A Bit of Halldor Laxness – Book Reviews

Since I’ve been reading a lot of medieval Icelandic sagas over the past year, I’ve often thought to myself that I should read a bit of more  contemporary Icelandic literature. A simple Google search prominently displayed Halldór Laxness‘s name. Laxness was an Icelandic author who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel, Independent People, in 1955. I marked Independent People as a book to read some time ago, but I’ve held off on reading it because it is a longer work and I was unfamiliar with the the author’s style. So I resolved to see if he had any other, less daunting books on which a new reader could cut their teeth. Upon deciding that, I promptly forgot about Laxness until I made a literary pilgrimage to Concord, Massachusetts and Walden Pond this past October. My wife and I were exploring downtown Concord, and being a bookworm I had to visit The Concord Bookshop especially considering the town’s literary heritage. Whenever I go into an independent bookstore, I always feel the obligation to buy something. As I browsed I came across some prominently displayed Halldór Laxness books on a shelf in the middle of the store, and my notion of reading some of his shorter works before attempting Independent People came rushing back into my mind. There were a few options (though I don’t remember what all those options were). After reading the descriptions of each book I opted for the shortest, Under the Glacier, as the back cover claimed it to be a funny novel. It sat on my shelf for a month before I finally got to it (most books on my shelf wait much, much longer), and what I found was a real treat and a new favorite author (I have several).

under

Under the Glacier, by Halldór Laxness. Translated into English by Magnus Magnusson.

Under the Glacier tells the story of an unnamed protagonist whose acumen and ability to write in shorthand has caught the attention of the Bishop of Iceland. The Bishop calls the young man into his office one day to ask a favor, and asks the narrator to go to the town near Snæfellsjökull to investigate the state of Christianity in the town and its residents as there have been disturbing reports of strange occurrences in the area for some time. Chief among them are the fact that the pastor has apparently boarded up the local church, allowed a mysterious building to be built next to the church, has refused to perform funerals, and has reportedly deposited an object resembling a casket atop the nearby glacier. Not to mention the pastor has been abandoned by his wife, but has not sought out divorce and remarriage as a clergyman should. The young man is given the title “Emissary to the Bishop of Iceland,” or “Embi” for short, and told that the church just wants the facts; they don’t want him to adulterate the report with his own, negligent opinions. Embi quickly finds himself in the village under the glacier where mystics from around the globe gather to “overcome death.” Poor Embi has to put up with these frustrating characters as he tries to perform the duty entrusted upon him by the bishop, and in doing so learns of the haunting presence of a woman named Uá, who, when he meets her himself, will lead him both to the utmost passion and frightful devastation.

Let me start off by stating outright that Under the Glacier is not a book for everyone. That doesn’t mean it is a bad book by any means! It is actually quite excellent, but the narrative style may not appeal to many readers. The narrative is told in a semi-stream of conscious style as a report both written and recorded on cassettes by Embi. As such, Embi usually refers to himself as “the undersigned,” “Embi,” and sometimes in the first person. The narrative style also leads to confusion to know who is talking at any given moment. Compounding all this is the heavy symbolism that pervades the novel. If you can make it through all this, then you’ll love Under the Glacier. It is a wonderfully literary work that is unafraid to wear its influences on its sleeve, ranging from the Icelandic sagas, Norse and Christian mythology, American modernism, and Derridaean Deconstruction, and it reads like an amalgamation of these influences with a dash of Faulknerian southern gothic style thrown in. Students of literature, and especially literary theory, will find fertile, humorous ground under Snæfellsjökull, even if Embi does not. Others may find it a difficult read that begins and ends nowhere whilst making little sense in between, but maybe that is the point after all.

Paradise

Paradise Reclaimed, by Halldór Laxness. Translated by Magnus Magnusson.

While I enjoyed reading Under the Glacier, I began to suspect that it was not very indicative of Laxness’s other works. I wanted to get a better sense of Laxness’s typical writing before tackling Independent People, so I decided to check out his other books that are readily available in English. While reading descriptions I came across Paradise Reclaimed and without hesitation decided it would be the very next book I would read because it tied my interest in Icelandic literature to Utah, which is where I grew up.

Steinar of Hlíðar is an impoverished farmer living in Iceland during the latter half of the nineteenth century with his wife and two children. By luck or magic, Steinar becomes the owner of a wonderfully beautiful horse that is the envy of his neighbors and the great love of he and his family. Hoping to improve the situation of his children, Steinar takes the horse to Þingvellir to present it to the Danish King who is visiting to commemorate the 1000th year of the settling of Iceland by Vikings. The king thanks him profusely and Steinar wends his way back home on foot. At Þingvellir, he had happened across a Mormon missionary, Bishop Þjoðrekur, who he encounters again on his way home tied to a post outside a Lutheran church. Steinar unties the Mormon. These two actions, presenting the horse to the king and assisting a Mormon missionary, set in motion a series of events that will leave Steinar’s family destitute and Steinar himself far away in Spanish Fork, Utah where he works as a brick maker of no small skill to fund his family’s immigration.

