The Disappointment of Light Reading

Sometimes, particularly on holiday, I crave some light reading. Something not involving murder. And I am always open for good ideas on everything from cooking to sewing to traveling. This title, "The Art of More for Less - Savvy chic", was irresistable to me. It is written by Anna Johnson, who has lived all over the world and written for ladies magazines. I thought it would be fun to see what she had to say in book format.

Not much, it turned out. The tone is certainly light-hearted, she is full of tips and tricks and knows what is right and what is wrong. And that´s perhaps what pushes me away. There´s just too much of that "dos and don´ts"-attitude that magazines have and that is the reason I don´t buy them anymore. Johnson promotes that anxious attitude towards dressing that promotes looking at what they are wearing before deciding on one´s own wardrobe. They, being the cool people who feature on the Sartorialist´s blogg (yes, really). The object of thrift is to cheaply dress so well that people in the business (of fashion, which of course are the people Anna Johnson need to impress) actually think you are wearing vintage Balenciaga. If you get there, you are savvy.

As a 20-something I suppose this would have impressed me, or at least entertained me. Now, it just makes me tired. Reading Johnson is a bit like listening to a slightly topsy (going on drunk) friend from highschool, who talks too much about all she knows, giving unsolicited advice that really only is a disguise for bragging about her fabulous lifestyle. Not that Johnsons advice is unsolicited - I did buy the book, didn´t I. Only when I got to know her, I changed my mind.

I´m too old for this. I´m not tired, really, but what makes me tired is that there is very little light-hearted, shallow reading left in this world that I really enjoy. What am I going to read in the bathtub?


Home is not so bad

It´s a popular roundabout excercise walk, sometimes called "The Blood Circulation".
In early August, when we came home from Visby, there was a day when my husband was ill, and I was not yet so badly come down with the cold. I decided to take a walk by myself around the lake, our usual round of 5 kilmetres or so. (That´s a bit more than 3 miles.)

It occured to me that I hardly ever take my camera with me when I go out at home, so, being on my own, I decided to amuse myself playing the tourist. I came home with 250 pictures, or there abouts. The weather was smashing, and pretty much anything I pointed the camera at turned out nice.

I give you: Luleå at it´s best. 

I sometimes see retrievers being trained here. Not today, though.

I´m a sucker for pretty flowers. It´s the long winters.

The old folk´s home where my father-in-law spent his final days.

Sometimes kids play rounders on this field.

I don´t know what kind of fish can be caught in town, but I often see guys with rods.

This used to be a boatyard, even I can remember that from the early 90´s.

No one feeding the birds today.

I´m half-way now, and that´s our neighbourhood on the other side.

The police station straight ahead. Trains leave for Stockholm and Gothenburg every day.

The bus station, from where you can travel to places like Jokkmokk, Haparanda, and Älvsbyn.

Those three guys on the bench are never far away from the liqour store.

The train station.

Here lives a pied flycatcher that I have been observing this summer.

The old school at Malmudden, now a home for the disabled. The cat is an aquaintance.

Our own yard.

Some wild pansys taking over our neglected flower beds.


Food for Thought

"To be content with little is hard; to be content with much, impossible."

Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach


Conversation Pieces

I just realized that I have not blogged about one of my most enjoyable summer reads: "Read My Pins - Stories from a Diplomat´s Jewel Box", by one of the world´s most impressive women, Madeleine Albright.

This is what might be described as a coffe-table book. It´s a light-hearted memoir, centered around jewellery, inherited, bought by, and gifted to Albright, and she clearly has a lot of fun with her brooches. They became a diplomatic tool for her in 1994, when she served as American ambassador to the United Nations. She had criticized Saddam Hussein and the government-controlled Iraqi press published a poem refering to Albright as an "unparalleled serpent". Soon after, she was scheduled to meet Iraqi officials, and she decided on wearing this:

And in 1996, when Cuban fighter pilots shot down two civilian aircraft over international waters, she wore this brooch on the left at the press conference, to illustrate her feelings.

I particularly like her approach to the preciousness of her items. She does not care if it´s gold or silver or plastic. She´ll go for fun and expressiveness first, and I admire her for that, as I´m sure she meets a lot of posh people on a regular basis. How can you not like a person who´ll wear this whimsy thing on the right?

