Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland – Sarah Moss

I enjoy non-fiction about lives in other countries, and find it especially accessible if written from the perspective of a Brit expat. This of course is a slightly limiting frame of reference, and Moss herself acknowledges that there are things about Iceland that she entirely misses for my of her time living there. But it also ensures that the obvious contrasts are generously highlighted and parallels appreciated.

This book is a wonderful exploration by a family who know they only have a limited time, but still have enough time to make friends and build some kind of a life. Not only that, but it is set in a very specific time, just after the Icesave crash. The country has suddenly lost of lot of wealth, and import ability, and is left to rebuild.

Life in Iceland is therefore hard financially, especially in a culture that expects family support, and there are parts of it that Moss simply can’t grasp (such as where the toddlers are in winter), but she discusses how they manage with the weather and tough financial constraints.

There is light though, in friendships struck up and discoveries made. I enjoyed her relating of oral history and links to mythology through ghosts and elves and back to modern Iceland in a seamless fashion to produce a narrative. The “anything is possible” atmosphere mixes pleasingly with a rational English academic narrator who knows that elves aren’t real.

Then there are specific gems that can’t easily be picked up about how she finds opportunities, like the open air museum that opens in Advent, or how Icelandic women (and sometimes men) still knit at every opportunity with wool from Icelandic sheep. She even discusses meeting Ragga, a knitting pattern designer who left her job to start a knitting business in the bottom of the financial crisis.

These details open up a new country for deeper investigation, and in parallel let in a little window on the author’s life.

Have you discovered a new land through travel fiction recently?

The Hotel Years – Joseph Roth (translated by Michael Hofmann)

Roth was a prolific writer and columnist, with a Jewish heritage, who spent the years after the Great War travelling around Europe and writing about his experiences in various newspaper columns.The Hotel Years

In The Hotel Years, Hofmann has chosen a selection of these columns to illustrate Roth’s experiences and writing style. Each column sketches a detail of his life, from details of the hotel itself to his experiences during the rise of antisemitism.

We also learn how his experiences in the Great War had shaped him, with his jaded view of the futility of armed forces. This is again reflected in cynical views of the rise of violence in Germany during the 1930s, and an understanding of where all this is likely to lead.

But then the mix includes the difficulty in interacting with a beautiful woman in his railway compartment. He also reflections on how life has continued even in Sarajevo, the point where the trigger for the War was fired.

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods tells of Bryson’s attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail after discovering it in the woods near his house in New Hampshire.

Bryson recruits his acquaintance Katz out of fear of bear attacks, and the pair of them agree to tackle the 2100 mile route together. They buy new outdoor kit and set off full of optimism, which lasts for around the first mile. By this stage food has been discarded at the side of the trail and the futility of what they are trying to achieve has set in.

A story of middle-aged men who set out on a tough physical challenge, it is told with the humour and small details that regularly punctuate Bryson’s books.