We’ve been on vacation for the last week, and I’ve got a large backlog of things I want to say about the holiday and other things. But today/tomorrow will be busy days with New Year’s Eve and all that that entails. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up in the next few days.

In the meantime, may your year end happily and the new one start well.

This is what I was met by when I got home after two days’ absence: a huge, fragrant, twinkling Christmas tree. (It’s so huge that I can’t fit it all into one photo without going so far that the flash on my camera doesn’t light it up any more.)

The tree almost manages to look huge even in our apartment, even though the ceiling here is quite high. The crossbeams are at least 3m from the floor, and the ridge is about another 2m above that. The tree must be a good 4 metres high, and large enough that it doesn’t really stand up on its own and rests against one of the beams. I wonder how Eric got it home, or in through the door! (“On the bike,” he says.) Our string of Christmas lights looks almost puny on that tree. (We haven’t got the rest of the decorations up yet.)

The lights were our only Christmas decorations in our previous apartment, where the living room wasn’t really large enough for a proper tree. So we hung them on our fig.

We’ve had some trouble finding the right sort of trees here in London – they mostly sell firs of various sorts, whereas the traditional tree in Estonia and Sweden is a spruce (picea abies). I’ve got to admit that firs generally look lusher and greener; spruces tend to be thinner and sparser. And spruce needles are a lot sharper – although that only matters initially when you’re hanging up the decorations. However, some firs hardly have any smell at all – we happened to buy one of those the year before last (or maybe it was last year). The smell is an important part of a Christmas tree, and this year’s tree smells wonderful.

This is the third Hornby book I’ve read, and they seem to get successively weaker. About a Boy was really funny; High Fidelity was quite good, How to be Good was really not worth reading. Repetitive and predictable plot, where nothing particularly exciting happens, and the small things that are allowed to happen just fizzle out soon after. A lot of words are spent on the thoughts of the female protagonist whose inner life actually isn’t particularly gripping. No surprises from any of the characters, who are generally flat and stereotypical. I couldn’t bring myself to care for any of them.

I’m not giving much away by saying that the book is about a man who is transformed by a meeting, and thereafter goes out of his way to be good. Only he does it without really consulting his family, and without thinking very much about his actions. Inviting homeless people to stay in your house without any warning is generally a bad idea, and you’d think that an intelligent adult would realize that. The wife is obviously upset, and the children’s loyalties are split between the parents. And so on.

But the book doesn’t do anything with this idea. It’s a superficial book about a topic that a more thoughtful writer could actually do something great with. Yes, the book (or rather David, the man in question) talks a lot about how we should be spending more time and effort doing good. Yet his actions are so clearly quixotic and unrealistic, and his wife’s objections are even less well-considered than his own arguments. Neither of them says anything fully convincing, so the whole theme of Being Good becomes an empty gesture, just to keep the plot going.

I couldn’t be bothered to read all of it, and only just skimmed through the last third.

Its only redeeming quality is that I got it as a free supplement with a magazine I once bought to read during a long tube ride. I have no strong memories of the magazine, but I believe I enjoyed it more than this book.

The book looks rather intimidating with its white-on-black cover and 1000 pages. It looks like one of those virtuous, serious things that are supposed to be good for you. And all the bookshops were selling it so pushily that I felt a slight aversion to it before I’d even opened it. But Neil Gaiman said good things on the back cover, and I’d heard some vaguely good rumours about it, so I did open it after all.

I hadn’t expected it to be so much fun.

In two words, this is a book of English magic. Rather obviously, there are two magicians, called Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Although we actually meet them in the reverse order. I guess it’s because of this presence of magicians that the book is compared to Harry Potter… It could hardly be any more different from Harry Potter, in my opinion! Magic is just about the only thing they have in common, and a British author. I won’t make this into a “JSMN is not Harry Potter” post, but, well, this is a very different book – and quite a lot better.

All the basic parts of a good book are there: good plot, great characters, good language.
It’s a bit slow to take off (the first third of the book feels a bit longish) but when it does, it gets quite exciting. I spent most of this Sunday in the sofa reading it, because I didn’t want to have to put it down in the evening and wait a whole day before finishing it. It is a bit scattered, a bit like a clockwork – lots of fascinating parts that tick and turn. But in the end all the apparently erratic offshoots are gathered up and tied up very neatly. The ending is quite powerful – everything that happens, happens for the sake of one moment, everything leads to this, but you only see this after it’s happened. It is a bit too long, though, and some of the meanderings could have been cut out without any great loss. I’m hoping that she’s learned from this book and that the sequel (which isn’t explicitly mentioned but certainly seems probable) will be more concentrated.

