Monday, 27 September 2010

Banned books

Colleagues are talking a lot about Banned Books Week. Here are just two of many excellent articles on the subject. I used to be quite contemptuous about this form of censorship. In the late '90s I contributed to a special issue of the journal Paradoxa on censorship in children’s literature. With my background in a country with real censorship, where 2,500 writers paid with their lives for their written words during the Great Terror, I found the practice of removing children’s books from libraries or pasting underwear over Mickey’s private parts in In the Night Kitchen touchingly innocent. I now admit that I was wrong. No censorship is innocent.

I have written about silly examples of Swedish children's books published in the US, when a striptease dancer in a nonsense verse The Pirate Book turned into a “smashing lady” and got a proper black dress over her naked breasts. Or another nonsensical story, Else-Marie and Her Seven Daddies, where a girl takes a bath with her mother and her tiny imaginary daddies – in the US edition, the artist agreed to produce another picture with the girl reading in an armchair. Nobody objected to the seven daddies then. They probably would today.

I was upset when the mother was deleted from the image in the American version of The Wild Baby Goes to Sea, because it was an important part of the story that a parent is allowed to participate in imaginary adventures. Authors and artists agree to do such interventions because otherwise their books will not be translated, and the US market is powerful.

But it is still worse with original books. When I taught in California, my colleagues told me I was exceptionally brave because I had The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on my syllabus. I thought they were joking. The students explained how controversial this book was in the eyes of the school district authorities and how challenging, not to say reckless, it would be for them to choose it for classroom use.

My two other rather unexpected teaching experiences concerned Bridge to Terabithia and The Giver, two novels which I regard among the best works for children published in the US during the last 50 years. I was prepared for the discussion around the theme of death. In fact, I was very well prepared for this discussion of “sensitive issues”, with lots of good arguments I have been using in my courses in Sweden. But the students did not object to death as a subject in a children’s book. On the contrary, they thought that Bridge to Terabithia was a wonderful book to use in the classroom to talk to children about death (my intention had been to show, just as the author says herself, that this is not “a book about death”. Never mind). But they were concerned about the mention of religion. Jess’s family owns a Bible and goes to church on Easter Day. In the novel, this is an opportunity to discuss diversity, since Leslie’s parents are atheists, and she has never been to church. However, a student pointed out in her paper, as a teacher she was not allowed to discuss religion in the classroom without the parents’ consent; which means that a whole level of significance in the novel would have to be excluded from classroom discussion. Or maybe the novel can be censored? Let the family go to a market instead – this is what was done in translated children’s books in the Soviet Union whenever church visits were mentioned. Only how can a visit to a market inspire the underlying ideas of the novel about life and death, sin and reconciliation? Best not to use it at all then.

But the argument against The Giver – which by the way most of the students agreed was the best novel in the whole course – made me laugh and cry at the same time. The novel cannot be taught in schools, a student claimed in a paper, because it describes extrasensory perception, which parents may find offensive and inappropriate. The half of me that was laughing said: “Hey, this is a story, this is sort of science fiction!” But the other half sighed with resignation: “Poor kids! Not only are they denied the pleasures of the demonic Harry Potter, but also The Giver is dangerous, and not at all for the reasons I would think subversive”.

These are some of the aspects of censorship I brought home from my years in California and shared with my Swedish colleagues. Together, we laughed. Today I believe we are all in dismay. Alfie Atkins' father is not allowed to smoke his pipe any more. Critics, publishers and educators in Sweden, which I have always thought was an enlightened country, very seriously discuss whether nudity, sex, alcohol, smoking, politics, religion should be allowed in children's books. Whether death is an appropriate subject. Whether books should be removed form libraries because characters eat meat or drink coffee.

I am concerned. Censorship is spreading. How can we protect our children from overprotective adults?

