Saturday, 30 July 2011

Blog compulsion

"You haven't blogged for over a week", Staffan says. Yes, I know. Luckily, I have never committed myself to regular blogging so I don't go around tortured by anguish. I blog when I feel I have something to say. I have a line-up of topics in my mind: why Moll Flanders is a great novel (and not at all how you may remember it), and what a Dean is in Cambridge as opposed to everywhere else, and how much you learn about the history of shoes when making a roombox. However, the recent events in Norway have rendered me dumb. To blog about them is impossible because there are no words to describe my feelings. To blog about anything else is still more impossible and highly disrespectful. Yet I know that we will eventually "get over it" as we got over Estonia, 9-11, tsunami. Not in the sense of forgetting, not in the sense of going back to normal, because you can never go back to normal after a tragedy, whether large or small. But many people have repeated, in connection with all those horrors, that the best thing we survivors can do is to go on living and thus honour the dead. Not to allow fear dominate our existence. To raise our children, to produce great art (to everyone's ability), to tend our relationships, to go on being human.

So, My Dear Reader (if there is such a thing), just give me some time, I'll be back.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

My further love affair with Kindle

I have now lived with a Kindle for six weeks. In my previous post, with the novelty of experience, I claimed that Kindle was just a book. I now know better.

It is certainly a neverending book, which was very practical while on travel. No problem with finishing a novel right in the middle of a transatlantic flight. Don't even have to open the overhead bin to take out another book of the huge portable library. Just browse through the e-library downloaded in the little thing and decide whether it's Mill on the Floss or Jude the Obscure next. I wonder how I've missed all these great books - me with my English degree. But I know I wouldn't have appreciated them so much when I was seventeen. Anyway, I would probably not have bought them all in printed versions and denied myself a great pleasure.

I have also discovered that Kindle is very convenient at the hairdresser's, instead of the silly glossy magazines. 

When I read the Kindle manual, I was quite skeptical about the numerous options: highlight, take notes, look up words in a dictionary. But it so happened that I am writing an essay about a book which I read last year, didn't like and gave away. I am writing about it because it felt very good for my purpose. I tried to figure out whom I gave my copy to, but after the first three close associates denied it, I gave up. I bought a new copy - for Kindle. While I was at it, I decided to try all those wonderful options. Highly recommended for academic purposes. Everything I used to do with pencil and Post-Its, scribbles in the margins, exclamations marks - I can do with the Kindle copy. I highlight a quotation, and I can write a memo note or a comment. Then I can go through them all quickly. I can copy and paste quotes directly into my own text. Unfortunately, Kindle doesn't have the correct pagination. I believe that it will be a recurrent issue in future academic publications.

Now that I know how clever my Kindle is, I may try some other functions. I may even finally learn to look up words in a dictionary.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Immortal classics

Am I the only one among friends and colleagues who is not re-reading, re-watching, re-living - and mourning the wonderful years that are over now? I don't want to sound like a snob but I honestly don't understand what it is all about. Come on, folks, the stories are not over after a movie opening! They will be there forever, or at least as long as there are readers who are interested enough, and that's something nobody can predict.

I cannot imagine similar laments when The Last Battle was published. It was just the beginning of a new story. And as promised, new stories came and will always be coming, and some of the old ones will stay and some will perish and some will be rediscovered. For some readers, Harry Potter will always have been around, just as for me Alice in Wonderland has always been around. But I don't mourn that Carroll is dead and will not write more Alice. Other people have done this after his death, both More Alice, and Automated Alice and Digital Alice, you name it. There will be more Tim Burtons to make new movies.

And Harry Potter will be forgotten or remembered, and there will be new generations of readers who have never read Harry Potter, and there will be people who have lived and died without having read or watched Harry Potter, and there will be people who start reading Harry Potter and don't know now it ends, and there will be people paying fancy prices for first editions (I have some), and there will be readers saying that Tolkien and C S Lewis pinched all their ideas from Harry Potter, and there will be critics putting Harry Potter in footnotes as a minor text from the turn of the century, only of interest as a context for Skellig.

