Pam on the Map [2/2]: Book review

Pam on the Map: Iceland

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Seattle author and travel enthusiast Pam Stucky isn’t interested in pre-packaged sightseeing tours. “I don’t want to see The Best Of a country,” she writes. “I want to see its Soul. I want to see its Heart. I want a deeper relationship that shows me who a country really is.” It’s a philosophy she keeps at the heart of her recent travel memoir, Pam on the Map: Iceland.

Released in October 2013, the book chronicles Stucky’s trip around the Ring Road in July and August 2013, with chapter divisions mirroring the legs of her trip. Starting in Reykjavík, Stucky drove counterclockwise around the island, exploring the south, east, north and west before returning to the city. Her itinerary mostly included typical tourist stops (Góðafoss, Mývatn, Akureyri), but Stucky writes about her trip in a friendly, conversational manner that makes for pleasant reading. She relates her quest for the best hotel blackout curtains; relives the trials and tribulations of searching for Icelandic place names in her GPS; and laments the difficulty of locating gas stations where she could use her American, chip-and-pin-less credit card.

Stucky traveled alone, so there are relatively few other human characters in the book. In fact, the most prominent relationship in the book is that between Stucky and the land itself. From the basalt columns and black-sand beaches of Vík to the striking blue waters of Jökulsárlón, Stucky was struck by Iceland’s beauty: “I look at the Icelandic landscape and feel like I can see back in time… Wild and barren, but yet varied and vivid and burgeoning with possibility.”

Stucky’s writing shows a good sense of humor, even when she encounters difficulties along the (and often caused by the) road. With such a packed itinerary for a ten-day trip, Stucky had a lot of ground to cover, which meant she had plenty of time to identify the two primary challenges of the Ring Road: one, there are too many beautiful sights to behold and not enough places to safely pull off the road and admire them; and two, there is a scarcity of both bathrooms and trees. Besides, she had plenty of white-knuckle moments on some of the country’s windy, narrow roads: “It’s not that driving is any harder here, really, than at home; it’s that the margin for error is so much smaller,” she observes.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book is when Stucky returns to Reykjavík and spends the day interviewing several Icelanders of note: crime fiction authors Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Ragnar Jónasson; Akureyri Mayor Eiríkur Björn Björgvinsson, and Reykjavík Mayor Jón Gnarr. The most intriguing subject is Gnarr, who discusses his foray into publishing, his dream alternate career choices, and his views on the necessity of Icelandic optimism. Reflecting on interview day, Stucky writes, “This is the Reykjavík I’m far more interested in: the minds and souls and hearts and ideas of the people who live here; their stories, and the stories of their home.”

Stucky spent less than two weeks in Iceland, but it was more than enough time to glimpse the heart and soul of the country she set out to experience: “As I complete this odd-shaped loop around the island, I can’t help but feel the country is in me now,” she writes.

Pam on the Map: Iceland is available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon. To connect with the author, visit pamstucky.com, find “Pam Stucky, Author” on Facebook, or follow @pamstucky on Twitter.

Originally published in the Lögberg-Heimskringla, 15 April 2014.

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Pam on the Map [1/2]: A conversation with Pam Stucky

Last time I posted, we were still in the frosty grip of winter.  Today, the sun was shining warm and bright for about the sixth day straight.  Spring has definitely come to the Northwest, and it is a beautiful, hopeful thing.

I know I’ve been terribly neglectful of this blog, but I have been busy busy busy.  One of the many things that keeps me busy is writing for the Lögberg-Heimskringla and managing the paper’s social media.  Last fall, while working on the L-H Twitter page, I connected with a Seattle author named Pam Stucky.  Pam was just about to publish a book based on her summer travels in Iceland a couple months previous.  I sent her a message, introduced myself, and asked if she might be willing to meet up for an interview since we’re both in the Northwest.  She kindly agreed, and we met at a coffee shop near Olympia and had a lovely conversation about Iceland and writing and why the northwest part of the country is always the best.

