Birds and Birds and Birds...

I got out of bed yesterday morning (more like lunchtime to you), came down into the kitchen and outside the window the birch was full of birds. Not any of our regular tits either, but large, beautiful waxwings (Sw. sidensvans).

I came close to one of them on a spring morning a few years ago, it was only a meter away from me and it stayed there for several minutes as I stood frozen still, just watching. Birds are such beautiful creatures, and while I am nothing like a twitcher, I can get quite excited about them now and then.

Of course, it was impossible to take proper photos from indoors, in the crappy light of December at our latitude, but perhaps you get an idea. All the trees further away were also full of them, there were many hundreds, perhaps thousands in the air, all around the house. It was like watching one of those shoals of herring in a nature programme on television. Overwhelming. And simply impossible to photograph.

And then they were all gone.


The Likeability of Awkward

I much admire Jonathan Franzen. Some of the articles he has written has been a great influence on me, on how I think about writing and, well, life. This weekend I have devoted to his collection of what? essays? articles? memoir? - "The Discomfort Zone", a book he has dedicated to his two older brothers. It can´t be easy to write a book like this, being so very candid as he is. Nor can it be easy to have a younger brother baring it all, though his success must be of some comfort. I hope.

Franzen, to me, falls roughly in the category of comedians like Ricky Gervais and John Cleese. Reading his novels is a bit like watching an episode of "The Office", where David Brent makes one big social cockup after another. Or like when Basil, in "Fawlty Towers", goes into a spin and makes a big problem out of something that wasn´t even an issue before it came into contact with him. I sit in my sofa and want to look away, but I can´t, so I put up my hands to cover my face, but still look through my fingers. I talk to the screen, nonono, don´t go there, don´t do that, dooon´t...

That´s what it´s like for me to read Franzen, that´s what "The Corrections" was like, and "Freedom", too. He is so very clever at getting his characters into just that, yes: that dis-comfort zone, that each of us have been in for ourselves and will be in again. And, I laugh. Cringe and laugh. So yes, absolutely I think he does great comedy, though that isn´t how his writing is labeled.

In this book, he writes about his childhood in Webster Groves, Missouri, where he grew up as the youngest son of three. As a child, he identified with Snoopy, as if, being the youngest, he wasn´t really considered as human as the other members of his family. I suppose this early outsider position is a hotbed for a novelist in the making. And he continues to be a bit offside, a bit nerdy, a bit undiligent at most things that his father considers useful and formative. He should have been an engineer, of course (who shouldn´t have been that?), but instead he persists and studies German. It doesn´t surprise me that he knows his way around Goethe and Mann, having read his novels. And the way he tells the tales of his life makes it clear that just like with Flaubert, his characters are him. At least a bit of him. Or a large chunk of him.

Even on television, Franzen comes off as being rather awkward. He is not particularly likeable, and from that famous Oprah-incident and on, he has been gauche every time I have seen him. But it kind of adds to his writing, makes him more authentic, in my mind at least. It makes me like him more that he is a bit lacking in the charms department. He gets his work out there, is having great success, and makes a significant contribution to my reading, as well as other peoples.

And one thing that I keep thinking all through this read is, what does it cost to keep the past so alive? Particularly a past that is painful. Some writers are so great at writing about awkward stuff, they seem to remember the past in such detail, and I can´t help but think that it must take its toll on them. Of course, the artists who can, may be of great help to others, and I imagine there is great reward in this. I am, personally, a great believer in balancing one´s books and then closing them; moving on in life, looking forward and not dwell on the past. I just can´t imagine ever wanting to write anything as personal as this, myself.

If you haven´t read Franzen, if you think those novels seem lengthy and heavy, do read "The Discomfort Zone". It´s actually a great introduction to Franzen´s work. You will get an idea of where he gets his stuff and how he writes. I highly recommend him.


Pewter Pins

As you may know, I have lately begun to collect brooches. Of course, it is impossible for me not to answer to this invitation from Une femme d'un certain age. (I´m not a style blogger, so please kindly overlook the un-stylish photography. This post is really all about the brooches.)

Update: Go see all the other brooches at Une femme d´un certain age

I´d like to show you some of my Swedish pewter brooches. I remember these from when I was little, ladies of my grandmother´s age would wear them, and brooches were really popular in the 50´s and 60´s. Not so much now, though. About six months ago I walked into the major jewellery store in Luleå and asked for brooches. They couldn´t turn up A. Single. One. Really. I find mine on Ebay, where you can get them at ridiculous prices. However, I have an inkling they are coming back in fashion. Personally, I started wearing them because I wanted to add some more sparkle to my style, and necklaces don´t work well with the way I move. Everytime I sit down at a dinner table, the dangly things fall into my plate, and sometimes there is food on there. It just became a very unstylish mess, much of the time.

