Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Final surrender

Let me get it right - I love books. Have always loved books, have always bought too many books, have several times got rid of huge numbers of my books for various reasons: moving countries is a good reason. Or running out of shelf space.Then I buy more books.

I have great respect for books. I don't write or highlight or underline in books (if I work with a book, I use post-its). In my youth, books were hard to get hold of. Books were valuable. I could occasionally pay a monthly salary for a very attractive book (were books expensive or was my salary miserable?).

On the other hand, I have no reverence for first or rare editions, and I like paperbacks, not only because they are cheaper, but because they are lighter and easier to read in bed or bring on a trip. And I have long ago discovered the practicality of Project Guthenberg when you are looking for a quote.

Yet I have so far not succumbed for reading devices.

I wonder whether having a Kindle is something literature people don't talk about, like a shameful disease. Because we all love books. Because books are so important, and all these horrible electronic things imply demise of the book. No literary scholar with self-respect will ever fall as low as reading e-books. Although for me it is most often the text that is important, not the physical object.

Anyway, yesterday as I started thinking about what books I want to take with me when I go to Sweden next week and then to Brazil the week after... and I remembered last time I was in Brazil and ran out of books and all those transatlantic flights when you finish a book in the middle of the trip and have no other choice than to start all over (you can do it with some books, but not all). And all the times you open a book you've brought on the plane and discover that you just don't want to read it right now, but you have to because there is nothing else to read except the inflight magazine.

I went on amazon and started looking, to begin with, whether any books I have on my current reading list were available as e-books, and of course they were, and since I am in the period of re-reading major classics, most of them are free. As I was clicking around I saw a link saying "Download Kindle for your PC". I thought I would try to see whether I sort of generally, in principle, hypothetically would be happy to read a novel on a screen. Because if it was awful there'd be no point in getting a Kindle.

I downloaded it, and I downloaded a book that had been on my reading list for a while, Tess of the d'Urbervilles. I read Mayor of Castebridge a couple of months ago, and it was magnificent. A good, solid, crisp, smelly Penguin Classic. Could it be as good on screen? Yes, it was. It actually made no difference at all, except that when I had my laptop in bed, there was no room for the cat, so she was upset and left and never came back. But I read Tess of the d'Urbervilles for a couple of hours, and it made no difference whatsoever, and I played a bit with changing font size and opening two pages on screen, but it really didn't matter. Only my laptop is definitely heavier than a paperback, and it also gets very hot. I have a smaller laptop that I take with me on travel, and this morning I downloaded Kindle onto it and discovered, to my joy, that my Tess was there as well. And yet...

The estimated delivery of my Kindle is next Monday. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

“Based on a true story...”

A friend gave me a book that she thought I should read. I am always grateful for reading suggestions because there are too many books our there, impossible to keep track of. It isn't a well-written book in my humble opinion, but I am glad I have read it because it will certainly get a lot of attention and likely to win awards because of its subject matter. Between Shades of Gray is the first novel by the American writer Ruta Sepetys, of Lithuanian origin, and it is a story (“based on first-hand family accounts and memories”, the back cover informs) about the deportation of Lithuanians after the Soviet occupation in 1939. For someone who has read a least some Holocaust literature, including children's literature, the gruesome details are not particularly shocking. For someone who has read books about Soviet labour camps, nothing is particularly new, and with all the horror and misery, the story is relatively idyllic. For someone like me, who learned the words “deportation” and “labour camp” among the very first, much is recognisable from family history: my great-grandfather, too, was thrown out of a cattle car when he died under transport. And yes, it is true that you could be shot if you stole a beet.

The writer has obviously done some serious research, visiting Lithuania and collecting evidence about the events she describes through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old. Since it is a book of fiction, she is not telling a story about any individual, but a collective story of a nation among other nations, and it is quite natural that in a novel everything is deliberately amplified and many stories brought together. Sepetys has got almost everything right. But it is this tiny “almost” that spoils the book for me.

It is, for instance, highly unlikely that a deportee would be allowed to keep a sketch pad and pencils, not to mention a fountain pen. This is one of the premisses of the plot, and I can accept it as poetic licence; however, the metaphor might have been stronger if the protagonist's drawings were imaginary rather than material. A deportee would definitely not be allowed to keep a Bible, which was forbidden under the Soviet regime even outside the penitentiary system.

