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…


Must Reads: The Power

CRP&T ThePower
Has anyone in your life been ranting at you about how you need to read Naomi Alderman’s The Power? No? Allow me.
Reviews have called this book an instant classic, and really that much is head-smackingly obvious. This is an absolute tour de force, a page turner dripping in wisdom, a novel that’s as entertaining as it is unsettling. More than anything, it’s breath-takingly timely.
Alderman gives us a reality where women discover a long-dormant power – the ability to discharge violent electrical shocks – that suddenly gives them the physical upper hand against men. We see the long enshrined power structures of the world shift, crack, and finally shatter.
The central conceit is profound, pithy in its simplicity and mountain-sized in its implications. And Alderman, a part-time writer of videogames, weds this premise to a plot that’s taut and thrilling, stuffed to the “skein” with juicy ironies: the trophy wife who overthrows her dictator husband; the himbo weather boy replacing the distinguished male news anchor. When the brother of crime boss Roxy Monke takes on some of her duties, the observation is laced with familiar condescensions (emphases mine):
Darrell’s set it up; he’s been doing operations here for months, keeping his head down like a good boy, making contacts, keeping the factory running smoothly even during the war. Sometimes a bloke is better at that than a woman – less threatening; they’re better at diplomacy. Still, to finish the deal it has to be Roxy herself.
Such moments spring up continually, and the brilliance of it is that here they are amusing, eye-opening – yet the reader never forgets that each and every one is mined from the innumerable slights and oppressions of real world patriarchy. The reversal illustrating all the more acutely, and hilariously even, the dreadful state of the actual status quo.
All the righteous anger and rawness that might be due to this subject are transformed here by a goddamn alchemical art into sheer entertainment, a genre book for all readers that’s as literary as it is commercial. It’s been remarked often that this is an Atwoodian book, and that’s both spot-on and unsurprising, given that Margaret Atwood mentored Alderman while she was writing it.
Alderman’s writing is always entertaining, frequently funny, wise, or both, supple enough to encompass the beauty of fleeting human connections and gut-wrenching atrocities, within pages of each other.
When did he get so jumpy? And he knows when. It wasn’t this last thing that made it happen. This fear has been building up in him. The terror put its roots down into his chest years ago and every month and every hour has driven the tendrils a little deeper into the flesh.
The audacity of the premise is nothing to do with feminist wish-fulfillment, and everything to do with humanity. Earlier on, scores are settled – it’s impossible not to cheer the trafficked women turning on their jailers – but Alderman is clear on the corrupting influence of power. No spoilers.
This is engrossing, gripping, stunning. There’s so much more to say, but I’m done…
This is the magic by daylight; tricks and cruelty. The magic is in the belief in magic. All this is, is people with an insane idea. The only horror in it is imagining oneself into their minds. And that their insanity might have some consequences on the body.

Currently Reading: Power and Totalitarianism

People! Anyone out there ever clear their to-read pile? Anyone with the Jedi-level focus and self-control it would take to actually READ all the to-be-reads? And doing that before buying more also-to-be-reads?

Not me. Since last year’s reckoning I’ve managed to read 16 of the 31 To-Reads. In that time I’ve *only* added an extra three dozen or so titles to the pile. Pretty restrained. Though not counting 40 or so e-books picked up in Humble Bundles.

And the ‘Now Reading’ stack stands just two books high, fewer than usual. Both of them are new acquisitions, but you know what? That’s FINE.

First, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, which kinda demands to be read in the current global political climate, before either (a) everything somehow rights itself phew close shave! or (b) it’s too fucking late. I’m still in the early third of the first third, dealing with the development of anti-semitism, but by god it’s hard to go a page without underlining a huge chunk as being tremendously relevant to 2017:

Totalitarian politics – far from being simply anti-semitic or racist or imperialist or communist – use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality, from which the ideologies originally derived their strength and their propaganda value – the reality of class struggle, for instance, or the interest conflicts between Jews and their neighbours – have all but disappeared.

– Preface to Part One, page xviii


On a lighter note, but no less timely, Naomi Aldeman’s The Power is a spectacular and surging speculative fiction. What if women were suddenly the ones who had the upper hand, physically? If girls could threaten the lives of boys and men as easily as boys and men threaten the lives of women now, every day, all around the world.

