About Jamie

I'm a mom and a new wife. I edit books for a living. And I travel when I can.

The Molt

I love “my” birds. Even when they’re molting. Actually, especially when they’re molting.

Young cardinal in molt.

They look a bit pitiful—but really, they’re just getting on with it. There’s probably a life lesson there, yeah?

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All Their Wars Are Merry and All Their Songs Are Sad*

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in March 2011.

Words—and the way they are pronounced—can be such funny things. And people are often passionately attached to their own interpretation, even if they’re … well … wrong. Like the pronunciation of Van Gogh. (Look it up; you may be surprised.)

The Irishman and I have done some pleasant business with a company called Celtic Marble and Granite right here in (ahem) the geographical center of the state. The storefront downtown is this fantastical, swirling, hippie-looking façade and I just love it, love going inside and running my hands over the samples of gorgeous stone. The business is owned by the Fretwells; she’s English, he’s Welsh (very, very Welsh).

Which doesn’t really matter, but I was out driving one day and remembered I needed to call them about our current project. I didn’t have the number, so I called information and asked for Celtic Marble and Granite. I pronounced it “KELL-tick.” Wouldn’t you? It never crossed my mind to pronounce it any other way.

The operator told me there is no such number.

Now … I knew there was. 🙂 So I smiled and said: “Oh, of course there is! I do business with them! C-E-L-T-I-C (see-ee-ell-tee-eye-see).”

Long pause. “You mean SELL-tick, then.”

Hahahahahahahhaa. My mistake was that I didn’t get it at first: I was wrong, she needed me to know that. But that just flew right over my head. “No, it’s KELL-tick,” I said without thinking. I didn’t really mean to argue with her, I just didn’t understand I wasn’t playing the appropriate role. 🙂 It made her mad, I could tell. (After the fact. Sorry, BellSouth operator lady! Really!)

But what about the Boston Celtics? you might well ask. Or, if you’re Irish: But what about the Glasgow (Scotland) Celtic? Excellent questions. I was trying, some time ago, to locate a succinct explanation of the origins of the Gaelic language, a language that, written, looks absolutely nothing like how it sounds (would you have guessed the word taoiseach—meaning prime minister, as in “Bertie Ahern, at age forty-five, was Ireland’s youngest ever taoiseach”—would be pronounced “TEE-shock”? Neither would I), when I stumbled upon this, which explains the situation: What is a Celt and who are the Glasgow Celtics?

… It is interesting to note that when the British Empire was distinguishing itself as better and separate from the rest of humanity, it was decided that British Latin should have different pronunciation from other spoken Latin. Therefore, one of these distinguishing pronunciational differences was to make many of the previously hard ‘k’ sounds move to a soft ‘s’ sound, hence the Glasgow and Boston Celtics. It is the view of many today that this soft ‘c’ pronunciation should be reserved for sports teams since there is obviously nothing to link them with the original noble savagery and furor associated with the Celts.

And that, I believe, is the final word on that! Here’s wishing you a Celtic-flavored Paddy’s Day, friends. But stay away from that green beer.

(*From “The Ballad of the White Horse” by G. K. Chesterton: “For the great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, for all their wars are merry …”)

Me and My Loved Ones View the Eclipse!*

Why, yes, we did get out to watch the eclipse.

Eclipse fever was pretty high here in Tennessee, especially for those of us in the “Path of Totality.” Admittedly on the edge of it, but Nashville—the largest city in the path, we were told, and we’re just thirty-five miles southeast of it—was near the center (maximum eclipse time), and many smaller towns near our home were too. Cookeville—home of Tennessee Technological University and, not coincidentally, home of my son and his fiancée, though they were in the process of moving—was a NASA official viewing location, with activities planned for months. There were all sorts of goings-on in Nashville, and even here in town, Middle Tennessee State University had big things planned too.

Not that we wanted to be anywhere close to that madness. Traffic’s bad enough around here on a normal day, and we knew every hotel in Middle Tennessee had been sold out for weeks. Pundits estimated there’d be a hundred thousand extra people driving around in Tennessee, and we’d already seen photos on social media to prove it.

Now, our house was a couple miles out of the path of totality, and the yard has a lot of trees, so we planned to drive into town, while avoiding anything close to MTSU. One of us was a bit meh about the whole thing, too, so we kept said plans low-key. 🙂 I’d been studying the satellite map of town for days, and settled for Evergreen Cemetery on Greenland Drive. Does that sound crazy? I beg to differ. It’s beautiful and historic—some of the headstones are more than 140 years old—and we were looking for a quiet, wide-open space in the middle of town.

We weren’t the only ones with this idea—I’d say there were about a dozen or so other groups scattered throughout the grounds for this same purpose. (But it’s huge—90 acres.) We just looked for a bench and some shade to wait in. 🙂 In a few minutes, Jesse and Katie found us.

Our shade tree. Watch that spot!

It was an absolutely splendid day. As noted, we’d heard about all the hotels being full and the interstates being packed, but honestly, none of that affected us. We just chatted with each other and other folks who were walking around while we waited for the moon to get close to the sun.

Or checked our phones. 🙂

And yes, we had good eclipse glasses. I’d purchased some weeks earlier, long before all the warnings came out about the bogus glasses that were being marketed. And in fact, I’d purchased the bogus ones, but Amazon let us know we had and refunded our money too. But that happened on the previous weekend. Yikes. So I found the list of NASA-approved manufacturers, and started searching at the top of the list. Many were sold out. But I found a German manufacturer (of telescopes and suchlike) whose sole American outlet was based in Washington State. I ordered four pair immediately, paid, and started hoping they’d arrive. The good folks at Anacortes Telescope and Wild Birds did not disappoint: the glasses arrived in Monday’s mail!

What I hadn’t prepared for is taking photos. Turns out you need filters for your camera too. So even though I’m all about my nice cameras, all the photos here were taken with my phone. And I’m delighted with them! You can see plenty of professional photos online, yeah? So can I.

We’d all read up on some of the eclipse phenomena to watch for, and—thanks to our shade tree, we started seeing the shadows change right away.

Wow, there they were, right in front of our eyes!

There’s no name for this effect, but it’s caused when the moon begins to move in front of the sun. In the photo above, about half the sun was covered, and the effect is hazy. But look at this:

This is when there was just a small sliver of the sun left; now the effect is very sharp and pronounced.

We also began to notice the light dimming. The camera in my cell phone didn’t do a great job of capturing the loss of light as more and more of the sun was obscured. At first it just looked … hazy. And we thought, It’s happening! But then it got dark enough that the streetlights—which are triggered by loss of light—came on.

Can you see them back there? (1/4) Just under the left “arm” of the tree in the foreground. Our shade tree. 🙂

Every minute or so I’d take another photo. This was about the time we noticed the drop in temperature … and remarked that it really gives you a sense of how powerful the sun is—that even when it is almost completely blocked (and at this point it was just a sliver), it is still very light outside!

This one is distinctly darker, and the streetlight is brighter. (2/4)

This whole time the four of us were just chatting, alternately slipping our eclipse glasses on to look at the moon’s progress and slipping them off to talk and take photos. It was … awesome. And I don’t use that word lightly. It was really stinkin’ cool.

You can see the upper sky was getting dark—it’s definitely dusk. Look for the streetlights in the distance. Taken at the same time as (2/4). Yes, there were clouds in the sky, and later we heard some of our Nashville friends had missed seeing the totality due to clouds, but we had a clear view.

Once the light started dimming, it seems as if things speeded up. Again, a cell phone can’t capture conditions in their true form—it tries to let in as much light as possible. Still, if you look at the streetlight back there, you realize, it’s dusk, nearly “sunset.”

The streetlight is very bright. (3/4)

Now it’s dark. (Remember, the phone camera is lying to you about the color of the sky here. It’s darker than it appears.) The cicadas started singing, just for a few moments. (4/4)

Remembering the other eclipse phenomena, Gerry started looking for the “shadow bands” and took a few seconds of video (not uploaded here; maybe later.) We could see them clearly moving over the concrete where we stood. The Los Angeles Times says, “In the seconds before totality you will see thin striations of light and shadow move across the ground—even over your feet. These are known as shadow bands. … Nobody knows exactly what causes them.”

When it got dark—the four of us standing there, looking up with our cardboard sunglasses, gobsmacked and silent—Jesse said, “It’s covered, you can take your glasses off,” and we did. That was cool. Where the “diamonds” shone around the left edge (called Baily’s Beads), the sparkle was actually a fuchsia-pink color. Wow! Of course, with my cell phone, it looked like this.

Yep, this is totality as seen by my phone camera. Up above it’s dark, too, but all the camera can see is that sun!

We lingered for a while, as the moon moved the rest of the way across the face of the sun, repeating in reverse what we’d just watched. We remembered to document the moment for volume 3 of our immigration “scrapbook” too. 🙂

We were really glad we’d gotten out and done this. A total eclipse! Wow!

When we were done, we headed home, stopping on the way to have a late lunch at the Parthenon Grille. I texted a bit with our friends Paul and Judy, who’d been in Memphis Saturday for a family wedding, spent Sunday night with us, then drove over to Lebanon (Cedars of Lebanon State Park, in fact) to view more totality seconds than us before heading home to Colorado.

The next day, I saw all sorts of stories about folks getting stuck in “eclipse traffic” after the event. Not so bad getting there, they’d said (people started early, so the volume was spread over days)—but when it was over, it was over, and everyone wanted to go home. A trip that normally took two hours, one Facebook friend reported, took seven hours. We’d gotten a glimpse of that when we left the restaurant and got back on South Church Street (231) to go home. Traffic was heavy—heavier than you’d expect—and when we got to the city limits (right at our subdivision), we saw some pretty serious traffic headed south on Highway 231. It stretched on toward Shelbyville as far as we could see.

But: eclipse. We saw it, and we’re very glad we did.

* With apologies to Lee Smith.

Hey, Mr. Sun!

They Speak English, Don’t They?

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in October 2012.

When you’re planning your first trip to Ireland—excitedly, it’s something you’ve dreamed of for decades—the one thing you don’t think is Oh, and I’d better pick up a translation dictionary. Because they speak English over there.

Don’t they?

Um, yes, of course they do.  But you may find yourself doing the smile-and-nod (which is universal sign language for “I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but … OK”) more often than you’d expect.

(Warning: what follows is not for the sensitively eared.)

Like the time we had a flat tire in Tralee and were directed to Tony O’Donoghue’s Tyre Service. As the driver of the car, I marched in and indicated my need for a new tire to the proprietor, who understood me just fine. (They get a lot of American television over there and are used to—and imitate with glee—our accent.) Tony then replied at length. I smiled and nodded, and as Tony walked away, the Irishman murmured, “I’ll bet you didn’t understand a word of that.” I hadn’t. Not a word. And I’d been trying. “It’s a very thick Kerry accent,” he said. “I didn’t catch everything either.”

It’s interesting, the variety of regional accents one encounters in a country the size of Indiana. (To be fair, I can distinguish a Southern accent on a state-by-state basis, though most non-Southerners would probably hear them as all the same.) And not just accents—the vernacular changes too. When I was seeking editorial help from the Irishman (a Dubliner) for a novel set in Ireland, I had to answer characterization questions first: “Who are the speakers, where are they from? Dublin? The west? Cork? Those Corkmen”—a shake of the head—“have a language all their own. Are they working class or upper class?”

One thing visiting Americans certainly find disconcerting is the use of what we might delicately call profanity, but which are merely mild exclamations or slang completely unrelated to … well, what we Yanks think we hear. Words like feck or arse are somewhat shocking to our Puritan ears, though I am assured those Irish nuns have heard this and more (for example, Dubliners are fond of bluddy hell). It’s just not the same, I’m told. (Don’t believe me? Watch this well-received performance by Fascinating Aïda, complete with subtitles.)

It does get easier when you converse with a native-speaker every day. But when I am with the fam and everyone’s talking at once … I just smile and nod.

I Don’t Care If You’re Partisan. I Do Care If You Perpetrate Lies.

When I was a kid, there was a common schoolyard taunt—“It’s a free country!”—usually uttered when one had been caught out doing something that was wrong, bad, stupid, not done, beyond the pale, going to get one in trouble. It was meant to be a defense, a staving-off of criticism.

Last week I read a comment on a New York Times story. Seems there is a right-wing meme going around that Obama’s mother-in-law gets an enormous pension because she watched the girls while he was in the White House.1 When the commenter informed his poorly informed social media friend that this myth had been debunked, the friend replied, “This is America and you can believe what you want.”

Um.

Actually … that’s not a good idea, but it is, in fact, what seems to be happening. Americans who haven’t had to exercise their brains since they left high school have lost their ability to think critically. And then when confronted with all this evidence of their poor choices (All. This. News.) they cry, “This is America and you can believe what you want!”

Or “fake news.” Or, simply … “I disagree.”

One reads that polls are showing our *president’s approval ratings dropping. But not among his hardcore base of supporters. About Donald Jr.’s release of incriminating email, the Washington Post reported,

The Gallup Poll’s tracker has found Trump’s approval among Republicans steady, since February, at 85 percent. Last week, before the new email was revealed, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found 73 percent of Republicans unwilling to believe that the president had colluded with Russia; just 4 percent said he might have done so illegally. …

For many conservatives, the rumble of scandal news on CNN, MSNBC and national newspapers is easily dismissed. On conservative media, from Reddit to Fox News, the story has largely been covered as a conspiracy theory. Monday night’s prime time shows on Fox, which ran after the contents of the email had been reported by the New York Times, largely covered the story as a sideshow.

It’s astonishing to me, but otherwise intelligent people—people known to me personally!—are desperate, it seems, to believe this is all nothing, while my bullshit detector has been going off like our NOAA weather radio during tornado season—loudly and often.

I’ve got an old friend who used to like me until he realized I was a Democrat. He disagrees with my point of view, of course, even though I’m careful to stick to the facts. But a few days ago I realized the basis of our entire problem in seven words. He posted, on Facebook, an opinion piece from a far-right website. (I’m not going to link to it.) And I commented:

“This article is devoid of facts.”

To which he replied, “I disagree.” Ah. The It’s a Free Country Defense.

This article—which could best be described as hate-filled vitriol—was full of lies, kernels of truth twisted to impugn “libtards,” and only looked back in time (Obama, Clinton) to place blame for All This [Current, Bad] News, rather than looking at the source of it.

Your facts are suspect, my friend told me, because he knows I’m a Democrat and thus—because he believes what websites like Breitbart, Right Wing News, Daily Wire2 and uncountable others say about people like me—I am anti-American, Not Good People, and so on.

It’s OK to have differing opinions, I told him, but your facts still need to be, you know, facts. (The devil on my right shoulder reminds me: this is America, and he can believe what he wants. The angel on my left says if we reason together like sane humans, perhaps he will listen.)

I suggest a thought experiment: substitute “trump” for “Obama” in this opinion piece; would he still believe it as truth? Or would he then call it fake or biased? He’s drawn to articles like this because they confirm his bias and because he doesn’t like the actual news he’s hearing right now. He’s admitted as much: All This News about Russian hackers and spies is making him nervous. He’s been “researching” it, but only within his own bubble.

But when I tell him he should trust the American press—the press that hires actual, college-trained journalists3—he stops me. These are my facts.

At this point I realized I’m an idiot to continue to respond but I did anyway. I’m an editor; he knows this. As a professional editor, I told him,

I would never let you cite this article to prove a point in your manuscript about the American press because it’s so clearly slanted and uses inflammatory language. And, again, because it is an opinion piece, not reportage, though it leaves that distinction up to the reader.4 And I’m not saying that because of my politics. For twenty-five years I’ve worked in the Christian industry, twenty of them in the Christian book-publishing industry, which tends to be deeply conservative, so the nonfiction books I have worked on have been deeply conservative (look at my website and you’ll understand this; I have a portfolio). And yet these publishers hire me over and over and over. Why? Because I am a professional, ethical editor who does not allow her politics to interfere with her work. Because I use my professional knowledge and understanding of the way words work to protect their authors from leaving themselves open to the sort of criticism I am leveling here, while still saying in their books things I often disagree with. Because I make sure the publisher is not going to have to remove already-printed books from circulation because of something stupid and potentially subject to litigation discovered inside them. It is possible for a person to be ethical and still know her business. So when I say this article is absent facts, it isn’t because of politics, it’s because I’ve done my research.

My friend said he’s not interested in research, particularly. The This Is America And You Can Believe What You Want Defense.

I have spent hours and hours over the last months responding patiently to my friend on Facebook. Sometimes he asks me to tell him why I believe what I believe. Sometimes he leaves a snarky (or fact-free) comment about something I’ve posted, and I respond with as much sanity as I can muster while resisting the urge to do otherwise. Now I feel as if he is simply disgusted by me and has been trying to trip me up or reveal me as misguided and/or stupid.

So I told him,

If you can’t or won’t trust the institution of the established American press (the ethical kind that labels some pieces “opinion” and keeps the op-ed pieces separate from articles that report current events) … if you can’t or won’t trust the institutions of the American legal system (when both the unfettered press and the rule of law are specifically provided for in our Constitution!); if you can’t or won’t trust the institution of the American intelligence community (which has been diligently tracking the events of the current situation for some years, even when it didn’t know enough to connect the dots), then I think we have nothing left to say. I’m truly sorry.

We leave it there, aside from my parting shot: I don’t care if you’re partisan.5 I do care if you’re repeating lies.

The current *president has declared in many tweets that the so-called mainstream media (those institutions I’ve mentioned) is the enemy of the American people. But aside from the fact that this is how fascists get their start (discrediting the press, then declaring it the enemy, then taking it over so there is only one message, and so on), American patriots—those of us who were raised to respect this country and still believe in its ideals—should know that the Founding Fathers felt the press was so important they called it out in the First Amendment. No, the press is not an enemy of the American people.

What is the enemy of the American people is fake news, pseudo news, heavily slanted news like InfoWars, Breitbart, and on and on. Fox Not-News. It’s created a subgroup of people who are uninformed, brainwashed, intellectually lazy and uncurious … and like my friend, they actually believe the mainstream media are lying to them, when in fact it is “their own people” who are keeping the truth from them.

I know I’m repeating myself here, but it’s true: it’s fine to have differing opinions but facts are facts. It would behoove the electorate to learn how to discern them.

Well, it’s a free country, right? At least for a little longer.

• • •

The Constitution specifically selected the press, which includes not only newspapers, books, and magazines, but also humble leaflets and circulars, to play an important role in the discussion of public affairs. Thus the press serves and was designed to serve as a powerful antidote to any abuses of power by governmental officials and as a constitutionally chosen means for keeping officials elected by the people responsible to all the people whom they were selected to serve. Suppression of the right of the press to praise or criticize governmental agents and to clamor and contend for or against change, which is all that this editorial did, muzzles one of the very agencies the Framers of our Constitution thoughtfully and deliberately selected to improve our society and keep it free.
—Justice Hugo L. Black, in Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214 (1966)

• • •

1 Sometimes the people who make this stupid stuff up don’t really think it through. If she’d actually been put on the government payroll, there would have been universal outrage among the wingnuts long ago. But then even as I was writing this, I was introduced to another wingnut theory that claims the Obamas borrowed children from another couple in order to get elected. Because Michelle is a man, apparently. Because there are no photos of her pregnant. (Um, there are no extant photos of me pregnant either.) That I have not seen this stuff up till now is an indication of the sheltered life I lead. 🙂

2 It’s actually Daily Wire whose op-ed pieces he was posting. They are truly astonishing to someone like me who only reads establishment press—hate-filled and vitriolic, with lots of “they do this, they do that” meant to be divisive, to push the reader into outrage against “them,” who happens to be me. My friend is mild-mannered but I suspect this anger is how he actually feels. And not just my friend! Lots of people. It’s kind of scary.

3 Regardless of what you think about the mainstream press and its college-educated journalists, I believe it is genuinely trying to do a fair job of reporting the news, unlike the partisan press (Breitbart et al), which calls its output “news,” but which is actually propaganda. Although my friend has a college degree himself, he’s been brainwashed by this right-wing media to think colleges are bastions of liberal professors who are out to brainwash the innocent children of good Republicans and turn them into (shriek) liberals. (Yeah, but it’s a liberal arts school, right?) No, I tell him, they’re just trying to teach kids critical thinking, logic and reasoning, to be intellectually well-rounded, and so on.

4 The Post, the NYT, and other reputable news sources clearly label opinion as such.

5 I was raised to believe two heads are better than one, that we need a conservative opinion at the negotiating table alongside the progressive opinion.

#StudyHistory #ReadABook #FactsIsFactsSir

UPDATE: On the afternoon I posted this (23 July 2017), Jim Wright—a political analyst and top-notch bullshit detector, posted on Facebook: “New White House Communication director Tony Scaramucci said neither he nor Donald Trump accept the US Intelligence Community’s assessment that Russia attempted to interfere in the presidential election. The President of the United States of America, rejects the assessment of the United States Intelligence Community.” This is precisely the This Is America And You Can Believe What You Want Defense I cited earlier. Trump doesn’t like the assessment of his intelligence sector, so he’s going to disagree, and then try to discredit it.

UPDATE 2: It’s still interesting, even if Scaramucci only lasted ten days in the job. Ha.

My Favorite Book (This Year)

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in January 2014.

I read thirty-three* books for pleasure in 2012—and at the end of the year I boiled it all down to One Favorite Book, difficult though that was. I read fifty-four in 2013, and most of them were titles I’d happily recommend, for one reason or another.

I blogged about some—Life After LifeThe Best of YouthThe Round HouseAfter Visiting FriendsLong Time, No SeeFresh Off the BoatNow & ThenThe Interestings—and have planned posts on a few more, including that orgy of classic Irish literature in which I indulged.

But the one favorite book seemed like a good idea then and it still seems like a good idea, so here it is—my favorite book of 2013. I knew the minute I closed the cover this one would be my choice; that was last summer, and as much as I loved Life After Life, I never wavered.

My favorite book last year was Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. I bought my copy in Ireland in May, because I didn’t want to wait for it to release here, so eager was I for this book.

The Irish cover. No, I don’t get it, either.

You know by now that I read all sorts of titles and genres, but I don’t mind declaring I am an unabashed lover of literary fiction. Lately it’s been hip to diss lit-fic, to sigh and say, Pretty writing’s all well and good but I want a great story!—even authors who should know better have said things like this—but don’t bring that trash talk around me, please. TransAtlantic is all about the story.

Three of them, in fact. All true.

In 1919, two young aviators from the recently ended World War hurry to pilot the first nonstop transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to the west of Ireland. Alcock and Brown carry with them a batch of specially postmarked letters—one which will not be opened for almost a hundred years. The second narrative is set in 1845, when Frederick Douglass spent two years in Ireland to promote the abolitionist cause, raise funds, and avoid recapture by his former owner. Finally we read about U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s efforts (with others) to negotiate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which would bring peace, at last, to Northern Ireland.

The stories are seemingly unrelated; each is lovely and complete. Together they begin to show the complex public relationship between the United States and Ireland. And it wasn’t until I was well into the 1998 story that I began to discern the connections between them. Oh, yes, there’s the obvious (the trips back and forth across the Atlantic) as well as the symbolic (a black man asking the Irish for money to gain freedom) … and then there’s the sublime.

There’s a fourth story, as it turns out—completely fictional—which creates the novel and shows the myriad private human connections between Ireland and America. And as this story stepped out of the historical narrative where it had been hiding in plain sight, it quite simply took my breath away.

Author Column McCann made his own transatlantic crossing at age twenty-one, a Dubliner who’d been a reporter for the Irish Press. His intent, the Guardian says, was “to write ‘the great Irish-American novel.’” That reviewer believes McCann’s previous book—2009’s Let the Great World Spin, which sold a million copies and won the National Book award—might well be it.

Not a bad start 🙂 but TransAtlantic deserves consideration too. Some twenty-six years after his arrival, McCann’s still on this side of the Atlantic, but with his very Irish sensibilities intact.

I recognized every bit of the present-day Dublin he describes in the last half of the book. (History is important: “So polite and poised, a southern accent laced with some London, all our troubles in one voice.”) The language, the writing, is exquisite. The details break your heart; tension builds subtly. And you really have to read to the very last lines for the payoff, which is an unexpected act of human grace in eight perfect sentences that took me utterly by surprise and left me stunned and weeping. Two days later I tried to tell a friend about it, tried to read aloud those last eight gorgeous lines, and cried again.

“We seldom know what echo our actions will find,” McCann writes, “but our stories will almost certainly outlast us.” This story was enormously satisfying. Brilliant, in fact. It filled me up. My favorite book in 2013.

* I was way off my yearly average of 40–45, but my health wasn’t good and I spent a lot of time sleeping rather than reading.

The Great Irish Lit Wallow

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in March 2013.

What is it about the Irish? That they are a nation of storytellers seems to be borne out the minute you get in a cab in Dublin (though it probably helps that you have an American accent), but the fact is, whether it’s a pub culture that encourages the art of the story well told, a history of political strife retold and retold in oral histories, a well-established cultural mythology, or something else entirely, you know many Irish writers because you read them in school: William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett …*

But there are others you should know about.

I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Ireland, and I believe with all my heart that one way to understand a country or a culture** is to read its literature.*** So a couple years ago I wandered around Dublin from bookstore to bookstore with a list in my hand, bought a bunch of books, and proceeded to read many of them in 2013–14.

The Gathering / Anne Enright
Langrishe, Go Down / Aidan Higgins
Good Behaviour / Molly Keane
TransAtlantic / Colum McCann
The Land of Spices / Kate O’Brien
After the Rising / Orna Ross
The Spinning Heart / Donal Ryan
The Blackwater Lightship / Colm Tóibín

Here’s a brief look at them:

The Gathering
A grown woman, Veronica, attends the wake of her beloved brother Liam (who has committed suicide) and reflects on her family’s troubled history to make sense of the present. Enright reviews Dublin life in the 1920s through the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s as well as the current present, casting an acid eye on how Catholicism affected men, women (Veronica’s mother experienced nineteen pregnancies, and it broke her body and mind), and families in those decades.

Daddy grew up in the west—he always knew the right thing to do. He had beautiful manners. Which, if you ask me, was mostly a question of saying nothing, to anyone, ever. ‘Hello, are you well’, ‘Goodbye now, take care’, the whole human business had to be ritualized. ‘I’m sorry for your trouble’, ‘Put that money away now’, ‘That’s a lovely bit of ham’, ‘It is your noble call’. It bored me to tears, actually: all that control.

I’ve experienced enough of Dubliners to have recognized what I know in the rhythm of Enright’s dialogue. The last thirty pages are just stunning, and very satisfying. There’s a good reason this book won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. (I transcribed this bit from page 42 of a paperback published in 2008 by Vintage–Random House UK.)

Langrishe, Go Down
In the late 1930s, three reclusive middle-aged spinster sisters live on their run-down family estate in Ireland. I’ve been reading a lot of lit from this period between the two wars; the Celtic Tiger is not even a gleam in anyone’s eye, and life is just plain hard. Enter a pompous German graduate student who rents lodging from the women—and one of the sisters embarks on a passionate affair with him, until she realizes he cares nothing for her.

The first chapter was a lovely read but then it was so, so bleak, so sad, grim. In addition, the novel—which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1967 and was turned into a movie with screenplay by Harold Pinter. Harold Pinter, Nobel Prize–winner!—is just difficult: experimental literature that was probably over my head (or, perhaps, simply read at the wrong time). I wanted to love it but I just couldn’t.

Good Behaviour
By the time I got to Good Behaviour, I was in the middle of deadlines and not taking a lot of time to make notes, but I’ll tell you this: it’s set in the 1920s among the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy—which is to say the formerly wealthy Protestants of English heritage who had once been overlords. The New York Review of Books said:

After the treaty, some stormed out shouting at the receding Wicklow Hills. Those who stayed on resorted to irony; for centuries they had been a caste in decline on a poor island-within-an-island in Britain’s oldest colony. They stuck to their wild passions for huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, the turf, drink, and, above all, genealogy, as the damp rose in their fine but decaying houses. Debts and mortgages gathered around them, but they had long settled for not knowing history socially except when it presented itself in the form of family trees (sometimes done in tapestry) going back to the Normans, the Elizabethans, or even to Charlemagne. The snobbery approached, as Stendhal would have said, the Sublime.

This, then, is a book of manners, particularly about the concern for good ones, in the face of horrible, unspeakable events. It is hilarious. Also sad, and made me a little squeamish at times—which, as far as I’m concerned, is the mark of a great book. Published in 1981, Good Behaviour was shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize.

TransAtlantic
I’ve written about Colum McCann’s fabulous book already, so I’ll direct you there.

The Land of Spices
Published in 1941 but set in 1905–1914 Limerick, this novel by one of Ireland’s most famous writers is considered a classic. The action happens almost completely within the walls of a girls’ convent school, with two protagonists—the Mother Superior and a young student. This may not sound like much, but the characters draw you in quickly and then in the last quarter of the book—bam! bam!—it punches you right in the gut, twice. It’s an allegory, really, of the “new” Ireland—the Republic—rising up and leaving the old attitudes (particularly about women) behind.

In the story, a girl of sixteen, a scholar from an impoverished family, has won a scholarship to enter college. Her grandmother, who has been supporting the family, doesn’t believe in the “education of women” and announces that the girl will decline the prize. The confrontation between this woman and the Mother Superior at the convent school is worth the price of the book. It’s not my normal fare, but I seriously loved it.

After the Rising (originally published by Penguin Ireland as Lover’s Hollow)
The Irish Civil War—which followed the war of independence from England that established the Irish Free State—is also called the War of the Brothers, because families were horribly and tragically divided, some supporting the Republicans (who wanted to be completely free from England) and some supporting the Free Staters. The Irishman tells me that—less than a hundred years later—feelings about this war are still very raw. (And in fact, I asked him so many questions he soon mailed me a history book.)

The story—set in a small village in County Wexford—bounces between present and past; the cover copy tells us …

When Jo Devereux returns to Ireland after an absence of twenty years, the last person she expects to meet at her mother’s funeral is Rory O’Donovan. The bitter conflict between her family and his, full of secrets and silences, was the one constant of Jo’s childhood. … [She] … embarks on a quest, uncovering astonishing truths about her mother and grandmother and women’s role in the conflict known as “The War of The Brothers”, the Irish Civil War of 1922. And also about a killing with consequences that have ricocheted through four generations.

I was completely caught up in both stories, and went on to read the second book of this series, Before the Fall. Once projected to be a trilogy—and my copy of Before the Fall reflects that plan—it now appears the author has moved on to other projects.

The Spinning Heart
Donal Ryan is the youngest author in this company, and has written only two novels to date. The Spinning Heart … was gorgeous, just gorgeous. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, it won the Irish Book Awards Book of the Year and the Guardian First Book Prize, and, yes, it definitely deserved to be in that company.

Set in an Irish village just after the economic crisis hit in late 2008, the book is twenty-one short narratives by different characters affected by the collapse of a local building contractor’s firm. Oh, it’s stunning, really different and special because of that. It seems as if they’re each just telling their own story but as you turn the pages you realize there is a complete story arc developing, and it packs a wallop. The setting is contemporary, so the dialogue is modern, and these were voices I recognized, voices I’ve heard.

The Blackwater Lightship
Helen, a school principal in suburban Dublin, has a husband, two sons, and a brother, Declan, with whom she is close. Now Declan is dying of AIDS, and he asks Helen to break the news to their mother and grandmother, from whom they are both estranged.

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, this novel hits all the notes: family, friendship, forgiveness. It’s an interesting comparison to The Land of Spices in this scene of a grandmother and nuns:

“Oh, the nuns loved her,” her grandmother went on, “and when she was in her final year … they called us in, and they had never looked up or down at us before, oh they were very grand, the nuns, a French order. And Mother Emmanuelle, the grandest of them all, told me that she believed Lily had a vocation. I smiled at her and said that would be the happiest thing for us. It was all smiles until I got out to the car and I said to your grandfather that I was going to pray to God to stop Lily entering the convent.”

“And did you not want her to be a nun?” Paul asked.

“Lily? Our beautiful daughter? Have all her hair cut off? And a veil and draughty old convent and only doddery old nuns for company? I did not! And I lay awake every night thinking about how to stop her.”

Over the Christmas holidays Lily (Helen’s mother) is sent to the next town to visit with her worldly cousins who taught her about boys and the latest fashions. And that was that:

… “So she went back to [school], and … we were called in before we took her home for Easter, and we were told that she was becoming a bad example to the other girls, and she had changed completely. Oh, I said to Mother Emmanuelle, I said, we haven’t noticed any change. It must be something in the convent, I said. Oh, she gave me a look, and I looked back at her. And she knew she’d met her match. And that’s how we stopped Lily becoming a nun.”

This scene (transcribed by me from pages 150–51 of a 1999 Picador paperback) made me laugh out loud. Tóibín is very, very good with dialogue: I can hear the Irish cadence here without even trying. And though reviewers have tended to like others of Tóibín’s books better, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

During the period of my Irish Lit Wallow, I also read Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and Nora Webster, both of which were fabulous.

***

Am I finished? Nah—I still have a few more to read: James Plunkett’s Strumpet City; Tóibín’s The Master; McCann’s Let the Great World Spin; Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer (a followup to The Woman Who Walked Into Doors); and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (and also her memoir, Country Girl). And I’ll be trolling Dublin bookstores again this June, so no doubt I’ll add to the list.

If you haven’t read outside  your usual haunts, give Irish lit a try. And if you have, please tell me about your favorite title!

* Four Irish writers have won Nobel Prizes for Literature: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Seamus Heaney.
** Does this mean I will never commit a cultural faux pas on my visits to Ireland? No. You can take the girl out of the States but you can’t take the States out of the girl. Though one does try.
*** For a more complete list of the Irish lit I’ve read in the last few years, go here.