Free books and where they take you

My brother turned me on to BookBub when I went over to the Darkside and bought a Kindle. You fill in your details, check some boxes to build a reader profile, and then each day you receive an email with book offers listed on Amazon. Most days there’s at least one book on it that’s free, with the most expensive hovering around the £3.49 mark. My selection is fixed for crime novels, whodunnits, and detective fiction and rarely do I shell out more than a quid. My kindle is my escape. My serious reading I still do in the old-fashioned format.  I’ve picked some appalling offers that on a good day wouldn’t pass for anything approaching a decent read, but I’ve also chosen some gems. The best in recent months is the discovery of Kathryn Guare’s Conor McBride, a find worth sharing as it ticked a lot of boxes for me.

A box set of globe-trotting espionage thrillers! Conor McBride has a simple life — until MI6 transforms him into a deadly operative, propelling him into a world of international intrigue and dangerous secrets.

This was the blurb. And it was free. At most I’d lose 15 minutes of my life. That’s all it takes to know if I want to see the book through till the end.

Set in Kerry, London, Mumbai, Vermont, and Prague, the storyline is made for the big screen. Someone, sometime, has to nab the film rights. And while it might be a stretch of even the most fertile imagination to travel with this violin-playing Kerry farmer from a milking parlour in the south-west of Ireland to the backstreets of Mumbai to the concerts halls of Prague, I had no difficulty at all. Guare is a convincing writer. Her characters are credible, their antics (no matter how far-fetched) are strangely believable. And I loved the banter. Sometimes, in these types of books, the romantic element is overdone, underdone, or just plain awkward. But again, Guare nails it. It complements rather than detracts and adds depth to the story and the characters.

For a week, I followed my man Conor halfway around the world, rarely letting him out of my sight. Questions around trust, reliability, and dependability came to the fore. I found myself engaging with the characters and the story by asking myself if I’d have believed X when they said Y.  And that level of engagement is rare. I wondered if I was identifying too much with the Irishness of it all and how well Guare seems to understand the Irish psyche [‘The Irish had spent centuries perfecting the art of cursing as poetic expression’]. Perhaps. Amongst the passions listed for Guare in her standard web-bio are ‘all things Celtic’. The bits of Gaelic that pop up are well placed and appropriate, with none of the usual artfulness I’ve come to expect from North American writers. In my experience, capturing this Irishness, this essence, is a rare thing for someone born and raised outside of Ireland. Guare is a third-generation Vermonter who has travelled a lot in Europe and India. She’s obviously called on her experience in shaping the life of Conor McBride.

While I had no difficulty in believing that what I was reading was real and no problem buying into all that double-crossing, lying, and subterfuge, I had a real problem with this:

‘Terror makes for strange bedfellows, Kate.’ Frank crumbled some Stilton over a slice of apple and handed it to her.

Given what I know of the North American hangups about double-dipping, Kate must be one special woman to eat cheese handled by someone else 🙂 I liked her. And Conor. And Frank. And Winnie. And all the other characters who went everywhere I went for a week.

If you’re looking for something to read this Christmas, and like intricate plots, believable characters, and a rollicking mystery, then this box set is worth checking out. The BookBub offer is over so you’ll have to pay for it – a whopping £5.99 (UK) $7.68   (USA) for all three books. A steal at twice the price.





Inspiring Parenting by Dorka Herner

Inspiring parenting

I live a life without issue. I have no children. I wasn’t living in Ireland when my nephews were in nappies so I’ve minimal experience with babies or toddlers. I’ve babysat on very rare occasions; I could count the number of nappies I’ve changed on both hands. I think that when God was dishing out the maternal genes, He shorted me. Some would (and have) argued that my lack of desire to have kids is quite selfish as, according to them, by virtue of my being a woman, it’s almost a duty to procreate.  Whatever.

I’ve been known to rail at the preferential treatment given to parents in the corporate world. As the lone single, childless member of staff, I drew all the evening duties  – I had nothing to go home to. I rarely got to take my leave in the summer as I didn’t have kids who were out of school and needed to be entertained. I drew the short straw on many occasions, losing out to those women who had taken their duty more seriously. I got over it though, as I doubt it’s something that will ever change.

I still get het up at Mass though, when parents allow their kids to run riot. Can you really reason with a three-year-old? I think not. Were they at a concert or a play or somewhere everyone else had paid to get into, the rest of the audience wouldn’t be as accommodating. I doubt they’d stand for the disruption. Why the kids are not kept at home until they’re old enough to sit quietly is beyond me. Parents could easily take it in turns to go to Mass. It’s not like they’re doing anything by way of prayer anyway, as they spend their time shushing little Johnny, bribing him with his favourite toys, and smiling indulgently as he provides the background screams to the sermon from the pulpit.

