Book Review: Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indriðason

Reykjavík  Nights is the latest book in the Detective Erlendur series to be translated into reykjaviknightsEnglish. It is a prequel to the other books, set in 1974.

Erlendur is a traffic cop who dreams of being a detective one day. He has become fixated with two seemingly unrelated incidents that happened the previous year. Hannibal, a local tramp who he had some contact with through his police work, had been found drowned around the same time that a local woman disappeared, presumed to have committed suicide. No one has connected the two, but something about both stories doesn’t sit right with Erlendur. Did they know each other somehow?

Erlendur does solve both mysteries in the end, but perhaps more interesting for the regular readers are the glimpses into his personality. Already we see the loner character, who does have kind of a relationship with a woman that he isn’t really interested in. His fellow police officers are a little buffoonish and obsessed with pizza, TV and other bad American influences. Reykjavík itself is growing but still unbuilt even in quite central areas. We also get to meet Marion Briem for the first time towards the end of the book.

As the book is standalone, you don’t need to have read all the previous books, but understanding all these references are actually what makes the book interesting, rather than the cases. As with all of the books, being familiar with the local geography and mentions also helps with understanding the context and for this story, how much the landscape has changed in 40 years.

There is another prequel set in 1972 which has not made it into English translation yet, Einvígið. It will be interesting to see whether Indriðason continues with the Erlendur series or starts another one. I found this book to be “good enough” but it felt a little rushed somehow and didn’t have the “wow” factor of a Jar City. As with many authors I like, I’d be willing to wait a bit longer for a really great book.

 

Walking in Keflavík

There is a nice walk you can do in Keflavík town if you want to kill a couple of hours before your flight. It runs along the cliffs between Keflavík and Garður and I think it would take around 2 hours (more if you stop a lot) to do the whole walk out and back. We did most of it in 90 minutes without much stopping.

P1030279The walk is pretty flat, BUT is along rocks the whole way so you need proper walking shoes and the rocks will be slippery if it has been wet. A path has been made from the rocks that are lying all around, and it is easy to see most of the time.

P1030284If you lose it you soon find it again and there are benches and cairns along the way as additional visuals.

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You get some pretty spectacular ocean views along the way.

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In August, there was still a lot in bloom and you could see that there would have been many lupins earlier in the year.

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Lonely rocks looking out to sea

It was also interesting to see the porous lava rocks, and the way that in places they become very large and smooth as they run off down to the sea.

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The rocks get slopier and bigger as they “run off” the cliff

More like a sponge than a rock!

I was impressed at how much work it would have taken to actually make this path. Although the material is right there it would have been a big job to turn the random rocks into something relatively flat and walkable, and to make so many benches along the way.

We were lucky that the weather was relatively calm and dry, it wouldn’t have been a very nice walk the day before!

You can start this walk from Bakkavegur, the path is at the end of the road.

 

Jón Gnarr book launch – Foyles, London

London’s premier bookshop Foyles held a launch event on 4 September to celebrate the UK release of Jón Gnarr’s book “Gnarr – How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World”. The book covers the story of Jón and the Best Party’s surprise election to the office of mayor of Reykjavík from 2010-2014.

At the Foyles event, Jón was interviewed by Zoe Williams from the Guardian in front of an audience of approximately 200, followed by audience questions and signing of the book.

As you can imagine I was very excited about this event – Jón’s public appearances in London are few and far between.

Empty chairs on stage!

Pre-show set up

In terms of the questions, for me, there was a bit too much emphasis in the beginning on questions Iceland’s financial crisis and bankers, although I do appreciate that much of the book is set during this timeframe and some people may not have heard some of the details. Jón really came alive during some of the more varied questions from the audience members and proved again that there is much more to him than being a politician. People were laughing more and more and it all became a bit less serious. Throughout, he really considered his answers. Below are some of the highlights of Jón’s answers – please note that what follows is not a complete transcript and is only what I could capture at the time.

