Reviews | chrisbell.co.nz - wordsSHIFTminds

By: Chris Bell  06-Dec-2011

Georg Salter was born in 1897. His family emigrated to the US where he worked as a designer at a time when books mattered in a way they no longer do. About his design for ’s novel, Generation Without Farewell, Thomas S. Hansen writes in his book :

“Salter’s abstract design prevailed over the author’s own wish to present images of amputee soldiers against a background of mutilation … Salter instead chose a symbolic approach showing battered Venetian blinds to symbolize a state of despair about cultural dissolution in postwar Germany.”

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“Schultz punching now for his life. Connecting with a straight left ka plonk on Al’s nose which instantly cascaded bleeding blood. Schultz momentarily still and aghast at the horrifying crimson sight of Al’s face. Al undaunted cutting free with a looping right connecting with Schultz’s unblack eye. Schultz hanging on in a clinch.”

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About five years ago I acquired a second-hand, yellowed Penguin paperback of Bill Bryson’s and it’s since become the most often used book in my writer’s reference library. The edition I have has a more attractive cover than any of those I’ve been able to locate on the internet, and its hand-lettered illustration by Jeffrey Fisher (shown here) makes it seem even more special to me. The trouble with most reference works (as Bryson points out in an introduction for the benefit of those afraid that reading any book about words would be about as pleasant as eating it), is that “they so frequently assume from the reader a familiarity with the intricacies of grammar that is – in my case, at any rate – generous”. Troublesome Words can enjoyably and profitably be read from cover to cover as entertainment, rather than just dipped into when needed.

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Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians is a 33-year-old piece of music I discovered relatively recently that’s had probably the most direct influence on my writing – so much so that I wrote it into one of my later short stories as a character. Steve Reich is now 75; not that you’d guess from listening to this record. I can’t think of a more modern-sounding piece of music – it’s positively futuristic, which in itself is extraordinary, since he uses only orchestral instruments (cello, violin, clarinet, bass clarinet, pianos, marimbas, xylophones, unamplified vibraphone and women’s voices), no electronics, and only the musicians’ breath to create the effect of what could be mistaken for a sequencer.

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As Frank Zappa memorably said, music is the best. In the early to mid-2000s, I reviewed a variety of CDs for the IDG New Zealand magazine >>FFWD, including albums by Can, David Gray, Dave Brubeck, various world music artists, Herbie Hancock, The Who, The Blue Nile, Peter Gabriel and many others. Writers review other people’s work for all kinds of reasons; not least because, although the pay rates are often negligible (or non-existent), it provides you with a ‘free’ source of listening or reading. Many of the CDs I’m listening to today were acquired as review copies, so it’s a win-win. And there’s nothing like being required to articulate in a couple of hundred words what you think of something for arriving at clarity in your own mind.

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As I said in my previous post, music often plays a role in creating conditions conducive to writing. Just to recap, my criteria for great music to write by are: 1. It has to be more than wallpaper, should enhance your mood while not distracting you from the task at hand. 2. It should engender a mood of anticipation; filled with possibilities, not the intimidation that makes a blank page seem bigger and scarier than the potential it holds. 3. There should be an underlying, bristling electricity that hints at anything-could-happen. You’re seeking an inner tranquillity and an outward tingling; a 3 o’clock in the morning feeling that shifts your mind up a gear.

I’m reviewing another oldie this time, Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s 1984 recording The Pearl. An interval of 27 years between its release and my review seems about right, although it sounds fresh enough to have been recorded yesterday.

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Listening choices often play a role in the creative decisions a writer makes. What music is most likely to get your creative juices flowing? 1. It must be more than wallpaper but less than a 30-minute makeover. It should enhance your mood, not distract you from the task at hand. 2. It should engender a mood of anticipation and possibilities, not the intimidation that makes a blank page seem bigger and scarier than the potential it holds. 3. There should be a bristling electricity that hints at anything-could-happen. You’re seeking an inner tranquillity and an outward tingling; a 3 o’clock in the morning feeling that shifts your mind up a gear. These are recordings that fulfil those criteria and more.

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It might seem a stretch mentioning Thomas Pynchon’s psychedelic gumshoe tale in the same breath as Mervyn Peake’s gothic trilogy Gormenghast, but bear with me. By the time you get halfway down page 369 of Inherent Vice you no longer care that you don’t remember the significance of many characters, where they overlap and why; in a hazy panorama, not all the detail can be grasped at once.

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If you never bothered to buy ‘Two Against Nature’ or ‘Everything Must Go’ or ‘Kamakiriad’ or ‘Morph The Cat’ or ’11 Tracks of Whack’, where you do get off demanding this band plays ‘Rikki’ or ‘Do It Again’? Buying a ticket doesn’t make it a private gig. If you really want to hear ‘Rikki’, stay at home and put the record on. Or hire a Steely Dan covers band to come and play on your birthday. This is the real deal.

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Other products and services from Chris Bell

06-Dec-2011

E-books | chrisbell.co.nz - wordsSHIFTminds

The bullet point party’s electro-shock therapy hadn’t cured my ‘internet addiction’, which is what it claimed countless citizens were suffering from when its propaganda also said the net was killing print, the banks and big business, presaging bailouts and the more drastic measures we came to call the Almighty Crunch.


06-Dec-2011

Excerpts | chrisbell.co.nz - wordsSHIFTminds

The square of carpet and the singing bowl man’s stand are there, along with his arrangement of bowls, his incense burner, his CDs, but not the man. The resonance of Himalayan singing bowls sustains in your head all week, so the following weekend you return to the farmers’ market.


06-Dec-2011

Poems | chrisbell.co.nz - wordsSHIFTminds

George Mackay Brown’s poem ‘Potter and Jar’, originally published in ‘Winterfold’, reproduced here from ‘The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown’ by kind permission of the publisher, John Murray. While you need an imagination to write fiction, in my experience at least, real life makes for better poetry. I’ve always wanted to write about the topography of dreams but never quite knew how to describe it.


06-Dec-2011

Interviews | chrisbell.co.nz - wordsSHIFTminds

If you’re not familiar with the Strawbs and their music, you’ll be surprised to learn that not only have you missed the 30th anniversary of the band, they’ve released at least 31 albums and are still playing live and releasing albums today. Dave Pell, the founder of – curated content delivered to your Kindle – is an internet early adopter who’s stuck with it, in spite of having blown cash and time on more than 50 startups, including:,,,,,, and.