Good Recent Swedish Popular History

I don’t read much in Swedish. On a whim I decided to check what recent Swedish books I’ve read and liked outside work. Turns out they’re all popular history. Alla rekommenderas varmt för den som delar mina intressen!

  • Kring Hammarby sjö. 1. Tiden före Hammarbyleden. Hans Björkman 2016. Local history.
  • No, I’m from Borås. Ola Wong 2005. Eventful family history in China and among German-speaking Romanians, Banater Schwaben. (Yes, the title is in English.)
  • Svenskarna och deras fäder – de senaste 11 000 åren. Bojs & Sjölund 2016. On DNA and the post-glacial peopling of Scandinavia.
  • Det svenska hatet. Gellert Tamas 2016. On the Swedish Hate Party and Scandinavian terrorism.
  • Jorden de ärvde. Björn af Kleen 2009. On big landowners in the Swedish nobility and how they avoid splitting up their estates.
  • Newton och bibeln. Essäer om bibeltexter, tolkningsfrågor och översättningsproblem. Bertil Albrektson 2015. Essays on Bible philology by an atheist professor who served on the last Swedish state-sponsored Bible translation committee.
  • Finna dolda ting: en bok om svensk rollspelshistoria. Daniel & Anna-Karin Linder Krauklis 2015. On Swedish roleplaying-game history.
  • Äventyrsspel: bland mutanter, drakar och demoner. Orvar Säfström & Jimmy Wilhelmsson 2015. On Swedish roleplaying-game history.
  • Drömmen om stormakten. Börje Magnusson & Jonas Nordin 2015. On Erik Dahlberg and the great 17th century topographic work Suecia Antiqua et Hodierna.
  • Vid tidens ände. Om stormaktstidens vidunderliga drömvärld och en profet vid dess yttersta rand. Håkan Håkansson 2014. On Johannes Bureus and North European 17th century mysticism.

Best Reads Of 2016

The Detective: Jonathan L. Howard's second book about Johannes Cabal, the necromancer.
The Detective: Jonathan L. Howard’s second book about Johannes Cabal, the necromancer.

Here are my best reads in English during 2016. My total was 42 books and 13 of them were e-books. Find me at Goodreads!

Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

  • The Detective. (Johannes Cabal #2.) Jonathan L. Howard 2010. Sardonically funny Ruritanian detective story.
  • Bully for Brontosaurus. Stephen Jay Gould 1991. Essays on natural history.
  • Ready Player One. Ernest Cline 2011. Wonderful adventure story for anyone who played video games in the 1980s.
  • Murder at the Vicarage. Agatha Christie 1930. Parts of it very funny.
  • The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien 1937. There and back again!
  • Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah, Vol 1. Richard Francis Burton 1857. Victorian genius dresses up as a Muslim and enters a forbidden holy city.
  • Thud! Terry Pratchett 2005. Inter-ethnic tensions in Ankh-Morpork.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz. Walter M. Miller Jr. 1959. What happens after WW3?
  • Swallows and Amazons. Arthur Ransome 1930. Sibling quartet have summer adventures in the Lake District.
  • Collected Stories. Lewis Shiner 2009.
  • The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England. Toby F. Martin 2015.
  • Errantry: Strange Stories. Elizabeth Hand 2012.
  • 6 Stories. Kathe Koja.
  • The Green Leopard Plague and Other Stories. Walter Jon Williams 2010.
  • Borders of Infinity. Lois McMaster Bujold 1989. Miles Vorkosigan stories.
  • Wild Things (Short stories.). C.C. Finlay 2005.
  • Women Up to No Good: A Collection of Short Stories. Pat Murphy 2013.
  • Moving Pictures. Terry Pratchett 1990. Hollywood on Discworld.

Here’s my list for 2015.

Announcing My New Essay Collection

cover250pxIn December of last year I finished a collection of short humorous archaeological essays. It’s my sixth book, my first one in Swedish, my first one aimed at the lay reader. Since then I’ve been waiting for established Swedish publishing houses to pronounce judgement on it. Five of them have now turned it down, none with any very detailed explanation, but most of them in terms suggesting that they think it’s competently written but it probably wouldn’t sell much.

As a long-time blogger and e-book reader, I am not particularly disheartened by this. After all, this blog has a greater number of hits in a week than the entire first print run of a typical Swedish pop-sci book. And so, here it is, my new e-book, Arkeologi är choklad, inte potatis (“Archaeology is chocolate, not potatoes”)! ISBN 978-91-639-2057-8, both EPUB and MOBI formats. It’s distributed under a Creative Commons, Attribution, Non Commercial, No Derivatives licence. Please help me spread it around! It’s on as well.

(Having said No Derivatives, I should hasten to point out that I would be very happy to talk to anyone who feels like translating the book.)

