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The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann, John E. Woods
The Hooligan's Return: A Memoir
Norman Manea, Angela Jianu
The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie: Three Novels - Ágota Kristof, Alan Sheridan, David Watson, Marc Romano When I was younger, I used to have a recurring dream about a world I haven't experienced in real life: I found myself in a place that was being bombed. I was hiding inside a house, a deafening noise around me; through the windows I could see the planes and hear the explosions. I was living intensely in a dimension that was at war; I felt the terror, the helplessness. I have no idea why I had those dreams. I haven't lived through a war, I don't know how bombardments feel like. But my dreams felt real nonetheless. It could have been my reality in another life, if I were to believe in it. Or it could be the reality of my dreams, a realm where my mind continues to live without my body.

Ágota Kristof lived through a war but she writes her novels like they were a dream. We are never sure what is real and what is imagined, where the truth ends and where the lies start. Twins with a single voice, a common life; it could well be just one person who dreams; a lonely, scarred soul that can't bear the loneliness and torment. And yet the dream might be true; we can never be sure. Three versions of the same truth. We could pierce through the veil of lies and take a glimpse of the bare truth. But we might not find ourselves in the right dimension; a truth in one world could be a lie in the other.
What if we lived in a dream? Its reality is different than the one we find when awake. I sometimes wish I could live a bit longer in the realm of my dreams. Mysterious cities, incredible adventures. Being able to kick the ground and rise in the air, flying above the city. We should be able to choose the reality we desire, the one that makes us happy. We should be able to live in the reality of our dreams - our mind does not need our weak body there.

The twins do everything together, their voices are one. Their will is already strong, bent to no one. They help if they feel it is justified, but never because of being asked. An unscrupulous correctness down to the smallest details. And, more important of all, exercises to toughen the body and spirit. They learn to face hunger, pain, injustice; they learn to live with cruelty and death; they learn what it is to be blind and deaf.
They observe and never judge, but they resort to vengeance when deserved; their law is the Old Testament law. They accept every experience without a flinch or wonder; they observe and learn. They tread the path of cruelty and promiscuity - or is it the path that leads to primitive life, to the original nature of man? Are they sociopaths or do they represent the new man, the product of a world at war?
The twins defy the terror around them. They have their own path, their own law. They feel more scared in a crammed cellar than roaming the deserted streets, surrounded by bombs and soaring planes. Valiance, recklessness, or maybe it is indifference? We perceive the war through their eyes - the foreign soldiers, the deportation of Jews, the atrocities committed. It is a twisted world with an ugliness, cruelty and depravity distorted to the point where it becomes absurd, irrational, sickening. The twins are surrounded by a new town of Babel, where the law of survival prevails.

This novel is one of the saddest and most shocking I've read. But the saddest of books can never be sadder than a life, Kristof says. How much can a human being endure? If you search for a meaning of life, there is none, she says. What about love, the universal elixir of happiness? The twins exclude the word and the notion of love from their lives. But what is the bond between them, if it is not love? Their experiments deny human feelings and weaknesses; they challenge hunger, pity, attachment. They go even further - they try to break their bond. They attempt the ultimate experiment, dividing one being into two halves. It's no longer a matter of happiness, because the important question is: can the two beings survive? Do they know how to live on their own separate way?

Read this novel. Read it and experience the pain and the sadness. You'll be sick, disgusted, tormented. When you'll close the book, you'll realize you won't be able to smile for a while. You'll feel like you've really lived through a war. You survived, but you'd rather be dead. The world of lies won't suffice anymore.
Silence of the Grave - Arnaldur Indriðason, Bernard Scudder When I was a teenager, I was a big fan of detective novels, to the effect that I was contemplating the possibility of joining the Police force. I was even conducting my own investigations. When I was around 14, I liked a boy from church who was older than me. I found out his name, where he lived, that he had a sister and other information. I even followed him once. Then, one Sunday after the sermon, I approached him and blurted out everything I had found out about him. I remember I was awfully dressed, with a pair of woolen stockings that wrinkled around my knees. Maybe it was the first time I became aware of my clothes. To my surprise, the boy - Octavian, I remember his name even now - was not shocked by my boldness, instead he was very kind and asked what my name was. Nothing romantic came out of that encounter, but we remained friends.
That's the way I was and I don't think I've changed too much over the years. I still like to fit pieces together, make connections and understand things. But one thing I stopped doing was following boys.

That's not a proper review for this book, I know. The point is that I used to love detective novels in my youth. I haven't revisited the genre for quite a long time, but now I'm set upon finding some good such literature that could entertain me when I'm tired or stressed out. I want to get back that wonderful feeling when I was engrossed in a captivating investigation, red in the face with too much tension, oblivious to everything around me, even pretending to be sick so that I could skip school, stay home and read. Well, I'm aware that I might not get that feeling back, as I'm grown up now. But still, there is hope.

Arnaldur Indriðason's novels are moderately good, the cases are puzzling and the investigation procedures keep me interested. I also prick my ears at every mention of Iceland and its people, because I have a genuine interest in this country. Indriðason's novels are not what I'm looking for, though, because there is no great tension, no shocking conclusion and - what bothers me the most - there are other layers to the story that I'm not really interested in, mainly the insights into the detectives' personal life. Honestly, they are boring. Still, these parts are way better than what I've found in Camilla Läckberg's [b:The Hidden Child|10868182|The Hidden Child (Patrik Hedström, #5)|Camilla Läckberg|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1349028349s/10868182.jpg|1600165], which was a kind of soap opera. If you have some expectations from literature, please stay away from Camilla Läckberg!

