Book: Prose Edda

The book: The Younger Edda, by Snorre Sturleson,

The edition: free e-book by Dodo Press of the 1879 edition edited by Rasmus B. Anderson, 216 pages. It includes an English translation of the Foreword, the Fooling of Gylfe, the Afterword, Brage’s Talk, the Afterword to Brage’s Talk and passages from the Skaldskaparmal, plus and introduction, notes and vocabulary by the editor.

About the book: this is one of the main original sources for Nordic mythology, and includes a telling of cosmogony and gods’ feats.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: back in my university days, I had to study the Edda from a linguistic point of view, and was fascinated, but never read the whole of it (which I regretted deeply while reading American Gods). Now that I finally got around to it I cannot say I’m satisfied.
Of course I wasn’t completely ready. The Edda was written in the XII century and storytelling was completely different. I did expect some of it, but it was harder than I thought. It reminded me of the Catholic Catechism of old, with its questions and answers.
I guess this is one of those books that you (or at least I) don’t read for the sake of it, but more because of all the other works that refer back to it. And I’m glad I’ve read it, and I surely do know more about Norse mythology now than I ever wanted to, but I cannot say that the details will stay with me.
Also, I was very sad to discover that the part I studied was not included in this edition, although I do agree that when the editor had all the reasons to do so:

We have not translated any of the Hattatal, and only the narrative part of Skaldskaparmal. The parts omitted cannot possibly be of any interest to any one who cannot read them in the original. All the paraphrases of the asas and asynjes, of the world, the earth, the sea, the sun, the wind, fire, summer, man, woman, gold, of war, arms, of a ship, emperor, king, ruler, etc., are of interest only as they help to explain passages of Old Norse poems.

Still, that was the part that fascinated me and I was sad that it was not included.

What I liked: in the middle of a description of the end of the world, they would stop and insert rules for good living. It cracked me up, every time, such as here:

[During the Ragnarok] the ship that is called Naglfar also becomes loose. It is made of the nails of dead men; wherefore it is worth warning that, when a man dies with unpared nails, he supplies a large amount of materials for the building of this ship, which both gods and men wish may be finished as late as possible.

… so be good and take care that your nails are short at all times! LOL

Also, I loved deciphering the details Tolkien took directly from here to draw his world. For example, did you know that Gandalf was the name of a dwarf, originally, part of a list that included Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and Thorin?

What I didn’t like: this is a 19th century edition, and it shows. There is a lot of praising the “Teutonic race” and it grated on me. Things like:

Such marriages [i.e. incestuous marriages] were not allowed among our Odinic ancestors. Our ancestors were never savages!

Language & writing: I loved that these people had a myth about the origin of poetry (see the mead of poetry on Wikipedia, as it’s longish to tell here) and that their “catechism” included definitions for poetry itself:

Then said Æger: In how many ways do you vary the poetical expressions, or how many kinds of poetry are there? Answered Brage: There are two kinds, and all poetry falls into one or the other of these classes. Æger asks: Which two? Brage answers: Diction and meter. What diction is used in poetry? There are three sorts of poetic diction. Which? One is to name everything by its own name; another is to name it with a pronoun, but the third sort of diction is called kenning (a poetical periphrasis or descriptive name); and this sort is so managed that when we name Odin, or Thor or Tyr, or any other of the asas or elves, we add to their name a reference to some other asa, or we make mention of some of his works.

In the author’s own words: just let me share this passage about the name of Norway. This is from the notes, but I find that the characters’ names are interesting, because they give a good insight on the kind of world the authors of the Edda were used to in terms of weather:

The third son, Kare, had a numerous offspring. He had one son by name Jokul (iceberg), another Froste (frost), and Froste’s son was named Sna (snow). He had a third son, by name Thorri (bare frost), after whom the mid-winter month, Thorra-month, was called; and his daughters hight Fonn (packed snow), Drifa (snow-drift), and Mjoll (meal, fine snow). All these correspond well to Kare’s name, which, as stated, means wind. Thorri had two sons, Nor and Gor, and a daughter, Goe. The story goes on to tell how Goe, the sister, was lost, and how the brothers went to search for her, until they finally found him who had robbed her. He was Hrolf, from the mountain, a son of the giant Svade, and a grandson of Asa-Thor. They settled their trouble, and thereupon Hrolf married Goe, and Nor married Hrolf’s sister, settled in the land and called it after his own name, Norvegr, that is, Norway.

