Sunday, December 27, 2009

Top 10 Reads of 2009

It's the end of the year, and the end of the decade. Everyone's making a list: bloggers, colleagues, newspapers, radio shows. And I have always been a fan of lists. So here goes; one more to add to the pile of lists made at the end of the year. Here are the books I most enjoyed reading in 2009, though only a few were actually published in 2009.

In no particular order:

1. The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt (2009)
A worthy successor to Possession, this novel is a lush, opulent tale spanning the transition from the dawn of the golden new century to the ravages of World War I and modernity. Though The Children’s Book has a long list of dramatis personae, at the center is Olive Wellwood, an E. Nesbitt-like writer of children’s books, and a bohemian mother of a large brood of children. Byatt pays tribute to the zeitgeist of the age by including everything: German fairy tales, wooden puppetry, exhibitions, art and pottery, socialism and free love. Her characters explore contemporary philosophy, attend important events, and cross paths with important historical figures: Wilde, Rodin, etc. Though Byatt’s narrative is weighed down by the inability to let go of the details of her dense historical background, her many characters are so intimately known and the atmosphere of the book so rich and brooding, one cannot help but succumb.

2. The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolano (1998)
The best work of late Mexican/Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano. Reputedly autobiographical, the Savage Detectives is a collision of personalities and desires centering on a small group of poets who call themselves visceral realists, desiring to throw off the yoke of Paz and Neruda. The Savage Detectives is a road trip, a vivid work of the imagination, a literary manifesto, and a near-schizophrenic slide show of characters, relationships, places and ideas.

3. Towers of Trebizond - Rose Macaulay (1956)
A perfect blend of armchair travel, humor and melancholy, the Towers of Trebizond follows Laurie and her irascible aunt Dot to Turkey on camel-back, along with septuagenarian Father Chantry-Pigg, desiring the emancipation of Turkish women and the conversion of the heathens. The narrator struggles between her desire for the church and her desire for distance; her acknowledgment of her sweetest sin, and her desperate inability to relinquish it. Macaulay can swerve between funny dialogue and narrative, and honest, heart-breaking observations with ease.

4. How Fiction Works - James Wood (2008)
In the style of E.M. Forster’s Art of the Novel, preeminent literary critic James Wood explores the construction of Fiction in this elegant exploration. Books about Fiction are becoming a dime-a-dozen, but Wood’s book is set apart by his excellent examples, his passionate intimacy with the books, his down-to-earth tone, and the gorgeous red cover.

5. Asterios Polyp - David Mazzucchelli (2009)
I’m not much one for graphic novels, but this is a moving work of philosophy, psychology, love, and art. Asterios Polyp is a swaggering paper architect, a bombastic thinker and talker, a lecturer of ideas of form and content who has never seen a design of his built. We meet him as he is fleeing a burning house, as he journeys across the country, and back in his memory, to confront his demons. Highly intelligent and deeply emotional, this is an existential marvel. One could spend hours looking at each frame, as the artist has carefully constructed his own world out of careful lines and shapes.

6. The Last Samurai - Helen De Witt
An astounding novel about a genius and her freakishly gifted son, Ludo. Without a father figure for Ludo, Sibyl raises him on Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece of modern cinema, "Seven Samurai". (It was here I learned about Kurosawa, and now I can’t seem to escape hearing his name.) A strong narrative and resonating dialogue. I learned to read Greek while reading it. Enough said.

7. The End of the Affair - Graham Greene
Rarely has a work given off such a dramatic feeling of hatred and anger. I nearly quivered with the narrator’s raging. The story of a man who has lost the woman he loved and tries to get his revenge; this novel is the fist that shakes in the face of God and love. Incredibly moving, sharp and affecting.

8. The Sibyl - Par Lagerkvist
A cursed man meets an ex-oracle on a hill above Delphi and they exchange stories. Mythic and profound, this short novel explores the cruelties and ecstasy of intimacy with the divine. It still chokes me up to talk about it. Beautiful and painful.

9. The History Boys - Alan Bennett (2004)
In this witty and irreverent play, eight boys are trying for Oxford and Cambridge. Their teacher, Hector, makes them memorize poetry and immerse themselves in art and son, but the Headmaster wants their new teacher, Mr. Irwin, to spruce up their skills, to turn them in renaissance men who can, in the new style of Schama historians, turn facts on their heads and debate from any angle. The play pits these two philosophies against each other and adds an unsuspected sexual element into the mix. I loved it for its Oxbridge-ness, but Bennett’s off-hand literariness is impressive and not without unsettling grit.

