Friday 24 December 2010

Holiday break

Best of 3 is on holiday from today. See you again around about 10 January.

If you're looking for some holiday reading, my consistently most-favourite blog of 2010 was Pippin Barr's combo of cartoons and video game/tv/life reviews. You should give them a whirl.

Thursday 23 December 2010

Web muster

The Louvre raises a million Euro online to help purchase Cranach's Three Graces*

Roberta Smith on the 2010 art year; participation, culture wars, women

David Walsh's MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) is swiftly becoming reason enough for me to go to Tasmania

Carol Fisher Salor is copy editing an e-reader edition of the Iliad and asks whether it's time to stop moaning that digital delivery removes the humanity from the reading experience.

And finally, one of my best reads of the year: a 1969 Paris Review interview with E.B. White (long time New Yorker editor, author of Charlotte's Web, the White of Strunk and White) which is stuffed full of felicitous sentences and unexpected statements:

I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read. ... In order to read, one must sit down, usually indoors. I am restless and would rather sail a boat than crack a book. I’ve never had a very lively literary curiosity, and it has sometimes seemed to me that I am not really a literary fellow at all. Except that I write for a living.


Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.


I’m not familiar with books on style. My role in the revival of Strunk’s book was a fluke—just something I took on because I was not doing anything else at the time. It cost me a year out of my life, so little did I know about grammar.


If sometimes there seems to be a sort of sameness of sound in The New Yorker, it probably can be traced to the magazine’s copy desk, which is a marvelous fortress of grammatical exactitude and stylish convention. Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim. This may sometimes have a slight tendency to make one writer sound a bit like another. But on the whole, New Yorker writers are jealous of their own way of doing things and they are never chivied against their will into doing it some other way.

*I can't get over how saucily modern the central figure in this painting looks. I'm totally smitten.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Say it ain't so

The Guardian is reporting that the London Review of Books is going to drop its Personals column.

These hyperliterate lonely hearts ads have been published for the past 10 years. Although they're not a money-earner in themselves, they've built a reputation large enough to be collated into two anthologies, They Call Me Naughty Lola and Sexually, I'm More of a Switzerland. More recently, the ads have been condensed down for the 140-character format of Twitter.

I'd be sad to see them go.

On editing

I have two metaphors for editing texts.

One is being faced with a tangle of wool. You find a loose end, then you tease all the knots out. Sometimes the text will fall happily into orderly loops with merely a tug or two; sometimes it will be a fight for every clear inch.

One other is almost more a physical feeling than a description. It's that feeling you get when you gather up a duvet and, with a deft flick of your wrist, roll it out over the bed and watch all the creases magically disappear. Disorder is transformed into a smooth expanse.

I like to ask other people what their metaphors are, and I like it when I stumble across people's metaphors, as I did this morning with Barbara Epler:

Actual editing consists so much of petting and patting beautiful writing.

With the poets, that means allowing for differences. One poet, alive like the inside of a light bulb, requires five or six sets of proofs: allow time. One might need a suggested re-jigging of the order of contents: allow possible irritation. Allow "grey" and "gray" in the same volume (the former greenish and the latter more blue: the opposite of what I'd guessed).

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Holiday reading list

For the past few weeks I've been mentally tending to my Christmas holiday reading pile, adding and removing and debating over books. Here's where I'm at now:


I'm still working my way through the 2010 Royal Society science book shortlist. I'm currently reading (and loving) Nick Lane's Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution:

Thermodynamics is one of those words best avoided in a book with any pretence to be popular, but it's more engaging if it's seen for what it is: the science of 'desire'. The existence of atoms and molecules is dominated by 'attractions', 'repulsions', 'wants' and 'discharges', to the point that it becomes virtually impossible to write about chemistry without giving in to some sort of randy anthropomorphism. Molecules 'want' to lose or gain electrons; attract opposite charges, repulse similar charges; or cohabit with molecules of similar character. A chemical reaction happens spontaneously if all the molecular partners desire to participate; or they can be pressed to react unwillingly through greater force. And of course some molecules really want to react but find it hard to overcome their innate shyness. A little gentle flirtation might prompt a massive release of lust, a discharge of pure energy. But perhaps I should stop there.

From that shortlist, I also have Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw's Why Does E=mc2? on loan from the library to take away with me.


Having recently been bowled over by this 1969 interview with E.B. White, I've collected a copy of One Man's Meat, a 1944 collection of his essays, written on his farm in Maine.

And left-over from last Christmas: Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs.


A buck three way - the first three books of Anthony Powell's Dance to the music of time in one chubby edition, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind-up Girl.

Young Adults

The last book in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, Monsters of Men has finally arrived in paperback, so I could finally satisfy my obsessive-compulsive need to have a copy that matched my first two books in the series. In an act of great sacrifice, I lent my brand-new copy to a friend who I recently put on to the series. I'll be collecting it back on my travels.


I'm housesitting for an avid reader during my holiday, so all the good intentions above may be swept away by the call of their bookshelf.

Francis Crick - What Mad Pursuit

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, Francis Crick's What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery


I guess the risk of reading autobiographies is that you might come out not enjoying the book because you don't like the person.

In James Watson's The Double Helix Francis Crick is painted as brilliant, impatient, prone to irritate others with his bumptious nature and unwelcome knowledge-sharing. Watson portrays himself as the shyer, more uncertain half of the duo - out of place both culturally (as an American) and scientifically (he's blagging time away when he's meant to be working on - phages, I think).

Crick's What Mad Pursuit is, like The Double Helix, a story about scientific research. He is however a more self-conscious story-teller than Watson, possibly because he is writing after several attempts have been made to tell the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA in different media.

As he writes at the beginning of the chapter 'Books and movies about DNA':

I recall when Jim was writing his book he read a chapter to me while we were dining together at a small restaurant near Harvard Square. I found it difficult to take his account seriously. "Who," I asked myself, "could possibly what to read stuff like this?" Little did I know!

Crick shows some impatience with the general reader:

The average adult can usually enjoy something only if it relates to what he knows already, and what he knows about science is in many cases pitifully inadequate. What almost everybody is familiar with is the vagaries of personal behaviour. People find it much easier to appreciate stories of competition, frustration, and animosity, against a background of parties, foreign girls, and punting on the river, than the details of the science involved.

This cut me to my reading quick. It's shit like this that I get off on - and it's stuff like this that has taken me from someone who gave up on chemistry in 5th form (because I, with typical teenage disdain, despised my teacher) and suffered through physics in 6th form without learning a damn thing, to someone who now actually understand what the LHC is there to do.

Crick often comes across as quite abrasive. His demeaning adjective of choice is 'sloppy' - sloppy thinking, sloppy model-making, sloppy maths. My favourite write-off, when describing a mathematician he clearly felt to be lack-lustre: "Either he had not read our paper carefully enough or, if he had read it, he had not understood it. But then in my experience most mathematicians are intellectually lazy and especially dislike reading experimental papers."

So, the tone of the book was not one I admired. I did come to appreciate Crick's sheer mental avidity: in his sixties he moved to the Salk Institute and took up serious research on the brain, applying the same vigour and challenging attitude to this that he did back in Cambridge in the 1950s.

And one small paragraph just blew my mind:

The laws of physics, it is believed, are the same everywhere in the universe. This is unlikely to to be true of biology. We have no idea how similar extraterrestrial biology (if it exists) is to our own. We may consider it likely that it too will be governed by natural selection, or something rather like it, but even this is only a plausible guess.

