Archive for August, 2008


“You will all go directly to your respective Valhallas…”

So one political convention ends, another begins, and I do what I always do during presidential election season: I reach for Njal’s Saga, the story of a 50-year feud that came to a head at medieval Iceland’s great annual judicial and legislative assembly, the Althing. Aside from being a terrific book in its own right, Njal’s Saga is a wise and welcome antidote to two weeks of partisan yakking.

Very little news is actually made at these conventions—so claim the pundits, who argue that the ins and outs of parliamentary wrangling once gave rise to great drama, whereas now we’re stuck with tightly scripted messages and largely mediocre speeches. But consider (he whispered, pushing a mighty army of straw men into place) the alternative. Here, from Njal’s Saga, is what happened at the Althing in A.D. 1011 when human nature grabbed civilized legal procedure by the windpipe and things went all higgeldy-piggeldy:

Thorhall Asgrimsoon said, “There is Skatpi Thoroddsson now, father.”

“So I see, kinsman,” replied Asgrim, and at once hurled a spear at Skapti. it struck him just below the thickest part of the calf and went right through both legs. Skapti was thrown to the ground and could not get up again. The bystanders could do nothing but drag him headlong into the booth of some sword-grinder.

Then Asgrim and his men attacked so violently that Flosi and his men fled south along the river to the Modruvellir booth. There was a man called Solvi standing beside a booth, cooking meat in a large cauldron; he had just taken the meat out, but the water was still boiling furiously. Solvi caught sight of the fleeting Eastfjords men who were almost on him by then.

Solvi said, “Are all these Eastfjords men cowards, fleeing along here? Even Thorkel Geitisson is running. What a lie to say of him, as so many have done, that he is bravery itself, for now he is fleeing faster than anyone else.”

Hallbjorn the Strong was nearby at that moment, and said, “You shall never be able to say that all of us are cowards.” With that he seized hold of Solvi, lifted him high in the air, and pitched him head-first into the cauldron.

Far be it from me to suggest that our political conventions might benefit from kin-based spear battles, but ratings would shoot through the roof. Já, vér kunnum! C-SPAN, are you listening?

“So be quiet tonight, be sure to step lightly…”

Icelandophiles often go years without a new novel to keep them busy, but the next few months offer good reading—and good news—for those of us who need our fix of Icelandic fiction.

Iceland native and D.C.-area resident Solveig Eggerz recently published her debut novel, Seal Woman, the story of a German artist who flees to rural Iceland after World War II. It’s an honest and disquieting book, and Eggerz poses hard questions: How do you rebuild your life after war has destroyed it? How do you reconcile your new family with the ghosts of the past? Based on the experiences of more than 300 German women who answered newspaper ads for farm laborers, Seal Woman is a rarity—a work of literary fiction that isn’t over-written—and deserves a wider audience. Read the first chapter of Seal Woman at the Bit-o-Lit archive, learn more about Solveig Eggerz at her Web site, or order the book from Amazon.

Back in 2004, Vintage published the first English translation of Iceland’s Bell, Halldor Laxness’s dark, funny novel about his homeland’s most squalid era. (One of the book’s great characters is a fictionalized version of Arni Magnusson, the antiquarian who rescued most of Iceland’s medieval manuscripts from ruin.) The same translator, Philip Roughton, has filled another gap in the English-language canon of Iceland’s only Nobel laureate with The Great Weaver of Kashmir, one of Laxness’s earlier novels. Roughton’s translation comes out in October.

American Icelandophiles will also enjoy the Inspector Erlendur Mysteries, which prove that you can set police procedurals in a country with hardly any murder. The third book, Voices, comes out in paperback in the U.S. next week. The first two novels, Jar City and Silence of the Grave, were unusually eloquent and beautiful examples of the genre—and were nicely translated by the late Bernard Scudder.

Finally, check out Icelandic Online, a free online language course from the University of Iceland. Create a login and conquer the first level, which consists of 45 hours of instruction. Completing the course is the main prerequisite for the university’s new Master’s program in Medieval Icelandic Studies. What’s Icelandic for, “So, just how ambitious are you?”

“I’m gonna bank to the left, then move to the right…”

Busy week! But enjoy these midweek links, won’t you?