The two stars reflect my interest in only 1/3 of the novel, which dealt with the investigative part. One third was about events that happened long ago - a depressing account of an Icelandic family who had to put up with physical and mental abuse from a monster of a husband and father. This part was heart-wrenching and I couldn't bear it in its entirety, so I mostly read between the lines. The remaining 1/3 of the novel was about the detectives' personal lives, which I found rather boring, so I mostly subjected them to quick-reading techniques. The layers were interspersed, which made the actual plot thin and diluted.

My request to you, the ones who read detective novels, is to recommend me good books that mainly deal with cases, investigations and with a plot that truly builds tension. I want to get that feeling back and I'm really getting frustrated that I can't! Or maybe I should learn to get over it...
Jar City - Arnaldur Indriðason, Bernard Scudder I've taken an interest to Iceland ever since I read Halldór Laxness. Seeing there are a few Icelandic authors in translation - or maybe they are indeed just a few - I wanted to explore this country through the detective novels of Arnaldur Indriðason, as well. Luckily, he gives some interesting insights into the social aspect of Icelandic people. Well, more like the criminality aspect, through phrases such as:
Icelandic murders aren't complicated.
Icelandic judges were notoriously lenient.
Icelandic murderers generally don’t leave anything behind but a mess.

My Gr friend Linda has been to Iceland and she told me that this is considered one of the safest countries in the world. This baffled me, so I've read more about it and came upon an interesting BBC article: an US law student went to Iceland to study the reason behind the low criminality rate. In a country where almost one person out of three owns a gun, the few crimes that occur don't usually involve firearms. Hmm, strange. Give one angry American a gun and he'll know what to do with it! Even Police members are unarmed, the only officers permitted to carry firearms are on a special force called the Viking Squad, and they are seldom called out.
I'm really fascinated now.

//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beaumont_Children">Beaumont children cold case in Australia, which greatly influenced Australian society in that a lot of people who left their children unattended, believing their country was safe, improved their supervision. I hope this never happens in Iceland, which should remain like it is, a happy and miraculous exception.

But what are the reasons behind this amazing fact? It seems that Iceland's social welfare and education systems promote an egalitarian culture and there is virtually no difference among upper, middle and lower classes. It looks like Icelandic people managed to put in practice the teachings of Prophet Mani.
A study of the Icelandic class system done by a University of Missouri master's student found only 1.1% of participants identified themselves as upper class, while 1.5% saw themselves as lower class. The remaining 97% identified themselves as upper-middle class, lower-middle class, or working class.

On another web-site, the question "How Safe is Reykjavik, Iceland?" is answered with Crime in Reykjavik is basically non-existent, even petty thieves are only rarely seen. The only area in Reykjavik that a single female may not want to visit late at night is Austurvöllur Park - and that's only because it's a popular place for winos, who like to keep to themselves anyway. Ha ha, not even wankers or exhibitionists - I guess it's too cold for that!

I'm sorry this is not actually a review, but I've found all this information fascinating and I wanted to share it with you. Inspector Erlendur deals with a crime that defies the Icelandic tradition, in that it's not simple and careless, but puzzling and brain-racking. The criminal leaves a note behind (we don't find out what it says until the middle of the book). Were it not for the presence of another layer to the story - about the detective's personal life - this novel would get 4 stars from me. It was much better than [b:Silence of the Grave, because it dealt more with the actual investigation (which was also much more interesting) and less with domestic drama. The atmosphere is bleak, it rains without ever seeming to stop, and Erlendur has family issues, mainly with his daughter, who is a drug addict. Reading the novel, I've got under the impression that there is a serious issue with drugs in Iceland, but further info showed that it is not the case. I guess Indriðason wanted to place his inspector in the worst living conditions, which seems to me a bit too forced. In [b:Silence of the Grave|82991|Silence of the Grave|Arnaldur Indriðason|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1316131788s/82991.jpg|80125] we find out about more tragedies in his life, which makes me wonder if every book in the series brings additional misfortune to Erlendur, poor man.

Two other interesting facts in the novel:

1. Icelanders eat boiled sheep's head, which I find to be gross. I won't post a picture, no, no. It is a traditional dish called Svið, which originated in harsh times when people started to use every part of a slaughtered animal. Here's a funny account of eating such dish:

Never did I expect to taste such a barbaric dish as a sheep's head. But a decade later there it was on my plate, looking up at me with a sorrowful glaze in its eyes. I pulled the jaw apart and stabbed a clump of meat with my fork. When in Iceland... And it wasn't bad. Really. The cheek, where most of the meat is found, was tender and rather tasty. Dipped in a little rhubarb jelly, it was even better. Just beware of the eyes. Those baby blues are considered a delicacy. Well, really, it's the entire eye socket that some Icelanders find so appetizing, with or without the actual eyeball included. So plop that hunk of meat into your mouth and try to think about something else. Anything else. - Lara Weber, Chicago Tribune

2. Indriðason talks in his novel about a Genetic Research Centre, which actually has a base in reality. In such a centre would be gathered medical data about all the Icelanders, linked with a genealogy database in which the family of every single Icelander would be traced back to the Middle Ages.