Only 75 pages in, it’s already gripping, imaginative, funny and wise. And what a conceit! Suddenly the world discovers that girls and young women have started to access the ‘skein’, a hitherto undiscovered organ that enables them to discharge electrical shocks. The phenomen is sketched convincingly enough when it needs to be scientific, but it draws real force from its symbolism and allusion.

As a male reader, this brings the same queasy recognition that #metoo does: I knew it was this bad, and yet – shamefully – I didn’t realise how all pervasive it was, just how bad ‘this bad’ really was. Even at the start of the novel, the shifting balances of power are shocking, in their relevance to the world as it is – yet this is made entertaining in Alderman’s observational brilliance and the sheer deliciousness of the irony.

I’ve no idea where this story is going, but I’ve been sold on it since the first chapter. Absolutely fantastic stuff.

The older To-Reads will understand. Their time will come.

The Long Ships and Viking Textiles


In which the hero, Red Orm, adventures and swashbuckles through assorted lands, returning home to cement his legacy. The Long Ships is the English collected version of Frans G Bengtsson’s Röde Orm sagas, the first volume of which was published in Sweden in 1941.

I first read this in 2013, but have been thinking about it recently because of the brouhaha over the supposed Viking “Allah” textile. Earlier this month, a mildly interesting news story broke of research claiming that Viking burial clothes unearthed in Birka, Sweden, which supposedly had the name of Allah woven into the fabric. (The altright and their far right chums went nuts: “how dare you say all Vikings were Muslims” etc.)

The research was debunked in an illuminating tweet thread by Stephennie Mulder, a Professor of Islamic Art. (Again, the altright/far right went nuts: “see, this proves there were no Muslim Vikings” etc.)

So, Red Orm. In the early part of the saga, as a youth in Skania, he’s captured by Vikings, who are in turn captured by Andalusian Muslims. After a few gruelling years as galley slaves the Vikings eventually become bodyguards to Almansur, the de facto ruler of the Cordovan Caliphate.

During this time, Orm assumes leadership of the Norsemen largely due to the fact that he’s the first to learn the Arabic spoken by their masters, and thus the conduit of all communication between the groups:

Orm always afterwards used to say that, after good luck, strength, and skill at arms, nothing was so useful to a man who found himself among foreigners as the ability to learn a language.
– I. The Long Voyage, p57-58

When Almansur asks if Orm and his men will worship Allah, the Skanian responds with calm practicality. In the gloss given to his men, Orm adds that conversion will earn them better treatment, that going against their lord’s wishes wouldn’t be a smart move, and that that they can quit worshipping the foreign god when they return home. He puts a different slant on it for Almansur, but one that’s equally pragmatic and no less honest:

“We men of the north do not worship our gods except in time of necessity, for we think it foolish to weary them with babbling… Perchance it may be that our gods wield but little power in this land; therefore, lord, I for my part shall willingly obey your command and worship your God while I am your servant.”
– I. The Long Voyage, p57-58

Later in the saga, Red Orm converts to Christianity, again for practical reasons. But it takes a while to win him over. The process starts in the first volume and isn’t concluded until the second:

“St. Finian’s bell helped you, too,” said the monk; “and now that you have seen what the saints can do, even for heathens, would it not be a wise thing for you to start believing in God and become Christians?”
Orm said that he had not given the matter much consideration and that he did not think there was any urgency about deciding.
– I. The Long Voyage, p99

So at different times, Red Orm is a Norse pagan, a Muslim, and a Christian. (Noah Harari notes in Sapiens how polytheists have no issue with incorporating monotheistic deities into their worship, believing every situation calls for its own god.) Certainly the reader always feels that Orm treats these religions with a non-nonsense cynicism, and in every case he approaches his worship in a fair dealing spirit. When he converts to Christianity, he gives “a large sum for the protection and luck that I expect to receive”.

Stephennie Mulder started her epic ‘Allah textile’ debunkening by noting that the Vikings had “rich contacts w/Arab world”. Later – it’s an x/60 thread, folks – she underlines the importance of getting such a story, however niche, correct in the current policitical climate. The Islamophobes hopping onto the thread, obviously, crowed about “lies” and “propaganda” from those famous bedfellows/co-conspirators, academia and the mainstream media.

