Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

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My Interest

India is a country I’ve long wanted to visit. It is a fascinating place. The story interested me for that reason and because the young woman is of my own kids’ generation.

The Story

Shalini is a young college grad working in a lifeless job and yearning to make a difference.  She decides to go off and look for a man who used to visit their family–a man from Kashmir, a troubled region near the dangerous boarder with Pakistan.  In alternating chapters, she tells of her time in Kashmir and the story of her trouble middle-class upbringing in Bangalore, explaining  how her family knew the man for whom she is searching why he was important to her.

My Thoughts

I sincerely doubt if one American in 1000 today could find India and Pakistan on the map, let alone the Himalayas (which Americans pronounce incorrectly) or Kashmir or Bangalore. We hear of India and Pakistan only when the word “nuclear” can be added or a disaster is perpetrated by an American chemical company. Even fewer Americans know that a minor member of the royal family, Lord Mountbatten, (Prince Philip’s Uncle and Prince Charles’ mentor) afraid to be away from his naval career too long, set an arbitrary date for full Indian Independence. To make that long story short, he divided India into two nations–Pakistan being the new country born out of a majority Muslim area. This area of the so-called “partition” has been violent almost ever since. If Americans consider the mess we have currently on the Mexican border and then add in religion, and religious extremists who are eager to kill or die or both, you can about picture the region Shalini went to in this book.

All through the story, I thought of myself and my fellow Peace Corps volunteers arriving bright-eyed, pukingly earnest and eager to “help” by telling people how to do things the American way. Shalini’s experience was so similar. The feeling of “family” created with the locals with whom you lived [although the dictator I lived under did not allow foreign volunteers to live with host families as is the norm in nearly every Peace Corps country–even 1960’s India itself where President Carter’s mother, “Miss Lillian” served in retirement], the sense of “belonging” you gain as the community becomes geographically familiar to you, and self-esteem you develop as the languages and gestures of the people start to become understandable. You feel yourself “assimilate.” You think you are a local, a real resident. A part of the community.

All of that is laughable. You are so ridiculously naive. You find this out when you go to leave at the end of service and they want your stuff. Shalini, too, found out just how naive she was and I relived every emotion along with her.

Every word of this book rang true. The emotion, the process of assimilation–it was so chillingly accurate. Yet, in the end, Shalini found out what an impact she had [no spoilers] and how naive she was.

My Verdict

4.5 Stars

The Far Field by  Madhuri Vijay

I listened to the audiobook.

I learned of this book from the Podcast “Reading Women,” episode 70.

 

Review: Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali

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First of all, thank you to The Book Satchel for bringing this book to my attention. You can read her review of the book here.

Second, how often do you get the chance to read an 80-year old novel, written in Turkish, that stands up to the test of time? Translators Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe seem to have done the perfect jobb of rendering every nuance of thought and word into English. It was so well done I had to remind myself that this was a translation!

The Story

Quiet, down-trodden Raif Efendi sits alone in an office translating bank communications into German day after dull day. After work he goes home to a house crammed with relatives who disdain him. No one seems to care or wonder about him. Yet he harbors a secret.

That secret centers around the time he spent in Berlin in the 1920s supposedly learning about the manufacting of fine, scented soap. Instead he experiences a different life. To say much more would be posting spoilers and I just cannot do this–the story is too wonderful.

This is a novella so the perfect short read for a busy holiday season.

The Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali.

This book is apparently BACK on the bestseller lists in Turkey these days, too, which makes it even more fascinating. I listened to the excellent audio version.

Reading The World

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I had trouble deciding on this book. It is writen by a Turkish author, about a Turkish man but mostly set in Berlin. Above then is a map to show the proximity of both countries. You decide.

Review: The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

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A Tiny Bit of Background

Dave Eggers captivated me with The Circle, his eery corporate management by “like” novel that resonates with me becasue of my own experience in a culture that has a similar idea-sprouting routine (happily mine is nice, not menacing). His newest book, The Monk of Mokha, is a nonfiction account of a young man, a child of immigrants, who chose success.

