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Wednesday 30 September 2009

Decisions, decisions, decisions!

How can I plan my life when I don’t even know what book to start reading next? It’s simply crazy: books piled beside my bed, on the hall table, in the sitting room, a couple in the car, one in my bag; they are even reaching the kitchen where my otherwise pristine surfaces are beginning to sprout novels, biographies, proof copies, library books and some that very kind friends have insisted on lending me – "Oh, you have to read this, I simply adored it!"

One such was a neighbour’s "favourite book ever", Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. It was a grand read, don’t get me wrong, and I did finish it, but I’m not sure I’d rate it among my favourite books ever. And I do have a problem with the term, "non fiction novel". Either it is or it isn’t, fiction or non-fiction, though who determines what is true and what is invention and aren’t they both part of the same thing anyway, the broad human experience and all that. I am now getting my knickers in a literary/literal twist but forgive me, it’s early in the morning, and I’m still in an indecisive mood.

So how does one write a book blog in such an indecisive world? Well, usually, when I have carefully crafted a piece of indefinable quality I email Raven and settle back, another job well done. Of course, just after I've sent the attachment (that is if I remember to attach the attachment) I think of some small thing that would improve it, and another, and another.

It's rather like choosing blinds for my fancy new kitchen: I decided on one thing, plain white or cream, went up to the showroom and was completely taken with another - fancy patterns, swirling flowers, gorgeous designs - but went back to the safe option. Went home and decided that the safe option would make my kitchen look like an office so rang and asked yer man to bring a few samples when he came down to re-measure (men never trust women to measure but having measured for a living in my former life as a picture framer he found nothing to change – ha!). I chose a demure but tasteful Olive green. Drove up to return samples and found a lovely orange - to match my new Le Creuset kettle - which I brought home to show the girls, for hard won approval. Back up and found a blackout orange but not so strong in colour; home again, girls thought I was mad choosing blackout, so rang up (couldn't drive up again), got him to cancel his order for the blackout and went back to the strong orange which I hoped they'd remember. Anything could arrive next week and I'll be happy with whatever does arrive.

And that was only the blinds! Oh for a simpler life where someone else makes all the decisions. Mind you, would they open the doors long enough for me to dash out to the bookshop for a quick fix at least four times a week or would they make me go cold turkey. I shudder to think, but then that’s my problem, thinking.

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Tuesday 22 September 2009

First Love with Beckett

Two of the greatest writers in the world, both Irish, had to leave this isle of ours to write in some peace, their genius given air to breathe, censorship and small mindedness left behind, as in Matthew 13:57, "Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honour". Appreciation for Beckett and Joyce spread until it reached all round the world, finding its way home, eventually, that we may claim them as our own, now, even as we ignored them then. I cannot assert to have attempted the Herculean task of all that is Ulysses but having dipped my toe into Beckett’s prose I folded down his novellas with a sigh and slight shortness of breath, this master of the comma left nothing to chance, swept away all peripheral nonsense, flaunted a writerly arabesque of strength and balance as he determined each inflection with ease, a fluid languid march towards the inevitable, eventual, ineluctable, assured and certain full stop.

I was surprised to find First Love and Other Novellas by Samuel Beckett so readable. I did have to concentrate, mind you, full attention to every word but it was definitely worth it. His style of writing must have burst onto the literary world like a breath of fresh air. He didn’t clutter the page with all kinds of punctuation but seemed to find the comma and the full stop more than enough for expressing himself. I came across a single exclamation mark that stood out like an astonished soldier standing to attention!

I thought, mistakenly, that Beckett would be so abstruse, too full of otherness that would leave me cold, out of the loop, floundering in ignorance, but found instead a charm of mighty proportions, a secret waiting to be discovered, not to be denied me or anyone with two good eyes, curiosity, pleasure, drama in the everydayness waiting for the hand of Sam, Sam I Am, Samuel, name of God or God has heard, indeed apt for such a man who waited, for Godot, but not for long, nor I.

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Saturday 19 September 2009


Our current cat-in-residence is a black and white moggie who goes by the name of Basil, or Baz for short. His sleek coat is mostly jet-black with a gorgeous snowy white shirt fluffing up under his proud chin. His paws, usually slightly grubby after an evening out on the tear, are returned to their pristine state with ten minutes frantic washing before he settles down, exhausted, in a heap on his blanket. He wears this fine furry tuxedo with the air of a fellow always prepared to eat a decent meal were I to be so good as to put it in front of him.

