nonfiction

Book Review: Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner

It was an episode of the podcast Judaism Unbound that clued me in to the existence of Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner (Twelve, 2011). You may be aware of Eric Weiner’s other books, including The Geography of Bliss (which I read and enjoyed years ago) and The Geography of Genius. I knew about those books and had heard of them in various places; I had never heard of this one before, and I leapt out of bed to tap the Want-to-Read button on Goodreads. I’m always interested in what a widespread spiritual search looks like, and Eric Weiner doesn’t disappoint here.

After a nurse asks him if he’s found his god yet during a hospital trip, Eric Weiner realizes…no, he hasn’t. He’s not even sure what God means. Surely someone out there has this all figured out, right? Plenty of people out there seem happy with where they’ve ended up, spiritually speaking. He makes out a list of places he finds acceptable to look, and off he trots in search of the Divine and what speaks deeply to him of it.

From Kabbalah to Buddhism, from Taoism to the group known as Raëlians, Eric Weiner travels the globe, looking for the sect to which he feels he can connect with the sacred, for a place that feels like home and an endpoint to his spiritual search. Along the way, he’s excited, weirded out, forced to examine what he thinks and feels and knows about what makes something holy. Maybe it’s more than what he previously believed, and maybe it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, but along the way, he learns that everyone’s ‘god-shaped hole’ looks a little different…and that’s okay.

Combination travelogue and religious seeker’s journal, Man Seeks God is a fun look at some well-known and some more (or incredibly!) obscure religious groups spread far and wide throughout the world. From China to Vegas, from Israel to Nepal, you learn almost as much about the places Mr. Weiner travels to as you do about the religious sect he’s learning about in that place. And that, to me, wasn’t a bad thing. I enjoy travel memoirs, and since we can’t go anywhere these days, this was an interesting literary field trip to learn about things I hadn’t much touched on since the year I took a college Comparative Religions class (seriously the most fascinating class I’ve ever taken). The Raëlians were pretty far out, but not the most unique group I’ve ever learned about (I wish I could remember the name of the American group that wore these burqa-like coverings and wandered in a field for one of their rituals. I had never seen anything like this before and watched it over and over again!). Mr. Weiner goes into each sect with an open mind- probably far more open than I would have been able to; I’m not sure I could get down with the Raëlians, to be honest- but he writes about his experiences in a fun and funny way, all the while being as respectful as possible of the different paths and beliefs…even when most of them prove that they’re not for him.

I enjoyed this. I enjoy Mr. Weiner’s humorous-and-slightly-self-deprecating-but-still-somewhat-serious style and the look into religions that definitely aren’t for me but are still enjoyable to read about. Even when they were something he outright rejected, it was still pretty fascinating to read about the people these practices did work for. My brain doesn’t quite work in a way where Buddhism or Taoism fits me well, but reading about the teachers that Mr. Weiner learned from helped me understand these paths better. And I can’t say I knew too much about the Raëlians before this (just enough to wonder, “They’re into aliens, right?” when I saw whom the chapter covered), but now at least I’m better informed (won’t be signing up, though. Still not my thing. If it’s your thing? Party on!).

Fun fact: as I was writing up this review, I noticed Eric Weiner’s latest book on Goodreads, The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers. I’d never heard of this book before, but thought it sounded interesting, as philosophy is a subject I’ve always thought I should read more about. About twenty minutes after that, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed while eating dinner (I’m the only person in the house who wants to eat dinner at the table; alas, I have been outvoted) and found someone from a podcast group had posted a picture of books in a library display. In that display? The Socrates Express. I love when this stuff happens.

Visit Eric Weiner’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen

I ran across Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen (Little, Brown and Company, 2019) in the library last year and thought, ‘Ooh, that looks good,’ but at the time, I didn’t know if I could handle more political talk (I don’t remember what was going on at the time, but whatever it was was taking up a lot of my emotional energy). After stumbling upon a discussion of the book again a few months later, I remembered how intriguing it sounded and plopped it onto my TBR, where it sat until I finally grabbed it in my last trip to the library. And boy, am I glad I did.

Samantha Allen, a transgender journalist and author, has lived most of her life in the places known as red states, politically conservative areas with a history of enacting harsh measures against their LGBT population and refusing to accept them as full citizens with the same rights as everyone else. After the 2016 election, she began travelling through these red states, searching out the LGBT communities and learning how their members survive and even thrive in the places they love that don’t necessarily love them back. What makes them stay? Why not flee to somewhere where every day isn’t a struggle?

