Unsuspecting Gem: Six Days in Iceland

Sometimes the plainest of books sparkle the most.

Six Days in Iceland containing poems by Alyson Hallett and geological descriptions by Professor Chris Caseldine, complemented with a small selection of nature photographs by a group of students turned out to be such a find.

The book, which is fundamentally a poetry book about Icelandic landscapes and geology, is the product of a fieldtrip to Iceland by second year undergraduate geography students from the University of Exeter led by Caseldine.

Hallet joined the trip as the first poet in residence in a UK geography department, appointed to the university from September 2010 to May 2011.

During her residency, Hallet was keen to explore the exchanges between a poet and a scientist and to challenge her understanding of nature, as it says in the book’s foreword.

The poems were inspired by Hallet’s observations during the trip and her conversations with Caseldine and his students. Albeit not wordy, they convey the author’s intimate account with Iceland, her knowledge and appreciation of nature.

The poems are a light read yet leave much delight behind and feel a bit like spring thaw: a dripping icicle, a ray of sunshine, a migrating bird’s cheerful song, a bright yellow dandelion.

Some of them are a tad humorous, others a tinge gloomy. There is a serious undertone of loneliness, a love lost. Towards the end the subtexts become headlines, turning glaciers and birds into emotions, outwards to inwards and gradually the poems become more personal.

I preferred the first poems, such as the ones describing April in Iceland, bathing in a swimming pool in cold weather and watching the first signs of spring: “snow scripts the hills; a language hewn out of ice; the sun’s handwriting; spill of white” (from “April in Iceland”, p. 15).

I like it how natural phenomena are considered to be writers of landscapes in Hallet’s poems.

Hallet also refers to the professor’s lectures in her writing: “Chris counsels us to think of Iceland as flat” (from “Thinking of Iceland”, p. 18), something which Caseldine elaborates on in his interesting “scientific prose” at the end of the book, as it is referred to in the foreword.

A student’s concerns also inspire a poem: “Francesca says; What if Katla explodes while we’re here; What if a flood comes down the mountain; What if we can’t escape”, to which Hallet replies: “No brake strong enough; to stop the flood –; […] we learn that we are able to die – (from “Atlas of Iceland in Nineteen Pages”, p. 22-27).

As does a dramatic story mentioned in the same poem, of the lost members of a 1953 University of Nottingham glacial expedition whose equipment resurfaced at Skaftafellsjökull, a sub-glacier of Vatnajökull, in 2006.

That story is also elaborated on in Caseldine’s prose where he explains the nature of glaciers, that everything the glacier engulfs, it will eventually give back (which was actually also the theme of the novel in my last review).

Caseldine’s text concerns volcanoes and glaciers as well as including some general information about the country’s geography, geology and birdlife. It is short and concise and despite being scientific, is accessible to all.

Overall, this little book does Iceland much justice and should prove an interesting and enjoyable read to all Icelandophiles.

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Published by Dropstone Press in 2011, Six Days in Iceland is available on amazon.co.uk.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

The Greenhouse

Part road novel, part bildungsroman, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s The Greenhouse is a meditative story of love, death, fatherhood, and creating meaning in life even when it seems to be entirely dictated by chance. Published in English translation in 2011, it is the first of ten Icelandic novels that online retailer Amazon committed to publishing in the next year via its literature-in-translation press AmazonCrossing.

The Greenhouse opens on Lobbi, a young man to whom things seem to just happen—things which he is rarely equipped to handle. The last year has been particularly unsettling in this respect: first, his mother, with whom he was very close, died in a terrible car accident. Exactly a year later—after being unexpectedly conceived in “one quarter of a night, not even”—his first daughter was born. Feeling superfluous in the life of his child and misunderstood by his aging father, Lobbi is only really comfortable when he is gardening. And so, he decides to leave Iceland for an isolated monastery in a foreign country, hoping to restore a once-legendary garden to its former splendor and add to it a rare species of rose that he cultivated in his mother’s greenhouse.

Once Lobbi begins his journey, little goes to plan. He falls ill almost immediately after he departs and later gets lost and has to detour through a labyrinthian forest. He’s barely settled into his gardening routine at the monastery before the mother of his child arrives with his daughter, asking him to “bear [his] part of the responsibility” and look after the girl while she works on her graduate thesis. But instead of collapsing in this new role, Lobbi rises to the demands of fatherhood, and finds himself embracing such simple tasks as roasting potatoes and picking out hair ribbons.

Auður Ava is not only a fiction author, but also a practicing art historian. So it seems only natural that her prose is particularly visual in its descriptions, such as when Lobbi first arrives at his new village and sees the monastery on the edge of a cliff, “…severed in two by a horizontal stripe of yellow mist that makes it look like it’s hovering over its earthly foundations.” There is a tangible richness to each setting in the novel. Lobbi imagines the lava field where his mother died, visualizing a landscape of “russet heather, a blood red sky, violet red foliage on some small trees nearby, golden moss.” The cozy warmth of her greenhouse, a sofa among the tomato plants, contrasts with the forest Lobbi drives through “which seems endless and spans the entire spectrum of green.”

This evocative prose, fluidly translated by Brian FitzGibbon, provides a nice counterpoint to the simple but perceptive landscape of Lobbi’s continuous internal monologue. In the end, his own transformation mirrors that of his beloved roses, echoing his mother’s gardening philosophy: “it just needs a little bit of care and, most of all, time.”

The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated into English by Brian FitzGibbon is available on Amazon.

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Larissa Kyzer

Auswanderung geht zurück

oslo_psIm Jahr 2011 sind etwa 1400 mehr Menschen aus Island ausgewandert als Menschen die auf die Insel gekommen sind. Das deutet an, dass die Emigration langsam zurückgeht, denn im Jahr 2010 waren noch 2100 mehr Menschen ausgewandert als die die nach Island umgezogen sind.

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