Friday 30 December 2022

Ted Chiang, Exhalation

He’s not necessarily interested in how human beings interact with one another (a few of his stories contain romantic subplots, and they are noticeably less compelling than anything else he writes). Instead, he focuses on how human beings interact with and are shaped by their technologies ...

Constance Grady, Vox

I remember being thunderstruck by the two major stories in Ted Chiang's first collection, Tower of Babylon and Story of Your Life (later made into the film Arrival). Looking back on my review from the time, I noted that I found the rest of the stories in the book 'interesting as exercises' but that they didn't seize my imagination or leave my brain more open, as the top two did.

Reading through Exhalation, I really wanted to love it as much as I did that first book. I kept embarking on each story, hoping it would be "that one" - the Story of Your Life of this collection. None of these stories however come near its level of intricacy of content and form.

The strongest story in the book, for me, is the longest - like Story of Your Life, The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a novella-length story, given plenty of room to develop. It centres on Ana and Derek, two employees at Blue Gamma, a software start-up making "digients" (digital organisms) for people to take into virtual worlds. Derek is an animator; Ana is a very new coder, but she's actually brought onboard at Blue Gamma for her earlier job experience, as a zoo-keeper. Blue Gamma's digients take the form of baby animals - pandas, tigers, chimpanzees - and the company is trying to tune them perfectly for the market. The older-tech equivalent would be Tamagotchis, those needy little devices that required the owner's regular attention or they "died". The digients however are AI and therefore can build a different kind of relationship:
[Derek] subscribes to Blue Gamma's philosophy of AI design: experience is the best teacher, so rather than trying to program an AI with what you want it to know, sell ones capable of learning and have your customers teach them. To get customers, to put in that kind of effort, everything about the digient has to be appealing: their personalities need to be charming, which the developers were working on, and their avatars need to be cute, which is where Derek comes in. But he can't simply give the digients enormous eyes and short noses. if they look like cartoons, no one will take them seriously. Conversely, if they look too much like real animals, their facial expressions and ability to speak become disconcerting. It's a delicate balancing act, and he has spent countless hours watching reference footage of baby animals, but he's managed to design hybrid faces that are endearing but not exaggeratedly so.
The digients are created then "hothoused" - run 24 hours in simulators to see how they develop and to winnow out the best products - then Ana's role is to work with them, teaching them and learning alongside them, so that Blue Gamma understands thoroughly the product they're taking to market, and future customers can be supported:
... this is not what she envisioned for herself when she went to college, and for a moment she wonders how it has come to this. As a girl she dreamed of following Fossey and Goodall to Africa; by the time she got out of grad school, there were so few apes her best option was to work in a zoo; now she's looking at a job as a trainer of virtual pets. In her career trajectory you can see  the diminution of the natural world, writ large.
Blue Gamma does well for a time, and establishes a steady business model (a razors & blades model: the purchase of the digient isn't the big outlay, it's through the regular purchase of food treats where the company make their money). Customers are entranced, and user forums spring up with owners comparing notes and sorting issues. But after a couple of years, people start to lose interest. The pets become too demanding, or other life matters take over. Accounts (and digients) are suspended, or digients are dropped off at "shelters" for re-adoption. Competitors spring up. Eventually, Blue Gamma winds up:
Many of the other employees have been through company collapses before, so while they're unhappy, for them this is just another episode of life in the software industry. For Ana, however, Blue Gamma's folding reminds her of the closure of the zoo, which was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of her life. Her eyes still tear up when she thinks about the last time she saw her apes, wishing she could explain to them why they wouldn't see her again, hoping they could adapt to their new homes. When she decided to retrain for the software industry, she was glad he'd never have to face another such farewell in her new line of work. Now here she is, against all expectation, confronted with a strangely reminiscent situation.
However, Blue Gamma makes an offer: the dozen "mascots" (first-generation digients) are available for the outgoing employees to take with them, and both Ana and Derek take up this offer.

The rest of the story plays out as an examination of both what it takes to keep aging software alive, and what it takes to keep relationships alive: the answer seems to be constant maintenance. While The Lifecycle of Software Objects is ostensibly about the parameters of the rights of AI entities (and is the most interesting examination of that question I've encountered) its also a very, very good story about software products and companies: how they work, how they fail, how users are left behind.

Chiang feels like a tech optimist, or maybe a humanist. The stories in Exhalation examine some of the long-standing tropes of "technology" and the human mind: the possibility of time travel and our  ability to influence our past or future; the relationship between intrinsic human memory and technological aids that let us externalise memories; the Sliding Doors paradox of what it would be like to see the branching multiverses that roll out from our life decisions. Some are duds, IMHO (the steampunk story, the parrot story). One - Omphalos, the story of a women's faith being fundamentally challenged - is surprisingly tender and affirming. 