Sweden has been organized into provices called landskap, at least since the early 17th Century, when Sweden was bureaucratized by king Gustavus Adolpus and his chancellor Axel Oxenstierna. This was when Sweden was a European super-power, a warrior nation feared on the continent. In some languages, prison bars are still called "Swedish curtains". Every province has its own symbolic flower, and in the 1950´s several pewter smiths started making series of jewellery with these flowers on them. I have two brooches symbolizing the provice where I was born, Uppland, and the province where I grew up, Sörmland, and I toyed with the idea of collecting them, but honestly, they are pretty ugly and stay in my drawer most of the time. These two were both made in 1956 by Rune Carlsson, who later changed his name to Tennesmed (pewter smith). I have them because they remind me of wonderful old ladies who were important to me.

One of my favourites is also by Rune Tennesmed, and it´s this one, with a green glass bead. When I bought it, it was oxidized almost completely black, and it took some intense polishing to get it to where it is now. I was at it for weeks, actually, to prevent my arms from going numb from all the rubbing. He made several styles of these, and I wouldn´t mind owning more of them. It doesn´t have a year stamp on it, so I can´t tell when it´s made. I wear it often, but it´s quite heavy and needs a sturdy base, like a jacket or a coat.

This one is pretty ugly, but in a cool kind of brutalist way. It´s a stylized viking ship. Do you see the viking king standing in the front of the ship, with his crown and golden collar? No doubt all prepared to jump off at the shores of Britain, to kill, rape, and rob the poor English of all their silver. As they did.

It was made by Erik Fransson in Älmhult in 1955. I am very interested in history, particularly the Iron Age, and these motifs appeal to me very much.

Erik Fransson also made this leaf, which is my latest aquisition. I have seen several of these pass through Ebay, but prices have always gone a bit too high for me. This time, I was the only bidder, so much luck! (20 SEK = 3 USD!!!!) I haven´t used it yet, but pinned to my winter hat I think it looks really, really classy.

I do think that brooches with flower/plant motifs are very easy to wear, they dress up almost anything in a neutral, pretty kind of way.

These two, I love. You´d think they were made by the same person, but they are not. The square one is also by Erik Fransson, in 1962, and the rounder shaped one is by Knut-Erik Wallberg in Vittsjö, of Wege Tenn. It was made in 1969. The motif is Swedish petroglyphs from the Bronze Age.

When I was about 12, a very rainy summer, my mother took my siblings and me on a tour around the south of Sweden. I remember how we looked at petroglyphs, all wearing matching yellow raincoats. In spite of the foul weather, it was one of my best vacation trips, ever. This may be why I love these brooches so much.

Pewter is also a material often used in Sami handicraft, a specialty here in Lapland. The embroidered leather bracelets have been all the rage among fashionable youngsters (I have even seen them featured in magazines like Vogue), so you may have seen those. I picked this one up at a flea market for pennies. I have taken it with me when I travel, since it´s rather light-weight and will work even with tops in a lighter material. It was made in Jokkmokk, where the Sami artist Lars Pirak, among others, worked as a designer. I can´t tell, though, who made this particular brooch, or when.

This one is also rather small and pretty, and made here i Luleå by Lars G Svedjestrand at Gammelstad Konsthantverk och Tennsmide, in 1987. He doesn´t have a webpage that I can find, but some pewter jewellery from Lapland can be found here. No brooches, though, as far as I can see. Because they are not fashionable, I suppose.

I´d like to finish with something that is not pewter at all, but silver. And it´s perhaps not technically a brooch, either. It more like an Iron Age safety pin. I bought it at Birka, a museum built around the archeological excavation of one of the oldest known towns in Sweden. I think it fits with the general theme here, and I love it.  
 Hope you have enjoyed! And many thanks to Un Femme!


Killer Cats

Roman killer cat in action. 2011.
Knowing this, I still prefer cats to dogs. Some of the reasons are listed here. (Really, this made me laugh hysterically.) Thank you HONY for linking to this site.


