The Fish Can Sing, by Halldór Laxness

fish

Set at the beginning of the 20th century, this novel follows Álfgrímur, raised by his grandparents in a tiny village in the outskirts of Reykyjavík. They aren’t actually his grandparents. Björn is a fisherman who catches the lowly lumpfish which he always sells at the same price, rejecting the idea of supply and demand, believing that most people have more money than they need. Álfgrímur’s “grandmother” is not related to either of them yet works tirelessly while dispensing folk wisdom. They open their home, a cottage named Brekkukot, to anyone who wishes to stay there.

One of those is Álfgrímur’s mother who arrives pregnant and leaves after delivering the child. Among the many who come and go, Álfgrímur shares a spot with three permanent inhabitants: Captain Hogensen who used to pilot Danish ships; the Superintendent, a philosopher with a mysterious job whom the child believes to be descended from the Hidden People; and a descendant of Chief Justices who is an occasional drunk and a great admirer of cesspools.

On the walls of Brekkukot is a portrait of Garðar Hólm, Björn ‘s nephew, now Iceland’s great singer, who has been sent out into the world to bring glory to Iceland and show that it is not just a land of peasants and fishermen. Álfgrímur is fascinated by him, adding the idea of becoming a singer to his early conviction that he wants to be a lumpfisherman like his grandfather. Garðar Hólm is a mysterious figure who appears and disappears in the story but avoids singing for his native villagers.

Ostensibly a coming-of-age story, narrated by Álfgrímur, it is more a portrait of a disappearing way of life. In Horizon, Barry Lopez laments the loss of indigenous peoples and their traditions that offer alternate ways of seeing the world and living our lives. Here we see a country in transition as Iceland, a Danish colony where people still compute the price of a Bible by cows and cure headaches with warm cow dung, begins to move towards independence as modern industry creeps in.

This is a charming book, one that rewards patient attention. Don’t come to this book if you’re looking for a fast-paced novel that will keep you on the edge of your seat. But if you want a subtler story, one filled with quirky characters and gentle, affectionate humor, this is the book for you. There is a good bit of ironic subtext about fame and riches, about family and art.

There is much we could learn from Björn’s unfailing generosity, the way villagers such as the Pastor and a music teacher try to help the child, and Captain Hogensen’s annual complaint to “the Authorities” about the threat to small fishermen of modern fishing trawlers from England and elsewhere that are depleting the fish population.

It is the Pastor who first told Garðar Hólm about the “one true note”, the philosophic heart of the story that has fueled Garðar Hólm’s career and lures Álfgrímur as well.

Laxness deploys language with a deceptive simplicity. I especially treasure his metaphors, such as the window over Álfgrímur’s bed that is so small it is possible to see only one blade of grass and one star. Or this description of Captain Hogensen as “…the light of the world had more or less taken leave of this man, for he was almost blind.”

The title comes from a traditional Icelandic paradox, quoted by the hilarious merchant Gúðmúnsen:

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

The original title strictly translated is The Annals of Brekkukot, which I find more intriguing, but that is because I’ve already read the book. It would not be an attention-grabbing title. And the English title does highlight the colorful and playful paradoxes in these characters and, indeed, in ourselves.

What book have you read set in Iceland?

Best Books I read in 2019

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the twelve best books I read in 2019. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, by Stuart Hall
You might think that this collection of talks given at Harvard in 1994 by Stuart Hall couldn’t be relevant 25 years later, but nothing could be more germane to what is happening today. Hall, a prominent intellectual and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, examines the three words in his subtitle and how their meanings—how we understand them—have changed over time.

2. The Book of Emma Reyes, by Emma Reyes
Reyes, who died in 2003 at the age of 84, lived in Paris where she was known as an artist, friends with Sartre, Frido Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. She was also known as a fascinating storyteller, full of stories of her childhood in Colombia. The translator Daniel Alarcón says in his introduction, “Her vision is acute, detailed, remorseless, and true. There is no self-pity, only wonder, and that tone, so delicate and subtle, is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement.”

