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.




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!


The Man in the Moon & The Moon in Man

I came across some lovely Moon Lore a couple of weeks ago, a Victorian collection of superstition and mythology, written just eighty-four years before man set foot upon it. How sadly serendipitous.

Neil Armstrong passed away today. Imagine. Most of us have only one moment when we leave this world and step into the dark unknown. Imagine looking back on a life that contains intimate memories of the moon.

I don’t think I can.

Footprint on the Moon

The moon is as incomprehensible to me now as it was to those who watched, transfixed, that giant leap of discovery and investigation in 1969. Perhaps one day it will seem as common as a spoon, but I doubt it.

I like to think that we won’t ever know so much that we can completely disregard these gorgeous myths and legends and fancy. These are some I especially like, mostly from Moon Lore (1885) but some other places too.

The Man in the Moon

I was surprised to see how many cultures share a concept of the Man in the Moon.

Many myths originated biblically, says author of Moon Lore, Timothy Harley.

A French superstition regarded the man in the moon as Judas Iscariot, transported to the moon for his treason. And, the Jewish have a Talmudic tradition that Jacob is in the moon, though the Hebrew Scriptures make no mention of the myth.

A Trip to the Moon, Le Voyage Dans la Lune, G Melies 1902

“The Chinese ‘Old Man in the Moon’ is known as Yue-lao, and is reputed to hold in his hands the power of predestining the marriages of mortals–so that marriages, if not, according to the native idea, exactly made in heaven, are made somewhere beyond the bounds of earth.”

“Among the Khasias of the Himalaya Mountains “the changes of the moon are accounted for by the theory that this orb, who is a man, monthly falls in love with his wife’s mother, who throws ashes in his face”

For the aborigines of New Zealand, it is quoted from D’Urville by De Rougemont in his Le Peuple Primitif as follows:

“Before the moon gave light, a New Zealander named Rona went out in the night to fetch some water from the well. But he stumbled and unfortunately sprained his ankle, and was unable to return home. All at once, as he cried out for very anguish, he beheld with fear and horror that the moon, suddenly becoming visible, descended towards him. He seized hold of a tree, and clung to it for safety; but it gave way, and fell with Rona upon the moon; and he remains there to this day.”

The Man in the Moon? She is Woman, non?

“In English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek, the moon is feminine; but in all the Teutonic tongues the moon is masculine. Which of the twain is its true gender?”

“The moon, it has been said, was viewed as of the masculine gender in respect of the earth, whose husband he was supposed to be; but as a female in relation to the sun, as being his spouse.”

“The woman in the moon as a myth does not obtain to any extent in Europe; she is to be found chiefly in Polynesia, and among the native races of North America.”

“In Samoa, we are told that the moon came down one evening, and picked up a woman, called Sina, and her child. It was during a time of famine. She was working in the evening twilight, beating out some bark with which to make native cloth. The moon was just rising, and it reminded her of a great bread-fruit. Looking up to it, she said, ‘Why cannot you come down and let my child have a bit of you?’ The moon was indignant at the idea of being eaten, came down forthwith, and took her up, child, board, mallet, and all. The popular superstition is not yet forgotten in Samoa of the woman in the moon. ‘Yonder is Sina,’ they say, ‘and her child, and her mallet, and board.”

Perhaps it is neither Man nor Woman. Perhaps it is Hare or Toad, who knows?

Buddhist legend Sakyamuni as a Hare in the Moon

One thing is for certain though:

The Man in the Moon Drinks Claret

“Several astronomers assert the absence of water in the moon; if this be the case, what is the poor man to drink?”

“The man in the moon drinks claret,
But he is a dull Jack-a-Dandy;
Would he know a sheep’s head from a carrot,
He should learn to drink cyder and brandy.”

The Man In The Moon Drinks Claret

Ah, I love it!

The moon, of course, has endlessly fascinated and inspired us. There is so much more written besides and beyond Reverend Harley’s Moon Lore, though I think it is a wonderful source.

Some caution against its exploration:

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous” – Thomas Merton.

But I prefer those – like Carl Sandburg who often turned to the moon as muse – who regard it in whimsy and wonder through the eyes of a child:

Child Moon 
The child’s wonder
At the old moon
Comes back nightly.
She points her finger
To the far silent yellow thing
Shining through the branches
Filtering on the leaves a golden sand,
Crying with her little tongue, “See the moon!”
And in her bed fading to sleep
With babblings of the moon on her little mouth.

The Moon from Space

I could go on and on forever… to the moon and back! But I shall go now, and look forward to this Friday’s rare blue moon, all be it in name only. Perhaps I’ll hear some Moon myths and poems from you, I’d love that. What I’ll be thinking of, though, is that most of us have to settle for staring up and scribbling lovely words. It’s a rare man who knows what He or She, Hare or Toad, is truly like. RIP Mr Armstrong.

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.



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.

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.'”

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.