They called it establishing the Icelandic genetic pool. The main aim was to discover how hereditary illnesses were transmitted, study them genetically and find ways to cure them, and other diseases if possible. It was said that the homogenous nation and lack of miscegenation made Iceland a living laboratory for genetic research. - Arnaldur Indriðason
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby - Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Keith Gessen, Anna Summers Now that's a puzzling title, who almost screams: "Marketing plans!", because there is no story with such a title in this collection. With the idea, yes, there is.
Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord - Louis de Bernières I had no idea that the thrift store close to home had also second-hand books on sale. I went there a lot of times searching for nice clothes, but never, ever noticed the English books sitting on the shelf. Today I went in this store with a friend and wasn't intending to buy anything when, suddenly, I had a vision: I finally saw the books. And they were soo cheap, like 0.30 cents. Mostly romance, but there was also this book, that I proudly took home. :)
Our Circus Presents - Lucian Dan Teodorovici, Alistair Ian Blyth What is it that pushes people towards committing suicide? I thought the answer was simple: a grief and desperation so great that would obliterate any trace of hope and desire. One of the characters in Our Circus Presents has a different opinion, though: besides being the ultimate artistic act that a human being can perform, a true suicide is one without a motive. If one has desires, even the littlest of projections into the future, it means that one is not really capable of committing suicide.
The same character asks: what was the reason behind God's creation of Earth and people? He couldn't have made it either from love, wisdom or desire for power and justice. He concludes that God had no real motive, it was just because. An authentic suicide should be the same, just because.

There is a whole array of characters in Our Circus Presents, all nameless people, each belonging to a different type of circus. There is the micro universe of a block of flats, with all kinds of neighbors: the old couple that keeps their door cracked all day, spying on their floor; the old man who borrows water from his neighbors and uses the elevator to pee and defecate, so that he could save his own water; the husband and wife that fight on account of long-gone affairs; the man who fakes blindness so that he would be allowed in front of a queue.

The narrator, living in the same building, starts his day by sitting on the window ledge, waiting for the impulse to jump. And also waiting for something of interest to happen. Jobless, nameless, womanless, he belongs to a loose circle of people who intend to commit suicide. Intend, but not quite manage to do it. Their means of suicide vary: a not-so-sane guy wants to hang himself in the forest, surrounded by hanged stray dogs; a former theologian tried to catch a fatal disease by sleeping with the cheapest whores - since that plan failed, he intends to drink himself to death with 10 liters of whisky; a “professional” stages fake suicides, hoping to be saved by a passer-by.

The narrator may not feel the necessary impulse because he has desires: to own a huge magnet which could attract all the lost money in the world, to have a girlfriend and make plenty of sex, to play soccer at least once on a famous stadium. But what is his motive behind the desire to kill himself, what are the others' motives? Nobody has one apparently, so they qualify for the authentic suicide, for the ultimate artistic performance of their lives. Why don't they do it then? Is it just mere talk, without guts? Is their approach a false one? Because the person who eventually does commit suicide is precisely one who is desperate and has a motive.

This short novel is not depressing, in spite of its plot, but it's not cheerful either, despite its title; slices of life, raw and unembellished, are counterbalanced by humor (sometimes, not so subtle). My problem with the plot, besides some predictable episodes, was that I couldn't take it seriously, I couldn't believe in the narrator and his story. I was so uninvolved that I didn't care if he took his life or not. I also disagree with one of his opinions - that, even if a person has a reserved attitude in life, things might happen nevertheless. He did go look for a whore at the train station, which prompted a chain of strange events; if he stayed at home, none of it would have happened.
Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me - Javier Marías This novel blew me away and I'm still working to fit my pieces together. I got lost into Marías' winding train of thoughts and I'm still trying to find my way back to reality. What was it that I liked so much about this novel? Well, everything: the plot, the subtle humor, the flow of words, the ideas, the profound pondering. I found and lost myself at the same time, and I really can't explain this; if you haven't done it yet, you should read the novel and see for yourself.

Marías talks about death, about memory, about guilt, about the power of names. He also talks about the life of a story, prone to be transformed with every additional mouth that will pass it on. The plot of Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me is merely an excuse for the writer to travel down the meditative path, to reach depths of thought that left me wondering and made me feel exalted. So many truths that I haven't thought of before, so many approaches that now seem obvious. He made me look at my possessions and ask myself: do these objects hold any interest to other people, or is it just me who justifies their existence and utility? And do I really need all these things around me?

There's death in this novel, unexpected and ludicrous, as in dying in your socks, or at the barber’s, still wearing a voluminous smock, or in a whorehouse or at the dentist’s; or dying in the middle of shaving, with one cheek still covered in foam, half-shaven for all eternity, unless someone notices and finishes the job off out of aesthetic pity. Through Marías, it suddenly becomes easier to look in the face of the life's worst enemy, to laugh at it and even embrace its possibility a little.

After we are dead, our memory ceases to exist, along with the ephemeral life of our personal things. What was important to us may probably lose its meaning to other people: everything that had meaning and history loses it in a single moment and my belongings lie there inert, suddenly incapable of revealing their past and their origins. Our smell might persist for a while, if windows are not opened and clothes are not washed. But our bodies will travel towards dissolution, like all things that are never repeated, or happen so often that tend to fall into non-existence. Just as the unwanted belongings, our bodies will suddenly become useless, prone to be discarded like all the scraps that will rot. Our faces will become foggy, but our names will forever be remembered by those who once knew us. Raw, plain reality that we'd better be able to confront.
It isn't just the minuscule history of objects that will disappear in that single moment, it’s also everything I know and have learned, all my memories and everything I've ever seen– my memories which, like so many of my belongings, are only of use to me and become useless if I die, what disappears is not only who I am but who I have been, not only me, poor Marta, but my whole memory, a ragged, discontinuous, never-completed, ever-changing scrap of fabric.

But how does memory work? Even the King (also known as One and Only, Solo, Solitaire, Lone Ranger, Only the Lonely and Only You) is worried that he won't go down in history with some identifiable traits of character. He is ready to invent such traits, so that people could remember him more easily. But he is not aware that famous figures benefit from the power of myth that comes with the passage of centuries and sometimes from their vile feats. While some are forgotten and lost in the mists of time, others are perpetuated and become legends. But the vast majority of people is sentenced to a life of ghosts, lurking in the shadows, never quite stepping into light. Looking at their last achievement and denying their past, people believe they pass through important transformation, but are they really changed into a new, completely different person?

