Sunday, July 27, 2008

More scenes from Galway

I was stalking this swan and her cygnet along the canal for a week or two before I got the opportunity to take this shot, during which time the baby grew quite a bit.

And here are some flowers for Snookie—hydrangeas are her favorites (sorry, I haven't spotted any blue/purple ones).

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Festival Season (reprise)

Sunday night the Macnas parade drew an estimated 70 to 80,000 people. Here's a clip from the website:
A spectacular night time event, "Apocolopolis" is the city that never sleeps, a non-stop party spinning, flashing, beeping and thriving under the agreeable King Du Washawanna and his lovely wife Queen Free. But a sinister threat lurks behind this hall of smoke and mirrors, as the circus comes to town, all pounding drums and flashing flames, led by the terrifying Colonel Chuckle and his hordes of Clownmandos.
It was really fun—felt like the Emerald City on acid, lots of demented clowns and ghouls on stilts and mutant sea creatures busting out of their cages and such. It was hard to get a decent photograph, but here are my best attempts.

(Felt like this thing was staring at me for about ten minutes before the parade started.)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Nevil Shute

In European History class in high school, we watched an '80s Australian miniseries called A Town Like Alice, based on the novel by Nevil Shute. It's the story of an English girl caught in Malaya during the Japanese invasion, and who is aided by a courageous Australian soldier during the ensuing death march. I loved the film so much I special-ordered the novel from Waldenbooks, though I never got around to reading it.

Ten years later I find myself reading WWII-era novels for secondary research—they're very useful for picking up lingo as well as historical tidbits I might not necessarily find in my nonfiction reading—and I've finally delved into the work of Nevil Shute. He was an aeronautical engineer during the war, and he had a highly successful writing career on the side. (For me that's fascinating enough in itself.) His novels are unsentimental yet very moving. His prose is transparent, and I mean that admiringly. The man knew how to tell a yarn. Reading his work makes me sad for two reasons: 1, that it's hard to find a bestseller these days that's anywhere near as well written; and 2, that Shute isn't more widely read today. It looks like all but his most popular novels are now out of print.

There's more than one English-Aussie romance in Shute's body of work—I just finished Requiem for a Wren, and while you can tell what happens from the title it was still a page-turner. (By the way, "wren" is a nickname for a member of the Women's Royal Naval Service.) It's the story of wren Janet, who falls in love with Bill, an Australian "frogman," who's killed during a dangerous mission just before D-Day. After the war Bill's brother Alan (an accomplished RAF pilot who only meets her once) becomes increasingly obsessed with finding Janet again.
That day remained etched sharp in my memory; ten years later I still knew exactly how she moved and spoke and thought about things, so that it gave life to all the knowledge I had gleaned about her from these other people.
Janet pretty clearly suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the novel deals with her inability to create a post-war life for herself. She wants very badly to return to naval service because the war had given her a sense of purpose she can't seem to find anywhere else. As Alan (who does the narrating) reflects, "A war can go on killing people for a long time after it's all over." We most often hear the stories of those men and women who survived and built new lives for themselves in the post-war period—because those people, our grandparents and their friends, are still around to tell them—so this novel felt like something of an eye-opener for me.

It's also a fascinating look at the life of a trio of service members in the run-up to D-Day. Everyone had their own part to play, but you couldn't talk much about the work you were doing. "Security was so good that neither he nor Bill appreciated the very great importance of the job they had been sent to do." The descriptions of all the tanks and ships amassing for battle is fascinating as well:
At sea, monstrosities of every sort floated in the Solent, long raft-like things proceeding very slowly under their own power, tall spiky things, things like a block of flats afloat upon the startled sea.
Another Shute novel I loved is 1942's Pied Piper, about an elderly Englishman vacationing in the Jura mountains of France who agrees to accompany several small children back to England in the wake of the Nazi invasion. Like Requiem for a Wren (which was published in 1955), the narrative framing device means you know from the get-go that things are going to turn out all right, so it's another testament to Shute's storytelling prowess that you still can't put it down. John Howard, the hero of Pied Piper, is only 69, but Shute portrays him as far more frail than any 69-year-old I've known. He winds up fishing in a remote part of France, intentionally losing touch with the news, because he can't stand sitting around in England feeling impotent. He wants to serve his country in some way, but every application he makes is denied. In Requiem, Janet's 64-year-old father successfully applies for a job as an aircraft identifier in the merchant navy. When Janet remarks on one comrade who looks particularly elderly, her father replies, "He says he's sixty-three. If you don't walk with a stick they don't ask too many questions."

And how do children cope with such hideous violence? This is another aspect of war that gets glossed over in the standard history textbooks. John Howard is a tender guardian, doing his best to distract his young charges from the horrors all around them. These kids are so young they don't understand the concept of death yet, so they're very curious. "You mustn't go and look at people when they're dead," he tells them. "They want to be left alone."