The closest I've ever come to a religious feeling was when I read about cosmic rays - muons that come from outerspace, pass through the earth's atmosphere, and down into the Earth. I suddenly felt like something much bigger than myself. Particles that had come from the sun could be passing through me right now. Light, sound, rainbows - none have had this almost physical sense of coming to an understanding and connection that this did.

The three sentences above had a similar thrill. I've never been interested in aliens. But the idea that they might not be subject to the same evolutionary mechanism that we are - I imagine I felt the same way that some Christian astronomer did once, laying eyes on a distant galaxy and suddenly wondering - can my God be there too?

And for that moment, I will forgive much else.

Monday 20 December 2010

E.H. Gombrich - A Little History of the World

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. E.H. Gombrich's A Little History of the World was one of my favourite non-fiction reads of the year, and a book that I wrote about half-way through here, and then all the way through on Goodreads.


Here's what I wrote earlier this week about 'A Little History', when I was just about to hit the Renaissance:

In my professional life, speed is highly valued. I'm an advocate of Agile project management, for example, with its emphasis on time-boxed development periods and fast, focused releases. I've worked on numerous projects that have gone from 'here's what we want' to 'here it is' in 12 weeks. I've been to a million talks and presentations where people have preached the cult of failing fast and failing often, of rapid iteration and daily releases.

Which is why I'm currently filled with admiration for E.H. Gombrich. Start-up founders could take a lesson or two from a man who managed to summarise the history of human civilisation in under 300 pages and on a 6 week deadlines.

A Little History of the World was written in 1935, when Gombrich was 25. He'd finished his thesis, but hadn't found a job. Given an English history book for children to translate into German, he was distinctly underwhelmed by the text. He wrote a sample chapter of a rival book for the publisher, who gave him a conditional yes; the book would be published if it could be completed on the same deadline as the translation.

Gombrich worked 6 days a week on the manuscript - Sundays were spent with his wife, to whom he read each section. Each day, Gombrich would tackle a chapter: the morning for research at home, the afternoon for research at the library, and the evening for writing.

The resulting book - which I'm reading at the moment - is a marvel. Although the tone feels a little dated, especially the questions and comments directed at the intended child reader, the clarity is extraordinary. Gombrich introduces history as a long story, passed down from generation to generation. Writing history, he says, is like lighting a scrap of paper and dropping it down a deep well - the flare lights up the past as it descends. His flare lights up people, places and moments that shaped human culture, from the invention of writing to the age of chivalry.

Reviewing the book when it was finally released in English in 2005, Peter Conrad described it as a 'mental microcosm', and Lisa Jardine as "a manifesto for freedom and integrity". The thing that astounds me about the book is its personal tone - smilingly ironic, sincerely admiring, occasionally melancholy, rarely angered. Above all, it is wise and gentle - but never dull.


Of course I have some criticisms of the book. It is without a doubt a Eurocentric history, one where Asian, Muslim and African nations and peoples are discussed only in the terms in which they impacted on European history; America features in a quite minimal way up to the point of World War II.

Gombrich also tends to cast the occasions where Muslim ('Arab') armies are beaten back as times when something terrible is averted (even if, as he notes, these cultures gave us numbers, letters, and held on to the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome whilst the Europeans had gone back to hitting each over the head with clubs).

Women feature hardly at all - Cleopatra is seduced, Joan of Arc is inspired by and inspiring with faith, Marie Antoinette is a child who gaily enters the French courts revels and quickly heads off to the guillotine.

On the other hand. I think we native New Zealanders have a tendency to think of Europe as old, deeply rooted, basically unchanging. Of course, when you start thinking about it - say, the re-drawing of boundaries post-World War I - that gets exposed as shallow thinking. But to read just how fluid the notion of "Italy" or "Germany" has been until extremely recently was still a bit of an eye-opener.

Also. A Little History of the World is, in terms of Gombrich's values, the non-fiction version of the book that has formed my moral compass, T.H. White's 'The Sword in the Stone'. Intelligence, reason, tolerance and mercy are all - wisdom is the ability, and the urge, to apply these qualities to improving the lives of the people around you.

You get the sense Gombrich saw much of the 20th century as a failing and betrayal of the values of the Enlightenment that he so treasures. World War II is the acid test of Gombrich's values. The book was published in 1935; Gombrich, part of a Jewish family, left Austria in 1938. In a conclusion written towards the end of his life, he forces himself to address happenings you sense he would rather avoid.

Although he has left the original text unchanged, he retracted his assessment of Wilson's actions at the end of World War I, and the promises the American president 'failed to keep' to Germany and Austria, leaving people deprived and justly aggrieved. Earlier in the book, writing of Spain's conquistadores in Mexico, he said:

there and in other parts of America they set about exterminating the ancient, cultivated Indian peoples in the most horrendous way. This chapter in the history of mankind is so appalling and so shameful to us Europeans that I would rather not say anything more about it.

World War II forced him to revisit this statement:

I am even more reluctant to talk about the monstrous crime that was committed in our own century - after all, this book is intended for young readers who should not have to read about such things. But children grow up, and they too must learn from history how easy it is for human beings to be transformed into inhuman beings through incitement and intolerance.

One of the best arguments I have heard for the value of reading fiction is that it teaches you empathy. That should go for non-fiction as well.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Terry Pratchett - Nation

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, Terry Pratchett's Nation


After half a lifetime's parting, this year I reunited with Terry Pratchett.

As a teenager, I wasn't a huge fan of the Discworld novels - no, let me refine that. I lapped up any Discworld book that focused on Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, who respectively, taught me about psychology and innuendo. The series I truly loved though was the Bromeliad (Truckers, Diggers and Wings), the epic tale of a community of nomes who have their faith destroyed and then rebuilt, in a kinder, wiser way. While the series probably lent strength to my growing skepticism about religious belief, it taught me a lot about people.

Last summer I picked up a copy of 'The Amazing Maurice', and rediscovered Pratchett. And then, joy of joys, I met Tiffany Aching - with Roald Dahl's Matilda, one of the most human, most likable, most entertaining and wisest characters you'll ever come across. You can learn a lot from Tiffany Aching, and it won't hurt a bit.

I find there's little point in trying to describe what a Pratchett book is 'about' - I doubt a synopsis of a storyline will ever convince a non-believer to pick one up. However, I think you can summarise the general feelings a Pratchett book will evoke - alongside the wry and occasionally broad humour, there's a deep, deep love of our humankind with all its foibles, feeble- and narrowmindedness, and latent glory.

I have to admit, I didn't go into Nation with any particular expectations. I finished it this afternoon in tears. As is my wont, after reading it I went in search of reviews.

The reviewer in the Independent seemed to hit the "point" of the book, but miss the magic:

The idea of starting out afresh on a tiny island has brought out the best in fiction writers from Defoe to William Golding. Children relish these stories, but in this novel Pratchett is writing for everyone. Mau's Dawkins-type monologues as he questions all his supernatural beliefs go on a bit at times, but also point the way to Pratchett's central belief in the power of science and reason to liberate – if left in the right hands. True to form, Mau's island ends up incorporated by the Royal Society as a haven for visiting scholars.

