In the Eye of the Beholder: Iceland 360° – The Top Ten Places

Iceland 360° – The Top Ten Places is a bilingual, Icelandic-English, photo book by Vilhelm Gunnarsson who has worked as a photographer at the daily newspaper Fréttabladid since 2003.

Gunnarsson has been awarded for his press photography and his pictures have been published widely in the foreign media. This is his second photo book. The first, published in 2010, features the volcanic eruption in Eyjafjallajökull.

His photos from the 2011 Grímsvötn eruption are equally stunning, most notably the one of farmers herding sheep in the ash-stricken rural region near Kirkjubaejarklaustur published on p. 20-21 in the current issue of Iceland Review.

This book features more peaceful scenery; the photographer invites us to share his view of his ten most favorite places in Iceland.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the foreword says and that’s very true. I won’t dispute the beauty of the places selected for this book but I don’t find them particularly original.

The book might just as well be called: “The Ten Most Visited Places” because it includes the country’s most frequented tourist hot spots, such as the Golden CircleLandmannalaugarJökulsárlón and Mývatn.

That being said, there is a reason for these places being so popular among tourists. The lava formations and clear waters of Thingvellir in striking autumn colors look like a painting of a fantasy world and even more so the colorful hills of Landmannalaugar.

One may never tire looking at pictures from these areas but it still feels like you’ve seen them a million times before, that is if you’re an Icelander, a regular visitor to the country and/or have browsed through many photo books of its landscapes.

Therefore I applaud new perspectives and motives, such as a cow and foal kissing on a field of buttercups in the Golden Circle chapter (I seem to remember having bought this photo as a postcard once) and a lone black horse against the yellow, red, blue and green backdrop of Landmannalaugar.

I also find the picture of pink flowers in the green moss of Thórsmörk particularly beautiful, as well as the one of the adorable baby foxes playing in the same chapter and the redpoll tweeting on a branch in the Skaftafell chapter.

The glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón may be one of the most photographed locations in Iceland but the melting icebergs constantly form new sculptures. Gunnarsson’s photo of a piercing blue iceberg with a hole in it and a flock of Arctic terns hovering above truly captures one’s attention.

Not all of the chapters are “clichés”. I was pleased to find Borgarfjördur eystri in the East Fjords covered, where reindeer curiously sniff at the photographer in a snowy landscape. In fact, all of Iceland’s regions are covered except for the West Fjords, which I miss.

Each chapter opens with a description of the location at hand and is a bit heavy on the adjectives, in my opinion. I would have preferred more historical and geographical facts over sometimes pretentious descriptions of what it feels like being in the places featured.

For example: “Mist droplets bead upon our faces and it is impossible to see how far the water travels into the canyon. It is an extraordinary sensation to stand on the edge of the cliff and feel it tremble from the force of the waterfall,” it says on Gullfoss.

Pictures say more than a thousand words, they say, and I agree. Besides, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, everyone has a different experience of Icelandic nature—sometimes it cannot even be put into words.

The photographs alone are enough to encourage people to travel to these places. Which is why I would also have wished there were a few more photographs of places off the beaten track. Icelandic nature is best experienced in solitude.

What also bothered me about this book is that there is no table of contents and no page numbers. And the English version could have been proofread a little more closely.

Other than that, the pictures are certainly beautiful—my favorites are the ones including flora and fauna—and perfect for someone who has never been to Iceland and has never looked at a “best of” photo book from the country before.

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Published by Salka in 2011, Iceland 360° – The Top Ten Places is available in Icelandic bookstores and on the publisher’s website (for questions, email: [email protected]).

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

A Voyage into the Past: Square Sails and Dragons

Square Sails and Dragons is a historical novel by American author Celia Lund set in an Icelandic settlement in Greenland around the year 1000 AD, featuring both fictional and historical characters on a voyage to Norway.

These characters include Eric the Red, who founded the Greenlandic settlement and after whom one of its fjords is named, and his son, Leif “the lucky” Ericsson, the first European to set foot on the American continent, legend has it. He is commemorated with a statue in front of the Reykjavík landmark church, Hallgrímskirkja.

While Square Sails and Dragons, Lund’s debut, appeared in 2005, its sequel, New Harbors New Hopes, which is set in North America, was published this year. This is a review of the first book.

Straight out, let me say that I enjoyed it. I’m a big fan of historical novels and generally, the further back in time they take me, the more I’m caught up in the story.

As a debut, it is very good, and I take my hat off to Lund for having realized her dream of publishing a novel after retirement.

Lund dedicates the book to her late husband and in the acknowledgements she also addresses her children and grandchildren: “you probably expected memoirs, but thanks for never questioning which drummer Grandma might follow next,” she humorously notes. Indeed, both humor and enthusiasm can be sensed in the book.

