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ICELAND’S BELL

In many ways, Iceland’s Bell isn’t a modern novel. And that is its great strength.

The integrity and vitality of Icelandic culture, as subtly celebrated by the Nobel-winning author (1902–98) of Independent People (1946) and, most recently, World Light (2002).

Laxness’s previously untranslated three-part novel (1943–46) is set in the late 17th to early 18th century, when Iceland was effectively a Danish colony—and its initiating action is in fact the prosecution of saturnine farmer Jon Hreggvidsson (a cynical misanthrope akin to Independent People’s prickly protagonist Bjartur) for having insulted Denmark’s king. Hreggvidsson is also (falsely) accused of murder, a slander that motivates his escape from prison and subsequent efforts to clear his name through litigation. He’s encouraged and defended by magistrate’s daughter Snaefridur Eydalin (one of Laxness’s great women), a proud, stalwart beauty who herself escapes an unhappy marriage (albeit through widowhood) and grows into a fierce embodiment of her country’s independence. This transformation occurs through her increasingly intimate relationship with Arnas Arnaeus, an antiquarian professor and failed political idealist (modeled on a real historical figure) obsessed with creating an authoritative collection of indigenous manuscripts and documents. This is the most resolutely Icelandic of Laxness’s work—and it’s probably safe to assume that its emphasis on Denmark’s threats to his homeland’s sovereignty conceals a warning about the perils of a mid-20th-century world dominated by acquisitive global powers. But if Laxness’s characters preach and pontificate, their very human (and often extremely amusing) foibles imbue them with extraordinary energy. Furthermore, the intricacy with which these flinty souls are set into contrast and conflict, and the tenacity with which they cling to endangered and compromised ways of life give this a fabulistic texture quite reminiscent of the classic sagas that influenced all of their author’s best books.

In many ways, Iceland’s Bell isn’t a modern novel. And that is its great strength.

Pub Date: Oct. 14, 2003

ISBN: 1-4000-3425-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Vintage

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2003

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ABSOLUTE POWER

The mother of all presidential cover-ups is the centerpiece gimmick in this far-fetched thriller from first-novelist Baldacci, a Washington-based attorney. In the dead of night, while burgling an exurban Virginia mansion, career criminal Luther Whitney is forced to conceal himself in a walk-in closet when Christine Sullivan, the lady of the house, arrives in the bedroom he's ransacking with none other than Alan Richmond, President of the US. Through the one-way mirror, Luther watches the drunken couple engage in a bout of rough sex that gets out of hand, ending only when two Secret Service men respond to the Chief Executive's cries of distress and gun down the letter-opener-wielding Christy. Gloria Russell, Richmond's vaultingly ambitious chief of staff, orders the scene rigged to look like a break-in and departs with the still befuddled President, leaving Christy's corpse to be discovered at another time. Luther makes tracks as well, though not before being spotted on the run by agents from the bodyguard detail. Aware that he's shortened his life expectancy, Luther retains trusted friend Jack Graham, a former public defender, but doesn't tell him the whole story. When Luther's slain before he can be arraigned for Christy's murder, Jack concludes he's the designated fall guy in a major scandal. Meanwhile, little Gloria (together with two Secret Service shooters) hopes to erase all tracks that might lead to the White House. But the late Luther seems to have outsmarted her in advance with recurrent demands for hush money. The body count rises as Gloria's attack dogs and Jack search for the evidence cunning Luther's left to incriminate not only a venal Alan Richmond but his homicidal deputies. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper climax provides an unsurprising answer to the question of whether a US president can get away with murder. For all its arresting premise, an overblown and tedious tale of capital sins. (Film rights to Castle Rock; Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-446-51996-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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