"It's all one great big bloody mire." ~ Inspector Erlendur Sviensson, Jar City
Nordurmýri, Reykjavík, 2004
Jar City, A Reykjavík Thriller, by Arnaldur Indriðason, Thomas Dunne Books, 2005
Promising Genomics, Iceland and deCODE Genetics in a World of Speculation, by Mike Fortun, University of California Press, 2008
Under the Glacier, by Halldór Laxness, Vintage International, 2005
These three books have converged on my consciousness this winter; I've referred to Jar City, (Original Icelandic title: Mýrin) several times before, but never given the book a proper review (as if I've ever given a "proper" review!) I had received it for Christmas (to replace a lost copy) from a blog-pal, and I recently got a glowing recommendation about it from another blog-pal. In the four years since first reading the book, I've read read four other Inspector Erlendur mysteries, and I was eager to revisit "the scene of the crime." I've spent some time (not nearly enough!) prowling the streets of Reykjavík, including a stay in the Nordurmýri area (the foreground of the area pictured above) where the murder takes place. Arnaldur's series seems authentic, indeed, the atmosphere of the settings and the psychology of Erlendur are more important than an actual crime. The plot-wrinkle in this book concerns genetic profiling, with references to a "Genetics Research Centre", loosely based on an actual Icelandic firm.
Promising Genomics is a non-fiction book about deCODE Genetics, a start-up company which raised millions on the promise of using the genetic data-base of the Icelandic population to decode inherited illnesses; the results could create new therapies and treatments. I was made aware of this book by yet another blog-pal and I was pleasantly surprised to find it an in-depth treatment of the actual institution which Arnaldur used so effectively in fiction. Mike Fortun does a good job explaining the irrational exuberance displayed by venture capitalists before, during and after the "internet bust" of 2002, when millions of dollars were raised and lost by deCODE on "promises" of scientific breakthroughs. The subject can be overwhelming at times, but Fortun cleverly models himself as a participant/observer, acknowledging and assuming the persona of "Embi", a character from the Halldór Laxness novel Under the Glacier. The promoters of deCODE are portrayed as playing a con-game, but one in which there is just (barely) enough potential to keep it going. The book was published in 2008, so fallout from the failure of the Icelandic banking system was not covered.
Halldór Laxness' great novel of ideas, Under the Glacier (Icelandic title: Kristnihald undir Jökli) seems (to me, at least) be getting better and better, the more I read it, and read of it. This book (published in 1968) is an examination of the modern dilemma, in all of its messy glory. Religion, technology, sex, morality and just plain everyday existence is hashed over in a uniquely Icelandic stew (Plokkfiskur?) Fortun's book uses Glacier as a template, as well as references from Halldor's other social satire The Atom Station. Glacier is a hard book to dive into- many of a western reader's cultural landmarks have "gone missing" or are deconstructed with a "ironic fatalism", for the lack of a better word. There are implied promises in Glacier as well- the promise that Embi's report will have meaning and that Úa's anima can save Embi. Like deCODE, the promise is there, but never quite fulfilled.
There's always a place, a place beyond the "focus" where converging lines diverge again. I appear to be at that place now; there is only so much overlap in three such diverse books. Still, I've found that Erlendur's search for the meaning of a murder, Fortun's search for meaning in a business model, and Embi's search for the meaning of life itself, share similarities. When overlapped on my mental map of Icelandic culture patterns emerge, still beyond my understanding, but tantalizingly close.
Rose, Niranjana, and Mary: thanks again for the inspiration!
More on Halldor Laxness at Laxness in Translation
Sharon With Clouds
Sharon has looked at clouds from both sides now.
Her conclusion: their fluffy underbelly is curiously moister
than their crusty top and sides.
Fridays at FITK belong to Sharon Spotbottom.
