The ice and snow have finally gone and signs of spring are peeking out all over, so naturally my thoughts turn to… Iceland? On a recent day of welcome thaw I decided It was time to make my travel plans to Belgium this summer for my aunt and uncle’s 60th wedding anniversary celebration. Browsing the confusing array of competing airline deals online, I suddenly remembered something I had seen years ago and slotted into the memory bank for future use. If you fly to Europe by Icelandic Air, they offer stopovers in Iceland on either your outbound or return flight. I acted impulsively, booking our return flight with a two night stay in Reykjavik and a “Golden Circle” tour of the major historic sites and natural wonders of Iceland. This will be my first actual visit to the land of the sagas, Vikings, volcanoes, geysers, the Northern Lights, unpronounceable names, and Bjork, but I've been traveling there for years by book. That’s the beauty of reading. You can go anywhere, and it's free if you use your library!
Here are a few of the books I've enjoyed and some I plan to read before my trip:
Despite being such a small country (population just over 300,000 in 2013), Iceland has its own Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Halldor Laxness, who received the award in 1955. MCPL owns several of his more than twenty novels including Independent People, an epic of twentieth century rural Icelandic life in the tradition of the ancient sagas.
Last year Australian Hannah Kent won popular and critical acclaim for her first novel Burial Rites, based on a true story she heard while living in Iceland as an exchange student. In 1829 Agnes Magnúsdóttir was convicted of murdering her master and sent to live with a family on an isolated farm while awaiting execution. If this sounds a strange arrangement, it was apparently normal practice in the Icelandic justice system. At first afraid of the young woman placed in their care, the family learn there is another side to the story of the murder. Fascinating history, lyrical evocation of Iceland’s bleak landscape, and an emotionally involving story make this a standout novel.
Just after reading Burial Rites, I chanced upon another novel set in Iceland which was also a standout read. Where the Shadows Lie is the first book in the Fire and Ice series by Michael Ridpath, which features Magnus Jonson, an Iceland-born Boston detective. Magnus is sent to Iceland for protection after running afoul of a drug cartel in Boston. There he becomes involved in the search for a lost Icelandic saga which has surprising connections to the unsolved murder of his own father years before. A propulsive plot interwoven with history of the Icelandic sagas make this essential reading for thriller fans and history buffs. The second book in the series, Far North, is also available from MCPL and two more can be ordered through Interlibrary Loan.
Iceland has not missed out on the popular craze for Nordic Noir. Move over Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo, here is Icelandic Noir practioner Arnaldur Indriðason. I’ve read one of his Reykjavik-set Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson series Silence of the Grave, a Golden Dagger Award winner, and I plan to read the entire series. Erlender is a compelling character whose investigations lead him into troubling secrets from Iceland’s past; in this case, a skeleton unearthed at a building site that turns out to date from World War II and reveals a chilling story of domestic abuse.
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is Iceland’s answer to Karin Fossum. Sigurðardóttir's noir series delves into Iceland’s more ancient history of demon-worship and witch hunting. The first of her Thóra Gudmundsdóttir mysteries, Last Rituals, opens with the discovery of the body of a German student with strange symbols carved into his chest. It turns out he was studying Iceland’s history of witch hunting and his murder may not have been a random crime. Yrsa leavens this very dark history with wry humor and an appealing female lead character.
I’ve added a couple of nonfiction books to my pre-trip reading list: Iceland: Land of the Sagas, which includes stunning photographs by Jon Krakauer, and Viking Age Iceland.
To learn more about the Icelandic Sagas check out Masterpieces of Medieval Literature in the Modern Scholar series. You can read the sagas in the original Icelandic, Old Norse, or, thankfully, English, online at the Icelandic Saga Database. The Guardian makes the case for reading the sagas with this provocatively titled article "The Icelandic Sagas: Europe’s most important book?"
Perhaps Iceland isn't your cup of (iced) tea? Pick a destination for actual or virtual travel from 1,000 Places to See Before You Die or Lonely Planet’s 1,000 Ultimate Experiences. Whether you go by air, sea, land, or book, Happy Travels in 2015, or as the Icelanders say, Hamingjusamur Feroast!