Links to better understand this book:

Counts as: I wanted to read this for so long, but I had to make it count for a whole host of things before I actually got to it. So it counts for the Medieval Challenge (my first read!), Classic Double challenge, Semi-charmed Summer Challenge (a book I was supposed to read in school, in a way), my personal goal of reading mythology, and the Travel with books project for Norway. Weeee!

Travel with books – Lisbon

To know more about this project, and for image credits for the button, please read the Travel with books project page.

Over 6 months after my trip to Lisbon, I am finally ready to tell you about what the city and the books held for me. As with Vienna, Lisbon is not a once-in-a-lifetime destination for me, and you may notice that my take on this post is a little different from previous ones: this time I took the books as suggestions of what to go and discover in Lisbon. Because of that, this post also fits Libby‘s new event, the Book Pilgrimage.

It is hard to keep my eyes fresh after visiting a place so many time, but books do help to discover new facets even of the best-known town.

The Christ the King statue is not mentioned in any of the books I read, but on this trip I had the chance to see it up close

My reading list (links are to my thoughts):

The ferry was the only way to cross the Tagus before this bridge was built in 1966

First, following the example of Gregorius in Night Train to Lisbon, I intended to take a ferry to cross the Tagus — except, I was sidetracked, because I found a convenient river cruise leaving from the same terminal! It clearly does not have the same feeling, but I appreciated the experience.

The Belem Tower, looking like a ship ready to sail

The good thing about the cruise is that we managed to reach and see the Belem Tower, which wold not fit our earlier programs. When you visit the tower (which we did on a previous occasion), you see a nosy sculpture and you learn about the first rhinoceros to be brought to Europe by Portuguese explorers in early 16th century. You can read the full story here on Atlas Obscura. It was interesting to recall it because in The Indies Enterprise Orsenna gives a good fictionalized account of the rhino’s arrival and of the reaction of people in Lisbon. Unfortunately I cannot share the scene with you because I only have the French version of this book, but if you happen to have the English translation, I’d be grateful if you shared the quote in the comments!

The Lisbon castle, as seen from Praça do Comercio

The best part of the day, though, was following the indications given by Saramago and retrace Raimundo Silva’s steps on what was once the Moorish line of fortifications around the city. I have to admit I never felt the charm of this part of Lisbon as strong as on that day. (Following quotes are from the English translation by Giovanni Pontiero, taken from Google Books.)

The idea, which came to him as he watched the roof-tops descending like steps as far as the river, is to follow the lay-out of the Moorish fortifications according to the scant and rather dubious information provided by the historian, as he himself had the good grace to acknowledge.

Lisbon rooftops. The many cruise ships detracted a bit from our 12th-century experience

Raimundo Silva will peruse more slowly whatever remains to be inspected, another section of the wall in the Pátio do Senhor da Murça, the Rua da Adiça, where the wall rose up, and that of Norberto de Araújo, as the street was recently baptised, at the summit an imposing stretch of wall, eroded at the base, these are truly living stones, they have been here for nine centuries, if not longer, from the time of the barbarians, and they survive, they intrepidly support the bell-tower of the church of St Lucy or St Brás, it makes no difference, at this spot, ladies and gentlemen, opened the ancient Portas do Sol, facing eastward, the first to receive the rosy breath of dawn, now all that remains is the square which took its name from this landmark…

Original Moorish wall: I had no idea there was some of it still preserved!

Actually, the plaque says the original wall predated Moorish time and dates back to the Visigots, even!

But here, right before Raimundo Silva’s eyes is a fragment, if not of the indestructible rampart itself, at least of a wall occupying the same space where the other stood, and descending all the way down the steps beneath a row of broad windows surmounted by tall gables.

