Inside Pride & Prejudice

I would argue that in a way, all literature is fan fiction. A person does not write a book in a vacuum. Aspiring novelists come from an army of dedicated readers, who all have their favourite genres and authors. And I imagine that many are driven by a wish to, on some level, respond. However, some books are more obviously based on particular authors or particular works. I am myself an ardent admirer of Jane Austen, as any reader of this blog will know, and some of my favourite reads are fan fiction related to her, like Reginald Hill´s "Pictures of Perfection", a Dalziel&Pascoe-mystery, where he uses Austen´s guidelines and advice to write a book where no crime is committed and where the deserving all get married in the end. And he even uses whole chunks of dialogue borrowed from Austen and casts the gay, very ugly, Sgt Wield as his own version of Elisabeth Bennett. I love that.

I have only attempted P D James once, and failed to get through one of her Dalgliesh-mysteries. Frankly, I found her boring, though I like Roy Marsden´s Dalgliesh on television. (We saw a re-run of "Death of an Expert Witness" from 1983 about a year ago -  and wow! is that a slow tale. The murder happened in the third episode, if I remember correctly!) Still, I couldn´t resist "Death Comes to Pemberley" when I saw it.

I read it in Swedish ("När döden kom till Pemberley"), and the translator is reputable, but in one or two places I felt like perhaps she had misunderstood some archaic turn of phrase. I could be wrong though, without the original text to compare. I do prefer to read English books in English. When I don´t, I tend to translate the dialogue in my head, particularly when it´s set in an environment that I associate strongly with particular types of language. This is a tiresome way to read.

James has been very respectful to Austen. Unlike Hill, who takes Austen´s style and stories and runs away with them, putting his own spin on it, James stays firmly within the boundries of "Pride & Prejudice". And even though she writes what is technically a who-done-it, a murder mystery, and sets it six years later, it´s more or less a repeat of P&P. It reminds me of all those Star Wars comics I read in the 80´s, with writers trying to come up with stories that didn´t take the characters anywhere, that didn´t allow them to develop. Here, the characters spend a lot of time reiterating what happened in P&P. And the bad guys still make all the trouble, the good guys are still paying for it - actually, they are all competing with Jane Bennett for the prize Most Meek Character in fiction, ever. James never manages to go outside Austen´s work, doesn´t pull it a single inch forward. Or sideways, or anywhere.

Mr and Mrs Darcy keep talking to each other "mildly", touching each other "mildly", and giving each other "mild" looks. This is perhaps why no one should write a sequel to "happy ever after", unless they are willing to disregard the original author´s intentions. Like Hill did when he turned Emma Woodhouse/Knightley into a murderess in the short story "Poor Emma" in the collection "There are no ghosts in the Soviet Union" (which I highly recommend). Not that I think Jane Austen imagined the Darcy marriage would evolve quite like this. Elisabeth has lost all her wit, Darcy all his confidence and experience. If James longed to prove herself inferior to another author, she certainly has succeded. Or perhaps she has lost it; this novel was published in her 91st year!

And you know, whatever I might think of the book, just being alive at that age is an achievement! Also, she dedicates the book to her loyal secretary of 35 years, and having personally helped my mother-in-law write her memoir, I know how much work a secretary does. I do think people doing this kind of work full-time all deserve to have books dedicated to them!

If you like P D James, perhaps you will not be disappointed. If you like Austen, you certainly will.


Aunt Fina´s Elk

A third, and last, story from my mother-in-law´s memoir.

Coming home from the forrest after picking berries.
"My aunt Fina and her husband, August Wikström, once brought home an elk. As it happened, August had been out in the forrest hunting during a time when the elk was not fair game. But, since he had a large family and difficulty supporting it, he couldn´t resist - he met the elk, and he shot it. Whereafter he went back to the village to get help to bring it home. But the villagers watched him, and he couldn´t go back. So, my aunt went to my father and told him about it. He followed her home and asked his brother-in-law where this elk was located, went out into the forrest, cut the elk up and brought it home. I imagine he did this during the night, so he wouldn´t be seen. The meat was then salted and stored.

Then, there was the question of how to get the meat to August and Fina´s, without the envious neighbours finding out. What my aunt did, was to tell everyone in the village that her cows had run dry, all at once, "so now I´m waiting for this one cow to calve, so we can get some milk again! But my brother Gustav has promised that we can have some milk from him". After that she came every day with the milk bottle to my mother and father. But it wasn´t milk she brought home in her bottle, but elk meat! No one would have suspected my father of poaching, but August Wikström was, as far as I can figure, a notorious poacher. He did it out of necessity, though. He had consumption and couldn´t work a full day in the forrest to support his family.

Cleaning out the kitchen.
Actually, no one strictly adhered to the regulated hunting seasons. We had more respect for hunger. My father shot grouse when the breeding was over. But he never shot them, and he never let the dog run free, when they had fledglings. We had many kinds of grouse around our farm. Sometimes people came and shot them just behind our barn!

