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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 Hornet’s Sting: The Amazing Untold Story Of Second World War Spy Thomas Sneum by Mark Ryan (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

February 20, 2014 2 comments

Image of a biplane, a swastika, and a man with a gun. The book's title and author's name are on this image.Summary:
Thomas Sneum was a Danish Allied spy during World War II who was periodically suspected of being a double agent.  Partially due to this suspicion and partially due to infighting between the two British spy agencies (SIS and SOE), he never got the attention or respect he deserved.  Mark Ryan, the author, found out about him and set out to get to know him.  Both personally and through research.  Here he tells the true story of Tommy Sneum and sets the record straight once and for all.

Review:
I picked this book up during a kindle sale because I’m a big WWII buff and who doesn’t love real life spy stories?  I thought it was a sure bet, but apparently even a true life spy story can be written in a dull manner.

It’s impossible to read the book without learning a lot.  For instance, I had no idea that Britain had two different spy agencies that were battling each other for control of spying missions.  This infighting between the SIS and the SOE led to lack of communication and lack of a solid spy front with one, unified plan.  Similarly, I didn’t know it was common practice to take people who had escaped from behind Nazi lines, train them as spies, then re-drop them back in their home countries.  I always thought the resistance movement just built up from the inside and then they contacted the Allies on the outside with information.  How much more complex it was is really interesting.  I also loved learning more about those from occupied countries who escaped and fought in other militaries against the Nazis.  In spite of learning all of these new to me facts about WWII spying, the book manages to be dull.  Ryan tends to wander off on side diatribes about the intricacies of red tape and paperwork instead of focusing in on the more action-oriented, interesting bits of the spying.  He also spends a lot of time giving the full name of every single person even vaguely connected with Tommy and the spying, even if they really have no impact on the story.  The book could really have used a bit more streamlining and focus to keep the energy up.  Just because it’s nonfiction doesn’t mean it can, or should, meander.

Tommy Sneum is hard to root for.  He’s not a likable guy.  He abandons his wife and infant daughter to go be a spy.  That could definitely be seen as valiant, however, he expresses consistent distate for his wife and a lack of concern or care for even knowing his daughter.  He certainly comes across in the book as a guy just after adventure, not so much a man looking to protect his country or his family.  Similarly, Tommy express arrogance when it comes to women, claiming that they essentially would go sleep with him at the drop of a hat or a snap of his fingers.  He does not come across as seeing women as people but rather as recreational objects.  One story that really demonstrates this is he tells the author that he had a threesome once, and he was upset that the women dared to pay attention to each other at all, rather than 100% to him.  Sex is supposed to be about people giving to each other, not about one person being worshiped.  His general attitude towards women gave me a squicky feeling throughout the book.  Of course, most people are not all bad or good.  Tommy is no exception.  He expresses a real openness toward a male colleague who was known to be bi.  He refuses to view all Germans as evil monsters and insists, to those high up in the British resistance no less, that most Germans are just caught up in Hitler’s war machine.  Of course, these even-handed views are almost universally held of men.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Ryan’s investigation into the accusations that Sneum was a double-agent.  This part of the book isn’t really played up in the blurb, which I think is unfortunate.  Ryan did a lot of investigative work and lays out all the details that he believes clears Sneum’s name.  Seeing how Sneum and his methods were misunderstood by the British and also how having two different spy agencies working led to misunderstandings was truly fascinating, and I’m glad Ryan took the time to work at finding the truth.

Overall, this is a rather slow-paced work of historic nonfiction that focuses in on the red tape and organizational aspects of spying more than exciting adventures.  It does good work in determining that Sneum was not a double agent in WWII.  Sneum’s womanizing can be a bit tedious at times, although his even-handed perspective on the German people is good to see.  Recommended to those interested in the organizational aspects of spying in WWII, including very minute details.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Note: Apparently this book is no longer available on the kindle.