“Painting as a Pasttime”, by Winston Churchill

20150926_225303I got this reading tip from James Gurney, whose blog is surely a must for anyone who is into drawing or painting. I have been an admirer of Winston Churchill for years, the man is endlessly fascinating (just look at the length of his Wikipedia article), but I have yet to read a proper biography (length, again – need time…). This is an easy read, though, a short essay concerning his hobby, which was painting in oil. Being Churchill (cousin of the Duke of Marlborough) and not some working/middle class Sunday painter, he was even exhibited at the Royal Academy (he was the first to point out that he was not judged on merit). He writes beautifully (he got the Nobel prize of literature, after all!) and enthusiastically about painting, and I´d like to share some quotes:

20150926_225403It is no use saying to the tired “mental muscles” – if one may coin such an expression -“I will give you a good rest”, “I will go for a long walk”, or “I will lie down and think of nothing.” The mind keeps busy just the same. If it has been weighing and measuring, it goes on weighing and measuring. If it has been worrying, it goes on worrying. It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new stars become the lords of the ascendant, that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded.

Churchill was in his 40´s when he first picked up a brush. He fiddled a bit with his children´s paint box one Sunday afternoon, and then bought himself a kit of oil colours. It was 1915, he had just left the Admiralty (he got sacked over Gallipoli, actually) and was a bit frustrated and low, as one can imagine (“my veins threatened to burst“; Churchill suffered from depression his whole life, which he called “the black dog”). So, he set up his painting gear, but:

20150926_225414My hand seemed arrested by a silent veto. But after all, the sky on this occasion was unquestionably blue, and a pale blue at that. There could be no doubt that blue paint mixed with white should be put on the top part of the canvas. One really does not need to have had an artist´s training to see that. It is a starting-point open to all. So very gingerly I mixed a little blue paint on the palette with a very small brush, and then with infinite precaution made a mark about as big as a bean upon the affronted snow-white shield.

Luckily for Churchill, at that moment appeared a Lady Lavery, come to visit, with some experience in painting. She grabbed his brush, and:

20150926_225316Splash into the turpentine, wallop into the blue and the white, frantic flourish on the palette – clean no longer – and then several large, fierce strokes and slashes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvas. Anyone could see that it could not hit back. No evil fate avenged the jaunty violence. The canvas grinned in helplesness before me. The spell was broken. The sickly inhibitions rolled away. I seized the largest brush and fell upon my victim with Berserk fury. I have never felt any awe of a canvas since.

20150926_225329Can you see it? It´s almost poetic, and so vivid a scene! He goes on to liken painting to fighting a battle, or trying to, arguing that this is a battle that can not be won, and which is more interesting because of it. When he gets to heaven, he means to “spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject.” Painting, thus, affords endless amounts of earthly pleasure. He also praises the hightened awareness that observation in order to reproduce gives: “Once you begin to study it, all Nature is equally interesting and equally charged with beauty.

Hear, hear. You can see a series of his paintings here. My ink sketches are in line with the InkTober Challenge.

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“At the Hairdresser´s” by Anita Brookner

I decided that it was time to read something that is not connected to nursing – just take a break and let myself be drawn into something fictional for a while. Since reading another enthusiastic review about Brookner´s work by blogger Divers&Sundry, I looked at what was available and found this short story, published by Penguin in their Short/Specials series. Thirty-six pages, that seemed doable in one sitting, and I started it on Sunday morning, still in bed and feeling at leisure.

IMGP6095 (2)I was not disappointed. Brookner´s protagonist is 80-year-old Elisabeth Warner, retired librarian, single for most of her life and living in a basement flat in London. Her days are ruled by loneliness and fear, vague regrets and disappointments. Clearly, she is rather introverted, but still long for companionship, treasuring the scraps of human contact afforded her by the twice-weekly appointments at the hairdresser´s.

One day a sudden rain as she is going home after having had her hair done, throws her in the direction of a young taxidriver. They quickly form a bond, and this meeting changes her, in a rather unexpected way.