Authenticity is key to writing good historical novels. That is not to say they should be stripped down to dry facts and figures—fiction is important to add meat to the bones and make the story come alive—but it should be based on thorough research to harmonize with history and should at least feel authentic.

Of course, how authentic something feels depends on how well readers are familiar with the subject matter. The overall context of the story seemed fairly authentic to me, especially the details surrounding the build and mechanism of the Viking ship. Lund did a good job in placing me onboard that knarr.

The characters were also vivid and likeable, especially that of the main character, the stowaway Terje Gundersson. An independent and adventurous young man, he doesn’t take no for an answer yet manages to make friends with most of the unruly seamen who reject him at first, most notably with the ship’s commander, Leif Ericsson.

But I’m sorry to say that the naming of the characters was an absolute linguistic mess and it bothered me so that it stole away much of the joy of reading.

Take the protagonist as an example. I’m no expert but I take Terje to be a modern Norwegian name, which I doubt would have existed in that form at the time the novel is set. Neither is Gunder, which I assume is an Anglicized version of Gunnar.

I’d let the commonly used Anglicized versions of Leifur (Leif) and Eiríkur (Eric) slide but Norwegian versions of Biblical names like Jon and Per are hardly fitting for pagans.

I cannot imagine Bardal having been used as a first name in the Norse settlement in Greenland. It sounds more like a family name adopted by people who derive from the valley Bárdardalur named after a settler called Bárdur—which is an actual name.

Speaking of surnames, at the time patronymics were used (as they still are in Iceland), and so all surnames of men should have the ending –son and all surnames of women the ending –dóttir. I doubt people would have referred to each other by surname alone.

There were no family names like Terssen, I dare say, which must be an Anglicized version of an Icelandic patronymic which may have been adopted by an Icelandic immigrant to North America at the turn of the 20th century.

Linguistic misunderstanding also seems to have led to the surname of the first known discoverer of the European mainland, Bjarni Herjólfsson, to be spelled Hergolfsson.

There are many more examples of names that bothered me but I’ll stop here. Let me just say that I don’t think it would take a lot of effort to confirm whether names that sound Old Norse actually are Old Norse, and I sincerely encourage the author, or her editor, to do so before publishing the next novel.

Apart from this, the storyline kept me interested, taking the voyagers from Greenland by accident to the Hebrides and onwards to Norway. Characters make friends and foes, fall in love and are left heartbroken.

One of the deepest and most interesting characters is that of King Olaf Tryggvason, while Thorgunna, the chieftain’s daughter on the Hebrides, is the most mysterious and intriguing—I would have liked some elaboration on her personality and Celtic influences.

The plot was particularly exciting towards the end and didn’t really wind down but rather led up to the sequel. It felt as if there was more to come; there was no real closure to the love stories, for example.

However, the excitement wasn’t especially intense, in the sense that it was neither terribly violent nor passionate. That isn’t a flaw, but made the book read more like an adventure for teenagers that adults might also enjoy rather than a novel targeted exclusively at adults.

I have a suspicion that the sequel may be more intense; at least that’s what the description on the back cover indicates. I am keen to find out.

I recommend Square Sails and Dragons to all avid readers of historical novels and those interested in Norse history in particular—the things that bothered me may feel authentic enough to others.

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Square Sails and Dragons and New Harbors New Hopes are available on amazon.com.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

From Fierce Man-Eaters to Peaceful Nature-Lovers: Trolls – Philosophy and Wisdom

One of my favorite books as a child was A Giant Love Story by celebrated Icelandic children’s author Gudrún Helgadóttir and British-born illustrator and author Brian Pilkington.

Published in 1981, it must have been one of the first, if not the first, book on trolls that Pilkington illustrated. Given that Trolls – Philosophy and Wisdom is his tenth, he obviously fell in love with the subject.

In Icelandic folk stories trolls are mean creatures who eat humans and therefore kidnap them and want to keep them captive. But they are also clumsy and stupid and usually end up exposing themselves to sunlight, which turns them to stone.

Which explains why there are so many “trolls” in the Icelandic landscape. The famous rock formation Reynisdrangar off Vík in south Iceland, for example, was created when two trolls tried to tow a three-masted ship to land but failed to reach the shore before sunrise, or so legend has it.

Based on elements from the folk stories, A Giant Love Story offers a different view on trolls, featuring them as emotional beings who are capable of love and care deeply for their children.

Pilkington has adopted and evolved that image of trolls until they’ve become almost the opposite of how folk stories portray them. To him they are wise and peaceful beings who look after and live in harmony with nature but hide from humans, whom they despise.

In the preface to his latest book, Pilkington even—presumably tongue-in-cheek—speculates about a supernatural connection with trolls, hinting that they have chosen him to tell their story.

