Monday, 31 December 2012

Annual report 2012

Facebook has identified twenty highlights of my 2012. But Facebook doesn't know about all of my highlights (neither about my downs) because I don't share them on Facebook. It has picked up the fact that there was something going on in the middle of May, and it has noted that I had a Cornwall holiday. But it doesn't understand that the photo album dedicated to Miso wasn't exactly a highlight.

My sixtieth birthday was doubtless a highlight, but apart from that it wasn't a happy year. But it is almost over, and I have a lucky memory that only stores good things.

Facebook hasn't picked up that I have totally changed my attitude toward clothes and learned thirty-nine ways of tying a scarf. If possible, this was a more important highlight than my birthday, or at least it has left more impact. I will never ever wear black again unless it is dictated by the dress code. Speaking of which, I graduated last summer and have now a MA from Cambridge. Not that I know what to do with it.

Work has been good, and I have won some important battles that will make the coming years better still. My first Cambridge PhD student has successfully completed. My other students are making progress, publishing articles, attending conferences, actually hosting a conference! They are all so brilliant and a pleasure to work with. (And I have wonderful colleagues too).

I have finished a book that will hopefully appear next year, and a co-edited book came out in September. Also a couple of articles and chapters that I am happy with.

I have cut down on travel and, apart from Sweden for my birthday, have only been to Germany, Norway and Spain, all for work. And in Scotland if you count it as a separate country. Our children have visited regularly. In February we had an invasion of four grandchildren. Julia and Pontus visited several times, as did Anton, and Lisa with two boys was here recently. And our dear friend Norton Juster stayed with us for some days in May.

I am now a proud owner and user of a smartphone (thanks to the kids) and an iPad (my own venture). I cannot imagine how I survived before. 

I have already shared some of the best books I read this year.  The best movie I saw this year was Hugo. The best theatre show I saw this year was Matilda. The best concert was Murray Perahia. The best exhibition was Literary Landscapes at the British Library.

This past summer, my garden started looking the way I want it. Still a lot to be done, but I didn't have to plant annuals to fill the gaps. The strawberries were watery because of too much rain, but we had three harvests of raspberries. I planted some new roses. We bought an electric lawnmower. We built a new fence. 

I have made some new room boxes, added to the existing dollhouses and started a dollhouse blog

And of course our precious Miranda came to us this year. 

 Photo credit: Pontus Walck

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Best books of 2012

Another seasonal post. As usual, not necessarily books published in 2012, but the ones I read in 2012.

Best novel: Possession, by A S Byatt

Best classic: Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Best re-read: Black Cloud, by Fred Hoyle

Best humour: Dodger, by Terry Pratchett

Best young adult novel: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

Best children's book: Four Children and It, by Jacqueline Wilson

Best picturebook: The Heart and the Bottle, by Oliver Jeffers

Best nonfiction: Watching the English, by Kate Fox

Best literary criticism: Why we read fiction by Liza Sunshine

Best on children's literature: Freud in Oz, by Kenneth Kidd

Best book I have contributed to: The History of Childhood in the Western World, edited by Paula Fass

Best unexpected: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Promises kept

I started writing a post about the year that has been and decided to look at what I wrote at this time a year ago. Here were my New Year promises and this is how I have kept them:
  • work less Hmmm...
  • replace broken glass in the greenhouse Yes
  • get a smartphone (maybe) Yes! And I love it! I also got an iPad, which I couldn't even imagine a year ago.
  • start driving to Stansted on my own No. No way. Cross out.
  • work less See above
  • re-join the fitness club Go and stand in the corner! On the other hand, I have walked 150 kilometres since August. I can prove it because I am using RunKeeper.
  • put up the second tool panel in the utility room No! Completely got off my radar. Must do tomorrow, before the year ends.
  • visit Cornwall Yes! I had forgotten I had planned it. I thought it was a spontaneous idea. It was a serendipity that we ended up in Cornwall
  • work less See above
  • paint the window sills Well, I didn't precisely paint them, but it's done
  • resists temptations of conferences, festivals, juries, and editorial boards Been quite good at it. Declined some invitations, offered virtual lectures instead; declined most of reviews. But did a lot of other things that I cannot say no to.
  • drink less coffee No. Why did I decide that?
  • update my profile page Yes. It probably needs updating again.
  • work less See above. A good illustration: it's Saturday, and I have been at my desk for ten hours
  • reconcile with the fact that I will be sixty this year Yes. It was a wonderful birthday, and it's been and gone, so I guess I have reconciled with it.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Reading networks

