I was a bit concerned when pre-publication interviews with Colm Tóibín suggested his new novel, Nora Webster, might be a slightly depressing tale of emotional distance and maternal absence, but the actual experience of reading Nora Webster is completely different; it’s an uplifting and profoundly inspirational novel.

NoraWebster UKThe novel opens with the death of Nora Webster’s husband, Maurice, a longtime schoolteacher in Wexford. Nora’s first action is to quietly sell off the small seaside cottage the family have used for holidays. Nora keeps the transaction obsessively private, wanting nobody to know what she’s contemplating until it’s done. This is classic small-town Ireland, obsessed with the opinions and judgements of others, and interpreting the small victories as instances where some personal privacy is maintained. However, rather than writing a stereotypical novel of provincial stagnation and fearful conformity, Tóibín has written a novel about great courage and personal resilience, as Nora deliberately carves out a new life for herself rather than living solely for her children’s material survival.

[Read the rest of the review at atriptoIreland.com...]

This summer, I brought my children to Tayto Park for the first time. Why didn’t we go earlier? No particular reason, except that I — along with most visitors — had no earthly idea what Tayto Park was. Read my review over on my main blog, atriptoIreland.com…

Anna Sweeney’s novel Deadly Intent is an atmospheric murder mystery set on the Beara peninsula in Co. Kerry.

downloadThe story opens with an unconscious woman found on an isolated path in the country. The woman, Maureen, is a guest at a high-end guest house run by Nessa, a former journalist from Dublin, and her husband Patrick, a political refugee from Malawi. Although the initial suspect is Maureen’s husband, an unstable man named Dominic, the case gets complicated quickly as there is a suggestion that she may have been having an affair with another guest, the rich industrialist Oscar Maldin, who has now vanished.

Sweeney unravels her tale in chapters alternating between Nessa’s point of view, and that of a young Garda, Redmond Joyce, recently transplanted from Dublin, and bitterly unhappy to be languishing in a rural Garda station. These are two wonderful viewpoint characters…

[Read the rest of my review at ATriptoIreland.com...]

Yesterday, U2 unexpectedly dropped a new album, Songs of Innocence, on the world, and released it for free to anyone with an iTunes account.  But, is it any good?

U2's surprise album, Songs of Innocence. Free on iTunes until mid-October!

I say they released the album unexpectedly because although there has been chatter about a new album for years, we’ve grown accustomed to U2 taking a long time in the studio. They certainly don’t need the money, so they go to great lengths to get the songs right before releasing anything.  At the same time, there’s been a general sense over the last couple of albums of a band growing middle-aged and questioning whether they still have what it takes to create new music. Everyone changes, but U2 have clearly been asking themselves “Why are we doing this? Do we what to keep making music?” At a time when younger bands are coining it in on the nostalgia circuit and making no attempt to record new material, surely the temptation must be to take the easier road of touring a greatest hits show and reveling in past glory?

Songs of Innocence shows that any thoughts the band might have been entertaining about taking that road have been banished unceremoniously!

Read the rest of this review over on my other blog, A Trip to Ireland…

The guardian have a great collection of authors’ annotations on hard copies of some of their books, revealing roads not taken, regrets, and the motivations behind some creative choices. Here are the Irish writers:

2005 John Banville The SeaSeamus Heaney on Death of a Naturalist

John Banville on The Sea

Sebastian Barry on A Long Way Home

Anne Enright on The Gathering

Colm Tóibín on The Heather Blazing

And one foreign writer who’s apparently taken to life in Leitrim:

DBC Pierre on Vernon God Little

And J.K. Rowling, who’s just awesome:

J.K. Rowling on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Annotations on first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Annotations on first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Ron, Dean, Harry, Neville and Hermione wonder if Crookshanks has eaten Scabbers in the Gryffindor common room

Ron, Dean, Harry, Neville and Hermione wonder if Crookshanks has eaten Scabbers in the Gryffindor common room.

My youngest child recently became a Lego fanatic (as am I). However, being a huge Harry Potter nut, when she discovered that Harry Potter Lego sets existed just in time to make her Christmas list, a new obsession was born.