The Importance of Being Edited

This week, I have read a local author. The book was recommended to me, or no, not recommended, I was informed and a bit warned. My friend said, "I read this book and suddenly I realized that it was set in Piteå, at the School of Music." Which is where she grew up and my husband works. And I instantly knew who had written it, a former music teacher who quit to focus full-time on his writing.

KG Johansson is mostly known for his sci-fi and fantasy books, which are, I believe, written mainly for younger readers. I have seen his work at the e-library, but haven´t really been that tempted. Sci-fi and fantasy is something I was very keen on as a kid, but not so much any more. However, this is a novel for grown-ups, and well, I just had to take a look.

"Kärlekssekten" (= the love sect), is centred around two young women, who are sisters but not friends. We get to follow them both during a year when a religious sect seduces a majority of the Swedish people. It starts out all love-y and nice, but quickly turns nasty as the sect turns out to really be some kind of cross between the mob, Hells Angels, and neo-fascism. The older sister, Anna, a music teacher at the school, stays firmly out of it, and gets into trouble for that, while the younger sister, Viktoria, gets involved both spiritually and financially, and gets in just as much trouble. As if that wasn´t enough, they both also become involved with the same man, for whom Anna even leaves her family.

The novel is 453 pages. That´s about 200 pages too many. I get the impression it hasn´t been edited at all. Perhaps the author was keen to publish and didn´t let it cool long enough to look at it with fresh eyes. Perhaps too many words are his style. A quick look at one of his sci-fi novels seem to indicate something in that direction. The most common advice given to writers starting out is to "show, not tell". Well, Johansson shows and tells, then explains, then shows and tells some more. I keep mumbling get on with it! to the pages. Very little is left to the reader, and as a result I don´t feel engaged.

Also, the plot is not particularly realistic. Which in itself is ok, I´m fine with fantastical stories. But you have to at least have believable characters, saying believable things, to get away with an improbable scenario like a religious sect converting more than half the population and even turning university professors into biggoted, spineless citizens of the village of the damned. Still, there are some pretty good scenes in here. Only a bit more work would have made this book a lot better.

In one segment of the story, the older sister Anna is assigned a tin-eared accompanist, a student at the school. She complains to her superiors, but is told that "no one else hears that", the idea being that most people in an audience, who are not specialists, will be oblivious to the nuances that separate a quality performance from a run-of-the-mill one. I can´t help thinking that it´s the same with literature. That even a ferocious reader, like a well-practiced musician, isn´t necessarily sensitive to the difference between, say, Umberto Eco´s "Foucault´s Pendulum" and Dan Brown´s "Da Vinci Code".

Again, I think stern editing would have made a big difference. Actually, I think the ability to edit is what make great writers great and most writers not so. One of the most celebrated authors in Sweden constantly says to reporters that he writes "a heck of a lot of crap" and I believe that. Everyone does. A first draft is almost always crap. That´s when the real work starts. And, of course, there is that small matter of taste.

This Made Me Laugh

Do you ever feel like the computer is taking over your life? You may be right.


On Intelligence

I have just finished "Hjärnrevolutionen; Varför din intelligens påverkar allt du gör - och allt du gör påverkar din intelligens" (= The Brain Revolution; Why your intelligence affects everything you do - and everything you do affects your intelligence) by Johan Norberg. I expected it to be interesting, but reading this made me jump to attention:

"Only about 5 percent of the population has exceptional cognitiv ability. That´s a very small share, but in a population like the Swedish, it´s still about 450.000 people. And that is 450.000 people who, through their ability to handle information and solve problems, are disproportionally well-represented among leaders in their respective fields. They are the people who run politics, economy, unions, media, universities, and organizations. This is probably you and most of the people you know - because most people who select a book of this kind has a cognitive ability above average, and we often hang out with people who are like ourselves." (my own very quick and dirty translation, and my own highlight)


Talking about IQ and intelligence can be very controversial. There is an implicit brutality in measuring intelligence - we may end up placing people on a scale from good to bad, from valuable to crappy, if we are not very careful. And this goes against what most of us consider decent and ethically sound.

Intelligence is not about knowing lots of stuff. It´s about the ability to learn and solve problems, and there seems to be a consensus on this, at least. But, as Norberg points out, being intelligent is no guarantee that life will turn out well. Many bright kids are, at least in the Swedish school system, held back by a firm resistance to what is sneeringly called "elite classes" and it is actually illegal for a school to only admit bright students, and home schooling is also illegal. Norberg is a liberal debater with right-wing leanings and is, not surprisingly, an advocate for a school system that stimulates scholarly bright children, as well as support those who have other talents. Not that the less academically inclined are the main focus here, this book is an appeal for the "clever" ones. At least in our culture, which is very focused on the group, on homogenity and normality, we want to pretend that all are created equal, that enough money and encouragement will turn anyone into an Einstein or an Olof Palme. Those who don´t agree with Norberg would argue that his society is an unequal society where rich stands against poor, elite stands against, as Basil Faulty would have said, riff-raff.

