Friday, February 26, 2010

on her spindle - mairead byrne

Happened upon the BEST prose poems by Mairead Byrne - taut, stimulating, visceral. Oh yes that! Where language pants and you pant too, can't breathe and neither can you ...  
... The man, in his dying throes, is pinned by the surrounding crowd. He feels their hot pressure, their hunger for his life. They are winding it out of him on their spindles....
From State Pathologist by Mairead Byrne.  

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The communion of reviewer and reader

I have started reading the latest Rose Tremain to review it for The NZ Listener . It's called Trespass and it's nabbed me in chapter one with evocative language, a compelling character, tension that builds and then screams at you.... But of course, the jury's still out. Terrific beginnings do not a novel make. Nor terrific middles. In my experience of reading novels and manuscripts for review over a decade or so, where most novels fail is the end. They either build to nothing, or fall away rapidly to nothing, or drift like a rudderless boat....

... I doubt Rose Tremain will drift. I have great faith in her. I reviewed her novel, The Colour, for Radio NZ some years back. Set in NZ, after she'd visited here for three weeks for a writers' festival, the novel is an astonishing read about a couple of early settlers attracted to the gold in the rivers. Much was made by some reviewers of the vole that popped up in the protagonist's garden, but it didn't bother me much (we don't have voles in NZ). What was more important to me, was the magic this visiting author had created on my own turf - the marvellous detail that grounded it, the language that allowed it to fly. Here's one image I cannot forget: the settlers' house on the Canterbury Plains with white cotton sheets hung to create rooms.  Billowing cotton rooms. So beautiful but so flimsy, not the stuff of a settled life.

I have developed some of my own rules of reviewing over the years, not least that a reviewer shouldn't approach a book on a personal mission (or a mission from God for that matter) - whether I like it or not is not really the issue. Will readers like it - not all readers (that's impossible) but are there readers who will like this book? Why? And in putting up a hand to review it, is the reviewer likely to be one of those readers? Ideally, yes.

Sometimes on radio, I'll blurt out, 'I loved this book'. But I try not to, I really do.

It's also good practice, I think, to throw in at least one solid quote from the book in any review. This way readers can hear the voice of the writer directly and judge the book for themselves. For radio reviews, I like to try and read aloud an extract, if possible given time constraints. I also believe it's important to research the author and the book - where does it stand in the writer's oeuvre, what is s/he trying to do in this latest outing?

Oh there's more, but it's late, and Melodie's screams are drawing me back to Trespass. One thing occurs to me, though, I realise I am talking here about the reviews and manuscript reports I do for money. My blog reviews are clearly more an act of love with a distant tang of 'personal mission' about them. For a start, I tend only to put up positive reviews on here. Right or wrong? Hmmm, food for thought.

Anyway, here - quoted in the New Yorker - are John Updike's tips on reviewing. It's good to see we are 'on the same page'. Not that it's necessarily the only way to go ... but it seems to me reviewers, in this country anyway, too often swim around in their own fish bowls, catching glimpses of themselves in the glass - and this kind of statement, accept it or reject it, can at least provoke discussion and hopefully improve the job we do.
Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never...try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end. 
[from Updike's “Picked-Up Pieces” 1975)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The First 12 Years are the Worst

Below is the inimitable Anne Enright on her ten rules for writing fiction, courtesy of The Guardian . She and I shared the same hotel at the Auckland Writers and Readers Week. I ran into her at the front door, and we talked a little. She's very spiky and funny on stage and her Booker book The Gathering is spiky and dark on the page. Her descriptive powers are heavenly. So here she is, predictably spiky and honest about writing ... and in the same article you'll also find  Atwood, Gaiman, Ford, Franzen and others.  

Anne Enright's Ten Rules for Writing Fiction
1 The first 12 years are the worst.
2 The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.
3 Only bad writers think that their work is really good.
4 Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.
5 Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn't matter how "real" your story is, or how "made up": what matters is its necessity.
6 Try to be accurate about stuff.
7 Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you ­finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.
8 You can also do all that with whiskey.
9 Have fun.
10 Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not ­counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Just slippery or down-right nasty? The unreliable narrator.

A fantastic article in The Guardian listing fiction's top ten most unreliable. This is something I explored in The Blue leading to a 'twist' when the 'truth' is revealed - I found laying and re-laying the threads through the loom of the novel and then weaving them together until they became a single, hard carpet of story, hugely satisfying. And when I say 'carpet' I mean one of those enormous, richly-coloured Turkish rugs that are rolled out for you beside a dusty roadside in Capadoccia. I especially liked writing from the point of view of someone who appears to be one thing but is in fact another, and I'm exploring this further in my second novel which is still in the works. I like the slipperiness and how language creates that slipperiness - offering up partial truths and lies as a certain type of reality. I like the way this makes readers trust nothing about what is in front of them, and work to get underneath the carpet pile, to find the warp and the weft. None of my characters are as nasty as the slipperiest of characters in Guardian writer and novelist Henry Sutton's Top Ten Most Unreliable, but who knows, maybe one day.... Thanks again to the indefatigable Bookman Beattie for his link to Henry Sutton. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Best Heartfelt

How staggeringly hopeful language is. Driving my son to work in the early morning, through the light industrial area, I spied Best Engineering and Heartfelt Furniture. I've driven past them many times before, but this time, with the sun a pale rose and Best Engineering still shut to the world,  it struck me that without Best and without Heartfelt what would those businesses be? Don't those words reach out to grasp your elbow, don't they look you wetly in the eyes? Aren't they the receptacles of dreams, the stuff of fairytales? (Is that Pinocchio I hear in there?)

