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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:
Seamus Heaney on Death of a Naturalist…
And one foreign writer who’s apparently taken to life in Leitrim:
And J.K. Rowling, who’s just awesome:
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 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.]
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.
There’s a revealing interview with Salman Rushdie over on BBC Radio 4. His memoir of the many years he spent under police protection after the fatwa was declared comes out in a week or so.
Is it just me, or is this early summer so many of us in the northern hemisphere seem to be experiencing proceeding at an accelerated rate? The yellow has quickly faded from my garden; the daffodils are already gone, the forsythia is dropping the last of its petals today, and the Jasmine (or yellow bells as some of my NC neighbors call it) bloomed way back at New Years, was nipped by frost, and is gone. The tulips are abundant this week, but will surely be gone by Easter. Last week I noticed the swelling buds in the crab apple that towers above the raspberry patch and thought “that’ll be beautiful for our Easter Egg hunt in two weekends.” Yesterday it was in full bloom, and today the pink petals are already drifting slowly down. They’ll probably be gone by the end of the weekend. Same with the azalea by the back door. I thought it would be brilliant with color in a week or two, but it’s opening now. Hopefully it’ll still be in bloom in two weeks.
Maybe I just feel I’m missing things because I’m cooped up with a broken toe that’s making it surprisingly uncomfortable to take care of garden chores? Working indoors and hearing the birdsong and seeing the glorious days that are in it is not any sort of substitute to being out there getting the hands dirty, planting, pruning, and doing all the other small tasks that become pleasure when accompanied by the constant buzzing of the bees, quick flits of birds scoring nest-building materials or nabbing a careless worm from a freshly watered vege bed (or maybe the pleasure lies in the absence of a clicking keyboard and the ping of incoming emails?). For extra comedy value, our cat is now sporting a cast on his leg after somehow dislocating his ankle a few days ago. (My suspicion is he pursued one of his mortal-enemy squirrels up a tree and landed awkwardly afterwards.) Now he’s cooped up in the bathroom so he doesn’t make the injury worse trying to be his usual big bad self. At least we’re company in our mutual grumpiness.
While I’m less mobile, I’ve been reading about the early burial practices of the megalithic tombs builders in Ireland, and learning about what they considered precious objects to inhume with the ashes of their dead: very practical things (pestle stones, bone pins, and pottery jars). I’ve also been gardening vicariously through some wonderful blogs (Arigna Gardener and A Place in the Country are top-notch), and picking away at the plot holes of my novel-in-progress. (Lest you think I am able to amuse myself all the time, I will comment that my day job has also been fairly intense lately. There’s a stack of new manuscripts to read for the books we’re publishing in the fall, marketing copy to write, and I’ve been finalizing summer events for our authors up and down the country.)
Actually, it occurs to me that my work may also be contributing to this sense that things are progressing very quickly this year. Working in publishing is a slightly disorienting experience because we work on books that won’t come out for 6-9 months, and by the time they’re arriving on bookstore shelves, we’ve shifted our focus to the next batch another 6-7 months hence. Right now I’m planning events for this October and November, and have actually pitched several things for summer 2013. No wonder time seems to be slipping by at a fast clip.
Maybe that’s why I relax through gardening? It grounds me in the now, in the dirt. Does this plant need water? Do I need to weed, fertilize, mulch, or divide? What’s ready to pick today? All this resting, icing and elevating my foot is keeping me indoors too much, and I’m feeling a little out of touch with the now. Maybe the solution is simply to take one of those manuscripts out into the sun and find a good spot to get some work done?
I’ve been attempting some translation from Irish to English and vice-versa over the past year. The main reason is when writing a novel that takes place partly within a community of native Irish speakers, you need to convey both the flavor of the language and use the actual words in a way that allows non-Irish speakers to understand them. The second reason is that most of my research is now centered on academic texts about Irish history and mythology, texts which frequently use untranslated words and phrases in Gaelic that most non-academics like me are unfamiliar with. I get sent to the dictionary most days, but your average Irish-English dictionary doesn’t always include academic phrases, or if they do it’s a very workmanlike and modern translation. So, I’ve been going off on digressions where I break down an unfamiliar word and work out the meaning of the original parts. The resultant translation is usually more poetic than the more succinct modern dictionary.