My mother told me that the grouse were salted into something called fjärding, a cask containing a fourth of a barrel. She put the meat in there and made a strong, salty pickle that she poured over it. Then she covered it with a wooden cross and a large stone to keep the meat under the surface. It kept fresh in there for ever, more or less. I remember that cask very well.

Once, the forrest officer came to visit just as she was planning grouse for dinner. Anyway, she made her supper as planned, watered the grouse to extract some of the salt, fried them and invited the officer to have chicken dinner with the family! The forrest officer ate with great relish. Of course he recognized the grouse, but just said "what a tasty chicken!". They were indulgent with those who only shot bird for household requirements. But if you were selling, you´d be in trouble if they found out. I like that order, that people who live in the forrest can use it as a pantry and take what they need. Nowadays forrest birds are in decline, and I imagine it´s all the pesticides being used everywhere."

Gustav, Anna´s father, in his workshop making a new boat.

All the photographs were taken by Anna´s much older half-brother Engelbert, who had a camera as early as the 20´s, and clearly had an interest in capturing not only special events in the family´s life, but also everyday chores and life in general. There are only very few of his images in the family archives, but I imagine, if his collection of photos remain among his descendants, it must be a real treasure.


Confessions of a Real Sinner

Some more from mother-in-laws memoirs:

Anna and the dog Buster.
"Stories are rarely about people who do no wrong and get on the wrong side of nobody. Stories are mostly about those who are odd in some way, who are exceptional and do the unexpected. Perhaps they are a bit insubordinate, and not so respectful of laws and regulations. Actually, with some people, the unexpected are what to expect! We had a few originals of that sort in our village.

One of them was Magnus, who owned the house where my sister Eva later came to live with her husband. When he was very young he once visited one of those religious meetings with nonconformist preachers who came to preach about sin, shame, punishment and eternal damnation. This one really succeded in frightening his listeners and there were plentiful, since such a meeting was popular entertainment in a small, remote village. Everyone wanted to come se what kind of a speaker he was, if he was funny, silly, or whatever. Anyway, he inspired one of the most harmless, inoffensive persons in the village to come forward, to confess, in anguish, his sins. He told of his sinful life, little things that everyone is guilty of, a mean thought, a nasty word, an angry look or an impertinent thought about some girl. And he finished this extensive confession - that no one found the least exciting - with saying: "and I ask God´s forgivness for al the girls I have seduced". Hearing this, Magnus rose in all his full height and said: " That sin, I will take responsibility for!" And Magnus, he likely kept on sinning all his life!"

Anna´s brother Tage and father Gustav plowing the barley field.


Tit for tat and schoolteacher Strömberg goes through the ice

My mother-in-law, Anna Bergh, is 93 today, and to honor her, I´d like to share with you a story from her memoir.

Eva and Anna, a few years later.
"The road to school went around the lake, it was seven and a half kilometers, and we had to take it during the time of year when we could no longer row across the lake, but the ice wasn´t yet strong enough to carry us. It was getting stronger, but we were not allowed to cross it, and must take the road. We sometimes took the shortcut across the Harrok inlet, and had to pass the Harrok creek, which took us to Berg´s yard and on to school. This time there was a coating of ice on the footbridge across the creek and it was very slippery. I fell in the water. The water was cold, I was wet through, and I realized I couldn´t go to school in that condition, so I returned, or rather, I ran all the way home. I ran myself all out of breath, and that´s probably why I got away unscathed. When I came home my stockings had frozen solid and they had broken off just behind the knee joint. Mother put my feet in warm water at once and took my clothes off as fast as she could, the skirt and the coat was frozen stiff. But she got me warm, I gave me hot drinks and didn´t even catch a cold.

When my sister Eva came to school and said that Anna isn´t coming because she has fallen into the Harrok creek, schoolteacher Strömberg made fun of me - assuming that I had fallen while gesticulating, putting on a show, trying to be funny. Eva came home, quite indignant about it, but she wasn´t taken much seriously by my parents. But, tit for tat.

A few days later, the schoolteacher ventured out on the ice. It was strong enough by then, as long as you kept to the safe places, but you couldn´t go anywhere. Our father had put out heaps of twigs on the lake to mark the spots where we couldn´t go, and that was a strict rule. Schoolteacher Strömberg, who was from Småland*, asked my future father-in-law, old man Berg, "How strong is the ice? I intend to put the nets out."**. "Well", said old man Berg, "it will not hold you if you go too close to the mouth of the creek. Go towards the barn, not the one closest to the creek, but the one about 500 meters away, and you´ll be safe." "Well", said the teacher, "if it holds to the first barn, it´ll hold to the second as well." And so he went, to where he had been advised not to go. And he went through the ice.

