Tuesday, 31 January 2012


Drifting around on the wonderful Brainpickings site, I stumbled upon this description of Roald Dahl's Matilda, which knocked me for six:

Originally published in 1988 and illustrated by Quentin Blake, Roald Dahl's Matilda is often seen as a formative foundation for the millennial generation. With its story of an extraordinary child whose ordinary and disagreeable parents dismiss their daughter’s prodigious talent, its central theme echoes millennials’ self-perceived status as a misunderstood social actors with underappreciated talent. More importantly, however, the theme of violence and the abuse of authority — a recurring theme is Dahl’s novels — is a particularly timely one in the sociocultural context of today’s political unrest around the world, from the Middle Eastern revolutions to civic protests across Europe. 

While I'm accustomed to reading about adults' levels of discomfort over the violence and evilness of most non-kid characters in Dahl's work, I've never considered Matilda in this light. (It's also interesting to note that Matilda was published in 1988, and that the notion of Gen Y / the Millenial Generation was coined in 1993.) As a not-quite-Millenial myself, I read Matilda round about the end of primary school / my early teens, and took from it three messages: that reading is important and can help you fashion your life; that even though they made you, your parents won't necessarily get you; and that school is the first place in which you create yourself.

So I'm not sure I buy this assessment. The nasty characters in Dahl's books are caricatures, and I think that kids get that (even if not all adults do). Dahl's child characters overcome through wit, cunning and resilience, not rebellion. Still, it's piqued my interest enough to feel the need for a re-read.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Jo, Meg or Amy?

It was never a question for me - I would only ever want to be tempestuous, ambitious, boyish Jo March (and I still haven't forgiven her for turning Laurie down and going off with boring old Mr Bhaer).

It's the 50th anniversary this year of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, and Pamela Paul opens an article in the NYTimes about the wonderful Meg Murray by noting that:

Bookish girls tend to mark phases of their lives by periods of intense literary character identification. Schoolgirls of the ’70s had their Deenie and Sally J. Freedman and Margaret moments, muddling through adolescence in the guise of one Judy Blume heroine or another. And for almost a century and a half, girls have fluctuated between seasons of Amy and Meg and Jo March, imagining themselves alternately with blond corkscrew curls, eldest sister wisdom or writerly ambitions. 
Paul investigates how A Wrinkle in Time gave girls an unusual role model: a science fiction heroine, a girl who combined mathematical abilities with fierce family loyalty. Although I enjoyed the book, A Wrinkle in Time never captured by heart: however, one of my favourite books of recent years, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, is a kind of love letter to L'Engle's work, taking her themes of time travel, loss and love and weaving a new story set in 1970s New York, and with Miranda as a Meg for the contemporary reader.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Peter Ackroyd's 'The death of King Arthur'

From the occasional book reviews file: Peter Ackroyd's The Death of King Arthur.


I wanted so much to enjoy this book. I hesitate to say 'love this book', because I'm not an Ackroyd fan, but the subject matter here - I am a die-hard Arthur groupie - should have made this an easy win.

However. I found Ackroyd's retelling flatfooted, emotionless, and barren. Stripped-back prose I might have admired, but here we get stripped back storytelling.

The King Arthur story has been a massive part of my imaginative life since I was little. My first introduction, I think, was Roger Lancelyn Green's 'King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table'. I still have a copy of the book, and have dipped into it frequently. [Green added the story of Sir Gawaine and the Loathsome Lady to the Arthurian repertoire, and it's one of my favourite fables of all time; that and Kipling's 'White Seal'.]

Green keeps the archaic language (hithers and thithers and thees and thous) which I found incredibly romantic as a kid. He gives a sense of the destiny that drives the Arthurian story - Arthur is a flawed man in a flawed world, trying to do the right thing, fated to fail. It's also a story of adventure and magic, quests and chivalrous acts.

