LoveStar

I recently had the opportunity to read and review Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason’s LoveStar, a novel which I wasn’t sure was going to be my style, but then ended up quite enjoying. My review was published on Three Percent, and is also below in full. I would highly recommend reading the interview that I link to in the first paragraph, too. A lot of interesting details there about Andri Snær’s early writing career and business strategies, which included a sales deal brokered with the Bónus grocery store chain.

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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:

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.”

Why I Want to Go to Housewife School

A picture of Hússtjórnarskólinn í Reykjavík, via their website.

With my compliments to all the women in my family and life who know how to do stuff (“stuff” encompasses a lot, I know, but purposefully), I give you my most recent foray into long-form blogging: “Why I Want to Go to Housewife School.”

Housewife School” (that’s not the official name, but a nickname that has stuck over the years) is a Reykjavík institution which has been teaching women (and occasionally men) how to do all sorts of useful things—from crafting and (clothing) construction to cooking and cleaning—for 71 years. It was brought to my attention by another Fulbrighter who knows someone who attended the school, but as I’ve been discovering, a lot of Icelandic women have attended through the years.

Photo (I think) of former students at Hússtjórnarskólinn, via their website.

I think it is a fabulous concept and would love to attend myself one day, when my Icelandic is up to par. (Another goal!) In the meantime, I’ve written about it for BlogHer. You can read the full article via the link above, but here’s a snippet:

My great-gram knew how to raise and wring chickens’ necks because she had to. But I’d guess that learning wasn’t much fun (for many reasons), and I’m almost positive that her mom would have been frustrated with Gram’s technique and made some off-hand comments which sparked an argument, and they probably stood in the front yard arguing about correct neck-wringing strategies until they were both blue in the face.

When learning how to do anything, it helps to have an objective teacher.

Cheers to you, great-grama, and grama, and mom and all the rest of you talented ladies who have learned handcrafts and domestic skills without the benefit of a school. And to the women in my life, an extra ‘thanks’ for trying to teach me how to “do stuff” even if it didn’t always pan out. And, lastly, a hearty cheers to my little sister who already knows how to do a lot of cool stuff that I myself probably never will.

Reply to a Letter from Helga

March’s issue of the Grapevine featured a review of a wonderful book by yours truly (I wrote the review, that is, not the wonderful book), which is now available online. The book, Reply to a Letter From Helga, was written by Bergsveinn Birgisson, translated by Philip Roughton, and AmazonCrossing published the translation in January. It’s an epistolary novel, a love letter written by a man in his old age to the woman he loved in his youth. It is also a love letter to a way of life, a difficult and sometimes isolated way of life, farming in the country, but one in which relationships with nature and animals are just as important and often, just as fulfilling, as those that someone has with other people.

It isn’t always an easy book, but it is a very moving one. The writing is spare and precise, the relationships painted are complex, and there are a few scenes which I think will stay with me for a very long time.

Some external links of interest:

The Fabulous Iceland website has a short interview with the author online, here.

The Chicago Tribune published a very positive review of the book by Beth Kephart, which has more plot details and quotes and comes at the book from a bit of a different angle than I did.

An author bio is here on the literature.is website.

Below is the start of my own review, you can see the full piece on the Grapevine website, here.

A frank and poetic meditation on nature, relationships, and the choices that define us, Bergsveinn Birgisson’s Reply To A Letter From Helga paints an unflinching portrait of Bjarni, an elderly man on the verge of “the Great Relocation congenital to all men” who is ready to finally face the defining decision of his life and respond to a letter left unanswered for so many years.

When, in his youth, his lover Helga offered him the chance to follow her to a new life in Reykjavík, Bjarni chose instead to remain on the farm which had been in his family for generations, choosing his love for the land over romantic love and companionship. This decision was, and remains, a fraught and painful one for him. Even so, he maintains a clear sense of pride throughout the novel, a strength of purpose which separates his story from more conventional narratives of love lost. “I thought of what kind of person I would become in Reykjavík,” Bjarni writes.

Could I love you…under such circumstances? Is it so certain, Helga, that everything would have been fine for us? I would have dug a ditch for you and filled it back up again, the same ditch all my life…But abandon myself, the countryside and farming, which were who I am; that I couldn’t do.”