When the Lithuanian are taken from a Siberian railway station to a labour camp, the truck stops in the middle of nothing, and the deportees are ordered into a building to take a shower. This is a poignant scene reflecting the humiliation of the female prisoners who must undress in front of the male guards. Apparently, Sepetys cannot imagine that in the region she depicts there is still no running water today, seventy years later. Sepetys describes in great detail the squalor of the local population, so where would a shower come from in the desolate Siberian steppes? (Showers are generally not a feature of Russia).

As they settle in the camp, some deportees write letters to surviving relatives and friends in Lithuania – and get replies. Lithuania is now under Nazi occupation; there is no way a letter from a Soviet prison camp would be delivered, and no letter “with Lithuanian stamps” would ever reach Siberia. The truth about totalitarian regimes is so unfathomable that no research helps you to comprehend it.

I would really like to believe that Sepetys has done her research properly, but there are too many gaps between her informants' evidence that she fills inadequately. The final drop comes when the protagonist gets a book for her sixteenth birthday. Well, by some serendipity a pretty, hardbound book with golden lettering might have found its way into a Siberian village. The protagonist is thrilled, because it is a book by her favourite author, Dickens, and a title she has not read, Dombey and Son. Then she opens the book and is utterly disappointed: the book is in Russian, which she cannot read. So how could she read the name of the author and the title? Shouldn't a writer who sets her story in Russia know that Russian language uses a different alphabet?

You may think it doesn't matter in a story of unimaginable suffering, and most readers will never notice. But if a writer decides to “tell ye your children...” she has to be credible all the way through.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Close encounters with children's writers

For obvious reasons I have met quite a few children's writers. One day I may write a proper memoir, but I can start with some episodes of entertaining nature.

Some years ago the Swedish Institute for Cultural Exchange sent me to Moldova. Most people don't even know where Moldova is or that there is such a country, and quite correctly, it only became an independent country recently. The check-in attendant at Stockholm airport hadn't heard of such a country and refused to check me in.

I was going, together with a young employee from the Institute, to explore whether Moldova was of any interest at all for Swedish cultural engagement. Our liaison was a suspect NGO that was supposed to get us in touch with libraries, the writers' union, publishing houses and higher education institutions. In their emails, the NGO wondered whether we had any special wishes. I said I would like to meet Spiridon Vangeli.

Now, if you were a British NGO and there was a visitor coming from Sweden asking to meet Philip Pullman, you'd probably say to yourself: "Yes, and HRM as well" and forget all about it. This is what the Moldovian NGO did. However, when we were there and went through the very tight programme, I wondered whether they had contacted Vangeli, as I had requested. They looked uncomfortable, not knowing how to tell me that the famous author was probably busy, and who was I anyway. I insisted mildly, and the young lady made a call, during which her face expression was transformed from puzzlement to astonishment to full shock. She put down the receiver and said: "He is coming over this very minute, with his car and driver, and he will take you to meet his friends and have dinner..."

I had a wonderful time with Spiridon Vangeli, a marvelous children's writer whom I had met in Moscow and whose signed books I still cherish. The young lady from the NGO was very respectful toward me for the rest of my visit.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Surprise parties

I haven't got much experience of surprise parties, and it's perhaps just as well. When Staffan turned 50 he escaped from celebrations and went biking in France, but when he came back his friends started plotting. They hired a place, sent out invitations, divided tasks and prepared everything. Two friends were supposed to take him out for lunch and instead bring him to the venue. My role was simply to come over as soon as they had left, but not dress up before that, not to raise his suspicions.

On the morning of the day, Staffan announced that he had a cold and phoned the two friends to cancel the lunch. They called me in despair and after a brief war council we decided that they would come over to us and then pretend they wanted a particular blend of whisky (for lunch! highly plausible) and persuade Staffan to go together to the liquor store. Somehow they did manage to persuade him - he must have been off guard because of his cold. He had not showered that morning and was wearing his shabbiest jeans and shirt. Frankly, he looked awful. As soon as they had left, I put on my party clothes and makeup and hurried to the venue where some thirty guests were waiting with champagne bottles ready. Some minutes later, one of the kidnappers came in, frustrated. As soon as they had driven past the liquor store and toward the centre, Staffan got suspicious, and when they parked, he promptly refused to get out of the car. I had to go and talk to him, and when he saw me in my fancy dress - half an hour after he had seen me at home in my track suit - he finally relised what was going on, and his reluctance grew. I was uncertain what tactics to use, but eventually told him not to be a wet blanket but come in and see his friends who had taken all the trouble.

