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Book Review: The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth

November 21, 2016 1 comment

Book Review: The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael BoothSummary:
Michael Booth has lived among the Scandinavians, on and off, for over ten years, perplexed by their many strange paradoxes and character traits and equally bemused by the unquestioning enthusiasm for all things Nordic that has engulfed the rest of the world, whether it be for their food, television, social systems or chunky knitwear.

In this timely book he leaves his adopted home of Denmark and embarks on a journey through all five of the Nordic countries to discover who these curious tribes are, the secrets of their success and, most intriguing of all, what they think of each other. Along the way a more nuanced, often darker picture emerges of a region plagued by taboos, characterised by suffocating parochialism and populated by extremists of various shades.

They may very well be almost nearly perfect, but it isn’t easy being Scandinavian

Review:
I could easily sum this book up in one sentence: No society is perfect. But that wouldn’t tell you too much about the actual book as a whole, so let’s get down to it.

Booth is a British man who married a Scandinavian woman and thus has lived Denmark on and off for years. He was surprised and confused by the sudden obsession with Scandinavian “happiness,” so he set out to write a book about what Scandinavia is really like. The book is divided into five sections, one for each Scandinavian country. In each section he explores the culture, economy, history, and politics of each nation. Booth writes in a very tongue-in-cheek way. Don’t read this expecting a dry read.

I’m a pretty pragmatic person, so I didn’t come into it thinking of Scandinavian countries as the utopia the news would often have us believe. I was hoping to have a clearer understanding the differences among them (beyond Iceland, which always stands out). My biggest understanding after reading it is that: Sweden makes the pop stars, Norway is kind of like Scandinavia’s American South, Denmark borders Germany, and Finland is rather cross about being the protecting line between Scandinavia and Russia. Frankly, though, they’re all still kind of mixed up in my brain. I think the nuance of the differences among them are probably like how I as a New Englander understand the difference between all the New England states but ask an outsider, and they’ll just lump us all together. Some things you can only learn by living there.

The book mostly confirmed a few things I suspected about the Scandinavian socialist utopias. There’s high taxes and a lot of people don’t work that much. Here’s a few interesting quotes on both of those topics.

  • More than 754,000 Danes aged between fifteen and sixty-four—over 20 percent of the working population—do no work whatsoever and are supported by generous unemployment or disability benefits. (location 305)
  • Danes are allowed to decide the fate of one-third of the money they earn. Put it yet another way: in Denmark, even if you work in the private sector, you work for the state up until at least Thursday morning. (location 951)
  • Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Norway’s social structure is the fact that about a third of all Norwegians of working age do nothing at all. (location 3055)

I know that sounds fine to some people, but there’s nothing that gets a New England woman riled up quite like the idea of slews of the population not working. (Just look up “Protestant work ethic” if you’re confused).

As someone who works in education, I was interested in the much talked about education systems of these countries. I primarily learned that there’s nothing that special about them except the fact that teaching is a profession that is held in high regard in these countries. In Finland, it can be more difficult to get into teaching school than law or medicine (location 4239). But Booth didn’t go as much into the educational system as I would have liked.

I also learned that “Lapps” is now considered a racist term for the Native population. They should instead be called “Sami” (location 2819). Sweden has the highest per capita rate of rape in Europe (location 5872), and Sweden while being a huge proponent of peace is also the world’s eighth largest arms exporter (location 5411).

What I found most interesting in the book was the discussion of how various surveys and studies decided the Scandinavians are the happiest. If you’re at all interested in flawed survey design, definitely check that out. It’s toward the beginning of the book. Booth’s theory is that it’s not so much that Scandinavians are happier it’s just that they don’t set their expectations very high so they can’t be disappointed. I was amused at the idea that it’s a culture that’s naturally mindful, regardless of what else is going on.

The book ends with a lot of discussion of politics that I honestly found to be dull, compared to the sharp wit and social observations and dissection in the beginning of the book. It almost felt like two books smashed into one, and I really only enjoyed the first one.