Below is my writeup of our interview as it appears in the April 15 issue of the Lögberg-Heimskringla.  Sincere thanks to Pam for agreeing to meet with me, for sharing her Iceland experiences with me and with the world, and especially for having a saintly amount of patience as she waited for these articles to be published.

Seattleite puts herself on the map with new travel series

[A conversation with Pam Stucky]

Pam Stucky is a self-declared “author, traveler, backseat philosopher, and a person who is intensely curious about people and the world.” But she never intended to become a travel writer. A Seattle native, Stucky worked in web design, marketing, and fundraising before deciding to pursue writing full time. It was the unexpected death of a coworker that finally spurred her to action. “I didn’t want to leave a ‘what if,'” explained Stucky in an interview last November. So she quit her job, determined that her savings would last about a year, and started writing. In 2010, she completed her first book, Letters from Wishing Rock, a novel about a small island community in Puget Sound. After shopping the book around to traditional publishers and being “very nicely rejected” by a number of agents, Stucky turned to self publishing. It was the right decision, Stucky said, although self publishing is not without its challenges. “Discoverability is the biggest problem,” said Stucky, who currently manages all her own marketing.

The transition from fiction writing to travel writing happened organically. In 2005, while traveling around Ireland by herself, Stucky went to internet cafés and composed long emails detailing her travels for friends and family back home. She eventually adapted those emails, as well as recollections from a family trip to Switzerland, into the first two “retrospective” Pam on the Map installments. But she wanted to plan a trip to a new destination with the specific purpose of adding another volume to the series. Iceland had interested Stucky since she read Pico Ayer’s Falling Off the Map, a collection of essays about lonely, off-the-beaten-path destinations. In early 2012, the timing seemed perfect: Icelandair’s direct flights from Seattle to Reykjavík made the journey easy, and a friend of Stucky’s living in Reykjavík extended an open invitation for friends to visit.

Stucky spent a few months planning her itinerary, less than two weeks traveling the Ring Road, and a mere three months turning her journey into a book. Asked about the quick turnaround time, Stucky said she didn’t want to forget the details of her trip, and she was eager to get the book out by the end of the year. “But it was hard – I wouldn’t recommend it!” she said with a laugh.

In the book and in conversation with Stucky, it’s clear that her interview with Jón Gnarr was a highlight of the trip. Describing Gnarr, Stucky said, “He’s so compassionate. I was struck by his humanity. [He’s] so caring, so very concerned with doing what is right.”

Stucky’s primary complaint about her time in Iceland was the surprising “lack of infrastructure” she encountered around the much-traveled and much-promoted Ring Road. “I do think Iceland needs to focus more on quality than quantity of experience,” said Stucky, voicing concerns over Iceland’s ability to keep up with the ever-increasing flood of tourists.

Stucky knows she still has much to see and do if she ever returns to Iceland. She said she regrets not taking the extra time needed to explore the Westfjords region, and she didn’t get into the Highlands at all. Stucky said her biggest mistake with her itinerary was probably trying to fit too much into a short period of time. “I think people think, ‘[Iceland] is so small, I can do it in X days,'” she said. Next time, Stucky said, she would try focusing on one region at a time. And her number one piece of advice for people visiting Iceland? “It’s important to give yourself time to be surprised.”

Moving forward, Stucky plans to continue with the Pam on the Map series. At the top of her wish list for future installments are Croatia, Australia, and New Zealand. Besides international destinations, Stucky also plans to focus on some places a bit closer to home, such as Wisconsin and Victoria. But no matter how many destinations she visits for the Pam on the Map series, she hopes her writing will continue to give her readers “a sense of appreciation and wonder for all the amazing things in our world.”