Even if this was my first novel by Javier Marías, his works are etched in my mind, so I could notice that, throughout the narration, he used phrases that later were to become titles of other novels: What a disgrace it is to me to remember your name, though I may not know your face tomorrow; who is going to hurl us over on to the reverse side of time, on to its dark back; Tomorrow in the battle think on me, think on me when I was mortal.

There are so many other things here that are worth discussing, but I've already written too much. The novel's only fault may be that the characters' voices are not quite distinct: the narrator and the cheated husband talk in the same way, and it's a bit hard to believe in such a chance encounter between two meditative people. But I chose not spoil the joy of devouring Marías' words and imagined instead that everything was filtered through the narrator's voice, thus becoming his story. But wait, this must be it and it makes sense: it is his story now, told in his own words, in his own style.
The Gardens of Light - Amin Maalouf Prophet Mani, founder of Manichaeism, is one of the forgotten figures of history, although he was very popular (and also much hated) in the 3rd century Babylonia - today's Iraq. Forgotten is also the town of Ctesiphon (near present-day Baghdad), capital of the Persian Empire under the Sassanid dynasty, where Mani was born and where he spread his religious beliefs.

Little information about the prophet was preserved throughout the centuries, until a parchment was discovered in 1969, containing accounts of Mani's life and fragments of his writings. This brought into light the elusive personality of the once famous painter, doctor and philosopher, accounted as the founder of Oriental painting, a visionary who attracted crowds with his speeches, a man - or possibly a saint - who was favored even by the powerful king Shapur I and his successor, Hormizd I.

Amin Maalouf gathers the known facts and weaves them into an interesting story which chronicles Mani's life from his birth in a wealthy family until the age of 60, when he was executed for heresy. His childhood was far from happy - he was separated from his mother and brought into his father's sect (I couldn't help but hate that stupid bastard of a father), which he left at 24, after having visions of a celestial twin. Then on, Mani started to spread his own beliefs, which were centered upon the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. He believed that this duality resided in every human being and that the material aspects were weighting down (or annulling) the triumph of spirituality. He didn't reject any religion, he accepted all the Gods of his time - Christ, Zoroaster, Ahura Mazda or Buddha, but he dismissed the social classes. He preached the need for a new way of life which excluded power and wealth, greed and lust. In every religion, in every idea, one must seek the luminous core and discard the shell. Mani had a lot of followers and was even protected by the king of the Sassanid Empire, Shapur I, who valued his advice, although he never converted to Manichaeanism. But he also had a lot of enemies, powerful men who regarded his beliefs as a threat to the established social and religious order of the empire.

Prophet Mani

The story of Prophet Mani is a very interesting one and I recommend it to all lovers of historical fiction and history in general. From the informational point of view, Maalouf did a great job - at the end of the novel we have a clear view over Mani's life and the religion he preached.
Why the three stars then? Amin Maalouf charmed me with his gift as a storyteller in [b:Ports of Call|232071|Ports of Call|Amin Maalouf|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348941431s/232071.jpg|1552948], but I found little of it in The Gardens of Light. I felt more like listening to a good history lesson than reading a beautifully crafted account of Mani's life. I could not lose myself into the story, because Maalouf kept bringing me back to reality with phrases such as "...and information states that...", "...as it is known/not known...". Fiction and non-fiction alternate, but seldom come together in a harmonious, fluid, pleasant writing. I still want to read more by Amin Maalouf, but not too soon.
The Seed - Tarjei Vesaas,  Kenneth G. Chapman After the first pages, I thought that I will read the novel from the perspective of two sows with cute piglets and one boar, mad with boredom (I wouldn't have minded). Big, fat sows with narrow foreheads and ugly fangs, which lie passively as a latent threat. But later on, the frame widens and we find ourselves on a small island with green pastures and fertile soil, with a few inhabitants that are decent, hard working people. One day, a foreigner arrives, in search of the elusive land that would silence the voices in his head and cure him of his fears. Not only he does not find his peace here (or maybe he does, sort of), but he will bring chaos into this heavenly corner of the world; he will disrupt its balance and harmony, turning kind people into savage beasts.

An unstable mind finds its way upon the blissful island, a piece of heaven where it might finally heal. A red barn, projection of a once mighty will and, inside the barn, a horrific scene - a sow devouring its newborns. Something snaps, the mind drifts away completely. It wants to do harm and it succeeds. The inhabitants' minds, once lucid and balanced, are drowned into a surging wave of hatred and desire for revenge. A hunt that swallows more and more decent people, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. A spell that annuls the humane. An angry mob that seeks a wrong justice. And then, the awakening from the poisonous fog, the guilt, the need to find a scapegoat. The guilt won't go away. In this paralysis of souls, only the mad woman of the island seems to understand - she brings the people together, she awakens their conscience. A night of collective remorse, a seek for forgiveness. And a new day, where the guilty find renewed hope in their green, fertile island and in the baby that will soon be born.

Tarjei Vesaas writes in a certain way, a way that imprints his story in the reader's memory. Apparently simple, the events he brings to life carry a deeper meaning, which I think I understand partially, but not completely. His words speak of the dark side of humanity - the latent beast that lays dormant inside each of us, no matter how kind we are, no matter how sensible; the beast needs only one spark in order to gnarl its teeth and attack, tear apart and taste blood. But there is also the seed, the seed of hope which brings relief and maybe forgiveness, and a chance for taming the beast in a future battle. But does this seed bring also understanding?