 

Photo courtesy of @DanThompsen

Photo courtesy of @DanThompsen

On why he decided to go into politics:

In a financial crisis, things like theatre and arts are the first to be cut…I was doing a standup show and came up with the idea on stage. It was funny, just saying you would promise anything. Then people started saying you should really do this, I would vote for you and doing the thumbs up sign. We made that the symbol of the Best Party, it’s the international symbol of friendliness.

In the early days, I was the comic relief of the whole thing. But maybe we were in deep shit because we were too ignorant. I would think of the phoenix from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. We would laugh at my stories and then laugh again when the media tried to interpret it. ‘Is he that stupid? Yeah, he is…’

It was the middle of the pots and pans revolution. We channelled it in a more positive way.

On whether the Best Party was a critique of neo-liberalism:

This was one of the main reasons why we were in the situation, the privatisation of banks. Capitalism – I like some of it. I like Apple. If you have a new iPhone out I will read about it. There is a serious downside to capitalism if not regulated.

On the campaign:

We made our campaign song Simply the Best – I said I was friends with Tina Turner on Facebook and people believed this. The video became an instant hit. Specialists were asking how much it cost. We used a Canon and it didn’t cost anything except our time, we had no sponsors.

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On the first day at work:

I knew very little of contemporary politics. I had never been inside the mayor’s office. I didn’t realise it came with loads of people. It’s more than office, it’s a workplace! I imagined I would be sitting alone with a phone and someone would call me. It was a big surprise.

Early days in office:

I was not prepared for the severity of the city. I thought it was a mindset problem then realised the problem was first and foremost financial so I had to try and understand it. We had to consider things like special fees for electricity and hot water. This was very important in Iceland, feeling of why should we pay for it when hot water is coming out of the ground everywhere? There had been no change in rate for 20 years – why should it cost anything? Well, it’s not that simple, there are pipes and engineers…people in government didn’t want to ask for things that would make them unpopular.

The media left me alone for 100 days. My first interview was really confrontational. They asked what I was going to do about something and I said ‘I don’t know’…I mean, I can check and get back to you… it was so awkward. I felt humiliated and so stupid. After that people came up to me and said ‘thank you – that was so brilliant – politicians never admit they don’t know, they lie.’ Even in failure was victory!

Entering into politics is like going into a hostile alien territory because everything is so hostile.

Photo courtesy of @RenZephyr

Photo courtesy of @RenZephyr

On tourism and the Icelandic mindset:

Iceland is a very strange culture – we went from fishermen/farmers to being a banking nation and when all that collapsed it now changed into tourism. To be happy in Iceland you have to be quite adaptive and opportunistic. This may be part of that. It can also be seen as opportunism. This was somehow part of the mentality and success of the Best Party.

On social networking:

Social networking is huge in Iceland – there are 350,000 Icelandic accounts on Facebook! (note – this is more than the population) Most of our campaign was through Facebook and YouTube. Other parties campaigned through the newspaper and not on social networks. All politicians in Iceland are on Facebook and Twitter now.

On his continued support of the LGBT community:

I have led the Gay Pride parade in Reykjavík dressed in drag. Last year I dressed up in the women’s national costume. I was afraid some of the older women who have strong emotions towards the costume would feel somehow offended and that worried me…in the parade I saw they were the ones who were most inspired. They were glowing. It was like “respect”! Inspiring to me. Genuine support is from the unlikeliest people.

On whether he had anything to do with the sudden proliferation of cycle lanes in Reykavik:

We designated money to it and were heavily criticised In Icelandic traffic law (outdated) there is no definition of a bicycle lane.  I saw it as an alternative form of transport that could save money.

On what he is most proud of from his time as mayor:

That I lasted the whole term. I was the first in a long time to do that. Also, that I don’t consider that I have changed. The experience has matured me and given me a deeper understanding of society and people in general but I have not changed as a person when many expected me to. I am also very proud of the work we did with difficult financial issues. If I hadn’t come along Reykjavík might have gone down similar path as Detroit.

Jón also touched on other topics such as the strong support from his family while he was in office, his visit from a Chinese delegation where he petitioned for the release of Liu Xiabo and comedian Doug Stanhope’s show at Litla-Hraun.