How did I find these wonderful books if they're out of print? Charlie Byrne's, Galway's best bookshop, has a section of '60s dime-store novels: war, adventure, spies, tear-jerkers, you name it. It's easily overlooked—a narrow bookcase wedged between the Irish literature section and the doorway to the travel/music/film/history room. I've been going to Charlie's for years and I only noticed it a few months ago, on the day I found out we'd sold Petty Magic (so I arrived ready to treat myself). I bought nearly a dozen of these novels for €2-3 each and they've been both entertaining and useful. I love the smell of these old books too.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Thoughts on Anne's 100th

Have you ever found yourself moved by passages in books you've already read multiple times? I've been listening to Anne of the Island on Librivox while knitting, and this paragraph (among others) got me all teary:
Mrs. Rachel Lynde said emphatically after the funeral that Ruby Gillis was the handsomest corpse she ever laid eyes on. Her loveliness, as she lay, white-clad, among the delicate flowers that Anne had placed about her, was remembered and talked of for years in Avonlea. Ruby had always been beautiful; but her beauty had been of the earth, earthy; it had had a certain insolent quality in it, as if it flaunted itself in the beholder's eye; spirit had never shone through it, intellect had never refined it. But death had touched it and consecrated it, bringing out delicate modelings and purity of outline never seen before--doing what life and love and great sorrow and deep womanhood joys might have done for Ruby. Anne, looking down through a mist of tears at her old playfellow, thought she saw the face God had meant Ruby to have, and remembered it so always.
I've lost track of how many times I've read Anne of Green Gables. Looking back on my childhood, I see how crucial the series was in my creative development. In these gloriously sentimental novels, I found a model for my own teenage years—it became important to me to live a "secret life" inside my notebooks and on the canvases I albeit rarely finished. Anne has a lush imaginative life that spills out into the world around her, brightening the lives of everyone she meets.

But as I reread these books as a 27-year-old, I get a certain nagging feeling about Anne's adult choices. There's an Anne appreciation group on Ravelry (all those cozy Victorian cardigans in the films, you know), and someone posted a link to this essay re Anne's 100th anniversary. As Meghan O'Rourke writes, a lot of critics say Anne lets us down when she gives up on a writing career for full-time domesticity, though O'Rourke believes she's still a proto-feminist for all that.

I'm not saying L.M. Montgomery ought to have kept Anne from marrying Gilbert, but why does she have to give up on her writing altogether? In Anne's House of Dreams she spends most of her time baking, sewing, and rejoicing in her pregnancies. There's no mention of Anne sitting down with pen and paper except for letter-writing. There's an opportunity to write the life story of an elderly sailor friend, Captain Jim, but Anne tells herself she isn't up to the task. (A visiting journalist eventually takes on the project, and fame and riches follow the book's publication.)

Meghan O'Rourke writes, "Her physical offspring have to share the house with her fertile imagination." I don't know about that. The last three books in the series focus on the dreams and exploits of her six children, none of whom are anywhere near as interesting as she is. And by the last novel, Rilla of Ingleside, Anne is only ever mentioned in passing.

I suppose the only way to read these later novels is to keep reminding yourself that Anne, like all literature, is a product of her time. As O'Rourke points out, her critics are coming at it with a 21st-century notion of feminine success.

At any rate, it's the first three books I come back to, the stories in which Anne's future is still a bright and shining thing.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Where have all the good husbands gone?

From Anne's House of Dreams, by L.M. Montgomery:
"Don't you know ANY good husbands, Miss Bryant?"

"Oh, yes, lots of them--over yonder," said Miss Cornelia, waving her hand through the open window towards the little graveyard of the church across the harbor.

"But living--going about in the flesh?" persisted Anne.

"Oh, there's a few, just to show that with God all things are possible," acknowledged Miss Cornelia reluctantly. "I don't deny that an odd man here and there, if he's caught young and trained up proper, and if his mother has spanked him well beforehand…"
More on the Anne of Green Gables series in my next post.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Festival Season

July is a great time of year to be in Galway. The Film Fleadh is on right now, and the Arts Festival opens on the 14th. Last night Brendan and I went to Eyre Square to catch a free screening (actually, it was the world premiere) of Kíla: 'Once Upon A Time'. I hadn't heard of them before, though they've been a band for many years—made me wonder if I'd unwittingly been living under a rock. Before it started Brendan described Kíla as "psychadelic trad," which seemed pretty accurate to me. The funkiest part was when women in Rococo-style foufy white wigs and fancy garb were walking around the stage in stilts.

