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.

[I try to keep this as personal blog, but by trade I am a book promoter. As most of the people I engage with both in real life and online are writers and book people, I thought I should share a few observations about the trade. This is the first in an occasional series of posts.]

map

Local Bookstores vs. “Local” Authors.

One thing that comes up over and over again when self-published or small press authors responsible for their own publicity/marketing discuss bookstores is a level of anger that it’s often difficult to get their books into indie bookstores (either on the shelves or for an event). I often see writers comment online (and hear it at festivals) that “even” their local stores “make it hard” for them and that local stores should want to work with local authors, and somewhere along the way I’ve realized there’s a disconnect between many fledgling writers and bookstores about what exactly a local author is.  Newsflash: it’s about a lot more than your ZIP code.

Let’s start with the obvious factor: physical proximity. Do you live a short drive or walk from the bookstore? This is an essential part of the equation, but it’s not the only relevant consideration. Another question is even more vital: do you shop at this bookstore regularly?  The key difference is between someplace being a local bookstore and it being your local bookstore.

From there the questions go on: How many booksellers do you know on a first name basis? Do they smile or grimace when you walk in? How many events have you attended there? Have you ever ended up in a bar, after hours, boozing it up with a touring author friend, a couple of booksellers from the store, and a sales rep for a publishing company who you still can’t see at a party without blushing?  How many times has the manager pulled a book from under the counter and said, “You’re gonna love this!” the moment you crossed the threshold?

I’m not saying you have to be best friends with the owner and blow your kids’ college savings at the bookstore, but you have to use it. You should be a known face — not necessarily a confidant — and part of the local literary community. If you’ve been working away in beautiful isolation and ordering all your own reading material from Amazon, then how can you expect your local bookstore to regard you as a local author? You’re a local, certainly, and you’re an author, but neither alone is a compelling reason for any bookstore to want to work with you. (They are swamped with authors asking them to carry their books or host events.) They need to know you the individual, and know you have a level of respect and support for their mission before they might consider supporting yours.

Your local store should be the one in the community where you live, where your children go to school, where you and your friends shop, the one with the cafe where you meet for safe first dates, and the place you bring out-of-town family when they visit. If you do not have a local store like this, find one. Pick a store, shop there, chat with the booksellers, ask for recommendations, buy birthday gifts there, attend events, get to know the staff and let them get to know you. It’ll make your literary life more interesting, more varied, and more eventful, and when you finish your manuscript and finally have a book to promote, your local booksellers will be much more enthusiastic and supportive because your success will be personal for them. During the writing process there’s a time for isolation and contemplation, for quiet work and freedom from distractions, but everyone needs a literary community to present their work to, and your local bookstore can be the cornerstone of that.

Bear this in mind: one of the criteria bookstores use in deciding whether to carry your book or to host an event is the question “Does this author have a local network to mobilize in support of their book?” If you haven’t even bothered to get to know people at the area bookstore, this doesn’t suggest you’ll be any better at networking in any other aspect of your life.

Bottom line: No bookstore is compelled to work with an author, especially not one who claims to be local, but whom they’ve never seen or heard from before. Take the time to get involved in your local literary community and support your local bookstore, your life will be the richer for it, and the booksellers will be more inclined to support your book in turn.

This is not to say that cultivating a good relationship with your local bookstore is the only thing you need to make a successful book. It’s just one part of your overall marketing plan — I’ll try to write about some of the others shortly. But, it’s a key relationship, and new writers should not take it for granted.

President Higgins nails the #1 virtue of the Irish people in his Christmas message:

“We are, for example, a country with a network of communities, that are increasingly active in responding to their own, and their society’s, difficulties.”

Unfortunately, it’s also the thing that enables successive governments to get away with inefficiency, lax regulation, and poor policies: the people will take care of other people, both at home and abroad. Still, it’s a virtue seeming to grow scarce in this world and should be celebrated.

Link: President issues Christmas message – The Irish Times – Sun, Dec 16, 2012.

My daughters are obsessed with Doctor Who. Besides the show itself, they love the trading cards and magazines. It’s their latest obsession, and one I’m very happy to support because — unlike Japanese Erasers or Silly Bandz — I actually credit this with turning my youngest from a very reluctant reader into an avid reading machine.

It all started with a trip to Easons this summer. I have fond memories of reading comics and kid magazines when I was a child, but the paltry few we have to choose from in the US are sheer drivel, and seem to have not a single redeeming quality. So, knowing Easons has the widest selection of magazines in my hometown, I took them in to see if anything caught their interest. After steering our youngest away from a predominantly-pink magazine with free chemical-laden make-up, she spotted an issue of Doctor Who Monster Invasion and decided that was her choice. The magazine came with a pack of trading cards, and when they opened it in the car, it was infatuation at first sight.

Each week all summer they waited for Wednesday with a quivering excitement usually only seen at bedtime on Christmas Eve. They each saved their pocket money to buy a copy of the magazine and studied the cards and read the magazine for days. They were in absolute nerdy nirvana. We had to scour the newsagents in Dublin to find one that sold the packs of cards, but find them we eventually did, and we stocked up and now use them as bribes rewards for reading. Finishing a book earns the girls 3-4 Doctor Who cards, and they are currently powering through books at a great rate — initially motivated by the reward, but increasingly by the enjoyment of the books themselves. (Our older daughter has been a great reader for years, but our younger needed all the encouragement she could get.)

After we came back to NC, we took out a subscription to the magazine. The day the monthly shipment comes is drop-everything-and-read day — and there can never be too many of those.

 

After almost 7 years of living in our “forever” house, we finally have a working fireplace. The fire bricks were too old and damaged to be safely used, so we decided to install a woodstove instead of rebuilding the whole firebox. By the time we got serious about dealing with it, we also had to get some repointing and re-flashing done on the chimney itself. After having the masonry work done in the spring, we laid a new hearth after returning from Ireland and had the woodstove installed in October.

To save money I built the hearth, but we decided to leave the chimney liner and stove installation to the pros.

Ms. Elsie was my curious assistant through the tedious tile-laying process.

She has enjoyed the fruits of her labors ever since. Elsie certainly understands the old Irish saying níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin (there’s no fireside like your own fireside).

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