Trying to find myself back to literature

So, almost five years on, I´m back. The blog that was supposed to be (One Sketch A Day on Wordpress) is totally gone from the internet, and I have been completely buried in studies, going for a degree in nursing, which I accomplished. I am now a certified nurse working at an old folk´s home.  During this period of going back to school I also had to go through treatment for breast cancer, which went well, considering. On top of that, my mum-in-law and my best friend Marie passed away, from old age and cancer, respectively. Oh, and two summers ago I broke both my arms. And the husband broke his leg, and had some trouble with high blood pressure. In the end, I had to take 4 months off (doctor´s orders) to just process all my stress before I could finish my final practice round. But, I reached my goal in the end.

They say that you can completely change your life in five years, and that is certainly true. Five years ago I wouldn´t even have been able to imagine the life I´m having today. The work is endlessly satisfying, but also endlessly demanding. One could easily be present and useful 24/7.

My problem right now is to find a healthy work-life balance. For so long I poured all my energy into studies and surviving, that now I find my spare time empty of meaning and connection. This leads to me thinking too much about work when I´m supposed to be resting from it. What to do?

I do miss writing. I let go of my ambition to write a novel when I decided to go into nursing, but I now find that the novel is still calling me. However, I can´t seem to even be able to read any more. Studying so hard and all the stress has somehow damaged my ability to read for pleasure, and I feel frustrated about that, since literature has always been my deepest love.

So, bottom line: I´m back blogging about reading because I need to find my way back to my love of literature. I need to get reading again.


Moving on

Well, times they are a-changing, and suddenly I find myself with a new set of priorities, motivations, and goals in life. More good news on that later, I hope. Until then, I´m attempting to clear my desk, so to speak, finish a few things that I promised to do, simplify routines, and soforth. One thing is the blogging.

I have decided to continue all my blogging on "One Sketch a Day" and simply shoe-horn everything I like to write about into it. It´s funny how, one year ago, I became uncomfortable with how the Bookshelf had expanded, then branched out into several blogs, and now I´m going back to one again. Also, I am leaving Blogger for Wordpress, which right now feels a bit weird to use, but I imagine I will learn it, as I once learned to use Blogger.

Hope you will see me there, at One Sketch A Day.


Sherlock Shinobi

I am not getting a whole lot of reading done, and considering how much I anticipated the new Russell&Holmes adventure, "Dreaming Spies", by Laurie R King, it has taken me an uncharacteristically long time to get through it. The last quarter, however, was so exciting I sacrificed a few hours of sleep for it.

Our detective partners are just come home from their latest adventure in Marocko ("Garment of Shadows") and finds Mrs Hudson puzzled about a rock that has been delivered and carefully placed in their garden. The Holmeses do not take this as a puzzle to be solved, so we understand that they know what this rock is and why it has been given to them. Russell goes up to her house in Oxford, where she is met by an intruder, asking for her help. And so starts a lengthy flashback of their round-the-world trip and visit to Japan, one year earlier. (This would have taken place between "The Game" and "Locked Doors".)

One of the things I really like about King is how well she seems to understand the context in which she places her protagonists. Japanese culture - that whole thing about loosing face - is usually incomprehensible to me (I recently read an article in the paper about a Swedish exchange student in China who got into trouble with the police when trying to stop a fight in a nightclub, and how his attitude - perfectly understandable to a European - caused him a year of grief with the justice system, until he swallowed his pride and was promptly released after having begged forgiveness for something he hadn´t done) but King explains it well through the situations she puts the husband/wife team in.

This is the first of the novels where Russell and Holmes are really one hundred percent comfortable with each other as working partners - there is a higher level of trust and confidence, and a natural and easy division of labour - and I like how King has let her characters evolve through the series. She is, as always, very humouristic, sometimes slapstick funny. And again, she gives the most interesting and complex roles to the women of her cast; not that one really notices, as she is never overtly feminist.

Well, you can tell, I find it hard indeed to find fault with King´s work. I have realized that this series is not to everyone´s taste, although I can´t really understand why, but there it is. I do wish, however, that every reader finds a few series that he or she can relish as much as I do this!


The Man with a Load of Mischief

I rarely buy real, physical books these days, stopping when my asthma was really bad a few years ago. However, the asthma is better (so is my general health and well-being, which I attribute to better sleep) and I have started picking up the odd paper book when there is no e-book alternative. Certainly, art-books are hard to come by in a decent electronic form, and I have been buying quite a few of those lately - though they have not made it onto the blog, not actually being literature, I think.

I have also been drawn to detective stories, preferably long series of well-drawn characters that one can get to know and like. Comfort reading, I realize, but sometimes that´s what´s called for. I have finished the entire Dalziel&Pascoe-series by Reginald Hill years ago and he will not be making any more, sadly, being dead and all. Laurie R King is alive and well, but is hardly turning out a new Russell&Holmes adventure every year (though her Stuyvesant-series is good too). I have plenty of Lord Peter Wimsey left to read, but am in no hurry to get to the end of them.