Mind, I have written extensively on Harry Potter, and I re-read the first six volumes when the final one was about to be released, but only because I had an essay to revise urgently, taking the last novel into consideration. I think I have seen the first three movies - they are all mixed up in my memory. I have taught a whole course on Harry Potter several times, and I always re-read books that I teach. I may re-read them all again at some point, and I may even watch the new movie when it's available on DVD.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Away at home

Today I hosted an awayday once again. An awayday, as I learned exactly three years ago, is a whole-day meeting with a particular group or research team, removed from the regular environment, preferably to a ambient place with good food. Three years ago, before I was formally hired, I attended an awayday with my future academic group, getting to know the people and learning the ways and the jargon. The meeting was at a colleague's place, with everybody bringing a dish to share. A year later, when the group was discussing the imminent awayday, somehow everybody looked at me. We had just bought the house and had a housewarming party, so everybody knew I had room for twenty people. I had no other way than to agree. To be professional, I borrowed a flip chart and a projector from the Faculty. No problem with the projector, but the d-d flip chart was heavy! Last year we had not spent all our money and could afford a proper awayday at Madingley Hall which is a posh conference centre where you really feel away from the everyday.

This year we have successfully used up our budget and couldn't go to Madingley or anything extravagant, and at the meeting when we planned the awayday everybody looked at me. I said I would do it, but could we please use catering. It is a bit too much to be a hostess and chair a meeting at the same time. You get torn between the projector and the coffee pot. Everybody seemed to have agreed, but in some mysterious way it still ended up with everybody bringing a dish, which of course was much better than any catering can provide. I borrowed a projector, but skipped the flip chart.

The thing is that while everybody enjoyed the awayday, I wasn't away. I was at home.

Friday, 8 July 2011


So now I have been to the Amazon. It was my ultimate dream, what shall I do now? There are things I would like to do, but know that I can't, like a cruise to Antarktis (they are expensive, but not tremendously expensive; however, I get seasick, so we can forget it). Of all the wonders of the civilised world, I'd like to see the Pyramids, but it doesn't feel the right time now. Maybe, at some point. Of the many wonders of the natural world - yes, there are many, but nothing that I can't get off my mind, like I had with the Amazon. I mean, something that I tell myself I need to see before I die.

I hope to live some years still, but if I take one long trip every year, there are not that many left (and I have promised never to travel again). What are my priorities? Do I have any?

I am reading all these clever books about the philosophy of time that argue that there is neither the past nor the future, just the present; which I have always said, without reading clever books. Does it mean that the Amazon does not exist, has never existed, been a dream, is a dream? Yes, I know it's all quite pointless.

Yet I feel a huge emptiness and sorrow. I know I will soon fill it with something new, but right now I feel a weird kind of disappointment: it's over, this big huge enormous dream that was so wonderful that I really have no words to describe it, but would so much like to. But, as all dreams, when you wake up, it's gone.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Separation anxiety

Most of the world's children's literature scholars are these days in Brisbane, for the biennial conference of IRSCL, the International Research Society for Children's Literature. I am not there because it's too far away, too expensive and too close to my travel to Brazil. I am disappointed that I am not there because I feel strong bonds with this organisation.

I learned about it in mid-'70s when I was writing my first reviews and articles on children's literature. There was a short report from a conference in the Russian professional journal. IRSCL was a magical word that opened Aladdin's caves of children's literature. I knew some people who knew other people who had attended the conference. Then suddenly, in 1981, the conference was in Moscow. I couldn't even dream of participating, but I offered my services as an interpreter. I was the only interpreter at this conference who was interested in children's literature, all the others saw it as just another conference topic, somewhere between biochemistry and political economy.

Then I moved to Sweden, and everything became possible. I became a member and started attending conferences, all of them from 1983 to 1999. In 1991 I became a board member, in 1993 I was elected President, and in 1995 I ran a conference in Stockholm. I invested a lot of time and energy in this organisation. I am happy to see it thriving, but I am upset that I have lost touch with it. It's not my fault. It just so happened. In 2001, I missed it because it was right after we had moved back home from California. A trip to South Africa didn't look too attractive at the moment. And then, for many long years, I couldn't travel at all. One time, I was registered and had paid the fees and bought tickets, but had to cancel at short notice.

Two years ago I went for a nostalgic IRSCL conference in Frankfurt. I think I knew already then that I wouldn't be going to Australia.

