Ten years ago
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A decade in books

A decade ago (good grief) I wrote an overview of my reading since 2000, and as we now write 2021 I take it it is time to repeat the exercise. Fair warning: this may primarily be of interest to me, but I like keeping record. This is a decade in which I have completed my PhD and worked in higher education here and there, and also one in which I have made an effort to include more diversity in my reading list.

Apart from the PhD stuff, my reading in 2011 was heavily shaped by a reading challenge in which I had to read six genres and according to a variety of other criteria. I discovered some books it might otherwise have taken me longer to find, like the utterly amazing Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. I also started my Kazuo Ishiguro binge this year, as well as a Le Carré one, and reread all the Dickens books I had not read since I was a kid (and in retrospect, I am fairly sure those had changed) because I came to Trondheim and was given charge of a Dickens course. I also discovered Angela Carter, David Mitchell, and Neal Stephenson, and Marvel through Gaiman's Marvel 1602. And I continued to pick up non-fiction on the outskirts (or outside my field) because there is something deeply relaxing about that, and Naphy's Born to be Gay stuck with me.

With the arrival of 2012, I was teaching and in the ...
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2020 book variations

Weird year. I spent most of trying to write a book, trying (failing) not to read the news, and winding down with books that were sufficiently familiar to help me forget about work at the end of the day.

The Sea Cloak & Other Stories -- Nayrouz Qarmout
Reading this collection of short stories drawn from Palestinian experience, while sitting in a lovely little café in Hampstead in January was discordant, but the stories were very good. The title story reminded me a little of Kate Chopin's 'The Awakening', with a twist, which may have been intentional. The tone and rhythm of the rriting, and the occasional jarring intrusion of war was very effective. I also liked the tension she sets up between the violence of war and the violence of gender and social expectation. The way hopelessness builds as completely normal plans and desires are frustrated, fruitless, leading to radicalisation or despair.

Single & Single -- John Le Carré
David Cornwell died this December, which means Le Carré did, too. This was the latest of his that I read (I had waited a while, as my mother once told me I was too young and I tend to assume that applies in perpetuity). I love his tortured spies who have hidden away in out-of-the-way lives/careers, the lawyer who knows his business to the fingertips, and the father/son dynamic. It reminds me a little of Perfect Spy in that respect. Also, I am a sucker for any book that ...
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Detectives

When we were eight or so, my friends and I had a detective club. One of the mysteries we tried to solve was the murder of Olof Palme. Like many others, we were unsuccessful. Possibly because our methods (after reading all we could find on the subject) were hanging around the local museum and the window outside the teachers’ lounge, looking for suspicious activity.

We used very similar methods for determining the identity of Nessie, the existence of aliens, and the theft or destruction of something at the local museum. Come to think of it, we had some fairly plausible theories about one of the teachers and a stationery racket which I am not sure were altogether wrong.

I am fairly sure my life-long obsession with stationery comes from the fact that writing implements and writing books were all hidden away in the basement, where we were not allowed, inside a cupboard we had no access to.

How do I know there was a cupboard in the basement and that the cupboard contained stationery, you ask? Well...

Sometimes the door was left ajar. And we were detectives.
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The Mystery of Edwin Drood


The six serial parts that make up The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Mrs Tope's care has spread a very neat, clean breakfast ready for her lodger. Before sitting down to it, he opens his corner-cupboard door; takes his bit of chalk from its shelf; adds one thick line to the score, extending from the top of the cupboard door to the bottom; and then falls to with an appetite.
When Charles Dickens finished the penultimate chapter of the sixth instalment of Edwin Drood, on this day 150 years ago, those were the final words he would ever write.1 Later that evening he had a stroke, and he died the following day without regaining consciousness. While Dickens the man got up from his desk, dined, complained of a toothache and asked for the window to be closed before dying, Dickens as author dies with the final words of Edwin Drood.2 His final novel is indissolubly linked with its author's death, not least because the premature end to the life is the cause of the premature end to the text. Sometimes, there is speculation that it was the other way around: that the novel killed its author. I have written about the narrative significance of Dickens' death elsewhere.

The propinquity of the last words of the last work and the death lent them some of the sanctity of the grave. Fans and opportunists (or opportunistic fans) who attempted to complete the novel were derided as a
ghoulish horde ...
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(Still waiting for) pockets

If you google "pockets" (or at least, if I google "pockets"), the top thingy leads you to a menswear designer. Which I think is rather rubbing it in.

Women's trousers famously have completely ludicrous attachments which do not deserve the name, but if like me you happen to have given trousers up as a bad job (because, really, how much time is one expected to spend trying the damned things on?), and decided the future is skirt-shaped, things are even worse.

Skirts and dresses don't just have useless pockets -- quite often there are no pockets at all! Which means, if I leave my office to buy lunch and do not want to lug a handbag or a large wallet around -- or carry a lone card which you know I would leave at the first available flat surface -- my option is basically stuffing the thing up my sleeve. Which is inelegant, to say the least. And should I also want to bring my phone, well...

Hence the sewing machine.

That is a lie. I got the sewing machine because I am short and at 15 I saw the future before me. But it has proved useful. Also because of the pockets.

