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Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland Kindle Edition
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"An infectious memoir from someone engagingly candid about her temporary homeland's limitations—and her own." —Kirkus
"Moss . . . captures the fierce beauty of the Arctic landscape, the hardships of establishing family life as foreigners on a local salary in a nation suffering an economic collapse, and most interestingly, the paradoxes of the national character." —Booklist --This text refers to the paperback edition.
- ASIN : B00C0JIYX4
- Publisher : Counterpoint; Reprint edition (May 1, 2013)
- Publication date : May 1, 2013
- Language : English
- File size : 1309 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 368 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #240,305 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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This book made me dream, made me do a bunch of online research about Iceland, made me want to go there. Moss’ ability to understand her own perceptions and how her expectations differ from Icelanders’ is fascinating. Her descriptions of the country’s natural and sometimes terrifying beauty read almost like poetry. I am sad that I have finished reading the book, immediately want to read it again and am thinking of the people I know who would love to receive it as a gift. This is a beautiful book by a talented author. As far as pacing goes, I normally read thrillers and murder mysteries. While the pace of this book is not as intense as those, I was never bored, and always reached for the book with happy expectation.
However if you're looking for a portrayal of Iceland's (and particularly Reykjavik's) absolutely remarkable and cosmopolitan mix of rock and roll and fashion and art and progressive politics (and incredible healthcare system)this definitely isn't the book for you.
I recently spent a few weeks in Reykjavik as I hope to retire there in five years, fell head over heels in love with the country and its people, and the Reykjavik the author describes is almost unrecognizable to me.
But this isn't intended as criticism. It's not the author's fault that I bought the wrong book.
Top reviews from other countries
It is very difficult to review this sort of book objectively. I worry that I may end up criticising the author’s choices when I have no idea how I would cope in the situation she and her family were in. I did find some experiences curious and do question some of the decisions made (there seemed to be a lack of planning, especially when it came to things like childcare) and I was confused by how little the author’s husband made an appearance and how we didn’t seem to get any insight into how the move impacted upon their relationship. I don’t mean in a voyeuristic way, but this was a huge move to a different country with a very different culture and (and I may have misunderstood this) he didn’t work, or drive and I would have loved to have known how he felt about his year in Reykjavik and the impact upon his psyche.
I was blown away by the differences in culture between the UK and Iceland, from child-rearing, to cuisine and attitudes they are wide and varied. Sarah Moss writes about her struggles and her family’s isolation well – Icelandic families spend their weekends with extended family and as ‘foreigners’ they didn’t have these ties. Weekends are spent in their apartment (the only inhabited one in their block), venturing out to the swimming pool or zoo if weather permitted. This is a country whose economy has been decimated, money that didn’t exist has been spent on extravagances such as widescreen TVs, SUVs and exotic holidays. Sarah and her family are consistently told that the country is in recession and money is scarce, but she struggles to see any sign of this. There is no second-hand market meaning that they must furnish their temporary accommodation with brand new and expensive IKEA products, most families have multiple cars and public transport is rarely used (she is an anomoly choosing to cycle to work for as long as the weather allows it).
There is also a large exploration of the myths and legends in Iceland. Stories and fables passed down from generation to generation to strike fear into listeners. The landscape is punishing and unforgiving; volcanos that erupt and cut off entire towns, geysers bubbling under the surface and ice holes that a walker can inadvertently fall down and disappear forever are just some of the natural phenomenon here. The stories reflect the nature and in many case are used as tools to keep children indoors and away from the blizzards swirling outside. Sarah Moss does a wonderful job of describing Iceland, there are beautiful and evocative descriptions of landscape and of the Aurora Borealis which I found incredibly moving at times (and wildly jealous of her seeing so frequently and clearly).
Overall, this book made me want to visit Iceland. Immediately. I have been inquisitive about the country for some time – I enjoy Icelandic literature (Ragnar Jónasson and Lilja Sigurðardóttir are two wonderful examples) and a friend of mine visited Reykjavik last year and raved about it. Despite the difficulties Sarah and her family faced she writes about the country with tenderness and respect and it is evident how much she adored her time there (despite the lack of fresh fruit and veg in the supermarkets).