3. The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. DuBois
DuBois presents a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

4. Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

5. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin
If you haven’t read this classic, stop right now and go read it. Came out in 1969? No problem: it couldn’t be more relevant to today. Don’t like science fiction? Won’t matter; there aren’t any space battles or robots; just beings you will recognise going about their lives. And any initial questions you might have about the culture you’re reading about are exactly the point.

6. A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry
I had read some of Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, so I was not surprised that one of the big ideas explored in this his second novel is our relationship with the land. Reading this story set in the small town of Port William, Kentucky in 1944, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar to most of us today.

7. All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski
To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed. Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate.

8. The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield
Hirshfield is one of my favorite poets, and I welcomed the opportunity to reread this early (1994) collection of hers. The poems in this book hold mysteries that, like koans, can leave me pondering a few lines for days.

9. Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser
A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. I’d never read the Little House books, so I caught up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced and immensely readable account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

10. The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez
Nunez’s new novel, winner of the 2018 National Book Award, is a quiet and intelligent story of friendship, love and despair, tackling the questions most of us wrestle with at various times in our lives: Should I change my life? Is it worth going on as I have?

11. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
This popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel left me with a combination of enchantment and disappointment. It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees. What I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story.

12. Memento Mori, by Charles Coe
Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet. The poems in this book celebrate ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight. They are the poems of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

What were the best books you read last year?

Horizon, by Barry Lopez

lopez

In this profound and generous book, Lopez looks back over some of the travels that have shaped his understanding and philosophy. We go from Oregon to Antarctica, from Nunavut to Tasmania, from Eastern Equatorial Africa to Xi’an in China.

Many of these expeditions are scientific endeavors, where he has joined a team of archeologists to excavate the site of a long-gone indigenous peoples or scientists measuring boreal (ocean bottom) life or another team measuring glacier movement. Sometimes he ventures out for other reasons, such as revisiting the Galápagos Islands or tracing the route of Shackleton’s open-boat journey to Elephant Island.

He weaves in stories of explorers and adventurers, the well-known such as Cook, Darwin, Scott, and the lesser-known such as Ranald MacDonald, Edward Wilson, Lt. Adolphus Greeley. He taps poets, writers, and philosophers for insights and connections.

I’ve taken my time reading this book. It’s so rich! I’ve gone back and reread sections, or paused for a few days to consider what I’ve just read. More than once I’ve picked it up to find him addressing something that was on my mind, as in this paragraph from the section in Antarctica. I had been thinking about various lifespans, and in particular that of rocks.

I turned one rock after another over in my gloved hands, to get its measure, to take it in more completely. In the absence of any other kind of life, these rocks seemed alive to me, living at a pace of unimaginable slowness, but revealing by their striations and cleavage, by their color, inclusions, and crystalline gleam, evidence of the path each had followed from primordial birth to this moment of human acquaintance.

The science is easy to follow, the descriptions gorgeous. Lopez depicts not only the natural world, but the human cultures that have come and gone upon it. What stands out for me is the unhurried accumulation of insights building one upon another, like a coral reef, to create an ethical framework, a structure that can hold the eager quest for knowledge of scientists, the adventurousness of explorers, the communities that care for each other and also the atrocities visited upon innocent people, cultures deliberately or accidentally wiped out, chemical waste dumped in cities and towns.

What are we to make of our current societies, where the drive for profit pushes technology without regard for consequences, where science is undermined by for-profit businesses and their government lackeys? There was much that was wrong in earlier centuries, earlier societies, but can we draw any lessons that could help us today? What is being lost as human cultures and species are obliterated, as glaciers melt into the sea?

And then we set that against the generosity of those who have sought to advance our knowledge, those who have labored to save the remnants of the past, those who have devoted themselves to conserving this world that we have so damaged, of Oates walking out into the night, of Shackleton’s determination to save every one of his crew.

Lopez’s accounts embody the respect for other cultures that many people today strive for. The cultures he explores—especially the lost indigenous cultures like the Thule of the Arctic, the Kaweskar of southern Chile—remind me of the long arc of human history, the coming and going of peoples. One insight I found particularly helpful was about communicating with “members of a culture that had experienced the brutal force of colonial intrusion. I knew the only right gift to offer people in these situations is to listen, to be attentive.”