Odd anthropological insights – sometimes backed up by jaunty footnotes – combine with fantasy as Pratchett introduces tree-climbing octopuses and beer that has to be spat in to make it potable. There are plenty of jokes. Aware that local gossip is trying to pair her off with Mau, Daphne thinks "It was like being in a Jane Austen novel, but one with far less clothing".

Frank Cottrell Boyce in the Guardian though (one of my favourite YA reviewers) seems to have found what I did

Nation has profound, subtle and original things to say about the interplay between tradition and knowledge, faith and questioning. During his initiation ritual, for instance, Mau discovers that the island isn't haunted at all, and that his dad and uncle have already been there and left supplies and a canoe for him. On one level this means the ancient ritual is a piece of empty theatre. In another sense, though, it's a rite of passage that is supposed to teach him self-reliance and courage. In fact, it gives Mau a much more profound knowledge - of how much his dad loves him and how valued he is by his society. Without the theatre of the ghosts, he wouldn't experience the reality of the love.

Pratchett has visited this theme before, in the Bromeliad trilogy, where a group of nomes have developed an obviously stupid religion based on a magic stone, "the Thing", and a belief in "the Heavens". It's ridiculous, but it turns out to be sort of true.

Ridiculous, but sort of true. Pratchett in a nutshell.

p.s. Late Pratchett seems to feature less knowing footnotes. Although they delighted me as a teen, as an adult I am finding this to be A Good Thing.

Friday 17 December 2010

Reading list

My Christmas reading list is rapidly stacking up - I might post it here next week.

On it already are two books by the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. He has followed up his phenomenally popular The Rest is Noise (a history of 20th century music) with Listen to This, a collection of revised essays from the past 10 years, spanning Mozart to Radiohead.

Despite knowing nothing bout music (or potentially because of knowing nothing about music) I love Ross's reviews. It's a sign of masterful writing when you can take the reader along with you, regardless of their level of knowledge. I make a point of seeking out his irregular pieces in the Guardian, which recently included this article, asking why 'we' embrace avant-garde architecture and art, but not music. Ross suggests:

The music profession [in the 20th century] became focused on the manic polishing of a display of masterpieces. By the time Schoenberg, Stravinsky and company introduced a new vocabulary of chords and rhythms, the game was fixed against them. Even composers who bent over backwards to accommodate a taste for Romantic tonality encountered scepticism; they could not overcome, except by drastic measures, the disadvantage of being alive.

Museums and galleries took a markedly different approach. In America, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and other leading institutions propagandised for modern art. Wealthy patrons embraced some of the most radical new work; dealers whipped up publicity; critics romanticised Pollock and company as go-it-alone heroes. The idea took hold that museums could be sites of intellectual adventure. On a recent trip to MoMA, I was struck by a poster at the entrance: "Belong to something brilliant, electrifying, radical, curious, sharp, moving . . . unruly, visionary, dramatic, current, provocative, bold . . ."

It feels a little ironic that a music critic is using the art world as a model of tolerance and curiosity, when here in New Zealand I still regularly hear accusations of charlatanism being hurled against McCahon, and the disgraceful debacle over et al's selection for the 2005 Venice Biennale is (in my opinion, anyway) the biggest art-hits-the-headlines story of the century thus far.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Laura Miller - The Magician's Book

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia


Growing up, I got my biblical language (rounded, rhythmical, intonational) from Kipling and my moral compass from King Arthur and Robin Hood, by way of TH White and Roger Lancelyn Green. By the time I was introduced to Christian mythology, the space in my imagination where God might have fit was already filled with Greek and Roman and Norse figures, before whom the Christian story paled into dull insignificance.

So it's not surprising that I was one of the legion of young readers - including Laura Miller - left disappointed, angered, even bereft when they discovered that the Chronicles of Narnia were in some ways a retelling of the Christian story. (In my case, the news was broken by a born-again uncle when I spotted a copy of the Screwtape Letters on his shelf).

In the Chronicles I had recognised and rejoiced in seeing Bacchus and dryads and fauns (dear old Mr Tumescent). I had been devastated and confused when Aslan gave himself up to the White Witch and overjoyed when he woke up, but I had no inkling that what I was reading was a version of the Passion Story. When I did unravel it all I was deeply offended that Lewis had tried to pull a fast one on me - to slip me something I did believe in by disguising it in things that I desperately wanted to.

Literary critic and one of the founders of Laura Miller had a similar experience (as did Neil Gaiman, and hearing him talk about this earlier this year was wonderful). She writes:

Lewis, Carter explained, was famously Christian, a fact I'd somehow managed to miss. I was shocked, almost nauseated. I'd been tricked, cheated, betrayed. I went over the rest of the Chronicles, and in almost every one found some element that lined up with this unwelcome and, to me, ulterior meaning. I felt like a character in one of those surreal, existential 1960s TV dramas, like The Prisoner or The Twilight Zone, a captive who pulled off a daring escape from his cell only to find himself inside another, another cell identical to the first.

'The Magician's Book' is an extension of an earlier essay Miller wrote about TLTWATW, a reader and writer's meditation on her own experience, and the life and writing of Lewis, a great reader and writer. In it she places the Chronicles in the context of Lewis's life, religious conversion, profession and friends, while binding in her own experience of reading the books, and that of other writers including Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke.

It's a wonderful, rich, enjoyable read, ideal for anyone interested in Lewis, Tolkien, fantasy fiction, children's literature, how writers think, medieval cosmology, the history of allegorical writing, and/or Narnia.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Not overload - just explanation

The OED has re-written its entry for information - a 9,400 word explanation now traces the word from the Norman invasion of France to the first mention of the Information Age in the mid 20th century to TMI. James Gleick gives a lovely overview of the word and its new trappings on the New York Review of Books blog.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

C.P. Snow - The Physicists

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, C.P. Snow's The Physicists


Either my understanding of physics is getting better, or C.P. Snow was a gifted science communicator. I'm happy to think maybe my enjoyment of The Physicists owes a little to both.

'The Physicists' is the first draft, completed just before Snow's death in July 1980, of what was intended to be a much longer book on the history of nuclear physics. According to the introduction Snow wrote the book largely from memory: his editor, William Cooper, observes

It's odd - memory, even a memory as comprehensive as his, has its selectiveness, its patches, its things that stand out for reasons of other than factual importance. When an artist calls upon memory, what he writes has a life and a moving quality which scarcely ever infuses the product of the filing cabinet which we now refer to as researched information.

Snow viewed the development of the study of nuclear physics - through theory and through experiment - as the defining intellectual achievement of the 20th century. His book begins with Faraday, Maxwell Clark, J.J.Thomson, Roentgen and the Curies, and then spends a long, pleasurable time with Rutherford, Bohr and Einstein, looking at how experimental and theoretical science spurred each other along.

Snow's thumbnail sketches of scientists of this period - many of whom he studied under, worked with or met during his time lecturing at Cambridge prior to WWII and his entry into the public service - are sympathetic and insightful. He captures the magic of this time, the collegiality, the courtesy, the extraordinary advances in knowledge.

So far in my reading about 20th century physics I've avoided the atomic bomb. Perhaps like some scientists of the era, I feel like this moment in our history somehow desecrated the beauty and the purity of the research - a betrayal of the intellect. Snow's chapters on the science and politics of the development of the nuclear (and later hydrogen bomb) are engrossing, but I find his final verdict - that a nuclear stand-off, where everyone has enough power to blow up bits of the world and therefore has reason not to exercise it - a little chilling. The end of the book seems to want to divert concern away from the threat of nuclear weapons towards hopes for clean nuclear energy (a potential, he thought, that would 'be realised within our children's life times').