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Stranger than fiction

Fiction is full of serendipities, and we are used to accept them as part of literary conventions. When serendipities occur in real life it feels uncanny. In my yesterday's post I mentioned a writer who once asked me what it was like to be dying. I didn't want to give the name, but I must now: it was Alan Garner.

In today's Independent there is an interview with Garner, that among other things mentions his near-death experiences. It also mentions places that I remember well: the Medicine House with its gigantic chimney, the railway at the bottom of the garden, Jodrell Bank radio telescope, Alderley Edge with its caves. It evokes other places: the Old Man of Mow, the Green Chapel, the fake ruin from Red Shift. All uncanny places with dreams and memories woven into them. Obviously, the interview was written when I wrote my blog yesterday.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Autumn reflections

The numerous pictures that friends put on Facebook of their basketfuls of mushrooms make me melancholy. Mushroom picking was an indispensable part of my childhood and youth, and I know I will never do it again. Not because we live in a country without mushrooms (I am sure there must be some further up in the North), but because mushrooms are banned from our home.

It's exactly twenty seven years ago, twenty seven years of borrowed time. I have never told this story outside the closest circle of friends.

It was a bright sunny autumn afternoon, and I took Julia in her push-chair to the little wood right outside our house, to the secret places that my father had marked on a pencil-sketched map. I didn't even have to go to the secret places because there were zillions of mushrooms all along the road. I know every mushroom there is to know, so I came home with two huge bags. The stepchildren were visiting, and I made a stew. It was so good that we finished it before Staffan had a chance to taste.

I was viciously sick early in the morning. I knew it was the mushroom stew, and I remembered an inscription I had seen on a tomb with four names and the same date: “They ate mushrooms”. I alerted Staffan and told him he had to take us all to Emergency, me and the three children. He laughed. He said I knew all mushrooms there were to know. He said people didn't die of mushrooms. The kids were sick too, but we probably had a stomach flu. It was not until late afternoon that I persuaded him to call Health hotline. At ER they were unimpressed, took blood tests and gave us barf bags. Then suddenly they were all panic, perforated me with tubes and syringes, gave me a revolting black liquid to drink and took me away to a ward, while the kids were taken to the children's clinic, and Staffan, with baby Julia, went with them. I didn't see them for quite a while, but I was too sick to care.

The doctors and nurses took me seriously, but I had my own concerns. Although I hadn't yet missed my period I knew I was pregnant. I asked a nurse to take a pregnancy test. She must have thought I was brain-damaged: dying, and asking for a pregnancy test. I didn't know I was dying. A writer friend asked me afterwards, almost envious: what was it like? Typical writer to be curious. An experience we all go through sooner or later, but few have the privilege to share.

If it is a comfort, people apparently don't know they are dying. Also you imagine that a deathly poisonous mushroom makes you die quickly. When I didn't die quickly, when I stopped throwing up after a day and a half, I entered what is called ante mortem euphoria. I wasn't in pain, I wasn't hungry or thirsty or sleepy. I couldn't read or listen to radio, but it didn't matter. Convalescent patients feel bored. I wasn't a convalescent. Time did not exist. Time no more. Daylight came and went. I lay back and felt peaceful.

Far away in another galaxy, Staffan had been told that he was practically a widower. I phoned him that evening to say that I felt great and longed to go home.

If I had stopped to think, I would have figured it out. They took off my wedding ring. They brought over my son from the children's clinic to say goodbye. (The kids made it, they were staying for observation). They were pumping gallons of drugs into me. I had a nurse by my side 24 hours. The nurses kept asking whether there was anything I wanted. I wanted a pregnancy test. On the fourth day they had to open a large blood vessel in my throat to put in more tubes. Not even that made me suspicious. I was beyond comprehension. When they told me on the fifth day that my pregnancy test was positive I cried. As it turned out, it was not the mushrooms, but the antidotes that killed the baby.