This is an achingly wonderful book. It is beautifully told with many layers of symbolism and narrative enveloping. It often reads like a saga of old and is definitely in conversation with some of the great sagas that relate Iceland’s adoption of Christianity around the beginning of the eleventh century. Laxness doesn’t shy from criticizing where criticism is due, but his criticism isn’t generalized and is quite fair. Layered symbolism permeates the novel and may often leave readers pondering if the real world is just a magical illusion, or vice versa. And, at the end, it all circles back to where it began with Steinar of Hlíðar mending a fence in his own, personal paradise. Few books have left me quite so emotionally exhausted as this one, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in modern Icelandic literature, any Utahn who may have an interest in the Icelandic immigrants that settled in Spanish Fork during the latter part of the nineteenth century, or anyone who just likes to read a good book.

With these two books under my belt, I feel confident in tackling Independent People in the not too distant future.

 

Post-Apocalyptic Vampires, World War II, and The Escapist: Man Books Are Awesome!

As always, I’ve read a lot of books the past few months. Most have been books published by my company and I’ve already stated before that I won’t really talk about those books, so that leaves me with only a few books I’ve read since Fall that I can actually write about. So here is a small selection of what I’ve read since my last book post!

The Passage, by Justin Cronin. Published by Ballantine Books.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin. Published by Ballantine Books.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin is the first book that I read this year. The Passage is a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi epic that tells the story of a small band of humans struggling to survive in a world overrun by genetically mutated humans that are very similar to what we’d call vampires.

F.B.I. agent Brad Wolgast recruits death-row inmates to be genetic guinea pigs in an underground research lab in Colorado where scientists are working on a virus that could be the path to immortality. After recruiting the twelfth death-row test subject, Wolgast is contacted by his superiors and instructed to secure the thirteenth and final subject. But the thirteenth is no hardened criminal, she is a little girl named Amy who was recently abandoned by her mother. Wolgast had misgivings about the nature of the research happening in Colorado, but when he receives the orders to secure Amy as a test subject he takes it upon himself to be her guardian. However, Wolgast’s chivalrous intentions do not prevent Amy from becoming the thirteenth test subject at the facility in Colorado where the death-row inmates have been mutated into inhuman, telepathic monsters. Toward the end of Amy’s “treatment” the other test subjects stage a violent escape from the facility and Wolgast and Amy barely escape with their lives. Wolgast and Amy run to Oregon and hole up in an abandoned cabin in the mountains while the rest of the world falls into chaos as the virus spreads, turning more and more people into vampires. While in Oregon, Wolgast begins to understand that Amy is the key to humanity’s survival, but despite the happy contentedness of their lives in the mountains, Wolgast knows that nothing gold can stay, and eventually Amy must face the shattered remains of the world on her own.

…That’s just the prologue. The story picks up again about a hundred years later when the seemingly immortal Amy finds her way to a small colony of survivors in California and the rest of the story picks up from there.

The premise and the story are both engaging, and while it is hardly an original post-apocalyptic story, the characters, setting and plot are created with a lot of care and I wanted to know what would happen to everyone as I kept reading. Unfortunately, there is a point where characters are given too much care in their creation and The Passage is guilty of such a charge. At times there are pages, and pages of interior monologue that explains every little detail and emotion of a given character’s life. The prologue is a great case in point as it is book length on its own. This coupled with Cronin’s slow-paced writing style make this read oftentimes tedious especially considering the fact the edition of The Passage that I read is 871 pages! Luckily some action happens later in the book, and these scenes stand in stark contrast to the emotional baggage that fills most of the pages of The Passage. Cronin is definitely capable of writing riveting action sequences. I didn’t want to put the book down when I reached an action scene, but they are few and far between. At one point Cronin even forgoes writing an action sequence and instead details in retrospect what could have otherwise been an intense scene. But Cronin is more concerned about his characters’ emotions, and they have a lot of them, to the point that the book suffers and is oftentimes boring. Still, the world of The Passage has caught my attention, and I’m interested in seeing what happens so I may pick up the sequel, The Twelve, sometime later.

Codename Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. Published by Hyperion.

Codename Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. Published by Hyperion.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein is the story of two British friends during World War II. Maddie is a tomboy, who knows more about engines and machinery than most boys her age. Shortly before World War II, Maddie begins training to be a pilot, and when the war breaks out she volunteers to help on airfields and later she also ferries planes and troops across England. During this time, she meets Julie, a Scottish aristocrat working as a radio operator. The two become friends, and in the meantime Julie’s fluency in French and German is noticed by a British secret agent of some sort, and Julie becomes an agent herself. Later in the war, the need for British pilots reaches the point that Maddie is allowed to fly a mission over France. Once in the air she learns that this mission is to drop Julie into occupied France where she will work as a spy behind enemy lines. But Julie makes an error that blows her cover and is captured by the Germans. She is imprisoned and interrogated. To make matters worse, Maddie is shot down over France on her return flight, but is luckily able to join up with the French resistance. Learning that Julie has been captured, Maddie and her French allies plan a rescue mission, but the odds are definitely not in their favor.

