Friday, 31 December 2010

Happy New Year

I have written a long New Year post about all my past New Years, and I have deleted it because it became unbearably sentimental. I can just mention that on the millennium eve, I was in bed with flu, and there was the worst rainstorm in San Diego thet people remembered.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

'Tis the voice of a lobster

I don't even remember when I did it first time, but it must be well before San Diego (our lives are divided into before and after San Diego). I tasted my first lobster thermidor in Spain in January 1988, just after I had submitted my PhD and needed a break. So somewhere between then and 1999 I took the challenge and tried to cook a thermidor in my own kitchen. I have since then tried to do it after a recipe from the net - a waste of time. You must find a recipe from a good French cookbook and let it take the time it takes. Once you've tried it you will never accept any shortcuts.

It does take a long time because you have to make all the steps in right order and exactly the way it is described. You cannot just put everything in a sausepan and mix. Well, you can, and that's what a recipe from the net will tell you to do. But the result will be accordingly. In San Diego, for Anton's birthday we took him for thermidor to a fish restaurant someone had recommended. Anton said my lobster was better, and he was right. I know you are not supposed to say so, but I have never had a lobster anywhere that was better than the one I make for every New Year Eve. Admittedly, it is different each New Year Eve, because I can never do it exactly the same.

When Anton stayed on in San Diego and I went to see him over Christmas, he asked me to cook my famous lobster for him and his foster family. He also invited some friends, so it was tons of lobster, and although cooking the sauce takes the same time whether you have one lobster or twelve, it's more time-consuming to take out the meat and press the red and the green through a sieve if you have twelve. Anton helped me, but it was in somebody else's kitchen, and I didn't know where things were and whether there was a pinch of this and that available that I would have had in my own kitchen. In the end it turned out that Anton's family wasn't at all fond of lobster, but one of his friends was. I will remember her forever. She made it worth while.

Anyway, I have prepared my at least fifteenth lobster thermidor, and it takes me less time each year not because I cheat but because I learn. But, as I say, no shortcuts. If the French cookbook says boil for five minutes and stir, this is what you do.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A less known book by a great author

The Arcadians by Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander has recently made a significant contribution to a rather demanding genre which can be called the pseudo-historical novel. Otherwise he is best known for his five volumes of Prydain Chronicles, fascinating high fantasy novels that develop the best of J. R. R. Tolkien's legacy. My special favorite is The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, another fantasy with deep philosophical undertones. After these Alexander has mostly written adventure-like books in a variety of pseudo-historical settings, also creating two unforgettable female characters, the Beggar Queen in the so-called Westmark trilogy, and the brave and independent Vesper Holly. Together with princess Eilonwy in the Prydain novels, these strong women have been praised as Lloyd Alexander's great contribution to the gender balance in adventure novels, traditionally based on masculine myths.

There is also a stubborn and strong-willed girl in Alexander's The Arcadians, which is inspired by Ancient literature, primarily Ovid. However, Alexander has always used his sources creatively, making his stories highly relevant for contemporary readers. The novel deals with betrayal and friendship, with power, oppression and liberation, with war and peace, and with women's equality. The action takes place in an imaginary country passing from matriarchy to the power of men.

Even though the plot may seem familiar, and the protagonist, bean counter Lucianus, is reminiscent of the Assistant Pigkeeper Taran in the Prydain novels, the book does not feel repetitive on Alexander's part. Rather a new and exciting construction has been built from the well-known building blocks. The exotic setting and the various mythic elements and figures have been woven into the narrative in a natural way. And the art of keeping the reader in suspense is something that Alexander has mastered to perfection. We know of course that the hero will win, but how? Alexander knows exactly when to put in a cliffhanger. Will Fronto ever become human again? Will Lucianus and his beloved be united?

The large and colorful character gallery is brilliant. Alexander is always marvelously ironic in all his books, and he almost always has a self-portrait; in this novel, we meet Fronto the poet, turned into a donkey without losing his poetic talent. Generally it is the warm humor and the witty dialogue that makes Alexander's novel into something more than merely an adventure.

Opsis Kalopsis 1995:1

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Yet another gone

Yet another of my beloved children's writers has died. Elisabeth Beresford was perhaps not one of those Really Great, or was she? I remember reading her Wombles books in Moscow in the 70s. It was behind the Iron Curtain, and I had no idea that the figures came from a television show. I had a vague notion of Wimbledon. The books were displayed at an exhibition arranged by the British Council, where many of my acquaintances with modern British children's literature started. The Wombles were lovely, and their adventures were so simple and so touching. It didn't have the poignance of Winnie the Pooh, but it had all the qualities of a good children's book, including the fact that it appealed to me, a grown-up, admittedly one interested in children's literature. By the time I came to the West, the Wombles were more or less gone. During my first professional visits to the UK, nobody recommended them to me. I don't even remember now whether I included them in my PhD (and I don't have the book at hand to check) because the Wombles were not magic, and they were neither animals nor toys, something in between. What are they, actually? Bears? Dogs?

I wonder what today's children would make of the Wombles. Children's books have become much more sophisticated. They have to be clever, postmodern, challenging. Yet there is still room for kind and fluffy stories like the Wombles. According to Amazon some of them have just been reprinted, and more to come in early 2011. Give a Womble to a child as a Twelfth-night gift!

Farewell to an old friend

I have just killed one of my darlings. I have taken down my homepage that I had since 1998. I started it when I was visiting chair in Finland, and the wonderful IT person they had offered to teach all of us in the project how to make a simple website. You had to write it in html then, but it was easy as long as you didn't want anything elaborate. My first website, containing five or six linked pages, was hosted on the university server, and I kept adding to it. It was quite remarkable then to have a personal webpage. So remarkable that when I moved to San Diego I was allowed to transfer it to their server. It was still remarkable enough when we moved back to Sweden and I asked the IT person to allow me to put it on the department server. I was the only one except the IT person who had access. At that time you could mess up the whole university web, but I was trusted not to. I was the only person in the department who had a homepage. Everybody thought I was showing off. I was by now using Dreamweaver. The site was still very unsophisticated in appearance, but full of content. Many people told me it was useful. I had a huge link collection: at that time searching the web was a lot more difficult than now, and I provided the students with links to good sites. I had my publications with links first to my own additional pages (I learned from the beginning not to overlaod individual pages), then to publisher sites. I had subject index to my own work so that anyone could easily find where I had written about Diana Wynne Jones or aetonormativity.

Then we moved to Cambridge, by which time a university server would not host a private homepage. I registered a domain and found a host. I had to change hosts because updating didn't work, and the first host had poor customer support. I get upset when things don't work, because I am a user, I don't know how to solve a problem. I postpone it in all eternity. I couldn't update the site for a long time, and a site that is not updated is dead. I had emails from people telling me that my links were broken. I spent hours trying to make things work. I knew how easy it was to use Blogger or something similar. Things have changed since I sat in Finland and wrote my html. (Once upon a time in Stone Age, I wrote my own database programs).

Farewell, my old faithful friend. Everything you did for me during these years can be done easier and aesthetically more appealing today. Who needs a link collection? Who needs course descriptions? My book reviews? My hobby pages? Everything is available elsewhere, everything is connected to everything else, and an old-fashioned homepage looks like a runic stone. Rest in peace.

Monday, 27 December 2010

This year

The label “This year” did not feature in the blog marathon, apparently because a year is too long a span of time for a young blogger to remember (I am being old and grumpy). This is just about the right time to sum up the year.

I have already proposed the book of the year, so I won't repeat it.
Film of the year (my year, not release year): The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Documentary of the year: Life of Birds
Theatre of the year: Macbeth at the Globe
Travel of the year: New York
Cathedral of the year: Exeter (although Ely is still my favourite)
Meal of the year: taster at Kosmos, Helsinki
Conference of the year: my own of course
Seminar of the year: Three takes on Hamlet
Publication of the year: a chapter in a volume on picturebooks
Triumph of the year: Jacqueline Wilson Award
Disappointment of the year: didn't get a million pounds from J K Rowling (didn't count on it)
Horror of the year: cat's illness (but she made it)
Flower of the year: late autumn dahlia
New acquaintance of the year: Jupiter through a telescope
Discovery of the year: pottery wheel in the Faculty art studio

A most satisfactory year in every respect.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

There are books after Christmas

Here is yet another old review. It is sad that so many wonderful books disappear so quickly. Do tell me if they are still read.

