Lost Books

On Lost Books Alexandria

I’m not big on nostalgia, but “books I once owned” is a class of memories guaranteed to induce misty-eyed reverie, if not outright pangs of regret. My eyes slide along the shelf of English language novels, L-P, then skip back to M… Mantel. Hang on.

Where is Black Books? Did I lend it out and never get it back? Or DID I THROW IT INTO A RECYCLING BIN?! (Please, hear me out / have mercy.)

Call it careless, call it idiocy, but in my time I’ve suffered a couple of episodes of large scale Book Loss. “Suffered” as in “allowed to happen”.

The first tragic book abandonment was the result of a break-up. In the heat of moving out, it seemed there were more important things to deal with (well, you live and learn). As a result, I’m not entirely sure what I read in the 90’s and early 00’s. Most of the Most Important Books went with me, as well as ones likely to be referenced this lifetime, but the losses included a number of valued gifts (A Confederacy of Dunces) and excellent reads – including Richard Flanagan’s bonkers Gould’s Book of Fish, which I would give my right carp to revisit.

The second, more traumatic bookocalypse occurred during our move from Amsterdam to Stockholm. [*AVERT EYES NOW IF SENSITIVE TO SCENES OF SENSELESS BOOK WASTAGE*] Trying to keep the shipping manageable, I talked myself into doing away with the cubic yards of scrappy second-, third-, and ninth-hand Penguin Classics I’d accumulated. Once the boxes shipped, I took the Reluctant Discards to the recycling station pile… only to find that buried underneath the Ovids and Nietsches were a couple of stacks of Keepers.

Is this where Black Books met its end? Hard to say, since, understandably, I’ve since undergone extensive hypnotherapy to wipe all memory of the incident.

In addition to these two acts of bibliographical recklessness, there have been the other, slower library erosions. Nothing wrong with books given away, especially those titles that didn’t make their mark on me and would have been more appreciated in the hands of another reader.

Then there are those unreturned lendings. Honestly, I’m not irate about those. Not at all. Honest. In fact, the only reason I can list the authors, titles, name of the lendees, and venue in which the lending took place is because I have a photographic memory or something. Must be that. *PENCIL SNAPS*

To Replace or Not To Replace? The urge is strong to binge order new copies of those most missed. It’s lunacy to do that when there are new books to be read. Right? But I *have* been meaning to do more re-reading of favourite books. Though what if the edition I knew and loved is out of print, will a different edition feel like an imposter?? Could wait to pick them up second hand, though that could take decades…

Because these lost books are the only record of my development as a reader. The humour and horror of my teens, the drama of my student years, the hardboiled crime of my twenties.

On some level, I still believe these books are still hidden somewhere on our shelves, Phantom Tomes whose spines are almost visible in peripheral vision, whose covers pass before my eyes every time their titles come to mind.

Did you hear that creak of aging paperback spine? Maybe I’ll take another look. They’re here somewhere, I know it…


No, NoWriMo :(

"No novel for you!"

“No novel for you!”

No. No, I didn’t finish NaNoWriMo. I terrible failure.

Didn’t even hit the 20k mark. “Life”, is the best excuse I can come up with. “Responsibiliblah”. Nothing insurmountable.

I’ve hit the 50k for two prior NaNo’s, and have told myself each time that the main thing was getting in the practice of writing every day. Except! It never formed a longer habit. November would leave me frazzled, I’d tap out till after Christmas. And I never went back for a proper review of the work that I had done.

The mania of it, the desperate grasping hurtle towards an ever greater word count, left an unbearable impression of awfulness. The ideas died, suffocated under a weight of low grade logorrhea.

So I didn’t finish this year, but I didn’t kill the idea either. I *do* still need to do work, a lot more work, in fact it repeatedly ocurred to me during November how much more work than I thought I had to do I actually had to do, and that realisation would dawn on me on each of the days that I did do write, and NOW you get a flavour of how I write during NNWM.

I checked the NaNo site again today, the first time since Nov 30 lapsed without fanfare, and – lo and behold – I do get a jpeg anyway. A participant’s medal. It hadn’t occurred to me that they would do that, but of course they would do that.

What’s that though? Follow the link and – of course they would do that – NNWM has Goal Trackers, advice, and forums for the What Now? months.

