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A Tome Of Contention

I appeared at a literary festival in Washington DC recently, in which I was scheduled for a Q&A session about writing and new media.

I was, understandably, mad excited altogether. It was my first time in the States, and I so rarely get a chance to read my blog posts aloud, so before my gig I was hippity-hopping around my hotel room, jacked up on coffee and the sound of my own voice. “David Norris,” I intoned, between slurps of complementary instant. “Daay-vid Norrisss” (I was planning on reading one of my posts on David Norris; I don’t invoke him to ward off nerves, or anything).

All of a sudden, it occurred to me that I was bound to be asked who my influences were – my literary influences, those scribes who hacked out the path ahead of me. What other blogs I read, if I was lucky … but more likely, what other authors I read.

This was a problem.

I don’t read.

Oh, I read in the past. I was more paper than child at one stage, either growing out of or into a book, a muddle of stained fingertips and wild notions. I adored the classics (and still do) – Alice In Wonderland, Watership Down, The Brothers Grimm. I read all of Enid Blyton’s school stories (repeatedly) before moving on to YA Lit from the likes of Melvin Burgess and Katherine Paterson and Roberts Cormier and C. O’Brien. I read constantly. I would rather read than hang out with my friends. I would go over favourite passages whilst brushing my teeth. I would read after lights-out, standing by my bedroom door for the landing light (no torch), stalking like Nijinsky back to the leaba when I heard a parent’s footstep in the hall.

But as an adult? No. I don’t read.

This isn’t because I don’t love words and stories. It should be obvious that I do. It’s not because I haven’t found a wordsmith I admire; there have been plenty. I think it might be because I can’t allow myself the time to read. I wonder about writers who can, really. Does it not feel like reading is an undeserved pleasure, that dipping into a novel is an illicit affair with the words of another? Often, when I read, I get a nasty feeling that I’m wasting my precious time and should be putting words onto paper, not peeling them off on behalf of another writer. Like I’m cheating on myself, I suppose. “I could do better,” I tell myself. “Why am I not breaking me arse trying to outdo this bucko?”

Other times it’s as if I no longer have the ability to lose myself in someone else’s work, that being a writer has saddled me with a sort of cold detachment; I can admire the building blocks, the words they’ve chosen and how they’ve slotted them into place, but I can’t fall in love with them. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to distract myself from my own fiction … self-preservation? Maybe I’ll get over it when I’m finished what I’m working on.

Maybe I can only be me in between bouts of being someone else.

I was terribly ashamed of this, all alone in my hotel room. The general consensus – Jesus, the overwhelming consensus – is that a writer has to read to be able to write. Though I felt like I’d finished my apprenticeship and could learn no more from my elders (I’ve got to be writing to hone this skill, not perving on how other people do it), I couldn’t go around saying that. Not at a literary festival. People would think I was mental.

So there I was before my interview, desperately pulling author names out of the ether and trying them on to see who would fit. Whasshisname? Yer Wanno with the allegories? Jesus, what about all those Books Of The Year everyone’s supposed to have read? Maybe they wouldn’t ask at the reading. Maybe I’d get away with it.

I didn’t, of course. “What other writers have influenced you?” is a question bloody obligatory when you’re interviewing a writer. I despairingly replied that I hadn’t read anything that I didn’t write in the longest time, and someone tweeted it, and for a moment I looked like the most egotistical tosspot in the entire northern hemisphere.

A couple of weeks later, something strange and wonderful happened. I blurted the whole sorry confession to one of my Antiroom sisters at The Irish Blog Awards, and she gave me a huge hug and said, “You’ve just made my night.”

“How so?

“Because I don’t read, either.”

And y’know what? She’s a proper writer, too. She does things with words that would make W.B. Yeats blush (can you guess who it is yet?). I felt at once validated and liberated. There was nothing wrong with me, after all! I wasn’t egotistical, or deluded, or a great big fraudulent fake. Like, total yayz.

I used to get annoyed when I saw those Tips For Writers posts on blogs, or writers’ rules memes on Twitter, or quotes from successful authors who knew so much about the game, because there were none that matched what I was up to. They felt condescending and isolating – where’s the sense in barking You’re Doing It Wrong! at people who surely need to work this stuff out for themselves? But that moment I knew for certain that there is no Rule Of Writing that isn’t worth bending, no matter how sacred. I’m not ashamed of not being able to finish someone else’s novel. I’m not ashamed to say that my inspiration comes not from other writers, but from sideways glances, video game parameters, folk lyrics, the fashion crimes of people I see on the street.