The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh

When a British colleague recommended to me to read a new children's series about animated dolls, I was rather skeptical. This motif seemed rather trivial. However, my reaction demonstrated the danger of preconceived opinions and the importance of judging books not by subject but the way the subject is treated. The Mennyms makes something radically new out of this old theme, which has been varied in children's novels from Pinocchio to The Indian in the Cupboard, and which has been studied thoroughly by Lois Kuznets in her When Toys Come Alive.

The Mennym family consists of a collection of live, intelligent rag dolls of human size. They were made forty years ago by an "extremely skillful seamstress" and came mysteriously alive after her death. For forty years they have contrived to live in a suburban house without contact with human beings and without being exposed. Sylvia Waugh describes ingeniously the doll's life style. In Mary Norton classic story The Borrowers (which is not about dolls, but about miniature people, yet faced with the same survival dilemma), the characters live by "borrowing," that is stealing from people. In many doll stories, the simple solution is that dolls do not have to eat or sleep, do not wear out clothes, and their housing problems are solved by their inhabiting a pretty and safe doll house. Waugh describes some clever tricks the Mennyms have developed in order to get money for rent, electricity and occasional luxury objects. The grandfather writes newspaper articles, the grandmother makes fashionable knitwear which is sold at Harrod's, the father works as a night watchman. The Mennyms' life seems a neverending happiness.

It is, however, a tragic story. Both Pinocchio and many other books about toys describe the protagonist's longing to be alive, which reflects the child's conscious or subconscious desire to grow up. The Mennyms were created to be a definite age, with respective knowledge and experience; they cannot grow, mature or age; nothing can ever change in their lives. The teenage daughter Appleby celebrated her fifteenth birthday every year. The twins Poppie and Wimpey play nicely with their toys, the baby Googles sleeps in her carriage. The dolls pretend to have tea in the evenings; they make lavish Christmas dinners, but deep inside they know that these are merely make-believe games to compensate the emptiness of their lives. They cannot have any friends outside the family. The central conflict of the story is the young Appleby's revolt against this static, unchanging existence. Desperate to add some color to her gray life, she invents an adventure which the family and the reader believe to begin with. Thus the author poses the eternal questions of what is real and what is fantasy, what is creative imagination and what is meaningless and stupid lies. In the middle of the adventure, which seemingly threatens the family's secure existence, Soobie, the most likable and sensible Mennym, discovers still another, half-finished doll in an attic chest. In order to bring her to life, the mother reads books to her: it is through literature one gains experience. Through the new daughter Pilbeam's awakening the desired changes arrive.

This is a story full of humor and surprises. When so much of today's children's fiction is focused on violence and pain, it feels liberating to read a book about traditional values, about family love, about teenage protest which does not necessarily end in a tragedy, about parents who learn to listen to their children. The fantastic form creates a distance which is necessary to prevent the book from becoming hopelessly sentimental. I am sure that the Mennyms will join Pinocchio, Winnie-the-Pooh and the Borrowers as readers' favorites.

Opsis Kalopsis 1999:1


The day before Christmas Eve, when the kids came, I promised myself that I would not switch on my computer until they had left. Not check my work or private email, not update Facebook status or read others, not blog, not read other blogs, not add books on Shelfari or papers on Academia, not browse ebay, not even look up what was going on in my dollhouse community. I made this promisejust before I started reading Nicholas Carr's The Shallows but the book certainly enhanced my decision not to get addicted. The thing is, the kids had their iPad with them and sat over it most of the time when they didn't borrow one or two of our laptops, and then Julia got a new smartphone for Christmas which she immediately started playing with. I was firm, however, until Christmas day morning when they slept till nine, and all my codex books were in the room where they slept, as were all my room boxes and tools, I had not bought a Christmas jigsaw puzzle, and I didn't want to drill new holes in the walls while they were asleep. I succumbed, and actually nothing much had happened online while I was away. Most people had been away too.Yet the very second I logged in there was a Skype call. Which made me glad.

Carr claims and shows with reference to brain research that internet affects our way of thinking. I don't buy everything he says, but it is fascinating. I am one of the dinosaurs who, although I do use some social media, will never learn to multitask. I simply cannot do more than one thing at a time. If I use Skype I cannot simultaneously chat or surf, and if I check my email I do it and nothing else. If I look up something on Wikipedia I read it all through before I start clicking on links, if at all. In other words, I am still a linear thinker and will never be anything else. My recent re-reading of a lot of very long, slow reads, including Moby-Dick, Remembrance of Things Past and Doctor Faustus, must be a subconscious defence against fragmentarisation. I hate books with short chapters and high pace, which most Young Adult novels are these days. I never want to read another YA novel again. At least not this year.

And yet I won't make this post longer than this.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Pullman revisited

When I searched my electronic archives for the review of Ruth Park's Playing Beatie Bow, which I posted yesterday, I stumbled over several other old book reviews which I reread with interest from today's vantage point. This review of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass was written in 1998, when the second book in the trilogy had just appeared, and nobody really knew yet how big it would become. Besides, there was another set of books eclipsing everything else right then, books about a certain school for wizards. Anyway, this is what I wrote about Pullman twelve years ago. Tolkien fans, please bear with me.

Tolkien surpassed

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

It has been usual in old times for adult novels to enter the sphere of children's reading. Today we often witness the reverse: books published for children cross over and are read by adults. The most remarkable example is Sophie's World, a children's book that conquered the international book market as an adult novel. Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass has been marketed both in its land of origin, England, and in the US as a children's book, but in Sweden it has been published as an adult novel. However, the libraries classified it as a children's book anyway. I think (or rather hope) that the Swedish publisher's decision to bring out Pullman as an adult novel is not primarily based on the editors' skepticism toward young readers' capacity to understand it, but on their wish to offer adult readers a unique experience. The novel is truly "a book for all ages," since it deals with the basic phases of human existence: to be born, to live, to grow up, to age, to die. The fact that the novel has a child in its focal point does not automatically make it a children's book; on the contrary it adds to the universality since the innocent child becomes the symbol for a human being and still broader, human race.

It is hard to imagine any new variations on the old theme of struggle between good and evil in an alternative world where magic is part of the everyday. Therefore it is pointless to present any plot summary of Pullman's novel; it would seem hopelessly banal with its familiar components, such as a chosen child or a gate between worlds. I will instead merely point out some details which make the book unique. Imagine that the human soul is fully visible in an animal form, which reveals its bearer's true nature. A soul that is a friend and advisor, that hurts to part with, even just at a couple of feet distance. When the dark forces capture young children and severe the invisible link between children and their souls, it is not merely a horrid adventure, but in the first place an ethical dilemma, which has many parallels in modern world. For instance, female circumcision. Or forced sterilization.

This is, however, just one detail in the intricate games of the evil forces. In the end of the novel, we do not really know which of the many strange figures of the novel - witches, intelligent polar bears, mad scientists - represent which side. We do not even know whether the main character is on the right side. It is not so evident what is right and wrong.
The fact that the action takes place in a world that is similar to ours yet different in some respects enables the author to play with language, geography and history. In this world, Inquisition still exists in the 20th century, the Pope has his seat in Geneva, the Tartars roam over Moskovy, quantum physics is called "experimental theology," America is "New Denmark," and zeppelin is the fastest transportation means. All these details offer exciting mental exercises in the accidental nature of Fate. Heterotopia, the multitude of parallel worlds, is a concept which literary criticism has adopted from science. Pullman's foremost predecessor within the fantasy genre is Diana Wynne Jones.

The large portion of the action takes place in the far North, in Lappland and on Svalbard; apparently, these are very exotic, almost mythic settings for Pullman. However, he avoids using Norse mythology in this story, going back to more archaic, shamanistic ideas. I can trace subtle influence from Miss Smilla's Sense of Snow in this mythologizing of the polar areas. Peter Høeg's novel has become a great success in the English-speaking world. 
Besides having won the four major British children's book awards, Pullman's novel has already become a cult book. It has all the premises to take over the palm of the most undisputed masterpiece of fantasy from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It is deeper and more engaging than Tolkien, it involves us more since it depicts threat against our own world. It exemplifies literature at its best: entertaining, full of suspense, but also of serious undertones. The second part of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, came out in September 1997. It is set partly in our own world, and contains still more loose threads which will apparently be brought together in the last volume. I hope Pullman goes on being as intensive as he has been so far.

