Review 1484: The Sealwoman’s Gift

With one foot in the world of myth and saga and the other based in a true historic event, The Sealwoman’s Gift should have been a great book. Sadly, it is not quite so good as I expected. It has an interesting beginning and a touching end but tends to drag sometimes in the middle.

One morning in 1627, Oddrún comes to Ásta, saying she’s had a vision of men crossing their island to attack them. However, Oddrún thinks she’s a sealwoman and only one of her visions has been known to come true, so no one pays attention. Shortly thereafter, their small Westman Island, part of Iceland, is attacked by Barbary pirates. Almost everyone is killed or enslaved.

This is Sally Magnusson’s imagining of a true event the remains one of the most significant in Icelandic history. Out of a population of about 40,000, many were killed and 400 taken. Among those taken are Ásta and her husband, the minister Ólafur, and all but one of their children. Ásta, hugely pregnant, begins giving birth on the ship, and one of my complaints is that, with all the flashbacks and background information, it takes from chapter one until the end of chapter five before she actually has the baby. I have to say that this seemed interminable, and Magnusson could have figured out a better way to handle the background information. Finally, they arrive in Algiers.

Ásta and Ólafur and two of their children are bought by a powerful trader named Cilleby, while their oldest son Egill, is purchased by the Pasha and never heard from again. Ólafur is surprised to be given no duties, but after a few months Cilleby dispatches him with a safe passage back to Denmark to try to obtain ransom for Denmark’s Icelandic citizens.

Ásta, who has been a dreamy woman with a love of Icelandic sagas, remains as a seamstress, trying to bring up her remaining two children and listening to the stories told in the evening by members of the harem.

During this period, Magnusson might have tried to more fully imagine life in Algiers, but this world is not fully realized. Or, she could have stuck with Ólafur on his journey back to Denmark and in his years of fund raising to free the captives. But she is more interested in Ásta and has her develop a relationship with Cilleby. I found this the least likely and least interesting part of the book.

Still, I was glad I finished the book, because the story eventually ends in Iceland, which Magnusson depicts more convincingly. The ending was touching and redeemed the novel quite a bit.

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Day 967: The Danish Girl

Cover for The Danish GirlThe Danish Girl is another example of how untrustworthy book blurbs are for conveying the sense and feel of a novel. The blurb talks about “the glitz and glamour of 1920’s Copenhagen, Paris, and Dresden.” Yes, there is a bit of going about to bistros in Paris, but this novel is not about glitz and glamour. It is mostly about the tender relationship between two people, Greta and her husband Einar, who becomes the first man to undergo a sex change operation. Ebershoff lightly based this fictional book on the lives of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, both artists, but he says the details of their lives are wholly invented.

It is Greta who realizes something first. She is a portrait painter with a deadline. When an opera singer can’t make her sitting, Greta asks Einar to put on a stocking so she can use his leg as a model. Later, she has him put on a dress. Einar is a delicate man who is not self-aware. From the time he begins dressing up as Lily, he becomes more and more abstracted from his painting and his former life. Greta sees him drifting vaguely away from Einar, becoming Lily.

I wondered if Ebershoff’s description of Lily’s state of mind really reflected how a transexual person would feel, as Lily seems barely able to remember anything about Einar and vice versa. It almost seemed more like a description of a person with multiple personalities. But I don’t know much about this subject.

This is not a novel of action or plot. It is more about the states of mind of the people involved. It is sympathetic and touching. I didn’t think it would be my subject matter, but I found it affecting.

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Day 520: Iceland’s Bell

Cover for Iceland's BellIceland’s Bell is a curious novel. Most of the characters are based on actual people who were involved in court trials in Iceland and Denmark at the turn of the 18th century. One way to look at this novel is as the Icelandic version of Bleak House.

The novel begins with Jón Hreggviðsson, a disreputable farmer. He has been sentenced to a whipping for making a bawdy joke about the Danish king. While he is awaiting punishment, the king’s hangman has him help take down Iceland’s bell.

