Monthly Archives: December 2016

The cheap gift

‘Just to be safe, don’t touch the tree lights,’ said Uncle. ‘I had to cobble something together to make them work.’

Mother-of-witch and I spent Christmas 1980 (I think) with her brother and sister, i.e. Uncle and Favourite Aunt, in the latter’s home. She’d not hosted Christmas for years and the lights had not been out for a few decades. Hence Uncle’s making the best of things.

We wanted to keep things simple, now that even the child (that’s me) was an adult, so had agreed to give each of the other three a gift costing no more than the equivalent of £1. I can’t for the life of me remember what I got anyone, nor what Mother-of-witch came up with.

But Uncle gave us each an ugly brown cardboard magazine folder box thing. I used mine for years and it only died a death of mould about ten years ago, in a Stockport cellar. I always suspected he might have ‘found’ them at the office.

And Favourite Aunt gave the three of us a small bound notebook. Stationery in Sweden has always been pricey, and certain things you just didn’t buy if you were poor, or sensible. Which explains my pleasure in receiving this tiny black notebook, complete with red spine and corners.

Notebook

I know. It’s nothing special, and I have a feeling it was Made in China. But I loved it! I was going to keep it and write something important in it, and not waste it on everyday notes.

But you’ve guessed it; I have yet to write a single word in the book. I get it out every now and then, thinking I’ll use it. And then I don’t.

It did fulfil the criteria well, though. It was a small, cheap-ish present. And it’s one I remember better than most other gifts I’ve ever received. Besides, lots of other treasures I have already parted with, during one of many clear-outs.

The notebook is still here.

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Christmas card

Advent candles

Wishing you a Happy Christmas!

Carl Larssongården

It’s probably a fair assumption to make that most Swedes would like to live in Carl Larsson’s home. And of those who don’t, quite a few might not actively object if they ended up there.

I have friends who used to live next door to Carl Larsson’s home, and it was they who gave me this book, by Torsten Gunnarsson and Ulla Eliasson, about his house for my birthday this year.

Sundborn

In a way Swedes don’t need books like these; we seem to be sufficiently familiar with Carl’s home anyway. But the pictures are nice to look at, both the photos of the house and the paintings by Carl. And looking at them we see not only a home that would still be just about perfect to move into, despite it now being more than a hundred years later, but it looks pretty much like some house many of us have known at some point in our lives.

It makes me think of my grandfather’s house, which was nowhere near as big or fancy, and it was more recent, but there is still that Larsson vibe in my memories.

Swedes know the house from countless postcards and Christmas cards, not to mention Christmas wrapping paper. We have all torn pictures of the garden or the Larsson family in our eagerness to see what’s inside our parcel.

At some point I talked to Nick Sharratt about this. Maybe when he heard where I come from, he told me about having slept in Carl’s bed. It appears visiting artists can do that, under some circumstances. When I heard about it I felt this seemed quite reasonable. But I understand the bed was short. Nick isn’t. Oh, well.

The bed is in the book (and somehow I can’t stop wondering what the guest artist does when visitors who’ve paid to see the house turn up.)

As I said, Carl Larsson’s style is never wrong. Except it wasn’t his, but his wife’s. She did all the work, and we still know it by Carl’s name.

A good little publisher

So, this cutting from the Guardian has been sitting on my desk for over a month and I was worried it might become stale. And then it turns out it fits right in with what I’ve been saying this week.

I was so charmed by this small publisher – Oneworld – who apparently have managed to pick two recent Man Booker prize winners. (I know. I said ‘bad’ stuff about the Booker only yesterday…) I loved the way they were interviewed and how they work. In fact, they are the kind of publisher I would obviously be if I wasn’t a) so lazy, and b) not in the slightest talented that way.

They mainly seem to like the kind of books I don’t go for, but that’s all right. They do seem to know what makes a good book, though, and then they give that book all it deserves. None of this ‘he/she is a comedian so I can hear the tills rattling and I will be rich’ syndrome. (I obviously don’t know where they stand on trade unions, but I’m hopeful they do the decent thing for all 23 staff.)

Oneworld likes foreign books. This is far too unusual. And in general it would appear that they are talented at sourcing new books and authors that might not be the new Harry Potters or J K Rowlings, but that do really very well. Winning awards and that. I could be wrong, but I understand they do this simply by reading books, and buying them if they like them. Not this celebrity thing, or ‘will the buyer from Waterstones like it?’ that is far too common.

When the Resident IT Consultant and I bought our Amstrad 30 years ago, we didn’t do what Oneworld’s Juliet Mabey and Novin Doostdar did; starting a publishing firm. Maybe we should have.

