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.

 

LOL

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.

 

 

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My name is Mina

I read. If I’m not doing anything else, I’m reading. Few things in life come close to time spent with a good book. But it’s been a while since I’ve read a book that touched the very heart of me, one that I’d like to see on a prescribed reading list for anyone in need of some soul sustenance.

And no. It’s not a self-help book. It’s not a true-life-beat-the-odds inspirational one  either. It’s a little gem. Not since I put down Mr God, This is Anna about 20 years ago (an all-time favourite), not since then have I had such a book afterglow.

Billed as a middle-grade kid’s book (mmmm….), My Name is Mina is a jewel from the mind of David Almond. It begins:

There’s an empty notebook lying on the table in the moonlight. It’s been there for an age. I keep on saying that I’ll write a journal. So I’ll start right here, right now. I open the book and write the very first words: My name is Mina and I love the night. Then what shall I write? I can’t just write that this happened then this happened then this happened to boring infinitum. I’ll let my journal grow just like the mind does, just like a tree or a beast does, just like life does. Why should a book tell a tale in a dull straight line? Words should wander and meander. They should fly like owls and flicker like bats and slip like cats. They should murmur and scream and dance and sing.

Through the eyes of Mina, Almond deals with topics like death, old age, birth, fear, education, depression, social isolation, single parenting … and he does it with humour and creativity.

Weird how I can feel so frail and tiny sometimes, and other times so brave and bold and reckless and free, and . . . Does everybody feel the same? When people get grown-up, do they always feel grown-up and sensible and sorted out and . . . And do I want to feel grown-up? Do I want to stop feeling . . . paradoxical, nonsensical? Do I want to stop being crackers? Do I want to be destrangified? O yes, sometimes I want nothing more – but it only lasts a moment, then O I want to be the strangest and crakerest of everybody.

Mina gives the reader extraordinary activities to try, like making a circle of your thumb and forefinger and then looking through it at the sky to see what passes through your universe. Or filling a page with a sentence that doesn’t end. Or writing a poem that repeats a word until the word loses its meaning. It’s a joy.

If you’re a teacher – it’s a wonderful resource – and the Scottish Book Trust has done all the work for you. Mina herself is home-schooled and  through those lessons, we learn. I never knew that Wordsworth used to compose his poems as he walked – stepping the words apparently helped with the rhythm. I didn’t know that Picasso was a fan of Paul Klee and once said to his detractors something along the lines of it takes years to learn to paint as a master, but a lifetime to learn to paint as a child. And I didn’t know that birds descended from dinosaurs or that dust is mainly composed of particles of human skin. And there’s lots more.

It’s beautifully designed with telling chapter titles like: Ernie Myers, Rubbish, Dust, Metempsychosis & a blue car; or Sprouts, Sarcasm & the Mysteries of Time. If you’re in need of some cheering up, treat yourself.

 

 

2017 Grateful 36

My first baseball game was watching the Padres at Murphy Stadium in San Diego. When the crowd stood at the top of the seventh to sing Take me out the ball game, I thought I’d passed into a parallel world. I don’t pretend to know the rules, even if some of the lingo crept into my vocabulary while I was Stateside – home stretch, third base, in the ball park, batting zero.

Stuck for something to read last week, I picked up the first in Troy Soos’ Mickey Rawlings booksMurder at Fenway Park. If you like whodunits and you’ve a thing for baseball history, this is just what you’ve never known you’ve always wanted to read. Lightly written, Soos explains the nuances of the game without preaching, describes the wonder of it all without waxing, and paints a realistic picture of what it was like to live back in the day. It’s 1912. Fewway Park has just opened. And Ty Cobb is the man everyone is talking about.

I think June is my favorite month for baseball. It’s late enough in the season so that the players are warmed up and their reflexes sharp, but early enough so that the accumulating aches and pains haven’t yet taken their toll. It’s the time of year when one can best appreciate the beautiful balance of the game. The warming weather has the pitchers’ arms loose, and gives them a more sensitive feel of the ball. But the batters have their hitting eyes honed, so the pitcher-batter matchup remains even. The legs of the base runners are limber, and they get quick jumps in their sprints to steal bases. But the catchers have developed snappier releases, so the catcher-runner duel also stays close. The critical matchups are ideally balanced this time of year, with all of the combatants at the peak of their powers, and every skirmish of mind and body a close and exciting contest.

