Thursday, 28 April 2011

Reviewing and interviewing Anna Lanyon for The View From Here

I mentioned a while back, following the launch of Anna Lanyon's latest book, Fire & Song: The Story of Luis de Carvajal and the Mexican Inquisition (Allen & Unwin), that I'd be interviewing Anna for The View From Here.  Well, my review of her book was posted online on Tuesday, followed by the interview today, so click away...

Monday, 25 April 2011

Painting, Adam & Eve, The Urban Landscape...

One of the many things I like about painting is that it teaches me to see.  It also changes the way I look at other people's paintings and what I believe I understand about the way they see.  (A similar process might be true of writing and the way writing helps a person understand and interpret their world, but I find it harder to be sure about this.)  A couple of years ago, I was looking closely at the Charles Blackman's wonderful Alice series and let that shape the first painting I'd attempted in... about thirty years.  (See this post on last suppers and tea parties.)

Jeffrey Smart retrospective book cover Art Gallery NSW publication

But of late, I've been getting a particular kick out of the likes of Jeffrey Smart (in particular), Paul Resika, Raimonds Staprans and Charles Sheeler.  I like the (occasionally geometric) abstractions in some of their work, how they look at urban and suburban landscapes, their use of light and shade, colour, perspective and spatial tensions.  Painting not only helps me to see and articulate some of this for myself, but it's relaxing to use a different part of the brain to whatever bit gets used for writing - and to create something in a fraction of the time.

Anyway, here's the painting I've been plugging away at - an hour here, a couple of hours there - for the last four months.  Painting number two.  Originally it was going to be called Adam and Eve Expelled from the Garden of Eden (1), but I've settled for The Lost Garden (1) instead... "And thank goodness for that," I hear you say!  (There are - optimistically - half a dozen more planned, hence the number.)

920 mm x 610 mm
acrylic on canvas

Thursday, 21 April 2011

3rd time lucky with Strunk & White

Here's a tale of persistence with a happy ending!

A couple of years back, when I was in America, I was shown a fine, pocket-sized book, brimming with excellent advice on language use, called The Elements of Style.  It had been written and self-published by William Strunk, who'd used it when teaching English to his students at Cornell University, amongst whom, in 1919, was E.B.White.  Forty years later, White - by that time an editor for the New Yorker - was persuaded by Macmillan Publishing to revise and publish this slim volume... and it has remained a popular title ever since, with regular (minor) revisions to update the relevance of the examples, and numerous reprintings.

I could see why and, given that most of my understanding of English usage has been picked up on the fly, as it were, I thought this would be a valuable book to own.

Last year, I called in to a bookshop in a city not too far from where I live, and ordered three books.  I was after Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.  None of the books were on the shelves, but I thought it'd be good to support the High Street bookshop rather than order online.  This began inauspiciously as the shop assistant had never heard of any of the authors or titles and seemed to think that J.D. Salinger was a book by Franny and Zooey, but we found the titles (online) in the end and they were duly ordered.  Two weeks later, I collected the Vonnegut and the Salinger, but was advised there'd be a delay with The Elements of Style.  However, when I looked at the invoice, I noticed they were intending to charge me over $70.00 for the edition they'd tracked down, and so (although they weren't happy about this) I cancelled the order on the spot.  After all, I'd priced The Elements of Style at approximately $15.00 on Amazon.

To Amazon I duly went, ordered, paid - the entire biz - and was quickly advised it was on its way.  But I waited and waited... until I received an email from them telling me that the package had been returned and could I please check that address details were correct.

They were.  I'd received quite a few packages from Amazon to the address I'd provided, so it shouldn't have posed a problem.  Upon digging a little deeper, I found that the package had been 'returned to sender' by Deutsche Poste and that, on this occasion, Amazon had abbreviated the 'Australia' line of my address to 'AU' and had then posted it to Austria.

I gave up for several months, but decided recently that I really would like this book, and so thought I'd give Amazon another try.  And Hey Presto! it's arrived: a beautiful hard cover, fiftieth anniversary edition for less than $12.00 (thanks to the strong Australian dollar).

It hasn't disappointed.

Here's a sample (without all the examples) from Chapter II - Elementary Principles of Composition:
17.  Omit needless words
Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Many expressions in common use violate this principle ... The fact that is an especially debilitating expression.  It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs ... As the active voice is more concise than the passive, and a positive statement more concise than a negative one, many of the examples given under Rules 14 and 15 illustrate this rule as well...

Sunday, 17 April 2011


Gave a shout out to McSweeney's and 826 Valencia in previous posts - two U.S. projects aimed at improving literacy and encouraging young people to write.  Well, I recently happened to come across one that's much more local to me, inasmuch as it's based in Melbourne (Australia), and thought it only right and proper I should give a shout to this one too.

Pigeons is a not-for-profit organisation with the same aims as McSweeney's and 826 Valencia, and is working to help establish a children's writing centre in Melbourne's inner-west.  To help with this, they're looking for support/assistance from teachers, students, schools and other organisations - well, from anyone whose passionate about the value of this.

Check out their site at http://pigeonsprojects.org/

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Poets and stuff

I learned from Magdalena Ball's blog the other day that April is National Poetry Month in the USA.  Following on from Maggie's lead, and even though I'm not American and that I live in Australia, I thought it might be timely to celebrate the work of three poets.

I too will dispense with well-established all-time favourites  - John Donne, John Keats and William Blake, in this instance - and celebrate three contemporaries instead.

Firstly, because he's had a significant influence on me, is e.e.cummings.  I scribbled about him here not so long ago, mentioning two of his volumes of poetry that I've been dipping into now for 30 years or more (*gasp*).  One of my favourite poems begins:
one winter afternoon
(at the magical hour
when is become if)
a bespangled clown
standing on eighth street
handed me a flower.

A more recent addition to my favourites is Billy Collins, whose Picnic, Lightning anthology is one I enjoy returning to time and time again.

Here's the opening stanzas of I Go Back to the House for a Book:
I turn around on the gravel
and go back to the house for a book,
something to read at the doctor's office,
and while I am inside, running the finger
of inquisition along a shelf,
another me that did not bother 
to go back to the house for a book
heads out on his own,
rolls down the driveway,
and swings left toward town,

I really feel that I should include one of the Mersey poets here because I grew up with their anthologies stuffing my pockets and I've always particularly liked Brian Patten's Prose Poem Towards a Definition of Itself.  However, given that it's National Poetry Month for the USA, I'll keep the American flavour and tip my (metaphorical) hat at Philip Schultz.

This excerpt from The Wandering Wingless (Two):
Dogs, by nature,
aren't spiteful. They
don't hold grudges.
We punish, elevate, and bully them,
as if they were us. But even
we aren't us. (Nobody is.)

Saturday, 9 April 2011

On holiday and listening to...

Jumped off the treadmill for a couple of weeks holiday.  Got a renovation job or two to finish, but there'll still be plenty more time to write, finish off a painting I've been working on, catch up with some reading, dry and bottle some of the tomato glut we've grown, kick back, relax... listen to music.

At the moment, I'm right into Antony and the Johnsons - I am a bird now - and, because it's my habit to always listen to these two albums one after the other, M Ward's Transistor Radio.

Antony and the Johnsons playing Fistful of Love

Requiem is from M. Ward's Post-War album.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Progress with the next novel

At the moment I'm working pretty solidly on Number Three novel - a mystery thriller that's a bit Gothic and a bit 'noirish'.  I was working on Number Three and Number Four at the same time for a while, but am in that pleasantly obsessive phase now where the characters of Number Three seem all fleshed out and leaving me needing to tell their story.  Like an addiction.  I know pretty much where they're going and why - all those elements having revealed themselves through lots of brief observations about them - and so I'm enjoying playing with the words, discovering the nuances of meaning and letting their actions and intentions speak louder than their words.  It's a slow process, this weighing of words, but one I delight in.  I'm about 25,000 words into this phase at the moment and hoping (perhaps a little optimistically) that everything will be in place by the end of the year.  I'm a slow writer, but it's something to aim for.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Recent reads: South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

This is the answer to my last post: South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami.

Mr Murakami is one of my favourite authors, inasmuch as I've enjoyed everything I've read by him, and this particular novel (written in 1992, but number seven on my H.M. list) is no exception.  While his writing might be most noted for its surreal, slightly sinister story-lines, there's another quality about it that sucks me in.

Childhood sweethearts, long ago separated, meet again and innocent love re-awakens as desire, unquenchable and destructive.
The Harvill Press
There are lots of different ways of telling the same story, but it's the quality of the narrative voice (and the elements this comprises of) that often defines the best writer, and this is what, for me, makes Haruki Murakami such an enchanting story-teller.  In the words of a less accomplished writer, his stories might come across at times as overly introspective and too incredible, but Murakami brings the characters too life, makes the incredible seem plausible and leads the reader in a compelling dance.  A great read.