Michael MacGrian

To stand alone, I thought; to stand alone and unarmed, unarmed but watchful; that was my wish - unarmed, fearful, watchful; haunted perhaps by untold fears lodged in every imagined shadow; mute as the rabbit was mute, and stalked as it was stalked by one vast foolish braggart threat...
Michael MacGrian, "Myself and a Rabbit"

March 28, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Brian O'Nolan

Mr. Toole had a peculiarity. He had the habit, when accompanied by another person, of saluting total strangers; but only if these strangers were of important air and costly raiment. He meant thus to make it known that he had friends in high places, and that he himself, though poor, was a person of quality fallen on evil days through some undisclosed sacrifice made in the interest of immutable principle early in life. Most of the strangers, startled out of their private thoughts, stammered a salutation in return.
Brian O'Nolan, "The Martyr's Crown"

March 27, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

St. John Ervine

Townsmen and neighbours mingled with men from the country and the hills, and fishermen from the bay where the girl was drowned; and each man, as he came up to a group of acquaintances, spoke of the terribleness of the disaster, and then the talk circled round the affairs of the small town.
St. John Ervine, "The Burial"

March 26, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Oscar Wilde

"Far away," continued the statue in a low musical voice, "far away in a little street there is a poor house. One of the windows is open, and through it I can see a woman seated at a table. Her face is thin and worn, and she has coarse, red hands, all pricked by the needle, for she is a seamstress. She is embroidering passion-flowers on a satin gown for the loveliest of the Queen's maids-of-honour to wear at the next Court-ball. In a bed in the corner of the room her little boy is lying ill. He has a fever, and is asking for oranges. His mother has nothing to give him but river water, so he is crying. Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow, will you not bring her the ruby out of my sword-hilt? My feet are fastened to this pedestal and I cannot move."
Oscar Wilde, "The Happy Prince"

March 25, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...be like him, if you can..."

Jonathan Swift's self-penned epitaph:

Here lies the body
Of Jonathan Swift, S.T.D.,
Dean of this cathedral,
Where wild indignation
No more
Can tear his heart.
Go, traveller
And be like him, if you can,
Vigorous to his utmost
As liberty’s avenger.

March 25, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

William Butler Yeats

And then he was silent and nobody liked to question him, and they began to play. There were six men at the boards playing, and the others were looking on behind. They played two or three games for nothing, and then the old man took a fourpenny bit, worn very thin and smooth, out from his pocket, and he called to the rest to put something on the game. Then they all put down something on the boards, and little as it was it looked much, from the way it was shoved from one to another, first one man winning it and then his neighbour. And sometimes the luck would go against a man and he would have nothing left, and then one or another would lend him something, and he would pay it again out of his winnings, for neither good nor bad luck stopped long with anyone.
William Butler Yeats, "Red Hanrahan"

March 24, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seumas O'Kelly

One evening she was walking by the canal when The Golden Barque passed. The light was very clear and searching. It showed every plank, battered and tarstained, on the rough hulk, but for all that it lost none of its magic for Mary. The little shrunken driver, head down, the lips moving, walked beside the horse. She heard his low mutters as he passed. The red-faced man was stooping over the side of the boat, swinging out a vessel tied to a rope, to haul up some water. He was singing a ballad in a monotonous voice. A tall, dark, spare man was standing by the funnel, looking vacantly ahead. Then Mary's eyes travelled to the tiller.
Seumas O'Kelly, "Michael and Mary"

March 23, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mary Lavin

"Put on your good clothes," said the widow, making a great effort to be gentle, but her manners had become as twisted and as hard as the branches of the trees across the road from her, and even the kindly offers she made seemed harsh. The boy sat on the chair in a slumped position that kept her nerves on edge, and set up a further conflict of irritation and love in her heart. She hated to see him slumping there in the chair, not asking to go outside the door, but still she was uneasy whenever he as much as looked in the direction of the door. She felt safe while he was under the roof; inside the lintel; under her eyes.
Mary Lavin, "The Story of the Widow's Son"