The horizon he explores is physically and metaphorically the line where our known world gives way to air, to the space we still know almost nothing about. That liminal space is where exciting things can happen. The quest for knowledge and understanding—along with compassion—are what I value most in human beings. I will be reading and rereading this book for years to come.

Have you read a book that increased your knowledge of the natural world and challenged your philosophies?

Collected Poems, by Emily Dickinson

Emily

For our first meeting this year, our Poetry Discussion Group read Dickinson’s poems, a mix of famous and now-so-famous works. To prepare, I reread this collection from my bookshelf, finding notes from my schooldays tucked in its pages, enjoying old favorites and rediscovering ones I’d forgotten.

At our meeting one person remarked that almost anyone reading an unattributed poem by Dickinson would know immediately that it was by her. Why is that? It’s partly her remarkable concision—the way she can pack so much into a handful of lines—and partly her combination of whimsy and practicality.

Of course there are her distinctive dashes. In many cases, they designate a pause, as here:

It’s all I have to bring today —
This, and my heart beside —
This, and my heart, and all the fields —
And all the meadows wide —
Be sure you count — should I forget
Some one the sum could tell —
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.

In others, they indicate a modern fracturing of perception, as here:

Each Life Converges to some Centre —
Expressed — or still —
Exists in every Human Nature
A Goal —

Embodied scarcely to itself — it may be —
Too fair
For Credibility’s presumption
To mar —

Adored with caution — as a Brittle Heaven —
To reach
Were hopeless, as the Rainbow’s Raiment
To touch —

Yet persevered toward — sure — for the Distance —
How high —
Unto the Saint’s slow diligence —
The Sky —

Ungained — it may be — by a Life’s low Venture —
But then —
Eternity enable the endeavoring
Again.

Sometimes they add emphasis to certain words or ideas.

I taste a liquor never brewed —
From Tankards scooped in Pearl —
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air — am I —
And Debauchee of Dew —
Reeling — thro endless summer days —
From inns of Molten Blue —

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door —
When Butterflies — renounce their “drams” —
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats —
And Saints — to windows run —
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the — Sun –

She can be joyous, as in the previous poem, or satirical, as here:

What Soft — Cherubic Creatures —
These Gentlewomen are —
One would as soon assault a Plush —
Or violate a Star —

Such Dimity Convictions —
A Horror so refined
Of freckled Human Nature —
Of Deity — ashamed —

It’s such a common — Glory —
A Fisherman’s — Degree —
Redemption — Brittle Lady —
Be so — ashamed of Thee —

More often, though, she’s kind, appreciative of the world around here and aware of its transience:

I had no time to Hate —
Because
The Grave would hinder Me —
And Life was not so
Ample I
Could finish — Enmity —

Nor had I time to Love —
But since
Some Industry must be —
The little Toil of Love —
I thought
Be large enough for Me –

Some of her poems seem straightforward, but may have layers within. Some—such as the last one—are so sweetly positive as to border on sentimentality, though never (in my opinion) crossing over. Some we found baffling, such as this one where the two stanzas seem to be separate poems, the first clear and the second bewildering (Himmaleh indicates the Himalayas).

I can wade Grief —
Whole Pools of it —
I’m used to that —
But the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet —
And I tip — drunken —
Let no Pebble — smile —
‘Twas the New Liquor —
That was all!

Power is only Pain —
Stranded, thro’ Discipline,
Till Weights — will hang —
Give Balm — to Giants —
And they’ll wilt, like Men —
Give Himmaleh —
They’ll Carry — Him!

As writers we’re often advised to eliminate adjectives and adverbs, yet she deploys them brilliantly, as in this poem where it is the adjectives that give it power:

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ration
To the ecstasy.

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years —
Bitter contested farthings —
And Coffers heaped with Tears!

I have plenty of friends IRL (in real life) and online, but books too are my friends, and none more welcome than wise and witty Emily.
All the poems I’ve quoted and more may be found here.

What is your favorite Emily Dickinson poem?