Used by permission
Lost in the Clouds
The rather fanciful concept of "cloud computing" means nothing if you can't access "the cloud." I'm usually open to new ideas on the internet, especially when it comes to browsers. Although there are differences, most modern ones basically do the same job (I still get hits on my site meter from people using Netscape 4!) But, as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. I've tried Chrome a few times, but their bookmark system is hopeless. The one failing of Google products (which also bugs me when using Gmail) is that they are search oriented. I may be missing something here, but when I want a bookmark (or a contact in Gmail) I don't want to search for it. I want it safely nestled away in a labeled folder where I put it, I don't want to think about a search term, and I especially don't want to be "prompted." The Apple browser, Safari, is OK (I use a Mac) but for some reason I've never warmed up to it. Microsoft's aptly named Internet Explorer is just that- an exploration- you never know exactly what kind of formatting, text or image handling quirks will show up. I've tried Opera years ago; I've heard it's better now, but still in "the cloud."
Which leaves me with Firefox. I had been using version 3.6.13. It does the job with no surprises: I can edit the navigation bar exactly the way I want, I can minimize it exactly the way I want, I have a useful status bar on the bottom. My bookmarks work as they should- out of sight until I need them- and are easy to add to or edit. When I received an invitation to try the Firefox Beta version 4, I jumped at it, expecting a better product, albeit with a minor bug or two.
I was wrong. The status bar had been eliminated and I could no longer edit the navigation bar. There was a feedback button on the navigation bar and when I checked the forums there I found that there had been numerous complaints about these changes. I thought I'd give Firefox a few weeks to fix it, or at least offer an alternative. When an update was announced a few weeks ago, I was expecting good things. The new version was the same, except that now the title bar would flicker at random times! Most disturbing. I'm glad I'm not prone to seizures! The browser had cased to be a friendly, fluffy cloud; it had become a squalling storm, raining droplets of irritation and shooting lightning bolts of frustration. After a few days of this nonsense (others on the forum were complaining as well- but Firefox wouldn't even acknowledge the issues as problems) I deleted V.4 and went back to V.3. There is a kludge to get a crippled status bar, but why go backwards and make things more complicated? Add-ons usually need to be reinstalled or tinkered with with every update. Perhaps they don't want you to see what is being accessed when you load a web site?
Looking at the empty half of the glass, I'm apprehensive that this is the future of all browsers: more gimmicks, less function. I am aware that a browser must change to keep pace with security updates, but to have some team of "engineers" tinker with the interface for no apparent reason other than they can, is idiotic.
Parsifal- The Six Flower Maidens, Minneapolis Music College Production, 1941
Until the advent of cinema, dramatic productions lived only while they were being performed. Over the years millions of these have come to fruition, only to wither to memories once the curtain closes. The above image was found among family snapshots in a box of photos at an estate sale. There were the usual pictures of vacations and graduations in the collection, but this was the only one that depicted a theatrical performance.
This ghost-image, this shadow play, had almost vanished but has now been reborn as a fleeting vision for a few hundred internet flâneurs, taking one last curtain call before oblivion.
Three Modern Women
Wanda Gág Louise Brooks Hedy Lamarr
Wanda Gág, A Catalogue Raisonne of the Prints By Auður Helgadóttir Winnan, University of Minnesota Press, 1999
Pandora's Box (1929), directed by G.W.Pabst, The Criterion Collection, 2006
Femme Fatales Collection, Algiers, Dishonored Lady, The Strange Woman, Pop Flix, 2009
Even a cursory look at this trio, all of whom came to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s, shows some common threads underlying the fabric of their successes, as well as that of their enduring legacies. All three had German-Austrian connections, all were dancers in their youth, and all were creative in multiple fields. They were all sexually independent, in non-traditional ways.
