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Lorna Sixsmith’s second book, How to be a Perfect Farm Wife, is an excellent follow-up to her 2013 debut, Would You Marry a Farmer? 

HTB Perfect Farm WifeThis time, she looks at the transition from being carefree and single to being a farmer’s spouse. (The book mainly looks at women from outside the farming community marrying farmers, but Sixsmith says her advice should work as well for men marrying into a farm — however, they might want to pass on the patterned wellies.) It appears to be a change akin to marrying somebody who speaks a different language, and How to be a Perfect Farm Wife attempts to be a tongue-in-cheek primer to understanding your farmer. Read the rest of this entry »

‘Tis that time of year when people start making lists of potential gifts for their friends and/or family and publishers launch new books to appeal to every personality type and disposition. One of these gift books is Who’s Fecking’ Who in Irish History by Colin Murphy (with hilarious illustrations by Brendan O’Reilly).

Whos Feckin Who in Irish HistoryWho’s Feckin’ Who is the latest installment in a popular series of humorous books about all aspects of Irish life. It comprises hilarious biographies of famous and infamous figures from Irish history.

To start with, I should point out that the title is not as scandalous as the unfamiliar might think. Feckin’ is not an exact synonym for a much more-well-know and internationally used four letter word. While feckin’ is a gentle curse — one your Granny might use when discussing politicians — it isn’t used as a coarse description of the act of love. So, the title of the book does not refer to who’s getting it on with whom in Irish history — that might be a very interesting book, but it’s not this one. (With notable exceptions for Charles Stuart Parnell and Katherine O’Shea, as well as Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan, whose stories, like their lives, are entwined.) Read the rest of this entry »

Musician Danny Ellis’s memoir of growing up in Ireland’s notorious Artane Industrial School, The Boy at the Gate, is a triumph of forgiveness over bitterness.

boy at the gate

The Boy at the Gate by Danny Ellis (US cover, Arcade)

Growing up in Ireland, I was very aware of the The Artane Boys Band. It was famous throughout the country, called upon to play at every important occasion: St. Patrick’s Day parades, state occasions and football finals. But the school that formed the band — the Artane Industrial School, an infamous orphanage run by the Christian Brothers — had been closed since 1969, its history largely forgotten. The band endured after the school was shut down. In his book, The Boy at the Gate, local author Danny Ellis refers to the Artane Boys Band as “a diamond forged in the fires of hardship and misfortune,” an example of how music helps people through troubled times. Read the rest of this entry »

If you visit Ireland in search of fairies and ancient stone tombs, you would do well to read Signe Pike’s Faery Tale first.

Broadly speaking, there are two camps into which depictions of fairies can be divided: the cute and the capricious.  Hollywood has done the first to death; after all, fluff and feathers seems to be what sells on the aisles of Toys-R-Us. The other view is what I think of as “real” fairies, the sídhe of Celtic myth and legend: unpredictable, inscrutable, and dangerous. The first is often the one that seduces us as kids, and most people never realize there’s another altogether more plausible type. In her unusual memoir, Faery Tale: One Woman’s Search for Enchantment in a Modern World, Signe Pike uses the spelling faery to indicate the darker creatures of myth and legend, rather than the fluff of popular culture.

A fairy ring is any free-standing circle of trees. In Ireland, most farmers will not cut them down even when they take up valuable space in a field. Signe Pike tells a tale of one ring frequented by a faery disguised as a big black dog. The ring was eventually bulldozed, but decades later a large black dog can regularly be seen where the ring once stood. (Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

Having grown up in rural Ireland, I’ve always been more in tune with the darker faery stories (perhaps because my childhood home is literally equidistant between a fairy ring and an old churchyard) and really only caught up with the world of Disney fairies after becoming a dad. So, Pike’s focus on authentic faery lore interested me, and her skeptical but still eager to believe perspective struck a chord. She was quite concerned that she might encounter bad “spirits” in some of the hot spots of faery lore, and this serves to both make the reader warm to her voice and hints at possible drama later in the book.