Julie K. Rose has posted the text of her interview with me on the Writers and Their Soundtracks blog. I loved her questions; they made me feel like Jimmy from The Commitments.

Olen Steinhauer is looking for TV shows about spies that do justice to the genre.

Leslie Pietrzyk says, “poets, beware.”

Ephemeral New York tells you where to buy a skeleton in 1916.

Michael Drout has a fun story about his daughter, ancient animal toys, and a Lord of the Rings actor.

Speaking of toys, ALOTT5MA notes the 30th anniversary of the Lego minifigure.

Speaking of Tolkien, Jake Seliger suggests reading his poems in context.

Finally, if you find two weeks of political-convention gasbaggery more horrifying than a fly-infested beach littered with goes-to-eleven boom-boxes blasting digitally remastered recordings of Grendel raking his claws lengthwise across the White Cliffs of Dover (“did he really just deploy that metaphor? Judas priest, I think he did”), then here’s an antidote: Johnny Cash singing “The One on the Right Was On the Left.” Oh dear…

“They drank up the wine, and they got to talking…”

To my surprise, it’s Friday again. Here, dear readers, are weekend links.

Steven Hart writes eloquently about poetry and the decline of New Jersey newspapers.

Terry Teachout visits Willa Cather’s grave and ponders Our Town.

The Rejecter sparks a heated debate about the fan backlash against the novel Breaking Dawn.

“Insufficient vespene gas!” BusinessWeek profiles Blizzard Entertainment.

Kid Beowulf and the Blood-Bound Oath is now on sale. Buy it, all-ages comics readers! Its author needs incentive to finish the Charlemagne-themed second volume.

Finally, it wouldn’t be Friday without Roger Miller, so here’s “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died.” If there’s a better song for a late August weekend, I sure as heck don’t know it—although “In the Summertime” with singing watermelons must be a close second.

“…just watch them swing with the wind out to sea.”

The Icelanders are a mild people, but they often let us see their Viking roots. In 1973, when Eldfell on the island of Heimaey erupted, they didn’t squeal and sail away; they held off the advancing lava with fire hoses. Last week, Jon Eiriksson, who ferries tourists to the tiny northern island of Drangey, demonstrated his own Icelandic fortitude:

“I thought I’d do some fish angling for dinner while the people were on the island. I turned the boat around as usual and was going to step on board when I slipped, fell onto the pier and from there into the ocean.”

“The boat was loose and drifted away from the pier. I thought it was rather silly to be there like a fool with people on the island and no boat, so I decided to swim after it,” Eiríksson said. He caught the boat after 20 meters but was unable to climb up the stairs.

The “Earl of Drangey” then fell into the ocean again so he decided to swim ashore and then his boat followed. “The boat just offered its right bow to me where I was sitting on the cliff so I could walk onboard like a gentleman,” he explained.

“I thought it was kind of it, not every Skagfjordian stallion would have done the same [Skagafjördur is famous for its horses]. I then sailed the boat back to the pier and had put on my flotation suit before the people came back onboard, like nothing had happened.”

As Iceland Review points out, there’s local precedent for Jon’s hardy swim. Grettir Asmundarson, the greatest outlaw of the Icelandic sagas, hid out on Drangey with his brother and a moping slave who failed to keep the fire burning. Lacking a boat, Grettir decided to swim to the mainland for fire:

Grettir prepared for his swim by putting on a homespun cowl and breeches, and having his fingers wrapped up together. The weather was good, and he left the island late in the day. Illugi throught his voyage boded ill.

Grettir swam into the fjord with the current behind him, and it was completely calm. He swam vigorously and reached Reykjanes when the sun had set, then went up to the farm at Reykir and bathed in the hot pool there, because he was quite cold.

The distance between Drangey and Reykjanes? Nearly four miles.

If you’re an Icelandophile, keep an eye on the Iceland Review Web site for other stories with saga angles, such as updates on the excavation at Mosfell, the farm where the notorious Egil Skallagrimsson spent his later years. Archaeologists haven’t yet uncovered Egil’s famous buried treasure—or, if they have, they’re not saying. In the meantime, you can order Egil’s soft drinks through the mail. I’m partial to the pineapple mix—because nothing says “dangerous Viking outlaw” like the syrup-sweet snap of tropical fruit.

