Top 5 Nordic Non-Fiction Must Reads

Here at Nordic Watchlist, at least to date, we’ve focussed our book reviews on some of the outstanding works of fiction coming out of the Nordic region. This time around our Nordic book specialist Marc Harries turns his attention to non-fiction and has listed five of his best recommendations for you. How many have you read?

One of Us (The Story of a Massacre and it’s Aftermath)

Åsne Seierstad

First published in 2013 and later adapted into the 2018 film ’22 July’, One of Us tells the life stories of several Norwegians (notably Bano Rashid, Simon Saebo and Viljar Hanssen) both leading up to, during and after the horrific terrorist attack carried out by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011.

The incident and the trial itself attracted global attention but Seierstad endeavours to dig deeper and indeed does so as she analyses and looks to answer the important question of ‘why’?

In producing the book, she read the entirety of the police report and psychiatric evaluations, she interviewed families, friends, and politicians, attended all ten weeks of the trial, and read Breivik’s own writings and manifesto. She is therefore undoubtedly well placed to offer what I suspect is the most in-depth and detailed coverage of one of the most appalling events in modern history.

One of Us is an extremely difficult read, but I’d argue an important one. It demonstrates, as the ‘Independent on Sunday’ put it, how ‘evil is not born but created’ and that angle itself is fascinating.

On a personal level though, the message I took away is that evil will never triumph. There is a commemorative heart sculpture in Oslo City Centre that reads, ‘…Størst av alt er kjærligheten’ (greatest of all is love) and, whilst some would no doubt call me naïve, I like to think there is a lot of truth in that.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People (Behind The Myth of The Scandinavian Utopia)

Michael Booth

I must admit I was initially hesitant to read this book having spent much of the last decade with the countries of Scandinavia perched high on a pedestal and offering staunch defence in the face of any criticism. Words like ‘hygge’, ‘lagom’ and ‘susi’ have become commonplace and bring with them almost idyllic connotations but, as Booth shows, all is not as paradisical as is often made out.

Booth dedicates a chapter to each of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland & Sweden and explores issues ranging from financial crises, the growth of far-right politics, suicide rates and the environment. Importantly though, at least for me, he does it with humour.

This is not an attack as it were, rather the offering of an alternate perspective. He is complimentary where compliments are warranted but is critical on issues where he considers the reality is different (and in some cases, polar opposite) to the narrative.

Iceland Defrosted

Edward Hancox

If memory serves Iceland Defrosted marked my first foray into Nordic travel writing (if it’s even fair to call it that) and was the fuel that well and truly ignited the fire for all things Nordic/Scandinavian. Described as the story of ‘One Englishman’s obsession with a half-frozen roughly duck-shaped island in the cold North Atlantic’, it’s in fact not far off a love letter.

Hancox, roughly following a circuitous route around the country, sheds light on a number of fascinating people, places and experiences. Without him I wouldn’t have heard Sóley or Múm, I wouldn’t have read Sjón or Indriðason and I probably wouldn’t be writing this article!

Thanks Mr Hancox, there are now at least two Englishmen obsessed with that duck-shaped island!

Sweden’s Dark Soul

Kasja Norman

Having read Booth’s book (discussed above) I was determined to discover more about the story less told, or certainly the story less readily available when it comes to Scandinavia and that led me to Norman’s 2018 book, ‘Sweden’s Dark Soul’. Like, ‘One of Us’ it is a hard-hitting and important read and sets out to expose what she views as the hypocrisy of Swedish society.

In its quest to achieve ‘the ideal society’ Norman argues that Sweden has in fact failed its people and created a ‘culture of conformism that suppresses inconvenient truths and breeds moral cowardice’. The book centres around the reporting, or lack of reporting, that followed the August 2015 ‘We are Sthlm’ music festival.

One attendee noted a string of young girls approaching security guards for help with them reporting having been sexually assaulted. When there was no mention of the incident in the press, he approached a newspaper with the story but again nothing followed. Disillusioned he approached an alternative news website which ran the story and led to a storm of controversy with both the media and the police accused of a widescale cover-up.

Sweden’s Dark Soul is far more of an attack than Booth’s book and asks important questions that I am not yet sure have been answered. What happens when a country’s image becomes more important than its individuals? What happens to debate when the media ceases to publish stories deemed too controversial?

The Year of Living Danishly

Helen Russell

The Guardian describes Russell’s book as a ‘hugely enjoyable romp through the pleasures and pitfalls of setting up home in a foreign land’ and, although I’d like to, I’m not sure I can provide a more fitting description.

When her husband is contacted out of the blue (though she initially has her doubts!) about a job opportunity with Lego the couple relocate to rural Jutland. In preparing for the move Russell discovers that Denmark frequently tops the world happiness index and sets out to discover the secrets to their success.

Through thirteen superb and humour filled chapters that follow the calendar year (Christmas, rightly, has it’s own) Russell demonstrates where the Dane’s get it right (childcare, education and food) to where, in her view, they get it wrong and provides some useful pointers as to how we could all benefit from living a little more Danishly.

Feature by Marc Harries