Wanda Hazel Gág was an artist, writer and translator, whose most famous work is represented in a series of illustrated children's books. She is also renown in the fine arts field for her stylized lithographs. Her coming of age diary Growing Pains was covered here before, Winnan's book concerns itself with Wanda's later life, focusing on her prints and drawings, with pertinent excerpts from letters and diaries. As I was reading this material, I was struck by how modern it seemed. Wanda was a noted free-thinker who enjoyed a series of often-overlapping affairs with many men, but never allowed them to divert her from her one true love- Art. Indeed, she was inspired by these liaisons: "The aesthetic value of sin is not to be sneezed at..." reads one of her diary entries. Although plagued with health issues in her later years (she died from cancer in 1946 at the age of 53) Wanda remained active until almost the end. Her final books and lithographs were published posthumously.
History has been kind to Mary Louise Brooks, the iconic film star with the famous hairdo (although she wasn't the first to bob her hair, hers was the most influential example.) The Criterion release of Pandora's Box includes a book, a filmed documentary and an interview with Louise when she was in her seventies. Pandora's Box was shot in Berlin at the height of its post-war decadence. Silent film acting has its own set of conventions, some of which seem a little creaky now, but Brooks' portrayal of Lulu remains fresh, striking and (here's that word again) modern. This is a fantastic set, one of the best DVD packages I've ever seen. The interview with Brooks showed her to be a still fascinating woman, with all her independence and fire intact. Her book of essays, Lulu in Hollywood remains the definitive text on Hollywood in the twenties and thirties. Her sexual exploits with numerous partners are legendary. Her later days were spent living alone (by choice) and contributing to The George Eastman House film archives studies.
Hedy Lamarr, (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1913) was a German film actress while still in her teens, escaped from her controlling husband (and Austrian Fascism) while in her twenties to became a top movie star in Hollywood in its "golden age." These three films (part of a budget DVD set) show Hedy mid-career, in a variety of roles. Lamarr's films have not aged well, but she remains the best thing in them. By her own admission she would not claim to be a great actress, but she was stunning; the studios always made sure that she looked great and was dressed to the nines. Because she was so attractive, she was often typecast as being irresistible to men, with the results usually ending in tragedy. The exception to this rule is Dishonored Lady, where Hedy's character, Madeline, is a ruthless fashion editor who suffers a nervous breakdown, recovers, then becomes accused of the murder of a infatuated admirer. The role allows Hedy to break out of her typecasting (although she wears some really fabulous clothes!) and to regain her self-respect in the end. In real life, Hedy also had numerous husbands and lovers, but died impoverished and bitter.
But the stories of these women does not end at their deaths. Hedy had a brilliant scientific mind, and was awarded a patent in 1942 for a "secret communication system" which was a direct predecessor to modern cell-phone and Wi-Fi technology. In German-speaking countries November 9th, Hedy's birthday, is Inventor's Day. Louise Brooks has become an Icon, whose image, attitude and style is endlessly copied and rediscovered by each new modern generation. Wanda Gág's children's books are perennials and her finest prints regularly bring thousands of dollars at auction, but her most explicit diaries and drawings will probably never be seen- Wanda herself thought they might be a bit much- perhaps they will always remain just a little too modern.
Rock-a-bye Sharon, on the bed top
When the wind blows, your dribble will plop
When the bough breaks, the dribble will fall
And down will splash kitty, slobber and all
Another classic Sharon Spotbottom post, used by permission.
Winter snows will not dissuade the neighborhood felines from
completing their duly appointed rounds. I can sleep comfortably,
with no fear of mice, my rest is assured.
Are You Still Dancing?
Are you still dancing?
You were magnificent.
Newspapers echoed your triumph:
You danced with passion,
The world stopped when you danced.
Then you took a lover.
And you became a mother.
Not so much dancing then.
Your lover looked for other dancers.
So much of the world isn't fair.
And now, now that you are on your own- are you still dancing?
Who will dance with you now?
The music is starting.