Choosing Success

Mokhtar Alkhanshali is a 24 year old Yemeni American, working as a doorman in San Francisco and trying to go to college, when his girl friend says “You ever looked across the street?” That simple phrase, and the iconic statute it pointed to, started a rise to riches like something from an 19th century Horatio Alger novel.

 

 

 

Hills Brother’s Coffee statute and logo

Maybe you’ve heard of Arabica coffee? Sounds a lot like….Arabic. Don’t worry, I didn’t catch that till I read the book, either! Apparently Hills Brothers Coffee had–they put a stereotypical old school Yemeni on their can and made him a statue at their old corporate head quarters–across from where Maktar and his girl friend were talking that fateful night.

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Well, it turns out coffee originates in Yemen. The same Yemen now enduring war and famine. But, coffee farmers there didn’t really know what they were growing–at least not in terms of what well-heeled San Franciscan, and Americans in general, would pay for the world’s best cup of coffee. Happily, Mokhtar had a wild idea to make Yemeni coffee known as the world’s best. Happier still, he spoke the language fluently, had a group of fellow Yemenis and others in San Francisco and elsewhere to bankroll his dream and the tenacity to stick with it.

What impressed me was that Mokhtar  grew up in a dirt poor neighborhood full of  those entertainment places whose name brings lots of spam so I won’t say it, as well as guns, an open drug market and lots of booze. The schools were pretty bad. Yemeni immigrants took the normal new-comer jobs of janitors, cab drivers, cleaning ladies, etc.  Mokhtar could easily have resigned himself to such a life–or maybe a notch or two up the immigrant ladder. Instead of wasting time on a pro sports or celebrity dream, Mokhtar, when not out goofing around with friends, read anything he could get his hands on–even Plato’s Republic. You see, Mokhtar choose to succeed.

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When he decided to go to Yemen and export coffee he did his homework with a vengeance. He sought out the best help and advisors, educated himself, took industry certification exams and more. When he landed in Yemen he was ready except for…. [No Spoilers!] But when his ship comes in….well, you’ll have to read the book to find out!

I truly hope Dave Eggers will produce a Young Person’s version of this book. Parents may not be pleased that Mokhtar put college aside to pursue his dream, but the education he gave himself, plus the industry certifications he earned, were worth as much or more, to the success of his dream. I loved this book–and I don’t even like coffee. Go figure!

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

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Here is the New York Times review link.

Here is an interview from PBS’ News Hour

 

Review: We Fed An Island by Jose Andres

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“You should never feel guilty about feeling ambitious when you are trying to help other people. If you don’t dream then reality never changes.”

The Story

After hurricane Maria leveled Puerto Rico, chef Jose Andres and others got together to feed the people of the islands while FEMA, the Red Cross and others dithered and followed standard operating procedures that left people hungry, homeless and without hope. Military MREs were given out but were barely edible.

“A plate of food is not just a few ingredients cooked and served together. It is a story of who you are, the source of your pride, the foundation of your family and community. Cooking isn’t just nourishing, it’s empowering.”

As he tells his story, Andres tells of other disasters and how groups responded to the crisis. He documents the many times that President Trump’s TWEETS were nowhere near the reality and times when the President seemingly intentionally mislead the American people on the effort in Puerto Rico. He shows how ridiculous much of the response process is, how much over-spending and under-delivering is involved and how impractical many solutions are. Then he explains how he re-wrote the rule book on feeding people after a disaster.

“The group seemed to like my energy, but that was about it….They looked at me like I was a smart ass with some crazy vision of saving the world.”

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My Thoughts

Having seen the foreign aid process first hand–the graft and corruption that eats up much of it, I know he is telling the truth. Having researched charities and the amount per dollar that actually reaches the intended “target” versus what is spent on staff, offices, transportation, etc., I know he is telling the truth.  FEMA, a name now reviled after Hurricane Katrina, gets more well-deserved criticism. STOP–standarad operating procedures really can mean STOP or stopped.

Having visited Puerto Rico, worked with educators and educational administrators there back in the early 90s, and having an uncle with a home on Vieques, I know everything he said about the kindness and generostiy of the Puerto Rican people is true. The communities pulling together is exactly what happens there.