I am a writer who doesn’t read. And there’s nothing wrong with me.

(I have to admit that I read an entire Melvin Burgess book on the train home from the Blog Awards, because I’m so rebellious I don’t even play by my own rules. Take that, establishment!)

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The longlist for the 2011 Orange prize for Fiction was announced this morning; the full list is here:

It’s particularly interesting to see that nine of the twenty novels are debuts, compared with seven in 2010; not an insignificant rise. Whether calculated or not (and I’m sure the judges would assert not), the increase in focus on first-timers seems part of an overall move to raise the profile of new novelists. This year has seen a Waterstone’s promotion centered around eleven new authors, and the BBC’s Culture Show ran a ‘Twelve of the Best New Novelists’ programme to tie in with World Book Night earlier this month. Much has been written about what this amounts to; realistically, we won’t know the answer to that for another six months or so, when a real sense of sales patterns for these new authors becomes more visible.

For now, though, I’m off to track down the longlisted books here, starting with the newbies. And let’s start the countdown clock on the grumbles about female-only lists being ‘unfair’…

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The Trinity College Book Sale is not for the faint-hearted. For three frantic days every year, book lovers and book sellers descend on the college’s Exam Hall to snap up some of the thousands of second-hand books, from recent paperbacks to 1950s household manuals,  that fill the usually airy room.

If you ever see a copy of this, let me know. Seriously!

It always opens on a Thursday night, which is when the hardcore devotees and the serious book dealers get there to snap up the rarest and most valuable titles, rendering the event more like a rugby scrum than a sedate second-hand book sale. By Friday, things are generally slightly calmer, by which I mean you don’t have to be six-foot tall and built like Ronan O’Gara to shove your way through the crowds around each long table and catch a glimpse of some books.

Despite the crazed crowds, I love the Book Sale. I’ve been going every year since I was a student, and I’ve never left it without my arms full of incredibly cheap gems (seriously, most books cost about a euro at most). And every year I find myself looking out for certain titles and certain authors. There are a few writers whose names I look out for every single time I scan a shelf or pile of second-hand books, whether in a posh London bookshop or a jumble sale. They’re the authors I love whose books are out of print, and when I see one of their titles that I don’t already own I have been known to leap across a table to grab it. I can never pass a Biography section without hoping to find Noel Streatfeild’s Away from the Vicarage, the second volume of her autobiographical trilogy (I already have the first and the third installments), and when looking through fiction from the 1940s and ’50s I always look out for her now very hard-to-find adult novels. I always rush to the Children’s section hoping to find anything by Antonia Forest, whose complex children’s books, all but one of which have been out of print since the ’80s apart from a few limited edition reprints, go for vast sums online. I scour the Humour section hoping to find some volumes of Arthur Marshall’s hilarious literary criticism, or some of the few collections of Ronald Searle cartoons that I don’t already own. And for a very long time I was always on the look out for all three of Dodie Smith’s memoirs (like Streatfeild, she also wrote a three-part autobiography in the ’60s – there must have been something in the air), which I had got from the library and adored as a teenager, until my parents and sister very kindly got me two of them for Christmas last year.

Every book sale or second-hand stall raises my hopes of finding these treasures, and I always feel a tang of disappointment when I leave the exam hall yet again without a copy of Antonia Forest’s Peter’s Room or one of Streatfeild’s ’40s romances.  And yet I have to admit that the day I complete my Forest collection or finally have my own copy of every E. Nesbit book might feel, well, a little flat. Because without that hope of finding the treasures I’ve been seeking for so long, maybe the Trinity book sale will just be a musty-smelling, over-crowded room full of pointless paperbacks. Or maybe, just maybe, it could be the place where I randomly discover a new author who becomes my next obsession. Where there are books, there is always hope…

So what about you? What authors do you always look out for in second-hand shops?

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Back on the Shelf

Those ornaments will have to go....

Two years ago we had a major refurbishment and extension carried out in the house, involving work to every room. We emptied the whole place and moved out for the duration of the build. All our books were packed into boxes and moved to the attic. The room which had previously housed them was being turned into a bathroom, so we drew up great plans for built-in shelving to accommodate them in the ‘new’ house.

 

However, budgetary constraints meant that the shelving plans had to be, er, shelved. After four and a half months, we moved back in, thrilled with the new-look house. But the books stayed where they were.

