A Novel by
Published by Ecco, 2022
Leaving New Mexico behind, my literary pursuits took me back to Iceland (and then to Japan) in this elegant, bittersweet book. This is also a Covid novel, a genre that I’ve explored my own writing. Touch is a story of love found and lost and found again. Kristófer, a widower, is a successful chef in Reykjavík who has decided to retire after the onset of Covid-19 pandemic destroys his business. At the same time a long-lost lover, Miko, (who had abruptly left him years ago) had gotten in touch with him and seemed interested in reconciling. Kristófer undertakes a trip to Japan to see her just as Covid restrictions are starting to be enforced.
On the way he relives his memories of the time they spent together as he tries to come to grips with the meaning of his life and of his personal sense of failure. He had met Miko in London in the late 1960s, where she worked in her father’s restaurant. He began working there in order to see more of her and incidentally found a vocation. A set of circumstances beyond his understanding caused their separation—he had lived more than fifty years not knowing why.
The story is told with a light and tender touch. Olaf’s prose suits the narrative; other work by this author is equally refined and shares a common theme of thwarted desire.
Old Bones (2019) Scorpion’s Tail (2021) Diablo Mesa (2022) Dead Mountain (2023)
By Preston and Child
Grand Central Publishing
My larking about in the high plains of New Mexico tied in perfectly with this series of thrillers from the prolific writing duo of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. With 34+ titles to their joint credit (and more for each author separately) they are in the league of successful authors whose outputs can be measure in board-feet of shelving in any large library or bookstore. These books, each set in the Southwest, feature Nora Kelly, an experienced archaeologist working out of Santa Fe, and Corrie Swanson, a rookie FBI special agent specializing in forensics based in Albuquerque. I’ve read the first three, devouring them like popcorn, and I am awaiting the fourth title coming in August.
This is formula writing of the highest order. Old Bones starts with Nora getting an opportunity for an interesting project financed by a wealthy history buff interested in the Donner Party. Once at the site they learn that it is only part of a modern plot that is far more shocking and bizarre than mere cannibalism. And when present-day violence related to the Donner story escalates, rookie FBI agent Agent Swanson is assigned the case and the two women form an uneasy partnership. Scorpion’s Tail concerns treasure hunters and Diablo Mesa finds them exploring mysteries surrounding the Roswell UFO crash in 1947.
The books biggest assets are great descriptions of the landscape and setting, exceptional integration of historical events into the plot-line, and a mostly accurate portrayal of the work environments that the two women find themselves in. A downside is that while the books are entertaining, the are really just updated Hardy Boys stories and usually have a cartoon-ish corrupt rich white guy as the villain, often abetted by government ‘black ops’. Another drawback is the romantic liaisons that the female protagonists find themselves attracted to, especially awkward in that Nora and Corrie are each highly competent (and otherwise professional) in their jobs. The Hardy Boys (or Nancy Drew, for that matter) had love interests in their cliff-hangers but somehow managed to refrain from copulation. This pair could be considered the ‘Hardy Girls’ for a new generation.
Chapter 13 of Search For a Dancer, a serial memoir about a week I spent in Iceland. Mondays on Flippism is the Key
“I think that was our conversation, as nearly as one can recall a conversation when a woman talks to a man and a man to a woman, for of course the words themselves say least of all, if in fact they say anything; what really informs us is the inflection in the voice (and no less so if it is restrained), the breathing, the heart-beat, the muscles around the mouth and eyes, the dilation and contraction of the pupils, the strength of the weakness in the knees, as well as the chain of mysterious reactions in the nerves and the secretions from hidden glands whose names one never knows even though one reads about them in books; all that is the essence of a conversation - the words are more or less incidental.” ~ Halldór Laxness, The Atom Station
Of all those bloggers whom I’ve interacted with over the years, K stands apart.
