This is a transcription of Episode 33 — Iceland.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Hello. Welcome to Season Four, episode 33 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we are getting curious about Iceland.
David: We have been to Iceland.
Melissa: We have.
David: It was lovely.
Melissa: 2015 for a big milestone birthday.
David: Yeah, that was my 50th birthday and we went to Iceland for a bit.
Melissa: We were only there for about three days, but we packed awesome stuff into every minute.
David: The thing that I remember most was we took a private tour in an SUV out to the surface of Mars.
Melissa: We did.
David: It was just so unbelievably foreign to me.
Melissa: It really doesn’t look like anywhere else you’ve ever been. The lava fields look like they’re kind of still moving. There are not a lot of mountains, but when there is even just a hill, it feels like it’s jutting up to the sky because everything else is so flat.
David: Yeah, and I felt like we had every type of weather in about 8 hours.
Melissa: We absolutely did.
David: All of the kinds of weather, snow, sun, rain, fog. It was a hurricane. Tornado.
Melissa: I think tornado is the one we were missing. But everything else, yes, a.
David: It was a lot. It was amazing.
Melissa: And we saw Hot Springs. And climbed up the side of a volcano.
David: Yeah. I looked down into the heart of a volcano and it was snowing. So the snow was coming in and blowing back up out of the volcano.
Melissa: The whole day just felt very otherworldly. We saw the black church of Budir.
Melissa: Which is this small chapel that’s painted black, and it looks very dramatic because it sits in the middle of this enormous lava field, which also happens to be on the cliff over the ocean. And our guide showed us this sort of crevasse in the cliff where it sounds like ghosts are singing almost because of the way the water rushes in to fill the space.
David: The guide was not the usual guide and our substitute guide didn’t speak English very well. He had some English, but the experience was that we would stop the S.U.V. in the middle of nowhere. He would point in a direction, say some things, and then we would get out and explore and find some amazing thing where you’re like, probably this is what he was talking about.
Melissa: Very dreamlike. And I actually have more detail in this part of my travel journal than anywhere else we’ve gone. Because when I got home, I did all of the research of the places we went to and filled in obsessively the details —
David: of what we actually saw.
Melissa: It was actually not a bad way to do it, honestly, because it cemented it in my. We also saw a troll.
David: The big stone troll. I think we should just leave that alone. People can find the big stone troll on their own.
Melissa: I’ll put a picture of the big stone troll in show notes.
David: Do you want to talk about the 101 now?
Melissa: Of course I do. Iceland is a Nordic island country and you’ll find it just south of the Arctic Circle, where the Atlantic meets the Arctic Ocean. Iceland has a reputation for being frozen, but it is not in the Arctic Circle.
Melissa: For scale, Iceland is about the same size as the state of Ohio and the population is 367,000 people and about 800,000 sheep.
David: So twice as many sheep as people.
David: And maybe the population of Bakersfield spread out over the state of Ohio.
Melissa: Lots of land. Not a lot of people. It’s known as the land of Fire and Ice, which I love to say.
Melissa: Because it’s got about 130 volcanoes and 269 glaciers. And both of those forces are still shaping Iceland right now as we sit here and talk about it. The volcanoes are making new land. The glaciers are carving spaces. It’s a living chunk of rock.
David: And it’s on a fault line, a major, major fault line between Europe and the Americas. And that is moving as well.
Melissa: It’s very dynamic.
David: The land is literally alive.
Melissa: I love it.
Melissa: The capital is Reykjavik, and you’ve probably seen two iconic images of that city. The first is the Hallgrímskirkja church. It’s that soaring tower that looks like a mountain was turned into a building. Yeah, and there’s also a very popular aerial shot of downtown where you’ve got these brightly colored houses that almost look like little Legos set against the snowy backdrop of the mountains.
David: Using the little paint to offset the volcanic rock.
Melissa: I do love that color palette. And having been there, I can attest that is pretty much what it looks like. It’s very cute. You’ve probably heard that Iceland was discovered and settled by Vikings.
David: One British tabloid wrote up the history of Iceland with the headline ‘Viking sex tourists lived happily ever after,’ which I thought was perhaps a little reductive.
Melissa: That’s very amusing, but not entirely accurate. The term Viking only applies to Scandinavian marauders, not all Scandinavians in general. It is possible that some of the men and women who settled in Iceland had previously been raiding and pillaging somewhere else. But the ones who came to Iceland went there to be farmers and start a new life.
Melissa: There was no indigenous population to conquer and no churches to sack, which is why the Vikings were probably not very interested in it. There was just lots of land and lava and ice. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover with Icelandic history, so we’re just going to go on a fast toboggan ride through some milestones.
David: All right.
Melissa: To lay a foundation for future discussions. In 1380, Norway and Iceland formed a union with Denmark. That might seem boring. Its kind of important later. Tuck it away. In the 1400s, the plague hit twice and killed half the population both times.
David: Oh, that’s awful.
Melissa: Yeah, Iceland is a tough place to live.
David: Iceland is a tough place to live.
Melissa: In the 1500s, a Catholic bishop was beheaded, thus solidifying Lutheranism as the religion of choice in Iceland. In the 1600s, Denmark again came more fully into power and declared a monopoly on trade that lasted about 200 years.
Melissa: In 1783, the Laki volcano erupted and poured lava over southern Iceland for eight months.
Melissa: It was disaster on a massive scale. John Stein Grimsson, who was a pastor and naturalist, described it like this: The flood of fire flowed with the speed of a great swollen river with meltwater on a spring day. Great cliffs and slabs of rock were swept along, tumbling about like large whales, swimming, red hot and glowing.
David: That sounds awful.
Melissa: I mean, it must’ve looked like hell was erupting out of the earth.