 

 

 

Risks Pay Off…Deliciously

RQ12: Risk

RQ12: Risk

I am super-thrilled (not just super, and not just thrilled, mind you: super-thrilled) to have a new essay and recipe in the newest issue of Remedy Quarterly. Per the journal’s website,

Remedy Quarterly is an independent, ad-free food (printed) magazine filled with food memories and the recipes that inspired them, interviews with interesting and inspiring people in the food world, and vintage tips & tidbits. Our magazine gives people, whether professional food writers or top-notch grandmas, a place to share their stories and recipes, much like the community cookbooks that inspired us.

Each issue of Remedy is organized around a central theme, and I got lucky enough to discover the journal just as they were accepting stories related to the theme of “Risk.” Given my present circumstances, I thought the universe was trying to tell me something. Namely, that I needed to learn how to make a new Icelandic recipe and write about it and my adventure here, for the journal.

What recipe did I make, you wonder?

Continue reading

A Trip to the Doctor

Although I hesitate to call myself an “expert” at living in Iceland just yet (we’ve only just barely had our six month anniversary here, cue triumphal music), I was honored to be asked to contribute informational articles about living as an expat in Iceland to the Expat Blog’s “local expert” series.

My hope is that in contributing to this series, I can help shed some light on some of the more quotidian complications associated with moving to Iceland, having troubled through these seemingly simple processes myself. The first of such attempts is this article, published today: “Visiting the Doctor and Filling a Prescription in Reykjavík.”

I realize that this is rather specialized information, but should you be interested in learning more about the Icelandic social insurance system and what it is like to visit a doctor in the capital, it might be of interest.

Home Is Where Your Books Are (Or, At Least Some of Them)

I’m very pleased to share a new publication–and a “creative” one at that, not that I don’t consider critical writing and/or blogging to be creative. But, being in a somewhat reflective place in life right now, I’ve been, well, reflecting, and that has kick-started a pretty fertile run of not-review, not-blog-related writing.

This piece, entitled, “Finding Home: Unpacking My Library in Iceland,” started as a reasonably straightforward concept about practical ways in which to create a sense of home when one is living in a space not entirely their own, or is between homes, or isn’t even sure where “home” is. I thought it would read almost like an amateur list of home decorating or relocation tips (but, you know, good). I also thought that my personal narrative about moving to Iceland would have more to do with…Iceland. Instead, I ended up getting all muse-y and, as the lovely editor at BlogHer pointed out, the piece ended up having actually very little to do with Iceland per se. Instead, I talk about books. My (our) own collection of books, and the grand adventure of winnowing our enormous home library down to just 100 books that could come with us on our journey. (I know, first world problems: which 100 books will you take with you when you move abroad for an indefinite amount of time?)

I am really pleased with how the piece came out–it’s a lot more interesting, I think, than my amateur home decorating tips would have been–and I invite you to take a read on the BlogHer website, here.

Also, if you have the time and inclination, I invite you to report back on what (some of) your top 100 books to travel with would be. I was actually rather surprised at the ones which made it onto my own list, but found the process incredibly clarifying.

Just Call Me Friday

Speed Dating Cafe Lingua

In a bit of a break from my usual reviewing/event recapping freelance gigs, I have now had my first quasi-journalistic experience. The February issue of The Reykjavík Grapevine features an article written by yours truly about Café Lingua, a weekly language exchange program at the Reykjavík City Library. And guys: I had to do actual reporting for this article. Like, I conducted not only a phone interview (gasp!), but also a series of email/Facebook interviews (getting better at this Facebook thing) and even one in-person interview. It was rather hard work, honestly, but it (Café Lingua) is a great weekly program and I’m pleased with the final article, so while I don’t think I’ll be turning into Rosalind Russell any time soon (shame, really–those hats!), I think we can put this down in the success column.

The piece hasn’t been posted on the Grapevine website yet, but if you’d like to know more about multilingual/multicultural Reykjavík, you can download the .pdf of the current issue here or read it online. The article, entitled “Speed Dating at Café Lingua: Putting a Face to the Many Languages and Cultures of Reykjavík,” is on page 10.