March 22, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

James Stephens

The man was pitiable, and I pitied him. I went alternately hot and cold. I blushed for him and for myself; for the stones under our feet and for the light clouds that went scudding above our heads; and in another instant I was pale with rage at his shameful, shameless persistence. I thrust my hands into my pockets, because they were no longer hands but fists; and because they tingled and were inclined to jerk without authority from me.
James Stephens, "Schoolfellows"

March 21, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bryan McMahon

He began to lead the way home. The sexton trailed a miserable yard or two behind. Glory was gone out of his life. The wonderful day seemed to mock him. The future was a known road stretching before his leaden legs. What he had thought would prove a pleasant bauble had turned to a crown of thorns. In the past, whenever he had chafed against the drab nature of his existence, he had consoled himself thus: "One day, perhaps today, I'll run and buy me a hoop of bright colors."
Bryan McMahon, "The Cat and the Cornfield"

March 20, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Eric Cross

"Could I remember the music?" exclaimed Johnny. "Indeed, but it would be the day of the greatest aise to me when the day dawns that I disremember every screech of it. As for describing of it," he continued, after some head-scratching, "will you tell him that it would be beyond the powers of the worst poet yet born to put words to it. 'Tis such a roaring and a buzzing and a banging and a beating: such a twirling of trumpets and a tweaking of flutes and a scattering of the scraping of fiddles that the like of it was never heard before in the history of the world. 'Tis like the bellowings of young animals in pain and the howling of infants in divilment and the scolding of women in crossness and in the midst of it all there is this ould divil of a queer one, waving his hands up and down and about in the air as though the sound was all running out of the ends of his fingers like porter out of a tap."
Eric Cross, "Saint Bakeoven"

March 20, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers...Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: 'Hitler is making a speech.' I shouted back, 'I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.' Last March, twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard." - Leonard Woolf

March 19, 2017 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

Michael McLaverty

Left alone John breathed freely, and for some reason whenever he crossed the floor he did so on his tiptoes. He lifted the red cloak that was trimmed in fur, held it in his outstretched arms to admire it, and squeezed the life out of a moth that was struggling in one of the folds. Chips of tinsel glinted on the shoulders of the cloak and he was ready to flick them off when he decided it was more Christmassy-looking to let them remain on. He pulled on the cloak, crossed on tiptoes to a looking-glass on the wall and winked and grimaced at himself, sometimes putting up the collar of the cloak to enjoy the warm touch of fur on the back of his neck. He attached the beard and the whiskers, spitting out one or two hairs that had strayed into his mouth.
Michael McLaverty, "Father Christmas"

March 18, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sean O'Faolain

But the exasperating thing is that his victims do talk to him again, and in the most friendly way, though why they do it I do not know considering some of the things he says and writes about them. He is the man who said of a certain woman who is in the habit of writing letters to the press in defence of the Department of Roads and Railways: "Ah, sure, she wrote that with the Minister's tongue in her cheek." Yet the Minister for Roads and Railways is one of his best friends, and he says, "Ike Dignam? Ah, sure! He's all right. The poor divil is good at heart." And the cursed thing is that Ike is good at heart. I have long since given up trying to understand what this means. Something vaguely connected with hope and consolation and the endless mercy of God?
Sean O'Faolain, "Persecution Mania"

March 17, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Padraic O Conaire

The rain was coming down in torrents and the west wind blew a full gale from the sea. Where there were trees by the roadside the wind made the weirdest music in their bare branches. The full moon was somewhere up in the sky if the astronomers were to be believed, but it was completely hidden from us. I was wet to the skin, tired, weary and hungry. The driver was in no better condition. The horse was just dragging its legs after him and his head bobbed up and down like a child's toy horse. The wind shrieked, making a sound like devils' music.
- Padraic O Conaire, "The Devil and O'Flaherty"