The book is braided of three strings. One is a reverse chronological series of essays on archaeological periods seen through the lenses of sites I’ve worked on, from the Early Modern at Djurhamn all the way back to the Early Mesolithic with Roger & Mattias at Tyresta. The second string consists of partly quite polemical pieces on what archaeology is like and how it works in Swedish society, including titles like “We never go to Egypt” and “There are no jobs and you don’t want the jobs there are”. The third string is a chronological series titled “My Strange Career”.

To whet the appetite of Swedish colleagues, let me say that I mention a considerable number of names of people in Swedish archaeology whom I have reason to thank, and I talk about a few other possibly identifiable people without mentioning their names.

I’m very keen to learn what everybody thinks!

The Lovecraftian Horror of French

1972 back-cover blurb
1972 back-cover blurb

I bought a used copy of Maurice Lévy’s Lovecraft ou du fantastique (Paris 1972) at the Fantastika 2016 scifi con, and now I’m picking my way through it with the aid of a dictionary. S.T. Joshi has published an English translation, Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic (Detroit 1988).

Here’s how little of Lévy’s literary French I understand without a dictionary. This back-cover blurb is a particularly hairy piece of writing, I should say.

The case of Lovecraft … the thick volume of fantastic literature. A limited case where … should cease: between a neurosis which, while it let phantasms bloom in writing, never would become quiet, and the … power of myth, rootedness, the return to …, modest foundation of … . Between the imagery of dreams – innumerable invaders of which the story … the equivocal but knew it also just well enough to become its structure –, and the work of wakefulness which … and organises them according to its persistent logic. But what power does the wakeful man’s persistence have against the might of the night if he has already quietly consented? … believe that the Origin conceals itself there…

Machen’s Impostors

Arthur Machen (1863-1947)

Arthur Machen’s 1895 book The Three Impostors, or The Transmutations, is a delightfully strange read. It consists of a short frame narrative interspersed with six standalone stories told inside the frame. Spoilers and musings follow.

First the background to the events, which the reader learns only in the sixth and last story inside the frame. The learned Dr. Lipsius is the leader of a secret Dionysiac cult in 1890s London, focused on sex, drugs and ritual murder. He recruits the young scholar Joseph Walters into the cult. After helping lure a victim to the cult HQ, Walters loses his cool, steals a valuable Roman coin with Bacchic imagery and disappears into the streets. Lipsius sends his three most trusted cultists, two men and a woman, to find Walters and retrieve the coin. These are the titular impostors.

Here’s where the book starts and the storyline turns from lurid to inexplicable. The frame narrative’s main viewpoint characters are two young friends, both wannabe writers of independent means: Dyson and Phillipps. By chance, Dyson gets hold of the coin, a fact that the cultists never learn. Despite not knowing this, they for no apparent reason seek out Dyson (and in one case Phillipps) repeatedly under false identities and tell five really long and elaborate make-believe stories that form the bulk of the text. This means that most of this book is told by really unreliable narrators, and Dyson and Phillipps don’t actually believe much of what they hear. Each of the stories features a character who looks exactly like the coin-thief: a young, nervous-looking man with spectacles and black whiskers. In the first story he stars as the leader of a Wild West outlaw gang. Then he appears as a supporting character in stories two, three and five: a school teacher, an assistant antiques scammer and a sinister private detective. But in the fourth story he doesn’t feature at all.

The only reason I can see for the impostors to pay any attention to Dyson is that he unwittingly shares a literary acquaintance with the man the cultists are chasing. But the impostors’ story-telling is so odd, long-winded and irrelevant that even Dyson and Phillipps find it ridiculous. When the bespectacled man is introduced again near the end of the fifth story, Dyson just snorts, stands up and leaves, and the female cultist/narrator breaks out into laughter. Finally the cultists place a watch on the aforementioned shared acquaintance, grab their quarry and kill him in a grisly fashion. Dyson happens to find poor doomed Walters’ notebook and in it reads the sixth story that explains everything to the confused reader.

This is such a strangely plotted book – best seen as a short-story collection that has had a really contrived frame narrative bolted onto it. What makes it worthwhile is the high quality of the individual stories. Two of them exerted a huge influence on H.P. Lovecraft. He eagerly grabbed several details and at least two of Machen’s main thematic preoccupations, that of sliding back down the evolutionary tree to a “lower” state of being and that of ancient evil cults surviving into the present day. But Lovecraft, a self-identified “mechanistic materialist”, certainly did not share Machen’s hostility towards rationalist science that keeps being voiced by characters in the stories. Machen had seen the world become entzaubered, disenchanted, and he really wanted to re-enchant it.

