cover image The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia

Michael Booth. Picador USA , $26 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-06196-6

In his latest cultural exploration, British journalist and travel writer Booth (Eat Pray Eat) covers the countries that invariably dominate the top ten lists of best/healthiest/most egalitarian places to live: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Beginning with his adopted home of Denmark, Booth sets out to address whether the quality of life in Nordic countries is really so high, and if so, why. He describes the Danes%E2%80%99 relaxed attitude toward work and their almost aggressive egalitarianism. The latter is a trait shared by many of their Nordic neighbors and epitomized by the Jante Law (a Danish ten commandments of sorts), which states that one shouldn%E2%80%99t think he%E2%80%99s better than anyone else and that no one should be made fun of. That%E2%80%99s tough for Booth, whose dry wit permeates the book, but he skillfully avoids mockery (he treats Icelanders%E2%80%99 persistent belief in elves with restraint). Norway%E2%80%99s %E2%80%9Cdecentralized population of small, isolated communities speaking hundreds of regional dialects, coupled with a heightened respect for their natural surroundings, are two of the keys to understanding the Norwegians,%E2%80%9D Booth writes. But he also discovers some chinks in the utopian armor: isolationism, persistent racism, a distrust of foreigners, and growing fissures in a classless society (as more and more Danish parents steer their children toward private schools, for example). Booth has written an immersive, insightful, and often humorous examination of a most curious culture. (Feb.)