Winters were cold, dark and long.
In the afternoon, when it was already quite dark - this was the end of October or early November - old man Berg heard a cry from the lake. He walked out on his porch and listened. Someone was calling from the lake: "God help me! God help me! God help me!" He realized someone was in dire straits or even mortal dread. Someone had gone through the ice. He rushed to the shore, and recognized Strömberg´s voice calling: "Come this way with a ladder!" Well, where do you find a ladder by the lake shore? Berg had his hay-drying racks closer at hand and took a pair of drying rods, which were at least seven or eight meters long, and with these he wormed his way out towards the distressed schoolteacher. Berg reached for him with the rods and asked him to hold on firmly. By then the older sons in the Berg house, Assar, Anton, and Ernst, had come out to form a chain. This way schoolteacher Strömberg was gradually hauled up from the ice hole. While this was going on, he continually called out "God help!" and "God help!" and Berg, who was very annoyed with the teacher for walking in just the direction he himself had warned him of, called back: "You stupid bugger, you´ll lay there for quite a while if you´re expecting God to save you! If I can get you out, you might survive, but you´ll be waiting a long time, if you´re waiting for God!" As it happened, God never had time to intervene, it was old man Berg with his boys who saved the teacher. They got him on to firm ice and then home.

Berg followed him home, to make sure he got there, wet and frigid as he was. It wasn´t more than a quarter of a kilometer. His wife recieved him, terrified. She always called her husband by his last name: "Oh, Strömberg, Strömberg!" "Yes", said Berg, "he fell into the water as he was laying out the nets under the ice." "Oh, yes, Strömberg, Strömberg, but where are the nets? Where are the nets?" Yes, well, it seemed that the nets were more important than Strömberg - they were new! She kept going "Oh, but the new nets!"

The next day, when Strömberg had dried out and felt like his old self again, he came over to old man Berg in an attempt to explain himself. He wanted to be the kind of person who could do anything and knew everything and now he wanted to gloss over the events of the previous night. "Well", he said, "I was lying there thinking - I have to use my last ins and outs to get out of this ice hole." "Well", said old man Berg, "if I had known you had any ins and outs left, I´d have let you lie longer!" I think his ins and outs were exhausted. Another few minutes, and schoolteacher Strömberg really would have met his God."

Notes from the translator:
* Småland - a province in the south of Sweden. In folklore, it´s people are said to be a bit tight-fisted, or frugal.
** Nets would be placed under the ice, sometimes using rods, sometimes using an "ice horse". They would remain under the ice all winter, and be emptied daily. My grandfather did this every winter still in the 70´s and 80´s, and as a child I sometimes assisted him.


Institutions and Thinking

This morning, there was an article in Dagens Nyheter, Sweden´s largest national newspaper, about how institutions push social evolution. It was written by Lena Andersson, one of the more original and sharp thinkers of the Swedish cultural and political arena. She took newsreporting and newspapers as an example of how we create an institution to serve a certain need (to dispute, to inform, to communicate), but when the institution is there, it also constitutes a challenge every day to do just that, even if the need is less pressing, thereby pushing us further into a constantly changing, developing society. She also compared the western culture, which can be said to have been a forerunner in this, to cultures that have stayed almost the same for thousands of years, and argues that this permanence is due to a lack of written language and the tools that develop from there, tools that promotes new thinking. It amused me when she wrote that as a little girl, it fascinated her that everyday, just enough things would happen in the world that it would fill the half-hour that the television newscast lasted, no more, no less.

Of course, this is a thesis that can be disputed, and with any hope it will be, but it made me think of a private institution of mine, that takes up quite a bit of shelf space (so much that I have had to assign a special cabinet for it, and it´s growing out of that, as well). I´m talking about my diary.

I have diaries from when I was very young, but I didn´t really get into the habit until 1992, when I spent a few days at a retreat in connection with a course in "project and leadership" at the university. Some of the things we did there I still refer to, the lessons on group dynamics was really profound. We had a very good, very insightful teacher, who encouraged us to keep a diary for the days of the retreat. It was such a powerful experience for me that the habit stuck, beginning with a kind of memoir that lasted the entire first volume.

The diary has been invaluable to me, as a way of distancing myself from my own thoughts and feelings, and it has, I think, promoted my growth as a human being, on every level. I even typed out the first eight years of diaries, really going through every aspect of the way I was living and thinking, as a way of working myself through a tendency to become depressed and anxious. Events, thoughts, feelings, dreams, hopes, challenges, insights, twists and turns - it´s all there. At times, I have wanted to free myself from it, associating it too much with problems having to be solved, thinking that the day I had arrived (whatever that is) I wouldn´t need it anymore. But lately, I have come to realize that I will never arrive, and that the diary is my friend, a wonderful tool to structure my thoughts and get things into perspective. It can be anything I want it to be, do anything I want it to do (almost).