In 2004 blogs were all the rage, especially so in Iceland. K was the mother (móðir) of 3-year-old twins, with a husband and a cat. Reading between the lines on her blog, it seemed that she was under-employed for her education and a bit lonely, missing the friends of her youth, many of whom had been scattered to the winds. Her blog was somewhat a mommy-blog, but with an additional focus on culture and her life on the ‘rock.’ I had had two young boys myself once so it was fun to follow her parenting efforts. She posted pictures of herself and her children doing things; an idyllic Flickr-fairy-tale-land. I had sent her a box of books that my boys had enjoyed when they were young. Other pictures on the blog showed her on nights out with friends; proto-selfies. She was the first blogger I met IRL, during the 2006 Iceland Airwaves. Her graciousness, charm and perceptive wit made my day. I met with her again in 2009, right after I had attended a poignant concert, I was so affected by it that it made me tear up a bit. She comforted me then, and even called me later to make sure I was alright. In 2012 I met her with her young son and she was radiant: in full-móðir mode. We had fallen out of touch since then, life gets in the way of the best of intentions.
I was a bit early so I was already in Hlemmur (food hall) when I spotted her walking down the street. She worked just around the corner and was on a lunch break so this would be a time-constrained affair, unlike the other occasions when we lingered over coffee. She looked great, of course (myndarleg kona), I had always felt a bit shabby sitting next to her. Professor Batty meets Eve Kendall. Getting together with her was never quite seamless—several times we had failed to connect due to a misunderstanding or a sudden event, or something would up to cause us to reschedule. This time was no exception, she had mis-read my email to be for a meeting a week earlier which caused her to email from a restaurant with ‘Where are you?’ message while I still a thousand miles away.
But now we were here, together again in the eternal now, ordering Krösti-burgers. We took our buzzer to a quiet table away from the main doors and began catching up. What a difference ten years makes: K was now in the midst of a painful divorce from her second husband. I had never met her first (an investment banker with a porn-addiction) but I did meet her second husband. I wasn’t too impressed by him, but then spouses of blog-pals (and I’ve met several, some of each gender) are not really interested in you and can be hostile, and may even consider you to be a threat. I think I won’t be going there again. Closure. This whole trip could be considered closure of sorts; the blog-era is nearly dead, displaced by e-commerce and about to be overwhelmed by AI. While one can never be entirely honest on a blog I try to be. AI posing as human is, by definition, a lie.
One positive thing K had going for her was that she had finally gotten her dream-job, working as a translator in the Icelandic Foreign Ministry, extremely precise and challenging work that paid well and was not without its perks (including junkets to European capitals!) As my days of gainful employment are over, I again felt a twinge of guilt in imposing on her schedule. We talked a bit about the Icelandic theatre scene and she gave me the lowdown on a musical I would be seeing in a couple of days. The musical was a big thing, it was the first full-blown production since the Covid restrictions were lifted. One of the characters was on the autism spectrum, and there had been a row about having a ‘norm’ portray him. K’s involvement with autism has been vigorous and constant over the years, active in many circles (her blog was even called Aspie Mum) and she was the narrator for a documentary film on the subject of autism in women (konur) in 2019.
When she was a young woman (meyja) she had lived in both Iceland and abroad, she was an au pair and had even won some renown for her flamenco dancing! Now her life was less free, having to raise her son with a faithless husband during an epidemic will put a damper on the most optimistic soul. I wished there was something I could do or say to make things better, I doubted if my words of consolation could have much of an effect. She had picked me up when I was down. I thanked her again for taking the time to see me and after finishing our meal we walked back to the Foreign Ministry. She pointed out a nearby art gallery (ministering to foreigners?) as having a good selection of artists (and indeed it did) and then she was gone.
Some friends are life-long, some friendships flare-up brightly, only to quickly burn out. Some friendships are simply a case of parallel lives, two stars a drift in the heavens, each gaining a little energy from the radiance of the other and then parting to fade away to oblivion.
Svo lít ég upp og sé við erum saman þarna tvær
stjörnur á blárri festinguni sem færast nær og nær.
Ég man þig þegar augu mín eru opin, hverja stund.
En þegar ég nú legg þau aftur, fer ég á þinn fund.
Chapter 12 of Search For a Dancer, a serial memoir about a week I spent in Iceland. Mondays on Flippism is the Key
I have mentioned sprakkar, an Icelandic word meaning ‘outstanding or extraordinary women’ before. Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, pictured above, is married to Eliza Reid, who, in a recent book, has popularized the word.
He also happens to be the president of Iceland.