Why then, you might wonder, did I find myself reading a parenting book of all things?

I was introduced to author Dorka Herner by mutual friends when she was looking for someone to read the English translation and comment on the language rather than on the context. What would I know about bed-wetting and sugar allowances? A mother of five who’s also a practising psychologist, Herner writes as she speaks. Her funny, tongue-in-cheek accounts of her own parenting experience are a far cry from the prescriptive texts that I’ve seen on the shelves of friends who are first-time parents themselves. Her focus is more on living with children than textbook parenting. She’s short on advice, preferring to give personal examples from which others can learn. I found it all highly entertaining… and very human.

Herner sees parenting as a joint effort – she has learned so much about herself from her interactions with her kids.

Whatever my children do, it says something about me as well. More often than not, it says a lot of things. If my five-year-old doesn’t go to sleep alone, am I the one who needs our evening cuddles? If I am disturbed when he is bored, do I see myself useless if I don’t have enough tasks to do? If I think they are careless, am I the one who is too [much of a] perfectionist? For me, getting to know myself, or shaping the way I function, is an exciting and efficient way to form my kids’ behaviour.

It’s an easy read, and an insightful one for parents and non-parents alike. Hidden amongst the parenting insights are comments on relationships and sharing space with other beings. It gave me a better feel for what parents go through. Selfishly, it’s a book I wish more parents would read. It might make life a little easier for those of us who have to deal with their kids.

As Herner says:

Situations, solutions, and parenting styles are neither good nor bad in themselves; we add the qualifying adjectives. Shouting can be positive, cuddling can have drawbacks, illness can bring kindness, or good advice can harm. When I have an eye for seeing new levels in everyday happenings, I can fully enjoy my parenting years.

Available on Amazon.

Inspiring Parenting by Dorka Herner





If you wear galoshes, you’re an émigré

When it comes to museums and stately homes, I’m not one for do-agains. Other than Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, which I visited many times during my year in Oxford, I can count on one hand the places I’ve gone back to a second time, let alone a third. Once I’ve been, I’ve been. I will happily wait outside as my visitors wade through the history and experience all on offer, but I don’t usually have the bandwidth for  a do-again. In Budapest, though, I’ve made an exception; I’ve found my Blenheim Palace in the Zwack Museum in Budapest’s IXth district, on Dandár utca 1.

Each time I visit, I learn something new. During each viewing of the short film that introduces Unicum to visitors, something different resonates. I hadn’t realised, for instance, that Unicum has its own music, a Foxtrot, composed in the 1930s and performed by the Holéczy vocal ensemble, extolling the medicinal virtues of the drink as a cure for an upset stomach.

Unicum barrell

And I hadn’t realised that the giant Unicum barrels were commandeered in WWII and used to build a temporary bridge over the Danube. One of the original barrels remains – dating back to 1937 and holding a massive 16 000 litres.  I quite fancied that the barrels should have names. They seem to have a life and spirit of their own. We threw out some suggestions and Bóri, our guide, had the winner: ‘Why not call it Grandmother?’ This I found interesting because, apparently, I mispronounce it: my mangled version of Unicum sounds like unokám, which translates to ‘my grandchild’.

Zwack Riserva

I was curious about the typical consumer. I’m told that the classic Unicum is a favourite of men of about 35 and older. Unicum Szilva, the happy product of a marketing promotion whereby slices of plum were handed out with shots of Unicum, has a younger fan base. And the latest addition to the Unicum family is Unicum Riserva may well covert me.

Unicum Riserva is doubly unique because it is aged not once but twice in two very different and special casks. The Unicum is aged first in the largest and oldest cask in the distillery which has been in the cellars for eighty years. Over the decades the wood has acquired a coating of what we call “black honey” which gives the Unicum still more depth and character. In the second phase the Unicum is put into a Tokaji Aszu cask where for years this legendary wine has aged in the cellars of Tokaji. Once the familiar bittersweet taste of Unicum encounters the sensuous sweetness of Tokaji, Unicum Riserva becomes mellower but at the same time spicy and fruity, with hints of dried apricots and an elusively herbal, minty taste like a cool breeze. Finally the 2007 vintage of Tokaji Aszu from the Dobogo Winery is blended into the Riserva to further enhance this uniquely unusual blend of flavours.