Melissa: Ash from the volcano killed half the population of cattle and a quarter of the sheep and horses. Nothing would grow in the fields. Fish died in the sea. If food and water were not protected from the ash, they became poisonous. And that resulted in a famine that killed a fifth of the population. Japan and America also suffered droughts, exceptionally cold winters, and disastrous floods.
David: Right. So this was a volcano that was big enough that it affected the entire globe.
Melissa: Yes. In fact, it was so cold in the winter and so hot in the summer in France that there were crop failures, and historians think that may have helped trigger the French Revolution. So I think we can all agree a volcanic eruption caused the French Revolution. And if we got that in high school instead of A Tale of Two Cities, we might know more about it.
Melissa: In the 20th century, Iceland established its independence and joined NAITO and it is currently a constitutional republic with a multi-party system. Would you like to guess what the official language is?
David: Is it Icelandic?
Melissa: It is. But I didn’t know that an official minority language is Icelandic sign language, and it has constitutional rights.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: It’s also mandatory for students to study English and another Scandinavian language. So 98% of Icelanders speak English.
David: And everyone grows up speaking three languages.
Melissa: Correct. Everyone we saw was also ridiculously good looking. If you want another reason to be envious of them.
David: We’re going to get into reasons to be envious of the Icelanders in a big way. In a little bit.
Melissa: Let’s talk about elves.
Melissa: At last count, about 54% of Icelanders either believe in elves or say that it’s possible they exist.
David: Or are willing to tell surveyors that they believe in elves.
Melissa: Because it’s fun. Elves are known as the huldufólk or Hidden People, and there’s an Elfschool in Reykjavik that teaches everything you need to know about elves and other hidden people, like gnomes, dwarves, fairies, and trolls.
David: I was hoping the school was going to be for elves to attend.
Melissa: In addition to knowledge about elves, students get tea, cookies, and an Elf diploma.
David: That seems nice.
Melissa: The headmaster is Mr. Magnus Skarphedinsson.
David: This might be a good time to remind everyone that we are not Icelandic and we are going to do our best with these Icelandic names. But we can guarantee no results.
Melissa: Let’s just call him Mr. Magnus.
Melissa: He looks like exactly the jolly person you would want to talk to about elves. I’ll put his picture in show notes. He is very, very cheery looking.
David: Is he a jolly old elf himself?
Melissa: He may be. He studied history, folklore, and anthropology at the Icelandic University, and he has personally met more than 900 Icelanders who have seen and talked to elves.
David: At a significant percentage of Icelanders.
Melissa: It is. If you would like to learn more about elves, there is no need to know Elvish nor Icelandic. All the classes are taught in English. It’s a 3 to 4 hour class. You can do it when you go on vacation.
David: You can get your elf degree.
David: Or sit in a room, eat some cookies, drink some tea, and have a guy talk to you about elves for a couple of hours.
Melissa: What’s better than?
David: That sounds fantastic. Yeah.
Melissa: There is a long history of loving stories and language in Iceland. It goes all the way back to the Norse beginnings and the Icelandic sagas. The sagas are stories that tell thrilling tales of Icelandic history and legends. They celebrate kings and bishops and saints. Iceland also has a rich tradition of poetry. Skaldic poems were sung to honor nobles and kings and to describe dramatic battles. They used humor and wordplay and alliteration. One expert said ‘These poets were not the pale sorts that haunted libraries. They were warrior poets recounting their victories.’
David: That’s awesome.
Melissa: Today, Iceland has more writers, more books published, and more books read per capita than anywhere else in the world. One in every ten Icelanders will publish a book.
David: Wow, that’s amazing.
Melissa: For a lot of the year, it’s very cold and dark.
Melissa: So obviously Iceland is an excellent place to snuggle up and read. But the landscape is really begging you to get outside and explore, too. So here’s a very fast rundown of some of the things you might do when you visit.
Melissa: You can take a road trip around the Ring Road that circles the island. Along the way, you’ll see volcanoes and lava fields, waterfalls and glaciers, puffins and horses with those emo bangs.
Melissa: The black church and the Hallgrímskirkja, plus elf houses, northern lights, turquoise colored hot springs, and lots and lots of good looking Viking Icelandic people.
David: That sounds pretty great.
Melissa: You should probably also treat yourself to one of those very beautiful, extremely warm sweaters that are called lopapeysa and eat a hot dog from a stand that’s been making delicious hot dogs in Reykjavik since 1937. The thing I remember most about eating that hot dog is it had those little crispy fried onion bits on top of it. And you’re standing outside on the street in Iceland eating a hot dog. It’s amazing.
David: Are you ready for truth in a lie?
Melissa: I don’t know. I hope so.
David: I am about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel does not know which one is the lie. Here are the three statements. One: Iceland has a word that means road trip to get ice cream. Two: The Icelandic translation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a rewrite of the source material.
Melissa: What? Heresy?
David: And three. One day in 1975, 90% of Icelanders went on strike.
Melissa: Oh, that’s cool.
David: Yeah. Want to go through in order?
Melissa: They all sound true. Yes. Let’s go. In order.
David: All right. So the first one is Iceland has a word that means road trip to get ice cream.
Melissa: I mean, I desperately hope that’s true because that’s legit.
David: Yes, it’s true. The word is is ísbíltúr. From my perspective, you can take Bjork or Norse mythology. If Iceland has given us nothing else than a word that means road trip to get ice cream, it still deserves a place as one of the greatest cultures of all time.
Melissa: Why don’t we have a word in English that’s road trip to get ice cream?
David: And is this just a summer thing? Is it something you can only enjoy when it’s warm and summery? No, no, it’s not. Icelanders believe you can have an ísbíltúr any time you want.
Melissa: And they are right.