Overall, I leave Exhalation wanting to move back into the world of action, not contemplation. Reading this book in one sitting is probably not advisable. If you pick it up, I suggest you spool it out, take your time, mix it up with other things, and let Chiang work his skills on you more slowly and perhaps more effectively than I did.

Thursday 29 December 2022

Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth

In the myriadic year of our lord — the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! — Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.

As a fast but often forgetful reader ('Read a lot, forget most of what you read', as Montaigne said*) a good fantasy series can quite easily earn a place on my bookshelves. Over the past 20 years I've amassed a core collection that I return to regularly to sink back into the world-building, reacquaint myself with the characters and appreciate the plot-twists anew: Megan Whalen-Turner's The Queen's Thief series, N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance and Broken Earth trilogies, Melina Marchetta's The Lumatere Chronicles, Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, Lev Grossman's The Magicians, Paulo Bacigalupi's Shipbreaker trilogy, Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Strange the Dreamer books, Maggie Stievater's myriad series (though her best book is undoubtedly the stand-alone The Scorpio Races). 

Gideon the Ninth - the first in Tamsyn Muir's Locked Tomb trilogy - wasn't on my official summer book stack*. I'd actually been picking the book up & putting it down for a while - it was Charles Stross's blurb on the cover that put me off: 'Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!'. Not the lesbian bit, not the necromancy bit, and not that gothic palace bit - the in space! bit. My husband dislikes "fantasy" because wave-your-hands-around-magic can constitute a plot solution: I dislike "science-fiction" because I find generally find the science tedious, anything with robots and AI generally boring and space opera specifically is one of my least favourite genres (see also Star Wars and Star Trek).

However. I kept seeing Gideon the Ninth popping up in people's recommendations and then Muir took out a couple of places on the Unity Book's sci-fi & fantasy best-sellers for 2022. I asked Twitter what I should do, and Twitter said buy it (which is, basically, why I am still on Twitter). And while the book is not perfect it's still a hell of a lot of fun. 

The book opens with a ornate cast of characters, divided into the Nine Houses of the Emperor: it reminded me of Alexandra Bracken's Lore which I read last year, which also opens with nine houses, based on Greek mythology. We are dropped straight into the story and the narrative  point of view of the lead character, as 18-year-old Gideon Nav embarks upon her latest attempt to escape her position as an indentured servant of the Ninth House and leave the planet to sign up for the Emperor's troops. We get a bit of context via her interactions with two retainers of the House, and then in glides the teenage heir to the House, "wearing black and sneering":

Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus had pretty much cornered the market on wearing black and sneering. It comprised 100 percent of her personality. Gideon marvelled that someone could live in the universe only seventeen years and yet wear black and sneer with such ancient self-assurance.

To describe the plot is to give the book away, so I won't do that. Three things I did notice though.

One is the number of genre tropes Muir pulls upon, and weaves together successfully. There is the central adversarial co-dependent relationship that provides much grist for colourful jibes, familiar from a legion of teenage rom-coms. There's a solid training montage with a grizzled and grudgingly respectful older mentor. There's a group of disparate characters thrown together in a mysterious environment and a subsequent contest of arms and wits, with the accompanying alliances, betrayals and crushes. There's a murder mystery, of the isolated country house full of guests/suspects variety. And there's a series of reveals at the end which are both satisfying and affecting (even if the horror / fight scenes surrounding them go on a bit - they'd translate well to screen but feel almost as if written for that). 

The second is that while it's kind of set in space, that's also not really a factor, and while there are zombies, they're not really presented as such. Two things of great relief to me.

The third is how often I thought of Taika Waititi's screenwriting tone while reading the book. Muir is also a New Zealander, and there are throw-away phrases (douche-bag, old as balls) that feel very New Zealand to me. There's a dead-pan tone throughout that could be described as sass, but to me feels more like the self-deprecating Kiwi humour we like to see in our cultural products:

As they pulled themselves into the shuttle, the door mechanism sliding down with a pleasingly final whunk, she leaned into Harrow: Harrow, who was dabbing her eyes with enormous gravity. The necromancer flinched outright.

"Do you want," Gideon whispered huskily, "my hanky."

"I want to watch you die"

Muir does a good job of showing rather than telling: the different kinds of necromancy, for example, are demonstrated through action rather than through loads of exposition. If you need to understand the backstory in order to enjoy the action, this probably isn't the book for you - having read all 475 pages, I still don't know exactly how the Houses emerged or what's really going on in the Emperor's affairs that he needs armies and champion for. And sometimes the story-telling is a bit too clever. Because of the show-don't-tell approach we meet the characters through their interactions with Gideon rather than in an orderly way (there's no run-down of the pairs from each House, in the style of, for example, The Hunger Games). Characters are often referred to by appearance rather than name (the terrible teens, the mayonnaise uncle) and even half-way through the book I was still repeatedly getting lost trying to reference them back to their correct Houses. In some ways this was appealing (contrast it to the pages and pages of heraldry in G.R.R. Martin, say) but it also got in the way of the reading a bit.