March 16, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Val Mulkerns

Mr. Mulvey was gray and hunched and small, with heavy-lidded gloomy eyes and a mouth turning down hopelessly at the corners. A first glance, before he opened his mouth, suggested that his voice would be a sick wind among the reeds, but in fact it was big and jolly and when he laughed, which was frequently, you had the fantastic impression that some enchantment had been worked before your eyes and that this was certainly not the man who had walked into the room. It was difficult to say whether his life had taken the form of a victorious battle against his natural temperament, or whether it was only his appearance which belied him.
- Val Mulkerns, "The World Outside"

March 15, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

George Moore

"It's a terrible thing to put a curse on a man, and the curse that Julia put on Father Madden's parish was a bad one, the divil a worse. The sun was up at the time, and she on the hilltop raising both her hands. And the curse she put on the parish was that every year a roof must fall in and a family go to America. That was the curse, your honor, and every word of it has come true. You'll see for yourself as soon as we cross the mearing."
- George Moore, "Julia Cahill's Curse"

March 14, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

James Plunkett

They sat with their arms folded while Brother Quinlan, in the high chair at the head of the class, gave religious instruction. Swaine kept his bruised face lowered. Without the glasses it had a bald, maimed look, as though his eyebrows, or a nose, or an eye, were missing. They had exchanged no words since the fight. Peter was aware of the boots. They were a defeat, something to be ashamed of. His mother only thought they would keep out the rain. She didn't understand that it would be better to have wet feet. People did not laugh at you because your feet were wet.
- James Plunkett, "Weep for Our Pride"

March 13, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

David Hogan

That was what he had heard. He knew it was nothing else. For two years he had drilled and marched and fought with the East Wicklow column of the I.R.A. and knew every sound that a rifle gives. Whoever had thrown that stone had wanted him to sit up, so that he might be seen - and shot. The click behind the trees meant that whoever held the rifle was determined to take no chances. He was not going to rely on one shot, he had filled his magazine to make sure. But he had not fired. That, Michael could not understand. He had loaded his magazine because he had meant to fire. As Michael sent his light craft skimming over the lake he forgot his expectant fear in meditating on the mystery of the rifle that did not speak.
- David Hogan, "The Leaping Trout"

March 12, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

John Collier

In pursuit of these delights, Ringwood ranged and roved from Donegal to Wexford through all the seasons of the year. There were not many hunts he had not led at some time or other on a borrowed mount, or many bridges he had not leaned over through half a May morning, or many inn parlors where he had not snored away a wet winter afternoon in front of the fire.
- John Collier, "The Lady on the Grey"

March 11, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Donagh MacDonagh

Poor Mr. Wilson nearly rose out of the bed with the fright when he saw Brother Augustine coming in, in his habit. Brother MacCormack was so small and neat and the black clothes were so quiet that Mr. Wilson hardly noticed them, but when he saw Brother Augustine coming in as big as a house with the rosary flapping at his side he thought his last hour had come and this was the devil for his soul.
- Donagh MacDonagh, "Duet for Organ and Strings"

March 10, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Desmond Clarke

He was thinking all the time, thinking in a slow unhappy kind of way. He sat down beside the curragh; his eyes narrowly slightly as he fixed them on the dimly-dark outline of the island, a ragged and discordant rent in the unbroken skyline like a great tear. Gradually the broad expanse seemed to narrow, the sea between the shore and the rocky island faded to a thin line like a road between.
- Desmond Clarke, "The Islandman"

March 9, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Paul Vincent Carroll

At a mischievous bend on the mountain path, the Manahan cottage suddenly jumped out of the mist like a sheep dog and welcomed them with a blaze of wild, flowering creepers. Inside, the middle-aged labourer was bending over a dark deep chimney nook. A turf fire burned underneath on the floor. From a sooty hook far up, a rude chain hung down and supported a large pot of boiling water. She nodded approvingly and donning her overalls moved away in the direction of the highly-pitched cries from an inner room.
- Paul Vincent Carroll, "She Went by Gently"

