Tag Archives: Iceland

Don’t mess with Iceland

If Bill O’Reilly ever goes back to Iceland, I suggest that instead of crow, he be given some nice dish of hakarl to eat. Just saying.

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The revolution has not been televised

Not in this country, at any rate. Let the record show that the pushback against the shock doctrine started in the land of Egil Skallagrimsson and Grettir the Strong.

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Friday finds

Anthony Burgess once said he would have preferred to be thought of as a musician who wrote novels, rather than a novelist who wrote music on the side. This interview with composer-conductor Paul Phillips includes samples of the late author’s symphonic and choral works, and touches on Burgess’ use of musical structures in his novels: e.g., A Clockwork Orange was patterned on the sonata form. It’s all interesting enough to make me hope Phillips’ book about Burgess and his music, A Clockwork Counterpoint, comes out in a much less pricey format.

What’s a nice waterfront property in Iceland going for these days?

A meditation on the wonder of the guitar, sparked by current shows at both the Met and MoMA.

Allison Flood goes forward in time to critique an unreleased and (by her) unread Stephen King novel about going back in time.

Frederik Pohl remembers Ian and Betty Ballantine, the couple who turned Ballantine Books into a paperback publishing giant.

For the day after St. Patrick’s Day, a brief animated biography of the man of the hour.

Brian Malow talks about Hollywood’s intensifying love affair with the works of Philip K. Dick. At the risk of sounding repetitious, I still think Christopher Nolan’s Memento is the film that comes closest to capturing PKD’s tone, even if it isn’t based on one of his stories.

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A saga at a time

My own book collection served as the nucleus of Nighthawk Books, and while the store’s collection has since multiplied by several orders of magnitude (or so it seems when I have to reshelve), every now and then somebody will buy one of my old books. That doesn’t always bring on a pang, but there are times when I inwardly sigh as I ring up a sale. That happened the other day when a customer bought one of the Icelandic sagas from the Medieval Literature section.

Actually, I had a small run on the sagas shortly after the store opened in February. Egil’s Saga flew out the door the first week in March, followed in short order by the Eyrbyggja Saga, Grettir’s Saga, the Saga of the Volsungs, and the Orkneyinga saga. They’re leaving the store, a saga at a time. Sad to see them go. So far, at least, nobody’s come in to buy the Laxdaela Saga, which shares space in my heart with Egil’s Saga.

Of all the sagas, Laxdaela comes closest to working like a conventional novel, though if you read it that way sooner or later you will fetch up against its inimitably Icelandic preoccupations. For example, some of the most intriguing episodes concern a brutal, nasty-minded farmer named Hrapp, who terrorizes his neighbors and family. Feeling death near, Hrapp orders his wife to have his body buried standing up beneath the threshold of his farmhouse:

After that Hrapp died, and all was done as he said, for Vigdis did not dare do otherwise. And as evil as he had been to deal with in his life, just so he was by a great deal more when he was dead, for he walked again a great deal after he was dead. People said that he killed most of his servants in his ghostly appearances. He caused a great deal of trouble to those who lived near, and the house of Hrappstead became deserted. Vigdis, Hrapp’s wife, betook herself west to Thorstein Swart, her brother. He took her and her goods in. And now things went as before, in that men went to find Hoskuld, and told him all the troubles that Hrapp was doing to them, and asked him to do something to put an end to this. Hoskuld said this should be done, and he went with some men to Hrappstead, and has Hrapp dug up, and taken away to a place near to which cattle were least likely to roam or men to go about. After that Hrapp’s walkings- again abated somewhat.

I love that “somewhat.”

Stephen King would have milked that anecdote for a shelf-busting novel, at least four hundred pages, throwing in the brief mention of the fact that all those who inherited Hrapp’s considerable wealth came to bad ends. He’d also have plenty of fun with the seal with uncannily human-seeming eyes that appears linked to the drowning of a family ferrying itself across a fjord to Hrapp’s old haunting grounds. But the Laxdaela author simply tosses these incidents off and gets the important task of reciting names and genealogies.

But none of that matters for anyone attuned to the singular music of the sagas, and Laxdaela gives us the  fascinating character of Gudrun, a beautiful and willful woman who falls in love with the handsome Kjartan, only to marry his foster-brother Bolli out of a mixture of confusion and spite. When Kjartan takes a wife, Gudrun pulls strings and cooks up plots that get him killed. She lives to a ripe and regretful old age, with four husbands behind her and two sons, one of them named Bolli after the man she goaded into killing his foster-brother.

I want to adapt Laxdaela as a film, just so I can see this scene:

Now Gudrun began to grow very old, and lived in such sorrow and grief as has lately been told. She was the first nun and recluse in Iceland, and by all folk it is said that Gudrun was the noblest of women of equal birth with her in this land. It is told how once upon a time Bolli came to Holyfell, for Gudrun was always very pleased when he came to see her, and how he sat by his mother for a long time, and they talked of many things.

