Books I’ve Read This Week: Nordic History and Culture

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 35: Nordic History and Culture: While traveling in northern Europe in August, I visited Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland and read numerous books about the society and culture of these Nordic nations. I also read a couple of history books about Finland and a Nobel Prize winning work of Icelandic literature. Here are this week’s reviews:

#239 of 365 The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids by  Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Sandahl

Genre: Society and Culture

Format: Paperback, 208 pages

Date Read: August 30, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Politikens Boghal, Copenhagen

Review:  A relaxing read, especially in the Rosenborg Castle cafe on a rainy day in Copenhagen. The authors examine Danish culture and its effect on how children in Denmark grow up. The advice they provide is not just applicable to parents but to anyone seeking to live a less stressful life. They observe that Danes practice rational optimism, not necessarily ignoring difficult circumstances but finding a silver lining. The importance of spending plenty of time outside and keeping up social connections is also emphasized. I was interested to read about the role of Denmark’s royal family in the education system. Crown Princess Mary spearheaded an anti-bullying initiative that more than 90% of Danish teachers would recommend to other educators. A quick and interesting read.

#240 of 365 The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth 

Genre: Travel/Society and Culture

Date Read: August 30-31, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Politikens Boghal, Copenhagen

Format: Paperback, 406 pages

Review:  An entertaining read that passed the time on the train between Copenhagen and a visit to Hamlet’s Castle Kronborg in Helsingor. Michael Booth is a British journalist married to a Dane who has spent time living in Denmark and traveled to the other Nordic countries. He analyzes how these nations differ from one another in terms of their history and culture. I enjoyed how he explored the individual and collective histories of the region and speculates about how past political upheavals, little discussed today, continue to shape Nordic culture.

As a travelogue, the book is very funny as Booth struggles with visiting a Finnish sauna, joining a Danish choir and finding the right clothes for Norwegian National Day. The book becomes less enjoyable when the author’s personal biases prevent him from providing a balanced perspective on certain aspects of Nordic politics and culture. For example, Booth is strongly anti-monarchy and cannot conceive of why there is so much support for the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish monarchies. As a result, he focuses on the few republicans he meets rather than all the people who have more positive views of their royal family and could speak to their charity work or diplomatic role. There are other instances in the book when the author has real trouble looking beyond his own worldview. An entertaining book but it should be read alongside other perspectives about Northern Europe.

#241 of 365 An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland by Jonathan Clements

Genre: Travel/History

Date Read: August 31. 2018

Acquired: Purchased from the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa in Helsinki

Format: Hardcover, 179 pages

Review:  I bought this book at the Academic Bookstore in Helsinki last week and greatly enjoyed learning more about Finnish history and culture. The author is a British travel writer married to a Finn who explains the various periods of Finnish history with insight and humour. The Swedish and Russian influences are especially well explained. The book also contains an extensive discussion of Finnish food and drink, (which the author does not consider to be very good), and various points of interest in Finnish cities. There is a useful further reading section and Finnish film suggestions at the end. There are maps but the inclusion of a few phrases of the language would have been useful. A very helpful book for travelers and other readers seeking an introduction to Finland’s history.

#242 of 365 The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking

Genre: Advice

Date Read: August 31, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Politikens Boghal, Copenhagen

Format: Hardcover, 287 pages

Review: A relaxing read, especially for a cozy evening in Copenhagen. This witty and beautifully illustrated book explains the Danish concept of Hygge and provides suggestions for incorporating more quiet moments of happiness into everyday life. I enjoyed the descriptions of Danish traditions including the cakeman at children’s birthday parties and the search for the almond at Christmas dinner. A breezy read, best enjoyed indoors with a hot drink.

#243 of 365 No Particular Hurry: British Travellers in Finland 1830–1917 by Tony Lurcock

Genre: History/Travel

Date Read: September 1-3, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa in Helsinki

Format: Paperback, 258 pages

Review:  I am pleased that I bought this book in Helsinki last month and read it in Iceland because it provides a fascinating portrait of how Finland was perceived by 19th century travelers. Each chapter is devoted to the reminiscences of a single traveler and there are a few famous figures including Lord Dufferin, the future Governor General of Canada. Although Finland was a Grand Duchy ruled by Russian Czars during this time period, the British tourists excerpted in the book describe a society with many similarities to 21st century Finland including gender equality (Finnish women were the first European women to receive the vote), a strong education system, breathtaking scenery, a comparatively egalitarian society and a thriving sauna culture. I was fascinated by the chapters devoted to the Baltic front of the Crimean War as these naval engagements are little known outside the region. An interesting and informative book, filled with the observations of 19th century tourists!

#244 of 365 The Little Book of the Icelanders by Alda Sigmundsdottir

Date Read: September 2, 2018

Genre: Travel/Society

Acquired: Purchased from the Geysir Gift Shop in Iceland

Format: Hardcover, 142 pages

Review:  I bought this book at the Geysir gift shop in Iceland for the bus trip back to Reykjavik. The Icelandic born author, who has lived in many places around the world and written a blog about Iceland’s financial crisis, includes many entertaining anecdotes about Icelandic society including “the shower police” at public swimming pools, buses not always arriving on time and everything happening at the last minute. I would have liked a little more historical context and comparisons with other Nordic countries but The Little Book of the Icelanders is a fun read and a good introduction to Icelandic society for travelers.

#245 of 365 Independent People by Halldor Laxness

Genre: Classic Literature

Date Read: September 3, 2018

Acquired: Eymundsson Books, Reykjavik

Format: Paperback, 512 pages

Review: A classic in Icelandic literature and perfect the flight back to Toronto on Icelandair. A stubborn sheep farmer is determined to maintain his independence and property at all costs, even if his goals lead to the breakdown of his family. The novel, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature, captures the atmosphere of rural Iceland with its sheep farms and mountains. It was interesting to read how the First World War was perceived in Iceland. There seems to have been a feeling of being remote from wider European events until “the Blessed War” led to skyrocketing demand for Icelandic wool and mutton, bringing small farmers out of poverty. Aside from the references to the war and the Russian Revolution, there is a timelessness to the narrative and a clear atmosphere of centuries of Icelandic farmers struggling to survive in an often hostile climate. Well worth reading, especially for visitors to Iceland.

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