Recommended, nonetheless, to readers interested in a better understanding of the Scandinavian countries. Provided they have a sense of humor of course.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

November 13, 2016 Leave a comment

Book Review: The Grownup by Gillian FlynnSummary:
A canny young woman is struggling to survive by perpetrating various levels of mostly harmless fraud. On a rainy April morning, she is reading auras at Spiritual Palms when Susan Burke walks in. A keen observer of human behavior, our unnamed narrator immediately diagnoses beautiful, rich Susan as an unhappy woman eager to give her lovely life a drama injection. However, when the “psychic” visits the eerie Victorian home that has been the source of Susan’s terror and grief, she realizes she may not have to pretend to believe in ghosts anymore. Miles, Susan’s teenage stepson, doesn’t help matters with his disturbing manner and grisly imagination. The three are soon locked in a chilling battle to discover where the evil truly lurks and what, if anything, can be done to escape it.

Review:
I’m not a huge short story person but I generally really enjoy Flynn’s writing so I decided to pick this up anyway. Flynn surprised me by excelling at the short story. I think part of why I struggle with wanting to read short fiction is because so much of it is done poorly. This isn’t. It’s the perfect tale for the length, tightly told, with surprisingly real characters drawn in such a short amount of time.

The first paragraph struck me like a female Palahniuk (that’s a complement) and drew me in immediately. Every time I thought the story was taking a turn for the cliche, Flynn surprised me by twisting it away in another direction. It’s not easy to take a style you usually write in full novel length and transform it into short fiction, but she does it well. I would gladly read more Flynn short fiction, although I admit to selfishly hoping for more full-length novels so I get to spend more time in the story she creates next.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Thoughts One Year Out From Losing My Dad

November 12, 2016 Leave a comment

daddyMy father passed away unexpectedly a year ago today. I was 29 then. I’m 30 now. It wasn’t something I was prepared for although we realize now that on some level he must have known it was coming. The doctors said his organs had been shutting down for months and even if he had come in for help sooner there’s very little they could have done. That’s some comfort to both my brother and I who wondered if we had gotten him to go to the doctor sooner if it would have helped. You didn’t push my dad to do anything he didn’t want to do though. I think he knew what was going on, on some level, and wanted to deal with it in his on way on his own terms. And doctors and hospitals were not his own way.

My father and I were quite close in spite of the physical distance between us. I know some people think that the 2 to 3 hours between Boston and where my dad lived in New Hampshire isn’t that far but you have to understand to people in rural New England it is far. It’s a whole other world. I grew up and moved away not down the road. In spite of that I talked to my dad almost every day. He was the first person I called when I was excited or upset. I called him for advice all the time. I never asked for financial support since I hit the age of 18 but I did bend his ear an awful lot.

Something like this doesn’t happen without changing you.

You can’t go through your father’s personal items, letters, finances without feeling different. What was once off-limit now isn’t. You get to know your father as a more complete person. I didn’t make any earth-shattering discoveries but I have come to think of my dad as more of a whole other person than simply my father. And my heart just aches wishing my dad had had an easier life.

Things change a lot when the first person you always turned to is gone. In the past year, I was interviewing for new jobs. I used to always call my dad to get a pep talk right before an interview because no one was more in my corner than him. I couldn’t do that this time. I had to figure out other ways to pep myself up. (I wound up making a playlist on Spotify called #girlboss to pep up right before going in). I also got a new job that’s a wonderful step up in my field. I picked up my phone to call my dad only to suddenly realize I couldn’t. It’s other little things too like when our cat would do something cute and I’d take a picture only to realize I couldn’t send it to him. Or when I wanted to learn how to brine meat and realized I had to google it instead of calling him. It forced me to be more self-reliant, and honestly I already thought of myself as pretty damn self-reliant to begin with.

It also forces you to deal with your own mortality. I’m 30 now; my dad was 58. I know that was a young age to pass but it’s still a mind-fuck to think about how I’ve lived over half of my dad’s lifetime. And that changes you. I am far more selective of how I spend my time now both who it’s with and what I’m doing. I give people less chances than I once did. Not in a mean you’ll never change way but in a life is short and we’re not a good fit way. If I don’t want to spend my time watching a movie, I’ll tell you. And I also have confronted the fact that if I want to age well I need to change some things. I already worked out a lot and ate fairly well but there are other self-care things I wasn’t so good at. Managing stress. Sleeping enough. Moisturizing. I would say I was functional but not preservational. It’s improving. There’s room for more improvement. But life is too short for stress and bullshit.