You know, I didn't feel confident that I should write reviews anymore. If I feel I'm not good enough at something, I usually give up (not a constructive attitude, I know). But making connections while writing down my thoughts made me understand some things about the novel - things I wouldn't have noticed unless I wrote them here - like the allegory of the pregnant woman/the seed growing in the soil, the sows that go mad /the dormant beast inside each of us.
I don't need reassurance, maybe I need to take care of the seed inside me and have patience while watching it grow. And silence the beast of uncertainty.
The Fish Can Sing - Halldór Laxness, Magnus Magnusson The fish can sing just like a bird,
And grazes on the moorland scree,
While cattle in a lowing herd
Roam the rolling sea.

Starting from this Icelandic paradox put in verse, Halldór Laxness weaves an enchanting tale on the outskirts of Reykjavík, in a time when the price of a Bible was equal to that of a heifer and people still tried to cure headaches by smearing their faces with warm cow-dung. Some say that The Fish Can Sing is a coming-of-age novel, but I don't really see it that way; it is more the diary of a place, Brekkukot, and the portrait of a generation long gone, in a time when Reykjavík was just a bunch of houses inhabited by farmers and fishermen.

Álfgrímur is an abandoned child who grows up at Brekkukot, surrounded by peculiar people and evening sessions of sagas and rímur. His childhood revolves around Brekkukot, convinced, like the eminent Candide, that the world we live in is best at home. He reminisces about a lot of things there: a clock in whose ticking he discovered eternity, a window so small that it was possible to see only one blade of grass and one star. Álfgrímur doesn't perceive himself as poor and he wants to become a fisherman, just like his adoptive grandfather. Until one day, when he hears about the one pure note and starts to indulge in dreams of becoming a singer.

This is one of the details I loved most in this novel - one blade of grass and one star. Such a tiny universe and yet so grand! Because Brekkukot is an open place for the unfortunate and the poor, who bring with them strange stories and peculiar situations. All sorts of people come to live here from all over Iceland - some just in passing, others to stay for good, until their dying day. Álfgrímur shares the loft with three permanent inhabitants - a genuine saga-men who used to pilot Danish ships; a philosopher with a mysterious job whom the child believes to be descended from the Hidden People; and an occasional drunk, admirer of cesspools, who in old age was to become the first person to be run over by a car in Iceland.

The household is run by Álfgrímur's adoptive grandfather, Björn of Brekkukot, and his companion - whom Álfgrímur calls his grandmother, two people that Laxness endows with unforgettable traits. No matter the circumstances, fisherman Björn sold his fish at the same price, rejecting all the fundamental rules of economics, because he thought that people accumulated more money that they actually needed. He used to read the Bible in a monotonous and solemn chant, a special manner of reading that is now lost. Wealthy people considered he had no ambition, but how much benefit could it bring to a man who was obviously more happy than most?

Álfgrímur's grandmother is a mysterious character to him, because he doesn't really get to know her. She was a well of knowledge, answering people with sayings and proverbs, knowing whole ballads by heart from beginning to end. And it seemed she never had a bed of her own to sleep in.
It was not until after I was fully grown that I noticed her sufficiently to feel that I really saw her. Suddenly one day I simply felt that she was probably closer to me than anyone else in the world, even though I knew less about her than anyone else and despite the fact that she had been in her grave for some time by then.

And then there is the elusive Garðar Hólm, the most famous Icelander, known all over the world for his amazing voice. Álfgrímur has the chance to meet him several times when the singer comes to Reykjavík, not knowing what to think of his strange and unapproachable character. He can't even hear him sing, because Garðar Hólm always leaves unexpectedly before his due concert.

Music had not been an educational subject in Iceland since the Middle Ages – indeed, it was considered an affectation or an aberration, especially among the educated – until Garðar Hólm won for Iceland musical fame abroad; and then a few people began to think more highly of it. But for a long time afterwards it was still generally considered rather odd to be famous for singing. So it was practically unthinkable in my younger days for people to let themselves in for the tedium that music involved, except in the cause of salvation; music was good when people had to be put into the ground.

You know the case of the studious pupil that makes a good impression with teachers and, even if later he becomes lazy and uninterested, they still give him good grades? I know this, as I've been there. Well, the same thing happened with me and Halldór Laxness: I fell in love with his [b:Under the Glacier|14265|Under the Glacier|Halldór Laxness|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320556030s/14265.jpg|3019063] and thus I tend to project this elated feeling upon his other novels and Icelandic literature in general. But the truth is that Laxness's novels are wonderful just the same and I can't praise his writing enough: it is warm, mysterious, poetic, full of humor, but also with an undercurrent of sadness. He makes me experience a sort of happiness.

I'll share with you what I've learnt about Iceland while reading [b:The Fish Can Sing|150472|The Fish Can Sing|Halldór Laxness|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1328033613s/150472.jpg|308523]:

1. The Hidden People (Huldufólk), a sort of elves in Icelandic folklore, but not quite. They are believed to live under rocks, so many Icelanders try not to disturb the environment when building their houses. Also, they refrain from throwing stones, for fear they might hit the Huldufólk. Icelandic gardens often feature tiny wooden houses for hidden people to live in. Some people claim to be able to see and interact with Huldufólk and almost everybody has a story to tell. I find this heart-warming, even if the Hidden People are blamed for every object that gets lost.

A wonderful illustration by John Bauer (1882–1918), a less-known Swedish painter.