David: If you’re looking for your own ísbíltúr, Smithsonian Magazine recommends the Star Creamery. It’s a dairy farm about 2 hours north of Reykjavik. They use fresh milk from their farm, along with local seasonal flavors like rhubarb and dandelion honey and blueberries.
Melissa: That sounds so good.
David: While you’re there, their Instagram suggests that you can look at their cows, bunnies, pigs, and their two really cute dogs.
David: Second statement: The Icelandic translation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a complete rewrite of the source material.
Melissa: I’m shaking my head. I know you guys can’t see me. I’m shaking my head and frowning like a disapproving rabbit. OK, I think that’s true.
David: That is true. So this story is a little bit of a ride. Dracula was written by Bram Stoker in 1897. Do you know he was Irish?
Melissa: I did know that, yeah.
David: In my head, he looks like Bela Lugosi.
Melissa: [laughing] He doesn’t at all. He’s very mild mannered looking.
David: Yeah. So a couple of years later, an anonymous Swedish author translates it for a serial publication in Sweden. They decide to punch it up a bit.
Melissa: Punch it up a bit!
David: Or maybe it’s also possible that that person was talking to Stoker and Bram gave him his notes before he finished the book. We don’t know. This is a mystery that’s inherent in his story. The next year, 1900 or so, an Icelandic translator gets a hold of the Swedish version, and he edits it up a bit, makes it tighter. The Icelandic version is published with a new extended preface by Bram Stoker himself.
Melissa: But Bram Stoker probably couldn’t read Icelandic, so he didn’t know what the rest of the book said.
David: That’s right. It’s published under a title that translates to Powers of Darkness.
Melissa: Not bad. Little poetic.
David: Yep. And for the next 75 years, Icelanders who wanted to read the story of the world’s most famous vampire read Bram Stoker’s Powers of Darkness. It is a different story. 1986 rolls around. And a Dracula scholar finally looks at Powers of Darkness and he says, ‘Hey, there’s a piece of writing from Bram Stoker. We’ve forgotten about this preface. It’s amazing. Stoker’s writing about Jack the Ripper as an influence for Dracula. And it’s right here.’ And Dracula scholars everywhere are delighted, and the scholar publishes the preface in English. Another 20 plus years pass. It’s January of 2014, and a Dutch literary researcher finally takes a look at powers of darkness, and he realizes it’s not the same story at all.
Melissa: [laughing] That’s amazing.
David: Powers of Darkness has detectives in it.
David: It’s got the dark eyed ountess Ida Varkony. It’s got a hunchback fiddle player. Characters are added, the plot is reworked. Things are a little sexier. The story ends in London while the Count is still there. Some people who’ve read it say it’s perhaps better.
Melissa: So has anyone taken the Icelandic version and translated into English?
Melissa: Stop it.
Melissa: How have you kept this for me until right now, when we’re sitting in our recording tent?
David: Powers of Darkness has been translated into English. You can read it and decide for yourself if it’s better. You can also listen to it. There’s an audio book. We’ll put a link for both in the show notes.
Melissa: I mean, I think we know what I’m doing for the rest of the day. That was like a present. What a great gift!
David: I feel like there was a gift for me in the road trip to get an ice cream and a gift for you in a new version of Dracula.
Melissa: Accurate. This is my favorite episode ever. Okay, that means the third one is the lie.
David: The third one is a lie. The statement was one day in 1975, 90% of Icelanders went on strike.
Melissa: I have a guess of what the truth is.
David: What’s the truth?
Melissa: Is it that 90% of women went on strike?
Melissa: Yes. I vaguely remember this from when we visited.
David: Women in Iceland got the right to vote over 100 years ago in 1915, behind only New Zealand and Finland. But over the next 60 years, only nine women took seats in Parliament. In 1975, there were only three sitting female MPs, and women weren’t getting paid as well or valued or recognized. The United Nations proclaimed 1975 the International Women’s Year. A committee of representatives from some of the biggest women’s organizations in Iceland got together to organize an event. I suspect that looked like about 40 women having coffee in Reykjavik. But I could be wrong.
Melissa: Probably some really good pastries, too.
David: One of the more radical groups, the Red Stockings, says, Hey, you know what we should do? We should have a strike. Remind everyone about the role that women play in running society, both in and out of the home.
David: Yep. That struck a lot of women as a bit much.
Melissa: I could see that too.
David: Yeah, but then the Red Stockings reframed it. They said, Let’s call it Women’s Day Off.
Melissa: Let’s make it cute instead of angry.
David: Yep. And everyone says Women’s Day Off. I’d love that idea. Let’s do it. We’ll have a gathering. We’ll get some women together to speak and sing and talk about what can be done. So they schedule it. It’s going to be Friday, October 24th, but they don’t know how many women are going to participate or show up for the event. And there are only about 220,000 Icelanders at the time across an area, like we said, the size of Ohio. Friday comes and 25,000 women show up. One of the speakers gets up and says, Men have given the world since time immemorial. And what is the world been like?
David: I know. Iceland shut down. One of the books I read described it like this. It says, ‘On October 24th, 1975, all morning flights from Keflavik International Airport were canceled. The flight attendants didn’t show up. Bank executives had to make their own coffee and then sit in as tellers. Students showed up to empty classrooms. Men dragged their children to work. Assembly lines ground to a halt. Phones of reception desks ran unanswered until an overwhelmed male voice picked up. That Friday is so monumental that it gets a name. It’s called the Long Friday because once again, history is written by men.
Melissa: I’m sure the women are like, that’s the shortest Friday ever.
David: The next day, things went back to normal. But now everybody knows. Five years later, a divorced, single, unemployed mother runs for president. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir beats three male candidates. She becomes the first freely elected woman president in the world. She goes on to serve for 16 years.
