0

Flash Reviews: ‘Independent People’ and ‘O Caledonia’

Independent People by Halldor Laxness **** 9780099527121
Whilst in Iceland in February, I was lucky enough to pass the homestead where Laxness spent much of his writing life.  As a consequence, every single piece of work which I read of his feels even more vivid to me; it is as though, by seeing all that surrounded him, his already marvellously personified settings spring to life all the more before my eyes.

The beginning couple of chapters of Independent People were a little confusing in relation to the whole, but they certainly set the scene well.  The writing and translation are fluid, and the whole has been so well handled.  There wasn’t a single sentence rendered here which felt clumsy or underdone, and some of the prose is breathtaking.

Laxness has written with such depth; alongside the characters, one learns about Icelandic politics and history.  As with every one of his books, the novel has its sadnesses, but it is all the more realistic for them.  There are stories within stories within stories here.  Whilst I found parts rather difficult to read due to their subject matter and my squeamishness, Independent People is basically a masterpiece.

 

9780956567208O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker ****
I had incredibly high hopes for O Caledonia, and hoped it wouldn’t disappoint.  It did not; in fact, it is certainly one of the best coming of age stories which I have read in quite a while.  Startling, vivid, intriguing, and marvellously Gothic.  Troubled Janet was a fabulously crafted character, and I was so entranced as soon as I began to read her story.  I loved Barker’s prose style, and the delicious darkness to the whole.  O Caledonia is a mesmerising and incredibly well crafted novel, with a marvellous and surprising conclusion.

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

12

Reading Iceland

I am currently enjoying a week in Iceland with my boyfriend (hooray for scheduling posts ahead of time!), and thought I would coincide this with a post recommending several books set in Iceland.  Whilst there are many more books published in the country’s healthy book industry than are translated into English, there is still a plethora of wondrous works which are well worth a read.  The books which I would recommend are as follows.  For each, I have copied their blurb to give you an idea of the story.

  1. Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness 9781860469343
    ‘Abandoned as a baby, Alfgrimur is content to spend his days as a fisherman living in the turf cottage outside Reykjavik with the elderly couple he calls grandmother and grandfather. There he shares the mid-loft with a motley bunch of eccentrics and philosophers who find refuge in the simple respect for their fellow men that is the ethos at the Brekkukot. But the narrow horizons of Alfgrimur’s idyllic childhood are challenged when he starts school and meets Iceland’s most famous singer, the mysterious Garoar Holm. Garoar encourages him to aim for the “one true note”, but how can he attain it without leaving behind the world that he loves?’

