.  This chapter was especially useful as I read it just after finishing a work which was advertised as a work of Eco-Fiction, allowing me to understand what exactly the blurb was talking about.

And this is the beauty of a text like Beginning Theory - it allows those of us without formal literary training to understand just what it is we like and don't like about the books we read.  There's no need to use all this meta-language in your reviews (unless you're attempting to scare off all your readers), but it certainly allows you to approach your reading in a more focused frame of mind.  Hopefully, this will lead to more coherent analyses of the books you've been reading.

This isn't the first time I've tried to upskill in this area.  Last year, I read (but didn't review) Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory - A Very Short Introduction which, while interesting, was far too cursory for my needs.  I also ploughed through the Open Yale series of lectures for a while but gave up half-way through as it was all a little too dry, especially when approached without the support of other university literary subjects.

For me then, Beginning Theory is a great introduction to the field of Literary Theory.  It's still not all that easy to get your head around (and I certainly wouldn't recommend racing through it and then tossing it aside), but if approached sensibly, reading chapters a couple of times at a leisurely pace before moving on, the information will gradually begin to seep into your brain.  What's more, the more time you devote to the book, the more you'll become aware of your own biases - and that's a good thing.  At one point Barry asks the reader whether it is possible to analyse a book using all of the techniques at your disposal, and his answer is a definite 'no'.  If you attempt to do a Marxist-Feminist-Freudian-Post-Structural-Stylistic reading of a text, all you'll end up with is a superficial mish-mash of vague ideas...

...and speaking of my reviews, I do think that reading this book has helped me understand what I'm doing a little better.  I probably tend towards the structuralist idea of wanting to find a bottom line, a super-narrative, in everything I read.  However, I also dabble a little in Post-Colonial, Marxist and (very occasional) Feminist interpretations, with a little linguistic analysis on the side.  Of course, if I read more widely in the area of Literary theory, I'll probably discover that my opinions here are completely wrong ;)

Returning to the book, I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who feels a little underqualified to be talking about literature in public - I certainly feel a lot more confident now in the way I approach my reading.  However, I do feel that I still haven't quite got there.  You see, while I've had a little look at the theory side, I still have little idea about the more practical side, the nuts and bolts of writing.  I only have a very hazy idea of concepts like tropes and leitmotifs, so it might be a good idea to do some more reading on literary criticism.  Time to ask for some more recommendations then...

Thursday 20 September 2012

If You Go Down to the Woods Today...

A while back, Stu from Winstonsdad's Blog was lucky enough to have a Q & A with Sjón, the Icelandic writer whose book (From the Mouth of the Whale) we chose as our Shadow IFFP winner.  Among the many gems uncovered were Sjón's recommendations for further reading in Icelandic literature - namely Halldór Laxness' The Fish Can Sing, and Kristín Ómarsdóttir's Children in Reindeer Woods.  I read one of Laxness' books a few weeks back, and as luck would have it, I had also just received a review copy of Ómarsdóttir's novel from Open Letter Books.  Consider this a post with the Sjón seal of approval ;)
Children in Reindeer Woods (translated by Lytton Smith) is a slightly bizarre book with a highly explosive start.  On a nice sunny day, somewhere in the country, a trio of soldiers walk up to a house.  The inhabitants come out to greet them, smiling happily...  then, one by one, they are gunned down.  The three soldiers go into the house, but only one walks out alive - and the only other person to escape the carnage is an eleven-year-old girl called Billie...

Alone on the farm, Billie and Rafael, the surviving soldier, attempt to draw up some kind of boundaries, rules for establishing a fragile coexistence.  Their relationship is a forced, somewhat strained one, with neither quite sure what the other is actually doing there, both settling for a temporary life which excludes the outside world.  As the summer goes by, the two begin to enjoy each other's company in their blissfully bucolic existence.  If only all these people didn't keep dropping in uninvited...