A few of mine.

I bought the book because I have lately become something of a brooch collector myself. I´m a humble beginner compared to Albright, but she is certainly an inspiration and a reminder not to ever take myself too seriously!

(I have also, by the way, walked pass the house in Prague where Albright was born.)


From My Photo Album

Detail from the baking house at Hägnan, Luleå heritage museum. 2012


A Slow Moving Adventure

For years and years (yes, really!) this book has been following me around the house, lying on it´s belly. I bought it at a British airport, not sure if it was Heathrow or Birmingham, to read on the trip home. It´s "AD 500 - A Journey through the Dark Isles of Britain and Ireland" by Simon Young.

The idea seems good: a fictitious Bysantian embassy making a journey through Britain in the 6th Century, encountering a good representation of peoples and courts there, getting insight into culture and customs. All based, naturally, on what historical records and archeological evidence tells us.

I love the subject, so why has it taken so long to get through it (and, in the last few days, a good portion of determination, I might add)? Well, a quote from Kurt Vonnegut Jr might give you a clue:
    When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone's wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are. It's the writer's job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can't or won't do that, he should withdraw from the trade.

The voice of this tale (if you can call it a tale) belongs to the Byzantin Emperor´s Geographer, basing his narrative on the returned logg of the embassy. The members of the embassy are anonymous until they die and get a note in the logg, from which the Geographer at times quote directly. Only in an appendix on one of the last pages do we get the names of the members of the embassy listed. So, we don´t know who these people are, we know nothing of their personalities, nothing at all.

At times, the book is a bit funny, in that look-at-these-strange-customs-haha kind of way. No doubt, an educated Bysantin scholar would have felt very superior next to the simple Celts and Saxons, but still, it´s kind of tiring. However, let me give you one of the funniest episodes, when the embassy takes on their Saxon hosts in a riddling match:

Another member of the group stood up to give it to us: "Dropping from the thigh of man a strange shape lurking under the cloak. Chained to the body by a strong bond I am stiff, hard and stand there well. When a man searches for me he lifts his clothes and takes this thing. I am to push my head into a similarly shaped hole of the same breadth which often my hard rod has penetrated before. What am I?"
We blushed and the Saxons roared to see our discomfort. Then, when finally we admitted defeat, for we could not bring ourselves to say that word, our kindly hosts screamed for more drinks and told us that the had, in fact, been describing a key! Downcast and sheepish as we felt, they, however, had the good grace to offer us a further riddle, a chance to redeem ourselves: 
"I fill women with expectation and though erect and tall is my stem - I stand hard in a bed - and I am whiskered below. A greedy wench will grip me hungrily, putting me in a close place. But soon she will pay for her presumption and this lovely woman who assaults and pulls at me will find her eyes become wet. What am I?"
This time we were wise to their wicked tricks and discarded the obvious. In fact, after only a minute, it was again Manuel who untied the sentence by thinking intently on the last line: "her eyes become wet". They were, of course, talking about an onion! Now it was our turn to laugh and, nettled by our guessing one of their most devious riddles, the Saxons asked us to give them, instead, one of the riddles of the Greeks.
Of course, we are not a riddling people and so had none to hand. But we remembered the famous question of the Sphinx. "What has four legs in youth, two legs in age and three legs in old age?", while, to add some grandeur to the occasion, one of our number pretended to read it out of the log, for that usually impresses the illiterate. However, it did not work. In fact, all the Saxons made contemptuous sounds, stating the answer "man" immediately, indeed, taunting us by asking whether this was really the best the Greeks could do. Now we had to put these swamp dwellers back in their place and so, locking our heads together, we determined to create a new riddle, one in their style that would best them. Our "masterpiece", for they applauded it enthusiastically when we finally gave the answer, was as follows:
"I grow in a small place, swelling up and rising with the excitement of being covered and hot. I have no bones and so the maiden takes me in her hands and pumps me and then she hides my growing self to perfect." The answer, of course, is "dough" and the master of ceremonies assured us it would enter their repertoire as one of the most provoking of all the riddles he had heard.