I am looking at the conference programme and see many familiar names. I also see many, many unfamiliar names, and I am happy that so many new people from so many contries have discovered the joys of children's literature scholarship.

I am a bit sad.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Travel emergencies

There is a happy subspecies of homo sapiens that has never experienced travel sickness. I am talking Travel Sickness, not just occasional dizziness or nausea; sickness that knocks you out and stays for weeks, that comes unexpectedly and unpredictably, that is humiliating and excruciatingly painful. If you are now wondering: "What is she talking about?", you belong to that happy subspecies.

When I was a child, nobody took it seriously; it was rather a norm that children were travelsick. However, my mother had it too, and so it was harder to dismiss. Then somebody brought a magical remedy from abroad, and for some years we both travelled without problems. But as I said, unexpectedly and unpredictably; nothing to do with turbulence and independent of what I have eaten, of whether I have slept well, of whether I take medication or not, of whether the travel takes half an hour or thirty hours. I can get sick on planes, trains, buses, boats and merry-go-rounds. The latter I have eventually learned to avoid, but for the rest the alternative is never to leave home, and it is a professional handicap, if not otherwise.  

At one point I went through a thorough examination by Sweden's (and world's) leading expert on MdDS, which spells out as mal de debarquement syndrome. They rolled and swayed and centrifuged me, pumped hot and cold water into my ears, gave me injections to cause motion sickness and measure it, and concluded that there was nothing wrong with me. That was extremely helpful.

About eight years ago I had to cancel all commitments involving travel. I missed conferences, guest lectures and many other interesting events. Some of these I had to cancel at short notice, jeopardizing my reputation. I thought I would never be able to travel again. Fortunately, it's a bit like childbirth: if you remember the horror, you'd never do it again. So I started to travel again, with varying results and thus high risk-taking. My calculation shows that one of ten trips is a catastrophe. Take it or leave it. And the flight from Manaus happened to be that one of ten.

Staffan has seen me in my worst shape several times, but each time he is reluctant to believe me - which I fully understand as his survival strategy. So when I told him, direct after landing in Sao Paulo, that nothing could make me board another plane, his reaction was: "But the cat can die!" I was too feeble to reply: "So you'd rather I should die?" But I was strong enough to act - thinking back, I admire myself. As I was leaving the plane, crawling more than walking, I told the radiantly smiling flight attendant that I needed a doctor. She obvioulsy wasn't prepared for such an outrageous request, but told me there was medical help available in the terminal. The bus from the plane to the terminal took ages, but as soon as we were inside I attacked the first uniformed man I saw. Presumably, Portuguese for doctor is doctor, since he understood that much, conjured a wheelchair and raced through the terminal, with Staffan in tow. Imagine, first time ever I had a ride in a wheelchair and I couldn't even enhoy it.

In the Emergency room, nobody spoke any English. My general message was: "I cannot travel" (our flight was leaving in two hours), but it didn't quite come across. However, the male nurse did the reasonable things you do with someone coming to Emergency: took my temperature, pulse and blood pressure. After that, all those present, including the airline representative, talked to each other in great agitation, and the message they managed to get across to Staffan and me was: "You cannot travel". At least we were in agreement on one point. They didn't care about my travel sickness, but they were seriously concerned about my blood pressure. Somehow, I think there was a connection.

They put me on a drip, all the time talking cheerfully in Portuguese. The airline representative explained in broken English that our luggage would be taken off the flight, that she would book us for the next day (did I think I would be able to travel then?), and that as soon as I had rested, they would transport us to a hotel with meal vouchers and free intercontinental phone calls. I wish I could enjoy the hospitality. Staffan said the food was good, and they didn't even charge him for whisky.

Twenty-four hours later I still felt rotten, but since I couldn't stay in Brazil for the rest of my life (although it was tempting), I boarded the plane, took a double doze of sleeping pills and woke up an hour before landing at Heathrow at 3pm local time. The long travel by underground and train to Cambridge was child's play.

Moral? Obviously, I should never travel again. Unfortunately, I happen to live on a island, so wherever I want to go I need to take a plane, a boat or a superspeed train. So I guess I am stuck. Friends and relatives will have to come here to visit. I WILL NEVER TRAVEL AGAIN. (Let's see how long it lasts).