If the start is confusing, don't expect the rest of the book to provide many answers.  The writer appears to have deliberately set out to create a novel in which very little can be recognised or taken for granted.  We are told that there is a war, but we have no idea who is fighting.  We know that we are in the middle of nowhere (later we find out that it it is 1100 kilometres to the nearest city), but where exactly this nowhere lies is less certain.  The lack of ideas to hold onto makes reading Children in Reindeer Woods extremely disorientating.

When Billie and Rafael venture out of the house, this feeling intensifies.  The two drive out over Ceaseless Heath, down through the Endless Pass and look out over Forever Valley.  Reindeer Woods appears to be located within a bubble in space and time (or in a Beckett play...), and this sense of placelessness gives the whole book, and every action in it, a sense of unreality. 

Even the names of the characters don't really give us much to go on.  Billie, Rafael, Soffia, Abraham, Marius... It's as if Ómarsdóttir has deliberately chosen a collection of unrelated foreign names to further obscure the true location of her story.  And while we know that Rafael is a soldier, it's unclear whether he's still in the army, or if he has decided to run away from the (invisible) war.  As for Billie, for most of the book, we have no real idea why or how she ended up in the house.  I don't think we're in Iceland any more, Toto...

Another way in which Ómarsdóttir creates her web of confusion is the language her characters use.  Billie's strange mix of over-formal expressions and slang can be explained by her age and the unfamiliar circumstances, but Rafael's speech is just as unsettling.  In his conversations with one of the visitors, the language constantly swings between registers, changing from friendly, to formal, to suspicious in a heartbeat.  The result is that we are constantly on eggshells, never quite certain that bloodshed, or something just as ominous, isn't just around the corner...

So what's it all about, you say?  The impressionability of youth?  The confusion of war?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Children in Reindeer Woods is an absorbing book, one which is more disturbing than entertaining, in the sense that the reader can never settle down with the feeling that this is what the author is getting at.  It's a book which requires (demands) rereading - whether it will give up its secrets on a second attempt is questionable though...

One quotation, however, might give a clue as to what Ómarsdóttir is trying to say:
"In war, the murders committed by the victors are unimpeachable - the same way as the insane are not held responsible for their crimes." p.128 (Open Letter Books, 2012)
In a story where many, many, mad, bad things happen, the reader is asked to decide who is responsible and how far we can blame them for their crimes.  While, none of the people we meet in Reindeer Woods could be described as completely sane, perhaps we need to ask ourselves who, exactly, is mad here?

No, it makes no sense to me either ;)

Monday 17 September 2012

There's No Place Like Home

While my recent literary travels have mainly taken me to Iceland, today we're visiting another northern European country by the sea.  Poland may not be quite as chilly as Iceland, but as you can tell by the title of today's book, Paweł Huelle's Cold Sea Stories, it has its fair share of less temperate days.  This book is the latest in Comma Press' series of European short story collections, an excellent selection of stories, mostly based in and around the author's home town of Gdańsk - however, when you look beneath the surface, there's a lot more connecting them than that...

Cold Sea Stories (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) is full of personal touches from the writer's life.  In The Bicycle Express, we follow a young student and his friend as they ride around Gdańsk delivering newspapers with the latest news from striking workers - among them, a certain Lech Wałęsa...  One of the shorter tales, Depka and Rzepka, is about a young boy charged with a trip to some fishermen to obtain some fish for Christmas, something which was almost impossible to do in the city's shops.  Both of these stories, as the writer admits, are highly autobiographical, memories adapted for this collection.

Many of the stories though are a little more abstract than this.  In fact, several contain elements of that much-used expression 'magical realism', allowing Huelle to soar above the constraints of the cold north to explore his themes.  Two stories with several parallels are Doctor Cheng and Ukiel, both of which deal with men returning to their home town after decades abroad, looking for an answer to the sadness in their lives and failing to find it in the dull, little-changed place they left behind.  Having lost partners, they are searching for something to keep them going - in different ways, the two stories give glimpses of something worth waiting for...

