2010-12-29

Wasted women, Sigrid Combüchen

I don´t know how to illustrate this post. I can´t forever take pictures of my e-book reader, can I? What I have read over the Christmas holiday is Sigrid Combüchen´s "Spill" ("Waste" in English, but as far as I can find out, it has not been translated. Yet.) Combüchen recieved this year´s August-prize for it, and well deserved, I think.

Combüchen calls "Spill" a "lady´s novel" and she defines it herself in the novel as a story about clothes, jewellery, beauty and illusions of love and that every girl has the right to be a princess one day of her life. Ok. It´s a story about a novelist, Sigrid Combüchen, who starts a correspondence with one of her readers and then is inspired to write this person´s story as a novel. The protagonist, Hedda, is a young girl of nineteen, twenty. It is the 1930´s and she has finished school with excellent grades, straight A´s. However, the family funds (her mother´s inheritance, most of which the father has wasted) are invested in the oldest son, who is studying to become a doctor, and she is expected to keep house for her sick father, sick younger brother and worn-out mother while her other older brother tries for a career in film.

To "save" Hedda from this fate, her grandmother pays for her to go to Stockholm and learn sewing at a fashion house. These are skills not considered "wasted" on girls, apparently. I won´t give more away, in case you want to read it. (I urge you to want to.)

So yes, the novel is about clothes (sewing), it is about jewellery (a few rings plays a big role in the story), beauty (she is one), illusions of love (there´s a lot about why and how couples end up married), and the right to be a princess one day in one´s life (a disappointment, you´ll see).

In between the chapters about Hedda, we read excerpts from the author´s diary and the letters written by the "original" Hedda. And we are invited into the process of creating fiction. What really makes this book great is that it asks questions, rather than telling a finished, closed story. It´s all an illusion, it´s all in the writer´s mind, and this is confirmed with a small gimmick: all the voices, the author´s, the original Hedda and the young Hedda, they all use a lot of English expressions. It´s like the text hasn´t been edited, like it has just flowed from the creator´s mind and all the voices are one and the same. Of course this is deliberate, very considered.

I really enjoyed this book. It´s good, literary fiction, it makes you think while you enjoy a good story. And I imagine most women reading this can identify. Heddas 1930´s dilemma is hardly historical, only a week ago the Swedish Prime Minister said in an interview that Swedish women don´t work (for wages) enough and spend too much time and energy on their homes and families. I´m not sure I think he is right, but I know a lot of (most) women do, and not necessarily out of choice. Just this morning I saw a comic strip commenting the Prime Minister´s statement: a man sits in the sofa in front of the telly and reproaches his wife that she works too hard, while she is taking care of (his) babies and stiring a pot and putting the Christmas ham in the oven, all at the same time while the Christmas tree twinkles in the background.

And whatever the politics of men and women, whatever that, there will always be the needs of children to consider. That is an aspect Combüchen does not deal with in this book, the needs of those Hedda refuses to care for. But, as she says, it´s a "lady´s novel".
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2010-12-15

Straight talk

Here is a life-changer, if you suffer from bad posture, like me (and so many others, frankly). I have not had any big problems with my back, other than a lumbago in my youth, which got me excercising, but over the last few years little pains have become the norm, mostly in my neck-area, mostly on my right side.

When I saw the pictures of me from summer vacation, I realized how slumped I walk. I also realized that I´m in no pain whatsoever as long as I keep moving, it´s the sitting and the standing still that is unbearable for more than five minutes at a time. So, I decided to get advice.

I´m not sure where I found Esther Gokhale´s "8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back" , but I scanned the web for advice and somewhere she popped up. And I have to say, she has not made me disappointed. The book is richly illustrated, the instructions are easy to understand and while it was really hard on all those un-used muscles to begin with, after about three months I could really tell a difference. It´s still hard work, but it´s been weeks now since I felt anything untoward in that right shoulder. Hurra!

One would think that standing straight is not such a hard thing, but actually, all the advice I got as a kid was contraproductive. "Chin up!" was what I was told to do and if you keep your chin up, it´s pretty darn hard to keep your back straight without falling over. Now I have learned, chin down. Soooo much easier.Thank you, Esther Gokhale.
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2010-12-13

Clearing out, part I

I am, in small doses, going through my bookshelves. I´m getting rid of most of it, I think. Today, I have these examples to show you:

Milorad Pavic´s "Dictionary of the Khazars" from 1984. This is the Male Edition. I bought the Female Edition as well, but could never find the difference between them. Bet he made money off that joke! Anyway, the novel was about the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism, and the story was told in three parts, or encyclopedias, a Muslim, a Judaic and a Christian. It was all very fantastic, a lot about dreams, odd creatures, strange people.

I liked the idea, but I never fell in love with the story. Perhaps because there was no story! Not a conventional one, anyway. Without a protagonist, who are you going to feel for? No, these books will have to go. I will not read them again.

And then there is James A Michener´s "The Source" from 1965. I always ment to re-read this. I had several of his, like "Hawaii" and "Caravans", but this is the one that really made an impression on me. However, I think it´s time has passed.

It was a great read for it´s epic qualities, present-day chapters about an archeological dig in Israel was layered with flashbacks to the time-period they were presently exploring. It gave some insight into Jewish history, I think. I most vividly remember a man who came to his Jewish faith and circumcised himself! I would recommend this book to anyone, you´ll easily find it at any library, anywhere, Michener is one of the great American writers, I think, he didn´t win the Pulizer for nothing!

"Embers" by Sándor Márai, from 1942. This one I picked up in Budapest at the English bookstore. It is a very sad story, a meeting between two men, they used to be friends but are turned enemies over a woman. It is also about a marriage going really bad. Actually, I seem to remember only one of them talking, the other one listening, but you got the sense that the other´s silence was comment in itself. You know how you sometimes listen to someone being very wordy about something, being very insistent that this is the way it is, and the more they try to persuade you, the less you believe them? That´s the feeling I got.

Apart from that, it gives some glimpse of Hungarian life in the 19th Century. It does have a nostalgic feel to it.