Snow's interest in the moral questions of science make for interesting reading. This book was written the year after I was born, after 35 years of concern and fear around the bomb. Snow points to a new area of worry - the development of computers and microprocessors. The threat they posed was to to disrupt the labour force, and create widespread unemployment. "It is silly to be frightened of computers" he writes, but this latest development in applied physics may, "Like other gifts, ... be a two-edged sword or have two faces".

Near the end of the book Snow touches on molecular biology. He comes to it via crystollography, a branch of physics examines the physical structure of atoms using radiography, a science that, although respectable, Rutherford would not allow into the Cavendish Lab, and ultimately, the science that provided Crick and Watson to put together the model of the double helix. Here I found Snow's observations particularly interesting:

'Biotechnology' is becoming a major new industry. Philosophically, the ability to alter the basis of life at will may have even more effect. The meaning of this work hasn't sunk into popular consciousness, even among intellectual persons, with anything like the rapidity of Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species'. In the long run it may do as much or more to alter men's view of themselves. That, though, will have to wait until the twenty-first century.

A far more accurate prediction than his hopes for fusion energy, it turns out. Overall, this short, swift book is a robust discussion of roughly a century of science, highly personalised but not in the least quirky or whimsical. Highly recommended.

Monday 13 December 2010

Adam Gopnik - Angels and Ages

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages: A short book about Darwin, Lincoln and modern life


'Extraordinary' is a rather hyped-up word to apply to this meditative, intelligent book - or booklet; while not exactly short, it's a focused view onto two lives that have been expansively and exhaustively documented.

Gopnik notes that it is of course coincidence that Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day, and sketches out the differences in their social contexts. The connection he draws between them is that both found a way of communicating that allowed them to bring into the world ideas that changed the way Western society thinks, behaves, and views its history.

Lincoln is not a figure who particularly interests me, so while I enjoyed those chapters, it was the Darwin chapters that made the book for me. Gopnik explicates the way Darwin wrote and structured arguments - his long, slow, detailed amassing of eventually undeniable detail, and his quiet, occasionally humorously understated conclusions.

I thoroughly recommend the book if you're up to a thoughtful read - it's not a snappy, quirky book, but one which rewards being taken slowly. Gopnik also includes a bibliography which is worth the price of admission in itself - here's what I wrote on my blog:

I recently re-read Peter Doherty's 'A Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize'. While I still find the book over-long and over-written (although there is some terrific stuff in there about the business of being a research scientist) the thing that really struck me was how good the list of recommended reading is.

When I get to the end of a book that has piqued my interest, by an author who I've come to trust, I want them to tell me what they found helpful and interesting when they were doing their research. Not just a bibliography, but recommendations of where I should go next.

Reading Doherty's book put me on to James Gleick's bio of Feynman, James Watson's simultaneously wonderful and infuriating 'The Double Helix' and a terrific book about the 1918-19 flu epidemic by John M Barry that I plan to re-read as soon as I get some breathing space. It also reminded me that Brenda Maddox's biography of Rosalind Franklin is still languishing on my to-read list.

Fifty pages into Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages. I flipped to the bibliography. And was delighted.

In one of the Darwin chapters of the book, Gopnik writes about the pressures Darwin was under as he finally sat down to write 'On the Origin of Species'

All the pleasures and pressures of the past decade acted on him: the pleasure of explanation in simple terms, the pressure of not being understood; the pleasure of having accumulated abundant examples, the pressure of succumbing to overabundant illustration; the pleasure of having a clear argument to make, the pressure of having to make it clear; the pleasure of pushing at last to make a summary of an argument, the crucial pressure of having Alfred Wallace, polite and deferential but, after all, also in possession of the same theory, waiting.

Of course, this is the same situation that faced Gopnik (and any other writer who's got to that stage where they sit down, photocopies and books amassed around them, and try to face down the blank screen). His 'bibliographic note' summarises this beautifully: 'The Darwin literature is merely immeasurable; the Lincoln literature is infinite. When you are already up to your armpits in it, you realise you have hardly dipped a toe.'

Gopnik provides two pages each of recommended reading on Darwin and Lincoln - not a list of books, but a brief summary of his research journey, of what he read, and what he learnt, and what he believes we will find useful and engaging. It's not just a bibliography, it's a deeply personalised recommendation, and I love it.

Friday 10 December 2010

My feelings exactly

Thanks to a friend who knows my idiosyncrasies well, a link to Jolisa Gracewood's interview with New Zealand YA writer Karen Healey popped up in my feedreader today.

I haven't read Healey's Guardian of the Dead yet (I've just booked it at the public library), but here's the Goodreads precis:

This is an intriguing YA urban fantasy in the tradition of Holly Black and Wicked Lovely. Set in New Zealand, Ellie's main concerns at her boarding school are hanging out with her best friend Kevin, her crush on the mysterious Mark, and her paper deadline. That is, until a mysterious older woman seems to set her sights on Kevin, who is Maori, and has more than just romantic plans for him. In an effort to save him, Ellie is thrown into the world of Maori lore, and eventually finds herself in an all-out war with mist dwelling Maori fairy people called the patupaiarehe who need human lives to gain immortality.

The strong, fresh voice of the narrator will pull readers in, along with all the deliciously scary details: the serial killer who removes victim's eyes; the mysterious crazy bum who forces a Bible on Ellie telling her she needs it; handsome, mysterious Mark who steals the Bible from her and then casts a forgetting charm on her. All of this culminates in a unique, incredible adventure steeped with mythology, Maori fairies, monsters, betrayal, and an epic battle.

In the interview, Gracewood notes that while YA is relatively neglected in critical literature/review pages, commercially it is thriving, even in the internet age:

From where I sit -- credentialled by the literary-academic establishment, and mostly a reviewer of Serious Adult Fiction for Serious Adults -- YA literature seems kind of the fierce but neglected younger sibling who just can't get no respect. Especially in the review pages of Big Important Papers and Magazines. And yet: Harry Potter! Twilight! Mockingjay! Percy Jackson!*

Healey responds:

I don't write YA because I'm not skilled enough to write adult literature, or because I think teenagers are a passive audience who will indiscriminately devour any old garbage. On the contrary, I think they are demanding, involved, canny readers. They won't keep going with something that's "improving" literature if they don't like it - they get enough of that in school. If a book doesn't entertain them in their leisure time, they'll toss it. The YA blogosphere is amazing. These young readers establish international book tours, run prize draws, and engage in social media in a lot of ways that more established review outlets have entirely ignored, to, I think, their detriment.

So yeah, it's annoying that YA is all but ignored in the major review outlets. I think a lot of adult readers are missing out on stuff they would really enjoy, although more and more of them are crossing over into the YA section, where they are very welcome. But, you know, we're doing our own thing. It would be nice to have the big names take more notice, but in the YA world, we don't really need them to get by.

There's an interesting section about the setting of Healey's novel, a very detailed Christchurch. Gracewood poses the query that such detail is unusual in YA-slash-fantasy; Healey points to other examples of such realism. And there's also a good discussion of Healey's decision to use, and experience of using, Māori mythology at the heart of her book.