Unfortunately, Lego stopped making Harry Potter Lego sets last year. The remaining sets were snapped up in stores during the Christmas rush, and now it’s hard to find Harry Potter Lego sets at a reasonable price. (Apparently, it’s not a new thing for investors to buy up collectible toys like this, and resell them online for two or three times the price.) What’s a geeky Dad to do? I want to encourage creative play and nurture her individual interests, but the prices of these hard-to-find Harry Potter Legos sets are eye-popping!

I disappeared into the Harry Potter Lego Internet rabbit hole and here are a few of the places I’ve found to buy discontinued Harry Potter Lego sets, or even used Lego pieces — all without breaking the bank.

First Place to Look: eBay (But it’s Not the Cheapest!)

Lavender Brown exits the Gryffindor common room via the Fay Lady's portrait.

Lavender Brown exits the Gryffindor common room via the Fay Lady’s portrait.

My daughter is young, but already computer literate enough to search eBay for Harry Potter Lego Sets.  The prices for complete Harry Potter sets tends to be sky high (eBay prices are second only to the after-market prices on Amazon). You might find a loose set (no box, most of the pieces) for 1/2 to 3/4 of the (after-market) price of the unopened box, but that’s still expensive (as they’re going for three times the retail price when in-stores) and slightly dodgy, as you don’t know for sure that all the pieces are there until you build the set.

People also like to break up sets to sell the pieces individually on eBay, as they may make more money that way. The mini-figures are the most-valuable, some going for $40 each, even used! You might score a Harry Potter set for a (relative) song without any mini-figures, but your child might not be overjoyed, as the play value seems to depend on having the right beloved characters.

One way to find value for money on eBay is to buy loose lots of bulk Lego. Zoom in on the photos on eBay to see if there are any pieces/sets/figures you can recognize, and be prepared to bid $10 a pound (or more) for the lot. (Non-Harry Potter Lego tends to go for around $5 a pound.) Sometimes, you might notice most of a set or several great figures amid a sea of random Legos. The question is, whether your child would want the bulk parts to build things from their imagination or only be interested in the exact sets with instructions. If you were so inclined, you could buy the large lots, remove the parts/mini-figure you really wanted and resell the rest on eBay. That’s rather time-consuming. (Although to be fair, searching eBay and the internet at large for discontinued Harry Potter Lego sets is a time-consuming process, if you want to find value for money.)

Downloadable (Free) Instruction sheets:

Lego helpfully make all of their instruction sheets downloadable for free from Lego.com. (This doesn’t stop people on eBay selling the instruction booklets for a  good price, however. Buyer beware!)  If you have a good supply of Lego bricks already, you could start by downloading the plans of a coveted Harry Potter set, and see how many of the pieces you already have. Probably most of them, but the colors might not be exact. But here’s the thing: don’t get caught up with being exact. Kids don’t let a desire for 100% accuracy get in the way of play. One of my daughter’s friends saw the multi-colored Hogwarts we built and exclaimed “A rainbow castle! How cool!” That reminded me kids aren’t as uptight as adults about collecting or having things perfect.

Bricklink: The Best-Kept Secret of the Lego World

Bricklink logoA great source of individual parts (new and used) is Bricklink, an online network of stores who sell Lego piece by piece, as well as some complete sets. You’ll find almost everything cheaper than eBay here.

However, many of the sellers are overseas, so the shipping and exchange rates can kill any price savings versus eBay. For comparison terms, I’ve seen a popular set like The Burrow go for up to $250 on eBay and around $110 on Bricklink. You can filter your Bricklink search by country, which helps to find the best combination of price and shipping costs.

You can also buy Lego Harry Potter mini-figures individually on eBay or BrickLink if those are what the kids are really in love with. While one Harry Potter figure might still set you back $15 plus shipping (at the cheap end), that’s a lot cheaper than buying a whole set. Again, figures tend to be more expensive on eBay due to the auction effect.

Buy Direct from Lego.com 

Lego LogoYou can also buy new Lego pieces direct from Lego. The selection is much less complete than Bricklink, but you can buy in bulk whereas sellers on Bricklink often have only one or two of each brick. You will not find Harry Potter mini-figures or specialized pieces there, but you should be able to find many of the pieces you need to complete Harry Potter sets, and in the correct colors. The same might be the case if you live close to a Lego store (we don’t, so I can’t pop in and see what they have). Shipping from the Lego online store tends to be more expensive than BrickLink, so if you are only looking for a few parts bear that in mind.