It’s actually quite hard to point out what makes a book great rather than good… My respect for good book reviewers increases every time I try to write a post about a book I’ve read. I like to browse other people’s reviews before writing anything (but after reading). Good ones are hard to find; poor reviews, incidentally, are very easy to write, and the web is full of them. The good ones tell me something new about the book – the bad ones summarise the plot and say whether the book was good/bad and you should/should not read it, and that’s it.

Great books have life and variety. Much of the greatness of JSMN comes from the variety and intensity in it. It ranges from small-scale domesticity to muddy exhausting battlegrounds; from cosy wittiness to fantastical visions. It flows from the simple to the grand, without feeling inconsistent or disjointed.

Great books are often unique. Great books tell stories that no one has told before, or tell them in a completely new manner / tone. Books that fit neatly into a category are rarely great.

JSMN is unique in its take on magic. It’s about magic as a part of life. Unlike most fantasy books, it’s written in realistic style – instead of magical realism, this is realistic magic.

It’s about magic and how it fits into life. Magic is a profession – and like any job, it ranges from tedious and mundane to adventure, glory and exciting discoveries. Magic is a science – it’s a complex process that we don’t fully understand, but can learn more about if we study it. Magic, as any power, changes people and society – in the book’s world it plays, in a way, the role of industrialisation in our reality. There are hints in the book that magic will slowly start to erase barriers between social classes and make it possible for men to get ahead by virtue of what one does, not just by titles and money. But magic is also a powerful force that pervades everything in the world, more powerful than even the magicians at first can imagine, and the book ends with that realization.

Interestingly, most really different books in the fantasy / science fiction arena have come from Britain recently – Mieville, Gaiman, Clarke, Banks. In fact, JSMN is a quintessentially English book. Its language is very English, as is its humour, and the characters. It’s fun to read about people going to places that I know – I can picture the streets they walk in, the gray weather, the houses.

Several reviews I’ve read pointed out something I hadn’t conciously thought about – JSMN is very much about the character of the English and England as they were 200 years ago. There’s this sense of England being the centre of the world, and Englishness as the natural state of affairs. There is no mention of any non-English magicians, for example, and everyone who’s not English is seen and portrayed kind of like a curious foreign object. If you don’t like Englishness (some reviews complain about an excess of “stiff, English-backed male characters who disembark from horse-carriages and tug on bellpulls to call for their valets”) or historical novels then you’ll probably find this book rather boring and stiff.

All of this sounds frighteningly serious… the book is anything but. It’s thrilling, funny, beautifully written, and very enjoyable.

More and more, I’m coming to view having expectations as an undesirable behaviour. It is better to just take things as they come, without preconceived notions about what they might or ought to be like, or what I would like them to be like.

If I expect to get some pleasure from some aspect of what I will be doing, and things turn out differently, I’m setting myself up for disappointment. If they do turn out as expected then, well, everything is no more than expected. If I expect the experience to be unpleasant, my expectations will colour my perceptions, so it is quite likely to be unpleasant. The only positive possibility would be to always expect things to go badly, and then be positively surprised – but negative expectations are not much fun, and I’d rather not spend too much time wallowing in them.

If I have no expectations, then everything that happens is fresh. I have not pre-lived it in my expectations. If it is good, then the goodness is unexpected, and therefore a greater pleasure. If it is bad, then it’s just one of those things that happen.

Not to mention that it feels like a wasteful way to spend my time! Intentions are useful; preparations likewise. But expectations cannot really lead to anything useful. They create nothing other than more of themselves.

I live on the second floor.

The stairs to the first landing have 12 steps; from there to first floor another 12. Then 10 steps to the landing and 8 to our floor.

I know these steps well. I’ve walked them daily for the last two and a half years, after all. So I normally don’t turn on the light in the stairwell, even when it’s pitch black outside.

Everything goes fine until the last step – I walk at a normal pace. But then at the last moment, something stops my foot, and I am really, really careful with that final step, even if I’ve reminded myself just seconds earlier that there’s no need.

I know that there are exactly eight steps, and that I haven’t counted wrong. I know that there is nothing there I could stumble over. (And even if there was, there’s an equally good chance that there’s something further down – then I should be careful about every step.) And I’m never careful when going down, only up.

But none of it helps. I still hesitate.

Sometimes I just barely catch the faint last edge of a fear – of stepping over the edge…

Dave Brubeck’s jazz quartet (4 white-haired old men) and the London Symphony Orchestra. Pleasant enough to listen to, and all well played, but ultimately just not very interesting. I was on the verge of falling asleep during the second half of the concert.