On the other hand, perhaps Mr Best owns the engineering firm and never thought twice about calling it what he did; even so, there's still surely something marvellously hopeful about Best Engineering. It's like pinning your flag to the mast, naming a son. And if there was (is) a Mr Best, he must have smiled to himself when the sign was hoisted over the roller door. You can't deny the felicitousness of the surname - the blessing it gives.

On a bit further, and there's that property on the corner where the gangs used to live, or at the very least they lived in the property behind it. It was hard to tell. I do remember a black flag and, I don't think I'm imagining it, barbed wire. But here it is now, all cleaned up, and on the high fence there's a real estate sign the height of a large child with red letters that cry out: 'Location, Location, Location.'

Language is largely about hope, surely, and about wishes and dreams and stories and what we want things to be. Otherwise we'd just have pointed.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mary Poppins and Lawrence Durrell and the fine art of sorting

There are days like this when the wind blows a certain way and you expect to see a woman with bright beetle eyes and an umbrella sailing calmly towards your front door. Everything seems skewed, up-ended, even.  It could be the wind that's doing it, blowing relentlessly like that. But it could also be all the review books and manuscripts that are packing out my head (not my own, I read other people's manuscripts and write publisher reports).  They're all good reads so far - and if they're not 'good' they're at least, stimulating and edgy - so I'm in that lovely but crowded state where my head is a railway station of characters and ideas, insights and phrases, and it's hard to know where everyone else stops and I begin....

And there are other things too - we have family here from Canada, the lovely people my daughter and I stayed with just over a year ago in an Ottawa winter, and visitors always skew your ordinary everyday life, because they're not in their ordinary everyday lives. You do different things while they're here, and you can't help but take on some of their excitement about ordinary things, and remember when you were the one in that enviable state of travel, which makes you feel a little - to take the title from a terrific new George Clooney movie - 'Up in the Air'. His character never settles and does ordinary things because he's always flying around the country - Mary Poppins-like - on business. Popping in and out of real lives, touching them, only slightly, causing mayhem, flying away. Needless to say, he eventually realises this is not an ideal way to live a life.

There are other reasons too for my Mary Poppins day. My year is starting differently from usual - less paid work 'out there', more stuff here at the new Mac computer, no car because my son trashed it ergo more bike rides and bus rides .... So I'm having to adjust my pace. I have to say the long rides on the bus remind me of the joys of long rides in the London tube aeons ago: people in crumpled suits, stoic, sweaty, anxious, tightly packed, and I'm in one of those boiler suit things I used to wear to work at the radio station in Shoe Lane, and the rich language of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet is spilling from the tatty library book in my hands like melted butter from burnt toast. None of which helps me now, really ....

Anyway, to ground myself in the midst of this up-ended, 'up in the air' feeling - I have dusted the shelves in my house and sorted out a few drawers, and done the same thing to my blog. I've only just discovered blogspot's letting us have pages now - so I've flicked most of the stuff I used to have in the side column into separate pages - reviews for The Blue, my other writing, my own reviews/books I recommend etc. Look there, to the right. All neat and tidy. As satisfying as an orderly drawer.

And now, I will do that thing that never fails to set things back on an even keel. I'll walk the dog. That wind's still doing it's thing, however, so I won't take the brolly. Just - in - case...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dickinson and the power of the dash

In one day, to find Emily Dickinson not once but twice. First, this book which promises to shed light on  the fraught life behind this elusive poet who published two handfuls of poems in her lifetime and left behind 1800 of them unseen and unheard [thanks to blogger Gondal-Girl for directing me to this]. And then I came across two illuminating posts from US poet and teacher, Mark Doty, on the way Dickinson uses dashes and ellipses instead of a host of words...
Because we're reading Dickinson, I've been thinking about the remarkable powers of wrenched or unexpected syntax, and the ways in which meaning is disrupted, complicated, and made multiple by the sheer power of ordering sentences. [Mark Doty]

He's talking about this sort of thing:
Tis this -- invites -- appalls -- endows --
Flits -- glimmers -- proves -- dissolves --
Returns -- suggests -- convicts -- enchants --
Then -- flings in Paradise --
[from Poem 285 by Emily Dickinson]

Go here for more from Doty, and then here  for a subsequent post where he quotes Heather McHugh from her book Broken English:
Where a lesser writer might try to comprehend the world by adding more and more words to his portrait of it, Dickinson allows for it, by framing in opposites or absents, directing us to what is irresoluble or unsaid, Where the addition of a word would subtract even one of the cohabitant readings in a text, she leaves the sense unsteady and the word unadded, What critics sometimes lament as cryptic or obscure in her work proceeds, I think from this characteristic reticence - a luxurious reticence, a reticence which sprouts and branches meaning in many directions, the way more exhaustive (less ambiguous) texts cannnot...
I simply need to read more Dickinson. 

