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The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia Paperback – February 2, 2016
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“Bill Bryson goes to Scandinavia.” ―Christian Science Monitor (Ten Best Books of January)
“Booth's extremely funny character analysis of Scandinavia (which includes the adjacent Arctic-Circle floaters, Iceland and Finland) gives an incisive yet comprehensive overview of each of these reputedly lucky lands...His chapters betray a clear affection for the icy region he calls home, and gradually allow a clearer identity for each country to emerge.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“Outrageously entertaining...Like members of a family, each of these five nations, despite a strong shared resemblance, has its own character, and Booth really is the guy you want to explain the differences to you. The Almost Nearly Perfect People offers up the ideal mixture of intriguing and revealing facts.” ―Laura Miller, Salon
“Booth's project is essentially observational; it aspires to a comic genre that might be called Euro-exotica. The form was well established by the time Twain published The Innocents Abroad in 1869, and it has been carried through the twentieth century by writers as varied as S. J. Perelman and Peter Mayle....In this sense, Booth's book is as much about Anglo-American power as it is about the Nordic way.” ―The New Yorker
“Part travelogue, part cultural history, Michael Booth's book about Nordic countries is crammed with some truly bizarre facts.” ―Entertainment Weekly
“The result of Booth's ethnographic snooping is this insightful, entertaining and very funny book. Booth also happens to be a terrific ambassador to the often insular and sometimes baffling behavior of the Nordic peoples….Anthropological research has never been this much fun.” ―Chicago Tribune
“A lively exploration that's part ethnography and part travel guide…at its core, The Almost Nearly Perfect People is driven by genuine curiosity and appreciation for a singular part of the world most Americans know very little about--and could stand to learn a thing or two from.” ―The Daily Beast (Hot Reads)
“A humorous deconstruction of the belief that the Scandi nations are each a social paradise while affirming that life in one of the five can be quite congenial. Finally, an answer to the pressing question, how can Danes be so happy while paying such high taxes?” ―The New York Daily News
“An entertaining, authoritative, and often funny travelogue.” ―Minneapolis Star Tribune
“It is said that most people can't tell one Nordic country from another. Maybe so, but what they do know is that these nations are exceptional. This collective exceptionalism is worth studying up close and Michael Booth's book is a good place to begin. He writes with irony and charm and in the end, much affection for his adopted home in Denmark.” ―The Huffington Post
“Booth is often funny, and he keeps us engaged.” ―The Week
“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....a truly interesting and enjoyable piece of writing.” ―Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“[Booth's] dry wit permeates the book…He has written an immersive, insightful, and often humorous examination of a most curious culture.” ―Publishers Weekly
“If, like many, you may never make it to Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, or Sweden, this is your book, and Booth is your guide. He is congenial, game, funny, and observant. And he tells it like it was…” ―Booklist
“Booth brings a deliciously droll sense of humor to his mission.” ―BookPage
“An enjoyable, funny romp through the region.” ―The Telegraph (London)
“Booth offers an affectionate, observant, engaging look at Scandinavia, where trust, modesty and equality proudly prevail.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“I laughed out loud . . . A lively and endearing portrait of our friends in the north, venerated globally for their perfectly balanced societies but, it turns out, as flawed as the rest of us--or at least only almost perfect.” ―The Observer (UK)
“A rollicking travelogue . . . [and] a welcome rejoinder to those who cling to the idea of the Nordic region as a promised land.” ―Financial Times
“Sorry, liberals, Scandinavian countries aren't utopias.” ―The New York Post
“Entertaining stuff and very readable.” ―The Independent (UK)
“Booth is an assiduous excavator of entertaining facts.” ―The Times (London)
About the Author
Michael Booth is the author of five works of non-fiction, including The Almost Nearly Perfect People. His writing appears regularly in The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, The Telegraph, and Condé Nast Traveler magazine, among many other publications globally. He is the Copenhagen correspondent for Monocle magazine and Monocle 24 radio, and travels regularly to give talks and lectures on the Nordic lands and their peculiar, nearly perfect people. He lives in Denmark with his wife and two sons.
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One of the strongest points of this book is that he explores the different cultures of these countries through his own eyes and writes as such. Because of this, the writing can often be quite funny. Booth shares some lighthearted jokes the residents of one country have at the expense of others. Or his uncomfortable experience of visiting a Finnish sauna for the first time. But, aside from the humor, you get a sense of the pride many people take in their countries. One memorable example is the Constitution Day celebrations that take place on May 17 in Norway where people dress up in ways that invoke a romantic image of the past. Booth notes how immigrants to Norway, despite little to no connection to this history, heartily embrace it.