However, the host of returning travellers in Cold Sea Stories seem largely doomed to disappointment.  While the political system may have changed, the pessimistic view pervading many of the stories is that everything else has stayed the same.  On arriving in Poland, many of the characters find that they have little connection to their country of birth, and soon regret their decision to return.  An example from Doctor Cheng:
"Only on the plane did it dawn on him that the decision to make this journey, taken a good fifteen months ago, was a reckless one.  Nothing really drew him to the country where he had spent the first twenty years of his life and which had no positive associations for him." p.93
(Comma Press, 2012)

Despite this, the protagonists are unable to escape a sense of nostalgia which pulls them back to their homeland.  In several of the stories, the central character is stopped dead in their tracks by a sudden association, a memory or (more often) by a smell, a fragrance of flowers.  Most of the stories contain frustrating elements of missing something from the past but being unable to retrieve it.  In Abulafia, a boy laments the loss of a language, one he had never learnt:
"And a month later his mother, [died] from pneumonia.  She took her greatest secret with her; the language she had never passed on to him, which would always bring him the scent of haymaking, clover, a wind from the sea and clouds." p.122

Perhaps the most memorable stories in the collection are the two that bookend it.  The first, Mimesis, at 41 pages the longest of the stories, is set in a deserted village towards the end of the Second World War and explores the relationship between a freed prisoner of war and a young mute woman left behind when the Germans took the rest of the village people.  First Summer, the last of the stories, then returns to the same town in more recent times and looks at what has become of the setting for the first story.  There are other connections between the two stories than the town though - and I'll leave you to find them out for yourself ;)

I read Cold Sea Stories twice, and I got a lot more out of it the second time.  There are connections between the stories which only became apparent on a rereading, and I'm sure that there's still a lot that I haven't managed to tease out.  Luckily, the publisher has come to the reader's aid a little here, as there is a brief Q & A between the translator and writer included at the end of the book, giving brief details as to the creation and meaning of each of the stories.  I was recently discussing this need for supplementary information (introductions, cultural explanations) in works of translated fiction with some other bloggers, and this is a good example of the kind of information which adds value (and interest!) to a book.

In the end though, it's all about the stories, and when you have a collection of good ones, you can't go far wrong.  There's nothing particularly earth-shattering about them - no great surprises or shocking twists - , but then a good story doesn't really need that; we all have stories to tell, no matter how mundane.
"There is always a story to be told... even if a person spends his whole life sitting in one room staring out of the same window all the time." p.158 (Franz Carl Weber)

Thursday 13 September 2012

Food for Thought

Music, as Shakespeare once remarked, may well be the food of love, but the art of feeding our other emotions is not quite so well known.  What should you eat if you want to assuage your jealousy?  What foods are good for staving off loneliness?  Is there a culinary cure for sadness?  Well, dear reader, if you have ever been bothered by these kinds of questions, today is your lucky day, for I have just the book for you :)

The work in question is Colombian writer Hector Abad's Recipes for Sad Women (translated by Anne McLean), a slender volume kindly sent to me by the wonderful Pushkin Press.  To call it a novel, or even a novella, would be slightly misleading; the book is a collection of recipes collected by an unnamed narrator, promising to solve the problems of any woman who happens to come across the pages.

Right from the start, the writer warns us of the limitations of his culinary arts.  His first words are:
"Nobody knows the recipe for happiness.  At the moment of misfortune the most elaborate stews of satisfaction will be in vain." p.15 (Pushkin Press, 2012)
In fact, he believes that sadness is an important part of life:
"You tumble and flip, bodily and in your imagination, to elude sadness.  But who said you are not allowed to be sad?  In reality, there is often nothing more sensible than being sad..." p.18
However, when it comes to certain other emotions, he has some tried and trusted recipes which will both ease the mind and the stomach.

A good way to loosen other people's lips is a steak, cooked elaborately and following the writer's instructions to the letter.  The key to a sleep full of exhilarating dreams is a highly complex onion soup.  If you're looking for a good laugh, Abad recommends mammoth steaks.  While they are (for obvious reasons) difficult to come by, three times out of four hilarity will ensue - unfortunately, the fourth time brings diarrhoea and vomiting instead...

