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NAMES FOR THE SEA, by Sarah Moss (author of NIGHT-WAKING) is our July NonFiction choice

(51 Posts)
TillyBookClub Mon 08-Jul-13 11:06:12

Those of you who read Night-Waking, one of our favourite Bookclub novels of 2012, will remember Sarah Moss' witty and observant take on motherhood, and the impact of trying to bring up two small children on a tiny isolated island. NAMES FOR THE SEA is her very own experience of doing exactly that - in 2009, Moss accepted a job at the University of Iceland, and moved her family to Reykjavik. Her arrival co-incided with the economic collapse, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull and the onset of Arctic winter, where even the sea is silent and instead of waves there are 'grey slabs, piled up against each other like fallen gravestones'. As the weeks turn into months, Moss and her family explore boiling mud geysers and remote farms, struggle to learn ancient customs and modern Icelandic driving skills, and hunt for any type of fresh vegetable that isn't a potato. Packed with fascinating anthropological detail and comparisons between cultures, this is an extremely intelligent, honest and funny account of one English family's adventures in the Arctic Circle.

Sarah's website has an excellent page about Names for The Sea plus her recent blog posts and information on all her other books.

Granta have 50 copies to give to Mumsnetters - to claim yours please go to the book of the month page. We'll post on the thread when all the copies have gone. If you're not lucky enough to bag one of the free books, you can always get your paperback or Kindle version here.

If you get a free copy, we do expect you to come and and tell us what you think. So please feel free to discuss the book here throughout the month and look forward to hearing your thoughts...

TillyBookClub Sun 28-Jul-13 08:05:52

Thanks to everyone for your comments - brilliant to get the discussion going and hear what you thought.

Here is a note from Sarah herself, written especially for Mumsnet Bookclub, on why she wrote the book:

'I didn’t go to Iceland planning to write a book about it, but I knew I was likely to end up writing about the country in some form. I’m moving on with the novel I’m writing now, but for a long time I felt that the North Atlantic archipelago was where I found what I write about. I thought I might write another novel or a children’s book, but as we settled it seemed that my project was to understand and narrate my own experience of Iceland; real life was so absorbing that I wanted the challenge of writing it rather than making up a world I controlled. I found being a foreigner very hard and at first was disabled by self-consciousness and fear of being a nuisance, but in the second half of the year I made it my project to talk to everyone who could answer my questions, and especially to older people who remembered the days – in the 1940s – of taking the milk to market on a horse-drawn sledge and living mostly on dried fish in winter. (Food was a bit of an issue all year.)

My love of Iceland only grew with time, and I still miss it and hope to live there again one day. The landscape, the sea, the seasons and the sky sustained me in some fundamental way, but I’m suspicious of an instinct to celebrate landscape without any serious attempt to integrate socially and culturally, and that was the bit I found hard. Iceland seems very child-friendly after the UK; children are expected to go wherever adults go, expected to be out and about independently from an early age, using urban spaces for their own purposes without anyone fearing or criminalising them. There didn’t seem to be a culture of maternal guilt and there are no stay-at-home parents at all (except my husband). It feels very safe. There are no fences around schools or locks on their doors. Nurseries don’t have intercoms. Everyone swims several times a week and children over six use the appropriate changing room for their sex whichever parent is with them, relying on the kindness of strangers for help when they need it (several times, my older son reappeared having had his hair washed for him by some passing bloke in the shower). Even in central Reykjavik, babies are left outside shops and cafes in pushchairs, and sometimes passers-by will shush a fretful infant. I had been on the more anxious end of the English parenting spectrum, but my children were at the local school and nursery so the only choice was whether to relax and trust that most Icelandic children survive or keep them at home and within arm’s reach for a whole year… We learnt a lot. So did they.'

Lomaamina Sun 28-Jul-13 12:01:28

I've just started reading the book kindly sent to me by Granta and Mumsnet, having very much enjoyed Night Waking and I'm finding it an unputdownable, absorbing read. It speaks to me on many different levels.

Putting aside the lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the fascinating word pictures of the strange urban setting where many of the buildings are lying empty due to the financial crash, but are kept ticking over so they don't literally freeze up, I find the author's handling of the notion of 'foreignness' the most interesting aspect of what I've read so far.

