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33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Our neighbours just up there (somewhere) ...
I've probably spent getting on for as much time in Iceland as Sarah Moss and reckon to know it fairly well, but a large number of short casual visits over a period of 25 years is not at all the same thing as living there for almost a year as she and her family did, and their experience makes for fascinating reading. She spent the academic year 2009-10 - just after the...
Published on 15 July 2012 by Brian J. Cox

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Depends what you're looking for...
Sarah Moss speaks early on of not wanting to be a "whining ex-pat" - she did not succeed. the focus of the book is not primarily on Iceland, but on the author adjusting to life overseas, her family life, her work life. As such, defining it as a travel book is not entirely accurate. This was bought for me as a gift by my boyfriend as we were visiting Iceland for...
Published 9 months ago by Alyson


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33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Our neighbours just up there (somewhere) ..., 15 July 2012
By 
Brian J. Cox (Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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I've probably spent getting on for as much time in Iceland as Sarah Moss and reckon to know it fairly well, but a large number of short casual visits over a period of 25 years is not at all the same thing as living there for almost a year as she and her family did, and their experience makes for fascinating reading. She spent the academic year 2009-10 - just after the Icelandic bank crash - at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík teaching English literature; the crash - or kreppa, as Icelanders call it - meant that her salary diminished markedly in value even before she arrived, and the Mosses were far from well off in an expensive city, but her book is all the better for not being penned by a well-heeled visitor. She is an acute and perceptive observer as we follow her daily routine of getting the children to school and pre-school respectively, making ends meet in a society that doesn't seem to "do" thrift and secondhand goods, and learning what makes her students tick: indeed, she admits she learned as much from them as they did from her. Iceland's summer being short, life in Reykjavik took place mostly against a background of a wet autumn, dark winter - when you start to think of lunch before daylight at 11am - and a long, cold spring when it gets rapidly lighter but rarely any warmer. And you're walking or cycling everywhere in the cold and wet while everyone else is zooming past in SUVs.

We learn that Icelanders don't talk readily to strangers - and they don't, at least not to tourists like myself - not because they are unfriendly but because they have no real cultural experience of meeting anyone they either don't know or don't at least share common friends or acquaintances with. Her students baulk at being asked to do an exercise requiring them to strike up a conversation with strangers. We find that Icelanders don't - or at least didn't before the crash - buy in charity shops, partly out of pride that despite having a tiny population they see themselves as good as anyone else, and partly because the population is so small you might see your cast-offs turn up again somewhere. This sense of being the equal of anyone else yet being few in numbers also explains the mixture of insularity and outwardness in Icelanders, and is no doubt in some measure responsible for the "Viking Raiders" attitude that led to financial disaster. We learn that even the youngest children are left to roam free - left both to learn to climb and to fall, literally and metaphorically - while babies are left unattended outside shops, no one locks their cars, and schools lack any security measures. Her friends at the University opened many doors for her, and a highlight of the book was her talk with an elderly lady, Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir, about life in Iceland before the age of glitz, SUVs and bank crashes.

And yet ... the statistics show Iceland to be little different to Britain in terms of crime, sexual violence and most other indicators of modern society: the difference is one of attitude, not actuality. This can only be because Icelanders still maintain the cultural mindset they had as rural dwellers before the explosive growth of Greater Reykjavík in recent years. It now has 80% of Iceland's 300,000 people, and many of the problems of most cities with a quarter of a million people. It seems likely its people's attitudes will as a result become more like their neighbours in other European countries, which would be a shame, because Iceland and its people bring something distinctively different to European culture which would be sad to lose.

A thought-provoking book, highly recommended (although - for me at least - one chapter about the much-reported Icelandic obsession with elves would have been more than enough, let alone two!).
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Depends what you're looking for..., 7 Mar 2014
This review is from: Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (Paperback)
Sarah Moss speaks early on of not wanting to be a "whining ex-pat" - she did not succeed. the focus of the book is not primarily on Iceland, but on the author adjusting to life overseas, her family life, her work life. As such, defining it as a travel book is not entirely accurate. This was bought for me as a gift by my boyfriend as we were visiting Iceland for my 30th birthday, but it wasn't what he or I expected. In the time she is in Iceland, she doesn't really get out much!