This reminded me of a book I read and enjoyed earlier this year, Frances Hardinge's The Lost Conspiracy. It's aimed at younger readers than Healey's book, and has a much stronger (based on what I've read so far) fantasy streak, but Hardinge's use of Māori mythology intrigued me. Here's what I wrote at the time:


When Neil Gaiman spoke at Wellington Town Hall a few weeks ago, the thing I was most struck by were his comments on CS Lewis.

Like me (and many, many fortunate people) Gaiman didn't get the Christian references in the Narnia series until quite late in the series (me, I had to wait til my born-again uncle told me). He observed, sweetly, that as a Christian allegory, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was obviously a bit of a failure. He felt instead that Lewis crammed into TLTW&TW all the things he loved from Christian, Greek and other mythologies.

I thought of that reading The Lost Conspiracy (titled 'Gullstruck Island' in the UK). It is loooooong, and it is *relentlessly* inventive, and although I noticed both those things as an adult reader, as a kid I would have been head over heels in love.

When I read Elizabeth Knox's YA duo - the Dreamhunter books - I felt she'd failed to provide a sufficiently detailed, sufficiently strange alternate late-colonial New Zealand. The books just didn't have that lushness of imagination, that wealth of detail that you sink into, that The Hobbit or TLTW&TW have.

Reading The Lost Conspiracy is like swimming through a swelling sea of invention - breasting endless new takes on peoples, birds and beats, religion, ancestor worship, and a mythic and physical relationship between a people and a land.

It was also curious spotting a strangely familiar tale of two male mountains fighting over the attentions of a third, female mountain, with the loser fleeing and carving a deep gouge of anger out of the landscape. When I got to the end, it was one of those funny cultural cringe oh wow moments when Hardinge talked about the legend of Taranaki, Ruapehu and Ngaruhoe, and her research into the Tarawera eruption.

The book occasionally feels a little overladen with all this extraordinary detail. But have you ever heard a kid who loves reader complain about a book being too long, or too full of remarkable things? Highly recommended.

*My personal feelings: Harry Potter - meh; Twilight - bloody scary, but for all the wrong reasons; Mockingjay - not as affecting as Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, but utterly engrossing; Percy Jackson - great premise, somewhat predictable.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

C.S. Lewis - A Grief Observed

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. This is the book that most moved me this year - C. S. Lewis's A Grief Observed.


"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing."
I don't think I've ever felt the prickle of tears over the first paragraph of a book.

'A Grief Observed' is barely a book - 70 small pages of short paragraphs - lancing, glancing thoughts. Lewis wrote as a way of coping after the death of his wife from bone cancer; he had no original intention to publish the contents of the four little notebooks, and when they were first published, they were released under a pseudonym. Although writing was how Lewis got through the period ('reading is not enough of a drug') he struggled with the connotations of the act:

"What would H. herself think of this terrible little notebook to which I come back and back? Are these jottings morbid? I once read the sentence 'I lay awake all night with toothache, thinking about toothache and about lying awake.' That's true to life. Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: that fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief."

Later: "This is the fourth - and the last - empty MS. book I can find in the house, at least nearly empty, for there are some pages of very ancient arithmetic at the end by J. I resolve to let this limit my jottings. I will not start buying books for the purpose."

This slim volume is, I guess, about two things: Lewis's observation of his grief over the death of his wife, and the questions he had to ask of and about god as a result.

Lewis grapples with what Leibniz named as theodicy: the question of whether evil and pain in our world does not conflict with the essential goodness of god. His writing and thinking here is searingly honest. But his writing about his wife ... you realise that something late and precious and extraordinary happened between these two people. It is some of the most sweetly, sadly, realistically erotic writing I've ever read:
"Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard. ... How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure - and there's another red-hot jab - of being exposed and laughed at. I was never less silly than as H.'s love."
"I see I've described H. as being like a sword. That's true as far as it goes. But utterly inadequate by itself, and misleading. I ought to have balanced it. I ought to have said, 'But also like a garden. Like a nest of gardens, wall within wall, hedge within hedge, more secret, more full of fragrant and fertile life, the further you entered.'"
I will buy a copy of this book today. But before I put it on the shelf, or begin pressing it upon friends, I shall tear out every page of Lewis's step-son's introduction. I cannot and I will not conscience statements like this:
"[Lewis] had written also about the great poets and songs of love, but somehow neither his learning nor his experiences had ever prepared him for the combination of both the great love, and the great loss which is its counterpoint; the soaring joy which is the finding and winning of the mate whom God has prepared for us and the crushing blow, the loss, which is Satan's corruption of that great gift of loving and being loved."
"I had yet to learn that all human relationships end in pain - it is the price that our imperfection has allowed Satan to exact from us for the privilege of love."
And instead, I will give the last word to Lewis

"If, as I can't help but suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of suffering (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings) then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure. ...

I wrote the other night that bereavement is not the truncation of married life but one of its regular phases - like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage faithfully and well through that phase too. If it hurts (and it certainly will) we will accept the pains as a necessary part of this phase. we don't want to escape them at the price of desertion of divorce. Killing the dead a second time. We were one flesh. Now that it has been cut in two, we don't want to pretend that it is whole and complete. We will still be married, still in love. Therefore we shall still ache. But we are not at all - if we understand ourselves - seeking the aches for their own sake. The less of them the better, so long as the marriage is preserved. And the more joy there can be in the marriage between dead and living, the better."

Monday 6 December 2010

Web muster

Umberto Eco on lists (hitting that link will probably pop up up a print dialog box, but just cancel it and all will be well):

SPIEGEL: You yourself are more likely to work with books, and you have a library of 30,000 volumes. It probably doesn't work without a list or catalogue.

Eco: I'm afraid that, by now, it might actually be 50,000 books. When my secretary wanted to catalogue them, I asked her not to. My interests change constantly, and so does my library. By the way, if you constantly change your interests, your library will constantly be saying something different about you. Besides, even without a catalogue, I'm forced to remember my books. I have a hallway for literature that's 70 meters long. I walk through it several times a day, and I feel good when I do. Culture isn't knowing when Napoleon died. Culture means knowing how I can find out in two minutes. Of course, nowadays I can find this kind of information on the Internet in no time. But, as I said, you never know with the Internet.

Jonathan Jones on Chinese firms copycatting UK architects

Alan Jacobs ask whether looking at the 18th century can help us understand the early 21st

Many of the ethical norms of the previous century were loosened significantly, and folks tended to have a sense that they were operating in greater freedom than their ancestors (which most, but not all, of them thought was wonderful). Thus traditional Christian self-examination for signs of unconfronted sins was replaced by something quite different: “When educated Georgian polite society examined itself, however, the tone was more subjective, even narcissistic. Diaries and autobiographies . . . show that people were dwelling more on their own psychological make-up, and often indulging, rather than quelling, their humours and passions.”

Filed under 'books I shall read soon' - Alexandra Harris's Romantic Moderns wins the Guardian's First Book prize.

But if you read one thing this week, make it this extraordinary piece by New Zealand journalist and news commentator Julie Starr: My brother was shot in the head on a Monday night.

Friday 3 December 2010

culture club

The Transformations in Cultural Communication conference and masterclasses are running again in Melbourne next April. Now that the first wave of enthusiasm and experimentation with social media inside museums has crested, the conference is moving on to look at how these tools and platforms can be used to serve culturally diverse audiences.