This article was originally published in the Lögberg-Heimskringla, 15 April 2014

Book Review: Iceland, Defrosted

I’ve only reviewed a few books for the Lögberg-Heimskringla, but I think each one has been better than the last.  I recently finished Iceland, Defrosted by first-time author from across the pond, Edward Hancox.  Let’s just say Icelandair should be paying Hancox, because the book brought me this close to buying a ticket to Iceland.  Here is my review:

Iceland, Defrosted a warm read

Image courtesy of Edward Hancox
Image courtesy of Edward Hancox

Edward Hancox, like many of his fellow Englishmen, used to know very little about Iceland, assuming it was all about “polar bears and penguins… deep snow year round and the Northern Lights arching over frozen landscapes.” But with his first trip to Iceland eight years ago, and countless visits since, Hancox has developed an obsession with the people, places, and music of the island nation. And with the recent release of Iceland, Defrosted, Hancox has shared that obsession – and the real Iceland he discovered beyond the stereotypes – with readers across the globe.

The narrative roughly follows a path around the Ring Road, but incorporates stories from a number of different trips to Iceland, as well as stories of encounters with Icelanders abroad. Hancox weaves together anecdotes, trivia, history, a lot of music, and a continuous search for the Northern Lights and binds it all with contagious passion and an understated British humor. To those well-acquainted with Iceland, the book offers little new material; but Hancox’s genuine enthusiasm makes even well-worn topics readable.

Indeed, Hancox covers a fair amount of expected material – the vibrant Reykjavík nightlife scene, Iceland Airwaves, the best and worst of Icelandic cuisine, the surreal experience of visiting the phallological museum, curiosities of the patronymic naming system. But Hancox recognizes that what makes Iceland so unique is not the fact that it is home to Europe’s most powerful waterfall or that 10% of the country’s population once attended a free Sigur Rós concert (although he clearly enjoys sharing such facts). Rather, Hancox understands that Iceland’s greatest natural resource is its people: “I’ve spent time trying to get to know the people and places of Iceland; to experience more than just what is available to the average tourist on a weekend trip,” he writes. Hancox doesn’t just write about tasting hákarl – he writes about meeting a farmer who produces it and learning the ins and outs of the process behind the infamous foodstuff. And he doesn’t just explain who the húldufólk are – he writes about searching for them in Hafnarfjörður with a true húldufólk believer. These experiences and many more give the book an authenticity that elevates it from a mere tourist tale.

The author’s love of Icelandic music radiates throughout the book. Hancox includes snippets of interviews with Snorri Helgason, Sóley, Hafdís Huld and Lay Low, and admits that the one Icelandic musician who has rendered him completely starstruck is Jónsi. Meeting Jónsi backstage at a Sigur Rós concert in the U.K., the only question Hancox could think to ask is, “Can I have your photo?” Readers looking to include more Iceland in their music collections will appreciate Hancox’s list of “further listening” suggestions in the back of the book.

For Hancox, discovering writing went hand-in-hand with discovering Iceland. As he began exploring Iceland, he said in an interview, he needed a way to record his experiences and found photography lacking. A friend suggested writing. Before long, Hancox had written a few articles for the Reykjavík Grapevine and Iceland Review. The latter asked him to become a regular columnist. Writing Iceland, Defrosted was a natural progression.

Frustrated by the state of traditional publishing and bolstered by encouragement from supporters on Twitter and Facebook (even Reykjavík Mayor Jón Gnarr tweeted in his support), Hancox used the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to finance the book’s publication. Within days of listing his project, his funding target was met. Ultimately, Hancox raised 179% of his initial goal.

Response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, with supportive reviews, a recent mention in National Geographic Traveller magazine, and continual reader interaction via social media. Readers have taken to sending in photos of the book set against an impressive array of backdrops across the world, including the Colosseum, Niagara Falls, and Lake Louise. Hancox said he is constantly surprised by the book, which he described as having a life of its own. Hancox spent six years writing Iceland, Defrosted and has no current plans for a follow-up, although he said he has contemplated writing a novel set in Iceland.

Whether he ever sees a pod of spouting whales or catches the elusive Northern Lights, Hancox has discovered a plethora of Iceland’s gifts, and his ability to effortlessly, humorously, and sincerely share those discoveries will make any reader warm up to Iceland, Defrosted.

Iceland, Defrosted is available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon. To connect with Hancox, visit icelanddefrosted.com, find Iceland, Defrosted on Facebook, or follow @EdHancox on Twitter.

Originally published in the Lögberg-Heimskringla, November 1, 2013

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.