Brookner´s prose is absolutely delightful, it flows easily and does not get in the way of the story. There are lots of wonderfully formed passages I underlined, like this one:

“All my life I had been searching for a breakthrough, into intimacy, into acceptance. My brief marriage taught me one invaluable but unwelcome lesson: that we are all alone, that no reciprocity is to be sought between people formed by different outlooks, and not only outlooks but different environments, both mental and physical. My disappointment persists to this day, the only difference being that I no longer search for the impossible. I accept the fact that we are all atomized and there is little we can do about it. Yet the regret remains. That, however, must be kept to oneself. When I graduated from female friendships – childlike, expectant – I felt that I had at last grown up. Inevitably there was a loss of transparency but at the same time I received my first lesson in circumspection. When a man of whom I was extremely fond alluded to the differences in our make-up, which was vague enought to include everything in our relationship which he saw as inconvenient, I resolved never again to divulge any personal information that might be construed as divisive.”

Sad, isn´t it, but also true. I like that about Brookner: she has an acrid unsentimentality that I find very sympathetic. At the end of this short story is advertised a novel called “Strangers” which seems to be on the same topic: old age and relationships (the Guardian pokes a bit of fun at it here). I think that is one I will go for pretty soon. I think I may also look for her books on art (if I can find anything electronically published), which has been her profession; she is an art historian and only at the ripe age of 53 (she is 87 now), she published her first novel.

To sum it up, this was a first taste of an authorship that I will probably enjoy much of in future. I can heartily recommend Brookner to any reader with a taste for the kind of story where not much happens, but which gives much food for reflection. This confession and admission by Mark Lawson may help you make up your mind if it is for you or not.

“World of Trouble: The Last Policeman Book III”, by Ben H Winters

So, finally! I have had this book since before last Christmas, not having had the time or peace of mind to actually read it. I had a feeling it was going to be a good one (as well as the last one), so I wanted to really be in the mood for it.

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Our night sky wasn’t dark enough for any but the brightest stars, but I saw two of the Perseid meteorites.

As you may remember from my other post about this series, a meteor is heading straight for Earth, to end the world as we know it. Our protagonist is Henry Palace, investigating police officer by trade and by nature, and solving the case is always his first priority, whatever else is going on. At the end of the second book, he was saved from living on the road by his former colleague, Officer Trish McConnell, who had created a safe house in the country with a group of like-minded ex-police officers, and he found himself warmly welcomed into a very comforting environment, a commune where food and water and everything needed to live well until the end had been provided for. But of course he couldn´t stay there, no, Henry Palace needs a case, and with just a few weeks left to live he decides to go investigate his sister´s disappearance.

The last time he saw his sister (in book II) she had gone off to rescue the world, a recruit in a resistance movement with, or so she claimed, resources to send a bomb in a rocket towards the meteor and blow it off course (like they did in “Armageddon” with Bruce Willis). Palace tells her she is crazy, but she is adamant and disappears in, of all things, a helicopter. The existence of that helicopter (at this stage of declining civilization more or less a creature of mythology) is what sows a small doubt, a grain of hope, in Palace´s mind: perhaps she is right this time, as clearly she is connected with people of means.

I am not going to tell you what he finds, that would be spoiling a very good read for you, and it´s not only that the plot is good, the psychology is spot on, and the writing is excellent, but this book also has some really good bits, some fine nuggets of wisdom. It is always satisfying to have an author of one´s esteem phrase well a conviction of one´s own, and I had that pleasure here: Palace is flirting with a woman over dinner and she says to him:

“”… you see everything from weird angles. Also – and I´m serious – your life has a purpose. You know what I mean?” “I guess,” I say. “I guess I do.” She is referring to a topic of conversation from earlier in the evening, about my parents, how my mother was murdered in a supermarket parking lot and my father hanged himself in his office six months later. And how my subsequent career, she suggested jokingly, has been like Batman´s, how I´ve turned my grief into a lifelong sense of mission. But it makes me uneasy, I tell her, that version of events, that way of seeing. “I don´t like to think that they died for a reason, because that makes it sound like it´s okay. As it´s good that it happened, because it ordered my life. It wasn´t good. It was bad.” […] “Can we agree, at least,” she says […] “that you have put meaning in your life. Can we agree to that?” “Sure,” I say. She´s so pretty. That red dress with the buttons. I´ve never seen anyone so pretty. “Okay. Yes. We can agree.””