In essence, Trolls – Philosophy and Wisdom is a collection of paintings made in Pilkington’s spare time. He explains that he just starts doodling and soon enough a troll is staring back at him from the page and each image inspires a word or phrase of wisdom.

The trolls are male and female, young and old, wear decorated clothing and accessories, enjoy nature and cuddling in their cozy caves. Some have horns, others warts and none are exactly pretty but there is something beautiful about Pilkington’s imagination.

As in all his illustrations, the lines are soft and the colors warm and I especially like the paintings which feature actual locations in Iceland, such as Snaefellsjökull glacier in the west and Dyrhólaey promontory in the south.

I’m not as fond of all the accompanying text which reflects Pilkington’s love for nature and his view of the world, maybe even contempt for mankind?

For example: “Trolls’ advice to humans: The best possible thing you can do for your children is to have fewer of them.” I’m not sure what he’s implying. The world is overpopulated and humans are destroying it so we should all stop procreating?

Other texts are a little too straightforward and sound too propagandish for my taste, even though I agree, such as: “It’s a good world, a beautiful planet. Let’s look after it.”

However, in many cases, the text is original and witty and, in my interpretation, suits the character of trolls better, like: “It’s hard to insult a troll; they are very thick-skinned” and, below a picture of a troll organizing rocks on a giant plain: “Rearranging nature aesthetically. The reason why Iceland is so pleasing on the eye.”

There’s especially one piece of troll advice that I’d like to take to heart, and actually do practice whenever I get the chance: “Get up late, go to bed early, take lots of naps in between.” Maybe I have a little of the troll spirit in me?

Overall, I liked the book, as I like all books by Pilkington that I’ve read, although I prefer his books that include longer stories. My favorites are the aforementioned love story and another children’s book he co-authored with Steinar Berg.

After finishing his latest book, Pilkington left me more curious about his trolls than before I started reading. What do they eat if they don’t eat humans? His paintings show them out and about in broad daylight. Doesn’t the sun prove any hazard to them?

Maybe there will be a more elaborate follow-up?

But for those interested in short and mostly meaningful anecdotes and adorable paintings of trolls and Icelandic nature, Trolls – Philosophy and Wisdom is definitely recommendable.

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Published by Mál og menning/Forlagid in Reykjavík in 2011, the book is available in the webstore of Forlagid and in Icelandic book stores. Email [email protected] if you have any questions.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

River of Evil Running Through Little Iceland

As a first time reader of Arnaldur Indridason, and somewhat prejudiced in my disposition to crime novels, I was not quite sure what to expect from Outrage.

However, Indridason managed to catch me by surprise; the combination of an intricate plot, the author’s own presence in the novel, and an understanding of Icelandic reality, both its cons and pros, compelled me to finish the novel.

Outrage is the ninth book in the Detective Erlendur series and this time the protagonist is Elínborg, a seasoned detective who is also a mother and a wife. She investigates a brutal murder and during the investigation battles with the hidden ugliness of human nature visible only to few as well as her own guilt pertaining to parental neglect.

One of my arguments against writing crime novels set in Iceland has been that there is simply no basis to believe such brutality occurs within the confinements of our little island; that the writing itself is almost wishful thinking, a way to place Reykjavík on a platform with American cities where detectives do investigate brutal murders. However, Indridason proved me wrong in Outrage, starting with the plot.

The plot is sparked by a simple event, a murder of a young man living in Reykjavík city. The plot explores the initial impressions of Elínborg, to more questionable details of lifestyle choices leading to a full exposure of a much darker world, so far from our imagination yet perhaps too easy to stumble into.

The notions of guilt and innocence enter into a battle zone where the undeserving experience guilt and the question of rightful punishment for the deserving are ever-present in the characters and their conflictions.

Then there’s the author’s presence in the novel. Like E.M. Forster in Howards End, a slight voice belonging to the author climbs to the surface occasionally revealing social criticism of the Icelandic legal system, a voice seemingly belonging to a character but one that seems to possess them for a second and say the unspoken in straightforward manner. However, the intervention of the author’s voice is not necessary to the storyline as the story itself leaves the reader fatigued by the brutality of human action against fellow human beings.

Indridason has been published in several languages and it is perhaps the sense of Iceland and the Icelandic reality that intrigues foreign readership to his work.

He captures the intricate details of the Icelandic way of life and of the citizens in Europe’s northernmost capital city, with a glimpse into smaller communities that seem so strange to a city dweller, yet to someone whose childhood was spent in such a place, the familiarity of people’s interaction is prevailing. The story captures the sense of invisible borders between the citizens of this island in the North yet does not discriminate.