Then Bolli said, “Will you tell me, mother, what I want very much to know? Who is the man you have loved the most?”

Gudrun answered, “Thorkell was the mightiest man and the greatest chief, but no man was more shapely or better endowed all round than Bolli. Thord, son of Ingun, was the wisest of them all, and the greatest lawyer; Thorvald I take no account of.”

Then said Bolli, “I clearly understand that what you tell me shows how each of your husbands was endowed, but you have not told me yet whom you loved the best. Now there is no need for you to keep that hidden any longer.”

Gudrun answered, “You press me hard, my son, for this, but if I must needs tell it to any one, you are the one I should first choose thereto.”

Bolli bade her do so. Then Gudrun said, “To him I was worst whom I loved best.”

“Now,” answered Bolli, “I think the whole truth is told,” and said she had done well to tell him what he so much had yearned to know.

I always imagine Gudrun staring across the waves while some great, melancholy Bernard Herrmann-esque music purls on the soundtrack. I’m pretty sure Howard Shore would be up to the task.

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Ashes to ashes

Some pretty outrageous photos of the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

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Friday finds


Are you ready for Emoji Dick?

Time-suck alert: The New Yorker has a new blog devoted to churning its vast catalogue of back issues. It’s a simple but valuable idea: Go back into the magazine’s 80-year archive and find articles that reflect some of the writing in the current issue.

Here’s your shot at winning a coffee date with a real live Pulitzer-winning novelist. Having spoken with him myself, I can confirm he’ll be worth the bid.

Medievalists thrill to the tale of the Staffordshire Hoard! But the finder doesn’t have all that much to cheer about.

Want to make bagpipes from PVC tubing? How about trying to build an upright bass with an old washtub? Dennis Havlena has plenty of others.

Who do you like for the next Nobel Prize in Literature? The betting site Ladbrokes has four-to-one odds for Israeli novelist Amos Oz.

Farewell to Jim Carroll, poet, novelist, punk rocker.

F. Scott Fitzgerald thought there are no second acts in American lives. Just try telling that to this guy.

Writing advice from Frederik Pohl.

Krutt, anti-krutt, and the world of Icelandic pop music.

Am I the only one who finds the slang use of “cougar” really unattractive and more than a little insulting to the women it purports to describe? Do we really want to compare Courteney Cox, Demi Moore, and Pamela Anderson to a predatory beast known to leap on people’s backs, crush their spinal cords with a bite to the neck, then eat their faces and internal organs? Last time I saw a photo of Ashton Kutcher, he was looking pretty happy, so what gives with “cougar”? Not that “Milf” is much better. Whatever happened to “Yummy Mummy”? Or “Mrs. Robinson”? They’re dated, obviously, but either is preferable to “cougar.”

“In his Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson does not yet recognize the power of ‘nice’ as the catch-all term for British near-approval, but he Doc Johnsonproduces one of his little gems in defining the word: ‘It is often used to express a culpable delicacy.’ It may be time to observe that Dr. Johnson, neither by his own definition nor by ours, could ever properly have been described as nice. He lacked culpable delicacy to the exact same degree that he lacked good manners, an easy disposition, a sunny outlook, a helpful quality, an open spirit, a selfless gene, a handsome gait, or a general willingness to put his best foot forward in greeting others. If niceness was the only category known to posterity, we would long since have lost Johnson to the scrofulous regions of inky squalor, for he could be alarmingly rude.”

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The fall and the falls


As Jeff reminds us, this lovely spot is where a notable Icelander threw his pagan idols after converting to Christianity sometime around 900 or 1000. Now that the bitter aftertaste of economic snake oil has kicked in, maybe contemporary Icelanders can come here and toss away their copies of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose.

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Some wit with a knowledge of skaldic verse should recast this excellent Vanity Fair article about Iceland’s financial meltdown into a more suitable form. Until then, however, you owe it to yourself to pour some mead, hang up your sword and kick back with Michael Lewis. One of my favorite passages:

Alcoa, the biggest aluminum company in the country, encountered two problems peculiar to Iceland when, in 2004, it set about erecting its giant smelting plant. The first was the so-called “hidden people”—or, to put it more plainly, elves—in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe. Before Alcoa could build its smelter it had to defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it. It was a delicate corporate situation, an Alcoa spokesman told me, because they had to pay hard cash to declare the site elf-free but, as he put it, “we couldn’t as a company be in a position of acknowledging the existence of hidden people.”

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Friday finds

clockworkSome years ago, Stanley Kubrick ordered an assistant to gather up and incinerate all the outtakes and unused footage from his 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, thereby denying future cineastes any hope of seeing an alternate or extended cut of the movie. There are, however, stills from some of the deleted scenes, and you’ll find a bunch of them at this very thorough tribute site dedicated to the star, Malcolm McDowell. The stills, with corresponding passages from the Anthony Burgess novel, include shots from the gang’s attack on a man coming home from the library (above),  the “sammy act” with the old ladies at a bar, and scenes of the droogs preparing to steal a car.  

