Sunday, January 31, 2010


I am in thrall to The Cloudspotter's Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney - he has opened my eyes to crepuscular light and cloud streets and cumulus congestus. To noctilucent and lenticularis and mammatus. The clouds in the sky are as eye-catching as they always have been, but they have been elevated in my mind by the words that Pretor-Pinney throws enthusiastically at them.

'Crepuscular' is especially crunchy and satisfying, like eating whole crabs, but 'crepuscular light' itself isn't crunchy or crab-like at all, it's expansive and lucent and uplifting, and is known as 'Jacob's Ladder' to the uninitiated because it verges on the divine.

And on the Cloud Appreciation Society's website (set up by Pretor-Pinney) is another marvellous specimen which is more like the one I saw last night across the harbour. Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera to hand to catch it and send it to Mr Pretor-Pinney to add to his sprawling catalogue of cloud pictures sent in by other cloud appreciators.

Picking 'crepuscular' out of my teeth this morning,  I wondered if it was related to the equally resonant 'crenellated'. I mused on the 'teeth' effect of the light and the castle walls ... but looking it up in the Shorter Oxford, as I eventually had to do, I discovered this:

crepuscular a. M17 [f. next + -AR; cf Fr crepusculaire.] 1 Resembling the twilight of morning or evening; dim, indistinct; not yet fully enlightened. M17.  2 Of or pertaining to twilight. M18.  3 Zool. Appearing or active by evening twlight. E19.
J. L. MOTLEY The state of crepuscular civilization to which they have reached. 

Strange how unsavoury it sounds in the example - the exquisite pillars of light I saw are surely not a cousin of this dim, declining thing. But there you have it: 'crepuscular'. Thanks Gav.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Lilian is the protagonist in my novel, The Blue, and here is a painting of Lilian done by a young friend of mine, Ariana Ponder. Ari - aged 17 - read The Blue for a Year 12 school assignment last year, and had to create a visual response to the book. She is quick to say she's not an artist [she's doing clothing design at Massey University this year], but I am impressed, and touched, by the result.

I like the strength in Lilian's face, and the stoic, slightly shy way she faces you.  There is also a prettiness about her and a sense of Lilian coming from another time. I love the rich blue of the dress and the way the red scarf suggests the more sensuous side of her nature. In my mind, Lilian's hair is darker and messier than this, and Lilian herself is stronger-boned and more weathered by life on isolated Arapawa Island in 1938 - which is not to say my Lilian is the Lilian. The joy of fiction is that it is a private experience and every reader reads a different story.

I also see Lilian's mouth as less sad - but this reading of her relies on an older reader, I think, someone who can see and understand where Lilian's happiness lies within the pact she's made with herself. [I certainly wouldn't have got it when I was 17 - I know that - I'd have read it as a story of loss and grief....] Or am I kidding myself? I'd be interested to know other readers' responses.

The lower section of the painting shows Lilian's youngest child Billy - 'the one she did her best by'. This speaks volumes about her: one hand is closed almost in a fist, and the other rests only lightly on his shoulder. She is both protective of him and not fully engaged. In the same way, Lilian gazes out and gazes inward at the same time. Can you feel the secrets withheld? 
Finally, it strikes me that the whole painting has the formality of a photograph, except that Billy is looking away. This is Lilian. This is the stuff of The Blue.
Brilliant.Thanks Ari.

Postscript: Thanks to artist/writer Fifi Colston for photoshopping the portrait so it's a single picture rather than two scanned parts...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

They also serve who only sit and type

Janet Frame's posthumous novel Towards Another Summer received a review in The NY Times last year [which I have only just happened across] that dealt to what the reviewer calls the 'tedious and condescending debate' about Frame's mental health. The protagonist, Grace Cleave, feels exquisite social discomfort to the point of disability, and much has been made of the fact that publication of the book was delayed until after Frame's death. Many saw this as the author protecting herself, but the NY Times reviewer, David Gates, believes she was trying to protect others, and condemns a rehabilitation physician in 2007 called Sarah Abrahamson who publically diagnosed Frame as high-functioning autistic.

Poets and novelists, who persist in the obsessive-compulsive pursuit of those “interests” of theirs, may seize on that terrifying passage as further evidence that shrinks want to pathologize genius....

Like every writer worth remembering, Frame exploits — or creates on the page, to be absolutely puristic about it — her peculiar sensibility, her private window into the universal.... A writer’s neurochemistry may matter to physicians, biographers and general-­purpose gossips, but it’s not the reader’s business. Frame’s sad, slyly comic fish-out-of-water story needs neither explanation nor excuse, and Grace’s aloneness isn’t a medical condition — it’s a human one.
Which must warm the cockles of the heart of Frame's niece and guardian of her work, Pamela Gordon, who has always said this. Now is the time, surely, to give Frame full recognition for her genius without hissing behind our hands with the next breath in an attempt to diminish that genius. While I haven't hissed exactly, I did murmur something not exactly dismissive of the Abrahamson theory in a Radio NZ review of Towards Another Summer a couple of years back. I regret that now. Discussion of Frame's life belongs firmly elsewhere.

Reading the NY Times review - especially the extracts from Towards Another Summer - makes me want to read the book all over again. The language is as exquisite as the discomfort Cleave feels. Unmatchable.