During the intervening two years, I’ve been quietly fretting about them. Were they being destroyed by damp or mould, nibbled to shreds by rodents? Fear of said rodents prevented me from visiting them in their attic prison to check on their welfare.

Last weekend, we finally set them free. A carpenter had built three MDF shelf units for us and we had spent the previous two weekends painting them in readiness (two coats of primer and two of eggshell – who knew it was so much work?). Father and son were despatched to the attic to drag down the dust-covered boxes.

What a joy it was to open those boxes and reacquaint myself with so many old favourites. Most of the fiction is mine, and I loved nerdishly arranging it alphabetically on the new shelves, from Adams to Zusak. Each box brought back a memory. There was The Passion, the first Jeanette Winterson I read, given to me by a book-loving, bookselling old flame. He also introduced me to the unforgettable character of Ignatius J. Reilly, star of A Confederacy of Dunces, one of my all-time favourite books. A very short-lived interest in science fiction was represented by a few John Wyndham titles, the first of which I picked up at the second-hand book stalls I used to visit on London’s South Bank. I was slightly horrified to discover that I own not one, but four – four! – novels by Tony Parsons. However, my inner literary snob was consoled at the sight of all the Paul Auster and Ian McEwan books – two of my favourite writers.

Some books seemed to be missing. Where was The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, memorably and incisively critiqued by an ex-member of my bookclub with the harrumphed words “Lesbian this, lesbian that, lesbian the other”? I’m sure I own a copy of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen but did not come across it either. I began to have dark thoughts about the people who may have borrowed these and other titles and failed to return them. However, as I read lots of books without actually buying them, it’s possible they were never mine in the first place.

Job completed, I stood back to admire the filled shelves. They looked great, and made the house look better too. Glancing through the TV pages, I discovered there was a whole evening of programmes on the BBC marking World Book Night – a fitting way to end the day.

With time running out this month to track down our next bookclub book, Cutting for Stone, or to order it online, I have downloaded it to my husband’s new iPad. It’s a great novelty, my first time to read a book electronically, and it won’t be the last I’m sure. But it won’t keep me out of bookshops, and the great discoveries to be made by browsing within.

We’ll just have to build more shelves.

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To celebrate World Book Night (when over a million books are being given away), we asked some AntiRoomers what book their favourite book to give someone else is…What would you give away?

Jude Leavy: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham

There are a host of reasons for buying this book for anyone. Its charms have been written about for over a hundred years; adventurous, sensual, funny and personable, every reader has a favourite character, a favourite chapter.

For me it is the ideal gift to give to someone leaving home with travel in mind. While bursting with audacious stories of bizarre barge thefts and the open road escapades, there’s just enough domesticity in it to cure any homesickness. But it is the descriptive passages really cause me to swoon, including one the most perfect accounts of Venice I’ve ever read, possibly only rivalled by Jan Morris’ book on the same city.

Like many people I’m a huge fan of good travel writing and the Sea Rat’s shanty-filled speech to the Water Rat actually gives me goosebumps.

So sit back and just let the words wash over you, prepare for the call of the South and beware the Sea Rat’s refrain: ‘Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!’

‘And the talk, the wonderful talk flowed on–or was it speech entirely, or did it pass at times into song–chanty of the sailors weighing the dripping anchor, sonorous hum of the shrouds in a tearing North-Easter, ballad of the fisherman hauling his nets at sundown against an apricot sky, chords of guitar and mandolin from gondola or caique? Did it change into the cry of the wind, plaintive at first, angrily shrill as it freshened, rising to a tearing whistle, sinking to a musical trickle of air from the leech of the bellying sail? All these sounds the spell-bound listener seemed to hear, and with them the hungry complaint of the gulls and the sea-mews, the soft thunder of the breaking wave, the cry of the protesting shingle. Back into speech again it passed, and with beating heart he was following the adventures of a dozen seaports, the fights, the escapes, the rallies, the comradeships, the gallant undertakings; or he searched islands for treasure, fished in still lagoons and dozed day-long on warm white sand. Of deep-sea fishings he heard tell, and mighty silver gatherings of the mile-long net; of sudden perils, noise of breakers on a moonless night, or the tall bows of the great liner taking shape overhead through the fog; of the merry home-coming, the headland rounded, the harbour lights opened out; the groups seen dimly on the quay, the cheery hail, the splash of the hawser; the trudge up the steep little street towards the comforting glow of red-curtained windows.’ The Wind in the Willows. Chapter 9; ‘Wayfarers All’

Lauren Murphy: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

There are three or four books that I’ve regularly bought as gifts over the years – mostly tailored to the individual’s taste – but there’s one in particular that I’ve thrust into the hands of friends more than any other. From the very first time I closed the final page of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I knew I’d be describing it to people as one of the best books I’ve ever read. It chronicles the adventure that prodigious nine-year-old Oskar Schell undertakes when he finds a key that belonged to his late father, who died in the Twin Towers collapse of 9/11. Oskar (one of most loveable literary characters of the last decade, by the way – he’s a vegan pacifist inventor/tambourine player) is determined to find out what lock the key belongs to, and his curiosity takes him on an escapade across New York’s five boroughs without the knowledge of his unsuspecting mum.