So, the intent was good, the material excellent, but I must say, the result wasn´t a very exciting reading experience. I would have enjoyed a proper history book better, illustrations wouldn´t have hurt either. I think bits and pieces of fiction, like the one above still could have been incorporated, to amuse the readers. 


Walking the Streets

Rome, 2011

One of the best things about being in a new town is to just walk down the street and look at people and see what´s going on.

The next best thing is this new website I found. Where you can find images like this, with the story that goes with it - priceless! Or this!

There really are some gifted photographers out there, and some extraordinary people to see!


The Secret of Success

As you may or may not know, Phyllis Diller died almost a month ago. She was not particularly know in Sweden, but she caught my eye, no doubt sometime during my exchange year in Iowa, and I was fond of her. There are bits of her shows on youtube, and I think she is still funnier than most of them. What also caught my attention, as I was googling her, was how often she talked about a life changing reading experience of hers, Claude Bristol´s "The Magic of Believing", from 1948. Apparently, she kept this book in print for years just so she could give it to all her new friends. Now, you can download it for free, which of course I did. You can also buy it from amazon, if you wish.

My first impression was what a beautiful language! This book is a joy to read just for the way it´s written. Bristol is a great storyteller, has experience from the military, from being a journalist, from sales and business, and from being a personal advisor and a motivational speaker. Diller stated that she liked him because he kept God out of the equation, that she preferred him because he spoke only of the mind, only of the person. And he does. Not that any of this feels particularly new today, when the Secret is all over the place, and loads of other books and gurus selling the same, motivational idea. Bristol´s anecdotes are still very entertaining, and by page 200, I found myself starting to take notes.

What he does is teach basic self-motivational skills. Pep-talking yourself, really, or parenting yourself into becoming a more self-assured individual, believing in your own capacity to create the possibilities to be successful. In his own words, to "tell yourself that you are going to get what you want". He also points out the importance of confidence in the communication with others.
"Emerson wrote that every man carries in his eye the exact indication of his rank. Remember that you own gradation or position in life is marked by what you carry in your eyes. So develop eyes that bespeak confidence."
Pilgrimage of this believer of mindpower. (Oxford)
He then goes on to talk about the importance of intuition, the value of hunches, with a warning thrown in: if it concerns gamling or a field you know nothing about, it might just be a "fanciful longing". And generally good advice: take an interest in your job and the company you work for (whatever it is), have a helpful attitude to everyone, read books to broaden your perspective. Assume that people are friendly and don´t take the occasional aggression personally. Don´t be undecisive, that creates trouble in itself. He also has something to say about clothes and grooming:
"Do you have eye-appeal? Do you wear clothes to give yourself the best appearance? Do you know the effect of colors and study those which best suit your form and temperament? Does your whole appearance set you apart from many who pass unnoticed in the crowd? If not, give thoughtful attention to personal packaging, for the world accepts you as you appear to be."
He lists examples of successful people, and almost all of them are women! I bet that would have made an impression on Diller, in the 50´s! Actually, he is very supportive of women finding success in the world, and of course, having met with more obstacles than the average Joe, successful women are excellent examples of Bristol´s ideas. Let me give you one more good quote:
"to great artists, there was no such thing as a small part; and to small artists, there were no big parts."
This is all good, even excellent advice, and it doesn´t hurt to hear it one more time. He kind of looses me in the end, though, being a convinced believer in telepathy. Here, he excercises his own belief in a way that fortifies his line of argument to any objections. He says that experiments on telepathy
"should never be attempted in the presence of scoffers or those who profess disbelief in psychic phenomena. Their negative thoughts may confuse and obstruct the free flow of your own, especially if their scepticism is aggressive." 
Well, he made me aggressively sceptical right there!

I agree with the idea that what we believe will to a great extent affect how we see the world, our own strengths and abilities. With confidence it sure is easier to make a good life for yourself. But there is no sense or science in Bristol´s arguments for how our thoughts can directly influence the actions of others. This is where he crosses into religion, the very American belief in the Self, the Sale, and Success. And that is the proof Bristol refers to as measure of the strength of one´s beliefs. How much money you have, how famous you are, and how happy you claim to be. And the proof is presented in anecdotes, seductively told by a charming, successful salesman, pitching his Secret.