To be honest, I admit my opinion was negatively skewed as I found the author to be somewhat pretentious. I read The Guardian, but it’s a certain type who feels the need to make a point of making people know this, and that they own "five different types of paprika". Judgmental? Probably, but Sarah is not innocent of this herself. I found this book incredibly judgemental, with attempts to be self-deprecating by making comments about her ignorance as a ‘foreigner’ actually sounding much more like thinly veiled criticisms of the country she was living in, and its people. Yes she felt 'different' and she tried to make out that she felt this was her fault and down to her ignorance - but it always just sounded as though what she really meant was that the Icelanders were doing things wrong by not doing things how she was used to. The moaning...about the cold, about the lack of fruit and vegetables, about the driving, about the university she was working in, the teaching methods used there, the resources...all of this just sounded snobbish, patronising, and even somewhat xenophobic to me.

The positives were that I did learn something about Icelandic culture, folklore, history...not really much about what to do and see, hence again I argue against this being classed as a travel book!

The humour others have spoken of was present and did make me smile in places. However, for me, her moaning far outweighed this. My favourite chapters by far were towards the end - particularly when she had moved back to the UK, and visited Iceland for a holiday. Not only was the writing beautiful, and the detail about the places she was visiting what I was hoping for, but she also seemed warmer, more relaxed, less...moany.

Despite my three stars, I would still recommend this book overall!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A different country, 5 Jan 2013
Friends gave me this book knowing I'd visited Iceland. My trip to Iceland, for the landscape and geology, was led by fellow Brits and spent mainly away from the towns staying in a hotel staffed by eastern europeans. We had minimal contact with local people and this book filled the cultural gap, albeit making me feel I had been in a different country.

I found the mixture of domestic detail, academic life, historic, social, economic and cultural insights really fascinating and the writing wry and engaging. It's given me a better understanding of Iceland whilst, ironically, making it feel more foreign than it seemed at the time.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elves, SUVs, underfloor heating, a love of learning and the cult of the new., 13 Oct 2014
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Though definitely a person who basks in hotter-the-better sun, I am lured and also terrified by the climates of harsh, cold, isolation.

So Sarah Moss's obsession with, love of Iceland, biographical account of a year spent living and working there, was always going to be an absorbing read. In many ways my interest is as much in `how does a person coming from one culture assimilate into another' as it is in learning about a different culture; that is because the outsider sees things the in-dweller cannot, because it is so much part of their fabric that they can't step outside it.

Moss first went to Iceland when she was 19, over a university summer holiday, with a friend. By the time covered by this book, she is in her thirties, married, with two children, and a university lecturer (and of course a writer) This is post-the collapse of Iceland, and she had a accepted a lecturing commitment for a year at Reykjavik University. By the time she got there, her salary had so far dropped in its buying power as to make living there for the year quite hard.

What she found puzzling is that certainly amongst the middle classes she could not really see much evidence of what `collapse' had done to society, as, in boom, Iceland had moved to be a highly consumerist culture, households with several gas guzzling vehicles, a society of perennial new spend and dumping (not recycling, not sell-or-give-away-as second-hand) of the mildly out-moded but still fully functioning. She discovered this, even, in small children's clothing. Unlike her middle-class-British-society, where mums were cheerfully passing on clothes to other mums 3 months behind them in child-age, to the Icelanders, there was something distasteful and a little shameful in this:

"The Icelandic horror at the idea of the second-hand seems to be partly to do with the impossibility of anonymity here, the fear of `strangers' The risk is one of disclosure, that the person who classified the object as `trash' might see the same object reclassified by someone else.....this is why secondhand clothes are so terrible, because the anonymity of charitable giving might be broken, you might recognise your child's outgrown clothes on someone else and thus have to acknowledge some kind of hierarchy. One of the most widely held beliefs among Icelanders is that there is no hierarchy here"

Moss is both a lover of Iceland, and its people, and bemused and at times critical of it. During her year she also discovered that some of what Iceland told about itself TO itself - such as its low crime figures were just not true, and, even discovered in the forays she made with Icelandic friends around the country as her year drew to its close, that they too were starting to see a hidden Iceland that they had not known existed.

Along the way we meet the made-up tradition of `Icelandic knitting' (not something dating back to Viking times at all), a belief in elves alive and well, and of course, the `old' diet, divorced of fresh fruit and vegetables, for large parts of the year, later superseded, as Iceland entered its boom years by exotic greengrocery from all over the world, now returning, as the price of food sky-rocketed, to earlier privations

And, of course, there is much that hinges up an inescapably close relationship with climate, geography, landscape and the rules imposed by a far more dramatic relationship with day and night, cold and colder, than we have in most of these isles.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, 16 July 2012
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I became interested in Iceland after the banking crisis of 2008. I had some money trapped in an Icesave account. I started to read the comments of Icelanders posting in English in our newspapers, and was amazed by the "group think" they appeared to demonstrate. In fact, they saw themselves as victims of the UK, because Gordon Brown had used legislation to deem the Icelandic banks to be in default, and to freeze their assets.

