Monday, November 24, 2008

Astounding amounts of snow

We're snowed in here in Uppsala today! It's been snowing for pretty much two days straight, and is set to continue into tomorrow, apparently. I had to wait 20 minutes for the bus after work this evening, but since I have good new boots and it wasn't that cold I just stood there and surrendered to the beauty of the falling flakes. Because snow, when it isn't blowing straight and hard onto your face and down inside your collar, is so spectacular you can't help but be mesmerised by it. Everything is white and so pristine, and everything is quiet, because the traffic sounds are muffled. It's wonderful. Especially if you opt not to cycle. If I cycled in this weather I'd be writing an incoherent blog entry about whom to kill on the snow-clearing team, I'm afraid.

So snow snow snow - and how is this related to reading? Well, for one thing I did not read the paper at work today, because it never came. More to the point, as I stood waiting for the bus I pondered on all the books featuring snow that I have or have not read, and I realised that the category for not read contains some embarrasing lapses. I have not read Laura Ingalls Wilder. Mostly because I had a home-language teacher who made me read it when I was too young to care, so I went off it. I really must remedy that, because I read this interesting article (probably in The Believer...) about L.I.W. and how she actually wrote very critically of the white expansion into Native land. Nor have I read Vilhelm Moberg's Utvandrarna and Invandrarna, which I know contains a blizzard episode, in which the father kills an animal to save his child (he sticks the boy inside the animal's gut so he won't die while he gets help). And that is embarrassing, that I haven't read it, I mean. But I saw bits of the TV series as a child and it just seemed so depressing. On the read side is the quite recently enjoyed Ursula K. Leguin novel about the planet Winter, and also Jean M Auel's Ayla series. Sorry, Children of the Earth or something she calls it. Lot of snow during the Ice Age... Oh, and of course Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, which I have read in Swedish. A very memorable book (not a very good film). I regularly remember little snippets from it, like how Smilla the child stuffs biscuits into her mouth to defy her father, or how Smilla the adult wears soft leather trousers with a silk lining, even though the stitches of such a lining is too fragile, really.

And also, one is inevitably reminded of Mma Ramotswe. Because in Mma Ramotswe's Botswana at least one of the cars passing me at the bus stop would have pulled over to offer me a lift.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What I got from Ireland basically....

Our trip to Ireland generated me two books – one a gift from my cousin, the other a tip from same cousin that my husband, upon our return, went out and bought for me as a surprise. I am very pleased with this result and total number of two, albeit a little surprised, since I had assumed I was going to wander into a second-hand bookshop and find 13 Ngaio Marsh novels that I hadn’t read and the elusive E.C. Bentley I’m sort of actively looking for. Sadly such shops were thin on the ground – a quick peek into Wexford Oxfam revealed nothing but some John Le Carré and Danielle Steel and the like. Oh, and don’t remember if those were the precise authors, I just remember an impression of large-ish hardbacks with big bold (slightly raised) lettering. Anyway, it’s just as well, since our packing was FULL – the less said about the disaster that was our packing on the way home, the better. Just a little tip from me to you: even a small box of cereals is quite bulky. Why cereals, you ask…. but don’t. Just don’t. They do make much less sense than the three boxes of fig rolls.