James Thurber´s "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and other short stories". The main story was first published in 1939, and a film with Danny Kaye in the role of the great day-dreamer Walter Mitty was made in 1947. I remember that film from when I was a kid, that´s why I bought the book in the first place.

Actually, I can´t remember anything else about this book. It´s a classic, of sorts, but not what I (or anyone else, I think) would call Great Literature. I can´t even boast about having read Thurber, because I suspect only one person in my entire acquaintance might know who he is...

"Walden" by Henry David Thoreau, from 1854. I had a period when I romanticised Thoreau and the transcendentalists, in the early 80´s. I have always had this attraction to solitude and simplicity and Thoreau seemed to know something about it. But it was more about what I wanted to find in his work than what I actually found there, and now I can´t find a single underlining, a single bookmark in that book. I have been much more influenced on these matters by Thomas Merton, for example. (Who´s books I will never give away!)

I think a lot of the books I have kept over the years have been books that are somehow invested in the idea of who I am, rather than books that I actually read and that actually gave me something. It´s a bit like having a dress in your wardrobe that makes you look just like the person you want to be, in the kind of life you want to live. But you never wear it, because you just aren´t and you won´t. It´s a Walter Mitty-ish kind of collection. Perhaps owning up to who I actually am is what´s enabling me to get rid of these books finally. I have lugged them around long enough, I think!
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2010-12-12

Jane´s ejaculations

Behold, my new best toy! This is Iriver Story, my e-book reader or läsplatta, as the more superior, Swedish name of it is. This was given to me by my lovely husband, an early Christmas present (actually, we don´t give Christmas presents, it was just an excuse because he knew I wanted one) and I absolute love it!

I have premier-read a very worthy book: "Memoir of Jane Austen" by James Edward Austen-Leigh, who was a nephew of the great authoress. The book was published in 1871. (Or 1869, according to Wikipedia. Whatever...)

I found it at the Gutenberg project, which you really should check out if you are at all interested in the old classics (and old not-so-classic). Actually, the Iriver (or should I call it the Story, as it appears in Explorer?) came loaded with over 200 classics already, so I have plenty to choose from, including all the Austen novels. (Will this tempt me to throw out my much-read Complete Austen paperback? Doubtful, I will probably plead sentimentality reasons.)

Anyway, to return to the book itself, I must say it was quite entertaining. While the author is no doubt a sensible, unromantic kind of man, he seems warm-hearted and kind, as seem all of Jane Austens family and she herself. At page 38 (or thereabouts) I was reminded of the time when the biography was written:

"The two next letters must have been written early in 1801, after the removal from Steventon had been decided on, but before it had taken place. They refer to the two brothers who were at sea, and give some idea of a kind of anxieties and uncertainties to which sisters are seldom subject in these days of peace, steamers, and electric telegraphs."

The modern wonders of the electric telegraph! That was fifty years after her death. And not only the technology of communication has changed since, listen to this, from Jane Austen´s letter to a friend:

"You distress me cruelly by your request about books. I cannot think of any to bring with me, nor have I any idea of our wanting them. I come to you to be talked to, not to read or hear reading; I can do that at home; and indeed I am now laying in a stock of intelligence to pour out on you as my share of the conversation. I am reading Henry´s History of England, which I will repeat to you in any manner you may prefer, either in a loose, desultory, unconnected stream, or dividing my recital, as the historian divides it himself, into seven parts [...] With such a provision on my part, if you will do yours by repeating the French Grammar, and Mrs Stent will now and then ejaculate some wonder about the cocks and hens, what can we want?"

"Ejaculate some wonder about the cocks"? Is it just me? As you can guess, her letters are very fun to read, and I happen to have another e-volume signed by two other Austens, "Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters", which I look forward very much to read later.

Well, I recommend this book wholeheartedly to any Janite. Chances are, however, that a Janite will have read it already, and to the rest of you I say: pass on this one. Unless you feel inclined to become a Janite. In that case, your life will be so much the better for it.
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2010-12-07

Hauntings

This novel, "The Beacon" by Susan Hill, was recommended to me for it´s narrative tone. The author´s voice is very clear, very distinctive, and she uses very little dialogue. My friend said reading it is a bit like sitting by a fireplace on a dark evening and listening to someone telling a story, and she is right. It is a kind of ghost story and Hill has written other stories about hauntings. She is the author of "The woman in black" that has run at the Fortune Theatre in London since 1989, and still does, I think. We saw it in 1996 or 97. It was scary.

The style of prose really fits the setting, we are in the north of England, far away from big cities or even smaller cities. Where it´s a 90 mile (English mile, I presume, which is rather densely populated by Swedish Lapland standards, but desolate all the same) drive to find a bookstore. Where people don´t say much. And some of them don´t think much either.
 
It´s the story of one family, a farm house, and how the siblings grow up and grow apart. Mostly, the story revolves around the eldest daughter, May, who has remained at the house to care for her aging parents. The theme of the story is memories, how we remember things, how our memories change shape and serve us, in different ways. And memories haunt these siblings, are used as weapons between them, and mould their lives in a way I can not expose without ruining the book for anyone who might want to read it.

It´s a rather quick read, only 150 pages. As far as I can tell, it´s not translated into Swedish. I would most warmly recommend this book to anyone who ever thought it would be a good idea to write about their childhoods, or any part of their lives, for whatever reason. Think again.
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2010-12-06

Learned landscapes

I really like this picture. It was taken this summer as we were walking around Cambridge. It makes me think of Constable´s painting of Salisbury Cathedral, which I love.


Maybe it´s the cow that does it, and the contrast between the grandeur of the buildings and the pastoral idyll.

In a lot of big cities these old buildings, built to impress, have been engulfed by modern skyscrapers, but in Oxford and Cambridge, the intentions of the architects have really been respected and preserved. Fabulous, I think.

Getting rid of my books, part II

My New Year´s Resolution has been modified. I no longer aim to read all my books, I aim to digitalize as much as possible of my bookstash.