In traveling and interviewing, Ms. Allen began to clarify the feelings she’s felt about these places. Community is often stronger in places where the fight to survive is at the forefront. Supportive chosen family becomes easier to find, and more cohesive. Nothing changes if no one fights for it, and these are the people who refuse to give up, who refuse to have the places they love taken from them. She makes an amazing case for staying in places that are oftentimes hard to live in (though not always!) and being the kind of person who fights for change.

This is a powerful book, filled with people who have grown strong and resilient out of necessity, and who are using that growth to affect much-needed change in places that have been resistant to it. Ms. Allen made me check my attitude toward those red states; having lived in several, I understand how difficult it can be, and the sometimes PTSD or PTSD-like reactions that can come from the maltreatment received there, but she helped me to understand what it takes to remain there and thrive, what it takes to live there and fight, and that these people should be commended for their determination, not pitied because they choose to remain. They deserve a place at the table where they choose to live, those places they live because they love it there, and they need to be supported in their oftentimes uphill battle to be respected and treated with dignity. I think I had fallen into the trap of wondering why so many people stay in places that don’t want them there, but this helped me to understand the why of it better. (I mean, I’ve long understood having ties to a place; no matter how many times I’ve left Illinois as an adult, I always come back because I love it here so much, but my ability to live here isn’t compromised or threatened because of who I am or who I’m attracted to. I have, however, lived in a town where people are regularly threatened or ostracized due to their political leanings and their sexuality; I’ve seen it happen to friends, and I’m aware of what it takes to stay in a place like that. But seeing it through the eyes of the LGBT+ folks who are on the front lines of this was a much-needed perspective for me.)

I can’t recommend this one highly enough. Ms. Allen shares the story of her own transition in such an open, honest way, not just the physical parts, but the emotional parts, the difficulties, the fears, the triumphs, and who and what helped her along the way. If you’re LGBT+ and in a red state, or the parent/family member/friend of someone who is, or if you’re wondering why people choose to stay in places where the politicians regularly sneer at their communities (often on a national stage), you need to read this book, because it’ll help you understand the why of it all and be supportive of their choices. And it’ll also help you understand that even if you live in a blue state or blue area, you still need to fight for these marginalized communities as though you don’t.

Seriously amazing, eye-opening book. It’s inspiring and hopeful in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Thank you, Ms. Allen. I needed that.

Visit Samantha Allen’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live by Melody Warnick

Like many Americans, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life on the move. At age 40, I’ve lived in seven different towns; this February will mark six years in my current location, which is the longest I’ve stayed anywhere since life in my hometown my first eighteen years. And this is a good thing; I love it here. But I haven’t always loved the other places I lived in, and that’s why This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live by Melody Warnick (Viking, 2016) appealed to me so much. Could I have done better? Could I have learned to love the other places I lived? I wanted to know.

Like me, Melody Warnick has spent her adult life as a Mover, packing up every few years in search of a better place, a city that feels like Home with a capital H. Nothing ever felt quite right; happiness always lay beyond, in a different city- maybe one with a waterpark? A better arts festival? Maybe a city with more nature would do the trick. But after her husband accepted a job in Blacksburg, Virginia, and Melody’s first reaction upon arrival was, “Ugh…”, she began to wonder if she could train herself to love a place- if the problem wasn’t with all these cities, but with her avoidance of putting down roots.

Step by step, Ms. Warnick began to devise means of falling in love with her city- in order to love a place, you need to act like someone who loves it, and that means getting involved in a lot of different ways. Part memoir, part personal experiment, part how-to, Melody Warnick instructs a society not used to staying in place on how to enjoy- and maybe even love- the place you’re in, even if it’s not your forever home.

This is absolutely the book I wish someone had handed me before my first big move at 18. I don’t know that it would have made *all* the difference- not where we lived in Tennessee, I’m sure. That town was lovely, the area had so much to do, and I made some wonderful friends, but the city itself is very much run by a Good Ol’ Boys club that terrorizes even lifelong residents; if your vision of what the city could be doesn’t match theirs, you’re no one, and they’ll not only let you know, they’ll let everyone else know, too. It’s hard to love a place like that. But the other places I’ve lived? Ms. Warnick’s book makes me realize I could have and should have done better.