Because the knowledge and painstaking research of specialist professors is nothing compared to the unshakeable certainty of one who has watched Kirk Douglas in “The Vikings” (and who will no doubt simply rewatch “Spartacus” if they ever need to dismiss Mary Beard’s in-depth knowledge of the Roman Empire).

The Long Ships has long been praised for its historical and indeed historiographical (um wait while I look that up) accuracy. And since it was published in 1941, I think we can safely discount the possibility of it being a propaganda ploy of the SJWs. The knowledge of Viking ties to the Arab world, and even the notion of Vikings converting to Islam (#notallvikings) is old news.

Old news or not, The Long Ships is a blast. Röde Orm (orm = serpent) himself is an enduring hero: canny, witty, and wise, his bravery never outstripping his common sense or ship-smarts. It’s a fun, wry read, with the worst of its scorn reserved for literary folk, Orm knowing enough about men not to argue with poets concerning their respective merits.

He would have hated Twitter.


Slow Learning

Dilatory Autodidact TY SwedishLast week I finished a protracted slog through the pages and exercises of Teach Yourself: Swedish.

“That took a while,” I thought, as I marked the textbook completed on Goodreads. (Yeah okay, logging textbooks on Goodreads, you got me. TBH if they were printed with an ISBN I’d probably have a Goodreads shelf of takeaway menus.)

In fact it took more than “a while”. The start date was March 2012. Back when we lived in Amsterdam. 3.5 apartment moves and five years ago.

FIVE FRIGGING YEARS. (Nothing against the book, it’s fine. Serviceable. Okay.)

I’ve always been a sucker for the stoic will-to-mastery of autodidacticism. Or rather for the *idea* of it.

Self-motivated, me-powered learning! It’s a daydream, one of those poisonous momentum-sapping ones where the fantasy gives a watered-down version of the satisfaction you’d get from the actual achievement, hobbling any real progress. Because that’s the only languge exercise book I think I’ve ever finished.

And language apps are handy, since they’re always pinging at you from your handset. Addictive when they get the gamification right. IMO yer Memrises and Duolingos are lacking, pedagogically speaking: TBH I’ve found them best for building vocabulary,  but the grammar doesn’t stick.

When it comes to educating humans, nothing beats another human.

Deploying that slowly-absorbed book-learning, that app-jacked rote learning, in conversations with Real People. Or signing up for lessons, group or one-on-one, where it’s harder to skim over exercises, or worse, let them slide. For, say, five years.

In truth, it’s a mix of inputs that is best. Practice in the wild is always critical, courses are great. TV, radio, films, books and podcasts too, though they’re best absorbed with some attention, even if intermittent.

The apps and lonely exercise books of the self-learner have their place too, whether it’s by providing new vocabulary and grammar to test out, or explaining the why behind language you might already be using.

But ivory tower learning in solitude just makes the whole process needlessly hard. It’s like training for MMA with shadow boxing only – how much training would you feel was enough before you ever stepped into a cage?


Why Am I Reading Bond?


Not ‘why (you should) read Bond’, but ‘why (on earth) am I reading Bond’?

They’re as dated as you might expect. Bond is a terrible spy, mainly achieving his goals by stumbling into coincidences or being invited to work for the villain (at least once once in an admin role, of all things). Dei ex machina all over the place. The sexism and racism are indefensible, a product of another age maybe, but still appalling. So I should have a pretty solid reason for ploughing through the oeuvre, right? If only.

It’s the covers.

Vintage did a great job with these covers, IMHO – and despite what this guy sez – fulfilling their brief of emphasising the “cool and clever nature of Bond” (hmm but ok).  They work brilliantly as a set.

The designs are plain, the typography fantastically inventive – see the negative space jewel in Diamonds Are Forever or On Her Majesty’s “Secret” masked by “Service”. The influence of Saul Bass is clear.

Those covers had leapt out at me when trawling through Foyles, but I only picked up Casino Royale. But then I stumbled across For Your Eyes Only in a second-hand bookshop, and the damage was done. How could I have books 1 and 8 in a series and not fill in the gaps?