Sadly, the legislative history of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States (Puerto Ricans ARE U.S. Citizens) was very dull even to me, a former law librarian who enjoys researching things like that.

As a librarian and historian, I loved seeing how social media is capturing history in the making. Andres made excellent use of it in documenting the story.

Some Things I Learned

I did not expect to hear the Southern Baptist Convention praised in this book! I had no idea that they provide fully staffed mobile kitchens to help in Red Cross disaster relief efforts. That was fascinating.

I may have misunderstood–I was, after all, listening while driving on my daily commute, but I did not know that the Red Cross spends only what is donated for that cause–not it’s millions in general. That shocked me. I know they are ridiculously wealthy, have horrendously high overhead, but I had thought they used the money on hand for each disaster. I knew they were a virtual government agency, but I really didn’t know the full extent of that. I had long ago stopped donating to them, but this reinforces my decision.

Regret

Why or why didn’t he include recipes!

P.S.

Jose? Please find a different word for focus. I loved your accent but I heard a very different word in your accent! (laughing)

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Review: Halsey Street by Naima Coster

Reading Around the World: The Dominican Republic

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Have You Found Your Life Yet?

The Story

Penelope Grand is the adult only child of a depressed father and a mother who couldn’t take her husband’s depression any longer. Her father, Ralph, grew up in an orphanage in New York, her mother is from “The D.R.” [Dominican Republic]. Ralph’s life was tied up in his now failed record shop. He has since had any number of trials and tribulations. Mirella, Penelope’s mother, has returned to the D.R. to make a new life. Penelope, too, has tried a new life–in Pittsburgh places. Now she is back in Brooklyn to care for her Dad and sort out her life–only….[no spoilers].

My Thoughts

I love it when I find a debut that doesn’t read like a debut. Coster has the strength and determination as a writer to pen a character who isn’t un-loveable but also isn’t very likable. Her writing is excellent–I especially enjoyed the memories of Penelope’s visits to her Grandmother in the D.R. and of her Grandmother’s early life.

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What I didn’t like, as I alluded earlier, was Penny–Penelope. She was sulky, rude, angry with a chip on her shoulder the size of Argentina. She can think of no way to describe or speak of physical intimacy being “F—” which got very, very tiresome.[Minor Spoiler alert!!!] She kept referring to her short-term lover’s wife as “the landlord” (which she was) and never as “his wife.” That was very indicative of her way of seeing the world. [End of minor spoiler]. Her bluntness was beyond rudeness–it was often savage. She nurses her hurt like it was the only way to sustain her life. She needs therapy–and fast. Maybe even a Rottweiler as a service dog–a service dog to those crossing her path so they can be safe from her!

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She finally has a small epiphany about the time her mother asks her the question at the top of this review. Sadly, she does not go on to sort it all out. I would have thought the obvious answer was staring her in the face: With all those rich white hipsters invading the neighborhood, find a new location and reopen the record shop. Hipsters LIVE for music on “Viynal” almost as much as they do for coffee. Heck, throw in a coffee bar while you are at it! Paint the place yourself–showcase your art, don’t waste that year you sulked through the Rhode Island School of Design! Let people SEE your talent instead of your nastiness for a change, Pen!

Halsey Street by Naima Coster

This book is currently on sale for Kindle for only $4.99.

Reading Around the World: Philippines My Faraway Home by Mary McKay Maynard

The Story

Before business went global after World War II, the people who were mostly sent to interesting places like the Philippines were either diplomats, bankers, mining or other engineers or missionaries.  Author Mary McKay Maynard is the daughter of an American mining engineer who was working  for a mining company in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor causing the U.S. entry into World War II.  Mary and her parents were trapped.

Even though her father had been reassured by General MacArthur personally that there was no reason to flee the islands, the family and several others were trapped. Then a child of elementary school age, who had once been a playmate of MacArthur’s young son, Arthur,  Mary tells the story of her family’s time in a remote mining facility in a true jungle. Along with several other Americans and other expatriates, the group hung on, making do, hoping they were remote enough that the Japanese would ignore them.

The story is also told thru entries in her mother’s diary.  The family’s courage and resourcefulness helped them to hold out away from Japanese internment even as others in their small community abandoned the remote location.