Featured speakers include Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum, Nancy Procter from the Smithsonian, and Caroline Payson and Mei Mah from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, backed up by Lynda Kelley and Angelina Russo.

The conference registration is a very friendly AU$180, and, well, what need I say about the allurements of a trip to Melbourne?

Thursday 2 December 2010


Kara Walker meets sticky notes with Stipee bookmarks (photo via BLTD; packs of bookmarks available at Japanese Gift Market).

For the past year, I've been using stickers made to publicise ArtBabble as bookmarks - they're perfectly sized, resilient, and make me think of faraway friends whenever I open or close a book. When travelling I use plane tickets, although with Air New Zealand's handy iPhone app, I rarely get a physical ticket anymore. (Does anyone ever just marvel at how much the process of flying has changed in a decade? Ten years ago when flying home from uni in Dunedin I went to a tarvel agent to buy my tickets and got them in a little blue plastic pouch: today I buy them online, tap a reference number into my phone, then wave my phone at a scanner as I'm about to walk on to the plane. Who says we're still waiting for the future?)

Anyway. The more I use Goodreads to record what I'm reading, the more I find myself dog-earing pages in books so I can reference them in my write-up. I still don't have the guts (or bad manners) to pencil comments in books - not ones I own or ones I've borrowed) but somehow this naughty little habit has crept back up on me.

Then again, as ereaders become more common, I feel like celebrating the paper page - in all its vulnerability and tactility - even more. Dog-ears have become like lovebites - slightly destructive marks of enjoyment.

Monday 29 November 2010

Marcus Sedgwick - Blood Red, Snow White

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Marcus Sedgwick's fictionalised biography of Arthur Ransome was a surprise hit with me - partly because I had no idea Ransome was so interesting, and partly because it's an intriguing model for biography.


About once a week, I am simultaneously appalled and delighted my my general ignorance. Appalled, because no-one likes finding out they're less well-informed than they thought they were. And delighted, because finding stuff out, is, frankly, cool. Even if you're a bit late to the party.

I knew Arthur Ransome only as the author of 'Swallows and Amazons', which I've not read. I certainly didn't know that he was a journalist who had an unhappy marriage to a slightly unhinged woman, Ivy, and ran off to Russia to escape her 0leabing behind his young daughter Tabitha).

'Snow White, Blood Red' follows Ransome's life in Russia. The first section of the book, told in an allegorical fashion, tells of Ransome's early life, marriage, and journey towards Russia. It also sets the scene for the Russian revolutions of 1917:

Now, only a few trees ahead of him in the forest, stood two men deep in conversation. One was a Russian, the other a Jew, and they were firm friends, though they spent much of their time arguing.

They would argue about all sorts of things, but each would listen politely to what the other had to say. First, the Jew, whose name was Lev, would argue that the people of Russia should be its true masters, and while he did, the Russian, whose name was Vladimir, would stroke his small and excellent beard. Then they would swap, and Vladimir would argue that while what Lev had to say was true, they should not forget that people needed guidance from enlightened minds. And Lev would stroke his own small and excellent beard.

This should be a difficult task to pull off, but Sedgwick does a tremendous job, adapting Ransome's own 'Old Peter's Russian Tales'.

The second section is a single, pivotal evening for Ransome in Moscow, when a British agent attempts to recruit him as a spy. The style for this section - each chapter a time in the evening, 9.20 pm, interspersed with Ransome's planning & reminiscencing - is like a detective novel, with a simultaneous sense of urgency and inevitability.

And the third section - which tells of Ransome's love for a Russian woman, Evgenia, who just happens to be Lenin's secretary, and visits home to his daughter, and gradual involvement in various secret affairs - is told like a (pretty) straight biography, real people and events coloured in with dialogue and emotions.

The book ends with some facty stuff; a timeline, and reproductions of items from the English Secret Service files about Ransome's activities.

'Snow White, Blood Red' is a sophisticated, very enjoyable read. I think the only reason it's classed as YA is that biographies written for the adult market seem less likely to take the kind of licence Sedgwick has (Peter Ackroyd is the only writer of that type I can think of offhand, and I've found his books quite dull). Interestingly, it leaves me with little desire to read another biography of Ransome, because I've grown quite attached to the version that Sedgwick has given me.

Friday 26 November 2010

Rebecca Stead - When You Reach Me

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Here's one of my favourite YA titles of the year, by Rebecca Stead.


A slim, perfect book about love, death, friendship, being 12, and time travel - and a love letter to Madeleine L'Engle's 'A Wrinkle in Time' to boot.

I ordered Stead's book through the public library after finding out it was the winner of last year's Newbery Medal. When I picked it up and saw the big print, I felt disappointed; I'd been excited, but thought that even with my growing passion for children's and YA novels, this was going to be too simple.

I took it home anyway, figuring I'd give it a few pages. And I was immediately hooked. The book might be aimed at 10 year-olds and up, but it's completely engrossing. Miranda, the central figure, is one of the most appealing female characters I've found in a long time, and the book is beautifully and tautly written, managing to be both a straightforward narrative, and a mystery with time-clues dangling throughout.

Rebecca Stead also includes, in Miranda's voice, two of the loveliest evocations of the way you can feel about a book when you're 12:

'The truth is that my book doesn't say how old Meg is, but I'm twelve, so she feels twelve to me. When I first got the book I was eleven, and she felt eleven.'

'I was getting annoyed. The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book. It's like watching someone go through the box of private stuff that I keep under my bed.'

If you have a daughter, you should buy this book for her. No matter how old she is.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Listen up

I still feel rather shy about talking about the radio spot I do with Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon on National Radio, every second Wednesday just before midday.

I'm the 'arts commentator' - which still makes me squeak a little when I hear my name on the trailors during Morning Report. I did a series of shows late last year (I think 5 or 6 leading up for Christmas) and have been doing this fortnightly spot since June this year.

Conquering my nerves about live radio is probably the thing I'm most proud of over the past year. I've gone from having a sleepless Tuesday night and feeling like hurling for most of Wednesday morning to looking forward to going up to the studio and having a chat with Kathryn.

Kathryn's terrific to work with. There's nothing better than hitting on a topic that she really enjoys. On the best days, it feels like we're having a great conversation, not broadcasting.

For myself (it might be different for other people), the key to public speaking of any type is slipping into a slightly different persona. On the radio, running a workshop, MC'ing a conference (did that for the first time this year - crippling nerves, total adrenaline rush) - in all these situations I'm a slightly bigger, chirpier, hopefully funny version of myself. I try really hard to put warmth across; there's no better word I can think of for it. And from the feedback I get, people seem to respond.

But I still get a bit of a electric shock - combined embarrassment and pride - when someone says 'I heard you on the radio today'. It's funny knowing that my family and my friends tune in. Not to mention complete strangers. That's the weirdest bit. Occasionally - on a really great day, like yesterday - I'll tweet after I get out of the Radio NZ building, but usually I don't draw attention to it.

The past two shows though have been so much fun, and so satisfying to do, that I did want to share them. The first was on John Parker, on the occasion of him being awarded a Laureateship. That show was done with Kathryn in Auckland and me in the Wellington studio, which I always find harder, but I was really pleased with the result. I felt like we managed to get the sculptural nature of John's pots across the airwaves - no mean feat.