I was in the assembly hall of Grund, a senior residence in Reykjavík. Guðni was speaking to a varied group: Seniors, schoolchildren, media types and a handful of jet-lagged attendees of the Iceland Airwaves music festival. This was a repeat performance, he had spoken here in 2018 (when I was also here) and in 2019. Covid had caused the cancellation of this ceremony in 2020 and 2021; this was a much smaller gathering (the festival had been scaled back considerably) so this event had a special significance. Guðni’s speech was short; a pleasant mix of greetings and platitudes, but his attention to supporting the performing arts in Iceland was a genuine reflection on the country’s support for education in music and the arts. Guðni is a historian and is acutely aware of Iceland’s role in the world and its strategic location in it. He left he following week on a tour of various colleges and universities around the world. I was duly impressed that he took the time to talk with us, even more so after interacting with Eliza (albeit virtually) at the 2020 Iceland Writers Retreat and (in person) in Minneapolis the previous spring.
After Guðni’s speech an Icelandic pop duo Sycamore Tree came up and sang several pleasant, if somewhat nondescript, songs in English with a backing of strings:
They have been an act for a while, YouTube videos don’t show much change in their repertoire, although their hats have gained some embellishments over the years. I wondered what the elderly residents (some of which were my age-peers) thought of them. Cognitive Dissonance?
After they had finished, the troubadour Júniús Meyvant performed, solo, singing and playing guitar, also in English:
He offered more of the same bland fare, except with whistling. My musical allergies to CD (and whistling) were beginning to act up so I left after a few of his songs. It wasn’t that his music was bad, but it just didn’t measure up to what I had seen here four years ago: The magnificent Soléy, performing heartfelt tunes sung in Icelandic along with her father’s support on the trombone. This situation of singing in English is a not a problem unique to Iceland, English lyrics are everywhere in pop music. It takes real courage to perform in an obscure language before an international audience, and a great deal of determination to write lyrics in one. This issue will come up again and again over the festival—my fear is that in not too many years Icelandic songs will have become historical curios; and festivals such as this one will become even more culturally diluted.
Another reason for my early departure was that I had a luncheon date at noon, and it was a good twenty-minute walk to Hlemmur Mathöll, a food hall at the eastern end of Laugavegur. In 2004 it was a sketchy bus terminal and one of the few places in Reykjavík where I had ever felt ill-at-ease. I had stopped in there then to change film in my cameras (Film!) and was given the evil-eye by a young ruffian.
Not a likely occurrence today as the station has been transformed from a shelter for miscreants into a bustling hub of dining opportunities. I made it there in time and, as my partner in gustatory delights worked only a block away (at the Foreign Ministry) I expected her shortly, although that hadn’t always been the case in the past.
Kiva: an underground or partly underground chamber in a Pueblo village, used by the men especially for ceremonies or councils.
A kiva in an active pueblo village is usually off-limits to the casual tourist. These are in a now-defunct pueblo which had a population of over 2,000 in the 1500s when Spanish explorers came upon it. The pueblos gradually fell out of use (for multiple reasons) and there is no longer any native population there.
These images were taken in a rebuilt kiva in the Pecos National Historical park near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Chapter 11 of Search For a Dancer, a serial memoir about a week I spent in Iceland. Mondays on Flippism is the Key
After leaving Maria, I had some free time before the before the first off-venue show began. I wandered down to the old harbour area to check out one of the new off-venues, the Hafnartorg Gallery, a food court in a multipurpose building. The last time I was here (in 2018) complex was under construction. Its appearance is undistinguished, but is far from the worst of the new developments in the area. On the way to it I passed Hafnarstræti, a monument to the dearth of imagination of the city planners:
This area used to be open to views of the harbour, of Mount Esja and to the skies above. Now it was a: scene from a nightmare; a mausoleum; an abattoir; a perverse temple dedicated to Mammon. Nearby streets, even Austurstræti with its tacky bars and stores, were full of life but Hafnarstræti’s brutal austerity had even driven the low-life idlers and drunken panhandlers away.
I went into Kolaportið where the Airwaves HQ was and picked up my Airwaves wrist-band. The scene there seemed to be decidedly low-key, although they are nearly sold-out. I then walked over to Austurstræti where I stopped into the usurous 10-11 convenience store to buy a replacement toothbrush. They had some for the equivalent of $8 (ouch!), but also had a child’s toothbrush for $2 (that would actually fit into my travel toiletry kit-yay!)
