Best Reads of 2018

rtlHere are my best reads in English during 2018. The total was only 39 books (when 40-45 is my normal number), mainly because I slogged through a lot of borderline-bad Swedish paperback novels. They became my lot in life for months after the local historical society gave me a book token for a shop that hardly stocks any English titles. Even giving them each a 50-page chance was quite the chore.

Seven of the books I read were e-books. Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

  • Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah, Vol 2. Richard Francis Burton 1857.
  • The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. H.P. Lovecraft 1927.
  • Maskerade. Terry Pratchett 1995.
  • Guys and Dolls and Other Writings. Damon Runyon.
  • The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Mark Levinson 2006.
  • Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. Michael Chabon 2008.
  • The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal #4). Jonathan L. Howard 2014.
  • The Men Who Stare at Goats. Jon Ronson 2004.
  • Salt. Adam Roberts 2000.
  • A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton. Mary S. Lovell 1998.
  • Air. Geoff Ryman 2004.
  • A Meeting with Medusa (The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, #4). 1960s.
  • Diamonds Are Forever (James Bond #4). Ian Fleming 1956.
  • The Door into Summer. Robert A. Heinlein 1956.
  • The Innocents Abroad. Mark Twain 1869.
  • Pistols at Dawn: a History of Duelling. Richard Hopton 2007.
  • Spinning Silver. Naomi Novik 2018.

Here’s my list for 2017.


2018 Enlightener & Deceiver Awards


Fråga Lund

The Swedish Skeptics have announced their annual awards for 2018.

The Enlightener of the Year award is given to the pop-sci TV show Fråga Lund. The show answers viewers’ questions about science and research in an accessible way by recruiting scientists and other experts in various fields. Through its format that mixes facts and playfulness the programme attracts a different – and far larger – viewership than the purely fact-based science programming that Swedish public service TV also offers.

The Deceiver of the Year anti-award goes to the writer and speaker Thomas Erikson for his best-selling amateur psychology books and lecture events where he touts simplistic personality tests without basis in real psychological research. Erikson was soundly taken down at feature length in the long-read magazine Filter already last summer.

December Pieces Of My Mind #3


Long walk through sunlit winter woods to Bollmora for cake.

  • I dream of a future with no spectator sports.
  • I’ve been lucky with my genealogy. I just found my first “father unknown”, a man in generation 5 born probably around 1800.
  • Movie: Green Book. Italian American bouncer as driver and bodyguard for a highly refined black pianist on a 1962 tour of the Deep South. Buddy movie across a racial divide. Grade: Excellent!
  • I’ve never watched Die Hard and the concept of a Christmas movie is unfamiliar to me.
  • People spray “1983” on walls in Šibenik. Local pride: that was the year when the town’s basketball team won the Yugoslavian nationals to everyone’s surprise.
  • Exchanged some thoughts with this guy about Israeli politics. Came to think about my kids. Listing only the religious affiliations that we know of, their ancestors have been Scandy pagans, Finnish pagans, Catholics, Lutherans, Russian Orthodox, Jews, Taoists, Buddhists and Maoists. And now these young folks have no stake in either of these creeds.
  • Remember deep fried parsley? Senseless 80s food fad.
  • I’m having a Kickstarter to buy myself the Agri decumates.
  • Heard of “purity balls”? It’s when you’ve recently washed your scrotum.
  • On the boat from Zlarin back to Šibenik was a loud cheerful older lady with a prominent black moustache. She looked just like Monty Python’s Terry Jones in drag.
  • I may have to go on the dole in January. I’ve decided to treat it as a study grant to read up on the Pre-Roman Iron Age in the Lake Mälaren area.
  • Tolkien understood something that many later fantasists (including Peter Jackson) have not: the land outside a Medieval town wall is used for agriculture and poor people’s housing.
  • My wife was concerned about the spruce needles raining off the Christmas tree. I told her not to worry. “They smell nice. Just think if we had gotten a tree made from raw chicken.”
  • Movie: Lady Bird. High school senior has various troubled relationships, notably with her mother. Grade: OK.
  • What if there’s fossil fuel on Mars?
  • The Smithereens should by rights have consisted of leftover musicians from the breakup of the Smiths.
  • “… Irish sources speak of warriors taking out the brains of their defeated victims and mixing them with lime to form a ‘brain ball’ that could be used as a weapon or displayed as a trophy” Enc Celtic Mythology & Folklore, P. Monaghan 2003, p. 242
  • I keep returning to this: perse means “asshole” in Finnish, and it is always worth replacing the expression “per se” with “asshole” when reading academic writing.
  • Everybody remembering to listen to the Christmas Oratorio?
  • I love love love my kids’ academic and archaic turns of phrase.
  • You own one knife and one fork that have so far never been used together for eating. You will never know which ones they are.
  • Hay-on-Wye is known as a book town. It has had a hugely popular annual literary festival since 1988 and used to have ~40 used book stores (currently ~2 dozens). I’ve known about the place for something like 30 years and been convinced that it’s in Cornwall. Recently I met the Hay Festival’s sustainability officer and learned that it’s in southern Wales.