Although Iceland’s bell does not feature much in the novel, it is a symbol for the treatment of Iceland by its Danish overlords. The novel makes clear how impoverished the nation is and how the Danes bleed it dry. Iceland’s bell is at the time Iceland’s only national treasure. It has hung for centuries and is rung for court hearings and before executions. After a war with Sweden, the Danish king orders the bell to be removed so it can be melted down to help rebuild Copenhagen.

Jón Hreggviðsson has his beating and then goes off drinking with some men, including the hangman. On the way home the drunken men get lost in a bog. According to Jón’s story, when he wakes up the next morning, he’s lost his hat and his horse, so he takes the ones that are nearby. These turn out to belong to the hangman, who is later found dead in a nearby stream. A few days later, Jón is accused of his murder. We never find out if he murdered the hangman or even if the hangman was murdered, but thus begins a series of trials that last 32 years.

The day after Jón returns home from his beating, two other important characters enter the novel. Arnas Arnæus is a famous Icelandic scholar and a professor at the University of Copenhagen who comes to Jón’s farm with a group of eminent Icelanders searching for old manuscripts. Among the trash in Jón’s mother’s bed, Arnæus find several pages from a Skálda, a manuscript of Eddaic poems. Arnæus is trying to rescue Iceland’s heritage from destruction by searching out these old manuscripts. Having discovered the fragment of Skálda, he considers it the jewel of his collection.

With Arnæus is the bishop, his wife, and her sister Snæfríður, the beautiful young girl known as Iceland’s Sun, daughter of the magistrate. Snæfríður, we learn later, is in love with Arnæus. Arnæus leaves Iceland, promising Snæfríður to return for her. However, he soon marries an elderly rich Danish woman to save his precious manuscripts from being claimed for debt.

When Arnæus returns to Iceland years later, it is as a representative of the Danish king. He comes with the mission to end some of the Danish abuses of the Icelandic people. But his reversal of some of Snæfríður’s father’s decisions takes the perversity of their personal affairs to the international level.

Iceland’s Bell is written with the stark and cynical humor I encountered in Independent People. Laxness brutally depicts the state of the Icelandic people and their diminishment by the Danes. This novel is dark and comical at the same time—and beautifully written.

Day 328: Hamlet

Cover for HamletMy husband likes his jokes. When I told him I was re-reading Hamlet, he said, “It’s full of clichés, you know.” But it was amazing to see how many lines from this play are so familiar to all of us, have almost entered our societal DNA.

Everyone is familiar with the plot. Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, has died, and Hamlet’s mother Gertrude has married his uncle Claudius, his father’s brother, who is now king. Hamlet is in grief and dismay at his father’s death and his mother’s quick remarriage. In the first act of the play, Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, who tells him that Claudius murdered him by pouring poison in his ear as he slept. The ghost orders Hamlet to avenge his death.

One of the puzzlers for me about this play is the reason why Hamlet then chooses to fake insanity. It allows Hamlet to continually bait Claudius and Gertrude without consequences, but otherwise does not make sense to me.

An interesting point raised in the introduction of my version of the Collected Works is that Polonius, in appearance and behavior, is meant to be William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I’s chief minister. The claustrophobic feeling in the play of not being able to trust anyone, of being spied on (depicted marvelously in the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production, starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart), reflects the paranoid nature of Tudor society because of the prevalence of espionage at that time.

Of course, Hamlet’s musings on suicide, death, and the nature of revenge are a major focus of the play. An undoubted message seems to be of the unintended consequences of actions, particularly of revenge. Hamlet and Laertes are bent on revenge, but in obtaining it, they manage to wipe out both their families.

I have seen Hamlet played as a drooping figure of indecision, but I don’t think this is a correct interpretation. Hamlet is caught on the crux of a dilemma. He wants to do what is right but knows that whatever action he chooses, the results will not be pretty. Hence, the inaction.

Day 226: I Curse the River of Time

Cover for I Curse the River of TimeI Curse the River of Time is a sad book about Arvid Jansen, a man trying to cross a divide between himself and his dying mother. At the same time his marriage is failing and the Berlin Wall is coming down. Things are coming to an end in his life.