  2. The Blue Fox by Sjon
    ‘The year is 1883. The stark Icelandic winter landscape is the backdrop. We follow the priest, Skugga-Baldur, on his hunt for the enigmatic blue fox. We’re then transported to the world of the naturalist Friethrik B. Friethriksson and his charge, Abba, who suffers from Down’s syndrome, and who came to his rescue when he was on the verge of disaster. Then to a shipwreck off the Icelandic coast in the spring of 1868. The fates of Friethrik, Abba and Baldur are intrinsically bound and unravelled in this spellbinding book that is part thriller, part fairy tale.’
  3. 9780199675340The Poetic Edda, edited by Carolyne Larrington
    ‘After the terrible conflagration of Ragnarok, the earth rises serenely again from the ocean, and life is renewed. The Poetic Edda begins with The Seeress’s Prophecy which recounts the creation of the world, and looks forward to its destruction and rebirth. In this great collection of Norse-Icelandic mythological and heroic poetry, the exploits of gods and humans are related. The one-eyed Odin, red-bearded Thor, Loki the trickster, the lovely goddesses and the giants who are their enemies walk beside the heroic Helgi, Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, Brynhild the shield-maiden, and the implacable Gudrun. New in this revised translation are the quest-poem The Lay of Svipdag and The Waking of Angantyr, in which a girl faces down her dead father to retrieve his sword. Comic, tragic, instructive, grandiose, witty and profound, the poems of the Edda have influenced artists from Wagner to Tolkien and a new generation of video-game and film makers.’
  4. Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice
    I reviewed this comprehensively on the blog recently.
  5. Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt 9781847670649
    ‘Recently evacuated to the British countryside and with World War Two raging around her, one young girl is struggling to make sense of her life. Then she is given a book of ancient Norse legends and her inner and outer worlds are transformed. Intensely autobigraphical and linguistically stunning, this book is a landmark work of fiction from one of Britain’s truly great writers. Intensely timely it is a book about how stories can give us the courage to face our own demise. The Ragnarok myth, otherwise known as the Twilight of the Gods, plays out the endgame of Norse mythology. It is the myth in which the gods Odin, Freya and Thor die, the sun and moon are swallowed by the wolf Fenrir, the serpent Midgard eats his own tale as he crushes the world and the seas boil with poison. It is only after such monstrous death and destruction that the world can begin anew. This epic struggle provided the fitting climax to Wagner’s Ring Cycle and just as Wagner was inspired by Norse myth so Byatt has taken this remarkable finale and used it as the underpinning of this highly personal and politically charged retelling.’
  6. An Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of Laki, the Volcano that Turned Eighteenth-Century Europe Dark by Jeff Kanipe and Alexandra Witze
    ‘The eruption of Laki is one of history’s great untold natural disasters. The eruption, spewing out a poisionous fog, lasted for eight months, but its effects lingered across Europe for years, causing the death of people as far away as the Nile, and creating famine that may have triggered the French revolution. Island on Fire is the story not only of a volcano but also of the people whose lives it changed, such as the pastor Jon Steingrimsson, who witnessed and recorded the events in Iceland. It is the story, too, of modern volcanology, and looks at how events might work out should Laki erupt again in our time.’
  7. 9780099455158The Atom Station by Halldor Laxness
    (The list would not be complete without a second Laxness work, after all!)
    ‘When the Americans make an offer to buy land in Iceland to build a NATO airbase after World War II, a storm of protest is provoked throughout the country. The airbase provides Laxness with the catalyst for his astonishing and powerful satire. Narrated by a country girl from the north, the novel follows her experiences after she takes up employment as a maid in the house of her Member of Parliament. Marvelling at the customs and behaviour of the people around her, she emerges as the one obstinate reality in a world of unreality. Her observations and experiences expose the bourgeois society of the south as rootless and shallow and in stark contrast to the age-old culture of the solid and less fanciful north. A witty and moving satire on politics and politicians, Communists and anti-Communists, phoney culture fiends, big business and all the pretensions of authority, Laxness’ masterpiece of social commentary is as relevant today as when it was written in 1948.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

5

Ten Fiction Picks

I am rather pushed for time at present, and thought that I would put together a list of ten fiction books which I have very much enjoyed of late, but have no time to blog about.  For each, I have added my own personal star rating, and copied the official blurb.  Apologies for this cop out of sorts, but I hope that you find something wondrous to read below!

1. Local Girls by Alice Hoffman ****
“Told from Gretel Samuelson’s sly and knowing perspective, Local Girls charts her progress as she navigates from childhood to the brink of womanhood, picking her way though the tragedies and absurdities of everyday life in a family which is rocked by divorce and disaster, bad judgement and fierce attachments.”
Purchase from The Book Depository

2. Hotel World by Ali Smith **** 
“Ali Smith’s masterful, ambitious Hotel World was short-listed for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize. Five people: four are living, three are strangers, two are sisters, one is dead. In her highly acclaimed and most ambitious book to date, the brilliant young Scottish writer Ali Smith brings alive five unforgettable characters and traces their intersecting lives. This is a short novel with big themes (time, chance, money, death) but an eye for tiny detail: the taste of dust, the weight of a few coins in the hand, the pleasurable pain of a stone in one’s shoe…
Purchase from The Book Depository

3. Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud ****
“Two little girls are taken by their mother to Morocco on a 1960s pilgrimage of self-discovery. For Mum, it is not just an escape from the grinding conventions of English life but a quest for personal fulfilment; her children, however, seek something more solid and stable amidst the shifting desert sands.”
Purchase from The Book Depository