The story also intermittently flashes back to the life story of his Jewish immigrant grandparents and is replete with illustrations, maps and various other pictures that act as scaffolding for the narrative . The whole book is charming, laugh-out-loud funny, horribly sad in parts, and simply un-put-down-able. If you’ve read this book and didn’t like it, we probably couldn’t be friends. Read it before they inevitably ruin its sentiment with a film version starring the awful Sandra Bullock. I wish I was joking.

Sinéad Gleeson:

In terms of difficulty to answer, this question is similar to the ‘what-kind-of-music-do-you-like? Pick one? Just one? It simply can’t be done. So after trawling my brain, I’ll settle on three. First up is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I can still remember the gobsmacked feeling at its brilliance when I read the last page and closed this book. Rushdie, at the time was more famous for the fatwa than fiction, so I was little put off by the idea of reading him. I don’t think I’ve finished a book since, that made me sit quietly afterwards and pick my awestruck jaw off the ground. Its epic, funny, descriptive, oozing characters and colour. And that’s without the magic realism and post-colonialism. I also adore Zora Kneale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Apart from loving the world-weary story of the thrice-married Janie, it’s a landmark book for women and for African-American literature. It also contains my favourite opening line and first paragraphs:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

Hurston was much maligned for the book, particularly for her representation of African-American dialect. Her work fell out of favour, but was later revived and cited as an influence by writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. Finally, a charming read by the ascerbic, funny Lorrie Moore. Better known for her short story collections, my introduction to Moore was through the novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? It’s one of the most intriguing and spot-on representations of teen female friendships and I’ve bought it for several friends.

Claire Hennessy: Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

I get cranky about Donoghue post-Room the way teenagers get about bands once they’ve had a chart single and suddenly all their friends are claiming to be really big fans. Yeah, but where were you for those early albums, huh? Or in this case an early book…

Kissing the Witch, published in 1997, does what most of Donoghue’s books do – takes reasonably familiar things and invites you to look at them in a completely different way. In this case it’s fairytales, which are re-imagined and reshaped into stories which prioritise female experience – which sometimes means Cinderella running off with her fairy godmother, and sometimes simply a reconciliation of sorts between the heroine and traditionally villainous old hag. Published for teens in the US and adults on this side of the Atlantic, they are in part coming-of-age stories and in part transformation tales. Most of them are retellings of familiar stories, until the narrative baton is handed to the witch – a figure who tends to turn up in many folktales but is never given a voice of her own, and whose tale closes the book. The stories are feminist but not preachy – most of all, they’re stories that keep you reading and guessing. It’s a gift I’ve given several times as well as a book I’ve recommended frequently – and it always seems a slightly less obvious set of fairytale retellings than Angela Carter’s, which is a bonus when you’re thinking of books for people who are already well read!

Lisa McInerney: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Like jogging more than 50 yards, or alternating alcoholic drinks with mineral water, I have lofty but unrealised ambitions regarding gifting books to loved ones. I do it. I put loads of thought into it. It just never quite works out.

I was so taken with Life of Pi that I immediately bought it for my most bookish friend. “It’s deep and thoughtful, like you!” I told her. “It’s the maybe-allegorical tale of a boy who is stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger, a hyena, a zebra and an orangutan.” She screwed up her face and said, “Do the animals talk?” “No!” I stressed, worried she’d think I was forcing fairytales on her. “Oh. Well, I have no interest if they don’t talk,” she said, and back into my box I went.

I always try to give books to the younger members of the family, even though I suspect they use them as bulky dominos, or kindling. I recently bought my 11-year-old nephew the kids’ version of Bill Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything, an irresistible book that makes you feel both small AND significant. I hoped he wouldn’t find it too wordy – he didn’t seem the hipster-nerd type. “Don’t worry, he loves science!” his grandmother told me. A few days later, his mam thanked me for the book. “Thank God he reads,” I breathed. “Who told you that?” replied his mother. “He doesn’t read at all.” Bummer.