I must have some gene from my librarian great-aunt in me, because ever since I was a child I loved cataloguing books. This aunt gave me real index cards, and we indexed all my books - she writing in pretty "library handwriting", me, awkwardly, but proudly, in purple ink. This first index catalogue disappeared at some point, but in my early twenties I started cataloguing again, both books I owned, books I had read and books I planned to read. I had my own system of signs to indicate books that I liked or disliked, books that I read for work or for pleasure, fiction and non-fiction. I noted when I had finished each book, and I kept track of how many books in each category I read every year. In other words, I did, manually, what book and reading sites allow you to do today.

This catalogue was lost when I moved to Sweden, and I started a new one, but life caught up with me. I still kept track of all books I read, but on a modest scale.

A couple of years ago my clever children suggested Shelfari. What I wanted was simply convenient software to record my current and past reading. I didn't necessarily want to share it with anyone. It took some time to build up my shelf, and I am still adding to it when I remember books I read long ago. At the moment I have 2,251 books on my shelf, but I haven't even started adding the numerous Scandinavian YA novels. Since I joined, I have recorded every single book I have read. Shelfari helpfully provides me with statistics. It even tells me that I am behind my pace this year as compared to last yar. It does not differentiate between a picturebook and a 800-page novel.

I have 442 tags for my shelf, and I tag every book carefully with at least 4-5 tags. My top tags are Children's Literature, Classic, Fantasy, Picturebooks and I Have Written About It. I have a top-ten category and top-hundred category and children's top-hundred and picturebooks top-ten. Sometimes I write very short reviews. I don't supply ridiculously short synopses or character descriptions. I don't note where I bought the book and which edition I have and whether it is signed by the author and all other stuff Shelfari allows you to enter.

Building up the shelf retrospectively is illuminating. It made me realise that some books that I value exceptionally high I hadn't actually re-read for quite a while. So I re-read them, and most of them were still great. It made me remember books I had no memory of. It made me aware of books that I had read and still had no memory of. In short, it was a very interesting exercise.

I have some Shelfari friends, but it's nothing like Goodreads. I have a shelf on Goodreads, and I keep adding to it, but I don't really have time to maintain two sites. What is fascinating about Goodreads is that it automatically adds all my Facebook friends, so suddenly I know what my colleagues and students are reading and how they rate the books. (And they know what I am reading and how I rate). Something I view as brilliant gets one star. Something I think is garbage gets five stars. I wish I had time to have a discussion with all these friends and ask: what did you like about this horrible book? How could you give one star to this masterpiece? And: oh, I am so glad that we like the same book. But the greatest surprise is that so many colleagues are reading and have read books I have never heard of. Now, if I look at the most popular books on Shelfari and state that I haven't heard of any of them, I am not upset, because I seldom read commonly popular books. I don't read crime or romance or autofiction. But when I see a colleague's shelf with author upon author I haven't heard of, then I must hade missed something. As colleagues in the same field I would expect us to have more in common.

I also know how colleagues have rated books that I have written.

Monday, 17 December 2012


In three weeks I am going on study leave. You may wonder whether it makes any difference since we are almost on the verge of holidays, but it's the "almost" that makes it problematic, On the last day of term, masters students turned in their first essays, and first-year PhD stuents turned in their first chapters. Since we double-mark all student work, I have twice as many essays to mark than I supervise. Twelve, to be precise. That's twelve times 6,500 words, each of which needs substantial written feedback. It takes at least two hours to read and comment on an essay, often considerably longer. If I mark on average three essays a day, it will take me four days, which takes me to the end of this week.