Perversely, I’m touched by this. I don’t know if I thought NNWM, the site, and all its contributors turned into assorted squashes come Dec 1, but that might as well have been the case.

That little discovery was a tiny unexpected jolt of encouragement to continue.


No Gender Neutral God


In the steady stream of bullshit news about Sweden, you might have seen the one about the Swedish church banning the use of “he” to refer to God.

IT NOT TRUE. I know; shocker. It seems there have been theologically interesting amendments – in places, not throughout – in order to agree with original Hebrew texts on the one hand, and the nature of the Trinity on the other.

It’s also not a news story here in Sweden, but it’s been widely circulated by spittle-flecked English-speaking Scandi-bashers. Farage (tell me why that doesn’t rhyme with English ‘garage’, again?), O’Reilly, et cetera ad nauseum.

No, it’s not been on the radar here. Not to say that Sweden doesn’t have its traditionalists. The gender neutral pronoun “hen” has become reasonably well established (created 1960’s, popularised this century, dictionarised 2015), but it still attracts flack.

Most of the ire seems to stem from fear of hen’s magical gender-warping properties as also evinced in this – of all places – Slate article from 2012. No, even the most right-on Swedes are not trying to “banish gender”. In my experience of Swedish TV news, I’ve more often heard hen deployed when gender is unknown – say, discussing what a hypothetical future minister might do.

At least no-one really objects to hen on grammatical grounds, it avoids the prescriptivist nonsense that English singular pronoun “they” attracts. As I noted re: the snopp/snippa phenomenon, these linguistic adaptations have been absorbed by modern Swedish without great friction. Which is perhaps more an indication of the small, contained nature of the linguistic group than any testament to the open-minded fairness of the Swedes, though that’s surely a factor too.

Anyway, the Lord God is still a He, here, though the Trinity is sometimes God instead of He, and the Holy Ghost, yes is Hen, but was the Ghost ever a He anyway? Excuse me, I’m exhausted. That stream of negative propaganda about Sweden is likely to turn into a flood in the coming year, with an election on the horizon.


No it's not going to stop, so just... give up

Twelve days in. A disappointing nine-and-a-half thousand words done. Half of the word count I need to stay on track. Not giving up yet but tempted.

I started drafting this post in the week. At the time it was ten days in, 7.5k words. Shelved the post, even, the spirit of capitulation running strong in my veins.

However, despite thinking I wouldn’t get any writing done at weekends – too much family business, too many chores – I managed to eke out that extra couple thou, bleary-eyed on the sofa while the rest of the family was a-bed.

Part of the point of NNWM is the public commitment. That the announcement of the attempt enables your motivated past self to guilt trip your lazy-ass present self into doing the work.

So here I am renewing my vows, way behind target but not dead yet.

And under no illusion either. In previous years I’ve cleared my schedule and booked time off work to make it happen. This year, that ain’t happening.

But this year I’ve reframed my expectations and finessed my goals. The point of November isn’t hitting 50k by any means necessary, it’s just getting some words down. In fact, if I don’t hit 50k, so much the better.

That way I’ll avoid the quick fix low accomplishment buzz of finishing draft zero. Pointing to the NaNo Winner’s certificate as some dubious measure of achievement rather than returning to the hard fucking yards of interminable edits and rewrites.

I’m not doing NaNo down. On the contrary, I’m taking it seriously for once.

Any NaNoWriMoFolks reading this, how do you stay motivated? How do you find the time, when your everyday commitments don’t even give you the time for eight hours’ sleep, let alone the indulgence of a month-long novel-blast?



Somehow, I seem to have convinced myself to take another punt at NaNoWriMo.

November is 12 hours away. I have an unstable character list (the list is unstable, not the characters), some scrappy research, and the whisper of a plot. Also small children to parent and a job.

Twice before I’ve forced myself through the blunt force creative trauma of 50,000 words in a month, in 2010 and 2013. So the attempt rate is dropping, but that’s a pretty limited data set. I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo in those years, and languishing somewhere in a subfolder are the PDF winner’s certificates to prove it.

But both those times, I’ve failed.

2010’s Fantastic Damage (El-P was on repeat) was a desperate smushing together of several long-dormant short story germs. Reader, I did not go back and read it. Or maybe I did and have blanked it out.