The Creative (and Cost-Effective) Approach: Buy the Unique Harry Potter Lego Bricks Only

Ginny Weasley mini-figure (c) Bricklink

Ginny Weasley mini-figure (c) Bricklink

One fun use for Bricklink.com is to get a bunch of different body parts and let the kids build their own characters. You can get torsos (the chest and arms) of Lego mini-figures wearing Gryffindor sweaters, Slytherin sweaters, generic Hogwarts sweaters, plain school-uniform sweaters, as well as quidditch uniforms. Add some male and female wigs (several should be red to become Weasleys), a few witches hats, brooms, wands, pets, and capes, and your child can mix and match to make most of the students at Hogwarts. You can also find Lego heads in a variety of darker skin-tones and create a Hogwarts that’s a little more racially balanced than the one found in the officially sanctioned Lego sets. (FYI, the Bricklink site is not the most user-friendly, so poke around for a while and set up a wanted list to help you source the parts you want.)

Solutions

My solution to ensure some creative Harry Potter-themed Lego fun without breaking the bank has used all of the above sources. First, I showed my daughter the downloadable plans for all the Harry Potter Lego sets which gives her great ideas, and helps her build approximations of them with our old Legos (we have tons, including a lot from my own childhood — one of Lego’s many virtues is that it’s practically indestructible!). Then, I ordered some special parts and figures from Bricklink (spiral staircases, Gryffindor banners, the Fat-Lady’s portrait hole, chocolate frogs, etc.) and scored one small lot of mixed Harry Potter Lego pieces at a reasonable price on eBay, then left it up to my kids’ imaginations to build their own Hogwarts. The colors might be a mixed bag, but all their friends ooh and aah when they come over, and I haven’t heard one word of complaint.

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack (US cover: Soho Press, 2013)

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack is a fantastic and unusual novel that strives to break many of the ‘rules’ of novel writing and gets away with it. On the surface, the story is about a troubled young man who decides to volunteer to be placed in a coma for three months as part of a public test of an experimental new form of imprisonment. But underneath, it’s a story about so much more: the slow strangulation of small rural communities through lack of opportunity; a commentary on the pervasive culture of low expectations in Irish life; and, an astute observation of the subtle ways a European legislative agenda has come to almost seamlessly and invisibly overwrite Ireland’s political life and process.

Mike McCormack tells the story brilliantly through the voices of five participants in the events described, but not through the eyes of the central character, JJ O’Malley  — something that appears to be a sly comment on the individual’s ability to influence their own life in the modern world, as well as breaking one of the cardinal rules of the novel.  We get JJ’s father’s concerned bewilderment, the voice of a well-meaning older generation unable to understand the half of their children’s world; his neighbor’s essential decency, the voice of the community in a sense; his old teacher’s tolerant hope, the (naturally clichéd) voice of modernism, of progress; his girlfriend’s approving passivity, the voice of hopeful but clueless youth; and the local politician’s cynical choreography of the whole situation so it reflects well on himself, without requiring him to actually poke his neck out of his profoundly conservative shell. The storytellers are wonderfully written, verbally colorful, distinct, even funny, and they give the voice of the novel the light, humane, entertaining feel that is the hallmark of good conversation in Ireland. As the old joke goes, the Irish can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you’re actually looking forward to the trip, and Mike McCormack has this ability in spades.

The other ‘half’ of the novel (although it probably accounts for less than 5% of the word-count) is made up of the ‘notes’ from the coma, footnotes that take a more academic, higher-level view of the coma project: an experiment to test the viability of putting prisoners into comas for the duration of their sentences, thus removing the ability of prisons to harden their population into master criminals, and reducing to overall cost of incarceration to the government. The voice of these footnotes is that of a slightly unhinged academic gleefully commenting on his work. Why many reviewers have praised the novel but felt the need to caution readers that it’s necessary to push through these footnotes as if they’re your necessary daily dose of fiber is beyond me. McCormack finds an erudition and lightness to this strand of the tale that belies the cold calculus of the economics of incarceration, and enables to novel to succeed as entertainment where it could have felt didactic.