Get involved, Ms. Warnick urged (advice that may not be all that possible right now, or that may not be safe; one of the reasons it took me so long to read this book- over a week!- was that it was just hard. Hard to read about all the things that aren’t possible to do right now, all the things we’re missing out on to keep ourselves and our families safe, all the things that won’t be possible for the foreseeable future…), and she offers suggestion after suggestion of the many possibilities to take part in the running of or enjoyment of your city- from the largest to the smallest, from tiny towns, to your neighborhood or block in a massive city. Putting down roots and feeling attached to a place takes work, and if this isn’t something that comes naturally to you, this book is a road map to falling in love with the place you live in.

I’d been trying to implement some of her suggestions pre-pandemic, and I’ll continue on with new inspiration whenever life resumes as normal (not anytime soon, so it’s a good thing I’m patient and have a plethora of available reading material to wait this out…). Despite my struggles reading it during this pandemic, This Is Where You Belong is chock-full of great advice and should be issued to anyone who packs up a moving truck and heads off in search of happiness in a new city. This is the book that will help you find it.

Do you love where you live? Have you tried? What’s worked for you?

Visit Melody Warnick’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World by Lynne Martin

And here we go! I’m a few books behind in reading books off my own shelf, so this is the first in a few. I believe I picked up Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World by Lynne Martin (Sourcebooks, 2014) from a thrift store a few years ago, but it *may* have come from a used book sale. Either way, I know I saw it and thought, “Huh, I bet that’s an interesting story!” Wellllllllllllll…

Lynne Martin and her husband Tim decided that instead of becoming stodgy retirees, they’d sell their California home and instead spend their retirement traipsing around the world, spending varying amounts of time living in rented apartments in various countries around the world. Though their initial arrangements failed to take the Schengen Agreement into consideration, they were soon on the road, leaving behind family and friends for a life of adventure. What could be better than traveling the world?

While there were aspects of this that I enjoyed, a lot of it irritated me. I’m sure Lynne Martin is a lovely person, but this book occasionally has her coming off as an obnoxious American, especially in the chapter where they ‘live’ in Argentina (‘live’ because they’re still tourists, not residents). Her complaints about the language (which she doesn’t speak) and culture being difficult to understand grated on me, as did her constant referral to everything as ‘foreign,’ such as this quote:

By week four, we definitely needed an American fix- something familiar to orient us in this foreign place where we were floundering.

The use of the word foreign here bothered me; you’re IN the country. It may be different than what you’re used to, but if you’re going to ‘live’ there, as she claimed, referring to it as ‘foreign’ as you’re standing on its soil seems a bit disrespectful to me. Not every place will agree with every person, but her complaints about Argentina seemed a bit over-the-top, especially since this was something they willingly chose. Comments like this one didn’t help, either:

No wonder [Argentinians] seem to be a confused, melancholy people!

Yiiiiiiiiiiiikes. Another one that grated on my nerves:

When we arrived at the famous Topkapi Palace that afternoon, we ran into a long, slow-moving ticket line. That put us off immediately. Call us impatient, but waiting is agony for us, and the microscopic inspection of every site does not interest us too much. We are really not very good tourists.

So much privilege, so little desire to acknowledge it, or take advantage of so many aspects of it. They’re older, in their 70’s, but still- all this ability to see the world and you complain about needing to stand in line to see it? (MAN, I wish I could stand in line- literally! Some days I have trouble physically standing in line at the grocery store, thanks to my garbage back.) I was also bothered by her constant assessment of people’s levels of English. She is, like most Americans, functionally monolingual, and yet so many of the people she comes across are described in terms of their ability to speak- or not speak- English. I don’t know if this is a quirk of her writing style or a sign of her general attitude, but I get irritated to no end by people who have never put in any true effort to learn another language getting fussy or being critical in any way about the language skills of someone who is on their second, third, fourth language. I don’t expect travelers to be fluent, but a respectful attitude goes a long way, and that didn’t come through here for me at all.

I don’t know that I was the proper audience for this book; it seems to be more written for upper-class people with money to burn, who are physically capable of traveling anywhere with no concerns as to their health or accessibility. My husband and I have never taken a vacation other than our honeymoon in 13 years of marriage, and I’d have to do a *lot* of planning, including discussing some just-in-case prescriptions with my doctor, in order for travel like this to be possible for me. And to read Ms. Martin’s casual complaints about her trip to Argentina, where she didn’t need to plan for these kinds of things, and seemed irritated about the language and dialect and cultural differences, irritated me. I ended up hearing a *lot* of this book in my head as being read by the character of Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek.