I sat on the grass and knit while Brendan danced like he was at a rave, and some loser (bottle of Buckfast in hand, of course) came up to him and asked for drugs. The dreaded bohemians smoking weed in the crowd don't bother me somehow—it's the lads who drink to get drunk, piddling in doorways and generally making total nuisances of themselves, who make me angry. That Brendan might have been dancing out of sheer enjoyment of the music never would have occurred to a guy like that. At any rate, it was really fun for me to sit there and watch him. I wish I'd brought my camera so you could see how happy he was.

So we walked through the city centre to get home, and the weekend revelers were out on Shop Street in full force, as usual. Like I said, I have very low tolerance when it comes to public intoxication, but every so often you come upon a truly entertaining drunk. Last night there was an overweight man dancing in the street outside Neachtain's without a shirt on, shimmying up to passersby while singing "Woo hoo, woo hoo hoo" (click here for clarification). And when I say "shimmying up," I mean he was jiggling his man-boobies in random women's faces. This was all mildly amusing, but what really clinched it for me was when one (sober) woman he accosted in this fashion replied (with facetious delight), "What a treat!"

Gosh, I love Galway.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Back in Carrick

When we were in Carrick-on-Suir back in March, Brendan took me to a beautiful spot called Millvale a couple miles outside town. The road is winding and wooded, and you hop over a stone wall and come down a steep embankment to find this:

This bridge was destroyed during the Civil War (in 1922 or 1923), and was later reconstructed.

It's so peaceful down here--all you can hear is rushing water, and the occasional car passing up above. There are bits of rubbish amid the undergrowth, even a few rusted car parts, but I think most of it was thrown over the wall. I can't imagine somebody coming down here to listen to the river and the wind in the trees, and then leaving their empty cans behind. We were lucky the weather held as long as it did.

And on our way to Millvale, we found loads of foxglove growing on the side of the road:

The weather has been cool and very capricious lately—sunny, overcast, and raining buckets all within the span of minutes. Funny how the wildflowers remind you it's actually July.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Apropos of nothing

Yesterday it was a glorious evening, and I went for a walk on one of the little beaches along the prom. Just look what I found written in the sand:

Gosh, these American presidential campaigns are kicking off sooner and sooner.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Paper Mammoth

Have you noticed the "Writers' Rooms" link on the right side of the page? I've been daydreaming about a proper study-slash-studio since I was a teenager, and that weekly feature in the Guardian fuels my reveries. I love looking at other writers' workspaces and reading about why they've chosen a particular location, piece of furniture, or wall decoration, and how each element helps (or hinders) them in their work. In my head I've painted the walls and installed (and filled) the bookcases and chosen the upholstery for the wing-backed chair in the corner, scoured junk shops looking for the perfect big old desk, and finally settled upon the perfect filing system. I'm so nerdy I even want to organize my shelves with the Dewey decimal system ( even kidding).

Of course--seeing as I live in a rented room, do most of my writing at the library, and have books and notes scattered between three separate domiciles--the only part of this fantasy that is currently relevant is the bit about the filing system. I do a lot of talking about "getting organized." You could say that my chaos must be functional enough if I've managed to produce a few publishable manuscripts out of it, but that's not good enough.

It isn't so much a matter of every book, print-out, and notecard being in its proper place as much as having an effective system for filing ideas. I have lots of notes on receipts and torn bits of notepaper, and I do manage to hold on to most of it, but it's all very inefficient. You can just write every random thought down in a notebook, but then each of those individual ideas are eventually going to need sorting according to their respective projects (in a single notebook I could have notes for the project at hand alongside ideas for future novels and stories, notes on a local restaurant I want to write up for the second edition, lists of books to read, and even sketches of sweater designs I'd like to use as inspiration once I have the skillz to knit it). So how to sort it all while keeping it portable?

At first I thought index cards were the best way to go...but then how would I sort and store them? I've tried recipe boxes with tabs, but that seems to work better for sorting ideas within a single project. And if the idea could be expressed in only a word or two, it seemed a little silly to devote a full-sized index card to it. I also started using Stickies as virtual index cards, but then my hard drive crashed and I lost it all. (Incidentally, the Mary Modern folder was the only thing the tech guy was able to retrieve. KISMET!)

Then I had the idea to sort all ideas:

I had asked my dad for a Rolodex a couple Christmases ago, but then I realized I'm too nomadic and didn't know enough people to bother actually using it (and yes, the address book on my iBook dock makes a Rolly pretty much obsolete, but see previous paragraph for why I don't use it much.) I've got tabs for words and phrases, witticisms ("If you had a penis you'd understand" --guess who), witchy business, WWII flashbacks, and so forth, and another tab for everything that isn't Petty Magic. That stuff can be sorted later. So far it's working out pretty well. The only annoying thing is that Rolly cards are actually rather expensive, and I need to find a hard case for when I travel with it.

I know: I'm a total nerd. A pedant, even. Call me what you like, so long as I can keep it all straight.