Welcome to the JONAA Library, where contemporary and historical literature convene to foster conversation about the North Atlantic and Arctic region.
Each featured book is critical in understanding the people and the landscape of the north, as they excavate the culture, governance, science, business, controversy, economy, or natural environment of the places we explore. Editors, writers, agents, publishers, and friends from all over the world have been helping us generate this list and we feel it incorporates a balanced voice, one we hope helps connect people, deepen debate, and cultivate understanding.
JONAA © Ragnar Axelsson
Your New Holiday Tradition
Jólabókaflóðið, in my clumsy Icelandic translation, means Yule (or holiday) book flood, an Icelandic tradition where books are given to friends and family on Christmas Eve. There, catalogs from publishers are fat with book lists and grocery stores groan with holiday selections.
Jón Kjartansson, who runs Winston Living, a Reykjavík interior design company, says when he calls family members between Christmas and New Year’s “they are most likely reading.”
Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world, and it boasts a 99.9% literacy rate. Related? Maybe. But inarguably, to give the gift of reading is to give a passport to insight, which eventually yields an understanding about world we live in.
Below are a few books I recommend giving or reading this holiday season that shed insight on the landscape of the North Atlantic and Arctic region. Let the book flood begin.
Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-Up World, One Long Journey Home by Leigh Newman. (Dial Press, 2013).
From one of the best contemporary Alaskan writers, Leigh Newman, in her memoir, Still Points North, navigates the membrane between childhood and adulthood, while also steering readers through the wilds of surviving an Alaskan upbringing and the ramifications of her parents’ divorce.
After her parents’ marriage dissolves, Newman finds herself betwixt and between as her mother resettles in Maryland and her father stays in Alaska, where Newman grew up. With her father, she faces blizzards, fishes remote rivers, and hunts caribou. With her mother, she visits museums and learns about Puccini operas and Chippendale furniture. In both places, Newman addresses exile and belonging and reckons with the landscape of love and marriage: her parents’ and her own.
Her energetic prose only serves to elevate the narrative. In describing her now-husband, she writes:
A combination of the intrepid Anne of Green Gables and trailblazer, Gertrude Bell, but with the prose and passion of journalist Martha Gellhorn, Newman’s fierceness and wit is only matched by her generosity as a writer and a human being.
Norwegian Wood by Lars Mytting trans. Robert Ferguson. (Abrams, 2015).
A Scandinavian hymn about chopping, stacking, and drying wood, Norwegian Wood is not only a useful book, it is poetic and magical, much like many things in Norway.
Filled with facts like the ash content of bark, how many calories you burn while chopping wood, or the countenance of a sharp saw or cutting edge, the book is valuable to the seasoned or amateur burner of logs. In it, you will learn about axes and aspen and birch and bark, and even about Fumata Nera, the smoke signal that announces the new Pope. But it is the scope and description of the various woodpile designs that coalesce practicality with art: The Norwegian Sun Wall Pile, The Firewood House, or the Sami Carousel. These stacks are not only another kind of religion, but as Mytthing writes, “a “majestic result of all your hard work.”
The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule by Joann Kavenna. (Viking, 2006).
Since ancient Greece, Thule has been a mythical place, a geographical unicorn, a “distant island, place of dreams…a symbol of remoteness, of the shadowy world of the north,” Joann Kavenna writes in The Ice Museum.
Kavenna takes us on a literal and mythical exploration of the polar North’s lure and lore in a quest for a place, but also its symbolism. On trains, planes, and automobiles, we find ourselves in Greenland, Svalbard, Shetland, Iceland, Norway, and Estonia:
Seen once and never again like a northern Atlantis, Thule reminds us that it’s not the destination but the journey, finding the unfindable. Cerebral and beautifully written, this book is an intersection of history, philosophy, mystery, and adventure, real and imagined
The Right to Be Cold: one woman’s story of protecting her culture and the Arctic and the whole planet by Sheila Watt-Cloutier. (Allen Lane, 2015).
Since JONAA focuses strongly on the arctic and ice, there’s no better title than Watt-Cloutier’s memoir to open the JONAA Library, The Right to Be Cold. Watt-Cloutier, for those of you who are uninitiated southerners, is an internationally respected activist and political figure. She was born in Kuujjuaq, where transportation was solely by dogsled and canoe and she was raised on seal and whale meat and more importantly, on ice. At age ten, she was selected as a future Inuit leader and sent to live with a white family, the Rosses, in Nova Scotia. That experience incited Watt-Cloutier to discover her voice, a voice that speaks for so many of her people and for so many others across the globe who are losing the land under their feet.