10. Severance: Stories - Robert Olen Butler (2006)
I can’t remember how I came across this collection of incredibly short fiction, the last ecstatic thoughts of mythic, historic and fictitious characters as their heads are – for one reason or another – severed from their body. It sounds morbid, but it is a powerful work of the imagination, a stream-of-conscious gushing of memories and poetry. Favorites include St. George’s dragon, Walter Raleigh, a chicken (for Sunday dinner), and the poet’s own imagined decapitation.

What was on your list?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

One More Scandalnavian

When I began working at the bookstore, there was a Scandinavian fiction display near the information desk. Having never read any at the time, I went to look at the books and saw that nearly every book recommendation was by a co-worker, Adam W. This storehouse of Scandinavian literature – he’s read Par Lagerkvist and Knut Hamsun and others – was the first person to recommend Norwegian Nobel Prize Winner Sigrid Undset to me, specifically Gunnar’s Daughter. I have yet to read Gunnar’s Daughter, but I’ve enjoyed reading her medieval trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22) – all 1124 pages.

Kristin Lavransdatter is a novel of tensions – between Christianity and the waning paganism, between this world and the next, between the head and the heart, duty and desire, wildness and piety.

The intense human experiences that make up a life – birth, love, sex, marriage, friendship, war, death – are recurrent. We are as violent, as exuberant, and as mundane as ancient characters in the Bible and in epic poetry; but reading Kristin Lavransdatter has so convinced me of the enormous breach that divides medieval society and persons from today, just seven hundred years, that I am surprised we are the same race.

Undset’s trilogy (made up of The Wreath/ The Wife/ The Cross) is a success, not only because of the vivid narrative, vibrant characters, and rich writing, but largely because she is able to unapologetically depict these fourteenth century Norwegian characters in a way which attracts and repel the reader. Certain parts of life – love and friendship – have not changed, though others – arranged marriages, family duty, and primogeniture – have. Undset grew up as the only child of an archeologist and his secretary, in a house filled with books, manuscripts and relics, and it is surely this backdrop which enabled her to infuse her fiction with historical detail without weighting it with the historical novelist’s tendency to add heavy Look What I’ve Researched paragraphs.

There is little explanation for the initiate; just a swift push into dense medieval society. It begins with a property dispute, with a small family on a relatively well-to-do estate. Life is built around one’s duties: duty to one’s kinsmen, to the church, to the saints, to the poor, to better one’s property for the heirs.

Kristin is the beautiful and spirited daughter, the apple of her father Lavrans’ eye. From childhood, she is swayed by two conflicting desires, one for the world and the other for the religious life. She grows in relative comfort and affection, and is willingly betrothed to a man her father chooses. When she meets the dashing bad-boy, Erlend, her caution and duty to her family is sacrificed to their burning passion. They are married (Kristin already pregnant), but not without consequence. Kristin’s guilt at their premature seduction plagues their marriage and the rest of the trilogy. It is this marriage, this wrestling of two spirited and proud characters, which is the vital spark that ties the trilogy together.

The narrative continues without much surprise: characters marry, parents die, children are born, characters age. And unlike many other novels, Undset allows us to witness Kristin and Erlend’s marriage in its entirety, all the joys, tedium and cruelties that constitute a marriage.

There is so much to infuriate the modern reader, especially (if I may presume) the female reader. Women are maidens, wives or harlots. They are protected assets and at worst, heifers. Kristin becomes a skilled housekeeper and lady of the manor, and manages her land and possessions. But she grows hysterical, she weeps wildly; she bows to the wisdom of her father, her husband, her brother-in-law, her sons.

The constant presence of the church may be estranging for some, as well as the constant returning to her old sense of guilt and damnation – the repeated litany of old sins. The church is depicted vigorously, with beauty and irreverence.

Undset passes no judgment and proposes no moral; she spins a tale and this medieval background – both the admirable parts and the backward parts - is the fabric she uses.

It would be unfair for me to impose my modern sensibilities, my understanding of individuals and relationships, upon these characters. The characters and their motivations are extremely “other” to me. How do we in the 21st century (we who have passed through the Renaissance, through the Enlightenment, the Revolutions, the Modern era, and inhabit the Postmodern era) understand the person who thinks in terms of a village and clan and heirs, instead of the individual? Kristin regrets her sins, not because they have spoiled her purity and disappointed God (though this does come up), but predominantly because this reflects badly on her father, because she disappoints those she loves, and causes them dishonor. This concept of communal honor, of one’s good name being dependent on relatives and acquaintances, is foreign.