Opsis Kalopsis, 1998:1

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A tribute to Ruth Park

Another great favorite writer has passed away, Ruth Park.

I am afraid she is unfairly forgotten today. This is what I wrote in 1987 in my review of her best novel, Playing Beatie Bow. 

Playing Beatie Bow
by Ruth Park. New York: Atheneum, 1982.

Books about time displacement have always been popular, ever since Edith Nesbit created this subgenre of fantasy eighty year ago with her brilliant The Story of the Amulet.

Since then, the pattern of time travel has become more sophisticated; it is no longer time travel for its own sake, and not even presenting history lessons in an entertaining manner. Modern writers employing time displacement discuss philosophical aspects of Time, such as re-experiencing the past or discovering links between different epochs. Time travel becomes a road toward identity.

Identity is exactly what the fourteen-year-old Abigail lacks. Her name isn't even Abigail; she uses this name as a mask to hide behind. When Abigail finds herself in the past, she gets another perspective of her own problems; when she returns, she can start solving them.

The title alludes to a game, in which Beatie Bow is a ghost, a spooky figure evoked by a magical rhyme. In the past, Abigail meets a girl called Beatie Bow: she is the key that opens the door between the present and the past.

Abigail is forced to live in the past, a hundred years prior to her own time, in an epoch alien and repulsive, which also puts very special demands on people. She stays with the Bows and has to learn their lifestyle, very unlike her own. She must learn to adjust. By and by she understands that her presence has a purpose, and her most difficult moral choice is to sacrifice her own feelings in order to fulfil the purpose.

The story is beautifully structured; nothing is accidental; the tiniest details are recalled at the end, where all mysteries are explained in an unexpected way. Possibly, the appearance of a descendant of the Bow family in Abigail's time is an unnecessary surrogate for the object of Abigail's secret passion in the past. But it is a minor fault in an otherwise exciting and engaging novel.

Australia has become an important country with respect to children's literature, featuring a number of interesting new authors. In Ruth Park's book, we experience Australia on two historical levels, which complement each other.

Opsis Kalopsis, 1987:1

Monday, 20 December 2010

Christmas cooking Russian style

I am preparing food for Christmas hoping that there will be guests to eat it. Right now the perspectives are unclear. Among other things indispensable on my Christmas table is Russian pickled cabbage which is unlike any other pickled cabbage. It is made without vinegar for the simple reason that historically there was no wine production in Russia and thus no sour wine to make vinegar. True, there was no wine production in Finland or Sweden either, and they still don't make the Russian style cabbage – presumably influenced by Germany. Nowadays I only make a little jar of cabbage, as much as we can reasonably eat within a reasonable time. I used to make a huge 20-litre earthenware jar and keep it cool in the cellar. This is how it was done in Russia when I was a child. Fresh cabbage was available in the autumn, and the only way to save it for the winter was to pickle it. You had to be a team to slice all this cabbage, grate the carrots and then rub it with salt until it became juicy. Then you put something heavy on top, a big stone wrapped in a piece of cloth, and left it for some days to ferment. Yum.

I have shared this repeatedly on food pages of Swedish newspapers, and I have a special chapter in Masha's Russian Cookbook (which incidentally is my best-selling publication).

If I were to make a 20-litre jar of pickled cabbage today I wouldn't know where to keep it. I don't have a cellar. And why would I do it when I can make a small jar any time I want it? Just one of those many things from your childhood you took for granted but only make sense in their own context. Pickled cabbage was essential for survival in Russia when I was a child. Today, it's just a nice addition to my Christmas table.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Snowstorms in my life

More memories invoked by closed airports and cancelled flights.

In 1993 Julia and I lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I had my Fulbright grant. For break, we decided to go to Florida where Staffan and Anton were to join us. Our closest airport was Bradley in Connecticut, about an hour's drive as opposed to three to the huge Boston Logan. So we packed preparing to enjoy the Sunshine State with Disneyland and all other necessities. It was cold and snowy, but I couldn't in my wildest dreams imagine what was to come. My university host called me on Saturday morning saying that there were storm warnings (then, like now, I never cared about listening to weather forecasts) and that I probably should start for the airport early to beat the weather. We were ready to go, so we went. The storm caught us midway, but we made it, very slowly, to the airport, parked, went to the terminal that was conspicuously quiet. All flights were cancelled until the next day. The information booth where I asked to page my family at Orlando airport didn't provide such service. It was long before mobile phones. I called the Holiday Inn where Staffan and Anton were supposed to be staying to learn that nobody by that name was booked. When I asked whether there were more than one Holiday Inn in Orlando the receptionist laughed.

(It is worth mentioning that I suffer from a rare social phobia that makes every phone call excruciating).

Meanwhile, Staffan was at Orlando airport, having learned that our flight was cancelled and trying to call me at home in Amherst. It also turned out later that my name was misspelt on my ticket so he couldn't get any information from the airline. As far as they were concerned, I didn't exist.

I realised that we would have to spend the night at the airport and made a hard decision: I joined the long queue to the reception of the airport Sheraton. I didn't know that the airline gave vouchers to stranded passengers, so I paid the incredible sum of 80 dollars for a luxurious room where we spent the rest of the evening watching movies and chewing munchies from the minibar. Early the next morning, I went down to check-in, expecting in my naivete to get on the first flight to Florida. Instead, the hall looked like a refugee camp. It took me several hours to reach the counter, just to learn that the nearest flight they could book me on was Wednesday. I think I burst into tears; I tried to explain about the rest of the family having come all the way from Sweden, but there were hundreds of other people with similarly heart-breaking stories, and what could an airline clerk do? There was no point staying at the airport for three days so we went back to Amherst. My car in the parking lot was literally buried in snow. Somebody lent me a shovel. I cried all the way home.

On my answering machine, there was a polite call from the airline to tell me that my flight was cancelled and fifteen calls from Staffan, with his phone number in Orlando. I called it, asked to be connected to his room, got a puzzled stranger, called the reception again, learned that Mr Skott had checked out that morning. No, he didn't say where he was going. Finally, Staffan did get hold of me: they had moved from the expensive Holiday Inn to a more modest motel.

Staffan and Anton went to Gatorland and Sea World, while Julia and I went to the movies and read books. I called my host, and we were invited to dinner. When Wednesday eventually came, the flight was uneventful.

This snowstorm was afterwards called the Storm of the Century. They didn't know what the 21st century had in store.


Just to remind myself what we HAVE left behind: this is Christmas 2001. Anton came home after two and a half years in California and was delighted to see snow.

This is what we thought we had left behind

Four years ago, in January, when I visited Cambridge without any thought of moving here, it was plus twelve, the air was full of the smell of roses, and I could walk around in my light blouse. When we were moving, our friends lamented that we were going to the land of eternal fog and rain, and we teased them about Cambridgeshire's subtropical climate. Then the first winter came, with cold and snow, and we were told that it didn't happen more often than every thirty years, so I was content that we had had our snow for the rest of our lives. The second winter was still colder, and this one is worse. Mind, I am not complaining, looking at weather reports from other places in Europe. Florence under snow! What's going on? Chaos, traffic accidents, airports closed. The coldest winter in England in a hundred years. I've had enough records. Pretty, yes, but I can enjoy snow on a postcard.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Change of direction

My most recent publication - at least the most recent publication I actually have in my hand; there are some more in the mail - is an essay on George MacDonald in a Swedish volume on Western esoterism. A slightly unusual topic in my academic pursuit. I wrote it three years ago. It takes ages with edited volumes because there is always one or two people who do not respect deadlines, and unlike a journal that has to come out no matter what, a volume can be delayed for ever. I had several reasons for writing this piece, apart from my genuine interest in the subject. It was good for me to publish in Swedish. It was good for me to publish on something else than children's literature. It was prestigeous to have a chapter in a book rather than a journal article. A lot has happened in these three years. I am still glad this piece is published, and I hope there are people who will find it interesting. Yet from the practical point of view this publication is pointless. It is in Swedish. It is not about children's literature (which I have managed to persuade my colleagues is education). And, worst of all, it is a book chapter which doesn't count at all.