What happened was, I bought a book that set off my asthma. What I have is an allergy to colofonium and different kinds of solvents, and this allergy triggers my asthma and fills my chest with phlegm. I´m all right, up to a point. This point I should avoid, because every reaction apparently makes me more sensitive. And while I have no symptoms I tend to "forget" or repress that there is any problem at all. Because I love books. I have a friend who is lactose intolerant and she has the exact same attitude towards cheese. She "forgets". My downfall, my Achille´s heel, is paper that is fresh and paper that is falling apart. Used paperback books can be deadly, but even good quality old books can be difficult. What set me off this time was an old cookbook from the 50´s. I love it, but I must get rid of it. Soon.

As it is, I have no good excuse to hoard books. There are e-book readers out there, a standard has now been set for libraries and most publishers (except amazon, of course, they run their own race) and the more people that start using them, the more books will be available. I should join. It doesn´t even cost a fortune any more. And most of the books I have on my to-read list are old books, many of which are available for free at the Gutenberg project.

So, that´s it. Give away, throw away. I have decided that books that do not fit behind the glass doors of my shelves will have to go. I will not keep books in any other place in the house.

2010-12-05

It´s never too late to give up

Which is what I´m now doing. I just can´t be bothered to try and get through "Claudius the God". Or his wife Messalina. I liked "I Claudius" well enough, but I feel like either Graves or I am loosing tempo here. I´m bored.

It used to be very hard for me to abandon a book that I had decided to read, but I´m getting better at it. Life is short and books are plentiful. I´ll have regrets enough when I die without having to think I struggled with Claudius when I could have had fun with Helene Hanff (who´s "Underfoot in showbusiness" arrived in my mailbox today).

2010-12-04

Getting rid of my books

I´ve been psyching up for a New Year´s Resolution. I need to do something radical about my bookstash. My shelves are bulging and most of what´s on there, I haven´t even read! It didn´t use to be that way. What happened a few years ago was, I stopped being able to read for a while, but I didn´t stop acquiring books. And now I´m way, waaaay behind.

Actually, most of what´s on those shelves I probably will not want to read anymore. Some stuff I will want to keep to re-read. I intend to start keeping a list of books worthy of re-reading. Any book that doesn´t make it on that list will have to go. Unless there is a case of major sentimentality. I will allow for some of that. And I will read the books, this year or never.

Any reading tips that come my way will be put on my list of books to read. I have been keeping that list for years (actually, it´s a stack of old calling cards), it´ll just have to grow a bit longer. A year passes quickly. However, to prevent myself from breaking my resolution (which I will if I cut it too snugly) I will allow myself one new book a month. If I need to. Like, I probably will need to read David Foster Wallace. Probably can´t wait until 2012 for that.

I´m gathering inspiration. I found this article, for instance, "Breaking up with your books". Yeah, I can relate. It´s an emotional thing, really. Like it is with all one´s possessions. I´d love to go minimalist, but the truth is, I keep hearing myself say things like "one cannot have too many handbags". And then buying another. And books are a weak spot, way, way more serious than the handbag issue.

Most books can be given away, and that is nice. I can imagine that they will get a new home, with someone who will love them. But some books are just crap, in a relative way. Too out of date, too specialized, too something. I know I will have to throw some away. I will never open them again, and giving them to charity will only cost them money to take to the dump. Which is not very charitable.

God, it will be hard! I should really see this as an opportunity to mature, to grow. Develop some character...

2010-12-01

Five Dials celebrate David Foster Wallace

I have mentioned it before, but I thought I´d write a proper post about it: the literary magazine Five Dials. It´s published by Hamish Hamilton, a publishing house in London, it´s published on their website once a month, and it´s free. You find it here. To read it comfortably I recommend printing it.

I just finished reading Number 10, a special issue devoted to the memory of David Foster Wallace. Now, I have never read Wallace, the first I heard of him was two years ago, when he took his own life and made the news. Apparently, he is one of the really great American authors, and reading the tributes to his genius (by such clever people as Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen and Don Delillo) certainly makes me curious about his novels. This is the best of the quotes:

"I´ve gotten convinced, that there´s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn´t have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent [...] Talent´s just an instrument. It´s like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn´t. I´m not saying I´m able to work consistently out of this premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art´s heart´s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It´s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved."

You must fall for a guy who can write something like that. Whatever kind of books he wrote, he certainly had the right motivation. He is on the top of my reading list for 2011.

2010-11-23

A novel idea

A while back, I read a book by Daniel Kehlmann, "Measuring the World". As I didn´t exactly fall in love with it, I didn´t expect to pick up something else by him anytime soon. But then I stumbled on this at the library. It´s called "Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes" (sw. "Berömmelse, roman i nio historier") and I couldn´t resist.

The first thing this novel reminded me of was a film, Robert Altman´s "Short Cuts", where characters walk in and out of each other´s stories. This happens here as well, except characters walk in and out of each other´s fictions, rather. This is a novel interested in fiction itself and Kehlmann is poking, bending and breaking the boundries between fiction and the illusion of reality that, well... 99,99...% of all writers of fiction want to achieve.

For example, a character of one novel is an author in another novel, one character starts talking to her author and real people want to get into novels, find themselves stuck in novels, authors make visits to their novels, all kinds of weird things are going on. The big important theme here is the question of identity in a world were people live much of their lives on the world wide web and our identities have become fictionalized in a way that´s completely new.

What do we become, when we have tools that allow us to recreate our lives? When the harsh realities IRL are no longer strong enough to stabilize our identity? Can one person summon enough strength to keep himself together when multiple "usernames" become necessary? When we use all our energy to manage ourselves, can we manage anything else? Kehlmann does not think so. His characters fail, or if the succeed, it´s just by chance and it doesn´t look like success at all.

If you read this book (or if you don´t), why not also read free on-line magazine Five Dials, Number 9, the Fiction Issue? Not only does it contain another short story by Daniel Kehlmann about what is perhaps his key character in this novel, there are also a lot of other interesting texts. David Shields, for example, make a case against fiction. He writes: "Non-fiction is a framing device to foreground contemplation. Fiction is 'Once upon a time'. Essay is 'I have an idea'."