They are an easy enough read, a curious window into the post-war English psyche. They’re packed with lavish descriptions of quality clothing, food and drink. The phrase “and a round of hot buttered toast” will be uttered by Bond at least twice per book. God help me, whenever Fleming turns to driving action, I can’t help but hear the words in the golden tones of broadcaster, Alan Partridge.

The hard part is the attitudes of the time. The sexism is cast in that ancient mode of misogyny-masquerading-as-idolatry. The racism is jingoistic, imperialist, Bond looking indulgently down on black people, all Americans, and Italians alike. Fleming uses the fig leaf of tokenism, always an admirable exception, the worthy Turk who nonetheless slips willingly into sidekick-hood.

(There’s no explaining away these two issues, they do leave a bad taste in the mouth. And this shows me how far my completist nature will push me to a) complete a set and b) finish a book I’ve started. Can’t not be done.)

It’s interesting to note how different Fleming’s Bond is from the movie version, how fallible or human he is, crying with relief, getting drunk (his champagne/Benzedrine hangover seems the worst), even giving up and longing for death. To be fair, that last happens after a giant squid attack – so in *some* ways the movies are more realistic.

This is a cartoonish world where the gangsters are named Billy Ring, Jed Midnight, and “Mr Helmut Springer of the Detroit Purple Gang”. It’s baffling how little time separates these often corny tales of derring-do from the complex physiologies and intricate, all-too-plausible plotting of early Le Carré.

Anyways, gotta go, Penguin just dropped a dope set of classic sci-fi covers

The New Parent’s Terrible Powers of Invention


“Give me strength…”

Our child is 18 months now, and making small but significant inroads into bilingualism. It’s been painfully obvious that her speech will be influenced by the shortcomings of our own, ever since she said her first English word, “yeahyeahyeah”. She already had a few Swedish words under her belt by then, but any pride I felt at her first English utterance was swiftly overwhelmed by disappointment in my capacity as a teacher, and the frankly crappy standard of my own spoken language.

A new child also has an impact of the language of the parents. How could it not, when in the blink of an eye you go from a lifestyle of infrequent meetings with infants (< once a week) to one where you sometimes can’t remember what it’s like to talk to an adult. Usually, while you’re trying to talk that other other adult, and worrying that you’ll never complete a coherent sentence again.

There was a lot of joy to be had in coming up with nicknames for the baby, a compulsion that thankfully has tailed off now. Some of them have stuck, most faded after a few days. All were terrible, but for some reason, in the moment, they either felt like the most beautiful encapsulation of our child’s essential being, or I thought they were a creation of elegant wit worthy of Wilde.

At no time was this correct. In the interests of self-mortification, here are some of the worst offenders.

Bougie Nou. I’m leading with the worst of the bunch. Thank Christ that no-one’s ever heard me utter this one in public. (What? Oh.) Pure infantilised babble. In the classic form, “who’s a little bougie? You are, you’re a little bougie nou“. On sober reflection I realise that no-one is, has been, or ever will be, a bougie nou.

Sötnis Everdeen. Sötis (being Swedish for “sweetie”) was once fumbled into Sötnis, and I must have thought that the easy jump to Sötnis Everdeen would somehow imbue our child with gung-ho ass-kicking empowered-female heroism. While I momentarily felt this was the apex of my baby nicknaming creative burst, it was too elaborate and didn’t last.

Belly Boo. Her first name was a natural to fancy up with an added -Belle, as in (Blahblah-)Belle. Hence also just Belly, and Belly Boo. Obviously –oo is my go-to end sound. Took me a while to spot the similarity to Betty Boo.

Head of Special Projects Department. This one’s self-explanatory?

I’m not asking for your approval here. Understanding, maybe a little pity will suffice. But that’s how it goes, spend long enough hanging out with an infant all day every day and you end up finding the common ground of meaningless noises that appeal to you both.

Now I’m going to go and talk to an insurer or someone, see if I can recalibrate my brain a bit, a nudge back in the direction of good old fashioned boring adult conversation. “Naming additional insureds on a professional indemnity policy”, anyone?