In case you’re not familiar with the caprice of non-Disneyfied faeries, there’s a chilling short story (one of my favorites) by Sylvia Townsend Warner (“Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain” in her collection The Music at Long Verney) about a man in a small English village who goes cycling with an attractive young woman from his draper’s shop. Mr. Mulready is obsessed with a piece of church music about nymphs. He wanders around thinking about them, wishing to meet one, and abruptly realizes a young women who works for him embodies his ideal of a nymph. They come upon a wood and stop to rest. Up to this point, the reader suspects this to be a tale of an older man seducing a young woman, although Mr. Mulready does not act particularly lecherous. The woman, whom he thinks of as his nymph, hardly speaks, except to declare that she is perfectly happy in the woods. As Mr. Mulready starts to leave, the nymph stops at a blackthorn tree (an auspicious tree in Celtic lore) and simply vanishes, the implication being that she was a fairy living for a time in the human world and has now made the decision to return to her realm. The man is left devastated because he knows she will be regarded as a missing person, and as he, her employer, was seen by the inhabitants of the small town walking into the woods with her, from then on he’ll be regarded as a killer and his life as he knew it is over. It’s a devastatingly sudden twist and powerful ending. (Sylvia Townsend Warner published one standalone collection of her faery stories, Kingdoms of Elfin. It’s sadly out-of-print, but brilliant. Her faeries are not your average faeries.)

The nymph in Warner’s story is not evil, she’s simply being true to her nature without thought for what that might mean for anyone in the human realm. The real faeries of the British Isles do things for their own reasons. There is often a price to be paid by mortals who get involved (no matter whether deliberately or accidentally) with Faery, and this is the world of magic, mystery and sticky ends that Pike is both fascinated with and frightened by.

After a close encounter with a mysterious creature and learning about Los Aluxes (Mexico’s equivalent to faeries) on a trip to Cancun, Pike’s childhood interest in fairies is fully reawakened. A couple of years later, she finally takes a long-planned trip to the British Isles to check out some of the famous sites of faery lore. Along the way she sprinkles in stories of her friends, fellow seekers, and the people she meets along the way. Faery Tale is a winning, curious story of discovery and mystery; one can really feel Pike’s excitement as she describes sitting in a dark garden in Glastonbury inviting fairies to make themselves known, and her fear as she gets lost in a forest on the Isle of Man and comes across a derelict house with an aura of evil about it.

As somebody who’s spent years exploring old ruins and overgrown tombs, I was very interested in what Pike writes about the etiquette of exploring faery sites. She asks leave from the spirits of a place before entering and believes that everything that lies within a fairy ring or grotto belongs to the faeries, and should be left there. I’ve always refrained from souvenir collecting out of a belief that ruins belongs to us all and should be left as found for the enjoyment of the next visitor, but I’ll be careful in future to make the point to my kids that even the odd rocks and beautifully colored leaves belong to the spirits of a place (as I think of them — Pike would call them faeries, and there’s probably no real difference) and should be left alone. I think that’s a good practice whether one believes in faeries or just wants to respect the dead. Happily (or luckily) we’ve long been in the habit of leaving gifts for the fairies, as we’ve been building fairy houses in the woods or wherever seems to need one for years (mainly thanks to Tracy Kane’s wonderful picture booksFairy House, etc.).

I read the first 200 pages of Faery Tale in one sitting and came away amazed this book wasn’t topping bestseller lists and being devoured by every Eat, Pray, Love devotee. The freedom she expresses while following her dreams and discovering places she’d only read about before is infectious, and you really want her to succeed, to encounter faeries and get some answers. However, the next day I came back to finish the book and discovered why it hasn’t crossed-over to the mass market. Pike’s travel writing is for the most part wonderful: she tells the stories of her encounter in Mexico, her pilgrimage through England, over to the Isle of Man with charm and immediacy. There are many serendipitous encounters and happy accidents along the way and one can easily believe she was being led from one discovery to the next by an invisible hand. When she tries to sum up her travels and reach some kind of conclusion, she falters. It’s clear that although she has had several encounters with unexplained phenomena or creatures, which I’m happy to call faeries, she’s still searching for understanding, for answers.

Pike seems to feel compelled (perhaps by the conventions of the memoir format, or perhaps by the dictates of her editor) to offer up some conclusions, synthesize some wisdom gleaned from the journey, and that falls flat. It feels as if she doesn’t believe she’s found enough answers yet, and for me it would have been perfectly acceptable for her to acknowledge that she still has questions, still seeks to know more, but has moved away from the skepticism and suspicion she first felt. The journey as the all-important process may be a hackneyed given of self-help books, but it’s still completely true and would have been a fitting conclusion to this absorbing chronicle of Pike’s journey into faery lore. Still, that doesn’t spoil the rest of the book for me, and I can honestly recommend it to anyone interested in faeries, celtic lore or travel in the British Isles.

After reading Faery Tale, I’m investigating my own trip to the Isle of Man in order to see some of the places Signe Pike brilliantly describes. And, though I’ve spent decades exploring old Irish ruins and tombs, I think her influence will make me a little more mindful of the spirits of a place, whatever one chooses to call them.