Take dinnshenchas, the name of a collection of origin stories for Irish places. I haven’t yet come across a book where familiarity with the word is not assumed — although Dooley and Roe do offer a descriptive approximation in the introduction to their translation of Acallam na Senorach/Tales of the Elders of Ireland. Look up dinnshenchas in the dictionary and you’ll find it rendered as “dinnseanchas” and simply translated as “topography” and would be forgiven for thinking it was a dry technical term.
However, when you break the word down into its parts, you find a much more interesting word:
Dinn — the preposition “of”, but also seems to be derived from de, which means breath, or “to breathe”
Shen (or sean) — sean means old. As far as I can make out, either the “h” is silent when combined in “sh,” so shen would be pronounced much like sean, or shen is simply an older spelling.
seanchas — dictionary definition: “lore or tradition”
I wonder if chas is related to sceal, a story? I believe, cas is similar to chas phonetically, and cas means a twist or turn. As legends and lore are basically the twists and turns of events, I wonder if an older translation might be something like “turns of old events.” The opening lines of the Odyssey come to mind: “Sing to me , Muse, of the man of twists and turns…” This feels apt, as many of the places are named for heroes who died there; those heroes might be said to have experienced a twist or turn in their own stories which lead to their deaths, and earned them the dubious notoriety of giving their name to the place they died.
The unifying feature about the dinnshenchas tales is that frequently the price of immortality was death. It seems half the places in Ulster are named after warriors Cù Chulainn defeated. But, I suppose ‘twas ever so: no politician would agree to name anything after a political rival, but once they’re safely dead they fall over themselves to praise them.
So the literal translation of dinnseanchas would seem to be something like “of old lore” or, more poetically, “the breath of old lore.” Yes, the dinnshenchas tales contain the lore of place-names, in other words topography, so the modern use of the word is correct. However, I prefer the suggestive aspects of the poetic translation.
*The above is offered with the caveat that I’m not a fluent Irish speaker, and my school-boy Irish is many years behind me. This is probably why I enjoy attempting my own translations: those of us who are not fluent may perceive similarities of pronunciation where a native speaker knows there is none, and may end up with a slightly more idiosyncratic and colorful translation because of it. Perhaps some poetry can be gained in translation, and not lost.
Passing through walls hurts human beings, they get sick from it,
but we have no choice.
It’s all one world. Now to the walls.
The walls are a part of you.
One either knows that, or one doesn’t; but it’s the same for everyone
except for small children. There aren’t any walls for them.
Laurel Snyder’s new novel for middle-grade readers, Bigger than A Bread Box, is much more of a complex read than I usually find in this category (but that just means I don’t read enough MG anymore).
Twelve-year-old Rebecca’s parents separate, and Rebecca gets dragged away from Baltimore, the only home she’s known, to hot, sticky Atlanta and her maternal grandmother’s house. Thrown into a new school, Rebecca feels and acts as if she’s a character in a story, trying on new names, new personalities and new friends to see if anything can heal the hurt she feels. The quirk that separates this book from others about going through divorce is that Rebecca discovers a magical breadbox in her grandmother’s attic that can deliver anything she wishes for (so long as it fits into the breadbox). So, ipods, candy and food from Baltimore are fine, but her Dad is much too big.
As coping strategies go, the Breadbox is fine for a while, enabling Rebecca to bribe her way into the good graces of the cool kids at her new school with candy, but, like anything, too much of a good thing isn’t good for Rebecca. It turns out that the items that appear in the breadbox come from somewhere and are not just created by magic, so Rebecca’s sudden ownership of them has real-world consequences. This is where Bigger than a Bread Box departs from the usual pattern of MG fiction where the confusing world of tween friendship or the necessary lessons of growing up are underlined by the help of some magical item or another and the novel enters the gothic “Here Be Dragons” territory of the Brother’s Grimm. This is the off-the-beaten-track territory where children who get lost in the woods encounter little old ladies who want to cook and eat them, and magical “gifts” bring as much danger as bounty. It feels entirely appropriate that this book should focus on the potentially negative consequences of magical intervention because the subject of the book, Rebecca’s story, is one of the worst a kid can go through: the loss of their home, the breakup of their family, and the crumbling of all their attendant certainties.