Sources are unclear on whether the reason for the lack of pockets is a) that they ruin the silhouette (what?), b) that they are too expensive (really?), c) that they are trying to force us into buying handbags (I will murder you in your sleep), or d) that ...
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2019 in books -- a selection

I have decided to repeat last year's stocktaking/recommendations exercise. It seems like a good way to ensure I manage at least one blog post each year. Following last year's rather white, male year, I once again resolved to read more women of colour, and did. Paying attention to structural inequality helps you do something about it. Here are some of the ones that stuck with me the most this past year. I could happily have recommended all I read last year, so I have made some hard choices.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy -- Cathy O'Neill
There is a tendency among people in power (and middle managers the world over) to think that if a computer spits out a number it comes express from divine truth. There are few things that scares me more. This book gives a good account of how the abuse of algorithms by people who believe they are objective leads to spiralling inequality and injustice. It should be mandatory reading despite her tendency to reach for baseball to help her explain things. Some of it is particular to the American context (which seems to be ahead of the curve when it comes to spiralling into dystopian nightmares), but that does not make it less relevant. It is not a technophobe's book, though: there is a faint glimmering hope that if people could get their act together, the same algorithms could be a force for good ...
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Distilled highlights of 2018 in books

While I enjoy the cleaning out and resetting aspect of the new year ritual, I have never really been one for stocktaking at the end of the year. The exception is books. One of my favourite parts of January 1st is going back over the books I have read in the preceding year and having a look at which ones have really stayed with me. I thought I would do this in public this year, so that this could double as a recommendations list for those so inclined.

Gnomon -- Nick Harkaway
A complex, but quite wonderful book set in part in a near(ish) future dystopia, but with narrative strands from ancient Carthage, via contemporary Greece and London, to a posthuman far future. Like all Harkaway's books any attempt to place it in a genre box will meet with problems -- think of it as scifi meets police procedural told by the lovechild of Scheherazade and Borges. It continues the concern with seductive order and control vs the possibility of heterogeneity which I have been tracing in his previous books (I really must finish that article). I like how this book balances political urgency without becoming didactic.

Biketopia: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories in Extreme Futures -- Elly Blue (ed.)
This is exactly what it sounds like -- a collection of feminist science fiction short stories in which bikes play prominent parts. The fourth of its kind, apparently, so there is more where this came from. One or two were a bit ...
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Secret Plots: The False Endings of Dickens' Novels

Dickens' endings are notoriously happy and abrupt (abruptly happy?), and I just had an article published in which I argue that this is a feature, not a bug. People tend to see it as Dickens copping out, abandoning the political agenda of his novels to pander to a readership which preferred not to be put out. I think the endings are so abrupt and so happy that they undermine themselves -- and Dickens uses this to make his readers arrive at the unhappy ending themselves. It may be worth keeping in mind if you want to make someone accept an unpalatable truth?

At any rate, here is the abstract:
Oliver Twist does not find wealth and family and live happily ever after. Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam never escape the workhouse. And Eugene Wrayburn does not revive to marry Lizzie Hexam and start a new and productive life. This article takes as its starting point the idea that a story can have ‘false’ endings and uses it as a way of approaching the problem of Charles Dickens’s plots, tracing Dickens’s method in three novels from different periods of his authorship: Oliver Twist (1839), Little Dorrit (1857), and Our Mutual Friend (1865). Dickens’s novels are full of plots that should never have played out and are enabled by a series of miracles. Instead of seeing the happy endings as undermining the impact of the novels’ social criticism, the article argues that Dickens encourages his readers to see through the ...
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Shaw's manslaughter plan

Lately, I have been spending my days alternately at the British Library and the Dickens Museum, and my evenings at the British Newspaper Archive, looking up this and that. Suffice to say, I have read my share of old newspapers, magazines, journals, reviews, gazettes, couriers, and heralds.

On Friday I found something interesting: a newspaper notice that seemed to have travelled back in time. Which made me rather excited.

But first some background.

As you may know, Charles Dickens left The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished when he died in 1870, and I wrote my PhD on the many people who have tried to figure out where it would have ended had he lived (and those who tried to complete it for him -- with or without posthumous help).

Now, by 1914, this had developed into quite a phenomenon, and the last decade had involved not only some of the Britain's finest magazines and newspapers, but some of its most famous names and most active writers in the attempt to figure out once and for all the mysteries of Dickens' novel (and make some money for charity in the process).

At the heart of the matter there is, as the title suggests, the mystery of Edwin Drood -- namely, what has happened to him. Has he, as the text would seem to suggest, been murdered by his uncle, John Jasper? Or has he, in preparation for a fantastic reveal, survived the attempt? And this is not the only question to be ...
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The Default She: Power Inversion in Feminist Science Fiction


This is a public talk I gave at Litteraturhuset in Trondheim in connection with the Starmus Festival, on the 20th of June.

Science fiction, to some extent, is about the future and the far away, but the future and how we think about the future and the far away is generally informed by the here and now. And how we think about the future and the far away can also impact how we are able to think about the here and now. That is the basic premise of this talk.

In 1905, in what would later become Bangladesh, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein, often called Begum Rokeya, wrote “Sultana’s Dream”, where the narrator is transported to a land where humanity controls the elements. Water is gathered directly from the sky, so there are no floods or storms, but plenty of water should you want it. The sun’s heat is stored and used for all your energy needs, so there is no smoke or pollution. All travel is done by walking through streets filled with flowers rather than paving stones, or by riding in flying cars which fly by having large hydrogen balls attached to either end of it.

Oh, and all the men have been locked up in men-only spaces inside each house – while women rule the land.

The narrator, much like Begum Rokeya herself, has grown up in the seclusion of the women’s space, the zenana, which means that she does not leave the house uncovered or unchaperoned ...
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