An old Abbey near my family home In Ireland. The picture was taken last June, but I didn’t notice the purple blur at the bottom left until after I read Faery Tale and checked out some of Pike’s photographic evidence on her blog (link below). I suspect this is “just” lens flare, but could it be a something else?

Lens flare or faery?

Notes

Signe Pike’s website

Faery evidence Pike collected on her journey…

Seamus Heaney at 70

This week is Seamus Heaney’s 70th birthday. The Irish national television station, RTE, has made a new documentary about the poet that airs tonight. It should be available for webstreaming for a week after broadcast at RTE’s Heaney at 70 website. I have no idea if it will be downloadable outside Ireland, but it’s worth a shot. [Update: Nope, not downloadable outside Ireland. Sorry to get your hopes up.]

stepping-stonesI’ve been reading Dennis O’Driscoll’s wonderful and massive book of interviews with Heaney, Stepping Stones over the past couple of months, and while it wouldn’t be right to review it without finishing it first, I must say it’s a marvelous consideration of the poet’s life, his memories and ruminations on the significant events that shaped him, and contains some fascinating insights into some of his best-known poems. Its strength is the digressive nature of the recorded conversations — obviously between two old friends who know Irish poetry inside out — which brings out both an air of candor and also creates an atmosphere of after-dinner conversation that sets the book apart from a typical dry, academic biography.

If you’ve never read Seamus Heaney, I’d recommend running out to your local bookstore and picking up Opened Ground, which collects the best poems from his career up to 1996. If you’re already a fan of his poetry, I recommend Stepping Stones highly.

Links

Seamus Heaney’s biography at nobelprize.org

Watch a video of various Irish television & arts personalities talking about why they love the poetry of Seamus Heaney:

I haven’t been blogging much lately because of some extracurricular activities: gardening, taxes and research for a writing project. Now that one of those is finished, I thought I should share some of the gardening/landscaping books I’ve found the most useful and genuinely helpful in my landscaping projects.

Last year I built a patio, this year I’ve built several stone retaining walls. The book I relied on last year for stone work tips was David Reed’s The Art and Craft of Stonescaping (from Asheville’s own Lark Books).

It’s a very good book, and features some great projects, but focuses mainly on the craft of dry stone stacking. Several of the projects featured were major projects at the NC Arboretum and elsewhere, and as such are more aspirational than practical for a beginner like me. However the advice is sound and the pictures are inspirational, so it confirmed my desire to build a natural flagstone patio rather than an artificial brick surface, and provided enough direction for me to do the job properly.

This year I got a copy of Stonescaping Made Simple by Kristen Hampshire & David Griffin and found it’s much more step-by-step oriented and less purist (it’s OK to use concrete if you want to). Looking back, I probably wouldn’t have done very much differently when laying the patio, but I’ll be recommending Stonescaping Made Simple to beginners from now on. The projects in this book are much more down to earth, the directions are well illustrated, quite detailed and represent a more realistic assessment of what beginners can achieve.

For some reason, Stonescaping Made Simple is branded with the John Deere logo (doubtless the result of some expensive study that recommended “extending the brand”). What exactly John Deere has to with the average homeowner’s landscaping needs, I don’t know — I guess they make the large sit-on lawn movers that so many people buy even though they don’t really have enough lawn to need them. There are two gratuitous pages of tractor porn showcasing John Deere’s farming products, if that’s what floats your boat. But, unless you own the Biltmore Estate, you’re unlikely to need a tractor to build your backyard patio…

Anyway, both books get my thumbs up. Stonescaping Made Simple really does what it claims, and is my recommendation to all novice backyard stonemasons. The Art and Craft of Stonescaping is perfect once you’ve got some experience and really want to focus on an impressive piece of stone work.

Links

David Reed’s website

I’m a terribly undisciplined reader, so working in a bookstore is the worst thing I could possibly do. Rather than sticking with the good novel I’m currently reading, I’m powerless against every shiny new book that catches my eye at work. As I’m currently working on various landscaping projects, my eye was caught by Debra Prinzing‘s Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways, a beautiful book about people (including novelist Amy Bloom) who either built from scratch or transformed ramshackle outbuildings and sheds into whimsical yet practical buildings: greenhouses, writing sheds, chicken houses or outdoor living rooms.

While there are the usual couple of outlandish or completely over the top constructions, most of the “sheds” are simple barns or old cottages transformed with love, effort and a good eye into what are likely the most used rooms in their respective homesteads. I have an old two-car garage that I just use for storage. This book has me eying it for other possibilities.