The sense of having one's presumptions of what is correct confounded by a society that is on the face of it very similar to British society (especially the very particular particularities of British academic life), but profoundly different both due to its history and its landscape is, for me, what is making me enjoy the book even more. The author's drive to get to grips with Icelandic life by engaging with its inhabitants and their lifestyles, rather than living in a bubble of temporary residence is impressive.

I would also add that the author's forays into understanding the food culture of the place touched me in particular and I was struck by the fact that the author mentions that gastronomy is recognised as one of the arts by Nordic House. I'd say that perhaps I'd not agree that is in an Art, but this book demonstrates how gastronomy is an inherent aspect of how a society is to be understood.

Highly recommended.

aristocat Mon 29-Jul-13 10:42:17

I am also loving this book smile and the Northern Lights description just enhances the need to see it for oneself ::sigh::

The book is beautifully written and there is real love/passion for the country despite its dark nights, lack of second hand goods, limited diet and isolation.

Not finished reading it yet, but would easily recommend to others.

AnonYonimousBird Mon 29-Jul-13 13:10:37

Mine has arrived, but in post holiday chaotic sort out mode, so I can't read it just yet! Will do soon I hope, thanks very much.

Persistentdonor Mon 29-Jul-13 17:45:56

I am about half way through "Names for the Sea" by Sarah Moss, and while I would suggest The Times comment "hilarious" is slightly overstated, I am enjoying the book, and finding it amusing as well as informative. For anyone who likes reading travel books or is thinking of moving to a Nordic region it is definitely a must read.

AugustRose Wed 31-Jul-13 10:24:00

I am about half way through too and am really enjoying it. It's not the type of book I would buy myself as I have to admit I usually go with fiction but I love her style of writing and she has definitely made me more interested in visiting Iceland. I have found the part about the crisis really interesting, it's good to read a first hand account of how people in Iceland felt about it.

Looking forward to reading the rest.

fuckwittery Wed 31-Jul-13 21:41:57

I have finished this now and loved it, thank you very much. I usually find it hard to get into travel books, but usually enjoy if I can persevere, but I had no problem at all engaging with this book immediately, Sarah's writing style really appeals to me. I enjoyed going on a journey with her overcoming some of her fears and prejudices in her new unfamiliar environment but yet she does immerse herself and tells a really interesting story taking us on her journey into Icelandic culture. I also would have liked to have heard a bit more from her husband's perspective. The tension between the new place and her wish to understand it is really well written. I even liked the elves (but I am a Tolkien fan).

gazzalw Fri 02-Aug-13 08:00:43

I managed to get my reluctant-to-read 12 year old DS to read the bit about the errupting volcano threatening the livelihood/existence of the major fishing port....he was gripped and it's not often you can say that when he reads a book!

I know several people who've holidayed in Iceland and I'm beginning to understand why....

mummyto2boys01 Sun 04-Aug-13 16:57:41

Has anyone else not received their copy yet? I still haven't received mine. sad

WhitegoldWielder Mon 05-Aug-13 08:11:46

Finally got my hands on my copy as my DH swiped it! He hardly ever reads books unless they are sport biographies but he made time for this one by even waking up earlier to fit in 10 minutes of reading.

He really enjoyed it and thought it was well written and explained how different the country and culture were very well.

Thanks mumsnet - I will start it soon and add my review when done!

AugustRose Mon 05-Aug-13 17:50:38

OK so I have finally finished the book and I loved it. There are so many things I could talk about and have probably bored my OH silly with all the times I stopped reading to tell him something.

I didn’t mind the elf parts although was surprised by how many pages she gave them considering her obvious disbelief. Sarah’s description of the landscape reminded me of a documentary I watched not too long ago about Tove Jansson and the Moomins, which I love!

It would have been nice to hear about her husband’s experience. She talked a lot about how the children fitted in and seemed to do so many things with her oldest son, that it would have been good to read how he filled his days when she was at work and the children were at school.

I was truly sad along with her as she described their final weeks then days and didn’t want them to leave, feeling that they hadn’t really had a chance to visit the whole island. So I was pleased to read the last chapters when they returned the following summer to enjoy the rest of Iceland as a holiday.

I’m so pleased to have been sent this book as I now have another author to look out for.