After a favourable review by Divers and Sundry, I ordered this one via amazon from a second-hand book dealer in the UK, for a penny, I think. "The Man with a Load of Mischief" is the title of not just the novel, but also an inn where the first (or so it seems) in a series of murders takes place, by Martha Grimes, an American author writing a whole series (23 books!) of whodunits (all named after pubs, I understand) with Scotland Yard Inspector Richard Jury as the investigating sleuth.

A bit of googling (imdb knows nothing about this) revealed that the Germans have adapted this to television in 2013, English countryside and all (but those white cliffs suggests they may have moved the action from the Yorkshire countryside a bit). It turns out to be on DVD and as I feel that we don´t see enough German television, I have ordered it. The reviews were mixed, but I don´t care; it´ll be a lark, I´m sure.

To return to the book, I have to say, I am not in my most critical mood here. It is the first of a long series (published in 1981), and considering the spectacular development of Reginald Hill´s authorship over the years, I am forgiving of certain flaws in a first novel. Like overdescribing - Grimes does not hesitate to stop the action to linger for an entire page on how prettily the snow has fallen on the thatched roofs, etc - and not being entirely British in her vocabulary - I think, for instance, that Inspector Jury would not really reflect much on the cut of a man´s pants, as they would not be visible to him (pants are underwear in Britain, trousers are outerwear). Also, I did figure out who the murderer was much sooner than the good Inspector, but you know, it didn´t really lessen my enjoyment. I like the characters and I look forward to seeing what she will make of them. With 22 books ahead of me (and perhaps more coming, she is 83, but turned out her latest in 2014) I hope I have much to look forward to.


The Careless

My last read but one (I´m a bit late on the blogging at the moment) was Margaret Drabble´s "The Gates of Ivory" (= Sw. "Elfenbensporten") from 1991, which has just been re-published by Modernista, in a series of modern classics. It was very favourably reviewed in one of the newspapers I read, so I suggested to my reading friend that we go for it in tandem, as I have always wanted to read Drabble, if only for the quote about sandwiches, which I can not find in English, so I don´t know if she actually said it like this:
"Det finns ingen anledning, till varför man inte skulle kunna njuta av smörgåsar och kärlek i evighet.Till skillnad från vissa andra tycks dessa nöjen inte ha någon inbyggd förslitning." (= There is no reason why one couldn´t enjoy sandwiches and love for all eternity. Unlike some others, these pleasures seem to have no natural tendency to wear. - Ok, probably all wrong; it´s weird and dangerous to translate back and forth.)
Anyway! It turned out that "The Gates of Ivory" is the last in a series of three novels, the first being "The Radiant Way" and the second "A Natural Curiosity". Not that I think it matters very much. I have checked out the reviews of all the novels in the New York Times (where they still write excellent and learned reviews - Swedish critics are not as sharp as we think they used to be, and it has been up for debate in the newspapers all winter), and they only confirm my decision not to read the other two. Not that this - or the others, I imagine - is a bad novel, on the contrary. It is very well written, and I never once felt inclined to put it down (it is 400 pages) even though the characters are a bunch of ridiculous people.

From the terracotta army - the only vaguely fitting illustration
 I coulf find in my photo collection.
The person who is the engine of the story is Stephen Cox, a middle-aged author famous for a Booker Award-winning novel about the Paris Commune. He is estranged from his mother and his brothers, and lives a rather quite single life in a small flat in London. Now - in 1985, that is - he decides to go looking for Pol Pot, to write a book or a play about him. It seems he is also looking for some meaning of life other than hoarding money, luxury items, and praise, which was the way of the 80´s, if you remember. So, he leaves his friends behind and disappear in the Far East. A couple of years later, his friend Liz Headleand, a divorced psychiatrist, recieves a package containing some of his notebooks and other papers, along with a human finger.

Now, what would you do if one of your friends, of whom you have heard nothing for years, suddenly sent you a package like that? A human finger, for Pete´s sake! Well, Liz Headleand does... not much. She phones another one of Stephen´s friends, Hattie (who also lives in Stephen´s flat while he is away), they get together, and do... pretty much nothing.