The protagonist Elínborg and her thoughts and investigative work are revealed to the reader but little is said about Sigurdur Óli, a disgruntled police officer whose fuse is short, much to Elínborg’s dislike. The presence of Elínborg’s family serves as her shelter from the world yet not a shelter from her inner life.

The storyline is simple yet invites the reader to catch a glimpse of a subplot involving the invisible character Erlendur, a mild introduction to a mystery to be resolved in a later book perhaps.

Outrage is not a masterpiece but succeeds where many crime novels fail: to provoke the reader and surprise with an unforeseen solution to the end.

The original title of OutrageMyrká or “Dark River” is certainly appropriate for the evil running through the plot.

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Published by Vaka-Helgafell Publishing House in 2008, the book is available at www.amazon.com and most Icelandic bookstores.

Júlíana Björnsdóttir

The Magic of Seal Woman

The copy of Seal Woman by Solveig Eggerz, an Iceland-born journalist and professor of writing and research, had me spellbound as soon as I saw it lying on my desk.

The mystical cover, the title referencing one of the most touching Icelandic folk stories and the prospect of a thrilling historical novel—my favorite type of literature—reciting the story of German women who moved to Iceland to work on farms in the late 1940s. I have often wondered about their fate.

As I started reading, Eggerz kept me glued to the pages through the thoughts of Charlotte. A war widow of the worst kind, husband and child perished, her memories haunt her where she has made a new life for herself on a rugged island far from the bustling streets of pre-war Berlin. She has no one to talk to so she speaks to us. It almost feels as if we’re reading her diary.

An artist by education and nature, Charlotte’s hands are now busy with hard routine farm work but although she is tired from the repetitiveness of it all, the harsh weather, isolation and dark winters, she can’t bring herself to paint—the feeling for color lost.

Eggerz’s style is flowing and poetic and the descriptions vivid. I could picture myself walking through the streets of Berlin, following the young happy Charlotte and her passionate lover, paying attention to the same details they do. They watch everything through the eyes of artists and indeed their world feels like a moving painting.

The story is split in two parts, Germany and Iceland, as is Charlotte’s life. I found the German part almost perfect. I could feel and breathe her joy which then turned to pain; I could sense the rising tension in society and the resistance and later apathy towards the horrors of the war.

The only thing I would have changed was the intensity of the sexual references. I can see their importance in describing a passionate relationship and the atmosphere in the city before the war but were they really necessary outside those sections of the story, for example, when going to an interview for art school?

I did not connect as much with the Iceland part of the story, even though that world should be closer to me. The descriptions of life on the farm and its inhabitants seemed valid enough, albeit old-fashioned. That was the reality back then, especially on the remoter farms as I assume Charlotte’s was.

It took me a while to figure out what bothered me until I realized it was all so intangible. Where was the farm exactly? On a hill but close to the shore is all we get. Sometimes I imagined it was in the northeast, then I figured in must be on the southern coast but I couldn’t really place it anywhere.

Imaginary places are all right in novels, as are real or half-real places with pseudonyms, which is common in novels by Halldór Laxness and Jón Kalmann.

But I don’t think it’s fitting when one part of a novel describes a European metropolis down to street names but the other part a mysterious Icelandic countryside with farm names like Butterdale and Dark Castle, which don’t sound authentic at all.

I also would have wished a stronger reference to the seal woman of the folk story, whose fate definitely rhymes with that of Charlotte, which was only mentioned briefly in an amended version.

Summarized, it goes like this:

One morning on a stroll along the shore a man noticed people partying inside a cave and a pile of seal pelts outside. He grabbed one, brought it home and locked it inside a chest.

Later in the day he walked back to the cave and saw a beautiful naked woman crying. It was the seal whose pelt he had stolen.

The man brought the woman home and gave her clothes. She stayed with him but wouldn’t socialize with others and often stared at the sea.

They had many children and were happy but the man always kept the pelt locked in the chest and carried the key with him wherever he went.

Many years later he forgot the key at home and when he returned the chest was open and the pelt gone.

The woman had not resisted the urge, put on the pelt, bid her children farewell and dived into the sea. As she disappeared, she said: “I’m torn. I have seven children in the sea and seven on land.”

The man was devastated but when he rowed to the sea a seal often swam around his boat and it was as if it cried. He always got a good catch from then on.

When their children walked along the shore, a seal often swam in the surf and tossed multicolored fish and beautiful shells in their direction but it never returned to land.

These few points of criticism aside, I read the book feverishly until the very end and Eggerz left me hungry for more. She is a magician with words and I sincerely recommend her work.

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Seal Woman was published by Ghost Road Press in the USA in 2008. It is available on amazon.com.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sigurbjörg – To Bleed Straight

I’m not much into poetry. At least not modern poetry where everything is fleeting, nothing rhymes, there is no rhythm and no obvious meaning. Unless there is some very clever wordplay, maybe. I have nothing against it; it’s just not for me.

