First Sentences

“One winter morning several years ago, I got an email with some ridiculously exciting news.” A.J. Jacobs, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life.

“The police decided to enter the flat, but rather than break down the door they called a locksmith, figuring that a few minutes either way were unlikely to make a difference.” The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason (translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb).

“At a recent lecture on the Piltdown disclosures a member of the audience remarked, ‘When I read in the paper that Piltdown man was bogus, I felt as if something had gone out of my life; I had been brought up on Piltdown man!’”  J.S. Weiner, The Piltdown Forgery.

“In my dream I was reaching right through the glass of the window on a hockshop.” Fredric Brown, The Fabulous Clipjoint.

“Magic matters.” David Copperfield, Richard Wiseman, David Britland, David Copperfield’s History of Magic.

“It is never easy to move to a new country, but in truth I was happy to be away from New York.” Katie Kitamura, Intimacies.

“A little before eight on the morning of March 21, 1829, the Duke of Wellington, England’s prime minister, arrived on horseback at a crossroads south of the Thames, about a half mile beyond Battersea Bridge.” Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.

“It’s hard to know, ever, where a story begins.” Jennifer Haigh, Mercy Street.

“We forget that love is revolutionary.” Tiya Miles, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.

“His cousin Freddie brought him on the heist one hot night in early June.” Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle.

“The politics of inevitability is the idea that there are no ideas.” Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.

“It wasn’t far off midnight, but it was still light.” Ragnar Jónasson, Snowblind. (translated by Quentin Bates).

“’We need every one of you,’ proclaimed an anonymous 1985 article in a major white power newspaper.” Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

“The dust hovers in a cloud behind the Reykjavik coach, the road is a ridged washboard and we rattle on; bend after bend, soon it becomes impossible to see through the muddy windows and, before long, the Laxdoela Saga trail will vanish into the dirt.” Auour Ava Olafsdóttir, Miss Iceland.

“Somewhere in the vast northern ocean, between Iceland and Norway, Thorsteinn Olafsson got himself involved in the biggest mystery of the middle ages by making an honest mistake: he turned his ship a few too many degrees west.” Egill Bjarnason, How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island.

Independent People on an Iceland Journey (continued)

That Icelanders are obsessed with volcanoes is perfectly understandable because their land has so many of them. They were mentioned over and over by our guide. It is telling that in the recent, very good novel, Miss Iceland, by Auour Ava Olafsdóttir, each time the main character (named Hekla after a volcano) talks to her father, he discusses volcanoes and the likelihood of another eruption that he can watch.

Iceland has given the world many things: fish, meat, and wool; music, literature, and mystery series; movies and television shows; a famous chess match and an important summit. But perhaps its most infamous contribution has been volcanic schmutz. A volcano erupted in 2010 spewing ash into the atmosphere which spread over parts of Europe causing the shutdown of airplane traffic. The big one, however, was in 1783, when a volcano erupted for eight months pouring lava out of 135 fissures and craters that covered about 1,000 square miles. The eruption spewed a huge amount of ash into the air, ash that contained fluorine, poisoning animals, fields, and the ocean. A resulting famine killed a fifth of the Icelandic population.

The ash got into the upper atmosphere, absorbing sunlight and moisture, and changed the world’s climate. For the next several years, the Northern Hemisphere experienced ruinous droughts, exceptionally cold winters, and disastrous floods. The winter average temperatures in the eastern United States were seven degrees Fahrenheit colder than the subsequent two-century averages. Food shortages were widespread, including in France, perhaps promoting the French Revolution a half decade later. 

I did not see an active volcano, but the results of past eruptions are omnipresent—lava flows, lava rocks, and basalt can be seen on just about any drive.

The countryside

Hikes to and around volcanic craters were part of our trip as was a famous black sand beach of pulverized lava. At the black sand beach, we were repeatedly warned not to get close to the water for periodically a sudden large wave was possible, and similar ones have washed people out to sea. Signs at the beach reiterated the guide’s words saying that the beach had “sneaker waves.” The beach’s fame extends beyond Iceland. A photo shoot was going on there with people dressed in fantastical costumes that maybe were period pieces, but of no period I could identify. I asked one of the people involved in the activity what was going on and was told that they were Germans shooting a travel documentary. I still couldn’t make sense of it, and it seems highly unlikely that I will ever see the finished product.

Black sand beach
Photo shoot at the black sand beach

Iceland also has geysers that I assume are somehow connected to the volcanic activity (I’ve already admitted to my limited geological expertise). One puts to shame Yellowstone’s Old Faithful where I had to wait an hour for the spouting. The Icelandic one shoots up once–even twice–every two to four minutes. Quite a sight, but it made me a little sad as I was reminded of my earlier sex life.

Almost everywhere on the island are rock formations where, with a little imagination, you can see giant faces and little hideaways. It makes it easy to understand why Icelandic myth is filled with stories about trolls who turn to stone if they are caught out in daylight.

See any trolls or hideaways?

The geology that produces volcanoes also produces geothermal pools and other sources of natural hot water. We visited a geothermal plant where that water is used to drive turbines to generate electricity. The plant employees were proud of a pioneering effort to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, pump it down to the geothermal pools where it turns into calcite. In short, they’re turning CO2 into stone!

The geothermal hot water is also used to heat homes some 60+ miles away in Reykjavik. Then the still-warm water drains under streets and sidewalks to melt snow and ice. Iceland’s abundant streams and waterfalls are also used to generate electricity; not surprisingly, then, electricity is inexpensive. This has led to an incongruous industry: Even though it does not have bauxite and does not have much industry depending on the metal, Iceland is a leader in aluminum smelting, which requires a significant amount of electricity and abundant water. It was done in a narrow, non-descript building hundreds of yards long outside Reykjavik.

Not all Icelanders are pleased with the power lines and the industrial uses of the electricity. At least that is what is indicated by the excellent Icelandic movie, Woman at War (made in conjunction with Ukraine), in which a 49-year-old choir director with expert command of bow and arrow, sabotages power lines, including ones to that self-same aluminum smelting plant.

(to be continued)