Review of Fridrik Erling’s Fish in the Sky

(Re-posted from my other blog, The Afterword.)

Farsælt komandi ár, everyone, or: Happy New Year! I’ve been galavanting around Iceland over the last week or so and have lots of photos and anecdotes to amuse you with soon (and fireworks videos!) but in the meantime, here’s something literary for those of you who may be interested in Icelandic Young Adult fiction.

As I mentioned recently, I had the pleasure of reviewing Fridrik Erling’s Fish in the Sky for the December issue of The Reykjavík Grapevine. The review has now been made available online, which you can see here. Or, you can just read the full piece below.

Some interesting links and background context, for those of you who might be interested:

  • Fridrik was a founding member of The Sugarcubes (with Björk, author Bragi Ólafsson, and current Reykjavík City Council member Einar Orn Benediktsson, etc.) before he decided to focus his attention on his writing. (If anyone can think of a band that has launched so many wildly divergent and successful careers, please tell me.)
  • Although he has worn many professional hats–biographer, screenwriter, and graphic designer, among others–Fridrik’s novels “…usually either depict children or are written for children, if not both.” See Hákon Gunnarsson’s article “At the Crossroads of Childhood: On the works of Friðrik Erlingsson” over at literature.is for a more comprehensive overview of his work.
  • Fish in the Sky was originally published in 1998 under the title Góða Ferð, Sveinn Ólafsson. The novel was translated by the author. As he says in his translation note (which you can read via the “Look Inside” preview on Amazon.com, here): “Halfway through this [translation] process, a translation by Bernard Scudder was brought to light. This translation was immensely helpful during the editing process.” Fridrik dedicates the English edition of the novel to Scudder, who died in 2008.
  • Fridrik was interviewed a few years ago by Groupthing when Fish in the Sky was published (in Britain, I think). The interview–conducted, it seems, by a teen interviewer–has some really interesting snippets about Fridrik’s work, his decision to leave music, writing for a youthful audience and more. Worth a watch.

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“To actually cease being a child, that’s probably the greatest experience in life.” So thinks Josh Stephenson, the unusually sensitive and observant teen narrator of Fridrik Erling’s Fish in the Sky, a recent English translation of his novel Góða ferð, Sveinn Ólafsson. Josh has just turned thirteen and, according to his mother, is “one year closer to being considered a grown-up.” But getting older isn’t helping Josh make sense of life—it only seems to be complicating things.

Like most thirteen year olds, Josh occupies a purgatory somewhere between innocence and worldliness, regularly bouncing between pure joy and deep despair as he tries to navigate the seemingly insurmountable problems that crop up around him. First, there are his parents: his mostly-absent father who spends nearly all of his free time with his girlfriend or drinking buddies and his ardently religious mother who is too exhausted from working two jobs to pay much attention to his problems. Added to Josh’s list of worries are his rebellious older cousin—a girl—who moved in with Josh and his mom and is living in his closet, a vindictive math teacher, humiliating gym classes, the possibility that he has fallen in love, and the horrifying fact that he has started to get pubic hair. “I’m like a piece of bread in a toaster,” he thinks. “No matter which way I turn, all around me are the glowing iron threads that heat me up until I start to burn around the edges.”

Fridrik captures the profound extremes that characterize adolescence with a balance of poetical empathy and sly humour, all delivered through Josh’s sometimes wry and often perplexed observations. Of an irritating but popular classmate, Josh reflects that “It is unbearable how shameless and disgustingly free of low self-esteem he is.” While guiltily thumbing through a nude magazine he admits to finding “…at least two really hot descriptions of copulation,” which he doesn’t entirely understand. There is self-awareness and self-depreciation in Josh’s flailing attempts to reconcile with the world around him that ring very true to the teenage experience.

