Two haikus:

I pass this cave at least twice every day but I have never looked inside, preferring to leave it as a mystery!

1. Dark, cold, damp, moisture

    dripping, creeping; insects crawl

    among the beer cans.

2. Hidden, warm, dry, safe

     a camper bed, books and wine

     crusty bread and cheese.

A Review: Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.

I haven’t read any reviews of this book but I’m looking forward to doing that as soon as I have posted this. I’ve never really been a fan of Anne Tyler’s but I loved this book and I will read it again sometime.

The first and last sections pose a question:

‘You have to wonder what goes through the mind of man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.’

I expected a boring, colourless man with no joy in his life, no excitements, nothing unexpected, doing the same things at the same time every day. But I fell in love with Micah Mortimer when, a few pages in, I read that he spoke aloud to himself – in what he thought of as a foreign accent – while he did his chores about the house. Monday was the day for mopping the floor:

‘”Zee dreaded moppink,” he said. “Zee moppink of zee floors.”‘

This delighted me; I was on his side forever; I loved him. Next, we find out about the “traffic gods” – these supreme beings whom he imagines watching him when he’s driving, commenting to each other in tones of awe at the perfection of his moves:

‘”Flawless,” traffic god murmured.’

I’m beginning to appreciate now that Micah is not a dull, blank, robotic man and when a young lad appears at his door claiming that he’s actually Micah’s son, he becomes even more interesting. (Not only does he have a present, but maybe a past too!) Instead of turning Brink away he brings him in and feeds him and lets him stay for a few days.

Enter Cass, Micah’s long-term woman friend; a tall buxom woman; a school-teacher. She plays music all the time in her apartment; the television talks all evening whether they are watching it or not. Micah finds it irritating but he considers Cass restful to look at so he puts up with it when he’s there. Now Cass has a problem; she may have to leave her apartment. It never ocurs to Micah that she’s waiting for him to invite her to move in with him and this causes a – mostly unspoken – breach between them.

‘”In fact,” Cass said steadily, “what did you do? Quick-quick invite the nearest stranger into your spare room.”‘

And of course, there’s his wonderful four sisters and their families, boisterous, happy, loving, interested in everything that happens to Micah; they know Cass well and like her very much. Micah tolerates and loves them equally.

I thought about Micah a lot; he’s very self-sufficient, content to live alone, kindly when anyone asks for help but always at a distance – until Cass suggests a break-up:

‘”Something hit him in the concave place just below his rib cage.”‘

I found the writing warm and humourous, and delicious – when Micah meets his old girlfriend:

‘” . . . she ws so sharp-edged, both literally and figuratively – a small, vivacious mosquito of a girl, all elbows and darting movements.”‘

It’s the word – mosquito – that makes that sentence for me. The pacing was perfect and the ending just as it should be. I should refer to the redhead of the title – a fire hydrant Micah always thought was a person when he caught a glimpse of it, although he knew it was not. To me, it just meant that Micah had imagination but perhaps there is a deeper, hidden meaning to it. I don’t know.

Hidden meaning or not, I give Redhead by the Side of the Road 5 stars. *****

This Friday’s Ulster Poet – Michael Longley – “Ceasefire”

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears

Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king

Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and

Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands,, Achilles

Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,

Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry

Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both

To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,

Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still

And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

“I get down on my knees and do what must be done

And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.”

HE WISHES FOR THE CLOTHS OF HEAVEN by William Butler Yeats.

I’m in a Yeats mood today and this is one of my favourites. So romantic, so beautiful and all for nothing; Maud Gonne didn’t love him back.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

SORROW – from “The Red Petticoat”

So now I know and

Must accept my fate

The sear of ice is

Burning in my breast

I have tried to quench it

With the gasping taste

Of whiskey

With new distractions

I have tried to warm

My blood

Suicide wouldn’t suit me

I fear the gaping hole

Of hell

But ah, to be old and

Mindless

My wretched mouth

All gums and grins

The ice dissolved at last

In drools and dribbles.

