Daughter of the Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird

daughter

What an absorbing read! Bird takes the bare bones of a forgotten slave, Cathy Williams, who posed as a man to join Sheridan’s army near the end of the U.S. Civil War and was the only woman to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers. Then she fleshes those bones out in this captivating novel and clothes them, not just with uniforms but with fully imagined bindings.

When Sheridan on his quest to starve out the Confederate army raids the already-depleted Missouri tobacco farm, he finds little left to take: a scrawny chicken, some sweet potatoes, and a slave to help his cook. He thinks the slave he’s confiscated is a boy because of his britches, and Cathy quickly discovers that she needs to keep up the disguise if she’s to survive. Glad to be free of her cruel mistress but miserable at being torn from her mother and little sister, she calls herself William Cathay.

As a writer, I was intrigued by the choices the author had to make. What kind of woman could not only survive, but become an integral part of an army of men? Bird’s answer: a woman whose mother never let her child forget that she was the daughter of the daughter of an African queen, a mighty warrior who may have been captured and sold into slavery but never lost her pride and spirit.

How would the author handle the bathroom issues, often ignored in historical fiction, but so important here to Cathy’s disguise? Bird comes up with creative, believable solutions, not just for bathing and peeing, but also for Cathy’s “monthlies”.

How much historical context of the Civil War and the Buffalo Soldiers campaign against the Indians would she include? Bird makes the smart choice to tell the story as a memoir, in Cathy’s distinctive and engaging voice. In keeping with that choice, she concentrates on the vivid details of daily life—the size of cooking pots, tea with blackstrap molasses and condensed milk, training new recruits with hay and straw, the things that Cathy would have noticed—and leaves out the big events that Cathy wouldn’t have been aware of.

What about real historical figures? Too little is known about the real Cathy to guide how she is portrayed. I’m no expert on Sheridan and Custer, the only other real figures besides a glimpse of Lee at Appomattox, but the way they are shown here is consistent with their actions.

If I have one quibble with this novel, it is in the characterization. Cathy herself is brilliantly brought to life, and two other characters, Sheridan and the cook Solomon, are complicated men who evolve during the story. However, the other significant characters are either all good or all bad. The remaining black soldiers have no moral sense beyond immediate gratification and are easily led. The Indians, whom the Buffalo Soldiers are sent to quell, are an undifferentiated vicious and terrifying horde, though to be fair that is probably all Private Cathay would have known of them.

Of course there is a love story—it’s rare for female characters to be allowed any other plot—but luckily it is but one strand in the many stories of friendship and courage and leadership.

If you’re looking for a tale of a strong woman succeeding against terrible odds, if you want to be immersed in a time other than our own suddenly grim one, check out this novel.

What issues have you encountered with historical novels? What historical novels have you enjoyed?

Jordan County, by Shelby Foote

Foote

It was the author’s name that caught my eye. Shelby Foote is of course the author of The Civil War. I didn’t know he wrote fiction, but this is only one of several novels. Well, it is subtitled A Novel. In reality, it is that always fascinating hybrid: a novel in stories.

Here it is in a novella and six other stories, all set in the fictional town of Bristol in Jordan County, Mississippi. They are the opposite of a traditional historical narrative because they start in 1950 and go backwards in time to 1797, lending a curious perspective, an unfolding of causes, each absorbed in its present moment, but leading up to the time when Foote was writing.

The first story is begins with Pauly arriving in Bristol on the train. A 25-year-old veteran, presumably of the Korean War, he walks through the town, perplexed by the new names on stores, the traffic lights, the new parking meters. A distracted man approaches.

“They changed it,” he said to the man. “They changed it on me while my back was turned.”

“How’s that?” The worried look did not leave the man’s face.

“The town. They changed it. It’s all new.”

These are stories about change, adjusting to it, creating it, fighting it. Some characters are caught in the shredded remnants of the past while others launch themselves into the future, all while we move through the Jazz Age, across the turn of the century, into Reconstruction, the war itself, the beginnings of the town, all the way to the clearing of the Choctaws.

