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Names For The Sea Book Review

Are you looking for an Icelandic nonfiction travel book and memoir? Pick up Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss to fuel your next Icelandic adventure and sense of wanderlust.

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Have you ever lived and worked abroad?  Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea reminds me of teaching English in Indonesia.

You land in this beautiful and, at times, harsh foreign country that you do not always understand.  You love it.  Sometimes it drives you crazy. 

Culture, pride, and nationality possess varying definitions among countries.  You want to fit in but struggle with your own foreignness.

Are you a stranger?  Are your insecurities justified or in your head?  Is this home? Did you do the country justice?

Names for the Sea both academically and casually talks readers through Moss’ experience of living and working in Iceland for a year with her family.  I honestly commend her time abroad, especially with a family and Icelandic costs of living. 

Although I read this expressive piece of literature after touring southern Iceland, the novel renewed my wanderlust and enlightened me about my Icelandic experiences.

Names for the Sea would be equally informative to read before your trip abroad.

If you are thinking of visiting Iceland or have traveled there in the past, Moss’ Names for the Sea is the perfect Icelandic nonfiction read.  Gain insight into the country’s history and have a different perspective from a non-local resident and academic.

Names For The Sea: Strangers in Iceland Book Review

In 2009, Sarah Moss accepts a position with the University of Iceland. 

Coming from a much cheaper and idyllic English town, she finds herself face to face with a financial crisis and an unstable volcano that halts traffic and airflow. 

Imagine having your middle-class family of four with you on this adventure, sleeping on air mattresses and enrolling in an international school.  Their experiences are one of inconvenience — they can barely afford a car — but also of finding solace in nature.

Can they make Iceland home? Can they find their place in society?

The sunrise, shadows, and tides mark their days.  While they do not have the means to travel outside of Reykjavík for fun, they learn lessons in simplicity. 

Picture endless crafts and becoming intimate with the outdoor weather.  The communal heated pool is always waiting for them. 

Expat friends guide their interactions and introduce Moss’ family to the close-knit community.

When not teaching, Moss spends time in the library watching Icelandic films and reading literature.  She wants to learn how to knit. 

With an investigative journalism spirit, Moss begs the question of why Icelanders will go hungry or are embarrassed to seek donations.  Moss wants to know what makes Iceland tick.

Be sure to check out this historical fiction book review of Woman at 1,000 Degrees.

What Sets Names for the Sea Apart From Other Icelandic Novels

Names for the Sea is Moss returning to Iceland after a romanticized version from her youthful travels.  Remember those days? 

I am pretty sure that I fell in love with swim-up bars next to a volcano in a country I knew little about.

This new foreigner/expat vibe enlightens both Moss and the reader about Icelandic beauty and hardship.  No longer just a tourist, Moss gets into the heart and grit of Iceland. 

She explores the people and their hidden elves, the Sagas, a history of storytelling, financing, agriculture, and pride.

Having just returning from Iceland, Moss’ statement about collecting a commodity of experiences will always resonate and remind me to travel more thoughtfully:

“I recognise my own distrust of Icelandic tourism, of the collector’s desire to tick off geysers and volcanoes and midnight sun on some kind of Lonely Planet checklist, totting experiences like a commodity.  There must be a better reason to travel, a better way of travelling, than the hoarding of sights your friends haven’t seen.”

Sarah Moss [Names for the Sea 262]

Guilty as charged.  Part of the reason I ‘collect’ these infamous treasures is that they truly are stunning and worthwhile. 

I want to see the wonders of the world.  Moss wishes we could view everything without premeditated thoughts and plaques–but realizes this is nearly impossible.

The lesson I take away is to travel for the experience and not just the bucket list check mark.  Yes, that is somewhat OK too, but really see the country. 

Read the books, talk to locals, and don’t rush through it.  Don’t just go because someone tells you that you should. 

If you miss a sight, does that mean you missed all of Iceland?  No.  Moss asks us to reexamine why we travel.  What are gaining and what should we be learning?

Most enjoyable, Moss explains parts of Iceland that I experienced on my trip.

My husband and I passed many greenhouses driving around southern Iceland.  I never thought past the idea that the greenhouses just existed. 

Moss explains how hard it is to grow fruits and vegetables in Iceland.  The cost of imports is grossly inflated yet the shipped fruit is deflated in taste and texture. 

Now I understand the appearance of greenhouses. Duhhhh, right?!

Moss also discusses how the cost of Reykjavík’s restaurants is too high even for public servants.  I had to [sadly] chuckle. 

We paid somewhere around over $50 for a bowl of soup and rice.  Delicious, you bet.  Wallet punching, you bet too.