Sigurbjörg Thrastardóttir is among Iceland’s most accomplished young poets, apparently. I’m ashamed to admit that I had never heard of her until I was given a copy of to bleed straight, a collection of her poetry with English translations by Bernard Scudder and illustrations by Marta María Jónsdóttir, published by JPG in 2008.

Born in 1973, Thrastardóttir’s poems have appeared in magazines and poetry collections in Germany, Scotland, Italy and Sweden, among other countries, her plays have been staged in theaters in Iceland and in 2002 she won the Tómas Gudmundsson Literary Prize for her novel Sólar saga.

I’m not sure what to make of to bleed straight. Most of all, I’m impressed by Scudder’s translations of words and sentences that appear out of the blue and lead nowhere (except I don’t get why líma (“glue”) was translated as “lima” (“weather ship” p. 26-37).

I’m not very patient when it comes to interpreting poetry and I think I better leave it to other readers. I guess the book is open to anyone’s interpretation and readers can find meaning in the poems even though it isn’t related to the author’s original train of thought.

Blood is clearly an issue, as the title reveals, perhaps menstrual blood, given the talk of bloody crotch stains (“epilogue IV” p. 72-73). Which I found a little gross, actually, and maybe that was the way I was supposed to feel while reading it.

There is also some talk of impregnation and wishful thinking (“being fertilized” p. 14-15), so I can’t help but think some of these poems are deeply personal, reminiscent of an existential crisis, the ticking of a biological clock? Or maybe just a metaphor for inspiration?

Many of the poems are rather depressing, like “laekjargata” (p. 18-19): “…your stomach tightens; and your heart; no one; seems to recognize you; you often go astray; in the house, pour away the fun; and flowers grow in your hair; while you die”.

There is also some talk of murder (“murder story” p. 38-39) and suicide (“bologna” p. 42-43), and while other poems have happier elements: “i can hear even better and; better the grass growing; i watch over the dandelion clocks” (“grow up” p. 62-63), suddenly surgical knives appear out of nowhere.

Some poems are rather funny with references to Icelandic traditions like eating too much on New Year’s Eve and then watching Áramótaskaupid, the New Year’s comedy sketch (“staying together (special)” p. 68-69), yet there is a sense of loneliness throughout the book.

Except maybe in the poems that recite traveling where “I” becomes “we” (“cape canaveral” p. 44-45).

I like the poems the most where there is no self reflection but rather social commentary, both in Iceland (“immigrant/june” p. 50-51) and abroad (“arabia” p. 52-53).

The latter is pretty straightforward: “woman, get dressed; this instant; here is neither the place; nor the time for flesh; you’re lucky to be able to go unseen”.

Thrastardóttir’s poems vary in topic if not form and I’m missing a red thread, the straight blood, so to speak. I don’t know where she’s going, is it a complete work of poetry or simply a coincidental collection? Maybe it doesn’t matter but it confuses me—perhaps the author’s intention.

There is certainly a lot of content in this small book and although I favor classic poets like Jónas Hallgrímsson that’s not to say others won’t enjoy Thrastardóttir’s work and might quite possibly get something totally different out of it than I did.

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to bleed straight is available online in the University of Iceland student bookstore. For enquires, email: [email protected].

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

True Story: The Little Book of the Icelanders

I bet I wasn’t the only one who felt sad when Iceland’s leading lady of the blogosphere, two-time Bloggie nominee Alda Sigmundsdóttir of The Iceland Weather Report, announced her decision to stop blogging.

For years she has entertained and enlightened the world with her honest and hilarious anecdotes about the Icelanders and her deep and profound news analysis, which provided foreign media outlets with valuable and, sadly, often unaccredited information.

But fans of Sigmundsdóttir will be thrilled to know that she has not stopped writing, she just switched formats, and are sure to welcome her second eBook, The Little Book of the Icelanders – Vol. 1.

Preceded by the more serious Living Inside the MeltdownThe Little Book of the Icelanders is of a lighter topic, comprising of “50 miniature essays on the quirks and foibles of the Icelanders”, as it says on the cover.

The book strikes me as an extension of her blog, or perhaps a summary and elaboration of past entries. It isn’t only light in topic, it is also light in structure—as Sigmundsdóttir says in the introduction, it has none, it was meant to be spontaneous.

Indeed, one chapter leads to the next, creating a continuous chain of storytelling. It feels as if you’re sitting in the author’s kitchen, enjoying a cup of coffee and conversing with her about the quirks of her countrymen, every now and then bursting out laughing.

And Sigmundsdóttir sure has mastered the art of storytelling. Her style is sarcastic and straight to the point, drawing up amusing and truthful examples of Icelandic behavior.