Like most of our cats he arrived uninvited, after the demise of our previous tenant. We watched his antics as he scaled the ten-foot wall out back, clinging to the trunk of the beech trees, hiking his way up until he reached a bird’s nest to steal their eggs. Someone had dumped him (probably in a plastic bag ‘cause whenever he heard the rustle of a bin bag, he’d vanish, scared to death of the noise) and he ended up thin and scrawny, scavenging for food, and desperate to come and live with us. "You can feed him, but he’s definitely not coming inside" were my immortal words to my soft-hearted daughters who could never resist an appealing meow. About three days later, Basil moved in to rule the roost for the rest of his natural life. He’s been with us for about six years and he’s hale and hearty, his legs strong, his eyes clear and his heart completely devoted to all of us. When my two sons ring home from abroad it’s, "How’s Basil doing?" I’ve even been known to swivel the camera so they can view him on Skype to assure them that the feline Master of our Universe is being properly looked after. When daughter Jessica drops in to visit she swoops him up in her arms, kissing him, telling him he’s lovely, then spends time brushing his fur furiously as he swoons, splayed out beside her, senseless with pleasure, purrrrrrrrring his head off.

Of the many cats that wandered through my life I remember one in particular who loved to sleep close to me at night. Marmalade must have been near her time and around three in the morning she began the business of producing her litter. I woke up to the strangest huffing sounds emanating from the warm bundle on my stomach, quickly decided that this was something I did not want to witness, slid out of bed and went down to the harbour to look at the boats until it was light. Back in my room sat puss, proud as any young mother, five tiny bodies curled up beside her, no evidence of what had happened in the dead of night.

When Hugh Leonard left Manchester to return to live in Ireland there was the small matter of a beloved cat, Honey, who couldn’t possibly be left behind, nor could she be put in quarantine, so instead, this moggie was smuggled across the Irish Sea, doped up to the eyeballs, turning her owners into possible criminals prepared to do time if absolutely necessary. Rover and Other Cats is about all the cats that dominated Hugh Leonard’s household: Rover the star of the show; Honey the Siamese; Priscilla who turned out to be a he; Tinkle, the amorous feline; Dubh the beloved; The Pooka, Panache (the first cat to have his obituary in a broadsheet) and last but not least, P.S.

Once you’ve read Rover’s introduction into the family you’ll just have to get the book to find out what happened next: "He was an orange blob no bigger than Paule’s hand when he came to us in a shoebox that could have held six of him. A friend of a friend of ours urgently wanted a home for a male kitten; when we protested that he was not yet weaned, we were given to understand that his alternative home would be a weighted sack thrown over the sea wall. And so that shoe box changed hands."

This memoir will make you laugh, cry, and delight in this author’s obvious love of cats.

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Tuesday 15 September 2009

Julia & Me!

Julia Child and I have two things in common: a love of eating and a love of cooking. The big difference is that she was a fabulous cook who wrote a veritable cookery bible, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (volumes I & II) while I just buy cookery books with irresistibly mouth watering covers and stash them on my already overloaded shelf rarely to be opened. Ng Kee Cheong, a young lad from Hong Kong who adopted us as a family, said that he couldn’t understand all the cookery books in my kitchen and the fact that I never seemed to use them. It often takes a stranger in your life to point out startlingly obvious facts about yourself of which you are blissfully unaware: would that I had remained so.

When my daughter decided to become a vegetarian, I purchased the most sensible paperback book on the subject (not a single picture in sight) and studied it cover to cover until I had got to grips with the ‘no meat’ thing. I would sit with my tea in the morning and read a page or two of From Anna’s Kitchen, gleaning all the relevant facts, and it is a book I still use now that I have mastered the art of cooking rabbit food (I can’t believe I said that!).

One of my first wedding presents (I was so surprised when I announced my imminent nuptials to find gifts arriving on my doorstep; it was something that had never crossed my mind. Was I an innocent or what???) was a splendid cookery book (once again, thank you very much Frank Deignan) which has been used so much that the covers have become detached and the edges are brown with age (it was a long time ago). Page 268 of my Good Housekeeping, is splattered with the ingredients for Christmas Puddings, a recipe that has been used once a year since I was first wed. The Goulash on page 103 fed many a dinner guest with a slice of Banana Tea Bread from page 329 for afters. If I fancied trying something new, all I had to do was plough through until inspired and away I went: broiling, baking, grilling, roasting, frying, burning, toasting, charring – so much so that when my beloved and I decided to divorce, he looked at me fondly and said that he would miss my cooking! Not a word of a lie, my friends, and I took it as a compliment.

