Book Review: Tales of Iceland

One of the things I get to do as a volunteer associate editor for the Lögberg-Heimskringla is write the occasional book review.  A couple months ago, I heard some chatter about a new book called Tales of Iceland, or, Running with the Huldufólk in the Permanent Daylight, by Chicago journalist Stephen Markley.  I connected with the author and his best friend-turned-publisher Matthew Trinetti via, what else, social media, and pretty soon I had a copy of the book in my hands.  Within the first few pages, I realized this was a book about Iceland unlike any book about Iceland I’ve ever seen before.  I was laughing aloud so often and so suddenly that my family kept staring at me and wondering what was going on.  Needless to say, finishing the book and writing up a review was a breeze.  Here’s my review, originally printed in the Lögberg-Heimskringla.  And after you read it, be sure to check out talesoficeland.com.

Book cover.  Image courtesy of Matthew Trinetti
Book cover. Image courtesy of Matthew Trinetti

Some people go to Iceland in search of family roots, wild landscapes, the midnight sun or the Northern Lights. Others go to confirm the rumor spread by director Quentin Tarantino that it is a magical land filled with “supermodels working at McDonald’s.” Stephen Markley falls under the latter category.

In early 2012, two of Markley’s friends, referred to by the not-so-pseudo pseudonyms Bojo and Trin (Mike Bojanowski and Matthew Trinetti), quit their jobs and bought tickets to Iceland. Markley, a columnist, blogger, and author coasting along after the surprising success of his first book, was eager to investigate Tarantino’s claim and decided to tag along.

Less than a year later, Markley turned their brief summer journey into Tales of Iceland, or, Running with the Huldufólk in the Permanent Daylight, an entertaining work that blurs the lines between travel memoir, humor essays, and guidebook.

In early June, Markley, Bojo, and Trin meet up at KEX Hostel and spend a few days (and long, sun-soaked nights) in Reykjavík, then rent a car and set out to explore the country. The book mostly follows their journey chronologically, with plenty of bracketed commentary and interjected explorations of Iceland’s wildlife, geology, and economic crash. The tales told are pretty much what you’d expect from three twenty-something males: mountain hiking, glacier walking, and other tourist musts, plus a preoccupation with chatting up Icelandic women (to be fair, they also spend time with some French-Canadian women). What sets this journey apart is the distinct, hilariously candid voice in which it is told. Indeed, the book is often laugh-out-loud funny. Quite a few of those laughs depend on four-letter words and crude humor, though, which some readers may find tiresome.

Despite some frat-boy hijinks, the trio’s sincere awe for their surroundings is clear. “The problem with driving around Iceland,” writes Markley, “is that you’re basically confronted by a new soul-enriching, breath-taking, life-affirming sight every five goddamn minutes.” Those sights include volcanic craters south of Mývatn, the roaring power of Dettifoss, the dramatic beauty of Seyðisfjörður, and the imposing majesty of Snæfellsjökull, or “Snuffelufagus” as the guys call it. “It’s difficult to describe the grandeur of all these sights, but there’s something enormous about Iceland,” muses Markley. Toward the end of the book, the humor feels a bit worn, but an interview with Reykjavík Mayor Jón Gnarr is a highlight.

Tales of Iceland touts itself as “the fastest, funniest memoir of an American experience in Iceland,” and that isn’t too far off the mark. Readers who are easily offended might want to choose another route, but those who appreciate Markley’s brand of irreverent humor will enjoy tagging along on this whirlwind road trip.

Tales is available as an ebook from online retailers and Icelandic ebook startup emma.is. The paperback edition is available from Amazon and will also soon be found in Eymundsson bookstores across Iceland.

Originally published 1 August 2013, Lögberg-Heimskringla.

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