I was originally turned off by Code Name Verity. Having read a lot of YA novels over the last year, I’ve grown kind of tired of the snarky, sarcastic narrators that seem ubiquitous in the genre. But this voice is the only thing Julie really has left while imprisoned and it is her best and only way to maintain any strength in her situation. So I guess I can forgive the sarcasm this time, and Julie’s story is pretty compelling although it is a little disorienting and slow-starting at the onset. The narration duties switch to Maddie midway through the book, and though the story isn’t as narratively complex it is still just as engaging as Maddie works to rescue Julie. On top of all that, the story builds to an unexpected and riveting conclusion. I can’t spoil it, but the ending was more than enough to make Code Name Verity worth reading.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. Published by Random House.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. Published by Random House.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon is the fictional story of two cousins of Jewish descent who break into the fledgling comic book industry in the late 1930s. Sam Clayman lives in Brooklyn and is the son of Jewish immigrants. He has become completely enamored with those newfangled comic books and the superheroes that populate them, and dreams of breaking into the business and making “a whole lot of dough.” Sam isn’t sure how to accomplish this until his cousin, Josef Kavalier, arrives on Sam’s doorstep after fleeing Europe due to increasing anti-Semitic laws and restrictions. Joe left his family behind in Europe, and his single purpose upon arriving in the U.S. is making enough money to secure his family’s escape. When Sam learns that Joe actually spent two years in art school and is an adept artist, he sees his opportunity. Upon seeing that Joe and Sam may be able to deliver a character along the lines of Superman, Sam’s boss, the owner of a novelty company, agrees to see what the two young Jewish boys can do. Together, Sam and Joe create a superhero,The Escapist, and their creation becomes a smash hit. But as their bank accounts begin to fill with their salaries (and the small royalties that they were able to negotiate for their creations), the two boys learn that living in “escapist” fantasies and having a lot of money does not protect them from the harsh realities of life.

This is an amazing book. My description makes it sound far more simple than it really is. The depth of the characters, the complexity of their relations, their successes and tragedies, are all keenly depicted and it is hard for the reader not to empathize with all that happens in the lives of these two young men. The narrative is very nearly epic (and yes I know that word is overused, but it is the correct adjective in this case) in its scope, yet still manages to maintain its immediacy and tightness throughout most of the book. The last hundred or so pages are the only part where the narrative begins to meander, and it was much slower reading than the rest of the book. Still, even though the immediacy and tension were not as prominent in these last hundred pages, they did manage to bring the story of the various characters to a satisfying conclusion. I savored reading this book. Of all the books I’ve read over the last year since finishing my master’s degree, I think this is probably the only book I’ll consider reading a second time. I’ll definitely be checking out more Michael Chabon books in the future as well.

Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith

I’ve been hard at work on the job search the last few days, so I thought I’d take a break tonight and write about Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith.

The cover of Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith. Art by The Heads of State.

For the uninitiated (including me until a few weeks ago), Seth Grahame-Smith is the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This is his third book featuring a classic story with a twist this time starring the Three Wise Men of the New Testament.

Before I say anything else, I need to clarify a few things about this book. The title, Unholy Night, is only an attention grabber, nothing more. Nowhere in the book does Seth make claims that Christ isn’t Christ, and the book’s story makes clear that there is a greater power protecting the child. Second, while it is an enjoyable read, the story is actually very serious. Most of the humor in the book is dark, and there are some exquisitely detailed descriptions of violence throughout.

That being said, the basic premise of the book is: “What if the three wise men weren’t really wise men at all? Who would they be?” Seth’s answer is a group of thieves and cutthroats who take refuge in the Bethlehem manger while on the run from the Judean army. After knocking poor Joseph around a bit, the three wise guys decide the new parents are a couple of crazy zealots. But the thieves soon find that Mary and Joseph share their enemy in Herod, and the trio chooses to protect Mary, Joseph, and their baby after Herod’s men slaughter the newborn children in Bethlehem. But protecting the child turns out to be more trouble then they expect, and the three thieves may not be so noble.

What results is a fun, and very well-written adventure story that centers around the thief Balthazar, notoriously known as the Antioch Ghost, and his struggles in coming to terms with his past while protecting the newborn Jesus. Balthazar’s story is solid, and told with a great sense of action and setting as he deals with his demons and comes to terms with his fate of being the guardian of Christ. Unfortunately, Gaspar and Melchyor, who you think would be pretty important characters, are very flat and they get lost in all of the plot complexities that occur as the group is traveling toward Egypt. Their ultimate fate is only revealed at the end of the book, and that fate is tacky at best. But Balthazar’s story, and the struggles the group faces trying to keep Christ out of Judean and Roman hands was more than enough to keep me coming back for more.

Unholy Night is a great adventure book that is definitely worth the time of anyone interested. The prose is spot-on, and matches the story’s tone perfectly. Even though Melchyor and Gaspar disappoint, Balthazar, Mary, and Sela (Balthazar’s love interest), are all endearing characters. So if you like some mayhem with your Christianity, check it out! And in the meantime, it has a great book trailer!