Of course, Unicum isn’t the only stave in the Zwack liquor barrel. Its apricot brandy has fans all over the world, the most famous perhaps being Edward, Prince of Wales, who, back in 1933, said that with soda, it is better than whisky and in tea, it is better than rum. I also hadn’t registered that there’s a Zwack Palinka Distillery in Kecskemét, but now that I know it’s there, it’s on my list of places to visit.

Anne and Peter Zwack

While walking through the gift shop, I spotted a book, a memoir of Peter Zwack (1927-2012), written by his wife, Anne: If you wear galoshes, you’re an émigré. Since my first viewing of the short, introductory biopic a number of years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the man and curious to know more about his life. The blurb described it as ‘the unique and compelling story of an émigré who lost everything except his galoshes and his accent and, in the new Hungary, was to win it all back’. Here was my opportunity.

What spare time I’ve had since then has been spent curled up on a chair reading. A Kindle convert, it’s been a while since I’ve read a real book with a hard cover and paper pages, but it seemed fitting – I don’t think Peter Zwack would have had much truck with electronic books, but I could be wrong. Written back in 2001 (and so a little dated), it’s an intriguing account of the life of a man who was not in ‘the least afraid of dying’ but didn’t ‘want not to live anymore’.  It chronicles his rather privileged childhood and teens [a life that he himself described as consisting of ‘town houses and country mansions and an elegant lifestyle’] to the family’s flight to the USA in 1948 when the Communist regime nationalised the Unicum factory. At 22, after a month on Ellis Island, Peter Zwack found himself living in the Broncs in New York. In 1956, with his friend Tibor Eckhardt, he founded First Aid for Hungary, a charity to help Hungarian refugees of the 1956 Revolution. Indeed, the family (and the business) has always had a strong sense of corporate and social responsibility, perhaps another reason I’m drawn to him. He says that while his childhood made him ‘culturally and emotionally a European, America gave [him a] liberal viewpoint and positive outlook’. Not a bad mix.

Chapter after chapter I read and as I read, I learned. Peter Zwack was born a Catholic and educated by the Cistercians, as the family had converted to  Catholicism in 1917. He didn’t realise he was Jewish until 1944 when Eichmann came to Hungary. Having to hide out from the Arrow Cross and wear a Yellow Star must have come as quite the shock. A fastidious diarist, the book features many of his own words, bringing his voice to life. [In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Anne Marshall Zwack says of her husband: ‘Something unwritten has never happened for him. If he loses a diary, he is distraught, because it means that he has lost a week of his life.’]

One account of how Lars Berg from the Swedish Embassy rescued the family when the Arrow Cross came calling gives a glimpse of the carpe diem man he would become.

There was no doubt in my mind that we were all going to die. I had been given a huge bar of chocolate as my ration to last me the rest of the war. I hadn’t eaten any of it. […] The Arrow Cross were stamping in front of us, needling Wunschi [his aunt Mitzi’s second husband], and I started to eat the whole thing right there. I thought it was the last bar of chocolate I’d ever see. The Arrow Cross used to round people up and march them to the banks of the Danube and shoot them there. They would tie them into groups like asparagus and then shoot one whose weight would drag the rest of them into the Danube where they’d die by drowning. It was a way of economising on bullets.

His marriage to Iris, with whom he had five children; their subsequent divorce; and his marriage to Anne, with whom he had two children, are described with just enough detail to make them real. The figure of a man who liked his own company better than that of his fellow man emerges. Minor details like the Russians stealing his father’s shoes (and never in pairs) and bayonetting their books, all add to the fascination. As does the account of his year as Hungarian Ambassador to the USA. For a man who believed that ‘only salesmen travel in a suit and tie’ the pomp and ceremony of diplomacy was something to be reckoned with. His ambassadorship was short-lived, though. The world wasn’t yet ready for him. It was such a shame because his speeches apparently inspired international companies to invest in Hungary and his appearances did a lot to dispell the myth of the Big Bad Wolf that lived in the Eastern Bloc.

As I read the book, I stopped occasionally to look up other articles on the web about Peter Zwack. And with each read, his place at my heavenly dinner table became more secure. In an interview with the New York Times in 1989, he said:

People think I showed faith in Hungary when not too many others did […] they had been fed this picture of a fat capitalist who smoked cigars and beat up the workers, and they saw me, a skinny guy who doesn’t smoke, wears beat-up clothes and behaves more like the workers than the Communist bosses did.

