Tag Archives: museums

“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.

 

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“The Birds of America” by John James Audubon – the most valuable book in the world!

Copies of the elephant folio version “The Birds of America” by John James Audubon are very rare. The Library of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia was a subscriber to the original edition of this mighty work. And you can see it whenever the Library is open, which is almost every working day!

I visited the Academy last week. At 3 pm, it was announced that the daily page turning was about to take place. The folio rests in a climate controlled cabinet. Each day at 3:15, it is opened and a Library employee wearing white gloves turns a page so a new print can be appreciated. To me, there’s something magical about a really old book, especially one that is in such lovely condition.

I was not the only spectator for the page turning. I chatted with another guest and also the employee who turned the page. He was not well informed about the bird revealed (a gallinule), being a historian rather than an ornithologist, but he willingly went on line to check when I asked him if the folio included a picture of the black vulture, the newest bird on my (non-existent) life list. Yes, Audubon painted my favorite scavenger.

Turning one page each working day means the entire collection of 435 prints can be viewed in about two years. Not more than 200 copies of the elephant folio were produced, and 119 can now be accounted for. Thirteen are in private hands. The value of a complete set is about $12,000,000, but they are seldom sold.

What makes this book so wonderful? There’s the artistry. The plates were produced by copper etching and aquatint, followed by hand application of water color. They are detailed and very beautiful. The birds look alive, although they were painted from skins and mounted specimens.

Audubon later produced smaller prints of the original works, and now, of course, all is available digitally on line. But there’s nothing quite like gazing at the old, fragile pages and enjoying their color and detail. Go and see this treasure! It is breathtaking.

Secular and Religious Life

Religion for Athiests: a Non-belivers Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton.

De Botton describes himself as an atheist, but sounds like a person who wants/needs religion. He asserts that religious organizations meet many universal needs (for community, education, love) better than does “secular society”. Because I work at a college, I was especially interested in his critique of higher education. He suggests that academic departments be restructured to address major life issues – love, friendship, fear, etc. Of course this presupposes that the purpose of college is to make “better” people – more fulfilled, more responsible and more ethical. I watch the battle between liberal education and career training rage daily. Reading Religion for Atheists would be a good idea for people on both sides of that complicated divide.

De Botton suggestions cover lots more territory – art museums, community, the psychology of pessimism, nurturance and family life. His critique of optimism struck a chord with me, reminding me of another book I liked (Bright-sided by Barbara Ehrenreich). That’s a subject for another post.

I recommend this book.