The resolution of Rebecca’s story — well, I don’t really want to discuss that because a) it could kill the surprises, and b) I can’t find a succinct way to put it into words. Bigger than a Bread Box starts out like the “normal” Laurel Snyder novel, then it takes a twist, and then it goes off somewhere completely unexpected. This book challenges readers (both old and young), pushes us out of our “middle grade” comfort zone, and keeps us absolutely glued to every word.
This feels like such an inadequate review for such a powerful book that I‘ve gone back and forth about posting it at all. Part of my uncertainty is that I have almost no direct experience with divorce — I grew up in Ireland, a country with no divorce (until recently) and large, multi-generational families living together — so I feel a little unprepared to discuss a depiction of what is doubtless a terribly shocking and disorienting event. But, I did find this is a powerful book, and a story that would be great for a parent to read with or talk over with their child — whether or not there’s any divorce within the family. I know my own elementary-age kids ask questions about divorce frequently, and my eldest, who’s almost Rebecca’s age, would probably learn a lot from this thoughtful, emotional and completely gripping novel.
My review of Laurel Snyder’s previous two novels, Any Which Wall and Penny Dreadful.
Recently, I enjoyed a great afternoon running around Dublin bookshops. I visited many of my old haunts and one cool new bookstore. It happened to be the day of Gay Pride, so driving around the city center was difficult as streets were closed for the parade, but once I had the car stashed in a multi-story I was exploring a Dublin that in some ways hasn’t changed much since I lived there.
The spire wasn’t there in my time, nor the odd metal balconies over the river, but I’ve seen them on previous visits. I hadn’t come across the big Polish Embassy on the quays before, but it makes sense since the second language of Ireland has seemed like Polish for some time.
The tiny Winding Stair Bookshop and restaurant has shrunk over the years. From a book-lined restaurant upstairs, to a well-stocked bookstore downstairs and separate restaurant up. It’s probably an indication of the relative importance of books to the Irish populace over the Celtic Tiger years: dining out has only grown in importance, while reading… well, let’s not dwell on that. The ground-floor now houses new books, and not very many square feet of them. However, the place feels like a perfect example of a curated selection. I immediately found most of the new fiction I was looking for right there on the shelves (not always a given in any store, anywhere) and found several books that looked great. Chatting with the staff at Winding Stair showed they are up to speed on new writers.
They had a copy of Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s debut novel, You, (and turned out to be the only store I looked in that day that did). After reading her story collection Nude last year, she’s now on my “must read” list. I was interesting in the new Dermot Healy novel, but after reading a couple of pages a combination of style and heft made me decide to wait and maybe look for a used copy on a future trip.
Hand-written shelftalkers showed me that the staff take their books seriously. Somebody at The Winding Stair is a huge advocate for Kevin Barry, and it’s due to their shelftalker that I later bought a copy of There Are Little Kingdoms and it’s high on my TBR list. [Although I must confess that I bought it elsewhere, because I needed to Google the book and read more about it first… you know how it is.] Kevin Barry’s debut novel, The City of Bohane, looks great, and if the short stories are as excellent as promised, I suspect I’ll be ordering the novel soon.
I also found several books that I’d never heard of and bought one nonfiction on impulse. Many of the other Dublin bookstores had a lot of the big books, and little else (or maybe it’s fairer to say that the else they had wasn’t the else I was interested in), but whoever buys books for The Winding Stair seems to be close to my own reading tastes. A tiny store, but still a great one.
The next day, reading Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s poem “Dancing with Paul Durcan,” it felt strangely apt to discover that it references The Winding Stair. If that isn’t literary cachet, I don’t know what is.