Full review here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Instead of waiting, there is writing.

The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word writing is the exact opposite of the word waiting. Instead of waiting, there is writing. Well, I’m probably wrong—it’s possible that writing is another form of waiting, of delaying things. I’d like to think otherwise.
Roberto Bolaño, Chilean-born writer ['The Savage Detectives'] in an interview in Bomb Magazine with Carmen Boullosa.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

hums from the hammock

Still humming from the hammock and the lovely summer days that are like giant hammocks in the way that just 'hang' there, cupping me: dappled, loose-limbed, a little sleepy, doing that thing - that single thing - I want right then to do, or doing nothing. That's fine too. I am three-quarters into my children's novel - and writing there in that summer place was exhilarating. But more on that later. With the discordant clutter of 'real life' calling, oh yes I am back and only humming like wires do after the wind's blown through, here's a quick rundown on a couple more of my a lovely  'hammock' reads:

I haven't read much Marquez and am entranced by the cacophonous, energetic, lush world he builds.

This week's Listener [16-22 Jan] has a fantastic feature on NZ music that has given me a list of stuff to listen to next time I'm in Real Groovy. I especially liked the Chris Knox article as I got 'Stroke' for Christmas with its covers by Knox's musician friends to raise money for his recovery from the disabling stroke he suffered last year.  It's a great tribute to this musician who is not dissimilar to Marquez in his magnetic [manic?] blend of energy and lushness and cacophony. There are some felicitous pairings enjoyed from the depths of the hammock : Boh Runga with 'Not Given Lightly', Will Oldham with 'My Only Friend', the Finn family as The Pyjama Party with 'It's Love',  and John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats with 'Brave' are some of them.

Last week's Listener was stacked with summer reading by NZ writers such as Kirsty Gunn on the Wellington zig-zag as a metaphor for a life lived away from the place she grew up, and Lloyd Jones on the detective work he did in Berlin on the trail of a much-loved children's story. The full text for these goes up online at the end of this week. Recommended. The latest Listener [23-29 Jan] has illuminating interviews with crime writers PD James and James Ellroy, and Tina Makareti's  award-winning essay, Twitch, which struck me as having a singular and astonishing voice.  All credit to Arts and Books Editor, Guy Somerset, for all this.

Here's another book, I've enjoyed dipping into and plan to read properly one day. It's given me the wonderful word 'crepuscular', told me how Mantegna snuck people and animals into his clouds, and explained how only stratus comes down to meet you. Good to know, since we've been waking to fog every morning this week.

Hmm, speaking of mornings, must get on.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Somebody loves us all - yes, it's true

It’s hammock time again – under an olive tree with its nest of tiny voracious birds, beside a tree with three miniature red pears, within a click of the petanque pitch. It should be quiet here because for the past few days, after the fever of family that Christmas inspires, there’s only been two of us left standing, or lying as the case may be. And oddly, for us, there are no children.

But it is not quiet at all, my husband is chain-sawing branches from his olive trees. He calls it ‘pruning’ although it seems a lot more drastic than that. He pauses at each tree and mutters to himself about which branch is the right one to cut to let in the light, and touches them one by one before deciding. It’s as if he’s asking the tree to dance with him, to lift its arms from its sides and open its tired winter body to the splendid Wairarapa sun.

How supple time is in this place, in this sun. It stretches beside me like a yawning cat. I am writing every day – my children’s novel, which delights me, and my bereft Precarious when I can – and I am reading whatever my hand falls upon, and can be easily propped open on my chest in a hammock.

King of the hammock so far is the deliciously joyful, perceptive and funny Somebody Loves Us All by Damien Wilkins. This is a tour de force by the Wellington author written while basking in the Menton sun as last year’s Katherine Mansfield fellow. His joy at having time to write and being somewhere else is evident in this book. But like most ‘exiled’ writers, his mind fell back to where he came from and Somebody Loves Us All is set slap bang in apartment-living central Wellington with segues into Lower Hutt and Petone, and a trip through the Desert Road.

It’s about Paddy who’s 50 and a speech therapist with a regular newspaper column and one recalcitrant patient - Sam who refuses, for some reason, to speak. Paddy's also happily married and the proud new owner of a bicycle. Enter his ageing mother, who moves in next door and starts – with no knowledge of the language – speaking French.

As usual, Wilkins skewers the social stuff – the ways people are when they graze and grapple with each other, especially families. He always gets the mix of wonder and disgust, vulnerability and bullying, knowing and surprise, humour and sadness, vanity and self-loathing that characterise our relationships, but in his latest novel there is more wonder and humour, more surprise and vulnerability. This time, Wilkins nails the emotional stuff, and his novel is more expansive and more satisfying as a result. Definitely up at the top of my 'best of' list for the year. 

What I treasure most of all reading Somebody Loves Us All are those laugh-out-loud moments - oh don’t we need those in a book! doesn’t comedy trump tragedy every time? These hover especially around the relationship Paddy has with his old mate, Lant, who is divorced and single and a demon on a bike. Their competitive cycling relationship made me howl – the question of who has the most sophisticated cycling gear and who can make it up the Hataitai hill first without being killed. Fabulous.

And then there's the mother. Her story is on the other end of the scale. Deeply and marvellously moving. The ending a triumph.