I first read this novel two years ago, and thought it one of the best I'd read in the last decade. Last year, I went to Reykjavik, where it's set, to get married, and it turned out to be my favourite city I've ever visited. That love of Iceland, and the awfulness of COVID-19, made me decide to reread it recently, and I liked it even better the second time.
It's set in 1918, during the Spanish flu pandemic. The protagonist is an orphaned teenage boy who lives with an elderly relative, sells sex to local men and visiting sailors, and has two obsessions: cinema, and a local girl. Then the virus arrives and spreads through the cinema crowds.
This is a short novel that tells a huge story of loneliness, class, secrets, love and friendship. It's grim and beautiful, and a book for the present time.
A few years ago I read a personal essay by the author of a popular book in the “misery memoir” genre. In the essay, the author described their lowest moment as being when they were jogging past a McDonald's and saw the employees watching and laughing. The author was horrified that “even” people working at McDonald's felt able to mock them. If only those proles knew who they were laughing at!
This kind of grandiosity is, in my experience, more common among authors than not. I've long suspected that the reason authors are so self-important is that we know how unimportant our work really is.
If there's anything positive about the pandemic, it's that it brings home whose work really matters. You can't eat books.
I lived in Portland, Oregon, for my last five years in America. One of the most venerated icons there is Powell's City of Books, a new and used bookshop whose main branch occupies an entire city block.
I never understood why it was so beloved as an “independent bookstore.” For years, it fought against its staff attempts to unionise, and it sells used books at rip-off prices. (Disclosure: before I learned about the reality behind the image, I spoke at an event there, and did a book-signing.)
Now it has closed indefinitely because of coronavirus, and its staff have received no severance payment and no continued health insurance.
They're still selling books online. Please boycott them as you would Amazon.