With his tongue never too far from his cheek, British journalist Michael Booth takes an ironic scalpel to what seems to be the modern obsession with the so-called perfection of life in the five Northern European countries in his The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind The Myth of The Scandinavian Utopia. Living in Denmark and married to a Dane, he is in a position to examine the region with some firsthand knowledge and at least a modicum of objectivity (as much as peace in the family will allow). And while there may be some objection to the whole idea of stereotyping people by nationalities, when done so amusingly and with a touch of self-deprecation, it is perhaps forgivable.
First of all for the sake of clarity, as Booth points out quickly, the use of Scandinavian in the book’s subtitle is a misnomer. The book discusses not only the three Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, but Iceland and Finland as well. Nordic might be the more appropriate term. But since, the reader is getting more for his money—two fifths more, who would complain.
After a short introduction, the book is divided into five sections, one for each of the countries. He looks at a variety of subjects from manners and mores to politics and culture, emphasizing is own experiences in the country and his interviews with locals in contrast to what he sees as the current overestimate of the joys of life in the country. He looks at the oddities of behavior; he looks at major problems. He can talk about the supposed feminization of men in Sweden symbolized by hairnets for Swedish soldiers, and he can talk about the lack of free choices in what he calls a “benign totalitarianism.” He can talk about the Icelander’s belief in elves, and he can talk about their banking crisis.
Some of the most memorable parts of the book are his narratives of personal experiences with a particular country’s institutions: his visit to the oldest wood fired sauna in Helsinki, his swim in Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, his descriptions of the May 17th celebrations in Norway, or his attendance at the Wife-Carrying World Championship. These kinds of narratives lighten the discussions of the more pressing issues like the immigration question and the welfare state giving the book a quite readable mixture of the serious and the curious.
Booth’s writing style is effectively journalistic spiced with irony. Iceland “finds itself sitting on the global naughty chair.” On a visit to Legoland, “towering over Lego Copenhagen, he has an “overwhelming urge to run amok like Godzilla.” In Iceland elves are blamed for sudden changes in weather; “how else,” he opines, would you explain sudden changes in weather on an Atlantic island?” The book is filled with these gems. Although I must admit that sometimes he latches on to a detail and keeps repeating it like a leitmotif: Norwegians on Swedes peeling their bananas, Danish mother’s leaving their babies in carriages outside cafes, Danes refusing to cross streets on the red even when there is no traffic in sight (just a few examples). After a while though this kind of repetition gets old, it is really a minor quibble with a truly interesting and enjoyable piece of writing.
[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1250061962]