I loved learning more about the Bonus food chain. What is this corrupt past?  Plus, ‘foss’ means waterfall?!  OMG another duh moment.

Names For The Sea Book Information:

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss [reprint Counterpoint 2013]

Genre: Icelandic nonfiction; Travel and Memoir

Sarah Moss is a writer, traveler, and academic.  Read more about Sarah Moss.

You May Also Enjoy:

Books Set On Islands
Icelandic Novels To Read Right Now
Iceland’s Book Flood
Books Set Across Europe

Christine Owner The Uncorked Librarian LLC with white brunette female in pink dress sitting in chair with glass of white wine and open bookPin
Christine Frascarelli

Christine (she/her) is the owner, lead editor, and tipsy book sommelier of The Uncorked Librarian LLC, an online literary publication showcasing books and movies to inspire travel and home to the famed Uncorked Reading Challenge.

With a BA in English & History from Smith College, an MLIS from USF-Tampa, and a U.S. Fulbright Fellowship in Christine's back pocket, there isn't a bookstore, library, or winery that can hide from her. Christine loves brewery yoga, adopting all of the kitties, and a glass of oaked Chardonnay. Charcuterie is her favorite food group.

Cj | A Well-Read Tart

Sunday 17th of March 2019

I love trying to become ingrained in local life when I visit another country. It was perhaps my great travel moment when a tourist asked me for directions in a small English village and was completely surprised when I replied in an American accent, lol. Being mistaken for a native dweller is the best! Reading memoirs and travel books on local culture and customs is always so helpful, and I love when other tourists/expats pick up on local quirks that I do, too, haha. Sounds like this was a great book for your Icelandic adventure!


Tuesday 19th of March 2019

Yes, it was! Have you ever read any of Sarah Moss' other titles?

Whenever we travel, we sometimes get mistaken for natives, especially in Italy. We aren't that far removed from our heritage, and we definitely could pass as Italians if we aren't carrying our American gear. All goes to heck, though, once we open our mouths.

We were walking down the street in Iceland. Some guy left the building and made a joke about Americans for us to hear...we are pretty easy to spot while talking or carrying cameras.


Friday 8th of March 2019

I love her quote about travel and collecting sites. One thing that has actually changed since I started travel blogging is that I feel like I've gone BACK to doing this. For a long time, I didn't care about seeing ALL THE THINGS. And I still don't, but I certainly feel like I have to fit in all the dark tourism and weird stuff. And then as a result, I get worn out. The first time I went to Iceland, I saw a lot. But I also enjoyed spending the afternoon hanging out at a coffee shop and reading an Icelandic book (The Fish Can Sing, in case you're curious).

And one thing I've always loved is just hanging out somewhere and meeting people, drinking the local [non-alcoholic] drink and just chilling, or reading a book while I try to absorb the culture. I feel like travel blogging forces me to try to see things I'm not honestly interested in seeing, but I feel like they'll either be popular or good to blog about. Whereas typically those places are the least inspiring to me and therefore the most boring to write about... so I don't, and then it becomes a wasted effort. I really want to make an effort to just chill out more and enjoying being. Ugh, that sentence haha.

Also, the etymology of names is so interesting. I did know that foss meant waterfall, but I remember when I was told that it was like, 'Oh, duh!' There are a lot of things like that. For example, many of the names of rivers in the UK used to mean something like 'river' or 'stream' or 'body of water' in old English or Welsh or Gaelic. Same with rivers in the USA, many of which have Native American names, that when translated mean river. Very cool.

As a side note, I really need to read some Sarah Moss. I've heard so many good things about her books! And this is definitely making me think I need to bump her higher up the list.


Monday 11th of March 2019

I would love to read more of Sarah Moss after reading this book. She is brutally but sincerely honest and direct. I love that she does not sugarcoat or idealize Iceland. Moss sounds well educated in her writing, and she looks at life through an academic and investigative lens with a tad of just being a supermom too.

I know as a blogger that I sometimes debate how important it is to see 'all of the things' vs just a few. Readers definitely want the short and dry for itineraries and planning help. Travel stories and lingering, not so much. With that said, I do think it is equally helpful and popular to stay in one place for a while and become an expert on it. You really get a feel for the heart of an area that way. Sometimes I see posts that record every single restaurant and hotel as if they are the absolute best. If you haven't eaten anywhere else, how can you know? That's not to say that I don't want to see travel bloggers writing about those places--I love to know what good places are around...but unless you have a ton of comparables, calling it 'the best' might be a baity misleading if you just hit off some checklists really fast.

How I missed 'foss' was waterfall was beyond me. I love that knowledge.