There are others - most left-leaning intellectuals who passed Cambridge or Oxford, most of them in important jobs with the government or BBC or something like that, all high-status people - at the fringes of this story, some of whom were probably more prominent in the earlier novels. They go in and out of the different scenes Drabble sets up and what strikes me most about all of them are their... carelessness. I mean both that they are careless as in negligent and reckless, but also indifferent and unconcerned. Marilynne Robinson writes, in her critique of "The Radiant Way", the first book in this series, and I think it applies to this one, too:
"The emotional withdrawal proposed to us in ''The Radiant Way'' is truly radical. Cast off familial and social bonds and what is left? Liz Headleand doing lunch, being brilliant, though somehow never in our hearing. This novel is a valuable specimen of a new consciousness. It has no other claim on the reader's attention."
Linda Simon, who reviewed "The Gates of Ivory", goes a bit farther:
""The Gates of Ivory" is intellectually stimulating and, as we might expect from Ms. Drabble, very smart. But ideas do not make a novel. Characters do. And we need to care about them, deeply."
What is the point of all these secondary characters? asked my friend in our discussion. My guess is that Drabble wants to show us how important Stephen Cox is to Liz - or, how unimportant, rather - and how little his fate concerns those who call themselves his friends. They don´t care much. In the end, Liz goes looking for Stephen, not because she starts caring all of a sudden, but because it is the right thing to do. I get the feeling it´s about being seen to do the right thing.

The only person in this story that I like is Miss Porntip, a Thai former beauty queen, born in a mountain village, grown up in the massage parlours of Bangkok, now a wealthy entrepreneur who collects gems and interesting and useful boyfriends. She takes a liking to Stephen and tries to convince him that there is no simple paradise in communism, rather that the only way to happiness is through capitalism, fashion, medical care, refrigerators, maple syrup, et cetera. Stephen is not convinced and instead seeks the company of two like-minded photographers and lets them guide him on his journey into the Cambodian countryside. Miss Porntip also has a heart, and later gives much help to Liz in her search. (I would have given you a nice quote here, if I hadn´t read the Swedish translation.)

There are a couple of scenes that I really like, where I can relate all of a sudden. One is a lunch with Liz and her best friend Alix, where Drabble really nails how the balance in a friendship can shift when one of them does not do the required sharing but holds something back (in this case a very private matter concerning a husband´s health), and how icy it can become under the surface for reason that can hardly be acknowledged (being fundamentally unfair, after all).

My reading friend also pointed out how archetypal the characters all were (we both took part in a study circle on Jean Shinoda Bolen´s theories a few years ago), and we started discussing what archetypes - according to Bolen´s pantheon - fit whom - like how Stephen Cox is a Hades character, drawn to death; how one of the photographers he befriends is a Hermes archetype, a messenger who guides people back and forth from the Kingdom of Death (one of the refugee camps); how Miss Porntip is very Artemis-like, an independent force; and how some characters shift from one archetype to another, or inhabit several; for example, Liz, who is divorced, still carries the written offer of marriage that her ex-husband gave her, probably thirty years before, in a zipped-up compartment her handbag, which I think signals a Hera (wife) archetype in the past, no longer active, but not quite forgotten either. We agreed that the novel really is very suitable for this kind of discussion, and I suspect that it will linger in my mind for quite some time, and that we will perhaps discuss scenes later on.

Also, I googled "the ivory gates" and it seems this, originally from the Odyssey, refers to deceiving, false dreams. Which makes our discussion connecting the characters to the Greek pantheon even more relevant, I feel.

A week ago I thought it improbable that I would read anything more by Drabble, but now that some more time has passed, I think that with the kind of reading that my friend suggested, mythologically slanted, as it were, would be very rewarding. So, now I think it likely that I will pick up more Drabble in the future. She certainly is interesting.



Over the Christmas holidays, Swedish television broadcast a three-episode documentary about Astrid Lindgren, who is perhaps our most beloved author. She wrote several children´s books from the late 40´s until the 80´s, from "Pippi Longstocking", over "The Six Bullerby Children", "Karlsson-on-the-Roof", "Emil of Lönneberga", "Bill Bergson" ("Kalle Blomkvist" in Swedish), "Mio, my son", "The Brothers Lionheart", to "Ronia, the Robber´s Daughter". She also wrote the script to "Vi på Saltkråkan", a wonderful television series about a couple of families on an island in the Stockholm archipelago.

I didn´t know much about her life and it was really interesting to see what inspired all those stories. She said she remembered her childhood well, because she had been such a happy child, with happy parents, but that she had hardly any memories from her teens, when she was very unhappy. She was closest to her older brother, with whom she played the best, and he was the model for many of her characters, the older, kind brothers.

Little "Rusky" knows he is going to die and his older brother comforts him.
At eighteen, she became pregnant and involved in a great scandal, when the father of her child (with whom she was not in love, she said she was simply young and flattered that he was in love with her), a fifty-something newspaper man, was sued by his wife and mother of his seven children. Astrid fled to Denmark to have her son Lars and he was put in fostercare there for three years, until his fostermother became ill and Astrid, who was struggling to make a living as a typist in Stockholm, took him to her. After a few months of barely making it work, her parents decided to take the boy in, and when Astrid married soon after that, he could finally live permanently with her. This was her life trauma, and many of her books are about abandoned, lonely little boys, as well as about strong but equally alone little girls.

