Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead

“After lunch I’ll go out in the boat again; I might see something interesting. There should be a lot of interesting things around after a flood like this. Surely in all this water someone must have drowned.”

Offbeat, droll, macabre. Whimsical, charming, strangely delightful.

Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead is the last book that I was truly smitten by.

(At this point, it might be worth noting that the word Smitten is the past participle of Smite which means to strike with a firm blow. It is equally correct to say She was smitten by the handsome boy; she was one smitten kitten, as it is to say, The town was smitten with an outbreak of influenza—or madness; or murder.)

I don’t write too many reviews these days—I might start calling them “For Your Consideration” pieces—but this dark, enchanting book, and the sometimes ghastly, sometimes lovely, Willoweed family it follows, has lingered with me long after I first read it.

First, there is a flood:

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows…. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.”

Then there is a death.

Well, many of them. The sorrowful hens commit suicide, the peacocks are drowned. Then Grumpy Nan who lived in the cottage by the mill croaks it. Then Mrs. Hatt, the doctor’s wife. Then another, and another. It is all very strange. It is all very dark and funny and matters terribly and doesn’t matter at all. Life goes on.

“Upstairs Emma sat on her bedroom window-sill and combed her marmalade coloured hair. She closed her eyes and forgot the sad, drowned sights of the morning. A feeling of deep satisfaction came over her as she felt the warmth of the sun and combed her hair, dreamily…. “Oh, how I would love to go to a dance and wear a real evening dress,” she thought, “but nothing like that will happen—no dances, no admirers. I shall just me me, and nothing will happen at all.”

Yes, it is a weird little gem of a book.

I was surprised to read that it was first published in 1954—by a woman born in 1909 and raised in an English country house with servants and a governess. Its simple, playful sentences; steady accumulation of strange details and observations; non-sequiter dialogue and diversions; and surreal images encountered by her characters as mundane or a nuisance, seem to predate the postmodern writing of the 1960s á la Donald Barthelme. Others have compared her to Angela Carter and consider Comyns a neglected genius. Still others have said she is not like anybody else at all and that is fine by me too:

“Barbara Comyns is always being compared to writers X, Y or Z “on acid.” The acid part is a cop-out; her voice is clear and direct, even when describing surreal or hyperreal situations, and her crisp descriptions are not kaleidoscopic or druggy in the least. The comparisons to other writers, apt or not, are never a list of her formative influences; she didn’t have any.” – Emily Gould, writing in The Awl in 2010. 

What is certain is she has been largely overlooked and I feel lucky to have happened across her.

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead was banned by The Irish Censorship of Publications Board (though, what book wasn’t? one might ask). I happened to hear about it one night, deep in the interwebs, when I came across Dorothy, a publishing project who reissued the by then out of print novel.

“Dorothy is dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women. We want to publish books that, whether conventional or un-, are uniquely themselves, that do not lean against preconceived ideas of what is wonderful, but brilliantly and purposefully convince us that they are, themselves, wonderful.”

Marvelous! I thought. And it really was.

For your consideration:

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead




Ragtag & Sundry

A periodic news and reading roundup

(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated of late).

Snacks of the Great Scribblers by Wendy MacNaughton

I’m spending less and less time procrastinating, so my ragtag and sundries are fewer and more far between. In part, this may be due to my mind’s sneaky circumventions around the definition of procrastination – a lot can be legitimized in the name of ‘research’ and enlightenment.

Some things are not evasions though, if through no other reason that they cannot be avoided: one has to eat, one admits.

I actually adore cooking, it’s not a chore, and I probably spend more time cooking, baking, eating and nibbling than anything else I do in a day or a week.

I also like to read about it and love that there are so many literature-inspired cooks out there. It’s unlikely I’ll ever make a Harry Potter Gillywater but I dig that there are folks out there who do.

This week the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Mo Yan who is best known for this novel Red Sorghum. In ‘A Couscous of World LiteratureThe New Yorker ponders the myriad carbohydrate-inspired fictions such as  The Catcher in the Rye, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Tortilla Flat, Men of Maize, and a Condoleeza Rice biography!

The New England Journal of Medicine, god bless them, examines correlations between Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function and Nobel Laureates. I fucking love Science!

Which is why I subscribe to Cook’s Illustrated from America’s Test Kitchen. I love their rigorous, scientific approach to cooking but I mostly love their beautiful magazine and its muted, old-fashioned foodie illustrations.


It therefore surprises me that I only yesterday heard about McSweeneys food, art and literature quarterly Lucky Peach. I guess I was out of the country last year when it really took off. It’s on my Birthday Christmas Wish-List that nobody knows about because wish-lists are presumptuous and vaguely shameful and therefore I always get soap and candles and hats I’d never wear.

Santa, if you read my blog, I also think I’ve been good enough this year to deserve Penguin’s Great Food Series. Think about it. Love, Deborah.



Why Read the Classics?

I am reading two essays at the moment: Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, and Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino!