The joys of Christmas

There was a Christmas lunch at the Faculty yesterday. Last year I missed this occasion because I was stuck in a snow storm at Copenhagen airport. Two years ago I was also busy elsewhere, don't remember why. The mere number of people attending was impressive. The tables were gorgeously decorated with crackers, balloons and what not, and everybody put on the crazy paper crowns and shot around and blew the whistles and had fun. Then there was entertainment, coordinated of all people by the Head of Finance Office (I am apparently prejudiced against finance people as being bores by definition). There were tremendously funny sketches, a guitar and banjo trio, poetry recital, Bach partita for violin, all preceded by hilarious comments on Christmas carols from the point of view of Health and Safety regulations. It is a hazard to use open sleighs, pointing at someone's red nose is discrimination, and of course, to rock a baby's cradle you need to be approved by Crimial Record Bureau.

I couldn't help thinking back on my previous workplace. Can I imagine any of my professor colleagues in Stockholm playing banjo in front of the staff? Or anyone at all doing a standup performance? I feel privileged belonging to a community that allows itself to enjoy life. And nobody cared that singing Jesus praise might hurt the feelings of Buddhists or atheists.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Books for the season

This time of year newspapers and websites abound in lists of books to give children for Christmas. I resent the idea that children – or grown-ups for that matter – should only be encouraged to read during holidays, but at least it makes children's literature slightly more visible. I join the chorus with my selection of favourites.

For humour lovers: Five Children and It, by Edith Nesbit

For romance lovers: Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson

For adventure lovers: Comet in Moominland, by Tove Jansson

For fantasy lovers: The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, by Lloyd Alexander

For advanced fantasy lovers: Hexwood, by Diana Wynne Jones

For Alice in Wonderland lovers: Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

For language lovers: The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

For mystery lovers: The Solitaire Mystery, by Jostein Gaarder

For horror lovers: The Shadow, by Hans Christian Andersen

For art lovers: Willy's Pictures, by Anthony Browne

For cat lovers: Me and my Cat, by Satoshi Kitamura

For hippo lovers: Veronica, by Roger Duvoisin

For Shakespeare lovers: Aldabra, or The Tortoise who Loved Shakespeare, by Silvana Gandolfi

For toy lovers: The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban

For dolls' house lovers: The Mennyms, by Sylvia Waugh

For justice lovers: The Book of Everything, by Guus Kuijer

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Beating unemployment

A joke from the evil Soviet times:

- How come there is no unemployment in the Soviet Union?
- In the morning, a team comes and digs a hole. In the afternoon, another team comes and fills it up.

A couple of days ago there was a smell of gas in our kitchen. Staffan called British Gas, and there was a man within 45 minutes crouching under our kitchen sink. Then there was a huge vehicle in our yard. I was hiding in my study, but Staffan reported that they were digging up the yard to find the leak. Then they went, leaving behind a somewhat oversized enclosure. This morning another huge vehicle came to fill up the hole. 

False memories

Bella Akhmadulina died a couple of days ago. She has never been my favourite among the Russian poet gang of the '60, that included Yevtushenko, Rozhdestvensky and Voznesensky; the latter I still value the highest. Yet Akhmadulina was the only woman of the same caliber, and she definitely had a very personal feminine touch in her poetry. I tried to remember any of her poems when I saw the obituary - I typically can recite several by her male colleagues, and recalled one that was used in the Soviet cult movie of the '70s, The Irony of Fate. Speaking of what makes me cry (see a post in my bloig marathon), this poem, read in the movie while the character wanders around on a cold, dark, snowy New Year night in Leningrad, always makes me cry. It's piercing. To pay homage to Akhmadulina I searched the web for the poem. It came up immediately, only it was not at all by Akhmadulina. I am glad I checked, and it was yet another proof of the old fact: never trust your memory. For the friends who read Russian, here it is. 

The final lines that make me cry read: Don't part from those you love/grow through them with your blood/and always say farewell for ever/when you are leaving for a moment. A very poor rendering, but I am not a poet.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Book of the year

I don't remember when I last enjoyed a book that much. I was reading it on the plane and had to tell myself not to laugh outloud. It has everything: high pace, unexpected twists, lovable characters, romance, crime, suspence, wit, absurdism, facts (and counterfacts), and it is brilliantly written. I am sorry it is not yet available in every language in the world.


My oldest boy and I came to Sweden twenty-nine years ago yesterday. The day after, we were immersed in Swedishness as we were invited to a Lucia party. I was sort of prepared because I had read some textbooks and fiction, while my poor son must have been thoroughly confused by all these girls wearing their nighties with red ribbons and electic lights on their heads. On the other hand, life was confusing as it was, one more weird experience didn't change much.

Next year, Sergej was given a large role for the Lucia celebration in his school. The teacher said he was the only one in his class who could memorise the lines (Russian school training!). School Lucia in Sweden always takes place inhumanly early in the morning so that the parents can come and relish before they go to work. In his next school, Sergej used to choose a less conspicuous role of a gingerbread man. 

I made Julia's first Lucia dress, and Anton inherited the tomten costume from someone. The gender roles were unquestionable, at least in pre-school. Every year, we got up an hour earlier on the 13th, took the kids to preschool, sat on uncomfortable benches, listened to horribly oversimplified Christmas songs and were treated to weak, lukewarm coffee with gingerbread that the kids had baked. Yet every year I started crying, because I love traditions and I was happy that my kids were part of a tradition that they didn't have to keep a secret (unlike me with my secret Christmases in Russia). When the kids grew up a bit, I would prepare a tray in the evening for them to bring into our bedroom next morning, with coffee and gingerbread. We pretended to be asleep and allowed to be awakened by song. Year after year, and eventually Anton and Julia both went to a school with great musical traditions with a specially written Nativity play, and I cried when I saw the procession moving down the church aisle. No oversimplifications, and a real multivoice choir.

By the time the grandchildren started in day care Staffan and I had had our share of uncomfortable benches and lukewarm coffee, so I don't miss it. I didn't quite expect Staffan to enter the bedroom this morning with candles on his head and a tray with coffee, but I wouldn't have been amazed if he did. He never stops surprising me.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Un-Christmas shopping

My flight home is at 10 pm. I have booked this flight because it goes to Stansted rather than Heathrow or Gatwick. The alternative would have been seven in the morning, and given that I got to bed at half past midnight, as expected, it didn't feel attractive. So I have a whole day in Oslo, without any special plans or obligations. I have negotiated with the hotel to keep the room at a reasonable cost, and I have brought student essays and other work, and I even have a book.

I have eaten far too much the last two days, beginning with a light, but delicious lunch on Thursday, a sumptuous dinner at the most posh restaurant in town (thanks, University of Oslo), another extravagant meal at other fancy place between the sessions and then the doctoral dinner yesterday which was not only plenty of food, but also plenty of speeches. Hence late bedtime.

Yet, full as I was yesterday, I still have to eat something today, which means I have to go out. It is very crowded, there are demonstrations, street musicians, Christmas shoppers, and outside one shop a huge sign: “Guaranteed no Christmas music”. I don't know Oslo well, so I walk down Karl Johann Street till I find a place that looks good and have a nice mixed grill at a price that would buy a three course dinner with wine in Cambridge. Then I spot a hobby shop and binge. It's the same chain where I used to buy stuff in Stockholm, but I know my needs better now. I take my time. I tell myself that I don't really need four plastic angel heads, but myself replies that, painted gold, they would fit nicely over the door in the big dollhouse. Then I consider going to a bookstore, but decide that I've done my shopping for this year.

Reflections on blog challenge

It has been fun to write, but I have constantly wondered over the topics. Whoever compiled the list seems to have no cultural interests whatsoever. No favorite book, poem, play, film, music, museum, painting, cathedral. Was it deliberate? It is too evident and too boring?

How about favorite mountain, waterfall, cave, lake, river, desert? I have for some years tried to compile a very personal list of 77 wonders of the world, both natural and man-made.Favorite animal? Favorite bird? Favorite fish?

