Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World by Eliza Reid 

Advertisements

The Canadian first lady of Iceland pens a book about why this tiny nation is leading the charge in gender equality, in the vein of The Moment of Lift.

Iceland is the best place on earth to be a woman—but why?

For the past twelve years, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report has ranked Iceland number one on its list of countries closing the gap in equality between men and women. What is it about Iceland that enables its society to make such meaningful progress in this ongoing battle, from electing the world’s first female president to passing legislation specifically designed to help even the playing field at work and at home?

The answer is found in the country’s sprakkar, an ancient Icelandic word meaning extraordinary or outstanding women. 

Eliza Reid—Canadian born and raised, and now first lady of Iceland—examines her adopted homeland’s attitude toward women: the deep-seated cultural sense of fairness, the influence of current and historical role models, and, crucially, the areas where Iceland still has room for improvement. Throughout, she interviews dozens of sprakkar to tell their inspirational stories, and expertly weaves in her own experiences as an immigrant from small-town Canada. The result is an illuminating discussion of what it means to move through the world as a woman and how the rules of society play more of a role in who we view as equal than we may understand.

What makes many women’s experiences there so positive? And what can we learn about fairness to benefit our society?

Like influential and progressive first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Michelle Obama, Reid uses her platform to bring the best of her nation to the world. Secrets of the Sprakkar is a powerful and atmospheric portrait of a tiny country that could lead the way forward for us all.

Advertisements
Advertisements

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World by Eliza Reid

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Insightful, lovely read. I think anyone looking to read about Icelandic life and travel stories would enjoy this one. Would be an interesting one to discuss in book clubs.

Grab a coffee… I’ve hit character limit.

The Story
Loved the thought and care given to telling the historical context and stories of the Icelandic women. It takes a dive into daily activities, traditions, education, work, food, childrearing, marriage, geography, social norms, and language.

Loved the language presentation, etymology.

I certainly enjoyed most elements in this book, but I did struggle a bit.

Maybe because I wasn’t sure what this book wanted to be or which audience it was for. More fitting for a blog or travelogue than as the title conveys a sharing of secrets in some way or “How They are Changing the World.” It needed another round of edits or reorganization of sorts, as is was difficult to enjoy as one cohesive work.

Started off as a more personal take, at times a memoir, more of the author’s introspective work without being deeply introspective or vulnerable in the sense I know more about what the author has done instead of who she is. Then it pivoted to a focus more about shared commonalities amongst immigrants than of the local people and not really depicting the much needed contrast of culture between the two outside of the author’s more singular experiences and perspective. At times morphed into an op-ed, then into a more persuasive essay, but not as strong or convincing, well-researched, nor well-cited to meet that criteria either. I think it feels this way because of the way it was written, particularly noting how the hypothetical aspects of feminism, Icelandic social interests, nor author’s story appeared to be completely aligned.

Definite potential but by the end felt half-baked.

Started out incredibly strong, but half way through I felt less compelled due to the redundancy and straddling of opinions and topics that were revisited once again in the second half, mostly being misplaced, so I skim read the last chapters.

There are obvious striking differences about the country and people of Iceland and it was wonderful to read about.

There is much rally around the author’s perspective and sharing of culture within the book but, that aside, it made it difficult to gauge Icelandic life outside of that. Elements of speculation with conflating ideas and convincing of sorts for a utopia, harmonious, forward thinking, idealistic way of life, with a much more transactional, formulaic, and rigid feel instead of just being. Focused on remedies of policy implementation, rather than a deeper look at unique Icelandic origination and shaping of culture. Strong sense of nationalism, community-based and family-centric. Almost sort of a display of achieved transcendence. Teetered on a judgmental comparison to other countries and personal experiences whether they have the ability to change their personal circumstances or attitudes, or not.

Sort of renews enthusiasm and zest, at the same time, smothered by it. Likely because there is some overemphasis on persuasion for conclusions that have yet to be fully realized.

Iceland, being one of the more homogeneous societies in the world, much insulated, even as we know and learn, immigration presence is not delineated well, whether due to welcoming of strong integration, high tolerance, or naiveness. So we find it’s not without a screening process and is coupled with much social stigma that also reflects the first hand experiences of the author and results in the feeling of compulsion and ongoing search for finding more exceptions than rules as the stories unfold. Making for a less consistent story of objective support that the author seems to draw less attention to. Especially when it came to race relations and didn’t take that extra step to recognize how tolerance does not equate to integration, growth, or majority, even aside from the author’s generous mention of specific examples, when you understand they are sparingly distributed and less integrated within reality.

You can see the barriers of cultural assimilation, even in part of the author’s experiences, and the more maintained effort to remain homogeneous, for example the Jellyfish women’s group which at its core, is not as thoroughly addressed in the book.

Felt like I was reading more of a promotional brochure at times, touting diversity while in the same breath immigrants, who are still seen as foreigner, rather than acknowledgement for the skillset and expertise they bring to the island, so sort of cancels itself out without recognition of these facts. It felt a bit washed at times, a little bit held back, maybe on behalf of the position, public notoriety, and perception that the author has to maintain.

Access doesn’t always equate to better utilization or guaranteed improved outcomes and I think the author misses that. Equity in access is highlighted but doesn’t mention much about the outcomes. Is a bit covert about the subject giving less numerous examples of ways it hasn’t been achieved and not drawing much attention to issues associated with under reporting, referrals, outsourcing, younger median age, and resulting complications, need for specialty expertise, and complexities that are typically handled off the island.

Would have liked more definition of equality, goals, and feminine qualities in both historic and modern day definitions. More honest, transparent commentary, particularly about the passage that states “There are still voices who loudly claim that watching women play sports is just not as interesting as watching men.” Where it follows up with needing to wear different glasses or changing your perspective and also solidifying what was previously contradictory in that “it’s also different because we are naturally different.” Which didn’t speak much to the ideals that Iceland appears to embrace today.

I’d say, let’s also look at who watches and who plays women’s sports. How about women’s beach volleyball? The book doesn’t address the demand and core audience. Or how women can also be so competitive amongst themselves. Never mind men. Picturing much like crabs in a bucket. Trying to get out, raising to the top, only to pull each other down in the process. It did mention some about bullies and barriers but didn’t really identify the extent, the source, or issues as transparently as I’d thought it might. Didn’t address the conflicting notions of gender blindness in opposition to acknowledgment of the Y chromosome.

There was this peculiar vacillation between calling her normal healthy pregnancy a condition. It also pointed to the much needed attention, validation, affirmation, and accolades at odds with needing assistance to recognize the need for help when lifting heavy objects or need to address ongoing back aches and morning sickness. Made for a difficult pleading for a cause and relatable circumstance in that it was not well-connected to motherhood, duty, desire, or equality in the way that the book was set out to demystify. Also much less mention about the value and benefits of honor, joy, and sense of personal accomplishment in domestic responsibilities as women. Instead elevates work outside the home as the better choice, with highest regard and favorability, without discussing how most women end up in a different set of hierarchy, dividing attention and interests in other ways, internal conflict when it comes to time and provision, and ultimately having to answer to a boss anyway, which can all certainly become problematic in a different sort of way.

Feminist issues aside, doesn’t give space for how men might feel either feel empowered or emasculated, where traditional roles and chivalry is viewed solely as a way of control.

There was less attention to certain aspects of life that are not much different than less populated, less industrialized, and even less developed parts of the world. Example, children traveling to the store for groceries and such.

