In Barbara Millers A Midcentury Man, a grieving daughter recalls her last moments with her father, ultimately revealing the tragic nature of his death. The story is quiet and contemplative at times, yet Miller has a talent for surprising the reader. She punctuates even the grimmest moments with bits of humor and a quiet story ultimately builds to an unexpected crescendo as we move back and forth in time.
American estimations of Halldór Laxness, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature, typically come down to impressions of Independent People. Fifteen years ago, I traversed Iceland on foot with little knowledge of the country but what I had gleaned from that book and a few other Laxness novels. A week into my hike, I came across a sheep farm and asked the farmer if I could camp in a pasture. He invited me inside for coffee and, seeing as how Laxnesss masterpiece Independent People is set on a sheep farm, I casually dropped that it was one of my favorite novels. The farmer replied, The one that came before it is even better. I wrote down the title, Salka Valka, and repeated it in my head for the next month as an incantation, a hocus pocus to make the valley floor solid or the next days water near. Unfortunately, I could never actually read the farmers favorite until now. This month Archipelago Books publishes this masterwork of social realism. Salka Valka initiates a debate on whether independence is not solely a virtue, but a failure of communitya theme central to Laxnesss subsequent work. The depth of feeling in the scene excerpted here, I think, brilliantly proves the sheep farmers point: Salka Valka is a major novel.