Showing posts from February, 2011


A few weeks ago, my brother gave me a cat. He had named her Patches, but I changed her name to Ásdís. When he gave her to me, he said that she was a good cat, the best one in the liter. Until he gave me her, he had six female cats in his apartment. So it was sort of funny when he said to me she was "especially good" for a female cat. He knows of course how much I loved and adored my cat Ember, who was a male cat, even though everyone thought his name was Amber and assumed he was female. Male cats, especially after they are neutered, are really amazing pets. So far Ásdís is too young to go through heat, but hopefully she'll stay mellow and affectionate.

Realist novel

This week and next, we are discussing in my class the Amalie Skram book Forladt, which is translated as Betrayed. I read this book as an undergraduate 15 years ago, in Norwegian. Reading it again now, in translation, I am even more impressed with it. It is a good book. We are reading this as a pairing with Ibsen's Lady from the Sea. Unlike that play, which starts off with a veneer of country charm and then gets progressively murkier, Forladt does not waste any time at the beginning of the book presenting for the readers a charming veneer. And this is what makes it a realist novel. The two characters, well all the characters really, are flawed, all of them are imperfect. The main female lead, Aurora, is flawed in as much as she is naive, but also in as much as she does not seem to know what she wants. Her head is filled with nothing but romantic images straight from the Victorian period. The ship captain she marries at least is honest about what he wants, and willing to admit it

Scandinavian history at Cal

When I was an undergraduate in the Scandinavian Department here at UC Berkeley, one of our professors was a historian. He specialized in Swedish history, and had written his doctorate on Linneas. I really enjoyed taking classes from him, even though it was pretty brutal trying to slog through 17th century Swedish original documents. He retired over 10 years ago, and since then we have not had a historian in the department. The Swedish specialist we got to replace Dr. Larson is a modern literature expert, who specializes in narrative theory. Now we have another professorship available in the department, but as far as I know, none of the candidates are historians by training. Because of my own background and training, it strikes me as a bit odd to talk about the literature of Scandinavia without also being able to have a nuanced appreciation of Scandinavian history. But clearly I am in the minority.

Graduation ceremonies

It came as a bit of a surprise to me when I was in Iceland that the graduation ceremonies for students were at the beginning of the fall semester. That is to say, students who finished everything in June got to graduate in late August. I think this was to allow the teachers time to do all the grading, and of course give everyone a proper summer vacation.  Here in Berkeley, they do it the other way around. I received an email yesterday telling me all about the commencement ceremony that I am supposed to be a part of. It takes place May 19th I think. That sounds great, of course, but the fact of the matter is I would have to write 20 pages a week for the next 10 weeks to  actually be done by May 19th. No matter, says the University of California, Berkeley. You can file your dissertation after you graduate.  So now, during those days when I should be frantically writing, I can instead spend the time ordering my cap and gown and inviting up family to the ceremony.  Here is then a case w


My uncle brought along with him the books I needed from Iceland, which Koleen had packed up (Thank you dear!). In this process I have been reminded of just how pivotal it was for me to read Stephen Greenblatt's "New Historicism". I don't know what professional historians think about it, but as an archaeologist/literature person, I found it really helpful. The book advocates thinking of history not as a long march of events, but rather as a conglomeration of small anecdotes. Things that happen to particular people at particular times, local and personal. They may not have been part of any series of events that changed the course of history, and many of them have no long term "historical" repercussions. But they happened, and in that sense they are historical. They were the little daily things that mattered to those people, at that time. I have been keeping up a bit with the discussion of the Icesave repayment, and my feeling is that Olaf Ragnar's deci

Uncle Einar

My mother's brother flew from Keflavik to Seattle a few days ago, spent a few days with my sister in Seattle, and is now here visiting me. Today I am driving him down to Southern California (well, just part way, which is even better). We had a nice time walking around Berkeley yesterday, and playing with Palmer in the park. But my favorite part of the visit so far is when he told me that my apartment is exactly like the apartments in the oldest parts of Reykjavik. The wooden framing, the little doors, even the narrow stairway made him feel like he was coming into one of those places. Otherwise, not much about Berkeley has reminded him of Keflavik. Although last night we were at a cafe, and the Berkeley/UCLA basketball game was on. It had gone into OT and we, along with everyone else at the bar, cheered Cal on to victory.

Lady from the Sea

I have been reading some secondary literature on a lesser-known Ibsen play, Lady from the Sea. Seeing as I am supposed to be teaching my students about it, I figured I should have at least something other than my own impressions to go on. One interesting thing that came up was the fact that this play has sometimes been staged as a comedy, and I must say, that makes a lot of sense. In particular, the character of Lyngstrand, a young man who imagines himself a tortured artists, strikes me as comical. Within quick succession, he asks two young maidens if they will "think fondly of me" as he sets off on his artistic quest to the south. It seems to me in fact that Ibsen may well be making fun of HC Andersen in this character. The other artist charcter is likewise rather comical, spending days painting every detail of his work, except the central figure.  Toril Moi however interpreted these critiques of the artist ethic as part of Ibsen's core of radical thought, his glee over

A nodal approach to literary history

For the first three weeks of the class I am teaching, we studied Grettir's Saga. Now we have moved on to a lesser known (but really wonderful) Ibsen play, Lady from the Sea. In discussing the transition to my students, I explained to them that transportation by ship plays a pivotal role in the development of the plot in both works, albeit in very different ways. The transition from a medieval saga to a modernist play did not strike me as problematic when I was putting together my syllabus. Then I read something yesterday that said one of the characteristics of my Chinese zodiac sign (I was born in the year of the rat) is that I adapt to changing circumstances extremely quickly. Something that might take others several weeks to get used to, I get used to in a day. This discovery was prompted by Palmer and I discussing the Chinese zodiac, after he was given a coloring assignment for the Year of the Rabbit. Here in the Bay Area of California, people from China and Chinese culture