As an Icelander, I can confirm that she does provide readers with a fairly accurate picture of how things are done here, although I wasn’t aware that some of these things seemed so strange to outsiders, like the inability to make small talk and the pride in owning a home.

Sigmundsdóttir is in a unique position to write about the Icelandic national character as she is an insider, being an Icelander herself, with an outsider’s perspective, having been raised in North America.

I’ve read a book similar to this before, The Real Iceland, written by Icelandic guidebook author Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson. It struck me as too exaggerated and too cliché, although it did have some valid points as well, but it’s not nearly as good as this book.

When readers ask me what Icelanders are like I’m usually hesitant to answer because, naturally, there is no way to describe what an entire nation is like; each person is different and any comments about a collective national psyche can easily turn into stereotyping.

Sigmundsdóttir is aware of this problem and therefore makes a disclaimer to that effect in her introduction, saying: “This book is stuffed with sweeping generalizations and subjective opinions, armchair philosophies and random musings,” stressing, “No special studies were carried out in the writing of this book.”

And the book should be read with that in mind. Yet, there is a lot of truth in all of Sigmundsdóttir’s comments and the combination of chapters like “The Independence Thing” exploring the Icelandic mentality and “Big Birthdays” explaining Icelandic traditions should provide foreigners with good insight into the Icelandic community.

I would actually recommend that people planning to move to Iceland read this book to prepare for an imminent culture shock.

For example, it’s good to know that you shouldn’t expect a surprise party for your birthday or anyone buying a cake for you; in Iceland you bake or buy the cake and organize your birthday party yourself.

Not being aware of these cultural differences, an American colleague of mine was very sad that no one remembered her birthday when everyone expected her to announce it was her birthday and bring a cake to celebrate like everyone else at the office does.

Also, if no one mentions it specifically, you should not bring your own food if you’re invited to a dinner party or a BBQ and usually the host provides the beverages too, while bringing a bottle of wine for the host is considered a polite gesture.

The book is a valuable source of information about many Icelandic traditions, including naming traditions, which, based on the interest of my readers in that subject, is a likely hit.

Despite being sort of an extension of Sigmundsdóttir’s blog, as I mentioned earlier, the book is an independent work of writing.

However, there was one thing which might puzzle the uninitiated: the reference to EPI, who is the author’s husband, because as far as I could tell, it wasn’t explained anywhere.

There were also a few minor things which I felt were localized or based on personal experience rather than being representative of all of Icelanders.

For example, at my secondary school we went on a graduation trip many months before the graduation, which I thought that was the norm rather than going on a trip after the graduation as Sigmundsdóttir indicates, although it probably is different from school to school.

In the traffic chapter, to me Sigmundsdóttir described the driving experience in the capital region, which may not be as traumatizing in other parts of the country.

In memory, at least, drivers in Akureyri where I grew up are more civilized, using the indicator more often and stopping to let pedestrians cross the street, although the situation may have worsened since I moved.

Us Akureyrians actually complain about the inconsiderate and fast Reykjavík drivers, who in turn complain about utanbaejarfólk (“out of towners”) who drive too slowly and in the passing lane—yes, that’s us who aren’t used to streets having many lanes and are nervous about getting lost so we pick the lane most convenient for making the next turn.

Some traditions, such as weddings and funerals, aren’t that different from those in other Western countries, I believe, at least not European or Nordic countries, but, of course, Sigmundsdóttir draws the most comparisons with North American traditions.

These passing remarks are probably just as subjective and based on personal experience as those made by the author, basically proving her point in the introduction, that making generalizations about an entire nation is virtually impossible and that there are always people who will disagree, saying: “But I’m not like that”—and rightfully so.

So, without further ado, I’m going to heartily recommend The Little Book of the Icelanders both to fans of Sigmundsdóttir’s blog and those unfamiliar with her work. It is a funny little book that does ring true, although it shouldn’t be taken too seriously either.

And I’m already looking forward to the sequel; this is just Vol. 1, after all, and I’m sure Sigmundsdóttir has many more stories to tell.

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The Little Book of the Icelanders is available on The Iceland Weather Report.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

Sugar Sweet: A Place Called Hecla

I had been unaware that there was a place called Hecla (named after the Icelandic volcano, only the ‘k’ was changed to a ‘c’ by the Canadian Post Office, or so I was informed) before reading Doris Benson’s debut, A Place Called Hecla, the first book in a trilogy about the community of descendants of Icelandic settlers on Hecla Island in Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

So I was surprised when an acquaintance of mine commented upon seeing the book’s cover: “Oh, Hecla Island. I worked there one summer. They love everything Icelandic over there.” And, apparently, she loved everything about Hecla Island.