From Green I moved on to T.H. White - first 'The Sword in the Stone' as a little'un, and then 'The Once and Future King' when I was in my teens. Whatever moral compass I have, I owe mostly to White. Some may find him verbose and cheesy: I find 'The Sword in the Stone' to be one of the most fine, most pure, most gently lovely things ever written. It also introduced me - through Merlin's backwards-through-time life - to irony and and a kind of proto-postmodern humour; grown-up humour.

'The Once and Future King' takes us from a funny, thoughtful, educational story to a full-blown tragedy. The triangle between Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur drives the story, and what I have always loved about this version is that White tries to turn the three into real people, not ciphers. You sympathise with all three, and every time I draw near the end of their story, the tears come rolling down.

In my first year of university, I decided it was time to buy a copy of the daddy of them all, Malory's Morte d'Arthur. I've never even attempted to read it cover to cover - I dip into and out of it, visiting the stories I picked up through Green and White. And I love the lushness of the language. I don't bother to try to follow the narrative, I just soak in the words. It is a Romance, consistent with all that that means - a meditation on courtly love, chivalry, kingship, nobility, a set of lessons for listeners couched as entertainment.

So what does that leave Ackroyd? The problem is, when you strip away Malory's language but don't add any - for the lack of a better word - psychology, you don't have romance and you don't have any reason for the actions. You don't love anyone, and you don't fear for them. You don't have that sadness of history - that sense of experiencing a long-ago loss - that Adam Gopnik recently identified as a key aspect of chidren's love of fantasy:

What substitutes for psychology in Tolkien and his followers, and keeps the stories from seeming barrenly external, is what preceded psychology in epic literature: an overwhelming sense of history and, with it, a sense of loss. The constant evocation of lost or fading glory—NĂºmenor has fallen, the elves are leaving Middle-earth—does the emotional work that mixed-up minds do in realist fiction. We know that Westernesse is lost even before we know what the hell Westernesse was, and our feeling for its loss lends dimension to those who have lost it.

Instead, Ackroyd left me dissatisfied, with a one-dimensional set of stories and no sympathy.

How to explain? Let's try this. Arthur is the son of Igraine, wife of the Earl of Cornwall, and Uther Pendragon, King of England. Uther fell for Igraine when she and her husband Gorlois visited his court, but when he tried to force himself upon her they fled for their castle. Uther, maddened for her, marched on Cornwall with an great army; Gorlois hid Igraine away in Castle Tintagel, and went himself to Caste Terribel, where Uther besieged him. Though many skirmishes were fought and many man killed, Uther came no closer to Igraine, and, as Malory puts it, 'for pure anger and great love of fair Igraine the King Uther fell sick'. One of Uther's knights went forth to seek Merlin to save the king, and in return for securing Uther's agreement that he would receive any one thing he asked for, Merlin agreed to get him into Igraine's bed.

Merlin conjured Uther into the likeness of Gorlois, and himself and one of Uther's knights into the guise of Gorlois's closest companions. When Gorlois rode forth to attack Uther's armies, Merlin smuggled the king into Igraine's bed, where Arthur was conceived. Uther left Igraine, and hours later she learned her husband had been killed in battle - bewildered and grieved, she kept her puzzlement over his seeming visit to herself. Within thirteen days Uther had secured the agreement of the nobles of England that Gorlois's widow should become his wife.

How then, to reconcile Arthur's seeming bastard birth with the legend? Here's how the four writers manage it.

Green elides the topic somewhat (fittingly, I guess, for someone writing for children in the 1950s):

...Uther fell in love with Gorlois's wife, the lovely Igrayne, and there was a battle between them, until Gorlois fell, and Uther married his widow.