Having said this, I'm sufficiently intrigued to move on to the second book, and be glad I invested my summer time here.

*The quote ends "and be slow-witted" and I'm not so keen on that bit, unless you frame it as a kind of slowly percolating thought, in which case ka pai.

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes

"It's to do with happiness. It means hard work."

I came back to Ballet Shoes yesterday after listening to the Christmas episode of the Backlisted podcast. I went into the podcast worrying that a feature of my childhood was about to be ripped apart - I came out of it curious about the author, and wanting to go back into that world.

Streatfeild trained at RADA as an actor after working in munitions factories and army canteens in First World War. After the death of her father she decided to become a novelist - in an interview played on the podcast she says she made the switch because she needed a more secure career option, then scoffs at her own naivety. She began writing for adults, and then in 1931 for children. Her publisher asked her to write a children's book, capitalising on the craze at the time for ballet. "The story poured off my pen, more or less telling itself ... I distrusted what came easily and so despised the book," Streatfeild later recalled: published in 1936, Ballet Shoes has never been out of print and has sold millions upon millions of copies. Streatfeild must have felt both gratified and trapped by its success: it led to a litany of follow-up books - Theater Shoes, Skating Shoes, Party Shoes ...* 

I inhaled Ballet Shoes, and many other Streatfeild titles, as a child; while I recall the beat-up Puffin editions with their 1970s orange-yellow-green covers, I cannot remember how I came upon them - the library, hand-me-downs or acquisitions from the secondhand book store in New Plymouth. Her books were wholesome, the language sparkled, the tone was often appealingly knowing, the child characters had flaws that were treated as natural and normal, but still to be reined in. But I think the thing that appealed to me most (as with so many great books aimed at pre-teen readers) was that Streatfeild showed the tough realities of her child characters' lives, but also gave them the tools and abilities to pull through them and create their own destinies.

For the uninitiated: Ballet Shoes is the story of the three Fossil sisters, set in London between the wars. The three girls - Pauline (pink and white and platinum-blonde), Petrova (dark-haired and sallow) and Posy (the red-head) - have been "collected" by Great-Uncle Matthew (known as 'Gum'). A 'legendary figure' to the girls, he had been a 'very important person' collecting outstanding fossil specimens around the world. Having collected them, he needed somewhere to put them, and hence secured a large six-storyed house on London's Brompton Road:
Naturally, a house like that needed somebody to look after it, and he found just the right person. Gum had one nephew, who died leaving a widow and a little girl. What was more suitable than to invite the widow and her child Sylvia, and Nana her nurse, to live in the house and take care of it for him? Ten years later the widowed niece died, but by then his great-niece Sylvia was sixteen, so she, helped by Nana, took her mother's place and saw that the house and the fossils were all right.**
Gum then loses a leg in spectacular fashion: undismayed, he and his new wooden leg give up fossil expeditions in favour of exploration by sea. One night, the ship he is travelling on is struck by an iceberg and sinks (this is 1936, remember, the Titanic sunk in 1912)***:
... all the passengers had to take to boats. In the night one of the boats filled with water and the passengers were thrown into the sea. Gum's boat went to the rescue, but by the time it got there everyone had drowned except a baby who was lying cooing happily on a lifebelt.
Gum takes charge of the baby, and when she cannot be traced to anyone on board, returns with her to London, 'fusses and fumes' as the adoption papers are made out,  presents her to Sylvia, then promptly fucks off on another journey. This time he winds up in hospital next to a Russian, "a shabby, depressed fellow who yet somehow conveyed he hadn't always been shabby and depressed, but had once worn gay uniforms and had swung laughing through the snow in his jingling sleigh amidst rows of bowing peasants." The Russian and his wife fled during the revolution; they 'tried to train themselves to earn a living' but failed; the wife died, then the husband dies, and their little girl gets scooped up from the children's ward and taken back home to Sylvia.

"The last baby Gum did not deliver himself". She turns up in a basket, with a letter and a pair of ballet shoes: 
... yet another Fossil to add to my nursery. The father has just died, and the poor mother has no time for babies, so I said I would have her. ... I regret not to bring the child myself, but today I ran into a friend with a yacht who is visiting some strange islands. I am joining him, and expect to be away for some years. I have arranged for the bank to see after money for you for the next five years, but before then I shall be home.
Thus, Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil ("P.S. Her name is Posy. Unfortunate, but true."). To begin with, the girls had "a very ordinary nursery life". There are few toys, because they have no relations to give them any, and clothes are handed down (clothes are a SIGNIFICANT feature of Ballet Shoes), but the two older girls are sent off to a nice school and all is well. But then Gum shows no sign of returning, the girls are pulled out of school, and Sylvia resorts to taking in boarders to help pay the bills.**** The boarders are all lovely, however, and effectively form a team to assist Sylvia in the children's upbringing. Two retired lady doctors, used to coaching children for exams, take over the older girls' education (with Dr Jakes introducing Pauline to the beauties of speaking blank verse). Mr and Mrs Simpson arrive with their Citroen, much to the delight of car-mad Petrova. And Theo James is a dancing instructor at Madame Fidolia's famed stage and dancing academy, and it is her idea to have the three girls taken on as fee-free students, on the basis that when they are twelve they can get their stage licences and start performing, paying back a fee to the Academy and supporting the household.