Happily re-united in the Cherry Valley.
She worked for Swedish intelligence during the Second World War, and spent a few years working for an internationally renowned criminologist. These experienced inspired her books about Bill Bergson, the master detective, and the Lionheart brothers, who fight in the resistance movement against the evil knight Tengil.

She had a daughter in her marriage, and was widowed in 1952. She never married again, but worked as an editor while also writing her books. She spoke English and German equally well, has readers in most countries in the world, and received sackfuls of letters every day. She even took the time to properly correspond with some of her readers, like one troubled little girl (interviewed in the documentary) to whom she wrote for almost 30 years (they never met).

After having seen the documentary yesterday, I decided to re-read "The Brothers Lionheart". I probably haven´t read it since the early 80´s, late 70´s perhaps. It´s a well-read book though, it took me a while to find it since the back is missing. It´s a sad story about leaving home and having to do brave things even though one is scared, and I see how this would have appealed to me. Unlike Astrid, I was not a happy child and can remember very little about childhood. Thanks to women like her, I could grow up to be a free (relatively) adult, and that suited me better than being a child. She wrote this book for her brother, who had a heart disease and knew he was soon going to die. It was a "consolation book" for them both. It was also a book which was inspired by her work in the Second World War and how she experienced the struggle for freedom from Nazi rule. The wonderful illustrations are by Ilon Wikland, who came to Sweden as a fourteen year-old refugee from Estonia.

Jonathan, who is all good, even rescues one of Tengil´s soldiers, when he nearly drowns. 
The story is about little Karl Lejon (Lion), called Skorpan (Rusky in English translation) by his brother (after the little biscuits he loves), almost ten years old, who is dying from tuberculosis. His thirteen-year-old brother Jonathan comforts him and tells him that they will meet again in Nangijala, the land beyond the stars that is still in the age of fairytales. After the house catches fire, Jonathan bravely saves Rusky´s life, taking him on his back and jumping from the third floor, dying from the fall. In an obituary, Jonathan´s teacher writes that he deserves the name Lionheart.

Not long after, Rusky succumbs to his coughs and suddenly finds himself standing in front of a small farmhouse with a sign on the gate: "The Brothers Lionheart". The brothers are united in the Cherry Valley in Nangijala and Rusky - who is now healthy and strong - is deliriously happy for a while, but not all is well in Nangijala. Their neighbouring valley, the Thorn Rose Valley, is enslaved by the evil knight Tengil, who has a terrible weapon called Katla, which no one wants to talk about, but the name makes Rusky shudder. Jonathan is in league with the leader of the resistance, Sofia, and he leaves on a mission for Thorn Rose Valley.

The evil Tengil terrorizes the Thorn Rose Valley folk.

After a bad dream, in which he hears Jonathan call for help, Rusky goes after him, and I am not going to spoil the story by telling you about it any further. It is sad and dark, people die in it, and Lindgren was much criticized for having written such a dark and sad children´s book. Still, it is also a very hopeful story and good prevails, even though the price is high. It is one of the most loved and important books ever written, I think. It is often quoted in obituary notices for children, and adults too: "Don´t cry mummy, we´ll see each other again in Nangijala", which is on a note Rusky leaves for his mother the night he feels he is going to die.

I cried so much reading this book - I don´t remember crying so much when I read it as a child. I guess if you are happy, you´ll read it as a tragedy, but if you are unhappy, you´ll read it as hopeful and comforting. Yes, this is a truth: happy people have no idea what unhappy people need. Happy people can be cruel, with the best intentions. We should never forget that. Astrid Lindgren certainly never did.


Posthumous Reputation

In "Svenska teckningar - 1800-talet" (= Swedish drawings from the 19th century) I found more than Carl Larsson. I already knew about Johan Tobias Sergel, who is perhaps most known as a sculptor. He was born in Stockholm by German parents, spent twelve years abroad (was elected member of the French Academy) and was then called back to Sweden by King Gustav III, whose statue he made, among many other things. (It´s on one of my best photos from last years outdoors art exhibition.) I know him mainly for his drawings, actually. This is one of his best known. He lived with Anna-Rella, a waitress, in a "Stockholm-marriage" and had several children by her.

By Sergel: from when the Prince Karl Johan visits his studio.

I had to laugh at this quote from the book (translated by me), concerning one of Sergel´s contemporaries.
In 1812 Sergel resigned [as professor at the Academy of Art]; his successor was the meek history and theatre painter Emanuel Limnell. In spite of a long life - he was almost a hundred years old - Limnell has not made any lasting impression in our history of art. As a drawing teacher his was weak to begin with, but managed during his half-century long career to become worse.
These are two of his drawings. You make up your own mind:

The unveiling of the Gustav III-statue by Sergel (see links above).

"The liberal arts", a burlesque allegory.