Friday, 28 December 2018

Books of 2018

Goodreads tells me that I have read 36 books this year out of 30 I had as a a goal. I set my readings goals low nowadays because I choose long, slow reads, and I almost don't read any quick-paced YA novels or picturebooks, and I read very little criticism for work.

Once upon a time I read several hundreds of books every year, particularly when I was on the national book award jury (120-150 books in just a couple of months) and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award jury (too many to account for), and of course I skim-read a lot of professional literature. I am glad I don't have to do it any more. I still have to read books that my students write about, but that's different than reading for pleasure. As we all know.

Here are some books from 2018.

Best book: Touch, by Claire North
Next best book: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Best book with many sequels: Cazalet chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Best nonfiction: Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker
Quickest (and highly enjoyable) read: In Paris with You, by Clémentine Beauvais 
Old favourite re-read: Mary Poppins, by Pamela Travers 
Book on which a movie I had seen was based: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer
Book I had been planning to read for a long time: The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass
Book I should have read long ago: The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett
Weirdest book: Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami
Author I have read most: Claire North (seven books!)
Biggest disappointment: Bookworm, by Lucy Mangan

To see all my 2018 books visit my Goodreads.


Sunday, 9 December 2018


I have been away a few days for work, and while away I realised that it would be the first time ever I return to an empty home. (So many things are “first time ever” these days). I travel a lot, even though considerably less than I once used to. When I recently told someone that I didn't travel as much as before, I then remembered that this year I have been in Italy twice, in Belgium, in Austria skiing, in Sweden, not to mention a week at Hadrian's Wall. Each time I returned home to moderate human and enthusiastic feline welcome. There was light outside the garage and light in the windows. Sometimes there was dinner. There was food for breakfast next morning.

This time, nobody was waiting. The windows were dark. There was food in the fridge, and I had made sure that I had eggs and oranges for breakfast next morning.

It was warm, because I have a smart thermostat that switches on heating toward evening.

The dishes were washed up, the kitchen was tidy, the bed was neatly made. “Leave it as you want to find it”.

I usually start feeling homesick on the third day of travel, whether I travel alone or in company. Lying on my king-size bed in the luxury hotel that my conference hosts had provided, I was violently homesick and suddenly felt confused. Did I long for the quiet of my little flat? Or did I, deeply subconsciously, long for the home I no longer have? The home I had previously returned to? I dismissed the thought as irrelevant.

Lonely night in a hotel far away from home

Monday, 3 December 2018

Advent in Gatehouse

It seems that expats become more passionate about their traditions. In San Diego we were invited to a Swedish friend (married to an American) for her annual Swedish Lucia party, and she even had some young girls, maybe nieces or neighbours, who wore Lucia dresses and candle crowns in their hair.

Here in Cambridge, American students celebrate Thanksgiving and share secrets of getting the right sort of pumpkin.

When we moved to Cambridge, I decided to maintain my Swedishness by inviting my new colleagues to glögg on the first Sunday in December – too early for Lucia (which is December 13), but since the term ends in the beginning of December, everyone would have been away. The first glögg was still in Water Street, rather crowded, but I believe everybody enjoyed it because it is so exotic. After that we had the benefit of our spacious living room and dining room in Milton, and at times we would entertain up to forty people. I have a sense that my glögg parties became sort of a legend because first-year doctoral students would hear about it from others, eager to attend, and once and only once when I couldn't do it at all I got cautious emails from people who wondered whether they had slipped off the books.

Glögg is different from mulled wine, even if the general idea of hot, spicy wine is similar, and I use my family recipe that is also slightly different from the Swedish glögg. The two musts to go with glögg are gingerbread and saffron buns, or Lucia buns. I would bake both, although recently I would sometimes cheat and order gingerbread from a Swedish shop in London. They also sell glögg spices.

I usually encourage my guests to bring something they associate with the season, which mostly works well. Occasionally people bring something that needs cooking or oven-heating, which isn't convenient when you simultaniously pour out glögg for a couple dozen guests, making sure that those who prefer non-alcoholic version take the right cups.

This year I had no intention of having a glögg party. It just felt impossible in this tiny space. Then I remembered both Water Street and my glögg party in Finland, where my flat was even smaller, but around thirty people squeezed into it.

I also thought that it was now more or less clear that it was my last year in Cambridge, my very last chance to give a glögg party for my Cambridge friends. To h-ll with it; as the Swedish saying goes: Where there is room for hearts, there is room for bums.

I explained to friends that it would be crowded, and nobody seemed to mind. I explained that I had no oven to bake saffron buns, and a student invited me to do it at her place. I found Swedish gingerbread in an Italian delicatessen. I learned from experience that some people don't drink alcohol, so I make a non-alcoholic alternative with black-currant juice. I brought frozen black currants with me for this purpose.

I was a bit anxious, but you know what? Twenty-five people seemed quite happy to share the limited space. 

Saturday, 1 December 2018

The Ceremony of the Keys

To mark the first two months in Gatehouse I performed the Ceremony of the Keys.

In the past forty years, I have had two key rings: one with a single car key, the other with a set of house keys and an office key. All other sorts of keys that some people have on their key rings: garage, storeroom, bank vault, gas meter, mother-in-law's flat – I have always kept separate, in a key cabinet in the entrance hall. What's the point of carrying a bunch of keys that you maybe use once a year? I am puzzled by people who carry a dozen or more keys around. I once asked a colleague what all her keys were for, and she couldn't remember half of them. That's unhealthy, mentally as well as physically. You may think that a bunch of keys doesn't weigh much, but it does.

With Gatehouse came a set of keys that open the front door, the yard door, the gate, the shed and the mailbox. There is a plastic marker with the college name on it, like in a hotel. Until recently, I carried this set in my left pocket, while I carried the key ring with my office key and the two keys to my former home in my right pocket. There must be something deeply symbolic in this left-right separation, but for me it simply worked as a mnemonic device, since I otherwise always carry keys in my right pocket – don't ask me why. So left pocket for Gatehouse, right pocket for everything else. Doesn't make sense, does it, since I use the office key daily, while I only go back to the old house when necessary.

I use the shed key occasionally, and I check my mailbox every now and then because how often do we get paper mail these days? (Although my oldest grandson sends me wonderful letters sealed with red wax).

The time has come to move the keys I use together, to carry in my right pocket. Ironically, in my recent decluttering endeavours I threw away all key rings I had accumulated in my desk drawers. But I had some in my dollhouse supplies.

This was a solemn moment.