March 8, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Jim Phelan

Acute discomfort showed among the peasantmen, while the shopkeeper still smiled. Gradually, in the silence, a guilty, hang-dog expression appeared on each face, as if Packy had caught them out in some mean and sordid conspiracy to cheat him. Then, the silence continuing, they stared at the gombeen in blank and hopeless calm. They had nothing, could pay nothing, could do nothing.
- Jim Phelan, "Bell Wethers"

March 7, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Liam O'Flaherty

He threw himself down on the clothes beside the yellow-haired woman. She smiled and looked at the tinker. The tinker paused with the bottle to his lips and looked at her through almost closed eyes savagely. He took the bottle from his lips bared his white teeth. The golden-headed woman shrugged her shoulders and pouted. The dark-haired woman laughed aloud, stretched back with one arm under her head and the other stretched out towards the tinker.
- Liam O'Flaherty, "The Tent"

March 6, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Arnold Hill

She always cycled down to Johnston's on Saturday night and left the bicycle outside while she got drunk in the bar parlour. It was a strange thing, but she always seemed to ride much better when she came out of Johnston's. At other times her method of riding was slow and wobbly and uncertain, as if she were on a bicycle for the first time. But on leaving the pub on Saturday nights she would heave her huge body on to the saddle and go pedalling furiously up the narrow street, weaving in and out among carts and dogs and herds of cattle, narrowly missing other cyclists and shouting at anyone who got in the way.
- Arnold Hill, "Miss Gillespie and the Micks"

March 5, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Daniel Corkery

"I'm very glad," repeated Ivor in his mind, wonderingly, yet feeling that the words fitted in. He noticed Driscoll and Mescall, their arms hanging heavily after their night's work, their sea boots clumping noisily almost along the deck, going aft to the little cabin, making down the hatchway without a word. The boy had gone down previously. The waft of the smell of boiling fish, of boiling potatoes, that came from the smoke pipe told of his toil below. To Ivor it was very welcome. He was hungry; and besides they would presently all meet together around the little stove. "I'm very glad," he whispered, not knowing why. And the smoke, he saw, was like a lighted plume rising from the top of the iron pipe.
- Daniel Corkery, "The Awakening"

March 4, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Padraic Fallon

He stopped abruptly before the look that came over her face. But she said nothing. She had it in her mind to fling at him an old Gaelic proverb about the fool and the sea, but she closed her mouth, partly because of island courtesy, partly because the proverb itself touched too closely on memories of her own. She had heard an old man hurl it through his beard the night they brought her father home in an old sail, and she had heard it many times since, when young men, rotted with death and salt water, were laid down in an old graveyard near the Lighthouse.
- Padraic Fallon, "Something in a Boat"

March 3, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it..."

"Few lies carry the inventor’s mark, and the most prostitute enemy to truth may spread a thousand, without being known for the author: besides, as the vilest writer hath his readers, so the greatest liar hath his believers: and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no further occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead." - Jonathan Swift, from "Political Lying"

March 2, 2017 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Patrick Kavanagh

For one year I was virtual dictator of that team, being captain of the team and secretary and treasurer of the club. There was no means of checking up on my cash which gave rise to a lot of ill-founded suspicion. I remember I kept the money in an attache-case under my bed. It is possible that every so often I visited it for the price of a packet of cigarettes, but nothing serious.
- Patrick Kavanagh, "Football"

March 2, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Frank O'Connor

To give Father his due, he was always ready to lose a half day for the sake of an old neighbour. It wasn't so much that he liked funerals as that he was a conscientious man who did as he would be done by; and nothing could have consoled him so much for the prospect of his own death as the assurance of a worthy funeral.
- Frank O'Connor, "The Drunkard"

March 1, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Irish March

For this year's Irish March, I never got around to picking out any novels, after having found, last summer, the anthology 44 Irish Short Stories (1955), edited by Devin Garrity. Since there are 33 authors included, my plan is to read a story by a different author each day this month - and with two authors to spare, I can skip the ubiquitous James Joyce and explore writers I'm not familiar with. I'll post a story excerpt each day, to share some flavor of the writing.

