Nothing much happens on the surface of Bergsson’s yarn, but underneath there’s plenty of magma bubbling.



A modernist classic from Iceland, half a century old, makes its first appearance in the U.S.

He’s a mean man, a sick man. And, though “descended from the bravest, bluest-eyed Vikings,” Tómas Jónsson doesn’t strike much of a heroic figure; old and fast falling apart, hidden away in a basement flat, he spends his time filling the pages of composition books with reflections, sometimes aphoristic and sometimes stream-of-consciousness floods, on the things he has seen and done. “I am completely bound to the passing moment,” he records. “I am the passing moment. I am time itself. I have no remarkable experiences. I have no spare moments from the past.” Ordinary though his experiences may have been in the larger human story, they’re enough to sustain an off-kilter, often dyspeptic worldview. First published in 1966, a decade after Halldór Laxness became the first and so far only Icelandic writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Bergsson’s novel has a Joycean quality to it, Finnegans Wake as much as Ulysses, with portraits of the artist as a man at various stages of life, all of them querulous. Jónsson frets that he cannot be a real writer because he lacks a callused pen finger, and that’s only the first of his strict attentions to the body and its functions, as when Bergsson via Jónsson describes a woman eating a boardinghouse meal even as other diners “de-wind themselves with a couple of farts”: “She put it in her mouth on the tines of her fork, her jaws swinging to and fro, bjabb-bjabb, as the steak mashes down her esophagus down to the stomach grog-grog.” It’s not the most appetizing of visions, but Bergsson’s shaggy (and, in a couple of instances, carefully shaven) dog stories have a certain weird charm, even as it develops that Jónsson has discovered one great raison d’être for writing a memoir: revenge.

Nothing much happens on the surface of Bergsson’s yarn, but underneath there’s plenty of magma bubbling.

Pub Date: July 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-940953-60-1

Page Count: 411

Publisher: Open Letter

Review Posted Online: Aug. 3, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2017

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A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

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A financier's Ponzi scheme unravels to disastrous effect, revealing the unexpected connections among a cast of disparate characters.

How did Vincent Smith fall overboard from a container ship near the coast of Mauritania, fathoms away from her former life as Jonathan Alkaitis' pretend trophy wife? In this long-anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven (2014), Mandel uses Vincent's disappearance to pick through the wreckage of Alkaitis' fraudulent investment scheme, which ripples through hundreds of lives. There's Paul, Vincent's half brother, a composer and addict in recovery; Olivia, an octogenarian painter who invested her retirement savings in Alkaitis' funds; Leon, a former consultant for a shipping company; and a chorus of office workers who enabled Alkaitis and are terrified of facing the consequences. Slowly, Mandel reveals how her characters struggle to align their stations in life with their visions for what they could be. For Vincent, the promise of transformation comes when she's offered a stint with Alkaitis in "the kingdom of money." Here, the rules of reality are different and time expands, allowing her to pursue video art others find pointless. For Alkaitis, reality itself is too much to bear. In his jail cell, he is confronted by the ghosts of his victims and escapes into "the counterlife," a soothing alternate reality in which he avoided punishment. It's in these dreamy sections that Mandel's ideas about guilt and responsibility, wealth and comfort, the real and the imagined, begin to cohere. At its heart, this is a ghost story in which every boundary is blurred, from the moral to the physical. How far will Alkaitis go to deny responsibility for his actions? And how quickly will his wealth corrupt the ambitions of those in proximity to it? In luminous prose, Mandel shows how easy it is to become caught in a web of unintended consequences and how disastrous it can be when such fragile bonds shatter under pressure.

A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-52114-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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