Having said that, I wouldn´t have minded having him over for dinner, any time.



Settling Scores

In recent years, there has been quite a number of books on the Swedish literary scene that belong to what one might call the mommy dearest-genre. One poor celebrity economist had both his sons write books, one about his childhood (absent and egocentric father) and the other about his leaving the corporate world (under daddy´s wing?) for a successful career in the American gay porn business. What goes around comes around? Perhaps. What is pretty certain is that some of these (if not all) would not have gotten published if it hadn´t been for the connection to the famous parent.

I have read one of the latests offers, "Om man håller sig i solen" (Eng: If one stays in the sun) by Johanna Ekström, who´s parents are both famous Swedish authors. Her father, Pär Wästberg, even has a chair in the Swedish Academy. She is herself an accomplished, already established poet and artist, and the book has recieved quite a bit of praise for it´s literary qualities. When a friend suggested a joint effort, I jumped in. It was a short read, only about 180 pages.

My first impression was oh my god it´s poetry, which you know I´m rather weary of. However, I got in to it after a while and finished it in two days, partly because it´s much of a collage, and swallowing it almost whole gave me some sense of the whole thing. My second thought was that this book might be like a fragmentation bomb, where every little scene, every paragraph, is aimed at a specific anecdote of her parent´s.

A bombed holy place - a fitting illustration. (Coventry cathedral)
She paints a picture of a family that uses words and staged beauty to conceal truth, if not to lie outright. Where aesthetics is content. Where everything and everyone must be beautiful, because as long as it is beautiful it must also be happy and healthy. But there is an underbelly to this glossy, pretty animal, exhibited in celebrity magazines and exploited in literary projects. Exposing that underlying ugliness is betrayal. And of course the child protests, first through anorexia. When that is ignored (yes, really), she starts to drink and be sexually adventurous and destructive. Her mother can´t even say drunk and instead asks her if she was kind yesterday, perhaps a bit too kind? There is a paragraph in the book where Ekström states that she is so enraged writing this, but her words cannot express that anger. And they can´t. It´s like she is impotent.

Bottom line: as long as the language is beautiful, as long as it is celebrated, it is untouchable, whatever the content. And the point is hammered down in the publication and the context of the media and her father´s reaction to the book. He is, simultaneously, publishing a string of memoirs, and of course it´s interesting to see what the critics think of it. He is portayed in the book as being a rather nice, but shallow and aloof person, someone completely oblivious to the pain of those nearest to him. So, what does he say? He is hurt, but not by his daughter (or so he claims) but by some critics, who have called him what Ekström does not directly want (or is able) to say. He can´t, however, be too indignant, as he himself has written about this period and even published the letters from Ekström´s mother (who has been silenced by a stroke many years ago).

It´s a good book, with literary qualities, but it would still not be relevant without the connection to those famous parents. The subject of the book is fame, in a way. And I´m sure it wouldn´t have made such an impression on me if I hadn´t also had access to some of her father´s work and this whole situation in the press. In a television interview earlier this week, Ekström comes across as an ice princess, very controlled, very measured, like she is wearing a carapace of beautiful words - and she is beautiful herself, too, she has that clean, severe kind of beauty that is almost nun-like.

There are so many layers and aspects of this reading experience that transcends the reading itself (I could write about it endlessly), and I think this is both a strength and a problem with this genre. It´s exclusive - I certainly could never write a book like that! - and it´s very much stuck in it´s own time, very much dependent on the context of publication, an appendix to someone elses work. Though in this case, it will probably find itself into Swedish literary history, unignorable by scholars writing about either of the famous parents. At the same time, she has written them into her own official story as well. She has eternalized herself as a child, built a monument of her private pain. I bet that´s a double-edged sword for someone who is trying to make her own way in art. I hope she does not regret it.


From My Photo Album

Norrköpings Ekbackar. A nature reserve for oak trees. 2011


Self Defeat

I read this interview with Will Self in the Guardian a while back, and thought his new book "Umbrella" sounded really interesting, longlisted for the Booker Prize and all. I suggested the local library buy it, and they did. Now, I´m so sorry. Really.