My Thoughts

This book is exactly why I love memoirs and first-hand accounts even more than fiction. While Mary was telling the story through a child’s eyes her mother’s diary entries revealed far more of the emotional strain and personal hardship that the family endured. This was a very compelling book.

Rating

4 stars

Interviews With the Author

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For a local newspaper’s interview, click here.

To Listen to NPR’s Bob Edward’s talk with Mary McKay Maynard about her family’s ordeal

NPR Interview

 

 

Reading Around the World: Laos: The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang

What Made Me Choose This Book

Memoirs are a staple in my reading life. I enjoy hearing how other people have lived their lives. I especially enjoy memoirs of challenges. When I discovered a memoir of a Hmong girls growing up as a refugee in the United States, I knew I’d enjoy it–how ever harrowing the tale. And, I was right.

In the mid 1980s I worked with a large number of resettled refugees from the Vietnam war–including a few Hmong. The circle of refugees came from Vietnam itself and from Cambodia and Laos. They started over. Their children, and the young adult refugees, fared best. They took the traditional path to success–math and science. Engineering in the case of most of these refugees. College spots that American students at that time weren’t eager to fill at what was then a branch campus of  a state university. Nearly all found career success.

So, I started the Latehomecomer with a small amount of first-hand exposure to this group of refugees, a few of whom I kept up with somewhat until about 2000 when the ties became too tenuous, the memories of common experiences too old. They had mostly scattered from that city by then, as I had.

The Latehomecomer Story

Kao Kalia Yang’s family was part of a group of refugees arriving a little later than my former co-workers. Like so many Hmong in America they landed in Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Minnesota–a world light years from their one-time home in Laos. Part of an ethic minority in Laos, where they were badly treated, Hmong communities would be mistreated and often viewed with hostility in their new country, the USA, as well. Happily for the author, her parents tried to focus their children on the opportunities of America, instead of the short comings and out-right cruelties. In her case, after problems in school at first,  it worked well. She ended up going to prestigious Carleton College, one of nation’s most selective Liberal Arts colleges.

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In addition to the family’s own story, the book also relates a few tales from Hmong folklore told by the author’s elderly grandmother. They make it possible to understand the worldview or mindset that the family and other Hmong brought with them to America–the lens through which they viewed American life upon arrival. They also help us to understand the Hmong culture which is often viewed with mistrust by Americans.

Finally, there  is a vivid recounting of the Hmong funeral which lasts for days and involves just about anyone who wants to show up. The grocery list alone was staggering–the number of beef cattle and chickens slaughtered alone was amazing. The rights themselves were a folklorist’s dream to witness, even just in words.

Rating

3.5

I found the folklore a bit trying. Sadly, I just couldn’t get that interested in it. I was engrossed, though, in the story of their day-to-day life of trying to succeed in America. In Peace Corps, I too, had to hit the ground running with support similar to theirs. Her writing is incredibly evocative–I felt I was “there” throughout the entire book. I especially wanted to sample some of the incredible food she described here and there in the book.

I recommend this to anyone, but especially to those who may be concerned about refugees or who have a sizeable Hmong community nearby.

Interview

Here is an interesting interview with the author.

Book Trailer

Review: Selection Day by Aravind Adiga: Reading Around the World: India

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Cricket is a sport no American understands unless, like the late William F. Buckley or Ted and Bobby Kennedy, they were forced to attend a British public (private) school. So, it’s no surprise that a book on cricket was hidden under a cover design that mimics other recent successful diverse or international novels while the rest of the world was given cricket on the cover.

You know, it’s often said that Indians have two real religions, the cinema – Bollywood – and cricket. It’s the equivalent of sort of baseball, basketball, football and Christmas put together. The question is not why cricket. The question is how you can escape cricket in India.                      (Aravind Adiga on NPR)

One of the strangest legacies of British colonialism is cricket. Many countries in the British Commonwealth (i.e. former Empire) play cricket–though Canada isn’t one of them. India has made cricket, as the quote above says, into a religion–a national obsession, like hockey in Canada or the NBA in America. Never mind in the bygone days of the Raj, Indians would only have been allowed into the Cricket Club as waiters or cleaners. Today it is truly their game.