Almost nowhere is more haunted by dreams of the past than Mississippi, home of William Faulkner who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In giving the life of Hector Sturgis, the novella tells of several generations of the Wingate-Sturgis family, centered in the mansion built by his grand-grandfather in 1835. On the first page we’re told that the mansion has been torn down after the death of Hector’s mother, as specified by her will, and turned into a public park.

Introduced almost as an omen of what is to come, the county is in the grip of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic when Hector is born. The description is eerily familiar: railroads and steamboats shut down, people confined to their homes.

Growing up, Hector inhabits a liminal space. Dressed by his doting mother as Little Lord Fauntleroy, he has no friends. The boys in town are briefly in awe of him but quickly turn to jeering at him. His domineering grandmother wins the power struggle over him leaving his mother seething with resentment. Spoiled, untrained in any practical skill, he is poorly equipped to take his place as a man. Yet he does have one remarkable skill.

As the story weaves and turns it began to remind me of Faulkner’s Wild Palms, that fever dream of the South, of unexpected love, of omens and tragedy and hauntings. Still, just as in the larger novel, we can see the unspooling of whims, decisions, and actions whose long tentacles entangle Hector and his family and threaten to drown them.

There’s brilliant choreography, within each story and in the novel as a whole. Foote releases information, ties things together with the most gossamer allusion, gives us the taste and feel of life in the past. These days I’m a vessel brimming with sadness for our world; Foote helps me see how we got here.

Have you read a novel in stories? How did the form work for you?

Wild Chamber, by Christopher Fowler

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What a comfort reading is during this dark time! There is much to be afraid of and loved ones to be afraid for, but it’s important to take a break sometimes, be somewhere else for a while.

I’ve been reading Fowler’s Bryant and May detective series in order. The two head up the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a division of the London police formed during WWII to handle cases that could cause public unrest. Persisting into the present, it operates like no police department you’ve ever encountered and is constantly under threat of closure by traditional-minded administrators.

Arthur Bryant has his own methods which involve consulting museum curators, white witches, and his own offbeat but strangely useful collection of reference books. He’s a bit of a trickster, with a sly sense of humor. Having more depth than the typical English eccentric, I’ve come to delight in the odd turns his thinking takes, even odder as he ages and others begin to suspect the beginnings of dementia.

John May’s reputation as a ladies’ man has taken a bit of a beating as he ages. With a more logical approach to solving crimes, he tries to protect his friend from his wilder flights and is the only one who stands up to him.

The other members of the PCU are, well, characters in the sense of being unique, believable, yet a little quirky. For instance, Janice Longbright is enamored of the style of 50’s screen actresses—makeup, heels, hair, clothes, the whole shebang—but not terribly practically for chasing suspects down dark alleys.

In this outing, Bryant and May are investigating the murder of a woman in one of London’s parks and gardens, originally called (at least once) its “wild chambers”. This garden is in an exclusive crescent, so it’s kept locked with only residents having access. How could a killer have gotten in? Where is her missing husband? And what does her murder have to do with one of Bryant and May’s cases a year earlier?

Since I’m unable to go to England this spring as planned, I especially relished the way the investigation led through many of London’s parks and gardens, calling up sweet memories for me.

In fact, London is the real protagonist of this series. The solution to the crimes almost always hinges on Bryant’s arcane knowledge of London’s past, whether it’s the history of Bedlam, the routes of lost underground rivers, or forgotten details about St. Pancras Old Church and King’s Cross.

Interestingly, Bryant and May is also the name of London-based company that ran match factories in the 19th century before being absorbed by other companies.

These two detectives would fit perfectly into a Golden Age mystery, though their stories are a bit darker than those standards. The stories don’t really fit into the various subcategories of mystery. Bryant and May aren’t amateurs, but the stories aren’t police procedurals—unless you’re willing to accept a perfectly wacky procedure. They aren’t cosies exactly, but neither are they grim crime novels. What they are is delicious. Funny, infectious, knowledgeable about human nature and London’s long history: the perfect vacation.