If this was all the book had to offer, then Recipes for Sad Women would quickly descend into a one-joke work.  However, there's a lot more to Abad's creation than that.  It's actually a collection of philosophical musings accompanied by culinary tips, a guide to the inner workings of the soul with advice on what to eat while working through your emotions.  Each of the recipes is a self-contained nugget of wisdom, some spread over a few pages, others rather shorter.  For example:
"Often, on the brink of finding the recipe for immortality, I get distracted by the frightful presence of death." p.44
Yep, that's the whole page...

While many of the recipes are largely concerned with savouring the full flavour of life (and many of those deal with getting the most out of your love life...), there is also an underlying tone of sadness - and death.  Abad attempts to teach the reader (for we are all sad women in his eyes) how to cope with loss, either of a temporary or a permanent nature.  When you learn that the writer was forced to flee his home country after his father was murdered by paramilitaries, it puts the book into focus.  Abad never writes with bitterness, but there is an air of sadness, of someone who has been through the highs and lows of life and now wishes to help guide others through their troubles.

It's not all depressing though.  A quick leaf through the pages will provide you with a whole range of ideas to incorporate into your daily life.  There's something for everyone in these pages, whether you want to know if routine is a good or bad thing, or whether you need to learn how to adjust to a change in your environment.  The writer has some hints for every situation - just don't blame him if the meal doesn't always turn out as planned...

I read the book through over a couple of days, and it was pleasant reading, but I'm not sure that this is how it should be experienced.  Recipes for Sad Women is one of those books that, like poetry, should be dipped into on occasions, each fragrant spoonful of advice carefully tasted, judged and digested before the next one is brought to the table.  In fact, don't take my word for it, listen to Abad:
"Delightful morsels do not only please the belly - they calm the spirit and therefore allow reasonable portions." p.108
So please give Recipes for Sad Women a taste - just don't be a glutton ;)

Monday 10 September 2012

The Importance Of Being Independent

As you may have seen from my recent posts and comments, I am on a bit of an Iceland kick at the moment, and if you are that way inclined, sooner or later you are going to end up reading a book by the country's undisputed number one writer - Nobel Prize Winner Halldór Laxness.  I'd never tried any of his novels before, but I was determined to see if his work was as good as many say it is - and luckily my local library was able to get me a copy of his most famous novel...

Independent People (translated by J.A. Thompson) is a 544-page epic, cramming two decades of life on the harsh lands of the Icelandic interior into a superb novel.  It's the story of Bjartur, an agricultural worker, who after eighteen years of hard service to the local farmer has been able to set himself free and buy some land to start his own small croft.  Our newly independent man is in for a tough life, battling not only the elements (and in Iceland that would be bad enough on its own), but also the unforgiving land, the greed of richer farmers and, of course, the supernatural.  This is Iceland after all...

If anyone can manage this though, then Bjartur of Summerhouses is that man.  A taciturn being of Viking stock, he is determined to make a go of things and stand up straight, regardless of what the weather and the local spirits throw at him.  In a wonderful introduction to the novel, Laxness takes us through the history of the croft, telling us all about the evil murderess Gunnvor and her refusal to take death quietly.  Then Bjartur comes striding onto his land...
"No," he said defiantly...
And as he passed Gunnvor's cairn on the ridge, he spat, and ground out vindictively: "Damn the stone you'll ever get from me you old bitch, " and refused to give her a stone. p.18 (Harvill Press, 2001)
He then proceeds to climb a hill to survey his domain:
"Standing on the highest point of the knoll, like a Viking pioneer who has found his high-seat posts, he looked about him, then made water..." p.19
In the shadow of Gunnvor's cairn, Bjartur proceeds to mark his land - territorial pissings indeed...

In the coming years, Bjartur will need to show all this strength of purpose to survive.  In a land where Easter is often celebrated in snow, getting the sheep (the key to his survival) through the winter in one piece is a mammoth task.  Luckily, as the years pass, he is helped in this task by his family, eventually being joined by four children, three sons and one daughter, Asta Solillja.  However, as the children grow towards maturity, some of them are shown to have inherited their father's strength of character and stubbornness - and not all of them want to live a life of Bjartur's making...