It’s a bit difficult to form an opinion of the book. On the one hand I enjoyed Benson’s description of the local fishing community, the hardships Heclingers faced, the way they made the wheels of the community turn and of the island itself—it certainly seems like a wonderful place—while on the other hand, this form of linear, effortless storytelling doesn’t appeal strongly to me.

At first I wondered whether A Place Called Hecla was anything like Where the Winds Dwell by Bödvar Gudmundsson about Icelandic settlers in Canada, which is among my all-time favorite books, but I quickly realized it’s nothing like that.

Most obviously, it’s set in a different time featuring a different generation of immigrants, but it also has a different literary perspective. The two books are more or less incomparable.

Benson’s story opens in 1953 with one of the main characters, Ben Bergursson, traveling to Winnipeg to see his polio-stricken four-year-old niece who’s in the hospital. On the same day he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Irish-Canadian nurse Laura O’Neil.

The book focuses on their relationship with the perspective regularly shifting from the two love birds to different islanders and their stories.

(I’m curious whether the surname Bergursson, the Anglicized Icelandic patronymic Bergsson, actually exists, as I would have assumed that the most obvious simplification would have been Bergson. If someone could enlighten me on that I would appreciate it.)

In a way, the book feels like a mix of a Barbara Cartland love story and the description of the Avonlea community in Anne of Green Gables minus Anne.

While that is not necessarily a bad combination and the story is interesting to a certain extent, it lacked intensity. I missed a powerful protagonist driving the plot forward, unforeseen twists and turns, hair-raising drama and a strong enough read-on factor.

That said, I admire Benson for documenting the story of the Heclingers and giving people an insight into their community, especially since it was dispersed after the island was made a provincial park in 1970.

I say documenting because Benson herself is a descendant of Heclingers and although the characters in her book are fictional she might as well be writing about the story of her family.

That is what this book feels like, a documentation of family history with a little sugar and spice which people who have Icelandic roots—particularly those who have roots on Hecla Island or in neighboring communities—are likely to enjoy but it might not appeal to a much broader audience. The rather amateurish design of the cover doesn’t help, either.

Of course, as I like to point out, literature is always a matter of taste, and it should also be noted that for a debut, A Place Called Hecla, is impressive for its vivid descriptions and rich language.

Without having read the following two books, entitled When Home Can’t Be Hecla and Roots Run Deep in Hecla, I have a feeling that the sugar-coating might come off with irreversible changes to the lives of the Heclingers and that Benson’s storytelling will evolve with more writing experience.

While I’m not overly excited to learn more about the lives of the Bergurssons, I am excited to learn more about the history of Hecla Island, and after having read Benson’s debut it is most definitely a place I’d like to visit.

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The trilogy can be bought here.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

Authentically Icelandic: Where the Shadows Lie

The first thing I check when I read books about or set in Iceland by foreign authors is the authenticity. Is the book based on thorough research? If not, I’m quick to dismiss it as unworthy of my attention.

Where the Shadows Lie by Michael Ridpath passed the test. He has obviously spent some time in Iceland and consulted various sources on the country and culture to write a credible crime novel.

There were only two minor things that an Icelandic proofreader should have picked up. Since details like these bug me, I’m going to point them out:

Firstly, if your mother’s name is Audur, your surname is Audardóttir, not Audarsdóttir, and secondly, if you’re a North American of Icelandic descent, you would be known as a Vestur-Íslendingur in Iceland, and not a vestur-íslenskur, which is the adjective of the word.

There, now that I’ve got that off my chest I can say that Ridpath pleased me in writing an authentic novel about Iceland, referencing legends and myths in the storyline without making them too dominant or stereotyping Icelanders but instead creating a range of believable characters.

That said, the main character, Magnus Jonson (or Magnús Ragnarsson while in Iceland), an Icelandic-born American cop, did strike me as stereotypical.

It felt as if he had jumped straight out of an American drama series or film where the main character is a tough cop of a tough background who fights his demons with every bad guy he nails.

Sentences such as: “There are two things that a cop hates more than anything else. One is a crooked cop. Another is a cop who rats on one of his colleagues,” seem a little too cliché to be worthy of an otherwise original crime story.

I’m not sure why Ridpath, who is British, would include the American connection. To me, it didn’t appear to be such an important aspect of the plot—Magnus might just as well have been an Icelandic expat working for Scotland Yard.

Of course Ridpath may have researched the American part of the story and I cannot comment on its authenticity, but I had the feeling he just watched a few American police shows before outlining Magnus’s personality and his background as a Boston cop under witness protection.

While the washed-out American connection turned me off a bit, Ridpath did catch my attention with the murder in Iceland that Magnus helps to investigate, which ends up having links to a long lost Icelandic saga—a saga which actually did exist but whose manuscript was never found.