What are you reading? Does it give you rest, comfort or courage?

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

water dancer

This first novel from Coates, known for his nonfiction such as Between the World and Me, is the story of Hiram Walker, a young slave in Virginia whose been assigned to be the personal servant for his half-brother: the white, legitimate son of the plantation owner. Hiram’s mother was sold when he was nine, and curiously he has no memory of her. This is odd because otherwise he has perfect recall, a photographic memory.

Then one day when he is driving his feckless half-brother home, he has a vision of his mother dancing on the bridge they are approaching, and something extraordinary happens. He finds he has another, unsuspected power, one which he hopes to use to escape to the north.

Among the many wonderful layers in this story is Hiram’s ambivalent feelings towards his father. As a child he looked up to him as to a powerful god, but as he grows and begins to see the truth about the man’s failings, Hiram’s feelings become more complicated. He can’t completely lose that earlier desire to win his father’s approval. The portrait of the owner is equally nuanced, as he vacillates between treating Hiram as a son and as property. Because it’s so unusual an approach and overlaid with cultural roles, this is a great way to explore father-son relationships.

Another layer is Hiram’s new, magical power, which is called conduction. This becomes more important as the story goes on and he learns how to better use it. Supernatural powers and happenings were a significant part of slave culture, so its inclusion in this slave narrative makes sense. However, for me, this magical realism aspect dissipates some of the outrage at the mental and physical suffering of the enslaved people. Also, it seems to function as a deus ex machina in resolving problems.

To his credit, Coates does not make it easy for Hiram. For Hiram, using his powers is not like waving a magic wand, but instead is an exhausting and painful experience. It reminded me of my recurrent flying dreams as a child which were not lovely floating rides, but entailed my having to labor at a difficult breast stroke if I was to get to the person in need, a strenuous effort that always left me drained in the morning.

The writing, as you would expect from Coates, is gorgeous. His scenes draw me in, full of sensory details and poetic images that make places and stories come alive. I did not get a very deep sense of the characters, but this makes sense since we are seeing them through Hiram’s eyes. He is too young and inexperienced to be deeply perceptive about people—in fact his misunderstandings drive some of the plot. Also, this reflects the reality of slave life: People are constantly being torn away from you, sold south, or lost, so it’s better not to get too attached.

I loved the first part of the book, where even the narrative portions fascinated me, and Coates’s use of unusual terminology—the Tasked instead of slaves, the Low instead of poor whites, etc.—was delightful. However, after that, the story seemed to bog down, and I had to force myself to keep reading.

I thought about this problem for a long time, and I think it comes down to this: Once Hiram achieves his initial goal, the new goal motivating him is not strong enough to drive the story. The stakes do not seem high enough and not personal enough to make that goal matter. It is a worthy goal and certainly should matter a lot, but somehow it just isn’t convincing, at least for this reader.

Still, this coming-of-age story of a man’s journey to freedom is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I loved the unusual and nuanced way the story embodies the themes of family and memory. One of the episodes that most stands out to me is the brief story of a former slave Hiram meets who is trying to rescue the remainder of his family. Finally, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this novel vividly demonstrates the curious self-blindness, the dissociation that slave owners and supporters of slavery inculcated in themselves.

Have you ever shied away from a novel because it seemed as though its subject matter would be difficult or distressing? Did you ever, as I did with this book, go on to read it and be glad you did?

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

beloved

Reading again this powerful book, I was deeply moved. It opens with Sethe and her 18-year-old daughter Denver in a house haunted by a spiteful spirit. After sexual assault and a brutal beating that left her back hideously scarred, a pregnant Sethe had escaped from slavery, making her way to Ohio outside Cincinnati where her mother-in-law lived. Denver was born just before Sethe arrived at Baby Suggs’s home, where she’d previously sent her other three children, two boys and a barely crawling girl.

