Reading challenges are a good way to expose yourself to books you might not otherwise find.This is my fifth time through the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s annual challenge and she tends to favor books in translation.That’s fine by me, because we could all use a bit more cross-cultural understanding.My latest book in this challenge was my third novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Hotel Silence.Ólafsdóttir, although a professor of art history, is quite a gifted novelist and her stories probe what it is to be human, and also reflect life on a somewhat small island.Icelanders are known for their love of reading as well as for their geothermal power.This novel deals with darker subjects that some of Ólafsdóttir’s previous work, but one thing becomes clear—the Bible is an influence.
With a writing style that is poetic and descriptive, she acknowledges that the Good Book plays a role in forming her story here.I don’t want to give too much away, but it swirls around the difficult topics of suicide and war, and, ultimately, a kind of redemption.As I’ve come to expect from her writing, the characters are quirky and have foibles.There’s a matter-of-factness to them.They go about following singular ideas and all of her work that I’ve read is based on the concept of a journey.Maybe that’s something of a given for those who live on an island.Taking her characters to far lands is a way of reaching understanding, not xenophobia.That’s one of the reasons for reading the literature of other people.
In academia I was taught that exoticizing other cultures was a kind of evil.I can see the point in that, although, like most academic things it takes the fun out of imagining far-away places.Human beings need sources of wonder, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford a trip to Iceland, so reading stories written by a native feels, well, exotic.Academics have a point, though.For people of an exotic locale, their life is pretty much a daily struggle just like our lives are.The backdrop is different and the specific circumstances are unfamiliar, but at the end, people are people.That’s why I like Ólafsdóttir’s novels.At the end we find them facing the same kinds of problems the rest of us face.And we come to realize that our world is an isolated place in space.And if there are aliens out there watching us, they must think we’re fairly exotic.Let’s hope they’ll read us in translation.We can all use a good challenge.
Audur Ava Olafsdottir is a remarkable novelist. Iceland, of course, is held to be the most literate country in the world. I began reading Icelandic fiction of a considerably earlier period while living in Scotland. There was still a trace of Scandinavian heritage from Viking days discernible there, particularly in the Orkney Islands. I started taking on reading challenges three years ago. Given that I spend many hours a week sitting on a bus, it seemed natural enough to put my time toward a specific goal. The Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge encourages me to move beyond the bounds of my usual fare. One of the categories for this year’s challenge is a translated book. I enjoyed Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November so much last year that I selected The Greenhouse for this year’s translated offering.
The story of two young people who accidentally have a child together, the tale makes effective use of religious imagery in reflective ways. The young man takes a job in a monastery rose garden in a remote country. When his one-night stand visits him to have him watch his daughter while she finishes her thesis, everyone notices how miraculous the child is. She even bears a striking resemblance to baby Jesus in the painting in the chapel. The narrative is gentle and reflective. The monks are drawn out of their scriptorium by the beauty of the roses and the child that is so intimately tied up with them. There’s nothing preachy, or even overtly religious here. It’s a simple reflection that religion pervades life, even in secular Europe.
One of the saddest realities of the present is that religion has made itself so odious to so many. Human beings are naturally inclined toward religious thoughts and behaviors. When any form of orthodoxy enters the picture, though, it begins to fall apart. The young couple, unmarried—not even girlfriend and boyfriend really—transform the town they’re in, making it a more habitable and humane place. They’re not condemned for “living in sin.” Even a priest admits things can get pretty complicated where relationships are concerned. A coming of age novel, The Greenhouse has Icelandic magic that comes through even in translation. Olafsdottir is a novelist who doesn’t feel the need to apologize for describing what is plainly obvious to those who pay attention: religion is all around us, and it need not be something to condemn. In fact, if cultivated without the acidic soil of orthodoxy it might even make the world a better place.
At the end of each year I think back over the books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Since I don’t blog about every single book, I use Goodreads to keep track of my numbers. I pushed my reading challenge at that site to 105 books for last year, and the meter stopped at 111. In 2018 I’m planning on reading some bigger books, so I’ll scale the numbers back a bit, I think. In any case, what were the most memorable books of 2017? It’s perhaps best to divide these up into categories since the number of books has become unwieldy. I’ve written a book about horror movies, and much of this year’s reading has been in support of that. Since my book addresses, among other things, possession movies, I’ve read several tomes on the topic. Noteworthy among them have been the three books by Felicitas D. Goodman that I read over the year. J. H. Chajes’ Between Worlds was exceptional, and Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Devil, was likely the overall best on the topic. Also noteworthy for purposes of my book research were Catherine Spooner’s Post-Millennial Gothic and Monstrous Progeny by Lester Friedman and Allison Kavey.
For books on religion, Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy was an important start. Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture and James William Jones’ Can Science Explain Religion? addressed aspects of the topic that will continue to bear further exploration. God’s Strange Work by David L. Rowe and American Apocalypse by Matthew Avery Sutton stand out in my mind as a memorable treatments of William Miller, and of understanding American religion respectively. Chris Hedges’ American Fascists is remarkably urgent and should be read widely, especially since he has shown where current political posturing will lead if it’s not stopped cold. We will be struggling against a situation like Nazi Germany for many decades to come, and forewarned is forearmed.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Much of the fiction I read was excellent. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, Robert Repino’s D’Arc, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, and Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes all stayed with me long after I read them. And of course, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Some non-fiction read just as engagingly. The autobiographies by Carly Simon and Bruce Springsteen were deeply engrossing. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleneben and John Moe’s Dear Luke, We Need to Talk were great guilty pleasure reads along with Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, W. Scott Poole’s At the Mountains of Madness, and Mathias Clasen’s Why Horror Seduces. The latter title brings us full circle. I suspect that’s appropriate for rounding out a year. Many of the other books were also quite good; I tend to rate books favorably. Read the revolution—make 2018 a memorable year with books!