There are lots of famous diaries in literature. When I was in my 20´s, I loved Anaïs Nin and her literary and erotic adventures in 30´s Paris. I lapped up all of it and was quite shocked when I read her biographers. Her diary was, to put it mildly, a glorification of herself and her life. It was a powerful piece of self-promotion and it got her famous alright. Now I think of her diary as everything I don´t want my diary to be. It´s not for others to read, it´s there to encourage honesty, which is not entirely straight-forward even when you talk to yourself, as any self-reflecting person would agree.

Actually, I think that a diary´s usefulness to it´s author is in inverse proportion to its publishability. Writing for yourself is a world apart from writing for others. It´s not meant for anyone to ever read, even you yourself might not. The value of the diary is in the writing, readability is of no importance at all. Which is why I stick to my pen.

Perhaps we were the last generation to be taught some level of penmanship. I have noticed that some of the young ones I introduce at work, can´t even read cursive handwriting, which can be a serious handicap. Even more oddly, the computer-savvy generation doesn´t seem to have been taught typing either. But I imagine voice-manipulated wordprocessors für alle are not far away.

I wonder if that will change the way we think in any way? Tools, like institutions, created by us, also creates us. I suppose that is the point.


The Study of Art

Last week, I finally got myself together and visited the local art exhitibion hall, which is just next door to the library. I am very much into art, once nursed dreams of going to art school, and still, I don´t go nearly as much as I want to. This will change this year, that is my ambition.

There were six artists showing, three of them in collaboration, so, four exhibitions, and three of them were similarly themed. Or at least they kind of hooked into each other, thematically. Actually, I can squeeze in the last one as well, with some moderatly creative thinking.

The first one was a photo exhibition by Hans Månsson, called Vattenvärld (= water world). What he has done is take photos of a mountain brook, very close up, to the point where the images become almost abstract. Or they would be abstract to someone not familiar with the northern water worlds. As I am, I realized, as I was looking at this work. It was a real flashback to my childhood, growing up in a house so close by a lake it was almost on it. I think those years, before puberty, before you enter the grown-up world of abstractions, are when you establish your tactile frame of reference. I sometimes wonder if the windows that aren´t opened up to the physical world then, remain closed. If your favourite toy when you grow up is kvidd, I imagine that must do something to your psyche, huh?

I also had to buy the book. In it, Månsson explains that the only equipment he had was two very simple compact cameras, one of which could be used under water. And apart from the smallest adjustment of colour balance, the images are not photoshopped. (I knew they weren´t, but then I have played with kvidd.) There is also a text in the book, written by Stefan Edman, a Swedish biologist and speaker on sustainable development and environment issues.

This tied in nicely with another exhibition, Sharing Waters.  There was one slide show presenting a derelict hammam, a Turkish bath, by Gülsün Karamustafa from Istanbul, and another about the Scandinavian sauna, by Maria Ängquist Klyvare. There were also images from a sauna by Heta Kuchka. Water, people, hygiene. And I must make the (not so original), reflection that we are all alike in our dependence on water. All over the world, the relationship human-water has been ritualized, and is part of every mythology, every cultural practice. For obvious reasons. What we Scandinavians rarely reflect on, is how lucky we are with an abundance of clean water. I heard a story once of an African immigrant lady, being just horrified at the way Swedes let water just run from the fosset for a few minutes, to get cold drinking water. Liters and liters, going to waste. I can see how offensive that would be. We think of it as free, of no cost. Which of course, it isn´t.

Then, I entered a room with trees. A symbolic forrest, perhaps. And this one tree, standing in an old, wooden sled. It made me think of the river Styx and the passage to the underworld. Perhaps it was the red velvet that made my thoughts go in that direction. When I was little, we were neighbours with the vicarage, and in one old barn stood a couple of old hearses, horse-drawn carriages. We used to peak in through the gaps in the barn door. They were covered in velvet and incredibly mysterious, in an ominous kind of way.

The trees were made by artist Victoria Andersson, who also showed embroidery on the theme of forrestry. She was clearly highlighting the connection between nature, husbandry, and the use of violence. The gun as a tool for tending and caring for the living organism that the forrest is, is rather absurd, when you think about it from a certain perspective. But would we feel the same about the bow and arrow? The spear? Is that somehow more natural? More fair?

The use of needle and thread is also interesting, it seems to emphasize a very female perspective (if not feminist) on a traditionally male concern. She uses, at least in some of the works, old sheets or curtains where you can see a printed floral pattern showing through the fabric, from the other side. For me, that´s a subtle reference to the 40´s, 50´s and 60´s, when places like Snesudden, where my husband´s parents grew up, were still densly populated by families living off the forrest industry, when it was still very much a hands-on occupation. Plenty of hands. And she uses almost exclusively red and brown thread, which I associate with wood and blood.