I don't think he has forgiven me yet, although it wasn't my idea.

Unlike Staffan, I love celebrations, and when I turned 50 I gave a huge dinner party which I had planned almost a year in advance. (That is another story which I may tell sometime). But I also knew that at work we usually celebrated people's birthdays with a cake at our weekly afternoon coffee, so although I had no classes that day I decided to attend the coffee and allow myself to be celebrated. Since I also knew that we usually collected money for a gift and consulted a family member about what might be desirable, I had told Staffan that if anyone consulted him, I wanted a gym card and no cut flowers. They did indeed consult them, and apparently he knew about the surprise.

I was marking essays or something like that in the morning when Staffan inquired whether I was quite sure that the celebration was in the afternoon, and I told him I was. Two-thirty, as usual. Behind my back, Staffan called my department, and soon after there came a call from a friend who wondered whether I was aware that there was a surprise lunch for me at twelve. My first reaction was to jump into my car and drive as far away as possible from Stockholm and my department. I knew I would have enjoyed a surprise party, but they could have made sure I turned up. I finally did turn up and even enjoyed it, but there was a little cloud in the silver lining.

All this to thank my wonderful students for the surprise party for which they really made sure I was there. They had planned it for my actual birthday last Monday. Morag's role was to invite me to have a cup of birthday tea after my class, and I never had the slighest suspicion, just thinking how sweet of Morag. The day before I learned that my dear son would be in London for a couple of hours on Monday - the best birthday present I could have - so I cancelled the class to go and see him. I can imagine the students' disappointment! However, after I had humbly apologised and assured them I would let myself be celebrated next year, I had no clue that the party was still on. (They had created a Facebook event for it - I almost start crying now as I think about it). So last Friday, as I finished the class moved from Monday and was putting away my things, the door opened and in they marched, not just those attending in the class, but the whole bunch of masters, coming in specially, on a Friday afternoon! With cake and all.

It is such moments that make everything worth while, even fighting the windmills of University administration.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Masterpieces I have missed

I cherish the idea that I am quite well-read in children's literature. Of course nobody today can really keep abreast with everything that is published, but I have always imagined that I have read the most important children's books from a number of cultures and languages. My initial interest was fantasy, so it took me some time to discover the pleasures of Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden and Heidi, and I have been working hard to fill the gaps. Therefore I was a bit worried when our children's literature reading group decided to choose Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings Goes to School. Conceited as I am, I couldn't imagine there was a classic I hadn't read. A classic worth reading.

Usually when someone suggests a book for the reading group it's because they like it. It means that when you read the book someone has chosen you try to see why this person liked it, or at least what may be intresting to discuss. I hadn't done my homework by the time we met, and it so happened that the person who had suggested it couldn't come, so there was the whole group hating this book and no one to defend it, until someone said, rather timidly, that it was actually funny. The rest of the group protested loudly. Humour is a very serious matter, it is not only culturally dependent - and our group is highly multicultural - but individual. I don't find Just William particularly funny. Except for one person, the group claimed that Jennings was not funny. Yet something in the advocate's description, accompanied by a few quotes, made me curious. Apparently, it was linguistic humour, not situational humour. A student gave me her copy with the comment that she never wanted to see it again. So the other night I gave it a chance.

Staffan came running from the kitchen anxious that I was having a bad cough attack - but I was laughing and just couldn't stop. I hadn't laughed so much over a book since I read Three Men in a Boat. Jennings - I am your fan club. How could I have missed this absolutely marvelous book? It was published the same year as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Once upon a time I made my way dutifully through Tom Brown's Schooldays and even forced my students to read it as a background to Harry Potter. Now I see that Harry Potter does not owe to Tom Brown, it owes to Jennings. How could I have missed it and why haven't I seen anyone mention it, for it must have been mentioned in every Harry Potter essay.

Here is a taster. I take all the trouble to type it.

"His name's Temple, and his initials are CAT, so naturally we call him Dog."
"But you didn't call him Dog, you called him Bod," argued Jennings.
"Give a chap a chance to get a word in," said Venables. "I haven't finished yet. It's a bit of a sweat calling him Dog, so we call him Dogsbody for short."
"But it isn't short," protested Jennings. "Dogsbody's much longer than Dog."
"Okay, then," replied Venables, logically, "it needs shortening. Bod short for Body, and Dogsbody short for Dog".