“The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying”, by Marie Kondo

20150810_191253I would not have mentioned this book on the blog if it hadn´t been for the fact that it was reviewed in our biggest national newspaper. I thought it was a trifle of a book, and so did the reviewer, but it seems to be a big success! I picked it up in the bookstore in Salisbury, where we were out of wifi and I thought I needed a bit of reading material. Already having decided to go through everything in my possession before I embark on my new course of studies, I thought I might get a few tips.

In the end, I got my best idea from opposition: Kondo says that everything should be placed with similar things, for example, sweaters must lie in a drawer or on a shelf with other sweaters, otherwise it will become unhappy and start to pill and whatnot. I found myself arguing with the text, thinking that happiness is about being needed and havíng a job; if a sweater would feel like a person (and I don´t think it does, honestly) then surely it would be happier if it was used and stored in such a way that it was user-ready?

20150821_115514And then it hit me: what is the reason 80% of my wardrobe is not being used? The 80-20 rule? No, it is because I choose to buy clothes that are versatile; any garment should ideally go with everything else in the wardrobe. But, that also means that dressing every morning is a matter of choice, and the options are huge. Do I feel like “shopping my closet” and styling myself at seven in the morning (or whenever I get up)? Is that when I am at my most creative? I guess I could pick out my clothes the evening before, but frankly, my inclination to style myself on a daily basis, or even a weekly one, is pretty much nil. Whatever interest I had in clothing has dwindled in the last years. (Which is not to say I don’t want to look my best.)

20150810_190126My solution has been to organize my wardrobe in what I call “extended outfits” which is matching clothes for 5-7 days. It all revolves around a pair of trousers or a skirt. Added to it are two or three tops, and a scarf or two. That way, I can just pull out one or two hangers (connected by an elastic) or a drawer (for an ensemble of knitted dresses/tunics) and wear it for a week, then chuck it in the laundry and start all over again. This way, the wardrobe is organized to the way I wear my clothes. I am hoping this will give my entire wardrobe more wear and pull those 80% unworn out of the shadows.

20150810_190059I ended up with 17 extended outfits. Oddly, the number of bottoms and tops already in my wardrobe were exactly in the ratio of 1:2,5. The only thing I have more of are scarves. I haven´t counted them, but I think I have about an even hundred. There are, of course, a few special occasion outfits: four ballgowns (I know, but I can´t throw them out; I wear one at least once a year and shopping for these things is a real pain); a dirndl, which is a great summer dress for weddings and such; a couple of really nice long jackets (one with a matching slim skirt), for formal occasions. But that´s all. I am very happy with the way this turned out, and who know, perhaps the sweaters are happy, too. 😉

“Death at la Fenice” by Donna Leon

(= “Ond bråd död i Venedig”)

20150804_010202I am definitely in a whodunit period, and after reading a favorable review of Donna Leon’s series about Commissario Brunetti in Venice (I have, of course, heard of it before, but never considered it, for some reason), I decided to pick one up from the local library. I found the first in the series, from 1992 (oddly, a note taped to the inside front cover states that she won a prize for it in 1991), translated to Swedish in 1998, and since then reprinted several times.

I like Brunetti and find him hard to understand; curiosity about him will keep me going, for sure. Perhaps it is his Italian sensitivities. I get stuck in the writing at times (short, abrupt sentences; stating the obvious at times and other times hinting at things I don’t get), but it may be the translation. Brunetti has a cookbook, and I guess there is some mention of food. Perhaps there will be more in subsequent books, and I mind not one bit – Italian food is among the best in the world.

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Ink sketch after wikipedia photo.

The death is pretty spectacular: a world-famous opera conductor is poisoned with cyanide in his coffee during the interlude of La Traviata at the Venice operahouse La Fenice. Turns out, there have been many comings and goings, and many dislike the man. Brunetti calmly and patiently investigates, and there is no tiresome domestic problems in the background, as Brunetti is a happily married father. There is, of course, the obligatory incompetent superior, and a couple of comically stupid colleagues. As for the plot, it wasn’t too hard to figure out how it had been done. Motive was a bit harder to guess. I found Brunetti’s solution satisfactory.