Following the talk there was an eager queue of people wanting their books signed.

Photo courtesy of @foyles

Around the room! Photo courtesy of @foyles

I always feel sorry for authors having to do this kind of thing but it actually means a lot to fans. Despite being terrible about self-promotion, I forced myself to mention the blog and he said he had seen it! I nearly died. Yeah, ok, he didn’t say he liked it but I’ll take what I can get.

So, is the book worth reading? Yes, even though there isn’t much new content if you are a regular follower of Icelandic news and social media. It’s still an interesting read which covers a time in Iceland which already feels a bit like history.

For those of you who want to know more about Jón’s time in politics, there is also a DVD called Gnarr which covers the election and early time in office in great detail. This is not easily available in the UK but you can get it on import from the US or Iceland.

Jón’s autobiographies are finally about to be translated into English and the first will be out in May 2015. I would also urge anyone who hasn’t seen his comedy to start with the great series Næturvaktin (again available as an import from Iceland) which should get you hooked enough to investigate further.

Thanks to Foyles for a great event! They have more signed copies of the book to buy here.

Race Review: Reykjavík Half Marathon 2014

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Last weekend, I participated in the 31st running of the “marathon day” in Reykjavík. The day consists of several different races – full marathon, half marathon, 10k, 3 km fun run and even shorter “Lazytown” run. I chose to do the half marathon over the full distance as the marathon field is actually quite small and I would find the second half of the race mentally hard to do without many other people around.

This is one of those races that I’ve looked at doing a few times and never have, so it was quite nice that things came together and I was finally able to do it!

Pre-race, you had the option of picking up your number at the Expo on the Thursday or Friday. (you could also pick it up on Saturday morning near the start, and it wasn’t crowded there so that would have been easily doable too) I was excited to visit the Expo, even though I knew the prices for running kit would be higher than in the UK so it wouldn’t really be worth buying anything. I was hoping to see more Reykjavík/Iceland specific shirts to buy, but I didn’t see any so saved my money! The number/chip pickup was straightforward and again not busy so quick to get through. All participants got the same t-shirt no matter what distance they were doing, which would be unusual at other races. Interestingly you could also change your race distance right up until the day before. It’s also the only race I’ve done where your number was just randomly assigned to you then and there (which would also be why you could change distances and get a different coloured number with no admin hassle).

Race T-shirt

I had also wanted to go to the Expo to get the pasta dinner advertised. I nearly walked past the 5 people who were actually eating as it turned out you had to pay for the dinner and the small portion was definitely not worth the price! Runners are quite superstitious about what they eat the night before a race and for breakfast so this suddenly caused me a problem. We ended up eating pizza along with several other runners as this seemed to be the quickest/easiest alternative. All was fine so this might become my new pre-race dinner!

Race day, it was an early start on Saturday. This was also a nice change for me as races in the UK are on Sundays which means they take up your whole weekend. The full and half marathons started at 8:40 with the 10k an hour later. After the bright sunshine of the previous day race morning was very cold during the standing around/waiting to go time. Most other people were wearing jackets and checking a bag in, while I walked down in short sleeves thinking it wasn’t that cold! It was! It was fun to watch the last minute preparations and finally we were allowed into the starting pens. With both sides of the road being used there were no long delays to the starting line. It was good to finally get going, although shortly after the start we pretty much came to a halt as both sides had to merge. Once we got going again the course was spacious enough for everyone for the rest of the race.

Don't you want to run here?

Don’t you want to run here?

You can view full details of the courses on the race website. Generally – the first few miles of the course were around residential streets – this was where the best support was with people playing instruments/banging pots and pans and really cheering the runners on. This was probably my favourite part of the course. Then we emerged by Harpa and went out along the seafront – I also enjoyed this bit as it was old familiar views but seen from a different perspective when running. Then it was the dullest bit of the course around an industrial estate, which also had the biggest hill (but still not a bad one), then back along the seafront to finish.

Half marathon medal

Half marathon medal

The finish area became quite crowded as many half marathon and 10k runners were finishing at the same time. The chip worn on your shoe also had to be removed here and where normally you would get two twist ties to put it on your laces, you had to actually unlace your shoe to put it on directly so it was taking people time to get it off again. We then funneled up a hill and left to end up back at the main race area.

Hafþór Björnsson, who ran with his daughter for charity

Hafþór Björnsson, who ran with his daughter for charity

Good things about the race – the size (not too big or small), great organisation considering high level of foreign runners, flat and mainly interesting half marathon course, right amount of drinks stations, good technical t-shirt

Improvements – some kind of meeting point area afterwards, twist ties for the chips, more of a goody bag – even if it means raising the price, sell more race specific merchandise at the Expo

Would I do it again? Probably not, but only because I think we were lucky with the weather this year and generally it would be pretty wet and windy (and I have enough of those kind of runs at home)!

That’s another item off the bucket list!

Dream day in Iceland

Although Iceland isn’t a huge place it is big enough and has enough to do that I always warn people about trying to do too much in one trip or cover the whole country. However, if time, distance, and transport were no object, this is what I’d do on my dream day in Iceland:

I’d magically teleport myself to just outside the tunnel leading into my favourite town of  Ísafjörður. Just because I rarely get to go through tunnels I find them fun! P1010792

From there I would go into town, wander around the streets and watch a plane attempt a landing at the airport, hopefully with several go-rounds. I’d eat at the pizza place, I can’t remember exactly what I had there but it was good. Yep, I realise this is not the stuff most  people’s dreams are made of. Just humour me.

P1020029From there I’d snap my fingers and have the fun of the drive down the stunning Selárdalur road to the Samúel Jónsson site. I don’t know why I find this place so appealing, it is partly the scenery along the road and the general isolation.

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Then I’d magic myself to the sulphurous wasteland of Hverarönd,  and remind myself what a trip to Mars or a post-apocalyptic world could be like.

From there I’d go Jökulsárlón, but not to the lagoon itself but to the iceberg littered beach across the road.

4cFinally, there would be a change of season and I’d go and visit any of the waterfalls in their frozen state.P1000328I can think of a few other good combos – maybe they partly seem interesting because they could never really happen! So that’s my dream day in Iceland – what’s yours? 

 

Book review: 88 by Alva

“we’re supposed to throw ourselves out there, take risks! but never ever show any kind of pain or sense of failure if things don’t turn out the way we hope they will.”

There was a statistic in the news last year stating that 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book. Iceland is a country for book lovers although only a very small percentage of those published are then translated into English. It’s probably no wonder that many people interested in Iceland turn to bloggers to find out more about daily life and their thoughts on current events. Iceland Eyes was a hugely influential blog for me. Maria has covered just about every aspect of Iceland you can think during the many years she has been blogging. In recent years it’s been interesting to see through her blog and other social media that she has become more introspective in her writing and interested in more mystical topics. I was really excited when she announced she would have a book out. 88 was written under the name Alva to deliberately make it more artistic and less completely “her”.

88 is actually quite hard to review as I feel like it’s a very personal book. Maria gave 88herself a timeline of 88 days to write this book in. Because of this, the book is reflective of her daily life and thoughts during this period, dipping in and out of life events and coming back to include Iceland’s natural surroundings. Writing without an idea of the overall outcome as you don’t know what will happen during those days is an interesting concept. Having read her blog I had several moments where I “recognised” what she was talking about and knew more of the wider context, and it was interesting to read about the same events in a different format. Having said that, there is an element of fiction as this is not a diary and you should not assume that everything in this book happened at all, or specifically to Maria.

This book has a style that you could either love or hate, it’s non-linear and almost reads like a poem in places. It means you could just read a few random pages without feeling that you’ve missed out  by not reading it in order. It is full of emotion and I would imagine it was pretty cathartic to write. Maria is a natural writer and proven she can adapt her writing style, and be a creative writer as well as she can cover factual topics.

You can buy this book in the Mál og Menning bookstore on Laugavegur in Reykjavík, via Blurb (UK link here but should take you to your local website) or download via iTunes.