The first appears in the book of the same name, translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin in 1999. The second, I stumbled upon at The New York Review of Books, translated by Patrick Creagh and dated 1986.

I was struck by a difference in each version of a sentence in Calvino’s ninth definition of a Classic (the essay ventures fourteen interrelated definitions of what constitutes a Classic Book). In it, he is talking about the personal relationship or rapport that ideally occurs when a classic text ‘works’ upon the reader as a classic:

“If there is no spark, the exercise is pointless: it is no use reading classics out of a sense of duty or respect, we should only read them for love.” (McLaughin)

“If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love.” (Creagh)

Lord, if someone had shown me McLaughin’s version when I was an impatient, distracted, undergraduate struggling to get it on with Joyce and Chaucer, I may never have completed my degree; I would have been out of that bedroom so fast!

Of course I see where he is coming from in both of these translations: ‘duty’ and ‘should’ are not desirable entry points into a book. And respect is won, rather than assumed and given blindly. But there is a difference in meaning and implication in each of them that I think is interesting.

This is pointless! and It’s no use! strike me as the perfect ‘out’ a sophomoric reader is just waiting to pounce upon. The decisiveness of the words If there is no spark seem like the conclusions of someone expecting instant and unequivocal passion. Not necessarily young, but dare I say immature? Whereas, If the spark doesn’t come seems less impulsive, more considered. It implies an attempt over time. I tried. I worked at it. But it did not come. It’s a pity.

I see both translations, both types of reader, in myself. But I hope I am more the second type these days. How long does one try at something that just isn’t working is a valid question. Yet so often we give up too easily, especially when it’s something that we truly want, and what we truly want is often complex and perplexing and work. Love is work. Sometimes.

And if the spark doesn’t come, the exercise isn’t pointless; all it is is a pity. And there are plenty more classics in the sea.

Ragtag & Sundry

A periodic news and reading round-up

(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated of late).

I haven’t been procrastinating so much as stealing short snatches of screen-time while my parents were in town. Not easy in a one-room loft where nothing much is secret or sacred. They must worry why I was in the bathroom so much…

But moving on!

They are homeward bound and I could settle down into a Long Read in peace, but I’ve somewhat developed a taste for these brief bursts of story and pleasure.

Like Staccato Microfiction – who are taking a break right now but will perhaps return if we all clap our hands loud enough. Don’t die faerie-sized wonder-fiction!

Also, I have just discovered these amazing things called “podcasts”. Have you heard of them? Marvelous inventions. Call me Ishmael. Call me Luddite!

Of course, I was aware of them silly, I just never remembered to listen to them till a very jetlagged Ma n Pa were snoring away in my little loft and I had a yen for a good yarn but didn’t want to turn on the lights or make too much noise. Thusly, I finally got around to listening to all those New Yorker Fiction Podcasts on my ipod, and thank goodness I did because I discovered the wonderful Bruno Schulz whose strange and enchanting story, “Father’s Last Escape”, is read and discussed by Nicole Krauss. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have found this writer, late to the party though I may be…

Speaking of stories ‘on tape’. Speaking of Ishmael. Moby Dick is being broadcast online, in a short, manageable chapter-a-day format, so I may finally get around to conquering the behemoth!

Yes, I am thoroughly converted to the little things in life and look forward each morning to The Writers Almanac with Garrison Keillor, and quirky book-quotes and matching-music at Literary Jukebox.

Short-lived, but so satisfying.

Leaving me plenty of time to fill with more procrastination so if you know of any little gems, do send them my way; there’s plenty more space in my brain for small!


Ragtag & Sundry

A periodic news and reading round-up

(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated of late).

Jorge Luis Borges and the Library of Babel

Actually, I didn’t procrastinate so much this week.

What with hiking and camping and wildflowers and whatnot.

But, also, because I started actually using the internet-blocking software I downloaded weeks ago. The psychological boost is phenomenal (wow, I just spelled phenomenal correctly on my first try. Of course you’ll have to take my word for it). I like the way it asks you “How many minutes of Freedom would you like?” It’s a perfect name-choice for the app, it never fails to remind me what its application is giving me rather than removing.

Of course, I’m still very much me, and in my web-wanderings this week I was:

Thrilled to discover that Jorge Luis Borge’s Norton Lectures are available to all at the overwhelmingly, wonderfully, distracting UbuWeb.

Anticipating Irish short-story writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s latest collection Mother America

Resolving to “Quit Fu*ckin Around”, to “Art Harder” and other “ways” to survive as a creative person.

Tearing-up a little reading a fellow emigrant’s memories of Dublin in The Last City I Loved series in The Rumpus.

Giggling (and salivating) at this delightful food-n-drink piece that imagines recipes in cookbooks composed by Virginia Woolf, Chaucer and Raymond Chandler.

That’s about it. Will work harder at procrastinating next time, promise!

Sentences are orphaned words crossing the road, holding on tightly.

I’m reading a lot of sentences about sentences lately.

There’s Stanley Fish’s How To Write A Sentence and How To Read One.