All in all, a very enjoyable read with a few lessons on the ways of the Italians thrown in. I’ll definitely look for more!

“The Old Fox Deceiv’d” by Martha Grimes

20150628_220209After I had smashed the Kindle, I reached for my rainy-day option. Let me tell you, Grimes stories about Scotland Yard operative Richard Jury and his hanger-on, the ex-lord Melrose Plant, is growing on me. A lot. I like the 80’s atmosphere (lots of smoking), I like that it is set in pubs, for the most part (every book in the series is named after a pub), and I like how terribly nice and emphatic Jury is, even with the bad guys.

This time, he is called to a fishing village on the North Sea coast, Rackmoor (this would most definitely be Robin Hood’s Bay in real life, I think – we passed there by bus last summer), where a woman has been found in a masquerade suit, stabbed to death. But who is she? The villagers seem to disagree.

Grimes does, as she did last time, build her intrigue on things that happened, crimes that were committed, and character faults of the past, which makes Jury’s work a bit more complicated. It is tricky trying to guess who the murderer is and that is always a bonus with a detective story. I will certainly pick up more of these, they are light but clever reading.

20150628_215921I also got the German pilot of the series that never took off, and saw it with the husband one evening. He did tire of it, as there were no subtitles, and the German was a bit hard to follow (I, of course, knew the story from the first book, “The Man with a Load of Mischief”). It is very odd, to watch an English story, with English characters in an English setting, all in German. Kind of like seeing Branagh do Wallander or Gambon as Maigret. The German Jury is a bit too dishevelled, and the German Plant a bit too tightly fit into his clothes (not to mention the beard) to be believable. All the same, a curious bit of television that I’m happy to own!

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“Svenska tecknare före Svenska tecknare” by Ludvig Rasmusson

(= Swedish illustrators before Swedish Illustrators)

Studio_20150527_002339This book was published in 1995 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The association of Swedish illustrators and grapic designers. It is a history of Swedish illustration before the association was founded, and it has a really interesting bit about Carl Larsson, whose work I have blogged before. Larsson came from a poor family and he financed his studies at the Art academy by doing newspaper illustrations:

Oscar II, suffering king.
Oscar II, suffering king.

“I drew for, among others, New Illustrated Magazine. It sent me here and there, mostly to inaugurations of railway stations where there were the same ceremonies with different town councillors, different county governors and different triumphal arches, but two participants were always the same: the King and I. I remember well King Oscar´s slightly suffering smile when our eyes would meet again and again.” (my quick&dirty translation)

Studio_20150527_002301Larsson also made illustrations for books. He was popular because he was fast and reliable, but also because his drawings were creative and humorous, with a lively and fresh feel to them.

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“Mort” (No 4 in the Discworld series) by Terry Pratchett

“…the Discworld, which is flat and rides on the back of four giant elephants who stand on the shell of the enormous star turtle Great A´Tuin, and which is bounded by a waterfall that cascades endlessly into space. Scientists have calculated that the chance of anything so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one. But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.”

Look at that! A good bit on page one already! This is a reading tip I got from Priya at Tabula Rasa, who is a great fan of this series. Well, who isn´t? I have been thinking I must read it for years, but it has got lots of books in it and it seemed like such a task to start at the beginning.

(borrowed from Wikipedia)

Pratchett is funny, that´s the first thing you realize. The Discworld isn´t really so odd after all, is the second thing you realize. It is the same old world we live in, even more familiar than the real one, in a sense, since many of the absurd things we believe in actually are real: mythological conceptions, gods, magic… The above scenario is hardly any stranger than believing the world is situated in a large tree, as the Vikings did.

Also, the people/gods/mythological manifestations are all very ordinary characters. They could be you or your neighbour. Your mum, perhaps. Pratchett makes them funny by describing them with blunt honesty. There is nothing more funny than the sordid truth, all comedians know that. Put a regular Joe, Sven, plain Jane, or Otto Normalverbraucher in a seriously weird situation, like apprenticing for and standing in for Death while he is away on a bit of a holiday, and make them act absolutely hyper-normal, and you will get laughs.