“The answers to all this lie with their psychoanalysts…”

“Quid Plura?” readers regularly suffer through evidence of my terrible taste in music—but you probably didn’t know that Becoming Charlemagne also has a hokey soundtrack all its own. It’s true!

Recently, Julie K. Rose interviewed me about the music that accompanied the writing of the book. Next week, you’ll be able to read the complete interview (with rationalizations for each song choice, I swear), but for now you can hear tantalizing snippets in the podcast on the Writers and Their Soundtracks Blog. If you’re an iTunes user, you can sample the playlist, too. No one but iTunes makes any money if you buy a song, but I assure you, these tunes weave trancelike melodies that slip over the transom of social consciousness and insinuate themselves into your dreams.

As for the weird faces you’re making as you read the playlist: Go on. Really. I’m used to it. As a deejay for my high school radio station, I shared the afternoon airwaves with a committed metalhead and his polar opposite, a lovestruck soul who punctuated our show with mellow R&B dedications to his girlfriend. They found common ground by speaking unkindly of what they called “Jeff music.” Under those conditions, you learn strength of character—because really, there’s no reason not to associate the age of Charlemagne with 1980s English synth-pop. Is there?

“Some are building monuments, others are jotting down notes…”

So the Ossetes, who straddle the Russia-Georgia border, claim descent from the Alans, the ancient warrior-nomads who helped forge the early medieval West. That connection, rooted as much in Caucasian history as in recent Ossetian political needs, makes for clever trivia—but what about medieval Georgia? Where does Georgian history begin, and what does a newcomer read first?

History buffs with a high threshold for whimsy might start with W.E.D. Allen’s A History of the Georgian People. Published in 1932, Allen’s book was once the standard history of Georgia in English, but the author of a more recent English-language survey calls it “antiquated.” Perhaps he’s thinking of passages like this one:

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

I’m kidding—but only a little. Here’s W.E.D. Allen’s take on the Caucasus in the 7th century B.C.:

And when the Swarming Time was over, and men began to rule in cities, and others to write again, these shifting peoples emerge into the light of history; with changed names, moulding languages and old traditions, borrowed from the word-of-mouth anthologies of conquerors and conquered, woven to the doubtful fabric of a common history.

Here’s Allen’s snappy summary of how a medieval quasi-state emerged in the Caucasus:

For two generations or more there were difficult manoeuvres, obscure dynastic skirmishes, ferocious little wars between the pushful princes of young mediaeval Georgia.

Here’s Allen’s description of the Georgian national character, which I think he considers flattering:

The Georgians retain in a remarkable degree, both individually and as a people, the clear and gentle outlook, the free and inquiring intelligence and the high amoral and untrammelled mind of primitive man. The generosity, the loving simplicity and the humanity, the animal love of life which characterizes the Homeric poems and the ancient literature of the Celts and Scandinavians lights the pages of the mediaeval Georgian epics and declares indeed the mind of the Georgian these days.

At the same time the climate is a mellow joyous climate and the wine is good, so that neither the air nor the diet are conducive to the worrying over principles and the gnawing over grievances.

And here—and oh, how I love this one—is Allen’s ode to the ancient city of Kutais:

In the last foothills of the Caucasus fineing to the Colchian plain, in the sparkling sunshine, the river gleaming past down from the mountains to the sea, the lovely city stretches lazy brave and laughing, like as it were to some free woman who has known so many grasping dirty masters, and remains fresh in all her shame.

I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to find an affectionate city-as-whore simile in an overview of Georgian history. By that point, I was lost in a twisting maze of tribes, dynasties, and place-names—but I was also determined to find out what Allen, with his own strange sense of decorum, intended to swoon over next.

Who was W.E.D. Allen? Born in 1901 to Ulster Protestant stock, Allen was the Eton-educated scion of a printing-and-advertising family. In addition to A History of the Georgian People, which he wrote when he was 29, his scholarly work included the much-touted Caucasian Battlefields and the journal Georgica. Allen served as a war correspondent, worked for the Foreign Office in Beirut, Mosul, and Ankara, and endowed the National Gallery in Dublin with Orthodox icons and other treasures, many of which he had found being sold as “debris” in Istanbul bazaars. At the time of his death in 1972, his private library on Russia and the Caucasus was hailed as “probably one of the best on the subject outside the Soviet Union.” Allen also represented West Belfast in Parliament as an independent Unionist, and—although his scholarly biographer passes over the fact in silence—he was a behind-the-scenes Fascist who wrote for the periodical The Blackshirt under a pen name.