On Saturday, a week after my mushroom-picking walk, they took off the tubes. I felt ravenous. I hadn't eaten anything since that mushroom stew. They let me go home over the weekend. I was tired and grieving my baby. I was also worried because I had missed a PhD seminar. This gives a sense of my denial.

Obviously I am alive. The kids and I were a cover story of a major medical journal. Anton was born a year later. I almost never think about it. But mushrooms are banned from our home.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

My ultimate passion

I am totally happy. Since I am in my current research trying to figure out how emotions are generated in the brain (in order to figure out why we can relate to fictional characters' emotions), I know that happiness is caused by the brain registering the achievement of a goal. It seems that my whole life had been leading toward a goal achieved yesterday.
When I was a child, I wanted to be an astronomer. My favourite book was Camille Flammarion's Popular Astronomy, hopelessly outdated, but I didn't know it, so it was my Bible and prayer book. It actually reads like a novel. I wanted to join a children's astronomy club, but my mother told me that you had to be ten. When I was ten she told me that I was bad at maths and you had to be good at maths to become an astronomer. So I gave up my dream, but not reading Flammarion and anything I could get hold of. I knew the names of the major asteroids and Jupiter's moons, and I knew how eclipses work and how much a square inch of B Sirius weighs.
My father bought a telescope when I was already grown-up. He was an impulsive buyer (once he bought a sailing boat that he never sailed) so one day when I was visiting he took out the scope, set it up and pointed randomly at a bright star. It happened to be Saturn. This gave me the idea that star gazing was easy. The scope was never used again, and eventually it came to Sweden as a present to my son and was never used there either. Sergej grew up, and the scope moved with him to his own home, waiting for his kids to be old enough to play with it.

When we bought the house in Old School Lane, I noticed quickly how wonderful the night sky was. Not quite as perfect as in Australian deserts, but good enough to start me thinking about the old unwanted scope and how to take it over to England. I happened to mention it to Anton who shares this secret passion of mine, and he said, wise as ever: Why don't you just buy a new, modern telescope if you want one. I wasn't quite ready yet to indulge myself like that, but we went past a shop in King's Parade that had telescopes on display. Some months later, when Julia was visiting we went past this shop again, and the telescope was on sale. She said it was meant to be. I wasn't quite ready yet, but the day after I went and bought it. It came in boxes. I wasn't prepared for this. I thought I would just grab it and point it at the sky and admire Saturn.

It took me some hours to assemble my new toy, and when it was ready it didn't work. I get very upset when things I assemble carefully according to instructions don't work. I put the scope in a corner and waited until Anton came to visit again. He took it out and pointed it at a bright star. It was Saturn. It did not look quite like my memory image of Saturn, but it was a sublime moment. I was preparing for long hours of happy star gazing. I read Astronomy for Dummies. Then Anton left, and I tried looking at the moon and some stars until the laser finder suddenly died. I checked the battery, and I checked this and that, and I put in on my list of urgent things to do.

Now, it so happens that this year, Jupiter comes the closest to Earth since 1963. Jupiter is very bright as it is, but it is exceptionally bright now, and since mid-July it kept looking at me with remorse every night, calling with a voice I cannot explain. One night I took out the scope and tried to point it without a finder. Highly frustrating: you can see the star with a naked eye, but you cannot point at it exactly.

Last week I finally took the broken finder to the shop on King's Parade, only to learn that ordering a new one would take six weeks. And there was Jupiter calling to me. I did something I should have done from start. I bought a new finder from Amazon. It came within two days.

Yesterday I pointed my telescope at Jupiter. I saw a smear of light. Not at all like all those wonderful pictures in astronomy books or on the web. I looked and looked and looked, and it was getting darker and darker, and my eyes adjusted to darkness, just as Astronomy for Dummies predicted, and there it was, with belts and all, and the four moons lined up neatly, just for me.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Binge gardening

I am not particularly fond of shopping. I enjoy buying a piece of clothing when I like it and it suits me, but I hate wandering around a big store looking for a particular thing and not finding it, and I have never really understood the pleasure of window shopping. I don't understand why anyone would buy yet another pair of shoes when they already have a full wardrobe. There seems to be a scientific term for shoe-buying mania, but I can't find it right now.

