Halldor Laxness

Book Report: February 2015

Book Report: February 2015

It’s already the last third of the first quarter of the year. Yeahyeahyeah, I always act amazed when I say that it’s already the beginning of this or that month, that time flies by so fast, but that’s mostly because I feel that I’m always lagging. There’s so much to read! New books bought, books agreed to be read along bookish friends, book club selections, bookish lists and breakthroughs, dares and recommendations, etc. Considering all these, time not only flies by. It zooms, just like that.

For February, I finished my ugh, fifth book. At this pace, I will only finish 30 books by December. That’s 20 books short of my target. I shouldn’t concern myself too much with the numbers. Quality over quantity, huh? However, I really can’t say that the books I’ve read are of that high quality. Quality is relative, I know, so let’s just say I haven’t had a 5-star read yet.

Books Finished:

  • Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos – 1 out of 5 stars. Our book club’s book of the month.
  • Rabbit, Run by John Updike – 3 out of 5 stars. I am still going to push through with the Rabbit series because I know that the last two of this quarter are what the critics are raving about.

Currently Reading:

  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain – On page 172 of 307. The first book that made me write marginalia. I’ve been averse to this habit until Tim Parks convinced me to use a weapon while reading. I’ve always worshipped the book as a physical object. I still do. I still can’t bear to dog-ear the pages or crack the spine. I don’t think I will go into that. Yes, I always say that I will not do this or that but I really do know that for sure (because folding and cracking are destructive as opposed to writing, which I think helps in understanding the ideas in the book). Anyway, I’m hoping that this would be my first 5-star of the year. Actually, it looks like it’s going there.
  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy – On page 118 of 321. It’s our book of the month. I have no idea what this is about. My edition has no blurb, and you might already know that I’m the kind of person who reads everything in the book before reading the actual start of the book. The experience is like finding your way out of a labyrinth of segmented writing filled with juxtaposed metaphors and weird, sometimes icky, imagery.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot – On page 78 of 826. What better time of the year than March should one read this? I’m reading this along with my friends H and Y. We are on a weekend break, according to the reading plan that we devised, but I am aching to read more of it tonight.

Maybe – With Middlemarch consuming my reading life in March, I don’t think there’s time to squeeze in some maybe books. But let’s make room for miracles.

  • Inverted World by Christopher Priest
  • October Light by John Gardner

New Books – This is the Singapore edition of this post’s segment. I wish I could say that I bought something from every book store that I visited there (I went to three last February 5), but I did all my shopping at Books Kinokuniya – Orchard Road. This is because 1.) the books at Books Actually are rather expensive (I let go of the Heinrich Böll and François Mauriac books with a heavy heart) and 2.) the staff at Littered with Books were so busy chatting with each other that I could have walked out of the store with a cart of books in tow without raising an alarm. Besides these, Books Kinokuniya has the lowest price range among the three. The selections fit my taste: the right amount of literariness but not too obscure.

  • A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard – Joining the bandwagon! (SGD 19.94)
  • Iceland’s Bell by Halldór Laxness – Of course I have to have this. (SGD 25.13)
  • Missing Person by Patrick Modiano – Supposedly the new Nobel laureate’s best work. (SGD 26.95)
  • The Notebook by José Saramago – Of course I have to have this, too. (SGD22.63)

Some of the books that I let go are Under the Glacier by Halldór Laxness, The Lives of Others by José Saramago, The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Redeployment by Phil Klay, and How to be Both by Ali Smith (I was following the budget plan that I made). I would have bought When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson and Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks, but they are not available.

Literary Snobbery Series

The LSS Book List, Part 2

Visit the The LSS Book List page for more information about this post.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927, M) – Father Latour and Father Vaillant take the mission to build a diocese in New Mexico, a place still occupied by Native Indians. The two priests have different temperaments, but they work in perfect harmony. This is a portrait of the rustic life in New Mexico after the American-Mexican war in the early 1800s, and an almost sacred marriage of religion and culture.