Anyway, I’ve just been to see the film Julie and Julia and I enjoyed it immensely. Now I have to have the book: no, not Julie Powell’s modern take on how her life mimics that of the cook, Julia Child, but the original, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first published in 1961. I want to make her sizzling Boeuf (à la) Bourguignonne to dazzle unsuspecting guests who will only be invited so I can show off. I promise, Kee Cheong, just in case you’re reading this, that I will keep this book off the shelf and use it as often as this carnivore gets her own way in the kitchen.

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Saturday 12 September 2009

Mountains to the Sea Literary Festival

It’s not often you meet someone that you will probably never meet again, and if you did, wouldn’t have a clue who you were, but who makes a lasting positive impression. I’m resistant to being star struck by fame or beauty alone: I love the Beatles – not the Fab Four themselves – rather their music which has always made me weak at the knees. I love broadcaster Terry Wogan ‘cause he always made me laugh when I listened in to his radio show, slightly homesick and far away from these shores; whether I’d enjoy his company without a radio between us, I’m not so sure. And as for Barbra Streisand, I could die happy listening to her sing but I’m sure she’d drive me batty in the flesh.

But, when I made a beeline for American author, Paul Auster to ask if he’d autograph Brooklyn Follies for a friend (well, it was originally for me but I’ve since decided her need is greater than mine) I ended up speaking to his wife, Siri Hustvedt, an author in her own right with two novels under her belt, another on the way. Siri stood as tall as a Viking (her roots, I hear), elegant, sweet natured and kind and she talked to me as if to an old friend. I, from my five foot two inches, looked up at her and saw someone, had things been otherwise, I would love to have as a friend.

That was at the grand opening of the Mountains to the Sea Literary Festival in Dun Laoghaire that is a mere fifteen-minute walk from my home. I am indeed blessed. The place was bursting with local writers and visitors from afar such as: Paul Auster, Sebastian Faulks, Sadie Jones, Declan Kiberd, John Carey, Douglas Kennedy, Siri Hustvedt, Patrick Gale, Anne Enright, Hugo Hamilton, Diarmaid Ferriter, Paul Howard and Maeve Binchy. And from York Road (which I stroll down almost daily) we had Marion Keyes, Julie Parsons and my good friend, Sarah Webb. The glitterati of the literati!

Yesterday afternoon, as we met for a quick chat, Sarah produced a spare ticket for the Siri Hustvedt, Paul Auster reading in the Pavilion Theatre. The place was packed. Not a single seat was vacant and the audience was hugely appreciative. When Siri read from her new novel you could hear a pin drop and Paul, after a loving glance at his wife who received such warm applause, read from his new work in progress, leaving us, mid sentence almost, wanting more.

Afterwards, we all dashed over to the Town Hall and joined a humungous queue to have our books signed. There was a great buzz as we clutched our hot-off-the-presses copy of Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story for Paul to squiggle his name on. And Siri, as good-natured as before, signed my proffered book: The Sorrows of an American. I smiled at her, as if at an old friend but she, of course, hadn’t a clue who I was; she did realise, however, that we had met. "Tell me your name again" she asked, apologetically. "Mary", I piped up, though truth be told I hadn’t told it her first time round. What gentle good manners she managed to display. Thanks, Siri!

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Wednesday 9 September 2009

The Dicelady Speaks

I’ve offered up my services to my mother, of all people, as a favour and a whim to write a book-related experience. I hope I don’t embarrass her too much... A series of random coincidences and pure luck on my mother’s fantastic female workings, led, not inevitably but invariably, to my conception and later, as my luck would hold out, my birth. This lucky streak continued, with a few minor glitches, to save me from my own stupidity and has thus far kept me alive. So far, so good. I should thank my lucky stars and many of the planets and neighbouring galaxies as well.