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Lacuna

Isla Pixol, Mexico, 1929
In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced, rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade. That aroused others near him, nudging them to bawl along with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees, farther down the beach, until the whole jungle filled with roaring trees. As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world.
The boy and his mother believed it was saucer-eyed devils screaming in those trees, fighting over the territorial right to consume human flesh. The first year after moving to Mexico to stay at Enrique’s house, they woke up terrified at every day’s dawn to the howling. Sometimes she ran down the tiled hallway to her son’s bedroom, appearing in the doorway with her hair loose, her feet like iced fish in the bed, pulling the crocheted bedspread tight as a web around the two of them, listening.  [The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, Part 1]

This rich, colourful, clever novel is a door-stopper at 500 pages and an immensely satisfying read. Kingsolver believes that writing is a political act and a marvellous article in The LIstener (Feb 6-12) explores this. She says: 

I've always been interested in fictional terrain that urges people to question some of their most basic assumptions, and I think that's why I get called political. But I think of it as using the craft to its mightiest potential. Fiction is creating a powerful sympathy for the theoretical stranger. That's at the bottom of the civil rights movement. Every war in history is about a success or failure of empathy for a different position. So I think all novelists are political. It's just that some of us own up to it. [NZ Listener Feb 6-12]

Until now, I've thought (been encouraged to think?) of the modern author as a story-teller primarily (only) who does not push a position of any sort, let alone a political one, but stands back and lets the reader explore what is there in front of them. And yet you hope that you have created 'a powerful sympathy for the theoretical stranger', of course you do: that particular stranger in that particular story and by extrapolation others, perhaps the real stranger even? ... A political act? Interesting. 

The Lacuna is the story of an unusual Mexican/'Gringo' boy who works for Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and exiled Bolshevik Leon Trotsky in Mexico as a cook and translator. The boy observes and engages with their colourful, political, intertwined lives and secretly (and not so secretly) writes both a diary and a novel. He then moves north to McCarthyist US where he writes, and experiences - as his previous employers had - vilification at the hands of the media. 

The Listener says Kingsolver wrote the novel as a response to 9/11, when she was vilified herself by the media (which is surely represented by the jungle of howler monkeys at the novel's beginning) following an opinion piece she wrote in the aftermath of the Twin Towers for a San Francisco newspaper. She said she was misquoted. 

It was a terrible time, and I thought the best thing to do would be to use it for something beautiful and useful. So I started writing [The Lacuna] in February 2002 because I had to put it on paper or go crazy. [NZ Listener, Feb 6-12]

I understand the burning need to transform experience into fiction - and am thrilled to think of that act as creating something both 'beautiful and useful'! The Listener article talks of Kingsolver's 'penetrating curiosity', and her sense of joy and fun. All of these pervade The Lacuna and make it both an entertaining and a stimulating read. Oh yes, at times the novel sprawls, and at times it is too - what a friend of mine calls -  'fancy pants' (all those diary entries and letters etc to tell a story rather than straight narrative). But the fact remains that Barbara Kingsolver has written a rich and compelling sprawling, fancy-pants novel. 

Friday, February 5, 2010

The ominous and titillating world of failing sight

Dimming sight can make the world a stranger place. Walking past a restaurant in town, the blackboard seems to say in big chalk letters 'Titilate'. Puzzled, I pause and lean in close - it's only 'open till late'. Walking the dog this morning past the place we call the bus garage, and there in big letters against the misty hillside the sign says: 'Ominous'. Refocus. 'Omnibus'. And I am guessing dimming sight was one of the reasons a friend received a text the other day that said 'hand sexing wit grnnr'. She held it up frowning for me to see, 'Does that say what I think it does?' Turns out the sender uses predictive text, and famously doesn't check it  - so I gave it a try on my phone and we found out this very nice middle-class, middle-aged woman with many children was actually sitting at home 'hand-sewing and ironing'.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Icarus bobbing in the water around Barrett's Rock

Icarus crashing to earth during the Wahine Storm, Theseus as a DOC ranger ...  in an Arts on Sunday interview , Vana Manasiadis talks about throwing Greek gods and heroes into a NZ setting and how she mixed that up with the drama and tragedies of her own family in her compelling and intelligent poetry collection Ithaca Island Bay Leaves . Worth a listen.