Sunday, February 28, 2010

February's Reading in Review

In my ideal month I would read at least one collection of short stories, one novel, one book of poetry and one work of non-fiction. I’d also read at least one New Zealand book. I don’t know how often I’ve achieved this in the past (I didn’t read a collection of poetry last month), but I hit for the cycle in February


Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (novel)

What's in the potato barn?

Rabo Karabekian played a cameo in 1973's Breakfast of Champions, but had to wait till 1987 to write his autobiography.

What’s in the potato barn?

He sounds like most every Vonnegut narrator: darkly humorous / doesn’t use semi-colons. ("I had made her so unhappy that she had developed a sense of humour, which she certainly didn’t have when I married her." p.245).

The double narrative – the life story and the what’s-going-on-now – makes for a herky jerky (but not unpleasant) read.

What’s in the potato barn?

There’s lots about art (abstract expressionism) and war (not just WWII, but that’s the pivotal one); other motifs (the bluebeard thing; Slazenger’s insanity) are under developed.

What’s in the potato barn?  Mild disappointment.

Footnote: I’m sure someone scholarly has looked at Vonnegut’s attitudes to race (on p.295 Rabo K says Maori “were cannibals and were divided into many warring tribes until the white man came…”) and how these fit with his opinions on humanity… Seems to be a sticky but interesting area.

How To Watch A Bird and Fish Of The Week by Steve Braunias (non-fiction, N.Z.)
How to Watch a Bird (Ginger Series)

How To Watch A Bird was an obvious choice after going native last month. From Braunias I learnt about twitching and bins, but also about Minka and Emily (his daughter and fiancé). Birds is best when talking about other books on birds (a strange compliment), but never quite escapes that column-y, I’ll-ride-the-coattails-of-X-because-I’ve-only-got-900-words-to-make-my-point feel.

Column-y isn’t a bad thing. After all, I went on to read Mr. B’s recent collected columns (Fish of the Week) which should probably have been called Beef of the Week (there are at least six columns about steak).

Fish of the Week: Selected ColumnsIn his introduction to Fish, Braunias claims: “In ordinary circumstances, I am a mild, inoffensive fellow who has no opinions about anything. The column persuades me to engage.” This may have been true once, but regular viewers of TVNZ7’s The Good Word (Braunias is a regular on the panel discussions) will agree that the parasite seems to have devoured the host.

What’s that? He’s got a novel coming out this year… interesting.

Pocket Edition and Into India by Geoff Cochrane (poetry, N.Z.)
Pocket Edition
Geoff Cochrane – walker of Wellington streets, poet laureate of drizzle – has been my favourite New Zealand poet for a couple of years now. These two collections come from different ends of his career (Into India 1991; Pocket Edition 2008) but inhabit the same territory (lots of weather; lots of alcoholism post factum) and exhibit the same gustatory joy for language.

I marvel at his fragrance.
I’m awed by his performance,
so orotund and bogus. The huge shell
he’s built for himself over so many years.
The Worm in the TequilaThe huge baroque carapace
He totters about beneath.
(from ‘Disassembling a Vacuum Cleaner’)

Pocket Edition is seventeen years braver; it’s high points seventeen years higher; looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of GC’s new collection, The Worm In The Tequila, which will be launched during the Wellington Writers and Readers festival next month.

Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker (novel)

Room TemperatureI certainly believed, rocking my daughter on this Wednesday afternoon, with a little concentration one’s whole life could be reconstructed from any single twenty-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected… (p.41).

There’s your thesis right there. Nicholson Baker’s narrator does just that: takes the minutiae of a day with his baby daughter (cable knit sweaters and nose picking) and gives a kind of life story; in turn illustrating that [with reference to genetic cloning]: “the particular cell you started from colored your entire re-creation.”

Room Temperature is both focused and meandering; myopic and exquisitely precise, but also profound and, at times, scatological. Every time I read one of Bakers books (this is numero tres), I leave richer and more wide-eyed.