It is that girl, Beloved, who haunts the house, shaking furniture from the walls, overturning the jam cupboard, hurting the dog. Only 21 days after Sethe arrived, the slave catcher showed up with her master and the sheriff. Rather than let them be taken into slavery, Sethe decides to kill her children and herself, but only succeeds in killing Beloved before she is stopped. A young mother myself when I first read the book, I was baffled by this beginning, but grew to understand it better as I read on.

Then Paul D., another slave from Sweet Home, shows up at Sethe’s house and drives out the ghost, only to—apparently—have it return in a different form.

I often forget aspects of books I’ve read (which comes in handy when I’m rereading mysteries), but not with this one. Although it had been quite a few years, having read it before left me free to notice and appreciate other aspects of the book.

For one thing, the way Morrison releases information is a master class in itself. In some instances, information only comes out later because the character doesn’t remember it or has worked hard to suppress it. Memory is a prominent theme in the book, its influence and—even when stifled—its inexorable return. In other places, information is hidden because the characters don’t know it yet or is mentioned but we don’t understand its meaning until later.

I was also interested in how the author handles the flow of time, having just read the fluid narrative of Celestial Bodies. Time here too is fungible, with the past intruding on the present, and not just in carefully transitioned flashbacks, but rather with the immediacy of thought., flitting through layers of memory. Unlike Alharthi’s novel, though, it does not flash forward into the future; that remains as mysterious as it is for all of us.

The first time I read Beloved I was too shocked at the vivid depiction of conditions under slavery and its legacy to pay much attention to much else. Not that I was naive about what humans were capable of. I’d followed the Eichmann trial, although I was barely into double digits then, and around the same time stumbled into a book called 100 Years of Lynchings that consisted of reprints of contemporaneous newspaper accounts—a chilling introduction to the horrors of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era that followed.

But what struck me this time was the lasting effects of slavery, both physical and emotional, the way it shaped African Americans, slaves and free, even their children. The way it shaped white people too. I thought a lot about what that kind of dissociation—the lies you have to tell yourself to be able to own slaves—does to the psyche, how you must have to shut down part of yourself, do away with emotional granularity, and lock yourself in a childishly simple world. I thought about people today who seem like hypocrites to me and wondered if they too live in that simple world and don’t even recognise their hypocrisy.

I thought too, as I often have recently, about the wealth of white people, accrued from the stolen labor of blacks, Mexicans and Chinese workers. And I thought about children being taken away from their families at the border and locked in cages and how that’s even worse than taking them away and selling them to another slave owner because then at least you have the hope however faint of possibly seeing them again.

We are all haunted by the past. Not just our own, but also that of our parents and grandparents. And not just by what really happened, but also by the illusions peddled by profiteers and our own rose-colored recollections.

Have you read this extraordinary book? What impressed you most about it?

Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi

Celestial-Bodies-Jokha-Alharthi

I’m in a few book clubs and, luckily for me, they are all interested in reading more diverse authors, hence this Man Booker-winning novel by Alharthi, who is an author and university professor from Oman. It is the story of three sisters and their extended family in a rural village outside the capital of Oman during the late twentieth century when the culture in that country was rapidly and unevenly changing.

Mayya, the oldest sister, doesn’t have much to do with the outside world, preferring to stay at home sewing. When her parents inform her that she will be married to Abdallah, son of the merchant Sulayman, they do not know she’s in love with a young man recently returned from London, whom she’s seen from afar twice. Mayya obediently marries Abdallah but names her first child, a girl, London.

Asma, the second sister, finds her joy in books and traditional religion. When her parents inform her that Khalid wants to marry her, she insists on taking a few days to decide, but eventually agrees. He is an artist whose ideal wife, as it turns out, is someone who will fall “into the orbit he had marked out, who would always be there but would also always stay just outside, yet without wanting to create her own celestial sphere, her own orbit.”