Ridpath also makes a link to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which I found interesting, especially in regard to the two Lord of the Rings fanatics who get tangled in the investigation, although at times I found he leaned a bit too heavily on Tolkien and his work.

In one instance I also wondered whether Ridpath had borrowed from Arnaldur Indridason, Iceland’s uncrowned king of crime, as the opening scene at Lake Thingvellir had some similarities to Indridason’s Hypothermia, but that may have been coincidental.

On the book’s cover, there’s a quote from a Guardian review saying: “Ridpath has that read-on factor that sets bestsellers apart,” and that is something I can agree with, although he didn’t exactly keep me glued to the pages.

However, Ridpath made up for the aspects of the storyline that I found unconvincing or unnecessary and the rather one-dimensional main character by maintaining my interest in the plot—I did want to read until the end.

Also, I must give him credit for treating my country respectfully and reasonably in his book; I wouldn’t be surprised if more people became interested in visiting Iceland because of it.

Overall, this is a decent and partly original thriller that is easy to read; a good pick for commuters or for those who have crawled in between the covers at night and just want to read a chapter or two before dozing off.

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Where the Shadows Lie is available on Amazon.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

The Long and Winding Road of Literature: The Ambassador

With 386 pages (the Icelandic hardcover version, Sendiherrann; 2006), The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson is a massive book. I have nothing against long novels, as long as I see a purpose with each page.

Unfortunately, that was not the case with this book. I say unfortunately because I hoped and expected I would like it, given that Ólafsson’s The Pets was a pleasant surprise.

Not that these two books can necessarily be compared, but what I liked about The Pets is that a seemingly insignificant series of events and uninteresting characters could grab such strong hold of my attention that I was excited to know how they would end up.

The main character of The Ambassador, poet Sturla Jón Jónsson, is not only unsympathetic but also uninteresting. His actions, his thoughts, the conversation he leads and the characters surrounding him did nothing but make me sleepy and had it not been for this column I would have given up on the book somewhere in the first chapters.

I read either to be entertained or enlightened but The Ambassador just bored me. The detailed descriptions of everything from garments to the main character’s five children—who served absolutely no purpose to the plot and appeared to not have any deciding influence on the poet’s personality or actions either—seemed to be nothing but fillers, page after page.

That said, The Ambassador wasn’t a complete disappointment, which I wouldn’t have discovered had I not kept on reading until the very end.

The storyline is a bit fleeting but it goes something like this:

The protagonist, the aforementioned Sturla Jón Jónsson, is a semi-famous poet in Iceland and was invited to represent his country in an international poetry festival in Lithuania.

Everything that happens before his arrival to the festival serves as a lead-up to the main event and is far too long in my opinion, as is much of what happens during his first days in Lithuania—like the poet’s obsession over a stain in the carpet in his hotel room.

However, Sturla Jón’s interaction with some of the other poets at the festival and the ridiculous events that he gets caught up in are quite interesting and are more or less driven by his love for an expensive jacket he bought back in Iceland before his departure.

Ólafsson, no doubt, is a talented writer who can make minor details grow into elements all important to the storyline and turn everyday events into a nerve-wracking plot. Surprisingly, this book ended up being both a crime novel and a love story worthy of attention.

I would like to say that the end justified the means and that after finishing the novel I could see how all those things that bored me made sense in the bigger picture. But that’s not the case, although some aspects of the storyline were certainly important to the overall plot.

What spoils this book is how longwinded it is, how many fillers there are, unnecessarily detailed background information and thorough descriptions of unimportant matters.

It feels as if the author was uncertain about where he wanted to lead the story and instead of cutting it down after having made up his mind, he left everything in.

Maybe literature is taking the same course as the film industry in that long is always better; it’s almost as if a film cannot be taken seriously unless it’s three hours. Telling a good story in a short and concise manner is often a better option and a more difficult one.

I fear that Ólafsson may have opted for the long and winding road of literature, as the title of his new novel, which was published before Christmas in Iceland, is so long that it takes up half of the cover:

Handritid ad kvikmynd Arnar Featherby og Jóns Magnússonar um uppnámid á veitingahúsinu eftir Jenný Alexon (“The Screenplay to the Movie of Örn Featherby and Jón Magnússon about the Event at the Café by Jenný Alexon”).

Judging by the title, it’s a follow-up to The Ambassador as all these characters and the screenplay are mentioned in the book, so I think I’ll pass on it.

I don’t mean to seem too harsh in my critique and, of course, good literature is a matter of personal taste. Parts of the The Ambassador were well worth reading and what is boring to me may be entertaining to others.

But to me, the book’s long-windedness was a deal breaker.

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The Ambassador is available in an English translation by Lytton Smith on amazon.com.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir