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The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland's Most Unusual Museums

And Other Excursions to Iceland's Most Unusual Museums

A. Kendra Greene

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“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.”

“Lyrical and offbeat . . . Greene is adept at extrapolating meaning from oddities and a sense of wonder from the family histories contained within the walls of small museums. . . . What Greene’s book achieves most of all is revealing the passions and the obsessions of the people behind the museums we so love to visit.” 

The New York Times

“Delightful . . . Fascinating . . . Dreamy and disorienting in the best way . . . Greene is a deft and skillful writer. . . . [She] makes for a charming guide, a literary traveler in the spirit of Bruce Chatwin.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“An engaging travelogue . . . A museum of museums . . . A provocation to reflect upon the essential nature of the museum, an inquiry that feels exceptionally pertinent as museums around the world try to define what they do in this moment of isolation . . . Greene’s enthusiastic prose would guide any visitors to Iceland well.”
—The Dallas Morning News

“As much a fanciful literary experiment as a sober-minded overview of the Icelandic museum scene. Its delightful eccentricities . . . deliver a ton of solid information on Icelandic history and the Icelandic spirit. . . . Greene’s heady, lyrical, elliptical prose digs deep into the human urge to collect things. The book also delivers deep formal pleasures.” 
—The Boston Globe

“A rollicking trip through [Iceland’s] museums filled with the mythic, the marvelous, and the eccentric . . . Greene is a splendid guide with a playful voice
—imagine Hermes writing with whimsy and charm
—and . . . reveal[s] the extraordinary in the ordinary. This amusing, searching collection of essays, threaded with Greene’s rangy curiosity, is an ode to the joys and rewards of paying attention.” 
—Garnette Cadogan,
Lit Hub

“Tremendously engaging . . . A thoroughly surprising book on a completely unexpected topic that will fill readers with joyful literary appreciation . . . Greene [is] a creative and eloquent twenty-first-century cultural explorer. . . . With an ear for stories and an eye for delight, [she] has crafted a chronicle that shines with wit and warms with compassion. . . . A gleaming gem of intelligent writing and an exuberant travelogue.”
—Booklist, starred review

“A delightful one-of-a-kind journey . . . Insightful . . . Greene turns what easily could have become a mere cabinet of curiosities into a thoughtful and complex work. . . . 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.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review


“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.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“A poetic look at the country’s museums.”
—Library Journal

“A joy to read. A. Kendra Greene has found a fascinating mode of storytelling. . . .
The Museum of Whales You Will Never See is an engaging collection that was undoubtedly more interesting than any museum I have ever been to—it is like a museum of museums. . . . A love letter to the Icelandic culture, and the fleeting nature of its many stories.”
Devyn Carmen, Superstition Review

“So damn good . . . with a dry humor, a brisk intelligence, and carefully curated prose.” 
—Kerri Arsenault,
 Lit Hub

“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.”
—Ben Fountain, bestselling author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk


“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.”
—Elena Passarello, author of Animals Strike Curious Poses


“So attentive and meticulous and compassionate a voice, a touch, that every light and feathery (avian, human) thing here gathered—into this curatorial piece about our curatorial passions, about having, naming, meaning—seems pristine in all its qualities, unaltered in the handling, in the open palm presenting it. Greene knows to hold it out a bit, away from her, into the cold Icelandic air, to let the subtler meanings of the thing escape the thing, extend the taxonomic thing beyond itself.”
—David Searcy, author of Shame and Wonder


“Like a dream both feverish and freezing,
The Museum of Whales You Will Never See works on the reader elementally. As the sentences unspool their disarming lyricism, carrying with them the flotsam and jetsam of strange fact and stranger interpretation, Greene allows delight to converse with revulsion, incantation with nightmare, tradition with oddity.”
—Matthew Gavin Frank, author of Preparing the Ghost


“Kendra Greene has brought together so much of what makes good storytelling: the compelling and untrammeled subject of museums, the dark mystery of human motivation, and the eviction of the quiet, unbidden black island we call Iceland. This is a book that opens a pathway into the depth and variegated distances of the human heart, enriching the experience we call: to be alive.”
—Kurt Caswell, author of Getting to Grey Owl

“A delightful, lyrical tribute to those who gather, record, and preserve. This is a book brought to life by its own subject matter: by curiosity, obsession, and the desire to share with others our own sense of wonder.” 
—Malachy Tallack, author of The Un-Discovered Islands

“Kendra Greene understands that a museum can itself be an obsessive work of art, the long fuse of a fever dream that must be shared. And share she does, her wit and deep curiosity casting sparks across every page.”
—Philip Graham, author of
The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon

“The setting may be Iceland, but Greene’s brilliant prose—by turns funny and powerfully poetic—explores a much more universal human instinct to collect and save. This is a book about our imagination’s ability to see what is not there—to pull mythic tales from real things and to find truth in our missing pieces. A beautiful, buoyant read.”
Christine Coulson, author of Metropolitan Stories

A. Kendra Greene is a writer and artist who has worked at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Chicago History Museum, the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, and the Dallas Museum of Art, where she was a writer in residence. She has an MFA in nonfiction and a graduate certificate in book arts from the University of Iowa and has been the recipient of a Fulbright grant, a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, and a Harvard Library Innovation Lab Fellowship. She lives in Dallas, Texas, where she is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Texas, a guest artist at Nasher Sculpture Center, and an associate editor at
Southwest Review.