Melissa: Right on Iceland.
David: She becomes the longest serving, non-hereditary female head of state in history. Later, she insists that she would never have been president if it weren’t for the long Friday. And Iceland has gone on to be a global leader in gender equality. That’s Two Truths and a Lie.
Melissa: That was a great story. Good job.
David: Thanks. What’s your first book?
Melissa: I’m starting with an Icelandic murder mystery because similar to as we saw when we did our Sweden episode, Iceland is populated with very nice, kind of chill people who cannot resist a tale of grisly murder.
David: Yeah, scandi noir is a thing for a reason.
Melissa: This book is The Island by Ragnar Jonassón and translated by Victoria Cribb. It’s the second book in the Hidden Iceland trilogy, but you don’t need to read them in order. And I chose this one because I liked the island setting. When the book opens. It’s 1987 and we’re introduced to a young couple on a romantic getaway in the Icelandic West Fjords. This is the westernmost area of Iceland, and it’s very mountainous. The coastline is very jagged with fjords. If you look at the map, it looks like teeth. And the roads are winding and treacherous as they kind of cling to the ins and outs of the fjords. It’s basically the edge of the world if you’re in Iceland.
Melissa: So our young lovers are at a summer house there, and there’s this sense that their relationship is new. And before we can really get to know much about either of them. Tragedy strikes. Then we jump forward to 1997.
David: Oh, all right.
Melissa: A group of long time friends, two women and two men, all in their late twenties, decide to have a reunion on the island of Elliðaey. This is in the Westman Islands, which are off the southern coast of Iceland. Now, when I say Elliðaey Island, you need to picture an enormous rock. It’s 110 acres. That had no meaning to me. I don’t know acres. So I went poking around to see what’s about that same size. It’s roughly the same size as Vatican City.
Melissa: Or twice the size of New York’s Grand Central Station. Or 1/10 the size of the Mall of America. Or two thirds the size of Disneyland.
Melissa: So it’s a big rock.
David: Big rock.
Melissa: But not an enormous rock.
Melissa: You could walk from one end to the other.
Melissa: The top of it is smooth and almost flat, and it’s covered in green grass. And there is one lonely house perched on top. That’s it. Rock, grass. Water. Little house.
David: One house.
Melissa: I’ll put a photo in show notes. It’s pretty amazing.
David: Oh, this is that loneliest house in the world that we saw.
Melissa: Exactly. There are lots of videos and stories of people going and staying in the loneliest house. That is the setting for this book. So as the old friends are getting into their weekend together, we get to know them a little bit, and we learn that there are very good reasons for them to have fallen out of touch with each other. These are people with history. And things among them are really tense and this island is a really strange place for them to choose to have a reunion. I haven’t seen my friends in years. Let’s go to the loneliest house on earth.
Melissa: And then, as you might have been suspecting all along, one of them goes off the edge of the island’s cliff. And it’s no accident. It’s murder. And one of them did it. I mean, how was I supposed to resist that?
David: Yeah. Totally. Absolutely. Yeah.
Melissa: Enter our detective heroine, Hulda Hermannsdóttir. The name of Hulda means Hidden Woman, which might sound familiar from the huldufulk we talked about earlier. And that is apt for our Hilda.
David: Is she an elf detective?
Melissa: She is not an elf, although that would be amazing. That would be. Now, I want to go write that. She’s 50 years old. Her mother is dead. Her father is a mystery. And her husband and daughter are also out of the picture. So throughout the course of the book, we learn more about why these people are absent from her life. And it is a gut punch.
Melissa: A glorious, well plotted, well told gut punch. There are a few things I really enjoyed about this book. The descriptions of the island and the overall sinister atmosphere are really well done. I could just about hear the wind whistling and the waves crashing as I read it. The author, Ragnar Jonassón, is considered a sort of Icelandic Agatha Christie.
David: I was going to say this feels very Christie-ish.
Melissa: Yes. He starts the story with his cold case from the 1980s in the Westfjords. And then he creates a sort of modern, locked room mystery on the island. And then he really deftly brings those threads together at the end. There’s a little more character development than I usually find in Christie. I really loved Hulda’s messy, heartbreaking back story. It gives her real heft and dimension as a character. It was really great to read about a woman in her fifties who’s out there, like, being a detective tromping around in Iceland. She’s not a little old lady. Like lots of times in books by the time somebody is 50, they’re a background character. We also get a really interesting peek inside police department politics. She’s a woman cracking her head against the glass ceiling of the police department.
Melissa: And we also see the challenges of trying to solve a crime in a place like Iceland that is huge and this unforgiving landscape. Even just — the body is at the bottom of a cliff. How are they supposed to get that girl back up? It’s atmospheric and it delves into really dark places emotionally while also presenting a picture of daily life in Iceland. That is The Island by Ragnar Jonasson.
David: Sounds really good.
Melissa: I should also mention that if you want more of his work, the TV show Trapped is based on his other series called Dark Iceland. You and I watched that show. It was very good.
David: It was.
Melissa: He’s also the founder of the Iceland Noir Book Festival, which I’ve now put on my must do it sometime list.
David: Yeah. So there’s an event that’s thrown for Iceland noir authors and their fans. Once a year. In Reykjavik? During the winter?
Melissa: Yes. In November.
David: The darkest time of the year.
Melissa: Yeah. They describe it as a festival of dark stories and the darkest time of the year.
Melissa: I also want to mention quickly that I read two other crime novels that I also enjoyed. I Remember You is a mashup of a ghost story and crime novel that’s also set on an isolated island.
David: Oh, we read that together.
Melissa: We did. It was pretty creepy.
Melissa: And The Creak on the Stairs is a police procedural that explores how trauma creates human monsters. It also features a woman detective. The authors and links for those will be in show notes.