Is this where Neil Gaiman's Bod comes from?

There are twenty-five Jennings novels. My summer reading list is full.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Getting there

Good news today: my co-editor and I are getting a book contract.

Several people have asked me recently whether the volume coming out of the conference last autumn has been published yet. Which shows how little they know about book publishing.

For the conference, we asked for full papers. It means that we had a vague idea of what people would be talking about. We went deliberately to different sessions to hear as many papers as possible. A good written paper doesn't always make a good presentation, and a conference paper does not necessarily make a good volume chapter. Publishers don't want conference proceedings these days, because these don't sell. And frankly, I hate conference proceedings that lack coherence and are very uneven in quality. So we decided from the beginning that we would select no more than twelve papers. It was a hard decision, because there were many good papers that simply didn't fit into the book. I sincerely hope they have been or will soon be published elsewhere.

The conference was last September, and by the end of October we had made our selection, informed the lucky few and asked them for abstracts to be included in the proposal, at the same time asking them to revise and expand the papers to almost three times the length. I have never yet met an author who was upset by the request to expand their paper. Mostly we are asked to cut them down.

By December, we had collected all abstracts and written an introduction. We had completely opposite ideas about what an introduction is supposed to be doing, so it was a very useful exercise. We also wrote a formal proposal with specifications of audience, competition on the market, estimated length and other stuff. I have a file in my computer for this, where I just insert the relevant info.We submitted the proposal early in January. We also sent the outline to our authors asking them to take each other's chapters into consideration.

Sometime mid-March we received the positive first response from the editor who requested two sample chapters, one by an established and one by a less known scholar. Since we had asked all our contributors to submit their finished chapters by first of March, and surprisingly enough some of them did, we chose two and resubmitted. Meanwhile we chased the rest of our authors and edited all chapters for correct format. At least a couple of submissions were really late, but it didn't matter much at this point. We kept our authors posted about the progress. Authors tend to get impatient because they want to include their chapters in their CVs as forthcoming. We told them they could do it at their own risk. Personally, I'd never put anything on my CV before I had a contract.

About a month ago we had a generally positive response from the editor who had received two reader reviews. Now, reader reviews can be extremely helpful or they can be hopelessly stupid. Most of the comments were helpful, some were stupid, but what we were asked to do was address every single comment, either agreeing with it or arguing why we didn't agree. The fact that we didn't quite agree between ourselves wasn't quite helpful, but we did it. Meanwhile, we chased the tardy authors and corrected format and footnotes. If you ask authors to correct the footnotes you can be sure that they will make new errors, so it's just as well to do it yourself.

Today - happy news! The Board has approved the proposal, and we are getting a contract. So when is the book coming out? Take it easy. Since we have been so optimistic and prepared the manuscript while we were waiting, we can now submit it very quickly, probably next week. The editor has sent us, once again, Author Guidelines, with a really helpful note that we don't have to keep to them. So much for all our efforts. After we have submitted, the ms will go out to another round of reviews. It means that it is pointless to ask the authors for further revisions, even though we would like some. But we'll wait till we have the reviews, which may be helpful or stupid. In any case, we will have to report back to the editor how we are going to address the comments and then send the chapters back to authors for revisions. Are you with me? We are now probably in September-October. We will have to give our authors a couple of months for revisions. Meanwhile, we cannot do anything. When we have received all revisions, we will do the final editing and send the ms to the editor. It will then go to copy-editor and return to us with queries, helpful or stupid. Some copy-editors like to show that they have done their job well and change your spelling from British to American or the other way round, or change double quotes to single, or insert new paragraphs where you don't want them.

I think we are well over Christmas now. Copy-editors deserve their Christmas holidays. A few months later there will be page proofs, which always, I mean always, come when you least want them, and it's always urgent, after all those months. Hopefully, this publisher will not send out proofs to all authors individually. I much prefer to proofread myself than chase contributors who happen to spend their sabbatical in Antarctis without internet access.