More serious matters are also of importance. Booth dedicates some time at looking at the horrific terrorist attack of the extreme-right wing Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik in 2011 and the effect it had on the country. Surprisingly, as terrible as the attack was, there was not a lot of permanent change. There was no new security put in place and life went on. Booth also explores some of the aspects of the Nordic countries' famous welfare states and how that works. I found the section on Sweden in this regard most interesting. In Sweden, Booth sees a system he refers to as "benign totalitarianism" where the Swedish government heavily intervenes in the lives of its citizens, even interfering in parenting. There is debate if this just creates too much dependency on the state and stifles the individual or if it releases the individual from worries allowing him or her to become truly individualistic.
One objective of this book, as the title implies, is looking past the utopian image these countries sometime have. They are not without problems. This was especially apparent in Iceland where years of economic mismanagement culminated in a severe financial crisis in the late 2000s. He also wonders whether the current system of welfare is sustainable in the long run without changes. Denmark and Sweden already have a tax system that most Americans, for example, would find absolutely preposterous. All of these countries also face the situation, as many other countries are also experiencing, of an aging population. In his own home of Denmark he also notes problems in education, healthcare, and an increasingly lazy workforce.
Though most of this book is pretty interesting, I do find that sometimes Booth's own opinion is presented too much as fact. Sure, this is fine when looking at the cultural aspects. He is not afraid to express his own opinion of what is great and what he finds is rather odious. However, it seems like he sometimes tries to poke holes in things he learned from interviews with experts. Many times in this book he talks with people associated with universities and other such professionals. Surely there ideas are worth something. He also throws in criticisms of things like right-wing political parties and people he just seems to disagree with.
Learning about the Nordic countries is especially prudent today. For example, in his campaign for President of the United States, Bernie Sanders has often espoused the so-called "Nordic Model" as something America should emulate. There are certainly interesting things to learn about what has worked and what has not from these countries. Still, besides the serious content, this is an entertaining look at five European countries and I would recommend this to those looking to learn a little bit about the world around them.
Booth starts his northern circuit from his home base in Denmark where he has the most personal experience and probably has the most extreme range--positive and negative--opinions. Denmark is alleged (for the past 10 years or so) to have the world's happiest population. Booth spends a lot of time looking into the why-for of this rep and comes away more than a little dubious about its basis in fact. While pretty happy to live there, the author points out that Danes have a tendency toward extreme conformity that doesn't allow the creative oddballs among them much room to blossom. This early part of the book also introduces the complicated relationships the Scandinavian countries have with each other socially and culturally.
The book's chapter on Sweden was especially interesting to me as a Swedish-American with current ties to relatives in "the old country". I love visiting the place and think that Stockholm would probably have a population of 10 million if it had a better climate. Talk about weather shaping national personality. Author Booth goes on at some length about the seriousness of the Swedes as well as their economic success. Somewhat less is said about how they are coping with the constant intake of culturally diverse immigrant groups that are clearly bringing changes to the once homogenous society.
I probably learned most about Finland--especially about its politics and national character--from this book. There is an admiring explanation of how the Finns have managed to endure centuries of bullying by the Swedes and Russians and still maintained their independence and sense of nationhood. Booth also points out how modesty (to the extreme) is the core quality of most Finns and how that works as both positive and negative while marketing the country's goods.
Booth's chapters on Iceland and Norway are also entertaining and insightful and display the same reserved admiration that he gives the Danes, Swedes and Finns.
While Booth discusses the effect of climate on the making (and hindering) of the northern countries, it's not greatly emphasized. In my own experience with the Swedes, it seemed a bigger deal. I once spent two weeks or so working in Stockholm in mid-November. The sky was dark gray during the sparse daylight hours, there was dirty, mushy snow on the ground and it was noticeably cold the whole time. At the end of the project, I congratulated the Swedish staff that I had been working with for the period on the results of their labors by saying, "You guys really thrive in all this adverse weather." They responded with, "Are you crazy? We're all leaving for the Canary Islands tomorrow to hang out till May!!"
The book felt incomplete in ways, as the voices on women's lives seemed a bit more sparse than the men's, and the author did not dig much beneath the stereotypes of the marvels of Nordic gender equality. Recent statistics on the shockingly high rates of violence against women in the northern countries would seem to indicate that there is something rotten on the distaff side in Denmark. It would be fine if this talented author would care to take another crack at lifting the lid on the realities of the other half of Nordic society.