David: Awesome. My first book is How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island by Egill Bjarnason. This is a charming, well-told history of Iceland. The author is a good storyteller. He’s smart, he’s funny. He’s got a way with detail. He’s everything you want from a history teacher. It’s a short book. It’s about 250 pages. It’s a recent book. It just came out last year. The author won me over with the second paragraph of the introduction. He’s writing about his hometown Selfoss, which is one of the few landlocked towns in Iceland. It used to be notoriously difficult to get to. Bjarnason writes: ‘For the first nine hundred years of Selfoss’s settlement, the area saw few travelers because crossing the river on horseback or rowboat was a life-threatening endeavor and, let’s be honest, not worth it.’ He goes on from there to talk about Iceland and how it’s played a pivotal role in events as diverse as the French Revolution, which we touched on the moon landing and the foundation of Israel.
David: Yeah. The sense of place in this book is strong. I get the idea that Iceland as a country has a very small town vibe, but also is somehow become progressive in its politics. That seems like an amazing feat to me. How does that work? The book does a pretty good job of outlining the shape of Iceland’s history. How it moved from a rock in the middle of the Atlantic to what it is today. In the early days, he paints a picture of a challenging place to live.
David: I definitely think it’s easier to live there now, but it still seems like a very strong lifestyle choice. Bjarnason writes that almost everyone performs multiple roles because they have to if they want it to get done. For me, I think the author’s greatest gift is his ability to sort of catch a moment. I’ll mention a couple here, just to give you an idea. In a chapter on medieval Iceland, Bjarnason describes a scholar who was born in Iceland in the 1600s: Árni Magnússon. Árni hated Iceland. He liked being an Icelander, but he didn’t like being in Iceland.
Melissa: Hmm. That seems like a tricky way to live.
David: So it makes his way to Copenhagen, which at the time was a huge world center. He’s a smart guy. And there he works his way into the university through dedication and hard work. And after decades of work as a scholar and an antiquarian and more than a little luck, he becomes a full professor of history. He’s finally made it: beautiful city, center of civilization. Future is secure. And then it gets a letter from the king. And the letter says, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Hey, listen, I need someone to go to Iceland and count all the people in the land. Let me know what they’re doing with the land. Okay. Thanks. Bye.’ And that moment, you know, I mean, what do you do if you’re the professor? You should go downstairs and get a cup of coffee and figure out how you’re going back to Iceland.
Melissa: Guess you’re looking for your really warm socks.
David: For a project that’s never been done before and will likely take years.
Melissa: That sounds like a sticky tar baby project, too.
David: Yeah. And he planned to be there for two years, and I think it took him ten. Bjarnason also describes the beginning of World War Two in Iceland. The British invade Reykjavik on Friday, the 10th of May in 1940 at five in the morning. They do that by pulling up in a small convoy of ships. They think they’re going to be a surprise. But as they get there, everyone’s like, What are those boats? And everybody knows the boats. Drunks are coming home. The people who are waking up early are doing just that. Everyone sees the ships coming in and they get curious and they go down to the docks. Eventually, there are so many people watching that the British have to ask people to stand back so they can get off the ship. [laughter]
David: And there they are with the Icelandic drunks and the people who get up early. And Bjarnason writes. ‘At six am, the first regiment of soldiers stood lining the harbor, at ease. A noticeably drunk man walked through the crowd and raised his fist, shaking it in the direction of one soldier. Another ashed his cigarette into the barrel of a rifle. Then they, along with the rest of the crowd, wandered off. That was it: the resistance.’
David: And after that, we get American GIs coming to romance Icelandic women, and we get the story of how Iceland played a part in shaping modern Israel. And we get the story of Iceland’s dramatic financial collapse. It explains how a decision in 1915 to issue licenses for fishing leads to banking collapse in 2008.
David: Yeah. That year, 90% of Iceland’s financial firms went under in one week.
Melissa: Yeah, that was bad.
David: One week. It’s a good book if you’re interested in a clear, friendly history of a fascinating nation. This is an easy recommendation. It’s How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island by Egill Bjarnason
Melissa: My next pick has been described as Gothic and in the tradition of Jane Eyre and Rebecca.
David: So that’s catnip for you.
Melissa: And it’s set during the 17th century witch trials in Iceland.
David: Oh, my goodness. How many keywords do you need?
Melissa: It’s like someone wrote it just for me.
Melissa: It’s called The Glass Woman by Caroline Lee. Our heroine is Rosa. It’s 1686 in rural Iceland.
Melissa: Yes. And she is living in very dire circumstances. Her father had been the bishop of their village. And while he was alive, the villagers gave the family food and ale to support them. But he’s dead now. And Rosa and her mother are left to their own devices. So they’re starving, like, all the time. And her mother is ill. In 17th-century Iceland, the only thing a girl like Rosa could really do to change any of that was to get married. When a trader Jón comes to town, pretty fresh, unblemished Rosa catches his eye. And neither she nor her mother want her to marry this gruff, intimidating stranger. But along with his hand in marriage comes food and safety for her mother.
Melissa: So before Rosa has time to cast some ruins or say a prayer, she is married to him and heading to his remote home in the west, near the sea. She has never seen the ocean.
David: That would be incredibly powerful in an era before media.
Melissa: Mm hmm.
Melissa: After a few grueling days and nights on horseback, she arrives to a very chilly welcome at Jon’s house. He lives on a hill above the village. He’s basically the master of the villagers. They’re not that happy to see her. Her new husband is also not that happy to have her there. And soon she’s hearing frightening rumors about John. His previous wife disappeared. No, she died. Actually, she was murdered. And it doesn’t help that Jon’s best friend, Petr, is thought to be feral or a demon or a changeling.