I almost never buy souvenirs when I travel. I only buy something if I really, really like it and know what I am going to do with it.

Of course I always buy more books than I need, but that's a professional disease so it doesn't count.

What I cannot resist, however, is garden centres. I can literally spend hours there, just looking, but I can never be satisfied with just looking, so garden centres are dangerous. I always buy more plants than I have space for, and I always buy plants that do not really fit together even though each looks gorgeous separately. I allow myself the luxury with the same arguments I suppose all -holics use: I don't smoke, I don't gamble, I don't buy new clothes every week, so I'll just buy this little nice kala or yet another bag of tulip bulbs, just one more, and then neverm never again...

Yesterday I ended up with eights bags of tulip bulbs and two of crocus and allum and... just one more...

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Book of the week

At my conference, I asked the amazingly knowledgeable Marilyn from the Norfolk Children's Books Centre to recommend five best recent books. This is the only way to keep up with the hundreds of new books published every year: ask colleagues. I used to do it every time I came to the UK: ask a colleague for a list of five best books, and then go to a large bookshop and ask for the five most popular books. This way I always ended up with ten books. Once I came home with a book called The Northern Lights. I think it became quite famous later.

Marilyn chose five books reflecting the theme of the conference, adolescent novel, among then Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma. I must admit that I have never read anything by this author. I read 94 of the 417 pages before going to sleep yesterday. (Isn't it revealing that I can read a hundred pages of an adolescent novel in about the same time it takes me to read ten pages of The Magic Mountain or Moby-Dick). On these pages I have encountered so many clichees that I wonder whether the author is trying to win a competition in how much banality you can squeeze into a novel. Dysfunctional family. Absent father. Alcoholic mother who sleeps with every male she can get hold of. Half-autistic teenager with straight As in all subjects. Bullying classmates and stupid teachers. Have you read this before? I have. The back cover promises that the brother and sister fall in love with each other. I have read it before too, about fifteen years ago first time. I am a bit curious how explicit the incest is. It can be portrayed beautifully or disgustingly. But I wonder whether I want to go on reading. It's so profoundly poorly written. What do you give me for "stellar constellations"? There are two first-person narrators, and the alternating chapters are marked with their names, in case the reader doesn't notice. Although, it would be easy not to notice, because there is no difference whatsoever between the voices. I have read it before as well.

This is in no way a criticism of Marilyn. She didn't say it was a good book. She said it was an interesting book. It is my professional duty to read interesting books even when they are bad. It does not happen often that I don't read a book to the end, but I have been doing it more and more often recently. Life is much too short to waste your time on bad books.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

My right to vote

I am not particularly political. It comes from growing up in a country where politics was something you stayed away from, at least in my social environment. The so called elections (when you could choose from one candidate) were in my childhood connected with almond cakes. Our voting place was arranged in the hall of the famous cafe National, across the road from Red Square. On the election day, I would first accompany Granny, then Granddad, while my parents were late risers so I went again with them. Each time I would get an almond cake. I was also allowed to put the ballots into the box. Nobody looked at them anyway. The outcome of the election was always 99,99% for the only available party. What the 0,01% voted for I don't know.

During my early time in Sweden I was only entitled to vote in local elections, and I proudly did. When I think back I realise that Staffan actually never asked me which party I voted for, so I could have voted for anything. I also wonder whether I would have voted differently if he had different political views. Whether it would have mattered if we had different political views. I guess I didn't have any political views to begin with so I just adopted his. But during all these years I got more and more confident in that I was voting for something I believed in. Something I still believe in.