Fisksätra Marina hibernating


Minor Celebrity Ancestors


Otto Kristian Ekman (1791-1866)

I’ve made a lot of genealogical progress lately, greatly aided by the automatic search facilities at I’ve filled every slot in my tree up to generation 5 (OK, except the one “father undisclosed” in that generation) and I’ve got loads of people beyond that, even a few born in the late 1500s.

Almost everyone in my family tree is humble peasantry, farm owners or tenants. But I knew when I started my investigations that my mother’s paternal grandma had a petit-bourgeois background. Her branch shows up really clearly in the tree because they’re the only ones who took and curated photographs. And moving up that branch I’ve found two minor celebrities. They’re in generations 6 and 8, so their contribution to my own genetic makeup is of course negligible. But still fun.

Otto Kristian Ekman (1791-1866) was really a nice surprise, because he was an antiquarian and major collector. Oblivious to any relation, I’ve studied a lot of the finds that he brought together from Öland and Småland provinces, now held by the Swedish History Museum. By profession he was a medical doctor, provinsialläkare in Kalmar. So I’m not actually the first doctor in the family as I’ve thought.

Lars Kockom (1719-90) was a real big shot, an MP för the mössorna party and a town councillor in Malmö. His main business was as head of a pre-steam-age chamois leather workshop.

Otto and Lars were both from the upper middle class in the towns of west Scania. Otto’s daughter married Lars’s great-grandson. In addition to the Ekman and Kockom/Kockum patrilineages, names in this part of my tree include Bothe, Frick, Hammar, Horster, Jyde, Lang, Malm, Malmgren, Ruhe and Thott. I guess it was their cultural legacy that made my grandpa a (rather reluctant) auditor and caused his daughter to advise her son to study business administration. I didn’t listen to her.

Nationalist Complains About Novik

36896898I’m reading Naomi Novik’s excellent recent novel Spinning Silver, which deals with Jews and Christians in a fantasy version of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, apparently in some equivalent of the 16th century.* Much of the plot and recurring themes in the book revolve around money lending and the re-payment of debts. There’s also evil ice faeries, fire demons and spell casting in it. I’ve never read any Jewish historical fantasy before, and I was curious to learn what Jewish readers think about it. So I googled “jewish news review novik spinning”.

The first surprise was pleasant: I had to scroll through lots of general secular news and reviews sites before I found one with a specifically Jewish perspective. This book enjoys wide exposure (including 22,000 ratings on The second surprise was less fun: when I finally found what I was looking for at the Jewish Review of Books, the reviewer Michael Weingrad turned out to be a nationalist grinding his historical axe.

This guy complains that the Christians in this fantasy novel aren’t mean enough to the Jews. He’s unhappy with the degree to which some families from either group are willing to co-exist in a friendly manner. He states incorrectly** that Novik’s fantasy Jews don’t speak Yiddish. “Novik has stocked her book not with anything resembling historical Jews and Christians but with 21st-century secular liberals who have no commitment to group identity in the first place. … none of Novik’s main characters, Jew or Christian, express any attachment to peoplehood, religion, or nation.”

Weingrad’s take on the book is exactly like complaining that since Tolkien’s hobbits are a fantasy version of Victorian Englishmen, The Lord of the Rings is crap because it doesn’t deal with the downsides of colonialism. Spinning Silver does refer repeatedly in passing to pogroms, but Weingrad apparently can’t enjoy (grimly) his Jewish historical fantasy unless it focuses on anti-Semitism in dirty detail, plus some faeries, demons and spells.

But then I’m a 21st-century secular liberal who has little commitment to group identity. I sincerely believe that the world needs a lot less less attachment to peoplehood, religion and nation. I should probably have googled “progressive jewish news novik spinning”. And I recommend the book.

* There’s tobacco, so after 1492, and Lithuania is still independent, so before 1570. But even impoverished peasants drink tea, which wasn’t available to the imperial Russian court until 1638.

** Chapter 18. Wanda, a poor Christian teen who probably speaks fantasy Polish: “I thought at first they were just talking so fast that I couldn’t understand, but then I realized they were saying words that I didn’t understand at all, mixed up with words that I did know.” And in chapter 21, “… I did not care anymore that I did not understand what they were saying.”

My Soundtrack For 2018


Of all the stoner rock bands from Lviv in Ukraine, the Somali Yacht Club is the one you really need to listen to.