So while I normally enjoy travel memoirs, this one felt, to me, replete with unacknowledged privilege and upper-class dismissal of opportunity. Your mileage may vary, though; not every book is for every reader!

I am saddened to learn that her husband and travel companion Tim passed away last year. May his memory be a blessing.  

Visit Lynne Martin’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure by Rachel Friedman

And here we go, book fans! The first book off of my own shelf as per my resolution to read more of the books that I own. I picked up this copy of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure by Rachel Friedman (Bantam, 2011) either from my favorite local thrift store or from a used book sale (the books on that shelf came from a mix of those two places). I’ve always been a big fan of travel memoirs, and what better time to read one than when you can’t travel at all? (At least if you’re American. Sigh.)

Rachel Friedman, the girl who always followed the rules and the plan, graduated from college without any kind of plan whatsoever, and she surprised everyone in her life by buying a plane ticket to Ireland and applying for a student visa so she could work as a waitress to earn money to fund her travels there. She’d never traveled on her own before, never traveled without exact travel plans or a plan for the future, so all of this was definitely an adventure.

In Ireland, Rachel is bitten by the travel bug, aided by her wanderlusty roommate Carly, an Australian who hasn’t yet finished college and isn’t sure what she wants to do outside of traveling the world. When her time in Ireland runs out, Rachel’s next stop is Australia, and then on to South America. Deadly animals, blazing sun and chilly mountain air, experiences that scare the crap out of her, living out of a single backpack, Rachel’s experiences will have you longing for the days where you had no responsibility and could just pick up and go.

This was a lovely armchair vacation for me. Rachel’s experiences are so far from what my own were at her age that it was nice to read how very different her life was. I did understand her what-do-I-do-with-my-life stress, along with some of her travel anxiety; I applaud her for pushing her boundaries so much. I’m still working on working out my social anxiety (NOT EASY THESE DAYS), and I’m a massive wreck when I travel, so it’s good for me to read stories of people who do things that scare them simply because it scares them. There are a lot of reviews talking about how self-entitled and privileged Rachel is; I felt as though she does acknowledge her privilege in the book and how lucky she was that her parents had paid for her college and thus she didn’t have to immediately begin working off her student loan debt. She mentions that multiple times, and I see no problem enjoying someone else’s experiences even if they’re not struggling in the same way I do.

Reading this also made me a little sad. Rachel and Carly met each other during their travels; Rachel eventually meets her husband while traveling. How many friendships aren’t beginning right now that would have if the US and a few other countries had handled this pandemic better? How many travelers are stuck at home not broadening their horizons and experiencing the world? How many relationships and marriages will never happen because we’re not allowed to travel due to our own stupidity? Here in the US, our world has gotten so much smaller- even beyond the reason of Covid-19- and that just breaks my heart.

But reading about Rachel Friedman’s boundary-pushing journey made for a pleasant Sunday out on the porch swing. If you can’t travel right now, taking a book vacation is the next best thing, and I enjoyed seeing the world through Ms. Friedman’s eyes.  

Visit Rachel Friedman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

history · nonfiction

Book Review: Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor

I want to say that I learned about Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor (Harry N. Abrams, 2020) from one of the emails Book Riot sends out, maybe the one about nonfiction books? I might be wrong about that, though. But I do know that reading the description of the book had me flying to put it on my TBR. I’d never heard of the Green Book before, and that seemed like a pretty big gap in my historical knowledge. I will admit to being a little intimidated when I picked this up in the library; it’s a thick, heavy book (lots of pictures, though!), and I worried about my ability to absorb so much information right now (pandemic brain is real, y’all), but I figured I could try it, and I’m *so* glad I did!

The Green Book, originally known as The Negro Motorist Green Book, was a travel guide for Black Americans, alerting them to businesses where it was safe to stop for gas, food, lodgings, and sightseeing and entertainment opportunities. Due to America’s fierce racism during the Jim Crow era and post-Jim Crow era (and now…) and the existence of sundown towns, Black travelers weren’t assured of receiving anything they might need on the road (not even roadside assistance), and thus the Green Book came into existence in order to help them travel across the country and eventually across the world.

It’s both wonderful that the Green Book existed and a tragedy that it had to. Ms. Taylor has traveled to and photographed many of the former Green Book sights. Many of them have been abandoned or are run down, but some are still up and running; all make for wonderful photographs. Interspersed throughout the text and photos are scans of actual pages from the various editions of the Green Book so that readers can see what the writing and advertisements looked like.