March 1, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...a white wedge of face, with two burning black eyes..."

In 1959, William Maxwell and his wife Emmy attended the filming of 74-year-old Isak Dinesen reading one of her short stories, which he described in a letter to Eudora Welty:

For nearly four hours we listened to that story, and looked at that extraordinary face, without for one second tiring of either one. And you could look because she never looked back. She looked at the camera as if it loved to hear stories more than anything in this world, and I certainly hope it did. She was able to repeat and recapture phrasing, cadences, pitch of voice, even fleeting experiences, time after time, as if she were an actress. She did not even look tired, until it was all, at last, over, and then suddenly when I turned around, she was sitting, in that black fur coat, but rather longhaired, not caracul or Persian lamb or anything ordinary, with a black chiffon scarf over her head, leaving a white wedge of face, with two burning black eyes in it, and the whole body in the posture of exhaustion.

Maxwell was quite taken with Dinesen - he mentions being struck by her black eyes more than once - and later writes, quite poignantly, "It is several years too late to be her friend, but it is not too late to remember what she is like, as long as I live."

Maxwell was a marvelous, elegant letter-writer - I'd love to know if he wrote that paragraph above in one take, or if he wrote drafts of it before coming up with the final version. Welty's letters, by contrast, are casual and folksy, and often tinged with longing and sadness. Reading their letters is really making me want to read more of their books.

(Excerpt from What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell.)

February 26, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)


"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias." - Oscar Wilde

February 26, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"A novelist looks for the stories that haven’t been told." - John Boyne

Though Julie grew up Catholic, and Maddie goes to Catholic high school, I grew up Lutheran (none of us are religious now) and have only looked on the Catholic Church with a sort of distant fascination. Of course, given the rampant child abuse there that has been revealed over the last few decades, I'm glad to have had that distance during my youth. But my fascination remains for this oddly ritualistic, almost anachronistic institution and the treacherous tightrope it walks as it struggles for relevance in modern, rational society while still maintaining its traditions.

To cite just the most recent examples of my interest: I've just added Boyne's previous novel, A History of Loneliness, to my list, I'm reading Frank McCourt (for whom the church seems to have never been far away), and last night we watched the final episode of The Young Pope, which was excellent - weird, but excellent.

February 19, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Some had given up the pint entirely and they were the worst..."

In his second memoir, 'Tis, Frank McCourt again remembers his childhood in Limerick, Ireland:

I'd see people at Mass on Sunday morning where a whisper would run through the church when someone with a hunger weakness would collapse in the pew and have to be carried outside by men from the back of the church who'd tell everyone, Stand back, stand back, for the lovea Jaysus, can't you see she's gasping for the air, and I wanted to be a man like that telling people stand back because that gave you the right to stay outside till the Mass was over and you could go off to the pub which is why you were standing in the back with all the other men in the first place. Men who didn't drink always knelt right up there by the altar to show how good they were and how they didn't care if the pubs stayed closed till Doomsday. They knew the responses to the Mass better than anyone and they'd be blessing themselves and standing and kneeling and sighing over their prayers as if they felt the pain of Our Lord more than the rest of the congregation. Some had given up the pint entirely and they were the worst, always preaching the evil of the pint and looking down on the ones still in the grip as if they were on the right track to heaven. They acted as if God Himself would turn His back on a man drinking the pint when everyone knew you'd rarely hear a priest up in the pulpit denounce the pint or the men who drank it.

The reason being, of course, that the priests probably enjoyed a good pint just as much as the worst of the sinners. Laughing with the sinners instead of crying with the saints, to paraphrase Billy Joel.

Like much of the English-speaking world, I read Angela's Ashes years ago, but don't remember much of it, other than the vivid scene(s) of his father finally coming home on payday, roaring drunk after spending his entire paycheck, rousting the children out of bed and demanding they sing Irish patriotic songs. 'Tis is that book's followup (McCourt published a third, Teacher Man, before he passed away in 2009) which focuses on McCourt's immigration to America.