This time will be the first time I do not use my right to vote. Neither does Staffan. It is not because we are expats - we have received all the required papers. We could have voted by post, and we haven't. We can still go to London on Sunday and vote at the embassy, but I don't think we will. We cannot vote for any other party than the one whose beliefs we share. But we cannot vote for a party leader whom we do not trust. We do not want her to become the Prime Minister of Sweden.

This is the first time I am really engaged in the election campaign. Pity that I am not going to vote. 

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Beginning a new cycle

I am now starting my third year in Cambridge. I am thinking back to how I felt this time two years ago, confused, anxious, apprehensive, regretful, and I wonder how I managed it - but did I have a choice other than manage? I am pleased to state that today I feel confident, calm and satisfied. I have just run a very successful conference. A conference organiser isn't supposed to enjoy her own conference, just as a hostess is not supposed to enjoy her party; but I did. It was an excellent, possibly ground-breaking conference, although the latter only posterity can reveal. I am proud of having attended this conference. It's merely a coincidence that I organised it.

I also feel confident in the everyday routine. At this point, two years ago, I had still not realised that a paper was a course and that Tripos was the undergraduate program, not to mention all the mysterious PGCE, SMT, SCUG and MMG. Now I know that this term I am doing one lecture for PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education), that I will in due time be called to SMT (Senior Management Team), that I am the Chair of SCUG (Standing Committee for Undergraduate Degree), and that I am replacing Morag in MMG (Masters Management Group). I have just noticed that Cross-Route Moderation has been renamed Quality Assurance, but it cannot upset me anymore. I am keeping abreast with progress.

Since Morag is on study leave, I am doing a lot of things that she normally does: handbooks, readers, inductions, adjudications, pre-term team meetings and even the terrifying Examination Board - terrifiying because if you cannot attend you need to apply to VC (which I now know means Vice Chancellor). All this before term starts. Mind, I am still on vacation... ooops, I mean research period.

I am looking forward to the new term and the new academic year. I am looking forward to the new bunches of students who will discover the joys of picturebooks and adolescent novels, who will ask awkward questions and come up with wonderful insights. I am looking forward to supervisions and reading groups. I am looking forward to long fruitful  meetings with teaching teams, discussing why we do things in this way or that and why we do them at all. I am looking forward to the reward of receiving a good essay draft.

I know I am privileged. I love my work. 

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Social media

I am on a foreign territory. Everybody seems to write about and comment on social media; tthere are a couple of papers in my upcoming conference on the topic, not to mention my brilliant daughter who does it for a living (that is, writing about social media). I have been reluctant on the edge of hostile until recently, but of course when I started this blog I succumbed. I also belong to a dollhouse discussion group. My next step was Shelfari, which is a book sharing site where I have been building my personal bookshelf for a year now. I have always wanted to compile some form of database for every book I have ever read, with comments on when and whether I read it for work or for pleasure and whether I liked it. Shelfari is just the thing I need, so I play with it every now and then. I only have 1238 books on my shelf so far, but I am doing my best.

Last summer I finally signed up for Facebook. I knew very little about it and certainly never thought I'd get addicted. When I created my account, FB immediately picked up a dozen email addresses from my address book, and most of them were on FB. It was fun to know that a retired colleague in Canada is growing vegetables in his backyard.

However, what I certainly did not expect are the professional contacts. A colleague (not on FB herself) who is a university librarian asked me the other day whether I used any social media and whether I used them privately or professionally. I estimated that half of my FB friends were professional contacts, and later I realised that I was wrong, it's far more than half. And apart from boasting about your vegetables and pets, sharing professional stuff is great. There is so much information out there nobody can follow everything, but if I see a link posted by this or that colleague, I read it - and frequently repost for other colleagues; and I read their formal and informal reviews of new books; and I read about conferences and events that I cannot attend. So I can with confidence say: FB is not just play, but a very important part of my professional life. If you asked me a year ago I would dismiss it as nonsense

I am still keeping away from Twitter, but I do have a Spotify account.