That same article said this about him:

He is steely enough to have survived, indeed thrived, for 40 years as an exile. He is bold and imaginative enough to have gambled, when the winds of change now blowing through Eastern Europe were the merest zephyr, on the ability of a capitalist emigre to come home at last and do business with the Communists he hated. A Role Model for Hungarians.

Anne Marshall Zwack met her husband on a blind date in Milan. She was a 26-year-old, well-travelled translator; he was a 44-year-old divorcé with five kids. His mother proposed to her, asking her if she’d like to marry her son. When Anne said yes, her future mother-in-law replied: ‘Then we’ll arrange it.’ And in Peter Zwack, the apple didn’t fall far from that particular tree.

As I read, I found myself wondering what Peter Zwack himself thought of the book. There’s very little by way of varnish and plenty by way of veracity. Anne Marshall Zwack writes with an objectivity threaded with love. It is, indeed, a compelling read. If you have an interest in post-War Hungary and its transition to capitalism or just fancy a peek at how the other half lived back in the day, it’s a bargain. Listed on Amazon for some serious money, you can pick up your copy at the museum shop for less than €2. And while you’re there, take a tour – get acquainted with Unicum and enjoy this unique little museum. Open Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm, Dandár utca 1.


To A Bird Another Bird

Much has been in the news in recent times about Hungary and Hungarians, about keeping the former as a stomping ground exclusively for the latter. If I weren’t made of stern stuff, I might take offence. It’s a little like running with a crowd of friends for years before finally realising that you’re only being tolerated and that life, for them, in their eyes, would be much better if you buggered off and went back to where you came from.

When Ireland’s social landscape went from being predominately white and Catholic to the multi-coloured, multi-ethnic Ireland of today, we didn’t have the vocabulary to deal with the changes wrought by new faces, new cultures, new creeds. We’re still learning. There I was a host, here I am a guest. And as a guest, I feel welcome at a grassroots level. But when I raise my head above the dandelions, I wonder if I’m here under sufferance. But what of the richness that entertaining non-nationals can bring to a country, any country. The different skills and experiences, the varied perspectives and views. These guests often become brand ambassadors for their home-from-homes, selling the world on all that’s good. By way of illustration, Harlan Cockburn is a case in point.

British-born Cockburn arrived in Budapest back in 2008 via Africa and America. His CV lists a plethora of professions, including video director, writer, musician, and producer. Hungarians might know him for his radio show Talking Music with The English Guys, which ran on Radio Q for seven years. Football fans of great vintage may know him as the name behind theme songs he wrote for Arsenal FC. He’s worked with the Queen Mother, Bill Clinton, Nick Cave, and many Captains of Industry, and is apparently descended from Queen/St Mary of Scotland. Who wouldn’t want to invite him to a party, let alone have him stay awhile?

Cockburn has been asked the question so many of us are asked: Why Hungary? Why here? I’ve noticed that the question has morphed recently from why I’m here to why I’m staying, a sad reflection of the fact that so many Hungarians (and expats) are choosing to leave. But Cockburn has settled here. He’s here to stay. Yet that doesn’t take from his near daily effort to understand this home from home and the people who have taken him in. ‘I want to understand the country I live in and the suffering that people have been through, with Nazism and Communism being the latest historical examples. Hungary is at a cultural and political crossroads. It’s full of secrets, piled on secrets. Hungarian people seem complex and guarded in many ways, but also proud of their ability to survive.’

His latest book, To A Bird Another Bird (writing as harefield), looks at this culture through the eyes of an alien, in this case, an American Talk Show host (Eli) who makes his first visit to Hungary to trace his dead father. He soon discovers that almost everything he believed about his family is untrue. Drawn into secrets which involve the history of three nations, the massing of refugees, and a hoard of weaponry, he takes the reader on a journey through the various facets of the Hungarian psyche.

There’s a shape to the characters that crosses the line between fact and fiction. Some are horrible people, others are nice, all of them ring true. There’s a palpable sense that even relatively peripheral characters, like Eli’s wife, or his neighbour, or the hospital doctor, have a backstory, even if, as readers, we don’t get to hear it.

I’m drawn to mysteries that also educate. Rather than reading travel books, I read novels set in cities and countries I plan to visit. I like a good story. And central to this story is a riddle that must be solved. Last year, some time before the book published, Cockburn test-marketed it with a group of Budapest writers. One person cracked it, and so the evil Kálmán was named after him, as a sort of reward. The riddle had to be crackable, he said, but not too easy. It had to work for a Budapest person (Hungarian or otherwise), or a stranger to the city. Like all riddles, once you know the answer it seems so obvious.

