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".


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.


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!


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.



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.


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.


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).


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...


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.