David: Feral. Okay.
Melissa: When Rosa is alone in the house, she hears scrabbling noises and ghostly sounds from the attic room upstairs. The room that Jon has expressly forbidden her to enter. She has many questions.
David: Yeah, I bet.
Melissa: And it turns out a few secrets of her own.
Melissa: So that’s the setup.
David: That’s a good setup.
Melissa: I know! The bleak, unnerving atmosphere is exceptionally done. And the story, as I mentioned, is set against the background of real Icelandic history, especially the conflict between Christianity and the widespread belief in magic and the supernatural. The power of nature and omens held a very strong influence over people’s imaginations and their lives. There was a real belief in gods and goddesses, and there was a custom of casting ruins. This did not sit well with the Danish overlords. As we mentioned, the Danes were Lutheran. So there’s this tension between the Lutheran ministers and people walking around quoting the sagas and carrying runes in their pockets.
David: It doesn’t end well for those people.
Melissa: No. The Danes also believe that witchcraft and sorcery meant a pact with the devil. Literally. So between 1604 and 1720, in real life, there were 120 witch trials in Iceland.
Melissa: And of the 22 people executed for sorcery, 20 of them were men.
Melissa: Which is not a small number, given that the population was not that large.
David: Wiped out 1% of the population for being witches.
Melissa: This is the story of the first man executed for witchcraft. In 1656, a pastor named Jón Magnússon accused a father and son, both unhelpfully named Jón Jónsson.
David: Hmm. John Johnson? Yeah.
Melissa: The pastor, also, Jón, Jón Magnússon, accused them of cursing him with illness and causing demonic disturbances in his home. The elder Jón Jónsson admitted that he did, in fact, own a book of magic spells. That was enough to get you executed. You could not have a book of magic spells. Not okay.
David: It might be a problem. Yeah.
Melissa: And the younger Jon confessed that he did use runes against a girl and cursed her with excessive farting. It was meant to be embarrassing and painful.
David: Painful farting? Yeah.
Melissa: The father and son were found guilty and burned at the stake. And conveniently, the pastor inherited all of their property.
David: Oh, that’s convenient.
Melissa: It worked so well that he accused their daughter/sister of that family: Thuridur Jónsdóttir. He accused her of witchcraft as well. This time, the charges did not stick at the official court, and she was awarded all of the pastor’s belongings.
Melissa: I feel like the moral of this story is don’t mess with the witch family. In 1686, the year in which this book is set, executions for witchcraft were outlawed by the Danish. But that tension between Christianity and magic underlies this story. Rosa very devoutly reads the Bible during the day, but casts runes in secret when she feels afraid and feels like she needs protection. She also reads and recites sagas and poetry, which is very suspicious behavior for a young lady and puts her in danger of being labeled a witch.
David: Literate women, can’t trust them.
Melissa: Problematic. Once they start thinking. The author puts the landscape to really good use in this story. Slabs of ice are stacked like tombstones. The ground is smothered with moss. The Hekla volcano spits smoke and ash and a solid lava field looked like it’s made of bubbling liquid. Although there are vast swaths of land and sea, a sense of claustrophobia kind of infuses the whole story. Rosa is trapped: by a snowstorm, by the wind, by the villagers’ superstitions, by this vow she made to a stranger that she’s now connected to for life. This book was not always easy to read. Everything about it is hard and sharp and cold.
Melissa: But it has a really powerful ending. I loved it for the sweeping drama and for its exploration of how, even within constraints of the time, women could find small but significant ways to rebel against their circumstances. That is The Glass Woman by Caroline Lee.
David: My next book is The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth. This is a little bit of a cheat because it covers all of the Nordic countries. So Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. But it also seemed like sort of perfect for strong sense of place. So here we go.
David: Yeah. So there have been a number of surveys and studies over the last few decades that have suggested that our friends in the Nordic countries are just so darn happy and productive. They are reported to have healthy life expectancies, high GDP per capita, a strong social net, low corruption, high trust. Solid and free educational systems. Good public. Transit. They look after one another and they’re generous.
Melissa: They also have really rosy, healthy looking cheeks.
David: Yes. This book tackles the question: What is up with that? Is it true the Nordic countries are happier? Emotional states are really hard to quantify. How is that true? What’s societal happiness all about anyway? And how do they feel after paying all those taxes? So maybe the first thing you need to know about this book is that it’s not written by a social scientist. It’s written by a grouchy but funny and charming English reporter who lived in Copenhagen because he married a Danish woman. In a talk the author gave, he says he’s like Jane Goodall, but he married one of the apes.
Melissa: I wonder how his wife felt about being called an ape.
David: Yeah, he walked that back almost immediately.
Melissa: Yeah, I bet he did.
David: But it’s important to know Michael Booth has some skin in this game. But the book starts with his own experience. He’s living in Copenhagen. These reports keep coming out about how happy the Danes are. And he thinks, How is this true? And he writes, ‘The happiest? This dark, wet, dull, flat little country that I now called home, with its handful of stoic, sensible people and the highest taxes in the world? … Well, they are doing an awfully good job of hiding it,” I thought to myself as I looked out of the window at the rain-swept harbor.’
David: And from there it goes on to argue both sides culture by culture. There are chapters dedicated to each of the countries and their different claims to Nordic exceptionalism and the arguments against it. The author is a journalist, so he goes and interviews people who he thinks might shed some light. He also investigates the idea of societal happiness. What are the elements of that? What if being happy makes people complacent? Is it even good for everyone to be happy? Can you use the elements that make one culture happy and take them somewhere else? Danes seemed to have been getting by and being taxed 150% on a car.
David: Yeah. How would that fly in the US?
Melissa: Not at all. I’m guessing.
