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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 Jungle by Upton Sinclair

June 30, 2011 3 comments

Black and white smoke-stack.Summary:
In the early 1900s Jurgis and his soon-to-be family by marriage decide to immigrate to the US from Lithuania.  Having heard from an old friend that Chicago’s Packingtown is where a working man can easily make his way in the world, this is where they head.  Soon the family find themselves deep in the horror that is the regulated in name only meat packing plants.  Dominated by a society that circulates entirely around greed and wealth for the few at the expense of the many, the family and individuals within it slowly fall apart.  But is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Review:
My high school English teacher strongly recommended to me that I read this book, claiming that I would love it, and I only just now got around to it.  I’m glad that her recommendation stuck in my head, though, because this book  is flat-out amazing.  It may be the best piece of social justice writing I have ever come across.

Of course that wouldn’t be the case if Sinclair’s abilities to craft a piece of fiction with enthralling characters were not up to par.  Fortunately, they are.  Jurgis and his family are well-rounded.  Scenes are set vividly, and time passes at just the right rate.  I would be amiss not to mention that Sinclair suffers from some of the racism rampant during his time-period.  African-Americans are presented in a very racist light, as are most Irish-Americans.  It surprises me that someone so passionate about social justice could simultaneously be racist, but I suppose we are all have our faults.  Fortunately the racism makes up a very small portion of the book that is relatively easy to skim over if that sort of thing in historical classics bothers you.

The primary issues Sinclair addresses in the book are: meat eating, the plight of the working class, greed, and socialism.

Although when it was first published The Jungle created an outcry for better regulation of meat production, in fact the book is strongly against the eating of animals at all.

And then again, it has been proven that meat is unnecessary as a food; and meat is obviously more difficult to produce than vegetable food, less pleasant to prepare and handle, and more likely to be unclean. (Locations 5353-5355)

This strongly vegetarian viewpoint is strengthened by a lengthy scene early in the book in which Jurgis and his family take a tour of a packing plant for the first time and witness the slaughter.  The family, and indeed everyone on the tour, are distraught and emotional witnessing the taking of so many lives and hearing the pigs squeal in pain and fear.  It is here that Sinclair makes a point about what impact slaughterhouses have on the humanity of the workers, for while the visitors are distraught at the scene, it is soon seen that for the workers

Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats.(Locations 536-540)

Thus it can be seen that not only is meat eating cruel, inefficient, and unhealthy, but it also dehumanizes those who must participate in the process.

Of course a much more prevalent theme in the book is the plight of the working class of which Jurgis and his family are a part.  This can be a difficult book to read at times for it shows how solidly these people are trounced upon by society and greed, no matter how hard they try.  First Sinclair establishes how the constant worry over money and survival affects the working class:

Such were the cruel terms upon which their life was possible, that they might never have nor expect a single instant’s respite from worry, a single instant in which they were not haunted by the thought of money. (Locations 1585-1586)

Then Sinclair demonstrates how this rough and tumble, cog in the machine existence slowly wears away the humanity of those fated to suffer from it:

She was part of the machine she tended, and every faculty that was not needed for the machine was doomed to be crushed out of existence. (Page 79)

Society, with all its powers, had declared itself his foe. And every hour his soul grew blacker, every hour he dreamed new dreams of vengeance, of defiance, of raging, frenzied hate. (Page 94)

Sinclair then shows how these dehumanized people are essentially in a prison and are slaves to the greed of others:

There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside. (Page 164)

I find that all the fair and noble impulses of humanity, the dreams of poets and the agonies of martyrs, are shackled and bound in the service of organized and predatory Greed! (Page 176)

Now that Sinclair has shown through one family how the current system enslaves and dehumanizes the workers, he has a solid stage to argue against the collection of wealth in the hands of the few, in other words, to argue for socialism.

The power of concentrated wealth could never be controlled, but could only be destroyed. (Page 186)

In America every one had laughed at the mere idea of Socialism then—in America all men were free. As if political liberty made wage slavery any the more tolerable! (Page 183)

By putting faces via the characters of Jurgis and family to the plight of the workers suffering at the hands of greed and the imbalance of wealth, Sinclair sets the stage for the most eloquent argument in favor of socialism I have ever read.

This book profoundly demonstrates how fiction can work for a cause and humanize, familiarize, and bring to home the faces and reality behind the issues of the day.  I highly recommend this powerful work to all.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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