Photo: Louise Brooks, circa 1925, by Alfred Cheney Johnston
An unlikely duo from Chicago takes the internet by storm:
Photo: Vivian Maier, Chicago, date unknown
Thanks to DJ Cousin Mary, I've discovered the posthumous photo-blog of Vivian Maier, a Chicago street photographer whose work was discovered in an estate sale by John Maloof. A work-in-progress, John is scanning, archiving, and is even still developing film which had been exposed by Vivian (who spent most of her adult life as a nanny) over the last sixty years. Exhibitions are planned, along with a book and a full length documentary. Her work is starting to go viral- I've been seeing links to it everywhere.
Photo: Tavi Gevinson, 2010
At the other end of the age spectrum is Tavi Gevinson, The Style Rookie. This 14 year-old's stream-of-fashion-consciousness blog (started when she was 11) is a wild trip through adolescence from the POV of a girl who already possesses a strong visual sensibility and a most entertaining writing style. She's become a minor internet celebrity and I suspect that you'll be hearing a lot more about her for a long time to come.
Sharon of the Pod People
Sharon knew podcasting was more than just a pretty word.
Curious, she went straight to the source to learn their secrets.
A classic Sharon Spotbottom post will be appearing here every Friday.
Used by permission.
The Need to Speed Read
I don't know about you, but my internet reading habits are almost always based on speed. I find myself scanning for keywords, slowing down (but only a little) when I find something of interest, and burning up text when I have no coherent focus. It's a bad habit, to be sure, but one born from necessity- there's just too much information and too little time. Now "real" reading- the reading of a proper book, that is a whole 'nother critter.
I've been following the developing Kindle™ and iPad™ conflict with some interest. I have neither, and am probably at least a year away from buying any kind of device which would augment/supplant my laptop. A TV ad for the Kindle portrays a smart, attractive woman (in a swim suit) at the beach blissfully reading her eBook while a frustrated, slightly dumpy man struggles with an iPad. The sexual connotations are not subtle. For some odd reason, I am always leery of an advertisement which alienates half of its potential market. The iPad™ ads, conversely, show people using them in happy, socially positive ways. Not in ways I would probably use, but at least sexual politics aren't a part of the equation. Both devices enable users to read text, but the Kindle™ is limited to a few fonts in a black on gray screen (perfect for the beach) while the iPad™ can do multi-media, internet and video in color (perfect for everywhere else besides the beach.) Both are deficient to a book when it comes to "paging" through content. Although they offer a page-like interface, they are still not (to my mind) as practical as browsing in a proper book.
My recent purchase of The Art Journal- published in London in 1879- provides an excellent illustration of the difference between a traditional book and electronic media. This folio sized (10" x13") volume (pictured above) is meant to be read slowly. Small type, set in two wide columns, printed on heavy paper, supplemented with exquisite steel engravings. It is almost impossible to skim this book. This publication has been scanned by Google; the result is a joke.
There is another way to experience books- aurally. Books on tape are nothing new, those relics of the 90's were followed by CD's and MP3 files. This brings a further change in the experience of "reading." A good reader is capable of giving a work an extra, dramatic dimension, albeit at a much slower rate.
Finally, there is that peculiar step-child of radio: Pod-Casting. In what may be the worst of all possible worlds, the pod-casts I've listened to have been almost excruciatingly slow at delivering information, regardless of how competent the creator is (and usually the presenter is not a very good speaker!) It's as bad as listening to documentaries on NPR. I am sure they fill a need, but not for speed. Still, some people love them.
Perhaps I need more research on Pod-Casts...
Halldór Laxness' study, Gljúfrasteinn, Iceland.
A biography of Halldór Laxness
by Halldór Guðmundsson, Maclehose Press, London
This book artfully ties together all the loose threads of my ten years of studying the novels and stories of the great Icelandic novelist. The earliest date of importantance in this well-written biography is 1832, when his very influential grandmother was born, and the last is 1998, when Halldór died in a nursing home in Rekjavík. In between those dates is the almost unbelievable story: of a boy who was always writing, of a young man who left Iceland as a restless searcher who returned to became a champion of its language and people, and finally, of an internationally renown author whose work is ranked among the greatest writing of all time.