And, yesterday, Verlyn Klinkenborg (author of Several Short Sentences About Writing) asked the deceptively simple question “Where Do Sentences Come From?”  I liked it. I like his admonishment to be comfortable in that dark, cavernous place called the mind: patient in the presence of your own thoughts.

This is another answer to the question:

It comes precisely from that dark cavern but it stays fearful, quick and cautious. And, more importantly, it doesn’t seek to expound or demystify. It answers our call while remaining deliciously mysterious, sad and eerie.

A poem’s eight short lines taught me more than any book I’ve read this week. Sentences are orphaned words crossing the road, holding on tightly. They come from the Children’s Home and it’s our job to convey them carefully.

Ragtag & Sundry

A periodic news and reading round-up

(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated of late).


I have a horrible case of tsundoku and I fear that you may, too.

I ran for the first time in a year. The mythical runner’s high continues to elude me, though every man – and his dog – seems to get it. I carry on regardless (for now).

La palabra Nahuatl de hoy es: YOHUALCOYOTL significa: COYOTE NOCTURNO. Help conserve endangered languages – and night coyotes – by learning a Nahuatl Word of the Day on Twitter.

“Two girls in silk kimonos. Both / beautiful, one a gazelle.” A fascinating portrait of Constance and Eva Gore-Boothe, immortalized by Yeats, but so much more than beautiful.

Finally! Lay versus Lie. I get it now.

Ten tips for reading poetry.

Onions, Strawberries, Kiwifruit, Celery, Brazil Nuts, Cashew Nuts, Beetroot, Broccolli, Chile Peppers, Bell Peppers, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Cucumber, Lemons, Cardamom. If you’ve eaten any of these lately – or just about anything else – you have a bee to thank!

Actually. Thank you is not enough. It only takes a second to sign this petition and tell the EPA to intervene and Save our Bees!

Also. Listen to this song called Honeybee. It’s s’lovely.



The Musicality of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is brimming with music.

“When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s ‘The Thieving Magpie’, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.” 

Usually, I might not linger long on the mention of a song in a novel, especially when it’s in the first sentence and I’m eager to continue reading. But I sell handmade pasta at a farmer’s market and was compelled to test this unusual hypothesis.

Nonna’s Noodles are a fresh, egg-based pasta and take just a jiffy to cook so timing was a consideration for Rossini’s more than ten-minute overture. I figured I’d include even the most mundane parts of the process and pressed play just as I was placing a large pot under the cold tap.

Certainly, the opening snare-drum rolls added an intensity that I’d never  before attributed to water gushing from a faucet. The water came to a salty, rolling boil just as I added the lemon-zest linguine and the piece transitioned into a softer, flightier movement – the musical equivalent of a gentle simmer. The noodles were al dente before the last crescendo, leaving enough time to drizzle olive oil, grate parmesan and twist the wrist with some cracked black-pepper, and voila! A most dramatic dinner!

I do believe Murakami was right about pasta and Rossini, and it’s clear that music in general is important to the author.

There are over 250 catalogued references to music, songs and albums in his writing on his site at Random House. A New York Times author-profile details his life as a teenager in Kobe, Japan where he immersed himself in American culture and jazz, internalizing “their attitude of cool rebellion”, marrying against his parent’s wishes and opening his own jazz club in Tokyo called Peter Cat. He messed around with music but didn’t feel like he had the technique required to be a professional musician.

Haruki Murakami at his jazz bar, Peter Cat, in Tokyo 1978 (New York Times)

In another NY Times piece called Jazz Messenger, Murakami says:

“I did often feel as though something like my own music was swirling around in a rich, strong surge. I wondered if it might be possible for me to transfer that music into writing. That was how my style got started.”

Practically everything he knows about writing came from music, he says, and these are some things he has learned:

“Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz.

Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more.

Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words.

Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow.

Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.”

A wonderful analogy. I do like his writing and it’s great to delve further into how the novel’s strange and sometimes syncopated style was influenced by elements of music and jazz (though a review of 1Q84 in The Guardian claims Murakami plays too many familiar tunes).

I like it thoughThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has a musical reference on every other page and I’ve started to jot them down as I read.

I’m only nine chapters in but so far I’ve swung from sentimental crooning to experimental jazz and delighted in a diversity of artists, from Johnny Angel to Eric Dolphy and Percy Faith.

It’s certainly eclectic and I’ve had fun compiling a playlist based on the book, which I’ll add to as I read along. If you happen to have Spotify, you can listen to it too!


For those more obscure references, it might be worth picking up a copy of Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, by Jay Rubin; it has a very enticing chapter called ‘Wagner and the Modern Kitchen’.

I don’t often stop mid-sentence to listen to a song but I always make the exception for pasta.

If music be the food of love, play on indeed!

Ragtag & Sundry

A periodic news and reading round-up

(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated of late).

Edward Lear, Self-Portrait as Snail

Let’s start with the weird and Canned Unicorn Meat! Excellent source of sparkles! (as revealed to the twitterverse by @aeroplanegirl Jen Campbell of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops brilliance.)

