Excerpt from The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by Kendra Greene, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Museum of Whales You Will Never See

And Other Excursions to Iceland's Most Unusual Museums

by Kendra Greene

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by Kendra Greene X
The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by Kendra Greene
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  • Published:
    May 2020, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Bintrim
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Lilja collects me from the airport bus under a gray morning sky and, swinging my bag into her little silver car, asks if I got her message not to worry about the volcano. Because you shouldn't, and it won't affect your trip, and these things happen all the time.

The whole trans-Atlantic approach from Boston to Reykjavík takes less than five hours, which is scarcely time enough to fall asleep or start a third in-flight movie or convince yourself of the proper pronunciation of every unfamiliar letter in the Icelandic alphabet—eth and thorn, especially—but it is apparently long enough to board an airplane and cross half an ocean without having any idea you are aimed straight at a sudden increase in seismic activity.

Not that it should be surprising. Just the 45 minutes from the international airport to the bus terminal downtown is a misty drive through old lava fields and venting hot springs, a gradual accumulation of houses and buildings tracing the ocean's edge of an island straddling two tectonic plates: an island that rose up from these waters in the first place precisely because of those plates, their penchant to slip and grind and spill their molten heart.

She says, Don't worry about the volcano, and in the same breath begins to describe the possibility of ash clouds and gas masks and helicopters plucking hikers from the mountains because there's no better way to alert them that they may be in mortal peril.

Lilja pulls up the national weather service's website, teaches me to toggle from the outline of Iceland annotated with the forecast of rain, to the one predicting the visibility of the northern lights, to the dots and stars mapping a string of tiny earthquakes, every shift and shock detected for the last 72 hours. Mostly, on the map, they register not much more than a Richter Scale's 3.0. I grew up along another shoreline, in California, and the freckling map prompts a certain kind of nostalgia, a tenderness for these almost imperceptible events.

I am to keep vigil, she says. I am to refresh and refresh and refresh the map. It doesn't matter that they are tiny, doesn't matter that they are all but obscure. I am to watch whether the number of tremors waxes or wanes. I am to notice how their alignment is not random—every one of them a sign. I am to witness: Their accumulation in fact articulates the frontiers of fault line and fissure we cannot otherwise see. It describes those underpinnings shaping everything else. And, though we may tremble, it points us ever toward what may just happen next.

The ridgelines here are black rock or lupine-laced, perhaps dotted with sheep, if not dusted with snow. Where there is shoreline enough I pick up sea glass and shards of china, walk past feathers and sometimes bones. I have come, I think it is right to say, because of the borders of this place. Because not just here but always: Something happens at the edges.

I have come for the perimeter of territory staked out under the name museum. Because, for all the museums I have worked for or volunteered at or interned with, for all the continents where I have been the museum visitor, I have never known a place where the boundaries between private collection and public museum are so profoundly permeable, so permissive, so easily transgressed and so transparent as if almost not to exist.

So maybe don't make plans until we know if the lava is melting the glacial ice, if the flood of all that water unbound will close the northern roads or the southern roads or, who knows—it's happened—both.

They say that if you're baptized wrong, if the holy water does not wash over your eye, you may retain another sight, may see the elves even when they do not choose to reveal themselves to you.

And I feel something of that old story here, that I have been given a glimpse of something extraordinary, hidden though it was there the whole time, interwoven amidst everything else we see or know or put in our pockets or hold in our hands.

Excerpted from The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by A. Kendra Greene. Copyright © 2020 by A. Kendra Greene. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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