A Death in the Family by James Agee

A Death in the Family by James Agee

A Death in the Family by James Agee (1957, M) – How does a young child perceive a person’s death? How can one describe their grief or the approximation of it during such an event? What are children taught about the fate of the dead, of the society’s norms during deaths, of the afterlife, and of God? Based on Agee’s own experience as a young boy, this novel is one of the few unfinished manuscripts that do not feel incomplete, and that is a strong testament to the author’s talent.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen (1938, H) – Portia, orphaned and sent to live with her stepbrother, falls in love with Eddie, a family friend. She keeps a diary to understand the people that surround her in the new household. Her sister-in-law finds and reads it, and she is unsettled, enraged. Set right between the two world wars, it captures the mood of that period, a period when people thought that everything was fleeting.

Deliverance by James Dickey

Deliverance by James Dickey

Deliverance by James Dickey (1970, L) – This novel is like an action movie that borrows heavily on the themes of Joseph Conrad. Ed and his friends plan a canoeing adventure for the upcoming weekend. What is unplanned is the presence of hillbillies who crash their trip down the river. The novel tells us of a man’s transformation after he is given a huge dose of adrenaline rush, one that puts their lives at stake.

Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis

Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis

Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis (1899, M) – A resurgence of interest in this Brazilian work is witnessed in the past few years, and why not? It’s a classic tale of love, jealousy, and adultery. Told from the unreliable point of view of the cheated husband, it’s an entertaining dark comedy without the magical realism that we usually associate with South American literature.

Fatelessness by Imre Kertész

Fatelessness by Imre Kertész

Fatelessness (Sorstalanság) by Imre Kertész (1975, H) – This is an important concentration camp literature largely based on the author’s own experiences in Auschwitz. One day, Gyuri is sent to a labor camp, first resisting the fate that descends upon him and then finally accepting it. The forced labor becomes his life. He finds his happiness in it. When the war ends, he faces the world outside the camp, and this is just the part where the real strength of the novel lies. What does Gyuri make of it?

[Image to follow; my copy is lent to a friend.]

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (1973, M) – I can already imagine eyebrows raising in the air, but I stand with the belief that Isadora Wing’s whinings on the zipless fuck, loosely a noncommittal sex, is something to consider given the context of the novel’s publication. Had this been written by a man, it could have quickly sunken into obscurity. And forty years later, accompanied by an anniversary publishing, how many Erica Jongs have followed? Exactly my point.

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

The Fish Can Sing (Brekkukotsannáll) by Halldór Laxness (1957, H) – As if Laxness’s sweeping Independent People isn’t deserving enough, I still went on to select a less popular work. Shorter but just as beautiful, this is an idyllic tale of a small-town boy who dreams of taking on the world but at a cost that will take him away from the things that he holds dear to his heart. Will he make it? Is it going to be worth it?

[Image to follow; I lost my copy.]

The Food of the Gods by H. G. Wells (1904, H) – This might seem like another surprise entry, but what of it? It is one of the minor works of the author,  but it is a classic science fiction nonetheless. In the novel, scientists have developed food that can make creatures grow. What’s interesting is not this discovery but the aftermath of the boomfood’s introduction to humans. It’s not so tragic in the common notion of a tragedy, for the tragedy lies in how the normal people treat the giants.

[Image to follow; my copy is lent to a friend.]

Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot (1943, H) – This is one of the few poetry collections in this list, and it’s the main reason I opted to include poems and plays. Its themes on time transcends time itself. When reading this, one should expect stuff heavy on one’s intellectual faculties, but the meditations are so worth going through. The cosmos is held in the spaces between the line breaks. Let the four poems sweep you away.

Stay tuned for Part 3.

Format: [Title] ([Original Title]) by [Author] ([Publication Year, LSS Meter Level])

This is part of the Literary Snobbery Series (LSS).

My Thirty Greatest Books

Thirty Years, Thirty Books

At the moment of typing this, I realize that I’m spending my last couple of hours as a twenty-something hacking at my book shelves and sorting through my memory for my greatest books. I haven’t read a lot yet, but I already have my small personal canon.