Anyone gotta loan of a dollar? Maya Angelou is ‘playing’ the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland in October, and tickets go on sale this week. #soveryverypoorrightnnow

Aaaaargh! Puuuuush! Why doesn’t fiction deliver birth scenes?

Punchdrunk Potato Puncher! Uproar in my native-land over cliches and stereotypes in an Australian article about Irish Boxer Katie Taylor’s Olympic gold victory. Erin go bragh!

Upcoming birthday of bookloving niece. This will help: 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels.

“I give the impression of mysterious ease, but it is only with the greatest effort of my will,”  Elizabeth Bishop’s mollusca persona, and snails as muse and mirror in The Paris Review.

Quite excited to download Stanford lecture series on the Structure of English Words, one of 12 great free online courses spotlighted by TEDblog.

It’s hard to believe as I plucked from the bounty of berries on the Oregon coast this weekend, but I take nothing for granted and this Salon piece is food for thought as the world – and America – faces a Real-Life Hunger Games. Man cannot live on canned unicorn meat alone y’know.

Lastly, McSweeneys launch 90Days90Reasons tomorrow: Americans for the reelection of Obama. I am but a lowly legal alien and though I do not have a vote, I do have a voice and I’m looking forward to some rousing essays and debate in the run-up to November.

Oh! and I was relieved to hear Gary Shteyngart is not a whore.

“You seem to want to write, so write.”

What are your favourite books about writing and craft? Last week, in an effort to focus and get back on track – not only with this blog but my writing-life in general – I picked up a few books on the subject, beginning with Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Lifeas it was recommended to me at least twice this year.

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was  ten years old at the time, was trying to get a  report on birds written that he’d had three months to  write. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen  table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper  and pencils and unopened books on birds,  immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my  father sat down beside him, put his arm around my  brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'”

This sweet excerpt exemplifies the book in general, but it is also atypical. Bird by Bird is part writing instruction and practical example, part memoir and personal anecdotes. It pays particular attention to the feelings of fear and immobilization writers often face, and offers tips on dismantling the process, bit by bit, bird by bird. But it is also too much about the tears and the tantrums, the jealousies and anxieties and emotional dramas of the writing life – Lamott’s writing life, though she seems to write as if her experience is characteristic.

I didn’t like it much.

The scene between father and son at the kitchen table is one of the only successful anecdotes in the book, in terms of relating an incident back to writing and extrapolating a clear lesson from it. The majority cross the line into uncomfortable or cringeworthy over-share, which are supposed to be amusing and illuminating but I just didn’t get it.

A lot of people love and find Lamott hilariously funny and insightful but her style is not for me and I found myself skimming past the personal dramas, petty jealousies and histrionics, searching for something more concrete and instructive about how to write – and well.

Perhaps this impatience is the problem, and Lamott does address it in the book when she talks about her students who look to her for the secrets of success – or shortcuts, which is what we really mean.

Why is it that we refuse to accept the simple advice in life, are convinced things are more complicated than they really are?

“You seem to want to write,” she tells them in a final class. “So write.”

Of course, it is more complicated than that and I’m not ashamed to say that I am in need of instruction and have so much to learn: want is different than do, and how. It was frustrating, then, to slog through so many cliches and weak wisdom: “Write straight into the emotional center of things… Write towards vulnerability.” How does one do that? What does that even mean?

When I stripped away the well-worn platitudes and personal dramas, there was little I hadn’t heard before or could not be said in a short piece on the subject:

  • Write, and write often.
  • Write at approximately the same time every day: this trains your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.
  • Break things down with small assignments: start with your childhood or, smaller than that, start with your school lunch. Write down as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame.
  • Keep a lot of index cards and keep them everywhere. Everything you see and hear and come across is potential material for a story.
  • Move beyond perfectionism – it will ruin your writing and block inventiveness. Learn to accept those shitty first drafts.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Edit, edit, edit.
  • Understand that you may never be published and, if you are so lucky, it is not going to solve all of your problems and be the neat and tidy dream you imagined.
  • Write because you want to and not for any ends that just aren’t guaranteed. Write for the love and joy of it not for external success or money.

All fine advice but, for me, nothing so novel or enlightening that made the rest of the book worth reading. A better and succinct list of rules is Colson Whitehead’s ‘How To Write’ in the New York Times last week.

This may sound disrespectful – especially coming from a novice – but I find it difficult to take writing advice from someone who’s writing I don’t enjoy or appreciate. (By the by, I’m with Salon and Molly E Johnson this week: folks are too fearful of negative reviews; niceness isn’t necessarily constructive.)

Like I say, though, a lot of people love and recommend this book so, if you’re new to writing or like her style, you may well get more from it than I did. A good start – or timesaver – might be to check out some isolated quotes from the book on Goodreads: they contain the essence of her message without having to deal with the rest!