None of this is a secret from the children. They are full participants. They create a vow - to make something of themselves, to put the Fossil name into the history books (as self-made sisters, 'nobody can say it's because of their grandfather') and to make the money to alleviate Sylvia's concerns. 

And from there we launch into the story, of the household's continuously precarious financial position, and the children' training and entry into working life. There are pages and pages of financial calculations (how to scrounge together the money to make the audition dresses, in order to get the parts, in order to pay back the borrowed money). There are pages and pages of clothes - the lovingly detailed list of required items for the Academy, the "whipped frills" of organdy frocks, the shame of aged velvet and straining seams. And there are pages and pages of stagecraft - while commissioned to write a book about ballet, it is her own background Streatfeild evidently draws upon:
Pauline would be fourteen in December, and not only had the sense to see how much she was able to pick up from watching other people, but she had sufficient technique to follow the producer's reasoning. She understood 'timing', she was still apt to time wrong herself, but she was learning to hear when somebody else timed a line wrong. She was beginning, too, to grasp the meaning of 'pace' The producer of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' was a great believer in 'pace', especially for Shakespeare. Pauline, listening to the rehearsals, could feel the pace of the production and going home on the tube she and Doctor Jakes would have discussions about it - how this actor was slow, and that one had good 'pace'.
So, Pauline is beautiful, and a natural actress; Posy is a great mimic, and born to be a dancer; Petrova is "technically proficient" but hates the whole thing - however, she sticks at it, because that's what the sisters do. Petrova was always my favourite, as the odd one out - she is the Jo of this set of sisters. Petrova's saving comes in the form of one of only two real male characters in the book. Gum is the catalyst but he creates the action by disappearing. Mr Simpson, the garage owner / boarder, exists to keep Petrova's hopes up by enabling her to explore the world of mechanics and engines that she is drawn to. Mr Simpson is an intelligent, kindly, noticing sort of man, engaging in the Fossil's world of frills and nervous anxiety without demeaning it. There is one beautiful passing observation about his and Petrova's friendship that summarises Streatfeild's knack for describing the kind of adults that kids want to be around:
'Hullo, Petrova!' he would call up the stairs sometimes on Sunday afternoons, 'having a bit of trouble with the car. Come and give me a hand.'
The most gorgeous afternoons followed; he was not the sort of man who did everything himself and expected you to watch, but took turns fairly, passing over the spanner, saying 'Here, you take those nuts off'.
It all works out well in the end, because - and this is one of the great lessons of Ballet Shoes - hard work and a good attitude almost always pay off. After the glorious detail and many moments of honesty in the book, one is somewhat jolted by how quickly it is wrapped up in the closing pages. 

I went into the book with trepidation - it's hard going back to the classics and measuring them up against today. Aside from Gum's "what's the point of keeping a pack of women about the house if they're never there when you want them" (a statement that bookends the novel and which I think on re-reading might be Streatfeild being mocking about self-important men?), the thing that knocks you back about the book is the focus on appearances. Prettiness is both desirable, and unfairly distributed, and this is personified in the character of Winifred, a peer (and thus competitor) with Pauline:
There was one other child waiting, who had her mother with her. Her name was Winifred, and she was very clever. She was the child who would have played Mytyl if she had not had measles. She had acted really well, she was a brilliant dancer, she had an unusually good singing voice, but she was not pretty. She had a clever, interesting face, and long, but rather colourless, brown hair. She was wearing an ugly brown velvet frock; not a good choice of colour, as it made her look the same all over. 
... All the time Winifred was talking people who walked by called out, 'Good luck Winifred, good luck Pauline'. Pauline could see from the way that they looked at her that they thought she looked nice, and from the way they looked at Winifred, that they thought she did not. She wished that she had some money and could buy Winifred a new frock; she was so nice and she looked so all-wrong.
You have to wonder what the character of Winifred is there to do in the book, if not simply to teach the Fossil sisters some relativity. At 12, Winifred is the oldest of 6, her father is an invalid, and her mother needs her to get work to support the family. Pauline reflects "Of course she needed the money too, but somehow, although there was not any for new clothes, and the food was getting plainer and plainer, nobody had ever said what a help it would be when she could earn some, and certainly she had never been as worried about it as Winifred." But Pauline beats Winifred for the role of Alice, and then Petrova beats her for a role because Winifred is late to an audition, and Winifred exits the story without any relief beyond a nice cup of tea in their nursery. The lesson I took out of this as  child was that smart, plain, hardworking girls have to work that much harder - and perhaps that's just what Streatfeild intended. Her short biography at the front of the book, written for the child audience, includes the phrase "Noel was born in Sussex in 1895 and was one of three sisters. Although Noel was considered the plain one, she ended up leading the most glamorous and exciting life!"