Einband gebundene Ausgabe
Seitenzahl 272
Erscheinungsdatum 12.05.2020
Sprache Englisch
ISBN 978-0-14-313546-3
Verlag Penguin Books USA
Maße (L/B/H) 21.1/12.4/2.3 cm
Gewicht 318 g


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  • 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 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.

    Some time later, in the calm of a museum café, I will be chatting with a family visiting from my homeland, and I will tell them how the local museum studies professor puts the count at 265 museums and public collections in this country of 330,000 people—how that alone would be astonishing—but remember almost all these places have been established in the last twenty years, like seeds dormant forever and then triggered at last by some great fire, some sharp snap of frost, to finally take root and bloom.

    Amazing, they agree, though they sit there in the museum café, sipping their coffees, never leaving the antechamber for the exhibits within. Outside, the mist collects and recedes, gathers up and blows through, the world beyond the museum’s glass wall always there but veiled, disintegrating, fading in and out of perception’s reach.

    And anyway it doesn’t have to flood; it could spew ash. Maybe the crops die, maybe the sheep are poisoned, maybe you breathe through a washcloth and famine sparks the French Revolution.

    These are old forces. The magma, and the tremors. The famine and the want. The way we love the pieces of this painfully, gloriously physical world but also the way we survive it because of the stories we fashion from its shards. We love rocks and birds and old boats and brass rings. But it’s the stories. The stories are something else. We do not just keep and collect things, amass and restore them. We trouble ourselves to repurpose, create, and invent things that can carry, a little easier, those stories we cannot live without. We love enchantments and mysteries and monsters and ghosts. We love the woman on the cusp of transformation searching for her sealskin so she can return home, become again what she was before. This is what we have always held onto. This is how we lash ourselves to the mast. These are old forces—irresistible—shaping the world anew.

    The Museum of Something Mumbled  

    There was famine. And the family determined they could save one son by sending him away. Or maybe, with one less mouth to feed, they determined they could save themselves. So they arranged for his passage to North America, a very long time on a ship. As the sailing date drew near, the boy was sick, too sick to journey—but everything was arranged and someone had to go, so they sent a different son, even younger, in his place.
    Relatives in North America dutifully met the ship, but when they could not find the name of the first son on the manifest, could not find the boy they had come for and did not know to look for another, they went home again, empty-handed. It did not matter when they learned of the substitution, if they learned of the substitution. No one heard from the boy who had been sent on the ship. No one was found who claimed they had seen him. No one could determine where the lost boy had died.
    Only he wasn’t dead. More than a decade after that first ship had docked, he stepped off another, returning home to Iceland, intent to find a bride. In all that time he’d never written. In all that time he’d never sent word. He had scarcely more to say in the flesh: something curt and mumbled about the native people, that they should be treated better, but no further accounting of his survival, of how that starving child became a man, standing here in a buffalo coat.

    I myself know nothing more of him, of his story, would not know even this except for the buffalo coat, sequestered here in a glass case as if it had stepped into a phone booth to make a call. And even this, what little I know, feels misplaced, though it turns like a key in a lock.

    It feels like a story not meant for me, in part, because it hardly feels on display. It’s not in the main museum but in an entry building, in a kind of hallway before temporary exhibits, at the far edge of the museum café. The coat has been given a footprint of text in its case, everything properly printed and kerned. It is a text shorter even than the story I tell here, the words in Icelandic but not echoed in another tongue, not a one of the other languages of the people who knew this man, knew the lost boy long enough for his shoulders to fill out this coat. I assume the text, too, says something curt and mumbled.

    This is the story I was given though I came looking for a reverend, after I was shown that man’s frock and shoes. This is the story I was given after I kept asking about a different boat: the old fishing boat docked in sod and rotting on the museum lawn, never quite enough money to maintain it, now too dangerous to climb aboard, though everyone who grew up here used to clamber about its planks and railings as a child.

    I keep this stray gem as one does any precious thing. I have the sense to hold close this story I did not come for, could not have asked for. I see the windfall immediately. This is the story I was given only after I was given the grand tour, after I was invited to rest in the museum café, after I thought my questions were answered, after I was given coffee and given cake, until I could eat no more.