Although he spends most of the novel navel-gazing, Josh does undergo a significant transformation in discovering the simple truth that everyone has problems (many of which are more serious than his own), and everyone feels alone in them. The universality of this theme is further underscored by the fact that in the English translation, Fish in the Sky has very few orienting details that identify it as occurring in a particular country or even a particular time period. It’s worth noting that Fridrik completed the English version himself with reference to a translation by the late, great translator Bernard Scudder, to whom he dedicated the book. All of the character names have been anglicised, and while certain small details may hint at the original version’s Icelandic origins, it stands as a story that could have happened anywhere, to any young person.

My First Icelandic Publications!

(That is, publications in Icelandic outlets, not publications actually written in Icelandic.)

I am immensely proud to have two book reviews–of two separate books–published in two different English-language Icelandic publications this month. After writing about Icelandic literature from afar for so long, it really is very exciting to be taking part of the literary dialog from within Iceland.

One of the reviews is of Fridrik Erling’s Fish in the Sky, and is published in the current issue of The Reykjavík Grapevine. (That review is accompanied by a nifty little graph about the increase in Icelandic translations into English over the last three years which was created to go along with some data I compiled on this subject–all due credit to the very helpful translation databases maintained by Three Percent.) The Fish in the Sky review isn’t online yet, but I will post it when it is available, or you can download the .pdf of the issue here and find the review on page 19.

The other review, published in Iceland Review, is of Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s The Greenhouse, which was released in its first English translation in 2011. I actually reviewed the book when it came out for the above-mentioned site Three Percent, but liked it so much the first time that I was happy to provide a second write-up now. And actually, although I thought I would just skim through the book to reacquaint myself with it before writing the new review, I ended up enjoying it so much that I read it all over again in one day. So obviously, I’m a fan.

You can read the review on the Iceland Review website, here, and I’ve also pasted the full text below. (Full disclosure: some of the points covered in this new review are similar to those I raised in my previous piece. But there’s no sneaky business going on–I got permission for this beforehand.)

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Part road novel, part bildungsroman, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s The Greenhouse is a meditative story of love, death, fatherhood, and creating meaning in life even when it seems to be entirely dictated by chance. Published in English translation in 2011, it is the first of ten Icelandic novels that online retailer Amazon committed to publishing in the next year via its literature-in-translation press AmazonCrossing.

The Greenhouse opens on Lobbi, a young man to whom things seem to just happen—things which he is rarely equipped to handle. The last year has been particularly unsettling in this respect: first, his mother, with whom he was very close, died in a terrible car accident. Exactly a year later—after being unexpectedly conceived in “one quarter of a night, not even”—his first daughter was born. Feeling superfluous in the life of his child and misunderstood by his aging father, Lobbi is only really comfortable when he is gardening. And so, he decides to leave Iceland for an isolated monastery in a foreign country, hoping to restore a once-legendary garden to its former splendor and add to it a rare species of rose that he cultivated in his mother’s greenhouse.

Once Lobbi begins his journey, little goes to plan. He falls ill almost immediately after he departs and later gets lost and has to detour through a labyrinthian forest. He’s barely settled into his gardening routine at the monastery before the mother of his child arrives with his daughter, asking him to “bear [his] part of the responsibility” and look after the girl while she works on her graduate thesis. But instead of collapsing in this new role, Lobbi rises to the demands of fatherhood, and finds himself embracing such simple tasks as roasting potatoes and picking out hair ribbons.  

Auður Ava is not only a fiction author, but also a practicing art historian. So it seems only natural that her prose is particularly visual in its descriptions, such as when Lobbi first arrives at his new village and sees the monastery on the edge of a cliff, “…severed in two by a horizontal stripe of yellow mist that makes it look like it’s hovering over its earthly foundations.” There is a tangible richness to each setting in the novel. Lobbi imagines the lava field where his mother died, visualizing a landscape of “russet heather, a blood red sky, violet red foliage on some small trees nearby, golden moss.” The cozy warmth of her greenhouse, a sofa among the tomato plants, contrasts with the forest Lobbi drives through “which seems endless and spans the entire spectrum of green.”

This evocative prose, fluidly translated by Brian FitzGibbon, provides a nice counterpoint to the simple but perceptive landscape of Lobbi’s continuous internal monologue. In the end, his own transformation mirrors that of his beloved roses, echoing his mother’s gardening philosophy: “it just needs a little bit of care and, most of all, time.”