All writing requires collusion between the writer and the reader; To A Bird Another Bird is no exception. A certain amount of imagination is asked for, but the history is true, and the depiction of modern-day Budapest is also true. People really do walk past underground bunkers in Budapest every day on their way to work. Perhaps unknowingly, but the bunkers are there. There really were ‘Little Moscows’ spread across the country. And there really were vast arms dumps left by the Soviets. Going even further back, the Todt Organisation created extraordinary underground structures across Europe, and after WWII, both America and Russia co-opted Todt’s star engineers.

If you like a good yarn and have the remotest interest in Budapest and Hungary, then this book’s for you. And if, as a Hungarian, you’re curious as to how other others might see Budapest and Hungary, then it’s one for you, too.

Cockburn’s third novel, This Is Me And This Is Wot I Am Get Used To It, will publish shortly. The autoblograffy of a 5-year-old president, it began as a howl against Trump and turned into something completely different. Earlier this year, his collection of 33 ultra-short stories titled In the Cafés of Budapest published and there’s a sequel of To A Bird Another Bird in the making which centres on what the character Dora does next. This one I’m looking forward to; I’ve grown quite attached to the incorrigible Dora and her antics. Cockburn is one of many külföldi who have fallen for Hungary and made this country their home. Despite the climate, it’s still a special place.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 May 2018

Stopgap Grace

Am excited. So excited. My man Neil McCarthy will be back in Budapest next week. Okay, so technically he’s not my man, but I feel a strange affinity to this purveyor of words who reintroduced me to the joy that is poetry. Many moons ago, when Treehugger Dan’s was a pillar of the Budapest arts scene, I went to one of his gigs and sat, mesmerised, by the life he imbued in his poems. That was back, I think, in 2009 or 2010.

At the time, I was feeling a little homesick – not for Ireland but for her people. For that rich and wonderful way we have of telling stories. For the calculated casualness with which we choose our words. For the pictures we paint with our imagery and the tunes we create with our turns of phrase. Even in the innermost of our inner cities, poetry is on the move. We have a way about us and McCarthy is better than most.

He sat onstage, with his trademark flat cap turned backwards, looking every inch the fellah who sits in my local at home, sorting the world’s problems over a pint or three. And a little bit of me fell in love with him. I’m not usually given to such flights of fancy but that night, I wanted to take his words home. I cornered him outside over a smoke and asked if he had a CD – I had visions of listening to him each time that hankering for all things Irish hit me. He was thinking about it, he said, but in the meantime, he had a booklet that he could send me when he got back to Vienna. And he did.

Fast forward a few years to 2012 and that CD came to be. I sent copies to friends in the States and in Australia. And I nearly wore my own copy out. With three chapbooks to this name, Stopgap Grace (published by Salmon Poetry) is McCarthy’s first published collection; it’s a joy to read. He has a way with capturing the moment, the mundane, and making it memorable.

I expected them to tell me that my bacon
had come from a happy pig, one that had had a full life,
was corn fed and had free range, did yoga in the mornings,
played the cello, spoke Latin and learned
to salsa dance while visiting relatives in Cuba.

McCarthy is coming to Budapest next week and will be reading from this collection at Massolit Books and Café, Nagy Diófa utca 30, in the VIIth district, from 7pm on Thursday, 10th May. One not to be missed. Copies of the book will be on sale and I’m sure he can be talked into signing them, too.

One not to be missed. Get there early to get a seat. It’s a smallish venue.



Not since reading Christopher Moore‘s book Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal have I laughed out loud in public as much as I have in the last few days. And twice since, when I saw another reading commuter shake with laughter and checked what they were reading, it was that very book. I’m sure some might think that Moore’s humour borders on sacrilege, but my  God would enjoy it; He  knows how to laugh.

Another favourite author in the LOL genre is Janet Evanovich, whom I ran across again last year when I thoroughly enjoyed her Fox and O’Hare series. [Note to self: check to see if the next book in the series has published.]  I’d first read some of her Stephanie Plum series many moons ago while living in Alaska and had vague recollections of the character and her hapless career as a bounty hunter. She lurked somewhere in the dark recess of my reading brain, just one snippet of a collage of mad characters from madder pens. She might well have been knocked off her perch by Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone or Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak. I was a lot more serious then.

Now, though, now that I’ve stopped fighting the fact that the sky in my particular world is a delicious shade of orange with blobs of turquoise, Stephanie and me, we’re mates. I’ve even given up my pedantic need to read a series in the order in which it was written and published. When I’m catching up with old friends, I jump all over the place – my life retold is rarely chronological. So why should I impose such rigidity on my fictional friends?

