Ragtag & Sundry

A periodic news and reading roundup

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

This Conversation between Dan Gunn and Lydia Davis at the wonderful Music & Literature.

This 1929 Soviet-era silent movie by Dziga Vertov, who once said: “I am eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see.”


Published a couple of years ago, but still – and maybe more so – relevant, Rebecca Solnit’s Diary in the London Review of Books meditates on the influence of technology and the quality of the time we spend in today’s day and age.

“A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing….  It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone.”

Solnit’s sentiments echo my own of late (though more beautifully and with considerably more clarity and conviction – I tend to vacillate between her perspective and one of the commenters who persuasively argues that Solnit is not the first in history to romanticize and misremember the reality of the past). Still, food for thought, and it nudged me into action concerning the way I do, and want to, spend my time. Day 2 of being Facebook-free and it feels okay!

Based on a couple of short stories I’ve read, I’m very excited about Irish writer Sara Baume’s forthcoming debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, from Tramp Press. Will certainly gush more about her another time. For now, though, I lately loved her little blog post documenting some artwork she made, and an installation of post-its titled All The Days I Did and Didn’t, while writing the novel.

I’ve also been seriously dreamy over the work of Mister Finch, a self-taught artist who sews delightful flora and fauna from vintage textiles. I want to fall down this lacy, threadbare rabbit hole and live in a world that looks like this:



There were other things, too, but these are the things I thought to share with you, whatever share means, whoever you are.



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!

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.

What’s A Weekend?

It’s Friday!

Not that Friday signifies what it used to.

In an episode of Downton Abbey, the Dowager Countess (played to haughty, privileged perfection by Maggie Smith) asks “What’s a weekend?” For a lady of leisure, every day’s the same.

When we were walking in India, the days melded and Mondays and Sundays lost all meaning: Hindu worshippers are not dogmatic with their days; we knew it was Friday if we happened to walk through a predominantly Muslim village and the mosque keened out the call to kneel and pray.

Since coming home, every day and evening has been weekend-like, with dinners and drinks and hikes and bikes. Slowly, though, we are returning to a rhythm and I am desperate for a day and week with structure and a predictable – but flexible! – pattern.

I think I work best, and more, with a routine.

In my old job in Ireland, I had a strange set-up where I worked sleepover shifts, one week on and one week off, in a house with adults with intellectual disabilities. In my ‘week on’ I worked a lot of hours, including a weekend where I started work at 5pm on a Friday and finished at 9am the next Monday.

I was also doing my Masters part-time during the day.

The crazy thing was, I achieved so much more in the weeks where I had college classes and working at night. I had to go to the library during my lunch-break because I had to catch the bus by 4pm to get to work by five. And I had to read those books and articles on the bus and any spare moment because I had to not sound like an idiot in class the next day or get into shit with my teachers.

On my week off – or should I say, my off week – I had so much time to read and study, to get on top of things or do extra. But, my name is Deborah Rose and I am a procrastinator. It has been four minutes since I last procrastinated.

This is me:

The thing is, life looks quite different now from Ireland two years ago. Transitioning to a life where I supposedly work for myself comes with many challenges, not least of which is how I manage my time. I don’t have an external motivator – like a boss who might sack me or a teacher who might fail me if I don’t show up or don’t get the work done. It’s all on me and I am my biggest obstacle!

And it’s not like I’m watching videos of baby hedgehogs* or something.

There’s this great piece in The New Yorker on What Was Revealed When the Lights Went Out in India. That’s important.

And this one that asks: What’s a Metaphor For? Which is something I need to know if I were ever to write one.

Or these words of wisdom and affirmation about How To Find Your Purpose And Do What You Love. How about that?!

Except I already have a hunch what my purpose is and I know what I love. It’s a case of getting the cuss on with it.

But not before I read Dani Shapiro’s much better piece on the subject: #amwriting. I should really download that Freedom software. Oh wait! I did! I should really use that Freedom software…

This blogpost is an example of procrastination I suppose… But it’s also placing words upon words in a way that I like, so I count it.

I know it’s cheating, really. (And I lied, I do watch baby hedgehog videos, and baby sloth bears too!) But it’s Friday and the sun is shining. I’m bunking off. I’m playing hooky.

See you bright and early on Monday! I’ll be good next week, I promise.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Varanasi

In Milan Kundera’s formulation of Nietzsche’s myth of eternal return, only that which recurs has substance; that which happens only once is like a shadow, without weight: unbearably light.