Independent People is a wonderful book, a mini-saga written (and translated) in clear prose, a marvellous tale of an environment which appears almost alien to comfortable 21st-century city dwellers.  As much as the book is about Bjartur and his family, it also foregrounds Iceland itself.  The country's interior is another of the book's characters (one of its more important ones) and is almost Hardyesque in its importance to the story.  As well as living off the proceeds of his work and the land's generosity, Bjartur feels a more intangible connection to the place he lives in:
"But the high heath had also a value for this man other than the practical and the economic.  It was his spiritual mother, his church, his better world, as the ocean must inevitably be to the seafarer.  When he walked alone over the moors on the clear, frosty days of late autumn, when he ran his eyes over the desert's pathless range, and felt the cold clean breeze of the mountains on his face, then he too would prove the substance of patriotic song."  pp.102/3

Easy as it is to get carried away with romantic pastoral fantasies though, the reality is that life in Independent People is hard.  Iceland is an isolated wilderness, primitive in comparison to the rest of early-twentieth-century Europe, and the awful weather conditions, combined with an absence of electricity, running water and home comforts, meant that just keeping yourself warm and healthy was a major task.  Without giving too much away, death was just as much of a certainty as cold winters and wet feet.

The country was also a colony at the time, to be exploited by rich Danish merchants, and part of the interest in Independent People is seeing how things begin to change over the course of the years.  The richer farmers form a co-operative society which challenges the primacy of the banks, and eventually the native people begin to take more responsibility for their own affairs, culminating in the first steps to independence for the country in 1918.  It's fascinating to see how Iceland's rise to independence is aided by the slaughter elsewhere in World War I - the country is able to export its lamb and mutton for astronomical prices, using Europe's misfortune to improve its economy.  Not for nothing do the farmers call it "The Blessed War'...

One thing does not change though, and that is Bjartur's insistence on the need to be independent.  Having laboured for eighteen years to finally escape servitude, he isn't likely to give up his freedom in a hurry.  As he tells his wife: 
"Independence is the most important thing of all in life.  I say for my part that a man lives in vain until he is independent.  People who aren't independent aren't people."  p.41
And that, perhaps, is what it all boils down to: is it better to life in servitude and comfort, or freedom and poverty?  For Bjartur, it's a question that only has one possible answer.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Notes from a Cold Island

As most of you will know, I'm a keen advocate of literature from all over the world, with my interests jumping around from country to country (although I always come back to Germany and Japan eventually).  My most recent obsession is writing from Iceland; I've read several books from the country already this year, and there are plenty more to come.  Which meant that when I was made aware of the book in the photo, I just had to take a closer look - especially as I wasn't quite sure if I was supposed to read it or wear it...

Sarah Moss' Names for the Sea (review copy received from Granta Books) is a travel book about a year the writer recently spent living in Iceland.  At the end of her first year of university, many moons ago, she travelled around the country with a friend and always intended to pay a second, longer visit.  When an opening came up for a lecturer at the University of Iceland, she decided that it was the perfect opportunity to move her family away for a while - goodbye Canterbury, hello Reykjavik :)

Unfortunately though, her timing could have been a little bit better.  You see, Moss took up her position in Reykjavik in the middle of 2009, right at the heart of the global financial crisis.  Iceland,  previously one of the wealthiest (and smuggest) countries on earth, was faced with a devalued currency and a lot of belt-tightening (meaning that Moss' salary was suddenly worth a lot less than she'd been expecting).  It also happens that during her time abroad, one of Iceland's volcanoes decided to erupt, showering the country with ash and causing havoc with European airspace...

The writer and her family had more important things to worry about though.  While the volatility of both the Kronur and Eyjafjallajökull was unexpected, the culture shock was a much bigger problem.  Moss had to come to terms with a country where people are very suspicious of outsiders, lax in keeping an eye on their children and seemingly unable to indicate at all when driving.  Add to this the fact that the weather keeps you inside for much of the year, and you can see that life in the frozen north is not as idyllic as Moss had hoped.  And then there's the food...