Eventually, about two years after the conference, the book will be out. Our publisher is very proud of their short production cycle.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

This is the most exciting book ever written

There is a new academic activity I have recently become engaged in: writing blurbs for people's books. It has always been a mystery to me. I understand that a paperback edition can carry quotes from positive reviews on the back cover. But when some for me totally unknown professor This and That from Such and Such obscure university is quoted stating that it is the most amazing book on the subject, I feel skeptical. Has this professor actually read the book? Did the publisher pay them to read the manuscript or is it just a friendly gesture?

The practice seems to get more and more common, as I have been asked to write blurbs for several books during the past few months. First, no, the publishers don't pay you for this; at best, you will get a free copy of the book when it is published. Let's say that an average academic book costs £30, and it takes me four to five hours to read an average academic book if I read it quickly (if I read it properly, it takes four to five days), the hourly rate is rather low. In some cases, I had read the book at manuscript stage and was presumably familiar with it. It is, however, a huge difference between writing a critical review of a manuscript, aimed at helping the author to improve it, and writing a blurb that will entice readers to purchase it. You cannot go into technicalities in a blurb. Above all, you cannot be critical. So how much is it worth? I don't have to read the whole book in ordet to write some casual words about its merits. Amazing! Outstanding! Innovative! The rest you just infer from the table on contents.

As in all academic games, this is a matter between you and your conscience. Personally, I cannot endorse a book that I haven't read, even if I know the author's earlier work well. It is possible to tell the publisher: "This book is a pile of s-t, and I cannot say anything positive about it, but don't tell the author". Still, when you agree to write a blurb for a book you haven't read, you assume that you will be able to write something positive, but what if it is seriously bad? Isn't it safer to decide once and for all that you will never, ever write blurbs?

However, it is so easy to be seduced. After all, it is flattering to be asked. It is more than a free copy of the book. You are also advertising yourself, so that someone reading the book wonders: "And who the h-l is this professor saying all this s-t about this lousy book?" Advertising space is valuable in academic games. Another consideration is, as with many other things, mutual gain. Today I endorse your book, tomorrow you will support my grant application. But also, frankly, it is a pleasure to praise a good book.

Yet even when the book is excellent, writing a blurb is not particularly exciting. This is why I am blogging rather than reading this wonderful, fabulous, extraordinary, outstanding, ground-breaking, cutting edge book.  

Sunday, 8 May 2011

On evil stepmothers

Mother's Day feels the right time to contemplate the odious figure of the evil stepmother. It is a hugely sensitive issue, but I cannot read all these odes to wonderful mothers on Facebook without thinking about what lies behind. The evil stepmother of the folktale is a complex figure, since she is both a reflection of hard facts and a highly symbolic image. In old times, stepmothers were the necessary evil - and in many cases a blessing - because of high childbirth mortality, and mortality in general, so it was imperative for a man to remarry to have someone to take care of his children. If the woman brought in children from her previous marriage or if she had more children in the new marriage, it was natural that she preferred her own flesh and resented the stepchildren. Today stepparents are a result of divorce rather than death, but who can blame a woman who loves her own child more than a stepchild? It would be perverse otherwise. This is the Cinderella version.

The Snow White version is more complex and more repulsive. The stepmother is young, perhaps almost as young as the stepdaughter who is just coming into fertility. The stepdaughter is a rival, not only for her father's love (connected with the memory of love for the first wife), but the love and admiration of all other eligible men. The stepmother is jealous, and who can blame her?

If you were paying attention in your fairy tale class, or if you have read your Bettelheim carefully, you know that the stepmother is a circumscription of a biological mother. The idea of a mother hating her daughter and being jealous is so forbidden in a civilised society, as we claim we belong to, that storytellers prefer to substitute a stepmother, so that it would be less offensive. In many other fairy tales, the mother figure is a witch. Symbolically, the mother is split into two agents, a good, benevolent, biological mother and a wicked, jealous stepmother. The young girl has to accept that her mother has both these sides, and the mother has to accept, negotiate and control her contradictory feelings toward her daugher. Most women manage it, at least superficially - who knows what's going on in their minds. Some women don't manage it and turn into wicked witches.

I once attended a seminar on Anna Karenina, where someone wondered why Anna loved her son from a cold marriage and was indifferent toward her daughter conceived in passion. I explained, cynically and provocatively, that Anna's love focused on her son when she had no one else to love, but she saw her daughter as a future rival for her lover's attention. The woman who had posed the question got furious. She yelled that I apparently had no children and didn't know what I was talking about. I said that I had two sons, a daughter and two stepchildren and knew very well what I was talking about. I also pointed out that Anna Karenina was a piece of fiction and thus carried metaphorical as well as realist levels. My opponent was not convinced. So strong is our reluctance to admit the forbidden. So hard is our struggle between the animalistic instinct and the civilised, socially imposed ethics. Thanks goodness we have literature to provide outlet for our most hidden feelings.