There is something reactionary about embroidery, but in a good way. Everytime I see it I get this impression of an artist digging in his or her heels, resisting the speed of modern tools, insisting on taking time, creating thinking and feeling space, and encouraging the viewer to do that, too. 

The last exhibition was a bit harder to digest, after all these rich images from the natural world. C Göran Carlsson´s abstractions were, however, very good, and would have been more interesting in other company, perhaps. But at the same time, if you took your time to reflect on the physics of matter: water, flesh and forrest alike, you would find yourself in Carlsson´s world. You´d just have to look deeper.

I had set aside an hour at the exhitibion hall. It wasn´t nearly enough. And, as a serious student of art (for I must think of my art interest as a form of study) you must also take time to reflect in a structured manner. Otherwise, impressions tend to wash over you and past you, like the water in that mountain brook. You must open your mouth to drink. Else, you might stand by the fountain of art and still die of thirst. 


Friends are the Best Gift

In our circle, we rarely do institutionalized gifting. We don´t buy Christmas presents, and rarely celebrate birthdays, unless someone actively invites us. Surprise parties aren´t particularly common in Swedish culture, I think. It´s something you see on imported (American) television. Probably because Swedes have a natural inclination towards being quiet, unassuming people, who cringe at the very thought of being the centre of attention. Yes, it´s a cliché, but like most clichés, there is some truth in it.

Yesterday, I went over to a couple of friends of mine, an old school mate and her 9-year-old son, a very precocious, gifted child, and they surprised me with a wonderful gift, a home-made wheat bag, which will be great to have in the cold months that are ahead. As if that wasn´t enough, I got an unused pair of jeans that fit me perfectly, weeded out from a brimful closet. I didn´t even own a pair of jeans, so how perfect was that!

This, in combination with fika*, the traditional Swedish mid-morning or afternoon snack that consists of a cup of coffee or tea and a sweet bread of some kind, like a cinnamon bun, a piece of cake, or a cookie, makes a perfect Sunday!

* this particular friend once introduced me to vrål-fika (lit. roaring fika), a cup of coffee or tea with a  whole platefull of sweetbreads, the fika equivalent of the grand dessert, a veritable sugar fest! Also, on a traditional kafferep (coffee party or kaffee klatsch), you´ll have time to take påtår and tretår (lit. tår = tear or drop, på = on = on top of the first, and tre = three or third).

Street Style Luleå


Desperately Tragic

This book was an unexpected pleasure. It just stood there on a shelf at the library and whispered take me with you. And I did. The author is Jan Lundgren and the book is "Slapptask". (Oh, how do I translate that? Soft-dick? Limp-cock? You get it.)

The protagonist of this story is Dan Ellert, a journalist with a column at one of Sweden´s biggest tabloids. He is fairly successful, perhaps not particularly ambitious, more focused on the kids and the wives (two). He prides himself of being a modern, feminist man. Then he has a stroke, and nothing is the same any more. He comes home from the hospital with one thing on his mind: sex. And eventually, his wife leaves him. It takes him five years on his own to realize that it wasn´t the sex that was the problem. It was that he had also lost his sense of humour.

He struggles on, alone, trying to make a new life for himself. A lover gives him back some of his confidence, but offers him no love. His desperation leads him to do stupid things. He takes risks with relationships, gambles and looses, again and again. A friend backs off, a child severs all contact. He makes a fool of himself. Some of the scenes would be funny, if they were not so deeply tragic. It´s true, he has lost his sense of humour, the text purveys that on every level. It is impossible to laugh, it´s hardly possible to feel warmth towards him, because he brings me, the reader, so close to him that I almost become him, and his self-loathing infects my feelings. It is very cleverly done. Perhaps it´s the complete absence of clichés. Perhaps it´s because it is all true.

The novel is self-published, as far as I can figure. As most self-published books, there are imperfections, mainly in the proof-reading and editing. No, actually it doesn´t need much hard editing, but after about page 80 (of 169) it´s like the author ran out of steam and just decided not to bother. Or perhaps he took the wrong version to the printers, I don´t know. You can see where he has changed the text from first person to third person and missed in places. Like: "Dan cut his hair at least five times before he could bring myself to get out the pensioner´s ID and save some money." (my translation). And there are plenty of double commas and periods and such things. In one of the last chapters there is a reference to glass-plates (old photo negatives) that makes no sense.

It makes more sense when you google the author. Turns out his middle name is Ellert. Dan Ellert = Jan Ellert Lundgren. Everything I can find out about Jan is true about Dan, and he works with old photograps these days, after a career as a columnist at Expressen (national tabloid newspaper). One of the actual books he has written is mentioned in the novel as one of Dan´s, which he buys as a gift for his lover. And I find one photo of the author with a slightly lopsided mouth, typical sign of a stroke. I get the feeling this book is written with blood. A barely masked biography.