[A]nd whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.

It has been so very horrible in Varanasi, where I lay in my bed – or at best the hotel rooftop – for six days and longed for home or any place apart from this city. When I decided to write about the places in which I read while travelling, I wasn’t reckoning upon being so sick in Varanasi.

But that is not what I care about really – never fear (over-descriptive details). More so, I have been struck by the act of reading in unpleasant circumstances and my subsequent inability to comprehend the novel as a whole. It was only yesterday, but beyond plot, I cannot tell you what the book is about. That is, I seldom stopped in my weariness, to ask myself “What is he trying to say? What does this sentence mean, really? Is this true?” The usual interactions.

Instead, I went about isolating pieces from the story and making them the meaning, manipulating them in support of a perspective I was doggedly determined to adhere to (Varanasi is a terrible place, I’m tired of travelling and I want to go home).

Kundera would forgive me, I think. After all, Tomas continually questions the authenticity of his love for Tereza and wonders if their life together was the tenuous result of a series of six (individually meaningless) coincidences. Some people say there is no meaning but I tend to think there is an overabundance of the stuff. I can pluck any – any! – scene or sentence out of a book, out of the filthy streets, out of the holy foul river, and make it mean. Which is to say, I make it mine. I make it the thing, out of all the potential things, that is important to me.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, these were the words that were most important to me:

Why was the word idyll so important for Tereza? Raised as we are on the mythology of the Old Testament, we might say that an idyll is an image that has remained with us like a memory of Paradise: life in Paradise was not like following a straight line to the unknown; it was not an adventure. It moved in a circle among known objects. Its monotony bred happiness, not boredom…

The passage bred in me like a parasite, multiplying in its meaningfulness with each pathetic passing day. I dreamed about my bookshelf, my spice-drawer, my wooden boxes; my friends. I spent many hours making imaginary cups of tea in my own, much-loved, kitchen; clean water running from the tap. I didn’t want to travel. I didn’t want an adventure into the unknown. I longed to move in a circle among known people and places and objects.

“If I have to be in a bed,” I said, “I would like it to be the four-poster canopy bed in the loft in Portland; there are mosquitoes in this bed in Varanasi and I can hear our neighbours fighting and peeing in French and ferocious monkeys are pounding on the tin roof outside our window that I dare not open though I’m desperate for air.”

I quoted the passage a hundred times a day.

“The boy is chopping onions on the stairwell,” I’d say and quote it again: “on the actual steps.” “That goat is eating a nappy he found on the street. Baby shit is still shit, I’m going to be sick.” “I felt a little better so I went for a walk but I was not ready, I wasn’t ready Ian – this old child of a woman, covered in enormous boils and open wounds, she was writhing on the ground and grabbing at my feet, pleading. What was I to do?”

Questions left hanging in the rotten, hazy air, I went searching for more proof in the only book I had to hand. It’s amazing what you can find when you’re looking for confirmation of a world-view.

“Did you see that guy just kick that dog?”

“Listen to that dog crying. The man hit it with a cricket bat.”

“Those puppies trembling in the ashes. Look.”

Look! Proof:

There’s no particular merit in being nice to one’s fellow man. She had to treat the other villagers decently, because otherwise she couldn’t live there… We can never establish with certainty what part of our relationship with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals.

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect, mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.

It seemed to me, so true. Me, who never owned anything more than a goldfish for fear of being responsible for something, having to deal with it when I wanted to go travelling again… Would I have given these words a second look were I well and unperturbed in a different location?

This is the question I found myself pondering this morning over a small breakfast of tea, toast and a banana. My appetite is returning and I feel like I could brave the alleys and the havoc later this afternoon. I wonder what I’ll see in the streets now that they don’t seem quite so nauseating to me. I wonder if I’d started the novel tomorrow instead of last week…? I wonder what it would mean to me then…?

Having vowed to never come back to Varanasi (at the risk of lightness and an insubstantial, meaningless, experience), I’m thinking now I will have to return. It’s time to get heavy. Down to the river I go.



Where I Read

I’ve heard of armchair travelers but on my real travels through India I rarely find myself reading in so homely or anchored a spot. Gone are the days of hot chocolate, pajamas and a comfy couch – these days I’ll be found reading Rushdie on a bustling railway platform or dipping into Dalrymple on a rickety ten-hour bus-ride where the driver speeds so dangerously I wonder if I’ll live to the end of the last chapter.