I was going through my dad’s records this week, and I found an album I used to listen to with him all the time. Olivia Newton John’s “If You Love Me Let Me Know.” It was beat up, which if you don’t know records, that means it was most likely listened to a whole lot. I remembered so many of the songs so well. One is about a girl growing up rural who wants to move to the city, and when she gets old enough her dad tells her to go. It reminded me so much of when my dad encouraged me to follow my dreams and leave, even though it must have been hard for him to watch me go. Another was this one. I think it’s a great representation of that “the world’s going to hell in a handbasket but I’m not giving up my hope” mentality that I’ve learned over the course of the last year my dad had.

My dad had a hard life, and he sure as hell got frustrated with the world and all its bullshit. But he also undeniably had hope. You can’t have kids without having hope for the world. And he was so sure that both my brother and I would improve upon his lot in life (and we did, at least I think so). The only times he’d get frustrated with me were when I was either too full of myself or repeating his own mistakes. Well, daddy, I’m doing my best to learn from them and not do that. But I also am trying to hold onto the hope you had.

 

 

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An Action List for Educating Yourself and Learning to Act from Love

November 11, 2016 Leave a comment

Politics can be complicated. I’ve never thought one side is right purely for being Democrat or Republican (partially because I’m third party myself). But I do believe that what is right is love. Love and compassion. Treating each other with respect and humanity. Approaching the world out of a state of hope and not fear.

What sickens me in this whole situation is how many people on all sides are reacting instead of acting. How many people are rushing to hate on everyone else. And how one man and his campaign actively stirred up these negative emotions in people on purpose. Humans are susceptible to being goaded into negative actions out of fear. It is so easy to prey on people’s fears. Especially in a world where Americans are routinely not taught critical thinking in school. Many are not educated on history or politics. And information literacy (knowing where trustworthy information is and how to find it and fact-checking things others say) is simply by and large not taught to anyone and when it is people often laugh about it and think it’s pointless.

The media seeks only to elicit clicks and watches and not to bring about truth. I was 15 when reality tv first hit the world, and now we’re seeing the consequences of this. People becoming famous and wealthy for negative actions taken in full view of others rather than positive ones. This is what happens when we reward negative behavior and purposefully stir up fear.

I had already made a commitment to strive for more positive energy in my own life months ago. But now I want to encourage others to do this and more. Seek truth. Educate yourself on history. Listen to historians when we warn you. Discover how the world actually works, not how you think it does. (It blows me away how many people didn’t understand the Electoral College before this week). It’s ok that you don’t know. God knows there are things I don’t know. I encounter that every day through my work in academia. Accept what you don’t know. Embrace it with humility. Then get out there and learn more from trustworthy sources. Learning is a lifelong process. Accept it. Seek it out. Act out of love, not out of fear. Be inspired by people who deserve to be famous for their positive work and actions. The change really does start with each and every one of us. Below is a list of just a few resources and suggestions to maybe help you get started.

  • Coursera
    This is a wonderful place to take online classes from academic institutions worldwide for free. You pay a nominal fee if you want to get a completion certificate but actually taking the class and gaining the knowledge is 100% free. All assigned reading and videos are freely accessible too. Consider taking a course in US History, politics, international relations, comparative religion, etc….
  • Learn and use the CRAP test when evaluating whether a resource (source of information like a website or a book) is trustworthy.
  • Choose a group you dislike or fear and go out and seek unbiased nonfiction about them and fiction written by them. We fear what we don’t understand. Knowledge is power.
  • Books
  • Begin a meditation practice as a first step towards mindfulness
  • Begin a gratitude practice –> write down one thing you are grateful for each day.
  • Choose one positive action to perform each day aka make someone else’s life better today by virtue of you being in it
  • Choose one healthy change you can make and begin working on it. Remember to set a SMART goal –> Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound
  • Finally, if you are suffering from an addiction or you feel like you are drowning in despair or anxiety, reach out for help. The first step is asking for help. The change starts with each of us individually. Heal your own hurts and the world heals.

Om Mani Padme Hum

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