This is history. It’s inspiring, it’s shameful, it’s painful, it’s difficult but necessary read. There was a lot of new information for me in this book. I knew about sundown towns; I didn’t know how many of them existed in my own state, or that a guy I dated in high school lived in one. I knew that many businesses required Black customers to use a separate entrance; I hadn’t known that some business even required their Black customers to use a SEPARATE EMERGENCY EXIT ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME. Before learning about the existence of the Green Books, I hadn’t considered the discrimination faced by Black people as they traveled (it made sense as soon as I read the description of the book; it was just another aspect of racism creeping into all parts of life that, because of my privilege, I had never needed to consider). Like the book states, I’ll never look at travel the same way again.

There’s a section on Route 66 that discusses why Black travelers had such a difficult time on this road and why they don’t find it iconic as so many white Americans do. It’s eye-opening for the white reader, and saddening as well. We very obviously have multiple versions of the United States, and which version you have access to depends heavily on, and has always depended heavily on, your skin color. I hadn’t known much about this history of the road (I don’t know all that much about it anyway, although it ran through that high school boyfriend’s sundown town…), so this was pretty interesting to me. It’ll definitely change the way I look at those Route 66 signs people have…

This is an amazing book, and I can’t sing its praises highly enough. Ms. Taylor’s voice is educational and informative, but it’s never dry. It’s engaging in a way that will have you wishing you could sit in her classroom, sign up for her master class, and hang on her every word. I’m so very glad I read this book, because it clued me into a whole different experience of travel that I never knew about.

Visit Candacy A. Taylor’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic novel · memoir

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea- Guy Delisle

Another one down for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge! I’m pleased that I’ve been able to continue progress on my reading challenges, even in captivity. *grin* The prompt here was to read a graphic memoir, which is actually a genre I love, so pretty much everything on the list of suggestions looked good to me. But I’m always trying to keep my TBR at a manageable level (*nervous laughter* let’s not discuss that right now…), so I went through my want-to-read list on Goodreads and found Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly, 2003). I’d read and enjoyed Burma Chronicles by the same author (before mailing it off to a friend!), and I was fascinated to learn that he’d spent time in North Korea and had written another book about his experiences. Onto the list it went!

I had no idea before reading this that North Korea has an animation industry. At one point, it was apparently pretty bustling, although it seems to have slowed down a bit since then. But animator and graphic novelist Guy Delisle, who has a sense of adventure that I seem to be lacking, was invited to work there and jumped at the offer. Upon arrival, he confronts a bizarre country where everyone spouts the party line, shortages of everything are commonplace, pictures of the leaders plaster nearly every surface, and he’s rarely left alone.

North Korea really is the upside-down, even by 2020 bizarro-world standards, even in the capital city of Pyongyang which is meant to be shown off to foreigners. Mr. Delisle’s stripped-down illustration style lends well to the bleakness of the regime and the stark realities of life in a country where an admission of doubt of the President’s nearly supernatural status can get a resident killed, or thrown into a reeducation camp for life. Even the restaurants seem to fall well short of basic health and cleanliness standards, and the museums and ‘tourist’ destination he’s taken to are nothing more than state-created propaganda tools designed to further the myth of North Korean greatness and world domination. The entire experience is bizarre and creepy and leaves the reader with a both a sense of relief to know that Mr. Delisle survived his time in country and a deep feeling of sadness that what he showcased in this graphic memoir is the best it gets there.

I don’t know that this is the best Delisle book to start with. I got a better sense of who he is as a person in Burma Chronicles and I don’t think I would have necessarily been inspired to read more from him if this is where I started. Part of that is because of the stark nature of the subject, I think; a sojourn in such an oppressive regime doesn’t necessarily lend for warm and fuzzy feelings about much of anything. I’d start with another one of his books first. Nor do I think this is a great place to start if you’re looking to learn anything about North Korea. Pyongyang is their show city, and although it comes off as a run-down communist-era Soviet nightmare, it’s still far beyond anything else the country has to offer in terms of, say, their citizens not dying in the streets of starvation and lack of medical care. If you’re looking to learn more about the hideous wasteland that North Korea truly is, start with some personal memoirs of escapees, such as In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park or The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, or for a more journalistic account that covers both the history and the horrors of the country, I highly recommend Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

What Guy Delisle does offer here, though, is a fascinating perspective on a foreigner’s view of North Korea’s capital city. In the memoirs I’ve read, escapees have talked about the absolute splendor and privilege of a visit to Pyongyang, and to them, this city absolutely was the pinnacle of creation, leagues above and beyond what their daily lives offered. But to an outsider, it’s run-down, lacking in basics such as electricity and teeming with North Koreans doing forced ‘volunteer’ work. It’s absolutely worth your time if North Korea is a subject that fascinates you; it s a perspective that my reading has been lacking and I’m glad to have been able to ‘see’ Pyongyang from a non-North Korean’s viewpoint.