Moss is a novelist, and it shows.  Names for the Sea is well written with excellent pacing, and is story-like at times.  As the book progresses, the reader is taken deeper and deeper into Icelandic society and culture, learning to look beneath the surface at the same time the writer does.  At first glance, there is no sign in Iceland of the Kreppa (the collapse of the Icelandic economy).  In a proud, equal society, happy to be different from the rest of the world, the natives continue with their disposable culture, their love of big cars (and disdain of buses) and a distinct lack of second-hand goods.

A little digging though shows that things are not quite as rosy as they appear.  As Moss gets to know the country, and the people, better, she is able to delve into the invisible cracks in the society.  She learns of a charity depot and sees people receiving food parcels on her visit.  She hears of violence towards women and the true crime statistics, surprising in a country where women have apparently broken through the glass ceiling.  Eventually, she also finds out more about Icesave, the plan to compensate foreign investors for the money the collapsed Icelandic banks took from them - and discovers that not everyone is happy to foot the bill...

Names for the Sea is a great read for anyone interested in Iceland, but there's a lot more to it than that.  The fact that Moss has uprooted her family and dumped them in a foreign environment means that there are additional pressures to the ones we expect to find in travel writing.  As well as coping with a new job, there is also the small matter of placing two young children in schools and playgroups.  In addition to learning a new language (although that is not particularly necessary for English speakers in Iceland), the writer is forced to start from scratch, furnishing a rented apartment with no car, little money and scant knowledge of local shopping customs.  I don't envy her.

However, especially in the first third of the book, I don't particularly sympathise that much either - you see, it may just be me, but I don't think she always comes across too well.  While she can recognise her cultural limitations with a wry smile at times...
"Get over it, I find myself unfairly thinking, able to identify someone else's whingeing where my own complaints are obviously those of a normal person presented with weirdness." p.115 (Granta Books, 2012) others she appears oblivious to how annoying and elitist she sounds.  For example, when packing for a move to Iceland, I certainly wouldn't be opting for:
"...five litres of olive oil, a dozen tins of anchovies and a dozen jars of capers..." p.14
When she then opts to leave the toaster at home, I begin to sense that Ms. Moss and I move in different social strata...

There's more to this than a gourmet unwilling to settle for bland food though.  Her smuggling of food through customs (and the smug way in which she does so) grates, and comments like the following (made about her sons daycare hours)...
"We extend his hours, but not much, not to Icelandic levels, because we still know best." p.69
...indicate someone who, at heart, believes that she is right, and that they (whoever they may be) are wrong.

This passes though, and it's tempting to think that Moss (the writer) has created Moss (the character), a woman whose arrogance is tempered the longer she stays in Iceland.  Certainly, once the claustrophobic winter is over, and there is more opportunity to travel and meet the natives, the style changes.  The book becomes more about the country and the problems it faces than the writer's issues with settling down in an unfamiliar environment.

Overall, Names for the Sea is a very good book, informative, thought-provoking and well written.  It's a shame that Moss was unable to stay for longer than one year, as more time spent in Iceland would probably have led to an even deeper understanding of the natives.  Of course, no matter how long you spend in a country, you're unlikely to uncover all of its secrets (after a decade in Australia, I'm not even close...).  In one of her classes at the university, Moss discusses travel writing with her students, telling them:
"Home... is the paper on which travel writes.  Travel writers are always writing home." p.110
The more I think about Names for the Sea, the more fitting this information becomes.  As much as the book is about its subject, it also says a lot about the writer...

Monday 3 September 2012

Taking 'Bout His Generation

Just over a year ago, I began my latest reread of Anthony Trollope's Palliser Series, speeding through Can You Forgive Her? in about four days.  While I've read most of the books fairly quickly though, I've spaced them out so much that it's taken me until now to get to the last of the stories, The Duke's Children.  One quick note to delicate readers: this review will contain information which you may not want to know if you're just starting out on your own Palliser reading...