Khawla is more modern, wearing lipstick and adamantly refusing to marry anyone but her beloved Nasir who eventually rewards her devotion by marrying her but immediately decamps for Canada where he lives with his girlfriend, returning more or less annually, just long enough to get the faithful Khawla pregnant.

Marriage is not the only area where customs and mores are changing. Social classes, education for women, contact with the outside world: all of these are in motion and thus reflected in the fluidity of the book’s structure. Instead of a single plot with subplots, there are a multitude of plot threads that come to the fore and disappear, sometimes returning, sometimes not, a structure that seems to mirror what life was like for those living through such upheaval.

The brief chapters shift between a multitude of voices, making all of us in the book club rely heavily on the genealogical chart in the front of the books. Most chapters move between the sisters’ voices and those of others: their parents, London, even Zarifa, originally Sulayman’s slave, now a servant and his mistress. Almost all are women’s voices. We all preferred the book’s original title, literally translated as Ladies of the Moon.

These are interspersed with chapters of Abdallah’s first person narration. We questioned why a man should have so much real estate in a book primarily about women and be the only one addressing us directly. The only thing we could think of is that his prominence reflects the male privilege still dominating the culture. The irony is that although Abdallah’s chapters all take place on planes (he flies around the world for work), he and the other men are the characters most confined and hobbled by their roles.

Time is also extremely fluid in this book, sometimes moving decades forward and then backward into the past all in the same paragraph. Readers like me who tend to prefer a mostly linear and chronological plot may struggle to keep track of what is going on and who the characters are. Yet the effort brings a huge reward, not just in a glimpse into a—for me—unfamiliar culture, nor just the vivid and sometimes intoxicating language, but also the enlightening experience of navigating a changing world.

What diverse voices are you reading?

Juneteenth, by Ralph Ellison

Juneteenth

In the 1950s Reverend Hickman, an elderly black preacher, brings members of his congregation to Washington D.C. They attempt—unsuccessfully—to visit white Senator Sunraider, an outspoken racist, and are in the Senate chamber when he is shot.

As Hickman sits beside the critically ill senator’s hospital bedside, he remembers the man’s past as the child called Bliss whom the preacher had raised. Hickman had been first a trumpet-playing jazzman and then a minister, but he’d always raised Bliss as part of the black community despite his white appearance. Eventually he trained Bliss to preach alongside him. Sunraider himself remembers differently, when he’s not trying to bury those memories. After running away, Bliss rejected the past and reinvented himself first as a filmmaker and then as a politician.

Their thoughts gallop and pause and race on, with a dazzling drive that makes it hard to tear yourself away. Unforgettable scenes are set and hearts opened in language like a mighty river, gorgeous and terrible. Here is an excerpt from a scene Bliss/Sunraider remembers of an encounter with a young woman during his movie-making days (ellipses are part of the text):

. . . And I could tell you how I drew her close then and how her surrender was no surrender but something more, a materialization of the heart, the deeper heart that lives in dreams—or once it did—that roams out in the hills among the trees, that sails calm seas in the sunlight; that sings in the stillness of star-cast night . . .

Much of the drive comes from the rhythms of jazz and the oratorical fire of the pulpit embedded in the language. Here is a portion of a remembered service that features a call and response between Hickman and young Bliss after the older man has described the “floating coffins” that yet were Christian ships bringing them out of Africa (emphasis and ellipses are part of the text):

Amen, Daddy Hickman, amen. But now the younger generation would like to know what they did to us when they got us here. What happened then?

They brought us up onto this land in chains . . .

. . . In chains . . .

. . . Into the fever swamps, they marched us . . .

And they set us to work draining the swampland and toiling in the sun . . .

. . . They set us to toiling . . .

They took the white fleece of the cotton and the sweetness of the sugarcane and made them bitter and bloody with our toil . . . And they treated us like one great unhuman animal without any face . . .

Without a face, Rev. Hickman?

Without personality, without names, Rev. Bliss, we were made into nobody and not even Mister Nobody either, just nobody. They left us without names. Without choice. Without the right to do or not to do, to be or not to be . . .