In fairy tales, the evil stepmother is punished, often in a most awful manner. Symbolically, it means that the young girl has accepted and exterminated the evil side of her mother, and for the mother, it means that she has admited and learned to control the evil side of herself. The good biological mother is either resurrected or reincarnated as a fairy godmother or simply watches from her heaven her daugher's wedding. If she has really won over the evil stepmother, she is thinking about how she will become immortal through her daughter's children.

All this to say that I wish I had a mother whom I could celebrate on Mother's Day.

Saturday, 7 May 2011


Staffan is in Sweden for school reunion. Isn't it cool? He has been saying for weeks: "What am I going to do with all these old ladies?" But it seems to have gone smoothly.

I have realised that I never blogged about my school reunion a year and a half ago. I know why. I only went for two days and didn't tell anyone, except for my best friend and classmate Alyona, who had persuaded me to come. I didn't want to blog so that someone in Moscow could read it and feel offended. It's all ancient history now, and I cannot help going back to it in my memory, now that Staffan is meeting his old ladies.

I didn't have many good friends in school; in fact, I was one of those kids who are not directly bullied but effectively excluded; a weirdo in eyeglasses, top grades and book lover. I did a lot to gain popularity, including smoking and almost getting expelled for it, but I was never invited to parties and I didn't have a boyfriend in school. In fact, I have never ever had a boyfriend, but it is another story.

I went to a reunion two years after graduation, mostly to see some of my favourite teachers. Then I lost touch with all my classmates, except for Alyona, who is still my best friend, despite and not because. Then I moved to Sweden and actually met an old classmate there, but he wasn't exactly one I wanted to meet. Alyona went to a couple of reunions and reported, but I didn't care much, beyond the normal human interest for gossip.

A few years ago Alyona told me about the Russian version of Stayfriends - or was it the other way round? Anyway, we discovered this site, and I found quite a few classmates, despersed over the whole world, who were all extremely glad to hear from me. It must be nostalgia or some other similar feeling which, as you get old, compels you to seek people you knew when you were young (that's why Staffan was after all so eager to meet his old ladies). They mustn't  necessarily have been close friends, but you sat in the same room for years, read the same books, broke the same rules. One of the former classmates I found on Stayfriends was expelled from school for antisocial behaviour. I won't reveal what has become of him because it is easily identifyable. In fact, many of my classmates have become something grand and have professorships at world's leading universities and medical clinics, and have made brilliant political or financial careers, or own theatres, or write novels. We discovered this when we finally met, but I am going ahead of the story. As we realised that a 40th reunion was approaching, some classmates took the initiative, the bankers gave money, the theatre owners made venues avalaible, and I was appointed liaison for diaspora.

I didn't want to go to Moscow for a number of reasons, but Alyona persuaded me that I could come solely for the reunion and never tell anyone. Which I did, and I am glad I did. I have never, before or after, experienced the temperature of hugs and kisses, and although there were a couple of people who had to remind each other who they were, almost everyone was recognisable, and the reminiscences came in floods. We were about eighty in my year, and thirty came to the reunion, from far and wide.The meal was plentiful, as it should be in Russia; we moved around the table to talk to everyone, took pictures, shared pictures of grandchildren, gossiped about absent friends, honoured some of the teachers with a toast and some with a moment of silence. We agreed that we were an exceptionally privileged year, and we were. The really bad times followed soon after our graduation.That's why so many are abroad.

Shopping binge

I have certain serious defficiences. I don't like spectator sports, I almost never watch television, I don't understand contemporary music, and I hate shopping. I enjoy buying kitchen utencils and office supplies, and I love flea markets, but buying clothes is a nightmare. If I need a piece of clothing, I dash into a shop, preferably one I have known for years, find the item, try it on, pay and run. I have on severeal occations walked around in the company of shopaholics, and I don't really mind if they try on dozens of things, as long as I don't have to. When I need anything extraordinary, it's a pain.