The biggest disaster I’ve had with gifting books was when I got my very glam, very girlie friend one of those pretty hardbacks full of tips for modern ladies. How To Be The Best At Everything, or something along those lines. As well as ticklish guides to throwing charming dinner parties and making Earl Grey over campfires, it featured how-tos for striptease, intimate waxing and erotic whip play. “How’d you get on with the book?” I joked, over coffee. “Yes. Well, it wasn’t really for my age-group,” she said. “All those bits about darning and such. I gave it to my 12-year-old daughter.” Major fail. Not only had I inadvertently made a mini-Jordan out of an innocent lass, but I’d completely misread (forgive the pun) my friend’s taste in books. I had presumed her able to get past the back-cover blurb. I was wrong.

Hazel Katherine Larkin: Selected Poems by Seamus Heaney

This year, I am privileged to have been chosen as a book giver on the inaugural World Book Night. I have 48 copies of Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems to give away.

I’m very excited about the opportunity to share Heaney’s amazing word wizardry with people who mightn’t otherwise read his work. I am planning on giving some of the books to the local psychiatric hospital for their lounge; people suffering with depression, anxiety and/or other mental disorders often have difficulty concentrating. So, I thought a book of fabulous poetry might just hit the spot – a poem doesn’t require much time-investment, but can still stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. Poetry books are ideal for dipping in to and out of.

I’m also going to give some books to the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland . My reasoning is that often people who require the services of the MRCI have been wounded, in some way or another, by Irish people or the Irish system(s). I think that this book of poetry can go some way to creating a bridge; showing new members of our society that we are all connected and that we are more alike than we are un-alike.

My final bundle of books will go to one of the homeless shelters in Dublin city. Again, I think that poetry can reach parts of us – offering comfort, succor and insight – that nothing else can. Heaney’s poetry does this spectacularly well.

John Carey put it best when he said of Heaney ‘More than any other poet since Wordsworth he can make us understand that the outside world is not outside, but what we are made of.’

Susan Daly:

I always worry about giving other people books as presents. If they don’t love it as much as I did, I feel some sort of personal rejection. Ridiculous but true. I once gave a boyfriend a collection of Raymond Chandler’s short stories, Where I’m Calling From, and when he declared he was bored by “the minutiae”, the gorgeous stark stripped-bare heartbreak of Chandler’s prose, I knew we were doomed.

So I keep my reading card close to my chest. And yet, and yet… the only book that I have knowingly given more than twice to other women is a book with the unedifying title of Live Alone and Like It.

I know. If someone gave ME a self-help book, I would be deeply insulted.

But give me one spinster-tootin’ second to explain. This book, written by a very sensible woman by the name of Marjorie Hillis, is less a self-help tome than a guide to get you get past the Self and into the Real World. It was written in 1936 by Vogue writer Marjorie and aimed at the floods of young women working their way out of the Depression, landing in Manhattan with all the structures of family and community and hand-me-down morality left behind them in Palookaville.

Marjorie, clearly a lady about town and a woman of her own substance, lays out guidelines on how to survive the concrete jungle and the exotic animals that roam it. There is a section on keeping busy, on taking lovers (although she is never so crass as to describe it so), on keeping up appearances on a limited budget, on making friends, on pretty much every scenario a young woman might find herself puzzling through.

It is archly written, but never patronising; helpful, but never condescending; sympathetic, but never self-pitying. In short, it’s the finest damn instruction manual I have ever read.

It also makes me desire to own two bed jackets, one for casual lounging and one delicate lace one for when Company comes round. One can’t go wrong with the right bed jacket.

Aoife McLysaght: Ask the Dust by John Fante

Book cover

I don’t remember why I picked Ask the Dust off the shelf the first time. I had never heard of this novel nor of John Fante.  Perhaps it was the beautifully plain cover which refused to tell me what to expect within, or the satisfying, heavy quality of the paper. I just don’t remember. However it started, this unassuming book became a small obsession of mine and from there so did the author himself.

Ask the Dust is the story of Arturo Bandini and his somewhat bleak life as a struggling writer in L.A.. But the story isn’t so much the story as the feeling of his life. It was this, or something like it, that gripped Charles Bukowski when he picked this book up in his local library and couldn’t put it back down – he credits this book with inspiring his own writing career.