The other thing that struck me on this re-read was that Streatfeild gives her child readers considerable insight into adult lives. Mr and Mrs Simpson cannot return to Kuala Lumpur because the markets have slumped and their rubber-tree plantations have been outstripped by other means of producing rubber.  Nana often speaks crossly, but it is because she cannot see solutions to the pressing problems that confront them. Sylvia is worried and thin and explains to the children that she feels guilty and embarrassed to be taking money from them, but can't see an alternative. One passage particularly stood out, for teaching me to see layers of emotion when I was young:
Nana never could remember that though she had been Sylvia's nurse, her child was now a grown-up woman, and the sound of the sort of crack in the voice people get when they are miserable brought all her nurse instincts to the top.
And the final thing I learned about myself in this re-read was how much Streatfeild's writing conditioned me. I used words like "amidst" in my primary school journals because of her; I knew what a 'game leg' was, had the phrase 'Satan finds tasks for idle hands' stuck in my head forever, knew way too many names for different fabrics because of her. And I retain a deep fondness, a kind of comfort, for 1930s writers because, I think, I grew up on this diet. Streafeild was my entry drug for Mitford, Waugh and Taylor and for that - as well as some of the dubious life lessons - I will always be grateful.

*I quite vividly remember Skating Shoes, better known as White Boots, because of the morbidness of the plotline: the story revolves around two girls, Harriet and Lalla, one rich, one poor, who meet at the ice-rink. Harriet has been set to skating to build up her strength (building up one's strength and putting on weight are two strong Streatfeild themes) whereas Lalla is training because both her parents died in a skating accident and her Aunt Claudia has decided therefore she too should become a world-renowned figure-skater. WTF.

**This paragraph comes on the second page of the book, in the romping set-up to the story. Reading that Sylvia took over domestic responsibilities at the age of 16, after the death of her remaining parent, sat me back as an adult. It is a lot like my experience reading I Capture the Castle repeatedly over the past 25 years, where in my 30s the character of Topaz, the young stepmother, came into focus after years of ignoring her in favour of teenage Cassandra.

***When I was at primary school in the 1980s we regularly sung a song about the Titanic in assemblies: the chorus went "It was sad (it was sad) / Mighty sad (mighty sad) / It was sad when that great ship went down ( the bottom of the ocean). / Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives, it was sad when that great ship went down". It is so weird how these nuggets of culture get passed down from generation to generation. 

****As noted in the podcast, Ballet Shoes has tinges of the boarding house novels of the 1930s; people thrown together in reduced circumstances and their lives subsequently intertwining. Effectively, Ballet Shoes is the story of a household of women abandoned by the male figure who was meant to provide for them, having to make their own way in the world - for pre-teen girl readers.

Monday 26 December 2022

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, by Katherine Rundell

"It's traditional", writes Katherine Rundell at the outset of her biography of English Renaissance writer John Donne, "to imagine two Donnes - Jack Donne, the youthful rake, and Dr Donne, the older, wiser priest, a split Donne himself imagined in a letter to a friend". In Super-Infinite, Rundell describes a man "infinitely more various and unpredictable", who "reimagined and reinvented himself, over and over: he was a poet, lover, essayist, lawyer, pirate, recusant, preacher, satirist, politician, courtier, chaplain to the King, dean of the finest cathedral in London". She introduces a writer "whose work, if allowed under your skin, can offer joy so violent it kicks the metal out of your knees, and sorrow large enough to eat you". And she sets herself a high task: "This is both a biography of Donne and an act of evangelism."

I came to  Rundell's life of John Donne straight off my memorial re-read of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy, finishing The Mirror and the Light (which I still find  grueling and upsetting, despite the fact the ending can come as no surprise, not only because it is well known that Cromwell is dead, but because I've read the book three times now). Within one page of Super-Infinite the two timelines unite. Sir Thomas More, Cromwell's great antagonist during his rise to power and his ghost as Mantel tracks his downfall, is Donne's maternal great-great uncle: Donne's life is shaped by his family's adherence to the Catholic faith and subsequent loss of fortune and precarious present. 

The transition from  Cromwell's Henrican era to Donne's Elizabethan period was very smooth, with the residual tastes and smells and textures of Mantel's writing fleshing out Rundell's book, which does not linger on world-building detail. Donne left behind no diaries, no household account books, no treasure trove of poetry drafts: his poetry was written for a limited audience, and little was published during his lifetime. Letters he wrote remain, collected and published posthumously by his son (who removed dates and changed names to burnish his father's reputation, attempting to make his social circle seem higher than it was and thus epically frustrating later researchers), but the letters he received he would burn after the writer's death ("a letter was, for him, akin to an extension of a living person, and should not exist without its parent"). Some of his surviving work Rundell admits to being unreadable even for his greatest fans - one religious treatise Rundell describes as "so dense it would be swifter to eat it than to read it". There is a sizable body of sermons, again largely published after his lifetime. During an extreme illness Donne smashed out and hurriedly published a collection of  23 essays on the human condition, part of the fashion for deathbed meditations - he lived another eight years. 