I don’t understand the point of adding a symphony orchestra to a jazz band… It took away most of the raw energy of jazz and smoothed it out to mellow “easy listening” music. And it feels like a bit of an insult to the orchestra. If you’ve got 25 violins, it’s a waste to have them all play the exact same (and rather simple) score – which is also the same as the score for the trombones and the cellos.

The only piece where the orchestra sounded really good was one that had originally been written for symphony orchestra & jazz band.
And the only piece that felt really alive was the encore, totally free from symphony. At least it ended well!

  1. Invite friends to the kitchen.
  2. Provide tools, ingredients and instructions.
  3. Add glögg as needed, and stir vigourously.

We had our traditional (if 4 years can be called a tradition) Swedish “julstök” (Christmas bake) yesterday: cooking and baking in the company of friends. We now have enough gingerbread cookies, lussebullar (saffron buns), knäck (toffee), chocolate sweets and fudge to last us for a month at least.

All of it’s rather experimental, really. For the knäck, for example, we tried using treacle instead of golden syrup this year, and it didn’t work as well as expected… but the same treacle was good for gingerbread dough. This year’s gingerbread cookies came out better than ever, pleasantly spicy and dark.

Gingerbread cookies are my favourites, really, both to make and to eat. It’s fun to try and fit as many as possible onto the rolled-out dough, to waste as little as possible. And they taste good!

Fewer people came to join us than last year, and one large family had to decline at the last moment, so we’ve got a whole lot of glögg left over… well, that’ll save us the bother of carrying it home next year!

There’s good music, there’s great music, and then there’s music that transcends all attempts to describe it.
This was one of the latter kind.

I think that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Not only did the music sound fabulous; we also got to see Yo-Yo Ma play it. We had good seats (row 2) so we could see his face and hands really well. Some of the music was technically very demanding and it was a pleasure to see him work.

According to the programme leaflet, he plays “a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice and the 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius”. Whichever one it was, it was a beautiful instrument to look at, with a red glow, and had a wonderful sound: melodious, soft, deep. I could have just listened to the sound of the cello, ignoring the music, and enjoyed that.

One man, one cello, up close – very intimate performance, despite the size of the hall.

He also turned out to be a very friendly, humble and good-humoured man. He appeared to be as grateful to the audience as we were to him. We managed to applaud three extra pieces out of him (which led to very pleased and humble gestures from him) and those were even better than Bach’s cello suites. One sounded decidedly Oriental (therefore probably from his Silk Road project). Another may have been a modern arrangement of some folk tune – it sounded modern but I thought it had some elements of old dance music in it. I have no idea what the third one was, but it was the best moment of the whole concert. I’ll need to keep an eye out for reviews of this concert, they might mention what it was.

This year’s Christmas preparations in our household have now been kicked off through the purchase of 9 bottles of glögg and 6 bottles of julmust, both absolutely essential for a true Swedish Christmas experience. What would Swedish expats do without IKEA? (Invite lots of visitors from Sweden in December, I guess… although nowadays you can probably buy your julmust online.)

Christmas has three essential components: the tree, the sweets and the drinks (which also happen to be sweet, coincidentally). Presents are pleasant but not essential. Christmas food, other than the sweets, is also optional.

The drinks part is now sorted for this year. The sweets will be fixed this weekend (Saturday). This only leaves the tree.

I love julmust. If the glögg bottles weren’t so infernally heavy, I’d have bought three times as much julmust. I think a follow-up / refill trip might be needed in a few weeks’ time.

Superficially, julmust might look like Coke, but it’s really a very different thing. I am not particularly fond of Coke – I may drink one maybe once or twice a year – mostly because Coke is disgustingly, cloyingly sweet. I don’t understand how they can dissolve that much sugar in water. It somehow manages to taste sweeter than sugar water. Julmust is sweet, too, but it has a spicy rich flavour. It reminds of dark beer (think Guinness) which is not surprising given that it contains malt and hops. It tastes very nice mixed with beer, about half and half.

According to reliable sources Swedes drink 60,000,000 litres of must each year, of which 45,000,000 in December. That’s about 5 litres for every Swede regardless of age. (Add about 4 or 5 million litres of glögg, too.) Apparently Sweden is one of the few countries where sales of Coke actually decline in December, as julmust displaces Coke from the top spot. The rest is drunk at Easter, for some reason, and during the rest of the year you can hardly find must in stores. Definitely not outside Sweden. That’s part of its charm – it wouldn’t be as special if I drank it every week.