It was during the summer of 2001 that I was sent to live with an aunt in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and discovered she collected dice. It must’ve slipped my The Dice Manmind at the time that she would’ve been the first one to recommend Luke Rhinehart’s questionable work of coincidence to me. A year or two later, an alternative-type friend introduced me to the world of D&D role-playing and his dice collection and that was it. I now knew how to come by and appreciate these geometric gems, but I was still lacking a purpose. Another period of time elapsed and I finally heeded the constant recommendations of my colleagues and bought, read and then re-read The Dice Man. That was the proverbial moment, the ‘It’ of my existence: the reason, the philosophy behind the reason, the answer to so many questions, and the beginning of so many more opportunities that my under-developed dice-mind hadn’t even begun to conceive.

In all my travels and to all those I call friends I have recommended my slightly alternative Gospel un-truths in the hope that it will reveal to them what it has instilled in me. To sound expectedly cliché: anything is possible in a world where the only limit is your imagination. To sound unexpected: glurgle fob tea-cup woopind ter frooooossttt tandem inoculation.

Written by the Dicelady 9/9/09


Saturday 5 September 2009

Who stole the lid of the teapot?

Whenever anything went missing in our house you could be sure of two things: (1) someone would sing a line from an old song, "Who stole the lid of the Teapot?" and (2) a quick prayer would be offered up to Saint Anthony, patron of Lost Things and Missing Persons. Generally, the offending article would appear right in front of your eyes and we’d all marvel at St Anthony’s dependability. Mind you, I have never lost a real person so the second part of his title has never truly been put to the test. This morning, all I’m asking for is the return of my purse. Whenever it contains more than a fiver I think to myself, now where would a burglar be least likely to look. The big problem is that neither the burglar nor I would have any idea since I’ve slipped it in somewhere so ridiculous that absolutely nobody on this earth could retrieve it in a hurry. Oh, I know I will find it, but I want to write my blog and then take myself off to do the weekend shop this morning. As a result of this fantastic hiding place (it was only last night, for goodness sake) I can’t go shopping. So, now for a book blog...

Click to read an extractThe Book of Lost Things seems to be the perfect title for this morning’s outburst. Published in 2006, this wildly imaginative adult fairy tale is quite a departure for Irish crime writer, John Connolly. John - I can all him John because having met him (he’s charming) and owned up to not having read any of his books, he duly sent me a signed hardback of the aforementioned title - is known for his gritty, blood thirsty novels with titles like The Killing Kind and Every Dead Thing. In The Book of Lost Things John has had a blast using characters from tales his mother used to tell him and has brought them back to life with a twist. After reading, you will never think about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in quite the same way again. The Crooked Man is deviously horrible and in a land populated by heroes, wolves and monsters we travel with young David who, having lost his mother, has to learn to overcome grief and get on with his life.

Now, where did I put my purse...

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Wednesday 2 September 2009

Feminism & Me

I was brought up in a household ruled with a rod of iron by my mother, Gretta; a woman to be admired, respected and avoided at all costs if you happened to be a useful offspring. As a result I never understood the need for feminism. Rather, I would have stood up for men’s rights most often ignored in our untraditional home. When I married and became a mother (sort of in that order) I unwittingly became the little woman, a position that did not sit at all well with me. Then, in 1977 I read (devoured) The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and became (overnight) misunderstood, used, angry, fuming, and a strident feminist. My husband found my enlightening experience hugely amusing and irrelevant; my brother read it too, and became the first male feminist in my small circle.

The book followed the evolution of repressed suburban housewife Mira who divorced her brutish husband in the sixties and made her way to Harvard where she found friendship with other like-minded women.

The Women’s Room, translated into nearly thirty languages, soon became a feminist classic. With this novel, Marilyn French captured the mood of a generation of women at odds with society’s traditional conception of their assigned roles.

The book is full of extremes and anger not least due to the rape of French’s eighteen-year old daughter coupled with her own difficulties within an unhappy marriage.

But any woman who stays at home to look after the children (the most underrated and yet necessary part of parenting) is in danger of becoming subsumed by housework and ostracised by those who earn their living outside of the home. When accused of hating men, French said, "What I am opposed to is the notion that men are superior to me." Well, I couldn’t have put it better myself!

Now, thirty years after reading The Women’s Room, I have come to the conclusion that we – men and women – have no greater claim on superiority whether we earn a huge salary, sweep the streets, or stay at home looking after the next generation: it all boils down to respect and tolerance and the knowledge that we all have a part to play in an inclusive and liberal society.

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