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July 30, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds

Bornholm Night-Ferry

A Novel

Aidan Higgins

Dalkey Archive Press: 176 pp., $12.95 paper

"YSTAD: a place of milk-drinkers. In the Restaurant Felix no one looked happy, the milk-drinkers murmuring in Swedish and schnapps offered by a bar-lady with a sinister smile. We sat by the window. Slovenly Swedish soldiers in baggy green uniforms walked by Domus." The stage is set for a beautifully rendered love affair, told in a series of letters between Elin Marstrander, a Danish poet, and Finn FitzGerald, an Irish novelist. Their first escape is to the island of Bornholm in the Baltic. She leaves behind her daughter; he leaves his wife and child. "Of that journey what now remains?" he writes in his diary years later. "A meager enough display of fruits and vegetables in the market at Ystad. The brewery smell and my torn jacket. The persistent rain, a smile lingering on Swedish lips, Sweden's folkless fields...." They write "fierce" letters, in which Elin describes being shown herself again after long estrangement from herself ("Indeed you got me naked") and Finn describes his distorted sense of time in her presence ("I write to you youngly, for you have made me feel young again"). Over years of letter writing, they love each other more, and more deeply. "I am lying all the time," he writes, "except to you." They arrange to meet in London, Spain, maybe Ireland, but love is worn by absence, worn to a nub but never extinguished. A reader could very easily lie down in these exquisite pages and let waves of Joyce and Sebald wash over him.

*

Relativity

The Special and the General Theory

Albert Einstein, with an introduction by Nigel Calder

Penguin Classics: 208 pp., $10 paper

ALBERT EINSTEIN wrote this little book, intended for the lay reader with an ordinary university education, in 1916. He was 37, completing his work on relativity (the many ways gravity deforms space and time) and eager to explain it without all the math. It's laid out slowly and methodically, from his initial questioning of Euclidean geometry (too flat, too rigid) to the motion of stars and planets in the four-dimensional space-time continuum of our world. Each revelation demands a putting down and picking up (preferably while in a swinging hammock) to fully digest the alteration in worldview and positioning of self in universe that make the book worth reading.

For all his insistence on leaving linguistic elegance to "tailors and cobblers," Einstein makes these revelations entirely visual: the idea that mass and energy are equivalent; that starlight bends around the sun; that gravity slows time, and thus light; that masses deform space, making curves that other masses must travel around. One feels keenly the excitement in the mind and heart of its author, the sense of standing on a precipice (everything we thought we knew, from Euclid to Newton) and having it crumble, and falling, at once a helpless speck and a powerful mass changing the shape of space-time.

*

Icelander

A Novel

Dustin Long

McSweeney's: 240 pp., $22

"ICELANDER" is, dare I say it, a kind of "Series of Unfortunate Events" for adults. It's full of foreign cities and volcanic caves and paranoia; glowing lichen and crescent-shaped knives; bad guys chasing Our Heroine through the streets of Reykjavik. Our Heroine, following in the footsteps of her deceased mother, the beautiful criminologist Emily Bean, is trying to solve the murder of her best friend. "Icelander" is short on plot and long on action; the writing darts here and there and scrambles bits of great literature with details from popular culture and Celtic mythology. The writer has altogether too much fun, inventing words like "shevelled" and "plaughtting" (as in snow "plaughtting" against windowpanes) and "kitchenesque." This is writing not born of deep thought, or vows of poverty or existential hunger. It is writing born out of hysterical laughter and a lingering sense of childhood adventure.

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