David: I would guess not. You also get views into cultures that feel real and true. Here’s a bit of the book that I love. Booth is on his way to a choral weekend. He’s in a choir and he’s going to a gathering of singers where they stand around and work on their craft for a week, which seems uncharacteristic.
Melissa: I was just going to say that, like what I know about this author so far, I’m like, Hmm. Really? A choir. Okay, that’s a new wrinkle.
Melissa: Yeah, I love that for him.
David: He writes, ‘At the conclusion of his specially arranged 1980s medley, one of the choirmasters had included two lines of rap from Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 hit ‘The Message’, to be spoken in a ‘forceful’ style by the basses and tenors. I pointed out that in the line ‘Don’t push me ’cos I’m close to the edge’, you pronounced it ‘the edge’, not ‘thee edge’, or, at least, that’s how Mr Flash had rapped it. But a 65-year-old ex-English teacher in the bass section was having none of it and rallied the rest of the section behind him. The correct pronunciation was ‘thee edge’ he said, crossing his arms and shaking his head in disgust. I persisted, pointing out that my version was both more authentic and had a more percussive impact. The choirmaster agreed, but the elderly ex-teacher and his bass cronies stubbornly sang his version throughout the rehearsals and in the final concert, amid a mutual crossfire of glares.’
Melissa: I’m still back on a bunch of white people with blue eyes singing that song.
David: So I had a problem with this book, and I fully recognized that this might be my problem. But here it is. So over the last decade or so, I’ve developed an aversion to anything that sounds like, ‘All of those people over there do this or think this or behave like this.’ So examples might be, ‘Liberals are always doing this. Millennials say this and boomers do that. Men are always thinking.’ Those statements aren’t true and they smell of tribalism. These people over there are different from us people right here, and I perceive them as anti-empathy. Those statements are working to divide us and we are all in this together more than ever. So when the premise of, say, Icelandic people trust their neighbors, more comes up, it makes me uneasy. And when the book follows that with, Look, there’s a study and other countries don’t trust their neighbors nearly as much. Look at how poorly the Greeks performed or the Italians.
David: Yeah. Boy, those Italians don’t trust one another. That all makes me anxious. How far are we from something like ‘Italians are shifty’ from there? At the same time, I realize that sociology is a science and it improves our world. Booth eventually works himself around to a summary that says something like, ‘These people, despite their flaws and insecurities and questionable decisions, seem to be doing better than the rest of us on a few levels, and maybe we can learn something from that.’ And that’s an idea I can get behind. This book won the 2016 British Guild of Travel Writers Book of the Year. It’s funny and fascinating and insightful and a great travel book. If you read this, you might want to pack up your coat and visit a few Nordic countries. It’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About The Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth.
Melissa: My last pick is one of those books that had me texting people to urge them to read it as soon as possible.
Melissa: It’s The Tricking of Freya by Kristina Sunley. Iceland definitely looms large in the other books that I recommended, but in this one it is a full-blown character. This is a family story set in Iceland and in an Icelandic community in Manitoba, Canada. So here’s the setup. It’s the 1970s, and our heroine is Freya Morris. She lives in Connecticut with her mother. But every summer they visit relatives in Gimli, a village in Canada that was settled by Icelandic immigrants. This is a real place. Icelanders started settling there in 1875, and every year there’s an enormous Icelandic festival still.
David: That sounds nice. In Canada, you say?
Melissa: Manitoba. Many of the people who settled there were running from or descendants of people running from that volcanic eruption we talked about.
David: That makes sense.
Melissa: So little Freya. I think she’s about ten when the story opens. She is completely enthralled with her Aunt Ingibjörg, who everyone calls Birdie. You know, when you’re a kid, there’s an adult that is just more fun or more magical to you than your parents?
Melissa: It could be like your grandfather or an older cousin or the lady across the street. There’s just an adult who is everything to you. You can’t wait to see them. And then whenever you spend time with them, something cool or fun happens.
Melissa: That is Birdie for Freya.
Melissa: Birdie is really, really fun and unpredictable. She’s also writing an epic poem that has her in her room, tapping away at a typewriter for hours. And she’s stuffing Freya with all things Icelandic. She’s teaching her the poetry and the sagas. She’s teaching her to speak Icelandic. And she’s doing all of this because they’re all descendants of a celebrated Icelandic poet. But Birdie is also very troubled. What Freya perceives as mood swings are actually symptoms of serious mental illness. There’s a little bit of darkness hanging over this relationship.
Melissa: One summer during the Icelandic festival, a very serious, dramatic thing happens that I do not want to give away because reading it is a really good experience. But trust me when I say that it is bad, and it’s a very serious turning point for all of the characters in the book. The contrast of them being at this big celebratory festival and the bad thing happening was really moving. After the big event, Freya keeps her distance from the family and Gimli for years and takes up a very grim existence in Manhattan until she accidentally trips over a decades-old family secret. And that sends her to Iceland to learn the truth about her family and herself.
Melissa: I had trouble figuring out how to describe this book because it combines so many elements. It’s an immigrant story with a mystery at its core, but it’s not a mystery novel by any stretch of the imagination. And it begins almost as a childhood memoir. We’re seeing things from Freya’s perspective in the first person, and she’s telling us about this somewhat magical childhood she has in Canada. And then later, she kind of realizes what was actually going on. And that changes her perception.
David: The dark underpinnings of her magical childhood.
Melissa: But it also, at some points, morphs into, like, this big outdoor adventure, both for good and for bad. The way if you had a real outdoor adventure, it would.
Melissa: The story also really examines how illness, both mental illness and physical ailments affect a family for generations. This is Christina Sunley’s debut novel, but she handles all of this stuff really, really well. Like, I always felt like I was in good hands. I felt confident that she was guiding me on this path that she understood really well. So even though there’s a lot going on plot-wise and you’re kind of moving around in time and the tone is shifting from time to time, I always felt really grounded in the story.