2. The interesting Icelandic national costume. There are several types of folk costumes in Iceland, some that were designed by the artist Sigurður Guðmundsson in the 19th century. I found it strange that such an outfit could be designed, but it turns out that this practice is quite common - it also happened with the Swedish National Costume, the Amalia Costume of Greece or the Nestor Costume of the Canary Islands. I don't want to post too many pictures here, so I've chosen my favorite traditional costume from Iceland, popular in the 18th century:

Icelandic national costume
The large white headpiece that curves forward is called krókfaldur (I find it fascinating)

3. The Great Icelanders praised in sagas and rímur, one of which was Pastor Snorri of Húsafell, a Latin erudite immensely quick at composing verses, a powerfully built and strong man, so good at Icelandic wrestling that it is believed that for more than fifty years there was no clergyman in the whole synod who could stand up against him (you have to admire the subtle humor here).
To this day there remains the legendary Husafell Stone, used by the Pastor as a door to his sheep pen. The stone weighs 190 kg and is popular even today as a test of strength. It is said that a man has acquired "full strength" if he can lift the stone up and carry it the 50 meters around the perimeter of the goat pen.

Husafell Stone
I hope these guys managed to prove their strength
The Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Stories - Yasunari Kawabata, J. Martin Holman I'm hovering between 3 and 4 stars for this book and I can't decide, because I liked some of the stories, others depressed me, while one in particular was horrifying. I mostly feel like a superficial and uninitiated reader who stood at the foot of a complex work, but was not able to grasp it. Moreover, I let my personal weaknesses flood my perceiving of Kawabata's writing, judging it and condemning it for the uncomfortable and unbearable feelings he aroused inside me.

I don't even know whom to recommend this book to - people in a joyful state might see their happiness slip through their fingers, while people who are already sad will find themselves on the brink of depression. I might recommend it to the few that are in possession of a clear, balanced mind, as only they could appreciate the disjointed, chaotic world peopled by Kawabata's troubled characters.

There is not one single happy soul in this collection of short stories, with themes like alienation, loss, deception or cruelty. The wife of a scientist, whose husband is obsessed with having children, is unhappy in her marriage and feels attracted to a younger girl; a man literally on fire is brought to a hospital full of dying people, with a sad story of their own; a girl abandoned by her lover talks to his soul after he dies; survivors of war, homeless and starving, can no longer find their place in the post-war Japan; a widow remembers how she used to project the world in a mirror, for the comfort of her dying husband.

The sole exception among these plagued characters might be the orphaned student who becomes infatuated with a teenage dancing girl; he is not yet damaged by life, although he is pursued by melancholy. The Dancing Girl of Izu was my favorite story, along with Moon in Water. It seems wrong though to use notions as 'like' or 'enjoy' regarding Kawabata's stories in this collection. They are tormenting, unsettling and guarantee for the most unpleasant of reading experiences. The most horrifying was the story about a collector of birds who assumes the role of God with his live possessions, with power of life and death upon them. It's disturbing to enter this man's mind and taste his indifference towards life, whether it's the beating heart of a puppy or that of a bird. I felt sick while reading this.

I feel my review is not doing justice to this book, but I might come back to these stories after reading some more Kawabata novels. I might understand them better. I might even surpass my weaknesses. I wish I could.
The Ice Palace - Tarjei Vesaas, Elizabeth Rokkan A novel with a scarcity of words but with a delicate, dreamlike poetry; a story that makes you taste the coldness and isolation of winter in the middle of the summer; an adult writer who can see through the soul of an eleven year girl, down to her utmost fears; a remembrance of childhood with all its awkward moments; two girls that are linked in life and beyond; a secret that is never spoken, buried forever in ice; a promise that is kept, no matter if it brings estrangement; a wonder of nature, the ice palace, with its cold and deadly beauty.

Siss, the privileged child who is the center of her group of friends, meets Unn, an orphaned girl who prefers to stay isolated. A silent and childish battle for power brings the two girls together for a single, but unforgettable evening. Attraction and rejection, awkward discovery of sexuality, a magical moment in the mirror. Unn wants to tell Siss a secret, but Siss is afraid to hear it, so she runs back home. Darkness and menacing figures creeping through the shadowy sides of the street. The next day, Unn doesn't show up at school. The frozen lake, the dark river, the huge cascade which has built a gorgeous palace of ice. Thrill of discovery, journey through mesmerizing rooms built by water and cold; an enigmatic eye that brings relief.
A snow storm in the dark, twinkling flashes of light. People start looking for Unn, but she seems to be lost forever. Not in Siss' memory, though; she can't push into forgetfulness the one evening with a girl that deeply marks her soul. A window which opens mysteriously by itself; a vision of a face embedded in ice. Siss makes a promise that alienates her from her parents and friends. Just like their faces once became one in the mirror, Siss has taken hold of Unn's personality, prolonging her existence.

At a first glance, the novel seems to be a children's tale, yet it is much more than that. Set in a land overcome with ice and snow, the likes of which Nordic writers are masterful portrayers, the story of Siss and Unn has the magnetic power of a folktale. Simple, yet mysterious and poetic, it will stay in my memory for a long time...
Little Fingers - Filip Florian, Alistair Ian Blyth I haven't read a novel by a Romanian author in a long time. I, along with many other young people here, tend to avoid local literature because a)it may be full of social commentary and communism issues (people are already fed up with it, yet it may prove interesting for a foreigner); b)it might be brimming with obscene words (although there is a market for that, I'm sure); or simply c)it may turn out to be a disappointment. Surely, this could be a reaction of a country whose members are not overly patriotic, read less and less and are not able to come to terms with their place (and time) in history.

Fortunately, Filip Florian's [b:Little Fingers|4810971|Little Fingers|Filip Florian|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348303666s/4810971.jpg|4575658] follows none of the above criteria. It is indeed anchored in a reality that is purely Romanian, but doesn't overstep the line in either direction. For a debut novel it is a really nice surprise and, with its help, I've managed to make a step closer towards reconciliation with my own country's literature.

The prose is dense, with long and winding paragraphs, with an abundance of parentheses, resembling the writing of South American authors. I was surprised (and glad) to discover a touch of magical realism, which I love. There is a whole cast of characters here, which is at the same time the strength and the weakness of the novel. Strength - because Filip Florian is a masterful portrayer, endowing his characters with unforgettable traits; weakness - because we sometimes get the feeling of disparate episodes, with no apparent connection. The novel leaves the impression of being rather a collection of short stories, brought together by a common place and time.