Topics I would have liked to be explored in more depth:
-Cost of living, income tax
-Effect of tourism on the indigenous population and land
-Aging population, obesity rates, heart disease
-Precocious sexual education and rate of unintended pregnancies
-How women’s equality may be attributed to law or culture
-More on communal aspects and traditions outside of feminism and political messaging, perhaps ones that may be in opposition to them
-Marriage a benefit of commitment and union, rather than a single moral reason as often depicted in the book
-Benefits of being part of NATO without an established military base, as on behalf of the protection of North America and Europe
-Monopolization

I would have liked to have seen more well-rounded, full context of circumstances rather than strong defense of certain practices and talking points, showing response to addressing a problem proactively or as a result of a larger virtuous social construct or order that was already established.

The personal stories were incredibly interesting; however, in author presentation, felt a bit rosy. Explained away first hand perceptions that were not as inclusive and connected as first put out to be. Perception and portrayal grifted. Would say one thing and defend it, then a much lighter, less reflective opposing viewpoint would be explained away and sprinkled in later chapters of the book.

Example, women have such a strong community of support amongst women, while later, they lack role models. I couldn’t tell if it was just author perception of needing more formal ways to learn and highly visible community programs as opposed to friend and family structure, nuances, and learned behaviors? I couldn’t tell, except I noticed how one thing was touted, then later lists them in much the same way in grievances. Depicted advocacy for one stance, which you’d naturally question, and then find little confirmation, if any, later in the book. And then concluded with just believing in yourself.

Didn’t complete thoughts, until later in the book dissuading you from thinking otherwise in the way it was organized and laid out, which felt a bit disingenuous. Ignored some important oppositional research and viewpoints. Didn’t leave much room for the amalgamation of ideas because it centered more around achievement of social agendas ahead of itself, rather than deconstructing the strides that got it there including Icelandic origination stories of history, human behaviors, and response.

Hot button issues barely touched on side of labor-intensive and low-wage jobs impacting women within the country. Less picturesque for women in the workplace when most of the pro stance is seen with a baby at her breast, in the boardroom meetings attempting to quietly attempt to feed her baby. It’s not the same level of demanded equality for work on an oil rig, in a coal mine, or at sea, or as a surgeon, plumber, or in roofing. Solutions for discourse was mostly made by grounding offenses and rooting them in more law and regulation, which the book leaves little room to entertain such differences in answers.

There is some misinformation about hormonal therapy being a pause button at the ages claiming promotion amongst, failing to recognize perils of nepotism, and in looking up the cross references, such as global climate crisis affecting women disproportionately, I did not find supportive research data to further draw out the conclusion, instead, just more anecdotes. Came down to not being well-cited. Many citations actually to more anecdotes as authoritative source in less appropriate places. I would have liked to have known impact on personal lives if that was going to be the case.

As far as the author’s personal experiences, I did appreciate them more as a stand alone as they did add context, but were overshadowing. There were many life firsts for the author, like riding a horse for the first time for instance, or witnessing animal live birth even though she grew up on a hobby farm. Was sweet but felt more of a personal sacred experience, more appropriate for an autobiography than for the Icelandic women changing the world or any entertainment value for the collective whole as a reader because I wasn’t sure the connection to the preceding or following paragraphs depicting social injustice issues. This also included personal insecurities, more related to media coverage for the author and critiquing of outfits worn to awards ceremony and run-ins with the paparazzi, which I was less interested in. Might have been better reserved for a separate book instead of a dedicated chapter about the perils of media relations.

It became increasingly more difficult to take more seriously when identifying female discrimination. Especially when referencing female counterparts also made the same complaints, but at the same time calling out misogyny in part of males. Not to mention referencing saturation of details of what people were eating at lunch during the time of the interview, which again, felt like a selling of material for a travelogue and food menu and everything else, issue-wise, was secondary after thought.

Maybe it was the mixes of life stage and personal experiences with cultural nuances, trying to tell it as an all-in-one book approach that made for a much more outside looking in. Which would be okay on its own, except, in most context, everything felt mission and goal orientated, and the author’s lived experiences came off as contrived sourcing material from a journalistic point of view than experiences with cultural assimilation, or intimacy and personal connection with the culture and peers and even her own husband and children. Promoted programs but not a lot of celebration of the individual life moments, or say unique rituals, traditions, or holidays adapted or abandoned, funniest or saddest moments to depict internal emotional growth and vulnerability, which largely felt set aside, and where the book, focused more on personal and societal performance as a transaction of events.