Well. Daniel Kehlmann, as it happens, is a novelist with an idea. His heart is in the idea, not with the characters. And that was my big disappointment with "Measuring the World", that the characters never really came to life for me. They were always a bit cartoonish. In this novel, however, the idea is the main character. And the characters are just play-things, means to make a point. And he makes it well. And I feel like I have found the heart of Daniel Kehlmann.
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2010-11-22

Gave me a bit of a scare at first

on a rooftop in Oxford
Antony Gormley, of course!
Not as heroic-looking as Constantine, of course, whom I will always love more.
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2010-11-20

Finds in our backyard

Ever since I moved to this town, almost 20 years ago, I have heard rumours about an antiquarean bookshop. A couple of times I have gone looking for it, like some ten years ago, but all I found was what looked like a closed cellar full of books. Perhaps I came on a wrong day.

However, a friend suggested the other week that we go, and of course I was curious to see if it actually existed. I am, after all, a bookworm and this town isn´t that large, I should know what´s going on. Bookwise. I do not pretend to be up to date on anything else...

And there it was! Open and all. Homemade, pretty little sign on the street. Not a main street location, you really have to go looking for it, but then again, I don´t expect the turnover is astronomic.

Of course I bought something. Somerset Maugham´s "Cake and Ale, or the Skeleton in the Cupboard". Just for the title. (I´m saving it for a trip, it looks like light reading and because it´s in EngIish I can leave it behind me.) I was a bit low on cash that time, so I returned a week later, and found some more lovely things I will blogg about later, when I have read them.

However, this buying of book has made me think about the state of my shelves. I do not have enough room. I suppose I could buy more shelves, but I´m not really a hoarder, and a hoard is what it´s beginning to look like. Just passing a few books to the welfare shop once in a while isn´t really enough. And I keep bringing in more and more books. It has to stop. I´m maturing to a decision, I think. Pretty soon.
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2010-11-19

When the rest of the world has gone to sleep

Yes, I should have been sleeping - instead I stayed up half the night reading David Almond´s "My name is Mina", cover-to-cover. Remember I read a book called "Skellig" not long ago? This is the prequel, the fictional diary of Michael´s new friend Mina, who lives on his street.

Mina is a really interesting girl. She makes up new words, she visits the Underworld in an attempt to bring her dad back from the dead (this does seem to be a theme this week), and she obsesses over birds. She is a poet, and an explorer. It´s in her blood: her mum´s a writer (she writes articles for magazines) and her grandfather was a sailor who sailed around the world many times.

Mina cannot follow rules that she thinks makes no sense, and her schoolmates think she is strange. She does not fit in regular school, she does not fit in a school for special children, she want´s to be home-schooled. And her mum is happy to do it. She says Mina needs to be on her own right now, but eventually will have to go back out into the world and make friends. Actually, Mina´s mother is not like many other mums I know. I suspect she is rather like Mina herself. A bit too clever, a bit introverted.

At times I think the tone in this book is not quite right. Mina´s voice is just too grown up, too wise and clever. On the other hand, does a character always have to be realistic? I think not. And I remind myself that it´s written for kids, for 12-year-olds, perhaps. Not 44-year-old ladies. That said, when I closed the book I had a piece of paper full of notes, ideas of things I wanted to do with my writing. Good work, David Almond, inspiring me like that.

The story ends exactly where Mina enters "Skellig", when she comes up to Michael and says "Are you the new boy here? My name is Mina!". Almond takes 300 pages to tell Mina´s story, and only 170 to tell the story of Skellig. And I think he is more ambitious, he wants to say more with "My name is Mina". Like what it feels like to be an artist and an outsider. And something about the creative process. And in a way that´s where he looses the authenticity of the 12-year-old. It´s all that wisdom. On the other hand, if I had read this book as a 12-year-old, perhaps it would have been exactly right.

All in all: a good read. And the book also has a beautiful cover. And the librarians bought it just for me (no, not exactly, but on my suggestion). Splendid.
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2010-11-18

A poet´s needs

This is a very, very short read. I can´t really call it a novel, it´s a short story of 45 pages. Unusually, that´s all there is in this volume by Claudio Magris, "You Will Finally Understand" (sw. "Som ni säkert förstår").

Again, I can´t remember what attracted me to this book, but no doubt I read about it somewhere in a newspaper. It´s a take on the myth of Orfeus and Eurydike, this being a rarely (probably never before) heard version: Eurydikes explanation to the lord of the Underworld, how it happens that she is still there, when he´s given this special and unique permission for her to leave and all. It´s also a muse talking about her artist, her poet. I imagine Magris wants to say something about the way of the artist, and what drives him.

If you think of the ill-fated couple as two youngsters in love, like in the painting on the cover (by C G Kratzenstein-Stub, it hangs at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen), eager to be together once again, this version will present it quite differently. And it makes sense, doesn´t it, that the poet would have romanticised the story? And the painter in his turn?

I like Magris Eurydike, she is also a woman in a traditional role in a traditional marriage. In a way, to a loving wife, aren´t all men poets? And aren´t many men as dependent on their wives as the poet is dependent on his muse? I think any woman who´s lived in a long relationship can relate to Eurydike´s tale.

The ending is a bit of a surprise, which I will not give away. In case you like to read it. I bet it´s at a library near you.
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2010-11-15

Getting lost in the fictional woods

I´m not sure how I got the scent on this one, but since Umberto Eco is a favourite (I loved "Foucault's Pendulum" to bits), a series of talks by him on the subject of the relationship between the reader and the author was not something I could resist. Therefore, I ordered "Six walks in the fictional woods" at the library.

