Popping in at the Reykjavík International Literay Festival

Aðalsteinn Ásberg Sigurðsson, Gerður Kristný and Markéta Hejkalová – photo by Markús Már Efraím Sigurðsson via the Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature website.

As you may have noticed, there are a lot of festivals and conferences and such here in Iceland. One of the ones that I was particularly excited about is the biennial Reykjavík International Literary Festival, which this year coincides with the PEN International Congress. The festival kicked off last weekend, but due to a confluence of circumstances, I haven’t actually been able to go to many events or readings. Mark, however, did volunteer a bit, and was asked to recap some of the events for the Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature website.

His first recap—that of the “Pass the Word” reading at the City Library’s featuring authors and poets from Iceland, Germany, The Netherlands, and The Czech Republic—is online here. I was able to catch the very last reading of this event, but unfortunately missed Gerður Kristný, whose story “The Ice People” was in the 2012 edition of Best European Short Stories, and which I enjoyed very much. (Here’s an interesting interview with her in 3:am Magazine.) Luckily, although I missed Gerður’s reading, Mark has a nice recap:

Rather than alternate between Icelandic and English, as others readers did, Gerður Kristný, the Icelandic poet, novelist and children’s author, introduced herself in Icelandic and launched straight into a selection of her Icelandic poetry, before switching abruptly to English and introducing a selection of her work recently printed in Modern Poetry in Translation, in an issue dedicated to the 2012 Parnassus poetry festival. Holding up the journal, Gerður noted dryly: “I even got to be the back cover girl, isn’t that an honor?” She nodded, forcefully.
Gerður set up the the poem “Skagafjörður” with a little personal history: “One of the arguments I had with my husband was over where we are going to be buried. It’s one of the few arguments I’ve lost to my husband. So I’m going to be buried in Skagafjörður, which is… (She waves her hand, vaguely, in a northerly direction.) … It’s very cold. I don’t know a lot of people there.” So the poem’s narrator discusses what she will do for her children, so that they will visit her grave and tend to her memory; in this way the poem also becomes an earnest evocation of motherly love. “Triumph,” also set around Skagafjörður, describes a hunter tying a recently slain arctic fox to his jeep: “No one mentions Achilles or Hector, and I know to hold my tongue.”

I’ll post his other recap, for a reading featuring a really exciting lineup of authors and poets, including Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason, and Australian poet Judith Rodriguez, when it is available. I got to go to that event, and can tell you first hand that it was a good one…

LFLR is Up and Running!

Little Free Library Reykjavík

Very exciting news to share: Little Free Library Reykjavík was installed in Hljómskálagarður (the park along Tjörnin), next to the statue of Bertel Thorvaldsen on June 14, 2013! It’s a lovely spot for the library—there’s even a bench right next to it so that you can sit and browse through books and read while enjoying the summer weather in the park.

If you are not in Reykjavík to enjoy the library in person, but would still like to see our collection, you can check out our online catalog on Goodreads, here. The catalog shows which books are currently circulating, as well as which are “backlisted,” or currently in storage. Hopefully, the catalog and Goodreads group will be a useful place for readers to share their thoughts on books in the collection and their recommendations with other readers.

Big thanks to everyone who has helped with this process (see our

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Just Call Me Friday

Speed Dating Cafe Lingua

In a bit of a break from my usual reviewing/event recapping freelance gigs, I have now had my first quasi-journalistic experience. The February issue of The Reykjavík Grapevine features an article written by yours truly about Café Lingua, a weekly language exchange program at the Reykjavík City Library. And guys: I had to do actual reporting for this article. Like, I conducted not only a phone interview (gasp!), but also a series of email/Facebook interviews (getting better at this Facebook thing) and even one in-person interview. It was rather hard work, honestly, but it (Café Lingua) is a great weekly program and I’m pleased with the final article, so while I don’t think I’ll be turning into Rosalind Russell any time soon (shame, really–those hats!), I think we can put this down in the success column.

The piece hasn’t been posted on the Grapevine website yet, but if you’d like to know more about multilingual/multicultural Reykjavík, you can download the .pdf of the current issue here or read it online. The article, entitled “Speed Dating at Café Lingua: Putting a Face to the Many Languages and Cultures of Reykjavík,” is on page 10.

I Heart the Reykjavík City Library

Photo of Interior of Reykjavík City Library, showing the stain glass installation “Beautiful World” by artist Leifur Breidfjord. Image from the artist’s website: http://www.breidfjord.com/reykjavik-city-library

Yesterday, I told someone that the main branch of the Reykjavík City Library was my favorite place in the city, and they laughed. (‘Oh, you silly librarian.’) But I’m not being facetious: the Reykjavík City Library is, thus far, my favorite place in this city, and if I manage to learn to speak/understand any small amount of Icelandic this year, copious amounts of credit will necessarily be paid to the collection and the librarians at the Aðalsafn.