This is a story, then, about time and memory, about history and the wounds of the past. It is a story about the difficulty of communication. We have lavish access to both men’s thoughts and memories, but their actual dialogue in the hospital room is strained and limited. It is truly a Great American Novel, addressing the great American Wound, sparing nobody.

This book was a lot more coherent and easy to read than I expected. Ellison had been working on this second novel, following his popular and National Book Award-winning Invisible Man, from 1953 until his death in 1994. But Ellison struggled to find the right structure for his magnum opus, deleting, rewriting, and adding to it to the point where he thought it might actually be three books.

His literary executor John F. Callahan took on the monumental task of sorting the disorganised mass of material for what Callahan calls “a mythic saga of race, identity, language and kinship in the American experience.” From hundreds of pages of Ellison’s notes and excerpts Callahan selected the story of Reverend Hickman and Bliss/Sunraider as the part that best stands alone.

Their story holds the possibility of healing, not just of the rift between the two men or the gap between past and present, but what separates us all.

Have you read this astonishing book? What did you think of it?

The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

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Kadish’s fourth novel is a stunning story that braids the tale of a modern-day historian with that of a seventeenth-century woman who was brought to London by a rabbi when her parents died in Amsterdam after fleeing the Inquisition in Spain. It’s a brilliant fusion of genres: historical fiction, women’s fiction, thriller, mystery and romance.

Helen, a specialist in Hebrew history on the verge of mandatory retirement and in poor health, is contacted by a former student about a cache of documents found in the London house he and his wife are renovating. She enlists the aid of Aaron, a brash American graduate student who’s hit a roadblock with his PhD thesis.

This unlikely duo are startled to find that the books and papers do indeed date from the 1650s and 1660s, the library and letters of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. But it is the identity of his scribe, signed merely as “Aleph” that captivates them. Helen finds evidence that Aleph may be a woman and the literary hunt is on as, vexed by conservators and rival historians, not to mention their own thorny relationship, the two try to learn more about Aleph.

These chapters are interspersed with the story of Ester Velasquez as she discovers the terrible beauty of learning. When the blind rabbi asks her to read to him and write letters for him, she becomes hungry for more, reading widely in philosophy and beginning herself to write her thoughts—things that were not allowed for women at that time.

This extraordinarily well-researched book brings to life the world of London just before and during the plague years and great fire. One detail stood out for me: that several kinds of ink were used, one of which—iron gall ink—disintegrates the paper so that hundred of years later the letters show up as empty space on a page.

This image fuels the title: the weight that ink—reading and writing—places on Ester’s life, making her question her religion and the constructs of society, making her unwilling to marry since that would mean giving up the world of the mind for the daily round of chores.

It also speaks to the silence of women in that time. As Virginia Woolf famously wrote in her essay “Shakespeare’s Sister”, where she imagines a sister with his genius, “any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.”

There’s a story here for everyone. You’ve got a literary puzzle like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, a thriller as time runs out for Ester and for Helen and Aaron. There’s the social history of Jewish London at the time, fractured between upper-class Portuguese and working class Tudesco (German, meaning Ashkenazi) Jews. You’ve got insights into the different burdens placed on men and on women, both now and in the past. There’s fascinating information about conserving documents and philosophy and bountiful insight into the human heart.

For me, much as I enjoyed Ester’s chapters and the evocation of seventeenth-century London, curious as I was as to how she could possibly reconcile her warring nature with itself and society, it was Helen’s chapters that most captured my attention. We do not often enough read about a woman’s relationship with her work (or a man’s for that matter, outside of writing). Helen’s own history, her concern for not just the things but the lessons of the past, her education of this her last student: these combine to show what a woman’s life-work can be.

This is a long book, but it’s worth taking the time to sink into it. And as you get further in, you’ll find the story accelerating such that you will hardly bear to set it aside even for a moment.

Have you read a novel that effectively fuses literary genres?

The Fish Can Sing, by Halldór Laxness

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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?