Perhaps this is something I can set out to do, when there are no self-evident topics

Blog challenge Day 30 – one last moment

Last moment, right now – here and gone!

Friday, 10 December 2010

Blog challnge Day 29 – Your aspirations

The older you get, the more you realise that there is a limit to what you can do with the rest of your life. When I was little I was sure that I would go to the Moon, Mars, Saturn and beyond. When I was young I hoped to go to London and Paris. I wanted to be a famous writer. I haven't become a famous writer, but I am quite a good scholar. I have tried scuba diving and found out that I couldn't do it. But if I hadn't tried I wouldn't have known. I have tried paragliding and was terribly sick. But I still remember the few wonderful moments before I got sick.

I know that I will never go to Antarctic, although I would like to, nor explore the Amazonas, nor climb mountains. But I have seen 13% of the world (according to Facebook) which is more than most other people.

I will not learn to play an instrument nor become an extreme skier. I am quite happy enjoying music played by others, and I go skiing for pleasure, not for challenge.

I will not die young because it's too late. I will not receive a Nobel Prize because I chose the wrong subject. I will probably not be invited to a Royal Dinner because we no longer live in Sweden (otherwise, chances were good). I will not make the front page of Newsweek, and I am glad for that.

I hope to write another book. Or maybe two. I hope to see my children's succeed. I hope to see my grandchildren grow up and become something they want to be. I hope to see more of my students make brilliant careers – some of them have. I hope to be remembered for what I have done.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Blog challenge Day 28 – Something that you miss

I realised when I was baking gingerbread a couple of weeks ago that I miss Christmas preparations with my children. Baking gingerbread: you really need many hands, so that hot oven doesn't wait empty. Tray after tray, rolling the dough, cutting the cookies. We had lots of small funny cutters: stars and moons and fir-trees and pigs and elk. Pigs we most popular, and the kids used to fight for them. They also used to eat the dough, and I pretended I didn't see. Then we would select a pile that were “burned” or “ugly” or “failed” to eat at once. The same with saffron buns. We used to make different figures that all have special names in Swedish; then the kids would fight over who should put in raisins. We would listed to Christmas songs on CD and sings ourselves. We would also take out the decorations, candlesticks, wreaths. Of course I do it now too, but it's not the same. And to be quite honest: it's not that I miss baking itself. I miss the children being small.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010


I am going to Norway tomorrow. This is not the best time of year to go to Norway, but I am not going for a vacation but for work. I am going for a doctoral defence. I am one of the examiners.

I've been involved in defences in various roles, in Sweden (including my own), Denmark and Finland, but never before in Norway. You would assume that countries as close as the Nordic ones would have somewhat similar rules for higher degrees, but this is not the case. The only thing in common is the public defence. In Sweden, your supervisor more or less decides when you can submit your thesis, and it has to be published, by a real publisher if you can persuade them, or by a university press. There is something radically wrong with publishing a book before you've had the chance to make the revisions suggested by the examiner, but this is how it's done. There is one opponent and three members of the examination committee, and it is exceptional to fail a thesis once it has gone to defence. In Finland, the student can submit the thesis against the supervisor's recommendation, which, however, is unusual. There is an examination committee that reads the thesis and produces a written report, occasionally with suggestions for revisions, before it goes to defence. And the thesis is graded! There is one opponent at the defence, and it's very ceremonial: traditionally men wear tails. I wore my Cambridge gown when I was the moderator. In Denmark, the committee members and the two opponents actually get together in advance, both to decide whether to pass the thesis and rehearse the defence. I remember a couple of nice trips to Copenhagen on such occasions.

In Norway, the candidate also gives a lecture. It's a cruel procedure. Three weeks prior to the defence, the committee can ask the candidate to lecture on anything within the subject. We had quite an argument about the topic, but eventually agreed. I am the first opponent so I go first after the lecture and will have to take it into consideration in case the candidate has covered the issues I have prepared to ask about. The second opponent is Danish. We will all have to speak Scandinavian to understand the nuances.We've been told that only the Dean who moderates the defence wears full academic dress.

The best thing about Nordic defences is the banquet. I mean: it is supposed to be a celebration of many years of hard work. The UK viva feels an anticlimax.

Blog challenge Day 27 – Your favorite place

Many places can compete for this, but there is nothing like San Diego. Interestingly, I didn't feel it during my first three visits, although I did enjoy the sunsets. I didn't feel any particular difference between San Diego and other places with palm trees and sandy beaches, and I wasn't particularly fascinated by the Spanish-style architecture, and I am not particularly fond of Mexican food. I had my reasons for returning to San Diego and especially choosing it for my research leave, but I had no idea that I was moving and dragging my family to a paradise. Looking back, I cannot really explain it. Palm trees, sandy beaches, stony cliffs, whitewashed houses, Mexican food – what was so special? Perhaps it was me rather than the place. Me in that particular place in that particular time, my trajectory, as cultural geographers call it, meeting Californian trajectory on its slow fall into the ocean.

I'd better stop before I get soppy.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Blog challenge Day 26 – Your fears

In CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), the first thing you have to do is make a list of your fears. CBT implies, as follows from the name, that you understand your behaviour and therefore can cope with it. In this case, understand why you are scared of certain things. It doesn't necessarily mean that you stop being scared, but you feel better about being scared.

I used to be scared of calling up people on the phone because I was scared I wouldn't hear what they said and respond inadequately. This has had quite a significant impact on my professional life. People who don't suffer from phobias will never understand. You are not lazy, you are not showing off, you are not in a bad mood – you simply cannot do it, although sometimes you have to, and then it costs you more energy than anyone can imagine. If you do suffer from a phobia, any phobia, you will understand other people whatever their special phobia might be: lifts, planes, heights, caves, snakes, birds, cats, crowded places, talking in public. You recognise a soulmate.

I am scared of snakes, but I am ok with spiders. I am scared of driving to unfamiliar places because I am scared that I won't find a parking space and be late. I am scared of using ticket machines or self-checkouts, because I am scared of making a mistake. I am scared of talking to people who speak a broad dialect because I can misunderstand what they say, and it's embarrassing. In terms of understanding behaviour, making a fool of myself must be my biggest problem. I won't go deep into my childhood to investigate it.

But these are small, everyday fears that you either learn to cope with or you don't, and then they will spoil your life. When I was young I was scared of dying. All people are scared of dying, but some people think about it all the time and suffer from it. I was scared to go to sleep because I was scared of not waking up. I wanted someone by my side when I went to sleep. Recently, perhaps five-six years ago, I realised that going to sleep and never waking up is the best way to die. You won't even notice. This is very logical from the CBT point of view, but it won't work if you are young.

What I am really scared of is one of those states when you are paralysed and cannot communicate, or you are losing your memory and sometimes understand what's going on but cannot do anything. Anton, who puts titles on my film-renting list, has made me watch The Butterfly and the Diving Bell and The Notebook. I am glad I have seen them, but they haunt me. McEwan's Amsterdam haunts me too. Many years ago I saw my great-aunt going senile, and it was scary. Sometimes she was clear in her mind, just to wander away five minutes later. She could also get aggressive. I am scared of becoming like that. I am scared of not being able to talk. They say that people sometimes forget their mothertongue, but not other languages, or forget one at a time. I am scared of being enclosed in myself. Scared of being in a diving bell. Nowadays, when I go to sleep I think that I would certainly like to wake up next morning, but if I don't it's not that bad.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Christmas shopping

My GP thinks I have high blood pressure. I know that with considerably lower blood pressure my mother would be flat on her back in bed, and I am still running around. I have received a blood pressure tester from my surgery to take blood pressure morning and night for a week. It is, however, pointless to take blood pressure during Christmas season. It's bound to be superhigh.

I have just spent FOUR HOURS shopping Christmas gifts online. I had this revelation yesterday: rather than asking Anton to carry presents for his nephews and nieces on a Ryanair flight, and rather than going shopping in a mall and then taking the whole lot to a post office, I would shop online and get it all neatly dispatched. This, however, does not solve the big problem. Our grandchildren have everything. They have more toys than they can play with, and they have all the gadgets imaginable. I hate giving presents that will be admired for five minutes and forgotten among a pile of other stuff, I like giving an experience, like going to a movie or a theatre or a museum. But it is hard to explain to a four-year-old on Christmas Eve that she will get her present when granny is in Stockholm in three months' time. So it has to be a little something under the tree.