Not the same segment mentioned in the text, but according to our guide this too was original Moorish wall, and it now houses a café called “Moorish walls”

As usual, here’s a list of more books set in Lisbon I wish to read sometime soon:

  • Antonio Tabucchi, Pereira Maintains
  • Antonio Tabucchi, Requiem: A Hallucination
  • José Saramago, Journey to Portugal
  • José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
  • Camilo Castelo Branco, Mysteries of Lisbon
  • José Rodrigues dos Santos, The Einstein Enigma
  • Richard Zimler, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

Have you read any of these? Any title that you wish to suggest/suggest to avoid? And have you ever visited Lisbon?

Book: People of the Book

The book: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

The edition: Harper Perennial paperback, 372 pages, plus added material (interviews and information about the author, reading suggestions and more)

The story: Australian conservator Hannah is called to work on the suddenly resurfacing Sarajevo Haggadah in 1996. Through the samples she finds within the book, a fictionalized account of its story is reconstructed, each chapter bringing us further and further back in time and across Europe.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I first read this book a couple of years ago, and while I did not write down my thoughts, I can tell you exactly how I felt: I loved the historical fiction, and I had little patience for the general frame, the story of Hannah in modern times.
And on rereading, I still feel the same way. The historical parts are well done, each a whole world in the same way that each page of a miniatured manuscript encloses a whole world. In the few pages dedicated to each of this stories, the author was able to recreate a full world, a reality with its intrigues, passions, powers, and characters who each had a full and well-rounded story behind them.
Too bad that the same ability is not evident in the frame story, which seemed to be there just to grasp for an easy happy end. I had even less patience for Hannah’s chapters on this second reading — everything was either too predictable or too deus-ex-machina, and there is so much intrigue and things happening, but none of it rings true. Still, I would love to go back and enjoy the small stories any time, so it’s still a good book!

In the author’s own words: I loved the parts on conservation work, such as this on colors:

The snow light flared on brightness. Blue: intense as a midsummer sky, obtained from grinding precious lapis lazuli carried by camel caravan all the way from the mountains of Afghanistan. White: pure, creamy, opaque. Less glamorous, more complicated than the blue. At that time it would still have been made according to the method discovered by ancient Egyptians. You cover lead bars with the dregs of old wine and seal them up in a shed full of animal dung. I’d done it once, in my mother’s greenhouse in Bellevue Hill. She’d had a load of manure delivered, and I couldn’t resist. The acid in the vinegary wine converts lead to its acetate, which in turn combines with the carbon dioxide released by the dung to make basic white lead carbonate, PbCO3. My mother pitched a fit about it, of course. Said she couldn’t stand to go near her bloody prize orchids for weeks.

I turned a page. More dazzle. The illuminations were beautiful, but I didn’t allow myself to look at them as art. Not yet. First I had to understand them as chemicals. There was yellow, made of saffron. That beautiful autumn flower, Crocus sativus Linnaeus, each with just three tiny precious stigmas, had been a prized luxury then and remained one, still. Even if we now know that the rich color comes from a carotene, crocin, with a molecular structure of 44 carbon, 64 hydrogen, and 24 oxygen, we still haven’t synthesized a substitute as complex and as beautiful. There was malachite green, and red; the intense red known as worm scarlet — tola’at shani in Hebrew — extracted from tree-dwelling insects, crushed up and boiled in lye. Later, when alchemists learned how to make a similar red from sulfur and mercury, they still named the color “little worm” — vermiculum. Some things don’t change: we call it vermilion even today.

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: I’d like to understand more about the concept of kosher.

Read this if: if you like historical fiction. Also, if you like novels that insert smaller stories into a general frame-story, in the way of The Gargoyle or even The Joy Luck Club

Counts as: Travel with Books – Vienna

Wondrous Words Wednesday: Tim Powers

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) and interesting (to us, again) words we encountered in our readings. See this week round-up at BermudaOnion’s blog!