This wasn’t a book that had been on my radar at all, it is my Book Club read for March and I am so pleased it was chosen as I really enjoyed it and found it a great and insightful read. If memoirs, travelogues and non-fiction books are your thing then this could be the book for you.
At first, I was annoyed by the author’s rather middle class / intellectual / chattering class judgemental attitude, then it dawned on me that she was mostly taking the urine out of herself for this, and was actually providing us with a very fair assessment of the differences between British (middle class) culture and Icelandic culture, finding strengths and weaknesses in both.
My wife and I strongly agree with her observations about attitudes to risk in Iceland. As she describes, we did indeed see prams left outside shops, and this, moreover, on Reykjavik’s equivalent of Oxford Street! Steep drops at the roadside like those we saw in Iceland would be fenced off in the UK, but clearly Icelanders take the view that people can make their own risk assessments. Some tourist locations, such as the waterfalls, were barely protected from danger. We took a flight from Reykjavik city airport to Akureyri and back, and on the return journey were amazed to see the laid-back attitude to safety on boarding the plane: no one to shepherd us to the plane, or to avoid the propeller blades; we just wandered across the tarmac. After all, people aren’t really so dumb as to walk into danger as we think they are in the UK... are they?
Sarah Moss describes the driving in Iceland. Yes, she is right that so many people drive huge, unnecessary four-wheel drive monsters, and the number of cars on the main arteries into the capital seems to be more than the total population of the country, which left us baffled as to how the buses could be so packed. However, I recall that she complains about the bad driving, which has not been our experience at all. We found we only had to be near the edge of a pavement for cars to stop for us to cross (at times when we didn’t want to!) and they stopped typically about 15 yards from us, to courteously give us space, which would never happen in the UK. We are looking out of our 4th floor hotel window now and my wife has just commented how much more slowly cars are being driven in the snow today compared to snow-less yesterday. Sarah wrote that drivers rarely indicated before turning, arguing that this relates to a fundamental Icelandic trait of a reluctance to share one’s inner thoughts with others, so this is something I have deliberately watched for and I have concluded that Sarah was totally wrong about this, or behaviour and psychology has dramatically altered in the few years since the book was published.
Sarah explored attitudes to poverty and specifically the availability of second-hand items in the country. The latter, we were told by a shopkeeper, has massively changed since the financial crisis. Buying second-hand is now cool, and we saw several flea markets and second-hand clothes shops. This shopkeeper told us that despite the obvious wealth in the country, there is an underclass of very poor people. My googling tells me that the average gross annual wage in Iceland is £42,000, compared with £27,000 in the UK. We went to the Kringlan shopping centre (think Cribbs Causeway, White Rose Centre, small Trafford Centre) and were baffled at how so many Icelandic people could afford the expensive and luxurious items there. Given the population of the country is 320,000, most of them seemed to be in that shopping centre on the Saturday we were there.
Sarah described the aloofness of Icelandic people. We found totally the opposite. On two occasions in the past few days, within seconds of my getting my map out, an Icelander came up to us to offer help with directions, without being asked. Complete strangers initiated lengthy conversations with us in shops and restaurants.
The attitude to environmental issues is very contradictory in Iceland. Whilst we saw many claims to be protecting the environment, conserving resources, avoiding carbon emissions etc, Iceland seems to be a very wasteful country, as Sarah described in relating how utilities were left on in the unfinished flats near to her. One of our main reasons to be here was to see the Northern Lights (we succeeded!), but this was hampered by unnecessary light pollution: people parked with headlights left blazing, the exterior of many houses looking more like Blackpool Illuminations throughout the night, no plugs in washbasins (“Just let the water run; we have plenty”), whilst signs in our hotel bathroom urged us to save water by re-using our towels! Maybe cheap geothermal heat is so readily available in Iceland that people take it for granted, but that offends those of us from less well-resourced regions.
