Tag Archives: modern fiction

“Gunnloethe’s Tale” by Svava Jakobsdottir

This Icelandic novel was written in 1987 and translated into English in 2011. I’m glad I read the Translators Afterword FIRST. (Come to think of it, I would always advise reading the translator’s notes before starting a book, if you know the work was written in another tongue.)

Translation aside, this is already a twice told tale, being a classic (authorless) myth that was “codified” in writing in a thirteenth century treatise. Svava Jakobsdottir brings the story to modern Iceland, for a third expression of the ancient story line.

A young Icelandic woman steals an old and very beautiful chalice from a Danish museum. Nothing about the crime makes sense. How did she lay hands on it? What motivated her? The explanation she offers is so bizarre that an insanity plea is considered. Her mother, traveling to Denmark, loses her “ultra modern professional woman” identity and falls in to the company of strangers. Mother and daughter begin to relive events from the Icelandic saga of Gunnloethe, with its themes of gifting and betrayal.

There are two voices in the story, the modern voice of the mother and a older “mythic” narration on behalf of the daughter. I liked the modern voice, which was vigorous and straightforward. The “mythic” voice seemed stilted.

The author used an interesting plot device to “date stamp” her book. The mother, in Copenhagen, suddenly finds herself in an unruly crowd. Later she learns about the explosion at Chernobyl (in Ukraine, Soviet Union) that released radioactivity across Scandinavia. Protests and disorder ensued. The plot of the book NOT really being impacted, I believe the author included this unmistakable historic event so that future readers will know, without question, that the book was written after 1986. The Chernobyl disaster was a modern glance into the open gates of Hell, the underworld that figures so prominently in Scandinavian mythology.

Sagas are a great source of literary inspiration. This one is well worth your time. Serious/academic readers should seek scholarly interpretation – I’m not well qualified to comment on this book.

PS: Later comment! Prowling on the page after the title page of Gunnloethe’s Tale, I found the following statement: “The translator’s moral right to be identified as the translator of the work has been asserted.” I’ve never seen this before. But I accept it, and have added the name of Oliver Watts to the tags on this post, hoping to increase the chance he will be found by those who might seek him. I can’t FIND Oliver Watts. There’s only one such person in Wikipedia (the first place I looked) and plainly it’s the wrong man. I occasionally contact authors and others, especially when I feel their work suffers from lack of well deserved exposure. I’ve got two more leads – Norvik Press and The Icelandic Literature Fund.

And, by the way, I couldn’t figure out how to get an unlaut (the double dot) over the “o” in Gunnloethe, so I settled for jamming in the extra “e”. Sorry if this complicates anyone’s search process.

 

“She Made Me Laugh – My Friend Nora Ephron” by Richard Cohen

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Nora Ephron is almost my contemporary, but the eight year age difference between us is, in fact, a big deal. Born in 1941, she faced a level of sexist chauvinism which was being challenged by the time I graduated from high school and headed out into the world. Ephron’s life is an interesting study in American feminism as it emerged after World War II.

I admit to being only sketchily familiar with her books and movies. I saw “Sleepless in Seattle”.

Richard Cohen, nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, wrote about Ephron because they were best friends. Inadvertently, he provides insight into the New York City world of the rich and famous (and those aspiring to be…) There’s a little too much name dropping, but the affection that underlies the writing is unmistakable.

I think Ephron’s book Heartburn falls into the category of “guilty pleasure” fiction. It’s based on the breakup of her first marriage, which happened at a time when women were often advised to turn a blind eye to spousal infidelity. I can’t help but be disturbed by her fictionalizing her family (especially her children) so extensively. She was, according to Cohen, absolutely confident that she did no harm.

I believe Ephron has been compared to Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) whom Wikipedia describes as “poet, satirist and critic”. I read a biography of Parker and would describe her as brilliant but mean spirited. I think Ephron was equally bright and talented, but far more kind and generous.

If you enjoy biography and/or contemporary gossip, this book is a good read.

“Arsenic with Austen” by Katherine Bolger Hyde

I finally found fiction to relax with! Wait, I shouldn’t say it that way… The heroine is a Professor of English (at Reed College in Oregon, no less) and she would disapprove of a preposition at the end of a sentence.

Emily Cavanaugh is an appealing protagonist, and the frequent literary references (ranging from the Old Testament to JK Rowling) in this mystery amused me. When stressed, Emily retreats into the worlds of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. When confronted with murder, she relies on Dorothy Sayers. Emily is a bibliophile who suffers from a level of technophobia even worse than my own. She would never condescend to blog. Horrors! Such an ugly neologism!

Two of the themes of this book are old grudges and land development. It works. There’s romance, too.

This is Ms. Bolger’s first novel and I look forward to more. She is calling her series “Crime with the Classics”. I don’t think she can go wrong.

