Jul 25, 2008

Windows

Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland, by Bill Holm. Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2007. 216 pgs. Endpapers include maps of Iceland and of Skagafjörður.




The challenge: Prof. Batty and I were reading this book at about the same time, so we decided to post our reviews simultaneously. Thus the reader can be assured of complete objectivity... ahem.

Who is Bill Holm? He is one of my favorite authors, an educator and seeker of knowledge; an irascible, radical, cranky defender of liberty and justice. You’ll find many references to him in this blog by using the search box in the upper left corner. This is his most recent book—Bill has written or contributed to over a dozen other volumes of poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction.

Sveit is a recurring theme in this book. Sveit can be summarized as community, or, perhaps, what connects to your heart.

Who or what is my sveit? According to Bill Holm’s definition, it might be the readers of this blog—people captivated by Iceland, and by Icelandic literature. One’s sveit might go beyond family and borders, especially when assisted by books, or by the internet. The internet has enabled a group of bloggers who are tied together by things Icelandic to be a community of sorts. Holm himself is responsible for the Icelandic sveit I feel a part of…not because he writes blogs, but because his books piqued my interest in Icelandic literature, and, subsequently, Iceland.

Bill Holm’s sveit is grandly large, composed of Minnesota, Iceland, China, choral music, Bach and Halldór Laxness, just to begin the list. And Brimnes.

As Holm tells it, he had visited Hofsós, in northern Iceland, a number of times. “By my third or fourth trip to Hofsós I had fallen completely in love with the place, so much so that it had become my imaginary sveit.” When he discovered that Brimnes, the tiny cottage he was staying in, was for sale, he immediately decided to purchase it.

You can imagine the joy I felt visiting Hofsós in 2006, where my family and I met Bill Holm, and experienced first hand the community of Hofsós where he now lives for three months of each year. During our visit with him he told us of his upcoming book: The Windows of Brimnes. In fact, the last chapter of the book, Fog, was written at the time we visited Brimnes, and fog is exactly what we found there.

Holm does not choose seclusion in a remote town in Iceland as an escape. The chapters in this book demonstrate that he is always thinking, looking: forward and back in history, and from Iceland to the United States and back. The first and last chapters are about Brimnes, Holm’s windows there framing not only the book itself, but all of its internal inquiry.

One chapter focuses on Skagafjörður, the fjörd on which Hofsós, and consequently Holm, find themselves.

Skagafjörður is a fat fjörd with a wide mouth open to all the light it can drink, every last smidgeon it can suck out of the sun, or even an intense winter moon or the northern lights…This is…a laughing Buddha fjörd…a fjörd that embraces the visible world.

Do I anthropomorphize a fjörd too much? Nonsense, I cannot anthropomorphize enough. If people have characters peculiarly their own, why should we deny one to a fjörd?...Your place on this planet…is where (among other things) the light feels right to you.

And, he concludes, “If you wish to observe the Icelandic landscape, you had best like the long view.” Amen for the long view! After you contemplate the long view in Skagafjörður, Holm says, “All you need now is a few lines of properly rhymed Icelandic poetry to mumble to yourself as you begin simultaneously weeping and laughing.” Many is the time, reading Holm, when I have simultaneously laughed and cried.

Being a part-time resident, Holm offers some insights into how Iceland is different in less-than-obvious ways:

The modern Icelander who has not left the island has thus never seen a reptile, nor an amphibian, nor skunk, coyote, muskrat, raccoon, rabbit, gopher, beaver, wolf, bear, cougar, nor any large ungulate like elk, moose, or bison. Neither has the Icelander been tortured by mosquitoes, biting blackflies…nor any of that army of insects pests…

Further, most Icelanders have not experienced thunder on their native shores. Strange to consider!

Throughout the book runs the thread of memory, ancestors, and history. In particular, Holm focuses on the Icelandic emigrant to the New World—his ancestors. His chapter “The Melancholy Quotient” takes a look at the history of some of his relatives: “Unless some damn fool writer tells the family secrets, they will soon disappear into the oblivion of history. And what confidence have you that whatever version you hear of these stories, or judgments of these characters, is accurate—much less true?”

This quote of Holm's reminded me of my husband’s genealogy interests: “Genealogy—the melancholy quotient—offers those who pursue it with care, intelligence, and no wishful thinking both a wedge into one’s personal history and the connection of the history to the larger history of human beings on the planet.” Once again Holm discourses on the meaning of truth: “genealogy casts a skeptical light on those who claim to have corralled truth…One more fact will always turn up just when you least expect it, overturning all your presumed certainties.”

Holm tells many stories of Minneota, MN, and of areas near Hofsós, as well as the areas of Iceland where his relatives came from. Thinking of the emigrant experience, Holm empathizes with their emotional upheaval:

But for the Icelanders—as for every other immigrant group to this day—the wound to the soul caused by the abrupt amputation of language, culture, history, folklore, landscape, and habits of mind and body was too much, too sudden for instant adjustment, for melting immediately into the new pot. The phantom limb still ached…

Holm thoughtfully considers the Icelandic horse; the nature of silence and contemplation; religion; and formal and informal belief systems. His anthem--consisting of faith, anger and grief over senseless destruction of lives and of nature, impatience with ignorance and false piety, praise of beauty in music, nature, literature, individual human lives--rings as strong and true in Brimnes as in his other books. Talking to Bill Holm is the same as reading him: he has strong feelings and opinions; he remains paradoxically idealistic, despite disillusionment; and he is ready and eager to compel others to think.

I learned that Bill Holm’s birthday is August 25th. This birthdate is shared with my youngest son: another ardent, observant seeker of truth. I hope that my virgo son will find fulfillment, as Holm has, in seeking and telling the truth, as he sees it, throughout his life.

Check out Flippism is the Key for Batty’s review of Windows of Brimnes! And this site, where you can listen to Bill, will give you a more personal look at the man and the artist.

As you can see, my signed copy is back from its trip to Minneota.


4 comments:

Professor Batty said...

... five stars for your review! I hope you didn't have to stay up to late to finish it!

Rose said...

You mean, 5 puffins?
No, I finished an hour before the deadline, gasp!

Rose said...

And the date you picked for our reviews, Batty, was two years to the day:
Hofsos
Weird.

Jon said...

5 puffins for both of you. I'll never run out of books to read. I just have to figure out how to get by on less sleep.