I’ve just binged on three books in the 24-book series – Smokin’ Seventeen,  Explosive Eighteen, and Notorious Nineteen. And while I was a little put out (no, face it, Mary, you were mad jealous) that she’s been hooking up with Ranger all the while she’s been seeing Morelli, I was back to laughing out loud. One particular spasm was so bad it drew the attention of security in Munich airport.

Evanovich, in her bio, tells us that the realities of daily existence were lost in the shadows of [her] looney imagination. Yet barmy as they all are, her characters as real. Something weird happens as I read. It’s as if I’m in the book, watching their antics, listening to their banter, feeling their pain. I want to eat friend chicken at Stephanie’s mam’s house and go view a corpse with her gun-totin’ Grandma Mazur.

“When I was young. You got a boyfriend, and you married him. You had some kids, you got older, one of you died, and that was it.” “Jeez. No true love?” “There’s always been true love, but in my day, you either talked yourself into thinking you had it, or you talked yourself into thinking you didn’t need it.” (from Explosive Eighteen: A Stephanie Plum Novel by Janet Evanovich)

I want to hang around with her and her sometimes partner Lula, an ex-ho with a penchant for spandex, just to see what the day might bring.

Lula can go all day in five-inch spikes. I think she must have no nerve endings in her feet. “How do you walk in those shoes for hours on end?” I asked her. “I can do it on account of I’m a balanced body type,” she said, hustling across the lot to my Escort. “I got perfect weight distribution between my boobs and my booty.” (from Smokin’ Seventeen: A Stephanie Plum Novel by Janet Evanovich)

The various characters she gets involved with are all credible. No matter how off the wall they might seem, I’ve no trouble at all thinking them real. Perhaps that says more about my orange-sky thinking that I care to share.

Day-dreaming about who’d play whom in the movie, I didn’t get past Estelle Getty (of the Golden Girls) for Grandma Mazur. And I’m not the only one who could cast her for the part. Although the books keep on selling – and keep on coming – the movie based on Book 1, One for the Money, starring Katherine Heigl as Stephanie didn’t make the splash it should have. The only one who didn’t quite match what I’d imagined was Vinnie…. but I can live with that. And Morelli and Ranger have a little growing up to do as they’ve aged in my head. I’d like HBO or BBC or some TV series giant to pick them up and run with them. They’re solid gold, LOL funny, and so cleverly written that I’ve lost count of my ‘wish I’d said thats’.

If you’re in need of a laugh, treat yourself.



Who said that???

I’m getting paranoid. I find myself double- and triple-checking who said what when I use quotations. I had a minor meltdown a few years back when a quotation I have framed and have always attributed to WB Yeats was selling in the bookshop in Trinity College, Dublin, also framed, but this time attributed to Oscar Wilde. I like both men, yet it seems more a Yeats thing than a Wilde thing. So, I’m sticking with Yeats.

On the bottom of my  business e-mail, more as a reminder to me than anything else, I use another quotation, one I’d always attributed to Sydney J Smyth. It formed the basis of my first ever public speech, when I gave the Commencement Address on graduating in Valdez, Alaska (and that wasn’t today or yesterday). One day last year, I can’t remember whether someone brought it to my attention or whether I stumbled across it on the Net, but anyway, I found the same words attributed to one Sydney Harris. The former was a British cleric in the mid-1800s and the latter a US columnist from the 1950s. Now, knowing nothing of either man and having no personal attachment to them or their work, I was torn. Having given credit to Smyth for a number of years, I hedged my bets and changed the attribution on my signature to Harris. But then the anxiety started. I needed to know to whom I should attribute the words:

Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.

It was important that I find out who first said this, as it’s the tenet by which I live (or try to live) my life. Unable to decide one way or another, having no particular grá for either of the men in question, I paid a visit to the Quote Investigator and did some checking. When I couldn’t find mention of the quotation on the site, I wrote and asked if they could do their thing. And then promptly forgot all about it. That was in July 2017.

Today, I got an email from Garson O’Toole, who has been described as the Sherlock Holmes of quote investigation sleuths, telling me that he’d done some research and that I should go with Harris. Case closed.

O’Toole’s book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That was reviewed by Fred Shapiro in the Wall Street Journal. It was featured on NPR, too. The New York Times ran a quiz on famous quotations as a result of O’Toole’s book and I was ABSOLUTELY HORRIFIED to see that something I’ve been attributing to Hemingway in my workshops has no basis whatsoever. I took the quiz and got just one right. Cue mortification. The book is now of my list of reads.