In a small mountain resort, among the ruins of a Roman settlement, people discover a mass grave. The local police chief believes that the human remains are the result of a mass murder during communism, which prompts an investigation. The archaeologists affirm that the bones are much older, yet the press immediately embraces the story of a communist massacre. Because of the political implications and general mistrust, an impartial party is called upon the site - a team of Argentinian specialists, who will decide the remains' true provenience.

This is the background story, upon which Filip Florian brings to life his wonderfully portrayed characters: a landlady who divines in coffee cups and dreams of a knight in shining armor; a widow who collects cats and who was once in love with an English nobleman; the oldest man in town who has a habit of catching (and cooking) pigeons; the old man's wife who found a better companion, Jesus; a colonel who collects little fingers. Through these pages emerges even the portrait of a country, Argentina, touched by the tormenting disease called 'los desaparecidos'.

But the most memorable amongst all is Gherghe the orphan/Onufrie the monk, whose magical lock of hair has forced him to constantly wear a hat. Since he experienced a miracle escape from a labor camp, he has been dominated by visions of Virgin Mary; he spends many years in seclusion, writing the Bible from memory, on tree barks; his time is measured by the cutting of his strange tuft of hair. In a country where religion prevails, and the cult of saints is at high esteem, we witness through Onufrie the birth of another saint.

There are a lot of references to Romanian social and political life that a foreigner might miss, so I'll try to cover a few that I've noticed:
*reference to hammer and sickle - of course, one of the symbols of communism;
*the Argentine anthropologists were to be received at the train station with meat rolls and beer by a local branch of the ruling political party. This is a reference to the general mocking of our Social Democratic Party, which on a previous elective year tried to earn some votes by giving free beer and meat rolls (a traditional dish);
*the Gander is the nickname of Nicolae Dobrin, a famous Romanian football player, born in Pitești (my hometown);
*Pitești is also the unnamed town mentioned for its tulips and horrific penitentiary, where brainwashing experiments were carried out during communism.
Putas asesinas - Roberto Bolaño Putas asesinas or Murderous Bitches is my first encounter with the prose of Roberto Bolaño. What can I say? I'm hooked by his talent as a story teller, by his imagination, weaving real life facts with fabricated ones. What I liked the most was the dreamy feeling I got while reading his stories, like I was sitting together with Bolaño at a bonfire and he was murmuring some tales about his life. And they felt so real that I could have believed everything he would tell me.

Impersonating various characters, Bolaño recounts unrelated stories, many of which have an abrupt ending. At first this bothered me a bit, but then I found it to be actually charming in its veil of mystery, like the tale might continue later on, after a short break.

I started to research what was real and what was not: his father was a boxer - true; his mother was a porn actress - false; he moved with his family to Mexico City - true; he was arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist, but later released, without being tortured - unclear (he describes this experience in the story Dance Card); he was vagabonding through France, Belgium and Spain - true; he played soccer - maybe; he married a Catalan woman and settled near Barcelona - true; Nicanor Parra was his favorite Chilean poet - true; he had an after-life experience - who knows?

Two of the stories are narrated by B., of whom I hear that represents the author himself and also appears in [b:Last Evenings on Earth|537640|Last Evenings on Earth|Roberto Bolaño|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348600602s/537640.jpg|61219]... [[Wait, I've had a revelation... in fact these stories do appear in the latter book... The last seven in Evenings... are in common with Putas asesinas. While the rest of the stories in Evenings... can be found in Llamadas Telefónicas. Ok, I've untangled some of the mystery. It means that six stories are only in Putas asesinas.]] Sorry for the digression!

The only story that brakes the pattern of the first-person narrative is precisely Putas asesinas, which is told in the form of a monologue. It is also the only story where the protagonist is of the opposite sex - a girl who has kidnapped a guy whom she spotted on TV, at the ending of a soccer game.
Las mujeres son putas asesinas, Max, son monos ateridos de frío que contemplan el horizonte desde un árbol enfermo, son princesas que te buscan en la oscuridad, llorando, indagando las palabras que nunca podrán decir. En el equívoco vivimos y planeamos nuestros ciclos de vida.

I'll focus a bit on the stories that are to be found only in this collection (please correct me if I'm wrong, those of you who are true Bolaño fans, especially Mike Puma - assuming that you would read this review in the first place):

The protagonist in [b:Prefiguration of Lalo Cura|17879149|Prefiguration of Lalo Cura|Roberto Bolaño|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1367544664s/17879149.jpg|25037644] - la locura, right? - has a mother who is an actress in porn movies, but this seems as natural as the drug trafficking. Instead, he speaks obsessively about another actor, Pajarito Gómez, who had a sort of inner vibration that captivated the viewers.
You can read this story here:

The Return is one of the two stories with a surrealist touch - it is told from the point of view of a ghost, who follows his former body and stumbles upon some unpredictable situations. This story is one of my favorites, despite a rather gross scene involving the corpse.
The other surreal tale is Encounter with Enrique Lihn, in which the narrator relates his dream, in which he meets the deceased writer.

Buba is an amazing story of some soccer players who start to win the games due to some dubious practices of their African colleague, Buba. As I've also stated in my status update, Bolaño managed to write a story about soccer that didn't bore me for a second, which is truly amazing (I tend to avoid all writing involving sports).