Last year we loaded Julia's suitcase with presents when she visited in the beginning of December, and the kids received them for Easter. It wasn't Julia's fault: they are all just too busy to meet up. Perhaps it was just as well; they got too much for Christmas anyway.

This year we will be clever and send the gifts from an online shop, dispatched to three addresses in Sweden... Do you see my blood pressure go up? First to find ten different reasonable gifts for five boys and five girls aged between two and fourteen. Checking with the parents that they haven't already got it. That the small girls still love glittery stuff and the middle boys still love building models. Sorting the carefully, lovingly chosen gifts into three bunches. Searching my non-existent electronic address book for postcodes. Filling in the addresses, only to receive the message: "We are sorry, we cannot accept your address". Bother! All over again. Shall I give up, take the car, go to the centre, wait an hour in line to park the car, negotiate crowds, browse five different shops - no! Back to the screen. Counting frantically, adding labels (once upon a time, when we sent gifts from California, Amazon mixed up all labels, so a two-year-old got a biography over the Pope and her mother Raymond Briggs' Snowman). No, I don't have a gift card. No, I don't have a promotion code. Yes, I want to use my very special unique Christmas discount for this particular order. Yes, I am quite sure that I want to send to these addresses. Oh, I see, I cannot use this card for these addresses. All over again? No, I don't want to send all these items to the same address. I have clicked "multiple addresses". Yes, I am quite sure...

Click "Place your order". Take a deep breath. Sorry, kids, if you get wrong gifts. By Easter, you may have time to meet and exchange them.

Blog challenge Day 25 – A first

The heading is equivocal, and there are so many firsts to choose from. My first oyster was in Warsaw. My first transatlantic flight was painful. My first caught fish was a pike. My first university class was in Marxism. My first wedding was big. My first trip abroad was to Prague. My first theatre performance was The Blue Bird. My first evening gown was green. My first go at firearms was with a Kalashnikov. My first ski slope felt vertical. My first hangover was horrible. My first communion was when I was well over thirty. My first relationship was a disaster. My first handbag was red. My first grade teacher was excellent. My first attempt to spin was in Australia. My first car was brown. My first Astrid Lindgren book was Karlsson on the Roof. My first grey hair came too early. My first crossing of the equator was on a airplane. My first computer was as large as a cupboard. My first real grief was my granny's death. My first published work was a review of a Swedish poetry collection. My first husband was an archaeologist. My first cigarette was disgusting. My First Capital Connect train takes me to London.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Blog challenge Day 24 – Something that makes you cry

The safest way to make me cry is to sing or play Silent Night.

Since I have read so much cognitive science recently I know how it works. Our memories are stored somewhere in ours brain, in fragments, all mixed up. Somewhere in my brain there is a memory of me sitting under a Christmas tree and listening to a bunch of elderly aunts and uncles singing Silent Night in German, which I sort of understood, but not quite, so it sounded like a magical incantation (which it is in a way). If I just think back about it, I remember it clearly and rationally, and I can state that all these uncles and aunts are dead, which is sad, but inevitable. This won't make me cry. But if I hear Silent Night, even played in a department store, the sound of it evokes the emotional memory: exactly how it felt to be a small child under a tree covered with real candles, the smell of honey buns, anticipation of presents hiding behind the tree. The brain says: this is something lost forever,it triggers a complex chemical process which makes me cry.

On the other hand, someone has said: you can only own forever something that is lost.

Saturday, 4 December 2010


I went back a year in my blog to see what I wrote about my glögg party and was disappointed to discover that I didn't. I have a clear memory of having a party in this house, with the fire burning, candles, saffron buns and gingerbread that Julia and I had baked during her visit the previous weekend, but apparently it wasn't reflected in my blog. There is, however, a post from two years ago, when we were still living in Chesterton, and the guests were crammed in the tiny living room, but presumably enjoyed it anyway.

Lucia party was my first encounter with Sweden and its traditions - goodness, twenty nine years ago in a few days. Our friend Dalia had her traditional Lucia year after year, and we never missed it except when we lived in California.There, however, Lucia had been claimed by Anne-Charlotte Harvey, Professor of Drama at SDSU, who maintained her Swedishness that way. It feels therefore highly satisfactory to have set a tradition here in Cambridge with a Swedish glögg party that, I think, has now been imprinted in people's minds. This year we have moved it a week because I am away next weekend, and after that everybody will be away. Nothing wrong with it: it is actually Second Advent Sunday tomorrow. For the first time in my life I am making a non-alcoholic glögg for the non-drinking friends. Hope it tastes ok. Otherwise I discovered that I was out of genuine glögg spices and sent Staffan to get cinnamon sticks and dried ginger while I rummaged cupboards in search of cloves, and of course found a bag of Swedish glögg mix that had been hiding. Staffan also bought mulled wine mix to be on the safe side, but that's beyond my dignity.

Blog challenge Day 23 – Something that makes you feel better

If there are many things that make me upset (see yesterday's post), luckily, there are more things that make me feel better. If I wake up in the morning with this terrible feeling that I don't want to leave my bed, a little sunshine through the window makes life worth living. Therefore I always keep the bedroom curtains drawn back. The sight of snowdrops in early spring makes me feel better. The cat that greets me in the doorway. Birds at the feeder. A glass of wine. A cup of tea. An email from a publisher who has decided to publish my book. A good student essay. A hug from Staffan. A phone call from Anton. A chat with Julia. A haircut. A new blouse. Anticipation of a party. A present, no matter how small. And, as a very last resort, chocolate.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Blog challenge Day 22 – Something that upsets you

I am one of those people who get upset very easily. I get upset by a broken cup or disconnected broadband. I get terribly upset when deer eat my tulips. I get upset when I have worked for hours on lighting in my dollhouse, and it won't switch on. I get tremendously upset when I have been stressed and crashed the car into a gate post.

I get upset when people are stupid. Both someone in a supermarket line and politicians. I am terribly upset about what's going on with higher education in the UK. Anyone can see how stupid it is.

I get upset when students do not submit work in time. I get upset when my cakes burn in the oven. I get upset when I discover a ladder in my stocking. I get upset when I see a wine stain on my new white sofa. Silly thing to get upset about.

I get upset when I am not appreciated for what I do.

I get upset when people say that children's literature is inferior to "real" literature. No, I don't get upset then. I get furious.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Trees and awards

Two remarkable things happened today, both weather related. (I guess I could have taken them as two moments in my blog marathon). First, Homerton College planted a tree. There were lots pf pictures taken, but none uploaded yet. It was a Memorial Oak, to mark, once again, the Royal Charter. Why this ceremony had been planned for the beginning of December is a mystery. Perhaps nobody had expected - it always seems to come unexpectedly - that it would be winter. Anyway, the invitations were sent out, and dozens of alumni and retired staff were coming, so it could not be cancelled. I had never before seen so many colleagues, including the Principal, wearing coats, fur caps and muffs. There we were, crowded around a large frozen hole with the tree stuck in the middle and a pile of soil on the side. The Principal took the first spadeful, and then the spade went around. Let's say it takes ten seconds to push a spadeful of soil into a hole. There were surely forty people or more. After a while, the less courageous started making their way toward Combination Room where refreshments were served. Somebody said that the hole was in the wrong place and the tree would have to be replanted.

In the afternoon, we had an award ceremony for the first Jacqueline Wilson Award in children's literature research, yet another dream come true. Jacqueline Wilson has donated a sum to be awarded every year for the best masters thesis in children's literature written at the Faculty of Education, Cambridge. What a reward for a teacher to be able to reward the best student! When I approached her I was thinking a token sum, but she was so generous! And apparently liked the whole idea. When I met her a couple of weeks ago she was full of anticipation about coming to Cambridge to present the award.

But - what a shame! - she couldn't because of adverse weather (meaning: "snow"). Instead, she sent a wonderful message to the winner, that Morag read with tears in her eyes. I felt quite sentimental myself. We had some sparkling wine, and I told the current masters students to work hard to win the award next time.

The winner's mother came all the way from Brussels on Eurostar and somehow managed to make her way to Cambridge: ironically it proved easier than for Jacqueline Wilson to come from south of London. 