The story of JJ O’Malley’s life that gently emerges is a sly mirror image of modern Ireland’s relationship with Europe: his adoption from central Europe, acceptance into the local community, the adoption of Irish ways and perspectives, leading to a existential struggle to know what to do with himself, indeed how to even think of himself. The Irish adapted to the great European experiment quickly, gratefully accepting the money and resources that flowed into the economy, but carried on as they always had done. Ireland is now struggling with the bill for those years, and must confront questions of national identity in a way that it hasn’t since independence.

JJ O‘Malley is blessed/cursed with an strong mind, but nothing particular to turn it to, except himself, and the riddles of his own existence. While others numb themselves with work, drink, or religion, JJ voices the endless questions and drives himself to a nervous breakdown. There’s probably a lot of Irish people who would welcome a few months away from worrying about their mortgage, their debts, their failing business. JJ O’Malley doesn’t offer a way out of our economic crisis, but he is an apt metaphor for the post-boom Irish psyche.

Irish lit is full of what I think of as “Directionless-young-bollixs-on-the-tear” novels. Inarticulate young men with nothing much to do, except feign cynicism and drown their uncertainty in drink. Every Irish male writer seems to need to get one of these books out of his system before going on to more original things. McCormack turns the genre on its head in many subtle and refreshing ways: JJ isn’t cynical at all, he’s disarmingly earnest; he’s a profoundly gentle soul, who turns the impotent rage inwards and thinks himself into an asylum, rather than going on a destructive rampage; and he has perhaps the most-decent father in the history of Irish literature. JJ is far more articulate than the average directionless-young-bollix, but perhaps his articulacy, coupled with his ability to appreciate every side of the story, every point of view, is as much of a problem as the inability to express himself?

Ireland has a suicide problem; whether to a greater or lesser degree than other countries I have no idea, nor do such comparisons matter. The apparent causes change from era to era — currently these can be summarized roughly as jobless young men in rural counties, farmers at the end of their credit, and teenage girls suffering online bullying — but the state of affairs has endured at least since the exodus from the countryside to the growing cities began, and probably much longer. You can read JJ’s decision as a temporary suicide, and the agonizing of his family and friends reads much like that of the bereaved, only without the raw, inescapable pain. The feeling is that the family, the community, even the enjoyment of life itself is diminished for those left behind when one person chooses to leave their company prematurely. That this leave-taking is not permanent, nor even the strange indefinite absence of emigration, appears to leave no less confusion. JJ’s enigmatic explanation for his decision (“I want to take my mind off my mind for a while.”) is as difficult for his family and friends to understand as silence. After suicide, everyone asks “Why?” McCormack’s novel seems to suggest that even if suicides could answer, we might not understand their reasoning any better.

Originally published before the Celtic Tiger sickened and died, Notes from a Coma reflects some of the contemporary undercurrents that the Irish are now bemoaning: a political system that strives to maintain the status quo and appease Europe, the dearth of opportunity for an educated population, an uncritical mass media that avoids uncomfortable questions. In those respects, Notes from a Coma now reads like a novel ahead of its time. It’s interesting that the book received a strong critical reception on publication (during the boom years), but poor sales. Five years later — after the bust of 2008 — it was being hailed by some as “the greatest Irish novel of the decade.” Now Mike McCormack is experiencing a bit of a comeback, with his first book, the collection of short stories Getting it in the Head, being republishing, a new volume of stories, Forensic Songs, out now, and Notes from a Coma finding a publisher in the US for the first time. Perhaps in the future this will come of be regarded as one of the touchstone novels of this period of Irish life?

An interview with Mike McCormack

This short interview was recorded as part of Poitics & Prose Bookstore’s reading series.