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The Good

Happily, you don’t have to understand a thing about cricket to read the book. Other than understanding that it goes on for ever and that a Century is a good thing to earn for your team, you can just lalalala thru any action. The focus isn’t so much on the game as on the behind-the-scenes.

Radha and Maju Kumar are the sons of an itinerant chutney salesman living in a poor area of Mumbai, India. Cricket is the fast track to prosperity for all of them and their father has raised them to be the best. (Think NBA straight from high school and you have an idea how this will go.) His peculiar methods of “training” his sons include examining their genitalia and regulating their diet. Both boys have done little in life except go to school and then practice cricket. “Selection Day” is like the NFL or NBA draft. Since no one has the insanity of college-to-pros that the USA has, the selection is for “junior” teams. So imagine being drafted in Middle School for, say, the Junior Detroit Pistons, or the Junior Dallas Cowboys. You get the idea.

The talent is there. Getting selected is another story–a story of corruption. (Think inner city basketball players being recruited by excellent suburban schools and helped to move). The Chutney Salesman (the father) goes all out to get his sons into sponsorship that will lead to selection. But Tommy Sir, as he’s known, isn’t the most scrupulous guy around. He sponsors the boys then, in a way, pits them against each other. The result is ugly.

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I found the story of corruption in cricket very interesting. I’ve read a few things on cricket for one of my novels and found that not everyone likes the way televised cricket especially is going. It can be played in “pajamas” as the newly allowed bright-colored uniforms are mockingly called (like tennis, once upon a Wimbledon, cricket has historically been played in long white trousers and white shirts with team blazers, caps and tennis-style sweaters only betraying team colors). Critics say it’s being made over into baseball for television. In fact, baseball, is teased about in the story.

Oh, my Darling, my Cricket. Phixed and Phucked (p. 143)

But with two teenage boys and an odd father, you know there’s more to the story. In addition to Radha’s desire to study chemistry and be a CSI investigator like those on his favorite imported t.v. show, there are is the story of another boy. Enter wealthier, suburban cricketer, J.A. His life is worlds away from that of the brothers–in more ways than just economically. The coming-of-age part of the story centers around his homosexuality and the sexual coming-of-age of the brothers–especially Manthu.

The Bad

After about midway I found the novel disappointing in many ways. Coming-of-age stories are a favorite of mine and this one, with the added element of taboo sexual preference should have been interesting. Sadly, this part of the story didn’t go well. J.A. is not the most likable of characters. Exploration of sexuality is a normal and expected part of growing up. J.A. though was spoiled and manipulative. I disliked the boys’ father, loathed Tommy Sir and didn’t really like the way this part of the story went.

Conclusion

I enjoyed the look into Indiana life and into the country’s obsession for cricket. I love any book that shows normal, daily life in another country and this part of the book did not disappoint. I could feel, smell, taste India the way Adiga portrayed it. It makes me want to visit the country even more. I will definitely read more from this author.

Verdict: Three Stars

You can read a transcript of the author’s NPR interview here.

Reading The Globe: Dominican Republic: How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

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My Thoughts on This Book

 

This is a not-so-typical immigrant-slash-coming-of-age story aimed mostly at young adults. I did skip one story-line that bothered me. Overall, I enjoyed this one. Cross-cultural experiences always hold my attention, and immigrant stories are among the most interesting. This was very well written. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarz. [This review was originally published on my old blog on July 23, 2013.]

A few of my favorite quotes from this book:

 

“…his eyes lidded with hopefulness….”

“…how we lie to ourselves when we fall in love with the wrong man….”

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

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Reading Around the World: Iceland

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Before finding this book thru a mention of the author’s work on another blog, all I knew about Iceland was that it was somehow related to Norway, their economy tanked badly about a decade ago and they knit those fabulous sweaters and make those white-ish coats–both fashions that were popular in the 80s if I remember correctly. I had a professor who did his PhD on the Anglo-Icelandic Cod War–God knows why I remember that! I think there were SALT or START talks in Reykjavik–maybe with Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev? I have never knowingly met anyone from Iceland, but a friend worked for many years with a doctor from there, so I knew their naming convention–how they arrive at their “surname” or last name, was quite different from that of Americans.