2018 Grateful 52

If I told you that this author has received numerous awards for their writing and holds not one but twelve honorary doctorates from universities in Europe and North America, or that they have a CBE for services to literature from Her Majesty in the UK and were also another by the government of Botswana for services through literature … would you know of whom I was talking? Yep – and I bet it was the Botswana bit that gave it away.

I first came across Alexander McCall Smith when I picked up a copy of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency many many moons ago. I thought it delightful. I loved the characters and the setting and promptly added Botswana to my list of places to visit. I read the first ten books in the series and passed them on to friends all over. I now see that McCall Smith didn’t stop writing when I stopped reading – I have another eight to go.

His protagonist is 34-year-old Mma Precious Ramotswe. After her dad dies and leaves her some money, Mma Ramotswe ups sticks and moves to the capital of Botswana, Gaborone, where she buys a house for herself and finds an office for her new detective agency. She gathers a cast of regular characters around her, each one quirky and interesting in their own right. Her cases are often more about the people than their problems and her constant reference – a book by Clovis Andersen on the Principles of Private Detection – is sometimes hilarious in itself.

Last year, while in Geneva, I picked up a DVD of the TV series at a church fete – the first series. Last week, I finally got around to watching some of the opening episodes. I felt a rush of nostalgia for a time when simplicity was fashionable, when movies and TV shows didn’t need car chases, sexual exploits, and gruesome murders to keeps us engaged. I felt myself morphing into the adult I swore I’d never become, reminiscing of times long gone where things were cleaner, simpler, and more humane. Ah, back in my day…

Maybe it was the stark contrast in ways of life – Botswana could hardly be more different from Budapest. Or perhaps it was the colours of Africa juxtaposed with the goose-laden greys of winter on the Kis-Balaton. Or maybe it was the growing need in me to get back to where it all used to matter. Whatever it was, Mma Ramotswe and her mates made an impression and in their tender, unsophisticated, pragmatic way, gave me the kick up the arse I needed to start 2018. And for that I’m grateful.

My plan for this year is to live simply, to spend my time wisely, and to make whatever it is I do worthwhile.



Travel books and tour guides

Plenty has been written about the differences between tourists and travellers. I’m usually a traveller and very occasionally a tourist – and yes, it definitely depends on who I’m with. I’m not a great fan of guide books that give me the Top 10 things to see and do, all neatly packaged. Such lists come with the implied suggestion that I have to tick off each one before I can claim to ‘have done’ Paris, or Timbuktu, or wherever.  [Not that I would EVER use the expression – ‘I’ve done wherever’. I’ve been to Malta about two dozen times at least and I still haven’t seen everything there is to see on the island. I defy anyone to say they’ve done Malta.]

I dislike rankings, TripAdvisor being a case in point. Without knowing these people, how can I trust their opinion of what is worth seeing? It’s all very objective. Things needs context. I don’t have much faith in numbers. But that’s me.

I rarely do any prep work in advance of a trip. I don’t have a set list of things to see or do in my head. I have my usuals – I want to find a local market, I want to spend a few hours in a local cemetery, and if there’s a museum that deals with man’s inhumanity to man, I’ll be there. I like to cash in on the three wishes I get each time I visit a church for the first time, so they’re always a possibility. And I like to eat like the locals do – I’d take street food and neighbourhood caffs over posh restaurants any day.

But for that sense of place, that background of culture, that familiarity of people, for those I go to novels set wherever I’m headed.

I was in New Orleans back in 2001. I was driving around the southern states and it was my start and end point. I liked it a lot. And now I want to go back. Not because I have any lasting impression of the place from when I was there, but because I’m in the middle of the Skip Langdon series by Julie Smith.

I’d read the second book first and liked it enough to go back to the start – and I’m glad I did. New Orleans Mourning explains the essence of Mardi Gras and the French Quarter. [I didn’t know that a string of Mardi Gras beads is referred to as a ‘pair of beads’ – and I had no idea that NOLA was such a class-conscious city.] Smith develops each character’s strengths and insecurities and uses this to give her whodunnit context. By the end of the first two books, I was sold. I’m happily kindling through the rest of them and want to go back to see it all for myself, using Skip as my guide.

Dana Stabenow does something similar with her Kate Shugak in Alaska. Peter May does it with Finlay McLeod on the Scottish islands. Timothy Hallinan does it with Poke Rafferty in Bangkok. And the list goes on. This is my sort of travel reading.