What Allen’s biography doesn’t tell you is that A History of the Georgian People is not a logical endeavor. No, it’s a glorious mess—a rhapsodic brain-dump by a scholar so sunk in his subject that he can no longer outline it for newcomers. Calling his own treatment of Georgia “horizontal rather than chronological,” Allen assumes his readers possess encyclopedic knowledge of Caucasian, Byzantine, and Middle Eastern history. His narrative, too detailed to convey the wider drama and too burdened by minutiae to be novelistic, often gets ahead of itself: Why herald the death of King Bagrat III—a would-be Charlemagne of the Caucasus—when you haven’t yet told us who he was?

After a hundred pages, I stopped reading, but I’ll regret that. Allen beguiles me still with the promise of more florid musings like this one:

Here are no serried ranks of causes and effect, no steady march of progress, no smug train of evolution. All the nations of the world have drifted through the Caucasus; all their leavings are to find—but little has been built. Here are the ways of God and men, most horrible and lovely, uncertain and not comprehensible. Such things we may contemplate, learn somewhat, understand a little, and wonder at the colour and the clouding and the sun upon it all.

A History of the Georgian People may be obsolete, but only as scholarship. As a love letter to Georgia, it’s remarkable—and, like a love letter, it’s worth digging out every now and again, if only for that fleeting scent of the past, awakening as it does fond memories of youth and reckless adventure, regret over possibilities lost, and wistfulness that someone thought enough to write.

“Sve se oko tebe ispravlja i savija…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

“Miss Vesper Holly has the digestive talents of a goat and the mind of a chess master,” admits the befuddled narrator of The Illyrian Adventure, the first of six books to star Lloyd Alexander’s most rambunctious heroine. “She is familiar with half a dozen languages and can swear fluently in all of them. She understands the use of a slide rule but prefers doing calculations in her head.” Vesper has opinions about electromagnetism and women’s suffrage, is fluent in Latin and Turkish, and knows how to play the banjo. She’s also, improbably, 16 years old.

The Illyrian Adventure opens in 1872, as the newly orphaned Vesper is keen to continue her father’s research on the Illyriad, the 12th-century national epic of a “pocket-sized kingdom on the eastern seacoast of the Adriatic.” Vesper and her guardian, Dr. Brinton “Brinnie” Garrett, soon exchange the safety of suburban Philadelphia for a Balkan adventure full of shadowy villains and the ruins of ancient temples. Stuck in the midst of a medieval dispute between the Slavic majority and their Turkic overlords, Vesper and Brinnie hear ominous whispers: Vartan, a mythical hero and centuries-old symbol of Illyrian independence, may still be alive.

While our heroes befriend a monarch, dodge assassins, and put their lives in the hands of a clumsy dragoman with a knack for pithy sayings, Alexander depicts a political standoff perpetuated by conflicting notions of honor: the Zentan king will gladly bestow justice but won’t let it be forced from him, while the oppressed Illyrians won’t accept their king’s largesse but feel obligated to take their freedom by force. To Alexander’s credit, The Illyrian Adventure discourages the book’s young-adult readers from impulsively romanticizing the past by demonstrating that national myths aren’t always benign. Adults won’t fail to notice that The Illyrian Adventure simplifies Balkan strife, ignores religious and ethnic distinctions, and offers improbable solutions—but Alexander was under no obligation to squeeze as much nuance as he did into what is, after all, an adventure story about a female, teenage Indiana Jones.

Wisely, Alexander filters the reader’s view of Vesper through a comically unreliable narrator: Brinnie, a gentlemanly academic bemused to find himself the guardian of a teenage girl. Educated and intelligent but often blinded by Victorian mores, Brinnie provides the necessary distance to make Vesper’s polymathy seem that much less implausible, which frees Alexander to revel in one of his funnier narrative voices. “My knowledge of parental duties was slight,” Brinnie confesses, “something to do with graham crackers and proper underclothing.” During the climax of The Illyrian Adventure, when Brinnie naively provides vital information to a deceptive figure who turns out to be the villain, he remains oblivious to attempts to quiet him. “Vesper must have grown excited by my remarks, for her foot kept twitching against my shin,” he observes, giving the young reader another chance to feel superior to a decent but stuffy adult.