There are the random books of my childhood, the limited choices in high school, the varied selections in college, and the hordes of them all in the last decade. And before I realize it, I’m already thirty. Actually, the realization has not yet hit me hard (should it?). I look at my shelves and wonder at the space that I could have emptied had I not been a reader. But no, I’m happy to be a reader.

I selected my list of greatest books based on my Goodreads ratings and on how important they are to me at multiple points in my life. If you are a keen reader of my blog, I think you will have a pretty good idea on what most of these books are. But there are surprise picks, which I put in my this list because they are an integral part of my reading development.

I wish I could rank them, but this is so hard. This is because my literary taste is continuously evolving and expanding, and everyday is different. I may like Novel A now more than Novel B, but next week could be a different story. So I decided to list the books alphabetically.

Without further ado, here are my thirty greatest books:

  • Atonement by Ian McEwan – Recently reread, I must say that it’s still as stupendous as the first time.
  • Children Around the World by Various Authors – I found this at the book shelf of my aunt. When I grew up, I never found it again.
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – When you thought that there’s nothing new that emerging writers could do, my favorite living author comes out with this extraordinary feat.
  • Death at Intervals by José Saramago – My paternal love for my favorite Nobel laureate started with this novel: Death’s love affair with an ordinary cellist.
  • Fatelessness by Imre Kertész – Read this and you’ll thank your provider for the cheap instant food on your plate.
  • Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot – Possibly the best poetry collection on life, time, and everything in between.
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – The follow-up novel after twenty years of waiting is graceful with its lilting spirituality.
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers – I find the title too endearing to ignore. After reading the book, I realize the truth in the title’s spaces.
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham – Reading this as a bumbling college student amazed me at the writer’s mastery of the novel’s form.
  • Hunger by Knut Hamsun – Still my greatest book, so far.
  • Independent People by Halldór Laxness – Still my second greatest book, so far.
  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri – At some point, it made me want to buy every copy that I see in book stores.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – Because Jane Eyre is badass. I wish I have read this sooner.
  • The Known World by Edward P. Jones – an immensely under-read and important contemporary novel.
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
  • Malice by Danielle Steel – I can still remember when me and my friends gushed at the sex scenes while restraining ourselves in a corner of the school library.
  • Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem – Possibly the funniest book in this list.
  • The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek – It’s not the literariness of it but the intensity of reading it.
  • Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion – Short, terse, and devastating. Read only when emotionally stable.
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – The first book that you discuss with a group of bookish friends is certainly unforgettable. And that’s the least of the reasons.
  • Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – This came at a low point in my life. Thus, it felt like a book that was written for me.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – The man and the boy’s journey to the sea in a post-apocalyptic world will grip you, not without shedding a tear.
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – A book that I feel I will always reread. I haven’t scheduled a reread yet for this year.
  • The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever – New York stories from the masterful writer. The pieces are varied. There’s something for every reader out there.
  • This Is Water by David Foster Wallace – Something that I read when the jagged teeth of realities are snapping at me.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee –  The first novel that you read is always in the heart.
  • Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda – Possibly the most romantic poetry collection.
  • Twisted by Jessica Zafra – Years ago, I was only following her Twisted series. Now, I’m writing a novel that she would possibly publish.
  • The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides – Beautifully haunting, those Lisbon girls.
  • Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver – What more could you ask for when pieces from the writer’s three major collections are collected here?

Some of these are not in the photo above either because they are borrowed or they are elsewhere. Now, I am reminded that for the past years, I celebrated my birthday with a bookish giveaway. However, I have to break that tradition now because first, I somehow forgot it (blame it on the lack of activities on this blog) and second, I’m saving money for something more important and more selfless. What could be more important and more selfless than giving away a book?