Here are a few things I learned:

  1. Icelanders, like Americans, drive everywhere and in big cars.
  2. Everyone goes to school until 20–but they start out with several years of preschool in which they play. I like the play part–much, much better than the drill and kill in our preschools and pre-K/K today. Here’s a great blog post (different author) on Icelandic Preschool–it goes well with the discussions in the book. That’s just fyi in case your book club wants to read this!
  3. Their dietary staples are potatoes and dairy–including buttermilk. Protein comes mostly from fish especially haddock  (understandable) and lamb. They traditionally have preserved certain foods in whey. I’ve never encountered that before.
  4. They used to eat cod liver oil on bread, not because they liked it, but because it had to be to survive. They got used to it.
  5. There are live, active volcanoes and there was an eruption while the author was living there in 2007.
  6. There are people there who believe in Elves–not the cute little Ernie from Keebler or those silly garden gnomes, but huge trolls. They figure into the tourist trade nicely.
  7. Everyone learns to knit in school and many continue throughout life. They knit “openly” in meetings–just like Eleanor Roosevelt and Lilian Gilbreth (“Cheaper by the Dozen”) did  back in the day.
  8. In spite of it “seeming” safer than many other countries, Iceland, possibly due to the long winters,  alcohol, and the tanked-economy, has a very high domestic violence rate that isn’t well known.
  9. Children have freedom to do things without hovering, micro-managing parents. Babies in prams are left outside shops and restaurants routinely. No one bothers them.
  10. Sadly, when the main highway was built it created ghost towns of places that depended on the supply boats coming. Many cannot be reached by road and the boats stopped after the switch was made to trucking supplies.

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Reykjavik

The author, Sarah Moss, is a professor of English from the U.K. who took leave to work in Iceland. She and her husband and two young sons would have enjoyed staying in Iceland, but could not afford it on the salary. Sadly, this colored her views on things. She is very opinionated on the wastefulness of Icelanders in their big houses and big cars. She complains that no one uses public transportation or walks when the weather allows. Cycling isn’t popular either, to her regret. She finds it difficult to locate second hand goods (apparently she didn’t ask the right people or try Facebook or something). She’s a fairly typical expatriate in this regard–not understanding why people “abroad” don’t do as they do “at home.”

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Her harping on such things, plus her total disregard for the culinary culture, economy and logistics of bringing in fresh fruit and veggies got old.  I also thought she should have gone on the trip her husband wanted, but that’s another matter. She seems like she really is a very decent–and often fun person to know and work with. Her complaints are the kind of things that rankle when anyone lives abroad (I know some similar things got to me in Malawi).

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The two most interesting things to me where the knitting and their approach to charity. Everyone learns to knit in school and even men knit in adulthood. But those sweaters I love? There’s no ancient tradition at all! They’re post war! Who knew?  Several of the author’s Icelandic co-workers made themselves such sweaters just to prove to themselves they could–just like a lot of people approach crafts here. That was fun. FYI: There are organized knitting tours in Iceland! Now THAT I’d love, especially this Hiking and Knitting Between Fire and Ice tour next August! But I digress–these weren’t in the book!

With the economy falling apart, many people lost jobs and it became very difficult to pay foreign-currency bank loans for houses and cars. A friend arranged for her to visit a charity that gave out food boxes. Icelanders don’t line up. They honor the order in which people arrived just fine, but they stand apart at bus stops, in stores or anywhere else that a line would form. Most found it hard to believe that people were starving because they wouldn’t admit there were problems. A further issue was that many “foreigners” were getting charity–even if those “foreigners” had been there for a long time and weren’t really that foreign.  That, sadly, is often the case today.

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Overall I enjoyed the book, but had no interest in the Elves–aside from how they are co-opted into Christmas. I was far more interested in daily life and societal norms than in folklore. As a follow-up, I plan to read at least one of the author’s novels.

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss

Want to learn more? Check out this fun Book Riot post on Iceland: A Country of Bibliophiles

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