Books about IcelandI have been a bit lax in my reviewing – I wrote up a load of reviews in my notebook last night and I’m gradually transferring them onto this blog, so sorry if you’ve been pining to hear what I’ve been thinking about my reading!

Anyway, here we are – hello! – and I’m pleased to report that I have been making good progress with my Icelandic Reading. I’ve read quite a few of this pile pictured to the left, and although I’m right in the middle of the great big Laxness book, oh, but it’s wonderful! It may appeal more to those who already love the sagas, as I know a few people have found it miserable, and I’m finding it blackly funny in places. Anyway, more of that later. For now, a memoir and a novel.

Sarah Moss – “Names for the Sea”

(18 March 2014 – it does feel a bit odd not reading books acquired last summer!)

In which Moss, her husband and their two young sons live in Reykjavik for a year while Sarah works teaching English literature at the University. They live in a commuter suburb which was left half-built and deserted when the financial crisis hit, but they make friends with local families, both native Icelanders and other “foreigners”), and she describes, sort of, what it’s like to actually live there for a year. I really enjoyed all the little details about how student classes work, how exactly the primary schools operate, etc., and the author does make an effort to meet different kinds of people and find out about politics, activism and the actual effects of the financial crisis on a society that seems on the surface to be running on business as usual. However, and I imagine this is a product of culture shock, she is quite negative about a lot of things (particularly the food and weather), which makes it a slightly less than ideal read just before you go there (I did balance it out with some more positive reads, fortunately, so wasn’t feeling quite so doomy after a while).

There are some useful tips about operating in Iceland and places to go, and some good stuff about culture, art, knitting, etc., and the growing practice of recycling and second-hand objects, plus the epilogue is a lot more positive about the availability of vegetables than the main book. So it was an interesting read, and a quirky travel biography/memoir which did make an effort to examine the cultural differences, etc.

Christina Sunley – “The Tricking of Freya”

(18 March 2014)

An interesting novel set partly in a Canadian settlement of Icelanders, partly in New York, and partly in Iceland itself. Freya is a woman of Icelandic origin who has never visited the island, but spends summers in the settlement where her grandmother, aunt and various people from the old country still live, speaking Icelandic and still being immersed in their own culture (this place apparently does exist, which is fascinating). Family secrets start coming out of the woodwork and Freya becomes more involved with them than she would prefer to be, getting sucked back into a culture that’s as alien to her underground New York existence, working in a photography lab, as her mother’s suburban home and Iceland itself.

It’s not Scandi-noir, which most books set in Iceland seem to be at the moment, although there is mild peril and mental illness. I’m not entirely sure that I’d have picked it up if it wasn’t partly set in Iceland, but the descriptions are lovely and the plot twists and turns (I really felt smugly that I’d got it, then found out I was totally wrong). It didn’t really put a foot wrong, but did rely on a few small-town-coming-of-age tropes – the disruptive aunt, the traditional grandma, longing to escape from suburbia – and some of the characterisation could have been filled in more, perhaps. But it was more than competent, enjoyable and interesting.

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I have been reading a bit of non-Icelandic stuff in the gaps, too – more about those next time. In other TBR news, a big sigh over Elizabeth Jane Howard. I sort of met her at the Elizabeth Taylor Day I went to in 2012, and I was surprised I’d never read any of her books. I popped a load of them on my wish lists, and was thrilled to receive three for Christmas. Ideal for a light read to accompany me at meal times (Laxness is BRILLIANT but you don’t want to read him over your tea), thought I. Well, the first one I picked up had a cat death. The second one had an eating disorder. And do you know what? I kind of lost my faith in her after that, and I’m going to pass over these ones. My fault entirely, not my lovely Christmas gift giver, I hasten to add!