2013’s Untitled Longer Project (oh, the mystery!) was a split-hair-over-the-50-thou of preamble and backstory to the novel I wanted to write. But I was deflated by the insipid inconsequentiality of the effort, and after a few weeks of attempting to right the thing, I let it sink to the bottom of my bottomless draw of false writing starts.

You see where I fucked up, right? The first time, it was in dismissing the attempt without even re-reading the thing. The second time, in feeling like the work done was a waste, rather than necessary groundwork to excavate whatever it was that should have been written.

So that’s two valuable lessons learned, albeit at a tortoisal pace. This year will have the immeasurably tougher constraint of working around that parenting business, but on the plus side this year’s idea-nugget feels more viable.

Providing the re-read is done clinically, with a reader’s eye.

Providing the NaNo word dump is sifted carefully, with an honest appreciation for what works and can be built upon.

The point is not so much whether or not I reach 50k. It’s getting teeth stuck into the idea.

Mysteries of the Dragon Gate


Looming incongruously over the E4 just south of Gävle is an impressive development bearing the name Dragon Gate. We’ve driven past it once or twice a year since moving to Sweden, on our way north from Stockholm during the summer. Even from road level it looks odd, a massive grey non-sequitur, cheap concrete Chinese architecture hulking up out of the forested sides of the motorway. What the hell *is* it??

Finally, this year, we got to stop there and have a nose around. (A very fringe benefit of a driving with a car seat-averse infant.) The place is a spectacular misfire of an investment. Work started in 2004 on what might some day have been a grand Sino-Swedish cultural hub, with a hotel, restaurants, a museum, and – if Wikipedia (Swedish) is to be believed – a Shaolin temple and kung fu school.


Instead it became a shotgun wedding of reckless Chinese development and painstaking Swedish beauracracy. Fruitful, not so much. The first phase of building was completed in 2008, some of which was accomplished without planning permission. Now, the hotel and restaurant building stand unpainted and grandly unloved in the middle of acres of paved emptiness.

Signs hand-painted on bedsheets hang askew. The restaurant runs on a skeleton staff (full disclosure: we didn’t eat there, terrible missed opportunity). The gift shop, stacked high with kitsch and tchotchkes, is unstaffed and even lacking a cash register (I guess you pay in the restaurant). Outside, the lofty statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin shows compassion by averting her gaze from the epic folly behind her.


In recent years, there were two attempts at a grand opening for the hotel, both dogged by rumours of the projects abandonment. But the owner – a Chinese businessman who made his fortune in the mosquito repellant business – has so far been content to keep the venture afloat. At the height of summer, such as when we visited, the Dragon Gate can be seen to entertain as many as tens of people, wandering incredulously from one enormously misguided construction to the next. All of them wondering what on earth happened here. Pondering where all those copies of the terracotta warriors might be hidden. And hoping that the plan to install a live panda never comes to pass.

Warning: Parental Language


As the parent of a girl and a boy, both under five, and both Swedish-English, I’ve discovered at least one area where Swedish, despite its much tinier vocabulary, has the edge over English.

Swedish boys possess a snopp; girls, a snippa. That’s standard, pre-school appropriate terminology. English boys have a ‘willy’, though it sounds slightly silly. Or a ‘pee-pee’, though that strikes me as both twee and kinda American.

But for infant English girls? No, the options are all terrible: Mumsnet, surely the holy gospel and iron fisted authority on such matters, proves it. There are arcane, family-specific codewords. There’s the stuffy ‘fanny’, archaic-sounding and confusing to Americans to boot (I promise, I’ll leave American English out if it now).

Worst of all there are the prurient British circumlocutions, the ‘front bottoms’ and ‘lady bits’. FFS. Dreadful. Those seem to be common currency purely because there is nothing else on offer, but I can’t help but think that it’s a strange to set your child out unable to directly name their own anatomies, only approaching warily, through the sanitizing gauze of euphemism.

Sweden didn’t always have snippa to help out us poor struggling parents of girls. No, snopp for boys has been around since… oh, ages! (Note To Self: more research here plz.) Snippa was a relatively recent development, only popularised as recently as 2000, thanks to Anna Kosztovics, a social worker in Malmö. But it’s already established itself as firmly as its male counterpart. A word, fit for purpose, meeting a need that was introduced without much fuss and quickly established itself as the de facto term.

Sensible, practical, and equitable. About as Swedish as you can get.