The very last scene is heart-breaking. A desperate act brings him to table with his ex-wife again. Is there a happy ending beginning here, or is it just a fantasy that brings him to the brink of suicide? One can speculate. I´ll tell you this: this is not a feelgood book. This is as heart-wrenchingly bleak as it gets. Lundgren manages to give written form to the most bleading heart I have ever encountered in fiction. It´s brilliant. Upliftingly brilliant, as good art always is, no matter what its subject. And it´s completely incomprehensible why a proper publishing house with resources couldn´t have made this novel what it deserves to be. Perhaps they weren´t offered it. I don´t know.

It´s easy to be a bit dismissive of self-published books, but I have found more than one gem among them. One must be forgiving of imperfections, of course. Clearly, it´s not that easy to publish to the level of quality that the professional publishing houses do even if you have been reading all your life and know what a book looks like. But it´s better to do that, than leave a good script in a desk drawer. Who knows why such brilliant writing is turned down. And I wish there were no barriers of language, so that I could recommend it to everyone, everywhere.


From My Photo Album

This picture is taken sometime in the mid-70´s, on a trip to Austria and possibly Italy. I was perhaps 9, 10, 11 and I don´t remember taking it exactly, but I have always had a strong sense of ownership and I have always like it very much. (And it doesn´t really look like something my mother would have taken, so I assume it is mine, though I wonder if I had a camera of my own at that time.) I remember being proud and thinking it looked pretty enough to be a postcard, except that there was our car in the middle of it!

This photo is, for me, the ur-photo, the beginning of my fascination with photography and the reason I enjoy it so much today.


Russell&Holmes - once again

So, "Garment of Shadows" by Laurie R King. I didn´t mean it to happen that way, but this story takes place relatively close to where I was when I started reading it. Not terribly far beyond those surfers on the picture, about 100 kilometers or so, is Western Sahara. And just a few days before Christmas in 1924, that is where Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes find themselves.

Russell is starring in Fflytte Films´ new movie, "The Pirate Queen", and having had enough of film crews, Holmes decides to to walkabouting, brushing up on his Arabic, and visiting a distant cousin who happens to live in Fez. When he returns, he finds that Russell has gone missing. She has walked straight out into the desert, at the hand of a small boy.

He immediately starts looking for her, and when he finds her, she is in pretty bad shape. Not only is she beat up, but she can´t remember where she has been, who he is, or even who she is. As it happens, Holmes´ cousin is also the Resident-General in Morocco, Hubert Lyautey. And it turns out some of the answers have to do with him, as well as a Berber rebel leader from the Rif, Abd el-Krim. King mixes fact and fiction, and gives a pretty thorough history lesson of the area, which I appreciate.

The story isn´t particularly complicated this time, but rather it´s the three driving characters who give the plot its complexity. There is, lurking deep in the shadows and far away in London, the Brain of Britain, Mycroft Holmes. As ever. And there are the operatives, the Hazr brothers (no prizes for guessing they would be mixed up in this). They are loyal to the British crown, but they are also far away from it´s soil, and while being useful and resourceful, they are also independent thinkers, who are beginning to redefine what that loyalty is about. Much like Russell herself.

I enjoyed this book, as I always enjoy another Russell&Holmes story. I heartily recommend it, and hope there will be more of them. A quick look at King´s blog, suggests there is a new book coming, a sequel to "Touchstone", a novel I took home from the library some months ago, but never got to reading. Might have to go find it again. And then there is this. Oh my !!!! - the world is just too full of books I want to read!


Flight From Hell

I´m pretty well below my normal energy levels, still on the third week struggling with congestion and coughing. I finished my wonderful cough syrup (they say it´s got morphine in it, which sounds somehow beneficial to me right now), but I have noticed that a substantial glass of vodka before bed pretty much does the trick as well. I have learned that sleep promotes healing, and being an astmatic, my colds usually last a lot longer than most people´s.

Anyway, I thought I´d pull myself together and write something about "Garment of Shadows" by Laurie R King, my second vacation read. I didn´t finish it while on Fuerteventura, and it´s very good luck that I managed to finish it at all. I was reading it on the plane home you see, and that was decidedly the worst flying experience of my life. It was actually worse than when one of the engines broke down over Italy and we had to do an emergency landing in Rome, in terms of my personal discomfort.

Husband playing with his new Iphone is the reason for this photo.
I was sitting in the middle seat, with my husband to my right, by the window, and a very fashionable young lady to my left. Because my throat hurt pretty badly, my husband talked me into indulging in some alcoholic beverages, something I don´t normally do. So I started with a G&T, and after dinner I procedeed with an Irish Cream. Which I managed to tip straight into my lap. All over my e-book-reader. It´s not much in those small bottles, but it somehow becomes more when it´s smeared all over you. In the process, my waterbottle fell to the floor, and the kind lady got up to help me retrieve it. And as she did, her own glass of G&T tipped into her seat, creating Lake Tonic there. I wasn´t even near the glass, but of course I was totally to blame. It took most of my paper handkerchiefs to dry out her seat, the attendants came with a blanket for her and I really think that in the end she, and her elegant clothes, were pretty much unscathed. I offered her another drink, but she politely declined.