The Duke's Children opens with a bombshell (albeit one indicated on the back cover): the Duke's wife, Lady Glencora as was, has passed away suddenly, leaving the grieving Duke alone with his three (grown-up) children.  For a man like our old friend Plantagenet Palliser, dedicated as he is to his public, political life, the responsibility of taking care of his children is bound to bring him his fair share of troubles at any point in time.  As it happens though, this was a singularly unfortunate time for him to be left alone...

The Duke's youngest child, Lady Mary Palliser, has become engaged to Frank Treager, a man who, while an educated gentleman, in no way measures up to the type of husband Mary's father expects for her.  When Treager formally asks for Mary's hand in marriage, the Duke rejects him out of hand and forbids all communication between the two.  Far from accepting her father's command to end the relationship, Lady Mary digs her heels in, preparing to wait things out.

The former Prime Minister has more family problems on the horizon though.  His elder son Lord Silverbridge, the heir to the Palliser title and millions, has been thrown out of Oxford for an immature prank, lost large amounts of money through gambling and - something far worse - has decided to go against his father's politics and stand for parliament as a Conservative candidate.  In one way, at least, he is in his father's good books, as he is courting the beautiful, and highly respectable, Lady Mabel Grex.  That is, until one day at a garden party he crosses paths with Isabel Boncassen - an alluring American...

The Duke's Children is the culmination of almost twenty years work for Trollope in his development of the character of Plantagenet Palliser.  First introduced as a boring, hard-working, young politician in The Small House at Allington, Palliser becomes the main character of a new series of books, in which the reader is able to follow the ups and downs of his personal and political lives.  After an extremely shaky start, his forcibly-arranged marriage to Glencora gradually becomes a success, and The Prime Minister, the predecessor to The Duke's Children, marks the high point of his career, with the Duke taking charge of the government and his wife entertaining the high and mighty of the Empire.

Lady Glencora is a great character, and when you first learn of her passing, it comes as a blow - she is someone the reader has lived with (and loved) for years.  However, her death is necessary for the plot of The Duke's Children to develop in the way Trollope intended.  During their marriage, the Duke has not had to concern himself overly with domestic affairs, leaving all this to his wife; now he is forced to arrange matters himself, and he finds himself totally unable to deal with the strong-willed semi-strangers that have been raised under his roof.

In his struggles with his daughter, he initially has no doubts about his behaviour.  Despite his liberal politics and his utter disregard for status in the abstract, he is completely unable to live up to his politics in matters affecting his family.  As the head of one of the most blue-blooded families in the kingdom, he feels it is his duty to ensure that his children make appropriate matches - and his daughter's happiness comes a long way behind this sense of duty.

Of course, the Duke, as anyone who has read the series will know, is an utterly honest man (too honest at times for his own good), and the longer matters drag on, the more they eat away at him.  While still unwilling to compromise his views, he begins to realise what exactly it is he is doing:
"Now the misery must go on from day to day beneath his eyes, with the knowledge on his part that he was crushing all joy out of her young life, and the conviction on her part that she was being treated with continued cruelty by her father!  It was a terrible prospect!  But if it was manifestly his duty to act after this fashion, must he not do his duty?" p.398 (OUP, 1999)
Unable to reconcile his roles as loving father and aristocrat, Palliser has a very difficult decision to make...

Lord Silverbridge's romance is slightly less dramatic (mainly because the reader always feels that the father is much more likely to give in to the son than the daughter), but it is, in many ways, more interesting.  Quite apart from the novelty of the trans-Atlantic courtship, Silverbridge's love affairs carry distant but strong echoes of previous Trollope romances.  Lady Mabel is a very similar woman to Lady Laura Standish, a character who was very close to the titular hero of Phineas Finn, and Silverbridge and Treager (Lady Mabel's current and former admirers) seem to embody different aspects of Finn in themselves: Treager is the penniless man who is able to transfer his love easily enough when told to, and Silverbridge is the young, immature man who is slightly cowed by a woman no older than himself.