Just a few stats about the Reykjavík City Library system, for the library-philes among you (I know I’m not the only one). The system is comprised of about five branches and a bookmobile, which I am delighted to say parks in my neighborhood for an hour on Mondays every week. (I haven’t had a chance to visit it yet, but that’s my goal for next week, because, guys: bookmobile!) Patrons/members/card-holders of/in the Reykjavík library system are also able to borrow and request books from the libraries in the nearby towns of Seltjarnarnes and Mosfellsbær. All of the library collections in Iceland–including the collections in the public libraries, university libraries, the national library, and the art, law, government libraries–are collectively cataloged in one online catalog, Gegnir, which also links to the online catalog of electronic journals and databases, Leitir.

Holdings in the public library system are varied and extensive. At the main branch, you can not only find typical materials like adult novels and nonfiction texts (in Icelandic, English, and a multitude of other languages), CDs, DVDs, audiobooks, periodicals, etc–they also lend vinyl records (if only I had my record player here!), VHS tapes, multimedia language-learning materials, and a huge amount of graphic novels and comics.

Anyway, I’ve been enamored with the public library here since I arrived (my first act as a for-real permanent resident was to get my library card, remember?) but yesterday took my already overflowing goodwill toward the library to 11.

A few weeks ago, I noticed this ad on the library’s upcoming events page:

This seemed like a great outreach program for immigrants/newcomers in Reykjavík, and one which was geared toward people for whom reading in Icelandic would be a difficult thing. For me, it promised an opportunity to expand my vocabulary, practice reading in Icelandic, and also to meet and interact with some Icelanders in a pressure-free setting. (Because they are librarians and therefore awesome, and in this program are also are actually intending to interact with non-Icelanders in Icelandic.) I had missed the program for a few Thursdays running, but was bound and determined to make it this week.

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Icelandic Folk Legends

(Apologies to those of you who may have seen the post below on my other blog, The Afterword. I know recycled content can be problematic, but this review seemed pertinent for both blogs. There may be some doubling from time to time, but only when I’ve read and written something about an Icelandic or Iceland-related book, and I’ll make sure to tell you, in the spirit of full disclosure.)

I’ve been making frequent visits to the Reykjavík Public Library these days, and on my last trip ran across Icelandic Folk Legends, translated by Alda Sigmundsdóttir. Readers of this blog may remember Alda as the author of The Little Book of Icelanders and also the blogger behind the very entertaining and informative blog The Iceland Weather Report.

Icelandic Folk Legends was actually a much earlier project for Alda; it was first published in 1997 and then a second edition was published in 2007 (this is the edition I read). Although another print run doesn’t seem likely, Alda has now reissued the collection as an e-book, with two additional stories, as well as an introduction and “a “field guide” to the apparitions.” You can read more about the e-book and purchase it on her website, here. The collection also received a very positive review in The Reykjavík Grapevine when it was reissued in 2007; you can read that review here. Below you’ll find my own (casual) review of the collection.


One of the strengths of Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s short essay collection The Little Book of Icelanders is its intimacy, the fact that in reading you feel as though you are listening to someone relate the quirks of neighbors and friends over a cup of coffee. It seems no surprise, then, that part of what stands out about Alda’s translations in the concise and plainly-worded collection Icelandic Folk Legends is the immediacy of the stories. Right from the start, you’re told that some of the stories explain how places currently in existence were named, that there are differing accounts of what precisely happened in some instances, that certain features of the tale have led people to believe that it is meant to represent such and such a farm or mountain pass. An example from the last lines of the story “Þorgeir’s Bull,” which tells of a sorcerer who creates a menacing magical bull endowed with many forms and powers, the better to harass the woman who turned down the sorcerer’s offer of marriage, his neighbors, and eventually he himself:

“It is said that the bull outlived Þorgeir, for he had not managed to slay it before he died. Some say that when he was on his deathbed a grey cat–some say a black pup–lay curled up on his chest, and that would have been one of the bull’s guises. Some people claim that the bull was created at the beginning of the 18th century; others that is was near the middle of that same century.”

Public debates about whether a mythical bull had been created at the beginning or in the middle of the 18th century might not generally be of that much relevance to the author–or the reader. But in these stories, it very much matters, because while called ‘folk tales,’ these stories are really all being presented as truth. A further illustration of this is in the fact that most of the stories are about characters whose full names are known, but when it happens that the names of characters aren’t, no fake character names are inserted. The statement “their names are not known,” then adds to the sense of veracity overall–the narration is sticking to plain facts here, and not even making up names for the sake of simplicity.