The second, on yesterday's show, was on Karl Fritsch and the two shows he has on/on shortly at Hamish McKay Gallery and City Gallery Wellington. Kathryn was in the studio like normal, and Hamish and Carey very kindly lent me some rings from Karl's show to take up with me for the spot. It made all the difference - a real, immediate engagement - and I hope people heard that. The best moment was when the show ended and the producers came through to look at the pieces too. I felt like I'd done something small but good for art.

In both cases, it was passed on to me that the artists heard the spots and appreciated the pieces. This means the world to me. I genuinely feel that the arts don't get enough positive airtime in this country, and I'm grateful for an opportunity to help remedy this.

You can access the John Parker spot on this page, and the Karl Fritsch piece on this page.

I can't end this post without a shout-out to Richard and Helena and Dempsey who run the RadioNZ website, which is a thing of great wonderfulness.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Looking back, and around

One of the shows I really regret not seeing over the past couple of years is Julian Dashper's 'To the Unknown New Zealander' at Christchurch Art Gallery, where Dashper installed his own works throughout the Gallery's permanent collection hang.

I'm fascinated by artists' relationships with the art that came before them. In a current show at the British National Gallery, Bridget Riley has placed works from the collection (including three works by Seurat and Raphael's Saint Catherine of Alexandria) with her own recent works.

Riley has been a frequent visitor to the National Gallery throughout her career, learning about colour and line: she describes galleries as "the book in which we learn to read". The current show includes one of her earliest works, a copy of Jan van Eyck's Portrait of a Man (Self portrait?) from the National Gallery's collection.

Laura Cumming's review in the Guardian does a better job of selling the show that the National Gallery's own website*:

Indeed the curious effect of this tremendous show, in which Riley's paintings are displayed alongside permanent works from the collection, is that it makes you see past art anew. Look at her suave ripples and you suddenly realise how Mantegna makes his frieze of figures appear to move continuously in both directions. Look at Riley and you may better appreciate the abstract qualities of Raphael.

These old-new pairings soon give way to what is effectively a miniature retrospective – early op-art, 80s stripes, the recent parallel curves and steeply flaring diagonals, cross-cut by verticals. The main gallery is all Riley, and dominated by an immense mural composed of interlinking circles, approximately one metre across, in blazing black on white. Tightly plotted, yet open-ended, it sends the eye round and around in every direction, following the tracery, drawn by particular rhythms, distracted by sparking intersections; a movement as unpredictable as mercury.

The means are simple and perspicuous, but the effect is indefinable.
The Guardian also has a slideshow of paintings from the exhibition, which makes me wish I were there.


Nicolas Poussin, The Triumph of Pan, circa 1636. National Gallery collection.
Bridget Riley, Arcadia 1 (Wall Painting 1), 2007.

*I'm all for the reduction of boosterism, but I think the National Gallery could have sounded a little more excited.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Diana Athill - Instead of a letter

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on Goodreads, starting with this memoir by one of my heroes, British writer and editor Diana Athill, originally published in 1976.


One of the cover blurbs for this book - Athill's first memoir, covering her life from birth to when she began writing and publishing in her early forties - suggests that every 17 year-old girl should have a copy of this book pressed upon her.

I wonder what that particular reviewer thought a 17 year-old girl would take out of the book. Would she see read it as a warning?

As a young teenager Athill fell for a young man, about 5 years older than she, who was acquainted with the family. She recounts how she grew up quickly, and soon the young man saw her less as a younger sister and more as a romantic possibility to the point where, when Athill was about to leave for university, they became engaged.

Athill's young man was the centre of her happiness, her world. He was sent to Egypt (this was at the start of WWII) and they corresponded joyfully until his letters stopped coming. It was nearly two years before he wrote to her again, asking her to release him from their engagement, so he could marry another woman.

Athill never married. One of the refreshing things about her memoirs is the calm and un-coy way she writes of her sexual relationships with men; here she talks about an abortion - which saddens her, but which she does not regret - and later miscarriages, her long-term, steady affairs with married men, and her short-term (even one-night stand) relationships conducted out of a sense of obligation, and the feeling that sometimes it is easier to just go to bed with someone than to find a convincing (yet polite) way to turn them down.

She covers her years of war work, and later career in publishing, where she worked with Andre Deutsch to set up two publishing houses (covered more fully in 'Stet').

But most of all Athill writes of unhappiness, and the late discovery, in her forties, of happiness when she begins writing. It is not that writing 'fills a hole' as such, but that it gives her s sense of ease and pleasure, of surprise and success.

So, what that reviewer think a 17 year-old would learn from this life? It is that she should not hitch her happiness to a young man, but look instead for fulfillment in a career? That one can only find true happiness by being happy with oneself, and other platitudes?

The way I read it, Athill was saying something different about unhappiness, and its particular source. It was all consuming ("My soul had shrunk to the size of a pea") but it didn't stop her from doing things, and doing things successfully. It didn't stop her from feeling happy at times. It didn't mean her life wasn't meaningful.

At the same time I was reading this book, I read Jenny Diski (now, there's a writer who can talk about unhappiness) reviewing a self-help get happy book in the LRB:

Truth number four is ‘You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy.’ This is not just unfathomable but raises a prior question. Why is Rubin so very sure that happiness is the goal? Why do people, some people, understand their sense of incompleteness as a lack of happiness? Or why do they believe that such an incompleteness can and should be remedied? If the answers to these questions strike you as completely obvious, or they don’t seem to be sensible questions at all, then maybe it’s just me, but I suspect Freud didn’t stop at ordinary unhappiness because he was at a loss to know what to do at that point, but because ordinary unhappiness constitutes part of regular existence.

I once tried this thought out on a panel on a TV book show when we were talking about a biography of Ford Madox Ford. There was general agreement that his had been a tragic life, evidenced by catastrophic love affairs, difficulty in writing and several failed suicide attempts. I wondered if you had to see it as such a tragic life, or just that kind of a life. He did after all have all the melodrama and all those torrid relationships, and he also wrote some of the best novels of the 20th century. Even suicide attempts, if they fail, offer a kind of renewal, if only of unhappiness. Certainly, he wasn’t happy, but was it a tragic life? I’m no more sure what constitutes tragic than I am about defining happiness. They cut that bit out when the show was broadcast, because the other people on the panel just blinked at me and moved swiftly on.


Monday 22 November 2010

The Internet

Earlier this year I paid my dues and became a member of Internet New Zealand. There was a bit of healthy peer pressure behind my decision to join up, but also a sense of obligation. I make my living online. I spend a lot of my non-work life online. The web is crucial to me staying in contact with friends and colleagues. But I don't know as much about the internet - and the threats to a free and open internet - as I should.

So, if you've ever looked at your computer screen while browsing blogs or emailing home or facebooking, and wondered - how does this page appear in front of me? how does Amazon remember my credit card details? what's the difference between 'http://' and 'https://'? why do I use Internet Explorer 6? - you should check out this cute little online book from Google.

20 Things I Learned About Browsers and the Web covers topics from open source browsers through to cloud computing, HTML5 to protecting your privacy online. That might sound dry, but please - just give a few minutes of your time to trying it out. It's a lovely interface to play with, if nothing else; but overall, I guarantee you'll learn something.* If nothing else, you'll find this handy link to the What browser? site, which will instantly tell you which browser and which version you're using (and has a handy 1 minute video that tells you what a browser is).