'Tis has been on my shelf for years and I finally cracked it open this week. I like it so far, but I might have to switch to a different edition. My edition is the mass-market paperback, which has a tiny font that's a strain to read even with my glasses on, and especially just before bed when my eyes are at their most tired.

February 19, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"May we all feel that swirl of brilliance once in a while."

Cardboard Gods author Josh Wilker, on trying to write a novel in his limited spare time:

Writing is not like I thought it would be when I was a youth high on marijuana and reading On the Road. You never get lifted up into some kind of ecstasy. No, you have to just fucking sit down and insist on a reality, again and again.

I admire how he was able to connect obscure 1970s pitcher Doug Konieczny and MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. I've reconnected with Wilker's blog only recently, shortly after looking through my old baseball cards with Maddie, who seemed to enjoy the experience despite having almost zero interest in baseball. I suppose baseball cards can be of interest even to non-fans, from an aesthetic standpoint and the way that the cards are a tiny, succinct biographical capsule of the lives of long-forgotten people. I think Wilker probably feels this way, too. I'm going to hunt down his book. 

February 11, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” – Hannah Arendt

With the already-widely-read 1984 shooting up the bestseller charts, I can't help wondering if It Can't Happen Here and The Plot Against America will enjoy similar revivals. I'd say Roth is the much better bet - he's still alive and popular, which is far more than can be said for Sinclair Lewis.

February 9, 2017 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...ordinary pavements trod by real boots..."

Sinclair Lewis, from his 1930 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature:

My university days at Yale were undistinguished save for contributions to the Yale Literary Magazine. It may be interesting to say that these contributions were most of them reeking with a banal romanticism; that an author who was later to try to present ordinary pavements trod by real boots should through university days have written nearly always of Guinevere and Lancelot - of weary bitterns among sad Irish reeds - of story-book castles with troubadours vastly indulging in wine, a commodity of which the author was singularly ignorant. What the moral is, I do not know. Whether imaginary castles at nineteen lead always to the sidewalks of Main Street at thirty-five, and whether the process might be reversed, and whether either of them is desirable, I leave to psychologists.

All writers have to start somewhere. And from that starting point, Lewis traveled farther than most. 

February 8, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"We'd get sick on too many cookies, but ever so much sicker on no cookies at all." - Sinclair Lewis (born on this date in 1885)

February 7, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"If you have to ask..."

In my great friend Ben Tanzer's latest, Be Cool, ("a memoir (sort of)"), he remembers (or imagines?) an early teenaged makeout session at a party, with a cheerleader whom he barely knows.

   I started to obsess.
   Was I going too fast or too slow?
   Should I take out the condom that was slowly melting in my wallet from lack of use while I still could?
   Were we supposed to take off all our clothes first?
   Do I ask about any of this?
   "Should I get a condom out?" I finally and breathlessly asked, looking at her in a panic.
   Rhonda pushed me off of her and left the room.
   I never spoke to her again.
   I spoke to Joe, though.
   "If you have to ask," he said, shaking his head, "you should always assume the answer is no."

(Joe is an older classmate, friend and mentor to the narrator.)

I'd like to smile knowingly and say, "Hey, we've all been there" but, quite frankly, I was nowhere near there as a high schooler. Different zip code, state, country, continent...

February 2, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"False smiles turning uglier. Dry kisses stiffening like dried fish..."

Inspiring story here, of Greenlandic author Niviaq Korneliussen (I love that combination of Inuit and Danish names), and the remarkable success of her debut novel Homo Sapienne, which has sold almost two thousand copies to date. That figure might sound middling, but bear in mind that Greenland has only 56,000 inhabitants, and that Greenlandic is rarely spoken outside of Greenland - so, if you're writing in Greenlandic, your potential audience is probably a maximum of only around 60,000 readers. And get this:

To be considered a “best-seller” today, a Greenlandic-language book must sell around a thousand copies.