Back to the books. My cousin gave me An Interpretation of Murder by Jeb Rubenfeld, a book she herself had read and thought I’d like – which is a bit wonderful in itself, since we’d lost touch a bit these past ohmygod fifteen years! yet she still managed to know me and get me something I would definitely have gone for myself, if not in the book shop at least in the library. An Interpretation of Murder attempts to solve the riddle of why Freud hated the US so much despite the fact that his visit in 1909 was so immensely successful. What could have caused such strong feelings of antipathy? The author has drawn upon real historical characters, invented a few fictional ones and stage-set the whole story in New York society. Does this remind us of the recently read The Blackest Bird? Why yes it does. Historical – check, criminal – check, New York – check and so on. As a matter of fact, the authors use the same trick of drawing upon actual quotes from their famous historical figures (Edgar Allan Poe and Freud, respectively) to make up their dialogue in the novels. However, Rubenfeld manages much better than Joel Rose in my opinion. In The Blackest Bird Poe’s lines felt disjointed from the rest of the book, while here it all flows rather well. That said, the novel has other problems. It shifts between different perspectives, the third-person spectator and the first-person diary-like account, but the result isn’t brilliant. The trouble is, in my view, that the writing is a little flat. This is no great problem in the first-person account, since I think it adds credibility to the diary-style. People don’t write florid and/or well-balanced prose in their diaries, generally. Not even authors. In the third-person narrative this becomes a bit slow and disappointing however. Another problem is that the author appears to have gotten carried away imagining how much money he could make from selling the film rights to his novel – or possibly he was watching too many historical action films (a genre to itself, and probably one that actually has a different name, but I trust you understand me) while writing it. Towards the end the main characters start cracking one-liners while facing imminent death. I found it distracting and annoying. And on the whole I suppose I just wasn’t taken with any of the characters in a deeper sense. None of them were sketched well enough for me to feel like they were real people, and so I didn’t care what happened to them. Which is a shame, because it’s quite a good story, with a fun premise, and Freud himself is not badly done. It just needed a better editor maybe, or a séjour inside a locked drawer for a few years, as Zadie Smith would recommend. Summary: alright, but not very memorable. Memorable enough for me to maybe read the author’s next one though.

The recommended novel then was The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist. I had, of course, not heard of this at all, despite there apparently being quite some hype over it and a not insubstantial bit of buzz. The reason for my ignorance is probably the limited time I can spend online these days – news of a book like this would normally have reached me via one of the forums I frequent. (Note to self: do a search on one and see if there is indeed a discussion in progress…) Always on the lookout for good, new, original fantasy I immediately got my hopes up when I saw the book – not only is the title wonderfully evocative, but so is the cover. Very promising! (Note to self II: start putting pictures in your blog. Really.) The story is set in a large city, sort of London but not quite. We are thrown right into the middle of the action when our heroine Miss Temple, an island colonial sent “home” to make a good match, follows the fiancé who jilted her. Much to her surprise she ends up in an enormous house in the country, where a huge fancy dress party appears to be taking place, and where none of the guests seem to know one another. She brazens herself in by pretending she belongs, and is assumed to be one of the women scheduled to undergo some odd and sinister procedure that is the centre of the whole arrangement. She narrowly escapes death, and in the next two parts we make the acquaintance of the two heroes, one after the other: Dr. Svenson, care-taker of a dim and lecherous German prince, and Cardinal Chang, an assassin. Both these men were also at the house when Miss Temple was there. The first part of the novel then is told from these three perspectives, all leading up to the moment when we know they must meet and work together. It’s packed with action right from the start, one of the blurbs on the cover says something about a rollicking ride, and it very much is. It’s also full of sex and silk, Victorian emotion and violence and an awful lot of villains and secondary characters.... for a good while I go for it and feel well entertained, until two things start to grate at me: one, the over-use of the verb “to scoff”. There are limits to how much people can scoff in one chapter, and Dahlquist ignores them. Grave mistake, possibly the editor's fault. Two, again we have the “I want this to be a film” problem. Or rather, after one third I started getting that same feeling I get when I read graphic novels. I don’t understand graphic novels, you see. I must just not be visual enough to “read” the pictures, and added to that is the annoying habit graphic novelists have of emphasising words by bolding them. “How I wish that Wolverine/Spiderman/Morpheus could find happiness… [new frame, sound effect swisch as character jumps over wall/building/tree] …. But I suppose a hero has to be alone… [new frame, close-up of eye of person thinking the lines] … so he won’t get hurt [final frame, character lands with a thunk].” It drives me around the bend. I read those bolded words with very heavy emphasis, as though someone was SHOUTING THEM and it completely breaks my reading flow. Anyway, Dahlquist slips into this habit of inverting certain words or phrases, and when you add to this the extremely detailed description of the surroundings and clothes and looks I suddenly realised I was reading a graphic novel in text, or... OR... one of those cartoon-like plans film directors make when planning a film. So I Wikipedia Dahlquist, and confirm my suspicions: he is indeed a playwright and filmmaker. Experimental filmmaker. Ha. Well, he needs to change his style a bit of he wants to write really good books, let me tell you. Towards the end I was tired and skimming the pages to reach the end, my eyes just glancing off the bloodbath unfolding on the paper in front of me.