Tuesday 5th of March 2019

I haven't read the book, but I love your review of it. Sounds like an interesting read.

My favorite part: "The lesson I take away is to travel for the experience and not just the bucket list check mark. Yes, that is somewhat OK too, but really see the country. Read the books, talk to locals, and don’t rush through it. Don’t just go because someone tells you that you should. "

It's so true! Even when I just simply want to 'vacation', it's important to me to get to know the local culture, leave the tourists walls, talk to locals, have them point out their favorite places to eat. Learn more about the country, their traditions and what they love about it all as well as what they don't like. It makes for an educational and fulfilling experience.

And, omg, $50 for a soup and rice?! How much was a hot dog? Seriously, I'm usually not cheap, just didn't realize how expensive it is there, but I can understand why. I'm sure it is 100% worth the experience and also to help with the local economy.

I added this to my list. Whether I go to Iceland one day or not, I'll eventually read this book.


Tuesday 5th of March 2019

Yes, this is a great title whether or not you make it to Iceland! I will admit that there are a few minor parts that I felt the need to skim through towards the end (a little over description), but all of the sentiments hit my heart and made me think about the way we see and live in the world.

It was extremely interesting how Moss barely sees Iceland while living there--which happened to me in Indonesia. You would think that when you live in a country for a year, you'd get to see it all. However, just like back at home, you get caught up in finances, work, and staying put to make friends. When I first moved abroad, I tried to travel in the beginning to see new places. A few months in, though, and I realized that I needed to also make my home a home. It's a unique perspective. What I loved most is how Moss became intimate with the land and knew the times by shadows on the mountains.

Iceland is SO expensive for food. Plane tickets and accommodations were fairly priced. Food, though, is a whole other story.


Tuesday 5th of March 2019

Sounds like a beautiful book! I think this hurry comes from that most people haven't got that much time to travel. They want to experience a lot or even everything in the short time they have during a holiday. This often leads to experiencing nothing deep or real at all. Although, I do think that while it was a big boom in recent years in traveling mostly because it became affordable in most western countries more and more people do care. They do want to travel slower, deeper and they do want to care about the environment. But I'm positive about where we're going.

The interesting thing that I always felt at home in most countries. Especially in Asia. I felt that people were very welcoming and loving. I actually miss it a lot. =) Thank you for the beautiful review! I will try to get to this book this year!


Tuesday 5th of March 2019

Yes, I completely agree. I felt that way about Iceland myself. We had 7 days, and I wanted to see as much as possible. Who knows when you will have the time or funds to return. Plus, life is so short, and I want to see it all. Sometimes you have to 'tick off' the meaningful highlights. Slower is nice too, and especially being kind to the environment.

I remember when we first started traveling we would try to do it ALL. I always ended up catching a cold midway through the trip, and when we returned home, I felt like I saw nothing--like you say. As we get older, we still haul it around, say, Iceland, but we also enjoy quiet nights in to relax and spend some time reading about what we are seeing. We do take it slower, and I'm ok missing a few things to enjoy my cup of coffee instead. I liked that quite a bit more--and we even sleep in a tad later. I don't like seeing the world bleary-eyed with travel fatigue. Yes, I would also love to be out trying every bar and night scene, but not every night.

I notice when we are in Europe traveling, a lot of Europeans are out traveling to other countries on the weekends, which is great.

Asia is definitely amazing. I felt very at home in Indonesia. I understand what you mean.

I do hope you get to this title. Overall, I think you'd like the meditation Moss has on life and travel.


Monday 4th of March 2019

This sounds wonderful and absolutely something I'd love to read. I adore reading about the Nordic countries (my father's side comes from Norway and I've learned enough Norwegian to be able to read it and watch TV shows with the subtitles on. The languages are all so related that I can read Swedish and Danish as well, and there's occasionally a bit of overlap with Icelandic. Foss is waterfall in Norwegian as well!). Years ago, I read The Tricking of Freya by Christina Sunley, about a woman traveling to Iceland for family reasons, and it was a really great story. I'd love to learn more about Iceland in general (it does seem to have become a trendy spot to travel to; I've least three friends visit there recently), so I'm going to add this to my TBR list. Thanks for a great review!


Monday 4th of March 2019

I would love to visit Norway. After seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland, I've been hearing how amazing they are in Norway and Finland. I'll be checking out your blog to see if you have any tips or great book suggestions.

I just looked up The Tricking of Freya on Goodreads and added the title to my list. Sounds really good! Thank you so much for the suggestion.

Iceland is definitely becoming a popular destination. I think that's great for the country's economic state, but I also hope Iceland doesn't start to suffer from over tourism.

Thank you for reading, for the suggestions, and for the kind words.