I’m in more than a bit in awe at Guy Delisle’s sense of adventure. Had I received the offer to work in or travel to North Korea, accepting wouldn’t even occur to me as a possibility. There’s no way I would ever feel comfortable traveling there, not as long as the country is in the state it is, with its leadership the way it is (*glances around, laughs nervously*). Its own citizens aren’t safe; I wouldn’t labor under the delusion that I’d be safe, either. But I’m grateful that Mr. Delisle has written and illustrated his experiences in this book. His story does beg the question of how his story would have differed had it been a woman traveling there for work, but it’s fascinating to see North Korea through an outsider’s eyes.

Visit Guy Delisle’s website here. (En français!)

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream- Eric Dregni

There aren’t a whole lot of books out there about Norway, nor are there books set in modern-day Norway (other than Nordic crime fiction, and I’m not a huge fan of mysteries and crime fiction in general). I’ve looked. But my search, done years ago, did turn up In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream by Eric Dregni (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), and onto my want-to-read list it went. The author and I both come from Norwegian stock (shoutout to Ole and Alfa, my great-great-grandparents, who came here from north of Bergen somewhere around the 1890’s, and to the relatives in Norway now that pop up on 23 and Me), and it’s always fun to read something by an author who has as much interest in his family’s background as I do.

Eric Dregni won a Fullbright Fellowship to study in Norway for a year on the same day he learned his wife was expecting their first child. Their sense of adventure packed in between their warmest clothes, the two of them headed off to his ancestral homeland so he could learn, study, and eventually write a book about Norway. It’s a definite change, to be sure. The people aren’t as open or outgoing as they’re used to, the language is a challenge (fortunately for them, most Norwegians speak perfect English), the cost of living is astronomical, the food is much different than they’re used to (gas station sausages, lutefisk, and rakfisk, oh my!) and the weather is…well, it’s Norwegian weather, so dress accordingly, like with spikes on your shoes so you don’t slide off the sidewalk and into traffic. And then there’s the colicky baby…

But there’s also the beauty of the mountains and the fjords, the joy of meeting long-lost relatives and discovering the places his ancestors once lived, the complete acceptance of children in Norwegian culture (even at their worst!), and the friends they manage to make along the way. Slap your skis on your feet and join the Dregni family for a year abroad in a country you probably don’t know much about!

In Cod We Trust is fun and informative. I had to giggle a few times at his stories of how the language tripped him up; the first time I ever saw Norwegian, it looked bizarre and unlike anything I’d ever seen before and now even the words I’m unfamiliar with have a certain familiarity to them (except for the more dialect-y words, and outside of Oslo, it’s all basically dialect!). His descriptions of the Norwegian landscape are stunning, and his recountings of the various surprising meals he ate there are…less than entirely appetizing, to be honest. Norway isn’t exactly known for its cuisine (if it’s white and made of cod, potatoes, or flour, they’ll eat it), but Mr. Dregni should definitely be applauded for his willingness to put himself out there and slurp down rakfisk. (Fortunately, no mention of smalahove- look it up if you’re curious.)

His wife is a pretty good sport, I have to say. I’d love to spend a year abroad, though I’m not sure I’d be willing to do it while pregnant (I’m an utter wreck while pregnant with the vomiting and constant nausea all the way to the end. My son put me in the hospital twice. Not great for international travel, even to places with great medical systems!). She seemed to take most of it in stride, or, if she struggled, Mr. Dregni kindly left that out. I admire her for being willing to follow him on this journey.

Turns out I’ve also read Eric Dregni’s Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America, which I didn’t enjoy as much as this, though it was still okay. In Cod We Trust fits the bill for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt of a book with a pun in the title, so hurray for another one biting the dust there!

Have you ever read a book set in Norway? What about one set where your ancestors came from, if you know where? I’d love to hear about it!

I can’t find a website or Twitter for Eric Dregni, but if you’re aware of one, let me know and I’ll post it here! 🙂