It’s surprising then that so few people seem to have heard of John Fante. You can’t even find him in bookshops in Ireland. The New York Times wrote “Either the work of John Fante is unknown to you, or it is unforgettable. He was not the kind of writer to leave room in between”.

I’m doing my little bit, one friend at a time, to ensure that fewer people haven’t heard of him, and more can’t forget him.

Eleanor Fitzsimons on David Mitchell

Imagine tasting the most wonderful meal you’d ever had, food so exquisite that it transported you to some higher plane with every mouthful. You’d want to savour the experience and make it last as long as possible, licking your plate and burping with satisfaction at the very end if this were at all acceptable. I feel just like that when I stumble across an author whose work I love. I try to eke out their books over as long a period as possible, rationing them and denying myself the pleasure of diving in for as long as I can. I managed to walk past David Mitchell’s number9dream for two whole years even though I longed to grab it from the shelf and get stuck in. It was the last of his that I had left and although rumours of a new one exploring the Dutch trading relationship with Japan in the late 18th century was rumoured to be underway (The meticulously well researched The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet took four years to write) I could not bear the thought of leaving too long a gap without a Mitchell to read.

It all started when my sister gave me a copy of Cloud Atlas, saying “I think you might enjoy this”. Yep, I certainly did! Mitchell’s third novel, a matchless blending of six nested stories narrated in distinct voices and spanning  a time period that encompasses the remote South Pacific in the nineteenth century to some imagined dystopian, post-apocalyptic future is like nothing I ever encountered before. Each tale links seamlessly to the next until the reader reaches the middle page and retraces their steps right back to Adam Ewing in the Pacific Ocean, circa 1850 as he narrates his voyage home from the remote Chatham Islands.

It is mind expanding and soaringly experimental yet never contrived or ostentatious in any way. It is compelling and never disjointed and at times prompted me to pause and gasp at the sheer audacity of a young author with the self-possession to conceive of and carry off something so playful and original and simply brilliant without making it inaccessible or pretentious at all. I raved about it to all who would listen, becoming evangelical in my praise for it, proselytising at every opportunity. I bought a copy for everyone I could.

I rushed out and bought Ghostwritten, Mitchell’s stunning debut, and Black Swan Green, his semi-autobiographical novel set in 1980s Britain. I devoured them both and, as mentioned, hung on to number9dream, a stark and at times sadistic cyberdetective jaunt through the bleak world of Japanese gangland turf wars, until I could bear it no longer and was sure that the new one was imminent.

Last year, I and dozens of nerdy groupies like me sat in the Project Arts centre clutching freshly read copies of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and waited for an audience with the master. It was something akin to an Elvis convention in the 1970s and we were all suffering from the literary equivalent of Bieber Fever. David Mitchell, a very contented honorary Corkonian and an utterly charming and unassuming man read brilliantly from his latest book, spoke of his hope of one day writing something that would do justice to the uniquely and torturously complex relationship between Britain and Ireland and was endearingly self-deprecating and generous with his advice.

I’ve read the lot now and am fervently hoping that it won’t be another four years before I get my hands on more of Mr. Mitchell’s wonderful work. Incidentally he is also someone with a stammer and recently wrote this fascinating piece on the accuracy of the film, The Kings Speech.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir: Silk by Alessandro Baricco

Silk by Alessandro Baricco is a novella I really love; I’ve read it about four times and always recommended it to customers when I was a bookseller; I’ve also bought it for several people. It is ostensibly the story of a silk merchant who travels to the Far East and falls in love, but really it is a comment on the strength, resourcefulness and patience of women. The last time I read it was a few months ago and I found even more things to enjoy in it. It is told like a fairytale or parable and, because of that, there is repetition of certain passages and phrases and motifs which is very effective. It is beautifully written and translated (I read the Guido Waldman translation last time and I thought he did an excellent job.) I do sometimes want to shake the main character, Hervé Joncour, for trying to find elsewhere what he has at home, but at least the book gets me feeling something, right? I love the way the story travels from France to Japan and all the rich and interesting detail that that throws up. There are a lot of things left unsaid in the narrative, the reader has to make the connections, and that works very well, I think. All in all, a poignant and beautiful read.

Jennie Ridyard

Please don’t give me a book. Yes, even your favourite book ever, the book that you just KNOW I’m going to adore.