Thank you Mumsnet

lilsupersparks Tue 13-Aug-13 20:50:34

I won a copy of this book and absolutely loved it. I have always wanted to visit Iceland, and although Moss describes it's bleak aspects well, she still left me wanting more. I could acutely feel her disappointment at having to leave, whilst also empathising with the difficulties she had whilst living there. I will certainly be re reading the book - especially the final chapter which went into detail about many places I would love to visit!

gazzalw Wed 14-Aug-13 18:24:28

Still reading this but enjoying every minute of much to learn about an entirely different culture so close to us really!

halkerstone Thu 15-Aug-13 08:26:09

I'm thoroughly enjoying the book and have been fascinated by the differences that the author highlights such as babies being left in prams outside shops/no self-consciousness around nakedness whilst visiting swimming pools and the lack of security within nurseries and schools compared to the UK. I could identify with Sarah as she planned to arrive at her first lecture on time, only to be thwarted by the strangeness of the foreign set-up and lack of language skills. The reader gains a real understanding of life in Iceland and the beauty of the landscape. I haven't yet read about the elves- but will pass the book on to my DH as I'm sure that will mean that Iceland features on our future holiday list.

Lomaamina Thu 15-Aug-13 18:38:03

I decided I should tie the ends of my report started a few chapters into the book (see earlier post).

The book sustained its excellence throughout its length (although I must admit skimming throught the elves bit, being an all-time cynic). Still, it added to the rich picture the author gives of the layers of cultural specifity that might not be obvious from observers just passing through the capital.

It was great hearing about settling back into England and I'd love to see if the author's next creation is set in Cornwall (which of course has it's own special landscape and culture, albeit without volcanos).

Thanks again to the publishers of giving me the priviledge of reading this book, which I've passed on to a young colleague who has family ties in Iceland and is delighted with my generous 'gift'!

AnonYonimousBird Tue 20-Aug-13 10:04:48

I am half way through and really enjoying it. Sorry to be a bit late to the thread, but chaotic holidays have slowed down my ability to read and I didn't want to not post. I find the writing clear and so descriptive - I've never been to Iceland, but for years and have had a bit of a longing to go and discover it and this book only makes me want it more. Looking forward to continuing the read very soon.

gazzalw Tue 20-Aug-13 17:21:03

I'm still reading it (and am not even half way thro' it!) and not seeming to get much time to do so....gone are the days of reading a book a day grin

minimuffin Sat 24-Aug-13 16:27:21

Hi - thanks to Mumsnet and Granta for my copy! Sorry for the late post too, I am about two thirds of the way through now and really, really enjoying it (it was the only book I have been reading on a 2 week holiday and haven't even finished it - tragic what 3 small children do to reading habits!!). I also won Night Waking last year in a giveaway and loved it once I got into it. I think Sarah Moss is a gifted writer and in this book, as in Night Waking, she captures the world as experienced with small children in tow - the joys and the frustrations - so sharply. She also writes beautifully about landscapes, and the effect of the seasons - it's all very vivid.

This is a lovely book, really good travel writing - it seems to come very naturally to her. Lots of it really speaks to me and my interests. It has brought back memories of my time spent abroad - she talks about how infantilising it is to be a foreigner, crippled by lack of local knowledge and the language and I SO identify with that. I remember the excruciating feeling of having to have things, jokes, cultural references explained to me in much the same way as you explain to a 7 year old - it's awful! You can't be yourself. But once you battle through that the whole experience of immersing yourself in a new place and culture is so enriching and she shares it beautifully. The bits about the driving and the elves are really funny, but her writing is so understated that she manages not to make digs at her host country. I guess you have to be careful about that kind of thing when writing about real people and places - it must have been a difficult line to tread at times.