A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford (short stories)

A Multitude of SinsCheaters, the lot of them. I often felt compelled to cheat myself, not to seek succur in the arms of another women (heavens no), but to skip ahead a few pages, or leave a story for dead and start the next one. Each story, in a vacuum (or an edition of the New Yorker) provides a good model to wannabe New Yorker contributors (or people trying to get into writing workshops). Consistent quality (and regular wafts of sexism) aren’t enough for me: it’s the law of diminishing marginal returns in book form.

Monday, February 22, 2010

On Novel B: A Love Story

When discussing the theme for this month -- a window into my novel in progress -- I said I would look at:
  • those cloud-burst moments when an idea arrives perfectly formed (check)
  • the issue of point of view and narrative voice (check); and
  • why I keep falling out of love with this manuscript.
Some of the answers to the final question are contained in the previous two discussions. There are other answers, or at least, other discussions I could have about this subject, but I won't.

Talking about falling out of love, relationship breakdowns or break-ups, is something you only do when you're down/out/broken. We've all played dutiful friend for someone who needs to unload during or after a relationship meltdown. But try talking to that friend after they've decided to get back together with their ex: you'll get a rather different, rather more general story. The friend has not forgotten the irksome things about their partner, or the wedge that drove them apart in the first place, but they have attempted to move past them: there's no benefit to be had from dwelling on his/her chewed down nails or a drunken kiss at a work Xmas party.

Same goes for me and Novel B. We've made up. It helped to talked things through this month, to see what I've got, and what lies ahead of us. We've decided it's worth another go, worth sticking it out. Sure, I could bad-mouth Novel B, and there’s plenty it could say about me. But where would that get us?

In the spirit of renewed vows, growing optimism and ever-present generosity, I will instead point the budding (and blossomed) writers among us to a piece from the Guardian Online. To commemorate-slash-spruik Elmore Lenard's new book, Ten Rules of Writing, the Guardian asked a number of successful writers for their own rules.

Novel B and I like Margaret Atwood's ninth rule:
Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
The two of us can have a good chuckle about this now.

Novel B also likes the advice from Jonathan Franzen (“Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.”) and the even more succinct Colm Tóibín (“Finish everything you start.”)

Zadie Smith offers sage advice (“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the –internet”) but on the topic of distractions, Phillip Pullman’s entire response says it best:
My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.
I’m going to try to use this in a work email one day, you know, when I feel like burning bridges.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

“I've been guilty of taking myself too seriously for years at a time”: An Interview With A Manqué Novelist

Reprinted by permission

Lily Decker: How's progress on your, uh, novel-in-progress?

Craig Cliff: Novel B? Let's just say we aren't on speaking terms at the moment.

LD: What's the problem?

CC: It's hard to explain without going into too much detail.

LD: Go for it.

CC: But I don't want to say too much. So much is still moving around. I might never finish. It would be foolhardy to throw too much out into the open at this stage.

LD: Maybe if you talk it through, the path will become clearer?

CC: Maybe.

LD: It's worth a shot.

CC: Okay, but if I get final call about what you can print.

LD: Sure.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Yo La Tengo

San Franciso Bath House, Wellington, 9 February 2010

This was my first gig at San Francisco Bathouse since returning to New Zealand last year. I used to think it was a small venue for international bands to play, but found similar bands playing even smaller venues in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Returning to SF Bath House last night and seeing it crammed was strangely satisfying.

Robert Scott -- he of The Clean and The Bats -- played an acoustic set to open. The most of the songs were short -- sometimes that's a good thing but here it all felt a bit, what's the word, adumbrated? Everyone has a different taste in music, and with people who've been around for years and tried on various musical suits, like Rob Scott and Yo La Tengo, there's bound to be times when you respect the musician, but the music has little effect.  This was one of those times.

As for Yo La Tengo, let me first say I haven't heard every record they've ever recorded. I first came across them when they worked with Ray Davies (The Kinks) back in 2000-01. I picked up their best of, Prisoner of Love, a couple of years ago, and own their latest album, Popular Songs. I've also heard a number of their covers in various places (youtube's good for many if you're curious). But I'm by no means a YTL afficionado.