Fortunately, Brinnie doesn’t become an object of ridicule; his presence reinforces the book’s emphasis on intellectual achievement by giving Vesper an adult counterpart who’s equally passionate about learning languages, reading books, and exploring the wider world. Armed with knowledge, Vesper revels in her rambunctious self, a teenage girl supernaturally free of neuroses but also a little bit reckless. When she refuses to wear a veil and robe in the Turkic capital of Illyria, she responds to the ensuing fuss by sneering, “Time they got used to it.” The adult reader, finding her consequence-free precociousness highly implausible, is likely to cringe; your inner brat will cheer her all the way.

“Holiday ro-ah-o-o-o-o-ah-o-o-oh…”

Oh, the places you’d go! …if only you had time, money, a plane ticket, and weren’t planted in front of your computer waiting for some weekend reading.

Manhattan! Ephemeral in New York finds enthusiastic cheese.

Catalonia! Jonathan Jarrett sees traces of a love story in 10th-century charters.

Angla-Land! Test your dexterity and constitution with a “Dungeons and Dragons memoir.”

Hobbiton! Jake Seliger defends fantasy lit.

Belgium! The Economist tells you how to survive a business trip to Brussels.

Roma! The Cranky Professor offers tips on dining in the Eternal City.

Deutschland! Gabriele presents the weirdest castle you’re ever gonna see.

Iceland! In the Westman Islands, the yearly puffin hunt is on. Flap for your lives, you puckish little sea-birds!

And, because now it’s stuck in your head, here’s the video for “Holiday Road”—and may your weekend offer more depth than this annoyingly catchy song.

“My cat said ‘fiddle-i-fee.'”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

One year after writing an entire book about his five house cats, Lloyd Alexander co-authored Park Avenue Vet, the 1962 memoir of Dr. Louis J. Camuti. Fondly remembered as the first vet to devote his practice exclusively to cats, Camuti dealt with fussy socialites, befriended nearly every cat he met, and learned how to respond with patience and diplomacy to the quirks of their eccentric owners.

Camuti’s story is punctuated by felines from beginning to end. He praises the childhood cat who helped him recover from typhoid fever, he memorializes the cat who befriended him while he served in the cavalry during World War I, and he describes the awkwardness of his first solo operation—the spaying of his fiancee’s pet. Camuti also recalls his first house call, when in a clumsy attempt to euthanize a St. Bernard he only wound up chloroforming himself.

Although Camuti ponders cat psychology and offers a brief taxonomy of feline body language, his anecdotes about their owners are often the funniest: the fellow who believed his cat became electrified during thunderstorms; the woman who tried to breed her cats with rabbits; and my favorite Camuti patient of all:

She was past middle age, well dressed, carrying a small cardboard box.

“It’s about my dog,” she said, sitting down nervously beside my desk.

“I live alone,” she went on, naming an excellent apartment house, “and he’s my only companion.”

I asked whether she had brought the dog with her.

“Oh, yes,” she said, “he’s right here.”

She unknotted the string around the box. I looked inside and saw a small dog, a Boston terrier. There wasn’t anything wrong with him. There couldn’t have been. The dog was made of pâpier-maché.

“Well,” I said, wondering what her answer would be, “what seems to be the trouble?”

“The trouble?” she said indignantly. “You’re a veterinarian. Can’t you see for yourself?”

“I don’t want to jump to conclusions,” I said.

“The trouble,” she said, “is ticks.”

With only light evidence of Alexander’s assistance, Camuti tells poignant stories about death and denial, writes disapprovingly of most of his celebrity clients, and documents the lengths to which owners will go for their animals—such as the woman who accumulated so much Japanese crab meat for her finicky Siamese that she aroused official suspicion during World War II. Though only 184 pages, Park Avenue Vet is an fine and insightful collection of veterinary exempla, not because Alexander and Camuti demystify the unknowable ways of the feline but because of the book’s implicit premise: that the best stories about cats tend to say something true about people.