Although I was annoyed that Iceland was refusing to honour the guarantee that had permitted their banks to operate in the UK, and to make vast amounts of money from which the Icelanders had all benefited, I became intrigued by their situation. In January 2010 I was able to visit for a few days. Their society and landscape was so different, and so interesting, that I have wanted to go back there, but have not yet managed another trip.

I had not heard of Sarah Moss before, but read a recent review of her book in a newspaper, and bought it from Amazon. I found it entirely gripping. She is examining a tiny society that has developed outside the European mainstream, and the mindset that this has engendered. Before the crash, they seem to have regarded themselves as having the best society in the world, although the wealth was based on an illusion, and the egalitarianism was not quite what it seemed. However, from reading the book, I am left in no doubt that they will quickly recover from the financial cataclysm that struck so suddenly, and will be the better for having gone through it. It has added a necessary dollop of humility.

Sarah Moss sets out an exquisite examination of various facets of Icelandic society, as she found it in 2009/10 while working at an Icelandic university. Her description of Icelandic scenery and weather, and the passing of the seasons, is an important part of the appeal. She is an interested and non-judgmental observer, who asks all the questions I would ask if given the opportunity. Her appealing personality and penetrating intelligence shine through.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, informative and well written, 2 Sep 2013
By 
hiljean (Wiltshire, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (Paperback)
A friend who had visited Iceland lent me this book just prior to setting off on a cruise that would take in three Icelandic ports. I found it absolutely fascinating and it gave me a good insight into present-day Iceland, providing historical insight, cultural information and practical details.

What I really appreciated about this book was that it is an affectionate portrait of a country while remaining objectively critical. Clearly Sarah Moss enjoyed her year in Iceland, despite the harsh climate - and how right she was about that! When we visited in August it was COLD, and wet and windy, from which I conclude that life there must hold some charm for her as she clearly would have liked to stay on had circumstances been different.

As regards her awareness of feeling "A stranger in Iceland" she was simply reflecting what it feels like to be an ex-pat living and working in a foreign country, an experience new to her. I know that feeling, especially when the language is an unfamiliar one, and it is tough and disorientating.

This is a real travel book - it tells you in depth about the country and its people from having lived and worked there, not just having passed through as a visitor.

I applaud Sarah Moss for managing to write this book while doing a full-time job and bringing up two young children - however did she find the time?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating read, 10 Aug 2013
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I've been to Reykjavik once and will be going again in December and this book was a real eye opener. It's a real mix of what it's like to live in Iceland as well as being a tourist and I fully understand why Sarah says she isn't ready to leave. I loved the descriptions of family life as well as of the landscape. Andi loved the section about knitting ! Especially, 'new wool is the substance of things hoped for, the future in material form.'
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, 11 Dec 2012
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A really interesting and engaging read. Iceland as I didn't know it before. Moss writes candidly about trying to settled in Iceland with her family, being an expatriate there is full of challenges and not just how to deal with the cold and the dark. She gives a great insight into the culture, food, knitting, mythology, history and the financial crash.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting if not thought provoking, 3 Mar 2014
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Having been to Iceland I found this an interesting insight into Icelandic culture and seeing beyond the tourist goggles. Some people will like the bulk of text which centres on family life and the mundaneness of moving to another country, but for me it was at it's best getting under the skin of the country which it didn't do enough of. Part biography, part cultural commentary, part history listen, but not the jack of all trades it could have been.
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4.0 out of 5 stars a British family's year in Iceland, 1 Dec 2013
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Mr. Robert Marsland (Glasgow) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (Paperback)
Sarah Moss offered a placing at Iceland's only university to teach English literature, ups and offs there with her small family for a year. Concentrating on the strangeness and differences of this foreign land, and how well they fare in fitting in, this is a book often of contrasts, and particularly how Iceland contrasts with Britain. This makes for quite a bit of interest, but for me there was just too much of her daily goings on to make it a really compelling read, therefore only four instead of five stars.
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Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland
Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (Paperback - 4 July 2013)
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