Blog challenge Day 21 – Another moment

When Piglet asks Pooh what his favourite moment is, Pooh thinks that although it is really wonderful to eat honey there is always this little tiny second just before you start eating honey that is better still.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Blog challenge Day 20 – This month

I suppose that “this month” refers to the month that has gone, but the coming month is surely much more exciting. November is always a limbo, dark and gloomy, and you start thinking about the imminent holiday season, but it is still far, far away. It was a busy month, with students in the middle of their essay writing, thus supervisions and draft reading, as well as some intensive teaching weeks. There were zillions of meetings, boring and interesting, a conference, some business lunches, some festive dinners, several visits from good friends and colleagues. Two grandchildren had birthdays. I had a haircut. An average month.

The coming month is full of promise. End-of-term party with the students today. An award ceremony tomorrow. My annual Swedish glögg party on Saturday (I am so glad that I have established this tradition). I am going to Norway to examine a PhD (not sure what promise this holds, but I am looking forward to it). Anton is coming to visit a couple of days. There will be Christmas lunches in the College and the Faculty. Julia and Pontus are coming for Christmas. I will wait for them to decorate the tree.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 19 – Something you regret

They say you never regret what you have done, only what you haven't done. There is one thing that I have done that I regret. When I was little I had a toy clown who played cymbals if you pressed his tummy. He wasn't my favourite toy, and once when I was told to clean up the mess in my room I threw him away in the garbage.

The thing I regret I didn't do was playing – it has just occurred to me now, honestly! - if not cymbals, at least percussions in a student orchestra. I was sixteen and had by then given up my music lessons, but the conductor, a family friend, tried to persuade me that anyone who could read sheet music would be perfect with chimes, tambourine and triangle. I thought the whole idea was ridiculous. The conductor's stepson, a few years older and without any knowledge of music took the job. He got tons of good friends in the orchestra, travelled all over and had a lot of fun.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 18 – Your favorite birthday

You only turn half a century once in a lifetime, so I decided to have a big party. Because of my peregrination I had friends here, there and everywhere whom I wanted to invite, and the only way I could do it was to organise an international conference. This brought in people from the USA and Australia, and it was a bit easier with Russia and Finland. I had to book the venue a year in advance because it was a castle, the Royal Horse Guard Mess in Stockholm. Possible because of Staffan's connections in military music. There was a reservation in the booking contract that if the Commander-in-Chief of the Swedish Armed Forces wanted the venue at short notice he would have priority. We took the risk. We also had to get special permission to take foreign citizens into Swedish military territory.

The catering at the Mess helped me to compose the menu and plan the schedule. “Birthday? Count with at least four hours at table”. She was right. We started with arrival drinks in the magnificent rooms, and then sat down at table in a huge hall with marble columns and crystal chandeliers. There were speeches and songs and sonnets written and performed by friends and family, and I laughed and wept and laughed again. There were people from all the many periods of my life, my former teachers, my former students, my present colleagues, my co-authors, my travel companions, my family and my Cucumber Mum, a Swedish children's author who had adopted me as her “sweet little cucumber”. The food was superb, and there was a surprise desert that I had not ordered. There was dancing to a band in old-fashioned army uniforms. When the clock struck one, nobody wanted to go home.

I cannot imagine a grander birthday. Thank you all who made it such a wonderful day. Peace over those who are longer among us.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 17 – Your favorite memory

Many years ago in the Dreamtime I went to Australia together with Anton who was then eleven years old. The proper age for initiation rite. We had been in Australia two years before, travelled around from Ocean Road to Barrier Reef, from Penguin Island to Jacob's Creek, and we had also been to Ayers Rock. We had called it Ayers Rock because we knew no better. But we wanted to know. So we went back to stay for a longer period and try to understand. We would write a novel about an eleven-year-old Swedish boy's encounter with Dreamtime.

The people at Ayers Rock resort thought I was crazy when I wanted a place to rent for three weeks. They told me nobody ever stayed there for more than two days. We rented a caravan and a car. Every morning we went either to Uluru or Kata Chuta and walked and talked. We saw Uluru at sunrise and sunset and even in the rain, which we were told only happened once every ten years. We read stories and made stories. In the evenings I wrote down our made-up stories and read to Anton who would say that I had got everything wrong.

I had a permission to go into Aboriginal lands which I had applied for and was granted six months before. The community where I could go was three hundred kilometres into the desert, and you needed a 4x4. There was no guarantee that we would even be allowed to fill the car with gas. I didn't take the risk. Well into the second week, when we thought we had read every piece of information available and taken every guided tour, we saw a small inconspicuous ad promising an unforgettable experience. The understatement of the millennium.

We joined a group of five and a female guide. The other people had booked years in advance. We went five hundred kilometres into nothing in a vehicle that looked like a merrily painted tank. We slept in swags on the ground and cooked over a fire. Water for personal hygiene was rationed to a little bowl every morning. The Milky Way rotated over our heads at night.

On the second day a group of Aborigines approached slowly. Linda, the guide, had told us that we had to be patient. They would come when they decided we were ready. There was no point trying to rush. Meanwhile we gathered seeds and made bread. Not the way they show you in tourist resorts: here are some seeds, try to grind them on a stone, and now taste the bread. It takes hours to gather enough for a very small loaf. It takes hours to grind. You get a new sense of time.

Then finally came the storytelling, moving around, observing every detail in the landscape. Where we only saw sand and stones, suddenly there was a waterhole. There were five kinds of edible tomatoes and fifty deadly poisonous. There were honey ants to dig from under the sand. There were kangaroos to hunt. Not with boomerangs, but with rifles. One of the elders made a spear for Anton. I wanted a spear too. He said, through Linda, that women did not have spears. We women were taken to women's sacred places. Anton was allowed to go to some men's places because he wasn't smoked yet. We danced the Lizard dance. We followed the Lizard Man's tracks across the country.

Eight days in the Dreamtime. The Aborigines have a special tense to indicate Dreamtime, something like “he has always been doing...”. Anton and I have always been walking through the desert listening to stories.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 16 – Your first kiss

This is the first heading in this marathon that I dislike. Excruciatingly boring. All first kisses are the same, and we have seen them zillions of times in movies. Instead I'll write about my most bizarre kiss - or better still, I'll show it.

Visiting Jesus

Each college in Cambridge has its special charm and its own customs. Last Thursday I was invited to Education dinner at Jesus. Education dinner means that all students in college who study education are invited, whether they are undergrads or PhDs. Brilliant idea. And some teachers are invited too. Jesus is a very old college, and the dinner was served in the old refectory, with low ceiling and lots of wonderful period details. Food was excellent, which I cannot say of all the colleges I have so far had the honour of being invited to.

It doesn't happen often that you have a chance to talk to students whom you meet once in a huge lecture hall. My hostess was just about to introduce me when one of them exclaimed: "We so much enjoyed your lecture!" Now, I have no illusions, I would perhaps say the same to somebody I was introduced to. But they went on talking about the lecture and the images I had shown and how interesting it was. I asked the student whether she had considered doing a masters in children's literature, and she had. So I may have recruited a student in passing. Otherwise it was a pleasure talking to them, and it was half past ten before I noticed (I had told Staffan that I would be home early). This is Cambridge to me.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 15 – Your dreams

I am not sure whether the heading refers to dreams as when you are asleep or dreams as in aspirations. My sleeping dreams are vivid, colourful, emotional, sometimes aggressive. I still fly in my dreams. The most recurrent dream, that I have heard many people tell of, is that I find a spare room in my house, wondering why we haven't been using it all the time. The house is sometimes real, sometimes completely imaginary. The room is mostly empty, but occasionally on the contrary crammed with things. I also dream that I am on a train or boat and have to get off soon, but all my luggage, especially the children's toys are scattered all over. When I dream about the children, they are always small and only two: Sergej and Anton merge into one symbolic Son.