Not that it´s a bad book, I´m sure. (As I mentioned, it´s up for the Booker Prize.) I got to about page 15 when I started wondering, when is this loony part going to end? When begins the next chapter? As I leafed through it, I realized it goes on and on for 397 pages. No chapters. I should have read this review. Not sure it would have deterred me, though. I´m up for a challenge. However, this is not just a challenging book. It´s a challenging book written in English. And my English isn´t good enough, I am reluctant to confess. It´s not just a matter of glossary. Some layers of language, some kinds of language-use just isn´t available to you if you are not part of a certain culture. I wonder how this book would look in translation. If it´s even translatable. No, of course it is. But you´d have to be up for it. You would have to take your time. You would have to be a genious writer to do it. Here, I give you a taste of page 3:

It goes on and on. I´m sorry I suggested the library spend money on what will no doubt be stuck on a shelf forever. Or perhaps I´m wrong. Perhaps it will be read and loved. Just not by me.


Sleuth Sigerson

It was my intention to read all the five books in the Martinelli-series by Laurie R King, but unfortunately the library shelves for detective stories are a mess, and I couldn´t find anything where it was supposed to be. I don´t really think readers of detective stories are generally more careless than other readers, but I´m sure there are more of them. Anyway, I took it as a sign to go straight for my prize, the Martinelli/Holmes merger, "The Art of Detection".

I have to say, it´s nice to read a Holmes story by King again. She does it so well, it´s such a pleasure to read. I´m not as charmed by Martinelli, I think she is a boring and wooden character and her partnership with collegue Alonzo Hawkin just too smooth and conflict free. Even Morse and Lewis had a bit of tension at times. And her domestic situation is very politically correct - actually, the theme of this entire story is very close to Martinelli´s particular home.

But these are small complaints and entirely a matter of personal taste. The riddle is pure joy. A dead man is found in an old abandoned battery on the San Francisco coast, and the case lands on Martinelli´s and Hawkin´s desks. The deceased has been a real Sherlock Holmes-afficionado, a dealer in Holmes collectibles, even looked a bit like Holmes himself, and was a bit of a star among the "sherlockians" of San Francisco. He had even recreated his home to look like Baker Street 221B. Among his possessions they find a manuscript, a rumoured "lost" novel by Arthur Conan Doyle and Martinelli sits down to read it. It´s a story, set in 1924, told by a nameless person, posing though as "Mr Sigerson", an alias of Holmes´. And the murdered man of that mystery is found in exactly the same place, the abandoned battery.

Of course, those of us who are in the know, realize immediately that the text is a diary, written by the real Sherlock Holmes, who, as we know, had some time on his hands while visiting San Francisco in 1924 with Mary Russell, for her to settle some of her father´s affairs (as told in "Locked Rooms"). It has been found in a hidden nook in the attic of Russell´s old house, along with the typewriter it was written on. Of course, no one realizes that it´s anything but fiction and for the Martinelli story it really doesn´t matter that they don´t. While the two cases aren´t directly connected, there is a literary connection, a common theme, and the manuscript itself is the trigger for the present day crime. Which I could write some more about, but I´d rather recommend that you find the book yourself. I will not give the mystery away.

One of the minor female characters that pass by in Martinelli´s enquiries, looks just like Laurie R King herself, or so I imagine. I would not be surprised if some other "sherlockians" have had the pleasure of being written into a Holmes story, of sort, but of course that´s only a speculation on my part. Anyway, I think she had fun writing this. And it´s the last Martinelli story. Or latest, perhaps. And it ends very happily, like the end of a fairytale. And they lived happily ever after? Will King return to Martinelli or devote herself to more Russell&Holmes? You know what I´m hoping for!

Actually, the latest Russell&Holmes book was released just a few days ago. I´m saving it for Christmas. I shall lie on a Spanish sand dune and read.


From My Photo Album

This is one of my favourite pictures from our trip to Rome last November. It´s a not particularly sharp photo of me, taken by my husband, standing in front of the Pantheon as it´s getting dark. However, this photo so well expresses the state of mind I was in. It´s the state of mind I´m almost always in when I´m travelling. There is this sense of still attention, in a rapidly moving world.


From My Photo Album

Oldest bookstore in Sweden. From last summer.