Ultimately was a bit narrow in viewpoint and comparison, though I did enjoy it for the most part.

The Writing
I think the biggest issue was that it lacked flow. Relied heavily on the author’s very personal experiences and individual worldview than outlook beyond any limited, urbanized, Western culture. I think that was the more frustrating parts of the book as there was less separation at points and too much expected cohesion applied at less appropriate parts of the book. So there was this back and forth straddling and meshing of distinguished characteristics between the author’s personal and societal ambitions and pressures that were mostly exclusively her own. Much as you would expect from an autobiography, but at the same time, lacking the reflection, internalization, deeper personal growth, imparting of wisdom, friendship, motherhood, partnership, empathy, etc…

This coupled with switching to comments about the weather and impact of the geothermal pools and back to food. Separately, a dedicated chapter would be fine. But interjections of geothermal references, geography, terrain facts to illustrate deeper point felt disjointed to me. Many parts could have been consolidated or condensed to match the subject matter rather than rehashed and sprinkled in during the ending chapters.

Most everybody in every interview was between mouthfuls of delicious food which was charming at first, but much like the rest of the writing became repetitive and over indulgent, like a metafiction novel with application in the most jarring of ways, taking you out of the story instead of further in it.

Sort of gave it that armchair perspective, which is certainly valid, but just not what I was expecting from the book.

Pacing
Inconsistencies in the pacing and the stories the author wanted to tell. Sort of a mix of topical and chronological which led to a yo-yo effect. Not so well organized. Added tidbits of less related pop culture and one line anecdotes to make a point for somethings less related.

Voice
The author has a distinguished style of writing which I did enjoy. I did notice how it didn’t really dive into the relational aspects of life, even in childbearings passages, and felt a bit shallow, but this may be in part due to the less intentional, genuine author’s voice as reading gave me this feeling of life and this book itself being a checklist of sorts, again very transactional, premeditated, and a bit overly planned and prepared.

Tone
Bit of a sales pitch.

Self-titled, self-appointed, noting First Lady is typically the term that is more unique to U.S. culture as not a political holding but representation of the state which is also unique to U.S. culture that the author has adopted to describe herself. Gives the book this visibility to oneself and less attention or perhaps less honor of being “wife of,” it’s not quite clear. Or if it’s unknown if husband would be “first man” and how precedence would be formed, perceived, and embraced.

Definitely has that tone of presumption, perfection, prescriptive, universal problem-solving for individual needs without identifying exactly what that would entail. Instead was more formulaic, transactional, almost achievement-orientated, a rigid approach, again, did not answer the deeper questions as to what is progressive or visionary for both Iceland in future, or how other countries who would wish to emulate certain societal practices would fair. Consider the line “Some reports even state that Icelandic grocery stores ran out of hot dogs in response to the strike, as men tried to feed their hungry children.” A bit presumptuous, almost backhanded compliment of sorts. One could argue with what was inherently wrong with men in finding their resourcefulness at the expense of emasculating them, for multiple reasons and a deeper dive would do well into the escalation of the strike and into expectations for shared roles.

In a nutshell reminds me of the overwrought buildup to ultimate flat answer of beauty queens “world peace” answer, where no standing resolution exists.

Super interesting, just wasn’t as true to the title as I’d hoped it might be.

Loved hearing about Iceland. I will look forward to more from this author, maybe similar topics in much more separate form. A book dedicated to the patriarch in contrasting form, coming of age, community activities of women, autobiography, short stories from the indigenous women, or a simple travelogue would be lovely.

View all my reviews

Fireside Chat

Grab some coffee or tea and Join Our Conversation!

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: