Icelandic bachelors

We’re hopeless. The whole lot of us. Old Icelandic bachelors that is. By Icelandic I mean Icelandic North American as well as the real thing.
That’s why there was a report in Iceland Review some time ago that Icelandic women prefer foreign men. I don’t blame them. English men, for example are improvable. A woman can look at a callow youth and see his potential. It may be hard work and take time but eventually he can be taken out in public.
That’s not true of Icelandic men. What you see is what you get. If he wears running shoes with a business suit or flosses his teeth at the table when he’s twenty-five, he’ll be doing it when he’s seventy-five. It’s not a matter of looking at potential and saying, when I’ve whipped him into shape, he’ll be worth living with. Instead, it’s a matter of looking at him and saying do I want to live with this the rest of my life?
A lot of my friends are hopeless cases. Bundles of bad habits. At least they change their long johns more than once a year. A friend of mine knew a bachelor who bought one pair of long johns every spring. He came into the country store, the owner gave him a pair of scissors and sent him into the back. He cut them off, put on the new pair, pulled on his clothes and left. The store owner lifted the year old underwear with a pitchfork and put it in the burn barrel with a bit of gasoline and some dry wood.
It’s not just Icelandic women who think that Icelandic bachelors are a hopeless lot. Hallgrímur Helgason, in 101 Reykjavik, has Hlynur, a terrible drunkard who also takes drugs, has no ambition, doesn´t have and doesn´t want, a job, as the main character. He spends his days watching pornography but when the opportunity for sex appears, he makes love with his sunglasses on and, as soon as possible, after it is over, flees.
Arnaldur Indriðason´s detective, Erlendur, has been divorced for years. He was a lousy husband and father, and can´t manage a relationship. When he´s not detecting, he lies around feeling sorry for himself because of a past trauma. Some of the time, his wrecked daughter appears and berates him for his failings as a father and husband.  His idea of a good time is to get svið from a fast food take out and eat it by himself.
Yyrsa Sigurdardóttir´s main character is a woman lawyer, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. She divorced a useless husband who is so involved in karaoke singing that he has no time for his kids. Icelandic men are so hopeless (see above, Hlynur and friends) that Thora hasn’t had sex for two years. When she does let lust overcome her, it’s with a German. Thora agrees with the Iceland Review. Foreign men are better.
Even Laxness agrees that Icelandic bachelors are a dreadful lot. In Independent People, he has the innocent, fourteen year old daughter of Bjartur of Summerhouses, Asta Sollilja, seduced and made pregnant by her teacher. In The Fish Can Sing, Garðar Hólm, is both a fraud as a singer and, it would appear, as a lover for he flees from the attentions of a young woman whom he has seduced. In Paradise Reclaimed, Steinar abandons his family while he goes off an exotic journey. After he leaves, his barely adolescent daughter is made pregnant by the Icelandic sociopath, Björn of Leirur.
You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. So my grandmother used to say. She was right. Habits are hard to break. The longer you have them, the more deep the ruts in which they run. Then there are genetics. Icelandic genes have been formed in isolation for over a thousand years. There’s been no need to adapt. It’s easier to make up Icelandic words for things, including television and computers and financial instruments, rather than learn English ones.
I still eat dried cod even though my one great grandmother left Iceland around 1874 and there are no cod in Lake Winnipeg. We’ve been codless for nearly one hundred and fifty years but I still eat dried cod. I still eat vinarterta with prunes even though in Iceland, they’ve shifted to rhubarb filling. I’m outraged by rhubarb filling. It’s not that it tastes bad. It just shouldn’t be done. Not that I’m any more rigid than most Icelandic men. I remember one woman saying to me, “You’re the most intractable man I´ve ever met.” I had to look it up. She just hadn’t met many Icelandic men.
 “Why don’t you get married?” I asked an Icelandic bachelor friend of mine. He’s very eligible. Good looking still, has a whacking good pension, beautiful house, nice car, sense of humour, highly educated, successful.
He sighed and didn’t say anything. He looked around. I knew what he was thinking. Being married once was enough. He’d proven he could do it. For awhile, at least. Enough to breed and get over the insatiable need for sex out of his system. If he got married again, he’d have to adapt, he’d have to do things differently than he was used to. He’d have to negotiate. Do we have scrambled eggs for breakfast or oatmeal porridge? Do we go to Florida or California this winter? His wife would want him to wear button down collars or not wear button down collars. She would want him to tell her where he was going before he disappeared for a week or two to visit friends. She’d want him to eat broccoli because it was good for him. Eating broccoli at his age might add three nano-seconds to his life.