The introduction to this newly translated Penguin edition says that previous translations have been weighted down with antiquated, almost Shakespearean, speech. Tiina Nunnelly’s translation is clear, direct, and helps to bring the gap between this Norwegian woman on her country estate, wringing her hands over her irresponsible husband and seven growing sons, and me in an airport in Denver, passing the time before I catch my transfer.

Her prose is dramatic, but also constantly reflective. The reader is aware of the intimacy with the natural world which was once so inescapable: frost, floods, fire, mosses, grasses, stone, cuckoos, stars, sunrises, sunsets, snow. Before large cities and easy transport, the world was wild. The morning weather meant something; the night skies were portentous. One knew the names of the flowers and herbs that grew in season, and the birds that sang.
The rhythms of nature were effective and intrusive (as, I consider the heavily falling snow’s potential to delay my Christmas flight, they still are now).

Undset makes sure to draw the reader’s attention to the changing seasons and Kristin’s awareness of the world. Here is a paragraph which describes Kristin’s penitential visit to a church, combining the fluidity between man-made architecture and the outdoors:

“Along the galleries of the heavenly palace stood holy men and women, and they were so beautiful that she dared not look at them. The imperishable vines of eternity wound their way upward, calm and lovely, bursting into flower on spires and towers with stone monstrances…She walked as if through a forest. The pillars were furrowed like ancient trees, and into the woods the light seeped, colorful and as clear as song, through the stained-glass windows. High overhead animals and people frolicked in the stone foliage, and angels played their instruments. At an event higher, more dizzying height, the vaults of the ceiling arched upward, lifting the church toward God.”

And here, she doesn’t remain in the valley and on the mountain, but turns her attention to the water:

“Erlend remembered what he had been dreaming. He was walking along a shore somewhere; it was low tide, and he was leaping from stone to stone. In the distance the sea was glistening and pale, lapping at the seaweed; it was like a silent, cloudy summer evening, with no sun. At the mouth of the silvery fjord he saw the ship anchored, black and sleek, rocking gently on the waves. There was an ungodly, delicious smell of sea and kelp.”

Undset’s storytelling is entrancing, her characters are believably flawed and dynamic, and her prose is lively but wondrous. The only struggle, besides the sheer size of the trilogy, is sorting out who is who. As in Russian novels, all the characters seem to have the same names. One can only guess who is who; the levels and ties of kinship become bewildering.

Okay, no more talk of Scandinavians for a while, I promise. But, like Anna Karenina, put Kristin Lavransdatter on your Big Books to Read Sometime List. Its warmth, depth, and exquisite clarity will reward your efforts.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Scandinavian Winters

No sign of snow yet.

Our family’s Scandinavian roots are something which emerged from the closet every second year around Christmas when we flew north to Minnesota for two months. My father’s side of the family, the Edwalls, is a celebratory, gregarious clan which will take any excuse for a feast, or a game day, always ready to pull up a chair or begin a new tradition. Legend has it that my great-grandfather Nathaniel, or perhaps even his father, got off the boat in America and was ordered by the immigrations official to change his name as there were already too many Olsens in the country. So we became Edwalls: Baptists, teetotalers, loggers, woodworkers, musicians, missionaries. Tall, fair-skinned blond and redheads appeared in my generation, the brown hair and brown eyes and brown skin being my mother’s singular gift to my brothers and me.

Our Swedish-ness manifests in only two very distinct traditions: Santa Lucia on December 13th and The Lefse Song. Santa Lucia is the most sacred of childhood Christmas rituals. On December 13th, at the ungodly hour of three or four in the morning, the aunts would rouse my cousins Jessica and Cassie and I (all oldest daughters), dress us in white gowns with red sashes on our waists, and place on our heads gaudy green plastic crowns with battery-operated light bulbs on prongs masquerading as candle-lit wreaths. In their defense, I can’t imagine what sort of mother that would put a real wreath with real candles on the head of a sleepy five-year-old. They would take us to visit family members by knocking on their doors very loudly and calling out our Santa Lucia greetings, rewarding the haggard faces of our menfolk with pastries and coffee. We would sing the Santa Lucia song, which I only remember the opening line (to repeat ad nauseum), the very surprising lyrics “Sant-a Luci-i-a.” This became an even better tradition when I was given my first American Girl doll, Kirsten (who was Swedish) and came with a matching Santa Lucia outfit.