After that, my husband´s waterbottle fell to the floor. It rolled in far under his seat and gingerly, I folded myself (no doubt while the pretty lady held on firmly to everything) down and with a bit of an effort managed to get it out, while giving my ribs a not inconsiderable squeeze. "I think I cracked a rib there", I said as I came up with the runaway bottle. "No", said my husband, "you broke my plastic glass against the seat in front of me. With your skull." I even think I heard an ungreatful sigh when he said this, so I returned to my reading (it had taken all my wet tissues to clean the e-book-reader from the syrupy stuff).

And having done so is probably the reason I could finish it at all. This press-action while the keyboard was still damp kept the keys I need for basic reading moveable. Unlike the rest of the keyboard, which is now completely glued stuck. "It´s the capillary action", said my husband. "I thought that might happen."

And as if that wasn´t enough, when the two male flight attendants came to collect payment for the taxfree wares, one of them dropped the credit card reader (you know what they are like, the size and weight of old 80´s car phones) on the head of an elderly lady two rows in front of us. You know how babies often scream when you go in for landing and their ears hurt? That´s what she sounded like. Shocked, hurt, angry. The attendants didn´t handle it well either, as far as we could see. And the girl in the seat in front of me was generally terrified of flying, being soothed by her father and boyfriend on either side of her, and her mother kept looking on worriedly from the other side of the aisle. I was so relieved to step off that plane.

And having told you that story, I am too tired to write about the book. Will put that off until tomorrow.


Summer Nostalgia

A commenter asked me about the labyrinth on the sand dunes of Fuerteventura, and it reminded me of another labyrinth, on another beach. Now, it´s buried in feet of snow, but here are some pictures of what has been summers past and what will be again in another six months. I give you Sandön (Sand Island) and Sandgrönnorna (The Sand Reefs), summer of 2010, in the Luleå archipelago, where the sun (almost) always shines!

The Marina at Klubbviken, a popular spot for boat people and daytrippers, like us.
You don´t need to bring a picknick, there is a good restaurant here. I always have fried herring and mashed new potatoes.

Follow this path...

... end up here. (I sometimes give the camera to my husband, to prove I was there, too.)

It´s shallow here, and you can walk far just pulling your skirt or pants up a bit.

Strandvial   La´thyrus mari´timus
And you know you are in Lapland...

... when the reindeer come by.
Home-made labyrinth.

Tall   Pi´nus silve´stris

This strait is man-made. It used to be a beach with sweet river water on one side and salty sea water on the other.

One weekend a year one can visit Sandgrönnorna, due to bird protection regulations.
There is no natural harbour, you must run the ship aground.

We joined a twitching tour that started in the rain, but it soon cleared up.

The only picture my husband managed to take of a rare eagle-ish type bird. I didn´t even try...

Murder in lala-land

For a week on a lounger, it is necessary to bring a proper detective story. I brought two, and one of them I finished while still under the palmtrees. Jason Goodwin, historian and Byzantine specialist, has written four volumes so far in a series about the eunuch Yashim, and this is the third, "The Bellini Card". I chose it after seeing Goodwin appear in a documentary on Swedish television only a week or so before Christmas, about Topkapi Palace, the old residence of the Sultans. The library had it, and so I packed it.

I just searched my own blog, to see what I had written about the other two, but I can´t find that I have written about this author before. It doesn´t seem that long ago that I read him, but it must be pre-blog, I presume. It really, really doesn´t feel that long. Probably because Yashim and the stories of Istanbul in the 1800´s made an impression on me, and is very much alive in my memory. I have read better books than Goodwin´s last year, that I can hardly remember at all, so there you are: quality and impact is not necessarily linked.

Yashim is not the kind of eunuch you might think of, when you think of a sultan´s palace. He is not fat, soft-skinned, or squeeky-voiced. He was already a young man, well into puberty, when enemies of his father killed his mother and kastrated him. After that, he was sent to the Ottoman Sultan´s court, to be educated and given a place in life. And he has worked for the Sultan since, doing "special services" suited to his talent of being "invisible" and really, really clever. He is like the Sultan´s own James Bond, when he needs to be. When he doesn´t, he is a quiet and peaceful man, mostly interested in cooking. He is such a foodie that he can´t even go on a dangerous mission, without stopping somewhere to make a pilaff or a moussaka. He uses his cooking knife for a weapon, even.