The Three Impostors is highly recommended if you like feeling slightly lost and confused yet intrigued and amazed by what you read. It’s available for free at

Best Reads Of 2015

Andy Weir's The Martian. My single best read this year!
Andy Weir’s The Martian. My single best read this year!
Here are my best reads in English during 2015. My total was 55 books and 16 of them were e-books. Find me at Goodreads!

  • The Summing Up. W. Somerset Maugham 1938. An old writer and traveller looks back on his life and turns out to have settled upon pretty much the same philosophy as myself.
  • Live and Let Die. (James Bond #2.) Ian Fleming 1954. Short and neat action novel.
  • The Martian. Andy Weir 2014. Robinson Crusoe on Mars! With science! And jokes!
  • Going Solo. Roald Dahl 1986. Youth memoir of a WW2 fighter pilot.
  • Tour de Lovecraft – the Tales. Kenneth Hite 2008. Snappy and insightful commentary on the Sage of Providence’s fiction.
  • The Girl with All the Gifts. Mike Carey 2014. From a neat opening conundrum to the fungal zombie apocalypse!
  • Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars. Daniel Pinkwater 1979. Funny and bizarre Young Adult novel.
  • The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. Ian Mortimer 2008. Making it all come alive. The people you’ll meet are generally young, gullible and violent!
  • The Reckoning: the Murder of Christopher Marlowe. Charles Nicholl 1992. Deep dive into Elizabethan sectarian-political spying. Could be improved with some trimming of peripherally relevant asides.
  • Recovering Apollo 8. Kristine Kathryn Rusch 2011. Elon Musk-like space entrepreneur jump-starts a lot of tech through his ultimately pointless quest to salvage fictitious Apollo wreckage.
  • The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream. G.C. Edmondson 1965. Time travel in a sailing boat. Entertaining though laddish.
  • Ecological Imperialism: the Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Alfred W. Crosby 1986. He’s eco-centric and he knows absolutely nothing about archaeology or paleoecological methods. But it’s a compelling perspective nonetheless!

Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

Here’s my list for 2014.

Poet and Spy

Reading a good book, Charles’ Nicholl’s The Reckoning. The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992, 2nd expanded ed. 2002), about the 16th century playwright. It’s a bit overloaded with asides and covers far more characters and factions than anyone can keep track of without extensive note-taking. But quite intriguing withal. I find it fascinating how rich and detailed the written sources for this era are.

“Christopher Marlowe … is remembered as a poet, ‘the Muse’s darling’, and as a wild young blasphemer in an age of enforced devotion, but he was also a spy …

It is not a pretty view of the Golden Age of Elizabeth, and it is not a pretty view of Christopher Marlowe either. In these fragments which record his involvement in the secret world … there is a common thread of falsehood. … The keynote of this kind of work is precisely non-commitment: to belong to both sides and neither. It is a world of gestures, of alterable meanings: the ‘secret theatre’.

So we return to the circumstances of Marlowe’s death armed with this perception of [plots] and pretences, these forms of political gamesmanship which are such a feature of this world he belongs to. Marlowe’s political career is not – as in the conventional literary biography – a separate and rather puzzling side-issue. …

… We find Marlowe in the company of spies and swindlers because, regrettably, he was one himself. Our regret has no real claim on him. Posterity prefers poets to spies, but this young man could not be so choosy. He lived on his wits or else went hungry, and he was probably rather better rewarded for spying than he was for the poetry we remember him by.” (2002, pp. 317–318)

Pickwick Afterlife

The final third of Stephen Jarvis’s upcoming novel Death and Mr Pickwick continues in the same rather kaleidoscopic fashion as before. The asides and Chinese boxes are innumerable. We never do get an important female character. The frame story is never developed much. In fact, the book only really has Robert Seymour the artist and Charles Dickens the writer, plus innumerable minor characters, and an agenda.

Jarvis’s main points with the novel are that a) Seymour deserves credit as co-creator of Pickwick’s first two or three chapters, b) Dickens deserves blame for dissembling and not sharing any of the Pickwick fortune with Seymour’s widow and children. I’m willing to agree on both points. But I don’t find them very interesting.

a. Dickens was an extremely prolific and creative writer with or without Seymour. If we learned that Pete Best provided important uncredited input on two songs on the first Beatles album, this would not change our opinion of Lennon-McCartney.

b. So Dickens wasn’t all nice. Many geniuses aren’t. Biographers have showed on much less shaky grounds that he mistreated his wife quite badly. In that situation it seems less important how he treated the widow of a man he met only once or twice. Neither Lennon nor McCartney have been great husbands, but they’re revered anyway. Just because you like cheese it doesn’t follow that you should be best friends with a cow.