He visited her first in the haunted castle of Tintagel, the dark castle by the Cornish sea, and Merlin the enchanter watched over their love. One child was born to Uther and Igrayne - but what became of that baby boy only the wise Arthur could have told, for he carried it away by a secret path down the cliff side in the dead of night, and no word was spoken of its fate.
Malory tidies the ends up so that Igraine becomes a heroine, and not an exploited and betrayed woman:
The Queen Igraine waxed daily greater and greater, so it befell after within half a year, as King Uther lay by his queen, he asked her, by the faith she owed to him, whose was the child within her body; then she was sore abashed to give the answer. Dismay you not, said the king, but tell me the truth, and I shall love you the better, by the faith of my body. Sir, said she, I shall tell you the truth. The same night that my lord was dead, the hour of his death, as his knights record, there came to my castle of Tintagil a man like my lord in speech and in countenance, and two knights with him in likeness to his two knights Brastias and Jordans, and so I went unto bed with him as I ought to do with my lord, and the same night, as I shall answer unto God, this child was begotten upon me. That is the truth, said the king, as ye say; for it was I myself that came in the likeness, and therefore dismay you not, for I am the father of the child; and there he told her all the cause, how it was by Merlin's counsel. Then the queen made great joy when she knew who was the father of her child.
Here's Ackroyd:
Day by day Igraine grew greater with child. Uther lay with her one night and asked her, on the faith she owed to him, whose offspring it was. She was too ashamed to answer. 'Do not be dismayed,' he told her. 'Tell me the truth, I shall love you all the more for your honesty.'

'I will speak the truth to you, my lord. On the night that my husband died a stranger came to Tintagel in his shape; he had the same speech, and the same countenance,as the duke. There were two companions with him, who I thought to be Sir Brastias and Sir Jordans. So I was deceived. I did my duty, and lay beside him in our bed. I swear to God that, on that same night, this child was conceived.'

'I know, sweet wife, that you are speaking the truth. It was I who came to the castle. I entered your bed. I am the father of this child.' Then he told her of the magic of Merlin, and she marvelled at it. But she was overjoyed, too, that Uther Pendragon was the sire of her offspring.

God, I hate that use of 'offspring'. The two passages are nearly the same, but I find Ackroyd's so charmless.

'The Sword in the Stone' doesn't explain Arthur's origins at all. The task of explaining this falls to four small boys - the brothers who would become Arthur's knights Gawaine, Gaheris and Gareth, and the traitorous Agravaine - huddled together in a draughty tower, telling each other a well-worn family story.
"So when our Grandfather and Granny were winning the sieges, and it looked as if King Uther would be utterly defeated, there came along a wicked magician called Merlyn --"

"A nigromancer," said Gareth.

"And this nigromancer, would you believe it, by means of his infernal arts, succeeded in putting the treacherous Uther Pendragon inside our Granny's Castle. Granda immediately made a sortie out of Terrabil, but he was slain in the battle --"


"And the poor Countess of Cornwall --"

"The chaste and beautiful Igraine --"

"Our Granny --"

"-- was captured prisoner by the blackhearted, southron, faithless King of the Dragon and then, in spite of it that she had three beautiful daughters already whatever --"

"The lovely Cornwall Sisters."

"Aunt Elaine."

"Aunt Morgan.'

"And Mammy."

"And if she had these lovely daughters, she was forced into marrying the King of England - the man who had slain her husband!"

They considered the enormous English wickedness in silence, overwhelmed by its denouement. It was their mother's favourite story, on the rare occasions when she troubled to tell them one, and they had learned it by heart.

One of the things that fascinated me, reading back over the different versions of this chapter, was that White's retelling takes Malory's words and inserts into the children's story verbatim:
"The chaste and beautiful Countess of Cornwall," resumed Gawaine, "spurned the advances of King Uther Pendragon, and she told our Grandfather about it. She said: 'I suppose we were sent for you that I should be dishonoured. Wherefore, husband, I counsel you that we depart from hence suddenly, that we may ride all night to our own castle."
Call me a romantic, but for me, White will always best convey the heart of Malory's tale. Sure, he brings a Tolkienesque dying-of-the-days to it, a note that Ackroyd strips out. But Ackroyd also takes all the emotional heft out of the story, and doesn't replace it with anything. I wish it was otherwise - I'm sure others will react differently to me - but, well, THWHITE4EVA.