About 200 poems are today attributed to Donne. Again, very few were published during his lifetime, or even remain in his own handwriting. They have been pieced together from collections and manuscripts, painstakingly compared line by line, word by word, for variations. Few can be accurately dated, so close cross-referencing between his poems and his life events can be tricky; one tends more to illuminate the other than to pinpoint. Donne's poems were written to celebrate marriages and mourn deaths; there are "satires, religious verses, and about forty verse letters, a tradition he loved: poems of anything from twelve to 130 lines, carrying news, musings on virtue and God, and declarations of how richly he treasures the friends to whom he is writing."

And then there are the love poems and erotic verses - the ones many English readers have come across one way or another - even without the scaffolding of an education in literary history. "To call anyone the best of anything is a brittle kind of game", writes Rundell, "but if you wanted to play it, Donne was the greatest writer of desire in t he English language. He wrote about sex in a way nobody ever has, before or since: he wrote sex as the great insistence on life, the salute, the bodily semaphore for the human living infinite. The word most used across his poetry, apart from 'and' and 'the', is 'love'."

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved?Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee. 

 And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one. 

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die. 

The Good Morrow

Good poetry and bad poetry are matters frequently debated in Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy. The courtier poet Thomas Wyatt plays a significant role in Cromwell's life and times, and the books illustrate the power poetry held at court and in political life. Wyatt's poems eddy around the court, passed swiftly from hand to hand, copied into commonplace books; verses that say sotto voce that which cannot be explicitly pronounced. Wyatt's lyrical powers are contrasted to those of "Tom Truth", the nom de plume of Lord Thomas Howard, whom Cromwell exposes in his illicit marriage to the King's niece Margaret Douglas through the revelations of his execrable love poems. Poems can be a matter of life and death - Howard died while imprisoned in the Tower of London, but at least was not beheaded or hung drawn and quartered; a very real threat in the machinations surrounding the crown. I remember the first time I walked through London's National Portrait Gallery, and the astonishing portraits of this era: men with their finely-turned stockinged legs and lustrous pearls, men executed at the age of 26 or 32 or 45 because they threw the wrong dice in the game of courtly life.

In an era when the stakes were so high and the politics so personal, writing was used to gain favour or redress fortunes. Donne had to dig himself out of one colossal hole earlier in his life, when he secretly married Anne More without the knowledge of her father Sir George More. Love matches were verboten: marriages were social and financial contracts and Donne had broken this violently. He wound up jobless and in prison and had to dig himself (and his young wife) out through a combination of groveling letters and an ecclesiastical court case. Later in life Donne undertook one of his most important transformations - a turn towards the Anglican church, not only personal but also professional, and for this he had to earn the King's trust and lay to rest both his Catholic origins and the lingering gossipy recklessness of his marriage. In a chapter titled "The Flatterer" Rundell lays out how Donne worked his way towards the security of a well-paid religious position, a route that was "byzantine, labyrinthine, often unpredictable", one that required talent, luck, strategy, and above all contacts. Ritual flattery, through letters and dedications, was oil that greased the social wheels, and Donne could be outrageously oily - although as Rundell points out, he blandished his compliments both upon those in positions to enable his rise, and recipients without any power whatsoever, suggesting he simply enjoyed making language work in this way.

The greatest courtship was that of the King. Donne's Pseudo-Martyr ("swifter to eat than to read") was dedicated to King James and distanced Donne far from the Catholic rebels who had recently attempted the  Gunpowder Plot, by arguing in favour of James's newly instituted Oath of Allegiance. Donne's book is dedicated to the King, a text of "white-hot ingratiation" but, writes Rundell, this was not "purposeless fawning"; rather, "it was a way Donne could signal unambiguously his allegiance to James's religious policies, and flag his devotion to serving the King." James loved the book, and had Donne made an honorary MA at Oxford. Donne's next book, Ignatius his Conclave, came hard on the heels of Pseudo-Martyr, and directly tackles political flattery. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) is in hell and in conversation with the devil, whom he quickly proceeds to abase himself before, larding him with compliments. 

Donne runs this parable two ways: 

whomsoever flatters any man, and presents him those praises which in his own opinion are not due to him, thinks him inferior to himself and makes account that he he hath taken him prisoner, and triumphs over him

but also, the flatterer

(at the best) instructs. For there may be, even in flattery, an honest kind of teaching, if Princes, by being told that they are already endued with all virtues necessary for their functions, be thereby taught what those virtues are, and by facile exhortation excited to endeavour to gain them.