I have this sense of déjà vu about it. I may have attempted it before. It came in 1994, so I imagine it´s quite likely. I hope I will remember this time, because well, I had to give up. It´s just all way over my head. Too deep. Or too technical for my taste. I kinda got through the first three chapters, but it didn´t make much sense to me, didn´t leave me with anything. To tell the truth, I was bored. And today I thought I´d take the last three. Instead I baked cookies, wrote some emails I didn´t really have to write, saw a really crappy movie and wasted a perfectly good afternoon.

I´m not saying this is not brilliant. It is, I´m sure. But it´s just not for me. However, I really feel like re-reading "Foucault's Pendulum".
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2010-11-10

Dead white men

The first time I saw journalist Johan Hakelius was in a book by Camilla Thulin about men with style. He was presented as a kind of Anglophile dandy, a man with a passionate love for tweed and colorful cords. Indeed he is very stylish, in a way that would be considered excentric in Britain as well, I think. Apparently he is quite a television personality, but I clearly don´t watch when he is on.

Hakelius has recently published a book called "Ladies" (same title in Swedish), about excentric Englishwomen, a follow-up to "Dead white men" (Sw. "Döda vita män") from 2009. Being a bit of an Anglophile myself, I immediately set out to find these books, and the first one that fell into my lap was "Dead white men".

This is 400 pages of fun facts about 14 British excentrics, probably men to whom the author feels some kind of affinity. Some of them I have taken an interest in myself, like Alec Guinness. He is perhaps the least excentric of them all, he only seemed odd, I think, because he was a pretty conventional and normal bloke in a profession (acting) where the normal thing was to be odd. I had also heard about Alan Clarke, Oswald Mosley and Evelyn Waugh. But Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk? Just the name is spectacularly excentric!

The book is a compliation of interesting bits from the author´s bookshelves, a piece of armchair journalism. And it´s a fun, entertaining read, that will deepen and broaden the general knowledge of British 20th Century culture, if that is your special interest. Or maybe you just like to read about outrageous people. What the book is lacking, and I think this is a big fault for an entertainment read of the lighter variety, is pictures. I find myself reaching for my computer and Google about every ten pages, just to get a face to these men.

On the whole, I have had a pleasurable weekend in Mr Hakelius company.
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2010-11-05

Heritage (totally un-book-related)

I have had three dirndl-dresses in my childhood. This is part of my heritage. I may have been born and raised in Sweden, my mother is Swedish, but my father is Austrian and I was an Austrian citizen until I was seven. Being mixed, genetically and culturally, has always been a big part of who I am, for better and for worse.

On the down-side, being very much like my father´s relatives (apparently I look and behave very much like an aunt that died during the war), I have not had older relatives that I could really relate to. On the up-side, it has given me an outsider´s perspective on the culture I have grown up in, which I think might have been beneficial for my character. Everyone was "them" when I grew up, the Austrians, the Germans, the Swedes. Everyone. No one was "us". Not even in our family. My parents had the Swedish-looking kids (that really didn´t look very typically Swedish at all) and the Austrian/Polish-looking kids. Two of each. It was like a national divide straight through our family.

Anyway, I loved those dresses. I wore them happily. And as an adult, I have often said to my husband that I wish I had one, that I should buy one the next time we go to Vienna. We don´t often do. My mother-in-law has often offered me to borrow her folklore-dress, from Norrbotten (Swedish Lapland, really), but it´s just not me. And it´s made of allergenic wool.

So, imagine my surprise yesterday, when I passed the Red Cross charity shop. In the window, on a mannequine, was a dirndl-dress! I took a closer look, and it looked the right size, too. I immediately made one of the kind ladies strip the doll, and the dress fit perfectly! 100 SEK for the whole thing! God, that´s almost nothing! It´s made of cotton, can be washed in 60 degrees in the machine, and the sleeves are the perfect length for me.

I have decided to wear this dress on the Swedish National Day next year, to honor my mixed cultural heritage. This seems especially relevant now that the Swedish Democrats, an immigration-unfriendly party, has been voted into the Swedish Parliament. I shall wear it on Midsummer´s Day, too. And perhaps I shall hum something by African-Carribean-German pop group Boney M.


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2010-11-04

"A Writer´s Space" by Eric Maisel

I have, over the years, read loads of books about writing. In the beginning it was mostly books on the craft of writing, but after a few courses in Creative Writing at the university, I have been mostly in need of books on the lifestyle of the writer. As anyone knows who have tried, trying to write a novel is not an easy thing. It takes persistence, passion, muscle, and a good portion of bloody-mindedness.

I suppose I have learned a lot from these books, things that I have incorporated. The other day I leafed through some of my old books on the how-to, and it was a bit like looking through old high-school-books. It felt basic, like kid´s stuff. Like I have actually evolved.

I don´t really know how I found this latest addition to my collection, that arrived in my mailbox the other day. But Eric Maisel knows exactly what it´s about. He has made me think a bit differently about some of the things I struggle with, and I have made a few changes to the way I organize myself and the space around and inside me. And he knows what motivates a writer. This is a quote from the very last page:

"You might need to learn how to cook your meals in a toaster oven, because you might be very poor. You might need to learn how to barter for movie tickets, sing for you supper, live on air. Still, what life was better?

You could spend time in libraries. You could travel the whole world just by dreaming. You could create fine scrapes and get you characters out of them. You could say deep things about the human condition. Then, after a few hours of that, you could go for a walk and get an ice cream."

Guess what? That is exactly what it´s like to be a writer. Even just an aspiring novelist. Being a published one probably won´t be much different, not in essentials. Eric Maisel is the man to remind you why you do what you do when you´re down. Actually, I manage well to do exactly that myself, but it´s always nice to know you are understood by at least one creature out there. And that is why I love books.

2010-10-26

The two libraries at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

 This is the Parker Library at the New Court. It is just too bad visitors are not allowed to enter, but at the same time I can understand it.

I was fascinated by the faces that "bookended" the very ornamented windows.  

And a more modern library, squezed in between two buildings (I seem to remember it might have been the kitchen and the dining hall).

It´s not that easy to make modern architecture harmonize with the old, historic buildings. Also, one must remember, it´s not a museum. We cannot save everything the way it was. Life must go on, and we should bring our things with us, not discard them or leave them to the nostalgics. 

