Jólabókaflóð – The Christmas book flood, part 6

Michael Ridpath is the author of the Magnus Iceland Mysteries, the most recent of which is Death in Dalvik. His blog is Writing In Ice: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Iceland. Below Michael recommends three books that should definitely find their way under your Christmas tree.

Sadly, I have not yet spent a Christmas in Iceland, so I haven’t experienced Jólabókaflóð, the Christmas Book Flood. As a writer and reader it sounds wonderful. I do receive a fair few books each Christmas, and I make sure to place them at the top of my reading pile. I find the quiet few days between Christmas and New Year a wonderful time to devour books.

So what do you give someone who, like me, reads English and is fascinated by Iceland? Well, there is an ever-growing list of Icelandic fiction writers, especially in the crime genre, but here are three recently published non-fiction books that I found fascinating, informative and entertaining.

How Iceland Changed the World by Egill Bjarnarson is the most accessible account of Iceland’s history and is also very funny. To understand a country, you need to understand its history: I wish this book had been written when I started out on my own Icelandic crime series fourteen years ago. Egill covers the whole of Iceland’s history from Ingólfur throwing his home pillars into the sea in 874 to decide where he should land, to the great women’s strike of 1975 when 90 per cent of Icelandic women stopped doing what they were expected to do, and the country came to a complete halt. 

It has some useful tips for understanding today’s Iceland, including the best suggestion I have come across for English speakers wrestling with pronouncing that notorious volcano Eyjafjallajökull – “Hey I forgot your yoghurt” – spoken quickly, confidently and defiantly. 

Egill recounts my favourite bit of Icelandic history: on 9 May 1940 Hitler invaded Belgium and Holland and that same day Britain invaded Iceland, an action so mildly embarrassing that we never really talk about it. Egill does, though.

Looking for the Hidden Folk by Nancy Marie Brown, deals with that thorniest of Icelandic subjects, the hidden people. The question isn’t simply do they exist? but, do modern Icelanders really believe that they exist? Like me, Nancy has fallen in love with Iceland, and also like me she has a hard-headed, sceptical view of superstition. A rational person might ask how can so many people in a modern, well-educated society like Iceland’s entertain the concept of hidden people or elves? This book is her answer, and it’s fascinating. She shows how the stories of Iceland’s hidden people are a natural human response to the island’s extraordinary landscape, and makes the reader question whether dismissing such belief as irrational is itself irrational. 

It’s also the narrative of how Nancy Marie Brown, who is a keen owner of Icelandic horses as well as a writer, fell in love with Iceland. She has visited the country thirty times since 1986 and has an acute ability to observe Iceland’s ever-changing landscape of lava, glacier, rock and moss, and to record it for the rest of us. Her story resonates with me, as I am sure it will resonate with many who find themselves drawn back there.

Finally, Secrets of the Sprakkar by Eliza Reid is the story of Icelandic women. The Sprakkar of the title is an old Icelandic word for outstanding or extraordinary women. Eliza Reid is a Canadian (and now Icelandic) journalist who has spent most of her adult life in Iceland. She married a historian who in 2016 became President of Iceland, giving her the perfect vantage point to write about Iceland’s remarkable women. 

And they are remarkable. Iceland has one of the most gender-equal societies in the world, thanks partly to favourable legislation, but in a greater part to the can-do attitude of its sprakkar. Women have climbed to the highest rungs of Icelandic society: President, Prime Minister, Bishop (there is only one) and National Police Commissioner. There is much that the rest of the world can learn from them. But Eliza is clear-eyed enough to admit to and dissect continuing problems: domestic abuse being perhaps the most striking.

This is also a collection of warm and often wry portraits of a range of different women in Icelandic society, from politicians to knitters, from football players to fishermen. Fisherwomen? 

Eliza allows her own story to seep through into her narrative: how a Canadian farmer’s daughter met an Icelandic fellow graduate student in Oxford, how they married, and how she became Iceland’s “first lady”. She is a likeable guide to a likeable country.

I mentioned earlier that to understand a country you need to understand its history. Maybe you need to understand its women, too.

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