I can tell you right now I’ll throw it against a wall.
Give me a book and you give me a burden of expectation, you give me a sick feeling in my stomach, the sense of “what if I loathe this?”, the knowledge that your gloss might be my dross and then what will remain of the friendship?
Every time we meet from the moment I receive your gift until I finally tell you that, yes, I finished the damned thing, yes, I devoted my precious, hoarded, jealously-guarded leisure hours to reading something YOU chose for me, something that wasn’t even on my reading list, every one of those days we’ll have that book you want me to read hanging between us.
And what if I don’t understand it? Supposing your choice of book for me proves I’m dull-witted, preferring to cosy up with some fluffy chick-lit tart than go one-to-one with Donna Tartt, to spend half an hour with Bunny Suicides over The Virgin Suicides, all the while highlighting the suspicion that I’m not smart enough to be your friend.
Please don’t give me a book. Recommend a book by all means. Give me a voucher, a book token, a wad of cash, and I’ll spend a happy hour browsing before I buy what I fancy.

And then I’ll even lend it to you when I’m done, because it’s my favourite book ever, the book that I just KNOW you’re going to adore.

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I’ve always loved second-hand shops. As a student in the ’80s they allowed me to splurge on new clothes for under a fiver – odd paisley shirts and creaky leather jackets from Germany or France. When I became a homeowner, the markets and auction rooms drew me in, and I’d struggle home with an industrial lamp or an old school desk needing refurbishment. Recently, I picked up a used Laurel and Hardy videotape and played it for my daughters. They are both now hardcore Stan and Ollie fans, shouting with laughter at 80-year old pratfalls.

With a new owner, things are able to set forth on a new life. I like how more than one person can form a relationship with an object, a new relationship just as valid as the one its first (or second, or third) owner had with it. Recently, I yet again formed a relationship with a second-hand object, but this time it was intensely personal, not just impinging on my own private memories but amplifying them.

This time the object was a slightly wrinkled paperback called If Only, a collection of stories by Irish women writers published in 1997, just after divorce had been legalised in this country.The first name I noticed was that of one of the editors, who I see most mornings as our paths cross during the school run. So that was the first flash of recognition, the first link in a relationship with the book. The second was seeing my aunt’s name among the list of writers. She has published a novel and several stories, but I knew that this was one I hadn’t read before.

A writer’s family members are invariably curious as to whether a story’s details or characters are drawn from real life; whether intimate events or close relations will be thinly disguised by fiction. I was no different as I began to read the story, ‘Dwelling Below the Skies’. What I wasn’t expecting was to find in my aunt’s words, a picture I had already created myself, a picture that formed part of my own story.

The piece starts with a narrator’s intimate recollection of meeting a former lover, now one half of a gay couple. Her line of thought then moves to her mother, whose own non-conformist nature led her, a Northern Unitarian, to marry a Southern Catholic, whereupon she was effectively disowned by her family. This, in reality, is the story of my grandmother’s life. Reading on, I came to an unveiled description of a trip my mother and aunts made with my grandmother in her old age to trace her roots in County Down – roots that had been all but sheared off by her marriage to my grandfather.

I had joined them on part of that trip, the day my grandmother visited her old boarding school, now in ruins, and the Quaker meeting-house nearby which she had attended weekly. As she sat in quietly in a pew, I carefully took her photograph, struck by her stillness and the serenity of her expression. It is one of my favourite photographs of her.

Now, almost 20 years later, in a yellowing book, I read with amazement a minute description of the very moment I took that photograph. It is as if the words were written to describe the picture, or, conversely, as if the picture was taken to perfectly illustrate the words. Yet the two have existed, until now, in completely separate worlds.

The interior was a square timber-boarded room. At the rear ran a small gallery, lit by sunlight shining through the narrow windows. A smell of damp and old polish clung to the rows of pews and on the lectern lay an open Bible. There was little else. Nothing to relieve the severity of contemplations. Yet the tongued and grooved boards amid the white-washed walls gave the Meeting House a plain, homely quality.

“I always sat here…” my mother said. The expression on her face was serene as she sat down. Any pain or grief was washed out by the sunlight falling across her skin. Only the joy of remembrance remained. It was easy to imagine the rows of pews filled with children. I could hear the murmur of their voices drifting through the still air.

I can recall every detail of that moment; the light on her frail head; a hair snagged in the collar of her coat; her patent leather handbag slouched against the pew-end. Up through the layers of experience comes an explanation of sorts. What discovery was I making? The wellspring of existence? The disclosure of a Godly hand in the world?