An excerpt from scene 16 in We All Die in the End “PET”

When the time came I went to the bathroom and gathered up the boxes and packets of pills. I felt all right but I couldn’t breathe properly – I had to keep my mouth open. In the kitchen I emptied the whole lot into a bowl, popping them out of the tin foil – it was like shelling peas. Then I put them into the coffee grinder and switched it on. They broke up very quickly and fell to powder, much quicker than coffee beans.

            The lilies arrived and I put them into white bowls, horrible greeny waxy things. I couldn’t decide what to wear for death and then of course there was only one dress that would suit, the tight, black one, my party dress, also my funeral dress. It made my hair look darker and my face whiter. I ringed my eyes with black eye pencil, lathered on the red lipstick. Nothing subtle about that.

            The curry was just about ready and I was unwrapping garlic bread when Jack came in.

            “I’ve made chicken curry,” I said. “Isn’t that all right? Louise likes curry, doesn’t she? She can leave the garlic bread.”

            He didn’t answer, just frowned, at my darkened eyes, at the lilies, half-smiling.

            “What is all this, pet?”

            “Say my name,” I said.

            “What?”

            “Say my name. You never say my name. My name is not pet.”

            The half-smile disappeared. He smacked the newspaper against his leg and went to poke at the curry.

            “I made an effort,” I said when he wouldn’t answer.

            “And I ordered lilies – you said Louise likes them.”

            And I smiled and smiled, still trying, even then.

            “Why are you wearing that dress?”

            He was walking in and out of the dining-room, taking off his jacket and tie.

            “Do you not – ” I began.            

But he went off upstairs.

A very short review of “Skin Deep” by Liz Nugent

I finished this book yesterday and can’t stop thinking about it so I suppose that means it was good? Well it was certainly unforgettable. The problem is I didn’t like it at all. In fact I found it truly horrible. It’s about beauty inside and out, a sort of beauty and the beast idea, only the beast is inside the beauty. It’s also about obsession and its consequences.

The main character is beautiful to look at but she is totally amoral, cold, selfish, utterly self-absorbed. It’s very difficult to say much about this book without giving away the plot; enough to say that anyone who comes close to her, who really tries to love and care for her suffers for their efforts.

The settings are wonderful, from the island off the Atlantic coast of Ireland to the riviera, Nice and Monaco. I have to admit I loved them; I could see and hear and smell them.

There were many times when I wanted to throw the book over my shoulder and walk on, especially around the middle of it but the narrative drive was so strong I had to find out what happened. The other characters were believable and the pace and shape of the story was good. There were a few weak spots in the plot which I don’t want to give away.

Over all it’s a well-written book but I don’t think I will read this author again. For me is was truly horrible. Has anyone else read this book? Or others by Liz Nugent? I’d be interested to know how other readers felt about it.

If I was formally reviewing this book I would take away two stars, one for the weakness in parts of the plot, and one because it made me feel so bad.

On putting together a book of interrelated stories.

Carey Harrison, novelist and playwright, said once, that if you get into the habit of writing novels, short stories, plays, or television scripts, then every idea you get turns itself into the appropriate length. And to avoid that, you should aim for different lengths, different structures. Although I have written two novels for children and a collection of poetry, that was a long time ago, and for many years now every idea turns itself into a short story. I don’t mind though; it seems to suit me best, and works best for me too.

So, I begin with a picture in my head; a woman shop-lifting; a man smoking a cigarette on a cold, stony beach; a boy reading in a window seat. Sometimes, strangely, this original picture disappears as the story takes shape and develops. I always write an outline, first with headings – Introduction, Development, Complication, Resolution. I write a page about each character as the story takes shape in my head. Then I take each of the four sections and write a couple of paragraphs about it. And when I can’t put it off any longer, I begin to actually write! I don’t like the first creative output; it exhausts me; I usually aim for 500 words a day, but when that part is finished, I could sit forever, editing, shaping and polishing.