I find that I partly agree with Norberg, even though he is on the other side of the political spectrum from me. It can be challenging to be a bookish kid in a Swedish school, and no doubt that goes for most school systems where children are taught in groups that are put together on the basis of home adress. But it can be equally challenging to be a slowly developing kid, a functionally challenged kid, a socially troubled kid, whatever. Norbergs bottom line, as I understand it, is that a more intelligent population will create a better future, for themselves as individuals and for society as a whole. And it´s a pretty thought. Perhaps he is right. I would like to think he is, but I have my doubts. Intelligence and goodness do not go hand in hand, at least that is my experience.

He also advises the reader on how to remain intelligent as we age. Not surprisingly, active and curious reading is the Fountain of Youth. And excercise. If you also have the good sense to marry another curious person with whom you can have interesting and stimulating conversation, you have done what you can to stay on top of your game.

Considering that pensions are shrinking and care for the elderly is increasingly difficult to finance, health is probably one´s safest investment, although that´s a conclusion Norberg lets this reader make herself...


A Theory on Creation

I have to share this story with you that I found on this wonderful blog, Fanciful Devices. Enjoy:

The best story from this weekend was when 3yrold Marcela mentioned something about God. To which 6yrold Carlos very sarcastically retorted, "Who doesn't even exist!" 
His mom looked just as quizzical as I felt. We're all basically atheists in my family, but she's certainly not teaching it to these little ones, that's not the kind of thing you want them going on about at school. Especially now that Marcela's going to a -very good- Catholic school. "Carlos,"said my sister, "you can really upset people if you say that. They're teaching Marcela about God in school- which is great!"
"So then how did we get here?" asks a suddenly articulate Marcela. Carlos considers.
"Maybe a dinosaur was laying an egg and he laid a human by mistake. Then he laid all the humans."
A dinosaur. Laid. A human.
And then he laid all the humans.
So there you have a truncated version of human evolution by Carlos Rios Klaus, who is way too logical to believe in God.

A dinosaur. Laid. A human.


Ceremony and Celebration

It has been the yearly Academic Festival at the university, and I was invited to hobnob with the honorary doctors, other illustrious guests, and members of the university staff, being the wife of the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

When I was very little, we had a neighbour, an octogenarian widow who called herself doktorinnan. That´s the feminine form of doctor, like actress to actor, but I have never heard the form doctoress, or any other feminine variety of doctor. She was not a doctor, her husband had been a doctor. She had been a very successful owner and manager of a large hotel. However, her status was all about her husband´s work and title. Similarly, the wife of a major would be called majorska, a general´s wife would be generalska, and so on, exept in the fields where women actually worked, like teaching and nursing. A teacher´s wife was called just that, a teacher´s wife, while a "teacheress" (lärarinna) was an actual teacher, who happened to be a woman.

These days, neither women nor men measure their status by what their significant other is doing for a living. We are much more individualistic and focus on our own careers or jobs or whatever we choose to do and however we like to define our identities. Still, at times, we are required to do duty as wives and, increasingly, husbands. It can be challenging to go to a function where you know no one, where no one will be particularly interested in who you are or what you do, where you are likely to be not very interested in what the others are and what they do, that will require fancy dress and uncomfortable shoes, long hours without food, long hours eating fancy food served in small portions while listening to long-winded speakers talking about things you have no idea about, trying to make small-talk with strangers you are likely to never see again. And your husband or wife is more or less officially working the entire evening and not particularly focused on your needs.

I know that plenty among the significant others are not particularly amused, and some do eventually refuse to go, or perhaps they will go to the ceremony but skip the dinner, or skip the ceremony and go to the dinner. Some enjoy it, of course. I personally never look forward to it, but I am usually surprised that I´m having as much fun as I´m often actually having. It´s a bit of a lottery who you are going to sit next to, but I have been lucky most years. And the older I get, the more philosophical I become about the slow bits, the dodgy singing, the unsmooth behaviour of some, and my own occasional awkwardness. And these days, I often bump into people I know a little.