*Sure, the book is an advertisement for Google's browser, Chrome. But there's no harm in reading it anyway.

Friday 19 November 2010

Smart, pretty

I do admire American art museum's signage. It often seems lighter - in tone and in heart - than New Zealand's. And I'm quite taken with this piece of work by the IMA's Matt Kelm for their recent Warhol show:

In this interview Kelm describes how the signage references Warhol's work, while also creating an interactive experience that encourages visitors to take the show's poster away with them.

Monday 15 November 2010

Reading and writing

I still feel a moment of 'they're reading our books over there' parochial pride when I see New Zealand children's and YA authors getting mentioned in international magazines and blogs. In this piece on returning to reading YA fiction, American writer Elizabeth Bachner bookends her article with observations on Margaret Mahy's The Changeover

In the beginning of Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover, a teenage girl in New Zealand, Laura, picks up a bottle of shampoo called Paris. There’s a picture on it, of a lovely girl with the Eiffel Tower behind her bare shoulder, but the label is forced to tell the truth in tiny print: “Made in New Zealand, it said, Wisdom Laboratories, Paraparaumu.”

Just for a moment Laura had a dream of washing her hair and coming out from under the shower to find that she was not only marvelously beautiful but transported to Paris. However, there was no point in washing her hair if she were only going to be moved as far as Paraparaumu. Besides, she knew her hair would not dry in time for school, and she would spend half the morning with chilly ears. These were facts of everyday life, and being made in New Zealand was another. You couldn’t really think your way into being another person with a different morning ahead of you, or shampoo yourself into a beautiful city full of artists drinking wine and eating pancakes cooked in brandy.

If I need a good blow-out, I pick up Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. McCarthy's fatalism - his utter refusal to give you an easy ending - and his sparse, diamond-hard writing leaves me undone every time. So naturally, I'm inclined to disagree with Allen Barra over his argument that Larry McMurty's Lonesome Dove is a better Western than McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Then I recall that I haven't read either book, and update my Goodreads to-read list.*

Lev Grossman, author and Time magazine's book critic, blogs about the two kinds of writers: soloists and thieves. I wonder if this applies to artists as well? I know some artists who are particularly porous, and going to a new show is an experiment in guessing what they've been looking at recently.

I don’t understand how the Soloists do it. It’s like they’re sailing across the Atlantic without instruments — coolly, no map, no reference points, just navigating by the feel of the tiller. The Soloists I know avoid other novels like the plague when they’re writing. It’s like reading them will pollute their pure bloodlines or something.

As a Thief, I don’t have that need for purity. But I would give anything for that sense of absolute direction. Like perfect pitch — Soloists don’t need to tune to anything. To go back to the navigation metaphor, I’m constantly checking my GPS and taking sextant readings and heaving the log and shooting azimuths and God knows what else, just to make sure I haven’t wandered off the map into some bizarre territory where I’ve forgotten that sentences are supposed to have verbs in them or something.

In the New Republic, Elizabeth D. Samet writes about using Sherlock Holmes to teach first-year students at West Point. Samet is trying to tell her students that the knowledge they already have is importnant, and that the knowledge that they pick up as they move through life will be useful in unexpected ways:

I’ve taken to visiting 221B Baker Street on the first day of class because I can’t think of anyone who leverages knowledge more effectively.

I ask my students to read a passage near the beginning of A Study in Scarlet (the detective’s first appearance), in which Dr. Watson vainly attempts to itemize precisely what Holmes knows: next to nothing about literature, philosophy, astronomy, and politics; “practical” but idiosyncratic facts of botany, geology, anatomy, and British law; the most minute details of chemistry and “sensational literature.” After concluding his list by noting that Holmes not only “plays the violin well” but is also “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman,” Watson throws it into the fire “in despair” of ever figuring out what kind of profession could possibly require this eclectic catalogue of “accomplishments.”

Finally, two medical memoirs:

*Has anyone else ever been put off reading Lonesome Dove because the title sounds too like The Thorn Birds and you're still recovering from the you-knew-it-was-wrong-even-at-the-time pleasure of reading the latter in your early teens? Anyone?

Good looking

There are 15 days left until entries close for the Mix and Mash competition. If you're looking for some inspiration, you might want to check out the slides from the awesome presentations at the Mix and Mash Webstock Mini.

One of my favourite presentations was Chris McDowall's 'Anatomy of a visualisation':

Chris has a terrific blog about data visualation over on the Sciblogs network. Recently his wife Sienna Latham wrote about the data analysis she and Chris worked on to accompany her thesis on English women’s chymical activities during the reign of Elizabeth I. Together, they created a visual interpretation of the network of relationships between the women Sienna studied

I also picked up this amazing visualisation on Twitter today - contradictions in the Bible by Steve Wells

As it happens, there's a visualisation category in the Mix and Mash competition. So shuffle on over there and check it out!

Friday 12 November 2010


A little belated perhaps, but I wanted to note Bronwyn Holloway-Smith's win at the New Zealand Open Source Awards on Tuesday night.

The Open Source Awards recognise New Zealanders' contributions to open source projects, use of open source products, and promotion of the free and open philosophy.

2010 was the first year that an Open Source in the Arts category was run, and the finalists were:
  • Bronwyn Holloway-Smith for Ghosts in the Form of Gifts
  • Douglas Bagnall for Libsparrow, an installation piece entirely based on open source software that was shown at the Dowse.
  • Joel Pitt and Will Marshall for Speed of Sound, a music visualiser used in live environments
Bronwyn describes her project in this way:
These objects are replicas of artifacts imagined as lost, hidden or misregistered during the Museum of New Zealand's tenure in the former Museum Building on Buckle St, now occupied by Massey University's College of Creative Arts. The objects have been created through a process of drawing, digital 3D rendering, and finally printing with an Open Source 3-dimensional printer – the RepRap.
To my mind, one of the most significant things about Bronwyn's project is that the works are released under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license and the design files can be downloaded from her website.

At the awards, I asked Bronwyn whether students at art school were being taught about copyright and licencing - their rights over their work, and the tools (like CC licences) available to them to give people access to view, re-present or remix their works. It's a topic I'm quite interested in, as is Bronwyn, as one of the founders of the Creative Freedom Foundation.

Bronwyn said that the topic didn't seem well-covered. I think that's a real pity. If art schools are training/nurturing/whatever-the-preferred-verb artists, they should be (IMHO) educating them about the profession, and copyright (as well as dealer galleries and auction houses and commissioning) are all part of the apparatus.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Take one thing off ...

It would be a writing course. Every assignment would be delivered in five versions: A three page version, a one page version, a three paragraph version, a one paragraph version, and a one sentence version.

I don’t care about the topic. I care about the editing. I care about the constant refinement and compression. I care about taking three pages and turning it one page. Then from one page into three paragraphs. Then from three paragraphs into one paragraph. And finally, from one paragraph into one perfectly distilled sentence.

Along the way you’d trade detail for brevity. Hopefully adding clarity at each point. This is important because I believe editing is an essential skill that is often overlooked and under appreciated. The future belongs to the best editors.

That's Jason Fried, one of the 37signals co-founders, talking about the class he'd like to see taught at university. 37signals is a web app company; I have a Masters degree in art history, and I wish this course had been available when I was at school.