What Samuel Johnson can teach us about writing. Apropos of which, today’s word is devotionalist.

It’s the new taste sensation that’s going to harden the arteries of the nation! Really, your cholesterol is going to shoot through the roof just reading about this thing.

Back in 1972, Jerry Lewis embarked on the film he envisioned as his grand artistic statement. The result was The Day the Clown Cried, a legendarily le-jerry1awful Holocaust drama starring Lewis as a clown who plays Pied Piper to a group of children being led into the gas chamber at the Auschwitz death camp. The production was a nightmare of delays and financial problems, and the film could not even be released because the rights to the screenplay had lapsed. The handful of people who have seen the only existing rough cut of the film say it is a work of jaw-dropping bad taste — one witness said it is “so drastically wrong” that it achieves a kind of perfection. This remarkable site gathers stills and production photos, various drafts of the script and this lethally hilarious essay that was one of the high points of the days when Spy magazine could still bring the funny. (Bird-dogged by Scott McLemee.)        

This bookseller in Kabul doesn’t much like The Bookseller of Kabul.

We reached the northern town of Akureyri, and met up with Janus, the Greenlandic man who did not love Eeva-Liisa. That night we watched the northern lights in the clear sky above the fjörd. Janus — who bragged that he saw the aurora borealis “five or six times a week” at home — told us that if you whistled, the northern lights would move. I was amazed when he whistled, and the yellow streaks shimmered green and wiggled toward us.

Troy Paiva was photographing Vermillion Sands before he even knew about the place. Now that he does, he can understand why people kept making the comparison.

In the mid-1970s, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page agreed to compose soundtrack music for Lucifer Rising, at that time the latest  film from Kenneth Anger, who shared Page’s interest in Aleister Crowley and matters of the occult. Anger ended up firing Page and hiring a former Charles Manson crony to compose the music, but now you can listen to Page’s work here. Should you download? As Crowley himself would say, do what thou wilt. And, if you live in the New York area, you can catch this retrospective of Anger’s films at P.S. 1.

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Friday finds

Caustic Cover Critic offers a beautiful roundup of Geoff Grandfield’s noir cover designs and illustrations for various editions of Graham Greene’s “entertainments” and other books. Personally, I think the black and white interior illustrations (such as the one above, which I assume is from The Power and the Glory) are the best of the bunch. Grandfield’s work on these Raymond Chandler special editions is also nothing to sneeze at.     

Show of hands, please. How many people remember Welsh artist Kit Williams and his Masquerade challenge? For some reason, the Great Minneapolis Octopus Hunt reminded me of the search for the golden hare. 

The perfect vacation destination for the typographer in your family.

Michael Swanwick’s post about the power of words has gotten me re-reading Samuel R. Delany’s short stories. Which goes to prove his point.

Liz and Dick, Kurt and Courtney, Brad and Angelina . . . Sylvia and Ted?

Apparently the Federation of Light did not make its scheduled appearance in the skies. Wow . . . didn’t see that one not coming. (Maybe this was the Federation that Blossom Goodchild had in mind.) Anyway, we all know that flying saucers came here a few decades ago.

The news that Paul Krugman had won the Nobel Prize in economics had heads exploding the length and breadth of right-wing punditry and blogitry. Here’s your chance to pick the winner from “the five most impressive spontaneous human combustions” tracked in the wingersphere.  

An international team is preparing to study the Gamburtsevs, a puzzling mountain range buried deep beneath the Antarctic ice. “You can almost think about it as exploring another planet – but on Earth,” said Dr Fausto Ferraccioli from the British Antarctic Survey. “This region is a complete enigma. It’s in the middle of the continent. Most mountain ranges are on the edges of continents, and we really can’t understand what these mountains are doing in the centre.” I can think of at least one explanation.

Now that music writer Alex Ross has won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, you’ll want to listen to excerpts from some of the music he describes in his book The Rest Is Noise

What is generative music? And why am I not surprised that Brian Eno is involved with it? The Guardian article is worth reading simply for the news that when Music for Airports, Eno’s first collection of ambient music, was finally played in an airport, “people complained of nameless, gnawing anxieties – not what one needs moments before boarding an aeroplane.”

From the Roman Empire to the steps of a bankrupt Icelandic bank — follow the verbs.

What would you rather do: Attend a Baltimore City Language Arts professional development session, or get poked in the eye with a flaming stick? You want some time to think it over? I understand.

There have been two recent films based on the poem Beowulf. The good professor reviews the one you ought to see.

In memoriam, Neal Hefti: composer of television themes that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.

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