Hardly. That is too simplistic a version of the truth. Full of contradictions I have stumbled through life, swaying this way and that, under a burdensome, mongrel inheritance, You need to know where you are coming from, the proverb says, to know where you are going, but it is all a matter of guesswork in the end. When I see where the quarrel ends I will know my destination. In the meantime there are flashes of light; pinpoints in the dark to guide me through. Out of nowhere enlightenment comes, clothed in joyfulness and then, in the next breath, it is extinguished.

I don’t know much. All I know is that there was a space for me among those phantom children. In that holy place, delineated by the absence of things, for a moment I belonged.

By the end of this passage the narrator has found a sense of belonging that has eluded her so far in her life, a sense of her place in the world being better defined than before. And so I return to the idea of belonging and of owning. We own objects – they belong to us – then they are gone. Sometimes, they will go on to belong again, to find their new owner, just as my aunt’s words and my photograph have found each other after all this time.

Kate Horgan is a photographer and picture editor who also works occasionally in a second-hand bookshop. You can follow her on Twitter at @katehorgan and her website is www.katehorgan.ie.

Passage from ‘Dwelling Below the Skies’ by Liz McManus from If Only (Poolbeg, 1997).

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A couple of weeks after I’d started work in Dublin, a colleague-of-a-colleague asked to pick my brains about the British publishing industry. He’d written a few books for the Irish market and was keen to spread his wings. Could I put him in touch with someone in England?

No problems, I said. If you let me have the proposal, I’ll look through it, make any suggestions I think might help your chances in the bigger, more saturated UK market, and once you’re ready with that and your sample chapters, I’ll steer it towards the appropriate editor. Of course, since I didn’t know the publishing house’s forward schedule, I couldn’t tell him if his book would be a fit; but if the editor thought it might be, the proposal would go forward to the commissioning meeting for due diligence and then….

The would-be author, a successful businessman in his, I’m guessing, mid-fifties, cut me off. ‘Oh!’ he said (I’m paraphrasing here). ‘I don’t have any ideas for a book yet. I just wanted to work with a big British publisher. Can’t you introduce me to an editor who’d just agree to publish my book once I *did* have an idea? Doesn’t it work like that over there?’

I was reminded of this yesterday, listening to BBC Radio 4’s morning news show, ‘Today’. In a somewhere-in-the-middle news item about the Irish election, the presenter made an offhand reference to ‘the end of cronyism’. It pulled me up short. Not because of its incisive commentary (hardly) – but because it suddenly struck me, listening to the end of the report, that it’s so much harder than it sounds for the nation to achieve.

From the outside (by which, for these purposes, I mean England), it all looks so simple. Ireland got rich, people did each other favours that they really shouldn’t have; this behaviour should cease and desist instantly. Even the news I’ve seen from within Ireland seems to think this is the answer. To which I say, we’re missing the point.

The Irish mentality is hard-wired to lend a hand, to try to help each other out. To go back to my author-businessman story, I can see how it came about.  You want to write a book and become a British bestseller? No problem. I know someone who worked in that field. She’ll help you to do it. No matter if you have talent, the appropriate skills or, you know, an actual concept for a book; that’s all secondary.  From an English perspective, this looks utterly bonkers. But two successful businessmen thought this was more than reasonable, and looped me in.  Sound familiar?

(image c/o Zazzle) Right, who's first?

During my time in Ireland, I saw iterations of this ‘I know someone who can help’ mentality, in different aspects of daily life, time and again. And really, the sentiment is admirable. Why on earth *not* help someone if you can? I’ve been aided in this way, personally and professionally, more times than I can count. And in Ireland you see why the instinct is particularly strong; it’s a small country with historically large families; your degree of separation from everyone must be far fewer than the traditional six. So ‘helping someone’ in the abstract becomes, very quickly, helping your niece; or your boyfriend’s sister, or your sister’s boyfriend. Something that’ll make the next family gathering beyond awkward if you say no.

The American version of this, of course, is networking, where the emphasis has somehow shifted from how can I help others? to how can others help me? A logical consequence of arriving in the Land of Opportunity and needing the support of others to get on your feet, I suppose. But in Britain, where nepotism is a fate right up there with queue jumping, cronyism isn’t a close cousin of, well, helping your cousin. It’s wrong. And it’s absolutely not something you want in business.

We all know that whatever went on on that golf course, and doubtless in countless other situations we don’t know about, was desperate and should never have happened. But my point is this. When we’re looking to rebuild Ireland, especially those of us looking from the outside, we should think carefully before we insist the Irish give up the urge to help each other along. It’s a core component of the national  character, and when it’s not bringing down the Euro, we’re all incredibly pleased to be associated with it.

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