Where to go from here then? I want to read more books and meditations on the craft and would love some suggestions. I’m just settling into How to Write a Sentence, And How to Read One by Stanley Fish and I already like it so much more. Who do you take your advice from? And, perhaps more importantly, do you actually take it? Or are you like me, searching for something more complicated than the age-old adage: “You seem to want to write, so write.”

Maeve Binchy, Remembered.

I only remember the names: Firefly Summer, The Copper Beech, Circle of Friends.

When I heard today that Maeve Binchy had died, I was instantly a girl again, pilfering her books from my mother’s bedside table: Firefly Summer, The Copper Beech, Circle of Friends. So immediate and familiar, those names. But, fifteen or more years later, when I looked those titles up, I recognized very little about their plots or characters, the details and particulars – only hazy images and fragments: I may not have read them at all for all I could truly recall about them.

I feel like I’ve read Tara Road but I cannot say for sure. Perhaps my girlish ear just liked the alliteration in the title Light A Penny Candle, but did I ever read it? All I know is those names are so familiar to me, that at some point in my young years I internalized them as something meaningful that now conveys a combination of ‘home’ and ‘Ireland’ and ‘adolescence’ and ‘being a girl’ and ‘being a girl on the cusp of something’.

Maeve Binchy. From Discover Ireland.

Somebody on Twitter said: “RIP Maeve Binchy, a lady who wrote about girls with big dreams, for girls with big dreams.” If I can’t remember the particulars of plot and story, I do know that this must be what hooked and impressed me at the time. Girls and big dreams. If I were to say, honestly, who my ‘influences’ were as a young girl who dreamed of writing, I’d have to include Maeve Binchy. At twelve or thirteen, she was all I knew of grownup books and I remember reading and thinking: I want to do this some day.

But, would I answer honestly? If I were ever asked.

That was at twelve or thirteen. I see myself now at thirty-one and wonder at the literature snob I’ve since become. It wasn’t too long ago that I laughed with my mam on the phone about Binchy and books, and the books we used to read. I grew up to get a degree in English and a Masters in Women and Gender Studies. Since I was twelve, I’ve read Beckett and Joyce and Woolf, Judith Butler, Derrida, Foucault and Cixous. My mother’s reading tastes have evolved and broadened too. We’ve outgrown Anita Shreve and Marian Keyes. We read Toni Morrison now, and Susan Sontag and Mavis Gallant.  We would never read Maeve Binchy now, I said not long ago.

But that was not so long ago. When I didn’t know how sad I’d be to hear that Binchy was gone, when I didn’t know that I would feel as though something real and important has been lost. But what, besides Binchy, has been lost?

I wonder am I as happy a reader as I was as a girl with my nose in a world of rural romances and small town affairs and intrigues? I read many beautiful, complex, enigmatic sentences these days: sentences that require contemplation and reexamining and, sometimes, futile deciphering. I’m a better reader, a satisfied and challenged reader. And, not to be mistaken, I am a happy reader still. But when was the last time I lay on my belly on my bed, swinging my legs in the air and wondering, giddy, what would happen next or whispering come onnnn, just kiss will ye?

I recently gave Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder just two stars on Goodreads. In terms of language and technique and impressive sentences, I couldn’t honestly say that I thought all that much of it. It wasn’t as philosophical or raise the complex ethical questions I wanted it to. I hated the ending! I didn’t feel enriched or better for it. In some ways, it was a waste of my time. But I did, as they say, devour it. I read it in a couple of idle afternoons whereas it’s taking me a long time to read Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle which I love and think is excellent. I am savoring it and dwelling on it and absolutely enjoying it, but I just had to know, right away right away, what happened in that jungle in the Amazon!

Ideally, a novel would encompass both things. Beloved did that for me and Cloud Atlas and Geek Love. But something has been lost along the years.

I will never be that gangly, spotty girl who read so indiscriminately, who read whatever she could get her skinny fingers on and cared not a whit if it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or challenging or innovative. She just wanted words and stories, any words and stories. She didn’t distinguish between literature and ‘fluff’. There was no such expression as Chick Lit in 1994. My eyebrow didn’t arch at things that were popular, and romantic and provincial, that dealt with sadness or difficulty in a way that never got too dark or heavy – were always, somehow, light.

Yes. My eyebrow didn’t arch. I rested my chin on my hands. I lay on my belly on my small single-bed. I swung my legs in the air. I was young and dreamy and absorbed and away. I loved Maeve Binchy. I read everything of hers my mother owned – Firefly Summer, The Copper Beech, Circle of Friends – and some of them I know I read more times than one. I thought she was brilliant, that I’d never read anything like her. And, I hadn’t.

Jeux Olympiques! A round-up of the literary world’s participation in that… thing that everyone’s excited about.

The mister is outraged. We live in a TV-less abode and our basic internet package doesn’t cover live Olympic streaming through NBC.

I’m only aware there’s a problem when a rather loud “NO. I would NOT” startles me from my book. He would not like to pay an extra seventy dollars on top of our existing sixty-something dollars for an upgrade.