There’s little to no embellishment within the text–no introduction to explain folk traditions to the reader, no real attempt to create follow more traditional patterns of Western narration–you’re not really going to find the exposition, rising action, falling action, and dénouement here. This is not uncommon of orally-based storytelling, of course, but the abruptness of certain tales may surprise those who are more familiar with retellings which attempt to round out story lines for contemporary readers. Instead, there is a sort of layering effect: as you read more of the tales and are more immersed in the rural village and farm settings, becoming more familiar with what kinds of occurrences are possible–such as hidden people taking humans into their homes inside of boulders; witches riding horses’ thigh bones for their annual Christmas meeting with the devil; charms which spirit away whole flocks of sheep–the happenings become less fantastical feel more true, more possible.

There is also a wry, underlying sense of humor that runs through many of these tales, with one–”Kráka the Ogre”–standing out the most in this respect. This story tells of “…a menacing creature…[with] a penchant for the masculine sex and an aversion to being alone.” As such, Kráka regularly kidnaps farmers and shepherds and takes them back to her cave for company. In two instances the abductee refuses to eat anything except some very difficult to obtain delicacy (12-year-old cured shark; fresh buck’s meat) and so Kráka goes on long journeys to find these foods only to discover that her ‘guest’ has escaped when she returns. (We’re told that while running after the first man she yells out to him, “‘Here is the shark, Jón; cured not 12 but 13 years,’ to which he made no reply.”) Later we’re told that this lonely villain “was planning a large Christmas celebration which she took great pains to prepare for. The only thing that was missing, in her opinion, was a bit of human flesh, which she considered the greatest delicacy.” It’s not said who was going to attend the ogre’s Christmas party, but just the fact of it, alongside the missing hors d’oeuvre of human flesh (I pictured an ogre in an apron), seems so wonderfully absurd.

The one thing that I think this collection is missing is an explanation of where the source material was derived from. Alda is listed as the translator, not the author, so these are apparently not her own retellings. I would be very interested to know from what source these stories were collected, whether they were brought together from many collections or one, and whether or not these are stories that many Icelandic readers are familiar with, or just representative of the folk tradition in Iceland.

(These questions might be answered in the new e-book introduction, of course.)

What a Difference a Day (or Week) Makes: In Which our Search for the Elusive Kennitala Comes to a Triumphant and Edifying Close

(Let’s kick off the day with a little Dinah, yeah?)

So big news, everyone: Mark and I not only both have kennitalas now (Whoot!), we have also both received our National ID cards (double–triple!–Whoot!). OMG: we are real live legal adult humans in Iceland now. (Although funny story–or funny now that we have the cards in hand, but still kind of not funny at all–you may remember that we trucked off to Kopavogur, a suburb of Reykjavik, in order to have our photos taken for our ID cards, since the machine at the Directorate of Immigration in Reykjavik was broken. You may also remember that this involved two buses and a very taxing episode in which the fact that I don’t (yet) speak Icelandic was made abundantly clear. Well, haha, guys–joke’s on us. We had our pictures re-taken at the Directorate in Reykjavik when we went to drop off our housing form, making the ones taken in Kopavogur completely useless and irrelevant. Ha! Hil-arious. Good thing our new pictures are extra super attractive and not as shamed-deer-in-headlights as I assume the other ones were.)

So, you might ask: what have we done to take advantage of our new personhood? I will tell you. The first thing we did–Mark’s great idea, actually–was to go to the public library and get our library cards! Yay! Totally perfect first act as a citizen in a new town, right? In fact, our ID cards were so brand-shiny new that our information hadn’t yet made it into The System, and the poor librarian had to enter all of our data by hand, instead of it just auto-filling. Library cards in hand, we paid our annual library fee (the public library system here is a bit like a subscription library–you pay a membership fee, although it’s extremely nominal: about $13 for the year) and headed up to the stacks to load down with goodies. At least I did. My first goal was to pick up some Icelandic movies/TV shows so that I can start my daily infusions of listening-to-Icelandic, since I’m told that watching TV is basically how anyone learns any language ever. So I started with:

  • The first season of the Icelandic legal drama Réttur. This is particularly timely: I just read that the American rights for the show have been purchased by NBC. It’ll be developed and adapted into an American version which will be called “Rittur.” We have already watched the full first season of this show (six episodes) and besides being very watchable, it’s also been rather enlightening in regard to the Icelandic legal system. More on this later, though.
  • Sveitabrúðkaup (Country Wedding), a very popular comedy starring about half of the famous actors in Iceland and one which had long ago been recommended to me (thanks, Amber–I’m finally going to watch it!)
  • An Icelandic-language version of the Disney movie Tangled, which I figure will be useful in terms of having a somewhat more accessible vocabulary. (And cartoons are the way to do it, right Leigh?)
  • An audio book for kids called Snuðra og Tuðra. I had never heard of this series (about “two rebellious sisters with minds of their own…”) but apparently, there are ten books or so, and they are rather popular–I found a theater adaptation, for one thing.

So I’m off to watch a movie now. For school. Win!