Melissa: The power of story and language are two key elements of this book, which is appropriate given that it is all about Iceland. Both Freya and Birdie play with words, both for their sound and for their meaning. Early in the book, Birdie introduces the concept of kennings to Freya, Kennings are fanciful synonyms that replace more commonplace nouns and poetry. So instead of going to a thesaurus and seeing spade is a synonym for shovel, it’s much more fanciful. Sometimes they’re a couple of words. Here’s an example, Birdie tells Freya, ‘Kennings were a way for poets to show off, verbal razzmatazz of the Vikings. A fierce warrior-poet could choose from over a hundred kennings for the word sword alone.’ And then she goes on to list them: ‘There’s striker. And lying-striker. And life-quencher. And wind-bright. Leg-biter. Pain-wader. Corpse-pain. Skull-crusher. Terrifier. Pale-maker. Night-bringer. Blood-band. Blood-warp. Blood-eddy. Blood-wader. Blood-grip. And here’s a kenning for tongue: sword of speech.’
Melissa: That’s just one paragraph from this book. I highlighted paragraph after paragraph, amazing descriptions of the scenery, poetic language, funny commentary on how difficult learning Icelandic is. The story has a momentum that kept pushing me forward, but the language is so rich, I also kind of wanted to luxuriate in it, which is a tension that I love when I’m like dying to know what’s going to happen. But oh my gosh, it’s written so beautifully. This is the kind of book that could be read multiple times to savor the words after you know the story. Sunley uses words like they’re percussion, things like rigamarole, curmudgeon, imbibed — she just uses these powerful words. I loved it. There’s also a lot of symbolism and shout outs to the Icelandic sagas, and Birdie does a fantastic job of educating Freya about them, and therefore we know what they mean, too. So, for example, in Norse mythology, Freya was the goddess of love, fertility, battle, and death. She was a seer and a shapeshifter who could turn herself into a bird. She wore a cloak of falcon feathers and rode around in a chariot pulled by wild cats.
David: I don’t think you would get very far in a chariot pulled by wild cats.
Melissa: It would be like following Billy in The Family Circus. This is one of those books that cast a spell over me when I was reading it. So when it was time to put it aside, I had to kind of swim back to the surface of real life. That’s one of my favorite things to have happen when I’m reading a book that is the highest recommendation I can give it.
Melissa: That’s The Tricking of Freya by Christina Sunley.
David: Okay. Those are a whole bunch of books we love set in Iceland. You can visit our show notes. Its strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. Do you want to talk about what you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: I do. First, I want to draw people’s attention to a blog post we have about Jolabokaflod.
David: Oh, Jolabokaflod.
Melissa: Which is the Christmas book flood that takes place in Iceland.
David: Yeah, we should talk about that for a second. So every fall, every publisher in Iceland puts together their book selections in a catalog, one giant catalog, and that one giant catalog is sent to every house in Iceland with the idea that on Christmas Eve, everyone gets a book. And I don’t know about the chocolates or if we added that.
Melissa: No, that is part of the tradition.
David: You get books, you get chocolate, and you read the book that night. We have adopted this. I would encourage you to do the same. It’s a lovely tradition.
Melissa: I would also say that sprinkling a Jolabokaflod celebration multiple times a year. Sure, might not be a bad idea.
David: Just drop on into your week.
Melissa: Just drop a reading day into your life where you just pick a book and spend a whole day with it.
Melissa: I also want to encourage everyone. If you don’t usually look at our show notes, definitely take a few minutes and stop by the website to look at our show notes for this one, because there are so many things that we had to cut out of this show that we’ll be putting into show notes because there are so many awesome details about Iceland.
David: You will find a link to the show notes in the description for the podcast in your podcast player. You will also find your way to our show notes by going to strongsenseofplace.com/podcasts.And then you can find your way down that way. By now you probably noticed we launched a new weekly show. It’s called The Library of Lost Time. It’s in your podcast feed. You probably heard it by now. There is also a version of it that’s on YouTube. It is lavishly supported with visuals. So if you want to see some of the things that we’re talking about, like the book covers or some of the items in the distraction of the week that is available to.
Melissa: You, you can also see really cute animated versions of Dave and I that he drew.
David: That’s true. You can do that, too. It’s new. Drop us a line. Let us know what you think about it. Our emails are you are at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melissa: I am and I check it obsessively all day. Email me any time.
David: It’s true. And I am at email@example.com. I obsessively check it, but I’m horrible at getting back to people so I will know that I’ve gotten it.
Melissa: I reply to every email I get. It’s a curse, but I do love hearing from you, so please feel welcome to email me.
Melissa: I’d also like to mention if you want to hear us talk about more books, we’re doing a free online session at the Newburyport Literary Festival.
Melissa: We’re going to be joined by author lan Samantha Chang. She wrote the awesome novel The Family Chao. We’re going to be talking about restaurant life, Chinese food in the United States, her novel, family sagas, and much more. The Newburyport festival is free and there are so many good sessions, all you need to do is sign up, you’ll be sent Zoom links and then you can participate in these really amazing conversations with authors. Our session is on Saturday, April 30th. There is more information about that in our show notes.
David: Mel, what are we covering in our next show.
Melissa: By popular demand of our patrons, we are heading to Thailand.
David: I have really enjoyed the books I’ve been reading for Thailand, so far.
Melissa: I have to. And a little bit of a sneak preview. I don’t know much about Thai food beyond I really like to eat it, so I’m delving into that in one of my books.
David: Awesome. Thank you for listening and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of iacomino FRiMAGES/Shutterstock.
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