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"Writers are to their readers little new worlds to be explored." -- John Galsworthy
The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas
Vesaas, novelist and poet, died in March 1970 and is regarded as one of the most prominent Norwegian writers of the 20th century. Published several years earlier than The Ice-Palace, Vesaas' best-known book in English translation, The Birds focuses on the poignant, urgent predicament of an unemployable simpleton, 37-year-old Matthis, who subsists under the self-sacrificing care of his unmarried sister Hege in a hut nestled between lake and forest somewhere in rural Norway (probably in Vesaas' native Telemark district, although no geographical names--meaningless to the protagonist--are ever mentioned).
Told with confident mastery and acuity entirely from Matthis' quirky viewpoint, the story explores his instinctive, animistic interpretation of his surroundings, his fumbling attempts to be needed and valued, his frustrated efforts to lay hold of his scattering thoughts, to grow quick and clever like everyone else, and his bewildered reaction to the intrusion of Jørgen, an itinerant wood-cutter who pairs with the lonely, weary, dutiful Hege. Only to Matthis could the small events that occur be portentous. Only from within his unusual mind can we grasp the importance of a woodcock flying over the roof or a gust of wind stirring the surface of the lake. Only from his vantage can a drama even be perceived. Sensitive to the slightest stimulus, Matthis searches constantly and incoherently for reassuring signs that his existence is somehow significant. But The Birds must come to a tragic conclusion.
Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund
To anyone who ever idly wondered what Captain Ahab's wife could possibly be like, Naslund supplies a forceful and surprising answer in this unexpected companion-volume to Moby-Dick. Far from the "sweet, resigned girl" Captain Peleg mentions to Ishmael as proof that "Ahab has his humanities," Una Spenser is a free spirit as questing, impassioned, and unorthodox as the Promethean whaler himself. Youthful female to Ahab's mature male, she proves a fit match in every respect to the ageing, relentless, puissant, salt-sea hunter who likes to style himself "cannibal old me." Although familiarity with Melville is unnecessary to enjoyment of Ahab's Wife, some acquaintance with the content and structure of Moby-Dick does add substantially to appreciation of Naslund's exploit.
Una is a lass from the Kentucky wilderness. Already a free-thinker at the age of 12, she is fostered by her mother with a broad-minded aunt in order to subtract her from an intolerant father's determination to force her into conformity--by the whip, if necessary--with his narrow brand of Christianity. The aunt and her husband are island lighthouse-keepers, and Una immediately feels at home with a wide seascape around her. Four years later she crops her hair, dresses in trousers, and contrives to be hired as cabin-boy on a whaling ship, an audacious experience that ends in a disastrous, drastically character-maturing adventure as starving castaway afloat in an open boat. With that Una has her fill of personal seafaring and takes up shore life in Nantucket. But, fittingly, her first meeting with Ahab, he of the "zaggy mark down the side of his face," takes place at sea on the deck of the Pequod.
"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last," Una remarks upon beginning her unconventional memoirs. The captain's predecessor, as well as his successor, are described in the course of her story, and the identity of the latter is guaranteed to startle and intrigue Naslund's readers.
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