But he would very much like to see the games, poor dear, especially those esoteric sports like fencing and trampoline, though he does draw the line with dressage which, in case you don’t know, are freaking dancing horses.

(On another weird note, I admit I’m quite intrigued by this now-discontinued Club Swinging event thingy. It gives me a touch of déjà vu; though in my memory I’m wielding wine bottles and am barefoot on the streets of Dublin…)

Club Swinging, played in the 1904 and 1932 Games: a precursor to the Olympic Rhythmic Gymnastics discipline.


The point is: he’s in a huff and I’m in my book and can’t quite relate, though I do feel for him. I just don’t care about it all that much myself.

But I’m trying.

In an attempt to make an effort and engage with the Games in a way that makes sense to me, I googled something like ‘the Olympics in Literature’ and came up with all sorts of fascinating goodies. I was thinking something along the lines of a good book or a poem that features the Games in some way. Little did I know that Literature itself performed in the Olympics: in the early modern Olympic Games, from 1912 to 1952, medals were awarded in the Arts for works inspired by Sport.

Who knew?!

Apart from these know-it-sporty-alls:

Over at Slate there’s a history of competitive art at the Olympics while The Atlantic delves into how the art contest was hijacked by the Nazis in 1936.

The Village Voice takes it all the way back to 440BC and “a struggling, celebrity-hungry, young prose stylist named Herodotus” who decides to debut his work at the Olympic Games:

“According to the admiring author Lucian, when the festival had begun—it usually attracted some 40,000 spectators to the remote sanctuary of Olympia—Herodotus waited for a decent crowd to gather in the cavernous Temple of Zeus, then proceeded to recite his golden prose. The audience was utterly transfixed; word raced around the Olympic venue that a hot young author was on the scene. Not only did hundreds of Greek celebrities vie to hear Herodotus read in the five days of the sports festival, but they carried his name after the games to the far corners of the ancient world. “By this time he was much better known than the Olympic victors themselves,” notes Lucian enviously—which is saying quite a lot, since athletic champions were revered as virtual demigods by the Greeks, a cross between NFL players and rock stars.”

Art’s rockstar Banksy interprets the Olympics.

Also chiming in, The New York Times waxes sporty poetry and unearths this 1924 Paris games gold-medal-winner “Jeux Olympiques”:

(“The runners bend, tense flowers, . . . / A shot: A violent word! / And suddenly / Necks extended, forward / like stalks / faces like pale snatched / apples, / teeth and jaws rushing into / space.”)


As are these 10 great stories about the Olympics, spanning history, scandal and science on Longform.

All wonderful places to start from if you’re ever planning on taking a class at East Tennessee State University on the Olympic Games and Literature. Course objectives include recognizing how and why authors use the Olympics to express viewpoints about the human condition, and analyzing gifted writers who use the Olympics as a metaphor.

I don’t know if I’m ready to take it to that level yet. Perhaps I’ll begin with a wee quiz and a podcast on the subject over at The Guardian, ease myself into things.

I’m not convinced, though. And I’m not alone. Shakespeare couldn’t stand all that sporty stuff. I wonder what he’d make of being a part of tonight’s opening ceremony in London? Not much, says this Guardian book blog.

In the old Bard’s words:

“‘I am not gamesome. I do lack some part of that quick spirit that is in Antony. Let me not hinder, Cassius, your desires. I’ll leave you.'”

Today I Am Eleven, Soon I Will Be Twelve

Jonathan Franzen has written a lecture on autobiography and fiction in The Guardian this week and, as always, he has influenced and irritated his readers in equal measure; the comments are worth reading, if you make it to the end of the piece.

Personally, I was fascinated by it and, more than that, I really appreciate an author taking the time to address things rudimentary and expand upon their process.

Of course, being Franzen, he does this with a slight “oh, if I must” sort of style. He begins his lesson by addressing four unpleasant questions that authors often get asked: Who are your influences? What time of day do you work and what do you write on? At a certain point when writing your novel, do your characters “take over”? and, Is your writing autobiographical?

A couple of things stood out for me or were important for me to read at this moment in time. In fact, it could be the issue of time and timing that has niggled me most of all.

In the ubiquitously snarky comments section (Guardian readers do snarky so well don’t you think?), a reader agrees with Franzen about these unpleasant, stupid questions, calling them the ultimate in lazy journalism and the sort of question “an eleven year old might ask.”

Well. I have been that eleven year old. At twenty-one and twenty-five and, now, at thirty-one, I have been and am that eleven year old. I’d hazard a guess that the majority of folks who ask those particular questions are not lazy journalists or journalists at all; I see a novice writer, uncertain and at a loss, unsure of how to begin and searching for some guidance; I imagine someone like myself.

As a young writer (I am not so young but I am a young writer, an infant) I often feel illegitimate, that there are certain things I do not have a right to say or express. “How can I, a neophyte, talk about writing? What do I know? Who are you to talk?” Etcetera.