This statement tingled in my mind, and the bell it rang was Cromwell's Book of Henry, the guide Mantel has him writing for the instruction of his favoured young employees, of how to move and influence in the dangerous radius of the King. Flattering those attributes you wish your prince to exercise is, if I remember correctly, a tactic Cromwell learns from his beloved patron Cardinal Wolsey in the books: when you hold a mirror of words up to the King, you show him a picture of his grace, his mercy and his temperateness as well as of his strength and god-given right to power. And hopefully you will hold on to your head for another day. 

The other book that Super-Infinite made me think of is Sarah Bakewell's How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts At An AnswerBoth books, I think, are brilliant: both are literary biographies of Renaissance men, and bring a twist to their structuring. Bakewell organises her book roughly chronologically, but uses the themes of Montaigne's essays as the jumping off point for each chapter (Question everything, Guard your humanity); Rundell hews closer to the chronological path, using the stages or transformations of Donne's life - The Hungry Scholar, The Anticlimatically Married Man, The Suicidal Man - as her organising principle. The scope of Bakewell's book is  wider, and she spends  more time on the philosophy and writing that influenced Montaigne, and how in turn he has been interpreted throughout history: Rundell's in contrast is focused and moves at a quick clip, but with sufficient diversions to not make you feel rushed as a reader. While not given to extraneous detail, Rundell's scholarship occasionally colours in the narrative in delightful ways:

The physical world was made up of symbolic meaning, and could, through relentless attention, be decoded. Your own body, stretched out in the water, could become a reminder of the crucifixion. He wrote:

Who can deny me the power and liberty 

To stretch mine arms, and mine own cross to be?

Swim, and at every stroke, thou art thy cross 

(It's hard to picture exactly what stroke he's doing here, to mimic the cross. The first English treatise on swimming, in 1587 by Everard Digby, describes something akin to breaststroke with intervals of doggy-paddle: presumably not that.)

Donne, like Shakespeare, is known for inventing or embellishing words ("I knew that to have given any intimation of it [his wooing of Anne More], had been to impossibilitate the whole matter", he wrote to his unwilling father-in-law; "I have cribrated [sifted / reviewed], and re-cribrated, and post-recribrated the sermon" he wrote in a panic to a friend after the new King Charles took amiss at something in the first sermon Donne delivered to him). In Super-Infinite Rundell likewise jinks with language: "A grim truth", she observes of one of Donne's own observations about the nearness with which we live with death at all times, "and one which makes our modern attempts to avoid the topic of death look malarially unhinged"; the useful little prefix "un" gets coupled to unusual words - "uncharming", "unshining". While I've not read any of Rundell's writing for children I wonder if those books too share this playful use of language; I can remember as a child myself relishing  the ways bits of words can click together and transform each others' meanings, the plasticity of English that makes it both infuriating and delightful. One small quibble - as wonderful a word as "waspishly" is, I think it is such a strong spice that it can only really be used once in a book.

My one true regret with this book however is that it felt about 25% too short. Rundell doesn't hustle us through the story, and her scholarly asides (about fashions for moustaches, or the appalling conditions of a besieged Spanish city) add texture as well as enhancing our understanding of the many layers of Donne's writing. It's not necessarily even Donne who I want to spend more time with - it's Rundell's own company, her thoughts and observations that I want more of. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Summer reading list

I was going to say, it's that time of the year that I start getting excited about my summer reading pile. But that's a lie - I start getting excited in about September, stockpiling books I want to enjoy over the break, each addition a promise to myself for relaxation and world exploration.

Will I read all these? No. Will I pick up old books from my shelf and re-read those instead? Inevitably. Do I feel buoyed every time I look at this promise to the future though? Most definitely.

Before you start - I have to recommend Rachael King's write-up of her year in reading - a complete joy 

Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust (abandoned) and The Faraway Nearby. I enjoyed Orwell's Roses very much this year, and (shallow reasoning, but still) these new books are from the same design family (though slightly squatter). Solnit is one of the few people who I don't know IRL that I follow on Twitter, for her trenchant and roundly-considered views.

Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble's The Raven's Song. The only YA, which is unusual for me. Bought on the basis of Rachael King's review. Read and reviewed.

Claire Keegan's Small Things Like These. An impulse buy, one I kept picking up & putting down at my local, Good Books, and finally walked out the door with. I've not read anything by Keegan before. Read.

Ted Chiang's Exhalation. I really enjoyed Chiang's previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others and am looking forward to sinking into his imagination again. Read and reviewed.

Elizabeth Strout's Oh William!. I read my first Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton, this year, and I am fascinated by (but not yet sure if I enjoy) her chilly voice. Read and reviewed.

Maggie Shipstead's Great Circle. I think I was feeling blue a few months ago and got a dopamine hit by ordering a bunch of Booker-nominated novels I hadn't yet read. This was one of them. Read.

Catherine Chidgey's The Axeman's Carnival. One of two books that everyone has been talking about this year. Read and reviewed.

Coco Solid's How to Loiter in a Turf War. The other book everyone has been talking about this year. Read.

Paul Diamond's Downfall: The destruction of Charles Mackay. I adore Paul and I'm excited to read his take on this (in)famous story. Check out his interviews about the book with Andre Chumko and with Kim Hill. Read.

Julian Aguon's No Country for Eight-Spotted Butterflies. I started by noticing Alice Te Punga Somerville retweeting Aguon and then read his essay, On Guam there is no birdsong, you cannot imagine the trauma of a silent island. Layering this on top of Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, which I finally read this year. Read.

Kate Atkinson's Shrines of Gaiety. I read every Atkinson that comes out. Reliably good holiday company. Read.

N.K. Jemisin's The World We Make. I've gotta say the prequel to this book, The City We Became, was my least favourite Jemisin to date, but I'm such a stan, I'll buy every one. Read.

Orhan Pamuk's Nights of Plague. I've never read Pamuk but I wanted a thick historical fiction addition to the stack, so there you go.

Rachel Buchanan's Te Motunui Epa. I loved Buchanan's Ko Taranaki Te Maunga and as with Paul Diamond, I'm excited for her style of telling this tale

Plus one for luck

Again via Rachael King (with Claire Mabey, my two chief reading inspirations) the BBC have adapted Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising as an audio drama and I might give that a whirl.

Unscheduled reading

There's always going to be some.

Katherine Rundell's Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne. Added to the reading stack late because literary Twitter was so positive about this book. Reviewed here.

Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes. Read after listening to the Backlisted Christmas episode about this book. Reviewed here.

Tamsyn Muir's Gideon the Ninth, added after realising I needed some levity in the stack. Reviewed here. And then Harrow the Ninth.

Sarah Moss's Ghost Wall, after reading The Raven's Song - couldn't resist the bog-sacrifice connection.

Alan Garner's Treacle Walker - continuing that bog people theme. Reviewed here.

Sunday 4 December 2022

Want to try me on as a mentor in 2023?

One of the absolute best things I did in 2020, in the height of  the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic in Aotearoa, was open up an opportunity for people to try me on as a mentor.

I took on three people; one was a so-so relationship for both of us, I think; two were just fantastic, and I got to be part of the working lives of two women who I massively admire and from whom I learned so much.

I'm now just about 3 years deep in my current role and have found my footing (knock on wood). So I think I have the capacity in 2023 to work with 2, maybe 3 new people. 

How this works

I'm going to take the same approach as I did last time. Further down this post is a link to a short form for people who are interested in this opportunity to fill out. From those applications (last time I got nearly 60, which just blew me away) I'll pick about 4-5 people to have an initial meeting with (in-person or online). This is a chance to get to know each other a bit, and see if we fit at this point in each of our working lives. Afterwards, we'll decide together whether there's value in continuing to meet longer term. I'm envisioning mentoring relationships that last between 1 and 2 years.

Who I work best for

The areas where I know I can offer the most value are:
  • Transitioning into a leadership role
  • Adjusting to people management roles (either when you're new, or working through something like a looming restructure / change of leadership)
  • Adjusting to working with a board
  • Taking care of yourself as a leader / people manager
  • Working with a board 
The public cultural sector is my home base and site of most experience, and I know I'm of most service to  people who are in that zone. I will be upfront and say I respond best to optimistic, proactive people who are looking to grow. I know from past experience that I'm not good for people who are feeling lost or dismayed in their careers. That kind of career period needs something more like career coaching, and that's not my skillset. 

How to apply

If you're interested, please fill out the short form below by 22 January 2022. I'll review applications (please let there be applications this time!!) over the summer break, write back to everyone at the end of January, and set up those initial meetings for the start of February (depending on people's availability).

Expression of interest form

In the spirit of disclosure, one of the things a fantastic mentor once advised me to do to take care of myself  was to carve out time at work to do things I find restorative and joyful. As an endlessly curious person, immersing myself in people's professional lives and ambitions is one of my happiest things. So, if this is an opportunity you're interested in, know you're doing me a favour by pursuing it.

An extra, please read with care

When I was 32, I was widowed when my husband committed suicide. That was a long time ago, and it feels like another lifetime - or even someone else's life. While I won't give advice to people about mental health, what I will always make time for is supporting people who are grieving and returning to work, or whose job is to manage a person who's going through this. I can't provide professional support but I can share my experience, what I found I needed, what surprised me. Please don't use that form to approach me for this - but do reach out if you need to, I'm pretty easy to find.

About me

Oh, also! If you don't know who I am: I'm Courtney Johnston, Tumu Whakarae | Chief Executive of Te Papa. You can read a bit about my background & experience in this profile by Nikki Macdonald (from when I was appointed in 2019) or this 2022 interview with Duncan Greive on his epic podcast, The Fold.