That means a Greenlandic best-seller, relative to the population of the country, is equivalent to selling more than FIVE MILLION copies in the United States. And Korneliussen's novel has done twice as well as that - impressive! Unfortunately, the book is not yet translated into English.

January 31, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...one man in his time plays many parts..."


I've been fishing around for a title to my novel in progress, part of which involves a small-town dinner theater. I've toyed with some variation on "all the world's a stage", which I knew was Shakespeare, though not which play it was from nor the entire soliloquy. So I looked it up - it's from As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

I like it. I'm not sure I can borrow anything from this for a title without being brutally obvious, but maybe I'll just take away some inspiration. The Wikipedia entry (which includes this photo of Richard Kindersley's sculpture The Seven Ages of Man, in London) has some interesting context on Shakespeare's sources for the world as a stage and seven ages concepts.

January 29, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)


"I'm a liar. Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised it as a novelist. As a maker of fictions, I invent versions of myself, never the real thing, if it exists." - John le Carré

(Le Carré's father was a con man, and the writer was a British spy before turning to writing.)

January 28, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." - H.L. Mencken

As I've mentioned here previously, I share a birthday and many attitudes (the better ones, of course) with Mencken. (I would have loved to hear his thoughts on our incoming president. I imagine he would have been particularly horrified by Trump's diction.) I've thoroughly enjoyed most of the Mencken I've read - the strength of his prose and boldness of his personality more than offsets the dated and now-obscure subject matter - and hope to read his "Days Trilogy" next.

January 15, 2017 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...not good and not bad, but both at once..."

After World War II, Knut Hamsun was put on trial for treason, due to his strong connections to the Nazis and Hitler. During his lengthy examination by the state for mental competence (it was surely hoped that, as a beloved but elderly national hero, his dealings with Nazis were nothing more than senility), Hamsun expounded on literature and its parallel to his own personality.

The so-called 'Naturalists', Zola and his period, wrote about people with dominant characteristics. They had no use for the more subtle psychology, people all had this 'dominant characteristic' which ordained their actions.

Dostoevsky and others taught us all something different about human beings.

From the time I began I do not think that in my entire output you will find a character with a single dominant characteristic. They are all without so-called 'character'. They are split and fragmented, not good and not bad, but both at once, subtle, and changeable in their attitudes and in their deeds.

No doubt I am also like this myself.

It is very possible that I am aggressive, that I have in me something of all of the characteristics which the professor mentions. I am sensitive, suspicious, selfish, generous, jealous, righteous, logical, emotional, controlled. But I don't know that I could say that any one of them was more pronounced than the others in me. In addition I am filled by a grace which has permitted me to write my books. But I cannot 'analyse' that.

Brandes has called it the 'divine madness'.


The contradictory polarity that Hamsun described is the only possible way to reconcile the warm humanity of Hamsun the writer with the cold inhumanity of Hamsun the Nazi. (He was undeniably a Nazi. The medical examiners found him mentally competent, a conclusion that was supported by the fact that the old man wrote one final, rational book, On Overgrown Paths, about his post-war experience.) Hamsun had his demons, and a stubborn resolve that made him refuse to ever reconsider any of his strongly-held beliefs. He was yet another example of a great artist who was an often deplorable human being.

(Quotation from Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun, by Robert Ferguson, 1987.)

January 8, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Don‘t deliberate too long before you begin to write a sketch. All kinds of nice ideas can disappear, never to be seen again. On the other hand, I advise you not to tremble in the face of months, years even, of procrastination, since there’s something quite formative and educational in waiting." - Robert Walser

Writerly words to live by - don't delay, but don't rush! 

January 4, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Why is it that knowing how to remain alone in Paris for a year in a miserable room teaches a man more than a hundred literary salons and forty years’ experience of ‘Parisian life’?” - Albert Camus

Because, Albert, struggle always creates greater art than does comfort. One of my reading goals for this year is to finally read The Stranger. (Yes, yes, I know. One of the many glaring gaps in my literary experience.)