On top of this, I have three-score postdoc applications which I also need to read and rank before I can breathe out. Let's say, optimistically, that it takes me half an hour to read an application. That means that in a normal 8-hour working  day, I can do sixteen applications. So if I start on Boxing Day, I may just about have time to cook lobster thermidore for the New Year dinner.

The thing is of course that you cannot read sixteen applications a day because it will be unfair toward the last five since you will be tired and furious and rank them low. You cannot even read three essays a day without losing the attention these essays deserve. Therefore you need breaks in between and do something else. And no, I cannot take a break from essays and read applications, nor the other way round. The breaks need to be focused on something unrelated. So I tell myself. Like, let me see... for each essay I am allowed to write a blog post. Or better still, for each essay I am allowed to make one object for my dollhouses. (In summer I would of course negotiate with myself that for each essay I can do an hour of gardening).

This is why I give myself a margin of an additional week. Besides, I have all other small tasks that need to be done by the beginning of January. For each recommendation letter, a miniature object. For each reader review, a miniature. For each PhD examination... two miniatures. Maybe three.

When I am finished with all this, estimated three weeks from now, I am going on study leave. No classes, no supervisions, no marking, no meetings, no admissions, no examinations, no recommendation letters. Too good to be true. I will be writing a book. Full time. 24/7. For three months. It will be 100,000 words, which.means slightly over 1,000 words a day, including weekends. For every 500 words, I will be allowed to make a miniature. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Go virtual

I have been teaching online since 1999, but today I gave my first live virtual lecture. I don't quite believe that it's an adequate way of teaching, but as I always say about online teaching: it's a good alternative. In this particular case I was invited to do a lecture in Germany, and I just couldn't travel there for a whole number of reasons. Then my hosts asked whether I would be prepared to do a video lecture, and since I am always foolishly eager to try new things I agreed. It was some time ago, and I didn't contemplate how it would turn out. Last week we ran a trial, and after I had tried every single button it finally worked, so I was pretty confident it would work today. I had agreed to "meet" the technical assistant at a quarter to, and I started getting nervous, sitting there and staring at the dead screen. There is not much you can do. Then suddenly I saw a big lecture hall with a handful of students and wondered why there were so few - did they think it was a waste of time listening to someone who wasn't even there? (It turned out that they employ "academic quarter", that is, the lecture is announced at 4, but actually starts at 4.15. I was used to it when I taught in Finland).

I could see them, but not hear them, and they could neither see nor hear me, and I stared at myself on the screen and wondered whether I really look so hideous or was it just the camera. Eventually they could see and hear me, and I could hear them, but not see them, and by that time I just didn't dare push any more buttons in case I would ruin it all together. So I talked for an hour watching myself on the screen, without any contact with the audience, which felt a bit like talking into outer space. I like to see people's faces when I talk; I often adjust my talk according to the audience response - I guess we all do. But I just talked and talked, and sometimes I smiled, and sometimes I made a side comment which I'd normally expect the audience to react to. In fact, I wasn't even sure whether they were listening. But apparently they were, for they asked intelligent questions afterwards which they wouldnä'f have been able to ask if they hadn't heard me. It wasn't meant to be like that, but it worked for me, and I feel I can do it and would do it again.

Requests considered on first come first served basis.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Change of perspective

I know I am expected to blog about it, so here it is. Yesterday I had the first experience as a supervisor at a British viva. I was a co-supervisor to a British student some years ago, and I wasn't even invited to the viva, which at the time felt an insult, but I now know wasn't. The supervisor's role seems to be finished when the thesis is submitted, not when it is approved.

Anyway, my first Cambridge PhD student submitted her thesis this term, and yesterday she had her viva. For a British viva, there is an internal and an external examiner. (I have been an internal, and I am going to be an external soon, so I am getting it). They are supposed to write their reports independently and are not alowed to confer before the pre-viva, which is half an hour before the viva. Needless to say, the supervisor is not allowed to confer with any of the examiners. So the past two months, although I met the internal daily, I pretended that I hadn't even heard of any student or any thesis or anything even remotedly resembling picturebooks.