4. The Shore by Sara Taylor ***
“The Shore. A collection of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean that has been home to generations of fierce and resilient women. Sanctuary to some but nightmare to others, it’s a place they’ve inhabited, fled, and returned to for hundreds of years. From a brave girl’s determination to protect her younger sister as methamphetamine ravages their family, to a lesson in summoning storm clouds to help end a drought, these women struggle against domestic violence, savage wilderness, and the corrosive effects of poverty and addiction to secure a sense of well-being for themselves and for those they love. Their interconnecting stories form a deeply affecting legacy of two island families, illuminating the small miracles and miseries of a community of outsiders, and the bonds of blood and fate that connect them all. Dreamlike and yet impossibly real, profound and playful, The Shore is a richly unique, breathtakingly ambitious and accomplished debut novel by a young writer of astonishing gifts.”
Purchase from The Book Depository

5. The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde by Peter Ackroyd ****
“Oscar Wilde never wrote a last testament during his isolation in Paris. This book takes the known facts about Oscar Wilde and converts them into a fictional portrait of the artist and memoir of a life of great contrast – a career which ended with a catastrophic fall from public favour.”

6. The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate *** 
“It is 1913 – just prior to England’s entry into World War I – and Edwardian England is about to vanish into history. A group of men and women gather at Sir Randolph Nettleby’s estate for a shooting party. Opulent, adulterous, moving assuredly through the rituals of eating and slaughter, they are a dazzlingly obtuse and brilliantly decorative finale of an era.”
Purchase from The Book Depository

7. The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith ****
The First Person and Other Stories effortlessly appeals to our hearts, heads and funny bones. Always intellectually playful, but also very moving and funny, Smith explores the ways and whys of storytelling. In one, a middle-aged woman conducts a poignant conversation with her gauche fourteen-year-old self. In another, an innocent supermarket shopper finds in her trolley a foul-mouthed, insulting and beautiful child. Challenging the boundaries between fiction and reality, a third presents its narrator, ‘Ali’, as she drinks tea, phones a friend and muses on the relationship between the short story and – a nymph. Innovative, sophisticated and intelligent, the stories in The First Person and Other Stories are packed full of ideas, jokes, nuance and compassion. Ali Smith and the short story are made for each other.”
Purchase from The Book Depository

8. Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan ****
Tender Morsels is a dark and vivid story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them. Liga lives modestly in her own personal heaven, a world given to her in exchange for her earthly life. Her two daughters grow up in this soft place, protected from the violence that once harmed their mother. But the real world cannot be denied forever–magicked men and wild bears break down the borders of Liga’s refuge. Now, having known Heaven, how will these three women survive in a world where beauty and brutality lie side by side?”
Purchase from The Book Depository

9. Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen ****
“A sparkling summer debut of love and reawakening that transports the classic The Enchanted April to a picture-perfect island in Maine It s a rainy summer in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when two unhappily married women, Lottie Wilkinson and Rose Arbuthnot, spot a tattered ad on their children’s preschool bulletin board: “Hopewell Cottage Little Lost Island, Maine. Old pretty cottage to rent Spring water, blueberries, sea glass. August.” Neither can afford it, but they are smitten. To share expenses, they find two companions: Caroline Dester, the exquisite darling of the independent movie scene, and elderly Beverly Fisher, who is recovering from heartbreaking loss. Transformed by the refreshing summer breezes, steamed lobsters, and cocktail hours on the wrap-around porch, the unlikely quartet gradually begin to open up to one another, and ultimately rediscover their capacity to love and be loved. With a cast of quirky and endearing characters set against the beauty of an idyllic New England summer, Enchanted August brilliantly updates a beloved classic and offers readers a universal fantasy: one glorious summer month away from it all.”
Purchase from The Book Depository

10. Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness **** 
“Abandoned as a baby, Alfgrimur is content to spend his days as a fisherman living in the turf cottage outside Reykjavik with the elderly couple he calls grandmother and grandfather. There he shares the mid-loft with a motley bunch of eccentrics and philosophers who find refuge in the simple respect for their fellow men that is the ethos at the Brekkukot. But the narrow horizons of Alfgrimur’s idyllic childhood are challenged when he starts school and meets Iceland’s most famous singer, the mysterious Garoar Holm. Garoar encourages him to aim for the “one true note”, but how can he attain it without leaving behind the world that he loves?”
Purchase from The Book Depository