I came across an interesting documentary about the abandonment of Inis Airc, a tiny island off the Galway coast. Right next to the much-larger Inis Bofin, Inis Airc would have have supported about 300 people at the start of the famine (the famine being the high-water mark for the Irish population as a whole). By 1960, the inhabitants numbered just 24. The key reasons the population left seem to have been the incredible hardship of island life, coupled with the difficulty of getting to or from the island. Inis Airc lacked a pier or jetty, so tiny currachs were the only way on or off. The inhabitants could be cut off for weeks during winter, with no way to get help to the sick, or bring in food or supplies. Other islands remained inhabited once newer piers and berthing facilities were put in place, but the cost of such for all the Irish islands inhabited at the turn of the century would have been enormous.

TG4 made a documentary about the abandonment of the Irish in 2007, and it can be found, in several parts, on YouTube.

The tale of Inis Airc is similar to the abandonment of many other Irish islands over the course of the twentieth century. The Blaskets off Co. Kerry are the ones I’m most familiar with, mainly due to the compulsory reading of Peig Sayers’ Irish-language memoir in school. There’s plenty of info on the Blaskets and island life from the mid-19th century on, thanks to several memoirs written in the early days of the Irish state by several islanders.

Link: Blasket Islands History and Heritage…

I’ve only ever been out to the Aran Islands, so perhaps I should add the Blaskets or some of the other uninhabited islands to my bucket list. Before that, it’s time to dig out that old copy of Peig, and see how my childhood Irish has stood up to the years and life in a foreign country.

There are weird and unearthly places where the known laws of physics do not seem to apply. My first memory of this was as a child, reading an Enid Blyton novel in which there is a hill on which all cars stutter to a stop. Another such phenomenon is the fabled river where water runs upslope or the road where a car will roll uphill. There appears to be one  of these oddities in most countries. (I came across a stream in Western NC many years ago that appeared to flow uphill — but strangely I’ve never been able to find it again.) Needless to say, Ireland has several of these magical spots, in fact Ireland appears to have more of these gravity-defying wonders per square mile and any other country.

One, known locally as “The Magic Road” or “Magic Hill,” is in Co. Louth, near the Long Woman’s Grave in the Cooley Mountains. The American actor-turned-TV-presenter Andrew McCarthy recently featured this stretch of road on his show (video below). The Cooley penisula is an area of long association with legends and magical folklore. Much of The Tain takes place here, there are several neolithic tombs in the area (including the highest one in all Ireland on Slieve Gullion), and one of the oldest churches in the country is nearby at Killevy. Oddly, the agencies responsible for promoting the Ring of Gullion make no mention of the “Magic Hill” in their pamphlets, but then again, hordes of tourists stopping on a back road to try and make their car roll uphill really has disaster-waiting-to-happen written all over it.

Here’s a clip of Andrew McCarthy’s take on the “Magic Hill”:

Another “Magic Hill” is said to be found down in Co. Waterford, in the Comeragh Mountains. Along the road to Mahon Falls you appear to crest a hill and travel down into a valley. Near the foot there’s a Wishing Tree/May Bush on the left. Stop next to this tree, put the car in neutral, take you foot off the brake, and it appears you’ll find the car rolling uphill all the way back to the corner. (Don’t forget to put your blinkers on to warn other motorists you’re acting strangely.)

A YouTube video of people experiencing the effect in the Comeraghs:

The folkloric explanation for these magic spots appears to be that you’ve trespassed on sacred fairy land and the Fey are pushing you away. This makes me wonder if the phenomenon was well-known before cars came on the scene, or if this is just another example of our love of yarn-spinning. Did horses get pulled back upslope by their wagons if they idled in the same spot?

The scientific explanation is much simpler: these are actually optical illusions. The roads only appear to be going downhill because of the surrounding landscape. The distant horizon is not visible at these spots, so the eye takes its cues for what is a flat surface, an up- or a downslope from the relationship between the visible landforms. These two roads appear to be going downhill, but really they’re each a gentle upslope, so when you stop your car and remove the brake, gravity takes over and pulls you gently backwards down the slope, even though to onlookers you appear to be traveling uphill.

Even so, I don’t intend to let the scientific truth deprive me of an unusual experience. Next time we’re home, both of these spots are on the travel itinerary. (If anyone has good directions to either — or to one of the other two “Magic Hills” in Ireland — please leave a note in the comments.)

Brilliant bit of time-lapse photography showing off the Burren in all its atmospheric majesty. I could watch this for ages.

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