Deezer, the streaming music service I use, suddenly offered me an almost ready-made blog entry. Here are 40 songs that I’ve added and listened to frequently in the past year. The asterisks mark the tunes with the least general popularity on Deezer right now. You can take that to mean either that they’re the worst of the lot, or that they’re the choicest, deepest cuts that you need to listen to first. Or you can simply note that two are Swedish acts that aren’t widely known abroad.

Tell me which of the tunes you like! And merry Christmas everyone!

  • Alice in Chains: The One You Know
  • Allah-Las: Seven Point Five
  • Alvvays: Archie, Marry Me
  • Andrew Bird: Capsized
  • Aquilo: Thin
  • Arctic Monkeys: Arabella
  • Black Keys: Hell Of A Season
  • Black Keys: Tighten Up
  • Brian Jonestown Massacre: Panic In Babylon
  • Bright Eyes: First Day Of My Life
  • Connan Mockasin: Charlotte’s Thong
  • Delorentos: Secret *
  • Ebbot Lundberg & the Indigo Children: Where Are You Now? *
  • Elephant Tree: Wither
  • Elton John, Leon Russell: If It Wasn’t For Bad
  • Eurythmics: Aqua *
  • First Aid Kit: Fireworks
  • Florence & the Machine: Shake It Out
  • Foster the People: Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls)
  • Graveyard: The Fox *
  • Greta Van Fleet: Highway Tune
  • James Bay: Sugar Drunk High
  • Jayhawks: Blue *
  • Little Hurricane: Isn’t It Great
  • of Montreal: Disconnect The Dots *
  • Parcels: Bemyself
  • Parcels: Overnight
  • Portugal The Man: Feel It Still
  • Remo Drive: Blue Ribbon
  • Shins: Name For You
  • Somali Yacht Club: Sightwaster
  • Soundgarden: Fell On Black Days
  • Sufjan Stevens: Mystery of Love
  • Sunshine Fix: That Ole Sun *
  • Teleman: Steam Train Girl
  • Weezer: Any Friend of Diane’s
  • Weezer: Island In The Sun
  • Welshly Arms: Legendary
  • Whiskeytown: 16 Days
  • White Denim: Magazin

Decades-long Quest for Levantine Pudding


Mouhalabieh (pic by Patricia latelierdescouleurs on Pinterest)

The summer after my high school graduation I went to Israel to do unskilled labour on an archaeological excavation. Reading a guide book I found mention of a Near Eastern dessert pudding called mouhalabieh, “delicacy”. I asked for it at a couple of restaurants, but no luck. One Jerusalem café owner laughed and pointed to the ads in a newspaper for porn movie theatres in Tel Aviv, “There’s your mouhalabieh!”.

The memory floated up from deep storage the other day, and I googled for recipes. Turns out that I have kind of made mouhalabieh / muhallebi / malabi many times already. It’s simply sweetened milk thickened with starch: blancmangé or maizenapudding in Swedish. What mainly differentiates the Near Eastern version from the Northern European one is that it’s flavoured with rosewater and / or orange blossom, and topped with chopped nuts.

December Pieces Of My Mind #2


Walked around Lakes Lundsjön-Dammsjön. The colours are quiet this time of year.

  • In this fantasy novel by Naomi Novik, a Lord of Faerie invests money in a woman’s money-lending and goods trading business. Capitalist.
  • Handled some replica muskets. Learned that they are too heavy to aim without a support, and that the trigger has no spring. It’s just a lever: if you pull the trigger slowly, there is no spark from the flint.
  • Pharrell Williams: “Clap your hands if you feel like a room without a roof, that is / Clap your hands if you feel like an untenanted ruin / Because I’m happeeeeeee”
  • The Franciscan monastery of Lapis Albus – Visovac, on an island in River Krka, has an anti-Serbian memorial room reminding visitors of anti-Catholic acts committed during the 1990s war. The Church (es) does not seem to be a force for peace or reconciliation here.
  • I just bought the e-book version of a fat scifi novel I’m already reading on paper. Because I need the search function to make sense of a few things.
  • Saw some Geminids.
  • I’ve never paid much attention to Lady Gaga, but her singing on the tune “Shallow” is pretty damn impressive!
  • Oh great. The wifi driver on a semi-old Samsung laptop running Windows 8 is not part of the operating system. It’s a separately installed program called Qualcomm something. The kind that you clean out as a matter of course when you find a lot of small useless programs cluttering up the machine. Fortunately wasn’t super complicated to fix using another machine that was still online and a USB stick. The Samsung laptop itself has no IP jack.
  • German-Swedish archaeology professor Jörn Staecker has died aged 57. )-: