Alienation versus destruction

From a photograph looking north toward The Cloisters, taken a month before it opened in May 1938

Timothy B Husband “Creating the Cloisters”:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 70, no. 4 (Spring, 2013)

Published in 2013 to mark the 75th anniversary of The Cloisters in New York, “Creating the Cloisters” documents the origins, development during the 1920s and ’30s and eventual opening of this ‘landmark’ museum, its unveiling taking place the year before war ripped Europe apart for the second time in two decades. The Cloisters is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art “dedicated,” as it proclaims, “to the art, architecture, and gardens of medieval Europe.” Sited at the city’s highest point on the northern tip of Manhattan, the museum overlooks the Hudson River and the Palisades on the opposite bank, and is regarded as a pre-eminent jewel in New York’s crown. But a little over eighty years ago this site was largely a bare rock with a scatter of unrelated buildings.

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Paradox

Rainbow Rowell Kindred Spirits Macmillan 2016

“Kindred Spirits” is a novella the bestselling US author wrote especially for World Book Day 2016 in the UK and Ireland. Its sixty-odd pages tell a sweet story of how teenage Star Wars fan Elena determines to show her independence of mind by joining a queue at her local cinema, in Omaha, for a first showing of Episode VII of the franchise. She has high hopes of being part of a tribe of fellow enthusiasts, sharing the bonhomie and exuberance that she anticipates from her understanding of such occasions. But she is disappointed that, four days before doors open, she is third in a line of only three, and that it remains so for a good many days. With so many things to contend with — her mom’s disapproval, the cold December nights, and anxieties about the call of nature and what she considers her “mid-trovert” temperament (being neither introvert nor extravert) — she fears she won’t last the four days and instead yield to the lure of home comforts.

Her fellow travellers are Troy and Gabe, with whom she has to establish a working relationship where she had instead expected the anonymity of the crowd. Troy is the garrulous confident one while Gabe is taciturn and self-contained. Elena, feeling as a newbie a natural loss of confidence, is concerned that not having seen Episodes 1 to 3 will result as well in loss of face. Everything seems to be militating against her attempt at independence. But the mini-crisis that arrives is not what she expected, nor is the fallout from that what she anticipated.

This is a delightful short story, exactly catching the angst of being a teenager, especially the sense of simultaneously being different while yet wanting to conform and belong. Balancing this paradox is, for Elena, both painful and yet delicious. For readers it must also be satisfying, as they decide whether they too feel kindred spirits with Elena and her new acquaintances — perhaps just like Star Wars fans feel they’re kindred spirits with Leia, Han and Luke.

Castelophiles only

Part of Cardiff Castle, its facade a mix of medieval, Georgian and Victorian Gothic Revival

Gerald Morgan Castles in Wales: A Handbook
Y Lolfa 2008

It’s often claimed that, per square mile, Wales has the largest number of castles in the world.¹ Whether it’s the Welsh bigging themselves up or one of those memes that’s just accepted, it’s certainly true that the country has over 600 examples. As Wales is over 8000 square miles — nearly 20,800 square kilometres — in area,² this means there is a castle for every 13 sq miles (35 sq km) of land. Nowadays that works out at around one castle for every 5000 head of population, whereas in the Middle Ages, when the inhabitants of Wales may have fluctuated between 150K and 300K, each castle was on average meant to overawe between 250 and 500 Welshmen and -women. That’s some comment on the fears of the mostly Norman and Plantagent overlords who built them and on the rightfully bolshie attitudes of the native peoples.

When we imagine castles it’s odds-on we picture something like Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, partly modelled on the 19th-century castle at Neuschwanstein, or perhaps one of the French chateaux of the Loire. The fact is that castles come in all shapes and sizes and with varying degrees of function. Gerald Morgan makes this point very clearly in his introduction to this Welsh castle handbook: while the simplest definition could be ‘a medieval European fortified stronghold’ (thus excluding prehistoric earthworks, Roman camps and Victorian follies and fancies, for example) it can include everything from ringworks and motte-and-bailey structures to fortified manor houses and walled palaces, as well as the great military showpieces that typify the Welsh castle in the popular mind.

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Scattergun execution

alice-liddell_
Alice Liddell in the 1860s

Gregory Maguire After Alice
Headline 2016 (2015)

The title is the absolute epitome of what this novel is: a kaleidoscope of conflicting contradictions. Is it a literal description of us readers following Alice and the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole? Is After Alice instead an acknowledgement that we can’t ever return to the state of innocence that was children’s literature before the world experienced Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Or rather is it a modern retelling based on Alice, a meditation on the themes the classic suggests but rewritten for a 21st-century readership? Perhaps it is all of these things, or even none of them.

In fact, is it about Alice at all? Was the Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland the historical Alice Liddell or merely a literary persona, and are any of these the same as the Alice of Maguire’s novel, whom we discover is actually one Alice Clowd? As Carroll’s Alice remarked, curiouser and curiouser. Lots of questions, then, in search of answers.

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A celebration of true magic

evangelists

This is a repost of a review first published 26th March 2014
and republished here to mark #MarchMagics and #DWJMarch,
a celebration of all things Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett

Diana Wynne Jones The Islands of Chaldea
completed by Ursula Jones
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2014

Fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones would have been 80 this year. Since her death on March 26th 2011 some fans have designated March as Diana Wynne Jones Month — by reading, reviewing and discussing her novels they felt that this would be “a way to turn mourning to celebration on the anniversary of Diana’s death”. The third #dwjmonth (also tagged #dwjmarch) is being observed as I write [March 2014].

This year was extra special: her final novel, completed by her sister Ursula (an author in her own right), was published just in time for a celebration of the woman and her work. As a result of suggesting — rather cheekily, I thought — that I was Diana’s “greatest fan”, I was lucky enough to win one of ten copies offered in a competition by her British publishers. As always with posthumous novels the worry is, will this work be up to her usual standard, or will disappointment cloud the reputation that she painstakingly established for herself?

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Rapier wit

Tongue firmly lodged in cheek:

Zenrinji

crosswordblank

If ever forced to try out swordplay
I’d fail to be a Cyrano.
And as for impro wordplay,
expecting puns? Oh, sirrah, no!

Clash of steel best fitting crossed swords
(whether epées, foils or rapiers),
flash of real wit suiting crosswords
(often met in broadsheet papers):

all would go from bad to worse
(same as when I’m writing verse).
I’m as like to win a duel as
write a gem fit for a jeweller’s.

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Culture clash

Laguna Verde and Mt Licancabur (credit: http://www.paxgaea.com/images/Laguna_Verde_and_Volcano_Licancabur_on_the_border_between_Chile_and_Bolivia.jpg)
Laguna Verde and Mt Licancabur. Credit: http://www.paxgaea.com/images/Laguna_Verde_and_Volcano_Licancabur_on_the_border_between_Chile_and_Bolivia.jpg

Joan Aiken The Stolen Lake
Red Fox 2005 (1981)

It is 1835 and Dido Twite is heading back to England from Nantucket Island on board HMS Thrush. Or so she thinks: she has been at sea for most of the 18 months since she was shipwrecked in the North Sea at the end of 1833, and can’t wait to get back to London and her friend Simon. But things aren’t going to plan. First pirates and a rebel ship have to be dealt with, and then she finds that the naval vessel has been sent two thousand miles down the eastern coast of South America to go to the aid of Britain’s oldest ally. And her real troubles start just as soon as she sets foot in New Cumbria.

New Cumbria? This is not a country known in our world, but it does exist in the alternate world of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken’s highly idiosyncratic series set in a world where Victoria didn’t rule in Britain but where the Stuart king James III did. We have to sweep away all that we thought we knew about the 19th century — and indeed previous history — and accept that we are in a parallel existence where, instead of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, we hear of Biru, Hy Brasil, Lyonesse and New Cumbria.

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