So often, when reading these author interviews, not only am I seeking guidance, but I am delighting in those moments when an Annie Dillard or a Joan Didion or a Franzen says something that I have said or thought to myself before. It’s affirmative somehow. I breathe a sigh of relief: “Okay. Okay. I’m on the right track here. I’m not so unlike them.” Of course, I’m miles away from them as they are now. But maybe, just maybe, I’m in a place that they were once in – that is, in the beginning, when they were infants.

So it feels okay when Franzen, talking about his influences, says:

…much of what might be called actual “influence” is negative: I don’t want to be like this writer or that writer…

I’m in that place right now, as I work my way through those “Great Books” that are so often cited as major influences. I’m nearing the end of The Golden Notebook and, while I relate to the characters in many ways and am interested in its structure, I move through it listing its flaws and how it largely fails to achieve what it desires to. “But it’s Doris Lessing!” I say. She won the Nobel prize, she is a great writer. It must be me. I must be missing something.

Says Franzen in his essay:

To list every writer I’ve learned something from would take me hours, and it still wouldn’t account for why some books matter to me so much more than other books: why, even now, when I’m working, I often think about The Brothers Karamazov and The Man Who Loved Children and never about Ulysses or To the Lighthouse. How did it happen that I did not learn anything from Joyce or Woolf, even though they’re both obviously “strong” writers?

Phew. I can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. It’s not necessarily my flaw, my inadequacy if I’m not benefiting from books that I thought I would or should. It’s not that it’s Franzen telling me this per se; I’m not crazy about his writing though I can’t say it’s not good. It’s the permission lent to me by those who’ve gone and succeeded before me. I don’t like needing these endorsements but it’s where I’m at right now.

Even Franzen struggles with this issue of legitimacy too, I think. It lies behind his dislike of the question: Is your work autobiographical?

I’m suspicious of any novelist who would honestly answer no to this question, and yet my strong temptation, when I’m asked it myself, is to answer no. Of the four questions, this is the one that always feels the most hostile. Maybe I’m just projecting that hostility, but I feel as if my powers of imagination are being challenged.

As in: “Is this a true work of fiction, or just a thinly disguised account of your own life? And since there are only so many things that can happen to you in your life, you’re surely going to use up all of your autobiographical material soon – if, indeed, you haven’t used it up already! – and so you probably won’t be writing any more good books, will you? In fact, if your books are just thinly disguised autobiography, maybe they weren’t as interesting as we thought they were? Because, after all, what makes your life so much more interesting than anybody else’s? It’s not as interesting as Barack Obama’s life, is it? And also, for that matter, if your work is autobiographical, why didn’t you do the honest thing and write a non-fiction account of it? Why dress it up in lies? What kind of bad person are you, telling us lies to try to make your life seem more interesting and dramatic?”

I hear all of these other questions in the question, and before long the very word “autobiographical” feels shameful to me.

I include this passage in its entirety because I recognise in it my own doubts, fears and insecurities when I sit down to write. A writer has to begin somewhere, he says, and almost everyone says Write What You Know. So why do I often feel like a fraud when I draw upon my life, when I use writing as a way of figuring myself out? Why does it feel less creative, less radical, less of a leap?

It encourages me to see Franzen share similar feelings on the subject and explain his discomfort with the question. And his answer to it – which you should read if you are worried or doubting too – allows me to be less afraid and less concerned; it gives me the freedom to continue in the way that I know I have to go. Of course I knew this already and all along. I’ve known it for some time. But sometimes, rightly or wrongly, I need a “real” writer to say it too, to lend legitimacy to what I have already intuited. I am still an eleven year old, asking the questions that I need. But I am also very old and know a lot of things. Soon I will be twelve.

Is The Great Gatsby Unfilmable?

The trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby was previewed today and initial reactions are ambivalent to say the least. Lots of “Hmmmms…” circulating the interwebs right now. Of course, this is always the case when a much-loved novel is adapted into film but is The Great Gatsby forever destined to elude the silver screen and disappoint its viewers?

When I was in India this year I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival and looked in on ‘Adaptations’ – a panel of writers and playwrights, including Tom Stoppard and Lionel Shriver, discussing the process and merits of translating words on a page into sounds and moving images. Interestingly, the subject of Gatsby came up and Stoppard was unequivocal: The Great Gatsby is “unfilmable” he declared and offered no space for disagreement. The audience burst into a spontaneous and long applause of approval so I guess there’s consensus out there. But why?

The Huffington Post listed 15 Great Books Never Coming to a Theater Near YouFinnegans Wake and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves were among them but no mention of Gatsby. Of course, Luhrmann’s film brings the novel’s adaptations to a total of seven so this is a moot point but should it be included on the list?

Surely, cinema is a perfect medium to capture the heady atmosphere and opulence of the day? The music, the glamour, the balmy summer. Tragedy, intrigue and heartache are the industry’s bread and butter; there is little in the plot or content of the novel to prevent a compelling adaptation, and its preoccupation with social climbing (networking?) and the end of the American dream would appear to be timely themes. The Great Gatsby has a lot of relevance for modern America.