Guðmundsson spares nothing in covering all dimensions of this complex individual: Laxness' support of the Soviet Union in the 30's and 40's, his often strained relationships with women, his freeloading from friends, his long lasting grudges with critics, his relentless self-promotion, and his often brutally frank assessments of modern culture.
Laxness, at least until he reached his seventies, was an extremely controversial figure, both in Iceland and abroad, even to the point of being investigated by the CIA and the FBI. His novels usually had a sub-theme which always challenged Icelanders to think in a new way about their society and its role in the world.
Laxness was an extremely disciplined writer, continually challenging himself to refine his work and explore new techniques- even when he was well into his sixties. In addition to his early life, this book also covers the last part of his career (both of which had always been something of a mystery to me) which consisted primarily of essays and memoirs.
When I first read Laxness, I often felt that I was lacking in context for many of the themes expressed in his novels. This book does a very good job of filling in those gaps. In a sense I've come full circle on Laxness. I know I'll return to him, perhaps re-reading his work in order, with this biography at hand.
Iceland is a strange and wonderful place; although Laxness' Iceland may be fading a bit from the onslaught of globalism, the ideas which Halldór planted will continue to sprout whenever his books are read.
More on Halldor Laxness at Laxness in Translation
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
The writing's on the wall. Sharon is in town.
A classic Sharon Spotbottom post will be appearing here every Friday.
Used by permission.
Miklabraut, Reykjavík, 2000
Where anarchism, typography and art meet: graffiti. Considered a scourge by some, vaguely threatening to others, and a vibrant expression of culture by a few, graffiti is arguably the oldest art-form and one whose usage has exploded in the last 40 years. Setting aside true visionaries such as Banksy, I've sensed a certain uniformity creep in to the movement. Modern graffiti art is truly a world-wide phenomenon, bridging all cultures, with a striking similarity regardless of origin.
Apart from some juvenilia (which consisted of a crayon drawing done on a neighbor's stucco garage when I was about 4 years old), my artistic efforts have been limited to more socially acceptable modes. Lord knows that I have been tempted, upon occasion, to "liven up" a particularly drab section of modern architecture, but I haven't got the nerve.
I wonder what kind of person does have the nerve to be a graffiti artist?
A film by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, written by Einar Kárason (Icelandic title: Djöflaeyjan), 1996.
This DVD was part of my Christmas "haul" and is an off-beat film concerned with the lives of lower class people living in abandoned U.S. military barracks in Reykjavik in the late 1950's. It stars Baltasar Kormákur as Baddi, a rebel without a cause who lived briefly in the U.S. and returned with a pompadour and an attitude. His shiftless hedonism, based upon American pop culture, clashed with these impoverished families, in a unique, short-lived environment.
The film veers close to stereotype at times (with the usual quirky Icelandic tropes), but the high level of acting and the basic humanity of the characters kept it from veering into parody. There are sub-themes of alcoholism and despair, but ultimately the film is not depressing. A worthwhile effort about a unique historical situation which manages to embrace some universal truths.
Readily available through Amazon.
UPDATE: A newly published analysis of Devil's Island at Senses of Cinema...
Perhaps the only item with any monetary value that I received from my parents' estate was this booklet of World War II "postal savings stamps." The stamps, which were purchased in 10 or 25 cent increments, could be exchanged for a "Type E" savings bond when the booklet was full. Billions of dollars were raised for the war effort with some of these stamps (my mother's for example) remaining unredeemed. They still hold their face value, although inflation has made them nearly worthless. Today, any financial adviser would steer you away from bonds like this, pointing instead in the direction of better yields in the market or mutual funds (although these kinds of investments seem to have lost some of their allure in recent years.) My mother would have been better off redeeming these after the war; by investing in S&P stocks returning an average of 6% per year her $4 in stamps would be worth about one hundred dollars now, enough for a nice dinner for two.
She may have been better off, personally, if she had used the money to enjoy a dinner for two back then, but evidently she thought it a better plan to invest in our country's future.