The main reason, I think, is my background. When I was young in Moscow, there was nothing in the shops worth buying, and we had tailors and seamstresses to make our clothes, and later I made my own clothes and knitted sweaters and cardigans. It was also a common practice to swap clothes when you got tired of them.

When I came to Sweden and could potentially buy anything I fancied, I didn't have income of my own the first years, and although I am sure my husband would have never denied me money, I continued making the children's clothes from my old blouses and pants, learned quickly to use post order (the Russian community in Stockholm shared the secrets), watched out for sales, and made the most of the Swedish tendency toward casual attire.

As a result, I never developed the taste for leisure shopping, for either spending hours and days in search of anything particular or browsing shops in search of anything interesting. I eventually stopped buying canvas strap shoes and cheap t-shirts. In San Diego, I found a shop that suited my taste, age, social status and purse, and when we came back to Sweden, I searched and found an analogue. Only once when I was in London, about five years ago, I bought several nice and expensive outfits. I own an evening gown that I bought for $30 at Nordstrom Rack in San Diego and have so far worn three times; I own an incredibly expensive cocktail dress from Stockmann in Finland, that I have worn on dozens of occasions, and I own a black formal suit that I inherited from my daughter.

The necessity to get an outfit for the imminent wedding hovered heavily on me ever since the wedding was announced last year, especially when the bride-to-be insisted that the mother of the bride must wear a hat. I have never worn a hat in my whole life (except for beach hats). The other kids did not require hats when they were married, and I don't remember getting any special outfits for their weddings. I had hoped to use one of my existing nice dresses, possibly getting a hat to match, but after the Royal wedding I realised what my daughter expects me to look like. Goodness! Am I supposed to outdo Mrs Middleton?

In any other situation, I would ask my clever, supportive daugher with good taste and profound knowledge of fashion brands, to assist me. She has on several occasions helped me to find the right item for award ceremonies and job interviews. But in this one case, my dress must be a surprise for her. And there is no one here in Cambridge to turn to - so I thought. But as it happens, the world is full of eager shopping advisors. Earlier this week, I shared my concerns with one of my PhD students, Ghada, who immediately told me that I had to go London to shop, whereupon I asked humbly whether she would be kind enough to assist me - provided it would be in Cambridge. Presumably, proxy shopping is just as attractive for genuine shopaholics, so she got highly enthusiastic

Yesterday morning, I reluctantly went to town to meet Ghada at the shopping mall. We started with a cup of coffee and discussed our strategy. Ghada wanted us to get a dress first, and she had a firm idea about the colour, which made me wince. I suggested looking at hats first because if I saw a hat that I fell in love with, we'd buy a dress to match the hat. Ghada was sceptical, but as we took the first round of shops in search of a hat, we saw a dress that I thought was perfect and happened to be the colour Ghada had in mind. I tried it on and asked the shop assistant to hold it for me, and we went on. Two hours later, we had been to all fashion shops in Cambridge, selected a pair of shoes, found a possible hat, and, exhausted, sat down for lunch. Now the plan was to go back quickly to the very first shop with the very first dress, try it on again, quickly get the hat and the shoes and wind down with another cup of coffee. Ghada was meeting up with some fellow students later, and as they exchanged texts, the others bombarding Ghada with eager questions about their professor's shopping ordeal, I suggested that she invite Clementine to join us. By the time we were back in the first shop and stated that the dress I had tried and found perfect wasn't after all, Clementine arrived, and the orgy began. If you have seen a Hollywood movie in which a woman does some serious shopping, use your imagination. Together with the shop assistant, three young ladies brought me heaps of dresses, in all colours and designs, alternating "Maybe" and "NO!" and "YES, this is perfect...no, not really". By that point, I had resigned and would buy a potato sack if they recommended it, and I was getting more and more depressed as I couldn't squeeze into some really nice things. Yet finally, by a majority vote of three to one, we made a decision, and the minority admited that it was acceptable, and it was not until then I looked at the price, and it was too late to change my mind.

By this time, new forces joined us, and we marched to the hat place, only to discover that the hat Ghada and I were sure was exactly the same colour as the dress, actually wasn't. It may be that we didn't buy the original dress, or that we are colour blind, but Debbie was adamant that the hat did not match the dress. We had to break the neat package to be absolutely sure, and Debbie was right. The hunt continued, and we had fun trying on all those completley impossible hats and fascinators - a word none of us knew before last week - until suddenly we all, at the same moment, saw The Hat, and that was the end of it. Getting shoes was simple, and, loaded with bags, we went to a restaurant, and I got us a bottle of sparkling and a glass of cranberry juice for Clementine who does not drink alcohol, clever girl.