I didn’t set out to write a book of interlinked stories – I was primarily writing short stories for competitions, magazines, or for broadcasting. So, it was only after I had written most of them that I realised, quite suddenly, that they were all set on the Co Down coast; the sea featured in every one. After that, a whole book fell into place where some of the characters lived on the same street; others knew each other from business dealings, or from just living, shopping and drinking in the same small town. And it developed then that a character with a small part in one story would become the main character in the next one. I’ll give a couple of examples:

From Scene 1.  Arthur

She leaned forward and her hand snaked out to pull me in. 

   “Where have you been?” she cried.

   “Can’t stop, Jennifer,” I said, leaning back. “Just called to say hello.”

   There was no way I was going inside that house. People have been known to go in there and never come out again. Well, I’m exaggerating but you know what I mean.

From Scene 2. Carmel

Jennifer stood there smiling at me, waiting for me to go on about the picnic. She was wearing a sleeveless pink blouse and a short skirt and her arms and legs were nearly green they were that pale. Her hair was the colour of redbrick that week – it was always some peculiar shade of red . . . she was always hanging around, her and her dogs. She smelled of them and there were long hairs on her clothes. Every time we met her she invited me to tea in her house but I never went – my allergies would kill me, and how could you eat anything?

From Scene 3. Wee Sadie

Sadie said nothing. She trimmed the fat of the kidneys and the liver, her fingers curling away from the soft, red slither and she held her breath against the faint smell of blood. Madge lifted her walking-stick and rattled it against the leg of the table.

From Scene 11. Brigit

And there was wee Sadie Hughes at the till, showing off her engagement ring, an emerald it was. I’d rather diamonds, she thought, smiling to herself.

   Her next-door neighbour, Myrtle, was before her in the queue, staring round with her black eyes, moving so slowly like she was in a dream.

And then Myrtle, Scene 12, is the star of her own strange story.

She had every flavour – Chicken, Rabbit, Veal, Beef, Veal and Beef, Chicken and Rabbit, Salmon with Crab. The tins covered the worktops; there were rows of them on the floor. She balanced the Trout and Tuna near the front because they were new. She stared at them until the kettle boiled.

It isn’t always exactly one leading to the other – any character could turn up in any story, where appropriate of course. I worked very hard over several months making sure that it all seemed as natural as possible until I felt really at home in the town. I don’t give it a name in the book but in my head it was called Ballyfarr. I knew all the street names, where the shops and pubs were and where all the characters lived.

“We All Die in the End” is the title of the book (subtitled “Scenes From a Small Town”). That’s the last line of the first “scene” and I got it from my sister who always proclaimed it when anyone was giving out or when she felt moved to be gloomily philosophical.

The book is available on Amazon Kindle as an ebook and will be available in print at the end of August – date to be announced soon.

Alter Ego

Her edges blurred

With layers of cloth

Pink and pinky-brown

And dusty blue

Old velvet, bits of lace

Threaded ribbons

Round her skirts

A trail of sweetness

Follows every move

Of hyacinth and lily

Minions flock

When she lifts a lazy hand

Starved for a smile

They do her bidding

Grateful to be asked

Undressed she’d be

A rosy Renoir nude

A little plump

Pink-apple cheeked

With rolling thighs

And tumbling auburn hair

If I was her

I wouldn’t dress at all

Ditch the lace and velvet

But I’m not her.

Ulster Poets: Irish Hare by John McGuckian

First, I should say that in Irish Folklore the hare is a shapeshifter and plays a part in many tales.

Just around the time

You might be hoping for a sign,

Unconsciously,

The Hare appeared

Very far down in my garden

Like an omen of goodwill;

Of the hereafter;

That life had a meaning

Beyond;

The hare came up to my window,

And I was startled too.

Death had struck.

She lay like an old doll

On a sofa.

The family gathered around

And I could sense their fear:

Her he comes!

Wasn’t I the soft one,

In tears.

And isn’t it in my garden

The hare appears.