So, our experience has been that Sarah Moss got some descriptions right and others wrong. Or Iceland has changed massively in the past few years.
So Sarah Moss's obsession with, love of Iceland, biographical account of a year spent living and working there, was always going to be an absorbing read. In many ways my interest is as much in `how does a person coming from one culture assimilate into another' as it is in learning about a different culture; that is because the outsider sees things the in-dweller cannot, because it is so much part of their fabric that they can't step outside it.
Moss first went to Iceland when she was 19, over a university summer holiday, with a friend. By the time covered by this book, she is in her thirties, married, with two children, and a university lecturer (and of course a writer) This is post-the collapse of Iceland, and she had a accepted a lecturing commitment for a year at Reykjavik University. By the time she got there, her salary had so far dropped in its buying power as to make living there for the year quite hard.
What she found puzzling is that certainly amongst the middle classes she could not really see much evidence of what `collapse' had done to society, as, in boom, Iceland had moved to be a highly consumerist culture, households with several gas guzzling vehicles, a society of perennial new spend and dumping (not recycling, not sell-or-give-away-as second-hand) of the mildly out-moded but still fully functioning. She discovered this, even, in small children's clothing. Unlike her middle-class-British-society, where mums were cheerfully passing on clothes to other mums 3 months behind them in child-age, to the Icelanders, there was something distasteful and a little shameful in this:
"The Icelandic horror at the idea of the second-hand seems to be partly to do with the impossibility of anonymity here, the fear of `strangers' The risk is one of disclosure, that the person who classified the object as `trash' might see the same object reclassified by someone else.....this is why secondhand clothes are so terrible, because the anonymity of charitable giving might be broken, you might recognise your child's outgrown clothes on someone else and thus have to acknowledge some kind of hierarchy. One of the most widely held beliefs among Icelanders is that there is no hierarchy here"
Moss is both a lover of Iceland, and its people, and bemused and at times critical of it. During her year she also discovered that some of what Iceland told about itself TO itself - such as its low crime figures were just not true, and, even discovered in the forays she made with Icelandic friends around the country as her year drew to its close, that they too were starting to see a hidden Iceland that they had not known existed.
Along the way we meet the made-up tradition of `Icelandic knitting' (not something dating back to Viking times at all), a belief in elves alive and well, and of course, the `old' diet, divorced of fresh fruit and vegetables, for large parts of the year, later superseded, as Iceland entered its boom years by exotic greengrocery from all over the world, now returning, as the price of food sky-rocketed, to earlier privations
And, of course, there is much that hinges up an inescapably close relationship with climate, geography, landscape and the rules imposed by a far more dramatic relationship with day and night, cold and colder, than we have in most of these isles.
The family are warmly helped to settle in by newly met friends. Petur has a fund of stories of when he worked on farms in the sixties. Cut off during the winter months, news was shouted accross rivers, and everyone could listen in on the communal telephone line. Some Icelandic history is gleaned through meetings with locals, and they often make it come alive. Theodor, the grandfather of one of her students from the Westman islands recounts how he carried people away in his fishing boat when the volcano erupted. His wife remembers how she grabbed the six children, put them in whatever she could find and just ran for the harbour. Four hundred houses were destroyed and another three hundred filled up and covered over with ash. Gradually, through observation, daily life and meeting some interesting folk, Sarah gathers insight about the education and social systems, the Icelandic diet, the financial crash, the enduring influence of Icelandic sagas, and the people who seem to really believe in elves.
A year after leaving, the family return for a more care-free exploration of the island. They stay at Petur's summer house on the northern side of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, they travel across lava fields named after the Berserkers (Vikings who went into trance-states of uncontrollable violence), and they pass country which changes from lava and rock to green farmland at the feet of volcanos, then resembles Alpine landscapes and Norwegian-like fijords and the Scottish lowlands... This is richly described and makes you want to take out the walking boots and take a trip.