2010-10-25

I love comics

When it comes to comics, there seem to be two kinds of people: those who get it, and those who don´t. I feel very sorry for those who don´t. I don´t know who I´d be today without Tintin, Asterix, Lucky Luke or the Phantom. Hergé probably did more for my morals than my parents and teachers did and René Goscinny taught me history. If I know a latin proverb or quote, I got it from him. 

My earliest memories of comics are when my grandfather, in his inimitable style, read Donald Duck to me and my brother. I was probably four or five years old. I can still hear his voice as he reads the giggling sounds of Huey, Dewey and Louie. As a child, I subscribed for a comic paper called "The Phantom" that also included comics like Rick O´Shay (with his memorable gunslinger friend, Hipshot Percussion) or "The Gauntlet of Faith". When I moved away from home my mother continued to subscribe and I don´t know for how long my parents kept it. Perhaps they still read it today...

And what about the adventures of Spirou, and Gaston? Or Valérian and Laureline? Yoko Tsuno? Blake and Mortimer? I can go on and on. 

In my middle age I still read my old comic books when the flu hits me. My husband collects old Donald Ducks. And I loved "From hell" by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell (the movie was nothing like it!). But mostly, there are the Swedish comics. Like "Rocky" by Martin Kellerman.  Or "Assar" (the runaway hotdog!), by Ulf Lundkvist. Or, my latest find (yes, I´m very late to it, she has been around since the 80´s, but what the heck): "Fucking Sofo" by Lena Ackebo. Fucking brilliant.

2010-10-21

Victorian pastiche

A good book, a good story, is always true. I don´t mean that it should be "based on a true story" or some such nonsense, but that it should be true to the author. That it is not made, but born, if you see what I mean.

Tonight I have spent a few hours with a book that was very much an artifice, a contrived pastiche. It was Diane Setterfield´s "The Thirteenth Tale", an homage to19th Century sensation/melodramatic/romantic novels like "Wuthering Heights" (Emily Brontë), "Jane Eyre" (Charlotte Brontë), "The Woman in White" (Wilkie Collins) or "Lady Audley´s secret" (Mary Elisabeth Braddon).

The ingredients are incestuous siblings, rape, madness, orphans at doorsteps, suicides, ghosts, fires, murder, confused and concealed identities, forgery, and fewerish, anorexic women soaked in rainy storms. The characters, as well as the story, are all very higly strung, as is the writing-style. Mawkish, is the word my dictionary suggests and it sounds about right. I´d have given it up after the first few pages if I hadn´t been curious to how it would end.

I have read "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights" and while this book no doubt wants to have a lot in common with them, I don´t remember feeling at all irritated when I read them. And that is my point: when the story is true to the author, it will also seem true to the reader. And the style will serve the story, it will be authentic. Setterfield does not manage to give her story authenticity - but having said that, I should add that I have only read the Swedish translation.

One good thing about this book: "The Woman In White" by Wilkie Collins is now on my to-read list. According to Wikipedia it´s heroine is described as "one of the finest creations in all Victorian fiction". I have to check that out.

2010-10-20

Magical tale

Michael is distressed and does not have to go to school. He has just moved with his family to a new house and his baby sister is critically ill at the hospital. He makes friends with the girl next door, Mina, who is being home-schooled by her mother. He brings his homework to her house and she examines his books.

"Mina giggled. She flicked through the book. It was about a boy who tells magical tales that turn out to be true. 
'Yeah, looks good,' she said. 'But what´s the red sticker for?'
'It´s for confident readers,' I said. 'It´s to do with reading age.'
'And what if other readers want to read it?'
"Mina,' said her mum.
'And where would William Blake fit in?' said Mina. '"Tyger! Tyger! burning bright/In the forests of the night". Is that for the best readers or the worst readers? Does that need a good reading age?'
I stared back at her. I didn´t know what to say. I wanted to get back over the wall and go home again. 
'And if it was for the worst readers would the best readers not bother with it because it would be too stupid for them?' she said.
'Mina,' said her mum. She was smiling gently at me. 'Take no notice,' she said. 'She´s a madam sometimes.'"

"Skellig", by David Almond is a children´s book. A prize-winning children´s book. It was so enthusiastically reviewed in the Guardian a few weeks back that I just had to read it, and to my great surprise we had it at the local library. The librarian said: "It´s astonishing, actually, how many kids want to read English books." And she seemed to think it was perfectly normal for a 43-year-old to ask for it.

And believe me, this book is not too stupid for anyone. On the contrary. It´s a small read, 170 pages, but a big story. A real tear-jerker at times. It is very cleverly written, it´s like the text itself is holding it´s breath until almost the last moment. Like Mikael and his parents and Mina are all holding their breaths for the baby, because while life goes on, with birdwatching and football and anatomy, eating chinese take-away, and a few other activities I do not want to give away, all of it somehow becomes part of the effort to keep the baby alive.

There is a second book, "My Name Is Mina". I must suggest my librarian gets it for me and other lucky readers.

2010-10-19

Lines of perfection

This last week I have been re-"reading" a couple of favourites of mine. I have all the Dalziel & Pascoe books by Reginald Hill and I have been listening to the audio versions of "Pictures of Perfection" and "A Cure For All Diseases". They are my favourites among the favourites because they are pastiches on Jane Austen novels. Hill, a proper Janite, has used all her ideas on how to build a perfect, austen-ish novel.

The best line in "Pictures of Perfection", is when bookseller/lawyer Edwin Digweed confesses to Sergeant Edgar Wield:

"All right, Sergeant, I admit it. Such was my intention. But I don´t want you to think... Look, all right, I was not predisposed to like you. But it will not do. In vain have I struggled. I do not say this in hope of influencing you in your official capacity, but my feelings will not be repressed. Already before last night I was beginning to realize there was more to you than meets the eye. Last night, I admit it, I came because I wanted to get you drunk. But I stayed because I found that, despite all the differences between us, I was enjoying myself."

I´m sure any Austen-lover can guess that their relationship has been a bit of an ordeal on account of prejudice and, well... pride. And I shall not say how it ends, if you want to read it, but Janites have the clue.

"Pictures of Perfection" always makes me think of my favourite Tintin adventure, "The Castafiore Emerald". Nothing really happens. Sort of. No crime is committed, no one goes to jail. But it´s god-honest, clever, bona fide fun, from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

2010-10-18

Divine thought

I once, some twenty years ago, heard someone (whose name I can not remember, I believe she was an architect) speak about how beautifully shaped ceilings promote our quality of thinking. She firmly believed, I think, that the modern, snug, office-like spaces where our best minds are forced to dwell, were not promoting the progress of civilization.

This is the Divinity School in Oxford, an old lecture and seminare hall. If she was right, that ceiling should deliver some extraordinary thought.

 

This room has also been used by film makers. It´s been seen in "Shadow-
lands" with Anthony Hopkins (an excellent tear-jerker about C S Lewis tragic love) and one of the Harry Potter-films (as an infirmary, not a teaching hall).

2010-10-17

Repacking my bags

They were selling books at the library the other day, 10 SEK a piece (about a British pound or 1,50 USD). I came home with three, one history book about Robin Hood, one about greek mythology and one self-help book that I had to grab just for the title: "Repacking Your Bags - Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life" by Richard J Leider and David A Shapiro. (I have this thing about bags, see. About clever travel stuff. About improving and optimizing.)

Anyway, I was also a bit low, had that grey fog around me for a while last week, so even though the book contained nothing new, it worked well as a reminder of what the hell I´m here for and what I´m supposed to be doing. It was a bit like chatting to a good friend that said it´s ok to feel a bit lost from time to time and that sometimes change does not happen as fast as I would like. And sometimes, I have to take stock, to see that actually, I am changing. Improving. Optimizing.

And having read this book, I feel rather clever again.

2010-10-16

Crafty librarians

Take a look at this. How cool is that?

2010-10-15

A good laugh

I came across Kurt Vonnegut´s "A Man Without A Country". Again. It´s a short read, only 155 rather small pages. I really like his sense of humour and I am forever intending to read his novels, "Cat´s Cradle" and "Slaughterhouse 5". I totally loved his collection of essays, "Palm Sunday". He has this irresistable combination of sharp mind and warm heart. And he was a socialist. An American socialist. God bless him.

Does this make you laugh?


No? Then perhaps Vonnegut is not for you.

2010-10-14

Virtual reality

If our lives, as some psychologists and philosophers would argue, are stories that we construct, if our brains create order in the form of fictions to help us make sense of the world, then are completely made-belief people less real than flesh-and-blood-people? If Inspector Morse, or Elisabeth Bennet, or Tintin and Captain Haddock, and their stories live in millions of peoples minds and hearts and affect them deeply and permanently, are they less alive than ordinary folks who live and die and never make it into a "bigger" story than a private family one that dies with those few who have known them? If life, society, history, is a construction in the form of a story, then does it matter if the hero of the story is born into the real world or onto the pages of a book? Are we more influenced by a real historical figure like Buddha or Abraham Lincoln than a fictional one like Yoda or King Arthur?

If we are all living in some great consciousness, more or less available to us in our human form, will we, if that consciousness is somehow our ticket to immortality or "afterlife", be as likely to meet our fictional friends "on the other side" as we are likely to meet our friends and family?

One thing is for sure, many of us spend more time with, and are more emotionally involved with, fictional characters than real people. Is that a weakness, or a strength?

2010-10-10

Aristocrats

About a year ago I was very lucky at a jumble sale and found "Aristocrats" by Stella Tillyard for less than a pound. It´s not a novel, but a biography about the four Lennox sisters, daughters of the second Duke of Richmond and relatives of George II and George III. George III even courted one of them, Sarah.

The biography is a hugely entertaining read and the mass of letters the sisters wrote to each other really gives a good insight into their personalities and relationships. They were mostly concerned with family and shopping, even though some of their husbands were distinguished noble men and politicians during a time that saw great change, like the American independence and the French Revolution.

I didn´t realize that a television series had been made, based on the book, until this summer, when I had an hour at my disposal in the film and music department at Harrods. I couldn´t resist buying it, and last night I watched all six episodes. It had been dramatized from the point of view of the second sister, Emily, who married the irish Earl of Kildare. As one would expect from a BBC period production, it was all top notch. I was especially impressed by the casting. The actors playing the younger versions of the characters and the ones playing the older versions were so alike in looks and expressions that they really might have been the same person. For example, Anne-Marie Duff and Diana Quick are eerily alike. And I was really happy to see Siân Phillips as Emily, a rare treat. She is perhaps mostly known for her role as the wicked Livia in "I, Claudius" from 1976. I´m a bit tempted to get the dvd for that series, too.

2010-10-09

Austen to my ears

My mother-in-law is visually impared, she has macular degeneration and she is slowly loosing her eyesight. She is, however, not dejected by this and actually, she reads more than she ever has, thanks to the audio book service of the public libraries.

Her newest toy is a Victorreader Stream, a sweet little gadget, and I am it´s keeper, which means I copy the files from the dvd-s onto a memory card. My reward for this, apart from the satisfaction of having helped her, is that I save any books I might care to "read" for myself and copy them onto my own mp3-player. No harm in that, I think. Not that listening to books is my prefered way of reading. I tend to fall asleep or start thinking of other things. But once in a while I will listen to one.

The other day, I listened to "Pride & Prejudice" by Jane Austen. I have read it many times before and I have four adaptions to film and television in my dvd-collection, so I am no stranger to the story. This was the first time I "read" the swedish translation, however, and I must say, it is ok. Austen is one of those authors who´s work I tend to remember lines from, I think she is fabulously witty and clever. No translation can be as sharp as the original text, but I also felt that the woman who read the book, she is an actress and read with great expression, had misunderstood some scenes. And that made it difficult for me to make any real assessment of the text itself.