But baseball and murders aside, one line really struck me:

I heard once that if you grow old with someone, nature has a charitable way of making you both always look the same to each other: as one of you gets more wrinkles, the other’s eyes get worse, so the aging is never noticed.

I spent the week looking at elderly couples wondering what they see. Do they see the person I see or the person they fell for so many years ago?

That I’m not too jaded to find such flights of whimsy fascinating is gratifying. This week is already promising to be a manic one. I’ve just unpacked from Barcelona with enough time to pack again for Belgrade. For the  chance to travel [even if I’d prefer to be motoring down the M7 to the village sooner than heading to the airport] I’m grateful, too. But more than anything, I’m grateful for a love of reading that makes even the most miserable of days worth living.

 

2016 Grateful 6

I bought a washing machine a couple of months ago and every time I go play scrabble, Facebook throws out an ad for a washing machine. I’ve been reduced to venting my frustration at the ineptitude of its advertising algorithms by screaming at my laptop: I’ve already bought a bloody washing machine. I don’t need another!

I checked on flights to Barcelona recently and now, when I read an article online, ads pop up for cheap fights to the city. I detest Google and Facebook and all those other online entities who take my data and then feed me stuff they think I should want to know. Back in 2012, I wrote a post for Diplomacy.edu entitled Google… stop thinking for me.  Today, 2016, Google still ain’t listening.

But occasionally, just occasionally, I get a result.

Had my e-book leak1nding library not compiled data on my preferences and tracked my reading patterns, I might never have met Adrian McKinty, an Irish novelist, born in Belfast in 1968. An obviously intelligent bloke – law at the University of Warwick and politics and philosophy at the University of Oxford – it comes through in his novels. After a spell State-side (Harlem, New York, and Denver, Colorado where he taught high-school English) he’s now living in Melbourne, Australia. I’d never heard of him. His name didn’t ring even the tiniest of bells. But everything else I was ak2looking for was taken so when one of his books popped up on a list of recommended reading, I checked it out. 

Three books, a train journey, and seven days later, I’ve finished the Dead Trilogy and have become quite partial to Michael Forsythe, the main character. I’ve learned more about the Troubles in Northern Ireland than I ever did from a history book. I’ve gotten an insight into the phenomenon of Irish gangs in New York. I’ve felt the senseless stupidity of exacting a grudge-like revenge. I’ve gotten some sense of the futility of life when ideology clouds reason and turns logic into the lyrics of a song that plays like a broken record.

I was born the year the Troubles began, in 1968. That world of violence was all I knew – people murdered, maimed, kneecapped, bombed. I don’t remember a time without a major atrocity of some kind every week.
I think if you grow up in a culture where the army is out on the street sighting you with rifles, it has to have some kind of psychological impact.

Told in the first person, the trilogy rings true. Quite possibly because McKinty is writing about a world with which he is all too familiar. The path Forsythe takes might well have been a path he could have taken himself, had things been different.

In the crime fiction section, you may just find a novel that talks about the place where you’re from and speaks to you about your life – or the life yours could have become if a little misfortune had come your way.

ak3Occasionally, the narrative skips ahead a few years, with Forsythe talking about what he would do in the future and far from annoying me and ruining the suspense, it alleviated the worry .Yes, of course, I knew it’s a trilogy and he had to be alive at least until the third one started, but these occasional reminders did the heart good as the battle raged.
The murals and the walls in Belfast now wear a different paint. Memories of a night in a Working Man’s Club in Andersonstown all those years ago came flashing back. Marion Coyle, Eddie Gallagher, Rose Dugdale, Dominic ‘Mad Dog’ McGlinchey – all household names in our gaff in the 1970s. The Sundays in July when my dad would head out in full uniform to Bodenstown Cemetery where the Republicans convened for their annual pilgrimage at Wolfe Tone’s graveside. It was all there but yet not there. Real but at the same time very unreal. A sense of unfulfilled anticipation for which we were grateful.
I love the trilogy form. I like the idea that you can establish a character in book one. And then in the second part, you can take the characters down to their darkest point. And then in the third part, you have total freedom either to give them redemption – or just to kill them.

And he did. All that. And more. McKinty has a lovely turn of phrase, a noir-type mastery of dialogue, and a bevvy of descriptives that beg a second savouring.So this week, for once, I’m grateful for the algorithm that coughed up this trilogy. Worth a read. Definitely worth a read.