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

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“Filled with charming illustrations, this delightful book about Iceland’s 265 museums is as quirky and mesmerizing as the country’s dreamscape itself.” Forbes

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 (roughly the population of Lexington, Kentucky) but more than 265 museums and public collections--nearly one for every ten people. They range 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."

About the Author


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.

Praise For…


A Financial Times Best Book of the Year

“I think one of the reasons I loved it so much is that, look, armchair travel is all we’re gonna get this summer, right? And here we’re following this author, who’s a really nice writer, all around an island, visiting dozens and dozens of these tiny, quirky museums that dot the island. I came away just with a real feeling for the place. . . . It really is a wonderful, wonderful little book.” —Tina Jordan, deputy editor of The New York Times Book Review, on WNYC’s All of It

“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.” Newsweek

“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

“Delightful . . . Exuberant, idiosyncratic . . . With each chapter Greene circles around her subject as if viewing it in a vitrine, approaching it from different angles, changing her register and voice. The book is shot through with glee and irreverence.” The Guardian

“Captures the magical charm of this wild, idiosyncratic country.” Financial Times

“A rollicking trip through [Iceland’s] museums filled with the mythic, the marvelous, and the eccentric . . . Greene is a splendid guide with a playful voiceimagine Hermes writing with whimsy and charmand . . . 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

“Not only incredibly fascinating, it’s also a beautiful book, perfect for gifting to loved ones. . . . [It] was instantly a hit with me. . . . It’s going to be one I tell all my friends and family about.” ―Cassie Gutman, Book Riot

“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

“An enjoyable journey with an eloquent guide . . . Like the museums she visits, Greene transforms her collection of facts, anecdotes and ideas into something more. She intelligently invents something new, something fresh, something easier to carry yet full of meaning and insight. . . . Her infectious curiosity and rhythmic writing carry you along. It's like traveling with your most erudite friend. . . . The reader is rewarded with a trip to remember.” BookBrowse

“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

“Greene . . . is a gifted tour guide.” Ventura County Reporter

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

“Celebrates the obsession that keeps these whimsical collections going, along the way revealing plenty about a land of myth and geological marvel. If the book’s title strikes a plangent note now that so many of our own museums are imperilled, it only deepens the appeal of this quirky quest.” The Observer

“Delightful . . . Arch and whimsical, and full of jaunty assertions . . . There is something of the extended poem about this book.” ―Sara Wheeler, The Spectator (Australia)

“Delightfully strange, beautifully written . . . Wise and whimsical, this is a lovely celebration of curiosity, folklore and nature and the obsessive spirit of the souls who wanted to share their wonder with others.” The Simple Things

“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
Product Details
ISBN: 9780143135463
ISBN-10: 0143135465
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: May 12th, 2020
Pages: 272

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