Jansen remembers decisions he made, particularly the one to leave university and join the Communist party. As the wall falls, he considers his loss of faith in the party. 

In contemplating his failing marriage, he also remembers his courtship of a young girl, although it is not clear whether he is thinking about his wife. He goes to his mother’s home country of Denmark, to a beach house where his family spent the summers, and recalls his childhood bond with his mother.

The novel is moody and inconclusive, and for some reason I kept expecting it to become sinister, although it did not. Even though the novel is focused around his attempts to reconcile with his mother (although that is perhaps not the correct word since there has not been a falling out–she is simply cold and unresponsive to him), it seems to me that Jansen thinks about her too much, is too obsessed with her.

The writing is excellent, spare but full of details. However, the entire feel of the novel is tenuous. There does not seem to be much to fasten onto.

Day 166: We, The Drowned

Cover for We, The DrownedBest Book of the Week!

We, The Drowned is an unusual novel by Danish writer Carsten Jensen that has become an international best seller. It relates the history of the author’s home town, the port of Marstal, Denmark, from 1848 to 1945. Although it picks principal characters to follow during these times, large portions of the novel are written in the first person plural, as though the entire town is the Greek chorus in a play. The novel follows the fate of the town as it rises to become a major shipping port to its near demise just before and during World War II.

The narrative style of the novel feels like a series of seafaring tales. Ships sink, sailors are never seen again, but the townsmen of Marstal continue to be lured out to sea. We follow them as the Danes go to war with Germany in the mid-19th century and the men of Marstal wonder why they are fighting men they traded with the week before. In this conflict, Laurids Madsen is shot upward from an exploding ship and lands again on his feet, unharmed, creating a legend about his boots.

Years later, his son Albert travels the South Pacific looking for his father, who went to sea when Albert was four and never returned. He finds him with a second family in Samoa.

As an old man retired from a prosperous career as a sea captain, Albert befriends a young boy, Knut Erik Friis, whose widowed young mother does everything she can to keep her son from going to sea. When she gains some economic power in the community, she undercuts the town’s shipping industry in an attempt to keep all the young men home.

These stories and many more, ending with Knut Erik’s experiences during World War II, tell the rich tales of the lives in this seafaring town. Although I was initially a little put off by the narrative style, I found myself barely able to put down this book.

Day 150: The Torso

Cover for The TorsoThe Torso is a pedestrian police procedural by Helene Tursten. A torso washes up on a Swedish beach. The investigation finds that a similar murder occurred in Copenhagen, so Detective Irene Huss travels there to consult with the Danish police. Victims are being strangled and then after death dismembered and their organs removed. Not only are the leads to the murderer few, but the police are having difficulty identifying the original torso.

The novel is ploddingly written with no particular suspense. The characters all remain sketchily depicted except Huss, and her every thought is recorded, no matter how mundane. Unfortunately, many of her thoughts are mundane. Every character is thoroughly described including each person’s changes of outfits.

Speaking of Huss’s thoughts, despite having a loving husband and two teenage daughters, she seems to be prepared at one point to launch into an affair with a Danish policeman without any thought at all for her family.

My biggest negative reaction has to do with unlikeliness in the investigation. Perhaps police procedure is different in Sweden than here, but I was surprised to find the coroner providing a profiler lecture based upon one examination of the body and a lot of supposition. For example, there is an assumption throughout that the organs are removed to be eaten, even though there is no proof of that. In addition, the reactions of Huss and other offficers to some sights and remarks seem to be implausibly squeamish, considering their positions. It also seems implausible to me that the team would retain the obnoxious alcoholic cop Jonny, who seems to be incompetent to boot. Rather than assume Swedish procedure and police behavior is that different, I am inclined to believe that Tursten doesn’t know anything about criminal investigations.

Finally, the denoument of the novel is anticlimactic. The murderer has been stalking Huss, so we might expect a terrifying finale. No such thing happens. Although the novel is clearly meant to appeal to those who like dark, gruesome fiction, it completely fails to provide any suspense or atmosphere.