Summary and book reviews of The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by Kendra Greene

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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About this Book

Book Summary

Mythic creatures, natural wonders, and the mysterious human impulse to collect are on beguiling display in this poetic tribute to the museums of an otherworldly island nation.

Iceland is home to only 330,000 people but more than 265 museums and public collections, ranging from the intensely physical, like the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which collects the penises of every mammal known to exist in Iceland, to the vaporously metaphysical, like the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, which poses a particularly Icelandic problem: How to display what can't be seen?

In The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, A. Kendra Greene is our wise and whimsical guide through this cabinet of curiosities, showing us, in dreamlike anecdotes and more than thirty charming illustrations, how a seemingly random assortment of objects--a stuffed whooper swan, a rubber boot, a shard of obsidian, a chastity belt for rams--can map a people's past and future, their fears and obsessions. "The world is chockablock with untold wonders," she writes, "there for the taking, ready to be uncovered at any moment, if only we keep our eyes open."

Arrival

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...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

"Museums...are collections sorted and arranged into stories, given order and explanation and sense," A. Kendra Greene writes in The Museum of Whales You Will Never See. Greene's roving, ranging book of essays takes the reader on a tour of a handful of them. But this is no mere travelogue. Greene's work is itself a collection of varied, disparate pieces—long-form journalism, personal essay, history, academic treatise—arranged into winsome stories that seek to give "order and explanation and sense" to the author's journey to understand one question: How does a collection become more than the objects within it?..continued

Full Review Members Only (502 words).

(Reviewed by Lisa Bintrim).

Media Reviews

Newsweek
Unseen treasures are hidden in the corners of Iceland—and inside this book. Glittering with whimsy and speckled with small drawings, The Museum of Whales provides a much-needed detour to a place most of us won't ever get to see.

Kirkus Reviews
A beguiling and witty assessment of a country's obsessive urge to curate ... There's an air of Italo Calvino's fantastical Invisible Cities wafting its way throughout.

Library Journal
For travelers and those interested in museums, collecting, Icelandic history and culture, and a poetic look at the country's museums.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Almost as hard to classify as it would be not to enjoy, Greene's expertly assembled blend of travel writing, history, museum studies, and memoir proves as memorable as any museum exhibition.

Author Blurb Ben Fountain, bestselling author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
A masterpiece. By way of exploring the many humble, arguably eccentric museums of Iceland, Greene gives us a portrait of humanity that is quietly, cumulatively thrilling, as startling in its many revelations as the collections and collectors she portrays. Greene is the best kind of guide: funny, probing, generous of mind and heart, fully alive to the essential human yearning expressed in these miraculous little museums. Read this book. You will be happier, and richer in spirit, for it.

Author Blurb Elena Passarello, author of Animals Strike Curious Poses
Greene's voice is probing and hilarious; her sentences are vivacious and wild. This is the gold standard by which all future essays about Icelandic penis museums will be measured.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

The Geography of Iceland

Map of Iceland showing Eyjafjallajökull volcanic site As A. Kendra Greene writes in The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, "Everywhere in Iceland is some kind of remote. It is almost always a word I reach for when describing a place here, though I mean it differently every time." Greene makes it clear that understanding Iceland requires understanding its geography, which affects not only where people live but how they live and how they see themselves.

Iceland sits in the Atlantic Ocean, between Greenland and the United Kingdom. About the size of Kentucky, it has around 3,100 miles of ragged coast, pocked by long, deep fjords and bays. Largely formed of plateaux interspersed with mountain peaks, volcanoes and ice fields, the majority of the country—about 80 percent, including most...

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