All Icelandic men are essentially Vikings. Even if what they do for a living is deliver mail or sell shoes. They’re always dreaming of getting into a Viking longboat and heading off to pillage. They’ve been dragged to the ballet, Swan Lake, by their wives, but what they’re really thinking about is blood and guts and booty. You can tell by the faraway look in their eyes.
Men with Icelandic genes are a hopeless lot. They squeeze the toothpaste from the top. They forget to put down the toilet seat. They prefer a lawn that looks like a meadow instead of a golfing green. They forget birthdays and anniversaries. They drink wine out of juice glasses. They eat with their fork in their right hand.  None of these things would be a problem in an Englishman, Frenchman, or Italian. These habits would be imperfections that could be remedied, smoothed out. These men are no more difficult to upgrade than a kitchen. New cupboards here, a granite counter top there. With Icelandic men (and their North American counterparts) no amount of retrofitting would help.
(A somewhat different  version of this article appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla. Subscribe. Support your Icelandic heritage.)

Yrsa’s pins and foxes

My Soul To Take (Harper, 15.99)

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
There is pleasure in reading a well constructed murder mystery. The beginning punctuated by minor incidents and details that seem no more than background and setting but, by the end, are crucial to the solving of the mystery.
A well written novel doesn´t trick the reader by withholding information. Instead, the evidence is there in the story and, as the story unfolds, the reader, along with the detective, can fit the pieces of the puzzle together. The skill and talent of the author is in the creating of the puzzle, in the pacing of the information, in the creating of suspense. Done right and the book is a page turner, a book a reader doesn´t want to put down.
My Soul To Take by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir fits the bill.
Her novel begins with a crime being committed in the distant past as a little girl is lowered down a hole to her death. The novel then shifts into the present in which a current murder occurs. Then a second murder occurs in the present. The murder in the distant past is known to the reader but not to the lawyer/detective.  As the original story of the little girl threads its way through the present events, it give the novel a heart. By the time we reach the end of the novel we are prepared to weep along with Lara for a tragedy that has occurred many years before
Thora Gudmundsdöttir, the lawyer with an insatiable curiosity and a determination to know why and how things happen, is an interesting type of detective. Her life is complicated by her being a single mother with two children, an ex –husband, and a German boyfriend who doesn’t speak Icelandic. Her personal relationships add both a sense of pathos and hilarity. The children, with their natural self-involvement, are not the slightest bit interested in either their mother’s work as a lawyer or as a solver  of crimes. They are more concerned with having to listen to a father who thinks he’s a great Karaoke singer.
What makes this novel particularly Icelandic isn’t just the setting but also the use of Icelandic folk lore. The folk lore isn’t just background colour but an essential part of the story.
For example, the both Thora and the reader are mystified by the details of foxes and pins only to have their importance revealed little by little  until it is obvious that they are crucial to the unraveling of the mystery.
As a reader, I appreciate the flashes of humour created by the inclusion of minor characters such as the sex therapist who works at the resort where the murders take place. Yrsa even uses her boyfriend Mathew’s not knowing Icelandic as a plot element and a device for adding levity. Nothing is wasted in Yrsa’s novels for both the sex therapist and Mathew, Thora’s boyfriend, have a role to play in the plot.
The opening of the novel is heart wrenching but I didn’t let that keep me from reading the rest of the story. Thank goodness, for as a reader of murder mysteries, I was intrigued by how the author handled plot, setting and character and how, gradually, a complex puzzle was finally assembled. Yrsa, in her day job, is an engineer, and it is obvious that she is used to fitting complex structures together.
I’d add this My Soul To Keep to my list of books by Icelandic authors to put under the Christmas tree.
(If you are in Gimli, Manitoba, all of Yrsa’s novels can be found at Tergesent’s bookstore.)