I love that a single novel can travel many miles with me before I reach its final pages, that I’ve begun a book on some sunny beach in Karnataka and ended it in the bitter reaches of the India Pakistan border. I love that I carried a copy of The History of Walking while I was actually walking through southern India and was able to pass it on to a guy we met on Om Beach who was writing a book about his walk from Canada to Mexico – the serendipity of it all!

This year is as much about where I read as what I’ve been reading so I sat down this morning and wrote the first of, I hope, many and far-flung accounts of Where I Read. If you’re reading from an armchair at home then I hope you enjoy traveling along with me. And if you’re reading in any weird and wonderful places yourself do let me know, I’d love to hear about it!

The stories; the places:

Literary Journey.


Travel around the world via a bookshelf.


You will need a bookshelf containing books, as well as a pen and paper to keep track of your journey.


Choose a book from the bookshelf and commence reading. Continue reading until a foreign country is mentioned in the text. Then choose a second book that’s somehow related to that country and begin reading again. Repeat until you have either returned to your point of origin or have completed one circumnavigation of the globe (or a dead-end).

An alternative, and perhaps more conventional, approach to this experiment is to read each book from cover to cover. To create an itinerary, simply choose your destination – the Middle East for example – and start tripping around the region via its literature.

For serious literary frequent-flyer miles, start with an author from your country, then read a book by someone from a neighbouring country and continue until you make your way around the globe. Note: this long-distance read will require around 196 books.


*from Experiment 24 in The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel.  

The Last Book I Loved

My first non-blog book-review was published in The Rumpus today. It’s one of my favourite online magazines, I’m really pleased.

The Rumpus

The last book I loved is about a woman named Bluma who was, arguably, killed by a poem, and a man called Carlos Brauer who loved books so much he mistook them for his mind, and cemented himself inside them on a desolate beach in Uruguay…

The last book I loved is The House of Paper or La Casa de Papel by Carlos María Domínguez, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor…”

You can read the rest over at The Rumpus if you so desire.

You can even leave a comment if it tickles your fancy.

Street Books: a bicycle-powered mobile library for people living outside

Walking to work today, I passed a paper memorial on the steps above the Eastbank Esplanade: RIP Coop Dog, it said, You Will Be Missed. It was written with a black felt-tip in bubble writing and taped to the concrete with a piece of electrical tape. Six or seven wilted roses and yellow irises lay around the meager monument along with some small grey rocks and two empty beer cans: Old English 800 and Rolling Rock. The words Christian Cooper May 11th 1973 to July 2011 were printed at the top of the page and a childlike drawing of a man in a baseball cap beneath a tree filled the remainder of the white space.

I don’t know for certain but I’m assuming Christian Cooper was one of the many homeless people in Portland. Living in Chinatown, our loft looks over Transition Projects and every day dozens of men and women queue around our block for food at Blanchet House. It’s impossible not to notice but noticing is different than seeing, and seeing is a long way from understanding let alone caring.

I do care but I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to help. Thankfully, somebody in Portland is thinking outside the box and in ways that go beyond the issue of core survival needs like food and shelter. When I heard about Street Librarian Laura Moulton and her mobile library, it was one of those of course! concepts that seem so obvious in retrospect but I know I’d never have thought of it. Me! To whom books and reading are so important, so vital, so unthinkable of life without.

I was struck by the makeshift memorial for the same reason I am moved by Street Books: the humanity of it. The universal need to place stones and roses around written words and say You will be missed. The need to read, to escape, to discover, to explore, to feed off of language, to nourish the mind and soul. When I try to contemplate the experience of a homeless person, I never think much beyond base needs and necessities. And yet, why should reading be less of a necessity or a priority for someone who lives out of doors?

I love that the people who frequent Street Books have very distinct and specific tastes and preferences and aren’t afraid to request more of what they’d like. They’re not willing to settle and their librarian is doing her best to get them what they want: Book Requests include Louis L’Amour, Stephen King, Tim O’Brien, Johanna Lindsey, Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Native Son, Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, On the Road and Subterranean Blues, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath and any Philosophy/Psychology books.

Ben borrowed a James Patterson.

This project makes me so happy and inspired to think beyond the obvious and the assumed. Street Books reminds me that each of us has a face, a name and a favourite book. And, hopefully, someone who’ll think of us when we’re here and miss us when we’re gone.