But a novel is more than its plot and preoccupations, more than its themes. Writing is form and construct and Fitzgerald’s work is a masterful example of this, particularly his use of perspective and narrative structure.

It’s interesting that my main reaction to the trailer concerned the casting of Tobey Maguire in the role of Nick Carraway (quite perfect I think). For the title The Great Gatsby is a ruse. This is Nick Carraway’s novel. Every word written about the great Gatsby is circumscribed by the eyes of Mr Carraway, a limited and often unreliable narrator. “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues,” he says, “and this is mine. I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” There is an abundance of literature on the problematics of Nick as the narrator of this story and the author of Gatsby’s life and it will be interesting to see how this new film version deals with perspective.

Luhrmann loved the 1974 version starring Mia Farrow and Robert Redford. Redford was the coolest thing in the world, he’s said, but the film didn’t really tell him “who Gatsby was.” Many people feel that way but it may well be that Luhrmann’s version will be no closer to showing us who Gatsby really is either.

For there is no Gatsby. Gatsby is an illusion, a simulacrum.  He is completely obscured by conjecture and gossip and Nick’s version of him is no more authoritative than any other. Gatsby is a creation – his own and others – and that is Fitzgerald’s point. Nobody knows who Gatsby is or was and this is the brilliance of the novel. The imaginative act inherent in reading includes us in the crowd of tattlers and postulators: for every person who reads the novel, another unique aspect of Gatsby is born.

This is permissible in the novel – it is, in fact, what makes the novel so enthralling and enduring – but cinema requires that Gatsby be rendered in a single form. There are aspects of the novel that cinema can expand and bring to more sensual life but it cannot circumvent this reduction of ‘Gatsby’ into the body of an actor (a man playing a role, curiously). This is why Gatsby is unfilmable, I think. He is a million contradictory things and he is nothing at all. He doesn’t exist.

Catch 22 in Laos.



A problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem. 

ORIGIN 1970s: title of a novel by Joseph Heller (1961), in which the main character feigns madness in order to avoid dangerous combat missions, but his desire to avoid them is taken to prove his sanity.
Travelling through Laos the past few days, I’ve been thinking about Catch 22 which I read a few weeks ago and loved. I began it while trekking in Nepal and finished it in a hammock in Thailand though so, while it certainly captured the dark absurdities and nightmarish nonsense of men and war, I was more entertained than challenged by it. Books and words can go so far in depicting the horrors of reality but nothing compares to encountering reality up close and towering meters above you.
War isn’t something that most travellers encounter or think about on a trip; we certainly haven’t, though one rages on in India’s Kashmir and the Nepali Civil War is but six years over. In Laos it is different; the legacies and consequences of war are visible and everywhere. It makes for sobering ‘tourism’ but it’s necessary to “go there” so to speak. We came to the town of Phonsavhan to visit the ancient and mysterious ‘Plain of Jars‘ but it is the issue of war, it’s longterm consequences and cruel ‘Catch 22s’ that have been the most interesting and worthwhile part of the visit for me.

Laos’ Cruel Catch 22

Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. Between 1964 and 1973, 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on the country, 80 million of which failed to detonate and remain a real and dire threat to the poor and ordinary people of Laos. Though organizations like the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) are working hard to remove and safely detonate the unexploded ordnance that litters 25% of Lao villages, it is estimated that it will take 150 to 200 years to clear the country of UXO.

In the meantime, as in the past thirty-five years, the people of Laos suffer the cruelest Catch 22 which prevents them from breaking free from the cycle of poverty.

So much potential farmland is littered with unexploded bombs, making families afraid to expand the spaces where they could till and plant. Those who take the chance risk unearthing and detonating buried bombs: hundreds of people – many of them young children – lose lives and limbs every year and every day in simple acts of survival like planting crops and collecting water. Often, families can’t plant enough food to survive the whole year, forcing them to look for alternative – and dangerous – ways to make money. The main ‘alternative’ is the excavation, for sale, of scrap metal from the very same bombs that lie buried in the fields and forests of rural Laos.

This illegal sale and trade of scrap metal is a high-risk business – and only barely lucrative – but a sadly viable option for families who literally have no alternative: which ever choice they make, it is intrinsically tied to the unpredictable treachery hidden within the earth. Survival depends on the same corrupted land that threatens their very existence; it is a terrible situation and it is difficult to see a way out of it.

Heller’s novel is often hilarious in its depiction of the illogical immoralities of war but it would take a writer of strange powers to tell the story of Laos in anything but grave and humorless terms. There is nothing funny about this Catch 22.


There is Hope and You Can Help

Donate to the Mines Advisory Group (MAG)

Petition the US government to assign more funding to clusterbomb removal.

Take action to ban the use of cluster munitions.

We Help War Victims helps to save the lives and limbs of people affected by the consequences of war.

Visit Laos! It’s a wonderful country, we love it here. There is sadness but there is also profound kindness and warmth and a resilience that is as beautiful as its landscape.