If you answer this question correctly before April 25, 11:59 PM, you win a prize. Yes, the tradition goes on, although you will have to wait for your prize (a book not more than Php1000) some time in June to be delivered to you. For now, #HappyBirthdayAngus. Thank you. :)

Book Report: March 2014

Book Report: March 2014

WordPress tells me that today is my sixth anniversary as a WordPress blogger. This blog is only three years old. The excess three years were spent on a personal blog that I hid from everyone. It’s inactive, don’t worry, and I haven’t touched it ever since I chose to blog about books.

I don’t really have a point, but I’m thinking that the blogging years don’t matter. What matters in blogging is always now. In the world of blogs, one is only as good as his or her last post. A blog with no fresh content in spite of its age is practically dead. And what do we make of this blog?

You might have noticed that I haven’t posted a book review in nearly a year. I think I may have been jinxed when my bookish friends voted for me as their favorite book reviewer last year (aww, you guys!), which is very humbling. But after that, my book reviews have been scarce.

Don’t worry, I’m forever trying to figure out how to make myself go back to the art of book reviewing. For now, I have a huge book report, mostly on new books. Yes, new books, because I’m a stress shopper. Need I say more?

Books Finished:

  • The Alienist by Caleb Carr – 3 out of 5 stars. The only book that I finished this month. Copy was lent by Maria. Thanks! This is only the fourth book that I finished this year, and yes, it’s also the fourth borrowed book. I have a feeling though that I’m going to finish a book that I own in April.

Currently Reading:

  • The Trial by Franz Kafka – Currently on page 163 of 216. I was going to finish it this month, but alas, I got held up with too many appointments.
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Currently on page 211 of 604. I didn’t touch it. I tried to but, oh well. I hope it doesn’t get stuck here for a long time

New Books:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Some of my friends recommend Atwood, particularly this novel. And it’s added to the recent edition of the Novel 100/125. (Php 175.00, March 19, Undertow Books)
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino – TFG’s book of the month for April. I’m glad to have found a copy because I gave my pre-loved copy to one of my favorite friends. (Php 485.00, March 17, NBS Bestsellers – Podium)
  • Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow – A National Book Award winner. I haven’t read any Bellow book yet, and I have a number of them. (Php 90.00, March 19, Undertow Books)
  • The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer – I lost my mass market copy to termites. I don’t mind that now because this trade paperback copy is nice. (Php 150.00, March 19, Undertow Books)
  • Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White – A new writer friend recommended this when I asked him his favorite NYRB Classics book. He has another favorite but I have yet to look for that. (USD 21.03, March 25, The Book Depository)
  • The Stone Raft by José Saramago – Saramago. Hello?! (Php 200.00, March 19, Undertow Books)
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders – The inaugural winner of The Folio Prize. Now, let me proceed to shameless plugging. I started a book group on Goodreads dedicated to reading this and the future winners of The Folio Prize. In fact, we are reading this book starting today, which means I’ll have to eat my dinner after posting this and start reading the first story. If you want to check out the group and join, click this. (Php 629.00, March 19, Power Books – Shangri-la Plaza)
  • Under the Net by Iris Murdoch – One of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels. I’ve read Murdoch before and she’s not bad. On the contrary, she’s very good. (Php 200.00, March 19, Undertow Books)
  • Women in Their Beds by Gina Berriault – A Book Critics Circle winner. I have no idea on who the writer is. (Php 250.00, March 19, Undertow Books)
  • World Light by Halldór Laxness – When I read the blurb, I made the decision to buy it upon reading that the protagonist believes that he will one day become a great poet. And that’s the first sentence. (USD 15.37, March 25, The Book Depository)
The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

A Quiet Lullabye – The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

The Fish Can Sing is the coming-of-age tale of Alfgrimur Hansson, a boy orphaned since birth and left to the care of grandparents unrelated to him. Although he is the narrator, the novel does not merely revolve around him. The chapters shift between the different events in the town of Brekukkot and the people that are etched in Alfgrimur’s memory particularly Gardar Holm, an Icelandic opera singer with worldwide fame. We witness Alfgrimur’s relationship with the singer grow thanks to his own developing singing talent, but what happens when he finds out the story behind Gardar’s fame?