crime fiction by yrsa

 Photo credit for Yrsa and fan, P. Baer
It’s not often that when an audience begins to gather for a Richard and Margaret Lecture at the University of Victoria, that the room has to be changed for a larger one. The fact that this is what happened for Yrsa Sigurðardóttirs lecture, Nordic Noir and the Writing of Crime Fiction reveals the popularity of Yrsa’s writing.
Although she did not start writing until 1998, she already has four crime novels published in English:  Last Rituals, My Soul to Take, Ashes to Dust, and Veins of Ice. Those who want to practice reading Icelandic could do worse than buy a copy of one of her novels in both Icelandic and English and read both.
The audience for Yrsas lecture was ninety percent women. From the questions they asked after the lecture, it was obvious that the female members of the audience were intrigued not just by Yrsas writing but also by the fact that she is a civil engineer who has worked on hydro construction projects in Iceland. Add in the fact that she is both a mother and grandmother and you can see why a major question was, How do you do it?
At the beginning of the lecture, Yrsa defined Scandinavia for the audience: Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. All of these countries have small, peaceful populations and low crime rates but crime fiction is highly popular. Only Finland has a lot of violence and Yrsa put that down to Russian and Lithuanian mobsters.
She said that in actual fact there are no murders in Iceland that are the result of tricky plots or conspiracies. The murder rate is low. There is so little violence that the police dont carry guns. Some years there wont be a single murder. When a murder happens, it is usually two men drinking at a party. Usually in a kitchen. They are both drunk. They get into a fight. One grabs a knife off a counter and stabs the other. There are lots of witnesses. Theres no place to run. The killer waits. The police are called. The court sentences the killer to sixteen years in jail. End of story. Theres no mystery.
Yrsa said that there is a difference between a thriller such as those written by Steig Larson where the worst is yet to come and a crime novel where the worst has already happened.
There is a history of Icelandic crime fiction but it is small. Around 1910 there was Jóhann Magnús Bjarnason who was called the Sherlock Holmes of Iceland. In spite of Iceland being such a peaceful society, there currently are a lot of Icelandic crime writers such as Arni Þórarinsson, Eyrún Tryggvadóttir, and Helgi Ingólfsson.
The most successful of the crime writers is Arnaldur Indridason. Hes written 14 novels. He has won major awards for his murder mysteries including the Golden Dagger for The Silence of the Grave.
Many audience members wanted advice on how to succeed as a murder mystery writer. 
Yrsa said to start with killing someone good or innocent. Nobody cares about who bumps off a drug pusher. Set up a mentally challenging and intriguing murder and then solve it. Use every opportunity to make the solution more difficult and complex for the investigator. The protagonist has to be believable and sympathetic. 
If the reader doesnt like the main character, she wont buy the next book.
Readers want someone they can relate to. Dont shovel information onto the readers. Slowly introduce secondary characters when appropriate, not all at once. Make sure your characters have different names so readers dont get confused. Make the heros characteristics consistent.
Her rules obviously work because her mysteries have been translated into 30 languages. The United States, it turns out, is the most difficult market. A lot of her books are published in Germany but very few in the USA.
She ended her lecture with an astute comment. After the Icelandic economic crash, she realized that all those to blame were men. Since women are just as capable of being greedy for money and power that was a clear indication that the old boy system didnt allow them to get to the top.
 (This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Logberg-Heimskringla. Google it and buy a subscription.)

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

Icelandic Hollywood film producer Sigurjón Sighvatsson, whose portfolio boasts more than 40 movies and television series, has secured the movie rights to Yrsa Sigurdardóttir´s 2010 crime thriller Ég man thig (I remember you).
The sale of the movie rights has put her in the spotlight again but, in spite of how busy she is with her multi-faceted life, she came to the University of Victoria to give three lecturers as a Richard and Beck lecturer.
Yrsa is multi-talented. Most writers of prize winning murder mysteries would find that a full-time profession. Instead, Yrsa also writes books for children. More surprising than that and what intrigued an over-flow audience was that she is also an engineer and writes in her spare time. It was in  her role as an engineer that she gave one of the lectures. She explained how Iceland‘s topography and natural resources combined to put Iceland at the forefront of the world‘s attempt to create and harness green energy. Large geo-thermal and hydro-electric projects have taxed both the imagination and the resources of a country with a population of just three hundred and twenty thousand.
In North America, Yrsa is best known for her adult fiction. He second lecture was on „Nordic Noir and the Writing of Crime Fiction“. Yrsa discussed the sudden, surprising emergence of Scandinavian crime fiction. She talked about what characteristics unite—and distinguish—the writers involved and what explains the world-wide popularity of their work. Yrsa also offered some „how to“ hints for aspiring crime writers.
Interest in Yrsa‘s work has grown with the purchase of movie rights. „When the author and her publisher Pétur Már Ólafsson at Veröld, were guests on RÚV´s Rás 2 radio morning show, Olafsson said he had been certain from the start that the book would be filmed but had decided not to accept any offers until the book had been translated into English.
“But when a man who has worked with Robert De Niro, Nicholas Cage and Natalie Portman comes calling, you pick up the phone, don’t you?”, he said.
“The work on the screenplay has begun but many things are still undecided. It is possible that the film will be shot in Iceland and that parts of it, or even the entire film, will be in the Icelandic language.
“What appeals to Sigurjón is namely the Icelandic landscape. This is what makes it so special […] but  naturally, at the same time, the story itself knows no natural borders,” Olafson continued. “So what he sees in it is a uniquely Icelandic international thriller.”
Sigurdardóttir herself said that she will not be invovled in the adaptation—she has complete faith in the screenplay writers. “It is a special genre of writing,” she explained. “But I look forward to reading it and mostly I look forward to seeing the movie.”
“According to, Sighvatsson has hired Icelandic screen writer Ottó Geir Borg for the job.
One of the films Sighvatsson has produced, Wild At Heart (1990), as directed by David Lynch, earned the Golden Palm in Cannes.
“In addition to the aforementioned actors, Sighvatsson has worked with Hollywood big shots such as Harrison Ford and Jeff Bridges.
“Sighvatsson is not the first film producer to express an interest in Sigurdardóttir´s stories. The German film production company Team Worx Television & Film GmbH bought the movie rights to…Ashes To Dust“.
If members of your family enjoy reading murder mysteries, they might enjoy finding a novel by Yrsa under the tree on Christmas morning. There are four in English to choose from: Last Rituals, My Soul To Take, Ashes to Dust, and The Day Is Dark.
(Quotes with permission of A slightly different form of this article first appeared in Lögberg-Heimskringla. This is the 125th anniversary of LH. Consider celebrating her birthday by buying a subscription.)