This year, one of the Honorary Doctors was a proper celebrity, a Major International Superstar, in fact: Benny Andersson, of ABBA, Chess &cetera-fame. In all the years I have attended, I can not remember the atmosphere having been more charged than this time. My own husband bestowed him with the honors during the ceremony. Personally, I only came within speaking distance very, very briefly twice, barely managed to say hello in a civil manner and say my name, and then was pushed out of the way by all the people wanting to have their piece of him, a look, a chat, an autograph. I find it all baffling, since people of his magnitude, people who have had, in different ways, a profound influence on my life (I know all the songs by heart, as I´m sure you do), make me dumbstruck. He is, of course, very nice, very gracious, very generous. And I imagine even he sometimes cringe about things he said, or failed to say.

Since my husband´s term as dean is up at the New Year, it may be a few years before we get to go again. I am both relieved and a little sorry. I have some great memories, and some interesting experiences. And a few very nice dresses.


Going Shopping

Here is a reading recommendation for you: an article about two guys going book shopping. I don´t much do bookstores anymore, because of my asthma, but I have certainly been exactly where these guys are. But seriously, how many books does it make sense to own? Perhaps it depends on the quality of one´s public library. Mine is excellent.

Favourite quote from this article: 

"you don’t get to be the best-read man in America by giving a damn about someone else’s taste. You buy and read books that entice you for small reasons like a good cover or an intelligent introduction, books that appeal to your eccentricities. You keep as many books as possible nearby because they are in fact the very record of your eccentricities."

I like that. I often sit to table with other enthusiastic readers and they go "have you read this? have you read that?", and more and more, I find that I haven´t read the latest novels, the ones on the best-seller-lists, that everyone reads. And if this used to make me feel embarrassed, it doesn´t any more. The world is full of great books, old and new. The only good reason to read something is that it adds to your own experience or gives you much pleasure. Making book choices to "keep up" is a waste of time. Unless, of course, you are a critic or something like that, and have to read for work. Which is a totally different thing.

I think that generally, one should follow one´s heart. In all matters. 


The Woodland Cemetery

Last weekend we went to Stockholm, to lounge in a great hotel, visit my sister-in-law and her husband at their new apartment (which is stunning), see a show (La Cage aux Folles), and generally just do whatever we wanted.

We slept in Saturday, had breakfast in bed, and watched a documentary about Skogs-kyrkogården, the Woodland Cemetery. It was All Saint´s Day, and they were expecting about 70.000 visitors. We decided to add two to that number, since lighting candles at the cemetery is a tradition we have observed for many years. The Woodland Cemetery is on the Unesco World Heritage list, and I have been wanting to see it for many years. And now it just became the natural thing to do.

The cemetery is very large, and each part has it´s own style of burial.

One corner is for the Catholics. There is also a Jewish Cemetery.

The Chapel of Resurrection, that looks very much like what I imagine a Roman temple would have looked like.

At the other end of this long road, Seven Springs Way, is the hill where we finally lit our candles.

Inside the chapel, designed by Sigurd Lewerentz.

The same architect, Lewerentz, also designed these outhouses, consciously brutalizing the beauty of the chapel.

I couldn´t help wonder what my father-in-law, the mason, would have thought about this.

The tall forrest gives the whole place a cathedral-like atmosphere.

Towards the big Chapel of the Holy Cross and the Crematorium.

Looks like a hobbit´s house.

The Woodland Chapel.

The Chapel of the Holy Cross.

There was some kind of service going on, so we didn´t enter, but it´s always nice to have a reason to return.

The view from the big chapel towards the hill.

The Chapel of Hope. I love how the visiting family mirrors the family depicted on the altar painting.

The benches are angled, so the mourners can sit closer to one another. Talk about attention to detail!

The grave of the head architect, who died from exhaustion only a short time after the consecration ceremony.


It was a wonderful afternoon, even though the light was bad and there was a hailstorm. We really had this sense of community, and this is what it´s like on most cemeteries in Sweden on All Saint´s Day. We passed the grave of Greta Garbo without seeing it, so that´s one more reason to return. I´d also like to see the cemetery in summer, in full bloom.

Halloween has been a controversial, and commercial, import the last few years, but it´s mostly considered a masquerade party thing for the children. Still, some older folks think kids dressed up as ghouls and skeletons are offensive on a weekend traditionally reserved for stillness, meditation and rememberance. But I suppose times change, and traditions will, too.


All Saints Day

Sometimes you must loose them to realize how much they meant to you.