[I drafted this review in my email. When I got to Goodreads, this was the final sentence of the very short description of the book: "This title presents readable accounts of the knights of the Round Table." I could have saved some typing ...]

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Young folks these days

Two points. One, I am still vaguely resentful that I'm neither fully-fledged Gen X nor Gen Y. Two, I want to claim GLAMAZONS (galleries, libraries, archives, museums, aquariums and zoos) as my own invention, before pointing you to a post that mentions ZAMs (zoos, aquariums, museums).

Colleen Dilenschneider's 8 Top Tips for Museums and Non-Profits to Engage Millenials in 2012, based on Tina Well's Top 10 Gen Y Trends for 2012:

  1. Sell admission by emphasising the good that your institution does
  2. Tell people what's special and immediate about the experience you're offering
  3. I refuse to type in this made-up term; you're going to have to click through for that one
  4. Blah blah technology blah blah (I'm a bit dubious that point 2 and point 4 work together, unless you make technology the point, and that's shortsighted)
  5. "Curators are no longer the celebrity rockstars of the museum world… the visitors now hold that title." Awww, bless. I hope someone told the curators about their rockstar status in 2011, when they could still enjoy it.
  6. Take people behind the scenes - non-generationally specific good advice
  7. Get your stuff online - help people use it (this I can wholeheartedly agree with)
  8. Engage at a personal level to get donations, and make it easy to donate online

Overall, I'm not taken by either of these posts. But I often find it's the stuff that annoys me that I need to pay more attention to.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012


One of the things I do every summer is edit my Feedreader subscriptions (I know - wild, right?). This summer I stripped out a bunch of save-the-world web designy type subscriptions and replaced them with a new folder called Economics.

I've made a small selection of well-known blogs, from across the political spectrum. Since doing this about two weeks ago, I've been intrigued by how strong my reactions have been to the posts. many of them go straight over my head. But most days there's something in there that teaches me something, or forces me to think about casually-held assumptions (like this post about work hours limits, which are enforced for low status roles [e.g. manual labourers] but not high status roles [e.g. lawyers]).

Here's what I've signed up to:

Overcoming Bias by Robin Hanson, an associate professor at George Mason University

The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman, a professor at Princeton University (although I wish the NYT would push out the full posts via RSS, not just the headings)

Greg Mankiw's Blog by (believe it or not) Greg Mankiw, a professor at Harvard University

Marginal Revolutions by Tyler Cowen, a professor at George Mason University

Do you have any recommendations?

Monday, 16 January 2012

I found it in the archives

I missed this story last year - the US National Archives ran 'I found it in the Archives', a contest where people entered their favourite items found at the Archives between June and September, and then winners were chosen by public vote.

The winner was this World War Two hand-drawn map, entered by John Lawlor. The objects were interesting, but it was people's (often lengthy) stories about how they found the item and why it was meaningful that really strike a chord.

I like this idea. When I was working at the National Library, it was often the stories from the people doing their own research into collections that drew me in more than the curators' stories.  Researchers find the damnedest things. I like the idea of capturing and sharing these stories, and I'd be even happier if there was a physical manifestation of this project - not a book or an exhibition, but something low-fi; a wall where people pinned up colour printouts and a handwritten note would be just fine by me.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Time out

One of Chuck Klosterman's predictions for 2012 in a Grantland round-up was this:

7. A popular trend story in the mainstream media becomes coverage of "Gen Y Luddites" — teenagers who consciously disdain social networking and technology.

After reading that, I kept a bit of an eye out over the summer break for stories along these lines. I hav the feeling that over 2012 we're going to see a lot of stories about slow information (like slow food, but for the creation and consumption of web content) and people vowing to lay off the internet (internet-free resorts, internet-free days, any app that monitors your internet use). These are, of course, going to go hand in hand with a deluge of quantified and programmable self stories (articles about how my collecting data on every aspect of your life - how much you eat, sleep, exercise, interact with people, your emotional state throughout the day - and using that to help you meet self-improvement or health goals) which would seem contradictory to the first theme, but when has this ever been a logical game?

