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‘Almost Nearly Perfect People’ reveals that – surprise! – Nordic nations aren’t quite nirvanal

A British Journalist goes myth-hunting throughout Scandinavia

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Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
By Michael Booth
Picador
400 pp.

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On a global scale, Scandinavia seems to lack, well, global scale. One country – Iceland – counts fewer residents than Bakersfield, Calif. And all the Nordic countries combined are home to a territory encompassing roughly the population of Texas – but without the Lone Star State's culinary flair, despite the actual existence of a “Finnish-Scandinavian Tex-Mex” restaurant called Amarillo.

But Scandinavia is the place to beat judging by plenty of other numbers, and not just ones that have to do with pastries, furniture, and dragon tattoos. Nordic nations top recent worldwide rankings as the best places on earth to be a woman (Iceland), get educated (Finland), be prosperous (Norway), save the environment (Sweden), and just be happy (Denmark).

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Sounds awesome. Maybe we could become so ideal ourselves ourselves if we wish upon a Swedish meatball from Ikea while talking on a Nokia phone and listening to Bjork. Or maybe we’d better throw the jokes aside – we (Norwegian) wood if we could! – and get the real story from someone who’s actually been to all five Nordic countries in search of truths to uncover and hoopla to de-hype.

Enter a British journalist named Michael Booth. He specializes in travel, actually lives in Denmark and somehow avoids mentioning Abba in every other paragraph of his engaging and revealing new book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.

Scandinavians, it turns out, are more complicated than statistics would suggest, and they’re hardly all enjoying fulfilling lives of ease and enlightenment. That’s barely enough of a lesson to fill a paragraph, let alone a book. Thankfully, Booth goes further by blending an astute analysis of Nordic life with side trips into economics, national psychoanalysis, and the reliability of country-ranking. It’s all made accessible thanks to a (mostly) gentle dose of (mostly) non-corny humor.

As he notes, Scandinavia is a bit of a “collective blind spot” despite our Western obsessions with things like Danish architecture and blonde Swedes. While he goes too far in noting that nobody can name the Danish foreign minister – perhaps even the US president can’t do that – he does have a point about the impossibility of naming “a Finnish person. Any Finnish person.” We read the rankings, wonder how to pronounce Reykjavik and carry on with little to no awareness of a “more complex, often darker, occasionally quite troubling picture.”

On the bright side, there’s plenty of equality in the northern tundra.  Danes are “essentially one giant middle class,” Booth writes, while an American-style “working-class Swede” – a  Roseanne-type named Linnea, say – would be hard to find. The equality seems partly a reflection of the innate Scandinavian reserve about standing out, of seeming to brag, of showing off. And, of course, it helps that giant tax burdens provide funds to help those in need and, in some cases, possibly prevent workers from working very hard.

But the Danes have poor health, even compared to the other Nordic countries. They embrace smoking and drinking and suffer from a weak economy and – gasp – “the worst pop music.” Iceland, its former colony, nearly went belly up during the financial crisis. To the north, Norway, now fantastically oil-rich, fears right-wing extremists like the terrorist who killed dozens on July 22, 2011, forever known, European date-style, as 22/7.

Meanwhile, the naturally reticent Finns have high rates of violence and suicide, and the oh-so-perfect but dullish Sweden, with a reputation as a “Stepford wife of a country,” is coping with a slumping economy and the disruption spawned by a flood of immigration. In fact, society’s reaction to immigrants may be the biggest threat to the traditional Nordic way of life.

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So what’s to like about Scandinavia? Plenty. Ultimately, Booth won’t heed the advice of a bossy headline in Slate last summer and “Shut Up Already” about alleged superiority in Scandinavia. “Ultimately,” he writes, “its success is still hard to argue with.”

Rather than dismiss them as overrated, it’s smarter to treat those happiness-prone Scandinavians like the citizens of the various Nordic nations treat each other: With a nicely human blend of respect, curiosity, and occasional rude remarks. We don’t need to go as far as Danes who make fun of dense Norwegians or everyone else who gripes about annoying Swedes. And a certain place that serves Finnish-Scandinavian Tex-Mex might be a good place to start.
 
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.