Terminus post quem

My mom used to work at the tourist information desk at Keflavík airport, back in the early 60s, before Leifur Eiríksson Terminal was built. I have always lamented the fact that the old terminal up at the base, which used to be used for civilian flights also, has been closed off to the public for years, because, well, I would like to see where my mom and dad met. The story they tell about it is cute I think. She worked there behind a wall of glass, with a little window to pass brochures and such through, as far as I understand it. And my dad was not the only military fly boy who would walk past that booth, and notice the pretty girl inside. I imagine more than one of them had begun to wonder if they had the nerve to actually ask her out. My mom had several tactics for making the guys know she would not make it easy on them: a common first line the boys used was to stop at her booth and ask her what time it was, but instead of replying with a smile and an engaging answer, she would flip

Interpretive challenge

Today I will be grading my students' papers about Grettir's saga, and next week we are moving onto Ibsen and Amalie Skram.  Grettir's saga was a constant interpretive challenge for the students, except the bit near the beginning about Onund.  Now we are moving on to texts whose message is more direct, and although still interesting and meaningful, not quite as perplexing. 

Meg and Ian

Today I am meeting with my "outside" dissertation committee member, Meg Conkey. She is an archaeologist in the Anthropology Department, and it is a requirement of Berkeley that every dissertation committee include members from outside of one's home department. Meg is an amazing archaeologist with a very cool perspective on the meaning that lies behind the actions that make the objects and sites archaeologists find. I am totally honored to have her on my dissertation committee. She also happens to be married a theoretically ground-breaking archaeologist who revolutionized the field of archaeology 25 years ago, Ian Hodder. For most of their marriage, he taught at Cambridge in the UK, and she taught at Berkeley, here in California. Finally, about 5 years ago, he was offered his own research institute at Stanford University, which is on the other side of the bay from Berkeley. So now a body of water still separates them, but at least it is not an ocean and a continent.

Calling cousin Nathan

Two weeks ago, on what would have been my brother Billy's 48th birthday, I told Palmer that he needed to talk to Nathan, Billy's son. I called over there and spoke to Nathan's mom for a while. Palmer started getting impatient, wanting my attention, and I think a bit hungry also. Anyhow, unlike the long conversations Nathan and Palmer have had on the phone on several occasions, this conversation was a disaster. Palmer refused to say anything, started off the conversation with a big whine, "How long is this going to take anyhow??" My response was not ideal: I threatened him with a timeout if he did not talk to his cousin. So this weekend, on Saturday, it was the two year anniversary of my brother's death. I of course made it a point to call his widow (Nathan's mom), and we arranged to have Palmer and Nathan chat the next morning. I do not know if all children are like this, but my Palmer has a very good memory. And it was immediately clear to me that his

Eyjafjallajökull revisited

Today I happened to mention to one of my colleagues about going out to Hekla during the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. It suddenly occurred to me in the midst of telling them about how the hotel was totally empty and about how high the ash cloud was that it was a REALLY stupid thing of me to drag my son and his father out there. Worse yet, I picked a hotel at the base of another, even larger volcano, whose eruption is listed as "immanent." As per my usual optimistic (read, unrealistic) self, I made the best of the situation, enjoyed swimming in the hotpool with Palmer, etc. But now when I look back on that trip, I see how really uncomfortable I was, how stressful the entire atmosphere was, how totally out of sorts we all were. I should not have gone there, is what my memory tells me, now. Eight months too late. A friend of mine had told me not to go there before I went, but I ignored him. I guess I thought I was so tough that there was no way it could bother me, and I did not

Minor characters

Tomorrow I will be giving my students feedback on the rough draft of their papers about Grettir's Saga. Most of my class is of Asian descent, some of them grew up in China even. So I am looking forward to the perspective they bring to a text like Grettir's Saga. I have required them to begin their papers talking about a character other than just Grettir, because I think those minor characters all in their way elucidate something about Grettir. But of course I certainly do not expect that anyone would ever try to write an entire college level essay on Grettir's Saga, without actually talking directly about Grettir! We'll see what they do.

The Colorado River

Water in a river flows to the ocean, when it is allowed to. The Colorado River is not allowed to. Its waters are stopped up by four large dams, behind which placid lakes fill with silt as the humans around it slowly slip away whatever water does not get evaporated by the sun. I think of the valleys and gorges these artificially lakes have hidden and in some cases destroyed. The water released from the dams gets channeled into canals that snake across desert plateaus to fields hundreds of miles away, in the agricultural valleys of California. A tiny bit of water does escape the dams and the canals, and then it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, as water has been doing for thousands of years.  But what should be a mighty river is but only a small, muddy creek.  This is what I think of when I think of the people in Egypt, or anywhere else where freedom of expression is limited, controlled, and manipulated. 

Office library

I left a lot of my books in Iceland, thinking that the library here at Berkeley would have everything I needed. Unfortunately, I have already discovered several books that are not in the stacks here, and that I really rather need for my dissertation. So I am planning to ask Koleen to go into my office at my apartment and try to fish them out for me, send them to me here in California. I really hate to ask her to do this, not only because of course she likely won't know exactly what books I am talking about, but also because one's personal library is just that, a personal thing. I remember offering to help Ármann move his library when he got his office at Uni, and he was like "oh no, the only person I let help me with that is Sverrir." Koleen is not my twin sister, and she does not know anything about the books on my shelf, but she is a smart, responsible lady, and I am sure, if I tell her the color of the books and whatever I can remember of the titles, she'll