Anyway - here are a view examples of what I mean:

New York Times technology blogger Nick Bilton has resolved to spend 30 minutes a day without his iPhone.

Katie Roiphe writes on Slate about the popular Freedom app, which cuts you off from the internet for a period of time you specify.

'The Joy of Silence' by Pico Iyer in the New York Times, which starts off as a normal article about the backlash against our ever-connected lives and then devolves into such gorge-raising paragraphs as

In my own case, I turn to eccentric and often extreme measures to try to keep my sanity and ensure that I have time to do nothing at all (which is the only time when I can see what I should be doing the rest of the time). I’ve yet to use a cellphone and I’ve never Tweeted or entered Facebook. I try not to go online till my day’s writing is finished, and I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event.  
David Tate on creating things as a way of breaking free from being a consumer of things.

The links above are not so much about teenage Luddites, but about that generalised anxiety that our always-on, always-connected lives are somehow ruining us. (Mind you, during one of my always-on, always-connected activities prior to the Christmas break, I found an article that said crosswords were going to the the doom of modern society, so this is in all likelihood just that same oh-no-things-are-changing, really-nothing-ever-changes, freakout that every decade burps up.)

I spend 8-10 hours in front of a screen - let's say 70% working, 30% not working and in that grey area where work is just part of your life. I check my iphone incessantly if I'm stuck somewhere with nothing better to do. I also read (paper!) books for at least an hour and a half on weekdays, closer to four hours on weekends. I get through a New Yorker or two most weeks. I no longer read print newspapers, rarely watch tv news, hardly ever visit NZ news websites, and get my daily news from RadioNZ: I trust my friends on twitter to alert me if anything needing my attention has happened. I do not worry about any of these things.

However, a little bit of stillness and switching off wouldn't go amiss in most of our lives. It could, for example, offer a welcome relief from circles of inanity like this StackExchange forum on productivity. (A hint to all posters: you'll be more productive if you stop frequenting this forum, quit reading Lifehacker posts, and generally stop wasting your time trying to optimise every moment of your existence. Trust me.)

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Change of direction

A year-long feasibility study, commissioned by the City of Helsinki and done by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, has concluded that yes, building a Guggenheim Museum in Finland would aid Helsinki in its efforts to become a cultural capital.

Which makes me think - why Te Papa North? Why not Guggenheim South?

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Let me through, I'm a curator

George Clooney has announced that his next movie 'will be the World War II story “The Monuments Men,” a look at the art historians who landed at Normandy to rescue art looted by Adolf Hitler.' Clooney will both star and direct.

There's plenty of material to work with, with 11 civilians drafted to rescue Europe's artistic treasures, two deaths and a love story involving a woman who was part of the French resistance. One can only hope this will all result in an art-themed Ryan Gosling tumblr.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Another reading update

I forgot to say I abandoned Testament of Youth (Vera Brittain's memoir of growing up before, through and after World War One) even though I felt like both a traitor to the sisterhood and a real jerk doing so.

I ground it out all the way to the end of Mary Gabriel's Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, not because I liked it (or them) but because I was learning a lot about a subject I turned out to know woefully little about.

I flew through Madeline Miller's debut novel The Song of Achilles, a retelling of the Iliad that focuses on the love story between Achilles and Patroclus (which I loved, until it realised it had Twilight overtones - though at least A and P have it off frequently - at which point I was overcome with doubts). 

And I also ripped through the first book in George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series, which was pretty much exactly what I expected, with less sex, and didn't really need me to add my opinions to the overflowing seas of opinion and intrigue which surrounds it.

Now on the go: Stephen Greenblatt's 'The Swerve' (taking the place of the essay collections I originally twigged, because the library delivered it up faster than expected). And made happy by the news that there's a new Michael Chabon coming out this year, I think I'm going to re-read 'The Yiddish Policemen's Union', which is, I think, my favourite of his books (after 'Summerlands').