I knew enough to recognise Ira Kaplan and James McNew loitering around the merchandise table during Scott's set, and had to cringe for these veteren rockers as they endured another fanboy telling them how excellent their latest album was. Seriously, the guy stood there for about five minutes, gushing. McNew was nice enough to him, but I saw him check his iPhone several times. At least, I thought to myself, the Kiwi accent provides some variety to what must otherwise be tiresome.

Yo La Tengo - Kaplan, McNew and Georgia Hubley (married to Kaplan) - climbed the stage shortly after ten and played well past midnight (on a school night! Egads!). The set-list ebbed and flowed: there were long songs and snappy one, there were quiet ones and loud ones, covers and originals. The differences -- indeed :the extremes -- are what makes Yo La Tengo an appealing and enduring act.  But on this night it was unfortunate that the quiet songs got drowned out by the mass of conversation going on behind me (I was standing about halfway between the stage and the balcony) and the distortion and keyboard bashing often breached the pain threshold (it's rather disconcerting to see a line of people in front of you throw their hands to their ears at the end of what was otherwise a great song). I'm willing to blame the mix and the people behind me for these blemishes; the only obvious musical balls-up was 'If It's True', which Kaplan stopped after ten seconds. They restarted the song and made it all the way thought, but it was about as comfortable as watching Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie. (Though, if I'm honest, 'If It's True' was the song earworming in my head all day at work).

But there were many highlights. 'Here To Fall', 'Periodically Double or Triple' and the epic instrumental ‘And The Glitter Is Gone’ off the new album. The cover of Sun Ra's 'Nuclear War'. And YTL's "cover" of the Condo Fucks’ cover of the Troggs’ 'With A Girl Like You' (the joke being that the Yo La Tengo are the Condo Fucks).

One of the great things about seeing music live is the way it makes favourites out of songs you've heard before, but just liked. I now love 'Black Flowers', and have added it to the list of songs to consider using for important moments in my life (or immediately after). James McNew has a darn good voice, which is another thing I learnt last night.  (Other things: Georgia Hubley is a helluva drummer)

'Black Flowers': the highlight of highlights.

The band played two encores, both featuring Robert Scott in some capacity. The second encore came after the lights went on near the stairs, and several people had already left… So there was something a little off at the end. When someone screamed "Play 'Autumn Sweater' for Godsakes", I cringed. YTL is hardly a singles band. 'Autumn Sweater' may be one of their most revered songs, but I don't think anyone has the right to be indignant if it isn't played. But this call set off a rash of other (more polite) pleas for the track from 1997's I can hear the heart beating as one. Kaplan was searching around the stage for something, and had grope for the mic and say, "Alright, just hold on." And so, the final song of the final encore was 'Autumn Sweater', but I'm not sure the band's heart was in it.

Again, I choose not to blame YTL, but the crowd and other circumstances. Perhaps I, too, am becoming a fanboy? A YTL apologist. So be it. They've earnt their status and earned it again last night.

Postscript:  I just read a comment here that said there were three encores... anyone care to verify or rebuke?

Monday, February 8, 2010

On Novel B: Black Holes and Revelations

The single most exhilarating thing about being a writer is also the most infuriating. I’m talking about those moments when the clouds clear and you see that significant aspect your story needs which has hitherto been obscured.

It's exhilarating because with this new knowledge, everything seems to fit. You feel a burst of incredible energy, and perhaps even affection, for this story which until now has niggled with its not-quite-right-ness.

It's infuriating because when that cloud-parting moment begins to fade, you realise how long you've been labouring under false assumptions, and how much quicker the whole process would have been if you knew from the outset what you now know.

My example d’jour is actually from October. My account sticks closely to what I drafted at the time, but never posted. It refers, of course, to Novel B.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Quotation Corner: 7 February

I frown upon people who underline passages in library books. Strange annotations can be entertaining, though rarely enlightening.  But simply higlighting passages — what's the point?  Are you underliners trying to highlight this for yourself or future readers?  Coz I hate to break it to you, but most of the time your passages aren't any more striking than the rest of the text.

Sometimes, however...
Bluebeard... moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world's champions.
The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness.  A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap-dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers.  We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an "exhibitionist."
— Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (p.76)
It was a tad depressing to read this on Friday during my lunch hour, then trudge back to the office. I wonder what sort of job the underliner has, what light he or she hides under their bushel? They seem like the kind of library vandal I would like to meet.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Hopes and Hobbies: February Begins

The Month That Was

January was a strange one. About five days of summer here in Wellington, the rest an admixture of autumn and winter. Perhaps I'm being unkind. After all, I managed to get to Kapiti Island, Karori Wildlife Sanctuary and roam the South Coast in search of native birds and trees. I cooked on the barbeque four times (I can't use it in a northerly as the wind blows the flames out). I even swam in Lyall Bay (but only once, on Saturday). And it didn't rain as much as my last full summer (in Edinburgh), but now I sound like I'm really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

A Design For Life?

I look out my window on a day like today (high of 15 degrees, drizzle, strong southerly, and can't help but think those kite surfers are on to something. Back on Saturday when it was calm and 26 degrees, Lyall Bay was left to the tanners, sand-castlers, and bathers. Today, the bay belongs to wet-suited daredevils. And where are the tanners, sand-castlers, and bathers: at home watching Campbell Live, clipping their toenails and nursing a severe bout of Mondayitis.

The kite surfers have managed to find a way to turn a bad day into a good one. Isn't that the secret of a good hobby?

The same goes when the wind is slightly different and the bay belongs to the wind surfers (sometimes they try to share with the kite surfers, but one form of wind-propulsion generally prospers). When the swell is up, the plain old surfers don't care if it's raining or blowing a gale…

When it still and sunny, the -surfers can laze around with the rest of us. A sunny day is the day we least need hobbies. Am I right?

I used to be into Fantasy Football, as in American Football. Most of the games are played on a Sunday afternoon in the States, which corresponds to the early hours of Monday morning in New Zealand. I would wake each Monday during the football season, eager to find out how my players had performed. After a scanning the box scores, I would head to work, my head filled with calculations of points scored and players left to play. The Sunday evening games would take place on Monday afternoon my time, and I'd hurry home from work to check the latest developments in my match-up and watch the highlights on ESPN. During the sixteen week fantasy football season, Mondays were one of my favourite days.

But like everything pre-empted with the word 'fantasy', my attention eventually waned. This year, I didn't have a fantasy football team, haven’t watched the box scores, nor trekked down to the nearest sports bar to watch a prime time contest. My Mondays have reverted once more to the first day of the working week and nothing more.

I'm in two minds whether writing counts as a smart hobby or not. It's certainly well suited to dodgy weather (and is less attractive on the beaut days). And it can fill your head with distracting thoughts on the bus to work on a Monday morning. If you could siphon off this aspect from any ambition, if you just wrote for fun, then sure, it's a great hobby.

If, on the other hand, you want people you've never met before to read your writing (a strange desire when you think about it, but most writers are strange people), then you can't help but let your writing thoughts seep into your working day. Your sunny days spent at the beach are tinged with guilt. You're never writing enough, or well enough. There's never enough time.

The perfect hobby should better fill your time, but the writing bug is insatiable. It demands you spend days writing when you are better off earning a crust, playing sport or socialising with friends. No wonder so much literature is obsessed with lost time. With looking backwards. Writing is a deliberate slow-down of life, because to be a writer comes with sacrifices.

No more fantasy football. No kite surfing lessons. I want random people to read my stories.

The Month That Will Be

So what will February have in store?

I can't control the weather, but I do have some control over what I do here at my desk. My head still isn't back into Novel B, but it needs to be. My theme for this month, therefore, is Writing a Novel. Not: How To Write A Novel, because although I have completed two, neither were published, and this third one sure isn't writing itself. Rather, I hope to open a few windows on the living, breathing process of writing a difficult manuscript.

I will look at those cloud-burst moments when an idea arrives perfectly formed; the issue of point of view and narrative voice; and why I keep falling out of love with this manuscript.

In navel-gazing once a week, I hope to finally get my head right, address a few lingering issues, and return my full focus to the novel. For the contemporary reader, I make no promises. My only hope is that the novel gets finished (soon) and published… perhaps then these February fumbles will be of interest.