Dreams as in aspirations have mostly been fulfilled. I used to dream of having a house, preferably with a fireplace, and a beautiful garden. I used to dream of driving a car. I used to dream of travelling to London (now that I can do it seven times a week it doesn't feel like much of a dream come true). I used to dream of becoming a writer. I used to dream of becoming famous. I used to dream of being able to buy any book I wanted (this was in a country when getting hold of any book was a problem) and to see all movies. I used to dream of true love. I used to dream of having children. When Sergej was born I dreamed of waltzing with him while I was still young enough to do so. I did at my doctoral ball in Stockholm City Hall. I used to dream of being a wise old teacher sitting under a tree surrounded by disciples (I once did teach a class under a tree in San Diego when it was too hot to stay inside). Three years ago I dreamed of having a research centre in children's literature.

Most of my dreams have been fulfilled ten times over. Is there nothing left for me to dream of? How frustrating. Maybe at my age, you no longer have those big dreams, but small ones. I dream of next spring when the garden will come alive again. I dream of seeing a total sun eclipse. I dream of an eccentric rich lady who will give my centre a million pounds to use on student scholarships (now, that was a big one!). I dream of going skiing with my grandchildren in March. I dream of winning a prize for my latest book. Not too bad. Still plenty of dreams to come true.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 14 : What you wore today

I don't know whether the repetition of this subject is intentional, but surely it makes a difference since last time it was on the weekend, and today is a working day. My working uniform is, most days, black pants, a top or shirt, jacket and a scarf. Highly unimaginative academic clothes. I like pants because I can wear sensible shoes and do not have to think about tights, which I am always anxious will get a ladder in a most conspicuous place. So it's much safer with pants. Black pants go with almost anything, and I have a variety of jackets, but I don't have to think about wearing different clothes every day. This was a pain in my old-old country, where you had to invent something new each time you went to work, which in my case was no more than twice a week, but even with a huge wardrobe you soon ran out of options. That's why it was so popular to trade clothes with your friends.

My current solution is wearing the same clothes and taking the risk of being extremely boring for the students. I am sure they say after the class: “Did you notice? She is wearing that old top again”. I know they at least make mental notes, because I do with other people. Especially if you have to watch them for two hours.

I have only recently developed a taste for scarves and learned the various ways of wearing them. Today's scarf is a present from an Oriental guest and makes a huge difference against a dark jacket. Wait a minute, I didn't wear a jacket at all today! It's one of my jacketless days when I feel a bit more relaxed and allow myself a jersey instead.

Tonight I am going to a formal dinner, and the invitation says “casual smart”. I have already written two blog posts on this particular dress code, so I won't do it again.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 13: This week

This is a very busy week. On Monday I worked from home. I hoped to be able to do some work of my own, but just for once the students who were supposed to submit their drafts actually did, so I read and commented on those because it's only a week and a half before the essays are due, and they were eager to get feedback. I also wrote a reference for a grant for British Academy and an abstract for a conference on Shakespeare adaptations. After that, I allowed myself a break, and Staffan and I watched one of those amazing BBC nature films.

On Tuesday, that's yesterday, I had an extraordinary meeting with professors at the Faculty to discuss the financial crisis. I pointed that the costs of printing readers and handbooks could be minimised by putting everything online. It seems that a whole studentship can be gained this way. Aren't I clever? Then there was another meeting, and I won another point, so I was very pleased with myself. In the meantime I replied to a million of emails, ordered catering for an event next week and wrote three recommendation letters. Then I went to a lecture on the unpromising topic “Education and international development”. I went because it was at the College and dedicated to the memory of a Homertonian whom I had never met so I thought it was my duty to be educated. But guess what – it was brilliant! Followed by Formal Hall with nice conversation to the left, to the right and across the table.

Today, Wednesday, I had two supervisions in the morning, did all kinds of paperwork in the afternoon, then met my dear friend Jean Webb who came from Worcester to give a talk. Excellent talk, good discussion, wine and nibbles afterwards, and then we all went to our place for dinner. Staffan had made a stew – ok, a gulash – and I had made a veggie stew for the veggie friends, and this morning before I left I had set the table really nice in the dining room so it was all ready when we came. Jean and her student are staying over. We put up the student in a folding bed in the dining room. I hope she is fine there.

Tomorrow we are going to the Faculty for a seminar where our students will meet the Worcester students and share their current work. One of my students will show picturebooks on iPad. I am looking forward to it. Then I have more supervisions and meetings. But in the evening I am going to Formal Hall at Jesus. I've never been there before. The invitation says: “No tickets or gowns necessary”. So disappointing.

On Friday I have the Examination Board. It's one of those meetings where you have to apply to the Vice Chancellor if you cannot attend. Where you actually sign students' grades.

I have no plans for the weekend. Probably I will bake some gingerbread.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 12 – What’s in your bag

I don't have a bag, but I hope a backpack counts. I stopped carrying bags many years ago after I read about how a bag gets your body off balance. Even a set of keys in your pocket is harmful. So I have a sensible canvas black backpack that goes with everything. My only requirement is that an A4 folder can be fit into it. In the main compartment I have my diary, books (for some reason, I always carry books to and from work and between buildings at work) and my wallet. In the inner pocket I have my mobile phone – always switched off! - compact powder, lipstick, comb, USB stick and a field pharmacy. In the outer pocket, I have my keys, university card, a fancy Oriental business card holder (a present of course) and an assortment of pens. I am horrible with pens. No idea giving me an expensive Parker, I'll lose it just as easy as a promotion ballpoint. I am very careful about putting everything in the right compartment because if I don't I'll never find it. Every now and then I panic because I cannot find my keys or my card. Almost every time I have put it in the wrong place.

Tonight I went to Formal Hall, and I don't want to carry more than absolutely necessary with me. Fortunately, I can put my car key into the sleeve of my gown!

Monday, 22 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 11: Your siblings

That's easy. I don't have any. But that would be too easy. When I was a child, I had an imaginary sister called Galya. I talked to her all the time, asked her advice on all important issues, made room for her beside me in my bed. I truly cannot remember when and how she disappeared.

My best friend Alyona – see my earlier blog post – and I pretended we were sisters; she was an only child too. It was a big, big secret that we were sisters, and I don't remember when we stopped either.

More important, in Russian, there is no difference in words for siblings and cousins. A male cousin is a “second brother”. A female cousin is a “second sister”. A second cousin is a “third” brother or sister. Normally you drop “second” and “third” (just as with cousins in English) and just say brother and sister. In this way I have loads of siblings. One brother is four years older than I, and he used to live with my maternal parents. When I visited and stayed overnight, we were allowed to have a pillow fight. Four years is a huge difference when you are very young, so his was my big, strong, clever brother. My other cousin is four years younger than I, and when I visited we played polar expeditions and border control. He had all those wonderful boy toys that I never had and would never dare to ask for.

Then I have my cousin Nina, twelve years younger. She was just a baby until she suddenly, about twenty years ago, was more or less the same age. We are good friends and talk on Skype every now and then. She is Anton's godmother.

I also have a second or perhaps third cousin – brother as it were – my age whom I mostly met on Christmas Eve. We were the only children and had fun together. I lost touch with him years ago.

Because of weird generation shifts I also have a third cousin twice removed who is almost my age. That is, when I was a child she was almost grown-up, but now we are the same age, give or take.

Some years ago I had a phone call from a “brother” in Germany. We managed to figure out how we were related. Without in-laws, just blood relatives, I probably have fifty siblings that I know of.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 10: What you wore today

When Marilyn Monroe was asked what she wore in bed she said: “Chanel no 5”. I do not wear perfume specifically in bed, but I wear perfume, and my favourite is Anaïs Anaïs.

I wear two rings on my left ring finger. One is a plain gold ring which is my wedding ring. When I announced my engagement to my workmates thirty plus years ago in Russia, they said: “Is your fiancé stingy? Why didn't he give you a more solid one?” But I wanted a plain, slender one. I wear it on my left ring finger because such is the Swedish custom. In Russia I would have worn it on my right hand. If I wore it on my left hand I would be either widowed or divorced. That's basic semiotics. My other ring is my doctoral ring and has a pattern of laurel leaves. The uninformed perhaps think it's an engagement ring or something like that. But with the knowledge of the semiotic code, you can read my ring as the sign of a doctoral degree in humanities from Stockholm University. So I wear my dignity day and night.

Otherwise, since it is Sunday, I am wearing gray tracksuit pants and a gray hoodie, warm gray socks and Ecco sandals.