My words for this week come from The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers. Because there are so many (and all of them from Chapter 1 alone!), I’ll restrain from comments and pictures this time 🙂


Duffy ducked under the awning of the felze.

Felze: n. nautical the cabin of a gondola
*This definition comes from Wiktionary


The gondolier … began poling his way back up the glittering watercourse, softly callling, “Stalì!” to draw any possible fares.

Stalì: n. calls supposedly used by gondoliers to avoid collisions.
*This definition comes from Google Search – I wasn’t able to browse the site it comes from


A sleepy footpad huddles under the bridge roused when he heard the Irishmans uneven tread.

Footpad: n. historical a highwayman operating on foot rather than riding a horse.


I threw a fit in church during the midnight Easter mass, shouting, they later told me, for the need-fires to be lit n the hilltops.

Need-fire: n. paganism a ritual fire created by friction
*This definition comes from Wiktionary


Duffy easily ducked the wide swing and, blocking the dagger-thrust with the quillons of his rapier, stepped aside.

Quillon: n. The guard of a sword or other bladed weapon designed to protect the hand from harm.
*This definition comes from Wiktionary


The gold-stamped spines of leather- and vellum-bound tomes lined a high bookcase along one wall, and ornate tables, shellacked boxes, glittering robes and dim, disturbing paintings filled the rest of the room.

Shellac: v. varnish with shellac.
Shellac: n. lac resin melted into thin flakes, used for making varnish.


Duffy opened the cabinet and chose a bottle of sauternes.

Sauternes: n. a sweet white wine from Sauternes in the Bordeaux region of France.


You’re a worthless trollop

Trollop: n. dated or humorous a sexually disreputable or promiscuous woman.


The word is they’ve begun to assemble the akinji in Constantinople.

Akinji: n. irregular light cavalry, scout divisions (delil) and advance troops of the Ottoman Empire’s military.
*This definition comes from Wikipedia


A bundschuh leftover from the Peasants’ War will knife the Lutheran…

Bundschuh movement: a loosely linked series of localized peasant rebellions in southwestern Germany.
*This definition comes from Wikipedia


And these things cut into the profits in a big way — damages, nice customers scared off, tapsters harder to hire.

Tapster: n. archaic a person who draws and serves alcoholic drinks at a bar.


He remembered the sharp thudding of the Turkish guns and the hiss of a grapeshot whipping across the plain.

Grapeshot: n. historical ammunition consisting of a number of small iron balls fired together from a cannon.


Keep the riffraff out. Keep the peace.

Riffraff: n. disreputable or undesirable people.


Half these ships have their sails reefed anyway.

Reef: n. each of several strips across a sail which can be taken in or rolled up to reduce the area exposed to the wind.
Reef: v. take in one or more reefs of (a sail).


(All definitions are taken from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary © 2008 via unless otherwise stated.)

Book: The Indies Enterprise

The book: The Indies Enterprise, by Erik Orsenna

The edition: French (original) version, as published by Livre de Poche (paperback), 378 pages

The story: old and on the verge of death, Bartolomeo Columbus, younger brother of the more famous Christopher, tells the story of his brother’s obsession with a new route to the Indies, how it shaped their lives and how this exquisite passion for discovery lead to genocide and destruction.

My experience with the book & my thoughts:I wanted to read this because it is mainly set in Lisbon and written in French. But Orsenna is not an author I like, I already suspected it and here it was confirmed. I’m at loss as for what the general sense of this book should be, but it touches on so many subjects (the relationship between older and younger brother, books as a way of navigating the world, science against religion, to name but a few) that I guess it would make a great book club choice.

What I liked: medieval myths and half-knowledges used to build a scenario for the story.

What I didn’t like: the frame for the main story, with old Bartolomeo in Santo Domingo, looking back and trying to dissect his life in search of a seed for the cruelty.

In the author’s own words: there were several things I’d like to share, too bad I could only share them in French!

Random thought: the Padrão Real. Wow.

Read this if: if you like historical fiction mixed with philosophical fiction

Counts as: Travel with books – Lisbon