When I got to the parking structure, I had been in town for seven hours. Shopping. I simply cannot believe it. However, as Debbie pointed out, I actually had found everything I needed. It would have been frustrating to spend seven hours shopping and come home with empty hands.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Joys of mathematics

I am reading a book called Mathematics: A very short introduction.

I am reading this book because a mathematician at Homerton recommended it last year when I listened to his lecture. I was fascinated by what he was saying and asked whether there was something an ignoramus like me could read to learn more. It took me a long time to get the book, but here I am. Among many other brilliant things, it explains why so many people hate mathematics, or think they hate it. If I had been taught in school all these wonderful, mystical things, instead of boring sums and equations, I would have loved it, just as I loved physics. I hated sums, but I was in love with irrational numbers and the square root of 2. I hated the routine, I loved the weirdness.

Already from that lecture, and still more when I am reading the book, I understand that mathematics is about abstract thinking. About patterns and ideas, and never mind the exact facts. Gowers says explicitly that mathematicians do not use computers, that their tools are a piece a paper and a pencil. He doesn't say it, but I would guess that he does most of his work walking, biking or gardening. Or maybe not. Maybe he sits in his office in Wilberforce Road and thinks.

I admire people who can explain complicated things in a comprehensible way. I have always been fascinated by high-level dimensions, but Gowers has explained them so that I can explain it to someone else, and then you have really understood it. He says that in mathematics you just have to ignore the physicality of space and dimensions. He shows how to go on from three dimensions to four to five to thirty-seven. He shows how to multiply very large numbers without caring about errors in the region of a million. I love it.

And I have learned a new word, torus. It is the surface of an object in the shape of a doughnut.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

May Day

"Today, today
is the first of May,
on this happy day in May
little children dance and play"

I have no idea where this masterpiece comes from; not from Mother Goose, for sure. We had to recite it in our English class when I was a kid.

For many people, the first of May is important, and it is for me, or used to be, in a peculiar way. Long before I was old enough to see through the official lies and propaganda, I hurried to switch on the television in the morning of the first of May to watch the May parade on Red Square. It was impressive, and it went for hours. Military parade first, then civil parade, called "workers' demonstration". My grandfather had to go on that, and I always begged him to take me along. I thought it would be grand to march there, waving flags and flowers. 

My patriotic feelings died eventually, and May Day became just one of those few holidays the Soviet authorities granted their citizens. May holidays - with luck, you could get four days including the weekend - implied an exciting trip, highly unlike the standard summar holidays. It would be something like a boat cruise from Moscow to Gorky where the Oka river joins the Volga; or hiking in Armenia to see the mountain monasteries from the 3rd century, or exploring the less touristy beaches of the Crimea.

However, in my first undergrad year I was, like my grandfather before me, ordered to join the civil parade on Red Square and show my enthusiasm and support for the land of triumphant socialism. This was imperative: truancy could lead to suspension. Some days before the event, we were gathered to make paper flowers and banners ("Language students toward communism!"). On the day, we were told to arrive at eight in the morning and were taken by buses to the place, half way to Leningrad, from which we were supposed to march. It was terribly cold, and some of the boys had cleverly brought strong spirits which they generously shared. Our teachers, who were just like us ordered to participate, closed their eyes - or perhaps accepted the drink. We were all hungry, for nobody had thought about bringing food. About eleven we started moving slowly, and well over midday we were outside my house, two blocks from the Kremlin, It was tempting to bolt through the police chain and go home to have lunch, but it wouldn't do. You had to be loyal to your friends. Nobody asked to be part of the circus. We were rushed through Red Square like cattle, hardly having time to wave our flowers or display the banners. The problem was then to get home, since all traffic in the centre was stopped. I had to call a friend who lived on the other side of the river and invite myself for a cup of tea. It was not until late afternoon the city got back to normal. I understood why grandfather had not been too eager to bring me along.

My first year in Sweden, Staffan took me to a May Day celebration, with paper flowers, slogans and speeches. I was chocked to realise that for some people, this day actually meant something. Twenty years later, I went to listen to my daughter speak on the first of May. We hold hands and sang The Internationale. I still feel ambivalent about it.