Links

Debra Prinzing’s garden blog: shedstyle.com


Well, I picked Gerald Durrell’s Fillets of Plaice up thinking it was ‘just’ a Gerald Durrell reader (and given the fact that most of his books are out-of-print or unavailable in the U.S. I’d be happy for a Durrell reader), a collection of snippets from his other works. Happily, it turns out to be a collection of “bonus features,” scenes & stories left out of other books for various reasons. As usual, all are polished and very, very funny. “The Birthday Party” is a Corfu tale about an ambitious boat trip to celebrate his long-suffering mother’s birthday. All the beloved Corfu characters are there — coarse but fiercely local fixer Spiro, absent-minded Dr. Theo, and Gerald’s singular family — aided and abetted by some archetypical British visitors. The other stories track through Gerald’s life: post-Corfu time in London, young man-about-townhood in Bournemouth (which seems to have been a more fashionable destination in the late 1940s than it is today) and animal collecting in Cameroon, which makes this book a great introduction to Durrell’s world. (Although, anyone interested by what I’ve described so far should immediately run and buy a copy of My Family & Other Animals — one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Would that Augusten Burroughs and rest of the current crop of ironic memoirists would read it and learn how to poke fun at your relatives without resorting to inventive obscenity or revealing the unattractive chips on their shoulders!)

One of my favorites is “A Question of Promotion” a tale about the expat community in a remote African outpost banding together to help the competent-but-socially-awkward District Officer (the British civil servant in charge of the area) host a dinner party for his boss, who’s come to inspect the area. The officer is clumsy without being drawn as a buffoon, and Durrell finds amusement as well as virtues amid all his characters’ foibles. The one thing Fillets of Plaice lacks is an introduction or afterword detailing when the various pieces were written and what larger works they were originally intended for, becasue I’d love to know where to find more about District Officer Martin and Durrell’s time in Cameroon.

Last year, I read Cory Doctorow’s provocative collected essays on copyfighting, eInk and everything to do with the Internet, Content, and I’ve been thinking back over it and the issues involved quite a lot since then. Among other things, Doctorow certainly raises some questions in my mind about what exactly the typical bookstore will look like in 5 or 10 years. (Indeed, I think of this blog as being partially a result of the metaphorical kick in the pants Doctorow’s book gave me.)

My take on our collective future after reading Content is that if bookstores are around as a third place, they’ll probably be as much virtual as physical, with our role as booksellers morphing into ubercool facilitators of chatspace, book group discussion leaders, and witty remixers of text, creating one-of-a-kind memes to monetize as T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, animated smileys for MyFace pages (I jest, MySpace & Facebook will probably be long gone), etc. All meatspace book discussion may be fueled by high-priced, literary themed caffeine shots — and the caffeine may be the primary thing customers come into the bricks-n-mortar store in search of. Book shopping may be actively moving to primarily online activity (i.e. the researching, interacting with booksellers and ordering may all ultimately occur online (digitally mediated by text, email & tweet), the book pick up achieved at the same time readers perform their ritual caffeine worshiping on the way to work, and their post-perusal hit of book talk will be realized on their blog or through the bookstore’s online discussion group/listserv/MyFace pages). (Yes, ebooks will have a large part in any bookseller’s future, but that’s an issue that needs its own post.)

Thankfully, Doctorow doesn’t predict a disappearance of the physical book, nor the bookstore itself. Instead, he sees the book as being more of a raw material for social connection (along with TV, movies, gaming, etc.), something to be read, then commented upon, remade as an online video, adapted for a skateboard design theme, and blogged about, excerpted as an email signature, and used in ways we haven’t thought of yet. This is how we’ve always used culture, it’s just on a different scale now because of the ease of creation and sharing made possible by the worldwide web. So you can look at it as technology rescuing the book from being a marginalized, fairly exclusive product — one too often placed on a pedestal. Perhaps the power of the web could rescue the book from (relative) obscurity (when compared to movies or TV), but change the reverence with which it’s often treated. Which I think suggests that the bookstore as a relatively separate, peaceful place (or place to find A Separate Peace) will change dramatically, both in terms of the physical use of the space and also in terms of the disappearance of clear boundaries between the store and the rest of the world.

You can download the book for free from the author’s website, but I suspect you’ll want to make notes, dog-ear pages and generally engage with the text, so I urge you to support both your local indie bookstore and Cory Doctorow by buying a physical copy.