To tell you the truth, I did get a little tired of it. I didn´t want to, I really want to like this. I do like this, it is all brilliant, but… I did get a little tired of it, yes, I can not help it. Couldn´t find any more good bits that didn´t fall flat taken out of context either. Perhaps there were, I just didn´t notice, being a bit, you know… tired of it. And once the plot is established, it runs on pretty much in the direction one would expect. Which is not a bad thing. No, Pratchett is very good. I really do recommend it. I just might not read any more of them. It´s not Pratchett you see, it´s me. All me. [sigh]

“Rubbernecker” by Belinda Bauer

(Swedish: “Betraktaren”)

I had a real epiphany about what kind of reading makes me tick when I read this post by Priya at Tabula Rasa. It explained to me why some books have made me so disappointed and why my book recommendations often fall flat. It’s the “good bits” that I want, and plot is almost of no importance at all to me. Some of my favourite books have little or no plot. Actually, I like to know how a film or a book ends before I see it or read it. I have known for quite some time that I should be careful in recommending books to others and be cautious in what recommendations I take, and this is probably part of it.

20150603_213143A cautious recommendation of this book is exactly what I got, from someone who knows me well, and I decided to go for it. I can say nothing about the style of language, since I read it in Swedish, but the translation (by Ulla Danielsson) is flawless.

This is all about plot, of course, and the premise is unusually intriguing: our hero is young Patrick Fort, he is about to start an anatomy class at university, because he wants to find out where his father, who died when he was little, has gone. Patrick has Asperger’s syndrome, a kind of autism, and since no one has managed to properly explain to him where his father has gone, he is still searching for him, this time in the body of No 19, the corpse that has been donated to science by its, hm, former inhabitant.

The dissection bit is rather interesting, and that’s what my friend said she thought I would like (“since you are going to nursing school”; though I doubt nursing students get to do much dissection; I hope not…). It is also rather funny how Patrick interacts with the people he is forced to work and live with. Of course, Patrick discovers something about the body that does not correspond with the cause of death as stated on the death certificate. Is it murder? If you want to read it, I shall not spoil your fun.

I got more than half way on the first day of reading, and then it took me two weeks to pick it up again and finish it. I was pretty sure where it was going, and I was not wrong, but I was also surprised by the very sensitive and well-composed way Bauer wraps up Patrick’s troubled relationship with his mother, and solves the puzzle with his dead father.

All-in-all, I have to declare this a very decent detective story, with a good plot, humour, and action. Perhaps you could say that Patrick’s personal conundrum is a good-bit-spread-thin-over-the-whole-book; perhaps saying that devalues or re-defines the concept of the “good bit”. The moral of the story, for me, is: not all victims are nice people, not all perpetrators are evil, and the world is probably full of regular people doing bad things for good reasons (or so they tell themselves) that will never get caught. And, a life worth living is not equal to the absence of pain.

“Björn Berg i Alf Henrikssons sällskap”, edited by Gil Dahlström and others

(= Björn Berg in the company of Alf Henriksson)

Studio_20150527_001729I have blogged about Björn Berg before, that time in connection with another author, Thorsten Ehrenmark. Berg was an illustrator at Dagens Nyheter, the largest national Swedish newspaper, from 1952 and all through his career. He also illustrated many books, among the most internationally famous are Astrid Lindgren´s stories about Emil of Lönneberga.

Studio_20150527_001800This book focuses on his illustrations of Alf Henriksson´s poems and texts. Henriksson was a journalist, today most remembered for his daily verses, often on current topics,  who also wrote humoristic books, particularly about antiquity and other historical periods. It is an informative study in the interplay between words and pictures, not to mention highly entertaining.

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After the daily news: The daily facts of life; and news reports of strife; makes grandpa bored and sad; If no fairytales were to be had; how joyless a life, and cold; If no stories were there to be told; With no radio music and tra-la-la; there would be no dancing for grand-pa-pa!
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Never good: When streams and brooks were plentiful; the air was fresh and blue; the earth’s unspoiled riches a beautiful; promise for the children too; the earth was, said the forbears; a wretched vale of tears.

All the lame translations are by me…