Towards the end of the book, Jarvis has Dickens worrying that his posthumous reputation might be tarnished if someone found out about his unpaid literary debt to Seymour. This reads like the motivation for the whole novel project. But even if this finely written book becomes a great success, I don’t think the author of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations will have much to worry about. And nor do I believe that he did worry much.

Summing up I’d say that this brick of a book is so varied that it is rarely boring, but also so meandering that it is rarely particularly gripping.

Stephen Jarvis’s Death and Mr Pickwick will be out in the UK from Penguin Random House on 21 May, and in the US from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on 23 June. I reviewed the first third of the book on 16 March and the second third on 18 April.



Sketches of Boz

In the second novel-length third of Stephen Jarvis’s hefty Death and Mr Pickwick, artist and caricaturist Robert Seymour starts in earnest to put ideas together for the Pickwick Papers. Yes, that’s right: here (as maybe in reality) it is the illustrator who comes up with the concept for the book, but being dyslexic and proud he doesn’t want to write it himself. Narrative pictures with brief “letterpress” text added by someone else afterwards is an established form at the time. Charles Dickens finally makes his entrance on the novel’s stage, first as as “Chatham Charlie”, then under his pen name “Boz”, and receives the commission to write the book. He gets the job because a more well-known writer turns it down, and because Boz is believed to be good at keeping to deadlines in a serialised form. Twelve thousand words a month!

The frame story continues to be interesting. Here, fat Mr. Inbelicate continually tries to convince the incredulous narrator that Seymour conceived most of Pickwick, and instructs him to write the novel thus. This of course mirrors the relationship between Seymour and Boz. Mr. Inbelicate has the idea for the book and has collected vast historical materials for it, but for some reason he can’t or won’t write it himself.

As in the first third of the novel, the digressions are many (what on Earth is the gratuitously cruel story of that electro-doctor doing there!?), and so are the minor characters, almost all of whom are male. Reading this fat paper book, which I have serialised for convenience into three volumes using a kitchen knife, I really missed the search function of an e-book. It would have been immensely useful in order to keep track of the many not very memorable participants in the 1830s London publishing scene.

At one point we see Seymour driven almost to suicide after being lampooned in print by a publisher he’s quarrelled with. And we see him moving to a new address with a summer house in the back garden, the very place where we know from real history that he will finally end his life after Pickwick’s initial instalments appear. The first third of the novel has Seymour. This the second third has Seymour + Boz clashing over creative control. The last third will have Boz only, and I expect Seymour’s widow Jane to step to the fore as a more important character (after 540 pp.) to claim her share of the bounty from the best-selling serialised novel. Stay tuned.

Stephen Jarvis’s Death and Mr Pickwick will be out in the UK from Penguin Random House on 21 May, and in the US from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on 23 June. I reviewed the first third of the book on 16 March and the final third on 9 May.

Google Play Books Ate My Apostrophes

Update 10 April: It pays to report problems like the one described below to Google’s customer support. Seven weeks ago I discovered the problem. One week ago I reported it. Today the problem was suddenly gone, probably because Google updated the two ebooks involved and pushed new versions of the files to my phone.

I usually shop around for a good price when I buy e-books, and lately Google’s bookstore has received my custom. It’s not a very high-profile store – you see, this isn’t the well-known Google Books, where they offer scanned paper books in your browser. This is something called, clunkily, Google Play Books or Books On Google Play, where you can get copy-protected e-books for off-line reading.

A funny thing about this service is that many or all of Google’s e-book files contain original bitmaps scanned from paper books [or are they PDF images of the layout?]. You can toggle between the real e-book, which is the product of Optical Character Recognition probably followed by human proofreading, and the scanned pages. This won’t do you much good on a little phone screen, but anyway.

Now, the two most recent books I bought from Google Play Books have a strange glitch. When I complained about it to customer service, I received prompt friendly help. When none of their suggested fixes worked, I was offered a refund. So this is not a disgruntled customer blog entry. Still the problem is so strange that I want to blog about it just as a technical conundrum.

On my Android smartphone, the OCRed texts in my e-book copies of Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass (2012) and Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE (2011) have lost all their apostrophes. All their quotation marks. All their long dashes. And all their diacritic characters. When Stephenson writes “naïveté”, my e-book says “navet”, which is French for turnip. When the problem first showed up, in Roberts’ book, I actually thought he wrote non-standard English as a futuristic device.

When you run operating systems in non-English language modes, like Swedish or even Chinese, you get used to misidentified characters, with ÅÄÖÜ becoming all kinds of junk symbols. But this doesn’t look like a case of that. Google’s reader software is just quietly omitting some of the most common characters in English novels!

The problem isn’t new. I’ve found references to it on-line starting December 2010. Strangely, most of the complaints are about science fiction novels. Dear Reader, what’s your take on this?