Still, Austen is always, always, enjoyable. Austen is what I would bring to my desert island.

2010-10-07

A Bookish Emperor

I have now finished the second part of "I, Claudius". At first I wished I had read it straight after I finished the first part, because in just a few weeks I had almost forgotten how all the characters were related. However, I soon realized these people were all real, and I could easily update myself courtesy of Wikipedia.

The madness continues is, I suppose, a way to summarize the story. Augustus Ceasar dies, his evil wife Livia dies, Livias son Tiberius becomes a very paranoid emperor and kills off a lot of folks, Claudius nephew Caligula becomes a barking mad emperor and, well, a god. And kills a lot of folk. And steals their money. And enjoys himself with their wives and daughters. In the end, enough is enough, Caligula is slain by his own guard and by a fluke, Claudius is appointed emperor. It´s all very farcical.

It´s chilling to think this is all "based on a true story". I actually think Graves has tried to be as historically correct as possible.

If I had read the english original, I would have quoted a bit from the last page. I really cracked me up. Caligula has been killed, finally, and because he has no heir and there is noone else around, the reluctant Claudius is proclaimed emperor. And what does he think of as the guards lift him up and carries him to the senate? Books! His first imperial wish is to arrange public readings of his historical works (at fifty, he has had time to write a few), and he falls into a state of total bliss at the thought that all the roman archives are now open to him and he can find out the truth about everything.

Claudius is a man easy to like. He is honest, frightened, trusts his mistress and loves his wife, is loyal to his friends. What kind of emperor will he be? To find out, I will have to read the sequel, "Claudius the God and his wife Messalina".

2010-10-05

How football changed my life

Today it is exactly 20 years ago my husband and I met for the first time. How to woo a booklover? With a book, of course! On our second meeting, he gave me a copy of "Laws of the Game" (swedish version), that he had just become editor of, with a dedication. Sweet, wasn´t it?

Since then, I have perhaps not managed to become a real football afficionado, but I´m fairly engaged whenever Sweden takes part in one of the big tournaments, like the world or european championships. I understand the concept of offside, even.

This summer, we visited Cambridge and stayed at a wonderful hotel called the University Arms. From the bar and the dining room, we had a view out onto a big field, Parker´s Piece. As it happens, this is the very spot where the so called "Cambridge rules" were established in the 1800´s, and these rules were the foundation for the game we know as football today.

Tate Modern

I don´t seem to be able to walk past a bookstore without taking a picture. This is Tate Modern, that we visited for the first time this summer. It wasn´t planned or anything, we had an afternoon at our leisure and went to St Pauls Cathedral, because I had read in an article that there would be a great tea shop there. The shop was such a disappointment that we took our tea next door, at a french sandwich place instead, and then we just walked randomly, found the Millenium Bridge and walked straight on to the museum.

Actually, this time I was not the one pulling us in. There was an exhibition called "Exposed - Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera", and my husband wanted to see it. It was great, and featured artists such as Nan Goldin and Sophie Calle, that I have heard a lot of, but never before had a chance to see.

The architecture of the museum itself is also pretty awesome. I like the space and how they make use of light in a decorative way. I think of museum architecture a bit like fine jewellery, it is a mounting that should fit a great range of stones, from polished natural rock to finely cut diamonds. And everything in between. The aesthetics have changed a bit since the days of Elias Ashmole.

2010-10-04

Measuring the world

Earlier this spring, before I started this blog, I read german author Daniel Kehlmann´s "Measuring the world" (swedish: "Världens mått"). I was impressed as I was reading it, the book is incredibly well written, well researched (I imagine) and funny. The story revolvs around a fictitious meeting between Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, and in flashbacks their respective stories are told. What they have in common is this urge to measure, hence the title.

However, when I had finished it, I couldn´t help being slightly disappointed. There just didn´t seem to be any point to the story. I didn´t really learn anything, didn´t change my point of view about anything. And the humour was a bit slap-stick in nature. Laughing at people is not nearly as satisfying as laughing with them.

I was reminded of this book when we visited the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. This is a smashing museum, not overwhelmingly large, has enthusiastic guides, and it is located in the original Ashmolean, the building erected by Elias Ashmole in 1683 to hold his vast collection of curiosities.

Now, it is mostly instruments of different kinds. And that´s what got me thinking of Kehlmann´s story of Humboldt and his long journey across the south-american continent. This is just the kind of things I imagine he would have lugged along.


Aren´t these things absolutely beautiful? I could post tons of pictures like these.

And what about this: a blackboard written on by Einstein himself during a lecture in 1931. If I remember the guide correctly, it is an estimation of the size of the universe. I would have thought you´d need more numbers to work that out, wouldn´t you?

2010-10-03

Education for the people!

To anyone interested in swedish iron age, and the viking age in particular, I heartily recommend reading any book at all by Mats G Larsson.

Not only is he an expert (senior lecturer in archeology at Lund´s university), he writes well, for a wide audience. He gives you context. I also like, having googled him, that he worked as an engineer for 20 years before he took his PhD in archeology. He probably has a sound perspective on what he is doing, and maybe that is what comes across in his books.

There is that quality of folkbildning, a swedish term that means educating the people, creating conscious and responsible citizens. This used to be a cornerstone of the social democratic vision of a better society. I think it should be again. It might help them win the next election.

2010-10-01

Sad poems


I always say, I don´t understand poetry. But once and again, I stumble over something that grabs hold of me. This time, it´s "The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy". I have not read them all, of course. It is one thick volume! But I have ordered it from a used book dealer in the UK, via amazon, for 1 pence. Yeah, you can buy books over the internet for 1 pence. Then you have to pay 3.78 in postage, but it´s still a steal, as far as I´m concerned.

I think I like Hardy´s poems for their sadness and gloom. Tragic love. Apparently, he never got over his first wife, even though they were estranged, and when she died he remarried. I can´t really relate to that myself, being someone who mourns passionately for a short time and then shakes it off and moves on, but these long fermented griefs sure make excellent soil for poetry.