I found the bit about how Icelanders have children earlier in life, not necessarily staying together to raise them, with no-one giving up work, really interesting. I've been mulling over it a lot since reading that. Also curious to know what they do with toddlers - she says you never see them out and about. I will keep reading to find out and will post back when I've finished it.

shaktar Mon 26-Aug-13 12:04:26

I really enjoyed Night Waking and from the moment I started this book, realised I would enjoy it as much. The authors 'voice' as you read it is engaging, detailed without being florid, and felt like I was listening to an interesting new friend telling me really interesting stories than a typical hard to digest travel book (though I admit I skimmed the elf part as well!).

daimbardiva Wed 28-Aug-13 14:23:30

I was delighted to receive this book (thank you Mumsnet and Granta!) as I have a great affection for, and interest in, Iceland having worked with Icelandic colleagues and been lucky enough to visit the country for both business and pleasure. I was immeditately drawn to the book, by the titles and also by the fantastic cover art, which I thought at first was seed-pods from a plant, but then realised (days later!) was actually an aerial view of people swimming - very clever! Now that I've finished the book, and had time to mull it over, I've realised that I did really enjoy it, and that I found it really thought-provoking. The reason I only recognised this once I'd finished the book is that it took me a bit of time to "gel" with it, as Sarah Moss's experience of Iceland is very Reykjavik-centric, and mine is pretty much the opposite having spent more time in the East and North of the country. I found her honesty really refreshing - this was no gushy, effusive travel book; the author was quite candid about the isolation she felt as a foreigner in a country which ,on the face of it, we'd expect it to be quite similar to the UK culturally.

Some things did really resonate with me - I had to smile when she talked about how Icelanders only say thank you when something actually deserves gratitude, and find the British habit of thanking everyone profusely for everything odd. It reminded me very much of my Icelandic colleagues (and other scandinavian colleagues) telling me how they sometimes found it hard to work out from my emails what I needed them to do, as they couldn't get past the sea of "sorry to bother you"s and "if it's not too much trouble"s!

I found the sections about the "kreppa" really interesting - my time there was in 2007, before the banking crisis, and life certainly seemed good for most Icelanders and I've often wondered how things might have changed.

I think the thing I liked most about the book was Sarah Moss's lovely descriptions of the Icelandic friends she made and people she met - she managed to characterise them so well, they almost leapt off the page, just like characters in a novel.

I found the discussion of childcare and family life in Iceland really interesting too - again, a culture you'd expect to be fairly similar to ours, but with quite different attitudes.

Like others, whilst the elf section was interesting, and certainly merits inclusion as it's such a unique feature or Icelandic life, I felt that it was perhaps dwelled upon too much.

All in all, I really liked this book, and will certainly be seeking out "Night-waking" and keeping a look out for Sarah Moss's future work.

gailforce1 Fri 30-Aug-13 18:26:49

Many thanks to MN and Granta for a copy of this book. It was not a book I would have picked myself so I felt very lucky to receive a copy. I have no knowledge of Iceland and found myself engrossed immediately, loving her descriptions of people as others have said. I am now on the look out for a copy of Night Waking.
I have lent my copy to a friend and have several others who I know will enjoy it so my copy will be well thumbed and, I am sure, enjoyed.

LadyMilfordHaven Fri 30-Aug-13 18:28:36

oh i loved it - just not the elves

missorinoco Mon 09-Sep-13 20:02:56

I thought this was a fantastic book. The only travel books I tend to read are Bill Bryson, so I was pleased to receive a book I wouldn't usually buy.

It was well written, and gave an interesting feel to living as an expat in Iceland, to the scenery of Iceland.

I have lent the book out recommended.

gazzalw Thu 12-Sep-13 20:48:53

Finally finished - it took me so long not because I didn't enjoy it (I truly did) but the summer was hectic and didn't leave me with much spare time to read.

I have several friends who have visited Iceland for holidays including one couple who spent their honeymoon there! I could never understand the appeal but now I've read the book, I think I could easily persuaded to do a trip there in the foreseeable future.

I was hooked from the off and was truly disappointed when it came to an end. I found her powers of description very visual so much so that I really felt that I was experiencing the wonders of the landscape along with her! Her descriptions of her trips beyond the city boundaries made me think that Iceland, very cold weather aside, seemed like a more brooding and unforgiving version of parts of New Zealand.

I actually really enjoyed all the stuff about the elves but then I'm a great Tolkien fan and it fed into all the fantastical mythological stuff in his novels that hooks me in. I can't say I believe in the notion of elves but I did truly feel that the elf-experts she talked with had 'other worldly' experiences which don't fit into our Western European belief systems or experiences.

All in all a brilliant read and I have already recommended it to several people.

CarolLesley Thu 07-Nov-13 16:43:09

I have just got round to reading this, and really enjoyed it. It was easy to read, and I found it a really interesting take on Iceland, and the usual travel fiction genre.

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