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Sundry books of 2023

The New Year concert is on the telly, and I thought I'd follow the tradition of the last few years and run through the more salient reads of the past year. Out of the 81 books of the year, a significant portion are re-reads. Dorothy Sayers and Victoria Goddard are still my go-to faced with the horror that is world politics. I am still waiting for Cliopher Mdang to save us or Peter Wimsey to make sense of it all.

Lausgjengar -- Hayashi Fumiko
I will not pretend to deep expertise on Japanese literature, but I dare say it is a rarity to find one with such a clear intertextual relationship with Norwegian texts (in this case, Knut Hamsun's Sult (Hunger). I read it in a nynorsk translation, which I thought suited the work. I find it interesting how much my other reading dictates how a new book is read, perhaps particularly in a literature where I have only read moderately. This book made this very clear to me, as I could not help but set it in a relationship with The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, with its combination of events, love affairs, poetry and lists. I love the idea of taking a court-style literary form and mashing it up with the hardship of living hand to mouth, and bringing a female Japanese perspective to Hamsun's approach.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet -- Becky Chambers
A Closed and Common Orbit -- Becky Chambers
To Be Taught ...
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2022 in books -- an assortment

Weird year, I keep saying, and they just keep getting weirder. God damn Putin. Needless to say, I have reread a lot of Terry Pratchett, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Jane Austen as reliable staples when the world is too much with me. And Victoria Goddard, of course, but I will get back to that. As usual, here is a dip into the more salient reads of the year.

Ambiguity Machines and other stories -- Vandana Singh
Distances -- Vandana Singh
Vandana Singh is one of the finest living science fiction authors, as far as my knowledge stretches. The first of these is a short story collection, the other a novella. Each short story develops a universe of its own, and a new novum based in philosophy, maths, and identity. At times it reminded me of Borges, in the exploration of impossible machines, I like the recurring idea of humanity as one among animals, and the general suspicion of megacorps and geoengineering as a solution to climate change. The enemy is not the other, but the sociopatic capitalist structure, conformity and homogeneity.

The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village -- Samuel R. Delany
Samuel Delany is another of my favourite scifi authors. It is always interesting to read a literary biography, and to compare and contrast a bit with published works (the author not being quite so dead as previously reported), and Delany's autobiography is interesting both as an accompaniment to his works and as ...
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Love and tensor algebra II

I have previously written about my love for Stanisław Lem's Cyberiad and its story in which a poetry machine is set the task to write a poem on love and tensor algebra. And does. I have also written a short essay on the translations of the text, in Riss back in the day (2015, I think), which you can find here.

Anyway, what with the current interest in the new ChatGPT AI which purports to be able to write any kind of text about anything, it was obvious what had to be done. Here is ChatGPT's attempt, for posterity, on being given the prompt "Let’s have a love poem, lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics. Tensor algebra mainly, with a little topology and higher calculus, if need be. But with feeling, you understand, and in the cybernetic spirit":
O my dear, my darling, my love,
You are the tensor of my heart,
A matrix of beauty and grace,
Your symmetry fills my soul with wonder.

Your curves are the stuff of topological dreams,
But it is your tensors that truly amaze,
As I map your contravariant and covariant spaces,
I am lost in the beauty of your mathematical form.

But in this realm of pure abstraction,
I find a warmth and a tenderness,
For in the language of mathematics,
I can express the depth of my love.

So let us dance together in this space of numbers,
As we explore the limits of ...
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Talking about Zelenskyy

The Russian attack on Ukraine on the 24th of February altered the shape of this spring for many of us. We followed the news, fundraised, and joined protests against the Russian aggression. I also found myself in the somewhat odd position of public expert on current events, which as a Victorianist and Edwardianist I had not really expected to ever be.

I have argued that drawing on and feeding fan dynamics has allowed the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy to mobilise NATO countries despite the lack of an official place in the alliance; it has helped ensure an early and continuing open-source intelligence (osint) production; and it has probably helped produce a greater willingness to ensure quick funding and a good reception of Ukrainian refugees across much of Europe

I wanted to leave a record here, mostly for myself, about what I said and where.

It started with a talk at work on the subject already on the 9th of March, and then again on the 14th, whereupon I was told/bribed/convinced to turn it into an op-ed for Morgenbladet. There was some delay in the pipeline here, but it was published by the 24th:

This was followed by a very early morning appearance at NRK, on tv and radio, on the 31st:

Whereupon I had a lengthy conversation with a journalist from Dagbladet, who produced the following on the 6th of April:

I ...
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2021 in books -- a miscellany

Another weird year. Pandemic aside, I had migraines most of the year, and reading was at times a tricky prospect. I grasped my chances with both hands, and selected books carefully. Still, as is tradition now, here is my selection from what was already a good list.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union -- Michael Chabon
Who does not love a chess murder mystery? And the name of Emanuel Lasker is one to conjure with. So when Chabon's novel opens with a man by that name found dead in a hotel room, alongside a mysterious unfinished chess game, it was clear this was for me. But the book also wraps this in so much delightful texture, spurred by its counterfactual setting in an Alaska in which a Jewish temporary homeland is coming to an end. I loved the turns of phrase, the descriptions of chess, and the reminders of obscure Jewish sects I learnt about as an undergraduate. Above all, I love (minor spoiler) that the murder was zugzwang. I will read this again.

Capitalism: A Ghost Story -- Arundhati Roy
I find I like Roy's essay style as much as her fiction. I appreciate her willingness to highlight the links between rampant capitalism and nascent fascism, the machinery of war and inequality. It is heartening in a Luxembourgian fashion. And while its focus is India, it demonstrates the international nature of this beast. I came late to this book, but it is no less on point half a decade later ...
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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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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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