On my way back to my apartment via Lækjargata, I walked past the new Sirkus bar, now featuring Indian food. A big change from the old place that I visited in 2006. While change is inevitable, and can be for the common good, what I feared in 2015 has now become a reality.
After freshening up I made my way over to the Smekkleysa record store off-venue, where Hekla, a famous (and famously shy) Thereminist was setting up her gear in an unadorned basement room, a truncated white cube about 10 meters on a side with a 5 meter-high ceiling. It was just the two of us as all the other people were in the store proper (on the level above). She had finished with her equipment and was standing alone, looking a bit forlorn. I made my way over and started gushing like a fan-boy: “Oh, I have to tell you I much I enjoy your music, I first saw you playing with Bárujárn, your music has become part of the soundtrack of my life, it’s on heavy rotation in my car, I listen to it all the time! Thank you so very much!” She smiled and clasped my hand and simply said “Takk.” My blood pressure rose with the touch of her hand.
Other people began wandering in, including Óttar Proppé (below), who had recently made a video with Hekla so I reluctantly left her to mingle with her friends while I picked out a dark corner (and the only chair!) to catch her performance.
Hekla augmented her Theremin with backing tracks and an occasional keening vocal. As she continued her performance I was transported to the never-never-land of imagination. As eerie as the theremin sounds, it is absolutely mesmerizing to watch someone play it:
After her set I returned to the apartment and made a light dinner of Fiskibollur (fish cakes) that were entirely… adequate. It is better to eat light before a night out than to be logy from over-indulgence. You can always grab a pylsur later…
The evening the Airwaves had a preview show (at Iðno, a nineteenth-century concert venue), a new feature at Airwaves. It seemed to be more of an ad hoc collection of Icelandic musicians in various proto-groups than established acts. Kilður, a choir, was wrapping up their set when I walked in and of course they were wonderful (Icelandic choirs are always great.) The next performer was Neonme (Salka Valsdóttir) who stunned the crowd with her art-songs. Backed by a sax, harp and guitar, Neonme is also dancer; when she wasn’t singing her graceful moves put the crowd in a trance. Her guitarist also sang a song; she had an angelic voice, I was transported. There were
also some what I thought might be sound effects, or perhaps they were
glitches? Neonme was enchanting as she sang
melancholy tunes of regret, a tiny bit like Lana Del Rey. Her peek-a-boo
“Peter Pan” outfit made for a beautiful, transcendent experience:
As the intensity of the set increased, it seemed as if there would be a point where something would have to give and it did: a member of the crowd collapsed, right in front of the stage. Immediately the crowd gave her space and some water and the venue’s crew opened the side doors of the venue to let in some welcome fresh air. The afflicted audience member recovered but the spell had been broken. Another group, Kónguló, came on but was plagued by equipment issues. In an attempt to preserve any lingering afterglow, I left and went back to the apartment for a relatively early bedtime. It meant missing some other good acts but tomorrow would be a full day and I needed to get up early; there would be no pool visit in the morning.
Chapter 10 of Search For a Dancer, a serial memoir about a week I spent in Iceland. Mondays on Flippism is the Key
“ …sometimes you are called to do something that you may not even enjoy all the time, but that compels you in both internal and external ways to take part in… ” ~Maria Alva Roff, Iceland Eyes
Maria is another sprakkar.
I had met her (virtually) through my early blog, and then in person in Reykjavík on three other occasions. At times I had consciously emulated the style of her Iceland Eyes blog but hers was far more refined than mine back then: she featured illustrative pictures, insightful essays and ruminations on her life in Iceland. She also has a site that features short stories and memoirs. She went on to publish two books, one a picture book of Reykjavík, and the other an intensely personal account of 88 days in her life; on one of those days she spent an hour with me!