In Photographs, Arturo Belano (whom I hear is the protagonist in [b:The Savage Detectives|63033|The Savage Detectives|Roberto Bolaño|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1342651149s/63033.jpg|2503920]) is somewhere in Africa and leafs through an anthology of French poetry (La poésie contemporaine de langue française depuis 1945), an occasion to comment on poets and their writings, as he also does in the story Vagabond in France and Belgium. I am truly ashamed, as I've heard only about a couple of these writers... Now I understand Mike Puma, who takes his recommendations from Bolaño!
The Steam-Driven Boy and Other Strangers - John Sladek Tenalp yawaraf a morf emoc I, stnatibahni htraE olleh. D NT WHSH T DSTR U, JST GV U KNWLDG. CwN www wNDwRSTwND Mw?

Sladek's short stories are one crazy ride, you never know what will happen next, as he constantly pulls tricks from the hat like a magician turned into a broken automaton. The bad side of this is that sometimes the tricks come raining down all at once, taking away all the fun. The magician might tear his belly apart and reveal some hot chick inside, but wait, she is in fact a robot, who was once a human who lived in the future, but came back to the past with a time bicycle and now is split in two or three or four selves and she may be a spy or a whore or a scientist. And wait to see what's inside the bunny!
Have I bored you or what?

This is how some of the stories feel - a mumbo-jumbo of characters and events that are not actually related, which don't make any sense and are not even funny. I skipped those after a page or two (Secret Identity, The Best-Seller, Solar Shoe-Salesman). As a matter of fact, there are only a few stories that make sense (sort of). I'm speaking from my point of view, as I'm not very familiar with the science-fiction genre and thus couldn't grasp the alleged references to SF masterworks. In this respect, the Parodies section was totally wasted on me.

I don't know why, but I've started with the bad parts; I'm a bit angry, it's true, because the title and some good ratings have deceived me into believing that I'll adore these stories. They are not quite what I've expected, but fortunately many stories are a lot of fun - crazy and absurd as they may be. In fact: they are outrageously crazy and absurd! They are a blend of surrealism, humor and science-fiction which sometimes hits the right mix (as in The Secret of the Old Custard, A Report on the Migrations of Educational Materials, The Happy Breed, The Transcendental Sandwich, The Momster, 1937 A.D.!).

Jenny and Peter came home from school, demanding a ‘snack’. Agnes gave them Hungarian goulash, bread and butter, coffee and apple pie. They paid 95 cents each, and each tipped her 15 cents. They were gruff, dour eight-year-olds who talked little while they ate. Agnes was a little afraid of them. After their snack, they belted on guns and went out to hunt other children, before it grew too dark to see them.

I truly felt like weeping with him, but, for various reasons, my tear ducts had been removed.

There was money all over the floor, and lucky charms, but it was electrified. I tore along on my scooter, whose headlamp seemed to show darkness instead of light. I had to hurry, before the bureau closed, but the hands on my watch were wrong, no matter how I turned it to look at it.

Oh, and there were also riddles throughout the stories, like these:
(please don't tell me you wouldn't wreck your brain to understand it, because I did!)

To get a sense of how Sladek's stories feel, you can watch the short movie Breakfast, made by the surrealist artist Jan Švankmajer (there are also Lunch and Dinner, if your interest is aroused).
Pedro Páramo - Juan Rulfo At the end of a lot of struggling days and a 70-pages document with new words, I've managed to finish my first novel read in Spanish. As I feel like I've earned a prize, I have to thank Linda and Dolors for their support!

I'm not sure I've chosen the right novel to begin with. Apart from my poor understanding of language, the plot was bringing more confusion than I could deal with. I felt utterly frustrated at times because I wanted to read quicker and understand what was going on. But then, the slow pace made me taste mouthfuls of the wonderful sound of Spanish. Man oh man, this language is musicality itself! In the right hands, it breaths poetry through every word. And Juan Rulfo has the magic hands, this can't be denied.

Because of my slow and fragmented foray into this novel, I tend to think of it as a dream or a hallucinatory sequence, much like one from Twin Peaks, where flashes of light reveal and obscure situations and people. Or maybe it's just how it truly feels, maybe I've got the right taste of it. Reality, or what we believe is reality, shifts unexpectedly to a different place and time, transforming the novel into a giant Rubik's Cube with all the colors mixed up. José Donoso's [b:The Obscene Bird of Night|382975|The Obscene Bird of Night|José Donoso|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347349654s/382975.jpg|372745] comes to mind now, although this one was pure madness of tangled situations and personalities.

Juan Preciado comes to Comala to find his father, but he is met by an apparently deserted village, hotter than hell, so different from the luscious place depicted in his mother's memories. He can hear murmurs and talk, but no people are in sight. Gradually, through eerie circumstances, he meets some of the residents of Comala, old women and men behaving strangely. This thread of narration is interrupted by echoes from another world - we hear thoughts of a different character, concealed and mysterious at first, on a lush background of rain and greenery; we come to know scattered events that happened long ago, in the time of Pedro Páramo. The people that Juan meets inhabit both the present and the past, resembling the pieces of a puzzle that fall slowly into place.

I was spellbound by the story of Juan Preciado and his journey through Comala; I love magical realism and this part of the novel went straight to my heart. Five stars without hesitation. The level of enjoyment was not the same for the story of Pedro Páramo, because I had so much to hate about his character. But what the heck, this novel deserves five stars, after all. It was magical, enthralling, obsessive, hateful, all into one. It made a part of Mexico come alive - this country fascinates me, by the way - with the good and the bad and with a heavy dose of surreal.

The novel is saturated with the Mexican obsession of death, which I find quite fascinating. If I'll ever go to Mexico, I'll make sure to be there on Día de Muertos, spending my night in the cemetery alight with candles, along with the Mexicans. Ending on a black humor note, I just hope I'll be above ground and not below, like Juan Preciado. (don't click it unless you've read the novel!!)