Naturally, I'm going to read the next one. I'm hoping there's stricter editing, and that the plots will be less convoluted and confusing, but I'd definitely give The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters a ten for effort, not many writers have the imagination to create something that feels as new as this. Fingers crossed for improvement!

Monday, November 10, 2008


The week before Halloween we went to Ireland for a lovely but rather emotional visit. When I was little the drill was that summer holidays were spent in Ireland every other year, and with my paternal grandparents in Värmland the “other” years. This was so we’d have two years to save up for the holidays. After my mother died we went more often, even for Christmas. Since I was 17, however, I hadn’t been. Lack of money and time, basically (when there was time there was no money and vice versa). Now my sister and her family have moved there and we simply HAD to go somehow. The planned summer visit was spoiled by me working. However, it turned out that her kids were on holiday as well as mine, we found a cheap flight and so we took the chance. I’m delighted that we went. The visit was much too short for someone who has been away for more than 15 years, but better a short visit than none.

I wasn’t really able to allow myself to get emotional there (didn’t want to scare the kids) nor am I able to let it all out at home (yet), but it felt very sad suddenly to be living so far away from my sister and her family. Not that it’s far. Not like Australia or Namibia or Easter Island. But still. My nephew and niece are growing so big, and we’re not around. And they’ll never be as close to our youngest as they are to our elder daughters. It feels strange, even though I’m so pleased for them all, they seem to be doing so well. And there have been so many changes! My grandmother’s house looks the same from the outside, but inside it’s completely different. The rooms aren’t even in the same place. While part of me is unbothered by the differences (after all, change is inevitable), another part of me feels childishly upset.

Added to this is the death and funeral of a beloved aunt. She was my aunt by marriage, but you know how with some people it never feels like there’s a difference? Well, that’s what it was like with her. She was one of the warmest, kindest, most genuine people I have ever known. My heart breaks for her sons, my cousins, and for their children. She loved her grandchildren so much, and it feels so terribly terribly unfair that the youngest will never know her. As for myself, I am being eaten up by regrets that I never spent more time with her. It doesn’t help knowing that a lot of that is due to my own low self-esteem, that never allows me to think that other people really might enjoy my company – instead I keep away, so as not to disturb them. I’ve missed all those chances to talk to her. The last few years when I knew she was sick I found it especially difficult, because I was so afraid. It’s weakness, and I’m ashamed of it. I hope that she knew, or knows, that I loved her very much, that I am grateful for everything she did for me, and that I’m so so sorry. She loved literature too, and this spring she had sent me an invitation to join a sort of chain mail paperback swap that is all the rage here. You send a book to the person at the top of the list, and invite six friends to join, the idea being that you’ll end up with 36 books. I joined as a way to try to tell her I cared, but I should have rung and talked to her properly instead. I hope she received some books out of the swap, and I hope she enjoyed them. I feel so much guilt, and guilt is so useless unless you channel it. I hope I can channel this into learning to stay close to the people I love.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Michael Crichton is dead.

Something I find more sad than I would have thought. R.I.P. I've only blogged about one of his books, which surprises me. I'd also forgotten that the one I'd blogged about was Airframe - I thought it was Timeline, which is not very good at all compared to some others, so I was all set to write a blog entry now saying that I was sorry I'd only blogged about the bad novel. However, Airframe is one of the good ones, though not among the best-known (i.e. filmed, as far as I know anyway). I've also read (this list will serve sort of as an homage I suppose...): Sphere, Congo, Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Eaters of the Dead and The Terminal Man. If you've only seen the films of any of his books - try reading one instead, because they're quite different in tone. It's entertainment, but often of the kind that would spark a discussion.