And I like the way they have no wish to be bought or merged or anything.

That’s funny

Much as I don’t enjoy the trend of famous comedians suddenly discovering that they need to write a children’s book, and doing very well and getting plenty of publisher attention for their efforts, it has caused one improvement to the state of things. Humour is now seen as something worth considering.

I have always liked humorous fiction. I have long felt there’s not enough of it, and also that it’s been so wrong to look down on it. As though humorous fiction is to children’s fiction as children’s fiction is to Booker prize type fiction; i.e. inferior.

It’s not. In fact, I’d suggest that just like writing for children requires more skill, and not less, to write good humour means you have to be really excellent at what you do. Not everyone can do it, or do it well, but when they can, the results can be spectacular.

A couple of weeks ago Adrian McKinty blogged about his twenty funniest novels and it’s an interesting list. I agree with his choice, about the ones I’ve read. I might have picked others, and it could be Adrian doesn’t find them funny, or that he’s not read the same books I have. These things happen.

I do agree with him about this, though: ‘It’s got be funny throughout too. One really funny scene as in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim for example just doesn’t cut it. I’m also not allowing anything that people say is funny but which actually isn’t or perhaps used to be funny but isn’t anymore. I’ve read Gargantua and Pantagruel and they are not funny. Shakespeare’s comedies are not funny. Dickens is not funny.’

There’s a lot in life that’s not funny. But there’s also a lot that is. And yes, I hated Lucky Jim the first time I read it. Loved it on the second read. But Adrian is right; one funny scene isn’t enough. (Apart from The Vicar Of Nibbleswicke, I don’t reckon Roald Dahl is funny. Not in that way.)

I’ve not thought this through enough so I can give you my own list, but Terry Pratchett is obviously on it. Would be, I mean, if there was a list. And even if I stick to children’s books, I reckon Douglas Adams has to be on it. From there it is a quick jump to Eoin Colfer and from him to many other Irish authors (it must be the water?), and then jump again, to Frank Cottrell Boyce, Joan Aiken, Morris Gleitzman, Debi Gliori, Barry Hutchison, Hilary McKay, Andy Mulligan, Kate DiCamillo. And last but not least, my fairy blogmother Meg Rosoff. She doesn’t only kill goats.

My apologies to anyone not mentioned. I didn’t go about this scientifically, but merely wanted to mention that being funny is a good thing. A good read is good for your wellbeing, and a funny read is even better. Go on, find something to make you laugh! Preferably until you cry. The hankies are on me.

Is that even a word?

Derecognising? There’s been a lot of talk about this in the last few days, and whereas I could immediately understand what it meant, I feel both the word and what it stands for is awful.

Shame on Penguin Random House for deciding unions are not their thing!

I was naïve enough to believe when Penguin and Random House merged a few years ago that they ‘had to’ because times were tough. But it appears they were doing well enough, and continue to do so. In which case they can afford to behave decently towards the people who are involved in making their books, which in turn make their profits.

There is the added feeling that Penguin is a nice company, somehow. I might be wrong, but there has been some special goodwill towards the publisher who came up with the idea of books for the masses at a price almost anyone could afford. And those birds makes you feel all warm inside.

It would be great if – when times are hard – some companies behaved well, and treated those who work for them fairly. And who better than a publisher? Free speech and the like. It’s not as if they must do what small and brave publishers are doing in Hong Kong; risking their lives and the safety of their families in order to bring forbidden books to new readers. Just publishing and paying up would go a long way.

In the Land of Broken Time

Maria and Max Evan, In the Land of Broken Time: The Incredible Journey

This was actually a rather sweet and fun little story. In the Land of Broken Time: The Incredible Journey, by Maria and Max Evan and translated from Russian by Helen Hagon, is a picture book. I think. I have read it on the Kindle as that is the only format so far, and generally I find ebooks and picture books don’t work so well.

Hence a certain reluctance on my part to read them. Except in this case I felt there was something there, so I gave it a go, and I’m glad I did, as I really enjoyed the book.

The story is about Christopher who is ten, and who sneaks out to see the circus even though he is unwell. Doing so he comes across another sneaky child, the lovely Sophie, and they end up having an adventure, in the company of a speaking dog. As you do.

There is an air balloon involved and somehow it travels in time, and the children land somewhere different, where there is a time mystery for them to solve.

Maria and Max Evan, In the Land of Broken Time: The Incredible Journey

It’s old-fashioned and modern all at once. It’s like a typical fairy tale, but one where the children have mobile phones and access to Skype. And a talking dog.