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.