“The Forever Girl” by Alexander McCall Smith

This isn’t McCall Smith at his very best. I’d save that accolade for the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series. But it’s good, of course. Setting is important. This book takes place on Cayman, and much is said about the trials of being an expatriate. Almost everyone in Cayman comes from somewhere else.

Our heroine, Clover, falls in love early and stays in love, following her desired one through the years and across continents. Finally, her love is reciprocated. I would have appreciated knowing more about the young man. Why the long delay and sudden change of mind? But McCall Smith likes to write about women…

Grab this book when you need something for a rainy day. It will keep you involved.

Reading with a cold – Janet Evanovich and JK Rowling

For the past week, I have been too sick (the common cold, but it felt like the plague) for even halfway serious reading. I was so sick I resorted rereading. I pulled Harry Potter off the shelf, and raced through the second book, Chamber of Secrets. I’m not sure why that one called out to me, but it hit the spot and kept me happily entertained.

I have lots of good memories related to JK Rowling’s blockbuster Harry Potter series. The first book came out in 1997, when my sons were 7 and 13 years old. I honestly don’t remember our reactions to the first book, nor do I remember if I read it out loud to my younger son. The series continued, and we got hooked. By the fourth book, we were ordering our family copy in advance and then arguing over who got to read it first.

I always found the movies relatively peripheral, at least in terms of plot. I’m beyond astonished that the wonderfully well cast ensemble of child actors held together so well through eight movies!

By the time I read the seventh and final book, I was completely engrossed. To me the conclusion was not only vivid and compelling, but also highly visual. I finished the book late at night, turned out the light and watched the action in my imagination…

The seven hard cover volumes of Harry Potter will always have space on my shelf.

I won’t say quite the same for Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, which now number 22. I only own a few. The rest came from the library or books on tape. But I have a soft spot for Evanovich, who also wrote some holiday novels and the “between the numbers” books. (I’ve reviewed at least four Evanovich offerings in this blog.) I root for Evanovich because she’s a Jersey girl and writes about the poor, benighted city of Trenton. She’s so damn funny, and the characters she has created feel like friends – I want to keep in touch with them. In a critical mood, I can tell you what’s wrong with the Stephanie Plum novels (formulaic, possibly racist, etc.) but I can’t resist them.

Tricky Twenty-two was extra fun for me because the main plot (there are always several) is set at a local university and peopled with academic eccentrics. A lot crazier than MY crowd of academic eccentrics… Loads of fun.

I hope I don’t get another cold before the next Stephanie Plum novel comes out in November of 2016 (according to Amazon).

I wonder if these two writers have ever met?! Probably not. They are both inventive, and might have lots of fun swapping plot ideas. May they both write on and on!

“Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

I won’t review this book. That has already been done by practically everyone. Amazon lists 8,318 customer reviews!

The publication history of Watchman is interesting. Harper Lee (now almost 90 years old) had said she never intended to publish another book after To Kill a Mockingbird. For the record, I agree that Mockingbird is one of the best American novels ever written.

Watchman is described as a first draft for To Kill a Mockingbird, and it does have a slightly choppy, anecdotal quality. But I was hooked from the first pages. The characters are so vivid and distinctive! Lee is a wonderful narrator. Some people advised Harper Lee not to publish Watchman because it would somehow detract from the stature of To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t feel that it did.

Watchman has become a favorite of book clubs and discussion groups, at this time when national dialog on race is very intense. What happens when 2015 consciousness is applied to a novel written in the 1950s? If you have participated, please share!

Check my blog entry dated March 12, 2015 for a reminiscence about my first look at To Kill a Mockingbird.

“The Handsome Man’s Delux Cafe: No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series” by Alexander McCall Smith

Everybody loves Alexander McCall Smith! I started by reading The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, stayed with that series for a while, and then branched out. I think I’ve read at least one book from each of his five series. Sometimes I’ve listened to his novels in the car. Perfect for long trips!

Is there anything new in The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Cafe? Not really… just the pleasure of familiar characters in new situations.

Parts of The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series were made into a BBC series for television. The quality was wonderful! How did someone find so many talented character actors? Too bad only six episodes were produced. However, 27 episodes for radio were broadcast by BBC Radio 4. I hope to track them down.

I feel lucky to have McCall Smith to give me an insider’s view of Africa. I don’t know whether I will ever travel to Africa, but if I do, Botswana will be on my list of destinations.

Having pondered McCall Smith’s extensive oeuvre, I’ve decided to read the Isabel Dalhousie series in its proper order. With that in my Kindle, I will be ready for anything – travel delays, doctors’ offices, you name it. If you feel stressed, read McCall Smith. He will take you “away” and warm your heart.