On the rare occasion I buy a guidebook, I buy local – something written by someone who lives in the area. Years ago in Venice, we wandered around with Tiziano Scarpa’s Venice is a Fish. More recently, in Košice, Slovakia, Milan Kolcun’s Details in Košice, a sequel to Wanders in Košice, was our guide – both purchased in the local tourist information office, both little gems, replete with backstories, insider tips, and context. Just what I like.

Prison chaplain John Jordan

I’m an addict. I’m addicted to that instant gratification that comes with being able to order the next book in a series I’m reading and get it minutes later. My kindle has revolutionised how I understand the word ‘series’. Instead of resting after one book and perhaps picking up whatever is lying on the shelf unread, I can now move straight to the next book in the series ensuring a steady diet of the characters and story lines for as long as it lasts.

I can’t remember how I stumbled across Michael Lister and his John Jordan series. I read No. 11 – Blood Oath – first and was so taken with the man and his life that I went straight back to Book 1 – Power in the Blood – and started over. And Lister had me up till Book 11. The one that had started out as a favourite. Then Jordan moved town and now I’m not so sure. Maybe it just takes time to adjust to the new situation. Book 12 – Blood Work – would have been great, had I not read books 1-10. And it is great. Lister at his best. It’s me…. I miss the prison.

John Jordan is a prison chaplain at a Florida state penitentiary. His dad is the local sheriff. His mum an alcoholic. His brother Jake is a cop, and his sister Nancy got out when the getting out was good. His best friend Merrill is as black as Jordan is white and is a prison officer at the same place. His high-school sweetheart Anna works there, too, but she’s married to someone else. His is a complicated lot, drawn as he is to his calling and to his innate investigative skills. He weaves the two professions into a tapestry that is both empathetic and pragmatic.

We are our stories. We are who we believe we are. .[…] And the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of ourselves and the world are all-powerful.

But, you might say, there are hundreds of clerical detectives out there (360 at one count). What has Lister done to make Jordan stand out from the discretion of priests, the converting of preachers, or the prudence of vicaries that enjoy a but of detecting on the side? [Bring back 15th-century collective nouns, I say!] For me, its the insight we get into prison life, into the the inmates’ psyche that is fascinating. The poverty of rural America, coupled with an inherent racism and small-town politics is equally so. Lister writes well. His characters have personalities that develop and age. His plots, though fictional, seem all too real. Author Michael Connolly, the man behind another favourite investigator of mine, Hieronymus Bosch, is a fan. So much so that Lister has Jordan’s dad working with Harry Bosch on a case and even has Jordan calling the great detective a few times for advice. Weirdly, this made it all the more real, as if one friend of mine knew another from a completely different part of my life. Yes there are those who question my grip on reality. Indeed, I’m the first to hold up my hand and say that the sky in my world is a peculiar shade of orange.

When I get into the grasp of a good series, I’m lost. Every spare minute is spent finding out what happens next. And with my Kindle, I can bookmark those lines that resonate most, that deserve second, third, and even fourth readings.

Man had come to the forest and money had come to town, and nothing would ever be the same for the land or the people of what once was the forgotten coast.

I wasn’t not overly impressed with Florida when I was there, but given that John D MacDonald placed Travis McGee [another all-time favourite detecting philosopher] in Florida, too, perhaps I need to reconsider.

Lister is generous with this signposting to other authors using John Jordan as a channel, like this quotation from author Tahereh Mafi (note to self made to explore more):

The moon is a loyal companion. It never leaves. It’s always there, watching, steadfast, knowing us in our light and dark moments, changing forever just as we do. Every day it’s a different version of itself. Sometimes weak and wan, sometimes strong and full of light. The moon understands what it means to be human. Uncertain. Alone. Cratered by imperfections.

I like John Jordan. I like how he thinks, how he expresses himself. I like what he has to say. I like that he’s far from perfect and that he never pretends a piousness that would make him less than credible.

To me, faith and devotion is far richer when mixed with a good dose of honest agnosticism.

Lister has this to say about Jordan:

Running through all of the stories is the mystery of divine grace and the way it can penetrate even the darkest places. The stories are religious in the best sense of the term—open to possibilities. Jordan is a chaplain with more questions than answers, yet he recognizes that grace—the sign of God’s presence in the world—is capable of manifesting itself through the most unlikely people and in the most surprising situations.

If you’re in the market for a new series, this is one I can recommended.