January 1, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Reading 2016

1. Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night (review)
2. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (review)
3. John Steinbeck, Cannery Row (review)
4. John Steinbeck, East of Eden (review)
5. Bel Kaufman, Up the Down Staircase (review)
6. Edna O'Brien, Wild Decembers (review)
7. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven (review)
8. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (review)
9. Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter (review)
10.Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (review)

Honorable Mention: John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal; Harry Lewis Golden, Carl Sandburg; Steve Delahoyde (editor), Field-Tested Books; John Steinbeck, The Pastures of Heaven; Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol; Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. 

Two things are probably obvious about this list. First, the number of woman authors: six of the top ten. This was a conscious decision on my part. I am seriously under-read in terms of books written by women, something I really want to rectify. I made a vow to read ten books of fiction this year by woman authors, and I met my goal - besides the authors listed above, I also read Margaret Atwood, Katherine Anne Porter, Anne Enright and Marilynne Robinson. Two of the ten really stood out: Pride and Prejudice which, while densely written (or denser than I typically prefer), was a fairly easy read, very enjoyable and often (and unexpectedly) very funny. And Up the Down Staircase was one of the funniest books I've read in years. I was very surprised to see that the book is currently out of print - it would certainly be a great candidate for a New York Review Books reissue.

The second obvious thing is Steinbeck: two of the top four, plus two of the honorable mentions. I now believe he is one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, as I mentioned in my Summer of Steinbeck recap.

Our Souls at Night was simply lovely, and a fitting end to Kent Haruf's career. The book encapsulates the warmth, dignity and optimism with which Haruf treated all of his subjects. I was almost hesitant to finally read the book, knowing that once I finished I would never make another new visit to Holt, Colorado. I will certainly miss that, but I also look forward to re-reading Haruf's novels for the rest of my life.

My Christmas book-giving is usually a good snapshot of what I've read during the year. This year, of the books I read in 2016, I gave a copy of Our Souls at Night (six copies in all) to each household of my immediate family, several of whom I've already introduced to Haruf. I also gifted Cannery Row, Up the Down Staircase, Wild Decembers and The Lathe of Heaven - plus John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers, which didn't make my list but I thought was perfect for my engineer brother-in-law.

My reading goals for 2017 are still somewhat vague, though I will definitely keep focusing on woman authors - I still have a lot of catching up to do there, and really want to read more from Le Guin, Welty and O'Brien, and also resume Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy. I'm still mulling over what to read for Summer of Classics. Right now I'm thinking it might be H.G. Wells. Stay tuned. 

2015 List
2014 List
2013 List
2012 List
2011 List
2010 List
2009 List
2008 List
2007 List
2006 List
2005 List
2004 List
2003 List

December 29, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...we ought to have meaning as human beings..."

Knut Hamsun, writing to a fellow author, around 1918:

You and I, we shouldn't live from scribbling and emptiness, we ought to have meaning as human beings, marry and have children, make a home and live close to the earth. Think about it. I am old and I know it. I've written maybe thirty books, I don't remember exactly; but I have five children, and that is my real blessing. What do people want with all those books? If it weren't for my children I wouldn't even have the right to a grave.

Like so much of Hamsun's life, this statement is full of contradictions. He said this after the publication of The Growth of the Soil, his wildly best-selling novel that also won him the Nobel Prize. His writing up to that time had made him wealthy, critically praised, and one of the most beloved public figures in Norway - but here he says writing isn't important, and that family is everything. This comes from a man who could never write in his family's home, nor even in the writing hut he built on his property - instead he would go off alone to some far-flung locale, leaving his wife and four children at home. As for living "close to the earth", while he had previously done just that, carving out a farmstead from rocky and wooded land in the far north of Norway, by this time he had sold the farm and moved to a provincial city closer to Oslo, specifically to focus on writing The Growth of the Soil. We should go back to the land, he says, even though he had just left the land behind, to return to a more urban and sophisticated life. 

The quotation is from Robert Ferguson's biography, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun - a comprehensive (sometimes exhaustingly so) and insightful profile of the perplexing Hamsun's life and work.

December 29, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)