Looking outside the immediate family, it is Lady Mabel who is one of the most intriguing characters.  Like many Trollopian women, she is trapped by her sex, doomed from birth to be subservient and to depend on the whims of male relatives who, in terms of character, are not fit to polish her shoes.  Her need to find a husband before it is too late has made her (like Lady Laura Standish...) old before her time in terms of character.  As she thinks about Silverbridge, she muses:
"How was it that she was so old a woman, while he was so little more than a child?" p.128
While liking the young Lord, she feels no real love for him, but her situation means that she is compelled to play the game and angle herself an eligible husband.  However, to succeed in this game, one needs nerves of steel and a conscience of cast-iron, and her scruples may just get in the way...

Once again, Trollope uses The Duke's Children to sympathise with the plight of women in his own way, even though real feminism was something he found slightly distasteful.  He elegantly portrays the way society treats (upper-class) women, pointing out the inequalities in his own, wry manner.  When introducing the idea of a grand garden party, the one at which Silverbridge will meet Isabel Boncassen, Trollope explains:
"Everybody who was asked would go, and everybody had been asked, - who was anybody.  Lord Silverbridge had been asked, and Lord Silverbridge intended to be there.  Lady Mary, his sister, could not even be asked, because her mother was hardly more than three months dead; but it is understood in the world that women mourn longer than men." p.217
While Trollope points out these double standards, he doesn't really propose to do much about them.  In the end, he relies on our (i.e. men's) conscience to take lessons from his fictional examples of good and bad behaviour...

At which point it is time to stop rambling and bid farewell to the Pallisers for another few years.  Like The Last Chronicle of Barchester, The Duke's Children is a book which brings the curtain down on an era, leaving the reader full of regret.  However, where the earlier series seemed to finish leaving us desperate for more, to me The Duke's Children is the right time to bring an end to the series.  The Palliser books are primarily about Plantagenet Palliser, Trollope's epitome of the English gentleman, and having safely navigated the treacherous waters of Westminster (and married off two of his children), our old friend Planty Pall thoroughly deserves to slip gently into the background and enjoy the rest of his life in peace and quiet.  It's time to say goodbye to the Pallisers...

...and move on to the rest of Trollope's gargantuan back catalogue :)

Saturday 1 September 2012

August 2012 Wrap-Up

While it didn't reach the superb heights of July, August was still a good month for reading with lots of translated fiction (mostly review copies), and a couple of non-fiction works and an old friend thrown in for good measure.  All is well in Tony's reading world :)

What's that you say?  The challenges I signed up for at the start of the year?  *Ahem*.  Let's not talk about that...

Total Books Read: 10
Year-to-Date: 81

New: 9
Rereads: 1

From the Shelves: 2
Review Copies: 7
From the Library: 1
On the Kindle: 0

Novels: 3
Novellas: 1
Short Stories: 4
Non-Fiction: 2

Non-English Language: 7 (Swedish, French, Portuguese, Russian, Icelandic, Polish, Spanish)
In Original Language: 0

Murakami Challenge: 0 (0/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (5/12)
Australian Women Writers Challenge: 0 (5/10)
Japanese Literature Challenge 6: 0 (3/1) 

Books read in August were:

Tony's Turkey for August is: nothing

I had a few issues with Sarah Moss' Names for the Sea, particularly in the first third, but that didn't detract from the overall interest of her travelogue about a year in Iceland.  So, after two-thirds of the year, the contest for the worst work of 2012 is still a two-turkey race ;)

Tony's Recommendation for August is: Halldór Laxness' Independent People

Independent People is actually described in Names for the Sea as "Iceland's national novel", and it's hard to argue - any mention of Icelandic literature is bound to get around to Laxness sooner rather than later, and this is the one which you are often told to read.  Luckily, it lives up to the hype :)

I still have a few review copies coming in, but I'm hoping to be able to read a few more of my own books in September.  I didn't get to my mountainous J-Lit pile this month, and my original-language reading also suffered.  However, I'm on a bit of an Icelandic kick at the moment, so it's going to be tough to fit everything into just thirty days - and get some sleep too...