The newcomer to the Dublin bookselling scene since I lived there is The Gutter Bookshop. I’d come across them on Twitter (@GutterBookshop), and heard good things, so it was fabulous to finally be able to explore their shelves. The streets of Temple Bar were thronged after the Pride rally, and there was a healthy crowd browsing in the store. Owner Bob graciously stopped to chat to me despite the fact that the words “I follow you on Twitter” should send a tremor through the bravest soul. The space must be great for events, with all the fixtures on wheels to allow for flexibility.
Gutter is well-stocked: all the new releases and big books, as well as a noticeable sprinkling of quirky and backlist selections. I was delighted to score a copy of Julian Gough’s Jude: Level 1, as I never find his books in the wilds of North Carolina.
I stuck my head into Hodges-Figgis & Easons, the physically large/chain bookstores, but really didn’t see much to interest me. In fairness, Hodges-Figgis has a massive Irish nonfiction selection (if you can’t find it there, it probably hasn’t been written yet) but I wasn’t really looking for new nonfiction right now. Easons had lots of popular fiction and a “Buy 3 for the Price of 2” offer, but I’d already bought most of the books I was interested in. Many of the older second hand bookstores that used to be found down the quays and near Grafton Street seem to be gone. Every time I’m home I find a couple of new remainder and used stores, but these always vanish by the next visit.
A quick stop into Books Upstairs, a tiny bookshop absolutely crammed full of books by the gates of Trinity College, and I netted Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car, a poetry chapbook by Nuala Ní Chonchúir that I hadn’t expected to find. Books Upstairs has been there I don’t know how long, and has so many books that you have to hold your breath and suck in your gut to squeeze down the aisles. Not a store to follow fashion, but this is one of your best bets to find quirky titles from several years ago.
By now, my feet were beginning to drag, so I decided to call it quits for the day and head home to work on the most-difficult decision: which book to read first.
I spent almost the entire past weekend working in the yard: raking leaves, spreading compost on vegetable beds, chopping and stacking wood, and piling hedge trimmings by the side of the road for the city brush collection to haul away. (Inspired by the excellent WNC garden blog Outside Clyde, I’ve been trying to let my pictures do the talking lately. But, none of this weekend’s yard chores were particularly photogenic.) My hands are now cut to shreds. I usually start the day wearing gardening gloves, but gardening is a tactile pursuit, so at some point I’ll want to test the soil between my fingers or relocate a few shallowly planted bulbs, or brush the clay from a cool-looking rock, so I take them off and promptly forget about them for the rest of the day.
I think of these days of small, but never-ending, yard chores like editing a piece of writing. Futzing with punctuation, swapping one word for another, splitting unruly sentences into smaller, more attractive ones, and reordering paragraphs, all have their equivalents in the garden that may be invisible to others – except for an overall something, a readiness, a utility, a sense of order that says, this garden is well-tended. I doubt anyone but another gardener would notice that my vegetable beds now have a couple of inches of rich, black compost on top – spread out so that a couple of weeks’ frost can kill off any rogue seeds that lay safe and warm in the center of the compost pile all winter. However, they might notice the satisfyingly dark color of the soil, or the fact that the dirt in these beds now comes pleasingly almost to the top of the wooden frame – all winter it has languished unhappily several inches short of the top, leaving an impression of exhaustion and lethargy.
In a few weeks, I’ll add some peat moss or soil conditioner, sift the soil, remove any stray pine cones, insufficiently composted carrots, or forgotten acorns, and the raised beds might (at least in my mind’s eye) resemble a perfect sponge cake, fresh from the oven — the loose, rich, dark soil mounding up slightly above the top of the timbers, threatening to spill over with nutrients and excitement for spring. To anyone else, it’ll still just be several beds of dirt, but maybe beds that give off an impression of readiness, of potential. This editing process will — and just like in a good piece of writing, should — be invisible: the days of weeding, turning, sifting, enriching, and turning again, are only noticeable when they haven’t happened.