The Right to Be Cold addresses how climate change is not only threatening the Arctic, but the people—her people, the Inuit—who live in that landscape. The sea ice, which some perceive as a hindrance to travel, is the essence of travel for the Inuit and the essence of life. Ice connects the Inuit with their food supply; it connects community to community; and connects people with their identity. As the ice pack continues to recedes, communities are forced to move and hunters now walk on thin ice, both figuratively and literally. Thinner ice means shorter hunting seasons, but it also means fewer species to hunt, and less food to eat. Moreover, the disappearance of ice, could eventually lead to the end of Inuit culture, because cultural practices that have evolved from living on ice, would also disappear. Ice, to Watt-Cloutier, is a human right and that right is violated by those who have no understanding of its value: the industries and people who contribute to climate change and the proliferation of greenhouse gases.
In the introduction to her book, she makes her case:
Indeed, the Arctic is much more, almost bigger than our imaginations. But it’s imagination that’s needed to curb its destruction.
Beyond the Books:
JONAA will interview Sheila Watt-Cloutier in the forthcoming month.
The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, translated from Norwegian by Michael Barnes & Torbjørn Støverud. (Archipelago, 2016).
Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970), a one-time Nobel candidate and arguably one of the most celebrated Norwegian writers of the 20th Century, tells the story of Hege and her younger brother Mattis, who live in the idyllic Norwegian countryside in a small cottage by a lake. There, Mattis is known as “simple” to the townspeople. Brother and sister look after one another, or “keep” each other, as Mattis puts it. Because he’s “slow,” Mattis finds it difficult to secure work, so he and Hege knit and sell sweaters for income. When Mattis finally begins working as a ferryman, he brings across a passenger that becomes his sister’s lover. His world, which was once safe in the penumbra of Hege, becomes terrifying and confusing as he seeks to find his place in the world and his place within his sister’s now diversified love.
The Birds inhabits the landscape and people of Norway, and what Oslo book critic Bjørn Gabrielsen says for his generation, “comes pretty close to what Catcher in the Rye, was for Americans of the same age.” The book is also a nuanced look at the responsibilities we have for each other as humans and as caretakers of the planet, including smaller, more helpless species like the woodcock, which appears in the book like a wraith. In other words, sometimes within the circumference of our own problems, we can overlook the needs of others, a theme not unfamiliar to people living in the Arctic and North Atlantic.
The Greenland Dilemma: The quest for independence, the underground riches and the troubled relations with Denmark, by Martin Breum. (Royal Danish Deference College, 2015).
Greenland is also home to about 57,000 people, who live in a complex country built not only on ice, but also on uranium, fishing, rare earth materials, oil, and colonialism. Martin Breum’s book, The Greenland Dilemma deals with all of the above. In his book, we meet fishermen, politicians, school teachers, artists, soldiers and a vicar who was a former classmate of Breum’s—all witnesses to Greenland’s increasingly critical role in the world and the current complex relationship that nation shares with Denmark, its former colonial power.
Breum, a renowned journalist and lecturer who focuses on the Arctic region, says he did not wake up a generation of Greenlanders with this book, as some have argued. “They were not asleep,” as he explained to me. His book mines the collisions between old and new; self-determination and dependence; politicians and indigenous people; and what lies beneath Greenland’s identity and its frozen landscape.
Of Greenland’s global role, he wrote: “Greenland is a more and more crucial component of the new Arctic. A nation vigorously pursuing a vision of full independence, singularly important in the context of Arctic security. It’s also rich in oil, gas and minerals of strategic importance to industries worldwide. Also, the people of Greenland exercises a degree of autonomy that is unique among the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, setting a very important example. All of this and much more should be of interests to millions of people further South for whom developments in the Arctic will be of prime importance in the years to come.”
“Somehow the deep changes that are taking place in Greenland and in the context of the Danish Kingdom has largely escaped the larger global audiences,” Breum said. “I hope my book has helped in its own small way to rectify that.”
Beyond the Books:
Breum will be appearing with Naomi Klein at the New York Public Library as part of the Arctic Imagination project, Tuesday, December 5, 2017 at 7pm.
The Arctic Imagination project “is a brainstorm across the Atlantic Ocean about melting Arctic ice and the increasing temperatures, in which artists exchange ideas and visions of the future of the globe” and a collaborative effort between six libraries: the New York Public Library, the Royal Danish Library, National Library of Norway, National Library of Sweden, Central Library of Greenland, and the Stockholm Public Library. It launched on September 21, 2017.
For more information, see Arctic Imagination.
A gratis copy of Breum’s book, The Greenland Dilemma, can be downloaded HERE.