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I woke up Wednesday morning completely refreshed. Any lingering traces of jet-lag were gone and by now my morning routine had been established: coffee, cereal with fruit and milk, checking email and the weather, then heading out to the pool for some laps and socializing. It was a bit colder that particular morning, the temps were just below freezing and there was a thin film of ice on the pond across the street from my digs. It almost made me wish I had brought a warmer jacket. The paving stone sidewalks were a bit slippery but I made it to Vesturbæjarlaug without managing to break my neck. At the pool I did manage a few laps and then I just indulged myself by trying out each of the different soaking pools before returning to my usual 38-40°c hot-pot.
My lunch date with Maria was at noon at the Reykjavík University building, 3 km from the pool. Fully warmed, I left the pool about 11:00, got dressed and headed out on foot, past the University of Iceland campus, through the Vatnsmýri, past the city airport, and skirted some new apartments under construction before turning down Nauthólsvegur, the old road to Nauthólsvík, where the British forces had a landing site in WWII. It was a road I had been down before, on my first solo trip in 2004, when I had been hijacked by a quartet of nurses. It was a lonely and desolate place then but now the University of Reykjavík campus dominated the scene with its stunning new university building. I went in and took a few pictures while I waited for Maria. I was a bit apprehensive, the last time we met she was in the midst of a personal crisis and when I left her on that day we were both on the verge of tears. She came down a corridor, talking with a fellow student. Ageless, she seemed happy and glad to see me. She had to talk over a few things with her companion before we could get coffee so I waited, wondering what that young person with her would think of me—an odd and doddering old duck waddling in this ultra-modern pond.
When her conversation with her colleague ended she came over, apologizing for the delay. We got our coffees and found a window seat where we could talk without distraction. Maria is a different sort of Icelander, she grew up in California and moved back to Iceland when she was older. There are other people here that I’ve met that have had similar experiences. The Icelandic diaspora is real, many Icelanders move away with their families for years and then and return. The children grow up with two cultures imprinted upon them, perhaps many of them became bloggers to find a place where they can discuss and come to grips with this split reality. Maria’s California roots are expressed in her positive outlook on things, after talking with her a while her sense of being able to do anything was apparent. She talked about the publishing her books (“I have a book in this library!”), and she suggested that I should also become a published author (the internet doesn’t count, I guess). I mentioned that I had been in California earlier in the year and told her that her short stories about her life there had piqued my interest about the area where she had lived: in Monterey, near the 17 mile drive, a place that I had explored (in a rented Ford Mustang) last winter.
We talked about our families—we both had two children. Hers were a bit younger than mine but also grown. We discussed the death of blogging, about what a glorious time that had been but how things had changed. She stopped posting after her blog was ‘scraped’: the content had been stolen and put on another blog. She had even found evidence that it was someone she knew! I’ve had images taken from mine in the past but no one has had the gall to copy mine verbatim (or is it that they had better taste?). I mentioned the idea of sprakkar, and how most of the Icelandic bloggers I had followed years ago could fall into that category. Recently, I had been thinking about what my objectives, if any, were in that strange new world of social media. I told Maria one of my theories: the reason I had followed so many younger women (and not just in Iceland) was that I was looking for a daughter that I never had. She gave me a look of surprise and then a smile of acknowledgement. I went on to say that since that time my sons have both married so now I do have daughters. There was a lull in the conversation. “I’m 52,” she said, out of the blue. She had the spirit of a woman of 22 and the wisdom of a woman of 72. She looked 32.
After about an hour she said that she had to go, she had a project she was working on, and it had been great talking. I concurred and left her to her pursuits, with a good feeling about our meeting.
I sometimes feel as if I’m imposing on people with these odd tête-à-têtes.
Last week I received a box of old glass photo negatives from my only surviving aunt.
I suspect that they were taken sometime in the early 1900s. I do know that they were shot by her late husband’s uncle Oscar, my great uncle. I met him once, he was living with my grandparents for a time. He was quite old then, and not in very good health. He barely spoke to anyone. Oscar had been a construction worker—a dynamiter who worked on Mount Rushmore—and, for a brief time, a photographer. The negatives were a mixed lot, farm machinery, houses, flowers, and a few family groupings. There was one image that particularly caught my eye (click on it to enlarge it):
It is one of the very few pictures of my grandfather as a young man, the women behind him are his sisters and the woman behind the wheel is my grandmother, if it was 1917, the year they were married, she would have been about 19 and my grandfather would have been 8 years older.