My first encounter with the Nobel laureate Laxness is through his epic novel Independent People. It’s still unknown to me why I bothered to read it; perhaps it’s the cover art painted by Louisa Matthiasdottir that features a house on a knoll with sheep grazing about. I’m very grateful that I did read this because otherwise I wouldn’t bother to explore his other works.

This second encounter seems, strangely, both a similar and different experience. The Fish Can Sing lacks the grandeur of Independent People but it has a quaint intimacy that slowly builds itself chapter after chapter.

“There is only the one note, which is the whole note,” said Gardar Holm. “And he who has heard it does not need to ask for anything. My own singing doesn’t matter. But remember one thing for me: when the world has given you everything, when the merciless yoke of fame has been laid on your shoulders and its brand has been stamped on your brow as indelibly as on the man who was convicted of the worst crime in the world — remember then that you have no other refuge than this one prayer: ‘God, take it all away from me — except one note’.”

[How did it ever come about, I wonder, that I got the notion that in this clock there lived a strange creature, which was Eternity? Somehow it just occurred to me one day that the word it said when it ticked, a four-syllable word with the emphasis on alternate syllables, was et-ERN-it-Y, et-ERN-it-Y. Did I know the word, then?]

Fame versus obscurity: which one will you choose? The former option seems like the easy choice but for Alfgrimur, this is a dilemma that would trouble him for most of his adolescent years. It is easy to note in the remembrance of his youth that he dearly loves his home and that he does want to be a fisherman like his grandfather. Modern people can dismiss this as backward thinking: why give up the chance to become a famous singer side-by-side a national figure just to become an ordinary man who will catch, sell, and dry lumpfish all his life?

[From time immemorial it has been the custom in all sizeable forms in Iceland to have a good reader available to read sagas aloud or recite rimur for the household in the evenings; this was the national pastime. These evening sessions have been called the Icelanders’ University.]

And this national figure, Gardar Holm, is as much an enigma as a household name of the whole Iceland. He may be the greatest singer to captivate every royal audience in the world, but ironically, no one from his homeland has ever heard him sing.

[It is not very pleasant to be so deaf that one can no longer argue with people because one cannot hear what they are saying — not to mention when one cannot even understand the little one does happen to hear.]

Even so, we can still hear the quiet humor and sarcasm of Laxness pervading the pages. He can even make fun of the sacred without turning it into blasphemy. This is something that the readers will delight themselves especially if they are looking for something that reminds him of his other works. I don’t know much about Iceland and her people, but it seems like they can be both funny and contemplative at the same time.

[If people adhere to the doctrine that words are spoken in order to hide one’s thoughts, that words mean something entirely different, sometimes even directly opposite to what they are saying, it is possible, occasionally at least, to reconcile oneself to them and to forgive the poet …]

This book was written when Laxness’s novels were beginning to get huge attention from the rest of the world. His more popular works were already translated into different languages, hence, he turned to be the great voice of Iceland. Fame was inevitable for the writer, but instead of wallowing in it, he longed for the blessed serenity of everyday living.

[For some time, I had felt in my heart a certain uneasiness, as all guilty people do; I felt I had done something against my better conscience, something which was not worthy of my dignity. But what was the value of Better Conscience if it forbade people to bring others better health and a little romance? And what did the Dignity of a stupid slip of a boy matter?]

His self is reflected both in Alfgrimur and Gardar, and he ponders on the levels of existence that the ordinary man and the famous man may achieve. The novel asserts that what may look like an easy life can even be more turbulent than a life of poverty, that profundity and dignity can be attained even by the most ordinary of people, that getting a living is not always about getting money, and that going back to one’s roots can be a most rewarding spiritual experience.

This novel can really sing, not in the manner of pop stars but in the tradition of a mother singing your childhood lullabye. And you might ask why and how the fish can sing. Try to figure it out with these lines, in the traditional Icelandic saga:

The fish can sing just like a bird,
And grazes on the moorland scree,
While cattle in a lowing herd
Roam the rolling sea.

Dates Read: January 12 to 25, 2013

No. of Pages: 246

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars