Contemporary, Literary Ireland: Donal Ryan

I love the books of Donal Ryan. I don’t mention them much here—to my American friends—because he is an Irish writer and they are very Irish and I think sometimes they are too Irish for many American readers. (He is published on a small press here—Steerforth—and I will forthwith begin buying more of their fiction because, well, Donal Ryan.) That is, the milieu, the mind-set, the contemporary history—all are set in an Ireland I know well.

But, dagnabbit, Ryan is a brilliant writer. Everything he’s written, brilliant. None of this “well, I liked his second one best” business. ALL. BRILLIANT. So, American friends, read them.

They were published (and I read them) in this order:

The Spinning Heart (novel)
The Thing About December (novel)
A Slanting of the Sun (short stories)
All We Shall Know (novel)

I have just finished All We Shall Know. It hasn’t even been reviewed in the States. But it was special.


Couldn't find my copy of The Thing About December. It's Around here somewhere.

Couldn’t find my copy of The Thing About December. It’s around here somewhere.

Can You Hear the Corn?


My strongest memory of our garden is not how it smelled, or even looked, but how it sounded. It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest. At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still August day.

—Hope Jahren, from Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf 2016)

A Seed Knows How to Wait

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. … A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is as alive as the three-hundred-year-old oak tree that towers over it. … [When you go into a forest] you probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting.

When the embryo within a seed starts to grow, it basically just stretches out of its doubled-over waiting posture, elongating into official ownership of the form that it assumed years ago. The hard coat that surrounds a peach pit, a sesame or mustard seed, or a walnut’s shell mostly exists to to prevent this expansion. In the laboratory we simply scratch the hard coat and add a little water and it’s enough to make almost any seed grow. I must have cracked thousands of seeds over the years, and yet the next day’s green never fails to amaze me. Something so hard can be so easy if you just have a little help. In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.

After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed (nelumbo nucifera) and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. And then one day this little plant’s yearning finally burst forth within a laboratory. I wonder where it is right now.

—Hope Jahren, from Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf 2016)

When we dug up the colorful-but-aggressive houttynia cordata, we planted it in this hanging pot—in beautiful black soil from our compost bin. As a result, we have a volunteer tomato plant and two … cantaloupe? cucumber? … plants keeping it company. Seeds that were waiting too. :)

When we dug up the colorful-but-aggressive houttynia cordata, we planted it in this hanging pot—in beautiful black soil from our compost bin. As a result, we have a volunteer tomato plant and two … cantaloupe? cucumber? … plants keeping it company. Seeds that were waiting too. 🙂

Free Day!

20 December 2000, Wednesday

Anna came down with a stomach bug and, unbeknownst to the Americans sleeping in her guest room, was up all night. And Eoin, after seeing to his wife’s needs, really had to go to work—which left Jess and I on our own for the day.

After easing into the morning, then, Anna drove us the five or so minutes to the station in Wokingham, where we caught the train into Reading (pronounced REDDing) to do some shopping and wandering. The journey by train took less than ten minutes, even with stops in between. It felt like we were on a people mover at Disneyland. 🙂

Reading is in the Thames Valley about halfway between London and Oxford. The city grew near the meeting place of the Rivers Thames and Kennet, which were the main transport routes through the anciecnt woodland that covered most of southern England. The mainstay of employment in Reading is now the computer industry, with Microsoft, Digital, Hewlett-Packard, and Oracle all having large offices in or near the town; currently (in late 2000) there are jobs available in Reading and not enough people to fill them. Once famous for “beer, biscuits, and bacon,” as well as seed production, Reading has seen these industries close down or move away. However, there is still a large brewery on the edge of town. The old brewery—in the center of town—has now been redeveloped into a major shopping center, called the Oracle.

It was to this mall—the first and only mall we visited in England—that we directed our footsteps … but first we wandered in and out of small shops in the central shopping district that lay between the train station and the Oracle. We preferred the streets, where there were happy Christmas shoppers, street musicians, tea shops, and just generally a lot going on.

I learned more about Reading after I returned home. This was before smartphones, and we didn’t have a map or any way to research. Reading might have been an interesting place to sightsee; there are some old churches and the ruins of an abbey, for example. A university too. The town dates from the eighth century, so there’s definitely some history. I wish I’d prepared a little more thoroughly for an unexpected day in a strange town, but I guess you just can’t. And I was new to this traveling business.

So … we shopped. 🙂 We found ourselves in a small shop, a men’s clothiers called Butler’s, where we were treated like royalty, although we spent less than ten pounds. (Later we learned that this small shop, into which we’d wandered by accident, was Eoin’s preferred vendor for suits, dress shirts, and the other accoutrements of the natty English businessman.) It was so nice to be made to feel welcome!

We ate a quick dinner in the train station and didn’t return to Wokingham until long after dark, when we’d just about walked our feet off. Anna had gone off to visit her parents that evening, and we had a nice chat with Eoin before bed.