The external is a very good old friend of mine - that's why I chose her as an external, although it certainly helped that she is an expert on the topic of the thesis and is affiliated with a university approved by Cambridge (arrrrgghh!). She only came over for a day and two nights, but I wanted to see her as a friend, so I did invite her for dinner, although I think it was against the protocol. I believe that I can keep friendship and business apart. She could have declined if she thought it was inappropiate.

The day before, I had a mock viva with the student. A mock viva means that you pretend to be an examiner and ask awkward questions. The point is to give the student an idea of what kind of questions the perverted mind of an examiner can think of. Having been an examiner makes the exercise easy, although it takes some effort to pretend that you haven't actually approved of every single semi-colon in the d-d text and therefore believe it immaculate.

On the morning of the viva I had very deliberately decided to sit down and write an article long overdue (very unlike me!), but of course it didn't work. I went to the office and moved around some books on the shelves, telling myself I needed to tidy up the office since I am going on study leave soon. Then I joined the two examiners for lunch, and we chirped happily on unrelated matters until I left them to do their dirty business and re-shuffled some more books.

Then I went to see the student, and we went through all the possible questions again, and chirped on unrelated matters, gradually joined by a support club including her husband. I don't quite know what the student felt, but I felt sick. However, I am very good at pretending, so I don't think she noticed. Finally, she was called in, and I felt like a husband whose wife is taken in for a ceasarian, and he is not allowed to follow into the op room. We went on chirping, and I was watching the clock and trying not to think about all those dumb questions they were sure to ask, and when the student's husband wondered whether vivas could go on longer than an hour I said cheerfully that yes of course they could, they could go on for ever, and they did. Then we saw her coming down the stairs, waving, and I knew that she felt good, so I tried to feel good too, although the worst was still to come. And I promise that next time I am examining a thesis I will not make the student wait for twenty-five minutes before she is called back to be told that she has passed. I was too angry to feel good, but I am very good at pretending. No seriously, I did feel good. It also felt unreal and surreal and everything I had told the student it would feel for her.

The Faculty doctoral manager brought in a bottle of sparkling and plastic flutes. She poured out and sipped a bit of hers and left, ordering me to take the remains of the bottle to the office. I told her we would finish it ourselves. What good would a half bottle of sparkling do in the Higher Degrees office after office hours on a Friday? 

I wanted to go home and go to bed. I was almost relieved when the taxi company said it would take half an hour to get a taxi. I was texting the student to say I wasn't coming when the taxi finally arrived. Then of course we had a wonderful dinner and a lovely time together, the new Doctor, the examiners and the support club.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Things that matter

Every now and then I reflect on how much more intensive my life is now as compared to my previous life. I know I worked a lot then as well, but I had less regulated work. I went in to teach, and I had office hours and supervisions by appointment, and there were some meetings that I dutifully attended and that didn't make any difference at all. The rest of my time I was at home writing my books and articles, or travelling around the world to conferences and guest talks.

I cannot say that all meetings of my current life are exciting, but they surely make a difference, sometimes substantial. Sometimes for the better, oftentimes for the worse. At least I know that I can try to make a difference. I may succeed if I try hard enough. As in any job, there are problems and disappointments. But there are so many more reasons to be glad or even proud. So many more things that matter. Things that make life interesting.

Next week my first Cambridge Phd student has her viva. Another student will finish next year, then yet another batch. I watch them grow, become independent, attend conferences, publish, get invited to events – watch them transit from students to colleagues. It matters.

A new bunch of masters students have just submitted their first assignments. They are anxious. One said to me: “Thank you for making things clearer”. It matters.

The new electives we designed last summer have, as far as I can tell, been successful. The new sessions I did for doctoral research training this term attracted students from other disciplines, who have posed a whole set of new questions to me. We have a lovely group of visiting scholars this term.

I have won some battles that nobody might even know about. There are tiny indicators that the rest of the Faculty are reluctantly acknowledging that children's literature is a legitimate subject, that it brings in students, and that it won't go away.