Santa Lucia is a Scandinavian saint imported from Naples, Italy; a virgin martyr who had her eyes plucked out by a fork. Lucy (one of my favorite names) coming from “Lux” or lucis - light, the bearer of light, the bearer of vision, the patron saint of the blind. In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is Lucy who first discovers Narnia, leading her brothers and sister with her vision and pure-hearted insight. In Northern Europe, Lucy comes with candles and lanterns to light the unending darkness.

I made bastard attempts at Santa Lucia during college, running from room to room with a paper wreath on my head and a tin of cookies in my hands. Last year Kristin and I woke early to drive around to wake several of our friends, who reacted with kind, taciturn long-suffering faces. This year, yesterday, Santa Lucia made an appearance at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in lower Queen Anne (an Anglo-Catholic parish with no other connections to Scandinavia other than the general genetic inheritance of Seattleites), dressed in white and red, the same plastic green wreath with battery-operated candles on her (blond) head, serving pastries from a basket. In the corner of the room an American Girl doll, Kirsten, stood on a table in an identical outfit, surveying the basement room with plastic blue-eyed goodwill. And then we sang the song (and I learned all the words).

The Lefse Song is another story for another time.

Nearly every day this November was grey and rainy. December began with thirteen days of brilliant sunshine and crystalline coldness. Freezing fingers, the necessity of scarves and socks and two pants to bed at night.

This past Wednesday we went to Golden Gardens, a beach overlooking the Puget Sound, with islands and mountains in the distance. This past summer, where the city suffered 103 degree weather, we ran to Golden Gardens to cool ourselves, to feel the breeze off the water, and to watch the sun sink into a pink sky that reflected to make the Sound look like a colored bubble bath. People were out on the sand until 10, until the stars came out, and the fires and barbecues were extinguished.

Now, the beach wore its solitude like a morning robe. Everything was spare and isolated; walkers and their dogs passed every ten minutes. There were no gulls, just the sound of the lapping water, the fierce air, and the stripped winter trees.

As Kristin ran, I settled onto a large piece of weathered driftwood, spreading hacked branches like a throne. I sat there this past August with my family. This December, I huddled on the top branch and opened True Deceiver, Tove Jansson's novel of two women in a snowy Swedish village, circling around each other warily. Katri and her brother Mats live in the village where, because of their refusal to play social games and their yellow eyes, they are regarded with suspicion. Anna Aemelin is an artist who is as famous for her children’s books featuring rabbits as Tove Jansson was famous for Moomins. Both women are alone, but when they begin to live each other, their opposing ideals and philosophies cause friction. The heavy snow, the darkness, the austere society - all felt right and mirrored my own wintry reality.

Continuing to want to wallow in Scandinavia, I have picked up Kristin Lavransdatter, the medieval epic by the Norwegian Nobel Prize Winner, Sigrid Undset. I thought about it all morning, and - pow - it arrived at the bookstore yesterday evening. Magic!

To tie it all together, today is my roommate's birthday, who has claimed Saint Lucy for her patron saint. Happy birthday, Kristin. Enjoy your ice cream.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Say it isn't Snow

Do you ever feel that looking at the weather report is cheating?

Lately, I've felt guilty whenever checking to see what's coming; it's like looking into a crystal ball; it is seeing into the future and playing with fate. I do understand that if one is getting married or going to hike to the top of Mount Ranier, one wants to be certain that conditions are favourable. On the other hand, the majority of people looking at the weather (in my ignorant opinion) are doing it because it's convenient, because it's something they do everyday, because it's on the news or the radio or their computer screen.

It seems as though you are attempting to control the future, so that when it rains mid-day (as it inevitably will), you can open the umbrella you clairvoyant-ishly brought with you, and turn to the person next to you and say "I saw this coming."

Without weather reports, without knowing what the skies will bring, we are at the mercy of the outdoors. A co-worker, Vlad, once mentioned that Californians were narcissists because since the skies were so continuously pleasant, they thought they deserved only pleasant weather. The Northwest skies, on the other hand, remind us constantly that the weather will do what it will, and what promised to be a brilliantly sunny day will turn to fierce rain just to remind us that we don't control the elements, that the world is large and beyond our control.

Mary, another co-worker of sorts, mentioned once that when one doesn't look at the weather reports, one is forced to become more observant. Instead of switching on the computer and going to, one stands at the window and looks up full into the face of the sky and studies it for signs of what is to come. One slows down and pays attention.

I've heard it was supposed to snow tonight, so I - hypocritically - looked up the weather to see if snow may indeed be in our future. It isn't. But I'll look out of the windows and watch the sky just in case.