This time, the new, young Sultan wants a painting. This painting, a portrait of a legendary ancestor, is supposedly for sale in Venice. However, an advisor of the Sultan, a pasha, tells Yashim to lay low, that the Sultan is young, inexperienced and that some of his wishes are "like water". Yashim decides to send his best friend, the Polish ambassador Palewski, who is itching to get away from Istanbul for a while (the background story of Palewski is very interesting), to see if the painting can be acquired. He goes disguised as an American art collector, Mr Brett.

Of course, Venitian art dealers turn up dead in the canals of Venice, and Yashim has to come sort things out. And cook a meal. He meets some interesting characters on the way, does some fighting, beds a woman (I know, who would´ve thought - he is a eunuch, isn´t he?) solves the riddle, and in the process the reader has learned quite a few interesting things about Venice´s history.

The one thing that bugs me just a little bit has to do with the tempo. The action scenes just doesn´t feel right in all of this. Yashim is more of a Poirot than a Bond, but Goodwin makes him both. Ok, there is a second thing that isn´t quite ... and that is the sex. Yashim has a very androgynous feel to him, he is considered sexless in Istanbul, and perhaps all that cooking and history also contributes to that. He is called Yashim lala, sort of like "uncle", which is what the eunuchs were called, who had access to the harem, the women´s house, and the Sultan´s private quarters. I can´t really see him make love to... but that would be to spoil it for you. My objections are small, after all, Goodwin is certainly not the only writer who writes crappy sex scenes for no reason at all. And maybe these odd bits that stand out are what makes him so particularly memorable.

The books about Yashim are special. The hero is special, the milieu is special, the plots are well thought out. There is more brain than heart in these books, but what do you expect from an academic? And sometimes (perhaps most of the time), that is just what I want. And I´m not the only one. This series is translated into almost 40 languages.


Holiday Hangover

So, we´re back from Christmas&NewYears vacation, a bit wobbly on our feet. How did we use to do this again? Work? Make our own food? Shovel all the snow from our parking space? Make our own beds? (No, just kidding - I haven´t done that since I moved away from my parent´s house...) We ease our way in to regular life, using restaurants and canned food. I do have ambitions (not resolutions) for the new year, but first I want to regain all my strength. I caught a bug in Spain, and have been a bit under the weather during the first week of the year. I´m not entirely myself yet, but getting there.

I can´t really collect my thoughts to write anything intelligent about my holiday reading, but I will share some snaps of the holiday itself. What we wanted was a rest, nothing more, and there is this hotel, Barceló Corralejo Bay, in Corralejo, Fuerteventura, that I visited with my mother-in-law almost three years ago, in March 2010. Half-board, pretty pools, a pool bar, a lounge bar, a spa, every service you can think of. And still not tiringly posh. The dresscode, "elegant for dinner" just means that gentlemen will not be admitted wearing shorts and/or vests.

I can´t say that I was disappointed, but the level of quality wasn´t the same. The profile chef from before was nowhere to be seen this time, and the buffet wasn´t quite as creative as it used to be. The rooms were clean but the sheets and towels worn threadbare. The daily cleaning wasn´t as ambitious as before. There was staff everywhere, all the time, but the same faces both morning and evening, so I imagine those who do work in Spain, work a lot. You can also see a lot of shops in town having closed, a lot of abandoned building projects, a lot of emptied hotels falling apart from neglect. And a lot of luxury villas and flats for sale. The promenade along the strand and harbour facing Lanzarote wasn´t as upkept as it used to be. A folly we used to walk to had been torn down. Of course I knew what state Spain is in, I have seen enough of reports about it on the news. But so evident a change in financial fortune, it was disheartening to see. I hope things will improve.

However, none of this affected the quality of our holiday. We were there to rest, and we did. Reading, or just being, by the pool, on the balcony, in the lounge, in a café. The longest walk we took was to the national park, Las Dunas, where we had lunch one day. It is made up from sand blown in from the Sahara. The African coast is actually only 90 kilometers away from Fuerteventura. So, Spain, but not really Spain. Geographically, we are in Africa. This beach is one of many popular among the surfing crowd.

There is quite a lot to see on Fuerteventura if you have a car, and we made the tour in 2003, when we came to visit the in-laws, who spent several winters in Spain and two in Corralejo. It´s mainly desert, a lot of volcanos, very windy. Lots of wild goats and rabbits. At first I thought it was ugly, but after a few days I started to see the beauty of it. It was like a proper revelation during a drive, like the landscape just opened up to me and what had been this rocky sameness suddenly filled with colour and diversity. 

The harbour and the ferry to Lanzarote.

Sand art: Nativity Scene. A truly gifted artist!

Killer cat

I think Fuerteventura has to be my favourite Canary Island. The perfect place to go when you just want to wind down and kick your feet in the sand. I wouldn´t have minded two weeks. But more than that - I don´t think so. If you want to stay longer you need a real project, at least if you´re like me.

And I´m not sorry to be home again, working. That is my life, after all.