Birds without wings – book review

Birds without wings by Louis de Bernières

God, this is horrific. If you’re looking for a sweet but deep sequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which is what the bloke in our book club thought he was giving us, this is way out of your depth.

This is Turkey before, during and after WWI, the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t voluntarily read war stories, but this was for book club and having been brought up on the glorious allies, I was interested to read the perspective of the other side’s glorious allies. But I was sickened by the brutality and inhumanity in this story. De Bernières writes with such clarity and perception there are images painted in my head I will never wipe clean. Continue reading “Birds without wings – book review”

Running the Oromahoe Traverse

and killing characters on the run

I’m on a bit of a roll with my running around Paihia series. Here’s a good, one way, one hour run. The Oromahoe is a ridge-line run through the Opua Forest which ends in Paihia. It’s a little over 6km one way, with a few short, sharp ups and downs. You can’t get lost.

I went early for a gorgeous start to the morning. There are a few glimpses of view through the trees, but no real lookouts to the spectacular Bay of Islands, tantalisingly out of sight below. Continue reading “Running the Oromahoe Traverse”

The art of letter writing

Shipwrecks in cross-hatch

I spent a happy day in the Alexander Turnbull Library yesterday researching colonial goings on, and discovered that, in the 1850s, lots happened by letter. Introductions, demands, gossip, flirtations. News of shipwrecks and love wrecks and conflicts and strife. Thank-yous for gifts, shared notes on botany and invitations to the Governor’s ball.

These were original letters to hold carefully, from Governor and Lady Grey, Governor Fitzroy, colonial secretaries and adventurers and all their various correspondents. I found their loopy writing both marvellous and completely illegible.  There’s a skill or art to deciphering them that I think might require many hours. Luckily, most had transcripts into fuzzy typewritery courier – still a few generations behind the digital.

The Victorians wrote with great sweep and flourish, with confident and well practiced hands. Paper was precious, and yet they had very large writing on small pages, I’m guessing because they were using unwieldy nib pens and ink which needed long continuous strokes.  In order to economise they often cross-hatched, creating intricate designs of patterned penmanship, slanting gracefully across the page one way and another.

Today there seems to be an accepted truth that hand written letters are different to screen or typed letters. Do we believe a hand written love letter carries more love?  I think so. These weren’t love letters I was studying at the library, but there was a spooky intensity in them that I’ve never felt from a transcript. There has been a recent  resurgence in interest in letter writing – in the non-digital generally – but I don’t think the art will come back. These cross-hatched masterpieces are relics of a slower time, and when has a culture reverted to the less convenient?

A day wandering through a collection of 19th Century letters is moving and strangely restorative – it’s like time spent in an art gallery where stories and art come together as a whole.

 

I love Charles Dickens

As a tonic for insomnia

I became a Dicken’s fan early on. I remember reading David Copperfield at primary school and I gobbled up Oliver Twist. Pip and his Great Expectations hovered around my teenage years. I probably had a strange view of the world.

The thing I liked best about Dickens were the characters I met, they were nothing like the people I knew in 1970s Wellington.  I would have died for friends like the Artful Dodger and his gang.  They were my imaginary friends and did much more exciting things than the real ones.  And because I was not long out of the fantasy & magic worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth I half believed these people existed. I knew that “Dickensian London” was a real time and place, and I read in that zone between reality and imagination. Where most history probably belongs, anyway.

One of the main advantages of Dickens now is that he’s out of copyright. Yes, you can download the entire works of Dickens onto your kindle for free.  Generally, I don’t download books for free. I like to ensure the authors get paid, but that’s a rant for another time. Dickens doesn’t need my coin any more. I put him in my bag when I’m travelling and now I look forward to that four hour delayed stopover.

I suppose I’ve read Dickens on and off throughout my life. There is no end to the stories, once you’ve read the entire collection you can happily go back and start again – by that time years will have past and the stories will be fresh. They certainly won’t get any more dated.

But here’s the thing. Charles Dickens saved me.

It was when I was living in England, and my children were little, and I was an insomniac. I don’t mean the kind of insomnia when you’re a bit stressed and don’t sleep well for a few nights and whine, I’m so tired.  I’m talking about the deep insomnia that can last for months, when you have no expectation of sleep at all, even though you are in that place that’s deeper than tiredness. Fathoms deeper.

It’s where you wake up at 2am and know that nothing will send you back to sleep. That’s where I was. Of course I drank cocoa, had hot baths, did yoga, said hommmmm for hours. Counted bloody sheep. Sleep wasn’t coming.

If you ever find yourself there, here’s my tip: read Dickens.

I’m not suggesting for a single second that Dickens is soporific.  Quite the reverse. Reading Dickens will not send you to sleep.  He’s thrilling. And anyway, you’re an insomniac. Nothing is going to put you to sleep. You may as well read. At 2am, there’s not a lot else to do.

After a while you’ll find Dickens’ characters will climb in to bed with you.  They become so real, you can anticipate what they are going to do. And then they surprise you, like when a friend you know well does something out of character. The very fact that you can know a fictional character well enough to be surprised by them is a bit creepy.

When you know characters so well, you don’t even need to turn the light on or pick up the book. You can look, wide-eyed into blackness of your black room and you can play with Dickens’ characters, because you’ll know them so well. You can put yourself in the stories with them – you can take Pip in hand and tell him to forget his Great Expectations and go back to the forge, and have Pip look up at you with those big eyes and say “Yes! Yes I will go back. Joe is a good man, I’ll go home.”

Doesn’t happen in the book.

Or pick up a gun and shoot Little Nell – God knows she deserves it – and put her and generations of future readers out of their misery. I’ve done that a few times. BANG! Goodbye Little Nell.  It’s very satisfying at 3am.

I’ve been thanked many times by insomniacs  for that bit of advice – to read Dickens through the night. I know a teacher who received his entire classical education between 2 and 5am.

So if you find yourself falling into an insomnia that might last for months, put a stack of Dickens on your bedside table and pick some characters to romp around in bed with you. You can mix them up. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Inspector Bucket of Bleak House, and I sometimes take him to visit Dombey, to see if he can’t sort out that great bully. He tells Dombey to take note of little Florence: “You’re a sensible man of the world,” he says. “And a sensible man of the world knows the value of an intelligent girl.”

If you want a suggestion on where to start, try here:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” and keep going until you have worked your way through the complete works.  You won’t get any more sleep, but you will spend your nights in excellent company and get out of bed in the morning with a dramatically improved vocabulary.

 

 

Economical writing

Why less is more in the writing class

I’ve just been to a short story writing workshop as part of the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival with Anna Mackenzie and we spent time cutting extraneous words and writing implicitly.  (Or, as I used to say…we spent some time on cutting out all extraneous words from our texts and using explicit writing, rather than spelling everything out. See? It’s working!)

The skill is to imply a thousand word backstory in a short sentence.

Anna shared an example of a perfect economical short story. It’s said that Ernest Hemingway wrote this as a challenge. While lunching with friends, he bet he could craft a short story in six words. He wrote it on his napkin, passed it around the table, and deservedly collected his $10 winnings.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

It reminds me of the shortest poem ever written, called Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes (aka Fleas) by American poet and humourist Strictland Gillilan.

Adam
Had ’em

So the challenge is set. I’m not going to get my 100,000 word novel down to six words or a two line poem, but I’ve taken up the red pen. Less is more.

Beware the Thesaurus

How to ride a thesaurus

A thesaurus can be a marvelous animal to help find an appropriate word for your writing, the perfect little word to contain everything you’re trying to say elegantly and so simply your readers will understand immediately the mot juste.

The Economist’s vocab survey of 2013 says most native English speakers have a vocabulary of 20,000–35,000 words which seems a lot to choose from without needing to reach for a thesaurus.  Readers (particularly fiction readers) will have a much wider vocabulary than non-readers, see below.  If you want to write with an authentic voice, the word in your head is usually the best.

Writers, I know, often have an inbuilt thesaurus, but this is a very personal thing. Innocuous word such as “member” or “lay” will flash different alternatives in the lexicon of a parliamentary writer and a writer of bodice-rippers, and I mean flash there in the sense of display, not flaunt, show off, or expose one’s genitals.

For most of us, good writing is about taking words out. Edit until a thought is clear on the page, and perhaps then a thesaurus might help with precision.

Tame your thesaurus and use him to gobble up your prose and spit only the good bits out, perfectly regurgitated.  Never ride your thesaurus at a gallop. Walk him through your writing in reverse, to condense long, complicated descriptions into clean, tight text.

You are not in a confrontational predicament on meeting a Thesaurus in the wild. You’re in the shit.

Vocabulary by age reading habit.jpg

economist.com/johnson/2013/05/29/lexical-facts